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Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In doing so I should declare an interest as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association, whose members will directly benefit from this Bill if it is passed. In addition, I have friends in the road haulage industry, and next year I may have to join them!
I believe in social mobility and free enterprise within a competitive market. The road haulage industry is relatively easy to enter but it is highly competitive. In order to enter the industry an operator needs to have a suitable operating centre, suitable maintenance arrangements, reasonable financial resources, sufficient knowledge of the industry and the relevant law: evidenced by a certificate of professional competence. Finally, he must be of good repute. What is not necessarily required is a high level of education or qualifications that are difficult to acquire. In other words, it is not a closed shop as are many "professions".
For this reason, people of relatively modest circumstances can and do succeed in the industry. However, an operator must have an operator's licence (an "O" licence) issued by the Licensing Authority (LA). The licence is granted to those who meet the standards that I have already mentioned. If an operator fails to meet the standards, the LA can revoke the licence, reduce the number of vehicles authorised, or impose special conditions on the licence.
The very aspects of the industry that make it so conducive to free enterprise and social mobility also make it highly competitive and, unfortunately, attractive to undesirables. In fact a new operator will often have to, at the least, sail close to the wind. If his business plan is not robust and he has underestimated his operating costs, he will almost inevitably end up operating illegally and eventually he will become bankrupt. During one of my previous speeches in your Lordships' House, I referred to new operators looking through rose-tinted spectacles.
It may be helpful if I give some indication of the modes of illegal operation that come to the attention of the Licensing Authority and the Vehicle Inspectorate. It is a pretty depressing story. It includes overloading offences; vehicle excise duty offences; driving excessive hours; interfering with the operation of the tachograph--the device that automatically records vehicle activity; failing to maintain a vehicle so that it cannot be operated safely; employing drivers who are claiming social security benefits; using red--that is, agricultural--diesel; or using an unauthorised operating centre and thus tormenting residents.
I should like to give your Lordships some idea of the deviousness that exists. Many tachographs, the driver's hours recording device, are driven electrically. It is not technically difficult to insert a switch to stop recording vehicle activity. This enables the driver to drive excessive hours without being detected by examination of the tachograph records. For instance, if on coming out of the Channel Tunnel one evening the driver switches the tachograph off, he can then drive to Felixstowe, pick up a load and take it back to Dover. In the morning, he can then carry on driving having done an extra six hours' work for what he thinks is "free". But it is not. For example, in April this year an unlicensed vehicle went off the M.4 motorway. There was no paper recording disc in the tachograph and there were strong indications to the police that the driver was engaged in illegal trading with the Continent. The police were unable to interview the driver as he was dead. He was killed as a result of illegal operation.
Tipper operators are particularly prone to unlicensed operation. In North London, a tipper truck loaded with 20 tonnes of gravel ran over and killed a dispatch-rider who had fallen off his motor bike. The driver of the tipper truck had allowed enough stopping distance but, unfortunately, his brakes were seriously defective. Of course, the vehicle was unlicensed.
The problem is not confined to old vehicles. Fleets of new vehicles are also involved. This class of unlicensed operator would specialise in running overloaded or, more usually, flouting drivers' hours by means of the tachograph interrupter switch that I have already described. When an operator flouts the law, the LA can revoke or refuse a licence. Unfortunately, it is quite practical to operate without a licence at all! Typical fines are only £300 and the culprit can carry on until he is caught again. This is most depressing for the authorities. The authorities know who the illegal operators are, but they are virtually powerless to stop them.
This Bill will provide for the impounding of goods vehicles found being used on the highway without an "O" licence. It should be noted that vehicles which are in a dangerous condition would not be impoundable, although they can be prohibited from being moved under existing legislation. It is not a wholly new power; indeed, I was tempted to lift the relevant clauses from the Excise Acts as they relate to using illegal fuels. However, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his advice regarding the better drafting of the Bill. Without his advice, it is doubtful that the Bill would be workable. It is not expected that many vehicles would have to be impounded. The fact that the power exists would be enough to deter unlicensed operators.
Noble Lords may be concerned about the load which may well be the property of an innocent party. There are provisions in the legislation for the consignor to be able to reclaim his load unless it is impractical. I accept that impounding could be extremely inconvenient to the consignor. On the other hand, the traffic clerk who contrives to have a load moved by an unlicensed operator at an uneconomic rate--the 65p a mile rate--will not look so smart if the load is delayed under the provisions of the Bill. If consignors use only reputable operators, they will be unaffected by the legislation. On that point, can the Minister assure me that he would not expect a reputable operator to have his vehicle impounded on a technicality?
A further matter addressed by the Bill concerns drivers' hours. Currently, the authorities can insist that the driver of a foreign-registered vehicle immediately takes a rest period if he is found to have driven for excessive hours. At present, this does not apply to UK-registered vehicles, but the Bill corrects that anomaly. This need not create much excitement as there are already similar provisions in place should the authorities detect a vehicle that is overloaded or in a dangerous state. They can impose an immediate or a delayed prohibition and stop the driver endangering himself or other road users.
On these occasions, it is usual to give a detailed explanation of the operation of the Bill, but I have taken much of your Lordships' time explaining the need for the Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for producing the explanatory notes that are available from the Printed Paper Office, which no doubt are also available on the Internet. I do not want to weary your Lordships, so I shall be brief. Clauses 1 to 3 remove the anomaly regarding prohibition of drivers who are out of hours. Clause 4 increases the fines for operating without a licence from level four to level five in order to reflect the seriousness of the offences and the danger to the public.
Clause 5 and the schedule provide for the actual power to impound. There will also need to be detailed regulations made by the Minister under the negative procedure. Very briefly, after the necessary double checks, the vehicle will be impounded. This will require improvements to the IT systems and the Minister might have something to say about that. It may be that the operator can clear up the problem, possibly by proving that the vehicle does not require an "O" licence. There is an appeal procedure, but in the absence of a
Clause 6 removes what is known as the "margin concession". The operator will still be able to be authorised on his licence for more vehicles than he has specified. However, he will not be able to use the vehicle until he has notified the LA. This will require some improvements to the authority's IT systems before it will work. I hope that it will not be too long before notifications can be made by Internet, and I shall be pushing for that in my Front Bench role.
Clause 7 covers the short title and commencement provision. I hope the Minister can assure the House that he will not take advantage of the legislation until the necessary new IT systems are up and running.
I understand that there are some residual concerns within the vehicle leasing industry and that amendments may be tabled in Committee in order to obtain reassurances from the Minister. I am sure that proper debate would be helpful, but I should not like to see any noble Lord attempt to wreck the Bill or insert an amendment, as it is very vulnerable to the parliamentary timetable.
I apologise for speaking at length, but this is an important Bill which the road haulage industry would dearly like to see on the statute book. If the Bill is passed, it will provide greatly increased safety for the public and at the same time make it possible to enter the industry without having to break or bend the law in order to be competitive. That would no longer be an option. I beg to move.
Viscount Simon: My Lords, this Bill, introduced so fully by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would fill a gap in our legislation. I make no apology for slightly overlapping the areas which the noble Earl has already covered, but I think it might be worthwhile doing so.
Drivers from other countries will not be able to complain that our HGV, PSV and LGV drivers have an unfair advantage in respect of enforcement. I am at a loss to understand why one section of the road haulage industry is said to be against it. After all, if this Bill improves the enforcement of drivers' hours and operators' habits, that should be applauded, and the removal from our roads of rogue operators should be encouraged. I have been with the police when they have stopped vehicles for the Vehicle Inspectorate where some trucks were found to be without operators' licences; others had exceeded their hours by a considerable amount, with many other offences being detected. It is a pity that there are not more sites available to the Vehicle Inspectorate, because they can do no more than scratch the surface at the moment.
So this Bill could be said potentially to improve safety on our roads. I have a couple of questions and one comment which concern goods carried on an impounded vehicle. Working on the assumption that the ownership
A further concern that I have come across fairly recently is of drivers working for two companies, whereby they work their complete hours for one operator and then go to their second job and work their full hours for the second operator. That is completely abhorrent to me and, I am sure, to many operators. But because the tachographs will not show that the driver has been working for two operators each for full hours, it is very difficult to stop the practice. This is an issue that must be addressed at some stage in the future, and I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on it. I hope that this Bill will receive a free and rapid passage through your Lordships' House and the other place: it deserves to come into force as soon as possible.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has given a very comprehensive introduction to this Bill. I am not even going to attempt to repeat the detail of it. This is a very important industry: that is the first point to make. The vast majority of goods that we use in daily life arrive in our shops and offices by HGV or van.
As the noble Earl said, in a very sympathetic passage in his speech, I thought, the road haulage industry has a relatively low level of entry and as a result it is plagued by a "cowboy" element which, by not conforming to the regulations quite properly imposed on the industry, can undercut more law-abiding hauliers. So big business requires sensible and properly enforced regulation, which helps them as well as the community as a whole.
The two Acts which this Bill seeks to amend in detail cover two major aspects of the regulatory machinery of the industry and the Bill attempts to make them work better. Better enforcement of non-compliance by drivers in relation to the regulation of driving hours is most welcome, for all the reasons which the noble Earl has given us. The details of his Bill seem to be well worked out, as we would all expect from its author. The whole sequence envisaged by Clauses 1 and 2, the circumstances in which an authorised person can prohibit the driving of a vehicle on the road, the possibility of a process of what could be called "impounding" vehicles and the summary fines applicable to those who do not comply seem very easy to understand and are appropriate in the circumstances.
I now move to operators' licences in Clause 3 and the schedule. I am more familiar with this matter as a former member of a highways authority and I am well aware of the ability of HGVs to "torment" local residents. Again, I quote the noble Earl. I welcome the
In conclusion, this is a welcome Bill which makes a valuable contribution to the better regulation of this important industry. In fact, it is an excellent example of the proper use of a Private Member's Bill. It has the support of the department and of the haulage industry. The noble Earl has asked us not to attempt to amend the Bill. I was concerned on reading it to find that it did not mention out-of-date or fraudulent tax discs on goods vehicles. However, I shall consult with others and with the noble Earl before Committee stage. I welcome the Bill.
Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend on the introduction of this very worthy Bill. As he has said, it will indeed have a direct impact on safety, which is very important, and it should lead to the further discouragement of the "cowboy" operator who to some extent plagues what is otherwise a most important industry in this country.
I also congratulate the Minister and the Government on the excellent Explanatory Notes that they have produced, which have done a great deal to clarify the position, certainly as far as I am concerned, and which in fact have enabled me to shorten my speech considerably. I would like to make just a couple of points. My noble friend commented in his speech on the part of the Bill that deals with illegal operations. That might include an operator using drivers who were claiming unemployment benefit or some other kind of social security benefit. I wonder whether that really is the case. If so, it is probably a very good idea, but it seems to be a little far away from other illegal operations in the road haulage industry. However, I shall be interested to know more about that.
It is also the case that the threat of impounding or prohibiting further movement of the vehicle is often very much more effective than a straightforward fine. It takes away the livelihood of the driver--particularly an owner driver--straightaway. In many cases that can be more effective than the threat of a fine, which may not occur for some time.
Generally speaking, I hope that the Bill succeeds. I am well aware, as my noble friend has said, of the perils that beset a Private Member's Bill, especially at this stage of the Session. I understand that there is only one more Private Member's Friday in the House of Commons. If this Bill is to become law, it will have to go through on the nod--and we all know how difficult that can be. I have personal experience of how difficult that can be because I steered a Bill through this House two or three years ago.
I ask the Government, first, whether they intend to give this Bill as fair a wind as possible in the House of Commons; and, secondly, if it does not succeed, whether they will themselves take the earliest possible opportunity to introduce it as a government Bill in the next Session. Finally, if the Bill succeeds--I hope it does--when do the Government intend to bring it into force?--otherwise, I very much welcome the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on introducing the Bill and on the concise and very effective way in which he introduced all its aspects; it is quite a technical matter. It is a very important Bill in relation to illegally operated heavy goods vehicles, which are a problem for both safety and environmental reasons, and for the well-being of the road haulage industry as a whole. It is very important that the powers to allow goods vehicles to be impounded and to tighten up the enforcement of rules on drivers' hours are pursued. It is clear from the contributions that have been made that there is considerable support for the Bill. I certainly echo the view of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, that we should give it a good wind in this House and in another place.
The public consultation exercise carried out by my department on these issues last year shows that there is overwhelming support for an impounding scheme. Road haulage bodies such as the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, as well as road safety groups, the police and the traffic commissioners strongly favour these measures.
The licensing by the traffic commissioners of operators of goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross-plated weight is intended to ensure safe and responsible use of such vehicles and fair competition between operators. As the noble Earl said, in deciding whether to issue an operator's licence, the traffic commissioner will need to consider whether the applicant is fit to hold a licence--that includes maintenance facilities and sufficient finance to keep the vehicles roadworthy; a proper operating centre, suitably equipped and physically and environmentally appropriate for his vehicles; and that proper arrangements exist to ensure that the rules on drivers' hours are followed and that the vehicles are not overloaded.
Those who operate heavy goods vehicles without an operator's licence put themselves outside these vital checks and cannot therefore easily be inspected for professionalism, safety or their environmental effect. To carry goods on the road in a heavy goods vehicle without an operator's licence is an offence under the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995. As the noble Earl said, conviction currently carries a liability to a level four fine of £2,500; the Bill would increase that to £5,000. It is also true that the average level of fines is around £289. If an illegal operator has also committed other offences, such as running an unsafe vehicle or breaching drivers' hours, he will be liable to penalties for those offences as well. Nevertheless, an average fine of that level--or even
As long as he remains unlicensed as an operator, the traffic commissioners are powerless to use against him the kind of sanctions they can use against a reputable licensed operator who commits some offences, serious and persistent offences in particular. Clearly, by definition the revocation, suspension or curtailment of the operator's licence and the disqualification of a person from holding such a licence is not available. In addition, illegal operators do not pay the fees for the operator licences which fund the whole licensing and enforcement system. They fall completely outside it, if they get away with it.
Moreover, to obtain an operator's licence, an operator has to show that he has a suitable operating system. That takes into account factors such as the effect on the local environment, the safety of access roads and the use of the operating centre, which can then be reviewed by the traffic commissioner every five years. Local authorities, local residents and others can object or make representations on grounds of road safety, suitability and the environment.
None of this applies to illegal operators, who do not have their operating centres vetted. This not only presents a danger to persons, vehicles and the environment but gives the illegal operators a serious financial advantage over legal operators and removes the statutory rights of local authorities and local residents. As the noble Earl said, this seriously undermines the position of law-abiding operators--small operators particularly--in the industry and tempts others into illegality.
That is why the power of impounding is so important. We must be concerned that any group in society which so openly flouts the rules is subject to sanctions. Illegal operators pose the most blatant threat to safety and environmental standards within the road haulage industry. At present, if caught and prosecuted they usually escape with relatively modest fines. Impounding or detaining illegally operated HGVs at roadside checks would provide the first truly effective sanction against these illegal operators by straightforwardly preventing them from continuing to operate.
I hope and believe--as does the noble Earl--that it will not be necessary to impound a large number of lorries to make an impact. We would have a high-profile launch followed by the first detentions. I believe that that would have a significant deterrent effect throughout the illegal fringe of the industry and bring about a substantial improvement in compliance.
Before introducing an impounding scheme we need to be sure that it would work in practice and that it would affect only the illegal operators; that is, those who operate without an operator's licence and thus outside the control of the traffic commissioners. To reassure the noble Earl, we interpret the Bill to mean that legal
Following our consultation exercise last year, we have devised a practical system for impounding illegally operated HGVs and we have discussed this with the industry. The schedule to the Bill sets out a framework for the practical scheme and provides for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to make regulations based on this framework for the detailed operation of the scheme. Before these regulations were laid before Parliament, we would need to engage in further consultations with all interested parties in order to refine them.
As to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, about when we will bring this into effect, the regulations would have to be subject to this consultation and the measures would not be introduced until the necessary systems were in place. I fear, therefore, that I cannot give a precise date at this time; we will need to go through these processes first.
My noble friend Lord Simon raised the question about the impounding of loads. Loads will not be impounded in the legal sense; every effort will be made to return them to the owner. The exact arrangements will be covered by the regulations and will probably involve issuing a form to the driver and notices in the trade press. However, the load would be sold or disposed of if not reclaimed after a specified period. Decaying or dangerous loads would need to be disposed of immediately if the owner could not be located. That of course would give pause for thought to the consignors and to the insurance industry. I can assure my noble friend that we would not bring the scheme into effect until adequate systems were in place to ensure it would work effectively in terms of impounding.
The question of insurance is one which would need to be addressed in the regulations. Those regulations would be subject to consultation which will no doubt involve the insurance companies in that respect.
The noble Earl raised the question of modernising the system. He will know that the traffic area network, which presently operates a not entirely up-to-date system, is about to embark on substantial and comprehensive modernisation of its business processes and computer system. That programme of work will include direct links with the Vehicle Inspectorate IT system and will provide facilities for the electronic delivery of services to operators. If we follow that route, we could bring the scheme into full effect.
I now turn to the part of the Bill dealing with drivers' hours. Existing EU regulations, Regulations 3820 and 3821/85, set out maximum limits on driving time and minimum limits for breaks and rest periods. They apply to drivers of most heavy goods vehicles and around half of all buses and coaches. Domestic driving hours regulations govern the drivers of certain
At present the Vehicle Inspectorate and the police have no formal power to prohibit drivers of vehicles registered in the UK who have exceeded their permitted driving time from continuing their journey. They do, however, have powers, under the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act 1972, to prohibit the drivers of foreign-registered vehicles. For vehicles registered in the UK, the remedy is prosecution, which does not necessarily prevent the driver from continuing the journey. For reasons of road safety, it is important that enforcement officers are able to prohibit a driver who is found to have reached or exceeded the daily driving time limit and has taken inadequate rest.
For other infringements--for example, the tachograph infringement referred to by the noble Earl, where the driver fails to produce or falsifies record sheets and so forth--we need to be able to use prohibition. Our intention is to issue guidance so that enforcement officers use this power with discretion, consistency and in proportion. In many cases proportionality will be direct. For example, if a driver should have taken a minimum 45-minute break, the prohibition will last for 45 minutes. If he fails to take a day's break, the prohibition will last for 24 hours. Other examples may be more complicated; nevertheless the power should be operated flexibly and with discretion.
In some cases prohibition will be a more effective action than prosecution. Such a power should therefore act as a significant deterrent and remove any grounds for complaint of discriminatory treatment of British-registered vehicles as against foreign-registered vehicles. That should be of assurance to the road haulage industry. Above all, the aim of the provisions is to ensure that exhausted drivers do not continue to drive when they are a menace both to themselves and to others.
My noble friend Lord Simon raised the question of moonlighting. I recognise that this can be a difficulty. The Vehicle Inspectorate has powers not only to carry out tachograph checks, but also to obtain company records in order to ensure that drivers' hours are complied with. Nevertheless, this is a difficult area of enforcement and there are concerns which I am prepared to raise with the Vehicle Inspectorate as to how we can deal with the problem.
Both on the impounding of vehicles and on the question of drivers' hours, the Bill provides additional powers of enforcement which are intended as deterrents. There are of course other problems in this area. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, raised the issue of fraudulent tax discs. The Bill is designed to deal with those who operate outside the operating licence system. Once operators are within the system they will
The Bill provides additional powers whose prime effect will be felt through deterrence. It will be a form of deterrence which will not only improve road safety and our environment but will also protect the interests of reputable operators within the industry who often have to operate at the margin in highly competitive markets, and in some cases against foreign competition. That is why it has been welcomed by all the reputable elements of the road haulage industry.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, asked about the load on the vehicle when the vehicle is impounded. The Minister also touched on that point. It is inconceivable that the authorities would not take all possible steps to locate the owner or consignor of the load, especially if it was a perishable load. I do not believe that the authorities would deliberately allow a load of ice-cream to melt.
The noble Viscount also raised the issue of drivers moonlighting and touched on what could be a little difficulty. The person who needs to have the operator's licence is the person who pays the driver. If one vehicle is shared between two operators, each operator needs to have the vehicle specified on his licence. Unfortunately, a vehicle cannot be specified on two different operators' licences. That is why there is a need for a certain amount of flexibility. I understand that when the licensing authority is aware of this arrangement, it is flexible.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the question of amendments. I shall be pleased to have the opportunity to debate amendments, particularly the amendment to which she referred. She also referred to tax discs. One scam is to register a vehicle that should have a tax disc for £5,000 as a private light goods vehicle, which can be taxed for £150. Another difficulty involves concessionary rates of tax. A three-axle tractor towing a three-axle trailer has a very low concessionary rate of tax. However, for a five-axle 38-tonne vehicle, the rates of tax can best be described as "punitive". If an operator deliberately and fraudulently taxes the vehicle at the wrong rate, he should lose his good repute. The problem is that the licensing authority has been reluctant to take away people's good repute and therefore their operator's licences because then the operator will leave the licensing system altogether. If the Bill becomes law, the licensing authority will have teeth and will be able to pay much closer attention to someone who fraudulently taxes his vehicle. I commend the Bill to the House.
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