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Earl Attlee: The last amendment went so fast that I forgot to remind the Committee that I have an interest. I am president of the Heavy Transport Association. I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing her important amendment. It covers a most immoral form of illegal competition. She moved it ably and it is important to remember that this type of illegal operation forces the driver to be a criminal.

I fully accept the need for the amendment, but, as I am sure the Minister will say, the Bill provides for the impounding of illegally operated goods vehicles. This might not be the correct vehicle for introducing such an amendment. However, given an opportunity in the transport Bill which I hope we shall see in the next Session, I shall pursue the matter from the Front Bench.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The requirements of good repute that an operator has to meet and continue to satisfy to hold an operator's licence are set out in

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Schedule 3 to the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995. A traffic commissioner may use his discretion in deciding whether an operator is no longer of good repute, but an operator loses his good repute if he has been convicted of more than one serious criminal offence or has been repeatedly convicted of road traffic offences. These rules allow traffic commissioners to take action against an operator who is not of good repute. If a traffic commissioner has proof that an employer has actively colluded with an employee to commit any fraud, not just claiming unemployment benefit (jobseeker's allowance) illegally, I hope that he will consider this when determining the operator's good repute.

This Bill is about people who completely ignore those and the other rules that are part of the operator licensing system, which means that they are not subject to the disciplinary authority of traffic commissioners. We must be careful that we do not weaken the message that all hauliers must work within the operator licensing regime by widening the scope of the Bill. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I thank the noble Earl for supporting the intention behind my amendment, but I recognise the aptness of the Minister's response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 5 to 7 agreed to.

2 p.m.

In the Schedule:

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 5, line 13, at end insert--
(""engineering plant" means a vehicle permanently mounted with plant or machinery and which carries no load other than loose tools, accumulators, fuel and material to be used in connection with the plant.")

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 5 it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 6. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that all heavy vehicles are subject to operator licensing and require plating and testing; in other words, MoT certificates. However, there are many classes of vehicle that are exempt; for example, those that are used privately, mobile cranes and recovery and road construction vehicles. Nevertheless, those vehicles must be roadworthy and can be prohibited from moving if they are not.

Sometimes an inexperienced policeman or traffic examiner believes that he has detected an offence. These problems are usually quickly ironed out when a more experienced officer becomes involved. However, problem areas remain. I shall be drawing those matters to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, after the Summer Recess--if I am still here to do so. For the purposes of this Bill, I seek assurances that special care will be taken before impounding a vehicle that does not

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appear to be an ordinary lorry. It would be wrong if operators of exempt vehicles found that those vehicles were being unnecessarily detained. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: The Question is that the amendment be agreed to.

Earl Attlee: Surprisingly, the Minister has not responded. I had hoped that she would give me some assurances in this matter. I know that we want to proceed quickly and efficiently in dealing with this Bill. One must hope that officials exercise suitable discretion and judgment when deciding whether a vehicle should be impounded. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Lord Lucas of Chilworth moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 6, line 30, leave out from ("informing") to ("that") in line 31 and insert ("the registered keeper or other persons who may be entitled to the goods vehicle")

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 7 I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 8. These amendments arise out of long debate at Second Reading. I apologise to my noble friend and the Committee that I was not able to be present then. I should like to focus on one point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, who said,

    "the road haulage industry has a relatively low level of entry".--[Official Report, 25/6/99; col. 1208.] Operator licence-holders tend to rent rather than buy vehicles outright. Thus, the question of impoundment bears not only on the licence-holder but, more importantly, the owner of the vehicle.

When a heavy goods vehicle is rented it is important to distinguish between the owner (the rental company) and the user (the operator licence-holder). It is the user who must have the licence and who may be guilty of infringing the regulations. It follows that the rental company is an innocent party in any operator licence infringement and should not suffer unreasonably as a result of the vehicle being impounded. He must be informed quickly if impounding takes place and given a fast track recovery process by which the vehicle can be restored. The schedule to the Bill is not sufficiently specific to give rental companies the right to immediate notification when one of their vehicles is impounded through no fault of their own. For this reason I have tabled the amendment to make it abundantly clear where responsibility lies. I beg to move.

Earl Attlee: I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for moving this amendment in his usually efficient way. The amendment raises important issues. Recently, I hired a small goods vehicle but did not need an operator's licence because I used that vehicle privately. However, I noticed that the hire company did not ask me the right questions to determine whether I needed such a licence. Therefore, I believe that in future when the Bill becomes law the vehicle hire industry will have to be a good deal more careful in determining whether or not an operator needs a licence.

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This matter also touches on the need for the Government to improve the IT systems available to the traffic commissioners. I hope that the Minister can make some helpful comments about the rate of progress on IT developments in relation to the traffic commissioners.

When operators take on goods vehicles they need to be able to notify the traffic commissioners via the Internet because of the speed and efficiency with which that can be done. Progress in the IT world is very rapid. If the Government do not address this matter very carefully they may find that, whereas commerce routinely uses the Internet for practically everything, they will be left behind. Can the Minister assure me that she will not make an order to put the Bill into force until the IT systems have been improved?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I apologise for any apparent discourtesy--it was unintended--to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, when he spoke to Amendments Nos. 5 and 6. I misunderstood. I thought that he was aware that we did not believe that the proposed amendments were necessary.

On Amendments Nos. 7 and 8, one of the benefits of this Bill will be to encourage vehicle hire companies, as well as consignors and insurers, to act more responsibly in ensuring the use of legitimate hauliers. It is true that users of hired vehicles are required to have operator licences, not the rental company. But rental companies which do not check that the person hiring their vehicle has an operator's licence will run the risk of having that vehicle detained.

I do not, however, suggest that a hire company which has had a vehicle impounded in this way should have no means of recovering it. My department has held discussions with the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. The Bill provides for an appeal for the return of the vehicle to a traffic commissioner if the vehicle is being operated illegally without the owner's knowledge. Clearly, for an appeal to be made on that ground the owner must be aware that the vehicle has been detained. The Bill provides for detailed arrangements for circulating information of a vehicle which has been detained to be set out in the regulations to be made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I envisage that the bodies to be notified under those regulations would include the police and the traffic commissioner in whose area the vehicle is detained and could also refer to the registered vehicle keeper and the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. That is a matter of detail which is best left for the regulations. There would be wide consultation before those regulations were laid before Parliament.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked about the commencement of IT systems. A new computer system is currently being developed for the traffic area network. We would not bring the scheme into effect until adequate systems were in place to ensure that

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impounding worked effectively. I do not therefore believe that it is necessary to amend the Bill as proposed and I do not support the amendment.

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