Draft Department for Transport (Fees) Order 2009

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Mr. Goodwill: I am aware of the issues concerning motorcycle tests on the Isle of Wight, but I was not aware, until my hon. Friend mentioned it, that vehicle testing is in a similar situation. The price of a ferry journey will add substantially to the cost of buying an MOT test for a goods vehicle, putting the savings from the reduced cost of other licensing into perspective.
When will the first authorised testing facilities be opened? Are they in the areas where VOSA test stations are being shut? Will the Minister confirm that none of the test centres that were refurbished, at a total cost of £47 million, will be among those closed?
In a reply to my question of July 2008, the Minister said that the net value asset of the VOSA estate was £98 million. Is that still the case, given the fall in property prices? Is this not the worst possible time to be making disposal of properties and has the Minister considered the poor value for money being achieved for the taxpayer? I hope that the Minister can offer some reassurances on these important questions, some of which were raised during the consultation. The transport industry and bus operators are facing the same economic hardship as everyone else as the recession deepens. They expect no less rigour to be applied to quality of service and value for money from agencies such as VOSA and the VCA than they are themselves undergoing to secure the survival of their businesses. I hope that the Minister will offer the reassurance that we need to obviate the need to divide the Committee.
4.51 pm
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Russell. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. He seemed to be saying that he supported the order, but then he raised a number of concerns, so I am not 100 per cent. clear whether the official Opposition intend to support the order. However, I put on record right at the beginning that the Liberal Democrats support it.
I thank the Minister for laying out the order in significant detail. He must be pleased that he remembered to bring his notes with him, because I doubt whether he would have been able to remember all that detail otherwise. He ably laid out the three amendments contained in the statutory instrument.
Plans to merge some operator licensing and vehicle testing fees to reduce the administrative burden on businesses by reducing the number of times businesses need to make payments to VOSA are clearly welcome and we strongly support that. We also support the enabling of past deficits within a particular fee area to be taken into account when setting future fee levels. However, will the Minister say what guarantees can be made to businesses that those fees from previous years that have got to be taken into consideration will be introduced on a gradual basis? The explanatory memorandum suggests that that will be done over a number of years, but what guarantees will businesses have that the increased fees will be affordable over a period of time? The order outlines the factors that must be taken into account when setting fees not covered by the 1988 statutory instrument. That should clarify the scope of those fees and allow for enforcement costs to be taken into consideration. That also sounds like a sensible measure, and we support it.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister, one of which has already been put by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. Will the money raised through fines be taken into consideration in settling the new fees? My other question relates to the consultation on the order. There appears to have been a limited response to the consultation, and the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby has mentioned representations from individual HGV owners. However, I am concerned about the reduced time that people had to respond to the consultation and the question whether that had an impact on the consultation. Have the Government received any representations from businesses saying that they did not have enough time to respond? Can the Minister justify the reduced consultation period, given that the order has not come before the House until almost five months after the consultation period ended?
Finally, will the Minister clarify whether future fee-setting orders will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure?
4.55 pm
Jim Fitzpatrick: I was not sure if the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, knowing my background in the fire service, was trying to be provocative by starting his comments with mentions of bonfires and campfires, even though he said that he was not provoked to oppose the order and simply wanted clarification. On the hiring and leasing costs, we estimate—I am sure that he, with his knowledge, can tell us whether this is accurate—that the hiring of an HGV could cost up to £500 a week, and that the cost of the fees would be an extra 73p, so we do not think that that would be a major issue. Any fines generally go into the Consolidated Fund.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asked how extensive the consultation was. Every consultation is posted on the website, and the four organisations that were formally consulted in this consultation were the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association. However, I repeat that the consultation was posted on the website for anyone who was interested.
Mr. Goodwill: May I press the Minister about fines? I understand that a formula is worked out so that the cost of enforcement is recouped from the fees charged to the industry. What I wanted to know is whether, when that equation is worked out, the fines are knocked off, are added to the contribution from the industry, or are simply put into the Consolidated Fund and not taken into account. It would make sense for fines to be seen as a contribution from the industry to the costs of enforcement.
Jim Fitzpatrick: My information was that any fines go into the Consolidated Fund, and I have no reason to doubt whether that is still accurate. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, they would not be taken into account in terms of calculation. On the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington’s question about phasing in the new arrangements, I understand that it will be over a three-year period, so there will be that time element.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked about the closure of test stations now and the cost of new stations. I cannot guarantee that new and refurbished stations will not be closed, simply because we are going through a process of recruiting testing stations, other than those on our own premises, that are more convenient for the road haulage industry. Clearly, if a company is running large fleets and can test its vehicles on its premises and close to other companies, that makes much more sense than people travelling up to 36 miles, which is the recommended distance for the placement of test stations. I cannot guarantee that no new stations, or stations that have been refurbished in the past few years, will be on the closure list, but that closure list runs into the future.
The stations that are being closed at the moment—and there are a small number—are those in respect of which consideration and assessment has shown that there is adequate alternative provision within the present arrangements and testing stations. That means we can close them without any impact on the reasonable recommended travel distance for companies. We are also looking at alternative arrangements under which we can send out our examiners to test fleets at companies’ premises. That makes it much easier for them because testing can be undertaken when routine maintenance is being done and when the vehicle will be at the garage. So, instead of having to take the vehicle off the road sometimes for a whole day to get it examined, it can be done as part of a much more sensible arrangement. These matters have to be organised and arranged on a common-sense basis with the industry, and that is the ongoing position.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asked how the fee increases will be introduced, and I can tell him that they will be coming forward in due course in the normal way, which is by negative resolution. If there is anything that I have not answered, obviously I will write to the hon. Gentleman—although off the top of my head, I do not have the answer to the question about the number of HGVs running within the UK. I have discussed that figure, compared with the number coming in from foreign lands and temporarily using our roads, with the hon. Member for Kettering in the Transport Committee. I will get those figures and send them to all members of the Committee.
Mr. Goodwill: The fundamental question I asked was whether we are compounding inefficiency within the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency if we allow it to estimate its costs and set its fees when, if it overruns those costs, we give it the power retrospectively to recoup them from the industry. The industry itself is not in that situation as far as its customers are concerned.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Department for Transport (Fees) Order 2009.
5.3 pm
Committee rose.
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