The enforcement activities of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) - Transport Committee Contents

2  HGV and PSV enforcement

4.  One of VOSA's primary responsibilities is to enforce vehicle and driver safety among operators in the road haulage industry and the bus and coach industries. As shown in Table 1 below, VOSA carried out more than half a million annual vehicle tests in 2007-08. Tests are carried out either at one of VOSA's 90 test sites or at 'designated sites' which are privately owned. About 20% of all annual tests are now performed at designated premises, despite the fact that fees tend to be higher than for tests performed on VOSA's own sites. Table 1: Number of operator licences and vehicle tests in 2005-06 and 2007-08
Number of HGV operator licences in issue 99,91698,316
Annual HGV tests carried out 467,698462,820
Number of PSV operator licences in issue 8,8439,202
Annual PSV tests carried out 81,35581,823

Source: VOSA: Effectiveness Report 2007-08

5.  In addition to these regular tests, VOSA also carries out enforcement checks, in which potentially non-compliant vehicles are identified on the roads and brought in to a roadside inspection site for examination. In 2007-08, 97,394 HGV and PSV roadworthiness checks were performed and 85,559 heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and public service vehicles (PSVs) were inspected for weight compliance, overloading and tachograph (drivers' hours) offences.[9] Vehicles found to be non-compliant following such on-the-spot inspections are required to have any defects resolved before continuing their journey. Drivers found to be in breach of drivers' hours regulations must remain at the test site until they have rested sufficiently so as to become compliant. Operators may also face a fine or, in very serious cases, inspectors may impound the vehicle. VOSA inspectors can also bring the case before the Traffic Commissioners for public inquiry. Traffic Commissioners have the power to revoke an operator licence or limit the number of vehicles an operator is permitted to run.

Annual testing

6.  During the winter 2008-09, the DfT consulted on proposals to alter the structure and levels of fees charged by VOSA for several services, including the testing and inspection of HGVs and PSVs. The two key changes to annual testing proposed were a move towards delivering the majority of tests at private-sector-operated Authorised Testing Facilities (ATFs) and to merge the HGV operator licence fee and some PSV operator licence fees into test fees. [10]

7.  The first change is to move rapidly towards delivering the majority of tests at private-sector-operated ATFs. This was first announced by the then Transport Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, in a Ministerial Statement on 3 July 2008. The Minister said that the reasons for the change were to improve the service for customers and to enable improvements to take place at VOSA testing stations:

First, I want to facilitate more VOSA tests at operators' premises, and at more convenient times. This is a proven model of delivery, with recognised benefits in terms of reduced loss of productive time, and I believe industry will welcome removing constraints on its expansion. I also want to facilitate more VOSA tests at service and maintenance providers' premises, to improve quality of service and choice.

Secondly, for VOSA's own testing stations, the principle must be 'fewer, but better'. I aim quickly to identify those sites for which there is a continuing requirement, so that we can get on with investing and upgrading the service that they can provide.[11]

We were told by the Minister that the target is for 85% of tests to be undertaken at private sites by 2012, compared to approximately 20% at present.[12] In March 2009 the Government published the consultation responses along with its own conclusions. This stated that, in order to encourage more operators to use non-VOSA sites, the Government would, as a first step, halve the supplement currently charged for testing at 'designated sites'.[13]

8.  The second change outlined in the consultation was the removal of the vehicle-related operator licence vehicle fee (often known as O licences), and for PSVs some other O licence fees. The O licensing fees would then be collected with the testing fee. This was previously trailed in the December 2005 consultation document Modernising Operator Licensing.[14] The March 2009 summary document confirmed that this change would go ahead. With regard to the projected savings and implementation timetable, the summary document stated:

The merger of two fee transactions into a single one will save the industry around £1.5m a year in administrative costs. The intention is to phase delivery of this change over two years; making two equal transfers of the O licensing fees in April 2009 and April 2010, with the result that April 2010 sees the vehicle related O licence fees abolished and any pre-paid O licence fees re-paid. This change will produce fairer fees, and reduce collection costs.[15]


9.  The move towards greater private sector involvement is a significant change in policy regarding the provision of testing sites. While the use of 'designated premises' for some testing is well established within the industry, no specific attempt to encourage their use has been made and it has until now been more expensive for operators to opt for testing at designated sites than at VOSA sites. VOSA told us that the changes would result not only in lower net costs for the industry but would also reduce the capital outlay required to modernise all of VOSA's own sites. We were told by representatives from VOSA that:

The overall task is to reduce the net cost of compliance to the industry and you do that by putting the tester as close as possible […] to where the test needs to be done, which is normally in an operators' premises or where the vehicle is being maintained. If you do that our experience is [that] you tend to get a greater compliance rate of the vehicle in the first place. If we continue in the way we have been doing, we have spent about £45 million over the last four years on improving our estate. That has meant we have rebuilt ten stations and completely built a new one, as I have just mentioned. We have actually got 90 stations. If we were to continue with a network of the size we have got at the moment it would take us an awfully long time to provide a modernised testing facility for the nation into the future.[16]

10.  The move has received a mixed reaction. Industry groups such as the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and the Freight Transport Association (FTA) favour the use of private sites in order to improve flexibility of test provision. Witnesses representing the RHA told the Committee that their priorities lie in improving the flexibility of testing services. They would like to see more test slots available, with some out-of-hours slots, and easily accessible sites that do not require operators to travel great distances to attend tests. They believed that the move towards using authorised testing facilities has the potential to allow such flexibility and accepted that there may be additional costs involved in terms of operators upgrading their properties and paying more for out-of-hours services: "We should not underestimate the importance not only of the immediate testing charge but also of the ease [and] proximity of testing when the vehicle is being maintained".[17] However, the VOSA Trade Union Side expressed a great deal of concern regarding the move towards authorised testing facilities:

If you are sending the staff away from a test station to a Designated Premise, not only do they have the travelling time getting to and from there but when they get there on average they will do about 50% less work because of the layout of the Designated Premises. [18]

11.  A key issue which was raised by both the VOSA Trade Union Side and industry groups is the effect of the changes on smaller operators, who may not have big enough sites to upgrade to VOSA authorised testing facility standards. The hope is that larger operators and private organisations will open up their sites to allow smaller operators to administer tests at their sites. However, currently in Britain, 85% of operators have five or fewer vehicles in their fleet; 93% have 10 or fewer.[19] Therefore, if the majority of VOSA's own sites are to be closed, there will be a significant number of operators who are unable to upgrade their own sites and who will be required to use other private premises. This places a heavy requirement on private operators and businesses to provide adequate coverage of sites for testing. VOSA TUS also expressed reservations over the willingness of smaller operators to attend tests at premises owned by their competitors.[20]

12.  We recognise that the use of private sector sites may be helpful in cutting costs and ensuring that operators receive a flexible annual testing service. However, we believe that any move towards complete privatisation of test sites would disproportionately affect smaller operators who have fewer resources. We further believe that certain areas of the country would be less profitable and could consequently be under-served by the private sector. Therefore, we recommend that VOSA be required to retain a significant network of sites in order to maintain adequate coverage for annual testing throughout the UK and to safeguard VOSA's role as the independent enforcement agency.


13.  The 9% increase in fees for testing represents a very significant increase in costs for operators.[21] As the test is compulsory, it is the responsibility of the Government to make sure that costs are minimised and that the fees charged reflect the real cost of providing the service. Witnesses expressed concern that some fee increases have not led to obvious improvements in services and that greater clarity is needed as to what the money is being spent on. There was a feeling that fees were used in part to cover the cost of past mistakes and under-funding rather than new innovation:

[the industry] is eagerly expecting VOSA to modernise […] and we find it somewhat curious that the first thing that is announced is that the fees are going up by twice the rate of inflation […]. We would certainly want to see much more evidence about delivery along the kinds of innovations and modernisation that we have been discussing.[22]

14.  The Committee acknowledges that fees for annual testing must reflect the costs of providing this service. However, changes in fees must be fair and above-inflation increases must be justified with real improvements in services. A move towards private sector involvement should reduce costs and therefore we will be looking for much greater flexibility in the numbers and times of test slots available before any future fee increases are proposed.

Targeting non-compliant vehicles

15.  VOSA has taken steps to improve the effectiveness of its enforcement activities, particularly with its use of software which processes the live feed from VOSA cameras on motorways and alerts staff to vehicles which could be non-compliant. Such software includes automatic number plate recognition systems (ANPR); weigh-in-motion sensors (WIMS); and the Operators Compliance Risk Score (OCRS). The OCRS grades operators from 0 - 10 along with a 'traffic light' colour coding of red, yellow or green. The score is derived from historic data regarding an operator's annual tests, fleet check inspections, roadside inspections and prosecution and legal records. The score is relative to other operators' scores: those operators with no prohibitions or failed tests will have a score of zero and the worst 10% of operators will have a score of 10. In the case of new operators, or where there is no historic data available for the relevant period, predicted scores are used, based on the type of operator licence, age of operator licence and size of fleet.[23] Operators are able to access their scores online. We were able to see these targeting methods in action during our visit to the VOSA inspection site situated on the M25 at Leatherhead.

16.  In general, VOSA has tended towards carrying out fewer checks on UK vehicles and more on foreign vehicles over the last few years. For example, the total number of UK-registered HGVs checked for overloading offences fell by 42.9%, from 26,802 to 15,316, between 2005-06 and 2007-08. Checks for the same offences on foreign vehicles increased by 25.9%, from 8,110 to 10,213, over the same period. However, the numbers of prohibitions issued following these checks increased from 13.1% to 28.6% for UK vehicles and from 17.5% to 33.1% for foreign-registered vehicles. The pattern was similar regarding PSVs. [24]

17.  The consensus among witnesses was that the trend towards increasing prohibition rates, observed over the past three years, represented an improvement in VOSA's targeting techniques, rather than a decrease in vehicle compliance standards generally, indicating that the efficiency and effectiveness of VOSA's methods are increasing. Industry representatives indicated that targeting through the OCRS score, WIMS and other techniques has produced important advances in enforcement, allowing VOSA to direct resources at those operators that are most likely to be in breach of regulations instead of inconveniencing those operators with a good record of compliance and wasting examiners' time:

[VOSA] are stopping known operators with whom they have had problems in the past, so their enforcement procedures are rather more focused then they have been in the recent past, and I would suggest that they are seeking out those operators with a bad track record and pulling those vehicles in. That does not reflect upon the UK fleet generally, but on those operators they know have a bad record[25]

18.  There was a general belief amongst many witnesses that the penalties to UK operators for non-compliance are high enough to negate any temptation among operators with a good record, who would not generally be the subject of frequent enforcement checks, towards becoming complacent and allowing standards to slip.[26] However, the Traffic Commissioners commented that the OCRS is not enough in itself to ensure that good standards are maintained:

[…] it is only a tool. If somebody looks up their own Risk Score and says "I am 5" they need to remind themselves that they are aware of their absolute obligation to maintain vehicles in a fit and serviceable condition and to comply with the legal requirements generally. An operator who says "I'm a Green 10" or whatever it is, that is absolutely fine but that is only one element.[27]

19.  The OCRS is a key aspect of effective targeting, but VOSA must not rely upon this device alone. For foreign operators, the repercussions of low standards are less of a deterrent, as non-British firms are outside the jurisdiction of the Traffic Commissioners and at present have no OCRS score because there is no database of information available regarding foreign operators' compliance history. The recently introduced Graduated Fixed Penalty, Financial Penalties Deposit and Immobilisation Scheme will increase the deterrents available against non-compliance among foreign operators.[28] However, VOSA must continue to make use of other techniques and technologies, such as WIMS and random spot checks, in order to encourage operators to maintain high standards. We welcome the use of targeting mechanisms such as the Operators Compliance Risk Score in order to allocate resources most effectively and to apprehend successfully those most likely to be non-compliant. However, the OCRS mechanism is just one aspect of enforcement and VOSA should not rely on this score alone when targeting vehicles for inspection.

  1. Industry witnesses indicated that there are valid concerns about the wider use of the OCRS by third parties as a general indicator of operator reliability.[29] An operator's score is relative to those of other operators. It also depends on the length of time since the last inspection and will naturally be lower when an operator is due for annual vehicle tests.[30] Scores therefore need very careful interpretation, but the Road Haulage Association indicated that this did not always happen.[31] The Operators Compliance Risk Score is a valuable tool for enforcement purposes, but it should not be regarded as a direct indicator of operator reliability or quality for unrelated purposes. If OCRS scores are made available to third parties, VOSA needs to be sure that it indicates the limits for how such scores should be used, and how to interpret them appropriately.

9   This breaks down into 83,032 HGV roadworthiness checks and 14,362 PSV roadworthiness checks; 76,931 HGVs and 8,628 PSVs respectively were inspected for weight compliance, overloading and tachograph (drivers' hours) offences. See VOSA: Effectiveness Report 2007-08, Tables A1.27 and A2.18; Tables A136 and A2.25. Back

10   Department for Transport: VOSA, Delivering Better Services and Fairer Fees, November 2008 Back

11   HC Deb 3 July 2008, c62WS Back

12   Q 208 Jim Fitzpatrick MP, the then Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Transport  Back

13   Department for Transport, Summary of responses: Consultation on delivering better services and fairer fees, March 2009 Back

14   Department for Transport, Modernising operator licensing: public consultation, December 2005 Back

15   Department for Transport, Summary of responses: Consultation on delivering better services and fairer fees, March 2009 Back

16   Q 144 Back

17   Qq 4 - 8 Back

18   Q 63 Back

19   VOSA: Effectiveness Report 2007-08 Back

20   Q 71 Back

21   The new fees came into force on 29 April 2009 via the Motor Vehicles (Approval) (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 (SI 2009/863) Back

22   Q 11 Back

23 Back

24   VOSA Effectiveness Report 2007/08 Back

25   Q 26, see also Qq 39 and 82 Back

26   Q 27 Back

27   Q 102 Back

28   Brought into force on 31 March/1 April 2009 by seven Statutory Instruments: SIs 2009/483, 488, 491, 493, 494, 495, and 498 Back

29   Q 28 - for example, use by insurance companies.  Back

30   Q 39 Back

31   Q 29 Back

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