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


5  Operational effectiveness

Working with other agencies

TRAFFIC COMMISSIONERS

42.  Several submissions to our inquiry acknowledged that relations between Traffic Commissioners and VOSA had been rather strained in the past,[67] particularly following the centralisation of the processing of operator licensing applications to Leeds.[68] Pteg noted that "it must be a distraction […] when the two organisations responsible for delivering [vehicle safety] appear to have such a fractious relationship and what appears to be a clash of cultures and approach."[69] However, Traffic Commissioners themselves indicated that relations were now effective and well-functioning, a view supported by evidence from most of our witnesses.[70] We welcome the improvement in relations between VOSA and the Traffic Commissioners over the past two years. It is essential that they work seamlessly together, and that communication between them is effective.

43.  In our 2006 report, we expressed concern about the potential for VOSA's internal performance measurement to distort priorities so that vital work was neglected. The Traffic Commissioners raised this issue again in this inquiry, noting that the Performance Gain Points scheme incentivises staff to prioritise certain jobs above others. In particular,

performance gain points may be high for an examiner who is engaged in a roadside check, but the allocation of performance gain points for the preparation of evidence and attendance to give evidence at a public inquiry is at a much lower level. Accordingly such a measure can have a negative and disproportionate effect if the allocation of the points awarded fails to reflect the types and wide range of compliance work undertaken by examiners[71]

44.  The then Chief Executive of VOSA, Mr Tetlow, acknowledged that the system was a "blunt instrument" and stated that the Agency was working continuously to improve the system. [72] These comments are not particularly reassuring in light of the fact that we raised the same point in our 2006 report, when we recommended that the system be changed. We accept that an internal system to monitor effectiveness and performance is required, and we note that the system in place at VOSA is "independently audited and approved by the NAO".[73] However, it is a serious issue if the work of VOSA inspectors to prepare evidence for public inquiry is seen as less important and worthwhile than roadside inspections. The diligent preparation of evidence is vital to the successful conviction of offending operators. If there is to be an effective deterrent against non-compliance, VOSA must be seen to take public inquiries seriously. Any performance-related benefits need to encourage excellence in all aspects of work, including desk-based functions in support of Traffic Commissioners. We continue to have concerns about the operation of VOSA's performance management system which may distort priorities so that crucial work in support of hearings by Traffic Commissioners is neglected. The system needs to be audited, and if necessary, adjusted to ensure that support for the enforcement work of Traffic Commissioners is given due priority.

PORTS

45.  Ensuring the safety and compliance with UK and EU regulations of vehicles entering the UK has become a critical issue. Several witnesses highlighted that VOSA inspectors are hamstrung because they cannot carry out enforcement checks at ports without obtaining permission to enter from the port authorities. VOSA inspectors have been refused entry to ports in the past, and according to the then Chief Executive of VOSA, Mr Tetlow, this had occurred relatively recently at a port in Liverpool, because the port authorities believed they were being targeted disproportionately and unfairly. [74]

46.  Ports are private premises, but, under the Immigration Act 1971, immigration officials have the power to access ships, and thereby ports. It is anomalous that VOSA inspectors do not have an equivalent automatic right of access to UK Ports. As we heard from VOSA Trade Union Officials, enforcement in relation to foreign vehicles is most efficiently carried out at points of entry to the UK, before vehicles disperse onto the road network :

It is the hub in the spoke of the wheel before everything starts going out and the further away from that hub you get, the more sites you have to have scattered around to try and catch them. The closer to the point of entry you can get, the better.[75]

47.  If operators believe that VOSA are targeting a particular port at a particular time, they may well try to use other locations to enter the UK; either in order to avoid detection, or simply to minimise potential delay. It is understandable, therefore, that port authorities might view VOSA's work as an inconvenience which might lose them business. However, if VOSA had automatic access to all ports, port authorities would have no reason to feel unfairly targeted and operators could not predict at which ports VOSA would be operating on any given day. The issue of gaining access to ports to carry out inspections at the point of entry to the UK is particularly important, given a lack of enthusiasm from planning authorities in Kent for a proposed VOSA inspection site in Ashford, which would have captured a large volume of disembarking vehicles from Dover and Folkestone.[76]

48.  Witnesses acknowledged that extensive enforcement activity at ports might pose practical and logistical problems, such as a lack of space in which to carry out checks at some port premises. It was suggested that one possible solution might be to undertake more inspections prior to embarkation at ports outside the UK. This method is used at the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles in France, for example. According to the VOSA Trade Union Side, the inspection site at Coquelles is British territory.[77]

49.  It is an anomaly that, where immigration officials have a right to enter privately owned ports to discharge their duties, VOSA inspectors, who are also carrying out vital inspection work to prevent the most dangerous vehicles from accessing our roads, do not. It is unacceptable that port authorities should be allowed to prevent VOSA officials from targeting vehicles at the point of entry to the UK. We recommend that VOSA be granted right of access to all port premises where road vehicles enter the UK. This could, of course, be achieved through legislation, but a quicker and more effective option could be to establish a Memorandum of Understanding between VOSA and all UK port authorities. If all UK ports where vehicles enter the UK are part of the agreement, no port would be at a disadvantage compared to others. We recommend that the Department for Transport and VOSA explore the options with ports operators, but if no voluntary agreement is forthcoming, Ministers should not shy away from legislative action. We also recommend that the possibility of carrying out inspections at ports outside the UK should be pursued where feasible and desirable.

OTHER AGENCIES

50.  VOSA's enforcement work is often linked to the work of other agencies, such as the Police, Revenue and Customs, the Health and Safety Executive, the Highways Agency or the Environment Agency. Information and intelligence from one agency can be highly valuable to another, and joint operations may produce significant economies for all parties. The Senior Traffic Commissioner, Philip Brown, told us that VOSA is taking steps to improve its links and communication with other agencies,[78] and the Department for Transport highlighted the collaboration between the Highways Agency and VOSA to facilitate the High Risk Traffic Initiative (HRTI) which is used to target resources at high risk vehicles. The Freight Transport Association also highlighted VOSA's use of WIMS technology, which was originally employed by the Highways Agency as an example of good collaboration between agencies.[79] Our evidence also indicated strong support for a further strengthening of the working relations between VOSA and other agencies.[80] It is particularly important that VOSA and the police work closely together and share information in an effective manner. Although such collaboration is smooth and effective in some regions, more could be achieved in others.[81] Close collaboration with the police is also crucial to ensure the safety of VOSA staff who find themselves at the roadside, having to handle highly charged situations, including charging on-the-spot fines.[82]

51.  We welcome the progress which has been made by VOSA in terms of collaboration and information sharing with other agencies. These efforts must continue undiminished, with a particular emphasis on collaboration with the police. Collaboration facilitates optimal use of scarce resources. Also, information and intelligence is a key component of an enforcement policy which is based in significant measure on the targeting of the most likely offenders.

Data sharing

52.  When we visited VOSA's inspection site at Leatherhead, we learnt that VOSA's targeting mechanisms could be improved if information collected by VOSA examiners could be shared more quickly across the system. At present, only the Operators Compliance Risk Score (OCRS) can be updated instantaneously. This means that a vehicle that is stopped for inspection in Dover may be stopped later in the journey by other VOSA inspectors who are unaware that the vehicle has already been checked. This is a waste of time and resources for VOSA inspectors and a potentially costly inconvenience for operators who are often working to tight schedules. VOSA staff told the Committee that resolving this issue would be a matter of technology and investment. In order to maximise efficiency and reduce inconvenience to operators, VOSA examiners must have access to accurate and up-to-date information. Therefore, the adoption of an IT system which updates data instantly across the entire system must be a priority. If necessary, more resources should be made available to invest in better technology to achieve this.

53.  Our evidence suggests that data protection legislation poses a hindrance to effective vehicle safety enforcement.[83] VOSA cannot access certain information which is currently available to government agencies like HMRC on the grounds of data protection. For example, a Ship's Manifest, which every ship must carry, contains information regarding the nature and weight of all cargo on the ship. Access to such data might enable VOSA to identify accurately vehicles which are overweight even before they leave the ship. This would clearly improve VOSA's ability to prevent potentially unsafe vehicles from accessing UK roads.

54.  The problem arises from Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998, where the principles of data protection state that information gathered for particular, specified purposes cannot be used for other purposes. Exemptions can be made to this principle, where permission is given or where information is used for law enforcement purposes.[84] However, primary legislation would be needed to allow VOSA to access data collected by other agencies.

55.  We believe that aspects of current data protection legislation are a hindrance to successful targeting of foreign-registered vehicles. While it is very important to protect personal data from inappropriate use, it is unacceptable that information which could greatly improve road safety cannot be shared with the agency responsible for enforcing vehicle safety standards. The Government should give priority to legislative adjustments which would facilitate secure and effective data sharing between key government agencies such as VOSA and HMRC. In order to discharge its core functions effectively, VOSA needs to have the same access to Ships' Manifests and other key documents as is enjoyed by the HMRC. The efficiency of regulation and enforcement in areas where the responsibilities of several bodies' overlap could be greatly improved through better information sharing arrangements.



67   Ev 64 para 28, Ev 40, paras 6.1 - 6.4  Back

68   Traffic Commissioners, Annual Reports 2007-08 Back

69   Ev 47, para 7.2 Back

70   Qq 34, 73-74, 86 and 210 Back

71   Ev 40, para 3.5; we previously expressed concern about this point in our 2006 report: Transport Committee, Ninth report of Session 2005-06, The work of the Department for Transport's Agencies - Driver and Vehicle Operator Group and the Highways Agency, HC907, paras 81-83 Back

72   Q 196 Back

73   Transport Committee, Fifteenth Special Report of Session 2005-06, The Work of the Department for Transport's Agencies-Driver and Vehicle Operator Group and the Highways Agency: Government Response to the Committee's Ninth Report of Session 2005-06, HC1615 Back

74   Q 201; the Committee previously expressed concerns about how VOSA targets individual ports in 2006, see paras 78-80 of HC 907, July 2006 Back

75   Q 76 Back

76   Ev 62, para 4 Back

77   Q 76 Back

78   Qq 131 - 133 Back

79   Q 34 Back

80   Ev 44, para 4.2 Back

81   Q 132, Mr Brown Back

82   Ev 56, VOSA Trade Union Side, para 17 Back

83   Ev 62, para 5 Back

84   The Data Protection Bill [HL]: Bill 158 of 1997-98 Research Paper 98/48, House of Commons Library 1998 Back


 
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