Vehicle and Operator Services Agency: Enforcement of regulations on commercial vehicles - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2  Modernising the Agency's approach to enforcement

13.  The Agency depends heavily on roadside checks to enforce regulations, carrying out around 252,000 checks in 2008-09. It also undertakes visits to operators' premises to assess their management systems such as vehicle maintenance plans and drivers' compliance with working time regulations.[33] The Road Haulage Association had expressed concern that the Agency had neglected making operator visits in preference to achieving its performance targets for roadside checks.[34] The Agency refuted this allegation and said that the number of operator visits had reduced for several reasons, including fewer new registrations and operator licences being issued.[35]

14.  The Agency had recently started a new programme of tackling those operators who are found to be consistently high risk (Red rated) by following up roadside checks with visits to their premises to understand the reasons for non-compliance and what the Agency might do to try and change behaviours. The Agency had quite often found that these operators were not criminal or negligent, but were unaware of the regulations placed on them or that their drivers were breaking the law. The Agency considered that it was starting to change behaviours in the operators that it visited in this way.[36]

15.  For roadside checks, the Agency's staff were not always directed to roadside locations with the highest risk to road safety or with high volumes of commercial vehicle traffic, and some of the Agency's checksites were no longer located at strategically important sites. There were also heavily used roads with no enforcement activity owing to a lack of checksites.[37] The Department noted that the majority of freight was carried only short distances and that there was a correlation between high risk operators and local operations. It was, therefore, sensible to locate some checksites in areas such as the South-West, East Anglia and Wales where there were fewer major roads. It did not follow, however, that staff should be permanently located at each checksite and the level of attendance at each site was a judgement for the Agency to make. Some sites, for example, were used only a handful of times a year. The Department conceded that there were too many of these sites and that it may not be necessary for the Agency to have staff at all of them.[38]

16.  The Department had not considered the impact of modern technology, such as satellite navigation systems, on the choice of routes used by HGV drivers. We were aware, for example, that some rural locations experience significant problems with lorries using unsuitable routes as short cuts between towns, having identified them on satellite navigation systems. In addition to its fixed checksites, the Agency told us it occasionally used other sites to stop vehicles in an attempt to avoid being too predictable in its operations and to be alert to changes in HGV movements.[39]

17.  In May 2009, the Agency commissioned research jointly with the Highways Agency to identify where best to locate its checksites on motorways and trunk roads.[40] This research had been suspended and subsumed within the Department's work to develop an HGV compliance strategy. The Agency did not believe that the suspension of the research project had had an adverse impact on the Agency's operations and it continued to work with the Highways Agency to acquire a number of sites. The Agency had closed five sites in the last few years, opened a new checksite on the M6 at Sandbach in 2009 on land owned by the Highways Agency, and other new sites were planned.[41] Staff at the new Sandbach site had increased the number of vehicles they stopped from around 200 each year previously to some 2,000 in the year to date.[42]

18.  The Department placed a lot of emphasis on its development of the new HGV compliance strategy, due to be completed later in 2010, to set the direction of the Agency's future enforcement work, including the location of its checksites. The Department assured us that the new strategy would take into account this Committee's Report.[43]

19.  Inspecting vehicles at or near ports allows the Agency to tackle non-compliant vehicles or drivers at an early stage on their journey in Great Britain. The Agency had no rights of access to ports, however, as they were private property, and examiners were reliant on port authorities' goodwill to permit them to operate within the port.[44] The Agency generally had good relationships with ports and was working with the British Ports Association to agree a memorandum of understanding on its access conditions.[45] Three ports, however, —Cairnryan and Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway, and Twelve Quays in Merseyside—had barred the Agency from their premises.[46] Some ports did not cooperate as they considered that the Agency's presence deterred customers and could move business to a rival port, putting them at a commercial disadvantage.[47] There could also be constrictions on the Agency's examinations due to lack of space inside ports for parking up large vehicles.[48] The Agency did not regard lack of access as an impediment to its business since its examiners could inspect vehicles at a checksite a few miles away on a road leading away from the port.[49]

20.  The Agency acknowledged, however, that access to the ports from which it was currently barred would be important since it would enable it to demonstrate proportionality in the checks that it carried out and to avoid giving a perceived commercial advantage to any one port by not working there.[50] While the Agency said it would be happy to be granted statutory rights of access to all ports it was not convinced that this would be a proportionate response to the current problem or that it should be a top priority. The Agency expected that its negotiations with the British Ports Association would lead to access to the three ports from which it was currently barred.[51]

33   C&AG's Report, paras 8 and 2.7 Back

34   Qq 89-91; EV 15 Back

35   Qq 88 and 106 Back

36   Q 104 Back

37   Qq 1 and 55; C&AG's Report, paras 1.9 and 2.11 Back

38   Qq 55 and 92-93 Back

39   Qq 55-58 Back

40   C&AG's Report, para 2.11 Back

41   Qq 112-113 and 149-150 Back

42   Q 86 Back

43   Qq 149 and 150 Back

44   C&AG's Report, para 2.8 Back

45   Qq 116 and 133-138 Back

46   Qq 122-127; Ev 16, paras 7 and 8 Back

47   Q 117 Back

48   Q 118 Back

49   Qq 117 and 126; Ev 16, para 9 Back

50   Qq 128 and 131 Back

51   Qq 119-120 and 132 Back

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Prepared 11 March 2010