Transport Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 1005

House of COMMONS



Transport Committee

The work of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency

Monday 22 April 2013

Beverley BEll

Alastair Peoples and Stephen Hammond MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 47 - 139



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Transport Committee

on Monday 22 April 2013

Members present:

Mrs Louise Ellman (Chair)

Sarah Champion

Kwasi Kwarteng

Adrian Sanders

Iain Stewart


Examination of Witness

Witness: Beverley Bell, Senior Traffic Commissioner, gave evidence.

Q47 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. I am afraid we are without power at the moment. We are hoping it will come on during the afternoon. Could you give your name and position for our records?

Beverley Bell: Beverley Bell, Senior Traffic Commissioner.

Q48 Chair: Thank you very much. Are you satisfied that the traffic commissioners are seen as independent when you share the same premises and the same secretariat with VOSA?

Beverley Bell: I think there is confusion amongst the industry about who the regulator is and who the enforcement agency is. It is a constant distraction. Traffic commissioners constantly have to say to everybody, "We are independent." I think, if we were in a different building or buildings, and if we had different e-mail addresses and our own identity, that distraction would go away. It also means there is always the concern that, one day, somebody is going to take a point of law and appeal on the basis that we are not actually independent of VOSA.

Q49 Chair: What would you like changed to make the separation clearer? What about branding-which you have mentioned in your written evidence?

Beverley Bell: Branding is one suggestion and one solution, but in some respects it is a bit like putting a sticking plaster over a wound that needs some stitches. Branding would make it easier, but it wouldn’t get rid of that constant problem and that constant distraction. We have been very mindful of the Motoring Services Strategy review. We have suggested in there, when we have put in our response, that there might perhaps be some benefit in having an agency that is a regulator and an enforcement agency. That would make it very easy and very clear to everybody who came into contact with those agencies who did what. It would prevent that blurring of distinction.

Q50 Chair: How much do you think the problem is one of perception as opposed to reality?

Beverley Bell: The two are inextricably linked. It is a reality. The Nolan Transport case, which we have referred to in our written submission, sets out quite clearly that it is all very well having framework documents that we have worked very hard at, and it is all very well having administrative arrangements, but, if, in reality, our independence is being undermined, then there has to be a better solution to the problem.

Q51 Chair: Does the framework document as it exists now clarify the relationships?

Beverley Bell: I think it does; yes.

Q52 Chair: You think it does.

Beverley Bell: It clarifies the relationships. I used to be a solicitor in private practice and it is like drafting up the consent order in divorce proceedings, saying "You have this dog and I’ll have that piece of furniture." You then have to make it work, and that is sometimes the difficulty. We are trying very hard to make it work.

I would just like to express my thanks to the DFT because it really seems to have been helpful to me and my colleagues in trying to establish exactly who does what within VOSA and within the Office of the Traffic Commissioner. We have regular tripartite meetings with VOSA, the Department and me to try to sort out some of those issues.

Q53 Chair: The Freight Transport Association says the fact that fees are raised by the traffic commissioners but managed by VOSA raises concerns about how money is spent. What would your comment be on that?

Beverley Bell: Yes. For the first time I have started to look at the fee income and how it is spent. Again, there are some real stars in VOSA who have been very helpful to me and to colleagues in producing data and accounts for us. For the first time, traffic commissioners are able to look at how our own licence fee money is being spent, and it is very scary. It is quite clear-and I am not going to go into great detail today on the figures because they can be provided separately-that more money is being spent than is being received in fee income and also in other areas of income. For example, we do driver conduct work on behalf of DVLA. We are overspending to a huge extent. That would suggest that we are not charging enough. I am not aware that anybody has asked the question, "Why aren’t we charging enough and what can we do to charge more?" It is a similar situation with regard to other work that we do. I am looking at that and at how the money is actually spent.

Q54 Chair: You have also made some comments about VOSA’s enforcement activities-

Beverley Bell: Absolutely.

Chair: -and how some changes in the way they approach enforcement have affected the work you do. Could you tell us a little more about that?

Beverley Bell: Probably what I would say to the members of the Committee is that, if you forget everything else I have said to you today, I would ask you not to forget this. This is really what motivates traffic commissioners to get up and go to work, and regulate the commercial vehicle industry, many of whom are compliant. Things have changed drastically, in my view, and in my colleagues’ view-because I do speak for all my colleagues-over the past five to six years. I was explaining it to the taxi driver on the way here. I said, "Please be quick; I’ve got to be at the Transport Select Committee. How long will it take?" He said, "Well, you know, you run transport, luv." I said, "Yes, but I don’t." He said, "Well, what do you do?" I said to him in a couple of sentences that commissioners grant the licence. VOSA checks that they run properly, and, if they don’t, it sees the traffic commissioners; and I explained our powers. It is the middle bit-VOSA checking that they do it properly-that concerns us.

If you look at the statistics, in 2005-06, there were 26,000, as near as damn it, weigh-ins of vehicles. In 2010-11 there were 2,600, as near as damn it. That is a tenth. Overloading prosecutions in 2011-12 were 166. VOSA only prosecutes at over 30%. Your vehicle has to be overloaded by more than 30% before there is a prosecution, despite the fact that the European regulations say that, if you overload by 20% or more, you commit a most serious infringement.

In relation to unsatisfactory maintenance investigations, in 2005-06, as near as damn it, there were 15,000 maintenance investigations, of which 40% were unsatisfactory. In 2010-11, there were 4,500 maintenance investigations, of which 58% were unsatisfactory. I am no mathematician, but, if you do the maths, you will see that, due to the substantial number of reductions in maintenance investigations, we are potentially missing out on 3,500 unsatisfactory maintenance investigations.

All commissioners have grave concerns that VOSA is not targeting the serially and seriously non-compliant. I am concerned about some of the aspects of its report because it says that it is referring all convictions to us that it brings to court. In its stats for the last year, 2011-12, there were about 6,000 convictions that it says were referred to us. That is not the case. A quick call round my offices earlier today revealed in the region of 650 cases referred to us.

Where are the drivers’ hours referrals? Where are the serious investigations? It is the view of all commissioners that this is not happening any more. We don’t get those serious cases brought to our attention. It is easy for VOSA to target the soft underbelly of the nice but incompetent small operators. It is much more difficult to target and enforce the tough hard core of highly non-compliant operators who show a total disregard for road safety. Thank you for listening to me on this.

The final point I would make is this. You have heard from the trade associations. Indeed, some of them are here today to hear what is said this afternoon. You have heard about the effect of non-compliance on fair competition. Not complying saves operators thousands and thousands of pounds. Breaches of drivers’ hours are a very cost-effective way to cut costs-work the vehicles harder and work the drivers harder. The compliant operator just hangs their head in despair when they see non-compliant operators, quite frankly, getting away with it. That is without looking at the effect on road safety, which I won’t bleat on about because everybody knows the effects of not complying with road safety.

I think you can tell from the length of time it has taken me to answer the question that commissioners are very concerned that VOSA needs to be cohesive, structured, joined up, and engage with us early, to look together at how to root out the serially and seriously non-compliant. That is where we want VOSA to support TCs.

Q55 Chair: What you have just said to us is extremely serious and raises very serious issues about road safety.

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q56 Chair: Is there any dialogue taking place between you and VOSA on those very serious issues?

Beverley Bell: There is now, yes. We asked to be able to engage with VOSA at a much earlier stage about its strategies for enforcement. Two of my colleagues, Sarah Bell and Kevin Rooney, are now working with VOSA to see how their five pillars are going to work in the real world and how their pillar of enforcement is going to work.

Q57 Chair: Has that produced any results?

Beverley Bell: It is early days. As far as enforcement was concerned, I was not clear on what the structure and the cohesive approach was, but I draw back from making any findings at this stage because it is early days.

Q58 Sarah Champion: Mrs Bell, on that whole area, my understanding is that VOSA has to pick up the costs of any legal action that it takes.

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q59 Sarah Champion: Its budget, if it is not reduced, is not a key part of its expenditure. Do you think the main reason it is not going forward with prosecutions is that it just cannot afford to, so it is going for the soft targets?

Beverley Bell: No, I don’t think that is the case at all. Before I had this job, I was a solicitor and I used to prosecute for the then Vehicle Inspectorate on things like drivers’ hours overloadings. The budget is about £750,000. There has been an overspend year on year on year. I was fascinated to read one of the responses to the VOSA document, which said that, more and more, solicitors had to appear at public inquiries. That is absolutely not the case. Even on impoundings, which are party and party hearings where VOSA has to be represented, often it does not even send solicitors then. We are often left to pick up the work that maybe the solicitor would do.

Q60 Sarah Champion: £750,000 sounds like a very small amount of money to me.

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q61 Sarah Champion: Is it the case that, if its budget was increased, it might be able to prosecute more? If it is looking at its bottom line and we are all making cuts, do you not think that is going to be a factor?

Beverley Bell: It is for VOSA to justify how it sets its prosecution budget. It doesn’t have to prosecute to bring cases to our attention. It can bring fixed penalties to our attention; it can bring drivers’ hours offences to our attention. I am not sure that it is.

Q62 Sarah Champion: On those fixed penalties, do you believe that the fines are enough of a deterrent?

Beverley Bell: Commissioners have taken the view that the fine amount is not always sufficient to act as a deterrent. As I understand it, this is all part of a European piece of legislation so we could not unilaterally increase the fines. I stand to be corrected on that, but that is my understanding.

Q63 Sarah Champion: But, if you could, would your feeling be that they should be higher?

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q64 Sarah Champion: You mentioned the EU. I have in my head rather than in the briefing paper in front of me that, when we are prosecuting people from the EU, if they then go back to Europe and don’t pay the bill, we effectively have to pick up the legal costs but cannot enforce them to pay the fines that are being levied.

Beverley Bell: I have been trying to find out some more about that this afternoon. Obviously you are going to have to ask VOSA because it does the enforcement, but I understand that it has had to change its policy, especially when it comes to cabotage and combined transport enforcement, because of the problem of getting the money out of the foreign operators.

Q65 Chair: I would like to clarify what you were saying before about the nature of the discussions you are having with VOSA, how it is addressing the compliance issue and its impact on public safety. That is what you were talking about, wasn’t it?

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q66 Chair: Are these informal discussions, or do they lead to any formal framework on how things might operate in the future?

Beverley Bell: I asked if the meeting was going to be minuted and notes taken. VOSA said, "No," and I said, "Well, maybe it would be a good idea if we did take some notes and we did have some action points arising out of it." I think it is too early to say. We have only just got to the point where we are now a voice being heard by VOSA at the early stage to say, "How are VOSA going to enforce, and how are we, as commissioners, going to regulate?" We are really at the start of that process. I can’t tell you whether it is going to be successful or not, but I can tell you that we are very keen to have the work brought to us and we will deal with it; we will deal with the operators.

Q67 Chair: At what level are those discussions taking place? Have they involved the chief executive of VOSA?

Beverley Bell: I see the chief executive of VOSA rarely. We have six-monthly or quarterly dates in the diary to have a catch-up on the telephone. That is not the issue. It is making sure that the right people at the right level know what is needed. From our perspective, we have two commissioners assigned to look at this work. They will then deal with the people on the ground, who will formulate the policy and do the work.

I would also add that there is the recently formed Compliance Forum, which is chaired by the DFT. When I started as the Senior, there was a big call-especially from the trade associations-for some sort of forum where we could openly debate both the rhetoric around enforcement and the practicalities. The DFT have taken up that mantle and I am very grateful to them. They now chair regular meetings where we have VOSA, and they send their director of compliance. They don’t send their chief executive because he is not operational enough. All the trade associations are represented, and I go on behalf of the traffic commissioners. I have forgotten somebody very important but I can’t just think who it is at the moment. Again, that is a very good mechanism to start to say, "What is VOSA doing to target the serially and seriously non-compliant?"

Q68 Chair: Has that process brought about any changes, or are they just friendly discussions?

Beverley Bell: No, they are not friendly discussions. They are good, clear, constructive debate. It is not a talking shop. There are action points and we look at what needs to be done. It really is too early to say. I do feel we are in this new era, which is why I used the analogy before of the consent order. We have the document and we now have to make it work. We have got to the stage where we now have a dialogue with VOSA. I just hope it listens. It is all very well talking to people, but, if they don’t listen, we are not going to be in a good place. I hope it listens.

Q69 Chair: What work is being done to improve the IT system that supports the processing of licences?

Beverley Bell: Our IT system is antiquated and out of support. It needs sorting out fairly quickly. Again, TCs have been approached early on to ask what we can do and what we need to make sure that the system that we have is as effective as it can be. That is part of a much bigger IT modernisation programme that VOSA is going through.

Q70 Chair: What action is being taken to improve information sharing between Government agencies and other organisations?

Beverley Bell: Data handling is a real concern of all traffic commissioners. When I started in post, I discovered that not everybody who was accessing data that we own was legally allowed to do so. I raised it at the highest level. Two years down the line we have still not resolved the data-sharing issues. We have made progress and we are in the process of negotiating a data-sharing agreement between VOSA and the traffic commissioners, but we still don’t have that in place.

The next target on my to-do list for data sharing is to make sure that we have the proper processes in place to share data with all of the police forces. Everything is antiquated. There are agreements that go back several years that are now no longer fit for purpose. It is a bit of a running sore.

The problem is that I don’t have anybody to ask to draft the data-sharing agreements, so I have to go cap in hand to nice people like David Coker in the DFT and say, "Help." He is lovely and he helps. Then I go to VOSA and say, "Can you have a look at this?", and sometime later I get a response. That is the reality.

Q71 Chair: This doesn’t sound a very constructive way of doing things. Is this a systems failure? Are the structures not there or are people not making it work?

Beverley Bell: It is back to that running sore and that distraction of who prepares the data-sharing agreements for traffic commissioners. Should it be VOSA, which is in fact the enforcement agency but also produces and provides to us our administrative support? Should it be the Department for Transport, because we are appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport? There is no clarity around who should do what for us. That has never really been sorted out. It has all been fudged in the past. For the first time, now that we as commissioners are trying to open all these cans of worms and sort them out, we have these problems.

Q72 Chair: You have now raised two issues where there clearly are major failings with the way the agency is working or there appear to be implications of enforcement policies, and there is this example about addressing how to apply the correct data. Is the Department brought into any of these issues to resolve them?

Beverley Bell: Yes, absolutely. The Department is well aware. These are the sorts of matters that we discuss at the tripartite meetings. Things like data sharing are on the agenda all the time. You used the word "failings". I am not necessarily saying it is a failing. I am saying that, in the past, there has been no clarity about who does what for traffic commissioners. For example, hopefully, we are about to sign a data-sharing agreement with a nice department of the Department for Transport in Hastings called BSOG. They deal with the bus service operators’ grant. I now have to go to VOSA and say, "Please will you draft me a data-sharing agreement?" It is not clear who does it-or do I ask the DFT to do it? I am not saying it is a failing. I am saying for the first time that we are getting hold of those knotty issues and trying to resolve them.

Q73 Chair: I want to turn now to school transport issues. This is an issue that affects a lot of people and there is obviously a great deal of concern expressed in relation to it. In your last annual report, you described the changes to how VOSA monitors bus services as a "sea change". Could you tell us what you mean by that?

Beverley Bell: There was a change of policy by the DFT with regard to how bus punctuality and reliability should be enforced. Unfortunately, that didn’t communicate through to traffic commissioners quickly enough. That was not anybody’s fault; it was just one of those things. VOSA then worked on a new project to implement the new policy.

I will be quite blunt here in my remarks. It is fair to say that that bus compliance transition work was a failure. It grieves me to say it. We have effectively lost 12 months. Commissioners are passionate about bus reliability and punctuality. It is the one thing that we really want to do effectively because it has such rewards. We all feel that VOSA’s policy and the way it implemented its policy was doomed to fail.

We raised it with the DFT. Again, the DFT has been incredibly helpful. A lady called Rachael Watson has come to our assistance. She has had meetings with VOSA. She has been to Bristol to see how things work. She is actually going on a visit with VOSA next week to see how it works. There is a whole area of change that needs to happen very quickly because we are just not doing the bus cases that we want to.

Q74 Chair: What was VOSA doing wrong?

Beverley Bell: In summary, it was giving highly complex work to vehicle examiners. In summary, it was asking vehicle examiners to advise operators on how to run reliable and punctual services.

Q75 Chair: It was asking the operators.

Beverley Bell: No. In summary, it was asking vehicle examiners, whose job it is to go and make sure the brakes are working, to go to an operator, look at its systems for running reliable services, to find if those systems were good or bad, and, if they were bad, to advise the operator on how to run a reliable and punctual service. That was the original plan. I think vehicle examiners are there-I am sorry if I am being too blunt-to check vehicles. All the bus compliance monitors were made redundant.

Q76 Mr Sanders: Who should have been doing this job?

Beverley Bell: The bus compliance officers. VOSA had dedicated bus compliance officers.

Q77 Mr Sanders: They are no longer there.

Beverley Bell: No; they have been made redundant.

Q78 Mr Sanders: But the function they had to perform is still a duty that had to be carried out.

Beverley Bell: Yes. I would venture to suggest that maybe traffic examiners, who are more used to looking at paper systems and procedures, would have been the ones to have done it. I am not being in any way derogatory about vehicle examiners. They do a fabulous job, but it seemed odd that the vehicle examiners would be going out and looking at bus service reliability, which is a very complex area.

Q79 Mr Sanders: Whose job would it be to take that up and inform the Minister that this is happening?

Beverley Bell: Commissioners have historically done it through their annual reports. That is how, historically, we have made our concerns known. I have raised my concerns with VOSA and with the DFT in my capacity now as Senior through the tripartite meetings that we have. That is why the DFT came to our assistance.

Q80 Mr Sanders: Did you raise it verbally or did you present a report?

Beverley Bell: Both.

Q81 Mr Sanders: So that is somewhere within the Department’s filing system. Have they acted upon it? Have they responded to you?

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q82 Mr Sanders: What have they done?

Beverley Bell: As I said to you before, this lady called Rachael Watson, who works in the Department for Transport, along with Anthony Ferguson, was very proactive in saying, "We have a difficulty; let’s see if we can resolve it and let’s find some solutions." That is where we are now. I didn’t do it by report; I did it by letter.

Q83 Mr Sanders: So it hasn’t actually been resolved.

Beverley Bell: No. Like everything else at the moment, it is a work in progress.

Q84 Chair: Is there an issue about getting access to information? Are there confidentiality agreements that stop you getting information about the performance of buses?

Beverley Bell: That is very interesting because I am in the process of redrafting the statutory guidance document. I notice that pteg said in their response that they felt that Commissioners should be given access to performance monitoring reports by operators and on operators. I shall be dealing with that. I see no reason why there shouldn’t be any publication of data on bus reliability and punctuality, whether that is from the transport authorities like Transport for Greater Manchester, Merseytravel, or whether it is by the operators themselves.

Q85 Chair: What do you need to help you to enforce standards of punctuality and safety in respect of the vehicle operators?

Beverley Bell: With regard to punctuality, the Commissioners would like a clear definition of who does what within VOSA, who they report to, what the parameters are and how the money that the DFT gives to VOSA is spent. I would like that to be a tripartite dialogue between VOSA, the TCs and the DFT. It is; it is happening. I could almost come back for the re-run in a year and say, "That was a year ago. How are we now?"

You have asked me about safety. I am not unduly concerned about the state of the fleet with regard to wheels falling off. I am much more concerned about drivers-tired drivers, drivers who are abusing the hours, drivers who fall asleep at the wheel, enforcement of cabotage and enforcement of combined transport. That is what we are concerned about.

Q86 Chair: Are you saying that you don’t have enough information on that aspect?

Beverley Bell: We don’t have the cases brought to us that we used to have brought to us. We used to be given cases that were what we would call good-quality revocation cases, if I am forthright. They are the cases where it was likely that the operator would be put out of business because it was fiddling the drivers’ hours rules, fiddling the tachographs and driving all the time. We don’t get those cases, but it still goes on. That is what is so frustrating for us as regulators. It must be even more frustrating for the operators who have to compete with them.

Q87 Chair: What has caused this change?

Beverley Bell: You will have to ask VOSA that because we don’t have any influence. Historically, we have not had influence over what VOSA chooses to do in its enforcement. We have never been consulted about it.

Q88 Chair: Presumably VOSA must be aware of your concerns.

Beverley Bell: Yes.

Q89 Chair: What is their response?

Beverley Bell: Their response is the five pillars that are referred to in their business plan and to consult with us at an early stage, but I don’t know what the strategy is. I don’t know what the plan is. If I give you an example, in my traffic area, I get anonymous letters complaining about operators. It took four occasions before VOSA would even act on that. There were four occasions of me raising it. When eventually it came to my attention, drivers were tipping off the cards-in other words, falsifying their tachograph charts. If that had been left to VOSA, nothing would have happened. I don’t want to single out one case. They do some fabulous work, but I don’t think they do enough of it. I am saying too much; I am sorry.

Q90 Chair: When was the last time you raised this with VOSA?

Beverley Bell: It is a constant theme. It is aware that it is a constant theme. I say it at every event I go to with VOSA and I say it at every public event where I give a presentation. I say, "I am sure VOSA will be working hard to target the serially and seriously non- compliant." It knows that it is a concern. That is what the compliance forum is all about with the DFT.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. You have given us important and disturbing information.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Alastair Peoples, CEO, VOSA, and Stephen Hammond MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport, gave evidence.

Q91 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. Would you give your name and position?

Stephen Hammond: Good afternoon. I am Stephen Hammond, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport. Within my portfolio is the work of the motoring agencies.

Alastair Peoples: Good afternoon. My name is Alastair Peoples. I am chief executive of the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency.

Q92 Chair: Mr Hammond, I understand that you want to make a statement.

Stephen Hammond: I would be grateful just to make a very brief opening statement, if that were possible. Thank you, Mrs Ellman.

I am pleased that we are here this afternoon. I am pleased for your interest in the work of VOSA and for inviting Mr Peoples and me to give some evidence. Their work should be seen in the context of the new Motoring Services Strategy, which outlines broad reform proposals and sets out three key principles for the future. Those are: first, putting customers and businesses at the heart of everything all the agencies do; secondly, rationalising the number of bodies and agencies that deliver those services; and, thirdly, working more closely and collaboratively with partners to deliver those services. The response of the recent consultation that we did on that will be published in the summer.

As part of the strategy, VOSA is part way through a successful change programme to bring testing closer to the customer. We now have over 300 non-testing VOSA sites, and I anticipate that 85% of the tests will be conducted outside VOSA premises by this time next year.

Since the Committee’s last inquiry, VOSA has focused its enforcement activity where it will make the most difference to road safety. VOSA is gearing up to enforce the HGV Road User Levy Act. This legislation was passed through Parliament unamended and enjoys strong cross-party support. It has been welcomed by the haulage industry. I anticipate that there is nothing to prevent the new scheme starting from April 2014, which will mean for the first time that foreign vehicles will pay a contribution to take account of the wear and tear they cause on the UK road network.

Finally, VOSA has reduced the deficit of £46.6 million as of April 2010 to a deficit of £4 million as of March 2013. That is a big saving over a three-year period, while making no overall increases in the HGV and PSV testing fees since 2009. I am aware that the TSC visited a VOSA facility in February. I trust that that was an informative visit and that you were impressed by the effectiveness and dedication of the staff. We look forward to answering your questions this afternoon.

Q93 Chair: Thank you very much. We have just heard some evidence from Beverley Bell, Senior Traffic Commissioner. She has just expressed great concern to us about the way in which VOSA goes about its enforcement activities and the lack of involvement of the traffic commissioners. She has great concern about the areas covered, amounting to a problem in relation to public safety in general. Mr Peoples, are you aware of this issue?

Alastair Peoples: I don’t recognise the issue. For the past number of years we have been very successful in setting up a targeting regime that is benchmarked within Europe. It is something we call the Operator Compliance Risk Score. It has been very widely accepted within the industry as targeting those most in need of our attention at the roadside. We will be looking very closely at the evidence of what impacts most in terms of road safety, and we have been working very closely with stakeholders at all levels, whether it is within the Department or the industry, in terms of identifying and highlighting the approach that we would have.

It is of some concern that Mrs Bell has raised this because there is no evidence that I have found that that is the case.

Q94 Chair: Are you telling us that you are not aware of a major issue and major concerns from the traffic commissioners in relation to VOSA activities?

Alastair Peoples: The traffic commissioners have never raised those concerns with me. In terms of our effectiveness report, we are looking at much greater targeting of areas that we believe impact most on road safety. It is fair to say that the industry and those that represent the industry recognise that we are targeting the most serial of offenders in terms of the roadside. It is not the only thing that we do. Clearly there is education and training required, but, in terms of our targeting, we firmly believe that we are targeting those that require most attention from VOSA.

Q95 Chair: Minister, are you aware of this issue-of this major concern being expressed by the traffic commissioners?

Stephen Hammond: Like Mr Peoples, they have never raised that issue with me in terms of their major concern. I am aware of the targeting regime that VOSA have. I am aware of what they are trying to do and their scores. I am aware of their approach in certain cases in going straight to red with certain operators, but the traffic commissioner has not raised that concern, certainly with me, since I have been in post.

Q96 Chair: How would you describe your relationship with the traffic commissioners?

Alastair Peoples: I would describe it as businesslike. In terms of my relationship with Mrs Bell, I feel it is very cordial. I don’t have much day-to-day discussion with the traffic commissioners themselves. I work through Mrs Bell, who is the Senior Traffic Commissioner. It is fair to say that, in working through some of the issues that we have had, it has not always been a marriage made in heaven, if I can use that phrase. I am the accounting officer for the agency and for the budget held by the traffic commissioners. That accountability brings with it some responsibility in terms of managing public money.

I want to pay some credit to Mrs Bell for moving the traffic commissioner audit to one that has just been announced, which is a reasonable audit, where she has spearheaded moving things forward to a point where I am now much more content as accounting officer in terms of my responsibilities.

Q97 Chair: Let me ask you about the Authorised Testing Facilities and the system that you are now operating. How do you see the system at the moment? Do you think it is working satisfactorily, or do you intend to make any changes, whoever would like to reply?

Stephen Hammond: I will start off and, if Mr Peoples wants to join in, he can. Like you, I have seen the system in operation. I have had a chance to examine the records since the system has been in place. It is effectively VOSA managing a very successful change programme. It is bringing testing closer to the people. It is not privatisation; it is a contract arrangement. So far, it is impressive that, in the three years since they have moved this process, there have been no issues with non-compliance of VOSA staff in terms of attendance at these ATFs. The key thing is to be clear that, at these ATFs, it is VOSA staff who are undertaking these tests and that they are the keepers of quality.

Alastair Peoples: I would add to that. This ATF strategy is not in isolation in terms of being just a good thing to take testing closer to the customer. It was meeting a real need within the agency. Ministers pointed out the deficit in which the agency found itself and the considerable amount of money that would be needed to refurbish the VOSA estate. Old thinking would have been to increase fees and refurbish the estate, much of which predates the motorway network and is in any case in the wrong place. New thinking would be that, instead of bringing the vehicles to us, we should take the examiners to them. On your visit, particularly with Ford, you saw the real benefits for them, both in terms of financial payback and, more importantly, the business opportunity it gives in terms of the different use of the resources.

I am very impressed at how well this has taken off. We are in austere times. The fact that this growth has been nearly exponential has been fantastic. We are now at 300 ATFs. Indeed, since you visited, there have been 17 more ATFs that have come online. We are now looking at some 85% of all our work being done within 12 months. That is fantastic in terms of real business benefits. There are 320 more sites than we had ourselves, without adding any additional burden to the test fee.

Q98 Kwasi Kwarteng: I have a question for the Minister. Clearly, there is a slight mismatch in terms of the evidence the Committee has heard. Does that concern you in terms of the channels of information from VOSA to your Department? Are you satisfied that the communication is working well?

Stephen Hammond: Are we now going back to the traffic commissioners and the evidence you have heard on that?

Kwasi Kwarteng: Yes.

Stephen Hammond: Of course the traffic commissioners also have an open line to my Department. I attended the opening of one of the new traffic offices less than six weeks ago in Cambridge. I had a chance to speak for at least half an hour with the new traffic commissioner there and at their new premises. Again, all I can say is that I hope the traffic commissioners will use the opportunity to make their concerns known to me.

Q99 Sarah Champion: Minister, when we spoke to the industry, they supported the idea of the ATFs employing their own staff rather than VOSA staff to test vehicles. Do you think the system should be liberalised further?

Stephen Hammond: At the moment I am keen to ensure that we get to the target number of ATFs open. I am not persuaded that that is the right step at this stage, partly because I want to ensure that the quality of testing is maintained and is as rigorous as it has been-and it is because we know the VOSA staff are there. That might be something to look to in the future, but it would obviously require oversight to maintain the quality that we expect. It is not something that I anticipate discussing in the near term.

Q100 Sarah Champion: Mr Peoples, we have heard anecdotal evidence of people facing long delays in getting appointments. What can be done to overcome that?

Alastair Peoples: There are a number of things. This is now moving the booking itself to the 300 ATFs directly. It is a bit like the MOT model where they deal directly with the ATF. One of the things that have just gone live on is how to find your nearest ATF. You can put in your postcode and find out where the nearest ATF is. We give contact details and the type of test that they conduct. There is then an opportunity for you to go and book directly with the ATF. We also operate a contact centre, so, again, if you dial the VOSA number, you go through to our contact centre in Swansea. They will give you the nearest ATF, but they will also tell you what the first available booking is at a VOSA test site beside you.

Q101 Sarah Champion: I am particularly concerned with more rural and outreach areas. Are you going to set targets for distances so that people only have to travel, say, an hour before getting to a site?

Alastair Peoples: We currently work with a notional 30-mile, 60 minutes, for 90% of customers. On the basis that we have now provided 324 additional sites, it is our contention that people will have to travel less and not more. In those rural areas where there may not be particular take-up in ATFs, we still have our own test sites. We have an opportunity to keep those, or, as we do in some of the rural sites in Scotland, we can enter into agreements with operators. There is one in Fort William where we rent a lane one day a week from them. There is another one where we own a site in Portree. We use it one day a week and we rent it out to one of the major bus companies four days a week. There are lots of different opportunities where there is not particular take-up in ATF to ensure that there is provision of service as close as we can make it.

Q102 Sarah Champion: I can see that that is great for the 90%, but 10% are probably in the rural outlying areas and they are probably the smaller operators. Is there any certainty you can give them that they won’t be giving up a whole day trekking to one of these centres?

Alastair Peoples: That is the case at the moment in many cases because distances are greater in those rural areas. Quite often, operators have to travel quite large distances. I am anticipating that that will not get any worse, and, indeed, with ATFs, it is going to get a lot better for them.

Q103 Sarah Champion: Is there any evidence of larger operators not opening up their testing sites to competitors?

Alastair Peoples: The way we are looking at this at the moment is that it is entirely voluntary whether you become an ATF, whether you have open access or whether you provide third party. As we went to Ford, they recognised that they may decide to open this up to trusted third parties. For many operators this is a saving for them. They have enough work just to do it themselves. I am very content that the vast majority of the sites that we have are open access. Clearly, in any future provision of service in terms of where we close down VOSA sites, we do very sensitive market analysis to look at where the sites are, where they are in relation to the current operators, and whether or not they are open access third party. That is the kind of decision and debate that we have when we are putting a submission to the Minister proposing that we should cease testing in any particular site.

Q104 Chair: What kind of information do you have about how this new system is working? What kind of records do you keep?

Alastair Peoples: We have a number of records. First, we know how many vehicles are going through on any particular day. We know the pass/fail rate. We know the reasons for failure of each examiner. That information is exactly as we capture at our own VOSA test sites.

Q105 Chair: What about people who want appointments for testing? Do you have any records of how many people are kept waiting or for how long?

Alastair Peoples: No. It is a bit like the MOT scheme for cars. The booking with the ATFs is entirely between the ATF and the operator.

Q106 Chair: When we are given anecdotal information that people are kept waiting and there are problems, you do not have comprehensive information on that.

Alastair Peoples: We do not have comprehensive information on that, but we still have the VOSA network and the VOSA contact centre. On our website you can book a test either with a VOSA site or going through the contact centre.

Q107 Chair: But you do not have information to know that.

Alastair Peoples: Not specifically on the ATFs, no.

Q108 Chair: Minister, can I just confirm that you are still committed to a national network of VOSA testing facilities as well as the private sector ones?

Stephen Hammond: The case will be whether or not that is necessary given the roll-out of 83% of the centres. We will ensure that there is provision for testing where it is required, but we obviously won’t duplicate what VOSA are putting in in terms of the ATFs.

Q109 Chair: What does that mean in relation to your position now? Are you committed to a national VOSA system now, or have you not yet taken the decision? The last time we were told by your predecessor that a national VOSA system would be retained.

Stephen Hammond: There is a national VOSA system retained in that the work is being done. What you are talking about is whether I am committed to a national network of VOSA sites. I am saying to you that the roll-out of ATFs is currently at something like 65% of the work, going up to about 83% of the work, in terms of the work that can be done only in the sites. I am committed to ensuring that there are sites to meet what Mr Peoples has described as his test in terms of availability. Some of those will remain in the public sector, but the bulk of the sites, as you can see, will be ATFs that are in the private sector.

Q110 Chair: What work is being done to facilitate night-time working?

Alastair Peoples: Is this in relation to enforcement or testing?

Chair: Testing.

Alastair Peoples: At the moment, we get in touch with the ATF operators every three months and ask them what provision of service they want for the next three months. We try and match whatever the criteria are with the resource that we have. In the main, most of the work is between six in the morning and eight at night. We hear a lot that people want 24/7 working. When we go and talk to them about exactly what they want, it is a future tense thing. "We would like to have that capability. We would like to have that facility."

I can give you a small anecdote. I was out recently at a new ATF operator who is just building a new site. He was working 18 hours a day. When I asked him why he didn’t open 24 hours a day, he said that, when he is doing repairs in the middle of the night and suddenly he finds that he needs to fit an expensive part, generally speaking the transport manager of the owner of the vehicle does not want a call in the middle of the night to see whether he wants to spend the money. This will fit maybe own-account operators. We are very happy to talk to anyone about the provision that they have. We are committed to trying to ensure that we match resource with demand, whatever time of the day it is.

Q111 Chair: Would test fees increase if people had to work unsociable hours?

Alastair Peoples: There is an element of cross-subsidisation here. We don’t want to give a particular service at a lower cost to one operator. In terms of where we want to take testing, we are looking at providing that flexibility through a potential change of terms and conditions. We hope that will have the benefit of fitting the demand from the ATFs with the resource available from the staff. It will allow people to choose whether they want to work longer days and have fewer of those days working in an attempt to match the resource from the ATFs with the demand. Our overall aim is to give the ATF operator what they need.

I would say that sometimes they are asking for a resource that they cannot use. When we are talking to people about the next three months, what we are looking at are the last three, six or nine months and how they have used the resource. There is a danger that people will ask for so much that we are drawing resource from one of their competitors because they then tend to cancel that resource at the last minute. It is a fine balance of matching demand with resource and looking for expertise.

Q112 Chair: Are you expecting fees to go up?

Alastair Peoples: I am anticipating that, overall, the strategy will keep the fees neutral-as I have said, we have not increased our fees for the last three years-with no significant increase over the next two years. I am looking at the ATF strategy either keeping fees as they are or the potential in real terms to reduce them over a period of time.

Q113 Chair: How do you deal with foreign HGVs in relation to drivers’ hours?

Alastair Peoples: We have a targeting system for foreign vehicles. When we stop foreign vehicles we do a complete check. We are looking not just at drivers’ hours but roadworthiness issues. I wonder, Chair, if you are alluding to the issue of graduated deposits here in terms of how we deal with them.

Q114 Chair: I am asking you a question. I know there are a number of issues, but I am asking how you deal with the specific issue of drivers’ hours. We have had a number of representations.

Alastair Peoples: We will look at the tachograph and draw down the information stored on the tachograph. Our examiners are trained to analyse those. We are looking for evidence of non-compliance with the drivers’ hours. We are now finding some issues in relation to tampering. There may be elements of fraud in that as well. We have a particular way of dealing with the fraud elements of that. We look at the charts; we identify the driver, and we draw that down and do our own analysis against the relevant legislation.

Q115 Chair: We have been told that a number of trucks are using magnets to falsify drivers’ hours. Is that something that you are addressing?

Alastair Peoples: It is. This is becoming more significant now. The issue around drivers driving longer has a real competitive advantage for some operators. We are finding some very sophisticated means of tampering with the tachographs. Ironically, the electronic tachograph was introduced to try and do away with the fraudulent element of the waxed tachograph charts. We have found that it has spurred a whole new industry in terms of manipulation.

Our examiners are well trained in looking for any abnormalities in the record. We are unique in Europe in having live real-time access to a European-wide database in terms of use of magnets. We are very well aware of that. We also now have the sophistication of using an endoscope to look inside gearboxes and small compartments to check and see whether or not there are any magnetic devices found. Where we do find them we take the appropriate action, which usually involves the police. We also potentially prohibit the vehicle and put that same information online as soon as we can, so it is open not only to the rest of our examiners but for roadside examinations Europe-wide.

Q116 Chair: Are you satisfied that you have enough powers to deal with issues from HGVs?

Alastair Peoples: Yes, we are satisfied. We work with the primary enforcement agency, which is the police. If there are any issues in terms of things that we can’t deal with, we will call down on the police potentially to arrest the individual there and then.

Q117 Chair: You have mentioned accessing information on a cross-European level. Are you satisfied that the systems are there to enable you to do that?

Alastair Peoples: We are the only enforcement body in Europe that has real-time access to this at the roadside. You can go on to the website and access that, so we are ahead of the game on that one at the moment.

Stephen Hammond: It is also fair to say that a new generation of tachographs has come in since last year.

Alastair Peoples: The third generation is trying to address this further element of magnets and magnetic effect. It will be non-ferrous material. Hopefully, it will try and address the issue of magnet tampering.

Q118 Chair: Do you think the traffic commissioners’ independence is undermined by their close association with VOSA?

Stephen Hammond: As you know, Mrs Ellman, there are three things. As Mr Peoples has already said, he is the accounting officer for them; so there is that element. We are all aware that they have statutory independence in terms of the traffic commissioners’ operations. Although the staff that are in traffic commissioners’ offices are employed by VOSA, they are responsible to or they effectively work for the traffic commissioner.

I am also aware that this issue has been raised. I have spoken to Mr Peoples about it on at least one occasion. I am clear that the statutory independence is there for the traffic commissioner. Where I think there is some concern, which one or two people have raised, is with regard to the implications of the 1994 Act, which allow some of the activities of the commissioner to be done by VOSA staff. Those are at a very low level.

I have also looked at where the new relocation of the traffic commissioners’ offices have in some cases caused concerns. I visited Cambridge and I have also looked at the one in the south-west. It is clear they have separate entrances and the buildings are properly designated as the Office of the Traffic Commissioner.

Q119 Chair: Do you think this is a serious issue?

Stephen Hammond: It would be a serious issue if the independence of the traffic commissioners was not guaranteed by law or, operationally, they were not seen or perceived to be independent. I believe that they are seen to be independent by the vast bulk of the industry and by their operations.

Q120 Chair: The memorandum of agreement between VOSA and the traffic commissioners was due to be finalised by the end of the 2012-13 financial year. That has not happened. What is going on?

Stephen Hammond: There are still ongoing discussions about one or two of the elements inside that memorandum of understanding. Some of that is to do with the resources, and some, as Mr Peoples has pointed out, is to do with the audit and the movement of the audit process.

Q121 Chair: What about branding of the commissioners? Would that help?

Stephen Hammond: The commissioners are branded "The Office of the Traffic Commissioners". That is branded on their buildings as you go in. The buildings are not branded VOSA buildings; they are branded "The Office of the Traffic Commissioners".

Q122 Chair: Do you think this whole issue of independence and whether they are independent-whether it is perception or reality-is anything that should cause you concern?

Stephen Hammond: Mrs Ellman, I am aware of the issue and I keep it under review. So far, the traffic commissioners have not come to me and said they are concerned that the balance is now wrong. Of course it would be of concern to me if I thought that the independence of that office had been altered.

Q123 Chair: Mr Peoples, do you think this is a big and serious issue?

Alastair Peoples: To pick up on your point about perception and reality, Chair, this is more a perception than reality. I can certainly look the Committee in the eye and say that I have never attempted in any way to interfere with her judicial authority, nor have I any evidence of any of my staff doing that. The staff who work in the Office of the Traffic Commissioner work for the Office of the Traffic Commissioner. The work is ring-fenced for the traffic commissioner and they work under the delegated authority of the traffic commissioner, which can be withdrawn at any time.

We try and do everything that we can to ensure that that independence is there-and visibly there. Any time that we can get any evidence, even of the perception, then we are very happy to look at it. Indeed, recently one of the traffic commissioners said that when you go into some of the offices as a visitor you get a VOSA pass. Once we heard that, we very quickly moved to a separate Office of the Traffic Commissioner pass. As we become aware of anything, no matter how small it is, we try and resolve it because we are aware of the sensitivities in this. But I have absolutely no evidence that their independence is in any way being impeded by anything that VOSA does.

Q124 Chair: Are you saying that you are not aware of any major ongoing issue?

Alastair Peoples: I am not aware of any major ongoing issues in terms of their independence, no.

Q125 Chair: What about the fact that the traffic commissioners no longer have a say in VOSA’s strategic and volume targets and the way you operate? Do you think that is a problem?

Alastair Peoples: I do not think it is a problem. There are a number of forums where they have a say in this. It is very clear in terms of that independence that you talked about to ensure there is clear blue water between what they do and the enforcement role that VOSA does. We are well aware of that, and there are a number of opportunities for the Senior Traffic Commissioner, for my staff and the Department to get together to look at what we are doing strategically. We also agree with the Department on what our enforcement strategy for the next year is in the agency’s business plan. We also agree with the Department, who have access to the traffic commissioners, in terms of how we spend the non-fee element of our budget, which is the single enforcement budget. That looks at things like foreign operators, limousines or whatever. There are a number of opportunities for them to make their voice known without affecting that independence that we talked about earlier.

Q126 Chair: Again, I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that, as you see it, there aren’t any issues that are not being dealt with?

Alastair Peoples: That is exactly how I see it. There are ample opportunities, either directly to me, through the sponsorship department or through some of those meetings, for the Senior Traffic Commissioner to make her voice heard and the concerns, if there are any, of her colleagues.

Q127 Chair: This is not the information we were given just before you came into this meeting. Minister, perhaps you want to comment. The evidence we have heard this afternoon before you came to give your own evidence is really very much at odds with the impression that you are giving now. We had the impression before that there were major ongoing problems that have not all been resolved. Does it concern you that we have heard a different narrative?

Alastair Peoples: Yes. Again, Chair-

Chair: Is it a surprise to you?

Alastair Peoples: It is a surprise at one level. I think the traffic commissioners guard and value their independence very highly. Their perception may be as you say; I think the reality is somewhat different. The element for me is that, where I am made aware, directly or indirectly, of any issues around that, I am very happy to address them, either directly with the Senior Traffic Commissioner or through the sponsoring department. Quite often I do meet with Mrs Bell and colleagues in the Department to deal with those ongoing issues, regardless of whether they are perception or reality, whether strategic or tactical. I am always very happy to resolve those issues.

Q128 Chair: Minister, do you want to add anything?

Stephen Hammond: I do want to add something. I am aware that, since original evidence was submitted, the framework document has been submitted to the Committee, which should, I hope, give some confidence about the clarification of the relationship. The relationship and the independence are there in statute. As a result of what you have just said, I shall look tomorrow to see where that might be. As we said earlier, I have had a number of conversations-not only with Mr Peoples but with Mr Peoples and others-to ensure that the statutory guidance and statutory obligations of the traffic commissioners are met.

Q129 Sarah Champion: I know we have focused on perception. Perception is in many cases more important than the reality; it is what people deal with. One of the other things that we discussed with Mrs Bell was about enforcement. Her view-and she had the data to back it up-was that VOSA may be targeting smaller operators, who were easy pickings, at the expense of going for bigger prosecutions and actions against the larger operators. Do you think that is a fair comment? Is that something that you recognise?

Alastair Peoples: I have not seen the evidence that she produced, but certainly it is very likely that the numbers she has taken are from our effectiveness report. The Operator Compliance Risk Score, which is seen as a benchmark throughout Europe and highly lauded by the industry as targeting the right people, targets those operators, large or small, that pose the greatest risk to road safety, whether that is in drivers’ hours, roadworthiness or in terms of the foreign fleet. We don’t specifically target the smaller operators. The criteria of OCRS are well known and look at roadworthiness. There is a formula for working out exactly what that is on the basis of annual test or on each roadworthiness encounter at the roadside.

Q130 Sarah Champion: Your trade union suggested that cuts to VOSA’s enforcement budget were leading you to curtail some enforcement activity. Is that the reality?

Alastair Peoples: In terms of cuts to VOSA’s enforcement activity we are a trading fund, so the funding of enforcement from the fee depends on the number of people who apply for annual tests. If there is less money coming in, then we have to look at how we spend that. The single enforcement budget has been maintained for this year. There has been no cut on that, although we were looking at what the impact of cuts would be over time.

In preparing for this, we looked at the number of front-line staff. The number of front-line staff, whether it is vehicle testers on the testing side or examiners, is broadly the same as 10 years ago. We have much better tools in terms of ANPR weigh-in-motion sensors. We look at targeting through the OCRS. There is much greater use of intelligence. I see no significant cut on the enforcement budget at all.

Q131 Sarah Champion: It is admirable that you are obviously using technology and getting a lot more sophisticated to keep the prosecution level up, but, if your enforcement budget was higher, would you be able to prosecute more people and therefore would our roads be safer?

Alastair Peoples: I need to be careful here. As a good chief executive we can always use more resources, but it does take careful planning. In terms of the trading fund, the money that I would need to provide those resources will have to come in through fees. That is unlikely to happen.

On the single enforcement budget we have some more money, primarily for the levy but also looking at light goods vehicles and limousines. We have to plan this because the resource generally buys staff and we have to procure them, train them and get them up to speed at the roadside. It is not the answer to everything. What we have planned for this year is the full and effective use of that resource. If we were going to bring in additional resource, it is going to take some long-term planning. It cannot just be turned on and turned off. At the moment, I think we are making very good use of the resources that we have.

Stephen Hammond: The other point, it is fair to say, is that you are recruiting more examiners at the moment. In the last year we have recruited an extra 11, with 17 more to recruit. Is that right, Alastair?

Alastair Peoples: Absolutely, yes.

Stephen Hammond: The important point is that, although they are using the technology and the technology is impressive, they understand the need for personnel-and that is also being addressed.

Q132 Chair: Does VOSA have adequate resources to ensure compliance with the measures in the HGV Road User Levy Act?

Alastair Peoples: I believe we have. We have been working with the Department very closely since the Bill was passed. We have been looking with the Department in terms of setting up the system. The Department has given us £500,000 for looking at a capital budget for investment on ANPR and the database, and also £500,000 in terms of looking at the staff resource to get the scheme up and running. We have already been funded to the same extent of £500,000 in running costs next year. We have been highly involved in setting up the scheme and looking at the resources required, both in terms of setting up the scheme and running it next year. That will give us the equivalent of eight full-time staff. We look at this in terms of whether that would be appropriate. We will be building this resource into the normal enforcement that we do at the roadside.

Q133 Chair: Do you have enough powers as well?

Alastair Peoples: We believe we have enough powers in terms of issuing fixed penalties.

Q134 Chair: There is a £200 fixed penalty notice. Is that enough to deter non-compliance? A small foreign operator might reckon it is worth paying that and not complying.

Stephen Hammond: You are right, but it is a judgment of how many times in the UK people are not complying. If they have not paid, we impound the vehicle. On a two-day trip, if you did not comply, the £200 fine would not be satisfactory. Don’t forget that there are cameras being placed that VOSA is confident will pick up 95% of the movements, so the longer the trip, the bigger the risk. The £200 is a deterrent. I recognise it is not a full deterrent but it is a deterrent.

Q135 Chair: The Government have said they would like to use automatic number plate recognition to help enforce the levy. Is that going to happen?

Stephen Hammond: Yes, it is. I should also have pointed out in answer to your previous question that, although the £200 is the fixed penalty notice, were someone not to comply on more than one occasion, the vehicle can be impounded, which is my point about the longer trip. Equally, I should have mentioned that people can be taken to court and there would be a maximum fine of up to £5,000. You are right that we are using APNR. It is going to be strategically placed, particularly around the busier port entrances and indeed at Ashford, which I believe you have seen. As I say, that is why I am confident that 95% of the movements will be picked up.

Q136 Chair: The Government have also said that there will be a website for drivers to check that the levy has been paid. How far has that been developed?

Stephen Hammond: As I said, the scheme will start in April of next year. At the moment we are in the process of ensuring that the contract is being let. I hope that we will be able to announce that before the summer recess.

Q137 Chair: Can information found from the HGV Road User Levy be used for enforcement purposes?

Stephen Hammond: My understanding is that, as we build up a knowledge base with intelligence, it will be used in a similar way. It will also be able to be used to share information with other EU nations. Obviously there will need to be a build-up of knowledge first.

Q138 Kwasi Kwarteng: I want to ask about the HGV Levy. Is that something that you feel will be rolled out successfully? Are there any pitfalls or banana skins on the way that you have identified?

Stephen Hammond: You will be aware that the Bill went through the House, and prior to that and during its passage we had to give a number of reassurances. The first reassurance, of course, was that we could enforce it. You have heard today from my answer, and at the evidence session we gave to the Bill, that VOSA is confident, as are the Government, that we can enforce it.

Secondly, we had to look at what we would need to put in place to make it work. That is the contract that Mrs Ellman has just referred to, as is ensuring that there is enough knowledge. We also had to ensure that we were able to introduce simultaneous introduction for the UK and foreign vehicles at the same time. As you are aware, UK lorries pay a levy but get a refund against VAT, so they pay no more. The vast majority-94% of UK vehicles-will pay no more than they pay now.

I am clear that we are rolling out the process, as we said, in terms of meeting the milestones and the timelines we need to get the contracts let, to get the extra enforcement in place to ensure that foreign vehicles know that there is an obligation upon them. They will be able to pay the levy either via a website, by telephone or physically. We are clear that that is being made known to them as well. At this stage I don’t anticipate that there are any obstacles to the roll-out in April of next year.

Q139 Mr Sanders: Would you normally read all of the evidence of these sessions, because I would strongly recommend the evidence that was given to us before you entered the room? I would perhaps suggest that you call in the previous witness to inform yourself of some of the allegations that were made and the inconsistencies we heard about.

Stephen Hammond: I hope you noted earlier that I said I was concerned that you had heard that and I was already intending to do something about it.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming and answering our questions.

Prepared 17th May 2013