Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) (Exemption) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012
Executive Committee Business
I beg to move
That the draft Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) (Exemption) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 be approved.
In the North, there are approximately 2,200 operators licensed to carry goods for hire or reward using vehicles of more than 3·5 tons gross plated weight. They are already captured under regulations for the licensing of operators. Own-account operators — those who carry their own goods in the course of their business or trade, as opposed to hire or reward operators — make up around three quarters of the industry but presently are not required to be licensed. There are arguably up to 10,000 such operators in Northern Ireland who are currently not required to be licensed.
Over many years, the need for change to road freight operating licensing in the North has been raised by the freight industry, public representatives and consumer organisations who are dissatisfied with the way in which freight services are delivered under existing policy and legislation. My understanding of their concerns is, first, that they feel that the burden of regulation falls on one side of the freight industry, namely the 2,200 operators who carry goods for hire or reward. Their second concern is about the extent of potential illegal operations. Thirdly, there are concerns about the poor standard of vehicle maintenance and, fourthly, that there should be more and better enforcement.
The Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act (Northern Ireland) 2010, which was passed by this House and received Royal Assent in January 2010, provides my Department with the powers to address those concerns and bring the operator licensing system into line with that in Britain. It will require everyone who uses a goods vehicle above 3·5 tons in the course of their business, whether for hire or reward or as an own-account operator, to have an operator’s license.
In this calendar year, there will be arguably the greatest deployment of regulation around road users and road vehicles in a generation. That is seen in today’s regulations, forthcoming taxi regulation, heavy goods regulations, issues around city tour operators, and so on and so forth. The intention of all of those is that, by improving regulation, you improve safety and that, by improving safety, you help business and people generally.
The vehicles in scope for standard national and international licences — that is, the hire and reward sectors — are determined at EU level, so there is no option to vary the requirement. That is already the law. Those vehicles are currently licensed in Northern Ireland, and vehicles and combinations of vehicles and trailers exceeding 3·5 tons used for hire or reward will continue to require a licence under the new Act. There is no change to those categories currently requiring a licence or to those having requirements in future to have a licence.
This legislation, however, allows the scope to be limited to certain combinations of own-account vehicles, and for exemptions to be made for certain classes of vehicle. The Department has endeavoured to simplify the subordinate legislation to make it clear which vehicles and combinations are in or out of scope owing to their weight and which vehicles are exempt as a result of their construction or function. In that regard, what we propose in the regulations is a simpler and more understandable version of exemptions than that which currently prevails in Britain.
My Department is keen to ensure licensing of Northern Ireland’s goods vehicles without creating an unnecessary burden for small businesses. Therefore, the statutory rule that is before the Assembly for affirmation provides that, for the own-account sector, vehicles, excluding any trailer that they may pull, will be deemed to be outside the scope of the requirements of the Act if they are of a maximum authorised weight of no more than 3·5 tons.
Other exemptions from operating licensing have been drawn up to cover emergency situations and those vehicles used for activities that fall outside the licensing regime. There is a category of 15 or 16 such exemptions. Existing exemptions from the legislation for the hire or reward sector in Northern Ireland were drawn up in 1968 and, like exemptions in Britain, are outdated, extremely complex and open to widespread abuse. The statutory rule before us includes a simplified list of exemptions from operator licensing that aims to apply the legislation to appropriate vehicles and to avoid affecting more people than is necessary.
My Department consulted informally in the first instance with various industry representative bodies in drawing up the list, and, in the second instance, formal consultation took place from 15 October 2010 until 7 January 2011. The views expressed largely supported the proposals. In addition to providing exemption for emergency functions, a number of specific exemptions have been included. Those include exemptions for agricultural vehicles used solely for agriculture, horticulture and forestry purposes; for vehicles being used to recover disabled vehicles from the roadside; and for vehicles such as a tower wagon, where the only goods carried are required for the operation of the machine.
In conclusion, I believe that the introduction of the Goods Vehicles Act and its associated regulations will have a positive impact on road safety, tackling organised crime, the environment and fair competition in the freight industry in the North. It is important that all those who need a licence get one and that it is clear for operators and enforcement agencies which vehicles and functions do not need a licence. That is why I propose that the statutory rule be affirmed.
Anna Lo (Alliance)
During the Bill’s Committee Stage, the previous Committee heard evidence from the two main haulage organisations and was left in no doubt that the introduction through the legislation of own-account operator licensing was wanted by the vast majority of those involved in the freight sector. However, the Committee also heard from the agriculture and horticulture sectors, which were concerned that, as proposed, the legislation would have a detrimental impact on their industries. As such, they made a case for their vehicles to be exempt from operating licensing.
The Committee accepted their argument and urged the Department to urgently address the issue of which vehicles should be included within the scope of the Act and which should be exempt. The Department was unable to produce a proposed list of exemptions while the Bill was at Committee Stage, but it insisted that the principles on which it would consider exemptions will be along the lines that are currently applied in Great Britain. It was based on the use of a vehicle rather than the vehicle type. For example, a tractor being used to haul a silage wagon would be exempt, but the same tractor being used to haul building materials would not. The Committee accepted that principle, but members were subsequently concerned to learn that the GB exemption list was in the process of being reviewed. At that stage, some 60% of current exemptions had been identified for removal.
In the absence of a definitive list being available at the time and the fact that the benchmarks list across the water was in a state of flux, the previous Committee felt that it was necessary that the highest level of Assembly control be retained over the subsequent relevant subordinate legislation. Thus, the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) (Exemption) Regulations (NI) 2012 are subject to the Assembly’s approval today.
At its meeting on 29 March 2012, the Committee considered proposals for seven items of secondary legislation that would complete the implementation of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act. Six of the statutory rules were due to come into force automatically, and the Committee agreed that their introduction would bring Northern Ireland into line with GB and would result in improvements in road safety, organised crime detection, commercial fairness and environmental standards, and would improve the Northern Ireland freight industry’s image.
However, the Committee was keen to ensure that the Department had taken on board the concerns of stakeholders in relation to exemptions, and sought the views of those who had contributed at Committee Stage. In response, the freight industry urged against any further delay to the introduction of the legislation and reminded the Committee of how long it had taken the Department to reach that stage. It stressed that the legislation is critical for road safety and to ensure a fairer operating environment, and it strongly recommended that no changes be permitted at that late stage.
In comparison, the agricultural sector expressed disappointment with the proposals. It noted that it had participated in the consultation on exemptions, which had taken place well over a year ago, but felt that a number of the key concerns had not been taken into consideration by the Department of the Environment. Although the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) agreed with the proposed exemptions for agricultural and limited-use vehicles, such as tractors and loaders, it stressed that other agricultural vehicles should be exempt, particularly lorries used very occasionally to transport livestock or goods to market or for processing. It suggested that those could be excluded from the regulations on the grounds of limited mileage or by being linked to an agricultural business or farming. It also stressed that failure to exempt vehicles of that kind is likely to lead to an increase in tractors on the road as farmers will revert to that method of transport rather than facing the expense and bureaucracy of meeting the requirements of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) legislation for rarely used lorries.
The Department assured the Committee that it had worked closely with industry representative bodies, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Horticulture Forum for Northern Ireland, throughout the consultation process to develop a list of exemptions that would be clear and acceptable to the industry. In addition, the Department said that it will publish guidance to explain the exemptions and minimise misunderstanding in the industry.
The Department argued that the agriculture industry’s suggestions were neither fair nor feasible. Limited mileage could apply to many vehicles and not just those associated with agriculture and horticulture. Alternatively, linking an exemption to a business or person would contradict the principle, which was established from the outset by the Department, of basing exemptions on vehicle use. The Department also noted that the enforcement of such exemptions would prove difficult, if not impossible, and would be costly. However, it acknowledged that there might be a resultant increase in the number of tractors on the roads at certain times of the year as a result of the exclusion of agricultural lorries from the exemption list.
The Committee accepted the Department’s rationale for not including farm lorries on the list of exemptions, and, when it considered the draft rule again on 17 May 2012, was content that I recommend to the Assembly today that it be approved. However, I must stress that Committee members remain concerned about any consequential impact on road safety. I urge the Department to monitor this as the regulations are brought into effect and revisit it, if necessary, in due course. On this basis, on behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I support the motion.
Cathal Boylan (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá. I want to say a few words about the exemptions, which, on behalf of Sinn Féin, I support. However, I want to put them in the context of where we started in this process and the distance that we have come.
Obviously, the Committee supported the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 2010, which was about getting proper regulation and road safety measures in place. Sadly, the North has a somewhat poor goods vehicles record, as does the rest of this island, and we wanted to put something in place that would address the issues. However, we also wanted to support the haulage industry, which believed that a small proportion of it was incurring all the costs of dealing with proper enforcement. Although we support the measures in the regulations, we must also remember that we need to put robust measures in place. Although there is a need for exemptions, and I support these ones, we must be careful that, when we introduce legislation, we do not leave it open with so many exemptions that we go back to a situation in which a small proportion of the industry supports the industry itself.
We should also address the issue of the agriculture and horticulture industries, which raised some concerns. I support the Minister’s proposals, but in view of those concerns, I ask that his Department monitor the regulations over the next couple of years and, if need be, review them. With that in mind, I support the regulations.
Tom Elliott (UUP)
There is, obviously, general support for the regulations, alongside some notable concerns. I listened carefully to the Minister and to the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, who outlined many of the issues very effectively. Following up on Mr Boylan’s comments about the agriculture and horticulture industries, I will touch briefly on one or two issues.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union was very proactive and positive about the matter and worked constructively with the Department. The union has a concern about lorries and other vehicles used for agricultural use only. I would like the Minister to assure us that he will keep that issue under scrutiny and, if required, bring additional information back at some stage. The agricultural industry has a huge concern because those vehicles are used for very limited purposes for the transport of agricultural goods for a particular farm. That means they are used only very occasionally. They are used purely for that farm and not for hire or to draw or transport goods for other farmers, which means that their use is very limited.
Paragraph 18 of the schedule mentions:
“A limited use vehicle which is used solely for the purposes relating to agriculture, horticulture or forestry”.
Sub-paragraph (b) specifies that:
“the distance it travels on public roads in passing between any two such areas does not exceed 1.5 km.”
That is a very short distance, particularly in today’s agriculture and horticulture. Many businesses are split up by a much greater distance. That could conflict with some of the other exemptions. I would like some clarity on that and maybe even see that changed at some stage or have that 1·5 km increased. I ask the Minister to look carefully at that issue.
Paragraph 15 of the schedule concerns:
"A showman’s goods vehicle and any trailer drawn thereby.”
That could include quite a lot of organisations and groups. I know that a lot of people would maybe classify themselves as showmen — or show women, actually. I do want to sound sexist but we need to be realistic. A lot of organisations could fall into that category, and maybe a wee bit more clarity on that would be helpful.
I support the business in front of us. In many respects, we are discussing the history of transport. My first lesson on that was the Red Flag Act, when somebody had to walk in front of a steam engine, which could not do more than 4 mph. I am old enough to remember farmer Brown in his wee Fergie, which probably did 10 mph and could draw maybe a ton or, at most, two tons. Today, we have tractors that are monsters that can do 50 mph or more and, of course, are drawing diggers and things like that of huge dimensions.
The Red Flag Act was about road safety. What we are discussing today is road safety as well. We have made progress, and I agree with Tom Elliott that this needs to be constantly monitored and certainly not left for 40 years before it is looked at again, not that I am suggesting that I would be here in 40 years. However, 1968 was the last time it was looked at seriously.
I have had many meetings with transport operators, whom I commend and who warned us and told us repeatedly that too many vehicles on the road are not roadworthy. We need to take that seriously. We do not want to rest on our laurels, but we should take some satisfaction that the number of people killed on the roads has vastly diminished. Any new legislation that encourages that and keeps in front of people the absolute need to put road safety at the top of everything is important. I share some of the disappointments of the agricultural sector but they themselves know that safety on the farm and the road is of paramount importance. Hopefully, they will accept that these regulations will reduce any confusion.
Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker, I do not want to give you a history lesson but there was a time when Land Rovers were exempt if they were for agricultural use. That led to an interesting Budget debate in the Assembly in 1972, the last Budget before the collapse of the old Stormont, when there was total confusion as to what constituted a Land Rover that was used for agricultural use. We certainly do not want to get involved again in a debate about whether or not a vehicle is a tow hitch. Generally speaking, I found the debate in the Committee to be extremely interesting, and I support the Minister’s recommendations.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. The Chair of the Committee captured the character of this issue when she said that the issue of goods vehicle licensing has now stretched over a considerable period: the lifetime of two mandates. It was necessary to create certainty, avoid doubt and be decisive, which is why I wish to introduce these regulations. As I indicated in my opening remarks, that is the mindset that I will bring in respect of regulation of vehicles and control of issues around roads. We need to have wise and proportionate regulation of all vehicles that are on the road and regulation and licensing of all those who use the roads. That is necessary to bear down on illegality, improve road safety, create better driver performance, potentially reduce insurance premiums and, ultimately, secure the welfare of those on the road and in vehicles, and maintain our economy efficiently and effectively. As a part of that narrative, these regulations are important.
I note what the Chair and other Members said about the control, regulation and licensing of agricultural vehicles. Mr Boylan captured the sense that it is very important that, in introducing exemptions to goods licensing, those exemptions are not of such breadth that the purpose of having licensing is contradicted. I refer Members to the schedule to the regulations where the 15 exemptions are outlined, including, as Mr Elliott mentioned:
“A showman’s goods vehicle and any trailer drawn thereby”.
For the purpose of shaping exemptions in the first instance, those are wise, exhaustive and proportionate. If we were to go further than that, I would be concerned, as Mr Boylan said, that you may defeat the purpose and ambition of the regulations by having exemptions that, in the first instance, are extensive to the point of defeating the spirit if not the letter of the law.
That said, I reassure Mr Elliott that, over the next period, as the new regime rolls out and as the exemptions begin to apply, the Department will keep under review how these matters are impacting, not least upon our single biggest industry in the North: agriculture. If there is good evidence and a good argument for a need to revisit the exemptions as currently drafted to make them somewhat more expansive, the Department will consider that and, if necessary, consult further with the Committee and other third parties as appropriate.
I confirm that the Department will publish guidance to help understanding of the exemptions, including the one that Mr Elliott referred to. The response to that is that showman’s goods vehicles are already heavily regulated. I am not sure what is meant by specialist vehicles, for example, roundabouts, but if there is any further clarity that I need, I will share that with Mr Elliott in the fullness of time.
I confirm that there were conversations with the agriculture industry about the exemptions for agricultural vehicles. The Department consulted the UFU and the National Horticulture Forum and, as I indicated, considered, in the first instance, a limited number of exemptions for certain vehicles used solely for agricultural, horticultural and forestry purposes where appropriate. I have to make clear that the exempted vehicles are those generally designed for off-road use and agricultural machines or vehicles that are taxed in a limited use class. However, given the rigour and vigour of the agriculture lobby, if it feels that the exemptions so far shaped need to be broadened, I have no doubt that it will bring that to the attention of the Department, Members and the Committee sooner rather than later.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) (Exemption) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 be approved.