Schedule 1 - Giving of fixed penalty notices by vehicle examiners etc.

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 20th January 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I ask the Minister to set out what the policy of the Department will be on the exercise of discretion as to whether to impose penalties under the powers set out in the schedule. There is much concern that, as soon as we get into the fixed-penalty regime, discretion will go out of the window. As a result, there would be much rough justice. I hope that the Minister will assure us that it is not the intention of the Department that every breach of any regulation that is governed by the schedule will automatically result in the imposition of a fixed penalty and that common sense and discretion will be applied in generous measure.

I also ask him about the mechanics of the handling of licences that must be endorsed. It is one thing to say, ''You can take your licence to a police station for endorsement'', because the person will probably have some control about when they get their licence back. In the schedule, we are talking—largely—about a group of professional drivers. If they have to send their licence to a department for endorsement, it may be difficult for them to continue to operate as drivers without having a licence available to them. I would be grateful if the Minister could give some assurances about the time scales in which those licences will be returned. The circumstances would be different if a penalty involved disqualification, but in the routine case of an endorsement somebody might be without their licence for a fairly long time, which could be a serious problem for a professional driver.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips 5:00 pm, 20th January 2005

I do not want to get into the minutiae of the provisions. I listened carefully to what the Minister said the schedule does, but what he did not say—I can guess the answer, but it might be helpful to have it on the record—is why he thinks making the change is a good idea. I am not against such a change in principle, but I always become anxious when more people are put in a position in which they can prosecute or penalise motorists, because enough people can do that already.

We had such discussions during a previous Bill about a new set of people on motorways and the powers that they would have, including being able to issue tickets. Similar discussions have also taken place with regard to community support officers and the police. I am worried that far too often we say that another group of people as well as the police should be able to enforce the law, take action against criminals and issue notices. Before I accept that the change is a good idea, I want the Minister to tell us why he wants to add another group of people and not leave it to the tried and tested ways of doing things. I do not necessarily buy into the fact that it is just matter of convenience, so I will listen with interest.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The points raised are good ones. We have to remember that VOSA almost exclusively enforces against heavy goods vehicles rather than general members of the public, and it has been using its discretion over the years in its activities.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked why the change was a good idea. Over the 20-odd years since vehicle inspectors were brought in, a degree of professionalism among those carrying out this work has developed. I have been out with them on motorways and seen some of the work that they do. They are extremely capable and professional people who work within clearly set out codes of conduct. Their presence is well known in the HGV community, and their powers and responsibilities are well understood. The vast majority of operators and drivers who operate safely and carefully are pleased that VOSA inspectors are taking action against the minority who cut corners—often competing more cheaply because of it—and put other people's lives at risk. People plough along motorways very close to each other, and most are pleased that action is being taken against those who drive without proper brakes or with other unsuitable mechanical features on their vehicle.

VOSA operators work under a code of practice that sets out powers relating to stopping vehicles. They currently operate those powers but the police have to impose penalties. This is another example of a civilian force of good quality, professional people that can take some of the load off the police so that they can concentrate on other types of criminality. Some tasks, such as inspecting vehicles and testing brakes, can be done quite properly by a highly skilled, competent civilian force, which, indeed, it is.

The measure will take some of the load from the police, and this force, which is currently doing a good job, will be further improved and enhanced.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Obviously, one of the suspicions when an agency has the power to levy penalties is that it will be motivated to do so in order to fund its own activities—what is otherwise known as a self-financing regulatory authority. I should be grateful if the Minister would give an undertaking that VOSA's operations will not be dependent on funding that it obtains from penalties that it imposes. That might give it an incentive to impose more penalties than is fair or just.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

There will not be any such incentive, just as there is not for the police, because the fines—except those specified in law, such as the ones that we have discussed in relation to speed cameras—go straight to the Consolidated Fund, not into the VOSA's pockets. There would be no incentive, other than the one it gets from doing its job: ensuring that vehicles on the road are safe.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I wanted to intervene on the Minister, but as I am on my feet I shall make a contribution, and see if I can goad him into responding. His response to my first comments has reassured me. I found the information helpful and I can see a reason for the provision, so I have no difficulty with that.

However there is something that the Minister did not say. I found myself thinking that those people can carry out that function, and it does make sense, but to what extent is there the risk of a separate ethos, approach and use of discretion? People will be issuing what amount to penalty points that have exactly the same effect as penalty points for speeding, which tot up in just the same way.

This is a different group of people who are not necessarily using the same criteria and discretion as others doing that job. What supervision will there be of the people doing it? What standards will be set? I know that there is guidance, but to what extent will someone who is not one of those inspectors be able to ensure that it is being followed? To what extent will someone be able to compare their practice with that elsewhere, and, if necessary, will they have the authority to pull them back into line with other people issuing fixed penalty notices? 

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

It may help the hon. Gentleman to know that the VOSA inspectors have quite awesome powers at the moment, which go beyond issuing a fixed penalty. They have the power to stop a vehicle: they have liveried vehicles, and they can oblige a vehicle to pull over. They usually pull in to a weighbridge or a place where they can conduct safety inspections on the vehicles. If the examiner on the site is not satisfied that a particular vehicle is safe to be on the road, they can prohibit that vehicle from going on the road. That could be a far greater penalty to the driver and the operator than the fixed penalty.

I am glad to say that they have awesome powers. I am pleased that they have those because of the vehicles that they are stopping. When I joined them for an afternoon, one of the vehicles that was pulled in was a furniture lorry that had been badly loaded, so all the weight was at the front, and its rear brakes were not functioning at all. That vehicle was pulled in doing 50 mph on the M4. I was very pleased that the inspectors had those powers. At the moment, they would be used through the police, but the professional force that we have will do a good job and work within the code of practice. Of course, even stopping a vehicle and prohibiting it from being on the road is challengeable in the courts, if an operator feels that someone has operated beyond their powers.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The Minister said that there would not be any self-financing through the penalties imposed, but one of his officials said yesterday at the meeting that there was a business case—I think that he said that it was before the Treasury at the moment—that would achieve just that: a system whereby the proceeds of the penalties imposed would be used to fund an expansion of VOSA activity. Can the Minister comment further on that?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Yes: if it brings any comfort to the hon. Gentleman, the fixed penalties would not be hypothecated other than to cover the cost of administering the fixed penalty regime. So, there would not be any gain to VOSA in bringing vehicles in—just as the camera partnerships do not make any money out of that system; they are not languishing with loads of money. Evidence of the cost of running the regime must be provided. That is the only money that will be returned from the Treasury.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 1 agreed to.