Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I am pleased to introduce the Road Vehicles (Powers to Stop) Regulations. The purpose of these regulations is to provide examiners from the Department for Transport’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, or VOSA, with direct powers to stop commercial vehicles at the roadside throughout Great Britain in order to enable them to conduct compliance checks.
These compliance checks are to ensure that commercial vehicles and drivers of commercial vehicles comply with the requirements of EU legislation relevant to vehicle roadworthiness and driving requirements. For example, EU legislation prescribes minimum standards of technical compliance for vehicles circulating on our roads. There are rules that prescribe maximum weight limits for commercial vehicles. There are also very detailed rules about maximum driving time and rest periods and about the recording equipment and records that are needed to verify compliance with these rules.
Of course, all these requirements and rules are there to help to keep our roads safe, but they are effective only if there is adequate enforcement. Consequently, the legislation also stipulates that member states must put in place appropriate systems and checks for compliance, which is something that we would want to do in any event, regardless of the country of origin of the vehicle and driver.
As things stand, VOSA already has a limited power to stop vehicles for checking in England and Wales. It has the power to do so under provisions in the Police Reform Act 2002—or, more precisely, the law allows chief officers of police to accredit individual VOSA examiners with the power to stop vehicles in order to carry out roadworthiness checks. Although this is a rather cumbersome administrative process, the general arrangements for enabling VOSA to stop vehicles for inspection work well in practice, since they save time in overall terms both for the police and for VOSA. They also release police officers for front-line duties when they would otherwise have had to stop vehicles for VOSA, as they used to do in the past.
The main problem is that these arrangements do not apply in Scotland, which currently commits the police to having to support VOSA at roadside enforcement checks. The draft regulations before the Committee today will resolve that problem. Under the provisions of the draft regulations, VOSA officers appointed by the Secretary of State will be able to stop commercial vehicles for checking throughout Britain without having to have a police officer present. The main benefit that this will bring is that it will release a significant amount of police resources in Scotland that are currently taken up in assisting VOSA with this task.
The regulations will also simplify the process of accrediting VOSA stopping officers. The proposal is that VOSA stopping officers will, in future, be appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport—in practice, that would be done by the chief executive of VOSA—rather than by individual chief officers of police. Of course, no one will be authorised as a stopping officer until they have successfully completed all the necessary training, which will be equivalent to the training that stopping officers in England and Wales currently have to undertake. The benefit of simplifying the process of appointing stopping officers will be in reducing the administrative burden on both the police and VOSA.
The regulations will also extend the scope of VOSA’s stopping powers. At present, its stopping powers are specifically linked to vehicle roadworthiness checks, but its remit is much wider than that, extending to things such as checking compliance with maximum weight limits, drivers’ hours, operator licensing and driver training rules. I alluded to some of these matters earlier.
Noble Lords may have noticed that the provisions under which these regulations are being made include Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. Section 2(2) of the 1972 Act provides the Secretary of State with powers to implement EU law via a statutory instrument where no such power already exists in primary legislation. In this case, Section 2(2) of the 1972 Act is required to ensure that we are fully compliant with EU law obligations in respect of these enforcement matters.
While we are taking this procedural route to amend the law as it relates to Britain, we are also taking the opportunity to clarify the law as it relates to the whole of the UK, which is why the draft regulations also extend to Northern Ireland. As noble Lords will see, the regulations will also make some minor changes to the existing law in Northern Ireland, where examiners in the Driver and Vehicle Agency, which is Northern Ireland’s equivalent to VOSA in this respect, already have the ability to stop vehicles for compliance checks. The minor changes will simply confirm that DVA examiners can also stop vehicles in order to check compliance with goods vehicles authorisations and driver training rules, which are EU-wide provisions. Northern Ireland Ministers are content with these provisions, which will save them from having to take through separate, similar legislation for these very simple changes.
To deter offending, these regulations also include offence provisions. They will make it an offence to impersonate a VOSA stopping officer or an examiner from DVA. They will also make it an offence to obstruct a VOSA stopping officer while he is carrying out his duties, although this offence does not extend to DVA examiners because equivalent provisions are already in force in Northern Ireland.
Noble Lords may have noticed that I have made reference throughout to commercial vehicles. That is because EU law and, indeed, these regulations apply only to commercial vehicles. In England and Wales, the provisions of the Police Reform Act 2002 will remain in force, in order to allow VOSA to continue to make use of the option allowed under those provisions to stop other types of vehicles for roadworthiness checks—for example, light goods vehicles. I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, I have some experience of what is proposed in the regulations because for six years I worked in Northern Ireland, where VOSA’s equivalent had to use stopping officers; if policemen had been used, they would have become targets for terrorists. What is proposed in these regulations worked in Northern Ireland and I believe that it is sensible to extend the provisions here. Indeed, I have been surprised that it has taken successive Governments so long to wake up to this.
If, like me, you have experience of roadside checks, you will know that some of them are extremely expensive to mount. They are not just a matter of one man pulling a lorry off the road. Often 10 agencies are involved in checks, which might cover drugs, ill treatment of animals, customs fraud or immigration fraud—a whole range of things is covered by these checks. They are very expensive to organise and at the moment, if a check is mounted and the policeman is called away to other duties or does not show up, the whole process is frustrated because nobody can stop a lorry or a coach to send it to the inspection centre. I very much welcome these regulations and can only wish them well. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, made it clear in his remarks that it would be possible for VOSA officers to stop other vehicles.
I suggest that traffic censuses might also be considered. They do not need a policeman; they just need somebody with a yellow jacket on to organise the thing. I presume that even when the police have stopping officers there is an occasional person who offends and does not stop, but there are plenty of means of identifying those people and bringing them to justice. I fully support the proposed changes.
My Lords, in these times of policing budgets, I wonder whether chief constables will be persuaded to let VOSA work completely independently of roads policing officers and rely on it to make routine checks on vehicles, thereby releasing their officers from such requirements. I acknowledge the fact that the regulations refer only to commercial vehicles, but could they be extended to all vehicles in time? I do not know. Will this be used by chief officers to obtain large savings being targeted at policing?
It is well known that some commercial vehicles are used for criminal activities. If VOSA is the only body inspecting such vehicles to examine their roadworthiness and the police are not there, criminals will get away with all kinds of things. A trained police officer can examine the vehicles and their drivers in more detail while there are still road policing officers qualified so to do, but their expertise may well be hit if chief officers rely on VOSA and VOSA alone. What will happen if a VOSA stopping officer comes across a driver who is obviously drunk or wanted for a criminal offence?
I wonder, also, how VOSA stopping officers will be trained in appropriate driving and related techniques. Will they be trained by the police? Even with such advanced training, am I correct in assuming that, other than using their powers to stop a commercial vehicle, they will comply with the law and that they will not be able to use exemptions in relation to exceeding speed limits or other matters enforced by police officers? I assume that they will not be permitted to have blue lights. What will be their method of stopping a vehicle?
Does VOSA have a budget within the spending review to meet the expectations of providing, training and equipping the stopping officers to provide the required services every day of the year and at all hours? I hope so, because there are already problems with VOSA setting targets and, when those are met, simply stopping the work that it does. That could result in VOSA weighing a number of vehicles and then not weighing any others for the rest of the month because that target had been met. Currently, VOSA officers are not there at night or weekends unless on a special operation. That must not be a reason for the police to remove resources and to leave it to VOSA, as VOSA does not have the continuous responsibility throughout every day of the year that the police have.
Relying on VOSA to take over some of the roads policing operations—I declare that I am an honorary member of the Police Federation of England and Wales roads policing central committee—is fraught with problems. It used to be so simple: a police officer only. But now it seems that it could be anyone—a Highways Agency traffic officer, VOSA, who next? I do not expect the Minister to reply to my concerns today, but I would be grateful if he would write to me in due course and I hope that he will forgive me for raising these matters, some of which are not strictly related to this legislation.
My Lords, the two noble Lords who have spoken have raised some exceedingly pertinent questions. I knew that we would benefit from the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. He has carried out what has often looked like a one-noble-Lord campaign on certain aspects of the entry of foreign lorries into this country and the difficulties that have arisen from their compliance with the law. I was interested to hear about his experience in Northern Ireland. Such is one’s preoccupation with the legislation that obtains generally across the United Kingdom that it comes as a bit of a shock when one realises that part of it relating to traffic is not UK-wide legislation at all but, because of the police dimension, applies only to England and Wales. I therefore very much support this instrument, which extends the issues to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
My noble friend Lord Simon has addressed a number of the questions that I would otherwise have articulated at some, no doubt boring, length. It is incumbent on the Minister not to write to my noble friend but to answer, so far as he is equipped to do so today, the very important point about who exercises the powers to stop and for what offences. I very much approve of the extension of the offences in the regulations, but they are all traffic offences. My noble friend Lord Simon probably picked up the reference made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, to what might have obtained in Northern Ireland and he asked about other illegalities that the driver or others responsible for the lorry might be guilty of and be likely to be charged for. I presume that powers are not to be given in relation to those offences. If they are, that should have been stated in the regulations. However, I take it that the instrument is about traffic regulations and the regulation of trucks and lorries—that is, big vehicles. We know that the road haulage industry is pleased to see a tightening up of these issues, because it does not want to be besmirched by road hauliers who give the others a bad name when accidents occur in circumstances where it is clear that the law has been infringed.
However, what greatly exercises the British road haulage industry and all of us who take an interest in road transport in the United Kingdom is the enormous increase under the single market in the number of foreign trucks coming to the United Kingdom. It has been predictable but nevertheless it has carried on apace in the past decade with the significant economic growth across Europe. The minor grievance that we have is that these trucks have large tanks that are loaded with less expensive fuel on the other side of the Channel and are then able to travel huge distances on British roads without contributing to taxation because the fuel has been bought elsewhere. Of more concern to us all is that some of these trucks do not meet European standards on maintenance and equipment. Any accident involving a heavy lorry will cause concern in a locality, but it is bound to exercise people a great deal more when it involves a truck that comes from a considerable distance beyond these shores.
Of course, we very much support these regulations. In fact, they are overdue. However, I hope that the Minister will give reassurance about the identification of those carrying out the stopping exercise. Authority cannot be in question when there is a truck that is 44 tonnes against an individual who is standing by the side of the road. The authority either works or the individual officers are in danger. There must be clear identification and I want to know what is guaranteed on that. I particularly want the Minister to address whether the list of traffic offences in the regulations is what the stop will be organised for. It would be a different matter if we went on to other issues. Will the Minister say how that will impact on the role that the stopping officers play?
We understand the necessity of economising on police time, which is why the initial changes in the Police Reform Act were made, but that has to be consistent with a proper authorised road for the VOSA people so that they are protected in their job and can discharge it fully. The Minister has a number of questions that he needs to address.
Before the Minister does so, I point out to the noble Lord that in Northern Ireland we had an international border and many of the international troubles to which he has referred, which the stopping officers dealt with. The flagrant breaches of the law by lorries from one side of the border were often caught. VOSA officers have the power, as do Customs and Excise officers, to immobilise the vehicle. If there is any trouble, the police can be called anyway, but the officers have powers to stop the vehicle. That is the big sanction.
My Lords, I thank the three noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. Clearly, these regulations enable VOSA examiners to stop commercial vehicles for inspections that they routinely carry out at the roadside. These checks are on the roadworthiness conditions of vehicles and on whether the driver is complying with all relevant laws, including the particular law on maximum permissible time spent behind the wheel.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made one or two points and was generally supportive. The stopping powers relate only to VOSA; no other agency can be legitimately associated with those roadside checks. The point about census checks could perhaps be looked at in future; I do not think that I can say anything about that, but I shall take it back to the department. The current priority is to enable VOSA to complete its duties throughout Great Britain.
The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, made several points. I am delighted that I had some degree of notice on one or two of them, but not necessarily on all—if we cannot cover them all, we will have to write. He asked whether chief constables would be happy to let people work completely independently. VOSA officers will continue to maintain close links with the police. They have already been stopping vehicles in England and Wales since 2002—nine years—and there have been no problems. These regulations will allow VOSA to stop vehicles in a similar way in Scotland. They have the support of ACPO in Scotland and the Scottish Government.
The noble Viscount asked whether the fact that VOSA will be working on its own would encourage criminals to take advantage. VOSA officers will continue to maintain strong links with the police; even though they have the power to stop vehicles for inspection, they still have those strong links. In the event that they encounter any difficulty, they will immediately request assistance from the police in the normal way.
The noble Viscount asked how VOSA stopping officers will be trained. They will need to complete an intensive police driver training course before being appointed and an in-house training course to familiarise them with the extent and limitations of the powers—for example, the fact that VOSA officers are under no circumstances allowed to chase suspect vehicles. They will not be permitted to have blue lights. Their vehicles will have stopping matrix signs that request drivers to follow the vehicle to a safe stopping point, as they do at present.
The noble Viscount also asked whether VOSA has the necessary budget to provide a 24/7 service by stopping officers. Obviously, there is a limit to resources, just as there is for the police, and priorities have to be targeted. In some areas—on the main arterial roads into Britain, for example—VOSA can provide a 24/7 service, as it does. In other cases, it has fewer resources available but will rely on intelligence to determine when it is best to run enforcement exercises.
The noble Viscount asked whether in time the regulations could be extended to all vehicles. There are no plans to seek to extend the scope of these regulations to cover any other classes of vehicle. The law could be amended in the future, but that is not contemplated at the moment. VOSA’s main priority is commercial vehicles, not cars—cars are primarily a matter for the police.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, asked how the VOSA officers would be identified. While on duty, they will be required to wear a uniform that is unique to them; to carry clear identification; and to be in clearly marked vehicles that have a black and yellow Battenberg livery, are clearly marked “VOSA” and have amber light bars on the roof.
The noble Lord asked questions and commented on the extent to which there are more vehicles on the road. He referred to foreign commercial vehicles in particular. He will be interested to learn that, in 2006-07, 56,596 roadside checks on foreign vehicles were made by VOSA. In 2009-10, that figure had increased to 177,460. Those figures come from the most recent random fleet compliance survey and VOSA’s effectiveness report.
I trust that I have answered the bulk of the queries, as I have endeavoured to do. I will carefully check that nothing that I ought to have responded to is outstanding. As I have indicated, the purpose of the regulations is to create an efficient and effective mechanism for stopping commercial vehicles throughout Great Britain so that they and their drivers can be checked by VOSA examiners. These checks cover a wide range of compliance issues affecting vehicles and their drivers; they are necessary to keep our roads as safe as possible.
Historically, the police have stopped vehicles for VOSA, but it has to be said that that does not necessarily make the very best use of their valuable time. Of course, they have many other pressing priorities, which only they can deal with. For that reason, VOSA was given the opportunity in 2002 to stop vehicles for roadworthiness enforcement checks in England and Wales. That arrangement worked well in practice and we are now seeking to extend that practice to other types of compliance checks and to extend the new system throughout Britain. As well as making the process easier for VOSA, the new provisions will help to free up police resources in Scotland in a similar way for core policing priorities. The new provisions will also make easier the process of appointing VOSA stopping officers and provide a useful minor clarification of the relevant equivalent law in Northern Ireland. I commend the regulations to the Committee.