Traffic commissioners deal with O-licence application issues by overhauling system


The traffic commissioners for the UK are constantly looking at ways to improve and refine the process of applying, amending and regulating the operator’s licence system as well as streamlining the often cumbersome public inquiry process. They have looked at many aspects of the process, although there are three fundamental subject areas for concern:

  • The incomplete rate on operator licence applications
  • The public inquiry process
  • The suitability of a transport manager for the role

The commissioners

The post of traffic commissioner has existed since 1931 and its purpose is to champion safe, fair and reliable passenger and goods transport. There are seven traffic commissioners, with one of these, Beverley Bell, also taking the role of  senior traffic commissioner. They ensure licensed operators comply with undertakings that are made upon grant of a licence, as well as the mandatory requirements for holding a licence. In her recent report, Bell reported they were to review and modernise the operator licence regime and to reduce the regulatory burden on the compliant commercial vehicle industry. “We will do this by working with DfT regarding legislative change,” the report said. “We will work with DVSA on the delivery of the operator licence compliance system (OLCS), as well as enhancing traffic commissioners’ and staff knowledge, competence, resilience and capacity to deliver a consistent and efficient operator licence regime.”

Cutting down paperwork

One of the main areas of concern for the group has been the number of incomplete applications for the operator’s licence. It probably goes without saying that not many people like filling in forms, even at the best of times but, according to Bell, who is also commissioner for the north west of England, in her review of 2014/2015, most operators could do better.

“There has been no improvement in the number of incomplete applications (or where the criteria are not met) received, which remains around 80%,” she says. “The greater percentage of these is new applications, with 88% of those sampled being incomplete and/or inaccurate. Double and triple handling by CLO causes delay and has a knock on effect for all operators. The forms have been revamped and the guidance enhanced. It is time for industry to act”.

Upgrading the system

It is no surprise in this era of austerity that the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) is trying to get more bang for its buck and increase efficiency. In 2014, staff from the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) and the DVSA began work on replacing the existing operator licence holder database and online self-service facilities for licence holders. The aim of the project is to introduce new platforms and improved services for new and existing operators who carry out licence transactions and administration online, as well as for OTC staff handling licence applications and public inquiry casework. The upgraded OLCS will allow operators and new applicants to:

  • Submit new applications online
  • Upload documents online, including bank statements
  • Receive support to submit a complete application
  • Reduce the waiting time for granting decisions, where a complete, digital application is submitted

The overall look and feel of the new online self-service will mirror the look and approach of many other government services and is being designed to help operators and new applicants manage their licences and applications more efficiently and effectively.

The team at the department are hoping operators and applicants will see a significant improvement in the menu design in particular, with navigation tools tracking progress and providing links to advice and guidance.

Streamlining public inquiries

As well as focusing on applications, the commissioners are looking at the public inquiry system. Commissioners can call a formal public inquiry in a court to get more evidence to help them decide if they should grant a licence or, in some cases, take action against an operator. In 2014 there were 859 public inquiries in which 259 licences were revoked, 123 suspended, 191 curtailed and 92 with no action taken.

“This is of concern my colleagues and I can confirm we are looking for ways to divert these types of cases away from the public inquires so we can make best use of the limited public inquiry time and we do not unnecessarily call operators to public inquiries,” says Bell.

The statutory documents give traffic commissioners guidance on using these alternative interventions, but it is for individual commissioners, as independent regulators, to assess each case on its own merits.

The senior traffic commissioner’s revised statutory document number 10 – ‘The principles of decision making and the concept of proportionality’ – outlines the alternatives to a public inquiry that traffic commissioners may consider before regulatory action is taken as a result of non compliance. In line with their strategic objectives to target those who put road safety at risk and reduce the burden on compliant operators, commissioners will first examine whether less serious cases can be dealt with through a meeting with a senior member of staff from the Office of the Traffic Commissioner, or a preliminary hearing with a traffic commissioner, to encourage the necessary improvements without the cost of a public inquiry.

In borderline cases, a commissioner may decide to call an operator to a preliminary hearing in order to determine whether an inquiry is necessary. Many cases appear to be serious and warrant a public inquiry on paper yet, when the operator provides a full explanation and accompanying supporting documents, the commissioner can determine the matter without use of regulatory powers.

The advantage of the preliminary hearing is that it can be listed more quickly than a full public inquiry and it makes good use of the commissioner’s time. The purpose of a meeting is to allow the operator to explain itself and how any failures occurred. It also allows an opportunity to hear details of any remedial action being taken and to seek and receive assurances as to future compliance.

As the tools and mechanisms available to the enforcement agencies – particularly the DVSA – have become ever more sophisticated and as those agencies become better at targeting operators and drivers who pose the greatest risk to road safety and fair competition it can be appropriate to divert the less serious cases away from the formal public inquiry process.

This is already happening, says Bell. “I have noticed a trend towards a greater number of preliminary hearings in this traffic area: a slightly less formal and shorter hearing – but one that is no less rigorous in examining the root causes of non-compliance and, critically, how such issues can be quickly and effectively addressed,” she says.

“This approach is designed to support the achievement  of the commissioners’ strategic objective to target operators who pose the greatest risks, who will be called to a full  public inquiry.”

 The statutory document sets out the requirements for satisfying professional competence explaining how the senior traffic commissioner believes that commissioners should interpret the law in relation to the requirements for and on transport managers. It covers many aspects of the application and suitability of a transport manager, who retains legal responsibility regardless of whether his or her activities are delegated. It would again appear operators are having issues ensuring they understand the key requirements and demands.

As a baseline, a transport manager should be of good repute, professionally competent and, in the case of an external transport manager, not prohibited from acting as a transport manager by a traffic commissioner.

They should not be designated to act in that capacity for more than four operators, or be responsible for a fleet of more than 50 vehicles or such smaller number as the commissioner considers appropriate.

The statutory definition of transport manager is “a natural person employed by an undertaking who effectively and continuously manages the transport activities of that undertaking”. Article 4.1 of Regulation (EC) 1071/2009 refers to that person having a genuine link to the undertaking, such as being an employee, director, owner or shareholder or administering it.

Transport managers should be able to supply a suitable certificate of qualification, for example CPC or via grandfather rights, and have a “genuine link to the business”, which maybe verified with tax and employee contributions. An external transport manager may be hired subject to evidence for engagement and satisfying the above criteria.

This overview is intended as a limited guide only. anyone applying, attending or involved in the operating licence process should seek separate legal advice as to the suitability or otherwise of their application or hearing.

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