Public Hearings Continue Despite Lockdown Challenges

Like all organisations and businesses, the Transport Regulation Unit continues to work against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic, and the practical challenges that this has created. 

In November 2020 the Unit recommenced public inquiries, holding three in-person hearings. With the new lockdown announced in December, steps were taken to introduce online hearings, and this has been operating successfully, with ten inquiries (including two preliminary hearings) held throughout January, February and March.

Recently the Covid-19 Regulations were updated allowing the recommencement of some in-person hearings and these have again recommenced.

These hearings are a fundamental part of the licensing regime, ensuring that licensed operators are operating safely, keeping appropriate records, and continuously meeting the requirements to hold a Goods Vehicle Operator’s licence.

This improves road safety, and helps ensure fair competition within the industry. If you are paying to meet requirements of professional competence, maintaining your fleet, training your drivers, and operating within legal hours and weights – then it is unacceptable for others to get away with not doing so.

Since the recommencement of public inquiries the Department has taken a number of actions – three licences have been revoked, two transport managers have been disqualified, four licences have been curtailed (a reduced fleet), one licence has been temporarily suspended, one application has been refused and a number of licences received additional undertakings, such as the requirement to pay for an external audit of systems and processes.

Supporting these public inquiries the TRU will soon start calling operators to In-Chamber Hearings. These hearings will be held in-person and provide an opportunity for TRU staff to meet with operators and understand how licences are being used.

This is an opportunity for operators to show the Department the steps that they are taking to ensure that they remain compliant and avoid the need for a future call up to a public inquiry. This also offers a chance to receive useful guidance and advice directly from the Transport Regulation Unit.

In-person hearings represent a step back towards normality and will help our operator’s relationships with the Department, however, we will continue to meet requirements on social distancing, and hearings will be subject to change as Covid regulations continue to be updated.

The Importance of Record Keeping & Licence Checks: A Hard Lesson

If you don’t want to put your licence at risk of revocation, take heed of a decision made by the Department at a recent public inquiry. A licence was revoked as a result of the operator’s failure to keep records of driver walk-round checks, preventative safety inspections, vehicle maintenance, or to make appropriate checks of its drivers’ licences and their CPC entitlement.

A goods vehicle operator’s licence is issued on the basis that the licence holder will comply with undertakings, which include:

  • the laws relating to the driving and operation of vehicles used under this licence are observed
  • the rules on drivers’ hours and tachographs are observed and proper records kept
  • drivers report promptly any defects or symptoms of defects that could prevent the safe operation of vehicles and/or trailers, and that any defects are promptly recorded in writing
  • records are kept (for 15 months) of all driver defect reports, all safety inspections, routine maintenance and repairs to vehicles and trailers and these are made available on request

A compliant operator will ensure there are adequate systems and procedures in place to fulfill all licence conditions and undertakings. Failure to do so can lead to revocation of a licence or other serious regulatory action.

It is also worth implementing a regular check (i.e., six monthly) of drivers’ licences for any penalty points or a disqualification that a driver has failed to report to you.

This can be done online at: gov.uk/check-driving-information. Carrying out such checks and keeping a record can help to protect an operator from dishonest and dangerous drivers as well as protecting the public.

The DVA’s Guide to maintaining road worthiness is useful for new operators to find practical advice on how to devise, install and monitor a system for ensuring roadworthiness. Even established or experienced operators will be able to use the Guide as a benchmark to assess whether systems are sufficiently comprehensive or should be reviewed and improved to maintain compliance.

Lesson learned: it doesn’t pay to be complacent with the operator licensing requirements. Take steps now to implement proper process and procedures and to keep accurate records if you are not already do so.

Communication with the Department is Essential

TRU has observed how more operators are less compliant with communication, which results in an increase of investigations of their businesses and potential regulatory  action against those licences.

Communicating with the Department in a timely and effective manner, more so during this pandemic, is of the essence when it comes to effectively managing an operators’ licence.

Whether it is notifying infringements, a change of directors in the company holding the licence, responding to requests for information letters sent by the Department or even providing the required information and documentation to process an application, communication is key for any operator’s licence holder.

There are some unfortunately common misconceptions you should avoid. Your licence conditions and undertakings, those written on your actual licence document, compel
you to notify the Department a variety of events within 28 days of their occurrence,
such as a change of director, any infringement or conviction, any event that affects good repute, or any changes to the address of establishment among other matters. Not communicating those events on time could serve to further aggravate the events themselves.

The Department has noted misunderstandings among some operators, like believing that receiving a fixed penalty notice counts as “notifying” the Department, or that changing a director in the Companies House register is enough to make “the authorities” aware of it. As a licence holder, you must notify these events to the Department within the prescribed period as per your licence conditions and undertakings. Take the time to read your licence and ensure you know your obligations.

We have seen cases where operators submit a variation application but then fail to respond to the Department’s request for information assuming they provided all the information or documentation required. 

Failing to respond to those requests for information will not only result in the refusal of the variation application but in some cases will raise questions about the fitness of such operator to hold a licence and may trigger an investigation of that licence.

In conclusion, if in doubt, ask! If you’re not sure whether you need to respond to a letter or how to respond to a request for information, contact us. If something changes within your business, let us know. You can contact TRU on regulatory matters via TRU@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk or NICLO on applications via NICLO@dvsa.gov.uk, or contact your previous caseworker; there are also social media accounts and phone numbers to contact the Department on the Newsletter’s front page.

Changes of legal entity (CoE)

It is an often-overlooked requirement, that any change of legal entity requires a new application for an operator’s licence to be made. This includes any change from and to a sole trader, a partnership or a limited company. If a company changes its registration number at Companies House, this is a change of entity and a new application is also required in those circumstances.

Goods vehicle operators’ licences are not transferable. It is against the law to operate as a new or different entity without informing the Department in advance. A new licence for the new entity must be obtained before operating. 

Do not wait for the licence renewal date on an existing licence if the change of entity is to occur before then. This could leave you without authority to operate any vehicles if a new application cannot be granted before expiry of the old licence.

Permitting vehicles to be used under an operator’s licence by an entity that is not the licence holder, can lead to prosecution of the licence holder and the entity using the vehicles illegally. Regulatory action may also be taken in relation to the existing operator’s licence, which could include its revocation. 

Before submitting a new application due to a change of entity, make sure finances in the name of the new entity are already in place showing an opening or closing balance that meets the minimum requirements for the number of vehicles requested, if the account has been opened for less than 28 days. 

In the case of a limited company application, finances in personal accounts held by a company director are not acceptable. A bank account in the full name of the limited company must be opened.

If there are to be no changes to the operating centre requirements (i.e., the operating centre address(es), and the number and size of vehicles and trailers required will be the same or less), you can apply to transfer the operating centre from the existing licence holder to the new entity. This negates the need for an advert to be published in a local newspaper if the transfer is approved. A form GV(NI)72 is required for this and is available from the DfI website.

Our service standard for determining applications is 40 working days. It could take longer if any issues arise during the processing of an application. Delays are also being experienced due to the Covid-19 pandemic and staff working from home.

Further details about the finance requirements, and information about the requirements relating to legal entities, are in the Department’s Practice Guidance and Instructions documents 2 and 5 respectively at: https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/articles/goods-vehicle-licensing-practice-guidance-documents