The primary purpose of this Bill is to provide a definition of unladen weight of vehicles for motor tax purposes which will prevent a leakage of revenue. The previous definition was contained in section 18 of the Road Traffic Act, 1933. Read with section 2 of the Finance (Excise Duties) (Vehicles) Act, 1952, this section had been interpreted as requiring the inclusion for tax purposes in the unladen weight of a vehicle of all parts and bodies, including containers, used with the vehicle, the heaviest combination used at any time to be reckoned.
In general, this interpretation had been accepted and applied without question up to recent years. Developments in recent years have encouraged efforts to circumvent this interpretation, particularly the growth in the number and variety of attachments used with the vehicles, as part of the growing complexity and importance of road traffic.
In 1958 and 1959 a number of court cases were taken. In two, the District Courts found in favour of the official interpretation of the definition. In another case the District Court found against the definition. A fourth case was not decided. It was not possible to get an authoritative decision from a higher court before 1st January, 1960. This would put local authorities in an impossible position when dealing with the licensing of vehicles for 1960. It also meant that the majority of owners who taxed on a proper basis could claim to be unfairly treated in relation to those who did not include all parts and fittings for tax purposes. Accordingly it was necessary to introduce the present Bill, and under the Financial Resolution procedure to give effect from 1st January to the definition of unladen weight which it contains.
Here I may say that my bona fides in the matter have been questioned. I have been accused of seeking to get extra taxation by a subterfuge, of seeking to build up C.I.E. at the expense of private hauliers, of seeking to circumvent the courts by a specious plea. I wish to assure the Seanad, as I did the Dáil, that my intentions in this matter are absolutely above board. I am not seeking new taxation by a subterfuge. I am seeking to prevent a growing leak of taxation by affirming in better terms a definition of unladen weight which we always regarded as the proper and, I might add, the fair and practicable one. It was estimated that this leak could amount to £50,000 to £100,000 per annum, a serious loss of revenue to the Road Fund, money badly needed for the improvement and maintenance of the road system used by the lorries concerned.
Again, I wish to repeat that I am not seeking to set the Courts aside. There were genuine difficulties which prevented us from getting a decision from a higher court before the 1st January. The logical thing to do then was to ask the Legislature to put the matter beyond doubt for the future. In any event, if the higher courts had given an adverse decision, the usual practice would have been followed of introducing legislation to restate the law. The Bill in no way interferes with the Courts' jurisdiction to deal with cases arising prior to 1960 on the basis of the 1933 definition.
The new definition is contained in sections 1 and 2 of the Bill. All bodies, parts, fittings and receptacles will be included for unladen weight purposes. Where different parts etc. are used from time to time, the heaviest combination will be taken. Receptacles, or containers as they are more commonly called, are a particular problem. Their use varies considerably. In some cases, a container is attached permanently to a vehicle and is indistinguishable from a built-on body. In other cases a container is attached in such a way that it can be removed but it rarely if ever is. Again, a container can be placed on a vehicle, not attached to it, but left there as if it were a permanent part of the vehicle. Then there are containers which are occasionally taken on and off. Finally, there is the genuine container which is invariably put on and taken off with the load in it. A line has to be drawn somewhere, between the genuine container which forms part of the load and the container which forms part of the carrying capacity of the vehicle. Experience indicates that the only workable principle to follow, if more doubtful cases and more varying interpretations are to be avoided, is that set out in subsection (4) of Section 2 of the Bill.
For most vehicle owners the new definition will involve no increase in duty. For some, who previously adopted their own—and in our opinion, a mistaken—view of the law, it may involve some increase but not necessarily. In general the increase will be light, but in no case should it form a substantial fraction of the cost of operating a lorry. The heavier lorries would carry heavier attachments and would be more affected, but these are the very vehicles which make most demand on the road system. Attachments of various kinds add to their carrying capacity, and that means greater loads and greater impacts on the roads. It is only fair that their contribution to the cost of road work should take account of the total damage they do and the total benefits they derive.
The definition of unladen weight affects licensed hauliers in two ways, on the motor tax side and in regard to road transport licences, the latter being checked by reference to the unladen weight for motor tax purposes. The Government took account of this and the Transport (No. 2) Act, 1959, provided for the flat increase of 7 cwts. for licensed hauliers, besides which special cases can be dealt with under a hardship clause.
The Seanad will recollect that, during the passage of the Transport Act, the Minister for Transport and Power stated that he is prepared to consider under this clause any individual case of genuine and deserving hardship brought to his attention. He has advised the hauliers of the steps to be taken to secure the 7 cwt. increase, which is granted automatically on application, and what information they should furnish when applying for special consideration under the hardship clause. I think the licensed hauliers have been very fairly met in the matter of Road Transport licences.
I now come to the question of enforcement. Any measure of this type must be accompanied by sufficient powers of enforcement, and these are set out in sections 3 and 4 of the Bill. They have been drafted on the principle that the powers must be effective but must also take account of the need to treat vehicle owners fairly. Furthermore, I wish to repeat what I said in the Dáil, that over and above the statutory provisions regarding proper notice of requirements etc., provision will be made by instructions to the enforcing authorities to have the statutory powers operated in a reasonable and understanding way.
Sections 3 and 4 will enable the Garda Síochána and the local authorities to deal with the case where a vehicle is taxed at a certain weight and later used at a higher weight. The present powers to deal with this are contained in the Road Traffic Act, 1933, but are defective in certain respects so far as motor taxation is concerned.
Under subsection (1) of Section 3, a member of the Garda Síochána will be empowered to require a person in charge of a vehicle which he, the Guard, suspects to be infringing motor tax law, to bring the vehicle to an appointed weighbridge not more than 5 miles distant and there have its unladen weight checked. Even if the vehicle is lightly laden, the Guard may make such a requirement. This provision is necessary to meet a case where a driver could claim the vehicle was laden even if it contained a sack or two of goods that could easily be removed and later replaced on it; at present a vehicle must be completely unladen before it can be required to be weighed for motor tax purposes.
Again, under existing law, a Guard can require a vehicle to be weighed for tax purposes only if it also infringes road traffic law on weights of vehicles. The weighbridge must be not more than 2 miles distant, and it must be a Road Traffic weighbridge, of which there are only about one per county. Section 4 of the Bill enables local authorities to "appoint" for motor tax purposes a number of weighbridges in or adjacent to their functional area, and this should get over the shortage of official Road Traffic Act weighbridges without putting local authorities to the expense of providing more.
Subsection (2) of Section 3 of the Bill will enable a local authority to call in a vehicle for reweighing after it has been taxed. A general power to do so is given in subparagraph (1) of paragraph (a) of the subsection. A local authority would use this power where they had reason to believe that a vehicle had been altered during the licensing period or where for some other good reason they felt the weight should be checked.
Subparagraph (ii) gives power to a local authority to call in a vehicle for weighing in the specific condition in which it was observed in use on a particular occasion. This could be employed where a Guard had seen a vehicle used with additions not included in the unladen weight for tax purposes, but could not have it reweighed at the time for various reasons, e.g., there was no appointed weighbridge near enough, the vehicle was laden, and so on.
Certain conditions are attached to the power to call in a vehicle for reweighing. Under subsection (6) of Section 3, at least seven days' notice must be given to the registered owner of the vehicle. Subsection (5) requires that where a reweighing is required of a vehicle in a specific condition observed in use, notice must be given either at the time it was observed or within 14 days. This is to ensure that the vehicle owner will be warned near enough to the occasion his vehicle was observed to warrant his remembering what "additions" were used with it.
Under Section 4, fees for the reweighing of vehicles will be met by the local authority, not by the vehicle owner. Local authorities' expenses will ultimately be met from the Road Fund.
A maximum penalty of £50 is provided in subsection (7) of Section 3 for failure to bring in a vehicle for reweighing. The existing penalty under the Road Traffic Act is £10, a figure which bears no relation to present-day money values and rates of motor taxation.
Section 5 provides that the definition of unladen weight operates as from 1st January, 1960, in accordance with the financial resolution. The other provisions will come into force on the passing of the Bill.
The provisions of the Bill have been very fully debated in the Dáil, on the two stages of the Financial Resolution and on the various stages of the Bill. On the whole, the Bill was accepted. Some suggestions were made for amendment, and, while I gave them full consideration, I found I could not accept them without defeating the whole purpose of the Bill. On one point, I was able to meet the representations made without sacrificing necessary principles. This was in regard to containers and other additions of a substantial nature used for only part of the year. I indicated my intention to make regulations under separate statutory powers, which would allow refunds in such cases. In effect, the containers would be charged with tax for part of the year only. The regulations require careful consideration and are still in the process of preparation. I advised the Dáil that they would probably be subject to limitations of a kind which already apply in the cases where refunds are allowed.
I conclude by recommending the Bill to the Seanad.