The road haulage industry is facing many challenges at present arising from increasing levels of competition in the marketplace and the growing demands of customers for better and more specialised types of services. The industry is experiencing significant growth reflecting the overall growth in the economy which, in turn, requires hauliers to become more responsive to developments in the market and to adopt more sophisticated methods of operation. The Road Transport Bill, 1998, is being debated at a time of great challenge and opportunity for the road haulage industry.
The industry has been through a difficult period in the past couple of years. The blockade of Dublin port by hauliers in June 1997 provided a clear and unambiguous signal to us all that there are underlying difficulties in the sector. While there have been some improvements in conditions since then, there was subsequently a threat over the Tall Ships extravaganza last year which suggests that there continues to be problems for hauliers in the port area and elsewhere.
It was in this context that it was decided to commission an independent report into the road haulage industry with a mandate to review the sector under a number of headings and to propose a coherent strategy for the development of the industry. I am pleased to inform Members that the report, entitled A Strategy for the Successful Development of the Irish Road Haulage Industry, has been completed and that I have recently published it. The consultants' report was directed by a review group which resulted in six months close co-operation between the industry, employers and policy makers. It is the first major review of the structure of the road haulage industry and it provides an informed basis on which to plan for the future of a sector which is a major contributor to the economy and is vital to the interests of industry as a whole.
A difficult competitive environment for the haulage industry has been identified by the consultants. In particular, the consultants found that there is severe pressure on margins in the sector due to the competitive nature of the market and a rise in key input costs. The consultants also found that there is significant non-compliance and low levels of enforcement in a number of areas. In particular, unlicensed haulage and the rules on lorry weights were instanced. Non-compliance in these areas was seen to have important implications for the level of capacity and the nature of competition in the market.
The consultants make recommendations in six key areas: the legal and regulatory framework for the industry should be improved and enforcement strengthened and prioritised; enhanced support services for hauliers should be provided by means of research and information with State support; there should be a range of measures aimed at improving the operational performance of the sector; there should be measures to assist hauliers to meet the challenges posed by the increasing demands of users for more sophisticated distribution and delivery systems and there should be a strategy to facilitate future development of the sector.
The huge task of implementing the recommendations must now be tackled. My aim is to establish a small group charged with the responsibility to drive forward the process of implementation of the recommendations. However, the main impetus for progress and change must come from the industry. Individual hauliers in particular should look carefully at the report and examine the improvements they can make to their businesses. In their conclusions, the consultants state that "the response of the industry and individual businesses to the issues outlined will be critical in determining the success of the sector".
This is the background against which we are embarking on this Bill. Inevitably, the Bill will not address all the issues. It will, however, put in place significant statutory measures of concern to the sector. The Bill is both timely and desirable in the context of existing forces impacting on the road transport sector. The main elements of the Bill are the following: the introduction of a licensing regime for haulage and bus operators, involving the issue of licences of up to five years duration, instead of three or five years maximum duration at present; the replacement of a previously cumbersome vehicle plating procedure, involving my Department, the Revenue Commissioners and the Garda, with a transport disc regime provided solely by my Department and the application of that disc regime to the passenger sector for the first time; measures designed to ensure compliance by out of State hauliers with Irish road transport legislation; the introduction of a requirement on both haulage and passenger operators to provide adequate parking space and operating facilities for the vehicles to be operated under their licences; the amendment of the provisions of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, to provide for consignor liability in the case of overweight vehicles; the amendment of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, to extend from five miles to 25 kilometres the distance a driver can be directed to a weighbridge for check weighing; to bring in other changes to the Road Transport Acts, 1933 to 1986, of a technical nature.
It would be useful to outline the background to the regime for haulage and passenger operator licences. In relation to passenger operator licences we are not dealing here with route licences which are a matter to be considered under the Road Transport Act, 1932, but with those licences which allow access to the profession of road passenger operator.
The most recent amendment to the Road Transport Acts was the Road Transport Act, 1986. This Act, together with a series of EU directives, which came into effect over the past decade, have amended the basis for admission to the road haulage and bus operator sectors. The directives also began the process of harmonising the regime pertaining to the regulation of the haulage and bus transport sectors throughout the EU and liberalisation of access to those sectors. Prior to the passage of the Road Transport Act, 1986, access to the road haulage industry in Ireland was restricted on a quantitative basis which effectively excluded prospective new enterprises from setting up in business.
Access to the road haulage and bus operator sectors is now regulated solely on the basis of qualitative requirements set down in EU directives. New entrants to these sectors must satisfy the licensing authorities in member states that they are financially sound, of good repute and under competent management. There has been further raising and harmonising of the standards for access by virtue of a directive adopted in 1998. The new stricter criteria will come into effect for new entrants from October of this year.
At present both the criteria for obtaining a licence and the arrangements for issuing a licence are set down in statutory instruments made pursuant to the European Communities Act, 1972. It is intended to continue that arrangement and to consolidate it by revoking the licensing procedures in primary legislation and incorporating them in comprehensive regulations following enactment of this Bill. This will make it easier for intending applicants to ascertain what the statutory requirements are for obtaining a licence.
Existing enterprises are periodically assessed for their continuing adherence to these standards. This reassessment has until now been automatically triggered in this country on a three or five year basis – three in the case of domestic haulage operators, five in the case of international hauliers and all bus operators. The aim is that all enterprises will obtain a five year licence with a requirement to renew after that period. It is considered that this would be more rigorous and more effective than a continuous regime which was mooted in the Road Transport Bill, 1997. This change in policy has the approval of the main representative organisations in the haulage and passenger sectors.
Section 13 of the Bill is designed to ensure that breaches of the Road Transport Acts or regulations, relating to the carriage of merchandise or passengers, under the European Communities Act, 1972, can be prosecuted against out of State carriers in the course of a journey within the State. This is achieved by arresting any driver whom a garda has reason to believe is committing or has committed an offence and in the opinion of the garda has not given a satisfactory address for service of summons. The Bill defines what constitutes a satisfactory address as an address at which the person will be for a sufficient length of time for it to be possible to serve that person with a summons, or an address of some other specified person who will accept a summons on the first person's behalf. In such cases, the address of a firm of solicitors in the State who undertakes to accept a summons on behalf of the driver will satisfy this provision. The section is similar to a provision in the United Kingdom Policy and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984, which is used extensively by UK police authorities to deal with out of State hauliers in breach of road traffic and road transport legislation in the UK.
In the case of a driver of a vehicle being arrested under this section, the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967, as amended by section 3 of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1997, come into effect. The fol lowing is the procedure: the arrested driver is brought to the nearest Garda station; he is brought as soon as practicable before the District Court of the district in which the person has been arrested or he is released on bail to appear at the next appropriate sitting of the District Court; bail can be set by the station sergeant in accordance with section 31 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1967; bail can be in the form of recognisance or a sum of money, and it is lodged in the relevant District Court to the Court Clerk; if the driver fails to appear before the court at the appointed time an application can be made under the relevant District Court rule to estreat the recognisance or to forfeit the sum of money.
Another initiative in this area is the proposal in section 16 to introduce on-the-spot fines in respect of offences under the Road Transport Acts or under regulations made pursuant to the European Communities Act, 1972, relating to road transport. This section is an enabling one and it will be a matter for the Minister to prescribe the class of offences which will be dealt with under this section.
A transport officer or a garda who has reasonable grounds for believing a person is committing an offence under the regulations may issue a notice to that person stating that the person is alleged to have committed the offence; the person may make a payment of £150 without delay to the inspector and a prosecution will not be pursued if the payment is made to the inspector without delay.
This provision is significantly different from the existing on-the-spot fines as we know them. The current system is an invitation to pay a certain amount of money within 21 days and if payment is made, no prosecution will ensue. The system proposed here is an invitation to pay a sum of £150, without delay, to either a Garda or a transport officer. If the driver refuses to pay and does not have a satisfactory address for service of summons, the provisions of section 13 can come into play. If the driver has a satisfactory address for service of summons and does not pay the fine he can be prosecuted in the normal way. The fine is set at £150. However, the Minister may vary this amount by regulations at any time to take account of inflation or if it is felt that a fine set at this level is not a sufficient deterrent or that the offences being committed demand greater fines. Flexibility is provided for in the Bill as to the currencies and the methods of payment which will be acceptable.
The provisions of section 17 which amend the Road Traffic Act, 1961, are timely. Section 12 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, is amended to include the consignor of the load as one of the persons liable to prosecution in the case of overweight vehicles. The section also provides for two good defence clauses, which is common sense. I am pleased to bring forward this provision. The current statutory position under the Road Traffic Acts is that only the driver and the owner of the vehicle are liable to prosecution for overloading. However, drivers are often under pressure to carry overloads given the competitive nature of the haulage sector and the possibility of losing the business if he refuses to carry the loads consigned. By making the consignor also liable to prosecution, the Bill will reduce the pressure on drivers to carry overweight loads.
It is not in the best interests of either the driver or the owner of the vehicle to carry overweight loads. First, there is the issue of road safety – the danger to the driver and other road users is inevitably increased from overweight loads. Second, there is the question of increased damage to road infrastructures. Third, overloading exposes expensive equipment to a burden for which it has not been designed, with long-term damage as a possible consequence.
The second amendment to the Road Traffic Act is the proposal to extend from five miles to 25 kilometres, which is about 15 miles, the distance a driver can be directed to a weighbridge for check weighing. I have long held the view that some drivers regularly use unsuitable back roads in order to avoid known weighbridges. They are sometimes called rat runs and their use is distressing to people in the neighbourhood. I hope this new provision will put a stop to this practice and, importantly, be an additional incentive for drivers, owners and consignors to avoid carrying overweight loads.
A provision with which I am also pleased is contained in section 11. This section contains a requirement that all licensees, both haulage and passenger operators, must provide adequate parking spaces and operating premises for the vehicles operated under the licence. The objective of this provision is twofold. First, it is an effort to ensure that vehicles operated under a licence have adequate parking space. The provision is not intended to require the owner to park the vehicle at the premises, nor does it prevent owners/drivers parking vehicles at unsuitable areas such as housing estates. This is best achieved by local authority by-laws. However, it will ensure that there are adequate parking facilities available at the site.
The second objective is to ensure that there is a premises at which the licensee is located. In recent years there has been a tendency, albeit of a very small number of licensees, to have accommodation addresses. These accommodation addresses can often be the offices of a solicitor or accountant where visits to inspect tachograph charts can be difficult and frustrating. There is a concern also that persons refused licences elsewhere in the European Union may apply for licences in the State and use accommodation addresses to facilitate their applications. The section also provides a three year breathing space for existing licensees to meet the requirements for adequate parking spaces and operating premises.
I will now deal with the provisions in the Bill relating to transport discs. The objective is to establish a one-stop-shop for the issuing of transport discs. In the past vehicle plating was regarded as overly bureaucratic by the haulage sector. For instance, the plating procedure involved the following for each vehicle. The operator obtained his licence with the vehicles stated on the licence. He was then required to go to the Revenue Commissioners with the licence document to pay for the plate. He then took the receipt to the PSV officer in the local designated Garda station where he obtained the vehicle plate. This procedure was rightly deemed cumbersome. Subsequently, my Department, via a statutory regulation, reduced the number of transactions to two by accepting payment for the plate along with the licence fee, thus removing the Revenue Commissioners from the loop.
The new measures provide that my Department will accept the fee and issue the new transport discs. Transport discs in respect of each licensee will be generated from the computer records of vehicles in my Department and issued directly to the licensee. As each disc is expected to last on a vehicle windscreen for five years, it will be made of a durable material. The disc will contain relevant licensing and vehicle details to aid enforcement of the legislation governing licensing.
A notable feature of the transport disc regime is that it will apply to the passenger sector for the first time. It has been the policy of the passenger operator associations to have an official regime for plating buses put in place. The new transport disc meets that demand.
Another significant element of the Bill is contained in section 9. This section relates to an amendment to section 36 of the Road Transport Act, 1933, which is the principal Act, in relation to the prohibition on unlicensed haulage. The existing provision provided that it was not lawful for any person to enter into an agreement for the carriage for reward of merchandise by any other person unless that person was licensed. This prohibition has proved less than effective as the proving of an offence could require proof of the existence of a formal written contract between the consignor and the haulier. The provision in the Bill will enable prosecutions to be brought on the basis of advice notes or evidence of the driver or operator. This provision is expected to be effective in the overall fight against unlicensed haulage in the State.
An opportunity is being availed of in this Bill to address technical legal difficulties that have arisen in relation to CIE superannuation schemes. The legal basis for the existence of the Salaried Officers and Clerks (Great Northern Railway, County Donegal Railway and the Irish Railway Clearing House) Superannuation Scheme, 1977, is currently in doubt because the order enabling it was based on section 14 of the Transport Act, 1950, which was repealed without a saver by the Transport (Reorganisation of Córas lompair Éireann) Act, 1986.
Section 18 of the Bill provides a solution to the difficulty by restoring the status quo ante to orders made before the passing of the Transport (Reorganisation of Córas lompair Éireann) Act, 1986, by deeming them to continue in force as if made under section 25 of that Act. In this way the doubt as to the legal basis of the superannuation scheme will be removed.
Section 19 provides for the amalgamation of the pension funds operated by CIE. This is a technical and legal provision designed to allow the introduction of more flexible and efficient arrangements for funding pensions without in any way altering the rights and entitlements of staff under the various schemes. Under current legislation there is no statutory provision for the amalgamation of pension funds operated by the company. For a variety of reasons, CIE wishes to proceed with the amalgamation of the funds of the salaried staff superannuation schemes and has reached agreement with the members of the schemes to do so.
While it is not directly connected with this provision, I understand that agreement has been reached on certain improved superannuation benefits which will be introduced once the funds are amalgamated. As the various pension schemes in place in CIE provide for different contributions and different benefits, this provision will allow pension funds to be amalgamated while keeping separate the actual pension schemes. Therefore, the contributions which the members pay and the benefits they receive will not be affected by the amalgamation.
The Bill contains a number of other minor provisions of a technical nature such as the amendment of section 8 of the Road Transport Act, 1971, as inserted by the Road Transport Act, 1986, to facilitate the appropriate recognition in Ireland for licences, permits or authorisations issued by other states arising out of international agreements to which the European Communities are a party or such authorisations issued by other member states arising out of acts of the European Communities. This updating takes account of liberalisation of haulage markets within the European Union and beyond.
Section 10 amends section 5 of the Road Transport Act, 1978, to include international road transport agreements entered into by the European Communities or any acts of the European Communities. The section provides for the exemption of specified classes of international transport by road from the licensing, transport disc regime and also from the prohibition on the importation of vehicles provision of the Road Transport Acts. Section 12 creates an offence of falsifying or altering a licence document and of using a falsified or altered licence document for the carriage of goods or passengers for reward. Section 21 provides for an extensive schedule of repeals in order to revoke spent or replaced sections of the many Road Transport Acts.
The Bill is a significant step forward in road transport operator licensing and brings in a very important set of amendments to the Road Traffic Act, 1961. I commend the Bill to the House.