§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, may I revert to the order which the Minister moved about an hour ago? I join the Minister in expressing appreciation of the work of the traffic commissioners, as well as of their staffs, in the various area offices. The Minister said that the Government were reluctant to change a system that has worked well and I noted, when the order was discussed in the other place, that the Minister of State said:The onus is…on the Government to justify changing a system which has served us well". [Official Report, Commons, 28/7/83; col. 1389.]In moving the order, the Minister gave reasons for the changes, particularly the changing workload and the desirability of aligning the boundaries of the areas with the county council boundaries. The Minister also referred to the declining workload and pointed out that there was an additional job to be done in the 1400 environmental control of goods vehicle operating centres. But will not the traffic areas also have supervision of the annual testing of public service vehicles and heavy goods vehicles?
Incidentally, the Government withdrew their proposals to transfer this to the private sector on the very day that this order was being discussed in another place. We are very pleased that they withdrew that decision, on which this House spent many hours when the Government were trying to get the legislation through. Will there not also be the work of enforcement—particularly, I hope, increased enforcement—in connection with the overloading of lorries, of which there have been quite a lot of cases brought to our attention?
On the alignment of boundaries, does the adjustment of boundaries to conform with county council boundaries justify the reduction of traffic areas from 11 to nine? I can see the common sense in believing that parts of Derbyshire, Essex, Surrey and Kent may be better administered in other areas than in those counties, but surely that is no justification for reducing the number of traffic areas.
When we look at what is proposed, and the table to which the Minister referred, we see that the new North-West traffic area will stretch from North Wales across to North Derbyshire and right up to the Scottish border, while the new North-Eastern area will stretch from South Yorkshire around Sheffield and, again, right up to the Scottish border. The Eastern area will take in all the Eastern counties, except for a few district authority areas in South Essex and the whole of the East Midlands, except for the High Peak district of Derbyshire.
What is the advantage in making changes of this sort? The Minister made no reference to the question of service to the public. He argued that most transactions are by post, but I think he will agree that there are times when personal access is important and undoubtedly, in some areas, there will be longer journeys and more travelling time needed in getting to the commissioners' new centres.
There is concern about the possible closure of some local offices. I know that the Minister repeated a guarantee that no office will be closed within the next three years. But I gather that it is possible to deal with this matter by administrative action, so I would ask: what steps are being taken to monitor the whole work and procedures, in the event of any decision being taken after three years to close an office, and will there be a guarantee of consultation with the staff? I mention that because I have with me letters from three trade union organisations which are still expressing concern about the change in the number of traffic areas and the merging of some areas. They are interested not only because of the staff, but because of preserving proper facilities for the public.
In addition to the proposed reduction in the number of areas, there is to be a reduction in the number of chairmen from 11 to eight. As has been clearly stated by the Minister of State in another place, this will entail the same chairman covering the extensive area of the whole of South Wales and the West Midlands. I also understand that since January 1982 there has been one licensing authority chairman covering both the Northern and Yorkshire areas.
1401 I am informed that, although there have been delays caused by this decision and loss of day to day contact between commissioners and the staff, nevertheless it has got along. If that is so, why now change that joint area and take Cambria out of what are generally recognised as its associations with the Northern area and transfer it to the North-West? What is the purpose of the changes? They surely do not help the public and they are not exactly wanted by the staff.
It has been stated—and I noted that the Minister of State made this quite clear—that there is no certainty whatever that there will be any financial savings. The consultative paper issued in 1982 said that the changes might yield anything from £120,000 to £150,000 per year. But, to their credit, the Ministers are not claiming that; there is no certainty of any financial saving. Why, therefore, are these changes now being introduced? They cannot help the public and the staff can see difficulties with them.
In conclusion, may I ask whether there will be the most careful monitoring of the procedures and the way in which matters are working out before there is any office closure? Will the operation of this order be monitored when it is put into effect? And, if necessary, will revised proposals be brought forward if it is found that we ought to revert to more traffic areas?
§ Lord Lucas of Chilworth
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his response. He asked a great number of questions, and perhaps I may answer them in an order different from that in which he put them to me.
He asked why we wish to make this change when the present system works very well. Frankly, it is because the present system makes extravagant use of the talents and experience of the chairmen of traffic commissioners. Having fewer areas will make for a very much more tightly-run system. As I said earlier, it will enable local authorities to deal with fewer of the traffic areas.
The noble Lord asked me about overloading. The enforcement of regulations on overloaded lorries lies with the inspectorate division of the Department of Transport. It is only when there is a successful prosecution that the result will be communicated to the traffic commissioners, who will bear it in mind when they have regard to the operator's licence renewals.
The noble Lord described at some length the new traffic areas and the distances from one place to another; from near Sheffield, right up to the Scottish Border. This reorganisation has little to do with square miles. It has to do with traffic density. It concerns the need for an area—the need of the traffic in a particular area—to have an office there. It has very little to do with the geographical size or shape, although in reforming the areas we attempted to conform with 1974 local boundary areas. It is a matter of putting the resources where the business is, not maintaining resources where there is no business. That makes good sense.
Certainly the noble Lord is quite right with regard to savings. We do not expect to make any great savings from reorganisation. It is not really a cost-cutting exercise as such; it will establish a much more sensible 1402 pattern of organisation in the longer term. If I misunderstood the noble Lord, I beg his pardon, but I believe that he also said something about the transport industry having to go to the new offices of the commissioners. That is not so. The commissioners remain in their existing locations.
I believe that I dealt with the point he raised about the enforcement of lorry weights. So far as the annual testing of lorries is concerned, I am sure the noble Lord will recall that it is not one of the responsibilities of the traffic areas.
The noble Lord asked particularly about consultations with the staff if an office is closed. I am sorry that the information he has received gives rise to some doubt as to our intentions. I can only repeat that we have given an assurance that no office will close, certainly not in the next three years. In a changing business such as transport, I cannot be expected to commit my right honourable friend or the present Government—or any other Government—to making a long-term promise that under certain circumstances this may or may not happen. I can go no further this evening than repeat the assurance that we do not envisage any closure of offices; certainly not for three years.
There have to be changes in organisation, in methods and in staffing, even in the newly-created areas. I can certainly give an assurance that staff will be properly consulted through whatever organisation they may choose to represent them. I said earlier that we have had a lot of consultations—and I mean a lot—and we are particularly anxious that the staff should not be upset. I made that point in my opening remarks. It is not just a question of moving filing cabinets from one office to another, or of changing notepaper and addresses on forms. We are conscious of the fact that the great benefit of the work of the traffic commissioners has arisen from the integrity and the willingness of the staff.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I am sorry to delay the noble Lord, but I have a point concerning the traffic commissioners' centres. He will correct me if I am wrong, but if it is a case of making representations in person, will not the traffic commissioners be based at one particular centre? Where there are two traffic area officers, surely they will not move themselves around from one area office to another—or am I incorrect?
§ Lord Lucas of Chilworth
My Lords, the noble Lord over-estimates this potential problem. I am not sure of the exact figure, but I recall from my other being of more than a year ago, when I was involved in the haulage industry, that very few licence holders or people who applied for a licence ever applied in person. It was nearly always done on the telephone or by letter. On the very few occasions when it will be necessary for an applicant or a licence holder to go to the office, I imagine that, good sense prevailing, the traffic commissioner will take himself to the nearest office within the area to suit the customer. That is what it is about—suiting the customer. After all, the customer is paying the fees.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.