Joan Aitken, SSC, Traffic Commissioner for Scotland
© John G. Fender 2011
The December meeting was addressed by Ms. Joan Aitken, Traffic Commissioner for the Scottish Traffic Area on her role as the Scottish Traffic Commissioner.
Ms. Aitken was previously the Scottish Prison Complaints Commissioner and is a qualified solicitor, was the first woman to be admitted to the Society of Solicitors of the Supreme Courts of Scotland and a former editor of the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland and has chaired employment tribunals. With this background she is always using evidence as a tool, analysing things, looking for proof. In her position as Traffic Commissioner, Ms. Aitken uses her legal skills to provide her with a balanced view of any matter before her.
In her position, she meets a wide variety of operators and likes to hear people tell her about their business, vehicles and the ability to engage with both the haulage and PSV industries. At public inquiries, she is often hearing from lawyers, but likes to speak to the operator directly as this helps her to obtain a better impression of the individual. There is an emphasis on trust in the transport business and the Transport Tribunal has said that the essence of the relationship between the Traffic Commissioner and the operator is one of trust.
Ms. Aitken looked at how the ordinary person perceives the role of the Traffic Commissioner and has found that the general public had widely differing ideas, including one person who said that she should "decommission traffic".
With responsibility for the licensing of road hauliers and bus operators, this function is perhaps the most important the Traffic Commissioner has. The turn round time for licence applications is about 9 weeks for some 92% of the applications. The issue of licences has become more efficient and a dedicated licensing team has been set up within the Traffic Area Office to handle licensing.
Public Inquiries are also a major function and operators of both goods vehicles and buses or coaches who do not keep to the commitments made in their licence applications or who fail to maintain their vehicles properly will usually find themselves appearing at a public inquiry. In such matters, evidence is usually presented by VOSA as to their findings. The operator has a chance to explain why the situation arose and the Traffic Commissioner will decide on what action to take.
In some cases, a public inquiry is held to determine whether or not a licence application should be granted. Often these cases are because of suspicions that the application is a "phoenix" application. These are where an operator has had action taken against a licence, for example, if it has been revoked, and who is trying to gain another licence under a different name or with a different company. Often the Traffic Area Office is alerted to such applications by the industry itself as all applications for licences are published in either "Applications & Decisions" or Notices & Proceedings".
Whatever action the Traffic Commissioner takes following a public inquiry, proportionality is important. Sanctions can range from a warning letter, suspension for a period of time, curtailment of activities authorized through to full revocation of the licence. Licence holders can appeal against the decision of a Traffic Commissioner to the Transport Tribunal. The emphasis is now on calling operators to a public inquiry as soon as things start to go wrong, rather than wait for a serious situation to develop. This usually acts as a "wake up call" to the operator.
The Traffic Commissioner also a number of other functions, including powers to determine the suitability of a person to hold a vocational driving licence and can take disciplinary action against both LGV and PCV licence holders. The appointment of parking adjudicators also falls within the Traffic Commissioner's remit as does hearing appeals from taxi operators on the setting of taxi fares by local authorities.
One of the main functions of the Traffic Commissioner is the registration of bus services and all services must be registered with the Traffic Commissioner's office. The operator is then duty bound to provide the service as registered and VOSA undertakes monitoring to ensure that operators are providing the service. If an operator is found to be failing in providing the service, a public inquiry can be called with the operator being required to explain why the service was not provided, and various sanctions can be applied if appropriate. These can range from a determination requiring the operator to repay fuel duty rebate through to preventing them from registering new services for a period of time, or perhaps just the issue of a warning letter. Each case will be judged on its merits so that any action taken is proportionate. The Transport tribunal recently upheld a decision to prevent an operator from running any registered service for a period of 3 years following a public inquiry, taking the view that the Traffic Commissioner had been justified in taking the action applied in this case.
Ms. Aitken rounded off her presentation with a look at some of the current issues facing the industry, such as the introduction of the working time directive and the need to have better working relationships with local authorities. One area of concern is where transport managers are "hired in" and this casts doubts on their ability to have effective control over the operations they are responsible for. Ms. Aitken answered many questions on various matters, the majority relating to the bus industry, from the floor during which she outlined some possible developments and highlighted some specific areas that have been before her for consideration.
The Scottish Region of the CILT would like to record its thanks to Ms. Aitken for taking the time to address the Scottish Region. For further information, visit the Vehicle Operator Services Agency Website.
Report by John Fender.
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