During 2021 and 2022 the government ran a review into the Traffic Commissioner Function in the UK.  The report into this review was published at the end of May 2023.  Please note that for the purposes of the review the term "Traffic Commissioners Function" was taken to be the operation of the Traffic Commissioners as a whole, which includes the work of each Traffic Commissioner, the Deputy Traffic Commissioners and the support functions provided by the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC).

The Traffic Commissioners undertake an important function on behalf of the Department for Transport.  The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, Mr. Richard Holden, stated "they, and the individuals who support them [the OTC] contribute directly to our strategic priorities; improving transport for the user by promoting the safe operation of heavy vehicles and buses on our roads and growing our economy by supporting transport operators to keep goods and passengers moving".

The review sought to produce a "robust assessment" of the Traffic Commissioner operation and to align it "wherever possible to Cabinet Office direction on Public Bodies reviews".  In other words; are the Traffic Commissioner operations within the UK still effective and useful for the transport industry and are they working appropriately for the sectors that they help manage?

The good news is that overall the review found that Traffic Commissioners do function effectively.  the responses from the public consultations and interviews with stakeholders showed "general support" for having a 'TC' function in place that is supported by the Office of the Traffic Commissioner.  It acknowledges that the Lockdowns in the Covid-19 pandemic era gravely impacted upon the TC and OTC output and that this did have a negative effect initially, but that overall, the function took "decisive action to mitigate impacts on service delivery and adopted flexible, innovative practices to support businesses during that challenging period".

The review also found that Traffic Commissioners and OTC staff are aware of the parts of the process that can be improved and that there is a strong commitment, including within the DVSA, not only to achieve the KPI's but to exceed them.  The review concludes that having TCs in place is important for the industry as they provide a level of independence from government that encourages impartiality.  It also praised the TCs for the quality of the decision-making process saying it is of a high standard and shows the careful consideration taken even with the simplest licensing applications.  One of the review respondents, a trade body representative, made the point that TCs will try to have a genuine conversation with operators before any concerns might become a real issue and that this means there is a trust and a culture of collaboration shown that makes the industry as a whole more "approachable".

One concern that was identified is that because only the TCs have the power to grant a licence (setting to one side the option of delegation) delays in the process of licence approvals can be a significant issue for transport businesses.  The report states "it could not have been envisioned that they [the TCs] would acquire the range of responsibilities and expectations of being a modern regulator for industries of the current size.  It is unsurprising that eight statutory office holders, at times, struggle to balance the workload...all the while aligning its activities to the principles of better regulations".  Indeed.  One of the biggest criticisms received during the review was in relation to the delays in communication from OTC staff.  The government did emphasise that this is not just an OTC/Department for Transport issue and pointed out that most public bodies are struggling to achieve even the pre-lockdown service levels due to the "backlog coming out of the pandemic and the strains from the workload building up".  There is a stated aim by the DfT and the OTCs to get the services back on track so that applications and hearings can be resolved more quickly.

A challenge for the TCs to overcome is the statutory limitations which do not currently allow for certain improvements to be made in the effectiveness of the TC function.  The legislative framework can too often prove restrictive and has failed to keep up with changes made within the transport industry.  Mr. Holden states that "legislative change will need to be carefully considered alongside other government priorities...".

A point of interest in the review was the mooting of introducing tribunal rules to the functions of a TC.  This would give the TCs the same powers as "normal" tribunals.  Such a move might mean that "Chamber Presidents" would be introduced and given a role in the industry.  Time will tell as to whether this idea is pursued and if so, with what effect.

If you would like to read the full report, then please click here to see the summary along with the table of Recommendations that details the various areas that will be reviewed in the coming months and years.

if you would like to speak with one of our lawyers about any issue you or your transport operation is facing in relation to the TCs then click here to send us an email, or call 01279 818280 to speak to one of our lawyers.  We are here to help.

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