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Road safety: keep it public

Road safety: keep it public

VOSA is the government agency responsible for improving the roadworthiness standards of vehicles through a range of licensing, testing and enforcement services. Prospect opposes plans to privatise the provision of heavy vehicle test facilities.

Road safety logoVOSA's plan to privatise the provision of heavy vehicle test facilities throughout Great Britain, set out in its Testing Transformation Programme Strategy, is opposed by both Prospect and vehicle operators.

Following the Prospect, and sister unions PCS and Unite, successful 2008 campaign against the wholesale privatisation of VOSA's testing (and elements of its roadside enforcement) activities, Prospect is concerned that VOSA's Testing Transformation Programme (TTP) strategy is nothing less that the first step towards another attempt to privatise VOSA's work.

While at present VOSA states there are no plans to privatise the actual testing of Great Britain's heavy-vehicle fleet, there are plans to transfer the location of testing to private facilities, and then to "flog off" its test station network. This would leave the transfer of ‘doing' vehicle testing totally exposed to transfer to the private sector.

Allowing the annual roadworthiness test of the largest and heaviest vehicles on Great Britain's roads to be placed in the hands of those with a vested interest in making profit, has severe road safety implications. Prospect believes there will be more deaths on our roads if VOSA's high standards are not maintained.

So what is VOSA's plan?

VOSA has, for the best part of 30 years, worked with the goods and passenger vehicle operators and repairers, and has undertaken vehicle tests at non-VOSA sites (called Designated Premises (DP). Therefore the concept of VOSA staff undertaking testing at non-VOSA sites is well established.

However the continued availability of a publicly-owned network of test stations has not been threatened by testing at DPs, in fact DPs supplemented VOSA's own test station network.

VOSA plan to rename DPs as Authorised Test Facilities (ATF) and then ultimately transfer all testing to ATFs. To facilitate VOSA's aim, millions of pounds is being spent with consultants to develop the ‘ATF brand' and an ‘ATF Identity' and ‘marketing the ATF product'.

In short VOSA is so desperate to transfer testing to non-VOSA sites and sell off the publicly-owned estate, that the unions maintain that they are trying to bribe and bullying the industry into submission.

Bribing on the basis that VOSA:

  • has already removed half of the test fee supplement levied to recover the cost of sending VOSA staff to undertake testing at non-VOSA sites, and plan to remove the remainder in 2010
  • created a two-tier test fee structure, with cheaper tests at private facilities - although it costs more money for VOSA staff to work there (hence the supplement previously levied) - while tests at VOSA's own sites will be more expensive.
  • allowed ATFs to select the vehicle type which they wish to test on their facilities unlike VOSA's sites which caters for all vehicle types, sizes and weights.

Bullying by closing test stations, which VOSA claim are underutilised, thereby forcing operators to open a DP/ATF, use a competitors DP/ATF or to travel further to a VOSA test station.

VOSA plan to introduce a legal contract between themselves and an ATF provider. This contract is planned to be valid for a minimum of five years. After that time there are no guarantees that the providers will continue to operate a testing facility.

Should VOSA sell off its publicly-owned network of test stations as a result of ATFs opening, and the ATF company either goes bust or decides not to renew the contract, there is potential that Great Britain will be left without a network of testing centres.

Impact on operators

Responses from the trade press indicate that it is the larger operators that may be interested in becoming ATFs so that they can test their own vehicles. This raises the possibility that competitors using these test centres could face greater ‘down-time' as operators give priority to the testing of their own vehicles.

This raises the possibility that the ‘big boys', such as the Wincanton group and vehicle manufacturers/franchised dealers like Scania and MAN, will be looked after as they have the clout and financial backing to open an ATF, but the 80 per cent or so of operators who own less that 10 vehicles will not.

Smaller operators in rural or distant locations would be seriously inconvenienced. This issue was made by Prospect, and its sister unions, when giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee's 2008 inquiry into VOSA's enforcement activities, resulting in the committee's recommendation that VOSA needs to maintain a significant network of test stations. This isn't in VOSA's plans.

Operators say VOSA is absolving itself of all the overheads associated with running a test station, but will still take the whole test fee under the terms of the ATF contract

Anyone setting up a DP/ATF will face the additional cost of setting up their own booking system as VOSA's e-booking service, which was delivered late and cost a reported £22M, is designed to only book tests at VOSA's own sites, which of course will be less and less if the DP/AFT network begins to grow.

Management approach

The unions' fear management are setting VOSA up to fail having not applied for any of the £64m of funding made available by the government in 2008 for improving and updating the test station network. As stated earlier, rather than improve its network, VOSA is looking to ‘flog it off'.

The union option

Prospect recognises that the existing structure needs upgrading as it was put in place 40 years ago before many of the motorways were even built. But it is calling for rationalisation of the existing VOSA sites to create the modern, accessible strategic publically owned capacity needed to serve the public's road safety needs for the next 40 years.

The history

Prospect has fought previous anti-privatisation campaigns at VOSA. Below is a brief history of along with some road safety facts and figures.

2008: Road safety: keep it public and give it the resources it needs

On 3 July 2008, the government announced that the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) - one of the key organisations responsible for road safety in the UK - would remain in the public sector.

Prospect is delighted at this outcome. The union has campaigned strongly against the privatisation threat that hung over VOSA for three years, arguing that it could affect our already-grim road safety statistics. More than 34,000 road users were killed or seriously injured on Britain's roads in 2004 - 2,339 of them were child pedestrians. Of the 3,221 killed, 671 were pedestrians, 585 were motor cyclists and 134 were pedal cyclists.

The statistics make grim reading, and Prospect feared they would get worse, not better, if VOSA privatised key areas of its work.

VOSA is responsible for:

  • enforcing the law on vehicles to ensure that they comply with legal standards and regulations

  • operating and administering testing schemes for all vehicles, including supervising the MOT testing scheme

  • processing applications for licences to operate lorries and buses and registering bus services

  • enforcing drivers' hours and licensing requirements

  • supporting Traffic Commissioners to help them make informed decisions on operator licensing, vocational drivers and bus registration requirements

  • providing training and advice for commercial operators

  • investigating vehicle accidents, defects and recalls.

2005: The threat of privatisation

In November 2005, ministers at the Department for Transport told VOSA's chief executive Stephen Tetlow to look at outsourcing some of VOSA's functions. In May 2006, Tetlow told staff that the agency had conducted a "small MORI poll" to seek the views of its customers.

The poll suggested that there may be potential to outsource training services, operator licensing administration, lorry and bus testing, prosecution and legal services, some of its admin and support services and estates rationalisation. The review identified potential efficiencies of £30m.

Yet VOSA itself estimates that one major incident avoided through increased enforcement would save £1m of delay costs. And about 50 per cent of critical incidents could be addressed through VOSA inspections (side swipes, insecure loads and tiredness).

Management consultants are now examining each of VOSA's core activities in detail and the agency expects to make recommendations by January 2007.

Concern for public safety

Tetlow said the agency would only consider outsourcing if it delivers better value for money at less cost to its customers; improves customer service; lightens the regulatory burden and contributes to wider government objectives. Why doesn't public safety feature in this list?

VOSA's work

VOSA's 2,700 staff - which includes those in admin and support - across England, Scotland and Wales have their work cut out. With 434,000 goods vehicles (190,100 of them between 20 and 38 tonnes) and 100,000 public transport vehicles licensed in 2004, that equates to 197 vehicles each or, with 100 goods vehicle testing stations across the UK, 5,340 per station. That, of course, does not include more than 28 million private cars and other vehicles.

Brake efficiency and braking systems are among the top three failure defects on the annual inspection - 21 per cent in light vehicles and vans; 10 per cent in heavy vehicles and nearly 30 per cent in trailers.

VOSA staff work in six traffic area offices, 100 goods vehicle testing stations, 23 enforcement offices and further offices around the UK.

The MORI poll also said lorry and bus testing is a service "that should ideally be provided by VOSA, but may be acceptable if provided by another organisation". The unions say merely "acceptable" is not good enough when the lives of our families are at risk.

Killer facts and figures about road safety.