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Traffic Commissioners: Roles and Responsibilities

The Senior Traffic Commissioner has produced this summary of the traffic commissioners' roles and responsibilites.

Their mission: to champion safe, fair and reliable passenger and goods transport.

Key facts about Traffic Commissioners:

  • Operator licensing is about managing risks to safety, allowing fair competition whilst also seeking greater reliability for passengers.
  • They are regulators but also carry out judicial functions to achieve those aims of safe, reliable and fair transport of passengers and goods.
  • They represent a modern approach to regulation (see below), allowing value for money decision making.
  • The independence of Traffic Commissioners ensures the fairness of individual licensing decisions.
  • As modern regulators Traffic Commissioners work with others to improve safety, competition and the reliability of road transport.

What Traffic Commissioners do:

Traffic Commissioners use their powers to ensure that people operating the types of vehicle detailed above are reputable, competent, and adequately funded. Action by the Traffic Commissioners is intended to encourage all operators to adopt robust systems, so that there is fair competition and that the operation of goods and public service vehicles is safe.

As part of the system for the licensing of public service vehicle and good vehicle operators, and the registration of local bus services Traffic Commissioners can also take action against members of those industries. They can also impose financial penalties against bus companies for failures to run registered local transport services on time. Where vehicles have been impounded for operating illegally Traffic Commissioners can decide if they will be returned. Traffic Commissioners are also given responsibility to consider on behalf of the Secretary of State the fitness of drivers or those applying for passenger carrying vehicle or large goods vehicle driving licences based on their conduct. Traffic Commissioners can also be asked to impose traffic regulation conditions to prevent danger to road users and/or reduce traffic congestion and/or pollution. Traffic Commissioners engage with stakeholders: listening to industry, meeting with local authorities, trade organisations, passenger groups and operators and presenting seminars.

We are regulators but when we decide a case at a public inquiry we are acting in a judicial capacity. That means that we have to ensure that, like any other tribunal in GB, the proceedings are fair and free from any unjustified interference or bias. This removes from Ministers the burden of operational decision making, protects the rights of interested persons and avoids overburdening the civil courts so that decisions can be made more quickly.

Who works for the Traffic Commissioners

Traffic Commissioners work at ‘arms length’ from the Department for Transport (DfT), which allows decisions to be open and transparent. Whilst Traffic Commissioners have responsibility in their area for the licensing and registration of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) operators, and bus and coach (PSVs) operators they delegate much of this work undertaken to staff provided by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA). They also work closely with other DfT officials to ensure that they have the level of support needed to undertake their functions.

Traffic Commissioners provide an annual report to the Secretary of State. The publication of that report and other documents and plans allows members of the public to see what they have been doing and what they hope to achieve on their behalf (see below).

Traffic Commissioners’ Hearings

It is the Traffic Commissioner who ultimately decides whether to call an operator or driver to a hearing. This allows a Traffic Commissioner the opportunity to examine the applicant or licence holders, before reaching a decision on whether to grant or refuse an application or to take action against the licence holder.  Those hearings are termed ‘Public Inquiries’, but allow more flexibility than the courts to achieve the object of safe, reliable and fair transport of passengers and goods. If the Traffic Commissioner is not satisfied that a person should hold an operator’s licence then they can refuse that licence; if an existing operator does not keep to the rules designed to ensure road safety and fair competition then they can reduce the number of vehicles that they can run under the licence, suspend or revoke that licence and so stop them from running the relevant vehicles; they can also disqualify people from and/or stop them from being involved with the operation of a goods or public service transport business; or take less drastic action, depending on what is most proportionate.

The letter calling an operator or applicant to the inquiry explains why it has been called and gives details of the legislation that it has been called under together with the evidence that the Traffic Commissioner will consider.

Who should attend the inquiry

If the operator or applicant is a sole trader or partnership the owner or partners should attend the inquiry.  In the case of a company, at least one director or a senior representative with written authorisation from the board of directors, will need to attend to represent the company at the inquiry. Photographic identification will be required. Failure to attend the inquiry could result in the Traffic Commissioner determining the case in the absence of the applicant or operator.

The proceedings

Evidence is not given under oath but witnesses are expected to tell the truth as a failure to do so could lead to an adverse finding on fitness or repute by the Traffic Commissioner. The hearing is open to members of the public and any other interested parties. The Traffic Commissioner will consider, on request, whether to hear certain sensitive evidence in private session, e.g. financial information or personal medical information. 

Everyone who is entitled to give evidence, make submissions, or make representations will be given the opportunity to speak and to ask questions.  Anyone giving evidence to the inquiry can expect to be asked questions by the applicant/operator, or representative, and the Traffic Commissioner.

The proceedings will be recorded so that a transcript can be produced should one be required (normally transcripts are ordered only in cases where there is an appeal against the Traffic Commissioner’s decision).

What will Traffic Commissioners consider?

The letter calling the applicant or operator to the public inquiry will advise on what the Traffic Commissioner specifically wishes to consider at a particular hearing. There are certain mandatory requirements for different types of licence.

All applicants and operators are required to show a specified level of financial standing throughout the life of the licence. When considering this the Traffic Commissioner may seek an answer to three key questions: How much money can the applicant or operator find if the need arises? How quickly can it be found? and where will it come from? The Traffic Commissioner will consider finance available (maybe in the bank) which is capable of being used (i.e. it is not already needed for the payment of debts in the ordinary course of the business) including an overdraft facility (where the balance undrawn), or other sources which are readily obtainable (for instance assets which can be readily sold without any adverse effect on the ability of the business to generate money) or some other source in which money can be obtained at fairly short notice.

All holders of a standard operator’s licence are required to be of good repute. When considering good repute the Traffic Commissioner may take into account any relevant convictions or any other information which appears to relate to the licence holder’s fitness to hold a licence. The relevant convictions are stated in legislation and include convictions for road transport offences and other serious offences.

The decision

The standard of proof before a Traffic Commissioner is less than that required by a criminal court. Traffic Commissioners need to be satisfied that the facts have been proved on the ‘balance of probability’, i.e. more likely than not. Parties will usually be informed of the outcome of the inquiry on the day. This will be confirmed in writing within a few days unless the Traffic Commissioner reserves his/her decision, in which case the written decision will be sent to you as soon as possible, usually within 28 days.

Additional information

Appeals

The Secretary of State cannot exert control over those ‘judicial’ functions but Traffic Commissioners are accountable to the higher courts. Applicants, operators and statutory objectors (but not representors in ‘environmental cases’) have a right of appeal, as set out in the statute, to the Administrative Appeal Chamber of the Upper tier Tribunal (formerly the Transport Tribunal). 

Directions

Further advice on the legal requirements can be found in the Directions issued by the Senior Traffic Commissioner, which outline the developed practices in various areas of Traffic Commissioner work.  Amongst other things, these cover Finance, Public Inquiries, Rehabilitation of Offenders and Transport Managers.  You can download a copy of the Practice Directions from www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/roads/tpm/trafficcommissioners/publicationscheme/publications.

Legislation

A copy of the Act or Regulations referred to in the letter calling you to the public inquiry from The Stationery Office Limited (Tel: 0870 600 5522), electronic versions of the Act and Regulations can be viewed at www.opsi.gov.uk.

Administrative Appeals Chamber Judgments

This is an independent judicial body, which has been established with a jurisdiction to hear and decide appeals against decisions of Traffic Commissioners. Its published decisions can be found at www.transporttribunal.gov.uk