Government departments failing to address fleet safety procedures
01 September 2011
BusinessCar has re-checked Government departments' licence-checking procedures, two years after our exposé on institutional failings, and once again found shocking results. Tristan Young reports
Two years ago BusinessCar launched an investigation into the most basic of health and safety fleet checks within Government departments, using the Freedom of Information Act. We were shocked to discover that precious few departments were following the Government's own advice for checking the driving licences of those staff that drove on business. And even fewer were following best practice.
Now two years on, BusinessCar has gone back to those departments (plus a few new ones) to check if things have improved.
In the past two years a few key issues have changed the way we now look at licence checking. Firstly, and most importantly, the recession has bitten hard into the UK's economy and we're still far from a full recovery. This has put pressures on all areas of business, including the employees.
In terms of legislation, there has been one important change. The DVLA will now only give drivers 28 days to hand over their licence for points to be added before it is officially revoked, rather than the previous 12 months. Importantly, the change came about because, according to the DVLA, "a significant number of drivers failed to return their licence". This makes licence-checking even more important, because not only are drivers trying to cheat the law, but driving without a valid licence will also mean drivers are not insured.
Following BusinessCar's previous investigation, car fleet operators' association ACFO launched a best practice guide echoing the Department for Transport's official guidance, which states that licences should be checked every six months. This code was then promoted by MP and former transport minister Dr Stephen Ladyman who in Parliament also asked what departments were doing to keep their drivers and other road users safe. He also ensured a copy of the guide was issued to every department, to make sure there were no excuses for not following best practice.
Amazingly, two years after BusinessCar first highlighted this issue, just three of the 20 departments and agencies questioned were working to the industry best practice: the Department for Transport, the DVLA and the Home Office.
Nine departments were working to a basic annual, visual level of licence-checking across both company car drivers and also staff using their own cars on departmental business.
However, eight fell below the level of even a basic check for all drivers.
As the new ACFO code points out: "With the entire public and private sectors focused on reducing their risk exposure, a failure to undertake licence checks on all employees who drive on business and volunteer drivers should be considered as a fundamental weakness in health and safety and duty of care policies and procedures."
The comments were echoed by Nigel Grainger, founder of Fleet Risk Consultants: "I am disappointed to see the various departments have not taken on-board the guidance that was offered to them in 2009 by the previous FoI request. It was clear then that there were some significant shortcomings in the management of the licence-checking process," he says.
"If an employee is driving without a valid licence he or she is also driving without insurance. This opens up a whole new area of issues as a lack of insurance can lead to custodial sentences for drivers and managers should a death occur," continues Grainger. "There are fewer road-related deaths, but this may be due to a reduction in vehicle use due to cost constraints at the moment. Even so, it is a brave manager that does not protect their liberty by putting in place some basic systems and checks.
"I admit I expected the departments would at least have taken on the ACFO code of practice that was put together at the request of the former transport minister Dr Stephen Ladyman," he concludes. "After all, I expect the courts would view the ACFO code in a similar manner to other codes of practice, like the Highway Code."
Malcolm Maycock, managing director of electronic licence-checking service Licence Bureau, was unsurprised by the results, but suggested best practice had moved on from visual checks to electronic checking with the DVLA. He also added that one in every 187 initial electronic checks revealed a licence that was invalid.
"The licence-checking process is now more recognised. The DVLA's electronic transfer system is very helpful," he says.
"Best practice has changed, anyway - it's more expensive to check visually and not as effective. There are umpteen examples of failures under visual checking, and visual checks can't work out who's got a revoked licence."
How did each department fair? We ask Nigel Grainger of Fleet Risk Consultants to review the findings.
The Cabinet Office performs a single check at the start of employment for those running company cars and no checks for private car use.
"There have been no changes since we identified their previous shortcomings," says Grainger.
Business, Innovation & Skills
The BIS checks company car drivers' licence annually.
"There are annual checks on company cars, but nothing on private cars," Grainger points out.
Communities & Local Govt.
The Department for Communities and Local Government does not check licences. While it does not have any company cars, it still only uses self-certification for grey fleet drivers.
"No licence checks in place?!" Grainger remarks.
Culture, Media and Sport
This department has gone backwards. It used to use the Government Car and Despatch Agency (GCDA) to transport ministers; now ministers drive themselves in their own cars. There is no licence-checking, only self-certification, and there's no inspection of MOT or insurance.
Grainger says: "This was a very bad department last time and they haven't changed anything in the past two years, but now it appears they transport their own ministers around too."
Department for Education
Checking at the Department for Education has also gone backwards, and a visual, one-off licence check for grey fleet drivers has been changed to a one-off self-declaration.
A spokesman said: "The department changed its procedure for checking driving licences on 4 January 2010.
"Drivers who use their private vehicle for official business must sign a form to declare that they hold a valid driving licence and this form must be available for visual inspection by the line manager."
Grainger points out the department does visually check company car drivers' licences annually. "An annual check would be acceptable if they had a robust system in place, but best practice is every six months," he says.
Defra visually checks licences, but those checks also include insurance and MOT documents where appropriate. And it's even-handed about own or company cars.
Grainger, however, says that the checks are "only annual".
The Department for International Development was one of the worst culprits in 2009 and things haven't changed since it told us "we do not check the driving licenses of staff who use their own vehicles for business purposes. It is the responsibility of individual employees to ensure that they hold a valid driving licence."
Grainger says it is "disappointing" there has been no change in policy.
Department for Transport
The DfT was one of the three departments following best practice by checking all licences every six months. (the others being the DVLA and the Home Office).
"It's good to see a department following best practice," says Grainger.
Energy & Climate Change
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: "Line managers are required to check the driving licences of all staff that drive hire cars provided by the department at least annually. It is the responsibility of staff using their own vehicles for business use to ensure that they have a current driving licence, suitable insurance allowing for business use of the vehicle, a valid MOT and that the vehicle is in roadworthy condition."
But Grainger adds that there is "no licence checks in place for grey fleet".
Department of Health
The Department for Health does not check licences and responded to our FoI request by saying: "The departmental travel and expenses policy was last reviewed in April 2011 but has not changed in this respect. no formal monitoring takes place for departmental staff."
Grainger says: "In view of their poor performance last time, I would have expected the responsible thing to do would have been to look at the guidelines and make changes. Obviously that is wrong."
Work and Pensions
The Department of Work and Pensions visually checks licences every year.
"There's been no change since the last check," says Grainger.
The DVLA follows best practice by checking all licences every six months. "It's good to see another department following best practice," says Grainger.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office checks company car drivers' licences every quarter but doesn't check grey fleet drivers' licences.
"No change," says Grainger.
Car and Despatch Agency
"Licence checks are made through a visual inspection by our HR department on an annual basis," said a Government Car and Despatch Agency spokesman. "The check is recorded as part of our quality management system. GCDA also has access to the DVLA online database and uses this when appropriate."
Grainger comments: "These are the people who transport the great and good of our Government and senior staff around. I would expect that they would have the best systems in place, but it appears that they are not following ACFO best practice either.
"They say that they have access to DVLA where appropriate, but they do not elaborate on it further. I wonder what they feel is appropriate?"
Health and Safety Executive
The HSE's licence checking is under review, but currently operates a one-off visual check of both company car drivers and grey fleet drivers when they are employed.
An HSE spokesman confirmed: "The HSE is actively exploring cost-effective arrangements which use the DVLA database to carry out annual licence checks for our staff who drive on official business. Any option that we pursue will be discussed with HSE's trades unions before implementation."
Grainger wonders who would actually investigate this body should they kill somebody with a vehicle. "I was shocked by the lack of detail in their systems," he says. "Given that this organisation is regularly prosecuting businesses for systems failures I expected them to have the best systems themselves. The only mandatory licence check is at the commencement of employment; after that there are some very sketchy details on when a licence could be looked at. When we consider that their staff are doing significant mileage and could be driving under stressful situations I would have expected more."
"All staff who drive on HA business. have their driving licences (both parts) checked by their line manager. The checks form part of the requirement of our Driving and Motorcycling on Agency Business Policy and Procedures and Guidance, which are still carried out annually," said an agency spokesman.
"I am impressed with their policy," says Grainger. "I especially like their medication policy and the fact that the chief executive has to sign off on any mobile phone use in vehicles. They too have annual checks, but drivers are required to notify any changes."
The Treasury gave a detailed response: "HM Treasury.requires that driving licences are checked when a member of staff first hires a vehicle for official business and they are subsequently re-checked on an annual basis.
"Where a member of staff.claims for reimbursement of their expenses they acknowledge they have valid insurance for business use that also covers passengers, possess a valid driving licence, maintain the vehicle in a roadworthy condition and, where appropriate, have a valid MOT and maintain the vehicle in accordance with the manufacturer's schedule. It is the claimant's line manager's responsibility to verify the insurance status.and any material changes to the insurance should be reported to the line manager."
Grainger summarises: "Annual licence checks for hire cars, but nothing for staff using their own vehicles? This tells me that they trust their staff, which is interesting."
The Home Office launched a new policy in February 2010 and is working to best practice. Grainger was impressed: "Checking licences every six months is spot on with ACFO's code."