Section 19: the waters get murkier

In Section 19 licensing, we appear to have a system so amorphous, the huge number of issuing bodies perform, at best, only a perfunctory audit of the claims made by applicants (which includes themselves), with no central register of applicants or of the number of vehicles being run, answerable to a Traffic Commissioners’ Office which can neither administer nor monitor this licensing.

It’s a mess, and the panic whipped up by the DfT’s new guidance for Section 19 and Section 22 Community Bus Permits shows little sign of abating until March, when Secretary of State for Transport, Jesse Norman MP, says consultation with stakeholders will be finished.

Suffering seasonal dyslexia, the DfT had promised this consultation in ‘Autumn’ but has now announced the later 12-week period during which community transport operators and, I should hope, O licence holders affected by loss of contracts to Section 19 holders, will submit their views to the Department.

Those views must now be influenced by the ‘Update for local authorities’ issued by DfT in November which, instead of clarifying the July guidance note, begs even more questions; this point was made even by ATCO, which ostensibly supports Section 19 licensees, when it questioned the phrase ‘substantially less than the cost of providing the service’ – so inexact, it adds no clarity.

Who, we might ask, decides whether a fare is less than the cost of providing the journey, and on what basis? How can any independent arbiter accurately cost part of a journey, per person, and be sure the S19 operator is losing money? And surely this rule has to completely exclude fare-paying services won under contestable tendering, since it is law that bids should include ‘an element of profit’; you cannot award a contract which must include profit if, to win the contract, the S19 operator is setting out to prove there is none.

Apparently, S19 services can also be offered for ‘occasional’ hires. What constitutes ‘a specific group of people’ who, the guidance suggests, can share costs for ‘ad hoc’ journeys only with a volunteer driver? Could, say, a specific group of football fans book a 16-seater to get to a game? Is every home game ‘occasional’? Does this include a ‘specific group’ of employees setting off in a hired S19 minibus for the Christmas party? Who decides whether they have ‘shared the costs,’ as opposed to ‘provided a good profit’?

The waters are even muddier when it comes to the final one of four examples of ‘non-commercial’ qualification which, says the DfT, includes operators of contestable local authority contracts for which there has been no bid from a commercial operator. The inference is that, if there is any bid from a commercial operator, it must be accepted in preference to one from a S19 operator. If I were running buses, I’d make a very ambitious bid for every contract from now on, in the knowledge that I’d be certain to win some at a highly profitable price.

Among my deepest concerns has been the statement, made by several witnesses at the Transport Select Committee, that Section 19 operators and their drivers have duties and standards just as onerous as those placed on O licence and PSV driving holders. I do not believe that is true and, if it were, what would be the point of a commercial tier of licensing. For that matter, how can S19 operators simultaneously claim PSV training and licensing is a barrier to entry if they’re already meeting the standard?

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