Self-regulation of vehicle inspection and licence failed, says NZTA chair Stiassny
By Pattrick Smellie
Oct. 15 (BusinessDesk) - Self-regulation by vehicle inspection and licencing providers has failed, says the chair of the New Zealand Transport Agency, Michael Stiassny, who discovered after his appointment in April that they haven't followed up on evidence of non-compliance.
Stiassny has been tasked with moving quickly to change the agency's focus from education to enforcement of non-compliance and clean up what Transport Minister Phil Twyford claimed was years of underfunding and under-performance by the department's administration of vehicle inspection and licencing.
At a press conference with Twyford and NZTA chief executive Fergus Gammie, Stiassny described how the board had uncovered a problem with the way compliance issues were being handled that was serious enough to call in law firm Meredith Connell to review 850 open compliance files, of which 152 require urgent legal or investigative review.
Twyford said the problem boiled down to a combination of "process failures and under-resourcing", which became more acute after restructuring and staff departures in the compliance section of the agency in 2014.
The agency was chaired at the time by current Meridian Energy chairman Chris Moller and led by founder chief executive, Geoff Dangerfield. The National Party leader Simon Bridges served as Minister of Transport from October 2014 to October 2017, but Twyford did not explicitly blame any previous office-holders for the issue, which raises the prospect of an unknown number of vehicle inspectors and licence-issuers having their status either suspended or revoked.
Both Stiassny and Twyford said there was no evidence of deaths or injuries on New Zealand roads as a result of poor compliance and they were unclear yet as to whether findings from the current inquiry could require vehicle re-inspections or some drivers licence holders having to re-sit their tests.
While serious, Twyford said the number of inspection and licence-issuing providers represented only 1.5 percent of the total operating in New Zealand. Some 45,000 providers hold transport service licences and another 12,000 hold vehicle certification licences. Non-compliance was found among both small and large-scale providers, said Stiassny, who expected the numbers of suspensions and revocations reported on the NZTA website would start to increase in coming weeks.
The government's top priority was to investigate and fix the problem. Accountability and possible sanctions or job losses would only be considered once the situation was under control, Twyford said.
In part, the issue's emergence reflected shifting attitudes to health and safety.
"This failure, in my view, was in part a result of a reduced focus on the agency's regulatory role over the last decade," he said. "Staff were redeployed and there was an emphasis on education rather than enforcement. This was exacerbated in 2014 when the agency lost staff from its heavy vehicle compliance team."
The issue disclosed today relates to inspection and certification of all vehicles, not just heavy transport.
Stiassny said that "since Adam was a boy", New Zealanders had known there were some providers who issued warrants of fitness or drivers licences more easily than others, but NZTA had taken a deliberate decision to favour provider education over enforcement.
"Put simply, the way we engaged with people was to work with them in a way that allowed the party concerned to almost drive the agenda rather than, as a regulator, take the necessary steps," said Stiassny. "We have got into a habit of a very self-regulating environment and there are consequences from that."
These included lax vehicle inspections, logbook maintenance and weight recording.
Asked whether there would be job losses at NZTA because of the discovered failings, Stiassny said the first priority was fixing the issue before considering issues of accountability or consequences.
"Today's objective is not a witch-hunt. It is public safety," he said. "To stand everyone down might make some people feel good, but it wouldn't achieve anything."