Fleet management is increasingly falling under the HR remit, not an easy task when you have to incorporate an extra stack of rules and regulations into your everyday HR duties. But, as Louise Druce finds out, if the policies break down, there can be serious legal consequences.
The role of fleet operator has been taking a backseat in recent years as responsibility for company vehicles falls increasingly under the HR remit. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as booking out cars and overseeing insurance and petrol costs. There is a minefield of new legislation to steer through as well as green issues, charges and policy enforcement to navigate.
As James Langley, deputy chairman of the Institute of Car Fleet Management and director of Fleet Intelligence, points out: "Keeping up to date with emerging legislation is a task in itself," – dedicated time that some HR staff simply haven't got when they also have to carry out their normal day-to-day-job function as well.
"By doing away with the fleet manager role and people who have specific skills and really know what they're talking about, there is a concern about ensuring HR people have all the information they need," says Julie Jenner, chairman of ACFO, an organisation dedicated to fleet operator representation.
"Take the smoking ban, for example," she continues. "This has been talked about for months but it is still a minefield, even for dedicated fleet operators, because the whole legislation has been really foggy. It's a nightmare trying to understand who exactly it affects and which vehicles are becoming smoke free and which ones aren't. It's very time consuming for an HR department if they don't know where to get that information."
Laws move up a gear
One of the biggest areas of complicated legislation debated this week is the Corporate Manslaughter Bill, which has been designed to make it is easier to prosecute organisations when their gross negligence leads to death. It too has proved to be rather hazy, the difficulties mainly surrounding how exactly to apply the law when it comes to apportioning responsibility.
Julie Jenner, chairman, ACFO
Terry Bartlett, managing director of vehicle management company Inchcape Fleet Solutions, goes as far as to say many people believe an opportunity was missed with the proposed legislation, which "fell short of many people's hopes".
What is clear, however, is the message that if you don't have proper company policies in place spelling out the rules when it comes to the use of mobile phones, journey scheduling and breaks, alcohol and drugs abuse, and so on, the company is putting itself at risk of prosecution if there is an accident.
This also goes as far as checking that drivers are being honest about tax, insurance and licensing. Simon Hudson, managing director of fleet management outsourcing experts Hudson Kapel, drives this message home: "Whilst most employers will be confident that their employees are honest, and will inform them if there are any changes to their licence, there is always a minority that will try to dodge the checks – especially if they have something to hide," he says.
Getting the green light
Another less contentious issue directly affecting fleet operators is the need for businesses to reduce their carbon footprint. One of the most recognisable ways for company's to start is by reducing their carbon dioxide output, either by switching to more environmentally-friendly vehicles or by looking at alternative methods of transport.
"After the tax reform, introduced in 2002, drivers do seem to have an appetite to reduce their tax and they no longer have mileage thresholds to maintain," Langley adds. "Many businesses have successfully introduced policies on car sharing and appropriate use of public transport. The benefits to the business include lower costs and enhanced green credentials."
But while these schemes are to be applauded, Jenner believes they will have to gather momentum to have a real impact. She also points out there is so much information out there to digest, it's not always easy to see the overall picture of what is best for the company.
She cites hybrid cars as a good example. Not only is there a limited choice of hybrid vehicles at the moment, using a battery-powered car is going to be more beneficial to short commute city workers than those having to switch to petrol or diesel to drive miles up the motorway each morning.
There is also what she calls the 'dust to dust' issue. Battery-powered cars may be more environmentally-friendly from a fuel emissions standpoint, but it's a different story when it comes to trying to dispose of them, due to the very thing that is making them greener.
The policy manual
With so much to think about when it comes to fleet management, there is a good business case for outsourcing the function. Langley says the most common activities that are farmed out include fuel purchase by way of dedicated fuel cards and maintenance management. However, some companies prefer to let a third party take on all the work.
If they do choose to go down this route, both Langley and Jenner emphasise the need for the company who is outsourcing to retain a key member of staff who is responsible for making sure policies are up-to-date and that they are kept abreast of any key changes that could effect the business, as well as controlling the partnership as you would any company employee.
James Langley, deputy chairman, Institute of Car Fleet Management
Get it right, says Bartlett, and the benefits are well proven, including better resource management, having a proactive and knowledgeable partner, financial economies of scale and support for project implementation and policy changes.
Keeping things in-house can work just as well, though. But what companies should avoid, Langley emphasises, is simply issuing a book of rules to each driver. "I believe fleet policy is a short, umbrella document established by the business to specify, in broad terms, how the fleet will be run," he says.
Some of the things that should be included are high level decisions on, for example, contract hire, maintenance, and driver categories. The main thing is to reflect the overall requirements and culture of the company.
Once the policy is developed and agreed, Langley advocates developing driver instructions in how to deliver fleet policy. This guide might take the form of a 'quick-flick' booklet that drivers can easily access at the roadside in potentially stressful situations. What is vital is that each driver is given a copy and the critical aspects are fully explained to them beforehand.
Finally, he recommends to his customers that they undertake an annual fleet policy review. This allows any changes in the needs of the business and any current or imminent legislation to be accommodated. Any advances in best practice can also be included.
"One of the main challenges when it comes to taking over responsibility for company fleet management is gathering all the information and gaining an understanding of why the operation of the fleet has been established the way it has," Langley adds. "One of the dangers is adopting other business's policies and procedures on the assumption that they will fit."