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14 Jan 2004 : Column 933

Driving Instructors

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

7.31 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I say how much I appreciate the opportunity to raise the issue of the new testing regime for driving instructors this evening? I confess that I have had little contact with driving instructors since I passed my own driving test—rather a long time ago—and none had come to see me in my professional capacity as Member of Parliament until a few weeks before Christmas, when I suddenly found that I was inundated by driving instructors attending my surgeries, e-mailing me, sending letters and making phone calls. They were united in their upset at the proposals for the new tests that they will be required to undertake and in no small measure angered by what the Government propose.

I remind the House that the Driving Standards Agency wants to introduce a new requirement—I understand that it is soon to be brought before the House as an order—for qualified and experienced driving instructors to retake the approved driving instructors theory examination, including both the multiple choice questions and the hazard perception testing sections, under threat of removal from the register and, therefore, loss of livelihood on repeated failure.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh) (LD): On the hazard perception test, does my hon. Friend agree that the real-life tests that approved driving instructors face in their daily jobs on the road far exceed the sort of tests that are proposed? The real-life situations that they face are a far better measure of their ability and experience. Some computer game designed for novices is totally inappropriate to measure the skills that they have built up over many years in most cases.

Mr. Heath: I tend to agree with what my hon. Friend says. I shall return to the hazard perception test later, but first, let me register the unanimity and strength of feeling among a group of professionals who generally work as independent operators or small companies; they do not normally work in unity. They have been absolutely convincing in arguing their concerns to me, and I felt it appropriate to bring those concerns to the House because I believe that that is what the House is about: Members of Parliament acting on behalf of their constituents.

Since applying for the debate and having spoken to colleagues, I have discovered that the problem is not unique to my constituency. Indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been contacted by those of their own constituents who are driving instructors. I have also discovered that the three representative organisations—the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain, the Driving Instructors Association and the Association of United Driving Instructors, which between them have a membership of just under a third of the 30,000 registered ADIs—have been making strenuous representations.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is of interest

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to many people. Does he agree that the matter is especially important because people could lose their livelihoods on the basis of the new test? Given that a testing process with an appeal mechanism that involves an element of human judgment is already in place, does he agree that it would be better if the electronic test were incorporated so that people would not lose their livelihoods without an element of human assessment?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and has clearly received representations similar to those that I received.

Let me outline the broad areas of concern. First, there is concern about the consultation process. The principal vehicle for the consultation was a paper entitled "Fees for driving tests and other matters", which was issued by the Driving Standards Agency in April 2003. It would be difficult for the Minister to disagree with the suggestion that proposals for retesting ADIs were not a prominent part of the paper. [Interruption.] The Minister might say that they were there, but they appeared in paragraph 22 of a consultation paper that was otherwise devoted to other matters, so I think that I am making a legitimate complaint.

Several of my constituents suggested that the circulation list for the document was insufficiently wide given that the proposals would have such immediate and substantial effects on individuals. A gentleman who worked as not only an instructor, but a trainer for instructors, said that his organisation had not been consulted at all. He was outraged that the list of consultees at the back of the paper included the Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association. Although that association is no doubt wholly excellent and responsible, it is not directly concerned with the instruction of new drivers. However, it had been consulted while his organisation had not.

The majority of driving instructors are not affiliated to any association, so their only source of information about the proposed changes was the summer 2003 edition of "Despatch", the DSA's quarterly newsletter. It contained a brief summary of the proposals, yet gave no indication of the importance of the changes for driving instructors and contained no mention of charges or possible loss of livelihood. I should point out that the newsletter was sent out only at the end of June, although the consultation closed on 18 July.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is right that the consultation period was derisory. Most of the instructors in my constituency are independent people who know their area extremely well. Does he agree that the Government should concentrate more on speeding up the time that it takes for people to get tests, rather than harassing and putting more regulations on such a hard-working group of people?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman's observations are entirely pertinent, and his point was made to me. I do not know whether the Minister is generally satisfied with the breadth of the consultation process for ADIs and their associations. Instructors are also concerned that their views have been accorded insufficient weight compared with other responses received. Little attention seems to have been paid to the views of larger

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associations that represent thousands of instructors while more weight has been given to the views of authorities and bodies that have no direct relevance to instructors' professional interests.

In any case, many people are incensed that Ministers and others, including the agency, give the impression that driving instructors originally welcomed the proposals. Some did, but they now say that they misunderstood the consequences of the proposals and have drawn the Minister's attention to the fact that they have withdrawn their support. The headline of "MSA News Link", the newsletter of the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain Ltd, which is one of the larger organisations, says to the DSA, "What Part Of Get Lost Do You Not Understand?" That does not seem an overwhelming endorsement of the proposals, so it is fair to say that opposition exists.

Why are driving instructors so incensed? First, there is concern, already expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), about the hazard perception test. Many disparaging comments have been made, some of which I do not entirely go along with. Many instructors see the test simply as a form of computer game that they are now required to undertake. They make the point that, even if there is a case showing that it is useful in enhancing the skills of learner drivers, there has been no concomitant research to show that it improves the skills of those who teach learner drivers. Indeed, there is evidence that the enhanced skills that instructors already possess will make it more difficult for them to pass the test because they will anticipate hazards to which a learner driver could not be expected to react in the same time.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): That is an important point, but as somebody who in a previous life spent time ensuring that computer tests were tested against the potential users, I would like to know what tests were done to ensure that hazard perception exercises tested the instructors' driving skills as opposed to whether they could click the right point on the screen.

Mr. Heath: I hope that the Minister will respond to that pertinent point in due course. The Department's opinion seems to be that an experienced driving instructor will pass the test with flying colours. If that is the case, what is the point of doing it?

I had not realised that the training and qualifications needed to be an instructor had progressed so far over recent years. What those highly trained people object to is the fact that, uniquely among the professions, as far as I am aware, they are being asked to retake the test for their original certificate of competence simply because the Government have changed the syllabus for that certificate. That does not happen to doctors, dentists or to those in my old profession, opticians. There are any number of professions that have to move with the times and learn new competencies, but they do not go back to the basic qualification to do so.

I had not realised that there is a process of check testing for registration. Once or twice within a four-year period someone will test instructors in their teaching environment by sitting in the back of their car, watching how they conduct their lesson. That is a much more proper test of professional competence for a teacher

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than asking them to go back to the classroom and do something that is not directly related to their ability to provide tuition.

Instructors make the point that the "three strikes and you're out" proposal may be appropriate for criminals in New York, but it is unlikely to be appropriate for professional driving instructors. The Government may have changed their view on that; perhaps the Minister will clarify that point.

The consequence of instructors not passing the test is the loss of their livelihood—an important matter—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) suggested, there is no proper means of appeal. Instructors can simply sit the test again at their own expense.

Instructors are expressing a serious concern, and I can understand why they are upset. The instructors who have come to see me do not reject the concept of continual professional development; indeed, they embrace it. They want their money spent on improving and enhancing their teaching skills so that they can provide a service to their customers rather than on the proposed tests, which they consider to be a sterile and futile operation.

I should like the Minister to tackle the points that have been made about the utility of the tests. What does he see as their added value for driving instruction? Will he also address whether loss of livelihood is an appropriate way to deal with any group of professionals? The proposal is to rip up instructors' certificates of competence and ask them to start again without any evidence that they have failed in their professional duties, either as recorded through the check test or by any other means.

Thirdly, can the Minister entirely discount the suspicion that those who came to see me certainly expressed, that this is simply a revenue-raising objective on the part of the agency, rather than a legitimate policy to improve overall standards of tuition? When does he expect the orders to be laid, along with the statutory instrument that we will discuss in due course?

Lastly, I enjoin the Minister, if he has not done so already, to talk further with the associations representing the driving instructors to try to allay their concerns. I can assure him that, irrespective of what he may feel about the merits of the case, this is something that is sincerely felt by driving instructors throughout the country, some 30,000 of our constituents. They have made their voices heard. I hope that I have been able to express their concerns this evening, and they will be looking carefully at what the Minister has to say in response.

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