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17 Oct 2007 : Column 294WH—continued

Limiting the engine size sounds like a good idea, but many young drivers gain important experience by
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driving the family car, and most people’s family car probably has a larger engine than the cars that young drivers start with. In my part of the world, most young drivers start off driving a Land Rover, which has quite a big engine. So what can we do? The most important imperative for the Government is to address these issues through policing. We need real police on the streets—not cameras or Highways Agency officers who do not have the powers of the police. They need to be out on the road, policing—not back in the police station filling in forms.

I recently met traffic police representatives and we discussed the issue of drink driving. Yes, we could reduce the limit, but drink driving is not a key performance indicator for the police. It is not a crime that is reported. In many cases it does not feature highly on the priority lists of police forces. Perhaps there should be more incentive for police forces to pay attention to drink driving. Perhaps there should be more high profile policing of drink driving. The fact is that if someone’s car is taxed and insured, and does not trigger the automatic number plate detection system, and if they are driving in a reasonably straight line with no back lights off, there is a good chance of their getting away with drink driving in some parts of the country, where there are not so many police around, for quite a long time.

Although there has recently been a lot of press coverage of the inquest on the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, there are only two conclusions that we can all draw: that there were three people in the car not wearing seat belts, and they were the ones who were killed; and that one person in the car was, reportedly, over the drink drive limit, and that was the driver. Those are the lessons that we need to learn, and to apply to policing, for our young people.

There are problems with respect to uninsured people and MOTs. On that point, one of my son’s friends recently bought a vehicle for £50, in which he drives around. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that we shall not move to a system of MOTs every two years rather than annual MOTs? I know that the matter is under review, but it is much more likely that many young drivers will drive a car that is not roadworthy, if we go with the European model of two-yearly tests.

It is vital to improve children’s education in this context. My children are not keen on the citizenship studies that they do in school. They are taught a lot of stuff that they do not want to know about, but it would be very useful to teach them what can happen if they drive irresponsibly, show them the videos that are available and get people who have been touched by accidents in to talk to them. A friend of mine was recently flashed by a camera when he was doing 33 mph and given the option of taking a £50 course, rather than have points on his licence. He went on the course. Before he did so, he was rather cynical about it and thought that it would be a complete waste of time. After he had taken the course, seen the videos and learned a little more about the dangers of speeding, he was very positive about the whole thing.

Mr. Fraser: On that point, does my hon. Friend accept that that course, with which I am familiar—because constituents have drawn my attention to it, not
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because I have been a victim of it myself—is not available across the country, and that not every constabulary has adopted it? Perhaps it is time that they should.

Mr. Goodwill: It is an excellent suggestion that best practice should be shared around the country. Of course, we have heard about YouTube in this context. I admit that I occasionally surf around that site to see interesting films and find out what is on there. You may, Sir Nicholas, remember the “Top Gear” film highlighting level crossing safety problems, in which a train was driven into the side of a car on a level crossing. That is on YouTube, and many young people watch that. Perhaps we should look at imaginative ways to get the message across, using new media such as YouTube.

In conclusion, may I once again thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for securing the debate today. If we can reach evidence-based solutions—measures that will work, rather than those that we wish would work—Her Majesty’s Opposition will be more than happy to support the Government in bringing forward measures.

3.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you presiding this afternoon, Sir Nicholas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on securing the debate on a very important issue, which is of concern in all our constituencies. I especially commend his setting of the tone for this serious debate about how to cut deaths and injuries among young drivers.

We are making encouraging progress, with a 33 per cent. reduction in reported incidents of people being killed or suffering serious injuries, against the 1994-98 baseline that we set ourselves, but we must do much more. There were 3,173 road fatalities in 2006 and more than 28,000 serious injuries, including 8,500 to 17 to 25-year-olds. The debate is about young driver accidents. There were 1,065 fatalities in crashes involving a driver aged 17 to 25, including 393 of those drivers themselves.

Against that bleak background, let me say something first in defence of the majority of young drivers. I am pleased that my hon. Friend made similar points. Those drivers want to be safe and responsible. They deserve good training. Unlike a minority of young men, they do not speed and drive dangerously, or drink and drive. They and their passengers wear seat belts. A minority disregard the basic road traffic laws that would, if they were observed, make our roads much safer. They would probably treat any new laws in the same way. It must remain a priority to enforce existing laws against those irresponsible people.

We must consider whether driver training and testing meets the needs of the responsible majority. In February, the Department for Transport promised fundamental reform. The debate allows me to explain why. We aim to start consultation on our proposals before the end of the year. The driving test was introduced in 1935. Roads and traffic have changed out of all recognition in 70 years. The test has also changed
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over time and it is still recognised as one of the best, but we cannot go on with incremental fixes. The time has come for a new system for the years ahead. In 1935, only a minority had the opportunity to drive. The test was conceived to ensure that those who had access to a vehicle knew how to operate it. Driving has become very important to most of us, especially young people, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) described. It gives access to the social and economic opportunities of independent adulthood. A modern driver training and testing system is thus more vital. It must deliver safe lifelong drivers.

We must ask how the present system measures up. Let us start by asking whether learners value it. Our conclusion is that they do not. Young people in particular say that they learn to pass the test and then teach themselves what they see as proper driving. The pass rate is low. It could be much better if learners generally waited perhaps only a few weeks. Too many learners waste money on tests when they are unready, because they think that the result is a matter of luck. Learning to drive is not cheap. Many spend more than £1,000 on lessons, and some spend £150 on tests. Training still focuses on vehicle handling, but we know that attitude and motivation are also very important, if not key factors in good driving, and that learners are insufficiently prepared to make safe use of road space shared with others, many of whom are vulnerable.

I do not blame driving instructors. My father was one for many years. Their customers are driven by perceptions of the test. They want to know only how to get through quickly. Learners are ill-informed about the test standard, and learning is poorly structured. Some have little or no exposure to typical conditions such as night driving. Most of those who fail have thought themselves ready, and they put their failure down to bad luck and nerves. Eco-driving is not integrated into the learning process. That cannot be tackled with a quick fix: it calls for a wholesale change of driving and training style. Extra lessons do not seem to make things better. Research suggests that learners overall are taking more lessons, but the pass rate and accident record are not improving. Some candidates are nowhere near the standard. Driving examiners often have to grab the handbrake or steering wheel, or use the dual controls.

Many trainees pass without achieving a consistent standard. We asked a group to take the test twice in the same week and of those who passed only 64 per cent. passed on both occasions. Hon. Members may ask themselves if they would still pass the test if they took it today. The truth is that too many learners who passed last week would not pass either. Women find the test more difficult but have fewer accidents as novices—more evidence of female superiority, if any were needed. Training and testing should achieve a consistent result across all groups.

I do not overlook the main point made today—that those most recently trained and tested have the worst accident record. Young drivers are over-represented in the casualty figures. They make more expensive claims, so they face very high motor insurance costs. There have been calls for restrictions on novice drivers. Many believe that those who pass the practical test are not ready to drive solo. That surely reflects on their training. How can we expect young people to
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understand the risks that come with bad driving if it is not a formal part of what they have to learn to be a driver?

Finally, coming back to whether people value the present training and testing process, too many people opt out of the licensing system altogether. They are the most dangerous drivers. It would be a mistake to try to fix one or two of all those problems.

Mr. Goodwill: Does the Minister agree that a number of our young drivers who have passed their tests in places such as Poland and Romania or other new European countries may not have a valid driving licence but can show a document that looks like one?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the validation of licences issued by European partner states. Enforcement in the case of foreign qualified drivers is clearly even more complicated when one has to check foreign credentials. I recently visited the DVLA at Bristol and saw how the credentials submitted by drivers who have qualified elsewhere are checked against the documents issued in their own countries. It is a very thorough process. However, just as some domestic drivers drive while disqualified or drive without passing the test, I am sure that some people from those countries are in the same position. We need to bear down on them as much as we bear down on people here who are not following the norm.

We talk of fundamental reform because we believe that there is a case for it. We said in February that we need a comprehensive package of reforms. They include education to influence attitudes before the age of 17, thorough training and a reformed assessment process. We need to do more to help drivers maintain high standards for life, especially if they drive for work.

Mr. Fraser: On the specific point of what needs to be done, would the Minister give careful consideration to an issue that has already been raised—those who are not insured and who have no intention of being insured who take cars? Dare I say that some parts of the country have gained cult status through the activities of such people, which often get videoed and put on the internet—and which encourages all their mates to do precisely the same?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The last thing that we want to do is to create any kind of climate where disregard of public safety of the sort that he described is encouraged in any way, shape or form. We need to ensure that such behaviour is tackled as effectively as possible.

The tools are already available to create a new approach. At the heart of our reform is a new framework setting out the skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes required for safe driving. That will be the foundation for all our work on education, training, testing and lifelong learning, including developing skills, remedial training, and work-related driving. It is a modern template, consistent with vocational frameworks in the education system and in industry. Systematic assessment criteria will be used to establish that candidates have the required level of competence. A similar framework will be developed for instructors and examiners, linked to schemes for
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continuous professional development—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway.

Our overall aim is simple. Anybody who prepares properly should expect to pass the test; and those who skimp or treat the test as a matter of luck will fail. Too many young people opt out of driver training and testing. We will aim to persuade them, but we will not tolerate the dangerously bad driving of the minority. We do not propose new restrictions on learners and newly qualified drivers, but we intend to have a wide-ranging and open consultation. I undertake that it will be fully addressed, even though it may not form part of our proposals.

I turn to some of the points raised during the debate. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) raised an interesting and challenging point about penalties. I regret to report that I am unaware of any work being done on the matter. However, he made the point effectively; I am certainly happy to raise the matter with the Ministry of Justice, and I shall keep him posted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) asked about enforcement and mentioned the DVLA. As I said earlier, those who avoid paying tax and/or insurance are among the most dangerous drivers. The DVLA now has more new technology and a partnership with National Car Parks, and something like 1,500 vehicles a week are being impounded. New electronic equipment is being rolled out: all Welsh and Scottish police forces have it, and 12 English forces have it, and the aim is to complete the process by the end of 2008. In 2009, we will be introducing continuous insurance. That will ensure that vehicles can be tracked. Much as with TV licences, when the authorities know where people live and whether they have a licence, it will soon be known whether they have a car and whether they have insured it. In due course, that will help considerably.

I echo your comment, Sir Nicholas, that it is good to see the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) in his place today. He, too, contributed to this important debate, but I have not been briefed on the details of the main issue that he raised. However, I will contact his office and look into the matter in detail. The hon. Gentleman spoke about motorcycles and particularly about motorcycle safety. When I had responsibility for the fire service two years ago I visited Cheshire, where I saw a special initiative called “Fire Bike”. As many as 70 motorcyclists each year were being killed on Cheshire’s roads. It is a wonderful county, with lovely lanes and so on. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have not visited the lovely Isle of Wight. However, I know that it has the reputation of offering similar enjoyment to those motorcyclists who enjoy riding on rural roads. However, some motorcyclists may not be used to such roads. The police in Cheshire were trying to tackle the inordinate number of people being killed on motorcycles in that county, but I will look into the matter. I assure him that I have had several meetings in the past fortnight with motorcycle organisations and I have discussed motorcycle safety and other issues.

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The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made a challenging point about what price we were prepared to pay when trading freedom against additional restrictions. Our consultation, which will be published shortly, will provide the opportunity for organisations and individuals to comment, and the balance of that argument will obviously colour our judgment as to what we should do.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about enforcement and police numbers. I entirely agree with him that the prospect of being caught is one of the most effective deterrents. We are working closely with the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that traffic policing and enforcement is maintained. We are looking at how the issue is reflected in police targets in order to ensure that it receives the appropriate attention. Recent drink-drive campaigns have increased the number of drivers being tested. Again, that demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction. I am also informed that more speed awareness courses are being rolled out.

I was asked about the MOT consultation. That is still being discussed between Departments, and I shall alert Members as to when that is likely come about. However, I hear exactly the point that was made; it was made also by a number of organisations when I was at the Department of Trade and Industry, and as Minister with responsibility for better regulation I chaired a challenge panel every quarter to deal with exactly the same concerns, particularly about a move to less frequent MOTs such as on the continent. However, the issue is still very live.

Driving is a skill that people use for most of their lives. It is vital that we prepare new drivers properly. It is a huge challenge. There is no quick fix. Change will take time to complete, and there must be full consultation. The debate has been a valuable opportunity and I look forward to further discussions—especially with drivers and with the public at large—as we thrash out our proposals in the coming months.

I conclude by again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway on securing the debate and by thanking those hon. Members who have participated in it. The subject matter of the debate is very important, and we all agree that too many people still die or are seriously injured on our roads, so I hope that the debate will help in the efforts to reduce those numbers. I assure hon. Members that I shall use my own very best efforts to work with them for further progress in the months ahead. Government, Opposition parties, road safety campaigners and other external bodies such as the emergency services and enforcement organisations all want to achieve the same objective. I hope that, together, we shall continue to drive casualty figures down.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I congratulate the House on a most well-informed and interesting debate. It has been a pleasure to be in the Chair for it, and I congratulate all those hon. Members who participated on their contributions. The debate has finished some 20 minutes early and, although the initiator of the next debate is present, the Minister sadly is not, so I suspend the sitting.

3.39 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Worklessness (West Ham)

4 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I shall take this opportunity to talk about the unfairness in the benefits system, which ensures that many of my constituents are unable to work or keep a roof over their heads. Until the system is changed, key Government aims and objectives—in particular, our determination to eradicate child poverty by 2020—cannot and will not be realised in London.

I bring to this Chamber the problem as expressed to me by local people and charitable agencies. I know that I may be criticised at the end of the debate for not offering many solutions, but my purpose is to try to persuade the Department for Work and Pensions and, indeed, the House, that the situation urgently needs a solution. I shall highlight the problems faced by my constituents in particular and more widely by those on low incomes across London who wish to work and to advance in life, but who are frustrated by the combination of high housing and child care costs, and by the way in which the benefits system plays with their incomes.

We must seek a solution to the disincentive that confronts 1.7 million low-paid families, who lose 60 per cent. or more of any increase in their wage packet because of the benefit configuration. If we as a Government are to hit our target to end child poverty by 2020, we must tackle poverty in London—not the London of the champagne Charlies, but the London of real economic hardship and deprivation, in which many people, such as the unemployed and those on low incomes, struggle to survive. Some 41 per cent. of London’s children grow up in poverty. Excluding pensioner households, half of income-deprived households have someone in employment servicing and enabling London’s economic success and thus the country’s economic success. However, that work does not lift them out of poverty.

Housing benefits impact on the Exchequer—I have no doubt about that. Combined with council tax benefit, housing benefit is almost equal to all the other means-tested benefits added together. It is clear that we must get housing benefit right, and not spend it in a way that is counter-productive to the Government’s wider objectives. Almost 30,000 families in the London borough of Newham are on the housing waiting list. The wait for a three-bedroomed property is nearly 12 years, and for a four-bedroomed property it is almost 13 years. While those families languish—there is no other word for it—in temporary accommodation, housing benefit spending in my council is £245 million. That is just a single London borough. Nearly one third of that £245 million—£67 million—is spent paying private landlords.

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