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We have also heard about the gender imbalance. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned that, despite the fact that the figures are slowly creeping up among women drivers, there is still a big discrepancy between accidents involving boys and girls. The latest figures show that 870 males between 17 and 19 years of age were killed and seriously injured, but the comparable figure for female drivers is 281. This is, by and large, a big problem with male drivers. We should be careful, when changing the rules, not to discriminate unfairly against women drivers, who probably are not so much to blame.

Of course, other factors come into play. When one sees a young man and his girlfriend in the car, it is almost always the young man who is driving. In the days of the sun-strip, the name “Wayne” was nearly always over the driver’s seat not “Sharon”. We need to be very careful.

We also need to look at the balance between skills, which can be tested and taught, and attitude. Unfortunately, the more we look, the more we see that the problem relates to the attitude of drivers, rather than skills. Perhaps that is the difference between boys and girls in this regard. Perhaps the girls have a much more responsible attitude to driving, rather than having, necessarily, much better skills—although I am sure that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich would argue that women have better skills in almost every field.

When the report was in the newspapers over Christmas, when the Government were floating a few ideas, such as a 12-month learning period, an official at the Department was quoted as saying, “Of course, there may be one or two Lewis Hamiltons who could get through the test in a much shorter period.” I have to tell the Minister that Lewis Hamilton was clocked doing 122 mph in France in January this year. The problem is not a person’s skills but their attitude. If the test were made more difficult, would we stop the people who are causing the problems getting through it? I think not. Often, the people who fly through the test with flying colours, rather than those who scrape through, cause problems on the roads.

We also have a problem with some of the TV programmes that young people watch. I would not want to say a word against Jeremy Clarkson and his excellent “Top Gear” programme, but there is no doubt that his team revel in speed. The message that comes across is that speed is cool and sexy. If someone cannot afford a Ferrari to attract the opposite sex, perhaps they can drive their Ford Escort like a Ferrari. That is a real problem.

Mr. Leech: It is not just TV programmes that are to blame, but also video games.

Mr. Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is no doubt that a young man who has spent all weekend driving on a computer game may well have convinced himself that his driving skills are much greater than they actually are.

The Minister and I attended a recent transport conference at which a psychologist talked about how people’s minds develop. He said that the frontal lobe executive functions in young men are not sufficiently developed to foresee the problems down the road. In
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many cases, that can be a good thing. Our armed forces exploit the fact that young men do not always see the consequences of their actions. The bravery that they are showing in Iraq and Afghanistan would probably be tempered if they were in their 50s and had the frontal lobe executive functions of an older person. All too often, young people do not see the consequences of their actions.

Another problem is that, when a car is full of passengers, a degree of egging on goes on. Certainly, we have banned my son from going in the car with one of his friends because we know how bad his driving is. If he had four or five young men in the car with him—or, even worse, young girls—he would drive in an even more dangerous way. I recently visited Roundhay school and talked to a group of sixth-formers. They were astounded to hear the fact that, for the girls in the room, the person most likely to kill them was their boyfriend. The most likely cause of death for a young girl these days is in a car accident. In most cases, that car is driven by their boyfriend.

We have had some mention of the problem of alcohol and where the limit should be set and whether we should have a different limit for young drivers. With alcohol, it is an interesting fact that people who want to adhere to the law give a fair safety margin. With speeding, however, people will drive at the limit or perhaps a little bit over. In the case of drink-driving, people who wish to obey the law will drive under that limit by quite a reasonable margin. The safe driving speed is, in many cases, well below the limit. There is a case for having a lower drink-drive limit for younger drivers. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) that such a move will send out the wrong message. At six points, we already have a lower points limit for young drivers in connection with speeding. As the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said, as people get older, they become more used to drinking alcohol sensibly.

Mr. Leech: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. There is a very strong case for reducing the limit for everyone, because we should encourage people not to drink at all when they are driving andnot to think that it is okay to have one drink. The suggestion that we have a lower limit for younger drivers sends out the wrong signal: people might think that, when they get through the probationary period, it is okay to have a drink. It is not.

Mr. Goodwill: We will agree to differ on that one. I am not so sure whether that message would be sent out. We have a six-point limit on speeding and that does not send out the message that it is okay to speed. It recognises that young drivers are less able to cope with speed and less able to cope with drinking.

I will now touch on a couple of points that have not been raised in the debate. There are groups of people who have not been covered by the report but who are still novice drivers. The first group is made up of returnees. For example, when I was 19, I took my motorcycle test on a BSA Bantam, which was capable of about 50 mph. I could go out now and become a born-again biker and buy a brand new Ducati 900 and roar down the motorways and around the country roads at breakneck speed. Under the definition in the
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report, those people do not fall into the novice driver category, but novices they are. They are novices at handling the power and the speed of those vehicles. If we look at the figures, we can see that motorcyclists and people in their 40s and 50s are a group that we need to address. Many returnees are older drivers. Widows, for example, may have had a driving licence for many years but not driven, and then they find that they have to start driving. Perhaps we should look at some training for them.

There is also another group of older novices: people who do not have a driving licence. Joyce Walker, a redoubtable lady in my village, recently lost her husband, who was a former Desert Rat tank commander. Despite being well into her 70s, she decided that she would have to learn to drive and get a licence, because driving was the only way that she could get to the shops or have any sort of social life. I would be concerned if measures introduced to make the tests more difficult and to make it take longer for younger drivers to get a licence impinged on that type of driver; they are not the sort of people who are causing death and carnage on our roads.

Mr. Martlew: Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that we have two standards; that young people should do a year and older people should not?

Mr. Goodwill: Not at all. My point is that any change that is introduced must take into account the fact that not everyone who learns to drive is under 20. We cannot have an easy test and a hard test, but the universal regulations should recognise the fact that not only younger drivers take the driving test in this country. The same is true for some foreign drivers. Although some residents of Commonwealth countries can get a British driving licence, others must retake their test. It is difficult to tell someone who has been driving all their life—possibly even a professional driver—that they must wait 12 months to get their licence, despite the fact that they have been driving for many years in a different country.

Mr. Martlew: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but he is speaking from the Conservative Front Bench. Will he tell us whether he supports the Select Committee with regard to the year-long learning period?

Mr. Goodwill: It is something that we are looking at very closely. We will unveil our Green Paper towards the end of the summer, but a number of issues need to be addressed. The year-long period would not meet our requirements in the case of rural-proofing policy. As has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James), many young people need to access work and education. Often, the only way that they can do that is by driving. If they have to wait until they are 18 before they can drive and then face a 12-month period before they can get a full licence, that would create problems. They could not access work and education, which they are accessing at the moment. We could not support in its crude sense a 12-month period, although the idea floated by the hon. Member for Carlisle Mr. Martlew is not daft at all. Perhaps people could start some sort of instructed driving before the age of 17.

One of the problems recognised in the report is that many people passed their tests without having any
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proper instruction. Although this is not our policy at the moment—I am just thinking out loud, following the point made by the hon. Member for Carlisle—I suspect that young people would have an incentive to undergo proper driving instruction if that was the only way that they could gain experience of driving before the age of 17. There is a precedent in the case of HGV vehicles and our armed forces. Members of the armed forces can drive vehicles that they would not otherwise be able to drive until the age of 21.

The other issue that we need to address is that of the CO2 implications. As a parent living nowhere near anything that my children would want to go to, we have a lot of double journeys, taking children to ballet classes, scouts and so on. If young people could not drive, there would be a lot more double journeys and parents driving around the countryside.

The point made about schools was a very good one. A friend of mine was recently caught by a speed camera. He was slightly over the limit, so he was given the option of going on an educational course. He was rather cynical about the whole thing, but when he came back, he felt that it had been a useful operation. He did not feel that people would just sit through the course without paying attention. It was a very useful experience for him. I am not sure how wide the practice is of showing such videos in schools, but a day spent in school instructing children in the dangers of driving and of speed would be a day spent very well indeed.

We see a number of problems with a 12-month learning period, but that is not to say that we would not want to examine ways of making the test more relevant to modern driving and trying to address the attitude problems, as opposed to just the skills problems. Of course, attitude is perhaps something that we cannot teach people just by giving them a few more lessons.

The insurance industry has an important role to play. We have heard that the pass plus course is taken by only 14 per cent. of drivers, despite the fact that many insurance companies offer a discount for drivers with pass plus. Some insurance companies offer policies with night-time curfews, which I think are good. The Department is conducting a trial on fitting satellite-activated speed limiters to cars. Sadly, many of the cars driven by young drivers are old and it would not be appropriate to fit that technology, but perhaps a way forward would be for insurance companies to offer lower premiums for drivers if they have a satellite-activated speed limiter fitted to their car.

We need more action against unlicensed and uninsured drivers and cars without an MOT. The Government could do much more about the problem of car cloning. It is much easier for people to get away with driving without a licence, an MOT or insurance if they put a false plate on their car. The ease with which people can obtain a false plate to stick on a car is overdue for attention by the Government.

In considering the way forward, we need to strike a balance between the freedom of young drivers to enjoy the benefits of mobility and our responsibility to safeguard young vulnerable people. We must look to evidence-based proposals coming from the Government. The Minister is wise enough not to be drawn into knee-jerk legislation or regulation and will base his decisions on research and experience in other countries. I look forward to the publication of the consultation document and to engaging
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positively with Her Majesty’s Government to gain a wide consensus on any new proposal. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Perhaps he will be more expansive than the Government response to the Select Committee’s report, which could perhaps be described as a holding position. I look forward to progress and further announcements from the Government.

4.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Taylor. I shall make some opening remarks and then deal with points raised by hon. Members. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on raising this important issue again. I acknowledge her strong personal interest and that of the Transport Committee, of which she is the distinguished Chair. She is right to press the Government on the matter and to recall that, in our evidence to the Committee last year, we stated that we planned to have started a consultation by now. I join the tributes paid to the Committee for its work in this area and more generally.

I would like to make it clear at the outset that the Government share the concerns expressed this afternoon, in earlier debates and by the Select Committee. I am very grateful that the Committee supported the reform plans that we outlined to it in evidence. I strongly agree with its recommendation that new measures should be clearly based on evidence. We have plenty to publish when our consultation begins. It has taken longer than we had hoped to publish consultation proposals, but that is not a signal that we are going back on them. We remain fully committed to the fundamental reform of driver training and testing that we promised last year.

When the issue was last debated in this Chamber, on 17 October 2007, I began my remarks with a defence of the majority of young drivers, who want to be safe and responsible. I would like this afternoon to make some observations about the general standard of driving, against which novice drivers are often measured.

We have made considerable progress in reducing the casualty toll on our roads, as a number of hon. Members have acknowledged. Those of us with long memories remember a time when there were more than 20 deaths every day. Now, that number is less than nine. There has been progress, but that is still a terrible toll. Our record is one of the best in the world but, as has been said, more than 3,000 people are still killed on our roads every year and more than 28,000 more are seriously injured.

We know that most accidents are down to basic errors by people who would be regarded as experienced drivers. I am not setting aside the over-representation of new drivers in the figures, which is very worrying, but they are still a minority in the accident record. Despite all the changes that we have made over many years, the general standard of driving needs improvement. People are not very ready to accept criticism of their own driving, but we know that new drivers learn a lot from those who are more experienced, especially about what is perceived to be an acceptable standard of driving.

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New drivers have too many accidents. That makes their insurance almost unaffordable. For a few—but too many—those accidents bring death and disability. They are especially vulnerable in the first few months after passing the test—immediately after they have completed the training that should have made them safe drivers. Young people are almost fatalistic about having accidents as novice drivers. They know that they must do some training to pass the test, but they seem to expect to teach themselves “real driving” once they have passed. They have no guide for that self-instruction. They think that they will pick it up like everyone else, perhaps experiencing a knock or two on the way. They hope sooner or later to become “experienced drivers” in that hit-and-miss fashion.

Naturally, we do not believe that young people should be left to learn such a vital skill in that fashion. They deserve good training that makes them safe drivers who can enjoy the freedoms that adulthood brings. A driving licence should be a passport to good jobs that involve driving and should give insurers the confidence to offer better rates to novice drivers.

Last February, we promised fundamental reform of driver training and testing. We said that we needed a comprehensive package of reforms: education to influence attitudes before the age of 17, thorough training and a reformed assessment process. We put at the heart of our reform a new competence framework setting out the knowledge, skills and attitude required for safe driving. That will be the foundation of all our work. There will be an overhaul of the driving test, making it a thorough, modern and accessible assessment of the key components of safe driving. None of this is simple, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said in opening the debate. The practical challenge is immense. For one thing, 2 million practical tests are taken every year. Too many candidates attempt the test too soon and fail, but about 750,000 people pass. A new system must be able to handle numbers on that scale, and we have to be sure that changes will make the system better and will work before we change the rules.

We have therefore been talking, and listening, to a wide range of interests, starting with the customers, including people learning to drive. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James), who is no longer in her place, mentioned that we should be consulting young people, and they can and have made a valuable contribution to our thinking. They may not have been involved in earlier debates about changes to driver training and testing, but we have already started talking to them this time, not only about how things might change but about how to encourage young people to respond to the consultation.

Employers and insurers want to do business with young people. More and more new jobs involve driving, especially delivering goods and services to people’s homes. However, employers tell us that a driving licence does not give them the confidence that a recruit is safe, and some are investing considerable effort and expense in training new employees. Insurers tell us the same: they have to treat all young people as high risk because there is no way of distinguishing the safe ones. We want to work with employers and insurers to get the training right. Meeting their needs will help everyone who is learning to drive.

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Many others have a keen interest in road safety and the welfare of young people. There are more than 40,000 registered driving instructors, who work with learners every day and have a first-hand view of the present arrangements and the scope to improve. We have spoken to some of them to shape our consultation proposals. Like everyone else, I am keen for the consultation paper to be issued so that we can engage fully in this important debate. It will be published soon. We hope that it will be out before the Easter recess—earlier if possible—but we also want to consider the matters raised today.

Mr. Martlew: My hon. Friend is being very helpful, and we look forward to the publication of the consultation before the Easter recess, as I believe he said. How long will the consultation take?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have no reason to believe that it will be anything other than the normal 12-week consultation, as per Cabinet rules. Clearly, the volume of responses to the consultation will determine how quickly we can sift and analyse them but, given how much work has already been undertaken and how much is in the public domain, we want to move as expeditiously as possible. Clearly, I strongly take the point that my hon. Friend and others made that time is of the essence, because the longer we take to reform and improve the system, the more people will be exposed to the dangers on our roads that we want to reduce and to minimise.

I recognise that some hon. Members have made suggestions that were not in the outline proposals we published last February on, for example, restrictions for learners and new drivers. We must find ways to curb the reckless few who persist in bad and dangerous driving, and those who bypass the tests and drive unlicensed and uninsured, which was a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. We want an open debate, and we intend that all such issues should be addressed.

Young people value being able to drive, and so they should. Our ambition is to deliver for them a fit-for-purpose driver training and assessment system, so that they can enjoy what is an important freedom safely and responsibly.

I shall respond to some of the points made by colleagues. My hon. Friend and others correctly raised the question of policing on roads and the attention paid to it by chief constables in police forces up and down the country. She is aware that we are in continuous dialogue with the Home Office on how it prioritises traffic offences. Some 100,000 cars were seized and impounded because they were not insured. Such figures demonstrate that the police are clearly moving to address roads policing not as a stand-alone issue—it is a serious enough, given what we are talking about—but because many people who flout driving rules and regulations are engaged in criminal activity, and there is clearly a connection between those two things.

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