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13 May 2008 : Column 1356

Driving Standards Agency

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

11.10 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the Driving Standards Agency and its approach to the closure of driving test centres. I am particularly glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), here to reply. I am not sure how he drew the short straw of replying at this time of night to a debate on a subject for which he does not have direct responsibility, but it gives me the opportunity to remind him that he has made a commitment to come and see what I want done on the A303. We arranged a date and then he was told by his Whips that he was not to come. I hope that he will be able to honour that commitment at some stage in the near future.

I am also glad that the Minister is here because the last time he deputised for his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), it was on the same issue: the closure of driving test centres. The more I have looked into this subject, the more I have realised that we talking about not a local issue for me, but a national issue that is affecting lots of right hon. and hon. Members.

I want to touch briefly on motorcycle testing, and then spend most of my time talking about the closure of the Trowbridge driving test centre, which is not in my constituency, but in that of the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber. I urge the Minister, if he has copious notes on the benefits of the new multipurpose driving test centre, to please put them aside. I have read them. I know why the Government are introducing the multipurpose centres and about the legislative impetus for that. I think I even recognise that there are advantages to the proposals.

My argument is simple: the Driving Standards Agency has woefully underprovided in the west country. When the Minister visits me, he will recognise just how big the south-west peninsula is. The region is the size of Belgium, which is the internationally recognised unit of measurement for an area. He will realise that the proposal, as revealed in a parliamentary answer on 5 March to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), for just two multipurpose driving test centres in the whole of the west country—one in Exeter and one in Gloucester—from October this year, when the new motorcycle testing regime comes into effect, is frankly absurd. For my constituents, neither Exeter nor Gloucester is any more friendly and useful to them in terms of distance than London might be. It is a ridiculously distant area for them to have to travel to. I note from the Minister’s previous comments and those from others that the intention is that most motorcycle drivers should not have to travel more than 45 minutes or 20 miles to get to their test centre. For us in the west country, the journey will take at least an hour and a half each way. It is a distance of 50 miles or more. I do not think that that constitutes an appropriate service for my constituents.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): On Friday I made the journey from Warminster to Chippenham. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that his Conservative opponent made a similar journey
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from Frome to Chippenham. Both journeys took well over an hour on a good day, and that does not allow for people who come from places outside the main towns in our area.

Mr. Heath: Precisely. The hon. Gentleman brings me to the subject that I want to spend most of my time discussing: the closure of the Trowbridge driving test centre in his area, and the relocation of the tests to Chippenham. I note all the rhetoric from the Driving Standards Agency about motorcycle tests, and such statements as

When I compare that with practice, however, I cannot reconcile the two statements.

Following points that I raised about the issue during business questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), wrote me a letter. I do not know whether the information that he was given is entirely wrong or whether there has been a massaging of the information so that it fits the criteria, but he wrote:

That is good news which I would applaud, but the letter continued

—to Trowbridge, that is—

That statement is wholly incorrect, and I shall return to it in a moment.

The hon. Member for Westbury and I recently joined a motorcade of driving instructors at the Trowbridge test centre. The people who know best about this—the driving instructors—are unanimous in their view that this is an entirely retrograde step, not just for themselves and their businesses but for the people whom they instruct.

Let me give some of the reasons why it is not appropriate to close the Trowbridge centre and move the business to Chippenham. As the hon. Member for Westbury pointed out, the principal reason is distance. Theoretically, there is a 20-mile maximum for most people to travel to their nearest driving test centre. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Driving Standards Agency’s own published code of practice on written consultations relating to driving test centres states that if the distance is more than 20 miles, there will be a formal consultation on any planned procedure.

I wanted to look that up. I found a written response by the Minister to the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), which set out the basis of the code of practice and gave a helpful web connection. When I pressed the button I found that the site, which showed the consultation papers, no longer exists, so I am still in the dark about the precise terms of the code. However, I am led to believe that the distance is supposed to be a maximum of 20 miles.

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I accept that the distance from Trowbridge to Chippenham is within the 20-mile limit, but Trowbridge test centre does not just serve Trowbridge. It serves the whole of west Wiltshire and the whole of north-east Somerset, because there are no other test centres in the vicinity. Warminster, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Westbury, is more than 20 miles from Chippenham. Frome, the major town in my constituency, is 25 miles away, and the journey takes some time. I looked up my village, which is about six miles south of Frome. I have a personal interest: my son has just turned 17, has applied for a provisional licence, and will want to take a driving test. But according to the route planner the distance between my village and Chippenham is 30 miles, so the suggestion that people in my area are within 20 miles of Chippenham is simply incorrect.

There are also several reasons why we should reject such a distance in any case. First, there is the matter of convenience. Not only does it take a long time to get from a home pick-up to Chippenham, but in the context of a driving lesson that distance extends what would be a one-hour driving lesson to, in the case of someone in the Frome area, a three-hour driving lesson. Not everybody can afford a three-hour driving lesson. Not everyone has enough time in their day to spend three hours on it—the best part of an hour in getting there, an hour’s lesson and then the best part of an hour in getting back. It is not convenient.

Then there are the costs. I have a quotation from The Wiltshire Times. A driving instructor, Mr. Roger Brunt from Southwick, says:

For my constituents in Frome, the sum would be twice that; they would have to pay an extra £400 in order to pass the test.

There is also the environmental footprint. In terms of other Government policies, it does not make sense to extend driving times, and purely for the convenience of driving test centres rather than their users.

There is also the disincentive issue. That worries me greatly, particularly the disincentive to take a motorcycle test. They will either continue to drive with L-plates or they will drive illegally and not take the test. Is that what we want to promote? Do the Government intend to discourage people from becoming fully proficient drivers who have passed their test? I hope that that is not the case.

Another point about convenience is that Chippenham has only four parking bays, which is hardly great if we are to more than double the business at Chippenham. It does not make sense. I am greatly concerned that this will be a retrograde step.

Is this necessary? No, it is not. I have a letter from Graham Payne, leader of West Wiltshire district council, who wrote to thank me for my support in the fight to retain the driving centre. He gave me a copy of the letter he wrote to the Driving Standards Agency, in which he makes it plain that:

So there is no necessity for the DSA to close this centre.

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I am left with the view that it is being closed for reasons of administrative convenience, not for the convenience of people who want to learn to drive, and that it will lead to huge extra costs and inconvenience for people in my constituency who want to learn to drive. I am sorry, but I just do not accept the view expressed by the Minister and Rosemary Thew, the chief executive of the DSA, that it is quite unnecessary to practise on test routes. That is not the experience of any instructor or of anyone who has ever learned to drive.

I note that the Wessex Association of Driving Instructors invited Ms Thew and the Secretary of State to come to Chippenham and to take a test unsighted, as it were, of local driving conditions and the local area, and to see if they passed. Unhappily, they did not accept the challenge. We all accept that we are expected to learn to drive in all conditions, but we do not go to take a test without first familiarising ourselves with the area in which it will take place. That is axiomatic.

Dr. Murrison: As the hon. Gentleman will know, Chippenham is not exactly easy terrain for those who do not know the lie of the land. He is right to say that the driving test is taken on the basis that the person involved does not necessarily have any familiarity with the stretch of road used, but people who are familiar with Chippenham are clearly at a distinct advantage in comparison with my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman. Does he not agree that if the change goes ahead, people in, for example, Frome and Warminster will feel obliged to have at least one or two—extra trips and they are probably four—hour round trips to Chippenham?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. Shall I tell him a secret? People from Frome do not go to Chippenham, because there is no reason for them to do so. Chippenham is in a different county, it is not a centre for shopping for us, it is not a regional centre in any way and it is not a place to which we go. Therefore, Chippenham will be entirely alien to most people in the Frome area who are learning to drive—all those many people who have been completely disregarded in the proposals being introduced by the Driving Standards Agency.

I shall finish with some questions that I would like the Minister to answer. Given these apparently spontaneous closures of driving test centres around the country, is there a plan in the hands of the DSA for driving test centre closures? Has it been published? Do Ministers have sight of it? If so, on what basis is it constructed, and over what period was it consulted upon? While we are dealing with consultation, may I ask how is it that no formal consultation took place in accordance with the criteria established by the DSA on a move that will mean that many people will be more than 20 miles from their nearest driving test centre?

It is said, even in the ministerial letter to which I have referred, that most people in the Trowbridge and Frome area will be within the 20-mile area, but that is not the case. Most people will not be within that area, and if the DSA believes otherwise, let it prove it. Let it show us the details on the number of people who currently use the Trowbridge centre who will be within the 20-mile area for Chippenham. If most people are
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not within that area, can they please have the full consultation to which I think we are entitled?

Until now, the DSA has refused to give any assurances that the Chippenham centre, in turn, is safe from closure at some future point. If the Trowbridge centre is to close, can we be assured that the Chippenham centre, at least, will remain open? Or is the next move that we will be expected to travel to Bristol, down to Exeter or up to Gloucester—to the multipurpose test centres, where the motorcycle testing is to take place?

What this exercise betrays all the way through is a lack of regard for the customer, for the client and for the public. The DSA is arranging things in order to minimise its overheads and to run what it considers to be the most efficient system of providing driving test centres without for one moment thinking about those of us who live not in big cities but in the gaps between. We are not apparently to be catered for at all. I cannot imagine why it is felt appropriate for there to be no driving test centre in the whole of the Mendip area, in the whole of the west Wiltshire area and in the whole of the Bath and north-east Somerset area. That is the proposal being put before us by the DSA. It is apparently going ahead irrespective of what local people say, irrespective of the representations that have been made and with no attempt at consultation. I do not believe that that is fair, and I would like the Minister to talk to the DSA, to find out what the real rationale is and, if possible, to reverse the decision that has apparently been taken with so little thought for the interests of the local community.

11.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I begin by offering apologies on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is detained on important constituency business.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate on what is clearly an important issue to him and his constituents. In response to his request, I will of course honour my commitment to visit his constituency at an early opportunity—this time, I hope, without interference from the very helpful Government Whips.

Despite the hon. Gentleman’s exhortations, it is important to set out the context of recent and proposed changes to the delivery of driving tests, because without that context many of his criticisms and observations would go unanswered. European Union legislation on driving licences, agreed in 2000, set higher minimum requirements for driving tests. The higher standards are intended to ensure that the matters assessed in the theory and practical tests are relevant to modern driving conditions.

Those new EU standards have introduced extra and more demanding special manoeuvres that must be included in every practical motorcycling test undertaken in Great Britain from September 2008. One of the new requirements adds a higher-speed emergency braking manoeuvre to the motorcycling test. That must be conducted at no less than 50 kph, which is equivalent to 31 mph.

There are overwhelming road safety objections to conducting a higher-speed emergency braking exercise
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where there might be pedestrians or other traffic. Ministers therefore asked the Driving Standards Agency, which is responsible for delivering the driving and riding test in Great Britain, to explore delivery of those manoeuvres from off-road testing areas free of other traffic. The new EU standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties, “Tomorrow’s roads—safer for everyone”.

Introduced in 2000, the strategy set some challenging targets for reducing the number of road casualties. By 2010, we want to reduce by 40 per cent. the number of people killed or seriously injured on the roads and to reduce by 10 per cent. the number of slight casualties, compared to the 1994 to 1998 average.

Motorcycling is becoming increasingly popular. More people are using motorcycles and mopeds to beat congestion and for leisure. We recognise that motorcycling has a role to play in transport as a whole. Our aim is to facilitate motorcycling as a travel choice within a safe and sustainable transport framework. To that end, in 2005 we published our motorcycling strategy in partnership with motorcycling and other interests.

Sadly, the downside to all that is that motorcyclists represent a large proportion of road casualties. They make up about 1 per cent. of road traffic but suffer about 20 per cent. of deaths and serious injuries. Although the overall number of road casualties is falling, the number of deaths among motorcyclists is increasing. That is a matter of considerable concern for the Government and for Members on both sides of the House.

The road safety strategy gave improvements to driver training and testing an important role in producing safer drivers and riders, and identified European developments as a factor in future changes to the driving test. For example, we believe that the changes to the motorcycle practical test will contribute to a reduction in motorcyclist casualty rates.

The proposals for the implementation of the new EU driving test requirements were the subject of public consultation in December 2002. Consultees were offered the opportunity to comment on a number of service delivery options. They showed a preference for a single practical test with off-road testing of special manoeuvres, including the higher-speed emergency braking exercise, taking place immediately before the general on-road riding assessment. That significantly reduces the safety risks of on-road testing while addressing the cost and access concerns raised by some consultees. Ministers decided to implement the new requirements in the way that most consultees preferred.

To facilitate delivery of the new manoeuvres, the DSA identified a need to develop a national network of driving test centres, based on an updated design with the appropriate facilities to conduct all the special manoeuvres. To exploit the value of the investment in those new centres, the DSA has decided that, wherever possible, they will be multipurpose test centres. In addition to the practical motorcycling test, they will be utilised to deliver other types of practical test for learner car, lorry and bus drivers. When not being used for tests, the DSA hopes to make the off-road test facilities available for training purposes.

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