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21 May 2008 : Column 89WH—continued

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hear exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. The only point that I was making was that the comparators are not directly parallel or as simple as they might seem. However, I do not completely eliminate
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them as legitimate issues for unions and staff to put forward when seeking to show that certain issues should be addressed.

Mr. Leech: Does the Minister accept that one could argue that the coastguards have more responsibility than call centre workers in other emergency services because they deal with the emergency from the start to the finish, rather than just taking the initial call and passing it on?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Similar situations arise in other services—I would not classify them. I know that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to refer to call centre workers and that he was in fact talking about emergency call handlers with a very sophisticated role to perform. I recognise the duty that they perform in dealing with an incident from start to finish, which can be a very protracted process. However, that also happens in other emergency services, although perhaps not to the same degree.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the fact that there was no coastguard on the board of the MCA. The MCA’s executive board fully understands and appreciates what coastguards do. It includes a wealth of experience in the maritime sector, including as search and rescue practitioners, in some cases, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) wanted an assurance that we are engaging with the Treasury. I assure him from my limited experience as an Under-Secretary that every Department in Government engages with the Treasury at every opportunity, just as every agency within the Department for Transport engages with Ministers to seek the best level of resourcing that it can get. Government Departments do that with the Treasury and the Treasury does it with the taxpayer. The climate at present is one in which taxpayers say they are being soaked too much. We may argue about priorities but even the Liberal Democrat leader said yesterday that we must cut taxes, and that involves priorities. I shall perhaps return to the issue of the direction of priorities, but as to the assurance that I have been giving that every Department engages with the Treasury, Government policy is well documented. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) made a similar point.

Andrew George: I fully understand and appreciate what the Minister says about his engagement with the Treasury. I understand and appreciate, too, the way in which public sector pay awards are debated across the board—which is, I am sure, the nature of the Minister’s discussions. However, may I be reassured that the Department and the Minister have the freedom to engage in and resolve issues of regrading and comparability without recourse to the Treasury?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall return to that point later in my remarks. I can tell him, in response to a question that was also asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, that the average increase for staff in post in 2008-09 will be in the region of 3.75 per cent., as compared with less than 3.5 per cent. for 2007-08. The MCA can target higher than average increases at specialists, and elsewhere where
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there are greater than average recruitment problems. Any changes to the MCA’s recruitment and retention data since the submission of the 2007-08 remit in January will be taken into account in this year’s remit by the Treasury.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) questioned the capability of managers to provide contingency cover during disputes. Many of the managers who provided support on strike days have practical experience of search and rescue techniques and practices. The hon. Member for Canterbury raised the question of the drop in morale, and the importance to the service of compensation. Volunteers are very important to the Department and to the MCA. We have carried out a review of their work and are working with them to implement the outcome of that review. For example, we have started to carry out further health checks, to ensure that volunteers carry out their duties with the minimum risk to their personal health. The MCA is now reviewing compensation arrangements and expects to make an announcement in due course.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington kindly said that I am a reasonable man, and suggested that I needed to do more with the Treasury. I think I can safely say that I am the only former emergency service worker present who has been on strike over pay against a Labour Government. I remember my own dispute and the nine weeks that we spent on strike, so my question is where we go from here. I have heard at first hand about the frustration and dissatisfaction that many staff feel about the pay structure. I probably should declare that I have family in the service, but I shall not say more, because it would be very unfair on my mum’s cousin if I said who and where he is. The trade unions have made their members’ views very clear, directly to me, and through the fact that many staff supported the recent strike action, which was the first in the history of the agency.

The chief executive and senior management of the agency are taking a long hard look at what can be done within the existing MCA pay structure to improve the situation for the most junior grades. For example, the review of CWA posts has resulted in some junior staff being regraded as watch officers, with a consequent uplift in pay. In addition, I understand that there have been discussions on a new pay structure, specifically for vessel traffic service operators. That does not change the fact that the public sector pay envelope is very tight and will remain so for the foreseeable future. We want people to be paid appropriately, particularly when taking on new tasks or increasing their work load, but that must be within the Government’s public sector framework. That means that management, staff, trade unions and Government need to be more inventive in using the resources that are available within the framework. For the MCA it means thinking long and hard about the work that it does, how it might need to be done differently in the future, and how the agency might need to be organised to do it more effectively.

Challenges are also being posed by new developments in the industry as a whole. There is no doubt that the maritime sector is changing. The increasing size of commercial vessels, developments in offshore renewable energy and the growth in recreational use of the sea all bring new challenges for the agency, in managing the
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sea safely for commercial and leisure users alike, and in new pressures on the specialists who make up the agency’s staff.

Mr. Carmichael: I do not think that any of us would really take issue with what the Minister says about the need for long-term reform. That is understood by the operational staff. However, we should have been having this conversation three or four years ago. Now morale in the agency is already through the floor. I want to hear from the Minister what he will do about changing that. Jam tomorrow just does not cut it any more.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and have heard it from the unions. I understand the pressure that hon. Members, staff and the unions feel, and I acknowledge it. I shall try to explain where I think we shall go from here in my last few comments.

A broader remit and a more sophisticated use of available technologies will also lead to a demand for new skills and work practices. Those in turn will inevitably require a new pay structure. The MCA senior management have already made a start. There has been a fundamental reorganisation of the agency’s headquarters staffing structure, bringing together all its customer-facing parts. To improve the strategic leadership focus of the agency the chief executive is reducing the number of directors from five to three. To take things further to the point at which new pay structures might be developed, the current industrial action needs to be replaced by a willingness on both sides to talk about the future and the positive challenges that it could bring the agency. There are, I am sorry to say, no quick fixes available. The MCA management and unions need to sit around a table to discuss the relationship between pay and the future work of the agency. It would be very disappointing if maritime safety and the UK’s reputation as a well respected maritime administration were to suffer because of an inability to find a solution to the current dispute. It would be in no one’s interest for that to happen.

Mr. Carmichael: We had a comparability study in 2006, and we have the pay benchmarking analysis from 2007. People have been around the table and done the work, but the situation still gets worse.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I again acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate says. I must repeat that for this year the settlement has been imposed. We are interested in considering, as we have been discussing with other areas of the public sector, multi-year deals. For next year that is probably not practicable, because of where we are in the negotiating cycle with the Treasury for next year’s remit. We must get to grips with what we are putting into the Treasury, which means that the MCA and unions must work out exactly where they are going.

Mr. Carmichael: This year’s pay settlement was imposed, and so was last year’s, and so, I think, was the one for 2006. Is that how we are going to solve this?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Sadly, if we are unable to reach agreement on pay settlements, imposition is clearly the only way in which we can get the money that is available into people’s pockets, despite the dissatisfaction that individuals feel, because of the nature of pay dealings. I
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am not happy about the situation; neither, clearly, are hon. Members, nor the staff and unions. The management of the MCA are not happy either. They need to work out the demands for this year, and the new structures and skills, and make the bid for the upskilling of staff.

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Minehead Driving Test Centre

11 am

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Benton. I am grateful for the chance to discuss this matter. I am delighted to see that the Minister is still here—it is a long day for him. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) can go home; Minehead test centre takes over.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I promise the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that I will not stay for this debate as well, but I suspect that I know what the hon. Gentleman’s argument will be. I too have problems with the management of the Driving Standards Agency. If I were to stay, he might reasonably anticipate substantial support from me.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is not a local man, but they have cars in Orkney and Shetland, I suppose.

I look to the Minister for an old-fashioned common-sense approach—a commodity too often in short supply here in Westminster, I am sorry to say. This is not merely the story of one little driving test centre fighting for its own survival. In Somerset alone, the axe is poised to fall on several centres. The Minister has the demeanour of somebody who thinks that he knows the argument pretty well by now, as he has been wheeled out so many times recently to bat for the defence. As he dons his pads and oils his willow again today, I urge him to pause and put a substantial cricket box down his trousers too. I shall be bowling, I hope, with a sure eye and a lot of speed, but I guarantee no spin. I always leave that to the Government.

If the Minister asked his official driver nicely, I have no doubt that he could be whisked down to the bracing seaside town of Minehead, but he should be warned that it is a grunting pig of a journey once one leaves the motorway. Our so-called A road is, unfortunately, much closer to a Z road. The British economy may be going to pot, but Somerset’s roads have long since gone to potholes. The Australian outback and the dirt tracks of downtrodden Delhi offer safer driving conditions. Bumping and bending one’s way from Taunton or Bridgwater towards Minehead is like riding the wall of death on a unicycle. It is not funny; there have been endless fatal accidents.

On the A358 from Williton to Taunton, there have been an average of three deaths a month over the past five years, as well as 161 other casualties. The Liberal Democrats in county hall are Scrooge-like when it comes to running repairs. Her Majesty’s Government have not held them to account, and have looked the other way when we have asked them to make the council spend more money on the roads. As a result, the main road in question is becoming more like a human abattoir. That is not my phrase; it was coined by one of the many highly experienced driving instructors who dread the closure of the Minehead driving test centre. They know the score—they have counted the carnage among their pupils. I have been arguing the case for 10 years against what seems like a blind Government juggernaut: the Driving Standards Agency—the self-contained quango
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monster that seeks to do to driving tests what McDonald’s has done to gourmet cooking. If the DSA has any DNA, I can readily detect some of its genetic faults. It loves to move things around and sometimes, I suspect—I am sorry to say this, but it is common in other Departments—it does so just for the sake of the move.

When Minehead’s test centre was first threatened with closure in 1998, the DSA was based in Newcastle upon Tyne—a fine city from which I hail—but today the DSA is in Cardiff, so look out, boyos. Heaven knows what it cost to move that entire bureaucracy. The DSA’s blinkered ethos has not changed at all. It still has a “let’s offer less and call it more” mentality. It wants to cut radically the number of driving test centres throughout the United Kingdom and replace them with brand spanking new ones, but far fewer of them. That is being done partly in the name of efficiency and partly because the Government have agreed to sign up to new European driving standards, which will mean harder written tests and a more taxing time for motorcycle riders, who are far more vulnerable as road users.

I have no problem with making the tests more stringent, but I protest strongly about using the stiff new motorcycle tests as one of the key reasons for shutting my local driving test centre. We do not test motorcyclists in Minehead, and we never have, but of course it must seem so much easier to lump everybody together in one place and pretend that money is being saved. The brave new world of multi-purpose driving centres sounds so mouth-watering.

Here are some of the super, soar-away, sexy details about the DSA’s plans, taken this morning from its website:

Hurray, just what we always wanted. Here we are wetting ourselves in case we run over the white lines or an old lady, and the DSA wants us to watch grisly road safety films first. The website also says:

Oh yeah? I have not heard of any such discussions. That sounds like politically correct garbage. I have yet to meet a driving test candidate who ever went back to the driving test centre, except to take the test again. The website continues:

That is bad grammar. It is also total bunk, because of the appalling state of the roads.

That is completely irrelevant, as I have said.

According to the website, there will be

That is not actually a problem in Minehead. We have quite a lot of parking. There will also be posh new loos and showers for the staff. As any Blackpool landlady would say—the Minister and I have suffered it—“Shower, lad? You should have had a shower before you came.” We have all been there. The next one takes the biscuit:

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What are they talking about? When I took my driving test, I was far too worried about mucking up the three-point turn to notice the colour-co-ordinated fabric on the chairs in the waiting room, although it is a while ago now. Given the nervous state of most driving test candidates, cheap wipe-down surfaces might make more sense—stand by with the Dettol.

Unfortunately, the situation is serious. It has been 10 ridiculous years in the making, involving an ever-changing list of excuses for closing a perfectly good and popular local test centre. I ask the House to think back to 1998, when the famous song “Things Can Only Get Better” was still ringing in our ears. I am sure that we all remember it, although perhaps not in Crewe and Nantwich. The sight of Peter Mandelson humming along still gives us all the shivers, I suspect, but never mind. In 1998, Cherie Blair had not yet been on an overnight trip to Balmoral, and the Minister had no wrinkles at all, and perhaps even no grey hairs. With your permission, Mr. Benton, I quote the Driving Standards Agency’s excuse of the year 1998 for wanting to shut the Minehead test centre:

Ten years later, we still have no dual carriageways, and 50 mph is the average speed between Minehead and Taunton and Bridgwater. That is what the signs say.

We also have incredibly dangerous roads. If we seriously intend to teach people to drive safely on such roads, surely the best and only way is to teach and test in the area itself, but the DSA wants to shut the Minehead centre and move everything to Taunton, to one of the flash new centres with road safety films and cloth seats. How are poor young drivers going to get to the test centre? Down the killer roads, of course, but when they take off for the test centre, they will not have a driving instructor next to them with dual controls in case something goes wrong. If the DSA gets its way, test candidates will be accidents waiting to happen on their way along some of Britain’s most dangerous roads. I am not talking through my hat—that is what the police and the most experienced driving instructors say.

I am afraid that one size does not fit all if one lives in west Somerset, and I would suggest that one size should not be made to fit all when flesh and blood are at stake. The DSA is putting itself at risk of causing people serious harm, or perhaps worse. We need to keep our test centre because—I am going to be crude—we need to keep death off our roads. Driving is not a luxury in my neck of the woods, but an expensive day-to-day necessity. The roads are in a poor state of repair, but it requires infinite patience to take a bus, because the county council has cut bus subsidies as well as being incredibly mean with fresh tarmac. If the test centre is shifted to the county town, the driving instructors will have to go too, and so will their customers. They will have to go to Taunton to take meaningful lessons, but it costs a lot of money to get to Taunton—more money. I am genuinely concerned about the possibility of some young people simply shrugging their shoulders and breaking the law instead. The whole country has a problem with unlicensed driving—that is not news. However, by moving the centre to Taunton we might be encouraging even more lawlessness, which nobody wants.

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