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I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his apposite contribution. He is in a unique position in that, as he said, he has
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represented both Basildon and his present constituency. As the proposal is to move the test centre from Southend to Basildon, he could be said to have addressed the issue from both ends. He knows both areas very well, and I hope that the Minister will give weight to what he has said as well.

It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) in his place. I know that he takes an interest in these matters, and he gave a pertinent example from his constituency tonight.

I too have constituents who may be affected by the move. Some are potential students, while others are instructors working from the existing test centre who have written to me urging me to raise the issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so on their behalf.

Let me ask the Minister a few specific questions. The first concerns the European Union directive that lies at the heart of the change. Was it passed on the basis of unanimity, or by qualified majority voting? I think we should have that on the record. It is often argued that Europe has no real impact on our day-to-day lives, but this is a perfect example of its having such an impact. A directive—in effect, a European law—was passed, and some time later we have seen a change “on the ground”. I consider it important for the House to know the background to that change, the method by which the directive was passed, and the Government’s position on it.

There is also an environmental point to be made. If the Minister is at all familiar with the roads that link Basildon and Southend, the A127 and the A13, he will know that they can become very busy. When the traffic is light, it is possible to travel at a reasonable pace between the two towns, but when it is at all heavy, it can take a long time to get out of Southend and then down to Basildon. If the standard driving lesson lasts an hour, it is likely that, for a fair part of the day, by the time a student has worked his way out of Southend, perhaps been picked up by the instructor at home, got on to one of the two main roads and reached Basildon, the bulk of that hour will have gone. A lesson lasting at least two hours will be necessary to familiarise the student with the roads around the test centre. That will add to the costs incurred by the student, and the costs that instructors will have to charge.

That last point is particularly pertinent. The service provided by instructors for their students will become more expensive. As I think the Minister will agree—without our getting involved in a debate about global oil prices—we all know that instructors’ costs are rising because the cost of petrol has increased considerably. That imposes additional pressure on the instructors, who must raise their fees to cover the cost of the petrol. Now they will sometimes have to make their lessons longer, and more expensive, in order to convey their students to the area where they will practise on the test route. That is a practical, down-to-earth point, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East said, the Essex university campus in Southend has been something of a local success story. As a result, thousands of people who are at the prime age for learning to drive are moving to the area. The Government therefore find themselves in the rather odd position of seeing a large number of potential driving students moving to Southend while they are
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proposing to move the test centre to Basildon. My hon. Friend’s point bears repetition and I ask the Minister to take it on board.

It is not appropriate to make this a partisan debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West pointed out that all the local parties in the Southend area are opposed to the move so I am not trying to politicise the debate. However, there is a wider issue about the degree to which the Government are getting their message across in the south of England. This could provide the Government with an opportunity to claim that they really are listening to opinion in the south and are taking on points that were put to them. I will be no more partisan than that but the Minister, an old hand in this place, will follow my point. I dangle that not entirely partisan inducement before him and I hope he will listen to it.

At the risk of making an emergency stop, I will halt there. We have a bit of extra time this evening and it is appropriate that we give that time to the Minister so that he has the maximum time to reply. I conclude by saying that this is an important issue locally. A lot of people have taken it seriously and a petition of 3,000 names should not be ignored lightly. I hope that he will take all that into account when he replies.

10.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate on this important issue and on providing a platform for his hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who is his party’s Front-Bench spokesman and appearing under a different guise; quite an accomplishment at the end of a long parliamentary day.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East stated that the Driving Standards Agency proposal for the future of certain driving test centres had already been raised in the House. In those previous debates, the recent and proposed changes to the delivery of driving tests were set out and, for reasons of brevity, I will not cover all that ground again; clearly it is not necessary.

Developing a new national network of driving test centres has been agreed by Ministers not only to facilitate the new European requirements for practical driving and riding tests, but because the new requirements set higher standards intended to provide driving tests that are more relevant to modern driving conditions. We published our “Safe driving for life” consultation document only four weeks ago. The document raises the question of the abject failure rates for first-time driving test candidates and the fact that we are killing so many people on the roads, particularly young people and motorcyclists.

These new European standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties, which are running at more than 3,000 people killed and 30,000 people seriously injured each year. I regret that I am not in a position to answer the question of the hon. Member for Rayleigh on the voting protocol that
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passed this directive, but I undertake to research the matter and to write to him and his hon. Friends with the answer.

As hon. Members know, the new centres are based on updated features that will provide modern facilities for local people. The proposed developments have been designed to create attractive buildings that will fit comfortably into the local environment. They are fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and also support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda.

The new centres, known as multi-purpose test centres or MPTCs, will be suitable for the delivery of practical driving tests for learner car drivers and motorcyclists. Where possible, some will also be used for the delivery of lorry and bus driving tests. The DSA has concluded that between 40 and 50 MPTCs would be required to meet existing service standard criteria. However, to maximise population coverage and minimise the number of candidates who have to travel long distances, it is seeking to develop around 60 MPTCs across the country. The DSA owns or leases more than 400 practical driving test centres—the type described by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. Only in a few exceptions have any of these proved suitable for the development of a full MPTC, so a programme of land acquisition and construction was initiated in 2005.

James Duddridge: I must admit that, on reading the background before the debate, I was confused about why this was being proposed. To me, it seems completely illogical. Is this a cost-cutting exercise? There are 400 sites—is the Minister just trying to realise some cash?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The answer to that is no. However, the DSA is a cost-neutral organisation, so the money that has to be raised will have to be paid for by test fees and transferred to members of the public. Therefore, this is an exercise in managing the cost of these new centres.

Let me deal with that issue now. To date, the DSA has acquired 41 sites. The provision of a national network of MPTCs is expected to cost about £71 million. That cost will largely be recovered through increased fees paid by driving test candidates. As an organisation that relies on test fee income for the provision of its services, the DSA needs to ensure that they are delivered cost-effectively and that avoid unnecessary expenditure. The agency therefore closely examines how it delivers its services and seeks greater efficiencies in the way it conducts its business. This includes reviewing existing driving test centre provision to ensure that, while the service standard is maintained, there is no wasteful over-provision of service.

As I have already mentioned, the DSA has certain service standards that need to be met where possible. In more densely populated areas of the country—all the hon. Gentlemen present have mentioned this issue—where the population density is equal to or greater than 1,250 persons per sq km, most candidates should not have to travel more than seven miles to a driving test centre. I have heard the comments of the hon.
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Gentlemen on this question, and I will ensure that the statistics they quoted are fully taken into account as part of the consultation exercise.

The existing driving test centre at Southend is located in the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions. This is a 1960s building that does not offer the modern facilities that we try to provide for customers and staff wherever possible. There are also concerns that, if the planned redevelopment in the immediate vicinity compromised its suitability as a test centre, the DSA would need to consider relocation for that reason, irrespective of developments in Basildon.

The DSA has considered how best to meet the needs of driving test candidates in the Southend area. It is proposing to move driver testing in the area to a new MPTC facility at Basildon, some 10 miles away, as has been outlined. The Basildon facility would have the capacity to absorb the demand from Southend without compromising waiting time targets, if acceptable. The relocation of the Southend facility to the Basildon MPTC would ensure maximum utilisation of it and improve the facilities available to candidates and staff in the Basildon, Southend-on-Sea and surrounding areas.

As the distance to the alternative facility exceeds the travel distance criterion applicable to the Southend area, the DSA has undertaken a 12-week public consultation, seeking the views of its customers and other interested parties. The consultation period ended on 9 May and the DSA is considering the responses received. I point out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East that a final decision has not yet been taken. I know that the chief executive, Rosemary Thew, is aware of this debate and will ensure that the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, including the environmental impact and the question of consultation with the local authority, are all taken into account.

I have listened to the arguments about the risks from the A13 and A127.

Mr. Amess: My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and I might have misheard the Minister, but we thought that he referred to planned development either side of the existing centre. This is news to us. I do not understand where he has got that from.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have been referring to the information that I have in my brief. I know that the hon. Gentleman was very keen to encourage me to tear up my brief, and I can assure him that I am not going there. In all honesty, I do not have to, because my brief says that, although the consultation ended on 9 May, the process has not concluded and this debate will form part of the chief executive’s consideration. I shall supply details of what is included in my brief in respect of the extant facilities.

James Duddridge: Perhaps I could help the Minister by describing the area. There is no chance of any development, because there is a hospital next door, and the area contains a river that will not be built over and a school playing field. I believe that the Government have legislated against building on that. The point that he made might well pertain to other test centres, but it
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does not pertain to this one, unless he knows something that we do not—although he has said that he has no extra information.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sorry that I am not in a position to give additional information now, but I shall certainly supply that, so that the hon. Gentleman can scrutinise that which I have been given in my brief to explain the background to this issue.

Arguments have been made about the risks of the A13 and A127, and questions have been asked about whether people would be at a disadvantage and whether people are suitably prepared because of the different environments. I am not readily persuaded that that is necessarily relevant to the matter under consideration. The DSA and the Department advocate “Safe driving for life”, and I would expect driving on such roads to be included in the latter part of a candidate’s training regime in any case. It has to be preferable that experience is gained on such roads when the candidates are accompanied by an experienced instructor, rather than when they are unaccompanied novices and possibly driving immediately after they have passed their test.

We also do not support the view that learner drivers need regularly to practise driving in the area close to the test centre. That is not a sound argument for deciding where to locate local driving test centres. Experience should be gained on a variety of roads, and in a variety of traffic conditions and locations to prepare pupils for not only their test but their future driving career. Visits to the test centre need only be, and should only be, for pre-test familiarisation.

I am not for one second suggesting that instructors in the Southend area are taking candidates around the test course only to familiarise them with it. I am sure that people with integrity are delivering the training in the Southend area. However, in certain parts, we suspect that what I have described is exactly what is happening—people are taught how to pass the test and they are not taught how to drive. One of the big issues that we have raised in the training-for-life approach is our seeking to change the module. Instead of the candidate demonstrating that they are able mechanically to handle a vehicle, we are saying that they should show us that they can drive the car. So, the examiner will not get into the car with the candidate and say, “Go to the end of the road and turn left, and then go to the end and take the first right.” Rather, they will get into the car and ask to be taken to the local railway station, the local hospital or the local football ground, whichever involves a well-signposted route along which the candidate would be expected to demonstrate the skills of driving, rather than the training. That is the kind of issue that is being consulted upon at the moment.

In the interests of road safety, driving instructors should be teaching their pupils to drive safely and confidently, not simply to follow known test routes. I would point out that the DSA’s database confirms that some customers from the Southend area choose to take their driving tests at the Brentwood, Tilbury and Chelmsford test centres, and that the Southend test centre attracts customers from the Basildon area. Therefore, many driving test candidates already use the major roads in the area.

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The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the difficulty of striking the right balance between the provision of a satisfactory level of public service and the cost that service incurs. I did say to him that this is not a cost-cutting exercise, but I have explained the background to the costs involved.

Mr. Francois: I am not opposed in principle to candidates getting some experience of driving on arterial roads, but I do not think that the Minister has addressed the issue of the transit time involved in getting from Southend to Basildon under these proposed new arrangements. He has also not dealt with how that would, in practice, be likely to extend the lessons considerably, and how it would therefore extend the costs to students and increase what the instructors would have to charge. Will he attempt to address those matters, because they are important?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am happy to do so.

James Duddridge: I just wish to ask the Minister to return to the issue of cost. He has asserted that this is not a cost-cutting exercise, but if the number of sites is reduced from 400 to 60, 340 sites will be freed up. The Southend site is one of the smallest sites, but it would be worth several million pounds. If the average site is worth £1 million, that is £340 million. The phrase “cost-cutting” is emotive, but I am sure that those involved would wish us to put it to the Minister that cost is a principal driver behind this, rather than the wish to provide good service to the customer. If this was a private sector organisation, it might take a slightly different view.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not a cost-cutting exercise. We will not close all the test centres, only some, because of the requirement to improve facilities. A mix of arrangements is in place across the country. Some sites are leased; others are not. There is a requirement for additional land for off-road testing for motorcycles, and the £71 million I mentioned earlier is a cost that the DSA has to match. We are not, therefore, talking about a cost-cutting exercise.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh made the point about the cost of additional lessons and travelling for the test. In our consultation document on driver training and testing, we have mentioned that this will be a cost-neutral exercise, on the basis that it costs some £1,500 to pass a test. A small minority of people pass their test first time. If we train drivers to a better standard, perhaps through some additional lessons, they will not have to have a second test or a second series of lessons. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and the insurance companies are very interested in drivers being passed to a higher standard, because if novice drivers have fewer crashes—a disproportionate number of crashes involve young drivers and some are killed because many of them think that they are invulnerable—the insurance companies will not have to charge the astronomic premiums that they charge young drivers in their first year. That will come if we can demonstrate that we are training people to a higher standard, that they are safer drivers who have fewer crashes and that they can be trusted. Employers would also be able to take young
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people on with greater confidence and would not have to undertake in-house training, which many companies do at present because they do not trust the driver-training regime. Given the failure figures and the 3,000 deaths, we all want to see safer drivers.

I cannot assure hon. Members that Southend will stay open, but I can say that the points that they have raised will be communicated to the DSA. Senior management will read Hansard and may be watching at the moment, because they know that the debate is taking place. They will be able to observe the strength of feeling and they will also be aware of the 3,000 signature petition presented tonight. They are aware of
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the correspondence, because they have told me about the hundreds of letters that they have received. They are aware that the consultation exercise is necessary because they are outwith their own guidelines on density, and they know that they have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of an objective observer that it has been done properly.

I cannot give the hon. Members the answer that they want, but I can give them the assurance that this is an objective exercise and will be done properly. I will get back to them in due course on the issues on which I said I would give further answers.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o’clock.

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