“Involvement In the Budget process necessarily involves close contact between the Treasury and the OBR”.

Close working also means that the OBR has access to all Government information to ensure that its conclusions reflect the most accurate and up-to-date information. It is therefore right that the OBR provides the Government with pre-release access to its forecast in order to ensure the accuracy of both it and the Budget documents, which are published simultaneously.

It is also right that there is transparency in the approach to the sharing of information. The OBR has chosen to follow the well-established pre-release practices put in place by the Office for National Statistics. I can assure the House that this arrangement does not compromise the OBR’s independence. It is an approach

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that has worked well for the ONS. The OBR has been transparent about when reports have been shared. It confirmed in its November “Economic and fiscal outlook”:

“We have come under no pressure from ministers, advisers or officials to change any of our conclusions.”

The OBR’s access to Government information distinguishes it from other UK forecasting organisations, and ensures that the Chancellor and Parliament are provided with the most up-to-date information regarding the latest UK economy and public finance figures.

I understand the rationale behind amendment 6. However, given the practicalities of the OBR’s accountability to the Chancellor and its role in producing the official forecasts, we feel that it is better for it to act on its own decision to follow the ONS pre-release guidelines. I will resist both amendments.

Chris Leslie: I am getting used to the hon. Lady’s resistance to our amendments. One day we will persuade her to accept even the smallest, most generous Opposition amendment, but perhaps not to this Bill.

I understand the points that the hon. Lady made about amendment 2 and costings. I know that there have been attempts to broaden access. If and when we hit obstacles or refusal to publish, we will come back to her to try to get more information into the public domain. However, I accept that she is committed to a particular direction of travel, so we shall not press the amendment.

On amendment 6, the Minister seems to understand that several members of the Public Bill Committee might have hoped for an Office for Budget Responsibility that looked more akin to the Congressional Budget Office or a parliamentary budget office, and was a little bit closer to the legislature and less cosy with the Executive. She knows why we want that. If the OBR places absolute primacy on its independence and impartiality, we must surely move away from any perceived suspicion that it is too close to or cosy with the Executive of the day.

We know that there is due to be a review of the OBR within a number of years. How that review will take place is a bit of a moot point, but we will come to that in due course. The Economic Secretary understands that we will be watching carefully for circumstances in which the OBR is too close to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is vital for it to remain distant from, and impartial between, the political parties. It must also have a good dialogue with Parliament.

Those are the important points that we wanted to make, and we know that the OBR will be listening to this debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Queen’s consent signified.

7.11 pm

Justine Greening: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As we have heard, this is an important Bill. It puts the new Office for Budget Responsibility on a statutory footing, and puts in place reforms to the corporate governance of the National Audit Office.

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As part of a new and enhanced fiscal framework, the OBR is being established to make independent assessments of the public finances and the economy. For the first time the judgments underpinning the official forecast will be determined by independent experts, not Treasury Ministers. Since the coalition was formed last year, every official forecast for the economy and the public finances has been produced by the independent OBR. When the Chancellor presents his Budget tomorrow, it will be accompanied by the OBR’s official forecast. The establishment of the OBR has been welcomed by the International Monetary Fund and the OECD.

The main duty of the OBR, as we have heard, is to examine and report on the sustainability of the public finances. The Bill makes it explicit that the OBR has complete discretion over how it carries out its statutory duties. That is a broad remit. It is not limited to forecasting, but the OBR will be required, as a minimum, to produce economic and fiscal forecasts at least twice a year; make an assessment of the likelihood of the Government meeting their fiscal mandate alongside those forecasts; publish a sustainability report at least once a year; and publish a report on the accuracy of its forecasts at least once a year.

The OBR must perform its duty objectively, transparently, impartially and on the basis of Government policy. Those principles will protect independence and ensure that there is a clear separation between analysis and policy making. Analysis is rightly the domain of the OBR, but policy making is the responsibility of publicly elected Ministers.

The charter for budget responsibility will set out further details on the OBR’s remit. A full draft was published in November, and a final version will be laid before Parliament once the Bill has come into force. The OBR will report directly to Parliament on the public finances. The budget responsibility committee will be available for Select Committee scrutiny. The OBR’s forecasts and analysis will be laid before the House. On funding, there will be separate reporting of the OBR’s expenditure in the estimate that the Treasury presents to Parliament. In addition, the OBR will be able to submit an additional memorandum, alongside that of the Treasury. As we have heard, written questions will be passed to the OBR to be responded to. All those measures will enhance the ability of Parliament and the public to hold the Government to account for their fiscal policy.

The OBR will have its own legal identity, and will be a civil service employer, to allow appropriately skilled staff to move easily to and from the OBR. The OBR’s executive responsibilities will be led by the three-person budget responsibility committee. Its members will be appointed by the Chancellor, and the Bill provides the Treasury Committee with a veto over their appointment and dismissal. The Chancellor has said that he is giving the Treasury Committee that veto to ensure that there is no doubt that the individuals leading the OBR are independent and have the support and approval of the Treasury Committee. All staff will report to the chair of the OBR, and that person will control the hiring and firing of staff. To provide support and constructive challenge, there will be at least two non-executive members. Advertisements for those members will be issued shortly, so that they can be in place before the summer recess.

Part 2 of the Bill modernises the governance of the National Audit Office. It will strengthen the resilience and integrity of that body, which is best placed to assess

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the Government’s use of public funds at this time of fiscal constraint. It builds on the recommendations of the all-party Public Accounts Commission’s 15th report and has commanded support on all sides of this House. The provisions passed through the House in substantially the same form in the previous Parliament, when they were considered as part of the previous Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, just before the election.

The Bill has benefited from much parliamentary scrutiny. Before it was introduced, the Treasury Committee produced a detailed inquiry into these matters. I am pleased to say that the Bill is very much in line with the recommendations made in that report. I thank the Committee for the interest it has taken. When the Bill was introduced in the other place it received extensive debate. The Government tabled a number of amendments to bolster the OBR’s remit and to enhance the arrangements for the scrutiny of its work, which were welcomed.

Finally, the Bill has been debated at length in this House. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken and participated, in particular the Opposition spokesmen, the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie). I hope that hon. Members will agree that even though we have not reached a meeting of minds on some of the detail, there is much more on which we agree in principle.

The Bill is a key part of the Government’s fiscal reforms. It will provide an independent assessment of the public finances and the economy, with official forecasts from independent experts, not Treasury Ministers. The Bill will provide a strong institutional foundation for the future through the OBR, and I commend it to the House.

7.16 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The Opposition support the Bill. It has been debated at length in the other place and in this House on Second Reading, in Committee and—perhaps at greater length than some of us anticipated—on Report today.

Not much has been said during the passage of the Bill about part 2, which relates to the National Audit Office. That is not least because it implements the measures that were introduced in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. It is fair to say that there is widespread agreement on part 2.

As was clear in previous proceedings, there is similarly common agreement on the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility and on placing it on a statutory footing. We did, however, table a number of amendments in Committee to challenge some of the details of how the OBR will function, as one would expect from the Opposition. In particular, we addressed the concern that has been expressed inside and outside this House that the OBR may not turn out to be sufficiently independent from the Government. For the public to have confidence in the OBR, it has to be seen to be independent. That is why we proposed measures that would have made it more accountable to the House and measures that would have increased the role of the Treasury Committee. We also wanted to ensure that the division between the Treasury and the OBR in terms of staffing and premises was enshrined in law. We are grateful for the assurances that the Economic Secretary gave in Committee on those points. We also welcome

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her promise that substantive details of the contact between OBR staff and the Minister’s special advisers and private office staff will be published.

We were also concerned about the potential overlap between the OBR’s responsibilities and the Bank of England’s economic forecasts. We therefore proposed that the Bill provide for a memorandum of understanding to ensure that there was clarity from the outset for all parties. I urge the Economic Secretary to ensure that the memorandum is subject to proper scrutiny in this House. I hope that the OBR and the Bank of England will in time formally agree their working relationship.

We consider that a crucial way to secure the independence of the OBR is to ensure transparency in its funding so that the budget responsibility committee is not at the mercy of the Treasury and vulnerable to the whim of the Chancellor. Comparisons with other countries were made earlier. In Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Officer published two critical reports of the Government in its first year. It is difficult to divorce that from the fact that its budget was frozen, despite promises that it would be increased by a third. Some people would say that that was not a coincidence.

Likewise, Sweden has a similar organisation to the OBR in its Fiscal Policy Council, which reported that its resources were not sufficient to enable it to carry out its remit properly. In response, the Minister for Finance suggested that the council’s budget be cut. We obviously want to avoid a situation like that, and we have received assurances from the Economic Secretary that the OBR’s funding is secure for the next five years. We very much welcome that.

Much of the OBR’s decisions and remit will be based on the charter, so it is disappointing that we have not had the opportunity to scrutinise the revised charter today alongside the Bill given that it is so central to the OBR. The Economic Secretary has assured us that it will be published promptly after Royal Assent, which we expect in no time at all, so we look forward to a full debate on the charter in the Chamber before too long.

Although we support the principle of the OBR and the Bill, we have reservations about how the OBR will work in practice. A major concern is the Treasury’s insular conception of economic policy and sustainability, which seemingly allows it to focus narrowly on the deficit and to ignore the consequences of its own policies. Rising unemployment, rising inflation, as seen in today’s figures, and falling growth are not sustainable and cannot be ignored, so we hoped that the Government would allow the OBR the latitude to take into account those crucial determinants for the long-term recovery, even if the Treasury will not. Unfortunately our amendments were rejected, so we could not enshrine that in the Bill, but we hope that a truly independent OBR will include those matters in its remit. The House may well return to the definition of “sustainability” and the issue of intergenerational fairness when we come to debate the revised charter.

During Labour’s last Budget, the present Prime Minister was fond of claiming that our growth forecasts did not match those of the independent experts. In fact, they were consistently much more reliable than he made out. He concluded:

“What we need is a proper independent office of Budget responsibility, which we would set up to set independent forecasts and to keep the Chancellor honest.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 268.]

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I agree with the present Prime Minister, for once, about the need for that, but as is so often the case, the reality does not match his rhetoric. Now we have the OBR, but its independence has been undermined by the release of favourable figures in time for a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Moreover, the British Chambers of Commerce has described the OBR’s growth forecasts as “too optimistic”, and despite the Prime Minister’s concern that official forecasts should match those of independent experts, it seems that other independent experts disagree with the Government’s independent experts. In February, the consensus forecast for 2011 was 1.9% growth, which was downgraded to 1.8% in March, whereas the OBR forecast was a more optimistic 2.1%. The discrepancy increases for next year’s forecast. The consensus forecast is 2.1%, compared with the OBR figure of 2.6%, which it has already had to downgrade once thanks to the Government’s policies.

The differences between the OBR and consensus forecasts could be critical. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which the Government seem to respect on the occasions when it says anything favourable about their policies, has reported that they will fail to achieve their fiscal mandate to

“achieve cyclically-adjusted current budget balance by the end of the rolling, five-year forecast horizon”

if growth does not meet the OBR’s central economic forecast. Whether the Chancellor will achieve his fiscal mandate is clearly in the balance, and although he may use the OBR figures, it would be a great mistake if we held the OBR responsible for whether he fulfils that mandate. Only the Treasury can determine that.

Fundamentally, and finally, we have to remember that the Bill places no enforceable obligations on the Chancellor for responsible fiscal policy. The OBR can report on the state of the economy, and its analysis will no doubt be very valuable, provided it is genuinely independent. However, the Government already have a track record of ignoring expert advice and indisputable evidence that their policies are failing.

The British Medical Association and almost every health organisation that we care to think of warned against the Health Secretary’s reckless experiment with the national health service, but with the Prime Minister’s full backing, he ignored the evidence and carried on regardless. The IFS published independent research proving that the Government’s June Budget and comprehensive spending review would disproportionately hurt women and children and the most vulnerable people in our big society, but the Chancellor ignored the evidence and carried on regardless.

The Office for National Statistics reported that unemployment had reached a 17-year high and that youth unemployment was at its highest level ever, and the OBR itself reported that the Tory-Liberal Democrat plans would mean 110,000 more people on the dole by the end of this Parliament, but did the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions review their policies in the light of that evidence? No, they ignored the evidence and carried on regardless.

The OBR downgraded growth forecasts after the coalition’s emergency Budget, and again as a result of its comprehensive spending review, and the economy

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contracted by 0.6% in the last quarter of 2010, proving that the Government’s policies had undermined the economic recovery, but the Chancellor ignored the evidence and blamed it on the snow. The question for the House is whether we can do enough to secure the status of the OBR so that ideologically driven Ministers cannot just disregard its reports.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kerry McCarthy: No, I am just drawing to a close.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the principles of objectivity, transparency and impartiality are respected, particularly when she lays the revised charter before the House. Most importantly, we seek assurances that Ministers will actually listen to the evidence provided by the OBR and respond accordingly.

When the Chancellor came to office, unemployment was falling, growth was predicted at 2.3% for this year, inflation was lower and falling, and borrowing had come in £20 billion lower than was forecast in 2009. I do not need to tell the House again how the Chancellor has reversed that recovery, but that is the context in which we must consider the role of the OBR. The office is intended to report on responsibility, but it cannot guarantee responsibility. That is the Chancellor’s role, and it is about time he realised it.

7.25 pm

Stephen Williams: This is a short but very important Bill which I hope will change the conduct of economic debates. Of course, we have a Budget and days of economic debate starting tomorrow. I do not know whether the former Prime Minister and Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), is going to be with us in person, but I am sure that his parliamentary ghost will be with us as we remember Budgets from previous years. We remember his earlier Budgets and his close relationship with Prudence, and we remember that after the 2001 general election was safely out of the way, spending soared. So began the structural deficit, long before the intervention of the banking crisis.

I remember listening to those Budgets, autumn statements and pre-Budget reports year after year, both in a professional environment before I became a Member of Parliament and, from 2005, as an MP. I remember listening to the then Chancellor’s reports of rosy growth and nirvana ahead of us. We heard a bit more of that today from my neighbour, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). One would swear that the current Government had inherited a golden legacy in May 2010 rather than the catastrophic public finances that we are actually having to cope with.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman recall that at the time, the Liberal Democrats were attacking the Government by saying that they were not spending enough, not that they were spending too much?

Stephen Williams: I recall very well that from 2001 onwards I and my colleagues, whether candidates or Members of Parliament, were saying that the Government should spend more on health and education, but we

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actually said where the money was going to come from. It may not have been popular, and it did not lead to great electoral success in 2001, but we said it should come from an increase in taxation, not from building up a structural deficit over the next six years.

We all remember the Budgets back then—they were essentially a combination of forecasting, policy, boasting and spin. That is why the OBR is so welcome. In the Budget tomorrow, the Government will take political responsibility for the difficult decisions that we have to make. I welcome that, and I welcome the scrutiny of it. It will be based on a separation of forecasting by independent experts and policy making by elected politicians.

There will certainly be no scope for boasting, and I think it will be some time yet before the coalition Government can take credit for rescuing this country from the dire economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. I cannot promise a complete absence of spin—that would be asking too much of all of us—but we will have a Budget based on independent forecasts and sound political judgment, and it will be a better Budget for that.

7.28 pm

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): The Chancellor took a major step by handing responsibility for fiscal forecasting to an independent body, and he took an equally bold step by asking it produce a long-term assessment of the strength of the public finances. He could have opted for a validation model, and instead he has gone for something much more adventurous.

The first inquiry of any significance that the Treasury Committee undertook after it was reformed at the start of this Parliament was on this subject. Rather than wait for the Government to come forward with a draft Bill, we took the initiative and tried to make some suggestions on how we thought it should look. We set eight criteria as minimum requirements for the new body, which for the most part the Government met. I thank the Treasury team for their co-operation in doing what they could to accommodate the Committee’s points.

Absolutely crucial to the success of the new body will be its credibility on independence. To achieve that, some new, groundbreaking arrangements have been made in the relationship between parliamentary Committees and the Executive. The Bill establishes a statutory veto for the Treasury Committee over the appointment of the chairman and executive members of the OBR. This is the first time that a Select Committee has been given such a veto over public appointments, which reflects the importance of cross-party parliamentary oversight of the OBR’s work, and the need for people of the highest calibre and independence to take on the job of running the OBR.

The Treasury Committee has already held its first appointment hearings for the OBR committee, and endorsed the appointments of Robert Chote, Stephen Nickell and Graham Parker. We also welcomed the appointment of two non-executive members. We were particular eager that there should be non-exec oversight of the work of the executives. The non-execs will provide an important check to ensure that the OBR lives up to its requirement to act transparently, objectively and independently.

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Non-execs provide an opportunity for two-way traffic. If the OBR chairman becomes a patsy, they have a good chance of alerting the Treasury Committee at an early stage. If the Chancellor or the Treasury lean on the chairman too much, the non-execs offer a first line of defence. If the OBR chairman gets carried away and starts to offer a running commentary beyond his brief on the overall conduct of fiscal policy, the non-execs, as a first port of call, can say, “Steady on.”

The Committee looked carefully at how the OBR’s success ought to be measured. Economic forecasting is an imprecise art, and success on that cannot necessarily tell us much. To be seen as successful, the OBR must provide clear, impartial forecasts and a commentary that improves public debate on the key issues. It must guard against optimism and pessimism, and above all, it must avoid being drawn into political controversy. The Treasury Committee will monitor how the OBR fulfils those performance criteria. We will watch carefully and speak up if we feel that the OBR is not doing its job properly.

Of course, ultimately and simply, the OBR will be judged on the quality of its publications and its responsiveness to reasonable requests from Parliament or the Government for information or work. A few weeks ago, I wrote on behalf of the Treasury Committee to the OBR chairman to seek further information on the treatment of privatisation receipts in the accounts. Frankly, I was not encouraged by his reply. These are early days, and I very much hope that there is more responsiveness to future requests.

In two ways, the Government did not fully implement the Treasury Committee’s recommendations. The Committee asked that an independent group accountable to Parliament be set up after five years to review the OBR’s work. We said that among other things, that group should examine whether the model for the forecasting body chosen by the Chancellor was the right one in the light of experience. To make that judgment, the group would need to examine both the validation model and the much more independent model—the fully independent model—implied by the Congressional Budget Office in the United States. I think, and the Committee concluded, that judging which model is best should be done after a period of experience of the OBR’s work, which is why we suggested the five-year review. I urge the Government to agree, on a non-statutory basis, that the five-year review should report directly to Parliament rather than to the Government via the non-executives, as the legislation currently envisages.

One other proposal in the Treasury Committee report is that the OBR should retain the ability to assess the robustness of the fiscal plans of major political parties in the run-up to an election. That would enhance the quality of debate and take us forward from the world of claim and counter-claim on Labour tax bombshells and Tory stealth cuts and so on, which often leave the public perplexed and do not necessarily move the debate forward much. Although the Bill does not rule that out, it strongly discourages such a role.

I understand the OBR’s reluctance to get involved in anything that could prejudice its appearance of independence, but I hope the door is not completely closed to the idea. Public understanding of what is at stake in elections could be enhanced by the OBR’s involvement. Furthermore, the need for such scrutiny

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might make parties more careful with their claims and improve their pre-election proposals. I hope we can return to that idea when the OBR’s reputation for independence has been firmly established after a run of years—that could also form part of the five-year review to which I alluded.

Overall, the Treasury Committee was greatly heartened by the degree of engagement from the Government and from the Opposition over the creation of the OBR. That demonstrates that the Select Committee corridor can influence policy rather than just offer critiques of it, which I hope marks a way ahead for improving legislation more widely.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with an amendment.


Sentencing Guidelines (Manslaughter)

7.36 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The petition is of residents of Alyn and Deeside and neighbouring areas, totalling some 3,000 persons.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Alyn and Deeside,

Declares that Peter Jones, a 24-year-old former pupil of Alun School, Mold, died in hospital following an attack by Gafyn Thomas Denman, 21, who is from the Mold area; notes that Gafyn Thomas Denman was found guilty of manslaughter and was jailed for 40 months for an unprovoked attack; further notes that, at the time of sentencing, Judge Merfyn Hughes QC explained that his hands were tied by the sentencing guidelines in cases of “one-punch” manslaughter such as this.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to review sentencing guidelines for those convicted of manslaughter so that sentences can better reflect the severity of the offence.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Driving Test Centres (Closure)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

7.37 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I am very pleased to have secured this important debate on behalf of my constituents in Cumnock and Girvan. I will shortly present to the House a petition signed by thousands of local people who are against the closure of driving test centres there. A pattern is being repeated throughout the length and breadth of the country, with dozens of closures over the last two years. Many closures have happened without any consultation with those directly affected or the local community. As many hon. Members have said, including those who signed early-day motion 1294, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), such closures are against the Government’s own policy of localism.

The overall policy of the Driving Standards Agency has national implications. The proposed closure of the Cardiff office will involve a loss of 70 to 80 jobs. Union members in the DSA already have very low morale resulting from pay restraint, and attacks on redundancy terms and possibly pensions. There is now a commitment to strike action following a ballot of union members. Are the closures driven by a rationalisation programme, which is referred to in documents that, I believe, have been leaked into the public domain? Those documents mention a wish to move from 350 to 400 current testing locations, not all of which are full time, to about 150 main centres. Alternatively, does the rationalisation of test centres into a network of multi-purpose test centres make a more attractive package for a future privatisation?

The Minister’s public statements appear to indicate that his plan is to take testing to the customer by sending examiners to casual hire locations to deliver tests. He talks about testing from libraries, community centres and the like, but in many parts of the country these facilities are being closed as well. There are potential problems with, for example, operating out of supermarkets in terms of what facilities may or may not be made available, dedicated parking slots, suitable test routes and whether there would be too much congestion in and around retail parks for the tests to be uniform and fair. Having said that, if this leads to an appetite to revisit the closure decisions in Cumnock and Girvan, I will welcome it, and I intend to raise practical ways in which this could be done.

I would like to concentrate my remarks on the two centres in my constituency and the resultant loss of local service. Both are in rural areas, both are only too familiar with the never-ending withdrawal of local services and both have suffered from structural changes. In Cumnock, the closure of deep mining devastates the community to this day, and in Girvan, which is a seaside town, there has been a downturn in tourism as people have increasingly taken holidays abroad. Both town centres have been decimated and are in need of urgent regeneration, and in the case of Girvan even the local swimming pool has closed.

It would be difficult to overstate the strength of local feeling in both these communities at what they see as continual neglect and particularly a lack of understanding and empathy about what it is like living in a rural area

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and the difficulties of accessing services. However, given that it is my privilege to represent both communities, I am also very much aware of their resilience and ability to look at constructive solutions to problems.

I want to highlight my disappointment at how these closures were handled in my constituency. There was a consultation process of some four weeks basically over the Christmas holiday period, which was totally inadequate and frankly reprehensible. There was never any intention in my view to acknowledge—far less to listen to—local opinion. I hope that the Minister will feel able to redress that situation this evening. I am proud of the representations both communities have made, and I congratulate them, including those who took the time and trouble to collect signatures for a substantial local petition with the help of local Labour councillors.

What response did they get to their representations? On 3 December 2010, Mr Jonathan Hall from the Driving Standards Agency corporate correspondence unit replied to Girvan community council:

“Decisions on the number, location and size of centres must therefore take into account affordability, existing levels of demand and the Agency’s service level travel-distance criteria, where most customers travel no more than 7, 20 or 30 miles to their nearest test centre, depending on the population density of the area.”

How does that tie in with localism? I will go on to say why I think those distances are unreasonable in these two specific cases.

I will also challenge other comments made by DSA corporate services and by the Minister, but before that I would like to highlight a number of questions and points made to me by local people. In areas where local jobs and small businesses are struggling already, the livelihoods of local driving instructors are now under threat. Whatever the DSA says about a full licence allowing a person to drive on any public road, not simply those on which a person was trained or tested, the reality is that most people prefer, at least for some of the time, to practise near a test centre. Those in Ayr and surrounding areas will still be able to do this, while those in the rural area will not. I believe this is discrimination as well as a diminution of rural services, as I have already stated.

For reasons of familiarity, people will not want to take their lessons in areas where they are not sitting their test. To take a driving test on an unfamiliar route is an extra problem for any learner driver. If that is not the case, why do instructors make a point of taking their customers to streets they know are part of the test runs in their area? If learners know the route of their driving test and have driven it numerous times with a driving instructor, they are surely much more likely to pass the test. Driving instructors in the rural areas in my constituency will lose business to those in Ayr. Girvan, for example, had a driving test centre in the town for more than 60 years. It can take 45 minutes to drive to Ayr, which is a fact I am very familiar with because I do it often. Having a driving lesson and another 45 minutes to drive home can come to two and a half hours for an hour’s lesson. Taking public transport to lessons with a local driving instructor in Ayr is not unproblematic, because transport is often not that frequent and adds to cost. For that very reason it is essential for many people in these rural areas to drive for access to education and employment.

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The DSA is obviously unaware of the logistics around Cumnock and Girvan and has taken the decision to close the facility purely on a theoretical basis of mileage. Many rural villagers already need to travel some distance to get to Cumnock or Girvan in the first place. As one constituent told me:

“My local test centre is Girvan, but I live a further 15 miles away and the total mileage I would have to travel to the Ayr Driving Test Centre is 37 and a half miles.”

I want to say a word about the new Ayr multi-purpose test centre, which is to serve Cumnock and Girvan following these closures. I welcome the new facility and lobbied the then Government to make sure it went ahead. It is great to have a new super-duper facility in any area, but it should not be at the expense of services to rural areas, especially when there are other ways of cutting costs. The DSA conducted 789 tests at Cumnock and 268 at Girvan in the last financial year. I think that I have made it clear that the decision should not just be about numbers, but it is recognised in both these communities that driving tests being conducted in the areas could be less frequent. However, can the Minister confirm that the same examiner passes through Girvan once each week to go to Stranraer?

Surely a common-sense solution could be found here. Both communities have suggestions for maintaining a reduced service at little cost in accommodation. East Ayrshire council has unanimously agreed, on a cross-party basis, that it will look at offering the premises it owns in Cumnock at a peppercorn rent. Girvan community council has acknowledged that there is no need for an examiner every week given the numbers, but that every four to six weeks would suffice. I said earlier that these communities are proactively seeking a solution, rather than just talking about it. Will the Minister be prepared, as the Prime Minister has done in other cases, to look at this again, given the good will there is to seek an agreement?

My worry about what is being done by the DSA is that in rural Scotland, the test demand may not be sufficient to justify a proper test centre. However, these people pay the same fee as those in more populous parts, so why should they get a lesser service? All this, as I have tried to indicate, could add to the costs of learning to drive and increase the problem of unlicensed driving, which has road safety implications and will impede the economic development of areas already hard hit by the current economic situation. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, which I know will be followed closely by my constituents, and I hope that he can suggest a positive way forward.

7.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) for securing this debate. I am sorry but I am not responsible for swimming pools or libraries in her constituency—I believe it is a devolved issue that she needs to take up with the Scottish Parliament. However, I understand where she is coming from.

I was surprised to hear that the hon. Lady was campaigning so hard for the Ayr centre. What Ministers should have said at the time to the hon. Lady was that if the plans went ahead, there would closures in her constituency at the other centres, given the capacity that

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the Ayr centre was designed to have. That is a fact, and given the capacity of what was designed, that is exactly what is happening. If I had been the Minister, I would not have gone ahead with a programme of that size in Ayr, because—I agree with her on this—it is taking away a service from her constituency. I know that she has heard me speak before on this subject; indeed, she extensively quoted my views on where tests should be. They should be in the community—they should be a service to the community that the Driving Standards Agency provides, not a Soviet-style system that makes everybody come to us.

Sandra Osborne rose

Mike Penning: If the hon. Lady does not mind, I will continue. It is unusual to give way in an Adjournment debate, because of the limited time we have.

I understand the concerns that have been raised, particularly by driving instructors, and I will try to deal with them. There are some big issues that we need to deal with, not least the many people who go out with someone who they think is a licensed and qualified driving instructor, but who is not actually qualified. That is an issue that I am taking up with the industry. It is wrong that people pay good money and in good faith, thinking that they have a fully qualified instructor, when what they have is someone who is just trained. Not all driving schools allow that, but it is allowable under the existing legislation, which I will look at carefully.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the service that is provided, within reason, in the kind of urban and rural communities that she and I serve. I accept that hers is a much larger rural community than mine, but I have many parts of the beautiful Chilterns in my constituency. I see lots of learner drivers, particularly at the weekend, learning how to drive on rural roads—as well as on urban roads—because that is a skill that they need to adjust to as they learn to drive.

We have reformed the test quite extensively in the short period in which I have been the Minister. One of the reforms that I have introduced is to ensure that instructors do not know exactly what the route is, because people can learn a route, but does that teach them to drive? The purpose of the test is to give people skills so that they can enjoy driving on the road, while at the same time ensuring that others are safe. What currently happens—the hon. Lady is absolutely right about this—is that instructors know exactly what the routes are, within reason. They take people round and round the circuit in their lessons, so that when they take their tests, they normally go along one of three or four routes, which they probably know back to front. We will stop the routes being published. We will develop new routes, so that instructors will not know what the likely routes are.

It is a testament to the hon. Lady’s understanding of her constituents’ needs that, as well as putting a petition together, the local authorities and the community have come together to look carefully at what the service provision needs to be and how it can be delivered. As she knows, neither I nor this Government is fixated on bricks and mortar. What I am interested in is the service

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being delivered to the community. I am not sure that the Public and Commercial Services Union is fully on board with that, but I am sure that we will get there eventually, because what it wants to do is the same as what I want to do, which is to provide a service to the community.

The previous Government’s policy was to implement a closure programme. I have suspended the closure programme while we address the question of how we can deliver facilities and tests to communities. I cannot go back on the campaign that the hon. Lady said she was so in favour of, but the new Ayr centre is now in place. It has a rather large capacity—much greater than the needs of Ayr—and was designed so that other areas would close their facilities, which would then come into a hub. I will not repeat myself too much, but I would not have done that, and it does not fit with this Government’s ideas of how we should deliver the service.

However, what I am doing—I have asked my officials to proceed with this, and they have already started—is speaking to local stakeholders, including councils in the areas where closures are taking place, to see whether we can deliver a service in the hon. Lady’s community that is not about bricks and mortar, but about tests being given. In two areas we are looking at delivering around 1,300 tests in the average year, with about 80% in one centre and 20% in the other. She is absolutely right that the figures suggest that we could send a tester every day—or every other day—to do one test, or we could bring the tests together in a package and have a tester arrive every four to six weeks. My figures indicate that it would be closer to every four weeks, particularly in certain parts of the year, when there tend to be more tests than in others.

It is crucial that the community understand that the service is for them. I know that my officials have been talking to the chief executive of the local authority about how we can facilitate that, which is something that the hon. Lady mentioned. As she is aware, in one case we were using a hotel in her constituency as a headquarters before we got a hub centre. I do not mind if it is in a hotel or a supermarket; indeed, if the libraries in her constituency stay open, I do not mind if it is based in one of their car parks or in a civic centre.

It is crucial that the service should be delivered locally, although let us remember that this is not all about the instructors. I stupidly sat next to my daughters on several occasions when the L plates were up, and it was the most frightening experience known to man—for them, I should stress, not for me. This debate is not all about instructors, but there is an industry out there and I am conscious of their needs. If everything is done in Ayr, there will perhaps be an issue with people looking to the Ayr driving schools rather than their local schools. I do not want everything done in Ayr; I want it done in the hon. Lady’s constituency. We are working hard to ensure that localism is delivered, because people pay for a service and they are entitled to it.

Let me quickly touch on some of the other changes to the test, which is vital to the hon. Lady’s constituents. I do not think that the test in its present form delivers what it is intended to, which is not a group of people who can pass a test, but people who have the skills that allow them—this is particularly true for young people—the freedom to enjoy the road while at the same protecting others. I have already said that we will ban the publication of routes, so that when people leave the test centre, the

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Sainsbury’s car park or the local council offices, they will not know exactly where they are going to go—clearly they will have to go left or right, but they will not know exactly where they will go after that.

At the same time, people who are learning need the skills for when they do not have someone sat next to them, as a companion or guide, or as someone telling them when they have done something wrong. Therefore, we are introducing a part of the test where people will be asked to go from one place to another without being told how to. They will have to find a route themselves by reading the road signs. Some people have said that they are concerned about this, and have asked whether people will fail their test if they go in the wrong direction. No, they will not; it is how they react to making a mistake that is crucial when we are trying to teach them how to be good drivers.

We have a massive issue in the whole of this great nation of ours with young drivers. That is one of the reasons their insurance premiums are so high. With two daughters, I am proud to say that lady drivers—and particularly younger lady drivers—are much safer than boy drivers. Indeed, 17 to 25-year-old girls are some four times safer than 17 to 25-year-old boys. We must work together to ensure that they have the skills that they need to go forward. One of the proposals that we have made is for qualified driving instructors to be able to use roads that learners do not usually use, particularly motorways. It seems ludicrous that someone can pass their test with someone else sitting next to them, then leave the test centre—perhaps the instructor will have taken someone else out on another test, in another car—and be legally allowed, on their own, to drive for the first time ever at 70 mph on a motorway. Frankly, they will probably be petrified—I know I was very frightened when I first went on a motorway, and I know my daughters were as well.

We are therefore looking at giving fully qualified instructors the ability to teach enhanced skills, including post-test. Indeed, a lot of work is being done with the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the AA and the RAC on what skills we can give people when they have passed their test, so that they face less of a liability in their insurance. That is the sort of steer and guidance that we need from the DSA and Government. It is not about regulating, but about giving people the skills that they need.

The hon. Lady asked me for an assurance that we will bring testing to her community. Yes, we will, and we will do it as soon as we can. Pilots have already started around the country. I hope that the union will support

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what is being done, because it will protect jobs rather than cause them to be lost. We will need people, albeit that they will not be sitting in a building. I remember the vicar of the first church I went to in my constituency saying to me, “It’s not about buildings, Mike. It’s about people. That is what the Church means.” The same applies to services in the community.

We need to deliver this much-needed service in the community, so that people can have the skills that they need—and at cost, so that they can afford them. In a rural community, passing the driving test is one of the great freedoms that we can give to young people. We need the skills to do that, and we need to bring that service to them at no extra cost to them. That is crucial. Buildings cost a lot of money. The hon. Lady mentioned a peppercorn rent, but in some cases, there might be no rent involved at all. Some commercial organisations might welcome the footfall that would come to them while people were waiting to take their test, if their location became known as the test centre.

I have an open mind on who should deliver these services. As I have said, discussions are going on in the hon. Lady’s constituency with her local authority, and I am more than happy to share with her after the debate the information on who we have been talking to. Perhaps she also has ideas about who we should talk to. We will deliver driving tests in the community, where they should be, rather than a huge distance away, which was the previous Government’s policy. I have inherited that policy, but I will not continue with it.

8.1 pm

Sitting suspended (Order , 21March).

8.29 pm

Royal Assent

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

National Insurance Contributions Act 2011

Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011.

Question put, That this House do now adjourn.

Question agreed to .

8.30 pm

House adjourned.