HC Deb 15 March 1956 vol 550 cc676-86

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

9.36 p.m.

Sir Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the question of the delay in the testing of learner drivers, a matter of which I have given notice to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and I hope that he will attend the debate. I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in his place, and I hope that he will be able to answer the problems which I shall put to the House, but I am a little distressed to note that my other hon. Friend is not yet here.

However, I will develop my argument as best I may and hope that he will at some time attend our deliberations and that if he does not come, my hon. Friend will make a note of what I have to say and suggest to his hon. Friend that he looks at it diligently. I have raised this question with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary by letter and in an interview with him. Whether it is because of the letter and the interview that he is not here tonight, I do not know. It would have been a little more courteous if he had been here, knowing that the House was likely to rise earlier than usual. These matters are of some concern to a number of people in Sheffield.

The problem is that Sheffield has a waiting list for the testing of learner drivers which at present means that there is a delay of two months. By the time the summer comes, if my calculations and general information are correct, that delay, if nothing else is done, will increase to three months. Someone who wants to take a test and who puts down his name and feels able to take a test, possibly in June, will have to wait possibly until September. I believe that that is far too long.

The matter is made even worse by the fact that, owing to the bad weather, 700 cases have had to be put back. These 700 who have already waited two months, will have to wait another two months, making a total of four months' delay. The total number of people waiting for tests in the Sheffield area is 1,300. I should like to quote from the Sheffield Telegraph which says: An official of the Yorkshire Traffic Area headquarters at Leeds"— and I hope my hon. Friend will note that this is from the Parliamentary Secretary's own Department— told the Sheffield Telegraph yesterday: ' We have a tremendous back-log of people waiting to take their tests and it will be seven or eight weeks before we can fix them all up again. That is seven or eight weeks after they have already waited two months. I believe that this merits special consideration. It is not a question of the ordinary run of administration. The matter has become so bad in Sheffield that the Minister should take special cognisance of it and, I suggest, come down to the House of Commons when this matter is raised and deal with it as an emergency.

I want to make it quite clear that I am not suggesting that those who are unqualified to drive should by some method of quick testing get through and possibly be allowed to drive on their own. I am not suggesting that or anything like it. I am suggesting that there is a duty upon the Minister, and through him the Ministry, to consider those people who have properly learned to drive a car and who wish to take their test, and not leave them waiting for this long period.

I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport has now arrived. I am grateful to him for coming to listen to this problem concerning Sheffield. I am sorry that the debate started a little earlier than was expected and that I have developed quite a large part of my argument. I do not propose to go over it again and I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will tell his hon. Friend what I have been saying.

I will point out again the gravamen of the main charge which I am making. First, that there are 1,300 people waiting for driving tests in Sheffield. As I said, the Minister has a responsibility to these people, because some may have bought cars and have to wait a considerable time before they can enjoy the use of them. It is even more likely that they have to hire cars and also take lessons from instructors, which is an expensive business, and they may have to go on hiring cars and taking instructions when they are already able to drive, in order, as they say, to keep their hands in. I believe, therefore, that the Minister has some responsibility towards these people.

I should like to make some suggestions to him. The first and most obvious is one which I know he has carried out—that is to advertise for and to try to get more testers. I appreciate the difficulty, but I believe that is should not be beyond the powers of his Department to get more testers and to get them quickly.

There are two temporary measures which I suggest because I believe the position in Sheffield has now become so bad that there temporary expedients should be taken. The first is that my hon. Friend should approach the Army authorities to see whether it is possible to get experienced Army driving testers, because there are many of these people about, to help deal with the present emergency in Sheffield.

I was explaining, before my hon. Friend arrived, that owing to the bad weather about 700 cases have had to be put back and these people will have had to wait four months before they can be tested. Therefore, this is an emergency which needs special consideration. It might be possible to get over this "hump," as it were, by asking the Army to lend a certain number of men, which I believe it would be prepared to do.

The second suggestion is that it might also be possible to approach the Army to see if sergeants and others, leaving the Forces at the end of their term of service and going into civilian life, could not be canalised into this form of occupation. My third suggestion is that it may be possible to draw in, as a temporary measure, testers from other areas where the backlog is not so great. I cannot believe that the backlog is so big in the rest of the country as it is in Sheffield. It would be a shocking thing if it were. I suggest that this is the sort of administrative problem which has to be met day by day. Such problems are successfully met and I do not think that this is one which the Minister cannot overcome.

I wish to raise with my hon. Friend the question of the administration of these tests. As he knows, at present the administration is through the Leeds office of the Ministry. I understand that in Sheffield about 350 people are tested each week. That is in Sheffield alone. If we took in the neighbouring areas of Rotherham, Barnsley, Chesterfield and Doncaster—I am glad to see the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Barber) is present in the Chamber—it would make an administrative unit such as I believe it is possible to contemplate. When I put this to my hon. Friend during an earlier interview, I thought that he was unfriendly to the idea. I hope that tonight I may hear something more favourable. I should like to know whether he thinks the idea is practicable. I have made inquiries and I believe that there is accommodation available in Sitwell Street, in Sheffield, so that it is not the case that sufficient office room could not be found if an office were to be contemplated for Sheffield.

I have drawn attention to examples of what I think is extravagance in the Leeds administration, such as the use of telegrams and telephone calls. I am glad to say that since I raised the matter the position has improved, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the action he has taken. I believe that the administration has been tightened up. Even so, one continually finds difficulty, if one does not make use of these more expensive forms of communication, because there is long delay regarding letters and communications of that kind. I believe that in Sheffield we have a right to the efficient service which we should get were an office operated in Sheffield to serve Sheffield and the surrounding district.

That brings me to the point about the cost of the administration. I understand that each person tested pays a fee of 10s. which means that from the Sheffield area alone they must be taking about £170 a week. If one allows a reasonable fee for each of the testers it means that on balance there is a profit made out of Sheffield alone of about £70 or £80 a week. That could be used to run an office in Sheffield and so provide a better administrative machine there. The money is available and I see no reason why the service should not also be available.

To sum up, the points which I believe the Minister must face are these. First, an emergency problem has arisen because of the bad weather which has resulted in 1,300 people having to wait to be tested; and I believe that emergency action should be taken, either by bringing in people from outside, or using Service personnel if necessary, so that the duties placed on the Minister by Act of Parliament may be carried out. Secondly, he should consider the provision of a centralised office in Sheffield, which would, I believe, provide a more efficient service for the residents living in Sheffield and district. I believe that that would also result in a financial saving, although my hon. Friend may be able to say more about that tonight. Thirdly, I believe that if my hon. Friend will come to Sheffield—it is not so far away—and look at the problem on the spot, he will realise that there is a special problem. We shall be pleased to see him and to give him every facility.

It is a problem that is getting worse and not better, and one which it is a duty for him to solve. I have suggested some methods by which he might do so. I hope, therefore, that we shall be able to hear from him tonight that these people who are now waiting can have some hope of speedy testing in the future.

9.50 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I should like to begin by apologising to my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley (Sir P. Roberts) for the fact that, owing to transport difficulties in London, I was a little late arriving to answer the debate. It is an extremely good thing that those concerned with the Ministry of Transport should, on occasions, understand how difficult it is to move rapidly about the Metropolis.

My hon. Friend has raised, on behalf of his constituents, the general problem of obtaining a rapid driving test for a person who is applying for a licence. My hon. Friend set out his problems in order. He suggested that the difficulties in Sheffield were worse than in other parts of the country, but I am sorry to say that that is not so. We are confronted with a great problem everywhere.

The average waiting period in Sheffield—between the receipt of an application and the date of the appointment for a driving test—is now about seven weeks. That is also the average for all parts of the country. It is a little worse than it was a short time ago, because many appointments had to be cancelled owing to the bad weather, but in view of our experience in the past of the great increase in the number of applications which occurs when spring and summer come along, we do not expect any great improvement in this respect in the near future.

We are doing all we can to recruit additional driving examiners, and so far this year there has been a considerable improvement. At the same time, the number of applicants each year is increasing more rapidly than we can recruit examiners. In 1953, the Department received 691,000 applications for driving tests; in 1954, this figure had risen to 836,000, and in 1955, to 991,000. We expect that in the current year it may rise to over 1 million.

Recruitment of driving examiners is reasonably satisfactory. We have had many applications, but we do not intend to lower the standard that we require of those who are to be entrusted with responsible work of this kind. I am bound to say, therefore, that although the number of new examiners whom we are recruiting is greater than it has been in the last few years, I am not at all sure that it will be sufficient to deal with the greatly increased number of applicants for driving tests.

My hon. Friend asked whether we were satisfied that our present organisation was as well calculated to deal with the applications which are made as it could be. My hon. Friend sits for one of the divisions of Sheffield and naturally he is anxious to ensure that something special shall be done for Sheffield. That is the duty of all representatives of constituencies, and I make no complaint that he should be raising this matter.

Our general system of administration is this. We have examiners in all the large towns, but we have a different arrangement for fixing appointments. It is obviously desirable that appointments shall be allocated among examiners from a central organisation. We have therefore, not departed from the principle that the allocation of appointments shall be done in the office of the traffic commissioners. Applications from Sheffield are dealt with in the office of the Traffic Commissioner for Yorkshire.

My hon. Friend put forward a plea in favour of Sheffield, which is a large and important city, but we have to take into account the logical consequences if we depart from the general principle that the appointments are allocated where the traffic commissioners have their offices. If we decentralised the job to Sheffield, we should obviously have to do the same for all other large towns. We could not do otherwise, for example, for Liverpool, which at present has no office where these appointments can be made.

In my hon. Friend's own county of Yorkshire, the number of applications in Hull for driving tests last week was larger than it was in Sheffield. Therefore, if once we were prepared to concede the principle for which my hon. Friend is asking it could not be confined to Sheffield, historic and remarkable though that city is.

Sir P. Roberts

Would that be necessarily bad? My hon. Friend has introduced no argument in favour of centralisation. It might be very good to decentralise these things.

Mr. Molson

That was the third point which my hon. Friend raised, and I was going to deal with it in its logical sequence. I am only concerned at the moment to point out, when my hon. Friends puts forward this claim on behalf of Sheffield, that it could not be confined to Sheffield but would necessarily apply to other cities. We have decentralised the offices from which the examiners exercise their duties. The question is how far we should decentralise the making of appointments.

This matter of making appointments is rather difficult. All applications are dealt with in the order in which they are made, and those who apply are able to say whether some particular day of the week suits them and whether there is some particular day when they are in any case unable to accept an appointment.

Those matters are taken into account—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Molson

Those matters are taken into account, and appointments are made to suit, so far as possible, the convenience of applicants.

There are occasions when climatic conditions make it impossible or undesirable for the examination to be held. It would obviously not be fair to the applicant if he were asked to take his test on a day when, owing to frost or fog or snow or whatever it may be, the difficulties of driving were very much greater than they normally are. In those cases we try to give the earliest possible notice to the applicant. It is for that reason that in the application form the applicant is asked to give his telephone number, if any, in order that he may be given the earliest indication that it is not thought suitable for the test to take place that day.

There are also a number of cases—and these give rise, perhaps, to the most bitter feelings—when the examiner himself, owing to illness or some particular cause, is unable to do his work on a certain day. Of course, it does create a great feeling of hardship in the applicant, when he himself is perfectly prepared to take the test and receives, either by postcard or by telephone or by telegram, at the last moment. notification that the examiner is unable to conduct the test. But it is obviously inevitable that that should happen on a number of occasions.

I come, then, to the question of whether my hon. Friend's request is reasonable whether, in Sheffield and in every other place where there are a number of examiners at work, it would be reasonable also to have clerks giving out the appointments. In Sheffield, the work that would be required would be a little more than could be done by one junior clerk and would not be really quite enough to justify the employment of two junior clerks.

Sir P. Roberts

I did suggest that it was easier to cover Doncaster, Rotherham and Chesterfield from Sheffield instead of from Leeds. It is a question of more easy administration.

Mr. Molson

I will come to that question of ease of administration. At the moment I am dealing with the question of whether it is desirable to decentralise the allocation of appointments as well as decentralising the offices from which the examiners work.

When one is trying to allocate appointments for a large number of applicants amongst a number of examiners there is a great deal to be said for centralisation. It means that we are able to treat as a single pool all the applications which are made and to distribute them where the general demand makes it most convenient to do so. If all the applications for appointments, either for Sheffield or for the immediate neighbourhood of Sheffield, were to be made to clerks working in an office in Sheffield, it would be possible for them to allocate appointments amongst the examiners only from the applications which they were receiving from that particular area. We encourage applicants to let us know what day in the week and what hour is most convenient to them for the appointment and when it would be impossible for them to accept an appointment.

If, therefore, we opened a new office in Sheffield, where the appointments were to be allocated, it would be necessary to have more clerks than we have at present in Leeds dealing with the applications from Sheffield and district, and it would also be necessary for one of the two officials dealing with the matter to be of a more senior status in order to deal with difficulties which arose.

As my hon. Friend has been good enough to say, he has both written to me on the subject and discussed it with i me. We have looked carefully into it in order to see whether it would be possible to consult the convenience of the applicants in that area better than it is being consulted at present, and also whether that could be done without any substantial increase in expenditure. After that examination, we do not believe that it would result in any increase in the convenience of the applicants in the area, and we are quite convinced, after having gone into the figures, that it would result in employing officials of a higher category who could not be used as efficiently as they are at the moment. It would therefore result in an increase in public expenditure.

During his speech, my hon. Friend indicated his view that the Government were at present making a profit from tests in Sheffield.

Sir P. Roberts


Mr. Molson

He seemed to me to be of the opinion that we were making a profit out of the tests now taking place in Sheffield. In fact, the cost of administration is greater than the amount which we receive, and we therefore should not feel justified in increasing the loss which we are sustaining at present. We believe that if we did so it would not result in any increase in convenience to his constituents.

Sir P. Roberts

Should I be correct in saying that in my hon. Friend's answer tonight he has taken more account of the administrative convenience of his Department than of the convenience of those in Sheffield who are taking their tests?

Mr. Molson

I had hoped that I had convinced my hon. Friend that from the point of view of his constituents, as from the point of view of everybody else, it is desirable that the allocation of appointments for the whole of Yorkshire should be centralised. I am in no way ashamed to say that the Government are not prepared at present to embark upon increasing facilities if that will lead to increased cost of administration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Ten o'clock.