HC Deb 28 July 1967 vol 751 cc1165-75

12 noon.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I share a great deal of anxiety expressed by hon. Members in the debate which has just taken place on the subject of drugs, because, I, too, am a member of the Committee to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Home Office referred. I, too, am pleased to know that a great deal of new action is being taken on research, as I have also been a member of the Medical Research Council, which is concerned with this aspect of the matter. I am very pleased that these further steps are being taken. I share the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) that the more one learns on this subject the more doubts one is bound to have and the more anxiety one has to secure really effective information which can be passed on with authority to a much greater number of people. I share everyone's hope that during the early period ahead we shall he able to get the more definitive information which everyone agrees is urgently necessary.

I turn now to the subject which I seek to raise, which may seem to many to be much less important. I make no bones about it: it is, indeed, a much less urgent and much less important matter, but one which nevertheless I believe is an example in some respects of rigidity in administrative practices of what I might call minor bumbledom and which I should like to see the Government help to remove. I therefore use a constituency case as an example to suggest that there are still fields where the Government should attempt to look again at administrative practices to see whether greater flexibility can be achieved.

I am referring to the way in which driving tests are organised and the apparent difficulty of being able to get a bit of flexibility into these arrangements. This rigidity may be extremely annoying to those who are prevented for perfectly understandable reasons from taking tests at the time that they are arranged.

I will explain the case I have particularly in mind and which has given rise to this debate. In my constituency of South Shields a driving instructor booked a driving test for a constituent of mine —a nurse—for Monday, 8th May, at 9.45 a.m. On Wednesday, 3rd May, still a few days before the test was due, the instructor rang up the Northern Traffic Area Office to explain that my constituent, Miss Smith, was required to take a medical clinic on the morning of 8th May. He therefore asked whether the test could be changed, if possible even to the afternoon of the same day. The area office said that this could not be done, that under the regulations three clear days' notice had to be given and that that notice excluded Saturdays, Sundays, bank holidays, holy days and no doubt all sorts of other days—perhaps also when the moon is in a particular phase. However, it was not possible to make the alteration, although some notice had been given.

Later the instructor found that he had on his books another constituent of mine who was booked for the Monday afternoon—not the morning—and who was perfectly willing to change over with Miss Smith. It would have been a perfectly satisfactory arrangement for both of them. They would merely have switched, one from the afternoon to the morning, and the other from the morning to the afternoon. Nothing would seem to be simpler or more obvious. So the instructor again rang up to suggest that perhaps this exchange could be arranged and the test need not be cancelled. Again, the instructor came up against the regulation —the portentous regulation—which is carefully made from the Ministry in London to the effect that even exchanges cannot be arranged in this way unless at least three clear days' notice have been given.

At that point the matter was raised with me. I thought that I need do no more than write to the Northern Traffic Area Office and the matter would be cleared up. It seemed that such a small issue as this could easily be dealt with. I was rather astonished to learn that the matter was referred to the Ministry. I received a lengthy, very courteous, letter, from my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport explaining a great deal of interesting detail about the working of driving test arrangements, but not giving me the answer I had hoped to receive. Indeed, in some respects my hon. Friend made matters worse. He gave me to understand in his first letter that, in the case of exchanges of tests between two persons about to be tested, not three days' but a fortnight's notice had to be given. I learned subsequently that this was not so.

I followed the matter up and received another very courteous, interesting and lengthy letter from my hon. Friend going into all the problems that face the Ministry and its regional offices in arranging driving tests. I understand the problem. There are enormous numbers of applicants for driving tests. The arrangements are now carried out far better than they were some time ago. The causes of many complaints have been overcome. My hon. Friend made it clear that quite a number of people who apply for tests continually want to change the dates. I can understand that. Butterflies in the stomach could well impose many unnecessary demands upon his staff for alterations. I understand that the Ministry must protect itself against that sort of thing.

However, that does not begin to answer the point I have been trying to raise with my hon. Friend. If two persons are taking a test on the same instructor's books and they simply want to switch for sound and good reasons, why on earth should not they be allowed to do so, even with less than three clear days' notice, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and feast days? Why cannot the Northern Traffic Area Office have the minor amount of discretion to enable it to say that such a case is obvious and that a change could be made?

Instead of that, my constituent was told that she could not exchange, but that she had to cancel her appointment and make a new one and pay a new fee. I do not know what happened in the Northern Traffic Area Office, but presumably it had to get someone else to come in and take the time which had been allotted to my constituent on the Monday morning. Why could it not have agreed to the exchange suggested by the instructor? This is the point that I find completely incomprehensible. With all respect to my hon. Friend, I feel that he has not answered that point.

I regret that I have had to waste the time of the House, in a sense, in raising a matter of this sort. As I say, I had hoped that a polite note to the local office would have been sufficient. I then hoped in my innocence and naiveté that a note to my hon. Friend would have been sufficient, or even a second one. I regret that I had to go through the further process of a Question in the House and now this Adjournment debate.

I find that the case that I am raising is not the only one which has arisen. I have had other letters of a comparable character since I raised this matter. Similar cases have been mentioned to me, although they have not perhaps quite the same validity as the one which I am raising today. There is, for example, the case of a sea captain whose ship is moved and he has to go with it and, therefore, has to cancel his driving test appointment. Should he really be required to pay the fee and re-book? I am not sure. Certainly whatever the rights and wrongs in this category of case, for goodness sake let us have a bit of local flexibility in the arrangements so that one may telephone to the local office and have suitable alterations made in a case like this where it must be clear and obvious that because of the work that the person is doing he cannot do other than alter the arrangement which was originally made. It should be possible for him to have the facility to make the kind of exchange which in this case was so patently obvious.

I hope my hon. Friend will now say that he will look at the matter again and see whether he can give his local officers that bit of flexibility that would have prevented this matter from being raised at all.

12.12 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) has raised a subject today which is of understandable concern to a great and increasing number of people. I do not think there is any need for him to regret that he has been wasting the time of the House. He has certainly not done that, because it is always right that when a Department says that it cannot do something which a citizen would find helpful, the Department's view should be open to challenge and scrutiny. The Department could be wrong, in which case reexamination could lead to a useful change in practice; or it could be right, in which case the challenge can give a valuable opportunity for the Department to explain fully just what the difficulties are. So I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter and, indeed, if I may compliment him, he has been extraordinarily diligent in pursuing his constituent's interest not only because of its particular application in the case which he has raised but because of his general concern about the need for flexibility in this matter.

I come to the basic complaint of my hon. Friend. Based on a particular case which occurred, what he is saying in effect is that someone books a driving test for a particular day and time, then that person finds for very good reasons that the appointment is inconvenient and, therefore, may need to be changed. If there is someone else with an appointment who would be prepared to change with him, why cannot this be done? On the face of it, the request is fair enough. Since there is an exchange of tests, no examiner's time is lost. Two people get their tests at times which suit them. It all looks very sensible. Yet we say that we cannot have this. So my hon. Friend is perfectly entitled to an explanation.

The first point that I must make is that there is flexibility—I think that he himself has said so in terms—in that we do allow exchange of tests, or any other re-appointment which we can fit in, provided the applicant either gives us three days' clear notice or he pays a second fee. We allow the first because we are, I hope, sensible enough to recognise that people cannot always see too far ahead how they are going to be placed, and so may well have to change their plans, as my hon. Friend's constituent wanted to do. If we have three days' notice we can in practice take the change in our stride without adding much to the weight of the administrative job. We allow the second because in paying a further £1 fee the applicant fully meets the cost of giving him the re-arrangement that he wants. Since he has to pay, he is unlikely to make a change unless he genuinely feels that he has to.

This last point is really important because we have found from experience that, without a payment penalty, a growing number of candidates were either just failing to turn up or were cancelling at such short notice that the test period allotted to them was wholly wasted. In fact, the figure got to 10 per cent. of the total tests, and this was such an alarming waste, not all of it in our view by any means inevitable, that we felt we had to do something if only in fairness to those who stuck to their appointments when they had made them.

So any further change of our present rule would have to be to allow some free change at less than three days' notice. Such a change is bound to add to the work of the organisation. The examiner taking the test has to know in advance whom he is to expect, and certain papers have to be with him. If we do not do this, there can be muddle over the issue of pass or failure certificates, and I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware that if any such error is made we shall be faced not with one Parliamentary Question or one Adjournment debate but a whole series of them, and quite rightly, too. Secondly, there can be risks of prejudice against a candidate who has already failed a test with that examiner, and so on.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I appreciate these difficulties, but surely my hon. Friend will not suggest that the kind of exchange to which I am referring should cause any administrative problem whatsoever? It was a mere transfer of papers.

Mr. Morris

If one were dealing in isolation with just the case of my hon. Friend, I can quite see that any Department could take that one case in its stride. But we are dealing with 2¼ million applications a year. I am sure my hon. Friend was listening intently when I said earlier that the rise in cancellations had reached 10 per cent.

Having stood at this Box to answer Questions from time to time, I know of the great concern which exists among the public when there is a substantial delay in taking tests. When the time increases from six to seven to eight to 12 weeks before one can take a test, it is a matter of concern to all those who are waiting in the queue that no time should be wasted by a whole series of cancellations. One can deal with one case such as was mentioned by my hon. Friend, when I understand a telephone call was made to the local office on a Friday afternoon with a request for an exchange to be made with a test which had been booked on a Monday morning. Possibly one could deal with that one case. But the whole issue was canvassed. The regulations were made in accordance with the Act, and one does not legislate for one case. One has to look at the whole broad picture of 2¼ million applications in a year, and I repeat that cancellations had risen to 10 per cent.

While I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend, I am sure that he will sympathise with me in having to look at the whole broad picture of what is likely to happen in the country as a whole. As I have said, the examiner has to have certain papers and he has to make preparations. The papers help us to prevent or detect impersonation. There have been such cases in the past, and we must guard carefully against them if the test is to serve its purpose.

I do not for a moment suggest that this reallocating of candidates' papers, at short notice, would add up to much extra work in any one case on its own. But, if we changed our rule so as to allow this free and late exchange of tests, it would be not one case we should face but many many more. For the fact is that the sheer volume of driving tests is now very high and shows no sign of falling. Applications for tests now come in at the rate of over 2¼ million a year, or about 9,000 a day. This is double the level of applications ten years ago and, as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, it is a formidable total. Inevitably we have to use a large staff—well over 200—to cope with the work. They are part of what some unknowledgeable critics call "the horde of civil servants" whose numbers they want cut.

It is right that those who have to pay, directly or indirectly, for services provided by the Government should not have to pay more than is strictly necessary, and to this end we try to run the driving test organisation as efficiently, but as economically, too, as we can. If we add extra work, it is bound to mean not only extra bodies to cope with it but also that they will have to be paid for; and that in the end must mean higher charges for the service. If we allow the exchange of tests for which my hon. Friend asks, this is the road on which we set out—a more agreeable arrangement, perhaps, for that minority who at short notice cannot keep their tests. I sympathise with them, but there must be extra work involved, on a scale which in national total is bound to be significant.

There are bound to be second order effects, too. Exchange of tests would be asked for in circumstances not quite as simple, perhaps, as the case which concerns my hon. Friend. The mere fact of changing an arrangement once made would increase the risk of confusion and mistake, and time would have to be spent trying to check that this did not happen or that, when it did, things were sorted out and put right. Some people may not like not being able to switch tests quickly and freely, but many more would not like muddle and mistakes such as tend to arise from late-notice changes in the test programmes.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that the explanation which I have given of our position shows that we are being reasonable. Even if we cannot meet him on the arrangement he would like to see, I hope that he is clear that we are not by any means inflexible in our approach and that we have always tried to meet people's difficulties as far as we can. First, as I have said already, we accept without question or penalty any request for a change when we have three clear days' notice. We do all we can to fit these people in as soon as possible, or as convenient to them, when they have to postpone or if they specially want an earlier test. Our regional offices go to some lengths to try to meet people's wishes in this respect. We do not just allow a gap to occur in an examiner's programme if there is a late cancellation of which we are told. We go out of our way to use this chance to fit in someone who is in a hurry to take a test. We try very hard to help people. I am given to understand that people may indicate, when they apply for a test, whether they would like to be considered for an arrangement of this kind.

Going on from that, we have an arrangement which involves exchanges of tests. We have an understanding with the driving schools that they can ask us to rearrange tests of their pupils on an exchange basis. This makes it possible to postpone the test of a candidate whom the school knows not to be ready yet for the test and to bring forward the test of someone whom the school thinks to be up to standard. Of course—to avoid misunderstanding I must stress this—if this involves a change at less than three days' notice for either candidate, we have to ask for the extra £1 fee. This is because the same consequences arise of extra work out of the ordinary processes when we make a late change, whether it is asked for by a school or otherwise.

It is a valuable arrangement, because it makes it possible to prevent the waste of time, for all concerned, of testing someone who is far from ready and who is almost certain, therefore, to fail. The failure rate is much higher than we should like to see it from the point of view of economical running of the test. After all, a test failed is pretty close to a test wasted. Over half the tests we do result in failures, and the proportion is rising. We are sure that many failures arise from premature undergoing of the test by people who have not yet had enough tuition and experience. But we accept that it is not easy to foresee how quickly people will learn, and that it is frustrating if those who are ready to take their test and to pass it have to wait, and have to go on putting up with the disadvantages and limitations which attach to being a learner-driver. So we set some store by this special arrangement we have with the schools.

When the great pressure of demand for tests meant that we had quite a long waiting list, it was a particularly worthwhile process, because, without it, some one who felt unready for his test faced the possibility of having to go quite a long way back down the queue if he wanted to postpone. We could not always fit him in with just a fairly short postponement. Now, I am glad to say, we have been able to get well on top of the demand for tests, so that the queue is much shorter—in fact, little more, in effect, than the result of the advance notice which candidates want to have and to give us. In these circumstances, the schools' facility of asking us to exchange tests is less valuable than it has been in the past, but it is still useful from time to time, it helps all concerned, and I am glad that we can offer the arrangement.

My answer to my hon. Friend, therefore, is this. As I said at the outset, I am exceedingly glad that he has pursued this matter, which is of real concern to him, to the length he has, but, having looked very thoroughly into it, I have to say that we already go a long way to meet the real needs of people who have to ask for a change in their test appointments, and we cannot go further. In saying this, I ask my hon. Friend to accept—I am sure that he will—that I have looked into the matter most carefully. We could not go further except by taking on extra work, which it would not be right to do if we are to run the test not only efficiently but with proper and reasonable economy in terms of both manpower and money.

There is the flexibility for which my hon. Friend asks. We are not, perhaps, as flexible as he would wish, but I do not want him to go away with any impression that there is official bumbledom in these matters. We have learned over backwards in order to help the long list of candidates by the arrangement with the driving schools, which has in the past proved most valuable, and by the arrangements whereby people giving three days' notice may make the change which they require.

I much appreciate the interest which my hon Friend has taken in the particular case of his constituent and in the general question—he knows that I have had the pleasure of congratulating his constituent on passing the test subsequently—but on the general aspect of the matter I have to refuse his request because of the consequences right across the board.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I fully understand the steps which have been taken by the Ministry, but could not the Department give just a little further flexibility to the local offices so that, where there was a clear case of this sort, they could accept a change? Second, in this case is it not true that by refusing the possibility put to it, the office did, in fact, inflict on itself a great deal more office work?

Mr. Morris

On the second point, I assure my hon. Friend that that was so, because the matter has taken up a great deal of my time in replying to correspondence, in replying to Questions, and in replying to this debate. Because of the concern which my hon. Friend feels on this issue I do not regret this in any way.

On the other issue, of further and greater flexibility, which my hon. Friend wishes, the three-day period is laid down, as I understand it, by regulations, and the regulations have been made under the Act, and if it were practical, if it were thought necessary, it would certainly need a change in those regulations. This is the period laid down: three days' notice must be given.

That is not the end of the matter, because we try to work on the basis that this service should pay for itself. There is this arrangement whereby a person, if he wishes, and if it is possible and convenient, can get out even of the three-day period by paying an extra fee, and this is the flexibility which my hon. Friend wishes. Because of the penalty by way of the need to pay the extra fee, we know that persons will look very seriously into the matter to see whether they have to change their tests, because they would have to incur this extra pecuniary liability. So I hope my hon. Friend will acquit us of being totally inflexible. We are as flexible as possible, but we have to look, not as he is looking at it, only from the standpoint of the individual case, but at the effect right across the board.