HC Deb 04 February 1969 vol 777 cc322-39

8.54 p.m.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

The Chair is usually very kind and generous in selecting as part of the Supplementary Estimates debate something to do with transport. Over the years quite a number of items have arisen under this heading. One of our friends absent this year is the British Railways deficit increase. This is one of the few Supplementary Estimates debates at which I have been present when we have not had to allow some extra additional sum for the extra loss of British Railways. This year we do not have one, and perhaps the Minister might not think it amiss if we were to convey our good wishes and congratulations to British Railways for this change. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and I visited the railways recently, and were impressed by the changing morale and outlook there. I hope that this will be a permanent feature.

We are considering Estimates of £162 million. The item which I wish to discuss concerns only £700,000. While we lightly agree to the spending of millions of pounds, it is only when we turn to relatively small figures that figures become meaningful. I wish to discuss a meaningful figure. These Estimates need to be probed, and there are quite a few questions which must be answered which I hope the Minister will be able to answer.

The sum of £700,000 is the shortfall in anticipated revenue from driving licences. This may not appear to be a large sum in a great nation like ours in which millions of pounds are spent every hour. But the fact that the difference between the original Estimate and the present Estimate is no less than 18 per cent. of the anticipated revenue gives some idea that £700,000 is a figure of significance. I have asked for this debate, and I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting it, because reasons should be given for this sudden change. Those reasons are not apparent from the Estimate Committee's Report, which I have read with some care, or from the evidence which was given before the Committee.

One spokesman for the Ministry said in evidence before the Estimates Committee that this change was "somewhat to our surprise". This understandably surprised the Ministry. After years of buoyancy and growth in the numbers of driving licence applications, there is suddenly a change—not just a change in direction from increase to decrease, but a decrease in revenue of 18 per cent.

There was one reason given for this, namely, that there had been a delay in increasing the driving test fee from £1 to 35s. It was a delay of only one month, and it was estimated that the maximum amount which this would account for was £130,000. When £130,000 is taken from £700,000, there is still a lot of money to account for—well over £500,000. It was indicated in the evidence that after the fee was increased, as well as before, there was a remarkable change in the numbers of applications.

One question which was asked by the Estimates Committee was whether the increase in the fee from £1 to 35s. had been referred to the National Board for Prices and Incomes. The reply was: The implications of this increase were very carefully considered by Ministers. One of the reasons for the change hinted at by the Ministry officials and by members of the Committee was that perhaps we had got over the hump and that the numbers of older people taking tests were beginning to be phased out. That might be a long-term factor to which we should have regard, but it could not account for such a dramatic fall in the number of applications. Another reason which was advanced was that perhaps people were deciding not to go forward for tests until they were ready for them. That is a matter of change in human disposition and human feelings, and I suggest that that is not the sort of factor which can operate within a year.

Therefore, the reasons which have been hinted at, and perhaps advanced, are not sufficient in themselves to justify or explain a very sudden drop in the number of applications for driving tests. I am not advocating that more people should take tests, or that fewer people should take tests. I want to investigate the reasons, and I would ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to say if the reasons I put forward for this sudden drop are the right reasons.

One reason, which I almost hesitate to mention in view of certain events of recent days, is the sudden dramatic increase in the burdens of tax on road users—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

The hon. Gentleman is very ingenious, but in discussing the Estimates he must not refer to questions of taxation.

Mr. Taylor

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want to know why the number of applications has gone down. Surely I am entitled to ask the Minister about factual matters without in any way debating policy. Surely I am entitled to ask the Minister if this had any bearing on something which we are discussing in the Estimates. If we do not do so we are failing in our duty in the House of Commons.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may certainly make incidental references, but he must not discuss taxation at any length.

Mr. Taylor

I was not intending to, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I just mentioned the word. I am not trying to bring in another subject under the guise of this subject. That was not my intention in asking for this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may continue, and I will pull him up if he goes out of order.

Mr. Taylor

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Over the last four years the total burden of tax on the road user has doubled, from £777 million to £1,585 million by way of petrol duty, purchase tax and vehicle licences. That is a trend, but this trend would not explain the sudden change in one year. There would have to be a sudden change in the trend of taxation within that one year to justify the drop. By looking at the figures for January, 1968, compared with January, 1969, we see the factor which has changed dramatically. Mr. Average taking a driving test in 1968, and thereafter becoming the average motorist in Britain, would find, looking forward to a period of one year, that the total burden he would have to accept would be about £86 10s.; that is for an average family car, travelling 8,000 miles in a year and getting 27 miles per gallon. In one year from January, 1968, he could anticipate spending £53 Is. 9d. on petrol tax, £15 13s. 3d. on Purchase Tax and £17 10s. on licence duty.

Mr. Average, in January, 1969, finds that his total burden has jumped from £86 10s. to £106 4s.; petrol tax £63 16s. 9d., licence £25, Purchase Tax £17 7s. 3d. That is assuming depreciation over about 8 years. Perhaps this dramatic change in the course of the one year which we are considering is one fundamental reason why there has been such a dramatic drop in the number of applications for driving licences. I feel that this is a relevant factor.

If that was the case, surely it is a matter which the Government should investigate fully. When we have these Estimates before us and see this dramatic reduction in the number of applications for driving licences, surely the Government should look into the position very carefully and decide whether this was the reason.

In the past, we have regarded the motorist as a kind of dripping roast, and perhaps recent events have shown that it has ceased to drip when we consider the one kind of thermometer which can give us any guidance; that is, the number of applications for driving tests.

What other guidance is there? There is none in the short term. In those circumstances, the Government should look very seriously at whether the change which has taken place can be related to the fact that there has been a savage increase in the amount of tax imposed on the private motorist, which, as I say, has doubled in four years. I hope that the Minister will say that his Department is making exhaustive inquiries into the relationship between the reduction in the number of applications for driving licences and this savage and thorough increase in all forms of taxation applying to motorists. The only other reason that he may be able to find is that there has been a miscalculation.

Previous Ministers of Transport have made it clear that the Ministry has a team of brilliant economists looking at all the figures, estimates and plans and that, because of the extra talent, because of the machinery and the extra ability in the Ministry, more accurate estimates can now be made. However, bearing in mind the Ministry's long-term plans, if we cannot place any reliance on its estimates, we shall be in a serious situation.

I think that there is a simple explanation, and it is the one that I have given. We have reached a situation of diminishing returns from the hard-pressed motorist who, having had a great deal to suffer already, now finds himself having to pay twice as much as four years ago. It must be remembered that we are not discussing a matter which affects a minority. We are discussing 50 per cent. of our population.

There may be other reasons which discourage Mr. Average from taking the driving test. One fact which influences him very much is the ability that he will have to use his car on Great Britain's roads. When I was looking into the reasons for this remarkable drop, I came across some other figures relating to roads in Great Britain. These are the roads on which Mr. Average will drive, having been successful in his driving test.

When we consider our road building programme, it is interesting to note that of every £5 that Mr. Average contributes in taxation to the so-called Road Fund only about £1 goes on road building In 1966, which is the last year for which figures are available, for the average person in Great Britain only about £7 8s. was spent on roads, compared with £15 in Germany, £10 in France—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now referring to matters of taxation. While I ruled that he could make incidental references, on this occasion he is making detailed references.

Mr. Taylor

Mr. Deputy Speaker, since I have left taxatoin entirely and will not mention it again—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is referring to taxation, since the money raised for roads is raised by taxation.

Mr. Taylor

My difficulty is that the money spent on the driving test is also raised on taxation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must know that the fee for a driving test is one for which the Minister is responsible. It is not raised by taxation.

Mr. Taylor

But that is my point. The Report tells us that the amount brought in from driving tests has not covered the cost of them, and it has had to be taken from general taxation. This is mentioned time and again in the Report of the Estimates Committee. The point is made that because the fee was £1 we were not able to raise the money to pay the 1,500 examiners in Britain and cover the costs of the scheme. To that extent surely the purpose of taxation might be used. Having said that, I will leave the subject. I do not intend to come back to the general question of taxation.

It is vital to discover why there is this reduction in the numbers taking driving tests, because of the lessons that we can draw from it. I have perhaps strayed a little and taxed your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and for that I am sorry. Therefore, I come to what I might call reason No. 2: is it because of inadequate roads and to what extent can we put reliance on this aspect?

We can count on having only £35 per vehicle spent on roads in Britain. That compares with £44 in France, £54 in the United States, £55 in Australia, £67 in Belgium, £74 in Italy, £79 in Germany and £113 in Japan. Whether we look at it as per vehicle or as per head, Britain's road spending appears at the foot of both leagues when compared with our main competitors and all other countries. It might be said that we are a small country with a lot of people, so per head is not a relevant consideration, but surely per vehicle is.

These are facts of which the Minister is aware. He has been cutting road spending so often that he must know the facts about the situation. Therefore, I ask him whether he can tell us the extent to which increased tax is the reason and the extent to which poor roads and scandalously low spending on roads in relation to revenue is the reason for the reduction in the number of applications for driving tests.

Having mentioned road building at some length, I move on to what might be reason No. 3. I should like the Minister to give some indication of the extent to which he feels parking is responsible for this amazing and sudden reduction in the number of applications for driving tests. Recalling my own driving test, one of the most difficult things to do was parking my car. Obviously in county areas there is no difficulty about parking cars because there is plenty of space. But in the towns there is grave difficulty in managing to park cars. I suggest that anyone thinking of taking a driving test might well be discouraged if he knew that when driving his car in towns he would find great difficulty in parking. I suggest there are indications that the seriously deteriorating position about parking cars is having an effect on the number of people coming forward to take the driving test. I want to know what the Ministry's experts feel about it and what the Minister, with his own detailed knowledge and experience, also feels.

In 1955 we had a change. Parking meters were brought in. Perhaps I might briefly mention the experience of Glasgow. In May, 1965, Glasgow introduced meters. Up till November, 1966, the yield was about £130,000 in charges and excess payments. In 1966–67 the expenditure in salaries etc. for operating the meters was £46,475 and the income was £52,000. So we have a scheme bringing in £52,000 in charges and excess payments, but we are spending £46,000 administering it.

Here we have a situation which, unfortunately, because the money has been used for other purposes, and because the Minister brought in a Bill to use the revenue derived from parking meters for the purposes of public transport, is getting worse. What I am asking the Minister to do is to look at these three propositions which I feel could explain this sudden reduction in the number of applications for driving tests, and to say whether these are the three reasons. First, is it taxation? Is it the fact that the burden on road users has doubled in four years, and perhaps most remarkably of all during the last 12 months?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even if it is true, we are not, on these Estimates, discussing the burden of taxation. The hon. Member must keep to the subject.

Mr. Taylor

I shall not dwell on that any longer. There must be a reason for this decline, but we have been given no satisfactory and convincing reason why, in one year, there has been a sudden reduction of about 18 per cent. in the Estimates, and a reduction of about 14 percent, in the number of applications for driving tests.

We want to know the reason for that. I am saying that one reason may be taxation, one reason may be the roads, and one reason may be the difficulty of parking. I want to know to what extent the Minister feels that one, or all, of those factors may have contributed to this reduction. In the explanations given to the Estimates Committee no convincing reason was given for this decline. Only long-term trends were mentioned.

Having put those questions to the Minister, which I know he will consider in his usual courteous way, may I ask whether he thinks this reduction will be permanent. If it is to be permanent, we must consider that part of the expenditure which provides the salaries of 1,500 examiners, and also provides continuity of employment for them. If this is to be a permanent feature, I think that we should consider having a different kind of test, and perhaps having better tests. I think that we can all remember taking part in a test which involved flapping one's hands, something which one never did after passing the test. If this decline is to be a permanent feature, will the Minister consider making better use of this money and of the services and experience of these excellent examiners.

Perhaps the Minister will consider something which I think we all agree would be in the interests of road safety. If someone has an accident, particularly if he is a teenager, or a young adult, he should be required to take another test. Will the Minister also consider the proposition that instead of having tests in the suburbs or in towns only, part of the test should ensure that people have some experience of driving on motorways, and of driving at night, which requires a different kind of driving?

I think that the present situation gives us the opportunity to ask the Minister why this has happened, how it has happened, and what reasons he thinks have been advanced logically for it. If this is to be a permanent feature of our way of life, can greater use be made of the valuable experience of the examiners so that better tests can be held in the interests of road safety?

We are considering Estimate for millions of £s. I am discussing the expenditure of only £700,000. A shortfall of this amount is very small in relation to the total sum, but I think that the lessons we can learn from this reduction in the number of driving tests could set the pattern for our policy for a long time to come.

I hope that the Minister will try to answer my questions, because, as I have said, I believe that some important lessons can be learned from this shortfall, lessons which I hope the Minister of Transport in particular will remember today, in the future, and at all time when the future of the motoring public is being considered.

We are talking not about a minority of 10 or 20 per cent. but about half the families of Britain, who have cars and who feel, I am afraid, that there has been a vendetta against them and that they are being treated—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are talking about the reduction in the number of citizens taking driving tests.

Mr. Taylor

I was going to say that the reason for the decreasing numbers may be that they have been adversely treated, not that they are looking forward to the future with more hope and confidence.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member gor Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) on bringing up this matter in his usual clear and forthright way. This reduction in the numbers taking the driving test represents a serious loss of revenue, and it is vital to know the reason. My hon. Friend was right to say that a contributory factory is higher taxation and other things which mean that people feel that they cannot afford to drive a motorcar and so there is not much point in taking the test. We cannot dismiss this important factor—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot dismiss it, but we cannot discuss it in this debate.

Mr. Mills

It is important that people should have these tests. They should be prepared for driving, and the standard of the tests should be much higher. I am concerned that the numbers have dropped by 18 per cent., which is a large figure, and I should be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that the trend will continue.

In these days of financial crises, we should know what we shall do with the testers who may become redundant. Has the right hon. Gentleman any alternative plans for them? It is not much use paying them if they are not working to full capacity. As the numbers apply for tests go down, these men will not be doing a full day's work. Time after time the Government have said that we need more productivity; I should like these men to do other things, like vehicle-testing. Alternatively, we might require that everyone who had an accident should take a fresh test.

Another contributory factor—I may be out of order to mention it—is surely fear. People are afraid to take a test because they are afraid to drive on our roads. Unless one has a very high standard, driving on motorways is a frightening experience. This is one of the reasons for the serious loss of revenue. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us a clear answer to these questions so that we know where we are. Above all, I am concerned about what he will do with these inspectors who are not working to full capacity.

9.25 p.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

Can the Minister give figures to show the regional variation in the drop in the number of people taking driving tests? If the drop is greater in the congested areas where driving is more difficult, it will be a more serious matter than even my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) pointed out. If, however, the drop is more severe in the remote areas, perhaps the Minister can take action to make it easier for people in these places to take the test. I have found that in the more scattered areas it is difficult for people to arrange to be at testing centres at the appropriate times because of restricted public transport. In other words, is there a significant pattern shown by the figures not merely in Scotland but throughout Britain?

Has the drop in the number of people taking driving tests any relationship to the number of failures? It has been represented to roe on several occasions in recent years that more people are failing the test. Could this be discouraging people from taking the test more frequently? If so, this could be an understandable explanation for the drop.

9.27 p.m.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) for raising this important subject and for presenting figures which I can only describe as shocking. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) spoke of the possible regional variation and I hope that we shall be given information about that.

I hope that the drop in the number of applications for driving tests in Scotland is not as marked as it is south of the Border. There is, however, good reason why it should be, although driving conditions in Scotland are, by and large, more pleasant than they are in the South. I was informed by the Minister some time ago that there are fewer cars per mile on roads in Scotland.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

There are better people, too.

Mr. MacArthur

These more pleasant driving conditions are a great tourist attraction.

One could advance many other arguments to explain this reduction. A number of factors have occurred in the last few years which could have deterred people from taking the driving test in Scotland. While driving is more pleasant in Scotland, certain factors have eroded that pleasantness. For example, Scotland more than the rest of Britain suffers from the impact of S.E.T.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member knows that we cannot discuss in this debate the economy of Scotland and Selective Employment Tax. We are discussing a decline in the number of persons seeking a test.

Mr. MacArthur

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker. I hoped that it would be in order to touch on the tax. I believe that in Scotland over the last year some people coming for tests may have been deterred from doing so by the impact of British Standard Time on driving in the mornings.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member can mention a number of factors, but he cannot discuss in detail any of them on this Vote.

Mr. MacArthur

May I pursue the point which has been raised by my hon. Friends? If this trend continues what is to happen to the examiners? I should like to know the number of examiners there are in Scotland and what plans there are for them if the trend continues.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

There is the Land Commission.

Mr. Mac Arthur

Are they to be employed in the new heavy vehicle testing station? If unemployment is created among examiners, the number of unemployed persons, particularly in Scotland, will be much increased. The number of new jobs provided in Scotland has fallen and the number of people employed in Scotland has fallen sharply. Employment opportunities for redundant people are that much lower. Therefore, it is important when there appears to be a threat of unemployment for these hardworking, deserving members of the community that we should ask what study is being made of the impact on the examiners of the drop in the number of those coming for tests. Particularly in Scotland, what are the plans drawn up by the Minister and his colleagues in the Department of Employment and Productivity to provide alternative employment in the same sort of work for these examiners, who will lose their employment if the trend continues?

9.32 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

We have had an interesting debate. The question of taxation has been raised on more than one occasion, but I do not propose to tax your patience, Mr. Speaker, because this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Suffice it to say that I do not remember any Chancellor who was the darling of the motorist. I can hardly imagine a situation in which motoring organisations would issue with their annual reports car stickers saying, "We love Roy", or Harry or whatever the name may be.

Driving test applications have increased steadily through the years, although they have not done so consistently. In 1960 the number of applications received was around 1.6 million. There was a dramatic increase in 1964, when for the first time applications topped the 2 million mark. Since then the number has been 2 million or just over that, until in 1968 we saw a significant fall in the number. This amounted to a drop of 4.5 per cent. on the 1967 figure. I concede that it was significant, but this is a matter in which it is very easy to be wise after the event. In practice, it is not easy to judge the elasticity of the demands for driving tests. That is highly unpredictable and a broad brush approach is inevitable.

Prior to the increase on 2nd July last year, from £1 to 35s., the driving test applications in 1968 were running at the rate of only about .8 per cent. lower than in 1967. The slackening in demand arose in the six months after the increase in fee: there was a drop of 8.5 per cent. over this period. During the last eight weeks of 1968, the decrease was only 5.9 per cent. compared with the last eight weeks of 1967. The impact of the increased fee seems to have been wearing off by them.

We have been criticised for not foreseeing the effect on demand of the increase in fee. I freely admit that the immediate impact of the fee increase was greater than we expected, though, as I have already said, the effect seems to be wearing off. The fact that 54 per cent. of tests result in failure suggests that far too many people come for a test before they are ready for it. This is confirmed by the fact that so many people appear to have been so easily and quickly discouraged, by the increase in fee, from presenting themselves for test.

In an all-out effort to improve the standard of driving instruction and to reduce the number of people who fail the test, we have introduced the Register of Approved Driving Instructors. This was established in 1964, and since then registration has been purely voluntary. About 8,000 professional driving instructors have passed the qualifying examination which entitles them to registration. Inclusion in the Ministry Register signifies that an instructor is capable of a high standard of tuition. Furthermore, registered instructors are subject to periodic test checks of their continued ability to give driving instruction to the high standard that we desire. We have evidence that the pass rate achieved by candidates trained by Ministry-approved driving instructors is significantly higher than the national average.

I want to explode the popular myth that examiners look for people to fail. This is completely false, because our examiners are as keen as the candidates themselves are to see that they pass the test if their driving is up to the required standard.

By any standards the test is still, at 35s., good value for money. The fee charged no more than covers the cost. By this I mean, not only the time the examiner spends with the candidate, but also the cost of training the examiner to the high standard to which I have already referred and supervising the conduct of tests to ensure that this standard is maintained at a uniform level at the 400 driving test centres throughout the country.

I make no apology for the fact that the fee is now 35s. This is what it costs to provide, and it is surely right that those who use this service should pay for it. Our officials are in close touch with their opposite numbers in European countries, and I remain convinced that the British driving test is second to none in its quality, the way it is conducted, and the degree of supervision it receives. I talked briefly about the driving test in the recent debate on accidents on the Ml. As I said on that occasion, the driving test is a carefully balanced and searching test of both driving skills and driving behaviour.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor), after speaking about taxation, a subject to which I will not refer again, suggested that one of the reasons for the falling number of applications for tests was the scandalously small amount of money we are spending on roads. This comes ill from any hon. Member opposite, since in 1963–64, the last full year of Conservative administration, just over £150 million was spent on new construction and major improvement of roads. Last year, 1967–68, comparable expenditure was over £250 million, an average annual increase of 15 per cent.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We may not discuss the general road programme in this debate. There is an item in the Supplementary Estimates of £625,000. grants for highways in Wales; but I see no other.

Mr. Brown

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I shall not labour the point. By 1970–71, spending will top £350 million. Thus, in spite of the economic situation, it is clear that the Government are determined to tackle the results of the years of neglect of British roads which faced them when coming into office.

The hon. Members for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) and for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) asked what driving examiners were doing now, the implication being that we have driving examiners sitting in test centres throughout the country doing nothing. Driving examiners are fairly versatile people. Their formal title is "Driving and traffic examiner". They are appointed both to conduct driving tests and to enforce the drivers' hours requirement applicable to drivers of goods vehicles under Section 73 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960.

This is a convenient arrangement because it means that we have a flexible force of men who can be kept within or drawn from driving test work as the need arises. It is a sensible arrangement which ensures the most economical use of driving examiners. There can be no question of surplus funds or manpower arising as a result of the decline in applications for tests. The size and, therefore, the cost of the organisation are geared in both the short and the long term to the demand for tests. As I said, the fee does no more than cover the cost of the organisation, taking one year with another.

Mr. MacArthur

The hon. Gentleman has just made a statement of great significance, if I understood him aright. I understood him to say that even if the trend continues employment among examiners will not be affected because they are qualified to be transferred to other duties, and the Government have no hesitation in so transferring them. That is a serious statement, particularly if those duties are to enforce requirements of the recent notorious Transport Act. It would represent a total change of occupation for these deserving and hardworking people. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say more about that.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman could not have been listening. I said that the driving examiner's formal designation, which, therefore, governs the terms of his employment, is "Driving and traffic examiner". It includes more than simply undertaking the conduct of the driving test. There is no question of these people being bludgeoned into doing any job for which they are not trained and which they do not want to do. It is part of their job.

Mr. MacArthur

Is that what they are all doing now?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is being very difficult. Of course, they are not all doing it. Driving examiners are conducting driving tests. If there is any slackness at a particular test centre, they go on to the enforcement work to which I have referred. This is nothing new. It is not something which has happened since the fee was increased. This inter-changeability has been going on for years.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) spoke of regional variations. In Scotland, there are 130 examiners doing testing, and in England and Wales there are 1,070. In Scotland 153,000 tests were conducted in 1968, and in England and Wales there were 1,900,000. The total of tests per examiner in 1968 in Scotland was 1,176 and in England and Wales 1,765. There are 126 centres in Scotland and 339 in England and Wales. The figures should reassure the House that there is no severe regional variation in Scotland.

Mr. Younger

I am grateful for the figures but my point was whether the drop in the number of driving tests is worse or better in other regions than in the South-East.

Mr. Brown

The very fact that in proportion the figures are so close together indicates that there is no differential between the populated areas of Scotland compared with those of England and Wales.

The hon. Member for Cathcart referred to the availability of parking. Clearly, he thinks that we should be spending more money on parking schemes. We intend doing just that. There are proposals in the Transport Act on this, and if hon. Members opposite had not put up so much pointless opposition to the Act we might have had its benefits much sooner. Under the new scheme of grants towards capital expenditure on public transport, grant of up to 50 per cent. will be available towards the cost of car parks at railway stations handling substantial volumes of commuter traffic. The hon. Member may also like to be aware, as he evidently is not at present, that the Government give substantial aid to expenditure by local authorities on parking schemes through the rate support grants.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot pursue that subject in detail. There is no provision in the Supplementary Estimates for extra provision for car parks.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

May we have an assurance that the hon. Gentleman will perhaps refer to the Supplementary Estimates that we are discussing and, in particular, explain where the figure of an 18 per cent. deduction comes from when the only reduction he has referred to is one varying between 0.6 and 5.9? While you are generous in the way you handle these debates, Mr. Speaker, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now refer to the Supplementary Estimates.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not for the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) to call the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to order.

Mr. Brown

I have answered the question about percentages. Clearly, while there may be a reference to 18 per cent. in the Estimates, I have referred to percentages at different periods.

The hon. Member for Cathcart suggested that we should have a better system of testing. I take it that in referring to younger drivers he meant people aged 25 or younger. He suggested that if they were involved in accidents they should perhaps be retested. However, if we were to take such a course, I could not accept that it should apply only to young drivers. Why not to more experienced drivers? In any case, I hope that the hon. Member meant people who were blameworthy in accidents, because there are often blameless parties to accidents. The courts already have power, under Section 5(7) of the Road Traffic Act, 1962, to disqualify from driving until such time as he passes a driving test a person convicted of certain driving offences such as careless or dangerous driving.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should have a better test, embodying night and motorway driving. This is debatable. Night driving tests are not feasible during the short hours of darkness in the summer. Tests at night when there is little traffic about would, in any event, prove little or nothing. It should be fairly obvious that a driver's competence cannot be shown by a night driving test.

A high-speed driving test on motorways is impossible in London and the other large cities and towns where the majority of driving tests are conducted. It has been tried in Switzerland, where it was found that such extended tests in no way changed the result of the first tests on ordinary highways. In Rotterdam part of the test routes necessarily include a stretch of motorway, but we understand that the examiners find out nothing about the driver as a result of his drive along a motorway.

It is often said that the test should include a test of the candidate's ability to control a skidding vehicle. Apart from the practical difficulties of finding 400 new places to do this, we feel that it is entirely the wrong approach. I am sure that hon. Members would not wish driving examiners to conduct this sort of test on the public highway. The important thing is that drivers should learn to drive in such a way as to avoid skidding.

We must accept that in the latter part of 1968 the applications for driving tests turned out to be lower than those for similar periods in other years. We must also admit that the extent by which applications fell off was quite significant, at any rate in the weeks immediately following the change in fee. I ask the House to accept and understand the difficulty of making forecasts in this field. Consumer resistance cannot always be accurately forecast, even by long-experienced market researchers in the employment of big concerns.