HC Deb 21 May 1973 vol 857 cc181-92

9.59 p.m.

Mr. W. E. Garrett (Wallsend)

We move in a matter of seconds from the affairs of Tonga to nuclear tests and then to matters concerning the United Kingdom. My intention in this extremely short Adjournment debate is to draw attention to an anomaly concerning the heavy goods driving licence and regulations contained in the Transport Act 1969.

The matter was drawn to my attention by a constituent of mine, Mr. J. W. D. Neale—

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. Goodhew.]

Mr. Garrett

I was saying, Mr. Speaker, that the matter was drawn to my attention by my constituent, Mr. Neale.

To outline the case I must draw attention to the circumstances which enveloped Mr. Neale through no fault of his own. Mr. Neale—a lorry driver—became redundant in March 1972 when unemployment was rising and trade was slack. His employers were unable to keep him in employment because of the shortage of work in my constituency in the North-East. Mr. Neale applied for a number of driving jobs. At that time there was a surplus of lorry drivers, especially those with heavy goods licences.

Mr. Neale was unsuccessful in obtaining employment. He is a good worker, and I have verified that he has a clean driving record extending back for more than 30 years.

Up to this stage the matter is fairly simple. It becomes rather complicated. As Mr. Neale was unable to obtain a job as a driver within six months, his driving licence automatically expired in accordance with a provision of the 1969 Act. To follow the employment in which he has spent most of his working life he must therefore obtain a new licence.

However, this is not possible. As Mr. Neale has been unemployed for more than six months his licence has expired. He must obtain a vehicle to take the test. He could not get a vehicle. He made inquiries about hiring a vehicle. At about this time last year the rate was £80 for two hours, plus a £6 deposit for the test. This is an astronomical sum to a man who has been out of work for all this time, and Mr. Neale could not raise it. He therefore approached the Traffic Commissioners for the Northern Region to ascertain whether he could appeal against this provision, but the commissioners told him that the statute clearly provides that no appeal is possible.

Mr. Neale then approached the Department of Health and Social Security to ascertain whether it was possible to obtain a grant towards the cost of taking the test. The Department of Health and Social Security, after having contacted the Department of Employment, rejected Mr. Neale's application for a grant as his previous employer had offered to pay for the Class III test.

Mr. Neale rejected the offer of his former employers stating that if they wished to help him they should allow him to take the Class I test. That test would allow a person to drive an articulated vehicle. Without such a licence Mr. Neale's earning capacity and the skill he has acquired are lessened. Thus, there existed a situation in which Mr. Neale and many other drivers throughout the country through no fault of their own were debarred from earning a living in a profession in which they had spent most of their working lives.

With these facts in mind I wrote on 24th August to the Minister responsible for transport matters and in a courteous reply to me he emphasised the reason the heavy goods vehicle driving licences scheme was introduced on 2nd February 1970. He also stated that my constituent had been unable to satisfy the licensing authority for the Northern area that he had the necessary claim to enable him to have a heavy goods vehicle driving licence without a test. This statutory independent body has arbitrary powers and there is no appeal. My constituent cannot argue the claims of his skill to an appeal body.

In the same letter the Minister admitted that "the claiming rule" operates to the disadvantage of those who, like Mr. Neale, may through no fault of their own be on the wrong side of the borderline. The Minister however stated that the reason behind the decision to tighten up the qualification of licences was to increase the skill of the drivers and to improve safety. That is an objective which I, like the rest of the House, will endorse.

I asked the Minister, therefore, whether it was possible to seek an amendment to the law to ease the position, and he stated that there was a three-year transitional period which had been agreed upon before any possible amendment could be considered. This was the view of the Ministry. With the situation as it now exists, the prospects for these people who have been put in a grim situation are difficult. Therefore, I must appeal to the Minister on four points. Even at this late stage, will he consider shortening the three-year transitional period? I should like him to ascertain whether it is possible to do something now for those people which will enable them to obtain work in a job of their own choice. I ask him, too, to work out an appeal procedure against the decision of the licensing authority and also to ascertain whether it is possible to seek the co-operation of the Road Transport Industry Training Board with a view to offering facilities for these men to undergo retraining.

I hope that the proposals that I have put to my hon. Friend tonight will be acceptable. My main object in raising this matter is to ensure that what on the surface appear to be anomalies can be corrected to the benefit not only of my constituents but of many people throughout the country.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Aston)

I shall not detain the House for more than a minute or two but I feel that I must support the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wall-send (Mr. Garrett) in what I regard as an extremely important matter. He has mentioned one case. In my constituency I have been approached concerning at least three cases of the same problem—the problem of people who have been temporarily displaced from the driving of heavy lorries, in consequence of which their lorry licence has expired and they then find themselves without employment or having to take employment of an entirely different character. If there are three cases in one constituency, it is obvious that this must be a widespread problem causing hardship to a large number of people.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that road safety must be the pre-eminent consideration of the Minister. I am not complaining about that. It is part of the Act. I agree that heavy vehicles can be dangerous and that it is essential that the driver of a heavy vehicle should be skilled and should not have lost his skill. There should, however, be a retraining scheme. After all, people are trained to be bricklayers and to work in the engineering industry. The Government have expanded their training boards. Why should there not be facilities for people who have already been in the industry, who have been skilled and qualified? If there is any question of a test, they should have the necessary training and have a heavy vehicle provided to take the test.

My experience is the same as that of my hon. Friend. I know that, when a person wants to take a test, he cannot obtain a heavy lorry unless he is already in employment and his employer is willing; otherwise it is extremely expensive for him. My hon. Friend spoke of a cost of £80. I have been told of a cost of between £60 and £80 to have a lorry for the necessary time.

I know that it is not a matter for the Minister, but provision for retraining should be made by the Secretary of State for Employment as part of the Government's retraining scheme. I hope that the Minister will discuss the matter with his right hon. Friend. The Road Transport Industrial Training Board should assist in such cases. They are also proper cases for the Government to intervene, providing the necessary training and vehicles, so that the road safety purpose of the Act is achieved but the people concerned are not driven out of employment in which many of them have spent the greater part of their lives.

10.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) for initiating the debate, and to his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman) for taking part, because I know from my own postbag that the subject is of interest and concern to many hon. Members.

I think it would be helpful if I first referred to the statutory background which governs the subject of lorry drivers and the heavy goods vehicle drivers' licensing and testing system. This will show the hon. Member for Wallsend how it applied unfortunately to his constituent who fell the wrong side of the line.

Hon. Members will no doubt recall that a re-introduction of the former, pre-war, system under which a special vocational driving licence was needed for the driving of heavy goods vehicles—that is, rigid goods vehicles with an unladen weight of more than three tons and articulated vehicles—was foreshadowed in the Road Safety Act 1967, introduced by the previous administration. It was one of a number of measures in the Act designed to improve the safety record of heavy goods vehicles. As such, it commanded general support.

Essentially, the main principle was very simple—that anyone driving a heavy goods vehicle should be specially qualified and licensed. Two of the main qualifications were that applicants for these licences should be passed as medically fit for the job, which can, as we all recognise be quite physically arduous, and that they should prove their driving competence by passing a special driving test on a lorry. This test was, and is, intended to be much more searching than the ordinary "L" test, although that is, of course, adequate for its purpose.

But there was a difficulty. It was not possible to require every driver on whom the new requirement to hold this new special vocational driving licence was placed to undertake the new heavy goods vehicle driving test. Bearing in mind that there were some three quarters of a million such drivers, I am sure that the reasons for this are so obvious that I need not go into them in detail. To get over this difficulty, certain transitional provisions, which I will explain in detail because they are very relevant to the hon. Member's case, were adopted in the legislation introduced by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), then Minister of Transport. These provisions are an adaptation of the provisions used when the scheme was first introduced in 1935. They are now to be found in Schedule 5 to the Road Traffic Act 1972.

The principle which the right hon. Lady adopted—I thought that it was a sensible one—was that the requirement to pass the new driving test should apply only to those who had not driven a lorry at all and to those without significant recent experience of lorry driving. That involved a definition of "recent". The formula adopted was that anyone who was in the habit of driving lorries for an aggregate of six months in the year before the new requirement became operative was relieved of the need to take and pass the new driving test.

The vocational driving scheme was brought into operation on 2nd February 1970. As the hon. Gentleman said, anyone in the habit of driving a lorry to which the scheme applied for periods amounting to six months in the year ending 1st February 1970 could, on the basis of that experience, claim to be issued with a heavy goods vehicle driver's licence for the appropriate class of vehicle without test, although he would still have to have a medical examination to establish his fitness to drive.

I realise, as no doubt did the previous administration, that this rule meant that some people who might have had quite considerable experience of lorry driving in the past, such as the constituent mentioned by the hon. Member for Wallsend, would not have had any experience or enough of the right kind of experience in the year ended 1st February 1970 and would be unable to take advantage of the "claiming" arrangement.

I have some sympathy with anyone whose case falls, through no fault of his own, on the wrong side of the borderline. The real question is whether the line which was drawn in this case was a reasonable one. Parliament confirmed at the time of the 1967 Bill that it was. I obviously agree with that verdict. The justification for the waiver of the need to take the new test was recent driving experience on the kinds of vehicle to which the scheme applied when the scheme was introduced.

In that context I suggest that to set the governing period at one year was reasonable. Of course, wherever the dividing line had been fixed there would have been found to be hard cases falling on the wrong side of the line. That would have been so if the period had been set at two years, three years or even four years instead of one year. However, the principle remains and a dividing line there had to be. Bearing in mind the necessary criterion of recent experience when the scheme was introduced, I do not think that Parliament was wrong to set the period at one year.

Having explained the background, I now turn to the effect on individuals, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Wallsend and the hon. Member for Aston, who have been unable to benefit from the "claiming" rule because they did not have the required driving experience for six months in the relevant year.

Mr. Garrett

Was that required driving experience as seen through the eyes of the licensing authority?

Mr. Speed

No; the requirement was laid down clearly by statute. All that such people had to do was to prove that they were driving the required class of vehicle. That is not proof in the eyes of the licensing authority.

Mr. Garrett

Is proof required from the previous employer?

Mr. Speed

Simply reasonable proof that the appropriate vehicle had been driven at the appropriate time.

Mr. Garrett

Proof from whom? If it was proof from a previous employer, what check was made against the previous employer? My knowledge is that cart horses have been driven through the requirement of proof and that licensing authorities have not meticulously checked. There are cases which I can quote.

Mr. Speed

My information is that the licensing authorities checked. There may well have been some people who slipped through the scheme. It was up to the licensing authorities, which are statutorily independent—Parliament made them so—to be satisfied. I have not had examples brought to me of any abuse. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Members have examples, I shall happily look into them. I shall do so whether it is a case of a loophole or a case of someone who had proof which was not accepted by the licensing authorities.

I now deal with the question of people who have been unable to benefit from the "claiming" rule because they have been in the process of changing jobs, because they have had the misfortune to have been ill or unemployed, or because they have been driving heavy vehicles which are used on roads only to a limited extent. There are some vehicles which are exempt.

I also propose to say something about training for the job of lorry driving, both generally and as regards those unfortunate enough to be unemployed—although this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. But my Department and his are in close touch on this problem, and I will see that the references which the hon. Member has made which touch on my right hon. Friend's responsibilities are brought to his attention.

The first thing which I think the House will wish to note is that those who want a heavy goods vehicle driver's licence but cannot "claim" it under the transitional arrangements which I have explained are certainly not debarred, in law, from obtaining the licence they want. It is open to them to take, and pass, the heavy goods vehicle driving test. I appreciate, however, that this can present certain problems—not least in the sort of circumstances to which the hon. Member has referred—in relation to any training, or refresher training, which the driver or potential driver feels he needs to bring himself up to the standard in the test and in relation to the provision of a vehicle for the test, which is the responsibility of the person taking the test. I realise that there are financial implications, which can be considerable.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of the unemployed, the responsibility for providing or securing training for heavy goods vehicle drivers rests with industry itself. I must stress this as there have been suggestions that the Government should provide the necessary training. All employers of heavy goods vehicle drivers, whether in the road haulage industry or in other industries which operate heavy goods vehicles on their own account, have responsibilities in this connection. They must all assess their future needs for drivers and plan their recruitment and training programmes accordingly.

The Road Transport Industry Training Board has been active in organising group training schemes which offer assistance with training not only for the road haulage section of the industry but for employers in other industries. Training facilities, however, are provided to meet identified needs, and employers must make their needs known to the appro- priate training boards. There is now evidence of shortages of qualified drivers of heavy lorries in some areas—not least in the West Midlands, which the hon. Member for Aston and I know about.

The problem of shortages is unlikely to be solved until all firms which need these drivers—and not just some of them—take steps to recruit and train or secure training to the standard of the heavy goods vehicle driving test. No operator can reasonably complain that he cannot get drivers—or the right kind of drivers—if he is not bearing his fair share of responsibility for training.

At the same time the demand for heavy goods vehicle driving tests has been less than my Department had estimated, and I understand that in some cases training facilities have been under-used.

Mr. Julius Silverman

These are training facilities provided by the employers' board. But this surely means that unless an employer is prepared to provide the facilities—to provide the vehicle for that test—the man has no chance of getting the vehicle for the test unless he can pay.

Mr. Speed

I would not say that he has no chance, but in essence what the hon. Gentleman is saying is right. I am trying to underline this point because it is important for the road transport industry as a whole.

These factors tend to confirm that there has been a tendency—more marked among some sections of the roads goods transport industry than others—to rely on recruiting drivers who already have full heavy goods vehicle drivers' licences. This situation cannot continue. The three-year transitional period for the scheme is now over and virtually all who can properly "claim" licences without tests have already done so.

I turn to those who are now unemployed and seek work as lorry drivers and need to take the heavy goods vehicle driving test in order to get the necessary vocational licence. Some of these people perhaps need the use of a lorry just for the purpose of taking the test—or perhaps for a short spell of refresher driving. Others, who may have had little or no recent lorry driving experience, may need a full training course.

Opportunities exist for both these categories. I understand that many prospective employers seeking to recruit lorry drivers are willing to allow their potential employees the use of one of their vehicles for the purpose of taking the test. We have had examples of this in my constituency. I hope that this will continue, and indeed will become the accepted practice. In fact, I think it will have to if employers are to obtain the drivers they need. I believe that this underlines what the hon. Member for Aston has said.

As regards those who need training, limited facilities are available for training the unemployed under arrangements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment in conjunction with the Road Transport Industry Training Board. I recognise, however, that this scheme operates only where there are training vacancies and where there is an unsatisfied demand for drivers and an employer is willing to sponsor an unemployed man with a view to employing him subsequently and no suitable qualified men are registered as unemployed.

These are harsh conditions, as I appreciate. The scheme does, however, afford some help in the kind of cases to which the hon. Member has drawn attention.

The real answer to the problems of the experienced driver who cannot get a job because he cannot himself afford to bear the cost of qualifying for a heavy goods vehicle driver's licence rests in very great measure with those who need drivers. If nothing else, I hope that this message can go out to the industry from this debate. The industry can no longer always expect to recruit drivers already licensed. It must be prepared to provide or to secure training for recruits. The cost of refresher training for an experienced driver who still has to qualify for a licence is likely to be considerably less than that of training a newcomer from scratch or, indeed, the cost of hiring drivers on a short-term basis.

Mr. Garrett

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his speech, in view of what he has said I should like to thank him for his remarks, which I am sure will be greatly noted by the road haulage industry.

Mr. Speed

I thank the hon. Gentleman. All of us are at one on this matter. Although the hour is comparatively late and the House is not crowded, I hope that this message can go out to the industry. I hope that the debate will be reported to those interested in road transport problems.

The licensing scheme which was introduced by the previous administration is now beginning to have an impact on accidents. After remaining constant for some years, the accident involvement rate of heavy goods vehicles fell by 16 per cent. in 1972, the second year in which the scheme has operated. The fall is attributable, at least in part, to this licensing.

At the same time, I know from the many letters which I have had in the Department that the licensing requirements have given rise to some hard cases. But the answer to this does not lie in making changes to the scheme introduced by the previous administration and carried on by the present administration. I believe that that would not be in the best interests of road safety. The difficulties are due not to any unreasonable demands of the scheme but to the fact that drivers themselves have been left with the problem of qualifying for their licence. That problem should be eased when employers generally take steps to train or to secure training for their recruits. Responsible employers are already doing this. I hope that those who are not doing so will read the report of this debate and will now, perhaps, bring in an overdue improvement in this sector.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.