HC Deb 31 March 1976 vol 908 cc1539-48

3.22 a.m.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Perhaps this is an appropriate hour to raise the question of the MOT testing of motor vehicles, because even at this time hon. Members of this House are going home in their cars, which I trust have been tested. I also trust that they do not expect too much of the tests that the cars have received. There are dangers in the testing of motor vehicles which are so great that it is vital that the House should indicate its anxiety. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has been good enough to stay up together with me in order that this matter may be ventilated, will be able to give some assurance which will set many anxious minds at rest.

First, the passing of an MOT test does not mean that a car is roadworthy. There are far too many drivers who believe that when they have had their vehicle tested, it is necessarily roadworthy and fit to take on the road. I believe that the Department itself should make it plain that the test is a limited one—perhaps that brakes are in order and the steering is satisfactory; that at least we know that the tyres are adequate and that the lighting is effective. But the existence of defects in the chassis or in the motor which would make the vehicle unsafe or unable to be driven along the road would not appear from the test.

Second, those who buy motor vehicles should understand that the MOT test is not in any way a guarantee of roadworthiness. I suggest that the time has come to ban, in advertising for the sale of vehicles, reference to the fact that they have been MOT tested. Far too many people in their patent honesty and simplicity believe that my hon. Friend's Ministry is thereby guaranteeing that the vehicles are safe.

Third, I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether it would not be appropriate for a windscreen decal to be placed on vehicles in the same way as a licence, so as to indicate when the test was satisfactorily carried out. That would allow the police to see at a glance whether a vehicle had been tested. With all the faults that the test has, at least it is a guarantee that certain essential parts of a motor vehicle have been checked out and apparently work. That is a great deal better than nothing. That, at least, is some protection for the public. It shows that certain parts are apparently in working order.

Recently, the editor of Motor Trader, a leading trade publication for which I have been writing an occasional legal column for some years, took me to a testing station. I watched while a carefully prepared brake shoe with a lining shaved down to a mere fraction of an inch was placed on a vehicle. The vehicle was then tested to see whether its brakes were in order. It passed the test with flying colours, although it was apparent to everyone that if the vehicle had been taken on the road it would have become a machine of potential death within a matter of miles.

The test cannot be a guarantee even in respect of the limited number of items that are tested. I believe that there are at present far too many testing stations. Originally the expected number was quite modest but today it is very high. If the number were reduced I believe that the standards required would be higher. If the equipment demanded were more carefully specified the public would get a better service. However, I pay tribute to the testers. When we consider the large number of tests and the very high percentage of failures, and when we consider the way in which the garage trade is attacked, so often so rightly, it is remarkable that so very few successful complaints are laid against testers.

The people who are at fault are those whose cars are tested and who then discover that there are defects but do not heed the advice that they are given by the testers to have those defects repaired before the vehicles are taken back on the road. At present a tester has no power to require a motorist not to drive a dangerous vehicle on to the road from whence it came. Here lies a grave and unacceptable danger.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment replied to a Question of mine on Friday of last week. I asked the Minister to give the reasons for various failures. Out of 12,606,900 motor cars tested in 1975, 32.5 per cent. failed—in other words, 4,435,450. No less than 21.1 per cent. failed because brakes were defective; 1.5 per cent. had brakes so bad that the vehicles concerned were not fit to be taken out on the road; 18.4 per cent., or 1 in 5, had defective steering, which made the vehicles unfit to drive; 7.5 per cent. had defective lights; 6.2 per cent. had defective seat belts. There were similar results for light goods vehicles and motor cycles.

Yet in every case we know that vehicles with defective brakes, lethal steering, suffering lighting defects, defects in tyres, or without seat belts, went back on the road. Some were taken home to be fixed, some were taken to garages to be fixed, and some were taken out and shuttled around from testing station to testing station in the hope of eventually finding one that would grant the desired certificate, perhaps so that the vehicle might be sold.

In my view, Motor Trader is carrying out a considerable public service by spotlighting defects in the present system. I wish publicly to express my thanks to its editor, Mr. Bryan Cambray, for providing so much of the material necessary for me to mount the campaign in this House to have the testing tightened up, and in particular to deal with this strange anomaly, as a result of which vehicles which are found to be dangerous can still go straight back on to the road and remain a potential menace to road users, and especially to the drivers of the vehicles concerned.

I ask the Minister in his reply to say what the Government intend to do to deal with this anomaly. I hope that he will be able to give an assurance to the House that he will see that steps are taken to deal with the situation. I appreciate that it costs money to improve the test, but the test is there to save lives, and lives cost money. I appreciate that there are difficulties in the way of improving matters, but I do not see why the test should not include looking for a statutory mirror. It has been said that there will be a statutory requirement for two mirrors. It would surely not take any longer than 10 seconds for the inspector to note down that fact.

What I am attempting to achieve is in no way intended to make life more difficult for the motorist in general, or to hamper the do-it-yourself motorist. I believe that we should encourage people in every way to look after their own vehicles and to look after them well. But it is lunacy for the Government to tell me, as they have in answer to parliamentary Questions, that if a person drives a vehicle out from a testing station when it is defective he may be prosecuted. We know that that happens, and knowledge of prosecution is not sufficient to keep vehicles off the road. Every testing station should have facilities with the aid of which a do-it-yourself operator can fix his motor car and put it in a safe condition. Every station should have means of fixing a vehicle that is found to be defective. No testing station should allow a vehicle that is not fit to be used on the roads to leave the station where it is tested.

The test is a great advantage to those who use our roads. It is a safety measure of the highest order, but it can be greatly improved. I hope that my hon. Friends, who are well known for their deep concern for road users and road safety and for the time, thought and care they have given to this subject, will use this occasion to announce measures to improve the test and the knowledge which the public must have of the limitations of the test in its present form.

3.35 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member of Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) for raising this subject—a subject on which he has been campaigning in recent months. I see that he has asked more than 50 Questions on this topic since the beginning of the Session.

The subject—the annual inspection of motor vehicles as part of our policy of ensuring that all vehicles are maintained in a roadworthy condition—is one that most hon. Members would support.

My Department is vitally concerned with road safety and I am always seeking ways of reducing the tragic toll of road accidents, which cost the nation so much in human suffering. To this end, we keep the road safety policy under constant review to ensure that it most effectively utilises the resources available for this important work.

I welcome this interest in the MOT test, because it is an important part of our road safety policy which benefits from public scrutiny. However, like many other worthwhile subjects, it is tempting to press for improvements without proper regard to the objects served, and the cost of the improvements or the real benefits that the improvements would bring. I am therefore grateful to have this opportunity to explain the rationale of our policy.

I take note of my hon. and learned Friend's suggestion of including a provision for a notice giving the date of the last test to be displayed on the car windscreen. Another hon. Friend has suggested that insurance details should be displayed on windscreens, but the main purpose of windscreens is to protect occupants from wind and to give adequate visibility. We discourage people from blocking their windscreens. I also note my hon. and learned Friend's suggestion that examiners should ensure that the vehicles have mirrors as well as seat belts.

I must emphasise that statutory testing does not and, indeed, cannot guarantee the continued roadworthiness of a vehicle. This is the continuous responsibility of the owner and the driver, who should ensure that at all times their vehicle satisfies the requirements of those Regulations which specify standards for the construction and use of road vehicles.

Statutory tests have been introduced to provide a periodic check of the general way in which that responsibility has been discharged; but just because they are periodic while the need for maintenance is continuous they cannot supersede that responsibility. In a perfect world testing would be unnecessary, for owners and drivers would ensure that their vehicles were always roadworthy. Unfortunately, it is plain that we cannot rely on this and some check is necessary. The question is, how much and how often?

The more comprehensive and frequent the test, the more it will cost. The scale of the problem is large: to add one minute to the MOT test will cost about £1 million per year. This all comes out of the motorist's pocket, at a time when he has been hard hit in many other areas.

Mr. Greville Janner

Can my hon. Friend tell the approximate cost to the Government of road accidents caused by defective vehicles?

Mr. Marks

I cannot give my hon. and learned Friend that figure offhand, but I shall let him have it.

Our task, therefore, is to achieve due balance between the cost which the test incurs and the benefits to road safety that are derived from it and to relate this to the other road safety measures which compete for the not unlimited resources available for this work. These are the reasons for limiting testing to those items that are most critical for safety and for having separate schemes for the three main classes of vehicle, that is, cars, vans and motor cycles, lorries and buses, in which the test requirements are progressively more stringent as the size and passenger capacity or load of the vehicles increases.

The MOT test, which caters for cars, vans and motor cycles, originally covered the three most critical safety items on a vehicle—brakes, steering and lights. To these were added tyres and seat belts, and this year will see the inclusion of windscreen washers and wipers, stop and direction indicator lights and the condition of the exhaust system, together with a clearer definition of suspension and corrosion defects as part of the braking and steering items. The test requirements involve examination of the vehicle and the measurement of performance where this is possible—that is, for brakes and lights. It does not involve dismantling parts of the vehicle, which would greatly increase costs without a commensurate return in accident saving.

As a cost-benefit check on the critical safety items of a vehicle, I believe that the MOT test makes an effective contribution to road safety; but in seeking to improve this effectiveness I must not overrate the benefit of more elaborate testing, thus producing a situation in which the cost of testing is greatly increased with no discernible improvements in road safety.

So much for the general background, I now come to the specific points raised by my hon. and learned Friend. He referred to the prohibition of dangerous vehicles. The best means of dealing with vehicles which fail the MOT test is a matter that is receiving consideration at the moment by my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport. The person who drives such a vehicle is in a vulnerable position, for he may be leaving himself open to a charge of driving an Unroadworthy vehicle, or a much more serious charge if he is involved in a road accident. He is also taking an insurance risk, in that he may not be covered because he is not meeting his obligation to keep his vehicle in a roadworthy condition.

In some cases the test shows that the vehicle is not only defective but dangerously defective. This raises the question whether the authorised examiner should be given the power to prohibit the use of vehicles. Such a power is part of the heavy goods vehicle testing scheme, where it is exercised by the technical officers of my Department, who hold examiners' warrants and have no overt commercial interest influencing their decision. With fewer than 100 testing stations their judgment can be exercised at a reasonably consistent level.

The same cannot be said for the MOT test scheme. There are about 17,500 test stations and about 60,000 nominated testers who do the testing. Consequently, the problem of establishing and maintaining consistent standards would be very great. An even greater problem would be the difficulty of convincing vehicle owners that a prohibition is not motivated by the desire to drum up business. Even if untrue, this possibility is bound to harm relationships and adversely affect the public's view of the test.

In general, I think it can fairly be said that motorists act in a reasonable way and either have their vehicles repaired by the authorised examiner or drive with proper care to another place of repair. I do not feel justified in imposing prohibitions that would bear harshly upon the many reasonable as well as the very few unreasonable motorists. Nor do I support the introduction of a follow-up procedure which would ensure that these vehicles were repaired or scrapped; the need to have a current MOT certificate ensures this.

Although it is difficult to be precise about the contribution of any single measure or even group of measures to road safety the fact remains that we have much to be proud of. Over the last decade the road casualty rate has fallen by over 45 per cent., and in my view roadworthiness tests have made their full contribution to this improvement. Whilst there is still much to be accomplished, the fact is that we have a road safety record second to none.

Many countries have comprehensive roadworthiness testing schemes similar to our own. The main variation is the type of test station for private vehicles where many countries use Government or Government agency stations, but I feel our system best suits our conditions.

The main point I want to get over is that the MOT test, or for that matter any periodic test, cannot guarantee the complete roadworthiness of a vehicle. This is and must be the continuous responsibility of the motorist. It is one that I believe is usually carried out responsibly and well.

I am not dismissing lightly the points made by my hon. and learned Friend, who I know has the interests of vehicle roadworthiness very much at heart. He shares with me, and I am sure with every hon. Member, the desire to ensure that every vehicle is at all times and in every respect fit to travel on our roads. However, in pursuit of this objective I must be satisfied that the total cost of any enforcement measure is justified in terms of the safety benefits that will be derived from it.

I shall look into my hon. and learned Friend's proposals with care. The suggestions he has put forward by means of parliamentary Questions are also being looked at. But I must conclude that, in the main, the present testing standards and arrangements, with the additions and modifications already announced, are those best suited to our needs, though we shall continue to examine the points he has raised.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his concern and promise him that any new measures that he or any hon. Member can suggest which will improve road safety will be looked at very carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Four o'clock a.m.