HC Deb 11 November 1976 vol 919 cc757-67

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

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey) rose

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) can make his speech without so much assistance from his hon. Friends behind him.

Mr. Shaw

I welcome the assistance of my hon. Friends but I really want the assistance of the Minister in answering my questions.

I am grateful for being able to debate the subject of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea, although I must confess that I regret the need to do so. No hon. Member on either side of the House can have failed to be made aware of the difficulties which his constituents have encountered in having their documentation handled by the Swansea centre. I hope that the Government will give me some reassurances which will give tangible benefits to mortorists and taxpayers, who are, in most cases, the same individual.

The decision to establish this centre at Swansea goes back to the Ministry of Transport working party set up in 1965 to examine the problems associated with the handling of the registration and licensing of vehicles. At that time there was substantial evidence that a new system had to be found because the rapid rise in vehicle ownership was making the old system and the cost of transferring log books and registrations too difficult to do on a local basis. The report of that working party recommended a centralised and computerised system and the recommendations were embodied in the Vehicle and Driving Licences Act 1969.

The scheme rapidly ran into great difficulties. The timetable was extended and the system was found to be complicated and infinitely more costly than was originally envisaged. A report of the Public Accounts Committee which examined the system commented on the Department of Environment's attitude. Paragraph 39 said: The Department agreed that the project had not been planned as well as it might have been and that decisions had been taken in 1968 on the basis of inadequate estimates. But they explained that the prime consideration at that time had been to proceed as quickly as possible with the new centralised system, since it was thought that the old system would be unable to cope wth the expected growth in driver and vehicle numbers. If it were embarking upon this project now, the Department would have followed up the working party's report with a full feasibility study before proceeding.

The 1971 review recognised that the new system was more costly than the old, but the Government decided to go ahead. The Committee concluded that it was not surprised that planning and timetables were found to be unrealistic since the Department embarked upon such a major and novel computer project without undertaking a thorough feasibility study and on the basis of inadequate costs and staff estimates. It is a very sad tale. It goes some way to excuse, if excuse is required, the consequential difficulties that many of our constituents have had in dealing with the centre.

On Second Reading of the Act, the cost of running the centre was estimated at £11.3 million for the first full year.

In addition, it was obvious that there was a large capital cost, estimated at £15,750,000, for the establishment of a large office and computer complex. In December 1975, a Written Answer stated that the cost of issuing licences for the current year—1974–75—was £26.3 million, almost exactly double the original estimate. The estimate for 1975–76, given last January, was £31.1 million.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

In view of these alarming statistics, has my hon. Friend considered the possibility of denationalising the centre?

Mr. Shaw

I hardly think that that would be an appropriate matter for this debate, but I hope that my hon. Friend's assiduity in seeking to denationalise large public undertakings will find further fertile ground for his Ten-Minute Rule Bill campaign.

One cannot deny that the escalation in costs is appalling. At the time of Second Reading, it was estimated that when the centre was in full operation, together with its network of local licensing offices, 5,000 staff would be involved. That figure was roughly comparable with that of the licensing system then established through the local authorities. Some 185 local authority units were involved in the licensing of vehicles at the time.

In another parliamentary answer last January, the staff complement was quoted, on the basis of the establishment of April 1976, as 6,480. Yet the local licensing offices now number only 81 as opposed to the original 185 local authority offices. Therefore, the number of staff has gone up by 20 per cent. over the original estimate. I am confident that the Minister will agree that if a centralised computer system was to be established, a significant saving on the staffing would almost surely ensue if it were done efficiently.

Is the citizen motorist or taxpayer really getting value for money? We know that there has been a considerable number of complaints about the operation of the centre. It involves delay, confusion, irritation and, in many cases, considerable anger. Like other hon. Members, I have had a number of constituency complaints. One came from a company which is part of the GEC group. The general manager wrote: The Road Fund licence of one of our company cars, used by a representative who drives about the country permanently, fell due for renewal on the 1st December 1975. Application was made to the DVLC on 7th November 1975 for a new licence. On the 8th December, when the licence had not been received, my Chief Accountant rang the Bradford Metropolitan Police to establish the legal position only to find that he was speaking to a police vehicle driver, who had had to revert to office duties because he had not received his Driving Licence, despite the fact that he had applied for it some 6 weeks before. The letter goes on: The driver in question has been stopped by the Police and is liable to be charged for failing to display a current Road Fund Licence. My constituent asked me: Does this mean, therefore, that the Government intends such vehicles used in connection with manufacturing commerce to be taken off the road whilst they issue a piece of paper?". This raises an important issue in my mind—the extent to which prosecution might be involved through no fault of the applicant for a driving licence certificate. I followed this us in Questions at the time and the then junior Minister at the Department of the Environment suggested that the relevant section of the Act had not been invoked. He added that there was no prosecution under Section 8(1) for unlicensed use of a vehicle if application for licence renewal had been made within 14 days of the expiry of the previous licence.

That is an important point which I ask the Minister to confirm tonight. Can he categorically state that, providing there is proof of an application having been made, the 14 days' grace in that sense is elastic? Can he confirm that prosecution will not be undertaken and that those who have vehicles in that condition may legitimately continue to use them without fear of prosecution by the police?

The second point which frequently arises from consumer complaints involves administration. The Department has reasonably claimed that 98 per cent. of applications are dealt with within 10 working days. I hazard a guess whether 10 working days is really satisfactory. Certainly in private industry if one is involved with getting orders and despatching them, 10 working days seems far too long. I hope that the Minister can say that that is by no means a satisfactory level and that it is a target that the Department sincerely hopes to reduce.

If 98 per cent. of applications are dealt with in that time, as the Member for the noble constituency of Pudsey, I seem to have the other two per cent. within my constituency. I would mention Mr. Thornton of Guiseley, whose registration documents took four months; Mrs. Napier of Horsforth, whose application took just over three months; Mr. Thompson of Guiseley, whose licence took 14 weeks; Mr. Constantine—an imperial name—whose registration documents took from October 1975 to March 1976 to come through.

Let me pay tribute to those in the centre who have the unenviable task of communicating with the public. Someone who deserves a mention is Mrs. Wheat, who was in charge of communicating with the public and did so with fairness, distinction and good grace. I am only saddened that the effort has been too much and she has since been replaced. However, they do their best to communicate continuously about this problem.

Much of the suffering will now be removed by the 81 local licensing offices which the Department has recently opened. I hope the Minister will confirm that over the counter services and postal services will be available to all those who live within their area, as is the case with the 1,800 post offices which handle this matter. The highly taxed motorist must be mystified when he considers that those local taxation offices were swept away and replaced by local taxation offices operating under the Department of Transport.

I would briefly refer to cherished number plates. Whatever the technical position under the Act, a guarantee was given on Second Reading of the Act when the then Minister stated: There will be arrangements for cherished numbers."—[Official Report, 22nd November 1968; Vol. 733, c. 1711.] That was confirmed as recently as the debates on the Finance Bill this year.

It is a matter for grave doubt whether these arrangements are working. As the Minister knows, this is the subject of a major industrial dispute.

I received this afternoon a telegram from the motor traders of Basingstoke who asked me to see what could be done to resolve the registration ban. They say that it is seriously crippling sales and cash flows within the British Motor trade nation wide. Those traders represent Ford, Austin, Morris, Jaguar, Triumph and Rover cars. It is not right that the Government, who are shareholders and stockholders of British Leyland and who also are responsible for this system, should stand idly by while this disruption to a public service occurs. I hope the Minister will say what action he is taking to resolve the matter. Will he please say whether there are any new proposals to be worked out and if so will he undertake that such proposals will be laid before this House for debate and, it is to be hoped, approved.

On the subject of cherished number plates, in relation to which I understand there is a backlog of 27,000 applications, will the Minister take care not to regard this just as an excuse for abandoning this facility altogether? The public like it and are willing to pay for it.

Finally, it is important that we should pay due regard to the fact that the situation at Swansea is unhappy because it contained at the outset a major planning mistake which gave rise to serious problems. The lesson has been truly learned that bureaucracy and bungling in estimating and planning of computer programmes can leave the taxpayer with a mighty bill, the motorist in tremendous confusion and the citizen mystified by the whole process. This lesson must be learned by all Departments, not just by the Department of the Environment.

On the subject of public expenditure, it must be pointed out that more persons are employed in the centre than before—and indeed the Estimate moved from £12 million to £31 million. The fact is that the public are confused and irritated by the whole system as operated. Admittedly, the system produces good results for the police in regard to the keeping of records, which is first class, but it was primarily designed as a system for the registration of licensed vehicles on behalf of the motoring public.

The Minister owes the House some explanation, if not reassurance, that the problems associated with the project have been removed so that the motorist, the citizen, and, above all, the taxpayer may look forward to a slightly more profitable future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. Donald Anderson.

Mr. Shaw

I gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen).

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I wish to take part in this debate because the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre is in my constituency and employs 2,500 people. My constituents are deeply offended by the baying and unjustified criticism of the Civil Service which often comes from the Opposition.

I wish first to refer to staffing. The centralised system will, when complete, employ 10 per cent. fewer staff than the old LTOs and, in any event, by that time the old system would have collapsed under strain. Therefore, the points made by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) on staffing are irrelevant.

There has been a steady improvement in performance since the teething problems in 1973. They were caused in part by trying to secure up-to-date and accurate records—records which the old LTO system was failing to maintain.

What is the turn-round time? Over 95 per cent. of driving licences are issued within 10 working days or less; in regard to vehicle licensing, over 85 per cent of replies to applications are returned within three working days, and 96 per cent. within five working days.

Where driving licences are not handled immediately, it is often the case that there is a complex problem such as a medical difficulty or a query about an endorsement.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the convention of the House that on an Adjournment debate only the Minister replying for the Government shall speak in addition to the Member who raises the matter unless he chooses to give way to one of his hon. Friends?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It so happens that the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) approached the hon.

Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) and received permission to intervene.

Mr. Giles Shaw

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is correct in that the time of the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) would come from the Minister's time. However, I also made arrangements for my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) to intervene.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair has no control over the allocation of time in these matters. It is only to be hoped that the Minister will be allowed time to reply. I am fully aware that one other Member has the hon. Gentleman's permission to intervene.

Mr. Anderson

Most of the delays caused by the returning of documents to the public are the result of incorrectly completed applications.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

On a further point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With respect, there is no point in a speech from the Government Benches coming first and a further intervention from the Opposition Benches coming afterwards.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that more time is being wasted than is being gained.

Mr. Anderson

I understand that the ratio of complaints from MPs is two for every 100,000 transactions. There are now almost one million transactions every week. It is unfair for the hon. Gentleman and so many of his colleagues to condemn the centre because of past problems and to highlight certain features given the vast number of transactions that now pass through the centre. Much of the criticism is ignorant and highly offensive to those of my hard-working constituents who are doing a valued task on behalf of the community.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to take a few minutes of the time of the House to talk about the cherished number plate dispute.

A number of my constituents and I are concerned because the dispute is outside the whole basis of industrial action. According to a letter I have from the Department of Transport, it was caused because certain abuses upset the staff. Is it the position that our society can be disrupted because a matter upsets a staff?

Why is it that some of my constituents with cherished number plates are prevented from purchasing a cherished number for a new car because it upsets the staff? If a person may go on holiday all over the world without anyone objecting, what is the rationale if the Minister is to tell the House that a minority group of staff can object and, therefore, affect the rights of a great section of the population?

10.48 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State lot Transport (Mr. John Horam)

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) has a long and, if I may say so, distinguished interest in consumer affairs. He has approached this problem from the point of view of the consumer, but I think that he will agree that possibly the DVLC has some administrative advantages for the police, for example. However, I wish to discuss the matter from the point of view of the user or consumer.

The first point to make is that the Government of the day went in for centralisation at Swansea because the existing local system was clearly showing signs of breaking down. Until the establishment of the DVLC, responsibility rested with 183 different local authorities.

As the hon. Gentleman said, in 1965 an interdepartmental committee, on which local authorities were represented, recommended centralisation because the old system was showing signs of imminent collapse. The driver and vehicle population was expected to continue to grow apace. Five million files a year were already being shuttled between local authorities. That is a thought to ponder upon. The only practical way to handle over 40 million records—driver and vehicle combined—centrally is with the aid of a computer. Therefore, a purpose-designed centre was planned for the outskirts of Swansea, with two sophisticated computer systems, one for drivers and one for vehicles, one of the largest batch-processing installations in Western Europe.

Responsibility for the licensing of drivers and the registration and licensing of vehicles was taken over by the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1971. It has now passed to the Secretary of State for Transport. The collapse of the local system, which was feared at the time, has been averted and the centralised system is working with increasing effectiveness. The overriding justification—the real belief in the late 1960s that there would be a collapse of the locally based system, which had no viable future—was justified. In that sense the "small" option of doing it locally was no longer available and it is not available now.

The second point is that, as with any new operation—particularly one on such a massive scale—there were teething troubles. They certainly appear to be a natural hazard of conversion to computer systems. The hon. Member for Pudsey seemed to imply that I was an expert on computers: I am not. However, they invariably involve initial problems.

The DVLC was also hit—the hon. Gentleman did not mention this—by unprecedented Civil Service strikes and stoppages at the beginning just when it was going "live". This halted the operation for about a fortnight at a crucial period, and there was an almighty log jam which took time to clear.

That inauspicious start is well behind us. Unfortunately, the popular image which the DVLC then gained still persists. But if it were true, the centre would long ago have ground to a halt.

Wrong estimates were made. The hon. Gentleman gave an example during his speech. The Public Accounts Committee went thoroughly into this matter. Mistakes were made, they have been acknowledged, and lessons have been learned.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, we accept that the staff will be 10 per cent. less than for the local system which we would have continued if we had not established Swansea. Performance has been fair.

Mention has been made of the fact that over 95 per cent. of all driver transactions are cleared in 10 working days. Those which are not cleared in that time include cases where medical investigation is necessary and where discrepancies in the information received have to be followed up.

I remind the House that that does not stop people from driving for that period. It is not a great inconvenience. Vehicle licences are handled within approximately three days, which is extremely fast. I accept that some people are concerned about the interval. I assure the House that people can carry on using vehicles without a licence during that period despite the fact that the 14 days have elapsed. The situation is well understood and the police are flexible.

The situation was well put by the Automobile Association which was quoted in a recent newspaper article: A Government claim in the Commons that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea has overcome its early difficulties and now gives good service has been largely confirmed by the Automobile Association. 'There was a fair amount of trouble in the early days but the number of complaints from our members has dropped quite considerably', a spokesman said. 'It is not perfect by any means, but most of the wrinkles seem to have been ironed out.' I have talked to officials of the AA in the course of consultations on the transport document. I assure all Members that the AA is as assiduous as ever in protecting the interests of motorists. If the AA supports that statement, we may take it as an unobjectionable source as it is pro-motorist and would not overstate the position.

I turn now to the present system and what one can do by post and over the counter. The system for driving licences is that people must apply to Swansea by