HC Deb 02 May 1984 vol 59 cc517-22

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

2.49 am
Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

I am obliged to the House for the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent, Mr. R. W. Anscombe. I shall be brief and relate the essential facts before proceeding to the arguments which arise from them.

Mr. Anscombe spent about 11 years as a regular soldier in the Life Guards regiment. He left that regiment at the end of his service career with the exemplary conduct rating on his discharge certificate. During that period he qualified as a driving instructor in three categories laid down by the Army. The first was as a private driving instructor, the second was as a vocational training instructor in heavy goods vehicle driving, and the third was as an inspector of public service vehicles. Mr. Anscombe gave that service largely in Germany, and he spent most of his time in the Army teaching people to drive in all the categories in which he was qualified. Therefore, he acquired very considerable and exceptional experience in that area.

On leaving the Army, quite naturally, Mr. Anscombe wished to start his own business and in so doing to use the expertise which he had acquired as a driving instructor, particularly as a heavy goods vehicle driving instructor. He had a queue of about 40 people who were waiting for him to do that and who were willing to take lessons from him. Naturally, he then sought advice as to how he should proceed to go about that business.

The advice that Mr. Anscombe received from the Departments involved was somewhat surprising. The most important aspect of it was, first, that he was not professionally qualified and, secondly, that he had to be employed as a trainee driving instructor before he could undertake that work, having spent nine or 10 years in instructing people to drive vehicles. He was then told that he would have to take the civilian course, at a cost to himself of about £70. That was to some extent redeemed by an offer made by the Department of Employment to subsidise his course to the tune of about £45.

Anyone looking at the situation would conclude immediately that there was something wrong. We are all familiar with the term "non-tariff barriers to trade", and I should like to suggest that this is a non-qualification barrier to employment—a similar category of non-qualification.

When my constituent came to see me and put the facts before me, I was, as my hon. Friend knows, very disturbed about them, and I approached the Department on 24 October, setting out the facts and confessing at the same time my astonishment and dismay.

In the reply that I received, the following points, in essence, were made. The first was that there was a register of so-called approved driving instructors which had been set up in 1964; that this had become compulsory in 1970 and that there was no way in which anyone could give driving instruction without being on the register; that it was now administered under the Transport Act 1982, and that that Act made it an offence, surprising as it may be, for anyone who had not been properly registered to give instruction; that the Act created no provision for a waiver; and that there were about 29,000 authorised heavy goods vehicle driving instructors now operating in the United Kingdom under the Act.

The principal justifications which were given by the Minister in her first letter were that it was done on two essential grounds. The first was road safety, although that was not defined, and the second was consumer protection. I find those unconvincing for the following reasons.

First, the armed services as such set, are known to set and take pride in setting, the very highest standards in the instruction which they give to those whom they qualify in all three categories as driving instructors. Indeed, the Army runs a school of driving at Leconfield in Humberside where that instruction is given. It is my opinion that if one can instruct on five-ton trucks, tracked vehicles or tanks, one is qualified—if one has qualified at the Army school of driving at Leconfield—to teach on anything.

Secondly, the safety criterion is certainly met if the standards of training provided by the services are, as I believe they are and as they obviously should be, fully in accord with the standard of safety required.

Thirdly, I cannot see in any way how the consumer is not protected if the person giving the instruction has acquired his skills in an institution of this kind. In the case of my constituent, Mr. Anscombe—indeed, for those in a similar position who in future could be a considerable number—his experience was quite exceptional.

The armed services often, and quite deliberately, attract recruits because of the experience and qualifications that are attainable during their service. It is slightly disreputable if, as has happened in this case, those qualifications are not subsequently useable on leaving, unless the person concerned is prepared to go through the elaborate rigmarole of another long and arduous test.

The logical solution seemed to be perfectly simple and straightforward — if necessary to insist that the qualification, standards and experience obtained by anyone in any of the three services should be at least as high and comprehensive, and meet all the criteria that apparently—and properly so—are laid down in the civilian sector.

I suggested this to my hon. Friend in a letter on 25 November last year. Essentially, I suggested that there should be a waiver, if possible by intelligent administrative action, or if that proved impossible, as apparently it was, that there was a strong case for a modification to the Act.

In the reply that I received on 17 January this year, further justifications were advanced for the present situation. These were, first, a need to ensure uniform standards across the board and, secondly, that exemptions were considered at length during the Committee on the Bill in 1967. The only exemptions granted on that occasion were for police instructors and heavy goods vehicle instructors in Northern Ireland operating under another Act.

The reason for the reluctance was that the responsibility for maintaining standards would not rest within "our own" jurisdiction. That surprised me. Whose jurisdiction? "Our own" obviously means the Government's jurisdiction, but as well as having jurisdiction over civilian qualification, they have complete jurisdiction over the Ministry of Defence and anything that it does.

Therefore, the second argument that exemptions would

weaken the control we exercise over standards of individual applicants simply does not and should not apply, because both categories come within the central and proper jurisdiction of the Government. In my view, that argument, while laudable, is in no sense relevant.

The suggestion that this would open a floodgate to driving instructors' "representative bodies"—I did not follow that at all—or driving instructors employed by "large commercial undertakings" was totally unconvincing, because neither of those organisations is in any sense controlled by the Government, whereas both the organisations to which I have referred are essentially controlled by them. Therefore, I do not accept the final argument that the differentiation was invidious. That is not so, because both official schemes and the services are in the public sector where standards can be set, maintained modified and co-ordinated without any real problems for those concerned.

The general position is that there is a substantial and continuing increase in the heavy goods vehicle population and, therefore, a substantial and continuing increase in the training that is required. Secondly, the armed forces attract and train men who become highly experienced and wholly and properly qualified instructors in the driving of heavy goods vehicles. Thirdly, I do not believe that they have anything to learn from anyone. They do not need to be tested, they should not have to pay to be tested and we should not have to incur a waste of public money in testing those who do not need to be tested.

It is clear that instructors in the armed forces should be able to offer their services as soon as they re-enter civilian life, as this is generally almost implicit in the contract that the services make with them, which states that in addition to their soldiering they will acquire useful civilian qualifications. A useful civilian qualification is one that is wholly up to standard, applicable and immediately acceptable in civilian life.

If civilian and service standards differ—I have no reason to believe that they do—there is no reason why they should not be brought into conformity. I suspect that service standards in this sector, as in so many others, are higher and not lower than those set in civilian life. I look to my hon. Friend for some imagination and flexibility, and an undertaking that, if it necessary, the Government will modify the 1967 Act as soon as a suitable modifying Bill is introduced, or by means of a clause in the next transport Bill. The present situation is indefensible and untenable and a public defence, if anything, of what I can describe only as a rather undesirable form of closed shop.

3.3 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd). I shall say a few words about the driving instructor registration scheme that is operated by my Department before turning to the correspondence that my hon. Friend has had with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport. Notwithstanding that it is now later than three o'clock in the morning, my hon. Friend has vigorously outlined the problems faced by his constituent. I am sure that his constituent and others who are in the same group will be grateful to him for the care that he has devoted to their problems at such a late hour.

The scheme was set up on a voluntary basis in 1964 and made compulsory in 1970. Since then it has been necessary for those who give instruction in the driving of motor cars for payment or reward—the professional driving instructors—to be approved and registered with the Department.

Applications seeking approval and registration are required under the provisions of part V of the Road Traffic Act 1972 to satisfy certain conditions. One of the conditions is that the would-be instructor must pass a qualifying examination. The examination comprises a written test of theoretical knowledge of driving matters, a practical test of the instructor's own driving, and a practical test of ability to instruct.

I am sure that we are all agreed that careful and considerate driving is essential to road safety. The professional driving instructor plays a crucial part in this, as it is he who lays the foundations of a lifetime of driving and must instil the right attitudes from the very start.

The Department constantly urges new drivers to take professional instruction and to learn to drive from an approved driving instructor. We have also been looking at the operation of the register of approved driving instructors and are making wide-ranging changes in the registration scheme covering entry standards, trainee licensing, the supervision of registered instructors and illegal instruction. We now have a new written examination that demands a greater theoretical knowledge of driving matters and a stiffer test of the instructor's own driving. We shall shortly be making changes in the practical test of ability to instruct that will call for a higher degree of teaching skill. We are also making tougher checks on registered instructors to match the higher standards we expect from newcomers.

There is also provision in the recently enacted Road Traffic (Driving Instruction) Act 1984 for tightening up the trainee driving instructor licensing scheme. That will require trainee instructors to pass the written and driving test parts of the qualifying examination for approval and registration before grant of licence. Trainees will thus be partly qualified and be of a higher calibre than hitherto.

The new Act will also require driving instructors to display their official identification documents in tuition cars. That will help new drivers to avoid unauthorised instructors and assist with the enforcement of the provisions on illegal instruction. We shall be implementing those changes as soon as the necessary administrative arrangements have been made.

All of that will, I am sure, lead to improvements in driving instruction and thus make a significant contribution to road safety. I mention this to illustrate the importance that the Department places on good instruction, and the effective operation of the driving instructor registration scheme.

I well appreciate the point that my hon. Friend has made about exemption from passing the qualifying examination for former members of the armed forces who have been engaged in driving instruction during their time in the services. There is no doubt that such persons are likely to be suited to take up a career in driving instruction. Some of them may have been trained as heavy goods vehicle driving instructors, and I hasten to add that there is no restriction on the giving of driving instruction for that type of vehicle other than that the instructor holds an HGV driving licence for the class of vehicle in which the tuition is given.

If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he said that his constituent had difficulty not only in the general instruction of car driving but with HGV instruction. I hope that my clarification of HGV driving instruction may be of some consolation to my hon. Friend and his constituent.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

I understand that it was made clear to my constituent that, although he was entitled to give instruction, he was not able to do so for gain. He cannot operate as a commercial instructor on HGVs.

Mr. Mitchell

This is a technical point, and I shall write to my hon. Friend about it. I assure him that there is no restriction on the giving of driving instruction for HGV vehicles other than that the instructor must hold an HGV driving licence for the class of vehicle on which he is to give instruction.

While, at first sight, it may seem anomalous that there is that difference, there is good reason for different treatment of HGV driver training compared with teaching the general public to drive motor cars. The HGV licence is a vocational licence and much of the training of HGV drivers is provided by organisations such as those set up under the auspices of the road transport industry training board. That ensures that appropriate standards are set for those giving instruction. Moreover, the road transport industry, as the main employer of HGV instructors, is in a good position to safeguard its interests by monitoring the performance of its instructors.

On the other hand, the general public are not so well placed to judge the quality of instruction and it is right in the interest of both road safety and consumer protection that motor car driving instruction should be subject to registration and supervision.

The requirements for those seeking registration as approved driving instructors in the giving of instruction in driving motor cars to pass the statutory qualifying examination are well established. The question of exemption for those possessing other qualifications or experience was carefully considered in Committee and by Ministers during the passage of the initial legislation which provided for compulsory registration; that is, the Road Traffic (Driving Instruction) Act 1967, subsequently consolidated in the Road Traffic Act 1972.

There were at that time many competing claims for exemption. In the event, these have been limited to the two to which my hon. Friend referred. They are police instructors in their official capacity giving tuition under local road safety schemes, and instructors registered under the separate Northern Ireland driving instructor registration scheme, which has requirements similar to our own scheme. These limited exemptions are provided for in the driving instructor legislation.

We have always resisted proposals for further exemptions. The main reason for this is that uniformity in entry standards is crucial and responsibility for maintaining such standards in these cases would then be outside our jurisdiction. My hon. Friend referred to our having control and said that, when they were in the forces, they were within the control of Government. In this context, the Minister of State was referring to the Department of Transport's control of the standards which we seek to set and monitor.

There would always be a risk that in some cases the stringent standards on which we rightly insist would be affected, and would weaken our control over the qualifications of those seeking registration. Moreover, the necessary supervision of other testing bodies would make demands for additional staff that would be difficult to meet from present scarce resources.

It is, therefore, difficult to justify further exemptions, whether of former armed services driving instructors or others. Those who have passed courses run by driving instructors' representative bodies, and driving instructors employed by large commercial undertakings, would no doubt also seek special treatment if the exemptions were extended in any way. Differentiation between one group and another would be invidious.

I know that my hon. Friend has strong feelings on this matter and sees every reason for an exception to be made for former armed forces driving instructors. I am sorry if I have taken what may seem to him a rather hard line, but we are vitally concerned with the level of competence of every instructor. It is for that reason that we require them to demonstrate that they can meet the standards that we in the Department have laid down by passing the qualifying examination. I hope that what I have said will have helped persuade my hon. Friend that we are acting reasonably in this matter, particularly against the background of the recent steps taken to improve the driving instructor registration scheme.

Former armed forces driving instructors wishing to take up driving instruction in civilian life should be well placed to pass the qualifying examination for approval. The fees for the written and practical parts of the examination amount to £85, with a further £50 for initial registration, making a total of £135. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are opportunities for obtaining some contribution towards that from the Department of Employment.

I do not think that that will be regarded as an excessive amount for a professional qualification of this kind. Moreover, there is no undue delay in dealing with applications and in arranging examination appointments. It is possible for candidates to complete all stages of the examination and obtain registration within about two months.

I hope that, in the light of my reply, my hon. Friend will feel that proper care and consideration has been given to the points that he has raised. I well understand his feelings, but we must recognise that where the Department of Transport has a responsibility for ensuring standards and for continuing to see that they are maintained by checks at intervals, it is right and proper that we should have our own examination system before letting instructors loose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Three o'clock am.