HC Deb 23 April 1993 vol 223 cc640-7

'.Any applicant may, after giving notice of not less than three weeks, undergo a further medical examination at the site of his assessment centre undertaken by a doctor or qualified medical practitioner approved by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.'—[Mr. Peter Atkinson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 16, in clause 1, page 2, line 38 at end insert— '(7A) On production of a medical certificate by a doctor approved by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, any person previously recorded as disabled under section 125A(1) of this Act may apply to have the details of his disability removed from the register, and from his driving licence, and be notified by the relevant authority that such removal has taken place.'.

No. 18, in clause 1, page 4, line 37 at end insert 'or

  1. (c) submit himself to any relevant medical examination as may be prescribed by regulations.'.

No. 20, in clause 3 page 6, line 35 at end insert 'and—

  1. (c) a medical certificate from a qualified medical practitioner approved by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency detailing every relevant disability or prospective disability.'.

Mr. Atkinson

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), on a point of order, questioned the motives of some of us for taking part in today's debate on the Bill. I may think that the hon. Gentleman's Bill about the press is an iniquitous attempt to censor it, but I am speaking today because I have a specific interest in the disabled.

My constituency contains Hexham hospital, which is the regional centre for spinal injuries for the whole of the northern region. Therefore, I see at first hand the effects caused, particularly to young people who are seriously injured in road and industrial accidents. They frequently come into town so we see how their recovery progresses and how people with appalling, crippling injuries can become much fitter and restored. The sort of measure proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) provides exactly the opportunity that such people need to find a different job. Therefore, I warmly welcome the Bill, which removes another barrier to the disabled.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

My constituents live side by side with the Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries unit. Constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House will regard the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) as providing important new opportunities to disabled people. I think that our constituents, as well as hon. Members, will resent some of the insinuations contained in the remarks by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley).

11.15 am
Mr. Atkinson

I agree with my hon. Friend, and appreciate that, as he has the Stoke Mandeville unit in his constituency, he has even more experience of what happens than I do.

One of the problems that people face on their way to recovery is that of their future. Many of them receive compensation for industrial and motor accidents, but life looks bleak unless they can find something worth while to do. That is why the Bill is so good, and why I largely support it. The only purpose of my amendments is to seek clarification on one or two issues.

I join in the congratulations to the Department of Transport, whose officials have clearly been extremely helpful. We often forget their role. The input of those at the disability unit must be particularly warmly welcomed by those of us who have sought their advice. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Roads and Traffic bears in mind my kind words when I come to him seeking a new bypass in my constituency.

The purpose of the new clause and the amendments is to seek clarification about the role of the medical assessor when granting disabled people licences to become driving instructors. Had I gone to MAVIS, who has been mentioned a number of times, my questions would have been answered. I was interested to read the report by the Standing Committee on the Bill and the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter about MAVIS I must make an effort to go down to see her for, if no other reason than to eat the rock cakes, of which I am particularly fond, and which my hon. Friend mentioned on Second Reading.

One of my problems relates to when an applicant has a licence granted to him as a disabled driver some time after he visits MAVIS seeking the certificate to become a driving instructor. I am not sure how up to date the medical advice needs to be. The problem is that a disabled driver's licence could have been issued some time ago, and when he arrives at MAVIS his licence could be old and his condition could have deteriorated. The assessor who grants the emergency control certificate will have to make some form of medical judgment about the person seen on the day. I was trying to find out about the advice that the assessor would have in order to make that judgment. I see that on Second Reading it was said that the assessor would have access to medical advice, but I should like to know more about that advice.

New clause 5 gives the applicant the right to claim an on-site medical assessment provided notice is given. I floated that suggestion because it is important that if there were a dispute about the disabled person's condition, that person should be able to turn to an approved medical adviser and doctor for representation on the day. That might overcome some of the problems.

I also want to explore the medical qualifications of the applicant's assessors. They will clearly be skilled in driving and driving instruction. I am anxious to know more about their medical background. That matter was raised a number of times in the Second Reading debate, which was brief, and in Committee, which was also brief.

On Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is not present, talked about regular retesting and I think that the duty to disclose further disability was mentioned. A disabled driving instructor with a progressive condition has a duty to reveal that to the authorities. However, if someone makes a living from instructing—and given that being disabled makes earning a living harder—clearly, it would not be to his advantage to reveal that his condition was deteriorating, even if he had an obligation to do so. There is regular retesting, but I should like to know the length of the intervals before which the person with the licence is required to return for a test. Obviously, that would depend on the disability. In some cases, it might be advisable for a person to be retested every three months, but for others it might be necessary only every year, which I believe is the maximum allowed.

My other amendments follow the same line in that they require an applicant to provide a medical certificate. They also require that when the DVLA grants a licence, it can insist that the successful applicant returns for regular medical tests. I tabled the amendments because I was not sure whether the Bill covered this point—at least, I could not see it in the Bill. It seemed to me that the Bill perhaps leaves it too much to the disabled instructor's own volition to come forward. Of course, if he does not, he will commit an offence; but I thought that my provision was in the interests of public safety.

One of the other amendments deals with wiping the medical record clean, on medical advice, if a person is cured of his disability. This relates to amendments in a different group by means of which I have sought to incorporate notes of the disability in a record. It will of course be important to note the nature of people's disabilities so as to know whether their condition is likely to get worse. Nevertheless, if a disability has cleared up or disappeared, the record of it should be expunged.

These are certainly technical amendments, designed to illicit some clarity. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter will be able to shed some light on this subject. I reiterate that I believe this to be a worthwhile Bill. My hon. Friend deserves great credit for it, and I wish it an easy passage into law.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I warmly welcome the Bill, the more so because I know of the deep commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannan) to getting a fair deal for disabled people in all walks of life.

We all feel a sense of involvement in trying to help disabled people. In my constituency, I have meetings with the Sutton Disabled Association and I know how strongly its members feel that they should have access to all the jobs that able-bodied people have. I am sure that they think that they should be able to become driving instructors, too. A cousin of mine has no hands, but he drives around very deftly. Why should not he be an instructor?

I sympathise with new clause 5. It is important to accord a high priority to a rigorous health examination. That in no way demeans the disabled person. Disabled people do not seek positive discrimination, and it should be clear to all that they are wholly capable of becoming not just drivers, but driving instructors. If there is any doubt about a person's medical condition, he should have the right to ask for a further examination to prove that he is perfectly capable of the task. Likewise, his medical condition should be regularly assessed; we should not rely on his revealing whether he is fit to become a driving instructor.

The Bill can achieve a great deal. It is important to remove all elements of doubt about people's ability to become instructors. After all, learner drivers need to feel confident that their instructors are as capable as able-bodied drivers. That is why this group of amendments deserves serious consideration.

Again, I wholeheartedly congratulate my hon. Friend on the Bill. It is long overdue.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), and I apologise for having to speak now with my back to her—one cannot face in both directions at once, unless one is a better politician than I am.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) will allow me to speak against his new clause, although I should point out that his remarks may have made it possible to hold truncated debates on other groups, because he ranged widely over the issues.

The test of the assessment should not be whether a driver can make an emergency stop. Any driver needs to be able to do that. The question is whether a supervising driver can bring a vehicle to a controlled stop if the trainee gets out of control. The nearest analogy that I can think of would come from the occasional campaigns to require new drivers and experienced drivers to be extensively eye-tested. Of course, the real test is whether they can see what they need for driving—can they read a number plate at the specified distance? That should show whether their eyes are working well. Eyesight is not usually the key factor in crashes anyway. It is often young people, who have the best eyes, who have the most frequent and the worst crashes.

The point at issue, I repeat, is whether the person will be able to bring the vehicle to a controlled stop. I do not see how medical examinations are relevant to that. Passing or failing such examinations will not necessarily help. The only instance in which an examination would help is when people have disclosed the fact that they have a condition that is predicted to get worse. Some of the other provisions of the Bill may then be used to ensure that they present themselves for retesting.

I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) has to say in response. I recommend that we stick to the practical question: will the driving instructor actually be able to bring the vehicle to a controlled halt?

Mr. Heald

The Bill deals with people whose driving licences are limited under section 92(5)(b) of the Road Traffic Act—people who require a vehicle of a particular construction or design to be able to drive safely. The sort of people who have a medical condition that is likely to deteriorate over a fairly short period are usually dealt with under section 92(4)(b)—the section in which the Secretary of State must not refuse to grant a licence on account of any relevant disability which is prescribed for the purposes of this paragraph … if the applicant satisfies such conditions as may be prescribed with a view to authorising the grant of a licence to a person in whose case the disability is appropriately controlled". If a person's condition is deteriorating, the Secretary of State is entitled to impose particular conditions on his driving licence to take account of that. Is it not true that most of the people covered by the Bill will not have deteriorating medical conditions—at least not to any great extent? Will they not mostly be people with stable conditions who need a car that has been adapted?

Mr. Bottomley

I agree. That was most helpful.

Sir John Hannam

The new clause and amendments all relate to medical examinations or changes in medical circumstances. I hope to be able to persuade the House that they are not necessary.

The Bill takes the driving instructor approval process onto new ground—to include disabled instructors. As well as the requirement to hold a full driving licence, an applicant will need to get through the three stages of the qualifying examination: the written theory test, the test of driving ability and, finally, after a training period, the last practical test. That applies to everyone becoming a driving instructor, and the same conditions will apply to a disabled driver who has to satisfy all the requirements. The Bill takes us into new ground under clause 3, where we have assessment of the ability to control a motor vehicle in an emergency, so that the necessary emergency control certificate can be issued. Assessment of a disabled person's competence to take control of a moving vehicle is not a medical assessment of that person's condition.

11.30 pm

A disabled person's medical condition will be relevant only in so far as it impinges on his ability to control a vehicle in an emergency situation while giving instruction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) pointed out, with or without the additional modifications to the vehicle that may be necessary.

The assessment of emergency control proposed in the Bill will not be a medical assessment. The disabled person, whatever his medical condition at the time of assessment, will be required simply to demonstrate the necessary emergency control. If the disabled person can satisfy the assessor on that, he will be issued with a certificate which will enable him to apply for registration as an approved driving instructor, assuming that he passes all parts of the examination.

The new clause envisages a potential disabled driving instructor undergoing a further medical examination at the assessment centre. Why "further", given that the emergency control assessment will not entail a medical examination? If the disabled person can demonstrate satisfactorily to the assessor that he can exercise emergency control, the person's medical condition is relevant only, first, in respect of what additional modifications to the vehicle, if any, the assessor may specify in the emergency control certificate and, secondly, the time period, again if any, after which the assessor considers the person should undergo a further assessment of emergency control ability.

There is no medical examination, only an assessment of the condition of that person, and when he may be required to be brought back again for another assessment.

In reaching his view on those aspects of the emergency control assessment, the assessor will use his professional and specialist knowledge of the sorts of vehicle modifications that are available to assist a disabled person give safe driving instruction. Where a disabled person has a progressive illness that reduces physical capacity over time—that will apply in some cases—the assessor will, if needed, have access to medical advice from the Department's medical adviser at the DVLA, and the Bill places on the applicant a duty to disclose such details of his physical disability as the Secretary of State may require. If, in the rare case, the assessor considers it would be helpful for the applicant to undergo a medical examination, he can inform the applicant accordingly, and request, but not oblige, the person to have the examination and to inform him of the outcome, before finally making a decision on the details of modifications. In that case, the medical examination is aimed purely at arriving at the right kind of modification needed for the vehicle to be used by the disabled driving instructor, or for the time period to be specified. Therefore, the new clause is not required because we are not carrying out medical examinations and do not need to do so at the time of the assessment.

Amendment No. 16 appears to be designed to allow a previously disabled person who has taken advantage of the Bill, but is no longer disabled, to become an unrestricted driving instructor, and also, rather bizarrely, to have details of the disability removed from his driving licence. The Bill is designed to enable physically disabled people who meet the conditions to become driving instructors, but with the limitation that they can give paid driving instruction only in a vehicle and class covered by the person's limited driving licence. In practice, that means automatic cars with any additional modifications, which will be specified in a certificate. The Bill is not designed to deal with those who, for whatever reason, are no longer suffering from a relevant or prospective disability.

If a previously disabled person, who is registered as a disabled driving instructor, wishes to have that restriction removed from the register, the person must first obtain a full driving licence in the normal way. In other words, if a person who has recovered full physical capacity, such that his driving licence need no longer be limited by virtue of the earlier disability, there is nothing to prevent that person from taking and passing the driving test in a car fitted with manual transmission, and thereby obtain a full driving licence.

The production of a medical certificate, as envisaged by the amendment, will not be sufficient to change his driving licence in any material way. While there may be circumstances where limited improvements in physical capacity are such that certain restrictions may be removed from the driving licence, existing driver licensing regulations cater for such circumstances. There is no need for such a provision in the Bill.

If a previously disabled person obtains a full driving licence, that person can apply to the registrar for inclusion in the register under the terms of the existing legislation governing able-bodied driving instructors. The person would no longer meet the conditions proposed in the Bill. In practice, it is highly likely that a previously disabled registered driving instructor would wish to apply for unrestricted registration, since that would enable him to offer his instructional services to a wider market. There is no need for that to be enshrined in legislation in the way that the new clause proposes. Therefore, I hope that it will not be pressed to a vote.

The Bill provides that a disabled person may be included in the register of approved driving instructors, on condition that, at any time, he submits himself to a further emergency control assessment and a test of continued ability of fitness to give instruction. That applies also to able-bodied instructors, as at present. Amendment No. 18 speaks of a "medical examination". What matters is the ability to control a vehicle of a class covered by the driving licence, with any additional modifications, which may be specified. It is that emergency control ability, and general driving ability, which concern the registrar. If the registrar requires a registered disabled instructor to undergo a further emergency control assessment because, for instance, the person had notified the registrar that his disability had worsened, as he would be under a legal duty to do, it would be the outcome of that assessment which interested the registrar, not the outcome of any medical examination.

If, on a reassessment of emergency control, the assessor is no longer satisfied that the disabled driving instructor can exercise the necessary emergency control, the Bill provides for the certificate to be revoked. On receipt of notification of recovation, it will be an offence for the disabled driving instructor to give paid instruction, thereby preserving road safety interests, even though it may take a little longer for his name to be removed from the register. We are covering every possible aspect of road safety. Throughout the whole of the process, a medical examination is not relevant.

Amendment No. 20 would be extremely bureaucratic. It would provide some copper plating to minimise or remove the risk of applicants making incomplete declarations as to the nature of their disabilities. We debated how a disabled driving instructor may want to hold back from giving the necessary information. The amendment would place an unnecessary burden on the disabled person. who would have to incur the cost of acquiring a medical certificate before applying for an emergency control assessment. There is no evidence to suggest that such a measure could be justified on road safety grounds. Most physical disabilities will be obvious and the condition will be stable, for example in the case of paraplegics, and even where the disability is progressive, other provisions in the Bill adequately deal with that.

It is important to draw the distinction between applying for the emergency control certificate and later entry to the register of approved driving instructors. At the time of the certificate assessment, the declaration of disabilities and prospective disabilities will be to aid the assessor form a view as to the nature of any modifications to the vehicle that may be necessary for the purpose of giving instruction, and the time period to be specified after which further emergency control assessment should be undertaken. A medical certificate will not add anything to the assessment of emergency control. The person, whatever his certificate says, will either be able or unable to control the vehicle in the simulated situation. It is as simple as that.

When a disabled person has been included in the register, or when he holds a trainee licence to instruct, he will be under a statutory duty to inform the registrar if he becomes aware either of a relevant or prospective disability that he has not previously notified or of a previously notified disability that has worsened. A person who fails to comply with that duty will be guilty of an offence. On receipt of such notification, the registrar can require a person to undergo a further emergency control assessment. That, again, provides the necessary road safety safeguard.

We have to assume that disabled people are as law abiding as those who are not. The burden on the disabled potential driving instructor, which would be entailed by requiring the production of a medical certificate, cannot be justified, given all the other safeguards in the Bill. I hope that I have convinced my hon. Friend and the House that the new clause and the amendments are unnecessary.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said at the outset, this is a popular measure. Because of the time constraints on private Member's Bills, it flew through its Second Reading and Committee stage. One of the consequent disadvantages was that a few points were not fully explained. I am, therefore, grateful that my hon. Friend has dealt so fully with the points that I have raised. He has clarified the position. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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