HC Deb 17 January 1996 vol 269 cc699-706 12.30 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

If I may, I shall set the background. I am referring in the debate to the new theory test for driving tests. The EC directive 91/439 on driving licences was adopted in July 1991 under article 75 of the European Community treaty. Member states were required to enact any necessary measures for compliance with the directive by 1 July 1994, but the directive itself has to be applied only from 1 July 1995.

The directive requires mutual recognition by member states of driving licences that have been issued by other member states, and allows members to recognise disqualifications for offences that were committed in another state. It also sets minimum standards of competence. That is the aspect that will affect the test and health for drivers.

The directive lists the required competence and the relevant criteria for theoretical knowledge as opposed to the skills element, which is currently covered by a practical test. Drivers are required to be tested on their knowledge of aspects of road safety regulations, the road, other road users, general rules and regulations and the vehicle. There are additional requirements for special categories of vehicle, including motor cycles.

Member states have considerable leeway in how they administer the test to examine candidates on the prescribed areas of competence and knowledge. In the United Kingdom, the practical driving test complies closely with the requirements of the directive, but the theory aspect does not. The wording of the directive says only that the form of the theory test shall be such as to make sure that the applicant has required knowledge of the subjects listed.

At present in the United Kingdom, candidates for the driving test are asked a few oral questions as part of the practical test. The directive itself does not require a written theoretical test, and at first it seemed as though the United Kingdom might implement the theory test requirement simply by expanding the number of questions asked within the present test format. Sadly, however, the decision was taken, yet again, to gold-plate a European directive with the addition of a theory test on its own.

The population of the Isle of Wight is 126,000. Seventy per cent. of households on the island own a motor car. The Isle of Wight has 62,000 registered vehicles, and there are approximately 70 driving instructors in business on the island. The Driving Standards Agency has a driving test centre that employs two full-time examiners. The agency carries out some 3,600 driving tests per year on the island.

With five high schools and a technical college on the island, it is apparent that there are a large number of potential new drivers. The rural nature of large parts of the island makes the ownership of a motor car almost essential. Young people find the process of obtaining a driving licence expensive enough, without the additional expense of having to cross the Solent by ferry to take their theory test.

The Driving Standards Agency put out to tender the examination of the theory test, which is due to start from 1 July. The tender was won by Drive Safe Services Ltd., which, I understand, must provide an examination centre based on population figures from the Department of Transport and cover an approximate 40-mile radius.

Mr. Tony Beere, secretary of the Isle of Wight Driving Instructors Association, telephoned me to say that he had spoken to Mr. Evans of Drive Safe Services Ltd., who had informed him that there was no provision for the theory test to be available on the Isle of Wight, and that it would need the authority of the Driving Standards Agency to provide it. Mr. Beere asked me to contact the Department of Transport to point out to it the problems that that would cause, and to draw its attention to the fact that the Isle of Wight college was prepared to make facilities available for the test.

I understand that Brian Crane, the island's traffic education officer, also offered the facilities at the traffic education centre on behalf of the Isle of Wight council. My hon. Friend the Minister will clearly recognise that there is no shortage of suitable premises and facilities for the theory test on the Isle of Wight.

I telephoned my hon. Friend's office, was promised a call back by a very helpful civil servant, and was told by a member of my hon. Friend's personal staff that the person dealing with the new theory test would telephone me later that day. Sure enough, later that day, 8 January, my office received a telephone call from the person responsible, who was quite adamant that, because the Isle of Wight is within a 40-mile radius of Portsmouth, my constituents would indeed have to travel to the mainland for the theory test from 1 July this year.

I then wrote to my hon. Friend—I also buttonholed him in the Lobby—and told him how concerned I was about the problem. I also asked Madam Speaker for this short debate, so that the record could provide what I hope will be an enduring solution for the people of the island.

On 15 January, I received a faxed copy of a letter from Mr. Steve Madden, the implementation director of Drive Safe Services Ltd., addressed to Mr. Tony Beere, the secretary of the Isle of Wight Driving Instructors Association, in which he says, inter alia: You may well be aware that Drive Safe Services Ltd. have now been authorised by the Driving Standards Agency to open an additional test centre on the Isle of Wight. I can confirm then that by 1st July 1996, when the theory test service is delivered to the public, there will be a facility on the Isle of Wight. The headed notepaper, however, on which that letter came, has no address. It has no company number. It has no list of directors, which makes it an illegal document under EC law. That apart, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me, the young potential drivers and the driving instructors of the Isle of Wight the cast-iron assurances we seek.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Her Majesty's Government have pursued a consistent policy towards the Isle of Wight, to try to ensure that, so far as possible, it has all the facilities and infrastructure that a modern community requires. As recent examples, ministerial decisions have been taken to ensure that services and facilities are not siphoned off to the mainland, thereby causing unnecessary inconvenience and unacceptable additional expense to my constituents, such as the magistrates court service, the island's tax office and the provision of VAT and valuation office inquiries on the island.

My hon. Friend will rapidly appreciate that the Department of Transport has—with the notable exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who, while a Minister in that Department obtained road signs on the motorway around Southampton and Portsmouth which gave directions to the Isle of Wight—sadly gained an unenviable reputation for being singularly unhelpful in meeting the islanders' needs and aspirations. Nevertheless, it would fly in the face of consistent Government policy if that impediment were to remain by requiring Isle of Wight residents to travel to the mainland for their theory tests.

There is already a strongly held view on the island that, as the vehicle excise duty is the same as that for the rest of the United Kingdom, there should be some evidence that those of us who do not drive on the mainland should derive at least some advantage from the taxation we pay, rather than the "Road Closed" signs or the corrugations in the road surface that give rise to the famous Isle of Wight rattle.

I can recall a time when, to see a set of traffic lights on the island, learner drivers were taken out to the Yarmouth swing bridge, which had the only set of traffic lights on the island in those days. Things have progressed a little since those times, and we have even made the man with the red flag who walked in front of the motor car redundant. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate the need to provide the residents of the Isle of Wight with the convenience and accessibility that are available to residents of the rest of the south coast.

I understand that my hon. Friend will not stand at the next election. Let me say with all sincerity—not just for myself, but on behalf of many Back Benchers—that he has earned an enviable reputation as a hard-working Minister who has always tried to provide solutions to problems.

One of my abiding memories is of sitting in the back of a long-wheel-based Range Rover that was reversing up a jungle track in Dominica during a tropical thunderstorm when the temperature was 98 deg F and it was very humid. My hon. Friend—who always endeavours to lower the temperature—displayed his usual aplomb, leading the passengers in a rendition of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". The fact that at least three of the passengers were Ministers in the Dominican Government who had never seen a snowflake and were somewhat puzzled, is by the bye.

I have great expectations of this short debate. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with an impediment that has not been resolved by a telephone call from me or by correspondence. Let me put it on the record that, as soon as I drew it to my hon. Friend's attention, he promised a solution. He was very much on my side, seeing the problems that would be posed to Isle of Wight residents who would have to travel to the mainland to take the theory part of their driving tests.

That did not surprise me: when my hon. Friend represented an Oxford constituency, he was one of the first Members of Parliament to speak for me on the Isle of Wight, and I know that he is well aware of the island's problems.

12.41 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I have seldom had such a pleasant task as that of replying to this debate. I fear that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) has blown my cover: as far as I can recall—and, for reasons that may be all too apparent, my recollection is somewhat hazy—my hon. Friend had spent much of that day engaging in a serious educational process. As a result, I can now mix a strawberry Daiquiri, and will shortly learn how to spell it. My hon. Friend is clearly a master of his brief, and I am greatly indebted to him.

If you ever travel abroad with my hon. Friend, Madam Deputy Speaker—and I commend it—you will find it a singular experience. My hon. Friend's constituency is unique; he is monarch of all he surveys. If you have the particular good fortune to visit an island whose dimensions are roughly the same as his, you will realise that he can claim virtually to represent the entire process of government. For that reason, my hon. Friend is treated in a way that bears more relation to Napoleonic imperialism than to British parliamentary democracy. It is a heady experience, which ensures that the hospitality that my hon. Friend tends to generate is lavish.

My hon. Friend also carries artefacts on his world tours, with which he blesses various dignitaries: tie pins, badges, ties and all manner of paraphernalia celebrating the island's—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I see little connection between his interesting discourse and the subject in hand.

Mr. Norris

I stand corrected, Madam Deputy Speaker—although I had hoped to convey the special nature of my hon. Friend's constituency, which, after all, led to today's debate.

My hon. Friend wants special recognition of his constituency's particular circumstances, and I welcome the opportunity to reassure him about arrangements for the new theory driving test, which constitutes the most important change to the test since it was introduced 60 years ago. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I do as he did, and begin by describing some of the salient features of the general proposals before responding to his specific constituency point.

On 1 July this year, a new separate theory test will be introduced, which learner drivers will have to pass in addition to the familiar practical test on the road before they can obtain a full licence. The theory test will enable us to meet the new minimum test requirements of the European Community's second directive on driver licensing. My hon. Friend is, however, right in saying that member states will be left with a broad discretion in regard to the arrangement of their driving tests. We aim to secure the maximum road safety benefit from the exercise.

When I examined the subject, along with the then Secretary of State—my right hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney)—we considered the option of simply posing some questions in addition to those that are currently asked at the end of a driving test, which might have satisfied the minimum requirements of the directive. It is important to remember, however, that Britain has the best road safety record in the world, because we take such issues seriously. My right hon. Friend and I discussed how we could use the theory test to expand the awareness and perception that are needed by new drivers in particular.

I am confident that the new theory test—which, incidentally, has the overwhelming support of motoring and road safety organizations—will make a significant contribution to improving road safety and reducing the accident rate among newly qualified drivers. In that regard, it will also make an important contribution to the achievement of the objectives specified in "The Health of the Nation" White Paper.

The current test is basically sound, but some candidates can pass it without adequate preparation for all aspects of driving. All new drivers need knowledge and understanding if they are to be safe. Drivers in the 17-to-21 age group—which includes most new drivers—constitute 10 per cent. of licence holders, and are involved in 20 per cent. of accidents and 25 per cent. of fatalities. It has been said that a young driver in that category is seven times more likely to be involved in an accident involving injury than a person of my age or that of my hon. Friend—in other words, a person in middle age or, in the case of my hon. Friend, old age.

Let me describe the position more graphically. Road deaths constitute 30 per cent. of all deaths among young people, and 75 per cent. of all accidental deaths in that age group. If we are to go on making our roads safer, we must ensure that the building blocks are right. We must ensure that learner drivers are taught more about observing and anticipating hazards.

I am confident that the theory test will achieve that, and will strengthen the preparations that new drivers make for their driving tests. Because they are likely to take the process more seriously, I expect the pass rate for the practical test—which is currently only about 50 per cent.—to rise.

Obviously, we shall carefully monitor the new test during the first five years, and we shall evaluate it rigorously to make sure that it has the desired effect. If it fails in that respect, we shall certainly be prepared to make appropriate adjustments. The test will last for about 45 minutes, and for cars and motor cycles it will consist of about 35 questions. Motor cyclists will have their own version of the test, with some questions specific to motor cycling.

Most questions will be multiple choice, and will require candidates to choose the correct answer from four possible options. It will also contain some multiple response questions, and candidates will be required to select several answers from five or six options.

As I have said, there will be separate questions for motor cyclists, but each question paper will test about 12 topics, including: driver attitude; traffic signs and regulations; the effects of alcohol, drugs and fatigue on driver behaviour; safety and environmental aspects of vehicles; and so on. Some theory test questions will be picture questions: the pictures might be of road signs or road situations, and a perfectly straightforward question will be asked.

There will be separate tests for learner drivers of lorries, buses and coaches, and they will cover separate topics that are relevant to those licence categories. Each test will consist of 25 multiple choice or multiple response questions.

It is important that the new theory test should discriminate between candidates only on the basis of their knowledge. It is not an intelligence test. The design of the questions and the layout of the papers take special account of the difficulties that people may experience if English is not their first language. The test takes special account of those with dyslexia or other reading difficulties, of the deaf and of people with other disabilities. We have taken some pains to consult all the relevant disability groups to make sure that the arrangements are practicable and as accessible as possible.

Provisions to meet the special needs of candidates will apply irrespective of the category of the theory test that is to be taken. Welsh variations of the test will be available in Wales. Versions of the test using British sign language or a lip speaker will be available for deaf candidates, and facilities will be provided to enable disabled candidates to take the theory test. Where necessary, that could include personal help from a member of staff in filling in the test paper, or perhaps even a test at the candidate's home.

The normal arrangement will be that learner drivers must pass a theory test before they are able to book a practical test. However, during the first six months between 1 July and the end of 1996, there will be a special arrangement to allow test candidates to take the practical test first. To gain a full driving licence, test candidates would need to take the theory test within the following six months. Those measures will help to avoid a bottleneck caused by candidates who cannot book practical tests because they have not passed the theory test. They will also help with the management of any surge in demand for theory tests following the introduction of the new tests.

Irrespective of the order in which the tests are taken, learner drivers will have to pass both the theory and the practical tests before they can drive unaccompanied and before they can be issued with a full driving licence. A programme of publicity has been developed to ensure that learner drivers are properly informed about the new tests well in advance of their introduction. Since September 1995, that has included enclosing with all the provisional licences issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea a leaflet providing information about the new tests.

The basic information needed to answer the theory test questions is contained in the "Highway Code", and in the Driving Standards Agency book called "The Driving Manual", which is readily available. Additional material to support test candidates is being developed by the DSA and a number of other publishers.

In March, the DSA will publish a book containing all the theory test questions for car and motor cycle learner drivers. The theory test questions for learner drivers of lorries, buses and coaches will be published in early May. As well as providing all the theory test questions and answers, the DSA books will contain text and graphics explaining why the correct answers are right and highlighting aspects of incorrect answer choices.

Before I leave this description of the general arrangements and turn to my hon. Friend's question, perhaps I may be allowed to address myself to young people who are currently contemplating the new test. I should like to do that because I understand from some driving schools and from occasional items in the press that some young candidates are desperate to take the test as soon as they can, so as to get in under the wire before the new arrangements are established.

No driver who is capable of passing the practical test need fear the theory. As I have said, the pass rate for the practical test is currently about 50 per cent. We anticipate that the theory test pass rate will be significantly higher. I urge candidates not to attempt to rush driver training to avoid the theory element.

I hope that people will have the chance to read what I have said. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight will appreciate it. It is clear that the test will not be arduous. It will provide a full basis for understanding the questions and the answers, and why the answers are right. Therefore, no driver should fear it in any sense. I fear that young drivers who try to get in under the wire are far more likely to experience first-time failure, consequent extra cost and even more delay if they do not approach the subject sensibly and conscientiously. I make it quite plain that the theory test should hold no fears for the competent learner driver.

I now turn to the specific concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. The specification for the establishment of the theory test and theory test centres was based on responses to DSA customer surveys. Driving test candidates and their instructors thought that it was reasonable in general terms to travel up to 20 miles for a driving test. A national network of theory test centres will be developed and will run frequent test sessions to meet candidates' needs.

The specification for theory test centre locations requires that, for most people, the centre should be available within 20 miles. In towns and cities where the population density is higher, a test centre should be available within about five miles. There might be slight changes in rural areas, where it may be appropriate to go as far as 40 miles, but, in general, we want the test centres to be accessible.

It is precisely on the issue of accessibility that I received a representation from my hon. Friend, and that has led to this short debate. I am extremely grateful to him for paying such a generous tribute to my private office staff, who are absolutely first class. I am glad that they were able to respond so constructively to my hon. Friend.

Following receipt of my hon. Friend's inquiry, I looked into the matter, and confirmed that the initial proposals for test centre locations did not include siting a theory test centre in the Isle of Wight. However, I have considered carefully what my hon. Friend has said on the matter. I know the island, and I enjoyed being there with my hon. Friend for an extremely successful meeting. In the light of his representations, and particularly in the context of the special circumstances on the island, I am happy to confirm to him that I have given directions for an additional theory test centre to be sited on the Isle of Wight.

As my hon. Friend says, practical driving tests for people on the island are provided in Newport, where two examiners are permanently based. If demand requires it, the agency will readily detach additional examiners from Southampton or Portsmouth. As my hon. Friend knows, motor cycle, lorry and bus tests are conducted from a centre at Rookley. That is not a permanently staffed centre, but test programmes are arranged there to fulfil known demand as required. At present, all the agency's target waiting times are being met at the centers—that is, six weeks for cars, four weeks for LGV and PCV vehicles and three weeks for motor cycles.

There have been changes to the DSA's network of booking offices in the past few months. The agency has closed five of its regional offices, including Eastbourne, which used to manage the booking of tests for centres in the Isle of Wight. That work was transferred to the agency's office in Cardiff. There were some initial difficulties there about making contact with the office because of the volume of telephone calls being received, but I am pleased to say that measures to address that have succeeded in improving the situation. As evidence, the booking staff at the office are answering 90 per cent. of all calls within a minute, which is the agency's service standard.

I am glad to have been able to satisfy my hon. Friend that we intend to offer his constituents the standard of service for which he has properly and rightly campaigned on their behalf. I am grateful to him for drawing the matter to my attention and for giving me this opportunity to set matters right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) might have remarked, my hon. Friend has got a result.