HC Deb 05 March 1999 vol 326 cc1404-7

Order for Second Reading read.

2.16 pm
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

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

I regret that there is so little time for a Second Reading debate. The Bill is not politically contentious, but is a solid, practical measure that is now needed. It has considerable cross-party support, which is not surprising since the evolutionary process that has led to it was started by the previous Administration. The main purpose of the Bill is to provide a statutory framework that maximises the benefits of establishing a central computer database of the MOT test status of vehicles. Computerisation of MOT testing will happen with or without the Bill—the public-private partnership is advancing—but, if it is not enacted, we shall not fully benefit from the advantages that computerisation can bring. That is why the Bill is needed.

First, a computerised central database will aid law enforcement: it will encourage registered keepers to have a valid MOT certificate, because the police will be able to check on the police national computer. Secondly, a computerised database will promote the efficiency and fairness of the MOT test: the Vehicle Inspectorate will be better able to control testing standards, because inspectors will more easily be able to spot abnormal patterns of test results which show possible irregularities. Thirdly, computerisation is motorist friendly: it prepares the way for paperless vehicle relicensing transactions and so makes it possible for us, one day, to renew our car licence by telephone; and motorists who cannot immediately produce an MOT certificate when asked will be spared the inconvenience of producing it later at a police station, because the police will be able to check vehicle test status on the PNC.

One further point is that the measure is cost neutral. The purpose of the provisions is to ensure that, with the introduction of computerisation, the MOT test scheme continues to be fully self-financing. The Bill sets out how the Vehicle Inspectorate receives its funding after computerisation. It also enables the Secretary of State to prescribe fees in several circumstances.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

My hon. Friend says that the Bill is funding neutral, but would it not require an increase in the cost of the MOT certificate, which will inevitably be borne by the motorist?

Mr. Hunter

Yes, my right hon. Friend is correct. It is anticipated that computerisation will add £1 to the cost of the certificate, which currently stands at more than £30, so the increase will not be significant.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is there not another cost that the garages will be unable to pass on to motorists? I refer to the cost of vexatious regulation, inspection and training that may lead in time to the same awful unforeseen circumstances that have occurred under the Meat Hygiene Service.

Mr. Hunter

I do not accept the thrust of that argument. My measure is motorist friendly. There are accompanying costs, but they will be absorbed in the running of the various testing stations. I do not believe that my hon. Friend has a point of principle.

The Bill will enable maximum benefit to be derived from the introduction of computerisation to the MOT testing scheme. It is a commonsense and practical measure that will give the Vehicle Inspectorate far more control over what is happening at testing stations. It will consequently improve and enhance the efficiency of the scheme, promote compliance with, and enforcement of, MOT testing, eliminate the market for stolen or forged certificates, make it more difficult to disguise stolen cars for re-sale and deter clocking.

The Bill is necessary. I hope that the House will support it, and that we can compensate in Committee for the shortcomings of the Second Reading debate.

2.21 pm
Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The official Opposition welcome and support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). He has listed several of the benefits that the previous Government identified when they established a review of the benefits of computerisation. We wish the Bill well, so the best thing that I can do is sit down to speed it on its way.

2.22 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

The Government very much welcome the introduction of the Bill by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). We believe that introducing computerisation will bring significant benefits to the way in which MOT testing is carried out. We are proceeding with modernisation of the scheme, but current legislation imposes constraints in one or two areas that prevent the achievement of all our objectives. The provisions of the Bill ensure modernisation in the most cost-effective way and to the maximum effect.

The principal purpose of the Bill is to amend provisions of part II of the Road Traffic Act 1988 relating to the "MOT testing scheme". None of the provisions would relax or remove any existing controls—on the contrary, they would preserve and enhance existing provisions.

The main objective of the MOT computerisation project is for the Secretary of State to establish and maintain a central record of the MOT status of vehicles subject to MOT testing. What the Secretary of State would not be able to do without the benefits of the provisions of this Bill would be to: enable the police to check easily and quickly whether a particular vehicle has a valid MOT certificate; help to facilitate paperless vehicle relicensing transactions; and use information from the proposed MOT database for the benefit of others, including to help pay for the cost of introducing computerisation.

Mr. Swayne

Does the hon. Lady possess a vehicle of a sufficient age to require such a certificate? Has she been down to the car park to see how many Members possess vehicles—as I do—that require such certificates?

Ms Jackson

My vehicle will require a certificate in October. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of illegal activity, I trust that he will make it available to the relevant authorities.

The Bill will make it possible for owners to choose to relicense their vehicles over the telephone. The Government also welcome the provisions in the Bill that would make it possible for MOT information to be made available to prescribed persons in certain cases. For example, prospective purchasers of second-hand vehicles might be interested to see evidence of the recorded mileage of vehicles submitted for MOT test. No doubt, people will be interested to know about the track record of particular vehicle makes and models at MOT tests.

The Government would like to make it clear, however, that the identity of registered keepers of vehicles will never be recorded on the database. The Government will conform to data protection legislation. Equally, particulars in the database records, such as where and by whom an MOT test was carried out, would not be disclosed except in cases that may be prescribed by regulations. Disclosure would be permitted only where reasonable cause for requesting that it could be demonstrated. A legitimate connection with the vehicle could be ensured by quoting the 17-character alpha-numeric identification number that is unique to individual vehicles.

In implementing the Bill, the Government will, as I said, conform to the requirements of data protection legislation. The Bill's provisions will enable the Government to obtain the maximum potential benefits from a central computer record of MOT results of the 22 million or so vehicles tested every year at some 19,000 MOT testing stations.

A full regulatory impact assessment has been carried out. The estimated cost of computerisation will be about £22 million per annum. That cost will be borne initially by my Department's Vehicle Inspectorate, then by an increase in the test fee amounting to no more than about £1.

If anonymous information from the database could be used, as we hope, for other benefits, the Vehicle Inspectorate would have a share in the income generated, which it would use to help to reduce the test fee. The Bill would benefit consumers not only by making additional information available to them, but by reducing the cost of an MOT test.

The provision to amend the Department of Transport (Fees) Order 1988 by negative rather than affirmative resolution will be considered during the Bill's passage through Parliament and, for that reason, the Government agree that the provision in clause 6 is entirely appropriate.

Two further safeguards are built into Clause 6: the special procedure would be valid only for 12 months and any order made under the provisions would be subject to annulment by resolution of this House.

The Government very much welcome the Bill, which will greatly assist in obtaining the maximum benefits from introducing computerisation into the MOT scheme, not least, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke has already pointed out, in crime prevention and law enforcement. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

2.27 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I, too, welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) on introducing it. Time is pressing, and we all want to speed the Bill on its way, so I shall not pursue all the points that commend the Bill to the House. I shall merely flag up to my hon. Friend one or two concerns that I may have a chance to address if I am fortunate enough to serve on the Standing Committee. I shall want to press the Government on the level of fees that they propose to stipulate in future for attendance at MOT testing centres, retesting vehicles and so on. My hon. Friend has already referred to those, and we will need to know what fees are proposed before the Bill returns to the House, as I hope it will.

I should also like clarification—if not in Committee, on Report—about the regulations that the Secretary of State may make. There are powers in the Bill to make wide regulations and we should like to know what he has in mind.

With those minor reservations, to which we shall no doubt have time to return, I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

2.28 pm
Mr. Hunter

Inevitably, this has been a very truncated debate that has focused on some salient features. Hopefully, those can be picked up in Committee. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second Time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).