HL Deb 11 June 1999 vol 601 cc1733-40

4.10 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill, which was introduced into the other place by my honourable friend the Member for Basingstoke, Mr Hunter, completed its passage through another place without amendment and with the complete agreement of all political parties. I hope that we may continue that.

I make clear that the Bill has nothing to do with the mechanics of MOT testing. It is a Bill to improve the structure of the administration of the testing regime. We are dealing here with some 19,000 test stations and 55,000 testers. Twenty-two million motor cars are tested each year.

Computerisation of MOT testing will happen with or without this Bill. But since the public-private partnership is advancing, the Bill enacted would enable us to benefit fully from the advantages that computerisation will bring. First, it will encourage registered keepers to have a valid MOT certificate because police will be able more readily to check on the police national computer. Secondly, the database will promote the efficiency and fairness of the MOT testing regime. The Vehicle Inspectorate will be able better to control the testing standards that prevail across the 19,000 stations.

Thirdly, the computerisation is motorist friendly. It prepares the way for paperless vehicle relicensing transactions and makes it possible one day to renew our vehicle excise duty payments and obtain the licence without producing pieces of paper.

The measure is cost neutral. The purpose of the provision is to ensure that with the introduction of computerisation the MOT test system continues to be fully financing. The Bill sets out how the Vehicle Inspectorate receives its fundings after computerisation. It has another advantage. With the paperless system one of the largest elements of fraud in the sale and purchase of used motor cars will be removed. There will not be a certificate. We all know that many MOT certificates have been stolen, mislaid, counterfeited, and so on. The confirmation of an MOT test will he electronically transmitted.

Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour this Friday afternoon, it would be remiss of me not to run through the main points of each clause. Clause 1 is intended to aid the enforcement and facilitate the option of introducing paperless vehicle relicensing. It also enables information on the database to be sold to help offset the cost of computerising the scheme. The MOT testing of vehicles is governed by the Road Traffic Act 1988 If I refer to "the Act" it will be in that context. The Act does not refer to nominated testers, although in practice that category of person carries out most MOT tests.

Clause 1(1)(a) inserts a new paragraph and thereby puts nominated testers on to a statutory basis. Subsection (1)(b) replaces the existing subsection of the Act and provides for inspectors whose names are put forward by designated councils to be approved by the Secretary of State. The advantage of computerisation testing is that it will enable the Vehicle Inspectorate to monitor testing standards more efficiently.

Subsection (3) adds two new subsections to Section 45 of the Act. It will enable the Secretary of State to provide or to make arrangements for the provision of courses of instruction in connection with MOT testing. He does so under the present administrative arrangements, but it will enable him to charge fees for attendance on such courses. This is a new provision designed to make those who benefit from such courses responsible for paying for them.

New subsection (6)(b) will require the Secretary of State to establish and maintain records relating to MOT tests. The main objective of that element of the project is to establish and maintain a central record of the MOT slip status of every vehicle subject to MOT testing.

Clause 2 is the most lengthy clause. I shall try to be brief, but it is important to acquaint the House with its provisions. It substitutes for Section 46 of the 1988 Act. It re-enacts the existing provisions and adds further. In Section 46(1)(a), the 1988 Act empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations to provide only for the authorisation of the examiners. However, as we all know, other categories of people are involved in MOT testing. New subsection (1)(a) will ensure that those people are treated in exactly the same way.

New subsection (1)(b) will provide that regulations made under Section 46 of the 1988 Act may establish conditions to be complied with by authorised examiners, nominated testers, inspectors and designated councils. The conditions are principally the successful completion of a course of training and the payment of the prescribed fees.

New subsection (1)(e) deals with the supervision of examinations and so forth. New subsection (1)(g) closely follows Section 46(1)(d) of the 1988 Act and enables the Secretary of State to prescribe the form and particulars of the paper test certificates and notices of refusal, but the new subsection, also following the 1988 Act, empowers the Secretary of State to provide what the fee should be for duplicated or copied test certificates.

The new proposed subsection (2)(a) will empower the Secretary of State to require that persons connected with MOT testing should successfully complete training courses. The proposed subsection (2)(b) will enable the Secretary of State to require that persons connected with MOT testing should pay such fees as may be prescribed in connection with applications for authorisation.

Subsection (5) relates to access to the MOT database information. This will permit the Secretary of State to make information available from MOT records to prescribed persons on payment of a reasonable fee. The provision will allow the Secretary of State to disclose information from the database in accordance with regulations. It is envisaged that these regulations could, on payment of a reasonable fee, provide for details of a vehicle's MOT history to be issued to people who could demonstrate they have a reasonable cause for wanting such information. The regulations could also provide for the issue to the police of information relating to the MOT status of a vehicle free of charge via the police national computer.

New subsection (6) also relates to the disclosure of information from the proposed database in a rather different circumstance. Regulations made under this provision would enable the Secretary of State to sell anonymised information from the database to such persons and on such terms as he thought fit.

Under the new subsections (5) and (6) there are identifiable markets; for example, manufacturers, retailers, motor associations, research companies, consumers and those who through diverse ways seek to fight crime concerned with stolen and scrap vehicles. To some extent the availability of information may increase, as demand is not absolutely foreseeable.

Clause 3 inserts a new section establishing how the Secretary of State may use records in a proposed MOT database and the database of vehicle records held by the DVLA. It is anticipated that the database held by the Association of British Insurers will to some extent be embraced in this co-relation.

Clause 4 inserts a new Section 46B into the Road Traffic Act 1988. At present a vehicle's MOT test status is usually provided by producing a certificate. In future, it will be possible to use records from the proposed MOT database. The clause makes provision for admitting evidence from those records in court. Legislation to effect that is necessary because such use of information held by a centralised computer database falls outside the provisions of the 1988 Act.

The proposed new subsection (1) provides, therefore, that the database records are an authoritative statement of the test status of a vehicle. The proposed subsection (2) establishes that a document purporting to be part of the database, a copy of a document forming part of the database or a note of information from the database shall be authoritative if it is: authenticated by a person authorised to do so by the Secretary of State". Clause 5 will add a paragraph to Section 66(2)(a) of the 1988 Act. Under that provision, a vehicle may be re-licensed without necessarily presenting an MOT certificate but by reference to the information held on the database.

Clause 6 enables the Secretary of State to make consequential amendments to the Department of Transport fees order. Subsection (1)(a) and (b) define the terms that feature in the next two subsections. Subsection (2) refers to the Department of Transport fees order, which includes a provision relating to fees chargeable by virtue of Section 46 of the 1988 Act. This will require amendment as a result of the Bill.

Subsection (2)(a) and (b) will enable an order that relates only to Section 46 matters, and which is made within 12 months after Royal Assent, to be made subject to negative procedure. This is perhaps a little unusual but the purpose of the time limit is to ensure that the procedure can be used only for matters that flow from the Bill.

Subsection (3)(a) removes the requirement for the affirmative resolution, and subsection (3)(b) emphasises that it can be subject to negative resolution.

Clause 7 introduces the schedule of consequential amendments and repeals two elements of redundant legislation.

Clause 8 deals with financial provisions, and has been the substance of a money resolution debate in the other place. It does not therefore concern us.

Clause 9 provides that the Bill's provisions that relate to operational matters are subject to commencement by order. Clauses 6 and 8 are not subject to commencement by order because their effect is directly linked to implementation of the Bill's other provisions.

The schedule contains consequential amendments relating to the Transport Act 1982, which remains prospective legislation. That was passed when the possible privatisation of the Vehicle Inspectorate was on the agenda. In the event, that never materialised but the legislation still remains. The passage of this Bill demands amendments to that unused Act.

As regards the disclosure and sale of information, provisions are envisaged to enable a mileage record of vehicles to be made by virtue of that being a requirement of the MOT procedure; that is, to record the mileage shown on the speedometer at the time that the car is presented for checks.

The passage of this Bill will make a considerable improvement to the procedures for checking the mileage of motor cars. It will positively deter the clocking of speedometers which has given rise to such anguish not only on the part of the motor industry but most particularly on the part of consumers.

I have been brief, but that is the substance of what the Bill is about. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)

4.25 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, introduced the Bill comprehensively and clearly. Its enactment will help all DV LA customers, private and commercial; it will improve road safety; and it will assist enforcement.

I shall not delay your Lordships on a Friday afternoon beyond planting a thought which may perhaps, at some stage, form part of a regulation. When a vehicle is subject to recall from a manufacturer, it is the manufacturer who contacts the DVLA for the keepers' details pertaining to the recalled vehicles. The manufacturer then writes to each registered keeper with a notice of recall. It is then up to the motorist to present the vehicle to a franchised garage for any necessary items to be checked and, if necessary, modified. Finally, the garage will confirm to the manufacturer that the required work has been completed.

Because it is intended that MOTs will be computerised, would it not be a small—and I use that word guardedly—matter of programming the computer so that any vehicle subject to a recall cannot be given an MOT certificate until that vehicle has been registered by the manufacturer as having had the appropriate work done? There must be some acknowledgement of responsibility in advising the DVLA and that, surely, must he accepted and acted upon by the vehicle manufacturer. After all, if the manufacturer had no need to implement the recall, the procedure would not be necessary.

This Bill is to be welcomed. It will make life easier for most people and much more difficult for the minority.

4.27 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, made a full introduction of the Bill. It does not provide for the computerisation of MOT processes, which is already under way under a public/private partnership scheme, but, as he said, it will enable the widest and most effective use of the new system and in particular, rapid access by the police to MOT records; a movement towards paperless MOT transactions; the use of the information garnered from the central record-keeping of MOT processes for general benefit; and the elimination of theft and forgery of MOT certificates. That was all dealt with very fully by the noble Lord.

There was a very brief discussion of this Bill at Second Reading in another place. As the noble Lord said, there was discussion of a money order and further discussion on Report and Third Reading. Only two items of dispute or discussion emerged from those discussions in another place. The first was the additional cost to motorists for the MOT licence, which amounts to about £1 per licence, to offset the £22 million per annum that it is anticipated the new system will cost once it is under way. The second was the degree of confidentiality which surrounded the ability of the Government to sell to commercial organisations some information that they maintained on their records.

I heard what the noble Lord said in relation to money matters. Nevertheless, that caused a certain amount of worry in another place. It may be helpful—perhaps the Minister already has it in mind—if the noble Baroness could repeat for the benefit of the House the response of the Minister in another place on these matters. I believe that that was broadly as I have indicated; namely, that the cost would be offset by £1 per MOT certificate and, further, that the sale of that additional information would possibly offset the cost to the motorist of the MOT certificate.

The second matter was the commercial sale of the information. Can the Minister confirm, for the benefit of the House, that neither the names of the keepers nor the places where the MOT certificates were granted will be released when the Government sell information from their central records?

On a lighter note, when discussing this little Bill at lunch today, a cynical Member of your Lordships' House said, "Ah, they are going into computerisation just in time to catch the millennium bug". I notice that the timing, provided to us in a background brief, suggests that the detailed design of the scheme—I suppose that means the software—will not start until the year 2000. Therefore, I hope that that pitfall can be avoided.

This Bill is a useful addition to the legislative provision for MOT tests and everything that surrounds them. It seems an admirable way to go forward. There has been no dispute in the other Chamber, and I do not propose to raise any dispute in this Chamber either.

4.32 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome and support the Bill wholeheartedly. It was conceived during the previous administration, and happily has much cross-party support. I want to congratulate my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth on piloting the Bill through this House and my honourable friend Mr Andrew Hunter, the Member for Basingstoke, for taking it through another place.

My noble friend has stated the aims and objectives of the Bill in detail and with great clarity. The best comment that I can make at this stage is to wish it a speedy passage through the remaining stages, so that it makes its way on to the statute book as soon as possible. It is a good, sensible measure and I commend it to the House.

4.33 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I want to join other noble Lords in complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, on his masterly summing up of the main features of the Bi11. The Government welcome the introduction of this Bill and give it their firm support. The Bill is, as he said, all about getting the most out of the proposed modernisation of the MOT testing scheme by computerising many of the administrative processes associated with it.

I shall seek to deal with the specific points raised. If I fail to cover any, I shall not only write to the noble Lord who raised the point but also to other noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, raised the issue of additional costs to motorists. There will be an additional cost of around £1 a test involved in introducing computerisation. However, that cost will bring many benefits, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said. If the Government can sell information from the database, any profit will be used to reduce the cost to the motorist.

Concerns have been raised, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, in relation to the provisions of the Bill which involve disclosure of information. I can confirm that the details of the registered keeper will not be liable to be disclosed because, as Clause 1 indicates, that information will not be on the database. Full information would only be disclosed on a case by case basis when the Secretary of State was satisfied that there was a legitimate and reasonable cause for so doing; for example, an imminent purchase of a vehicle. Where information was being disclosed in bulk, it would he completely anonymous and would not contain any names and addresses. It is true that under the provisions of the Bill more information would be widely available in relation to individual vehicles but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, that information would be particularly beneficial to enforcement organisations and those who wished to combat fraud.

My noble friend Lord Simon is concerned about the issue of vehicle safety recall. The procedure for recalling vehicles is subject to a code of practice which is monitored closely by the Vehicle Inspectorate on behalf of Ministers of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Those arrangements generally work well, but the Government are interested in developing ways in which the system could be made more effective. It is possible that the project to introduce computerisation into the MOT scheme might be able to help, perhaps by enabling MOT testers to alert vehicle presenters to the fact that their vehicle had been subject to a manufacturer's recall campaign. That is something at which the Government are already looking in the process of drawing up a list of requirements which the computerisation contracts will be expected to fulfil.

I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, that the scheme will be proof against the millennium bug. However, that is not a matter for this Bill. If the idea turns out to be a good one and if it can be made to work in a practicable way, it may be incorporated into the MOT computerisation project anyway.

In conclusion, I can only reiterate the Government's firm support for this Bill. As I have made clear, relying also on the superb presentation of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, essentially its provisions have only one main objective; that is, to help to ensure that it can deliver the maximum benefit possible from the introduction of computerisation into the MOT scheme. With the benefit of this new legislation, the Government will be able to deliver a modern MOT scheme which will be much easier to enforce. The provisions of this Bill will make it possible to make information widely available from the proposed database of records of MOT testing of 22 million vehicles every year in Great Britain with the safeguards to which I referred. That all amounts to taking a valuable step in a very worthwhile direction. I hope your Lordships agree.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short Second Reading debate and am delighted to have such support.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, mentioned the recall of vehicles. It is a serious point because around 15 to 25 per cent of all recalled vehicles are never presented. If we could at some time later devise a scheme within the proposed new infrastructure, it would be enormously helpful and add to the safety element.

I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, was being somewhat amusing in her remarks about the millennium bug, but my understanding is that the contract—the licence—to operate the scheme is unlikely to be let until much later in the year. She will, of course, appreciate that it could be many weeks after the letting of the contract before a computer ever arrives on the scene. I anticipated the support of my noble friend Lady Seccombe and I am grateful for it. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before five o'clock.