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Motor Cyclists (Training)

Volume 929: debated on Thursday 7 April 1977

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1.46 p.m.

I am in a happy position in this debate because concern about motor cycle training was first raised in my constituency when a number of parents expressed anxiety about the lack of training facilities. In addition, as Opposition spokesman on transport matters, it obviously comes under my responsibility. The Opposition Chief Whip has asked me to look after this business, which I gladly do, but I give an assurance to the Under-Secretary of State that I shall not endeavour to intervene twice during the debate.

In my view, motor cycling does not get anything like the attention that it deserves. Currently we are in the middle of a debate on the Government's transport consultation document. Yet in that consultation document we find only a few lines devoted to the motor cycle. It is little wonder that the motor cyclist often feels himself to be a second-class road user whose needs are frequently ignored.

That point was put to me very forcefully by a correspondent in London who wrote:
"As a minority on the road the press coverage we receive is often rather hostile. I don't suppose the attitude of the media, or some politicians, will ever change, and suffering constant references to 'Hell's Angels' or whatever is something one has to live with unfortunately. The fact that we obviously choose our means of transport mainly because we find it more enjoyable than driving a car has something to do with it I expect. The British always mistrust any minority which is enjoying itself."
I do not know about that, but over the last few years there has been a very steep rise in the popularity of two-wheeled transport. In 1971 the number of motor cycle registrations was 79,000. In 1976 it had increased to 205,000. In 1971 the number of mopeds registered was 37,000. In 1976 it had increased to 90,000. In six years registrations have almost trebled. Today, it is estimated that there are 1,100,000 riders of motor cycles and mopeds on the roads. It is also estimated that 150,000 new riders come on to the roads each year.

The message is clear. There can be no justification for regarding motor cyclists as just a small minority group. The Government must turn their attention to examining their position and policy towards the motor cyclist.

The need for wider training opportunities, which is the aim of this Adjournment debate, is emphasised by the increasing number of casualties to motor cyclists. The need to expand and improve training facilities is a matter of urgency.

Last year the estimated total casualty figures for riders and passengers of motor cycles, mopeds and scooters was 68,000. This includes over 1,000 deaths and 18,000 serious injuries. What makes those terrible figures even worse is that the heaviest casualties are among the youngest riders. Almost half the fatal and serious casualties are among 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds. That is an appalling toll of young lives.

Such figures demand action, and an essential part of that action should be wider training. Yet what is the position at the moment? The Institute of Motor Cycling tells me that at present 94 per cent. of new riders who go on to the roads for the first time go on without any training whatsoever. They buy their bikes, the shop tells them roughly how the bike works, they put on "L" plates and they are away. That is the present position. It is as stark and simple as that.

I do not claim for one moment that better training will solve the problem of casualties. Clearly it will not totally solve that problem. I also believe that motorists should be trained to look out much better for motor cyclists. Certainly with the Easter rush on the roads coming up and the likelihood of many cars being on the roads, it is an appropriate time at which to issue a warning that motorists should take it as a slogan to "Look out for the motor bike", because too many accidents are caused by motorists failing to notice the motor cycle.

But, having made every reservation, I very sincerely believe that training will help the position, and help it very substantially indeed. Our approach should be an approach of education, not regulation—in other words, we should seek to place our emphasis upon education, training the new rider to take care of his own safety, not just regulation all the time.

We are also extremely fortunate that we already have two excellent voluntary training schemes in operation. We have the RAC-ACU scheme, and we have STEP, the Schools Traffic Education Programme, as well as many local schemes in different parts of the country.

The sensible starting point for Government is to give all possible help in the expansion of these schemes. It is a common sense proposal to take, and a common sense measure which I believe would be supported by the vast majority of public opinion in this country—which cannot be said, regrettably, about every road safety measure.

With regard to the cost, both central and local government are short of funds for road safety schemes at the present time. We know that that is the position. It is, therefore, important that we should examine other means by which the resources of the Government can be supplemented. The motor cycle industry supports STEP and is now offering to put very substantial sums of extra money into motor cycling. I applaud that offer and suggest that it is a concept which can be further developed.

A few months ago I visited Germany, where there are excellent youth traffic schemes, the aim of which is to give school children practical training in traffic routine. Priority is given to practical exercises in traffic conditions, using not the roads themselves but mock-ups in school playgrounds or on permanent sites. The aim is to win and retain this interest by giving experience which is as near as possible to the real thing.

So successful has that concept been that today permanent sites exist in nearly all German cities and major towns. But the scheme was pioneered not by a federal or State Government. It was pioneered by a major oil company which used its financial resources to improve road safety. In my view, such contributions by private industry are of immense value, and I hope that more schemes of this kind of partnership between private industry and Government will be developed.

With regard to motor cycle training, therefore, we are very fortunate, because funds are available to invest in further training. From the point of view of Government, the extended scheme would cost very little indeed. What we need now is an initiative which marries together the new offer of finance with the long and immensely valuable experience that has been acquired by a number of organisations in motor cycle training. Here I pay particular tribute to the RAC-ACU scheme. It runs schemes in co-operation with local authorities and has no fewer than 250 training centres throughout the country. These are run extremely well. STEP has also run its own schemes, and makes a major contribution to the training field and thence to the whole question of safety.

But quite apart from the big national schemes there are local schemes as well. I will mention one run in Birmingham by Mr. D. A. Blower, who lives in my constituency. He runs it for a number of schools, with the valuable help of Mr. Vale Onslow, who generously provides the machines. That shows local initiative at its best, because here we have a successful voluntary scheme and the kind of improvisation which is necessary for such a scheme. It makes use of land in Birmingham which has been derelict for 30 years.

There is one other aspect that I should like to mention concerning the experience available in this country. When I first raised this question a few months ago I received a letter from a gentleman who had read about my proposals in the Daily Express. He wrote:
"I am a serving Metropolitan Police officer in the Traffic Division with 25 years' service as a Class 1 motor cyclist. My colleagues and I heartily endorse your suggestion. Young motor cyclists must be properly trained and instilled with a sense of responsibility if the appalling accident statistics are to be reduced. Several years ago, concerned at the high number of accidents I was dealing with in the course of my duty involving young motor cyclists, I submitted a report suggesting that specialist officers of the Traffic Division should give instruction to young riders on an organised basis. This idea was applauded at the time but nevertheless was rejected due to cost and manpower shortages. … Many of my colleagues and I"
—this is the important point—
"are now of retirement service or have already retired. Perhaps their skill and years of experience as professional motor cyclists, together with their police knowledge and maturity, could be used to form a national training scheme."
Again, therefore, we are fortunate in having that pool of experience to draw upon. We are in a hopeful position to make progress.

Lastly, let me spell out two of the characteristics of what I see as the scheme. First, I think that an extended scheme should be a voluntary scheme. It may be that at some stage in the future we should consider compulsory training, but at a stage when fewer than one in 10 of those going on to the road have any training at all, it would be sensible to take one step at a time. The administrative costs and the administrative difficulty of setting up a compulsory scheme are probably overwhelming at this stage. But the aim must nevertheless be to make wider voluntary facilities available. At present there are not enough facilities for training, and that means that all too many motor cyclists do not receive any proper training before they start.

Secondly, I believe very sincerely and firmly that we should build on the foundations which have already been laid. There are excellent schemes, and I have mentioned a few of these today. They should be encouraged to continue. The rôle of Government should be to encourage and promote the maximum voluntary effort—in other words, a national voluntary scheme should be the aim of Government, but with the prospect of variety within that national scheme.

Lastly, there is today a general feeling that Government and Government alone are the only agency capable of tackling the many problems of our society. The experience with motor cycle training shows that this is not the case. Schemes such as STEP and the RAC-ACU scheme demonstrate the importance of the part which can be played by non-Governmental bodies.

It is the tradition of so much in this country. In motoring, for example, we have the Institute of Advanced Motoring, to which, to the disbelief of my constituents, I now belong. That institute is entirely self-supporting. We have countless voluntary organisations on which our social services rely and without which they would be in dire straits. Therefore, the Government are not the only organisation who can take action, or on whom one should always rely to take action. For one thing, restraints on public expenditure make advances very difficult nowadays in this work.

What we can expect, however, is that the Government should not only understand the problems in various areas but use their powers to encourage solutions to them. It is not enough for the Government simply to sit back and say "We have not the money, so we can do nothing". That is my case concerning motor cycle training. The Government must now clearly show that they not only recognise the problems but also the need to expand, as a matter of urgency, the training facilities available to young motor cyclists.

Over Christmas, I wrote to the Secretary of State asking for an inquiry into this whole subject. I made the point that such an inquiry need not go on for a great deal of time. The Mountbatten inquiry for the Home Office in 1968 took only three months to complete. The response was that such an inquiry would delay progress. It was given by the Under-Secretary of State, who is to reply to this debate. That was three months ago. I hope that he will say now what progress has been made in the last three months, because the problem is urgent and of great public concern, and we must grapple with it.

2.2 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for allowing me a few moments to speak in the debate. I welcome his initiative in raising this question and wholeheartedly support his plea for a wider and extended training scheme for moped and motor cycle riders. The figures of injury and death among them are horrifying. As Secretary of the All-Party Disablement Group, I can only draw attention to the vast cost, both in human and financial terms, of caring for people disabled as a result of such accidents.

I first became aware of the disproportionate dangers of two-wheeled motorised travl when, in 1971, I helped my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) pilot his Private Members' Bill through the House, introducing compulsory passenger insurance. It then became apparent, in discussion with the motor cycle organisations, which were concerned at the implications of the proposals, that far too many motor cycle accidents were occurring through lack of proper training and experience. The situation has worsened considerably since then.

An answer given on 12th January to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) stated that it was expected that last year's figure of motor cycle casualties would be about 69,000. That represents a serious challenge to the Government. A system that allows 16-year-old and 17-year-old youngsters to purchase mopeds and motor cycles—I find it difficult to tell the difference between various models on the road—and venture on to our crowded roads without proper training or a test is not sensible. On Saturday I opened a training course in Exeter, organised by the local authority accident prevention committee in conjunction with the STEP scheme. There were a dozen or so participants, including several women, but hardly any youngsters. Bearing in mind that the casualty rate is highest amongst the 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds, this is a worrying situation.

More and more people are being forced to give up their cars because of the high cost of motoring and increases in the petrol tax. Motor cycling, which has been increasing so dramatically, will go on increasing. Recently, I saw two youngsters in the village—quite small—in which I live sporting new mopeds. I asked them whether they had received any training or instruction at school or just after leaving school. The answer was "No—our dad is teaching us." Their dad may have been a good motor cyclist in his time, but that does not mean that he is necessarily a good instructor. It is not enough to send these youngsters out with high hopes and an L-plate but with little idea of how to cope with modern traffic conditions.

I am worried about the present situation, and I hope that the Government will take positive action to co-ordinate the existing schemes, such as the RAC-ACU scheme, STEP and other voluntary schemes, with a national training scheme with centres throughout the country and close links with local authority accident prevention committees and motor cycle retailers.

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory estimates the cost to the community of motor cycle accidents in 1975 at £82 million. That figure will probably have risen to over £100 million in 1977. But it is not just a question of cost. We are not arguing for greater Government expenditure for this work. The structure is already in existence. It needs to be strengthened into a proper system of educational and training courses. I have been particularly impressed by the case put by Mr. Williams in his "Safe Rider" proposals, calling for a three-part system of training courses. The first is a basic course of instruction for all new motor cyclists; the second is a course of instruction leading to a Department of Transport test; the third is an advanced course for existing drivers who wish to improve. I think that the priority must be for the provision of the first basic course, with special emphasis on those aged 16 to 18.

There is perhaps a certain virility symbol in many youngsters not wishing to expose what they would regard as lack of manhood—or womanhood—by taking training courses. I should like to see it a basic requirement, possibly even compulsory, that a four-hour course should be completed on the purchase of a vehicle. Possibly the insurance rates could be adjusted to that requirement. Many dedicated instructors are giving and are prepared to go on giving their services, but if their efforts and the efforts of all those concerned with accident prevention are to be made worth while, the Government should lend their extra weight to the setting up of a nation-wide training scheme, incorporating the various national and local schemes. Lives are at stake. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will take serious note of my hon. Friend's proposals.

2.7 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for giving us the opportunity to discuss the need for wider training for motor cyclists and riders of mopeds. I agree with him that the problem does not receive and has not received the attention that it deserves. I hope that it will receive more. I intend to give it more attention than it has received from Governments in the past. I accept that people derive great enjoyment from this form of transport and that it fulfils, at a time of rising costs of travel, a real need for many people. I think that on the whole they exercise their riding skills with responsibility.

If we are to give the problem more attention, I agree that the Government must take the lead—while, I accept, not doing everything—and give it top priority among all the other things that we can do for road safety. Already I give it top priority, having devoted more attention to this aspect of road safety than to almost any other since I took office.

That is one reason why we turned down the hon. Gentleman's earlier suggestion of an inquiry. It was not simply a matter of time, although inquiries inevitably take up time. The Mountbatten inquiry was an exception. We do not want to stop advance in this matter, because there is urgent need to do something. Also, I think that an inquiry is appropriate only when the facts are unclear, and, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, the facts in this case are clear. Therefore, it is best not to go down that avenue but to begin to take decisions about what we can do.

The Government are there to take decisions, and we should take them as soon as possible. To some extent, we need to wrap these things up together. There are other issues of road safety, such as seat belts and the Blennerhassett Report, and we should treat them as a general package. We want to take decisions as early as possible in the whole general area of road safety. The size of the problem is very clear. In the last four years—

I do not think I understand the Minister's last point. Is the Minister suggesting some legislation that would incorporate the three things that he has mentioned? He referred to a "package". What precisely does he mean?

What I mean precisely is that there are a number of road safety issues bobbing around at the moment, which are linked. For instance, legislation with regard to seat belts and Blennerhassett will have implications for anything that we do about mopeds and motor cycles. Obviously, the two are not necessarily linked, but when examining particular aspects of moped and motor cycle safety we may have, for example, to think in terms of regulations, and that has legislative implications. Obviously, we as a Government must take a totally comprehensive view on safety and in that sense it may be right to link the treatment of mopeds and motor cycles to other issues.

The hon. Gentleman was also right when he talked about the dimension of the problem. I confirm the general figures that he put forward. The rise in the number of seriously injured or killed, in particular, and the proportion who are very young, is fairly well known. The hon. Gentleman gave one figure. The figure that I have is that more than half those killed or injured are under 20 years of age.

A recent study by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, which covered a selected area in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, showed that the likely-hood of being involved in an accident is highest in the first month of training. It falls off rapidly in the next two or three months and continues to decrease until after about six months, when the rider has become "experienced". The combination of youth, inexperience and powerful machine appears to be the most decisive cause of accidents. I therefore agree whole heartedly with what the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) said about that aspect of the problem.

As I said yesterday, I am sure that this is the point on which we must concentrate our efforts if we are to succeed in bringing down the number of fatal accidents. As we know, less than 10 per cent. of new riders receive any kind of training at the moment. That is the area on which we must concentrate.

The hon. Gentleman detailed the existing training facilities. The two main training schemes for motor cyclists are those run by the RAC/ACU and by STEP Management Services Limited. As the hon. Gentleman said, the RAC scheme is a long-established scheme, which has earned itself wide recognition and respect. Great tribute must be paid to the organisers and the many voluntary instructors, including some ex-policemen, who give so much time teaching others how to ride safely. The scheme has expanded in recent years. In 1972 there were 135 centres throughout the whole country and there are now about 250. Many of them are provided by local authorities in the form of school playgrounds, municipal car parks and other suitable council depots, including waste land.

This increase in the number of centres is due, in part—I am glad to pay tribute to the previous Conservative Administration—to the small capital grant given in 1972 by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) when Minister for Transport and also, in part, to the increasing support from local authorities following the Road Traffic Act 1974. That was a bipartisan measure. The scheme is financed partly by the organisation running it—the RAC/ACU—whose income may include the very modest fees paid by the trainees, and partly by Government grant. In the last financial year we paid about £36,000 to the scheme. This was made up of £13,000 capital grant towards new and replacement training machines and equipment, the remainder covering the £3 per capita grant for those who take the scheme's proficiency test having undergone a full course of training.

In addition, STEP last year introduced what it calls "two-wheel teach-in" which provides an inexpensive four-hour course of basic instruction for novice riders. That is precisely the area that concerns us. STEP is financed by the motor cycle industry and the scheme is operated through motor cycle dealers, who play an important part in encouraging new riders to be trained. It shows a responsible attitude on the part of industry and it is commendable. In fact, the dealers arrange for the new machine to be delivered to the training areas so that instruction can be given before the novice gets on to the road. STEP also has a scheme which offers instruction to teachers in secondary schools, enabling them to undertake instruction in the fundamental aspects of traffic education.

In addition to these two schemes, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has also produced guidance for schools in the form of a short course for moped riders. Again, a number of local authorities make an important contribution by conducting their own training schemes or by running schemes in conjunction with the RAC or STEP. I would also pay tribute to private initiative. The hon. Gentleman referred to Mr. Blower in his own constituency. That sort of initiative is repeated in my constituency.

We have received positive proposals for a national training scheme, which has been put forward by STEP and which was widely publicised in the booklet that the hon. Gentleman produced called "Safe Rider". The training scheme is devised to be in three stages and is to be financed mainly by the industry. At the moment the industry contributes £2 per machine to the existing scheme. That is a small amount but it is commendable. It might even be increased in the future if this sort of scheme gets under way.

I am considering this national proposal. It is certainly an attractively presented scheme and looks to be clearly related to the sort of things we need to do. But so far STEP has only limited experience in running training schemes and, for that reason, we need to look closely at its proposals, which would probably need the support and co-operation of local authorities. A large investment would be needed to provide a comprehensive network of training centres throughout the country, together with fully qualified instructors to staff them.

There is also the problem of ensuring that an adequate standard of instruction was maintained at each centres, particularly in centres serving small rural areas where demand might tend to be spasmodic. That point was also made. When we know that at the moment less than 10 per cent. of riders receive training we need to be careful how we step the thing up—sorry about the pun—to a new higher level of activity. The Government should give all the encouragement they can but have to recognise the amount of time that will be required before we can move the thing on to a much wider basis than at the moment. However, there is no point in setting up a national scheme unless the demand for it is there. At present, it is clear that there is not sufficient inducement to motor cyclists to attend a training course and take the Department's test. Much has been said about making training compulsory. The hon. Gentleman referred to that, but without making precisely clear where he stood with regard to compulsion.

That remark may be in the Minister's script, but it only indicates that he did not listen to what I said. My final point was that there should be two characteristics of a training scheme and the first characteristic should be a voluntary training scheme. There is absolutely no question of my not making clear where I stand on this. I was putting forward the idea of a voluntary training scheme. I urge the Minister to listen to the case that is being put before he makes that kind of remark.

None the less, I think the hon. Gentleman was slightly dodging the issue. If we are to have a scheme that is national, not only in concept but also in application, I believe that compulsion in some form or another is an issue that we simply cannot dodge. If we are to expect people to take training, we must offer some clear inducements for them to do so, otherwise they simply will not bother.

There is plenty of opportunity, even allowing for the small capacity of the training schemes, to provide training, but the sad fact is that the majority do not take the trouble to take a training course of any kind. If we are to tackle the problem we have to induce people to take these courses. That is why I say to the hon. Gentleman—I am not making a debating point—that we have to face the problem of how to do that, and that raises questions of compulsion.

Young people, in particular, underestimate the skills that are needed to ride a motor cycle safely in modern traffic conditions. Those for whom it is their first motor cycle may lack any sort of training or experience in roadcraft, never having been involved in any way in a traffic situation. We may need to consider more ways of inducing them to undergo training, rather than simply providing additional voluntary facilities. We may therefore need to consider—this is why I referred earlier to legislation—the part that licensing and testing requirements—which would need to be changed by regulation or legislation—could play. The two are linked, and if we are serious about this matter we must bear that in mind. That is what I am urging on the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that apart from the issues of training, of how we induce people to take training on a wider scale and of how we build up the existing voluntary schemes for use on a wider scale to give more people the opportunity of being trained, we have to look at the other methods of providing safety for the motor cyclist and the moped rider. In that respect, "conspicuity"—the extent to which the rider is seen by other road users—is important. We can take measures in that respect, though inevitably they tend to work more slowly than do some of the other more Draconian things that one can think of doing by way of training or regulation.

We must make every effort to ensure that the car driver takes account of the motor cyclist and the moped rider, as well as of the pedal cyclist and the pedestrian. Easter is with us, and this is the time of year when many people take to the road. Because of the inclement weather it is perhaps opportune to issue a warning, bearing in mind the number of accidents that occur through a motor cyclist or moped rider being knocked down by a car whose driver did not see him because of the narrow aspect that he presented to the oncoming motorist.

The hon. Gentleman is right to have raised this subject, and I am glad that he has done so because it has enabled the importance of the problem to be brought home to people once again. We are all too tolerant of a casualty rate amongst motor cyclists and moped riders that puts to shame our general record in road safety. That is why I am spending more time on this aspect of road safety than on almost any other. I believe that what is happening is wrecking our good record of road safety. The sheer size of the problem demands a fresh approach. That is why we are taking a totally fresh, ab initio look at the whole problem of how we tackle road safety amongst motor cyclists and moped riders.

It is right to recognise the enjoyment that riding motor cycles and mopeds gives to people, and not go to the limit of trying unnecessarily to exclude them from riding on our roads or of banning motor cycles and mopeds. People should have the right to use this means of transport, but, equally, they must be properly trained from the word "go". The training must start from the moment that they receive their machine. That means at age 16 for moped riders and 17 for riders of motor cycles. The point at which they receive the machine is the point at which the training should bite hardest, so that they are able to exercise their skills and enjoy their riding. The training that they receive, and the attitudes that they adopt should ensure they have a safe ride.

If we are to do that seriously, we must embark upon a new scale of training. Over the next few years this will need careful expansion from the present low base. We cannot consider going too fast, because the level of training at present available is extremely low. There is also the question how we induce people to take part in training on a sufficient scale, when at the moment there is next to no inducement to do so. At present someone can carry on using a provisional licence for a moped for ever and a day. There is, therefore, no incentive to undergo training.

We must tackle this problem. I am sure that hon. Members on the Opposition Benches recognise the need to do that, and I hope that we shall have their good will as we look seriously and urgently at this problem.

The Minister has sat down, and when the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) launched his debate he said that he would speak only once. I do not know why he said that. He may address the House again only by the leave of the House, for which he can ask.

2.28 p.m.

With the leave of the House, I shall speak for 30 seconds.

Although the Minister introduced the element of compulsory training and made a statement that was not in accordance with what I said, I think that we are at one on this issue. As I said earlier, it may be that at some stage we shall have to consider compulsory training, but at this stage I do not see how the administrative difficulties and administrative costs can be got over. I am willing to concede—and indeed I urge this upon the Minister—that it is necessary to find some ways of inducing people to take further training.

Does the hon. Gentleman mean that he does not envisage compulsory training now because the training facilities are not available on a sufficiently wide scale?

That is exactly the point. If we were to seek to have a compulsory training scheme, the cost of erecting such a scheme would be considerable and everyone would be required to undertake the training. I am seeking to put forward a system that evolves naturally, but I accept that one must seek ways of inducing people to use the increased facilities that I hope will become available over the next 12, 24 or 36 months.

What I find rather disappointing about the Minister's reply is that he went over the ground and took my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and myself with him in stating the problem. We stated the problem to the Minister and he handed it back to us, and so far we are lacking details of what he intends to do about it.

It is not unfair for me to remind the Minister that this issue was raised with him and with the Government at the end of last year, and that it was said then that the reason for failing to have an independent inquiry was that it would delay the Government in their progress. They do not seem to have made a great deal of progress. I do not want this to become a matter of contention, but I urge the Government to realise that this is an urgent matter.

We must induce as many people as possible to take up the training, but I ask the Minister not to ignore the fact that there are many people who would like to undertake training but cannot find the necessary facilities. This is shown in my postbag. This is an urgent problem. We think that the Minister has made the right noises, and we hope that he will follow them up with right action.