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Driving Tests (Yorkshire)

Volume 960: debated on Friday 15 December 1978

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3.1 p.m.

I must press the Government about a situation which affects the entire country. It is particularly serious in Yorkshire, in London and in parts of the Home Counties and the Government are wholly responsible. Jobs are being lost, family life is being needlessly upset and road safety is threatened because of the huge recent increase in waiting time for driving tests. In Huddersfield, for example, which has the only driving test centre for the whole of the metropolitan borough of Kirklees, the delay is over seven months. The Government have admitted that. For the 53 per cent. of applicants who pass the test on the second attempt, this means that they must wait 15 months.

On 10th November the average delay in Yorkshire was 26 weeks. In August 1977 the delay was only nine weeks. I hope that the Minister will make a clear statement about what his Department is doing to check the sudden increase in this delay which is deplorable and need not have happened.

A long-established driving school in Huddersfield told me last week that it has 100 pupils who urgently need a test because of their work. Those people need to be able to drive either to get to work in an area where public transport is deplorable or to perform their work.

Another driving school, the Honley school of motoring, wrote to me on 12th December. It stated
" If pupils are unfortunate enough to fail their test they would have to wait one month before they receive another appointment card plus another seven months for their next test, therefore these pupils will have waited a total of 1 year 3 months from receiving their first test appointment card…it is particularly hard on the young people who find it necessary to be able to drive for their job."
Long-established driving schools could contribute a great deal of information to the Government if the Department of Transport established proper and continuous liaison with them. They could have given the Government information about the trend of applications and we might have avoided the sudden increase in delay.

Driving tuition programmes are being disrupted because not many people can afford to pay for driving lessons throughout the seven months. Much of the effort that has been put into improving the standard of driving tuition is being thrown away because of the delays. The average learner driver is forced back after a few driving lessons onto the traditionally risky business of taking lessons from husband, wife or boy friend. This is a practice which is risky not only to other road users but to domestic bliss as well.

It should be understood by the Department that it is extremely important from the point of view of road safety that the delay in getting an appointment for a driving test should be phased with the average period of tuition needed to approach a test with confidence. It is now completely out of phase.

Some learner drivers panic because of the long delay and apply for a test long before they are likely to be fit to take it. Those who undergo driving tuition and reach an understanding of what is required then apply for a test but find that all their skills fall away when they have to wait a few months before taking the test. This is extremely hard on people of limited means who cannot afford continually to pay for refresher lessons from driving schools.

It has been reported that the whole system is inflexible and that there is no reserve, for instance, from which to provide a substitute examiner when one or two fall ill, as quite often happens in Huddersfield. In those circumstances, the applicant is simply told to go away and fill in a lot of forms to get his fee back. If there are to be these tragic delays, the Department ought at least to ensure through its regional office that there is a reasonably flexible scheme in operation and that a whole week's appointments do not suddenly have to be cancelled just because one examiner falls ill or, as I am afraid is increasingly the case, has an accident in the course of a test.

The Royal Automobile Club reported last week that the situation has never been more serious. It went on to point out that demands for tests will further increase this spring as people traditionally prepare for motoring holidays and want to be equipped for the road for the summer.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to offer some hope of a rapid improvement. It seems that during the last 12 months the Government have seriously failed to assess the likely demand for tests, have ignored the increasing number of private cars being licensed, have ignored the enormous apparatus of social surveys which Governments now sponsor, have not kept in touch with driving schools, and have not listened to the repeated warnings from the Civil and Public Services Association, to which so many examiners belong. Proper foresight of demand for tests is a most important duty for the Department to fulfil.

I turn now to the recruiting of examiners. What is the Minister planning to reduce the present rigid minimum age of 28 years for examiners? That age may have been all right when the Department could comfortably rely upon a continuous flow of recruits in their forties leaving the Armed Forces or possibly the police with a gratuity or some other financial backing, people who were glad to have a job even at £70 a week as a driving examiner. This flow, however, is drying up, and the situation needs to be assessed in the light of the current labour market.

I should have thought that the Department would angle its terms and conditions of work so as to recruit examiners from the depressingly large number of unemployed, particularly in Yorkshire. I understand that the wastage rate is relatively high among examiners. That is not surprising when one considers the hazardous nature of the work and how much stress is involved in taking applicants out on to the road, testing them for emergency stops and so on. I understand also that there is so much tension now with test applicants who have been waiting for many months for a test and are highly worked up about the appalling delays that will arise should they fail that examiners are not even free from the risk of assault. The Minister should consider whether this hazardous and stressful work is worth more pay, certainly as much as that received by people of similar standards of ability working comfortably at desks.

There is also the question of the bottleneck in the final examiner training process at Cardington, Bedfordshire. I do not understand why the Cardington centre relies so heavily on withdrawing examiners from their work in the field in order to act as trainers. Nor do I understand why the centre appears to have a maximum capacity for 40 trainees if the Ministry is planning, as I hope, greater recruitment of examiners.

In view of the mounting danger and inconvenience to the public, I should have hoped that the Secretary of State would have started making a few visits to his regional centres on which the whole of this system depends. In a recent parliamentary reply, the Secretary of State admitted to me that during the past 12 months he had not visited a single one of his regional headquarters. I believe that some of these regional headquarters may be taking advantage of the boss's apparent indifference and simply making bland and insubstantial promises.

I quote a Mr. Walters, described in theHuddersfield Daily Examiner at the beginning of this month as the press officer in Leeds for the Department of Transport. He revealed that the waiting time in Huddersfield was 29 weeks. All he could say to the newspaper, when asked the obvious question about what was to be done to remedy this disgraceful state of affairs, was "There is a recruitment drive at present, and we are hoping to get about 30 additional examiners in Yorkshire to cut down the delays."

I hope that the Minister will be frank and forthcoming, as he usually is, and tell the House how many examiners nationwide have so far been obtained through this nationwide recruiting drive. My information, which has been gleaned unofficially, is that over the whole country the number of additional examiners recruited in recent weeks, as a result of this drive, is less than Mr. Walters was hoping might be available to Yorkshire alone.

We frequently hear the complaint that Back Benchers, especially among the Opposition, are continually asking for more benefits without admitting the demands that these impose on the taxpayer. I think I can be acquitted of that charge. Driving tests are not a social service or a great burden on public funds. The test fee is £7.·30. It was doubled a year or two ago. In his normal stint, the average examiner is earning the Department of Transport about £300 a week. I support the charging of a proper fee. It is right that the tests should pay their way as far as possible.

In return for a fee of that size, however, the citizen is entitled to an appointment within a couple of months, especially if he needs a vehicle for travelling to work. To have to wait six or seven months is intolerable. This matter has been neglected. It requires a new and up-to-date approach, given the state of the labour market. I hope that the Minister will not put me off by the promise of yet another unsuccessful recruiting drive.

3.15 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) for drawing attention, in his usual pungent style, to the delays in providing driving tests. I know from my own postbag, quite apart from what the hon. Gentleman has said, that there is a great deal of concern. I accept that there are special problems in Yorkshire, which is one of the worst hit places in the country.

The time between the making of an application and the appointment is longest in the Yorkshire traffic area—it is now about 27 weeks—but the situation there is not significantly different from the Metropolitan area and the South-East area, where the waiting time is 26 weeks and 25 weeks respectively. Indeed, the interval is much longer everywhere than we would wish it to be.

I should like to start by setting out the background. In 1976, over 2 million applications for driving tests were received. A substantial number were accounted for by the rush to beat the increase in the fee, which was made on 1st August 1976. That rush resulted in an average waiting period of 19 weeks, and it rose dramatically as we approached the end of the period. Good progress was made in reducing that long interval: before the end of 1977, the average wait was back to 12 weeks.

We were able to do that because during 1977 there were only 1·65 million new applications, as opposed to 2 million in 1976. That was almost exactly the level of demand that we had experienced before the 1976 peak. That poses a problem in making an accurate forecast. There was a fairly stable level of demand for tests and then a sudden peak associated with a particular fee increase. After that the peak seemed to go down again for a sustained period to the previous levels. It therefore seemed right to bring the number of examiners into line with the policy of manpower constraint in the public sector.

There is a general desire to contain the size of the Civil Service, and I do not think that any hon. Member would have expected us to employ more of these civil servants than we had reason to suppose would be needed. Given the trend that we could see, we honestly did not expect more during 1977.

Surely the Department of Transport and other Departments draw a distinction between what in common parlance are called bureaucrats or desk workers, employed entirely out of public funds, and people doing a necessary operational job in return for an individual fee for every job they do. There is a distinction. I do not think that the general public regards driving examiners as bureaucrats or civil servants in the normal sense of the term.

It is not as simple as that. They are nevertheless civil servants. If one is talking about general restraint in the Civil Service, they come under that umbrella. Nevertheless, I take the point and the hon. Gentleman will see that we have recognised it in our proposals to remedy the situation.

Despite the fact that the norm was 1·.6 million or 1·7 million applications during 1977, that trend did not continue. There has been a marked upsurge in demand this year—an increase over 1977 of about 17 per cent. As a result, the backlog of tests has begun to rise again to new and higher levels. The position will not improve, as the hon. Member agreed, until the Department can select and train upwards of, we reckon, 250 additional examiners who are needed to keep pace with the backlog and overtake it.

Despite the policy of manpower restraint, we have relaxed it in this area and are now recruiting examiners as hard as we can. Hon. Members may well feel that it should not be difficult to find expert driving examiners and to put them quickly into test centres. I am afraid that it is not as simple as that. We need men and women of real calibre. They must have a certain presence and be competent writers of reports. They need to have substantial driving experience and they must pass a stiff driving test. Then we must train them. It takes a month of intensive full-time residential tuition to bring every new entrant to the very highest standard of driving competence and to instruct him how to recognise and assess the importance of driving faults. In addition, each new examiner is taught exactly how to conduct driving tests.

All of this is very important. It is the foundation of our high-standard test—probably the highest in Europe—and it is a guarantee, as far as one can ever be given, that test candidates receive the same treatment and are judged against the same criteria wherever in the country they take their tests.

This is the point about Cardington. The fact that we have such centralised control and a centralised tuition period means that people throughout the country are judged against the same standards. I am sure that that is right, because we need to think in the long term about people's confidence in the whole examination process and not merely about our present difficulties. We do not want to lapse into erratic and short-sighted moves just for the sake of dealing with this problem. We must maintain standards, despite trying to do something about the inevitable delays. Therefore, there is no room for short cuts.

We are stepping up the campaign that we launched this year. We started in February a recruitment campaign to make up the wastage that occurs in any one year, and that campaign was substantially increased in September and October, when a full-scale recruitment campaign was mounted.

At present about 18 people are at Cardington coming off the assembly line, if I may so describe it. Probably a further 20 or so will pass the test and be available in January. The number will rise to 40 in February. The trend of people becoming available for the whole country is steadily increasing with numbers of that sort. The hon. Gentleman can see what is happening as a result of the recruitment drive that we have already had.

None the less, we are further stepping up the campaign and hope to attract applicants with the required qualities at an even faster rate in the next 12 months.

My right hon. Friend has made exactly the point that I was coming to next, which is that, although we are looking for examiners for the whole country, because the problem is nationwide, we need 30 at centres in Yorkshire to staff up the Yorkshire complement to its proper level. At present there are about 93 examiners in the Yorkshire area, and we need a further 30.

I have described the national position and what we are doing to remedy the problem. It will take a little time, but I have indicated what is already happening at Cardington and the number of people who will become available very shortly.

In addition, we are aware that the position is particularly bad in Yorkshire. In two or three other areas it is nearly as bad. We are trying to help those areas by moving examiners from the better placed areas, which in all conscience are not very well placed, to areas such as Yorkshire. We have done that in a number of instances to augment the number of examiners available in Yorkshire for the particularly bad backlog there to be reduced.

The hon. Gentleman went on at some length, quite fairly, about the effect on employment. In a letter to me, which I have not yet had the opportunity to answer but which I shall answer shortly, he said:
" The delay in Yorkshire is outstandingly unfortunate. You will realise that in cases where an applicant for a job is required to indicate his chances of getting a permanent driving licence a job applicant from Yorkshire is under an additional three months' handicap compared with a job applicant from the northern or the eastern regions, where the situation is not quite so bad."
I cannot accept that in the way that the hon. Gentleman puts it baldly. If someone indicates that he has a pressing appointment for a job opportunity, he is given every advantage in terms of jumping the queue. We try to make any cancellations which become available open to him and to fix him up as soon as possible. If the applicant makes it clear to us that he has a pressing employment opportunity of the sort about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, we take that into account.

Surely the Minister realises that the longer the period of delay, the larger the army of queue jumpers. I anticipated this point, and I have made inquiries in Kirklees, where I am told that there are now so many people wanting to jump the queue —100 in the case of one school in Huddersfield—that there are not enough cancellations to go round.

That is not my information. Cancellations become available in Yorkshire on roughly the same scale as they do elsewhere. My understanding is that there are very few people now who are in desperate need for this reason whose need cannot be met. In other words, if there is a compelling need for anyone to take the test, there are very few places where that need cannot be met fairly speedily. Therefore, it is not quite fair to say that anyone in Yorkshire faces a further three months' delay in taking up a job opportunity than people elsewhere in the country. It really is not as black and white as that. Every effort is made to help people in this position and, by and large, they can be tested within a reasonable time. Naturally enough, if such people jump the queue, others have to wait. However, special needs of this kind are being recognised, and that is as true of Yorkshire as it is of anywhere else.

In addition to the point about employment opportunities, we are considering another matter which the hon. Member raised, namely, the age at which a person qualifies to become a driving examiner. The hon. Member said that the age was now 28. We are considering lowering that perhaps by two or three years to take account of the special problem that we face and because we think that it may be right to do that in the long run, anyway. We are considering that, though obviously we do not want to go too far because it is a job which requires someone with experience and a certain maturity. None the less, we have taken on board the hon. Member's point.

In passing, I ought to pay tribute to the service being offered by our driving examiners. At the moment, I am sure that they are having to cope with a great deal of irritation and annoyance from people and having to put up with rather more than their fair share than they would normally. What is more, the job has its difficulties and dangers. It is not often realised that a driving examiner has to take physical action in an average of one in nine failed tests to prevent danger to the public. That is a clear indication of the position in which they find themselves in their daily work, and it cannot be easy to go through the present period of pressure preserving their unflappable approach to all situations.

That is a fair point. We have been telling the Treasury a great deal about this over the last few months, and we have made some progress. I want to thank our examiners publicly for their efforts in normal conditions and to thank them once again for putting up with this period of strain, through no fault of theirs. This is as true in Yorkshire as it is anywhere else, and I am sure that the hon. Member will agree with me.

None the less, we have put in hand these measures to deal with the situation. I have referred to the person with a job opportunity for which he requires to show that he will take or has taken a test. I regret that for the ordinary person the delays will continue for a period. It will be some time before the flow of driving examiners can be augmented. We cannot expect any improvement over the next few months. However, I hope that after this peak has been passed, perhaps towards the middle or end of next year, we shall be able to move back to a more normal waiting period for tests.

The public have the right to feel that this system is being operated in a simple and competent manner, and obviously at the moment the waiting lists are too long. Incidentally, I also think that the public themselves could help a little. The failure rate is 54 per cent., which indicates that a lot of people are presenting themselves for test when they are inadequately prepared. I recognise that people on low incomes will not be able to take refresher courses and that, having allowed what they thought was a reasonable time, they find themselves in some difficulty when tests are postponed. That aside, if people presented themselves more properly trained for the test, we could help everyone—even the Treasury—by making the failure rate much lower, thereby enabling more people to be dealt with by the existing complement of examiners.

We have taken the measure which we thought wise in the public interest. I can offer no immediate improvement, but a real improvement is likely to be made in the foreseeable future.