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Driving Instructors

Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

Last year, Lesley Anne Steele, a constituent of mine, was enthusiastically learning to drive. She was progressing well and gaining confidence with every lesson. She was looking forward to the freedom that passing the driving test brings. After a lesson one day, her instructor, James McNair Bennett, asked whether it would be possible to use the convenience in her house. Being an obliging lady, Lesley Anne agreed, but Mr. Bennett had something else in mind. Lesley Anne was sexually assaulted in her own home by Mr. Bennett—her driving instructor.

Mr. Bennett was charged by police and apparently admitted the offence immediately. Eight months later, he was successfully prosecuted and he was placed on the sex offenders register immediately. However, after the assault, he continued to operate as an instructor, including for a considerable time after he was found guilty by the court. Lesley Anne was, not surprisingly, appalled and disgusted not only by the original assault, but by the fact that Mr. Bennett continued to operate as a driving instructor.

In a letter to me, Lesley Anne said:

“For 8 consecutive months Mr Bennett continued to teach pupils who were not aware that they were sitting next to a soon to be convicted sex offender. I find it irresponsible and sickening that he was legally allowed to continue to teach and act like nothing had ever taken place.

On the day of the trial Mr Bennett was found guilty of assaulting me and with immediate effect was placed on the sex offenders’ register. I was relieved that this was finally over and thought that Mr Bennett wouldn’t be allowed to continue to teach. The following day I received a call from a friend who had just seen Mr Bennett out teaching. Then my partner spotted Mr Bennett on the Monday, picking up a pupil close to our house.”

Lesley Anne subsequently waived her right to anonymity. She secured coverage in the national media to highlight her case so that she could campaign for changes in order that others would not have to go through what she did. She made numerous calls to the Driving Standards Agency, which were never returned. On one occasion, she did get through to the appropriate personnel at the agency, but was told that nothing could be done to help her. That is when she contacted me.

I took up the case and, as the Minister will know, there was a series of parliamentary questions and letters. In one letter, Bob Jarvis, the registrar of approved driving instructors, told me the following. There are no provisions for suspending driving instructors from the register of approved driving instructors. It can take months for driving instructors to be removed from the register even after conviction for a sex crime. The registrar must write to the instructor if he is planning to remove him from the register, giving him 28 days to make representations against the removal. The registrar then considers the representations and, if he remains satisfied that the person should be removed, issues a formal removal letter. The person then has a further 28 days to appeal to the independent Transport Tribunal. Tribunal hearings generally take place about seven weeks after the appeal is lodged. That suggests that it could take four months or longer to remove a registered sex criminal from the register of approved driving instructors.

That disgraceful and shocking loophole must be closed immediately. If not, there will be an immediate effect on confidence in the system for approving driving instructors. As I said, the DSA has no powers to suspend instructors from the register of approved driving instructors. I then discovered that the DSA did not check the sex offenders register when dealing with approved driving instructor applications. We do not know how many driving instructors out there are on the sex offenders register. That is quite appalling. I imagine that chains such as the British School of Motoring do have some kind of internal disciplinary procedure so that those accused or perhaps those convicted are immediately removed; otherwise, the reputation of those companies would be affected.

I was very grateful to the Minister and his officials when he agreed to meet Lesley Anne and me in September. I thank him, his officials and the DSA officials for the sensitive and caring way in which they dealt with that meeting; they did so in a very appropriate manner.

I strongly believe in the maxim “innocent until proven guilty”. It is right that everyone be given the opportunity to remain such, or the principle of our law will quickly come tumbling down. Malicious allegations can often ruin someone’s life and livelihood, and people have the right to defend themselves in a court of law. However, as there are stricter rules for those who care for or teach children under the protection of vulnerable adults scheme, known as POVA, and the Protection of Children Act 1999, and as many of those who take driving lessons are under 18—that is, they are children—is it not appropriate to extend those provisions to cover driving instructors?

People must also be allowed to rehabilitate themselves. I do not believe that those who commit crimes must be permanently excluded from employment. However, as driving instructors are in a privileged and trusted position, I would like to hear from the Minister how that can be managed safely. Driving instructors are put in a position of trust similar to that enjoyed by teachers and health care workers. However, the laws governing driving instructors are nowhere near as rigorous. No teacher or health care worker would be allowed to keep on working after being convicted of a sexual assault; they would be removed immediately.

I have a series of questions for the Minister. What changes have been made at the DSA following the case of Lesley Anne Steele? What will be done to ensure that those convicted of a sexual offence are immediately suspended or removed from the list of approved driving instructors? It is essential that those put on the sex offenders register are immediately removed from the register of approved driving instructors, but will that require primary legislation? If so, when will that be introduced? The Road Safety Bill, which is now the Road Safety Act 2006, would have been an obvious measure in which to include such legislation on driving instructors, but now that that opportunity has passed, perhaps the Minister can explain or outline which Bill it would be appropriate to include it in now. Perhaps the forthcoming criminal justice Bill is the answer.

What measures will the Minister consider to deal with those accused of sexual offences who are teaching people under the age of 18—that is, children? Is it possible to use the provisions under POVA or the Protection of Children Act 1999? Are approved driving instructor applications checked against the sex offenders register now?

I understand that there may be some movement on the inclusion of driving instructors in the Home Office’s notifiable occupations scheme. Can the Minister explain what, if any, movement has taken place? Also, can the Minister set a timetable for the changes that I am talking about? I believe that they are extremely important to our ability to move forward at a significant pace.

I have huge respect for Lesley Anne Steele. She is a modest, understated lady, but she has tremendous determination—a “steele” backbone, I would say. After what she went through, she had the right to remain anonymous, in the background, so that she could get on with her life after the conviction had been secured, but she chose to step out so that others would not have to go through what she went through. I can report that Lesley Anne has passed her driving test. She is now a competent driver, navigating the busy streets of Edinburgh every day on her way to work. As I said, I have the utmost respect for Lesley Anne. I hope that the Minister will respond to my questions—no, I think they are Lesley Anne’s questions—positively.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing the debate and on championing the cause of his constituent so assiduously. I share his respect for Miss Lesley Anne Steele. It took a great deal of bravery for her to waive her anonymity, approach her MP and highlight the issue. It took a great deal of bravery for her to be prepared to come and meet me in London and tell me personally of the horrible experience that she had, and it has taken a great deal of bravery for her to pursue the matter. I want to say at the outset that I recognise, and have said to her, that the Driving Standards Agency let her down. I shall come to the legislative difficulties in dealing with the matter in a moment, but even within the existing law we did not do enough to respond to her when she first approached the Driving Standards Agency. The chief executive of the DSA has recognised that, and has moved to ensure that the same thing will not happen again if anyone else should approach us on a similar matter.

One of the things that the chief executive has done since the affair came to our attention is to see that anyone in a similar position to Lesley Anne’s who approaches the Driving Standards Agency will be given the support of its integrity team. That will provide help and support, will help with the preparation of a complaint to the police, if necessary, and will look after the complainant while the necessary process is under way. I hope that we would, in an administrative sense, be a lot more sympathetic and proactive in dealing with anyone who might follow Lesley Anne in reporting such a sad experience. That development is entirely the result of her bringing the failures to our attention.

There is a wider issue, which the hon. Gentleman and Lesley Anne are right to highlight. First, there is at the moment a very comprehensive way of testing whether someone is suitable to be an approved driving instructor. It includes those things that one would expect, such as the theoretical driving test, the test of instructional ability and a practical test of driving ability. However, in addition to passing those qualifying examinations, a person must prove that they are fit and proper to be an ADI. Unfortunately, Lesley Anne’s experience has shown that we have been relying on those people to tell us whether they are fit and proper persons. A person who is unfit and improper for the role does not necessarily admit to being so.

Therefore, as a direct result of what we have learned from this matter, we are going to carry out enhanced criminal record checks, not only on everyone who applies to be an ADI in the future, but on all existing ADIs. We have put the process in place and it starts very soon. We have also gone to the trouble of writing articles for various magazines that are read by ADIs, and making it known to their professional organisations that we shall carry out enhanced criminal record checks on all existing ADIs. As a consequence of that, we hope that anyone with some skeletons in their cupboard will already be taking steps to leave the profession. If we find that they are not suitable people, and in particular that they have committed sexual offences—or possibly other offences—in the past, we shall act to remove them from the register.

One of the failures that we identified as a result of Lesley Anne’s experience was that the Driving Standards Agency did not move to remove the gentleman in question from the register of ADIs immediately after the court case. That was because the agency did not know about it until the case was brought to its attention. We have asked the Home Office to include the profession of driving instructor as one of the notifiable professions, so that we shall be notified in future when someone has a conviction against them. The courts will tell us whether someone has been convicted, and we shall be able to take appropriate action. We have made an application in that respect to the Home Office, and we hope to hear in a few days whether it has been successful, but I am very hopeful that it will be.

Is there a requirement to engage in dialogue with the Scottish Executive in that regard? Is there a separate scheme for notification?

I do not know whether there is a separate scheme for notification in Scotland, but I promise to find out, and if there is we shall make sure that the application is made there too. The hon. Gentleman is right; the scheme needs to be UK-wide. I hope that the application will be accepted and that the occupation of driving instructor will be included in the notifiable occupation scheme. We shall then have the power to take action against someone immediately it becomes clear that they have been convicted of an offence.

I now come to the slightly more negative part of my answer. Experience has taught us that there are some deficiencies in the law. They are exactly the ones that Lesley Anne identified. First, the principle of a person’s being innocent until proven guilty applies, so it is not at the moment possible to suspend a driving instructor who is awaiting trial. Were we to have the power to suspend someone, there would be a possibility of malicious allegations, and of our finding that we had removed the livelihood of a person who was subsequently proved innocent of the offence. That is a serious consideration, but even if we were absolutely sure that an individual would at some point be found guilty—perhaps someone awaiting trial having indicated that they would plead guilty to a serious offence—we still would not, it appears, have the power to initiate a suspension process in advance of the court case. Someone accused of a very serious offence may still be able to carry on working as a driving instructor. How do we deal with that situation? There is no way of dealing with it under current legislation.

The second negative aspect of the matter concerns what happens once someone is found guilty. This would apply to offences that are perhaps not the most serious; one would expect the most serious offences, particularly of a sexual nature, to be dealt with by a custodial sentence, so that once someone was found guilty we could suspend them as a driving instructor before they were released and able to resume their profession. However, in slightly less serious offences—which are serious enough and cause the victim great emotional and perhaps even physical stress, but which are not serious enough to result in a custodial sentence—the individual can immediately come away from the trial and carry on practising as a driving instructor. Such an individual will—and I say this with some feeling as the father of a young daughter who will no doubt want to learn to drive in the not-too-distant future—be able to carry on working in a position of trust with young women who are potentially vulnerable, in an environment that is quite claustrophobic, and perhaps in a rural environment where there are not many people.

At the moment the registrar needs to give 28 days’ notice that he intends to remove someone from the professional register. At the end of those 28 days the individual can appeal, and a further 14 days then elapses. Allowing for the time taken for people to write letters, someone might continue to practise for 45 days after being found guilty of a relevant offence. That is exactly the situation that Lesley Anne observed in relation to the individual concerned, in her home town. We have had the lawyers look at the existing position, and unfortunately, it is set out in primary legislation, so primary legislation is required to change it.

I am asking my officials to discuss with the lawyers whether we can shorten the process by giving advance notice to someone 28 days before their court case that if they are found guilty we will be minded to remove them from the list. If they were then found guilty, the period that they were out on the streets would at least be reduced to 14 days while they went to appeal. However, the initial advice is that there might be some difficulties in doing that.

Clearly, we need to change the legislation. The Road Safety Act 2006 would have been the appropriate place to make the necessary changes, but legislation is drafted a year before it finishes and the deficiencies that we are discussing had not come to light when the Bill was drafted. I regret that we missed that opportunity, but I assure the hon. Gentleman, and Lesley Anne Steele, that I am keen for us to find another legislative opportunity to put this right as soon as possible. I am aware of no forthcoming road safety legislation that we could use, so we may have to consider using a Home Office Bill, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I assure him that I shall discuss with my Home Office colleagues whether we can include the necessary measures within the scope of forthcoming Home Office legislation, and whether they are prepared to do that for us. I can make no promises to the hon. Gentleman and Lesley Anne other than that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the protection of vulnerable adults scheme. When he and Lesley Anne came to see me, I contacted the officials who administer the POCA and POVA schemes to ask whether we could use those schemes to crack down on this problem, but I was advised that it was out of their scope.

Current legislation is clearly deficient, and we need to change the law through primary legislation as soon as we can to ensure that we have the power to suspend people immediately on conviction for such offences. We need to consider carefully whether we should also have the power, in certain circumstances, to suspend people before they are convicted. However, there are issues of natural justice to deal with in that regard. While we wait for suitable legislative opportunities to arise, we must do as much as we can using our existing powers and advanced criminal record checks, and the integrity team at the DSA, to investigate all allegations as proactively as possible.

It is important to say on the record that the vast majority of ADIs are entirely professional and are of a high quality. They are tested thoroughly and are completely reliable, and people should not lack confidence in driving instructors as a group simply because one or two bad apples let the rest of them down. I promise that we will do our best, using the enhanced criminal record checks, to identify any bad apples in the profession and to get them out of it as quickly as possible.

We will work hard to drive up the standards of ADIs further, not only so that these horrible occurrences do not happen again but to ensure that people have better knowledge about their local ADIs. That way, when people need to learn to drive, they will be able to find out who will provide them with the best services and to have complete confidence in their local ADIs. In the Road Safety Act, we took the powers to do that, so we no longer have a one-size-fits-all approach to ADIs. We have a much more customised approach to their training and testing, and to the advertising of information about them.

There is not a great deal more that I can say, except to emphasise my respect for Lesley Anne. I repeat my apologies to her that we let her down when she first came to us with the allegations. I hope that she will accept that, now that we have identified that we let her down, we have done everything in our power to make it up to her. We are doing as much as we can to deal with the specific circumstances of her ordeal and to ensure, as far as possible under current legislation, that everyone else is protected. I reiterate that I will ensure that we will somehow bridge the legislative gap to fill this serious loophole as soon as we have an opportunity to do so.