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Motorcycle Test Facilities

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

I thank you, Mr. Bayley, and I thank my colleagues for their warm welcome while leaving a debate on a subject important not only in my constituency but in many parts of the UK, and not just to motorcyclists but to many in the wider industry. I should declare an interest. I have never ridden a motorcycle, although my wife would encourage it. Nevertheless, it is a serious subject to many people. I am grateful for the interest that the Minister and his office showed before this debate, and hope that it will help us make some progress.

I shall provide a bit of history before detailing some general and specific concerns about the Driving Standards Agency’s processes for centralising motorbike testing facilities. To put the introduction of new multi-purpose motorcycle test facilities into context, we need to go back to 2000, when the second EU directive on driving licences was agreed. A set of EU standards was produced requiring motorcycle tests to include a variety of new low-speed and higher-speed manoeuvres.

Under the new standards, extra and more demanding special manoeuvres must be included in every practical motorcycling test: at least two manoeuvres executed at low speed, including a slalom; at least two manoeuvres executed at higher speed, of which one should be in second or third gear at a speed of at least 30 kph; one manoeuvre to avoid an obstacle at a minimum speed of 50 kph; and at least two braking exercises, including an emergency brake at a minimum speed of 50 kph. The new EU standards imply significant changes to the UK’s practical test for motorcyclists. The only special manoeuvre in the current UK motorcycling test is an emergency braking exercise undertaken on the road at about 20 kph. Although the new standards specify what a test must contain, member states have flexibility to organise the details.

In January 2001, the DSA issued a consultation paper describing the new requirements and seeking views on the matters in which the directive allows member states flexibility to determine locally. In particular, it asked whether the higher-speed manoeuvres should be conducted on the road or off the road, and whether they should be part of the practical motorcycling test or a separate manoeuvres test.

In August 2002, the DSA published the responses and explained Ministers’ decisions as follows. The new standards require low and higher-speed special manoeuvres to be added to the motorcycling test. A fair and consistent assessment is best achieved by using a pre-determined layout—that is, ground markings and cones—and it would be impractical to use one on a public road with other traffic. That implies a need for secure testing areas even if one discounts the risks to the candidate and other road users of testing the manoeuvres on the roads.

The DSA’s second point is that the new standards also require the test to include a higher-speed emergency braking manoeuvre at 50 kph. At that speed and in good road and weather conditions, a motorcycle needs a minimum of 23 m to stop, compared with about 12 m in the current braking exercise. The DSA reported that there are overwhelming road safety objections to conducting higher-speed emergency braking exercises where there might be pedestrians or other traffic. A requirement for secured testing areas appears conclusive, regardless of how the higher-speed obstacle-avoidance manoeuvre is assessed.

In consequence, the DSA has extensive plans to roll out a network of multi-purpose test centres by October 2008. The plans include using the test centres not just for motorcycle activities but for car tests. That brings me to the reason for this debate. Where will the new test centres be located, and what practical and economic impact will the changes have?

Until recently, we in Moray have benefited from car and motorcycle driving test facilities, an LGV test centre and a theory test centre. Unfortunately, the theory test centre has been withdrawn and replaced by a visiting bus. The motorcycle test facilities are under threat, and motorcycle instructors, learner riders, local driving instructors and business owners are concerned that plans to move test facilities to Inverness will be detrimental to learners, businesses, bike and bike equipment retailers and the overall economy of Moray.

That seems somewhat divergent from the DSA’s stated priorities. I draw the Minister’s attention to a quote on the DSA website from its chief executive, Rosemary Thew:

“The driver training industry bodies consider the presence and accessibility of test centres as being crucial to their business. The location of test centres therefore provides direct employment and encourages associated employment at local rider training and driving instructing schools.”

The key phrase is “the location of test centres”. For instructors in Moray, the removal of test facilities in the region—it is an entire local authority region—will be crucial to their businesses, but clearly not in a good way.

Moray’s various bike instructors are well thought of, and their excellent teaching speaks for itself. Moray has one of the highest pass rates of any test centre—83 per cent., compared with pass rates in Aberdeen and Inverness in the mid-60 per cent range. Testing facilities might be moved more than an hour’s ride away on a busy trunk road. I am certain that the Minister has travelled the A96; it can be a daunting road. I shall lobby my colleagues in the Scottish National party Government to upgrade it as soon as possible, but it remains a busy and at times tragically dangerous road. Having to travel to Inverness or Aberdeen on the A96 will discourage potential clients from taking advantage of the excellent teaching in Moray, as students are likely to want to learn on the roads where their test will take place. Rather than learning in Moray and then taking their test in Inverness or Aberdeen, people in those cities are likely to seek to learn in areas with which they are familiar.

I have written to the DSA about the issue, and the response has been somewhat revealing, albeit because of what the agency does not say rather than what it does. For example, the agency says that an average of only 20 tests a month are taken in Elgin, making it an economically unviable site for a multi-purpose test centre. However, the agency fails to say that Elgin has only a small capacity for tests. When I checked yesterday, Elgin’s earliest available appointment was nearly three months away, compared with half that time in Inverness. It does not take a genius to work out that the DSA is using statistics to justify its position rather than giving unbiased information. By failing to mention the Elgin test centre’s capacity, it suggests that only 20 tests are being requested each month. I am assured by local trainers that that is not the case. In effect, the figures are being artificially suppressed to make the case for concentrating testing in Inverness and Aberdeen.

If I had to wait 11 weeks for a test in Elgin but could take one in five weeks in Inverness, there is a fair possibility that I, like other people, would choose to go to Inverness. It gives rise to a concerning possibility that figures for Elgin are artificially low, while test figures for Inverness are artificially inflated. As those figures form part of the basis of the assessment for potential new test centre locations, serious questions arise about the processes and procedures used in that test centre investment programme.

I take the view that using bike test figures to assess the need for a multi-purpose test centre in more rural areas such as Moray is too narrow an approach. It would be more appropriate to consider the combined total of tests for cars, bikes and LGVs and incorporate theory tests and other DSA activities at the same location. Other possibilities could involve the local police, who operate the successful pass plus scheme. Furthermore, other emergency services could use the location for accident demonstration projects, targeting young drivers and prospective learners. Combining those activities in a single location would make a far more viable option—and support the local economy, rather than shift important resources elsewhere.

Moray’s test centre supports two full-time and two part-time instructors, and the wider bike-related business in Moray includes five shops that supply bikes and accessories; in turn, they support additional employment, including that of mechanics and sales staff. For some people, the numbers might seem relatively small and insignificant. However, the Minister will be aware that my constituency rates among the lowest wage economies in Scotland; on some criteria, it is sometimes the lowest—not something to have great pride in. The effect of the loss of any job or business on any knock-on trade is very significant. The Minister will remember the campaigns to retain RAF bases and the campaigns that needed to be fought to maintain maternity services in Elgin. He will also be aware that at a time when moves are afoot to try to bring together local government services from different local areas, there are concerns, which I share, that Moray—being part neither of the highlands, nor, in essence, of Grampian—may see many services drawn towards Inverness and Aberdeen. I wish both those places all the best, but, please, that should not come at Morayshire’s cost.

Arguably, if bikers travel elsewhere for a test, they are likely to spend money elsewhere as well. There is also the all-important safety issue, to which I alluded earlier. Holding tests in Inverness will mean that learner bikers in Moray will have to travel for more than an hour on the A96, which, as I mentioned, has a reputation for bad accidents. At a recent surgery of mine, a learner rider from Lossiemouth in my constituency said that the move would

“force young drivers on to killer roads”.

That stands in contrast with what the agency says on its website:

“We hope that communities, local authorities and driving instructors will recognise the important role of these new centres in supporting road safety.”

If the centres are sited in Inverness and Aberdeen, there could be an odd by-product: we may increase risks to the safety of riders from Morayshire. Although bikers going for their tests should generally have a good number of lessons under their belts and have had appropriate instruction, it would not necessarily be their wish to spend well over an hour on a low-powered bike on a busy road just prior to the stressful experience of a driving test—and then have to make the same journey home.

This would not be condoned, but sotto voce it was suggested to me that some bike riders who had not passed their tests might see the changes as a disincentive to doing one, at a time when we are trying to raise standards across the board. I am concerned that, far from improving road safety, the changes could put inexperienced riders at unnecessary risk.

I go back to the viability of siting a new test centre in Moray. Elgin is a market town that draws people in from many miles around. There are a variety of potential locations for such a centre—perhaps the most notable is the current LGV test centre, sited just outside Elgin at a disused Ministry of Defence airfield. There is a strong argument for trying to obtain a long-term lease or to purchase land from another Government Department. That would ensure that the money spent remained in the public sector in the locality. I am sure that the Minister would be able to facilitate such a negotiation through his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence. Other options could and should be considered, such as sharing offices in the Moray area with the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency or adding a local face-to-face contact point for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

There is significant scope for combining the variety of services that the Department provides in one location in Moray. A bit of creative thinking could bring improved access to services—indeed, it could provide cross-agency working and efficiencies, rather than centralising one aspect of the DSA’s activity, to the significant detriment of Moray. Bikers are set to join a demonstration in Moray next month, and I understand that hundreds plan to attend to express their frustration at the plans.

Will the Minister take action to ensure that bikers in more rural areas are not unduly discriminated against, and that excessive Government centralisation, which already causes substantial problems in respect of other Departments’ delivery of services, will cease? Will he also give an assurance that he will seek answers on whether the way in which test centre figures are being used is appropriate and meaningful, and, if necessary, order a review of the roll-out of multi-purpose test centres?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on securing a debate on this important issue. He has presented an eloquent argument on behalf of his constituents. His concerns are understandable, and I hope that I can address them during my remarks. I hope that he will forgive me if in doing so I repeat some of the background information that he has already mentioned.

In their road safety strategy, “Tomorrow’s roads: safer for everyone”, published in 2000, the Government set challenging targets for reducing the number of road casualties. By 2010, we want to reduce by 40 per cent. the number of people killed or seriously injured on the roads and to reduce by 10 per cent. the number of slight casualties.

Motorcycling is becoming increasingly popular. More people are using motorcycles and mopeds to beat congestion and for leisure. We recognise that motorcycling has a role to play within transport as a whole. Our aim is to facilitate motorcycling as a travel choice within a safe and sustainable transport framework. To that end, in 2005 we published our motorcycling strategy in partnership with motorcycling and other interests.

Regrettably, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, motorcyclists represent a large proportion of road casualties. They make up about 1 per cent. of road traffic, but suffer about 20 per cent. of deaths and serious injuries. Although the overall number of road casualties is falling, the number of deaths among motorcyclists is increasing.

The road safety strategy gave improvements to driver training and testing, which play an important role in producing safer drivers and riders. It also identified European developments as a factor in future changes to the driving test. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, when member states translate European directives into domestic legislation, there is scope for them to take account of local conditions and to ensure a good fit with their prevailing laws.

In Great Britain, all motorcyclists and moped riders are required to complete compulsory basic training, or CBT, before riding on the road as learners. The CBT certificate is valid for two years. Applicants have to pass a theory test, including a test of hazard perception, and a practical riding test, before being granted a full motorcycling licence.

European Union legislation on driving licences, agreed in 2000, set higher minimum requirements for driving tests conducted by member states. The higher standards are intended to ensure that the matters assessed in the theory and practical test are relevant to modern driving conditions. Those new EU standards have introduced extra and more demanding special manoeuvres that must be included in every practical motorcycling test undertaken in Great Britain from September 2008.

One of the new requirements, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned, is that a higher-speed emergency braking manoeuvre should be added to the motorcycling test. It must be conducted at no less than 50 kph, equivalent to 31 mph. There are overwhelming road safety objections to conducting a higher-speed emergency braking exercise where there might be pedestrians or other traffic. Ministers therefore asked the Driving Standards Agency, which is responsible for delivering the driving and riding test in Great Britain, to explore whether such manoeuvres could be carried out in off-road testing areas free of other traffic. At the same time, the DSA designed an exercise that includes all of the various special manoeuvres requirements and that can be delivered in an effective and efficient manner from the off-road testing areas.

Those proposals, and others for the implementation of the new requirements, were the subject of full public consultation in December 2002. Consultees were offered the opportunity to comment on a number of service delivery options. They showed a preference for a package of off-road testing of the new higher-speed manoeuvres’ with all other special manoeuvres being tested on the same occasion immediately before the general on-road riding assessment. That avoids the safety risks of on-road testing while addressing the cost and access concerns raised by some consultees.

The Government decided to implement the new requirements in the way that most consultees preferred. To facilitate the delivery of the new manoeuvres exercise we identified a need to develop a national network of driving test centres based on an updated design. In order to exploit the value of the investment in the new centres we have decided that, wherever possible, they will be multipurpose. In addition to the motorcycling manoeuvres exercise and practical motorcycle test they will be used to deliver other types of practical test for learner car, lorry and bus drivers.

The intention is that most driving test candidates should be able to reach a test centre within 45 minutes, travelling no more than 20 miles.

Will the Minister clarify, from his personal experience, that to travel from Elgin to Inverness takes more than 45 minutes?

I have not had the privilege of travelling from or to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency direct. I understand that it would take more than 20 minutes.

Where practical, we hope to make the off-road test sites available for training purposes when they are not being used for motorcycling tests. Since the proposals were first drawn up, the project has evolved. We have reviewed the service delivery need and conclude that between 40 and 50 multipurpose driving test centres will be required to meet the service standard criteria. However, to maximise population coverage and minimise the number of candidates who have to travel for longer than 45 minutes or further than 20 miles’ we are seeking to develop up to 67 new centres. That gets to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I am delighted that he has not suggested that Scotland might be underserved in that respect, as 12 of the new centres will be in Scotland and 55 in England. Scotland will have 18 per cent. of the total number of centres, which is considerably higher than population might demand.

At the commencement of the project, we did not own or lease any sites that could provide a sufficient area of hard standing upon which to undertake the new manoeuvres. A programme of land acquisition and construction was initiated in 2005. Since December 2005, we have acquired 23 sites nationally. In Scotland, as I have said, we propose to build 12 new centres with off-road testing facilities. To date, we have acquired two suitable locations that will provide coverage to Scotland’s two largest urban centres. One, at East Lothian, is nearing completion and one, in Scotland’s first city, Glasgow, is already open and is being used to deliver driving tests. Once both centres are fully operational, 40 per cent. of the population of Scotland will be within a 45-minute journey from a new centre, while 45 per cent. will be within 20 miles of a new centre.

Further sites have been identified and we are proceeding with the acquisition and development programme. In addition to allowing us to maximise the use of the new centres by conducting car, lorry and bus tests from them, the multipurpose centres will offer improved accommodation and facilities for our customers and staff. As well as being fully compliant with the disability discrimination legislation, the new centres will support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda.

We anticipate that for each new multipurpose driving test centre in Scotland, one driving test centre will relocate to the new facilities. Motorcycle testing is delivered from 35 driving test centres and in the future the tests will be delivered from 12 new multipurpose driving test centres. Delivery of car, lorry and bus driver testing will remain largely unchanged. Despite an overall reduction in the number of sites that deliver motorcycling tests in Scotland, the 12 new centres will ensure that, in line with the customer service criterion, 79 per cent. of the population will be within 45 minutes and 81 per cent. within 20 miles of a new centre.

We recognise the need to ensure that the more remote and sparsely populated areas have reasonable access to centres that conduct motorcycle tests. Every effort has been made to avoid disadvantaging the more rural and semi-rural populations, but we cannot justify providing sufficient multipurpose driving test centres to allow every test candidate in the country local access to those testing facilities. In the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, it is anticipated that the majority of motorcycling test candidates will travel to Inverness, which is a one-hour journey of about 39 miles. Car, lorry and bus candidates will continue to take their tests in Elgin.

On the question of the alleged safety aspects of the A96, I totally accept that when a local road has a reputation for danger, that has a knock-on effect on the confidence with which drivers will go down a road. I accept what the hon. Gentleman’s constituent told him at his surgery. He will understand that when any assessment is made of the danger of any road, it has to be based on empirical evidence. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that the A96 is such a dangerous road that it would preclude the location of those test facilities in Inverness. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that that was a matter for the Scottish Executive, and I am sure that he has better contacts than I do among the Ministers who are responsible for spending money on road safety schemes.

Driving test centres do not come cheap. Experience suggests that they cost some £1.8 million in development in addition to the costs of acquiring the site. Those costs are capitalised, but none the less they have a significant effect on fees paid by driving test candidates. In 2006-07, fewer than 250 motorcycling tests were conducted in Elgin, compared with 330 in Inverness and about 680 in Aberdeen.

Towards the end of his speech, the hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying that the number of tests carried out in Inverness is inflated because his constituents would rather wait for a shorter length of time to take their test in Inverness. At the same time, he made another argument, which I think was contradictory. He said that people are reluctant to travel the A96 because of the perceived danger of travelling on that road. One argument may be true, but I cannot see how both can be. People are either being encouraged to take their tests in Inverness or being discouraged from using the A96.

What is more important than either of those points is that when the Minister and his colleagues assess the demand for motorcycle tests, surely that should be based on the real demand in particular parts of the country, as opposed to figures that are suppressed and reduced in total because of the cap on test numbers for different parts of the country.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I would suggest that that is what the Government are doing. As I have said, in 2006-07, fewer than 250 motorcycling tests were conducted in Elgin, compared with 330 delivered one hour away along the A96 in Inverness and about 680 in Aberdeen. I am afraid that that number does not justify setting up a multipurpose driving test centre in Elgin. That is particularly so given the proximity of alternatives and the high cost of developing the facilities. Although the end of motorcycling tests in Elgin is regrettable, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that at present we have no plans to stop delivering other types of driving test in the town.

I accept the point of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. He is entitled as a constituency MP to continue the campaign. If he wishes to take part in the demonstration that is due to take place in his constituency next week, I look forward to his donning a motorcycle helmet and getting on a motorcycle for the first time in his career.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.