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Minehead Driving Test Centre

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Benton. I am grateful for the chance to discuss this matter. I am delighted to see that the Minister is still here—it is a long day for him. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) can go home; Minehead test centre takes over.

I promise the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that I will not stay for this debate as well, but I suspect that I know what the hon. Gentleman’s argument will be. I too have problems with the management of the Driving Standards Agency. If I were to stay, he might reasonably anticipate substantial support from me.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is not a local man, but they have cars in Orkney and Shetland, I suppose.

I look to the Minister for an old-fashioned common-sense approach—a commodity too often in short supply here in Westminster, I am sorry to say. This is not merely the story of one little driving test centre fighting for its own survival. In Somerset alone, the axe is poised to fall on several centres. The Minister has the demeanour of somebody who thinks that he knows the argument pretty well by now, as he has been wheeled out so many times recently to bat for the defence. As he dons his pads and oils his willow again today, I urge him to pause and put a substantial cricket box down his trousers too. I shall be bowling, I hope, with a sure eye and a lot of speed, but I guarantee no spin. I always leave that to the Government.

If the Minister asked his official driver nicely, I have no doubt that he could be whisked down to the bracing seaside town of Minehead, but he should be warned that it is a grunting pig of a journey once one leaves the motorway. Our so-called A road is, unfortunately, much closer to a Z road. The British economy may be going to pot, but Somerset’s roads have long since gone to potholes. The Australian outback and the dirt tracks of downtrodden Delhi offer safer driving conditions. Bumping and bending one’s way from Taunton or Bridgwater towards Minehead is like riding the wall of death on a unicycle. It is not funny; there have been endless fatal accidents.

On the A358 from Williton to Taunton, there have been an average of three deaths a month over the past five years, as well as 161 other casualties. The Liberal Democrats in county hall are Scrooge-like when it comes to running repairs. Her Majesty’s Government have not held them to account, and have looked the other way when we have asked them to make the council spend more money on the roads. As a result, the main road in question is becoming more like a human abattoir. That is not my phrase; it was coined by one of the many highly experienced driving instructors who dread the closure of the Minehead driving test centre. They know the score—they have counted the carnage among their pupils. I have been arguing the case for 10 years against what seems like a blind Government juggernaut: the Driving Standards Agency—the self-contained quango monster that seeks to do to driving tests what McDonald’s has done to gourmet cooking. If the DSA has any DNA, I can readily detect some of its genetic faults. It loves to move things around and sometimes, I suspect—I am sorry to say this, but it is common in other Departments—it does so just for the sake of the move.

When Minehead’s test centre was first threatened with closure in 1998, the DSA was based in Newcastle upon Tyne—a fine city from which I hail—but today the DSA is in Cardiff, so look out, boyos. Heaven knows what it cost to move that entire bureaucracy. The DSA’s blinkered ethos has not changed at all. It still has a “let’s offer less and call it more” mentality. It wants to cut radically the number of driving test centres throughout the United Kingdom and replace them with brand spanking new ones, but far fewer of them. That is being done partly in the name of efficiency and partly because the Government have agreed to sign up to new European driving standards, which will mean harder written tests and a more taxing time for motorcycle riders, who are far more vulnerable as road users.

I have no problem with making the tests more stringent, but I protest strongly about using the stiff new motorcycle tests as one of the key reasons for shutting my local driving test centre. We do not test motorcyclists in Minehead, and we never have, but of course it must seem so much easier to lump everybody together in one place and pretend that money is being saved. The brave new world of multi-purpose driving centres sounds so mouth-watering.

Here are some of the super, soar-away, sexy details about the DSA’s plans, taken this morning from its website:

“All customers will receive information on important road safety messages via LCD screens fitted in the waiting areas.”

Hurray, just what we always wanted. Here we are wetting ourselves in case we run over the white lines or an old lady, and the DSA wants us to watch grisly road safety films first. The website also says:

“Discussions are taking place around using the new centres to engage the local community in ‘safe driving for life’ initiatives.”

Oh yeah? I have not heard of any such discussions. That sounds like politically correct garbage. I have yet to meet a driving test candidate who ever went back to the driving test centre, except to take the test again. The website continues:

“It is intended that most car test customers will not have to travel more than our current travel distance criteria”.

That is bad grammar. It is also total bunk, because of the appalling state of the roads.

“Most motorcycle test customers should be able to reach their nearest test centre within 45 minutes, travelling no more than 20 miles”.

That is completely irrelevant, as I have said.

According to the website, there will be

“Off-road parking for customers”.

That is not actually a problem in Minehead. We have quite a lot of parking. There will also be posh new loos and showers for the staff. As any Blackpool landlady would say—the Minister and I have suffered it—“Shower, lad? You should have had a shower before you came.” We have all been there. The next one takes the biscuit:

“New furniture and fittings will enhance the customer experience”.

What are they talking about? When I took my driving test, I was far too worried about mucking up the three-point turn to notice the colour-co-ordinated fabric on the chairs in the waiting room, although it is a while ago now. Given the nervous state of most driving test candidates, cheap wipe-down surfaces might make more sense—stand by with the Dettol.

Unfortunately, the situation is serious. It has been 10 ridiculous years in the making, involving an ever-changing list of excuses for closing a perfectly good and popular local test centre. I ask the House to think back to 1998, when the famous song “Things Can Only Get Better” was still ringing in our ears. I am sure that we all remember it, although perhaps not in Crewe and Nantwich. The sight of Peter Mandelson humming along still gives us all the shivers, I suspect, but never mind. In 1998, Cherie Blair had not yet been on an overnight trip to Balmoral, and the Minister had no wrinkles at all, and perhaps even no grey hairs. With your permission, Mr. Benton, I quote the Driving Standards Agency’s excuse of the year 1998 for wanting to shut the Minehead test centre:

“Test routes are not considered representative of modern day driving conditions because they lack dual carriageways and roads with speed limits above 50 mph”.

Ten years later, we still have no dual carriageways, and 50 mph is the average speed between Minehead and Taunton and Bridgwater. That is what the signs say.

We also have incredibly dangerous roads. If we seriously intend to teach people to drive safely on such roads, surely the best and only way is to teach and test in the area itself, but the DSA wants to shut the Minehead centre and move everything to Taunton, to one of the flash new centres with road safety films and cloth seats. How are poor young drivers going to get to the test centre? Down the killer roads, of course, but when they take off for the test centre, they will not have a driving instructor next to them with dual controls in case something goes wrong. If the DSA gets its way, test candidates will be accidents waiting to happen on their way along some of Britain’s most dangerous roads. I am not talking through my hat—that is what the police and the most experienced driving instructors say.

I am afraid that one size does not fit all if one lives in west Somerset, and I would suggest that one size should not be made to fit all when flesh and blood are at stake. The DSA is putting itself at risk of causing people serious harm, or perhaps worse. We need to keep our test centre because—I am going to be crude—we need to keep death off our roads. Driving is not a luxury in my neck of the woods, but an expensive day-to-day necessity. The roads are in a poor state of repair, but it requires infinite patience to take a bus, because the county council has cut bus subsidies as well as being incredibly mean with fresh tarmac. If the test centre is shifted to the county town, the driving instructors will have to go too, and so will their customers. They will have to go to Taunton to take meaningful lessons, but it costs a lot of money to get to Taunton—more money. I am genuinely concerned about the possibility of some young people simply shrugging their shoulders and breaking the law instead. The whole country has a problem with unlicensed driving—that is not news. However, by moving the centre to Taunton we might be encouraging even more lawlessness, which nobody wants.

I am also disturbed by the way in which the DSA has ignored so many good, solid and constructive efforts in Minehead to keep the test centre in place. At one time, it appeared that the test centre would have to find new premises because its landlords—the local council—had other plans for the building. That might have been the DSA’s excuse for saying, “Okay folks, it’s time to go to Taunton,” but instead it paid lip service to the efforts made by the council—I praise councillor Keith Ross and West Somerset district council for trying to sort this out—the driving instructors and many others, including Minehead town council, to find alternative premises. The DSA did not attempt to discourage the search for new sites, but actively encouraged and urged us to look. Thus, it wasted everyone’s time, while pretending that it wanted to listen. With the help of West Somerset district council, no fewer than half a dozen workable sites were found and investigated, but the DSA said no to all of them.

For a whole decade, this blessed body, the DSA, has used a raft of different excuses to shut our test centre. There was the faint possibility of new European regulations, so we had a period of so-called consultation where all the arguments were advanced and the DSA ignored them. It tried to use the new motorbike tests as an excuse, but Minehead does not test motorbikes, and never has, as I said before. Now the DSA is relying on winning friends and influencing people with showers for the staff, and comfy chairs for the candidates. It stinks!

One other rather important point has been roundly ignored. The Minister’s driver is probably sitting at the wheel of his environmentally friendly Toyota right now. We all care about our carbon footprint, more so in the countryside, but this time the DSA has put its oversize carbon boots right in the deep doo-doo. The journey from Minehead to Taunton might look like a quick hop on a map, especially if one is sitting in the DSA’s Cardiff office, but in fact it is a gas-guzzling, stop-start trek from start to finish. I honestly suggest that the Minister tries it. It is dangerous, costly and a carbon nightmare.

I read the Minister’s speech on this subject after the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about the situation in his area. I do not envy the Minister his task of finding something sensible to say about a very unpopular and senseless decision. To many of my constituents, the loss of the Minehead test centre could be a tragedy. It is not necessary; I promise the Minister that it has nothing to do with EU legislation; it could cause accidents; it may lead to lawlessness, and it could be the very opposite of going green. In fact, the only things in its favour are those wretched new comfy chairs. To many of my constituents, the DSA’s initials now stand for: dreadful, senseless and arrogant.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding again this morning, Mr. Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate, on the tone of his remarks and on the way in which he delivered them. I acknowledge that this is a big issue for his constituents.

I begin, however, by advising the Chamber that we have decided to develop a new national network of driving test centres to facilitate new European requirements for practical driving and riding tests. The new European standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties—to reduce the 3,000 plus killed and 30,000 seriously injured each year on our roads. Furthermore, these centres, which are based on an updated design, are fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and also support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda. They are better suited to delivering a modern driving test than much of the current driving test centre estate.

The new centres will have the appropriate facilities to deliver all other types of practical test for learner car, lorry and bus drivers and motorcyclists. The DSA 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, and so far the DSA has acquired 41 sites. As an organisation that relies on test fee income for the provision of its services the DSA needs to ensure that it can deliver a cost-effective service that avoids unnecessary expenditure.

The provision of multi-purpose test centres is expected to cost in the region of £71 million, which will largely be recovered through increased fees paid by driving test candidates. In order to keep those fee increases to the minimum, the DSA must closely examine how it delivers its services, and seek more efficiencies in the way that it conducts its business. That will include reviewing existing driving test centre provision to ensure that, while the service standard is maintained, there is no wasteful over-provision of facilities. Regrettably, that means that some existing facilities have to close. We have concluded that between 40 and 50 MPTCs would be required to meet existing service standard criteria.

To maximise population coverage, however, and to minimise the number of candidates who have to travel further than specified in the travel criteria, we are seeking to develop about 60 MPTCs across the country. Where population density is between 101 and 1,249 people per square kilometre, candidates should not have to travel more than 20 miles to a test centre. In the least densely populated areas where the population is equal to or less than 100 persons per square kilometre, the practical test centre should be located so that most customers travel no more than 30 miles to a driving test centre. The service standard applying to the Minehead area is that most candidates should not have to travel more than 30 miles.

The driving test centre at Minehead is located in the offices of West Somerset district council in Blenheim road, Minehead, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. In February 2008, the DSA was informed that the council would be terminating the lease, ending the tenancy with effect from 1 September 2008. As he rightly said, alternative accommodation has been offered by the district council, which has been considered by the agency, but rejected, because the site does not offer the full range of adequate facilities required of a modern driving test centre.

The DSA has also looked at wider issues around locating a driving test centre in Minehead. In order to provide fair and efficient driving tests, it is essential that each driving test centre is served locally by a number of test routes that provide opportunities for candidates to demonstrate their ability to drive in a variety of road and traffic conditions. Unfortunately, the local driving test routes in Minehead are considered to be substandard. The inadequacy of test routes in the area has helped persuade the DSA that, regrettably, it can no longer justify having a test centre in the town.

In the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, it is anticipated that the majority who currently attend the Minehead driving test centre will have access to alternative facilities at Taunton, which is some 24 miles away. Taunton has capacity to absorb the demand from Minehead without compromising waiting time targets. Minehead does not have any examiners based permanently at the driving test centre, and examiners from the Taunton test centre conduct the tests at Minehead. In 2007-08, Minehead delivered only 956 car tests. As a comparison, in the week commencing 24 March 2008, the following numbers of car tests were delivered from local centres: 18 at Minehead, 89 at Taunton and 117 at Exeter.

I understand the natural desire to practise driving in the area close to the test centre, but we are not persuaded that it is a sound argument when deciding where to locate driving test centres. In the interests of road safety, driving instructors should be teaching pupils to drive and not simply to follow known test routes. I know that that is not the practice of all driving instructors, but there is a minority who make pupils drive the test routes more than they should. The week before last, a consultation document was published on new testing and training regimes on the basis that we need to tackle the 3,000 deaths on our roads every year and the fact that only 20 per cent. of pupils pass the test first time.

Pupils should experience a variety of roads, and different traffic conditions and locations to prepare not only for their test, but their future driving career. Visits to the test centre need only be for pre-test familiarisation. As a multi-purpose test centre is being developed at Taunton, and is planned to open in February 2009, the future of the Minehead driving test centre was already under review. Because of the concerns about test routes and the need to ensure that the DSA delivers a cost-effective service, the likelihood is that the test centre would have had to close in any case. In that situation, the actions of West Somerset district council have simply accelerated the process.

It should also be noted that only car driving tests are delivered from the Minehead driving test centre. Motorcycle, lorry and bus driving test candidates from Minehead currently have to travel to Taunton or Exeter, which is 47 miles away. The hon. Gentleman is as aware as I am of the difficulty in rural areas of striking the right balance between the provision of a satisfactory level of public service and the costs that that service incurs.

In closing the Minehead driving test centre, I believe that the DSA has struck the best balance available. The hon. Gentleman has raised his concerns about learner drivers travelling from Minehead to Taunton on the busy A358 causing delays or accidents. As the DSA advocates safe driving for life, we would expect roads of that standard to be included by an instructor during the latter part of a candidate’s training regime. It is preferable that experience of that road is gained while candidates are accompanied by an experienced instructor rather than as an unaccompanied novice driver. Familiarity with a local road can only lessen the risk of them being the cause of an accident in the future.

The Minister is unaware of how dangerous those roads are. Let me give him a steer on the problem. The county council wanted to impose speed limits on the road. The police were so concerned that they refused to enforce the speed limit, against the county. It is such a bad road. We have the highest level of elderly people in the county and their driving is quite slow. Added to that, the country’s biggest Butlins is based in Minehead, which means that people overtake all the way along the road. As the Minister said, young learner drivers will have an instructor to go down to Taunton, but most of the time, they will be with a parent, a brother or a sister. I cannot stress enough how dangerous the roads are. The police cannot enforce the speed limits.

I take entirely to heart the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Although death rates on our roads have been reducing in line with the Government’s road safety strategy, death rates on rural roads have stubbornly not come down at the same rate. We have just given an extra £8 million to four rural county authorities that are beacon authorities in road safety. I will send the details to the hon. Gentleman after the debate. Those authorities have been successful in reducing their rates and we want to know what they are doing, and how they can spend the money to demonstrate even greater progress so that we can roll out their examples to other rural and county authorities to try to encourage improvements in performance. Varying the speed on certain roads is an engineering solution and is one way in which the police, county councils and road safety authorities should be able to deal with roads that are regarded as more dangerous than others.

I fully accept the points that the hon. Gentleman made about young drivers. They are why we are changing the driver training and testing programme. Too many young drivers, who are in the first six or 12 months of their driving careers, are disproportionately counted among the fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. They are not being trained to an adequate standard for a whole number of different reasons. People think that they pass a test because of luck rather than judgment. They are not being adequately prepared to deal with the risks on our roads, particularly on our rural roads. I do not underestimate the seriousness and the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman raises the question about the road between Minehead and Taunton. If there is anything that we can do to help, we would be very happy to do so.

I regret that my response is not what the hon. Gentleman wanted to hear, but I hope that it has explained the background and the policy decision behind the issues, and I will send him the information that I promised him later this week.

Sitting suspended.