Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]
I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the Driving Standard Agency’s proposed closure of Southend driving test centre, to which 3,000 people have objected in the petition that I presented to the House a few moments ago. It is a serious subject for all people in Southend who are considering taking their test or have children who are likely to want to take their test in the Southend area.
The proposed closure of a driving test centre is not a new topic in this House. On 21 May, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) held a Westminster Hall debate about the proposed closure of a test centre in his constituency, and on 13 May my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) joined a debate on the closure of a test centre in his area. Those changes relate to an European Union directive coming into effect in September, which will change the content of motorcycle tests across the EU by introducing certain manoeuvres that require off-road testing facilities. I do not intend to dwell on the merits of that, but it is a matter of fact that that has happened. Southend driving test centre is situated on Prittlewell chase, deep within the heart of Southend, and has no space for such a facility. The Driving Standards Agency has therefore proposed that all bike and car test operations be moved to a new so-called multi-purpose test centre in Basildon, some 14 miles away from Southend. That does not sound like a long distance, but in fact it can be a 45-minute to one-hour trip.
My feeling and that of several colleagues is that one size does not fit all, and that the Government are imposing a solution on Southend that does not fit. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and I have been campaigning against such a move. My hon. Friend has raised this on the Floor of the House and in written questions to the Minister, and I am most grateful for that. My close parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) has also raised it in his constituency and in a number of other ways. Although the test centre is situated in the constituency of Rochford and Southend, East, which I have the pleasure to represent, it is very close to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West; in fact, if it were another 100 yd further up the road, it would be in his constituency. Given the additional time that has been created for this important debate, I hope that both of my hon. Friends will be able to catch your eye later on in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would like to concentrate on why I am against the closure of the Southend driving test centre, and my primary reason is population. I ask the Minister to address those concerns, which I have not seen addressed in depth in other debates. I will also mention issues associated with time, finance and the environmental impact of the proposed move. The Driving Standards Agency’s code of practice states that in towns where the population density is greater than 1,250 people per sq km, learner drivers should have to travel no further than seven miles to a test centre. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West solicited that information in a detailed answer to a parliamentary question of Thursday 22 May. Southend is the largest town in Essex. According to the Office for National Statistics’ 2006 mid-year population estimate, its population was recorded as 3,829 people per sq km, and the Minister, from previous discussions in previous roles, will know that my hon. Friends and I regard that as a major underestimate.
That population is already more than three times the recommended level discovered by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West in the answer to his parliamentary question. The Driving Standards Agency would be breaking its code of practice by having a test centre serve a population density three times higher than the recommended level and at double the recommended distance that learners should travel. It is a totally unsatisfactory situation. What is the point of having such guidelines if someone in the Department—I am unsure whom—is going to overrule them flagrantly?
The current test centre is ideally located in Southend. The moderately sized road that the centre is on has five secondary schools, four of which have sixth forms, meaning that up to 1,000 students in any one year may want to take their test there. The proposed move will be a major inconvenience for them. The university of Essex is developing its new campus in Southend, so another 9,000—maybe more—people of typical learner driver age will be based just around the corner.
Population density is my key objection to the proposal, but I am also concerned about the distance to the new test centre and the time it will take drivers to get there. They will be travelling not only for their test but, on other occasions, to acquaint themselves with the test centre area. If they do not do that, I suggest to the Minister that they will be at a fundamental disadvantage. I was in that position as a 17-year-old, having to travel between 45 minutes and an hour, and I had to make that journey four or five times to acquaint myself with the test area. That certainly did put me at a disadvantage and I am concerned that young students taking their test in Southend will be at a disadvantage because they do not know the roads and the area around the test centre in Basildon. Indeed, there is no reason why they should be familiar with that area.
The two roads connecting Basildon to Southend are the A127 and A13, which are normally heavily congested. The journey could take up to an hour, and in summer it can be an awful lot worse. There are many tourist facilities in Southend; many people go there for a day trip and the roads become heavily congested. I am particularly concerned for constituents from the Shoeburyness area or, just outside the boundaries of Southend, those in the Rochford district, who already have to travel a number of miles to get to the current test centre. The journey will be even further than 14 miles for them.
The extra distance will come at a price. People offering driving tests and practice in the new test centre area will not do so for free. It will take extra time to get there. Costs are already very high for aspirant learner drivers and rising fuel prices and fuel tax are making a significant financial impact. The proposed closure is a further blow to young people who want to be socially mobile, and who want to get to employment and education opportunities. The whole process will be more and more expensive. One company that I have spoken to has already had to increase its rate for a two-hour lesson from £38 to £45, and I am sure that the cost will increase further. Equally, a number of people from Southend will decide that they want to receive all their instruction in Basildon. I can see sensible reasons for doing that, but I am concerned about the loss of employment for driving instructors in the Southend area or the costs of having to relocate nearer to the driving test centre.
Let me deal with a separate issue, which has been touched on in other debates, but which I should like to expand on in more detail: protecting the environment and our carbon footprint. It is important—the Government recognise this—to decrease vehicle emissions, yet the proposal will put cars on the road for longer, polluting further the Southend-to-Basildon area, which is already subject to considerable pollution along the main roads. At a time when the Government are trying to demonstrate their green credentials and sound like they are doing lots, the proposal seems to go in the opposite direction.
Will the Minister say whether an environmental impact assessment of the change has been conducted that considered more than the additional mileage? In terms of both the environment and time spent travelling, 14 miles is not a long way, but if a driver spends most of the way sitting in a traffic jam, pumping out more fumes, there is a much greater impact. I have seen no evidence that the issue has been considered to date, so I would be reassured if the Minister provided that information.
The proposals have met strong objection from local instructors and residents. As someone who does not solicit a large number of petitions, I can confirm that it is quite rare to receive a petition from constituents with more than 3,000 names. That shows quite strong opposition from local residents. I was first alerted to the issue last November and have since met a number of driving instructors, including the very good John Ashton, who represents the Southend and District Driving Instructors Association. John spoke to me not as an individual, but as a representative of the entire association—some driving instructors did not want to be named and were concerned not to be disadvantaged by the test centre management by coming out against the proposal. John emphasised that he was speaking on behalf of all the driving instructors in the association—I believe that means all the driving instructors—and nobody supported the Government’s proposal.
In the very full parliamentary answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West received, the Minister noted that he had received 317 letters of objection. I found that difficult to comprehend, when compared with the petition of 3,000 people that was presented to me for onward presentation to the House. An awful lot of my constituents—and, I suspect, those of other hon. Members—have written directly to the Driving Standards Agency, not to the Minister. I wish that they had bombarded the Minister with letters early on. I know that that would have meant extra work for the Minister and his private office, but they would perhaps have been alerted to the severity of the issue and the strength of public feeling, because I suspect that 317 letters to a Minister’s private office is not an enormous number. If the Minister could indicate how much correspondence the Driving Standards Agency has received and what the overall level of objection to the proposals has been, that might put this debate in its proper context.
Let me turn to a potential resolution. I do not want to tell the Minister, “Leave it as is—we don’t want to do anything; I don’t want any change.” Rightly or wrongly, there is EU legislation and we have to comply with it. I was disappointed that the Driving Standards Agency had not consulted Southend borough council. I have spoken to the chief executive, Rob Tinlin, who was keen to engage with the Driving Standards Agency and use alternatives—either a multi-purpose test centre in Southend or, given the advantages of the existing site for cars, separating the two centres. One does not go to a test centre and say, “Can I take my car and motorcycle test at the same time?” Although they are both modes of transport, the tests do not necessarily have to be located in the same place.
The chief executive is willing to consider a number of sites. On my way in, I was explaining the issue to the Doorkeeper, who suggested Southend pier, which is the longest pier in the world at 1.33 miles. It has seen motorcycle activity in the past, with the wheel of death, but I do not think that it is a particularly good option. However, there are several options in the Southend area, and the local council is happy to sit down with the Minister, his Department and the DSA—whoever it takes—to find a more equitable solution that will work for local people and the Department.
I should like the Minister to respond to the points raised in the debate and, ultimately, for us all to sit down with the DSA to establish what can be done for the benefit of the people of Rayleigh, Rochford and Southend to keep a decent driving test centre in the area that can be reached easily by our constituents and future constituents who, quite rightly, want to pass their driving test in their own area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this Adjournment debate. All that needs to be said has been said, but in spite of that, I want the Minister to hear directly from me—another voice. In speaking, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), and it also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) here.
The Minister and I are united in our support of West Ham. On that basis alone, I ask him to tear up the brief given to him by his hard-working officials, which will tell him, “No, Minister; no, Minister; no Minister!” I want this Minister to say yes. He has been very courteous in responding to the points that I raised in April, when he gave me a full answer, but the proposal is totally unsatisfactory. As someone who has been privileged to represent the real Basildon constituency for 14 years, and now Southend, West, I am in a prime position to share with the Minister the ramifications of this proposal. I ask him to stand up not only for Britain, but for Southend, regarding this European Union directive. I have never heard of anything so crazy. Because of motorcycles, all our motorists are going to suffer.
In Scarborough, motorists can still take their tests there, but motorcyclists will have to travel 40 miles to Hull or Darlington rather than take their tests in Scarborough. So, there is every reason why motor testing should be in a separate place to motorcycle testing.
My hon. Friend has got to the heart of the matter, which saves me from enlarging on that point, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.
We should stand up to this ridiculous directive. I have nothing against motorcyclists, but why should motorists in Southend suffer as a result of the directive?
So far, four of my five children have passed their driving tests, and their father has, for better or worse, been involved in assisting them with their driving. Because I know Basildon so well, I have driven there with them. Given that we lived in the town for so long, we know the roads there extremely well, and I tell the Minister that there is no comparison between road conditions in Basildon and those in Southend. Basildon, which was the first and biggest new town in the country, was not built in the expectation that people would have the number of motor cars that they now have—often up to three. The roads are very narrow and conditions there are entirely different.
It is wrong that the young people in the area that my hon. Friends and I represent, who will be learning to drive in Southend and primarily on those local roads, given that driving lessons are so expensive now, will then have to take their tests in Basildon. The Minister will probably think that that is a silly argument, and that people should surely be capable of driving anywhere, but the people from Basildon taking their test there will be very familiar with the local driving conditions, while the young people from Southend will not. Those young people will undoubtedly be placed at a huge disadvantage. Through driving with my children, I have experienced the practical side of these matters at first hand.
In his courteous letter to me, the Minister drew my attention to the guidelines, but I want to hear how he could possibly justify this decision. The DSA is clearly in violation of the code of practice on written consultations, which states:
“In more densely populated areas of the country where the population is equal to or greater than 1,250 persons per square kilometre, the practical test centres should be located so that most customers travel no more than 7 miles to a DTC.”
Under the proposals, they would have to travel double that distance: 14 miles. That is simply unacceptable. I get fed up with these consultation processes. We have had a consultation, and no one agreed with the proposals, yet they were ignored. That is not democracy; it is simply a diktat. We should not insult the general public by saying that we are holding a consultation, if we are simply going to listen to what they say and then completely ignore them.
The criteria that I have just mentioned were set out in the Minister’s response to my question of 22 May. Southend’s population density easily exceeds the criteria: we have 3,829 people per sq km. In a letter from the Minister, he says that the proposed Basildon site
“is 10 miles from the existing centre at Southend-on-Sea”.
I dispute that; I say that it is 14 miles away. In any case, the Minister admits that the seven-mile limit has been exceeded. The DSA now wishes to violate its own guidelines and relocate to this multi-centre, which is totally unacceptable. This disaster for the residents of our constituencies is being brought about simply to comply with the directive, and it is totally wrong that the motorists are being placed in an inferior position to the motorcyclists because of that.
The Minister and I love history. The driving test centre in Southend has been there for 60 years. It is not a fly-by-night set-up; all the infrastructure is in place. We have several long-established driving schools there, and they are all used to the test centre and greatly appreciate the facility being there. The opening of the Southend campus of the university of Essex will attract numerous extra students who want to learn to drive. It is not always the case that, as soon as someone is of age, they get a provisional licence and start driving, but the Minister should bear in mind that we are going for a huge expansion of higher education in Southend, and that that will bring in even more business.
The move to Basildon will mean added costs, and emissions will increase. There will be additional wear and tear on the instructors’ tuition vehicles. It will also place a burden on a route that already suffers from congestion. My hon. Friends have already mentioned the extra traffic that would have to travel along the A127, which is clearly finding it difficult to cope at the moment. The stand taken by all interested groups could not have been clearer.
Southend and District Driving Instructors Association has been resolutely opposed to the plan from the beginning. It has held rallies and written letters of objection. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East said, its petition attracted more than 3,000 signatures. Those signatures are not from Disraeli—
It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]
As my hon. Friend said, the 3,000 signatures are not from Disraeli or Queen Victoria; they are the genuine signatures of people who will be badly affected by this proposal.
The position of the local community has been clear throughout the 12 weeks of the consultation process and it is no exaggeration to say that the DSA has been bombarded with objections. It refused requests from the association even to extend the consultation period. In this time of climate change and concerns surrounding energy consumption, the extra journeys and the carbon output are in complete contrast with the Government’s sustainability agenda, which my hon. Friends and I support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East has already mentioned the important issue of road safety and it is unfair on the residents of Southend suddenly to introduce them to new conditions with which they are unfamiliar. Southend council has done an excellent job in flagging up the concerns of local residents, although I regret to say that the feedback received during the consultation period was perhaps not as robust as might have been hoped. There has been some collation of figures and a submission has been made to the Minister to consider the approval of the agency proposal, taking into account the views expressed, but I must ask again, what has been the point of going out to consultation?
I end with these thoughts for the Minister. The Southend centre is an excellent resource for local people and its closure would genuinely cause severe difficulty for all our constituents. Given that the driving test is not all that easy to pass in any case, this proposal puts a further hurdle in front of them. The move to keep the driving test centre in Southend is supported by the Conservatives, the Labour party, the Liberals and the independents.
I hope that the Minister will ignore his brief and give me and my hon. Friends hope this evening that, given what my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, he will carefully consider what has happened in other areas: the motorcyclists have been given an opportunity to do their bit, as has been suggested, but the motorists remain at the existing centre.
I say finally to the Minister that this is not a speech against Basildon. When I was the Member of Parliament for that area, I saved the accident and emergency unit, stopped the relocation of maternity services, stopped school closures and intervened over the railway line and services there, so I would be the last person to turn this into a Basildon versus Southend issue. It is not that at all. I want the best for Basildon, but above all I want the very best for motorists in Southend, which means keeping the test centre where it is.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this important Adjournment debate and, if I may say so, on introducing it so ably. I also congratulate him on presenting a petition bearing the signatures of 3,000 people protesting very clearly against what the Government propose. I have been in the House for longer than my hon. Friend, but I believe that the largest number of names on any petition that I have ever presented was about 1,300. I imagine that 3,000 is a considerable number. I hope the Minister will take account of the strength of local feeling, which I shall now attempt to echo on behalf of my constituents.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on his apposite contribution. He is in a unique position in that, as he said, he has represented both Basildon and his present constituency. As the proposal is to move the test centre from Southend to Basildon, he could be said to have addressed the issue from both ends. He knows both areas very well, and I hope that the Minister will give weight to what he has said as well.
It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) in his place. I know that he takes an interest in these matters, and he gave a pertinent example from his constituency tonight.
I too have constituents who may be affected by the move. Some are potential students, while others are instructors working from the existing test centre who have written to me urging me to raise the issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so on their behalf.
Let me ask the Minister a few specific questions. The first concerns the European Union directive that lies at the heart of the change. Was it passed on the basis of unanimity, or by qualified majority voting? I think we should have that on the record. It is often argued that Europe has no real impact on our day-to-day lives, but this is a perfect example of its having such an impact. A directive—in effect, a European law—was passed, and some time later we have seen a change “on the ground”. I consider it important for the House to know the background to that change, the method by which the directive was passed, and the Government’s position on it.
There is also an environmental point to be made. If the Minister is at all familiar with the roads that link Basildon and Southend, the A127 and the A13, he will know that they can become very busy. When the traffic is light, it is possible to travel at a reasonable pace between the two towns, but when it is at all heavy, it can take a long time to get out of Southend and then down to Basildon. If the standard driving lesson lasts an hour, it is likely that, for a fair part of the day, by the time a student has worked his way out of Southend, perhaps been picked up by the instructor at home, got on to one of the two main roads and reached Basildon, the bulk of that hour will have gone. A lesson lasting at least two hours will be necessary to familiarise the student with the roads around the test centre. That will add to the costs incurred by the student, and the costs that instructors will have to charge.
That last point is particularly pertinent. The service provided by instructors for their students will become more expensive. As I think the Minister will agree—without our getting involved in a debate about global oil prices—we all know that instructors’ costs are rising because the cost of petrol has increased considerably. That imposes additional pressure on the instructors, who must raise their fees to cover the cost of the petrol. Now they will sometimes have to make their lessons longer, and more expensive, in order to convey their students to the area where they will practise on the test route. That is a practical, down-to-earth point, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East said, the Essex university campus in Southend has been something of a local success story. As a result, thousands of people who are at the prime age for learning to drive are moving to the area. The Government therefore find themselves in the rather odd position of seeing a large number of potential driving students moving to Southend while they are proposing to move the test centre to Basildon. My hon. Friend’s point bears repetition and I ask the Minister to take it on board.
It is not appropriate to make this a partisan debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West pointed out that all the local parties in the Southend area are opposed to the move so I am not trying to politicise the debate. However, there is a wider issue about the degree to which the Government are getting their message across in the south of England. This could provide the Government with an opportunity to claim that they really are listening to opinion in the south and are taking on points that were put to them. I will be no more partisan than that but the Minister, an old hand in this place, will follow my point. I dangle that not entirely partisan inducement before him and I hope he will listen to it.
At the risk of making an emergency stop, I will halt there. We have a bit of extra time this evening and it is appropriate that we give that time to the Minister so that he has the maximum time to reply. I conclude by saying that this is an important issue locally. A lot of people have taken it seriously and a petition of 3,000 names should not be ignored lightly. I hope that he will take all that into account when he replies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate on this important issue and on providing a platform for his hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who is his party’s Front-Bench spokesman and appearing under a different guise; quite an accomplishment at the end of a long parliamentary day.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East stated that the Driving Standards Agency proposal for the future of certain driving test centres had already been raised in the House. In those previous debates, the recent and proposed changes to the delivery of driving tests were set out and, for reasons of brevity, I will not cover all that ground again; clearly it is not necessary.
Developing a new national network of driving test centres has been agreed by Ministers not only to facilitate the new European requirements for practical driving and riding tests, but because the new requirements set higher standards intended to provide driving tests that are more relevant to modern driving conditions. We published our “Safe driving for life” consultation document only four weeks ago. The document raises the question of the abject failure rates for first-time driving test candidates and the fact that we are killing so many people on the roads, particularly young people and motorcyclists.
These new European standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties, which are running at more than 3,000 people killed and 30,000 people seriously injured each year. I regret that I am not in a position to answer the question of the hon. Member for Rayleigh on the voting protocol that passed this directive, but I undertake to research the matter and to write to him and his hon. Friends with the answer.
As hon. Members know, the new centres are based on updated features that will provide modern facilities for local people. The proposed developments have been designed to create attractive buildings that will fit comfortably into the local environment. They are fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and also support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda.
The new centres, known as multi-purpose test centres or MPTCs, will be suitable for the delivery of practical driving tests for learner car drivers and motorcyclists. Where possible, some will also be used for the delivery of lorry and bus driving tests. The DSA has concluded that between 40 and 50 MPTCs would be required to meet existing service standard criteria. However, to maximise population coverage and minimise the number of candidates who have to travel long distances, it is seeking to develop around 60 MPTCs across the country. The DSA owns or leases more than 400 practical driving test centres—the type described by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. Only in a few exceptions have any of these proved suitable for the development of a full MPTC, so a programme of land acquisition and construction was initiated in 2005.
I must admit that, on reading the background before the debate, I was confused about why this was being proposed. To me, it seems completely illogical. Is this a cost-cutting exercise? There are 400 sites—is the Minister just trying to realise some cash?
The answer to that is no. However, the DSA is a cost-neutral organisation, so the money that has to be raised will have to be paid for by test fees and transferred to members of the public. Therefore, this is an exercise in managing the cost of these new centres.
Let me deal with that issue now. To date, the DSA has acquired 41 sites. The provision of a national network of MPTCs is expected to cost about £71 million. That cost will largely be recovered through increased fees paid by driving test candidates. As an organisation that relies on test fee income for the provision of its services, the DSA needs to ensure that they are delivered cost-effectively and that avoid unnecessary expenditure. The agency therefore closely examines how it delivers its services and seeks greater efficiencies in the way it conducts its business. This includes reviewing existing driving test centre provision to ensure that, while the service standard is maintained, there is no wasteful over-provision of service.
As I have already mentioned, the DSA has certain service standards that need to be met where possible. In more densely populated areas of the country—all the hon. Gentlemen present have mentioned this issue—where the population density is equal to or greater than 1,250 persons per sq km, most candidates should not have to travel more than seven miles to a driving test centre. I have heard the comments of the hon. Gentlemen on this question, and I will ensure that the statistics they quoted are fully taken into account as part of the consultation exercise.
The existing driving test centre at Southend is located in the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions. This is a 1960s building that does not offer the modern facilities that we try to provide for customers and staff wherever possible. There are also concerns that, if the planned redevelopment in the immediate vicinity compromised its suitability as a test centre, the DSA would need to consider relocation for that reason, irrespective of developments in Basildon.
The DSA has considered how best to meet the needs of driving test candidates in the Southend area. It is proposing to move driver testing in the area to a new MPTC facility at Basildon, some 10 miles away, as has been outlined. The Basildon facility would have the capacity to absorb the demand from Southend without compromising waiting time targets, if acceptable. The relocation of the Southend facility to the Basildon MPTC would ensure maximum utilisation of it and improve the facilities available to candidates and staff in the Basildon, Southend-on-Sea and surrounding areas.
As the distance to the alternative facility exceeds the travel distance criterion applicable to the Southend area, the DSA has undertaken a 12-week public consultation, seeking the views of its customers and other interested parties. The consultation period ended on 9 May and the DSA is considering the responses received. I point out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East that a final decision has not yet been taken. I know that the chief executive, Rosemary Thew, is aware of this debate and will ensure that the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, including the environmental impact and the question of consultation with the local authority, are all taken into account.
I have listened to the arguments about the risks from the A13 and A127.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and I might have misheard the Minister, but we thought that he referred to planned development either side of the existing centre. This is news to us. I do not understand where he has got that from.
I have been referring to the information that I have in my brief. I know that the hon. Gentleman was very keen to encourage me to tear up my brief, and I can assure him that I am not going there. In all honesty, I do not have to, because my brief says that, although the consultation ended on 9 May, the process has not concluded and this debate will form part of the chief executive’s consideration. I shall supply details of what is included in my brief in respect of the extant facilities.
Perhaps I could help the Minister by describing the area. There is no chance of any development, because there is a hospital next door, and the area contains a river that will not be built over and a school playing field. I believe that the Government have legislated against building on that. The point that he made might well pertain to other test centres, but it does not pertain to this one, unless he knows something that we do not—although he has said that he has no extra information.
I am sorry that I am not in a position to give additional information now, but I shall certainly supply that, so that the hon. Gentleman can scrutinise that which I have been given in my brief to explain the background to this issue.
Arguments have been made about the risks of the A13 and A127, and questions have been asked about whether people would be at a disadvantage and whether people are suitably prepared because of the different environments. I am not readily persuaded that that is necessarily relevant to the matter under consideration. The DSA and the Department advocate “Safe driving for life”, and I would expect driving on such roads to be included in the latter part of a candidate’s training regime in any case. It has to be preferable that experience is gained on such roads when the candidates are accompanied by an experienced instructor, rather than when they are unaccompanied novices and possibly driving immediately after they have passed their test.
We also do not support the view that learner drivers need regularly to practise driving in the area close to the test centre. That is not a sound argument for deciding where to locate local driving test centres. Experience should be gained on a variety of roads, and in a variety of traffic conditions and locations to prepare pupils for not only their test but their future driving career. Visits to the test centre need only be, and should only be, for pre-test familiarisation.
I am not for one second suggesting that instructors in the Southend area are taking candidates around the test course only to familiarise them with it. I am sure that people with integrity are delivering the training in the Southend area. However, in certain parts, we suspect that what I have described is exactly what is happening—people are taught how to pass the test and they are not taught how to drive. One of the big issues that we have raised in the training-for-life approach is our seeking to change the module. Instead of the candidate demonstrating that they are able mechanically to handle a vehicle, we are saying that they should show us that they can drive the car. So, the examiner will not get into the car with the candidate and say, “Go to the end of the road and turn left, and then go to the end and take the first right.” Rather, they will get into the car and ask to be taken to the local railway station, the local hospital or the local football ground, whichever involves a well-signposted route along which the candidate would be expected to demonstrate the skills of driving, rather than the training. That is the kind of issue that is being consulted upon at the moment.
In the interests of road safety, driving instructors should be teaching their pupils to drive safely and confidently, not simply to follow known test routes. I would point out that the DSA’s database confirms that some customers from the Southend area choose to take their driving tests at the Brentwood, Tilbury and Chelmsford test centres, and that the Southend test centre attracts customers from the Basildon area. Therefore, many driving test candidates already use the major roads in the area.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the difficulty of striking the right balance between the provision of a satisfactory level of public service and the cost that service incurs. I did say to him that this is not a cost-cutting exercise, but I have explained the background to the costs involved.
I am not opposed in principle to candidates getting some experience of driving on arterial roads, but I do not think that the Minister has addressed the issue of the transit time involved in getting from Southend to Basildon under these proposed new arrangements. He has also not dealt with how that would, in practice, be likely to extend the lessons considerably, and how it would therefore extend the costs to students and increase what the instructors would have to charge. Will he attempt to address those matters, because they are important?
I just wish to ask the Minister to return to the issue of cost. He has asserted that this is not a cost-cutting exercise, but if the number of sites is reduced from 400 to 60, 340 sites will be freed up. The Southend site is one of the smallest sites, but it would be worth several million pounds. If the average site is worth £1 million, that is £340 million. The phrase “cost-cutting” is emotive, but I am sure that those involved would wish us to put it to the Minister that cost is a principal driver behind this, rather than the wish to provide good service to the customer. If this was a private sector organisation, it might take a slightly different view.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not a cost-cutting exercise. We will not close all the test centres, only some, because of the requirement to improve facilities. A mix of arrangements is in place across the country. Some sites are leased; others are not. There is a requirement for additional land for off-road testing for motorcycles, and the £71 million I mentioned earlier is a cost that the DSA has to match. We are not, therefore, talking about a cost-cutting exercise.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh made the point about the cost of additional lessons and travelling for the test. In our consultation document on driver training and testing, we have mentioned that this will be a cost-neutral exercise, on the basis that it costs some £1,500 to pass a test. A small minority of people pass their test first time. If we train drivers to a better standard, perhaps through some additional lessons, they will not have to have a second test or a second series of lessons. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and the insurance companies are very interested in drivers being passed to a higher standard, because if novice drivers have fewer crashes—a disproportionate number of crashes involve young drivers and some are killed because many of them think that they are invulnerable—the insurance companies will not have to charge the astronomic premiums that they charge young drivers in their first year. That will come if we can demonstrate that we are training people to a higher standard, that they are safer drivers who have fewer crashes and that they can be trusted. Employers would also be able to take young people on with greater confidence and would not have to undertake in-house training, which many companies do at present because they do not trust the driver-training regime. Given the failure figures and the 3,000 deaths, we all want to see safer drivers.
I cannot assure hon. Members that Southend will stay open, but I can say that the points that they have raised will be communicated to the DSA. Senior management will read Hansard and may be watching at the moment, because they know that the debate is taking place. They will be able to observe the strength of feeling and they will also be aware of the 3,000 signature petition presented tonight. They are aware of the correspondence, because they have told me about the hundreds of letters that they have received. They are aware that the consultation exercise is necessary because they are outwith their own guidelines on density, and they know that they have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of an objective observer that it has been done properly.
I cannot give the hon. Members the answer that they want, but I can give them the assurance that this is an objective exercise and will be done properly. I will get back to them in due course on the issues on which I said I would give further answers.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o’clock.