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Learner Drivers

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

8. What progress she has made on her plans to introduce a foundation course on safe road use for people planning to learn to drive; and if she will make a statement. (216862)

The Driving Standards Agency is working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and other interested parties to design a course that young people and potential employers will value. Our plans are for the qualification to be available in Scotland from this autumn, and then become available in the rest of Great Britain.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that the overall casualty rates for young people have not changed since the mid-1990s? In contrast, overall, serious accidents and deaths have fallen by over 30 per cent. How does he think the initiative that we are discussing would reduce the casualty figures?

The whole House will welcome the data published two weeks ago by the Department showing that road deaths in the UK fell below 3,000 for the first time since 1926, when records were first kept. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that incidents in which young drivers are killed or suffer serious injury are not falling at the same rate. The learn-to-drive consultation that the Department is running to try to improve the standards of skill for our young drivers is very much part of the drive to make sure that those figures keep moving downwards, and we are confident that the qualification will help in that regard.

How much time will it take for motorcyclists to travel from the Isle of Wight to places where they are tested, and might they not, as an alternative, drive indefinitely on L-plates?

The multi-purpose test centres have been designed, first, to comply with the European directive on testing motorcyclists and, secondly, to comply with our safety ambition to cut the numbers of motorcyclists who die on our roads. In 2006, there were 599 such deaths; in 2007, there were 588. They are the biggest single category of deaths on the road, and many motorcyclists are victims of other road users. We are trying to make sure that the MPTCs are as close as possible to where people live, and targets have been set. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and he knows, too, that we are engaged in that examination.

While I applaud what my hon. Friend said about reducing deaths on the roads, there have unfortunately been several deaths on the A23 in Sussex in the past year. Can he fit what he said about safety on the roads with the closure of both test centres in Brighton and Hove, so that learner drivers must travel to Burgess Hill, not just to take their test, but possibly to familiarise themselves with the roads? The most direct route to that test centre is on the dual carriageway on the unfortunate A23.

My hon. Friend raises the question of the journey to the test centre for people who want to take their driving test. Some ADIs—approved driving instructors—spend a lot of time with their trainees on the test course, but we are trying to say that that is not what they ought to be doing. Rather than teaching people how to pass the test, they are supposed to teach them how to drive. Some people will have to travel longer distances, but for the majority, the centre will still be within 45 minutes of their home. We are trying to improve the centres, which will be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and will be better for staff and examiners. We want to achieve the objective of cutting the number of people killed and injured, which is why we are revising the whole exam course.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that some of the safest drivers are older drivers. Will he give the House a commitment that his consultation on fitness to drive will not discriminate against older drivers?

Obviously, demographics are important: we are living to an older age, and we have an ageing population. There is a question mark over people living to a very old age and their ability to drive. We have an arrangement whereby, once someone reaches the age of 70, they have to re-qualify, and there is a three-yearly recertification process. We will consult on that, and on health aspects in due course. At this point, however, we have no plans to change the existing arrangement.

Six times as many young men under 21 as young women are killed on our roads when driving. Young men are the problem, so what are we doing to address that issue?

My hon. Friend makes the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood). Newly qualified drivers, particularly young men, feature disproportionately among those who are killed and seriously injured. The new qualification that we will take into schools and youth clubs will address the culture of being a passenger as well as the prospect of being a driver. It will deal with how someone should act towards other users in a courteous manner, as well as how to deal with peer pressure, because their girlfriend or boyfriend is in the car, or their mates are in the back trying to gee them up. That is very much a matter of trying to make people more mature in their approach to driving, and the qualification about which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr asked is very much part of preparing people for driving. In addition, by fundamentally reviewing the exam, we will test whether people are able to drive, not just manoeuvre a vehicle.

Protecting learner drivers from sexual offenders must be an important consideration for the Department, but two years ago I alerted it to the loophole in the law that prevents the suspension of recently convicted sexual offenders from the approved driving instructors register. That meant that sexual offenders who were driving instructors would be allowed to continue for a further 45 days after conviction, and I was told by the Minister at the time that that serious loophole would be closed. Why has nothing been done during that period? Why are women now at risk throughout the country? The Government have failed to act to close the loophole.

Order. Perhaps in future, the hon. Gentleman should be briefer, and he was a bit wide of the question.

Prospective approved driving instructors must provide enhanced-level criminal record checks. Existing ADIs must undergo such checks when re-registering every four years, and the position of driving instructor has the status of a notifiable occupation, so the Driving Standards Agency is informed of convictions. The DSA is seeking a suitable Bill to allow for the suspension of ADIs. The hon. Gentleman has quite correctly drawn attention to the matter and it has been under review. There have been changes, but clearly further matters must be pursued.