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Motorcycle Testing (Wales)

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue, and it is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope.

It is customary to describe Westminster Hall debates as timely, but this debate is particularly timely, as from next Monday, motorcyclists who want to earn their licence will be subject to a new two-module test. The new test stems from the European Union’s second driving licence directive, which introduced a requirement to test emergency stops at 50 kph, or somewhere between 31 and 32 mph. I should say at the outset that it is disappointing that the Government did not seek a derogation allowing the emergency stops to be tested on roads, as they were previously. I hope that those in Europe with responsibility for the decision would look favourably on a measure that would suit us better and that, after all, involves a difference of little more than 1 mph, although perhaps the Minister can tell us differently. However, I will not dwell further on the decision in Europe. We are where we are, awaiting Monday’s looming farce.

We face more immediate concerns, although it is worth pointing out where failures have occurred. I hope that this debate will reinforce the view that the Department for Transport and the Driving Standards Agency have an important duty to ensure that people can access the test. The practicalities of the new modular test have led to the Government’s creation of a series of new facilities, to be known as multi-purpose test centres, to provide for the test. The original intention was to have 90 sites across the United Kingdom. Some 66 were planned, but when the test comes into effect on Monday, only 44 centres will be operational.

In October, when the new testing regime began, 39 testing centres were ready for action. The new testing regime was then delayed for six months, owing to the lack of facilities. Only five more centres are in place now than were then, so I do not understand why, if a delay was appropriate in October, it is not appropriate now. There has been no significant increase in the number of facilities open. I encourage the Minister—perhaps rather optimistically, at this late stage—to think again.

I should place on record the DSA’s much appreciated strenuous efforts to locate additional sites. However, even if the 66 sites were up and running for next week, serious concerns remain about the new test’s implications for some in rural areas. The map of the United Kingdom highlighting the location of the centres makes for gloomy reading. There are huge voids across mid and west Wales, parts of Scotland and the west country. However, as I am flanked by my colleagues from mid and west Wales, the Minister will appreciate that Wales is the issue of the day.

In Ceredigion, my constituency, riders face the choice of undertaking the first module in Shrewsbury or Swansea. That will lead to potential round trips of up to 140 miles, which raises significant issues of both convenience and safety. Many motorcyclists have expressed to me their fear that riders might have to negotiate treacherous conditions over long distances. It is deeply worrying that a test introduced to improve safety could have the opposite effect. The sun is shining here today, as I dare say it is in mid-Wales. It would be a pleasure to travel the roads of mid-Wales today, but that is not always the case. A few months ago, the roads were dark, wet and icy. It is worrying.

My hon. Friend is spelling out the situation in Ceredigion. In my constituency, the Harley-Davidson academy of motorcycling operates a centre where people can learn to ride motorcycles safely and with skill, but those taking phase 1 of the test will have to travel at least 50 miles to Shrewsbury, Swansea or Newport. As he says, returning from the test, particularly if they had failed it, would be an ordeal for somebody just learning how to ride their motorbike.

My hon. Friend represents a constituency that is arguably even more rural than mine. The practical difficulties facing constituents trying to take the test present a huge challenge. However, he will forgive me if most of my speech concentrates on Ceredigion.

To put the issue into context, it is not just mid and west Wales that have been affected. The original proposals have created particular difficulties for those in rural areas of Scotland, particularly some island communities. The Isle of Wight has not been included in the list of MPTCs, so riders from the island will have to travel to the mainland. Also, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has told me of her constituents’ concerns. I am sure that the search for casual testing sites is ongoing in such areas, as it is in mine. Any positive news that the Minister can give us will be most welcome.

I mention those areas—they are far from being isolated cases—to illustrate the fact that although mid-Wales is certainly among the worst affected areas, the infrastructure put in place for Monday is far from adequate. I am an optimist by nature. I do not intend to be a doom merchant, but I am worried about the operation of the test as of Monday.

I emphasise that I do not blame the DSA for the situation. I was privileged to meet some of its representatives in my constituency last Friday. It has been given a budget and been charged with using it as best it can to reach as many people as possible. It is incumbent on Government to provide the DSA with adequate resources, so that it can provide adequate testing facilities to meet the challenges of rurality and geography that some of us face.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this debate and echo his concerns. Car driving instructors in Newtown and the surrounding area feel the same way. Does he agree that, apart from the basic stupidity, eco-unfriendliness and additional danger of the change being forced upon us, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that people can learn to ride bikes and pass their driving test without bearing an inordinate additional burden as punishment for the fact that they happen to live in mid-Wales or Montgomeryshire?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and me, he is acutely aware of our constituents’ sensitivity to the loss of public services from rural communities.

As I mentioned, the DSA has been helpful in trying to identify casual testing sites where module 1 can take place. We are still trying to find a suitable site in my constituency. I am hopeful, not least because of the determination of the Motorcycle Action Group and of some of my constituents—particularly Rory Wilson and Ken Huntley—that we will be able to find somewhere. However, no site will be ready by Monday, which is why I still hope, optimistically, for some reassurance from the Government about the arrangements as well as about a delay.

Without those assurances, the effects of the new test will be felt immediately. The worst-case scenario is that the new test will reduce demand for module 2, causing problems for the businesses that offer that part of the test. Module 1 must be completed before module 2 can be taken, and there has already been worrying evidence of what lies ahead. Ian Plover of Rider’s Edge, which operates from the Royal Welsh showground in Builth Wells in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, contacted me about his concerns. When he bought the business in November 2008, it was on the understanding that there would be a casual testing site in the town of Llandrindod Wells. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case at the moment and, as a consequence, Rider’s Edge finds itself in some difficulty. As of last week, not a single test had been booked after the start date of the new test.

Mr. Plover made the point strongly that the DSA was helpful and did everything it could to assist him in making testing as accessible as possible, but his example demonstrates clearly what might happen when the new test is in place. A reduction in demand for the first module could cause some businesses to become unsustainable. In a few months, we might find not only that some in rural areas do not have access to module 1 at an MPTC, but that no one offers the second module locally either.

I emphasise that the facility in Llandrindod Wells was supported by the local authority and the Welsh Assembly Government. With those supporters, I do not understand why that facility could not be provided.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have a vast list of sites that have been explored as potential casual sites but have been rejected. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the Llandrindod site was not pursued.

If my hon. Friends will forgive me, I will now migrate to the west coast. West Wales has been hit further by the lack of an available MPTC site in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. That was explained to me in some detail by the DSA last week. It fought hard to ensure that there was a site in north Pembrokeshire, which would have alleviated some of the concerns in the south of my constituency. It appealed through the planning process to get a site up and running and spent a lot of money from its budget on doing so. It was not the fault of Government, the DSA or the local community. Blame may lie elsewhere.

Losing the Haverfordwest option means that testing provision, which was already inadequate, has become more so. Haverfordwest was chosen for a reason. Presumably it was to respond to demand in west Wales and to the challenges of geography. That option has now gone. As a consequence, there will be no MPTC in Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire or Powys. That is a vast area. Although I appreciate what the DSA has said about the lack of demand in the area, there is a significant gap in coverage. I repeat that the DSA assessed that there was a need and it located Haverfordwest as a possible site, but that option has gone.

Will the Minister say what is happening to compensate for the lack of that option in north Pembrokeshire? There will be no other MPTCs in Wales to make up for its absence. I presume that the money that had been earmarked for Haverfordwest, some of which was spent on the planning process, has gone elsewhere. Some of us feel that we are being penalised by what happened in Haverfordwest. More generally, are there plans to review the number of MPTCs in future or are these proposals set in stone? There has been a downward spiral from the 90 that were envisaged originally to the current 44. The Government hope to expand on that figure, but there has been a downward spiral.

I still believe that there is a strong case for an MPTC in my constituency. I accept that that is unlikely to happen in the near future and that we must concentrate on finding a casual site. Does the Minister foresee a time when the current network will be expanded? We know that the DSA thought it was necessary to have an MPTC in west Wales, but that will not now happen. I hope that the Minister will hold out the hope for future expansion.

It seems to me that having an MPTC is the only way that we can guarantee permanently accessible testing. Casual sites by their nature will be on loan. Although they might be guaranteed for a certain time, they cannot be guaranteed permanently. Finding a casual site is not an easy process. At least five sites in my constituency have been rejected. Three sites in Aberystwyth, one in Tregaron and one in Aberporth have been examined. We are in the process of examining another site in my community of Borth. The local county councillor, Ray Quant, has been particularly active in that. To date, we have been unsuccessful.

Although the DSA has been helpful and has responded to suggestions in this ongoing process, there has been conflicting information. In my first correspondence with the DSA, it was made clear that it would not pay for the surfacing of a test site. I was later told that it would. Other costs are involved in the testing process for things such as electrical contact points and crash barriers. However, my constituents have now been told that money will not be forthcoming. If the Minister is not able to clarify the specifics of individual sites, will he say whether there is a willingness to spend money on a new site? The assertion that we can find a site without cost implications is a fallacy.

There are deep concerns in my constituency. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), indicated to me in writing that he would be prepared to meet with my constituents to discuss those concerns. I hope that that will be pursued after the debate.

The fundamental principle that must be considered in any road test is safety. We expect drivers to take tests that determine their competence to avoid unnecessary accidents and deaths on our roads. We all agree with that. However, in implementing this new test without the necessary arrangements, I fear that we are unintentionally compromising that important principle. I do not think that I have come across anyone who thinks that the new test is a bad thing—anything that encourages safer riding is welcome. However, the lack of provision for the test could lead to certain hidden safety concerns. I have mentioned the difficulties involved in travelling long distances on country roads. Concern has also been expressed that due to the greater inconvenience of the testing, some riders may opt not to take the test and to remain on provisional licences or even ride illegally.

There were not enough testing sites in October. There are still not enough testing sites. I know that efforts are being made to find new sites. I implore the Government to give assurances on the finance behind this and to help us to find sites in mid and west Wales.

I think that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. So far it has been a delight.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing the debate, which builds on his contributions to the debate before the Christmas recess in which he raised many similar matters.

I believe genuinely that the goal of everybody present, the DSA and the Department for Transport is to ensure that the motorcyclists on our roads have the right qualifications and are safe and careful for themselves and others. That must be our guiding principle.

It might be helpful if I explain some of the provisions. In setting out how we have reached the present position, I will pick up some of the points that have been raised. The European Union legislation on driving licences that was agreed in 2000 set higher minimum requirements for driving tests. That was meant to ensure that the matters assessed in theory and practical tests were relevant to modern driving conditions. Those new EU standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties, which we set out in 2000 in “Tomorrow’s roads: safer for everyone”.

The strategy set some 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 in Great Britain. An even harder challenge is to reduce by 50 per cent. the number of children aged nought to 15 killed or seriously injured. We want to reduce by 10 per cent. the rate of slight casualties per 100,000 vehicle kilometres. All those figures are set against the baseline of the figures for 1994-98.

Because of the work that many people have undertaken, we are on target to meet the 40 per cent. target, and the other two targets have already been met. By 2007, the number of people killed or seriously injured was 36 per cent. below the baseline. The number for children was 53 per cent. below the baseline, and the slight casualty rate was 45 per cent. below it. All those achievements were delivered by the collective efforts of many organisations and people such as Motorcycle Action Group. We welcome those achievements.

Yesterday, we launched our consultation on a new road safety strategy for the period beyond 2010. The Department recognises that motorcycling has a role to play within the whole transport set-up, and our aim is to facilitate motorcycling as a travel choice within a safe and sustainable transport framework. To that end, we published first the Government’s motorcycling strategy, and then, in 2008, a revised and updated plan, which we are taking forward in partnership with motorcycling and other interested groups.

After all the good news that I have just laid out on our achievements, there is, sadly, a downside, on which all of our decisions have to be focused. Motorcyclists still represent a large proportion of road casualties: despite making up only about 1 per cent. of road traffic, they account for some 22 per cent. of deaths and serious injuries. We must take that seriously. The road safety strategy made improvements to driver training and testing, thereby playing an important role in producing safer drivers and riders, and it identified European developments as a factor in future changes to the driving test—for example, we believe that the changes to the practical motorcycle test will contribute to a reduction in motorcyclist casualty rates.

The EU changes of 2000 included the introduction of two higher-speed emergency manoeuvres—braking and avoidance—into the practical motorcycling test. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying that that has always been done on the road and is therefore nothing different, but I understand that the manoeuvres required are higher-speed emergency manoeuvres. As he pointed out, they must be conducted at speeds of no less than 50 kph and they should have been included in every practical motorcycling test in Great Britain since 29 September 2008. There were overwhelming safety objections to conducting those higher-speed emergency exercises on roads, where there may be other vehicles and pedestrians. That is why those who took a position on the safety aspects for all those involved concluded that those exercises should be done off-road. Ministers therefore asked the Driving Standards Agency to explore and assess those manoeuvres at off-road testing areas that were free from other traffic.

Proposals for the implementation of the new EU requirements were the subject of a public consultation in December 2002, which offered a range of delivery options. In the consultation, contributions were made on all of those options, and undoubted preferences were shown for off-road assessments of the special manoeuvres elements and for those assessments to take place before the general on-road riding assessment process. It was considered that that arrangement would reduce significantly the health and safety risks associated with conducting the specified manoeuvres on the public highway and would answer the cost and access concerns raised by some consultees. Separating the specified manoeuvres would result in a longer practical motorcycling test and would provide an opportunity for the candidate to cover a greater distance during the on-road part of the test.

The new test centres were to be based on the updated design that we intended to use, with appropriate facilities to conduct all the specified manoeuvres off-road, whilst offering improved accommodation and facilities for customers and staff. As well as being fully compliant with disability discrimination legislation, the new centres were to support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda. In order to maximise our investment in those centres, the DSA decided that, wherever possible, they would be multi-purpose test centres, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In addition to the practical motorcycling test, the centres were to deliver practical tests for learner car, lorry and bus drivers, and their off-road test facilities were to be made available for training purposes when not being used by DSA.

The results of the consultation were published in 2004, and included a stated intention that most motorcycling test candidates should be able to reach an MPTC within 45 minutes, or should be within a 20-mile radius of one, as was laid out in the response to the consultation. On that basis, the DSA estimated that 66 MPTCs would be required across Great Britain to meet demand and to enable the majority of people to attend one and to fit within those criteria. On those estimates, 83 per cent. of the population would have fallen within the criteria. The DSA would have had 38 MPTCs fully operational by 29 September 2008, and it intended to offer, in addition, motorcycling tests from nine part-time Vehicle and Operator Services Agency centres and three casual hire sites. That would have meant that 70 per cent. of the UK population would have fitted within the criteria that I have mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman said that, because there has been no change in those six months, he did not see why there should not be another six-month delay. I must respectfully point out that there has been an improvement in the position in that time, because we have been able to increase the number of centres available. Let me spell it out in this way: instead of 50 being available, there are now 66 sites that would be available. When that time was requested in September, on that basis, we agreed to that six-month delay and we informed the EU Commission accordingly. To give greater flexibility, further consultation was then undertaken about splitting the test into modules 1 and 2, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

I thank the Minister for his answers to some of my points so far, but I have an eye on the clock. The situation has moved on since then and one of those important sites down in Haverfordwest has subsequently gone, and so has been taken out of the equation. He mentioned the VOSA sites, but most of those are on the other side of Offa’s dyke and so are not of particular assistance to my constituents. What compensatory news can the Minister give people in west Wales, given that the MPTC for Haverfordwest has now gone, and given that we are still exploring casual sites and that Monday’s deadline is fast approaching? My constituents would be very grateful for some specific news on west Wales.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and I shall come to where I see our way forward. As he has said, a number of sites have been considered, but it is not easy to find a route through that is suitable to meet the required standards for the new test, which is of benefit in making sure that we have good standards of training and good test sites available for those whom we want to make sure are safe drivers and motorcyclists. We have taken the opportunity, in the past six months, to increase the number of facilities available and to increase from 70-odd per cent. to 88 per cent. the percentage of the population now falling within the criteria that we laid out. However, I recognise that we have difficulties and that the situation is nowhere near ideal for his constituents and constituents in some other areas.

We have to strike a balance. Some £71 million has been invested in MPTCs, as the hon. Gentleman has recognised. He has said on his website that he hopes that Ministers will find a sensible way forward. I think that way forward is to continue to introduce sensible reforms to cycle and test provisions, because we want safer cyclists and we want them and others on the road to be better protected. We continue to work together and with county councils to take forward the various sites that have been identified, of which some have been too small and some too large.