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Arbroath and Forfar Driving Test Centres

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

I am pleased to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am also pleased to see the Minister here. I was a bit worried this morning when I saw the written statement that the Secretary of State for Transport issued on the closure of an office in Cardiff. It starts:

“The Driving Standards Agency (DSA) is responsible for setting standards and conducting theory and practical driving tests for motorists in England and Wales.”

I wondered whether the Government had devolved responsibility without telling us, but I am assured that that is not the case and that the Minister is still responsible for the Scottish centres.

A problem has arisen in my constituency. Last week, the Driving Standards Agency announced the closure of the driving test centres at Arbroath and Forfar. The decision has caused a huge amount of anger among those who are undergoing driving instruction, driving instructors and the general public. That anger stems not only from the effects of the closure on our local communities, but from how the closure was announced.

Actually, saying that it was announced is incorrect. What happened is that the Driving Standards Agency wrote to local driving instructors on 30 December, although many letters were not received until after the new year holiday. At the same time, the DSA sent me a letter with a copy of the first letter attached. The letter informed driving instructors about a wonderful new multi-purpose testing centre to be opened in Dundee in February. Halfway through, the letter casually stated:

“In line with the opening of this new centre and in keeping with the Agency’s Code of Practice I wish to notify you of the closure of the practical driving test centres in Arbroath and Forfar. Arbroath and Forfar test centres will cease to operate with effect from 18 March 2011.”

That was the first that any of us had heard of it. No prior notice was given, no consultation was held and, in effect, no public announcement was made; only a letter was sent to driving instructors.

The letter went on to say that those who had booked tests at Arbroath and Forfar centres would

“be contacted by the Agency to notify them of this change in location.”

It is not a change in location; it is the removal of a local facility without any notice or consultation. In effect, those seeking tests will have to sit them in Dundee.

Worse still, the DSA imperiously noted that it did not need to consult on the matter and that the closure would go ahead. That is a ridiculous, high-handed and objectionable way for any Government agency to behave. Surely those affected by such a decision should, at the very least, be consulted before an important local service is removed. The present Government say that they are committed to localism—in fact, the Localism Bill received its Second Reading yesterday—but the way in which they have proceeded is the antithesis of such a policy. Will the Minister get in touch with the DSA immediately and tell it that such a high-handed attitude is totally unacceptable and that it must consult before removing services from local communities?

In Angus, local petitions and a Facebook campaign are already showing the level of opposition to that move. The removal of the driving test centres would have serious implications for Angus. It would mean that only Montrose, which is a part-time testing station, would be left between Dundee and Aberdeen on the east cost of Scotland. All the driving centres in the area already have substantial waiting times, and I will address that point in a moment.

The Driving Standards Agency’s own charter for excellence gives a standard of six weeks’ waiting time for a driving test, but I am told by local instructors that, at present, the average waiting time in Arbroath, Forfar, Montrose and Dundee test centres is 10 to 12 weeks, while 14 is not unknown. I know that that is the case because my own daughter is learning to drive and, apart from the cost, she will have to wait for a driving test.

At the end of December, tests were being allocated for the end of March, which effectively means a three-month wait for a test. Closure of the Arbroath and Forfar stations will surely exacerbate that problem and lead to even longer waiting times. How does that comply with the agency’s own charter? I understand that the Government’s charter mark was removed from the agency in 2003 due to its inability to meet its obligations. It seems that, given the waiting times and the charter’s terms, it is moving towards the same situation.

The removal of the stations in Arbroath and Forfar would mean that those who have already booked tests for dates after the closure would have to re-book for a test in Dundee and would fall, presumably, to the end of the queue, putting their tests off for at least several weeks. They would also either face further lessons to learn the techniques of driving under very different city conditions on their test route, or take the test at a huge disadvantage; it might be different from what they expected.

The situation is even worse for future learner drivers in the Angus area. At present, a driving lesson in Angus costs in the region of £20 for an hour, which I can confirm because, as I have said, my daughter is learning to drive. The costs are already under pressure due to the escalating price of fuel, which now stands at £1.26 a litre in Brechin, where I live, and to increases in VAT, and they will undoubtedly rise further. Within the hour of a driving lesson, the learner can learn driving techniques that are normal in the area in which they would expect to take their test: Arbroath, Forfar or Montrose. If, however, they now face having to go to Dundee to take the test, they will, understandably, wish to learn to drive in the type of conditions in which they would be taking their tests, which means that they would have to learn to drive mostly in the city of Dundee. Therefore, if they took lessons from a local driving instructor, the driving time from Forfar or Arbroath to Dundee and back would take up the vast bulk of their one hour lesson, giving them very little time to learn within the city area.

The implications for those people are quite clear: they would have to take substantially more lessons, or to book two-hour lessons, which would substantially increase the cost of learning to drive. Few of the young people in my constituency who are learning to drive could afford to pay the £40 to £50 per week that would be required. Moreover, on the test days themselves, as well as paying the fee of £62 for the test, they would incur the costs of three hours’ hire of the instructor’s car and time. It is a substantial cost just to sit the test.

The implications for local driving instructors would be equally devastating. They are mostly small businesses; indeed, they are often one-person operations. They have to meet increasing costs, as I have mentioned, due to rising fuel prices and VAT, which already impact upon the costs of lessons. Clearly, they would wish to teach their pupils on the types of routes over which they would have to sit their tests, but is it really conceivable that their pupils would be prepared to pay almost double the price currently charged? Many pupils may take the bus to Dundee and receive their lessons from a Dundee instructor rather than a local one, thus devastating their businesses. What is the sense in closing local facilities and imperilling local small businesses? I thought that the Government’s policy was to encourage the creation of private sector jobs, but the ridiculous closure decision will have exactly the opposite effect. How on earth can this be justified? It seems to fly in the face of the much-vaunted localism agenda.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valuable point in relation to the impact on driving instructors whose centres are closed in that way, particularly in Forfar and Arbroath. When the driving test centre in Warrington was closed, there was a displacement of activity to driving instructors in St Helen’s, which had a test centre, and that has resulted in a number of Warrington-based driving instructors going out of business. A secondary impact is that the pass rates for Warrington-based students have declined, presumably because they were less likely to be able to practise in those areas in which they would ultimately take the test.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has reiterated my point. There will also be real impacts upon the local community of Angus. Not only will the decision mean, as I have said, that there will be only one test centre between Dundee and Aberdeen—and that a part-time one—but, inevitably, there will be increased waiting times for tests for many constituents. The Minister will also be aware, however, that the type of driving that is suitable for cities—I think that this is the point that the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) was making—is different from the type of driving that is, or should, be practised on rural roads in areas such as Angus.

I noticed the Minister shaking his head at some of my earlier points on this issue. Although it is undoubtedly true that drivers should be able to deal with any road conditions and situations that they encounter, I am sure that he would agree that it is vital that those who learn to drive do so on the roads that they are most likely to use, especially in the early months of driving. I am seriously concerned that those who learn to drive on the congested city roads may find it a very different experience on country roads. I believe that to be a serious safety issue.

As I said, the Minister shook his head at some of my earlier remarks, but just before Christmas he accepted that argument, to some extent, in relation to motorcycle tests when he announced that they would take place mostly on local roads, not in specialist centres, in order to deal with the ridiculous situation where motorcyclists in rural areas often had to travel large distances to a test centre. However, the letter that I received from the DSA states that the test facilities in Perth for motorcyclists are also being withdrawn and that they will have to travel to Dundee for the tests. It appears that motorcyclists from highland Perthshire, for example, will have to go to either Dundee or Inverness, which is a long journey either way, for a test. Surely that action goes against the Minister’s own announced policy a month ago.

The DSA’s actions are even more inexplicable when we look at the pass rates from the various test centres. The hon. Member for Warrington South referred to that point in relation to his own area. In 2010, Arbroath had a pass rate of 61.1% and Forfar 57.2%, while Dundee had a pass rate of only 47.3%. They all administer the same test, so it seems that the driving instructors and examiners in those areas are doing something right, yet they are being rewarded by the daft decision to close the centres.

In its own publicity, the DSA says that it aims to make appointments available within nine weeks, although it gives itself an out by limiting that to 90% of test centres. I submit that that will, in any event, be almost impossible if this centralising proposal goes ahead. The promise under the DSA’s “Customer Service Excellence” section to

“make a tangible difference to public service users by encouraging provider organisations to focus on customers’ individual needs and preferences”

will raise a hollow laugh around Angus as our facilities are stripped away. What customers want is a local facility that meets local needs.

It is also interesting to note that the agency promotes an eco-safe driving scheme. It states that

“the objectives of this scheme also support the Department for Transport’s targets to improve road safety and the environmental performance of transport.”

How will it be more eco-efficient to have learners and instructors travelling from all over Angus to take lessons and tests in Dundee? Surely the effect will be an increase in carbon emissions.

Since I secured the debate, I have received representations from many areas of the United Kingdom where similar situations have developed. I understand that some 22 test centres have closed over the past two years and accept that the problem predates the Government. However, the Minister is in post when the Government are trying to close the test centre in my constituency and many others throughout the UK. The Driving Standards Agency seems to have a deliberate policy of closing smaller test centres in favour of large multi-purpose test centres. For all the reasons I have noted, that is a misguided and dangerous proposal for learners, instructors and local communities.

I urge the Minister to undertake an urgent review of the policy and immediately to tell the Driving Standards Agency to halt the proposed closures at Arbroath and Forfar. At the very least, they should ensure that there is a public consultation before any decisions are made. That is the least the general public should expect when an important local facility is under threat. Such a facility would not be removed by central diktat in any other area without a public announcement or consultation with not only the community, but those directly affected by the proposal. This is a totally inappropriate way for any Government agency to proceed.

I reiterate the earlier comments I made when you took the Chair, Mr Chope: it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir). He is doing exactly what I would do if I were a Back Bencher—standing up for his community.

Let us agree on some things from the start. If the waiting list is 10 to 12 weeks—I take the hon. Gentleman’s word that that is the case—the centres will not close until they are within the guidelines, which is six weeks. Pre-bookings are an issue. People can pre-book in bulk, which causes a problem. The hon. Gentleman said that there were bookings into March. There will be pre-bookings in cases when instructors can predict that their pupils are likely to be able to take the test at that time. That is why there are pre-bookings. It happens around the country—it happened when my daughter was doing her test just 18 months ago.

There is an issue relating to consultation. However, I must say that I have inherited the Driving Standards Agency code of practice that his Government put into place.

No. I sat and listened, so the hon. Gentleman can listen to me for a few minutes longer and then he can intervene. Let me make my point first. I inherited the current situation. As a result of the distance travelled, the code of practice brought in by the previous Government states that there does not have to be a consultation. I am looking at that issue because I do not think it is acceptable. I am eight months into the job and I have a very large portfolio. I accept that there are issues, but I inherited this situation and I will look at it and see if we can change it. I am happy to do so as long as the hon. Gentleman accepts that his Government were the problem and were closing driving test centres long before I was appointed to my post.

I do not accept that. I was not a supporter of the previous Government just as I am not a supporter of this Government. I represent the Scottish National party. I accept the Minister’s point that he did not introduce the code of practice, but the code of practice exists and he is the Minister. He says he is looking at it, but will he suspend closures until he considers the matter in more detail?

I humbly apologise to the hon. Gentleman. It was wrong and improper of me to assume that he was a member of the previous Government. It is probably because there has been a coalition in Scotland over the years since I have been in politics. I completely and humbly apologise; it was an insult.

I have been insulted many times over the years. I am sure we can solve the problem over a pint of beer.

I am not going to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests because I want the Driving Standards Agency to make progress. I shall touch on several points, including those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), regarding how we should be dealing with the matter. The issue has nothing to do with bricks and mortar and buildings; it is about the quality of service, the test and the people who are taking the test. I shall work backwards through the issues.

Long before I took over this portfolio, one of the biggest things that worried me as a father and that worries me now as a Minister is that people are being taught to pass a test, rather than how to drive and be safe on the road for themselves and other road users. My daughter is going through the process at the moment—as is the daughter of the hon. Member for Angus—which is difficult and strenuous. I intend to make it more difficult, not because I am picking on young people, or on anyone who is taking their test, but because if we consider the statistics on 17 to 25-year-old people who pass their test—predominantly boys—they are a huge risk to themselves, other road users and their passengers.

A frightening statistic shows that the riskiest thing a lady aged 17 to 25 can do is to sit in the passenger seat of a car with a 17 to 25-year-old boy of any description, whether he is related to the lady or not. That is a frightening thing. The system is not working, so we must look at what the test involves. For someone to say, “That test centre has a better pass rate than that one so it should stay open,” is really looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope. We have recently changed the driving test to give young drivers in particular—and other drivers—the skills that they need when they leave the test centre and they are sitting in a car on their own with no one telling them which way to go, and they have not driven the route 100 times with their instructor.

I do not disagree to a large extent with what the Minister is saying. I agree that there is sometimes a serious problem with young drivers. I accept that a 10-minute independent drive is now part of the test, but does he not accept that if someone learns to drive in a congested city area and they are faced with the country roads of somewhere such as Angus or perhaps his own constituency, they experience very different driving conditions that are perhaps not the appropriate driving conditions? It would be better if they understood the conditions in which they will be driving, at least in the early months of their driving.

When someone passes their test, there is no restriction at all on where they can drive in the country. Someone can pass their test in Angus, drive to the nearest dual carriageway on their own and go down the motorway. I am also seriously considering how we can give the relevant skills to young drivers who have never driven on a motorway in their life, whether or not someone is sat next to them. At the moment, they can pass their test and go straight on the motorway. We must work on dealing with that.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not looked at the changes that have recently been made to the driving test. We have dealt with the problem of someone going to an area because they know it. We are not publishing the routes that people take for their test, and instructors will not know what the examiners are going to do. However, I agree that people have to understand how to drive on rural roads, which we have in parts of my constituency as well as in that of the hon. Gentleman, and in urban areas. We must have a situation in which we increase the skill base. I have listened to the instructors in certain areas and they have said, “This will have a detrimental effect because we will have to teach them to go there.” That is based on old knowledge and on the fact that we used to publish the routes that examiners would take. We are no longer going to do that. They will not know the routes. People will not only have to be able to drive for 10 minutes without being guided, which is what happens when people have passed their test, but they will not know the routes. The instructors do not know the routes; things will not happen that way.

This a short debate, so let us touch on the important points raised by the hon. Gentleman because I find some of them very worrying, especially his analogy. The reason I changed the motorcycle test is because someone could drive for up to two hours to a test centre and be taken off-road to a piece of tarmac that the Government own to do an off-road test. They could fail the test, yet be allowed to drive two hours back, or whatever the distance is. The test was not fit for purpose, which is why I have reviewed it. The whole test will be on the road, not off-road, and will be done in one go, unlike the present on-road and off-road arrangement. That will give motorcyclists the skills that will enable them to make progress, about which I have been talking in relation to car drivers. The analogy is not there.

As I have said, what is important—I will consider this matter—is that if the waiting list is as great as the hon. Gentleman says and it is blocked, these centres will not close until the capacity can be taken up in Dundee. I give that commitment today. We have to be in that situation. However, I will consider the matter of block bookings by driving instructors who pre-book extensively and block up areas, so that there are no bookings available for other people.

In the short period of time we have for the debate, let us look, if we can, at what the test should be for and see if we can go forward fixated not with buildings, but with service to the community and the people who want to take their test.

I was hoping that the debate would touch on what I regard as the major issue, which is the multi-test centres and other super-test centres. They became the policy of the previous Government because they over-interpreted an EU requirement regarding the motorcycle test. I believe that the Transport Committee, inter alia, pointed out that that was wrong, did not need to happen and was an error, yet the concept of a super-test centre is being pursued. It sounds as though that happened in Dundee and St Helens. One result of that, which the Minister might want to comment on, is that motorcyclists have to travel even further for their test, and further back if they fail it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Select Committee, under the previous Administration, had real concerns about how the motorcycle test was fundamentally changed. It felt that the Government had misinterpreted guidance on kilometres—in English, motorcyclists had to do just under 31 miles an hour. I agree, fundamentally, with the Select Committee, which is why we have broken away from that. We have a pilot at the moment and we have worked with the industry—the testers, the unions and everybody out there—to get a test that I hope is closer to fit for purpose.

There is a fundamental difference, I am afraid, regarding the motorcycle test centres. A plethora of them appeared all over the country. The big problem was finding suitable off-road facilities for part one of the test. I looked at that, and the review looked at it. It was farcical that we spent millions and millions of pounds building pieces of tarmac that, in the near future, we will have to sell off because we do not need them any more.

The key issue and the most important thing, to return to what I was saying, is not the building, the instructors, Members of Parliament or Ministers, but the people who take their test. The test has to be fit for purpose. I am not at all worried about a drop in pass rates, because that would tell me something. For example, quite a few people think that their instructor is a qualified driving instructor—very often, they are not. That is something we need to look at to ensure that the public know exactly who is qualified and who is not. We need to ensure that the test is fit for purpose, and we are doing a lot of work on that.

The next stage is to ask why people who want to take their test have to go to the instructor. Why can the instructor not come to them? The two test centres mentioned earlier, in Forfar and Arbroath, are open two days a week. Why is there not a facility, whatever the demand is, for a tester to go people’s community two days a week? Why are we fixated with a Soviet system that means that people have to come to Government so that we can give them a piece of paper that says they can drive? That, to me, is the way forward. Other countries around the world have looked at that and do not have test centres that are physically big. There are test centres where instructors are based, and they then go out into the community. That would alleviate many of the concerns that the hon. Member for Angus has raised today—how far people have to go, the cost to the community, the risk to instructors and so on. Some of that fear is unfounded and I have touched on why, especially given the developments in the test, but I am more than willing to look at whether it is right, in the 21st century, that if someone wants a piece of paper or card that says that the Government say they can drive a car, motorcycle or a lorry, they have to go into a Government building in Dundee, or wherever it happens to be—in my case, in St Albans.

It is fit and proper to look closely at how the DSA works. I accept some of the criticisms. I have already said that I will look carefully at how the consultation process works. I would like to have been told. I apologise to the hon. Member for Angus for not sending him a letter, because I write to everybody when there are closures and I do not know how that one slipped through the net. I also apologise on behalf of the DSA and the Department, because I am absolutely paranoid about writing to MPs when something happens in their constituency. I think that it is very important that MPs are informed. I will look at the guidance on how the code of practice works. It is not difficult to consult on these things; it is difficult to know how far to go, but it is important that we do so. We must not, I stress, be fixated with buildings. Buildings deliver a service that could be delivered in other ways.

It is not a fixation about buildings; it is a fixation about the service being available in the community. If the Minister can tell me I am wrong I would be delighted to have further details, but what appears to be happening is that the service has been removed from the local community. People will still have to go to a building. That building will not be in Arbroath and Forfar, however, it will be in Dundee, and that will be severely detrimental to the community.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Under the proposals, that is what will happen. There is not full-time demand in his constituency, so we have a building sitting empty for three days of the week. That is a fact, and I cannot afford to do that in the present situation. Going forward—I stress going forward—the proposals will be developed. It will take time; they will have to be piloted and pushed forward in consultation with the whole of the industry, whether testers or instructors, and relevant MPs, to ensure that there is proper debate.

It must be right that we offer services to the community. That is what this is about. It is not about the buildings, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is about service to the community. At the moment, in his constituency, the service is being taken up on two days a week. That is what I am told. If I am wrong, people should write to me and tell me. The demand may be there, but the centres are not operating for more than two days a week. That is where we are.

Given the cost and the really difficult fiscal situation that we are in, which is the same in Scotland as it is in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, we have to ensure that all assets are being sweated as much as they can be. I will look carefully at the consultation. I will look carefully at the amount of waiting times, but I think I will find a lot of block bookings from the instructors the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier. If it is a problem of block bookings, we will have to address it. However, if the waiting time is more than six weeks—more than the code of conduct says—they will not close until it is inside six weeks. That is a commitment I give today. What we all want, for all our constituents, is for the test to be fit for purpose, and for people to be able to enjoy the road, no matter what vehicle they pass their test on, so that they are safe for themselves and others. At the moment, I stress that we have a lot of work to do on the test to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.