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Driving Test Centres (Closure)

Volume 525: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

I am very pleased to have secured this important debate on behalf of my constituents in Cumnock and Girvan. I will shortly present to the House a petition signed by thousands of local people who are against the closure of driving test centres there. A pattern is being repeated throughout the length and breadth of the country, with dozens of closures over the last two years. Many closures have happened without any consultation with those directly affected or the local community. As many hon. Members have said, including those who signed early-day motion 1294, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), such closures are against the Government’s own policy of localism.

The overall policy of the Driving Standards Agency has national implications. The proposed closure of the Cardiff office will involve a loss of 70 to 80 jobs. Union members in the DSA already have very low morale resulting from pay restraint, and attacks on redundancy terms and possibly pensions. There is now a commitment to strike action following a ballot of union members. Are the closures driven by a rationalisation programme, which is referred to in documents that, I believe, have been leaked into the public domain? Those documents mention a wish to move from 350 to 400 current testing locations, not all of which are full time, to about 150 main centres. Alternatively, does the rationalisation of test centres into a network of multi-purpose test centres make a more attractive package for a future privatisation?

The Minister’s public statements appear to indicate that his plan is to take testing to the customer by sending examiners to casual hire locations to deliver tests. He talks about testing from libraries, community centres and the like, but in many parts of the country these facilities are being closed as well. There are potential problems with, for example, operating out of supermarkets in terms of what facilities may or may not be made available, dedicated parking slots, suitable test routes and whether there would be too much congestion in and around retail parks for the tests to be uniform and fair. Having said that, if this leads to an appetite to revisit the closure decisions in Cumnock and Girvan, I will welcome it, and I intend to raise practical ways in which this could be done.

I would like to concentrate my remarks on the two centres in my constituency and the resultant loss of local service. Both are in rural areas, both are only too familiar with the never-ending withdrawal of local services and both have suffered from structural changes. In Cumnock, the closure of deep mining devastates the community to this day, and in Girvan, which is a seaside town, there has been a downturn in tourism as people have increasingly taken holidays abroad. Both town centres have been decimated and are in need of urgent regeneration, and in the case of Girvan even the local swimming pool has closed.

It would be difficult to overstate the strength of local feeling in both these communities at what they see as continual neglect and particularly a lack of understanding and empathy about what it is like living in a rural area and the difficulties of accessing services. However, given that it is my privilege to represent both communities, I am also very much aware of their resilience and ability to look at constructive solutions to problems.

I want to highlight my disappointment at how these closures were handled in my constituency. There was a consultation process of some four weeks basically over the Christmas holiday period, which was totally inadequate and frankly reprehensible. There was never any intention in my view to acknowledge—far less to listen to—local opinion. I hope that the Minister will feel able to redress that situation this evening. I am proud of the representations both communities have made, and I congratulate them, including those who took the time and trouble to collect signatures for a substantial local petition with the help of local Labour councillors.

What response did they get to their representations? On 3 December 2010, Mr Jonathan Hall from the Driving Standards Agency corporate correspondence unit replied to Girvan community council:

“Decisions on the number, location and size of centres must therefore take into account affordability, existing levels of demand and the Agency’s service level travel-distance criteria, where most customers travel no more than 7, 20 or 30 miles to their nearest test centre, depending on the population density of the area.”

How does that tie in with localism? I will go on to say why I think those distances are unreasonable in these two specific cases.

I will also challenge other comments made by DSA corporate services and by the Minister, but before that I would like to highlight a number of questions and points made to me by local people. In areas where local jobs and small businesses are struggling already, the livelihoods of local driving instructors are now under threat. Whatever the DSA says about a full licence allowing a person to drive on any public road, not simply those on which a person was trained or tested, the reality is that most people prefer, at least for some of the time, to practise near a test centre. Those in Ayr and surrounding areas will still be able to do this, while those in the rural area will not. I believe this is discrimination as well as a diminution of rural services, as I have already stated.

For reasons of familiarity, people will not want to take their lessons in areas where they are not sitting their test. To take a driving test on an unfamiliar route is an extra problem for any learner driver. If that is not the case, why do instructors make a point of taking their customers to streets they know are part of the test runs in their area? If learners know the route of their driving test and have driven it numerous times with a driving instructor, they are surely much more likely to pass the test. Driving instructors in the rural areas in my constituency will lose business to those in Ayr. Girvan, for example, had a driving test centre in the town for more than 60 years. It can take 45 minutes to drive to Ayr, which is a fact I am very familiar with because I do it often. Having a driving lesson and another 45 minutes to drive home can come to two and a half hours for an hour’s lesson. Taking public transport to lessons with a local driving instructor in Ayr is not unproblematic, because transport is often not that frequent and adds to cost. For that very reason it is essential for many people in these rural areas to drive for access to education and employment.

The DSA is obviously unaware of the logistics around Cumnock and Girvan and has taken the decision to close the facility purely on a theoretical basis of mileage. Many rural villagers already need to travel some distance to get to Cumnock or Girvan in the first place. As one constituent told me:

“My local test centre is Girvan, but I live a further 15 miles away and the total mileage I would have to travel to the Ayr Driving Test Centre is 37 and a half miles.”

I want to say a word about the new Ayr multi-purpose test centre, which is to serve Cumnock and Girvan following these closures. I welcome the new facility and lobbied the then Government to make sure it went ahead. It is great to have a new super-duper facility in any area, but it should not be at the expense of services to rural areas, especially when there are other ways of cutting costs. The DSA conducted 789 tests at Cumnock and 268 at Girvan in the last financial year. I think that I have made it clear that the decision should not just be about numbers, but it is recognised in both these communities that driving tests being conducted in the areas could be less frequent. However, can the Minister confirm that the same examiner passes through Girvan once each week to go to Stranraer?

Surely a common-sense solution could be found here. Both communities have suggestions for maintaining a reduced service at little cost in accommodation. East Ayrshire council has unanimously agreed, on a cross-party basis, that it will look at offering the premises it owns in Cumnock at a peppercorn rent. Girvan community council has acknowledged that there is no need for an examiner every week given the numbers, but that every four to six weeks would suffice. I said earlier that these communities are proactively seeking a solution, rather than just talking about it. Will the Minister be prepared, as the Prime Minister has done in other cases, to look at this again, given the good will there is to seek an agreement?

My worry about what is being done by the DSA is that in rural Scotland, the test demand may not be sufficient to justify a proper test centre. However, these people pay the same fee as those in more populous parts, so why should they get a lesser service? All this, as I have tried to indicate, could add to the costs of learning to drive and increase the problem of unlicensed driving, which has road safety implications and will impede the economic development of areas already hard hit by the current economic situation. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, which I know will be followed closely by my constituents, and I hope that he can suggest a positive way forward.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) for securing this debate. I am sorry but I am not responsible for swimming pools or libraries in her constituency—I believe it is a devolved issue that she needs to take up with the Scottish Parliament. However, I understand where she is coming from.

I was surprised to hear that the hon. Lady was campaigning so hard for the Ayr centre. What Ministers should have said at the time to the hon. Lady was that if the plans went ahead, there would closures in her constituency at the other centres, given the capacity that the Ayr centre was designed to have. That is a fact, and given the capacity of what was designed, that is exactly what is happening. If I had been the Minister, I would not have gone ahead with a programme of that size in Ayr, because—I agree with her on this—it is taking away a service from her constituency. I know that she has heard me speak before on this subject; indeed, she extensively quoted my views on where tests should be. They should be in the community—they should be a service to the community that the Driving Standards Agency provides, not a Soviet-style system that makes everybody come to us.

If the hon. Lady does not mind, I will continue. It is unusual to give way in an Adjournment debate, because of the limited time we have.

I understand the concerns that have been raised, particularly by driving instructors, and I will try to deal with them. There are some big issues that we need to deal with, not least the many people who go out with someone who they think is a licensed and qualified driving instructor, but who is not actually qualified. That is an issue that I am taking up with the industry. It is wrong that people pay good money and in good faith, thinking that they have a fully qualified instructor, when what they have is someone who is just trained. Not all driving schools allow that, but it is allowable under the existing legislation, which I will look at carefully.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the service that is provided, within reason, in the kind of urban and rural communities that she and I serve. I accept that hers is a much larger rural community than mine, but I have many parts of the beautiful Chilterns in my constituency. I see lots of learner drivers, particularly at the weekend, learning how to drive on rural roads—as well as on urban roads—because that is a skill that they need to adjust to as they learn to drive.

We have reformed the test quite extensively in the short period in which I have been the Minister. One of the reforms that I have introduced is to ensure that instructors do not know exactly what the route is, because people can learn a route, but does that teach them to drive? The purpose of the test is to give people skills so that they can enjoy driving on the road, while at the same time ensuring that others are safe. What currently happens—the hon. Lady is absolutely right about this—is that instructors know exactly what the routes are, within reason. They take people round and round the circuit in their lessons, so that when they take their tests, they normally go along one of three or four routes, which they probably know back to front. We will stop the routes being published. We will develop new routes, so that instructors will not know what the likely routes are.

It is a testament to the hon. Lady’s understanding of her constituents’ needs that, as well as putting a petition together, the local authorities and the community have come together to look carefully at what the service provision needs to be and how it can be delivered. As she knows, neither I nor this Government is fixated on bricks and mortar. What I am interested in is the service being delivered to the community. I am not sure that the Public and Commercial Services Union is fully on board with that, but I am sure that we will get there eventually, because what it wants to do is the same as what I want to do, which is to provide a service to the community.

The previous Government’s policy was to implement a closure programme. I have suspended the closure programme while we address the question of how we can deliver facilities and tests to communities. I cannot go back on the campaign that the hon. Lady said she was so in favour of, but the new Ayr centre is now in place. It has a rather large capacity—much greater than the needs of Ayr—and was designed so that other areas would close their facilities, which would then come into a hub. I will not repeat myself too much, but I would not have done that, and it does not fit with this Government’s ideas of how we should deliver the service.

However, what I am doing—I have asked my officials to proceed with this, and they have already started—is speaking to local stakeholders, including councils in the areas where closures are taking place, to see whether we can deliver a service in the hon. Lady’s community that is not about bricks and mortar, but about tests being given. In two areas we are looking at delivering around 1,300 tests in the average year, with about 80% in one centre and 20% in the other. She is absolutely right that the figures suggest that we could send a tester every day—or every other day—to do one test, or we could bring the tests together in a package and have a tester arrive every four to six weeks. My figures indicate that it would be closer to every four weeks, particularly in certain parts of the year, when there tend to be more tests than in others.

It is crucial that the community understand that the service is for them. I know that my officials have been talking to the chief executive of the local authority about how we can facilitate that, which is something that the hon. Lady mentioned. As she is aware, in one case we were using a hotel in her constituency as a headquarters before we got a hub centre. I do not mind if it is in a hotel or a supermarket; indeed, if the libraries in her constituency stay open, I do not mind if it is based in one of their car parks or in a civic centre.

It is crucial that the service should be delivered locally, although let us remember that this is not all about the instructors. I stupidly sat next to my daughters on several occasions when the L plates were up, and it was the most frightening experience known to man—for them, I should stress, not for me. This debate is not all about instructors, but there is an industry out there and I am conscious of their needs. If everything is done in Ayr, there will perhaps be an issue with people looking to the Ayr driving schools rather than their local schools. I do not want everything done in Ayr; I want it done in the hon. Lady’s constituency. We are working hard to ensure that localism is delivered, because people pay for a service and they are entitled to it.

Let me quickly touch on some of the other changes to the test, which is vital to the hon. Lady’s constituents. I do not think that the test in its present form delivers what it is intended to, which is not a group of people who can pass a test, but people who have the skills that allow them—this is particularly true for young people—the freedom to enjoy the road while at the same protecting others. I have already said that we will ban the publication of routes, so that when people leave the test centre, the Sainsbury’s car park or the local council offices, they will not know exactly where they are going to go—clearly they will have to go left or right, but they will not know exactly where they will go after that.

At the same time, people who are learning need the skills for when they do not have someone sat next to them, as a companion or guide, or as someone telling them when they have done something wrong. Therefore, we are introducing a part of the test where people will be asked to go from one place to another without being told how to. They will have to find a route themselves by reading the road signs. Some people have said that they are concerned about this, and have asked whether people will fail their test if they go in the wrong direction. No, they will not; it is how they react to making a mistake that is crucial when we are trying to teach them how to be good drivers.

We have a massive issue in the whole of this great nation of ours with young drivers. That is one of the reasons their insurance premiums are so high. With two daughters, I am proud to say that lady drivers—and particularly younger lady drivers—are much safer than boy drivers. Indeed, 17 to 25-year-old girls are some four times safer than 17 to 25-year-old boys. We must work together to ensure that they have the skills that they need to go forward. One of the proposals that we have made is for qualified driving instructors to be able to use roads that learners do not usually use, particularly motorways. It seems ludicrous that someone can pass their test with someone else sitting next to them, then leave the test centre—perhaps the instructor will have taken someone else out on another test, in another car—and be legally allowed, on their own, to drive for the first time ever at 70 mph on a motorway. Frankly, they will probably be petrified—I know I was very frightened when I first went on a motorway, and I know my daughters were as well.

We are therefore looking at giving fully qualified instructors the ability to teach enhanced skills, including post-test. Indeed, a lot of work is being done with the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the AA and the RAC on what skills we can give people when they have passed their test, so that they face less of a liability in their insurance. That is the sort of steer and guidance that we need from the DSA and Government. It is not about regulating, but about giving people the skills that they need.

The hon. Lady asked me for an assurance that we will bring testing to her community. Yes, we will, and we will do it as soon as we can. Pilots have already started around the country. I hope that the union will support what is being done, because it will protect jobs rather than cause them to be lost. We will need people, albeit that they will not be sitting in a building. I remember the vicar of the first church I went to in my constituency saying to me, “It’s not about buildings, Mike. It’s about people. That is what the Church means.” The same applies to services in the community.

We need to deliver this much-needed service in the community, so that people can have the skills that they need—and at cost, so that they can afford them. In a rural community, passing the driving test is one of the great freedoms that we can give to young people. We need the skills to do that, and we need to bring that service to them at no extra cost to them. That is crucial. Buildings cost a lot of money. The hon. Lady mentioned a peppercorn rent, but in some cases, there might be no rent involved at all. Some commercial organisations might welcome the footfall that would come to them while people were waiting to take their test, if their location became known as the test centre.

I have an open mind on who should deliver these services. As I have said, discussions are going on in the hon. Lady’s constituency with her local authority, and I am more than happy to share with her after the debate the information on who we have been talking to. Perhaps she also has ideas about who we should talk to. We will deliver driving tests in the community, where they should be, rather than a huge distance away, which was the previous Government’s policy. I have inherited that policy, but I will not continue with it.

Sitting suspended (Order, 21March).

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

National Insurance Contributions Act 2011

Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011.

Question put, That this House do now adjourn.

Question agreed to.

House adjourned.