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Motorcycle Licences

Volume 549: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2012

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

I am extremely grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), for being here to answer the debate tonight. Earlier today I was afraid that there would be nobody left in the Department for Transport to take the matter on. I hope my hon. Friend will not mind too much if I place on record the admiration of a great many motorcyclists for all the work that his colleague and my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) did as roads Minister; he wrestled manfully with the subject.

I declare my interest as a motorcycle owner and rider of about 24 years’ standing with an unrestricted licence. I am chairman of the associate parliamentary group for motorcycling. Motorcycling is a joy, not least because it combines freedom with a crucial need for personal responsibility and skill. Riding well requires consideration, courtesy and concentration. I believe that every serious motorcyclist will pursue the development of their skills as a matter of course, and that that journey begins with basic training and licensing.

Motorcyling is also something for which young people yearn. The journey from being a 15-year-old with a superbike poster on the wall to being the rider of that superbike can feel heart-rendingly long. The smiles on my colleagues’ faces will inform the House that of course I speak of myself. Now, thanks to the EU and the regulations, that journey almost certainly will be heart-rendingly long, if it is undertaken at all. It is therefore with a sense of grinding determination that I bring before the House the issue of licensing individuals to ride motorcycles under European Union legislation.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, since the coalition came to power this is not the first battle that bikers have fought against the EU and its intervention in relatively petty matters that infringe on minute details relating to the ownership of their bikes. He and I have corresponded, including through written questions, on so-called anti-tampering legislation, which has no supporting evidence and which may also be related to licensing. I understand that progress has been made and I am grateful to the Government for the vigour with which they pursued that matter. However, the motorcycle community remains very anxious and I am concerned that the Government should defend their rights and freedoms.

There was a time when the EU at least pretended to uphold the principle of subsidiarity, which was originally explained as decisions being taken at the lowest practical level. If that had not long ago been exposed as a sham, the heavy-handed mistreatment of bikers in relation to both anti-tampering and licensing would prove yet again that the doctrine is nothing more than a cynical ruse to distract us from the reality of ruthlessly centralised power over comparatively minor matters—matters that I have found often become mere bargaining chips in protracted negotiations over one bureaucratic matter or another.

I turn to the shambles of the bike test. Brussels-dictated changes to the motorcycling licence regime are far more advanced than the attack on bike modification. The second driving licence directive changed the test. From the beginning of 2003, the Motorcycling Industry Association, the MCI, warned that the proposals were flawed. The MCI argued that the manoeuvres element of the test gold-plated the directive and would require very large test sites; that the size of the sites would in turn greatly reduce the number of proposed test centres; that the Driving Standards Agency proposal was likely to result in a separate off-road element to the test, and that therefore the full cost of a test would rise substantially. Indeed, this is what came to pass when the test was implemented in 2009.

The number of test centres dropped from 223 to fewer than 40. As the new test was in two separate segments tested on different days, fees rose by about 30%. The Driving Standards Agency’s antiquated trainer booking system could not cope with the new two-part tests, creating chaos. The changes were delayed by six months at the last minute, by the late split of the test into two parts, which left trainers and learners in limbo. The result was massive aggravation for trainers and pupils and, more seriously, the beginnings of a potential new problem: permanent learners.

Passing the full test is now so bureaucratic and inconvenient that, two years after passing their initial compulsory basic training, it can be expected that at least some new bikers will choose to take their CBT again so that they can drive for another two years without passing their full test. So a new system supposed to make the roads safer and to make motorcyclists safer could make them less safe by creating permanent learners who are not only not fully qualified road users, but who may be less likely to develop the interest in motorcycling that encourages the development of essential skills. So these changes may be not only expensive and aggravating; they may also be counter-productive.

Following uproar from the motorcycling community, the Transport Committee resolved to look into the matter in July 2009. In March 2010, before the election, the Committee found the DSA’s implementation and delivery to be lacking and agreed with almost all the points made by the industry. However, the DSA seems to have taken little action to address the findings. In June 2010, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, the then new Minister, announced a review into the issue because of widely expressed concerns

“about the safety of the off-road module 1 part of the test and about the difficulty of accessing the limited number of off-road test centres.”

That announcement was warmly received by bikers. The review was due to report in autumn 2010. Here we are, almost two years later, and we still do not have a projected date for publication.

I appreciate that the matter is being looked at thoroughly, in great depth, with dedicated research commissioned and wide consultation undertaken, with results to be provided, presumably, in the fullness of time, but this is too long. The attitude of my hon. Friend the former roads Minister throughout has impressed the biking community, which strongly believed that he was on their side. As a motorcycle action group member, I am sure he was, but as the years roll by with no resolution in sight, some of them are losing faith.

The Government deserve full credit for the interim mini-fixes that have occurred. Examiners have been redeployed and a few new test sites have opened. Module 1 was slightly amended to become fairer. A single event test is being trialled. Flexibility between modules is sometimes possible. But I put it to the Minister that the core problems remain. More test sites are needed. Geographical coverage is too patchy and bikers believe that trainers working far from the module 1 test centres are going out of business, leaving further gaps in trainer coverage. Some accidents still take place on the module 1 test, which includes manoeuvres that are not necessarily easy to relate to the real world. The two part test remains complicated and bureaucratic for candidates. A single event, on-road test remains the simplest format to understand. Anything else is a discouragement to people considering taking the motorcycle test. The evidence since 2009 proves it.

Progress on the review appears to be painfully slow. It took only six months to split the test in two in 2009, but reconsidering that decision appears to be mired in a highly complex and bureaucratic health and safety process that is still unresolved after two years. Bikers who have been consulted praised the roads Minister and even praise DFT officials, who they believe are doing their best, but they have complained that certain quango officials lack a can-do attitude and that they have been rigid and unrealistic in interpreting the directives. Will Sir Humphrey triumph in both Europe and the UK in thwarting past, present and future Ministers? I implore the Minister to encourage the motorcycle community with a concrete prospect of the review concluding, in the manner that the original policy set out, and with substantive recommendations to improve the shambles left by the previous Government in collusion with the EU.

I regret to report that the misery being inflicted on bikers by the EU does not end there. There is now, in addition, a third driving licence directive, which was translated into domestic law in January 2011. The EU has again left chaos in its wake. In January 2013, the licence categories must change. Currently, to obtain a motorcycle licence a rider must first purchase a provisional motorcycle licence and then pass compulsory basic training, which enables them to ride on the public road with L-plates for up to two years. To obtain a full motorcycle licence, they must pass a motorcycle theory test and then a practical test. There are different categories of licence and two routes to a full licence.

The new system is, of course, more complex: riders under 24 years old will be required to go through more stages and repeats of the same test to reach a full licence; a new A2 category is to be introduced, so four categories replace three, at least if we include the medium-power bike to which riders would be restricted; the age for riding a full-power motorcycle rises from 21 to 24; and the top speeds of restricted mopeds is reduced. I have to say, from my own experience of riding a 50 cc moped, that reducing the top speeds seems to be a measure that could create danger rather than solve it.

How many under-24-year-olds will be willing to jump through all those hoops? How many can afford to? The effect will be to discourage cheap and convenient transport for many young people, which could be a real lifeline to help them into work, and certainly to fulfil their lives. It might add to congestion as people turn to cars instead of bikes. It will certainly secure the primacy of the direct access route for older learners.

As if all that was not complicated enough, 11 months later, in December 2013, the sizing of bikes in the new categories changes again. Rather than having one co-ordinated disruption, the system will have to change and then change again within a year. All those trainers who diligently complied with the new rules and bought equipment in advance could be left out of pocket and up the Swannee by the capriciousness of the EU. It is as if the EU is deliberately trying to cause as much expense and inconvenience as possible. Some cynics have suggested that officials would like to eliminate motorcycling. I would not go that far, but I know that even when the EU consults it does not listen; it goes through the motions and then does what its bureaucrats want anyway.

I appreciate that the Minister is not responsible for Britain’s membership of the EU and that the Government have been attempting to clear up a mess dumped on us by Brussels but, I refer him to the unfinished review and the need for: an easily accessible, single-event test; a testing regime that is easy to understand; cost-effectiveness for both consumers and the institutional structures; and full national coverage. I remind him that the increase in the size of the 125 cc market, together with the reduction in test numbers, might be an early indication of a growing category of permanent learners. If that proves to be the case, the EU-imposed testing regime will be failing by its own standards.

As I conclude my remarks, I will return to where I began by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead—he is now in his place—who has really fought for the interests of motorcyclists. Both I and the motorcycling community are grateful for all he has done and wish him well in his new role.

Finally, motorcycling is not merely a form of transport; it is the exercise of liberty under the law, personal responsibility and individual skill. It is sometimes a hobby and sometimes a way of life. It is a joy to which many aspire and which many of us treasure. The EU and the DSA together are working towards ruining it. Will the Government please sort out this mess and tell us when they will do so?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for raising this subject and for his kind comments about my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning)—I was going to say that he is on his way to Northern Ireland, but he appears to have returned to the Chamber for one last transport debate, for which I am grateful. If I miss anything out, he can pass me a note and I shall happily incorporate it into my comments, as the matter has been part of his portfolio, not mine, and as he knows much more about motorcycles than I do. What I do know is that he has been very supportive of motorcycling, as has the Department since the coalition Government took office, and I do not see that changing.

With regard to bike modification and the Commission’s proposals to overhaul the existing scheme for type approval of motorcycles, we have argued strongly against extending anti-tampering measures, which we felt were based on unconvincing evidence for change. We have been successful in limiting their application to bikes that are subject to power or speed restrictions, such as learner bikes, so larger, unrestricted bikes will not be affected by the proposed anti-tampering measures. The proposals relate only to modifications that change the power and speed, so riders will continue to be able to customise their bikes.

More widely, we have opposed the delegation of powers to the Commission within the proposed regulation to set technical detail and argued against measures that impose unnecessary costs and restrictions. We have secured a number of positive objectives, such as limiting the application of costly anti-lock braking requirements on smaller bikes, while ensuring the safety benefit of their fitment to larger machines, simplifying test procedures and blocking tighter requirements for the approval of one-off specials—custom bikes. Despite our objections, it is likely that the regulation will be adopted later this year and enter into force in 2016.

I recognise the concerns my hon. Friend expressed about the changes to module 1 of the motorcycle test. Since then, we have implemented a number of changes to improve riders’ and trainers’ ability to access the test, including: addressing trainers’ concerns about manoeuvres by restructuring the order in which they are undertaken, providing more flexibility in speed measurement and making small changes to the layout of the test; making more test sites available by acquiring casual sites, such as those already owned by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency and privately owned sites such as Silverstone, to try to minimise gap areas; and working with trainers to review the booking system to improve the availability of test appointments at times that suit the trainers and trainees.

My hon. Friend will also know that the motorcycle test review has been considering alternative ways of providing a motorcycle test that maintains UK riding standards and improves the accessibility and safety of the test candidates while meeting the requirements of the European legislation. The aim is to accommodate all the manoeuvres in a single-event test that can be delivered in all parts of Great Britain. We have focused on the higher-speed, low-speed and braking manoeuvres required by EU directives, including the design and content of the manoeuvres and the locations where they could be performed as part of the test.

We have made progress in identifying potential alternative manoeuvres and the kinds of locations that could be suitable. We are now holding independent trials to evaluate these options to see whether they are feasible, safe and deliverable in all areas. Subject to these trials, there will be a public consultation on any proposals for changing the motorcycle test. I appreciate that hon. Members across the Chamber sometimes want us to make progress more quickly than we are able to. I can assure my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead has been very busy in trying to make as much progress as he can, and we will not let up on that as we move forward under the new Secretary of State for Transport.

Under the third driving licence directive, new driving licence rules will come into force on 19 January 2013. The directive will introduce new categories for motorcycles that will apply from 19 January 2013. The changes will not affect entitlement gained before that date. There are new categories for mopeds and for small, medium and unlimited-size motorbikes—categories AM, A1, A2 and A respectively. As my hon. Friend is aware, a rider can progress from a smaller to a larger bike by direct access, based on a minimum age for a specific category, but progression can also be through staged access, based on two years’ experience for a given category. Through that progression route it is feasible for the rider to gain entitlement at age 21. The new categories implement the EU’s third driving licence directive and UK legislation has already been made. There is no further scope to influence the EU on the directive, which has now passed into EU and domestic law, but much work has been done to publicise arrangements in advance of it coming into effect.

The directive also specifies the minimum size of bike on which the practical test can be taken. My Department has been working with the Commission to ensure that the categories make sense and provide flexibility—for example, by working on categories that align with manufacturers’ specifications on the engine size. A 5 cc tolerance around the minimum engine capacity for a motorbike has been proposed, so for category A the minimum engine size for a test vehicle can be between 595 cc and 600 cc. For electric bikes, specifying a power-to-weight ratio rather than engine displacement is also something we have been pursuing. As part of this work, the Commission has proposed a change for the conventional petrol engine bikes that can be used for the practical test, allowing entitlement to unrestricted access to any sized bike in category A. The change increases the minimum engine power from 40 kW to 50 kW—or 54 to 67 brake horsepower, for those interested in such measurements—and introduces a minimum 180 kg unladen weight, kerb weight.

In June this year the EU Commission circulated a directive that included all those changes and amended the third driving licence directive. The change to bikes that can be used for the test under category A was not welcome and we raised concerns about the impact it would have.

The Commission’s main argument for the new requirement in relation to engine power and minimum weight is that it will lead to the tests taken on motorcycles being more representative of their category. We are concerned that inadequate justification has been provided by the Commission to explain why that particular change to category A is being made and why the specific requirements have been chosen. Apart from greater development of electric bikes, there has been no significant change in bike technology to warrant any change since the third driving licence directive was originally adopted in 2006. In addition, there is little difference in handling between a bike with 40 kW and one with 50 kW, so there is no obvious road safety benefit from taking a test on a bike with 50 kW. Furthermore, I am concerned, as is my Department, about the impact it will have, particularly on training providers.

The new amendments are due to come into effect on 31 December 2013. To make this change so close to the introduction of the new rules in January 2013 is, in our view, confusing and provides very little notice. There is inadequate protection and no transitional provision to safeguard those who, quite understandably, have purchased bikes at 40 kW in anticipation of the law changing on 19 January 2013. Those points have already been raised clearly with the Commission, which has powers to make minor amendments, subject to the views of member states. Disappointingly, at the Commission’s driving licence committee on 26 June, few other member states shared our concerns. The Commission extended the lead-in time for the changes to take effect to 31 December 2013, but secured a positive vote for them from the majority of member states. I am concerned that the change does not add real value to road safety and that it will have a disproportionate impact on training providers.

The Government are committed to simplifying regulations so that they do not impede growth, and to working with the European Union to make that happen, but we do not think that this particular change makes sense. It is an example of change that does not tie in with the EU’s objective to develop measures that add value and encourage growth, and we think that it is out of step with the EU’s smart regulation agenda to ensure the quality of regulation.

The Government are, therefore, taking the step to make objections to the Council of the EU within permitted grounds of objection. We would need a qualified majority to block the amendment and we are writing to other member states to enlist their support. The Council has until October to make that decision. Obviously, we do not know what the response of other member states will be.

In the meantime, we have taken action to make sure that the motorcycle industry is aware of the changes as soon as possible. On 16 July, we published the changes on the Department for Transport website and notified the motorcycle training industry and other representatives of the motorcycle industry.

I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we are taking steps to get the amendment to category A changed and to achieve a positive outcome. I also hope that he will welcome the general steps that the Department is taking to ensure that we give support to motorcyclists. Despite the unwelcome departure of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead to Northern Ireland—it is unwelcome for the Department, but I am sure that he is very pleased about it—we in the Department will do our best for motorcyclists.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.