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Driving Instruction (Suspension and Exemption Powers) Bill

Volume 712: debated on Friday 10 July 2009

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, this is a modest but potentially very important Bill. Unusually, perhaps, it received extremely thorough scrutiny and examination before and during its progress through the other place, where there has been complete unanimity in support of it across all parties—Front Benches and Back Benches. Its introduction and process through the Commons was led by my honourable friend Willie Rennie, but it had generous and very enthusiastic support from Ministers and shadow Ministers on all Benches. It has also had substantial and thorough preparation, and a complete absence of any opposition. There were only a small number of simple, technical amendments during its Committee stage. It has also had the benefit of very comprehensive and supportive briefings from all the outside interests concerned with the problems with which the Bill deals. Therefore, exactly what are the problems that have been identified—actual as well as potential—with which the Bill is concerned?

Although there has for some time been some recognition of a loophole in the law relating to the regulation of driving instructors, the matter only really came to a head in 2005 and, sadly, missed an opportunity in that year to be incorporated in legislation. However, in that year, Ms Lesley Anne Steele, living in the constituency of my honourable friend, suffered the traumatic experience of a serious sexual assault by the instructor who had been teaching her to drive. During the Third Reading debate in the other place, Mr Rennie repeated the account of what happened next, as subsequently given by Ms Steele, who very courageously waived any anonymity. I do not intend to repeat it in detail but I can give a short résumé of what happened.

The instructor who made the assault was charged, found guilty and placed on the sex offenders register but continued to teach vulnerable learner drivers, even in the immediate vicinity of Ms Steele’s house. Therefore, her dreadful experience appeared to have had no proper remedy. Members of your Lordships’ House will not be surprised to know that she was amazed, horrified and angry. Having no recourse or hope of remedy under the existing law, she eventually sought the assistance of her constituency Member of Parliament. This Bill closes the alarming loophole which she, and then he, discovered.

The background is that paid instruction on how to drive has been a regulated activity for some 40 years. It is now covered by the Road Traffic Act 1988, the RTA, and the Road Safety Act 2006, the RSA. Approved driving instructors, ADIs, are registered by the Driving Standards Agency, the DSA. To gain entry to the register, instructors must pass a series of examinations and, most importantly, they must be demonstrably fit and proper persons. Under the RTA, the registrar has power to remove a person from the register if satisfied that they have ceased to meet those various conditions. However, there is a long, potentially cumbersome process of notification, response, review and even appeal before that actually takes place. I am advised that the minimum delay during that process is 45 days from the date on which the instructor is notified. Obviously in a serious case such as I have described, a delay in deregistration of several months is totally unacceptable and hence this Bill.

The Bill's main purpose is to provide that the registrar can suspend an ADI at exactly the same time as notification is given that his or her name can be removed from the register. It does not weaken or undermine the due process of deregistration. However, it means that the registrar can prevent continued instruction where there is a significant threat to the safety of members of the public. To avoid unreasonable bureaucratic procrastination, there is a time limit of 75 days during which a determination must be reached. This specific power to suspend will, therefore, be available only in the most serious cases where an ADI has already been convicted of a serious criminal offence, such as a sexual or a violent attack or when an ADI has repeatedly failed the qualifying test.

The structure of this simple and modest Bill is very straightforward. Clause 1 inserts a new section in the RTA to provide the new suspension powers for the registrar. Clause 2 inserts a further new section to provide for a compensation scheme to cover the possibility of a suspension and potential deregistration being overturned on appeal. Clauses 3 to 7 provide for exemptions, transitional arrangements, consequential amendments, the commencement date and so on. Schedule 1 simply completes the necessary arrangements.

The co-operation of the Government has been very much of assistance to those promoting the Bill in both Houses. There are some very modest financial implications anticipated by Ministers: perhaps something in the region of £50,000 to £55,000 a year. I think Members of your Lordships’ House will agree that that is a modest total to deal with this important and potentially very damaging loophole.

Similarly, there is a very good assessment in the Explanatory Notes—I pay tribute to those who have given me assistance in preparing them—of the implications for the European Convention on Human Rights. Those implications have been examined most carefully. Given that, in a similar case, a nine months' suspension was judged not to be an arbitrary or unjustified process and that the maximum in this Bill is 75 days, there is no obvious problem here.

It is obviously a strange and disturbing anomaly that when any other professional or regulated person—for example, a doctor or a dentist—commits a serious offence, there is an immediate procedure to prevent even the remotest possibility of repetition, even a suggestion of a threat to the safety of the public. But that is not so in the case of driving instructors, as we have discovered.

The Bill is urgent and necessary, even if its provisions are required very rarely. In recognition of the courage of Lesley Anne Steele, who could have simply put this awful incident behind her, but was determined to ensure that no one else had that experience, I hope very much that your Lordships' House will give the Bill a fair wind and speedy passage. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships very long. My noble friend has made his case absolutely. As someone a little more familiar with the Road Traffic Act 1988, it seems to me to be a bit like the proverbial cricket bat that has had seven new blades and eight new handles, it is so hung around with anomalies. This attempt to correct an anomaly deserves the support of the House.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for introducing his Bill and for the careful way in which he explained its purpose and background. Although I shall not repeat his points, I agree with them all.

I have an interest to declare as an out-of-date qualified Army driving instructor. I have taught both civilian and military personnel to drive both cars and heavy goods vehicles. I know from my experience that a driving instructor temporarily has considerable power over a pupil. Pupils need to be confident that their instructor is a competent and fit person. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, explained the welcome compensation provisions in Clause 2, which inserts new Section 128ZB into RTA 1988. As an aside, and following from what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, perhaps that Act would benefit from consolidation, as it has been amended several times.

However, new subsection (1) covers “income losses” and “non-income losses”. Subsection (9) defined income losses as “losses of income”, and non-income losses as “losses other than income”. I am not quite sure what other interpretation could be attached to those terms. Nevertheless, the compensation scheme will protect the instructor from the financial consequences of a malicious allegation. At the same time, it will remove from the registrar the need to be overly concerned about the hardship of a temporarily suspended instructor. The provisions of the Bill may need only rarely to be invoked. Perhaps that is why they were overlooked in the RSA, but they are worthwhile and we on these Benches welcome them.

My Lords, this is in danger of setting a record for being the shortest Second Reading debate in this House’s history. In Report and Third Reading in the other place, Mr Rennie concluded by saying:

“If the House gives its support this morning, I shall entrust the Bill to my old boss, Lord Tyler ... in another place. I am sure that Members there will see the merits of the Bill, but if they do not I am sure that they will succumb to Lord Tyler’s charm”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/6/09; col.1068.].

We have had the charm of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, but we did not need it to support the Bill.

The Government are very sympathetic to the purpose of the Bill, because it addresses an issue of genuine public concern, principally about the safety of young people who are learning to drive. It will amend the legislation that provides for the registration of driving instructors, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, described. If it becomes law, the registrar of approved driving instructors will in appropriate circumstances be able to suspend an instructor immediately where they present an unacceptable risk to the safety of members of the public—in particular, their pupils.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has explained, the impetus for the Bill came from a constituent of Willie Rennie, the Member of Parliament for Dunfermline and West Fife. Lesley Anne Steele approached Mr Rennie because of the anxiety and anger she felt when she saw her driving instructor collecting another female pupil for a driving lesson the very next day after he had been convicted of sexually assaulting her. Together, Ms Steele and Mr Rennie approached the Driving Standards Agency—which, through the registrar, regulates approved driving instructors—to try to establish how this could happen. They discovered that it takes around 45 days for the registrar to remove an instructor’s name from the register of ADIs, and during that period the instructor can continue providing paid driving instruction.

The tenacity of both Mr Rennie and his constituent, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has rightly paid tribute this morning, in seeking to address this legal loophole is evidenced by the Bill. We have an opportunity to ensure that others who put their trust in a driving instructor do not experience the anguish and pain felt by Lesley Anne Steele. I hope that we will seize that opportunity.

The overwhelming majority of instructors, having satisfied the registrar that they are fit and proper persons when they are accepted on to the register of approved driving instructors, remain so throughout their career in that profession. We are concerned here with the very small percentage of instructors who fail to maintain the high standards of conduct expected of them by their fellow professionals, their customers and the general public.

The Road Traffic Act 1988 provides the registrar with powers to remove instructors from the register where they cease to be fit and proper persons. The Act also provides for instructors to make representations to the registrar before he finally decides whether their name should be removed from the register, and gives them the opportunity to make an appeal to the transport tribunal should the registrar decide in favour of removal. It is entirely right that instructors should be able to make representations, particularly where removal from the register would prevent them following their chosen way of earning a living. However, it takes a minimum of 45 days for the registrar to complete the process of removing an instructor’s name from the register. During that period, the instructor can continue giving paid driving instruction. We need to ensure that, in the most serious cases, the public are protected during the removal process.

The Government are concerned not only about instructors who have committed serious violent or other offences but about those whose standard of instruction is identified, by means of periodic quality assurance checks, as being so poor that it puts at risk the safety of their pupils and other road users. The Government therefore propose to support the introduction of a power whereby the registrar may temporarily suspend the registration of an instructor in these exceptional circumstances.

However, there is quite rightly a concern that adequate safeguards are in place where persons are prevented from following their profession and thereby deprived of their livelihood. To that end, I should explain the measures that we are supporting. First, a registered instructor can be suspended only where the registrar advises him, in writing, that he is minded to remove his permission to give paid instruction permanently and is following the statutory procedure to do that. It is not a stand-alone measure. Secondly, the suspension will lapse after 75 days if the registrar has still not decided whether to remove the suspended instructor’s permission to give paid instruction. Thirdly, a statutory compensation scheme will provide for the reimbursement of income and non-income losses incurred by the suspended instructor where the latter is suspended but not subsequently removed from the register, or where the registrar’s decision to remove is overturned on appeal. The non-income losses to which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, referred relate to the damage of a person’s reputation and the value of their business that is likely to follow from this sort of action. Many approved driving instructors are self-employed, so the non-monetary damage as a result of the loss of reputation could be very serious.

The final point on that is that there will be an entitlement for the instructor to lodge an appeal with the first-tier tribunal in respect of whether compensation should be awarded or the amount granted. But let me restate that the arrangements that we put in place are intended to deal with a very small number of cases, probably no more than five each year: that is, five out of around 45,000 registered instructors.

While the arrangements that I have described will address the risk posed by a few qualified instructors, a similar risk applies in respect of some partially qualified instructors, around 2,500 of whom are licensed per annum. These people have passed the theory and practical driving parts of the registered instructor qualifying examination and are permitted, under a licensing scheme, to give paid driving instruction while preparing for the final part, the practical instruction test.

This group of apprentice instructors presents an even smaller risk than that posed by qualified instructors, as they are fewer in number. However, it would be absurd if the registrar was unable to suspend the licence of an apprentice instructor in circumstances similar to those resulting in the suspension of a qualified instructor. We propose, therefore, to support the introduction of a provision that would allow the registrar to suspend the licence or exemption from registration that permits a trainee instructor to give paid instruction. Suspension could be imposed only alongside action intended to lead to the revocation of the licence or exemption and could be used only where the trainee instructor posed a significant threat to safety of members of the public. As with registered instructors, the counterbalance to the trainee licence or exemption suspension power would be the compensation scheme. The scheme would cover the suspension of trainee licences or exemptions in much the same way as it covers the suspension of qualified driving instructors.

On 26 June, speaking at the end of the Bill’s Third Reading in another place, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Paul Clark, said:

“The Bill strikes the right balance between the need to protect the public and the rights of individuals to go about their business and earn a living”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/6/09; col. 1067.]

I agree. It offers protection to learner drivers in particular and the public more generally while safeguarding the interests of fit and proper driving instructors. The Bill deals with a real public concern in a reasonable and proportionate way. I wish the Bill well and I look forward to seeing it on the statute book.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all Members of the House not only for giving their warm support to the Bill but for doing so expeditiously. I do not know whether I should be grateful to my honourable friend Willie Rennie for describing my charm as being a necessary component of my speech today because I had hoped that it would be my eloquence and persuasive powers. Nevertheless, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bradshaw and to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who in his usual assiduous way has looked even to the detail of the Bill. I hope that the response of the Minister on the exact definition of compensation has satisfied him.

I want to underline the point made by the Minister that the emphasis has to be that the vast majority of approved driving instructors are not going to be affected by the Bill. Only a tiny minority will be, and perhaps even fewer now that this Bill deals with those who can be considered not to be fit and proper persons. There will be exceptional safeguards to make sure that the new regime works well. I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising that trainee instructors, who are not so numerous, will also be covered. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and I ask that the Bill be given a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 1.19 pm.