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Covid-19: Extension of Driving Theory Test Certificates

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 28 January 2021

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

I want to start by thanking Mr Speaker for selecting this debate. This is an issue that adversely impacts tens of thousands of people right across the British Isles, and I know that the Minister will bear that in mind when she responds on behalf of the Government.

The covid-19 pandemic has had untold impacts on so many aspects of our lives, particularly as many of us have had to adapt to working from home. However, there are certain industries for which working from home is not possible. Throughout the pandemic, driving instructors have been restricted in their ability to work and teach. While lessons resumed for a short period during the summer last year, many driving instructors now find themselves in the same position they were in last March, when countries across these islands first went into lockdown.

Many people require a driving licence for employment and simply to get around. However, it is looking increasingly likely that they will have to pay additional fees to re-sit their theory tests and then wait months for an available space to sit the practical test, which will undoubtedly be overbooked. That will mean that when restrictions are eased, instead of getting straight to sitting their practical tests and hitting the roads, many people will be paying out of pocket and twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a test space to become free.

A quick fix exists for the UK Government, but they have declined to make it thus far. Just like they extended the MOT expiry dates at the outset of the pandemic, they are now being called upon to extend the theory test validity, which I would argue is actually less risky. Northern Ireland is a clear example of how extending the validity of a theory certificate can be done safely. Initially, the Northern Irish Executive extended the validity of theory certificates that expired between 1 March and 31 October by eight months, and then they went further and extended the validity of certificates by an additional four months. I am urging the UK Government to do the same and to extend the validity period of the driving theory certificate.

When organisations such as the National Associations Strategic Partnership have written to the UK Government, safety concerns are highlighted as one of the main reasons for not extending the driving theory certificate. The UK Government have said:

“Learner drivers were prohibited from practising during COVID-19. This lack of practice is likely to mean that their knowledge and skills base diminished, and research would suggest that this would be particularly detrimental to hazard perception skills.”

However, I spoke to the Driving Instructors Association, and it was made clear to me that much of the knowledge learned in the theory test is reviewed by driving instructors during the practical lessons and test. In fact, 97% of learner drivers take some training with a qualified driving instructor, thus learner drivers will continually be assessed and tested on their theoretical driving safety knowledge. While I understand the safety concerns, it seems to me that the practical driving test will ensure that all new drivers have retained their knowledge from the initial theory test.

MOT due dates for cars, motorcycles and light vans were automatically extended by six months from 30 March to help prevent the spread of covid-19. For many people, that action represented a greater threat to road safety than the need to retain the two-year validity of theory test certificates, and the theoretical knowledge of learner drivers. Most of us—probably including the Minister—would probably say that greater risk is associated with someone driving a car with worn brake pads, than with the prospect of their forgetting what to do if their brake light stays on. If the UK Government were willing to extend the MOT duty by six months during the pandemic, surely the same should be done for driving theory test certificates.

When considering this issue it is important to recognise who will be most impacted. Young adults will be the most affected. They have to pay £23 to apply to a company to resit a theory test that they have already passed, and throughout the pandemic young people have repeatedly faced the most consequences. As we heard in the previous debate, their education has been disrupted, they have faced huge redundancies, and we also face a mental health crisis among the younger generations.

For some young people, a driver’s licence is essential for obtaining future work, and without a licence, their opportunities are increasingly limited. If young people have to wait months to resit a theory test that they have already passed, while also paying £23 to do so, the wait for an available space to complete the practical test will only add to the time in which they are unable to secure work. That is bad news for getting the economy moving again, as we seek to build back better. Extending the validity of theory test certificates would provide a huge amount of relief for young people, who are already concerned about the additional costs of learning how to drive.

From a purely administrative point of view, once lockdown is lifted a flood of individuals will seek to resit their theory tests. On 8 January the number of expired theory test certificates due to lockdown stood just shy of 50,000, according to Marmalade insurance. At £23 per theory test, that is a loss of £1.1 million for UK learner drivers.

Let us be clear about exactly how bad the situation is. Last month, The Scotsman reported that Scottish learner drivers are facing a 100 mile trip and a four-month wait to resit theory tests, because of what the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency says is “unprecedented demand.” Will the Minister reflect on how ludicrous it is to ask someone from Fife to travel to England just to sit an exam that they have already passed?

Undoubtedly, many individuals will be looking to resit their theory tests once restrictions have been eased. The backlog in cases will be tough to process, potentially increasing the amount of people at test centres, and that will make an already awful situation much worse. It does not need to be like this. Just as happened in Northern Ireland, with the stroke of a pen Ministers in the Department for Transport can end this unnecessary chaos.

The UK Government should extend the validity of driving theory certificates, as that will relieve a lot of unnecessary stress for young people and driving instructors. I have a great amount of sympathy for Ministers who, at the beginning and throughout the pandemic, have been trying to spin numerous plates relating to every facet of their lives. The first time around, the Government said that they did not want to extend the validity of theory test certificates, but circumstances have changed. Lockdown has been prolonged. We are now approaching almost a year, and this issue needs revisiting. Given that circumstances have changed, it is time for Ministers to change their mind and exercise what I believe is common sense, which I am sure will be met with cross-party approval in the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing this important debate, which I am sure is being watched closely by many drivers up and down the country. The covid-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for us all, and following the announcement of national lockdown restrictions to help stop the spread of coronavirus, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has once again had to suspend all routine theory tests and practical driving tests until restrictions are lifted. The hon. Gentleman fully outlined the resultant challenges for learners, and I assure him that I understand those challenges. He also recognised that Ministers have had to balance a number of conflicting issues when making decisions on these matters and many others. On the advice of scientific advisers, we need to take action to protect the NHS and save lives.

The requirement to undertake a driving theory test before a practical driving test is set out in the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999. The theory test is administered by the DVSA and has two elements: first, an assessment of the learner’s knowledge and understanding of the rules of the road and safe driving, comprising 50 multiple-choice questions, of which candidates must answer 43 correctly to pass; and secondly, the hazard perception test, to which the hon. Gentleman referred and which is an assessment of the learner’s ability to identify developing hazards, with 75 points available, of which candidates must score 44 to pass. Candidates must pass both elements during the same theory test.

Regulation 47(6) states that a theory test certificate has a validity period of two years. The maximum duration of two years between the passing of a theory test and the taking of a subsequent practical test is in place to ensure that a candidate’s road safety knowledge and ability to identify developing hazards is current. It is set in legislation and we currently have no plans to lay further legislation to extend it. I realise, of course, that that will affect and disappoint some learners—including the hon. Gentleman—and driving instructors, for understandable reasons, but it is nevertheless important that road safety knowledge and hazard perception skills are up to date at the critical point at which a candidate drives unsupervised for the first time.

Those with expiring theory test certificates will have taken the theory test in early 2019; since then, unfortunately, their lessons and practice sessions will have been significantly curtailed during recent lockdowns, and it is likely that their knowledge base will have diminished.

I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, but she will be aware that it is possible for someone in this country to have taken a driving test, say, 20 years ago and never to have driven in that 20-year period, but they will still have a valid licence and can get into a car and drive off. How does she reconcile that with the argument she is making?

The hon. Gentleman temps me into a broad discussion that it would not be appropriate for me to undertake at this point, because we are discussing the particular issue of extending the theory test. I want to do full justice to this issue, and I will answer the questions that he has asked.

As I was saying, learner drivers will have had their practice sessions significantly curtailed. It is vital that we ensure that new drivers have current relevant knowledge and skills—that is a vital part of the preparation of new drivers, who are disproportionately represented in casualty statistics. That is an important point and one relevant to the point the hon. Gentleman just made. A 2008 study by the Transport Research Laboratory indicated that one in five new drivers had a collision within their first year of driving unsupervised. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that that is a high proportion. The Transport Research Laboratory also found that the hazard perception test is linked to a measurable reduction in some accidents. Those with higher scores on the test have safer records as new drivers.

The DVSA has not stood still on this issue: following a series of improvements to the learning and testing process, a 2017 revaluation found that only one in 11 new drivers had a collision within the first six months. Although that is a significant improvement, we cannot afford to be complacent about road safety and the risks to new drivers.

There will be those who ask—the hon. Gentleman made this argument powerfully—why the theory test expiry date cannot be extended in the same way as MOT certificates were extended during the first lockdown. The hon. Gentleman asked me to address this point, suggesting that it is a quick fix. Unfortunately, driver theory testing and MOT testing represent different issues in terms of the underlying legislation, road safety risk and potential risk of covid-19 transmission. For that reason, they cannot be directly compared.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me specifically why, if the Government of Northern Ireland have made the decision, we cannot do the same thing. We have, of course, looked at the matter and considered it as part of our deliberations, but ultimately such matters are devolved to the Government of Northern Ireland and it is rightly a decision for them.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the MOT due dates for cars, motorcycles and light vans were automatically extended by six months from 30 March 2020 to help prevent the spread of covid-19. Drivers at that time, however, were advised that all vehicles must continue to be properly maintained and kept in a roadworthy condition.

The DVSA’s focus should rightly be on developing solutions to address the availability of theory tests and the backlog of practical driving tests that has arisen as a result of the pandemic. I am aware of proposals to allow approved driving instructors to sign off their learner and issue driving test pass certificates. Unfortunately, that is not possible. The Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999 require driving test examiners to pass an examination before being authorised by the Secretary of State to conduct practical driving tests. The Road Traffic Act 1988 allows a full driving licence to be issued only if the person has passed the test of competence to drive.

To increase the availability of theory tests, which I know the hon. Gentleman is concerned about, the DVSA has extended theory test centre opening times where possible and extended the booking window from three months to four months to give candidates more choice of available dates.

On the point about increasing the availability of theory tests in future to deal with the anticipated backlog, will the Minister consider, certainly in some rural areas such as Ceredigion, looking at introducing perhaps even temporary theory centres? At the moment, if somebody lives in Lampeter, not only did they lose the practical test centre two years ago, but they face a 50-mile round trip to attend the theory test centre. Will she consider that?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to ensure that theory tests are available to all candidates. I will certainly consider the matter that he raised and discuss it with my honourable colleague in the other place.

I assure hon. Members that once testing can resume safely, the DVSA will continue to work closely with Pearson, the provider, to monitor demand and explore ways in which it can further expand testing capacity and reduce waiting times. We are very focused on social distancing at those test centre sites, the wearing of face coverings and using physical screens between test booths.

The Minister is being very kind in giving way once more. There is also this issue: if the Government are so insistent—as it sounds like they are today—on ensuring that people have to go back and resit an exam that they have already passed, will they at least waive the £23 fee? That strikes me as being a reasonable compromise at this stage. Are they willing to consider that?

Of course, we have considered this issue. The current view is that, actually, the candidate whose theory test certificate has expired will have received the service for which they paid the fee. If we are to waive that fee for subsequent tests, someone has to pay, and ultimately, that has to be paid for by the taxpayer, so that is not a decision that we are taking at this time.

So what are we doing to increase the number of driving tests available to tackle the backlog once it is safe for tests to resume? Some of the measures include offering overtime and annual leave buy-back to examiners, asking warrant card holders who are qualified to carry out tests to do so and conducting out-of-hours testing. A recruitment campaign is also under way to increase the overall number of driving examiners available for testing. The DVSA will continue to assess further options for increasing testing capacity and is committed to reducing the backlog as quickly as possible.

If I understand things correctly, the Government are going to try to bring in other examiners. Given that this whole debate is about current knowledge, will the Minister clarify that the examiners who will be brought in will have their knowledge refreshed before they pass judgment on people?

Yes, of course. All these measures will be taken according to road safety and the regulations and standards that we rightly expect the DVSA to abide by.

I would like to address again the points that the hon. Gentleman made on the refund of fees. While I have said that the candidate whose theory test certificate expires will have received the service for which they pay the fee, if a practical test is already booked at the time when the theory test expires, the DVSA will refund the fee for the practical driving test. I hope that he would welcome that approach.

It is also important to put on record that during the current lockdown, the DVSA is offering a mobile emergency worker testing service in England and Wales. This is a limited service, and it is restricted to candidates working in the NHS, health and social care and public bodies involved in work responding to threats to life.

To conclude, I understand very well the impact the pandemic is having on individuals and businesses, and I am grateful to all learners and training providers for their continued patience during this challenging time. Keeping Britain’s roads safe must remain our priority. The decision has been made not to extend theory test certificates, and learners will need to pass another theory test if their certificate expires. In closing, I hope that with the engagement I have mentioned, I have been able to offer some reassurance to address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.