Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
I am thankful for the opportunity to hold this debate and to talk about the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s decision to close Scunthorpe’s theory test centre. This decision affects both my constituency and that of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). We work together when issues affect our areas and we are as one on this important issue. I thank him for his work, along with the many constituents and businesses that have contacted us both over recent weeks.
Before I start, I declare an interest: like very many others, I have a family member who is about to take their theory test.
Ever since theory tests were made mandatory in 1996, we have had a test centre on Doncaster Road in Scunthorpe, near Berkeley Circle. It has served residents and supported driving instructors and driving schools in Scunthorpe for generations. The staff there have worked incredibly hard to cater for the high demand that we have seen this year in particular. I did my own theory test there almost 20 years ago.
Over the summer, the news that the test centre was closing left residents frankly none too chuffed, and I am in agreement with them. It is absolute nonsense. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the service is run by the DVSA, so initially we approached its chief executive. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and I were both told that the closure was the result of a contractual change following a review of the allocation of centres nationally. I understand that this is an effort to create a more even distribution throughout the country, which is fine in theory, but it turns out not to be that good in practice for people who live in the Scunthorpe constituency.
We were told that the decision was based on the use of sophisticated population-mapping software, and that throughout the UK people will be able to travel to theory test centres within 40 miles if they live in a rural area and within 40 minutes if they live in an urban area. I am sure the Minister will comment further on that when she responds. To put it simply, it seems to me, reading between the lines, that a computer has had a crack at working it out and come up with the idea that my constituents can go to Grimsby, Doncaster or Hull for tests. I have even heard York suggested, which is particularly crackers.
Given that we are talking about residents who are not yet able to drive themselves, travelling to places other than Scunthorpe presents obvious problems. For example, a resident travelling from Scawby would need to take a 38-minute journey on the No. 4 bus into Scunthorpe town centre, then walk for seven minutes to Scunthorpe station, take a 39-minute train journey to Grimsby Town, and then walk for nine minutes to the theory test centre. When waiting times are taken into account, it is a journey of roughly two hours and 20 minutes each way. This means that one of my constituents might have to travel for up to four hours and 40 minutes to get their test—and it takes me only three and a half hours to drive from Scunthorpe all the way to Parliament.
From Howsham to a test centre, it is two hours and 18 minutes each way by bus and train; Cleatham residents will be set back three hours altogether; from Manton, it is a two-hour-and-40-minute journey to the Doncaster test centre; and from East Butterwick, it is 80 minutes via bus and train. I think most people would agree that those are ridiculous journeys for anyone to have to make to access a theory test—and nor is it practical when residents are given limited time slots in which to take their test at a busy test centre.
My constituency is a mix of rural and urban areas and, for us, being able to pass our driving test is a necessity, not a luxury. I have been contacted about this issue by instructors, disabled residents, young people and their parents, all of whom are concerned about the financial costs and wasted time resulting from the DVSA’s decision. In particular, a constituent has raised the worries of her partner. He has certain disabilities that she says would make him unable to make the journey to a test centre further away.
Even if residents are able to travel out of the county for a test, I have experimented multiple times trying to book one. You have to queue to get on the website and it repeatedly crashes. After you finally get past that stage, unsurprisingly, there is very little availability.
By taking away our test centre, the DVSA’s decision will slow down how quickly people can pass their tests and this will limit access to labour market opportunities. Even if residents are fortunate enough to have someone to drive them to their test appointment, it is not exactly smooth sailing.
One of my constituents got in touch with me just today to share her frustration at the current situation. Her daughter unfortunately failed her first theory test in Scunthorpe earlier in the summer and had to rebook to secure an appointment in Doncaster on 1 September. Having encountered traffic and parking issues on the journey, they ended up being 10 minutes late for the appointment, despite having set off an hour early. Her daughter was turned away, wasting time, fuel and a test slot—not to mention the time off work that mum had to take. Their next appointment—the first one they could get—is booked for the middle of October in Lincoln, 60 miles away. My constituent is planning a “test run” the weekend before to ensure that there is no repeat of the previous situation.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for the speech that she is giving, which highlights a growing problem. Being in the neighbouring constituency, many of my residents in Barton-Upon-Humber and the surrounding area want to use the Scunthorpe centre as it is more convenient. Does she agree that, when the Minister replies, we hope to hear the positive outcome that the Scunthorpe centre will be retained?
I wholeheartedly agree. We very much hope to have a positive outcome to this, as it is a genuine problem for residents in my constituency and in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I cannot believe that the system developed by the DVSA has considered these common issues. Even people who can get a lift need a local, reliable option. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic—I am sure she will be. This Government have spent tens of millions of pounds on levelling up areas such as Scunthorpe. We have secured £21 million locally in our towns fund deal and £10 million via the future high streets fund. Work has already started on a £50 million improvement to our hospital and, alongside the Humber freeport plans, we have seen huge investment over the past 18 months. I am really proud of the work that is being done with regional and national partners to secure these opportunities for residents in areas such as Scunthorpe. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is important for all residents to have the opportunity to benefit equally from the levelling up that we are seeing in those areas.
The locally elected Conservative councillors in Scunthorpe are also keen to keep this vital local facility. They have not sat around whingeing about the situation; they have put forward a really good solution. The leader of North Lincolnshire Council, Rob Waltham, stepped in and offered to provide an alternative location in Scunthorpe Central Library. When that offer was rejected, he came back with another suggestion, committing council staff to invigilate the tests.
We are doers in North Lincolnshire. If we had the computers and were given the instructions, we would do it ourselves, but, unfortunately, all these sensible suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. Every attempt that we have made to fix this situation has been unsuccessful. There has been no real justification, no meaningful engagement and no effort to understand how this will impact on people’s lives. There is a clear local need. The test centre serves 100,000 people at a time of continued and increased demand. Quite frankly, there simply is not any excuse to take our test centre away.
I have always believed in the spirit of working together with colleagues to benefit Scunthorpe. I know that, in all circumstances, Ministers such as my hon. Friend want to do all they can to help. Therefore, after a long day, I thank the Minister for her time and leave her with three clear requests. Please will she look into why all our reasonable attempts to improve the situation have been fobbed off, including North Lincolnshire Council’s offer to provide support? Please will she commit her Department to ask the DVSA urgently to review this decision, and meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole to discuss the issue? Lastly, please can she ensure that future decision making on this level will be subject to meaningful consultation and review, and take into account its real-life impact on local people?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) for securing this important debate. She is ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who I understand has been very active on this issue. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who I am pleased to see in his place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe is right to draw the attention of the House to the real-life impact of these issues, because we are aware that they affect young people,; and we all know how much young people have been affected by the dreadful pandemic that we have all been suffering through. She is also right to draw our attention to the Government’s levelling-up agenda and the benefits that it has brought to her constituency. Of course, we all wholeheartedly support that. I will try to answer my hon. Friend’s questions and set out some of the detail behind the decision. As she knows, these matters fall under the responsibilities of our noble Friend Baroness Vere, who has written to my hon. Friend, but she would of course be delighted to meet her further to give her yet more details about the issue.
The requirement to undertake a driving theory test before a practical driving test is set out in the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999. It is important to assess the learner’s knowledge and understanding of the rules of the road. The DVSA’s priority remains to deliver a theory test that ensures that candidates have the correct knowledge and understanding to be able to drive safely on our busy modern roads.
As my hon. Friend is aware, what has led to the situation in her constituency is that the DVSA has launched a new driving theory test service for England, Scotland and Wales. This service applies to theory tests taken from 6 September 2021. As she highlighted, in order to remove the dependency on a single contract and supplier, under the new system third-party suppliers will deliver the actual test to the public, so the DVSA has created a new test centre network that is divided into three geographical areas: region A covers Scotland, Northern Ireland, the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber; region B covers Wales, the west midlands, the south-west and the south-east; and region C covers the east midlands, the east of England and London. Under the new system, changes were inevitably made to the theory test centre estate when the contracts were awarded, but the DVSA has ensured that 100% of the population of Great Britain can travel to a theory test centre within 40 minutes or 40 miles.
I was born in Scunthorpe, and I have lived either in Scunthorpe or very locally to it for all of my life, so I can tell my hon. Friend that it is simply not the case that people in some of the further out areas of my constituency are able to access a theory test centre in the times that are being quoted by the DVSA. The on-the-ground situation is simply not in accordance with what the agency is saying.
My hon. Friend is right to make reference to her local knowledge. I obviously do not represent Scunthorpe, so she is the expert on that. I assure her that the geographical criteria were calculated using industry-leading software—the same software that was used to determine the location of the Nightingale hospitals and vaccination centres to ensure that people had access to life-saving treatments.
I thank my hon. Friend for explaining the software. When software gives us information, but on a human level we can see that that information is not appropriate and the software has not worked, is there the possibility that a person could look at the details and perhaps overrule that decision?
I applaud my hon. Friend for her determination in putting forward her constituents’ concerns. For the record, we know that Grimsby is 37 minutes or 27.5 miles via the A180 from Scunthorpe, or 38 minutes by train. Doncaster is 38 minutes or 25.7 miles away via the M180 or the A636, or 30 minutes by train. There are appointments next week in both Grimsby and Doncaster.
Yesterday I myself attempted to book appointments. I made multiple attempts on the website. There was a queuing system to get in so we watched a little man run across the screen until we got into the website. When we did, it repeatedly crashed. I have also tried previously to book appointments and it was incredibly difficult to find them, because these theory test centres are swamped with people from places like Barton-upon-Humber and my surrounding villages in Scunthorpe who are trying to get those appointments.
Again, I absolutely commend my hon. Friend for raising the practical problems. I am of course sorry to hear that she has experienced that. We keep the whole system under review, because we want to have good availability for people to take these very important tests. If I may proceed with the rest of my remarks, perhaps that will help her to understand some of the context of the decisions.
It is right that we ensure that 100% of the population of Great Britain can travel to a theory test centre. That was the fundamental criterion. However, the contract has been awarded to more than one company, so the DVSA is able to increase accessibility to the theory test. That means that the number of theory test centres is increasing from 180 to 202 across Great Britain. That increased number of test centres has meant that there is a more even distribution of locations, which has made theory tests more accessible, especially to those in remote areas of the country.
However, as my hon. Friend highlighted, increasing a more even distribution made it inevitable that the location of some theory test centres would change. The DVSA appreciates that those who had a local theory test centre under the old arrangements would prefer, naturally, to have kept it under the new ones. However, the DVSA believes—as do I, of course, as a Minister—that the approach of ensuring that the ask is the same of all candidates across Great Britain is the fairest outcome. But I can assure her that as populations and road layouts change over time, the DVSA will continue to review the travel time and distance to understand whether any changes are needed to the test centre network.
My hon. Friend highlighted the test centre in her constituency that has closed. The nearest theory test centres for candidates in Scunthorpe are both within the performance measures. I appreciate that she has some concerns about that, but I set it out for the record. The travel distances to both those test centres are in line with those across Great Britain. There is strong availability for candidates, with over 1,000 test appointments at Grimsby and Doncaster in September, and there are plenty more slots available throughout October and November, so I do hope her constituents can book their tests. Most people only need to travel to the test centre once—hopefully they will pass—and other test centres available to service the area are located in Hull, York and Lincoln, which may suit some people but not all. Candidates can use the “Find a Theory Test Centre” service on gov.uk to locate an alternative centre.
I want to come on to the point that my hon. Friend made about the offer from her council. I very much appreciate that they are doers. I have seen that in all the work that she has done for the local area. She is a fantastic champion and she has got on and done so much already in the short time that she has been here. The council has put forward a suitable location in Scunthorpe. The DVSA appreciates this offer, but as it awarded three regional contracts for the conduct of the theory test some time ago, and testing has now begun under those contracts, it is not possible to change them. That means that the DVSA is unable to accept North Lincolnshire Council’s offer, as it could be challenged as changing the procurement rules under which the DVSA awarded the contracts. There could also be a risk of an allegation that the supplier in that region was effectively receiving state aid because it would potentially have reduced delivery costs—something not available to other suppliers.
I have listened to my hon. Friend’s concerns but I am confident that the new theory test arrangements give a good service for her constituents and a fairer service for everyone. I hope that with some of the engagement that have been able to give her today, and the offer of further engagement from my noble Friend, I have been able to offer some reassurance to address her concerns.
Question put and agreed to.