I beg to move,
That the draft Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021, which were laid before this House on 16 September, be approved.
Together with the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2021, which follows the negative procedure, these statutory instruments are part of several ways that the Government are seeking to address the heavy goods vehicle driver shortage. The haulage sector has been experiencing an acute shortage of HGV drivers worldwide for some time. This has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic having suspended driver testing for much of last year, meaning that the shortage increased further. The shortage affects not only the supplies of fresh food, but fuel, medicines and medical equipment across Great Britain. I am therefore grateful that this debate could be held at the earliest opportunity available, so that we can address this issue as a priority.
The overall aim of the regulations is to increase the number of HGV drivers in Great Britain by increasing the number of test slots available to drivers wishing to pass an HGV driving test, while maintaining road safety standards for any changes made to the driver licence testing regime. The intention of the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 is to remove the need for driver licence category B+E tests, which are required for car drivers who wish to tow a heavy trailer. Driver examiners have limited test availability, and this legislation will free up driver examiner time and mean that it can be reallocated to conduct HGV tests instead. This should provide additional availability of tests for potential HGV and bus drivers to help lessen the driver shortage. For car drivers, the change in legislation will mean that they will be able to tow a heavy trailer up to 3,500 kg automatically once they hold a full category B licence.
The removal of tests will free up 30,000 opportunities, and the removal of staging will free up 10,800 opportunities. For car drivers, the change in legislation will mean that they will be able to tow a heavy trailer automatically once they hold a full category B licence. Theory and practical training will continue to be recommended to help maintain driver safety on the roads, which is of the utmost importance.
An accreditation scheme is being developed with help from the trailer industry and training providers. This accreditation scheme will provide voluntary training opportunities for car drivers wishing to tow a trailer of any size for either recreational or business use. The scheme is planned to launch early next year and will focus on specific driver needs when towing different types of trailers through the provision of specialised modules. We are already working with trainers and those in leisure and business to develop the training package and, together with these groups and the police, we will identify the additional data needed to monitor towing standards effectively.
The purpose of the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 is to streamline the HGV and bus driving licence regime by removing the staging requirement for a separate heavy trailer test for provisional vocational licence holders. This will mean that once car drivers have applied for and been granted the relevant provisional entitlement to drive an HGV or bus, they can then take a full HGV or bus driving test that includes towing a heavy trailer without first having to pass the rigid HGV or bus test stage. Road safety standards will be maintained as, in order to obtain this full licence, drivers must still prove competency in all required areas to pass the test. There is no change in the test standards. Together, these measures are expected to free up 3,300 additional test appointments every month, thereby helping to reduce the acute shortage of approximately 39,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers we were experiencing as of June 2021.
The SIs support the streamlining of testing to increase the number of HGV tests taking place. Keeping our roads safe is of paramount importance, and we will monitor and take action if needed, if our roads become less safe. The SIs are just one of the 28 interventions the Government are putting in place to tackle this issue and to help reduce the strain on our national supply chains.
The ongoing driver shortage is having a profound impact on businesses and consumers, yet the Government have fallen well short in their effort to boost driver recruitment. The shortages that are crippling our economy and supply chains could lead to disruption and misery for millions in the upcoming Christmas period.
We have a mounting driving test backlog, and it is clear that only the Opposition and our proposals will take the necessary steps to address the issue and invest in upskilling UK workers. It is vital to take the urgent action that is required to boost driver recruitment and get our country moving again to support businesses after a challenging two years. That means putting in place mechanisms to encourage more people to take up jobs in the industry and to make it a more attractive place to work through improvements in conditions and facilities.
The driver shortage demands urgent action, which is glaringly lacking from the Government. Instead of expanding testing capacity through examiner recruitment, increasing facilities and resolving outstanding industrial action, they are taking the short-sighted and short-term measure of diluting testing requirements and endangering all road users in the process.
No one on this side of the House will deny that the shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers is an international problem, but it has been particularly acute in the UK due to the Government’s incompetence. To put it into context, we are facing a shortage of 90,000 drivers, which is double the number required in Germany and France and six times the figure facing Italy and Spain. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is currently conducting only 3,000 vocational driving tests a week, which means it would take months to fill the huge shortage of HGV drivers.
Instead of expanding testing capacity, the Government’s answer to the crisis is to increase the legal working hours of HGV drivers, endangering their lives and those of other road users due to an inability to operate safely if they are exhausted. They are already working too many hours on too little pay. The Government should urgently set out plans to improve conditions and facilities in the HGV industry to make it more attractive to a new and more diverse generation of drivers, as well as working with the industry and workers to retain existing staff by resetting pay, terms and conditions.
It is staggering that the Government are not doing all they can to address the crisis, given its significance for our economy’s success. If it was not enough to make UK roads more hazardous, the Government have announced regulatory changes to driving tests that will apparently speed up recruitment. That is all well and good, but when it involves removing off-road manoeuvres and rigid lorry practical tests from the testing obligations for new drivers, it has the potential to threaten road safety for drivers and users.
The way to turn the crisis around is not to dilute testing requirements and downskill HGV drivers, especially as there will be more vehicles on our roads that have not reached the standards that they are currently expected to meet. Will the Minister therefore tell the House what the safety implications will be of the decision to dilute testing requirements? Can she assure all those who use our roads that measures are being taken to recruit more instructors and expand the capacity of existing testing facilities—positive measures that would help to boost driver numbers and would be welcomed on both sides of the House?
It is a further concern that the measures will be made permanent, rather than being a temporary fix until the driver shortage and supply chain crisis have been resolved. The statutory instruments provide for three-yearly reviews before moving to five-year checks, but they do not mandate the collection of any specific safety data to inform those reviews, which make them unlikely to be as carefully considered as they should be. I repeat that they do not require the collection of any specific safety data for the reviews, which is clearly not acceptable. The Opposition are clear that, unless it can be proved that the changes have not affected road safety, we want them to be temporary and reconsidered as soon as the driving test backlog and driver shortages have improved.
The Government also need to address the cost of funding the training and tests of prospective HGV drivers. The ones I have spoken to say that the costs are too high and often unaffordable. We need to have a conversation with the Department for Education about how HGV training could benefit from some of the measures that help other students to access courses.
All of this is happening at a time when the supply chain crisis risks spiralling out of control, so I urge the Government to provide greater clarity on the steps they are taking to address this crisis in food supply chains specifically. In particular, I would like to know whether measures will be reintroduced to suspend competition laws for supermarkets.
If the Secretary of State needs ideas for how his Government can bolster the number of HGV drivers and reverse the current downward trend, he could do far worse than listen to the Opposition. To us it is abundantly clear that, in the same way as for the covid crisis, a dedicated Minister must be appointed for this latest crisis. That Minister should hold an emergency summit bringing together all those who can help overcome this current impasse, including the road haulage industry, training providers, affected business groups and transport unions.
Industry associations such as the Road Haulage Association have understandably been critical of the Government’s proposals because, like many, they have not been properly consulted. The Government must also sit down with the Migration Advisory Committee to assess the extent of the skills shortage in this sector and identify how this can be recognised in the immigration points system. The fact that neither of these have so far happened weeks into this crisis is nothing short of a dereliction of duty and shows how detached from reality this Government are from the needs of our country.
When urgent action was required, time and again this Government have either dragged their feet or run out of ideas altogether. As long ago as July, the shadow Transport Secretary, the shadow Transport Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—the shadow Home Secretary, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary all wrote to their counterparts to warn that the measures the Government had taken were not enough to address the scale of the crisis. Despite this, the Government continued with their short-termist approach and the crisis has scaled new heights, further compromising the safety of already exhausted drivers, increasing their working hours and putting road users in danger by diluting testing requirements for new drivers. Because of Government inaction, this crisis is now almost certain to continue well beyond the end of this year, ruining Christmas for so many.
As I have already made clear, the Government must do all they can to reverse the HGV driver shortage and the related supply chain crisis, but they cannot do so by diluting tests and downskilling drivers, increasing their hours operating dangerous machinery and vehicles, and endangering all of those who rely on UK roads in the process. Instead, we must see positive changes such as investing in more examiners, expanding and improving facilities, and making any changes temporary. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made clear in the summer:
“These measures just kick the can down the road for another year. This crisis is affecting businesses and consumers now, and the Government needs to understand that.”
But we are determined to ensure that this crisis does not continue for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
I commend both my hon. Friend the Minister for proposing some measures, and the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), for asking some very serious and sensible questions about some of the issues, and I do hope that the Minister will respond to a couple of those. I should mention that I am a member of the all-party group on trailer and towing safety. Its chair, the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), is here, and she may be speaking later.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. It is interesting that the first arises from a constituent coming to see me at one of my constituency surgeries, which I think points out the importance of our being able to meet our constituents. Driving is a task that has always been quite difficult for me, so driver safety issues have always been key in my mind. Although I am not too familiar with heavy goods vehicles, it seems to me that there must be a substantial difference between a rigid HGV and one with a trailer, and that the driving safety requirements of the two should be significantly different. When my constituent came to see me, he showed me the reversing test for one of these vehicles and how much more complicated it is for a trailer compared with a rigid vehicle.
My first question to the Minister, echoing what the shadow spokesperson said, is: what assessment has been made by the Government of the safety difference between those two types of vehicle? We are making quite a significant change by not requiring people who have had training on rigid HGVs to go forward to training on one with a trailer, allowing people to go straight from being able to drive to car to being able to use an HGV with a trailer. What safety assessment was made not just in the consultation, but separately by the Department?
May I also ask about the availability of spaces for testing? Although increasing capacity may be an issue, and we hear numbers bandied around, both in this debate and before, about how many drivers we are short—I think the range goes from 20,000 to 90,000—nobody actually knows what the shortage is or how long it will last. That is why the Government are right to come up with a range of policies, including those proposed today. Increasing capacity is not the same as clearing the backlog because where we have that capacity is just as important as how much capacity we have. Again, I have anecdotal evidence from my constituent—I would be interested to know about this from the Minister—that local facilities have a surplus of spaces available for tests. What assessment has my hon. Friend made about where capacity shortages are? Is there a geographic understanding of where those spaces might be, and of where they might be required?
Finally, let me reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry). It looks strange that this change will take place for three years, rather than for six months or 12 months. It looks like trying to achieve a regulatory change not quite through the back door, but without saying that we are trying to make such a change. It would be reassuring if the Minister provided some response on her and the Department’s intentions on that matter.
The Government have been warned for years and years about the shortage of HGV drivers, yet the speed of their reaction to that issue could best be described as glacial—having recently seen how quickly glaciers move, that probably gives the Government too much credit. The situation we face is of our own making. It is a combination of the industry not moving with the times quickly enough, of take-home pay being diluted in real terms when compared with other sectors, often driven by cost demands from the big supermarkets, and of this Government’s completely deaf ear and sneering cynicism about the scale of the problem facing our supply chain—problems that were clear to everyone else.
This problem is long-standing. The introduction of the IR35 was a contributory factor, covid will have had a sporadic impact, as it has on all sectors, and the way that many supermarkets and distribution hubs treat drivers going about their jobs is pretty shameful. However, even the dogs on the street can see that the Prime Minister’s botched Brexit deal was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and caused this crisis, so it is incumbent on this Government to fix it.
The Scottish National party has been warning about this situation for years. Well over five years ago my predecessors as transport spokesperson, my hon. Friends the Members for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) warned about the impact of Brexit, given that EU drivers were papering over the ever-widening cracks. They also mentioned the cost of HGV driver training and testing, and Government support to get people into that industry. I accept that the Government recently acted on that issue, with the £3,000 incentive payment for hiring new apprentice drivers, and that must be extended for at least—at least—another 12 months.
I have asked Ministers about this issue time and again. Indeed, back in June I wrote to the Secretary of State to urge immediate action to head off a crisis, and suggested that he would have to make contingency plans such as asking the armed forces to step in and help. The reply I received focused on apprenticeships, perhaps not quite getting the urgency of the coming situation. Despite the Government’s dismissive response, they did in fact have to ask the forces to assist and deliver fuel to forecourts across the country.
One thing that perhaps has not been done, which perhaps the Minister could follow up, involves coaxing those who have gained their HGV licence through being members of the Territorial Army or the full-time forces, out of retirement and into taking up the position of HGV drivers. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that is something the Government have not pursued, but that they could benefit from?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention; it is good to see him here at his usual time on a Monday evening. He makes a very good point. All options should be explored. I know that a letter was sent by the Government, supported by the Road Haulage Association and Logistics UK, to a great many drivers. I am not sure whether the drivers he mentions were on the address list, but that is certainly something that the Government should strongly consider.
So what do we get? Some short-term visas, far too little and far too late, and on terms that have not exactly been a big draw for EU drivers; a welcome announcement, it must be said, on investment in driver facilities, but one that just happens to be years too late; and the potentially permanent changes before us this evening to fix a temporary problem, which have a great many people concerned about road safety.
Despite all the UK Government’s protestations to the contrary, the end of freedom of movement is the single biggest cause of the situation that we currently face. The Conservative party chair, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), said recently that a “relatively limited” number of EU drivers were applying for jobs, with about 300 applications received and “just over 20”—I presume that means 21—fully processed. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm the latest figures on that scheme. It is no wonder that EU drivers are not interested, with the Government initially announcing the scheme end point as Christmas eve, and in a tone that signalled that EU workers were still not welcome, seemingly forgetting that it was us who were desperate for help.
If disruption is to be minimised and the economy provided with greater certainty, drivers must be added to the shortage occupation list and this derisory short-term visa must be extended to at least 12 months. If we are honest, a two-year visa is probably necessary, given the time it will take to get the required drivers trained, passed and given the appropriate experience.
Let me turn to some of the specifics of the changes that the Government are proposing tonight to address the shortage. On the first motion, the removal of the staging between the class 2 driving test and the class 1 articulated test has been welcomed by much of the industry. I say “much” because there is some concern that, for some drivers, the process may still be a little rushed.
Delegating the testing of the reversing manoeuvre is also a concern for many. Brian Kenny from the RHA said:
“According to HSE, there’s about seven people knocked down and killed in yards each year with vehicles reversing. I think it is a step back. More than one person is one too many, as far as we’re concerned. Going forward on the roads should be assessed and should be tested. It’s equally important to test properly how an individual reverses and manoeuvres off the road.”
Andrew Malcolm of Scotland’s largest logistics company, the Malcolm Group, whom I met just last week, told the BBC:
“In principle, I can understand what they’ve done, to try to unlock test dates. However, I am seriously concerned about the safety aspect. I think they’ve cut far too much out the process of the test–that’s my biggest worry.”
Baroness Vere told me at the Transport Committee:
“We have to note that as we are reviewing all these we have to have safety absolutely at the top of our minds, and we must do whatever we can to make sure that there is no diminution in road safety.”
I ask the Minister to take note of the real concerns outlined by many and the comments of Baroness Vere, and to commit to reviewing the impact of this change in the short term and coming back to the House to report on both the positives—the number of extra drivers that have managed to go through the system as a result—and the impact on road safety, such as the incidence of accidents. As the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) said, if the Government could publish some of the criteria that will be used in reviewing this change after three and five years, that would be most useful to the House in holding the Government to account on this issue.
However, the second motion, on the removal of the car trailer test, is more troubling and concerns most of the industry. Put simply, there was a good reason that the tests were introduced in the first place. To allow anyone who has passed the regular driving test to tow a 3.5-tonne trailer, about two and a half times the weight of an average car, seems to be to be asking for trouble.
I agree with the RHA when it says that trailer use requires a special set of skills that are best instilled by a training and testing process. I know, because I have been told many times by the Secretary of State and other Ministers, that the Government will encourage drivers to take training, but the truth is that the vast majority of drivers will not undertake proper training, given that they will tow only occasionally. I would prefer that the DVSA continues to test, but as a temporary measure I back the Road Haulage Association’s proposal to delegate the testing to a DVSA-authorised trainer, in a similar fashion to the proposal to delegate the HGV manoeuvring test or, currently, MOTs. With the appropriate safeguards in place, road safety can be protected rather than abandoned.
The other unintended—I hope—consequence of the decision is to make parts of the driver training sector completely obsolete, largely without warning. I wrote to the Secretary of State back in September on behalf of a constituent whose business disappeared overnight when the changes were announced. I told him that my constituent had recently invested £30,000 for a vehicle, £4,500 for a trailer, and—to me, this is the worst of all—£6,000 from a covid support loan that the Government encouraged him to take before swiping the rug from under his feet! The letter he received in response was essentially silent on the impact on the sector and on any support that my constituent, and anybody like him, could access. I asked the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box and Baroness Vere at the Transport Committee about compensation for those affected, but nothing was forthcoming. They both spoke of the hope to have an industry-led accreditation scheme, but, as I said, the vast majority of drivers simply will not take any non-statutory training. I appreciate that we are not talking about tens of thousands of people, but the Government have essentially closed viable businesses and surely they must meet their obligation to those people.
To conclude, I would like to amplify a point made by a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), who highlighted the clear inconsistencies of this Government on this issue and on wider road safety decision making. They would not extend theory test validity, despite the inability of many of my constituents to take theory tests, because of the large backlog in Scotland, because of a supposed risk to road safety in theory, and because it would require further legislation. However, they are now happy to rush through legislation to terminate B+E testing, a decision which will increase actual road risk and have a disastrous impact on the training industry. It is clear that the Government must act, but the time to act was years ago when the industry and many of us in this place warned about the repercussions of Brexit combined with inaction. Instead, that inaction has led to the empty shelves which are now commonplace across the country and to these panic measures before us, which compromise road safety for all of us.
I want to speak to the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021.
I rise as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trailer and towing safety. For more than four years, we have worked across the House to make roads safer for our constituents through consideration of the gaps in regulation and enforcement of towing and trailer safety. I believe we built a good consensus that showed the very best of Parliament. We were making advances in a non-partisan way, the result of Ministers and Back-Bench MPs working together across party lines to arrive at a settled and sensible position that improvements in this area were desperately needed. In that spirit, I thank former Ministers for their support: the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) who is in his place, and the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). They each showed a desire to fix an endemic problem around trailer safety and a genuine commitment to deliver on a promise to one particular family in my constituency.
I first met Donna and Scott Hussey in 2016, months after my election as Member of Parliament for Bristol South. Two years previously, their three-year-old son Freddie was killed in the most tragic of circumstances when a two-tonne trailer came loose from a vehicle in Bedminster, driven by somebody who had been trained and who was towing for business. From the first time I met the Hussey family, it was all too evident that the loss of Freddie had affected them in ways I could not imagine. In the four years since, it has been a privilege to campaign alongside them, and many other families and supporters, on the little-known or cared-for issue of towing and trailer safety, to put it centre stage at the Department for Transport, Highways England and the DVSA, and with it, the hundreds of associated accidents and incidents that occur in this area every year.
We have hosted Ministers and experts. We have held summits and awareness events. We have taken to the newspapers and the airwaves. We launched the all-party group. At the inaugural meeting of that group, the National Towing Working Group, chaired by Highways England, launched its first ever safety framework. In the House of Lords, we defied the odds to secure an amendment, by one vote, to the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2018, which required the Government to collect data on trailer-related incidents and produce a statutory report, the safety report I have brought with me this evening. Meanwhile, the DVSA has also launched the “Tow Safe for Freddie” campaign to help raise awareness among drivers and to honour Freddie’s name. On the roads, we made a real difference, working with the National Trailer & Towing Association to promote free roadside safety checks.
All of that makes the situation in which we found ourselves today abjectly terrible. The proposals from the Government take a wrecking ball to the advances that we have made. It is unconscionable and totally unfathomable. The Minister has made a series of unsubstantiated claims this evening. These proposals have come from nowhere, without any respect or acknowledgement of the work that has been done. They are an insult to the campaigners, who have worked so hard. It is a shoddy parliamentary practice—it really is a bitter blow today.
In the statutory report—a Government report—we have numerous paragraphs stating what needs to happen to the B+E tests around the driver safety issue. Paragraph 5.26 states:
“In order to tow heavier trailers…the driver must undertake an additional…test… Given that a range of stakeholders and data sources pinpoint driver error as a key factor in towing incidents, it is sensible to consider improvements to this test.”
Paragraph 5.27 states:
“DVSA will be considering revisions and improvements to the B+E safety questions, which form part of the practical test, over coming months. These will seek to address issues which have been raised during this report”—
the Government’s report.
Paragraph 5.28 states that the
“DVSA will consider ways to promote the B+E syllabus in the national driving standard, especially to increase awareness of safety issues among new and learner drivers and those who may only tow rarely”—
the other people who are being let tow vehicles out on our streets.
Paragraph 5.29 talks about changing the load that drivers can carry:
“DVSA will explore whether increases to this requirement, for example requiring a combination over 3.5 tonnes, would lead to tests being undertaken in a more representative vehicle combination”.
Again, that is about improvements. We were expecting to have improvements to the B+E test and it is truly astonishing to be here tonight talking about abolishing it.
When the House of Lords considered this statutory instrument, its report stated:
“These draft Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation.”
As Scott Hussey said to me last week, this makes absolutely no sense. As other Members have said this evening, this is not a temporary measure; it is a permanent change.
Our work on the APPG is based on the findings of the statutory report. We were looking at how safe trailers over 750 kg are based on the available data and then, on the basis of that assessment, we were looking at whether the mandatory testing and/or registration of trailers over 750 kg should be introduced.
The Department for Transport decided that the case for trailer registration and testing, hence the need to ensure that there is roadworthy-compliance, was not made. However, it always said that the level of compliance of some 50%—50% of these trailers are compliant—was a cause of concern.
Paragraph 5.1 of the report states:
“This report has presented an opportunity to consider trailer safety in a broad context, and to consider other interventions which may benefit towing and more general road safety”—
that is, more improvements.
Paragraph 5.2 states:
“Throughout this report, significant concerns have been raised about data availability and validity, the role of driver error in incidents, and ensuring that the current test regimes for drivers and vehicles are working correctly.”
It mentions an assessment of the current regime, without any talk of abolishing it.
We have been meeting over the past few years and collecting more data, working with the Department on roadside checks. The DVSA’s checks, which it has carried on through the pandemic—we are very grateful to those who have worked with us closely to make sure that we get evidence to look at the greater regulation of these trailers—all consistently show 50% non-compliance.
I met the Minister, the noble Baroness Vere, and I am grateful for her support, too. This Minister—and she has done this—will talk about continued working with regard to improving compliance, and she made a distinction between trailer compliance and driver behaviour. However, as I said, we are so concerned about these proposals because we never envisaged a situation where the test would be abolished. In an area where the Government have admitted their concern, namely the regulation and testing of trailers, they have made things worse by taking away the test requirement for drivers.
Let us look at a little of the detail of the Government’s proposals, because I do not think that Ministers are across it in any way, shape or form. The Government have not made a road safety impact assessment of this decision. I am not making this up: there is no road safety impact assessment of a decision that makes such a massive change to how drivers are trained. We are being asked to vote on a decision that has not been assessed, with ramifications that are literally a matter of life and death.
The Government’s explanatory memorandum states that there are
“around 1,000 accidents per year”
involving trailers, but statistics on the car and trailer driving test suggest a consistent current fail rate of 30%. In 2019-20, that was 8,575 people. Under the Government’s proposals, those people will be going out on our roads. It takes either immense stupidity or unbelievable indifference not to see that allowing people on our roads who cannot pass a test will drive up accidents.
Perhaps most offensively, the Government are proclaiming that the changes are needed to solve the HGV crisis—a case that they have not proven. It is not clear how the theoretical freeing up of the test will be used to do what the Government say. They have brought no evidence and no case that they have done that work. I dare any Minister to talk to any family who has been affected by the issue or to anyone who has lost somebody to an unsafe trailer or an unsafe driver.
The draft regulations will do nothing to help with the HGV crisis. In theory, at a stretch, they could free up some examiner capacity, but they will do nothing to reverse the backlog and gain new HGV drivers. Plenty of alternatives have been put forward to help with the problem. The key question for the Government is whether it is worth risking lives to free up theoretical testing capacity.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I have been inundated by messages from experts in the field telling me that the draft regulations will not do what the Government say—and the Government have brought no evidence that says otherwise. I have heard from trainers, drivers, testing centres, the insurance industry and the Road Haulage Association that they do not support this part of the package.
It is not just Members and industry experts who have grave concerns. Noble Lords have stated that they
“take the view that the House currently has insufficient information to enable proper assessment of the policy and the House may wish to press the Minister for more specific details about its wider safety implications.”
That is exactly what is happening tonight.
The Government’s proposals are not, in any shape or form, fit for purpose. They are dangerous. This is reckless. No-one thinks that it is a good idea, except some parts of the Government, and there is no safety assessment on which to base the decision. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully, that she will go back to the Department and that she will accept that I want to work positively, as I have done in the past four years. Along with the suggestions from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), with which I agree, I ask for four other issues to be taken into account.
First, the Government need to ensure that the remit of any voluntary accreditation scheme is widened to include all drivers and all trailers. The rules are now very complex and we need a much simpler licensing system.
Secondly, I hope that the Minister and the Government will continue to work with the APPG, not only on developments relating to towing and trailer safety, but on somehow assessing the effect of this legislative change. I do not know how we will do that, because there is no evidence for us to assess as a starting point and there is no way that the Government can assess the situation in three years’ time, but we will try to work with them.
Thirdly, I would like the Minister to provide an annual written statement setting out where driver error is cited in towing accidents. That would give us some reassurance that the Government will be in a position to undertake some sort of assessment in three years’ time, as they say they will.
Fourthly, I would like the Minister to give more specific details of the new proposed training scheme. What is its scope? How many people are expected to be trained? When will the scheme come on stream? How will it be communicated? How will it be evaluated? Let us not forget that these tests are already being abolished. We are here tonight supposedly to rubber-stamp something that has already been set in train, and there is nothing to replace it.
I will close with the words of my constituent Donna Hussey. She said:
“While it has always been difficult for us to comprehend what happened to Freddie, we made a promise to each other and to Freddie that we would do all we could to make sure this issue is given the serious consideration it deserves. If our hard work saves one life, then it is worth it. No family should have to go through what we have been through. We are determined to see this through in memory of Freddie.”
We have been promised, time and again, measures that will be fit to serve the memory of Freddie and the bravery of his family. Rushed legislation is always bad legislation. There is still time for the Government to pause, to put aside the mish-mash that is before us and to make good their promises, and I would like to support them in trying somehow to reverse the terrible damage that this proposal is doing.
It is a privilege to follow the powerful speech of the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth).
Like every other Member, I am obviously concerned about the HGV driver shortage and the very visible impact that it has been having in every community over recent months. We have seen the petrol shortages and empty shelves. One thing that concerns my constituents is that we are not entirely sure what the next impact will be. Is this a short-term issue, or will it continue for longer? I support the Government’s measures to attempt to resolve it, and I give them credit for what they have been able to do so far.
We know that the HGV shortage has arisen from a number of sources. We know, for example, that terms and conditions in the haulage industry have been declining relative to the general employment market over the last couple of decades. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) highlighted the issue of facilities, but this is also very much an issue of how our labour market has changed, partly as a result of the pandemic but also as a result of our leaving the European Union. I urge the Government to do more about making HGV driving an attractive occupation, certainly for new entrants to the market here in the UK—the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) made some interesting remarks about training, and I think that the Government should take that on board—but in the immediate term we need to make more visas available for HGV drivers from abroad to ensure that we no longer see the disrupted supply chains that we have seen over the last few months.
The Government are hoping to increase capacity for testing. I am concerned about that, because obviously we should not be attempting to resolve the HGV shortage at the expense of road safety for everyone—motorists, pedestrians and all our communities. As we all know, the impact of poorly driven HGVs can be devastating. I am anxious about all these proposals on road safety grounds, but while I have my anxieties about the proposed changes in the way in which tests are taken by drivers of articulated and rigid lorries, they are mitigated by the fact that those changes are targeted at a specific group of people who are already professional, experienced and have been driving lorries for a living.
However, I have a real problem with the abolition of the trailer towing test. I cannot say much more about this issue than has already been said so eloquently by the hon. Member for Bristol South, but my specific concern is that if we were to allow this change, and if that were to result in a significant increase in collisions or indeed deaths—as was also eloquently described by the constituent of the hon. Member for Bristol South—we would have just let these regulations through without any opposition or anyone standing up to say that it was wrong.
We are talking about drivers of motor cars, which is obviously the majority of licence holders in this country, suddenly being able to drive trailers weighing 3,500 kg. That is a significant skill that takes time to acquire, and it requires proper instruction. I am very concerned by what the hon. Member for Bristol South has been saying about the need to increase the safety of trailers. That is well recognised, and it is something that she has campaigned on for a long time, so the proposal to abolish the measure feels like a move in the wrong direction. I am extremely anxious about the implications of that. Also, now that the barrier of the requirement to take a test is being removed, will we see a big expansion in the number of people wanting to tow trailers without proper instruction? What will that mean for road safety? I am extremely anxious about that, and I will oppose the statutory instruments this evening.
I would like to thank hon. Members for their clear consideration of these instruments. I will respond in turn to the various points that have been raised.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), encouraged swift action, and we have certainly taken swift action. There is a shortage of 39,000 HGV drivers, according to my data, as a result of a variety of factors including a lack of diversity and poor quality facilities. That is why in the latest spending review we have committed £32.5 million to improving those facilities. On diversity, I am delighted to be able to inspire the House with the latest figures on vocational tests. They indicate that 56% of men are passing the tests and that 65% of women are doing so. That is an uplifting statistic on vocational heavy goods vehicle testing.
We are also working with the Department for Education and now have specific apprenticeship standards with a funding band of £7,000. That is really working. We are providing funding to Think Logistics and working with Career Ready. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested, we are already working with ex-military personnel and others, including people who have retired, to help to retrain them to work in the sector once again. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) questioned the timescales. Yes, we will review formally in three years and five years, but we will also review continually at every stage. Should there be a need for intervention, we will not hesitate to intervene where road safety is concerned.
I would really like to thank the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for her work on chairing the all-party parliamentary group, and I would be delighted to accept her invitation to come and speak to the group and to understand how we can make this work. I want to reassure her, her members and, most importantly, Freddie’s family that safety is of paramount importance to the Department, and quite rightly so. We will continue to support the Tow Safe for Freddie campaign, which the Department has supported in the past, because we take road safety very seriously. The UK has some of the safest roads in the world. Our support for the campaign will continue, and will draw attention to the importance of motorists doing safety checks whenever they are towing.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) raised a number of points. I have reached the grand old age of 45, and I passed my test before 1997. I can already tow a trailer of up to 750 kg—and indeed of up to 3,500 kg—because this change came in in 1997. Earlier this year, we ran a trailer safety campaign. It was timed to coincide with the lifting of the travel restrictions and the anticipated rise in the number of motorists towing caravans and trailers. It focused on encouraging motorists to do several basic checks before setting off on their journey, and highlighted the most common defects found by Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency examiners at the roadside. This reinforces the vital importance of maintaining trailers. I very much hope that people will take advantage of the Department’s encouragement of accreditation, which will also be provided.
We will shortly be publishing the impact assessment. It is being handled urgently and requires clearance, including by the Regulatory Policy Committee. We will keep those timescales to a minimum, but at the earliest we expect to be able to publish the assessment before the end of the year. We understand the concern that a full analysis has not yet been published, and we are working on it urgently. It was a case of balancing the need to take action quickly to address the driver shortage against the need to assimilate evidence and analyse it in full.
I hope the Chamber has found the debate informative. These instruments will play a critical part in ensuring we can rapidly address the acute heavy goods vehicle driver shortage that the haulage sector faces.
I am afraid I will not—I am nearly there. The instruments will free up driver examination time so that more HGV driving tests can be conducted. As has been seen in recent weeks, this is a matter that affects us all in our daily lives and action must be taken.
The Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 17 November (Standing Order No. 41A).
That the draft Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021, which were laid before this House on 18 October, be approved.—(Trudy Harrison.)