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Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Reform)

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about licences authorising the driving of motor vehicles of certain classes; and for connected purposes.

The principal purpose of the Bill is to reform regulation 5(2) of the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) Regulations 1999. These are EU rules that were put into UK law and reduce the number of vehicles that could be driven after passing a general motoring licence test. So-called grandfather rights were maintained for people like me who had passed their driving test prior to 1997 to continue to be able to drive certain categories of vehicles, including minibuses and medium-sized goods vehicles which fall under the categories D1 and C1. In particular, I am seeking reform to our driving licences so that the C1 and D1 categories are automatically given to everybody who has passed a driving test for a car, in the same way that happened for those of us who passed our test before 1997.

This opportunity—a Brexit bonus—to reform driving licence regulations that were put in place thanks to our membership of the EU is motivated by my intention to, first, support rural communities and, secondly, unlock economic growth opportunities. I recently raised this issue in the House in a debate on 31 January and gave notice then of my intention to seek to change the law. Other hon. Members voiced their support for a change, focused in particular on community transport and the D1 category. I do not seek to repeat everything I said in that debate, but since then the Community Transport Association and others have contacted me to voice their full support for a change in the law.

This whole issue first came to my attention when I visited Halesworth Area Community Transport in my constituency and was told about its challenges in getting more drivers. To drive a van or minibus for that non-for-profit organisation, as it then was, people had to pay between £2,000 and £3,000 to do a course and pass a test to acquire a D1 licence, due to the regulations. The problem was reinforced when I visited the Voluntary Help Centre in Southwold, where I was told a similar story. When I went to see the then Transport Minister, I was told that they were EU regulations and that there was absolutely no way we could change them for as long as we were part of the EU.

The Community Transport Association has given me further examples, including Bexhill Community Bus, which stated:

“We are a small Community Bus operator, and we rely on persons with D1 on their licence. We are facing a future when Cat B drivers lose the automatic right to drive a mini bus, and would face the expense of training all new volunteer drivers.”

Changing Lives Together, an organisation in Cheshire that supports a change in the law, says:

“This is very much needed, and we are recruiting from a smaller pool of people every year and it is causing real problems across our area.”

This issue is particularly challenging for community transport associations that help people with disabilities in their daily lives. That was recognised in the Government’s national disability strategy, and there was a commitment from the Department for Transport to help tackle shortages in community transport drivers. It is clear that there is a real need for reform in order to make it easier to acquire a D1 licence to support community transport ventures and our rural communities, and to avoid losing such services or turning them into exclusively paid services.

I turn to the benefits of reforming C1 licences, which are for medium-sized goods vehicles, not heavy goods vehicles. These are the kinds of vehicles used to do a lot of local delivery jobs, but the licence also applies to horse boxes and vehicles such as ambulances. Opening up this category—perhaps with some conditions, such as a minimum age of 25 or having held a driving licence for two or more years—would provide an instant economic boost, without a cost to the Government, and help productivity in the supply chain.

In recent years, we have experienced a shortage of HGV drivers due to a number of factors, particularly during covid. One of the reasons why there has been a shortage is that HGV drivers started switching to jobs using medium-sized vehicles, for which they were automatically qualified by holding an HGV licence. The Department introduced some sensible, temporary measures to help address the shortage. As an aside, the cost of acquiring a C1 licence is typically between £2,000 and £3,000, which is similar to the D1 licence. Apprenticeship courses are available for HGV driving qualifications, allowing businesses to use their apprenticeship levy funding, but there is not one for securing a C1 driving licence. I have been informed that previous attempts to secure one have been rejected, as it is not considered that a 12-month course and practical experience are needed to gain the qualification.

Within Government, I tried to persuade the Department for Transport to look at this opportunity, and I was delighted when it issued a call for evidence in August 2022. As the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), wrote in its foreword:

“The licensing improvements”—

those regarding HGV drivers, to which I referred earlier—

“were achievable partly due to the fact that we had left the European Union and had the freedom to change our legislation to improve our testing and licensing regime… The call for evidence includes seeking evidence on the economic benefits of widening the recruitment pool for medium-sized goods vehicles and minibus drivers, which may attract more people to the industry and support economic growth by further strengthening our supply chain.”

There was exceptionally strong support for the changes to both C1 and D1 licences, and I particularly commend the submission made by the Community Transport Association on D1 licences. Businesses also gave very strong support to the C1 changes, citing significant economic advantages. The reasons given included that it would be much more efficient to run a single trip in a 4.6-tonne van than to be restricted to multiple trips, as it would require fewer journeys to transport the goods. In essence, it would mean fewer vehicles on the road and fewer trips. That is good news for the economy and for the environment. In the same summary, though, it was pretty clear that the Department did not want to make any changes, which disappointed me. But as is self-evident, I have not given up, as I think these simple changes would both bring economic growth and be hugely beneficial for rural communities.

I am aware that the East of England Ambulance Service was hindered in getting new drivers to drive ambulances due to the delays in C1 assessments, despite their already undertaking advanced driver training—the blues and twos, as it is known—for emergency vehicles. I am pleased to say that that has been rectified, but there was a barrier. Further, while I am in the mood for sensible reform through this Bill, we should consider the economic benefits of extending the lifetime of driving licences, which, due to EU law, is currently 10 years for a car and five years for several other vehicles, including horse boxes. That feels unnecessarily burdensome and a change would benefits not only in the cost of processing, but in the cost to drivers across the country.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is listening hard to these proposals for reform, and I welcome the discussions we have had. I suggest to the Government that such reforms would be exceptionally popular with community transport associations across the country, and with businesses large and small.

I understand the issues around safety. Driving tests have become considerably more difficult since I passed my test, but I think there is a way to address some of the concerns raised by certain campaign groups. I am aware that the Government signed up to the Vienna convention in 2018, although these regulations were already in place and, indeed, we have applied various reservations to the convention so as not to disrupt our common-sense practices in this country. For instance, we do not have to wait for the green light to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing when no traffic is coming in either direction, which, as we know, is a criminal offence in other countries in Europe.

I believe that this is a real opportunity to adopt some sensible approaches that, as I say, would be welcome across the House. The Bill would be a Brexit bonus, increase community transport and remove an unnecessary, costly barrier for business. Recognising the strengthening of the driving test in the past 25 years, we should have the confidence to back British drivers with British rules. I would like to work with the Government during the passage of the Bill to a Second Reading, and I commend it to the House.

Before I call Sir Chris Bryant, may I gently remind him that he has to give a speech in opposition to the Bill? I take it that the hon. Gentleman wishes to speak in opposition.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am very grateful for your reminding me that I have to speak in opposition to the legislation, but given that the Government themselves oppose the Bill, as the right hon. Member has just pointed out, I presume that the Government will be opposing it as well this afternoon.

While I commend the right hon. Lady for her diligence as a Back Bencher in introducing a series of ten-minute rule Bills over the last year—for instance, last year she introduced the Schools (Gender and Parental Rights) Bill, which fell at the first hurdle because it did not get a Second Reading, with 40 people voting No and 34 voting Aye—we have the same right to oppose her Bill today if we think that it is not appropriate, relevant or necessary. She referred to the fact that she considers this to be—[Interruption.]

Order. Other Members may not wish to hear the hon. Gentleman, but I do, and I need to know whether he is in order. If hon. Members want to have private conversations, it would be helpful if they could either have them outside or keep quiet.

I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker.

My main objection to the Bill is that the right hon. Lady seeks to make this a “Brexit bonus”, as she referred to it. I disagree with that very concept, because I believe that regulatory convergence, rather than regulatory divergence, is more useful both so that British drivers know where they stand in this country and other countries in Europe, and so that European drivers are able to drive in the UK. Of course, there are other areas where there might be Brexit bonuses, because we might trade with other countries elsewhere in the world, but when it comes to driving licences specifically, the only other countries that we are likely to deal with are those within the European Union.

I believe—I think the Government do too, because so far the Department for Transport has refused to budge in the direction that the right hon. Lady suggests—that this is an inappropriate Bill that would do harm rather than good. It would not lead to greater safety, but actually imperil safety in the UK.

We signed up to the Vienna convention in 2018. Exemptions are allowed under the Vienna convention. In a previous speech on this matter, the right hon. Lady pointed out that one of the exemptions that we have introduced relates to when you can cross the road in the UK when a traffic light seems to suggest that you cannot. Under the Vienna convention, we would not normally be able to do that but we have been able to amend it. So there is an argument, which the right hon. Lady has not made, that this legislation is not necessary to achieve the end that she is trying to achieve.

The right hon. Lady also referred to the fee of between £2,000 and £3,000. She made the legitimate point that some charities would like to be able to use minibuses which, when they are fully loaded, go over the 3.5-tonne limit, and that the £2,000 to £3,000 fee is a significant one that can impede them in doing the work that we all want them to do. However, that matter is in the power of Government without any need for legislation.

A further point is that the Government have consulted on this measure, as the right hon. Lady said, but have decided not to proceed. It would be useful if the Government were able to tell us why they have not chosen to proceed. My suspicion is that it is because they believe that this measure would not be safe.

The right hon. Lady said that she wanted to extend the length of time for which a licence is provided. That would clearly be in direct contravention of the Vienna convention. Presently it is set at 10 years, and I personally think that that is the safest way to ensure that every driver on the road in this country has a valid driving licence that is up to date and has the correct address on it, and that the person is properly insured. I am sure many of us have come across cases in our constituencies in which people have been financially disadvantaged because the crash they were involved in was with somebody who did not have a proper driving licence, perhaps because it was out of date and they were not properly insured. The right hon. Lady’s measure would drive a coach and horses through that, if you will forgive the pun, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Another issue is that in recent years we have had a significant problem with getting enough HGV drivers in the UK. I believe that this measure would make that substantially more difficult, adding costs to businesses up and down the country. It would make it more difficult because many of the present HGV drivers on British roads are not British; they are of other nationalities. If we had a separate set of regulations for the UK—completely separate from the rest of the European Union—it would make it more difficult for businesses to do their work and create an additional layer of regulatory burden, which is a cost to businesses.

My final point is that there are 78 private Members’ Bills listed on the Order Paper that will be called for Second Reading on 23 February, 1 March, 15 March or 22 March, all of which are before the final date for calling a general election on 2 May. I do not think that a single one of them will enter the statute book. There are actually 26 in the name of Members called Christopher, and I feel rather left out that not one of them comes from myself. The serious point is that we keep putting more Bills on to the Order Paper but not putting them on to the statute book, because we still have a system for ten-minute rule Bills and private Members’ Bills that is completely and utterly bust. The Procedure Committee has said time and again that we are bringing the whole process into disrepute, and that is why we should not be adding yet another ten-minute rule Bill to the Order Paper when we have no intention of putting it on the statute book. I therefore urge all hon. Members to vote against the measure today.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House proceeded to a Division.