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Driving Instructors (Registration) Bill

Volume 769: debated on Friday 11 March 2016

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I am grateful for the privilege and the opportunity to bring forward this Private Member’s Bill. This is a simple Bill which makes amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988 to simplify the registration of driving instructors. As part of my TA military service I qualified as an Army HGV driving instructor, and I have taught HGV driving both to military personnel and in civilian industry. I think I can safely claim that I know something about the subject. Nevertheless, I am under no illusions and I know that it would require a great deal of effort on my part to qualify as an approved driving instructor. Your Lordships should not underestimate the difficulty of becoming an ADI.

Put simply, the Bill will introduce two small deregulatory measures to update the current legislation to remove barriers that previously prevented driving instructors from voluntarily leaving the profession at a time of their choosing and returning to the profession when it is convenient for them to do so without having to retake their qualifying examinations.

As your Lordships may already be aware, professional driving instructors have been regulated since the 1960s to help ensure that people receive a minimum standard of training for taking the driving test. It is therefore unlawful for a person to conduct driving instruction for payment unless they are registered as an approved driving instructor. To become registered as an ADI, an instructor must take and pass a three-stage examination of theory, practical driving ability and, most importantly, instructional ability; and be a fit and proper person. Once qualified, ADIs are registered for four years.

Once their name has been added to the register it will remain there until registration expires at the end of four years or is extended. To get their registration extended, they must take and pass a standards check of their continued ability to deliver instruction. The only way that a person can currently be removed is if the registration runs out or if they are removed from the register by the registrar for conduct, competence or disciplinary reasons. Once an instructor has been removed from the register they can return only if they requalify by retaking the three-part examination.

The Bill provides two deregulatory measures to simplify the re-registration. The first simplifies the process for re-entry to the register of approved driving instructors if the registration has expired. It is proposed that those instructors who have been away from the profession for between one and four years, apart from those removed for conduct reasons, are allowed to rejoin the register by undergoing a standards check of their ability rather than to have to requalify via the three-part examination. This simplified process will make the return much quicker and more straightforward, as the time and effort for preparing for and taking repeat examinations can be used more effectively to get back into employment and earn a living. The simplified process will take on average around six weeks, as opposed to an average of 34 weeks for requalification.

ADIs operate mainly as sole traders and therefore fall under the micro-business definition of having fewer than 10 employees, so any cost savings will be beneficial. The proposals therefore accord with the Government’s commitment to help small businesses.

I want to assure the House that the Bill will not compromise standards. The standards check for rejoining the register is the same check as practising ADIs undergo to remain on the register and renew their registration.

The simplified route is not open to those have been removed from the register for disciplinary reasons. The Bill makes provisions to safeguard against any lowering of the standards and prevent misuse of the simplified route by instructors who would have been removed from the register to protect public safety. Those instructors will have to apply for re-entry via the existing route by undertaking the full, three-part examination.

The second measure allows a driving instructor to request voluntary removal from the register at a time of their choosing and to return at a later date under the simplified process. Current legislation allows only either for their registration to expire or for them to be removed for refusing to undergo a periodic standards check. If they refuse the standards check, it is recorded on their file as a disciplinary matter and could affect their joining the register at a later date. Allowing ADIs voluntarily to leave the register at a time of their choosing is only right. An ADI may wish to take a break from the profession for career, family or health reasons, and it is somewhat perverse that they are not able to do so without it being treated as a disciplinary matter if they have failed to attend the standards check because they are no longer practising.

There are examples where ADIs have contacted the registrar, who administers the register of approved driving instructors, to request voluntary removal from it as they are no longer practising due to raising a family or caring for an ill relative, or because they are unwell themselves. Being able voluntarily to leave and then return at a later date without having to requalify will remove barriers that are out of date with current work practices and help reduce any stress for the ADI concerned, especially if the break has been made necessary to undertake medical treatment.

I hope that I have set out the case today for adopting these two simple, deregulatory measures and that they will find favour with the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Earl has given us an excellent and detailed background to his Bill. I will therefore speak in general terms. I should declare my numerous interests, which are in the register.

The process of qualifying as an ADI is costly, difficult and time-consuming and sometimes those doing so are taking a leap into the unknown in respect of future employment. However, if an ADI fails to attend a check test or, for whatever reason, temporarily suspends their work, that person is removed from the register. Currently, in order to re-enter the profession, the applicant is required to repeat the whole process which, as before, can be costly, time-consuming and, in the case of temporary suspension, unjustified.

This Bill is very sensible in that it can provide a fast track for re-entry to the profession in agreed circumstances, as the noble Earl indicated. People would still need to have their competence checked by the appropriate person, but there would be no need to undergo the whole process of re-qualification within a four-year period rather than the current 12 months following the ADI being off register.

Of course, if somebody is off the register for more than four years, it makes complete sense for them to become up to date with changes that may have taken place during that period. This Bill makes so much sense. It simplifies all the matters, and I thoroughly approve of it.

I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on bringing this Bill before the House and on his helpful introductory speech. I have three questions to ask about the Bill, but I am not sure whether I should address them to the Minister, bearing in mind that the Government are supporting the Bill, or to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who is in charge of it. Before I go on to those questions, I make it clear that, as we did in the other place, we welcome the measures in the Bill, which will update and simplify regulation of the registration of driving instructors and make it easier for them, for example, as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, to take a career break for family, personal or health reasons.

The first question relates to voluntary removal from the register of driving instructors. In the House of Commons, the Minister said that in the previous year, 610 approved driving instructors had asked to be removed from the register as they had other commitments, but legally the registrar was allowed to remove people only for reasons of conduct, competence or discipline. In the light of the other key change being introduced by this Bill to simplify the process for rejoining the register where an instructor’s registration has lapsed for between one and four years, could it be clarified, for my own benefit at least, what the advantage or advantages would be of seeking voluntary removal from the register? Is there, for example, an annual fee or other payment that has to be made for being on the register, which would no longer have to be paid, or is the benefit secured by voluntary removal that of no longer being required to take a standard check if called on to do so?

The second question relates to the following sentence in paragraph 4 of the Explanatory Notes:

“Once a person is on the register as an ADI they are required to take a ‘standards check’ every few years”.

What does that mean in practice? In particular, who decides when and at what intervals, and on the basis of what considerations, a person on the register has to take the standards check within the definition of “every few years”?

Finally, the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the very positive response to the consultation exercise on the two key proposals in the Bill. I accept that one could have a pretty good guess at the answer; nevertheless, since this information does not appear to be in the Explanatory Notes, could I ask which types of organisations and bodies and which categories or groups of individuals were consulted?

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who taken part in our debate this afternoon and in doing so join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Attlee for bringing forward this Bill. I thank him for laying out the particulars of the Bill so clearly and comprehensively. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, for their support behind the principles of this Bill, which the Government are pleased to support. I confirm that in my view the provisions of the Driving Instructors (Registration) Bill are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

As my noble friend Lord Attlee has pointed out, it is unlawful for a person to carry out paid driving instruction unless they are an approved driving instructor and appropriately registered as such. That has been the case since the 1960s. Primarily, that is to protect road safety by ensuring that instructors are qualified to deliver a suitable level of instruction to learner drivers. Great Britain has some of the safest roads in the world—a position we should be justly proud of, but not complacent about. We therefore need to ensure that a robust system is in place to assure the qualification of driving instructors and maintenance of standards of instruction. That said, Great Britain is considered by many other countries to have a proportionate regime in place for the qualification of driving instructors. However, we must recognise that some of the legislation regarding the registration of instructors is out of date and due for a change. That is why we are here today—to make some minor, deregulatory changes to update that legislation and modernise the system for registering driving instructors.

I will come to the reasons for the changes very shortly, but first, let me assure noble Lords that standards of instruction will not be compromised. Updating the system to allow instructors to take a break from the profession and then to return via a simplified route will require a demonstration of competence as a driving instructor. I want to make that very clear.

The simplified route will still require a test to be passed and a check of driving instructors’ character and conduct to be taken, commonly known respectively as a standards check and a fit and proper check. The standards check will test their continued ability to deliver driving instruction and is the same check that practising instructors on the register must pass to renew their registration for a further four years. This route will be available only to instructors who have been away from the profession for between one and four years, so they will have been practising fairly recently and will not have lost their skills and knowledge.

The fit and proper check which is carried out when ADIs first qualify for entry on to the register and upon renewal of their registration is a check of criminal records which includes checking for road traffic and other offences which may be taken into account in determining their fitness to instruct. We must also be aware that the regulation of driving instructors is to protect young and vulnerable persons who may be isolated in a one-to-one situation with an adult. Many new drivers start lessons at the age of 17 and are considered to be children until they reach 18 years old. We have a duty to ensure that these persons are not put at risk.

A further protection is that this simplified route will not be open to those who have been removed from the register due to disciplinary reasons. Instructors who would have been removed from the register to protect public safety will have to apply for re-entry by undertaking the full three-part examination to demonstrate that they are fully competent. For this combination of reasons, I am reassured that the Bill will offer benefits to those who genuinely need them, but will not offer a loophole to others seeking to avoid having to demonstrate their competence as driving instructors.

This brings me specifically to the reasons for introducing the Bill. The current system in place for the registration of driving instructors does not take account of modern-day working practices which allow for flexible working conditions such as career breaks to start a family, to undertake caring commitments, developmental opportunities or to receive medical treatment. When the system was introduced in the 1960s, it was a very different time and many women who left work to raise a family found it difficult to return. It was also unknown, I think, to consider a break for developmental reasons such as to take further education courses. Moreover, back in the 1960s the recovery rate for people having undergone treatment for serious illnesses was considerably less than it is today, given the progress we have seen with modern medicines and therapies. It is for these reasons that the system and the legislation need to be updated.

The registrar, who is responsible for maintaining the register of approved driving instructors, received over 600 requests last year from ADIs to be voluntarily removed from the register as they were no longer practising for one reason or another. As we have heard from my noble friend Lord Attlee, the only way a person can leave the register is if their registration expires or they are removed for refusing the standards check, which is considered a disciplinary action and can affect their return. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also mentioned this point. That is greatly unfair. To return to the register under such circumstances means that currently they have to requalify by taking the three-part examination. Changes are needed to allow those who wish to leave the profession to do so without penalty and to return within a reasonable timeframe so as not to compromise standards, but without having to undergo another qualification.

Requests have been made to leave the register voluntarily to start a family, to care for a sick relative, to receive medical treatment for cancer or because of a heart attack, among other valid reasons. Many of these people have stopped practising their profession and are in no fit mind to undergo a standards check to continue with their registration, but take the standards check anyway to avoid having to requalify. These people should be able to leave the register voluntarily and then return if they so wish within the timeframe allowed under a more straightforward route.

Let us also not forget that driving instructors are in the main sole traders, so are defined as microbusinesses. The Government are committed to helping small businesses, and this is an opportunity to do so. It is for this reason that the Bill provides, as we have heard, for two deregulatory measures to simplify the registration of driving instructors. First, it allows them re-entry to the register under a simplified procedure if they apply within four years of leaving, and secondly, it allows an instructor to request voluntary removal from the register and to return at a later date under the simplified process.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the consultation. There was a full public consultation in 2013. Almost 90% of the responses received supported the two proposals in the Bill. The responses we received were mainly from ADIs and amounted to 1,679. There was a further consultation more recently, which took place with the main six ADI national associations, which also support the provisions.

I consider the Bill appropriate for the Government to support and once again thank my noble friend Lord Attlee for bringing it forward. I hope that he gets the support that he deserves.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to this short Second Reading debate. Under the Private Member’s Bill procedure, it is a fine judgment as to whether a question is for me or for my noble friend the Minister, but I can assure the House that we work as a close team and we know how we will work together.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked me about the benefits of voluntarily retiring from the register, given that you can get back on to it after a standards check by virtue of Clause 1. The fee is not an issue as it covers the four-year period of the registration. Subsequent four-year periods attract a further fee. The problem is the need for the standards check. The noble Lord also asked what stimulates a registrar into requiring a standards check.

I understand that there are two grades of pass for the standards check. If an instructor secures only a B-grade pass, he or she is good enough to practise but the registrar will want to ensure that the instructor has improved or is at least up to the required standard. Thus, another standards check will be indicated. The words “every few years” give the flexibility required. The registrar will also be aware of the instructor’s student pass rate and whether any complaints have been recorded against the instructor. This may also indicate a further standards check.

Clearly, if an instructor appears not to be too keen on taking a standards check, the registrar will be particularly concerned and will draw negative conclusions. Failure to take a standards check is regarded as misconduct, as I think we have already covered. This is unfair if the instructor has decided to stop instructing for perfectly good reasons, such as the ones I suggested earlier. I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord. I beg to move.

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