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Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

My Lords, I beg to move that these regulations be considered.

This SI updates regulation in two areas. The first concerns the removal of the need for drivers of medium-sized lorries and minibuses to take another manual test if they already hold a manual entitlement in another category. This change is primarily to reflect the technological developments in, and increasing use of, more modern, safer and greener vehicles equipped with a range of semi-automatic, automatic or hybrid transmission systems. It sensibly amends regulations in a way that brings the acquisition of driving licence entitlements for medium-sized lorries and minibuses into line with those for larger vehicles—so larger lorries. Essentially, it fills a gap.

The second element of this SI also reflects technological developments, this time for motorcycles. The development of engines and chassis design in recent years has made smaller-engined motorcycles more powerful. This SI will permit candidates to use a broader range of motorcycles when they take their practical motorcycle test on a medium-sized motorcycle—also known as the A2 category motorcycle test.

Turning to the content of the SI, for ease, I will take noble Lords through the two elements separately, starting with the changes to driving licence acquisition. These are for medium-sized lorries that are up to 7.5 tonnes in weight and for minibuses, with or without a trailer. These regulations extend changes that were made for heavier vehicles, such as heavy lorries, in 2014. Before the 2014 changes, all drivers would have to pass a test using a vehicle with a manual gearbox to obtain a manual entitlement. However, since the 2014 changes were introduced, drivers of large lorries and buses have been able to drive both manual and automatic vehicles when they pass a test using an automatic vehicle because they have an existing manual entitlement—usually for a class B vehicle, such as a private car.

The regulations before the Committee today will amend the regulations to extend exactly the same flexibility to a smaller category of lorries and buses—medium-sized lorries and minibuses. It is important to note that manual gearboxes on these vehicles are similar to the gearboxes on modern cars. Consequently, specific techniques are not required to learn how to change gear. Typically, the proposals in the regulations would apply to a person who already holds a manual car licence and then passes a test in, for example, a newer minibus that has automatic transmission. They would be granted both the automatic and manual minibus licence entitlements.

The changes made in 2014 were implemented because the road safety case was not proven either way. Since those regulations were introduced, there has been no evidence to indicate a reduction in road safety as a result. Furthermore, the review of the driving licence regulations undertaken in 2018 raised no concerns about this change. A public consultation on these further changes was held between 9 February and 23 March 2021, and 68% of respondents supported this proposal, some noting that manual clutch operation is a “transferable skill”, that the 2014 change

“worked well in the bus industry’,

and that this is a “logical step” that is “long overdue.”

The respondents who objected to this proposal commented that gear boxes are significantly different on large vehicles. While acknowledging those concerns, we consider that this change has already been successfully applied to larger vehicles—which normally have the most different gearboxes—and that therefore they may not relate to mid-sized vehicles, which have very similar gearboxes, and perhaps there is a bit of misunderstanding there.

Others said that drivers might not have used their manual entitlement and have lost their motor skills, which again was not an issue for the 2014 changes. We would recommend refresher or familiarisation training for any driver returning to driving a manual car after a long period of absence if they feel they have lost confidence. People sometimes drive an automatic private car for many years and then go back to manual, and there is no difference; it is a question of whether they feel confident in driving a manual car once again.

The second element of the SI is all about the range of motorcycles on which a driver can take their A2 motorcycle practical test. I shall just take a moment to explain a little about motorcycle licences and the motorcycle practical test. Motorcycle licence acquisition can be staged so that a candidate progresses from a very small machine to a larger, much more powerful one. The staged licence categories for motorcycles are: A1, small machines up to 11 kilowatts in power; A2, medium-sized machines up to 35 kilowatts in power; and unrestricted A3 motorcycles, of any power over 35 kilowatts.

The current requirement for an A2 category test is for the motorcycle to have an engine that is at least 395cc. Noble Lords will recall that the size of the engine is not set out in the licensing—that is about only the power of the engine. The 395cc motorbikes are typically quite heavy machines that can be less easy to manually manoeuvre. Following the 2018 review of driving licence regulations, it was identified that many motorcycle manufacturers now sell a 250cc motorcycle that meets the power criteria to be included in an A2 licence—namely, it has a power of up to 35 kilowatts. However, unless we pass these regulations, someone could not take a test on a 250cc motorcycle, even though it falls into that licence category, because they would have to use a 395cc motorcycle. Noble Lords will understand that there is a little bit of a mismatch here.

This review was used to inform the proposed changes, which reduce the engine size requirement for A2 motorcycles used in a test to at least 245cc. This change will broaden the range of motorcycles that a candidate can use for that test and permit candidates to be tested on motorcycles that are more representative of the actual A2 licensing category. It will align the test criteria much more closely to the licence criteria.

Again, a public consultation was carried out on the same dates on this proposal, and 67% of respondents agreed with the change. Some respondents said that it was an excellent and long-overdue proposal and suggested that it could improve road safety, because riders would be encouraged to take additional training and acquire a fuller licence, rather than riding round on smaller bikes with L plates as a learner and just doing the CBT. I note too that some respondents said the proposals might better suit female riders and those of a smaller frame, because the 250cc bikes are slightly smaller and not as heavy, despite the fact that they have a very significant amount of power.

This SI implements small but worthwhile and important changes to modernise the regulations and align them more closely with the vehicles of today. Both measures were supported by the Government prior to leaving the EU and the coronavirus pandemic, so they are not a consequence of either event. For example, they are not a consequence of the HGV driver shortage and have been planned for some time. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

I thank my noble friend for bringing the regulations before the Committee this afternoon and giving us the opportunity to discuss them. I broadly welcome them, but have a number of questions. If my noble friend would be good enough to answer them, I would be very grateful.

My noble friend explained that a test will not be required in the circumstances she set out, which is very welcome indeed. I refer to paragraph 7.5 on page 3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, where it was felt that

“most drivers who will drive a medium sized lorry or mini-bus will do so in a professional capacity and that companies would provide remedial training if a driver required it.”

I disagree. There is a whole cohort of voluntary drivers in the community, particularly minibus drivers, often of older people and many from patient referrals, who have access to a minibus for these purposes. Was this case covered by the consultation? Is this a gap in the regulations, which my noble friend may wish to address?

When driving licences came before the European Parliament many moons ago, I was involved in a cross-party effort to make sure that the licences we use in this country are fit for purpose across the EU. I am delighted to say that we achieved that.

What my noble friend and the Government are trying to do here is welcome, but I hope there is not an incident whereby a driver of a minibus who is a volunteer, and is therefore unpaid and not professional, does not have the confidence to know that, if he needs retraining, it will be applied. I hope there is not a loss or deficit of voluntary or community minibus drivers in that regard. That is my first question for my noble friend to address.

My second question refers to the list of categories and figures given on page 1 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Why are e-scooters excluded? It may be that they fit into other regulations, but I am having great difficulty in finding which regulations cover the safety of e-scooters. I have been looking at a helpful posting from the Metropolitan Police, which tells us that e-scooters fall into the category of “powered transporters”, which

“covers a range of personal transport devices which are powered by a motor … E-scooters are classed as motor vehicles under the Road Traffic Act 1988.”

Riding without a licence or insurance can lead to a fine being imposed. I think this will come as a surprise to some e-scooter drivers, who are hell-bent on crashing into me when I am walking the pavements of London. Curiously, this is not a problem I encounter on the pavements of North Yorkshire—as yet. I hope and pray that that does not happen. I think it will come as a surprise to many e-scooter drivers that they must be at least 16 years of age and hold a correct driving licence. I understand from the Metropolitan Police that that is a category Q or P/M licence.

My question to the Minister is: how do the drivers of the suspect e-scooters, who I encounter on the pavements of London—and I am sure this happens elsewhere—go about getting a driving licence? Perhaps we can point them in the right direction. Having acquired a driving licence, how do they pass, or are they required to pass, a test? Do they spend a period being a learner driver?

I understand the only legal version is rental e-scooters. There is nothing to demonstrate that the e-scooters on the pavements and roads in London are rented. They all appear to be motorised e-scooters driving at considerable pace, putting the lives and safety of other road and pavement users at risk. There is nothing to indicate that they fall within the category of rental motor scooters, which I understand is allowed. They are clearly not riding—driving is the correct term to use—these e-scooters in a private place, which is the only circumstance in which someone over the age of 16 with the commensurate driving licence, having passed the commensurate test and been insured, can operate them. I would be happy to understand which regulations cover them and how we can make sure that the users of e-scooters, whether they are rented or privately owned, are abiding by the law. Fundamentally, why are they not covered by the regulations before us?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very clear explanation. As a matter of principle, it is clearly sensible to update the various driving tests from time to time, but I have some concerns about the rather sketchy approach towards road safety that is revealed in the Explanatory Memorandum for this SI.

The EM speaks of “modern cars”, modern motorbikes and modern technology, but the average age of cars on our roads in the UK is now the highest it has ever been, at 8.5 years. Recent figures from the Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders reveal that the average car on our roads was built in 2011 and, of course, reflects technology prior to 2011. The obvious reason for this is that cars last longer these days. We are facing a cost-of-living crisis in the coming months, so the figures that I have cited are hardly likely to change dramatically. Cars are likely only to get older. Just to give an estimate of progress in our big technological march forward, only one in 80 cars on our roads is a plug-in electric car.

When changes are predicated on recent developments in technology, as is the case with this SI—the Minister referred to modern gearboxes and so on—that ignores the fact that a very high percentage of people taking tests are going to drive very much older vehicles. Young people have access to older-than-average vehicles, because in many cases they tend to be less well off.

While the changes in respect of motorbikes seem relatively straightforward—it is clear that modern motorbikes have developed in a way that means that they are more fuel-efficient, which is greatly to be welcomed—the changes in relation to manual and automatic gearboxes in the rest of the vehicles covered by this SI are more complex.

Paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that if you have passed a test in a bus with automatic transmission and a test in a manual car, you will be entitled to drive a bus with a manual gearbox. It makes the point that almost all buses have automatic or semi-automatic transmission. I am sure that, since the Explanatory Memorandum says it, that is the case, but it then refers to concerns from respondents to a consultation in 2014, which is of course a very long time ago—eight years ago—about the ability of people to cope with different types of gearbox. Paragraph 7.6 brushes those concerns aside, saying that most drivers who will drive a medium-sized lorry or minibus do so in a professional capacity and would receive remedial training. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, has already made the points for me, so I shall not repeat her concerns, but her remarks entirely reflect my own. As well as volunteer drivers for elderly people on outings and so on, there is a thriving market nowadays—much more thriving than in 2014—in minibus hire and the hire of vans for things like do-it-yourself removals.

I ask the Minister: what account has been taken of that sector and has it been consulted? Does she agree that these changes generally need to be reviewed, possibly in two or three years’ time, and that statistics need to be collected separately for that review, because I gather from the Explanatory Memorandum that that is currently not the case? At the moment, all this is a bit of a stab in the dark. Paragraph 7.8 states that the Government decided to go ahead in the absence of direct evidence to the contrary, which is pretty flimsy decision-making. Have the Government looked at the experience in other countries, including EU countries, perhaps the Republic of Ireland? Has this been done successfully elsewhere? Are we following a well-trodden path?

Paragraph 7.9 of the memorandum spells out that the changes will also affect drivers towing horse boxes, caravans and trailers. These are not professional drivers. Most will not have the benefit of remedial training, which has been put forward as the answer to the problem elsewhere.

The same principle applies to both the changes in the SI and the changes introduced in a recent SI that we dealt with, involving removing the requirements for the car and trailer test in categories B and E. The Minister said in her letter sent after that debate to the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Rosser, and me, referring to the bonfire of regulations in 2010:

“At that time, we were obliged to meet the provision of the various driving licence directives which harmonised testing and licence arrangements within the EU. We now have an opportunity to exercise our sovereignty and this allows us to increase the number of HGV tests available to improve the HGV driver shortage.”

My question to the Minister is: if, as her letter implies, EU regulations require stiffer standards for lorry tests than we will now require in the UK, what is the situation for drivers visiting EU countries, particularly commercial drivers wishing to drive professionally in both the UK and the EU? Will they need additional tests to do so or additional insurance? If there are two different sets of standards, it would not be surprising if there were insurance implications. My question applies both to that SI from a couple of weeks ago in relation to the noble Baroness’s explanation supplied since and very much to the changes in today’s SI, because they are of the same nature and will have the same sort of implications. If she cannot reply now, I am sure that we would all be pleased to receive a letter with some detail about this issue.

My Lords, I will be relatively brief, not least because all that I was going to say has largely been said already by the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Randerson. I start by thanking the Minister for her explanation of the content and purpose of this instrument, which, to paraphrase, permits drivers who pass certain tests using a vehicle with an automatic transmission to acquire the manual entitlement for that sub-category, provided that they already hold a manual licence for another category, such as a car. Likewise, the instrument reduces the engine size of motorcycles that can be used by candidates taking their A2 category test; candidates will be able to take their A2 test on a wider range of motorcycles that is more representative of the A2 class.

As has been said, the Explanatory Memorandum tells us at paragraph 7.14 that:

“Both these measures align with the government’s policy of relaxing regulations where possible.”

Without deliberately trying to make a pun, that appears, frankly, to be the driving force behind what is in front of us today, rather than safety issues. However, in making that statement, I am not saying I believe that the Government do not care about safety; that is not my stance at all.

As I understand it from the Explanatory Memorandum, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked for further information to be included in the EM about motorcycle categories and information that was more reflective of the response to consultation, especially around road safety concerns with these new licence upgrade arrangements. It seems that paragraphs 2.2 to 2.4 and 7.4 to 7.8 of the EM are a response to the recommendations of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Apparently—although I may be corrected by the Minister—without the recommendation and pressure from that committee, we would not have had that information, particularly that in paragraphs 7.4 to 7.8, which addresses the safety issue. If that is the case, I find it rather surprising that it was not there from the word go. I have no doubt that the Minister will comment on that point and say whether she thinks it has any validity or not.

On the issue of the safety concerns expressed in the consultation on the licence upgrade measures, the Explanatory Memorandum now states in paragraph 7.8 —one of those that appears to have come in following the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee representations—that:

“In the absence of direct evidence, and on the balance of probabilities, the Government has concluded, as it did in 2014, that it is safe to extend the principle to smaller vehicles.”

Frankly, that is not exactly a ringing endorsement that safety will not prove to be an issue. The Government’s view, which may or may not prove right—let us hope that it is right—appears to be somewhat intuitive rather than evidence-based. It reflects the concern that has already been expressed by the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Randerson.

Indeed, what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, seemed like a prelude to tomorrow’s debate on e-scooters. As someone who has not sat down and prepared anything, I think the noble Baroness may have helped me write at least part of the four-minute contribution that I am allowed.

Paragraph 7.9 of the EM states that

“some drivers will not have to take another test using a manual vehicle if they want to be able to drive a medium sized lorry or a minibus, or to tow a trailer, caravan, or horse box with a manual car.”

As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, we recently had another instrument that removed test requirements for towing a trailer. With the reduction in specialist road traffic police officers, and the impact that this may have had on what I understand to be recent fatality rate figures on our roads, I hope we do not find that we are starting to take steps in relation to tests that we may come to regret.

I shall ask just three brief questions. I make it clear from the beginning that I will be more than happy to have a written response, since I did not tell the Minister in advance that I was going to ask them and I do not expect people to be walking encyclopaedias.

What I am not clear on is the extent to which there may have been a purpose behind this instrument in relation to freeing further test space—as I understand it, it involves a reduction in tests. My first question is: how many further tests do the Government estimate this instrument will free up? Secondly, what is the current backlog of tests in each category? Thirdly, what consultation took place with driving schools on these proposals?

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. We have potentially gone slightly beyond the relatively minor changes that are before the Committee today, but I am always very happy to answer as many questions as I can and to write with detailed follow-up afterwards.

The consultation was fairly significant and widely publicised among trainers and driving instructors. We received 1,276 responses, and the consultation was open for six week. I therefore feel that we got a good understanding of how people feel about the changes.

I will focus most on the licence upgrade, because I think that issue is causing more angst than that of motorcycles, but we will see how we do. Some 26% felt that road safety would be reduced, but we dug into the response and a fair amount of the concern could be a misunderstanding of the proposals. Some respondents expressed concern about drivers switching between automatic transmission and split gearboxes, but these are used in larger vehicles and you can already drive a larger vehicle if you have a manual entitlement for a car. So this is filling in the gap in the middle. I do not know whether noble Lords have ever driven a minibus. I have, and it is not difficult; it is perfectly easy. Changing gear on a minibus is the same as changing gear on a car. It is right that, if you are driving a larger vehicle, you may need to have a particular test, but it is not the case that the reason for that test is to make sure that you can cope with the gearbox—because the gearbox is no different. We dug down in a bit more detail, and no specific evidence was provided to indicate that this change or the change in 2014—which was much bigger than the change before the Committee today—would reduce, or has reduced, road safety.

I could talk about road safety for hours because it is a very difficult subject when it comes to data. If any noble Lords are feeling a bit bored this weekend, I encourage them to look at my appearance in front of the SLSC, where I went into some detail about how I feel about road safety and about the data we are and are not able to collect, and how we fill in those gaps.

It was the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, or perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who seemed to say that, because there is no evidence and nothing that we could point a finger at, that was somehow terrible. That is a good thing. If you cannot point your finger at something and say that it has made it worse, that is a good thing. That is how much of road safety works. Road safety is incremental. There are very few changes in the road safety world that you could implement tomorrow and then look at the stats the following year and say “Yeah. That’s when we did that, and look what happened.” Road safety does not work like that. It is a hugely complicated environment involving drivers, vehicles, roads and enforcement. We are very focused on road safety, and when we make any change, such as the one that we are making here today, we are very cognisant of our responsibilities. We drill down into the data. There is no data from STATS19 that not being able to operate a gearbox, fumbling with the gear or using the incorrect gear is a contributory factor; it is not something that happens to qualified drivers with a manual licence.

We recognise people’s concern. What we then have to do is understand where the concern is coming from and whether it is based on evidence. In this case, we have done the same for much bigger vehicles, since 2014. Therefore, without evidence that there is a negative impact on road safety, we feel content bringing the measure in, because it has significant advantages.

We are cognisant of and always grateful for feedback from the SLSC, and we did make changes to the EM. When I went to the SLSC, I committed that, from now on, my Explanatory Memorandums will be perfect, every time. Obviously, this one was written some time ago, and so I could not say that about it. I appreciate it when people say that we have not put enough in our Explanatory Memorandum. It is never our intention to do that. Therefore, I have put in place various steps within the department to make sure that our Explanatory Memorandums are perfect in the future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised driving overseas, and I will focus my comments on these changes. They have already been implemented in the EU, in November 2020, and we are not aware that there has been any impact on road safety there. Of course, most EU countries—in fact, nearly all of them—have a worse safety record than we do. I would not expect these regulations to have any implications on travelling.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned, there are changes to the number of tests that would be needed. To be honest, we would not know what entitlement somebody had before they came in to take a C1 manual test, so it is difficult to figure out exactly how many test times would be freed. We think it is about 500, which is nothing in the context; it does not make a difference to anything.

We expect there to be more people taking the A2 motorcycle test, which is a good thing, because it provides a level of rigour that you do not get from the CBT, which you take for smaller motorbikes. I will write to the noble Lord on the exact waiting times for the different categories, but I reassure him that it is nothing like as bad for motorcycles as it is for private cars. I am content that more people taking their A2 test will not have a big impact on the DVSA backlog.

Voluntary minibus drivers can have MiDAS training, which is the Minibus Driver Awareness Scheme. Many voluntary organisations do that, and it is administered by the wonderful Community Transport Association. We do not think this will impact the number of minibus drivers. Indeed, it might be positive, because somebody with a manual car licence, who happens to take an automatic, might have more flexibility in the vehicles they drive. We are not aware of any impact on volunteer drivers. There will be a review of these regulations in three years.

I will finish on my favourite topic of e-scooters, which noble Lords will be able to discuss with me tomorrow—I am extremely excited about that. Specific regulations were passed for e-scooters. My noble friend Lady McIntosh may recall that, in the summer of 2020, we passed regulations allowing e-scooter trials to go ahead. It remains the case that a private e-scooter cannot be used on a public road or pavement; it cannot be and should not be. I agree with the noble Baroness—I would lock them all up immediately. It is a matter of enforcement, I agree, but we have 31 trials around the country. No doubt noble Lords will come back to this tomorrow. We need robust enforcement, because you should not use a private e-scooter on a public road; you can have it confiscated, be fined and get points on your licence.

Having said that, we will look at the trials very deeply. We believe that micromobility has benefits for the future and therefore will consider what to do going forward. I am looking forward to the Question for Short Debate tomorrow, when noble Lords will have the opportunity to spend an hour speaking—perhaps without interruption from mobile phones, as now—about e-scooters. I recognise there are significant concerns about them in your Lordships’ House and I am happy to answer them. As a Government, we need to think carefully about how we are going to mitigate them.

I will write with a bit more information on some of the issues raised today, but I hope noble Lords will appreciate that these changes will update existing legislation to account for small developments in technology. The changes are relatively minor. We do not believe that there will be a negative impact on road safety but that there will be a positive impact on business and other organisations.

Motion agreed.