§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]7.31 pm
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
May I say how much I appreciate the opportunity to raise the issue of the new testing regime for driving instructors this evening? I confess that I have had little contact with driving instructors since I passed my own driving test—rather a long time ago—and none had come to see me in my professional capacity as Member of Parliament until a few weeks before Christmas, when I suddenly found that I was inundated by driving instructors attending my surgeries, e-mailing me, sending letters and making phone calls. They were united in their upset at the proposals for the new tests that they will be required to undertake and in no small measure angered by what the Government propose.
I remind the House that the Driving Standards Agency wants to introduce a new requirement—I understand that it is soon to be brought before the House as an order—for qualified and experienced driving instructors to retake the approved driving instructors theory examination, including both the multiple choice questions and the hazard perception testing sections, under threat of removal from the register and, therefore, loss of livelihood on repeated failure.
§ Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh) (LD)
On the hazard perception test, does my hon. Friend agree that the real-life tests that approved driving instructors face in their daily jobs on the road far exceed the sort of tests that are proposed? The real-life situations that they face are a far better measure of their ability and experience. Some computer game designed for novices is totally inappropriate to measure the skills that they have built up over many years in most cases.
§ Mr. Heath
I tend to agree with what my hon. Friend says. I shall return to the hazard perception test later, but first, let me register the unanimity and strength of feeling among a group of professionals who generally work as independent operators or small companies; they do not normally work in unity. They have been absolutely convincing in arguing their concerns to me, and I felt it appropriate to bring those concerns to the House because I believe that that is what the House is about: Members of Parliament acting on behalf of their constituents.
Since applying for the debate and having spoken to colleagues, I have discovered that the problem is not unique to my constituency. Indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been contacted by those of their own constituents who are driving instructors. I have also discovered that the three representative organizations—the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain, the Driving Instructors Association and the Association of United Driving Instructors, which between them have a membership of just under a third of the 30,000 registered ADIs—have been making strenuous representations.
§ Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which is of interest 934 to many people. Does he agree that the matter is especially important because people could lose their livelihoods on the basis of the new test? Given that a testing process with an appeal mechanism that involves an element of human judgment is already in place, does he agree that it would be better if the electronic test were incorporated so that people would not lose their livelihoods without an element of human assessment?
§ Mr. Heath
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and has clearly received representations similar to those that I received.
Let me outline the broad areas of concern. First, there is concern about the consultation process. The principal vehicle for the consultation was a paper entitled "Fees for driving tests and other matters", which was issued by the Driving Standards Agency in April 2003. It would be difficult for the Minister to disagree with the suggestion that proposals for retesting ADIs were not a prominent part of the paper. [Interruption.] The Minister might say that they were there, but they appeared in paragraph 22 of a consultation paper that was otherwise devoted to other matters, so I think that I am making a legitimate complaint.
Several of my constituents suggested that the circulation list for the document was insufficiently wide given that the proposals would have such immediate and substantial effects on individuals. A gentleman who worked as not only an instructor, but a trainer for instructors, said that his organisation had not been consulted at all. He was outraged that the list of consultees at the back of the paper included the Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association. Although that association is no doubt wholly excellent and responsible, it is not directly concerned with the instruction of new drivers. However, it had been consulted while his organisation had not.
The majority of driving instructors are not affiliated to any association, so their only source of information about the proposed changes was the summer 2003 edition of "Despatch", the DSA's quarterly newsletter. It contained a brief summary of the proposals, yet gave no indication of the importance of the changes for driving instructors and contained no mention of charges or possible loss of livelihood. I should point out that the newsletter was sent out only at the end of June, although the consultation closed on 18 July.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
The hon. Gentleman is right that the consultation period was derisory. Most of the instructors in my constituency are independent people who know their area extremely well. Does he agree that the Government should concentrate more on speeding up the time that it takes for people to get tests, rather than harassing and putting more regulations on such a hard-working group of people?
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman's observations are entirely pertinent, and his point was made to me. I do not know whether the Minister is generally satisfied with the breadth of the consultation process for ADIs and their associations. Instructors are also concerned that their views have been accorded insufficient weight compared with other responses received. Little attention seems to have been paid to the views of larger 935 associations that represent thousands of instructors while more weight has been given to the views of authorities and bodies that have no direct relevance to instructors' professional interests.
In any case, many people are incensed that Ministers and others, including the agency, give the impression that driving instructors originally welcomed the proposals. Some did, but they now say that they misunderstood the consequences of the proposals and have drawn the Minister's attention to the fact that they have withdrawn their support. The headline of "MSA News Link", the newsletter of the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain Ltd, which is one of the larger organisations, says to the DSA, "What Part Of Get Lost Do You Not Understand?" That does not seem an overwhelming endorsement of the proposals, so it is fair to say that opposition exists.
Why are driving instructors so incensed? First, there is concern, already expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), about the hazard perception test. Many disparaging comments have been made, some of which I do not entirely go along with. Many instructors see the test simply as a form of computer game that they are now required to undertake. They make the point that, even if there is a case showing that it is useful in enhancing the skills of learner drivers, there has been no concomitant research to show that it improves the skills of those who teach learner drivers. Indeed, there is evidence that the enhanced skills that instructors already possess will make it more difficult for them to pass the test because they will anticipate hazards to which a learner driver could not be expected to react in the same time.
§ Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD)
That is an important point, but as somebody who in a previous life spent time ensuring that computer tests were tested against the potential users, I would like to know what tests were done to ensure that hazard perception exercises tested the instructors' driving skills as opposed to whether they could click the right point on the screen.
§ Mr. Heath
I hope that the Minister will respond to that pertinent point in due course. The Department's opinion seems to be that an experienced driving instructor will pass the test with flying colours. If that is the case, what is the point of doing it?
I had not realised that the training and qualifications needed to be an instructor had progressed so far over recent years. What those highly trained people object to is the fact that, uniquely among the professions, as far as I am aware, they are being asked to retake the test for their original certificate of competence simply because the Government have changed the syllabus for that certificate. That does not happen to doctors, dentists or to those in my old profession, opticians. There are any number of professions that have to move with the times and learn new competencies, but they do not go back to the basic qualification to do so.
I had not realised that there is a process of check testing for registration. Once or twice within a four-year period someone will test instructors in their teaching environment by sitting in the back of their car, watching how they conduct their lesson. That is a much more proper test of professional competence for a teacher 936 than asking them to go back to the classroom and do something that is not directly related to their ability to provide tuition.
Instructors make the point that the "three strikes and you're out" proposal may be appropriate for criminals in New York, but it is unlikely to be appropriate for professional driving instructors. The Government may have changed their view on that; perhaps the Minister will clarify that point.
The consequence of instructors not passing the test is the loss of their livelihood—an important matter—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) suggested, there is no proper means of appeal. Instructors can simply sit the test again at their own expense.
Instructors are expressing a serious concern, and I can understand why they are upset. The instructors who have come to see me do not reject the concept of continual professional development; indeed, they embrace it. They want their money spent on improving and enhancing their teaching skills so that they can provide a service to their customers rather than on the proposed tests, which they consider to be a sterile and futile operation.
I should like the Minister to tackle the points that have been made about the utility of the tests. What does he see as their added value for driving instruction? Will he also address whether loss of livelihood is an appropriate way to deal with any group of professionals? The proposal is to rip up instructors' certificates of competence and ask them to start again without any evidence that they have failed in their professional duties, either as recorded through the check test or by any other means.
Thirdly, can the Minister entirely discount the suspicion that those who came to see me certainly expressed, that this is simply a revenue-raising objective on the part of the agency, rather than a legitimate policy to improve overall standards of tuition? When does he expect the orders to be laid, along with the statutory instrument that we will discuss in due course?
Lastly, I enjoin the Minister, if he has not done so already, to talk further with the associations representing the driving instructors to try to allay their concerns. I can assure him that, irrespective of what he may feel about the merits of the case, this is something that is sincerely felt by driving instructors throughout the country, some 30,000 of our constituents. They have made their voices heard. I hope that I have been able to express their concerns this evening, and they will be looking carefully at what the Minister has to say in response.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for raising these issues and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I am pleased to see so many hon. Members in the House for this short but important debate. The hon. Gentleman said that the House is the right place to raise these matters, and I agree.
Our plan is to introduce a modern, computer-based assessment into the supervision arrangements for existing driving instructors. This new assessment comprises a knowledge-based test of driving theory and instruction, plus a hazard perception test.
937 The hazard perception test is now a key element of the way in which we assess drivers, driving instructors and driving examiners. We have already introduced it into the professional process for car drivers, lorry drivers, bus drivers, motor cyclists, new instructors and Driving Standards Agency examiners. Virtually everybody who drives a vehicle, including those involved with either teaching or examining students, is involved.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) about instructors' competence, of course if they are competent they will pass the exam.
§ Sue Doughty
I thank the Minister for making that comment, but what worries me is that it is the most experienced and highly trained drivers, driving instructors and police drivers who are failing the test, which is why I have a concern about whether the test was taken by competent drivers in order to obtain feedback on it.
§ Mr. Jamieson
I shall cover that point as I develop my speech.
We plan to bring the test into the standards-supervision arrangements for existing examiners. Extending it to existing instructors will help their standards maintenance and professionalism, and should present no problems for experienced and motivated instructors.
We are introducing the measure to ensure that when the public buy driving lessons—it is the public, and often young people, who are buying these lessons whom we want to protect—they can have the confidence that whichever driving instructor they choose will have high standards of safety-critical skills and of hazard perception, be familiar with how the hazard perception test works, and have kept up to date with the knowledge and understanding underpinning the learning-to-drive syllabus. The result will be a driving instructor profession better placed to deliver high-quality instruction to the public.
Improving the way in which drivers are trained is a vital plank in our road safety target of reducing by 40 per cent. the number of people killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents. In 2002, 3,210 car drivers aged under 25 were killed or seriously injured. Nowadays, it is seldom the vehicle that causes the accident; it is usually the person behind the wheel. We know that 95 per cent. of traffic accidents are caused by some form of driver error.
Candidates are coming forward for their driving test insufficiently well prepared. The pass rate that is being achieved by learner car drivers for the overall theory test is 63 per cent; the pass rate for the practical test is around 43 per cent.
We recognise the important contribution that professional driving instructors can make to delivering higher driving standards and to road safety, but that depends on their having the right skills and operating at the right standards. Many instructors on the statutory register qualified before 2002, when the modern hazard perception test was introduced for drivers and instructors generally.
938 The new assessment that we are introducing for existing instructors has two parts: first, the multi-choice test of knowledge and understanding of driving and instruction; and secondly, the moving image hazard perception test. Both parts are of value for a standards check of instructors that is additional to the on-road driving test check that has been carried out over many years. The knowledge test draws on a question bank of more than 900 questions, which was updated in 2002 in the light of higher European standards set for drivers. The larger question bank sets a more comprehensive syllabus than the theory test taken when those instructors originally qualified, and it is in the public domain as a learning resource.
The hazard perception test draws on more than 10 years of research showing that hazard perception skills are associated with accident liability. Poor hazard perception skills are linked with poor scanning and anticipation. Those skills improve as experience is gained, although the process can be accelerated by focused training. The research also shows that skill levels can be reliably assessed using computer-based testing.
We have independent evidence that some instructors are not offering their students the support that they should for the hazard perception test that all learner drivers face. Some candidates in a group that was contacted last year said that their instructors had given them little or no advice about what to study or how to practise in preparation for their test, and complained that their instructor lacked knowledge not only of the content of the test, but of the test format. One of them said:He didn't tell me a lot about it really"—that is, the hazard perception test. Another said:I think my instructor didn't know anything about it—he hadn't tried it himself because it was so new.There were also some very complimentary remarks about driving instructors who had prepared their students well.
§ Mr. Heath
I am glad that the Minister balanced those views. However, he is describing a failure of tuition technique, not of driving technique. I would be far more confident if the new measures enhanced tuition technique instead of simply testing a mechanical and behavioural skill that drivers should have already.
§ Mr. Jamieson
The students were complaining about the lack of knowledge and understanding of the hazard perception test by their instructors, who, not having taken the test, were not in a position to discuss it and to give assistance to pupils.
By adding the computer-based assessment to the instructor qualification arrangements, we have already ensured that new instructors are familiar with the content and nature of the tests that their pupils will be taking. We now want to ensure that all instructors have the opportunity to gain a first-hand empathy for what their pupils have to undertake.
There is nothing novel about driving instructors being reassessed. The statutory registration scheme for professional instructors has always provided for periodic check-testing of their continued competence. The new feature is our plan to use the technology at our 939 disposal to undertake the standards check in an effective and efficient manner, thus minimising the compliance costs felt by instructors.
Consequently, all instructors will be assessed objectively on the same benchmark, regardless of when they were registered.
We are focusing on the initiative to avoid unnecessary burdens. Instructors who passed a hazard perception test as part of their qualifying exam will be exempt from the assessment. We do not expect professional driving instructors to have problems meeting the standard in the assessment. We have kept them informed about the nature and content of all the current theory tests for learner drivers or potential instructors.
We are ensuring that instructors will have the learning resources that they need to perform at their best in the new assessment. We decided, against the advice of some in the driving instructor profession, to publish the question bank from which the knowledge part of the theory test is drawn. Driving instructors expressed considerable opposition to publishing the bank of questions to which they could be exposed.
We plan to send copies of the question bank to driving instructors free of charge when they are called to take the new assessment. In addition, last year, we gave all professional driving instructors a copy of the "Roadsense" hazard perception video and workbook pack free of charge in the run-up to the introduction of the new test in November 2002. An interactive "Roadsense" DVD and other preparation materials are also available.
The availability of the question bank and the hazard perception preparation materials means that driving instructors can engage in the learning process in a focused fashion. After all, the test is only a validation on the day of the all-important learning process. It is the preparation that counts.
The preparation aids will support driving instructors. The aids and their professional experience mean that they are well placed to perform to a high standard in the new, computer-based assessment. The pass marks for the hazard perception and multiple choice question parts of the new assessment will be the same as for those who seek to qualify as driving instructors.
The pass mark for the hazard perception element will be 57 out of 75, which is higher than the mark for learner drivers. We would expect that. After all, one would generally expect the teacher to get a higher mark than the pupil in a test. If that did not happen, we would be surprised.
We first consulted about introducing a hazard perception assessment, including for existing driving instructors, in December 2001. When we announced the results of that consultation in September 2002, we set a date of November 2002 for introducing the hazard perception test generally and said that we would hold further consultation about existing driving instructors.
940 We issued a further consultation document to industry bodies and other interested parties in April 2003 and announced our decisions in December. I believe that we have taken great care to gather opinions on that important topic. We shall introduce regulations, which provide for the new assessment of existing instructors, as soon as practicable. I believe that that will happen towards the end of the year.
Some instructors have suggested that they might not be as experienced in using a computer as learner drivers and that they might therefore find the computer-based assessment difficult. I assure hon. Members that the theory test was designed specifically to take account of varying computer aptitude. One does not have to be a computer wizard to take the test. That has been shown by the number of new drivers who have taken and passed the test.
The clips in the hazard perception test show various potential hazards, including other motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians, for each candidate to identify. Each clip contains at least one hazard, although there may be more, and each test includes a mixture of hazards. I contend that it is not a game. If it was, why did the instructors' organisations support it for learner drivers and new instructors? I have seen it and it is a serious piece of apparatus that raises standards.
Let me deal with the important issue of livelihood. I acknowledge that the driving instructor profession feels threatened by the initiative. We do not take removing people's livelihood lightly.
I can therefore announce today that we have amended our plans, to help to smooth their introduction. Instructors will have up to two years, rather than the one year that we originally planned, to pass the new assessment. This will remove any reason for instructors finding it difficult to schedule the assessment. We will not, as we originally planned, impose a limit of a maximum of three attempts to pass this new test. This will remove any excuse that a person might be unsuccessful because they initially found difficulty with the computer-based nature of the assessment. The first attempt will still be free of charge, but there will be a charge for any subsequent attempts at the test.
The public who pay instructors for their driving lessons have a justifiable expectation that proper standards are being maintained. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate our commitment not only to improving road safety but to the public, so that they can be assured and confident about the quality of professional driver training services available to them. In conclusion, this measure is good for the driving training profession, good for their trainees and good for road safety.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Eight o'clock.