HL Deb 20 July 2004 vol 664 cc120-8GC

7.14 p.m.

Baroness Amos

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Vehicle Testing (Temporary Exemptions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.

The order would enable the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland to make regulations to provide for the issue of certificates for temporary exemption, exempting private cars and motor cycles from the requirements of normal testing for a specified temporary period and to permit such certificates to be acceptable documentary evidence for the purpose of obtaining vehicle excise licences.

Certificates of temporary exemption will be issued as an alternative to vehicle test certificates in exceptional circumstances. "Exceptional circumstances" means a failure in the supply of essential services or other unexpected happenings such as a fire, accident or industrial action.

The power to issue certificates already exists for goods vehicles, but no such contingency arrangements are available for private cars and motorcycles. The order will regularise that position. The order will alleviate some of the pressures created as a result of the industrial action which is currently having an impact on the capacity of the Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency in Northern Ireland to deliver normal vehicle testing services. This has resulted in many drivers being unable to use their vehicles legally on the roads or to get vehicle excise licences. It is also impacting adversely on the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The issue of certificates of temporary exemption would temporarily remove some vehicles from the testing cycle. This would free up capacity to allow the Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency to focus on other vehicles such as buses, taxis and goods vehicles used on international journeys. It would also enable the agency to manage the backlog of work that will still remain when the industrial action ends. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Vehicle Testing (Temporary Exemptions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this order before us at the end of a long series. It is good for us to spend a whole day on Northern Ireland matters. particularly in such detail, because we are refreshed on what is happening on the ground.

We talked earlier today about the problems of the strike, so I will not mention it again. Obviously, I support the order, understanding the reason for its being brought to your Lordships' House. I am concerned about the adequacy of the length of time the order will be in place. One does not want to be too pessimistic, but as we have had a lengthy stoppage and the strike continues, there will be a serious backlog. That will affect our hauliers in Europe, and some European countries will not necessarily at first accept the fact that some of the vehicles were not tested on time.

However, I am more concerned that the hauliers will be expected to maintain the level of inspection of their vehicles were the MoT system in place. I do not know, but I suspect that the hauliers' depots are not equipped to the same extent for vehicle inspection as are the MoT centres. Funnily enough. I have never had an MoT test in Northern Ireland or in England, I only had them in Spain. However, the set-up in an MoT centre for heavy goods vehicles and for motor cars requires a certain amount of specialist equipment to ensure that all the settings comply with EU rules and regulations.

I am concerned that Northern Ireland hauliers will not be equipped to carry out the necessary checks on their vehicles, which by now might be a month or so overdue, and that they will let them run on for a while. I suppose that we could be talking of checks on heavy goods vehicles being delayed for up to six months.

I am also concerned about the effect on the insurance policies of hauliers and private vehicle owners. While I was doing some homework on this subject, I read that many insurance policies depend on MoTs being up to date. I wonder what Her Majesty's Government have done in talking to the insurance industry. The longer it lasts the bigger the problem will become.

It is all very well to say that there will be an extension in time, but an insurance company may say that its policy states that the MoT has to be done on a given date and that if it is not done and a driver has an accident or something goes wrong the driver is not insured. That is an area on which I should like some encouragement.

Lastly, as regards hauliers, it seems that if there is a significant backlog—such as six months—and the haulage industry has to incur increased costs, we should look to the Government and the department to cover at least a part of those costs. With those riders, I support the order.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for the very full, clear and gracious responses that she has made today to the points raised on the orders. As we have heard, this order is the result of industrial action by civil servants in Northern Ireland, which is impacting on the ability of the Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency to grant vehicle excise licences or MoTs.

The Government have known about this difficulty for a long time. Why have they taken so long to do anything about it? I understand that the exemption applies only within the UK. What happens if someone wants to take a car abroad from Northern Ireland? How can we be assured that cars coming over from Northern Ireland are safe on the roads of the rest of the UK? What happens if a car is involved in a road accident? That is a real concern, particularly for people who are going abroad.

It is difficult for us to oppose this order because law-abiding citizens will do their best to get their vehicles covered and in good order. But I have considerable concern supporting something that appears to condone the driving of unroadworthy vehicles. I am sure that most of the people of Northern Ireland are sensible enough not to want to drive cars that are in had condition, but it is a dilemma. We can only hope that it will be resolved quickly for the safety of all the road users in Northern Ireland. We support the order.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

I suppose that it would be unwise of me to be controversial at this hour of the evening. Hence, I shall content myself by saying that of all the Orders in Council that I have seen brought before Parliament, this surely must be one of the most irresponsible that I have seen for a long time. In bringing forward this order, the Government have abdicated their responsibility.

My figures may be wrong, but can the Minister tell me whether at present there is somewhere in the region of 87,000 vehicles overdue for MoT testing? Is it the case that normally at the stage when vehicles go for an MoT test—after the owners have taken the trouble to try to get them up to standard—on average 22 per cent are turned down at the first time of testing? If that is so and my mathematics are right, there are something like 19,140 vehicles currently on the road that are unroadworthy, plus those vehicles that are currently unroadworthy but which, if they were tested, would be brought up to standard. Surely, that is a huge problem for people in Northern Ireland. We must find out the truth behind what is happening in this sector. I notice that in another place the Minister, Angela Smith, said that she would like to dispel the myth that the order was just a response to industrial action. But if it is not just, or not mainly, a response to industrial action, why is there such a backlog?

Is it not the fact that something like £17 million has been spent in updating the testing centres in Northern Ireland? It would be interesting to see a breakdown of that figure and to know how much of that figure involved the updating of equipment and how much was involved in provision of software. Is it because of the arrangement, whereby that £17 million was spent and the Government have a contract with the people who provided the equipment and software, that they cannot do what should be done in any sensible situation—to contract out to our main agents, the garages in Northern Ireland, the responsibility for doing MoTs.

I know that at the moment, as Minister Smith indicated, the MoT fee in Northern Ireland is £28, whereas in GB it is £40.75. However, I and most of us know that major garages in Northern Ireland actually buy a package to send vehicles over to Scotland— a package that costs £90 for transport and testing in Scotland—after which they bring them back again to turn them over as second-hand vehicles. Why, then, are ordinary car drivers not allowed to avail themselves of the equipment that most major garages have, which they could use very quickly and efficiently to bring vehicles up to the standard?

We are creating this permission to drive unfit vehicles on the road, while the Government cannot afford to privatise the system. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether the efficiency of those involved in MoT testing up until recently has been as efficient as it should be, given the new equipment that is available. I am told that the testing of vehicles is taking around three times as long as it should. But if, for whatever financial reason, we are unable to privatise the system, surely there should be an interim measure to secure roadworthy vehicles in Northern Ireland. We might even have had pilot programmes to see whether such a move would work; here was an opportunity to see whether private garages could provide the service more efficiently than is being done presently. But no—that opportunity has been lost.

Minister Smith said that car drivers will still be required to keep the car in a roadworthy condition at all times. What an opportunity that is for them! Do we really believe that all people will keep their cars in good condition, unless there is legislation being enforced? If that is the case, we do not need MoT testing in the first place.

The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on insurance certificates was even more important. The Minister in another place said that most insurance certificates do not say that the driver must have an MoT certificate. Of course they do not, but they insist that drivers keep their car in a roadworthy condition. In other words, they must ensure that the tyres, brakes and steering are in good order. With this exemption we can be sure that there will be vehicles on the road that are not in good order in those respects.

If that is the case, what happens not when someone has a bang resulting in a £500 or even £5,000 claim, but when someone is seriously disabled for life and there is a claim for tens of thousands of pounds? Will the insurance companies say, "We have an arrangement with government; they will make up the deficit?". I am certain that the insurance companies will not pay. Have government an arrangement with the insurance companies to fulfil any shortfall for which the companies would under other circumstances be liable?

This Order in Council is a death sentence on people in Northern Ireland. I hope that I am not given to exaggeration, but currently there are 19,000 vehicles on the road that should he MoT tested but are not. In addition, there will be all the other vehicles coming on stream plus those that would have been brought up to standard. It strikes me that there is a carelessness regarding the welfare of car drivers and other road users in Northern Ireland.

Lord Kilclooney

MoT testing in Northern Ireland is now in disarray; that is why this order has been brought before the Committee. We all recognise that it is in disarray mainly because of the strike; therefore the Government are right to bring forward the order. I am only sorry that it was not brought forward earlier.

My one question relates to the term "temporary exemptions". How long does a temporary exemption last—one month, one year? That has not been spelt out.

I can never understand why Northern Ireland has a different MoT testing system from the one in the rest of the United Kingdom. Obviously, it should be in private hands. The Government should consider giving those currently employed in MoT centres the opportunity to buy out the system so that it is privatised from here on, leaving us in the same position as England, Scotland and Wales.

Since there is disarray in MoT testing with the result that we need temporary exemptions, now that there is to be a planning services strike, can we get temporary exemptions from obtaining planning permission?

Lord Lyell

The Minister in another place mentioned that 90,000—the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to 87,000—cases were waiting, as reported at column 12 of Hansard. Can the noble Baroness indicate what proportion it is of all annual testing, should it be going on, and how long will it take to clear the backlog? My noble friend Lord Glentoran thought that it would take approximately six months.

Earlier in her speech in another place the Minister said that 5,700 driving tests had been cancelled. I presume that they were cancelled because of this dispute, although it is probably not relevant to the order.

I agree with what many Members of the Committee said concerning drivers being stopped. Whether or not they have had an accident, it could be difficult if they do not have the relevant certificate or piece of paper—even if the insurance and so forth is in order. When drivers come to Great Britain, I suspect that they will generally be all right, but it could be extremely difficult if they go abroad.

That said, this seems to be the best and quickest way to ensure that Northern Ireland motorists drive safely and are able to keep death off the road. However, it is interesting that on average 22 per cent of vehicles fail the MoT; so there are approximately 20,000 people still on the road who perhaps should not be. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her patience.

Baroness Amos

I shall try to address the points raised in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked when we propose to stop issuing certificates of temporary exemption. In the current climate of industrial action, the period of time during which certificates will be issued will depend on how long the dispute continues. They are seen as a tool for enabling the department to manage the workload when the strike comes to an end. We intend to continue using temporary exemptions until the waiting time has returned to an acceptable level. In future, they will be a useful tool for dealing with emergency situations such as fire or a failure in the supply of essential services. A temporary exemption can last for any period up to a maximum of six months.

As regards hauliers maintaining their vehicles to the same standard, there will be no change to the arrangements for maintaining vehicles. The exemptions affect only testing. That applies also to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, with whom I do not agree. The majority of us who have a car that requires an MoT do not wait until after the MoT to determine whether our vehicle needs work on it, but will have a regular maintenance regime with a garage to ensure that the vehicle is kept roadworthy. We see that as an individual responsibility.

Of course, there is the annual testing regime for an MoT, but it is important to recognise that roadworthiness is the responsibility of the individual. It is not the responsibility of the state. I accept that having to get an MoT concentrates the mind, but I do not agree with the noble Lord that the majority of people would not keep their cars in good condition. I think that the opposite is true. A car is an investment. It is in the individual's interests to keep it in a roadworthy condition.

Lord Glentoran

My experience of going through an MoT test annually in Spain is that there are specific regulations for which specific equipment is needed. For example, a gauge can be obtained that will indicate when a tyre is illegal. As regards the steering wheel an inch's play or whatever is allowed, but, again, there is a specific piece of measuring equipment that will indicate whether it is legal. It is the same for the light settings, handbrake, and so forth.

The average driver will not be aware of that sort of detail. Although I have spent my life with vehicles and was in charge of a great number at one time, I have still taken a vehicle for an MoT and been told that one of my tyres needs changing. That sort of detail will not be available. People will be driving "illegally".

Baroness Amos

I take that point, but I also recognise that most individuals have some kind of service regime for their cars. The majority of garages are able to give that kind of information. I am not saying that there is not an issue here that needs to be addressed. All I am saying is that there is a degree of responsibility that rests with individuals with respect to roadworthiness that we need to accept.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

With the greatest respect, the Minister must live in a different world from the one in which I live. The majority of people who service their vehicles regularly are those who have vehicles that are less than three years old—people who have new vehicles and want to keep them in good order. The older the vehicle is, the less it is serviced, for the simple reason that it becomes a very costly operation.

In Northern Ireland—and I am sure that it is the same in other places—we see vehicles driven until they literally fall apart on the side of the road and are abandoned there. Young people then pick them up and use them as runabouts. It would be interesting for Members of the Committee to know the number of accidents caused by uninsured, unlicensed drivers running about with those broken-down abandoned cars. That is the sequence of my experience of motor cars in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister takes my point seriously.

Baroness Amos

The noble Lord has entirely made my point for me. He referred to uninsured, unlicensed drivers; even with an MoT regime, they do not go and get their cars MoTed, because they are driving without insurance, licences and MoTs. That is a completely different group of people to the one that I hope we are talking about—the majority of individuals, who want to operate within the law. We have a specific problem that we need to address in relation to the strike, so I believe that the noble Lord. Lord Maginnis, has just made my point for me.

I go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, who was concerned about the possibility of increased costs for hauling. The proposed order would not impose additional costs on the haulage industry. On the issue of insurance, which many Members of the Committee mentioned, we have advised motorists to check with their insurance provider that having a temporary exemption rather than a vehicle test certificate does not invalidate their insurance policy. The practice varies between insurance companies. The insurance policies require vehicles to be roadworthy, and some companies use the test certificate as a guarantee of that. But they do not all do that, so it is important for motorists to check with individual companies—and the Police Service of Northern Ireland has an awareness-raising campaign in that regard.

I take the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, that the temporary exemptions appear to fly in the face of what we are trying to do about road safety. I cannot pretend that temporary exemptions are an adequate replacement for the normal regime of vehicle testing and roadside enforcement. But I remind the noble Baroness and the rest of the Committee that temporary exemptions are meant to be a short-term measure, as the name implies, designed to meet the exigencies of a particularly difficult situation that is adversely affecting businesses and ordinary motorists. In order to maintain the focus on road safety and ensure that motorists are fully aware of their responsibilities, we are stepping up publicity in that regard. In issuing the temporary exemptions, we shall try to ensure that those who must go abroad or have a particular need are given a degree of priority when the tests restart. A temporary exemption order will allow a vehicle to be driven legally on the road and to be registered and taxed. They do not remove the requirement for motorists to keep their vehicles in a roadworthy condition.

On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, of whether the process might be contracted out, that has been considered many times. Each time it has been considered, the conclusion has been that the existing system best meets the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Of course, the approach in Great Britain has much to commend it, but there is an issue of consistency. Many garages in England and Wales do only six MoT tests a week, and concerns have been raised that the way in which the tests are carried out by individual garages means that a degree of inconsistency is creeping into the system. On the other hand, in Northern Ireland, which has been widely regarded as a model of best practice, the fact that the tests are concentrated means that independence, consistency and objectivity are at the heart of the system. The proposals advanced by the noble Lord have been considered on many occasions.

Temporary exemptions represent a helpful contingency for the long term but obviously the strike is creating a particularly difficult situation, which is why the backlog is at such a high level.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, mentioned the efficiency of vehicle testing with the new equipment. I understand that tests now take roughly the same amount of time as they did before, but we hope that, as a result of the introduction of the new equipment and the upgrading, the new system will be more efficient in the longer term. Indeed, as the noble Lord indicated, tests are much cheaper in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. The department carries out about 500,000 tests a year. The length of time that it will take to clear the backlog will depend on how soon the strike comes to an end.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Grand Committee adjourned at thirteen minutes before eight o'clock.