Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001

MR GARY AUSTIN AND MS LARAINE MANLEY

Mr Bennett

  240. I am not really worrying at this stage about their fees, I am worrying about the fees to my constituents, some of whom would be described as groups in social exclusion, who are not in work, whose parents are not in work and for whom your fee seems to be a considerable barrier to them legally driving on the road. We had considerable evidence as a Committee that the problem of people who are avoiding your market place altogether is steadily growing. That is not good for the public. Surely you should have looked firmly at your fees and actually thought how far you could keep your fees reasonable to encourage as many people as possible to take the test? You are not doing that, are you?
  (Mr Austin) I am certainly trying to keep my fees down. If I have not said it already, I have kept the fees at the same level since May 1999.

  241. That is after an 88 per cent increase.
  (Mr Austin) It is certainly recognising the fact that there have been increases in cost. One of the things I would like to do is to cut the resource fixed assets in terms of the estate.

  242. So there would be less test centres, so not only cost would be a discouragement for people taking the test but the difficulty of actually getting to a centre.
  (Mr Austin) I am conscious I have to balance the access to it and the cost involved. One of the things I am conscious of is my unit cost, which I explored in detail, which indicates on the car side I am not making a massive surplus, if anything I am running at a slight deficit.

  243. When do you expect to put the fees up again?
  (Mr Austin) We have not put them up for nearly two years. We are in discussions with the department in terms of our plans for next year. I do not know yet whether that will include a fee increase.

Chairman

  244. You would have to put them up given the way you operate.
  (Mr Austin) In terms of the unit cost, if I am not covering the cost of the car test I would have to go back, because one of the things I have to do as a trading fund is balance the books.

  Chairman: Of course.

Mr Donohoe

  245. When I sat my test there were very, very few people who were on the road as illegal drivers. My test cost seventeen and six pence, which in modern terms is 87 and a half pence. Do you not think on the basis of inflating prices at the level that you are that what you are doing is driving, what we heard earlier, which is an extremely disturbing situation, more people into driving cars without having qualifications?
  (Mr Austin) Certainly I think that we are under pressure to hold the fees down but at the same time, for good road safety reasons, it is certainly encouraged by Europe, to be more detailed and more comprehensive in terms of what we regard as testing people before they get a licence. We have introduced the theory test. In 2002 there is a hazard perception test. All of those things are being driven by the desire to make sure that when you get your licence you are as safe on the road as we can make you. I accept that that works completely in the opposite direction of keeping the fees down to as low a level as possible.

  246. I was frightened to hear the level of people who are driving without having a licence so, therefore, they are not insured and, therefore, a danger on the road to everyone that is there legitimately. Is it not the case that it is, in part, due to the high cost of learning to drive and sitting a test?
  (Mr Austin) It may be.

  247. Is there anything that you would consider doing an investigation into? It is clear if you are losing something like 800,000 people a year to the test, that there must be something else there that is a factor that, perhaps, would come out on any investigation that you were likely to do?
  (Mr Austin) We plan to comply and help and assist as much as we can with this very large research project into unlicensed drivers that the department are doing. I am very conscious that I cannot actually give you a figure for how many unlicensed drivers there are. There are estimates I have seen, of course, and obviously you are aware of. What I dispute is that there is a difference between what there was in 1990 and what there is now coming through. I do not believe that 800,000 people every year are presenting themselves and going into unlicensed driving at all.

  248. We were told, and nobody was able to dispute it, that it was up to 1,000 people per constituency across the land without a driving licence driving cars. Can I move on from there? How many driving test centres have you closed without replacement since 1990?
  (Mr Austin) Since 1990 there have been, let me just confirm this, 65 closures since 1990, of which 40 took place in the first five years and 20 took place in the last five years. We have only closed one permanently since 1999. The other three are temporary closures, because leases have been withdrawn by the landlord and we seek alternative accommodation.

Chairman

  249. What do you estimate the effects of these closures are in terms of waiting times?
  (Mr Austin) There should not be any at all. These are just locations that we conduct activity from. The key resource to waiting times is how many examiners you have and how does that match demand. In those locations all we do is we move our examiner resource from one location, usually to the very nearest centre. In terms of that it should not have any impact at all.

Mr Donohoe

  250. How does your consultation process operate as far as the closure of centres is concerned? We had evidence from the BSM that they indicated that there was absolutely no consultation at all.
  (Mr Austin) They were referring to the situation in Oxford, which was not the normal. The normal process, if I can go through that first, and I am happy to deal with Oxford, the normal process is that we would establish a need within an area for some sort of move and change on the estate side. We would then draw up documents. We would then write to a whole host of people. For instance, if I can do one that did work, which is in Cardiff, more recently, we would have written to a whole list of instructors, MPs, the Welsh Assembly, all sorts of people to tell them about our intention. There was a public consultation meeting where various members turned up to launch into the idea and the reasons behind it. We take into account the views that have been expressed, written, petitions, whatever. That is the way that it should work. In Oxford we found ourselves in an unfortunate situation in that we knew that the lease was due to go in March this year, 2001, and we were on property that was owned by the Inland Revenue. Sadly they started to realise there was a lot of structural problems and they needed to clear the site. They also then told us that they were going to demolish certain buildings, which made it quite inappropriate for us to take learners and conduct the tests from there. The problem was that they withdrew that. They started the problem, in terms of closing the site down early, from December. Given the work they started we had to pull out at fairly short notice in November. We had known about this for a period of time, the difficulty we had was in our search for a property. We looked at 19 other locations in Oxford, it is an important place to have another centre, the difficulty we had was we thought we had a deal in an alternative location and sadly the Benefits Agency pulled out and gave the land to somebody else in October last year, leaving us with what we thought was a route to go to and we had nowhere to go. All we did was remove the examiner resource from the closed Oxford site to the other Oxford test centre.

  251. Is there any real mechanism for an individual or a group of individuals to appeal against a decision that you take to close a centre?
  (Mr Austin) They are obviously at liberty to take part in the consultation process by writing, or whatever. I am not aware of an appeals process once that decision has been made.

  252. It does affect people's income, you are affecting people's livelihood?
  (Mr Austin) In certain locations if we are proposing to close and not relocate we would have made a decision based on the fact there were alternative places to go to. It can have an impact.

  253. If it is in a more rural area and that happens to be another twelve miles, that means that every time there is a lesson that the individual has to travel that extra distance and it adds cost to the man's or woman's business in these circumstances. That is not compensated at all. In the circumstances you are not giving them the opportunity of being able to put that as part of an appeal process to you or to someone within the structure to be able to say, "Wait a minute, this is costing me so much per week to run in this changed situation". The other thing you do not do, I asked this question five years ago, is look at centres of population and the drift that there is over years. There has been no compensation for that in my own area as far as the sinking of the driving centre itself is concerned.
  (Mr Austin) There are a number of issues in that. The first is that there is a criteria that we use for establishing a location for testing, a practical and theory test, that takes into account whether it is an urban area, in which case for the practical test we would say we should not expect people to travel more than seven miles. If it is a very rural area then we would expect them to travel no more than 30 miles as a maximum. Those are the criteria we have. We currently use about 438 locations in Great Britain. On the theory test, where we started with almost a blank sheet of paper at the beginning of last year using similar criteria, we started from fresh and came up with 158 in terms of testing locations. We have tried to go through that process and certainly recognise that rural populations do have problems in terms of travelling. The ones that have been going through more recently have been largely urban ones. That has been part of the reason for trying to rationalise the estate in certain areas. I know of one that we have had to close fairly recently on a temporary basis because of health and safety, the building was literally falling down. There are various reasons behind that. What we are going to do is have another look at our estate strategy. There is an important reason for that, I am very conscious that the European Union have come forward with an amended second Directive now which would imply that we have five years to go through the process of changing the motorcycle test to take into account off-road manoeuvres. Also for lorries, LGV vehicles, to do a laden test, in other words they would be laden with some weight on the back, they are not at the moment. We will have to do stopping distances, and so on, with a very different braking profile. That means we will have to look at our current estate and that will automatically mean that most of our sites we use for LGV testing will not be adequate to cope with those.

Chairman

  254. That is a five year period. I want to ask some fairly detailed questions. To what extent have the numbers of senior driving examiners and supervising examiners fallen in recent years?
  (Mr Austin) There are two types of senior examiners, one that looks at the instructors that are on the register and the other one is the other type, the examiner work force. The examiner work force has increased over the last few years from 35 to 40 but I am very conscious that in terms of the ADI side it has gone down from 50 to 37.

  255. The people who provide your work, who are the examiners dealing with the public, have gone down but the people looking at how you work have gone up?
  (Mr Austin) Yes, in terms of there are more examiners employed now than there were a few years ago. That is simply keeping the number of staff being supervised to a reasonable level in terms of those monitoring the instructors themselves.

  256. What about senior driving examiners, you did not mention them?
  (Mr Austin) The senior driving examiners have gone from about 250 to about 200.

  257. They are going down as well.
  (Mr Austin) That has gone down as well.

  258. What implication is that going to have for the number of supervising and overseeing staff for the quality of the driving test?
  (Mr Austin) In terms of the quality side of it, what I have found is a quality assurance system which needs to be looked at very closely. I am not convinced that—

  259. What does that mean, Mr Austin, does it mean that you do not like what you found?
  (Mr Austin) Absolutely. I have come from the NHS in a very rigorous quality assurance system—


 
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