Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001
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.
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
Chairman: Of course.
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
(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.
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.
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
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.
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
(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