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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001

MR GARY AUSTIN AND MS LARAINE MANLEY

  280. Mrs Dunwoody will stop me if I rabbit on a bit. We have an ill-defined "do not know" and a long-standing, "do not know" set ten years ago. Over the course of the last year you have a supplementary target, that supplementary target was ten weeks, who set that?
  (Mr Austin) That would have been set in discussions with the advisory board.

  281. Presumably you are working to reduce that supplementary target, not the six weeks.
  (Mr Austin) Absolutely. My ambition for the next financial year is to get the performance below that figure.

  282. You probably anticipated my next comment/question. If you are successful in reducing this, presumably the supplementary target of ten weeks down to six weeks, if you do, let us say that happens in the course of the next year or two, perhaps, we will have reached a situation that set a target ten years ago. Is that fair?
  (Mr Austin) I do not know.

  283. If you get it down to six weeks, and the six weeks was set ten years ago, you will have reached a point where you were ten years ago.
  (Mr Austin) If that is when it was set.

  284. It certainly pre-dates you, although you have been here a few years, and Ms Manley has been at the Agency a bit longer and she does not know. The point I am trying to establish with you is if you reduce the supplementary target you will have reached a situation where the Agency was five or ten years ago.
  (Mr Austin) The important part in terms of waiting times, as far as all of the research I have seen and the focus groups and the comments I have had from both customers and instructors, is that it is less important in terms of the actual waiting time itself. The importance is the consistency of that waiting time because then they can build into the fact—

  285. If my constituents are consistently waiting seventeen weeks or twelve weeks—there is some evidence of that—then it is okay because at least you know where you stand. Is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Austin) I would not feel comfortable with that. What they are telling me is the bit they have difficulty with is having somebody who starts their tuition today, for instance, where the expectation is the test is nine weeks away and then suddenly they get halfway through that nine weeks and we say, "We have improved it, it is now down to five", because that may mean that actually when they phone up for their test, expecting to be told it is eight weeks away—

  Mr Stevenson: That may be a convenient surprise, they might welcome that on the odd occasion.

Chairman

  286. I can tell you, Mr Austin, the evidence we took was not that way around. You still have not told us what the average waiting time is for a driving test.
  (Mr Austin) The current average is 5.8 weeks, it is just under six weeks now.

Mr Bennett

  287. What is the worst?
  (Mr Austin) There are four that are still over the nine weeks, they are all in London and the South East. The worst one is in Wanstead, which is at 12 weeks.

Chairman

  288. Are you looking for consistency right across by bringing it right down?
  (Mr Austin) I am looking to put more resources specifically into those areas to target that and to bring them down.

Mr Donohoe

  289. Another one of the responsibilities you have, as I understand it, I might have written to you about it, is that you give approval to driving schools.
  (Mr Austin) To driving schools?

  290. Do you not think that there is a likelihood of conflict of interest in that?
  (Mr Austin) I do not think so. If we are talking about the driving schools themselves, we are talking about the ones that train instructors.

  291. Yes.
  (Mr Austin) Part of it is that we are at the moment contributing to a group called ORDIT[3]3, which is a group that manages those and approves them. We are just one of the party. It is not run on our behalf, as it were. There is not a statutory scheme there, it is a voluntary scheme and we are just one of the many people involved in that.

  292. The instructors on occasions are examined by examiners and are then going on to examine their pupils. I would have thought, I would have hoped that you would agree, that, perhaps, that was not a proper procedure. As I understand it, there is no appeal against it if they fail.
  (Mr Austin) This is in terms of the school itself?

  293. Yes.
  (Mr Austin) They can appeal to that group, but we do the fieldwork on behalf of ORDIT.

Chairman

  294. Can I ask you about contracts?
  (Mr Austin) Yes, of course.

  295. Why have you stopped employing examiners on permanent contracts?
  (Mr Austin) That was done many years ago, 1995, in response to a need to get people in very quickly. I think the Agency at the time had been used to a situation of fluctuating demand. What it attempted to do was to avoid the fact it may take on examiners, only, presumably, not to have to use them and then make them redundant, lay them off if the demand fell away. At the time it was a reaction to fluctuation and demand.

  296. Do staff shortages play any role in the extended waiting time? Are you going to go back to permanent contracts?
  (Mr Austin) We are in the process of finalising with the PCS to move away from the contract examiner basis. I do not like the concept at all. I think we are almost at the point of being able to say we will have permanent examiners. There are some nice points about the contract examiners, moving them across into a permanent position, which I actually quite like. They are a much more diverse work force than, perhaps, our permanent staff are and should be encouraged.

  297. You have taken on board the fact it is not a very satisfactory system and you are looking for alternatives?
  (Mr Austin) Absolutely.

  298. I am still a bit concerned about your consultation. Your consultations do not turn out to be you telling everyone we are going to close a particular centre and then they can come and tell you why they think it is not a good idea and you still do it.
  (Mr Austin) The process has certainly had that flavour to it in the past and, not surprisingly, you do not get many people saying what a great idea.

  299. Do you not have a formula that says, "We must be within so many miles of our population".
  (Mr Austin) The approach we are attempting to adopt now is to say that within this area where there may be three or four test centres we believe there is over-capacity, based on these distances, and we would like to have consultation, which is not to say this one needs to go, but just about how we would like to take forward that problem.


3   3 Note by witness: ORDIT stands for Official Register of Driving Instructor Training. Back


 
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