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Transport Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 506
Taken before the Transport Committee
on Tuesday 6 March 2012
Mrs Louise Ellman (Chair)
Mr Tom Harris
Mr John Leech
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Mike Penning MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, and Andrew Colski, Head of Road Safety Policy, Department for Transport, gave evidence.
Q331 Chair: Good morning, Minister, and welcome to the Transport Select Committee.
There are no targets in the Government’s strategy on road safety, and the Department says that it does not feel that there is a need for national targets to support road safety. Local government has suffered a great loss of funding, including the loss of ring-fenced grants for road safety. In that context, how are the Government showing leadership in relation to road safety?
Mike Penning: In terms of road safety the coalition agreement does not say, "This is the target for the next 10 years," but there is a set of targets and achievements that we would like to get through. You have hit the nail on the head by saying that, in these difficult economic times, we have removed the ring fencing, particularly on road safety cameras, but we are continuing to fund local government as best we can. However, two things will make that very difficult. If we believe in localism, which the coalition Government and I do, it is very difficult to pass more and more responsibility down to local government-with less money, as you say-but at the same time say to them, "It is a national target that you should do this."
The other thing that is significant is this. There is no doubt that the targets did help the drive down, but-and it is a very big but-if you set targets, it is always the easier options that people will look at. People will do the things that are simpler and easier, but the more difficult things will not get done because it is an overall target rather than an ambition based within the various sectors. Although there are people who are concerned about the strategy in that there were targets, it was, as I am sure you would agree, warmly welcomed that we got it out as early as we did, and with the cross-Government strategy and localism, I think it is a good strategy that we are taking forward.
Q332 Chair: Where is the leadership from the Government or the Department in this?
Mike Penning: Targets do not mean leadership. Targets mean, "Here is a target. By the way, you go off and do it." That is what we will be saying to local government. What we are saying across the strategy is that we need to drive down the very good road safety figures that we have now and to look at the more difficult areas. If you look at the strategy, you will see that we are particularly targeting areas that would have been easier to leave behind if there was a set target across the board. I do not accept your analogy that perhaps there is no leadership; there is strong leadership, but a lot of this has to be done at the local level. Local communities are much more responsible in driving the agenda forward in their areas. They know their roads and their communities better than we in central Government do, but we will give them all the help we can. As you said, the money was hypothecated or ring-fenced into set areas before, but we have now removed that. I am very pleased that we did so, because it has allowed the local authorities to start thinking out of the box and not say, "The only way to do this is x", normally with cameras, but look at other options as well.
Q333 Mr Leech: ACPO has told us that, with an absence of targets, police forces were unlikely to prioritise casualty reduction because they had to meet other targets. Interestingly, when I met GMP-Greater Manchester police-a couple of days later, they said they were prioritising road casualty reductions because of the number of casualties that there had been in the area. How do we make sure that all police authorities prioritise road safety in the same way as GMP, because ACPO says others almost certainly will not?
Mike Penning: I spoke at the ACPO road safety conference in the Midlands this year and took extensive questioning for nearly an hour. That matter was not raised with me, although I see that it was mentioned in its evidence to you. Best practice in a lot of authorities-Manchester is a classic example-is that they will continue to prioritise it, because that is their job. It is difficult because, although we have started to remove targets across Government, we have not removed them completely. I do not think that there is any doubt that the commissioner’s priorities will be based around this. In central Government we have said that we wish to improve the excellent record that we have on road safety and on people killed or seriously injured, but it has to be a bottom-up and not a top-down way of approaching it.
Q334 Mr Leech: Is there not a real danger, if a police force has targets for burglary reduction or whatever but does not have a target for road safety, that resources, which are quite difficult at the moment, will clearly be focused on those areas with targets?
Mike Penning: I accept the point you are making, Mr Leech, and difficult decisions have had to be made. However, your own authority in your part of the world made a conscious decision not to do that, and it is for us as politicians, from central Government as well as in our constituencies, to make sure that those priorities are kept, because road safety saves lives. That is crucial. At the same time, ACPO will tell you-I have discussed this with the association-that if you have a simplistic target, you get simplistic answers. At the moment, we need to be much more targeted about the problems in our local areas.
Q335 Mr Harris: Minister, you said in your opening statement that you thought the road safety record in Britain was good. In your opinion, what role have nationally set targets played in achieving that good record in the past?
Mike Penning: As I said a moment ago, I think they have helped to focus minds-there is no doubt about that-but I also said that, if you have simplistic targets, then you will get simplistic answers.
For instance, the police in your local area will tell you, as they said to me before I became a Minister, that we need to drive down the number of people using mobile phones when driving. At the moment it is not on our target tick box, and we do not get brownie points for pulling it off. Some of us in Opposition, with some colleagues in Government, went to see the Minister and said, "Look, if the police are asking for it, give it to them." Actually, prosecutions for that offence have hardly changed, yet it is a very serious offence that needs to be addressed, because distraction when you are driving is one of the main culprits in accidents. I think you will find that it has had its day-that is what we feel as a Government-but that does not mean there is no target within the strategy, because there is a long-term strategy and a long-term target for it. What we are not saying is, "You will do this," or, "You will do that," because we do not know in central Government what will be best for local communities.
Q336 Mr Harris: You say that you have a long-term target, but your strategic framework states that a 37% casualty reduction is neither a target nor a definitive forecast. What is it?
Mike Penning: It is not a target, otherwise we would not be having this discussion. You would be saying, "There is a target there. Are you going to hit your target?"
Q337 Mr Harris: I am just giving you an opportunity to clarify that because you said you do have long-term targets.
Mike Penning: Yes, but it is not a target. Do we want to drive down the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads? Yes. Do we feel that the road safety strategy will help to do that? Yes. Do we feel that local authorities and local communities should take responsibility as we drive forward with localism? Yes, we do.
Q338 Mr Harris: You do not see any kind of contradiction in admitting that nationally set targets have in the past helped us to achieve one of the best road safety records in Europe and saying that removing those targets will also help us to maintain that record?
Mike Penning: You used the word "help". It was your word, not mine. It did help. I said that.
Q339 Mr Harris: It did help.
Mike Penning: Yes.
Q340 Mr Harris: Are you saying, therefore, that removing them will also help?
Mike Penning: I am saying that we have got to a position where we are very low in Europe, as you said, and even worldwide we are doing remarkably well, but we also need to look at how to break through that next barrier and get it even lower. I repeat that simplistic targets are not the answer; that is certainly the Government’s view. To be fair, in Opposition we said that we would look at removing targets because they are too simplistic. We do not want people concentrating on the target instead of on what we need to do.
Q341 Paul Maynard: Forgive me for sticking with targets, but the Chairman and I visited Halton and Liverpool last Thursday to look at what they were doing at the local level. Halton, which is a Labour-controlled council, gave some very interesting answers to our questions about targets. It has been the best performing council in reducing KSIs by some 73%, but councillors said that they were relieved that there were no longer national targets as they were crude and would force them to squeeze out more despite having over-achieved already. However, there is clearly still a problem in that many parts of the country have not achieved Halton’s high level of performance. Doncaster was cited-an area that has seen no reduction at all. What can central Government do, if anything, to help areas such as Doncaster, where national targets have clearly not made a difference, to make the difference that we all want to see?
Mike Penning: I would also like to praise Halton, because the work it has done over the years has really helped in moving the debate forward. I am well aware of the work that has been done there, but I am also aware that other local authorities-not only the one that you mention, Mr Maynard-no matter what target was set, have just ignored it. It is not because they do not want to improve things, but, frankly, the best practice just has not got through. We need to push out best practice from places such as Halton. Also, if we believe in local democracy, how can you live in a community where a local authority is not promoting road safety in the way that other areas are? It is not about money. In most cases, it is about mindset and priorities.
I did not know that Halton councillors had said that to you, Mr Maynard, but I am ever so pleased that they did because it backs up exactly what the Government’s strategy is.
Q342 Paul Maynard: Another thing I discussed with Halton councillors was why they felt that road safety was such an important issue for them as elected members and why that was not necessarily the case for other councils. It was interesting to note that they were very clear about it not being a matter of party politics but about the linkages to their local area and the impact of road traffic accidents there. What work are the Government doing with local councils that are not achieving in order to get this culture change? It is clearly at the heart of what Liverpool and Halton are doing, but it is missing in other areas.
Mike Penning: There are two ways of doing it. You can use a big stick, if you wish, saying, "This is the Government target and this is the way you should do it." We have tried that, and in some areas it clearly has not worked. We are getting out into those local authority areas. My colleague Norman Baker and I wrote to every local authority leader earlier this week setting out best practice and offering assistance and help on how to go forward.
This is not party political, as you rightly say. It is about local democracy. We have published all the data on speed cameras so that everyone knows know whether they are doing their job or not. In some areas there were no accidents before the speed cameras were introduced and now there are more accidents, so something is seriously wrong and those cameras should be redeployed or removed altogether. Speed cameras have their place, but, as we are all aware, they were used to raise cash rather than doing the job for which they were designed, which was to prevent accidents. However, we have to work with local government, and my officials are regularly out there trying to help them, but you can only help those who want to be helped. As for those that do not want to be helped, I would argue that that is a local democracy issue, and perhaps the local community should tell them exactly what people would like in the area, because I know what I would like in mine.
Q343 Steve Baker: In the absence of targets, how will we know in five years whether or not the strategy has been a success?
Mike Penning: Because of the percentage of killed and seriously injured. We keep the data and we will publish it. We will name and shame local authorities, which I did not say in answer to Mr Maynard’s question. It is important, if you believe in local democracy, that you have the facts in front of you-an evidence base. You will have seen that in the first two quarters this year we sadly had a decline-a slight reverse-in performance and then we had a third quarter when it went the other way again. We must not look at these things in isolation over a short period; the trend is better, but it will become harder and harder simply because we have done so well over the years. I pay tribute to the previous Administration: they drove the figures down, but the Administration before them were doing the same.
Q344 Steve Baker: It sounds as though you are now looking at a strategy of comparative performance rather than absolute performance.
Mike Penning: Yes. That is absolutely spot on.
Q345 Iain Stewart: On the proposal to increase the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, is it still the Government’s wish, once the consultation and review is complete, to see that change?
Mike Penning: Yes. We announced right from the start that we would look at the national speed limit on motorways, but there would be some motorway areas where that would not be viable. Before we go out to consultation, we are looking at getting the evidence base together so that we can and will go out to consultation. Will there be parts of the motorway network that will not change if we agree to go to 80 mph? Yes, there will, but the key is that it will be a proper consultation. I remember sitting before this Committee previously saying that consultations have to do what it says on the tin. It must be a proper consultation. A lot of work will need to be done on exactly where 80 mph is or is not viable, particularly looking at the road safety against the flow argument, but we have to be honest with the public.
If you have ACPO in front of you, I hope you ask them whether they enforce up to 80 mph on the motorways, because the answer will be no. The motorway speed limit was set in 1965, but vehicles, drivers, the test and everything has changed quite dramatically since then. But we will consult, and it will be a proper consultation.
Q346 Iain Stewart: When looking at areas where an 80 mph limit would not be appropriate, are you thinking of systems such as that in France, where there is a default lower speed limit on the motorways in adverse weather conditions?
Mike Penning: I hate to say this, but parts of the French motorway network have technology that is slightly in advance of ours. They have the ability to move information out to the motorist in a different way. They also have a different system from us. We have advisory and mandatory speed limits, whereas in France they tend to be mandatory.
We can look at the huge success that managed motorway networks have achieved, although I accept that they have been very expensive, especially the early ones. We are considering whether we need to do hard shoulder as well as managed motorways, or whether we should use the technology just for managed motorways and perhaps look at hard shoulder later on when we have more capital funds available. That is something that we are looking at now; the proven technology is there. We could do exactly what you suggest, but I have to address this question of the advisory and mandatory path within the legislation, which is very complicated under UK law.
Q347 Chair: When do you expect to go out to consultation on the 80 mph speed limit?
Mike Penning: When we are ready and we are confident that we have all of the evidence base on it. It is important to say that we have discussed the matter for some time, and it has been discussed within Government, but we want the consultation to be rigorous. We are close-we are not that far off-but we are not quite there yet.
Q348 Chair: Did you say that you would be suggesting an 80 mph speed limit on some motorways but not others?
Mike Penning: The consultation will plainly say that we are looking at raising the national speed limit on motorways to 80 mph where applicable-where it is safe to do so.
Q349 Chair: Will you be suggesting some rather than others?
Mike Penning: No. That will be part of the consultation. Just to clarify the matter, some of our motorways are dual carriageway-in other words, there are two lanes and not three, four or five, or even six in some cases. My personal view is that 80 mph on a two-lane motorway would not be appropriate, but we will look at the evidence and see whether I can be convinced one way or the other. That is an example of where we will consult and ask whether it is right. We must remember that motorways have evolved enormously since 1965; we now have four and five-lane motorways, and the legislation needs to adapt to that.
Q350 Steve Baker: Would you agree that the evidence shows that large numbers of motorists, perhaps the majority of car drivers, do not obey the 70 mph limit on the motorways?
Mike Penning: Yes.
Q351 Steve Baker: Do you agree that that shows a contempt for the law and we ought to deal with it?
Mike Penning: It shows a contempt for the law, but it also shows some understanding of what happens in prosecutions. It is for the police to tell you, but the reason they have not been prosecuting-ACPO has a formula to work to, but it deviates slightly around the country-is, frankly, that if they got you into court for doing 75 mph, you would have probably got off with a half-decent lawyer simply because the police did not have the required accuracy, especially in the early days. I hope the public are listening to me, because average speed cameras, especially on managed motorways, are ridiculously accurate. The argument, which will be in the public consultation, is what we enforce over 80 mph. The answer will be that 80 mph will be the speed limit, and not, as we interpret it today, perhaps 90 mph. That is a subtle hint going out there.
Q352 Steve Baker: Have you made an assessment of the positive implications of raising the speed limit to a level that enjoys consent? Would you expect that to reinforce positive attitudes and personal responsibility?
Mike Penning: I have said to the Committee before-if I have not, I apologise-that we have to be honest. At the moment, there is a small degree of dishonesty, if you can have such a thing, between the motorist, the police and us as the people who produce the legislation, because we know and you know that you will not be prosecuted for driving at 75 mph on a motorway. If we keep safety where it is now, the key to the discussion if we were to raise the limit on applicable roads to 80 mph is that it will be fixed at 80 mph and not 90 mph. At the same time, which is probably what you are alluding to, if we say that it is not safe to drive at 80 mph on some motorways and it should stay at 70 mph, then we need to enforce that.
Chair: A couple of Members have indicated that they have questions on this specific matter.
Q353 Julie Hilling: Minister, you said that you would rigorously enforce an 80 mph limit, but is not the issue at the moment the accuracy of speedos in cars and so on, which give 10% or whatever leeway? How would you be able to enforce an 80 mph limit, and would not the problem remain of people having good lawyers, as you said, and being able to get away with it?
Mike Penning: The issue is always going to be about getting a good lawyer; you are absolutely right. However, technology has dramatically changed since ACPO took advice on how accurate speedos can be. Modern speedos indicate that you are going faster than you are really doing; that is built into the mechanism of the cars, and modern car speedometers are accurate. As I say, average speed camera technology has moved on dramatically, not only on motorways but on other roads. For instance, I hope in a moment to come on to how we can make 20 mph zones work, because that will be done by camera technology.
Q354 Mr Leech: This might be a pretty unfair question, but do you know what proportion of the current motorway network does not have a speed limit of 70 mph?
Mike Penning: No, I do not, but I shall write to the Committee and let you know.1
Q355 Mr Leech: Do you have any idea of what proportion of the motorway network would require a speed limit lower than 80 mph if the default was 80 mph?
Mike Penning: No, because I want that to be genuinely part of the consultation. When we first looked at this, and I am being very honest about it, we were looking at quite a small part of the motorway network that could not go to 80 mph. I asked my officials to look again, because it was more to do with construction or design on a very small part of the network, around 3% to 5%. I then said, "Let’s look at this a bit better. Would it be right for a dual carriageway?" I have already alluded to that as being one of my concerns. I touched on one of the reasons for that earlier, in answer to Mr Stewart. I think that we need to make much better use of the technology that is available, because it is difficult otherwise to have confidence about what speed you are doing.
Q356 Mr Leech: The M60 ring road around Manchester has a section near Stockport with a 50 mph limit. In my experience, not many motorists stick to 50 mph at that point. As part of the consultation, will the Department also be looking at whether people stick to the limit if it is below the default?
Mike Penning: Yes. One of the things that I touched on earlier is that we have learned an awful lot from our managed motorway networks, hard-shoulder running and new technology. We do not necessarily have to use that technology only with these new super four-lane motorways. The cabling spines on the motorway network are there, and, if I was lucky enough to get funding from the Treasury or I can find some money from my existing budgets, we could look at exactly what you describe as a way of managing that piece of motorway. We do that, for instance, on the M25, but in a better way. The 50 mph limit is there for a reason; it is not just for accidents but for flow.
Q357 Chair: Will that be part of the consultation or would that be something else?
Mike Penning: Discussion on that will probably not be part of the consultation, but it will certainly be part of the work around it because enforcement is crucial if we go down that avenue. Even if we do not go down it, the point you raise is crucial. What point is there in having a speed limit for a specific reason and not being able to enforce it accurately?
Q358 Mr Leech: I do not necessarily accept it, but, if there are sections of the motorway where 80 mph is safe, we also have to accept that there will be some areas where it is not safe and, therefore, the limit needs to be lower-perhaps 70 mph or, like the M60, 50 mph. Will it not cost an awful lot simply to change the default speed limit? We would need variable limits on large sections of the motorways. In difficult economic times, do we not have broader priorities?
Mike Penning: I know where you are coming from and I can see the argument that you are making. Whether or not we move the default limit to 80 mph on certain parts of the motorway network, we have to address how we deal with variable and mandatory speed limits on our motorways. The French model is the obvious one to look at, but I cannot physically do that at the moment. Where, for whatever reason, we have gone to lower speed limits on the motorway network, and we do not have managed motorways at the moment, we need to address that. You are absolutely right that at that point on the M60 it is hugely beneficial to keep traffic at 50 mph, because it will flow much better and there will be fewer accidents.
Q359 Julian Sturdy: During our inquiry, we have heard a lot of evidence on the subject of young drivers. Everyone who has given evidence said that the driving test in its current form is not fit for purpose. What further action do you propose taking on the driving test? We have seen some minor changes, but there has been criticism that they did not go far enough.
Mike Penning: I am trying to find some figures on graduated driving licensing. I do not normally refer to my notes; I apologise. We have made a lot more than a few minor changes to the driving test. I think it was me who said earlier on that it was not fit for purpose.
Q360 Julian Sturdy: A number of people in the inquiry have told us that, and you might have said so as well.
Mike Penning: I probably said it on more than one occasion.
Julian Sturdy: I think everyone in the inquiry has said it.
Mike Penning: When I became Minister, I looked carefully at the test. My personal view, having had two teenage girls go through lessons and tests in recent years, is that they were taught to pass the test and not how to drive. That was not good for them, and it certainly was not good for everyone else using the highways and byways.
There have been several schemes over the years to promote things post-test and so on. The changes that we have made to the test-we are not fully there yet-are pretty radical. For instance, when my daughter took her test in St Albans she turned out of the gate of the test centre and turned right; she knew the exact route and could almost have done it blindfold, because she had done it hundreds of times before. That has stopped. I shall return to the reason why that is becoming more and more obvious. The minute learners pass their test, they will be out there on their own making mistakes. As part of the test, it is crucial that we do not tell them everything they have to do and that they are asked to take a route from A to B. They will make mistakes, because that is exactly what they will do in their driving experience.
We have also changed the theory test because, believe it or not, they published all the questions. To me, the mathematics was pretty obvious and they would eventually get it right. We are going to consult pretty soon on whether you should take the British driving test in English or Welsh, and not in 27 other translated languages; that is for road safety costs and community cohesion. You are probably aware that I have also proposed that a qualified driving instructor-I stress, a qualified instructor-should be able to take a learner driver in a suitably marked vehicle with dual controls on the motorway network before passing the test, so that we do not have the ludicrous situation of drivers being able to drive on the motorway the minute after passing the test.
Are we there yet? No, but we are a lot further on. We are going to try and get into schools much earlier, and I am working with the Department for Education to address the aspirations of young people who want the freedom to drive, but also to ensure that they understand the risks involved. Of course, we also have quite punitive legislation on the statute book for new drivers who offend early on, who lose their licences much quicker than others.
Q361 Julian Sturdy: There has been a lot of talk about pre-driver training, and we have heard evidence about getting into schools a lot earlier. Some have said that they are not convinced about that, but are we talking about targeting pre-16s and young males specifically in the schools?
Mike Penning: It would be wrong to target just young males, even though when driving they are nine or 10 times more likely to be in a serious incident. I think that we could be targeting people even younger than that in understanding not how to drive a car, but the principles and the dangers involved, and dealing with drink and drugs and natural peer pressure. Of course, we start driving quite late in life in this country; in many other countries it is as low as 15 years old. There is a balance to make sure that we have the safest roads, as we touched on earlier, but at the same time we are giving people the opportunity and the freedoms that I had when I was 16 and 17. We are talking not only about cars but about two-wheeled vehicles. Motorbikes are a big issue for me and in accidents. I keep being told off for using the word "accident"-it is the fireman in me-but killed and seriously injured on bikes or two-wheeled vehicles is a big issue for us.
Q362 Julian Sturdy: It would be interesting to know your views on graduated licensing and post-test restrictions, which are in operation in some other countries. Is it something that should be looked at?
Mike Penning: I have looked at it very carefully. I take as a comparison the fact that Canada has a graduated test and their ratio-it is all about ratios and evidence bases-is about 6.27; in New Zealand it is 9.16; and in America it is 8.23. They all have graduated tests. We do not, and our ratio is 3.97. I am not convinced about the evidence on graduated testing.
The other thing that really worries me is that we want to get young people into work. It is a big area, and we are struggling at the moment as a country. We have too many young people who are unemployed. but if you are a trainee nurse am I going to tell you that you cannot do nights because you have a restricted licence? That is what would happen, and that sort of thing would worry me enormously. It is much more about educating people than using the big stick. If the evidence changed around the world I would look at it, but at the moment I am more than happy that we are sitting at 3.97. It is too high, but other countries with graduated licences are higher.
Q363 Julian Sturdy: Are the Government going to focus a lot more on education in schools?
Mike Penning: I am also looking very much at post-test. There can be more out there that can be done post-test, but, frankly, it has not worked. I discussed this when I gave evidence on insurance with my colleague. Insurers must be much more open and transparent about the discounts being given for post-test qualification. I am also doing some work on pre-test qualification. For instance, if you have a logbook showing that you did x number of hours of motorway training before passing your test, I would expect the insurance companies to give you a reduction in your premium for that as a young or newly qualified driver. I have told them that.
Q364 Chair: What was their response to that?
Mike Penning: We will wait and see.
Q365 Chair: Is that what they said, or did they say nothing?
Mike Penning: The insurance companies want quite a lot from me at the moment, and as we discussed at a summit at No. 10, we want some things from them as well. Confidence in premiums and some transparency would give many people a better understanding of what is happening out there.
Q366 Chair: So you did not get an assurance that premiums would come down, but you are pursuing that.
Mike Penning: No. However, some of the schemes that are already out there-I think the Co-op and Direct Line are moving to it now; I apologise if I have made an announcement for them-such as telematics have shown a reduction in premiums. To me, that is a trust thing as well. Even though they are monitoring what you are doing, there are no restrictions on you; but if you exceed the speed limit on a regular basis they know what you are doing.
Chair: Two Members want to ask questions on this issue, but I ask them to be brief.
Steve Baker: I wanted to ask about the motorcycle test.
Chair: We shall come to that later.
Q367 Julie Hilling: Minister, you talked of international comparisons on the graduated licence, but what is the evidence on when accidents take place? We know that a huge proportion of new drivers have accidents in their first year of driving. When are they taking place? Are they happening at night, with passengers in the back, and so on?
Mike Penning: That depends on the age profile and the gender of the newly qualified driver, but if we look at males aged 17 to 24 then, yes, at night or the early hours of the morning, but not necessarily exclusively with drink or drugs involvement. Drugs is a separate issue that we want to address, because we do not know how many people it involves. It is often with a friend, so there is peer pressure and a lot of adrenalin.
Q368 Julie Hilling: Is there no evidence to say that a graduated licence here with some restrictions would save lives?
Mike Penning: No, I do not think so. On evidence from elsewhere in the world where it happens, we are already lower than they are. The other thing would be enforcement.
Q369 Julie Hilling: I struggle with this international comparison. We already know that we have good road safety measures, but one thing that we are trying to do is drive down deaths and serious injury on the roads.
Mike Penning: You have to do it on an evidence base. If you are looking at bringing in a graduated licence, which basically is a restriction on newly qualified drivers being able to drive freely whenever they need to, you would have to measure whether it would work. I am sure that you would say that there was evidence that it would drive it down a little. On the other hand, you will be putting a restriction on someone who has just spent an awful lot of money on passing the test, which they have to do through the Government; they cannot do it any other way. You would be saying to them, for instance, that they cannot use their car at certain times of the day. That will be an economic balance as to whether that is fair or not.
Q370 Jim Dobbin: I return to the issue of local government involvement, which I agree with. Local government has to be involved in road safety initiatives. Essentially, the success or failure of this policy will depend very much on the ability of local authorities-local government-to introduce road safety measures. If that is happening during a difficult financial period, will there be any help or support from central Government for local authorities that want to introduce safety solutions?
Mike Penning: Yes, and one of the things that has already started to happen is that we have removed the ring fencing particularly for safety cameras. There were different reactions around the country; some switched them all off straight away and then brought some back, and some never had them to start with. Durham, for instance, does not have any speed cameras and never has had, yet its safety record is round about the national average, which is interesting. They have started to look at other measures on road safety. I am sure that we will come to the 20 mph limit, but there has been a push towards that. I never understood it as fully as I do now, but we now have things like retro-reflective paint. The evidence base says that, if you paint your roads better, particularly the lines on the outside, and especially in rural communities, you will reduce accidents dramatically. They have all been pushing towards other aspects with engineering solutions, but paint is a lot cheaper than putting in speed cameras or redesigning the road. It has a huge benefit, and we are trying to give the evidence to the local communities and say, "We know that money is tight, but the evidence base shows that this will help."
The crucial thing is that one size will not fit all. There are many different types of local community; rural communities are very different from urban communities. In my constituency, I have a big urban area, but literally within two minutes you are in the Chilterns, with some of the narrowest roads in the country. A balance has to be made, and local authorities know best. I was slightly disappointed when we published the data on speed cameras that there was not the upsurge of interest that I would have expected in local communities, with people asking, "Why is it there?" or "Why is that one not there?" That will come as the local elections start, and politics will start to be part of the drive.
Q371 Jim Dobbin: Some rural areas do not have the problem of motorways, but my constituency has the M60 going right through the middle. Will there be a close working relationship between the Highways Agency and local government on initiatives, with traffic from the motorway coming into the local communities?
Mike Penning: Yes. I am not indicating that the Highways Agency will not continue to have its central responsibility for the motorway and national road network, and certainly as a central Government Department we have our responsibilities, but we work much more closely. One of the things that surprised me when I came to the Department is that the Highways Agency is here and the local authorities are there, yet basically we are all doing the same job, which is trying to keep the country moving as safely as possible with the limited funds available in these difficult times.
Q372 Jim Dobbin: Where you see local authorities failing road safety-wise, which might be indicated by the number of accidents or whatever, will the Government be watching that closely and monitoring the situation?
Mike Penning: Yes, and naming and shaming is, I find, one of the biggest drivers. Yes, we will.
Q373 Steve Baker: I turn to a subject close to both our hearts, I am sure, which is the motorcycle test. When will the Committee receive a response to our March 2010 report on the new European test?
Mike Penning: I have to declare an interest. I have been a biker for 40 years and continue to be a biker today.
We will be able to respond in the near future-as soon as we possibly can. A review is going on into the motorcycle test as we speak. We want to get the test back on to the road rather than on an artificial surface that you are not going to experience in your actual driving experiences. We will get it to the Committee as soon as we can. I want it to be as strong and robust as possible because, as I said earlier, although we are doing better, we still have a serious issue to do with killed and seriously injured motorcyclists. That is partly because there is a complete change in two-wheeled vehicles out there today, compared to when I first started; the prevalence of low cc vehicles such as scooters and mopeds is really high now compared to what it was a while ago.
Q374 Steve Baker: With the test going back on to the road, does it mean that the DSA has spent money on test centres that will now be redundant, or do you have some plan for them?
Mike Penning: They will be redundant. We intend to downsize the estate as fast as we possibly can. You may be aware that we are also running a pilot on taking testing to the community rather than saying that the community has to keep coming to us like some Soviet system. The only way that you can get a test in this country is if the DSA gives you a pass certificate. We are piloting six at the moment, and we are about to flow out another 20 in areas where either the test centre was closed or where there is a demand. We are making an awful lot of people go to other areas to have their test. That is for cars, but we will look to run that out for motorcycles as well. Do I have lots of tarmac for the off-road part of the test that is not going to be required? Yes, I do. We would not have done it that way if we had been in Government.
Q375 Steve Baker: If I recall correctly, the new test is due any time soon. Would you explain what the last few remaining obstacles are to getting the test in place?
Mike Penning: The wonderful health and safety is there. The risk assessment has to be right, and there are certain manoeuvres that it was deemed could not be done on the road as part of the test, which is why they created the off-road part. We are now bringing out the pilots, and the Transport Research Laboratory has already tested our ideas and we are okay on that. I passionately believe that if you are going to be taught to drive a motorbike safely, and to pass a test safely, you should be tested on the roads where you have your driving experience. At the moment we have a two-tier system, as you are aware. You can drive for up to two and a half hours to get to a test centre, which is the furthest that we have, fail the test off-road and then be allowed to drive for two and a half hours back home. That is a ludicrous situation, and we are going to resolve that.
Q376 Steve Baker: In resolving it, are you confident that you will soon have a completely clear and straightforward policy on the motorcycle test?
Mike Penning: Yes. I am absolutely adamant that we will. It is very important.
Q377 Chair: When will that be?
Mike Penning: I have a meeting in about two weeks, where we will announce the pilots. As to where we roll this out, we have to work very closely with the unions involved, to make sure that our employees are safe when they are doing this, but all the evidence shows that we can roll it out. Once we have done the pilots, we will have the evidence base; we can then phase away from the existing system into the new one, which I hope will be finished in this Parliament.
Q378 Chair: When will this Committee get a formal reply?
Mike Penning: Literally as soon as I can. I see no reason why we should not be able to give a formal reply before the recess. If I cannot, I shall write to explain why not.2
Q379 Julie Hilling: I have three disparate areas that I wish to raise. The first is about fitness to drive. Real concerns have been raised about sleep apnoea and eyesight. What are your plans on those aspects?
Mike Penning: In this particular area, you have sleep apnoea and there is also diabetes, about which people are really concerned because at the moment there is a good chance of losing your licence if you get type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Epileptic fits is another area, and of course there is the traditional eye test. Turning to the last point first, I have looked at the evidence base put before me and I have no intention of changing the eye test. That test will stay as it is.
I am looking very carefully at those who have been excluded from driving-this is personal driving, not PSV or HGV driving-and whether we can make sure that people who have illnesses that are being addressed by clinicians are not excluded from the road. We will be looking particularly at people such as epileptics and diabetics, and we are working very closely with their representative bodies, including Diabetes UK, to allow as many diabetics as possible to continue to drive. The real concern was expressed that, because of our European friends, we might have to take licences away from people who, in my opinion, should be allowed to drive.
Q380 Julie Hilling: Particularly when people have to renew their licences, have you considered asking for evidence of driving vision?
Mike Penning: We have looked at it, and we concluded that at the moment we will not be going down that avenue.
Q381 Julie Hilling: Even though there is real concern about people still driving or reaching an age when they should be wearing glasses and are not doing so?
Mike Penning: Yes. As I say, you have to look at the evidence base on what the benefits would be if you went to the new system, and the costing of the benefits. We looked at it but decided that we would not be going down that avenue.
Q382 Julie Hilling: What about sleep apnoea, particularly for lorry drivers?
Mike Penning: That is something that we are looking at very closely. Sleep apnoea in HGV and PSV drivers is much more difficult for me to address, but we are working on it at the moment. I know that outside the Committee you take a close interest in it, and we have answered some of your questions on the subject. Some of it is in my hands and some is not. There are regulations involved, but we are looking very closely at it-along with diabetes and epilepsy.
Q383 Julie Hilling: Will you keep us informed on what is happening?
Mike Penning: Absolutely. If it is okay, Madam Chairman, I shall write to you in the near future on exclusions from driving, which is really important. I want people to have confidence that they are being excluded from driving for the right reasons. At the moment there is real concern, particularly among the diabetic community, that they will be excluded when there is no need to do so.
Q384 Julie Hilling: Another area is points on the driving licence. We know that 10,000 people are driving with more than 12 points on their licence. Losing your licence or having more points is something that makes you obey the speed limits, but it would appear that this incentive to obey the driving rules is disappearing because so many people are driving legally with more than 12 points.
Mike Penning: When I first came into office, I could not believe the figures showing how many people had gone to court, had more than 12 points and had not had their licence removed. The courts have that power. Parliament gave them that power under the legislation. We are working closely with the Ministry of Justice to make sure that the courts have guidance on what Parliament’s will was-in other words, that it was for exceptional circumstances. However, I admit that at the same time there was at times a breakdown of communications between the Court Service and DVLA, where the courts were not supplying the information to DVLA that they had taken the licence away-in other words that the person had gone over the 12 points. We now have a new protocol in place so that if the court informs DVLA that points have been put on a licence that result in a total of 12 points, and they do not say that the licence has been revoked, we will go back to the court and ask for clarification before we do anything with the licence at all. The courts have to reconfirm that they have left the person with the licence. They do not have to tell us why because that is a matter for the courts. What was happening was that the courts were, for instance, saying, "Okay, we have taken your licence away"-they had given the three points-but they were not informing DVLA.
Q385 Chair: Is that problem now resolved?
Mike Penning: We have resolved that problem now. We have closed that. You would think that the two computer systems would work with each other, but anything to with the Government and computers does not work quite like that. However, we have resolved the matter, and inside the DVLA the system cannot close that file because it does not have the relevant information, so it automatically goes back.
Q386 Chair: The problem is now resolved.
Mike Penning: Yes.
Q387 Chair: Will you tell us why there is not an indicator about the number of children from deprived areas having accidents and being killed? That is one area of great concern in relation to road safety.
Mike Penning: No, I cannot answer that question as to why. I thought there was because I remember seeing some data on the subject. If I can find it, I will send it to you. I am sure there is.3
Q388 Chair: We would like to see it. That is an area of great concern, despite the general improvement. I wish to clarify what the Government or the Department are going to do to improve road safety, in addition to what local authorities are doing. You have told us that you have been naming and shaming local authorities that you think have a poor record, but what are you doing?
Mike Penning: The strategy is out there; that is the Government’s policy. We were naming and shaming when local authorities were not doing what we would expect.
Q389 Chair: What will the Government be doing that is positive on road and safety?
Mike Penning: Apart from enforcing speed limits and so on? We have not yet talked about 20 mph speed limits. Perhaps I should write to the Committee because there is a good story to be told on that, not least how it would be enforced, because although the police keep saying that it will be difficult to enforce, it can be done. There is also improving the driving test and MOTs, improving road safety, getting into schools for pre-testing, making the driving test more difficult and more relevant to what is going on, and giving people qualifications to drive on the motorways. I could go on but there are an awful lot of things within the strategy that we are doing.
Q390 Chair: If these figures that are not targets are not achieved-you have indicated reductions that you would like to see-who will be responsible? Will it be the Department?
Mike Penning: It will be Government. It is Government policy. It is a strategy document for the Government.
Q391 Chair: It will be the Department who is responsible.
Mike Penning: The Government made the decision not to use the blunt instrument of targets-that is happening in many Departments-but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Let us see how we get on there, because I think that most local authorities want to make their roads as safe as possible.
Q392 Chair: But who will be responsible ultimately? Will it be the Department?
Mike Penning: It will be central Government’s responsibility. I am the Minister with responsibility for road safety. It sits with me.
Chair: Thank you very much for answering all our questions. Thank you.
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