Orders of the Day — Theory Test Centre (Huddersfield)

– in the House of Commons at 9:36 pm on 17 February 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coe.]

Photo of Mr Graham Riddick Mr Graham Riddick , Colne Valley 10:17, 17 February 1997

Perhaps I might prolong the previous debate by pointing out that the Leader of the Opposition is not here because he is unable to take his defeat on the chin.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise an issue of concern to many of my constituents, especially to many younger people in my constituency. It is also something of a relief, in these frenetic days in the run-up to a general election, to be able to talk about a non party-political subject. I am pleased to see my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), in his place. It is fair to say that he and I are united in our desire to have a theory test centre established in Huddersfield. I have sent my hon. Friend the Minister a copy of my speech so as to give him an opportunity to prepare a response to some of the points that I shall raise tonight.

I must confess that I was never over-enthusiastic about the introduction of a theory test in addition to the practical driving test, but I acknowledge the arguments in favour of it. In particular, I am aware that drivers in the 17-to-21 age group—that includes most new drivers—constitute 10 per cent. of licence holders, who are involved in 20 per cent. of accidents and suffer 25 per cent. of fatalities.

This country has a better record on road safety, and fewer deaths on the roads per head of population, than—I think—any other European Union country, but I know that the Government are striving to improve that excellent record still further. Clearly any measure that could improve the safety record of younger drivers needs to be considered seriously, and I very much hope that the new theory test will contribute to a better knowledge and understanding of road safety.

Now that the House has cleared a little, I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), the former Transport Minister, is present. I welcome him to the debate.

Test centres have been established in towns and cities throughout the country where the theory test can be taken by candidates. Unfortunately, no test centre was sited in Huddersfield, which means that all my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Huddersfield must travel to Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield or even Oldham. That is proving extremely inconvenient, and I am receiving a growing number of complaints from constituents.

Since the Driving Standards Agency has made the test more difficult to pass, the number of people who must travel a second time to one of the test centres has increased. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to instruct the DSA to inform candidates who fail of the marks that they received and the questions on which they failed, so that they know which areas of knowledge they need to improve.

I know one lady who missed her test because she was caught in traffic jams caused by road works. One of the driving instructors in Huddersfield told me about a pregnant lady who took over three hours to do the round trip, although she lived only 10 miles from the main bus station in Huddersfield. There is currently no train service to Bradford, although I welcome the Government's recent announcement of an investment of over £3 million to create a rail link between Huddersfield and Bradford. Those living in rural areas south of Huddersfield—for instance, Colne valley and Holme valley—face an even more tortuous journey, especially if they do not have their own transport.

Driving instructors in Huddersfield are now becoming quite vehement in their condemnation of the lack of a theory test centre in Huddersfield. So are local people. More than 5,000 have signed a petition calling for a centre in Huddersfield, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give serious consideration to that important demonstration of public opinion.

I first raised the matter with my hon. Friend last summer, and I have had on-going correspondence with him since then. As my hon. Friend knows, I have also bent his ear on a number of occasions—as I am doing again tonight. In one of his letters to me, he wrote: For an additional test centre to be sited in Huddersfield, a robust case would need to demonstrate that special circumstances or difficulties applied in the case of Huddersfield. I intend to demonstrate that special circumstances and difficulties indeed exist, and I hope that that persuades the Minister that we need a theory test centre.

The specification for theory test centre locations is that a test centre should be available within 5 miles where the population density is greater than 1,250 people per sq km. Huddersfield, which is one of the biggest towns in England—some say that it is the biggest—has a population of around 150,000; it certainly has a population density greater than 1,250 people per sq km. The problem is that the DSA has taken administrative districts as the yardstick by which to judge population density.

Huddersfield is within the metropolitan district of Kirklees. The population density of Kirklees is 935 people per sq km, which is still very high, but lower than the specified figure of 1,250. Kirklees is a totally artificial creation, which came about in the 1974 local government reorganisation. No one desired it then and, even now, it is regarded by many—myself included—as an unwieldy and over-large council because it takes in Huddersfield and the surrounding towns and villages to the south on one hand and Batley and Dewsbury to the north of Huddersfield on the other. I would argue that there is very little synergy between the two parts. In addition, Kirklees includes a large rural area, which dilutes the population density.

My constituents are therefore suffering as a result of living in part of the area of the over-large Kirklees council. Kirklees is actually the seventh largest council in the country—a fact that not many people know. Only Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Liverpool and Manchester councils are bigger, and there is a theory test centre situated in all of those places. No such luck in Kirklees yet.

My constituents are suffering because of the unusual geographical nature of the administrative district of Kirklees. They are suffering because of an administrative quirk. Those of my constituents who live in the outlying areas of Kirklees and the Colne valley must travel through Huddersfield to reach theory test centres in Leeds or Bradford.

I shall consider a specific example. In my constituency, there is a town called Holmfirth, made famous by Compo and friends in that television series, "Last of the Summer Wine." Incidentally, I see no sign that Compo has ever passed a theory driving test—or, for that matter, a practical driving test.

Holmfirth lies about six miles south of Huddersfield and has a population of roughly 18,000. The House of Commons Library has estimated for me that Holmfirth is 24 miles from Leeds, 26.5 miles from Bradford and 21 miles from Sheffield. The only theory test centre within 20 miles of Holmfirth is in Oldham.

My hon. Friend the Minister, representing a London constituency as he does, might not understand this, but to most of my constituents in Holmfirth, Oldham is in a different world because it lies in Lancashire. Moreover, there is a great obstacle between Holmfirth and Oldham—the Pennine hills. Bus services to Oldham are irregular from Holmfirth and the main Holmfirth to Oldham road is regularly cut off during the winter by snow because it is one of the highest roads in the country.

In practice, therefore, the majority of my Holmfirth constituents travel to Leeds, Bradford or Sheffield for their theory tests. From Holmfirth, all those test centres are outside the 20-mile limit. The inconvenience to my Holme valley constituents is significant.

The Department of Transport recently agreed to site a theory test centre in Doncaster. I am happy about that, but one glance at a map will show that Huddersfield is a larger town than Doncaster. The population of Doncaster is 505 people per sq km, which is almost half that of Kirklees and perhaps a quarter that of the town of Huddersfield.

I believe that one of the deciding factors in favour of Doncaster was the volume of practical driving tests taking place—between 150 and 200 per week. That is almost identical to the number of practical tests that have been taken in Huddersfield each week.

I notice that a host of towns with smaller populations than Huddersfield already have test centres: Basingstoke, Chelmsford, Chester, Colchester, Dunfermline, Greenock, Guildford, Harrogate, Merthyr Tydfil, Taunton, Yeovil—I could go on. I repeat, Huddersfield is being discriminated against simply because of an administrative quirk.

The cost of setting up a new theory test centre is not enormous. In comparison, however, the cost to my constituents of having to travel to Leeds or Bradford is substantial, and I do not believe justifiable, considering the strong case for a test centre in Huddersfield. Several venues in Huddersfield have been suggested to me as being available for a theory test centre. One of the driving instructors suggested that, if necessary, the contractors to the DSA could use a travelling bus in which people could sit the test. I do not believe that that is necessary. There is apparently a room available at Waverley house in Huddersfield, where people have to go now to take their practical driving test.

In conclusion, I quote my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest who, as I pointed out earlier, was until recently the Minister for Transport with responsibility for these matters. In a debate on the same subject initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), the then Minister said that frequent tests would be run "to meet candidates' needs." In an earlier Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), the same Minister said that we want the test centres to be accessible."—[Official Report, 17 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 705.] It would appear, therefore, that the Department wants to be helpful and co-operative to those people taking the tests.

I hope that I have demonstrated to my hon. Friend the current Minister that there are serious problems for many of my constituents at present. The test centres to which they have to travel are not sufficiently accessible. It is only because of an administrative quirk that that anomaly has been created.

I urge my hon. Friend to site a theory test centre in Huddersfield. It will improve the quality of life for my constituents, especially my younger constituents, who obviously make up the majority of those taking their driving tests. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to respond positively to what I have said.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield 10:30, 17 February 1997

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and I do not agree on much, but we certainly agree on this. He has outlined well the problem that we face in Huddersfield. Ours is an area of valleys, whose contours make travel extremely difficult. A civil servant in London looking at the map might not understand the difficulties of travelling up one valley and down another.

Many of my constituents find that a 20-minute test takes half a day out of their work; sometimes they lose a day's work. That is a considerable penalty to pay for taking a theory test.

The Minister will know of my great interest over the years in transport safety. I warmly supported the introduction of the theory test. When the former Minister of Transport, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), was in office, I pushed hard for a more sophisticated interactive test, which unfortunately did not come about, but perhaps it will one day.

The theory test is good for safety and it is good for most of the young people who must take it. It is good for all of us to undergo retesting, and to take the advanced drivers test, as I did recently.

The hon. Gentleman and I differ about Kirklees, which is a large metropolitan borough and an energetic one. It wins prizes for being one of the best local authorities in the country. It wins competitive bids from the Department of the Environment. It is an example that everyone except the hon. Gentleman seems to admire. It produces a great deal of wealth, income and investment into the town. One has only to think of the McAlpine stadium and our new theatre, the Lawrence Batley theatre, to understand that.

We should listen not just to those who have to take the test—they are a transient population, and after they get over their difficulties, they forget, but we get letters from their parents. We also have a well organised core of driving instructors. One of my constituents by the name of Jackson is active in leading an effective campaign. I can tell the Minister that neither he, the hon. Gentleman or I will go away until we get a test centre for Huddersfield. It is an important priority in the area, and I hope that the Minister will listen to what we say.

Finally, my very good friend Compo, otherwise known as Bill Owen, is a great supporter of the Labour party, although he sometimes feels that it is a little centrist for him these days. He has a licence, but no longer deems it fit for him to drive on the congested roads of Britain today.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Colne Valley for giving me an opportunity to intrude on his Adjournment debate. I hope that our joint efforts will bring about the right solution soon.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea 10:34, 17 February 1997

This seems to be the Compo debate—all I can say is that I bet Nora Batty votes Conservative. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) on his consistent and persistent work on behalf of his constituents regarding the theory test centre, and on gaining all-party support in the form of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). I welcome this opportunity to reassure my hon. Friend about the arrangements in the Huddersfield area. Let me first give the background to the matter, which is the introduction of the new theory test—the biggest and most important change to the driving test since its introduction 60 years ago.

On 1 July last year, a new separate theory test was introduced that learner drivers must pass, in addition to the familiar on-road practical driving test, before they can obtain a full driving licence. The introduction of the new theory test has been widely welcomed by motoring and road safety organisations, and I believe that it will make a significant contribution to improving road safety and reducing the accident rate among newly qualified drivers—particularly among 17 to 21-year-olds who represent some 10 per cent. of licence holders, but who are involved in 20 per cent. of accidents and about a quarter of fatalities. I know that those figures were very much in the mind of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) when he introduced the test.

The current test is in a pencil-and-paper multiple choice format. A research project is currently being undertaken—using the latest IT-based technology—to develop ways of validly testing a learner driver's ability to recognise and deal appropriately with hazards. We intend to introduce a second generation IT-based theory test within the next few years.

We shall be monitoring the effect of the new test carefully during its first five years and evaluating it to make sure that it is achieving the desired effect of reducing accidents. The theory test lasts for about 40 minutes and, for cars and motor cycles, it consists of 35 questions. Motor cyclists have their own version of the test, with some questions specific to motor cycling. Separate theory tests for learner drivers of lorries, buses and coaches were introduced on 2 January this year.

The normal arrangement is that learner drivers must pass a theory test before they are able to book a practical test. However, during the first six months between 1 July and 31 December 1996, there was a special arrangement to allow test candidates to take the practical test first. To gain a full driving licence, test candidates then needed to take the theory test within the following six months. Those measures helped to avoid a bottleneck of candidates who could not book practical tests because they had not passed their theory tests. They also helped with the management of the surge in demand for theory tests following their introduction. A similar transition period for lorry and bus theory tests operates for six months from 2 January to 30 June.

Whatever order they are taken in, learner drivers must pass both the theory and the practical tests before they can drive on the roads unaccompanied and before they can be issued with a full driving licence. The pass rate for the theory test for cars and motor cycles is currently about 61 per cent. I am pleased to be able to respond to one of the points that my hon. Friend raised by telling him that, as an additional service and in order to help candidates, from 1 March we will tell candidates the mark that they achieved in the test. Those who fail will be told the topic areas in which they gave incorrect answers, thus assisting them to prepare for their next attempt.

The specification for the establishment of theory test centres was based on responses to the Driving Standards Agency's customer surveys. Driving test candidates and their instructors said that they thought it was reasonable to travel up to 20 miles for a driving test. A national network of theory test centres was developed, which runs frequent test sessions to meet candidates' needs. The specification for theory test centre locations requires that a test centre should be available within a radius of 20 miles for most people, and in administrative districts—usually towns or cities—where the population density is higher, a test centre should be available within a radius of about five miles. In more sparsely populated areas with a low population density, a test centre should be available within a radius of 40 miles.

As my honourable Friend said, I have received his representations concerning the location of theory test centres. Following receipt of his inquiries, I looked into the matter and confirmed that the network of theory test centres did not include siting a theory test centre in Huddersfield.

Huddersfield is located in an administrative district, Kirklees, with a population density of 935 people per sq km, which requires there to be a theory test centre within 20 miles. Test centres at Leeds, Bradford and Oldham are within that radius and serve candidates in the Huddersfield area accordingly, although I take my hon. Friend's point about the geography of the last and the winter road problem across the Pennines. Adequate public transport is available between Huddersfield and other centres. By road, Huddersfield is about 12 miles from Bradford, 15 miles from Leeds and about 20 miles from Oldham. Holmfirth, to which my hon. Friend also referred, is roughly 23 miles away by road from Leeds, about 19 miles from Bradford, 16 miles from Oldham and 23 miles from Sheffield.

The present plans reflect a realistic balance between costs, the travelling distances to centres for candidates and the frequency at which test sessions would be available. Most theory test centres currently operate at around only 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of their total capacity. Leeds and Bradford are currently operating at a higher proportion.

Although I accept my hon. Friend's point about the inconvenience that can be caused to test candidates by delays due to road works, that would not constitute a strong case for siting an additional theory test centre in Huddersfield. Indeed, the same problems could arise at any time in any town. He also made quite a case for a theory test centre to be sited in Holmfirth, but I am not sure that Compo's needs quite swing it—with or without his ferrets. However, I recognise the strength of local concern that my hon. Friend expressed, and we have looked carefully at the information that he has given.

I have received similar representations from other parts of the country. In some instances, such as the Isle of Wight, where we had to avoid the need for candidates to make an expensive ferry journey, we have been able to make some concession.

I note my hon. Friend's statements regarding larger and smaller towns that have a theory test centre. However, it is important to re-emphasise that theory test centres were not sited based just on the populations of towns. To have done so would have risked poorer geographical coverage by the theory test centre network for people in more rural areas. I am, however, persuaded by his argument that Kirklees has a specific and special geography.

Among those districts with population densities that fell just below the threshold for a theory test centre to be located within five miles, Kirklees is the largest in terms of the area covered. A consequence is that, among such districts, Kirklees also has the largest population.

There are also the travelling difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred created by the district's situation on the Pennines. In the light of these factors, I have reviewed the provision of theory test centre facilities for the Kirklees district and have today instructed that an additional centre be established in Huddersfield.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.