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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am grateful for the opportunity to give this Bill its Third Reading. For a child eager to prove their maturity, the driving licence is often a symbol of adulthood. I am not quite sure what my driving licence says about me—whether its ink-splatters and holes indicate maturity, or a now slightly tattered politician—but the learner's first lesson is filled with excitement and anticipation, and as the seat belt clicks into place and "kangaroo" petrol is put in the tank, there is a great sense of pride and excitement. For parents, there is only a feeling of dread at the number of hours they will spend on country lanes, never quite being sure whether this will be their last lesson—ever in this world.
I recall driving round the country roads of Fife on a dark, wet and windy night with my mother constantly reaching for a brake pedal on the passenger's side and never quite finding it. There is still a hole in the carpet on that side of the car. However, the thrill when I passed my driving test was unimaginable. I suddenly felt like a man, even though I was still a teenager. That is an important point, because many of those who pass their test are still children, and we entrust those who teach them with a duty of care and responsibility. I want to know that when my son reaches for the car keys, the person who will teach him to drive has been through the system, has been properly tested and audited and has the right qualifications.
That is why the case of Lesley Anne Steele, which had the potential to crush confidence in the whole driving instruction authorisation process, was horrifying. In 2005, Lesley Anne, a constituent of mine, was enthusiastically learning to drive. She was progressing well and gaining confidence with every lesson. She was looking forward to passing her test and enjoying the freedom that that brings. After one particular lesson, her instructor, James McNair Bennett, asked whether he could use the convenience in her house. Being obliging, Lesley Anne agreed, but Mr. Bennett had something else in mind. He sexually assaulted her in her own home. He was charged by police, and apparently admitted the offence immediately.
This is what Lesley Anne later told me in a letter:
"On the day of the trial Mr. Bennett was found guilty of assaulting me and with immediate effect was placed on the sex offenders' register. I was relieved that this was finally over and thought that Mr. Bennett wouldn't be allowed to continue to teach. The following day I received a call from a friend who had just seen Mr. Bennett out teaching. Then my partner spotted Mr. Bennett on the Monday, picking up a pupil close to our house", just round the corner. Not surprisingly, Lesley Anne was angry—furious, in fact. She was disgusted not only by the original assault, but by the fact that Mr. Bennett was allowed to continue to operate as a driving instructor. The fact that he was out teaching the very next day was rubbing her nose in it. She was raging with anger and rightly so.
However, what made Lesley Anne explode was the response from the authorities. She made numerous calls to the Driving Standards Agency, which were never returned. On one occasion she did get through to the appropriate person, but was told that nothing could be done to help her. Because she was so furious, Lesley Anne subsequently waived her right to anonymity. She secured coverage in the national media to highlight her case, so that she could campaign for changes in order that others would not have to go through what she went through. At that point, she asked me for my help.
How could a sexual predator be allowed to continue to teach vulnerable young people in such a closed environment, when the judicial process had already determined he was a sex offender? I find it unbelievable that that situation was ever allowed to happen. However, Lesley Anne and I worked together to overhaul the process, and, along with the Government's hard work, we secured a number of achievements, such as criminal record checks for all approved driving instructors. The first trawl weeded out eight people who would still be teaching to this day if Lesley Anne had not fought that case. Secondly, the profession of driving instructor is now included in the notifiable occupations scheme and its Scottish equivalent, so that the DSA's registrar is informed immediately of any convictions. In fact, Mr. Bennett could still be teaching today if that scheme were not in place, because the courts were not obliged to tell the DSA that he had been convicted. Thirdly, customer care at the DSA was overhauled following the dreadful response to the case.
Most importantly, Lesley Anne got an apology from the then Minister and the officials. We were very grateful for that, because it made such a difference to her. Having to expose herself to media coverage was, like the event itself, a traumatic experience, so that apology was very important. However, there is still unfinished business, hence the Bill before us.
Because the appropriate process has to be gone through, there is a 45-day period between a driving instructor being convicted or removal from the register being indicated, and actual removal. In fact, it can take months—45 days is the minimum period. The registrar must first write to the instructor advising them that he is minded to remove their name from the register. The instructor then has 28 days to make representations against removal before the registrar can make a decision. The registrar must then notify the instructor of the decision and wait at least a further 14 days before removal can take effect. There is then a right of appeal.
It is right that all those measures be in place—it is important to have the right safeguards, so that representations and appropriate appeals can be made—but it is unacceptable to have a period of 45 days during which sexual predators could be out there teaching young people to drive. That is why I want the power of suspension to be introduced—so that young people cannot be preyed on by those such as James McNair Bennett, and so that such people are not allowed to exploit that loophole ever again.
The Bill's purpose is therefore to give the registrar the power to suspend driving instructors. It aims to close the 45-day-plus loophole, and it introduces the power to suspend when the registrar is already considering removal from the register. The registrar would be permitted to impose a suspension only when he believes that the instructor concerned would, if they were not suspended, pose a significant threat to the safety of members of the public. The Bill rightly also includes a package to compensate for loss of reputation and earnings when the process goes wrong. This covers only the period of suspension—between the point at which notice of intent to suspend is given and the decision on removal—and the estimated cost is likely to be a maximum of between £50,000 and £60,000 per year. It is not likely to be anywhere near that. The estimate is that it may affect five people every year, but that is probably the upper end, because the trawl of the criminal records picked up only eight people—and covered a longer period of time.
The Bill applies not only to approved driving instructors but to large trainee instructors. It is important that the mass army of trainee instructors is also covered, so that no one slips through the net. An amendment in Committee blocked a potential loophole connected to trainee instructors' right to extend their certification. They will still have the ability to extend it, but not for the purpose of avoiding a suspension.
The DSA does not have an unlimited period to consider the removal from the register. It is limited to 75 days after which the suspension is withdrawn. That is an important safeguard. The instructors, of course, still have the right to appeal that natural justice requires. This is a simple, but essential, Bill, and I am grateful to the three Front-Bench teams for their support and indeed encouragement throughout this process.
That is a very good question, and I hope that the Minister will be able to assist me with it. My hon. Friend has been very helpful in asking a question to which I do not know the answer. I am grateful for that intervention although I hope that he does not make another.
I do not wish to give the impression that the driving instruction profession is riddled with sex offenders as almost every one of the 40,000 driving instructors is of good character and ability and has adopted the highest professional standards. I have been determined throughout the three years of this battle to protect not only learner drivers from sexual predators, but the reputation of driving instructors. This Bill will help to enhance that reputation, because people will be able to have confidence in the process and the system.
This has been a long battle. It has been more than three years since Lesley Anne knocked on my door and during that time I have been grateful for the support of so many hon. Members. They include Dr. Ladyman who was the Minister responsible at the time. He immediately recognised the problem, apologised personally to Lesley Anne and set in train many of the changes that I have set out this morning. I am also grateful to his successor, now the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who committed considerable time and effort to the Bill, overcoming many hurdles in the process.
The Bill would have fallen at Second Reading if it were not for two Members. The first is Alistair Burt, who used considerable political capital to ensure the Bill progressed. He overcame the process to ensure that the Bill secured a Second Reading. The second—and some may be surprised at this—was Mr. Chope, who was in his place earlier. His wise advice and support were gratefully received, and I hope that that is not a reason for others to change their mind about supporting the Bill. I am genuinely grateful for his wise counsel.
I also thank Mr. Goodwill and my hon. Friend Mark Hunter who served on the Front Benches in Committee and were very supportive. I also thank the Minister today. He is new to this Bill, but he caught on to it quickly in Committee and understood the details.
This issue has had an extensive hearing in Parliament—in Westminster Hall, as a ten-minute Bill and now this Bill. I am grateful for the support of the sponsors of my ten-minute Bill and of this Bill, and to the Committee members last week who tested the Bill in an extremely professional and fair manner. As they have been trained to do, the Whips have been lurking in the shadows, but have been benign on this occasion. They did inquire how long I intended to speak today—perhaps they had an ulterior motive.
I am also grateful to the Clerks and the departmental and DSA officials, who are impressive for two reasons. First, they are good at their job, and secondly they can explain it to me, and that is no mean feat. I have also been fortunate to have excellent members of staff, both in my constituency and in the House. I thank them for their work on this Bill, especially David Hall—who has since moved on—and Caron Lindsay who did the initial spadework in digging out the loophole. John Foster and my other members of staff in Dunfermline have also been fantastic.
John Myers devoted his life to teaching the art of safe and responsible driving. He built the Myers school of driving in Dunfermline into a thriving business that is respected and trusted in the community, and he was very supportive of my efforts. Unfortunately, John passed away recently so I am not able to thank him in person, but I am grateful for his support and for giving me the confidence that the driving instruction profession were behind my efforts.
Finally, and most importantly, I thank Lesley Anne Steele, my courageous constituent who stood up, braved the media and insisted that a wrong be put right so that others need not suffer as she clearly did. Lesley Anne has now passed her driving test and is a proficient driver. She is also now happily married and enjoying life. Let us pass this Bill for her, for her sake and for the thousands of people who learn to drive every year. I commend the Bill to the House.
First, I must apologise to my hon. Friend Willie Rennie for asking what was probably the one question on the Bill to which he did not know the answer. It was not meant to be a trick question. He was so competent and omniscient on the Bill that I assumed that everything would be within his remit. I apologise profusely and I will make it up to him later.
My hon. Friend is giving me a hard time, but it is not justified.
My hon. Friend has done himself, his constituents, the country and, above all, his constituent, Lesley Anne Steele a great service by ensuring that this gap in the legislation has been filled. Everyone under the age of 80 or so has had to pass a driving test to be able to drive in this country—none of us is of that older generation. My dad certainly never had to pass a test, although he was a very good driver and a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. To pass a test, almost everybody has some formal lessons, usually at least eight or so. They are not cheap, so young and enthusiastic learners—although some people learn later in life—commit themselves to someone, trusting in their competence and in their integrity. My hon. Friend has exposed the loophole in the legislation that meant that we could not guarantee the integrity of the people doing that instruction.
It is almost invariably the practice, for good reasons of safety, that the person who is learning to drive is on their own with the instructor—many people, when they do their driving practice with family members, also do not have anyone else in the car—and that is another obvious reason why offenders should not be able to continue in that profession, and why those under suspicion should also be suspended for as long as the matter is being investigated. In the case that my hon. Friend has mentioned, the abuse was not committed in the car, but sometimes that does happen, so the powers in the Bill are very important.
My hon. Friend has also made sure, with the help of civil servants, no doubt, and of the people to whom he has paid tribute, that the Bill also provides the guarantee of natural justice—it ensures that compensation is available to anybody who is improperly suspected or suspended. However, the precautionary principle must apply in these circumstances—I am very clear about that. It is much better to err on the side of being careful than on the side of taking a risk. That is why the power to suspend and then, if something is unfairly alleged, to compensate, is much better than a power only to defer suspension until the facts are established. I am sure that that is the right way round.
My hon. Friend is the second example this morning of a colleague realising that a wrong needed to be righted, pursuing it through all the proper channels and being absolutely determined about it. We owe thanks to Mr. Dismore for his Bill and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for this one.
My hon. Friend paid tribute at the beginning and the end of his speech to the courage of his constituent, and we need to remind ourselves of that. Many people in her circumstances, understandably, would not want to go public about such an issue. But for her bravery in being willing to put the general public interest above her own traumatic experience, we would not have had the opportunity to use her enthusiasm, understanding and commitment as the motivation behind this legislation. I hope that we will all join in paying tribute to her and wishing her and her family all the best. We should thank them, because they have done a public service that my hon. Friend has replicated this morning.
I, too, congratulate Willie Rennie on introducing this Bill. It does what private Members' Bills do best—it addresses a specific, narrowly defined wrong with a clearly defined remedy. I also want to pay tribute to his brave constituent, Lesley Anne. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I have a son who is going through his driving lessons. As he is a large, rugby playing medical student, I do not think that he is especially vulnerable, but I have another son who has just passed his test and another who will come up for it very shortly, so I am heavily focused on driving tests.
It was quite right for the hon. Gentleman to remind us what an important profession driving instruction is. The 40,000 driving instructors in this country have played a large role in the way in which successive Governments have pushed down the accident rate. Having been responsible for a fatal accident on the roads, I take a close interest in these matters. The way in which the death toll on the roads in this country goes steadily down and down, year on year, is very encouraging. Indeed, it compares favourably with that in many comparable countries.
The hon. Gentleman has produced a very sensible, balanced little measure. He has sensibly built in a 75-day time limit, so that an unfortunate driver against whom a malicious or unfair allegation has been made is clear about the period involved. He has also, quite rightly, included the appeal and compensation mechanisms.
Clearly, this is too small an issue for long-term statistics to be collected, but it would be interesting if, after the first couple of years of the Bill's operation, a small written statement was issued to say how often its terms had been applied and whether there had been any successful appeals. There is a slight danger, thinking back to what Simon Hughes said about the fact that driving lessons are almost always one-on-one, that if word got around, a disgruntled pupil, for example, might use the measure in completely the wrong way against a driving instructor. I hope that that will not happen but it will be interesting to see, after the first year or two, what the statistics show and whether there have been a number of successful appeals, because we might need to fine-tune the legislation.
The Bill was designed to ensure that we do not establish a separate sphere of prosecution. Only if the registrar is already considering removing an instructor from the register can they suspend, and only when the case is serious. Nobody has free range to complain about the instructors. The Bill is quite tightly defined, so there is no extra sphere of discipline.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I take his point. That was what I meant when I said that the Bill looks extremely watertight and well balanced. It would be interesting, none the less, to see the figures after the first or second year of its operation. If we found that there had been several successful appeals, we might wonder whether the provisions needed a bit more fine-tuning.
The bottom line is that thanks to a courageous young lady—it takes a lot of courage to come forward and talk about such a deeply unpleasant episode in public—and to the energies of her Member of Parliament, we have this good piece of legislation before us. I am delighted, on behalf of the official Opposition, to support it.
I am delighted to be here in support of Willie Rennie. I thank him for introducing the Bill and congratulate him on his considerable efforts over recent years in pursuing the underlying issue that the Bill seeks to address. He has certainly shown a commendable tenacity.
I shall pick up on one or two comments that have been made. The hon. Gentleman talked about the responsibility of a parent when children are taking their driving lessons and working towards a test to give them the independence held by some 34 million people in our country who have full driving licences. We want to know that our children are in safe hands and the hands of people whom we trust.
The vast majority of our driving instructors who are fully approved, and those who are training, are doing an excellent job in accordance with all the right codes of practice. Each and every year we ask our driving instructors to undertake that training. Some 800,000 people passed their driving test in 2007-08, which is about 44 per cent. of those who took it.
Mr. Brazier recognised the great achievement in this country of the reduction in the number of road casualties. I am delighted to say that the figures published yesterday show that Britain and Sweden are joint first place among the major nations for having the safest roads. However, some 2,500 people are still killed on our roads every year. We need that figure to fall still further. It has already come down by 14 per cent. since last year and by 40 per cent. over the past 10 years, but we need to go much further. Our driving instructors are part of ensuring that we have the highest standards for training new drivers-to-be.
It is quite ironic that today I have the privilege of supporting this Bill about driving instructors and ensuring that people like Lesley Anne Steele are protected, and yesterday I was announcing road safety statistics. I want to put on the record my thanks to Steve, the driving instructor from Gillingham, for his forthcoming patience with my daughter, who took her first driving lesson yesterday. I congratulate him on his nerves of steel, and apologise to my daughter for that comment. That brings home—I probably should not go home tonight; I suspect that I will be in trouble, and Rachel will kill me—the fact that we put trust in people in such professions, and in many other walks of life. I am grateful for the work that they do.
I do not want to add to the Minister's woes, but out of interest, can he tell us whether it is his and the Department's assessment that we have enough driving instructors across the UK? Do we have fewer than we need? What has been the trend in the number of people coming into that registered occupation?
There about 45,000 driving instructors. The Driving Standards Agency monitors numbers and requirements. The average learner takes 52 hours of formal lessons in training; that is 50 per cent. more than 15 years ago. There has been an increase in the number of driving instructors. Of course, part of the role of the DSA is to monitor whether there is enough provision in parts of the country where there is demand. The average spent by individuals on learning to drive is about £1,500.
I know that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife would want me to put on record that we are delighted to be joined by the former Minister with responsibility for driving standards, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who assisted the hon. Gentleman a great deal with the Bill and the process of introducing it.
The Minister was kind enough to answer my question generally, but perhaps by the end of the debate he could give specific figures. If there are vacancies—that is, if more driving instructors would be useful, and would speed things up and increase the chance for people to get into the system and have lessons—I am keen that the public should know about it, because lots of people are looking for jobs. It is a good job to do and, for people with the relevant skill, it is a very suitable profession.
I certainly take those comments on board. If I can give the hon. Gentleman any specific figures before the end of the debate, I will. Undoubtedly, in times of difficulty in other areas of employment, and in a recession, the number of people considering such a route increases, so he is absolutely right.
I think that I am right to say that without the change in law that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has resolutely pursued for several years, there would be a continuing risk to learner drivers from the very people in whom they put their trust; we have put that on the record. We have an opportunity to amend current legislation to provide further protection for the public, and learner drivers in particular. We must take that opportunity to ensure that others do not have to endure the emotional distress experienced by his constituent, Lesley Anne Steele. In Committee, and in proceedings on the Floor of the House on the money resolution, I put on record my thanks to the hon. Gentleman's constituent for making her complaint and taking it forward, and for raising and highlighting the issues, no doubt at great personal expense. I do so again now.
The issue is not just theoretical, as we have said. It arises from the clear case that the hon. Gentleman outlined, and his constituent's resolve to ensure that we close the loophole in legislation. The problem that the Bill seeks to address centres on the inability of the registrar of approved driving instructors—the profession's regulator, and an official of the Driving Standards Agency—to prevent registered or licensed driving instructors from providing paid tuition with immediate effect, when that instructor represents a significant threat to the safety of the public. I will talk about "significant threat" later, because that will help to clarify one or two of the points raised about whether the provision could be used maliciously, as can happen in the teaching profession, where complaints are often made. That was raised in Committee.
The issue is not new, as the legislation dealing with the registration of driving instructors and their removal from the register has been on the statute book for many years. Part V of the Road Traffic Act 1988 contains the key provisions relating to the registration of persons who wish to provide paid instruction in the driving of motor vehicles. To provide such instruction lawfully, a person's name must be on the register maintained by the registrar, or that person must be a trainee instructor to whom the registrar has issued a licence.
It might help if I briefly remind the House of the legislative framework covering the approval and registration of those who wish to give driving instruction for payment. As I mentioned, part V of the 1988 Act is the main primary legislation. It was amended in part by the Transport Act 2000 and will be further amended by as yet uncommenced provisions in the Road Safety Act 2006, to which I will return shortly. The relevant secondary legislation made under the 1988 Act is the Motor Cars (Driving Instruction) Regulations 2005. As hon. Members would expect, those regulations specify the detailed requirements applying to trainee driving instructors and approved driving instructors.
For trainee instructors, the regulations specify the process that must be completed in order to join the register, the fees for the tests taken and other important matters, such as the time limits that apply. However, as I will explain, simply passing the qualifying tests does not guarantee trainee instructors admission to the register. For approved driving instructors, the regulations clearly identify the requirements that apply to them on joining the register and thereafter.
As the House would expect, gaining entry to the register is not a trivial achievement. The standards are deliberately set high to reflect the responsibility that driving instructors will have. Approved driving instructors instil into learner drivers life-saving skills, principally the skill of how to drive safely on our increasingly busy roads. Total annual road mileage is 10 times greater than it was in 1950. Indeed, it has increased by 14 per cent. since 1997, so we recognise the even greater demands on our driving instructors these days.
The exams are in three parts: there is a theory test, a practical test of ability and fitness to drive, and a practical test of ability and fitness to instruct. The subject matter of the first two parts—the theory and practical driving tests—is similar to that covered in the test taken by learner drivers, but the standards expected of those taking those two parts are significantly higher than those that apply to learner drivers. The part 1 examination—the theory test—consists of two sections. There is a set of multiple choice questions and a hazard perception test. The multiple choice part of the driving instructor test consists of 100 questions, of which a candidate must pass 85. That compares to the multiple choice element of the test taken by learners, which consists of 50 questions, of which 43 must be passed.
The hazard perception test has a maximum possible mark of 75. For the driving instructor test, the pass mark is 57; that compares with 44 for learner drivers. The ability and fitness to drive test for driving instructors—the part 2 test—lasts an hour, whereas for learner drivers there is about half an hour of on-road driving. Potential driving instructors are allowed only six driving faults, whereas learners are allowed 15. To add further rigour to the process, there are restrictions on the number of attempts that can be made in some of the tests, and time limits also apply. For example, the application for the test assessing ability and fitness to instruct must be made within two years of passing the theory test. Also, no more than three attempts may be made at the test assessing ability and fitness to instruct.
The pass rate for the instructors theory test is 51 per cent. For the instructors practical driving test it is 50 per cent., and for the final part it is only 30 per cent. The overall effect is a rigorous selection process that ensures that only competent instructors gain admission to the register. The fees are £111 for the instructors theory test, and £111 each for the instructors practical driving test and the test of ability to give instruction.
Some trainee instructors will never have been in a situation where they have had to provide formal tuition of any kind. For them, the test of ability and fitness to instruct can be quite daunting. Not only do they have to demonstrate knowledge of driving theory and practice, but they have to satisfy the Driving Standards Agency examiner that they are competent in giving instruction. Knowing the subject is one thing, but being able to impart it to pupils is at least equally important. Many of us know that someone may be expert in a given subject, but being able to impart that knowledge to others, possibly as a teacher, is not second nature. Imparting knowledge and high standards of driving to others is a skill in itself.
The trainee licence scheme helps trainee instructors to prepare for the test of ability and fitness to instruct. Provided that trainees have passed the first two parts of the qualifying examination—the instructors theory and practical driving tests—they can apply to the registrar for a licence that permits them to give paid driving instruction without being on the register. Effectively, they are exempted from the requirement to be registered in order to give paid instruction. If granted, the licence lasts for six months but can be renewed in certain circumstances, such as where illness has prevented the trainee from taking the test of instructional ability during the period of validity of the licence. A condition of the trainee licence is that the holder must be supervised by an approved driving instructor during the currency of the licence. The cost of the trainee licence is currently £140.
The hon. Gentleman indicated that the Bill was not originally intended to cover trainee instructors. Uncommenced provisions in the Road Safety Act 2006 will repeal the trainee licence provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and replace them with an exemption arrangement, to be made by statutory instrument. That will enable the DSA to introduce greater flexibility into the qualifying process for entry to the register, which will benefit trainee instructors while retaining the ability of the registrar to permit trainee instructors to undertake paid instruction and so gain experience in preparation for taking the test of instructional ability.
I have outlined the technical requirements, but there is another important requirement. Both approved driving instructors and trainee instructors must be "fit and proper" persons either for their names to be entered in the register or for them to be granted a trainee licence. The phrase "fit and proper" is not defined in the legislation, and the legislation is probably the better as a consequence. It allows the registrar to make a judgment as to an individual's suitability to be an approved driving instructor or trainee instructor, based on their character and conduct. That is vital when we consider that approved driving instructors and licensed trainee instructors give instruction, often to young people under the age of 18, on a one-to- one basis, in an enclosed environment, and possibly in a remote location. For that reason, the conduct expected of driving instructors must be exemplary.
The checking process was discussed in Committee, and the hon. Gentleman today mentioned criminal records. It is the applicant's criminal record in which the registrar takes most interest. Where a potential instructor has been found guilty of a serious offence, particularly one of a sexual or violent nature, it is most unlikely that they will be considered suitable to be admitted to the register or to be granted a trainee licence.
The registrar considers each application on its merits, taking account of the individual circumstances. An applicant, for example, who was found guilty 30 years ago of committing an assault at the age of 18, and who has a clean record since, may be considered more suitable than someone who committed a sexual assault in the past two years. It will depend on the situation and the person in each case. The registrar must take account of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. It would be wrong to prevent people from becoming an instructor simply because they had a criminal conviction, but where he has a significant concern about the suitability of an individual to become an instructor, the registrar will refuse the application.
The hon. Member for Canterbury requested a review of the way in which that discretion had been used. I am sure we can take that on board, as part of the DSA reporting process. All hon. Members want to ensure that we have the highest standards and catch individuals likely to offend as instructors. We all want the legislation to deliver what we expect from it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As has been said, the provision can be used only in conjunction with the steps that will be taken to revoke a licence and along the lines indicated. We want to avoid a repetition of the effects of malicious rumours or gossip on members of other professions, and we have ensured that the provision can be used only in conjunction with a process that was already going to be undertaken by the registrar.
The Minister will be aware of the conviction not long ago of a black cab driver, John Worboys, a constituent of mine, who had committed a series of very serious offences and asked for many offences to be taken into consideration. Will the Minister have a conversation with colleagues in the Home Office or the police, so that information about people who have never been convicted but who have come up on the radar for serious offences is at least shared, so that that can be part of the consideration?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. I shall come to the processes that we have undertaken in conjunction with the Home Office to ensure that such cases are flagged up. It would be wrong for us not to discuss with colleagues in other Departments any lessons to be learned from cases that come up. We will develop guidance from the knowledge that we have so far, including learning from cases such as the one that he mentioned, and that guidance will be issued by the registrar.
It may help if I speak about administering the character and conduct assessment when someone is applying to join the register. We must ensure that there is provision to deal with those who are already registered, but then commit a serious offence. The 1988 Act contains provisions enabling the registrar to remove instructors from the register or revoke their licences where they cease to be "fit and proper" persons, but it is not a quick process. The registrar must inform the individual that he is minded to remove him from the register, allowing 28 days for representations to be made to the registrar.
The registrar is not permitted to reach a decision until those 28 days have expired and, before deciding whether to remove the instructor, must take into consideration any representations that have been made. That is a fair process. We understand why the approved driving instructor should be given a reasonable opportunity to compile and submit evidence to support the retention of their registration.
Before the Minister leaves the significant point made by Simon Hughes, will he read across to other areas of Government thinking? It seems odd that the concept of a fit and proper person, which is rightly central and which can take account of representations that go beyond convictions, has been taken out of so many other areas, such as that on licensees.
I will not speculate on the detailed provisions of other areas. It is always right that there should be fairness and openness in our systems when we seek to take away someone's livelihood. We must have that balance. That is why it is good that the Bill provides for a compensation scheme. However, it is equally important, as I know the hon. Gentleman agrees, that we protect people such as Lesley Anne Steele.
The time issue is important, because once the registrar decides to remove the instructor's name from the register after those 28 days, having considered the representations that have been made, there is a further period of at least 14 days before the notice can take effect. The instructor also has the right of appeal against the registrar's decision. Currently, the appeal is to the transport tribunal, but in future it will be heard by the new first-tier tribunal.
The statutory time scales mean that, taking everything into account, it takes a minimum of 45 days for an approved driving instructor's name to be removed from the register. So even where an instructor is found guilty of a serious offence but is bailed pending sentencing or receives a non-custodial sentence, the registrar has no means by which he can quickly prevent him from continuing to give paid instruction. Therefore it is essential that that loophole is closed.
I want to put on record the work and commitment of my hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman, and acknowledge his immediate recognition of the issue on meeting the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife and his constituent, and the apology that he gave at that time. In November 2006, the hon. Gentleman secured a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the laws regarding driving instructors who commit sexual offences and obtained a commitment from my hon. Friend to look at whether the removal process could be shortened. That was followed by a series of parliamentary questions on the same issue.
In October 2008, the hon. Gentleman introduced the Driving Instruction (Sexual Offences) Bill under the ten-minute rule, which unfortunately did not get beyond First Reading. At the same, the Department for Transport and the DSA were actively considering options. They proposed a handout Bill in late 2008, the Driving Instruction (Suspension and Exemption Powers) Bill, the title of which may sound familiar. That was not taken up by those successful in the ballot, but the hon. Gentleman approached my immediate predecessor, who I am delighted is present—my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, who has now flown to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we congratulate him on that—requesting details of the long and short titles of the handout Bill. Having been given the information he had requested, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife introduced this Bill on
It is also right that I should place on record the support that the hon. Gentleman has received from my predecessors, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and my right hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town. Both of them identified the need to amend the legislation so that cases such as those of Lesley Anne Steele should not happen in the future, and committed to doing so at the earliest opportunity.
The DSA had also been busy exploring non-legislative options for further improving the robustness of its procedures for ensuring that approved driving instructors are fit and proper persons on admission to the register and remain so. In February 2007, the agency succeeded in persuading the Home Office that the profession of driving instructor should be included within the notifiable occupation scheme. That was followed in July 2007 by its inclusion in the equivalent scheme in Scotland. Under the scheme and its Scottish equivalent, the registrar is notified of criminal convictions received by approved driving instructors. The registrar receives, on average, about five notifications a month, but the majority relate to minor crimes. The scheme is not perfect. For example, a court may be unaware that the defendant is an approved driving instructor, particularly where the charge is not driving-related and where the approved driving instructor has more than one occupation.
Such a limitation does not significantly undermine the inclusion of driving instruction within the notifiable occupation scheme. However, it does mean that the volume of notifications received by the registrar may be an underestimate of the numbers of convicted instructors. It underlines the need for further information, such as that arising from criminal record disclosures, and that picks up the point made by Simon Hughes about learning the lessons from other cases.
In March 2007, the DSA introduced enhanced criminal record disclosures for new applicants starting the approved driving instructor qualifying process. That means that the registrar receives information for all applicants on past convictions—even those covered by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. By the end of May 2009, more than 41,200 trainee instructors had been checked and 319 refused entry to the register on the basis of the information obtained via the disclosure.
Since April 2008, all approved driving instructors applying to renew their registration, which expires and must be renewed at least once every four years, have also been required to provide an enhanced criminal record disclosure. That is intended, in part, to verify that approved driving instructors are complying with the condition of their registration that requires them to notify the registrar of any convictions they receive during their period of registration.
Those approved driving instructors who joined the register prior to March 2007, and whose registrations have yet to come up for renewal, have been encouraged to supply voluntary enhanced criminal record disclosures for which the DSA has met the cost. As a result, almost 40,500 approved driving instructors, out of about 45,000 on the register, had been checked by the end of May 2009, and 42 have been removed from the register on the basis of information obtained through the disclosure.
The House may be wondering how the system of disclosures is funded. I can advise that the cost is met by the registration fee paid by approved driving instructors, which is £300 for four years. It increased from £200 in April 2008. Disclosures have become an essential part of the process conducted by the registrar to satisfy himself that an approved driving instructor, or someone seeking to join the register, is a fit and proper person. The DSA has publicised those changes, so instructors are aware of them. In 2008-09, 865 approved driving instructors resigned from the register, although that was for a variety of reasons, including ill health. Some approved driving instructors with serious criminal records may decide to leave the profession rather than supply a criminal record disclosure. However, as I indicated earlier, the discovery of a criminal conviction would not automatically mean that the registrar would commence removal proceedings.
Although those non-legislative measures have helped to give us greater confidence that only the most suitable instructors are able to gain access to the register of approved driving instructors and to remain on it, they do not address the problem of the registrar's inability to take immediate and effective action as soon as a major risk to the general public is identified. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has identified, the 45-day removal process, during which the approved driving instructor can continue to instruct, is a significant problem. If the Bill is successful, it will address that issue by allowing the registrar, while the statutory removal process is under way, to suspend an approved driving instructor immediately he presents a significant risk to the public.
Although the main focus of the Bill is, by necessity, on those convicted of serious sexual or violent offences, we do not wish to preclude other circumstances in which an instructor poses a significant risk to the general public and suspension is appropriate. For that reason, I should expect the suspension power to be used in cases where the approved driving instructor is found in a periodic-check test to have given woefully inadequate instruction to learner drivers—that is, when the instruction is so poor as to create a serious road safety risk to his pupils and other road users. I remind the House that suspension can be imposed only alongside other statutory processes. Suspension cannot be used in isolation; its purpose is to prevent an instructor from continuing to give paid instruction pending the completion of a separate but linked process.
I should also like to reassure the House that the suspension power would be used only infrequently. The Driving Standards Agency estimates that, in an average year, the power would be used on no more than five occasions, and Members should note that there are about 45,000 approved driving instructors on the register. On that point, I also remind the House that the overwhelming majority of approved driving instructors remain fit and proper persons throughout their careers and perform a valuable role in preparing our young people for driving safely.
Hon. Members may have concerns about granting the registrar the power effectively to deprive an approved driving instructor of his livelihood. The hon. Member for Canterbury made that point, and I regard such concerns as reasonable. We would not wish to support a Bill that resulted in approved driving instructors being suspended solely on the basis of allegations or rumours, which sometimes happens in other professions. Indeed, my hon. Friend Michael Connarty raised that concern in Committee. There needs to be a balance to the suspension power, so that an instructor is suspended only when a clear need has been identified. In connection with that, I agreed in Committee that the registrar will publish details of the circumstances in which he will consider using the suspension power. That should provide further reassurance to the House that the power will be used sparingly and judiciously.
The balance is achieved by including a compensation scheme in the Bill. The scheme will cover an instructor who is suspended but not subsequently removed from the register, or whose removal is reversed on appeal. It will also apply in circumstances when a trainee is suspended but his licence is not subsequently revoked, or whose licence revocation is overturned on appeal. The compensation scheme will be introduced by regulation. It is important to do that by regulation, rather than in the Bill, because the regulation-making power will allow the Secretary of State to tailor the precise nature of the compensation scheme to the circumstances applicable at the time. However, the Bill explicitly states that the Secretary of State "must" introduce a compensation scheme, and it is important that the provision of a compensation scheme be a mandatory requirement, rather than a discretionary provision, as it provides balance—to which hon. Members have referred—for the suspension power. It will not be possible for the registrar to use the suspension power unless there is a compensation scheme in place.
The compensation scheme will extend to all the circumstances in which an approved driving instructor may be suspended and in which a trainee licence may be revoked or suspended. Eligible applicants for compensation will be able to claim for two distinct categories of loss, and the likelihood is that a suspended person will have suffered income loss. Let us assume that he has been suspended for two months. He will not have received two months' income and, if driving instruction is his main source of income, he may be significantly out of pocket.
There are also non-income losses, such as damage to the goodwill of the instructor's business, as many driving instructors are self-employed. The circumstances resulting in the use of the suspension power may seriously affect an individual's business, and in those cases it is right that compensation be payable for such damage. The suspended person may also have incurred additional costs as a result of having had to take out a loan to purchase essential items during the suspension period.
In addition, the Bill allows for the inclusion of
"any other matters which relate to such a suspension and are provided for in the scheme".
That provides for the flexibility to adapt the compensation arrangements in the light of experience, but I remind the House that we will be dealing with a very small number of cases of suspension and potential compensation each year.
Inevitably, there might be disputes about the amount of compensation granted or whether any compensation should have been granted at all. In those circumstances it is important that there is an appeals mechanism and, indeed, that an independent third party be the arbiter. That role will be filled by the first-tier tribunal. There is a right of appeal in respect of most of the registrar's decisions on whether someone should be admitted to the approved driving instructor register, or on whether an application for re-registration should be granted.
However, there is no such provision in respect of the registrar's decision to suspend someone. Should an instructor who is suspended be able to appeal that decision of the registrar? We have considered the matter carefully and concluded that the answer must be no, as such a provision would be counter-productive. The registrar's intent when suspending someone is to prevent them immediately from being able to continue to give paid tuition, because they present a significant risk to the general public. Introducing an appeal arrangement would simply negate that purpose.
However, the instructor would retain the right of appeal to the first-tier tribunal in respect of the registrar's decision to which the suspension was linked—for example, the removal of the approved driving instructor's name from the register or the revocation of their licence. We must not lose sight of the main purpose of the Bill: to protect the victims, whom we all recognise from the case of Lesley Anne Steele.
I said at the outset that I would need to return to the Road Safety Act 2006, as we need to amend some of its provisions if the suspension power is to be fully effective. As I have explained, under provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1988, partially qualified instructors may apply for a trainee licence issued by the registrar of approved driving instructors, but the provisions underpinning those arrangements will be repealed once the 2006 Act is fully commenced.
One significant change relates to trainee instructors. The 2006 Act replaces the trainee licence scheme provisions with those that support a system of exemptions from the requirement to be registered. That could be used to exempt particular groups of instructors from the requirement to be registered—for example, the police, who already enjoy a class exemption so that they can give instruction within the police force. Unfortunately, it would be very difficult to introduce an effective suspension scheme unless individuals were required to identify themselves before accessing an exemption and the registrar were able to make a judgment about whether they were fit and proper. Without that, the effectiveness of any suspension provision would be severely constrained.
To address that problem, the Bill amends the 1988 Act to retain a role for the registrar in supervising access to any exemptions once the 2006 Act is fully commenced. In addition, the Bill makes amendments so that the registrar may charge a fee in connection with applications for the granting of exemptions. That goes some way to replacing the 1988 Act's trainee licence fee-charging provision, which the 2006 Act will repeal. That in turn is why we debated the Ways and Means motion on Monday evening, and I am grateful to the House for having approved it so that the Bill could be properly considered in Committee. The Bill is important and goes a long way towards making sure that a loophole in the current legislation is closed. It has come about thanks to the hard work and tenacity of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey raised the issue of numbers. I say to him that there is no power to restrict the numbers on the register. There is no artificial level at which we cap; basically, commercial decisions drive the number of instructors. The evidence that we have is that there is no current shortage of approved driving instructors.
I will come to Northern Ireland, although I wanted to leave it to the very end. Since the hon. Gentleman has pressed me, I shall tell him now that the Bill does not cover Northern Ireland because it involves a devolved matter. It is as simple as that.
The Bill strikes the right balance between the need to protect the public and the rights of individuals to go about their business and earn a living. It allows the registrar of approved driving instructors immediately to suspend those who pose a danger to the public and thereby prevents them from continuing to give paid instruction, but it also contains provisions that will safeguard instructors, and those seeking to become instructors, from improper use of the suspension powers.
The Bill has received generous cross-party support and I hope that that will continue to be the case; I have no doubt that it will be. It addresses a genuine public concern in a proportionate and effective manner, and my congratulations go to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. I look forward to monitoring the Bill's progress and to seeing it become an Act.
I thank Members across the Chamber for their supportive comments. My hon. Friend Simon Hughes was very supportive, as were the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner). I also thank the Minister. He was effusive in his support and praise of the Bill for a whole 45 minutes; I did not know that he liked it that much. I am grateful for that extensive support, as are the other Members in the Chamber.
I should like to summarise the Bill again. It gives the power to suspend and closes the 45-day loophole. It stipulates a limit of 75 days' suspension, beyond which the Driving Standards Agency cannot go. It covers trainees and approved driving instructors, so it is comprehensive. Furthermore, it covers only the most serious cases: only those instructors who are already on the path to removal. It has not gone beyond that, so any scurrilous allegations about the character of individuals can be avoided. There is a defined process that has already been tried and tested, and we will not go beyond that.
If the House gives its support this morning, I shall entrust the Bill to my old boss, Lord Tyler of Linkinhorne, in another place. I am sure that Members there will see the merits of the Bill, but if they do not I am sure that they will succumb to Lord Tyler's charm. I hope that the Bill will go through all the stages in the Lords. It is a good Bill, not only for the House but for approved driving instructors and trainees. It is also good for those, young and old, who are learning to drive.
I see that the Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jim Fitzpatrick, is in his place. He gave me great advice and support at a time when I had almost given up. I had almost succumbed to the drudgery of the private Member's Bill process but he teed me up and got me going again. I am grateful to him for his wise counsel and support in making sure that the Bill has progressed to this stage.
Finally, I pay tribute to Lesley Anne Steele. She has provided a great service. It was tough for her to put her name into the public domain and to be talked about so extensively this morning; I am sure that she wishes to forget about it all now. She has put her name out and campaigned for change. She saw the injustice and was determined that nobody else would be subjected to what she was subjected to. I am grateful to Lesley Anne; this should be called "Lesley Anne's Bill". She is a great person, and pretty steely—Steele by name and steely by nature. I am grateful for her support and I hope that her Bill receives the support of the House this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.