Clause 26 - Driving tests

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 1st February 2005.

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Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central 10:30 am, 1st February 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 73, in clause 26, page 35, line 43, at end insert—

'(1A) In subsection (1) (tests of competence to drive), after the word ''requirement'', insert '', has received first aid training''.

(1B) After subsection (1A) insert—

''(1B) An applicant shall be considered to have received first aid training if on the date the application for the licence is made he has received the training prescribed by virtue of subsection (3) below,''.'.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Labour, Doncaster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 74, in clause 26, page 36, line 4, at end insert


(c) after paragraph (c) insert—

''(d) the nature of the first aid training for the purposes of this section and section 36 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 and the administrative arrangements for receiving such training,''.'.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

The amendments come rather neatly after that short debate on clause 24, where we explored how knowledge and understanding of behaviour on the road can make for a better driver. The amendments seek to add a further element to driving tests, which are the subject of clause 26. They would make knowledge and understanding of first aid a requirement for anybody applying for a driving licence. At present, there are some brief remarks about first aid in the highway code, on which every new driver is tested, but they are cursory. When I was tested—admittedly, rather a long time ago—nobody asked me about first aid. Although all new drivers must gain a working knowledge of the highway code in order to pass, I doubt whether many people are informed about first aid by driving instructors or tested on it when they take their test.

Knowledge of first aid is important. It would ensure that anyone on the road would be prepared for the consequences of an accident, which may be horrendous or, ultimately, fatal.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have some sympathy with the amendments, but I would not wish the whole system to become over-bureaucratic and costly. What level of first aid training does the hon. Gentleman envisage, and what cost does he think would be added to the fee that a member of the public would have to pay to take their test?

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Those perfectly reasonable questions flush out a confession from me that the amendments are intended to probe the idea of such a requirement being added to the test. If they found sympathy with the Minister, more work would have to be done on the rigour of the test and therefore all the consequential items, such as cost. However, the Government have not accepted that we need more than what is in the code at present.

Much rests on our ability to deal with an accident. Many of us drive to our constituencies on motorways. I hope that none of us are involved in an accident or called to the scene of one. Most accidents that result in   fatalities involve blocking of the air supply, which can kill within four minutes. That is well inside the time that it takes the emergency services to get to most motorway accidents.

The emergency services are wonderful. One of the busiest parts of a large motorway, the M6, goes straight past my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. The North Staffordshire hospital and the Stafford General hospital receive many—too many—trauma cases from the M6.

Anything that we as drivers can do to assist in such traumatic events must surely be seen as pro-social. I ask members of the Committee whether, as experienced drivers who do literally thousands of miles every year, they are absolutely confident, having read the highway code, about how to behave to minimise loss of life or traumatic stress if they were at the scene of an accident.

After more than 40 years of driving, I certainly do not feel confident; I would be nonplussed. I hope that I would behave calmly and sensibly in such a crisis, but I know that I would behave inexpertly. Tabling the amendment has made me rather ashamed of the fact that I would not be of great help to anyone involved in such accidents. I ought to be; I ought to go on a course and improve my ability. Whether I am too old a dog to learn such tricks, I do not know.

Thinking about the amendment has made me realise that I am not really up to it, and I ask Committee members whether they are confident that they would know what to do in the event of an accident. If the answer to that question is no, I hope that the Minister will consider the matter seriously. She may not accept these probing amendments, but I hope that she will return on Report with something drafted by her officials. The matter is very important, and it would be a small, helpful strengthening of the driving licence if it incorporated a more rigorous test of first aid skills.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips 10:45 am, 1st February 2005

My starting point is the same in principle. I want to agree with the hon. Gentleman because his points are absolutely right. However, I am not sure on two counts whether the amendment is the right way to deal with the matter. I speak as someone who for 11 years of my life was greatly involved in a large scout group that seriously and regularly dealt with first aid matters. That was quite a few years ago now but it is still relevant. My experience gives me insight into why I have some caution about what the hon. Gentleman says.

I am concerned that we are, rightly, identifying a general responsibility that we all have, irrespective of whether we are drivers or not. The question could be applied all over the place, and we need to be a little careful in taking something technical like a driving test and bolting some general responsibilities of society on to it. One might say that people ought to know something about first aid if they drive, but all of us, if   we were given time, could come up with a list of other things that it would be sensible to bolt on as a general responsibility.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but would he accept that there is already a relevant paragraph in the driving licence? All the amendments would do is strengthen that and make it slightly more rigorous.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I understand that. That is why I started out wanting to support the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure that I shall end up doing so. One of the reasons for that is that the responsibility is a general one, and I am not sure that we should specify that drivers should know about it. That rather implies that other people need not do so.

My main concern, however, comes in response to the hon. Gentleman's question of whether we would know what to do. He would see it as a justification for supporting the amendment if we did not. All those years ago I learned two things; they may not be what the hon. Gentleman would expect but I still think that they are still more important than anything else if we go down that route. What I learned is more important than the immediate response of stopping, leaping out of our cars and doing what we can to help, which is what we would instinctively all want to do.

The hon. Gentleman says that we should be more skilled at doing that, which does tend to put in people's mind that the first thing they should do is stop, get out and try to help. I am not sure that I would want to encourage that, because the first thing that was drummed into my mind was that the first thing one needs to do is to ensure there is not another accident. That sometimes means that people should not go to the aid of the person that they think needs help. If people attend to that person and allow further accidents to occur behind them, what begins as a feeling that one ought to help one person ends with six, seven or however many needing help, and a multiple pile-up on the motorway. That is a classic example of how, by attending to a person who is already injured, someone can easily take their mind off what is even more important than an accident involving one person: the possibility of a load more.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Having undertaken a little first aid training in the past, I can happily tell the hon. Gentleman that the first thing people learn is to assess the situation and to make sure the scene is safe.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I do not dispute that for one moment, but that is the first issue in explaining why I have a degree of nervousness about this amendment.

The other issue about which one has to be careful when telling people that they need to know something about first aid is the phrase, ''Do you have some sticking plasters or Savlon in the car?'' I am not advertising; it just happens to be what I tend to use. All these items come to mind as ''first aid''. One of the other things that is drummed into those of us who get involved in these sorts of situations—I gather, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the first thing one is told is to be careful—is that there is a real risk that people   with a relatively minor amount of first aid knowledge that probably could be acquired under his proposal will leap out to help somebody who is seriously injured in a car crash and will make matters worse; the broken back syndrome or clearing airways, for example. In theory, they are easy, but it is possible to kill someone in the process. In this case, ensuring that there is not another accident while waiting for 10 minutes can often be more helpful.

I understand and have huge sympathy with the point; yes, all of us, whether we are drivers or not, should have a greater knowledge of what to do. However, with the amount of add-on that I would expect, we could not only make it possible for further accidents to happen, but add to the number of fatalities when we do not intend to do so. I do not mean that unkindly and I am not trying to rubbish what the hon. Gentleman says, but as I listen and think, I am not sure that this is the way to go about something that in theory we all ought to be more concerned about.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns about this, but I have to tell him that I am in the unenviable position of finding myself between him and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. I start from the premise that greater knowledge is generally a good thing. When looking at people who have control of something that weighs two tonnes and is capable of travelling at 80 mph it seems to be common sense that drivers should have some basic knowledge of first aid. One could argue that pedestrians should have the same knowledge and perhaps this is something that we should consider bringing into the school curriculum. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not sure that this is the correct mechanism with which to bring this about.

I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say, because the greater knowledge one has of first aid when one is in a situation where one is likely to encounter people who need treatment can only be a good thing. I wondered what our European partners are doing in this regard and whether there was any development there. I was surprised last year—[Interruption.] What did my hon. Friend say?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I was just saying to myself that I hope this is not a plea for a further Brussels directive on something.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Far be it from me to plea for a Brussels directive, but I do think that we can learn from other nation states and should continue to do so. I was about to say, before the sotto voce mumblings reached my ear, that I was in Spain towards the end of last year. I was surprised to see that they now have a requirement that every vehicle must carry within it a yellow jacket. In the event of a breakdown, when it is necessary to get out of the car and stand on the highway, the jacket must be worn. It seemed to be a sensible idea, particularly bearing in mind the number of people who are injured or killed when their car breaks down and they find themselves having to change a wheel or whatever at the side of the road. In the last five years I have owned two vehicles—a BMW and a Vauxhall—where a first aid kit was part of the standard package of the car. I say well done BMW and Vauxhall.   Perhaps all the manufacturers should provide a first aid kit with the vehicles they sell, but it is no good doing that if the driver does not know what to do with it. Therefore, as I look at the amendments, I find myself moving more towards the Stoke-on-Trent position and away from my hon. Friend's, because knowledge here could save lives. I am well aware that in some cases a little knowledge can be a bad thing, but the Government should at least do some work to see whether it should be made part of the driving test.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that drivers are not the only road users? There are also pedestrians and cyclists. As most accidents take place in built-up areas and quite often involve pedestrians and children, why should all road users not be required to have the same qualifications?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is a fair point. It is certainly something that the Government should look at. Best practice dictates that those on the public highway should have some knowledge of basic first aid.

It is not strictly within the ambit of the amendments, but I hope that you will allow me to mention this in passing, Mr. Hughes. I also feel that the driving test should do more to ensure that motorists have a basic knowledge of the vehicle that they are driving. I well remember three years ago noticing a car full of young girls stopped by the side of the road, with steam coming out of the bonnet. The girls were very upset and agitated because they realised that they had broken down and thought that there was a fatal problem with the car. They were near the car park of a public house where there was a tap. I stopped to make inquiries and asked them to open the bonnet, and it was simply a question of topping up the radiator. So I was able to show them where the tap was, wait until the car had cooled down and send them on their way.

There are many instances where, because of a minor fault, a car may cause an obstruction and be a potential accident risk. If the driver knew, for example, that he should check that the plug leads were all in place or how to carry out some of the basic maintenance jobs that anyone who has tinkered with a car will know about, that knowledge would be useful.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the points made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, even if she tells the Committee that, for various reasons, she does not want to go down that route.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I have among my papers the Second Reading brief from the British Red Cross, which answers some of the questions that hon. Gentlemen have posed about what it might be considered practical to include. It says:

''The test itself would be basic and include only the essential knowledge for dealing with the most likely scenarios caused by road accidents: scene management, blocked airway, bleeding and shock.''

It goes on to say:

''Many of the skills required could be learnt in as little as two hours and the British Red Cross would work in collaboration with partner organisations to advise on how this might best be done.'' 

Therefore, clearly a relatively brief introduction is envisaged.

The critical point is that some 57 per cent. of fatalities after an accident take place before the emergency services arrive, and it is estimated that about 80 per cent. could be saved by the judicious intervention of first aid. That is why I believe that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is right to table this probing amendment and to draw the matter to the Government's attention. I hope that they will find an appropriate balance between making the Bill too burdensome and insisting that people have some knowledge of first aid.

In that regard I want to make two points. First, it was mentioned that pedestrians and cyclists should also have first aid knowledge. However, as it is usually the pedestrian, cyclist or child who has been hit by the car, it is probably more useful to give the driver first aid training.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

If a pedestrian is knocked down by a car in an urban setting, perhaps on a pedestrian crossing, surely the driver will be in a state of shock. There will be other pedestrians around.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Indeed. It is important that everyone who uses the road has a basic knowledge of first aid.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 11:00 am, 1st February 2005

It is important that everyone has a basic knowledge of first aid. In many organisations it is obligatory. Whether it is imposable sensibly, other than via a test for drivers, is another matter.

The second point is that, in a work situation, there is a requirement for a minimum number of trained first-aiders to a much higher standard than the basic that is being suggested in the Bill. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it is so many per 50 employees in the work force. A considerable number of road users are commercial ones; lorry drivers, bus drivers and so on. I wonder whether, as a first step, it is worth considering whether the public service vehicle and heavy goods vehicle licences might benefit from including first aid as a requirement. Perhaps they already do.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

We have had a useful debate. We exposed a few differences of view, not least about European directives. An EU standard is set out in the directive about the content of the test. It includes an element of first aid. We satisfy that requirement by putting a question in the theory test, as do other member states. There is no full-blown directive on the issue, but it is set out as an EU standard in the directive, so Europe has already spoken on the issue.

The amendments have a laudable aim. I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, who has raised four children, is not aware of basic first aid. I would have thought that having a knowledge of first aid is a basic requirement of being a parent; not that I do, because I was never   able to take my badge in first aid as a Brownie or a Guide. Those organisations do a marvellous job training youngsters in first aid.

To be of real value, first aid skills need to be held by people who are both competent and confident in the use of first aid principles and are willing to update them on a regular basis. In some circumstances, a little knowledge can be a bad thing. Many organisations run first aid courses and the amendments draw attention to the valuable role that those organisations play.

We should consider the question of commercial drivers taking first aid courses as a first step, because they can be an asset in a motorway accident. Despite the fact that we in Staffordshire have a fantastic ambulance service, my hon. Friend is right that most ambulances would not arrive in eight minutes. That can be crucial to the survival of one of the people involved in the accident.

We are concerned about imposing an additional burden on learner drivers and those seeking to upgrade their driving licences. Part of that burden would be financial. I accept the point that my hon. Friend made. Clearly he has not looked into the costs of the measure but, as with most fixed costs, the first aid training fees would impact particularly on those with low incomes. We want to avoid that. It would be extremely difficult to justify that additional cost on road safety grounds, although I accept that first aid courses would be valuable for other reasons as well.

The purpose of a driving test is, clearly, to establish a person's competence to drive. As I said, we have included questions on first aid and accident handling in the driving theory test. The Government believe that that is the most appropriate way to test candidate's knowledge of first aid. We should encourage drivers to take up first aid courses, but not as a requirement of the test. It would be grossly unfair to deny someone a driving licence when they have passed their theory and practical tests, solely because they have not received the prescribed first aid training. I recognise that it is a probing amendment, and I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw it.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister has answered the debate well, but I have three points. First, the EU directive is a minimalist requirement, so will she assure the Committee that the Government will keep an eye out for best practice overseas? There may be some developments in other countries where, by making sure that drivers know a little bit more about first aid, lives are saved. Secondly, will she touch upon the desirability of ensuring that every driving test applicant knows the basics of car operation? With that, if they were to find themselves stranded because a minor fault has developed on their car, they would be more likely to rectify it and move on their way. I have forgotten the third point.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am grateful for those remarks. We will keep an eye out for best practice, because it is important to raise those issues.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will withdraw his amendment. We want to explore the subject of the amendment, not just because it makes sense for people to know first aid as drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists in particular, as they are likely to come off their bike, but it is a skill that we need in our everyday lives. I have been in domestic situations in which I wished I had had more competence in first aid.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her reply. I must confess that I was steeling myself for her saying that the amendment was defective; I was a little taken aback for being told that I am a defective parent.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I am very self-critical, but I will pass that comment on to my children, and see whether they agree with the Minister. She is an old and dear friend, and we have adjoining constituencies. I suspect that she did not mean it to be a cruel remark, but I will consult my children, all of whom are also probably inadequate at first aid, in spite of their having passed their driving tests many years ago.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I was slightly more disappointed by the thrust of the Minister's rejection. At times, it veered towards the point made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that we should leave first aid to the experts. I would have been slightly happier had she left the door a bit more ajar, and recognised that the requirement in the driving test is pretty loose. Most of us can get on to the road and pass the technical, manual sides of the driving test without knowing much about first aid. Perhaps I misinterpreted the Minister's remarks, but I hope that she will recognise that things are not perfect at present. The amendments may not be precisely what is needed to toughen up and beef up the requirements, but I hope that she will keep an open mind on the matter.

An interesting point was made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Kinross—

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

The name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency is a poem in itself. I should know it by now. He made a good point about commercial practice.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

My hon. Friend did not listen. In fact, I said that I wanted to think about his amendments, as he made a valuable suggestion. Certainly, first aid courses for commercial drivers are something to consider. I accept that the theory test could be beefed up to ensure that drivers have more basic knowledge. My point was that more of us—drivers, parents, pedestrians, cyclists—should consider taking first aid courses.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I am glad to have that robust reassurance, and I suspect that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is as well. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I have just one question for the Minister. Can she explain the circumstances in which she will use the regulation-making power being granted by clause 26?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The clause will introduce more flexibility in regulation-making powers in respect of driving tests. For instance, we would try to ensure that we adopted the user-pay principle for fees. At present, some 45 per cent. of practical test appointments are for re-tests, for which there is only the standard fee. The clause would enable greater flexibility so that we could conduct business in respect of driving tests in a better way.

Another example is driving schools booking many tests. The current legislation is very much based on the old-style idea of the test applicant booking just one appointment, whereas increasingly, because of the way in which commercial drivers work and are trained, it may be sensible for a driving school to book a whole range of driving tests.

There may also be situations in which an examiner, having seen a test candidate's licence, would want to ask that it be surrendered. The clause would allow us to clamp down on driver licence and identity fraud. The new provision will enable examiners to remove suspect licences from circulation if checks reveal a problem. It provides more flexibility and is a sensible way forward. It will ensure that the people who create more costs for the Driving Standards Agency, rather than all other applicants, bear them.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Can she confirm that the powers would not be used to enable bulk buying at a discount or block booking by large driving schools, which might result in disadvantage to small, individual-person driving schools? She mentioned bulk buying and block booking, which immediately raise the spectre of discounted rates and the squeezing out of small   businesses and individual operators. Can the Minister assure us that the powers being taken under the clause will not be used in a discriminatory way against small, one-man band—or one-person band—driving schools.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 11:15 am, 1st February 2005

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Instead of all-or-nothing rearrangements of appointments, it will be possible for partial refunds to be made. At present it is all or nothing; a full refund or nothing. Clearly it would make sense for the Driving Standards Agency to be able to deduct an administration fee in the 45 per cent. of practical test appointments that are rearrangements, so those who insist on rebooking the appointment will pay a small fee. That is the idea, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will not discriminate against small driving schools.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.