“(c) must be accompanied by an assessment of how the designation would affect existing DVSA testing facilities and staff.”
This amendment requires the Government to review and report how any new designated premises may adversely impact existing DVSA testing facilities and staff.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Ryan. We move seamlessly to the issue of vehicle testing, and in particular the testing of lorries, buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles, and the proposed move from centres under the control and ownership of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to authorised testing facilities, with independent examiners remaining in the employ of the DVSA. That is the context, and I am assisted in that regard by the explanatory notes. I noted during the debate on the previous clause that, at the bottom of page 12, we have a paragraph 66 and then another paragraph 66—too many sixes. I wonder whether the devil is in the detail.
The Labour party does not have an issue in principle with the contents of the clause. However, we have concerns about the effects on existing DVSA testing facilities and staff of the increased movement from Government-owned testing facilities to privately owned sites. Our amendment therefore would ensure that the Government reviewed and reported on how any new designated premises or authorised testing facilities may adversely impact existing DVSA testing facilities and staff.
I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me specifically about this and for providing a reassurance that the Government will not close any DVSA sites unless other suitable local testing sites are available; that tests will continue to be conducted by DVSA examiners; and that the DVSA will still employ the examiners who deliver vehicle tests at private sector sites. However, that is not the entire story. We have been in contact with Prospect, the union that represents DVSA vehicle testing staff. Prospect supports our amendment, and it shared with us its members’ concerns about the Bill. It is clear that industrial relations have been far from perfect. Matters came to a head at the end of 2015 when industrial action was taken in a dispute about terms and conditions. Prospect states that the way in which the DVSA has conducted negotiations with staff working in vehicle testing centres has had
“an impact on existing staff and the attractiveness to potential new entrants”.
In the light of the Government’s intention in the Bill to migrate towards a new system, I urge the Minister to take those issues on board, because they have depleted staff numbers and resulted in the DVSA’s technically qualified staff being diverted from their roadside enforcement work to cover annual testing of heavy vehicles.
Peter Hearn, the DVSA’s group service manager for vehicle and testing services, explained to the Transport Committee in November 2015 that DVSA staff members working in vehicle testing had been forced to work overtime to manage workload while maintaining standards. Since the agency ended the practice of diverting roadside technical enforcement staff away from their work at the beginning of this year, the staff shortage has reached what Prospect calls a “critical point”, which has resulted in staff in northern areas of Great Britain being redirected to undertake annual testing activities in the south.
It is Prospect’s belief that, despite its members’ extraordinary efforts, the DVSA is paying authorised testing facilities compensation on account of failing to meet its contractual obligations to provide them with the staff to carry out testing. Accordingly, there is some concern that, in order to deal with the shortfall in staff numbers for ATFs, the DVSA is considering allowing delegated testing. There is a concern as to where that might lead. As was stated in the Transport Committee report into the work of the Vehicle and Operators Service Agency, the DVSA’s predecessor:
In tabling the amendment, we are attempting to establish a statutory mechanism to bring transparency and reassurance to the anticipated preparation of authorised testing facilities and thereby prevent measures in clause 21 from having a damaging impact on existing DVSA testing facilities and staff. I have tabled this probing amendment in the hope that the Minister will be able to provide further reassurances in addition to those which he kindly delivered in his recent letter.
The amendment is designed to foster consultation and more information. Paragraph 72 on page 13 of the explanatory notes refers to authorised testing facilities—ATFs—which are privately owned sites where most but not all of the testing goes on. As the Minister may know, I have a personal interest in this, having spent three years as a bus driver, driving these sorts of vehicles. Paragraph 72 says:
“To complete the move from Secretary of State owned vehicle testing sites (i.e. DVSA sites) to private sector owned sites, the other specialist testing schemes conducted by the DVSA will be moved into an ATF type arrangement”.
The provision relocates site testing from DVSA facilities to ATF facilities, and refers to “other specialist testing schemes”. Will the Minister say what those schemes are?
Secondly, the amendment would amend proposed new section 65B(5) which deals with designation and says:
“(5) A designation under this section—
(a) is made by giving notice in writing to the person in charge of the premises designated;”
Will the Secretary of State be giving notice to himself under that provision on DVSA sites?
I am grateful to hon. Members for their comments during this short debate. This is an important change. It is not in any sense designed to alter those things to which the Select Committee referred and to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield drew our attention. I, too, have read that report. He is right in saying that the Select Committee was supportive of the quality of what is offered. That is something we value too and certainly would not do anything to dilute.
The other thing to say at the outset, before I move to the substance of my remarks, is that we have consulted on these matters, before introducing the Bill, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West will know. We consulted in the motoring services strategy in 2012 and again in 2016 as part of the DVSA business plan. Many private sector premises such as haulage firms or bus depots have facilities from which they carry out vehicle maintenance. Some have invested in premises to provide these facilities.
To date, we have 581 private sector sites and around 96 DVSA sites. To deliver vehicle testing services from those premises could save the DVSA a great deal of money in reservation costs, because some of the DVSA sites are quite old and require further work. To give an illustration for the sake of clarity, the cost of renovating DVSA properties in 2007-08 was £25 million. That was 10 years ago, and many of them are due a refit. This measure would mean that they would not have to have one, so there are good reasons for doing it, and we have consulted on it before doing so. However, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough posed important questions, which I want to deal with one by one.
First, delegated testing would require primary legislation, and we do not intend to bring it in—the hon. Gentleman can be confident that that. Secondly, as he said—and it deserves repeating—all tests will continue to be carried out by authorised examiners. The number of examiners has increased slightly over the past few years—there were 27 new posts in 2016-17—to reflect demand. I know, because I asked many of these questions when we were considering the Bill, that it is true that we sometimes move people around to deal with local demand. As demand percolates through different parts of the country there is some peripatetic use of inspectors, because the supply of tests has to meet local demand.
I take what the hon. Gentleman said about recruitment and staff terms and conditions very seriously. As a result of what he said—this is not pre-planned—I will meet representatives of staff such as trade unions and others, to discuss those queries. As he well knows, I am an enthusiastic trade unionist and a strong supporter of the trade unions. If there are concerns, it is right that they are aired and that the Minister hears them personally and directly; I will do that as a result of what he said today.
Let me now go through this matter in greater detail, and address the amendment in particular. All Governments set out their ambitions at the outset, and establish strategies for the Departments that comprise their whole. The agencies of the Department for Transport, including the DVSA, were missioned to make savings as part of that future strategy. The whole Government took a view that the Department might benefit from being examined and reviewed, with a view to making savings where we could do so without compromising the quality of what is provided to the public in the Government’s name. That clearly involved opportunities to work in partnership with the private sector and to utilise local facilities; the use of local facilities for the delivery of vehicle tests is a good example of that.
As I said, this approach was considered and consulted on in 2012, and more recently in 2016, so planning has been under way for some time. The partnership approach, where the DVSA provides vehicle examiners to deliver tests but the private sector provides facilities, has worked well. It is now well established and popular, with some 581 private-sector premises delivering local vehicle-testing services across the country. Many more sites than the original 96 DVSA ones allow for quicker, more convenient and easier access for those who need to get vehicles tested; however, the hon. Gentleman is right that that needs to be married with the availability of people to do the tests. It is all right, but we need the people to carry out the inspections. I think I have assured him that we are aware that demand can sometimes be patchy. It is stronger in some places than in others, with seasonal variations to cope with, too. However, he can be certain that the measures in place to ensure that vehicles are tested properly, reasonably speedily and conveniently will continue to underpin our approach, notwithstanding what I said about agreeing to speak to staff and their representatives.
My ambition for this part of the Bill is to build on existing, well-established good practice, to reflect the advice we have had from the consultations, to maintain the standards necessary to guarantee proper safety and so on. It is therefore not clear that we need to include in the clause the requirement set out in the amendment. It might be too restrictive for the Government and might duplicate work that has already taken place on the future planning and strategy of the direction of the DVSA, given, as I have said, that it has been planned for a long time, strategised and consulted on.
Again, not for the first time, I repeat that I understand why the amendment has been tabled and I appreciate the spirit of the arguments. As previously, I am in accord with the objectives the hon. Gentleman set out. I am happy to consider any further steps that need to be made as a result of discussions with staff. I want to make it categorically clear that there are certainly no plans for compulsory redundancies or reductions in staff numbers of the kind that it was perfectly reasonable for him to ask about. I think the change can therefore be said to be reasonable, sensible, measured, properly planned for, and in the end, efficacious.
I have a few short thoughts for the Minister. I heard about the ambition to maintain standards, but we are concerned about the selling off of state-owned facilities if the primary aim is to save costs—particularly when looking at the acknowledged high standard of the work carried out by the existing facilities. I am seeking further assurances from the Minister that, when it comes to the work done by DVSA examiners and the very high standard applied by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, those standards will be maintained in future, and we will see some evidence that that will be regulated and maintained.
I will happily give that assurance. We will absolutely maintain those standards; there is no intention or suggestion that we will drop them. There is a regulatory mechanism for ensuring that the standards are as they ought to be. I am happy to include that in my next missive, which will be dispatched to the Committee without delay.
To offer the hon. Gentleman further reassurance on his first point, and to repeat what I said in my letter to him, the DVSA will not close any of its own sites until suitable local private sector provision is found; there will be no obligatory closure of sites. I know what he might be thinking—I do not want to put words in his mouth—but we certainly would not want to find parts of the country where people currently enjoy the ability to have their vehicles tested bereft because of the absence of an appropriate site. That will not happen. The use of private sites has so far enabled us to find a better spread. I imagine that is important for areas like his; it certainly is for areas like mine.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comments and reassurances. I am curious about the capital receipts that may flow from the disposal of 96 DVSA sites; they will be considerable. There will also be a saving on renovation costs, which seems eminently sensible. I am reassured by what he said about delegated testing requiring primary legislation and, furthermore, about the Government having no intention of bringing that forward.
The Minister commented on the peripatetic use of inspectors; that underpins my remarks about the good will that has been deployed, in terms of the staff’s willingness and ability to go the extra mile—literally, because they have been deployed around the country. I am not entirely enthusiastic about seeking leave to withdraw my amendment, but I have heard a great deal from the Minister. He has reassured me that the issue has been properly considered in DVSA’s future planning and strategy, and perhaps more importantly, he has given his undertaking to meet with staff, and if they and he jointly conclude—or one or other concludes—that this sort of mechanism is worthy of reconsideration, we could revisit this, if it were thought necessary.
Having sent a minor shockwave through my officials—they did not know that I was going to offer to meet the staff—maybe they need another one: I think we should do that before the passage of this Bill is concluded, as it is absolutely right that the hon. Gentleman and the staff should be aware that the engagement we have with them on these changes is meaningful. I happily commit to that, too. I do not want to meet them at some distant future point; we want to do so in the context of these changes.