The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport (Baroness Vere of Norbiton) (Con)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for providing the opportunity to consider these regulations and to probe the Government’s intentions around vehicle testing for light vehicles, known as the MoT. The testing of HGVs and public service vehicles, such as buses, is covered in other regulations, but I will try to touch on these if I have time, and if not I will write.
The MoT market consists of a network of around 23,500 privately owned and operated test stations. Many of these garages combine both MoT testing and maintenance and repair work, as was noted by my noble friend Lord Carrington.
As the outbreak of Covid took hold, it became clear that temporary changes would need to be made to the MoT testing regime. The reasons were threefold. Prior to 23 March, the date on which the Government announced the lockdown, there was a noticeable drop of about 10% in the number of cars brought in for testing. This suggested that drivers did not want to risk infection. By then, elderly people certainly could have been choosing not to use their cars. Furthermore, the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency, the DVSA, which oversees MoT testing, started receiving reports of vehicle dealerships, MoT testing stations and repair garages closing or reducing staff numbers. Drivers also noted that they were unable to get tests. Finally, on 23 March, the Government issued “Stay at home” guidance, which specified essential travel. Getting an MoT was not regarded as essential travel.
We recognised that, although car use would fall dramatically, most people would still need their car for short essential journeys, and key workers, particularly in the NHS and the care sector, would still need to get to work. We also recognised the ongoing need for roadworthy light vehicles, so that home deliveries of food could continue, for example.
There is also the issue of those not using their car at all. They of course have the option to make a statutory declaration when it is not in use on the road, but that is feasible only for those who will not use their car at all and have an off-road place to store it. For those who must use their car very infrequently or have to park their car on the road, the vehicle must have an MoT, so this action helps them too.
With around 8.3 million vehicles due for a test over a three-month period—about 92,000 a day—the department took the decision to reduce the risk of people being exposed to Covid-19 and enable them to comply with the stay-at-home guidance by introducing the changes under these regulations. Our actions, including discussions with insurers, also avoided difficulties with insurance policies, some of which required MoT tests to remain valid. The effect of the changes is that all light vehicles due to be examined between 30 March 2020 and 29 March 2021—a one-year period—are or will be excluded from the requirement to hold a test certificate for six months. The duration, namely to the end of September 2021, was set to cover the potential extent of the outbreak, as we saw it then—it is great to have hindsight—plus a grace period, which would allow the testing industry to recover and ensure that it is not immediately overwhelmed by a bow wave of cars coming to be tested.
Our decision to extend the MoT validity of affected vehicles by six months was taken after very careful consideration. We balanced the need to provide a sufficiently long extension to deal with the immediate impact of the epidemic with the need to avoid an unnecessary impact on road safety. We felt that the six-month period was appropriate; it is unlikely to change in the current circumstances. The duration of the changes remains under review and, if no longer required, this instrument will be amended to bring forward the last day on which a six-month exclusion can begin. A six-month exclusion that has already begun will not be curtailed. I repeat: we are looking at bringing forward the date for the period under which one gets this extension, but that decision has not been taken for the moment.
On tax and insurance, vehicle excise duty remains due on those vehicles eligible for this extension. The DVSA is updating its records as these extensions are added to people’s vehicle records and is then feeding this information through to the DVLA, which collects excise duty. Once that has been updated on the DVLA system, anyone can tax their vehicle as normal. We consulted the insurance industry when we were drafting this legislation. It should be noted that the Association of British Insurers said:
“In this unprecedented situation, insurers will not penalise you if you can’t get an MOT. Safety is paramount so check your brakes, tyres and lights before driving.”
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned fines. The department has been in touch with the police and the DVLA and they have reassured us that they will take a pragmatic approach to enforcement during this time. No one wants to see fines levied on vulnerable people who are simply unable to drive their car at this time.
In the event that a vehicle is involved in an accident—an important point raised by my noble friend Lord Blencathra—the attribution would be to a vehicle being unroadworthy rather than not having an MoT. This is very important: the vehicle would be unroadworthy; it is not simply the fact that it did not have an MoT. A vehicle may become unroadworthy at any time, even if you have an MoT, so it is vital that drivers fulfil their legal responsibility that their vehicle is safe to drive, whether or not it has been tested.
As I have noted, even though many vehicles will be excluded from the requirement to hold a test certificate during this period, users are required under the Road Traffic Act to ensure that vehicles are in good working order. An MoT covers only certain things and is not the same as taking your car for a full service down at the garage. Drivers can be prosecuted if their vehicles are found to be in an unsafe condition when driving on the road.
The department has estimated that over the six-month period covered by the exclusion, approximately 29% of vehicles would have received a “dangerous” or “major” MoT failure. However, this increased risk is significantly mitigated by the reduction in trips; the current data shows a 58% drop in the amount of traffic on the roads. Although traffic is increasing at this time, particularly given the changes to government guidance, we expect a continued depression versus pre-Covid levels. I reassure noble Lords that, in the current environment, if one chose to get an MoT to get a car roadworthy for essential journeys, that in itself would be an essential journey.
Road safety is incredibly important to all of us. That is why the roadworthiness caveat exists in the regulations and why the Government have urged garages to remain open where possible. We are actively encouraging garages to remain open because we want to make sure that there are places for people to go to get their essential maintenance and repairs carried out.
Furthermore, the DVSA has issued guidance to drivers on what to do to keep a car safe and roadworthy. We are of course in regular contact with the AA and the RAC. Those organisations are repeating and reiterating these messages about getting cars on the road and getting your car back on the road when it has not been driven for a period.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, asked why 30 March. We were working at pace, as I am sure noble Lords will understand. Given that regulations could not be made retrospectively and we had to have a certain date from which they would be valid, that date necessarily had to be the short period after the imposition of the lockdown because the regulations had to be drafted and laid in Parliament. There had to be due process. There are vehicles whose MoT fell due before 30 March. These vehicles cannot have their MoT extended because it is not available to us using existing legislative routes. This is a second reason why the Government have urged garages to remain open where possible and we are very pleased that around 60% have done so, although some have a significant reduction in capacity.
MoT testing is still taking place and it is possible to find somewhere to get your car tested if it needs to be. The DVSA has published guidance on how to conduct tests while adhering to social distancing measures. As some noble Lords pointed out, some centres have just one person working there and certainly often fewer than five. It is possible to continue to carry out tests. Other measures recommended by the DVSA include enhanced cleaning, using contactless payment where possible and not issuing a paper copy of the MoT certificate, which can be printed or downloaded at a separate time. Our records indicate that the overall testing levels for vehicles with tests due before 30 March were normal, so we believe that there is no significant change in the levels of compliance.
Many noble Lords noted that these changes are quite significant. We recognise that. They were made following extensive consideration and consultation, required by the Road Traffic Act 1988. We consulted a wide range of different organisations, including the AA and the RAC, the Association of British Insurers, the Independent Garage Association and the SMMT, which represents new car manufacturers, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. We consulted all these organisations and 15 responses were received, which expressed broad support for the proposals. As raised by noble Lords today, concerns included the financial impact of the proposals on the testing industry, as well as difficulties relating to the reintroduction of testing. We recognise that there will be challenges and we will have to overcome them.
The Government have consulted and continue to engage with the devolved Administrations, as requested by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, primarily on a day-to-day basis at official level on these matters, but Ministers in my department have ministerial-level discussions with them. Vehicle testing in Northern Ireland is devolved and Northern Ireland has taken its own approach, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, by exempting both light and heavy vehicles for 12 months outright.
Given the urgency of the situation, we were not able to undertake a formal impact assessment. However, we did a proportionate analysis, looking at the impacts on things such as the ability of key workers to be able to get to work if they do not have an MOT, the road safety implications, effects on congestion, and financial losses to both the DVSA and garages. The financial impact on businesses has been estimated to be significant, possibly around £650 million, and a loss to DVSA will need to be considered.
Tests are going on at the moment. We are looking at 20% to 25% of normal test levels—the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, shared his success in booking one, so I am pleased that that there is availability out there. Some 60% of garages are open, and we believe that that number will continue to rise. It looks like between 75% and 80% of people are taking advantage of the extension.
We recognise the financial impact on garages, and the Government have done an enormous amount to support businesses during these difficult times. There is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which garages can use, and the coronavirus bounce- back loan will be particularly suitable for some of these smaller businesses. Given that financial support, we anticipate that there will be no issue with a significant reduction in capacity in MoT testing stations as we pull out of the current crisis.
As regards pulling out of this crisis, the situation is being kept under review. The regulations may be revoked or altered, and we will bring back further proposals to the House. However, we will absolutely make sure that we do not reintroduce the MoT test unless it can be conducted safely, with the least possible risk to people’s health, both MoT staff and those going in for the tests. We will also make sure that there is capacity within the sector. At the moment, on average, an MoT tester does only nine tests a week, so we believe that there is significant capacity within the system.
I am aware that I have now run out of time, and I have not covered HGV and PSV testing, which is separate to the regulations under consideration today. With the forbearance of noble Lords, I would therefore like to write in more detail and will also cover matters that I have not been able to consider—for example, the details around taxis and PHVs and how that interacts with local authorities and taxi licensing, and so on.
At times like these it is important that legislation is enacted quickly, in this case to protect the health of drivers and those working in garages. I am extremely grateful for the input of all noble Lords today, and these deliberations will be taken into account as we consider future changes.