David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
I want to start by thanking Mr Speaker for selecting this debate. This is an issue that adversely impacts tens of thousands of people right across the British Isles, and I know that the Minister will bear that in mind when she responds on behalf of the Government.
The covid-19 pandemic has had untold impacts on so many aspects of our lives, particularly as many of us have had to adapt to working from home. However, there are certain industries for which working from home is not possible. Throughout the pandemic, driving instructors have been restricted in their ability to work and teach. While lessons resumed for a short period during the summer last year, many driving instructors now find themselves in the same position they were in last March, when countries across these islands first went into lockdown.
Many people require a driving licence for employment and simply to get around. However, it is looking increasingly likely that they will have to pay additional fees to re-sit their theory tests and then wait months for an available space to sit the practical test, which will undoubtedly be overbooked. That will mean that when restrictions are eased, instead of getting straight to sitting their practical tests and hitting the roads, many people will be paying out of pocket and twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a test space to become free.
A quick fix exists for the UK Government, but they have declined to make it thus far. Just like they extended the MOT expiry dates at the outset of the pandemic, they are now being called upon to extend the theory test validity, which I would argue is actually less risky. Northern Ireland is a clear example of how extending the validity of a theory certificate can be done safely. Initially, the Northern Irish Executive extended the validity of theory certificates that expired between 1 March and 31 October by eight months, and then they went further and extended the validity of certificates by an additional four months. I am urging the UK Government to do the same and to extend the validity period of the driving theory certificate.
When organisations such as the National Associations Strategic Partnership have written to the UK Government, safety concerns are highlighted as one of the main reasons for not extending the driving theory certificate. The UK Government have said:
“Learner drivers were prohibited from practising during COVID-19. This lack of practice is likely to mean that their knowledge and skills base diminished, and research would suggest that this would be particularly detrimental to hazard perception skills.”
However, I spoke to the Driving Instructors Association, and it was made clear to me that much of the knowledge learned in the theory test is reviewed by driving instructors during the practical lessons and test. In fact, 97% of learner drivers take some training with a qualified driving instructor, thus learner drivers will continually be assessed and tested on their theoretical driving safety knowledge. While I understand the safety concerns, it seems to me that the practical driving test will ensure that all new drivers have retained their knowledge from the initial theory test.
MOT due dates for cars, motorcycles and light vans were automatically extended by six months from 30 March to help prevent the spread of covid-19. For many people, that action represented a greater threat to road safety than the need to retain the two-year validity of theory test certificates, and the theoretical knowledge of learner drivers. Most of us—probably including the Minister—would probably say that greater risk is associated with someone driving a car with worn brake pads, than with the prospect of their forgetting what to do if their brake light stays on. If the UK Government were willing to extend the MOT duty by six months during the pandemic, surely the same should be done for driving theory test certificates.
When considering this issue it is important to recognise who will be most impacted. Young adults will be the most affected. They have to pay £23 to apply to a company to resit a theory test that they have already passed, and throughout the pandemic young people have repeatedly faced the most consequences. As we heard in the previous debate, their education has been disrupted, they have faced huge redundancies, and we also face a mental health crisis among the younger generations.
For some young people, a driver’s licence is essential for obtaining future work, and without a licence, their opportunities are increasingly limited. If young people have to wait months to resit a theory test that they have already passed, while also paying £23 to do so, the wait for an available space to complete the practical test will only add to the time in which they are unable to secure work. That is bad news for getting the economy moving again, as we seek to build back better. Extending the validity of theory test certificates would provide a huge amount of relief for young people, who are already concerned about the additional costs of learning how to drive.
From a purely administrative point of view, once lockdown is lifted a flood of individuals will seek to resit their theory tests. On 8 January the number of expired theory test certificates due to lockdown stood just shy of 50,000, according to Marmalade insurance. At £23 per theory test, that is a loss of £1.1 million for UK learner drivers.
Let us be clear about exactly how bad the situation is. Last month, The Scotsman reported that Scottish learner drivers are facing a 100 mile trip and a four-month wait to resit theory tests, because of what the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency says is “unprecedented demand.” Will the Minister reflect on how ludicrous it is to ask someone from Fife to travel to England just to sit an exam that they have already passed?
Undoubtedly, many individuals will be looking to resit their theory tests once restrictions have been eased. The backlog in cases will be tough to process, potentially increasing the amount of people at test centres, and that will make an already awful situation much worse. It does not need to be like this. Just as happened in Northern Ireland, with the stroke of a pen Ministers in the Department for Transport can end this unnecessary chaos.
The UK Government should extend the validity of driving theory certificates, as that will relieve a lot of unnecessary stress for young people and driving instructors. I have a great amount of sympathy for Ministers who, at the beginning and throughout the pandemic, have been trying to spin numerous plates relating to every facet of their lives. The first time around, the Government said that they did not want to extend the validity of theory test certificates, but circumstances have changed. Lockdown has been prolonged. We are now approaching almost a year, and this issue needs revisiting. Given that circumstances have changed, it is time for Ministers to change their mind and exercise what I believe is common sense, which I am sure will be met with cross-party approval in the House.