Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
I want to speak to the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021.
I rise as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trailer and towing safety. For more than four years, we have worked across the House to make roads safer for our constituents through consideration of the gaps in regulation and enforcement of towing and trailer safety. I believe we built a good consensus that showed the very best of Parliament. We were making advances in a non-partisan way, the result of Ministers and Back-Bench MPs working together across party lines to arrive at a settled and sensible position that improvements in this area were desperately needed. In that spirit, I thank former Ministers for their support: the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) who is in his place, and the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). They each showed a desire to fix an endemic problem around trailer safety and a genuine commitment to deliver on a promise to one particular family in my constituency.
I first met Donna and Scott Hussey in 2016, months after my election as Member of Parliament for Bristol South. Two years previously, their three-year-old son Freddie was killed in the most tragic of circumstances when a two-tonne trailer came loose from a vehicle in Bedminster, driven by somebody who had been trained and who was towing for business. From the first time I met the Hussey family, it was all too evident that the loss of Freddie had affected them in ways I could not imagine. In the four years since, it has been a privilege to campaign alongside them, and many other families and supporters, on the little-known or cared-for issue of towing and trailer safety, to put it centre stage at the Department for Transport, Highways England and the DVSA, and with it, the hundreds of associated accidents and incidents that occur in this area every year.
We have hosted Ministers and experts. We have held summits and awareness events. We have taken to the newspapers and the airwaves. We launched the all-party group. At the inaugural meeting of that group, the National Towing Working Group, chaired by Highways England, launched its first ever safety framework. In the House of Lords, we defied the odds to secure an amendment, by one vote, to the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2018, which required the Government to collect data on trailer-related incidents and produce a statutory report, the safety report I have brought with me this evening. Meanwhile, the DVSA has also launched the “Tow Safe for Freddie” campaign to help raise awareness among drivers and to honour Freddie’s name. On the roads, we made a real difference, working with the National Trailer & Towing Association to promote free roadside safety checks.
All of that makes the situation in which we found ourselves today abjectly terrible. The proposals from the Government take a wrecking ball to the advances that we have made. It is unconscionable and totally unfathomable. The Minister has made a series of unsubstantiated claims this evening. These proposals have come from nowhere, without any respect or acknowledgement of the work that has been done. They are an insult to the campaigners, who have worked so hard. It is a shoddy parliamentary practice—it really is a bitter blow today.
In the statutory report—a Government report—we have numerous paragraphs stating what needs to happen to the B+E tests around the driver safety issue. Paragraph 5.26 states:
“In order to tow heavier trailers…the driver must undertake an additional…test… Given that a range of stakeholders and data sources pinpoint driver error as a key factor in towing incidents, it is sensible to consider improvements to this test.”
Paragraph 5.27 states:
“DVSA will be considering revisions and improvements to the B+E safety questions, which form part of the practical test, over coming months. These will seek to address issues which have been raised during this report”—
the Government’s report.
Paragraph 5.28 states that the
“DVSA will consider ways to promote the B+E syllabus in the national driving standard, especially to increase awareness of safety issues among new and learner drivers and those who may only tow rarely”—
the other people who are being let tow vehicles out on our streets.
Paragraph 5.29 talks about changing the load that drivers can carry:
“DVSA will explore whether increases to this requirement, for example requiring a combination over 3.5 tonnes, would lead to tests being undertaken in a more representative vehicle combination”.
Again, that is about improvements. We were expecting to have improvements to the B+E test and it is truly astonishing to be here tonight talking about abolishing it.
When the House of Lords considered this statutory instrument, its report stated:
“These draft Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation.”
As Scott Hussey said to me last week, this makes absolutely no sense. As other Members have said this evening, this is not a temporary measure; it is a permanent change.
Our work on the APPG is based on the findings of the statutory report. We were looking at how safe trailers over 750 kg are based on the available data and then, on the basis of that assessment, we were looking at whether the mandatory testing and/or registration of trailers over 750 kg should be introduced.
The Department for Transport decided that the case for trailer registration and testing, hence the need to ensure that there is roadworthy-compliance, was not made. However, it always said that the level of compliance of some 50%—50% of these trailers are compliant—was a cause of concern.
Paragraph 5.1 of the report states:
“This report has presented an opportunity to consider trailer safety in a broad context, and to consider other interventions which may benefit towing and more general road safety”—
that is, more improvements.
Paragraph 5.2 states:
“Throughout this report, significant concerns have been raised about data availability and validity, the role of driver error in incidents, and ensuring that the current test regimes for drivers and vehicles are working correctly.”
It mentions an assessment of the current regime, without any talk of abolishing it.
We have been meeting over the past few years and collecting more data, working with the Department on roadside checks. The DVSA’s checks, which it has carried on through the pandemic—we are very grateful to those who have worked with us closely to make sure that we get evidence to look at the greater regulation of these trailers—all consistently show 50% non-compliance.
I met the Minister, the noble Baroness Vere, and I am grateful for her support, too. This Minister—and she has done this—will talk about continued working with regard to improving compliance, and she made a distinction between trailer compliance and driver behaviour. However, as I said, we are so concerned about these proposals because we never envisaged a situation where the test would be abolished. In an area where the Government have admitted their concern, namely the regulation and testing of trailers, they have made things worse by taking away the test requirement for drivers.
Let us look at a little of the detail of the Government’s proposals, because I do not think that Ministers are across it in any way, shape or form. The Government have not made a road safety impact assessment of this decision. I am not making this up: there is no road safety impact assessment of a decision that makes such a massive change to how drivers are trained. We are being asked to vote on a decision that has not been assessed, with ramifications that are literally a matter of life and death.
The Government’s explanatory memorandum states that there are
“around 1,000 accidents per year”
involving trailers, but statistics on the car and trailer driving test suggest a consistent current fail rate of 30%. In 2019-20, that was 8,575 people. Under the Government’s proposals, those people will be going out on our roads. It takes either immense stupidity or unbelievable indifference not to see that allowing people on our roads who cannot pass a test will drive up accidents.
Perhaps most offensively, the Government are proclaiming that the changes are needed to solve the HGV crisis—a case that they have not proven. It is not clear how the theoretical freeing up of the test will be used to do what the Government say. They have brought no evidence and no case that they have done that work. I dare any Minister to talk to any family who has been affected by the issue or to anyone who has lost somebody to an unsafe trailer or an unsafe driver.
The draft regulations will do nothing to help with the HGV crisis. In theory, at a stretch, they could free up some examiner capacity, but they will do nothing to reverse the backlog and gain new HGV drivers. Plenty of alternatives have been put forward to help with the problem. The key question for the Government is whether it is worth risking lives to free up theoretical testing capacity.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I have been inundated by messages from experts in the field telling me that the draft regulations will not do what the Government say—and the Government have brought no evidence that says otherwise. I have heard from trainers, drivers, testing centres, the insurance industry and the Road Haulage Association that they do not support this part of the package.
It is not just Members and industry experts who have grave concerns. Noble Lords have stated that they
“take the view that the House currently has insufficient information to enable proper assessment of the policy and the House may wish to press the Minister for more specific details about its wider safety implications.”
That is exactly what is happening tonight.
The Government’s proposals are not, in any shape or form, fit for purpose. They are dangerous. This is reckless. No-one thinks that it is a good idea, except some parts of the Government, and there is no safety assessment on which to base the decision. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully, that she will go back to the Department and that she will accept that I want to work positively, as I have done in the past four years. Along with the suggestions from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), with which I agree, I ask for four other issues to be taken into account.
First, the Government need to ensure that the remit of any voluntary accreditation scheme is widened to include all drivers and all trailers. The rules are now very complex and we need a much simpler licensing system.
Secondly, I hope that the Minister and the Government will continue to work with the APPG, not only on developments relating to towing and trailer safety, but on somehow assessing the effect of this legislative change. I do not know how we will do that, because there is no evidence for us to assess as a starting point and there is no way that the Government can assess the situation in three years’ time, but we will try to work with them.
Thirdly, I would like the Minister to provide an annual written statement setting out where driver error is cited in towing accidents. That would give us some reassurance that the Government will be in a position to undertake some sort of assessment in three years’ time, as they say they will.
Fourthly, I would like the Minister to give more specific details of the new proposed training scheme. What is its scope? How many people are expected to be trained? When will the scheme come on stream? How will it be communicated? How will it be evaluated? Let us not forget that these tests are already being abolished. We are here tonight supposedly to rubber-stamp something that has already been set in train, and there is nothing to replace it.
I will close with the words of my constituent Donna Hussey. She said:
“While it has always been difficult for us to comprehend what happened to Freddie, we made a promise to each other and to Freddie that we would do all we could to make sure this issue is given the serious consideration it deserves. If our hard work saves one life, then it is worth it. No family should have to go through what we have been through. We are determined to see this through in memory of Freddie.”
We have been promised, time and again, measures that will be fit to serve the memory of Freddie and the bravery of his family. Rushed legislation is always bad legislation. There is still time for the Government to pause, to put aside the mish-mash that is before us and to make good their promises, and I would like to support them in trying somehow to reverse the terrible damage that this proposal is doing.