The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport (Baroness Vere of Norbiton) (Con)
My Lords, this statutory instrument is the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 2021. Together with the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 and the Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2021, which follows the negative procedure, these SIs are key parts of 32 measures that the Government are taking to address the current shortage of heavy goods vehicle, or HGV, drivers.
It gives me no pleasure to introduce these regulations to the Committee once again. Noble Lords will recall that they were originally laid under a slightly different name, and I shall call the original regulations the “No. 2 regulations”; they were laid on 16 September 2021. They were debated in some detail on 9 November, but they were not approved in both Houses in time to come into force on 15 November 2021, as set out in the SI. Since affirmative statutory instruments cannot be amended once laid in draft, we decided to re-lay substantially the same regulations afresh, which I shall call the “No. 5 regulations”. The No. 5 regulations replicate the No. 2 regulations already debated in your Lordships’ House, save for an updated title and coming into force provision.
I shall provide a bit of a reminder about the context, which has slightly fallen out of the media in recent weeks. The haulage sector has been experiencing an acute shortage of HGV drivers worldwide for some time. It has affected the industry for many years, but it has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which meant that driver testing had to be suspended for much of last year. During this time, the shortage increased further, as new drivers could not join the industry to replace those retiring or leaving. The shortage of HGV drivers affects the supply chains of not only fresh food but fuel, medicines and medical equipment across Great Britain.
I would like to acknowledge the publication of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s 23rd report last Thursday, which drew special attention to these regulations. I thank the committee for its hard work and continued scrutiny of these and other regulations. As the report highlighted, the impact assessments were not available at the time when the instruments were to be scrutinised by your Lordships’ House, and I offer my sincere apologies to noble Lords for this. I hope noble Lords understand that we were, and are, working at pace to deliver government interventions, including regulatory change, which could alleviate the HGV driver shortage problem, but I recognise the committee’s concern that the impact assessment was not able to be provided. I reassure all noble Lords that the Department for Transport takes very seriously its responsibilities with regard to evidence-based policy-making. I am pleased to report that the impact assessment has now been submitted to the Regulatory Policy Committee for its scrutiny.
I turn very briefly to the content of the SI. The overall aim of the No. 5 regulations 2021 is to increase the number of HGV drivers within Great Britain by increasing the number of test slots available to drivers wishing to pass a HGV driver test, while maintaining road safety standards. The regulations will remove the requirement for drivers who hold a category B licence—namely, for driving a car—to take a separate car and trailer—a category B+E—test before they can drive a vehicle combination in that class. Instead, category B+E entitlement will be automatically granted to car drivers and backdated to all valid category B car licences that have been obtained since 1 January 1997. I note that licences obtained before that date already have the entitlement to tow a heavier trailer, and that a licence is needed only for trailers over a specific weight, not for any trailer at all. Removing this test frees up about 2,400 more tests each month that can be allocated to those wishing to take an HGV driving test, which in turn will help ease the driver shortage. We know that these tests are being taken up by would-be HGV drivers.
The public consultation, which ran from 10 August to 7 September, showed support for the change, with 75% of people responding positively to the removal of the trailer test.
Road safety is, of course, of the utmost importance, and I understand why road safety concerns have been raised. Theory and practical training will continue to be recommended to help maintain driver safety on the roads. An accreditation scheme is being developed, with help from the trailer industry and training providers. This accreditation scheme will provide voluntary training opportunities for car drivers wishing to tow a trailer not only of a size that would previously have required a licence but of any size for either recreational or business use. It will also include training on trailer maintenance and other areas not previously specifically covered by the test. Essentially, training will improve.
My officials have met the trailer and towing safety advisory group to develop the outline of the scheme and to consider core modules that would be applicable to all drivers who tow, as well as sector-specific modules. These might cover activities such as safely managing livestock or breakdown recovery towing. We are also already working with trainers and those in the leisure and business sectors to develop the training package and, together with these groups and the police, will identify the additional data needed to monitor towing standards effectively.
The scheme is planned to launch early next year. We will recommend that all drivers wishing to tow a trailer of any size undertake training to safely tow and manage them. We will encourage drivers through our existing campaigns and via our work with a wide range of stakeholders, including leisure and towing groups. We have committed to review the legislation at regular intervals, initially after three years have passed and thereafter at five-year intervals. The impact assessment will be published early in the new year. Our commitment to reviewing the legislation after three years is earlier than the standard five.
As I noted previously, many drivers already have grandfather rights—about 16 million drivers who passed their driving test before 1 January 1997 can already drive a car with a heavier trailer without having to take a separate test. This change affords that same entitlement to drivers who passed their test after 1997. Furthermore, all car licence holders already have the right to tow smaller trailers. We will of course be encouraging all those who are new to towing, of any size of trailer, whether or not they would have previously had to take a test, to take up training.
We should be proud that the UK has some of the safest roads in the world. I reassure noble Lords that our support for the #towsafe4freddie campaign will continue, and we will draw attention to the importance of motorists doing safety checks of their trailer whenever they are towing.
The removal of the separate test for car drivers wishing to tow a trailer or caravan frees up 30,000 vocational test slots annually. This equates to an additional 550 tests per week, or a 37% increase in weekly tests, relative to pre-pandemic levels. This is a significant increase in available capacity. Furthermore, thanks to the great efforts of DVLA staff, the backlog of 55,000 driving licence applications for HGV drivers has been eliminated, and these are now being processed within the normal turnaround times of five working days.
These regulations are just one of the 32 interventions that the Government are putting in place to tackle this issue to help reduce the strain on our national supply chains, which is affecting every aspect of our daily lives. I commend the regulations to the Committee.