The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport (Baroness Vere of Norbiton) (Con)
My Lords, this group concerns Clauses 13 and 14, which seek to manage road safety risks as we move into recovery from the pandemic. I am very grateful for the discussions that I have had with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who is unable to be in her place. I will put on record further details to address the concerns that have been raised.
First, noble Lords will be aware that draft regulations referred to in Clause 13 are now available, but the essence of this clause is as follows: at this time, the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency can issue certificates of temporary exemption from roadworthiness testing on a blanket basis for vehicles during exceptional circumstances. It has issued such exemptions to all heavy vehicles that are due a test in the period from March to August 2020. Clause 13 allows the DVSA to exempt vehicles from testing based on road safety risk factors rather than on a blanket basis. These powers are not intended to manage business as usual and will not be used to manage normal test demand unconnected to exceptional circumstances.
When determining whether a CTE should be issued for a particular vehicle, the new regulations will allow the following relevant safety factors to be considered: the age of the vehicle and its technical characteristics; the findings of any examination or inspection of a vehicle; enforcement action against the vehicle’s operator or against the driver of a vehicle used under that operator’s licence; the operator’s membership of the DVSA’s earned recognition scheme; and any action, direction or order in relation to an operator’s licence, held by the operator, taken or made by a traffic commissioner within the previous five years under specific relevant provisions.
Where exceptional circumstances necessitate, the new power will be used to prioritise older vehicles for testing—most likely those over two years old—and take into consideration membership of the DVSA-run earned recognition scheme and operator compliance risk scores calculated by the DVSA, based on historic evidence of compliance. The regulations will permit the issue of CTEs during, prior to, or subsequent to disruption attributable in whole or in part to an exceptional event which falls within the existing definition. This is in recognition of the fact that disruption to test availability may extend beyond the boundaries of an event. An exceptional event such as accident, fire or epidemic is included in this definition. The regulations will also set out the duration for which these CTEs can be issued. Given that these revisions reduce the road safety risk inherent in the existing powers and are to be used only infrequently and in exceptional circumstances, we do not propose to add a sunset clause.
I turn now to Amendment 49, tabled by my noble friend Lord Attlee, which seeks to permit the Secretary of State to qualify any individual to undertake road-worthiness tests of heavy goods vehicles. At present, heavy vehicle testing is undertaken by the DVSA, typically with staff working from a third-party site. This amendment would open the door to the private sector undertaking such testing; this is often referred to as delegated testing. I understand my noble friend’s views on this point and recognise his expertise in the area, as so ably demonstrated in his contribution. I express my gratitude to him for his constructive approach, particularly in discussions with departmental officials.
However, allowing delegated testing of heavy goods vehicles would represent a fundamental change in our long-standing approach. This amendment would require us to conduct that change during a time of immense pressure on the testing system, on stakeholders and on the DVSA. Establishing a new system of testing without carrying out careful consideration and extensive consultation would be unwise and would create risks to all road users. However, I am extremely willing to continue constructive discussions with the noble Earl, and indeed with industry, particularly as to how we can improve the current system. For these reasons, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to support the Government’s approach.
I turn finally to Clause 14. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for giving me an opportunity to provide further details. Lorry and bus drivers must apply to renew their driving licence every five years and annually from the age of 65. From the age of 45, a medical report signed by a doctor must be provided with the renewal application. Under an existing power in secondary legislation, the Secretary of State for Transport can waive the requirement for a medical report. However, the Secretary of State for Transport currently cannot mitigate the associated risk by issuing shorter licences.
As a result of the pandemic, NHS GPs have not been available to meet the demand for medical reports. To help keep drivers on the road, we announced a temporary scheme to waive the medical report requirement and issue one-year licences back in April 2020. The provision in this Bill is retrospective. It limits to one year the duration of licences already issued under that scheme without a medical report, as well as those that will be issued in the future. Even though the medical report will not be required at renewal, the driver must still fill out the standard DVLA medical questionnaire, and confirm whether or not they suffer from one of the medical conditions relevant to fitness to drive. If a medical condition is declared, the DVLA will investigate the condition, and decide whether it is appropriate to issue a licence. The provision for one-year licences to be issued where there is no medical report will last for the duration of the Bill. However, this scheme does not have to be used. The DVLA is keeping the scheme under review, and in consultation with NHS authorities will reinstate the requirement for a medical report, and return to issuing five-year licences, as soon as medical resources are available to meet demand.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, for her questions on the issuance of other licences and their renewal, and I will write to her. On the basis of these explanations and clarifications, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, will feel able to withdraw his intention to oppose the Motion that the clause stand part.