LEARNER DRIVERS SHOULD NOT HAVE TO PAY TWICE: 29th November 2020
Constituency casework led me down this road - looking at the failure of the UK Government to make provision for learner drivers whose lessons and test plans were affected by Covid.
As I looked into this issue, to assist a constituent, it became clear that as many as 200,000 theory test certificates could expire before people can sit the practical exam, forcing learners to pay and resit them again.
This has all the hallmarks of the UK government being asleep at the wheel on yet another important issue, and because the UK Transport Secretary has not identified this issue and brought forward proposals for the minor change to legislation, we now face this ridiculous double-charging of driving test applicants.
ARTICLE TEXT: THOUSANDS of learner drivers could be waiting for years, and be forced to pay twice, if they want to pass their driving tests as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with a complete collapse in the number of practical tests being taken this year, as many as 200,000 theory test certificates could expire before people can sit the practical exam, forcing learners to pay and resit them again.
Professional bodies, politicians and would-be drivers are all calling for the UK Government to extend the theory test certificate expiry date, with one SNP MP saying ministers were “asleep at the wheel” on the issue.
However the UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has so far ruled out the measure, saying it raises safety concerns and would require a change in the law.
He made the announcement earlier this year, two weeks after Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said a new regulation would be introduced there to allow an eight-month extension to their residents’ theory certificates.
The UK Department for Transport (DfT) has also turned down requests to refund charges for tests or waive resit fees.
Official figures show that just over 6,264 people in the UK were able to take their driving test between April and June this year – just 1.5 per cent of the total for the same time the previous year.
Even by March, just as the first wave of the virus began to take hold, the number of tests being taken in Scotland’s largest towns and cities had already start to fall.
Figures from the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) show 3347 practical tests were taken in March 2020 across Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, Paisley and Inverness - 1000 tests fewer than the same time in 2019.
A practical test backlog is now rapidly building and concerns are growing about the length of time it will take to clear, with estimates ranging from several months to more than a year.
Some Scottish learners told The Herald they have been unable to book any tests, theory or practical, until at least mid-February 2021.
Kirsten Oswald, SNP MP and the party’s Westminster deputy, has been pressing DfT on their decision, and said it is “astonishing” that the problem had not been considered while the Coronavirus Act was being developed.
She said an estimated 30,000 learners in Scotland have lost the opportunity to sit their practical test due to the coronavirus crisis with a reduction in capacity resulting from lockdowns as well as testing centre staff having to self-isolate or shield.
The MP for East Renfrewshire explained: “This has all the hallmarks of the UK government being asleep at the wheel on yet another important issue.
“Through the Coronavirus Act, emergency legislation was put in place for a wide variety of changes to the way governments at all levels carry out their business to avoid unnecessary disruption and extra costs for businesses and citizens.
“The UK Transport Secretary should have identified this as an issue before now and brought forward proposals for the minor change to legislation needed to avoid this double-charging of driving test applicants.
“UK ministers are repeatedly calling on private companies to be understanding of the financial impact of the pandemic on their customers, yet here we have the UK government blundering on with a totally unfair charging policy.”
She added that although a theory test only costs £23, at a time when people are struggling for money it could be unaffordable for some.
She said: “As the minister acknowledges, refunds of theory test fees is already provided for in legislation.
“Clearly, this could have been extended under the Coronavirus Act or in separate simple legislation over the past seven months. It is astonishing that this has not been done.
“With the likely extension of coronavirus restrictions in some parts of the UK for the rest of this year, the UK government must act now to address this to prevent further charges for people at a time when they can least afford it.”
Olivia Baldock-Ward, head of training at the Driving Instructors Association (DIA), said her organisation was one of several who asked the UK Government to consider an extension to the theory certificates.
She explained the DIA was "very frustrated" with the decision, adding: "We were disappointed that the theory test certificate couldn't be extended.
"We understand that there are regulatory challenges inherent in extending the life of theory tests, which has not made it possible, and obviously we also respect the potential safety implications of a candidate having too long a time lapse between the last theory test.
"But, you know, were still very frustrated and concerned that it wasn't possible to extend it.
"We know that Northern Ireland considered it the right thing to do. We did push that quite hard as so many people have had to go back and revisit the theory test, and that's obviously put them back."
A Department for Transport spokesman said: "We have taken the decision not to extend theory test certificates; we realise this will impact on some learners and that some people will be disappointed that they will have to retake their theory test again.
“The decision was taken to ensure those whose certificates would expire under normal circumstances didn’t hold them for a disproportionately long time, which could impact their road safety knowledge and hazard perception skills for when they drive on their own for the first time.”