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Breaking up is hard to do….

July 24, 2011

Portskerra, Scotland – The question: Is it about political doctrine and dogma or is it about improvement?

I am talking the UK Driving Standards Agency (DSA) here and the lobbying going on to break it up and privatise it. With the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee about to scrutinise the DSA and opine on it being fit, or not, for purpose privatisation could be only a step away.

The DSA was born out of the Government Trading Funds Act 1973. A Trading Fund in this context is a Government Agency whose receipts must meet its outgoings and whose existence must satisfy HM Treasury and the responsible Minister that the setting up and operation of the Trading Fund will lead to “improved efficiency and effectiveness in management of operations”. In short it must not cost the Government anything and conduct its operations in a correct and efficient way.

The DSA has over 400 driving test centres, 140 theory test centres and an annual turnover of £184 million. It conducts 1.6million practical car tests and 1.5million theory tests each year and has a staff of 2,700. It would seem to be a very saleable asset, particularly if the Government of the day was hard up for cash.

A sell off would certainly prove that the  Conservative wing of the UK Government coalition maintains its commitment to privatisation. Veterans of the 1980’s Thatcher Conservative Government will remember the promises of lower costs when the “Iron Lady” sold off the publicly owned, railways, gas, water and electricity companies. We now have some of the highest train fares and energy costs in Europe and a large number of smiling shareholders. Would a privatised DSA, over time, be any different, I think not.

Motorcycle testing is a relatively small part of the DSA operation as the following figures show: 2006/07 – 77,019 tests, 2007/08 – 87,962 tests, 2008/09 – 105,362 tests, 2009/10 – 50,389 tests. However that makes the DSA’s motorcycle testing operation a very handy size to hive off and sell. Something that has not gone unnoticed by elements in the UK motorcycle industry and the motorcycle testing and training industry. The idea of offering bike sales, training and the test on one site is not only attractive to customers but likely to be a nice financial boost, a fillip to the bottom line in monetarily hard times.

So would selling off the DSA, of at least the motorcycle operation, improve the “customer experience” and above all keep the costs of obtaining a licence down?

There’s a debate to be had here. As a Trading Fund the DSA’s income must balance its outgoings. In theory this means that charges should only increase to fund investment and in line with inflation. There are no dividends and no shareholders.

On the other hand lets imagine that the DSA motorcycle operation is taken over by a consortium of UK motorcycle interests. Surely prices  for testing would have to rise to a greater extent than under a DSA regime. If only to pay the interest on the loans raised for the purchase and to ensure a profit. After all that would be the point of taking on part of the DSA in the first place i.e. making money. Unless of course the more philanthropic element of the “industry” is considering a “Big Society” non profit trust to run the operation!

We would be replacing the current DSA motorcycle operation, which we can be reasonable confident is ploughing all the fees back into the set up, with one we know someone in the “industry” is making a nice little profit out of. A profit out of us! Are we trying to fix something that ain’t broke. Is it only broken in the opinion of the self-interested?

In the next few months the UK mainland “riders rights” groups will almost certainly be jumping on the “lets privatise the DSA” bandwagon. But is privatisation in the long-term interests of UK motorcycling and future riders? Are the “riders rights” groups just campaign desperate as memberships fall? Or have they spent so long holding on to the coat tails of the “industry” that anything the “industry” says becomes the “riders rights” position.

Be careful out there, ride safe.

© Back Roads Rider 2011

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Magraw permalink
    July 25, 2011 7:55 am

    In a press release on the 21/07/11 the Motorcycle Action Group, who apparently has reached maturity, has come out and hung its coat on the hook of privatising the DSA.

    In a public call MAG say that, “the DSA should be broken up to ensure better, more accountable delivery and quality assurance of a public service.” and that the evidence they will present to the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee about the DSA is down to them and their effectiveness.

    So Back Roads Rider the “lets privatise the DSA” bandwagon has been well and truly jumped on.

    Is the MAG press release and call, “campaign desperate”?

    Has MAG thought through the, “long-term interests of UK motorcycling and future riders?

    I would be happier to see MAGs reasoning behind their call that says will, “ensure better, more accountable delivery and quality assurance of a public service.”

    Where’s your reasoning and where is your policy on this MAG?

    MAG Press Release

    MAG has yet again been invited to present evidence to the Parliamentary Transport Select Committee.

    As part of the DfT’s attempt to scrutinise the work of the Agencies under its control, the Driving Standards Agency (DSA) and the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) are to be the focus of attention later in the year.

    MAG’s evidence to the Committee two years ago was instrumental to their findings that the introduction of the current bike test had been botched and that vast amounts of money had been wasted, which in turn led to the creation of the Ministerial Test Review that is ongoing.

    Only 2 months ago MAG was again called to present evidence in the Committee’s enquiry into traffic management and how urban congestion can be reduced and follows our very public call that the DSA should be broken up to ensure better, more accountable delivery and quality assurance of a public service.

    It is a measure of MAG’s maturity that our opinion is requested and demonstrates how effectively we continue to develop as a campaigning organisation. Thanks to all of you who are making this happen.

  2. Ian Cook permalink
    July 25, 2011 9:08 am

    You failed to follow through on your thought on ““Big Society” non profit trust to run the operation”.

    I’ve no remit (or indeed understanding) of this Cameroonian concept beyond getting charities to run stuff for free, however what if the DSA were run by the likes of ROSPA, IAM, MAG Foundation etc. with something in the constitution about only imposing standards that had been proven by published, peer-reviewed research to significantly & cost-effectively to improve safety?

    May be a non-starter, as no-one would make money or get to promote their “industry”. Seems to make sense, though.

    • K. Marx permalink
      July 26, 2011 6:12 pm

      What if the DSA were run by the likes of RoSPA, IAM, MAG Foundation? God help us! Can you imagine these organisations sitting around a table to decide on how to run a business to deliver a nationwide service. Both RoSPA and IAM have a distinct job of post test training – and not necessarily doing a good job. MAG Foundation – what have they done to merit consideration?

      Getting rid of a government organisation stinks of Thatcherism and selling off the family silver.

      Why on earth would anybody want to privatise an institution that has a simple specific purpose which is to ensure that novice drivers and riders have a modicum of knowledge of how to drive on our roads? That is and must be a public service, if costs are covered, all well and good, but if they are not, then that should be secondary to ensuring that the people behind the wheels or handlebars of vehicles are able to pass their test. In the end, the outcome should always be a benefit for society as a whole.

      I would go so far as to say that the MoT should return under government control and be run by government agencies.

  3. July 25, 2011 1:07 pm

    Just for the record, the BMF has not agreed that we would like to see the privatisation of the Driving Standards Agency. There are advantages (e.g. flexibility, convenience) and disadvantages (e.g. less oversight, threat to universal provision) to the proposition and we have yet to be convinced by either argument. That quite fairly leaves us open to accusations of indecisiveness, but it is better to have a considered opinion than to rush to judgment. Are we happy with the way the DSA has operated in the last 5-10 years? No. Do we want to see motorcycle testing fundamentally change? Yes. Is privatisation the answer? Not sure.

    • Back Roads Rider permalink*
      July 26, 2011 1:30 pm

      Chris,

      Thanks for that considered response.

      I’m glad to see that you are getting some blue sky between the BMF’s postion and that of Brown, Tyson and of course their ringmeister Carey-Clinch.

      Its a real pity MAG UK have jumped in with “the DSA should be broken up to ensure better, more accountable delivery and quality assurance of a public service.”

      Back Roads Rider

  4. A. P. permalink
    July 27, 2011 8:38 am

    Dear Mr Hodder,

    Re the BMF’s position (or non position) regarding the privatisation of the DSA or not. This is the first I’ve read of it. Where is anybody supposed to read about BMF’s positions on anything? The campaigning issues on the BMF website are all outdated.

    The Campaigner has stopped, Rider magazine lacks any decent articles on issues – such as the privatisation of the DSA. For example in the last issue, “Lobby” (the issues that make us take action) focuses on the end of the NTBPT campaign, changes to the motorcycle test, new road safety strategy launched, a bit on page 18 about CBT in Northern Ireland and finally “Chris’ comments”. That’s it??

    Facebook is the same as the “Twitter” comments on the BMF website – latest being “Spent most of the day talking safety with the motorcycle industry’s internal committee. Should be some interesting stuff happening soon”.

    What does that mean? Did you have lunch with Craig? Did you go in the back door – Murdochesque style?

    I do not really believe that anybody gives a flying duck about whether you had a meeting with the motorcycle industry, what would be of interest – and perhaps be helpful to increase membership, is to know what was said. You must admit that “Stuff” is somewhat vague.

    You stated “That quite fairly leaves us open to accusations of indecisiveness”, but how could anybody accuse the BMF of indecision – because there is nothing on the BMF website, facebook page or anywhere else to be able to draw that conclusion.

    • July 28, 2011 12:22 pm

      Most organisations do not have published positions on every topic and to do so would be not only a drain on resources, but would leave the organisation a hostage to fortune later on. In fact, many organisations only publish positions on issues they are currently working on. We do not have a position on the selling off of the DSA because it is a new suggestion with wide ramifications we have yet to analyse. We also do not have a position on the selling off of VOSA, for example, which nobody has yet suggested and it would be foolish of us to speculate on this now when the position in the future could change.

      As far as the BMF’s general positions on issues, these are still the same as are published in the membership leaflet and on the current website (http://www.bmf.co.uk/upload/documents/1172509158_policy.pdf).

      As for reporting on my whereabouts and activities via twitter, this is a service to members as they have a right to know who I am speaking to and when, especially if I am travelling to do so. In most cases I would like to publish what was said, but the nature of these meetings is that they are usually confidential and if I started publishing everything that was said, I would start to find myself uninvited to things and that would render the organisation impotent. I find it frustrating that I can’t do so, but that is the nature of the beast. Ministers and civil servants are required to publish who they met with and when, but not what was said for similar reasons.

      For reference, the meeting I attended on Tuesday was not a backdoor lunch, Murdochesque-style. You can tell this because I told everyone it happened the same day it happened and I said it was a committee meeting which took most of the day. To read any more it into is a little paranoid. None of the 20 or 30 other people updated twitter about the contents of the meeting either, so am I being punished for being too transparent, but not transparent enough?

      I accept the accusation that we could be better at communicating on political issues, but unfortunately a host of technical problems with the website and the campaigner email have made them redundant. The good news is that a new email system is in the pipeline and also a new website. Naturally, I would like these things to happen much faster, but I am at the mercy of other parties.

      • A. P. permalink
        July 29, 2011 8:26 am

        Well, I’m sorry, but all you’ve done is give excuses. What most organisations do is irrelevant. What the BMF does is relevant.

        With regards to your comment about not having a position on the DSA, you wrote “BMF has not agreed that we would like to see the privatisation of the Driving Standards Agency. There are advantages (e.g. flexibility, convenience) and disadvantages (e.g. less oversight, threat to universal provision) to the proposition and we have yet to be convinced by either argument.” So you (whoever that is) have obviously discussed it and have taken the position of sitting on the fence.

        With regards to using Twitter as a means of communication as an alternative to publishing more indepth comments, I can’t see that this is a service, infact it seems to suggest laziness.

        With regards to your comments “if I started publishing everything that was said, I would start to find myself uninvited to things and that would render the organisation impotent.” That’s just silly. Nobody asked for a verbatim account, but an understanding of the purpose of the meeting, in a format that is legible and newsworthy would have been preferable – although TBH, even silence would be preferable.

        That the BMF could be better at communicating – is not an accusation, it is a fact. You clearly do not seem to understand or care that the BMF membership is sliding down the swanny. It is your job to provide the members with information, not cut and paste press releases from other websites or make comments to your entourage using twitter.

        With regards to the website and campaigner. This was all discussed at the last AGM and we were told that it would all be sorted – it’s nearly time for the next AGM. What excuses are we going to hear then? In the end it doesn’t matter if the website is old – what matters is that there is up-to-date information for everybody to read.

  5. Dave permalink
    July 27, 2011 3:02 pm

    Public services cost money to deliver. Perhaps it’s time the govt and everyone else accepted this and focused on effective, well managed delivery rather then either selling things off so they can be run for profit at the expense of service (public transport) or run badly and expensively at the expense of service (NHS).

    There’s a clear conflict of interest in having examiners employed by training bodies and there will obviously be a loss of provision where demand is low. Perhaps the last 10 year or so of the DSA’s poor operation has been due to who was in charge? Bean counters don’t make good decisions, they make financial decisions.

    The DSA are the best option for ensuring consistent, fair testing with national delivery provided they’re allowed to do so and managed effectively. I suspect the examiners unions are very nervous about a potential sell off, perhaps it’s time they stopped making life difficult for the DSA management and worked with them to provide a good service rather than making sure their members get to be at home with their feet up by 4pm… It’s not the 1970’s anymore.

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