Mark Leftly: It's in the blind spot of MPs but motoring reforms have hit a dead end

The election must not overshadow the business of government

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Westminster Outlook We are 11 weeks away from the dissolution of Parliament and it’s nearly four months until polling day.

Yet already the Conservatives and Labour are engaging in bloody battles over dodgy dossiers and dodgy counter-dossiers, making outrageous assumptions over each other’s plans for the NHS and the economy.

In the hysteria, it’s easy to forget that this was a week in which Parliament debated nationally important legislation such as counter-terrorism measures.

There was, then, little chance that details of the botched part-privatisation of a motoring agency was going to grab headlines, but this is a tale worth highlighting, as it again illustrates the Government’s struggles to impose the profit motive across the state.

The shadow roads spokesman, Richard Burden, has written to Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office (NAO), demanding that the public spending watchdog investigate the “modernisation of motoring services”.

This is a quietly ambitious programme, notable for the merger of two agencies that were separately responsible for driving tests and checking MOTs. Ministers believe that pooling work into a new Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) is a more efficient use of resources and, therefore, taxpayer money.

But a staff survey last month showed that morale has hit rock bottom since the DVSA was formed in April and that the target of a six-week average waiting time for practical driving tests has consistently been missed. This week, the transport minister Claire Perry confirmed that in December there was a shortfall of 62 driving test examiners in Great Britain – Northern Ireland has its own structure – from a surplus of 14 in May.

The Government says the target will be hit for 2014-15 as a whole. While it’s difficult to believe that, it is true that reforms like these do take time to bed down.

In a debate this week, Ms Perry also insisted that this “temporary backlog” was a result of economic recovery, which meant there was a spike in demand for driving tests.

As ministerial spin goes, this was argued rather deftly: there was only a problem because the economy had been rescued, so there was “the need to get more people on the roads”.

Just as fundamental to the Department for Transport’s plans was finding a commercial partner for the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA). This body tests and approves new types of vehicles, including cars, fire engines and tractors, and also has a good reputation abroad, with offices from North America to China. Having made a loss of £511,000 in 2013-14, the Government believes part-privatisation would help the agency turn a profit.

As we revealed last month, though, negotiations with four shortlisted bidders – including the British Standards Institute and the certification specialist SGS UK – collapsed.

Ministers cited the rather unsatisfactory reason that the competition “has not been successful in identifying a suitable joint venture that would achieve the objectives of both partners”.

This week, the Department for Transport confirmed it had spent £2.74m on the failed competition. That might seem like small beer, but the VCA only has revenues of £16.1m. Moreover, it is not clear whether that £2.74m  includes the costs to the bidders, which also included the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Motor Industry Research Association.

As Mr Burden told Mr Morse: “Given some of the recurring issues with procurement and competition, organisational restructuring and private sector involvement… An NAO review into the benefits and costs of this process to date will be important to ensure the department can deliver reform of the essential tax, licensing, testing and vehicle safety services that the public and automotive industry rely on.”

The election must not overshadow the business of government, particularly when it continues to overhaul the relationship between commerce and the state.

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