Reinstate Language Support for UK Driving Test

March 2019 – MP Briefing

"Ahmed, a Syrian refugee and skilled carpenter is being resettled under the Government’s Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme. He has found a job to support his family where he is a valued member of a small team. His place of work is a thirty-mile drive from his home and there are no viable public transport links. Ahmed has been able to drive to work using his International Driving Permit but its validity is about to expire as he has been in the UK for a year. Despite studying hard, his English remains far from the level required to pass the theory test but he could pass it easily were an Arabic voiceover translation available to him as was previously the case. He will almost certainly need to leave his job and return to being dependent on benefits as a result of the Government policy change in 2014 that removed language support for driving test candidates. Ahmed is just one of many refugees affected by the policy change."


Background to the policy change removing language support

Until 2014, UK driving test candidates could take the driving theory test with voiceovers in non-national languages and use interpreters in the practical test. Following a consultation [PDF] by the Driving Standards Agency (now the DVSA) this facility was withdrawn, although it should be noted that residents of Northern Ireland continue to be able to enjoy language support in the driving test. Outside of Northern Ireland, since 2014, all parts of the driving test must be taken in English or Welsh. In the Impact Assessment [PDF] accompanying the policy change, the Government committed to reviewing this policy decision in January 2019 but this review has not been undertaken.

The three reasons given by the Government for the change were:

Road safety

On road safety the Government said: “We consider that road safety is compromised if drivers are unable to understand road signs and other driving related instructions.”

The consultation document provided no evidence that not having a high level of proficiency in the English language was a road safety hazard. It remains the case that the majority of foreign drivers are able to use their national licenses or international driving permit for driving in the UK for the first year after entry. There are no restrictions on foreign commercial drivers bringing goods to the UK or on dyslexic or illiterate UK drivers who retain a facility to have English or Welsh voiceovers to assist them in the theory test.

Fraud

“…The use of interpreters at both theory and practical tests gives rise to the potential for fraud- interpreters telling candidates the correct answer to test questions or offering guidance during the practical test.”

While it cannot be denied that there was a potential risk of fraud in the use of interpreters in the practical test or where voiceovers were not available for the theory test, the numbers of people found to have breached the rules was small by the DVA’s own statistics. Furthermore and most importantly, no such risk exists in the use of voiceovers for the theory test - the facility that the vast majority of those requiring language support actually used.

Social cohesion

“…The government wishes to encourage social cohesion, which it is considered can be enhanced if all citizens can understand the national language”

The approach adopted is punitive to those who are doing their best to integrate and learn English. Refugees and migrants want to learn English but Government spending cuts to English for Speakers of Other languages (ESOL) services have meant that access to English education is decreasing. ESOL funding under the Adult Skills/Education Budget [PDF], managed by the Skills Funding Agency, was cut from £212 million in 2008/09 to just £90 million in 2015/16. As a result, only a few hours a week of Council-funded English lessons are available. In addition, it is common sense that social cohesion is more attainable if migrants have access to jobs where they are interacting with English speakers rather than remaining isolated on benefit payments.

Key concerns

The Government’s 2013 Impact Assessment miscalculated how quickly a person could acquire English to a sufficient level to tackle the driving theory test. According to ESOL professionals, that level of English is significantly beyond the reach of those learning English for the first time after only a year even where regular access to ESOL classes could be guaranteed. Government cuts to ESOL services as detailed above have not helped this situation.

In researching the impact of the withdrawal of language support for driving test candidates on refugees being resettled under the Government schemes Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign (CRRC) conducted a survey in Cambridgeshire and in 6 other local authority areas across the UK . We found that:

  • Many resettled refugee men are experienced drivers, with a significant proportion driving for a living in both their country of origin and country of transit.
  • Nearly all those with previous driving experience had applied for and obtained a provisional UK driving license indicating a desire to drive in the UK.
  • 63% of respondents had undertaken some study towards the driving theory test since their arrival but only 28.3% had actually attempted the theory test. Reasons given for not doing so were almost all about the difficulty of the language.
  • Only 13 respondents had attempted the theory test and of those only 7 had passed it. Most had made multiple attempts and the few who had passed had often taken 4 or more attempts. It appears to be only the younger and better educated who were able to get this far.

What survey respondents said about the rules preventing them from being able to take the driving theory and practical tests with language support.

"I don’t understand it. I could drive for 1 year when I first came. Now I am used to it and I have to stop until I pass the driving theory"

"I don’t understand. I could have driven from the first day I was here and then I didn’t know anything about English and the rules. Now I know and understand a lot better and I am blocked from progressing by the language barrier in the theory test. I am studying for it but it is very difficult to understand that level of reading & writing in English. If I had a voice translating the questions and answer options it would be much better and I could do it quickly and get on with my life."

"I think it is not good because it is an unrealistic thing for me to do. My English needs to be very good. It is testing my English not my driving skills. A test on my driving knowledge could still be done if the questions were given with a voice translation of questions and answer options. It is not good, not logical."

"The main objection is that if we have to wait until we speak English fluently this will prevent us driving for a number of years. This is affecting our daily life and mobility especially in rural areas. I think it is important that people can take the test in their own language, and I hope that this will be possible again in the future."

"I think it’s a bad idea. Although I am young and can learn English quite quickly I am worried about how quickly older people in Syrian families can learn English."

"It puts us at a disadvantage and hinders our resettlement. We live in a rural area where learning to drive is essential and it will take us longer to find work without a driving licence in this area."

"It is unfair. It was available in Arabic not long ago. I feel I am disadvantaged and that my resettlement is hindered as I live in a rural area where driving is essential and public transport is unreliable and expensive."

The survey also found that many of the women in the resettling families, while not necessarily drivers in their country of origin, now also aspired to drive but faced problems of access to ESOL due to lack of childcare provision by standard ESOL providers. This puts reaching the required level of English out of their reach for many years to come.

"I feel it is unfair, I feel I am at a disadvantage, I feel I could find work quicker with a driving licence. I live in a rural area and I feel stuck, I have to take a bus to get my shopping and then I can’t carry it all home with the children."

"It is unfair, sets me up to fail, especially as a woman as I am expected to stay home and look after the children before attending English language courses."

"My husband is disabled. Driving is a necessity for me. Not having a car has become an impediment and gets in the way of living a normal life. My son has asthma, as do I, so it’s no good to walk around. Public transport is expensive. My children still use a stroller but are now getting too old for this – it’s socially embarrassing for them. To get to the cheap supermarket it takes two buses and I have to take both children and the only local store is very expensive. Even with children at school I have serious medical issues that prevent me using public transport comfortably."

The need to act

It is clear that since implementation of the policy change in 2014 there has been a major contextual change. The UK Government agreed to take 20,000 Syrian refugees and then a further 3000 vulnerable children and their parents.

While we believe that the policy change was misconceived in the first place, lacking any rational basis, the settlement of a significant number of refugees now makes the policy unconscionable.

The current policy is seriously impacting on those attempting to settle in the UK, costing the taxpayer considerable sums in lost revenue and having a detrimental impact on the wider economy.

We are calling on MPs and particularly those members of the Transport Select Committee to honour the commitment given by Stephen Hammond MP in the 2013 Impact Assessment to review the policy change in January 2019.

We believe that the Transport Select Committee represents the best placed body to conduct such a review and that this must be undertaken in light of the Government’s subsequent commitment to resettle refugees and the impact that continuation of the policy is having.

What can MPs do?

A change to the policy does not require legislation. We are asking MPs to write to Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport, asking him to honour his department’s commitment to undertake a review of the policy change in light of the new circumstances described above and the Government‘s commitment to support refugees resettling in the UK.

Further information

Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign is a registered charity (CIO) (registered charity number: 1172836)

For further information please contact Adrian Matthews.