Our Editor Jim Punter, looks back at the “Good old, bad old days” of the MOT Agency’s enforcement policies, how things are now, and how it might be improved into the future…
Since it started the MOT Scheme has seen significant change. Initially it was a simple check of lights, brakes, tyres and suspension, and the Government’s ‘Vehicle Examiners’ (VEs) were rarely seen by Testing Garages. All enforcement came from the local area, where the Area Manager made all decisions. There was an appeal process to the then Vehicle Inspectorate’s (VI’s) Chief Executive’s office in Bristol, such appeals being rarely upheld.
VEs carried out an annual inspection of Testing Stations. Most disciplinary action arose initially from customer complaints, then from ‘mystery shopper’ activities with VEs pretending to be motorists presenting cars for Test, or following ‘Appeal’ Tests if problems were discovered. If there were problems, an, ‘Intended Withdrawal of Authorisation’ letter followed soon after.
As the Scheme developed, and the VI (and after them VOSA) began to take more disciplinary action, widespread discrepancies were noticed in penalties being dished out. A Tester in the South not inspecting flexible brake hoses might get a ‘final warning’, whereas in the North of England, say, a verbal ‘slap on the wrist’ was all that happened.
Also, as some VEs got to know their own ‘territory’, and the Testers and AEs they visited, it was rumoured that, believing they knew the bad Testing Stations, sometimes ‘fitted them up’ with false allegations to get them out of the scheme; yet turned a blind eye to mistakes others, after sharing a convivial cup of tea with the AE during visits. This ‘bad practice’ was set to change.
Risk Assessment and Central Review
In 2004, a report was published reviewing Government ‘Regulatory Inspection and Enforcement’ activities, called the ‘Hampton Report’. It suggested that Government regulation would be better done on a ‘risk assessment’ basis.
Ironically, though, its focus was to criticise situations where businesses were subjected to similar inspections by different regulatory Authorities – which was not the case for the MOT! Even so, VOSA set up the ‘Risk Assessment’ system of control we have today. No more annual visits by VEs, just a three-yearly visit to inspect the Testing Station (if it’s in the ‘green’) and set a ‘Risk Score’. Sites labelled ‘amber’ or ‘red’ would get much more attention.
Another key conclusion from the Hampton report was that, “Regulators do not give enough emphasis to providing advice in order to secure compliance”.
Something that DVSA still haven’t really ‘taken on board’. The disciplinary structure is very rigid with a specific points score for specific transgressions, and penalties automatically applied – subject of course to pleas of mitigation from experts working as advisors for Testing Stations falling foul of the system.
DVSA have no formal structure to offer ‘advice’, although the new training regime may offer an opportunity for such a process to be installed.
A further development was to deal with those disciplinary inconsistencies across the country by the setting up a ‘Central Review Team’, (CRT) which scrutinises all disciplinary cases sent from the areas and makes the final disciplinary decisions. It is not uncommon for the initial appraisal received by the Areas to be ‘bounced back’ to them for re-assessment.
Improved Test quality?
Given the more formal nature of the ‘Risk Assessment’ system, and the impartiality of the Central Review Team, the whole system of disciplinary control is more transparent and seemingly a distinct improvement on what had gone before.
Unfortunately, however, that has not really been reflected in improved MOT quality.
Over the years MOT quality has changed little. For the pass or fail errors it’s at more or less 15% of vehicles Tested. Yet the error rate is much higher for failures where the VEs disagreed with defects cited by Testers.
Again the figures are surprisingly consistent year on year at around 25% to 30% of the failures, suggesting a much poorer MOT quality, but are largely ‘hidden’ by DVSA who only ever highlight that lower pass/fail error rate.
In 2011, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening issued a ‘Statement’ about the MOT, primarily to announce that plans to move to two-yearly MOTs were being dropped. She also noted that, there was ‘room for improvement’ when it came to MOT quality – which has not significantly changed since then.
So despite DVSA ‘spin’, and VOSA’s before them, the MOT error rate is significant and unacceptable – so how do DVSA currently ‘root out’ bad Testing Stations?
Control and discipline
If an MOT Tester is consistently failing to meet DVSA’s required standard of quality, there are a number of ways this would be found out:
Mystery shoppers: DVSA staff, posing as ordinary motorists present vehicles to be MOT Tested. The vehicles will ‘doctored’ by DVSA with a number of known MOT defects. If the Tester fails to detect those defects, or flags up a non-existent defect, then disciplinary action will follow.
The ‘Compliance’ survey: Any garage could be selected for a visit by DVSA to inspect a recently MOT Tested vehicle as part of their ‘Compliance’ activity; if DVSA’s findings are significantly different from the Tester’s disciplinary action will result.
Targeted visits: Testing Stations in the red and amber sectors following their ‘risk assessment’ visits, will receive more frequent controlled checks by VEs to examine a recently Tested vehicle. Any discrepancies found will result in disciplinary action.
Intelligence led surveillance: If DVSA receive plausible evidence that a Testing Station may be defrauding the system, they may mount a surveillance operation, observing the Testing operation over a period of days and checking Test results against vehicles coming and going into and out of the premises.
Discrepancies between pass certificates issued and vehicles attending the Testing Station will result in both disciplinary action, and criminal prosecution.
The disciplinary points system
If you fall foul of DVSA’s disciplinary system, penalty points will be awarded on a very structured scale under a number of headings, which, mainly regarding Testers are:
Incorrect Test Standard: This is the most common reason for disciplinary action. Perhaps a steering joint wasn’t checked, or if it was and failed, the Vehicle Examiner disagrees with that judgement, and disciplinary points follow. This is where those ‘advisories’ come in.
If the item isn’t checked, then up to 40 points could apply. Really bad judgement, however, only merits a 10 point penalty, whereas an obvious error in judgement, gets just 5 points.
Incorrect Test Method: Action here would apply if, say, the roller brake test was conducted incorrectly, or an assistant wasn’t used when one should have. Here the points very considerably, and the Guide should be referred to (Appendix 8.3), but with a shoddy Test the points would accumulate very quickly!
For transgressions under ‘Incorrect Test Standard’, the AE will normally be given points as well as the Tester, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
And points will apply mainly for Authorised Examiners due to:
Incorrect operation of Testing Scheme: This covers issues such as breaches of security (70 points), equipment not calibrated (20 – 40 points)… and so on.
So, let’s imagine your Tester may have made a mistake, disciplinary points are threatened; what happens next?
How the Disciplinary process works
You’ll have received a letter from DVSA threatening disciplinary action, maybe even contemplating withdrawal and invited to respond to the accusations – with a deadline to do so. Don’t miss that deadline.
If you do, it’ll go through, ‘on the nod’, and points will apply – and if the accusation is serious, you could be taken out of the MOT Scheme.
So, do you challenge the accusation yourself, or get expert advice? If you’re really ‘up to speed’ on the DVSA ‘Guide’, and feel confident to do so, then prepare a carefully argued defence. For most people, however, seeking help would be the next step.
If you’re a member of a Trade Body, they should have MOT specialists available to offer support. If not get in touch with an MOT Consultant, or if you subscribe to our ‘MOT Shield’ service, contact us.
In practice the main advantage of getting outside help is that the specialists are much more familiar with DVSA’s internal systems and how they work than most AEs or NTs – and are able to prepare and present your case in the best light.
If ultimately the case goes against you, and the penalty is serious, perhaps a five year withdrawal – and you still feel aggrieved at the outcome, you can lodge an appeal – but if things get that bad, this is when you really would be advised to pay for some quality professional help.
A Better way?
Since the inception of the Central Review Team at DVSA, the disciplinary system seems, by and large, to work well. It is certainly more consistent and transparent than it used to be.
Yet when it comes to controlling the MOT Scheme with respect to improving quality, the combination of the current ‘Risk Assessment’ system and the disciplinary structure seems to have failed abysmally. Year on year little has changed. So how could it be improved?
Increased ‘risk assessment’ visits?
The starting point has to be with how those ‘risk assessment’ visits are conducted – what VEs should be looking for and the questions that should be asked, more on which later. Another key issue, however, is how frequently such visits are made.
To some extent at the moment this is academic because the DVSA can’t even keep up with their current three yearly ‘risk assessment’ schedule! (currently around twenty per cent of VEs earmarked for the MOT Scheme are being diverted to other work in the DVSA).
Surely, if DVSA are serious about improving MOT quality and ‘rooting out’ bad Testing, especially fraudulent activity, then they need not only to ensure that all VEs allocated to the MOT are engaged on MOT activities, but also increase those risk assessment checks to two-yearly – and focus the visit mainly on the garage’s MOT Test activities, which could mean shorter visits.
There’s another issue here. If you are labelled as a ‘red’ garage, you can’t have that re-assessed until the next ‘risk assessment’ visit three years later – why not? Imagine a conscientious garage owner who, horrified at a ‘red’ or ‘amber’ risk rating, spends money and takes time to sort his MOT business out.
Being in the red he’ll still get those more frequent visit from DVSA – for the next three years, wasting DVSA money and resources.
Surely DVSA could devise a system whereby such Testing Stations could request an early ‘risk assessment’ visit – and if they’re still in the red, the DVSA should be able to charge the garage for the cost of sending in their Vehicle Examiner needlessly.
But if the site then moves into the green, DVSA have saved money by not having to visit that site until the next scheduled ‘risk’ visit. Alternatively, if a garage falls into the ‘red’ zone, give the AE perhaps six months to put things right – and then make a follow up visit – again, if he’s now in the ‘green’ zone that could be very cost effective.
Improving the ‘Assessment’
Over the years the ‘risk assessment’ system has been in place, DVSA have attempted to refine the process to better correlate the risk score with the likelihood of MOT mistakes being made.
Unfortunately, however, the results from their annual compliance checks have shown scant improvement in MOT quality despite those risk assessment refinements.
What’s needed is an additional, but targeted assessment system aimed at specific MOT issues – followed by refined, but more focussed compliance visits to see if the new assessment visit has resulted in an improvement in those specific MOT skills.
The results of these visits could then be analysed for their effectiveness.
If successful, a project could then be put together aimed at creating a new MOT skills-focussed ‘risk assessment’ template, using the results of those experimental risk and compliance visits as building blocks.
The key improvement would be to shift the focus away from the business as a whole, but on to the MOT knowledge, skills and administrative competence within the business.