MOT charges in the North could be increased after test centres failed to reach targets despite investing £57m (€82.2m) on new equipment, a report revealed today.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office also discovered waiting times for customers have nearly tripled from 20 to 55 days.
Even though a civil service strike had a major impact on operational capability, the probe identified another key performance indicator that Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency (DVTA) staff consistently couldn’t meet.
Average vehicle test times took 23 minutes, five minutes longer than the target set in the contract to design and build 61 computerised and calibrated lanes.
With new checks now included to meet EU standards, it could cost tens of millions more as the 15 centres across the North reach their limits.
Auditor General John Dowdall said: “Consultants have estimated that full testing, which DVTA introduced in March 2006, could result in tests increasing to between 25 and 29 minutes.
“Such an outcome would result in capacity becoming exhausted in some test centres as early as 2006/2007, and at 10 of the 15 centres by 2010/2011.
“There has been a subsequent improvement in test times, and we estimate that the total additional costs are likely to be in the region of £33.3m (€48m).”
A 15-year Private Finance Initiative contract for replacing outdated equipment was awarded jointly to German firm Maha and Rotary, with a base in Mallusk, Co Antrim, in March 2001.
Vehicle examiners were to retain operating responsibilities.
But with the DVTA unable to reach the PFI targets, and waiting times spiralling between 2002/2003 and 2004/2005, problems mounted for the contract, known as MOT2.
“We estimate that the full overtime costs arising from the inability to achieve the 18-minute test, could be in the region of £2m (€2.9m),” Mr Dowdall’s report found.
The agency’s business case for the PFI project estimated fees would go up to £23 (€33.20) for a car test and £35.63 (€51.40) for Heavy Goods Vehicles.
But owners have been paying an extra £0.70 (€1) and £2.50 (€3.60) respectively since the new equipment was introduced.
“The total additional cost to DVTA customers between 2002/2003 and 2004/2005 amounts to over £3.2m (€4.6m),” the Auditor General said.
“Nevertheless, vehicle test fees in Northern Ireland compare favourably with the current fees charged in Great Britain.”
The latest evidence available suggested two test centres are now achieving the 18-minute target.
This has been seized on by the contractors to argue its equipment is up to scratch, and the issue is down to staff ability.
Mr Dowdall warned: “If DVTA is unable to determine the reasons for the variable productivity across its test centres, it is unlikely that it will be able to demonstrate that the contractors bear any liability for the failure to achieve the 18-minute test.
“Consequently, it will be poorly placed to implement deductions and will also be unable to terminate the contract.
“DVTA would then be faced with the likelihood of having to fund the significant costs of providing additional capacity, and having to increase test fees accordingly.”
It is believed a £2 (€2.90) rise has been considered.
The Auditor General urged the agency to carry out a revised business case for the MOT2 project, including all additional costs and revised estimates for future expenditure.
“The potential for capacity to be exhausted at some centres by 2006/2007 means that negotiations with the contractors, and this business case, should both now be completed as a matter of urgency.”
An agency spokesman emphasised how the Audit Office had acknowledged the PFI scheme was one of the earliest on this scale in the North. “Therefore, DVTA did not have the benefit of the extensive good-practice guidance developed more recently,” he said.
“DVTA has taken steps to address the current difficulties and is in the process of determining an appropriate way forward.
“As this report may form the basis of a future Public Accounts Committee hearing, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”