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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Road Safety Bill

Road Safety Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 1 February 2005


[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Road Safety Bill

Clause 29

Compulsory surrender of old-form licences

Amendment moved [this day], No. 69, in clause 29, page 38, line 21, leave out

    'pays such fee (if any) as specified by the order, and (b)'.—[John Thurso.]

2.38 pm

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments:

No. 68, in clause 30, page 39, line 13, leave out subsection (1).

No. 72, in clause 30, page 39, line 24, leave out 'that Act' and insert

    'the Road Traffic Act 1988'.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I was seeking to persuade the Committee that, in respect of fees, it would be appropriate to leave the Bill where it is. The amendments would do that by removing subsection (4)(a), the fee-paying part of the clause, and clause 30(1). I had begun to refer to the comment made by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), that the Government were seeking to impose the principle of the user pays. I have no particular argument with that concept, but I ask her to expand on it.

A wide variety of options was suggested in the consultation paper published earlier this year on proposed fees. One included the possibility of very low fees or, if I remember correctly, no fees for young people acquiring a provisional licence, the idea being that they should be encouraged to do so and that a low fee would encourage them. That may or may not be the case, but the consultation subscribed not to a principle that the user pays specifically for the service that they have used, but to the principle that the generality of service users across the piece should provide revenue to cover the costs, which seems somewhat different.

For example, if a company provides a service or product for which there is a healthy market and keen competition therefore exists to keep the end-user price down, it will be under considerable pressure to be as efficient as possible in controlling the cost of providing the product or service. In this case, however, there is a monopoly. There is only one provider of the licence, and it sets the fee. Whether the fee is set in the context of the keenest possible costs and the minimum recovered or in the context of low efficiency, which may mean that it is higher than necessary, is entirely
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decided by the people who are in charge of controlling the costs. I would say in parenthesis that my comments are in no way intended to be disparaging of those who work in that service; I merely give a hypothetical situation. If there were laxity and the costs went up, the fees could go up. There would be no control.

The concept that has been followed in the past is that all Government revenue goes to the Consolidated Fund and all expenses come out of it. In such circumstances, if one considers the consolidated payments that drivers make, one could argue that they have already paid enough and that they are entitled to receive free of charge what they have always received free of charge.

I would be interested in hearing from the Minister what the Government's thinking is on that. At what point will they cease to charge for all the different things that come in? As I said this morning, we may be entering a situation, particularly in respect of clause 30, in which all sorts of new technologies come in quickly, as technology does, resulting in a series of new licences. Whereas with my old paper licence I could confidently expect to make it to my 70th birthday without any charge, I could now be faced with a charge every five or 10 years.

I shall listen closely to what the Minister says, and I am open to persuasion. In a previous debate, I was persuaded by her to support an amendment that I had not intended to support. I leave it entirely in her hands to give me some reassurance, and I will listen to her comments and make my judgment about what to do at the end of them.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Subject to what the Minister has to say, I rise to support the amendment of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who represents half of Scotland. He made several excellent points. The more one reflects on this debate, the more one is forced to ask why the clause appears in the Bill. Is it in any way related to an EU directive that will require the Minister to call in our old licences and issue them in a new format? Incidentally, I was not aware that the hon. Gentleman was approaching his 70th birthday, but I am sure that we all wish him well.

The question is why individual drivers should have to pay a fee because the state now does not like the form of licence that it issued previously. In essence, that is what the clause is about. The hon. Gentleman made a very good case, and unless the Minister advances an argument that I have not thought of, I am minded to support him.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): I want to confine my comments wholly to the amendment. There is a clause stand part issue that is separate from the amendment, but I shall, if I may, deal with it later.

I have had to think carefully before saying that I agree with the Liberal Democrats, as I wonder whether I really understand what they are saying and whether they will say the same thing or something entirely different tomorrow. For the moment, however, I will settle for what they have proposed. As long as it stays
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on the table, I support its principle for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).

2.45 pm

We do not choose to have a driving licence; the law requires us to have one and it determines the form. There is no choice and no discretion; we cannot go to somebody else for it and we have to have it. Thus, if somebody has said ''This is what you must have in order to drive a vehicle and you have got it'' while the person supplying it says, ''But actually we have changed our minds; you ought to have something else and you don't have any choice in the matter,'' I do not see why we should be forced to pay for the new version. In the open market, if one buys a product because one considers it a good idea, but a subsequent model becomes available and one freely decides to buy that, it is not unreasonable to pay for the replacement. On the other hand, if we do not choose to acquire a product, but the issuer says they have a better idea and will force us to have another product, without which we cannot otherwise drive our car, we should not be forced to pay for it.

We are looking at yet another stealth tax, because the Government, having decided to change their mind, can dump on the taxpayer a charge that they should bear out of general taxation, being open and honest about the matter. I therefore have no difficulty in supporting the amendment.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): We are almost reaching unanimity. I support the amendment, and if the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross had not tabled it, I would have tabled a similar one.

The Government are trying to undermine a principle. Once one has obtained a licence for a fixed period, one must not only surrender it, but pay for the privilege of having a replacement supplied under a requirement from the European Union or from this Government. It is wrong in principle that someone who has a licence and looks after it perfectly well should have to pay for a replacement. That is not what happens with bank cards or any other document when the provider decides to replace it. Replacement of a licence because the driver is at fault is a completely different matter. If the clause is not amended, it will amount—the Minister is waiting for me to say this—to another stealth tax.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): When the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority was set up by the party now on the Opposition Benches, it was set up as an organisation that paid for its activities out of its own fee structure. Therefore, it is effectively self-financing. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned the consultation that has just finished, in which the DVLA explored a range of options, including its fee structure. It is now conducting several meetings with various stakeholders, including Age Concern, motoring organisations, classic car collector groups, local
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authorities and so on, to decide the best way in which to proceed with fees, and it is likely that other consultations will take place.

We must consider where the money will come from, and it could come from new licences. Some 15 million drivers have already exchanged their paper licences for photo licences and paid a fee. Others, in various ways, have changed their licences without paying a fee. We must then consider whether it is sensible to introduce a fee for exchanging the old paper licence for the new plastic one. No decision has yet been made, but as Opposition Members have pointed out, the clause gives the Secretary of State the option to make that change. If fees were not taken for the issue of licences, other charges could be introduced. For instance, an annual charge on someone keeping a vehicle could help to cross-subsidise new driving licences.

Why does the DVLA want to speed up the transition from paper licences to the new licence? It is largely an issue of security. Presently, three different types of paper licence are in circulation, all of which are valid. The security of paper licences is not as robust as that of plastic card licences. In the first place, holders of paper licences were not subject to the same identity checks as are currently standard for photocard licence holders. Paper licences were generally issued on the basis of a self-declaration from the owner, whereas photocard holders must produce documentary evidence, such as birth certificates or passports.

If the DVLA decided that it wanted to recall the three different types of paper licence, the timing would be carefully designed to coincide with the introduction of another initiative—for instance, a much more secure licence, possibly containing a chip. The obvious time to consider a full recall of the present paper licence would be when the paper counterpart is abolished, for which the Bill provides. Indeed, we might move to even smarter electronic cards, given the present technology.

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