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House of Lords

Wednesday, 9th June 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Driving Licences

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take steps to make it easier to apply for the new personal photograph driving licences.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, there are no immediate plans to change driving licence application procedures. However, as a longer term option the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is exploring the possibility of establishing electronic links with other government departments. This would considerably reduce the need to supply original identity documents and thus make the application process easier.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, does he accept that there is real worry on the part of applicants who are forced to send originals of birth certificates, passports and marriage certificates--and, if one is a Member of this House, a Writ of Summons--through the post? Such documents are extremely valuable to their owners and could be of considerable value to the criminal fraternity. Will the Minister try to ensure that the DVLA returns these documents either by registered post or by recorded delivery or, alternatively, that it again permits copies of these documents to be sent?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the decision to cease to accept copies of these documents was not taken by the DVLA but across government and resulted from the increased incidence of fraud. It is alleged that obtaining a driving licence is one of the easiest ways to establish a totally new identity because often a driving licence is accepted as a form of identity card, although that should not happen. Until the incidence of fraud is reduced, the DVLA and certain other government agencies will still require original documents to be submitted. As regards postage, the DVLA does not require individuals to send their documents by registered post. The DVLA has considered whether to return documents by registered post. However, that would of course have a cost implication and the driving licence regime is required to cover its costs. Therefore the return of original documents by registered post or recorded delivery would have a cost implication on the driving licence regime.

Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that the directions on the form are not clear.

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I at last have one of these licences and I think they are a good idea but the process of sending documents back and forth is extremely complicated. Will the Minister consider submitting the relevant directions for examination by the Plain English Campaign?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, having recently filled in one of these forms I have some sympathy with the noble Baroness. However, we are trying our best to improve the ease with which people can fill in the forms and also to make them electronically readable so as to speed up the process we are discussing; sometimes the two processes move in opposite directions. However, we shall give serious consideration to redesigning the forms, particularly when all new driving licences will comprise photocards after 2001.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when one goes to a post office and asks for an application form for a new driving licence, one is given a piece of paper which states,

    "Don't be a REJECT! Many photocard applications are being rejected"? This obviously implies that the form is indeed complicated and this new driving licence is not at all easy to apply for, as my noble friend stated in her Question. What proportion of photocard applications are being rejected? As most people who apply for a photocard driving licence will have to send in their passports, and given the record of the present Government with regard to passports at the moment--as everyone is aware from reports in the newspapers, this is a complete shambles--will the Government give an assurance that the DVLA will return people's passports with a good deal more expedition than does the Home Office at the moment?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as regards the return of documents, despite the occasional problem, the DVLA has quite a good record in terms of returning documents quickly as compared with certain other government agencies that the noble Lord mentioned. However, I am sure that the Passport Agency is also improving its performance, as no doubt my noble friend Lord Williams will confirm. The point I made in my original Answer is that if there were an electronic interface between the Passport Agency and the DVLA, as the Passport Agency undertakes detailed checks on applicants it could transfer that information by electronic means to the DVLA and thereby speed up the whole process. That is an example of electronic joined-up government which we hope to achieve within the next couple of years.

As regards rejection, a small proportion of forms are rejected. However, the DVLA deals with 37 million applications. I cannot give the noble Lord the exact figure for rejections, but even if it is a point of a percentage that is a large figure in total. Therefore it is important to follow the advice of the Post Office and the DVLA, which advise people to ensure that when

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filling in the form they keep their signature and other information within the relevant boxes on the form as that makes the information computer readable.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, does the Minister entirely approve of the following situation? I went to the security office downstairs to obtain a photograph of myself; I forwarded it with an application to Swansea; and I had it returned to me on the ground that it was not up to the DVLA standard. Ought we not to consider either raising our standards or lowering those of the DVLA?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is no possible way in which I can suggest raising the noble Earl's standards. Problems are experienced with computer-readable photographs where the photograph is off-centre. The cause may lie with the machine downstairs. That is a matter for the House authorities. However, we regret such incidents and obviously try to minimise them.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, will the Minister placate my noble friend's concern about sending a Writ of Summons by post? Will he assure her that they are of no great avail because 700 people who are in receipt of Writs of Summons will soon have them invalidated?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is not entirely true. Before the imminent constitutional changes, a Writ of Summons indicates that the bearer has been called to the peerage. There will be other documentation in the future; the title is not altered. As I understand it, the DVLA, having the rest of the information, will normally check whether a different title from that indicated on the earlier documentation is appropriate. That will be done using reference books. In some cases the DVLA will ask for additional material. I am not entirely clear why that should be so in the noble Baroness's case and I will make further enquiries.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister say how often photographs will have to be changed? Will it be the same system, where one gets one's licence, holds it until the age of 70 and thereafter has to have it renewed every three years? If so, how identifiable will one be? Will those who seek to renew their licence after the age of 70--I assume the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, is in that category--have to produce the same documentation every three years, even if they have had a licence for perhaps 40 years?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the UK is probably almost the last country to change to a photo-based licence. As at present, the licence will be valid until the age of 70. But the photograph--not the remainder of the documentation--will have to be renewed every 10 years. As far as concerns renewal past the age of 70, as I understand it, once the documentation is established at 70, one will not have to provide the material again at 73 and 76. I will write to the noble Baroness if I am wrong about that.

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South Africa: Education Funding

3.47 p.m.

Baroness Berners asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What funding they are sending to South Africa to support non-governmental organisations who are working to improve standards of education within black communities.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, one of South Africa's major development challenges is better education for the communities disadvantaged by apartheid and it is a priority for our development partnership. We are working to help improve school and adult education in some of South Africa's poorest provinces. The programme draws on the services of local non- governmental organisations. We plan this financial year to spend around £5 million on support to education in South Africa. We also plan to provide about £150,000 this year through the Joint Funding Scheme for NGOs working in education in South Africa.

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