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House of Lords

Friday, 14th November 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2003

Lord Davies of Oldham rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) (Amendment) (No 3) Regulations 2003. They form part of a wider reform of vehicle registration and licensing aimed at improving the accuracy of the DVLA vehicle record making it easier to trace vehicles involved in crime and to trace the keepers of abandoned vehicles, and to help to attack the problem of evasion of vehicle excise duty.

The draft regulations allow the DVLA to take action on evasion direct from the vehicle record and provide for the penalty or supplement that can be levied when a person fails to tax their vehicle on time. Why are they needed? It is estimated that at any particular moment one can trace accurately about 92 per cent of keepers of vehicles through the DVLA vehicle register. That is very important to the police, who depend on the DVLA record for investigating vehicle related crime. Some of the inaccuracy is down to keepers in the process of rectifying change. However, it is the rump of vehicles outside the system that we are targeting through a package of reforms for delivery over the coming months. VED evasion is running at a little over 4.5 per cent by value, which amounts to about 193 million per year. Although long-term evaders are the main problem as regards crime and vehicle abandonment, unless firm action is taken early on against short-term evaders, they will join the long-term problem vehicles that fall out of the system and cannot be linked to a responsible keeper. The Government are taking the matter seriously. Currently around 820,000 offenders are brought to book each year. The Government are also promoting joint working with police and local authorities, through Operation Cubit and are devolving DVLA powers to deal with unlicensed vehicles to local authorities.

However, to tackle VED evasion and vehicle record inaccuracy we need a step change in enforcement legislation. So "continuous registration", of which these draft regulations are the final piece in the jigsaw, is important. It obliges the registered keeper of a vehicle to take responsibility for taxing it continuously, until they have properly notified DVLA that the vehicle has been sold or taken off the road.

In May this year, a number of changes were announced as part of the continuous registration package including, apart from continuous registration

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itself, the reissue of all vehicle registration documents from mid-2004 onwards; the routine issue of acknowledgement letters to all those who notify the DVLA of a statutory off-road notification or a change of keeper; and enhanced checking of the identities of new keepers in cases of non-standard registration applications.

The new penalty effected by these draft regulations will apply to those served with notices following failure to license their vehicles on time, or to make a statutory off-road notification—SORN—when it is intended to take a vehicle off the road. It is set at 80, or 40 if paid within 28 days of the notice to be paid by the keeper if he or she fails to license a vehicle or declare SORN within a month of the expiry of the previous licence or SORN declaration. The new penalties will be recovered as a civil debt, payable in addition to the requirement to relicense the vehicle. Evaders who simply pay the civil penalty and do not relicense will fall foul of a new criminal offence set out in Section 31A of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994—that of being the registered keeper of an unlicensed vehicle. The minimum fine in this case is 1,000 for those who persistently fail to license their vehicle.

The draft regulations will have no effect on law-abiding citizens who license their vehicles on time and are also not intended to catch those who may, through oversight or difficulty, buy their tax discs a day or two late. Only those whose vehicles are unlicensed for at least a month will face paying the supplement. The DVLA's records suggest that some 60 per cent of those evading VED have been unlicensed for four months or less. However, any unlicensed vehicle caught being used or kept on a public road without a valid licence remains, as now, subject to traditional enforcement action under Section 29 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act, even within that one-month period.

While essential to reducing short-term evasion, the regulations will impact less on those vehicles that have fallen out of the registration system. To tackle these vehicles, roadside enforcement—especially wheel-clamping and removal—will be enhanced and the DVLA has been set a target of reducing those vehicles outside the registration system by 50 per cent by 2007. However, by giving keepers a greater incentive to notify DVLA when they dispose of their vehicle, these measures will help to stop the flow of vehicles out of the registration system. In conclusion, the draft regulations before us today are central to the wider package of measures to reform vehicle licensing and registration. They mean we can better deal with people who fail to tax their vehicles on time, without imposing any new burden on the law-abiding majority. The measures are essential to ensuring that we have a vehicle registration system that can deal more effectively with crime, anti-social behaviour and abandoned cars. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th October be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

Lord Luke: My Lords, we support the reasons behind the regulations. I have a couple of, I hope, easily answered questions.

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The Minister said that the aim was not to impinge on the law-abiding citizen. There are law-abiding citizens who inadvertently forget that they should have licensed their vehicle. People may be away on holiday for a long time—over a month, perhaps—and there is always the possibility that people will become ill and will not be able to do the right thing. Would such people be able to appeal?

My second question is why the figure should be 80 particularly. Why should it not be 100 or 60?

11.15 a.m.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, we also welcome the orders. There is an increasing number of unlicensed cars on the road. They constitute a great danger and nuisance. Many cars are abandoned, and we certainly want to tighten the net.

Will the Minister say whether anything is being done to make it easier to contact the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency at Swansea? Are moves in hand to make access to that organisation better? It is not always as good as it should be.

Is the Minister satisfied that the penalties are sufficient? Often, the person drawing up the penalties—not just these, but others—is well behind the times. For example, the typical fine in a magistrates' court for driving a vehicle without a valid certificate of insurance is 200. Young people cannot get even third party insurance for that kind of money, and, therefore, it is cheaper for them to evade insurance than to buy a valid certificate. We must ensure that, as the price of car insurance goes up, the penalty for evading it at least matches the crime.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, although I concur fully with the sentiments behind the regulations, I think, with a heavy heart, that there will be some—many, in fact—who see the raising of revenue as the underlying theme, not the creation of a robust record system that precludes the illegal use of a vehicle on the road. After all, as the AA Motoring Trust has said, the revenue raised from the sale of registration marks has netted almost 0.75 billion, yet it is understood that none of that revenue has directly benefited the DVLA or motorists, other than meeting the costs of running the scheme. I wonder why. What will the difference be in this instance?

The regulations will impact only on Mr and Mrs Middle England, who see their vehicle excise duty in the same way as they see other central taxation or revenue raising. Those who are determined to evade detection for various clandestine activities will be unaffected but will continue to cause alarm and distress for others. The innocent motorist must not and cannot be the scapegoat for the law breaker. For far too long, many people have found it easy to avoid paying VED and have neither insurance nor MoT. That cannot continue.

The most efficient deterrent to the illegal use of a vehicle is detection. It must be followed by a draconian financial penalty—not 80 or 100—a conviction

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recorded on the driving licence and forfeiture of the vehicle. I believe that one constabulary already seizes vehicles used without correct documentation and, if documentation is not forthcoming, destroys the vehicles. It is a pity that that method is not used more widely: it tends to concentrate the mind and has proven to be effective.

I am pleased that my noble friend referred to the obligations under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. Some people still think that they have 14 days' grace after the VED has expired and continue to use their vehicles. The DVLA must ensure that there is no confusion about the new system. A fact sheet might help to answer questions such as the following: "I am going away for six weeks, during which time my car tax runs out. What should I do?"; "My son has left his car on my driveway while he takes a year out. What should I do?"; "I cannot get to the post office until three days after my current tax expires. What should I do?"; and "I have just purchased a used car. How can I be sure that I am not liable for a late tax penalty?".

Although the offences relating to continuous registration are not entirely civil matters, there is a case for some form of independent arbitration similar to that which is now in place for other decriminalised traffic and parking enforcement. Noble Lords will be aware of my close involvement with traffic police and enforcement, and I am delighted that there are more mobile and static automatic number plate readers, which contribute to greater enforcement.

Your Lordships will not, I suspect, be surprised at my final suggestion. Any penalty for a fraudulent statement in connection with the issue of a registration document or a vehicle excise licence must, on indictment, include a maximum term of imprisonment for five years. Following conviction, the offender should have his DNA and fingerprints recorded. Such measures would emphasise this and other regulations. I support the regulation.

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