Clause 8 - Driving record

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:00 am ar 23 Mawrth 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:00, 23 Mawrth 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 32, in clause 8, page 5, line 17, leave out paragraph (e).

Photo of Janet Anderson Janet Anderson Llafur, Rossendale and Darwen

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in clause 8, page 5, line 19, leave out subsection (3).

No. 34, in clause 8, page 5, line 21, leave out subsection (4).

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

On behalf of my colleagues, I wish to say how much we look forward to serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. Clause 8 removes the necessity for the police to inspect the driving licence counterpart or for that counterpart to be presented before, among other things, the issuance of a fixed penalty notice. We have no problem with the intent of the clause, and neither do we think it anything other than reasonable that the police, court officials and the fixed penalty clerks should be able to access an individual’s driving record and the information held on that record. However, I look forward to hearing the   Minister’s explanation of the exact difference between the driving record in relation to a person as maintained by the Secretary of State, and the driving licence.

Our worries about the clause are twofold, and amendment No. 32 seeks to address the problem. We accept the necessity for fixed penalty clerks, constables and courts to access the records, but I seek reassurance from the Minister on several matters. Why must

“other persons prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State” have access? Exactly whom do the Government have in mind to be that class of person? When will the Secretary of State make the regulations? Perhaps we can be given examples of the circumstances in which they will be made.

I want to clarify exactly the real issue of the misuse of official information. If the amendment were not accepted or we did not receive from the Minister the reassurance that we want, a huge number of people could easily gain access to driving records and use that information for profit. Let us suppose that the Minister prescribed that access be granted for individuals to run a Government road safety campaign on speeding. If one of those individuals were rather less than scrupulous, he could sell the information to a company that makes speed detection devices or harass people—even members of this Committee—who have several points on their licence.

I have a vision of a multitude of prescribed people trawling through records, mischievously attempting to find information of commercial worth that they could supply either to corporate companies or indeed to the fourth estate for profit. We want reassurance from the Minister about why subsection (2)(e) is needed. Whom is his Department likely to prescribe and what steps does he intend to put in place to ensure that such sensitive information is not misused? I am also slightly intrigued about why the Government wish to take the powers solely for the driver. I await the Minister’s answer. Are the powers that pertain to the vehicle already satisfactory and extensive enough? If they are not, we will happily help him frame a suitable clause if he wishes us to do so.

Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 deal with our worry about the increasing size of secondary legislation, and to some extent are consequential on the acceptance of amendment No. 32. We want to see as much as possible dealt with by the Bill, instead of by statutory instrument.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

My apologies to you, Mrs. Anderson, for the fact that you had difficulty getting here on time today because of the traffic. I understand that it was London traffic, however, and therefore is the responsibility of the Mayor and not me.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) for giving me the opportunity to explain what the clause does and to discuss his amendments. In our last sitting, Sir Nicholas was kind enough to give me a little leeway, because some clauses make sense only if discussed in association with others. Therefore, I shall explain not only what clause 8 does but what clauses 9 and 10 do, because they make sense only as a package.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who is not quite with us yet, told us that he has six points on his licence. It is fairly well known that once upon a time I had nine points on mine. I hasten to add that I have addressed my offending behaviour and that, as the points are now all four years old, they are expunged.

The legal record of our endorsements is the paper counterpart that the individual holds. Any record of endorsements held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is held simply for administrative purposes and to ensure that, should one lose one’s licence or should an appropriate person need to check that the licence is genuine, it has a record of the number of points that have been accumulated over the years. However, the legal record is the paper licence. Therefore, if a policeman is to offer someone a fixed penalty of, say, three points and a fine instead of taking them to court, he must first check the legal record to see how many points have previously been accumulated. Clearly if one is in the position that I was in for a period, with nine points on the licence, the next three points mean a court case and disqualification. The policeman must therefore check the legal record before he can issue a three-point standing penalty. Without being able to check the legal record, he does not know whether the offence in question is the first offence, the third offence or the 53rd offence.

The consequence is that a person who does not have a paper counterpart cannot be issued with a fixed penalty notice, and that applies to foreign drivers. People from the rest of the European Union who are driving in this country do not have a counterpart to their licence; they simply show us their national licence. The police cannot, therefore, check their situation and issue them with a fixed penalty. Likewise, somebody who has lost their paper counterpart cannot present it to the police to get a fixed penalty notice.

If we allowed that situation to persist, it would make nonsense of the later clauses in the Bill, under which we take a deposit from people rather than allow them to abscond without paying the fixed penalty notices, and other measures in the Bill would not work either. We must therefore legislate to make the DVLA’s database the legal record. The paper counterpart will then no longer be the legal record. It will simply be a person’s reminder that penalty points have been awarded. When the legal record is the DVLA database, it will be appropriate to say that the police and others, when deciding whether to issue a fixed penalty, must be able to access that database.

First, clauses 8, 9 and 10 therefore change the legal record from the paper counterpart to the DVLA database. Secondly, they provide for foreign drivers who do not have a paper counterpart to be prosecuted from the new legal record—the DVLA database. Clause 10 extends that provision to those who carry a British driving licence. The idea is that, over the next two to three years, we will migrate the way in which we issue penalty notices to ensure that the enforcement can take place from the new legal record. The reason why that needs to be done in stages over two to three   years is purely administrative and technical. As a result of the way the computers and databases are constructed, it cannot be done all at once.

I take it that these are probing amendments that are intended to query to whom we will allow access to the database. Clearly, the police will have access to it. There are reasons why we want the Secretary of State to have the opportunity to use secondary legislation in the future to change the access arrangements. First, there might be good reasons why we want to give others access to it in future. The hon. Member for Wimbledon asked for examples of where that would be appropriate. One would relate to Hackney carriage authorities: local authorities deciding on licences for taxi drivers. They need to check whether individuals have a clean driving licence before issuing a taxi licence. We might give the power to that group.

I stress that we have no plans at this stage to do this, but we ought to be debating and considering whether would we want insurance companies to have access to the information. They are another possible group. Many of our colleagues in the House have confessed to me that they did not realise that they were supposed to tell their insurance company when they got speeding points. That convenient lapse of memory on some people’s behalf probably saves them a great deal of money, because as soon as someone starts accumulating speeding points, their premiums go up.

It might be that at some future point we will want insurance companies automatically to be able to check whether someone has speeding points, in order to ensure that people who do are honest about it and pay the appropriate premiums. We have no plans along those lines, but as parliamentarians, we might want to discuss and consider the matter at some point in the future. We might reasonably want to give people access to the database in such areas.

When we proposed the idea originally, only the negative procedure was to be used for the statutory instrument. We were advised by Committees of Parliament that people thought that the matter was so serious that it should be dealt with through the affirmative procedure. The Bill now includes provision for the affirmative procedure, so any secondary legislation that is introduced will need the positive confirmation of both Houses. That is appropriate, given the seriousness of the matter.

The hon. Gentleman briefly touched on access to public information such as the vehicle record. There has been some debate on that issue recently. He will be aware that there is a great deal of controversy about access to the vehicle record that the DVLA holds and about whether the DVLA is giving that information out to the right people. It is required to give it out to people who have a lawful right to have it. People who have a justifiable claim to see the vehicle record have a lawful right to have access to it, but that is not clearly defined in the legislation.

In order to clarify to whom it is appropriate to give vehicle information in future, I have announced a thorough consultation on the matter, after which we will consider whether we should change the rules about accessing the vehicle record. The clause has nothing to   do with the vehicle record; it is concerned with the driver record. Currently, the only people who would see the legal driver record—the counterpart—are those to whom the driver willingly shows it or is required to show it to because legislation gives someone the power to see it. Our intention in the first instance, at least, is that the only people who will have access to the new driver record are those exact same groups of people.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:15, 23 Mawrth 2006

First, I want to be clear from what the Minister just said that he accepts that paragraph (e) would expand the number of people who have a lawful right to that record. Secondly, in respect of the consultation procedure that he is about to put in place, will he reassure us about the penalties that the Government will impose for the misuse of the information?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

The consultation is about access to the vehicle records. At this stage, we do not know whether we will need to change the law. When the consultation has finished and Parliament and the public have formed a view about who should and should not have access to the vehicle records, we will have to decide whether existing law allows us to restrict the information to that group of people or whether we will have to change the law. I cannot be definitive until we have completed that consultation.

However, many people have contacted me to say, “How dare the DVLA give away my personal details just on the basis of somebody having my registration number? You must only ever give them to the police.” When I explain to them that as a consequence, private car park companies could enforce car parking restrictions only by using clampers, rather than taking number plate details and sending a bill later, people suddenly start to think, “Perhaps it is not as simple as we thought; perhaps there is good reason for certain people under certain circumstances to be able to get that information.”

The consultation that we have to go through will be complex, and until it ends I cannot say how the law will be used. However, there are clear penalties for the misuse of such information under data protection, vehicle registration legislation and so on. Once we know the results of the consultation, we will use such penalties rigorously to ensure that the information is restricted.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Secretary of State could extend the groups of people who have access to the counterfeit information. He could, but he has no plans to do so, and would need the approval of both Houses before he did.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister inadvertently said “counterfeit”; I am sure he meant “counterpart information”.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I did mean “counterpart”. The hon. Gentleman is right, and one of the benefits of the Bill is that it will also seriously reduce the number of people with counterfeit counterparts.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. We were kept firmly in line by Sir Nicholas in our previous sitting. You will be pleased to hear that I was the first to be tripped up by him and kept in line. You have struggled through the traffic, and it is good to see you. We look forward to your chairmanship.

Will the Minister clarify a point about the information coming out of the DVLA? He used the word “give” twice, but there are rumours that people have been paying for the information.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Certainly people do pay for the information. Many tabloid newspapers that are worried about this have used the word “sell” to imply that the DVLA is making money from it. However, legislation prevents the DVLA from using public money to subsidise private enterprises, so, when giving out information, the agency has to charge a fee sufficient to cover its costs; that is required by Parliament. However, it cannot make a profit from that. There is a small charge—I think it is £2—for an authorised person with just cause who applies to see the information.

For example, if the hon. Gentleman went to the House of Commons car park tonight, found a dent on the back of his car and managed to get the number of the red Alfa Romeo shooting up the ramp in the opposite direction, he might want to approach the DVLA and say, “This person dinged my car and drove off without telling me. May I have their contact information so that I can make them pay for the damage to my car?” He would find out that it had not been my red Alfa Romeo, because I, of course, would have told him what had happened, although the car might have belonged to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).

The point is that that would be a legitimate reason for the hon. Gentleman to access the vehicle records. However, I think it is equally reasonable for the DVLA to charge him a sufficient sum to cover its costs in providing him with that information. That is the situation: the DVLA does not make a profit, but it does charge enough just to cover its costs.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

On that basis, is it correct that any organisation can ring up the DVLA and ask for such information?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

When one contacts the DVLA and asks for such information, there is a code of practice that the DVLA goes through to check why they are asking for it. They have to provide just cause within the terms of the code of practice that the DVLA uses to determine that. If an organisation routinely wants access to the information, it has to go through a procedure with the DVLA to justify its business practices, to agree to accept a code of practice of its own, to agree to use the information only for the   purpose for which it is requested, and to provide on each occasion the reason why it is asking for that particular piece of information.

That is the cause of the current furore. Some people are of the view that the organisations that routinely have access to the information in that way have not been properly scrutinised, and that the DVLA might have allowed too wide a group of people to have that routine access. That is why we have agreed to a consultation. If that consultation requires it, we will tighten things up to restrict access to that information.

However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that in the two examples I have given—someone who wants to enforce car parking in a private car park but without using wheel clampers, and a private individual who wants to check who has dinged his car—it might be reasonable for the person concerned to have such information. What we have to do is ensure that, while tightening up in respect of the people to whom it is reasonable to give the information, we exclude those people who may be unfairly and unreasonably using it at present.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Ceidwadwyr, Ilford North

If the wrong information is given out from Swansea and that causes difficulties or embarrassment for the person the information is about, will compensation be available?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

The only circumstances in which I can imagine that the wrong information might be given out are if somebody gave the wrong registration number and therefore the wrong personal details were presented, or if somebody had wrongly registered the vehicle. However, I would have to check on that. My understanding is that if it was DVLA’s fault that somebody had been damaged in some way, it would probably want to provide compensation, but if it was the fault of the individual requesting the information, it would not be responsible for that. However, as I said, I will check up on that and provide the hon. Gentleman with information on it.

The clauses are not about the vehicle record, on which the current consultation is focused. They are about the driver record, and, because the legal record is that piece of paper held by the driver, it is currently only shown to those people who can legally demand it, such as the police, or to somebody to whom the driver wants to show it. It is our intention in the first instance that access to the driver record will be granted to that same group of people—those who have a legal right to check the driver record. However, the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon would remove the power we are seeking. We want the Secretary of State to be able to ask Parliament for the power to extend access to the driver record into other areas, such as for the Hackney cab licensing authorities. Also, maybe—I stress “maybe”, because I do not want this to be in the headlines tomorrow—one day we will want to give insurance companies access to the record. That is a subject that, perhaps, we should debate.

I conclude by saying that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that any claim for compensation would be looked at on its merits, and compensated appropriately.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), I also welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. Our deliberations so far been good natured and reasonable for the most part.

I did not intend to catch your eye on this amendment, Mrs. Anderson, because the power that the Secretary of State seeks to take to himself in subsection (2)(e) is not exceptional, but the hon. Member for Wimbledon was right to highlight the practice—increasingly common in the drafting of legislation—that when everyone who might be expected to require access to information has been listed, a general power is added to include anyone who might be thought of at a later date. That is a rather sloppy and lazy way of drafting and does not make good law, but it is depressingly common and not exceptional.

The Minister has persuaded me that the subject is a matter of rather greater import than I had realised. He raised the question of access by different people, and although it is not directly germane to the amendments, it is worth considering his example of insurance companies. I am exceptionally reluctant to allow insurance companies to have access to the DVLA database.

My experience of the DVLA is that it is not infallible and that when it makes mistakes it is exceptionally difficult to rectify them. I know from professional experience of dealing with driving offences that they are occasionally recorded wrongly—for example, they are recorded against someone who has never had a conviction, or the penalty or disposal is shown wrongly. In cases that I have dealt with, I have had to trawl through sheriff court records and obtain letters from sheriff clerks stating that there was no record of a disposal in respect of a particular person in a particular court on a particular date.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Were we to want to give access to insurance companies—I stress the words “were we”—it would be allowed only when someone had made an application for an insurance quotation and had told the insurance company that they had a certain number of points, whether nought, nine or whatever. If the insurance company checked the DVLA record and it aligned with what the customer had said, clearly no mistake could have been made. If the DVLA record differed from what the customer had said, clearly there would be a discussion and it would be known that either the individual had told a fib or the DVLA had made a mistake. It would be obvious to everyone that inquiries were needed one way or the other. The suggestion that someone could be damaged without knowing about it because insurance companies had access to the DVLA database is not accurate.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

If only life were so simple. I am afraid that the Minister has greater confidence and faith in insurance companies than I do. My   expectation is that insurance would simply be refused and the practice of many insurance companies in such cases is simply not to enter into correspondence about the reasons for refusal. If the person seeking the insurance subsequently applied to another insurance company they would be required, if they were to be truthful, to say that they had applied for insurance with another insurance company and been refused. Suddenly their application would come under a different level of scrutiny, which could have implications for premiums and so on. Does the Minister really want to pursue the matter?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I do not want to get into a long debate about something that is only an idea that we might want to pursue, but I say again that the alternative is for people to continue in their current practice of wholesale lying to their insurance companies. That practice means that drivers like me, who have addressed their offending behaviour and now have a clean licence, are paying more than we ought to for drivers who are kidding the insurance companies.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 9:30, 23 Mawrth 2006

The Minister’s contrition is a model to us all. We have probably taken the question of insurance companies as far as it can go, but I am grateful to him for having raised that example. Such powers come with a strong health warning, and he has served the Committee well by giving us an example of how dangerous they can be.

My other point is perhaps a little more positive. Subsection (2) reads:

“The Secretary of State may make arrangements for the following persons to have access, by such means as the Secretary of State may determine, to information held on a person’s driving record”.

Might clerks of court, for example, be allowed direct access from their own computer terminals in the courts? I see the Minister nodding. That is exceptionally helpful. The time lost in court cases waiting for print-outs from the DVLA, whatever their quality when they eventually arrive, has been exceptionally costly. If we can circumvent that, it is certainly to be encouraged.

The point that interests me, however—perhaps the Minister will clarify it—is that the provision says

“by such means as the Secretary of State may determine”.

How is it envisaged that that would be done? Clearly a power is given to the Secretary of State, but it does not seem to be one that would require any further reference to Parliament. That ties in with the possibility under paragraph (e) of extending the list of people. I would have no difficulty with the Secretary of State being able to issue guidance to the DVLA allowing certain people access at their computers, but if the

“other persons prescribed in regulations” under paragraph (e) were to be more broadly framed, I would certainly want some reference back to Parliament, not just on the list of people who would be allowed access but on the means by which they would be allowed access.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I shall give the hon. Gentleman the information that he seeks. How authorised persons might access the information could be determined routinely by the Secretary of State—he would simply issue an instruction on how it was to happen—but he would have to come back to Parliament to get permission on who would have access. Were he to come back to Parliament for permission for somebody not on the list, one of the questions that Parliament would ask would concern how they were to get that information. Although that would not necessarily be in the statutory instrument, I have no doubt that it would be something to which he would have to give a solid answer when the debate came to Parliament.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con) rose—

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

If the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) can contain himself for a second, I am sure that his remarks will be worth waiting for. I accept the Minister’s assurances and thank him for his assistance.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I want to ask the Minister a couple of practical questions, because we have had quite a lot of theory this morning. In my constituency, we have recently seen a large increase in the number of overseas drivers. There is a large Portuguese community in and around Swaffham and Thetford in Norfolk, many of whom work in agriculture-related businesses such as food processing. A lot of growers in the area are using Portuguese labour. They are very welcome because they work extremely hard, and they are of course EU drivers.

Will the Minister elaborate on the Dutch case mentioned in the explanatory notes—the case that went to the European Court on the grounds of discrimination? The previous system operated on the basis that an EU driver stopped by the UK police showed their national licence, and there would be no legal counterpart on which an endorsement or points could be recorded, although there would be a court record of the offence. EU drivers are a great deal easier to track down because of reciprocal arrangements.

However, there is a large number of eastern European workers in Norfolk, who add a lot of value to the local economy. When the Prime Minister said that residents of accession countries would come to this country only in small numbers, he hugely underestimated what would happen. There are very many Latvian, Estonian and Polish workers in Norfolk, who are based mainly in the agricultural sector. They add a lot of value, they are welcome and they have integrated well into the community, and most of them are here only for a short time.

Unfortunately, however, there has been a number of incidents where drivers have been stopped by the police and where accidents have taken place from   which the drivers have driven off. There have also been cases where the police have gone to the homes where these workers have been staying to try to track them down. When they co-operate, there is no problem, but I put it to the Minister that when they do not co-operate, the police have many problems.

By definition, we are talking about people in temporary jobs; they are part of a transient community which moves on the whole time, very often from one part of the local economy to another. I am not suggesting for one moment that they have not added a degree of vibrancy to the local economy, but there have been at least 10 cases where driving offences have been committed after which the police have tried to track people down and have failed to do so. Will the Minister tell us which provision in this set of clauses, which he has explained are part of a package, would assist in such cases?

If there is a legal counterpart, presumably it will be held at the DVLA. Let us say a Latvian driver is stopped for speeding. Under the current system, he must produce his licence to the police. He will receive not a fixed penalty notice but a court summons, and he must give his address. That process works only if he co-operates. Under the new system, presumably there will be no legal counterpart issued to him until an offence is committed. Is that correct? A legal counterpart will be issued to a non-EU driver only when an offence has been committed and he has gone to court—in other words, when something needs to be recorded. Perhaps the Minister would elaborate on that.

I know that the Norfolk constabulary is concerned about that problem, because there has been a growing number of cases involving young drivers from non-EU countries, who have been driving recklessly and dangerously and have committed driving offences. The police tell me that if those people refuse to co-operate, they are virtually powerless to do anything about it.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

All will become clear to the hon. Gentleman when we discuss the subsequent amendments, because they concern the power to tackle that problem. However, the subsequent amendments are dependent on these provisions, because without them the police cannot issue fixed penalty notices at all. If they could not issue them because someone did not have a counterpart driving licence, the subsequent amendments, which refer to the ability to take a deposit or immobilise someone’s vehicle if the police do not think the address is real, would not work.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall answer most of his questions when we come to a later group of amendments, which I assure him will not work if we do not agree to these provisions.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister’s explanation was absolutely correct, although I suspect he may wish to address some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk under clause 10 as well. I am grateful to the Minister for giving us a useful introduction to this set of clauses. He will understand that I wish to explore clause 9, schedule 2 and clause 10 in a little more depth.

I am afraid I do not share the confidence of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that we have finished with insurance for the day. I suspect that this afternoon, under clause 21, we shall detain ourselves for rather longer than we have on this clause. A forerunner of that is the Minister’s statement that people knowingly try to kid insurance companies. Indeed, a large number of people do, but a large number of people have genuine slips of the mind as well, and I am sure we will want to explore that point under clause 21. However, I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and useful clarifications in respect of my amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.