Clause 45

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 18 Ebrill 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Particulars to be included in vehicles register

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:00, 18 Ebrill 2006

I understand that the intention is to tighten up on various practices, particularly fiddling with odometers, or clocking, which obviously is a serious problem. The Conservatives support the Government’s attempts to ensure accurate data for people who are purchasing a motor car.

The clause raises the question of the accuracy of DVLA data, and I do not envy the DVLA in its task. It wrote to a member of the public giving information from its database in March last year. It holds in excess of 36 million vehicle records and 47 million driver records, and reckons that 68 per cent. of those records are correct in every detail and that 22 per cent. contain spelling mistakes in name, address, details or postcode. It considers those to be minor errors which do not prevent mail from being delivered or prevent the police or manufacturers from tracing vehicles. It reckons that that amounted to a 90 per cent. traceability level from the information on the vehicle database. It made the point that it is totally dependent on the motoring public for much of its information.

It is not difficult to work out that with 36 million vehicle records, 47 million driver records and its best accuracy level of 97.5 per cent., 900,000 vehicle records and 1.175 million driver records must be inaccurate. With a perfect record rate of 68 per cent., 11.52 million vehicle records and 15.04 million driver records are not perfect. With a 90 per cent. traceability rate the figures are even easier to work out: 3.6 million vehicle records and 4.7 million driver records are not traceable.

I do not envy the DVLA in trying to keep track of those records, but I should like to know the Minister’s thoughts on how the system can be tightened up because there are press reports of people deliberately driving around with inaccurate number plates. One of my constituents was the proud possessor of an ancient series 1 Cortina which, on a good day when it was warmed up, might have got as far as Shrewsbury—perhaps I am being rude about the car. He was clocked three times for breach of the congestion charge and I had to take the matter to the Mayor because it was obvious that someone had used his registration number. There are anecdotal records of a substantial number of people driving around deliberately using illegal and inaccurate number plates to avoid the congestion charge, speeding fines and so on. That seems to be a growing trend, although I have no figures on it.

What is the Minister’s opinion on the lessons that could be learned from other countries? I was recently in Germany where there is a tight system under which the number plate follows the owner. When people buy a new car, they must hand over the documents for their insurance and for their equivalent of the council tax, which is a local tax showing their domicile, which then attracts the three letters—one letter in large towns—  showing where the owner lives. That may be bad luck on the Singhs who are looking forward to buying a number plate at auction, because that system wipes out personalised number plates. Also, importantly, there is the MOT test—in Germany it is a TUV—when the vehicle is three years or more old. When the vehicle is sold the number is surrendered and a new number is created for the new owner. A similar system operates in America, which I have not yet inspected, where each number plate includes an insurance sticker and an annual sticker and is handed out by the state authority.

Our current system, as the lady from the DVLA said, depends entirely on the motoring public for information and is not 100 per cent. accurate. I repeat that I do not envy the DVLA its job, but if we are to have proper enforcement and to clamp down on the hard core of really bad drivers we must have an accurate database, and there are lessons to be learned from the German and American systems. I was in Sweden recently where the road pricing scheme in Stockholm is similar to that in Germany. It simply cannot work without accurate data.

The Government are all over the shop on road pricing and if we are ever to have a new road pricing scheme it must have a cast iron, accurate database. We fully support the Government’s aim to clamp down on the hard core, but that seems to be extremely difficult when the current system is not as watertight as it might be and as I am told it is in other countries. I should like to hear the Minister’s comments on that, but in general we support the clause and its attempt to tighten up on inaccurate mileage on second-hand cars.

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

The hon. Gentleman deals with an important issue. I am very proud of the integrity of the DVLA database. The DVLA team do a fantastic job, given the sheer volume of people and vehicles that they have to register. It is true that inaccuracies get into the system and there are a number of ways of dealing with that. First we should continuously compare the information that is recorded on each of the DVLA databases to see how we can improve our data. Secondly, as part of the annual re-registration process, we hope that honest motorists will correct any mistakes in documents from the DVLA and send back the information so that the DVLA’s database can be updated.

As for those motorists who are out to cheat the system and have cloned a vehicle, which sounds as if it were the case with the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, or who are trying to avoid their liabilities in some other way, we have to work very closely with the police to try to stop them. We can now immobilise vehicles when they turn out to have irregularities. We have made available to the police not only the registration database, but the insurance database. There is increasing use of automatic number plate recognition systems, which is another reason, to refer back to the point that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made on the last clause, why it is important to have readable number plates where numbers are numbers and letters are letters and they all are properly spaced.

As automatic number plate reading systems are increasingly available to the police they can instantly check whether a car is registered, whether the tax disk is up to date and whether the car is insured. We need to work with the police to stop more cars and to impound them if there are any irregularities. Once we start to do that more frequently, and once people start to realise that the consequence of having inaccurate data on the DVLA database at best seriously inconveniences them while they put it right and at worst means that their car is confiscated and they are taken through the courts, I have no doubt that there will be a further improvement in the system.

Like the hon. Gentleman, one of the things I did during the recess was to visit Stockholm to see its road pricing system. Even there I am afraid that the records are not 100 per cent. and a number of individuals who want to cheat the Stockholm road pricing system have started to stick a little sun visor over the top of their number plate which effectively blocks the camera’s downward view of it. There are dishonest people in every society, even in those well ordered Scandinavian societies like Sweden, who will try to cheat the system. We must try to be one step ahead of such people, which is one reason why we have a trial at the moment of electronic tagging of number plates. We are looking at a number of initiatives using microchips and other systems that will perhaps enable us to go to the next level of security at some point in the future and get that database much closer to the 100 per cent. where we need it to be.

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

I was told that 18,000 people in the Stockholm area pay no taxes, live outside the law and are driving around. No system is perfect. But does the Minister think there are merits in the system that I have described, where there is effectively an annual check? It is not possible to get a sticker for a number plate in the States without insurance. The TUV certificate and insurance have to be presented in Germany. Although what the Minister describes is very sensible and it must help with the titanic task of the DVLA in tracking this huge number of vehicles, in Germany there is an annual check on every vehicle, which is administered locally and the information passed on to the central database. Does the Minister not think that that would have some merit?

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

There is an annual check in this country as well. When a person buys vehicle excise duty he has to fill in the appropriate forms and make contact with the DVLA. If the vehicle is more than three years old, there is a physical check on it when it is taken for its MOT test. One of the things that an MOT tester is expected to do is to check the number plate and ensure that it conforms with expectations.

There are checks, but there are equally people who cheat them. As the hon. Gentleman said, 18,000 people in the Stockholm area do not pay any form of taxes and are trying to cheat the system. I cannot remember off-hand exactly how many cars use the Stockholm congestion charging system, but I think that it is only about 300,000.

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

Well, 400,000. If 18,000 of them are completely unregistered, that indicates that they are not achieving the level of accuracy that we are in this country with 34 million vehicles on our roads. Let us sing the praises of the DVLA for the excellent job that it is doing, while recognising that we can always do better. Our target must be as close as possible to 100 per cent. accuracy, and with future technologies coming on stream and closer co-operation with the police on enforcement, I hope that we can get to 100 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman is right: as we get closer to the day when we move to national road pricing, the incentive to cheat the system will get bigger and bigger. The system will have to be even more robust than it is now if it is to be a success.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.