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 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.
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.
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 on the table, I support its principle for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).
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.
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.
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 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.
If the Minister is saying that the security checks that were in place for the older form of licences were not as rigorous, we should be given some evidence that there is a need for the change. How much abuse and fraud take place? How many cases have there been? What do the police conclude is the scale of the problem? Just to state that the security checks were not as good previously as they are now is not a basis for making this big change. I was a little alarmed at her opening remarks, in which she appeared to say, ''The consultation process is under way. We have drawn no conclusions yet, but we want the Secretary of State to have the power to make the change in case we make the decision.'' If the consultation process is genuine, should it not be allowed to run its course before a decision is made? If new legislation is then needed, the Government should seek it at that moment. They should not put it in a Bill just in case the consultation goes in a particular direction.
This is an enabling power. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's concern about it, but it makes sense to include it in the Bill. Clearly, we are discussing what is partly a security measure. I am informed that there is huge abuse of paper licences, which is why the Bill says that driving examiners should be able to pull in licences if they consider them suspect.
There is evidence of abuse against the paper licence. Disqualified drivers continue to drive using other people's paper licences. As there is no photocard, it is quite easy for people to switch paper licences. As I said, applicants for paper licences did not have to identify themselves by means of any other form of secure identification such as a passport.
Again, the Minister has said that there is evidence. I do not wish to press the matter, because the information is patently not readily to hand, but may I ask her to write to the Committee, giving full details of the evidence and the number of prosecutions?
I am certainly happy to do that, and I would hope to do so fairly quickly. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that the circulation of different forms of licensing means that there is likely to be an element of fraud.
Can the Minister tell the Committee what percentage of motorists have each form of licence? Is it not the case that the new form of licence is growing because—this point relates to an intervention I made this morning—as people move house and send back their old licence, they are issued with the new type? Surely by effluxion over time, the old form of licences will be greatly reduced in any event.
That is certainly the case. When someone moves house, they do not have to be charged for the issue of a new photo licence. It appears that 20 million drivers have the photocard and 18 million still have the paper form, whichever one they have. That is the balance. It will clearly take a good number of years for the paper licence to drift out of circulation. Some people will keep their paper licence in better condition than I kept mine.
Will my hon. Friend clarify two points? Is the information that the plastic licence holds precisely the same as is held on the paper licence? I was under the impression that the plastic licence did not include any points or penalties that had been incurred. On a related point, will the information on the new licence be part of the information on the Government's planned individual ID card?
The plastic card has a paper form that goes with it. That is where the penalty points and such are recorded. We have a sample of the card here—I prepared it earlier, ''Blue Peter'' style—so I can show the Committee the photo licence and the counterpart. No offences have been recorded on this particular counterpart, and I am sure that there are none on my hon. Friend's licence either. As far as the ID card is concerned, that is clearly some time away, as he will know.
I apologise. The ID card, to which my hon. Friend referred, is a separate exercise that we are clearly still consulting on. At the moment, it is not part of the DVLA plans. The licence is not currently expected to be part of the ID card system, because it is produced by the DVLA. Although I am sure that technology will be such in future that we will be able to store everything that we need on one very easy card, what is proposed is merely a process of trying to take out of circulation a lot of the paper licences, which are subject to fraud. Some 15 million people have already paid for a photo licence, and it is down to the DVLA to look at the way forward when it has consulted stakeholders.
Simply because the photo licence has a photo on it. Clearly, a photograph makes it more secure. The counterpart relates merely to penalties. We are talking about driver identification, not driver misdemeanour. In future, when we get rid of the counterpart, cards are likely to include penalty points and so on. At the moment, that is dealt with in the counterpart. As the hon. Gentleman will know from reading the Bill, it is intended that the counterpart will be withdrawn. That would make the licence much more secure.
I do not want to labour the point, but those comments seem slightly odd. The Minister's answer was much as I imagined it would be, although I had thought that I must be wrong. She is saying that we are getting rid of the old paper licence and changing to modern plastic, but adding another layer of paper. So we are back to where we started, not with a paper licence, but with a paper element. Is it really beyond the scope of modern technology to get all that information on to the card? It seems almost like ''Alice in Wonderland''—
That is right, Mr. Pike. I am delighted to have that guidance.
Clearly, we will want to update the cards in future. As I understand it, the photocard is issued for 10 years. It is sensible that the photograph is updated, as with a passport.
On vetting, which the Minister has mentioned, can she tell me what vetting there will be if someone with the old licence moves house, to use the example that I gave earlier, and sends that licence to the authorities asking for their new address to be entered, but does not send any photographs? Presumably, they will get a letter back asking for photos. What vetting takes place to ensure that if there is a fraud, it is not perpetuated?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. The person would get a card with a photograph. Obviously, the driver has to supply the photograph, and they also have to supply a birth certificate. As part of the process of moving from paper licences—whether because of a change of address or some other reason—to the new photocard licence, there must be supporting evidence in the form of a photograph and a birth certificate or passport.
The general point of the plastic licence and the counterpart is the very thing that I want to talk about in a stand part debate. On the cost, can the Minister confirm that what I think that I am hearing is correct? I was objecting to the principle of having my old paper licence called in and being made to pay for the new plastic one, plus the piece of paper. I now hear, however, not only that could I be made to pay for the replacement, but that in due course, when a way has been found of getting rid of the counterpart, I will be made to pay again for another Government change of mind. We might be discussing two demands for payment rather than one. In that case, my objections are multiplied by two.
I was making the point that the photocard is obviously more robust in terms of fraud, but most documents with a photograph require that photograph to be updated. The hon. Gentleman may stay looking exactly the same, but most of us change over 10 years or more.
I am grateful to the Minister, but she has not answered my question. Will we have to pay twice when the paper requirement is withdrawn? I have now just heard, by way of response, that we may be made to pay three, four or five times. She has explained that we will have to pay the first time, and she has not denied that we will have to pay when the paper is withdrawn, but when more of my hair drops out and I have to provide a new photograph to show that I have changed, will the new document be provided for free or will there be another charge?
After 10 years, it is likely that a new charge will be made. When the counterpart is removed, however, there will be no charge at that point.
We have had a fascinating debate; indeed, it has been slightly more so than I anticipated when I tabled the amendment. I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), as well as for that of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), whose support I take in the spirit in which I am sure he intended it. His support for me gives me exactly the same concerns and worries as it gives him.
I will not go through all the points that can be made about the amendments. We have had a good debate and there are important points to come. I am concerned, however, by the principle. More and more in modern life, we are being asked to pay for things that we previously did not have to pay for. In the not-too-distant future, people on low incomes will be paying for their ID cards, and if they happen to be from the far north of Scotland or the islands, they will have to travel to Glasgow to get a card, at considerable cost. Now there will be a charge when the paper licence goes and when the counterpart goes, and there will probably be a charge every 10 years afterwards.
I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. I am sure that her generosity to the people of Great Britain is hugely appreciated. As clause 30 sets out, however, there will be a charge every time the system or photograph is changed.
The Minister said that there was no immediate requirement for this measure. I noted her words when she said that the change would be carefully timed, possibly to coincide with the introduction of new technology or chips.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The Chairman: Order. There will be another Division at 3.41 pm. In case anyone feels that I am trying to curtail the debate, I should explain that I want progress to be made, because the Chair has responsibility for the whole of the selection list. The final two sittings of the Committee are both time-limited. Today, we can adjourn for tea at 5.30 pm or for dinner at 7 pm, if you so wish, and you have all the time you want to debate the issues. I am in no way trying to curtail the time available, but I should like to know at some stage what you are going to do.
Having listened to that stricture, I say only that, if the measure is not needed now, why put it in the Bill? I listened carefully to the Minister's valiant efforts to defend the position, but I am not persuaded. Therefore, I want to test the opinion of the Committee.
I clarify that, without a power to charge a fee, licences issued to replace recalled licences would be issued free of charge. The costs would have to be recouped elsewhere. That might mean increasing the cost of, for example, the first provisional licence. Our fear is that a charge might lead to more people driving without a licence. We will certainly try to discourage that.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.
Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), said that old-form licences would not have to be returned compulsorily until the pure new photocard licences were in force and that there would be no interim requirement for the surrender of old-form licences prior to the introduction of the full photocard without a counterpart. That is what I understood him to be saying and I hope that he or the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, will restate that proposition in the context of the clause.
In responding to the amendment earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, said that, because the DVLA is self-financing, the burden of the changes must be borne by someone else. [Interruption.]
The Minister said that because the DVLA is self-financing a cost would have to be passed to other licence holders if it was not borne by the people who were being required to surrender their old-form licences.
When I was the Minister responsible for balancing the books of the DVLA, we considered how to ensure that licences for new drivers were not too expensive. At that stage, someone who reached the age of 70 could renew their licence without paying any fee. As the Minister will know, there is a long lead-in period before such changes can be introduced, so we consulted.
We decided that it would be reasonable to introduce a modest fee for a 70-year-old seeking renewal of a licence, because otherwise the costs for the first-time licence holder would have been too great. At that stage, a leading article in The Sunday Telegraph said that the provision was a new tax on pensioners. I had to respond by pointing out that pensioners who had cars and were able to drive were in a financially stronger position than people who were just joining the labour market and getting their first licence. That argument was then carried through in the No. 10 policy unit, or whatever its equivalent was at that stage.
This Government are saying that the old-form licences should be called in and that people should have to pay for the costs of obtaining a replacement. That cuts across the principle that we applied in government, which is contained in existing provisions in the Road Traffic Act 1988 about the fee for renewal of a photocard licence.
The Government are being unreasonable. If they wish to make a policy change of withdrawing the old-form licences, and I am far from being persuaded that it is necessary, the costs should be borne by the Government rather than a particular sector of the community.
On a point of order, Mr. Pike. It may be helpful to note that I recently received a message stating that there are likely to be two votes at 3.41 pm rather than one.
I want to raise a general issue, which is why I confined my comments on the amendment strictly to the question of payment. The more I listen to the debate, the more I am concerned about the withdrawal or phasing out of the old-form licence. There is an argument in favour of it, and I suppose that over the course of time, withdrawal will take place. If the Government of the day want to do that, I do not necessarily object in principle. What we are not being told in this clause, but gathering from the previous and current debate, is that the Government, in getting rid of the old-form licence, want to substitute it for an interim arrangement. The clause does not make that clear, other than to say that we will get a piece of plastic and a piece of paper, which the Government acknowledge is not satisfactory and will have to be substituted again.
Rather than take powers for an interim change, it would be far more sensible either to make arrangements now, so that the recall takes place when the final version—a single piece of plastic—is available, or just leave the whole thing well alone. Knowing how the Government bungle any IT programme they get their hands on, I imagine it will be years before the next version is available, by which time there will have been plenty of other opportunities to legislate, rather than waste time with this clause. I do not see any need for it, and I invite my colleagues, if our spokesman is so minded, to vote against stand part.
There is another reason why the clause is dangerous. We are spreading the notion that that piece of plastic is, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central read out from it, a ''Driving Licence''. I would contend that it is not. I know that if I were to ramble on about that stupid bit of blue with yellow stars on it, you would rule me out of order, Mr. Pike, because we would be wandering off the point.
So I shall resist the temptation to say how much I object to having those stupid symbols rather than the union flag on my driving licence.
I have tried to use the card as a driving licence. I was told when I was hiring a vehicle recently that I had to bring my driving licence. As the card says ''Driving Licence'', I took the Government at their word and took it along. I dutifully signed the forms and the vehicle hire company said, ''No, that isn't the driving licence; it's only part of it. We want the piece of paper.'' I said, ''I don't have the piece of paper. I was told that this is the great, wonderful thing that I have to produce.'' ''Oh no,'' they said, ''We now have to ring the DVLA to talk about you. You have to answer the phone, tell them that you are who you say you are and answer a few magic questions. Then they will talk to us. We need either to have sight of that piece of paper, or we have to talk to Swansea. While we're telling you this, you do realise that if we make this call to Swansea we are charged £4.''
I had discovered another stealth tax. That was £4 more for the Government's coffers which they got because I believed them when they told me that that was my driving licence, which it patently is not. It is only half a driving licence. If that is what will be handed out when the old ones are called in, it is a load of nonsense.
I am told by those who know about this—I am pleased to say that I have to take the word of others because I have not been asked to produce my licence at a police station—that if one goes along and produces the licence as requested, the police say, ''No. That is not enough. That is only half a driving licence.'' The Government are suggesting that in place of the old form of licence, which is only one thing to carry, or lose, and one usually knows where it is, we now have to remember where two things are. That is a crazy arrangement. When the Government get their act together and produce something that is a one-off, there may be an argument for calling in the other ones and replacing them, but at the moment they have not made their case.
I support my hon. Friend's comments. If a member of the public has a valid permit—an old-type driving licence—and the Government, for whatever reason, want to take it from him to issue a new one, the cost of doing so should be paid out of general taxation, not by the member of the public concerned. I take his point that it would be much easier to understand if the little card had ''Driving Licence part 1'' printed on it and the counterpart document was called ''Driving Licence part 2'', because then people would realise straight away that those two elements constituted the full licence and that they should keep both parts together.
It is also clear from what the Minister said earlier that the Government are not going to replace like with like. If a member of the public with an old-type licence that has 12 years to run sends it in, he will be issued with a new-type licence for 10 years. The licence will last for a shorter term. Why is that the case when the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the Member for Plymouth, Devonport told us in a previous sitting that he was resisting attempts in Europe to reduce the term of issue of driving licences? The new form of licences run for less time than the old paper types. Why can replacement licences not be issued for the same length of time as the old form of licence?
I want to raise another point concerning what the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, said about the amendments on cross-subsidy. I hope that the Government will think carefully before imposing a cross-subsidy that brings about an annual cost to those whose vehicles are not on the road. There is genuine anger in the classic car movement about the likelihood that the Government will move towards a possession tax.
The concern of those who fill in their statutory off-road certificate, which is currently free, to inform the Government that their cars are off the road and not being used is that the DVLA may introduce a fee for doing so. ''Possession tax'' describes the process very well, because people will have pay the state a sum for confirming that they have a vehicle that they are not using which is registered in their name. That is unique to the British world of motoring. There has never before been a situation in which one has to pay anything to the state for owning a car without using it. There is a far stronger case for saying that those who change address and have to notify the authorities should pay rather than subsidise that process by requiring classic car owners to pay an annual fee.
On a point of order, Mr. Pike. When I first came to the House, I was told never to believe what Whips said. I was given a message saying that there would be two votes. I have now received another message saying that they might not come together, so I withdraw my first bit of unhelpful advice.
We are all grateful to my hon. Friend. Now none of us knows what on earth is going on on the Floor of the House.
The Government would have less of problem with motorists, and I would view the provisions as less objectionable, if they introduced a proper fee structure for the reissuing of licences without trying to do that for free. There should be no cross-subsidy from the owners of vehicles that are not on the road. I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on that. A few weeks ago I, together with the hon. Members for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), presented a petition to Downing street.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
A few months ago I, together with two Labour Members, presented a petition to Downing street, objecting to the cross-subsidy idea of a possession tax on motor vehicles. That petition was signed by 50,000 members of the public and by hon. Members of all parties. I do not want this to be a party political issue, but I hope that Ministers, on reflection, will decide against making the owners of vehicles pay an annual possession levy. It is not something that a future Conservative Government would introduce, and I shall be happy to announce on 6 May that it is not part of the new Government's proposals.
I hope that the Minister will think again and look at ways of charging for issuing licences in circumstances in which that is currently free, such as when a person moves house. I would welcome that if it meant shelving the possession tax idea.
No decisions have been made about the way in which the DVLA will recoup its expenses. One idea is that people should pay for extended licences. Another is the cross-subsidy, including a possible annual possession fee. There is a cost to keeping the statutory off-road notification, and the cost mentioned was relatively modest—something like £4 or £4.50. However, that is only one suggestion. The DVLA was set up as a self-financing organisation.
Various hon. Members said that it is crazy for the Government to introduce an interim arrangement. We are not doing so. There is no suggestion that those who give up a paper licence would do so for a plastic licence card and counterpart. That is not our proposal. The proposal is that those who give up their paper licence would move to the new plastic licence without a counterpart. The Bill gets rid of the counterpart, so it is not an interim arrangement, and it would not be sensible to have one.
No decision has been made about whether a charge would be made for replacing a paper licence. Driver licensing must be paid for by fees to the DVLA. The DVLA is engaging with a range of organisations to identify a series of funding options for driving licences and vehicle registration transactions. As it can pool its fees, the DVLA can decide whether they are to be paid for by licences or possession charges, but it is continuing to consult on a range of issues. In the meantime, this is an enabling clause to allow a fee to be charged.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 5.