Changes to the time-honoured car tax disc rule may be of interest to lawyers.
The dodgiest motor vehicle I ever drove was a 17-cwt van with no rear-view mirrors, sliding doors which functioned as horizontal guillotines and the label from a bottle of light ale in the tax-disc holder.
The label was roughly the right colour and I thought more plausible than the ‘Tax applied for’ note that usually decorated my windscreens while the teenage me struggled to assemble the necessary funds and documents.
But that was back in the 1970s, when it was possible to get away for months without displaying in the manner prescribed by regulations the disc known as the road fund licence. (The term was anachronistic even then - Lloyd George's road fund was wound up in the 1930s.) I was reminded of those innocent days this week when I renewed the vehicle excise duty disc on my dull family saloon for the last time. As most motorists should know, from 1 October we will no longer have to display tax discs, which will cease to be issued.
Inevitably, the computer has taken over. From 1 November we will be expected to pay by monthly direct debit and compliance will be enforced by automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) devices. These are already linked to DVLA, motor insurance and MoT test databases, which should make obsolete another British motoring ritual, the issuing of an HORT/1 ‘producer’ form to drivers who, unfairly or unfairly, attract a police officer's attention.
Although the tax disc abolition was announced in last year’s autumn statement it is only just entering the public consciousness. The government put out its public statement only this week
Some of the implications of the change may be of interest to Gazette readers, whether they are motorists or not.
One immediate concern is that abolishing the tax disc does away with an instant at-a-glance check of a vehicle’s bona fides. The police valued this ability, which is presumably why the disc survived as long as it did. But it is also useful to the public when dealing with a dangerously parked car, or the idiot who has just knocked you off your bike: although it’s not infallible, we are generally more sceptical about the driver’s good intentions if they can’t display the tax disc.
In fact, though the government doesn’t shout about it, anyone can now check the tax status of any UK-registered vehicle online. It's a service that should be more widely publicised. (In my opinion, we should also be able to look up any vehicle’s registered keeper, as well as the name of their insurer, but that’s another story.)
A more cogent objection may be that the changeover looks very like a stealthy way for the government to squeeze more tax out of the motorist. In the old days a second-hand vehicle came with whatever tax was paid up on the windscreen disc; under the new system buyers will need to renew the duty immediately. Meanwhile, raising rates becomes less poltiically sensitive when the vast majority pay by the monthly dribble of a direct debit rather than a single lump sum. We can expect chancellors of the exchequer to make the most of the opportunity, so there is little chance of the tax going the way of the disc.
A longer term worry may be that the system of enforcement is predicated on every vehicle being under almost continuous electronic surveillance. As a Londoner, subject to the congestion charge since 2003, this doesn’t particularly worry me. But then my attitude to teenagers hammering around the streets in dangerously unroadworthy vehicles has changed a lot since the beer-bottle label day.