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DVLA Closures (Scotland)

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

I am grateful for having secured this debate.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is an important organisation in respect of the service it provides to motorists and the £5.7 billion a year that it raises for the Treasury. I shall focus on the problems arising from the DVLA’s proposals to close 39 of its local offices, particularly those in Scotland, because there is a Scottish angle that I am anxious to discuss with the Minister.

I shall focus on my local office. The office in my constituency is particularly busy, as are most of the offices throughout the country. Some 2.4 million people a year use their local DVLA office. The figures show that between 80,000 and 90,000 people a year use the Aberdeen office. In the past three years, there have been more than 250,000 transactions involving individuals using their local DVLA office for various purposes. Some 79 services are provided by DVLA at local offices.

On examination, the figures are stark. For example, Aberdeen has one of the highest rates of use of personal number plates, or cherished number plates to use the DVLA term—about 18,000 in the past three years. People might expect nothing less from an area that is fairly rich in oil and gas money.

The proposal is to transfer all the functions of the 39 offices to Swansea, which is the main headquarters of the DVLA. The consultation document by the DVLA and the Department for Transport is one of the weakest that I have seen: we are getting motherhood and apple pie and heading for sunny uplands, but there is little—virtually nothing—about the 1,200 jobs that will be lost in this process and little risk assessment of the financial analysis. We are not even told how much the Department expects to save in this operation. In addition to all that, there is no impact assessment and no consideration of what the consumer—the customer—is likely to face.

The Edinburgh local office, which is not in my constituency, although I have constituency work there—it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart)—provides a service for the motor trade, which it finds valuable because it enables it to carry on its business swiftly and efficiently with people with whom it has built up a relationship. Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of that service is a loss to those businesses?

Indeed, it is. Motor dealers who have sold a car want it to be registered as quickly as possible. Registration is one of the largest components of the work of the office in my constituency. A significant number of objections or letters of complaint from the motor trade have been sent to the DVLA as part of the consultation. The motor trade will be damaged substantially by the local closures.

Another option is to replace the local offices with the Post Office. I have no objection to business going to the Post Office—we all want our local post offices to improve their businesses—but no one in that organisation can provide the technical help and support that the local DVLA offices provide. The other option is to go online. I am happy that the DVLA have made significant progress in this area. I have re-registered my car simply online: it works well and I am pleased about that.

There are DVLA offices in Coleraine, Londonderry and Ballymena. Going online also jeopardises those jobs. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that going online is not necessarily the best way to save those jobs?

The jobs have not really been considered in the consultation document. I understand that 1,200 jobs are at risk and some of those—200 or 300—will be moved to Swansea, if people are prepared to move. The hon. Gentleman is right. Despite the progress made by the DVLA in going online and its digital technology, I understand that there is a huge gap in the technology. The trade unions’ assessment is that it will take at least four or five years to fill that gap. That will add to the problem.

The other route being offered to customers is the post. We are talking about 2.4 million new transactions shifting from local offices to the centre in Swansea. A pilot test run a year or two ago, looking at postal loss—envelopes that go missing between the DVLA and its customers—showed that some 0.9% of post was lost. That does not sound like a lot and I am told that the DVLA has got that figure down to 0.5%, but with the number of transactions that will transfer to Swansea the potential loss is huge: almost 120,000 of 2.4 million letters will potentially be lost.

I have calculated that, if everyone in my area used the post—clearly they will not; this is just for illustration— over the past three years we would have lost 1,250 communications. Given that many of these communications will contain identification documents, such as passports, that is a serious problem. I should like the Minister to comment on that.

We are given three potential ways forward and there is a serious problem with each of them. More important, from my point of view as a former practising solicitor, are the legal consequences of another aspect of the DVLA’s work. The key responsibility in the local areas is enforcement.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that a key danger of the reorganisation is the potential effect on evasion of vehicle excise. I am also sure that he is already aware that if evasion rose by only 0.5% it would wipe out all the savings of this reorganisation.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The 2004 figures, which are the most recent that I have managed to get hold of, show that evasion of vehicle excise duty was about 5%. That is a significant figure. Every percentage point costs the DVLA £57 million. Even a small increase, say 0.5% or 1%, would mean that the £28 million in savings expected from the closure process will be wiped out. It is not unrealistic to say that through this process, we are heading, particularly in Scotland, towards the serious possibility that evasion of vehicle excise duty will increase.

In the system at the moment there is an enforcement office in each region. In Scotland, that office is in Glasgow. Around the country, vehicles go out on our streets patrolling with number-recognition equipment, tallying what they find with DVLA records to pick up vehicles on which the vehicle excise duty has not been paid. It is quite a sophisticated operation.

I am told that responsibility for vehicles is to be removed from the local office, but Scotland has a particular legal issue. In England and Wales, and perhaps in Northern Ireland, the DVLA is the prosecuting authority, but in Scotland everything operates through the procurator fiscal, who has to operate within the confines of Scots law, which involves corroboration of every piece of evidence presented to the court.

In my local area, there are between 200 and 300 contested cases a year, because someone either pleads not guilty or ignores a summons from the court. That needs evidence, which at the moment is provided by an officer from Glasgow travelling to the local sheriff court, which could be just around the corner in the Glasgow sheriff court or in Orkney, Shetland or Western Isles. An assessment is made in each case—basically, a cost-benefit assessment: what is the cost of sending an officer to Shetland or Aberdeen and what are we likely to get in the way of a fine? If the costs outweigh the likely fine, a case will probably not be proceeded with, so people are already getting away with refusing or failing to pay their vehicle excise duty.

If the same cost-benefit analysis is done in the Swansea office, sending someone from Swansea to Shetland or even Aberdeen becomes a major operation. There are major cost factors, including overnight stays, which are unlikely at the moment. The cost will rise, and will we also see a rise in evasion of vehicle excise duty? If we do, what assessment has been made of the cost? Where is the financial analysis to show us what the new system might mean for evasion, in particular if we continue to provide evidence that must be from a witness, on which there is no option in the Scottish courts? What is the analysis? It strikes me that we will be opening the gates to people who might be prone to think that they can get away with evading their vehicle excise duty, and that undermines the whole system.

Among the problems to be considered, I have mentioned the consultation document, which is flabby and weak in every respect—I am concerned about it, because there is a host of areas where we do not have answers, some of which I have outlined. There has been no consideration of the huge rise in inconvenience to the public who use the local centres in significant numbers. The evidence is available: 2.4 million people a year will be inconvenienced, many of them businesses, some large, some small. The consultation report tells us that some such businesses already use the online system but, from my contacts in the motor trade, they are more interested in completing their licence or registration on the same day, rather than waiting several days, perhaps longer, for the material to come back from Swansea.

Also, from experience of such significant changes and reorganisations, the first two or three years are likely to be chaotic as the system beds down. I have commented on the loss of documents, in particular passports, which are valuable in themselves but are lost at huge inconvenience to the individual passport holder and with a possibly large profit for any criminal into whose hands the passport might fall. The potentially significant rise in tax evasion would be at significant cost to the Treasury. At this stage, with the lack of information from the consultation process, it is difficult to see anything positive. I have a simple question for the Minister: what is the point?

It is a pleasure to be working under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Williams, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing the debate. If I were in his position, I would be in his seat, and he would probably be in mine.

The changes that we are proposing and that were subject to consultation are not only about money. The service offered by the DVLA to the British public is quite different from any offered by most other agencies: apart from the collection of vehicle excise duty revenue that we do on behalf of Her Majesty’s Treasury, the service is paid for by the people who use it. The DVLA has to be self-sufficient in how it operates. At the moment, the types of service that we offer to the public in offices around the country could clearly be done more professionally, efficiently and helpfully, and at a cost that could help the taxpayer as well. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the 2.4 million people who use the offices each year, but that equates to less than 6% of DVLA transactions, although they take up almost 25% of DVLA staffing levels. I shall leave others to do the mathematics, but if we can operate more cost-effectively, that is what Governments should do.

Many services are offered at different offices around the country, and the hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to the profitable business of cherished or personalised number plates—whatever we want to call them—but the system is quite archaic. Someone has to prove the MOT for the vehicle from which the plate is being transferred, even though the transfer has been approved by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency: the vehicle has to be brought to the test centre and the process gone through. We want to speed that process up—we want more cherished number plates in Aberdeen. If there is money in Aberdeen to buy cherished number plates, the DVLA wants that money, because it helps to balance the books in the country. At the moment, there is a disincentive because the measures are complicated, which anyone who goes through the process will realise. We want to simplify it as much as possible.

Throughout Government, we want to use digital portals much more efficiently. Some 50% of all DVLA transactions now go through the digital portal, with people sitting at home or at their local library. That service continues to be rolled out across the country. On non-payment of VED, I am pleased that the latest figures are much better, and less than 1% is lost—in other words, people not paying are less than 1%. A lot of hard work has been done in the regional offices and the Swansea central office, but much of the success is to do with automatic number plate recognition. Modern ANPR cameras are ridiculously accurate—I hope people are listening to the debate—and, as we have rolled out ANPR through the police and through our camera technology, we have picked up more and more people. More individuals are being made aware that they are likely to be caught and prosecuted, which is why we have that level of less than 1% at the moment. There is no way in the world that I would be standing in the Chamber to condone any process likely to let that figure get worse. Most prosecutions are done through Swansea—I shall come on to the Scottish issues in a second, which are different, I accept, but we have taken them into consideration.

A lot of the improvement in the capture of defaulters is because of the number of patrolling recognition vehicles, but my understanding, certainly in Scotland, is that they are being removed. Are they being removed throughout the country? What impact assessment has been made of the effect of that on defaults?

There is a roll-out, not a roll-in, to use probably perverse language—more and more vehicles are going out. I will not tell the country where they are and where they will be, because I want to catch and prosecute people.

If any hon. colleagues have not been out on patrol with their local police with ANPR in the vehicle, I urge them to do so. They should contact their local constabulary and go out with them, because it will be an eye-opening experience for them. They can then explain to their constituents just how advanced the technology is. I sat in a police car on the side of an A road in Milton Keynes recently, but as the vehicles went past an alarm went off in the car if they did not have any insurance or MOT, and we knew who the vehicle was registered to. ANPR is very accurate. As we have rolled out continuous insurance—

I urge the hon. Gentleman to bear with me, because I want to make a little progress. I am conscious that, otherwise, Mr Williams will shut me up before I have had an opportunity to address the issues that he raised.

I fully accept that there is some concern in the motor industry, but it is split. I regularly meet the industry’s representative bodies, and I have met representatives of the motor trade in my constituency. What we are proposing will be more efficient. It will not be a case of putting documents in the post and losing blank tax discs. We will use a secure system, and speed will be subject to a contract. Delivery will be the following day, and it may sometimes be possible to offer same-day delivery.

Most of the complaints that I have heard from colleagues have come from people at local offices, who believe that they may lose their job. I fully understand their concerns, but the necessary efficiencies will mean that the risk to the motor trade of holding whole books of blank tax discs in their showrooms will be removed. At the moment, showrooms receive them in blocks, and are responsible for those blocks, which they may return if they do not use them. That is not efficient for them or for us, and we intend to roll out a more efficient way.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that the system in England and Wales is different from the system in Scotland. The system in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) knows, is completely archaic, and no electronic portals can be used because the database is not compatible with the database in Swansea, so we must do something about that. There may be an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I thought I should raise the matter. We must deliver a much better service for the Province of Northern Ireland. In Scotland, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North rightly said, the procurator fiscal is the prosecutor, but we do not intend to have everyone sitting in Swansea and then taking lovely journeys to Shetland and the Western Isles.

The hon. Gentleman agrees that it is a lovely journey. I have been to Shetland and the Western Isles, and I agree, but it takes a while and requires an overnight stay.

We will work with the procurator fiscal. I am not a lawyer, but this place is full of lawyers, and we will ensure that case notes are available with the evidential base for prosecution. I want the number of prosecutions to rise, not fall. If anyone in Shetland and the Western Isles believes that they will not be prosecuted because of the cost analysis, they are wrong. We will be able to roll out prosecutions on a level playing field throughout the country. I fully accept that at the moment that is not the case. I apologise to those who live at the extremities of this great nation of ours, but we will ensure that whether people live in London or Shetland, they will be prosecuted if they break the law.

The consultation is genuine, as is any consultation I introduce. I remember standing here and speaking about a completely different consultation and saying that it was not a closed deal. Matters that were not in the consultation will arise. Some 400 colleagues and others have contributed to the consultation, which closes on 20 March. We will consider all submissions, whether or not they were detailed in the consultation.

The issue is categorically not just about saving money, although there will be savings. It is my responsibility, and the responsibility of the chief executive of the DVLA, to ensure that we provide a service to the public that is as cost-efficient and as accessible as possible. There is demand for a more digital service, and for it to be provided through the excellent post office network, which we have all defended in this Chamber over the years.

It is imperative that at the end of the consultation we ensure that all the issues are considered. If the plans go ahead, we will ensure that, wherever possible, staff will be transferred to other departments if that is what they want. If there are redundancies, we will ensure that we handle them correctly, and if retraining is required, it will be provided. Only the other day, I met a group of DVLA workers who were worried because they had never filled in a CV or applied for a job. Assistance will be given to everyone who applies for a new job in a Government agency or Department, or who are leaving DVLA. That is a moral responsibility, as well as a legal one.

We must ensure that the cost base is delivered correctly and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) said, we do not lose the benefit of the current level of non-payment, which is 1%. I cannot claim full responsibility for that, because I have been in the job for only 21 months, and the figures cover three years, so the previous Government must have been doing something right to achieve that figure. Some of that excellent work is done in local offices but—I hate to say this—most of it is being done through technology and at Swansea.

There will be more than 300 new jobs at Swansea. That does not equate with the 1,200 jobs at risk around the country, but some of those new jobs may be taken up by existing DVLA staff if they wish to relocate, although I fully understand that relocating from Aberdeen to Swansea would be extremely difficult. That is why we will offer redundancy packages if necessary.

My job is to ensure that we deliver the best possible service for the public, who are telling us that they want a more digital system. I accept that some businesses are saying one thing, and others are saying another, but as long as we can ensure that we deliver the service to the motor trade professionally and without much of the risk, I think they will be happy, and they have mostly indicated that they will be.

We want to sell many more cherished numbers, particularly in parts of Scotland where there are affluent people who want to use their disposable income in such a way. We must make it simpler for them to do so, and end the present bureaucratic and archaic system.

Sitting suspended.