In the UK you have a legal requirement to renew your car tax (vehicle excise duty) and display a special circular piece of paper known as a tax disc on your car windscreen. It is an old fashioned tax which serves one useful purpose. Namely that you cannot buy a tax disc without having car insurance or an MOT certificate to prove your vehicle is well maintained within legal requirements.
The act of paying this tax was always cumbersome. The most popular way of paying is to waste an hour or more driving to a large post office, paying to park your car, queuing up behind a large number of people and eventually someone behind the security screened counter will check that your paperwork is in order and provide you with a tax disc to put on your car. Then you can drive home again. Multiply that by the UK population of car drivers and you have the following:
A. A huge amount of pollution caused by all those unnecessary journeys. (a bad thing)
B. A huge amount of parking revenue for the local authorities (in Coventry it appears to be Council policy to reduce the number of on-road parking spaces available which in turn raises their parking tax income. (a bad thing)
C. A huge amount of wasted hours of people’s time spent queuing. (a bad thing)
D. A lot of extra business for Post Office Counters Ltd (which you could argue is a good thing because there is an ongoing policy of closing Post Offices throughout the UK so they need the business to stay open. However due to this policy it means that drivers are forced to travel further and further, and queue for longer and longer, which make points A and C above worse.)
E. The requirement to have valid MOT and insurance paperwork means that people avoid paying car tax usually lack insurance or MOT certificates, so these drivers are targeted by the authorities. (Which you would think is a good thing, to have an easy way to identify these drivers using traffic cameras. However the press report massive numbers of uninsured drivers on the UK’s roads, often immigrant drivers, so it simply doesn’t work properly.)
So when in recent years the DVLA announced that the public could renew their tax disc online via the DVLA website I thought ‘Finally!’. In 2006 I renewed online. The website crashed; I am lucky that way. A few days later I tried the website again and it worked. It correctly identified that I have valid insurance etc. using the magic of sharing private personal data about the general public. A week later my tax disc arrived in the post. All well and good, apart from the flaky website.
When 2007 came around I was all set to try again. Here’s where I ran into trouble, and I think you should take note.
In 2007 there were a series of strikes by postal workers in the UK. In my area the press reported several incidents where sacks of post were dumped rather than delivered. Some sacks were found in a river a mile or so from my house. An item I ordered from play.com was never delivered, nor did my magazine subscription.
So I decided to check with DVLA purely for peace of mind about the safety of renewing your car tax online. I figured that if I paid online and subsequently suffered delivery problems with the tax disc then the authorities could simply check their database and show some understanding. I was wrong!
The response I received was not at all understanding. The DVLA informed me that be in trouble if the tax disc got lost in the post or simply arrived late. By failing to display a valid tax disc then I would be committing an offence. Having the disc in the post is not a valid defence any more apparently. Even though the DVLA chose to use the cheaper, regular postal service and not a courier during the postal strikes. Even though the DVLA would have taken my money (i.e. I had actually paid my car tax). Even though DVLA computer system would have been updated their database system to record the fact that I had paid. Even though all security checks have been carried out to confirm you have valid car insureance and valid MOT.
I find this appalling. I asked the DVLA if they would be understanding under this circumstance. The authority told me otherwise. Despite any protests of having already paid the tax, despite the fact that the DVLA had chosen an uncertain delivery method especially at a time of widespread disruption to service by the Post Office, if the authorities themselves make you unable to display a valid tax disc in your car on the day after yours expires then YOU not them have committed a legal offence and can be punished. The authorities will punish you with a court appearance, fines and the risk of having your car destroyed, according to their radio adverts. That is because failure to display a valid tax disk is a legal offence in the UK. End of story.
As a private individual trying to pay his tax correctly, I feel that I am on the moral high ground here:
A. It is not my fault if I pay on time and the authorities fail to provide a correct service – why would I be the one risking going to court not them?
B. I would have renewed earlier, but the DVLA do not let you renew until 15 days before your tax disc expires, so you only have eleven working days to do this. (Update - see my comment dated February 8th, 2009 below)
C. You can still be punished even if you do not drive your car or park it on a public road while waiting for the disc to arrive. The DVLA explained that I still risked punishment because I would have failed to file a SORN, which is an alternative legal form you have to submit if you plan to keep your car off-road. (SORN stands for Statutory Off Road Notification). Hardly my fault if I pay the tax and the authority fails to deliver the tax disc to me.
D. In the event of a car tax disc being lost in the post, or simply delayed by the postal service, it hardly seems unreasonable to expect the authorities to check the DVLA database, confirm you have paid your car tax and apologise for any inconvenience if you are unable to display your car tax for this reason. To be told you have committed an offence in this circumstance feels very unfair.
The lack of sympathy or understanding that the DVLA representative showed towards me in 2007 made me rethink using their website. I would have expected an official government website to offer some protection for honest customers in this circumstance. After all, if I order goods from an online shop then I have some legal protection, but apparently not in the case of the DVLA’s web site.
I asked the DVLA representative if there was any way he could guarantee that they would get the tax disc to me if I paid the tax via the DVLA website. He told me that if I did not want to accept the risk then I should not use the DVLA website to renew my car tax. He recommended that I pay at the Post Office. So I did! So much for reducing my carbon footprint and not wasting half a morning to pay this tax then.
You might want to bear this in mind if you are planning to pay your car tax disc online. Forewarned is forearmed and there was no warning of the risks involved on the DVLA website.