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DVLA: A licence to bill

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Why worry about the government losing your data, when for a small fee they’ll cheerfully hand it over to criminals and big business anyway?

The question of when, how and to whom the DVLA ought to pass out your personal data is one that has surfaced at regular intervals, ever since the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002 required the Agency to release information to anybody who demonstrates "reasonable cause".

The law does not provide further definition, but the DVLA has tended to release information in response to issues around road safety, the enforcement of road traffic legislation and the collection of taxes. In addition, they have been releasing data to a variety of agencies responsible for enforcing private parking restrictions.

The issue resurfaced last week, when a 24-year-old motorist received a demand from car park operators Parking Eye for £80 for overstaying the two-hour car parking limit at Lymm Services on the M6 in Cheshire. Her crime? Rather than drive whilst tired, she took a (too long) break in the near-empty car park just before 1am one morning.

Cue a BBC feature setting out concerns, followed by rebuttals from the DVLA and Department for Transport to the effect that they are only following the law, not making money from the scheme, and doing their best to weed out individuals who abuse their service.

The service is straightforward. For a flat fee of £2.50 (and reasonable cause) any individual can obtain details of the owner and their address for a given registration number. For £5, they receive additional details. For £3,000, large-scale users can be linked to the DVLA database and download details (still at £2.50 a throw) in the privacy of their own office.

The DVLA is adamant that this scheme does not make money - the charge is merely there to cover admin costs. However, as requests for details have almost doubled in the last five years to 1.64 million in 2007/8, this claim does not quite stack up – especially if online access is becoming more common. Either the service was under-priced when first launched, or the admin fee ought to have come down with economies of scale.

The DVLA also points out that it has banned companies that have abused the scheme: 4 have been temporarily suspended in the last 18 months.

Somewhere in the background is the slosh of firm hand-washing by the Office of the Information Commissioner. A spokesperson for their Office said: "This is primarily a matter for DVLA … If there is appropriate evidence that DVLA has provided vehicle keepers’ details without good cause, we will take the issue up with them, as we have done in the past."

In other words, "our hands are tied".

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