End of the road: Britain says goodbye to the car tax disc
Sean O'Grady remembers a time when a little piece of perforated paper could represent the beginning of adult life
Just as you'll always remember your first car, I suspect a surprising number of us remember our first car tax disc. I recall having to go and get an insurance certificate (third party, fire and theft only, of course) from a broker in town; making sure I had the MOT certificate (it was a pre-loved vehicle) and sufficient funds for a six-month disc.
After some shuffling about with the paperwork, the sub-postmaster duly hit the little piece of paper with his rubber date stamp. I wouldn't want to make too much of it, but with that official thud I felt I had entered the adult world. I had been issued with my Road Fund Licence for a "Skoda, Red, PLG, Registration Mark PUT 596R". Yes, I was poor, but at that instant I was very happy.
The artefact handed over was a bit puzzling. I could not understand then, and cannot still, why it was issued with these strange perforations around a circular shape. In three decades I have never been able to tear it neatly; nor have I ever succeeded in getting it into its plastic holder without further damage. Indeed, the holder's hold on the windscreen could also be tenuous. It is with a shudder that I remember stopping on the hard shoulder of the M1 to retrieve it when it had flown out of the window.
So the Chancellor is right, in a way, to want to do away with this Victorian throwback (as opposed to the Victorian throwbacks sitting beside him in the Cabinet). First introduced in 1888 and "modernised" in 1921, it is costly to administer and is a bother that private motorists and businesses can do without, as well as sparing the hard-pressed exchequer the cost of administering it – about £38m in savings for all concerned, though not much given back to the driver, as you'd expect (a small improvement in the charge for a 6-month licence or the option to pay by direct debt at no extra cost hardly constitutes an armistice in the unrelenting war on the motorist). The last time I renewed mine, it was via an automated telephone service.
However, I do wonder about this move, and not just from the chill knowledge that it will be one less source of business for local post offices. For the discipline of ensuring that someone – parking warden or vindictive neighbour, say – can see physical proof that you are road-legal and insured was one small defence against the tax dodgers, and of course the modern epidemic of car insurance evasion (ie the reason why your insurance premiums have been rising at an annual rate of 30 per cent plus for some years).
Like that other relic of Victorian bureaucracy, the dog licence, the tax disc was maybe more sensible than it appeared. This historical curiosity by an act of parliament in 1839 (I think) meant that if you owned a dog, you had to go to the post office every year to get a licence for it. The fee was seven shillings and sixpence, which remained unchanged until its abolition in 1987, having been decimalised to 37 pence. Had it kept up with inflation it would have been £35, about the right level for someone to take dog ownership seriously.
Anyway, it was never enforced much, but, in its own small way, it was some symbolic deterrent. A couple of years after it was scrapped we woke up to a world of pit bulls, rotties, and worse, tearing the faces off the nations' toddlers.
So, yes, I will never have to fiddle with a tax disc again, but I must say I don't feel all that liberated.
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