Scrapping tax disc leads to rise in car clamping in Northern Ireland
The number of motorists in Northern Ireland having their cars clamped has accelerated dramatically since tax discs were scrapped, it can be revealed today.
The figure has rocketed by a whopping 63% since this time last year, when it was still compulsory to display the discs.
Just last month, 221 local drivers were clamped, compared with only 136 a year ago.
Tax discs were scrapped last October and the number of clampings has increased almost every month since.
While motorists are generally aware that the discs are no longer required, many do not realise that their vehicle excise duty is automatically cancelled when a car changes ownership - even if there is a valid disc displayed in the window.
Drivers must now tax a car they have just bought no matter what the tax disc indicates. It all means an increasing number of cars are being to clamped by the DVLA and more drivers are facing large fines.
Ignorance is no defence, and those who are caught out have no right of appeal.
Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff, a member of Stormont's Environment Committee, said the new rules were a bureaucratic nightmare.
"The new system means that buyers have to re-tax a taxed car before they can drive it - with no grace period," he said.
"People can be lulled into a false sense of security if they buy a car with a physical tax disc that bears a date into the future.
"There is a lot of confusion."
Figures provided for the Belfast Telegraph by the DVLA show that clampings have risen steadily since October, when the agency did away with paper vehicle excise duty discs.
Before the changes, the DVLA clamped an average of 133 vehicles a month in Northern Ireland between April and September 2014. However, this has risen to an average of 194 a month - six vehicles per day - with drivers having their cars towed away and being charged fines of as much as £800.
In the past, cars for sale could be advertised as 'Taxed and MOTd' until a specific date. But now the tax automatically expires when a car changes hands and the new owner is required to tax it again.
It is this change which is exposing drivers to clamping and exorbitant financial penalties.
A DVLA spokeswoman said it has worked with car traders and written to new owners to make them aware of the situation.
"The changes have been widely publicised and we write to every vehicle keeper to remind them of the new rules before the vehicle tax expires," she said.
"We also write to every new vehicle keeper when they buy a used vehicle to inform them that they must tax the vehicle before they use it. In addition, if a driver does not tax their car we will send a warning letter to remind them to tax as they are at risk of enforcement action."
In Northern Ireland, a total of 1,161 untaxed vehicles were clamped between October 2014 and March 2015. That compares with just 796 during the preceding six months - representing a hike of 365.
Critics have claimed the new rules are a money-spinner for the DVLA as it receives two payments for any month in which a car's ownership is transferred.
Mr McElduff called for a "softer, educational approach" that "isn't fine-seeking".
"DVLA shouldn't be taking a revenue-raising punitive approach to this," he said.
The DVLA told the Belfast Telegraph that no information on payments was available.
In the UK as a whole, experts predict that more than 100,000 vehicles are likely to be clamped this year compared with 60,000 the year before.
It costs £100 to release an untaxed vehicle that has been clamped. In addition, the vehicle must be taxed or a £160 surety must be paid before the vehicle can be released. The surety is forfeited if the keeper does not tax the vehicle within two weeks. If the vehicle is not released within 24 hours it is impounded and the release fee increases to £200. There is a £21 per day storage charge as well as the requirement to tax the vehicle or make a surety payment.
If the release and storage fees are not paid, DVLA could dispose of the vehicle after it has been in the car pound for seven days.