Blog: Dave LeggettWhat are they thinking?

Dave Leggett | 20 September 2009

UK government departments are not what they were. That's not all a bad thing, but it's not all good, either. I have just received official notification about my annual road tax - the tax I pay for being able to use a car on public roads in Britain. The fee is not cheap (GBP175 for a bog-standard 2005 Ford Mondeo) but I just take it on the chin, as I do all the taxes I pay. Maybe I'm unusual, but I don't actually mind paying taxes. The public services we get in this country are basically pretty good and taxes are a necessary evil and all that.

But what I do object to is official communications from UK-gov plastered in advertising. They are trying to get me to pay my road tax online and offering SEAT cars in a prize draw as reward. Let me stress, I'm not blaming SEAT. The firm has exploited an opportunity that the Department of Transport has apparently provided. It's not a bad way to get some cheap (I assume) advertising.

But I'm not sure where to start on what's wrong with this. Let me try:

  • I want all my official government communications to be strictly that, just the bald information that the government department needs to communicate to me, the taxpayer and citizen. Will my tax return start to arrive with ads for accountants and lawyers? Will my future passport carry ads or sponsorship? This could be the thin end of the wedge. Is nothing sacred or is everything fair game for 'commercialisation' these days?
  • It's the poorest people in society who generally lack the unfettered ability to go online and potentially enjoy the mouth-watering (okay, SEAT Ibiza Ecomotive 1.4 TDI) prizes being offered, so we're kind of excluding them in this draw. Is that really fair? They pay their taxes, too... 
  • The letter says that the selection of SEAT for this draw 'does not signify that the DfT or DVLA endorse SEAT products in any preferential way, as similar products may be offered by other manufacturers.' You could have fooled me. It also says all vehicle makers with low CO2 ratings were invited to participate but that the SEAT Ibiza Ecomotive 1.4 TDI 'matched the qualifying criteria with CO2 emission of 98g/km'.  
  • The DVLA letter about road tax is very up front about the 'FREE Prize draw' and looks a bit like junk-mail. It lacks the 'On Her Majesty's Service' gravitas that government communications are supposed to have (or so I thought) so that we take them seriously and don't put them straight in the bin with the pizza fliers.

To the Department of Transport I say, how about offering a small discount - that reflects the cost saving - in return for going online to renew road tax? Prize draws like this reek of the sort of  tacky rubbish Reader's Digest did for many years.

In any case, the admin cost would be removed altogether if road tax was done away with and simply added to your petrol bill, so that you seamlessly pay as you go according to your fuel use, but let's not open that can of worms today. 

Victor Meldrew-style rant over.


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