Government officials hit back at accusations last week that they were encouraging councils to break the law and snoop on local residents, claiming instead that not only are they entitled to do so, but that they are required to by law.
A report in last week’s Sunday Express pillories local councils for acting unlawfully and misusing the DVLA database to check up on residents suspected of offences – including horse fouling, littering and owning out-of-control dogs - that have nothing to do with motoring.
As a result, they claim, several councils have been banned from accessing the database.
A little checking suggests that the two events are completely unrelated, and that councils' use of the database in this way is a policy actively advocated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
At the eye of this storm is the DVLA’s Web Enabled Enquiry (WEE) System. This enables local government and police to identify a registered owner of a vehicle from a supplied registration number.
Official bodies wishing to use WEES must register with the DVLA – and must also undergo regular audit by officials from the DVLA to ensure their use of the system corresponds with principles of good data governance. Measures audited include whether the system has current anti-virus protection in place, whether it is fully password protected, and whether an audit trail for inquiries is available. There are also strictures against "fishing": using a partial number plate to locate a potential offender.
It is in respect of these rules that a number of councils - including Nottingham City, Corby in Northamptonshire, Hull in East Yorkshire and Stroud in Gloucestershire - have been temporarily barred from using the system.
However, these have since hit back angrily, claiming that suspensions were short-lived and in respect of technical issues, rather than misuse of the database. A spokesman for Nottingham claimed the report was "inaccurate".
Corby Borough Council spoke to the DVLA who, they say, confirmed that they have not been barred or suspended. Stroud claimed a short technical suspension, following its failure to return a letter in time.
This was confirmed by a spokeswoman for the DVLA, who told us: "In most cases, suspensions were related to mismanagement and record keeping, rather than inappropriate access."
Meanwhile, Hull Council Chief Carl Minns was reported in the East Riding Mail as furious with the Express. He said: "It's absolute nonsense to suggest the council has been using DVLA data to spy on people.
"We only ever use it for detecting owners of abandoned vehicles. If we did use it for other persons it would be a very serious matter and the police could get involved.
"It is disappointing to see this in the national press as it's fundamentally not true."
Hull were suspended briefly – but again, for technical reasons.
So all just a storm in a teacup? Not quite. Neither Councillor Minns nor the Express are right to suggest such snooping is unlawful. Quite the opposite.
First off, the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002 permit the DVLA to disclose "any particulars contained in the register available for use by a local authority for any purpose connected with the investigation of an offence".
This is neatly capped by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which provides Councils with extensive powers to clamp down on litter, graffiti, waste and unruly dogs. Or, as a briefing produced by DEFRA in 2007 (pdf) puts it: "The system (WEE) can be used to get vehicle keeper details where a vehicle is abandoned or causing a nuisance, or used in connection with fly-tipping, littering, dog fouling or fly-posting".
A spokeswoman for the DVLA confirms this is not, as the Express puts it, an example of councils acting outside their powers, but quite the contrary: councils doing exactly what the government ordered. ®