Matters of moment

The chancellor of the exchequer replies:

We have received the following reply from Treasury Chambers to our "Open Letter" to Sir Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the subject of motor taxation:—

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked me to thank you for your letter of 29 March concerning motoring taxation, and to reply on his behalf.

I have been asked to assure you first of all that the Chancellor fully recognises the importance of the Motor Industry to the United Kingdom economy and it was with this very much in mind that the Chancellor did not impose any larger increases on the motorist than on, for example, the drinker. Indeed as the Chancellor explained in his Budget Statement on 9 March there was a strong case for a larger increase in the petrol duty than in the other oil excise duties, for our average pump prices are currently among the lowest in the European Community. They have, moreover, been favourably affected by recent changes in the price of oil. Pump prices have been falling rapidly. In view of the representations he had received, however, he decided not to impose any real increase in the oil duties and to limit the increases in the duties on both petrol and derv to amounts which no more than compensate for one year's inflation. If, however, one looks at the position in real terms (ie removing the effects of inflation) the total tax (duty plus VAT) charged on a gallon of petrol is still below its high point under the previous Labour Government and diesel fuel (derv), which is used mainly by commercial vehicles, is now well below its June 1970 level. Vehicle Excise Duty is also lower in real terms than the level set by the last Government in 1977. Against this background, any further relief, in the form of smaller increases this year would not have been justified.

I am afraid that we cannot in fact recall to mind any Government proposal for weekend or similar short-period licences for cars; certainly there have been none within the term of the present Administration. It is possible that what you have in mind is the proposals made in July 1980 for changing the basis of the Vehicle Excise Duty from using a vehicle on the public roads tenor of ownership. Under this, special tax provisions (either a low rate or exemption) were to be made for cars over 40 years old, in recognition of their low usage of the public roads. As you will no doubt remember, the Government eventually decided against moving to a tax on possession and the need for the special provisions correspondingly ceased.

The difficulty with allowing general use of short period licences is not only the loss of tax revenue to the Exchequer (which would have to be made good from other sources) but the considerable increase in the number of licensing transactions which would result. These would involve not only the post offices which issued licences, but also the staff maintaining the central licensing record. An increase of staff numbers would inevitably result. If short period licences were allowed to a limited number of vehicles only, then the revenue loss might be small but problems would be created by the many people who would attempt to use them illicitly.

Finally, I am afraid it is not possible to try and anticipate what future tax changes are likely to be made. Such decisions are purely a matter for the Chancellor and will be made in the light of the Government's overall economic strategy and particular needs of industry etc. at the time.

I hope you will find the above explanation helpful.

Treasury Chambers,

F. R. Boardman (Mrs)

London, SW1.

[It would be unfair to have a "last word" in this matter, now that a reply has been received on behalf of Sir Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the "Open Letter" about motor taxation, in our Editorial of April, following the last Budget. There are, we can assure you, very many comments we could make but for the moment those thousands of vehicle owners who will be voting at the next Election should, we think, be given the platform. The first Government to show regard for vehicle owners would command many votes, one feels. — Ed.]

Seat-belt specials

It may be that those of the "do-gooders" in the Government who seek to introduce compulsory wearing of seat-belts later this year, thereby placing cars in the category of aeroplanes that are continually taking-off or coming in to land but never, ever, travelling safely, will be too busy with more serious matters to get this unwelcome Bill turned into Law. If they do, those who are riot opposed to belting-up by those who derive comfort from being attached firmly to their transports but who are most definitely against compulsion, would seem to have a way out, for pre-1965 vehicles are exempt from having belts fitted, and, of course, if belts are not fitted they cannot be worn.

We think this has something to do with the idea that a can with a separate chassis-frame is unsuitable for the attaching thereto of so-called safety-belts. Overlooking the question of whether or not the majority of cars made around this period were of unitary construction (which a historian like Michael Sedgwick could, we feel, confirm or deny at the drop of a typewriter key) the thinking behind such a ruling emphasises clearly how woolly is the reasoning of these Government "safety-firsters". How can one vehicle be deemed safer than another, given the same traffic conditions, the same speed-limits. etc., simply and solely because one was first registered in 1964, the other one in 1965?

That is not the only false premise in the proposed regulations. Export vehicles are to be exempt; but what of those used first for up to a year in the UK? How can one exempt users of such vehicles while making seat-belts compulsory in vehicles of exactly the same kind but not due for eventual export? The "belt-up all day, everyday brigade" is fond of telling us that an accident is always waiting to happen, even as the wheels of our ground-hound lethal-weapons are just beginning to turn. How, then, propose to exempt mail delivery drivers on local runs, those sitting next to learner-drivers, taxi-drivers, etc., with any kind of logic? We are indebted to a reader. Mr. C. B. Purvis of Sunderland, for drawing our attention to some of these anomolies; he feels sufficiently strongly, as do so many others, about compulsion to belt-up that he wrote to his MP, Mr. A. T. Bagier, about it. It would be interesting to know if the MP produced any better logic than the rule-makers, in his reply.

However, if you feel that seat-harness is troublesome, another piece of equipment to be kept in expensive order or the Law will have you, or, more importantly, that seat-belts can kill or injure under some circumstances, or if you have medical objections, such as fear of a belt failing to release, in an accident or otherwise, and the Bill becomes Law, it looks as there may be a solution — using pre-1965 "Seat-Belt Specials". Some of us may even find this a rather welcome way-out. Most of the pre-1965 cars have rusted away or are sad mechanically. But there are still some suitable ones that would make quite reasonable everyday transport, and even save good deal in money in purchase-price, against investing in a brand-new car. A Mk.VI Bentley, perhaps, or an Alvin TE21 for instance or you might go for an MG-B or an earlier RM Riley, or a more utilitarian solution.

The choice is a wide one, but study of the small-advertisements in this issue of MOTOR SPORT will produce some ideas. Surely there isn't someone in the Seat-Belt Legislature Department of the Transport Ministry with interests in the used-car trade? It rather seems like it, when you reflect how silly it is to suggest that pre-1965 cars are less prone to have accidents than later models — there are fewer about, which helps statistically, and there are owners of older cars who regard their cherished possessions as less expendable than new vehicles, of course. Even so, it just isn't logical to say to someone in a 1965 or later car that he or she will be in greater danger than if they had bought a 1964, or earlier, form of transport. But if this silly clause, which among others underlines the stupid thinking behind compulsion, is made law, the Used-Car Traders can afford to smile, and enthusiasts will suffer less than some at the hands of the "do-gooders". And the joke is that many of these older cars will be found to have been prudently fitted with life-saving harness regularly worn, without involving the sour smell of Police-enforced compulsion . . . Are the Police, incidentally, being given, for instance, old-car recognition courses, to save them stopping a belt-less 1964 Bentley Continental, having mistaken it for a 1966 model?

We are joking, of course, although the idea was embellished when driving that near-faultless car, the latest Mercedes-Benz 500SEC, which hopefully offered us the seat-belts for some thirty seconds (see page 747) after we had got in and then discreetly withdrew them . . . But it is possible that the "Seat-Belt Specials" ploy might be adopted by those individualists who object to being dictated to — even if they then fit then aged cars with harness, for wearing when it seems prudent so to do. . .