Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Supermarket has the answer to newspaper problems

Eureka! I've stumbled across the answer to falling revenue problems for newspapers.

We're going to introduce a rule that says if you read the Mercury for more than, let's say, half an hour, you have to pay us an extra £40. It's genius - I'll do everything I can to entice you to read for longer and longer and as soon as you slip over the half hour mark, I'll thank you by whacking out the £40 charge.

This idea came to me yesteday after my wife was charged an extra £40 for spending more than two hours in Morrison's supermarket. They waited until a couple of days after her visit and then sent her a letter thanking her for being such a good customer and inviting her to send them an extra £70, or £40 if she sent it within the next 14 days.

I can't believe that I hadn't thought of it before. How can it fail?

Of course, Morrisons didn't call this a customer loyalty payment or anything like that. They called it a parking fine.

That's right - they sent my wife, and her friend who she met at the shop, a £40 fine each for being there too long. Putting aside the fact that I feel that there is some justification for fining anybody who spends more than two hours in a supermarket, it does seem an incredible situation, especially given that they have a cafe where they encourage you to sit down for lunch. Which is exactly what my wife and her friend did - they shopped and then had lunch.

By now, you're probably wondering where this rant is going.

To be honest, I don't care about the £40 fine. If Morrisons want to be that stupid, that's up to them. If I was my wife (which would be very odd), I'd contest it and I'd be amazed if they enforced it.

However, the thing that actually enraged me about this whole episode is the behaviour of the government department involved. Yes, that's right, a government department decided to help Morrisons track down my wife so that they could send her a fine!

It was, of course, the DVLA. It turns out that they are happy to pass on your personal data to just about any old Tom, Dick or Harry.

This is what it says on their website:
Regulations allow for the release of information from DVLA’s vehicle register to the police, to local authorities for the investigation of an offence or on-road parking contravention, and to anybody who demonstrates ‘reasonable cause’ to have the information. Regulations also allow for a fee to be charged to cover the cost of processing requests, but not for a profit to be made.

As a general rule, reasonable cause for the release of data from the DVLA vehicle register relates to motoring incidents with driver or keeper liability. These can include matters of road safety, events occurring as a consequence of vehicle use, the enforcement of road traffic legislation and the collection of taxes.
You might think that sounds fair enough - we are legally obliged to give our data to the Government if we want to drive a car in the UK and they might pass it on to law enforcement officers investigating offences.

But hang on a second - my wife didn't commit an offence and Morrisons are not a law enforcement agency.

It turns out that the DVLA will send your personal details to anybody who can show they have 'reasonable cause' and that, apparently, would include Morrisons if they thought you spent too long over your lunch. If you dig around enough on the DVLA website you will find their justification for this:
Improving car park efficiency DVLA data release from the vehicle register to car parking companies helps them enforce their terms and conditions. Without us those companies would have no alternative other than to use clamping (in England and Wales) and/or vehicle removal as a means of dealing with unauthorised parking. Such methods are massively inconvenient to the driver.
Ah, so it's all for own good. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. I'm willing to bet that there would be no way that I could get the home address of the manager of Morrisons out of the DVLA whatever I felt he'd done to me - my wife spends too long over her coffee and they're happy to send out her personal details.

If you read my blog you'll probably know that access to information and the decision making processes of public bodies bothers me and so you won't be surprised to hear that I've written to the Information Commissioner challenging the right of the DVLA to pass on personal data in private disputes. I emailed the form this morning and await a response.

In the meantime, I've taken my own direct action. On the way to work this morning, another government department was stopping cars at junction 25 of the M1 to hand out a survey on road usage. Amongst the questions was a box asking for full details of where I'd come from (my home) - at the first opportunity I ripped up the form and chucked it in the bin. Note to Government: if you think I'm going to trust you with any of my personal information which you can't demand by law, think again.