DVLA bans councils from database over abuses
Hundreds of local authorities have been banned from accessing the Driver Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA) database for not using it properly.
Councils trawl the database of every registered driver in the UK to find the addresses of motorists refusing to pay parking fines, among other things.
But the DVLA regularly checks for security and other breaches.
It has temporarily banned 294 bodies since 2009, including local councils, Sussex Police and Transport for London.
In addition, 38 organisations have been permanently banned over the same three-year period, including some the UK's biggest local authorities..
The information local authority officials seek from the DVLA is often available from other sources, but at a higher cost.
The banned list was uncovered by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch through a Freedom of Information request.
Many of the abuses were due to poor administration, such as not responding to letters from the agency or returning contracts in time.
In other cases, local authorities asked other local authorities to make enquires on their behalf but did not reveal that this was the case.
But Big Brother Watch director Nick Pickles said officials have been caught accessing data on behalf of journalists or other outside parties in the past, sometimes for cash, although there is no indication from the data released that this has been happening here.
Mr Pickles said: "Concerns about the DVLA database have been voiced for several years, but it is remarkable that in just three years nearly half the country's councils have been suspended from looking at motorists' information.
"The same concerns exist about a range of other databases and the public are right to be worried that their privacy is at risk across a range of government services.
"The question is whether these suspensions hinder staff trying to do their job, while the staff doing the unauthorised searches escape proper punishment.
"One key issue that still has not been resolved is whether someone could be sent to prison for deliberately abusing the databases they have access to and that deterrent is badly needed."
The DVLA holds a range of information on drivers and vehicles, including details of convictions and penalty points, relevant medical information, the address cars are registered to and details of every vehicle's make and model.
A DVLA spokesman said: "DVLA takes its duties with regard to the use of its data very seriously.
"The agency operates a stringent system with regard to electronic access to its data by local authorities, including regular audits.
"Where we become aware of any issues relating to the use of our data, we will investigate and take swift action where appropriate."
A Local Government Association spokesman said councils used the DVLA database to get owner details where vehicles had been abandoned or were causing a nuisance, as well as for environmental offences including fly-tipping, littering, dog fouling and fly-posting.
"The majority of suspensions are short-lived and down to technical errors relating to the use of the database, nothing to do with inappropriate access," he added.