MANY motorists were quietly pleased when the paper car tax disc was abolished three years ago.

That fiddly little task of tearing around the perforations and persuading the circular disc to slot neatly into its plastic windscreen holder was at least an annual irritation.

The Government move to a paperless system was, we were told, destined to save the taxpayer about £10 million a year in administration costs, including the printing and distribution of more than 42 million discs weighing about 72 tonnes.

More than 1.7 billion of them had been issued since the first tax disc was issued in 1921, 14 years before the driving test was introduced.

The theory was that, by allowing motorists to manage it online and pay their tax bill by monthly direct debit, it would encourage more people to pay.

A Treasury spokesman at the time said: “This is a visual symbol of how we are moving government into the modern age and making dealing with government more hassle free.”

He was certainly right about that; the system has become so hassle free that more drivers than ever now appear to be not bothering to tax their vehicles at all.

The soaring figures were starkly illustrated by a week-long crackdown in the Bradford West area by the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and West Yorkshire Police who, earlier this week, revealed that 540 people had been reported for driving without tax.

Two weeks ago, the Department of Transport revealed that 1.8 per cent of vehicles in Yorkshire and the Humber were being driven without tax, more than double the number of ten years earlier.

That percentage is also reflected in the national figures, with the owners of almost 700,000 vehicles, mainly cars and vans, failing to pay their Vehicle Excise Duty (VED).

According to Government estimates, that’s £107 million being lost to the Treasury in one year.

In the last full year before the paper disc was abolished, the Government estimated that the number of untaxed vehicles was more than two-thirds fewer, about 210,000 or 0.6 per cent.

The DVLA actually collected £200 million less in duty in 2016-17 than it did in 2013-14, although a large part of the fall is attributed to lower taxes being charged for cleaner-engined cars.

The latest figures have already kick-started a debate over whether abolishing paper discs was sensible and whether or not it has made matters worse.

And the Government can’t say it wasn’t warned: a month before the online system started, motoring organisation the RAC suggested the number of motorists failing to tax their cars could grow to match the number who drove without insurance.

That figure was estimated at around one million people by the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, which the RAC warned could mean more than £167 million being lost in VED income.

The DVLA was having none of it. A spokesman responded: “It is nonsense to suggest that getting rid of the tax disc will lead to an increase in vehicle tax evasion.”

Not surprisingly, the RAC is worried by the surge in non-payments.

Public affairs manager Nicholas Lyes said: “These figures are extremely concerning.

“Clearly, since the tax disc was abolished in 2014 there has been a significant increase in untaxed vehicles on our roads, with the figure now in excess of three-quarters of a million.

“It appears that having a visual reminder was an effective way to prompt drivers into renewing their car tax – arguably more drivers are now prepared to try their luck and see if they can get away with not paying any vehicle tax at all, or are simply forgetting to tax their vehicle when they are due to.

“What’s more, a third of untaxed vehicles were those that changed hands which is a strong indication that many drivers are still not aware that tax does not carry over when ownership changes.

“The principle of abolishing the tax disc to introduce greater efficiencies has, so far, evidently failed.”

The organisation is now calling for tougher action against those who cheat the system along with increased efforts to publicise the rules.

“More must be done to educate drivers about how and when to tax their vehicle, coupled with stronger enforcement to genuinely make drivers who evade vehicle tax feel that they are going to get caught,” said Mr Lye.

“From 2020, Vehicle Excise Duty receipts will also directly fund improvements to our strategic road network, so it is vital every effort is made to make sure we tackle evasion so our road network does not lose out on essential investment.”

Perhaps the answer lies in the thoughts of the three million motorists who still display old tax discs, despite this not having been a legal requirement for three years.

A survey of 18,000 drivers in October by rival motoring organisation The AA reported that 11 per cent of drivers still display a disc in their car.

Questioned on their motives, they were split equally between those who found it a useful reminder and those who thought taking it away affected the cosmetic look of the car.

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for the AA, says: “There is a sense of nostalgia with keeping a tax disc, but for many it provides a tax and MOT test reminder too.

“It's probably too early to call for the return of the tax disc, but there's clearly still some affection for a little circle of paper on a windscreen!”

For the time being, though, it seems both the police and the DVLA will be strengthening efforts to catch the law-breakers.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport said: “The vast majority of motorists tax their vehicles correctly and we have made it easy to do it online – and to spread the costs using direct Debit.

“As DVLA’s current campaign stresses, driving a vehicle without taxing is breaking the law and the DVLA will continue to crack down on drivers who do.”

And drivers in Bradford have been warned that the recent operation in the Manningham and Thornton Road areas was just the start.

Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, said: “Similar operations will be taking place in the near future so anyone without a road worthy vehicle or insurance should be aware.

“Joint activities such as these are aimed at ensuring the district’s roads are safe for all, and serve as a deterrent to those disregarding the law and the safety of others.”