Clause 33 - Imposition of requirements concerning registration plates
Vehicles (Crime) Bill
3:15 pm

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 18, leave out lines 22 and 23 and insert

`relating to their size, shape and material of manufacture only.'

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

With this we may take amendment No. 56, in clause 33, page 18, line 26, leave out from `marks' to end of line 27 and insert `as may be necessary to link the registration plate to the vehicle for which it is intended'. New clause 5 -Provisions relating to regional symbols - (27A)(1) The Secretary of State shall prescribe no specifications that require a registration plate to contain or display any flag or symbol of the European Union. (2) Notwithstanding subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for any registration plate to contain or display a flag specified by the owner of the relevant vehicle.''.'. Mr. Bercow: You correctly indicated to the Committee, Mr. Wells, the content and, by implication, the purpose of the amendments. I shall deal with amendment No. 56 first and then move, in chronological sequence, to my other points.

My concern is about the relevance of clause 33 to section 27 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. I focus on what I think that I would describe as the offending words ``or otherwise''. I have a preference—it might seem fastidious, or even pedantic—for specificity in legislation rather than for generality. I am against the high-falutin' declaration or the inclusion of vague wording that potentially admits of a number of interpretations, to which those invited to give their support might not subscribe if they knew what those interpretations would subsequently be. I do not know what ``or otherwise'' means. The point was raised on Second Reading, and the Minister may recall that I spoke on the subject in exchanges with other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—I was going to call him the bitten Member, but my hon. Friend did not suffer that misfortune until later.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

As the Minister correctly observes, he was then the unbitten Member for Lichfield.

My hon. Friend and I referred to this part of the Bill on Second Reading. The Minister gave what might be described as a buoyant and spirited response to the debate, and he commented on many of the points raised by Opposition Members, but the ``or otherwise'' point was not at the forefront of his mind. I do not attack the Minister for that; he was more concerned with broad principles and the general thrust of the Bill. However, he could not resist becoming entangled in a discussion of registration marks and the potential for the display of a European flag on the registration plate, a matter that excited the attention of several right hon. and hon. Members.

The Minister did not say anything about ``or otherwise'' on Second Reading, and I would like to know exactly what that phrase means. In the absence of any justification for those words, my hon. Friends and I propose their removal. We believe that the clause would be perfectly cogent and tight—it would certainly be tighter—if it referred instead to the power in regulations to prescribe specifications that relate to only to the size, shape and material of manufacture.

I turn to amendment No. 56. We believe that it is entirely legitimate that the regulations should give the Secretary of State power to ensure the proper identification of a vehicle. Insofar as those regulations specify steps to achieve it, they are acceptable, but it should not be necessary to go beyond that. In a sense, the amendment would limit—fetter might be a more evaluative term—the Secretary of State's discretion when drawing up the regulations. To a degree, the amendment may circumscribe the Secretary of State, but I hope that the Under-Secretary, who from time to time accuses us of imposing a straitjacket and pleads for discretion, will accept the important principle that with power comes responsibility. My argument is that the Government must justify the powers that they want to arrogate to the Secretary of State if regulations are to be brought forward. That will be especially true—I know that the subject is a regular hobby horse of mine—if the regulations are to subject to negative rather than affirmative procedure. If so, there will not be an opportunity for the House to debate them, so it is vital that we have an idea of what Ministers have in mind now.

Under my eminently reasonable proposal, the Bill would state that the power of the Secretary of State should

provide for registration plates to contain or display such information other than registration marks...as may be necessary to link the registration plate to the vehicle for which it is intended.

I would have thought that that would be enough. The clause refers to

special registration marks as may be specified or described in the regulations.

I am bound to say that that is mighty vague. I do not know exactly what Ministers have in mind. I sincerely hope that they will not propose the creation of different categories of vehicle-driving citizen.

The Under-Secretary claims to be impartial—partial only in the sense that he is partial to the reduction of vehicle crime. I do not in any way want to impugn his integrity or talents, but I am not sure that that is fair. After all, he has owned up to something important this afternoon, which is the fact that he has one thing in common with the previous Member for Putney, Mr. David Mellor. I would not have thought that it was a source of pride for him to have anything in common with Mr. David Mellor, but the Under-Secretary has vouchsafed to the Committee that he does, as he does not possess or drive a car. He is in uncomfortable company in making that admission.

So long as the Under-Secretary does not have a car—for which there may be good reason, as I think that there is in the case of Mr. Mellor—he will not be affected by the regulations because he simply tromps around, if I may use that indelicate term, in a ministerial car driven by A. N. Other. The registration, upkeep, taxation, goodly appearance and effective function of that car are not matters for the Under-Secretary; he is a very important man, and he has others to look after such matters for him. If he eventually ceases to hold ministerial office—which I obviously hope very much will happen sooner rather than later, not because I bear him any ill will, but because I want a Conservative Government—he will revert to his normal practice on his parliamentary business as well as his private business by tromping around—

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

On the 159.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

By means of the 159, as the Under-Secretary correctly points out, which will of course go from the Millbank area to Streatham. I regularly travelled that route in days of yore. He is not affected. The

special registration marks as may be specified or described in the regulations

do not trouble him at all. There is an hauteur on his part towards the matters, a lofty imperiousness, if that is not an unfair description. He will think that millions of drivers will be affected and that those who advise him, who are brainy and know all the facts, tell him that is necessary to have reference to

special registration marks as may be specified or described in the regulations,

so on that basis he can reject my amendment. That is not good enough for me. I want to know exactly what is wrong with the amendment, which is specific and tightly drawn.

Alternatively, I want to know whether nothing is wrong with the amendment. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of leading for the massed ranks of the official Opposition on a Committee considering a Bill. I hope that it is not the last.

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Mr Charles Clarke (Minister of State, Home Office; Norwich South, Labour)

The hon. Member for Vale of York has left because she does not agree with the hon. Gentleman.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

There is a good reason for her absence, which I think that I should point out, because there is a matter of manners involved.

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Mr Charles Clarke (Minister of State, Home Office; Norwich South, Labour)

Was she bitten?

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

Well, I can only say that I have not bitten her. Her husband might have something to say about the matter if I had.

3:30 pm
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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. One of the problems with Committees concerns their going out of order through remarks from sedentary positions. It is my experience that Committees quickly get out of order if we permit it. I request the Committee to show restraint, although such contributions add to the enjoyment of the afternoon.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Wells. I was tempted down a dangerous path by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). He has, I dare say, a good deal to commend him, although I cannot readily think what it is. However, he should behave himself. I do not think that such sedentary interventions will be likely from the next Member of Parliament for Harrow, West, Mr. Danny Finkelstein.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. Again I must bring the attention of the hon. Gentleman to the fact that remarks that are very wide of the subject under discussion are certainly out of order.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I apologise unreservedly to you, Mr. Wells. I shall speedily return to order and follow your instructions.

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Mr Charles Clarke (Minister of State, Home Office; Norwich South, Labour)

The point that I was attempting to make from a sedentary position, which initiated the exchange, was that, on Tuesday, the hon. Member for Vale of York specifically opposed the aims of the amendment, in that she argued for bar codes to be put on number plates to deal with vehicle crime. The amendment would remove from the Secretary of State the power to do that. I wanted to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention, when he alluded to the massed ranks behind him, to the possibility that the hon. Lady had left because she could not support the amendment.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

The Minister's suggestion is certainly ingenious, but has the demerit of being wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York is sadly no longer with us, and will not be for the remainder of the afternoon, because she has hoofed off to her constituency to fulfil an engagement. I am pining for her return, but she has been given clearance to leave. I should also point out, Mr. Wells, that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, the opposite number, as the Opposition Whip on this Committee, of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), has gone to his constituency for a Thursday evening commitment. So we have two absent Members in constituencies and another who has been bitten.

The point that I was making before I allowed myself to be diverted was that this is the first time I have led for the Opposition on a Bill Committee. I have, however, served as a Back-Bencher on Bill Committees, during the passage of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Competition Act 1998 and the Employment Relations Act 1999. We were led with great distinction on those measures by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). On those occasions I do not recall—I think that what I am saying is germane, Mr. Wells—that the Government accepted any of our amendments, despite the wisdom of many of them and the sheer brilliance with which they were argued.

Ministers have adopted a reasonable tone in response to our amendments. Of course it will have been observed on Tuesday that the Under-Secretary, by a sort of nod and wink, gave me to understand that he thought that there was much sense in what we suggested and that, although he did not propose to accept our amendment there and then, he would revisit the issue before Third Reading. I did not think it wise to press him further. I have thus had a semi-success, but so far none of our amendments has been accepted.

I am not a sensitive flower. I do not take such things personally. However, if on this occasion the Under-Secretary would say, ``The hon. Gentleman is right; the proposed rather tighter wording would be sensible and we shall either agree to it now or propose something similar,'' I should be delighted. My cup would run over. However, it would probably be unwise for my continuing health for me to hold my breath.

Proposed new section (27A)(1), which new clause 5 would insert into the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, states, in relation to regional symbols:

The Secretary of State shall prescribe no specifications that require a registration plate to contain or display any flag or symbol of the European Union.

It goes on to state:

Notwithstanding subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for any registration plate to contain or display a flag specified by the owner of the relevant vehicle.

What is the problem here? Clause 33 would allow the Secretary of State to prescribe the information to be carried on number plates. That leaves the Bill wide open to a number of interpretations.

One does not need to look into a crystal ball, one can look in the record. On Second Reading, it was established that the clause was subject to a number of interpretations. What might be called the attention of an anorak was devoted to it during the debate, as many hon. Members commented on what it might or might not facilitate or require—to such a degree that Madam Deputy Speaker called a number of hon. Members to order and said that we were in danger of getting into a Committee rather than a Second Reading debate.

Conservative Members were provoked by some Labour Back Benchers, who may not have been speaking for the Government and may just have been expressing their own rather extreme and unsatisfactory views. That is one of the reasons why I proposed the amendment, to tie the Government down on the matter. If I remember rightly, the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) intervened and spoke of the desirability of number plates carrying a European flag, given that we were operating within a single market. Those remarks were deeply uncongenial to my hon. Friends and to me.

We know that just as there are a number of European federasts—usually in the closet—on the Government Front Benches, there are a number of European federasts on the Government Back Benches. However, we are anxious to ensure that there should be absolutely no requirement whatsoever, under the terms of the clause, to contain or display the flag of the European Union. Moreover, and this is the essence of the point, we would like a situation in which individual vehicle owners could contain or display such flags as they specified.

On Second Reading, I challenged the Home Secretary, and received an unsatisfactory response. We have not said much about the Home Secretary so far, and we probably should not do so, Mr. Wells, for fear of falling foul of your exhortations. However, he moved the Second Reading of the Bill, and was a frequent contributor of interventions throughout the afternoon and evening. I was worried, because he did not seem to be quite as aware as I thought that he might or should be of the discretion that the Bill might give him. I say that he was not as aware as he might be because the Home Secretary is an extremely experienced and well-informed Minister. I do not know of any Cabinet member who more closely attends to the debate on a Bill than he. He makes a genuine effort to respond to hon. Members' points. I remember inquiring about the scope for display, not of a European flag, but of a Union flag—something that I might well be tempted to do myself, and something that might appeal to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

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Mr Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green, Labour)

Would the hon. Gentleman also be happy if his new clause permitted people to have the National Front flag on their vehicles, if that was their choice?

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

That is a serious challenge, and I shall treat it as such. I think that the answer would probably be yes, although I say that reluctantly. However, that would depend on whether the display of the symbol rendered the person who displayed it in contravention of another piece of legislation. The reference may seem too broad, but it relates to the question of whether the facility exists to display a flag of one's choice.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. Although it is in order to discuss the question of symbols of all kinds on the registration plate, it is not in order to discuss specific symbols, as we are beginning to do. As the Committee will appreciate, if we did that, we would end up discussing every possible symbol, which would clearly be out of order.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I am sorry about that, because I have endless energy for the discussion of symbols and other matters. I fear that it is your knowledge of that fact, Mr. Wells, that inclines you to draw a line under the matter. Otherwise, you may think, you will not be able to hold back the tide. The flood would be irresistible, the hoarding masses would advance, the consequences would be unpredictable, the pain appalling, the delay interminable and life in this Committee might never be the same again. I can understand that you might not be happy with that idea.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) raises a serious point, however. I would certainly not want the display of any symbol to undermine good community relations. Nothing displayed should be conducive to bad race relations, widespread public disharmony or, worse still, the incitement of racial hatred. Therefore, exactly what form that symbol took would determine whether it was acceptable. I do not want to make that point at all, Mr. Wells—

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. The point that I was trying to make to the Committee was that exactly the kind of arguments now being adduced by the hon. Gentleman are entirely out of order in a debate on the amendment.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Wells, as it helps me and clarifies matters. I will not dilate because you have told me in the politest possible terms—such as we expect from you—that I must not do so.

On the occasion to which I referred, the Home Secretary said that he had no briefing, which, in a sense, brought the matter to a halt, and surprised me, as he has incredibly dexterous officials advising him. He could not say whether, under the terms of the Bill, it would be possible to display a Union flag. I simply suggested that, if the Bill required amendment to facilitate that option—I am now getting to the kernel of the argument, Mr. Wells, as I am speaking of my amendment—it might be amended in Committee. We can debate the matter here, have an argument and rejoice in discussing the issue.

You will be aware, Mr. Wells, as you are a well travelled individual, not least by virtue of your service on the International Development Committee, that many cars already carry the European symbol. I am not arguing whether they should or should not, or whether the law allows them to do so, because it manifestly does. Moreover, none of my hon. Friends is arguing for a moment that there is anything offensive about it. However, people should not be obliged to display a flag or symbol that they find personally objectionable.

I do not expect you, Mr. Wells, to indulge me on this point for any length of time, but there should be a respect for principle in these matters. I said that I regarded driving a vehicle as a matter of convenience—a means by which to get from A to B. Unlike many men, I do not regard myself as a good driver, although I hope that I am a safe one. Driving is merely an unavoidable evil in the conduct of my parliamentary life, and I avoid using the car as much as possible. However, the obligation to display a European Union flag on my car would stop me from using a car for the remainder of my parliamentary service and require me to travel by other means to my constituency. I am simply not prepared to display that symbol.

I am advised by the House of Commons Library that, although the display of the European symbol on a number plate is being permitted, it is illegal. Indeed, the Library has advised my hon. Friends and me that

New regulations allowing the use of the Euro sign are unlikely to come in until March 2001.

Therefore, those new regulations will be introduced some weeks after the conclusion of our proceedings.

My hon. Friends and I have not received specific information about those proposed regulations, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary has. I do not doubt that they exist in draft form, and I confidently anticipate that he can recollect them verbatim. It would help the Committee and clear up any confusion if he could do so from memory.

Until the new regulations come into force, existing rules apply, which allow the size of the numbers on a registration plate to be larger than they will be under the proposed new rules. Cars with new plates are on the road but, theoretically at least, they are illegal, and anyone using them could be stopped by the police. The position will not be resolved until either a court case takes place or the new regulations are introduced. Will the Under-Secretary confirm whether those new regulations will be introduced in March, or whether a delay is expected?

Our amendment would effect two things. First, it would forbid the Home Secretary to pass regulations that require—as opposed to entitle—a driver of a car to carry a European symbol on its plate. Secondly, it would give the vehicle owner a choice in what is included on the plate. That is consistent with the position taken by the Conservative opposition, which is to champion the cause of choice and diversity always, everywhere and with enthusiasm, when it is compatible with the rule of law. That is a principle that Conservative Members regularly celebrate.

People should be able to choose to have their national flag on the plate, be it Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or English, depending on their personal preference. I am in favour of what might be called a free market in these matters. I favour a ``do as you like'' approach, in so far as no one else's rights are infringed and no threat is posed to the law or public order.

I commend the amendments to the Committee—especially the new clause—strongly and with passion. I await with enthusiasm and a little trepidation the ministerial response, before which, to judge from his movements, we shall hear from the hon. Member for Eastleigh.

3:45 pm
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Mr David Chidgey (Eastleigh, Liberal Democrat)

I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham for his kind introduction.

I turn my attention, first, to new clause 5. It raises an issue that came to light on Second Reading, when the Government justified the introduction of the European symbol on number plates on the basis of identification of vehicles. That is a sound principle, with which I would not argue, as that is what a registration plate is intended for. However, I suspected that down the line was coming a European Union directive to insist that plates on cars registered in the European Union should carry the European symbol.

The matter introduces a paradox. If one is saying that the introduction of a symbol on a registration plate is a means of improving the identification of vehicles, to which we all subscribe, a requirement to display a national symbol on a number plate must also aid and improve identification. Never mind the philosophical argument about the pros and cons of displaying a European symbol on one's car; that is not the issue. The issue is whether doing so improves identification of the vehicle on the roads of Europe. If so, I return to the point that it cannot be objectionable, and it should not be prescribed that a requirement to display a national symbol would not improve that process.

I agree that we should not dilate on all sorts of symbols. The issue is the purpose and function of the registration plate, and how we might improve recognition and identification of vehicles throughout the European Union. I should therefore like to hear from the Minister whether he is trying to demur from admitting that the directive emanating from Brussels, to which we have signed up without thinking, is unnecessary. Perhaps surprisingly, as a Liberal Democrat, I accept that such things happen, and I fulminate against them, although often the disadvantages are outweighed by the benefits. On this issue, however, one cannot have it both ways. Either one thinks that having a symbol on a number plate improves identification and therefore one should specify that a national symbol helps that process or one should not legislate for a symbol at all.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that it is possible, as I fear it is—I do not want to put thoughts in hon. Members' heads, but I expect that they are there anyway—that one argument that might be used in support of a requirement to display the European Union flag would be that, if one were driving in another EU country, it would be the clearly identifiable symbol? The national flag, on the other hand, would be one with which police officers in other European countries would be woefully unfamiliar. Is it not a danger that the EU flag would be introduced and justified on the basis that it would be the one symbol that everybody recognised? Of course that would be disingenuous, dishonest and part of the ratchet of integration, but that is a strategy with which we are very familiar.

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Mr David Chidgey (Eastleigh, Liberal Democrat)

Whatever one's familiarity with such issues, I have not had the privilege of seeing the draft regulations, so I cannot comment on the purpose of their introduction. However, I would not have thought that it was beyond the wit of police officers throughout the EU to know the difference between the national symbols of EU countries. Indeed, some countries in the EU already have their national symbol on their standard registration plates. It is therefore not a new idea; there is nothing strange about it.

What I want to probe is why the Government, on Second Reading, used the argument that the requirement was to enable European vehicles to be better identified in the EU. I found that argument unsound, or at least only a half an argument, for rejecting the introduction of any other national symbol. However, I accept that we should not allow the registration plates of vehicles to become cluttered with information other than what is necessary to assist their identification. That is absolutely clear. The real issue is whether a symbol of the European Union, or that of a nation state of the EU, aids the identification of the vehicle.

Amendment No. 55 would delete the term

whether relating to their size, shape, material of manufacture or otherwise.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Buckingham when he expressed his concern about the word ``otherwise''. His point was genuine and I very much hope that the Minister can give some examples of what ``otherwise'' could mean. I am sure that he will be constructive and enlighten us about the various ideas that he and his brilliant team of officials have come up with of how they can improve the registration plate by prescribing specifications using the word ``otherwise''.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

Let me turn first to amendments Nos. 55 and 56, to which the hon. Member for Buckingham spoke. Amendment No. 55 would limit the ability to prescribe specifications for registration plates to size, shape and material of manufacture. It is an unnecessary amendment as it would render the legislation less flexible. It would restrict the intended purpose of the clause in that it would not allow for the prescribing of microchips or bar codes, which come under the term ``otherwise'' to be included in registration plates.

The hon. Member for Vale of York has already publicly called for bar codes. Chips and bar codes could include details such as engine numbers, vehicle identification numbers and references to the manufacturers of the plates—all factors that are designed to link the number plate to the vehicle and to improve the audit trail in respect of the number plates. I am sure that, on the whole, the hon. Member for Buckingham would not want to exclude from the Bill such proper provisions.

Amendment No. 56 gives the impression that it is intended to limit the power of the Secretary of State, but the end result might not be different from the clause. It would limit the information that could be included on the number plates, along with the registration mark, to one type only: information linking the registration plate to the vehicle for which it is intended. Given that that is mainly the purpose of the clause, there cannot be much difference between the official Opposition and the Government on such a matter.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

Will the Under-Secretary allow me to intervene?

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

Let me develop my argument. The amendment would stop the inclusion of information that is intended to make the plate more secure, such as a manufacturer's serial number, which would make the plate more difficult to copy. I doubt that the hon. Gentleman would want that to happen, which is why I want him to withdraw the amendment.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

In so far as the Under-Secretary wants the flexibility to allow greater security, he is right. If my amendment is less effective than his unamended clause in the achievement of that end, I am happy to accept the merit of his argument. However, if in other respects my amendment has mainly the same meaning as the unamended clause, it is a pity that that is not immediately obvious. May not that be because my provision is slightly better worded than that in the Bill?

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

For all the reasons that I have given, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's amendment is better worded than the clause. We are about to come to the piece de resistance of our proceedings. Given the deep anxieties that lie behind amendments Nos. 55 and 56 and which are more explicit in new clause 5, I hope to offer him powerful reassurances. There is and will be no obligation to display a flag or symbol that some people may find distasteful. I should sit down now, because what I have said so far meets all the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentleman. However, Opposition Members have raised other issues, and I hope to assist them.

The purpose of new clause 5 seems to be to prevent the Secretary of State from prescribing that regulation plates should contain the Euro symbol but to allow for people to opt to display a symbol of their choice. At least we understand where we are going with the new clause. It is possible, but rather difficult, to believe it in someone as perspicacious and intelligent as the hon. Member for Buckingham, that people may misunderstand the current use of the European Union symbol. I remind the Committee that under the Vienna and Geneva conventions on circulating vehicles, an international symbol is required under international law. That symbol shows letters in black for each nation on a white oval background, which include the GB, F, E, D, IRL symbols with which we are all so familiar.

Council regulation 2411/98 on distinguishing signs provides that member states must recognise the EU symbol instead of the international one where a member state's domestic legislation requires that vehicles registered in its territory should display plates showing an EU symbol in the left side of the registration plate. The purpose of that regulation is to stop the UK disallowing vehicles from a country that requires such a symbol from circulating in the UK. I emphasise with all the might, force and persuasiveness that I can muster that it does not require the UK to adopt the symbol.

4:00 pm
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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his clarification of that point. Will be confirm that the Council regulation, the number of which he rattled off with palpable relish, is already in force; or is it yet to come into force? That is my first inquiry, but I may have others.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

One might almost admire the hon. Gentleman's remoteness from the practices of the European Union, but /98 implies that it came into force in 1998—[Laughter.]

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I do not think that the Under-Secretary is right. Labour Members are indulging in a good deal of tittering, but the Under-Secretary would do well to attend to what I have to say. He is right that I do not take a close and continuing interest in all the drivel that comes out of the Europe Union, but I believe that /98 indicates the date upon which the regulation was passed rather than the date upon which it takes effect. I should be grateful for confirmation of that important distinction.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is right; it is the date of implementation. I fully admit that I erred; I was rather carried away by my teasing of the hon. Gentleman. As far as I am aware, the regulation is in force; if I hear to the contrary during the remaining moments, I shall certainly inform the Committee.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

Before the Under-Secretary goes any further—I am excited that we are making progress—will he confirm that, so far as he is aware, the European Commission does not intend to require the display of the European Union flag? Secondly, will he confirm that, if such a proposal was made, the Government would argue against it in the Council of Ministers, and if necessary vote against it?

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

I have no knowledge of any intention on the part of the European Union to make further regulations that would make an EU symbol obligatory on number plates. However, I cannot issue the assurance that he seeks regarding the actions of a future Government. It is never appropriate for any Government or any Minister to make binding commitments for a future Government. If I may say so, that is precisely what we see in his party's policy on the single European currency.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I do not accept that. We could have a fascinating debate about the single European currency, but I doubt that it would be in order. The Under-Secretary's position on this matter is now really progressing to farce, and I am disappointed in him that he should be so disingenuous. Does he accept that I am not suggesting that he should seek to fetter or trammel the sovereignty of a future Government, and I confirm to him that a Conservative Government would have no intention whatever of accepting such a proposal. Will he just confirm that this Government, of which he is a distinguished and rising member—[Interruption.] When the Under-Secretary has concluded his sedentary exchange with the Whip—will he confirm that this Government will resist and vote against any such proposal?

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

I am afraid that I am not in a position to do that. It is not my practice to answer hypothetical questions. If the hon. Gentleman thought about this seriously, he would realise that somebody in my position, as a mere Under-Secretary of State, is not in a position to make commitments on behalf of the Government. Nor can the hon. Gentleman, from his modest standing in the parliamentary constellation, make commitments on behalf of his party. Can the hon. Gentleman really guarantee that a Conservative party led by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would not be willing to sign up to a commitment regarding the display of the EU symbol?

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I am happy to respond to that point and, although I cannot make a commitment on behalf of a Conservative party by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, and it is not entirely unconceivable that he might go along with such a proposal, I can, I think, make a fairly confident commitment on behalf of the party led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), that we will not make such a proposal. I was asking the Under-Secretary to make a commitment on behalf of this Government led by this Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Before the Minister of State continues to chunter from a sedentary position, I hope that he will bear with me because he may hear something of interest to him. Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me, as an earnest of my sincerity and strength of feeling, that in the inconceivable eventuality that a Conservative Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks were to make such a proposal or fail to vote against such a proposal, they would immediately have to dispense with my services as a Member of the Conservative Front-Bench team?

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Mr Charles Clarke (Minister of State, Home Office; Norwich South, Labour)

Tory Front-Bench Member resigns.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. I hope, for the benefit of the efficient dispatch of this Committee's business, that we will not follow the line that has been suggested to the Minister, and that we will not speculate on the leadership and/or intentions of the Opposition or any member of them or of the Government on this issue.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

You are very cruel, Mr. Wells. At least let me offer the reassurance to the hon. Member for Buckingham that the Government have no plans to require people to display a EU symbol. Even if they did, they would not consider such a symbol to be part of the registration mark of the vehicle. We do not consider it desirable to clutter the registration plate with symbols and we consider that it is undesirable to allow the vehicle keeper to do so. In other words, the Government are unenthusiastic about the appearance of extraneous marks on the number plate that might serve to detract from the security of the vehicle.

Although the new clause seeks to prevent the Secretary of State from requiring the display of the EU symbol, which I repeat that he has no intention of doing, it allows the keeper to choose to display a symbol. Proposed new subsection (27A)(2) would give the owner of a vehicle the right to include any flag of his or her choice on the registration plate. It is not even specified that this must be a national flag. My hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green asked how the hon. Member for Buckingham would feel about National Front-style designs—presumably he meant SS-style flashes—on a number plate. I wonder how I would feel about a swastika on a number plate.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. I have already ruled out of order references to other symbols of the kind that the Minister suggests.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

I note what the hon. comrade for Colchester says.

It may be feared that clause 35 introduces a power to prescribe EU marks as special registration marks, but such a symbol is not likely to be one that links the plate to the vehicle or secures the identity of the plate.

New regulations made under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 will be introduced from 1 September, not March, and will provide for the optional use of the GB national identifier and the Euro symbol. The GB sign is the international distinguishing sign contained within road traffic conventions. As the use of the Euro symbol will be optional, there is no need to specify that the Secretary of State must not require its use, as the new clause would do.

The Government do not wish to encourage the customisation of number plates. It is important that standards are set to ensure that registration marks can be easily read by roadside cameras and witnesses. Allowing motorists the choice of any flag would give scope for a potentially bewildering array of symbols that would sow confusion and would not necessarily identify the country of origin. For all those reasons, and given all the reassurances that I have provided, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will rest content, and not press the new clause.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

For much of his speech, the Under-Secretary seemed firmly opposed to any obligation with respect to the display of the European flag. I was encouraged by that, because he spoke forcefully. However, I sometimes wonder whether his natural tendency to express himself with vigour might lead him to use greater vigour than subsequent changes in Government policy would render desirable. I fear that occasionally he may give hostages to fortune. Perhaps in anticipation of that possibility, he at one point retreated into a style of which Sir Humphrey would fully approve. He spoke of the Government's having no plans to impose an obligation to display a European Union flag. I was mightily worried then, in the light of several other occasions when the Government have stated that they have no plans to take certain action. I shall not dilate on the point, Mr. Wells, because you would not permit it, but to provide context to my point, I shall mention that they had no plans to raise taxes, after which there were massive tax increases.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Yes, that is all out of order.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

As you say, that is out of order, so I shall not pursue it. Of course, the Government had no plans to introduce higher education tuition fees, then revoked their commitment. So I was worried by the Under-Secretary's statement.

Everyone listening to the Committee's proceedings will have noticed how the Under-Secretary danced around the question whether always to oppose any European recommendation or proposed directive on the same point. He danced around it by saying that he could not make a commitment. The Under-Secretary is genuinely self-effacing, but he over-egged the pudding. Even though he sits on the Committee on behalf of his Department, and as the agent of the Secretary of State, he sought to persuade us that he was merely a junior, a humble cog in the wheel, a bit-part player in the grand, national drama that is the Vehicles (Crime) Bill and the Standing Committee consideration thereof. The argument that was spun was, ``I am just here to deal with the matters at a lowly level. It is not for me to question, but to deliver. I cannot make policy.'' I was worried about that.

I would much appreciate it if the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions were to write to me in person to confirm that, as far as he is concerned, the Government will not accede to any request that an obligation be imposed upon people.

4:15 pm
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Mr Charles Clarke (Minister of State, Home Office; Norwich South, Labour)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has made the position clear.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

He made it clear that he thought that the presence of extraneous symbols was unnecessary. He used the term ``clutter up''. He did not want the registration plate to be cluttered up with all sorts of symbols. He did not think that that was a good idea, but he also said, ``I cannot make policy on these matters. This is not a matter for me. I'm just a junior Minister, and I can't bind my successors''. He could at least say to me, ``Well, I'll ask my boss to confirm that the Government have no intention of agreeing to anything of this sort, and would strongly oppose it''.

I am beseeching the Under-Secretary. I am waiting to see whether there is some signal of intent, but all I get is a cursed look.

Mr. Hill rose—

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

Ah, the Under-Secretary has been provoked.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

No, I have not been provoked. I am rising to the aid of the hon. Gentleman; I could simply remain seated in silence, which would leave him in an uncomfortable position.

The words that I have used have been considered. They have been fairly unqualified in their expression and purpose. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Hansard record, he will be reassured about the Government's intentions. If there is a problem beyond that, there will be ample opportunities in the course of our consideration of the Bill, both in the Committee and elsewhere, for him to revert to this issue—which I rather suspect that he will.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

The Under-Secretary is wise to suspect that I will. It is unlikely that my hon. Friends and I will have nothing further to say on the subject. We believe that we are on to something here. We are suspicious, not so much of the Under-Secretary's intentions but of those of the European Union. I wonder whether we are, by virtue of this permissive provision, being softened up for the introduction in the short, medium or long term of something more prescriptive and exacting. That would be unsatisfactory. Apart from anything else, that would force me to honour my commitment to travel to and from the Buckingham constituency by another method, which would not be a pleasant state of affairs for me.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I sincerely hope that it will not be necessary to travel by the Eurostar. I am bound to say to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) that such an arrangement would not only be inconvenient to me, but would be unsatisfactory for the constituents of Buckingham . They are passionate believers in the self-government of the United Kingdom, the right to hire and fire our rulers and the freedom to chart our own course as an independent nation, unmolested by the deprivations of a collectivist European government.

It is in that condition that we wish to continue. For the time being, I will rest content with the reassurances that the Under-Secretary has offered. I may want to return to the matter at a later date, but on the strength of what the Under-Secretary has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Pope.]

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 16 January at half-past Ten o'clock.