I beg to move,
That the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001 (S.I., 2001, No. 561), dated 26th February 2001, a copy of which was laid before the House on 28th February, be revoked.
The motion is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and other colleagues. It concerns a highly controversial statutory instrument and two important issues, which is why, unusually, we have requested that it be dealt with on the Floor of the House. When debating statutory instruments in Committee, on a number of occasions I have spoken about the importance of the matter under consideration, only to be asked why, in that case, I did not deal with it on the Floor of the House. Tonight, therefore, we are in the Chamber to deal with several issues relating to the road vehicles regulations.
Basically, two issues are involved. First, there are the proposals for a number plate with emblems on it—the letters GB and the European Union flag. Secondly, there is the matter of American cars, which involves deeper issues. If the regulation is passed, it will be difficult for many in the American car business to continue and people may be forced out of it.
I shall begin with the first and most important issue. In this country, we have a long tradition of not having any logos or flags on our number plates except a registration number. In 1998, the Government agreed in Europe that we would move to ensure greater commonality on number plates and would introduce the statutory instrument, which makes provision for plates to show the GB symbol and the EU logo. There is a choice, as people can continue with existing number plates, with nothing else on them. However, as we have already seen, even before the regulations become law, car manufacturers have been producing vehicles with the new logos.
May I ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), whether it is legal for manufacturers to produce number plates to the new standard, which the House has not approved? For many people, having a symbol with the EU logo on a number plate is upsetting. Symbols and flags are important and carry meaning. Tonight, we stand in a palace above which flies the Union Jack flag from Victoria Tower. This is about who we are and to whom we owe allegiance.
If the nation is going to depart from having a plain number plate and have one with logos, I take exception to the fact that the regulations will mean that it will bear the GB symbol and a Euro flag, and that if people wish to put a Union Jack on their number plate, they could be criminalised and fined up to £1,000.
This is important for Back Benchers like me. In view of the significant issue raised by my hon. Friend, can we have an assurance that, as we are likely to have a Conservative Government soon, they will introduce legislation to change the position and ensure that people will be able to have a Union Jack on their car number plate if they wish? Can my hon. Friend give a clear commitment on behalf of the Conservative party, particularly as it is likely that there will be an election soon? Many people would love to have a clear answer, which we always get from those on the Conservative Front Bench.
As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said, for many people, this is quite an important issue. We have just been joined by a Labour Whip, but it should be recorded that only he and the Minister are on the Government Benches, and no one else. It is 9.30 pm, and I cannot believe that Government Members are canvassing in their constituencies. Where is new Labour on this important issue, as defined by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms)? Hansard should record just how lightly the Government view the importance of having a saltire on number plates in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If people wish to have a Euro logo and a GB symbol on number plates, we are not against that. However, we are in favour of choice. If people wish to have the Union Jack on their number plate, they should be allowed to do so. Equally, if they wish to have the Scottish saltire or the Welsh dragon, we would be perfectly happy with that.
The statutory instrument has been laid by a Government who have no sense of what our nation is about—a Government who gave us the contents of the dome, and who do not understand the deep importance that the symbols of our nation hold for the vast majority of our constituents. That is why the Conservative party has already announced that it will revisit the regulation. As I said, in government we will allow people to have the Union Jack, the Scottish saltire or the Welsh dragon displayed on their car, if that is their wish.
Symbols are important, as can be seen around the world. The current debate in the United States about the old confederate flag in the south shows that that symbol still stirs great passions. The Union Jack stirs passions in this country. The Government aim to introduce regulations under which the European Union flag would be allowed, but displaying the Union Jack would be criminalised and people could be fined for doing it. That would be extremely unfortunate. Our position is clear. I should like to hear from the Minister a full explanation as to why his Government cannot support the display of the Union Jack as an important symbol on a car.
It is interesting that the position of the Labour party in opposition was different. The then shadow Secretary of State for Transport, now the Minister for the Environment, wrote on 16 August 1995 to T. R. McLennan of Jepson & Company of Sheffield:
Thank you for your letter regarding the harmonisation of number plates throughout Europe.
At the present time, the Labour party has no plans to replace the British number plate with an E.U. flag and typestyle plate. We are also of the belief that the British number plate is probably the most legible and easily memorised plate in the world and that reducing the size of the characters would be a mistake.
There we have it: the Labour party in opposition saying something different from the Labour party in government. If this important matter is the subject of a deferred Division tomorrow, the Conservative party will make its feelings known and will vote against.
A further important issue is the problem faced by American car owners. The number plate on American cars is smaller than that on British cars. The American cars, which are imported into the UK mainly by businesses, have a 12 in by 6 in number plate with motor cycle-style font lettering. The regulation would make it difficult for any such car number plate to be legal. At present, it is not the easiest thing in the world to become an American car owner. A number of businesses import the vehicles, which must undergo single vehicle approval.
The regulation would mean that modifications would have to be made to the rear of the vehicles in order for them to be legal. That would be entirely against the principle of SVA, the purpose of which is to certify that the vehicle is safe. It would not be a simple job to put a larger number plate on many of those vehicles, because safety regulations on extended projections from vehicles, particularly sharp edges, mean that alterations would be necessary to the boot and the lights, which would to some extent ruin the line of the vehicle and diminish its appeal.
In the UK there are between 50,000 and 75,000 American cars, and 500 to 600 are imported each year. That represents an important minority in the UK. The individuals who participate in that business do not feel loved, either by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions or by the Government, because of what is proposed.
There has been endless correspondence between American car owners and importers, and various other individuals. So far, those who are anxious about the regulations do not seem to have had much joy from DETR or the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. They have been making suggestions about how their vehicles could be made legal. For example, there is a specialised vehicle category in which their cars could be included. They think that they should be able to carry on purchasing and driving the vehicles if they continue to use smaller number plates with the motor cycle-style font.
There are currently 175,000 motor cycles in the UK whose number plates have a smaller font than those of other vehicles. Nobody says that reading those number plates is a problem. One should also take into account the fact that the number plates of most motor cycles are illuminated by one light, whereas an American car with a similar number plate will have two lights, so the characters will be easier to recognise.
The key point is this: if the Government do not recognise that people with American cars have a special case, they will be criminalising all such people and causing great difficulty for the businesses that are involved. So far, those businesses have spent more than £300,000 in trying to fight the regulations. They have been given some comfort by the European Commission, which has said that, on open-market grounds, there is no need for the Government to encompass many of the vehicles within the regulations.
In a letter to Mr. Harry Tune, the DVLA vehicle policy group set out some of the reasons why it does not wish to allow people with American vehicles to use number plates with a smaller font. The letter states
Extending the use of the smaller font to vehicles imported from America was carefully considered during the consultation period. The police and road safety organisations had serious concerns over the ability of witnesses to read the smaller characters with the naked eye. The Government is keen to bear down on criminal activity involving the use of the motor vehicles. In many cases the successful
apprehension and conviction of criminals relies on a witness sighting a number plate and being able to recall a part of its number. The success rate will be substantially enhanced with a standardised font as provided for in the new regulations.
That is clearly nonsense. As I mentioned, a car's number plate will be illuminated by two lights, so it will be easier to read than those of motor cycles, but apart from that, a Buick, Pontiac or Chevrolet will be one of the most easily recognisable vehicles in the UK. I put it to the Under-Secretary that a person who was going to do a blag in Streatham would not turn up outside a bank in an American car.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Surely, a person who is doing a blag in Streatham or wherever else will be more likely to use a motor cycle, which would not be covered by the regulations. The Government have got it wrong on both counts.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.
Many people enjoy owning American cars. They take great pride in their vehicles and like them to be admired. If the driver of such a vehicle breaks the law, it will not be the most difficult thing in the world to track down the perpetrator, given the limited number of these vehicles on our roads. I think, therefore, that the argument that the regulations should be strictly applied is wrong in this instance. The Government could easily agree to the motor cycle-style font and accept that the cars are easy to recognise on our roads.
The various individuals who are involved have been in touch with the European Commission to ask whether the Government can exempt them from particular aspects of the regulations. I should be interested to know whether there has been any correspondence between the European Commission and DETR. My noble Friend Earl Attlee asked a question in another place about whether relevant letters had been sent by the European Commission in relation to the free movement of markets. The answer was no, but I understand that there has been further correspondence. I should be interested to know whether the Minister could confirm that.
The regulations do not do justice to our national symbols and flag. They do not allow people to exercise choice. If they were not amended, all manufacturers would produce vehicles that displayed the GB symbol and EU flag. They would resemble Henry Ford's Model T Ford, which one could buy provided that it was black. Number plates displaying the GB symbol and EU flag would become standard. If we move away from the normal British number plate, which displays no symbols, we should be able to opt for the display of the Union Jack.
In eager anticipation of the Under-Secretary's comments, would my hon. Friend care to reflect on the fact that in the Standing Committee that considered the Vehicles (Crime) Bill in January, the Under-Secretary unwisely said that there was and would be no obligation to display a flag or other symbol that some people might find distasteful? If the production practices that my hon. Friend predicted occur, people will find themselves in that predicament.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The regulations risk putting American car importers and enthusiasts out of business. We are considering a small number of people who nevertheless invest a lot of money in their businesses. They fight a constant uphill battle with the SVA regulations in order to get vehicles into the country. They are not the big battalions; they are not major international firms. They are individuals and I do not understand why Parliament should not protect their right to conduct their business and provide products that people wish to buy and cherish. I hope that the Under-Secretary will consider the matter carefully and amend the regulations so that businesses, jobs and livelihoods are not lost.
I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said. I want to focus on his second point because I have a constituency interest in the matter, and it is also important to many vehicle and business owners throughout the country. Livelihoods are at stake. Although I accept that Conservative Members and others wish to raise issues of principle about flags, I believe that our priority should be businesses.
The American Carriage Company on London road in Kingston is a successful, long-established family firm, which is owned by the Ouvaroffs. It could be put out of business if the Government do not have a speedy, major rethink about the regulations' application to a tiny section of the car market, namely the imported American car market, which the hon. Member for Poole mentioned.
Some owners of American cars live in my constituency. Mr. Don Rolt, who owns an 88 Pontiac Fiero, is worried about the implications of the regulations for him and other owners and aficionados of American cars.
We are considering between 50,000 and 75,000 car owners; that is a lot of people. I should not be surprised if every Member of Parliament had a constituent who owned an American car and could be affected by the regulations. Between 100 and 200 businesses will also be affected. I want to explain the services that they provide to our constituents. About 40 businesses and organisations are directly involved in the importation and sale of American cars. They are involved in sourcing bespoke vehicles. We are talking about a very low-volume market: not many end-users desire these cars. That is why the sales and importing business is so specialised.
As well as those involved in the sales and importing businesses, many people are involved in after-sales service. They service the cars, provide the equipment to do so, and ensure that all the Government safety requirements are dealt with. Many people are employed, including qualified mechanics and servicing personnel. In addition to the 30 or so servicing businesses, about 20 companies are involved in supplying parts to the garages and owners who service the cars. People specialise in providing certain parts, such as the special glass and tyres that American cars need.
It does not end there. Other businesses are involved, including specialist insurance companies. In the larger insurance companies, there are special sections dedicated to insuring these cars, which are often of very high value and require specialist insurance capabilities. Finance houses and warranty suppliers are involved, and there are also clubs where people who own the vehicles get together and organise. We are, therefore, talking about quite an extensive number of people and businesses.
The Minister should be in no doubt about the effect of the measure. Some people say that this is a small niche market. Compared with the overall market, of course it is. However, a lot of people and businesses are involved, and that is why we should pay special attention to the American car business. I hope that the Minister will show some movement on this matter, and show that he is sympathetic to these demands.
I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said about the American car market with some interest. He said that all constituencies probably contained owners of American cars. That may well be the case, although no one from my constituency has contacted me on the matter. However, between 5 and 10 per cent. of my constituents drive around with a Welsh flag incorporated in their number plates. The proposal, as well as affecting American cars, will make criminals of those ordinary, law-abiding citizens. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address that point as well.
As I said earlier, I support everything that the hon. Member for Poole said, and I intend to address that point. However, I want to concentrate on the people that I have been describing, because they have businesses and they have investments in these cars, some of which are worth an awful lot of money. They put their hard-earned savings into them. Their hobby, their pleasure, their pride and joy is going to be affected by the regulations, and I make no apology for taking up some of the House's time discussing the issue. The regulation is not justified. It is bad government, bad economics and bad politics.
I want to explain a little bit about the technicalities. The hon. Member for Poole performed some of that task for me, but it is important for the House to realise what is involved. This is, as the hon. Gentleman said, about the size and space allowed for the fixing of a rear registration plate. If the regulation goes through unamended, or is not amended in due course, more than 90 per cent. of left-hand drive American cars imported to the UK will have to be modified. The hon. Gentleman went into some detail about the modifications required. If anything, I think he underplayed the problem of making the modifications.
One of the reasons people own American cars is for their look, their aesthetic value. [Interruption.] People drive round in them and want people to look at them; they want people to see that they have an American car. They are proud of their car, and quite rightly so. However, if they have to modify the boot and the rear of the car, it will change it to some degree. It will no longer be a genuine American car, and a lot of people will no longer want to buy it. The modification will reduce these cars' value.
I am really quite shocked by what I have just heard, and I am not easily shocked. Did the hon. Gentleman, while making his point about the attractiveness and physical beauty of American cars, hear the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) chunter from a sedentary position "No style"? I do not want to be unduly provocative—I rarely am—but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it ill behoves an enthusiast for the displaying of the EU symbol to lecture others about style?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his usual extravagant manner—flamboyant, perhaps, or even stylish—but I do not want to be tempted down that route. I have serious points to make which are not about style or substance.
I was talking about modifications. It is not as if those who are importing American cars, or buying them, were not prepared to make modifications—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston listens, he will realise how serious this is. People in his constituency will be affected. The hon. Gentleman laughs again: I find that shocking.
Those who buy such cars have to make modifications in order to conform to regulations already imposed on them by the British Government—modifications involving their lights, for example. It is not as if car owners and businesses were not used to making modifications; the question is whether this is a modification too far, which will completely change the way in which people view cars. I believe that it will. I believe that it will eventually destroy the market—not the overall market for cars, which will continue because, I am delighted to say, we have a European single market, but the market in the United Kingdom that is owned by British business people and used by British customers.
People will go abroad, to continental Europe, to buy their American cars. That means that we shall be exporting jobs. It will be child's play for someone who wants to buy an American car to get to Holland, where the car will be approved by the Dutch authorities and can then be imported. The Government and other authorities here will have to accept that, because the car will have been approved by another member state. The Government have been defeated in their regulatory enthusiasm by the fact that we have a single market.
This is an example of the European Commission's riding to the help of British industry. The British Government, in this instance, are doing very little to support British industry. I have a letter from D-G XV, which was sent to someone who wanted to complain about the Government's draft regulation, signed by an official called S. Lecrenier. She—I think it is a she—says at the end of the letter that the Commission is to call on the British authorities to include left-hand vehicles in the specialised vehicles category. The hon. Member for Poole mentioned that.
The Government would have the support of the European Commission if they decided to exempt imported left-hand drive American cars. They would not be isolated; they would be joining the Commission in ensuring that there was no barrier to trade. In this case, the European arguments are on our side and also on the Conservatives'—which is good, as it happens very rarely.
The hon. Member for Poole made a couple of points about the way in which the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Trade and Industry had gone about things. Their initial consultation suggested that they were quite happy for registration plates the size of those on motor cycles to be fixed on all vehicles, but after that, and their second consultation, they changed their minds. Worse still, during the consultation those whom I am representing tonight—people who import American cars—were not themselves consulted, and received no consultation documents. They therefore could not register their disapproval at that stage, which meant that the regulatory impact assessment made by the Government following the first consultation did not take account of the industry—of all the people who would be affected. The whole consultation exercise has been discredited, which is another reason why the Government should think again.
When we begin to analyse the pros and cons of the fact that the Government have yet to provide an exemption for imported American vehicles, we are prompted to ask what is behind it. Why are they deliberately pushing the regulations, which will hit that small and entrepreneurial sector so hard? One thinks that there might be some conspiracy. Perhaps it is the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders in this case that is trying to ensure that there is no extra competition in the sale of cars.
I would not want to impugn that organisation unfairly, but the Government are rightly putting pressure on it, to reduce car prices and perhaps this is one of the pay-offs. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that that is not the case. If it is not, I wonder whether he could comment on something that I have heard: officials at the DTI who are responsible for trying to promote competition in the motor vehicle market are concerned about the attitude of DETR. That is not joined-up government. One part of Whitehall is saying, "Let us promote competition" and another part wants to pass protectionist regulations.
The hon. Gentleman shows that he knows nothing about the subject, because the cars that he is talking about have regulatory approval as a class. The cars that we are talking about must go through single vehicle approval. General Motors and Ford make, to my knowledge, very few cars in that sector. We are not talking about the mass car market. We are talking about a niche market. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to say that I am wrong, I hope that he will intervene on me formally to try to make his point and to prove his case, rather than shout from a sedentary position, which certainly does not become him.
I do not believe that the Government have made any attempt to defend the proposal. The letters that I have seen passing between the industry and the Department are unconvincing. The argument does not stand up. I am sure that the Minister will use the debate to reflect very carefully on the matter and to bring his civil servants to book. I do not believe that he intends to damage the sector. He needs to ensure that his civil servants are not misleading him about that sector.
There have been other cases—for example, those involving type approval—where bureaucratic pressure and problems have been put in the way of that reputable car market sector. It has had to battle at great legal expense, employing expensive QCs, going to Brussels, regulating, and getting Brussels to tell the British civil service that it should not be gold-plating regulations from Brussels. It is having to fight the whole time. This is not the right way to promote business. The Minister is in a position to bring those civil servants to book, to listen to the Commission and to British industry, and to get it right.
I want to talk about the issue that many other hon. Members wish to talk about. I agree—I signed the early-day motion—that if the Government are, through the regulations, introducing a new option to have a flag on the registration plate, that option could be multiple. One understands the argument following on from the discussions in Europe for the right to have a European flag. That enables people to meet the requirements of the Vienna convention without necessarily having the nationality indicated on the registration plate when they go through the countries of the European Union, although hon. Members may wish to correct me on that point. One can understand why the option came about in the first place. The Government have the chance, because they want to implement the regulations and to give people that option, to give people other options.
That has never been done by a previous Government, so let us not have too much hypocrisy. The previous Government did not want to make that option available. When Conservative Members speak later, I hope that they will realise that their Government did not make that option available to people.
I am tempted to use a French phrase—revenons à nos moutons—to come back to the point that I was making, but I am sure that some Conservative Members would not appreciate it.
If we are making new regulations to allow the European flag on registration plates, it makes sense to allow some flexibility. There is no European plot and no harmonisation of registration regulation is proposed. It will be an option, and we should remember that no right is being removed, only given. The real issue is how many other rights should be given, and I agree with the hon. Member for Poole that we should have the right to have the UK, Welsh and Scottish flags, as well as the flag of St. George. I speak as a pro-European, because it is an issue of choice.
The Minister may argue that he cannot act because of problems with space on the registration plate or with visibility, but those problems are not insurmountable. If a European flag can be fitted on a registration plate, so can another flag. I hope that the Minister will show flexibility in the American case and in this.
The hon. Gentleman is right that it is possible to have the union flag in place of the Euro stars. He may care to examine my car, which is standing at the Members' Entrance and which displays an illegal number plate with a blue strip down the left-hand side, proudly bearing a union flag.
That does not surprise me.
I hope that the Minister will not be intimidated by the anti-Europeans who will contribute to the debate. This is not a debate between anti-Europeans and pro-Europeans, although some of the hon. Members present are certainly more Eurosceptic than Europhile. The issue is one of choice, and I hope that the Minister will give the English, Scottish and Welsh peoples that choice.
I speak as someone who is Welsh and proud to be so, and British and proud to be so. That is something that some Labour Members fail to understand. I do not see why I as a Welshman ought not to have the opportunity to display the Welsh flag on my car registration plate if I so wish. Indeed, when I was in Wales a month ago I saw a Welsh flag displayed on somebody's registration plate. I have also seen Union Jacks and Scottish solents—[Hon. Members: "Saltires!"] That is what I mean.
The Government should say whether the Home Office has given guidance and advice to police forces throughout the country as to whether people who display symbols other than the union flag will be prosecuted. I pointed out a union flag on a car to someone the other day. I said that that was illegal and that the owner could be prosecuted. I was asked who would be stupid enough to prosecute people for displaying the union flag on their cars, and in reply I asked who would be stupid enough to prosecute someone for selling bananas by the pound instead of the kilogram. That happened the other day in Sunderland, where there is clearly no other crime.
The Government say that they are tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, yet they have created a new crime. There are fewer police on the streets than four years ago, but the police will have to check out cars to see if they are displaying anything other than the union symbol.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said that between 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. of his constituents drive cars that proudly display the Welsh flag. They are breaking the law, and are therefore criminals. They can be stopped by the Welsh police or their counterparts in the United Kingdom, and prosecuted for displaying the fact that they are Welsh.
That comes very rich from this Government, given that the census forms that we have to return by 29 April allow people to say that they are Scottish or from Northern Ireland, but not that they are Welsh or English. What is wrong with the Government? Why do they not believe that people should be able to say whether they are Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, or English?
Although I recognise the right of people to put a Union Jack on their cars if that is what they want, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that our advice to the thousands of drivers in Wales whose cars bear the Welsh flag should be that they carry on showing the flags and ignore these stupid regulations? If the Government insist on introducing them, they will be bringing the law into infamy.
This is a bad law. A law that is widely flouted needs to be looked at again. I do not believe that the consultation procedure that the Government followed was right. They did not consult widely with the motoring organisations, which would have told them that the introduction of space for symbols on registration plates would mean that people in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England would want to display their nationality. People would also want to display the Union Jack as well. I cannot believe that that was not pointed out to the Government in the consultation that was held.
The Minister must tell the House what the guidance is. Will people driving around with their national flags displayed proudly on their cares be told that they are breaking the law? Will they run the risk of being stopped by the police and prosecuted, and of having to pay a fine of £1,000? If the Government want to create martyrs, they are going about it the right way—they will create thousands, as people ensure that they change their registration plates to show the flags of the nations of which they are proud.
I am not one of the nutters who wants to throw up whenever they see the euro symbol—[Interruption.] However, I do not jump for joy when I see it. In contrast, when I see the Union Jack, there is a flutter in my heart. When I see the Welsh flag, there is a bit of hwyl about me. I am also proud to represent an English constituency. Thank goodness the Government had the good grace not to insult us all by having this debate yesterday. I am also proud whenever I see England playing football or the flag of St. George being displayed throughout England and people wearing red roses, as they did yesterday. It is quite right that they should be proud as well.
I find it incredible that we do not have the Minister for patriotism here. During one of their frights, the Government decided that they were being charged with not being sufficiently patriotic. They therefore dredged up a Minister who not many people had heard of and gave him the title of Minister for patriotism.
The Government must give the House an explanation. They have an opportunity to do so tonight. It has already been noted that there are no Scottish or Welsh Members of Parliament on the Labour Benches for this debate. Because we are using this dreadful procedure, people debating the issue are not allowed to vote on it tonight. The vote will have to be deferred until tomorrow. I will be looking very carefully at how Labour Members representing Scottish and Welsh constituencies vote. The people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ought to know exactly how their Members of Parliament vote on this issue.
I am staggered at the necessity for this debate. We are given a choice that we can either display the European Union symbol or nothing. It is Europe or nothing with this Government, and that sickens me. I am proud to be British, I am proud to be Welsh, and I demand the right to be able to display those symbols on my car if I so wish and not have the European Union pushed down my throat.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that if the Conservative party were returned to power, it would be content with the flexibility that we seek. I am pleased at that indication, although it may be academic for the next few years. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly.
While I am at it, perhaps I should admonish the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for being so personal about the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and saying that he throws up whenever he sees the European Union symbol. That was really out of order.
In an exchange on this subject between my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and the Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman said:
The Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive were consulted on that and … raised no objection.
I am happy for the issue to be raised in Committee."—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 31.]
To my certain knowledge, neither body was consulted. That brings me back to what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said. What kind of consultation process was this?
What makes it even worse is that quite recently, when the matter was discussed by the National Assembly, virtually all Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Members decided that this flexibility should be introduced and that people should have the right to display the Welsh flag if they wanted to do so. That opinion is now being totally ignored by the Government. They want to steamroller this measure through with an apparent complete disregard for the feelings of thousands of people in Wales, criminalising them on the way. Interestingly, they are taking the same approach as they did when denying Welsh people the right to say that they were Welsh in the census, given what has been said about the Welsh "tick box".
The Government are not listening to the people of Wales. It is the wrong way to proceed, and I am sure that they will pay a heavy price for it in the next few weeks.
One of my constituents, a professor of physics at the university of Aberystwyth, is currently in Davos in Switzerland undertaking international research. He drives a great deal on the continent, between Wales and his international work. He has a doctorate in physics, and he happens to be my parliamentary agent. He will be criminalised by this measure because he, a committed European, chooses to display the Welsh flag on his car. Is that the sort of person whom the Government should seek to criminalise?
Absolutely not. That gentleman is one of many law-abiding people in Wales who will similarly fall foul of this wrong, stupid and senseless regulation. My hon. Friend has spoken about this matter before and made his feelings clear. There is a resonance across the House on this matter: whether one wants the flag of St. George, the Union Jack, the Welsh flag or the saltire should be entirely up to the individual.
I agree. What I say, I am also saying on behalf of the Scottish National party—at least until I am pulled up for saying something wrong.
The consultation process is interesting. The follow-up consultation letter was sent on 20 January 2000, and a summary of responses was published on 10 May. The Minister looks perplexed, but my information comes from the House of Commons Library. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions asked for views, but I do not know how far the consultation went. Will the Minister tell us how wide it went and who and which bodies were consulted? Why, even at this late date, are the views of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament being ignored? That cannot be right.
Whether or not one favours devolution, it is wrong to bring in bad law by the back door. That law will have no credence in the country and will not be adhered to by law-abiding citizens. It will create a class of people who will be in court for the first time in their lives because of this action by the Government—though inaction might be a better description.
The Department has been cackhanded in its dealings with the European Commission. It submitted draft proposals, which came back duly amended and rewritten. The Commission has made it clear that there is no intent to harmonise registration plates across the community. That makes it clear that what the Opposition seek is perfectly legal under EU law. There is no impediment to what we want. Even at this late stage, will the Minister take a message to his Department asking that the matter be reconsidered. There could be a huge outburst of feeling in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The regulations are offensive to many of us.
We were initially told that the big problem lay in the fact that the Commission would dictate the regulation to the Government. That is not the case. It is the Government's intransigence that is causing a growing crisis. I appeal to them to reconsider, and swiftly. It is all very well for the Minister to put his hands in his pockets and look at the ceiling, but the regulations are grossly offensive to us all. [Interruption.] I repeat that this matter is grossly offensive to many of us. It is noteworthy that no Scottish or Welsh Labour Members are present—either they have no mind of their own or they could not care less about their native countries.
When we were told that the Commission was at fault, Ian Titherington—soon to be the Member of Parliament for Swansea. West—held discussions with the DVLA and was told that the matter had nothing to do with the Commission; the proposed regulations could be implemented with no problem whatever. At some point, the Government will have to come clean. Just as the census form is insulting and offensive and may lead to law-breaking, so too will the regulations.
I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about American vehicles. I am a German-vehicle person myself, but that is beside the point. I do not know anyone in Meirionnydd Nant Conwy who can afford to run American cars, given the current price of fuel.
I shall briefly and swiftly conclude my remarks as other hon. Members want to speak. The Government claimed that the Assembly raised no objections—I doubt whether that is true. The Assembly and its Ministers have said that they want recognition of national flags—as did the Scottish Parliament.
The DVLA was led to believe that the order was mandatory under European law—that is also nonsense. Will the Minister please allow the people of the constituent nations of the British state to have their say and show respect to their nations?
It had been my intention to make a lengthy speech about European number plates and national number plates, but there is now no need for me to do so. Tonight, we have seen something dramatic: it has emerged that, in a few weeks' time, the new Conservative Government—with the support of the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh nationalists, the Scottish nationalists, our friends from Northern Ireland, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—will bring back the right for people to use the number plates and the flag that they think most appropriate.
Obviously, I hope that my hon. Friends will not end up in a European prison as a consequence of their bravery. However, a popular front has been established; we know what can happen if the right decision is made in the general election. For that reason, I want to say a few words about the American car issue.
My sincere appeal to the Government is that they reconsider the matter. What on earth can be gained by the regulations? What will be lost? I am sure that there are such car dealers in the constituency of every Member. In my constituency, there is a small firm—Route 66—at 41 Purdeys Way, Rochford; another little firm, the American Car Company, is located in the area of Southend represented by one of my colleagues.
As the Minister knows, no big firms are involved in that business. There are only small firms—tiny businesses—which do not make much money. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that only about 500 American cars are registered every year—it is a small sector. What the blazes will happen under these regulations? Unless a way of fitting a new number plate can be found—usually that cannot be done—about £1,000 will have to be spent on altering those cars. Great expense will be involved for many businesses. Why are we doing that?
Will the Government include an exemption? They have done that already for left-hand drive cars. On the advice of the European Union, the Government brought in legislation in schedule 2 of the Motor Vehicles (Approval) Regulations 2001, to give an exemption for left-hand drive vehicles. The Government could easily introduce an exemption if they want to.
I know that people have been writing to Ministers and civil servants to ask why the Government are introducing the regulations. In fact, one of the American car importers—a nice man called Mr. Cohen—wrote a letter to the Department asking why the proposal was being introduced. He received an answer from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, whose only argument was that some people in the police thought big letters were easier to see than small letters and that that could help in the battle against crime.
I ask the Minister to tell us how many big American vehicles were involved in crime last year or the year before. I think he will find that they are not the kind of vehicles purchased or used for that purpose. If the Government are concerned about crime, why the blazes do we allow motor cycles to have small number plates? If it is difficult to see an American car plate because it is too small, what about criminals who ride around on motor cycles?
I want to reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. The DVLA argued that smaller number plates might not be visible to speed detection cameras—until the owners of American cars sent the DVLA their speeding fines.
The hon. Gentleman refers to another point that has been mentioned.
If the Minister considers the issue, he will discover that there is no argument. He must ask himself what is to be done. He will know that we are not dealing with the big battalions of the motor industry and with big firms that can spend a lot of money on alterations. He will know that those businesses have difficulties because American cars cost a lot of money. If the regulations involve more discomfort, more trouble and more expense, what is the point?
The Minister could very easily include an exemption for American cars. That would be as easy as pie. It could be done specifically for left-hand drive American vehicles. However, people might ask why an exemption should be made for American cars. We want such an exemption because American number plates are different and the structure of American cars is different. The modifications will involve a lot of extra work. The manufacturers calculate that, apart from a tiny number of cars to which bigger number plates can be attached, the alterations will cost more than £1,000.
I am afraid that Governments of all parties have sometimes introduced legislation that involves a lot of expenditure, bureaucracy and distress, and I ask myself, "Why on earth do they do it?" Can the Minister give us any good reason for introducing the regulations? I can see no advantage of any sort to anyone; I can see a great deal of trouble and distress. That matters to a small number of people who might be daft enough to want to own an American car. Some people love owning American cars; some of them look terrific. This is a country where people should have that freedom, and it must not be taken away. So why should more unnecessary bureaucracy be introduced?
The Government should be aware that there is no need to aim for consistency. There is almost an obsession with ensuring that everything is the same—but there is no need. We have repeatedly asked the Government to tell us what is the argument for introducing the regulations. The argument about crime does not stand up, given what has been said about motor cycle number plates. The argument adduced about speed cameras is not very relevant. Given the recent test case in Scotland, the Minister will be well aware that we may have to do away with speed cameras because of the European rules.
I am well aware of what happened. I have had the pleasure of being a Member of Parliament for a very long time. When something stems from European law, it can be stopped in various ways in the House of Lords. I do not want to be ruled out of order, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider what happened in relation to the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, when many hon. Members cheered their heads off because Parliament's decision was overturned. The hon. Gentleman is always trying to cause trouble, but there is no need. If he really thinks that democracy is safe from European rules, he honestly has a lot of rethinking to do, and I ask him to think about that very carefully indeed.
I simply tell the Minister that we should forget about the big issues because they will be resolved at the next election. If people want to go the Government's way, they can vote them back into power. If they want to retain their national freedoms, they can vote for the Conservative party, along with the Welsh nationalists and all our other new friends—the popular front. The crucial question is this: why should we introduce a measure that will cause a lot of trouble, involve great expense and make many people unhappy when no one can see any benefit from it?
I hope that the Government will show common sense and agree to a tiny amendment to the regulations. That would be better for everyone and save a lot of trouble and unhappiness when there is no benefit to be obtained. I hope that the Minister will at least say that the Government will reconsider the matter and perhaps bring in a minor change to help decent people who deserve some attention.
This is an historic night because there has been such a broad consensus among the Opposition parties. We are all united in our belief in the concept of choice—choice which the Government wish to extinguish. Had it not been for the perception of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and the determination of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to pray against the regulations and to seek to have them revoked, there would have been no debate on the matter. I salute them for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.
The regulations are extensive and they are made up of 19 paragraphs that do not relate to just a couple of issues. In them, the Government are guilty not only of crushing individuality and choice, but of being something of a spoilsport.
The first issue that I wish to raise relates to paragraph 11 on the nature of registration plates and the way in which the characters are laid out. Sub-paragraph (2) states:
A registration plate must not be treated in any other way which renders the characters of the registration mark less easily distinguishable to the eye or which would prevent or impair the making of a true photographic image of the plate through the medium of camera and film or any other device.
Sub-paragraph (3) adds that a registration plate must not be fixed to a vehicle in such a way
which has the effect of changing the appearance or legibility of any of the characters of the registration mark, which renders the characters of the registration mark less easily distinguishable to the eye or which prevents or impairs the making of a true photographic image of the plate through the medium of camera and film or any other device.
The effect of such provisions will be that those of us who have an enormous interest in looking at number plates and at the ingenious way in which our fellow countrymen manage to order the letters of the alphabet and numbers in such a way as to make their number plates interesting reading will have that possibility denied to us. For example, I see a Jeep Cherokee near where I live in London—I have no idea who owns it—which has the registration "L10N TV". For all I know there may be a production company called Lion TV, but I find it interesting to see the way in which that number plate is laid out. Other obvious examples spell out names such as "SUS1E" and "ANG1E", although I do not know the ladies in question. Hon. Members may have seen some rude examples, but I will not repeat them to the House because even though it is after the watershed and sensitive journalists have gone to bed, they may be videoing our proceedings. My son's girlfriend Tammy has a car and the number plate on it spells out her name—"T4MY"— and that makes her car recognisable. Such registrations are so much more noticeable, visible and memorable than the boring old number plates that there will be if the regulations come into effect.
Those of us who have had the displeasure of engaging libel lawyers know that there is a splendid firm of libel lawyers called Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, of whom I have been the beneficiary.
They are extremely expensive, but they were very good value in my case. Peter Carter-Ruck wanted a particular number plate. When the DVLA auctioned licence plates, he asked me whether I would be prepared to help because he did not want to be seen to be bidding in case it pushed up the price. Instead, his partners bid for "L1BEL" and he now drives around in a Rolls-Royce with a plate that reads "libel". That makes two statements: "Don't mess with me" and "My profession warrants a Rolls-Royce". However, in my case, the BBC paid, not me.
The Government are determined to crush individuality. They are in favour of big brother. They want our number plates to be uniform so that we can be photographed and our movements recorded everywhere we go. We do not know why. It might be fine to do that to catch criminals, but for what other purposes are we to have our vehicles photographed?
The hon. Gentleman's example of "ANG1E" is fascinating. Perhaps the vehicle in question belongs to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). On the matter before us, the regulations on the sequencing and placement of letters on number plates have been in existence for many years. Did the hon. Gentleman raise concerns in previous debates?
It was not necessary. The citizens of our country enjoyed the freedom conferred on them which was not allowed in other European countries. In addition, the DVLA cashed in on specialist number plates and coined money for the Government by flogging them. It will be interesting to see how the agency will be affected by the regulations and whether they will reduce substantially its receipts from the sale of specialist number plates.
Although it is true, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, that the European Commission is not currently planning to impose complete uniformity on this country, the Government are preparing to soften us up for that scenario. Is my hon. Friend aware that, when challenged to commit the Government to oppose rigorously any such intended uniformity, the Minister came over all shy and reticent in the Standing Committee on the Vehicles (Crime) Bill? He said:
somebody in my position, as a mere Under-Secretary of State, is not in a position to make commitments on behalf of the Government."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 11 January 2001; c. 134.]
Very touching, but not very convincing.
Unfortunately it does not; we know that only too well. However, the Minister would enhance enormously his standing in the Chamber, and, no doubt, in his constituency of Streatham, if he persuaded the Secretary of State to abandon the measure. No Opposition Member—I suspect this is true of many absent Labour Members—wants the measure enacted.
The second issue that concerns me was splendidly covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). The fact is that it is not legal for cars to travel around the country with blue strips on the left hand side of their number plates bearing the letters GB and the European symbol. They will be made legal only if this measure is enacted.
That is fine, but the Government have tried to smuggle the business through the House and they have been less than open about the way in which that has been done. [Interruption.] The Whip, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), suggests that I am being unfair. I invite hon. Members to read paragraph 16(2) of the regulations, under the heading "Miscellaneous", which says:
Where a mark is displayed on a dual purpose plate—
(a) no material other than the international distinguishing sign of the United Kingdom displayed in accordance with the Council Registration may be placed in the space provided on the plate for that purpose".
To all intents and purposes, the casual reader seeking to understand what the Government are on about would think it perfectly in order to display a United Kingdom international distinguishing sign, which for many of us is the union flag.
What does the reference to "Council Registration" mean? Does it refer to local authorities? Are we talking about Buckinghamshire county council, Hampshire county council or perhaps town councils in Streatham or Hawley? Fortunately, there is an explanatory note, and sub-paragraph (g) on page 25 of the regulations refers to:
The making of provision for the display of the international distinguishing sign of the United Kingdom adjacent to the registration mark in accordance with Council Regulation (EC) No. 2411/98 (a copy of which can be obtained from the Stationery Office).
Therein lies the secret of what this is all about.
One has to go to another document—the European Council regulation of 3 November 1998, to read, if not the full story, at least part of it. The preamble to that document reads as follows:
Whereas several Member States have introduced a model registration plate which, on the extreme left, displays a blue zone containing the 12 yellow stars representing the European flag plus the distinguishing sign of the Member State of registration; whereas for the purpose of intra-Community transport this distinguishing sign meets the objective of identifying the State of registration as provided for in Article 37 of"—
the Vienna convention of 1968, I can tell the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. That is the only indication that the only international symbol that will be lawful is the EU flag. One has to turn to the annexe to the regulations to see what is proposed. All that will be permitted is the European symbol with the national symbol beneath it. It will be a criminal offence to display any other symbol. It is a circuitous way of introducing a measure that will greatly offend our fellow citizens once they discover the enormity of what the Government are up to.
To some, this may seem a trivial matter, but it is not trivial to all the hon. Members in the Chamber tonight. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said that as far as he is concerned it is a matter of choice. The hon. Gentleman is a committed pro-European, and he has chided us for the anti-European motives that he believes lie behind our opposition to the measure. I have explained why I am opposed to one part of it. I oppose the requirement to authorise only the European symbol. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I see this as another attempt to foist a European identity on this country. We have a European Parliament, a European Court, a European currency, a European anthem and a European flag, and we are about to have a European army, so we have all those symbols of nation statehood. That is what worries us: our driving licences have to have the Euro symbol—we cannot have the union flag—and now our registration plates have to have it as well. It is an affront to the British people to authorise motorists to bear the Euro symbol on their cars and make it a criminal offence for Englishmen proudly to proclaim the cross of St. George on their motor cars, for hon. Members from Wales proudly to bear the Welsh dragon on their number plates, and for the saltire of Scotland to be borne on Scottish number plates. Indeed, my French car—a blue Picasso—is outside the Members' entrance and carries the Union Jack, but I would be made a criminal if I put such a new number plate on it after 1 September this year. People in this country will find that deeply offensive.
However, there is a solution. Between now and 1 September it will be possible for us to have things other than Euro symbols on our cars. I can tell the House that I have a number plate with a blue strip bearing the Union Jack and the letters "GB" on the left-hand side because there is a splendid company called I-N-M(UK) Ltd., which, for the sum of £27, provided me with a set of number plates. It is based at 22 Kingswood Gardens, Leeds LS8 2BT, and Mr. Peter Rogers, a company director, has said that he is prepared to make to order a set of number plates for Members of Parliament, whatever their shade of opinion. I am sure that he will provide a Welsh dragon or indeed, a fish symbol for those who wish to proclaim their Christian faith on their vehicles. Members can have whatever they like on their registration plates and Mr. Rogers will provide it not for £27, which I was charged, but for £25. There will be no commission for me; I am doing this in the interests of our country and to ensure that we retain some individuality and maintain pride in our national symbols, which should not be taken over by the dreaded Euro flag.
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said. Does he believe that on the blue strip on the left of the registration plate one should be able to put not only the Union flag—the Union Jack—but the cross of St. George? Why should we not boast not only of the Union of the United Kingdom but of England, which comprises the greater part of that union?
As my hon. Friend said, that is a possibility. I do not know what is in Mr. Rogers's extensive range, so I cannot say what he can provide, but I am sure that a call to him—
The hon. Gentleman is perceptive; this is an unashamed commercial in support of a man who, I believe, is doing good for our country and providing us all with the means to proclaim pride in our country—and, if I may say to the Minister, for whom I have high regard, metaphorically to put two fingers up to those who would have us behave in a uniform fashion. As Mr. Churchill might have said, that is something up with which we will not put.
Of course, the House cannot vote on the regulations tonight because we are muzzled under our new arrangements and are denied the opportunity to vote. However, when the measure does come to a vote, I hope that the House will ensure that it is thrown out, because a comprehensive case has been made across the board. In conclusion, may I ask the Minister for an assurance that cars bearing those number plates perfectly legitimately after 1 September 2001 will not fail their MOT on the grounds that they do not have the appropriate symbol on their number plates? I seek an assurance from the Minister that there will be no attempt to stop people having such number plates after 1 September by making it a requirement that their cars fail the MOT if the number plates do not bear the Euro symbol, should they choose to put any symbol at all on their number plates. With that, I rest my case.
I shall be brief, not from any uncharacteristic compassion for the sentiments of the House, but simply because I want to enjoy the spectacle of the Minister, who is a popular and intelligent person, having to justify the wholly unjustifiable.
I have not always led a blameless life. I have been in the House for 18 years, but before that, I was a humble country lawyer—or at least, I was a country lawyer. One of the attributes of humble country lawyers is that they have a certain interest in good law being passed. Good law is not necessarily popular or welcome, but it is obeyed. I remember that many years ago, before I came to the House, there was a great feeling of outrage when we made safety belts compulsory. It was thought to be an infringement of civil liberties and there was a great brouhaha about it, but the day that law came into force, it was observed. No matter how much people may grumble about it, everybody now puts on a safety belt, because they acknowledge that the law is right.
As a lawyer and a parliamentarian, I am worried when I see that the House is prepared to enact law that will not be obeyed. We Conservatives have learned the lesson. We saw what happened with the council tax: excellent measure though it was in many ways, it lacked the essential ingredient, and ultimately, people would not accept it. That was an isolated case under the Conservative Government, but the present Government have shown time and again that they are prepared to enact legislation which ordinary, decent, law-abiding people will not obey.
We have seen that, and we will see it again in due course if the Government win the next election. We will see them outlawing foxhunting. They will take a swathe of ordinary, straightforward, decent, law-abiding human beings and provoke them into breaking the law. I appreciate that there are passions on both sides of the argument, and it might be argued that the issue is so important that Parliament is entitled to take a view. However, there is no earthly reason why the regulations before us should be pushed through the House.
If Labour win the next general election, we face the prospect of pointing out to any policeman whom we may see that some horse boxes on their way to a foxhunt, which have stopped off to buy some non-metric bananas, have dodgy illegal number plates. Is that the choice that we are to present to our police forces? Are they to chase non-metric bananas, foxhunters, or those with dodgy number plates? That is the nonsense that the Government are prepared to inflict.
I warn the Government that there are many people who, on an issue such as foxhunting, may feel deeply upset but will not break the law. However, with the regulations before us, the Government could face a string of vehicles parked all the way up Whitehall, with people rattling the gates outside No. 10, saying, "Come on, big boy. Come and prosecute me on the grounds of public policy." That is what the Government are in the business of doing. The one thing that they do not have in the slightest degree is any sense of humility or propriety about what they are and are not entitled to do.
I shall now sit down to watch the Minister, who is extremely popular, and who has great charm and intelligence, standing at the Dispatch Box to justify the unjustifiable. It will not be a pretty sight.
After that introduction, I hesitate to rise and speak. I am almost tempted to quote the number plate "VOMIT", which is the reaction of most of us to the measure proposed. This will probably be my shortest ever parliamentary speech, but I hope that it will make up in quality what it lacks in quantity.
There are three points to make. First, why are the Government introducing a measure to allow the European symbol to be put on number plates, when, as everyone knows, the law that prevents people from doing that now is not being enforced? The answer is fairly obvious. The Government are introducing the measure to allow that to be done in preparation for the time, which they know will come, when it will be made compulsory. Otherwise, there is no reason for them to introduce the provision. They are trying to make it legal for the EU symbol to be displayed on number plates throughout the United Kingdom and the European Union only because they know that it will be impossible to order that to happen if the practice is technically illegal.
Thus the first point—or question—is why the Government are doing this, and the second point is the answer to that question, which is that they know that what is now to be permitted will later be made compulsory.
The third point is this: what are the various pressure groups that oppose the creeping federalism of the European Union going to do about the regulations? As somebody who was once arrested for playing the national anthem in public, I have a certain amount of experience of what pressure groups do in such circumstances. I predict that they will commission quality printing firms to prepare union flag stickers with permanent, self-adhesive backs that can easily be stuck over the European symbol on future number plates.
That will have a double effect. It will mean that people who want the union flag to cover the relevant part of their number plates can stick it on. Such people can claim when they are stopped by the police that some opponent must have stuck the symbol on, and that they did not do it themselves. Alternatively, it will be possible to place stickers on the number plates of car owners who support the European Union, which will mean that they are done for a criminal offence and fined £1,000.
Will the Under-Secretary address that problem and explain how it will be dealt with? How should the police respond when they discover that somebody is driving around with a regulation number plate on which the British flag is displayed in the form of a sticker of the sort that I have described? Will such a person be fined, or will it be enough of an excuse for him to say that he did not do it himself? Will he be obliged to check his number plates every time he takes his car out? Will he be required not to take the car out because he cannot remove a sticker and make his number plate legal again?
The whole process is fatuous, unenforceable and deeply sinister. The provisions are not permissive, as the Government are trying to suggest. They are being introduced to pave the way for a compulsory measure, and I predict that that measure will not be long in coming down the line.
I did not originally intend to speak in this debate, but a few minutes ago I picked up the statutory instrument and opened it up to find out about its extent. Hon. Members will know that when one reads legislation, one usually finds a little sentence saying that it extends to somewhere, wherever it may be. It might extend to England and Wales, to Great Britain or to the United Kingdom. I cannot see such a provision anywhere in the regulations, but at the top of page 11, I see a paragraph stating that particular regulations introduced for Northern Ireland in 1973 "shall cease to apply".
I am curious to know whether the regulations are a United Kingdom measure. What is their extent? If they are United Kingdom regulations, as they seem to purport to be, what is the position with regard to the powers of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland? After all, it is responsible for the registration of vehicles in Northern Ireland. As was pointed out earlier, many number plates are sold, and the Department of the Environment has a number of public auctions every year. Once upon a time, I tried to get a message to a member of the Government to tell him that a number in which I thought he might be interested was coming up for sale. Unfortunately, the message was not passed on, and the hon. Member in question missed the number "VAZ 1". I thought that he would have been more than interested in such a number plate. The sale made only £3,000 or £4,000, but it gives some idea of the value that some people place on such number plates.
As the Under-Secretary knows, the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment holds back the first 1,000 numbers in every run and sells them off. One sees Northern Ireland number plates all over London because people buy them. There is a huge trade in them; tens of thousands are advertised for sale in the press. They bring in a lot of money to the Northern Ireland Exchequer. Will we be deprived of that in future? If so, who will receive it?
Are we considering United Kingdom regulations? Has any discussion taken place with the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? If not, why not? Their finances could all be adversely affected.
Is there not a rising tide of anger throughout England? Do the English feel bereft of a Chamber? Or would they, like me, be much happier if we had only this one? I could live with that. I believe that especially given that I have to live with a Chamber that, if it ever had hopes of being democratic, has proven since its inception that democracy does not rule there.
I simply raise the question of responsibility and the extent of the regulations, which has financial implications. I hope that I shall receive a clear reply from the Under-Secretary.
Our debate has been fascinating, and all too brief. It has been an evening of passion, even atavism—and it was not entirely predictable that the subject of vehicle number plates could provoke that. I shall deal with several key issues. First, however, I shall try to put the subject in perspective.
I doubt whether any hon. Member, with the possible exception of that well-known libertarian the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), would disagree that it is important for law enforcement and road safety that number plates should be clearly legible to the naked eye and to enforcement cameras.
Over the years, apprehending criminals in many high-profile cases, often involving serious crimes, has depended on the successful identification of a motor vehicle. The number plate—in many cases, only a part of it—has often provided the only clue that the police have had to work on.
The Government are determined that there should be no dilution that might adversely affect the legibility of number plates. Indeed, the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001, which we are debating this evening, will strengthen the existing 1971 regulations and introduce for the first time a standard character font to improve clarity. In passing, let me deal with the point that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) made. We are considering a United Kingdom measure; the matter is not devolved to Northern Ireland.
The regulations also introduce a new British standard to make number plates more durable. Furthermore, they introduce a new format to replace the existing one, which, as has frequently been pointed out, runs out at the end of August. The format last changed as long ago as 1963. No doubt some of those present, but perhaps not all, recall that. We are therefore experiencing a once in a lifetime event. Because of its rarity, the Government took the opportunity to consult widely before drafting the regulations. I shall revert to the subject of consultation later.
I assure the House that we have carefully considered representations from all interested parties.
We have listened in particular to those from the independent American car importers business who are quite rightly keen to foster, preserve and encourage wide use of what, for many, are highly desirable vehicles.
I shall respond to a couple of the observations made on this point during the debate. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who introduced the debate, asked whether the European Commission had written to the United Kingdom Government asking for left-hand drive vehicles to be included in the list of specialist vehicles allowed to use the smaller font size. The answer is yes, the European Commission wrote to the Government in January 2001. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) asked about the import of American cars. The regulations do not change the position on American vehicles—it has never been legal for them to display small number plates.
The point at issue is that vehicles manufactured for the north American market have, in many cases, a restricted space for the vehicle number plate, making it difficult for owners to fit a standard UK number plate. However, that problem is not exclusive to vehicles arriving here from across the Atlantic. Vehicles made for markets in Japan and the far east—in other words, vehicles not manufactured to European standards—have a similar difficulty in displaying a legal UK plate. It is estimated that up to 50,000 vehicles are independently imported here annually from those markets. So, we are dealing with a sizeable number.
Many of those vehicles currently display plates made for motor cycles. These are smaller in size and not intended for display on cars. They are illegal under the current regulations, and owners who display them are liable to prosecution. Enforcement of the regulations is a matter for the police who, for operational reasons, have—to my mind, quite rightly—concentrated their efforts on more serious offences. [Interruption.] My old sparring partner, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) says that the law is an ass. I would say that this is a splendid example of British pragmatism. We have heard much about great British qualities this evening and, in my humble submission, that is one of them.
The easements in the new regulations, and those carried forward from the 1971 regulations, as amended, continue to permit two-wheeled and three-wheeled vehicles, quadricycles, agricultural machines and road rollers to use small characters on their number plates. In the case of motor cycles, smaller plates are necessary for safety reasons, and they could not reasonably accommodate larger plates. The other vehicles that may use the smaller plates are tightly defined. They are not generally high-powered or used on the public road. When they are, they are usually driven slowly or for very short distances.
We have carefully considered the representations made on behalf of the importers of American vehicles who wish to be granted a similar concession. I want to assure the hon. Members for Poole, for Kingston and Surbiton and for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that we will, of course, continue to take account of those representations. Perhaps I should add that a complaint has been lodged with the European Commission, which has urged the UK to provide an exemption. If such an exemption is not given, the Commission has reserved the right to challenge the provisions if they create an unjustified barrier to trade. If it is eventually decided that an exemption has to be provided, all that would be required would be to make a small amendment to the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001. However, for the purposes of the present regulations it has been decided that, for the reasons that I have given, there should be no change to the existing position that American vehicles should fit standard plates.
Will the Minister go slightly further than he has done? He seemed to suggest that we needed to wait for the Commission to take on the Government. Could not the Government listen to the argument that has been put very strongly from all parts of the House and—rather than wait for the Commission to take the Government on using European law—move to anticipate the outcome, given that they might well be contravening European law by introducing this measure?
I have just spent a long time explaining why there are powerful safety reasons for the regulations. It is possible that they will be found to be defective according to the European Union's commercial legislation, but I cleave to the view that we have the right to assert our commitment to road safety in this regard.
I have spent some time telling the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are talking not just about American imported vehicles, but about up to 50,000 vehicles from the far east and Japan that fall into the same category.
I do not want to engage in a protracted discussion, but I will give way to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, because he spoke about this issue specifically.
The Minister has implied that we have not been applying the law correctly—that what we have been doing has been illegal, but that we have not been bothering about it because the police have been concentrating on other issues. Would it not be appropriate to apply the same policy until some decision is made by Europe? I appreciate that that is not an easy thing for a Minister to say, but is it possible that the new law might not be applied in the foreseeable future, given that the police have much to do and many issues to face up to?
The hon. Gentleman would hardly expect me to incite people to break the law from the Dispatch Box. Let me add that this is essentially a matter for the discretion of the police force.
No. I have given way sufficiently, and I dare say I shall give way again later.
Let me deal with an issue that was raised with rather more passion: voluntary provision for the display of the GB national identifier and the European circle of stars on number plates. I must confess that I cannot deal with the extraordinarily complicated question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) about permanent adhesive, but I shall Peruse Hansard carefully and in due course, if I am able, respond to the hon. Gentleman in writing. The hon. Member for Poole asked whether it was illegal to produce plates featuring a European Union symbol. It is not illegal: there is no provision relating to the symbol in current legislation. Use of it, however, might be illegal if it affected the size or legibility of a registration mark.
The hon. Member for Meirior
Let me answer the questions first—this set of questions, at least.
The hon. Member for Aldershot asked for an assurance that after 1 September the display of a number plate not conforming to the regulations would not be a cause for failure of an MOT test. I consider that an important and interesting point. I confess that I do not have the answer; however, I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that I will make it my business to find it, and write to him. I am grateful to him for raising the issue.
I am tempted to say, Touché!" I take that point, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if it had been in existence, the Welsh Assembly would certainly have been consulted.
I would like the House to be clear about the issue of the European symbol on number plates. There is no provision within the regulations for either the GB logo or European flag to be mandatory on vehicle number plates. All the regulations do is to allow motorists to take advantage, if they so wish, of a European Commission regulation that allows vehicles displaying the Euro symbol on their number plates to dispense with the need for a separate national identity sticker for journeys within the Community.
Where the Euro symbol appears on the number plate, it must be accompanied by the GB national identifier. It will also be possible for neither logo to appear. It will also be possible for neither logo to appear on the number plate and for the conventional GB decal, as it is known, to be attached to the rear of the vehicle. All those options will be available and acceptable, entirely according to the voluntary desires of the vehicle keeper.
Not if they are displayed as a decal on the rear of the vehicle. There would he no question of a prosecution in those circumstances.
I think that the answer is yes. [Interruption.] There are roars of surprise from Opposition Members but I think that they already knew the answer to that question.
Given that the police are not enforcing the law in respect of those number plates anyway, why are the Government changing the law to allow this practice to be made legal, unless it is because they know that, further down the line, it will be made compulsory?
Let me come back to the deep-dyed suspicion of a conspiracy. The fact is that the essence of the scheme is to permit ease of circulation in certain European countries. That is the whole basis of the use of these symbols, which after all are 98 mm by between 40 to 50 mm—4 by 2 inches in the old measurement, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman. This is not a major deal.
Whenever the Minister has not a leg on which to stand, the decibel level of his oration rises proportionately. Given the concern that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) has expressed—that this measure is the prelude to a compulsory imposition of an EU symbol, a concern that I expressed to the Minister in the Vehicles (Crime) Bill Standing Committee in January—why will he not now abandon his procrastination, give up the coy nonsense about being merely a junior Minister and pledge in front of you, Mr. Speaker, and the House that he will always oppose any such compulsory EU imposition? It is blindingly simple. Is he up to it?
The British Government have no intention of making such a symbol compulsory on number plates. I cannot go further than that. I stress the voluntary nature of the arrangement. I know that many of our compatriots are keen to exhibit their national identity, whether it be through the display of the Union Jack or other flags from within the United Kingdom. The Government have absolutely no desire to impede perfectly proper displays of national pride. Of course, as I have said, vehicle keepers may continue to use stickers and transfers on their vehicles. We simply do not believe that the number plate is the right place for such flags or logos. The watchword here is clarity and the need for a standard mark on the number plate.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, although he is a somewhat belated, if not entirely unpredictable, sojourner in our proceedings.
If it is unhelpful to road traffic safety to have certain symbols on the number plate, why have any symbol on it? It would surely be easier to exclude all symbols and have neither national nor EU symbols. What is it about the EU symbol that, alone among any other patriotic or religious symbol in the world, makes it the only one that should be allowed on our number plates? Where is the logic in that?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is entirely up to the individual vehicle keeper whether he or she has the symbol on the number plate. The reason for the use of the EU symbol is to permit ease of circulation in the European Community. It is also a standard symbol, not a confusing or distracting symbol. The hon. Gentleman may not have been here for the beginning of my speech, so I shall repeat that the object of the exercise is clarity. The recognition of a number plate is vital for law enforcement and it is for that purpose that the Government have decided to legislate to ensure that number plates are easy to read and free from other potentially distracting marks. The EU symbol does serve a particular purpose and is to be permitted on a voluntary basis. There is no good reason to allow other variations.
I appreciate that strong feelings over national identity have been expressed here tonight. However, I hope that the House now fully understands the intentions of the new regulations and that the Government, by making the display of the Euro flag optional, have preserved that freedom of choice which is the birthright of every self-respecting Briton.