Vehicle Registration Marks

– in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 31 January 2013.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 5:00, 31 January 2013

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a case to the Minister about the system for the manufacture and sale of number plates in this country. I declare an interest as secretary of the European secure vehicle alliance, an associate parliamentary group that has long campaigned to improve vehicle security.

The UK, unlike many other countries, relies on a poorly conceived and poorly regulated manufacturing and distribution regime with approximately 40,000 outlets that supply, on average, only two or three pairs of number plates a week. That badly designed approach offers neither quality nor inherent integrity, yet countries such as Sweden have designed and developed a secure system relying on a single supplier, appointed on a five-year basis through a competitive tender process, that starts with the assumption that the number plate should be like a secure document that can assist law enforcement agencies as well as protecting owners’ vehicles. In Sweden, the plate manufacturer receives its instructions electronically from the Swedish equivalent of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The system is simple and efficient, and it provides for security. It is similar to that adopted by many European countries. It provides enhancements that benefit motorist and state, and it works out cheaper for the motorist than is the case in the United Kingdom.

Such an approach of controlled supply operates in a large number of countries. In some countries, such security value is attached to number plates that they are produced in the same institutions that print bank notes. It would be inconceivable that our Government would allow a free-for-all in passport production.

In 1994, the Home Office vehicle crime reduction team and the Association of Chief Police Officers produced a plan to reduce vehicle crime that recommended adopting the Swedish number plate regime. In November 2010, a further report from ACPO’s vehicle crime intelligence service recommended adopting a system of secure vehicle registration marks with a limited number of approved suppliers. The British Number Plate Manufacturers Association, the Department for Transport and the DVLA have shown little enthusiasm for the 1994 plan and the 2010 report, but perhaps that is not too surprising, given that the DVLA is not generally associated with innovation and the BNMA is heavily influenced by dominant manufacturers and suppliers, not least the multinational group 3M. These vested interests have little incentive to change the system. It suits them to have a relatively unsophisticated model for the supply and assembly of number plates. 3M gains enormously from the supply of the one high-value product used in British number plates—the reflective sheet.

One consequence of the ease with which plates can be obtained in this country is that it facilitates the theft and transfer of cars, which is often known in the trade as ringing or cloning and is usually associated with organised crime. There is also a problem with the theft and counterfeiting of VRM plates.

Despite considerable advances in automatic number plate recognition since the late 1990s, there has been no corresponding change in our number plate technology, yet we know that the police think that this needs to happen. Indeed Hills, one of the leading UK number plate suppliers, has produced millions of plates that cannot be read by many of our ANPR cameras. It seems likely that other suppliers are producing similarly deficient plates. Far from building on the technological lead that developments in ANPR should give the United Kingdom, we seem to be concentrating on providing comparatively expensive number plates which are of little value in terms of security or assistance to law enforcement.

The style and layout of our plates could be improved. I have here a handy prop—a number plate—which I am willing to gift to the Minister at the end of the debate. It contains a hologram, a concealed Union Jack identifier, small but camera-readable and computer-readable ID marks and the vehicle identification number. That is the kind of thing I have in mind.

I do not know what has happened to the British Standards Institution review of number plates, which I understand was supposed to be published early in the new year. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us. But it seems to me that this review has concentrated on the views of the industry, the BNMA and its members. It is hardly likely, therefore, to come up with any case for change. Indeed, the committee of the BSI which considers number plates is chaired by an executive of 3M.

It is my contention that this cosy, almost collusive, set of relationships is hindering our potential to develop a new generation of number plates for which there is now a strong case to be made. It is exerting undue influence on the DVLA and the Department for Transport and putting the profits of multinationals before the interests of our motorists and the needs of the police.

I hope the Minister can commit to reviewing the existing situation. I hope I can persuade him to review our use of number plates in the context of security and related technology. I hope we can convince him that there are clear advantages in having more security features, and I hope he will re-examine the case for greater control of the supply of number plates. I believe that a single-source supply model warrants consideration, but I recognise that others may judge it to be too great a step, and my interest is in advocating a model that provides for a markedly more secure and sustainable number plate regime. Such an approach need not cost the taxpayer money. It will more likely raise revenue through a better established market that can support the sale of “cherished plates”, and of course any Government seriously considering introducing cost-effective and sustainable road pricing will need an effective number plate regime that gives access to essential data.

Finally, I contacted West Midlands police to advise them of this debate. They said that change is definitely needed and long overdue. They support improved design and marks to aid automatic number plate recognition, a limited number of approved suppliers, and metal VRM plates hot-riveted to the vehicle to prevent theft and tampering.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood 5:09, 31 January 2013

I declare an unpaid interest as a vice-chair of the European secure vehicle alliance, an associate parliamentary group. It is a pleasure to follow Steve McCabe. He made use of a prop, which I have not seen in the Chamber before, but it was a very interesting prop. My only objection to it was that the Union Jack identifier was concealed.

One might have thought that I would focus my remarks on the single most important issue within the vehicle registration mark regime, which is the requirement for us to have the European flag on all our licence plates. However, given the Prime Minister’s speech last week and the fact that we can now look forward to an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU by 2017, I no longer feel the need to concentrate my remarks on that area.

I will therefore follow up some of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, particularly regarding the position of the police on these matters. I am grateful to him for sharing with me some of the material that West Midlands police have helpfully provided. The police have highlighted historical issues with the existing VRM regime for many years, and they have recommended a system of secure anti-tamper plates—for example, riveted to the body of the car—that should be available through limited approved suppliers. The problem, though, is that the Department for Transport has responded to the police by rejecting their recommendations on the basis, at least according to West Midlands police, that they are unable to prove that the increase in theft of registration plates is linked to criminality. I find that an extraordinary position, and perhaps the Minister will be able to give an explanation.

I am concerned that the real explanation is that those within the industry who benefit from the current regime have too strong an influence within the Department for Transport and that the concerns of the police, and indeed the wider interests of the consumer, hold insufficient sway. It does not strike me as a sensible way of organising the regime to have, as the hon. Gentleman said, a major manufacturer such as 3M providing the high-value element of the number plate, and I suspect that the value, or cost, is far higher than it needs to be. It is in the interests of that multinational that our market should be dispersed and broken up with very large numbers of suppliers, given that the sum involved is relatively small for each person in the industry, such that competitive pressures do not come to bear to reduce the price at which it can sell the reflective piece of equipment, nor is the market opened up to other competitors to the benefit of our consumers.

If we are not worried about the consumer, as we should be, we can at least look at the position of the police. The suggestion that the increase in the theft of number plates is not linked to criminality is really rather preposterous. In 2007-08, West Midlands police found that their monthly average number of thefts was 250. By 2011, that figure had increased to 425, 20% of which involved thefts from vehicles. It is for the Department for Transport to prove its view that this practice is not associated with criminality. West Midlands police gave a whole list of examples of how it is associated with criminality, such as legitimising the use of a stolen vehicle, disguising a vehicle’s identity to use it in crime, false reporting after a speed camera activation, walking away from offences such as road traffic collisions without reporting them, and escaping congestion charges and insurance premiums. Potentially, it could be associated with road-use charging. I am not sure that I approve of the hon. Gentleman’s position on that, but I understand that it is to be used on the Dartford crossing.

One of the obvious ways in which stolen number plates are used is for theft-of-fuel offences. As the Department for Transport supposedly wants evidence on this, I am delighted that in February 2011 West Midlands police commissioned a case study across the whole of Birmingham which found that 153 thefts of number plates were reported, of which 43, or 30%, were subsequently used in theft-of-fuel offences. I think that that is clear evidence that the increase in theft is associated with criminality.

From the police perspective, the argument is that change is long overdue. There is a security-related argument for limited suppliers, which could be a lot cheaper, and, in particular, an argument for riveting plates to vehicles in order to make it much more difficult to steal them and then use them to support a whole other range of criminality.

Before I conclude, I want to raise a wider issue than vehicle registration plates. The current system includes the British Standards Institution and various committees chaired by individuals who have clear vested interests that are different from those of the consumer and the wider community. Is that a sensible way to run things? Should not the system be opened up, where possible, to competition and, where not, to at least a degree of scrutiny from Ministers?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 5:15, 31 January 2013

I congratulate Steve McCabe on securing this debate and look forward to responding to it. I also welcome my hon. Friend Mark Reckless to his place, and I will also comment on his remarks. I am aware that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is vice-president of the European secure vehicle alliance, which is dedicated to reducing vehicle-related crime, fraud and disorder. I am pleased to be able to respond on behalf of the Government on the matter, which is clearly an issue to his constituents, to the wider UK public and, of course, to the Government themselves. We are trying to respond on behalf of all motorists.

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, particularly to his espousal of the Swedish system. I recognise the merits of that system, but I cannot share his view that the UK’s system is poorly conceived and regulated or that we allow a free-for-all. I will put on the record why I think that.

The register of number plate suppliers scheme was established in 2003 to regulate the supply of number plates in the UK. It has helped to reduce the opportunities for criminals to obtain plates to disguise the identity of stolen vehicles or to use them in criminal activity. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there are almost 40,000 suppliers on the register—38,894, to be absolutely precise. Although I acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that other countries operate a different regime with regard to supply and format, including a single supplier system, the register scheme represents a system of regulation.

I accept that, prior to the scheme, it was possible to buy number plates in the UK for any vehicle from any supplier without valid checks or controls. That is why it was essential to put the scheme in place. It makes it more difficult for criminals and penalty evaders to abuse the number plate process, as it requires them to prove entitlement to the plate and to provide personal identification. It has closed off the opportunity for criminals to obtain number plates through legal channels and, contrary to some views, it has the support of the police.

All number plate suppliers now have to register by law. They pay a one-off fee to join the scheme, the object of which is to ensure that number plates are sold only to a purchaser who can provide entitlement to them and verification of personal details by producing the necessary documents, such as a vehicle registration certificate or a photocard driving licence. Number plate suppliers are then required to keep a record of sales and make it available for inspection by the police or local authorities. That is an important source of information for the investigation of vehicle theft and other crime related to motor vehicles.

It is an offence to create and supply number plates that do not comply with the relevant regulations and the British standard. In order to comply with the British standard, each plate must be permanently and legibly marked with the British standard number, the name, trademark or other means of identifying the number plate manufacturer or the component supplier, and the name and address of the supplying outlet.

DVLA enforcement officers, in conjunction with trading standards officers and the police, carry out a number of intelligence-led targeted enforcements against registered number plate suppliers and unregistered suppliers such as market traders. Again, that gives a slightly different impression from that given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak; it goes against his argument. He made a number of valid points, but it would have been helpful if he had acknowledged at the outset that the registration scheme and the action that the DVLA takes were important in maintaining the integrity of the British number plate system.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I recognise that there has been a modest attempt at regulation, but I am trying to persuade the Minister to go further. Can he give me the figures for successful prosecutions resulting from the activities of the DVLA enforcement officers in the past few years?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I shall try to answer that question later in my speech. If I cannot do so, I will of course write to the hon. Gentleman with the information.

The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the concerns expressed a few years ago when a single manufacturer, Hills, developed a system of printing that had the unforeseen side-effect of making the number plate text unreadable by automatic number plate recognition—ANPR—technology. He was also right to point out that concerns still exist. Hills was the only manufacturer using that system, and the manufacture of those plates has now been stopped, but there is still an unknown number of those so-called transparent plates in circulation.

The Department for Transport estimates that, in the worst-case scenario, up to 5% of all cars could be unreadable. However, we have reasonable evidence that the actual numbers are somewhat smaller. None the less, that development needed to be stopped immediately, and it has been. Most of the transparent plates were fitted to fleet vehicles, which are eventually sold into individual ownership, at which point the plates are routinely swapped for regular, opaque ones. That is one reason that the number might be lower. There were no concrete rules to stop companies employing that process, but that has now been remedied.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

The manufacturer in question, Hills, was owned by 3M. Is the Minister concerned that there could be a conflict of interest, in that that company, which is well served by the existing registration market, has an executive chairing the relevant British standard that enables the continuation of that market?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend leads me neatly into the next section of my speech, in which I shall address the issue of the British Standards Institution review. My predecessor committed to looking into that, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has asked me for an update. I am pleased to be able to tell him that we are seeking to change BSI standard BS AU 145(d), which covers the reflective quality of number plates. Recent advances to ANPR technology mean that the cameras are finding it more difficult to read older number plates. The hon. Gentleman will know, not least because we debated the HGV Road User Levy Bill in the House on Tuesday, that ANPR is now used increasingly for many aspects of managing the road network, including the enforcement of congestion charging and the HGV levy, as well as for detecting and preventing crime.

A committee was set up to improve standards and it was given an 18-month programme of review supported by my Department and by the Home Office. It is rightly using wider industry expertise. I hear clearly the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak and by my hon. Friend but, had we not used that expertise, one of their colleagues might have challenged me by asking why we had kept the review to civil servants. Once the committee has made its recommendations—they will be published and consulted on in late spring—I hope both hon. Members will respond to them, and point out any outstanding issues. The committee has done some rigorous work, however, and I hope its findings will offer some reassurance. I think that they will help to maintain confidence in the number plate regime, tackle vehicle excise duty evasion and improve safety.

It was suggested that the introduction of a more secure number plate system would support the sale of cherished plates. To meet the widespread interest in attractive personalised and cherished registration marks the DVLA has since 1989 been operating a sale of marks scheme, a special facility allowing motorists to acquire and retain the use of particular registration marks that have not been previously issued. More than 3.8 million registrations have been sold, which has generated over £1.8 billion in revenue. The revenue raised this financial year currently stands at just over £49.5 million, with a total of 166,00 registration marks being sold through the DVLA. The scheme is clearly popular with the motoring public, therefore.

It is recognised that there remains an issue in that some keepers of vehicles will attempt to flout the law by displaying registration marks in an incorrect format. All such formats will have been supplied by an illegal supplier, however, so they would already be on the register. Those suppliers would therefore be acting illegally already.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Why is the DVLA allowed to option plates that any normal, rational person would realise are being purchased only because the buyer intends to have them tampered with and altered illegally? They would have no value otherwise.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Not all cherished plates fit into that category; indeed, the vast majority of them do not. Some cherished plates might even have our initials on them—I can envisage “NE 1” being one of the great number plates of our time, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DVLA and the police take the matter of misrepresented registration marks very seriously. The misrepresentation of registration marks can make vehicles difficult to identify and hamper police efforts. Those who have misrepresented their registration plate have already committed an illegal offence. It is a criminal offence to alter, re-arrange or misrepresent the characters of a vehicle registration mark in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish the registration number. Offenders are liable to a maximum fine of £1,000.

I am surprised and baffled by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood, because neither I nor my officials recognise the remarks he attributes to us. If he tells me the source of those remarks, I will certainly look into the matter, but while I am prepared to accept that the Department may have made those remarks, we do not at present recognise that.

Photo of Mark Reckless Mark Reckless Conservative, Rochester and Strood

My remarks were a statement of the position of the Department for Transport as characterised by the west midlands police.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

That may have been characterised in all sorts of different ways, of course, but I am happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend later.

Over the last century, the number plate has incorporated several security features to reduce the misrepresentation, cloning and fraud that some drivers engage in. My predecessor in the Department instituted the British Standards Institution review. We have some challenging issues to face, but I am aware that the integrity of the number plate regime system is absolutely crucial to road safety, as well as to tackling road crime.

In conclusion, I cannot promise that we will move to a single supplier system, but we will—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).