Clause 1

Vehicle Registration Marks Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 18th April 2007.

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Retention of registration marks pending transfer

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 20, at end insert—

‘(2A) In section 57 of that Act (regulations)—

(a) in subsection (7), after ‘Act’ insert ‘(other than regulations under section 26(1))’.

(b) after subsection (7), insert—

“(ZA) A statutory instrument containing regulations under section 26(1) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament.”’.

I believe that the last time I was in a Room with you, Mr. Conway, and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South was 1995 when we were in the Government Whips office. Unlike the present Government, we did not know from day to day whether we would have a majority, but I still think back to those days as the good old days, as I am sure you do.

I say to my hon. Friend that I am not here to wreck the Bill. I support the thrust of what he is trying to achieve, and the Bill is a modest measure that we should all welcome, but it has led me to ponder why we have to be as regulated as we are. In the United States, for example, any person who owns a motor car can have any number or combination of numbers and letters on his car as his registration number. I believe that there is a maximum number of numerals that he can choose, but what he chooses is entirely a matter for him, provided that no one else has it.

I remember that a few years back I met a popular entertainer, who is no longer with us, called Dean Martin. He told me that he had the registration number  “DRUNKY” on his car, because it played up his stage persona. Why can we not have a similar system? You, Mr. Conway, could have “CHAIR1” as your registration plate. I mention that en passant, because we seem to be obsessed by red tape and regulation. The Bill, modest as it is, is a step in the right direction, as it seeks slightly to liberalise the rules in respect of cherished number plate transfers.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Were we to follow the course that the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, there would not be a significant income to the Government through the sale of such number plates, and there would not be a cherished number plate industry, in which case a lot of people would lose their jobs and livelihoods.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

It is good to hear the Minister standing up for vested interests.

My amendment would change the procedure by which regulations would need to be dealt with under the Bill by removing the negative procedure and requiring that any regulations be subject to the positive procedure. If it were left to me, I would remove the negative procedure from the statute book completely. Silence should never be deemed to be consent, and when we make law Parliament should always have a say and be asked to give its approval.

I suspect that the Minister will resist my amendment by telling the Committee that any regulations made under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 are subject to the negative procedure, and that if the amendment were allowed, it would create an anomaly to the extent that regulations made under the Bill would be subject to a different procedure. I can see that there is some force in that argument, but I nevertheless hope that the Minister agrees that whenever the law is changed, Parliament should be asked for its consent.

I also have two concerns that I want to place on record and invite the Minister to comment on. One is about the regulations, and the other is of a more general nature. Dealing with the overall position, I hope that the Minister will confirm that no discussions with our European partners have taken place, are taking place or are about to take place about harmonising licence plate numbers. Will he confirm that no such discussions have taken place or are on the horizon? He has already referred to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency making a considerable amount of money by selling cherished numbers, but in my view if, at the same time, the Government were looking at changing our procedure in some way and making our existing numbers obsolete, that would be tantamount to obtaining by deception, if discussions were taking place at the same time as the Government were making money by selling existing registration numbers. I hope that the Minister will confirm that there is no EU agenda here.

My second concern relates directly to the regulations made under the Bill. If the Bill becomes law, which I hope, there will have to be a change in some of the procedures at the DVLA. In the past, in a pre-computer age, I suppose that that would not have caused a problem, but these days in any office, or  certainly Department, everything is part of a computer programme. If the Bill becomes law, I suspect that the DVLA will need to commission some new computer software at an inflated price. I would like the Minister to confirm that the Department will absorb any costs so incurred and not seek in the regulations to pass on the extra cost to those who wish to take part in a cherished transfer. I hope that he will assure me that the cherished transfer fee will not be increased as a result of the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South and the Department have produced some very helpful explanatory notes. I refer the Committee to paragraph 13, which states:

“There are not expected to be any additional costs”.

I assume that the Minister consented to the second sentence:

“Departmental systems development costs estimated at £95,000 to £100,000 will be met by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.”

I would like the Minister to confirm today in the Official Report that that is his pledge to the Committee should the Bill become law. If he can satisfy me on my two latter points, I will seek the Committee’s permission to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. The explanation that the right hon. Gentleman suggested that I would give to the Committee for why I was going to resist his amendment was not the explanation that I was going to give, but it is such a good one that I will now adopt it as Government policy.

I think that I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurances he is seeking. First, I have had no discussions whatsoever with ministerial colleagues about harmonisation of number plates, and I am not aware that any of my officials have had such discussions. If any such discussions are going on in the Commission or elsewhere, then I am not aware of them. Personally, I would resist any such discussions, for the reasons that I stated earlier. There is a thriving cherished number plate industry in this country, which would come to an end and from which the DVLA makes a significant amount of money on behalf of the taxpayer that the taxpayer would otherwise have to step in and provide. It would not be in our interest to harmonise number plates. European number plates are very boring, and we should have a little romance and excitement in our lives, even if it is only in our number plates.

As stated in the explanatory notes, the cost will be £95,000 to £100,000. It is our intention to absorb that cost and not to pass it on in the cherished number plate transfer fee. The Committee may look upon it as my gift to the cherished number plate industry.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Will the Minister clarify where the cost will be absorbed from if it does not come from those particular DVLA customers?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

It will be absorbed within the general overheads of the DVLA and the money that we make from the sale of cherished number plates. I cannot, however, promise that the transfer fee will never  increase or that it will not be reviewed at some point, because it is not in my power to do so. However, if there is an increase, it will not be as a result of this change. I hope that those are the reassurances that the right hon. Gentleman seeks and that, having got them on the record, he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am grateful to the Minister. He has satisfied me so far as he is able to do so, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Conservative, Croydon South

Having had the pleasure of your acquaintance for well over 20 years, Mr. Conway, I believe that this is the first time that I have had the distinct honour and privilege of appearing in a Committee chaired by you, which makes it a red letter day for us all.

Let me briefly outline the Bill. A feature on Second Reading was the emptiness of the Chamber, and one or two people might not have had the chance to read an explanation of the measure in Hansard. As the Minister said in response to the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, the Bill concerns a thriving business. I have read that Croydon, South, which I have the privilege to represent, has the wealthiest postcode in Britain and that a considerable number of people there can afford personalised number plates.

The Minister described people having such plates as a bit of romantic activity in our lives. I looked at a website the other day to see what the number “RO1” would cost. It is for sale for £175,000, but it is privately owned, so the proceeds will not go to the DVLA. None the less, the answer to my right hon. Friend is that the Minister is the custodian of a vast number of number plates, the sale of which will probably comfortably recover the costs. In fact, I am sure that the Minister will not mind my mentioning that in a private conversation he described a number plate that the DVLA sold the other day for a considerable sum.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am not sure whether one needs to declare an interest in these proceedings if one owns a cherished number plate. If that is the case, can I declare an interest four times? My hon. Friend did not tell the Committee whether he is going to purchase “RO1”.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Conservative, Croydon South 9:45 am, 18th April 2007

I am afraid that a parliamentary salary prohibits such extravagant behaviour, although there are more modestly priced number plates on the market. My right hon. Friend has mentioned that he must declare an interest four times over, and I believe that he has a barn that is bigger than his house in which he keeps a number of cars.

There is a problem with the transfer of private number plates. Just imagine, Mr. Conway, that one of my right hon. Friend’s cars had the number plate “DC1”, that you took an interest in it and that my right hon. Friend decided to sell it to you for £200,000. The first thing that he would do would be to take it off the  car and put it on what is known as retention. That is where the problems start, particularly if you do not have a car to put it on. You might think, having given him £200,000, that you now own the number plate, but you are not the grantee because you have not gained title to the number plate. If my right hon. Friend, who is an honest man, had a change of character, he could sell the plate to someone else for £200,000, because you still need his permission when you put it on a car. Even if he were not a dishonest person, but simply decided to go on a long hunt around the far east looking for new vehicles, or something of that nature, and was not available to sign the paperwork when you wanted to put the number plate on to your car, there would be a hold-up.

Clause 1, which is the heart of the Bill—it is a two-clause Bill, after all—amends the law so that you, Mr. Conway, would have a legal right to and ownership of that number plate while you are the grantee and holding it on retention. That would allow a buyer to hold a number plate on retention legally. Some people might think that that is a fairly minor thing, but it has a fundamental impact on what is a large and growing industry. It will eliminate fraud; it will provide certainty; and it will create an opportunity for the industry to be put on a sounder basis that it is at present. The Bill, and clause 1 in particular, gives effect to that, and I hope that colleagues will feel able to support the measure and the Bill.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is an enormous pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I rise briefly to support my hon. Friend and to congratulate him heartily on coming 10th in the private Members’ ballot. I came 16th last year, and, sadly, the European Communities Act 1972 (Disapplication) Bill never got a Second Reading. I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting his Bill in Committee. As he has said, the heart of the Bill is in clause 1, which makes a minor tweak of the regulations to allow the easier trading of number plates. As the Minister has explained, the relatively modest sum involved is less than the traded value of some of these number plates. Will he tell us the total value of the sale of the plates and say whether it is on an upward curve? Does he have the figures for the past couple of years, so that we can judge the percentage of the cost set against the total turnover on the sale of number plates?

This is a modest measure and I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend on the professional way in which he has brought it to Committee. We support clause 1, as drafted.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Thank you, Mr. Conway. I am more used to serving with you on the Accommodation and Works Committee, where more controversial matters have come before us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South on introducing the measure. Anything that makes life easier for people engaging in an activity that they enjoy and that does no harm to society makes sense, and it is a pleasure to see a law that will reduce the burden of  bureaucracy. The passing of legislation is not always burdensome, and it can have aspects of relief.

I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will speedily produce the regulations when the measure is passed, as he will then be entitled to do.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I can certainly give the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine that assurance. Should the Bill be passed, we want to move as quickly as possible to put the necessary regulations in place.

The story that the hon. Member for North Shropshire told shows the merits of having realistic ambitions for private Members’ Bills. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South on being prepared to use his opportunity in the private Members’ ballot to do something that will be of practical benefit to a number of people. It is perhaps not going to be the most earth-shattering piece of politics with which the House will engage this year, but it will make a few people a little better off, so it is not a bad thing. I am also grateful to him for working so closely with the Government on the passage of the Bill, assuming that it passes today, and when it returns to the Floor of the House.

In answer to the question about how much the industry is worth, so far the DVLA has amassed more than £1 billion from the sale of cherished number plates, which is not insubstantial. If the figure were to reach £2 billion, I would be very happy, too. We should continue to support the sale of cherished number plates.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is an amazing sum. Will the Minister tell us when this practice started, and what the annual turnover is now?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I cannot give the Committee that information offhand, but if guidance should reach me from above before I sit down, I shall certainly provide it.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

In addition to providing that information, will he confirm that some sales take place by auction rather than by private treaty? If he cannot tell us today, will he perhaps tell us on Third Reading when the next auction is taking place, because some of us may wish to put in a bid?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that some of these things are done by auction. The conversation that I had with the hon. Member for Croydon, South, to which he referred in his speech, about some number plates that were sold for £250,000 each concerned an auction. I suppose that we have all wondered why anybody would want to spend so much money on a number plate, but it is their money, and so long as they are giving it to the DVLA, it is going to a good cause. I am very happy that people should continue to do that.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Does the Minister have any estimate of the remaining value of what is still available to be auctioned? Is this a long-term money-making exercise or will it be exhausted in a fairly short time, in which case the DVLA will have to look elsewhere for funding?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I do not know how one would devise an algorithm to work out the total number of combinations of letters and numbers and which of them are meaningful and have value to people. I do not think that that calculation can be done. I have also looked through the lists of numbers that are sold in newspapers for as little as a few hundred pounds or up to a few thousand pounds. Quite frankly, I struggled to see what is cherished or unique about some of them. However, if somebody’s name happens to be Charles Bernard Xavier, they would be interested in “CBX”, whereas nobody else would see any significance in it.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Presumably, the pool of cherished numbers is replenished each year. I assume that every year the Department looks through the numbers that are coming on stream and holds back those that it thinks have a value for later sale.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

The pool is certainly replenished every year, and we are alive to that. It is not just the DVLA that goes through that process. I had a conversation with a dealer from the cherished number plate industry who explained his job to me. In his words, it is to wait for inspiration about what number plates might be of interest to certain individuals or businesses, and then acquire such a number plate, which nobody realises has any particular significance until he has that inspiration. He then approaches the business and points out that the plate would be of benefit to it.

Those of us who work around Westminster will have seen the vehicles of Pimlico Plumbers, which have the most amazing cherished number plates including “BOG” and “LOO”. They even manage to make words  such as “shower” out of a number plate—personally, I cannot imagine how they get the inspiration to do it. However, it is part of their advertising and their public relations, and it adds a little to the fun and amusement of the world. If, as a result, it means that the taxpayer has to pay a little less tax, that is a good thing, too.

So the clause has the Government’s full support. I assure the House that we consulted widely on the need for this change and that there was widespread support for it. The Association of Chief Police Officers has no objection to the change, which will work in exactly the way that the hon. Member for Croydon, South has explained. It does not introduce any new opportunities for abuse or fraud, and it will therefore benefit people who work in the cherished number plate industry and people who own or want to sell such number plates. I am happy to offer my support to the clause and to the Bill in general.

I can provide the Committee with the information that was requested. I do not currently have details of annual income, but I can write to hon. Members. If we find the information by Friday, I will tell the House on Friday, if we manage to get Third Reading. The DVLA entered the sale of marks scheme in 1989, so £1 billion has been accumulated in a relatively short period of time. Well done to the DVLA staff for all their efforts, and well done to all those people who have more money than they know what to do with and who want to buy these things from us.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at three minutes to Ten o’clock.