It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Nuttall. I, too, congratulate Scott Mann on initiating the debate. In the light of the Prime Minister’s decision to invoke article 50 last month, and ahead of the general election in June, it is right that we discuss in this place the many and varied ramifications of leaving the European Union, from the big issues right down to what some might see as the finer detail about the symbols that appear on our driving licences and number plates. Detail it may be, but it is important nevertheless, because symbols matter. The questions of who we are as a society and as a country and who we identify with are at the heart of the decision taken last June, so the significance of these issues should not be underestimated. I still carry my “Sack Boris” Oyster card holder from previous London mayoral contests, partly because its message is timeless, but also because it makes a small statement. Doubtless others could cite similar examples.
On the issue of number plates and driving licences, as things stand, the United Kingdom is still a member of the European Union, and as such we operate within the body of EU legislation to which we have agreed. Accordingly, it is clear that we are not at the moment in a position to introduce regional flags on driving licences and number plates, because only the use of national symbols is permitted. With regard to number plates, the relevant legislation is regulation 16 of the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001. That allows the display of
“the international distinguishing sign of the United Kingdom”.
Although it was not until April 2009 that the UK Government introduced regulations to permit the display of national symbols, we now see number plates bearing not just the Union flag, but, as we have heard, the cross of St George, the saltire and the red dragon of Wales, as well as letters denoting the UK or one of the individual nations that form the Union.
The EU legislation relating to photocard driving licences is set out in annex I to the third driving licence directive and came into force in January 2013. It states:
“After consulting the Commission, Member States may add colours or markings, such as bar codes and national symbols”.
Since July 2015, all photocard licences issued in England, Scotland and Wales have carried the Union flag alongside the EU flag. However, unlike with vehicle registration plates, symbols of individual nations within the UK are not permitted on driving licences. That has led to some consternation in certain areas of the country; in fact, I am reliably informed that it has even spawned a thriving cottage industry in very small stickers of saltires and Welsh dragons for those who wish to accessorise their driving licence. It does seem inconsistent that number plates are permitted to bear a number of symbols of the various nations that make up the United Kingdom, whereas driving licences are allowed to bear only the Union flag.
The responsibility for deciding which national symbols are put on UK driving licences rests with the Secretary of State for Transport, except in Northern Ireland, where that power has been transferred to the Department of the Environment. As the EU directive does not explicate what constitutes a national symbol, the Secretary of State has to determine what, if any, national symbol they would like to introduce, and consult the EU Commission. That is perhaps the crux of this discussion— what constitutes a nation? That is a very big question indeed and one that, as we know, can both inspire and divide and so has to be handled with care and discretion.
Of course, the party of nations and English regions is Labour, unlike the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who tore asunder our regional structures in the last Parliament—an act of vandalism that Vince Cable famously described as “Maoist”. In the spirit of supporting thriving and healthy regions, I happily endorse the notion of regional symbols, but I gently say to the Minister—