Regional Flags: Driving Licences and Number Plates

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:25 pm on 19th April 2017.

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Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 5:25 pm, 19th April 2017

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Scott Mann on securing this debate about the use of regional or national flags on driving licences and number plates? I welcome this opportunity, because this is clearly an area of much interest to colleagues from all over our country.

We all know that, on 23 June last year, we voted as a nation to leave the EU. My hon. Friend is correct that many opportunities will arise from that decision. For example, one of the many implications may well be that we will be able to alter the design and components of our driving licences and number plates. I will take each issue separately, and I will start by commenting upon driving licences, which is actually quite a complex area.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has been issuing driving licences since 1973. It holds the records of around 47 million drivers and issues around 11 million licences each year. While I appreciate that my hon. Friend and other colleagues see the outcome of the referendum as an opportunity to include regional flags on our driving licences, I have to highlight that that could have practical implications that I ought to share with the House. There would be an administrative burden on the DVLA, and associated costs that would, in due course, be passed on to motorists .

I will explain a bit about the photocard driving licence itself. As we are all aware, there are different designs for a provisional licence and a full driving licence. At first glance, the driving licence looks a little like a credit card. It is credit card-sized and is plastic, and it contains a photograph and some details about the driver, including their name, address and the vehicles that they are entitled to drive. However, it is much more sophisticated than that. For example, it is made entirely from polycarbonate and is built up of multiple layers. It has been rigorously tested to the highest standards to ensure that it complies with international security standards, and to ensure that it is fit for purpose and will retain its integrity for the 10 years of its lifespan.

In terms of the licence’s production, the DVLA is supplied with base cards, which arrive at the DVLA containing only the title—“DRIVING LICENCE”—the Euro flag, the Union flag and the background print; everything else is printed on-site. The driver’s photograph is actually not so much printed, as one might expect, but laser etched on to the polycarbonate material. The driving licence has many other security features, and is therefore one of the most secure and recognisable public documents that we have.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government introduced a new driving licence design in 2015 that incorporated the Union flag. When that change was made, the DVLA explored the possibility of giving drivers the option of having the Union flag on their licence or not, so some of the thinking on the prospect of consumer choice has been started. That work showed that the cost to the DVLA would be between about £14 million to £20 million, and it would potentially take two years to implement. The Government decided, therefore, to include the Union flag on all driving licences, without offering a choice, to underpin the sense of national identity and pride that we all share, notwithstanding that Drew Hendry may take a slightly different view of that. Overall I think there is pride in our national flag and our identity as British citizens.

At the same time the DVLA looked at whether it would be desirable to offer drivers the option to have other symbols on their driving licence, such as the cross of St George, the saltire, the red dragon of Wales or indeed, potentially, the cross of St Piran. While it may seem a simple undertaking to give motorists a choice of what to display on their licence, the cost of doing so was even greater than the cost of providing an optional Union flag, which I mentioned earlier. If the optional element is removed—for example if all licences in Scotland were issued showing the saltire—that obviously would have a cost implication, by reducing it. Then, of course, there would be further complications; how would the distribution of the design be decided? Would it be a question of where the driver lived? Of course Scots live right across the United Kingdom, and people from other parts of the country live in Scotland. That presents some quite complicated operational implications for the DVLA.

There are also some potential road safety and security risks. Among the most obvious would be the credibility of our driving licence in the eyes of foreign enforcement agencies. When so many people from the UK drive in places around the world, the recognisability of our licence is a valuable asset.