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10.53 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): After that introduction, I hesitate to rise and speak. I am almost tempted to quote the number plate "VOM1T", 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.

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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.

10.58 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): 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?

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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.

Mr. Evans: England is the one nation that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned. What consultation occurred with the English about the changes?

Mr. Ross: 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.

11.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): 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.

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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

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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.

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