Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): How do you know?

Mr. Bercow: Well, I can only say that I have not bitten her. Her husband might have something to say about the matter if I had.

The Chairman: Order. One of the problems with Committees concerns their going out of order through remarks from sedentary positions. It is my experience that Committees quickly get out of order if we permit it. I request the Committee to show restraint, although such contributions add to the enjoyment of the afternoon.

3.30 pm

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to you, Mr. Wells. I was tempted down a dangerous path by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). He has, I dare say, a good deal to commend him, although I cannot readily think what it is. However, he should behave himself. I do not think that such sedentary interventions will be likely from the next Member of Parliament for Harrow, West, Mr. Danny Finkelstein.

The Chairman: Order. Again I must bring the attention of the hon. Gentleman to the fact that remarks that are very wide of the subject under discussion are certainly out of order.

Mr. Bercow: I apologise unreservedly to you, Mr. Wells. I shall speedily return to order and follow your instructions.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The point that I was attempting to make from a sedentary position, which initiated the exchange, was that, on Tuesday, the hon. Member for Vale of York specifically opposed the aims of the amendment, in that she argued for bar codes to be put on number plates to deal with vehicle crime. The amendment would remove from the Secretary of State the power to do that. I wanted to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention, when he alluded to the massed ranks behind him, to the possibility that the hon. Lady had left because she could not support the amendment.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister's suggestion is certainly ingenious, but has the demerit of being wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York is sadly no longer with us, and will not be for the remainder of the afternoon, because she has hoofed off to her constituency to fulfil an engagement. I am pining for her return, but she has been given clearance to leave. I should also point out, Mr. Wells, that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, the opposite number, as the Opposition Whip on this Committee, of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), has gone to his constituency for a Thursday evening commitment. So we have two absent Members in constituencies and another who has been bitten.

The point that I was making before I allowed myself to be diverted was that this is the first time I have led for the Opposition on a Bill Committee. I have, however, served as a Back-Bencher on Bill Committees, during the passage of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Competition Act 1998 and the Employment Relations Act 1999. We were led with great distinction on those measures by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). On those occasions I do not recall—I think that what I am saying is germane, Mr. Wells—that the Government accepted any of our amendments, despite the wisdom of many of them and the sheer brilliance with which they were argued.

Ministers have adopted a reasonable tone in response to our amendments. Of course it will have been observed on Tuesday that the Under-Secretary, by a sort of nod and wink, gave me to understand that he thought that there was much sense in what we suggested and that, although he did not propose to accept our amendment there and then, he would revisit the issue before Third Reading. I did not think it wise to press him further. I have thus had a semi-success, but so far none of our amendments has been accepted.

I am not a sensitive flower. I do not take such things personally. However, if on this occasion the Under-Secretary would say, ``The hon. Gentleman is right; the proposed rather tighter wording would be sensible and we shall either agree to it now or propose something similar,'' I should be delighted. My cup would run over. However, it would probably be unwise for my continuing health for me to hold my breath.

Proposed new section (27A)(1), which new clause 5 would insert into the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, states, in relation to regional symbols:

    The Secretary of State shall prescribe no specifications that require a registration plate to contain or display any flag or symbol of the European Union.

It goes on to state:

    Notwithstanding subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for any registration plate to contain or display a flag specified by the owner of the relevant vehicle.

What is the problem here? Clause 33 would allow the Secretary of State to prescribe the information to be carried on number plates. That leaves the Bill wide open to a number of interpretations.

One does not need to look into a crystal ball, one can look in the record. On Second Reading, it was established that the clause was subject to a number of interpretations. What might be called the attention of an anorak was devoted to it during the debate, as many hon. Members commented on what it might or might not facilitate or require—to such a degree that Madam Deputy Speaker called a number of hon. Members to order and said that we were in danger of getting into a Committee rather than a Second Reading debate.

Conservative Members were provoked by some Labour Back Benchers, who may not have been speaking for the Government and may just have been expressing their own rather extreme and unsatisfactory views. That is one of the reasons why I proposed the amendment, to tie the Government down on the matter. If I remember rightly, the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) intervened and spoke of the desirability of number plates carrying a European flag, given that we were operating within a single market. Those remarks were deeply uncongenial to my hon. Friends and to me.

We know that just as there are a number of European federasts—usually in the closet—on the Government Front Benches, there are a number of European federasts on the Government Back Benches. However, we are anxious to ensure that there should be absolutely no requirement whatsoever, under the terms of the clause, to contain or display the flag of the European Union. Moreover, and this is the essence of the point, we would like a situation in which individual vehicle owners could contain or display such flags as they specified.

On Second Reading, I challenged the Home Secretary, and received an unsatisfactory response. We have not said much about the Home Secretary so far, and we probably should not do so, Mr. Wells, for fear of falling foul of your exhortations. However, he moved the Second Reading of the Bill, and was a frequent contributor of interventions throughout the afternoon and evening. I was worried, because he did not seem to be quite as aware as I thought that he might or should be of the discretion that the Bill might give him. I say that he was not as aware as he might be because the Home Secretary is an extremely experienced and well-informed Minister. I do not know of any Cabinet member who more closely attends to the debate on a Bill than he. He makes a genuine effort to respond to hon. Members' points. I remember inquiring about the scope for display, not of a European flag, but of a Union flag—something that I might well be tempted to do myself, and something that might appeal to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Would the hon. Gentleman also be happy if his new clause permitted people to have the National Front flag on their vehicles, if that was their choice?

Mr. Bercow: That is a serious challenge, and I shall treat it as such. I think that the answer would probably be yes, although I say that reluctantly. However, that would depend on whether the display of the symbol rendered the person who displayed it in contravention of another piece of legislation. The reference may seem too broad, but it relates to the question of whether the facility exists to display a flag of one's choice.

The Chairman: Order. Although it is in order to discuss the question of symbols of all kinds on the registration plate, it is not in order to discuss specific symbols, as we are beginning to do. As the Committee will appreciate, if we did that, we would end up discussing every possible symbol, which would clearly be out of order.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry about that, because I have endless energy for the discussion of symbols and other matters. I fear that it is your knowledge of that fact, Mr. Wells, that inclines you to draw a line under the matter. Otherwise, you may think, you will not be able to hold back the tide. The flood would be irresistible, the hoarding masses would advance, the consequences would be unpredictable, the pain appalling, the delay interminable and life in this Committee might never be the same again. I can understand that you might not be happy with that idea.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) raises a serious point, however. I would certainly not want the display of any symbol to undermine good community relations. Nothing displayed should be conducive to bad race relations, widespread public disharmony or, worse still, the incitement of racial hatred. Therefore, exactly what form that symbol took would determine whether it was acceptable. I do not want to make that point at all, Mr. Wells—

The Chairman: Order. The point that I was trying to make to the Committee was that exactly the kind of arguments now being adduced by the hon. Gentleman are entirely out of order in a debate on the amendment.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Wells, as it helps me and clarifies matters. I will not dilate because you have told me in the politest possible terms—such as we expect from you—that I must not do so.

On the occasion to which I referred, the Home Secretary said that he had no briefing, which, in a sense, brought the matter to a halt, and surprised me, as he has incredibly dexterous officials advising him. He could not say whether, under the terms of the Bill, it would be possible to display a Union flag. I simply suggested that, if the Bill required amendment to facilitate that option—I am now getting to the kernel of the argument, Mr. Wells, as I am speaking of my amendment—it might be amended in Committee. We can debate the matter here, have an argument and rejoice in discussing the issue.

You will be aware, Mr. Wells, as you are a well travelled individual, not least by virtue of your service on the International Development Committee, that many cars already carry the European symbol. I am not arguing whether they should or should not, or whether the law allows them to do so, because it manifestly does. Moreover, none of my hon. Friends is arguing for a moment that there is anything offensive about it. However, people should not be obliged to display a flag or symbol that they find personally objectionable.

I do not expect you, Mr. Wells, to indulge me on this point for any length of time, but there should be a respect for principle in these matters. I said that I regarded driving a vehicle as a matter of convenience—a means by which to get from A to B. Unlike many men, I do not regard myself as a good driver, although I hope that I am a safe one. Driving is merely an unavoidable evil in the conduct of my parliamentary life, and I avoid using the car as much as possible. However, the obligation to display a European Union flag on my car would stop me from using a car for the remainder of my parliamentary service and require me to travel by other means to my constituency. I am simply not prepared to display that symbol.

I am advised by the House of Commons Library that, although the display of the European symbol on a number plate is being permitted, it is illegal. Indeed, the Library has advised my hon. Friends and me that

    New regulations allowing the use of the Euro sign are unlikely to come in until March 2001.

Therefore, those new regulations will be introduced some weeks after the conclusion of our proceedings.

3.45 pm

My hon. Friends and I have not received specific information about those proposed regulations, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary has. I do not doubt that they exist in draft form, and I confidently anticipate that he can recollect them verbatim. It would help the Committee and clear up any confusion if he could do so from memory.

Until the new regulations come into force, existing rules apply, which allow the size of the numbers on a registration plate to be larger than they will be under the proposed new rules. Cars with new plates are on the road but, theoretically at least, they are illegal, and anyone using them could be stopped by the police. The position will not be resolved until either a court case takes place or the new regulations are introduced. Will the Under-Secretary confirm whether those new regulations will be introduced in March, or whether a delay is expected?

Our amendment would effect two things. First, it would forbid the Home Secretary to pass regulations that require—as opposed to entitle—a driver of a car to carry a European symbol on its plate. Secondly, it would give the vehicle owner a choice in what is included on the plate. That is consistent with the position taken by the Conservative opposition, which is to champion the cause of choice and diversity always, everywhere and with enthusiasm, when it is compatible with the rule of law. That is a principle that Conservative Members regularly celebrate.

People should be able to choose to have their national flag on the plate, be it Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or English, depending on their personal preference. I am in favour of what might be called a free market in these matters. I favour a ``do as you like'' approach, in so far as no one else's rights are infringed and no threat is posed to the law or public order.

I commend the amendments to the Committee—especially the new clause—strongly and with passion. I await with enthusiasm and a little trepidation the ministerial response, before which, to judge from his movements, we shall hear from the hon. Member for Eastleigh.

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