Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Chidgey: I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham for his kind introduction.

I turn my attention, first, to new clause 5. It raises an issue that came to light on Second Reading, when the Government justified the introduction of the European symbol on number plates on the basis of identification of vehicles. That is a sound principle, with which I would not argue, as that is what a registration plate is intended for. However, I suspected that down the line was coming a European Union directive to insist that plates on cars registered in the European Union should carry the European symbol.

The matter introduces a paradox. If one is saying that the introduction of a symbol on a registration plate is a means of improving the identification of vehicles, to which we all subscribe, a requirement to display a national symbol on a number plate must also aid and improve identification. Never mind the philosophical argument about the pros and cons of displaying a European symbol on one's car; that is not the issue. The issue is whether doing so improves identification of the vehicle on the roads of Europe. If so, I return to the point that it cannot be objectionable, and it should not be prescribed that a requirement to display a national symbol would not improve that process.

I agree that we should not dilate on all sorts of symbols. The issue is the purpose and function of the registration plate, and how we might improve recognition and identification of vehicles throughout the European Union. I should therefore like to hear from the Minister whether he is trying to demur from admitting that the directive emanating from Brussels, to which we have signed up without thinking, is unnecessary. Perhaps surprisingly, as a Liberal Democrat, I accept that such things happen, and I fulminate against them, although often the disadvantages are outweighed by the benefits. On this issue, however, one cannot have it both ways. Either one thinks that having a symbol on a number plate improves identification and therefore one should specify that a national symbol helps that process or one should not legislate for a symbol at all.

Mr. Bercow: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that it is possible, as I fear it is—I do not want to put thoughts in hon. Members' heads, but I expect that they are there anyway—that one argument that might be used in support of a requirement to display the European Union flag would be that, if one were driving in another EU country, it would be the clearly identifiable symbol? The national flag, on the other hand, would be one with which police officers in other European countries would be woefully unfamiliar. Is it not a danger that the EU flag would be introduced and justified on the basis that it would be the one symbol that everybody recognised? Of course that would be disingenuous, dishonest and part of the ratchet of integration, but that is a strategy with which we are very familiar.

Mr. Chidgey: Whatever one's familiarity with such issues, I have not had the privilege of seeing the draft regulations, so I cannot comment on the purpose of their introduction. However, I would not have thought that it was beyond the wit of police officers throughout the EU to know the difference between the national symbols of EU countries. Indeed, some countries in the EU already have their national symbol on their standard registration plates. It is therefore not a new idea; there is nothing strange about it.

What I want to probe is why the Government, on Second Reading, used the argument that the requirement was to enable European vehicles to be better identified in the EU. I found that argument unsound, or at least only a half an argument, for rejecting the introduction of any other national symbol. However, I accept that we should not allow the registration plates of vehicles to become cluttered with information other than what is necessary to assist their identification. That is absolutely clear. The real issue is whether a symbol of the European Union, or that of a nation state of the EU, aids the identification of the vehicle.

Amendment No. 55 would delete the term

    whether relating to their size, shape, material of manufacture or otherwise.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Buckingham when he expressed his concern about the word ``otherwise''. His point was genuine and I very much hope that the Minister can give some examples of what ``otherwise'' could mean. I am sure that he will be constructive and enlighten us about the various ideas that he and his brilliant team of officials have come up with of how they can improve the registration plate by prescribing specifications using the word ``otherwise''.

Mr. Hill: Let me turn first to amendments Nos. 55 and 56, to which the hon. Member for Buckingham spoke. Amendment No. 55 would limit the ability to prescribe specifications for registration plates to size, shape and material of manufacture. It is an unnecessary amendment as it would render the legislation less flexible. It would restrict the intended purpose of the clause in that it would not allow for the prescribing of microchips or bar codes, which come under the term ``otherwise'' to be included in registration plates.

The hon. Member for Vale of York has already publicly called for bar codes. Chips and bar codes could include details such as engine numbers, vehicle identification numbers and references to the manufacturers of the plates—all factors that are designed to link the number plate to the vehicle and to improve the audit trail in respect of the number plates. I am sure that, on the whole, the hon. Member for Buckingham would not want to exclude from the Bill such proper provisions.

Amendment No. 56 gives the impression that it is intended to limit the power of the Secretary of State, but the end result might not be different from the clause. It would limit the information that could be included on the number plates, along with the registration mark, to one type only: information linking the registration plate to the vehicle for which it is intended. Given that that is mainly the purpose of the clause, there cannot be much difference between the official Opposition and the Government on such a matter.

Mr. Bercow: Will the Under-Secretary allow me to intervene?

Mr. Hill: Let me develop my argument. The amendment would stop the inclusion of information that is intended to make the plate more secure, such as a manufacturer's serial number, which would make the plate more difficult to copy. I doubt that the hon. Gentleman would want that to happen, which is why I want him to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bercow: In so far as the Under-Secretary wants the flexibility to allow greater security, he is right. If my amendment is less effective than his unamended clause in the achievement of that end, I am happy to accept the merit of his argument. However, if in other respects my amendment has mainly the same meaning as the unamended clause, it is a pity that that is not immediately obvious. May not that be because my provision is slightly better worded than that in the Bill?

Mr. Hill: For all the reasons that I have given, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's amendment is better worded than the clause. We are about to come to the piece de resistance of our proceedings. Given the deep anxieties that lie behind amendments Nos. 55 and 56 and which are more explicit in new clause 5, I hope to offer him powerful reassurances. There is and will be no obligation to display a flag or symbol that some people may find distasteful. I should sit down now, because what I have said so far meets all the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentleman. However, Opposition Members have raised other issues, and I hope to assist them.

The purpose of new clause 5 seems to be to prevent the Secretary of State from prescribing that regulation plates should contain the Euro symbol but to allow for people to opt to display a symbol of their choice. At least we understand where we are going with the new clause. It is possible, but rather difficult, to believe it in someone as perspicacious and intelligent as the hon. Member for Buckingham, that people may misunderstand the current use of the European Union symbol. I remind the Committee that under the Vienna and Geneva conventions on circulating vehicles, an international symbol is required under international law. That symbol shows letters in black for each nation on a white oval background, which include the GB, F, E, D, IRL symbols with which we are all so familiar.

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Council regulation 2411/98 on distinguishing signs provides that member states must recognise the EU symbol instead of the international one where a member state's domestic legislation requires that vehicles registered in its territory should display plates showing an EU symbol in the left side of the registration plate. The purpose of that regulation is to stop the UK disallowing vehicles from a country that requires such a symbol from circulating in the UK. I emphasise with all the might, force and persuasiveness that I can muster that it does not require the UK to adopt the symbol.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his clarification of that point. Will be confirm that the Council regulation, the number of which he rattled off with palpable relish, is already in force; or is it yet to come into force? That is my first inquiry, but I may have others.

Mr. Hill: One might almost admire the hon. Gentleman's remoteness from the practices of the European Union, but /98 implies that it came into force in 1998—[Laughter.]

Mr. Bercow: I do not think that the Under-Secretary is right. Labour Members are indulging in a good deal of tittering, but the Under-Secretary would do well to attend to what I have to say. He is right that I do not take a close and continuing interest in all the drivel that comes out of the Europe Union, but I believe that /98 indicates the date upon which the regulation was passed rather than the date upon which it takes effect. I should be grateful for confirmation of that important distinction.

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