Road Safety Bill [Lords]

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Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 86, in page 47, line 29, leave out ‘, understanding'.
I shall try to be faster, Sir Nicholas, but you were going at such a speed, it hardly gave us a chance to speak. I shall rise to my feet a little quicker in future. We seem to have sped through our proceedings.
Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman needs to lose a pound or two.
Stephen Hammond: That is the problem with the recess, of course. I am sure that it applies to everyone in Committee.
Our concern is simple. We understand entirely the need for approved test assistants, although we want to ensure that they are subject to proper scrutiny. Had I risen to my feet a little quicker, I would have liked to raise a number of issues about test assistants and some of the tables in schedule 5 that relate to them.
Amendment No. 86 is quite specific. It deals with subsection (2) and some of the circumstances in which a test assistant may be used. We have little difficulty with support being given to those who have difficulty hearing, but we are considerably concerned about the word “understanding”. If someone does not understand what is said to them, does that mean that they might fail to understand road signs, or various other instructions that may be given?
The amendment is a probing one. We want the Minister to explain the Government’s thinking in referring to someone who may have difficulty understanding questions or instructions in the relevant tests—factors that will clearly be applicable on the road as well. Is what is meant a lack of understanding of language, learning difficulties or mental impairment? We seek clarification from the Minister on exactly which circumstances someone’s lack of or difficulty in understanding would be warranted. I look forward to his response.
Dr. Ladyman: I, at least, appreciate the speed with which you go through the amendments, Sir Nicholas.
I hope that I can give the hon. Member for Wimbledon the assurance he seeks. When one is sitting the driving test, there are a number of instructions that the person setting the test has to give about the test itself. It is only right, in our view, that a person should have any assistance they need in order to understand those instructions. If they are hearing impaired, they need to have those instructions relayed in such a way that they can understand them, so someone who understands sign language would need to be made available. Equally, if a person does not speak English or Welsh—the languages in which we can provide the driving test—it may be necessary to have a translator.
The lack of comprehension that a person is allowed relates to the instructions for the test itself, not the content of the test or the nature of road signs. It is not possible to have an assistant translate a road sign; one needs to be able to understand a road sign oneself and act accordingly. The assistant will be present to help the individual only with the mechanism of the test, not with the skills on which one is being tested. I hope that with that explanation the hon. Gentleman will be happy to withdraw the amendment.
Stephen Hammond: With the Minister’s clarification—as helpful as ever—about the mechanism of the test, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42

Enforcement authorities
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Sir Nicholas, I am also pleased to see that you have obviously had a restful Easter and returned supercharged.
I shall not delay the Committee with debate on this clause, but I should just like some clarification. The clause seems sensible, but I should like the Minister to clarify who is in charge. What is the order of command between the DVLA, district councils, and county councils, which have now been brought in where there are two-tier authorities? The measure is sensible, but I am not clear about how it will work in practice. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the matter.
Dr. Ladyman: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the DVLA will not replace the police and trading standards officers. The idea is that in future the DVLA will work with them as a joint enforcement team. As he suggests, it is a sensible measure. It removes a burden on the police; it will allow the DVLA to take enforcement action in its own right, rather than reporting matters to the police for them to take action on its behalf; and it will resolve an anomaly whereby trading standards officers possess the power of enforcement if they are employed by district councils, but do not if they are employed by county councils. In future, officers employed by county councils will possess the power, too. The intention is that all three—the police, the DVLA and trading standards officers—will work jointly.
Mr. Paterson: Where there are two tiers—a county council and a district council—which will be the lead authority dealing with the DVLA?
Dr. Ladyman: I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman. My assumption is that it will be the senior tier, the county council, but I shall write to him to clarify that.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 43

Registration plates
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Paterson: Again, we do not have any great disagreement with this clause, but I should like the Minister to declare what constitutes a legal number plate, what qualifies as a number plate and what marks are allowed. There has been much press controversy about European Union flags being allowed, but not Union jacks and crosses of St. George—relevant to next week. What constitutes a legal number plate? Will the Minister have any discretion over this matter, or will it become entirely a Commission responsibility?
The Chairman: The Chairman is interested too.
Dr. Ladyman: I have no doubt that the Chairman is interested in all parts of the Bill.
All technical matters—the typeface, colour, dimensions, spacing and so on—to do with the appearance of number plates are set out in a British standard, and I would be happy to make that information available to the hon. Gentleman. I am not certain about who decides whether an EU flag or some other symbol can be on a number plate, but I shall write to the Committee and give chapter and verse on who has responsibility for that.
To my horror, I discovered that some people like to hang gimmick number plates on their bedroom wall. I have absolutely no idea why anybody would want a gimmick number plate under any circumstances or why they would want to display it, but apparently there is some trade in such things. I suspect the truth is that people have a number plate that conforms to the British standard when they have their MOT test, but replace it immediately afterwards with a gimmick number plate that uses different typefaces and spacing and therefore spells something.
The purpose of the clause is to insist that in future when people buy a gimmick number plate it is clearly marked as such and therefore cannot be used as a substitute for a real one when the person thinks nobody is watching. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about flags and other markings.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): We have all seen gimmicky number plates, which are becoming more prevalent. I noted four in the past month: L4RRY, B4RRY, D3GSY and S3XY—or Larry, Barry, Degsy and Sexy. As the Minister says, people use different typefaces, put in a black dot for the screw and turn numbers into letters. It brings a certain amount of pleasure and amusement to quite a few people, but I would not dream of having such a number plate, as it would be more likely to attract the attention of the police or someone else like that. What will the Minister do about people who have such number plates? Will the police be empowered to stop them? Will traffic wardens be empowered to report them? What measures will be taken?
Dr. Ladyman: The police already have powers to stop individuals who have changed their number plate in such a way that it no longer conforms to the standard. I would not for one second want to discourage people from having personalised number plates. Indeed, the DVLA makes a good deal of money for the taxpayer from auctioning them, and if anybody named Mr. Singh or Dr. Singh is listening to our debate, I can tell them that the forthcoming DVLA auction will include the number plate 51NGH and various extensions of that. I hope that it will raise a great deal of money for the British taxpayer.
However, the numbers must look like numbers, and the spacing needs to be such that it is clear which part of the plate is numbers and which part is letters. If anybody has played around with their number plate in such a way as to make it difficult to read, or if it is in any way not obvious what the original number plate was, the police should take enforcement action against them.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 45

Particulars to be included in vehicles register
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
5 pm
Mr. Paterson: I understand that the intention is to tighten up on various practices, particularly fiddling with odometers, or clocking, which obviously is a serious problem. The Conservatives support the Government’s attempts to ensure accurate data for people who are purchasing a motor car.
The clause raises the question of the accuracy of DVLA data, and I do not envy the DVLA in its task. It wrote to a member of the public giving information from its database in March last year. It holds in excess of 36 million vehicle records and 47 million driver records, and reckons that 68 per cent. of those records are correct in every detail and that 22 per cent. contain spelling mistakes in name, address, details or postcode. It considers those to be minor errors which do not prevent mail from being delivered or prevent the police or manufacturers from tracing vehicles. It reckons that that amounted to a 90 per cent. traceability level from the information on the vehicle database. It made the point that it is totally dependent on the motoring public for much of its information.
It is not difficult to work out that with 36 million vehicle records, 47 million driver records and its best accuracy level of 97.5 per cent., 900,000 vehicle records and 1.175 million driver records must be inaccurate. With a perfect record rate of 68 per cent., 11.52 million vehicle records and 15.04 million driver records are not perfect. With a 90 per cent. traceability rate the figures are even easier to work out: 3.6 million vehicle records and 4.7 million driver records are not traceable.
I do not envy the DVLA in trying to keep track of those records, but I should like to know the Minister’s thoughts on how the system can be tightened up because there are press reports of people deliberately driving around with inaccurate number plates. One of my constituents was the proud possessor of an ancient series 1 Cortina which, on a good day when it was warmed up, might have got as far as Shrewsbury—perhaps I am being rude about the car. He was clocked three times for breach of the congestion charge and I had to take the matter to the Mayor because it was obvious that someone had used his registration number. There are anecdotal records of a substantial number of people driving around deliberately using illegal and inaccurate number plates to avoid the congestion charge, speeding fines and so on. That seems to be a growing trend, although I have no figures on it.
What is the Minister’s opinion on the lessons that could be learned from other countries? I was recently in Germany where there is a tight system under which the number plate follows the owner. When people buy a new car, they must hand over the documents for their insurance and for their equivalent of the council tax, which is a local tax showing their domicile, which then attracts the three letters—one letter in large towns— showing where the owner lives. That may be bad luck on the Singhs who are looking forward to buying a number plate at auction, because that system wipes out personalised number plates. Also, importantly, there is the MOT test—in Germany it is a TUV—when the vehicle is three years or more old. When the vehicle is sold the number is surrendered and a new number is created for the new owner. A similar system operates in America, which I have not yet inspected, where each number plate includes an insurance sticker and an annual sticker and is handed out by the state authority.
Our current system, as the lady from the DVLA said, depends entirely on the motoring public for information and is not 100 per cent. accurate. I repeat that I do not envy the DVLA its job, but if we are to have proper enforcement and to clamp down on the hard core of really bad drivers we must have an accurate database, and there are lessons to be learned from the German and American systems. I was in Sweden recently where the road pricing scheme in Stockholm is similar to that in Germany. It simply cannot work without accurate data.
The Government are all over the shop on road pricing and if we are ever to have a new road pricing scheme it must have a cast iron, accurate database. We fully support the Government’s aim to clamp down on the hard core, but that seems to be extremely difficult when the current system is not as watertight as it might be and as I am told it is in other countries. I should like to hear the Minister’s comments on that, but in general we support the clause and its attempt to tighten up on inaccurate mileage on second-hand cars.
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