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As I say, we will need to table further amendments to clause 3 in Committee to ensure that we get the detail right. I cannot, at this stage, give an absolute guarantee that we will succeed, although the indications from our
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discussions with the hon. Gentleman and his advisers is that we are making good progress, and we are confident that it can be done.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to the continued success of the mutual sector and to playing a role in supporting it. We are sympathetic to the principles that underpin the Bill and wholly support the values that it seeks to entrench in legislation. We need to keep the building society and mutual sector competitive, and if we get the Bill right, we will succeed in that objective. We congratulate all those who have been involved in its preparation, particularly the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West on his leadership, and look forward to assisting with its progress through Parliament.

12.39 pm

Sir John Butterfill: I thank the Economic Secretary for his comments and the helpful way in which he and the Department assisted us in preparing the Bill and getting it to its present stage.

We accept that it may be necessary to table amendments in Committee. Indeed, we have already agreed some of them in principle. I hope that we do not need to revert to affirmative resolution procedure in all cases, but we can debate that at the relevant time. If we need to give the Treasury a longer period in which to consider some of the more detailed aspects that the Economic Secretary outlined in relation to clause 3, there will probably be happy agreement in Committee that we shall do whatever is necessary to get the Bill on to the statute book.

We have had an excellent debate, with wonderful contributions from all parties, for which I am grateful. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made a splendid speech. I say to her that,
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although the co-operative movement arose from the needs of many poor people, other stakeholders also supported it. My mother, who was born in 1898, the daughter of a successful Victorian industrialist and became a civil servant at the Bank of England, was a keen supporter of the co-operative movement and a member of the Co-operative Wholesale Society for as long as I can remember. However, she always voted Conservative, as far as I know.

I should like to take the opportunity of thanking a few others. First, I thank the Building Societies Association for its tremendous co-operation and that of its individual members on the Bill. I thank the Association of Friendly Societies and all the other mutual organisations that have been so supportive in getting the Bill this far. It is invidious to single out individual ones, but I must say that the Portman building society in my constituency has been very helpful, as has the Liverpool Victoria friendly society. They put a tremendous amount back into my local community. I have twisted the arm of the Liverpool Victoria to give significant funding to the Youth Cancer Trust, which is a major charity that provides palliative care to young people in my constituency. The Liverpool Victoria has given us a big sponsorship, so I offer it special thanks. However, that is typical of what mutuals do in constituencies throughout the country.

I give my sincere thanks to Mutuo, whose members are listening to our discussion. Without that organisation, it would not have been possible to get the Bill to this stage. It is a great supporter of everything that we do and of the all-party group. I am extremely grateful to it. With its aid, we may get the measure on the statute book.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time , and committed to a Public Bill Committee.

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Vehicle Registration Marks Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.42 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). Before the Economic Secretary leaves, may I say to him that, although he is capable of being a controversial figure, we all appreciate the consensual way in which he recognised the abilities of my good friend and colleague?

I was a Friday Whip for the last two years of John Major’s Government, which was not the quietest period in the Whips Office. I am therefore well aware of the limitations of coming No. 10 in the private Members’ ballot. One is faced with a stark choice between introducing a measure that is hostile to the Government, then, when it does not get a second’s air time on the Floor of the House, issuing a press release criticising some heartless Whip for objecting to it, and searching for consensus through working with hon. Members of different parties on a measure that will, one hopes, improve the lot of the citizens whom we represent. On this occasion, I have chosen the latter course and I am pleased to introduce the Bill today.

I am grateful for the Minister’s co-operation and that of the Department for Transport. I am also grateful for the co-operation of officials in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—I have not had to bother them too much because the Bill is fairly straightforward. I am only too sorry that I have not been able to get down to Swansea, but I sit on a busy Committee. I would not say Swansea is another land, but it takes quite a while to get down there and back again, so perhaps I can take up the invitation on another occasion.

I am also grateful to the Cherished Numbers Dealers Association for encouraging me to introduce the Bill and for its fund of stories about the history and complexity of the registration mark system. I am grateful to the Retail Motor Industry Federation for its general encouragement and support, and to Members from all parties for theirs. I stress that the Bill has all-party support.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): On that particular point, will my hon. Friend clarify that the Bill truly has all-party support? For the second time today, I see no one on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and no one on the Liberal Democrat Back Benches. On the previous Bill, the Liberal Democrat spokesman apologised to the sponsor for his absence, so can I ask my hon. Friend whether he has received a similar apology? Does he put this down to serial rudeness, apathy or incompetence on the Liberal Democrats’ part?

Richard Ottaway: I can confirm that I have received no communication from Liberal Front Benchers and I leave it to my hon. Friend to decide which of his three choices to put that down to. In all fairness, the Bill is supported by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has taken a keen
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interest in it, but Liberal Front Benchers have shown no interest whatever. Perhaps the Liberal party is suffering its private grief—in private!

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): It has just occurred to me that the Cherished Numbers Dealers is probably the only organisation called CND that we are all allowed to be members of these days. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats’ ambivalence to CND organisations meant that they decided not to appear today.

Richard Ottaway: Either that or they are in the process of changing their minds yet again on their attitude towards that issue. I had not spotted the CND connection; perhaps we should award a number plate with that on it to the Liberal Democrats.

The motor car was the most significant development of the 20th century. It gave a freedom to travel that our forebears had possibly never envisaged; it made access to all parts of the nation possible; it transformed local economies, communities and regions; and it enhanced the country’s prosperity. I happen to believe that the motorist is taxed too much, but was there ever a motorist who thought otherwise, and we live in modern times. I also believe that motorists produce too much pollution and I support the Government’s efforts to address that problem. However, I am unashamedly pro-motorist and will, in truth, do anything to try to improve his lot, which is why I introduce the Bill today.

Until I embarked on this measure, the world of vehicle registration marks was an unknown one and its complexities had never been of concern to me. As I explored the issue, I found that number plates play an important role in regulating the motor car. They are used to identify the car, for purposes of taxation, and—as a number of my constituents never fail to write and tell me—for law-enforcement purposes.

I often speculate whether a personalised number plate makes it easier to identify a car than a normal number plate. Personally, I suspect that it does, but the reasons people have personalised number plates are many and varied. The important thing to remember about a number plate is that it is not owned by the owner of the car: it is assigned to a vehicle through a sort of franchise operation, with ownership remaining with the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport. It remains with the vehicle until it is broken up, destroyed or exported. The key point that I invite the House to remember is that the assignment is linked to the owner of the car rather than to the vehicle itself. I will address later the problems that that causes, which the Bill is designed to solve.

There is widespread interest in personalised number plates. They were first issued by counties at the beginning of the 20th century. In the early days before personalised number plates, the focus was on number plates such as A1. That particular number plate was sold by London county council in 1903 to the second Earl Russell, who queued for the entire night outside the council offices to have the right to be able to buy it. He beat someone else to it by just five seconds. Having acquired it, he sold it to the chairman of the London county council four years later, in 1907. History does not relate whether he made a profit.

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The second Earl Russell was clearly a flamboyant character. If you will indulge me on a grey Friday morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will tell the House how his history possibly reflects on those who buy cherished number plates. He was married three times. After his second marriage, he was charged with bigamy and, as a Member of the House of Lords, became one of the last peers to elect for trial by his peers. After a great amount of deliberation in the upper House, he was convicted, but sentenced to only three months on account of the extreme torture of his first marriage. He subsequently became the first peer to join the Labour party, and went on to hold ministerial office. As Under-Secretary of State for Transport, he introduced the highway code and abolished speed limits. He went on to become Secretary of State for India. The Ramsay MacDonald Government reintroduced speed limits, but they felt that they had to wait until the second Earl Russell had died before they could do so. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Bertrand Russell, who perhaps became more famous.

My constituents are all, of course, paragons of virtue, but many of them would recognise the character of the second Earl Russell in those who buy personalised number plates. The part of Croydon that I have the privilege to represent has been identified as the wealthiest postcode in Britain, and I have to confess that we have more than our fair share of personalised number plates floating around the leafy suburbs of Purley and Coulsdon. I am pleased to be able to introduce a Bill that will smooth the transfer of such number plates.

Dr. Ladyman: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the history of number plates, I would like to ask him whether he recollects a former Member of Parliament whom I remember well from when I was a young boy watching the news: a gentleman by the name of Gerald Nabarro. One of my memories of him was that he had a fine collection of cherished number plates such as NAB1 and NAB2, as well as a big handlebar moustache.

Richard Ottaway: We all remember him well. Hon. Members will also recall that his personal assistant was Christine Hamilton, now married to Neil Hamilton, who is constantly in our thoughts. [ Laughter. ] Neil is a good friend of mine; I did not mean that in a derogatory way.

The personalised number plate regime was set up in its present form in 1994, and I am pleased that it was continued by the present Government—not least, I suspect, because it has turned out to be a nice little earner for the Department. There is, however, a problem with the system. Let us suppose that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have the number plate AH1, and that you decide to sell it. The first step will be to separate your car from the number plate, which involves the process of putting it on retention. Let us suppose that I decide to buy it for my god-daughter, whose initials are also AH. If I have a car to put it on, there will be no problem. But if she is under age and does not have a motor car, I, too, will have to put the number plate on retention and hold it separately from a car. When I then elect to nominate a car, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency approves the application, puts the number plate on that car, and
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the transaction goes through. But if I do not have a car to put the number plate on, and I want to hold it on retention, I would pay the seller of the number plate, but I do not gain any legal rights until I nominate a car, which might be weeks, months or even years later providing that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, keep renewing the retention until such time as a car is nominated. Throughout that period, I would need your co-operation.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the most expensive number plate sold at auction was M1, which went for £331,500 to a man in the north-west, who reportedly bought it for his six-year-old son? We can only speculate on what sort of car such a person would buy for his six-year-old son when he becomes old enough to drive. Is not that a telling example of someone who will have to maintain a relationship and contact with the seller of the number plate for at least 11 years before his son is old enough to drive and own a car?

Richard Ottaway: The hon. Lady very intelligently goes to the heart of the problem. I will have paid you a sum of money, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am exposed until the number plate is attached to a car. There is huge vulnerability to fraud. The hon. Lady referred to the highest recorded sum paid for a number plate of £330,000-odd. When I looked on the internet yesterday, I found that RO1 is for sale for £150,000, and that 1A was sold in 1989 for £200,000—one can only speculate what it would sell for today.

James Duddridge: I hate to advertise for CND, but is my hon. Friend aware that MP1 is available for only £20,000? While not considering purchasing a number plate myself, I take great interest in such matters, as my constituents will do. The reason that I would not consider purchasing a number plate is that DUD1 is perhaps not a good promotion.

Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend makes his point well. MP1 for £20,000 sounds rather good value, and perhaps the price will rise after this debate, which merely illustrates the point.

The vulnerability to fraud is that until the number plate is assigned to another vehicle the seller has the rights of retention. He might disappear, which makes it hard to get him to sign it over to a new car, or he might even be a criminal who sells it again, which, as he still has ownership, raises interesting legal complexities. That undermines confidence in the system for what has become an established, if not overly critical, part of British life, and if it is to be allowed, it is important that the system is run properly.

The Bill tries to remedy the defects in the system by allowing a person other than the registered keeper of the vehicle that originally had the number plate on it to hold a number on retention. Under the Bill, the number plate could be assigned to a third party who did not, at the moment of sale, have a vehicle to put it on. Clause 1 amends the Secretary of State’s powers, and subsection (1) extends the powers to give a right of retention to someone other than the registered keeper. Subsections (2) and (3) make consequential amendments.

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Having had the opportunity, for which I am grateful, to discuss this matter with the Minister, I hope that he will accept those provisions and the structure of the Bill. The upshot of the Bill will be confidence in the system, and a system that is more efficient, with less fraud. I commend it to the House.

12.59 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on gaining a place—albeit 10th place—in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. I also congratulate him on his choice of Bill. This Bill is exactly what a private Member’s Bill should be: it is short, it addresses a narrow point of law, and it deals with a topic that, as he said, matters to a growing number of people. In the three years between 2002-04 and 2005-06, the number of “cherished transfers” rose from some 260,000 to nearly 300,000, and the number of retentions rose from 146,000 to 189,000.

It is some time since I had a number plate that I might have wished to keep. I was interested to learn about the history, of which I certainly was not aware in the days when I owned my first vehicle, of a Ford Consul Classic with the registration LUO. I confess that my family nickname at the time was “Lulu”. My close family thought it highly appropriate, and used to say that Lulu and LUO made a very good duo. I do not imagine that that number plate could have been of any great value to others, although given the tortuousness of the link I have just described and the strange nicknames that people have, who can tell what it might have meant to them?

Another vehicle, of which I had part-ownership, was a white Mini estate with the registration HOT. The vehicle became known as just that—Hot. I am one of those people who grow rather attached to the cars that they own, and this one, as can be imagined, had a great deal of character. It also gave a great deal of trouble. I was its last owner—part-owner—as it reached the end of its long life. Had I acquired another vehicle at the time, I would probably have considered keeping the number plate and transferring it to the new vehicle. However, that was not to be, and I do not think that in those days people wished to retain number plates on the present scale.

If I had known of the possibility of retention, I might well have wished to exercise such a right, and had I done so, who knows what difficulties might have arisen in the process described by the hon. Member for Croydon, South? I might have wanted to assign the plate——I understand that that is the correct term——and wash my hands of it as the idea lost its attraction and my enthusiasm waned; meanwhile, a friend might have wanted to keep the option open. I can imagine what a tortuous process might have developed in the passing on of such a desirable number plate.

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