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While I wish the Bill a speedy passage, I have some worries about it, although I was somewhat reassured by what the hon. Gentleman said about the way in which it would assist in preventing fraud. I served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that became the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001, some of whose
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provisions had a very good provenance. The Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team was established in 1998; I am not sure whether it still exists, or whether it has been consulted on the Bill.

Part 1 of the Act included measures to regulate the motor salvage industry. It provided for the keeping of records, and for the police to have the right of entry to examine them. That is of relevance to the Bill. The Act’s provisions in respect of the regulation of registration plate suppliers, which include powers to control the supply and issue of number plates, must be taken into account. The Act requires number plate suppliers to register, to make suitable checks before selling a number plate, and to keep records of transactions. Sadly, many criminals using vehicles to carry out criminal activity—such as armed robbery, and burglary as vehicles are used to transport stolen goods—put false number plates on those vehicles to avoid detection. Recently, we have also had to consider deep concerns about terrorists and their activities.

The Act regulated the supply of number plates in order to combat vehicle ringing and vehicle cloning. It is important to consider the implications of the Bill in respect of both of those undesirable activities. Ringing is the process of giving the identity of legitimate vehicles that have been seriously damaged or written-off to stolen vehicles. Cloning uses the identity of an existing vehicle to disguise another vehicle. The 2001 Act sought to stamp out both activities.

At that time, there were about 27,000 outlets supplying some 6 million to 7 million plates a year—that amount has probably increased because of increased prosperity and car ownership. About 2 million of those plates were for trade-ins and another 2 million were replacement plates. The volume of business in that area is great, and at that time it was in need of better regulation. Vehicles of a value of £112 million a year were being lost as a result of ringing, and some 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles each year were involved.

Difficulties had arisen in respect of automatic number plate recognition. The Act sought to ensure that the numbers and letters displayed on plates were of a standard font and size that could be recognised by ANPR devices—a role was beginning to be found for cameras to do that at that time. ANPR has become more important for our security as the terrorist threats have increased; we owe much to that technology, which can track vehicle movements.

The Bill is neat and valuable, but it must not create any gaps or loopholes in respect of the Act’s measures, which some of us spent such an interesting time scrutinising in Committee in 2001. The Minister responsible was my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon). Other provisions in the Act also relate to the licensing and registration of vehicles. They ensure that the vehicle licensing process is not open to fraudulent practices, such as those I have referred to.

The Bill’s measures are welcome in as much as they enable the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to conduct its business more effectively in respect of the sale of vehicle registration marks—an area that has been called a “nice little earner” because of the income it can generate—but I encourage the Department for Transport and other stakeholders to undertake a
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review of the fundamental issues that it is necessary to address to ensure the sustained integrity of the whole registration mark system.

Technological progress presents us with a dilemma. Automatic number plate recognition enables the police to read up to 50 million vehicle movements per day. Advances in processing and printing technology have been such that more than 35,000 retail outlets—compared with 27,000 just a few years ago—are registered with the DVLA to supply motorists with new and replacement vehicle registration marks, which we refer to more frequently as vehicle number plates. Although one new technology has sought to ensure road-user compliance and to deter criminals, another has provided a gateway for non-compliant motorists and criminals to counter such activity. Sadly, despite our best endeavours when scrutinising the 2001 Bill, there is evidence of a growing incidence of vehicle number plate theft. The number of such offences is about 35,000 per year, which is similar to the number when we previously tried to clamp down on them.

One moves the goalposts and tries to resolve one problem, but another emerges. Many other countries have introduced better organised systems to manufacture and distribute vehicle number plates that have the provenance of bank notes, in that they are both security printed and distributed. I suggest to the hon. Member for Croydon, South that now may be the time to implement a more appropriate system in the United Kingdom. We discussed this issue in Committee when we considered the 2001 Bill, and at that time it was thought not entirely necessary. I do not want to over-complicate the Bill before us, which I have described as neat and appropriate, but it does give us an opportunity to reconsider that proposal. It has the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take into account its views on the matter, and that the Minister will when he replies. I am sure that ACPO will have been in touch with my hon. Friend, who will outline the Government’s position in due course.

Although the proposal to enhance number plate manufacture and distribution will go some way toward enhancing road-user compliance, it is also appropriate to encourage key stakeholders to review their enforcement strategies. Although number plate manufacture and distribution remains haphazard, the enforcement procedure against non-compliant number plates also lacks the coherence and effectiveness that modern technology would allow us to introduce.

The MOT regime requires number plates to be compliant, but compliance applies only on the day of the test, and I am also unsure about the rigour with which the requirement is enforced. The Bill is an opportunity for us to revisit the fraudulent use of number plates and to consider introducing greater flexibility to the transfer of cherished number plates, so that it is not just a nice little earner, but contributes to our safety and security and to stamping out the criminal exchange of number plates.

Should there be changes to the MOT regime to reflect European practice, which is to have the first MOT after four years and then every two years—the first is currently after three years—a lighter touch with
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road user regulation might well warrant a more forceful touch with number plate compliance. The Bill has great merit in seeking greater flexibility in the transfer of number plates that have particular significance to the present, previous or future car owners, although, as we learned from the hon. Member for Croydon, South, it is a question not of transferring ownership, but of reassigning the number plate. In 2005-06, the volume of such transactions under the cherished transfer scheme was approaching 500,000, and I dare say that it has increased since then, so we need to err on the side of caution when considering how to introduce flexibility.

The current arrangements are certainly inflexible beyond what is necessary. Only the registered keeper of the donor vehicle is entitled to place a registration mark on retention. Once held on retention, the mark may be assigned only to a vehicle registered in the name of the grantee or the nominee. As entitlement to the registration mark may not be passed on while it is held on retention, the nominee does not have a legal entitlement to the mark before its assignment by the grantee of the vehicle, but that creates difficulties. As has been outlined, the grantee may not dispose of his entitlement to the registration mark, but must remain involved in the process until it is properly assigned to the nominee’s vehicle.

Although I have described how the process could be painful and bureaucratic, even in the hands of well-meaning people, I would want to be sure that all the necessary end-to-end testing has been done on the relevant computer systems to ensure that the greater flexibility that the Bill seeks to achieve would not come at the expense of opening up loopholes. We have all seen how the ineffective scrutiny of computer systems has let down the implementation of all sorts of different policies. Therefore, it is well worth taking the time to ensure that the complex computer systems that underpin the anti-crime and anti-fraud measures that have been introduced in recent years to stop the illegal and inappropriate transfer of number plates are maintained, and that there are no potential loopholes. We must not water down the provisions that we have introduced or undo the good work that we tried to put in place through the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001.

We are running to stand still in trying to stamp out the fraudulent use of number plates and transfer of vehicles, and we must take into account all the stakeholders, including ACPO. In considering the Bill, I have looked at the regulatory impact assessment, which covers most of the ground that one would expect. It gives a coherent outline of the rationale for Government intervention in this area at this time, and deals with the consultation. It says that there has been informal consultation

but that was back in 1999-2000, when it was agreed that the enhancement to the existing retention facility should be introduced at the earliest opportunity. It certainly is not my intention to delay that any further, but the regulatory impact assessment does not refer to ACPO or any of the crime prevention organisations that might take an interest in this. It has considered two options.

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Option one is to continue with the status quo. The only mention in the regulatory impact assessment of the fraud issues that I raised is:

The changes that were introduced by the Vehicles (Crime) Act will make a difference, but the investigation into the impact of that change must be thorough to ensure that we avoid some of the difficulties that have arisen from improperly scrutinised changes to important public policy such as we are dealing with in the Bill.

Option 2 will allow the seller to make a clean-break sale, and the registration mark dealer will have entitlement to the registration mark and thereby avoid the three-cornered sales transactions that can be so tortuous, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South described. For traders who purchase retained registration marks speculatively, the gap between entering an agreement with the vendor and identifying an end client can be lengthy, and under the new facility traders can acquire entitlement to a registration mark from the outset and have much more autonomy over the process.

I recommend to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Minister that these important fraud issues are carefully considered. When the Minister sets out the Government’s position, will he look at the regulatory impact assessment to see whether, as I have suggested, there should be further consultation to ensure that all the loopholes and issues of concern that I have raised can be properly covered? The regulatory impact assessment covers a lot of what we hoped it would cover, and gives quite a good account of why the Government should intervene, although it does not do so as fully as it might.

I hope that the hon. Member for Croydon, South will see the benefit of considering the issues in more detail. The sheer volume is shown in the regulatory impact assessment. There were 259,599 cherished transfers in 2003-04 and 297,339 in 2005-06; and there were 146,845 retentions in 2003-04 and 189,980 just three years later. That totals 500,000 transactions, and we must keep a close eye on them. There may be savings under the proposed new arrangements for number dealer businesses in the resource and administrative costs associated with contact between trader and vendor, but we must ensure that the efficiency and saving for those involved in the trade is not at the expense of the ability of the police to use automated number plate recognition devices to underpin our safety.

I am sure that, like all Members who seek to put a Bill on the statute book, the hon. Gentleman will not want a Bill associated with his name to lack proper scrutiny and to have unforeseen side-effects and will want people to refer to the Ottaway Act, as I am sure it will be known, not with contempt and disdain, but with admiration and thanks.

I wish to ensure that, as the Bill moves into Committee—as I hope will be agreed later—scrutiny there picks up on some of the issues that I have
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mentioned. When my hon. Friend the Minister sums up, I look forward to what he will say to ensure that the Bill does precisely what it sets out to do and does not bring with it all the side-effects that I have set out at considerable length. I hope that both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister will understand that, having spent a good number of hours on the Standing Committee of what is now the Vehicles (Crime) Act I would not want to see all that go to waste while introducing what is in essence a good and appropriate flexibility in relation to this important trade.

1.26 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I too support the Bill of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), which amends another Bill with a personalised acronym, the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994—otherwise known as VERA. In Bolton the mayoral car carries the registration plate WH1. We have had offers for that plate in the past, but Bolton council has always refused to sell it, because of its history and long-standing connections with the town. However, we have never had a year like this one: the present mayor is Walter Hall—the first man of that name to be a mayor of Bolton. Walter Hall is proudly being conveyed around the town in a car that carries his own personalised number plate. Our neighbouring town of Bury has been forced to sell a painting by Lowry to subsidise the budget this year. If there is anyone out there willing to make me an offer for WH1 that reaches the price of a Lowry, perhaps we might part with it.

Dr. Ladyman: I hope that my hon. Friend is not going to resume his seat without telling us why the mayor of Bolton has the number plate WH1 in the first place.

Dr. Iddon: I was hoping that the Minister would not ask me that question, because I cannot tell him the answer at the moment. Perhaps I will write to him.

Linda Gilroy: It occurs to me that WH are the initials of William Hill. That family probably have considerable resources, so the mayoral car number plate may well have a value that means that it has to be disposed of.

Dr. Iddon: I am pleased to be conducting this Dutch auction in the House today. I await the correspondence that will undoubtedly flood in. [ Interruption. ]

Dr. Ladyman: It has just been pointed out from the Opposition Benches that a former leader of the Conservative party, who I understand now has a reasonably good income, might well be interested in the number plate.

Dr. Iddon: Being on this side of the House, I would never mention former leaders of the Conservative party.

I am a driver, and when I drive around the roads of Great Britain I have two hobby-horses—but I can ride only one of them this afternoon: the one about number plates. The second hobby-horse is about the number of vehicles on our roads with inadequate lighting at both
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front and rear. I know that lights are expensive to renew, but it is dangerous to travel in that way.

My first hobby-horse is number plate recognition. When I spent 30 days with Greater Manchester police I was on traffic control for two complete shifts in a Range Rover fitted with one of the first pilot automatic number plate recognition readers. I was amazed even at that time—the technology is much better today—by how much information the police drivers could get about a vehicle in front of us. They could tell whether it was a stolen car and whether the insurance and road tax had been paid, and get other information relevant to the work of the police, too. However, there were often problems in recognising number plates, many of which were personalised, and the Bill is about personalised number plates.

Undoubtedly, the market for personalised number plates has taken off in a big way. Occasionally I flick through the advertisement pages of my Sunday newspaper, or even the daily papers, and I see long columns of number plates for sale. I must say that they are sometimes rather esoteric, and I wonder whether anyone would ever buy some of the combinations of letters and numbers, but there must be a trade in them. Obviously, people’s initials are a driving force. It is often difficult to read the advertisements; I have to take a magnifying glass out occasionally, because they are in such a small font, but perhaps that is because of my age.

I am astonished by the price of personalised number plates, and some figures have already been mentioned. When I look at the prices, I think that people must have more money than sense, yet the prices are increasing. It astonishes me that people have enough money to part with a third of a million pounds to buy a number plate that they want for one reason or another. MP1 has been mentioned, and I am surprised that that is worth only £20,000. I wonder how much PM1 is worth.

Linda Gilroy: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Iddon: I have set my hon. Friend off again. Yes, I give way.

Linda Gilroy: Would my hon. Friend care to put a value on the number plate B1MP?

Dr. Iddon: No, I would not. What I really object to is the appearance of the plates. Sometimes, in order to personalise them completely, people move the letters and the numbers on them. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the fonts, letters and spacing have to conform to regulation standards, but I tell the Minister that we are not policing the way in which standard number plates are produced. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) referred to the number of dealers. There are 35,000 people printing, manufacturing and selling number plates, either to us personally or to dealers, who need them for new cars. We are certainly not policing the way in which those number plates are produced.

As I drive around, I see plates on which the bolt—sometimes there are two bolts—attaching the plate to the car has been deliberately used to alter a letter on the number plate. Unless a person gets extremely close to the car, it is impossible to tell exactly what the number plate reads.

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Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend rightly highlights an important point, and it is an offence to alter number plates in the way that he mentions. He followed closely the passage of the Road Safety Act 2006, and he will be aware that registration plates can now be bought only from authorised dealers. They can no longer be made generally available by anybody else.

Dr. Iddon: Of course that is good news, but it does not get us away from the fact that there are thousands of plates on the road now. When a car goes for an MOT test—whether it is its first test, which takes place when the car is three years old, or its annual test—perhaps the person carrying out the MOT could be given powers to make the driver change the plate back to a regulated plate of the kind that the Minister mentioned. That subject is a hobby-horse of mine; the police and the automatic number plate readers should be able to read plates accurately, so that the police get the right information, which can often help them to catch a serious criminal.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton referred to the fact that nearly 500,000 transactions are carried out via the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but no one has yet mentioned the figures involved in those transfers. If a person wants to make a retention application to the DVLA, it is £25; if they want to transfer a cherished number plate from one vehicle to another, it is £80. If we work out how much money the DVLA collects, as taxpayers we ought to be grateful that transfers of cherished number plates have grown to that extent.

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