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Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on his success in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and on introducing his relatively uncontentious Bill in the House? I thank the Minister, too, for making the explanatory notes available. Like my hon. Friend, I have some experience as a Friday Whip, and endorse his comments about private Members’ Bills. He has chosen a suitable subject, and I congratulate him on his choice. Like many private Members’ Bills that we have debated over the years, it has been fascinating to see lines of debate emerge, and we have had an interesting debate about number plates.

My hon. Friend made an eloquent case for the measures to simplify the process of buying, selling and transferring vehicle registration numbers that the Bill would introduce. The Conservative Front-Bench team supports everything that he said, with one or two important caveats. I should declare an interest—or perhaps make a confession—as I am the owner of a cherished number plate. I say “cherished” rather than “personalised”, because the number plate was purchased by my grandfather about 50 years ago. It was on a company vehicle—hon. Members will probably know that I am an hereditary retailer who has not been abolished quite yet—and as it was part of the fabric of the shop we were reluctant to let it go. In fact, when I go down to the shop, I sometimes think that we are reluctant to let some of the stock go as well.

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That number plate has remained in the family, and it is on my car. It causes problems—it does bring recognition, although it does not cause the populace of Uxbridge to mob me with popular acclaim—as people know where I am, and they may see me, so I have to curtail my otherwise interesting travels around the constituency in case they see my car hanging about outside. I believe, as I have said, that the police would recognise it, but that would only be a good thing in my case.

As we know, a registration number normally remains with a vehicle until the vehicle is broken up, destroyed or sent abroad permanently. However, as we have heard, because of the widespread interest in personalised registration numbers, special facilities are provided for motorists who wish to transfer their number. Again, speaking from personal experience, I can say that is quite a complicated procedure, although I make sure that it is part of the deal when I buy a new car, whether second-hand or not, that the transfer is included in the purchase price. Another advantage of those number plates is that as one grows older it is more difficult to remember fancy numbers, but it is easy to remember the number plate that one has had for the past 20 years or more.

The Cherished Numbers Dealers Association says that

Many hon. Members may have seen in the local area around Westminster a firm of well-known plumbers that uses registration numbers such as WC40 or LOO 2 OLD, which is a clever way of using those number plates. One of the Bill’s sponsors, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is a great authority on motoring and classic vehicles, chooses to display his membership of the Privy Council on his number plate.

The Cherished Numbers Dealers Association has worked hard over the years to ease the process of buying, selling and transferring number plates through its efforts to introduce discipline and high standards into the industry, by encouraging reputable dealers to join an association, as well as its certificated valuation service and strict code of conduct. As we have heard, the association backs the Bill as a welcome simplification to the current system, as does the DVLA.

Under the present scheme, a vehicle number plate can be held on a retention certificate for 12 months pending its assignment to another vehicle. As we know, while the assignment is pending the number remains the property of the registered keeper. If after 12 months have passed the purchaser has not yet assigned the number, and the registered keeper will not grant an extension or cannot be contacted, ownership reverts to the keeper. There is clearly some potential for fraud inherent in this system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South made clear, the Bill amends to the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. Revised subsection (1) and new subsection (1A) of section 26 allow the Secretary of
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State to make regulations to provide for the granting of a right of retention of a vehicle’s number plate to be transferred to someone other than the registered keeper of the vehicle. In other words, the keeper would be able to grant retention rights directly to the purchaser. According to the CNDA, not only would this change make the process of buying, selling and transferring cherished number plates easier for the consumer and the industry, but it would provide greater protection for the buyer, shutting down the existing potential for fraud in the process.

Linda Gilroy: I see the logic of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, which was also made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South—but is he convinced that the new arrangements do not introduce any new loopholes or any new possibility of fraud? Does he agree that that should be considered in Committee?

Mr. Randall: That is very much the position that we take on the Front Bench. Although we welcome the Bill, we want to make sure that in Committee—if it goes to Committee, as I sincerely hope it will—we do not allow any further scope for wrongdoing. It is important that the Bill is watertight.

Already we have a problem on the country’s roads with a large and increasing number of rogue drivers, by which I mean drivers who are disqualified, without insurance and in unregistered cars, and who regularly flout the law. They endanger themselves and others on our roads. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has uncovered figures that show soaring numbers of people being caught for driving while disqualified—a leap of 20 per cent. since 1997. Other figures show that there are as many as 2.3 million unlicensed vehicles on the roads.

Those are worrying figures. Apart from the obvious problems, so many unlicensed vehicles could cause a problem for the Government’s proposals for a “spy in the sky” road user charging regime—which, happily, are a debate for another time. If the Government are to make significant improvements in road safety, they must get a grip on who is driving on our roads. I am sure the Minister will say that the Government are looking at ways of achieving that. It is an important matter.

Part of the problem is that in many parts of the country, police forces rely on cameras rather than uniformed officers. I am not convinced that the Government are getting to grips with the problem. Speed cameras cannot detect whether a car is licensed or taxed, or indeed whether the driver is over the legal drink-driving limit. Whatever their merits, speed cameras are no replacement for road traffic police.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that this week, at the request of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the shadow Transport spokesman, I placed in the Library a copy of a letter written by myself and my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to all chief constables, pointing out to them the importance that the Government attach to road policing, and the need for them to ensure that appropriate resources are allocated to precisely the issues that the hon. Gentleman is speaking about.

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Mr. Randall: I thank the Minister, and I am glad that the Government have responded to my hon. Friend.

Other than seeking those simple assurances, the Opposition are happy to see this sensible simplification, which if implemented properly will help the industry and the consumer. I hope that the Bill will receive its Second Reading and go forward to Committee for further scrutiny.

1.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on his success in the ballot and his choice of Bill. He is absolutely right. When one comes 10th in the ballot one can either make a gesture or do a little bit of good, and he has chosen to do a little bit of good. I am not suggesting for one minute that it will dramatically reform any particular piece of legislation or affect large numbers of people, but as a result of the Bill, which I hope will receive its Second Reading today, a few people will find their lives a bit easier and find themselves a little less likely to be cheated, and, I hope, able to make slightly more profit out of their livings in the future.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). He talked about his family firm, at which point my Parliamentary Private Secretary told me that he was held up on the Uxbridge road behind one of the hon. Gentleman’s family firm’s vans this very morning. I was also interested to hear that he inherited from his grandfather a cherished number plate. I did not inherit a cherished number plate from my grandfather, because for one thing he did not have a car. But his great claim to fame was that before off-course betting was legal, he had a bookmaker to whom he had to identify himself by a code name, which was Lucifer. The hon. Gentleman can imagine how it appeared to me as a little boy, brought up in a Catholic family, when I heard my grandfather say, “This is Lucifer here.” Sadly, that was not translated into a cherished number plate that I could take over.

The registration of motor vehicles in the United Kingdom began in 1903 with the introduction of the Motor Car Act. It was the first legislation to require the registration of motor vehicles and included the requirement to display vehicle registration plates. Hon. Members will be interested to know that it went further than that and introduced registration fees for vehicles and for drivers. The registration fee for a vehicle was set at 20 shillings and for a driver at 5 shillings. The Bill also introduced for the first time a variety of offences for speeding and reckless driving, and it raised the speed limit to the grand and probably frightening speed at the time of 20 mph. Fines were also introduced for driving unlicensed vehicles. I am sure that our far-sighted predecessors who introduced that Bill would have introduced speed cameras, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but unfortunately the box Brownie had been invented only three years earlier and probably would not have been quite so effective as the modern-day equivalent.

Since then, there has been a variety of reforms to road traffic and vehicle numbers legislation. That particular Motor Car Act was not the one that
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introduced petrol duties, although they came in soon after in 1908 in a Finance Act, when petrol duty was set at 3p a gallon. If we have any younger citizens listening to us today, that is three old pence, rather than three new pence, so slightly more than 1p per gallon of petrol.

Things have changed since then. The licensing of vehicles has passed through a variety of organisations, through local councils and into the hands of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which is now responsible for the registration of vehicles kept on public roads on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Equally, the legislation has moved on. That function is now carried out in accordance with the requirements of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, as amended, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) correctly described by its acronym, VERA.

Mr. Randall: I thank the Minister for giving way and am sorry to stop him in mid-flow. Does he share my regret that since the responsibility for registration passed from county councils to the DVLA, one cannot recognise a vehicle’s county of origin from its registration number? That is a shame, because there was a certain pride in seeing cars from one’s own county in far-flung spots.

Dr. Ladyman: Yes, I think that we have lost something, because one could always tell where a vehicle was from. There is still a connection between the registration and the place where a vehicle was registered, but it is far less easy to identify than it used to be. That is partly because back in 1903, when the Motor Car Act was introduced, there were precisely 5,000 vehicles on the road. We now have 33 million of them, so number plates must clearly be different.

The other piece of legislation that covers such matters is the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002. The registration and licensing process plays an important part in identifying vehicles and their keepers. As my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) have said, identifying vehicles and their keepers relates to road safety as well as the collection of revenue. Incidentally, this is the first time that I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East make a speech touching on road safety in which he has resisted the temptation to discuss retro-reflective tape.

The main functions of licensing and identifying vehicles remain the principles behind the vehicle register held at the DVLA today. The registered keeper of the vehicle is the person responsible for keeping, using and licensing it, who may not necessarily be the vehicle’s legal owner. The legal ownership of a vehicle is a civil matter, usually established by a “bill of sale” or other document of title. There is a statutory obligation on the vehicle keeper to notify the DVLA when a vehicle is disposed of.

The registration of vehicles is performed by the DVLA, local offices or motor dealers with the appropriate computerised links. Motor dealers with that facility subsequently send the first licensing and registration details to the DVLA, where the information is then held
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on the central computer record. As I have said, there are currently in excess of 33 million licensed vehicle records held at the DVLA.

When a vehicle is first registered and licensed, it is allocated a vehicle registration mark. Vehicle registration marks are not items of property in their own right, so it is not possible to acquire legal title to them. Registration marks are assigned to, and may be withdrawn from, vehicles rather than keepers by the Secretary of State as part of the registration and licensing process required by law. Furthermore, the DVLA on behalf of the Secretary of State can withhold registration marks, if the mark is likely to cause general offence or embarrassment if displayed on a vehicle.

Marks can be withheld for a number of reasons, for example, on the grounds of political, racial and religious sensitivities or simply because they are regarded as in poor taste. Indeed, I have recently had cause to withdraw a registration mark because the initials had unfortunate historical connotations—it spelled out an organisation associated with the Nazi party. In recent months, I have also had cause to initiate the withdrawal of a number plate that was clearly homophobic.

Another consideration when assigning registration marks is to ensure that they are easily identifiable. The law requires number plates to be clearly readable. The misrepresentation of number plates can make vehicles difficult to identify and hamper police efforts to trace vehicles involved in incidents such as hit-and-run collisions and serious crimes. Registration marks can be withdrawn if we are advised by the police or other bodies of improper display.

Those are the issues that my hon. Friends mentioned, and I hope that I can give them some assurances. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, in particular, focused on the display of registration marks. The law requires them to be clearly readable, and it is an offence to alter, rearrange or misrepresent the characters in a mark in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish it. There can be a maximum fine of £1,000 for doing so. The reason for that is exactly as my hon. Friend said: it makes it difficult for the police to identify the owner. Moreover, it is difficult to read number plates using automatic number plate recognition systems if they have been mis-spaced or corrupted in any way.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Transport is determined to crack down on the problem, and we are collaborating with the Association of Chief Police Officers in doing so. People who identify number plates that have been so distorted can notify the DVLA. Since we started the scheme in 1999, the agency has received, from 40 participating police forces, more than 5,000 notifications of misrepresented registration marks. A warning letter is sent to each offender telling them to change their plates, and they are told that any further notification of an offence from the police will result in the registration being permanently withdrawn from use. Clearly, if somebody has paid a great deal of money for a number plate, the threat of having it withdrawn from use is a serious deterrent.

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Mr. Randall: The Minister has correctly identified the problem and is explaining the measures that are in place. Are there any measures to deal with similar offences in relation to foreign-registered vehicles? I presume that there could be the same problems, but we do not have jurisdiction over them.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman is right, and we are looking into that. Under the Road Safety Act 2006, when a visitor in a foreign vehicle commits an offence, we are able to stop them at the roadside and request from them a deposit equivalent to the fine that they would have to pay if the matter was taken to court and they were found guilty. If the matter goes to court and they are found innocent, they get the deposit back. If it goes to court and they do not turn up, the deposit is retained. If they do not have the deposit, the Act allows us to immobilise the vehicle and keep it until such time as the deposit is paid. We are working with EU member states on processes for identifying the owners of vehicles and ensuring that they pay their fines.

When a registration mark is assigned to a vehicle, it normally remains with that vehicle until it is broken up, destroyed or sent permanently abroad. Since the early days of the registration system, the idea of having a distinctive or personalised registration mark for vehicles has appealed to many citizens. To meet the widespread interest in personalised and cherished marks, the DVLA introduced special facilities to allow vehicle keepers to acquire and retain the use of particular marks. Once a mark is assigned to a vehicle, further movement of that registration mark is subject to the requirements of the cherished transfer and retention schemes.

A market in attractive marks began to gain real momentum in the mid-1970s. A personalised mark may, for example, reflect a person’s initials or date of birth, and a cherished mark may have sentimental value, as we heard from the hon. Member for Uxbridge and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton. In response to growing public demand for attractive marks, in 1989 the DVLA began making available registration marks that had not previously been released for use. Up to that point, the only marks available to trade or transfer were those which were already in use on vehicles.

There is still a steady trade in such numbers, which can range in value from a few hundred pounds to many thousands. The DVLA’s sale of marks scheme made it possible for the first time for individuals to buy the rights to have unissued registration marks assigned to their vehicles. Those marks are perceived as especially desirable and are often purchased to celebrate a specific event such as a birthday or anniversary.

Linda Gilroy: In view of some of the prices paid when such number plates change hands, is my hon. Friend convinced that the DVLA gets a sufficient income from the process?

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend has jumped ahead of me, because I was about to say that the marks can range in price from £250 to more than £200,000. She will be delighted to know that in 2006 the income from the sale of such marks since the scheme began in 1989 passed the £1 billion mark. It is good business on the part of the taxpayer to attract such an amount of money.

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