Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Nov 2008 : Column 255

Speaker’s Statement

Mr. Speaker: I wish to make a statement about the two minutes’ silence.

As the House will know, next Tuesday is 11 November, Remembrance day. Although this House will not be sitting at 11 o’clock, the parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall will be sitting, and right hon. and hon. Members, their staff and officials in the House will also be attending to their duties at that time. I regard it as appropriate that we should join the nation in observing the two minutes’ silence at 11 o’clock, so that we might remember those who gave their lives for their country and to help preserve our democratic freedoms.

I should be grateful if those responsible for chairing Westminster Hall and any other Committees at that time would make appropriate arrangements. Instructions will also be issued to heads of House Departments so that those members of staff who wish to observe the two minutes’ silence will be enabled to do so.

5 Nov 2008 : Column 256

Sale of Registration Marks (Amendment)

12.33 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I beg to move,

The Bill is deregulatory, revenue-raising and populist. It would give people the ability to choose from a much wider variety of letter and number combinations on their licence plates, which would mean that it was possible to purchase a licence plate that spelt out a word exactly as it reads in the English language. The Bill would give people greater choice and bring in additional millions of pounds for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

I shall outline the background to registration plates, demonstrating that the change is very much in keeping with previous changes, and the type of numbers that could be sold under the Bill; examine the enormous amount of money that would be raised and how some of it could be spent; and deal with some of the valid objections to the Bill, which I believe can be overcome.

Vehicle registration licence plates were introduced in 1903, both as a road safety measure and a revenue-collecting measure. Things developed quickly, from counties allocating numbers—for example, Lancashire allocated A1, A2, A3 and so on—to the need for larger numbers, such as AA1, AA2 and AA3. It was only in 1970 that the DVLA was created and all number plates were centralised.

There have been many changes, the most significant of which may have been in 1989, when a much wider range of letter and number combinations was made available. That was a truly innovative move, but looking back, we can see that it may have been far too cautious. The Bill builds on the work of 1989 and the work of Ministers subsequently.

I shall give some examples of plates that are sold at present and plates that could be sold, so as to compare the two. At present, if I had the money and there was a seller, it would be permissible for me to buy E5 5EX—Essex—but not ESSEX. It would be permissible for me to buy JPD1, but not JPD. I could buy J4 MES, but not JAMES, or S44 FND—Sarfend—but not SOUTHEND in full, which seems completely ridiculous. There could be commercial uses, such as ASDA 1, ASDA 2 or ASDA 3 on lorries. Plumbers could advertise, and there are a number of other examples.

I have consulted widely on the Bill and I particularly thank Richard Kitchen, the policy director of the DVLA, the Department for Transport and a large number of ex-Ministers. In fact, most of the people sponsoring and supporting the Bill are ex-Ministers who speak fondly of some of the modest changes they would have made to deregulate the marketplace. They all told me they wished they had done more at the time—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] I shall come to that.

I have spoken to the police, the Association of Chief Police Officers and manufacturers of automatic number plate recognition systems, and I shall deal with some of their objections. I have also spoken to the Cherished Numbers Dealers Association—a very good organisation—and, crucially, Roger Williams, who was
5 Nov 2008 : Column 257
very helpful, particularly in the early stages. He was one of the DVLA officials who advised former Ministers and he has been instrumental in helping me to develop the Bill, as have other driving organisations such as the AA and members of the CNDA, who both sell registration plates as intermediaries and buy them as investments. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), with whom I have discussed these matters. He is already working on similar issues and I hope the Bill gives him further encouragement to be bold, release a large range of numbers and raise a large amount of money.

The House of Commons Library has set out the amount raised since 1989: £1.3 billion. Last year, more than 250,000 registration plates were put on the marketplace, raising £87 million. They tend to be sold by auction, and the September auction raised about £3 million. Some of that money is spent on DVLA costs and administration, and the rest goes to the Treasury. Organisations such as the AA have suggested that some of the additional money raised under the Bill, which could be as much as £1 billion over the next 10 years, should be used for road safety measures and to deal with some of issues relating to automatic number plate recognition that I shall address.

The original business case in the lead-up to the 1989 change anticipated that a break-even figure of £250,000 would be raised. Single registration plates already raise that amount, and I suspect that we could raise significantly more than even my quite big estimate of an extra £1 billion over 10 years. Online sales are growing at a dramatic rate; reported a 23 per cent. increase in sales in 2007, so we are talking about a big marketplace.

I hope that my Bill is not opposed, but I want to talk about some of the potential objections to it, so that we can see how they could be dealt with. The DVLA went through my objections with me, and put them in the category of objections that could, and needed to be, dealt with before we could progress. However, there is an appetite to make progress. By far and away the most serious considerations are those raised by ACPO, the police, the security services and the Home Office about automatic number plate recognition, which is used to counter terrorism. Those problems must be overcome before the Bill progresses.

About 95 per cent. of numbers can be recognised by automatic number plate recognition. It is difficult technology if the car is dirty, if the font has been changed in any way, if a reflective material has been put on the plate, and if the screws are in the wrong place. Crucially, my Bill does not say that we should change anything in the manufacture, construction, design, font or display of number plates, except that it would remove the space. That would allow cherished number plates such as S44 FND to have no space in them, as a space would mean that they lost some of their value.

The objections need to be overcome, but there is a lot of money in the pot to deal with them. Some of the money should go not to the Treasury or the DVLA, but to the automatic number plate recognition people, who would then work alongside the Home Office to sort out some of the problems. That would be good for road
5 Nov 2008 : Column 258
safety and for counter-terrorism measures. The 5 per cent. of number plates that cannot be recognised are partly owned by people who are trying to be a bit flashy with their number plates, but that disguises the existence of slightly more sinister individuals—potentially terrorists or more serious criminals.

It has been pointed out to me that our number plates are recognisable around Europe, but they will still have the yellow background and the Union Jack. I think that the Minister has received representations about our using other flags, too. The Department for Transport and the Cherished Numbers Dealers Association have pointed out that there is a recession, and that sometimes number plates are the first thing to be sold, or not bought, in a recession. That may affect the timing of the roll-out of the Bill, but it should not affect the Bill or the principle behind it. There is the issue of rude and offensive language on number plates, but that issue is there already, and it is dealt with satisfactorily.

There are costs associated with the changes; the DVLA estimates them at about £20 million. That seems a lot of money, but even so, the number plate 51 NGH, which is close to spelling “Singh”, was just brought on to the market, and it went for more than £250,000. MR 51NGH and DR 51NGH, or the equivalents in the currently legal plates, will probably go for similar amounts, so we are looking at raising almost £1 million without even having sold 51NGH as a number plate. Given what could be done, £20 million is really quite a small number.

It is also pointed out that there could be confusion between J4 MES and JAMES, but there could be that same confusion between A and 4 in normal number plates. That is not a major issue for number plate recognition. In fact, people who have such number plates want to be recognised, and that will make the numbers more easily recognised. There is also the issue of existing investments. It is important that we drip-feed registration plates into the marketplace; JAMES should not be sold in the same year as J1M, J1MMY or J1MBO, just as the introduction of the 51 NGH plates has been delayed over time.

We are not talking about rich people. In times of recession, perhaps we should be thinking of those who are less well-off, but we have to remember that, in a way, we are talking about a form of voluntary taxation. If someone wants to pay £300,000 for JAMES, that is absolutely acceptable.

There are a number of other points that could be raised, but this is a good Bill, and I am sure that the Minister will want to take it forward. I recommend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by James Duddridge, Dr. Stephen Ladyman, Sir George Young, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Andrew Smith, Richard Ottaway, Mr. Alistair Carmichael and Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Sale of Registration Marks (Amendment)

James Duddridge accordingly presented a Bill to remove restrictions on the format of vehicle registration marks; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 November, and to be printed [Bill 159].

5 Nov 2008 : Column 259

Work and Welfare

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): I beg to move,

It gives me great pleasure to move the motion and open the debate about work and welfare this afternoon. It is an important subject for debate, and I look forward to the contributions of hon. Members from all parts of the House. At the outset, I must apologise, because I may have to slip away just before the end of the debate, owing to a personal commitment, but I shall be here until at least 5 o’clock. I hope that that apology is accepted in the spirit in which it is intended.

The relationship between our welfare policies and the number of people in work is critical for our Government, and inevitably at a time of global economic turbulence, it is an issue that will be in the minds of many constituents throughout the country. I shall say a few words about the policy journey that we have been on over the past few years, followed by a few words about our future direction of travel and, finally, the extent to which the current economic circumstances are relevant.

When we came into government, we inherited a largely passive benefits system that rewarded people for not seeking work. Everybody knew that the overall effect of the previous Government’s policies was, in many cases, to push people away from the labour market on to incapacity benefit and then to leave them there—a one-way ticket to dependency. Not only was it bad for the taxpayer and the economy, but most crucially, it was devastating for the individual who was capable of far more, with confidence destroyed, potential unrealised and poverty entrenched for them and for their families. Our task over the past 11 years has been to transform that inactive welfare state into an active one.

Starting with the new deal, we embodied the idea that rights entailed responsibilities, and, in return for extra support, young people were expected to take up jobs or training or see their benefits cut. It was the beginning of the end for the idea that people could sit at home and claim benefits if they were able to work and had a job—and it worked. Long-term youth unemployment has been virtually abolished, so we extended the policy to lone parents, new claimants of incapacity benefits, older people and disabled people, and now, as the Green Paper that we published in July outlined, we are considering others, too, including those on long-term incapacity benefit, one quarter of whom have been on it since the Conservative years. The increase in employment is not entirely due to those targeted and personalised support measures, because a buoyant macro-economy has of course helped, but nobody doubts that they have made a significant difference, with our successful system of active support contributing to a fall of almost 1 million in the number of people claiming a key out-of-work benefit since 1997.

The new deal has helped almost 2 million people into jobs, and our incapacity benefit pilot, pathways to work, has already helped more than 94,000 people off incapacity benefit and into work. Overall, as a result of our welfare reforms and the successful management of the economy since 1997, the number of people in work has gone up by about 3 million, employment is up
5 Nov 2008 : Column 260
in every region and country of the United Kingdom, International Labour Organisation-defined unemployment has fallen by 260,000 and claimant unemployment has fallen by 680,000. In the past year, the number of people on incapacity and lone-parent benefits combined has fallen by more than 70,000.

So far, so good, but the question before us today is: what comes next? We need to build on that success to unleash the potential of more of our people, where it is appropriate to do so, and as I shall come on to argue, that is more important, not less so, in a downturn.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Might one area on which my hon. Friend reflects be the disregards offered to people who take up part-time work and are currently in receipt of a benefit to encourage them to take the first few steps into work, which might build towards more permanent and substantial employment?

Kitty Ussher: We already try to help and support people in those circumstances, through the provisions on the permitted number of hours and through our linking policies. We are also examining ways in which we can improve on that position in the future. In some parts of the country, we are conducting what we call in-and-out-of-work pilots, to see what more we can do with the benefit support system to encourage people who are on that cusp, facing that marginal call on whether to work. The thrust of my hon. Friend’s question is entirely right.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Will the Minister’s Department reflect on the availability of written information and on the use of the Department’s website to highlight the problem that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has just mentioned? There have been cases in my constituency of people in the position mentioned being unaware of the provisions and of the possible effect on their benefits, or indeed on their enthusiasm to return to work.

Kitty Ussher: We always try to do everything that we can to ensure that people understand the system. It is complex in some areas, and one of the purposes of this stage of our reforms is to try to reduce that complexity. Perhaps I can take the opportunity provided by the hon. Gentleman’s question to advertise the “Find your way back to work” leaflet, a copy of which has been sent to all MPs. It has been approved by the Plain English Campaign, and I hope that it will provide a useful starting point to anyone in that situation.

In July, we published a Green Paper on the future direction of our welfare to work policies. The consultation closed a fortnight ago and we are currently considering our response, and the need, if any, for legislation. In a nutshell, we intend to enshrine in legislation our commitment to eradicate child poverty—the biggest obstacle to individual achievement for this generation and the next—by 2020. To pick up on the point raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), we intend to simplify the benefits system to ensure that it offers the right support, and to develop a personalised programme of help for everyone on benefits who can work, and greater support for those who cannot. We want to increase targeted support and activity for the groups most at risk from exclusion from the labour
5 Nov 2008 : Column 261
market, and to provide disabled people with greater control over their budgets for the services that they use. We want to devolve power and responsibility to individuals, communities and suppliers, to tailor services to local priorities, local economies and local needs, and to boost support and advice to help people to stay well in work.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): The Minister has just given us a list of the steps that the Government are planning to take. Will she also tell us whether the Treasury has been liaising with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss any contingency plans to alter, if necessary, the budget for the flexible new deal programmes, in the event that unemployment—and the bill for unemployment benefits—should start to rise significantly?

Kitty Ussher: Those conversations are constantly taking place. A large amount of planning is currently being rolled out to ensure that, as demand for our services rises, which, of course, it will in an economic downturn, we have the appropriate response available to ensure that everybody gets the tailored help that they need. We will make sure that that happens.

I shall turn next to the flexible new deal. Critical to our next phase of support is the concept that the longer someone stays on benefit, the more support they need. Since 1997, long-term claimant unemployment has fallen by more than three quarters, and nine out of 10 recipients of jobseeker’s allowance leave the benefit within a year. Only 100,000 people are claiming JSA for a year or more. By definition, however, those who remain have the largest hurdles to surmount, so of course they should be getting the greatest support. From 2009, we will be introducing a reformed JSA and a so-called flexible new deal, targeting our resources in clear stages at those who need it the most.

First, there will be a screening for basic skills when someone has their first interview for benefit with Jobcentre Plus. Where there is an obvious gap, they will be referred for help to the local skills services. We will record that and pursue their actions as the claim lengthens. We are also taking the power to make skills training mandatory at the appropriate time. After three months and six months, claimants will be expected to intensify their job search activity, and to comply with a challenging back-to-work action plan, including a skills health check and appropriate training. If they are still on JSA after 12 months, jobseekers will be referred to a private, public or voluntary sector provider, who will be paid by results, and who will offer at least four weeks of full-time activity. For those who are still on JSA after two years, we will expect even more, and we have been consulting on full-time work programmes for the long-term unemployed.

Next Section Index Home Page