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My noble friend Lady Massey referred to her experience. I pay tribute to the National Treatment Agency for the work that it has done in meeting targets early. As my noble friend said, the keys were

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funding, high-level interest, ring-fenced money, models of care, guidelines, collaboration and commissioning. I agree that there are many elements. One could look at all adult social care services and other social care services and say that many attributes could be taken on board. However, I object on the issue of ring-fencing. Ring-fencing is justified when a new service is started or there is a specific area of concern, but I do not think that it can be used in the whole range of adult social services. We must let local authorities have discretion in this area.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to a number of important workforce issues. First, I pay tribute to the General Social Care Council for its work, which has been enormously important not only to public safety and public assurance but in raising the standing of the profession as a whole. There is the very exciting prospect of eventually extending regulation to all workers in the front line in social care. I have always felt very committed to that.

The noble Earl referred to the protection of newly qualified social workers and to Options for Excellence—which is very important in dealing with the issue that he raised. On money, I refer him to my comments about the current CSR discussions. However, I recognise the importance of ensuring that we take forward the Options for Excellence ideas. He is right about the vacancy rate: it is still too high in many local authority areas. I was very interested in the good practice that he quoted. I am sure that there is much that we can do to encourage local authorities to meet those issues.

Noble Lords raised a number of fundamental issues about the future and I wish to conclude by commenting on those. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley discussed the role of the state, which my noble friend Lord Lipsey again suggested is a fundamental question that we need to tackle head on. As noble Lords will know, my honourable friend Ivan Lewis, the Minister with responsibility for care services, has raised the question of a new settlement. The question is essentially this: what should be the respective responsibilities of family, state and individual in the new social care world? What role is there for the voluntary sector? What is the balance between family carer versus care workers? There is no doubt that, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, we have to think outside the box. We need a cultural shift to respond to the inevitable demographic changes that we see. My honourable friend has made it absolutely clear that, alongside the new guidance on continuing care, we seek to achieve a new consensus for this new settlement which defines the respective responsibilities of the state, the citizen and the family in personal and social care. I am confident that we are in a good position to debate that challenge maturely.

Despite all the adverse publicity that we have seen in social care over the past few years, there has been a huge advance—in the infrastructure and the social care council, in workforce issues, the change in structure at local level, the development of the degree course, and the underpinning of training and development more generally. We should also acknowledge the tremendous work of social workers and other members

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of the workforce in rising to these challenges. That is a good foundation on which to take a mature debate forward. I do not pretend that any of the answers are going to be easy but I am encouraged by, and very grateful to my noble friend for, the tone of this debate. It suggests that we can have a reasoned discussion and, one hopes, a consensus on the way forward.

4.45 pm

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, this has been a thoughtful and well informed debate. There is only enough time remaining for me very quickly to thank all noble Lords who participated, contributing their knowledge, experience and common sense in such large measure. I also thank the Minister for his undoubtedly wise, considered and far-ranging response. I think we can guarantee that, with other events taking place outside this Chamber, we shall not be on the front pages tomorrow—but let us never forget that what we have been debating today is of the utmost importance in the lives of ordinary people in our country as this century progresses. We owe it to them to ensure that they remain on our front pages at least. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Vehicle Registration Marks Bill

4.46 pm

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill has come to us from another place, having been sponsored there by Mr Richard Ottaway, the Member for Croydon South.

The Motor Car Act of 1903 introduced measures to identify vehicles and their drivers, due to the rise in traffic at the time. There were 5,000 vehicles on the road then; we now have around 33 million, with most, it seems, driving around the M25 at eight o’clock in the morning. All vehicles were to be registered and to display registration marks—the vehicle number—on a plate in a prominent position. I believe that the police refer to them as index numbers. Since then, there have been many reforms to road traffic and vehicle numbers legislation, including the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994—VERA—and, even more recently, the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002.

The first registration was A 1, issued to the second Earl Russell, who wanted the registration so much he camped out all night to secure it. Vehicle registration marks vary greatly in price. I understand that one of the most expensive ever sold was M 1, bought for £331,000. Most of the numbers transferred are much less than that—typically from £500 to £1,500. Thousands of motorists display vehicle number plates that individualise their cars, making it easier for it to be recognised by them and indeed the police. A number plate could spell out a name. For example 51 NGH, which can look like Singh, was sold by the DVLA for £254,000 in 2006. Or a plate could convey an interesting message. I have fond memories of an old number plate of mine, FIB 4157. For a politician, it was probably better than 1 FIB.

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The Bill is designed to remedy an imperfection in the existing legislation, VERA. If my car with the number plate FIB 4157 expired, as it did, and I wanted to keep the number, I would apply to the DVLA to retain it separately from the vehicle. If I wanted to sell my right to the number to a dealer or an individual, as the grantee, I would be involved in the subsequent process until another car was nominated to take the number. That could take some time, and I would be contacted every 12 months, when the retention needed to be extended. I cannot make a quick, clean-break sale. For the buyer or dealer, there is the possibility of fraud or financial loss, as he will have to trust my integrity to assign the number as agreed and not renege. The dealer may have expended considerable effort in marketing the number.

The current arrangements clearly lack flexibility in not allowing the person, other than the current or original keeper, to hold the right of retention, as only the grantee can apply to assign a number to a vehicle registered in his name or that of a nominee. That is because entitlement to the number cannot be passed on while it is held on retention, as the nominee has no legal entitlement to the registration mark before its assignment to a vehicle. A dealer may transfer a valuable number to a cheap vehicle, but that would cost £80 each time. He would also then have to store many vehicles—that is clearly inappropriate for low-value numbers. Although the original intention of the legislation was to safeguard an individual's right to display a number, it creates an unnecessary administrative burden for those trading in numbers and can prevent the quick conclusion of the transaction. The retention certificate costs £25, and an additional fee of £80 is payable for the assignment of the registration mark to another vehicle. During the past financial year, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency handled almost half a million cherished transfer and retention applications. Your Lordships will now understand why Ministers are so supportive of the Bill.

Under the Bill, the registered keeper would be involved in the process only when making the initial application for a right of attention in favour of his chosen purchaser, unless he wants to retain the number himself. Once the initial right of retention has been granted, it will be non-transferable, unless the person holding the entitlement to the number—the grantee—wishes to pass his entitlement to another party via the existing nominee arrangements. The seller will be able to make a clean-break sale, and the buyer will acquire entitlement to the number before assigning it to the vehicle.

Clause 1 amends the Secretary of State's powers, and subsection (1) extends the power to give a right of retention to someone other than the registered keeper. Subsections (2) and (3) make consequential amendments. The Bill enables the DVLA to conduct its business more effectively in respect of the sale of vehicle registration marks. It will also benefit both buyers and sellers of vehicle numbers and intermediaries in the trade.

Although the Bill improves the system associated with vehicle numbers, I am aware that there is another problem with cherished number plates. That is the

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misrepresentation of number plates for amusement or for criminal purpose. The misuse of different fonts and fasteners is a good example. Misrepresented vehicle registration plates are illegal, and difficulties have arisen in respect of automatic number plate recognition. There is also evidence of the growing use of non-UK-style plates. Vehicles are displaying number plates that carry the car's UK registration but, due to the style, appear to be from another country. That can impact on the ability of ANPR to read the plates correctly. However, although those problems are real, the Bill does not attempt to address them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Earl Attlee.)

4.54 pm

Lord Brougham and Vaux: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Attlee for introducing the Bill so coherently this evening, and I wish it well. I declare my interest as chairman of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance—ESVA—and the associated parliamentary group dedicated to the reduction of vehicle-related crime and disorder.

Vehicle registration marks, especially their manufacture and distribution, have been a particular interest of ESVA since its formation in 1992. A register for manufacture and supply was established as part of the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001. My last address to the House on this matter was on 25 October 2005, during the debate on the Road Safety Bill, which extended the aforementioned legislation to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Bill before the House is welcome in its aim to enhance the efficiency of the trade in vehicle registration marks, although concerns have been expressed regarding the added complexity that this trade can generate when exploited by criminals seeking to benefit from dealing in stolen vehicles. My main concern is that the Bill shares some characteristics with shifting the deck chairs on the “Titanic”. I urge the Government to indicate that they are now prepared to undertake a fundamental review of the system of manufacture and distribution of vehicle number plates.

In other countries, such as Sweden, for example, number plates have the same provenance as bank notes. They are security-printed and distributed. Such a system should now be introduced in the United Kingdom. I have said previously that DVLA records indicate that there are 32,000 suppliers and 38,000 outlets registered to supply number plates. The DVLA estimates that at least 35,000 plates are stolen from vehicles each year.

The current trials, which the DVLA has supported, to promote the use of tamper-proof number plates and to fit electronic identification chips to plates are also welcome, but they should be regarded as steps that tinker at the margins. A more fundamental step-change needs to be adopted. The benefits of a new system suitable for the new millennium would be significant and would enhance the value of the trade in number plates, as referred to in the Bill, because the market in counterfeit plates would be, at best, eliminated completely.

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We have observed over the past decade significant growth in our capability to identify vehicles via their number plates. We have the London congestion charge and the police’s automatic number plate registration database, which is capable of reading up to 50 million vehicle movements nationally each day. Very competent networks have been developed across public and private enterprises, capable of managing what are essentially simple but in some ways also complex systems associated with road users and their vehicles. It is becoming increasingly evident that there is a growing appetite to tackle and significantly overcome the challenges associated with this step-change proposal.

The focus for all those associated with road use is to encourage greater compliance among all road users. A fundamental aspect of this strategy must be to make it very easy for all road users to comply with all aspects of the legislative framework associated with road use. Similarly, we should develop our approaches to make it simple to detect non-compliant road users. The preparedness to consider, develop and adopt a new national vehicle number plate infrastructure is entirely consistent with this approach. I wish the Bill well.

4.58 pm

Viscount Simon: My Lords, this Bill has been introduced with the normal efficiency by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. It will be welcomed by owners of vehicles with number plates that have either sentimental family connotations or are personalised for reasons known only to the owner.

Owners of such vehicles can, and from time to time do, alter the spacing or font in order to portray some sort of message, as the noble Earl has said. That is an offence. The one I would like to see—I do not know whether it is already in existence—is YE5 1M OK: yes, I’m okay. It would be rather nice, even if it was not altered and was legally accurate. However, it would also be wonderful if those companies making number plates were the only ones making them. I am led to understand that at some fairs and markets there are stalls that will make any number plate, altered to reflect the customer’s requirements. These are outside the regulations and, to date, get away with this by putting up a notice that says something to the effect of “these plates are for home use only”. Despite the financial aspects for the traders concerned, the ability to produce such illegal number plates should be curtailed.

The noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, mentioned tamper-proof plates with chips fitted. That would indeed be a step forward; it might even stop—only for a short while, probably, but none the less that would be better—those criminals who duplicate number plates to put on their car in order to avoid such things as speeding offences caught by a safety camera, the congestion charge and more serious offences where having a false plate is considered by them to be very helpful.

If we went the same way as some other countries and retained a certain number plate for life, an implanted chip could be read by safety cameras—if the technology

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eventually evolved—thereby confirming the authenticity of the vehicle. Those who might say that that would infringe their human rights might be persuaded to change their minds when they learnt that such a system could cut down both motoring and other offences. Let us move forward. In the mean time, I am pleased to support the Bill.

5 pm

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, the Bill deserves support, but no more than that. It affects a few people, and I am certainly not going to oppose it. However, there are bigger problems that we ought to address.

What are the Government’s intentions with regard to sorting out the absolute chaos in the supply and manufacture of number plates? Considerable investment has been made—the Government have played a large part in this—in safety cameras, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, referred, and in the installation of automatic number-plate recognition, with which the police are now well equipped. Does the Minister have any idea of the amount of information that is now coming to the attention of the police on which they may act? They do not have the resources necessary to cope with that information.

In the Thames Valley—I declare an interest as a member of that authority—we will have by the summer 60 automatic number-plate installations in cars and vans or alongside the roads. They will generate something like 80,000 hits a day. Eighty per cent of those will relate to cars that are administratively committing an offence; the owner has not paid their tax or insurance, the car does not have an MOT certificate, or for some other reason there ought to be an intervention. In fact the DVLA has told Thames Valley police: “Don’t report those 60,000 a day, because we just can’t handle it”. That leaves 15,000 hits a day of vehicles that will be of interest to the police: vehicles that are stolen; that have stolen number plates; whose occupants are engaged in crime or are known offenders; or that contain people whom the police ought to stop and question—perhaps terrorists. That information is now becoming available to the police.

Does the Minister consider it consistent that we have a sophisticated means of knowing that a vehicle needs to be stopped but alongside that we have what I can only describe as a haphazard system of licensing vehicles and marking them? I know that road traffic legislation does not come forward that often but it is time that the Government dealt with this issue—not necessarily in the Bill, because it is too much to hope that it will be amended. I seek some assurance from the Minister that a real effort will be made to tackle the nonsense of number plates. The system needs to be tightened up. It is abused and it is costing taxpayers huge sums of money. It is time a stop was put to the whole business.

5.05 pm

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I have a feeling that this committee is in expert hands. I am declaring myself a non-expert on this subject. My problem with

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number plates is that I have great difficulty remembering mine. If I could have one that had some relation to my name, that would be in everyone’s interests, but most especially mine. This Bill is nothing but sensible. I therefore wholeheartedly support my noble friend Lord Attlee, whose introduction was extremely clear and left us in no doubt about the Bill’s business.

5.06 pm

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I, too, ought to make an admission: I am going to join the committee of non-experts. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, I always struggle to remember my number. That is no great surprise to anybody in my household, since the few numbers that I can remember are usually my PIN, mobile phone and bank numbers—the number plate is one too many.

I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for his introduction. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, it was crystal clear. Although the noble Earl was suffering with his throat—and then not so crystal clear—he gainfully proceeded and did a splendid job, for which I thank him, because this is a useful piece of legislation.

I am not at all surprised that, as with everything discussed in your Lordships’ House, there are experts here on vehicle registration marks. There is always an expert in your Lordships’ House and it is interesting to listen to what they have to say, even on perhaps obscure issues.

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, motor vehicle registration began in the UK in 1903, with the introduction of the Motor Car Act. This was the first legislation to require the registration of motor vehicles and it included the requirement to display vehicle registration plates—therefore, we have had over 100 years of them. On behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport, the DVLA registers vehicles that are kept or used on the public road. This is in accordance with the requirements of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994—or VERA, as it is affectionately known—which has been amended by the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002.

As we have identified, the registration and licensing process plays an important part in identifying vehicles and their keepers for road safety matters, and, importantly, in revenue collection. These main functions remain the principles for the vehicle register, which is held at the DVLA.

The registered keeper of the vehicle is the person responsible for keeping, using and licensing it. This may not necessarily be the legal owner of the vehicle. 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’s keeper to notify the DVLA when disposing of it.

When a vehicle is first registered and licensed, it is allocated with a vehicle registration mark. Vehicle registration is performed by the DVLA, their local offices or motor dealers, with the appropriate computerised links. Motor dealers with this facility subsequently send the first licensing and registration details to the DVLA, where the information is held on the central computer record.

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