HC Deb 29 April 1971 vol 816 cc851-7

10.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

I beg to move, That the Motor Vehicles (International Circulation) (Amendment) Order 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 25th March, be approved. This Order is made under the Motor Vehicles (International Circulation) Act, 1952. It is this Act which enables orders to be made modifying our road traffic law wherever this is necessary to give effect to international agreements to which the United Kingdom is a party. An example is the ability of a foreign visitor to drive here under cover of an international driving permit, instead of having to take out a British driving licence. This is provided for under the 1952 Act.

The purpose of the present Order is fourfold. First, it updates the reference to the Customs Orders to which the vehicle excise duty exemption, granted to visiting motorists, is tied. Secondly, it formalises the vehicle excise duty exemption given to visitors' vehicles coming here from the Isle of Man. Thirdly, it raises the level of charges for the issue of certain documents used by our motorists going to a number but only a few countries abroad and deletes reference to one such document which is no longer used. Fourthly, it makes other purely formal changes in references to other legislation, which has been amended.

Articles 1 and 2 and the Preamble of the Order are formal.

Article 3 contains the substantive provisions deleting the reference to documents in Form C. This document was a fiscal permit which was issued to British residents travelling abroad to enable them to obtain tax exemption in certain foreign countries, under the terms of the International Convention Regarding the Taxation of Foreign Motor Vehicles, 1931. Since that Convention has now been replaced, British residents can no longer be asked to produce it. This opportunity is therefore being taken to repeal the obsolete Form C.

Article 4 substitutes a new Article 5 into the Order to replace that inserted by the 1962 Amendment Order, later amended in 1969. A practical effect is to extend vehicle excise duty exemption to vehicles temporarily imported, for their private use, by members of visiting armed forces or the civilian components of such forces.

For example, an American Service man who comes here for a tour of duty and brings with him a foreign-registered private car will in future be exempt from payment of vehicle excise duty for 12 months from his date of arrival, in the same way as any other foreign visitor.

We have no option in this matter. By adhering to the 1956 Convention on the Taxation of Road Vehicles for Private Use in International Traffic, Her Majesty's Government accepted an obligation to exempt from vehicle excise tax, subject to the fulfilment of certain conditions, any privately-used foreign vehicle which is temporarily imported into the United Kingdom, provided it has been exempted from Customs duty. The exemption from Customs duty is carried forward into an exemption from vehicle excise tax by international agreement.

Previously, members of visiting forces were not included because there were no statutory Customs rules governing the duty-free importation of their belongings, including their vehicles, but this situation has been altered by the making of Customs Duty (Personal Reliefs) Orders. The present Order means, for the first time, that the extension of vehicle excise exemption to private vehicles imported by members of visiting forces will now be applied in Britain. About 4,000 such vehicles are imported each year, and the approximate cost to the Revenue of the additional exemption is a maximum of about £100,000 per annum, based on the "private" rate of £25 per vehicle.

Paragraph (3) is a new provision. Vehicles coming here temporarily from the Isle of Man have for many years been exempt from vehicle excise duty, as are our vehicles going there. But this exemption does not derive from any Customs Order, because movement to and from the Isle of Man is not regarded as important or exportation. We are taking the opportunity of this Order to put the Isle of Man exemption, which has existed for many years, on a formal basis.

The only other change of substance is that Article 5 substitutes a new Schedule prescribing the fees payable for the issue of certain documents which British residents may need to have when travelling abroad with their vehicles.

These are primarily international driving permits, but in most countries to which British motor drivers now go, that is to say, Western Europe, a British licence is accepted. It is only in the case of those countries where a Great Britain licence is not recognised that these documents will continue to be required. They are Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Spain. Everywhere else—that is to say, where the great majority of British tourists go with their cars—the Great Britain licence is recognised. Therefore, no international permit is required and the increased charges are not applicable.

These documents are issued by the motoring organisations on behalf of the Secretary of State. The existing charges have been unchanged, save for decimalisation, since they were introduced, some of them in 1930. The motoring organisations wanted these fees to be increased on 1st January, 1971, but accepted some delay—until 1st June—to avoid any possible confusion with decimalisation. It has now been agreed that to cover their higher costs, the fees for international driving permits and international certificates for motor vehicles should be increased, if and when required, from 53p to £1.

The only other changes are purely textual, and this is a modest, useful, though somewhat complex, measure which I commend to the House.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Under paragraph (4) the Secretary of State may make regulations to provide for a number of things. In this context, I wish to draw attention to an increasing evil in this country which, in exercising the power granted to him under paragraph (4)(d), my right hon. Friend may be able to overcome. Under that provision he may make regulations to provide: for the registration of vehicles which by virtue of this Article are exempt from excise duty and for the assignment of registra- tion marks to, and for the issue of registration cards for, such vehicles. An increasing number of cars bear foreign registration plates but no indication of their country of origin. I have even seen some which do not carry the form of numerals used in European countries. Instead, they carry plates inscribed with squiggles which are no doubt significant to people living in Arab countries but which have no significance to us. It is, therefore, impossible for the police, witnesses to an accident and others to memorise what is on these plates, as they do not convey significant information.

This is the only occasion on which we can debate the use of the power which my right hon. Friend is being given under this Order because the regulations which he may make do not have to be confirmed by the House. Can the nuisance which I have described be abated by the use of these powers?

It is not apparent to me whether this nuisance is due to cars slipping through the import net—having been imported in the rush of vehicles coming in, the Customs have not noticed that they do not bear intelligible plates—or whether they are allowed to come in under a peculiar arrangement, such as the Visiting Forces Act.

This difficulty having been ventilated publicly, I hope that action will be taken to cure it, as pedestrians and others involved in accidents may find it difficult to secure redress, particularly in London, by virtue of not being able to identify these vehicles.

10.34 p.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) said about some motor cars bearing number plates containing squiggly hieroglyphics. I have often wondered from which countries they come, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend.

As the Minister said, the international driving permit is still needed for four European countries—three behind the Iron Curtain and Spain. I have taken my car to Spain on many occasions in the last 20 years but I have never been asked to show my international driving permit at the frontier or anywhere in Spain. If I had an accident it may be that I should be asked. I do not know. But if the Spaniards cannot be bothered to enforce the regulation which they insist on having, I wonder whether representations could be made to them to accept the British driving licence just as almost every other Western European country does.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I am sure that the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) will commend itself to the House. This applies not only to Spain. The wider we can get mutual acceptance in Europe of driving permits, the greater will be the facility for motorists and tourists generally. We would all welcome relaxation on these lines.

There is a good deal of force in the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). I think that the Diplomatic Corps is often at fault in not carrying the necessary plaque of origin. However, I am sure that the Under-Secretary will want to answer his hon. Friend and do what he can administratively to avoid this happening.

It seems clear from what the Minister said that the exemption from excise duty for visiting forces will be for one year only. I should think that many visiting forces will come here for periods of duty of probably two years or, in some cases, longer. The Minister said that each year about 4,000 vehicles were imported by visiting forces and that the cost to the Revenue was about £100,000. If an American or other visiting soldier brings his car here and he stays for two years, does he have to pay excise duty after he has been here for 12 months? Is the Minister satisfied that the administrative machine will be able to pick up these various points?

I thought that if somebody who is here under some visiting forces or diplomatic or other arrangement brought in a car it would be exempt from customs duty. How firm and practical is the limitation to one year in new Article 5?

Finally, I think that the House is indebted, as those interested outside will be, for the clear and full explanation which the hon. Gentleman gave of what, as he said, is a complex, but not, I think, very controversial Order.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am obliged to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) for his kind words and general support for this modest measure.

I think that I can deal with his point whether the vehicles would be picked up if they had exceeded the 12 months exemption. This is a problem of enforcement. It will depend on observation on the roads and notification from the Customs which would be sent to taxation offices when the Customs record showed that a vehicle had not been re-exported at the end of the exemption period. To that extent there is a mechanism which would catch such vehicles. But the right hon. Gentleman is right—he speaks with great experience on the matter—that enforcement is crucial.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) picked up several points. I was rather charmed by the thought of his sitting back and puzzling, from the number of Arabic licence plates in this country, whether there were a number of visiting Arabic forces in Britain. I assure him that that is not so.

The regulations require that non-Roman plates must be reregistered in this country. Incidentally, the regulations made under these powers are subject to negative Resolution, so the House is not completely finished with them after it has considered them for the first time.

Concerning non-Roman plates, as I am advised to describe them, the problem is essentially one of enforcement. I am sure that the authorities will take note of my hon. Friend's anxieties, but there is no lack of regulation on this matter. If he knows of any Arabic, Cyrillic or Chinese registrations in this country, I hope that he will do his part in reporting them to the enforcement authorities.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

My whole point was that the squiggles concerned are not identifiable and therefore memorable to the uninstructed, and they are therefore difficult to report.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

That may be, but I am sure that it is not beyond the wit of my hon. Friend to go to the nearest police station and describe what he has seen, although he could not remember the precise alphabet or numerical terminology of it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell), who has great knowledge of these motoring matters, said that Spain, alone among the countries of Europe, does not recognise the G.B. licence plate. I undertake to consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on this point to see what can be done.

Mr. Mulley

Just for the record, I believe that the hon. Gentleman meant the driving licence.

Mr. Griffiths

I am grateful: I meant the licence.

Mr. Mulley

Is it not obligatory, or cannot it be made obligatory, for country-of-origin signs to be shown by foreign cars here, just as British motorists are obliged in most European countries to display their G.B. plate?

Mr. Griffiths

I will consider that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Motor Vehicles (International Circulation) (Amendment) Order 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 25th March, be approved.