HC Deb 14 July 1976 vol 915 cc666-703
Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 10, line 15, leave out from 'section' to end of line 18 and insert 'shall not exceed £100'.

Mr. Speaker

With this, we may take the following amendments:

No. 229, in line 15, leave out from 'section' to end of line 18 and insert: 'shall be of an equal amount for each assignment or (as the case may be) inspection. and shall be of such amount as may be assessed by the Treasury as required to ensure that the total revenue from such charges shall in each year cover the total costs incurred in making such assignments or (as the case may be) of arranging for such inspection'. No. 2, in line 16, leave out 'need not' and insert 'must be'.

No. 254, in line 18, at end insert: '(3A) Regulations under this section shall be made by statutory instrument, which shall not have effect unless a draft thereof has been laid before and approved by the House of Commons'.

Mr. Howell

This amendment and, indeed, the whole clause concerns what are known as cherished transfers. I should perhaps explain to hon. Members who did not have the opportunity to take part in the debates in Standing Committee that a cherished transfer is not, as some might think, the handing over of a little gift to a loved one or a relative and has very little to do with that kind of finance at all. It has to do with the transferring of number plates which bear the initials and numbers that have special significance for the persons involved in the transfers, so much so that they are prepared to pay not only what hitherto has been the standard fee to the public authorities for a transfer but also considerable sums over and above that.

The clause included in the Finance Bill seeks to give the Minister powers to set a fee at a level unspecified for the transfer process and allows the Treasury to make an order which cannot be questioned setting the fee at some unspecified and unknown figure.

One of the world's leading authorities on cherished transfers is the present Minister for Transport, who is here for this Report stage. He has given us a great deal of inside information on how cherished transfers work, and it was he who revealed to an astonished Standing Committee on the night of 18th May last that no fewer than 100 civil servants are involved in completing some 50,000 cherished transfers a year.

I might add that it took only a second for one of my more astute colleagues on the Committee to do the necessary calculation to disclose that, on the assumption of 250 working days a year, each public servant had two cherished transfers a day to complete. That was their work load and schedule. This is a mat- ter which caused some comment, because it could be argued that two transfers a day was not a very heavy work load. We wondered what the civil servants did for the rest of the day. That was the first relevation which the Minister put before us, and it was a very important one indeed.

Part of the thinking behind the discussions upstairs and behind this amendment is that there should be some relation between the cost to the public authority of making the transfer and the fee charged. We do not seek to make a judgment either way on this practice, and all sorts of views are held about it. Government Ministers have taken very biased views about the virtues or vices of indulging in this practice. Broadly, our attitude is that this is a free society and that if people wish to use their money in certain ways they should be allowed to do so. But it is perfectly proper for the Government to seek to cover the cost of the operation by a fee, and therefore it is very important to identify the cost.

The fact that each civil servant is doing two transfers a day is of extreme relevance and importance. The Minister went on to tell us that pressures are put upon some civil servants and attempts are made to corrupt them by members of the public who try to get certain number plates transferred in certain ways. This was a matter which caused us considerable concern and was very relevant to the whole organisation and administration of cherished transfers. The Minister told us that in the Bill there is a reference in Clause 12 to a process of inspection, either at a place designated under the regulations, or elsewhere, to be carried out by the public authorities, and he explained how this would work. He undertook to explain more to us on Report stage and to give more of the full implications of the inspection process.

If it is proposed under Clause 12 to set up a new Government inspectorate with all the necessary appendages of Government, the career structures, designated vehicle centres and so forth, this would involve a gigantic cost, and would be a considerable development. It could involve personnel in numbers far larger than the savings in personnel which might arise from fixing the fee at a higher level. Therefore it would defeat the purpose of the Minister in guarding against waste and inefficiency. We look forward to hearing more details on this issue.

The third aspect behind this amendment, and the other amendments being taken with it, concerns the propriety of allowing the Treasury the power to fix this tax or fee entirely independent of any parliamentary control on a regular basis. This is a matter which has worried us greatly, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) was entirely correct in pointing to the unusual nature of this arrangement in which the Treasury was free to fix the tax or penalty for those who seek to have a particular number plate transferred.

The purpose behind Amendment No. 254 is to seek to regularise that position and to ask that any Orders are made by Statutory Instrument so that we may have some control over the fee. This would, in turn, allow us to enquire about costs and the relationship of the fee to the costs.

If we do not get a lot more information from the Minister than we had in Committee, we may press Amendment No. 254 to a Division. Amendment No. 1 seeks, in a different way and perhaps a less satisfactory way, to do the same thing and to try to fix a fee. We suggest in the amendment that the fee should be £100 in order to try to get some knowledge of what exactly is being charged and why, rather than leave the whole matter to the Treasury to fix from time to time. Our main concern is to know just what is going on inside this administration. The productivity performance is not particularly inspiring. The Minister for Transport's familiarity with this whole area seemed charmingly vague in Committee and we feel that we have a right to ask for a little more information about how it all works.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Newton

I add briefly to what my hon. Friend has said because it was a modest amendment of mine that sparked of this controversy upstairs. Having looked through Clause 10 I saw no reason why the Treasury should have the power to do what it liked in this field, or in any other for that matter. I wanted the charges to be related to the costs incurred, and the Minister for Transport replied in his own inimitible way, with the result that a debate that we intended should take 10 minutes went on for well over an hour, into the small hours of the morning.

It is worth emphasising a whole series of points that the Minister made, which had a great effect on the Committee. The first one, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, was that the average civil servant transferred one number plate in the morning and one in the afternoon. To be fair to the Minister, we have since extracted some more information from him. He said in a Written Answer on 23rd June: The equivalent of about 100 full-time civil servants were involved in processing 55,481 'cherished' transfers in 1975–6; 19 civil servants at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre in Swansea working full-time and many more working part-time in local offices—some local government officers, some civil servants—whose duties often include the inspection of the vehicles involved."—[Official Report, 23rd June; Vol. 913, c. 509.] The Minister may put a gloss on it, but this does not modify the fact, or reduce my alarm about the fact, that it is taking the equivalent of half a day per vehicle to carry out these transfers. Even given the difficulties experienced with the Swansea computer and the handicap of that automation which so many of us know about from constituency correspondence, this seems a remarkably low productivity rate.

We also had the revelation about bribery to which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) referred.

Another surprising revelation was that number plates had been transferred and charges made apparently with no legal authority. The Minister for Transport said: the Department had been criticised in court proceedings for operating a procedure for which there is no legal backing. In the past, under successive Ministers, a fee of £5 has been levied for which there was no statutory basis. A little later he summarised the position by saying: In effect, it operates as an extra-statutory concesion on which an extra-statutory fee has been levied. It is a thoroughly irregular situation in both directions. He can say that again! A vast administrative apparatus has been operating inefficiently to do something for which there is no power and has been levying charges for which there is no authority.

One of my amendments, which was not selected, would have insisted that any Regulations made under the clause should provide for a refund to all these aggrieved citizens who, I believe, are entitled to their money back.

I hope that the Minister will at least say something about what would happen if a citizen who had transferred a plate and paid the £5 sued the Department for the return of his money. If this system has been operating without legal authority, it is a serious matter.

Another question that caused concern in Committee was the inspection of these vehicles. The Minister said: I would not want to go firm on the system now, but I contemplate that we would ask the police if, within the limitation of their manpower, they would be agreeable to inspect these vehicles."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 18th May 1976; cc. 113–122.] The police have quite enough to do without being asked to run around the country inspecting vehicles, broken down or otherwise, in pursuit of some scheme of the Minister. The Minister says "Hear, hear", but he will not repeat that when he has heard my next remarks. The hon. Gentleman has no business bringing a Bill before the House with proposals for inspection and charges when he cannot give us better answers about the way in which he proposes to operate the system.

What on earth is going on when the Minister could say no more about the operation of this system than that he thought he might ask the police whether they could cope with it? Another of my amendments which was not selected proposed that the police should not be asked to undertake this task.

I hope that we shall hear a great deal more about the way in which this inspection procedure is to work and have a clear assurance that it will not be wished upon the police, who have many more important things to do.

In Committee we were also concerned about the procedures by which the House was to authorise the new charges. Quite apart from the question of principle, it would be wrong for the charges to go through on the basis of Regulations under the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1971, which would be extremely difficult to question effectively in the House.

Amendment No. 1 would limit the charge to £100. That seems a very modest proposal, as the Minister said in a Written Answer that the average cost is now about £10. Amendments Nos. 2 and 229 insist that the charges are related to the costs incurred. That seems the right way of proceeding.

My Amendment No. 254 provides that Regulations imposing charges should be approved by the House before they are put into effect. It would give us direct and positive parliamentary control over the charges.

I think that most of my hon. Friends share my view of cherished transfers as a rather eccentric but inoffensive activity. I have far better things to do with the small amount of money I have than to spend £2,500 on a Honda in order to acquire the number plate "JB 7". The Chief Secretary might take a different view about that number plate. It is a rather silly way of spending money, but if people want to do it, let them. Providing they have paid tax on the money in the first place, it is up to the people concerned how they spend it.

The Minister is right to want to end the subsidising of this activity from public funds. If the average cost of a transfer is £10, it is ridiculous that the charge should be only £5 and wholly absurd that taxpayers should have to pay the other £5 to enable to pay £2,500 for number plates. I agree that we should get rid of the subsidy.

However, it is wrong that the public sector, which has a monopoly power over the issue and control of licence plates, should agree that it is reasonable for citizens to transfer these plates between themselves and then seek to make it a commercial activity from which the Government make a substantial profit. It is not right for the Government to treat as a profit-making operation the issue and control of licences that are statutorily required. We should be seeking only to cover costs. If the Minister insists on making a profit, the case for Amendment No. 254 becomes even stronger, because he is proposing not a charge in the normal sense but a new tax on the transfer of licence plates.

It cannot be argued that the Treasury should have power to fix this tax at whatever level it likes, with virtually no proper opportunity for the House to scrutinise and check it.

If the Minister is prepared to limit the charge to cover the costs involved, I shall be happy for that to be done under normal Regulation-making powers. However, if he insists on having a new tax, it should be subject to parliamentary procedures appropriate to taxation and not to the hole-in-the-corner procedures proposed in the clause.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I assure the Minister that I am with him in trying to regularise this procedure and I am sure that most of my hon. Friends share that view.

A most extraordinary position was disclosed when we debated this Clause in Committee. We learned of the very casual operation of this system by the office concerned. The clause gives the Secretary of State open-ended authority to set out the procedure which should be adopted in Regulations made under the Vehicles (Excise) Act.

These Regulations can go very wide. Under Section 37 of the Act, to which I presume this clause is intended to refer, the Regulations may make different provisions for different circumstances. I do not know whether the Minister intends to charge a different fee for different cars in different parts of the country. He shakes his head. That is the sort of assurance we need.

The Regulations provide for exemptions from any provisions of the Regulations and may contain such incidental and supplemental provisions as the Secretary of State considers expedient for the purposes of the Regulations. As the clause is drawn, the Secretary of State is given an open-ended authority to set out the scheme. Indeed Clause 12(2) says: The regulations may— (a) require the vehicle to which a mark is requested to he assigned, There is no formal procedure in law for assigning a car. Therefore what assignment will be required in that case? Dealing with prescribed cases the clause says: and also in prescribed cases the other vehicle, to be made available for inspection either at a place designated by or under the regulations, or elsewhere;". It may be that that would be a great inconvenience to members of the public owning that kind of car. We need to know what the Minister intends to put in the Regulations. The Regulations may provide for a prescribed charge to be made for the inspection and for the whole or part of this charge to be retained, whether or not the mark is assigned as requested. Therefore the Secretary of State may take the fee and not deliver the goods—or not carry out the job for which the fee is paid. The clause says that the fee may be decided by the Treasury but that it need not be related to the costs of making the assignment.

In view of all the matters which are contained in the Regulations, as the clause is drafted this is not a licence fee. It is a charge which may be varied, but not in accordance with the cost of doing the job. It may be varied so that the establishment performing the task makes a profit. It may be varied like a tax. It should come before the House in the formal way in which delegated legislation is presented.

It is almost a farce for a Bill to say that a Statutory Instrument shall be subject to an annulment procedure in the House. Scores of Statutory Instruments are passed every month. Thousands are passed every year. Many of them are subject to annulment procedure. Some hon. Members may wish to pray against them and have them debated in the House, but time is not found for that purpose.

Mr. Nigel Lawson (Blaby)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what makes it a complete farce is the use of the Standing Order known as the 11 o'clock Rule? Until that Rule is abandoned—I hope that the Committee on Procedure may look at this—there will not be any proper method of debating Statutory Instruments subject to the negative procedure.

Mr. Graham Page

I wish to correct my hon. Friend slightly. He should have referred to the 11.30 Rule—not the 11 o'clock Rule. However, I know exactly what he means. There is no time to debate Statutory Instruments which are subject to the annulment procedure. Therefore, I think that where an open-ended authority is to be given to the Secretary of State, as in Clause 12, we should ensure that there is debate at least the first time it comes before the House. It may well be that a compromise is possible on that point. We have said in respect of a considerable quantity of road traffic legislation that only the first Order should come before the House as a draft and that afterwards we may trust the Secretary of State to amend it in a reasonable way.

I hope that the Minister will be able to accept Amendment No. 254 so as to enable the Regulations to come before the House in draft before they are made. I shall not object if he wishes to modify that proposal to the extent of saying that the first Regulation shall come before the House. In that way we shall see what is in the Secretary of State's mind about these Regulations, and what system will be laid down to regularise a procedure that has been irregular up to the present.

Mr. Lawson

One important general point arises from this clause and the amendments. I should like to address myself to that point before dealing with cherished transfers.

At the commencement of the proceedings on Report yesterday my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) pointed out how wholly unsatisfactory was the House's treatment of fiscal legislation and Finance Bills. He said that it was impossible to have a proper discussion of a Finance Bill under our procedures. The Chief Secretary agreed. However, the Minister did not think that the Government had behaved in an especially bad manner with this Finance Bill. I believe that the Government have behaved badly.

We cannot debate and scrutinise a Finance Bill adequately because of the inbuilt guillotine in the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act, which means that we must pass the measure four months after the presentation of the Budget—which is 5th August in this case. The Government make use of that fact to put into the Finance Bill more and more legislation that has no business whatsoever in the Bill, to ride on the back of the inbuilt guillotine. That leaves less time for the scrutiny of other legislation and the clauses that are properly contained in the Finance Bill.

This clause contains a proposal by the Minister for Transport to regularise the system of changing registrations. It applies to people who, for instance, wish to have registration numbers containing their own initials. That proposal has no business to be in the Finance Bill. There are many similar provisions in the Bill. I cite Clause 14, which is concerned with the definition of fishermen's tractors. Schedule 6, on the investigatory powers of the Inland Revenue, has no business to be in the Bill. There should be separate legislation for that.

The Provisional Collection of Taxes Act was introduced not to deal with clauses of that kind but to deal with the collection of income tax and the rates of income tax and allowances. That illustrates precisely why we are unable to scrutinise adequately the Finance Bills put before us by the Government. The Government pack into this legislation more and more stuff that has no business to be there. It prevents us from discussing adequately the Finance Bill and fiscal legislation.

I now address myself to one or two specific points that have not already been made by my hon. Friends. The points that they made were important and I hope that the Minister for Transport will reply to them. But he made a curious remark in Committee, which seemed to me to explain why civil servants spend all day making two vehicle transfers—one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and that is their lot. He said: I may say that patriotic civil servants down at Swansea thoroughly resent having to spend their time on this type of work at all, and regard it as a thoroughly frivolous use of their time."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 18th May 1976; c. 106.] That is the position. The civil servants disapprove of this work because it is one of the few aspects of Civil Service work that give harmless pleasure to anybody. Civil servants are therefore on a go-slow. The Minister called them patriotic. That is a strange notion of patriotism.

Mr. John Nott (St. Ives)

They do only two car transfer registration plates every day.

Mr. Lawson

As my hon. Friend says, they carry out only two car registration transfers a day. That is called patriotism. I am sure that the former Chief Whip would be only too happy to assist them in their work. I suggest that he be appointed to undertake that task. Later I shall make some radical suggestions which will dispense with the whole matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) quoted part of the remarks made by the Minister for Transport. I should like to quote the whole of those remarks as the Minister made a serious charge, when he said: I have had reported to me some extremely unsavoury cases of people trying to offer bribes in order to get…certain registrations.…Various other dishonest practices are involved in the whole operation, but I shall not weary the Committee with details about them."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 18th May 1976, c. 106.] We must be told what are those dishonest practices.

It is very worrying, if legislation is to be brought before us to deal with dishonest practices about which the Minister for Transport merely hints darkly but does not tell us what they are. The hon. Gentleman must either withdraw or come clean and tell us about these dark practices concerning car number plates which have caused him so much concern and so many sleepless nights and explain his presence on the Treasury Bench on Report today.

In column 116 the Minister went on to talk about "unscrupulous operators" diddling the public "out of their rights". The hon. Gentleman referred to "diddling the public out of their registration numbers." How does that happen? What is the process about which he was talking? The hon. Gentleman was talking about practices which he thinks that he "can close without making the whole transfer system illegal."

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that there is a book that registers all these idiosyncratic numbers and that the one for which the highest price has ever been paid is FU 2?

Mr. Lawson

That is understandable. It is not for me to speculate whether it belongs to the Scottish National Party or to the Minister for Transport. However, it is necessary that we should be told what these disreputable practices are. I hope that the Minister for Transport will pay attention to the debate. We know that he has difficulty in doing so.

What are these disreputable practices that the Minister thinks he "can close"—I use his words—"without making the whole transfer system illegal"? How does he propose to prevent these disreputable practices? We ought to know about these matters. These are new crimes about which he is informing us. These are new deeds about which any honest man should be concerned. It is no use muttering in vague terms. The hon. Gentleman must come clean.

Mr. Graham Page

My hon. Friend will have observed that, under the Regulation under which these Regulations will be made, a penalty of only £20 can he imposed. That seems a very small penalty for the kind of crimes about which my hon. Friend has been speaking.

Mr. Lawson

It does indeed. I have a strong suspicion that the Minister was guilty of a certain hyperbole when trying to persuade the Committee to pass the legislation on the ground of these unspecified vices in which people indulge relating to car number plates. I suspect that he made it up as he went along. If there is something more to it, let him tell us.

The next point arises from what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) about whether this was a charge or a tax. This is an important point for I have many reasons for saying this, including the question of VAT.

I put down a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was answered by the Financial Secretary—I am glad that he is here—on 24th May. I asked if VAT is chargeable on the charge levied for having a particular registration mark transferred from one vehicle to another; and whether it will be so chargeable, assuming the passage of Clause 10 of the Finance Bill. The Financial Secretary replied that at present VAT was levied on charges for which there was no statutory authority whatsoever. Yet VAT is levied on them. That is pretty disreputable. The hon. Gentleman went on: This position will need to be reviewed in the light of Regulations made following the passage of Clause 10."—[Official Report, 24th May 1976; Vol. 912, c. 88.] This clause was then Clause 10. It is no good saying that the matter will be reviewed. We want to know now whether VAT is to be levied on the charges or not. If it is a tax, clearly VAT will not be levied. If it is a charge, it probably will be. This is an important point.

4.45 p.m.

I should like to put forward my proposal for dealing with the whole matter and cleaning it up. The obvious answer is to close down the Vehicle Licensing Department at Swansea. No Department in the whole of the Civil Service is more incompetent than the Vehicle Licensing Department. All of us have had letters from constituents complaining about the nonsense and the interminable delays which are caused. It is no wonder that there are delays if each official can transfer only two number plates a day. If we closed that Department, we could make a saving on public expenditure. We are always keen to save public expenditure. Indeed, half of the Labour Party is also keen to save public expenditure. Of course, the other half wants it increased.

The question to which we must address ourselves is: what will happen if the Vehicle Licensing Department is closed? My solution is that the responsibility should be given back to the local authorities which should be able to charge whatever the market will bear for transferring a number plate. That would be a new source of local government revenue, which is much needed. At the same time, there would be no monopolistic system. If one local authority were charging too much, someone who wanted a fancy number plate on his car could go to another local authority which was charging less. Therefore, we would get the benefits of competition and of a new source of local government revenue. Above all, we would get the benefit of closing down the Vehicle Licensing Department at Swansea and getting rid of the nonsense for which the Minister is responsible.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I think that I am the loser in that I was not a member of the Committee upstairs which found this fertile ground which, no doubt, was exploited to the best advantage. Judging from the debate so far, my hon. Friends have been extremely diligent in their researches into this nightmare establishment at Swansea, where apparently not only is there gross inefficiency but dark figures in black cloaks pass bundles of dirty notes in the course of corrupt practices for personal gain. I believe that a full Royal Commission should be set up to look into the whole situation. A committee of inquiry of the highest power should be set up to investigate this vicious establishment. The Minister of Transport's admissions have revealed enough from behind the cloak to make it clear that we should not be satisfied with the little that he has released.

Is there a number plate entitled JHW 1 in the public service? Is there a number plate entitled LJC 1 in the public service? Is that LJC 1 treated as a benefit in kind? If it exists, is tax paid upon it by its beneficial user in the public service? These and other corrupt questions must be investigated immediately. Is there a number plate entitled LIB 1? If that is the number of the car used by the Leader of the Liberal Party, the proposals will certainly smite deep at the finances of the Liberal Party after the many changes that we have seen this year in the beneficial ownership of that car.

I should like to inquire a little further into the 100 people who discharge the work about which we are talking. Presumably one or two decide which number plates are obscene and cannot be used at all. Or is the number higher? Is the reason for the poor productivity that quite a number of people—perhaps a committee—look at number plates to consider which would be indecent if exposed at the front or rear of a vehicle? Somebody must do that, because, from researches that one does on the roads, one is astonished at the prudity of the bureaucracy in keeping offensive combinations of letters and numbers away from our eyes. Who does this? On what Vote does it come? Is it included in this inefficient organisation about which we are talking?

Mr. Douglas Crawford (Perth and East Perthshire)

Presumably part of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that the former Government Chief Whip would not be able to have his initials on his car.

Mr. Ridley

I am trying to remember whether the right hon. Gentleman has a whole string of Christian names or whether he has only the obvious one that I can think of. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would assist the House.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

My present number plate is FPM, and I always interpret that as "future Prime Minister".

Mr. Ridley

The question is whether the number after FPM is 1, 2, 3 or 4. The right hon. Gentleman has not told us. Maybe it is FPM 9099.

How do we know the efficiency of those 100 people who deal with the difficult combinations, and how do we charge for the value of their service to the pepole who are going to change their number plates? My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) rightly explored whether this was a tax or a charge and whether it should be related to the cost of providing the service or how it should be done. The difficulty is that if we related the charge to the cost of providing the service we would see straight away that it would be far too high, because there are all sorts of inefficiencies in the system and people would have to pay far more than they should.

It is no defence to say that the cost is so much because too many people are trying to transfer the same number plate. What is the true price which should be charged? In the General Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee, I have been asking civil servants what are the costs of the things they do and, where they make charges to the private sector—say, the education of overseas students—how they assess what they should charge. The extraordinary thing is that no work has been done on this at all.

The Civil Service does not think in terms of market prices or charges and has no philosophy as to whether we should charge what the work costs or a percentage of it. It does not know whether to try to determine a market price or how to go about it. I do not want to make a profit, nor do I want to make a loss. But what is a profit and what is a loss in terms of a public service? There is only one way to discover this, and that is to put the work out to tender and ask a number of firms what they would charge for performing the service. We could then take the lowest tender.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) is always ready to spring into a competitive bid situation. He promised to plant the trees above our car park for £100 instead of the £4,000 that the Department paid. That is the way to discover what these things should cost.

There cannot be said to be any great political kudos behind the transfer of number plates. It is not a commanding height of the economy. It is not something on which the security or the safety of the realm is at stake. Nor can it be said to be something which is essential for ordinary working people and, therefore, has to be handled by the bureaucracy. It is simply a piece of candy floss. What on earth is it doing in the public sector anyway? Why is the public sector concerned with this nonsense in the first place? Could it not be the first candidate for denationalisation? There are many candidates for that treatment, but would this not be a good place to start?

The Government have added so much to the public sector in the last two years that they should hang their heads in shame in regard to the burdens they have placed upon the public purse. However, they can start to recant by making a little slow, gingerly progress back to sanity by denationalising the cherished transfer number plate establishment at Swansea.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Would not my hon. Friend agree that if we put this out to public enterprise it would supply the number plates as well and we would save more money?

Mr. Ridley

That is a serious point and my hon. Friend is quite right. There are too many activities of this sort in the public sector which do not have to be done by civil servants and could be done much more cheaply by people contracted to perform that service. Of course, this applies a fortiori to Swansea itself. Here is a case where a major activity is carried on and the State has the wrong computer. I must declare an interest as someone who works in the computer industry. Out of political motives, the State has decided to buy a British computer at all costs, and "all costs" mean £30 million to the taxpayer. But the computer is not doing the job, and the State has had to get people with quill pens to replace the computer. Hundreds and thousands of them are scratching away with them. Undoubtedly that will help the unemployment problem in South Wales, but that is the only conceivable justification.

No private company would tolerate what is happening at Swansea. The time has come to test it out. I shall design a tender, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire is not here, and we will get quotations from the private sector for performing the work of these cherished transfers and also in respect of all the activities at Swansea. That would mean that we would cut out the waste and extravagance and, better still, the corruption which has been revealed.

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Gentleman's party started it up.

Mr. Ridley

Yes, but whether or not that is true—I am told it is not true—it is no valid attack to say that a previous Conservative Government did it. That is probably quite often true, but that is not in itself a reason for not reversing the situation now. This matter has wider implications than can be applied to this short debate. The Minister for Transport should take his courage in both hands and cease the carrying on of this ridiculous activity by the State. If it is worth doing, the private citizens who would benefit from it would pay whatever it costs for it to be done by somebody else. The Minister could put it out to tender or to an agency. That is the principle he should be looking for in everything he does. He will realise that the failures of bureaucratic administration are now such that we have to look at other ways of doing these things. This would be a very good place to start.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has just highlighted the total irrelevance of this whole clause to a Finance Bill which is supposed to deal with the economy of this country. I think, too, that the Government attitude to retaining number plates, as indicated in the proceedings of the Standing Committee, show how narrow minded they are to anyone having some small pleasures in life. I declare an interest in having a number plate—I do not see it as a cherished one or a personalised one—which happens to have been on various cars for many years and and I do not see any reason why that should not continue.

I would tell the Minister that for many years in my own county of Dumfries, SM1 and SM7 are still going strong. Many of these number plates are in the same ownership as they were in 1904. Why should this tradition not be carried on? There is no form of egotism, which the Minister seemed to read into anyone wishing to retain what, in fact, was a family possession over very many years.

5.0 p.m.

What we are criticising is not the desire to retain a number but the whole system at Swansea. Anyone, like me, who has changed number plates knows that what used to be a simple system as done by the old local authorities has now become a major headache. Anyone who does not believe me has only to ask any salesman who has the responsibility of registering new cars and transferring the plates. One used to go to the registration authority and fill in the form and the whole thing was over in five minutes. The Minister should explain how this has suddenly become a £100-plus operation in Swansea.

Why cannot the comparatively small number of transfers, many of them in rural areas, continue to be done by the local authorities at the offices now run by the Department of the Environment? When the Minister comes to a satisfactory conclusion, I hope that he will also consider why the system has become so much more detailed. It is hard enough to transfer a plate to a new car, but to transfer it to a second-hand car is three times as complicated and has to be done in Swansea.

What is this provision doing in the Finance Bill anyway? Why can the Minister not deal with it administratively and economically? Why can he not return to the old system which worked admirably and cheaply, with no complaints that I know of? It was never said then that charges would have to be put up to deal with what appeared to be five or 10 minutes' worth of paper work. It is an indication of the Government's thinking when they have to spend a considerable period dealing with something so irrelevant to the economy. The Minister should withdraw the clause and start again.

Mr. Fairbairn

I have long expected that the right to have one's own individual number plate would eventually become a target for Socialist destruction. Nothing is more symbolic of all the things to which they object than that someone should not only differ from the system anonymously but should be able to point out that he has taken the trouble to do something idiosyncratic.

I have always assumed that the puritanism which no Minister demonstrates and embodies more than the Minister for Transport would eventually lead him to say, "Thou shalt not be different." The ultimate of so much Socialist thinking is to create a society in which what is not compulsory is forbidden, in which it is wrong that the individual should actually have a choice, be able to express his personality or preference and even be able to pay for it.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Perhaps eventually we shall all have to have the same number plate.

Mr. Fairbairn

I think that we are coming to that situation. The previous system was an intelligent one. Local authorities gave numbers and one could tell immediately whether the car in front came from Sussex or Glasgow. Local police were assisted when there was a robbery or an accident by knowing that the car had come from another area. But now, the grand magnificence of Socialism requires that we all have a number which means nothing to anybody, one which is much more difficult to note or to remember. But the machine finds it better to have it that way.

Who is the machine? We now know that it is not the computer which requires this awful, inhumane, soul-destroying system. It is the pygmies who run the machine who find it offensive to their little Meccano, Dinky Toys minds that real human beings should actually want something which matters to them.

If the Minister could say that these busy, patriotic, inflation-proof-pensioned civil servants who manage, in order to swell the national product, to change two numbers a day would have their numbers reduced by 25,000 if this provision remained, we might be happy to make such a sacrifice. But if we remove this facility by charging it out of existence, only a few Arab emirates will be able to afford to have SA1 on their cars. The Dipplomatic Corps will be able to carry on doing this—that is all right because we are sycophantic about that—but if the ordinary British citizen wants to keep doing it, it will be made a matter of penalty and fine.

Why is this such a pain to those patriotic zombies who run the system with such classic inefficiency—despite all the magnificent machinery of the technological revolution which was going to make it cheaper, which would centralise it but which in fact has made it more expensive and offended local feelings, in Surrey as in Caithness? The system in offensive, muddling and irritating. It is absolutely typical of this Government's approach.

Nothing stands out more in the Finance Bill than this provision. It should not be there, and it is there only because there is no other way in which this piece of resentment and vindictiveness against ordinary human eccentricity can be brought in. There is no other way to sandpaper each of us down, to force us to be the same. The same happens when one enters the Army. One is given a number and one jolly well takes it. One cannot choose it: one just stands in line.

That is what this provision is all about. It is an indication that we are all thought of as units and digits. No doubt if everything else can be centralised, every car will eventually be identical. In Germany, they had the Volkswagen and the idea was that everybody would have one. No doubt when the Minister has the numbers right he will get the cars right and then the way will be clear to get the people right to sit in them. That is the Government's attitude. It is filthy and it is Puritan. I regret to say that, 400 years after we thought we had abolished the Puritans, they are back—sitting on the Government Front Bench.

The Minister for Transport (Dr. John Gilbert)

This is something of an occasion for me. It is the first time that I have been accused of being a Puritan, here or anywhere else.

I will deal with some of the frivolities of the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) in a moment. I would say first that it is distasteful for any hon. Member to attack Government servants who do their job and have loyally served administrations of the hon. and learned Gentleman's own party in the past, as they no doubt will again at some time in the future. I entirely repudiate remarks of that sort.

The hon. and learned Gentleman accused us of trying to legislate out of existence the cherished transfer system. In Committee I said that it is a harmless form of personal vanity that I would not seek to legislate out of existence."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 18th May 1976, c. 106.] I then said—this is the general theme behind inserting the clause in the Bill—that I was seeking to regularise a situation that is thoroughly irregular. I do not think that that has been recognised by Opposition Members. I am seeking to reduce the amount of bureaucracy that is involved, as well as the drain on the public purse. Surely those are objectives that should commend themselves to Opposition Members, even though I had some sympathy with the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) when he asked why the public sector should be involved in this candy floss. As I said in Committee, I have been under considerable pressure to legislate to remove these arrangements entirely.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) asked why it was necessary to produce these proposals. He said that everything worked very well in the old days. The reason is that there has been an explosion in the number of transfers being sought in the past few years. In the 1960s they were running at about 5,000 a year. In 1973 they had risen to 30,000 a year, and in 1975 to 50,000 a year. It is estimated that this year they will be running at about 60,000.

In Committee I gave various undertakings to Opposition Members—

Mr. Fairbairnrose

Dr. Gilbert

No. Not now. Possibly I shall give way a little later.

I said that I would explain some of the procedures and the reason for so many staff being involved in this work. The arrangements began as a result of a Ministry of Transport circular to registration and licensing authorities way back in 1924. It is extraordinary that until quite recently no one in Government appreciated that the whole system was thoroughly irregular both with respect to the authority of those involved and the transferring of plates. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) asked "What about those who sue to get back their £5?", but what would they be saying if they were invited to return number plates that had been transferred irregularly? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, in his usual fair way, takes the point.

In fact, the situation is even more irregular than I realised when discussing it in Committee. There is a great variety of ways in which local transfer offices handle these matters. Until now they have had total discretion regarding the rules that they have imposed on individual members of the public. I consider that to be a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] If Opposition Members think it is satisfactory for individual civil servants to impose different sets of arrangements on individual members of the public for basically the same transaction, I am surprised.

Mr. Ridley

The Minister has castigated my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) for criticising civil servants, but now he is doing exactly the same thing.

Dr. Gilbert

Not at all. If the hon. Gentleman had listened with his customary lucidity of mind to what I was saying, he would have appreciated that I was pointing out that civil servants had discretion under the rules. I was not criticising their use of that discretion, but the fact that the discretion existed. Surely the hon. Gentleman is capable of grasping that distinction.

Some LTOs insist that both vehicles must be currently licensed, in running order, and presented for inspection. There are others requiring only part, or none, of those provisions to be carried out. Some offices are ready to accept and process an application at considerable inconvenience to themselves while others are less inclined to do so.

The reason for this is largely historical. Before we embarked on the process of centralising the vehicle licensing system, local authorities carried out statutory licensing and registration duties quite independently and not as agents of the then Ministry of Transport, although they had guidance from the Minister.

5.15 p.m.

It might be of assistance to the House if I set out the basic procedure involved in all cases where a cherished transfer is sought. In the first place, the applicant has to submit an application form—namely V317—[Interruption.] I think it is as well that Opposition Members should learn the amount of paper work that is involved. It is the intention to reduce that paper work. That is the basis of the proposals behind the clause. Surely Opposition Members can grasp that if nothing else. They will be surprised at the amount of work that is involved.

The applicant submits an application—

Mr. Fairbairnrose

Dr. Gilbert

No, not now.

The applicant submits a V317 with a fee. The fee is returned if the transaction is not completed. The applicant, under the normal procedure, submits the registration documents for both donor and recipient vehicles. [Interruption.] It might help if Conservative Members know why these procedures are necessary. As I have said, we are trying to cut down the volume of transactions. Opposition Members should know why they take so long to process and why there is such a demand on civil service manpower.

Mr. Fairbairnrose

Dr. Gilbert

No. I am in the middle of outlining the basic procedure involved in all these cases. If it is going to take a long time to outline it, so be it.

Licences and test insurance certificates are required. The licensing office checks that both vehicles are registered in the name of the applicant—[Interruption.] Opposition Members should realise that these procedures are necessary for the protection of the public.

The next stage is for officials to ensure that the object of the transfer is not to make the vehicle that receives the new licence plates appear to be younger than it really is—[Interruption.]

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)rose

Dr. Gilbert

Opposition Members, who are fortunate enough always to buy new cars and not secondhand ones, may not require such protection, but ordinary members of the public who are in the market for buying secondhand cars need to know that the car that is being sold is not older than it appears to be. It is a necessary protection, and one that should have occurred to various Opposition Members.

The officials also have to be satisfied that neither vehicle is a public service vehicle or licensed as a goods vehicle of over 30 cwt. unladen weight, or subject to Customs restrictions. If any one of those conditions is not met, the application has to be rejected.

If the conditions are met, the licensing office may arrange for an inspection of the vehicles concerned. That may be carried out by its staff or by the local police on its behalf. I accept that it is a waste of time for the police to be involved in such activities. That is a further reason for trying to cut down the number of these transactions. Opposition Members cannot have it both ways when some of them argue that the police should not have to take time to carry out such inspections. If the inspection is unsatisfactory, the application has to be rejected.

The next step is to examine the records of both vehicles to ensure that they have not been stolen or scrapped. If both vehicles are satisfactory, the transfer is permitted, and a replacement registration mark, appropriate to the age of the donor vehicle, is allocated to it. The registration documents and the test certificates, if any, of both vehicles are amended to show the new registration marks and replacement licences are issued showing the new marks. New records are created for the two vehicles under their new registration marks.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) asked what sort of abuses had manifested themselves under the existing system. I will give him a couple of examples. I cannot, for obvious reasons, give him every example. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] For the obvious reason that I do not wish to draw attention to the way in which certain malpractices arise. For example, individuals may seek to obtain information improperly from the vehicle record office to trace the keeper of a particular mark with a view to purchase. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is wrong with that?"] The record of licence numbers is supposed to be a matter of confidence.

Mr. Lawson


Dr. Gilbert

For the simple reason that if the hon. Gentleman were driving along and saw an attractive young lady he could not ring up Swansea and get her address. That will do as a starter.

Mr. Fairbairn

Would that person first have to discover whether the blonde had stolen the car? Otherwise, he might get the wrong blonde.

Dr. Gilbert

That is a fate I would wish to spare most young ladies.

A person might buy a vehicle on hire purchase, transfer the mark and sell the vehicle for cash, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the finance company to get its money back. There are more serious examples of law breaking, but I am glad to say that they are on a relatively small scale.

There is, however, one case awaiting trial at the Old Bailey in which one of the defendants is an officer of a local licensing office. The charges include conspiracy to defraud, and he is implicated because it is alleged that he allowed transfers without inspection when the circumstances clearly required it. There are similar cases in various stages of investigation and preparation. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) seems to find that funny. When he was responsible for administering the tax system he took a rather different view of these matters.

Mr. Lawson

I asked the hon. Gentleman to explain his reference in Committee to members of the public being diddled out of their registration numbers by unscrupulous operators. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me how that happens?

Dr. Gilbert

I can tell the hon. Gentleman how that happens, but I prefer not to do so, because I do not wish to give knowledge of these procedures wider circulation. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I have set out the basic transfer scheme. Many complications can be involved in an apparently simple transfer. The simplest case is where both vehicles are registered at the same local office and a properly completed application, together with all the necessary papers in good order, are presented at that office. In that event, the total amount of work required for handling the papers, excluding any allowance for inspection time, is about half an hour. Unfortunately, a great many cases are not as simple as that. About half the vehicles are at present being inspected, although I accept that, by definiition, that is the half that is most likely to cause trouble. It is not uncommon for inspecting officers to have to visit two or three places before finding the vehicles concerned, and in those circumstances a whole day's work is involved.

Complications arise when reference has to be made from one office to another within the licensing system, and there is frequently considerable correspondence with the public about the possibility of transfer and about troublesome or rejected cases. In addition, for every four transfers carried out there is another application which travels some way through the procedure before being rejected.

At Swansea, 19 people are employed full time on cherished transfer work, but they carry out only part of the procedures. All other staff working on cherished transfers do so as part of their local office duties. Because of that, it is not easy to arrive at a total figure for the staff involved. Including inspections where they are carried out, and allowing for general inquiries and successful or withdrawn applications, our best estimate of the work is that if all the work were to be done by one member of the staff, he could carry out about two to three transfers a day. Before hon. Gentlemen laugh too much about that, in terms of staff time per transfer there is no difference between the old system that obtained under the Conservative Government and the system which continues today, with the centralised procedure. The Conservative Government presided over that system without having the faintest idea that it was irregular, and without trying to tighten it up. I am glad at least to have the acknowledgement of the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) that it is high time that something was done in principle about this, although he may not agree with all the proposals. At least there is one Opposition Member who is seized of the sense of what we are trying to do. I accept that there is an element of open-endedness about the authority that is involved, and I am anxious to try to meet the point made by the right hon. Member for Crosby.

I would be prepared to offer the House, with your agreement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a manuscript amendment which has the effect of ensuring that the first regulations under the clause will be made by the affirmative procedure whereas subsequent regulations will be made by the negative procedure. The words are in precisely the same form as those we have adopted for the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill currently in Report stage. I propose at the end of page 10. line 18, to insert: (3A) The first regulations under the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1971 prescribing the amount of any charge by virtue of this section shall not be made unless a draft of a statutory instrument containing them has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House; and those regulations shall not then be subject to annulment as otherwise provided for regulations under the Act. I hope that will go a long way to meet the points made by the right hon. Member for Crosby and the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell).

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Gentleman said that the regulations would be approved by each House. I suppose that that is constitutionally right, the charge being not a tax but a licence fee?

Dr. Gilbert

I am advised that that is right. My understanding is that it is not a tax; it is a consumer charge for a service.

Mr. Lawson

The hon. Gentleman has not answered my question whether VAT will be levied on the charge.

Dr. Gilbert

I cannot give a definitive answer to that, but my impression is that it would, because a service is provided. I think that VAT would be assessable, but I do not want the hon. Gentleman to take that as a final reply. It will depend on the way the regulations are framed.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Is it the Minister's intention that there should be one level of charge, or will he make provision for simple transfers on the one hand and for complicated transfers which cause a great deal of expensive work on the other?

5.30 p.m.

Dr. Gilbert

As I said in Committee, it is our intention to make a standard charge for doing the work and presumably, in cases where the transfer does not go through, to make a partial charge.

Mr. Onslow

The Minister has said that there are some cases where the whole work can be done in half an hour. Surely it is unreasonable that people who have submitted applications that take only that length of time should have to bear part of the cost of difficult and complicated cases.

Dr. Gilbert

I understand the argument of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). It has always been difficult to strike a balance between convenience to the citizen and the cost of administration. I shall look at the matter again, but our present intention is to make a flat charge. I propose to hold the normal consultations with interested bodies and those points will fall to be considered then.

I now turn to Amendment No. 1. It would be our intention to see that the fee would not be in excess of £100.

Mr. Gow

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has asked your leave to move a manuscript amendment. Perhaps you would care to advise him about tabling manuscript amendments at this late stage, particularly since the manuscript amendment is dated 12th July and today is 14th July. Is that not a discourtesy to the House? It makes it difficult for us to debate the matter properly. There are not other copies of the amendment, except that which the Clerk has kindly handed to me. The Minister has had months in which to table such an amendment, since he first discussed it on 18th May. Would you care to rule on the matter and give the House your advice?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Perhaps I can help the House. This procedure is not uncommon, and it is entirely within the discretion of Mr. Speaker. The manuscript amendment was submitted to Mr. Speaker and he indicated to me that if events took the course that they have taken, it would have been his intention to accept the manuscript amendment.

Dr. Gilbert

Further to that point of order. The manuscript amendment was submitted to meet the wishes of the Opposition.

Mr. Nott

I have often been called upon to wind up debates in the House, but I confess that I am at a total loss for words in winding up this debate. I shall therefore be brief.

I still do not understand why it should be a law-breaking activity—those are the Minister's words—to obtain the address of a blonde from her number plate.

Dr. Gilbertrose

Mr. Nott

My God, the Minister has taken me seriously.

Dr. Gilbert

I imagine that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) can get instructions from his hon. Friends about why the records at Swansea are supposed to be kept confidential.

Mr. Nott

If the Official Secrets Act is designed to protect blondes from interested males, I suppose that there is some good purpose in the confidentiality and secrecy with which civil servants conduct their business, but if that is a law-breaking activity it does not seem to me to be one that is likely to undermine the constitution.

If time must be taken by civil servants to transfer cherished number plates, and if abuses and corrupt practices are likely to occur and it does not involve anything worse than protecting blondes from male activity, then we need not be too concerned.

Mr. Ridley

If one saw a blonde, it would be easy to take the number of her car and ask for her number plate, pretending it was a cherished possession, when one really cherished the blonde. By that means, one could obtain her telephone number.

Mr. Nott

I am sure that I have much to learn from the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley).

We all appreciate that the public sector provides a most valuable service to the community, but I did not appreciate, until we had the debate, the enormous amount of work that is done on behalf of the population and the extremely involved procedures connected with the transfer of cherished number plates from one individual to another. Among my personal vanities was never the wish to transfer a number plate from one of my cars to another, and having heard the Minister's description of the procedures I am glad of that.

The whole procedure could be simplified if it were carried out by the private sector. The Minister's reaction to that proposal was interesting. He did not say that we should transfer the whole procedure to the private sector. His alternative was to close the whole thing down. He did not believe that the procedures could be carried out more swiftly, cheaply and efficiently by a small group in the private sector, he said that the best alternative would be to close it down.

I do not know whether the Minister is a puritan, but when he quoted the words that he used in Committee he implied that he was, because he described the transfer of cherished number plates as a "harmless form of personal vanity". That seems to be the statement of a puritan. To be described as a puritan is not a term of abuse, and for someone to describe this practice as a harmless form of vanity indicates puritanism. There are not enough puritans around, and we do not hold anything against the Minister for being one.

I now understand why the Public Accounts Committee spent considerable time on the Swansea Licensing Centre when it considered it some time ago.

I remind the House that in 1968 a full costing of the proposed system generally, based upon an estimated staff requirement of 5,431, revealed that the total cost over the 12 years to 31st March 1980 was £146 million. A revised costing in July 1970, based on an estimated staff requirement of 7,029, showed that the cost over the 14 years to 31st March 1982 was £233 million. The Minister should not be too sensitive about those figures, because I am making an attack not on the Government but on the organisation at Swansea, which has had a chequered career. The whole thing has gone badly wrong, but it does not stem from a period of Conservative Government. The working party was set up in 1965 by the former Labour Government, and the process of centralisation, which has failed, was set in train during a period of Labour Government. Clearly, the inefficiencies of the place carried on under us, as they have done under the present Government.

I come to the serious points. I do not understand why we cannot have an affirmative procedure for the levying of taxation. Admittedly, the Minister suggested an affirmative procedure in the first year, but we are talking about the levying of a tax, and I believe that such a procedure is right in general terms. Therefore, we shall press Amendment No. 254 to a Division.

I must take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). It is extraordinarily difficult to understand why, if the Government were trying to help the Opposition and the House, they could not table a proper amendment but, instead, produced a manuscript amendment after three months. Surely it would have been possible to table an amendment last week The matter was debated in Committee on 18th May.

This is but a tiny example of the shambles in the Government's handling of the Bill. The Committee debate took place on 18th May and today the Government present a manuscript amendment on an unimportant matter. This demonstrates how the Government seem incapable of handling the Bill in a normal way. The amendment could have been tabled on Friday.

Mr. Fairbairn

If the manuscript amendment is dated 12th July—and no doubt the Vehicle Licensing Centre has gone through the process of checking that the date is right—the Minister deliberately hid it from the House until he felt compelled to produce it as a halfway measure. Far from being helpful, he produced it just to help himself, and not us.

Mr. Nott

I do not know whether my hon. and learned Friend is right, but I should have thought that it would have been much easier to table the amendment last week.

We come to the question of the 100 civil servants doing the two transfers of cherished numbers a day. I can see why that takes them so long. I understand that the simple transfer, without an inspection, takes half an hour. The enormously complicated procedure cannot be necessary in every case. It must be possible to cut down each transfer to an hour, on average. It cannot be sensible administration to go through the fantastic procedure about which we have heard in order to register a number plate. No doubt it has been going on for years, but that is no reason not to try to improve the procedure now. The Government have an opportunity to do it.

The Minister wants to be covered in glory for having discovered the malpractices. We give him his glory. Now let him try to simplify the procedures, so that more than two cherished number transfers are done each day by those overburdened, patriotic civil servants of whom we have heard so much.

Mr. Onslow

A great deal of the bumph could be cut out for people who could satisfy the centre that they had had a cherished number plate in their possession for five years.

Mr. Nott

I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion. I cannot think that all the forms are necessary. Must there be a check that the vehicle is not younger than it is, to quote the Minister's own words?

Dr. Gilbert


Mr. Nott

I am not sure what that means.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

What other countries have this silly arrangement by which people can purchase ego numbers, which is what they are? Should people be allowed to choose the number on their birth certificate or their national insurance number? This is a waste of Civil Service time. Why are the Government wasting two hours on this nonsense, instead of letting us get on with the serious business?

Mr. Nott

To use the Minister's expression, it is a harmless vanity. If people wish to transfer number plates and pay the full economic costs—and we support the Minister in requiring that—why should they not do so? Why should Socialists wish to prevent people having those number plates if they wish? It may boost their egos, but it is a harmless vanity. The country will note that many Labour Members want to prevent ordinary people doing harmless things which please them. I know that the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is a waste of time and that people who do it are foolish and full of vanity, but let them be so, if that is how they wish to spend their money. No harm can come to the country or the hon. Gentleman from allowing it to continue.

This has been a long debate. We expected that the debate in Committee would be very short, but it took a long time. I am sorry that we have taken up so much time on the matter, but it has illuminated some strange corners of the public sector. The Minister would be wise to consider the recommendation of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury and move the whole of this simple procedure into the private sector, where I am sure it could be done at a tenth of the cost, far more efficiently and without all the absurdities.

Dr. Gilbert

The hon. Gentleman was a Treasury Minister.

Mr. Nott

I never had anything to do with the Vehicle Licensing Centre, which does not come under the Treasury. The Minister has it under his care. As he read his extraordinary, almost lunatic brief—and we all realise that he is overwhelmed by the lunatic briefs given to him—the Minister must have seen that there was a job for him to do in Swansea. I hope that after the debate he will take the first train there and try to sort it out.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House proceeded to a Division; but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Ayes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Newton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will it get the House out of its difficulties if I formally move Amendment No. 254?

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Newton

I beg to move Amendment No. 254, in page 10, line 18, at end insert: '(3A) Regulations under this section shall be made by statutory instrument, which shall not have effect unless a draft thereof has been laid before and approved by the House of Commons'.—[Mr. Newton.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes, 190, Noes 219.

Division No. 245.] AYES [5.51 p.m.
Aitken, Jonathan Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Buchanan-Smith, Alick Dunlop, John
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Budgen, Nick Dykes, Hugh
Baker, Kenneth Bulmer, Esmond Eden, Rt Hon Sir John
Beith, A. J. Burden, F. A. Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bell, Ronald Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Eyre, Reginald
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Chalker, Mrs Lynda Fairgrieve, Nicholas
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Channon, Paul Fell, Anthony
Benyon, W. Churchill, W. S. Finsberg, Geoffrey
Berry, Hon Anthony Clark, William (Croydon S) Fletcher-Cooke, Charles
Biffen, John Clegg, Walter Forman, Nigel
Biggs-Davison, John Cockcroft, John Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)
Blaker, Peter Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Fox, Marcus
Boscawen, Hon Robert Cope, John Freud, Clement
Bottomley, Peter Cormack, Patrick Fry, Peter
Braine, Sir Bernard Costain, A. P. Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)
Brittan, Leon Cronin, John Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham)
Brocklebank-Fowler, C. Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)
Glyn, Dr Alan Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Rodgers, Sir John (Seven oaks)
Goodhart, Philip Lloyd, Ian Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Goodhew, Victor Luce, Richard Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Goodlad, Alastair McCrindle, Robert Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Gorst, John MacGregor, John Sainsbury, Tim
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnnam) St. John-Stevas, Norman
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Scott-Hopkins, James
Gray, Hamish Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Marten, Nell Shersby, Michael
Grist, Ian Maude, Angus Silvester, Fred
Hannam, John Maudling, Rt Hon Reginald Sims, Roger
Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Mawby, Ray Sinclair, Sir George
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Skeet, T. H. H.
Havers, Sir Michael Mayhew, Patrick Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Hawkins, Paul Meyer, Sir Anthony Speed, Keith
Heseltine, Michael Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Spence, John
Holland, Philip Mills, Peter Spicer, Jim (W. Dorset)
Hooley, Frank Miscampbell, Norman Sproat, Iain
Hooson, Emlyn Moate, Roger Stainton, Keith
Hordern, Peter Monro, Hector Stanbrook, Ivor
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Montgomery, Fergus Steel, David (Roxburgh)
Howell, David (Guildford) Moore, John (Croydon C) Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) More, Jasper (Ludlow) Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Stradling Thomas, J.
Hunt, John (Bromley) Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Tapsell, Peter
Hurd, Douglas Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)
Hutchison, Michael Clark Mudd, David Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Neave, Airey Tebbit, Norman
Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'd'fd) Nelson, Anthony Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Jessel, Toby Newton, Tony Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Nott, John Townsend, Cyril D.
Johnston. Russell (Inverness) Onslow, Cranley Tugendhat, Christopher
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Oppenheim, Mrs Sally Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Kaberry, Sir Donald Page, John (Harrow West) Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Kershaw, Anthony Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Kilfedder, James Parkinson, Cecil Wall, Patrick
Kimball, Marcus Penhaligon, David Warren, Kenneth
King, Evelyn (South Dorset) Peyton, Rt Hon John Weatherill, Bernard
King. Tom (Bridgwater) Rathbone, Tim Wiggin, Jerry
Kitson, Sir Timothy Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal) Winterton, Nicholas
Knight. Mrs Jill Rees-Davies, W. R. Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Knox, David Renton, Rt. Hon Sir D. (Hunts) Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Lamont, Norman Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Langford-Holt, Sir John Rhys Williams. Sir Brandon TELLERS FOR THE AYES
Lawrence. Ivan Ridley, Hon Nicholas Mr. Spencer Le Marchant and
Lawson, Nigel Ridsdale, Julian Mr. Carol Mather.
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Abse, Leo Cartwright, John English, Michael
Anderson, Donald Clemitson, Ivor Ennals, David
Archer, Peter Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)
Armstrong, Ernest Cohen, Stanley Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Ashley, Jack Coleman, Donald Ewing, Harry (Stirling)
Ashton, Joe Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Conlan, Bernard Faulds, Andrew
Atkinson, Norman Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.
Bain, Mrs Margaret Corbett, Robin Flannery, Martin
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Barnett Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Ford, Ben
Bales, Alf Crawford, Douglas Freeson, Reginald
Bean, R. E. Crawshaw, Richard Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Bonn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Cronin, John George, Bruce
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Gilbert, Dr John
Bidwell, Sydney Cryer, Bob Ginsburg, David
Blenkinsop, Arthur Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Golding, John
Boardman, H. Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Gourlay, Harry
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Dalyell, Tam Grant, George (Morpeth)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Grocott, Bruce
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) Hardy, Peter
Bottomley, Peter Davies, Ifor (Gower) Harper, Joseph
Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Deakins, Eric Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)
Bradley, Tom Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Hart, Rt Hon Judith
Bray, Dr Jeremy de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Hatton, Frank
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Hayman, Mrs Helena
Buchan, Norman Dempsey, James Heffer, Eric S.
Buchanan, Richard Doig, Peter Henderson, Douglas
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE) Dormand, J. D. Hooley, Frank
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Douglas-Mann, Bruce Horam, John
Campbell, Ian Duffy, A. E. P. Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)
Canavan, Dennis Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)
Cant, R. B. Eadie, Alex Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Carmichael, Neil Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Hunter, Adam Molloy, William Snape, Peter
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Moonman, Eric Stallard, A. W.
Jackson, Colin (Brighouse) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Stoddart, David
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Stott, Roger
Jeger, Mrs Lena Ogden, Eric Strang, Gavin
John, Brynmor O'Halloran, Michael Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.
Johnson, James (Hull West) Orbach, Maurice Summerskill, Hon Dr Shiney
Jones, Dan (Burnley) Ovenden, John Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Kelley, Richard Owen, Dr David Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Kerr, Russell Padley, Walter Thompson, George
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Palmer, Arthur Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Lambie, David Park, George Tierney, Sydney
Lamborn, Harry Parker, John Tinn, James
Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Parry, Robert Tuck, Raphael
Leadbitter, Ted Pendry, Tom Urwin, T. W.
Lee, John Phipps, Dr Colin Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Prescott, John Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Price, C. (Lewisham W) Ward, Michael
Lipton, Marcus Price, William (Rugby) Watkins, David
Litterick, Tom Radice, Giles Welsh, Andrew
Loyden, Eddie Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S) White, Frank R. (Bury)
McCartney, Hugh Richardson, Miss Jo White, James (Pollok)
McElhone, Frank Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Wigley, Dafydd
MacFarquhar, Roderick Robinson, Geoffrey Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Roderick, Caerwyn Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
MacKenzie, Gregor Rodgers, George (Chorley) Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Mackintosh, John P. Rodgers, William (Stockton) Williams, Sir Thomas
Maclennan, Robert Rooker, J. W. Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Roper, John Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
McNamara, Kevin Rose, Paul B. Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Magee, Bryan Ross, Rt. Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Mahon, Simon Rowlands, Ted Woodall, Alec
Marks, Kenneth Sandelson, Neville Woof, Robert
Marquand, David Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u Lyne) Young, David (Bolton E)
Marshall, Dr. Edmund (Goole) Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcastle C)
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE) TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Silverman, Julius Mr. James Hamilton and
Millan, Bruce Skinner Dennis Mr. Edward Graham.
Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Small, William

Question accordingly negatived.

Manuscript amendment made: In page 10, line 18, at end insert: '(3A) The first regulations under the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1971 prescribing the amount of any charge by virtue of this section shall not be made unless a draft of a statutory instrument containing them has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House; and those regulations shall not then be subject [...]annulment as otherwise provided for regulations under the Act.'.—[Dr. Gilbert.]

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