HC Deb 24 January 1977 vol 924 cc1103-37

10.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I beg to move, That the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th January, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that it will be convenient for the House to discuss at the same time the second motion, namely That the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th January, be approved.

Mr. Horam

These regulations seek a flat charge of £50 for the transfer on request of a vehicle registration mark from one vehicle to another. They accord with assurances given by the then Minister for Transport in the House on 14th July last that the Government would propose a standard charge and that it would not exceed £100.

I should make it quite clear at the outset that the proposed charge is greater than the cost of providing the service. It is very considerably greater. This was always the intention. The enabling power, Section 12 of the Finance Act 1976, states that the charge need not be related to the cost. The cost is a difficult figure to assess, since a transfer involves considerable documentation and a variety of operations carried out by staff who, for the most part, do this work as only a small part of their total duties. We estimate the cost to be about £10–£15. The Department would therefore collect a surplus—make a profit, that is to say—on each transfer of close to £40.

I make no apology for this. On the contrary I consider it right and proper that a profit should be made. [HON. MEMBERS: "A Socialist profit?"] Yes, a good Socialist profit. We are not talking here about the price of essential commodities or services such as bread or electricity. No one could make a convincing claim that he would suffer genuine hardship if he could no longer afford to transfer his cherished mark or his personalised number plate. The transfer facility is by any definition a luxury. Indeed, I have much sympathy with the view that it should be abolished. At a time when the Government are having to make very difficult decisions about social priorities in an effort to contain the number of civil servants and to curtail public expenditure generally, there is much force in the argument that this is a bit of tomfoolery that we could well do without.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham West)

I can see my hon. Friend's argument. Is there not even more in the argument that we should charge so high a fee as to nullify the transfer payments which private individuals make between themselves? Why should not the taxpayer provide this service, but do so at the market price?

Mr. Horam

I hope that I have judged the market price reasonably well and that we shall maximise profits at the market price we have fixed.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover and Deal)

Of course I am entirely in favour of a free market in these matters, but does not the hon. Gentleman concede that his Department occupies a monopoly position?

Mr. Horam

I was reluctant to give way because I guessed that the hon. and learned Gentleman would raise that point. It is a very fair point, and that is why we have not fixed the fee any higher. As he knows, since he was present in the Committee debates on the Finance Bill, we could have gone up to the full £100. Perhaps I may elaborate further on that later in my speech.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Horam

No, I cannot give way. I must get on with my speech.

There are strong arguments for abolishing the transfer facility, and they relate to the integrity of the central vehicle records, the protection of statutory and licensing obligations and the elimination of abuse. However, we recognise and accept that many people—it is said that they number as many as 300,000, although that is a controversial figure—derive satisfaction from keeping on their vehicles a particular registration mark to which they are attached. That is why the Government have now, by an order that we are not debating this evening, placed this long-standing extra-statutory concession, begun in the early part of the century, on a proper statutory footing. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will continue for the foreseeable future to exercise his discretionary power to grant transfers of this sort.

Mr. Goodhew

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Horam

No. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate if he wishes to do so.

Equally, I see no reason for the taxpayer, who foots a heavy albeit essential bill for the running of a registration and licensing system, not having his burden eased a little by taking advantage of this desire on the part of some of his fellows to hold particular marks.

Although £50 is substantially more—

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Horam

Very well.

Dr. Glyn

Surely, the point is—

Mr. Goodhew

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was trying to take up a point that the Minister made but he refused to give way. He surely cannot give way now, even to one of my hon. Friends, having refused me—or perhaps he can.

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that he can, unfair though it might seem.

Dr. Glyn

Does the Minister agree that the important point is that the Revenue should not be at a loss as a result of the transfer? Should he not reckon how much it costs and make that the figure that is levied against a person who wishes to change his number plate, irrespective of whether it changes year by year. I do not want to hold a particular mark but there are some people, such as former colleagues, who wish to do so. Surely the fee should be reckoned on the actual cost.

Mr. Horam

The hon. Gentleman has introduced a point that I expected to be made in the debate. It is a point that I have tried to refute in the arguments I have put forward.

Mr. Goodhew

Perhaps the Minister will give way now.

Mr. Horam

No. I assure the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister is not giving way. Mr. Horam.

Mr. Goodhew

The hon. Gentleman is being unreasonable.

Mr. Horam

I am not wishing to be unreasonable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not prejudiced against St. Albans. I feel that there is a need to get on.

Although £50 is substantially more than the cost of the service, I do not regard it in any sense as a punitive charge. It is not the intention to drive would-be applicants away with a high price. I should be surprised if the number of transfers fell dramatically as a result of the increase in price. Cherished marks have a market price of anything from £30 to several thousand pounds, the average being about £150. The proposed charge is not great in relation to that figure, as I think I made clear in answer to a recent Question by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). The motorist who can afford a new car every year can certainly afford £50 to change the mark at the same time. The average motorist who changes his car every three or four years would, in effect, be paying about £15 a year for the privilege of retaining his mark. That is a modest sum nowadays.

No doubt I shall be told that an increase of from £5 to £50 is quite scandalous in that it amounts to a rise of 900 per cent. I might be prepared to agree if the £5 level had been set recently, but it was fixed in 1924, half a century ago. If it were merely to adjust the original figure to present-day prices, we should be proposing a charge close to £100. That in itself illustrates that there is nothing new about making a profit from cherished transfers. A good profit was made from the start of this facility, and it is inflation alone that has eroded and ultimately reversed it so that at the moment we are making a loss.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Did the charge made in 1924 more than cover the cost?

Mr. Horam

Lest hon. Members find my case over-persuasive and wonder why the Government do not seek a higher charge—I refer to the £100 proposed by my hon. Friends—I should point out that not all holders of cherished marks run Rolls-Royces, Bentleys or Cords. In fact, two-thirds of transfers are to second-hand vehicles, and all makes are represented. Nor are all cherished marks distinctive marks. Many have little or no market value, and their possessors simply have an understandable sentimental attachment to them. I do not wish to drive out those people, and I consider that £100 is more than it would be reasonable to expect them to pay.

I do not pretend that there is any precise scientific way of arriving at the proper charge for a cherished transfer, and I think that that would be generally agreed by hon. Members. It is a matter of judgment. The £50 is neither more than most people will be prepared to pay nor less than other interests suggest they should pay. Taking all these factors together—

Mr. Goodhew

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Horam

—no—I believe that it is a fair charge, and it is one which I commend to the House. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Goodhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On several occasions he said that he would be able to make a case for abolishing the system, and he mentioned higher figures suggested by other interests. When he says he can make a case for abolishing the system, is he saying that he does not do so because he is frightened of putting out of work those who have forced him into this position?

Mr. Horam

With respect, no one has forced me into this position. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps referring to the ban on cherished transfers which operated for sometime—or the industrial action—but an enabling clause was put in the Finance Bill to allow us to put through the charge before the ban came into operation. There is no connection between the ban and the £50 charge. The ban was subsequent to our taking powers to charge this fee.

Mr Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

Although it is true that the ban was imposed on the last day of July, does the Minister concede that pressure was being imposed by the two unions at Swansea long before then and long before the Government sought to include in the Finance Bill the relevant clause to which he referred?

Mr. Horam

On the contrary, both unions involved acknowledge that the £50 fee—or any fee—is no legitimate concern of theirs, as indeed it is not. The unions have specifically said so. There is no connection in word, deed or thought between the ban and the amount of the fee.

On that basis I commend the regulations to the House.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

If that is all that the Minister can say about these regulations, they can have very little merit. There are two strands of policy, if such they can be called, connected with the regulations. The first is that the transfer fee is being increased to £50. However that is expressed, it is a massive increase of over 900 per cent. on the existing charge and between 300 per cent. and 400 per cent. more than the cost to the Government of the transaction.

The second strand of policy is that the Government intend by the rules that they have made to impose new restrictions on the transfer of such numbers. From 10th January this year new restrictions have been in force. There we have the Governments' policy neatly revealed.

According to the Under-Secretary of State, the aim of the £50 charge is that the State should make some money out of the transaction. As he said at Question Time two weeks ago, That charge would give the State a comfortable profit".—[Official Report, 12th January 1977; Vol. 923, c. 1414.] As the Under-Secretary has just said, the aim is to produce a good profit, a Socialist profit—a description that he will regret. Do the Government advertise their wares and encourage motorists to buy? Not a bit. They put every known bureaucratic obstacle in their way. They go out of their way to discourage the trade out of which they are supposed to make a profit. They want to make the item that they want to sell as difficult to buy as they possibly can. They want to use their monopoly so that they work as little as possible. "Socialist profit" is a fair description of what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. Goodness knows, we have had some strange commercial policies pursued by this Government, but this is a policy that borders on commercial lunacy, because when presented with the opportunity of making a profit, the Government seek to minimise it.

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the new rules laid down by the Government will make transfers substantially more difficult and in some cases impossible. Let me give one or two examples of what I mean. The new rules state that before a vehicle number is transferred it must be held on the car for nine months. It so happens that these numbers are widely used on the demonstration cars of motor dealers, notably the motor dealers of British Leyland. It so happens also that under the terms of the agreement between dealers and manufacturers there is normally a condition that the demonstration car should be no older than four to six months. This rule effectively abolishes a legitimate advertising practice of the dealer which has lasted for a long time.

What the rule also means is that if a car is written off or destroyed the number is written off with it. Indeed, there is a case at the moment of a motorist whose car was destroyed by fire in France. She had had the number for only three or four months. She applied to her local office to transfer the number and was told that it was impossible under the rules that the Government are now imposing.

It might be imagined that these points—and I could go on for a long time, as the Minister knows—would have come out in the course of the consultations that the Government had with interested parties, but here we come to the nub of the whole sorry tale. The only consultation that took place was with the unions at the licensing office at Swansea. It was an agreement between the Government and the unions from which all other parties were both ignored and excluded. I am not saying that the unions should not have been consulted—obviously that is not the case—but it is equally obvious that any Government worth dignifying with that name would have consulted other parties.

What was the position? The Motor Agents Association Ltd. was not consulted. It received a note saying that the Government regretted that there was no time to do so. The Cherished Number Dealers Association was not consulted, and it utterly rejects the claim by the Minister on 1st December 1976 that the association had not given any evidence that its members would suffer as a result of the new rules. As many of my hon. Friends will confirm, their whole case over the past few months has been that they will suffer, and suffer badly. No effort was made to discover the views of the 300,000 motorists who have cherished numbers. That is about one in 10 of all motorists. That is a not inconsiderable total, and the Government's refusal to consult makes a mockery of their declared policy on transport generally.

Let us not imagine, as the Minister seemed to suggest, that all these numbers have been purchased through dealers. The majority have not been. Most were acquired some years ago, and in many cases they have been handed down over 40, 50 or even 60 years. Why should not that be the case? I reject totally what the hon. Gentleman said about its being tomfoolery. I do not see why the Government should seek to intervene in the way they have done in this perfectly harmless pursuit.

The Government have deliberately chosen a course whereby the rules they make will not even be subject to any scrutiny by the House. Although there are fundamental changes in the rules that the Government are putting forward, in at letter to me of 21st December the Under-Secretary of State specifically declined to have them debated in the House. His view was that that would not be appropriate.

Let us contrast that with the attitude of the Swansea Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre. One motorist who wrote to me had also written to the centre to query his position. He was caught in the middle of a transaction by a strike at Swansea, and it looked as though he would lose his number altogether. He was told that to seek exception to the rules would require further consultation with the unions. No changes, however justified or however small, can be made without consultation with the Swansea office. That is the Government's position. However, no outsiders, such as motorists, dealers or Members of Parliament, are allowed to break into this magic circle.

Even from the Government's point of view consultation would have had advantages. The Finance Act 1976, from where the powers for the regulations come, already enable inspections to take place. I do not dispute for one moment that this is necessary when there needs to be a check on the authenticity of a donor vehicle from which a number is being taken. It is much more rare that there is any need to inspect the vehicle on to which the number is to be put, because more often than not it is a new vehicle.

How do the Government express their intention in the Finance Act The Act states: The regulations may require the vehicle to which a mark is requested to be assigned … to be made available for inspection. It also says: and also in prescribed cases the other vehicle". In other words, the Government have got it entirely the wrong way round. What they wanted to express was that in all cases donor vehicles should be inspected and in some cases recipient vehicles should be inspected. So much for the quality of advice on which the Government have proceeded. It is indictative of the third-rate manner in which this whole business has been handled.

Basically, what I object to in the Government's handling of this issue is that they have brought in new restrictive rules for one reason and one reason only—that they have been so instructed by the unions at Swansea. There is no conceivable doubt about that. The industrial action that took place at Swansea had no other purpose. The unions were not concerned that this was an extra-statutory concession, nor were they trying to take action to clarify a legal position. They were taking action either to get transfers abolished altogether or to get new rules written that would make it more difficult for the motorist to get a personalised number.

As I have said, I in no way dispute the right of the unions concerned to express their views and argue their case. However, I dispute and reject the tactics of industrial action that seek to force the Government to carry out the unions' wishes. That is exactly what we have seen.

Let there be no doubt where the major blame lies. It is with the Government and in their response, because the Government, in arriving at their decision, have totally ignored the public's view. It is of no consequence to the Government in their policy-making. They have done a deal, and for them that deal is enough. Of course, it is precisely that attitude that will bring down the present Government in the end, be it in three, six, nine or 12 months' time, because they can no more get right the small decisions of Government than the big decisions. Above all they are a weak Government, and the only consolation is that month by month more and more people realise it. The Government's handling of this issue has brought that lesson home to 300,000 motorists, and I have no doubt that that lesson will be remembered.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

With much righteous indignation—as he now draws his breath—the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) has pitched his speech on a high note of individual liberty and a generalised attack on the trade union dominance of the Government. He states that the Government have been to some extent inconsistent in seeking to increase the revenue from this facility and at the same time putting restrictions on the private motorist's ability to obtain this facility. I have a certain sympathy with that view.

My reason for intervening in the debate is that I have the honour to represent the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre employees, who are a hard-working group of civil servants, much reviled by Opposition Members. They are the civil servants who are at the sharp end of this controversy and who, subject to very much unjustified criticism, will have to carry out this rather distasteful and irrelevant task. The cherished number transfer is normally not central to motor vehicle licensing.

I am no kill-joy. I have nothing against innocent pleasures, but those who indulge in them should be expected to pay the price.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

What is it?

Mr. Anderson

I shall come to the question of pricing policy. Even £50 is a small part of total motoring costs. It is a voluntary payment. No motorist need transfer his number. No hardship is involved. It is clear that the cost of this facility has not kept pace with inflation. It has been £5 for more than 50 years.

We are talking about a luxury. Conservative Members have a distorted sense of priorities. They turn out in great force for a debate on a small matter—[An HON. MEMBER: "A matter of principle."]—and generate—[An HON. MEMBER: "What is the hon. Gentleman here for?"] I represent the civil servants involved. Hon. Members who look with equanimity on the reduction of Civil Service staffs in the Department of Health and Social Security and local government staffs in social services departments fight to the death for this irrelevance in the total list of priorities. Why should not the Exchequer benefit?

Mr. Goodhew

The Minister having said on at least two occasions that he could put a good case for abolishing the whole system, I asked him why he did not do so and abolish the civil servants with it.

Mr. Anderson

If we are not to abolish the system, let us at least put it at such a price that there is a gain to the Exchequer. I put the facility in the same context as not a red herring but a kipper. If the price of a kipper were raised, it would become a luxury item and more people would want to buy it. The more one puts up the price of this facility, the greater will be the demand, kipper-like.

I cannot see why my hon. Friend has chosen the figure of £50. We regularly see on the open market advertisements for numbers costing £300 and £400. Why should not my hon. Friend follow the market and increase the price to £300 or £400? There would be even greater benefit to the Exchequer. I cannot see why Conservative Members who wax eloquent in our economic debates about reducing the public sector borrowing requirement should cavil at a small increase in revenue to the Exchequer.

For those reasons I support my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, as I would if he were to double or treble the charge.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

The nub of the matter is the rôle played by the two unions at Swansea, which the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) represents, and the Minister's motive in fixing the fee at £50.

I cherish no number plate, but I cherish the right of other people to cherish theirs if they are so minded. Even more, I cherish the right of British people not to be dictated to by anybody and to be governed by nobody save the elected Government—certainly not to have established rights and practices, upon which they have relied for many years, arbitrarily removed by the Government at the dictate of other bodies, in this case the unions, the Civil and Public Services Association and the Society of Civil and Public Servants.

The practice in question has been long established. I agree that it is extra-statutory, but no matter, because for many years people with an interest in cherished number plates have relied on its continuing. The market has grown up and rates have been established. Values have been acquired in a number of plates and businesses have been established, all with the knowledge of the Government. This is now being crudely halted, not by the Government, which would be bad enough, but by those who are paid to execute the wishes of the Government—in other words, by those who are paid to serve us.

Perhaps only a few hon. Members are interested in cherished number plates, and certainly I am not interested in them. Perhaps, too, many hon. Members would adopt the attitude displayed by the Minister's predecessor, the present Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who on Report stage of the Finance Bill on 14th July 1976 said that this was all a matter of personal vanity, but he added that it was harmless and that he would not be minded to legislate it out of existence.

I disagree with those who say that this is all a matter of personal vanity, which is putting the matter far too low. This facility involves a commercial use. Every year many thousands of prestige cars are sold because people are able to transfer number plates. It may sound silly, and perhaps it is, but who are we to judge how people should spend their money or how they should enjoy themselves in a harmless way?

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

The hon. Gentleman must realise that it is the job of the House of Commons to determine charges, irrespective of how the amount is arrived at or who discussed what with whom. Will the hon. Gentleman give his honest opinion and say what he believes should be a reasonable charge for this service?

Mr. Mayhew

Yes. I believe that the figure should be set at £10 to £15, which is the cost of this facility given by the Minister. If the cost goes up, let the fee be adjusted. I am not against the House of Commons being asked to approve a fee proposed by the Government. I am complaining about the role of the unions in this respect.

I believe that we should look at the Minister's motive for wishing to set the fee at £50. I believe that he has fixed the fee at that sum to achieve the one thing which he has said he does not wish to do—namely, to kill this facility but to kill it not openly but by stealth. What matters is that a facility that was harmless and long-established was halted for over four months by the action of civil servants before whom the Minister was supine and that it was restored in a form so mutilated as to be scarcely recognisable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, touched on the other restrictions that form part of this parcel. Indeed, it would not be quite so bad if the Minister and his Government colleagues were against this facility on some basic ground of principle or if attention had been drawn to a major blemish. But that is not the case at all.

In a letter to me last summer, the Minister said: The Department has every intention of maintaining a cherished transfer facility and is in urgent discussions with the unions concerned. That letter was dated 30th September, and it continued: but it is still too early to say when the handling of applications will be resumed. Therefore, the Minister's attitude was that the Government are determined to maintain this facility but that they were still in urgent discussions with the unions. The Minister was confronted by a piece of political blackmail, and he said to the unions "Name your price." They did, and he paid it.

If evidence for that is required, I would ask the leave of the House to quote from what I believe to be a photostat of an internal circular issued by the two unions on 29th July 1976. It began by referring to the opposition of the two associations to the continuance of the transfer system on the grounds that widespread abuse of the system is adversely affecting members, and counter-productive in terms of work efficiency. The circular continued, in paragraph 2: To this end, Branch Officers of CPSA and SCPS approached the Minister of Transport formally requesting him to abolish cherished transfers. The Minister replied, predictably, that although he recognised the system is being abused and sympathised with members who are adversely affected by the abuse, he could not attempt to abolish cherished transfers in the present political climate. He added that the Department preferred to reduce the workload by increasing the charge to the public following an amendment to the Finance Bill. (This has now been debated in the House amidst widespread controversy). Neither CPSA nor SCPS accept the validity of these political reasons, which are simply that the pro-cherished mark lobby is extremely influential, containing as it does many of the elements of big business, quick profits, etc. It is clear that the introduction of a higher fee is an easy option which will not offend this lobby nor reduce the amount of profit that can be made. It will merely place the facility out of the reach of the average motorist thus limiting the number of cherished transfers but not the abuses—which originate largely from the quick profit organisations. The present situation is quite clearly that CPSA and SCPS have a simple choice. Either abolish the cherished transfer system by their own actions or acknowledge defeat. The latter course is wholly unacceptable and both Associations have agreed to recommend to their members direct action to abolish the facility. May I trouble the House with one small quotation from paragraph 8: The CPSA and SCPS have established a Joint Information Office at Swansea to deal with queries and complaints about the ban. LVLO and LTO staff should therefore refer public complaints to the IO rather than become involved in difficult situations. The IO will be responsible for issuing press statements and information to official bodies. The IO is located in Room C2/39 at DVLC, telephone Swansea", and the number is given.

If that is not a political challenge to the Government, I do not know what is. If that is not an arrogation to these two unions of the Minister's right to make a political decision on political grounds, I do not know what is. The unions say "We are not prepared to accept the validity of these political decisions."

I ask the Minister a straight question. Was this IO—that is, information officer—a civil servant? Was he in the public pay? Was he permitted to use Government accommodation? Why were public telephone calls of complaint directed to him? If that circular was not a political circular, what was it?

The unions have arrogated to themselves the functions of the Minister. That is why it is proper—however distasteful—to say to the House that the Minister has yielded to political blackmail. He has made concessions when there was no need to make concessions; and the only purpose of these concessions can have been the destruction of these facilities.

Tonight we are concerned with increasing the price by 1,000 per cent. to £50, so that the Minister will make, perhaps, a profit of 300 per cent. on every transaction.

The other restrictions that were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield can be explained only on the basis that the Minister wants covertly rather than openly to destroy the whole facility.

First, both vehicles have to be licensed. The donor vehicle must be currently licensed. Second, the recipient vehicle must be licensed and registered in the name of the person who will be putting the number plate upon it. The recipent vehicle must be registered in the name of the applicant, the donor vehicle must be inspected, the inspection must be made at a time and place appointed by the inspector and the recipent vehicle may be required for inspection in the same manner.

No transfer will be permitted unless both vehicles are licensed under the same schedule. That means the same class. Therefore, if one's number plate is on a motor car and one wants to transfer it to a Land Rover, one cannot do it and will never be able to do it. There are various other restrictions.

Why is it necessary to impose these further restrictions? What is the motive if on every transfer, a profit of that size will be made? Why does not the Minister for once say "The more the merrier"? Is it because the idea of making a profit is so alien to a Socialist that his immediate reaction is to ensure that the circumstances in which it can be made shall be reduced to a bare minimum if not utterly extinguished? If there will be a profit on each one, why does he not say "Whoopee!"? This is an extraordinary phenomenon. Civil servants are performing a task which is actually agreeable to the public, yet the Minister says that it must be reduced to such a point that no one will ever be brave enough to apply.

The third question that the House should consider is, does it all really matter? I think that it does. First, and most important, all this is a quite unwarranted intrusion into our freedom to enjoy ourselves as we please. It cannot have any purpose except to restrict this facility, which the Minister in his letter to me said that the Department was determined to maintain.

If it is all right to have a cherished number plate transferred, why does it become all wrong to transfer it from a Land Rover to a Range Rover? Those two vehicles are in separate taxation classes and it will not be possible. The oldest number plate in Kent—D1, issued in 1903—is at present on a moped and there it must remain. Why on earth must it remain there? [Interruption.] Even the Minister, who is a very agreeable man, has the grace to laugh. If this were not a serious point of principle it would be funny, but it is not funny because it is an exceptionally serious point of principle.

If it is all right to transfer at all, why cannot I keep a number plate "on the peg" unlicensed waiting for any vehicle to come along to which I wish to transfer it? There are about 200 of these in Kent alone. What is the point of inspecting a donor vehicle if it is already to be taxed and MoT-tested? If it has to be inspected, what on earth is the point of requiring it to be taxed? Why does it have to be in my possession for nine months unless there is no purpose to any of these restrictions except the destruction of this facility?

We need to examine the grounds for the unions' objection. In the circular, the unions say that there is widespread abuse, adversely affecting members, and that it is causing too much work. Many people have been getting a lot of fun out of it, but the union says that people have tried to bribe its members and the practice must be stopped. Extending that argument, if civil servants are to be protected in this way against the susceptibility to being bribed, it is the end to planning applications, applications for office development certificates and applications to transfer money overseas. That would be a market Elysium such as would make my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) think that he had arrived beyond the pearly gates. But that is not exactly the economy that the Minister or the civil servants responsible for this ban want.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

Is my hon. and learned Friend saying that the unions are objecting to that which is giving their members employment—in these days of high unemployment?

Mr. Mayhew

That is what they purport to do. They are saying that it is causing too much work. In saying that this is happening at the same time as civil servants are lobbying this House protesting against redundancies, my hon. Friend puts his finger on not the least suspect of the grounds in the unions' circular. The reason of administrative work does not stand up because, if unions were concerned to cut down on work, why are there to be the new inspections of recipient and donor vehicles? All this rigmarole will quadruple the time taken for transfers. This was a cave-in to political blackmail. That is bad enough, but it has had ruinous consequences.

The need for transfers having arisen, businesses have been set up to meet the need. That is the virtue of a capitalistic market system. One of those businesses belonged to a constituent of mine who made his living as a broker for the market. The Minister may not care to make his living in that way and has chosen the Government Front Bench instead. But there are people who choose to do so, and why not? It is an honest activity. It is harmless. I wish that it could be said of many of the things that the Minister and his colleagues do in earning their living. Suddenly, overnight, my constituent's stock of vehicles became worthless. He buys not only the number plates but the vehicles, and their price reflects the value not of the vehicles but of the plates. For four months that man's business was at a standstill and he was virtually ruined. Why should someone catering for, to use the Minister's words, a harmless personal vanity be ruined because the Minister does not have the guts to stop civil servants being legislators accountable to nobody?

I have no doubt that there have been other personal tragedies. In a debate on 1st December the Minister had the gall to say that everybody was now happy. He must have known that the trade associations were far from happy. The £50 fee is only one of a host of weapons that have been forged by the Government at the orders of so-called civil servants in order to achieve what the unions' circular described as the destruction of facilities. It is shameful. It is shameful that the Minister has not had the candour to admit it.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) has spoken for a long time in a short debate. Therefore, I suggest that he should tell the House later how he acquired these restricted papers. I always doubt information that is given to me unless I know that it has been acquired legitimately.

I had the impression that neither he nor his hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) liked the order. The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells was gracious to the Minister personally, but I gather that no Tories like either the order or the Government. Perhaps if the Minister's Department is devolved to Wales that will be one of the good things to come out of the Scotland and Wales Bill.

I spent part of the time during the Minister's speech both listening and looking at advertisements in the last edition of the Sunday Times. Prices for cherished number plates vary from £10 to £50. There is a lovely one—MPH 1—on a Daimler for £750, but that is unusual. There is a beautiful plate for the Secretary of State for Energy. The advertisement says: Ben 58 on retention; fast transfer for possible offers around £300". There is even a choice for the Minister, 913 JOE for £50, or 117 JON at £100. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield might be interested in OMO 100—"Whiter than white," or "Bluer than blue."

As a motor addict I have acquired many old cars because they are interesting and because I could not afford new ones. My car is always the oldest on the Labour Party parking lot. My agent tried to get me to buy a new one but I said that I could not afford £800 for a new Ford Escort—which shows that that happened some time ago.

I take the point that there is no harm in somebody spending £50, £100 or £2,500 in any way that he wants, provided it is legal and does nobody harm. It is his money and presumably it was, quite rightly, taxed before he got it. People have their own ways of spending money, and I have mine. I think that the car is more interesting than the plate. The shade of a former hon. Member—NAB, and it is enough to say that—must be around this place at this time, and the income from number plates from him alone would have been very welcome to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether the number plate was on a pedal cycle, motor cycle, or one of his better cars.

If somebody wants to spend his money in this way, why should he not do so? Why should the Governments part in the transfer of the plates, which is only part of the commercial exercise of acquiring them, selling them or dealing in them—all legitimate operations—be undertaken at a loss when all the rest is undertaken at a profit? This is what it is all about. None of the number plates in the advertisements which appear week after week in the Sunday Times and other newspapers has been acquired out of charity or out of interest in the motor industry. The advertisements appear for profit.

We have a strange situation—marvellous at times. I have been preaching about the value of profit for some time and have been shot down in flames by my hon. Friends, but tonight my hon. Friends and I are in favour of profit and, apparently, hon. Members opposite are against it. The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells said that he would fix the value at £10 or £15, but I am told that the fee, which has been fixed for a long time, has been resulting in losses for a long time. It has been under-valued, so we should increase it if it will, as I am sure it will, get rid of the necessity to introduce an order annually to increase the fee to £20, £25 and £30. One way to avoid that is to make the fee high. We might do the same with the postal charges; it would be a very good idea.

I do not accept the conspiracy theory with which hon. Members opposite seem to be obsessed. I have no knowledge about how it came about or what pressure was put on the unions. I have as close contacts as many hon. Members opposite with the motor industry and dealers, and many people in the North know my interest. No one has said that there is a fiddle going on, or that pressure has been exercised.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State seems to have found a middle course. The moderates, whether inside or outside the Manifesto Group, are occasionally clobbered from both sides, and that is what has happened tonight. Let us say that my hon. Friend has introduced a fee which will be reasonably right over the years. All the fuss might make a good story for Anthony Shrimsley or somebody else in the Daily Mail tomorrow, but it is a lot—I do not say hot air—of over enthusiastic opposition which the regulations do not deserve. Let my hon. Friend make his price, and let the business prosper.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I shall be brief because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) destroyed his case by saying that he had not had the chance to research it. We understand the problems of intervening in a debate late at night. I do not think that there is any dispute about the conspiracy theory, as the hon. Gentleman put it. It was made plain by what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) said, and the document which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) quoted made it clear that the juxtaposition of events is too much of a coincidence for anybody to swallow.

We need not detain ourselves with that, because my argument—and I declare my interest as the possessor of a cherished number plate—is that one is entitled to speak up for those who have entered into a bargain, a deal or an arrangement with the licensing authorities. Anyone who did that and paid a fee of £5 did it on the understanding that he was making a reasonable contract which he expected to be honoured.

Surely no fair-minded person could argue that it was anything but ratting on a contract to increase the fee from £5 to £50, which anybody who changes his car in future will be required to pay. I do not put this claim on a personal basis. I am speaking for about 300,000 people who have cherished number plates.

In the strange way that they have, the Government are missing one target and spraying with a shot gun many of the people—perhaps people of reasonably modest means—who have entered into these contracts, and there will undoubtedly be a diminution in the trade. But quite the wrong end of the scale will be hit, entirely contrary to what hon. Members on the Government Benches argue. Those who can afford it will pay their £50, but the many who regarded the opportunity to keep a number plate as something which they would like to do at modest cost will be prevented from so doing, and the proposed charge will be seen as a massive disincentive.

I do not accept it when the Minister argues that this is simply a question of setting a price which he regards as reasonable. There are other factors which ought to have been taken into account in consultations, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, those consultations were noticeably lacking. It is typical of what we are up against today that the Government are so concerned with measures of this kind, just fiddling while the fires of inflation stoke up massive problems for the nation.

Measuring this proposal against what the Government are trying to do on a broader front, we see them here apparently putting forward the notion of a quick profit unrelated to the tasks carried out. Their proposal must be seen in the wider context of a Government who have made money lending more profitable than manufacturing. Above all, it must be seen in the context of a Government who have a kill-joy complex. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, they have a kill-joy complex. Above all, as I say, they are willing to go along with yet another bit of needling in the class war as part of the attitude which says "Some people have got something; we shall take it away from them".

We on this side take quite the opposite view, and I had hoped that hon. Members on the Government side, such as the hon. Member for West Derby, who take a broad view of the car owner, would subscribe to it. We should like to make the ownership of cherished number plates much wider. We should like to see everyone in the country with a cherished number plate. That is the wider concept which should attract the House. If the Minister has anything in him at all, he should entertain in notions of that kind instead of pandering to bits of class warfare, which, I fear, is all that we are talking about tonight.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

The hon. Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) has fallen into the same error as did his hon and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew). Presumably out of exuberance and to emphasise his case—I go no further than that—the hon. Gentleman made the charge that the Government were killjoys in wanting to do away with this facility. But that is not the point. The Minister made clear when referring to that aspect of the matter that he has opted firmly for a reasonable charge. Moreover, he has done it in the light of Section 12 on the Finance Act 1976, which provides that the charge need not reflect the costs of the service. I concede at once that when one talks about the costs of the service the House is entitled to say that we should have more information before us, but on the generality of the matter I am sure that the hon. Member for Arundel will concede that he made an unfortunate point in no way related to the facts.

I am not inclined to be critical of this Statutory Instrument. Looking at the matter with reasonable objectivity, one must recognise that this debate is an opportunity for hon. Members to make one or two legitimate political points, but there is no major controversy about the amount of the charge. It is a moderate charge. It is not an unreasonable charge. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] I am trying to be reasonable. If I have become provocative, hon. Members opposite are entitled to ask me to give way and I shall do so with the courtesy which I always seek to show in the House.

Mr. Peter Rees

The Minister has said that a charge of £10 or £15 would cover the cost of this operation. How can the hon. Gentleman say that a charge of £50 is reasonable?

Mr. Leadbitter

I made the general proviso that we needed more information about costs.

Mr. Peter Rees

We have all the information.

Mr. Leadbitter

The hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) must try to control his liver. I would not entirely accept the Minister's figure without more detailed information, but a charge of £50 does not seem to be absolutely intolerable.

When people hear of this debate, they will ask what on earth the House is doing discussing such an order when there are so many major problems facing the country. I am alarmed at the way in which we sometimes deal with matters in a piecemeal fashion, hoping to pick up political kudos here and there, but generally achieving only confusion when the country wants action on the major matters affecting the welfare and the economic and social progress of the nation.

I am not a great lover of the Ministry of Transport. Over the years, I have found it obdurate, difficult, often inefficient and one of the few Ministries not prepared to listen to anyone but itself.

Mr. Horam

That was the old Ministry.

Mr. Leadbitter

It has been the graveyard of more Ministers than I can remember.

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells referred to the civil servants at Swansea and, having had a dig at civil servants myself, it is only fair that I should say a few words in defence of the men and women who service our Departments. The House will not think me unreasonable if I suggest that civil servants seeking to do their job will not be less humane or feeling than hon. Members opposite. At least the civil servants in Swansea are not seeking to get cheap party political advantage out of regulations by making a mountain out of a molehill. It does not serve us well to be too critical of these civil servants. They have suggested that a charge should be made to those whom, as has been admitted, enjoy having cherished numbers and who have often obtained them on transfer at a cost far greater than the proposed charge.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that these civil servants, in the altruistic way they have when dealing with such matters, are seeking to find ways of increasing their wages out of the £50 fees? Alternatively, does he think that they are after a reassessment of their job and are seeking additional payments for it? If so, how does this stack up with the pay policy?

Mr. Leadbitter

No, I do not go so far as that. I do not attribute to them any kind of approach or any kind of calculation, other than that, having considered this matter in their list of priorities, they feel that there is an exercise of privilege in cherished numbers and that the time has come to suggest or even press upon the Government the need for an increase after so many years of a £5 charge.

The Minister has been reasonable, and possibly his contribution has affected my approach to this debate. But I am irritated always when the time of the House is spent on matters of insignificance compared with the larger questions that we all want to discuss.

I am rather surprised that one aspect of this is the fact that it introduces another area of inspection and another area of activity involving motorists generally, who must soon begin to think that enough is enough. Motorists in this country have been sucked dry and hounded by legislation. They pay through the nose for their licences, for insurance and for the MOT test. It is time that the Ministry began to realise that this is another feature that will test their patience.

I have not said a critical word about the civil servants working in Swansea. Instead we should talk about the system at Swansea and the fact that this is not the time to add more work to it. In order to get one's application for the original registration dealt with one has to wait for weeks. If a line is missed out on the application form it is returned and the applicant has to wait for more weeks. We should not have allowed this misguided policy of putting everything at Swansea and taking these matters from local authorities, which could get the job done in two minutes flat. In future it would be better for the Minister to note the temper of the House and allow Swansea to get settled and its teething troubles settled before bringing forward this kind of Order.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). I support his argument that the House should meet at more reasonable times so that our discussions would be clearer.

I am sorry that the hon. Member who has the Swansea DLVC in his constituency is not here. He argued that the more one puts the price up, the more people will buy the product. Is that what happens as the result of the bread delivery dispute? But when Labour Party subscriptions went up to £1.20, many supporters refused to pay the increase—I believe that the average contribution is 73p.

The major problem we have here is one of incompetence. If the idea is to maximise revenue, this would be done by having a lower charge so that many more people would use the facility. The more the Ministry puts up the price, the more it is pricing out the poorer and medium earner. The rich person and companies will not be deterred. We are told that something like 300,000 people like to have a cherished number. I got my first cherished number with a car that cost £50. The number was MP 175, I think. My present number is PJB 70 on a 13year-old Mini Traveller worth £100. A charge of £50 will deter me from getting a transfer.

Mr. Ogden

Does the hon. Member think that this charge will cause a reduction to be made in the cost of selling the plates?

Air. Bottomley

If the average age of a motorist is about 35 and if he holds on to his cherished plate, which he is likely to keep until he is 70, it will probably be transferred from vehicle to vehicle about seven times. He will not sell it. The comparison between the cost of transfer and the price some people are prepared to pay for fancy number plates is not therefore particularly relevant. I hope that the Minister will consider that point and will withdraw the order and come forward with a more sensible proposal.

The Minister could argue that a 20 per cent. profit margin would be absorbed by inflation and that he would have to come back for more next year—

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

If at the next General Election the hon. Member was unlucky enough to lose his seat, would he change his number plate to XMP?

Mr. Bottomley

The hon. Member reminds me of a friend I once had who was travelling across Europe. He thought up a joke about the leaning tower of Pisa when he was in Calais and did not bring it out until he reached Italy. If the hon. Member had been listening to my speech instead of cooking up his joke he would have heard me say that my number plate was now PJB 70. I hope that at the next General Election my constituents, who include the country's largest constituency Labour Party, in Woolwich, West will continue to show their good sense by voting once more to be represented by a Conservative MP.

Will the Minister explain, if the cost of inspection plus transfer is now £15, what proportion of the amount is for the inspection? I suspect that the cost to the Department of the inspection is £10. That means that the cost to the Department for the actual transfer is £5 or less. That means that even with some of the regulations for enforcing the requirement, regulations which we are not debating this evening, there is a gross profit margin in the region of 900 per cent., not 400 per cent. as we have already heard.

If the Department wants to start making money and if lots of these numbers are not in use at present—we could easily find out what they are with computerised registration—there is no reason why the Department should not auction them off. The Department could let them come slowly on to the market, operating like the central selling organisation for diamonds and thus keeping the price high. If the Government want to start operating commercially that is the way to do it.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

When I was in Government and we set up this centre at Swansea—an achievement of which I am not particularly proud—one of the proposals made at the time went very much along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend. It was that either the RAC or the AA should take over the responsibility for this matter so that the civil servants would never be confronted with the possibility of corruption. Who resisted it? The civil servants.

Mr. Bottomley

I do not criticise the civil servants. Just as in industrial relations we should ask management why it has not got it right, so we should ask the Government why they did not manage their relations with their employees so that we could get a service without paying through the nose for it.

If the Government succeed in forcing this motion through, I shall have the greatest pleasure in leading a campaign with all the motoring correspondents to point out how the Government are going ahead to implement this exorbitant charge which does not affect the rich but hurts all the rest of us. I hope that the motoring correspondents will take this up and do their duty with the free Press that we are still allowed, making sure that the Government's nose is really rubbed in the dirt.

We shall show that the Government are imposing a 400 to 500 per cent. increase and a profit margin of 900 per cent. just because the charge has not gone up since 1924. The death grant has not gone up since then either. Perhaps they could raise that instead.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

This has been an interesting debate. I thought that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State did a first-class job of introducing this order and moulding his speech to its contents.

We all know that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) is keen to make a name for himself as Shadow Secretary of State for Transport. I pay him the compliment, if compliment it is, of saying that he is one of the brightest spokesmen the Opposition have. The hon. Gentleman has appeared on television once or twice and he has seized on some good controversial issues both to promote those issues and, perhaps, to promote himself. He has brought some fresh interest to these matters not only on his side of the Chamber but on the Government side, on which I compliment him.

Tonight I think that the hon. Gentleman stretched credulity a little when he widened the debate far away from the matters contained in this order. He introduced attacks on civil servants and the Government. He worked himself up into such a lather that he ended by comparing this modest proposal, which is only an increase in the charge made for a service, with all that he thinks is wrong with the whole of the Government's policy. I know that the hon. Gentleman is out to make a name for himself, but perhaps he is building rather a large structure without sufficient substance.

If Conservative Members believe in the free market, must they not say to themselves that the price at which cherished number plates are sold, which we read in the Press every Sunday, is governed by demand? The men who sell do not make the number plates. They do not create them. They buy them from one individual and sell them to another. They give the plates an added value. I do not know what that is as I am not in the business but I presume that they make a modest profit.

If the dealers say that a number plate is worth £150 on average—that is the average according to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—and £50 of that, and not £5, is to be given to the Government for the service that makes the whole business possible, they will have to adjust not the selling price but the buying price. The situation is the same for the number plate dealer as it is for someone who deals in any commodity that is difficult to value—for example, antiques.

How does the antique dealer set his price? He considers the price at which he will sell an item, deducts the profit that he wants to make and offers that price to the person who owns the object that he wishes to buy and sell. That adjustment will take place if the average price for a number plate is £150. That must be the position in a free market.

I understand the argument that has been advanced on behalf of those who hold a cherished number plate and who wish to transfer it to a car that they have bought themselves, not having gone through any dealer. This can be the only real complaint. Perhaps someone thinks that he can keep MP 75, for example, for the rest of his life. That person will be faced with a savage increase. He may have a complaint, but I have no great sympathy for those who trade in number plates. They will make a suitable adjustment at one end of the transaction in accordance with market forces.

If the service is to be provided—it can be provided only if the Government are prepared to do something to assist—and numbers are to be transferred, surely the Government are correct in taking a part of the profits that are made from the dealing and applying it to the common good of other citizens. They are to be complimented on this measure.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I shall be brief as I know that the Minister wishes to reply.

We are all deeply saddened on this occasion. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) is saddened that we are debating a matter that he thinks trivial and my hon. Friends and I are saddened by the Minister's gall in coming before us with this proposal.

If ever an institution required to be given a little public good will, having forfeited it over the past few years, it is the DVLC at Swansea. I am astounded that anyone should think that good will can be gained by offering the proposition that the transfer of cherished number plates should be resumed at this fee. The Minister should have said "Let us build up good will" and increased the fee by stages.

I fully accept that the Government should make a significant profit out of the service, but it should be related to the market that the Minister is seeking to serve, not to the DVLC which serves the public. He should ask how the Government can provide the service in such a way that more people will want to make use of the service so that the costs are covered and there is a reasonable return to the Revenue. To kill the service stone dead after having suspended it for six months is not the right way to go about a marketing proposition.

Would the Minister be prepared to refer this profit margin to the Price Commission? Would he like the Commission to comment on the way in which the fee has been arrived at? Would he like the Commission to comment on the hours during which prestigious civil servants work through the night in doubt and sorrow trying to find what they have lost? Does the Commission think that this is an adequate fee to charge?

I suspect that the Government have come across with this idea without paying due regard to the interests of consumer protection. The consumer should have a voice in this, as on many other issues.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Horam

I shall try briefly to reply to the debate. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for once was inaccurate. I usually feel that he has undertaken a considerable degree of research and that his remarks have some substance, but here he has done rather less research. We consulted the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. We showed it our proposals and its views were taken into account.

Mr. Norman Fowler

I was talking about the Motor Agents' Association.

Mr. Horam

We consulted the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association, the AA—

Mr. Fowler

I was talking about the Motor Agents' Association.

Mr. Horam

We consulted more than eight organisations, including the dealers association that is directly involved. All the relevant authorities have been consulted. For the hon. Gentleman to say that we have not consulted one particular organisation is not true. We consulted on 1st October, well before the new rules came in. Everyone had ample opportunity.

Mr. Fowler

My information from the Motor Agents' Association is that it has not been consulted. My information from all the dealers is that they are totally dissatisfied with what the Government have organised. That was my major point. The Minister is totally wrong about the MAA and on the general point.

Mr. Horam

No, we have consulted widely, and the people we have consulted, including the dealers, while they had substantial points to make about the regulations, were extremely happy that the ban had been removed and they were able to resume their work, even if not precisely in the way they did before. There is no substance in the claim that we have not consulted as widely as possible.

If I remember rightly, when we were debating speed limits hon. Members said that we consulted too widely. They cannot have it both ways. Either we consult or we do not consult. In this instance we have consulted.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield protested that we had not debated the rules. His speech was mainly concerned with the rules. We are debating not the rules but the £50 fee. Again he is inaccurate. The rules have never been in the form of a Statutory Instrument but have always been subject to the discretion of the Secretary of State. That has certain advantages in that we can change them easily. If we are dissatisfied with the way they operate, we can change them overnight.

It is odd that the hon. Gentleman should argue that we are being inflexible and at the same time say that we must make the rules subject to the procedures of the House of Commons. That must be the lawyer coming out in him. He wants to do everything by law. He has a vested interest in that way of proceeding. Let us be sensible. Let us be down to earth and practical. Let us change these things in an orderly, administrative way.

Mr. Norman Fowler rose

Mr. Horam

No. Let us not tie everything up in rules and regulations. The hon. Gentleman wants excuses to debate more trivia instead of debating sensible, practical proposals. Goodness knows what would have happened if the hon. Gentleman had been in charge.

Mr. Norman Fowler rose

Mr. Horam

No. It is ridiculous for the hon. Gentleman to try to have his cake and eat it in this absurd way. He is not merely inaccurate, but unfair. He said that we should be more flexible, and he charged me with being inflexible. The hon. Gentleman knows, because we have had personal correspondence about a particular case, that I am flexible in my approach. I met the point that he made about the person concerned, and I intend to act in a similar way when I feel that someone has been unfairly treated as a result of the operation of these rules. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am prepared to be reasonable, but his case was very much that I am being inflexible. I think that he ought to be both accurate and fair in what he says.

Mr. Norman Fowler

I give the hon. Gentleman credit for his action in the case that he cited, but let us be fair and state the details of that case. It concerned a gentleman whose transaction was caught in the middle of the industrial action at the centre. The only point at issue in that case was whether the Government would make their rules retrospective. If the hon. Gentleman wants credit for not introducing retrospective rules I give it to him, but it is a poor lookout for the country when the Government have got to that stage.

Mr. Horam

The hon. Gentleman raised the case of someone who fell foul of the rules through no fault of his own. We immediately said that his case should go through. I recognise that when a vehicle is written off or the market is destroyed there is a case for sensible interpretation of the rules. I am always prepared to look at a case to see whether we can find a practical solution to it. Let us approach the matter in a spirit of common sense. We do not want too much bureaucracy. It is ridiculous to wrap these things up in rules and regulations. Let us be sensible and practical.

The hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) spoke about dictators and said that this facility was being mutilated to the extent that its old form is scarcely recognisable. In substance, however, this facility will continue in substantially the same form as before, but one or two abuses that have crept into the system will be removed.

The hon. and learned Gentleman exaggerated his charge beyond all reason. He said that the unions were holding out a political challenge to me and I must

recognise that. If it was a political challenge it has been defeated, because the system continues to operate. The unions ask that we should abandon cherished number transfers, but the system will carry on in substantially the way in which it operated before the ban was imposed The hon. and learned Gentleman's argument is totally out of accord with the facts.

The hon. Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) said that we were kill-joys. On the contrary, we are bringing in an element of gaiety and personal taste to make the system—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No.3 (Exempted Business).

The House divided: Ayes 122, Noes 70.

Division No. 44.] AYES [11.45 p.m.
Anderson, Donald Gilbert, Dr John Palmer, Arthur
Armstrong, Ernest Golding, John Pavitt, Laurie
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Grant, John (Islington C) Prescott, John
Atkinson, Norman Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Harper, Joseph Richardson, Miss Jo
Bidwell, Sydney Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Roderick, Caerwyn
Bishop, E. S. Hart, Rt Hon Judith Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Horam, John Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Rooker, J. W.
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) John, Brynmor Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Brown, Ronald (Hackney S) Johnson, James (Hull West) Rowlands, Ted
Buchan, Norman Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Jones, Barry (East Flint) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Canavan, Dennis Judd, Frank Skinner, Dennis
Cant, R. B. Kaufman, Gerald Small, William
Carmichael, Neil Kerr, Russell Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol) Kinnock, Neil Snape, Peter
Coleman, Donald Lamond, James Spearing, Nigel
Concannon, J. D. Leadbitter, Ted Stailard, A. W.
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Steel, Rt Hon David
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Lipton, Marcus Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Crawshaw, Richard Luard, Evan Stoddart, David
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Lyon, Alexander (York) Stott, Roger
Cryer, Bob Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Strang, Gavin
Dalyell, Tam McCartney, Hugh Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Davidson, Arthur McDonald, Dr Oonagh Tinn, James
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) McElhone, Frank Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Deakins, Eric MacFarquhar, Roderick Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Doig, Peter McGuir, Michael (Ince) Watkins, David
Dormand, J. D. MacKenzie, Gregor Weetch, Ken
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Maclenan, Robert White, Frank R. (Bury)
Eadie, Alex Madden, Max Whitlock, William
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Magee, Bryan Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
English, Michael Mallalieu, J. P. W. Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Marks, Kenneth Wise, Mrs Audrey
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Woodall, Alec
Flannery, Martin Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Young, David (Bolton E)
Forrester, John Moyle, Roland
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Freeson, Reginald Oakes, Gordon Mr. Ted Graham and
George, Bruce Ogden, Eric Mr. Alf Bates
Arnold, Tom Brittan, Leon Clegg, Walter
Berry, Hon Anthony Chalker, Mrs Lynda Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)
Bottomley, Peter Clark, William (Croydon S) Cope, John
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James MacGregor, John Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Durant, Tony Miscampbell, Norman Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Eyre, Reginald Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Fisher, Sir Nigel Moate, Roger Shelton, William (Streatham)
Fox, Marcus Montgomery, Fergus Shepherd, Colin
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Moore, John (Croydon C) Sims, Roger
Glyn, Dr Alan More, Jasper (Ludlow) Sinclair, Sir George
Goodhew, Victor Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Newton, Tony Stanbrook, Ivor
Griffiths, Eldon Normanton, Tom Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Grist, Ian Page, Richard (Workington) Tebbit, Norman
Hall, Sir John Parkinson, Cecil Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Pattie, Geoffrey Townsend, Cyril D.
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Penhaligon, David Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Hicks, Robert Percival, Ian Wells, John
Higgins, Terence L. Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal) Winterton, Nicholas
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Rees-Davies, W. R. Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Knight, Mrs Jill Rhodes James, R.
Knox, David Ridley, Hon Nicholas TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Langford-Holt, Sir John Ridsdale, Julian Mr. Patrick Mayhew and
Lawrence, Ivan Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW) Mr. Michael Marshall
Macfarlane, Neil Roberts, Wyn (Conway)

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 1977 a draft of which was laid before this House on 10th January, be approved.