HL Deb 23 June 1998 vol 591 cc117-20

3.2 p.m.

Viscount Chelmsford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will commission studies on the future need for electronic vehicle identification by an electronic number plate or licence identification, situated within the body of the vehicle at time of manufacture and not easily removable.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government are aware that electronic vehicle identification could offer a range of benefits, including improvements in enforcement and security. However, there are technical issues which need to be resolved. We shall review our research programme in this area in line with the conclusions of the forthcoming White Paper on integrated transport.

Viscount Chelmsford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response and wonder whether she will agree to some of the benefits that the use of electronic number plates could bring. Does she agree that they would significantly reduce the number of unlicensed vehicles travelling on our roads; that they would be a support and reduce the cost of road-pricing and motorway tolling; that they would support a single database across all interested parties, including insurers, motor insurance bureaux and government agencies; and that there would be recoveries for the Government in terms of unpaid car tax and for insurers as regards claims made by uninsured drivers? There would be a general administrative reduction too. Does she accept that decisions made today affect how we live tomorrow; that it will take at least 15 years to fit all vehicles with an integrated inset manufactured identity; and that therefore we should begin the process now?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I agree that the time-frame for such technically challenging developments is long and therefore it is important that the fundamental research is done now. It is also important that we undertake research on an international basis so that countries do not go in different directions and we do not ask people to fit systems which are not interoperable with those in other countries to which they may travel.

The noble Viscount suggested certain advantages which could result from electronic developments; we agree that they could make a significant contribution to vehicle security as well as to dealing with traffic offences and the evasion of vehicle excise duty. He pointed out that they are used in the implementation of electronic road-pricing systems. There are many potential advantages and it is important that we have correct many of the great technical challenges.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although electronics have been used successfully in the fight against vehicle crime, many of us are concerned about individual liberty? We wonder how the technology may expand, because it can already do what the noble Viscount suggests, and whether the vision of Big Brother is looming even larger, with the prospect of being tracked wherever one goes and whatever one does.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right to raise the issue. As regards tracking systems, there are data protection and civil liberty implications which we must take into account. It is important that when we develop policy in this area we look not only at what is technically feasible but also at what is socially desirable. We must harness the technology to the policies rather than the other way round.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that, if such devices are to be used for road-pricing or motorway tolling, at least the revenue will go towards improving transport facilities and not just to the Treasury? At present the motorist is taxed by the Treasury at the rate of 5 to 1.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's concern that the practice of the past—certainly during the 18 years of the previous government when any income from transport went into the general revenue—should not continue under this Government. He will be well aware that these issues have been discussed at length during consultation on the White Paper and he will not have to wait long for the conclusions to be published.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, as regards the technical problems which the Minister mentioned in her first Answer, if she cannot give a summary in reply to the Question, can she place a document in the Library which sets them out in great detail? Can she also say what consultations we are having with our partners in the European Union to ensure that these technical problems are solved in common and not separately in each country?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not know how much detail the noble Lord would like.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, lots!

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I shall give the noble Lord an obvious example. The microwave tag, which is often suggested as the most useful form, cannot be used inside a metal structure. Therefore, fitting it during manufacture is difficult. It is also a difficulty in the developments in windscreen technology, which are becoming metallised. Therefore, simply reading though a windscreen, which through plain glass with a microwave is acceptable, is not feasible. That is a difficulty.

Technical issues are also involved in global satellite positioning, which has been suggested as another way of keeping track of vehicles. Some of the many issues are dealt with in the report of the Transport Research Laboratory on electronic-tolling, which is in the Library of the House. However, I shall ensure that other material is made available to the noble Lord.

As regards work within Europe, we and the Commission are concerned that there should be interoperability between potential road-pricing systems within Europe so that people do not need to have different transponders within different countries. Discussions are taking place at inter-government level on that issue.