HL Deb 09 March 1998 vol 587 cc7-9

2.53 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is illegal to install or use on road vehicles, including motorcycles, registration plates that can be tilted or covered by controls at relevant times so that they cannot be photographed by police cameras.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, under the current regulations, number plates must be securely fixed and readable at all times. The use of movable number plates is therefore clearly illegal. We are also advised that the fitting of these plates is unlawful under the present regulations, although that has not yet been tested in the courts.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. As tilting devices have been found on crashed motorcycles, indicating a deliberate intention to defy speed limits, will legislation be introduced to confirm the illegality of such devices in order to improve safety on the roads, as about 1,200 people a year are killed on our roads as a result of excessive speeds?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord about the dangers of speeding. It is the major contributory factor in up to one-third of injuries caused on our roads. However, I have confirmed the illegality of these plates. The enforcement of the law is a matter for the police. As yet, we are not aware of any prosecutions brought against vehicle keepers for fitting or using these number plates. Nevertheless, we believe that such prosecutions could be brought and should be successful were they to be brought.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, is there any evidence of a large number of motorcyclists tilting their number plates? I am very interested in the whole question of number plates—I had something to do with introducing the reflective plates that were greatly opposed at the time. I do not believe that motorcyclists are as irresponsible as some people seem to believe they are. Can my noble friend confirm that?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as there have not been any prosecutions, it is very hard to assess the extent of the problem. There have been recent press reports of the type alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the police have expressed concern. This is not a practice that we would wish to see grow. It is an obvious and deliberate attempt to contravene and circumvent the enforcement of speed limits.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as enforcement is something like 80 per cent. of the game, what encouragement has the Minister's department given to the police to prosecute on these occasions?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, encouragement to prosecute is a matter for the Home Secretary and the Home Office rather than my department. If we perceived this to be a growing problem, we should have to address it. If there were any question of uncertainty in the law, we should have to examine the regulations to see whether they adequately covered the problem. Harking back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Carmichael, we do not at present regard this as a major problem. The legislation is there, and police forces will consider what they need to do to enforce that legislation.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, if tilting devices, which I have not heard of in relation to motorcycles, are not allowed, what is the position regarding the ordinary piece of clingfilm from the kitchen drawer, which I am told is much more favoured, not by motor-cyclists—because, as the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said, they are usually a fairly respectable lot—but by many drivers?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is not the particular method by which the law is contravened that is important. The current regulations state that number plates must be securely fixed and readable at all times. Anything that is done to prevent them being readable is a contravention of the law.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, as this Question relates to tilting, will my noble friend confirm that nothing in next Tuesday's Budget will be tilted against the motorist?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I can neither confirm nor deny any proposals that might emerge in next week's Budget. They are matters for the Chancellor, and my noble friend will have to contain his anticipation.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, while I agree with the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, perhaps I may return to the one on the Order Paper. The Minister said that at present there is not much evidence. Is any evidence to be found in photographs from police cameras of number plates that are unreadable for one reason or another? Secondly, could there be a check in the MOT, which takes place after three years, to see whether such a device has been fitted—although I grant that it would be possible to undo the device when the vehicle was put in for MOT? Perhaps I may indulge myself in a third question. Will the Minister agree that it is not just a matter of police cameras: in a hit and run accident, for example, someone could have obscured his number plate?

Baroness Hayman

Yes, my Lords. That is why there is a variety of regulations covering it and why it is an offence to alter, rearrange or misrepresent the characters—that includes the use of fonts which are difficult to read—in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish the registration mark. That legislation is in place precisely because of the problems that can be incurred not only with technological methods of reading number plates but also in terms of witnesses remembering because they found it difficult to read the number plates. Number plates must comply with the current specified British standard.

In answer to the question about MOTs, number plates are checked as part of the annual MOT test and a vehicle whose number plate does not comply with the requirements would fail its test. We propose to tighten the regulations by, among other things, a mandatory character font which will facilitate enforcement and should go some way towards reducing the abuse which undoubtedly exists.