HL Deb 30 March 2001 vol 624 cc587-94

2.20 p.m.

Earl Attlee

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 28th February, be annulled (S.I. 2001/561).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, for being available this afternoon. Noble Lords will be aware that she is held in very high regard in your Lordships' House. On previous occasions the noble Baroness and I have debated far more sensitive issues. In the course of the debate, when the Minister speaks, she speaks for Her Majesty's Government with full authority and on the record. However, she does not have ministerial responsibility for these matters. Her noble friend Lord Whitty has that responsibility and, what is more important, he has detailed knowledge and experience in this area. Interested parties outside your Lordships' House will be, I believe, a little disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has found that he has more important business to attend to and that it was not possible to move this business to a time when he was available. However, I am sure that there are perfectly understandable reasons for that.

I have three concerns regarding these regulations. First, the effect on clutter. I prefer to see a plain number plate with no unnecessary symbols. During the passage of the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley covered this point and I believe that it will be discussed later in another place. For that reason, I shall not weary noble Lords on that point.

Secondly, I have concerns as regards readability. The order provides for smaller and narrower characters and I believe that closer spacing must lead to reduced readability, at least to some extent. I hope that the Minister will be able to give noble Lords some reassurance on that point and that she will be able to offer evidence to demonstrate that both ANPR and the Mark One Eyeball can deal with such closer spacing. In particular, can she guarantee that these regulations will not result in any degradation of the capability of the automatic number plate reading system?

My third and most substantive objection is on the grounds of practicality; namely, I fear that the regulations will not work and that they will not solve the problem. Perhaps it would be useful to noble Lords if I outline the problem, which I believe to be a real one. The issue with which the regulations seek to deal is that of illegal fonts, in particular the use of italics and illegal techniques to foil the automatic number plate reading system as well as, of course, the well-known use of misleading spacing and misleading characters. I fully support the Minister's objectives in that regard.

However, I fear that the Minister has disregarded the needs of the "little man". In this case the little man comprises the owners of left-hand drive cars made in North America. I have to say that such cars are not quite my cup of tea, but I can understand the interest shown in those vehicles. There is no safety issue involved. We have in place the single vehicle type approval scheme which is implemented before registration. Without SVA, it is not possible to register such vehicles. However, American cars are designed to accommodate a 12x6-inch number plate. The number plates are often recessed into the boot. The recess in the boot is designed to ensure that the number plate is properly illuminated. However, the recess in the boot—and sometimes the one in the front bumper—will not accommodate a standard European-type number plate as provided for in the regulations.

This is not a problem for Japanese cars which are marketed both in the United States and in Europe because the Japanese and the Far East manufacturers will produce separate boot lids for the North American market and the European market. These left-hand drive North American cars are imported in very low volumes, and therefore it is not reasonable to expect the manufacturer to produce a number- plate recess to suit the European market.

What is the Minister to do about this problem? Perhaps she can do nothing. The single vehicle type approval scheme is not helpful or relevant because its procedures take place before the vehicle is registered. It would be possible for an owner of one of these vehicles to get over the MoT test problem by temporarily fitting a number plate which meets all the safety requirements and is properly illuminated, but that would seriously damage the appearance of the car. After an owner has acquired an MoT, he or she could remove the temporary number plate and run the car with an illegal number plate. The Minister, of course, will not be surprised when I say that I do not support that solution. I recognise the pressing need to tighten up the regulations.

I suggest that we should perhaps consider using a 12x6-inch number plate, with the Secretary of State allocating only six characters for the vehicle registration number. That would fit in the space available on these cars. Alternatively, we could use a 12x6-inch number plate and use motor-cycle fonts. The motor-cycle font approved in the regulations is slightly smaller than the standard font used on a motor car and, therefore, it will fit in the space available.

I have photographs showing cars with this smaller font but, quite rightly, it would be out of order to display such photographs to your Lordships in the Chamber.

The final alternative is to modify the boot lid. However, this is highly skilled work and the appearance of the vehicle may be seriously damaged. It would also be extremely expensive; I estimate that it would possibly cost £1,000 per boot lid.

The Minister will have a well thought out argument but, from my point of view, I suspect that it will be flawed. She will say that if she adopts the motor-cycle size font, the automatic number plate reading system will not work. However, there are many more European vehicles than US vehicles running around in the United Kingdom with small fonts—we are talking about very low numbers—and, of course, these American cars are very distinctive. Most importantly, if a motor-cycle font is okay for a motor-cycle, why is it not okay for a motor car?

Noble Lords could be forgiven for thinking that I am taking a Conservative europhobic position. Nothing could be further from the truth, but is not the Minister experiencing difficulties in regard to Article 8 of EC directive 98/34? What concerns in regard to the free market has the Minister received from the European Union? How will she be able to meet those concerns? What possible technical, rather than legal, solution does she propose?

It seems to me that we are talking about the cast-iron inflexibility of officials, with no regard for the little man; there is no regard for an imaginative micro-business importing interesting American cars. Although, as I said, they are not my cup of tea, not everyone wants to run around in "euroboxes", no matter how efficient and good looking they are.

I find that our friends in Germany go in for far too much regulation. For instance, Germany has laws stating on which days of the week people can mow their lawns and on which days they can hang out their washing. But, interestingly, even the Germans can find a solution to this particular problem. Why cannot the Minister? I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by stressing that the Minister with responsibility for this area of policy intended no discourtesy to the noble Earl or to the House. I think noble Lords will agree that for the Minister in this House the workload is extremely heavy. He has departmental responsibility and is expected on many occasions to undertake ministerial responsibilities other than in the immediate London area, which inhibits his ability always to be present in this House at times which may sometimes be slightly difficult to predict and which may interfere with his ability to leave the London area. I know that he will read with great interest and fascination the points raised by the noble Earl and, if necessary—and should I prove to be inadequate to replace him—will supplement my answers in writing.

Control on number plates has been in existence since the Motor Car Act 1903, which first introduced measures to help to identify vehicles and drivers. I am sure that all noble Lords agree that it is vital that all motor vehicles should have clear and easy-to-read number plates. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, expressed his concern about the impact of new number plate regulations on the importation of American vehicles into the UK. These vehicles are designed for the American market; consequently, the space for fitting the number plates may, as the noble Earl said, be too small to fit a UK legal number plate. Representations have been made to the department by the importers of such vehicles that the new regulations should exempt them from the standard requirement. First, let me assure the House that the department considered these representations carefully. We understand that people importing these specialist vehicles do not wish to break the law.

The noble Earl has explained the cost involved in adapting such vehicles. However, I question slightly some of his remarks. In our opinion, it should be possible to fit a UK legal number plate without undue cost, although I accept that this may have a minor effect on the appearance of the vehicle, as a UK number plate would extend beyond the area designated to accommodate a US number plate.

The noble Earl referred to the low number of these imports. However, I should point out that it is not just American cars that have this problem. All vehicles that have been manufactured for the European market have sufficient space for fitting a standard-sized UK number plate. However, vehicles are imported into this country from other markets, especially from Japan and the Far East. Like American vehicles, they are not manufactured to European standards and, similarly, may have difficulty in fitting a UK legal number plate. We estimate that up to 100,000 vehicles may be imported into the UK annually from these other markets. This is, therefore, not a small problem.

The noble Earl referred to the use of smaller plates on motor-cycles. Two-wheeled and three-wheeled vehicles, quadri-cycles, agricultural machines, work trucks and road rollers are permitted to use smaller characters on their number plates. In the case of two and three wheelers, the small number plates are necessary for safety reasons and the vehicles could not reasonably accommodate larger plates. The other vehicles that use smaller plates are tightly defined and are not generally used on public roads.

As the noble Earl recognised, we regulate number plates because we need to be able to identify vehicles. For example, the police value any information that the public can give them about a vehicle that may have been involved in a serious incident, such as a hit and run accident. Even remembering one or two of the letters of the number from a registration mark may narrow down police inquiries and help to trace the culprit.

However, in this day and age, it is no longer just the human eye that needs to read number plates; camera technology is vital to the police in enforcing some of our key road safety messages. Traffic speed cameras help to keep our roads among the safest in the world. The development of automatic number-plate readers for enforcement purposes has made it even more important that number plates should be legible. It is not just road safety that concerns us.

Vehicles are used in connection with many crimes, including terrorism. Vehicles caught on security cameras and CCTV can also provide vital evidence for the police. The new regulations therefore ensure that our number plates remain among the clearest to read in the world. Taking all those points into account, we decided that there should be no change from the existing position that American vehicles should fit standard number plates.

The noble Earl also referred to the issue of readability. I understood him to allege that we were altering the spacing. I can tell him that the spacing on acceptable number plates has not been reduced; it remains exactly the same. There has been a minimum reduction in the width of the characters from 57mm to 50mm. We are satisfied that that will not have a deleterious effect.

The EC has written to the UK Government on behalf of the importers to state that it reserves the right to challenge the regulations if they have an impact on trade within the European Union. I believe that that answers the point raised by the noble Earl.

I believe that the noble Earl briefly mentioned the issue of the position within the European Union. Noble Lords will be interested to know that these regulations permit motorists to take advantage of an EU regulation that allows vehicles displaying the euro symbol on their number plates to dispense with the need for a separate national identity sticker for journeys within the Community. Our new number plate regulations do not require the use of that symbol. It is entirely up to the individual motorist to decide whether he wants to use that style of plate.

We believe that it is important for number plates to be clear. No one should customise them or try to make them different in any way. We can never meet everyone's wishes as regards personalising or moderating the size and the style of number plates in a way that is acceptable. I appreciate that the noble Earl has expressed strong feelings on the issue of number plates for American vehicles. I shall, of course, pass on his concerns to my noble friend Lord Whitty, the Minister responsible. In the circumstances, I hope that the noble Earl will agree to withdraw his Motion.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply to my Motion. To begin with, I should like to point out that I wish the noble Lord. Lord Whitty, no discourtesy in this respect. With the planning of our business, it is unfortunate that he was unable to be here today. The noble Baroness knows very well that I work extremely closely with the noble Lord.

I did not quite catch all of the noble Baroness's reply with regard to the European Union. Unfortunately, I was being advised by one of my noble friends at the precise moment when she was saying whether or not she had received representations from the EU on the matter. The noble Baroness also referred to about 100,000 vehicles coming into the EU from the Far East. If our regulations and those of the EU discriminate against those vehicles by requiring them to be disfigured by the way that the number plates are fitted, it seems to me that we could experience some difficulty with GATT, let alone with the EU. She also said that she was happy for the number plate to extend beyond the original recess on the boot of the car. How will that number plate be illuminated?

I have a question on the Rover 75 car that is manufactured at Longbridge. If my memory serves me right, it has a half-elliptical rear number plate. It is stylish, but will it have to be disfigured in the future?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, not having the model of Rover car to which the noble Lord referred I find it impossible to answer his question either as regards its shape or whether it would require modification. Given my many years' experience of garages, I cannot believe that it is possible to create any problem that someone in a garage cannot solve. They sometimes have to have more than one attempt to achieve their objective, but I am sure that they would be able to provide the proper illumination to meet the legal requirements.

I repeat that the EC has written to the UK Government on behalf of importers to state that they reserve the right to challenge the regulations if they have an impact on trade within the EU. I think that that answers the point that the noble Earl raised. I do not foresee any difficulty with regard to imported vehicles that have been made for other markets. However, should I acquire any further Information, I shall, of course, write to the noble Earl.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's reply. I hope that at some time in the future she will enjoy a Rover 75. It is unusual to vote on regulations on these occasions. However, the House would not hesitate to do so if that were necessary. That is not the case this afternoon and, in any case, the time is clearly not right. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before three o'clock.