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Motor Cars (Personal Importation)

Volume 24: debated on Friday 21 May 1982

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1.23 pm

It gives me great pleasure to raise a subject of major importance to many of my constituents, motor dealers and manufacturers here in Europe and elsewhere. I refer to the personal importation of motor cars.

In the last few months there has been much publicity about the route by which individuals can, instead of living abroad and bringing in a car according to the intention of the 1978 exemption, take a day or two's holiday, buy a vehicle in Europe and bring it to this country. It is possible to dodge the requirement to meet certain national standards for construction, design and safety. Many questions have arisen in the past few months and I wish to air some of them with the Minister. Many of them will be of interest to European Ministers and the Department of Transport, and I make no apology for raising them.

The only long-term solution is for manufacturing costs and selling prices in the United Kingdom to come down to the levels in Europe and elsewhere. However, during the past few years there have been many imports from Japan and other countries because British prices are so much higher—perhaps £1,000 on a smaller vehicle and £3,000 or £4,000 on a prestige vehicle. Those price differentials have led people to seek a way of overcoming them in their own interests.

I shall not criticise the work of authorised dealers or manufacturers in the United Kingdom, who have tried to do what is best for the consumer, but there are people who will take every opportunity to bring in a vehicle that meets the approval regulations much more cheaply than they could buy it here. The loophole by which people are exempt from the national type approvals laid down in 1978 should be examined closely to see whether we are complying with the needs of the European Community in terms of our pricing, whether there is fair competition or whether we should impose a restriction to make it available only to those who are resident outside Britain and who are returning here. There was once a 12-month restriction.

There have been major scare stories that if the prices come down British dealers will be squeezed out and that manufacturers must make hundreds of thousands of workers redundant, but I do not believe them. If we can successfully export British cars to Europe and elsewhere, we can compete in world markets and reduce our domestic prices. I hope that my hon. Friend will reply to some of my points and assure the House that he will raise the matter with his colleagues on both the trade and the European aspects.

1.27 pm

The House will appreciate that we are discussing this matter at short notice, but my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) is right. He has brought to the attention of the House a matter of considerable interest. I have received many letters on the subject from people who are worried that a loophole is being exploited in a way that will damage the British car industry, or from those who believe that it is irregular that there should be such a difference in price between the same car bought here or bought overseas and imported here. There was much worry that the Government were proposing to make immediate changes to stop it.

I assure my hon. Friend that we have no major changes in mind. We see it as part of the normal trading competition within industry and as something that industry should deal with in the first instance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport commissioned a review on the arrangements for the personal import of cars. As a result of that, he said:
"There has been concern that the Government intend to restrict the current arrangements under which people importing a car which they have used abroad are exempt from our national type approval checks. The Government will not consider any changes to the terms of that exemption until and unless arrangements are in place to ensure that type approval information is readily available to individuals and independent dealers and until I am entirely satisfied that their operation does not impede the purchaser's choice of supply. But in the meanwhile there will be no changes. My officials are, therefore, approaching the manufacturers and their accredited dealers to discuss how individual purchasers and independent dealers can be given prompt and ready access to the type approval information they need, and to which they have a right in international trading law. Once that information is generally available, it will be more convenient for purchasers to register individually imported cars in the normal way—that is, showing compliance with type approval—leaving the personal import exemption to people genuinely making a change of residence for whom it was provided."
This subject has been raised in the House at rather short notice. I understand entirely my hon. Friend's reasons for doing so and I recognise the importance of the issue. He will have the opportunity of reading in Hansard the statement to which I have referred. If he wishes to put any questions to me subsequently, I shall be glad to receive them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past One o'clock.