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Vehicle Registration Marks Bill

Volume 458: debated on Friday 23 March 2007

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). Before the Economic Secretary leaves, may I say to him that, although he is capable of being a controversial figure, we all appreciate the consensual way in which he recognised the abilities of my good friend and colleague?

I was a Friday Whip for the last two years of John Major’s Government, which was not the quietest period in the Whips Office. I am therefore well aware of the limitations of coming No. 10 in the private Members’ ballot. One is faced with a stark choice between introducing a measure that is hostile to the Government, then, when it does not get a second’s air time on the Floor of the House, issuing a press release criticising some heartless Whip for objecting to it, and searching for consensus through working with hon. Members of different parties on a measure that will, one hopes, improve the lot of the citizens whom we represent. On this occasion, I have chosen the latter course and I am pleased to introduce the Bill today.

I am grateful for the Minister’s co-operation and that of the Department for Transport. I am also grateful for the co-operation of officials in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—I have not had to bother them too much because the Bill is fairly straightforward. I am only too sorry that I have not been able to get down to Swansea, but I sit on a busy Committee. I would not say Swansea is another land, but it takes quite a while to get down there and back again, so perhaps I can take up the invitation on another occasion.

I am also grateful to the Cherished Numbers Dealers Association for encouraging me to introduce the Bill and for its fund of stories about the history and complexity of the registration mark system. I am grateful to the Retail Motor Industry Federation for its general encouragement and support, and to Members from all parties for theirs. I stress that the Bill has all-party support.

On that particular point, will my hon. Friend clarify that the Bill truly has all-party support? For the second time today, I see no one on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and no one on the Liberal Democrat Back Benches. On the previous Bill, the Liberal Democrat spokesman apologised to the sponsor for his absence, so can I ask my hon. Friend whether he has received a similar apology? Does he put this down to serial rudeness, apathy or incompetence on the Liberal Democrats’ part?

I can confirm that I have received no communication from Liberal Front Benchers and I leave it to my hon. Friend to decide which of his three choices to put that down to. In all fairness, the Bill is supported by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has taken a keen interest in it, but Liberal Front Benchers have shown no interest whatever. Perhaps the Liberal party is suffering its private grief—in private!

It has just occurred to me that the Cherished Numbers Dealers is probably the only organisation called CND that we are all allowed to be members of these days. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats’ ambivalence to CND organisations meant that they decided not to appear today.

Either that or they are in the process of changing their minds yet again on their attitude towards that issue. I had not spotted the CND connection; perhaps we should award a number plate with that on it to the Liberal Democrats.

The motor car was the most significant development of the 20th century. It gave a freedom to travel that our forebears had possibly never envisaged; it made access to all parts of the nation possible; it transformed local economies, communities and regions; and it enhanced the country’s prosperity. I happen to believe that the motorist is taxed too much, but was there ever a motorist who thought otherwise, and we live in modern times. I also believe that motorists produce too much pollution and I support the Government’s efforts to address that problem. However, I am unashamedly pro-motorist and will, in truth, do anything to try to improve his lot, which is why I introduce the Bill today.

Until I embarked on this measure, the world of vehicle registration marks was an unknown one and its complexities had never been of concern to me. As I explored the issue, I found that number plates play an important role in regulating the motor car. They are used to identify the car, for purposes of taxation, and—as a number of my constituents never fail to write and tell me—for law-enforcement purposes.

I often speculate whether a personalised number plate makes it easier to identify a car than a normal number plate. Personally, I suspect that it does, but the reasons people have personalised number plates are many and varied. The important thing to remember about a number plate is that it is not owned by the owner of the car: it is assigned to a vehicle through a sort of franchise operation, with ownership remaining with the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport. It remains with the vehicle until it is broken up, destroyed or exported. The key point that I invite the House to remember is that the assignment is linked to the owner of the car rather than to the vehicle itself. I will address later the problems that that causes, which the Bill is designed to solve.

There is widespread interest in personalised number plates. They were first issued by counties at the beginning of the 20th century. In the early days before personalised number plates, the focus was on number plates such as A1. That particular number plate was sold by London county council in 1903 to the second Earl Russell, who queued for the entire night outside the council offices to have the right to be able to buy it. He beat someone else to it by just five seconds. Having acquired it, he sold it to the chairman of the London county council four years later, in 1907. History does not relate whether he made a profit.

The second Earl Russell was clearly a flamboyant character. If you will indulge me on a grey Friday morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will tell the House how his history possibly reflects on those who buy cherished number plates. He was married three times. After his second marriage, he was charged with bigamy and, as a Member of the House of Lords, became one of the last peers to elect for trial by his peers. After a great amount of deliberation in the upper House, he was convicted, but sentenced to only three months on account of the extreme torture of his first marriage. He subsequently became the first peer to join the Labour party, and went on to hold ministerial office. As Under-Secretary of State for Transport, he introduced the highway code and abolished speed limits. He went on to become Secretary of State for India. The Ramsay MacDonald Government reintroduced speed limits, but they felt that they had to wait until the second Earl Russell had died before they could do so. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Bertrand Russell, who perhaps became more famous.

My constituents are all, of course, paragons of virtue, but many of them would recognise the character of the second Earl Russell in those who buy personalised number plates. The part of Croydon that I have the privilege to represent has been identified as the wealthiest postcode in Britain, and I have to confess that we have more than our fair share of personalised number plates floating around the leafy suburbs of Purley and Coulsdon. I am pleased to be able to introduce a Bill that will smooth the transfer of such number plates.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from the history of number plates, I would like to ask him whether he recollects a former Member of Parliament whom I remember well from when I was a young boy watching the news: a gentleman by the name of Gerald Nabarro. One of my memories of him was that he had a fine collection of cherished number plates such as NAB1 and NAB2, as well as a big handlebar moustache.

We all remember him well. Hon. Members will also recall that his personal assistant was Christine Hamilton, now married to Neil Hamilton, who is constantly in our thoughts. [Laughter.] Neil is a good friend of mine; I did not mean that in a derogatory way.

The personalised number plate regime was set up in its present form in 1994, and I am pleased that it was continued by the present Government—not least, I suspect, because it has turned out to be a nice little earner for the Department. There is, however, a problem with the system. Let us suppose that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have the number plate AH1, and that you decide to sell it. The first step will be to separate your car from the number plate, which involves the process of putting it on retention. Let us suppose that I decide to buy it for my god-daughter, whose initials are also AH. If I have a car to put it on, there will be no problem. But if she is under age and does not have a motor car, I, too, will have to put the number plate on retention and hold it separately from a car. When I then elect to nominate a car, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency approves the application, puts the number plate on that car, and the transaction goes through. But if I do not have a car to put the number plate on, and I want to hold it on retention, I would pay the seller of the number plate, but I do not gain any legal rights until I nominate a car, which might be weeks, months or even years later providing that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, keep renewing the retention until such time as a car is nominated. Throughout that period, I would need your co-operation.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the most expensive number plate sold at auction was M1, which went for £331,500 to a man in the north-west, who reportedly bought it for his six-year-old son? We can only speculate on what sort of car such a person would buy for his six-year-old son when he becomes old enough to drive. Is not that a telling example of someone who will have to maintain a relationship and contact with the seller of the number plate for at least 11 years before his son is old enough to drive and own a car?

The hon. Lady very intelligently goes to the heart of the problem. I will have paid you a sum of money, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am exposed until the number plate is attached to a car. There is huge vulnerability to fraud. The hon. Lady referred to the highest recorded sum paid for a number plate of £330,000-odd. When I looked on the internet yesterday, I found that RO1 is for sale for £150,000, and that 1A was sold in 1989 for £200,000—one can only speculate what it would sell for today.

I hate to advertise for CND, but is my hon. Friend aware that MP1 is available for only £20,000? While not considering purchasing a number plate myself, I take great interest in such matters, as my constituents will do. The reason that I would not consider purchasing a number plate is that DUD1 is perhaps not a good promotion.

My hon. Friend makes his point well. MP1 for £20,000 sounds rather good value, and perhaps the price will rise after this debate, which merely illustrates the point.

The vulnerability to fraud is that until the number plate is assigned to another vehicle the seller has the rights of retention. He might disappear, which makes it hard to get him to sign it over to a new car, or he might even be a criminal who sells it again, which, as he still has ownership, raises interesting legal complexities. That undermines confidence in the system for what has become an established, if not overly critical, part of British life, and if it is to be allowed, it is important that the system is run properly.

The Bill tries to remedy the defects in the system by allowing a person other than the registered keeper of the vehicle that originally had the number plate on it to hold a number on retention. Under the Bill, the number plate could be assigned to a third party who did not, at the moment of sale, have a vehicle to put it on. Clause 1 amends the Secretary of State’s powers, and subsection (1) extends the powers to give a right of retention to someone other than the registered keeper. Subsections (2) and (3) make consequential amendments.

Having had the opportunity, for which I am grateful, to discuss this matter with the Minister, I hope that he will accept those provisions and the structure of the Bill. The upshot of the Bill will be confidence in the system, and a system that is more efficient, with less fraud. I commend it to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on gaining a place—albeit 10th place—in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. I also congratulate him on his choice of Bill. This Bill is exactly what a private Member’s Bill should be: it is short, it addresses a narrow point of law, and it deals with a topic that, as he said, matters to a growing number of people. In the three years between 2002-04 and 2005-06, the number of “cherished transfers” rose from some 260,000 to nearly 300,000, and the number of retentions rose from 146,000 to 189,000.

It is some time since I had a number plate that I might have wished to keep. I was interested to learn about the history, of which I certainly was not aware in the days when I owned my first vehicle, of a Ford Consul Classic with the registration LUO. I confess that my family nickname at the time was “Lulu”. My close family thought it highly appropriate, and used to say that Lulu and LUO made a very good duo. I do not imagine that that number plate could have been of any great value to others, although given the tortuousness of the link I have just described and the strange nicknames that people have, who can tell what it might have meant to them?

Another vehicle, of which I had part-ownership, was a white Mini estate with the registration HOT. The vehicle became known as just that—Hot. I am one of those people who grow rather attached to the cars that they own, and this one, as can be imagined, had a great deal of character. It also gave a great deal of trouble. I was its last owner—part-owner—as it reached the end of its long life. Had I acquired another vehicle at the time, I would probably have considered keeping the number plate and transferring it to the new vehicle. However, that was not to be, and I do not think that in those days people wished to retain number plates on the present scale.

If I had known of the possibility of retention, I might well have wished to exercise such a right, and had I done so, who knows what difficulties might have arisen in the process described by the hon. Member for Croydon, South? I might have wanted to assign the plate––I understand that that is the correct term––and wash my hands of it as the idea lost its attraction and my enthusiasm waned; meanwhile, a friend might have wanted to keep the option open. I can imagine what a tortuous process might have developed in the passing on of such a desirable number plate.

While I wish the Bill a speedy passage, I have some worries about it, although I was somewhat reassured by what the hon. Gentleman said about the way in which it would assist in preventing fraud. I served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that became the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001, some of whose provisions had a very good provenance. The Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team was established in 1998; I am not sure whether it still exists, or whether it has been consulted on the Bill.

Part 1 of the Act included measures to regulate the motor salvage industry. It provided for the keeping of records, and for the police to have the right of entry to examine them. That is of relevance to the Bill. The Act’s provisions in respect of the regulation of registration plate suppliers, which include powers to control the supply and issue of number plates, must be taken into account. The Act requires number plate suppliers to register, to make suitable checks before selling a number plate, and to keep records of transactions. Sadly, many criminals using vehicles to carry out criminal activity—such as armed robbery, and burglary as vehicles are used to transport stolen goods—put false number plates on those vehicles to avoid detection. Recently, we have also had to consider deep concerns about terrorists and their activities.

The Act regulated the supply of number plates in order to combat vehicle ringing and vehicle cloning. It is important to consider the implications of the Bill in respect of both of those undesirable activities. Ringing is the process of giving the identity of legitimate vehicles that have been seriously damaged or written-off to stolen vehicles. Cloning uses the identity of an existing vehicle to disguise another vehicle. The 2001 Act sought to stamp out both activities.

At that time, there were about 27,000 outlets supplying some 6 million to 7 million plates a year—that amount has probably increased because of increased prosperity and car ownership. About 2 million of those plates were for trade-ins and another 2 million were replacement plates. The volume of business in that area is great, and at that time it was in need of better regulation. Vehicles of a value of £112 million a year were being lost as a result of ringing, and some 20,000 to 40,000 vehicles each year were involved.

Difficulties had arisen in respect of automatic number plate recognition. The Act sought to ensure that the numbers and letters displayed on plates were of a standard font and size that could be recognised by ANPR devices—a role was beginning to be found for cameras to do that at that time. ANPR has become more important for our security as the terrorist threats have increased; we owe much to that technology, which can track vehicle movements.

The Bill is neat and valuable, but it must not create any gaps or loopholes in respect of the Act’s measures, which some of us spent such an interesting time scrutinising in Committee in 2001. The Minister responsible was my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon). Other provisions in the Act also relate to the licensing and registration of vehicles. They ensure that the vehicle licensing process is not open to fraudulent practices, such as those I have referred to.

The Bill’s measures are welcome in as much as they enable the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to conduct its business more effectively in respect of the sale of vehicle registration marks—an area that has been called a “nice little earner” because of the income it can generate—but I encourage the Department for Transport and other stakeholders to undertake a review of the fundamental issues that it is necessary to address to ensure the sustained integrity of the whole registration mark system.

Technological progress presents us with a dilemma. Automatic number plate recognition enables the police to read up to 50 million vehicle movements per day. Advances in processing and printing technology have been such that more than 35,000 retail outlets—compared with 27,000 just a few years ago—are registered with the DVLA to supply motorists with new and replacement vehicle registration marks, which we refer to more frequently as vehicle number plates. Although one new technology has sought to ensure road-user compliance and to deter criminals, another has provided a gateway for non-compliant motorists and criminals to counter such activity. Sadly, despite our best endeavours when scrutinising the 2001 Bill, there is evidence of a growing incidence of vehicle number plate theft. The number of such offences is about 35,000 per year, which is similar to the number when we previously tried to clamp down on them.

One moves the goalposts and tries to resolve one problem, but another emerges. Many other countries have introduced better organised systems to manufacture and distribute vehicle number plates that have the provenance of bank notes, in that they are both security printed and distributed. I suggest to the hon. Member for Croydon, South that now may be the time to implement a more appropriate system in the United Kingdom. We discussed this issue in Committee when we considered the 2001 Bill, and at that time it was thought not entirely necessary. I do not want to over-complicate the Bill before us, which I have described as neat and appropriate, but it does give us an opportunity to reconsider that proposal. It has the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take into account its views on the matter, and that the Minister will when he replies. I am sure that ACPO will have been in touch with my hon. Friend, who will outline the Government’s position in due course.

Although the proposal to enhance number plate manufacture and distribution will go some way toward enhancing road-user compliance, it is also appropriate to encourage key stakeholders to review their enforcement strategies. Although number plate manufacture and distribution remains haphazard, the enforcement procedure against non-compliant number plates also lacks the coherence and effectiveness that modern technology would allow us to introduce.

The MOT regime requires number plates to be compliant, but compliance applies only on the day of the test, and I am also unsure about the rigour with which the requirement is enforced. The Bill is an opportunity for us to revisit the fraudulent use of number plates and to consider introducing greater flexibility to the transfer of cherished number plates, so that it is not just a nice little earner, but contributes to our safety and security and to stamping out the criminal exchange of number plates.

Should there be changes to the MOT regime to reflect European practice, which is to have the first MOT after four years and then every two years—the first is currently after three years—a lighter touch with road user regulation might well warrant a more forceful touch with number plate compliance. The Bill has great merit in seeking greater flexibility in the transfer of number plates that have particular significance to the present, previous or future car owners, although, as we learned from the hon. Member for Croydon, South, it is a question not of transferring ownership, but of reassigning the number plate. In 2005-06, the volume of such transactions under the cherished transfer scheme was approaching 500,000, and I dare say that it has increased since then, so we need to err on the side of caution when considering how to introduce flexibility.

The current arrangements are certainly inflexible beyond what is necessary. Only the registered keeper of the donor vehicle is entitled to place a registration mark on retention. Once held on retention, the mark may be assigned only to a vehicle registered in the name of the grantee or the nominee. As entitlement to the registration mark may not be passed on while it is held on retention, the nominee does not have a legal entitlement to the mark before its assignment by the grantee of the vehicle, but that creates difficulties. As has been outlined, the grantee may not dispose of his entitlement to the registration mark, but must remain involved in the process until it is properly assigned to the nominee’s vehicle.

Although I have described how the process could be painful and bureaucratic, even in the hands of well-meaning people, I would want to be sure that all the necessary end-to-end testing has been done on the relevant computer systems to ensure that the greater flexibility that the Bill seeks to achieve would not come at the expense of opening up loopholes. We have all seen how the ineffective scrutiny of computer systems has let down the implementation of all sorts of different policies. Therefore, it is well worth taking the time to ensure that the complex computer systems that underpin the anti-crime and anti-fraud measures that have been introduced in recent years to stop the illegal and inappropriate transfer of number plates are maintained, and that there are no potential loopholes. We must not water down the provisions that we have introduced or undo the good work that we tried to put in place through the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001.

We are running to stand still in trying to stamp out the fraudulent use of number plates and transfer of vehicles, and we must take into account all the stakeholders, including ACPO. In considering the Bill, I have looked at the regulatory impact assessment, which covers most of the ground that one would expect. It gives a coherent outline of the rationale for Government intervention in this area at this time, and deals with the consultation. It says that there has been informal consultation

“between the Agency and representatives of the cherished number industry”,

but that was back in 1999-2000, when it was agreed that the enhancement to the existing retention facility should be introduced at the earliest opportunity. It certainly is not my intention to delay that any further, but the regulatory impact assessment does not refer to ACPO or any of the crime prevention organisations that might take an interest in this. It has considered two options.

Option one is to continue with the status quo. The only mention in the regulatory impact assessment of the fraud issues that I raised is:

“The existing arrangements were drawn up very tightly in 1983 to counter problems with abuse of the system. It is the Agency’s view that the safeguards resulting from electronic links with the vehicle record now mean that these arrangements are unduly restrictive.”

The changes that were introduced by the Vehicles (Crime) Act will make a difference, but the investigation into the impact of that change must be thorough to ensure that we avoid some of the difficulties that have arisen from improperly scrutinised changes to important public policy such as we are dealing with in the Bill.

Option 2 will allow the seller to make a clean-break sale, and the registration mark dealer will have entitlement to the registration mark and thereby avoid the three-cornered sales transactions that can be so tortuous, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South described. For traders who purchase retained registration marks speculatively, the gap between entering an agreement with the vendor and identifying an end client can be lengthy, and under the new facility traders can acquire entitlement to a registration mark from the outset and have much more autonomy over the process.

I recommend to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Minister that these important fraud issues are carefully considered. When the Minister sets out the Government’s position, will he look at the regulatory impact assessment to see whether, as I have suggested, there should be further consultation to ensure that all the loopholes and issues of concern that I have raised can be properly covered? The regulatory impact assessment covers a lot of what we hoped it would cover, and gives quite a good account of why the Government should intervene, although it does not do so as fully as it might.

I hope that the hon. Member for Croydon, South will see the benefit of considering the issues in more detail. The sheer volume is shown in the regulatory impact assessment. There were 259,599 cherished transfers in 2003-04 and 297,339 in 2005-06; and there were 146,845 retentions in 2003-04 and 189,980 just three years later. That totals 500,000 transactions, and we must keep a close eye on them. There may be savings under the proposed new arrangements for number dealer businesses in the resource and administrative costs associated with contact between trader and vendor, but we must ensure that the efficiency and saving for those involved in the trade is not at the expense of the ability of the police to use automated number plate recognition devices to underpin our safety.

I am sure that, like all Members who seek to put a Bill on the statute book, the hon. Gentleman will not want a Bill associated with his name to lack proper scrutiny and to have unforeseen side-effects and will want people to refer to the Ottaway Act, as I am sure it will be known, not with contempt and disdain, but with admiration and thanks.

I wish to ensure that, as the Bill moves into Committee—as I hope will be agreed later—scrutiny there picks up on some of the issues that I have mentioned. When my hon. Friend the Minister sums up, I look forward to what he will say to ensure that the Bill does precisely what it sets out to do and does not bring with it all the side-effects that I have set out at considerable length. I hope that both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister will understand that, having spent a good number of hours on the Standing Committee of what is now the Vehicles (Crime) Act I would not want to see all that go to waste while introducing what is in essence a good and appropriate flexibility in relation to this important trade.

I too support the Bill of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), which amends another Bill with a personalised acronym, the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994—otherwise known as VERA. In Bolton the mayoral car carries the registration plate WH1. We have had offers for that plate in the past, but Bolton council has always refused to sell it, because of its history and long-standing connections with the town. However, we have never had a year like this one: the present mayor is Walter Hall—the first man of that name to be a mayor of Bolton. Walter Hall is proudly being conveyed around the town in a car that carries his own personalised number plate. Our neighbouring town of Bury has been forced to sell a painting by Lowry to subsidise the budget this year. If there is anyone out there willing to make me an offer for WH1 that reaches the price of a Lowry, perhaps we might part with it.

I hope that my hon. Friend is not going to resume his seat without telling us why the mayor of Bolton has the number plate WH1 in the first place.

I was hoping that the Minister would not ask me that question, because I cannot tell him the answer at the moment. Perhaps I will write to him.

It occurs to me that WH are the initials of William Hill. That family probably have considerable resources, so the mayoral car number plate may well have a value that means that it has to be disposed of.

I am pleased to be conducting this Dutch auction in the House today. I await the correspondence that will undoubtedly flood in. [Interruption.]

It has just been pointed out from the Opposition Benches that a former leader of the Conservative party, who I understand now has a reasonably good income, might well be interested in the number plate.

Being on this side of the House, I would never mention former leaders of the Conservative party.

I am a driver, and when I drive around the roads of Great Britain I have two hobby-horses—but I can ride only one of them this afternoon: the one about number plates. The second hobby-horse is about the number of vehicles on our roads with inadequate lighting at both front and rear. I know that lights are expensive to renew, but it is dangerous to travel in that way.

My first hobby-horse is number plate recognition. When I spent 30 days with Greater Manchester police I was on traffic control for two complete shifts in a Range Rover fitted with one of the first pilot automatic number plate recognition readers. I was amazed even at that time—the technology is much better today—by how much information the police drivers could get about a vehicle in front of us. They could tell whether it was a stolen car and whether the insurance and road tax had been paid, and get other information relevant to the work of the police, too. However, there were often problems in recognising number plates, many of which were personalised, and the Bill is about personalised number plates.

Undoubtedly, the market for personalised number plates has taken off in a big way. Occasionally I flick through the advertisement pages of my Sunday newspaper, or even the daily papers, and I see long columns of number plates for sale. I must say that they are sometimes rather esoteric, and I wonder whether anyone would ever buy some of the combinations of letters and numbers, but there must be a trade in them. Obviously, people’s initials are a driving force. It is often difficult to read the advertisements; I have to take a magnifying glass out occasionally, because they are in such a small font, but perhaps that is because of my age.

I am astonished by the price of personalised number plates, and some figures have already been mentioned. When I look at the prices, I think that people must have more money than sense, yet the prices are increasing. It astonishes me that people have enough money to part with a third of a million pounds to buy a number plate that they want for one reason or another. MP1 has been mentioned, and I am surprised that that is worth only £20,000. I wonder how much PM1 is worth.

No, I would not. What I really object to is the appearance of the plates. Sometimes, in order to personalise them completely, people move the letters and the numbers on them. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the fonts, letters and spacing have to conform to regulation standards, but I tell the Minister that we are not policing the way in which standard number plates are produced. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) referred to the number of dealers. There are 35,000 people printing, manufacturing and selling number plates, either to us personally or to dealers, who need them for new cars. We are certainly not policing the way in which those number plates are produced.

As I drive around, I see plates on which the bolt—sometimes there are two bolts—attaching the plate to the car has been deliberately used to alter a letter on the number plate. Unless a person gets extremely close to the car, it is impossible to tell exactly what the number plate reads.

My hon. Friend rightly highlights an important point, and it is an offence to alter number plates in the way that he mentions. He followed closely the passage of the Road Safety Act 2006, and he will be aware that registration plates can now be bought only from authorised dealers. They can no longer be made generally available by anybody else.

Of course that is good news, but it does not get us away from the fact that there are thousands of plates on the road now. When a car goes for an MOT test—whether it is its first test, which takes place when the car is three years old, or its annual test—perhaps the person carrying out the MOT could be given powers to make the driver change the plate back to a regulated plate of the kind that the Minister mentioned. That subject is a hobby-horse of mine; the police and the automatic number plate readers should be able to read plates accurately, so that the police get the right information, which can often help them to catch a serious criminal.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton referred to the fact that nearly 500,000 transactions are carried out via the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but no one has yet mentioned the figures involved in those transfers. If a person wants to make a retention application to the DVLA, it is £25; if they want to transfer a cherished number plate from one vehicle to another, it is £80. If we work out how much money the DVLA collects, as taxpayers we ought to be grateful that transfers of cherished number plates have grown to that extent.

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on his success in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and on introducing his relatively uncontentious Bill in the House? I thank the Minister, too, for making the explanatory notes available. Like my hon. Friend, I have some experience as a Friday Whip, and endorse his comments about private Members’ Bills. He has chosen a suitable subject, and I congratulate him on his choice. Like many private Members’ Bills that we have debated over the years, it has been fascinating to see lines of debate emerge, and we have had an interesting debate about number plates.

My hon. Friend made an eloquent case for the measures to simplify the process of buying, selling and transferring vehicle registration numbers that the Bill would introduce. The Conservative Front-Bench team supports everything that he said, with one or two important caveats. I should declare an interest—or perhaps make a confession—as I am the owner of a cherished number plate. I say “cherished” rather than “personalised”, because the number plate was purchased by my grandfather about 50 years ago. It was on a company vehicle—hon. Members will probably know that I am an hereditary retailer who has not been abolished quite yet—and as it was part of the fabric of the shop we were reluctant to let it go. In fact, when I go down to the shop, I sometimes think that we are reluctant to let some of the stock go as well.

That number plate has remained in the family, and it is on my car. It causes problems—it does bring recognition, although it does not cause the populace of Uxbridge to mob me with popular acclaim—as people know where I am, and they may see me, so I have to curtail my otherwise interesting travels around the constituency in case they see my car hanging about outside. I believe, as I have said, that the police would recognise it, but that would only be a good thing in my case.

As we know, a registration number normally remains with a vehicle until the vehicle is broken up, destroyed or sent abroad permanently. However, as we have heard, because of the widespread interest in personalised registration numbers, special facilities are provided for motorists who wish to transfer their number. Again, speaking from personal experience, I can say that is quite a complicated procedure, although I make sure that it is part of the deal when I buy a new car, whether second-hand or not, that the transfer is included in the purchase price. Another advantage of those number plates is that as one grows older it is more difficult to remember fancy numbers, but it is easy to remember the number plate that one has had for the past 20 years or more.

The Cherished Numbers Dealers Association says that

“personalised and attractive number plates have become a growth industry, with thousands of motorists now displaying registrations which perhaps represent their initials or advertise their business or profession”.

Many hon. Members may have seen in the local area around Westminster a firm of well-known plumbers that uses registration numbers such as WC40 or LOO 2 OLD, which is a clever way of using those number plates. One of the Bill’s sponsors, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is a great authority on motoring and classic vehicles, chooses to display his membership of the Privy Council on his number plate.

The Cherished Numbers Dealers Association has worked hard over the years to ease the process of buying, selling and transferring number plates through its efforts to introduce discipline and high standards into the industry, by encouraging reputable dealers to join an association, as well as its certificated valuation service and strict code of conduct. As we have heard, the association backs the Bill as a welcome simplification to the current system, as does the DVLA.

Under the present scheme, a vehicle number plate can be held on a retention certificate for 12 months pending its assignment to another vehicle. As we know, while the assignment is pending the number remains the property of the registered keeper. If after 12 months have passed the purchaser has not yet assigned the number, and the registered keeper will not grant an extension or cannot be contacted, ownership reverts to the keeper. There is clearly some potential for fraud inherent in this system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South made clear, the Bill amends to the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. Revised subsection (1) and new subsection (1A) of section 26 allow the Secretary of State to make regulations to provide for the granting of a right of retention of a vehicle’s number plate to be transferred to someone other than the registered keeper of the vehicle. In other words, the keeper would be able to grant retention rights directly to the purchaser. According to the CNDA, not only would this change make the process of buying, selling and transferring cherished number plates easier for the consumer and the industry, but it would provide greater protection for the buyer, shutting down the existing potential for fraud in the process.

I see the logic of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, which was also made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South—but is he convinced that the new arrangements do not introduce any new loopholes or any new possibility of fraud? Does he agree that that should be considered in Committee?

That is very much the position that we take on the Front Bench. Although we welcome the Bill, we want to make sure that in Committee—if it goes to Committee, as I sincerely hope it will—we do not allow any further scope for wrongdoing. It is important that the Bill is watertight.

Already we have a problem on the country’s roads with a large and increasing number of rogue drivers, by which I mean drivers who are disqualified, without insurance and in unregistered cars, and who regularly flout the law. They endanger themselves and others on our roads. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has uncovered figures that show soaring numbers of people being caught for driving while disqualified—a leap of 20 per cent. since 1997. Other figures show that there are as many as 2.3 million unlicensed vehicles on the roads.

Those are worrying figures. Apart from the obvious problems, so many unlicensed vehicles could cause a problem for the Government’s proposals for a “spy in the sky” road user charging regime—which, happily, are a debate for another time. If the Government are to make significant improvements in road safety, they must get a grip on who is driving on our roads. I am sure the Minister will say that the Government are looking at ways of achieving that. It is an important matter.

Part of the problem is that in many parts of the country, police forces rely on cameras rather than uniformed officers. I am not convinced that the Government are getting to grips with the problem. Speed cameras cannot detect whether a car is licensed or taxed, or indeed whether the driver is over the legal drink-driving limit. Whatever their merits, speed cameras are no replacement for road traffic police.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that this week, at the request of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the shadow Transport spokesman, I placed in the Library a copy of a letter written by myself and my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to all chief constables, pointing out to them the importance that the Government attach to road policing, and the need for them to ensure that appropriate resources are allocated to precisely the issues that the hon. Gentleman is speaking about.

I thank the Minister, and I am glad that the Government have responded to my hon. Friend.

Other than seeking those simple assurances, the Opposition are happy to see this sensible simplification, which if implemented properly will help the industry and the consumer. I hope that the Bill will receive its Second Reading and go forward to Committee for further scrutiny.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on his success in the ballot and his choice of Bill. He is absolutely right. When one comes 10th in the ballot one can either make a gesture or do a little bit of good, and he has chosen to do a little bit of good. I am not suggesting for one minute that it will dramatically reform any particular piece of legislation or affect large numbers of people, but as a result of the Bill, which I hope will receive its Second Reading today, a few people will find their lives a bit easier and find themselves a little less likely to be cheated, and, I hope, able to make slightly more profit out of their livings in the future.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). He talked about his family firm, at which point my Parliamentary Private Secretary told me that he was held up on the Uxbridge road behind one of the hon. Gentleman’s family firm’s vans this very morning. I was also interested to hear that he inherited from his grandfather a cherished number plate. I did not inherit a cherished number plate from my grandfather, because for one thing he did not have a car. But his great claim to fame was that before off-course betting was legal, he had a bookmaker to whom he had to identify himself by a code name, which was Lucifer. The hon. Gentleman can imagine how it appeared to me as a little boy, brought up in a Catholic family, when I heard my grandfather say, “This is Lucifer here.” Sadly, that was not translated into a cherished number plate that I could take over.

The registration of motor vehicles in the United Kingdom began in 1903 with the introduction of the Motor Car Act. It was the first legislation to require the registration of motor vehicles and included the requirement to display vehicle registration plates. Hon. Members will be interested to know that it went further than that and introduced registration fees for vehicles and for drivers. The registration fee for a vehicle was set at 20 shillings and for a driver at 5 shillings. The Bill also introduced for the first time a variety of offences for speeding and reckless driving, and it raised the speed limit to the grand and probably frightening speed at the time of 20 mph. Fines were also introduced for driving unlicensed vehicles. I am sure that our far-sighted predecessors who introduced that Bill would have introduced speed cameras, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but unfortunately the box Brownie had been invented only three years earlier and probably would not have been quite so effective as the modern-day equivalent.

Since then, there has been a variety of reforms to road traffic and vehicle numbers legislation. That particular Motor Car Act was not the one that introduced petrol duties, although they came in soon after in 1908 in a Finance Act, when petrol duty was set at 3p a gallon. If we have any younger citizens listening to us today, that is three old pence, rather than three new pence, so slightly more than 1p per gallon of petrol.

Things have changed since then. The licensing of vehicles has passed through a variety of organisations, through local councils and into the hands of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which is now responsible for the registration of vehicles kept on public roads on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Equally, the legislation has moved on. That function is now carried out in accordance with the requirements of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, as amended, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) correctly described by its acronym, VERA.

I thank the Minister for giving way and am sorry to stop him in mid-flow. Does he share my regret that since the responsibility for registration passed from county councils to the DVLA, one cannot recognise a vehicle’s county of origin from its registration number? That is a shame, because there was a certain pride in seeing cars from one’s own county in far-flung spots.

Yes, I think that we have lost something, because one could always tell where a vehicle was from. There is still a connection between the registration and the place where a vehicle was registered, but it is far less easy to identify than it used to be. That is partly because back in 1903, when the Motor Car Act was introduced, there were precisely 5,000 vehicles on the road. We now have 33 million of them, so number plates must clearly be different.

The other piece of legislation that covers such matters is the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002. The registration and licensing process plays an important part in identifying vehicles and their keepers. As my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, South-East and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) have said, identifying vehicles and their keepers relates to road safety as well as the collection of revenue. Incidentally, this is the first time that I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East make a speech touching on road safety in which he has resisted the temptation to discuss retro-reflective tape.

The main functions of licensing and identifying vehicles remain the principles behind the vehicle register held at the DVLA today. The registered keeper of the vehicle is the person responsible for keeping, using and licensing it, who may not necessarily be the vehicle’s legal owner. The legal ownership of a vehicle is a civil matter, usually established by a “bill of sale” or other document of title. There is a statutory obligation on the vehicle keeper to notify the DVLA when a vehicle is disposed of.

The registration of vehicles is performed by the DVLA, local offices or motor dealers with the appropriate computerised links. Motor dealers with that facility subsequently send the first licensing and registration details to the DVLA, where the information is then held on the central computer record. As I have said, there are currently in excess of 33 million licensed vehicle records held at the DVLA.

When a vehicle is first registered and licensed, it is allocated a vehicle registration mark. Vehicle registration marks are not items of property in their own right, so it is not possible to acquire legal title to them. Registration marks are assigned to, and may be withdrawn from, vehicles rather than keepers by the Secretary of State as part of the registration and licensing process required by law. Furthermore, the DVLA on behalf of the Secretary of State can withhold registration marks, if the mark is likely to cause general offence or embarrassment if displayed on a vehicle.

Marks can be withheld for a number of reasons, for example, on the grounds of political, racial and religious sensitivities or simply because they are regarded as in poor taste. Indeed, I have recently had cause to withdraw a registration mark because the initials had unfortunate historical connotations—it spelled out an organisation associated with the Nazi party. In recent months, I have also had cause to initiate the withdrawal of a number plate that was clearly homophobic.

Another consideration when assigning registration marks is to ensure that they are easily identifiable. The law requires number plates to be clearly readable. The misrepresentation of number plates can make vehicles difficult to identify and hamper police efforts to trace vehicles involved in incidents such as hit-and-run collisions and serious crimes. Registration marks can be withdrawn if we are advised by the police or other bodies of improper display.

Those are the issues that my hon. Friends mentioned, and I hope that I can give them some assurances. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, in particular, focused on the display of registration marks. The law requires them to be clearly readable, and it is an offence to alter, rearrange or misrepresent the characters in a mark in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish it. There can be a maximum fine of £1,000 for doing so. The reason for that is exactly as my hon. Friend said: it makes it difficult for the police to identify the owner. Moreover, it is difficult to read number plates using automatic number plate recognition systems if they have been mis-spaced or corrupted in any way.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Transport is determined to crack down on the problem, and we are collaborating with the Association of Chief Police Officers in doing so. People who identify number plates that have been so distorted can notify the DVLA. Since we started the scheme in 1999, the agency has received, from 40 participating police forces, more than 5,000 notifications of misrepresented registration marks. A warning letter is sent to each offender telling them to change their plates, and they are told that any further notification of an offence from the police will result in the registration being permanently withdrawn from use. Clearly, if somebody has paid a great deal of money for a number plate, the threat of having it withdrawn from use is a serious deterrent.

The Minister has correctly identified the problem and is explaining the measures that are in place. Are there any measures to deal with similar offences in relation to foreign-registered vehicles? I presume that there could be the same problems, but we do not have jurisdiction over them.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and we are looking into that. Under the Road Safety Act 2006, when a visitor in a foreign vehicle commits an offence, we are able to stop them at the roadside and request from them a deposit equivalent to the fine that they would have to pay if the matter was taken to court and they were found guilty. If the matter goes to court and they are found innocent, they get the deposit back. If it goes to court and they do not turn up, the deposit is retained. If they do not have the deposit, the Act allows us to immobilise the vehicle and keep it until such time as the deposit is paid. We are working with EU member states on processes for identifying the owners of vehicles and ensuring that they pay their fines.

When a registration mark is assigned to a vehicle, it normally remains with that vehicle until it is broken up, destroyed or sent permanently abroad. Since the early days of the registration system, the idea of having a distinctive or personalised registration mark for vehicles has appealed to many citizens. To meet the widespread interest in personalised and cherished marks, the DVLA introduced special facilities to allow vehicle keepers to acquire and retain the use of particular marks. Once a mark is assigned to a vehicle, further movement of that registration mark is subject to the requirements of the cherished transfer and retention schemes.

A market in attractive marks began to gain real momentum in the mid-1970s. A personalised mark may, for example, reflect a person’s initials or date of birth, and a cherished mark may have sentimental value, as we heard from the hon. Member for Uxbridge and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton. In response to growing public demand for attractive marks, in 1989 the DVLA began making available registration marks that had not previously been released for use. Up to that point, the only marks available to trade or transfer were those which were already in use on vehicles.

There is still a steady trade in such numbers, which can range in value from a few hundred pounds to many thousands. The DVLA’s sale of marks scheme made it possible for the first time for individuals to buy the rights to have unissued registration marks assigned to their vehicles. Those marks are perceived as especially desirable and are often purchased to celebrate a specific event such as a birthday or anniversary.

In view of some of the prices paid when such number plates change hands, is my hon. Friend convinced that the DVLA gets a sufficient income from the process?

My hon. Friend has jumped ahead of me, because I was about to say that the marks can range in price from £250 to more than £200,000. She will be delighted to know that in 2006 the income from the sale of such marks since the scheme began in 1989 passed the £1 billion mark. It is good business on the part of the taxpayer to attract such an amount of money.

When the DVLA entered the cherished numbers market in 1989, perhaps a dozen private businesses traded in used registration marks. Today, there are more than 150 registration mark traders. Many traders deal in marks that are already in use on vehicles, as well as trading in unissued marks, which are available only from the DVLA.

Number dealers currently account for some 35 per cent. of the registrations sold by the DVLA. The sale of marks website is one of the most visited in Government, with some 800 million hits each year. In the next two years, the site will be redeveloped to provide online payment and purchasing facilities. That has been prompted by rapid changes in technology and a greater understanding of customer needs and demands. Customers currently research the website on a 24/7 basis for their desired mark but have to make the purchase during office hours.

When buying the rights to display a registration mark, the purchaser does not acquire legal title to that mark. Purchasers acquire only the right to display the registration mark on an eligible vehicle. The services provided by the DVLA for the acquisition, assignment and transfer of registration marks must be operated in a way that does not compromise the fundamental purpose of vehicle registration marks. Strict requirements are therefore in place for those facilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton emphasised that in her contribution. It is vital that we do not allow fraud to occur.

It is always difficult to identify a desirable mark or an offensive mark, or the different ways that people may use to try to cheat any system that we introduce. Thorough processes and procedures therefore need to be in place to ensure that we have covered all those matters.

Does my hon. Friend feel that sufficient consultation has taken place, including with ACPO? As I said earlier, I did not get a sense from the regulatory impact assessment that that had been done, and I would greatly welcome further information.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point. My understanding is that the police are comfortable with the proposed change. However, I promise that, if the House sends the Bill into Committee, we will double-check that the police are happy. I assure her that we do not intend to allow changes to the system that would permit fraud, and we do not believe that the Bill would have that effect. However, the retention facility that the measure aims to amend had to be withdrawn in 1977 because of abuses of the scheme. It is therefore important that we are alive to the possibility.

The increasing value of these marks means that the system is open to abuse, as people will try to find ways to cheat others out of valuable marks and the money that comes with them. The DVLA recognises that there will be circumstances where people will try to cheat the system, which is why the changes have been carefully controlled and the procedures carefully planned.

I am absolutely confident—and can give my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Croydon, South my assurance—that there is no way in which this reform will make it easier to cheat the system. The Bill does not weaken any existing provisions. If it is implemented, all existing standards and legislation will stay in place. As I said, I will check with ACPO to ensure that it remains happy with the scheme.

The Bill’s purpose is to make people’s life just a little bit easier. It will not be necessary to chase the owner of the registration mark each year on retention. The assignment of the right to retention can be made at the point of sale, so people cannot disappear or try to re-sell the mark at any particular time in the future, thereby causing what the hon. Member for Croydon, South identified as a potentially interesting legal situation. We are absolutely confident that these proposals are nothing more than a sensible simplification of the system.

Given that we have seen large reductions in this area of crime, has the Minister consulted his colleagues in the Home Office about the security aspects of the Bill?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Home Office is perfectly happy with the proposed changes. I work closely with my colleagues in the Home Office on such matters. Serious issues of security were identified, which always have to be taken into account, particularly if we are to enforce road legislation and deny criminals the use of the road. I believe that this reform will not make that more difficult. Rather, it will simplify the lives of people trading in number plates and those who decide to sell their registration mark in the future. It will make their transactions slightly more profitable and less open to cheating.

I am delighted to say, on behalf of the Government, that we commend the Bill to the House. We congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing it. If the House agrees that it should go into Committee, I look forward to working with him. We hope that it will go on the statute book in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Public Bill Committee.