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Sale of Registration Marks (Amendment)

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove restrictions on the format of vehicle registration marks; and for connected purposes.

The Bill is deregulatory, revenue-raising and populist. It would give people the ability to choose from a much wider variety of letter and number combinations on their licence plates, which would mean that it was possible to purchase a licence plate that spelt out a word exactly as it reads in the English language. The Bill would give people greater choice and bring in additional millions of pounds for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

I shall outline the background to registration plates, demonstrating that the change is very much in keeping with previous changes, and the type of numbers that could be sold under the Bill; examine the enormous amount of money that would be raised and how some of it could be spent; and deal with some of the valid objections to the Bill, which I believe can be overcome.

Vehicle registration licence plates were introduced in 1903, both as a road safety measure and a revenue-collecting measure. Things developed quickly, from counties allocating numbers—for example, Lancashire allocated A1, A2, A3 and so on—to the need for larger numbers, such as AA1, AA2 and AA3. It was only in 1970 that the DVLA was created and all number plates were centralised.

There have been many changes, the most significant of which may have been in 1989, when a much wider range of letter and number combinations was made available. That was a truly innovative move, but looking back, we can see that it may have been far too cautious. The Bill builds on the work of 1989 and the work of Ministers subsequently.

I shall give some examples of plates that are sold at present and plates that could be sold, so as to compare the two. At present, if I had the money and there was a seller, it would be permissible for me to buy E5 5EX—Essex—but not ESSEX. It would be permissible for me to buy JPD1, but not JPD. I could buy J4 MES, but not JAMES, or S44 FND—Sarfend—but not SOUTHEND in full, which seems completely ridiculous. There could be commercial uses, such as ASDA 1, ASDA 2 or ASDA 3 on lorries. Plumbers could advertise, and there are a number of other examples.

I have consulted widely on the Bill and I particularly thank Richard Kitchen, the policy director of the DVLA, the Department for Transport and a large number of ex-Ministers. In fact, most of the people sponsoring and supporting the Bill are ex-Ministers who speak fondly of some of the modest changes they would have made to deregulate the marketplace. They all told me they wished they had done more at the time—[Hon. Members: “Ah.”] I shall come to that.

I have spoken to the police, the Association of Chief Police Officers and manufacturers of automatic number plate recognition systems, and I shall deal with some of their objections. I have also spoken to the Cherished Numbers Dealers Association—a very good organisation—and, crucially, Roger Williams, who was very helpful, particularly in the early stages. He was one of the DVLA officials who advised former Ministers and he has been instrumental in helping me to develop the Bill, as have other driving organisations such as the AA and members of the CNDA, who both sell registration plates as intermediaries and buy them as investments. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), with whom I have discussed these matters. He is already working on similar issues and I hope the Bill gives him further encouragement to be bold, release a large range of numbers and raise a large amount of money.

The House of Commons Library has set out the amount raised since 1989: £1.3 billion. Last year, more than 250,000 registration plates were put on the marketplace, raising £87 million. They tend to be sold by auction, and the September auction raised about £3 million. Some of that money is spent on DVLA costs and administration, and the rest goes to the Treasury. Organisations such as the AA have suggested that some of the additional money raised under the Bill, which could be as much as £1 billion over the next 10 years, should be used for road safety measures and to deal with some of issues relating to automatic number plate recognition that I shall address.

The original business case in the lead-up to the 1989 change anticipated that a break-even figure of £250,000 would be raised. Single registration plates already raise that amount, and I suspect that we could raise significantly more than even my quite big estimate of an extra £1 billion over 10 years. Online sales are growing at a dramatic rate; ebaymotors.co.uk reported a 23 per cent. increase in sales in 2007, so we are talking about a big marketplace.

I hope that my Bill is not opposed, but I want to talk about some of the potential objections to it, so that we can see how they could be dealt with. The DVLA went through my objections with me, and put them in the category of objections that could, and needed to be, dealt with before we could progress. However, there is an appetite to make progress. By far and away the most serious considerations are those raised by ACPO, the police, the security services and the Home Office about automatic number plate recognition, which is used to counter terrorism. Those problems must be overcome before the Bill progresses.

About 95 per cent. of numbers can be recognised by automatic number plate recognition. It is difficult technology if the car is dirty, if the font has been changed in any way, if a reflective material has been put on the plate, and if the screws are in the wrong place. Crucially, my Bill does not say that we should change anything in the manufacture, construction, design, font or display of number plates, except that it would remove the space. That would allow cherished number plates such as S44 FND to have no space in them, as a space would mean that they lost some of their value.

The objections need to be overcome, but there is a lot of money in the pot to deal with them. Some of the money should go not to the Treasury or the DVLA, but to the automatic number plate recognition people, who would then work alongside the Home Office to sort out some of the problems. That would be good for road safety and for counter-terrorism measures. The 5 per cent. of number plates that cannot be recognised are partly owned by people who are trying to be a bit flashy with their number plates, but that disguises the existence of slightly more sinister individuals—potentially terrorists or more serious criminals.

It has been pointed out to me that our number plates are recognisable around Europe, but they will still have the yellow background and the Union Jack. I think that the Minister has received representations about our using other flags, too. The Department for Transport and the Cherished Numbers Dealers Association have pointed out that there is a recession, and that sometimes number plates are the first thing to be sold, or not bought, in a recession. That may affect the timing of the roll-out of the Bill, but it should not affect the Bill or the principle behind it. There is the issue of rude and offensive language on number plates, but that issue is there already, and it is dealt with satisfactorily.

There are costs associated with the changes; the DVLA estimates them at about £20 million. That seems a lot of money, but even so, the number plate 51 NGH, which is close to spelling “Singh”, was just brought on to the market, and it went for more than £250,000. MR 51NGH and DR 51NGH, or the equivalents in the currently legal plates, will probably go for similar amounts, so we are looking at raising almost £1 million without even having sold 51NGH as a number plate. Given what could be done, £20 million is really quite a small number.

It is also pointed out that there could be confusion between J4 MES and JAMES, but there could be that same confusion between A and 4 in normal number plates. That is not a major issue for number plate recognition. In fact, people who have such number plates want to be recognised, and that will make the numbers more easily recognised. There is also the issue of existing investments. It is important that we drip-feed registration plates into the marketplace; JAMES should not be sold in the same year as J1M, J1MMY or J1MBO, just as the introduction of the 51 NGH plates has been delayed over time.

We are not talking about rich people. In times of recession, perhaps we should be thinking of those who are less well-off, but we have to remember that, in a way, we are talking about a form of voluntary taxation. If someone wants to pay £300,000 for JAMES, that is absolutely acceptable.

There are a number of other points that could be raised, but this is a good Bill, and I am sure that the Minister will want to take it forward. I recommend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by James Duddridge, Dr. Stephen Ladyman, Sir George Young, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Andrew Smith, Richard Ottaway, Mr. Alistair Carmichael and Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Sale of Registration Marks (Amendment)

James Duddridge accordingly presented a Bill to remove restrictions on the format of vehicle registration marks; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 November, and to be printed [Bill 159].