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Regional Flags: Driving Licences and Number Plates

Volume 624: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of regional flags on driving licences and number plates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and to have secured this debate. It is worth while bringing this debate before the House as we begin the process of withdrawing from the European Union. As Members will be aware, we see the EU flag on driving licences and number plates throughout our daily lives. All licences have the EU flag as well as the flag of the United Kingdom. While we can display the EU flag on number plates, at the moment it is optional.

In around two years’ time, the UK will be leaving the European Union. That means that our laws will no longer be influenced by European bureaucrats or politicians and the UK will be an independent sovereign state once again, where motor vehicles will no longer be under EU jurisdiction. The EU flag will disappear from UK licences and number plates. That not only symbolises Brexit, but provides us with a great opportunity to be much more inclusive when it comes to the flags representing different parts of our great United Kingdom. Post-Brexit, a standard UK driving licence will just have the UK flag on it. We will also have number plates that will just display registration numbers and letters. That said, it is worth pointing out that motorists have the option of displaying the Union flag, the cross of St George, the Scottish saltire or the red dragon of Wales, along with the other accompanying identifiers, on their current vehicle number plates. That was legislated for in 2009, and the addition of the Union Jack to driving licences was announced in 2012.

With the EU flag disappearing from both, there is a real opportunity for us to consider displaying flags that represent different parts of Britain. First, I would at least like to see the current rules on number plates extended to driving licences. If motorists are allowed to have the flags of England, Scotland or Wales on their number plates, that should be extended to driving licences too. Where the flag would go on the licence is a minor detail, but considering that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency produces tens of thousands of individual licences every year with individuals’ names, addresses, IDs and other details, I cannot see why it would be any more difficult to include a second flag, which could be chosen by the licence holder.

Alongside the flags of England, Scotland and Wales, I urge the Minister to consider flags from other parts of the United Kingdom. I am a very patriotic Cornishman, and it would give me great delight to see the St Piran’s cross on my driving licence. The flags could go on licences and number plates, but if the Minister is in favour of a slower approach, groups of flags could be extended to number plates first and then to licences, if consultation proved to be positive.

My hon. Friend is making a very strong case. Does he agree that it is not just the people of Cornwall and Devon who would like to have something different on their number plates? I am sure that many people based in Yorkshire would like to have the Yorkshire rose on their number plate, rather than the pretentious and increasingly irrelevant EU flag.

It is almost as if my right hon. Friend has read my mind. Later in my speech I will go on to talk a little about Yorkshire, and he has made a passionate case for his area. The Minister may have concerns about the financial and administrative burden for the DVLA from licences, but when it comes to number plates, many motorists will be willing to pay for new plates displaying the flag of their region or of their choice. That could be a way forward, where motorists are allowed to display a greater variety of flags on number plates at their own cost. That could then be extended to licences at a later date, if that was deemed suitable.

The Minister may be concerned that the proposal may create confusion for authorities overseas when vehicles are taken abroad. To address that, I propose that, should a motorist want to have a flag for their country or county—or, in Cornwall’s case, duchy—the flag could be accompanied by a Union Jack to make it clear that the vehicle was from the United Kingdom.

There are many fascinating flags in this great country of ours that represent the whole of the UK. Ultimately, I think our Union Jack is the best. It represents the union of our four great nations and is looked upon by millions of people around the world as a flag of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of speech. Thankfully, the Union Jack has been reinstated on UK driving licences and is permitted on number plates. People are proud of where they come from, and that should be allowed to be expressed in the form of licences and number plates.

As the former Secretary of State for Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), said on St George’s day in 2013:

“The tapestry of the United Kingdom’s regions and counties binds our nation together...we are championing traditional local identities which continue to run considering the use of regional or county flags, we formally acknowledge the continuing role of our traditional counties in our united country’s public and cultural life. This government is championing local communities, continuing to cherish and celebrate traditional ties and community spirit.”

That brings me on to my favourite flag, the black and white flag of St Piran, which represents a symbol of many people’s Cornish identity.

Although not a country, Cornwall is the duchy. Its Cornish population has been granted national minority status under the European Council’s framework. I have been conducting constituency surveys through communities in North Cornwall. When asked about having the option of the St Piran’s flag on their driving licence or number plate, a big majority say that they would like that to be considered. This debate goes far beyond the St Piran’s flag. The point of having the debate today is to give Members the opportunity to voice any support they have for flags within their areas of the UK. In England, for example, that could include the flag of Yorkshire, with its white rose, the flag of the Isle of Wight, with its diamond shape hovering above the ocean waves, or the Invicta flag of Kent, with its white horse against a red background. In Scotland, it could include the flag of Caithness, with its blue and gold cross representing its beaches and seas. In Wales, it could include the flag of Anglesey, with its three yellow dragons. At this point, this is purely a debate. The Minister cannot go into too much detail on the prospect or any ideas that he has, because of the Brexit process, but I would welcome his thoughts and those of fellow Members.

In conclusion, the United Kingdom is a collection of many different areas that have proud histories, identities and cultures. As we extricate ourselves from the European Union and embrace the brighter future of our sovereignty, it is worth having a debate about the idea of flags on driving licences and number plates. I will now be glad to sit and listen to what other MPs and the Government have to say on the record. [Interruption.]

I am sorry, Mr Nuttall, but I was stunned by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann). I thank you for the opportunity to speak and I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. We share an office and have discussed this subject many times. His constituency is North Cornwall, while mine is the furthest west it is possible to get, and as he said, our constituents say they would like to see flags on driving licences and number plates.

I know that the Government are ambitious for local areas and are keen to devolve more responsibility to them. They want local areas such as Cornwall to seize the day and take charge of their own destiny. They want to promote regional strength and identity, and of course they want to make a success of exiting the EU. Cornwall is a place of significant interest. Those of us who live there are immensely proud of our heritage, our culture, our natural environment and how we work together as a community to help and care for one another. We know that is true, and every year tens of thousands flock down to see us and covet all that Cornwall is and stands for. Cornwall is a special place in the UK, and I make no apology for asking for special treatment from time to time. My hon. Friend was very generous in describing the various flags that could go on licences or number plates. As far as I am concerned, Cornwall would be a perfect pilot for this. I am ambitious for Cornwall to lead the way in having the St Piran’s flag on number plates and licences.

Cornwall wants to be treated fairly, but we also want more attention than we perhaps get at the moment. On this occasion, our request is straightforward and in the gift of the UK Government, once we leave the EU. My hon. Friend and I are simply arguing that Cornish residents, if they choose, can celebrate Cornish identity by placing our Cornish flag, the St Piran’s flag, on driving licences when they are issued or replaced, and also on vehicle registration plates.

As my hon. Friend said, since 2009 it has been legal to display the Union flag, the cross of St George, the Scottish saltire and the red dragon of Wales on vehicle number plates. Extending that right to Cornish residents and to other regions would be welcomed by my constituents and others elsewhere. Permitting motorists to display the flag of St Piran on their vehicles is a relatively simple yet effective way of enabling people to proclaim their Cornish identity, and I know that many residents in the county would be proud to do so. With modern technology, that cannot be beyond the wit of man. Any costs incurred could easily be recovered from the charges already payable for driving licences and number plates.

I am keen not to prolong this debate more than necessary, so to conclude, Cornwall is a unique and special place. I am unbelievably proud to represent the far south-west of the county. Once Britain has left the EU, there will be more opportunity to safeguard and promote our Cornish identity. Allowing such measures on licences and registration plates provides a tangible way in which a local area can celebrate its heritage, culture and identity. I believe that it would be a great way to celebrate the new Great Britain that we want, post-membership of the EU.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate. I loved his line about an independent, sovereign state, which is something that has been close to my heart for a long time. I hope to see Scotland as an independent, sovereign state in relatively short order.

We can all support the principle of being able to choose to show a regional or national identity in flags on driving licences and number plates. We should be open to the ability for people to choose the representation to promote their individual area and the nation that they are from—it is incumbent on us to be as open as possible. I fully support the choice for the option of the St Piran’s cross and for it to be set next to the Union flag or indeed the cross of St George. Similarly, in Scotland, if the good people of Caithness want to have their flag next to the saltire on their driving licence, that is something that should be taken forward too. There is lots to agree here and there should be flexibility from the Minister in how that goes forward.

I will be brief in my summing up, because, although we can say that we agree with the principle, it is difficult to pick a lot to challenge. But I would say this: while there is a collective rubbing of hands of some people who favour the Brexit position and cannot wait to exit the European Union, I would remind people that the European flag has been a symbol of free movement across Europe. When that symbol is connected with and on vehicles, it shows how easy it is for people to move from one country to another without any restriction.

One of the biggest challenges coming is not the question of what flag will be on a hon. Member’s or a member of the public’s number plate. It will be what happens to the customs rules, cabotage arrangements and people’s ability to move around and do business in Europe. Although we are enjoying a debate about flags, there are serious issues to be dealt with by the Government. As of yet—the Minister will know this well, because he has been challenged many times by me directly—there are no answers on what is happening with free movement.

The ability for people to choose, and to reflect their area, should be supported, and, as regards the main thrust of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, I absolutely support people’s ability to make that choice. They should have the choice nationally; they should have the choice regionally.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Nuttall. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on initiating the debate. In the light of the Prime Minister’s decision to invoke article 50 last month, and ahead of the general election in June, it is right that we discuss in this place the many and varied ramifications of leaving the European Union, from the big issues right down to what some might see as the finer detail about the symbols that appear on our driving licences and number plates. Detail it may be, but it is important nevertheless, because symbols matter. The questions of who we are as a society and as a country and who we identify with are at the heart of the decision taken last June, so the significance of these issues should not be underestimated. I still carry my “Sack Boris” Oyster card holder from previous London mayoral contests, partly because its message is timeless, but also because it makes a small statement. Doubtless others could cite similar examples.

On the issue of number plates and driving licences, as things stand, the United Kingdom is still a member of the European Union, and as such we operate within the body of EU legislation to which we have agreed. Accordingly, it is clear that we are not at the moment in a position to introduce regional flags on driving licences and number plates, because only the use of national symbols is permitted. With regard to number plates, the relevant legislation is regulation 16 of the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001. That allows the display of

“the international distinguishing sign of the United Kingdom”.

Although it was not until April 2009 that the UK Government introduced regulations to permit the display of national symbols, we now see number plates bearing not just the Union flag, but, as we have heard, the cross of St George, the saltire and the red dragon of Wales, as well as letters denoting the UK or one of the individual nations that form the Union.

The EU legislation relating to photocard driving licences is set out in annex I to the third driving licence directive and came into force in January 2013. It states:

“After consulting the Commission, Member States may add colours or markings, such as bar codes and national symbols”.

Since July 2015, all photocard licences issued in England, Scotland and Wales have carried the Union flag alongside the EU flag. However, unlike with vehicle registration plates, symbols of individual nations within the UK are not permitted on driving licences. That has led to some consternation in certain areas of the country; in fact, I am reliably informed that it has even spawned a thriving cottage industry in very small stickers of saltires and Welsh dragons for those who wish to accessorise their driving licence. It does seem inconsistent that number plates are permitted to bear a number of symbols of the various nations that make up the United Kingdom, whereas driving licences are allowed to bear only the Union flag.

The responsibility for deciding which national symbols are put on UK driving licences rests with the Secretary of State for Transport, except in Northern Ireland, where that power has been transferred to the Department of the Environment. As the EU directive does not explicate what constitutes a national symbol, the Secretary of State has to determine what, if any, national symbol they would like to introduce, and consult the EU Commission. That is perhaps the crux of this discussion— what constitutes a nation? That is a very big question indeed and one that, as we know, can both inspire and divide and so has to be handled with care and discretion.

Of course, the party of nations and English regions is Labour, unlike the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who tore asunder our regional structures in the last Parliament—an act of vandalism that Vince Cable famously described as “Maoist”. In the spirit of supporting thriving and healthy regions, I happily endorse the notion of regional symbols, but I gently say to the Minister—

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how far he would go in deregulating in this area if he was in office? For example, would he go beyond regional symbols and allow other symbols, such as a motif or artwork used by a sports club or local car club?

I have to say that our detailed policy discussions in the run-up to the general election have not extended to that level of detail so far. It is an interesting suggestion that I will happily consider in the future, but for the moment I will concentrate on regional symbols. The point I was about to make to the Minister is that symbols are important, but if one is to have a symbol for a region, there needs to be a region first; I suggest that that is where we ought to head back to. However, that is possibly a bigger debate for another day.

I conclude by giving an assurance that a Labour Government will bring the policies on number plates and driving licences into line with one another so that, if nothing else, we have consistency. If that helps to build community, solidarity and a positive sense of identity in our nations and regions, that can only be a good thing.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate about the use of regional or national flags on driving licences and number plates? I welcome this opportunity, because this is clearly an area of much interest to colleagues from all over our country.

We all know that, on 23 June last year, we voted as a nation to leave the EU. My hon. Friend is correct that many opportunities will arise from that decision. For example, one of the many implications may well be that we will be able to alter the design and components of our driving licences and number plates. I will take each issue separately, and I will start by commenting upon driving licences, which is actually quite a complex area.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has been issuing driving licences since 1973. It holds the records of around 47 million drivers and issues around 11 million licences each year. While I appreciate that my hon. Friend and other colleagues see the outcome of the referendum as an opportunity to include regional flags on our driving licences, I have to highlight that that could have practical implications that I ought to share with the House. There would be an administrative burden on the DVLA, and associated costs that would, in due course, be passed on to motorists .

I will explain a bit about the photocard driving licence itself. As we are all aware, there are different designs for a provisional licence and a full driving licence. At first glance, the driving licence looks a little like a credit card. It is credit card-sized and is plastic, and it contains a photograph and some details about the driver, including their name, address and the vehicles that they are entitled to drive. However, it is much more sophisticated than that. For example, it is made entirely from polycarbonate and is built up of multiple layers. It has been rigorously tested to the highest standards to ensure that it complies with international security standards, and to ensure that it is fit for purpose and will retain its integrity for the 10 years of its lifespan.

In terms of the licence’s production, the DVLA is supplied with base cards, which arrive at the DVLA containing only the title—“DRIVING LICENCE”—the Euro flag, the Union flag and the background print; everything else is printed on-site. The driver’s photograph is actually not so much printed, as one might expect, but laser etched on to the polycarbonate material. The driving licence has many other security features, and is therefore one of the most secure and recognisable public documents that we have.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government introduced a new driving licence design in 2015 that incorporated the Union flag. When that change was made, the DVLA explored the possibility of giving drivers the option of having the Union flag on their licence or not, so some of the thinking on the prospect of consumer choice has been started. That work showed that the cost to the DVLA would be between about £14 million to £20 million, and it would potentially take two years to implement. The Government decided, therefore, to include the Union flag on all driving licences, without offering a choice, to underpin the sense of national identity and pride that we all share, notwithstanding that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) may take a slightly different view of that. Overall I think there is pride in our national flag and our identity as British citizens.

At the same time the DVLA looked at whether it would be desirable to offer drivers the option to have other symbols on their driving licence, such as the cross of St George, the saltire, the red dragon of Wales or indeed, potentially, the cross of St Piran. While it may seem a simple undertaking to give motorists a choice of what to display on their licence, the cost of doing so was even greater than the cost of providing an optional Union flag, which I mentioned earlier. If the optional element is removed—for example if all licences in Scotland were issued showing the saltire—that obviously would have a cost implication, by reducing it. Then, of course, there would be further complications; how would the distribution of the design be decided? Would it be a question of where the driver lived? Of course Scots live right across the United Kingdom, and people from other parts of the country live in Scotland. That presents some quite complicated operational implications for the DVLA.

There are also some potential road safety and security risks. Among the most obvious would be the credibility of our driving licence in the eyes of foreign enforcement agencies. When so many people from the UK drive in places around the world, the recognisability of our licence is a valuable asset.

Does the Minister agree that currently, with the EU symbol on the driving licence, that problem is greatly lessened, and that by choosing hard Brexit, without taking into account cabotage and customs or keeping access to the EU, the Government will create problems for drivers?

I fear that that is potentially temptation to rerun the referendum debate. We have been there, and we need to come together and implement the decision of the British people. Obviously, there are practical implications, some of which are risks, and some opportunities. The key thing, of course, is to make sure that we have the best possible deal for the country, and far more opportunity than risk.

My point about the interoperability and recognisability of driving licences is reasonable, because they are perhaps the most common form of identity document that people use. They are not designed to be an identity document but they are used for that purpose in many cases, and it is important that a driving licence should be a robust and secure document that retains its identity. A further implication is that its integrity should not be compromised by more fake licences being in circulation. A lack of familiarity with the licence could of course make it easier for fakes to go undetected.

We estimated what might happen if each county or region were allowed a design. I recognise that few parts of the country have the sense of identity that Cornwall has—

I am coming on to Yorkshire. We have heard from two proud and passionate Cornishmen in the debate, speaking up for their county, as ever; but other parts of the country also have strong identities. I am a proud Yorkshireman and I think nowhere beyond Yorkshire and Cornwall can match that sense of identity. However, I am treading into dangerous territory, and that is partly the point. We would be treading on regional and county identities that are very complicated. I notice that even within the ceremonial county of Cornwall the Isles of Scilly have their own flag, and their population is just over 2,000, with just 600 vehicles registered on the islands. They may want their own flag displayed on their licences, and I am sure that that would apply to many parts of the country. There are strong affiliations and loyalties across our marvellous, united nation.

Building various designs into the card manufacturing process would obviously have an impact on printing and despatch costs for the DVLA and would also have implications for turnaround time. All those points need to be considered as we take the debate forward.

We have regional identities on our number plates. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the registration number is a unique means of identifying a vehicle for taxation, law enforcement and road safety purposes. It has a proper and significant practical implication. It is important that the police are able to quickly identify a vehicle and that witnesses are able to recall registration marks. To that end, the law requires that number plates are clearly and easily readable.

The rules regarding what can be displayed on number plates, including any optional regional flags, are specified in UK law. Those rules simply ensure safety on our roads. They support the police and other enforcement agencies in identifying vehicles to prevent and detect crime, particularly through the use of automatic number plate recognition cameras. With that in mind, the law has to be specific about what information can be shown on a number plate, to minimise and prevent the use of unlawful products.

Currently in the UK only number plates supplied by official registered suppliers can be displayed on a vehicle. Registered number plate suppliers are fully aware of what is allowed to be displayed and must ensure that the number plates they supply meet legal standards and that adequate sales records are maintained. In addition to display of the registration number, the law provides for the voluntary use of specific national identifiers or the display of the EU flag, if people wish it.

The display of the EU flag with the inclusion of a GB identifier is called a europlate. It enables motorists to travel across the EU without the need to display the conventional oval GB—either a sticker or a little banner—to identify the member state in which the vehicle is registered. Currently UK motorists travelling within the EU can display either the europlate or the traditional oval sticker. Vehicles registered in the UK and travelling outside the EU have no choice but to use the oval sticker.

As we move closer to leaving the European Union, will the Minister look again at this? It seems to me that as long as a number plate is clear and can be read and understood, if someone wants to personalise their number plate modestly, we should not stand in the way of them so doing.

I recognise that we are moving into a place where the old rules will cease to apply, and we can determine more as we wish, but I will come to my right hon. Friend’s point.

The law changed in 2009 to allow the voluntary display of either the European flag or UK national flags, so we have choice in the area of number plates. Motorists can choose between the Union flag, the cross of St George, the saltire or the red dragon of Wales on their number plates. The display of a national flag or the EU flag is a matter of personal choice; nobody is compelled to decide one way or the other.

We have strong regional and national identities within our United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall highlighted the recognition of Cornwall, but that applies to many other parts of our country. It is fantastic that we have such a diverse and unique cultural mix in our different nations and parts of our nations, in which people take great pride. I am certainly a proud Yorkshireman, particularly when it comes to cricketing matters.

Any proposals to allow a wide range of flags or regional identifiers to be displayed on number plates have to take into account the wishes of wide groups in other parts of our countries. Choosing the regional identifier would be complicated. We would also have to ensure that it worked from a law enforcement perspective. So there are practical implications, road safety implications and law enforcement implications, and it is a brave person who treads too far into the area of regional identity.

I entirely recognise the strong desire to reflect the pride that we feel in our different parts of the United Kingdom. We are at the start of a process. I am not saying either yes or no; we are simply at too early a stage in this process to decide. However, I recognise that there are opportunities. I regard this debate as the start of our national conversation about what we would like to have on our driving licences and on our number plates. I also recognise that technology presents opportunities to personalise and to print, but I have also tried to explain that there are some significant practical implications from a DVLA perspective and from a law enforcement agency perspective. There are cost implications as well.

I recognise the proud and passionate pleas from our Cornish colleagues, and I have great sympathy with them. I also recognise that we will receive messages from all parts of our country and I hope that everybody will contribute as we decide what our licences and number plates look like, as we leave the EU and have the freedom to make our own decisions.

We have had an excellent discussion and this has been a very worthwhile debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) made some great interventions; my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) made a very passionate case for his part of Cornwall; the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) made some interesting and valid points, although I do not agree completely with some of the things he said; and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) also made some very valid and interesting points.

I thank the Minister for listening. Obviously, we will not be here in Parliament for much longer, but it would be nice to come back and re-engage in this debate in a few weeks or months. I thank him for listening to the debate and I hope that he will consider this matter in the future if he is back in his position and I am back in mine.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the use of regional flags on driving licences and number plates.

Sitting adjourned.