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Vehicle Registration Marks Bill

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Haskel) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Retention of registration marks pending transfer]:

moved the amendment:

Clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(1B) Any regulations made under subsection (1) shall provide for any plate displaying a registration mark which is to be assigned to another vehicle under those regulations to be manufactured, distributed and fitted in an approved manner.”

The noble Lord said: I declare my interest as chairman of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance and the associated parliamentary group dedicated to the reduction of vehicle-related crime and disorder. I offer my thanks to the Public Bill Office for its help in drafting this amendment and to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for the copy of the letter he sent to my noble friend, which was most helpful.

This amendment aims to capture many of the comments and concerns expressed at Second Reading and subsequently. ACPO’s vehicle crime intelligence service has received extensive media coverage of its call for fundamental changes to the manufacture and supply of vehicle number plates. In addition, I am aware of the recent correspondence from the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science which reminded the Government of their recommendations which advocate similar changes. It must be acknowledged that the great majority of concerns expressed focus on general issues associated with number plates and the aim of this amendment is to encapsulate those matters in a way that makes them meaningful in the context of the Bill.

In situations where vehicle registration marks are being retained pending transfer, the Bill is amended so that it is possible to specify the manufacture, distribution and fitment of the number plates associated with the transaction when they appear on a vehicle. The purpose of the amendment is to help to establish that such a requirement is needed and appropriate for all new and replacement number plates on all vehicles in future. On this occasion, one might consider that we are paving the way for a small test market prior to national expansion.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the number plate marketplace is falling into disrepute. Thefts of number plates are increasingly prevalent and are considerably in excess of 40,000 per year. It is a relatively new crime that surfaced with the introduction of the London congestion charge in 2003. Bearing in mind the growing interest in road-pricing schemes and the considerable policing investment in automatic number plate recognition, it must be appropriate to seek to establish a revised marketplace for number plates which is more fit for purpose in the new century.

I commend this amendment as an enabling procedure that allows the Minister to start to move forward on the matter of gaining more control of the manufacture, supply and fitment of number plates in such a way that will ultimately lead to them to having a provenance comparable to that of bank notes or, perhaps more accurately, vehicle passports. I beg to move.

My noble friend Lord Bradshaw added his name to this amendment and has asked me to make one or two comments in support of it. His primary concern is about the fact that it is now increasingly possibly to put electronic chips into number plates to rule out stealing number plates or changing them to avoid charges in a congestion area, or what I think is called “bilking” at petrol stations—which is driving away without paying—or other crimes. Do the Government think they have sufficient powers to encourage people to use existing technology to make sure that such crimes are reduced?

I welcome the evident desire of the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, to ensure that the manufacture, distribution and fitting of number plates are as secure as possible. This subject was previously raised during the passage of the Bill. I share the noble Lord’s views about the importance of number plate security, and I am sure all noble Lords do.

Number plates are the primary means of identifying vehicles used on the road. It is therefore paramount that plates are fitted to the correct vehicle. Unfortunately, and as we know, dishonest individuals abuse the vehicle registration system by stealing or by otherwise obtaining false plates. They do that either to disguise the identity of stolen vehicles or to evade traffic-related fines and charges.

However, I believe that all number plates must be secure, not just those where the vehicle registration mark is being assigned through exercising the right of retention. To make regulations pertaining only to the manufacture, distribution and fitting of plates referred to in this amendment would create a two-tier system of number plate regulation across the country.

Perhaps I should also point out that all number plates are already subject to regulation. They must comply with the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001, which prescribes the font, colour and format and incorporates the current British standard. It is an offence to display plates that do not conform to those requirements. Later this year, it will also become an offence to sell number plates that do not meet legal requirements under the Road Safety Act 2006.

The sale of number plates is regulated under the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001, which enabled the introduction and maintenance of the register of number plate suppliers. The register currently operates in England and Wales, but is shortly to be extended across the United Kingdom. New powers under the Road Safety Act will result in a stepping up of the enforcement effort against suppliers who sell plates without the requisite checks to ensure that they are for the correct vehicle.

The manner in which plates are fitted can mean that they are relatively easy to detach and so easy to steal. That is being addressed through a rigorous standard for theft-resistant plates, which is being promoted through the DVLA. Theft-resistant plates are extremely difficult to steal and use on another vehicle, and are already available to the motor industry and the public. It is hoped that they will become widely used as a sensible precaution against vehicle cloning.

The Government are keen to continue their work with the police, the number plate industry and other interested parties to improve number plate security further.

The Vehicle Registration Marks Bill proposes to change the way in which a right of retention may be granted, and in consequence the way in which the DVLA processes the retention of a vehicle registration mark. It will allow a registered keeper to dispose of their entitlement to a vehicle registration mark when it is first put on retention, thereby easing the administrative burden on both the cherished number industry and the holder of the mark.

Admittedly the Bill is modest, but it will simplify the current procedure and allow dealers of these marks to acquire entitlement from the outset and therefore benefit from having complete autonomy, within the terms of the retention arrangements, over the disposal of the mark to the desired purchaser.

I am grateful for the questions and the suggestion raised by the noble Lord, but I feel that I must resist the amendment as it is presented in Committee.

The issue of chips and number plates comes up from time to time. The DVLA organised a trial of electronic number plates in May and June last year. As noble Lords probably know, it demonstrated that microchip technology could be a useful enhancement to automatic number plate readers, the ANPRs. But it is considered that ANPR is less effective for motor cycles and other vehicles. The DVLA is currently conducting a study on the feasibility of fitting motor cycles with microchips as a means of making them easier to identify on the road. We feel that there should be a public consultation before any final decision is made about whether to roll that out.

I shall be interested to hear any other responses from noble Lords.

I am grateful for the interest shown in the Bill by my noble friend and for the way in which he moved his amendment. Hopefully, he will find the Minister's comments helpful. I am not aware that any noble Lord requires there to be discussion on Report. Therefore, unless the Committee agrees my noble friend's amendment, when the House resumes, I intend to move that Report be received.

Clearly, the requirement to register number plate suppliers under the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001 has had an undesirable effect on the level of number plate theft, as it has risen in recent years. With more than 35,000 registered suppliers, there is little chance that all suppliers are adhering to the law. I have touched on that in previous debates.

The current design of the number plate is very easy to copy using readily available materials. I am sure that my noble friend will agree that the Bill is designed to simplify the process of transferring the right of possession of a cherished vehicle registration mark. It does not seek to improve the regulation of the manufacturer and supply of the plates, and is therefore not designed to impact on the problem that my noble friend describes.

I can see what my noble friend is trying to achieve through the amendment. None the less, the more tamper-proof and theft-resistant a number plate is, the more damage may be done to a vehicle by a criminal intent on stealing the plate. For example, if a number plate is fixed securely to the bumper—the plastic moulding—the criminal would remove the whole of the bumper, causing even more damage to the vehicle. Even if a plate subsequently breaks up when it is being removed, there is still expense to the owner of the vehicle, who will need to replace the plate and, now, the bumper.

Furthermore, even if the plates were supplied centrally, that would not completely stop the number of forged number plates, even if they were chipped, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, suggested, because a chip can be cloned as well. Until the number plate ceases to be the only overt form of identification of a vehicle and its keeper, criminals will find a way to commit crime by using number plates as a means to evade arrest and traffic-related fines.

However, if the engine management system computer were used to identify a vehicle, criminals would find it much harder to steal and clone a vehicle's identity. The engine management system could emit a signal containing the vehicle identification number, the VIN, as a way to make the vehicle identifiable. That could be made more secure than the chip to which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred, because it would be a much more complicated system. Perhaps it could even change the signal over time, increasing security. Then, ANPR systems could read the number plate as well as the signal from the engine management computer and match the two to ensure that they both belong to the same vehicle. As the engine management computer is an expensive but reliable item, it could easily be strictly controlled by the manufacturers’ main agents only. At the moment, we are trying to control something that is cheap and easily manufactured by anyone. It would be much better to control the engine management system.

ANPR is still in its infancy and cloning will be a temporary phenomenon. As new technology is introduced, number plate cloning will be harder to get away with, because a copied plate will be quicker to identify. If my number plate were read by an ANPR machine in London, and supposedly read again 20 minutes later in Leeds, it would be clear that one of the vehicles was cloned. The police could then take action, principally by stopping both vehicles displaying the suspect number plates. Of course, the number of traffic police is outside the scope of our debate. I hope that my noble friend found the Minister’s intervention helpful, and that he will withdraw his amendment.

I apologise; I should have made it clear that this was a probing amendment. Many things will happen in the future, and we will have to monitor what goes on. I know that ACPO will. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for stepping into the shoes of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and delivering his words of wisdom. I am only sorry that the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, cannot be with us tonight; he is not well. I thank the Minister for his reply, which I shall read carefully. We shall monitor the situation and, as things develop, see if there is any tweaking that we can do to our Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.