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EU: Traffic Offences

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 22 April 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

In view of the European Commission’s proposal for cross-border enforcement of traffic offences of European Union-registered cars, what action they propose to deal with cars registered in other countries.

My Lords, we very much welcome the Commission’s proposal for a common system of information exchange to facilitate the recovery of financial penalties for drink, speed, seatbelt and red-light offences from non-resident offenders. We are considering the practical issues involved in implementation.

Provisions in the Road Safety Act 2006, when implemented, will also enable the police and Department for Transport officials to issue on-the-spot financial penalties to drivers of foreign-registered vehicles in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Is he aware of the problem—particularly in London, which has a large number of foreign-registered vehicles—of the unreadability of number plates by the automatic number plate recognition system? It cannot read plates in Cyrillic or Arabic and, in future, it will no doubt be unable to read Chinese. These drivers are escaping parking penalties and congestion charging simply because their number plates cannot be recognised.

I understand that some countries propose issuing such people with temporary number plates on arrival—perhaps they have to put up a bond for that. I think that our Government have such proposals for lorries, but not for others. Can the Minister tell me the position?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting point about enforcement. All vehicles manufactured since 1 January 1973 must have a number plate made of reflecting material; that at the front must be white, that at the rear must be yellow and they must have black characters. We expect that for conformity. The typeface of number plates has to be substantially the same. If it is not, the police are entitled to investigate and to bring an offence. The issue is important and I accept that there is a problem. The police are aware of it and we need to deal with it. The noble Baroness’s point about foreign countries issuing temporary plates is very useful.

My Lords, the Minister has frequently answered questions from me about foreign lorries and consistent breaches, particularly of the drivers’ hours regulations, which are gross and very dangerous. When will the regulations come into force so that these people can be prosecuted? Will the penalties reflect the enormous advantage such hauliers are gaining over British hauliers?

My Lords, on the implementation of the Commission’s directive raised by the noble Baroness in her Question, we anticipate that we will resolve the issues and be able to do that at some time in the spring of 2009.

My Lords, can my noble friend assure me that the safety checks on foreign lorries entering the United Kingdom are at least as strict as those for lorries which are domiciled here?

My Lords, where checks are made by our enforcing officials, they will be to the same enforcement standard.

My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm that a new offence is to be added to the list of offences that he read out in the shape of a ban on our ordinary headlights and an insistence on the extremely nasty, glaring headlights used on the Continent? Is the noble Lord aware that the motor bike fraternity is worried about this new imposition from our masters in Brussels? How will it be enforced in this country?

My Lords, I was a bit concerned when I realised that this Question would appear on the Order Paper on the same day as the European legislation, and I anticipated that we might have a Eurosceptic view on road traffic enforcement. It is important that we have high standards in this area. Is the noble Lord saying that we should not have those high standards? I am not sure where he is coming from in that regard. We would like a higher degree of cross-border conformity in Europe because that would make it much easier for us to enforce traffic regulations and laws and for us to push up standards on an international level.

My Lords, how many fatal and serious accidents occur annually due to non-UK-registered vehicles of all types?

My Lords, in 2006, the year for which I have statistics covering all accidents of varying severity, 2,398 involved foreign-registered vehicles.

My Lords, could the Minister turn his attention to the United Kingdom’s only land frontier, where the issue of vehicles travelling across the border is particularly significant in terms of numbers? The Minister may be aware that some years ago there was a proposal to provide for the mutual enforcement of penalties—not only cash penalties but also points penalties—between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Has that proposal been progressed?

My Lords, progress has been made towards that objective. The noble Lord probably knows much better than I do that there is a disparity between the points system that we operate north of the border and that operated by the Irish Government. We are making progress, and I think that this will probably be the first area in which we achieve more effective joint working on cross-border issues.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are enormous numbers of fraudulent plates on UK-registered vehicles and that there is no central collection of police information? Anecdotally, it is suggested that the figure is around 20 per cent. It might be useful to hold a pilot to show how many UK speeding and other offences cannot be prosecuted because the number plate is false.

My Lords, my mind stretches back to the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001 which I took through the House some years ago. The proposal embedded in that legislation sought to ensure that number plates are chipped, thus allowing them to be read in greater detail for the purposes of enforcement. Progress is being made towards that and the issue of fraudulent number plates should begin to diminish over time.

My Lords, will the noble Lord address his mind to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Pearson? The Minister rather mobbed him up for asking a Eurosceptic question. I think that my noble friend asked whether it is true that our lorries will have to have different kinds of headlights in order to accommodate the laws in Europe. That is quite an important question, so can he answer it?

My Lords, I am not aware that that is the case. However, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has raised a question about which I shall be more than happy to write to him.

My Lords, is there any procedure whereby foreign drivers, especially those from the now expanded European Union, are enabled to be aware of our traffic regulations and to read our road signs—in England and in Wales, which also has its problems?

My Lords, I sometimes have difficulty with Welsh road signs, but I am sure that that is not a common problem on these Benches.