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Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If people wish to have a Euro logo and a GB symbol on number plates, we are not against that. However, we are in favour of choice. If people wish to have the Union Jack on their number plate, they should be allowed to do so. Equally, if they wish to have the Scottish saltire or the Welsh dragon, we would be perfectly happy with that.
The statutory instrument has been laid by a Government who have no sense of what our nation is about--a Government who gave us the contents of the dome, and who do not understand the deep importance that the symbols of our nation hold for the vast majority of our constituents. That is why the Conservative party has already announced that it will revisit the regulation. As I said, in government we will allow people to have the Union Jack, the Scottish saltire or the Welsh dragon displayed on their car, if that is their wish.
Symbols are important, as can be seen around the world. The current debate in the United States about the old confederate flag in the south shows that that symbol still stirs great passions. The Union Jack stirs passions in this country. The Government aim to introduce regulations under which the European Union flag would be allowed, but displaying the Union Jack would be criminalised and people could be fined for doing it. That would be extremely unfortunate. Our position is clear. I should like to hear from the Minister a full explanation as to why his Government cannot support the display of the Union Jack as an important symbol on a car.
It is interesting that the position of the Labour party in opposition was different. The then shadow Secretary of State for Transport, now the Minister for the Environment, wrote on 16 August 1995 to T. R. McLennan of Jepson & Company of Sheffield:
At the present time, the Labour party has no plans to replace the British number plate with an E.U. flag and typestyle plate. We are also of the belief that the British number plate is probably the most legible and easily memorised plate in the world and that reducing the size of the characters would be a mistake."
A further important issue is the problem faced by American car owners. The number plate on American cars is smaller than that on British cars. The American cars, which are imported into the UK mainly by businesses, have a 12 in by 6 in number plate with motor cycle-style font lettering. The regulation would make it difficult for any such car number plate to be legal. At present, it is not the easiest thing in the world to become an American car owner. A number of businesses import the vehicles, which must undergo single vehicle approval.
The regulation would mean that modifications would have to be made to the rear of the vehicles in order for them to be legal. That would be entirely against the principle of SVA, the purpose of which is to certify that the vehicle is safe. It would not be a simple job to put a larger number plate on many of those vehicles, because safety regulations on extended projections from vehicles, particularly sharp edges, mean that alterations would be necessary to the boot and the lights, which would to some extent ruin the line of the vehicle and diminish its appeal.
In the UK there are between 50,000 and 75,000 American cars, and 500 to 600 are imported each year. That represents an important minority in the UK. The individuals who participate in that business do not feel loved, either by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions or by the Government, because of what is proposed.
There has been endless correspondence between American car owners and importers, and various other individuals. So far, those who are anxious about the regulations do not seem to have had much joy from DETR or the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. They have been making suggestions about how their vehicles could be made legal. For example, there is a specialised vehicle category in which their cars could be included. They think that they should be able to carry on purchasing and driving the vehicles if they continue to use smaller number plates with the motor cycle-style font.
There are currently 175,000 motor cycles in the UK whose number plates have a smaller font than those of other vehicles. Nobody says that reading those number plates is a problem. One should also take into account the fact that the number plates of most motor cycles are illuminated by one light, whereas an American car with a similar number plate will have two lights, so the characters will be easier to recognise.
The key point is this: if the Government do not recognise that people with American cars have a special case, they will be criminalising all such people and causing great difficulty for the businesses that are involved. So far, those businesses have spent more than £300,000 in trying to fight the regulations. They have been given some comfort by the European Commission, which has said that, on open-market grounds, there is no need for the Government to encompass many of the vehicles within the regulations.
In a letter to Mr. Harry Tune, the DVLA vehicle policy group set out some of the reasons why it does not wish to allow people with American vehicles to use number plates with a smaller font. The letter states:
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Surely, a person who is doing a blag in Streatham or wherever else will be more likely to use a motor cycle, which would not be covered by the regulations. The Government have got it wrong on both counts.
Many people enjoy owning American cars. They take great pride in their vehicles and like them to be admired. If the driver of such a vehicle breaks the law, it will not be the most difficult thing in the world to track down the perpetrator, given the limited number of these vehicles on our roads. I think, therefore, that the argument that the regulations should be strictly applied is wrong in this instance. The Government could easily agree to the motor cycle-style font and accept that the cars are easy to recognise on our roads.
The various individuals who are involved have been in touch with the European Commission to ask whether the Government can exempt them from particular aspects of the regulations. I should be interested to know whether there has been any correspondence between the European Commission and DETR. My noble Friend Earl Attlee asked a question in another place about whether relevant letters had been sent by the European Commission in relation to the free movement of markets. The answer was no, but I understand that there has been further correspondence. I should be interested to know whether the Minister could confirm that.
The regulations do not do justice to our national symbols and flag. They do not allow people to exercise choice. If they were not amended, all manufacturers would produce vehicles that displayed the GB symbol and EU flag. They would resemble Henry Ford's Model T Ford, which one could buy provided that it was black. Number plates displaying the GB symbol and EU flag would become standard. If we move away from the normal British number plate, which displays no symbols, we should be able to opt for the display of the Union Jack.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In eager anticipation of the Under-Secretary's comments, would my hon. Friend care to reflect on the fact that in the Standing Committee that considered the Vehicles (Crime) Bill in January, the Under-Secretary unwisely said that there was and would be no obligation to display a flag or other symbol that some people might find distasteful? If the production practices that my hon. Friend predicted occur, people will find themselves in that predicament.