Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman is right; it is the date of implementation. I fully admit that I erred; I was rather carried away by my teasing of the hon. Gentleman. As far as I am aware, the regulation is in force; if I hear to the contrary during the remaining moments, I shall certainly inform the Committee.

Mr. Bercow: Before the Under-Secretary goes any further—I am excited that we are making progress—will he confirm that, so far as he is aware, the European Commission does not intend to require the display of the European Union flag? Secondly, will he confirm that, if such a proposal was made, the Government would argue against it in the Council of Ministers, and if necessary vote against it?

Mr. Hill: I have no knowledge of any intention on the part of the European Union to make further regulations that would make an EU symbol obligatory on number plates. However, I cannot issue the assurance that he seeks regarding the actions of a future Government. It is never appropriate for any Government or any Minister to make binding commitments for a future Government. If I may say so, that is precisely what we see in his party's policy on the single European currency.

Mr. Bercow: I do not accept that. We could have a fascinating debate about the single European currency, but I doubt that it would be in order. The Under-Secretary's position on this matter is now really progressing to farce, and I am disappointed in him that he should be so disingenuous. Does he accept that I am not suggesting that he should seek to fetter or trammel the sovereignty of a future Government, and I confirm to him that a Conservative Government would have no intention whatever of accepting such a proposal. Will he just confirm that this Government, of which he is a distinguished and rising member—[Interruption.] When the Under-Secretary has concluded his sedentary exchange with the Whip—will he confirm that this Government will resist and vote against any such proposal?

Mr. Hill: I am afraid that I am not in a position to do that. It is not my practice to answer hypothetical questions. If the hon. Gentleman thought about this seriously, he would realise that somebody in my position, as a mere Under-Secretary of State, is not in a position to make commitments on behalf of the Government. Nor can the hon. Gentleman, from his modest standing in the parliamentary constellation, make commitments on behalf of his party. Can the hon. Gentleman really guarantee that a Conservative party led by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) would not be willing to sign up to a commitment regarding the display of the EU symbol?

Mr. Bercow: I am happy to respond to that point and, although I cannot make a commitment on behalf of a Conservative party by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, and it is not entirely unconceivable that he might go along with such a proposal, I can, I think, make a fairly confident commitment on behalf of the party led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), that we will not make such a proposal. I was asking the Under-Secretary to make a commitment on behalf of this Government led by this Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Before the Minister of State continues to chunter from a sedentary position, I hope that he will bear with me because he may hear something of interest to him. Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me, as an earnest of my sincerity and strength of feeling, that in the inconceivable eventuality that a Conservative Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks were to make such a proposal or fail to vote against such a proposal, they would immediately have to dispense with my services as a Member of the Conservative Front-Bench team?

Mr. Charles Clarke: Tory Front-Bench Member resigns.

The Chairman: Order. I hope, for the benefit of the efficient dispatch of this Committee's business, that we will not follow the line that has been suggested to the Minister, and that we will not speculate on the leadership and/or intentions of the Opposition or any member of them or of the Government on this issue.

Mr. Hill: You are very cruel, Mr. Wells. At least let me offer the reassurance to the hon. Member for Buckingham that the Government have no plans to require people to display a EU symbol. Even if they did, they would not consider such a symbol to be part of the registration mark of the vehicle. We do not consider it desirable to clutter the registration plate with symbols and we consider that it is undesirable to allow the vehicle keeper to do so. In other words, the Government are unenthusiastic about the appearance of extraneous marks on the number plate that might serve to detract from the security of the vehicle.

Although the new clause seeks to prevent the Secretary of State from requiring the display of the EU symbol, which I repeat that he has no intention of doing, it allows the keeper to choose to display a symbol. Proposed new subsection (27A)(2) would give the owner of a vehicle the right to include any flag of his or her choice on the registration plate. It is not even specified that this must be a national flag. My hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green asked how the hon. Member for Buckingham would feel about National Front-style designs—presumably he meant SS-style flashes—on a number plate. I wonder how I would feel about a swastika on a number plate.

The Chairman: Order. I have already ruled out of order references to other symbols of the kind that the Minister suggests.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): The red flag.

Mr. Hill: I note what the hon. comrade for Colchester says.

It may be feared that clause 35 introduces a power to prescribe EU marks as special registration marks, but such a symbol is not likely to be one that links the plate to the vehicle or secures the identity of the plate.

New regulations made under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 will be introduced from 1 September, not March, and will provide for the optional use of the GB national identifier and the Euro symbol. The GB sign is the international distinguishing sign contained within road traffic conventions. As the use of the Euro symbol will be optional, there is no need to specify that the Secretary of State must not require its use, as the new clause would do.

The Government do not wish to encourage the customisation of number plates. It is important that standards are set to ensure that registration marks can be easily read by roadside cameras and witnesses. Allowing motorists the choice of any flag would give scope for a potentially bewildering array of symbols that would sow confusion and would not necessarily identify the country of origin. For all those reasons, and given all the reassurances that I have provided, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will rest content, and not press the new clause.

Mr. Bercow: For much of his speech, the Under-Secretary seemed firmly opposed to any obligation with respect to the display of the European flag. I was encouraged by that, because he spoke forcefully. However, I sometimes wonder whether his natural tendency to express himself with vigour might lead him to use greater vigour than subsequent changes in Government policy would render desirable. I fear that occasionally he may give hostages to fortune. Perhaps in anticipation of that possibility, he at one point retreated into a style of which Sir Humphrey would fully approve. He spoke of the Government's having no plans to impose an obligation to display a European Union flag. I was mightily worried then, in the light of several other occasions when the Government have stated that they have no plans to take certain action. I shall not dilate on the point, Mr. Wells, because you would not permit it, but to provide context to my point, I shall mention that they had no plans to raise taxes, after which there were massive tax increases.

The Chairman: Yes, that is all out of order.

Mr. Bercow: As you say, that is out of order, so I shall not pursue it. Of course, the Government had no plans to introduce higher education tuition fees, then revoked their commitment. So I was worried by the Under-Secretary's statement.

Everyone listening to the Committee's proceedings will have noticed how the Under-Secretary danced around the question whether always to oppose any European recommendation or proposed directive on the same point. He danced around it by saying that he could not make a commitment. The Under-Secretary is genuinely self-effacing, but he over-egged the pudding. Even though he sits on the Committee on behalf of his Department, and as the agent of the Secretary of State, he sought to persuade us that he was merely a junior, a humble cog in the wheel, a bit-part player in the grand, national drama that is the Vehicles (Crime) Bill and the Standing Committee consideration thereof. The argument that was spun was, ``I am just here to deal with the matters at a lowly level. It is not for me to question, but to deliver. I cannot make policy.'' I was worried about that.

4.15 pm

I would much appreciate it if the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions were to write to me in person to confirm that, as far as he is concerned, the Government will not accede to any request that an obligation be imposed upon people.

Mr. Charles Clarke: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has made the position clear.

Mr. Bercow: He made it clear that he thought that the presence of extraneous symbols was unnecessary. He used the term ``clutter up''. He did not want the registration plate to be cluttered up with all sorts of symbols. He did not think that that was a good idea, but he also said, ``I cannot make policy on these matters. This is not a matter for me. I'm just a junior Minister, and I can't bind my successors''. He could at least say to me, ``Well, I'll ask my boss to confirm that the Government have no intention of agreeing to anything of this sort, and would strongly oppose it''.

I am beseeching the Under-Secretary. I am waiting to see whether there is some signal of intent, but all I get is a cursed look.

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