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The Government must give the House an explanation. They have an opportunity to do so tonight. It has already been noted that there are no Scottish or Welsh Members of Parliament on the Labour Benches for this debate. Because we are using this dreadful procedure, people debating the issue are not allowed to vote on it tonight. The vote will have to be deferred until tomorrow. I will be looking very carefully at how Labour Members representing Scottish and Welsh constituencies vote. The people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ought to know exactly how their Members of Parliament vote on this issue.
I am staggered at the necessity for this debate. We are given a choice that we can either display the European Union symbol or nothing. It is Europe or nothing with this Government, and that sickens me. I am proud to be British, I am proud to be Welsh, and I demand the right to be able to display those symbols on my car if I so wish and not have the European Union pushed down my throat.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that if the Conservative party were returned to power, it would be content with the flexibility that we seek. I am pleased at that indication, although it may be academic for the next few years. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly.
Mr. Llwyd: While I am at it, perhaps I should admonish the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for being so personal about the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and saying that he throws up whenever he sees the European Union symbol. That was really out of order.
I am happy for the issue to be raised in Committee."--[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 31.]
Mr. Wigley: I give my hon. Friend a categoric assurance that the National Assembly, as a whole, was not consulted on this. The Executive may have been, the Labour Government, or Lib-Lab Government in Wales may have been, but the Assembly was not. That is certainly the truth.
Mr. Llwyd: What makes it even worse is that quite recently, when the matter was discussed by the National Assembly, virtually all Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru Members decided that this flexibility should be introduced and that people should have the right to display the Welsh flag if they wanted to do so. That opinion is now being totally ignored by the Government. They want to steamroller this measure through with an apparent complete disregard for the feelings of thousands of people in Wales, criminalising them on the way. Interestingly, they are taking the same approach as they did when denying Welsh people the right to say that they were Welsh in the census, given what has been said about the Welsh "tick box".
Mr. Simon Thomas: One of my constituents, a professor of physics at the university of Aberystwyth, is currently in Davos in Switzerland undertaking international research. He drives a great deal on the continent, between Wales and his international work. He has a doctorate in physics, and he happens to be my parliamentary agent. He will be criminalised by this measure because he, a committed European, chooses to display the Welsh flag on his car. Is that the sort of person whom the Government should seek to criminalise?
Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this matter goes further than flags? Many people in Wales and Scotland choose to display "CYM" or "SCO" on their numberplates. Previously, there was no rule about whether one should have a "GB" sticker or any other sticker. That, too, is entirely new.
The consultation process is interesting. The follow-up consultation letter was sent on 20 January 2000, and a summary of responses was published on 10 May. The Minister looks perplexed, but my information comes from the House of Commons Library. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions asked for views, but I do not know how far the consultation went. Will the Minister tell us how wide it went and who and which bodies were consulted? Why, even at this late date, are the views of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament being ignored? That cannot be right.
Whether or not one favours devolution, it is wrong to bring in bad law by the back door. That law will have no credence in the country and will not be adhered to by law-abiding citizens. It will create a class of people who will be in court for the first time in their lives because of this action by the Government--though inaction might be a better description.
The Department has been cackhanded in its dealings with the European Commission. It submitted draft proposals, which came back duly amended and rewritten. The Commission has made it clear that there is no intent to harmonise registration plates across the community. That makes it clear that what the Opposition seek is perfectly legal under EU law. There is no impediment to what we want. Even at this late stage, will the Minister take a message to his Department asking that the matter be reconsidered. There could be a huge outburst of feeling in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The regulations are offensive to many of us.
We were initially told that the big problem lay in the fact that the Commission would dictate the regulation to the Government. That is not the case. It is the Government's intransigence that is causing a growing crisis. I appeal to them to reconsider, and swiftly. It is all very well for the Minister to put his hands in his pockets and look at the ceiling, but the regulations are grossly offensive to us all. [Interruption.] I repeat that this matter is grossly offensive to many of us. It is noteworthy that no Scottish or Welsh Labour Members are present--either they have no mind of their own or they could not care less about their native countries.
I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) about American vehicles. I am a German-vehicle person myself, but that is beside the point. I do not know anyone in Meirionnydd Nant Conwy who can afford to run American cars, given the current price of fuel.
I shall briefly and swiftly conclude my remarks as other hon. Members want to speak. The Government claimed that the Assembly raised no objections--I doubt whether that is true. The Assembly and its Ministers have said that they want recognition of national flags--as did the Scottish Parliament.
The DVLA was led to believe that the order was mandatory under European law--that is also nonsense. Will the Minister please allow the people of the constituent nations of the British state to have their say and show respect to their nations?
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): It had been my intention to make a lengthy speech about European number plates and national number plates, but there is now no need for me to do so. Tonight, we have seen something dramatic: it has emerged that, in a few weeks' time, the new Conservative Government--with the support of the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh nationalists, the Scottish nationalists, our friends from Northern Ireland, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly--will bring back the right for people to use the number plates and the flag that they think most appropriate.
Obviously, I hope that my hon. Friends will not end up in a European prison as a consequence of their bravery. However, a popular front has been established; we know what can happen if the right decision is made in the general election. For that reason, I want to say a few words about the American car issue.
My sincere appeal to the Government is that they reconsider the matter. What on earth can be gained by the regulations? What will be lost? I am sure that there are such car dealers in the constituency of every Member. In my constituency, there is a small firm--Route 66--at 41 Purdeys Way, Rochford; another little firm, the American Car Company, is located in the area of Southend represented by one of my colleagues.
As the Minister knows, no big firms are involved in that business. There are only small firms--tiny businesses--which do not make much money. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that only about 500 American cars are registered every year--it is a small sector. What the blazes will happen under these regulations? Unless a way of fitting a new number plate can be found--usually that cannot be done--about £1,000 will have to be spent on altering those cars. Great expense will be involved for many businesses. Why are we doing that?
I know that people have been writing to Ministers and civil servants to ask why the Government are introducing the regulations. In fact, one of the American car importers--a nice man called Mr. Cohen--wrote a letter to the Department asking why the proposal was being introduced. He received an answer from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, whose only argument was that some people in the police thought big letters were easier to see than small letters and that that could help in the battle against crime.
I ask the Minister to tell us how many big American vehicles were involved in crime last year or the year before. I think he will find that they are not the kind of vehicles purchased or used for that purpose. If the Government are concerned about crime, why the blazes do we allow motor cycles to have small number plates? If it is difficult to see an American car plate because it is too small, what about criminals who ride around on motor cycles?