Labour hasn't legalised British flags on number plates... seven years after saying it would

Thousands of motorists have been unwittingly breaking the law after the Government backtracked on a promise to legalise the display of Union Flags on number plates.

Ministers said they would take action to exempt British drivers from EU-inspired legislation which also outlawed the Cross of St George, the Scottish Saltire and the Welsh Dragon.

In a statement in December 2001 following a Mail on Sunday campaign, the then Transport Minister John Spellar, now a Government Whip, assured motorists that they could continue displaying national symbols on their number plates.

‘This is what the people of England, Scotland and Wales have asked for and strengthens their feeling of national identity,’ he declared.
And DVLA officials indicated legislation would be brought forward ‘within a month’ and said the police would take a ‘relaxed attitude’ to alleged offenders in the meantime.

But the change was never made – and it is only now, following a series of parliamentary questions from MPs and renewed pressure from this newspaper, that the true situation has been revealed.

The fiasco means that for the past seven years motorists with national flags on their plates have unknowingly been risking prosecution, a fine of £1,000 and an MoT failure for their vehicle.

Under the regulations in their original form, the only insignia allowed was the 12-star circle of the European Union. Motorists had to choose either a plain plate without a symbol, or one with the EU emblem and the letters GB on the left-hand side.

Ministers claimed the move was justified, as English, Welsh and Scottish symbols would confuse police forces in other EU countries.

Despite opposition from Liberal Democrat and nationalist MPs, the rules were approved by Parliament in April 2001. That triggered a mass protest by Mail on Sunday readers, backed by politicians and motoring organisations.

Transport chiefs were bombarded with letters of protest and we gave away free stickers with national flags with every copy of The Mail on Sunday for drivers to display on their vehicles. A poll of 1,034 adults found that 69 per cent preferred a GB identifier on their plates compared with just 16 per cent wanting the EU flag.

We highlighted the case of lifeguard Neil Prendergast, 20, who was stopped by Greater Manchester Police and given a £30 fixed penalty for having a Cross of St George sticker on the front number plate of his Opel Corsa.

But dozens more prosecutions are believed to have gone unreported.

David Jones, Conservative MP for Clwyd West, said: ‘My wife Sara drives around in a car with a red dragon on the number plate, thinking she was entirely justified in doing so. Now she finds she is technically a criminal. This should have been regularised years ago.

‘Motorists across the country will be astonished they are apparently breaking the law. The Government should ensure that the necessary statutory instrument is laid before Parliament as soon as possible.’

Mr Jones added: ‘There is an overwhelming demand throughout the country for national symbols to be allowed on number plates. It’s high time that Ministers honoured the promise that they made all those years ago.’

Bob Spink, the UK Independence Party’s only MP, is demanding to know how many drivers have been penalised for an offence they did not know they were committing.
He said: ‘This affair illustrates the growing power of the European Union over our lives. It is also a betrayal of motorists who didn’t know they were breaking the law. It shows yet again that what governments say and what they do are often miles apart.’

Andrew Howard, head of road safety at the AA, said: ‘Having said they would change the law, Ministers should have done that. Allowing the police to adopt a “blind eye” approach to the enforcement of motoring law is not sensible.’

Last week, in response to questions from MPs, Transport Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: ‘The regulations have not yet been amended and the matter is currently under review.’

But last night a Department for Transport spokesman said: ‘It has taken much longer than was anticipated but we are now looking to bringing forward legislation as soon as possible.’

Tarn Lass

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