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Legal guide to UK motoring, sections for law enforcement, Driver licensing, learner and new drivers, buying and selling, speeding fines, owning a vehicle, wheel clamping, traffic information.

Owning a Vehicle


Motor vehicles: Registration Plates

This note explains the law regarding the use of registration plates on motor vehicles, including their design and the use of national symbols. It also explains the law as regards registration plate suppliers.

Standard notes are also available on driving licences (SN/BT/3060); and motor vehicle equipment such as bull bars (SN/BT/1216), daytime running lights (SN/BT/1361), and seat belts (SN/BT/43).

This information is provided to Members of Parliament in support of their parliamentary duties and is not intended to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. It should not be relied upon as being up to date; the law or policies may have changed since it was last updated; and it should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice or as a substitute for it. A suitably qualified professional should be consulted if specific advice or information is required.

1 Legislation

Section 23 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations as to the size, shape and character of vehicle registration marks and the manner in which they are to be displayed. The relevant regulations are the Road vehicles (display of registration marks) regulations 2001 (SI 2001/561), which apply to all vehicles registered after 1 September 2001 and to all replacement plates. Sections 42 to 44 of VERA 1994 make it an offence to use registration plates other than in accordance with the statutory requirements. Such offences are prosecuted by the police.

The intention of the 2001 Regulations is to ensure that all licence plates are clearly legible, both to the naked eye and to cameras; to specify a standardised font in addition to the size and spacing of letters that had formed a part of the previous regulations. They also introduced a British standard for registration plates to make them more durable, a new system of numbers and letters (as the previous system had come to an end), and to permit the display of the "international distinguishing sign of the United Kingdom" (the GB euro symbol).

1.1 Letter size and font
With increasing use of technology to read vehicle registration plates – such as automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) and speed cameras – it has become increasingly important the registration plates should display conformity in letter and number size and fonts.

As far back as 1996, the previous Conservative Government stated:
The Government has proposed, as part of a general tightening up of existing regulations on number plates, that characters should in future conform to a new uniform font. The recent proliferation of unorthodox styles of character (italics, computer style etc.) has caused difficulties for the enforcement authorities. The proposed new uniform font, which will be embodied in a new British Standard for number plates, will not be made mandatory until decisions are taken on whether there is to be an early change in the system of vehicle registration numbers.The 2001 Regulations set out the siting of registration plates (regulations 5-9) and the size, spacing and font of the characters (regulation 10 and 12 to 15). From 1 March 2001 a mandatory typeface has applied (based on the ‘Charles Wright’ font), as well as a new British Standard for the manufacture of plates. The overall width of characters was reduced from 57mm to 50mm for all non-motorcycle size plates. All other measurements remained unchanged. Customised number plates using unusual fonts and layouts should have been replaced. The regulations also forbid the use of any material that makes the characters less distinguishable or prevents them being photographed (regulation 11).

Vehicles registered before 1 January 1973 are exempt from these requirements.

An overview of the key requirements, including the British Standard, is available on the DVLA website.

1.2 Registration marks
The registration mark includes a two letter regional identifier, a two number age identifier, followed by a space and three random numbers. The various permitted layouts are set out in Schedule 3 of the 2001 Regulations.

It was announced in June 1998 that vehicle registration age identifiers would change every six months. Following consultation the proposed new number plate format was ABC 12DE where the first three letters would be the random element, the number would be the age identifier and the last two letters would indicate, by means of a new, more easily recognisable code, the area of the country where the vehicle was first registered.

Further research was carried out, in consultation with the police, on the positioning of the three random letters to ensure the plate was a memorable as possible. In March 2000, it was announced that the format would be two letters followed by two numbers to show the area and date of initial registration respectively. A space and three random letters follow these two letters. The idea was that number plates would be easier to remember for the purposes of fighting crime as people might be able to help police by just remembering just one or two letters or numbers.5 The new format has applied since 1 September 2001.

The local and age identifiers are available to view at:

1.3 Euro sign and national symbols
Regulation 16 of the 2001 Regulations allows for the display of the "international distinguishing sign of the United Kingdom." The new style number plates allow the use of the ‘GB euro symbol’ on the left hand side:

This was the most controversial part of the Regulations. A consultation paper on the subject was first circulated in August 1999; it invited views on the optional use of the euro symbol to the left of the number plate.6 A summary of responses was published in January 2000 alongside revised proposals; this stated:
Views were sought on allowing the optional use of the "euro-symbol" (a circle of 12 stars, with the member state's identification letters below, on a blue background) on the left-hand side of vehicle number plates. There was a significant majority in favour of this option but concern was expressed about the proposed reduction of the character size from 79mm high to 64mm (as used on motorcycles) to accommodate the euro-symbol on standard size number plates. (…) We consider that this new size provides an acceptable way of permitting the optional use of the euro-symbol. However, to simplify enforcement, we consider that this slightly smaller dimension would need to become the standard size for all new number plates (except for those on motorcycles and specialist vehicles).The option to include the European symbol came about as some EU Member States apply the 1968 Vienna Convention and require vehicles to display a distinguishing sign of the state in which they are registered when driving through their areas. Regulation 2411/98/EC obliges Member States to treat this requirement as being satisfied by the display of the EU sign above the Member State's abbreviation on the left hand side of the registration plate. 2411/98/EC stipulates that the distinguishing sign should be that of the Member State, which under international treaties is ‘GB’ for vehicles registered in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Motorists whose vehicles carry the euro symbol on their registration plates will therefore not need to use a GB sticker on journeys within the Community. The Regulation is permissive and no State has to adopt the number plate format. The UK, for example, does not require a nationality indicator and the 2001 Regulations made the use of the sign optional.

However, as originally drawn up, the 2001 Regulations did not allow the English, Scottish, Welsh or United Kingdom flags to be displayed in place of or in addition to the euro symbol. In August 2001, the Government announced that the DVLA would review the use of national flags and symbols on registration plates8 and in December 2001 the Government said that it had decided to legislate to allow the voluntary display of national flags and symbols.9 Until such legislation was forthcoming, the Government stated in January 2002 that the police had been requested not to prosecute those who choose to display national flags and national identifiers on registration plates.

There was no further movement on this issue for a number of years, until in late 2008 Members began pushing for the legislative change necessary to permit national symbols to be displayed. In October 2008 the Minister said that that Department was looking at how to change the law to permit national symbols to be displayed “as soon as possible”.11 Regulations were finally laid on 1 April 2009 to come into force on 27 April 2009, St. George’s Day. The Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 (SI 2009/811) permit the display of the following symbols:
• “United Kingdom” or “UNITED KINGDOM”;

• “UK”;

• “Great Britain” or “GREAT BRITAIN”;

• “GB”;

• “England” or “ENGLAND”;

• “Eng” or “ENG”;

• “Scotland” or “SCOTLAND”;

• “Sco” or “SCO”;

• “Wales” or “WALES”;

• “Cymru” or “CYMRU”;

• “Cym” or “CYM”;

• an image of the Union flag;

• an image of the Cross of Saint George, as depicted on the flag of England;

• an image of the Cross of Saint Andrew (the Saltire), as depicted on the flag of Scotland; or

• an image of the Red Dragon of Wales, as depicted on the flag of Wales.
1.4 American cars
The area for the number plate on imported American cars is smaller than that required by the UK rules. These cars had historically used the smaller sized numbers allowed for motorcycles, even though this was illegal (the police tended not to prosecute). When the 2001 Regulations were being proposed the Government stated it would continue to take account of representation made by the importers of American vehicles, but it would not make special provision for them at that time.

The difficulties experienced by owners of imported American cars were explained in some detail by Robert Syms MP in an April 2001 debate:
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 the 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:

"Extending the use of the smaller font to vehicles imported from America was carefully considered during the consultation period. The police and road safety organisations had serious concerns over the ability of witnesses to read the smaller characters with the naked eye. The Government is keen to bear down on criminal activity involving the use of the motor vehicles. In many cases the successful apprehension and conviction of criminals relies on a witness sighting a number plate and being able to recall a part of its number. The success rate will be substantially enhanced with a standardised font as provided for in the new regulations."

That is clearly nonsense. As I mentioned, a car's number plate will be illuminated by two lights, so it will be easier to read than those of motor cycles, but apart from that, a Buick, Pontiac or Chevrolet will be one of the most easily recognisable vehicles in the UK. I put it to the under-secretary that a person who was going to do a blag in Streatham would not turn up outside a bank in an American car (…)

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 would 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 further correspondence has occurred. I should be interested to know whether the Minister could confirm that.
Consequently, in July 2001 the Government announced that it would allow imported vehicles, mostly from the United States and the Far East, to continue to display motorcycle size number plates. The main reason given for this decision was that the “cost of modifying some of these vehicles, in particular those which originate from the USA, to take standard size plates would be costly and unfair". The amending legislation, the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/2687), came into force on 22 November 2002.

2 Registration plate suppliers

The Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team (VCRAT) was established in 1998 by the Home Office with the aim of reducing vehicle crime. As there were no checks on the entitlement to registration plates it was easy for criminals to obtain them and disguise the identity of stolen or cloned vehicles. Legislation covering the supply of registration plates was therefore introduced in Part II of the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001. The Act came into force on 1 January 2003 and requires all businesses that sell registration plates in England and Wales to register with DVLA. Only registered businesses may sell registration plates. Those wishing to purchase finished plates are required to produce the vehicle’s V5 logbook and proof of identity such as a photocard driving licence or passport. Registered suppliers must also keep records of all sales and make them available for inspection by police or trading standards. In addition, the 2001 Act made it an offence to supply counterfeit number plates.

Sections 44 to 46 of the Road Safety Act 2006 make changes to the scheme as follows:
Section 44 amends the 2001 Act to enhance the role of the Secretary of State in the enforcement process by allowing him to authorise persons to inspect the premises of number plate suppliers and to prosecute offenders (save in Scotland where that remains the province of the Procurator Fiscal). It also allows those trading standards officers who work for those county councils in England where there remains a two-tier structure of local government to be able to take enforcement action.

Section 45 amends the 2001 Act to make it an offence to supply a plate bearing a vehicle registration mark that does not comply with regulations concerning the manner in which registration numbers must be displayed. There is a power to make regulations prescribing circumstances in which the offence would not apply.

Section 46 extends the controls on number plate suppliers to Scotland and Northern Ireland and amends the 2001 Act in consequence.
Section 44 was brought into effect in March 2007 and sections 45-46 in July 2008.

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