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It took the Department of Transport eight years to turn a ministerial pledge into legislative action but drivers are finally allowed to display their national flag on their number plate.
The plates will, however, not be legal across the Channel. British drivers will still have to display an oval GB sticker or carry the EU flag on their plates.
Eight years later: It has finally became legal for British motorists to fly their national flags on their number plates, though cars without the EU logo (above) will need to add an oval GB sticker to drive on the continent.
Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon was shamed yesterday honouring a pledge made by his Government as far back as 2001 following protests from critics who said the EU-flag on number plates was another example of 'creeping Euro-federalism'. 'Patriotic motorists are now able to display national flags on their number plates after Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon secured a change in the law,' crowed the Department for Transport today.
Mr Hoon himself said: 'The display of our national flags is a healthy expression of the pride we have in our country. 'It is right that motorists are now able to celebrate this pride by displaying flags on their number plates and I look forward to seeing our national symbols on many cars around the country.'
But in the interim, 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.
Under the new rules - which came into force yesterday - motorists in England, Scotland and Wales can legally display the Union flag, Cross of St George, Saltire or Red Dragon of Wales on the left hand side of the number plate, provided they are driving in the UK.
However, the UK flags will not be recognised by the European Union when British motorists drive to the Continent, and drivers risk a fine. Anyone with a UK flag on their number plate while driving abroad will, in addition, have to have an oval 'GB' sticker on the back of their car.
By contrast, UK drivers whose number plates bear the EU flag, of yellow stars on a blue background, will be legal abroad. The Road Vehicles Regulations 2001 make provision for the voluntary display of the blue European Flag with 'GB' within the circle of stars.
The Department for Transport confirmed: 'This allows motorists to travel within the European Community without the need to display the conventional oval sticker to identify in which member state the vehicle is registered.'
By contrast, the amendments to the Road Vehicles (Display of Registration Marks) Regulations 2001 that came into force today mean that motorists in England, Scotland and Wales can now display the Union flag, Cross of St George, Cross of St Andrew (also known as the Saltire) or Red Dragon of Wales as well one of the following identifiers: GREAT BRITAIN, Great Britain, GB, UNITED KINGDOM, United Kingdom, UK, CYMRU, Cymru, CYM, Cym, ENGLAND, England, ENG, Eng, SCOTLAND, Scotland, SCO, Sco, WALES or Wales.
However, the new rules stress: 'Motorists displaying national flags and identifiers will still be required to display the conventional oval sticker when travelling in Europe.'
It was eight years ago 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, 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.
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 - until now - despite media pressure and a series of parliamentary questions from MPs.
The fiasco means that for the past eight 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. Despite opposition from Liberal Democrat and nationalist MPs, the rules were approved by Parliament in April 2001, triggering a protest, backed by politicians and motoring organisations.
In 2005, lifeguard Neil Prendergast, 20, 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: 'It's high time that Ministers honoured the promise that they made all those years ago.'