Monday, March 19, 2007

From London's "Daily Telegraph"....

What planet are they on?

A bill currently before Parliament could have a devastating effect on motorcycling, as Frank Melling reports

We all know that well-intentioned actions can sometimes bring unintended results. But few events in motoring history would be as spectacular as the potential fall-out from The Off-Road Vehicles Registration Bill proposed by MP Graham Stringer (Labour, Manchester Blackley).

That Mr Stringer's basic idea was harmless enough is beyond dispute. Annoyed by feckless youths irritating his constituents on mini-moto bikes, he felt that if all these tiny motorcycles had to carry number plates then the police could arrest the miscreants and the nuisance would stop.

Many thought that he was being naive at best. The bikes were already being ridden illegally, and simply adding a rear number plate wasn't going to help. It was a shallow and simplistic proposal, but it was harmless enough, so no one took much notice.

As always, however, the devil was in the detail. Or, in this case, the lack of detail. The Bill is drafted in such a way that it covers all motorcycles. In simple terms, it insists that every motorcycle should comply with the Road Traffic Act (RTA).

There is absolutely no exemption, and the DVLA in Swansea insists that a registration mark can only be issued to an RTA-compliant vehicle. So whether it is Valentino Rossi's 2007 MotoGP Yamaha or a classic racer, an Edwardian museum exhibit or a gold-plated custom show bike, the proposals mean it will have to be fitted with number plates and made RTA-compliant or face confiscation and destruction.

The police already have such powers, although they are rarely used. But Mr Stringer's Bill would make it a criminal offence even to possess an unregistered motorcycle, of any type or description, under any circumstances. Even if the bike were an objet d'art in your bedroom, it would have to be registered.

The Bill as it stands would therefore kill British motorcycle racing at a stroke. It is impossible to make most racing bikes RTA-compliant (consider the aerodynamic consequences of fitting a number plate to a 200mph MotoGP machine) and it would be an offence to race any that was not registered. Custom and classic events would be equally devastated and museums would be liable to prosecution if they displayed any bike that did not carry a DVLA registration. What's more, the Bill makes no mention of compensation for confiscation. One can only imagine the reaction of someone who has a £100,000 racing bike in the garage if the authorities try to remove it.

The political parties are in disarray about what to do with this ill-conceived and poorly thought-out piece of legislation. Mr Stringer himself seems confused and bemused by the reaction. His response to my questions was to ask whether I was "pig ignorant" about parliamentary procedure, then terminate the conversation.

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem spokesman on transport and MP for Orkney and Shetland, was willing to listen but equally confused. This is particularly worrying because the Lib Dems are the main supporters of the Bill. Mr Carmichael feels that a system of exemptions would be the way forward. This is topsy-turvy, given that the exemptions would have to cover everything except illegally used mini-motos.

On March 2 the Bill was passed by a large majority at second reading, and only when I repeatedly pressed the Conservatives this week did transport spokesman Chris Grayling declare that they would oppose it at third reading: "It is certainly far too wide-ranging," he said, "and while there is a case for strong action against mini-motos, this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut." The Department for Transport also claims to oppose the Bill but refuses to say why, and none of the other parties bothered to respond. Such complacency is disappointing, given that the future of an industry is at stake. Is it any wonder we end up with bad laws?

The best way forward is surely to scrap the Bill entirely. It is an ill-conceived, simplistic piece of legislation that does not deserve to reach the statute books. Is a yob illegally using a mini-moto really going to add a number plate so that he can more easily be prosecuted? Will his long-suffering neighbours rest easier in the knowledge that museum-bound Edwardian tricycles are being road-registered? One wonders what planet our politicians inhabit.

If the Bill cannot be stopped altogether, then Telegraph Motoring wishes to suggest a simple amendment, viz: "All vehicles used in a place to which the public have free and open access must be RTA compliant and carry a registration plate, unless they are participating in an Approved Event." An Approved Event is a licensed motorsport event - car or bike - and already covered under current legislation.

You might look at this amendment and say, with a degree of justification, that it merely reiterates current law. Yet if such an amendment is not included in the Bill, the future of motorcycle sport in Britain looks bleak at best, with a maze of bureaucratic red tape for racers, custom bike builders and museum owners. At worst, the five-page Bill would wipe out motorcycling as we know it.

I would add one final comment. Those in the car community who think that this affects only bikes and is therefore not their problem should be very careful. Once motorcycle sport has been destroyed, how long do you think it will be before four-wheeled motorsport is targeted? If the Bill were to include quad bikes, which are also capable of causing a nuisance on the wrong hands, then cars, karts and the like might eventually end up in exactly the same position as motorcycles.

Mr Stringer's Bill is now entering the committee stage. Please write now to your MP at The House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, and ask him or her to oppose it, for the sake of justice and common sense.

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