Oops we broke EU rules

How the government has had to change its guidance for car manufacturers after it was caught flouting

My favourite word today is ‘emblazoned’. That’s what adverts for cars will have to be from now on - emblazoned with details of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, thanks to a sudden change in advertising rules by the government.

The 4x4 campaign has been working on this for about a year now, but the endgame was surprisingly easy, with the Department for Transport changing its guidelines for advertising within three months of asking. They haven’t come over all green, or even responded to the high cost of petrol, but were correcting a legal error they made more than seven years ago in exempting the majority of ads from an EU law.

One of the aims of the 4x4 campaign has always been to get advertising rules changed, since we were fed up seeing our efforts to change the image of 4x4s counteracted by shiny ads on billboards and in magazines that contained nothing to show their climate impact – or the colossal amounts they cost to run. Complaining to the Advertising Standards Agency about specific ads got us nowhere - we always got the answer that the ads followed the government’s guidelines to manufacturers, and therefore were ‘compliant with the law’.

Inspecting these guidelines in more detail, we spotted the problem. A 1999 EU Directive says fuel economy and CO2 emissions information must be provided in all promotional literature for cars, and that this should be displayed as prominently as the main selling information. However, the Department for Transport’s guidelines for car advertisers (published by the Vehicle Certification Agency in 2001), wrongly stated that 'primarily graphical' adverts do not need to include CO2 information and specifically excluded billboards from their rules. Manufacturers, of course, then gleefully exploited this loophole to leave fuel economy and CO2 out of as many adverts as they could, including billboards and most ads in glossy magazines as well.

Working with the Friends of the Earth legal team, we concluded that the DfT’s guidelines represented a significant breach of European law and wrote to them in March this year to point this out. We also threatened to take it to the High Court if they didn’t bring the guidelines up to scratch, which probably helped.

After a quick review by the Department, we got confirmation yesterday that they are revising their guidance notes from today to make prominent CO2 information compulsory on all billboards and posters advertising cars in the UK.

The letter said: "We have concluded that our guidance is incorrect in respect of primarily graphical material. For this reason we will be amending this section of the Guidance Note on the VCA website by close on 20th June to read as follows;

“The Regulations define 'promotional literature' as 'all printed matter used in the marketing, advertising and promotion of a new passenger car...'. We are of the view that this definition does include material which is largely graphical, with limited textual content (perhaps containing only the model name and an advertising slogan). We therefore consider that street advertisements are subject to the requirements of the regulations.”

So that’s it. Job done with remarkably little fuss, showing what a small group can achieve when the law is on our side. Thanks to a simple letter, from now on, people choosing a car will be able to get vital information on CO2 emissions and fuel economy much more easily, and will be able to make greener and cheaper choices of car.

This, in turn, will help encourage car-makers to build more efficient vehicles, something they have been very slow to do. Despite having a Europe-wide target of reaching average emissions of 120 grams per kilometer of CO2 by 2012, most companies are way off achieving this. With information on fuel costs at their fingertips, people power and simple consumer choice should now be able to drive manufacturers in the right direction at last.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle