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
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide