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8.44 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Surely our task as the House of Commons is--if nothing else--to assess the balance of benefit that the Government's proposed measures might bring to our constituents. I am always more suspicious when consensus breaks out

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because it usually means that a measure is ill considered. That is especially the case when my Front-Bench colleagues sign up to it--that almost guarantees that it is rotten. The debate has some way to run and, although I am mindful of the need to allow adequate time for Front-Bench spokesmen to sum up--no doubt consensually--it is incumbent on us to identify less-than-perfect aspects of the Bill before we rush headlong into agreeing to it.

Nearly every contribution has referred to the Government's target to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. I confess that I have always been suspicious of the concept of targets. I am not sure what they mean. I do not know where the figure of 30 per cent. came from; I do not know what it means or to what it relates; I do not know who thinks that it is an ambitious or unambitious target and, what is worse, I am not sure what happens if we do not meet it.

My Government went through a phase of being fond of targets. They are presentationally sexy and it looks good for Ministers to say, "We have set a target" for a reduction in, for example, smoking. Indeed, I recall that one of our Health Ministers set a target for the reduction of suicide. That must be the ultimate in a triumph of hope over expectation.

Mr. Syms: Did the number of suicides go up or down in the 18 years that the Conservatives were in government?

Mr. Forth: To be honest, I do not know the answer. Even if I did, I suspect that Madam Deputy Speaker might take a dim view of an excursion too far into that territory.

A vehicle crime reduction target of 30 per cent. is utterly meaningless and has no substance. If, at the end of the arbitrary period for which the arbitrary figure was set, we discovered that the target had not been achieved, would that mean that the measures were a failure? Would it mean that we needed more, fewer or different measures? The issue of targets should be set aside and be paid far less attention.

Mr. Fabricant: My right hon. Friend is often persuasive, but he is failing to persuade me with that argument. Does he not think that a target--provided that it is reasonably realistic--gives one something to aim for and to measure success against?

Mr. Forth: No, I do not. It should surely be the objective of any Government, judicial system and police force constantly to reduce crime. That should be their very essence. Does my hon. Friend think that if a heavy-handed bureaucrat or politician says, "I am now going to set a target of 30 per cent.", police officers and civil servants will work harder and the judiciary will play its part? I doubt it. I question the concept of targeting and its likely effect.

Mr. Bercow: I should put it on the record that I have not expressed support for the Bill. However, although the Government's target to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. by 2004 is ambitious, is my right hon. Friend aware that they have gone so far as to set out in some detail

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the means by which that is to be achieved? In short, the Government expect 50,000 offences to be prevented by the secure car parks scheme, 50,000 by improved DVLA procedures, 50,000 by better regulation of the salvage industry, 180,000 by improved use of security features and new car security and 80,000 by what is conveniently described as better policing and community responses, which is a total of more than 400,000. Do the words "pigs flying in front of one's very eyes" spring to my right hon. Friend's mind?

Mr. Forth: Indeed they do, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for illustrating my point even more effectively than I have, which is not an unusual occurrence.

I would be more convinced by targeting if we heard more Ministers say, as some have said, "If the target is not achieved, I will resign." In a debate on a subject akin to that of the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said that if car usage had not fallen by the end of the Labour Government's first term, they would have failed. If there was more of that, I might be more attracted by the notion of targeting; so far, however, I regard it as a distraction.

It is always useful to mine the explanatory notes to a Bill. In this case, we find our old friend "consultation". Paragraph 6 of the notes usefully provided by Her Majesty's Government states:

It would have aided the cause of transparency if the Government had told us which organisations they had consulted.

Mr. Darvill: When going through the Home Office website, I found in the regulatory impact assessment a list of the organisations that were consulted.

Mr. Bercow: Read it out.

Mr. Darvill: I shall not, save to say that the list begins with the Association of British Insurers and ends with the Welsh Development Agency.

Mr. Forth: What?

Mr. Darvill: The Welsh Development Agency.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not do websites, so that information would have evaded me. However, the fact that the Welsh Development Agency said yes to its paymasters does not surprise me in the slightest. I should have been astonished if the bureaucrats of that agency had slapped their paymasters in the face by saying that the idea was a rotten one and they opposed it.

That makes my case. I do not know whether this website thing reveals who said no during the act of so-called consultation. It might well list all those who said yes and it might even tell us who boldly and bravely said no, but my point is altogether different. It is that when regulation is on offer in a consultation, as it was in this case, it is highly likely that the bureaucratic organisations responding to the consultation will be in favour. Bureaucracies like regulation. The association of this and the institute of that will tend to be sympathetic to the idea of regulation, because it allows them to continue to exist

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and enables them to charge their hapless members greater membership fees to deal with the regulations to which they have agreed. There is a circularity in the process which I have always found highly suspicious.

Furthermore, large businesses tend to favour proposals for regulations. They have administrative structures that enable them to respond to regulation in a way that small businesses cannot and do not.

Mr. Heald: Is my right hon. Friend interested in the fact that the Federation of Small Businesses has expressed a desperate desire for small businesses in the sector to be exempted from such regulation? Does that not reinforce his argument?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who must look up websites like the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill). Perhaps one of these days I shall get into the websites thing, but I have resisted it so far. My hon. Friend is quite right.

The other aspect of that important point is that a regulatory regime tends to lessen the likelihood of new businesses being created. Is it not odd that Governments-- I do not exclude Conservative Governments--constantly say how much they want to encourage the creation of new businesses and the growth of small businesses, but, at the same time, show no reluctance to heap ever heavier regulation on such businesses? I should have thought that those who deal in car number plates would tend to fall into the category of small business. Throughout the debate, we have been congratulating ourselves on how wonderful the Bill is, but let us not forget that the very people who will, almost inevitably, be most adversely affected by its plethora of proposals are not the bureaucracies, the representative bodies, or the large firms with their administrative and clerical resources, but small businesses.

For that reason, I am not convinced by the consultation process. Consultation is something that Governments like to say that they are doing and they like to go though the motions, but only rarely have I found an example of a Government quietly dropping a proposal after a majority of those consulted, however measured, have said no to it. If I had found more cases of Government's behaving in that way, I might be more impressed by the so-called consultation process mentioned in the explanatory notes.

Of course, a totalitarian regime can deliver an almost crime-free society. We will all remember the proud boast of the Soviet Union, as it was, and other totalitarian regimes, that they were free of drug abuse and street muggings and that there was almost no car crime. There was almost no car crime because nobody could afford a car. The more heavy-handed, interventionist and regulatory the Government of a society is, the more they are likely to claim that they have reduced or eliminated crime. It is not a difficult thing to do.

At the other end of the spectrum, I suppose that the freer a society is--the freer people are to move around and the freer they are from identity checks, for example, and registering addresses with the police--the more likely it is that acts of criminality will be committed. In the context of the Bill, our job is surely to make our judgment on where within the spectrum we want to place ourselves as a society, the Government and the legal system.

I am suspicious of Bills of this sort because all too readily they reach for the apparatus of regulation and intervention to claim a reduction in crime. No one would

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argue that a reduction in crime is not a good thing, but it is not an absolute in the sense in which it is often argued to be. Surely our job is to make an assessment. How far do we believe that it is proper, advantageous and beneficial in an overall sense to allow for increasing encroachment on individuals, their families and their businesses by bureaucracy and the forces of law and order to deliver a reduction in crime?

I am uneasy because I believe that in many important ways the Bill potentially tips the balance too far. In his excellent analysis, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) identified many areas of the Bill where new regulations and regulatory measures will be introduced. If I heard him correctly, he said that there are nine. If my hon. Friend says that, we can bet that it is correct.

That should give us pause for thought. The Bill is introducing nine distinct regulatory regimes, mechanisms and apparatuses. It is worse than that because it is all that goes with them. We have only to glance at the summary of clauses 1 to 15, with all the references to registration, renewal, cancellation, representations, appeals and the introductions of the courts, which are brought in almost casually. We have the maintenance of records and notifications of change. All that is before we get into the detail.

We have our old friend, rights of entry and inspection. Given the nature of the Bill, that should claim our attention. The oddity or irony is that the proposed regime will say, "Those who have taken the trouble to obey the law"--that is if it becomes the law--"register and be identified, will be vulnerable to the right of entry being exercised by a constable." Those who have not registered--those who persist in trying to dismantle vehicles and deal in vehicle registration plates outside the regime--will not be subject to entry or inspection by the police. First, almost by definition, the police will not know where they are. Secondly, I suspect--I am open to correction because I am not a lawyer--that if the police want to invade the premises of someone who is not registered, they will have to obtain permission or a warrant, which they would not have to obtain to inspect someone who had registered. That must be the ultimate absurdity, yet it is set out in the Bill.

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