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Mr. Fabricant: I, too, rise to support amendments Nos. 37, 40, 41 and 42, tabled by my hon. Friends. As I said during the debate on the programme motion, I find it extraordinary that the provisions contained in new clause 1 were left out of the Bill. Many hon. Members know that I am pro-American. Being so pro-American, I think that they should be called not the Buckingham amendments but the Bercow amendments because that is what they would be called in the United States and it would be in recognition of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) discovered this lacuna in the Bill. It is a truly amazing gap.

The Bill is primarily intended to enable the registration of licence plate suppliers and motor salvage operators, but there was no provision imposing sanctions on those who deliberately provide false information when registering. That extraordinary omission clearly demonstrates the need for scrutiny--and, indeed, the need for the House--so it ill behoves the Government deliberately to limit the time available for such scrutiny.

In the previous Session, the Utilities Bill was cut in half, but the Government propose additions to this Bill. I suppose that we could argue that we at least have a listening Government because, now that the Opposition have had time to identify gaps in the legislation, they now suggest the inclusion of the missing provisions. I am not convinced that the Bill does not contain other, similar lacunae. Of course, the Under-Secretary cannot guarantee us that no other lacunae exist because there has been insufficient time to deal with such issues.

I want to speak to Government amendment No. 15. The Under-Secretary wondered whether it was trivial for the numbers 1 and 3 to be put together to make the letter B. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has already asked whether the £2,000 fine is sufficient to deter criminals from altering number plates, given that such crimes often involve large sums. This morning I met Sir John Stevens, the London police commissioner, who said that people under the age of 17

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commit about 70 per cent. of crime in London--a sobering statistic. Nevertheless major crime is committed to obtain big money. I hardly think that a fine of £2,000 is an adequate deterrent.

6.30 pm

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that his proposition is supported by the Government's own advocacy for the Bill on Second Reading? They made it clear that the measures were designed to tackle car crime in and of itself, not only because of the damage that it does and the emotional scars that it can cause but because it is the gateway to the commission of more serious offences, including drug trafficking and terrorism.

Mr. Fabricant: As ever, my hon. Friend is completely correct. He leads me on to a fresh point. The police are beginning to use interesting new technology in their fight against crime. I welcome the use of the automatic licence plate recognition equipment, which is already used at some of our ports. I hope that it will also be introduced on major trunk roads. The equipment is made up of television cameras that are linked to computers that can recognise and read the licence plates of cars as they move by. If a car is stolen or if the police need to survey it for any reason, the computer will immediately flag up its existence and draw it to the attention of the relevant authorities.

I was about to intervene on the Under-Secretary when he concluded his remarks. I believe that he said he did not think it was too serious a crime to alter a licence plate by putting a "1" and a "3" together to look like a "B" or to use italic instead of standard script, even though to do so would contravene existing road traffic and other Acts. What would be the effect on the new equipment if plates were altered in that way? Surely, if a police officer were trying to detect the whereabouts of a stolen vehicle or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham suggests, one containing drugs and a "1" and a "3" were together on its licence plate, is it not possible that the equipment might see that as a "B" and not highlight to the relevant authorities the fact that the vehicle had just moved by or entered the country? At present, the equipment just recognises UK licence plates, but it will shortly recognise those from other countries.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Does the hon. Gentleman approve or disapprove of people who amend their licence plates in the way that he has described?

Mr. Fabricant: I hope that I made myself clear. However, if I have not done so, I make it absolutely clear now that I disapprove of such conduct. I regret the fact that the Under-Secretary finished his speech before I could intervene, but I got the impression that he was making light of the fact that people could amend their licence plates to make them more attractive. I am sure that he will clarify that when he winds up this debate. For example, if I had the licence plate "FA 13", would I be tempted to change it to "FAB"? I think not. Unlike the late lamented Gerald Nabarro, I have no desire to have a series of vehicles with the licence plates, "NAB 1", "NAB 2" and "NAB 3", or even "FAB 1", "FAB 2" and "FAB 3".

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Or "FAB FM".

Mr. Fabricant: Or "FAB FM", as the Minister suggests, referring to a non-existent radio station with which he thinks I was involved some years ago.

This is a serious matter. If one changes a licence plate to such a degree that a police officer cannot recognise it either with the naked eye or automatic equipment and thus is unable to follow the vehicle or stop it if it is stolen, surely that negates the whole point of having plates in the first place. Does the Under-Secretary not think that he was being reckless in suggesting that such an offence would not be as serious as some of the others in the Bill?

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Before my hon. Friend moves on from the issue of automatic licence plate recognition, will he tell us whether he shares the concerns that I and other hon. Members have about the misuse of such technology and the civil liberties implications? Does he not consider it possible that the existence of such technology might make it more likely that people will wish to change their licence plate numbers even if they are not guilty of a crime?

Mr. Fabricant: If people were to change their licence plates, they would be guilty of a crime. I shall not go into great detail on that question, because that would be out of order, but I merely say that I do not regard the use of the equipment as an invasion of civil liberties. However, I accept that some people will argue that it is another example of big brother.

However, one could argue that if one had a police officer on every street corner--oh, I dream about that nightly for Lichfield, but it will not come about.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fabricant: I shall give way to the Minister, who tried engagingly to intervene on me in the debate on the ten-minute Bill. I realise that he is a relatively new boy and did not know that one cannot intervene in such a debate. I promised that I would give way to him at a suitable juncture; I suspect this is the point.

Mr. Clarke: I was almost out of order earlier, but the hon. Gentleman helped me. However, I wish to point out that there was a useful Adjournment debate this morning with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on the issue of police numbers in Staffordshire. We were all disappointed that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) could not attend to discuss his views in detail in the appropriate forum.

Mr. Fabricant: I am glad that the Minister has raised that point, because I can now put on record where I was this morning.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The House is mainly concerned by the fact that the hon. Gentleman is here now, and should be addressing the new clause that is before us.

Mr. Fabricant: Of course I will abide by your instructions, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, if I had been

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able to attend the debate, I would have been there. I was with the Staffordshire Regiment, but I cannot say any more because that would be out of order. It was an equally important event to do with my constituency of Lichfield, but I was torn because I wanted to attend that debate.

To answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), I do not believe that the use of the equipment is an invasion of civil liberties. I regard the use of extra police officers or new technology to apprehend criminals as protection for all law-abiding people. It helps to protect innocent, decent, honourable people--and, by definition, we are all honourable in this House--so it is a good thing.

My hon. Friend is a philosopher. Like Topol in "Fiddler on the Roof", he always see two sides to an argument. He has an Hasidic viewpoint--on the one hand this, on the other hand that--and he is right because he is truly a statesman. On balance, I would prefer it for the new technology to be rolled out. I accept that the civil liberties lobby will say that it is an example of big brother but, if big brother is there to protect me, I am happy. Big brother will be a good brother provided that the Bill is properly scrutinised by the House. That is why I get so upset when Bills are rushed through under timetable motions.


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