Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Does he think that it would be helpful, in cases involving several subsidiaries or possibly a holding company or even a shell operation, for a named individual to be placed on the register? Alternatively, would that be problematic because of the possibility that the individual could change companies after a time? I simply want to establish how we can maximise the accuracy of the information.

Mr. Chidgey: That is a good point. We are discussing a difficult area, and I do not have a ready answer. There is a problem about the way in which we are trying to regulate a fairly standard commercial practice because of the criminal possibilities that arise from its abuse. We are tempted down the path of introducing regulations that would never be applied to a typical commercial enterprise. No such enterprise—a tobacconist's shop or whatever—would be subjected to the sort of regulations proposed in the Bill. At the end of the day, this is a commercial activity not much different from any other. The way the business operates aids and abets crime and makes it more difficult for the authorities and the police to establish an audit trail in the detection of crime. Our problem is introducing legislation that reduces crime, but is not a burden on legitimate, typical businesses. I have no ready response to the hon. Member for Buckingham's question as to whether there should be named individuals. I would err towards the standard commercial practice. If, in company law, a requirement exists to have named directors and so on, I would propose the same requirement for companies manufacturing registration plates.

11.30 am

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), because he has sparked a further thought in my mind, on which I would welcome clarification from the Minister. I asked the hon. Gentleman—in a search after truth—whether it would be a good idea for a named individual or a company to be referred to in the registration.

Mr. Chidgey: In that context, the hon. Gentleman might like to reflect that the proprietors of off-licences are licensed as individuals. Perhaps that would be a way forward.

Mr. Bercow: That is a possibility and helps me. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I was speculating aloud on the possibility of requiring named individuals and had highlighted the possible objection that a named individual in the course of his or her career would move from one company to another. However, for two reasons, that would not necessarily pose a problem . The first is the analogy that the hon. Gentleman has just given to the licensed operators of off-licenses. The second—on which I will not dwell—is that there is a requirement to maintain an up-to-date register, which is placed not only on those who operate the register, but on those whose details must be contained within it, who must ensure that, where material particulars change, they inform the central licensing authority.

It may be that naming individuals in the register would be satisfactory. It would provide precision in terms of identity. It would not be dangerous because, if the individual moved from the company, it would be incumbent on his or her successor or the nearest equivalent thereto within the business to notify the authority. We will not dilate on the point that, if somebody fails to up-date information that she or he knows is legally required, that failure is itself subject to penalty. I am genuinely open minded on the issue. I am happy to accept that, in the grand scheme of things, it might not seem a major point but, if the Bill is to be effective, it could be significant. If, before we came to vote on the clause, which is by no means one of the most controversial clauses, the Minister felt able, via an intervention or some subsequent remark or by writing to the members of the Committee, but preferably here today, to elucidate the point, that would be appreciated.

There are other points. I do not intend to delay the Committee for long, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Vale of York made a number of good points and the Minister provided a clear explanation of the purpose of the clause. We were grateful to the hon. Member for Eastleigh for his remarks. However, I should be grateful for some further clarification. If there is to be a central authority, the DVLA, operating at arm's length from the Minister, but on the behalf of the Government, it would be useful to know what stage discussions with the authority have reached. Have the particulars been explored? I assume that discussions have been held, although the Bill has not yet been passed, and we have two weeks of Committee consideration to go. It would be helpful, in the name of freedom of information and in trying to ascertain the likely practicability of clause 16, to know what has been said to the DVLA and what its officials said in response. That is my first main point.

My second main point is that it is important that the legislation be proportionate. There are very few absolutes in such matters. My hon. Friends and I regard ourselves as being especially wary of, and sceptical about, burdensome and perhaps over-zealous regulation. However, Ministers often make the point—I am sure that the Minister will make it while we debate clause 16—that regulation in a civilised community is often necessary. By that, I mean that measures in terms of the conduct of business, the insurance of the rights of citizens, the provision of health and safety safeguards, and to detect, deter and prevent crime, are frequently inevitable. The argument is not about whether regulation is necessarily needed, but about whether the way in which it is applied will be effective and proportionate to the objective that we wish to be achieved.

For that purpose, it would be helpful to know rather more than we do at the moment about the level of crime committed by unregistered suppliers of registration plates, whether they are engaged in criminal activity in the vehicle sector—relatively low-level crime—or possibly in much more serious crime, by which I mean ringing, with which I am sure that the Committee is familiar. The offence of ringing is serious, and is often the cover for heinous crimes. It can be the gateway to the commission of offences such as drug trafficking and terrorism.

We know the overall position, as we had a bird's-eye view in the copious deliberations on Second Reading of the incidence of car crime, both of theft of vehicles and from vehicles. The latter is equally significant, but the Bill does not deal with it. We traded statistics about what had happened and the fact that the Government had, through their vehicle crime reduction action team, a game plan to reduce the incidence of offences by 30 per cent. over five years. All that is useful information but, in terms of the Committee's decision on whether to approve clause 16 and the establishment of the register, it would help to know the Minister's best guess of the level of crimes committed by unregistered plate suppliers or their customers. I accept that it is difficult to guess.

Can the Minister guide me? The point seems rather germane. Some members of the public, including members of my family in one of the few dull moments over Christmas, have raised the point. I do not want the Committee to think that we spent the bulk of our time over Christmas discussing registration of suppliers of registered plates.

Helen Jones: Sad.

Mr. Bercow: As the hon. Lady so rightly observes from a sedentary position, that would be a sad state of affairs. Even motor salvage operators or representatives of the British Motorcyclists Federation and the Association of British Insurers—one of whom is Penny Coombs, who wrote to me to express an interest in attending yesterday's proceedings—would not for a moment entertain themselves over Christmas in discussing such matters, despite their professional interests.

Miss McIntosh: I am very concerned, as my hon. Friend has been described in the past by a Minister as a sad person''. He does not seem to have furthered the cause of proving to the House that he is not a sad person'', but is instead the happy, bouncy person whom we know and love. Will he please convince us that that is the case?

The Chairman: I hope that we will not go into the question of the hon. Gentleman being a happy, bouncy person.

Mr. Bercow: We will certainly not. I want to emphasise my opinion that all members of the Committee take their responsibilities seriously. I take mine in relation to the Bill seriously. I accept that I am grossly imperfect in my deliberations, but I do my best, and I take my duties as being of the first importance, especially for the next fortnight in Committee.

I will not extend the discussion, but I make the simple point that there is an interest on the part of members of the public. Of course I did not spend my Christmas recess—for much of which I was in Thailand, and for a proportion of which I was in Israel—discussing such matters. I was enjoying films, books, swimming and small quantities of food and alcoholic beverages. However, I found that members of the family asked me what was going on, and when I explained that I would be leading on the Vehicles (Crime) Bill in Committee, they asked what it was about. I said that it was, in essence, about car crime, which we were trying to cut. They asked whether its proposals were controversial, and I told them that clause 16 proposed a central authority so that information about individuals who traded in the business was properly recorded.

The question that I was asked on that point was important. It was whether the proposal was a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I have never traded in any of the businesses, so I declare a minor non-pecuniary interest that informs my opinion on the Bill, which is that my late father was a motor car salesman who sold second-hand vehicles. He was an upright and honourable business man, but he often observed that he might have been a little more successful than he was, which was not totally unsuccessful, if he had been slightly more ruthless. He was not ruthless; he always wanted to ensure that every part of the equation had a fair deal. He was not a big profiteer, but he came across malpractice in the business.

The important question is about the extent of the malpractice. Is the fine proposed appropriate? Is it likely to be effective in reducing crime and innocuous in its impact on law-abiding people? The hon. Member for Eastleigh would agree, as I think that the Minister would, that we are concerned about cutting crime. We do not seek to smother, suffocate, or express disapproval of, motor salvage operators or registered registration plate suppliers. It would be useful for the Minister to explain something on that front.

I should like the Minister to say something more by way of an update on the regulatory impact assessment and the expected costs of this part of the Bill, especially clause 16, as I think that he will be able to do. That would be helpful. We have been given some provisional figures, but I am sure that he would accept that the subjects are often movable feasts.

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