Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Chidgey: With reference to the hon. Gentleman's previous remarks, he often reminds me of the adage, Start the day with a smile, and get it over with.'' That was merely an introductory comment. Clearly, W. C. Fields is not as popular as he was.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the cost figures that we have been given. Does he agree that it seems bizarre that, in the cost analysis in the explanatory notes, a labour rate of £5 an hour has been used as the rate to calculate the costs of introducing the legislation? I remember from a debate in a previous Committee on which we both served that that is less than the hon. Gentleman pays his cleaner. I do not believe that the costs reflect the real costs of employment and therefore the costs of the industry that will follow from this part of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, and I fear that he is right, although I hope that he is not. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the differential impact of the clause and other related points on small businesses as opposed to large ones. I know that those who guide him will, with their exceptional knowledge on such matters. We considered the matter in many pieces of legislation earlier in this Parliament, but that is no reason not to flag it up now.

I do not have the figure with me, but I would not be surprised if the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) had, as she has a virtually photographic recall of such matters at almost any time of day. However, I think that I am right to say that, so far as regulation is concerned, a certain statistic has been bandied about that is relevant to registration under clause 16. It is that, for the largest businesses, the impact of Government regulation typically accounts for about £5 per head.

Mr. Chidgey: Per annum.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for helping me from a sedentary position. For the smallest businesses with between one and nine employees—they might be described as micro-businesses—the cost per person per annum was something like £288. That figure was estimated a couple of years ago. For the record—fortunately, a record is being made of today's proceedings, in contradistinction to those of yesterday—I should say that I volunteer those statistics off the top of my head. I do not have the details before me and, if I am mistaken, so be it. However, the general point stands that the regulations will inevitably be more costly for small than for large companies.

11.45 am

There is a related point in connection with the details of the register. The cost is much smaller for a large business and greater for a small business partly because of the requirement legally to check whether the company fulfils the requirements of the legislation. A large company that is in any doubt whether proper information is being supplied to the register and the particulars of the clause are being observed may simply consult its in-house legal department. Those departments are often composed of formidable legal brains whose services are available on tap because they are salaried employees, who can advise on whether the company complies with the requirements of the clause.

The Minister will accept that a small business with between one and 10 employees cannot ordinarily afford an in-house legal department. Instead, it will consult lawyers, which is worth while as an insurance policy against the possible great expense that it might incur at a later date if it finds that, albeit unwittingly, it is in violation of the requirements of the clause. The requirement to consult a lawyer in those circumstances is, necessarily, more expensive than it would be for a big company. Will the Minister guide us on any assessment that has been made of the differential impact of the clause on big businesses and small?

Finally, I refer to the basis of the level 5 fine. I emphasise that Ministers are right to propose a fine. I do not suggest that the proposed fine or the wording of the clause are wrong. If I were suggesting that, my hon. Friends and I would have tabled an amendment, as the Minister knows. However, I want to tease out of him the position as he sees it. He will be aware that lines 22 and 23 of the clause refer to a fine

    not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

Presumably, we should deduce from that wording that a maximum fine has been set, but that such a fine will not necessarily be imposed. Will the Minister say what scope there will be for the charging of a lesser fine? Will the general principle informing policy in this matter be that the fine should be greater for a second or third offence? Ministers have set a taxing requirement of achieving a 30 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime over a five-year period. Do they therefore intend to send a signal at the outset that the matter is regarded as serious, so that a level 5 fine will ordinarily be imposed for a first offence?

The clause is good, its outcome may be successful, and my hon. Friends and I wish it well. We did not table an amendment because we are not certain that the clause needs amending. However, several important issues relate to it. Is the DVLA properly ready to implement it? What is the level of abuse? How much expense might reasonably be expected to be incurred? Is it intended that a strict regime, in terms of the imposition of fines, will develop from the outset, or will there be a graduated progression from a lesser fine to a heavier fine and, ultimately, to the maximum fine under the Bill? Those are some relatively prosaic and, I hope, straightforward remarks. Any response that the Minister can offer, in the spirit that has characterised the consideration of the clause so far, would, at least by me, be very much appreciated.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The discussion has been helpful, and has raised a wide range of points, to which I shall respond as rapidly and effectively as possible.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh raised the question of Northern Ireland and Scotland. As I said in my introductory remarks, it is a devolved matter—it is open to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly to pass similar legislation if they wish. We would have a positive attitude towards their doing so, and would co-operate with them fully in establishing the administration, mechanisms and processes involved. The hon. Gentleman was right in what he said, but it is not a matter for the Westminster Parliament.

Mr. Bob Russell: Have the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly made any approaches on such matters?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot say authoritatively. I have not had such discussions, but the relevant officials will be aware of what is happening. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a categorical answer now, but I shall do so when I have checked with departmental colleagues about what dialogues have taken place.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh also raised the question of the definitions of manufacture, part-manufacture, individual traders and so on. He made a good point. We intend to table minor amendments on Report to clarify in the regulations what is meant by business''. We shall give careful consideration to the wording in relation to the hon. Gentleman's point, and we shall seek to address the matter. If an individual operates in business as a sole trader—the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of named individuals on the register—the business, not the individual, has the legal status. If it carries on in business, it must register. We do not intend to require all employees to register, which would be impractical, but will simply require businesses to register whether they are sole traders or public liability companies, or whatever their legal status.

I was grateful for the contribution made by the hon. Member for Vale of York. I was glad that she declared her interest in relation to the RAC Foundation for Motoring. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, the proposals stem from the work of the vehicle crime reduction action team, of which the foundation is an active member. I shall put on the record the comments of its traffic and road safety manager, Kevin Delaney, who welcomed the Bill. He said:

    The RAC Foundation for Motoring is pleased to support those measures within the Bill intended to reduce the opportunity for car crime by regulating the activities of the motor salvage industry and the supply of number plates as well as requiring an identity check before allowing a written off vehicle to be re-registered.

Therefore, the RAC Foundation for Motoring supports the Bill, as do the other motoring organisations.

The hon. Member for Vale of York asked whether the Bill was setting up a quango, new structures and so on. The experience of her family illustrates the fact that we are dealing with organised criminals who operate across a wider range than is covered by an individual police authority or locality, whether the crime takes place in a village in the north of England or elsewhere. That is one of the reasons why we propose a national register. We decided not to set up a new organisation but to operate the register through the DVLA precisely because it is well established and that is the right way to move forward. I also want to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham in that regard. We have had full discussions with the DVLA, which is an active participant in the vehicle crime reduction action team, and the scheme respects its perceptions. I have no doubt whatever that the DVLA will be an effective vehicle for running the national register.

Mr. Bercow: I want to pick up on what the Minister said about the Government's proposal respecting the perceptions of the DVLA. Did the DVLA say to Ministers that the idea of such a scheme was good and that it would like to run it, or was it the other way round, in that Ministers made that suggestion to the DVLA?

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