Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Clarke: The origin of an idea is always interesting. Liberty, as the hon. Gentleman knows, was founded by a socialist, not a conservative. One can discuss such matters at length. When I discussed it with the DVLA, it said that it was a good idea, but to be frank, I cannot recall from where the idea came. It is fair to say that there was no hesitation on the part of the DVLA, nor was it a matter of our twisting its arm. It wants to take on a greater and more active role, which is not an unfair description of the way in which we are moving. Incidentally, the Federation of Small Businesses suggested a centralised register for the reasons that I have outlined.

What the hon. Member for Vale of York said about the standardisation of number plates was extremely important and positive. I welcome what she said in every respect. We have considered other alternatives. For example, Sweden is an interesting model. It has one supplier of number plates. Given that it is a monopoly, it is easier for it to control the situation. There are 27,000 suppliers in this country. It would have been an option to nationalise the number plate supply industry, but, as we are new Labour, we stepped back from so doing and followed the regulatory route instead. That was a genuine alternative. Other countries use that method and we could have done so, too.

Mr. Chidgey: Will not the regulations inevitably reduce the number of outlets? The actual activity is such that it will make the irregular, infrequent supplier not bother.

Mr. Clarke: I shall not comment on the hon. Gentleman's point, although it is perfectly reasonable. The new British standard covers the standardisation of the manufacture of plates. It will be incorporated in regulations that are currently under preparation and will take effect from September 2001.

Clause 33 specifically empowers the Secretary of State by regulation to determine and specify a series of aspects of the plates, including those measures to which the hon. Member for Vale of York referred. I predict that, although technology makes possible precisely those measures that she described, a more unified position will arise and I do not know what impact that will have on the number of suppliers. The Federation of Small Businesses supports the introduction of measures by regulations, so that we can have further discussions with businesses. We envisage that fees will be on a sliding scale, so as not to disadvantage small businesses.

In addition, we have consulted individual small businesses and consider that the administrative costs for them of complying with the regulations will not be significant. The hon. Member for Eastleigh is not right in his conclusion that the Bill will reduce the number of suppliers . Instead, we will achieve a more standardised approach for such a crime-fighting mechanism.

The hon. Member for Vale of York referred to bar coding, a matter that we take seriously. Some months ago, I chaired a seminar on the chipping of goods. We have put £4.5 million into funding research in respect of that, in relation to not only cars and motor bikes but the whole range of white goods. Technology is now massively powerful and can enable a vehicle, a refrigerator or a television to be tracked from the place of manufacture to someone's home. We are positively researching with various industries precisely the best way in which to operate it. It is a matter of reaching a standard that applies from the point of manufacture because there are different reading devices for different machines. As with other products, the problem with cars is whether one chips the car or a dozen parts of it, including the engine, number plate and so forth. We are discussing such issues with the manufacturers. The precise point that the hon. Member for Vale of York makes is well made. I believe, although I know that the hon. Lady does not accept this, that the powers in clause 33 give the Secretary of State the power to deal with the matters in a way that can take advantage of the latest technology and move it forward in an effective way.

12 noon

Mr. Bercow: The Minister is signalling the Government's intention to introduce a sliding scale for the cost of registration. It seems that the Minister is suggesting what might be described as a redistribution of costs from each according to his ability to each according to his need—a redistributive taxation. Many of us think that there is a good deal to be said for that. Ideally, the regulation itself should be as minimally burdensome as possible in terms of the requirements that it imposes, but can he confirm that he intends to impose smaller charges on smaller businesses for the provision of the same information and the fulfilment of the same requirements?

Mr. Clarke: I can confirm that we are looking at a sliding scale. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is converted to socialism and redistribution as a means of operation. That is not entirely characteristic of his contributions on these matters in the past, but it is always good to get converts from whatever cause. We are picking them up from the Conservatives all the time, and it is nice to get some more.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry, but I am worried. It is a matter of cost, and I wish to retain what limited reputation I have among my hon. Friends in the No Turning Back group of the Conservative and Unionist party. For the record, in economic terms, I am a devotee of Hayek, Friedman and, periodically, von Mises.

Mr. Clarke: Unfortunately, that remark confirms that the hon. Gentleman's judgment is poor. When I studied economics, Keynes was my model, and remains so—Friedman was the enemy. If the hon. Gentleman reads Lord Skidelsky's recent biography of Keynes, he will find that Keynes is coming back. By saying that, I may have lost my leadership votes, though the Committee will be glad to know that, as far as I understand, no leadership election is proposed.

Mr. Bercow: Despite the Minister's best efforts.

Mr. Clarke: No, contrary to my best efforts.

I support the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of York, who describes the correct approach and one that we agree with. The registration authority will establish and maintain a register and make information available to the police and others in the trade. If people do not register, that information, too, will be available.

Miss McIntosh: How will the DVLA adjust to the new role? Will there be a separate section, and how many new staff does he envisage will be required? From my recollection, the DVLA is based in a part of the country that is partly devolved. Will it have responsibility for this and other matters in respect of the whole country?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot answer that, as I do not know the detail of the internal management of the DVLA. Unfortunately, my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), cannot be here this morning due to a family commitment. I apologise on his behalf, and I will ask him to drop the hon. Lady a line about the implications for the DVLA.

The DVLA will inform the industry as to who is registered, and it will be an offence to deal with businesses that have not registered. The effect will be that those engaged in criminal activity will have their registrations suspended.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh about Northern Ireland and Scotland. My officials have had substantial and extensive discussions with officials in Northern Ireland and with the Scottish Executive—which were mentioned in an intervention by the hon. Member for Colchester. We have written to the Advocate General for Scotland setting out the discussions that are taking place. It is fair to say that he is watching progress with interest, and I hope that the points that the hon. Gentleman makes will also be heard.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Buckingham. As for the size of the fine, it is a maximum; the courts will have the power of discretion and will no doubt use that discretion in the conventional way. I emphasise, as I did when I moved the clause, that a large fine is important. Not being registered should rightly be seen as a serious offence, and that is why we have set the fine at level 5.

The hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned costs. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, those costs are set out in the paragraphs on the financial effects of the Bill on pages 11, 12 and 13 of the explanatory notes. Paragraph 61 of the notes states:

    The figures set out below depend on a range of assumptions, many of which cannot be easily quantified.

That is true of estimates of cost in any area. That is why they are never more than estimates. The estimates on number plates were made by the British Number Plate Association. Their estimates of the costs involved are cited in the memorandum, and form the basis of our calculations. As with all information of this type that comes before Committees considering legislation, we can deal only with estimates.

Mr. Chidgey: Will the Minister examine closely the assumptions made regarding the labour rate? It is not a wage, but a rate of £5 per hour. The overhead cost of employment is usually roughly 50 per cent., but can be more than 100 per cent., so that the actual cost of employing someone can be twice the amount that one pays him or her. If £5 per hour is the labour rate, that implies that in some cases people will be paid as little as £2.50 per hour, which is less than the minimum wage. That is why I query the figures, and I suggest that the Minister checks them and how they were arrived at.

Mr. Clarke: I appreciate that point. We will carefully examine the figures. It would clearly be illegal and unacceptable to pay less than the minimum wage.

The hon. Member for Buckingham raised the issue of the impact of the measures on crime. He mentioned non-registered suppliers. At the moment it is perfectly legal to supply any plate to anyone who asks for it. There is no constraint on that, so all suppliers are currently non-registered in that sense. There is no distinction to be made between registered and non-registered in that area. Criminals take advantage of that and the Bill is designed to put a stop to such abuses. We do not have specific figures on how number plate suppliers contribute to ringing. However, all parties involved in the vehicle crime group, including the car suppliers, the manufacturers, the automobile associations and the police, are convinced that they do.

According to our research, the three measures in the Bill will reduce car thefts by roughly 39,000 a year. About 25 per cent.—roughly 30,000 to 40,000 a year—of unrecovered vehicles such as the car belonging to the parents of the hon. Member for Vale of York are rung, which is a substantial number.

Finally, the hon. Member for Buckingham urged everybody in the industry to go to lawyers. Lawyers tend to encourage people to go to lawyers for advice, although I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer.

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