Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: I am not a lawyer, and I say that as a matter of pride.

Mr. Clarke: That will be the only thing on which we agree in the Committee.

Miss McIntosh: For the record, I am a non-practising Scottish advocate, so rather than being rude to my profession could we please pick on accountants, estate agents or journalists.

Mr. Clarke: I am particularly affected by lawyers. My boss is a lawyer, his boss is a lawyer and my ministerial colleagues in the Department are all lawyers. I also am proud not to be a lawyer.

Speaking seriously, I do not believe that the 27,000 businesses are going to go to their lawyers for advice and incur the legal costs involved. I would expect them to take advice from the British Number Plate Association, as many trade organisations do, without requiring expensive legal advice on these matters. The Government, the DVLA and the association will all provide good advice in a consultative way. There is no need for large numbers of businesses to seek legal advice on these matters. I hope that I have dealt with all the points.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Register of Registration Plate Suppliers

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 9, line 33, after `register', insert

    `shall be based on the return of a standard form and'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 18, in page 9, line 34, at end insert—

    `(2A) The particulars shall be supported by relevant documentary evidence'.

Mr. Bercow: This is the first clause that Opposition Members seek to amend; we do so on the strength of our conviction that clause 17 is ambiguous.

I emphasise at the outset that it is not certain that the clause is unsatisfactory. I tried to give an earnest of good intent when considering clause 16 by saying to the Minister that Opposition Members are here to engage with him and his hon. Friends. We do not have a hard-and-fast rule, in advance, that Ministers are wrong about every clause. Even where we seek to amend a clause, we sometimes table probing amendments. If the Minister can assure me that our amendments are unnecessary, my hon. Friends and I will be happy to withdraw them. Alternatively, if we remain uncertain, we may decide not to press them to a vote, but to raise them at a subsequent stage. It is equally conceivable that we shall feel obliged to press them.

I should like to emphasise the purport of amendments Nos. 17 and 18. Amendment No. 17 would require each entry made by a registration plate supplier to be based on a standard form which would be returned to the central authority, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The Minister will be aware that clause 17(2) states:

    Each person's entry in the register shall contain such particulars as may be prescribed.

It is one thing to have different charges for applications to be registered, depending on the size of a business and what reasonable people may be inclined to estimate as the capacity of a business to pay, but another to require different information from different operators, depending on their size or the assessment in advance that a member of the central authority may make. That would be potentially invidious. I hope that the Committee agrees that the information that the registration plate supplier is expected to provide to the central authority about itself is based on a standard requirement. It should be expected to say who the supplier is and from where it trades and to name the directors. It might be obliged to provide information about its turnover or its clients, subject to requirements of commercial confidentiality. I assume that it is intended that the information should be standard.

The difficulty is that that is not in the clause. It states:

    Each person's entry in the register shall contain such particulars as may be prescribed.

From that, we are expected to deduce that the particulars to be prescribed will be prescribed in regulations, but I am not sure. The Minister and those who guide him will detect that my brow is furrowed on the point. There are genuine beads of sweat on it, in eager anticipation of a satisfactory and reassuring response from the Minister and those who guide him. I am uncertain whether the matter is to be subject to regulation.

The Minister will be aware—although he was spared the experience of attending Second Reading—that in that debate I flagged up, as did a number of right. and hon. Members, the fact that many clauses provide effectively for legislation via regulations. I think that I said that nine or 10 clauses—or perhaps even 17—referred to and provided for legislation via regulations. Clause 17 does not say that the particulars should be prescribed in regulations, but presumably that is what the Government intend. It would be helpful if the Minister explained the intention and, in particular, confirmed that the information expected from the would-be registered registration plate supplier would be a uniform set of particulars, as between one business and another?

12.15 pm

Mr. McCabe: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the way in which the regulations may be determined. However, might not there be an argument for different ways of collection and presentation in respect of small businesses and national business organisations with regional outlets? Quite different information might be required from the two types of enterprise. The amendment might impose an undue volume of regulation and onerous obligation on small businesses.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough as a deregulator and a believer in free enterprise capitalism, as minimally fettered by the burgeoning growth of government as possible, to recognise that that would not be my intention. I readily concede, because I am a modest fellow, that it might be an inadvertent consequence of what I have proposed. The Minister knows that I am groping in an honest search for truth. A requirement for a uniform format might perhaps adversely affect small businesses, although I do not think that that would be the consequence.

I point out to the hon. Gentleman, to whom I listened with rapt attention and considerable respect on Second Reading, that our discussion is necessarily becoming—not because of what he or I have said, but because of the vagueness of the clause—somewhat opaque. We lack certainty because of the glorious lack of specificity in what the Government have presented to the Committee. I do not know, because we have not been told, the particulars in question. No doubt the Minister has a fairly good idea. The exceptionally dexterous minds of officials in the Home Office, one of the most significant Departments of State in the United Kingdom, will know what is contemplated. The trouble is that those people sometimes tend to reckon that because they know most, if not all, of what it is important to know, everyone else will be able to follow it. Unfortunately, the MENSA intellects at the Home Office are not always matched by the intellects of those subject to its ministrations. I am in the dark and would be grateful for details of the form that the particulars might take.

On the point that the hon. Member for Hall Green just made, perhaps the Minister could explain whether he agrees with the idea of uniformity of provision, even if he does not agree with the wording of the amendment. Alternatively, does he agree with the hon. Member for Hall Green that different particulars would be required from a smaller business? Would more information be needed from a larger business with subsidiaries, to identify it and be able to hold the directors to account? I accept that that is open to discussion.

Although a greater volume of information might be required from a larger business than a small business, it seems unlikely that the character of the information would be different. I doubt whether different categories would be needed on the form, but more space might be needed for a larger business. One might draw an analogy, without wanting to be too introspective or to navel-gaze, with the requirements for Members of this House to provide declarations of interests. Someone with relatively few pecuniary interests to declare can fill in the entry in the Register in much less space than someone with a large number of consultancies, directorships, shareholdings or other commercial or pecuniary interests. However, the nature of the information required from us all is the same, and the nature of the information required from large-scale registration plate suppliers would be no different, I would have thought, from that expected and required from small-scale registration plate suppliers. I should be grateful for the Minister's help on that.

I hope that the Minister understands that I have a twofold purpose on behalf of the official Opposition. The first objective is to ensure that we have helpful information that is minimally burdensome for businesses. We must comply with the requirements and the spirit of clause 16 in requiring a register without imposing over-onerous obligations on companies. My second motive is to ensure that we do not find unfairnesses developing as a result of the possibly lax wording of the clause. We do not want there to be scope for capricious behaviour by officials. Moreover, although I have the highest regard for the DVLA—and it is probably a good idea to keep it on side—in fulfilling its obligations under the clause, individual agents might even think that they ought to exercise more discretion and greater zeal than a properly worded clause 17 would require of them. That is the essence of my concern. The Minister was rather rude about some of my earlier interventions, but I hope that he will concede that, as explaining amendments is not always easy to do, I have explained mine as briefly as the number of interventions, and my need to develop the case, have permitted.

Amendment No. 18 is to be taken together with amendment No. 17. It proposes that in clause 17 between subsections (2) and (3), a paragraph be inserted to specify that the particulars shall be supported by relevant documentary evidence. In other words, material should be required, certificates should need to be provided, and so on, so that we are dependent not entirely on word of mouth but on bona fides.

Obviously, the Minister will accept that the purpose of the amendment is fair and sensible. Clearly, we cannot accept that because people say, We are good boys and good girls; we behave ourselves; we should be registered plate suppliers, because we are the goodies in the business, as opposed to the baddies,'' that information should be simply taken as read. One requires some confirmatory evidence. Otherwise one would be providing a green light for the commission of offences by those who would hoodwink the DVLA into believing that they are honest operators, when they are not. If illegitimate or criminally engaged would-be registered plate suppliers are engaged in serious criminal activity—a number of them are, which is one justification for the introduction of the Bill—they will not regard it as remotely troubling to their consciences to provide factually incorrect, or even downright dishonest, information when seeking to register with the authority. In other words, we cannot take people at face value; we have to ensure that the wording of the clause is what I might describe as maximally exacting.

I emphasise what seems to be the problem. The Bill is vague in many aspects, despite its good intentions, and this seems to be one of them. Clause 17 requires that

    The Secretary of State shall establish and maintain a register

of licence plate suppliers. The details kept on the register may be disclosed to other individuals and organisations on request. If that information is to be supplied on request—the gist of the clause and the subsequent clauses seems to suggest that it will ordinarily, as a matter of course, be provided—it is essential that what is provided to outside organisations is correct. If it is not, both the DVLA and other interested parties who seek to establish what the information is, will be provided with incorrect or even downright dishonest information. It is therefore not only for the DVLA that accurate information is necessary, although that is the prime requirement, but for other interested parties, too.

Subsection (5) states that certified copies of the register may be given out and will be

    evidence of the matters mentioned in it.

The amendments are designed to ensure the security of the operation. If copies are to be provided as evidence, where will accountability lie if the information is incorrect? Will blame be attached entirely to the person who filled in the form, or will an element of blame be attached to the DVLA itself? Does the DVLA have a responsibility to check through a third party or the police whether the information that it has been given is likely to be correct? Or is it simply expected that the DVLA will take as accurate a form signed by a would-be registered plate supplier? Is the simple fact of the form's having been submitted and signed sufficient to oblige the DVLA to register the would-be plate supplier? I am not saying that it would be wrong for that to be the extent of the obligation, but people who are engaged in criminal activity will not for a moment hesitate, amid all the other, rather more serious offences that they are committing or propose to commit, to mislead and hoodwink the DVLA and other interested parties about their identities.

We need to know the extent of the security of the operation, rather than simply its purpose. As far as we can tell, at present no one seems to be responsible exclusively or comprehensively for the accuracy of the information. Therefore, if someone uses it for any purpose, it is not clear whether that person may seek redress if the information is proved to be incorrect. Will people who are incorrectly informed, whether by a bogus or dishonest would-be registered plate supplier or the DVLA, have redress? Someone might request the information for a commercial purpose, and might incur expense as a result of being wrongly informed. In such circumstances, who will carry the can? Will it be only the person who volunteered the incorrect information? Will it be the DVLA? Will it be a combination of the two? Will someone who has been incorrectly informed have redress, and if so, what form will it take? The Minister will accept that the clause as drafted does not guide us.

Perhaps the Minister, who is a formidable fellow with a most dextrous mind, can guide us. Perhaps he will tell us, The hon. Member for Buckingham has got it wrong. He should realise that I and my distinguished officials have thought all this through, because we are usually several steps ahead, and we can reassure him that he can go to bed tonight with his cup of Horlicks, unperturbed by the thought that clause 17 is deficient or inadequate.''

We argue not that there should not be a registration process, for which we recognise that a good case can be made, but that the process should be tightened up so that it is maximally effective. We suggest that, without placing any extra burdens on business, applications should be accepted through a standardised process and supported by evidence to prove their veracity. False applications will, as we know, be punishable through a new offence.

To return to the question of total responsibility, will all responsibility be placed on the person providing the information, or will some responsibility be placed on the DVLA? What is the scope for redress for innocent, misled individuals or companies? Including such provisions in the Bill would ensure that any inaccurate information is clearly traceable either to the business that provided it, or to the application procedure, in which case a clear line of redress can be followed.

Under the Bill as drafted, the Secretary of State would theoretically be responsible for any inaccurate information held on the register, although it is unlikely that he would accept responsibility if things were to go wrong. I can well understand that the Minister, although constitutionally responsible, would be peculiarly reluctant to accept responsibility for what might be described as an operational error. I say that in no disobliging sense to this Minister, who is a formidable man, has made great progress in a short time and is expected to make a great deal more progress. He may feel that his upward progression should not be halted, still less reversed, because of an operational error for which constitutionally he will be responsible but for which in practice it would be wholly unreasonable to expect him to prevent.

12.30 pm

There are good public policy and business reasons for ensuring that the clause is tight and effective. However, I appeal to the lurking and so far unseen but, I suspect, real and legitimate self-interest of the Minister. We do not know how long he will remain the Minister of State, but his fingerprints are on the clause as the Minister responsible for its progress, and his advocacy and support will be open to subsequent inspection. I am a kindly and generous fellow and would not like to think that the Minister might subsequently be stopped in his promotional tracks because someone says, The clause was not properly amended and insufficiently robust and, frankly, that is the Minister's fault.'' I am sure that none of us would want that.

With those few remarks in support of the amendment, I rest our case. I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members say on the matter and, especially, to the cogent response of the person who might be described as my ministerial friend—the rising star.

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