Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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5 pm

Mr. Chidgey: To add to the comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham, the wording of the clause, which he has drawn to our attention, is typical of the opaqueness so beloved of civil servants, in the main, if not in the particular. The proposed amendment seems ``reasonable'', however one wishes to interpret the term.

The concern about the effect of the costs on small businesses, which we debated in an earlier sitting, is raised again by the wording in the Bill that allows those costs to be set at the whim of the Government or their advisers at a later date. I am sure that the Minister who is currently responsible for the Bill has no intention of placing a burden on business, but who is to say that a future Government, of whatever complexion, might take the opportunity to make the costs unreasonable? That may seem pedantic, but in many parts of the United Kingdom small communities rely on a local, small garage for all their services, one of which is replacement number plates. Those garages may be sole traders, scratching a living, as most small businesses have to these days. The point is relevant and important. I should not wish to see such a service become extinct in small communities because the costs of registration made it uneconomic for small enterprises to continue providing it.

I have sympathy with the amendment. The only saving grace that I can find in the terms in which the Bill is drafted is that it may be in the Government's mind that the charge envisaged for the service should be less than the cost. I will allow the Minister to respond to the proposed amendment, but first I give way to the hon. Member for Buckingham.

Mr. Bercow: A good nature and a charitable instinct are worth while in our deliberations, especially as we have two weeks of them ahead. I am happy to concede that there is a plentiful supply of both qualities in the hon. Gentleman, but I urge him not to overegg the pudding. On almost any reading, I suspect that it is a triumph of optimism over reality to suppose that the Government could have it in mind to raise in fees less than the reasonable costs. Clause 18 does not state that it will meet the reasonable costs, but that

    The level of fees so prescribed may be set with a view to recovering the reasonable costs,

which, in the language of new Labour seems to amount to much the same thing.

Mr. Chidgey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks and his accuracy in defending the wording of the Bill. However, I wanted to make the point that the looseness and opaqueness of the wording is such that that is the impression that the Government could, perhaps unwittingly, be giving us in allowing this wording to become part of the legislation. I am happy to conclude now and await responses from the Minister and other members.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): It is a great pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr. Sayeed, and welcome you to this Committee. I am also delighted to see here the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. May I express my personal condolences for the reason why he was prevented from being here this morning and offer him my deepest sympathy.

I declared an interest this morning, Mr. Sayeed. I am a member of the RAC Foundation public policy committee, which brings certain benefits. You will be apprised of the fact that I am a non-practising Scottish advocate from references that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham made to lawyers, which I hope have brought his discreditable remarks about my profession to an end. Avid readers of The House Magazine will also know that I am the offspring of a Scottish-Danish alliance and so I rise to my feet in this Room in some trepidation, realising that the painting alludes to Alfred inciting the Saxons to prevent the landing of the Danes.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend accept that, without in any sense casting aspersions that would be disrespectful to admirable Scots, the Danish part of the equation, especially in the light of the recent referendum, is especially commendable?

Miss McIntosh: I thank my hon. Friend. Obviously, stubbornness and patience are perhaps two of the best-known qualities of the Danish character. I rest my case there.

May I draw the Minister's attention, and ask him to direct his well-known assiduous qualities, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred, to clause 18 and our amendment No. 19. Speaking as a motorist, I am concerned that clause 18 could be perceived as taxation by stealth were the Minister minded not to support our amendment. Our wording is preferable to the Government's original wording for the simple reason that it sets out that the charges and costs incurred

    shall be set only in order to recover

the actual costs raised. The costs are not insubstantial. We are told, most helpfully, on page 13 of the explanatory notes that the first year's cost alone of registration, record systems and administration will amount to almost £6 million. We are told that thereafter the continuing and recurrent annual cost will be almost another £1.5 million for record systems and almost another £2 million for administration costs, leading to an overall total of annual recurrent costs of more than £3 million. That is not an insubstantial cost.

We are told that these costs will be distributed. The Minister referred earlier to some 27,000 businesses and a registration fee of £50. The average cost for business is deemed to be a set-up cost of £219 and an annual ongoing cost to each business of £121. I just wonder whether the purpose of the Government proposals is to close down some of these 27,000 businesses by stealth.

Mr. Bercow: Is my hon. Friend aware that as subsection (2) of the clause stands, it threatens to breach the commitment made by the Chancellor in April 1997 when he said in the foreword to Labour's business manifesto:

    We will not impose burdensome regulations on business, because we understand that successful businesses must keep costs down.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as it stands, it also violates the commitment made on 25 November 1998 by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who, speaking in the House, said:

    we have no intention of introducing any legislation that presents a burden on business and reduces the competitiveness of British firms.—[Official Report, 25 November 1998; Vol. 321, c. 214.]

Is not that game, set and match?

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, especially for drawing attention to the Chancellor's remarks. I cannot fault the Chancellor's education, as he and I both had the good fortune to go to the University of Edinburgh. He was the first-ever student rector to be elected; he was already a budding politician at that time. He would be fearful of the compliments paid to the Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. Why would the Chancellor say, on the record, that the present Government—possibly soon to be the past Government—are committed to keeping costs down when what is proposed will be an additional cost? I should be most grateful if the Minister would put my mind at rest and say that he has decided against a national monopoly. This morning, he referred to the Swedish position and, wearing another hat as a new member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I hope—

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I appreciate the hon. Lady's genuine concern about costs. Does she accept that an effect of the proposed registration is that it will separate legal from illegal businesses? Legal businesses will benefit as a direct result of taking illegal competitors out of the market. Does she further accept, bearing in mind her comments about her parents' car, that the predicted saving of £112 million per annum in vehicle value as a result of these measures must also be borne in mind when considering any question of cost?

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman's second point pre-empts what I intend to say in a moment.

On his first point, we do not want too make this too much of a Scottish monopoly—

Mr. Bercow: Oh, go on!

Miss McIntosh: Perhaps we do.

I hope that the Government's ambition in this respect is realised; it would be regrettable if the illegal businesses were the only ones that could afford the start-up costs and the high recurrent annual running costs, meaning that the legal businesses could not compete.

We hope to make a one-day visit to Stockholm and I shall take that opportunity to be briefed on how the national monopoly works there.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Hear, hear.

Miss McIntosh: I put it on record that the Minister applauded that initiative, which is most welcome. If I had a vote, I would increase his leadership potential.

The initial set-up costs of registering number plate suppliers have not been quantified, but they are not expected to be substantial. The explanatory notes state that insurance companies would benefit from a reduction in vehicle crime, a point to which the hon. Member for Hall Green alluded. The Government may be privy to information that we are not aware of, but what conclusive evidence is there that the insurance industry will pass the savings on to the businesses that will incur registration costs? I shall certainly refer to that matter in subsequent clauses. There is alarm in the motor industry about the matter, especially in the RAC; when the Government consider hypothecation in clause 37, insurance savings—the Government envisage that fewer vehicles will be stolen as a result of the measure—or income received through speed cameras should be passed on to defray the costs of registration. Otherwise, like many Opposition Members, I fear that there will be an increase by stealth in the cost of motoring. I cannot believe that that is what the Government envisage. I hope that the Minister will accept that our wording is much more precise and would tighten the Bill.

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