Vehicles (Crime) Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hill: We may have to disagree on this point, but it seems pretty obvious that the Bill allows for the possibility of the fee being less than the administrative cost. The amendment would certainly not permit a lower fee level in certain circumstances.

The present draft provides greater flexibility than that proposed in the amendment. In the light of the evidence of the Government's open-mindedness and flexibility, I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will judge it right to withdraw his amendment.

5.30 pm

Mr. Bercow: I was happy to make the argument, and I remain unconvinced despite the soothing bromides of the Under-Secretary. One could argue the toss about the wording. I am not a lawyer—something that I say as a matter of pride—so I do not claim that the wording of the amendment is perfect. I think that I heard the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston chunter from a sedentary position something about our amendment being less desirable than the original wording of the clause due to the deletion of ``may'', which implies ``perhaps'', and the insertion, among other words, of ``shall''. That is to say that there is a prescriptive rather than permissive character to our amendment, and that the permissive rather than prescriptive character of the clause might admit a lower fee to be charged than that required to cover costs.

Even if that were true—a generous concession that I am disinclined to make—we would have to be guided to some degree by past practice and available evidence. One does not need to look into the crystal ball so far as this Government are concerned when one can, perhaps at leisure, read the book.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I do not want the hon. Gentleman to look into the crystal ball—I want him to read the words of the clause. It uses the words ``prescribed'', as in clause 30, ``may be set''—not ``shall be set''—and ``reasonable costs''. Although he is not a lawyer, as I am, he will understand that ``reasonable'' means reasonable in the circumstances. The clause standing part of the Bill would be much better in terms of the burden on business than his suggestion.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is bidding strenuously for recognition from his colleagues for his good efforts, but he is stretching a point.

Mr. Miller: I am right.

Mr. Bercow: No. The hon. Gentleman is wrong. He is an assiduous contributor to our proceedings and in the House, so I am sorry to say that he is usually wrong. Given the law of averages, he is occasionally right. He sometimes stumbles on the truth by accident rather than design, but this is not such an occasion. He is wrong, as our amendment specifies that the charge

    shall be set only in order to recover.

It would not permit anything beyond the recovery, and it specifies that recovery be involved. That is not what is said by the clause.

I am bound to say to the hon. Gentleman and the Under-Secretary that no amount of pedantry on their part will suffice to make their case, when the case that they seek to make, or at least assiduously to propagate without any fixed commitments, is in contravention of their Government's record over the past three and a half years. Unexpected charges have been consistently levied, hidden taxes have been imposed and burdens have been increased in defiance and violation of earlier undertakings to the contrary.

It would be a reassurance if the Under-Secretary were to say, categorically and in terms, that on no account would the unamended clause be used to cover a larger sum than that required to meet the cost. It is unsatisfactory for him to dance on the head of a pin in a rather undignified and unpersuasive fashion, simply saying that his clause would permit, in certain circumstances gloriously undefined, a lower charge than that required to meet the cost, without any serious indication that that is what the Government intend to do. It is especially unsatisfactory in the light of the fact that he is not even prepared—let us be clear about the scale of the disingenuousness—to make a pledge that there will not be a larger sum raised than that necessary to meet costs.

Not only is the Under-Secretary not prepared, if I may indelicately observe, to put his money where his mouth is by saying in what specific circumstances the charge would be lower than that necessary to meet costs—which would be an earnest of his good intention—but he is not even prepared to pledge that the sum raised will never exceed the sum required to meet the costs. I remind the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston that the amendment absolutely commits the legislation on that point. It makes it clear that no more money could be raised than that which is necessary to meet costs. The Government are not prepared to make that commitment.

Mr. Hill: Let me make one last effort to offer all necessary reassurances on the matter. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that the power to raise fees must be granted by Parliament and therefore it is not possible, as he seems to be suggesting, to infer a greater power. The power to exceed the sum required to meet costs is not there. That is the ultra vires rule, which means that legally we cannot raise more than costs through fees. That is a general legal rule, and I hope that that will sufficiently reassure the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bercow: I am not easily reassured, and I am not remotely persuaded by what the hon. Gentleman has said. Let me be clear. I regard the Under-Secretary as a decent cove. He is a perfectly respectable representative of new Labour and I accept that he does not have it in mind to impose a larger burden. Nor do I think that the Minister of State intends to impose a larger burden. However, with respect to the hon. Gentlemen, they are not judges in their own cause. [Interruption.]

The Minister of State is chuntering, from a sedentary position, that I did not listen to what the Under-Secretary said. I listened to it and fully understood it. I happen to dissent from his view that it would be ultra vires to charge more than the sum necessary to meet costs, for the simple reason of the absence of ``only'' from the wording of the clause. It is the continuing and remorseless resistance by the hon. Gentleman to the inclusion of a protective wording that worries me. I am not convinced. There is no guarantee, on the basis on which the clause will proceed, that substantial unnecessary costs will not be incurred through the inefficiency of the operations of the central authority, resulting in a desire on the part of Ministers to impose an increased charge. That increased charge might not be necessary, desirable or defensible.

The simple fact is that we do not know what the future holds. It may be, in the end, that the charges are not extortionate or, so far as businesses are concerned, unbearable. However, it is eminently sensible for members of the Committee to flag up the concern and to propose to do something about it. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, let me say that it is his habitual refrain that the Government are right, that the clause should stand unamended, that nothing needs to be done, that everything is hunky-dory and that anybody who takes a different view is mad, bad or dangerous to know. I am bound to say that such epithets would more reasonably be applied, on most occasions, to the hon. Gentleman, than to me or any of my hon. Friends. I repeat that I think that the Under-Secretary is a good chap and that the Minister of State is, if anything, a better chap. We know, of course, that he is the expected future leader of the Labour party, and I do not want to be discourteous to him.

The fact is that I am not reassured. I do not intend to put the matter to a vote, but my hon. Friends and I might well wish to return to it at a later date. Let it be clear that, if Labour Members think that we are relenting or that there will not be further discussion on these points, I am bound to warn them that they are lulling themselves into a false sense of security, because we intend to expatiate on them as forcefully and as often as necessary to fulfil the customary and proud role of the Conservative Opposition, which is to champion the interests of legitimate businesses, small and large, with a particular concern that the interests of small business should not be damaged by the vexatious, burdensome and capricious policies of the Labour party, new and old.

In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 1—False applications—

    '. Any person who knowingly makes a false application under section 18 shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.'.

Mr. McCabe: I want to concentrate on clause 18 rather than the new clause. For the record, I want to declare a non-pecuniary interest. I am the vice-chairman of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance, which is an all-party and multi-agency group set up with the express purpose of combating vehicle crime.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to look again at clause 18(4). What consideration will be given to an application by the Secretary of State or individuals acting on behalf of the Secretary of State? I considered tabling an amendment on the matter, but it seemed to me that it might be dealt with more readily if I raised it on clause stand part.

Clause 12, which deals with the salvage industry, includes a fit and proper person test. However, there does not appear to be a similar test for clause 18. I am especially concerned about someone who might register, breach the regulations and therefore be de-registered, but who may seek to register again through a wife's name or someone else's name. I seek an assurance that, to make clause 18 meaningful and exclude people who have a vested interest in breaching the law and furthering the potential for vehicle crime, applications for registration will be subject to a fit and proper person test. I am not terribly worried about whether a Government amendment is introduced or the Minister simply assures the Committee that such a provision will be made. What I am concerned about is that the Bill achieves its purpose and that those who apply to register are subject to a proper test.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 9 January 2001