Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Hill: I take seriously the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green, given his distinguished role in the European Secure Vehicle Alliance. I remember his speech on Second Reading, in which he brought to bear all of the knowledge that is appropriate to his involvement in that movement.

The Government feel that the fit and proper person test is a matter of proportionality. The difference between number plate suppliers and the salvage industry—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green said, is dealt with in clause 12—is that a significant criminal element is believed to work within the salvage industry. The salvage regulation scheme is designed specifically to deal with such matters, which is why local authorities with local knowledge will set standards for the industry by operating a fit and proper person test. By contrast, the regulation of registration plate supplies is concerned mainly with preventing criminals from taking advantage of an unregulated system of supply. The Government have concluded that the issue is not criminality within the number plate supply industry but abuse by outside parties of the industry, and that is why we have chosen not to proceed with a fit and proper person test.

5.45 pm

Mr. McCabe: I accept my hon. Friend's point, but does he not accept that any attempt to constrain the supply of number plates will mean that the criminal element will look for another way in which to make a gain? In those circumstances, the criminal element—only a small proportion of the 27,000 suppliers, I accept—may be tempted to look for people who are willing to provide illegal number plates. It is important therefore that we make sure that those who are registered to provide number plates are of the right character. Otherwise, we shall close one area of the criminal market, but leave an opening for a new area to develop.

Mr. Hill: I take my hon. Friend's observations tremendously seriously. As for his worries about registration, we shall have the opportunity to examine the procedures on registration and, indeed, re-registration as we examine the Bill. I know that he is worried specifically about counterfeit plates and at a later stage in our deliberations we shall have the opportunity to discuss precautionary measures in that regard.

I revert to my observation about proportionality. Registration by DVLA will reduce the burden on businesses and provide the police with a single point of contact. As my hon. Friend knows, there are 27,000 registration plate suppliers compared with 3,700 salvage dealers. A fit and proper person scheme would create a large burden on the industry as well as on the DVLA and, given that our perception is that the criminality lies not with suppliers but with those who abuse suppliers, it would be inappropriate to introduce a fit and proper person test, even though we shall be introducing precautionary measures to test the authenticity of applicants in other parts of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I wish to speak to new clause 1. As members of the Committee will be aware, the Bill provides for three new offences. We can see the logic of what the Government have in mind. They wish to create offences of selling false registration plates, knowingly supplying registration plates to those sell fake plates and supplying plates or their components to unregistered persons. There is a lacuna in the Bill, however, which is the absence of a provision along the lines of new clause 1. It would specify that

    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.

To put it simply, it is obviously wrong for a person to seek to register when he has no justification for so doing, or to submit false particulars on the standard form, the merits of which I was commending to the Committee earlier, or on some other form.

Misleading the central authority and thereby becoming an established and registered supplier cannot be justified. However, the Bill does not appear to contain an offence of knowingly making a false application.

In other respects, the Government have taken a robust line on the need for substantial fines. The Minister said, in an earlier reference to the courts, that there would be the normal discretion as regards fines, and that he wanted to give a signal that the Government regarded the matter seriously. I believe that I interpreted him correctly as saying that he expected the maximum fine to be imposed in many cases. After all, the Government have an ambitious target, courtesy of the vehicle crime reduction action team, of a 30 per cent. cut in vehicle crime by 2004. They have made relatively modest—one might almost say snail's pace—progress towards that target in the past year or so. Therefore, it would make sense to create an offence in the Bill that would send a clear signal that it is unacceptable to submit a false application. Such an offence, and the potential imposition of a level 5 fine on the standard scale, would be consistent with the seriousness of purpose that the Government have rightly attached to the Bill.

I said earlier that we were anxious to ensure the security and robustness of the new regulation. The Minister said that ultimate responsibility for the provision of false information would lie with the person who knowingly provided that information. However, he said that a residual responsibility would be conferred on the DVLA to use its best endeavours to hold, and provide to other interested parties on request, the correct information. Nevertheless, the Minister and I agreed—and I think that other members of the Committee will conclude—that the responsibility for false information should mainly lie with the person who provided it. The DVLA will do its best, but it cannot be expected to get it right in every particular. Therefore, someone who makes a false application should surely be considered guilty of an offence and liable to conviction and subject to a fine. It does not seem unreasonable to propose that that fine should not exceed level 5 on the standard scale.

I hope that the Minister is comfortable with that idea. I am not sure why such a provision is not in the Bill, and I do not intend to pursue the point any further, but we must be consistent about the Bill's purpose and intended effect. Some hon. Members who support the Bill have occasionally criticised the Opposition for not being as committed to its objective as they are. I utterly reject that, because there is an essential concurrence between us about its purpose—there is merely some disagreement or uncertainty about its effect. As the Opposition, we are entitled to propose ways in which the Bill might be made more effective and its deficiencies or lacunae filled. That is what the new clause would do.

Mr. Hill: Although I shall resist the new clause, I shall resist it in an extremely qualified fashion. I appreciate the way in which the hon. Member for Buckingham moved the new clause.

The Bill requires a registration plate supplier to apply for registration. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that does not deal with the possibility that someone might make a false declaration as part of that application. We accept that if a person were suspended from the register and then attempted to register while suspended under a false identity, there would be no sanction against him under the present draft. Naturally, we would hope that any false information on an application would be noticed and would be grounds for not accepting the registration. Let me say clearly that we need to look further at this matter. I agree to look at it before Third Reading. I hope that with that nod and a wink, the hon. Gentleman will not press the new clause.

Mr. Bercow: I am very much encouraged by what the Minister has said. The Official Report tells us what words were uttered, but not how they were spoken. I see grounds for optimism in both the content and tone of what he said. The Minister at his best is an immensely reasonable fellow. This afternoon, on this point at least, he has been at his best. I hope that he is not seeking to hoodwink me or the Committee. He knows that I will belabour him for ever and a day if I feel that I have been subject to an actual or a perceived cop. That will not be acceptable. I intend to be in this House for a considerable time and I will berate him on a regular basis. But I do not think that that is the case.

If I interpret the Minister correctly, he is saying that the Government are not sure at this stage that they need to accept the terms that I am proposing. It might not be the most effective way of tackling the problem, but they can see that it is an element that could perhaps usefully, in whole or in part, in one form or another, be included in the Bill at a later stage. Ministers are right to talk to their advisers—those experts whom we see unfailingly before us—and to representatives of the industry to come to a judgment about what would be practicable and effective. We are not interested in gestures. We have often criticised the Government on this. Sometimes they have criticised us for proposing particular policies with an eye to publicity or the appearance of robustness rather than effectiveness. Of course there should be time for reflection and consideration.

I am grateful to the Minister. He has given an explicit and unbreakable undertaking that we will hear further on this point before Third Reading. I hope that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we will hear further on Report. I presume that when we come to Report, if there is to be movement on this we will hear about it. I will not press the Minister on that. I accept that he has not made an explicit commitment. He has said that we will hear further before Third Reading. I greatly appreciate that and I will not press my new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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