Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Hill: The clause provides that the Secretary of State may cancel a registration if he is satisfied that the business has ceased trading as a registration plates supplier for at least 28 days, and the amendment would extend the period to 60 days—eight weeks and four days. The Government consider 28 days to be sufficient. It ought also to be borne in mind that this is not a punitive measure but only a means of ensuring that the register is kept up to date. I refer to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh and reiterate that unless the register is kept up to date, it will not be possible to supply the police, members of the trade and the public with the necessary information. It is vital, if the audit trail is to be sustained, to ensure that the register is intact and up to date.

Mr. Chidgey: What process is envisaged by which, when a company ceases trading, the police and authorities will be informed and enabled to check? I am concerned about the bureaucratic nightmare that could arise concerning how we are to know that traders—especially fly-by-night traders—have ceased trading and how we are to trace their records.

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman asks a very good question. Let me be entirely candid: I am not sure that I can give a very good answer. It appears that an assessment may be made by a variety of means of whether an institution is trading.

6.15 pm

The issue is not the conveying of the information to relevant bodies once the supplier has ceased trading. That can be done simply through the provisions of the Bill, by using the internet and tracing the application to the DVLA, which is the registration authority.

The hon. Gentleman asked an interesting question about how it will be known that the supplier has ceased trading. I am delighted to say that inspiration has winged its way to me. It will be an offence to fail to notify the registration authority that a supplier has ceased to trade, which in itself will be a major incentive to supply that information.

Mr. Chidgey: I am grateful that the Under-Secretary recognises my genuine and serious concern, which is not at all flippant. We are dealing with a minority of people in the business who are in the criminal fraternity. The issue is about taking those people out of the business spectrum so that their crimes in vehicle theft are illuminated. It may be an offence not to tell the state that one is no longer trading, but the people involved are not the sort of people to be concerned about that. The nature of their business is to try to be as far underground and out of sight as possible. That is why I am concerned that there is no automatic mechanism to tell the authorities that an organisation has ceased trading.

I return to my fundamental point. There seems to be nothing in the Bill to tell us how the records of every supplier that ceases to trade will be required by law to be passed on to the authorities—perhaps a local authority or the police authority—so that its audit trail remains intact. I remind the Committee that insurance companies often do not recognise stolen cars as having been stolen for three months or longer in due process. There is a serious concern that unless we get the legislation absolutely right, it will be totally ineffective.

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman is on to a very good point. I am taking some time to consider it. As one ponders on his observations, it emerges that there will be various sources for the information about cessation of trading, as there will be various agencies at the local level. One thinks, for example, of trading standards officers, and the police also have a clear stake in the matter. They will be sources of information to the registration authority.

Clarity of identification and maintaining a reasonably clean and up-to-date register, which is the object of the exercise, are precisely the reasons for the decent audit trail to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. It will be a legal requirement on the supplier to notify the registration authority of the decision not to trade. That will be a powerful source of information for maintaining a proper register.

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. Chidgey rose—

Mr. Hill: If the hon. Member for Buckingham will forgive me, I think that I at least owe it to the hon. Member for Eastleigh to give way to him again, during which time I may be able to peruse the further pieces of information that have reached me.

Mr. Chidgey: I will try my best to speak clearly and slowly, giving the Under-Secretary the opportunity to brief himself using the poorly handwritten note that I can see. In his previous reply, he made it clear that he believed that we could rely on local trading standards officers and the police to undertake the extra and onerous duties of checking the whole range of traders in registration plates to ensure that they are still trading. Surely he accepts that local authorities and the police are already overburdened with work and that it would be completely unrealistic for the Bill to place even more burdens on them, particularly when it claims that no extra work will be required of them to enforce its provisions. We need measures that will make such provisions self-enforcing, and those I have yet to see.

Mr. Hill: Let me add to the list of agencies that will be scrutinising the activities of number plate suppliers. As well as the police and the trading standards officers who will have a stake in the matter, VAT authorities will have an interest in who is or who is not trading. They will also require evidence of continuity or cessation of trade. I am conscious that the hon. Member for Buckingham wants to join the fray, but I want to revert to the fundamental assumption underlying the Bill, which is that number plate suppliers are not criminals. No inference is made that the problem of criminality lies with those 27,000 suppliers. We are concerned about the exploitation by criminal means of their legitimate activities, and that is what we want to bear down on. We are reasonably confident that the sorts of criminal elements that the hon. Member for Eastleigh is primarily concerned with are those who will not register in the first place.

The purpose of Standing Committees is to prise out problems in legislation. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are talking not about the principle of who registers or who does not register but about when it should be deemed that a cessation of trading has occurred. I reassure him that we take seriously the broad arguments that he has outlined and that we shall reflect on them as the Bill is debated.

Mr. Bercow: The Under-Secretary was gracious enough to refer to the lifeline that he was thrown, to which I had also intended to refer. It was interesting to see him consulting it and I hope that he found it useful. He was right to say that the hon. Member for Eastleigh was on to a good point. I do not want to labour matters that we have already debated and that the Minister has given us an assurance that he will reconsider, but will he at least accept that, on the surface, there is a certain incongruity about there being an offence of failing to notify the authority of a cession of trading and the absence thus far in the Bill of an offence of making a false application for registration?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I have given him pretty powerful reassurances about it. The appropriate time before a supplier should be deemed to have ceased trading is a matter of judgment. I have said that notification that trading has ceased would be expected from the business under clause 26. The period for providing notification under that clause is also 28 days, and I must point out that no controversial amendments have been tabled to increase that period to 60 days, although one has been tabled to increase it to 42 days. However, that was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, not the official Opposition, who apparently thought it unnecessary in that case. That shows an inconsistency in their argument. Safeguards in the Bill prevent the Secretary of State from cancelling a registration when trading has not ceased. The business must be notified and, as set out in later parts of the Bill, it has the opportunity to make representations.

Amendment No. 21 concerns good cause for ceasing to trade. The response may seem somewhat of a pettifogging drafting point, but the drafting is unacceptable. It is unnecessarily restrictive and contrary to the shared purposes of the Government and the Opposition. The amendment would restrict the ability to cancel registrations when a person ceases to trade

    without good cause or reason.

Someone who had ceased trading as a registration plate supplier but had ``good cause or reason'' for doing so would remain on the register. That would defeat the object of having a register of number plate suppliers. The register would have to include people who were not carrying on a business as registration plate suppliers. I rest my case.

Mr. Bercow: I see the force of some of what the Minister said, and I am happy to reflect on it. In tabling amendments, there is always the danger of the unintended consequence. I am happy to concede that the amendments could have unintended consequences. I shall not labour the point, and I shall not press the amendment to the vote. In return, however, in the relatively cordial atmosphere now enveloping the Committee, I suggest that the Minister should take into account the thinking behind our amendment and the important comments adumbrated by the hon. Member for Eastleigh.

On the Minister's own admission, there is a certain arbitrariness in the provision. One has to choose a time scale, and judgment and fair play should permeate the process. I suspect that the Minister would admit that in different circumstances, at a different time, with a different Minister and different very bright officials offering advice, a different time scale could—and in other countries probably would—be chosen. It would be wrong to let the issue die in the ditch. I hope that the Minister, consistent with his approach on the offence of seeking falsely to register, will adopt a similarly broad-minded stance. He may be unwilling to produce alternatives before Third Reading, but I hope that he will attend to the debate on Third Reading and on Report and be prepared to consider the arguments on an on-going basis.

On the strength of that observation, and the important points adduced by the hon. Member for Eastleigh, I, too, am happy to rest my case. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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