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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Standing Committee A

Thursday 11 January 2001

(Morning)

[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

9.55 am

The Chairman: I must explain to the Committee why it is faced with yet a third Chairman for its third sitting. Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Sayeed have other matters to attend to outside the House today, so I shall be in the Chair today. I have read the report of the previous two sittings and I am conscious of the limited time in which to consider the Bill—some Opposition Members believe that it is too little time. I shall therefore be strict and keep members of the Committee in order at all times, so that valuable time is not wasted.

Clause 24

Provision of information on sale of registration plates

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Before we come to a judgment about the validity of the clause, I should be most grateful to the Minister if he will elaborate on the phrase

    information of a prescribed description

in line 3.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): What information will be required from a prospective purchaser? Each year, about 10 million vehicle registrations are processed by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and, at any one time, many thousands of vehicle registration documents could be en route to and from the agency, or being processed by it. In such a situation, how will the registered keeper of a vehicle obtain a new plate? Will documents other than the vehicle registration document be accepted? If so, what measures will be taken to ensure that the purchaser has a bona fide right to the plate?

On a lighter note, do the Government intend to review the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 so that number plates can be positioned where they are less likely to be damaged? Plates seem to be particularly vulnerable at the front of vehicles. The hon. Gentleman will know from earlier debates that about 3 million plates have to be replaced each year because of damage. Does he have any proposals to strengthen number plates, so they are much less likely to be damaged? I look forward to his reply.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Your unexpected appearance as Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Wells, is none the less greeted with great delight. [Hon. Members: ``Hear, hear.''] We look forward to your rigorous chairmanship of our proceedings.

With the exception of the question about the construction and use regulations, the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey)—I hope that I have pronounced his constituency correctly—and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) have asked the same question. I hope that they will accept that I cannot deal with that immediately. I will attempt, in due course, to return to that matter at a more comprehensive length, but I should point out at this stage that material used for the manufacture of number plates is set by the British Standards Institution. However, I will return to the hon. Gentleman's question at greater length.

On the question raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham, the information referred to in the clause is information that provides proof that the prospective purchaser is entitled to receive plates bearing the registration mark requested. That could be done by asking for proof of identity such as a driving licence, or a passport and proof of entitlement to the registration marks such as the registration document. In other words, it will be open to identify more extensive evidence of identity than those strictly relating to the purchase and keepership of the vehicle.

10 am

Mr. Chidgey: My point is simple. I am concerned about the delay in the process while documents are in the post to and from the DVLA. Will that problem be resolved?

Mr. Hill: I find myself regularly answering questions about the amount of time that the DVLA takes to deal with transactions and on the whole it is a relatively brief period in any circumstances—although some people might challenge that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman took my point that the Government will consider setting out in regulations the possibility of a greater range of evidence of identity than those that simply relate to the vehicle itself.

Mr. Bercow: I take this opportunity to welcome you warmly, Mr. Wells, to the chairmanship of our proceedings.

The Under-Secretary observed that on Second Reading, I required little provocation to leap to my feet and I feel tempted to do so on this occasion. He implied that he would not be able to give details now of the information of the prescribed description referred to in line 3 of clause 24. Is it the Government's intention to issue draft regulations before, or to coincide with, the Report stage of the Bill? Or will he by some other means and at what time give us some idea of the information of prescribed description?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly reasonable and proper point. It is certainly our intention to consult fully on the proposed regulations, and I look forward to his representations on those in due course. As he will be aware from our exchanges on Second Reading and the observations that have been made in the course of our proceedings so far, there have already been extensive consultations on the measures contained in the Bill. There has also been a high level of unanimity about the measure among the key players, including the official Opposition, who, very reasonably, chose not to divide the House on the substantive measure.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman and I both seemed to have pored intensively over the proceedings on Second Reading. He is absolutely right—I did say that he had a tendency to leap to his feet with relatively little provocation, but it is important in our proceedings that all ministerial utterances should be challenged in detail. I can reassure him that there will be comprehensive consultation on those matters before the regulations are proposed to the House.

In conclusion, the clause is one of the key provisions in this part of the Bill. It requires anyone conducting business as a registration plate supplier to ensure that plates are sold only to people who have a genuine reason for purchasing them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25

Rights to enter and inspect premises

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 13,

leave out lines 14 to 47 and insert—

    `(1) A justice of the peace may issue a warrant authorising a constable or (as the case may be) an authorised person to enter and inspect premises, provided that admission to the premises is reasonably required to secure compliance with the provisions of this Part, or to ascertain whether these provisions are being complied with.

    (2) A constable or an authorised person may, if necessary, use reasonable force in the exercise of his powers under a warrant issued under subsection (1).

    (3) A constable or an authorised person may at any reasonable time—

    (a) require production of, and inspect, any registration plates kept at the premises; and

    (b) require production of, inspect and take copies of or extracts from any records which the person carrying on business as a registration plate supplier is required to keep at such premises by virtue of this Part.

    (4) A constable or an authorised person in seeking to enter any premises in the exercise of his powers under a warrant issued under subsection (1) shall, if required by or on behalf of the owner or occupier or person in charge of the premises, produce evidence of his identity, and of his authority for entering before doing so.

    (5) Any person who obstructs an authorised person in the exercise of his duties under a warrant issued under subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: amendment No. 27, in page 13, leave out lines 14 to 47 and insert—

    `(1) A constable or (as the case may be) an authorised person may at any reasonable time enter and inspect premises, provided that admission to the premises is reasonably required to ascertain whether the provisions of this Part are being complied with and, if necessary, to secure compliance with the provisions of this Part.

    (2) A constable or an authorised person may, if necessary, use reasonable force in the exercise of his powers under subsection (1).

    (3) A constable or an authorised person may at any reasonable time—

    (a) require production of, and inspect, any registration plates kept at the premises; and

    (b) require production of, inspect and take copies of or extracts from any records which the person carrying on business as a registration plate supplier is required to keep at such premises by virtue of this Part.

    (4) A constable or an authorised person in seeking to enter any premises in the exercise of his powers under subsection (1) shall, if required by or on behalf of the owner or occupier or person in charge of the premises, produce evidence of his identity, and of his authority for entering before doing so.

    (5) Any person who obstructs an authorised person in the exercise of his duties under a warrant issued under subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale.'.

Amendment No. 9, in page 13, leave out lines 14 to 47 and insert—`at any reasonable time,' and insert

    `during normal hours of business'.

Clause stand part.

Mr. Bercow: I think that the Committee will readily understand the purpose of the amendments. I reiterate at the outset what should be apparent to everyone who reads the Bill. Clause 25 relates to the right of a constable or authorised person to enter and inspect premises. That does not seem an unreasonable power, and precedents for it exist in a great many measures. It is essential that the intention of the Bill can be made effective in practice, and if a police constable or other authorised person has reason to believe, and, presumably, good grounds to suspect, that illegal activity might be taking place, it is essential that he should be empowered to inspect and investigate. About that there is no disagreement.

As the Under-Secretary, and, I am sure, you, too, Mr. Wells, will be aware from the substance of the Second Reading debate, members of the official Opposition expressed anxiety—I cannot remember whether that anxiety extended to Liberal Democrats—about the apparent inconsistency of treatment in the clause of registered registration plate suppliers and of those who are not registered. To avoid doubt and being contradicted by the Minister, I say at the outset that I am fully aware that under the Bill all registration plate suppliers will be obliged to be registered, and that those who are not registered violate and contravene the Bill. Nevertheless, the central point—suspicion of wrongdoing—is the same in both cases, and my hon. Friends and I found that inconsistency of treatment curious. Specifically, we thought it peculiar that, for the investigation of someone who was registered as a registration plate supplier, it would be in order for a constable or other authorised person to enter and inspect premises at a reasonable time without a warrant. However, if the constable or other authorised person proposed to enter and inspect the premises of someone who was not registered as a registered plate supplier, that constable or other authorised person would require a warrant.

My point, which was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—who is still, I regret to say, suffering from the effects of the aforementioned bite—was that that seemed unfairly to discriminate against someone who was properly and lawfully registered, and effectively to favour, or at least to be a little soft on, someone who was not registered. That seemed curious.

For that reason—I am doing my best to explain a simple point as succinctly as possible—it seemed worth while to table amendments to tease out the Government's thinking. I say without embarrassment or apology that my hon. Friends and I tabled two amendments that contradict each other. That was quite deliberate. In the name of consistency and mutuality of treatment, we suggest that either both registered and unregistered registration plate suppliers should be capable of inspection at any reasonable time by a constable or authorised person only possessing a warrant or they should both be open to inspection by a constable or other authorised person who does not possess a warrant. That would at least ensure equal treatment. Rightly, the principle of non-discrimination informs much legislation and the general attitude of political parties towards the conduct of human affairs.

I thought it courteous to write to the Minister in advance for the elucidation and edification of those who did not attend our proceedings on Tuesday. I emphasise that I am not referring to any ordinary Minister of State. It is important to put it on record again that he was referred to in The Guardian on Monday as ``the man with a mission'', described by John Kampfner as ``an arch-operator'' who might be the next leader of the Labour party.

I endeavour to be a courteous fellow in all circumstances and I thought it particularly appropriate to mind my p's and q's in that context. So I wrote to the Minister on 5 January. I apologised to him for not signing the letter myself. I was in Israel at the time, so it was signed on my behalf. I said:

    I am writing ahead of the first committee stages of the Vehicles (Crime) Bill.

I emphasised in my letter that on Second Reading I had stated my concern about Clause 25 and said:

    I believe this places a greater burden on legitimate businesses who comply with the law, rather than on those plate suppliers who operate whilst unregistered.

    To resolve this conflict I have tabled two amendments to encourage discussion about the issue. The first amendment requires the authorities to hold a warrant before entering either registered or unregistered premises, while the second allows them access without notice—

or warrant—

    to either establishment.

My purpose in tabling these two probing amendments was to find a satisfactory solution to what I see as a problem in the clause as it stands. I thought that the Minister should be aware of that before the debate.

We have proposed a solution. Amendment No. 26 requires that the authorities should have a warrant before they enter registered or unregistered businesses. Amendment No. 27 states that they may enter either business ``at any reasonable time''. Of course that means that they may do so without a warrant.

Some people might think that it would be sensible, in order to maximise the efficacy of the Bill, to allow entry for inspection at any time and without a warrant, that that would be proper and that we should agree to it. Others will say, ``No. It should be necessary, to safeguard the rights of the individual, to secure a warrant in advance.'' As it is not a deeply partisan matter, I am happy to vouchsafe to the Committee that, in general terms, I am of a libertarian bent. So the Minister will not be surprised to know that, as I am rather suspicious of the use of overweening authority by agents of the state, I believe that in these circumstances constables should require warrants. I jealously—and perhaps zealously—guard the privacy of the individual and the right of freeborn Englishmen, Welshmen, Scotsmen and Northern Irishmen in the United Kingdom to go about their lawful business unmolested by the avaricious appetite of state officials. Others, who are less concerned about that, think that constables should be able to go about their business at any time and that a warrant should not be necessary. I prefer the requirement and use of a warrant in both cases, although it may well be that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee hold a miscellany of views on the subject.

 
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Prepared 11 January 2001