Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the Minister of State for that helpful suggestion. I do not question the integrity or calibre of the chief constable of North Yorkshire, who is second to none. He has turned round the morale and standing of the North Yorkshire police. When I was elected, before his appointment, many ordinary officers in North Yorkshire were taking retirement, and there was a higher incidence of illness than in many other police forces in the country. That was a matter of concern and the transformation in the North Yorkshire force's morale and achievements is a credit to the chief constable's hard work.

The intervention of the Minister of State helpfully leads me on to my next remarks. Incidentally, I want to mention my interest, which is declared in the register, as a member of the public policy committee of the RAC Foundation. That brings certain benefits that are greatly appreciated. The Minister of State said earlier this week that the foundation's comments were generally in support of the Bill. I have received a briefing, from it, which states:

    We believe that the Bill, which relates to vehicle crime, would have done much better to concentrate on the need for more traffic police officers to reinforce the additional powers given in the legislation.

In connection with speed cameras, to which the Minister referred, it states:

    The hypothecation of speed camera penalties seems to have little to do with the reduction of vehicle crime in the long run.

The whole thrust of the Bill—especially clause 25—begs the question why the Government have chosen to introduce a Bill on vehicle crime at this stage of the Parliament. Although I do not serve on the shadow Home Office team, my understanding is that, while it is still unacceptably high, the incidence of vehicle crime is decreasing. It is particularly high in North Yorkshire, where 4x4 vehicles used by farmers to reach inaccessible parts of their land are often targeted. That is a source of concern, but it would be interesting if the Minister could tell us why the Government are addressing the issue at this stage of the Parliament.

10.30 am

Mr. Clarke: I would like to clarify that point. The Government's three crime priorities are vehicle crime, burglary and violent crime. The legislation focuses on vehicle crime. It follows on from the work of the vehicle crime reduction action team and flows naturally from it. The VCRAT proposed certain legislation that would help us to reach our targets for vehicle crime reduction. As the hon. Lady generously acknowledges, we are already doing well in reducing vehicle crime, but the Bill is designed to reduce it further.

Other legislation before the House deals with burglary, including the Private Security Industry Bill, which is currently being considered in the other place. On violent crime, we are considering the introduction—in this Session—of legislation to deal with street crime and disorder. We have different legal measures to attain different policy goals. This Bill is before the House at this stage of the Parliament because we are trying to attack crime on all fronts. It also flows naturally from the work of the vehicle crime reduction action team, in which the RAC Foundation participates.

Miss McIntosh: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is right to underline the fact that there has been a cut in vehicle crime. She will know, because she was present at the Second Reading debate, that we have parleyed with the Government about the extent or significance of the cut that so far has been achieved. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be in any way be diverted from her very sound basic point, which is that, in light of the creation of new offences, it is inevitable that there will be an increased incidence of crime, at least in relation to clause 25. Does she agree that it is essential that we take proper account of the burden that we are, perhaps correctly, creating by virtue of the clause on the smaller number of officers?

The Chairman: Order. I am being very generous in permitting what is becoming a Second Reading debate. However, I must ask the hon. Member for Vale of York to deal with the clause now, having made her clear and proper point about the police. We must return to the matter in hand, which is clause 26.

Miss McIntosh: Do you mean clause 25, Mr. Wells?

The Chairman: I am sorry. I meant amendment No. 26.

Miss McIntosh: I do not wish to go on too much. I am grateful for your generosity, Mr. Wells. I have pursued the point vigorously and I am grateful for the Minister's intervention and for the support that I have received from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh has tabled amendment No. 9. The original text of the clause states that the constable or officer would be allowed to visit at any reasonable time, and I am minded to support that for the simple reason that it gives the police the opportunity to visit the premises of a potentially rogue business to seize possibly incriminating documents out of business hours. The amendment is unnecessarily restrictive. If the police are to gain the powers to carry out this duty, they should not be diverted from other duties.

Mr. Chidgey: The hon. Lady mentioned my amendment. May I reassure her that it was designed as a probing amendment to facilitate debate on the pros and cons, not a substantive amendment?

Mr. Bercow rose—

Miss McIntosh: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I welcome the observation made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we take the tough approach and allow constables or other authorised persons to inspect premises outside of normal business hours, the question of the application of reasonable force becomes compelling? In such circumstances, what does my hon. Friend believe would constitute ``reasonable force''? If severe damage were caused to the property of registered or unregistered plate suppliers in the process, would the Government expect compensation to be provided?

Miss McIntosh: That raises an important point, with which I have considerably sympathy. I accept that the hon. Member for Eastleigh tabled a probing amendment. I continue in the same spirit and offer the Government the opportunity to respond to my probing remarks. I repeat my earlier question: do the Government intend to allow officers to visit premises at any reasonable time? If officers proposed to enter premises outside office hours, would it be done in conjunction with the owners or occupiers of those premises? Could officers use reasonable force to enter?

Mr. Bercow: I do not want to labour the point, but it is important. Let us envisage a scenario whereby late at night a constable uses reasonable force and causes considerable noise or commotion at premises located near to residential property. Should we not take proper account of such a scenario?

Miss McIntosh: My hon. Friend may not like my reply, but forceful powers rest with the Commission of the European Union to enter premises and seize documents in competition cases. Are the Government aware of those parallels, and do they envisage the use of reasonable force in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham? Elderly or other vulnerable people living in a nearby residential area could be alarmed.

Mr. Shaw: Once again, I find myself coming to the defence of operational autonomy. Surely the reasonableness of entering a property would depend on the nature of the inquiry. It might be reasonable for notice to be given in connection with routine visits, but giving no notice whatever would be entirely reasonable for covert operations in which serious crime is suspected.

Miss McIntosh: These probing amendments give the Government the opportunity to outline how they envisage the clause being implemented operationally. Many questions are unanswered. This is the only opportunity that we have to look at the issues.

Mr. Bercow: I am worried about what might be called the insouciant attitude of Government Back Benchers to the application of force and the exercise of police power. The point made by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is not entirely unreasonable. I hope that he, and more particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York, accept that the issue of compensation that I have highlighted, in regard to significant damage to property, is of the first importance given that the police constable involved does not have perfect information at the time of the use of that force. He may suspect criminality, but his suspicion may prove unfounded. If significant damage is caused, are individuals not entitled to expect compensation, and should that not be clearly understood?

Miss McIntosh: Perhaps I am too na—ve and trusting, but having grown up in a country that is not a police state, I have sufficient confidence in the police.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I am listening with interest to the points made by the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Buckingham. We are getting a new version of softly, softly policing. When the hon. Lady put her name to amendment No. 27, what did she have in mind by ``reasonable''? It would surely help us if we knew that.

Miss McIntosh: I will refresh the memory of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) by telling him that I practised law for a short time at the Scottish Bar. It was against that background that I seized the opportunity to offer two alternative drafts to the clause. I did so not in a desire to be provocative but to give, in the same vein as the hon. Member for Eastleigh, the Government the opportunity to consider the matter in a constructive but constrained and focused way. In particular, subsection (2) provides that a constable or an authorised person may, if necessary, use reasonable force in the exercise of his powers under subsection (1). I am minded to press that with the Government.

 
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