Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. McCabe: The point that I am trying to put to the hon. Lady is that, while I accept that she is keen to tease out what would constitute reasonable force in those circumstances, she must know what she thought was ``reasonable'' when she put her name to the amendment that uses exactly that word. It would help our proceedings if she told us what she regards as reasonable.

Miss McIntosh: The courts have over the years interpreted the concept of reasonable force as force that would be regarded as reasonable by a reasonable man or a reasonable woman. In my view, it would be reasonable—particularly in regard to my hon. Friend's point about compensation—to enter a premises only if the weight of evidence were such that there was more than a strong suspicion that there was relevant material inside. Some potential criminals are—

Mr. Shaw: Not reasonable.

Miss McIntosh: Precisely. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for assisting me. Officers must seize opportunities that present themselves, but I shall not labour that point. I had moved on to amendment No. 9, but was drawn back to amendments Nos. 26 and 27 almost against my will.

I accept that amendment No. 9 is, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, a probing amendment. It provides the Government with the opportunity to explain why we should agree to replace at any reasonable time with

    during normal hours of business.

10.45 am

Mr. Hill: We have benefited from a wide-ranging contribution from the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). She confided in me yesterday that she had a terrific anti-Labour story for this morning.

Miss McIntosh: This is not it.

Mr. Hill: Oh, the hon. Lady has an even better anti-Labour story. That is impressive, because this is not a very good anti-Labour story. She will recollect that my hon. Friend the Minister of State wrote to her and all hon. Members last week explaining clearly that the number of police officers in north Yorkshire is increasing. Indeed, the number has increased by 10 since the beginning of September 2000 and continues to increase—[Laughter.] Collapse of stout party!

Miss McIntosh: The Under-Secretary is digging a big hole for himself. The number of police officers has fallen by 53 from last year and has probably fallen by even more if compared with the figure for 1 May 1997. The Minister is on record as saying that the number in north Yorkshire is rising, but I believe that the number of police officers who were serving on 1 May 1997 will not be restored by 1 May 2001.

Mr. Hill: It remains beyond peradventure that in September last year there were 1,283 police officers in north Yorkshire and there are now 1,293. The number of police officers in north Yorkshire is increasing.

The hon. Lady is probably right about road traffic accidents, because the number is high, but she will be aware that, in the local transport settlement announced by the Government in December 2000, north Yorkshire benefited from a colossal increase in investment in local transport of 176 per cent. That will make an immeasurable contribution to the improvement of road safety in north Yorkshire. The hon. Lady's comments in the Yorkshire Post about the Government's generosity were churlish and I now offer her the opportunity to withdraw her words.

Miss McIntosh: I fear that I have touched a raw nerve in the Under-Secretary, and I am delighted to have done so.

I want to put it on the record that it is not the residents in north Yorkshire who cause the problem, but transit traffic. My point is that the Government have still not given a commitment to provide sufficient finance when they proceed with their detrunking programme in 2003—

The Chairman: Order. I have been more than generous in allowing the debate to extend to police resources, but we must now return to clause 25 and make proper use of our time.

Mr. Hill: I regret that you are preventing me from pursuing the hon. Lady's point , Mr. Wells. Suffice it to say that the Bill will contribute significantly to a reduction in vehicle crime, which will free up police resources.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) rose—

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester) rose—

Mr. Hill: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy).

Mrs. Gilroy: I hope that you will allow me to pursue the point, Mr. Wells. As I understand it, this debate was initiated in the context of the pressure on police. Will my hon. Friend confirm that this far-sighted Bill is about helping areas such as Plymouth? Although vehicle crime has dropped by 50 per cent. in my constituency, efforts to bear down further on the problem are proving particularly challenging. In fact, vehicle theft is creeping up slightly. From the point of view of the chief superintendent of police in Plymouth—and doubtless the partnerships—the Bill's provisions will greatly assist in maintaining the momentum against vehicle crime. I assure the Committee that the provisions will ultimately result in less pressure on the police and will save police time.

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I remember well her saying on Second Reading that an impressive degree of community partnership with the police has driven down crime levels in Plymouth, and I commend the Plymouth experience to the Committee. She is right to say that the Bill will drive down vehicle crime levels and free up police resources for other purposes. However, in the light of your various observations, Mr. Wells, we should not dwell on the issue of police resources at this point, and I shall return to the substance of the debate. Before doing so, I should point out that the hon. Member for Colchester is right to say that levels of vehicle villainy, as he described it, in Essex are higher than in many other parts of the country. His very presence in this Committee shows his desire to seek a solution to the problem. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. We cannot allow various sedentary interruptions and discussions for the simple reason that it prevents me from following the arguments.

Mr. Hill: I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for his courtesy in sending his extremely helpful letter of 5 January to my hon. Friend the Minister. It points out that the amendments, as the hon. Gentleman has said, are essentially probing amendments, so I do not propose to make heavy weather of their contradictory nature.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his preference for the use of warrants in both cases, but in fact he has given us a choice: a warrant in all cases, or none at all. However, the Bill offers a middle—perhaps even a third—way. A warrant on registered and non-registered premises is unnecessary, and I should like to explain the Government's thinking in that regard. It is right that registered businesses be open to inspection by the enforcement authorities to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Bill. It should be borne in mind that some premises will be shops, accessible to the general public, that openly sell number plates. It is therefore illogical to argue that police officers cannot access such places.

Trading as a registration plate supplier and the consequent requirement to register bring with them the expectation that police officers have the right to ensure that legal requirements are being complied with. It would certainly be unacceptable to grant the police powers to enter any business premises without a warrant. I shall talk about that issue a little later. By registering, the supplier signs up to an inspection regime. It goes without saying that an honest supplier has nothing to fear from such a regime. An unregistered supplier is not part of the regime, and therefore needs to be given the same protection as businesses in general. On those grounds, we feel strongly that it would be unreasonable for the police to enter merely on suspicion. That is why the Bill stipulates the requirement for a warrant.

Mr. Bercow: I understand the point that the Under-Secretary is making, but I genuinely and honourably disagree with it. He used the term ``not part of the regime'' to describe an unregistered registration plate supplier. That may be so, but will he confirm that such an individual is not excused from the requirements of the law simply because he is not part of the regime?

Mr. Hill: I think that I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. It is precisely because such a person is not excused from the requirements of the law that, where there is reasonable suspicion, the police will intervene on the premises. In those circumstances, the person is justified in expecting that a warrant be served. He is not excused from the application of the law, but merits the protection of common law in such matters.

Mr. Bercow: I suggest to the Under-Secretary that the opposite should be the case. Even if there is unlawful activity on the premises, the registered plate supplier is within the law in practising his business because he has complied with the requirement to register, whereas the unregistered practising supplier is known by the constable or other person about to inspect the premises at least to be in breach of the law in one respect: operating without having registered. Why he should have the extra protection of the constable requiring a warrant, which is not imposed in respect of a registered registration plate supplier, has still not been explained to my satisfaction.

Mr. Hill: I regret that. It will be evident to members of the Committee that I am no lawyer, and there is a limit to how far I can allow myself to be dragged into such legal detail.

Mr. Bercow: Help is on its way.

Mr. Hill: I am in no need of help. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the unregistered supplier is known to be breaking the law. He is suspected of breaking the law. That is the point of the searches that will be carried out on the premises of unregistered suppliers, who are hardly likely to be vaunting their illegal activities. In suspicious circumstances, it is entirely reasonable that the police should be required to take out a warrant.

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