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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


[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Clause 31

Provision of documents etc. on vehicle licence applications

2.30 pm

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

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): It may be of benefit to the Committee if I said a few words about the clause and, in so doing, provided a general overview of the important purposes of part III.

The principal effect of the clause is to enable the Secretary of State to require applicants for a vehicle licence to furnish particulars or other evidence in support of their application. In practice, that means that in future an applicant will have to produce a vehicle excise licence renewal notice in support of his application. That will be the best proof of ownership. Alternatively, he will have to produce the registration document for the vehicle in question, which, in a sense, is the best proof that the vehicle is not ringed. There are two related reasons for so doing: first, to make it harder for criminals to legitimise a stolen vehicle by obtaining a new vehicle excise licence for it. At present, it is all too easy for them to do that, because there is no requirement for applicants to demonstrate any link with the vehicle for which they are seeking a licence.

The other main reason is to help to enforce the requirement for vehicle identity checks, for which provision is made under clause 32. It is our intention that, initially at least, the check should be carried out by the vehicle inspectorate. Vehicle identity checks will work only if there is an incentive to submit vehicles for inspection. That incentive will arise as, in future, criminals will not be able to obtain a vehicle licence to legitimise a stolen vehicle unless they obtain a replacement registration document for it. In turn, they will not be able to obtain a replacement registration document unless they submit the vehicle for a vehicle identity check.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will it be necessary for MOT certificates also to be provided?

Mr. Hill: That is the normal practice and it will continue to be a requirement of proof of identity.

The provisions of clause 31 make several other minor and consequential changes to the present method of vehicle licensing and registration. They will expand the scope of what applicants for vehicle licences may be required by the Secretary of State to furnish in support of their licence application. They are related to the objective of enabling the Secretary of State to require applicants to produce specific documentation as well as declarations and particulars, which is all that the law provides for at present.

Subsection 1(b) refers to ``other evidence'' as well as to documentary evidence. That is necessary to avoid limiting greatly the type of information that might be submitted in support of a licence application. For example, the Secretary of State might be prepared to accept an authenticated bill of sale in support of an application rather than a registration document. The additional words leave scope for flexibility.

How burdensome will such new requirements be for the motorist? We recognise that they will impose on them a small additional burden, in that they will have to produce appropriate documentation when they make an application for a vehicle licence. At present, motorists can still license their vehicle even if they do not have the vehicle excise licence renewal notice with them—indeed, they can do so without any documentation linking them directly with the vehicle. Obviously, that is not ideal for helping to prevent vehicle crime.

The small proposed change should not overly inconvenience motorists. After all, they already have to remember to take other things with them when re-licensing their vehicle: the fee, insurance certificate and, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) reminded us, an MOT certificate if the vehicle is three or more years old. The inconvenience of having to take one more important document is negligible when set against the benefits that the change will bring.

At this stage, I anticipate a question that is bound to spring to the minds of such an alert and inquisitive Committee. It concerns the possibility of a paperless licensing system. We plan to make possible the paperless licensing of vehicles in the not too distant future. A system by which vehicles could be licensed over the telephone or through the internet would suit many people as an alternative to queueing in a post office. When that system becomes a reality, and documentation and other evidence will be available electronically through various databases, the provisions of the clause will still be applicable.

Can I tempt the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) to speak? He is beginning to look more than usually inquisitive and alert.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): I am sorry to disappoint the Under-Secretary; I am trying to record every one of his remarks so that I can respond fully.

Mr. Hill: I must accustom myself to his normally inquisitive and alert posture.

I anticipate a further issue that may be on hon. Members' minds. How can we ensure that motorists pass on registration documents when they sell a vehicle? We are aware of that problem, and it is surprising that it does not occur more often. We plan to make it an offence not to pass on registration documents at the point of sale. That and other planned changes under existing legislative and administrative provisions will help us to increase the importance that people attach to having correct vehicle documentation.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing that information, because it links with the issue of abandoned vehicles, which I raised on Second Reading. Local authorities in my area tell me that about 80 per cent. of the owners of abandoned vehicles have not passed on documents to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Will the Department make available good public information to ensure that people do so? Secondly, will tough fines be imposed on those who do not fill in the forms, to ensure that they are detectable?

Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his proposals. If he will forgive me, I will not allow myself to be sucked too far down the path of abandoned vehicles, which is a subject of universal passion—as, indeed, it is for me. In my constituency, it is a major problem, and I know the figures for Kent. However, I reassure him that an enormous amount of work is going into tackling that pernicious problem. We will introduce a fine and ensure proper publicity. Normal communications between the DVLA and vehicle keepers will allow us to promote those new requirements at an early stage.

Mr. Bercow: The creation of an offence of failing to pass on a registration document is unobjectionable and may be sensible. However, can the Under-Secretary give the Committee any idea of the frequency with which, in practice, such a failure has been a problem when a purchase has taken place? How often have difficulties been caused by the lack of such a certificate on the part of a new owner?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman's intervention raises an important point about the justification for a significant new offence. I cannot immediately answer his question, but I will write to him with full details.

Mr. Bercow indicated assent.

Mr. Hill: I gather from his nodding that that course of action is acceptable to him.

Mr. Chidgey: Although I would certainly endorse the introduction of an offence for not passing on registration documents, the Under-Secretary will be aware that, in the context that we are considering, which includes salvage operations and car breaking, vehicles frequently pass through several traders' hands before reaching their destination and being disposed of by sale to the public.

I foresee a problem. It is all very well to introduce an offence of not passing on details of change of ownership to the DVLA. However, if vehicles are to change hands five or six times in the trade before reaching a customer, will not such an offence be irrelevant? The notifications will not happen in the time scale available. Is not there a need, as part of the audit trail to prevent crime, for a further means of dealing with registration of ownership and checks on ownership and possession, instead of total reliance on an offence of not passing on details to the DVLA?

Mr. Hill: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about transactions in the salvage industry. The Bill contains measures to regulate the salvage industry. For a proper and legitimate business, careful administration of the records associated with vehicles should be the norm—perhaps even more so than for the individual keeper of a vehicle. To that extent the provision should not present the salvage industry with any great challenge.

Mr. Chidgey: The Under-Secretary is developing a theme that I hoped to pursue later, but perhaps it is appropriate to discuss it now. I am concerned that as part of establishing an audit trail the authorities and the police should readily be able to establish the provenance of a vehicle. Relying entirely on the V5 and the DVLA is burdensome to the police because of the time scales involved. I should like the regulations to include a requirement for salvage operators, in particular, to maintain a register of possession of vehicles, to be completed at the time of taking possession. Such a register would facilitate checks by police officers who could visit to find out what the dealer had in his yard.

The relationship between the police and the majority of dealers, who are upright operators, will clearly be such that the police could even telephone to ask, ``Have you had this vehicle in this week?'' That would obviously be a more effective way in which to establish stolen vehicles' whereabouts than having to rely on the DVLA system.


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