Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: My question is very simple, and I hope not offensive. Does the Under-Secretary have a personal interest to declare?

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Mr. Hill: Yes. I declare a personal interest—my total impartiality on this subject. It is well known to the Committee that I am neither a car driver nor a car owner. Therefore, I look at these matters with an entirely objective eye and, I can see the eminent virtue of the Government's recommendations.

The extra cost to which I referred would clearly jeopardise substantially the marginal profits made by repairers of damaged vehicles, and would also tend to put lower cost of repaired second-hand cars out of the reach of some members of the community, which is undesirable for those who wish to drive a car.

The question is whether such a measure is needed, bearing in mind that our principal objective is to tackle car crime. Before the Bill was drafted, we thought long and hard about that question, and we consulted a large number of interested parties. The overall conclusion was that it would not be justified to include a safety examination in the identity check. There were several reasons for that, the most important being that there is no evidence to show that repaired vehicles represent a threat to road safety. On that basis, we concluded that it would be unnecessarily burdensome to extend the scope of the clause in that way.

We will make it clear to applicants that the vehicle identity check covers only what it says, and we will be recommending that they have the vehicle independently inspected by expert advisers if there is any doubt as to its condition. I have attempted to deal with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. He may have more and I am here to listen, to learn and to respond.

Mr. Chidgey: The Under-Secretary has, in his usual generous way, tried to take us within his inner thoughts, which is always a remarkable experience. I am delighted to hear that he is dispassionate about these matters, not being a car owner, although his remarks regarding speeding and seat belts were a little tenuous, and I wonder whether he was merely trying to tell us to belt up. In general, his remarks were helpful and because clarification of the information that will be given alongside the VICs was what I was seeking, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 54, in page 17, line 1, leave out `may' and insert `shall'.

The amendment is what might be called a minnow—because it suggests the deletion of one word and the insertion of another—but I was fearful that if the amendment were left out, it would seem unkind to the proposed substitution. The amendment suggests that we delete ``may'' and substitute ``shall''. That does not require much explanation as far as our thinking is concerned, but I will try, briefly, to encapsulate it.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): It is important to appreciate the legal significance over and above the difference in the general language uses of ``shall'' and ``may''.

Mr. Bercow: I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for that remark, which serves further to underline what might be described as the educational disparity between us. I have only an honours degree from the University of Essex, although I think that it is a respectable one.

Miss McIntosh: First class.

Mr. Bercow: From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend generously volunteers a remark about the class of the degree that I struggled to acquire, and I am grateful to her for that. Being fair, that does not compare to her own educational record, which includes a qualification as an advocate, who practised briefly at the Scottish Bar. She has the advantage over me in that regard, and notwithstanding the fact that I am not a lawyer—I always make that point as a matter of pride—I respect my hon. Friend's background, experience and education. She is of course right about the legal significance of the words ``shall'' and ``may'' and the difference between them. The point about the regulations is that it would seem that, for them to be effective in all cases, their application in a particular set of circumstances should be assumed to happen, and if it is to be assumed to happen, it must be required to happen. Therefore, in a sense the issue is whether the regulations should be permissive or prescriptive.

I may be wrong; I am conscious that we humble members of the Committee are trying to come to terms with the issues involved, and we are of course aware that Ministers are advised by some pretty highbrow characters. Some intellectual eggheads are working feverishly behind the scenes the better to equip Ministers for the Bill. They may all be sitting there, thinking, ``Oh no, this isn't necessary. He's got it wrong. We know exactly what we mean, and it's absolutely hunky dory.'' If that is so, and the Minister can persuade me this afternoon that that is so, so be it.

As the Minister is aware, subsection (2) refers to regulations relating to the power to

    refuse to issue a new registration document in respect of a registered vehicle if he—

``he'' being the Secretary of State—

    is not satisfied that the vehicle for which the document is being sought is the registered vehicle.

It goes on to explain—the kernel of my argument—

    Such regulations may, in particular, provide for—

as I said, I am slightly worried about the word ``may''—

    the examination (whether by the Secretary of State or by persons authorised by him) of all vehicles for which new registration documents are being sought, or such vehicles of a particular description, for the purpose of ascertaining whether they are the registered vehicles concerned.

Proposed new paragraph (b) refers to

    the provision of other evidence.

In cases in which the Secretary of State or those appointed by him are not

    satisfied that the vehicle for which the document is being sought is the registered vehicle

they must follow a particular course of action. Rightly, proposed new subsection (3) refers in detail to the sort of information and examination that would be necessary, including:

    notification of examinations...the issue of duplicates...the correction of errors...the payment of fees...the making of appeals...the carrying out of examinations...the authorisation of examiners...the manner in which, conditions under which and apparatus with which examinations are carried out by authorised examiners

and so on. As your beady eye will readily have spotted, Mr. Wells, reference is also made to the charges to be paid. Surely all that is to be taken as read? That is what is to happen in circumstances in which the Secretary of State is not satisfied.

For that reason, I do not understand why the clause states:

    Regulations made by virtue of subsection (2) may, in particular, provide for—

and then lists what the regulations may provide for. The clause relates only to such circumstances. Surely in such circumstances the regulations ``shall'' in particular provide for those matters?

It might be possible to make a speech of one hour's duration on that point, although it would be entirely futile to do so, just as no doubt the Under-Secretary could make a highly entertaining one-hour speech on the merits of climbing a spiral staircase and then descending it. However, I intend to develop the arguments as I and my hon. Friends have done hitherto—constructively.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Mr. Bercow: The point is pretty clear, and subject to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York and my response to it, I am minded pretty soon to rest my case. However, before I do so, because I await eagerly the hovering presence of my hon. Friend, I shall give way to her.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that he will not be too modest about his formidable talents: one hour seems a short time to make a speech on the matter. Would he not pray in aid one of the reasons for drafting the amendment, which is that it removes an element of doubt that was raised in representations made to us in relation to the party that is subject to such charges?

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have been consistent in flagging up a concern and awaiting a response. I am not going to die in a ditch on the matter—to the considerable disappointment of several Labour Members, I have no plans to die at all.

Mr. Hill: There is no such desire.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York is, of course, right—we are making our points briefly, which is why the Committee is making good progress. I feel sure that I would be severely chastised for the brevity of our proceedings if we were graced with the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but we are not. So I need not unduly trouble myself with that thought. The question is ``shall'' versus ``may''. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York and I, and our absent hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and my bitten hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), are on the side of ``shall''. Let the Under-Secretary accept ``shall'' or deploy all his intellectual rigour and personal eloquence in support of ``may''.

Mr. Hill: I very much appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Member for Buckingham moved the amendment and, especially, his brevity in doing so. I hope to respond in a similarly brief vein, but I will give as full an answer as is appropriate in the circumstances, which is what he seeks. We fully understand the good intentions behind the amendment, but I want to argue in the politest way possible that the amendment is impractical and unnecessary. I think that he will find my explanation for that extremely interesting and, possibly, encouraging.

In a nutshell, the reason why the amendment is unnecessary is that some of the provisions in the clause will be implemented immediately, subject to appropriate consultation, on which I offer the hon. Gentleman guarantees. Other provisions however, cannot be implemented immediately, which is why we think that the amendment is impractical.

Why do we think that not all the provisions will be required immediately? For example, the Secretary of State will not need to make regulations about the authorisation of examiners—as provided for under proposed new section 22A(3)(h)—until or unless he decided that private sector examiners should undertake vehicle identity checks. As has been made clear elsewhere, however, all such checks are initially to be carried out exclusively by the Vehicle Inspectorate, which is an agency of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Equally, there will be no need to make regulations under proposed new section 22A(3)(g), (i) or (j), until or unless private sector examiners are authorised to undertake vehicle identity checks.

I am aware that the issue of private sector examiners has not so far been adumbrated in this Committee. However, let me make a small observation on the matter, to which consideration was given in the consultation processes that led to the Bill. Most people who have an interest in the Bill—vehicle insurers, salvage dealers and so on—have already made it clear that they would not necessarily be comfortable with private sector examiners carrying out such checks. They have indicated that they would consider the scheme more secure if it were implemented only by the Secretary of State or, to be precise, the vehicle inspectorate. However, we want to keep an open mind for the future. It is a new scheme and we want to keep fairly tight control of it until we are sure about how it is working and what problems, if any, arise. Eventually, it might be worthwhile exploring the options for checks to be carried out by private sector examiners and the current drafting of the provisions allows us to retain that option. I rather think that the hon. Member for Buckingham might find that an interesting insight into the intentions behind the Bill, and a matter of some encouragement.

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