Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: I take the gravest exception to the suggestion that I am wielding or wish to wield a big stick. I simply suggested that the scope for whim and dangerous discretion, which might have an adverse impact on individual businesses, should be removed or circumscribed. However, I listened closely to the Minister's words and tone and, on the strength of his remarks, I am happy to allow the clause to stand part of the Bill unopposed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Applications for Registration andRenewal of Registration

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 66, in page 2, line 40, leave out from `concerned' to end of line 41 and insert

    `on a standard form; and'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 67, in page 2, line 43, at end insert—

    `(c) shall be supported by relevant documentary evidence'.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister will understand that several of the previous arguments recur on these amendments, so I will not labour the point. Amendment No. 66 relates to the issue of whether a standard form is provided and required to be completed. My hon. Friends and I are a little unhappy about the reference to

    such requirements as may be prescribed.

We maintain that that presents an opportunity for officials within the same department of a local authority to interpret the requirement differently, and for businesses to have different experiences, depending on the official with whom they happen to deal. I do not in any sense seek to impugn the integrity or motives of local authority officials, who do their duty as they think fit; I merely acknowledge and express concern that, unless clear procedures are set out, it is as sure as night follows day that some variability will creep into the process. After all, the local authority officials to whom I refer are not automatons—they are human beings.

Mr. Fabricant: Is my hon. Friend concerned primarily with the possibility of different forms within one authority or different forms in different authorities? If the latter were the case, a salvage operator with plants in different authorities would not be able to work with a standard form. I believe that that is more of a worry.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend makes a compelling point. As he will have heard me explain a few moments ago, I have set a modest ambition for the Opposition. It may be that he is, in his characteristically courteous and understated fashion, chiding me on my modesty and suggesting that I should be more concerned with pressing Ministers to establish a uniform form for all local authorities. He is right that a trader established in several local authorities could face a panoply of different forms of greater or lesser complexity and robustness, as a result of which a problem could arise. However, at this stage all I am arguing for is that within one local authority area a standard procedure should be applied to each applicant.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that, while we and, I am sure, the Government want to limit legislation as much as possible, when a Bill covers England and Wales, it would make sense to have one standard form? It is not just an issue of robustness and complexity, but the order of questions. For example, although the salvage operator may operate in different districts, there may be only one person who fills in such forms for the entire organisation. That person's job will be much more difficult if he has to deal with a series of forms with questions set out in different orders and drafted in different levels of complexity.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend powerfully underlines the argument. As an experienced member of Standing Committees, he will remember that unless we press an issue to a Division, nothing prevents us from raising it at a later stage in our deliberations. I am gaining the impression that he might be encouraging my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York and I to do just that and perhaps to draft a further amendment. However, given the slightly—I shall not describe it as ``tricky''— unenthusiastic response from the Minister to the fairly modest amendment that I proposed to the previous clause, it does not seem likely that he will enthusiastically receive the broader amendment that my hon. Friend is commending, but that is no reason why we should not try to persuade him to accept it.

Burdens are not a matter of theory or of the abstract. We are talking not about wallowing in the realms of metaphysical abstraction, as Burke would have put it, but about the concrete, the specific, the everyday and the unavoidable. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who is a champion of businesses in general and of small businesses in particular, will be aware from his close knowledge of such matters that the proportion of small businesses in the motor salvage sector is strikingly large. We must be aware of that, given that we are talking about small companies that will for the first time be confronted with a regulatory regime for which there is a justification and which could prove effective in reducing vehicle crime. But we do not want to over-egg the pudding.

I wish gently and good-naturedly to pick the Minister up on his partisan observation when he referred to the great debate between centralised government and local authority discretion. He referred—somewhat piously, I thought—to the record of previous Governments and suggested that it was that of a centralising Administration, whereas he and his hon. Friends were committed to the cause of decentralisation. I have two points to make. First, I do not think that that is supported by the record, although we will not debate that at any length, because to do so would not commend itself to you, Mr. O'Brien. Secondly, I appeal to the Minister not to cloak a regulatory burden for business in the language of freedom and autonomy for local councils. It is no great freedom or worthwhile autonomy for different local authorities to be able to use different standard forms. They would have to be a bunch of pretty sad anoraks if they derived any pleasure from the capacity to apply different procedures throughout the country. They would have to be even sadder anoraks, which I am sure that they are not, to derive any pleasure from applying different requirements or differently composed forms to different businesses in the same area. That has nothing to do with local authority discretion. That is over-zealous, thoroughly burdensome and deeply unjustified regulation of businesses. What is more, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield will agree, even in local authority terms, that is rank inefficiency, and there is no reason why we should have to put up with it.

Mr. Bob Russell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the simple, common-sense way forward is a uniform form throughout the country? The best way to develop that is for the Government to hold discussions with the Local Government Association.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful for that intervention. There is much in what the hon. Gentleman says. The only additional point that I make in response is that that discussion should not be confined to the Government and local government associations; it might usefully involve those parties whom it will affect. The thrust of what he says is entirely sensible, and I endorse it.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will it assist the hon. Member for Buckingham if I say that there is real merit in his argument? I am prepared to look at the matter again in the light of his comments and those of the hon. Member for Colchester. We will not support the amendments, and I will ask him to withdraw them. However, although it is difficult to specify the exact form in the regulations because we want flexibility, some of the principles that he has put forward about uniformity are strong and worth while, and we are prepared to look at the matter again at a later stage in the progress of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I am delighted by the Minister's comments. That is just the sort of reasonable and open-minded approach that we on the Opposition Benches seek, but do not frequently encounter. It is not entirely unexpected and it is in keeping with what I would like to be able to expect from a future leader of the Labour party. I am grateful to the Minister, and on the strength of that and in the spirit in which he made his remarks, I will not dilate further—unless provoked—on that particular amendment. I have proposed it in relation to two clauses, and the argument is clear. I appreciate what the Minister had to say.

Amendment No. 67, which is grouped with amendment No. 66, requires that an application for registration

    shall be supported by relevant documentary evidence.

Once more, the argument does not need to be made at length, because the Committee has been previously favoured with it in relation to a different part of the Bill. It seems to my hon. Friends and me that, as the requirement properly applies to the procedure in relation to applications for registration plate suppliers, it could usefully apply to motor salvage operators. As we see it, the problem is simply stated. Copies of the register shall be provided as evidence of the information contained in it. However, if copies are to be provided as evidence, where does the accountability lie if the information provided is incorrect? I am happy to stand corrected if I am mistaken, but at present it seems that no one is responsible in the legal sense—the only sense that matters to us as legislators—for the accuracy of the information. So—I feel sure, Mr. O'Brien, that you are following intently the logic of the argument as, in my plodding fashion, I develop it—if someone uses the information for any purpose, he cannot seek redress if it is proved incorrect.

What is the solution? My hon. Friends and I are arguing for the registration process to be tightened. Without placing extra burdens on business—I emphasise that point with all the force that I can muster—we suggest that applications should be supported by evidence to prove its veracity. False applications would be punishable by a new offence.

Such provision would ensure that inaccurate information was clearly traceable, either back to the business that provided it or to the application procedure that produced the error. In the latter case, a clear line of redress could be followed by an aggrieved party. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State would—theoretically—be responsible for any inaccurate information held on the register, although it would be unlikely in practice that he would accept personal responsibility if matters went wrong.

I hope that the argument is clear. If memory of earlier parts of our proceedings serves me correctly, the case was given a fair hearing and an encouraging signal was given by the Under-Secretary. I look forward to the Minister's response.

11.30 am

 
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