Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Fabricant: I, too, was delighted with the Minister's intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham to the effect that he would consider the standardisation of forms. You will recall, Mr. O'Brien, that I suggested to my hon. Friend that amendment No. 66 could go further, to achieve standardisation not only in a district but throughout England and Wales. I know that the Minister is taking that on board. Perhaps he can obtain the following information before he replies. Having argued strongly with my hon. Friend for standardisation, because an operator may find it difficult to deal with different forms if he has several plants in different parts of England and Wales, I wondered about the estimated percentage of salvage operators who have plants in more than one district. Perhaps the Minister can provide that information.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister said that he was minded to consider a standard form. I heard a Government Member on the Front Bench say from a sedentary position said that the form should be harmonised throughout the European Union. I took that in the light-hearted manner in which it was raised in this our first sitting of the second week after the recess. Are the Government also minded to introduce a standard fee, or are they cognisant of the difficulties that that might cause for people living in less well-off areas such as the north of England?

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend mentioned the less wealthy north of England. May I remind her that there are more Porsches and Rolls-Royces per head of population in the north-east than in the south-east?

Mr. Bob Russell: They are all motor salvage operators.

Miss McIntosh: I could not possibly comment. That is a matter for the hon. Member for Colchester.

To make a comparison, there are two villages by the name of Hewby. One is in the Vale of York constituency and the other in Leeds, North-West. The village in the latter has more millionaires per head of population than the quaint village of Huby, which is at the centre of Vale of York.

The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield underline the point. I might not be as wary as many of the salvage operators to which the hon. Member for Colchester referred in a sedentary intervention, but parts of the north-east would find it difficult to meet the fee, bearing in mind the likely costs detailed in the explanatory notes. I should like to probe the Minister to ascertain whether the Government have thought ahead and considered a standard fee or whether they will make arrangements for different parts of the country.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I begin my response by drawing the attention of members of the Committee to clause 3(1)(a), which states that the registration

    shall be made to the local authority concerned in accordance with such requirements as may be prescribed.

As you will recall, Mr. O'Brien, ``prescribed'' is defined in clause 15(1) as meaning

    prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State may introduce regulations to deal with the matter, and it was in consciousness of that that I responded as I did to the points made by the hon. Member for Buckingham. We shall consider the matter more closely with a view to achieving the uniformity and standard approach for which he argued strongly, and we shall respond in due course.

The same applies to amendment No. 67, which deals with relevant documentary evidence. That matter can be dealt with by regulations in the established way, as we intended. However, as the hon. Member for Buckingham will recall, having discussed the matter last week with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, we believe that in considering documentary evidence it is important to take account of the fact that we are trying to move towards electronic systems of delivery of such services. There is therefore a real burden in some aspects of the documentary requirement. That may conflict with the electronic delivery of Government services, which the Government are keen to promote and which is, I believe, supported by hon. Members from all parties. The matter can be considered as part of clause 3(1)(a), and we shall consider it in that context.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield, I am advised that industry sources, on which we have based much of our evidence, suggest that fewer than 100 of 3,000 salvage businesses have outlets in more than one area. That does not weaken the force of his point, but it is not a major problem. Nevertheless, even for those 100, it is desirable to have a standard form that they can understand. That is why I responded positively to his point.

As we have detailed in clause 3(1)(b), we believe that the fee should be determined by the local authority, for two reasons—to take account of the local circumstances that the hon. Member for Vale of York describes and the different levels of efficiency of different authorities. We believe that local authorities should resolve that matter directly.

Mr. Bob Russell rose—

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. Clarke: I shall give way in a moment.

As we do throughout government, we shall provide guidance on the standard principles to be applied and possibly on a proposed limit, but that will depend on the number of operators in each area, and we believe that the matter should be for the local authority to resolve.

Mr. Russell: The Minister has dealt with the point that I was about to make—that parameters must be provided or the inefficient will start milking the system.

Mr. Clarke: I agree, which is why we shall provide guidance. The hon. Member for Buckingham suggests that he, too, is happy with that.

The hon. Member for Vale of York mentioned Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) suggested that the document might be published in 12 European Union languages, which we may specify—

Miss McIntosh: Nine.

Mr. Clarke: Twelve, because my hon. Friend is positive about such matters in trying to widen their application.

I assure the Committee that the more romantic pro-Europeanism of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, although I agree with him politically, is not a route that we intend to go down. I know that he will be disappointed. With that, I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will consider withdrawing the amendment in light of my comments about the arguments that he advanced.

Mr. Bercow: I am happy with what the Minister has said, which has been, to a considerable degree, reassuring. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 65, in page 2, line 42, leave out from `as' to end of line 43 and insert

    `are necessary to recoup the costs of processing the application only'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 68, in page 2, line 46, leave out `the reasonable' and insert `only the'.

Mr. Bercow: I have a sense that I am travelling down memory lane, accompanied, I hope, by my hon. Friends. My h Fs will recall that the broad issues were discussed in relation to another part of the Bill last week. My hon. Friends the Members for the Vale of York and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson)—

Mr. Charles Clarke: The unbitten ones.

Mr. Bercow: Indeed. My bitten hon. Friend—he was bitten in the far east, and further and better particulars are still not fully available—[Interruption.] He is now saying that he was bitten in Australia. I did not know that. Originally, we received other information on the matter. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was indisposed and not available to attend the debate or hear the arguments, and nor did he enjoy the Minister's response.

We are anxious that fees charged in relation to the registration procedure should be only such as would be necessary to ensure that costs are recouped. For that reason, amendment No. 65 would insert the words

    necessary to recoup the costs of processing the application only.

The problem is that the Bill allows the local authority to set the fee that it wishes to charge for processing the application. As with the processing of registration plate applications, that means that local authorities are free to set any charge imaginable.

Opposition Members are committed to reducing the burden on businesses as far as possible. It is therefore necessary to tighten up the provision and prevent local authorities using such businesses as milch cows to allow them to spend money on their other pet projects. Some hon. Members may look askance at that suggestion, but they should not. There is a history of it happening in local authorities—I am sorry to have to introduce a partisan note, but, ordinarily, it has occurred in Labour local authorities when they have struggled to find the resources to finance their pet projects and pursue their beloved politically correct fetishes. They have recognised that, as far as the domestic ratepayer, community charge payer or—to update the point—council tax payer is concerned, there is limited scope to charge without incurring enormous political unpopularity and the risk of removal from office. Therefore, an alternative avenue has traditionally been available to them.

Mr. Bob Russell: Is the hon. Gentleman advocating a different form of local government taxation?

The Chairman: I hope not.

Mr. Bercow: I was not advocating a different form of local government taxation.

The Chairman: At this point.

Mr. Bercow: As you helpfully point out, Mr. O'Brien, the objection is not, on the strength of a detailed study of local government finance, to any alternative arrangement but to the constitutional impropriety of dilating on such a point in this Committee. I immediately follow your exhortation. I shall not recommend any change in local government finance. I want the hon. Member for Colchester to understand that I am not making a value judgment on the local government finance system. My concern is that, within any local authority, irrespective of the finance system that applies, a council has the opportunity to supplement the income that it raises from the domestic council tax payer with funds that it can raise from businesses.

11.45 am

It is common ground between the hon. Member for Colchester—the sole but powerful Liberal Democrat in Committee—and my hon. Friends that, to give effect to the Bill, such fees might need occasionally to be charged. I hope that he agrees that it is important that those charges should be such as are necessary to recoup—only to recoup—the costs of the process to the local authority. Of course, it is right that the local authority should not be out of pocket for giving effect to procedures that will benefit commercial operators. Equally, however, there is no reason why a commercial operator should effectively be held to ransom by a local authority, which is vexatiously and in a draconian fashion charging fees that help to finance its other expenditure programmes, when those fees are grossly disproportionate either to the cost that the local authority incurs or, indeed, to the capacity of the business—many such businesses being small—to pay that fee.

 
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