Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government may be sympathetic to his powerful argument? They have been considering the introduction of toll charges on roads and motorways, but justifying that by saying that such charges—I oppose them as an additional tax—would be ring-fenced for the improvement of roads? Is he not arguing in favour of ring-fencing any charges for such provisions so that they are used only to fund the provisions and not other pet plans of local authorities?

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is correct. He is intellectually elastic. Perhaps I should describe him as dextrous.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Our flexible friend.

Mr. Bercow: He is, indeed. My hon. Friend is the political and legislative equivalent of the Access card.

I am not sure that it is right to use the term ``ring-fenced'' in the context outlined by my h F, however, nor am I sure that the principle of hypothecation, as such, applies. The point that I am anxious to develop and to which I seek the Minister's assent is that the charge should be a reflection of the burden on the local authority. It should not be a stealth tax. I shall not develop arguments about such tax, Mr. O'Brien, because you are patient, good-natured, accommodating, helpful and kind towards new Members of Parliament and I do not want to try your patience. The charges should not be overly burdensome. I emphasise that we seek to specify that the costs should be only those

    necessary to recoup the costs of processing the application.

That would mean that an authority that levies an excessive cost could be held accountable or made to justify the cost that it sets. It would be obliged to show that the charge that it had levied was the financial or manpower cost that it had incurred.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend realise that if amendment No. 68 were agreed to, it would give considerable power to the auditor, who would be able to ensure that its provisions were met? If the word ``reasonable'' were retained, no powers would be given to the external auditor to the town, city or district council.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is usually correct in his interventions, and I am pleased to say that that interjection was no exception. What he said was right, and I vouchsafe to my hon. Friend and to the Committee that I am slightly worried that Ministers seem set—I hope that they will prove me wrong—to resist the amdts. I have the distinct impression that they want to do so. The amendments are so transparently reasonable that only an extraordinarily unreasonable person would object to them.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the potential involvement—especially if our amendments are accepted—of the auditor. I would welcome that involvement on the basis that a local authority that has behaved properly and levied a charge that reflected the cost that it had incurred would have nothing to fear from the auditor. On the other hand, a local authority that had imposed a burdensome charge that reflected not its actual costs but its desire to obtain revenue to expend on multifarious purposes, would indeed have something to fear from the auditor, and rightly so. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is getting restive.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I am not getting restive. The hon. Gentleman's concerns are absorbed within the Bill, as were those that he expressed in our discussion of ``reasonable'' earlier. What does he mean by ``processing'' in amendment No. 65? Processing is an administrative operation, yet local authorities—especially rural ones—will incur costs in investigating the suitability of some operators that would be excluded if amendment No. 65 were accepted.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. With the best will in the world, I cannot convert his error into something that is correct. I want to let the hon. Gentleman down as gently as I can, without an undue bump. The reason why he is wrong is that to any reasonable person the processing procedure embraces both the technical fact of processing—such as photocopying or passing documents through a machine—and the investigations that might be required to satisfy the local authority of the veracity of the information with which it has been furnished.

Mr. Miller: It does not say that.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position, rather like someone on a bus whom Englishmen affect to ignore, ``It doesn't say so. It doesn't say so.'' I want to let the hon. Gentleman down gently. He thinks that he has a good point, but in fact he has a bad one. When it suits him, he is happy enthusiastically to support the unamended clauses of the Bill by saying to Conservative Members, ``Ah, but so-and-so is implicit; the amendment is redundant'', and he is warmly applauded by his hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench when he does so. On the occasions when the hon. Gentleman has made that case, he has been mistaken. It is interesting to observe what might be described as the changed position or tergiversation that the hon. Gentleman undertakes in relation to Conservative amendments. The different types of processing that I have described are covered and implied by the wording of our amendment. The hon. Gentleman is, all of a sudden, for no good reason and without explanation, cavilling at my proposition.

Mr. Charles Clarke: My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was right in what he said. To clarify the matter for the Committee, will the hon. Gentleman say whether the wording includes the functions of setting up the register, maintaining the register and considering cancellations to the register? If it does include them, what is the reason for his wording? If it does not, why does he wish to exclude them?

Mr. Bercow: I will happily deal with the point, but I can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield is anxious to intervene.

Mr. Fabricant: Although I do not wish to prolong the ``turgidisation'' on which my hon. Friend remarked earlier—it is a splendid word to be included, and I shall now feel free to split my infinitives ad nauseam—it might be helpful to point out to my hon. Friend and the Minister that, just as ``reasonability'' has a meaning in law, ``process'' also has a meaning in law. Process—including due process—means the process from beginning to end. The answer to the Minister's intervention is therefore yes. The meaning of the word ``process'' is the whole process from beginning to end, and not merely the mechanical process of dealing with a form per se.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and I rest my case. In passing, I should put it on record, which will be a challenge for those who keep and update the Official Report, that the word that I used was tergiversation, not turgidisation. The dictionary definition of the word is something along the lines of changed principles or conflicting statements. That was the charge that I was levelling against the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which will resonate with the constituents whom he seeks to impress.

Mr. Clarke: I fear that the hon. Gentleman, in his great rush of kind words for you, Mr. O'Brien—with which I associate myself completely—may have forgotten, or perhaps he never learned, that you are one of a small group of local government finance experts in this House, and that you understand the subject better than many people, including, I dare say, the hon. Gentleman, knowledgeable as he is.

We have had most of the debate on the amendment. The amendment is too narrow, and would mean that the fees that local authorities received from people who applied could cover the cost of processing applications only—the word ``applications'' was left out of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Lichfield. There would therefore be a shortfall in relation to the costs that they would undoubtedly incur in relation to setting up and maintaining the register and considering cancellations. I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman in relation to that point about wording, because I know that he was not taking aim at it with a precise legal arrow. Everyone would agree, however, that the fees that local authorities are entitled to charge should cover all their costs in maintaining the register in the proper way. We have discussed the matter with the industry, and have agreed that fees will be limited to administration costs. We shall consult further on how local authorities should calculate the level of fees before issuing joint guidance with the Local Government Association to ensure full transparency.

It is not the case, as the hon. Gentleman claimed, that a local authority will be able to levy whatever charge it wants, so amendment No. 68 is not necessary. Clause 3(2) provides that the fee cannot be more than the reasonable costs incurred from administration. As the hon. Member for Lichfield rightly says, the district auditor will consider that issue in his annual review. He or she will make a judgment and report, in accordance with statute, on his or her findings about any charges that are more or less than they should be. Local government is prevented from raising more than costs through fees. The current drafting therefore provides greater flexibility.

Mr. Bercow: Is subsection (2)(b) indicative of the Government's wish for a sliding scale?

Mr. Clarke: No, it is not specifically, but rather it responds to the points made by the hon. Member for Vale of York—it acknowledges that different fees can be payable in different circumstances.

Following the earlier debate about different scales of operation, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that one could imagine a different charging regime. The issue is not as acute for the salvage industry as it is for number plate suppliers. The hon. Gentleman will recall that there are approximately 27,000 number plate suppliers covering a much wider range of type of enterprise, if I can put it like that. Although there is a range in relation to the 3,000 salvage operators, it is not as great, so the issues are not quite as sharp.

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Prepared 16 January 2001