Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: As far as possible, I am anxious to tie the Minister down on the meaning and practical significance of the phrase ``different circumstances'' in subsection (2)(b). If he is hinting that different circumstances will, on the whole, not mean different circumstances in terms of the size of business, and, therefore, of ability to pay, will he offer us some indication of what this set of ``different circumstances'' might typically be?

Mr. Clarke: The phrase ``different circumstances'' is deliberately widely drawn to allow the situation to be properly addressed within, as the hon. Member for Colchester said, the general framework established by guidance agreed between the Government and the LGA. It is up to local authorities to decide how to do that. The different circumstances that we had in mind are the physical location of the local authority; the scale of the salvage business, since one local authority might have a large range of salvage businesses; the administrative simplicity of the local authority's exercises; and the charging of smaller fees for smaller businesses on a sliding scale. The latter is one issue that has arisen, and I am not trying to exclude it. I am simply suggesting that it is not such a major point in the salvage industry as it is in the number plates industry, with which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary dealt in the debate on the matter last week. With that, I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Bercow: I have listened to the Minister. I will reflect on his comments, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: I have a small announcement to make. As the Committee will be adjourning one hour early on Thursday, I suggest that the Programming Sub-Committee meet immediately after this sitting and that we extend tonight's business for an hour to compensate for the time that we will lose.

Mr. Bob Russell: I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 3, line 3, after `area', insert—

    `(a) notify the police and receive any representations that they may have occasion to make; and


The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 39, in page 3, line 23, after `satisfied', insert

    `on the representations of the police to them or otherwise'.

Mr. Russell: One success that the Government can legitimately claim— although I do not recall seeing it on any pledge card—is the bringing together in communities of the police, local authorities and other agencies to provide a better, more comprehensive service for those communities. I welcome that, and suggest that the amendments follow the spirit of the Minister's comments about effective partnerships between the police and local authorities.

As I understand it, the Bill neither requires local authorities to make inquiries into an applicant's fitness nor supplies them with funds to do so. Equally, there is no statutory reason why prevention of motor vehicle theft should rank high in local authorities' priorities. Clearly, that would be of interest to the partnerships to which I referred. It does not matter to communities whether the police or local authorities deal with the question. If we are to have effective partnerships, the police and local authorities should be linked formally, so that the police can make certain that the applicant is a fit and proper person.

Together, the amendments would provide the police with a useful channel, as of right, to the local authority, so that they can express any concerns about the conduct of a registered motor salvage operator in that local authority's area. They are commonsense amendments that would improve the Bill for the benefit of the communities where police and local authorities are, rightly, encouraged to work together increasingly.

Mr. Bercow: I rise to support amendments Nos. 35 and 39. The hon. Member for Colchester will have received representations from appropriate quarters, as have members of the official Opposition. We have reached the same conclusion; there is good sense in the amendments.

I am delighted that, for the second time, the hon. Gentleman has invoked the mantra ``common sense''; he is on something of a roll in that respect. However, he should be careful because he has a vexed history. As the late Mr. Churchill would have said, he has ``ratted'' from Labour to the Liberal Democrats—and as Churchill famously said, one can rat but one cannot ``re-rat''. That did not stop Churchill from doing so when the mood took him, of course. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman will re-rat in his former direction, but he may rat in our direction, which is a striking thought.

In general terms, I would welcome him doing that, but not in Colchester. We are well served by the excellent Conservative parliamentary candidate for the Colchester constituency, Mr. Kevin Bentley, who will, after the general election, replace the hon. Gentleman as Member of Parliament. That aside, I will briefly lay out my support for the amendments.

The Bill does not provide for the police to be involved in the application process. As the police are the public face of the law, it is an unusual and, thus far, inexplicable omission. The amendments would involve the police in the process and oblige local authorities to take on board their views. The key words are to be found in paragraph (a) of amendment No. 35, through which the authorities would be obliged not only to notify but to receive representations from the police. The Government have an exacting target of a 30 per cent. cut in crime, and a pressing timetable of five years in which to fulfil it. If they are serious about cutting vehicle crime, they must agree that a system that excludes the views of the police is worthless. Arguably, it is worse than useless; it could prove to be counter-productive.

The amendments make good sense to us. The Minister will have been advised by clever people working behind the scenes, who seek no public recognition of their intellectual rigour and prowess—the fruits of which will now be made known to us.

Mr. Clarke: I understand the sentiments behind the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Colchester, and I commend them. I agree that the spirit of partnership to which he referred should be at the core of the matter. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider the amendments, because I do not believe that it is necessary to set out in statute all the forms of relationships.

For example, we are publishing today toolkits on vehicle crime. [Laughter.] That may sound trivial, but the purpose of such action is to put information in one place on the web for everyone who is interested in fighting vehicle crime—whether the police, those in local authorities or whoever. The toolkits will contain, first, the guidance that is set out for departments on such matters, secondly, what resources can be devoted if necessary, and, thirdly, examples of best practice—there are some good partnerships in the area—in relation to secured car parks, and so on, to encourage people to build on them.

We are publishing such toolkits on all areas of crime precisely to encourage and build partnerships between different agencies. That will be more effective than large chunks of paper flying about the country between different departments. We at the Home Office and those in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, such as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, push out various types of guidance, and we believe that it is better to do so jointly, if possible.

Mr. Fabricant: I welcome the Minister's announcement. It makes practical and good common sense. It means that I can rush back to my computer at 1 o'clock after the sitting ends and look at that website. Those reading the Hansard of our debate can do likewise. What is the website's URL—address?

Mr. Clarke: The information is on the Home Office website and can be accessed through the crime page of the UK on-line Government portal, which is yet another major departure in British e-government that we introduced after succeeding the Government whom he supported.

Mr. Fabricant: I am still not clear about the website address—www., then what?

Mr. Clarke: ukonline. When the hon. Gentleman accesses it, he will see a crime-life episode in which he will find the pages that I have described.

Mr. Bercow: I hope that it is not the medium or long-term intention of Ministers to register such information only on a website. I am sure that the Minister

was drinking his Ovaltine or doing his Red Boxes last night and will not have heard the debate in the Chamber, but I have to protect those of my hon. Friends who are either not familiar with, uninterested in or turned off by a website. Is he aware that a distinguished and fairly long-serving Member of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), admitted last night that he would not recognise a website if it jumped out of his breakfast cereal?

Mr. Clarke: The right hon. Gentleman has many virtues, at least in the eyes of the hon. Member for Buckingham, if not the rest of us. The idea that he is 25 years off the pace does not surprise me. I pay credit to Conservative Members. When we discussed in our previous Session the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill and others, many hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who is one of the right. hon. Gentleman's allies in general destructive activities towards parliamentary democracy, were revealed as serious e-mailers and well informed people. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is a long way away from modern reality.

The purpose of the measure to which the hon. Member for Colchester has tabled amendments is to enable flexible updating and development of partnerships. The laying down of statute at each juncture can inhibit people working together. I acknowledge that we expect local authorities to consult the police as a matter of routine when considering applications. In fact, the police are probably one of the main sources of information to local government. As I have said in previous sittings, we intend to discuss matters with the LGA, including the jointly agreed guidance on implementation. We do not believe that it is necessary to specify the requirement in statute. That also applies to amendment No. 39.

The hon. Member for Colchester may disagree, and might want to press the amendment to a Division. I appreciate the spirit of his earlier remarks, but in building genuine, flexible partnerships, it is best to be as flexible as possible, to allow the relationships between the various bodies to work by mutual agreement under guidance, rather than sticking to a form of words that have had their moment in history. I hope that, on the basis of those assurances, he will consider withdrawing the amendments.

12.15 pm

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