Vehicles (Crime) Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Bercow: On the basis of that assurance, and in recognition that the new clause is by no means perfect and could be improved, I am happy not to press the new clause. I await further and better particulars from the Minister before Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Cancellation of registration

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in clause 4, page 3, line 31, leave out `28' and insert `60'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 70, in page 3, line 31, at end insert

    `without good cause or reason'.

No. 74, in clause 10, page 6, line 41, leave out `28' and insert `14'.

Mr. Bercow: Clause 4 relates to cancellation of registration and, some points made about other parts of the Bill will tend to assert themselves. Principles that relate to the procedure for the registration of registration plates suppliers, similarly relate to the motor salvage sector. I would like briefly to take the Committee through the three amendments.

On Second Reading, I expressed concern about the existing provision in relation to the salvage industry and registration plate suppliers. I was intrigued as to why a 28-day period was chosen by Ministers. I understood that it was a brainwave of those who advise them, though it appeared to me to have been plucked arbitrarily from the air and that there was no specific reason for specifying 28 days. I recall that that was also the view taken by the House of Commons Library.

Mr. Fabricant: Has it occurred to my hon. Friend , that if a similar Bill existed regarding the activities of Members of Parliament, we would all be struckoff after the summer recess?

Mr. Bercow: That is a very helpful observation and, despite some sedentary chuntering from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, it must be said that even disregarding the summer recess or other interruptions to the parliamentary timetable, de-registration could well apply to an alarmingly large proportion of Government Back Benchers, at any time during the year. Many Government Back Benchers cease to trade for periods considerably in excess of 28 days.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Is the hon. Gentleman confirming that on his side, Members tend to conduct themselves as businesses for trading purposes, while my side is simply interested in representing its constituents?

Mr. Bercow: On the contrary, it was a figure of speech, and I felt sure that a man of the intellectual training and worldly wisdom of the Minister of State, Home Office—a future leader of the Labour party—would readily have taken the point. I regard this as my trade. I do not, and I hope the Minister does not, regard ``trade'' as a pejorative term. New Labour displays a certain snobbish distain for the idea of trade. I regard it as my professional obligation, or alternatively my trade, to represent my constituents without fear or favour and on an absolutely equal basis. I simply make the point that there are more than several members who cease to fulfil that responsibility for periods far in excess of 28 days. It would be alarming if they were automatically de-registered.

I did say on Second Reading that it was entirely possible that someone would cease to trade for such a period because they had gone abroad for personal or family reasons and he or she should not be automatically de-registered just because the business had not been operational for that period. The Under-Secretary said that

    only a genuine cessation of trade will result in de-registration. The operator will not be removed from the register without notice; he will be notified prior to any de-registration and will thus have the opportunity to make representations if he has not ceased trading.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 9, c. 114.]

    I think that that was an infelicitous use of words by the Minister, because in fact, the individual concerned would probably not be seeking to prove that he had not ceased trading. He would be readily acknowledging that he had ceased trading for that 28-day period, but would provide justification of that cessation of trade, and he would point to the fact that it was necessarily only a temporary cessation.

12.45 pm

The core point is that it would be perfectly reasonable for a legitimate business person to be unable to trade, or appeal against de-registration in such a period. We propose, as we proposed elsewhere, to lengthen the initial period from 28 to 60 days. That would preclude many legitimate businesses from facing the threat, and the commercial damage thereby entailed, of deregistration. We wish to include the caveat of ``without good cause or reason'' to catch all those who may find themselves in the circumstances covered by the clause.

Granting the Secretary of State the power to extend the appeal period once more ensures that legitimate businesses are given the greatest opportunity to go about their trade lawfully. The Government should recognise that the Bill is about tackling crime, not attacking or burdening legitimate businesses. Those arguments clearly apply to amendments Nos. 69 and 70.

The problem with amendment No. 74 is that clause 1 states that operating as a motor salvage operator without being registered should be an offence punishable by a fine of £5,000. In that case, it seems to my hon. Friends and myself, strange—not to say inexplicable—to make it easy to avoid registering properly. Clause 10, of course, to the detail and full extent of which we will later turn, deals with changes to the details on the register. Presently, any change must be notified within 28 days, but there is no legitimate reason why alterations could not be notified in 14 days. The Committee will have observed that the Conservative Opposition are applying a common-sense and balanced approach; we are tough and tender, to coin a phrase that may or may not commend itself to the hon. Member for Colchester.

In some circumstances, there is an argument for a more tolerant approach that meets the needs of businesses, to which the Government do not yet seem very sympathetic. In other respects, the Bill is rather lax. It seems to Conservative Members that it is reasonable to demand the provision of information by businesses more speedily than the Government presently intend. I cannot see why changes to details on the register cannot be notified in 14 days; a period of 28 days eventually leaves the system open to abuse.

It is also wrong that any failure to keep details up to date should be punishable by anything less than a £5,000 fine. Having inaccurate details on the register is the equivalent, as I observed in earlier exchanges on registration plate suppliers, of not being registered at all, and should be dealt with as such. My hon. Friends and I propose punishment of a maximum fine, and it would be open to the Courts to impose a lesser penalty if they so wished. At present, the offence of not changing inaccurate information is not treated comparably to failure to inform the authorities that one is no longer practising. That is wrong. A failure to change the information is on a par with not registering at all.

I am in favour of symmetry and consistency of treatment. In order to impose a level 5 fine, it is necessary to delete ``level 1'' from line 4 on page 7, and to insert a new provision instead. My hon. Friends and I propose a notification period of 14 days to tighten up the regulations, whilst also raising the fine for failing to change information from £1,000 maximum to a £5,000 maximum. I hope that the Minister will accept our good intentions in this regard, and our conviction, which has not been disproved or overturned, that the sense of the clause and the overall theme of the Bill would be much more coherent with our amendments than without them.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has so eloquently, cogently and powerfully presented his case, that I hardly wonder why I rise, but if he has provided the cake, I am merely here to offer the icing. My hon. Friend has pointed out previously that salvage operators tend to be small companies. That was reinforced by the Minister's helpful answer when he said that the vast majority of salvage operators have only one site operating within one business. That, too, would imply that they are small companies. While I think it unlikely that any business can be so luxuriant in its wealth that it would take holidays for four weeks or more, I can see circumstances in which a small business might not trade for a period of longer than 28 days. A director or partner in that business might, for example, leave the area temporarily to seek other sites in which to expand the business. Perhaps he is travelling around the country or indeed abroad, even to other countries within the European Union, to which we have alluded earlier today, to see whether he can make arrangements with other salvage operators to consolidate his trade. Whatever speculative example we might give for why or where a business might close, I can well imagine that it might not trade for a consecutive period of longer than 28 days.

Mr. Bercow: I think that I made a mistake a moment ago, which I am keen to correct. At present the effects of not changing the information is treated in the same manner as failing to inform the authority that a business is no longer operating. Our point is that that is wrong, because failure to change information is, or should be, on a par with not registering at all. I am sorry to interrupt the flow and intellectual force of my hon. Friend's argument, but I feel sure that both flow and force will speedily be resumed.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and putting the matter straight. That helpful intervention from my hon. Friend makes our argument even more powerful for including these amendments in the Bill. I believe that 28 days is an inadequate period for a small company.

I spoke earlier about a company that might employ an accountant or company secretary to fill in forms, and I argued how important it was that forms should be consistent throughout the United Kingdom. Now I am arguing on behalf of perhaps the sole trader, who might not trade during a 28-day period. I can well imagine, perhaps in August, the business might close down. We all know that in France businesses, indeed the whole country, closes down throughout August. That certainly is longer than 28 days—it is 31 days. To me, 28 days seems inadequate and unfair for a small business, particularly if the amendment No. 70 provision on good cause or reason is not included.

The whole purpose of the Bill is to control the activities of the criminal few. It is not the purpose of the Bill to put an unnecessary burden on businesses that operate lawfully. I am not even sure what the Government's motive is in saying that the business should be struck off the register after 28 days. It is not illegal not to operate or trade for 28 days. Perhaps the Minister would like to address that point in his response, but before that, I should like to hear more of the more intellectual approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham.

 
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