Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: I am trying to avoid being bitten.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister says that he is sucking his spectacles because he is taking precautions to avoid being bitten. I am sympathetic to that, and I believe that he will have struck a chord—or a raw nerve—with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield.

I am sorry that the Minister intends to resist. I do not want to make the point too strongly, but it is worth saying that there seems to be an element of inconsistency in the Minister's thinking about time periods for making representations, or, in the case of de-registration, the period over which cessation of trade has taken place. I mention that because, a few moments ago, almost in parentheses while developing his own argument, the Minister said that he thought that it was not sensible for the Opposition to propose different time periods. For example, although the Minister disagrees, we think that there are good reasons for suggesting that the 28-day cessation of trade resulting in de-registration should be extended to up to 60 days. On the other hand, I have argued in relation to registration of plate suppliers and to motor salvage operator that, where particulars that should be recorded in the register change over a period, it is reasonable to expect that an individual trader will notify the central authority of those changes, not, as the Government apparently expect, within 28 days, but within 14 days. There are arguments for those different time periods. The consistent theme permeating everything that we say is the need to ensure that the purpose of the Bill is made good. We want it to be effective, robust and consistent.

5.15 pm

Nevertheless, the Minister was critical. What he is proposing is what we consider a relatively short, almost truncated, time scale, within which representations about refusal of registration, re-registration or a decision to cancel can be made. The period Ministers are commending to the Committee is a week shorter than that over which a cessation of trade would result in deregistration. The Minister might advance reasons for the differential time scales that he thinks are justified, by contrast with ours, in different contexts that apparently are not justified. I await the dexterous manoeuvring of the hon. Gentleman with eager anticipation. Our concern is to ensure that legitimate businesses can continue and that they are not summarily de-registered through a hasty and inadequate procedure that the availability of greater time would have enabled the central authority and the afflicted businesses to avoid.

I argued on Second Reading—and the point has been made on a number of occasions during the course of the Committee—that proprietors may be unable to conduct their business due to illness or because they are away from the country. The same could, of course, apply to the making of appeals. For that reason, we propose to allow the Secretary of State to extend the appeal period to avoid those legitimate businesses being removed from the register. As I have said on previous occasions, I would be interested in the views of other hon. Members on this point and in the response of the Minister.

Once again continuing, and now perhaps even reinforcing, my growing reputation for succinctness in these matters, I rest my case.

Mr. Fabricant: I rise to support the amendment.

We have already established in Committee today that the sort of company that would be registered could be a small one. It might well be a sole trader; the Minister has already confirmed that fact. I think that he has assured the Committee—he has certainly managed to assure me—that if a business were not trading simply because someone was abroad, either on business or on holiday, it would not be struck off. Nevertheless, a business might be struck off for reasonable causes and not because of any miscreance or breach of the criminal law by the company or partnership.

I can envisage a business in crisis as a result of the issue of an announcement that it might be struck off the register. I can imagine a sole trader, perhaps working with his wife and struggling with cash-flow difficulties or creditors, receiving a great deal of mail, all of which might not receive his immediate attention.

Mr. Bercow: That is a worrying scenario. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that the hon. Member for Colchester is not present to hear its depiction?

Mr. Fabricant: Indeed. The hon. Member for Colchester says that he is the voice of small business. Yet, when small business cries out, where is he? He has left the Room. That is unfortunate, given that on a number of occasions we have supported his amendments, adding our names to his contributions.

Mr. Clarke: In light of those remarks, I hesitate to rush to the friendship of the hon. Member for Colchester, who is a fellow East Anglian. However, it is therefore incumbent on the hon. Member for Lichfield to set out in detail where he was last week, where he was bitten and the circumstances that prevented him from being here. If he is going to make comments about others, perhaps he should clarify his position.

The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Member for Lichfield return to the point?

Mr. Fabricant: All I will do is reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester. Where was I bitten? I was bitten down under. Outside the Rook, I might show the Minister precisely where, but it would not be in order to show the marks at this point.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is right. If he were to do so, your legendary reputation for tolerance would be sorely tested, Mr. O'Brien. To revert to the point with which we preoccupied ourselves in our first sitting last week, if my hon. Friend showed the Minister the details, it would be unfortunate if anyone had a camera. However, it would be less unfortunate for my hon. Friend than for the Labour party—

The Chairman: Order. We have heard so much about the spider that it is time to put it to rest—I assume that it is at rest.

Mr. Fabricant: It is at rest because someone who saw it bite me stamped on it. From the Committee's point of view, that is how it should stay; we should return to the amendment.

It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham argued that 21 days seems an odd period. We discussed 28 days and 14 days, and so on, but chose not to table an amendment altering that period—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Fabricant: With typical reasonableness, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has accepted implicitly a 21-day period and tabled an additional subsection, covering extraordinary circumstances when the 21-day period is inadequate and allowing for an appeal to the Secretary of State. We are not asking for a change from 21 days. I would be tempted to ask for 28 days or even 60 days for the reasons that I discussed earlier. However, it seems reasonable that in unusual circumstances an appeal may be made to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will be under no obligation to grant an extended period, but I am curious to hear why he would not even entertain someone's application.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Does not the hon. Gentleman's slip of the tongue about where the appeal goes demonstrate why the amendment is fatally flawed? The appeal is to the magistrates court, not to the Secretary of State. What on earth does the Secretary of State have to do with interfering with time limits in courts?

Mr. Fabricant: Unusually, because I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has missed the point. The appeal will go to the magistrates court, but the court will be bound by the Bill, if it becomes an Act. The question is not why the appeal is made, but why it has not been made within the 21-day time limit. Under other Acts, it is normal for statutory time limits to be altered on appeal to the Secretary of State—

Mr. Kidney indicated dissent.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman disagrees; perhaps he will intervene on me again. The time limit in other Acts can be altered by Secretaries of State from time to time, regardless of whether it relates to an appeal to a magistrates court or a Crown court.

Mr. Kidney: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman yields to no one in his admiration of our independent court system and is pleased that they are robustly independent of interference from Ministers of the Crown. We are talking about an appeal to a magistrates court. A statute sets the time limit and it is for the magistrates to implement it—or, if they have the power, to allow the time to be extended. Surely the hon. Gentleman can see that the Secretary of State cannot, under the amendment, interfere with an individual decision by the magistrates.

Mr. Fabricant: I continue to disagree. This is most unusual because, certainly with regard to magistrates, the hon. Gentleman and I have often had common cause, particularly concerning the plight of magistrates courts in Staffordshire. None the less, I do not follow the logic of his argument, because I do not believe that it has logic.

The Secretary of State would not be interfering with the magistrates' decision. The amendment would simply enable the Secretary of State to say that the matter could go to the magistrates court for independent consideration. The two issues are separate. The first is whether a magistrate decides on appeal to allow re-registration. The amendment would extend the time limit by which an application can be granted so that a magistrate can hear the appeal.

Given that the period of 21 days in subsection (2) would not be altered, it would be inflexible, if not arrogant, of the Government to decide not to accept the amendment. As I have said, there is no obligation on the Secretary of State to extend the period. If he felt that the appeal for additional time was nonsensical or spurious, he could refuse it. To say that it must be 21 days and no longer under any circumstances seems unreasonable, particularly for small businesses or sole traders.

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Prepared 16 January 2001