Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Clarke: On this occasion, in terms of brevity, the hon. Gentleman can. It might assist Committee members—this is the first clause in this part of the Bill to which an amendment has not been tabled—were I to say that I am more than happy, in any clause stand part debate, to respond to a simple request to clarify the clause's intention. I shall now proceed to do so.

The clause enables us to make regulations for the keeping of records by motor salvage operators. A sound system of record keeping is essential to good regulation, which is necessary because of the opportunities offered by the motor salvage industry for the disposal or recirculation of stolen vehicles or their parts. The clause makes it clear that former and currently registered salvage operators will be covered by the regulations, which means that salvage operators may be required to keep records even after they have stopped operating. That is essential if the record making scheme is to be complete and reliable. The police may need an audit trail—part of it may relate to a former salvage operator—which is a key element in the intelligence needed to detect the kind of crime committed. The clause also allows us, through regulations, to designate breaches of certain record-keeping requirements—for example, the way in which the information should be held, the type of information that should be held, and the need to keep information on every car. However, further consultation is necessary.

We have been keen throughout to engage in consultation, which is why the precise nature of the regulations will be subject to consultation with the industry, police and the Local Government Association. The Cabinet Office guidance, which we seek to honour, suggests that we must consult for three months before drafting the final set of regulations. We are committed to that because everybody, in the House and outside, is suspicious of Governments who engage in rapid consultation that does not allow people to make their point. I cannot meet the request of the hon. Member for Buckingham to provide draft regulations on Report, but I commit myself to the consultation process, which I shall lay before the House for full consideration.

This clause on record keeping—and clause 8—is an essential part of our approach. I am happy to explain that fully to the Committee; we have no desire not to discuss such matters.

6 pm

Mr. Fabricant: I do not share the concerns of my hon. Friend for Buckingham about subsections (3) and (4). If records are to be kept, they clearly need to be enforced. Indeed, we said that earlier about making false applications. I am concerned about the very crux of the clause, subsection (1), which states:

    The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for the keeping of records by registered persons.

To what extent will the records place a burden on small businesses?

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and I had the joy of serving together on Committees considering the Maidstone council Bill and the Kent County Council Bill, in which the sponsors went out of their way to say that the records that would have to be kept by second-hand dealers would not be a regulatory burden.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): For correction of the record, and as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will remember, the Bill was called the Medway—not Maidstone—Council Bill.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me. The Committees sat for some weeks, which the hon. Member for Hall Green and I might not wish to remember in detail.

Mr. Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman concede that amassing records of passage of trade and illegal trade are the very reasons behind the Kent and Medway Bills to which he refers? The Kent Bill is strongly supported by the chief constable of Kent, but has been opposed by many former Opposition Members—I note not me—who sought to kill it off. The Government must be non-partisan on the matter, but we understand why the Bills are before Parliament. Records must be kept under this Bill for exactly the same reason. We must understand the business of people who are illegally trading to be able to deal with it. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the keeping of records, will he clarify whether he intends to vote against the clause standing part of the Bill? I must tell him that, to the Government, the clause is very important to fighting vehicle crime.

Mr. Fabricant: Of course I am not against the keeping of records. Indeed, I should like to make it clear that I support the idea of the Medway and Kent Bills. My only objection is that they are not nationwide. I do not want to drift to another Bill, but for the record, if I have any objection at all, it is that it may cause a transference of crime activity from Kent into neighbouring counties. The principle of the Bills is good; I wish they were Government Bills and applied to England, Wales and Scotland.

The Minister makes a powerful point; of course records must be kept. I mentioned the Medway and Kent Bills because the police recognise that, although records have to be kept, small businesses—second-hand dealers, just as salvage dealers, might well be small businesses—should not have to suffer too much burden. The point was made in the Committee considering those two Bills that the records to be kept would be no more than that which, as good practice, any business ought to keep: details of both sales and purchases.

Mr. Clarke: I hope that I can help the hon. Gentleman on this point. I accept that the provision should not be a burden. It is precisely for that reason that we have consulted small businesses, and will continue to do so, on the basis of a commitment to restricting the keeping of records to what is absolutely essential, taking account of records that are held for other purposes—exactly the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that that assurance helps him in his argument.

Mr. Fabricant: That assurance is helpful. Will people holding such records be obliged to let them be viewed by the police or other authorities? For example, will they be obliged to photocopy them? If those records are kept on computer, will there be a standard form in which they must be kept? Will the discs containing the data have to be provided to the relevant authorities?

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is elaborating on the extent of the burden. Will he confirm to me that he is motivated to make that point, at least in part, by his recollection of an observation made on 20 January 2000—it has almost reached its first anniversary—by the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, Mr. Chris Humphries? He observed:

    Despite its rhetoric the reality is that the Government have dramatically increased the regulatory burden that threatens small business competitiveness.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government have conducted preliminary consultation with business about the nature and detail of the regulations under this measure—I do not doubt that Ministers, or at least their agents, have done so—there is no good reason why, to aid and abet our consideration of the Bill, we should not have sight of the draft regulations before Report?

Mr. Fabricant: I understand the Minister's point about consultation. If it is to be in depth, it is unlikely—unless Report is more than three months from now—that the information will be available. Does the Minister envisage that Report might be more than three months from now? Can he give us an insight into when this Parliament might be dissolved?

The remarks by Chris Humphries are foremost in my mind. They are also the views of many small businesses. I hope that the Minister has some idea of the type of records that must be kept. To what degree will those records be over and above those that must be kept under tax law and the Companies Acts? Does he envisage the burden of keeping such records being 100 per cent. more than is currently required?

A salient point arose in Committee on the Medway Council Bill and the Kent County Council Bill. During those proceedings, the assistant chief constable of Kent made it clear that duplicate records did not have to be kept. For example, if records of transactions were kept to meet Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue or Companies Acts requirements, they would also suffice to meet the requirements of the Medway Council Bill and the Kent County Council Bill. Will the Minister confirm that it will not be necessary for traders to duplicate records and keep separate books to meet the requirements of clause (9)(1)?

I will be less inclined to vote against the clause if the Minister can reassure me on these two points: first, that there will not be an excessive burden over and above that which is already in place regarding indirect taxation and company law; and, secondly, that separate books will not need to be kept.

Mr. Clarke: This has been a helpful exchange, and I emphasise that I am happy to have this type of debate to clarify the situation. First, who inspects the records is set out in clause 9(2)(b), which states that a constable may at any reasonable time

    Require production of, inspect and take copies of or extracts from any records which the person carrying on business as a motor salvage operator is required to keep at such premises by virtue of this Part.

That is a police right to inspect; it is not a general right to inspect. It empowers a constable to take copies or extracts. It does not require the organisation itself to keep duplicate copies to hand over to the police at any particular time. It requires the records to be kept and access to them to be given to the police.

On excess, subject to my general points about the need to consult the industry widely—which I mean most sincerely; this is a serious proviso—the key elements of record keeping that we have in mind are the names of purchasers and vendors and the identity of the vehicles, whether defined by number plate or by other means. I am not an expert on tax and company law, but I believe that those aspects would not necessarily be required as part of tax or company records, although VAT records might require the identity of purchasers and vendors. I can give an assurance that in constructing the requirements—a standard form was rightly mentioned—and in establishing and consulting on it, we seek to minimise the data additional to that already kept by companies, although we need the key information.

 
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Prepared 16 January 2001