Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Clarke: The word ``prescribed'' under clause 2(3) is defined in clause 15 as

    ``prescribed'' means prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

As with all the regulations that we discuss in this Committee, they are being developed in consultation with the industry concerned, to make sure that they are accessible in the fullest possible way.

The clause sets out the rights of police to enter and inspect premises that they know or suspect are being used for the purposes of a motor salvage business. However, there are three perfectly legitimate alternatives. I agree with what the hon. Member for Buckingham said—one can take the line of new clause 6, which provides a warrant in all circumstances, one can take the line of new clause 7, under which no warrant is necessary in any circumstance or one can take the line of clause 9, which strikes a sensible balance, for reasons set out previously by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. The clause distinguishes between registered and unregistered premises, allowing entry and inspection of registered premises without a warrant, and of unregistered premises with a warrant.

I do not want to repeat the Committee's extensive debate, but it is right that a registered business should be open to routine inspection by the enforcement authorities to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Bill. Operators will have consented to such inspection when they applied for registration, and it would make no sense to require warrants to be obtained for such routine inspection. That is why there is a qualitative distinction between those premises that are registered, as consent has been given by the process of registration, and those that are not registered, as no such consent has been given, and it is appropriate that a warrant should operate. That is the reason for the distinction.

Mr. Miller: Will my hon. Friend confirm that, under new clause 6, a police officer undertaking an investigation into, say, a motor crash, and wanting to inspect a vehicle for evidential purposes, would, bizarrely, require a warrant?

Mr. Clarke: That is my understanding. I return to what the hon. Member for Buckingham said—an argument can be made for that approach. An argument can also be made for the approach of new clause 7, under which no warrants are needed by police. It is far better to distinguish between registered premises, where people have made their choice and their judgment, and unregistered premises, where they have not. That is the approach of clause 9.

I want to emphasise that, in arriving at this middle way, we have not been led by a blind desire to follow the third way at all times. It is entirely sustainable and correct to distinguish between organisations that have made an agreement through the register and those that have not.

Mr. Bercow: I disagree with the Government's stance, but I understand and respect it. However, I am keen to establish clearly that it is simply a matter of the judgment that the Government have decided to make. Will the hon. Gentleman therefore confirm that, to his knowledge, no part of the criminal law forbids the police to enter unregistered premises without a warrant?

Mr. Clarke: I can confirm that to the best of my knowledge, but that is not a very great confirmation, as my knowledge of the matter is very limited. However, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman if what I have said is incorrect.

I have made the case for the distinction, which echoes the arguments used by my hon. Friend Under-Secretary when he was dealing with the issue of number plates. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press new clauses 6 and 7 to a vote. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I do not wish to press the new clauses to a vote. We have rehearsed the issues, to which we may return. We have certainly had a good canter round the course.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Notification requirements

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 75, in page 7, line 4, leave out `(1),'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 76, in page 7, line 5, at end insert—

    `(4A) A person who fails to give notice to an authority in accordance with subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.'.

6.45 pm

Mr. Bercow: As everyone following the proceedings will be aware, we are now dealing with the notification requirements provided for in clause 10.

Subsection (1) does not appear to add anything to the clause, so I do not understand why it is necessary and desirable. I can well understand the significance of subsection (4), which states that a

    person who fails to give notice to a local authority in accordance with subsection (1), (2) or (3) shall be guilty of an offence.

However, subsections (2) and (3) contain the meat of the clause. Subsection (2) emphasises that someone

    who is registered in the register of a local authority shall give notice to the local authority of any changes affecting his entry in the register,

and specifies that that should be done

    within 28 days of the changes occurring; and the local authority shall amend the register accordingly.

The phrase ``within 28 days'' occurs in subsection (3), too. Those subsections impose specific requirements on operators, so it is clear why failure to fulfil those specific and clear requirements—although they are not necessarily exacting—should constitute an indictable offence.

I will make the following point in a moderate way, because I am not sure that I am right about it—in fact, I may be about to be told that I am wrong. It is not clear what the vague and less specific subsection (1) achieves. Subsection (2) uses specifics: if one does not notify the authority of changes within 28 days, one is committing an offence. Are Ministers suggesting that the relevant details may change from the time of the application's submission by the aspirant motor salvage operator and the time at which the application is determined? Is that the rationale behind the inclusion of subsection (1)? If that is what the Minister is going to tell me, I understand its logic. If it is not what he has in mind, I do not understand the practical significance of subsection (1).

I propose not only the deletion of subsection (1) but the insertion of the consequential amendment to subsection (4), so that there is no requirement for a reference to what was subsection (1). I hope that that is clear, and believe that I have made all the necessary points—but no, I suddenly discover, after a furtive rustle through my papers, that I might not have done so. Let me briefly set out my next argument.

Clause 1 stipulates that operating as a motor salvage operator without being registered is an offence punishable by a fine of £5,000. It is therefore strange, as I have argued in other contexts, to make it easy to avoid proper registration. Under clause 10, which deals with changes to details on the register, any change must be notified within 28 days—although there is no legitimate reason why it should not be 14 days, and a 28-day period leaves the system open to abuse. It seems wrong that any failure to keep details up to date should be punished by anything less than a £5,000 fine. Placing inaccurate details on the register is, in a sense, equivalent to not being registered at all.

The fine is a maximum; it will not be applied in every case. However, it is wrong to treat the offence of not changing inaccurate information in the same way as failing to inform the authority that one is no longer practising at all. To impose a level 5 fine, it would be necessary to delete ``(1),'' from clause 10(4), as we recommend, and insert a new provision. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Fabricant: I want to reinforce the assertion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham that some redundancy is evident in that this matter is largely covered by clauses 2 and 3. The Minister might concede that point, given that he accepted the necessity of adding to the Bill provisions for a fine in case clauses 2 and/or 3 are not adhered to. Those clauses are directly concerned with the provision of accurate information, as well as with the initial requirement to register information with the registrar.

It is extraordinary that the Bill includes clause 10(1), which appears almost to duplicate previous clauses. Is that because it follows the format of another Bill or Act, or is it simply the result of bad drafting by the Minister's Department, which happens from time to time? The Home Office is producing a lot of legislation, some of it worth while and some of it not so worth while. If there is a drafting problem, the Minister should be brave and honest enough to admit it. If clause 10 duplicates earlier clauses, that might mean that it is not only redundant but in conflict with earlier clauses, which could open up a lacuna for lawyers.

If clause 10(1) is valid and does not duplicate earlier provisions, what penalties are in place, other than that stipulated in subsection (4), to ensure that it is enforced? Is a level 3 fine adequate for the purpose in this day and age? Is it a sufficient limitation on people who might deliberately go out of their way to deceive the registrar?

Mr. Bercow: I note my hon. Friend's objection to a level 3 fine. Without wishing to put him on the spot, is he jumping for joy at my suggestion that a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale would be more appropriate?

Mr. Fabricant: Yes. My hon. Friend is known to oppose unreasonable burdens on legitimate businesses, as do I and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York. However, these fines are to be imposed on people who deliberately go out of their way to provide false information, and the point of the Bill is to ensure that a register is provided to enable the police and other authorities to ensure that crime is mitigated, if not eliminated completely. Level 5 is reasonable, and I got the impression from the Minister during the earlier debate on clauses 2 and 3 that he thought so, too.

Questions arise out of clause 10. First, is subsection (1) redundant, or does it conflict with the provisions of earlier clauses? Secondly, is subsection (4), which simply allows for a level 3 fine where inaccurate information is knowingly given, sufficient to deter the criminal? We all know that there are considerable profits to be made in the salvage industry and that there is therefore an incentive to commit crime. Such crime is committed and that is why the Bill is before us today.

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