Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Fabricant: The Minister uses an interesting methodology to defend the wording of clause 38, when he says that the current circumstances appertaining to the ownership of salvage and licence plate companies mean that they are not large corporations. If the circumstances were to change and for some reason there were a consolidation and larger companies developed, would the wording of the clause be insufficient and need to be amended?

Mr. Clarke: We are keen not to make the mistake for which the hon. Member for Buckingham often chides us of putting everything in regulations. We have no regulations to cover the changing events to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I assure him that if a substantial structure of shell companies and controlling shareholders built up that was a threat to the vehicle salvage industry and to control of vehicle crime, we would look at the matter again.

Mr. Bercow: The reference here is not to a company secretary but to an administrative personal assistant. In no sense am I cavilling at or detracting from the enormous contribution that an efficient secretary can make to the running of a company. We know that some secretaries effectively run the ship of state. However, assuming that the secretary is an administrative employee, working under, on the instructions and to the requirements of her or his boss, does the Minister accept that it is slightly curious that a secretary should be bracketed with somebody who has decision-making power within a company? Does he accept that a secretary within a Government Department would not be blamed for an error, even if it were hers, that the Minister reported to Parliament? The Minister would be held responsible.

Mr. Clarke: A certain lack of clarity is coming into this conversation for which I may be responsible, in which case I apologise. The word ``secretary'' covers a wide variety of functions from Secretary of State to a very lowly administrative position in certain organisations. We are talking here about the secretary of the body corporate, which is a reference to the company secretary. ``Manager'' can also describe a wide variety of functions. In the example given by the hon. Member for Lichfield, if anyone failed to enter the data in the way required by law, there would always be a defence under clause 10(5):

    In proceedings for an offence . . . it shall be a defence for the accused to show that he took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing the offence.

So if such a mistake occurred, it would be dealt with.

The focus of the clause is on those who bear responsibility in the company. That is why the phrase

    director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate

is used. Thus, in the circumstances to which the hon. Member for Buckingham refers, in which a manager simply gives an instruction to a secretary—his administrative assistant—the responsibility would lie with the person who gave the instruction rather than the person who received it to deal with the situation.

This is a fairly standard set of formulations and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the amendment and that the clause will stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I was comforted by the Minister's response more than I was by the unamended clause. I am still not entirely happy. I accept that the reference is to

    secretary . . . or other similar officer of the body corporate

which lends some weight and credence to the Minister's claim that we are talking about a company secretary as distinct from a personal assistant. I should be more content if it were clear beyond peradventure that an administrative assistant could not be held responsible for failing to undertake a duty that she had been instructed to undertake by her boss. In such circumstances, even though it would be unfortunate that she had not done her duty, she should not end up being liable under the terms of the Bill. I am not absolutely satisfied that she would not be. I accept that it is no part of the Government's intention that she should be, but I would be more relaxed if there were no possibility of a junior, relatively powerless member of the business being held liable for prosecution for inadvertent error. I am not entirely satisfied on that point, but I was encouraged by what the Minister had to say.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman uses the phrase ``inadvertent error''. I refer him again to clause 10(5), which deals with that point.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister refers me to clause 10(5). I rustle at a rate of knots to page 7 of the Bill, where the hon. Gentleman has directed my eyes to the option of: a defence for the accused to show that he took all reasonable steps and exercised all due diligence to avoid committing the offence.

It was a nice try, but I am not entirely satisfied. What I am describing is a circumstance in which an individual employee of a business committed a howler, made a mistake— possibly a crass mistake—and did not exercise all due diligence. However, in no sense was he motivated to break the law, and we are talking about obligations in law.

We all make mistakes in the course of discharging our parliamentary duties, whether by tabling a question incorrectly, faltering and making the wrong point in debate or sending an incorrect response to a constituent. I shall doubtless be punished by my personal assistant for saying this, but our personal assistants occasionally make errors also; they do not exercise all due diligence. They commit a gaffe, display incompetence or file something incorrectly, but that does not render them liable to prosecution. The Minister may shrug, but there is a risk that people who make errors that, though innocent, are examples of incompetence, could be liable to prosecution. All I want the Minister to say is, ``That would not happen.''

Mr. Charles Clarke: That would not happen.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister has said it. His utterance is reassuring, although made from a sedentary position, and I am grateful to him, but it is not a substitute for a satisfactory get-out for such a person in the Bill. However, although it has no constitutional significance, the fact that the reassurance has been offered by this particular Minister of State and prospective leader of the Labour party gladdens my heart. [Interruption.] The Minister is now chuntering from a sedentary position and feverishly grasping a newspaper cutting. I am agog to hear what he has to say.

Mr. Clarke: I wanted to inform the Committee that the hon. Gentleman's efforts to promote his own leadership have succeeded. The newspaper diary piece is entitled ``Smart money going on Tory terrier John''. To redress the balance, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that if or, as the diarist says, ``when'' William Hague loses the next election—I think that we all agree ``when''—

The Chairman: Order. The Minister is trespassing on my generosity. I call Mr. Bercow.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful, Mr. O'Brien. Your generosity has now been exhausted. You remind me of the old saying about the bloke who knows a good joke but will not tell it. The Minister was about to conclude the anecdote. I was all agog, waiting with bated breath and beads of sweat on my brow, to learn the conclusion—

The Chairman: Order. I am waiting with bated breath to know what is going to happen to amendment No. 89.

Mr. Bercow: Clause 38 can rest content. It is not being sent for an early bath. I am reassured by the Minister and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Fabricant: I was disturbed by what the Minister said when he defended the wording of the clause by saying that it applied to the size, structure and position of salvage companies as they exist at present. I confess that I have not heard of a previous case of a clause being drafted to cover what may be only temporary circumstances within the organisations to which it applies. The Minister reassured me that the clause could be altered through subsequent legislation on the Floor of the House, should circumstances change and larger organisations coalesce. However, he knows, as I do, that time in the House is at a premium. I am surprised that the drafting of the Bill depends on the present size and position of companies. It would not have been too difficult to draft clause 38, which is non-controversial in itself, in such a way as to encompass large corporations controlled by many members, or corporations as they currently exist.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 39

Service of notices

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

11 am

Mr. Bercow: We have not tabled an amendment to this clause, and nor has anyone else. I am minded—

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): To keep it going.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) says, slightly ungraciously, that I am minded to keep it going. I am not and I shall prove that to him.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I did not say a word.

Mr. Bercow: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if it was a case of mistaken identity. I thought that it was the hon. Gentleman because, as he knows, the Whip is supposed to sit silent and expressionless, and he failed to do so.

I understand that a notice can be served by delivery to the person suspected of an offence at his proper address, or by sending it to that address. Given that it is 2001 and the Cabinet Office is preoccupied with e-mail, the internet and modern devices which I have largely escaped and been immune to, I do not see why the Bill contains no provision for modern methods of transmission. I recognise that original documents must often be provided, but I am not clear why there should not be such a facility. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield is chuntering that there is such a facility.

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