Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: I agree with my hon. Friend. In fairness to Ministers, who have not participated so far, but will have a chance to shortly, the burden of our criticism does not rest upon them. The Minister would say, ``So what? This is not our point. We are having a discussion with the Liberal Democrats''. That discussion is an interesting and important one, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield.

Has the hon. Member for Eastleigh considered the curious and untidy contradiction between the treatment of a registered salvage operator practising from his commercial premises and the treatment that is to be accorded to an undoubtedly registered operator practising from his domestic premises? I agree with my hon. Friend. The issue should surely be the nature of the activities and the grounds that the constable or representative of authority has for believing that those activities may be in breach of the law. Those should be the material considerations in determining the appropriateness of entry and inspection. It seems strange that a registered salvage operator, operating from his commercial premises should be susceptible to and, to use the Minister's phrase, ``up for'' an inspection by a constable without a warrant, but if he is operating at home he should be granted the apparently extra protection of a visit only after grant of a warrant.

I may have misheard my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who is almost invariably right, but we did not agree to inspection without warrants for registered practitioners operating from their commercial premises. We did not want to divide the Committee on the point but I think that the record will show that throughout those discussions I made it clear that I was quite happy to entertain the different options, but for my part—I was not speaking for colleagues—I felt that a warrant should be required for both categories. The Minister will recall that I tabled amendments that would have allowed equal treatment either in the sense of a requirement for a warrant in both cases, or of the non-requirement of a warrant. My own view is that a warrant should be required in all cases.

Mr. Fabricant: I think that we have unanimity of purpose on this, at least on the Opposition Benches. My hon. Friend will recall that I said that it seemed strange in the extreme that someone who was registered and therefore presumably law abiding, would not have the protection of a warrant, whereas someone who might be trading unlawfully and deliberately not going on to the register, would have the protection of a warrant.

Mr. Bercow: I agree. The point has now been forcefully made. We are all clear now where we stand. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eastleigh for what I might describe as clarification via intervention. We are all much clearer as a result. We should pay tribute to him for tabling the new clause.

My second point is that the new clause applies only to motor salvage operators. That was omitted from the multifaceted oration that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield skilfully delivered before lunch. I am not entirely clear, given the similarity between motor salvage operators and registration plate suppliers, why the hon. Member for Eastleigh thinks that it is appropriate to have this protection and this burden minimisation for motor salvage operators, but not for registration plate suppliers. It may just have been a test case and, having tested the water and discovered that it is warm, he may intend to apply it more widely on Report.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend may be a little confused about this issue. I am confused. The hon. Member for Eastleigh, in an intervention in my speech, spoke about parts that had been specially made for second-hand or vintage and veteran cars. If they are specially manufactured, I cannot understand how they could be salvaged.

Mr. Bercow: I thank my hon. Friend, but unfortunately I cannot respond to his intervention because it relates to the thought processes of the hon. Member for Eastleigh, which I cannot possibly be expected to detect and on which it would not be proper for me to speculate. A moment ago the Minister, either out of weariness, a desire to be helpful or a combination of the two, said from a sedentary position that the significance of the clause was that it was about spare parts. I fully accept and understand that. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I was able to read the clause and I appreciate that point.

My point is slightly different. Without using absolutely the same wording and replicating the precise contents of the clause, save for the substitution of the title ``registration plate supplier'', the general principle which is at stake, namely the attempt to minimise the burden on small businesses and to distinguish between the costs imposed upon them and those which might be borne by larger companies, could apply in the registration plate supply business just as much as it applies in the motor salvage business. It is for the hon. Member for Eastleigh, either now or at a later date, to explain whether one of the tricks that he has got up his sleeve is to spring a similar new clause in relation to registration plate suppliers on Report. I am all agog to discover the parliamentary tactics of the Liberal Democrats. I rest that point.

5 pm

Mr. Fabricant: Has my hon. Friend noticed subsection (3), which I missed in my peroration this morning? It says:

    Where a person who carries on the business of a motor salvage operator purchases for less than £100 a motor vehicle whose engine and chassis or frame are over 10 years old, he shall not be obliged...to notify the destruction of the motor vehicle.

Does he not agree that there is a danger in that provision? If the destruction of a vehicle is not notified to the registrar, is there not a danger that spare parts from such a vehicle—the fact that it is being sold for less than £100 implies that it cannot be in a very good state of repair—might be put on the market? Those parts may be damaged and may put the purchaser at risk if they are used in his own vehicle.

Mr. Bercow: That is possible. I am not an authority on spare parts or indeed on vehicles and I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is right. Again I am trying to interpret the thinking of the hon. Member for Eastleigh without his having told me what it is, but I presume that his motivation in tabling the new clause, and that particular part of it, is that the age and minimal utility of the parts concerned are such that they would have a nugatory commercial value and would be unlikely to be used in the commission of crime.

Mr. Chidgey indicated assent.

Mr. Bercow: I am getting a helpful indication from the hon. Gentleman, that that is what he has in mind. However, I do not know whether that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield.

My final point relates to the sliding scale. In fairness, the hon. Member for Eastleigh has a point. One thing that the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members have had in common throughout the Committee stage of this Bill is an interest in minimising the burden on small companies and recognising that regulation must be as light as is compatible with effectiveness.

What I am not certain about is the wisdom of what I would describe as the permissive provision in subsection (1) of the new clause. The hon. Member for Eastleigh provides the opportunity, but not the obligation, for a local authority to define and apply a sliding scale. My impression, unless I have misread the clause, and I do not think I have, is that such a sliding scale could vary from one local authority to another. Given that, at least in part, it is supposed to reflect costs, we should agree that administrative costs need not and should not vary between one authority and another.

Mr. Chidgey: I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that under subsection (1)

    the maximum fee that a local authority may determine under section 3 (1) (b) shall be calculated on a sliding scale.

So the clause proposes a maximum fee, which I would have thought would have relieved some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Mr. Bercow: It does, but not entirely. There are two problems. First, it is not clear whether there would be a minimum, although I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his assurance on the maximum. Secondly, the point about the turnover limits is central. I referred to variable schemes—different sliding scale schemes applying to different local authorities. What I do not know is whether these are just illustrative figures that the hon. Gentleman is using and whether they could be varied between one part of the country and another. It seems to me a point worth making.

This new clause has been of great interest to both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament. I know that no Labour Members of Parliament have had any interest in the clause whatsoever, but I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has done and I think that the British Motorcyclist Federation will welcome the fact that Opposition Members have at least been prepared to air the arguments and then await the response of the Minister. That, with enthusiasm and close attention, I shall now do.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): There is no lack of readiness on our part to debate the issues. In my opinion, however, there is only one point of substance that has been made in the foregoing debate. That is the whole issue that I thought was raised very articulately and clearly by the hon. Member for Eastleigh in relation to vintage clubs and the whole range of expertise there. Where the hon. Gentleman has an important point, one which I shall address, and the reason why I was ``chuntering'', in the phrase of the hon. Member for Buckingham, is in the obvious difference between the significance of number plates and that of parts in a business and industry activity. That hobby was in fact the core of the speech made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh.

I thought that the hon. Member for Buckingham was being slightly unfair on himself in saying that he had no familiarity with spare parts. Some might say that he was the world leader of spare parts when it came to looking at the way debate in this place occurs. Alternatively, the hon. Member for Lichfield gave me a list of all the radio and television stations that he had constructed, refurbished and trained in the 1980s and 1990s. When I saw Radio Echo Moscow on the list, I thought that that perfectly summed up a description of the speeches of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—simply an echo of what was going on.

There are four important points why we oppose this new clause and will oppose it, even if it is put to a vote. The first deals with the question of thieves, subsection (1) of his new clause. The reason why I am slightly weary with the hon. Member for Lichfield is that we have already debated at great length—I think when he was being bitten or recovering from his bite—the importance of sliding scales to address the issues effectively. We want to consult properly. I know that there have been those who are cynical about consultation, but we acknowledge that it may be necessary to have a sliding scale and for different approaches to be taken, and we want to reach agreement in a proper way. That is why I cannot give ball park figures, as requested by the hon. Member for Lichfield this morning, but we want to make the fee setting process transparent and give industry the assurance that it needs that the fees have been set at a level solely to recover administration costs and nothing else. That is the issue that we debated at some length in Committee earlier on. I do not want to repeat that debate, except to say that that is why we do not go along with subsection (1) of the new clause.

I will give the hon. Gentleman one assurance, however, as I do not think that the Government gave sufficient attention to this before his speech, and that is that when we consult with the Local Government Association of the industry, we will take particular account of the interests of the motorcycle hobbyist—or the vintage motor bike trade—in drawing up the guidelines for that sliding scale. There are people who engage in this kind of activity as their hobby and the view is legitimate in the way that it is addressed. It is perfectly appropriate for us to take account of that interest in the guidelines and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do so. That is a product of his raising the new clause in the way that he has.

Secondly, we believe that subsection (2) offers a serious loophole for criminals to exploit. I know that that is not the hon. Gentleman's intention in any way, but it would exempt business in the circumstances described from keeping records of parts. This would break the audit trail, which is extremely important for the police in their investigations. Maintaining that audit trail is an important way for them to establish what the networks are and how the business operates. For that reason, we are against low-level exemptions like this. I understand that bureaucratic issues arise from this and we will try and deal with that on the fee level in the guidelines. We are concerned that criminals would seek to exploit an exemption by gradually disposing of small quantities of small stolen parts. I know that that was not the intention of the British Motorcyclists Federation or of the hon. Gentleman, but we are concerned about that possibility.

 
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Prepared 23 January 2001