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5.30 pm

The Minister could reassure the Committee by saying how many licensed vehicles are on the DVLA register. Of that number, how many have statutory off-road notification? For how many vehicles has there been no recent activity or registration? A note from the Library leads me to understand that there may be as many as 2 million vehicles in the latter category. As a result, if we are not careful, 2 million owners could become liable for fiscal penalties under this retrospective measure.

The matter is complex. I read through the 1994 Act and must admit that I had to put a hot towel around my head to understand its intricacies. However, it is clear that some proposals in the Bill may not have been thought through as completely as might be necessary.

My final point touches on a matter, raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, that is key to the Government's aim of using the Bill to deal with abandoned cars. The hon. Gentleman noted that the DVLA does not provide receipts when cars are registered: a person who notifies the DVLA that a car has been sold on receives no receipt for that notification.

The problem was at the heart of the court case to which the hon. Gentleman referred. In November last year, Mr. Phil Davies from south Wales took on the DVLA in the magistrates court, the county court and the Court of Appeal. Eventually, he won the case. The DVLA had tried to fine Mr. Davies £35 for not returning a form in July 2001. Mr. Davies was adamant that he had returned the form, but he cold not prove it as the DVLA issued no receipt for it. However, the Court of Appeal finally found in favour of Mr. Davies, on the grounds that the DVLA had been remiss.

If the Government are trying to use the Bill to deal with the problem of abandoned cars by developing continuous licensing, they will probably enjoy the support of the House. However, the problem with continuous licensing is that the DVLA would need to work out how to provide receipts for those members of the public who wanted to receive them. The receipts would prove that a person had notified the DVLA of a transfer of ownership.

I suggest that the question of issuing receipts is at the core of the clause. I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that the Government will take on board the legitimate concerns that have been expressed. If they do, they will enjoy the support of hon. Members of all parties. The move is important, and such an assurance would allow the Government to promote the objectives of their policy that much more strongly.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Abandoned cars are a blight on the landscape, and action is clearly needed. Some local authorities find the cost of dealing with the

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problem to be great. I do not see why local council tax payers should have to foot the bill when irresponsible citizens dump their property in public places. Therefore, I begin by saying that I wish the Government well in their quest for a solution to the problem, but I share some of the doubts expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) about whether—I hope that the Minister will pardon the pun—the proposed measure is the correct vehicle for dealing with the problem.

The proposal seems rather akin to a sledgehammer. Will the Minister say why the Bill does not contain a requirement that the duty would be payable only when a vehicle had clearly been abandoned, or left on a public highway or on public land? I am worried about the scope of the provisions. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the Committee that my fears are groundless.

Clause 19 refers to schedule 5 of the Bill, which provides

Does the phrase "to be charged" necessarily mean that a fee has to be charged? Alternatively, when a particular class of registration under the 1994 Act gives rise to payment of a nil duty, would the clause also give rise to payment of a nil duty? My concern is about historic, classic and veteran vehicles. Not every Member may be aware that such vehicles are classified under a different category.

Most right hon. and hon. Members who travel to this place by car do so in a vehicle that is registered under the class "private light goods". To put that vehicle lawfully on the road, one has to pay an annual fee to obtain one's tax disc. In 1994 or 1995, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was Chancellor of the Exchequer, a new provision was introduced whereby a vehicle that was roadworthy but was more than 25 years old could be classed as "25 year exempt". That category has since been renamed "historic". Owners of vehicles manufactured before 1 January 1973 must still go through the process of producing their insurance documents and MOT certificate for their vehicle to obtain a tax disc, but they do not pay a fee for it.

It used to be the case that as soon as a vehicle became 25 years old, it was entitled to claim exempt status, but the present Chancellor of the Exchequer froze the exemption so that only vehicles manufactured before 1973 can claim historic status. It is not automatic, however: the owner must go through the process of changing the taxation class on the logbook. Will the Minister give us an assurance today—or if he cannot, will he look at the issue and come back before Report—to make it clear that it is not the Government's intention to use the clause to introduce taxation on historic vehicles that currently pay a nil duty?

The Bill's wording gives me cause for concern. The provisions will catch not only the historic vehicle owned by a member of the public but every vehicle housed in a motor museum or other historic collection. Many of those vehicles are not in working condition. They may look pristine, but in many cases the engine or part of the fuel system has been removed, usually for insurance purposes.

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I hope that the Minister is prepared to say that the Bill is not intended to hit those who own, maintain and cherish historic vehicles, and that it will not do so.

Mr. Boateng: We should, I suppose, be grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for giving us the opportunity to debate the clause. However, it is always the way with Liberal Democrats that even as they enable us to share with the wider world the benefits of an action taken by this Government alone to tackle the menace of dumped and abandoned cars, one is struck by the piety, self-satisfaction and smugness that all too often, I am afraid, characterises Liberal Democrat interventions in any debate. I am afraid that this debate is no exception.

I detected something else that all hon. Members who are to serve on the Standing Committee will want to bear in mind. I am thinking particularly of the shadow Chief Secretary, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who will share our many hours of deliberation on these matters. As Liberal Democrat Members share their reflections in Standing Committee, we will find time and again that every word they utter is designed to be replicated at street level in "Focus". The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton gave that impression: I sensed "Focus" coming on. It is therefore only right, to lighten the hours that lie ahead of us, that we should introduce what I would describe as "Focus"-watch. A prize should be initiated for the member of the Standing Committee who is able to identify the most frequently repeated strictures that show a direct link with subsequent publication in "Focus".

Roger Casale: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He has issued the sort of challenge that I find almost irresistible. However, I should tell him that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is genuine in his desire for measures to aid the removal of abandoned cars. His constituency borders mine, and he has visited with me abandoned and dumped cars in New Malden on my side of the border. I have done likewise on his side of the border. I hope that the support that he gives to the measures that we are taking to deal with the problem through the tax system will be replicated when we discuss the other measures that we are taking to make it easier for local authorities and other bodies to work together to remove abandoned cars—an exercise in joined-up government to tackle this pernicious problem in our communities.

Mr. Boateng: Liberal Democrats are often genuine—they have a genuine desire to see their good works replicated in "Focus". I promise to donate to the member of the Standing Committee who identifies the most frequent references for subsequent publication in "Focus" one twentieth of a hectolitre of real ale produced in a micro-brewery of their choice, in any constituency. I fear that I must exempt Liberal Democrat Members from that genuine prize, because that would undermine the whole point of it.

With that challenge, I turn to the substance of the points that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton raised. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) rightly drew attention to the no doubt genuine concern of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—have long been worried about the menace of dumped vehicles. We issued

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a consultation paper on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman should know, in March this year the summary of responses to that paper was published and placed in the Library. It was entitled, perhaps not surprisingly, "Report on responses to the consultation paper on Abandoned Vehicles 2001–2002".

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