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Mr. Miller: I accept the hon. Gentleman's comments on those figures. In my own constituency, for example, a police station is no longer manned in the evenings. The problem, however, is that such decisions are of course for chief constables. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the matter of station coverage should be dealt with by the Home Secretary?
Mr. Heald: This is the answer. The reason chief constables make those decisions is that the Government, in their first years in office, have underfunded them and spent the money on other things. The fact is that, if we are to solve those problems, we need a change.
Mr. Heald: I am always very happy to answer the Home Secretary in my own way. In the Conservative years, there was never a year in which the number of police constables decreased. As the National Audit Office has made clear, under this Government, that trend has been completely reversed.
I am not privy to the reason why a chief constable closes a particular police station in a particular place. I do not know what happened in North Yorkshire. However, I can tell the Home Secretary that I do know, from talking to police officers across the country, that they want to do a job of high-visibility policing and that they want to have open police stations, which he is failing to provide. If he is happy that, during his period in office, 27 police stations in London have reduced their hours and other police stations in London have closed, he should not be. We need a visible presence on the streets of London if we are to do the job. It is not good enough that a police presence is visible on the streets only when the Home Secretary is there.
Does the Minister agree that there are concerns about the effect of registration on the availability of salvage services? We have heard much in this debate about the rash of abandoned vehicles across the country. If the effect of registration and record keeping is that small operators regard them simply as Government-created hurdles that they are not prepared to jump, would not one of the primary losers be those who wish an end to the rash of abandoned vehicles? Is there not a risk that the cost to vehicle owners of salvage disposal will rise, leading to more cars being abandoned in public places? What effect is the Bill likely to have on the cost of vehicle removal to councils and the police? If more cars are abandoned, will not that lead to a reduction in the amount of recycling taking place? I know that the Minister considers that matter important.
Will the Minister tell us the case for universal registration? Would it not be possible instead to employ a light touch on the tiller and introduce measures to bar those who transgress from operating--and, perhaps, improve record keeping and police powers--without insisting that every small car repairer who might want to do a couple of salvages a year must be registered in this way?
Is the relationship between the regulatory regimes important--a point made by the hon. Member for Upminster? Given the nine regulatory regimes proposed in the Bill, there could come a point at which some business men might decide that all that regulation was too much for them. Scrap metal dealers already have to register under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Some salvage operators already have to be licensed or registered
Number plates have been much discussed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was very keen that we should not end up with a system such as the one in Sweden, which has one supplier for the entire country. Obviously, it would be good if we could ensure that false plates were not available to criminals. Some of the worst criminals use plates that do not belong to a vehicle to commit crimes without being detected. Every other European country has a tougher regime than ours, so we welcome the proposals to deal with the problems relating to number plates.
The form that number plates will take, under the regulations, has also been discussed. In other countries, counties, cantons, and Lander are represented on number plates. However, we have been told that the only symbol to be permitted in this country is the European Union symbol. What is the logic of that? The Home Secretary promised that the Minister would give us an answer on this matter. Why cannot we have the Union flag, the cross of St. George, or the Welsh dragon--symbols that relate to a smaller area? Surely the purpose of the measure is to ensure that number plates are more distinctive, easier to identify and more difficult to forge.
I have one or two points on the ability of the police to undertake certain other duties. No one in the House will disagree with measures that will allow the funding for a speed camera to be placed somewhere useful, such as in a hotspot or a place where numerous complaints have been made about speeding. However, concerns have been expressed that such measures could introduce something of a stealth tax. Speed cameras could be positioned everywhere, with the parameters for camera use set at very low levels. That could become a way for the Government to raise revenue by the back door--an area in which they are uniquely competent. Will the Minister reassure us that the measure will be properly targeted?
Reference was made to designing out crime. A case was made for improved car security, better door locks, better glazing, better immobilisers, and improved car park security. Can the Minister assure us that he is doing something about that, and that it is not all just talk? One of the task group's recommendations was that action should be taken on measures to design out crime.
The Conservative party achieved a huge fall in vehicle crime between 1993 and 1997--it went down by 27 per cent. We support initiatives that will genuinely cut car crime further. The Bill introduces measures that may be useful, but simply introducing laws will not stop crime. As so many right hon. and hon. Members have said, enforcement is important. A Government who have cut police numbers, let out 300 car thieves under the early release scheme, and introduced a whole raft of regulation must be suspect in this respect. So let us have a clear pledge from the Minister as to exactly what enforcement is to be provided. Is it just £110,000 worth? The worst thing would be to raise expectations without providing adequate enforcement. That would let down the public
Overall, the Government's problem is that they talk a great deal. There is a lot of rhetoric, but precious little delivery. We want to see a Government in power with the will to tackle crime. It will be a Conservative Government, and that day is not far away.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): This has been a long and, on the whole, interesting debate, with an exceptionally large number of questions for me to deal with in my winding-up speech. I calculated that there were between 30 and 40 before the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) spoke, and he has just asked another 20. I mean to answer them all, if possible. Some questions I shall respond to as I comment on the various contributions to the debate, and others in the course of my substantive speech. I shall, of course, be responding to the questions of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.
I turn first to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), my former representative on Lambeth council. The hon. Gentleman made an exceptionally long speech. I might even say that it was excruciatingly long, but I am not in a mood to provoke the hon. Gentleman, who needs little excuse to leap to his feet. His speech ranged from the wildly general to the highly particular. As Madam Deputy Speaker said, Mr. Speaker, most of his points were more appropriate to the Committee stage. As far as I am able to identify the issues of priority to the hon. Gentleman in his lengthy performance, I shall endeavour to deal with them.
On safety cameras, the hon. Gentleman, predictably, had the gall to produce the familiar canard--if I might adopt the model of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--of a stealth tax. His sidekick, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, made the same allegation. We heard about rich pickings from unsuspecting motorists. The speed limit is the speed limit, and a red light is a red light. If this is a tax, it is a tax on those who break the law. Are we to understand that the Opposition's tax guarantee would mean lower fines for crime?
The hon. Member for Buckingham and many of his colleagues made much of the issue of police numbers. Although enforcement of the regulations applying to the salvage industry will fall to the police, much of the day-to-day scrutiny will fall to local authorities, probably in the form of trading standards officers. Local authorities will have responsibility for processing applications to be entered on a register. They will have discretion to refuse or cancel registration--a point effectively made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe).
The purpose of the Bill is to reduce vehicle crime; it will provide the greatest scrutiny of the salvage industry and a greater deterrent to rogue salvage operators. If vehicle crime is reduced by as much as we think it will be, police resources will be freed up for better enforcement--as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) correctly observed.
I shall deal with some of the particular issues raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham. He and the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked why registered salvage dealers will be treated differently from non-registered dealers. The answer is that all salvage dealers will have to be registered--that is made clear in clause 1, which makes it an offence not to be registered. If the police believe that someone is operating as a salvage dealer without being registered, they can enter premises with a warrant. Greater safeguards, by way of a warrant, are needed for unregistered premises as there would be only a suspicion that the person was operating as an unregistered dealer. By virtue of the fact that dealers are registered, they know that the police can enter at any time--they have signed up to that.
The hon. Member for Buckingham also asked about V5s--the registration documents. He said that currently, if a request for a V5 is made, the DVLA notifies the police if the vehicle is supposed to have been crushed or broken up. That is true. The Bill adds strength to that practice; it makes provision for a refusal to issue a V5 if the DVLA is not satisfied that the vehicle for which the V5 is sought is the registered vehicle. The vehicle will have to pass a vehicle identity test before a V5 will be issued.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether vehicle identity numbers--VINs-- would be included on the plate. That is rather a detailed point, but in the spirit of glasnost, I am willing to respond to it. That provision will be introduced by order. We shall hold consultations about what is to be included--VINs may not be included as it has been suggested that they might help ringers; it is more likely to be a manufacturer's mark, so that the police can trace the maker of the plate.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be consultations before the introduction of the provisions. Yes, there will be consultations. We have already consulted industry and will do so again before the introduction of secondary legislation--that will, incidentally, be by means of negative resolutions.
We shall issue guidance notes on number plates and salvage, and shall hold consultations on the matter. In his ever-inquisitive way, the hon. Gentleman asked why there is no provision for restitution if the names of number plate suppliers are mistakenly removed from the register. There should be no need for such a provision, as only a genuine cessation of trade will result in de-registration. The operator will not be removed from the register without notice; he will be notified prior to any de-registration and will thus have the opportunity to make representations if he has not ceased trading.
My hon. Friend asked about counterfeit plates. A registered supplier will not be guilty of an offence if he inadvertently supplies a plate to someone who is not entitled to it--but again, that is a detail that would perhaps more appropriately be dealt with in Committee.
The speech by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) was characteristically reasonable and well informed, and drew on his wide experience in civil engineering and transport consultancy. I am grateful that he, too, gave the Bill a broad welcome. Clearly, he had a number of ideas for improving it, which we shall, of course, be ready to consider with an open mind in Committee.
The hon. Gentleman asked several questions, which I shall try to deal with later, but he also asked specifically about costs, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill). We have already consulted local authorities and business about costs, but the provisions will be introduced through secondary legislation, and we shall be happy to consult further; indeed, we have promised the industry that we shall do so. I hope that that is at least some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
I now come to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), the first of a cabal of lawyers who participated in the debate--a prospect that I had anticipated with some foreboding, but in fact, I was grateful for their eminently reasonable contributions and support.
My hon. Friend made a learned and supportive speech, and he made an interesting point, in connection with the proposed sharing of the motor insurance database, about wider sharing of information in the interests of road safety. I imagine that we are likely to hear more about that in Committee.
I pay tribute to the campaigning work on safety cameras that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has done. We all remember his Adjournment debate earlier this year. He asked whether the experience of the eight pilot schemes had encouraged us to go for a national extension of safety cameras, and the answer is yes. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, the evidence so far is of a very significant 20 per cent. reduction in road accidents.
My hon. Friend was right to condemn the facile attacks on those proposals by people who call them a stealth tax. The excellent example of Staffordshire shows the clear benefits and the saving of lives brought about by an effective safety camera network.