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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): The crucial difference between the Opposition's amendments and the Government's new clause is that, whereas under the Government's proposals the offence occurs when someone either knowingly or recklessly makes a false statement, under the Opposition's proposals, the offence is committed when it is done knowingly, but not in circumstances of recklessness. Why does the Minister believe that recklessness should be included in the offence? What sort of circumstances does he think would be covered? How would he deal with the point made by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), when I proposed that recklessness should be imported into the offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000? He said that to import recklessness would introduce great
We prefer the Government amendments chiefly because, unlike the others, they draw a worthwhile distinction between a false application per se and deception attempted by an applicant whose previous registration has been cancelled or refused. We consider the latter more serious, and deserving of a higher maximum penalty.
Amendment No. 41 relates to the registration of number plate suppliers. It seeks to increase the level of the fine for failure to notify a change of particulars from a level 4 fine of £2,500 to a level 5 fine of £5,000. We believe that that lacks a sense of proportion. One must compare the various offences in the Bill and give each its due weight. Is a failure to notify the DVLA of a change of address as serious as failure to register altogether? We do not think so. Our view is that the two cannot be treated in the same way. To carry on a business while unregistered is to flout the core purpose of the legislation. It cannot be compared with a failure to keep the DVLA updated in every material detail.
Mr. Bercow: I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he is, no doubt inadvertently, giving the impression that the offence of failing to communicate a new address to the DVLA is somehow trifling. Will he, by contrast, accept that it would not be at all trifling if a change of business premises was not notified to the DVLA, so that, as far as that central authority was concerned, the registered salvage operator or registration plate supplier might just as well not be registered at all?
Mr. Hill: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but an element of intention must be taken into account in this context. A bona fide supplier has obviously gone through the registration process, thereby demonstrating his integrity and acceptability as a supplier, but he may inadvertently fall into the trap of failing to convey a change of address in due course. That is a problem--but although it is an offence, it is not deeply serious and certainly falls into the category of possible accident rather than malevolence. On those grounds, we think that a worthwhile distinction can be made in the degree of seriousness of the offence. I am sure that we can return to those matters in due course.
Like amendment No. 41, amendment No. 42 treats an offence more gravely than is warranted. The offence under clause 27 is designed to deal with the practice of selling number plates where the characters are so arranged as to make them resemble a personal name or other word that might mean something to the owner.
The Government want to stop that practice, as it can make it difficult for cameras and witnesses to read number plates. That is already an offence, punishable by a level 3 fine of £1,000. However, we do not believe that selling a plate with the numbers "1" and "3" placed close together to look like a "B" is as serious as failure to register as a registration plate supplier, which, of course, attracts a level 5 fine.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on the way in which he has taken up the issue and brought it to a conclusion--which, even if it is not not an entirely satisfactory one, is miles better than what preceded it. My hon. Friend identified the serious risk of people working illegally as motor salvage operators trying to obtain registration by giving false details. In almost every walk of crime, whenever there is an opportunity to make money by using false particulars to obtain the imprimatur of the state--the necessary licences or documentation--there are always cases of false representation. That is true in every field of crime; for example, the use of false identities to claim benefits or for the abuse of credit cards. It is surprising that the Government failed to identify that risk.
If the offence had not been created, gangs would have tried to obtain several registrations using false materials and representations. They would have been able to enter the system; they would have been seen as clean operators and would have been able to salvage vehicles, break them up and sell the parts. My hon. Friend has done an invaluable service; the amendments should indeed be known as the Buckingham amendments. The whole House owes my hon. Friend a debt, and I was pleased that the Government were able to acknowledge that.
The creation of an offence of knowingly or recklessly making a false statement in registering as a motor salvage operator, instead of the provision that we proposed--that it should be an offence when a false application is made knowingly--begs the question: why do the Government believe that the words "knowingly or recklessly" are the way to go?
There is a problem with the use of the word "recklessness", as the Minister of State pointed out to me during our discussions on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which included an offence of unlawfully intercepting a communication. Such an offence could only be committed by the authorities--or was most likely to be. I suggested that, if the authorities were to use their powers and facilities to intercept the communications of private citizens, it was wrong if the offence was only that they did so knowingly because, as servants of the state, they should be guilty if they acted recklessly.
The forces of the state--the authorities--in this country do an excellent job, but we do not want them to be able to act recklessly without redress. The Minister replied that we could not make such a provision because the law on
What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. People who may be brought before the courts for making a false statement "recklessly" to register as motor salvage operators may simply be innocent business men who made their statement in ignorance. They may not have understood what was needed on the form. They may be very good at salvaging cars, but not much good at paperwork.
If there is a problem with the law on recklessness, it is wrong that we cannot have recklessness in an offence that applies to the state and its servants--the authorities--because it is far too difficult and complicated and nobody will understand it, but that it can apply to a man running a small business. Such businesses may involve breaking up vehicles--occasionally for spare parts. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) knows such small businesses only too well from his days in Southwark-- I do not suggest that he ever took his taxi to them.
Is it right that an ordinary business man, with a small business, should be put at risk of being found guilty of acting recklessly, when the real mischief that we want to attack is committed by the fraudster? We want to go after people who knowingly make false statements when registering as motor salvage operators. It was worrying that the Under-Secretary could not give me a ready reply to my question, because he drafted the provisions. There is clearly a significant difference between our suggestions in Committee and his proposals: it is the word "recklessness". If that word has been inserted without the hon. Gentleman's knowledge--or if he has not even thought about it--that really is a poor do. I hope that he will reflect on the matter. Perhaps during the debate he will recall why he thought that the word "recklessness" offered the way forward.
Our amendment No. 37 provides for an offence of "knowingly" making a false application. That is the basis on which we should proceed. Government amendment No. 4 provides for the offence of recklessly or knowingly making a false statement as to the registration of a number plate supplier. Again, I make the same point that I made about the earlier provision: there is an offence not merely in respect of "knowingly" but in respect of "recklessly" making a false statement.
Government amendment No. 4 includes proposed new subsection (2B), under which no application can be made for up to five years if the person has been banned from registering as a result of a conviction for making a false statement to apply. That is sensible; it is right that fraudsters should be banned, but is it fair to ban someone who has acted recklessly? Clearly, such a ban is fair enough if someone has behaved dishonestly, and knowingly so, but recklessness is a borderline issue and the Minister may feel that the provision presents dangers for small business men.
Government amendment No. 5 is technical and Government amendment No. 6 is consequential. Government amendment No. 7 provides that if a person has been convicted of making a false application, he can be removed from the register and a prohibition will apply. We have no problem with that. Amendment No. 40, which we tabled, would make it an offence to submit a false application to register as a number plate supplier. Again, it includes the word "knowingly".
We suggest that a level 5 fine should be imposed for the offence of failing to notify changes in information on the register. The Under-Secretary dismissed that suggestion, saying that there is a great difference between not notifying a change in circumstances and making a false statement at the outset. However, my experience, as a Minister with responsibility for benefit fraud, was that people would often make a genuine claim initially, but their circumstances would change and they would not tell the authorities. That was a big problem. In a sense, such fraud was almost a crime of omission, although dishonesty and guilt were involved. People often find it easier to mislead the authorities by not doing what they have a duty to do than by deliberately setting out to lie. The same applies to these provisions.
If a motor salvage operator begins perfectly satisfactorily, tells no lies and has a good business, but that business goes badly wrong, he may be tempted to make changes to the business that may lead it into the black market and to become involved in the activities that the Government want to curtail. In those circumstances, not giving notification of a change of address could be a crucial indicator of the fact that that operator is operating dishonestly and is misleading the authorities. It is often easier to detect crimes in which people have to tell the authorities something and lie than those in which they do not have to tell them anything. It is therefore important to impose a fairly tough penalty in such cases to dissuade those who may be tempted to fail to give the information to which the authorities are entitled. I ask the Under-Secretary to respond to that important issue.
Government amendment No. 15 will add the concept of guilty knowledge to the offence of selling a counterfeit registration plate. Again, it states that someone must know, or be reckless about the fact that, something is not a true plate. It is good that that will no longer be an absolute offence and that the Minister is prepared to introduce the mental element or the golden thread to which I have referred--but not too often because the Minister of State hates lawyers and does not like to be reminded too much about the country's legal history. I am not sure why that is so, because if the Minister of State ever becomes Prime Minister, he will look with delight on the country's history and think himself part of a great chain of historical events. He might think that our legal system is rather good; it is one of the things for which this country is most prized. Our common law is recognised internationally as one of the things that we have given to the world and our system of justice is well respected across the Commonwealth and half the world. Perhaps it is not the law but the lawyers at which he aims his attack.
It is good that the golden thread of knowledge and the mental element of crime will be introduced under Government amendment No. 15, but the Under-Secretary should explain the use of the term "recklessness". Why
Amendment No. 42 would increase from level 4 to level 5 the penalty for selling a counterfeit plate. Such matters depend on whether people believe that selling a counterfeit plate is a serious crime. On Second Reading, we were told that it was important, that it fuelled crime and that it should be stamped out. I agree with that; everyone who hears media reports of criminals who steal cars and fit counterfeit plates to them knows that it is a way in which they mask their identity. If that is crucial to the commission of crime, surely selling such a plate is an important matter for which a substantial sentence should be imposed.
With the best will in the world, we have to recognise that those who commit such an offence do so for money. It is a commercial offence, so a £2,000 fine is surely too low. If this is a commercial exercise designed to stop people committing the offence, it seems wrong to set the penalty at such a low level. I hope that the Under-Secretary is prepared to reply to those points. Perhaps he will tell us his detailed views on the law of recklessness. If not, perhaps the Attorney- General will tell us what he thinks later.