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Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has tabled a sensible set of amendments; he will be aware of the significance of our exchanges on the subject in Committee.
I am always a generous-spirited fellow, as you will readily testify, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Far be it from me to accuse the hon. Gentleman of plagiarism; he would not be guilty of any such thing because he has an original and penetrating mind. However, he would be prepared to concede that there is a commonality of spirit between his party and ours on the subject. Because of his recollection of our deliberations in Committee, he will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) argued that the power of entry and inspection should not be exercised by an officer unless he reasonably suspects a breach of the regulations or the commission of an offence under the Act.
To his credit, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has followed my hon. Friend's train of thought on that occasion, as well as before and since, in deploying the formulation "reasonable suspicion" in amendment No. 8. He makes an eminently sensible point. Nobody disputes that there should be powers of entry and inspection; the argument is about the means by which they are exercised. The hon. Gentleman chose to focus on an important point about the nature of the exercise of the power. As he put it, his concern is that, unless the power is reasonably circumscribed, not least by the use of the word "reasonable" or by a reference to ordinary hours of the day, an overly zealous officer, probably in the minority but nevertheless burdensome for the person suffering from the exercise of the power, may choose willy-nilly, almost at random and without obvious good cause or excuse, to rampage through--I accept that that is an evaluative and strong-minded term--the property of the person who, however unreasonably and without evidence, he suspects of a breach of the regulations or the commission of an offence.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has a point--there is a danger that inspections will otherwise take place without justification. There is also a possibility, again highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, that an overly zealous officer might choose to make regular inspections at the same time on what might be regarded as such a repetitive basis that it becomes intimidating.
There are other possibilities. Far from choosing to visit at the same time for a series of weeks in succession in such a manner as to appear intimidatory, an officer might choose to visit the same property, premises or sets of premises held by a company on various days and at various times but without obvious authority or good cause. That would be equally intimidatory.
In fairness, the Government have said that there must be an element of unpredictability. If people know in advance that they are to be visited or that they can expect to be visited at exactly the same time, they are likely, particularly if they are in breach of the legislation, adequately to prepare themselves to ensure that they are not caught out. The Minister has said that on a number of occasions, and he has a fair point. However, I understand that there is to be an obligation under clause 19, in its unamended form, for the person who is conducting the inspection to be authorised in writing. If so, I assume, for the purposes of the argument and our assessment of the merits or otherwise of the clause, that that will mean not only authority in writing to make the inspection but notification in writing of the intended date and time. If I have misread the clause on that significant point, I should be happy to be corrected by the Minister and thereby reassured.
The Minister, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will have noticed, has looked eagerly in the direction of those whom I cannot name or refer to by title, but whose responsibility it is to provide the Minister with advice. They are what might be described as the nameless and faceless ones, but they sit not far from the Minister.
Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not proposing to dilate upon the point; I thought that I might get away with the occasional animadversion to them, but you have told me, with your formidable shake of the head, that I cannot, and therefore I will not try. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to have some guidance on the point I raised. [Interruption.] Does the Minister want to intervene? No, he was merely chuntering from a sedentary position--beneficially, I am sure, as far as our exchanges are concerned.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has highlighted a significant possibility, and there are others. Inspections could take place at awkward times, possibly in an over-zealous way, and in a manner that would be calculated to intimidate or would in practice do so. The hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and I share a basic unease about the exercise of entry and inspection powers, which leads us not to dispute the need for them but to try and build in the maximum protection for those who are to be subject
Mr. Bercow: I am greatly reassured by the hon. Lady's remark, made from a sedentary position. However, I am concerned that people should be properly protected. I am always anxious about the overweening power of the state to busybody and interfere, to harass people and subject them to impertinent inquiry without good cause. In short, this is an issue of civil liberties. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is a champion of civil liberties, but so are my right hon. and hon. Friends and me.
I should like to put a slightly different point on the amendments to the Minister. It is a new point in the consideration of the Bill but it is not new in the exchanges that the Minister and I have had. I have a feeling that, with his remarkable perspicacity, the Minister will have anticipated this point, which is culled from the experience that we shared in the Committee stage of the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman and I simply disagreed about this point, and we may do so again. It is this: it seems to me that under the terms of the unamended clause 19, people who are or who appear to be--I will come back to the point about appearing to be--regulated individuals under the terms of the Bill will be entitled to greater protection under its terms than people who are not registered or who do not appear to be registered.
As not everybody is familiar with this argument and as I do not want an entirely self-contained and, to everyone else, unintelligible argument with the Minister, it is worth explaining what I have in mind. Clause 19(1) provides that someone who is authorised to enter and inspect the premises of any person who appears to be a regulated person can do so if he or she has authorisation in writing. However, it specifically refers to an entitlement to enter and inspect the premises of someone who appears to be a regulated person. What about those who do not appear to be regulated persons or to have a licence to operate but who are suspected of a breach of the regulations under the legislation or the commission of an offence? Those who are not thought to be regulated--and, to put it more accurately are thought not to be regulated under the legislation but who are thought to be practising, illegally or as cowboys, and to be committing offences--should surely be subject to the not insignificant powers of entry and inspection that clause 19 is intended to confer upon officers. I am not sure what the answer is.
The Minister is a sometimes sagacious fellow but almost invariably a resourceful one. I feel sure that he will have some sort of answer and that it probably will have been provided for him in advance of our debate. I will be fascinated to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say about those who do not appear to be regulated--indeed, who appear not to be regulated--but who do not seem to be subject to the substantial power of clause 19(1).
Mr. Simon Hughes: I follow that point but I am not certain that everyone listening will follow the regulated and non-regulated alternatives proposed by the hon. Gentleman. Is not the logic of the conundrum or dilemma to which the hon. Gentleman refers that it is far better that
Mr. Bercow: The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that everybody who has characteristics in common in terms of job description and the functions they fulfil should be subject to equal treatment. That is a longer but, I hope, accurate way of saying that we should treat like with like. Obviously, we should not treat in exactly the same way people who are in very different categories and who are not performing similar functions, but the hon. Gentleman is otherwise right to say that people who are performing similar work should all be subject to the same regime, so that there is no scope for the inequality of treatment that would otherwise almost inevitably result.