Standing Committee A
Tuesday 16 January 2001
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
That the Programming Order of 9th January be amended
(1) in paragraph (1), at the end, by inserting the words '(save on the afternoon of
Tuesday 16th January, when the Committee may sit until half past Nine o'clock, and
on the afternoon of Thursday 18th January, when the Committee may sit until Four
(2) in the Table, by leaving out the entry in the third column in respect of the 8th sitting
and inserting instead '4 p.m.'[Mr. Pope.]
Cancellation of registration
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 69, in page 3, line 31, leave out `28' and insert `60'.[Mr. Bercow.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 70, in page 3, line 31, at end insert
`without good cause or reason'.
No. 74, in clause 10, page 6, line 41, leave out `28' and insert `14'.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Committee will be relieved to know that I was beginning to conclude my comments. I support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), which were powerful, logical and symmetrical.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I note that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) has not taken the opportunity, as I hoped he would, to withdraw the comments that he made this morning about me, the chief constable of Staffordshire and himself? I want to put that on the record.
The Chairman: I was under the impression that the hon. Gentleman withdrew his comments, at my request.
Mr. Clarke: Further to that point of order, I am grateful for your clarification, Mr. O'Brien, and I apologise if I misunderstood. I understood that the hon. Member for Lichfield agreed with your request not to proceed with a discussion on these matters. May I clarify with you, Mr. O'Brien, that the hon. Gentleman has withdrawn his comment suggesting that I instructed or exhorted the chief constable of Staffordshire not to provide him with information that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to have as a Member of Parliament?
The Chairman: I was given to understand that, following my appeal to the hon. Member for Lichfield, he withdrew his comment, encouraged by his hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. Hansard will show that the matter was put to rest. I suggested that that would be best, and the hon. Gentleman accepted that.
Mr. Fabricant: I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham what URL stands for. It is the address of a website and I promised to let the Committee know. I have made exhaustive inquiries with the Library and it stands for uniform resource locator.
Mr. Clarke: On the point of order, I accept that the hon. Member for Lichfield formally withdrew his allegations about me in the Committee in response to your request, Mr. O'Brien. I am grateful to you for requesting that and I am pleased that it is on the record that he withdrew it. He made an outrageous and inappropriate slur.
The hon. Member for Lichfield asked whether a Minister ever gives the answer, ``I do not know.'' My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made it clear in his speech during our proceedings last week that he was not omniscient. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, busy as he was, was unable to hear that. When I ask myself why the hon. Member for Lichfield behaves as he does, I reply, ``I don't know.'' When I ask myself, ``What is he for?'', I reply, ``I don't know.''
The hon. Member for Lichfield asked what is the motive for the clause. Its motive is simple and clearto have an up-to-date register that can assist with enforcement of the law. Perhaps we did not set that out clearly enough, so I am grateful to him for getting me to set it out more clearly. The motive is clear. It is to establish a means by which the register can be steadily, coherently, consistently and fairly updated so that it can be properly used to enforce the law.
What is the reason for the 28-day figure in the clause? I acknowledge, in response to the arguments that have been put, that there is an arbitrary nature to any number of days that is chosen, whether it is 28, 35, 42 or 21. However, the reason was adduced when we debated number plates, and was simple and clear. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964I anticipate the knowledge of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on this matterset out the period of 28 days and we felt, when we were drafting the Bill, that consistency was a virtue. We have heard of no problems arising as a result of the period of 28 days being specified in that Act.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the register and the amendments to it be posted on the net?
Mr. Fabricant: What is the URL?
Mr. Clarke: It is not the job of a Minister, certainly not myself, to answer every question. Samuel Johnson might have had more to offer. Nor can I help the hon. Gentleman on the URL.
As we said when discussing the register in relation to number plate supplies, we envisage that the register will be available publicly on the net, but we intend to consult on precisely what information will be available and how it operates once the Bill has been considered by both Houses.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I find myself in slight danger of agreeing with the hon. Member for Buckingham and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would help me out. In the clause to which reference has been made, the Act is clear, but I have not picked up in this clause how there is protection, for example, for the one-man operator who is in hospital with a heart attack. The clause is permissive``A local authority may''but a supercilious official could go over the top. Is there any protection in the Act for such a person?
Mr. Clarke: There are protections, which I shall come to in a second. I should emphasiseI did not do so in openingthat I regard the probing nature of the debate as entirely reasonable. It is a perfectly fair issue. The appropriate period of time is a balance of judgment. We picked 28 days to achieve consistency with the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, of which we have heard no criticism; certainly not from Government Members. We have not heard that the 28-day period has given rise to problems caused by holiday, illness or whatever one could imagine. It might have done so but, so far as we are aware, it has not done so in relation to the Act.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I take note of what the Minister says about the scrap metal sector. Could he advise me about the average size of scrap metal dealersI do not mean their physical size, but the size of their businessescompared with motor salvage operators, because that might be relevant? Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), does he accept that if, in the scrap metal sector, there are very few micro-businesses and fewer still businesses run by a single person, the problem that I originally identified and to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred will not arise? That might explain why there has been no protest.
Mr. Clarke: The short answer to that is ``I don't know''; nor do I think that I can give guidance on this matter now. The hon. Member for Buckingham is right, but it does not follow that because one industry sector industry works with a certain time scale, another should necessarily do the same. We felt it necessary to discuss the 28-day period, but it is better to stay at 28 days throughout. I acknowledge that there is an arbitrary aspect to that. However, it would not be sensible to include periods of 14 days and 60 days as well.
Mr. Fabricant: Another potential difference between the regimes for the scrap metal and salvage industries is the ease with which people may get back on to the register. If someone were to be struck off the register because, for whatever reason, they had not been trading for 28 dayswe have heard examples of how that might arisehow easy would it be for them to get back on to it? What will be the attitude of the organisations that enforce the BillI am not sure whether the police or the district councils will prosecuteto people who recommence trading before they are able to get back on to the register?
Mr. Clarke: Again, that is a fair point. A four-stage process is involved. First, the local authority must be satisfied that the business has not been carried on for at least 28 days. Being on holiday for the relevant period does not necessarily count as not carrying on a business, because a business can exist even if it is not actually trading at a particular point for a particular reason. Secondly, in accordance with clause 5(2), the authority has to notify the company of its proposed action and provide a further 14 days for representations to be made. I accept that problems may arise if notices are piling up in a dead-letter box. However, most businesses, even one-person businesses, have a mail-handling system that can deal with that.
Thirdly, the company can appealon the grounds of a heart attack, a holiday or whateveragainst the local authority's decision to suspend it. FourthlyI come to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Lichfieldif the company is rejected, it can apply straight away for readmission to the register with immediate effect. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston about the four-stage process.
Mr. Miller: I missed the word ``proposing'' in clause 5(2), so my hon. Friend's clarification is extremely helpful. There has to be a warning shot across the bows, followed by a legitimate response from the business oras in the case that I mentionedthe spouse of the person in hospital.
I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) that my attraction towards the view expressed by the hon. Member for Buckingham has substantially diminished.