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Mr. Blunt: That point also applies to the regulation of motor salvage operators. The Bill will not allow them to receive restitution should their business be affected by local authority registration and should they successfully appeal through the magistrates courts and on through the legal system. Why does not it enable them to obtain such restitution, as required under the European convention on human rights, even though the explanatory notes refer to that convention? I am grateful to the Clerks for acknowledging that there has been an administrative error. There may be a convention problem in respect of the lack of provision for restitution.
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend asks why the Bill does not make such provision. I do not know because I am not psychic, but I feel sure that Ministers know and they will be able to advise us during the winding-up speech or before.
Clause 25 will give police constables and local authority inspectors the power to enter and inspect registered suppliers and their records without a warrant. It also provides for searches with warrants to take place on unregistered premises. Again, I flag up the concern that that seems to be harder on suppliers who are registered than on those who are not. In that context, the Bill also creates three new offences, one of which is knowingly supplying plates to a person who is in the
Clause 20 will allow the Secretary of State to cancel a person's registration if he is satisfied that the registered person has ceased trading. That relates to the point about ceasing to trade for 28 days. I must re-emphasise that we need to know not only the rationale for that proposal, but what recompense would be available should a mistaken decision be made.
Another concern of some importance has been raised by the European Secure Vehicle Alliance. A plate that does not meet the technical design specifications established by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and which is intended, for example, to deceive a roadside camera will be deemed to be counterfeit. Is it also intended to deem counterfeit plates that are supplied without due diligence to a buyer seeking to deceive the purchaser of a vehicle of uncertain provenance? I feel sure that Ministers know the answer, and I hope we shall hear it in the winding-up speech.
Clause 33 allows the Secretary of State, by regulations, to prescribe specifications for number plates, and/or to require them to contain or display such information as he thinks fit. The DETR consultation paper raised the possibility--alluded to earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst--that the information would include anything from the vehicle inspection number to the European flag. It would be helpful to know whether the Government plan to include vehicle inspection numbers, and what impact Ministers think that would have on vehicle security and car crime.
If the Government intend to make the change, will it be made to coincide with the introduction of the new licence-plate system next year? For my part, I have little doubt about the impact of any European-flag provision: it would probably damage the car, and it would certainly damage my concentration when driving it.
I was a little perturbed to hear the Home Secretary say that he had no briefing on whether it would be possible to display a Union flag. If the right hon. Gentleman had allowed me to intervene, I would have said I assumed that--as a senior and respected Minister--he ran his Department, and did not allow his Department to run him. If he agrees with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that a person should be allowed to display a Union flag, why does he not just say so?
If the Bill requires amendment in order to facilitate that option, let it be amended in Committee. It would, however, be intolerable to be presented with a scenario allowing people to display a European Union flag, but not a Union flag. The only succour I can derive from what we have been told so far is that, at least for the time being, the provision in respect of the display of the European flag is permissive rather than prescriptive: that is, its display would be voluntary rather than compulsory.
I am not a great driver; I am not even an enthusiastic driver. I am happy to vouchsafe that I regard driving as an unavoidable necessity--a chore--a means by which to get from A to B. Unlike most men, I do not claim to be a good driver. In certain circumstances, I could be tempted to desist from driving at all, and one of those circumstances would be an obligation to display a European Union flag. If for the remaining years of my
Mr. Forth: As car registration plates are a matter directly connected with the Bill, and as my hon. Friend is now correctly discussing the issue of car registration plates, he may consider this point relating to car registration plates.
My hon. Friend will know of recent reports that London taxi cab drivers have been prohibited from displaying the English flag on their registration plates. A question was asked earlier about the display of the Welsh flag on Welsh car registration plates, which would of course be covered by the Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that we face very peculiar circumstances, in which we shall apparently be unable to identify ourselves voluntarily with a specific part of this country--whether by means of a flag or by other means--but obliged to subscribe to the idea that we are all Europeans?
Mr. Bercow: I am genuinely alarmed by the news that my right hon. Friend has volunteered. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, pointed out that I must not dilate on the subject of the European flag, however great the temptation otherwise so to do might be. Of course, I immediately comply with your instruction, but I point out that clause 33 specifically enables the Secretary of State by regulation to provide specifications for registration plates--it will not have escaped the beady eye of my right hon. Friend--
Mr. Blunt: I think that my hon. Friend will find that the European Union flag will come under subsection (b), the next one in the Bill, but I do not understand what his complaint is. If this country is unfortunate enough still to have the Government after the next election, the flag of the European Union will indeed be his national flag.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind all hon. Members that "Erskine May" makes it clear that the Second Reading debate should not extend to the details of clauses. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and others not to anticipate debates that are properly held in Committee.
A number of important issues in relation to vehicle crime are covered by part III. The proposed vehicle identity checks, for example, have received a mixed reception, but the Association of British Insurers welcomes them. However, it emphasises that many total loss vehicles are not regulated by the current code of practice because they do not pass through the hands of insurers.
Mr. Bercow: The Under-Secretary of State says, "Why should he?" I will tell him why the Home Secretary should be listening and why he should be concerned. There are real grievances about the Bill. There are anxieties about cost. There are concerns about over-regulation. There is a desire that it should achieve the purpose that has been established for it.
If the Under-Secretary of State in the fag end of the Parliament is so arrogant as to suppose that, simply because officials draft a Bill and the Home Secretary commends it to the House, there should be no further significant debate on the principles which inform it, he is wrong. So long as I and my right hon. and hon. Friends are in the House, he is to be disappointed because we will continue to argue the toss. We will look at the detail. We will expose the mismatch between Government words and Government deeds. If he wishes to provoke me further, he can do so. We will not abandon our obligation, which is to look at the detail.
I said that the ABI emphasised that total loss vehicles were not regulated by the current code of practice because they did not pass through the hands of insurers. There are two concerns on that front. First, some vehicles are returned by the owner either because he does not wish to give up the salvage to the insurer who has settled the claim--perhaps because he wishes to rebuild the car--or because he was himself liable for the accident and is not comprehensively insured. In the latter case, the insurer may never become aware of the damage to the vehicle.
The Government apparently believe that human rights legislation prevents them from compelling those motorists to hand over their vehicles to insurers, or to ensure that they are disposed of in accordance with the code of practice. The ABI believes that that is contrary to the public interest. I should genuinely be grateful for the response of the Under-Secretary of State when he winds up the debate.
Secondly, there is the numerically larger problem of "self-insured" vehicles. Some large organisations give securities or deposits and have no commercial insurance cover at all. Certain Crown vehicles come into that category. Other vehicles have insurance cover only for the third party element of any claim, and their owners themselves are therefore responsible for the disposal of damaged vehicles. The Association of British Insurers would like those organisations to abide by the code of practice because the higher specification newer models of which they dispose are a prime source of vehicles for ringing.
Clarification of the Government's intentions on those two types of cases would be helpful. However, in both types of cases, the ABI emphasises that it is essential that vehicle identity checks are conducted on total-loss vehicles returning to the road and that the regulations will be drafted accordingly.
I gather that the initial legislation will also require the conduct of vehicle identity checks on only three of the four total-loss categories. Do the Government intend to extend the provision to the fourth category? I am looking in eager anticipation of some guidance on that point from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, whose at least partial responsibility it is. The fourth category, of course, is that in which a vehicle is reparable but still written off by the insurer to minimise overheads during the repair period. If the Government intend that the provision should apply to the fourth category, can Ministers give some idea of when they intend to ensure that it does so?
Clause 36 will extend the time-limit for bringing prosecutions for theft of a vehicle. As the current provision effectively prevents many car criminals from being apprehended and prosecuted because the time-limit has been reached, that extension seems to be an eminently sensible change. The current situation is silly, and we are right to try to assist the fight against crime as the Government seem to be proposing.
Clause 37 will allow the Lord Chancellor's Department to make payments to magistrates courts to cover their costs in administering and hearing speed and traffic-camera cases. That provision, too, seems unobjectionable in principle.
I now come to the matter of costs. It is estimated that costs on business will be about £13 million to £20 million in the first year, and £11 million to £18 million annually thereafter. We are told by Ministers that costs to the Exchequer will be met from within departmental limits. The impression is given, therefore, that there is nothing with which we need to concern ourselves.
We are told that the cost to police will be about £110,000 annually. Ministers seem relaxed about that cost, too, on the basis that, as the checks would form part of the routine police investigation, police would "absorb the costs". It is rather less certain that police are quite as relaxed about the burden that Ministers have cheerfully imposed on them.
The regulation issue is important. Small business has to negotiate a sea of regulation that is unprecedented in the history of the United Kingdom. I call to mind an important observation made by the director-general of British Chambers of Commerce, Mr. Chris Humphries--on 20 January 2000, if I remember correctly--that, despite the Government's rhetoric, they had dramatically increased the regulatory burdens that threaten small business competitiveness. In Britain, 99.6 per cent. of businesses employ fewer than 100 people. Those businesses account for approximately 57 per cent. of the private sector work force and generate two fifths of national output.
I am sure that the Home Secretary will acknowledge from the figures that I gave earlier, and from his own knowledge of the motor salvage and dismantling industries, that the great majority of companies in the sector are small businesses. Indeed, some of them qualify for the Department of Trade and Industry's description "micro-businesses", because they employ fewer than 10 people. If regulation can be justified because the benefit that it will achieve outweighs the cost that it will impose, we are game for that. However, it makes sense to ensure that the regulation is proportionate.
I hope that the Home Secretary, as an experienced Minister, will accept that one of the problems that has bedevilled business over the years--under Governments of both complexions, I readily concede--is that British officials have tended over-zealously to interpret European directives and regulations to the detriment of British businesses. Whereas our continental counterparts sign up to highfalutin declarations with only the vaguest intention of complying with them, we play by the Queensberry rules and regard that as an earnest of our serious intent to get on with the business of proper enforcement and compliance without delay. I do not object to that, but let us not make regulations over-elaborate. Let us not impose a burden that the public policy objective does not justify.
What is the lesson of the past three and a half years of the Labour Government? The Home Secretary knows that I admire him personally, but I fear that the Government's record is of hyping policy, raising expectations, failing to deliver and letting people down. Despite the considerable personal qualities of the right hon. Gentleman, his performance as Home Secretary has confirmed that general drift. The Government make great claims for what they are going to achieve and encourage people to believe that major progress will be realised, but then fail to match reality to rhetoric and people end up feeling deflated. At best, people think, "Oh, is that all that came of all the good intent and fine words?" At worst, they feel bitterly betrayed and let down by the inadequacy of the Government's performance.
My advice to Ministers is to be honest and realistic and not to over-hype the measure and make out that it is going to make dramatic strides towards the achievement of the target of a 30 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime by 2004. It is unlikely to do so. As the European secure vehicle alliance put it:
It would surely be sensible to be modest about the impact of the Bill, because, as the European secure vehicle alliance stresses, it focuses entirely on the theft of vehicles, but makes no reference to theft from vehicles--the incidence, albeit not the cost, of which is much greater. Moreover, the Bill will struggle to reach the statute book before Britain goes to the polls, so Ministers should keep calm and stick to the facts.
I offer Ministers two facts about the attitude of Conservative Members. First, we shall scrutinise the Bill fully and fairly. Secondly, we propose to tackle car crime by restoring the numbers of police, increasing their visibility and instilling fear into the hearts of criminals. Such an approach is the offer of a breath of fresh air after 43 months of miserable failure by the Labour Government.