My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the imbalance in the protection of registered and unregistered dealers. Would he argue that there ought to be equality between them as regards rights of entry? If so, would he argue that a warrant should be necessary for entry into the property of registered as well as unregistered dealers, or would he go so far as to say that the property of both registered and unregistered dealers may be entered by the police without a warrant?
Certainly not the latter. I confess to my hon. Friend, as it is relevant to his question, that I have always been uneasy about the general powers of entry that we give, for example, to Customs and Excise in respect of value added tax and other matters. If I had to express my preference, it would be against a general power of entry. I would want to rely on the more traditional British or English approach, if I may so characterise it: that one's
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property is sacrosanct unless a judicial authority such as a judge or a magistrate gives the forces of law and order the authority to enter those premises.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that in that view, he is not alone? I, for one, regard with extreme distaste the prospect of hundreds, if not thousands, of petty officials charging into people's property across the country, without let or hindrance and usually without a warrant. I find that prospect deeply unattractive.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
The problem is slightly different. The Bill explicitly gives to constables the power of entry. As my hon. Friends have been at pains to point out all through the debate, whether we have sufficient constables and whether they should spend their time in that way is a matter on which we must exercise our judgment. Again, I may return to that later in my remarks.
Suffice it to say at this stage in my preliminary analysis that the burdens placed on local authorities and more particularly on businesses to comply with the mechanisms set out in the Bill will be very much greater than the Government have so far been prepared to concede. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, we tend to say rather glibly that local authorities exist almost to have regulatory burdens imposed on them. That is almost their raison d'etre, if I may slip briefly into another language. We should challenge that belief, but I am much more concerned about the burdens on business to which the Bill will give rise.
From a glance at the Bill, one begins to realise the enormity of its consequences for business. In clause 2 the responsibilities laid on local authorities are set out. I must praise the draftsmen, as the Bill is much more comprehensible and readable than are most Bills. That is a welcome development.
Clause 2(1) states:
Every local authority shall establish and maintain a register for their area of persons carrying on business as motor salvage operators in that area.
That immediately raises the prospect of a variation in the approach that could be taken by our many authorities to the principles on which they will set up the register, to say nothing of the bureaucracy implied by it.
Clause 2(9) goes on to state:
The local authority shall secure that the contents of the register are available for inspection by members of the public at all reasonable times subject to such reasonable fees (if any) as the local authority may determine.
The possibility arises that there could be considerable variation in the fees charged by local authorities.
Part II gives responsibility to the Secretary of State, rather than to local authorities. There we have the monolith of the Secretary of State, who will administer that part of the Bill, as opposed to the great patchwork or mosaic of local authorities to which responsibility is given in part I. That variation in the terms of the Bill itself suggests that one approach or the other may be the correct one, but almost certainly not both.
My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there could be a large variation in the sums that
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salvage operators might be charged for registering on their local authority register. Does he share my suspicion that a local authority may choose to set abnormally high fees as an alternative to planning, to try to drive some types of business out of its area? Alternatively, it may try to drive certain businesses out of the area for political reasons, to create higher unemployment.
I am happy to say that I do not think that that would be the case. Subsection (9) states:
subject to such reasonable fees (if any) as the local authority may determine.
That includes a double lock, as the implication is that fees may not be the norm. Our old friend "reasonable" comes to the rescue. What a wonderful English word it is; we should be proud of it. In English jurisprudence, history and culture the word "reasonable" has probably been one of the greatest barriers against the abuse of authority over the centuries. I regret that our continental friends have not yet learned to share it. In fact, I do not think that such a word--rather like fair play--exists in most of the languages of the European Union; I can therefore reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who asked a good question. I hope that he will accept that the inclusion of "reasonable" in clause 2(9) gives a degree of protection. However, I am worried about the basis on which the local authority will admit people to the register. Clause 3(3) refers to the fact that the local authority must be satisfied that someone is
a fit and proper person to carry on business.
Who on earth in a local authority is in a position to judge whether someone is fit and proper to carry on a business? I should have thought that that was almost a contradiction in terms. Local authority people may be excellent and skilled in drains, planning and all sorts of other things. Whether someone whom I would characterise, I hope not unkindly, as a bureaucrat can judge who is fit to carry out a proper business is another matter--I doubt it very much indeed.
It gets worse. Clause 3(4) states that, when judging people's suitability, the local authority shall "in particular" consider whether they have
been convicted of any offences.
That rather gives away the psychology behind the measure. The main criterion against which we are being urged to judge people's suitability for running a business seems to be whether they have form, which strikes me as an odd, simplistic and completely wrong approach. I hope that that matter will be looked at in Committee.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite apart from any other objections to the clause, the suggestion or inference that someone convicted of an offence might reasonably be decided to be an unsuitable person to operate a motor salvage business is inconsistent with the principle of the reform and resettlement of offenders, to which, I believed, the Government adhered?
That is yet another contradiction that becomes apparent the more that we start to look at the Bill. We shall come on to consider the length of time that it is proposed be made available for the Bill's Committee stage. The more that I listen to the debate, most of which I have heard, and the more I hear what my hon. Friends have to say, the more I realise that a long Committee stage
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will be needed to do justice to the Bill, which is very substantial. The more that we look at it, even in this broad tour d'horizon of Second Reading--I must try not to lapse into these ghastly foreign phrases--the worse it appears. The people who have the honour to be on the Committee will have a fascinating time.
Let me give another example. I am moving on swiftly, you will be happy to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, and making great progress through the Bill, as I am now at clause 5(6), which deals with representations. I am happy that that important right is in the Bill. Then, however, the Government spoil it. Every time they do something useful, positive and helpful, such as providing a right to make representations, they ruin the whole thing. Clause 5(6) states:
If the person concerned informs the local authority that he desires to make oral representations, the local authority shall give him--
this is the good news--
an opportunity of appearing before, and being heard by--
and this is the bad news--
a person appointed by the local authority.
As a citizen, I shall be expected to be happy and content that my rights are being well protected by the Government because I shall be heard by somebody who is appointed by the local authority. That is not good enough. The measure is that of a bureaucrat's bureaucrat, and I fear that the worst may happen.
My right hon. Friend disagreed with me just now on excessive charges, on the basis of the principle of reasonability. Does he believe that there could be large variations between councils in the people who are appointed to hear appeals and the judgments that they make?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal):
Order. We are now straying into considerable detail. I must again remind hon. Members that that is not permissible on Second Reading.
I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was about momentarily to argue against myself. This debate has been very one sided, and I am the only hon. Member who seems prepared to introduce another side. I take issue with a phrase that appears in clause 9(1), which deals with rights to enter and inspect premises. It states:
A constable may at any reasonable time enter and inspect premises . . .
That provision seems to undermine the idea of entry and inspection. I do not know how a reasonable time will be defined, but we will eventually be given a definition, as we must all understand what is reasonable. Will it mean office hours? Do salvage operators work office hours? They may work 24 hours a day, for all I know. What is a reasonable time? Furthermore, why should the time be reasonable? If constables are to inspect premises in which crimes are committed, I want them to enter at unreasonable times if that is effective. I am uneasy about the right of entry and inspection, but, if it is to be introduced, I would prefer constables to be given more freedom to enter at unreasonable times to identify the crimes that are allegedly being committed, rather than for their hands to be unreasonably tied.
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