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Mr. Forth: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend is right to make that point, which should be further considered in Committee. Later in my remarks, I should like to refer to a peculiar element of the Bill; I notify the House that I think that it is contained in clause 39(6). The point that I shall make is not unadjacent to that made by my hon. Friend, as, bizarrely, that provision relates to the electronic transmission of some rather important documents. In spite of my hon. Friend's excellent question, I shall not go into any detail on the matter, although I should point out that when such a measure is being considered, hon. Members must be careful of its viability, security and integrity as a process, if we are to make it of any value whatever.
Many questions arise in respect of technology. For example, where would the copies be made? Is it assumed that they will be made on the premises, or will they be removed? If they are to be removed, how much security will there be and for how long will they be kept away from the premises? All those questions will arise when we consider the Bill in detail.
I shall move very swiftly on because I do not want to delay proceedings. I am conscious of the passage of time and know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is itching to get stuck into his summary of the Bill, but I want to comment on one or two other items. I have already reached clause 28(1)--what a leap, Madam Deputy Speaker--although I have passed over a lot of material that I had wanted to cover. It is another loose provision that does no justice to the Minister or, dare I say it, to the draftsmen. It deals with the offence of supplying vehicle registration plates to unregistered persons and who would be guilty of an offence, referring to a person who
I draw the attention of the House to clause 32. Should we vote for the Bill's Second Reading, I hope that the Committee will also pay it close attention. Although I had wanted to go into detail, I shall not do so, even though the measure represents the high point of bureaucratic absurdity. It starts innocently enough--such things ever do--by referring to vehicle identity checks and applies to regulations
I regret to say that many of my hon. Friends have said all through the debate that the Bill is rather a good idea. Well, I am sorry, but I ask them to read clause 32 before they vote and hope that they will think again. I do not know how long those on the Front Benches want for their winding-up speeches. I am looking at the clock; I am aware of the passage of time. The Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire look pretty relaxed to me. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend has just indicated with his inimitable body language--his body certainly exudes language--that he is anxious to get on with his summing up.
I shall not keep my hon. Friend waiting much longer, nor will I detain the House on the subject of flags as we have heard a lot about them tonight. All I will say is that I hope that the Minister will favour hon. Members with
I believe the Government owe it to the House, and to those outside, to tell us the direction in which they will take us, because people attach great importance to the issue. We recently encountered controversy about the flying of the European Union flag outside Departments of State, and I have reason to believe that the Government may have thought better of that.
The Government must tell us what they intend with regard to either mandatory or optional display of European Union symbols on British car registration plates, and/or prohibition of the use of the Union flag--or, indeed, the flags of member countries of the Union--on registration plates. If the Government have nothing to be ashamed of, let the Minister tell us in clear language what they are going to do and why. We shall then be able to use that in deciding whether to support the Bill, either tonight or on Third Reading.
I cannot share the enthusiasm displayed by others. Of course, I have had only a short time in which to talk about the Bill: I have been able only to skip over it superficially. That falls far short of my normal standards, but I want to leave as much time as possible for my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. Because I am sure he has much to say, and because I know that regrettably we must finish at 10 pm, I shall end my speech. However, I hope that, both at this stage and subsequently, my hon. Friends will not regard the Bill as an unalloyed benefit that does not contain problems, difficulties and disadvantages.
It is possible that, if we are not ultimately satisfied by the answers given to my hon. Friends and me, we shall have to think very carefully about whether to support the Bill; but with a bit of luck the general election will intervene, and we shall hear no more of it for some time.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has done me a great courtesy in sitting down. It is clear from the way he spoke that he could have said a good deal more about the Bill.
We have had a good debate. Not only my right hon. Friend but my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)--all of them speaking from the Back Benches--demonstrated what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made obvious from the Front Bench: the fact that the Bill raises a host of issues. They are important issues; difficult issues; perhaps not the sort of issues that would lead to a Division on Second Reading, but none the less the sort of issues that will require full scrutiny, and--as my right hon. Friend said--which will take up considerable time in Committee.
All who spoke acknowledged the seriousness with which we should all take vehicle crime, which is the largest single category of recorded crime in England and Wales. As the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) pointed out, it represents 28 per cent. of all crime. There were nearly 1.5 million offences in the last year, and 375,000 thefts of vehicles--1,000 a day, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) pointed out.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole illustrated so graphically, car crime causes great distress to its victims. The problem is not just the damage to property, but the damage to a prized item--a means of transport, which is important to many people's quality of life. Cars are obviously important to all of us, but one of the cruellest aspects of these offences is that they are usually perpetrated on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. The vehicles are often elderly, but necessary for their owners to go to work and lead their lives.
We are talking about a serious offence, or set of offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield summed it up when he described the feelings people have when they see that their vehicles have been damaged or stolen, or that items have been taken from them.
The background and the history of vehicle crime have been well documented and detailed in the debate. It is right to give credit to the previous Government. Of course I would say that, having been a junior Minister in it, but even the Under-Secretary of State might be prepared to because, between 1993 and 1997, there was a substantial fall in vehicle crime: it went down by 27 per cent. The combination of the introduction of closed circuit television, the rise in the number of police constables under the Conservatives, and a series of measures such as the code of practice concentrating on dealing with security of vehicles led to the start of that fall.
The Home Secretary is right to say that the target to cut vehicle crime by 30 per cent. by 2004 is challenging. It is challenging because the rate of improvement--the diminishment in the number of offences--is declining. In 1998-99, there was a fall in vehicle crime of 2.2 per cent., but last year, the decrease was just 0.5 per cent. The trend is not a happy one. I can see why the Government wish to take measures to improve the position.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was correct to say that there was a balance to be struck in regulating. Part I requires the registration of all motor salvage operators on pain of criminal conviction. It would allow local authorities to control the membership of the register by cancellation and registration, allow the Secretary of State to specify records to be kept, require notifications of destructions, and allow a power of entry for the registered, although a warrant would still be needed for the unregistered; but we are right to look at the balance and to see how those measures would affect businesses.
If one reads the consultation responses and the Government's documents in relation to the Bill, one of the things that is worrying is that it is not even clear how many businesses will be affected. The Government say between 2,000 and 2,500, but the Federation of Small Businesses is clear: it says 7,500.
The British Vehicle Salvage Federation and the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain suggest that 2,500 to 3,000 companies employing 20,000 to 30,000 people may be involved, but as the House of Commons Library says, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many companies will be affected. I notice that, between them, the two trade organisations represent about 325 of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 companies involved. There is no way of knowing how they have made those estimates. The trade organisations cover quite a small proportion of the total number of operators.
Can the Under-Secretary of State help us a bit on that? Is not one of the major problems with assessing the size of the industry the fact that many vehicle and car repairers will undertake a small amount of salvage work when it presents itself? Their main business is car repair, but if there is an opportunity to salvage parts, they will.
We could do with an assurance from the Under-Secretary of State--the point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield--that the registration provisions will be supported by an effective enforcement regime. In answer to the consultation, the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain felt strongly that the targets for fewer vehicle thefts could be achieved only if enforcement was effective. Does the Minister agree that, if registration is not fully enforced, there is a risk that some small operators will comply but that others will not, putting the responsible operators at a competitive disadvantage?
The Government have so far said that enforcement will be by the police, that the costs, which they estimate, thanks to the Association of Chief Police Officers, at £110,000, will be absorbed and that enforcement will form part of routine investigations. As the Home Secretary knows, £110,000 is not much money when it comes to providing police officers to undertake duties--it is about four police officers fully engaged for a year. Is the Minister seriously saying that, if there are 2,500, 3,000 or even 7,500 businesses, four police officers fully engaged for one year will be adequate to police the registration scheme and inspections? It seems to me that that is not a lot of money to conduct such an exercise. If regulation is not effective, some people--honest, genuine motor vehicle salvage operators--will lose out.
Opposition Members take Government pledges on action in such matters with a pinch of salt. The fact is that we need police officers if we are to enforce regulations. We know that the Government's record on police numbers is deplorable. Police numbers are down by 3,000, and there are 5,000 fewer special constables. In this debate, we have also heard quoted the Police Federation chairman's remarks on the crisis among police officers.
Just today, I received a reply from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), telling me that, since 1997, just in London, in addition to the police stations that have been closed, 27 police stations have reduced their hours. When police numbers are stretched, will it be possible for police simply to absorb the costs of enforcing the regulations? Will there be a great headline proclaiming "Government take action on vehicle crime", but very little action? I ask the Minister to tell us what work will be done for £110,000. How many police hours and visits will that provide? What enforcement will that sum make possible? It is not at all clear to the Opposition that that sum is adequate.