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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Some of us were not in the Committee. Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will give way, but first I will reply to the right hon. Gentleman's sedentary remark. During the debate on the programme motion, the hon. Member for Buckingham made the point that the purpose of the Report stage was to allow hon. Members who might not have been members of the Standing Committee, such as the right hon. Gentleman, to participate in the debate. Throughout the whole debate on Report, there was no participation from Conservative Members, apart from the

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Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen, who were in constant attendance and participated fully in the debate; the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who was a member of the Committee, and also participated fully in this debate; and an intervention from another Opposition Member. Although it is true that, in theory, hon. Members should be able to discuss the measure--I acknowledge that--in practice, no other Members wanted to discuss the issues.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister, who daily demonstrates his lack of parliamentary experience, but I suppose he will learn--if he is spared to spend a bit more time in this place. The reality is that Report gives an opportunity to those Members who are not on the Committee to participate, if they choose so to do. I suspect that one reason why so few Members chose to participate is that the Government are not allowing a proper opportunity for proper debates on Report. The Government cannot have it both ways--they cannot crush all debate and then complain that hon. Members do not turn up to participate.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making his points, which are pretty familiar to the House. As I said in the debate on the programme motion, the difficulty, which is reflected in the exchanges that occurred just before I spoke, involves those on the Conservative Front Bench ensuring that hon. Members, such as the right hon. Gentleman, can operate through the usual channels. That is one of the key issues in the House. The right hon. Gentleman also makes some offensive remarks, which he is entitled to do, but I have attended fully throughout all the debates--perhaps ad nauseam--and have dealt with the issues raised by my hon. Friends, if not all those raised by Opposition Members.

The final group of amendments contained several technical amendments and a point of substance on the affirmative procedure, on which the hon. Member for Buckingham might have divided the House, but, as he will acknowledge, that matter was debated fully in Committee. I make those points, which are perhaps not fully relevant to Third Reading, because I am aware of the arguments made by Members such as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and want to place on record my belief that the debates in Committee and on Report have been constructive and positive. The debates in Committee took place within the time constraints of the programme resolution and were finished in a way that allowed all hon. Members to make their points.

Mr. Bob Russell: Almost all.

Mr. Clarke: We addressed that matter earlier.

Although we did not debate certain amendments on Report, my assessment is that the various points represent a reprise of the debates in Committee. Notably, few Opposition Members participated, other than those on the Front Benches and the hon. Member for Lichfield, to whom I give due credit.

The Bill is necessary because the public are greatly concerned about vehicle crime. It is a serious matter, and the statistics speak for themselves. Some 350,000 vehicles

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are stolen annually, of which more than two fifths are not recovered. We are on target to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. over five years. It has already fallen by 20 per cent. since we took office. The Bill will help significantly to reduce it further and shows that partnership is a central precept of the Government's approach to reducing crime.

We established the vehicle crime reduction action team, whose membership included a broad cross-section of the vehicle industry, the police, motorists, local government and insurers. The team proposed a series of important recommendations, which the Government have sought to honour. One set of recommendations dealt with changes in the law, which is why we introduced the Bill. It is not simply a clever Government idea; it is the result of a considered and proper process--the model for developing such proposals.

The Bill will fill the gaps in the existing law. At present, stolen vehicles may find their way into a salvage trade that is quite unregulated, as may vehicles that are fraudulently reported to have been stolen. Criminals can all too easily get hold of false number plates to disguise such vehicles that come into their hands and others that they have stolen themselves.

Vehicles that have been written off may be repaired and put back on the road. They are not required to undergo any check as to their true identity. Some of those vehicles are of course stolen. Those problems are addressed in the Bill, which will cut the scope for profit from vehicle crime, so diminishing its appeal. As a result, we hope that there will be at least 39,000 fewer vehicle thefts and 6,000 fewer fraudulent insurance claims--so-called theft claims--each year.

The Bill will also extend the time limit for prosecuting the crime of unauthorised vehicle taking. It will assist the detection of uninsured driving, by giving the police the right of general access to the motor insurance database. It will make it possible for the money collected from fixed-penalty fines for speeding and jumping red lights to be directly applied to road safety in the ways that have been discussed.

Part I deals with the regulation of motor salvage dealers. More than 40 per cent. of stolen vehicles are not recovered. Criminals in the salvage industry can disguise stolen vehicles or break them up and sell them as parts. Vehicles may be reported stolen when they have been sold to the salvage trade. That is insurance fraud. Part I will require motor salvage operators to register with their local authority and to renew their registration at intervals.

Concern was expressed in Committee about whether applications to register could be made on a standard form. It would be possible to prescribe such a form in secondary legislation, and we acknowledge the suggestions that were made in Committee. We will consult local authorities and the industry fully on the regulations to be made, and standardisation will be discussed. The Committee also said that it might be necessary to have slightly different information-collecting methods for different types of business. It discussed that issue fully.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Buckingham and other Conservative Members suggested making it an offence to supply false information when applying to be registered. The House will have heard from the discussions on Report that we have taken that point on board. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that and I

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acknowledged publicly the role that he played in drawing our attention so clearly to this issue. The suggestion has become a helpful addition to our measures to regulate the salvage industry.

Part I also enables us to make sure that registered dealers keep proper records. The police will have powers to enter and inspect their premises without a warrant. That will make it difficult to dispose of stolen vehicles, and it will deter insurance fraud.

Part II regulates the supply and issue of number plates. Many people are surprised to discover that there are no controls over this trade, and vehicle thieves naturally take advantage of that. However, the consequences of the current lack of regulation are by no means confined to vehicle theft. Burglars and terrorists use false plates; others use them just to deceive speed cameras. Under part II, number plate suppliers will have to register with the DVLA.

Mr. Fabricant: The Minister has raised an important point, but how easy is it to forge a number plate? Although many in the House may recognise the importance of controlling the manufacturers of number plates, if the plates can be forged easily by someone in his own home, that will negate the whole effectiveness of part II.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman raised that point fully and positively in Committee. I reinforce the point that regulations can be made under the Bill to specify further information to be held on number plates. That will make it difficult to forge plates or to disguise the identity of a vehicle. There will be a link between the information on the number plate and the vehicle for which the plate is intended. The specific purpose of the provision is to enable the Government to specify, after wide consultation, the form of the number plate, so that it is clear that every number plate meets certain criteria. I accept that forgery can never be outlawed, but it will be made a great deal more difficult. The identification that results from that will enable us to deal with vehicle crime more effectively.

The Bill also provides powers to make suppliers keep records, which should deter the purchase of plates for criminal purposes. Record keeping will provide an audit trail for the police, who will be able to enter and inspect registered premises without a warrant. It will be an offence to provide plates or materials to an unregistered supplier or to sell counterfeit plates. The Committee persuaded us that it should also be an offence to supply false information to the DVLA in an application to register. We have introduced proposals to that effect.

Part III deals with vehicle licensing and registration. There will be a compulsory identity check before the issue of a new registration document for a vehicle that has previously been written off. That should help tackle illegal tampering. Part III also targets uninsured driving, which can be associated with dangerous driving and other illegal activity, but is all too often undetected. To deal with the problem, the motor insurance industry has proposed, and the Bill provides, that the police should have bulk access to insurance information. We expect this access to be available from 2003.

Clause 36 lengthens the time limit for prosecuting so-called joyriders. Those who take vehicles without authority cause immense distress and may even become

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involved in accidents. Joyriding sometimes leads to yet more serious crime. However, as the law stands, no charges may be brought for this offence more than six months after it was committed. We want the Crown Prosecution Service to be able to bring charges so as to signal that joyriding is not an offence that will be treated lightly.

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