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Mr. Charles Clarke: It would be helpful to the House if the hon. Gentleman set out the legislative changes that he would recommend to deal with thefts from vehicles. Our overall strategy deals with thefts from vehicles, but the Bill deals with one aspect of that strategy. What are the hon. Gentleman's proposals for legislative change?
Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman tempts me into a potentially lengthy lecture on the subject. If I embarked upon it, he would be the first to complain. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position.
I sense that you are getting itchy, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is an undesirable prospect for you, as well as for hon. Members who think that you may be about to pounce upon them, if I may put it that way. I shall not dilate further, as you would not want me to do so. I was led astray by the Minister of State and I must not pursue the point, although I must say that it is unwise of the hon. Gentleman to make interventions that invite further and legitimate criticism of other aspects of Home Office penal and sentencing policy.
Mr. Brady: Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that one of this Government's characteristics is their tendency to announce policies or to take legislative measures when they believe that the results will be achieved regardless of their actions? May they not have decided that vehicle theft will decrease because of technological improvements, not least in the security devices built into cars? May they not have concluded that results would accrue on theft of vehicles without their intervention? On the other hand, they have no meaningful policy to address the problem of thefts from vehicles.
Mr. Clarke: With all respect, I point out that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) was confusing thefts from vehicles with thefts of vehicles. Technology makes a difference with regard to both sorts of crime. With regard to thefts from vehicles, the most important changes have occurred in vehicle security, in respect of which we are encouraging manufacturers and have introduced various other changes. As the hon. Gentleman said, those changes will reduce vehicle crime as the motor fleet becomes larger.
Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister, who has clarified his position in so far as he judged it necessary to do so. I shall not get into a debate about prepositions at this stage, not least because a number of my hon. Friends want to contribute.
Suffice it to say that the Opposition are anxious about a serious issue that relates to the integrity--or otherwise--of the Bill. That issue is, of course, the use of the proceeds of fines to finance a widespread roll-out of speed cameras throughout the country. An interesting exchange about that subject occurred earlier between the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, who has sadly departed the Chamber. Knowingly or otherwise--a term that I use advisedly--the latter seemed to be pressurising the Minister. He asked him to confirm that all fine proceeds must be used for road safety measures, as doing otherwise would be defying the will of the House.
Rather too quickly, and with too great an enthusiasm, the Under-Secretary rushed to agree. I then challenged him to confirm that it was Government policy to ring-fence. I sought a commitment that there would be an exact equivalence between the money raised and the money spent. I did not ask for a commitment in respect of every year, but for the five-year term of a Parliament, although I acknowledged that it would last for only four years if the Government cut and run. I demanded an assurance that all the proceeds of the fines would be spent on road safety measures alone.
That was when the Under-Secretary's usual self-confidence and unfailing fluency collapsed and he started to use a combination of the obfuscatory and the coy. He was obfuscatory as he sought to get away from the issue, and coy in the charming manner with which we are now familiar. In effect, he said "Oh, I am but a junior Minister and it is not a matter for me. Hon. Members cannot expect me, as a mere junior Minister, to commit to what might happen in future, although I can speak in general terms about what we want to do."
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend observes that things will occur in due course. Indeed, it was on that point that the Under-Secretary's previously silky advocacy became nothing more than a celebration of motherhood and apple pie. That issue has not been properly considered. My hon. Friends and I do not intend to divide the House on Third Reading. I have already been subjected to verbal flagellation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who is disappointed and strongly opposes the Bill and who believes that we should take a more oppositional line.
However, I am fair minded, and prepared even now to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. Given the Bill's risible consideration in Committee, the other place will want to scrutinise the provisions in great detail. There is therefore at least an argument for keeping an open mind.
Speed cameras and the Government's integrity or lack of it on that subject are important. Their attitude to local authorities' responsibility for disposing of abandoned vehicles shows them indulging in an orgy of complacency--a complacency displayed not least by Back-Bench Labour Members.
Let us consider inspection of premises, which the Bill covers. I am a right-wing libertarian, sometimes known as a Conservative libertarian. I am alarmed by the constant arrogation of powers to the state. I do not like the fact that so many officers of the state, public agencies and
The Government's position is that warrants neither should nor should not be required. They have an extraordinary attitude, which is neurotic, difficult to justify in theory and impossible to substantiate in practice. Under the Bill, registered motor salvage operators or registration plates suppliers have somehow signed up to a more rigorous regime, and are able to have their premises entered by a police constable or other authorised person without a warrant. Those who are not registered and are suspected of unlawful or perhaps even criminal activity can have their premises entered and inspected only if the constable or other representative of authority has first acquired a warrant. The registered person therefore gets a worse deal than the unregistered person.
That is the logic of new Labour in 2001. No amount of vacuous half-hearted attempts at explanation by the two highbrow characters who represent the Government on the Treasury Bench could alleviate our anxieties about the provisions on inspection of premises.
The Government's performance on the specifications for registration plates was even more pitiful. Many of us are worried that the current drafting of clause 33, especially proposed new section 27A(1)(a) and (b), could allow for the mandatory display of a European Union flag on the registration plate of a car. We debated that matter at reasonable length in Committee. I enjoyed the exchange with the Under-Secretary, my former constituent when I was a Lambeth borough councillor. However, the same technique was employed as on previous clauses.
The Under-Secretary tried to brush our argument aside; he dismissed it with a good deal of rhetorical tomfoolery. However, when I challenged him to guarantee that the British Government would oppose any proposal to require the display of the EU flag, he retreated into obfuscation and coyness. He said that I was paranoid and that I was getting too excited. He then used the modesty defence, claiming to be only a humble servant, a mere Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, a son of toil who could not question the judgment of the Secretary of State, still less that of the Prime Minister.
The Under-Secretary also had the brass neck to say that I could not commit the Conservative party to opposing such a proposal. The hon. Gentleman then conjured up an absurd scenario in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was suddenly the leader of the Conservative party. I said that, although I did not anticipate such a scenario, it was conceivable that if such a scenario arose, my right hon. and learned Friend might--though I doubt it--be so unwise as to agree to such a proposal. I also made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that no such proposal would be advanced with my support from the Conservative Front Bench, from which I would immediately feel it necessary to depart in such circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman argued that any fees to be levied would cover only administration costs. However, when we tabled amendments that would tie the Government down more precisely, so that no stealth taxes could be levied, the hon. Gentleman resisted them. He engaged in the merest casuistry to try to justify his position and argued that the wording in the Government's existing, unamended clause was preferable to ours. I therefore asked the hon. Gentleman to confirm that the charges levied would never be greater than the level of the administration costs, at which point we had the normal retreat into obfuscation and coyness. I received no answer, no satisfaction and no reassurance. That was not good enough.