Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend explain how that might work? I understand that such a system might act as a deterrent to the commission of offences, but it is not clear how it would prevent a crime that was about to be committed.

The Chairman: Before the hon. Lady continues, I ask her to note that we are discussing registration. The point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham will be relevant in a later debate.

Miss McIntosh: It is specifically with reference to registration plates that I should like to pursue my hon. Friend's point. The new driving licence has a bar code at the back, which can provide electronically several details about the holder, such as medical conditions, blood group and so on. I suspect that my parents' vehicle passed through a port and was illegally exported and I want to know whether a device could be attached to a registration plate, to be picked up on entry to a port.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I am following the hon. Lady's argument with interest and have some sympathy with it. However, I do not understand how what she is describing would help in tracing vehicles that were stolen and taken out of the country, and whose number plates were, in the process, removed and replaced with a false plate. Would not that result in tracking the original number plate to a disused warehouse, while the vehicle was in a container headed elsewhere?

The Chairman: Order. I hope that we shall not continue to debate the question of taking cars out of the country. We are supposed to be debating the registration of those who make the plates.

Miss McIntosh: I want to make it plain to those who make the plates—I envisage Government support, because I imagine that the process would be expensive—that if it is now possible to pay a Dartford tunnel toll by means of an electronic gadget, the same mechanism can surely be attached to a registration plate, for a one-off cost at the time of manufacture.

The Bill provides an opportunity to reduce vehicle crime. All Committee members want that. The Bill creates, according to the explanatory notes,

    three new offences; that of selling plates which purport to be registration plates but are not, of knowingly supplying plates to a person who is in the business of selling fake registration plates, and of knowingly supplying components or plates to an unregistered person.

I am interested in the creation of a fourth offence, or in the provision of help in policing the three offences that the Bill creates, by means of a bar code that could be electronically read, for example on entry to or exit from a port. All of us will know of people—in my case, my parents—who have had vehicles stolen in circumstances such as I have mentioned. Theft of agricultural 4x4 vehicles which are not licensed for use on roads and are used only on farms is a growth industry in the north of England.

Mr. Bercow: Of course, the intention of clause 16 is to reduce crime, and it may or may not, through the establishment of a register overseen by an authority, be successful. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must be careful not to raise unduly expectations? The Government talk about the three offences, but there is no obvious evidence that the passage of clause 16 will assist in determining whether someone has knowingly done business with someone who is engaged in illegal activity. I said on Second Reading that the objective established by Ministers was sensible, but that it was deuced difficult to see how it could be translated into practice. It is well nigh impossible to see how that would be done by clause 16.

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Miss McIntosh: That is precisely the point that I am amateurishly trying to make. We need to tighten clause 16 to such an extent that we can link the perpetrator of the illegal activity with the illegal good, which could be a stolen number plate. I am particularly concerned with what happens when the registration plate is parted from the stolen vehicle to which it belongs. An electronic bar code on that registration plate would assist the Government in making the Bill work.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I am not sure whether what the hon. Lady is suggesting would work, although I have a great deal of sympathy with it. Further down the line we shall need to consider the possibility of everyone having a personal number plate, as they do in France, where documentary evidence is required of purchase of that plate. When someone has a new car he takes his plate with him. If the car belonging to the hon. Lady's parents was being shipped abroad, as she has described, the number plate would need to be checked and documentary evidence of purchase would need to be shown. That would deal with the matter, and also with the problem of abandoned cars, to which I referred on Second Reading.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, although it is slightly different from the one that I am making. I am trying to assist the Government in a positive way by pointing out that for the Bill, including clause 16, to succeed some device is necessary whereby even if the registration plate is removed from the rightful vehicle and the vehicle is removed from the rightful owner, it can be traced. At the moment forged documents would enable the vehicle to enter a port and be put into a container for shipment to who knows where, but normally a war zone, where it would be sold as a second-hand vehicle.

Paragraph 13 of the explanatory notes states:

    At present there is no control over the supply of plates and suppliers are not required before supplying a set of plates to check the identity of purchasers or their entitlement to use plates containing particular registration marks.

Clause 16 as drafted would allow a stolen vehicle to be fitted with a set of rogue plates. Fitting an electronic device such as the one that I have described would clearly show that the plates were rogue plates and did not belong to that vehicle.

Mr. Bercow: Can my hon. Friend develop further her point about the extent to which someone who is a legitimate trader can be aware of whether he or she is supplying a plate to someone engaged in criminal activity? It is not clear to me how clause 16 is conducive to the achievement of that objective.

Miss McIntosh: In that regard, my hon. Friend and I are at one. We agree that although clause 16 sets out an admirable objective, it falls short of the means of achieving it. If the Government and the Minister were minded to consider the electronic device, that would help a legitimate trader to know that he might be dealing with the wrong type of—

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): The hon. Lady wants there to be a provision for some kind of additional identification mark on future plates. Is that not in clause 33 as it stands? She wants the sellers of plates to check the identity of the people to whom they sell. Is that not in clause 24 already? Do not the provisions of the Bill as it stands already meet her concerns?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for attempting to assist me, but the other clauses do not go far enough. I am trying to make this a constructive and positive contribution: I recognise the Government's objectives in clause 16, but if we could just tweak it and add a little more detail as I suggested, that would be helpful.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am aware of the good intentions, as well as the extensive knowledge, of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on this subject, but may I suggest to my hon. Friend that, in terms of achieving the objectives set out in clause 16, clause 24 is nothing like what it is cracked up to be by the hon. Gentleman? Is my hon. Friend aware, specifically, that clause 24 is one of those clauses that contains the scope for what amounts to legislation by regulation and it is, therefore, gloriously unspecific? It does not greatly help our proceedings this morning.

The Chairman: Would the hon. Lady note that we are not discussing clause 24?

Miss McIntosh: I will hold back my comments, if I may, Mr. O'Brien, until we reach clause 24, but I am in total agreement with the point that my hon. Friend made. The Government are clearly cognisant of the fact that criminals frequently use stolen vehicles to carry out criminal activities, and use false plates to avoid detection. Perhaps the Government could support some kind of barcode or electronic device that could be inserted in the make-up of the registration plate. That has been done with driving licences, so why can it not be done with registration plates? That would have the benefit of hugely constraining potential terrorists, armed robbers' use of getaway cars and burglars' use of vehicles for transporting stolen goods.

I welcome the creation of three new offences, but I wish to register my regret that clause 16 does not go far enough, and I ask the Minister to amend it.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): May I say, Mr O'Brien, how delighted I am to serve under your chairmanship in this Committee? Your reputation has gone before you and it is an honour to be under your strictures. I remember your earlier remarks about sticking to the point, so I will try not to stray too far from this interesting aspect of the Bill. The most important aspect of the regulation of the registration of suppliers is that the police and the authorities need a robust and effective audit trail so that they can trace stolen goods and, eventually stolen parts of vehicles, in order to tackle professional vehicle crime.

However, even if the Bill in its entirety were wholly successful, we would still be tackling only a very small proportion of vehicle crime, which includes not only the theft of vehicles but theft from vehicles. We have a great deal to learn from the experience of other developed countries, and from the way in which they have tackled the manufacture and issue of registration plates. I am slightly concerned that it is not clear how, under the Bill—and in particular clause 16—the Government propose to establish a system as robust and auditable as those that have been shown to succeed elsewhere.

Another point that is not clear to us is whether the Government intend to standardise the manufacture of number plates in materials that are less prone to breaking at the slightest shunt. On Second Reading, I raised a query about the fact that, of the 7 million number plates issued every year, only 4 million were for new cars or trade-ins. An awful lot of number plates seem to have been replaced because they were apparently damaged in minor accidents. I hope that the Government will reflect on that when they deal with the relevant regulations and the standardisation of registration plates. The number of outlets at which number plates can be obtained is another issue that needs to be thought about, but perhaps that, too, is for a later stage in our deliberations.

A potentially serious point has come to my attention on clause 16. The Bill relates to England and Wales. Many hon. Members will know that there is a brisk trade in second-hand vehicles, particularly from Northern Ireland and Scotland. For example, it is unfortunately a common practice among coach operators to purchase second-hand vehicles from Northern Ireland and to transfer the plates to a vehicle in this country, because Northern Ireland registration practices give no clue to the age of the vehicle. Coach safety regulations have become tighter and a passenger can tell the age of an English coach and be circumspect about travelling on it. We shall have to consider similar legislation for registration plate suppliers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, not only to avoid the continuation of that practice but to encompass all the usual problems involving stolen vehicles, including terrorist activity, that we have discussed and are the major thrust of the Bill.

Subsection (2) could be improved to specify more precisely who should be registered. For example, some major manufacturers both make and sell plates but also manufacture them for small outlets or subsidiaries. Perhaps the clause should be amended to make it clear that it relates to those who partly manufacture or sell registration plates, rather than wholly doing so.

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