Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman asked me to judge the skill with which he made his arguments, so I will give him marks out of 10—as I may do for every speech made during our proceedings. I give him nine out of 10 for being to the point; unfortunately, I can give him only one out of 10 for brevity. However, as we go on, we may be able to push that number up. I am sure that all members of the Committee will be keen to have an improvement in that respect.

Mr. Miller: We should have cards.

Mr. Clarke: I would not go as far as my hon. Friend suggests. However, as the hon. Member for Buckingham has invited it, I will respond in that tone.

Amendment No. 17 would impose a requirement on the registration authority to produce a standard form on which applicants would enter registration details. That is the way in which a Government Department would operate in any case. Subsection (2), to which the amendment refers, states:

    Each person's entry in the register shall contain such particulars as may be prescribed.

Clause 30, line 17, states that

    prescribed'' means prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.

Regulations will be drafted to establish and to set out the position clearly. That is what the Bill states.

We believe that it is necessary to have a standard form, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green that that standard form and those regulations must be considered. We will fully consult the industry, to reflect the trading patterns of different enterprises. The central information that we will seek from all organisations will be broadly similar, but we need to recognise, in the precise form in which we operate, that we are dealing with different types of institutions.

Mr. Bercow: I do not want to say this too early in the proceedings, but, frankly, my cup runneth over. I think that I have got the nearest that I am likely to get to an acknowledgement of the central validity of our concern. The Minister is keeping his options open, and he is right to do so, but will he confirm that we have a reasonable point? I am not simply bothered about having the approval of the Minister, rising star though he is—and it is not that I have a tender conscience or am terribly sensitive. However, I would like to have it on record that we are being legitimate and constructive in pursuing this point. Will the Minister return to it on Report in the form either of an amendment or of further and better particulars about the extent of the consultation?

Mr. Clarke: I am prepared to concede on amendment No. 17 that the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks—that the register should be based on the return of a standard form—is correct. However, the amendment is unnecessary for that purpose because it is already included within the process. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is right that there should be a standard or uniform approach across the industry, although I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green that it may vary according to the structure about which we are talking.

Amendment No. 18 is more substantial. It would make it mandatory to require documentary evidence to accompany applications for registration. It does not specify what that documentary evidence should be, or give the power to prescribe what the evidence should be by regulation. We are concerned by what would be meant and implied by the amendment. For example, what is acceptable documentary evidence of a business address is a non-trivial point, which is addressed by Departments right across the range. Does the amendment require a proprietor to submit his birth certificate through the post as proof of identity? Those are difficult questions and we believe that this would be burdensome for businesses. The hon. Member for Buckingham makes it clear that he does not want that to happen.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What scope does my hon. Friend see for the electronic handling of this process? What he is saying is relevant to that.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. I was about to address that point. The requirement to submit documentary evidence would complicate the development of a system of application in electronic form, which the Government are trying to introduce through their e-government programme in their dealings with individuals, institutions and organisations. It is much easier to transmit such basic data electronically than to send documents. We resist amendment No. 18 because we believe that it would be too burdensome on businesses and would not allow us the flexibility to update the way in which the Government approach such matters, for precisely the reason that my hon. Friend gave.

On the final point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham about accountability, the current intention is simply to accept the information provided by the organisations concerned. We are placing a legal obligation on all those who trade in number plates to give that information. Nobody can evade a legal obligation: it will be the law of the land. However, we believe that we should work on the assumption that people are providing that information with bona fides unless proved otherwise. We do not believe that we should establish a rigorous regime for checking each of those 27,000 suppliers, other than what emerges in the normal course of events through the activities of the police, trading standards and others who will make their observations. We are not in favour of establishing a separate weapon of government to address each of those 27,000 suppliers. The accountability for what is published will be with the DVLA, but, in turn, it will be for the individual organisation to supply the information required by law, in the system which is prescribed.

On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will be prepared to withdraw the amendment. I have tried to answer him as fully as possible.

Mr. Bercow: I thank the Minister. The tone and content of his remarks were constructive and, to a degree, reassuring. We shall need to learn more about exactly what the Government intend on the provision of information. I hope that the Minister does not cavil at my making that point. He himself says that discussions are taking place and further consultations will take place. Simultaneously, he accepted the thrust of the Opposition's point about the requirement for the information to be uniform between large and small businesses and nodded in the direction of his hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green, who had in fact suggested the opposite.

I am not suggesting that the Minister was facing both ways. The thrust of what he was saying was pretty well in accord with the Opposition's view, that the character of the information provided, if not its quantity, should be uniform between large and small companies. To some degree, I believe that he was accepting that his hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green had a valid point in extreme circumstances. He probably did not want to upset his hon. Friend, who is a rather vigorous supporter of his. However, we do need to know more: exactly what information is required; how many categories will be on the form; how much scope there will be for additional information to be provided, outwith the form or on additional pages; and so on. These are very detailed particulars, Mr. O'Brien, but in Committee it is incumbent on legislators to give due weight to the outcome of their good intentions.

As for the plate suppliers and other agencies, it is the modalities of the Bill with which they will be concerned in practice. They have not been privileged to witness the Minister speaking today or listened to other contributions. They have also not taken account of the proposed amendments. They know only that in the end there will be a format. Constituents of mine writing from Buckingham will not say to me that in the first sitting of the Standing Committee at column 34, for the sake of argument, The Minister said,'' or alternatively, You, Mr. Bercow, as my Member of Parliament, said.'' What they will know is that, if they wish to be in the business of registration plates supply, these are the rules that they will have to follow. So they will say subsequently, Ah, the form is too long,'' The form is too short,'' The questions on the form are insufficiently clear,'' or, As somebody who is not legally trained, I did not know that the meaning of that part of the form was as follows. I did not know that x, y or z information was what the legislation intended me to provide.''

I am sure that the Minister, who has been a Member of Parliament for longer than I have, will know that we often encounter that. I beg his pardon; he has not been a Member of Parliament for longer than I have. We came in together in 1997. He will know that in many areas of public policy our constituents have genuine concerns about filling in forms, with good reason. We are happy to require them to do so, with the best of intentions, but they are often anxious about the burden imposed. Just because someone is potentially a good business person, it does not mean that that individual is dexterous in filling in forms. We do need to be clear about what is required.

I think that I received some indication from the Minister about the level of responsibility. In essence, he seemed to suggest that the main responsibility for the veracity of the information provided lay with the person providing it. That is entirely reasonable. However, there was a sort of overarching constitutional responsibility for the DVLA to do its best to abide by its explicit duty of care. That is reasonably helpful, but the Minister will know that, in relation to other parts of the Bill not dissimilar to this in character, the Opposition have concerns. In particular, we are concerned that the seriousness of a false application should be properly reflected in the Bill. I will not animadvert further to that; if I were to do so, Mr. O'Brien, I might incur your displeasure as it relates to subsequent clauses. I would not want to do that because you have been an exceptionally tolerant, good-natured and, if I may say so, to date kindly Chairman of our—

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