Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Miller: Always.

Mr. Bercow: To date, I said. The hon. Gentleman observes from a sedentary position, Always.'' Far be it from me to suggest that the order of the brown nose'' should be presented to the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that he is veering in that direction. I am grateful to the Minister—[Interruption.] No, I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for what he said.

I do not intend to the press the amendments at this stage. I said at the start—unlike some people, I do not change my mind between the start of a speech and the end of it—that we were not certain that the Bill needed to be amended. I am still not sure that this clause does not need to be amended, but, equally, I am not certain that it does. As I am a warm-hearted and generous fellow, I am prepared to give the Minister the benefit of the doubt. Let us see how the debate progresses.

I am glad to put it on record that, if there are further discussions, and consultation with business, I and my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of York, Mid-Norfolk and for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant—

Mr. Clarke: Who has not turned up.

Mr. Bercow: We would appreciate it if the Minister would advise us in detail—where possible, in writing—of the progress that is made, even while the Committee is sitting.

The Minister courteously referred to the absence of the Under-Secretary, his hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, who is attending a private family funeral, as the hon. Gentleman kindly told me on the telephone yesterday. I commiserated with him, and we look forward to his presence at subsequent sittings. I have just referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who is assiduous in attending the Chamber and in the performance of his duties in the Committee. I am sure that the Minister did not intend to be flippant, but when I mentioned my hon. Friend, he said, from a sedentary position, Who has not turned up.'' I should explain that there is a good reason why my hon. Friend is not here, although he intends—and hopes—to attend subsequent sittings. He has suffered a considerable misfortune during the Christmas recess, and it is not a light or trifling matter.

12.45 pm

Miss McIntosh: A severe misfortune would appear to have befallen my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham may want to disclose.

Mr. Bercow: I do. Unfortunately, while in the far east, my hon. Friend was bitten. I feel sure that it was not a lethal bite—and I hope that it was not serious—but it prevents him from attending the proceedings today. I am a great friend of his and I was genuinely saddened to be told that he would not be here. I believe that I speak for all members of the Committee in commiserating with him; as they can see, I am crying about it.

Miss McIntosh: While my hon. Friend composes himself, that is the second misfortune that has befallen our hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. He also had the misfortune of having part of his house severely damaged in a recent fire.

Mr. Bercow: I was not aware of that. The situation seems to have become progressively serious, and I am sorry. To have one's property invaded is a serious matter. Part of the purpose of the Bill is to prevent people's property not only from being invaded but from being stolen. It is alarming that my hon. Friend suffered damage to his property, but the fact—[Interruption.] This is a serious matter; ill health and injury are serious matters. The fact that my hon. Friend was bitten in the far east is of considerable concern. I hope that the bite was not severe; I do not know the details. I genuinely regard my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield as one of the most industrious, committed and conscientious Members of the House of Commons and of this Committee. We are sorry that he is not here. [Interruption.]

It is no good the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford inquiring from a sedentary position about the exact nature of the bite or where it was inflicted; I am not in a position to advise him. Suffice it to say that my hon. Friend is an outstanding Member of the House of Commons and a superb member of the Committee. We greatly regret his absence and eagerly look forward to his presence.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Chidgey: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. Having risen, I realise that I cannot feel my feet. If I could see the thermometer on the wall from this distance, I suspect that we should be in breach of the Factories Act 1971 and the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. May I suggest that, when we meet later, when it will be colder, something should be done about the heating or the Room?

The Chairman: Can a note be taken of that? Otherwise other members of the Committee will be absent from the proceedings.

Mr. Chidgey: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 9, line 35, leave out

    `and such fee (if any) as may be prescribed,'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 5, in page 9, line 40, leave out

    `and such fee (if any) as may be prescribed,'.

Mr. Chidgey: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, for your speedy attention to my good health. I would not want to be frostbitten.

The amendments, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, draw attention to the singular lack of detail about how much the fee would be and to whom it would be payable. I am reluctant that the Bill should include such wording. It would be an open cheque book, allowing the establishment to charge the taxpayer for services provided by the state—allowing Departments to charge whatever they saw fit.

The aim of the legislation is clearly to reduce vehicle crime, but I believe that the Bill should also help members of the public to take action to reduce crime. In essence, we should encourage people to seek out information on registration plates so that they can assure themselves that plates are not illegal or stolen, not borrowed or changed. Charging an unspecified fee for gaining information about number plate suppliers will put the public off taking such action.

Mr. Miller: Initially, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was on to a good point. However, I came to the conclusion that he was wrong, because I presume that the Government will do as they have done in many other areas and put the register on the internet. It would then be available throughout the country, with no inconvenience and at no cost. My public library can access the internet freely, and more people now have access to the internet at home. If I am right, the hon. Gentleman ought to concede the argument for a fee being charged for hard copy, which would presumably be needed for record purposes by businesses rather than by private individuals.

Mr. Chidgey: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Ready access to that information on the internet would be welcomed. It would obviously assist the many members of the public who have access to the internet, whose numbers grow daily. I concur with the hon. Gentleman's view. However, he suggests that only businesses would require hard copies of that information. I am not sure that he is correct—perhaps the Minister will enlighten us. Proving that one's car is properly registered is a complex business; if one is buying a second-hand car—it depends on the circumstances of the sale—one may need to make sure that one has the proper registration records. That would apply not only to businesses but to individuals. I seek clarification of that.

I have already said we do not know what the fee will be. I place on record that it should be no greater than the cost of producing the information, and that it should not be left in the hands of the establishment. Some monitoring and checking of the cost is essential. Although it would be easy for the DVLA or anyone else to decide that it could be done for a particular sum of money, that is hardly efficient or cost effective. Some control is needed.

Most important, however, is that the Bill does not make clear who would have to pay the fee. I have already said that I envisage worries being expressed by members of the public, but will the police in the exercise of their duties and responsibilities to reduce vehicle crime under the Bill be charged for access to the register?

Mr. Bercow: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, apart from the fact that charging the police or other public agencies for access to the information would be burdensome, it would be absurd? It would mean that one part of an agency of the state was charging another part of the state—and that would be transparently ridiculous.

Mr. Chidgey: That is precisely the point.

Mr. McCabe: Has the hon. Member for Buckingham never heard of the internal market? [Interruption.]

Mr. Chidgey: I have just heard the hon. Member for Buckingham say from a sedentary position, New Labour, new internal market.'' He pointed out the ridiculousness of internal charging between Departments. I am worried that such action may also be masking the actual cost of the regulations, a point that may have come to mind if the hon. Gentleman had thought a little longer about the matter. The explanatory notes give information about costs, but those costs will clearly be offset by the money that is collected by charging a fee for such a process—a matter that is lost in the overall analysis.

The purpose of my amendments is to probe the Minister on certain issues. First, does he agree that we do not want to discourage the public from taking proper, sensible and mature action to help in the process of reducing vehicle crime by charging them unnecessary and exorbitant fees that are uncontrolled, unlimited and unaudited? Secondly and most importantly, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is not expected that the police will be charged in the pursuance of their duties to reduce vehicle crime under the Bill? Will he also confirm that the clause may well have been instigated by the DVLA because clearly it would want to make the register self-supporting? I can understand that. It would be the wish of any department if it were able to do so. However, I am reluctant to allow such measures to go forward in a way that is unfettered, uncontrolled and basically unfair.

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