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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 9 January 2001


[Mr. Jonathan Sayeed in the Chair]

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Clause 17

Register of registration plate suppliers

Amendment proposed, [this day]: No. 4, in page 9, line 35, leave out

    `and such fee (if any) as may be prescribed,'.—[Mr. Chidgey.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 5, in page 9, line 40, leave out

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

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): Good afternoon, Mr. Sayeed, I welcome you to the Committee as Chairman. I am sure that we will enjoy your chairmanship in the coming days.

We have had a full, interesting and helpful debate, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Sayeed. We had a good sitting this morning, and we are delighted that you are here.

We have discussed much of the substance of the clause. It makes it mandatory for the Secretary of State—which in practice means the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—to establish and maintain a register of registration plate suppliers. The clause allows for regulations to be made to set out the details to be held on the register. Those details could include the addresses of all premises from which registration plates are supplied. The Secretary of State is obliged to disclose information from the register to anyone who requests it, and may set a fee for such requests—we have clarified that it is only a ``may'' and not a ``must''—and the process must be established by regulation to be debated in the House. We have also stated that we expect large parts of the register to be available on the web, and therefore to be available free of charge to any citizen.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I also welcome you warmly to the chairmanship of the Committee, Mr. Sayeed.

The Minister rightly observed that, ordinarily, information would be provided on request, but in the light of subsection (6), will he advise us as to the circumstances in which it would be thought appropriate to withhold information from individuals? In other words, what would be the nature of the persons who would not be entitled to receive it? In paragraph (b), what might be the nature of the information that a person otherwise entitled to receive information would not be entitled to receive?

Mr. Clarke: I shall address that shortly when I come to the end of my remarks. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise that issue. We discussed those points when dealing with the amendments.

It is important to ensure that any business connected with number plate supply can determine whether a supplier is registered, as it will be an offence to trade with an unregistered supplier. A certified copy of the register, or an extract from it, will be conclusive evidence of a supplier's authenticity, and information may be disclosed to the police either in bulk or case by case. Access to the information will provide an audit trail, and will enable the police to trace and investigate suppliers that are believed to have supplied false plates.

I shall now deal with the intervention of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). We addressed the issue of the description of information that might not be supplied under subsection (6)(b) when debating the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Eastleigh and the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). We intend, when drafting the regulations, to discuss carefully with the industry whether everything in the register should be disclosed to everybody, or whether there are particular categories of information that it might not be appropriate to disclose. I emphasise the word ``might''. Such categories might include personal addresses or telephone numbers rather than addresses of businesses. There are many examples of such categories, but we have not come to a firm view, so we are including the provision that the Secretary of State may, after consultation with the industry, specify information that is not to be made public. Should the Secretary of State do so, it will be set out in regulation for the House to consider in whatever way it thinks appropriate.

Mr. Bercow: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: I will in a second.

On the descriptions of persons who are not entitled to be supplied with information under subsection (3), it is at the forefront of our minds that all such issues are associated with organised crime, and that supply of information might not be appropriate in that context. Again, we intend to consult on that. We shall also widely consult the industry and organisations represented in the vehicle crime reduction action team, such as insurers, the car industry and the police, on categories in subsections (6)(a) and (b) before laying regulations for debate by the House.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister might have given me a clue to the solution in his reference to debate. A moment ago, he referred to the details of the regulations to be considered by the House in such terms or by such means as it thinks fit. He went on to use the word ``debate''. The detail must require some reflection—it would have been provided by now if it did not—so will he confirm that there will be an opportunity for the House properly to debate the matters under the affirmative procedure, and that they will not simply be nodded through on the negative procedure, which admits of no debate?

Will the Minister also confirm, in the name of good regulation, that there will be a minimum consultation period of three months on the intended regulations, and a suitable period, possibly a similar one of three months, of notice of the requirement to implement those regulations?

Mr. Clarke: I reject the proposition that we have not provided the detail. That is factually incorrect.

Mr. Bercow: I am not complaining about that.

Mr. Clarke: I accept that; I withdraw my objection. We have gone about matters perfectly appropriately by setting out the legislation and procedure and then consulting in a reasonable way.

On every Bill with which I have dealt, there has been an entertaining set of exchanges about negative and affirmative procedure.

Mr. Bercow: I always raise it.

Mr. Clarke: That reduces some of the weight that his raising it on this occasion might otherwise have had. Frankly, the various regulations in the Bill have been intended for negative rather than affirmative procedure as a result of comparison with some of the issues that the House needs to consider. I dealt in the last Session with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill and the Terrorism Bill. The scale of the issues around the regulations is less significant and serious than some of those considered under affirmative procedure.

It is conventional for Oppositions of all parties to say that they want affirmative resolutions on everything, and conventional for Governments of all parties—including the Government whom the hon. Member for Buckingham supported, although not as a Member, before 1997—to go for negative procedure at all times. As a Government, we have been open on agreeing affirmative procedure on aspects of the Bills that I have dealt with for the Home Office. The question is one of a balance of judgment. In this case, the balance that we have struck is that negative procedures are right. I know that the hon. Gentleman will disagree with that—as he says, he disagrees every time the issue comes along, as he is entitled to do—but that is our approach.

I do not have details of the consultation periods, but the three-month period that the hon. Gentleman describes is reasonable, and we can talk about it. I will write to him further on the subject, if I may.

Mr. Bercow: I am reassured by the Minister. Several amendments were tabled to the clause. I made it clear when tabling them that I was not certain that the clause needed to be amended, but my hon. Friends and I wanted to test the water with some suggestions. In that context, I was relatively reassured by a good deal of what the Minister said, so I do not choose to press the amendments to a vote. It is not my intention to dissent from the proposition that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Chidgey: I shall add briefly to the comments made by the hon. Member for Buckingham.

I have been gratified by the Minister's openness in dealing with our amendments. We may not be entirely satisfied with the responses, but I appreciate his earnestness.

Mr. Clarke: I am in a position to say to the hon. Gentleman, following the earlier exchange, that the Cabinet Office guidance is that three months is the normal consultation period. We shall ensure that there is at least a three-month period, which will meet the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Mr. Chidgey: I am grateful for the Minister's intervention to clarify that point. On that note, I confirm that we do not wish to stand in the way of the progress of the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Applications for registration.

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 10, line 18, leave out `may be set with a view to recovering'

and insert

    `shall be set only in order to recover'.

The purport of the amendment will be readily evident to you, Mr. Sayeed, the Minister and other members of the Committee. Before I develop my argument, I want to say what a pleasure it is to welcome to the Committee the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), who is one of the more august Members of Parliament, and certainly one of the more enthusiastic debaters on the Floor of the House, and, invariably, in Committee. I am conscious that he had a sad reason for his absence this morning, for which we have respect and sympathy. I was especially grateful to him for his courtesy in telephoning to notify me yesterday. I said then that I looked forward to jousting with him in Committee, and I meant it. It is a pleasure to see him here this afternoon.

The thrust and kernel of our anxiety about the clause and amendment relate to the scope for over-burdensome charges. I imagine that all Labour Members on the Committee are spending each and every sitting doing nothing other than studying intently the Bill's proceedings. It should not be suggested that any hon. Member is indulging in other activity—reading letters, books or anything of that sort—because that would be out of order and not acceptable to you, Mr. Sayeed, and we must be wary of your strictures. Hon. Members will therefore be aware that subsection (2) states:

    The level of fees so prescribed may be set with a view to recovering the reasonable costs incurred by the Secretary of State in connection with the administration of this Part.

That leads immediately to two thoughts. First, there is the old objection and query in relation to the term ``reasonable''. What is reasonable? One person's reasonable conduct is another person's utterly unreasonable conduct. We know, because we are always peppered with that point—which I say while looking askance at my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who is a member of the profession—by lawyers. They are wont to patronise us—although I am sure that my hon. Friend would not do so—by saying, in a slightly imperious, and, occasionally, even sanctimonious tone, ``The term `reasonable' is well understood in the legal profession. The hon. Gentleman really ought to understand that this is known in law. There is potential for it to be justiciable. It can be adjudicated in a court, everybody understands what we are talking about, and therefore nobody would exceed what is reasonable.'' Of course, that does not remove the potential for disagreement about what constitutes reasonable conduct.

However, to illustrate precisely how reasonable my hon. Friends and I are being, which will not come as a surprise to you, Mr. Sayeed, but might cause eyebrows to be raised on the Government Benches, I say at the outset—as will be clear from the wording of the amendment—that cavilling at the use of the term ``reasonable'' is not our principal purpose in tabling it. We could argue the toss about what constituted reasonable conduct, and I would be interested to hear thoughts from Ministers about what they have in mind.

Those listening to our proceedings now who were not listening this morning would not have heard a nugget from the Minister, which they should therefore veritably treasure. If they had heard the Minister saying this morning that the Government were already thinking in terms of a sliding scale of charges, depending on whether the business was large or small, it is not unreasonable to consider that, when pontificating about the merits of such a scale, he may have given some thought to the various elements on it. It almost beggars belief that a keen, intelligent, forward-thinking and, indeed, mightily ambitious Minister like the hon. Gentleman would fail to have given any thought—


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