Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Which Minister?

Mr. Bercow: I was referring to the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), although it would have been reasonable of me to have been referring to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill). However, the latter was not referred to in The Guardian yesterday as a future leader of the Labour party. The hon. Member for Norwich, South has been, and that could be the cause of internal tension or friction. I hope that it is not. [Interruption.] The Ministers shaking hands is not very reassuring. I recall the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his immediate predecessor not merely shaking hands in public, but kissing each other. However, that did not mean that they were not knifing each other mightily in the back behind the scenes. The fact that we have witnessed a public shaking of hands in front of your august chairmanship, Mr. Sayeed, is not revealing or inconclusive.

4.45 pm

Surely the Minister of State would have given some thought to such charges. If we are to be sure that the proposed fee levels will be reasonable, it is not unreasonable to ask him to insert in the Bill the catch-all safeguard constituted by the word ``only''. That might be the only point in this afternoon's consideration of the amendment. We want the clause to state:

    The level of fees shall be set only in order to recover the reasonable costs incurred by the Secretary of State in connection with the administration of this Part.

There is good reason to be concerned about such a point and to flag up the desirability, if not the necessity, of that all-encompassing protection that our amendment would confer. I say that, not least because I hope that I shall be in order in so doing, but because I have previously flagged up such worries about levies, charges and fees in Standing Committees, and on the Floor of the House in a ten-minute Bill on taxation and the right to know on 6 June last year, when I referred to the phenomenon of stealth taxes. In short, too much tax is taken from too many people who are told too little about it. That is a burgeoning phenomenon under this Administration.

I shall not burden the Committee with details because you, Mr. Sayeed, would not approve if I were to dilate on the subject, but we know that the typical family is paying an extra £670 a year in taxation under this Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer refuses to publish the figures that show the impact of direct and indirect taxes on the typical family and on households in other income deciles. We know that he was rightly excoriated in paragraphs 90 and 35 of the Treasury Committee report of April 2000 for his refusal to provide such information to the House on which proper judgments could be made about the fee-raising, charge-levying and tax-hiking policies of this Administration.

The problem that led us to table such an early amendment is that the Bill provides many opportunities—I put it no more strongly than that—for the Government to raise additional funds for the Treasury. That is only one of many areas in which we are dependent on and subject to the tender mercies of new Labour's aspirant Prime Minister, if I may so describe the Minister of State. I may be embarrassing him today by praising him repeatedly, but he deserves that accolade. He has done a lot of good work. He is a talented, highly important, extremely influential, greatly respected man, who has many commitments and a full diary. It is right that I should highlight his significance. He would not want to court extensive and growing unpopularity, either in Norwich, South—even if he feels that he is secure there, although we certainly would not accept that he is—or in the country at large. He has a wider initiative, which might be described as the Clarke game plan, and it would be unfortunate if anything got in the way of it.

The Minister has considerable political antennae, so he would not want deliberately to impose charges that would upset large numbers of small businesses. Most businesses in the sector are small, and some are micro businesses. However, although he is a powerful, assiduous and ambitious Minister, he is only a Home Office Minister. I say that in no discourteous or pejorative sense—but he is not a Treasury Minister.

Our concern is that, if there is a provision for charges to be levied, fees to be imposed and stealth taxes to be raised, and the Government get into a difficult situation, the Minister will as likely as not—in fact, it is as sure as the passage of the seasons—be approached by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He would not be approached by a mere junior Treasury Minister; only the most senior Minister could approach him. The Chancellor will say, ``'Ere, you remember clause 18 of that Vehicles (Crime) Bill? You did manage to hold the line and keep clause 18 as it stood, didn't you? I hope that you did not allow those beastly Conservatives, the hon. Members for Buckingham, for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for Vale of York to insist on the insertion of the amendment `shall be set only in order to recover'.''

The Minister may be able to say, ``No, Chancellor, I withstood the tide and held back the flood. I fobbed them off and told them that I fully intended to be reasonable. But of course that was a couple of years ago and the situation is different now—some people will have forgotten.'' Fortunately, however, not everyone will have forgotten, and verbatim accounts of the proceedings will be available, as they are not for yesterday afternoon's defective proceedings of the Programming Sub-Committee. I want the Minister to put on record an absolute commitment, as reflected in a willingness to accept our amendment, that the fees will be set only so as to recover reasonable costs.

On Second Reading, we expressed our desire that the Bill should tackle crime effectively but not be over-burdensome to businesses. I said on that occasion:

    There are real grievances about the Bill.

If memory serves me correctly, I said that in response to an uncharacteristically rude and abrupt sedentary intervention from the Under-Secretary. The Home Secretary's attention was momentarily distracted—he was engaged in a conversation—and I exhorted him to listen to the point that I was making. The Under-Secretary yelled out, in a most undignified manner, ``Why should he listen?'' I do not have the text of the debate in front of me, but if the Under-Secretary checks, he will find that that is correct. I replied that the Home Secretary should listen because

    There are real grievances about the Bill. There are anxieties about cost. There are concerns about over-regulation. There is a desire that it should achieve the purpose that has been established for it.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 50.]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Rather good.

Mr. Bercow: The Under-Secretary chunters ``rather good''. I can only assume that he is not making a self-reference, for no man should be judging his own cause, but generously and gratuitously volunteering praise for my instinctive response on that occasion. The Government's record is not good. Under Labour, the average family is paying out about £670 a year more in tax, as I said. Much of that rise comes in the form of stealth taxes. That is important. They are not taxes publicly stated, levied and defended by Ministers in the honourable traditions of this House. That is a source of anxiety.

The Confederation of British Industry, which Ministers are happy to pray in aid periodically when it suits them, has stated that businesses are paying an extra £5 billion a year in taxation under Labour. I am sorry to repeat the point, but I must refer to it again in the context of the amendments. We are concerned particularly about small businesses. I do not want to give the impression for a moment that I am insouciant about the costs and burdens imposed on larger companies—a good many of which, though by no means all, are represented by the CBI. I am not in any way relaxed about the burdens that they face. They are substantial engines of growth, productivity, export performance, wealth generation, and improvement of individual living standards. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the very big companies can often take care of themselves. If I may say so, Mr. Sayeed, this is not an occasion for you to declare any interest but you have considerable experience of large-scale business activity. Costs can be passed on and to some degree absorbed. We on the Opposition Benches are worried about the position of small companies.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, who is furiously scrutinising a document of uncertain provenance on the Bench in front of him, is wont from time to time in debate to claim that he is an authentic representative of the interests of small businesses, though on what authority he feels able to declare that I do not know. Perhaps he believes that they are represented in substantial numbers or impressive form in the Ellesmere Port and Neston division; I do not know. What I do know—and this is very significant—is that 99.6 per cent. of British businesses employ fewer than 100 people, that they account for approximately 57 per cent. of the private sector work force and that they generate about two fifths of national output. The interests and concerns of that sector of British commerce, therefore, are of the highest importance.

Moreover, small businesses are disproportionately represented. The Minister of State is not only a distinguished, ambitious and rising Minister but an extremely upmarket mathematician—with whom I could not possibly hope to compete—and he will tell me if I am wrong. I believe that small businesses are disproportionately represented in the would-be registration plate supplier sector and, for that matter, in the motor salvage operator sector. A large proportion of such companies are relatively small businesses. Some are already parts of trade associations and a great many are not. Many of them have in common the fact that they are rather small companies, so we are concerned about their interests.

The Bill and the clause should be dedicated to the overarching and honourable goal of tackling crime. The Government cannot be trusted with the clause as it stands—unless we receive an explicit reassurance from the Minister. We require clarification, reassurance, an undertaking that is not just an early promise but an unshakable commitment.

I make the distinction because we in opposition know the difference between an early promise or pledge and an unshakable commitment. An early pledge is one made early, which will therefore soon be forgotten and may be readily ditched. An unshakable commitment, even in the parlance of new Labour, constitutes a commitment from which one cannot escape. We are seeking to ensure that the costs—[Interruption.] There is chuntering from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). If he would like to intervene, I am ready to give way to him. Does he wish to contribute? He does not. He is holding forth but only in private. We look forward to his contribution later.

We seek to ensure that the costs will be used only to cover the necessary administration expenses of the scheme. ``Reasonable costs'' is suitably vague: it requires to be explained and tightened. I hope that the Minister will oblige us in that regard. Above all, I emphasise that what matters is reassuring not Opposition Members but the sector. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the overriding goal to cut crime, deter the criminal, help to apprehend those who commit offences and cover the reasonable costs that are incurred in establishing the scheme. Will he please be sure to avoid errors of omission or commission, the effect of which would be to damage legitimate operators, undermine an important sector and threaten to reduce employment in it?

These are sensible proposals. The Minister suggested earlier that one of our proposals might have the unintended—but undesirable—consequence of increasing the burden on business. I cavilled at that, and still do. I hope that the Minister will accept that the desire for specificity and the charge to be limited to that necessary to recover, but not exceed, costs is the clearest indication that the Conservative party is the friend of business.

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