Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Hill rose—

5.15 pm

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the Under-Secretary, I remind hon. Members that during this sitting we must cover clauses 16 to 30, and at this rate, we shall not do so.

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn): On a point of order, Mr. Sayeed. We must conclude our consideration of clauses 16 to 30 by 11.25 am on Thursday.

The Chairman: I beg the Committee's pardon, but the point remains that at this rate of progress we shall not be able to have a full debate on all the clauses.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Mr. Sayeed. I should like to establish the basis for the decision that we must reach clause 30 by the conclusion of the third sitting. As the matter was debated at considerable length yesterday, and as I read the draft resolution, I am of course aware of the end date of 23 January and that we have been allotted only 23 hours' debate for consideration of all 45 clauses and any number of amendments submitted thereto. However, I was not aware that it was obligatory for us to conclude our consideration of clause 30 by the end of the third sitting.

The Chairman: It was a resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee that consideration of clauses 16 to 30 should be completed between the second and third sittings. If insufficient time remains for debate at the end of the third sitting, the Questions will still be put, but no debate will have ensued.

Mr. Hill: I am grateful for your elucidation, Mr. Sayeed, of that point. I take on board your rejoinders to proceed with all brevity, which is exactly what I intend to do. First, however, I associate myself with the general rejoicing at your presence in the Committee. I am delighted to be serving under your impartial, even-handed and enlightened chairmanship, which I hope will give me a fair wind for the rest of the Committee.

I should also like to express my unqualified gratitude to the hon. Members for Buckingham and for Vale of York for their warm welcome to me to the Committee and for their kind expressions of sympathy. When the hon. Member for Buckingham began his speech, and said that he looked forward to our future jousting, I responded with some zeal, which rather dissipated more than half an hour later, when he chose to sit down. I rather resented his suggestion that I had not appeared in The Guardian. As a former resident of my constituency, he will be keenly aware of the Streatham, Clapham and Dulwich Guardian. I am rarely absent from the pages of that august and excellent journal, which is so avidly read by my constituents.

Mr. Keith Simpson: They read the situations vacant column.

Mr. Hill: In response to the sedentary intervention of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, there are no vacancies in Streatham.

Mr. Bercow: Notwithstanding some rather pernicious and unfounded rumours to the contrary, will the Under-Secretary take it from me that the fact that I ceased to live in Streatham—not in anticipation of the Vehicles (Crime) Bill—in November 1993 was unrelated to the fact that 19 months previously he had been elected the constituency's representative?

Mr. Hill: I am most grateful for that reassurance. It was for me an unqualified pleasure to be able to represent the hon. Gentleman in Parliament. However, although it may sound a little churlish, I cannot say that it was an unqualified pleasure for me to be represented by the hon. Gentleman on Lambeth council.

The hon. Member for Buckingham asked for an insight into the Government's thinking about the level of fees. With your indulgence, Mr. Sayeed, I shall engage in a mini tour d'horizon on the matter. Although no detailed calculations have yet been made on the level of fees, it is not anticipated that the administrative costs will be onerous. A register with about 25,000 entries would be far simpler for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to administer than the vehicle register, which is its major responsibility and which has about 28 million entries.

The costs of registration may differ according to the size of the business. For example, a national chain store with multiple retail outlets will have a larger and more complex entry on the register than a small business operating from a single outlet. The registration fee may be varied, therefore, to reflect that: in practice the fee would be lower for small businesses. I will revert to that point in due course.

May I also scotch the canard which I hoped that we had managed to scotch in the Second Reading debate. I emphasise for the benefit of the hon. Member for Buckingham that this is not a tax; it is a fee to meet the reasonable costs of administration. There will be no surplus from the fee. In addition, it is a charge to business. Business has been consulted, and will be consulted further, about the level of fees.

I see that the hon. Member for Buckingham is eager to intervene, but let me turn briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. The setting of the fees will not be, as he suggested, at the whim of Government because it is a matter of consultation. It has been, and will continue to be a matter of consultation. I understand his concern about small businesses. He talked about garages in rural areas operating at the margin. I hope to be able to reassure him yet further about the level of fees in relation to businesses of that description.

Does the hon. Member for Buckingham wish to intervene? I want to deal with other points raised in the debate.

Mr. Bercow: In that case, I ought to come in now, if the Minister will forgive me. He has just said—I think that the verbatim report will confirm what I say—that there will be no surplus from the fee. The hon. Gentleman is intellectually formidable, so I am sure that he can anticipate what I am about to say. If that is so, and the intention is only to recover the administrative costs, why are the Government not prepared to insert that catch-all, all-encompassing, protective, what might be described as a legislative condom—the word ``only''. [Laughter.]

Mr. Hill: I certainly will not rise to that, but I am coming precisely to that point. The hon. Member for the beautiful Vale of York made two points.

Mr. Keith Simpson: The beautiful Member for the Vale of York.

Mr. Hill: Well, there you go. She talked about the economic impact assessment. I reiterate that the registration fee is a one-off. The other costs to which she alluded relate to the cost to businesses of the keeping of records and checks prior to a sale. I emphasise that those costs were discussed with and provided by business as part of the consultation process in preparation for the Bill and that the businesses consulted supported the provisions of the Bill. So we feel reasonably confident, about the likely costs of the measure.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of insurance companies. It is perfectly true that there is no guarantee that they will pass on savings accrued as a result of a reduction in vehicle crime. However, as she and I both know, and as the Committee knows, it is a very competitive industry which needs to keep charges to a minimum. We hope that those costs will not be passed on, but we are certainly not in a position—I am sure that the Opposition will agree—to legislate on such a matter.

I turn to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Buckingham. I shall resist it because it would not have the effect that the hon. Gentleman intends, which is to reduce the burden on businesses, especially small businesses. The effect of the amendment would be that the fee had to meet the administrative costs incurred—in other words, the fee could not be less than that. The clause provides that the fee cannot be more than the ``reasonable costs incurred'' in administration, but it could be less. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Eastleigh, even if it is a source of consternation to the hon. Member for Buckingham.

Mr. Chidgey: I agree with the Under-Secretary on both points, but in passing he raised an issue that I raised earlier. Although, with the best intent, the charges may be no more than the administration costs of the scheme, I have yet to see anything in the Bill that would control, monitor or audit those costs. Departments are not particularly adept at keeping costs down. Perhaps I have missed the point, but I would like to be reassured that the costs of the registration scheme on which the fees are to be based will be monitored to ensure that they are not excessive and are no higher than one would expect in normal commercial practice.

Mr. Hill: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the monitoring of departmental costs at every level of the public sector—and, for that matter, in the private sector. He knows that it is not normal practice to include such a provision in legislation. He knows also that innumerable agencies are in the business of bearing down on costs in the public sector, not least the National Audit Office. It is the Government's absolute commitment to ensure that the work of Government Departments, whose accounts are published annually, is carried out with the highest level of economy. I am sure that we shall continue to bear down strongly on that.

I might add that, in general, the fee will be set by regulation. I come back to the point that, because the level will be enshrined in regulation, it will not be possible for a Government Department to change it on a whim. I hope that the hon. Member for Eastleigh has been reassured by the general thrust of my observations.

Mr. Bercow: I remain convinced, even if, at least within the triumvirate, I am in a minority of one—it is the result of a typical majority alliance between Liberal and Labour Members—that my textual exegesis is correct and that of the Minister and the hon. Member for Eastleigh is not. The only scope for ambiguity—and therefore the only glimmer of hope that the cost might be lower than the cost incurred by the authority—is the rather ambiguous phrase ``with a view''. Inserting the word ``only'' is undoubtedly a protective mechanism; the inclusion of ``with a view'' seems suitably vague, particularly in the absence of the protection of the word ``only''.

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