Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Clause 20

Cancellation of registration by the Secretary of State

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 10, line 41, leave out `28' and insert `60'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 21, in page 10, line 41, at end insert

    `without good cause or reason'.

Mr. Bercow: There are a number of other amendments to this clause and I hope that it is in order for me to speak to some of them. Our concern here is that the clause allows the Secretary of State to remove people from the register where he judges that they have ceased to operate as registration plate suppliers. On Second Reading, I expressed some concern about the clause. On the basis of some preliminary work in the undergrowth, I said:

    I am intrigued . . . as to why 28 days was chosen. I . . . understand that the figure was a brainwave of those in his Department who advise him—

I refer rather regularly to that benighted group of individuals, who will doubtless be duly embarrassed by now—

    though it was plucked arbitrarily from the air and there is no particular reason for specifying 28 days.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 47.]

That appears accurate, as there is no good reason why 28 days is the best period. In preparing for Second Reading and talking to a number of people, I simply could not work out why that time period was chosen. Obviously it is roughly equivalent to a month and it is four weeks; those two things are not quite the same but are not very different. However, I could not see any good reason for choosing 28 days, and the Government did not provide an explanation on Second Reading.

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I think that I am right in saying—I do not have the Minister's words in front of me, but I feel sure that he will have—that the Minister conceded that the figure of 28 days had not been set in concrete and that there was no absolute justification for it. I think that I am also right in saying that there is no particular precedent for the choice of 28 days.

A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are concerned that a registration plate supplier could cease to practise his trade or profession for a period because of entirely legitimate reasons. That should not result in his or her de-registration. For example, someone might go away for a period of weeks on family, business or other duties that required his or her temporary absence from the United Kingdom, possibly at short notice and without the opportunity to notify the DVLA of the intended absence. The individual might go away for a period of days and close the business for that period, without knowing exactly how long he or she would be absent. In those circumstances, potentially to be subject to what might be described as commercial defenestration seems a punitive consequence. A number of my colleagues and I are unhappy about that.

I was looking to Ministers to say why they chose what they chose and whether they would consider choosing something else instead. I have suggested the figure of 60 days simply because, if there were uncertainty about someone's motivation for being absent and doubt about why he or she was not practising, a two-month period would allow at least the potential for inquiries to be made. It would allow the individual who has entirely innocently ceased to trade, for urgent reasons that perhaps cannot be reported or explained to the authorities in 28 days, the scope to make those reasons apparent.

I got the impression from Ministers that their minds were not entirely closed on the subject. I said that someone might cease to trade because of personal circumstances or family considerations. I was worried because the Minister stated on Second Reading with, I think, uncharacteristic hubris—which I hope that he will be inclined to revisit—that

    only a genuine cessation of trade will result in de-registration. The operator will not be removed from the register without notice; he will be notified prior to any de-registration and will thus have the opportunity to make representations if he has not ceased trading.—[Official Report, 18 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 114.]

If I am permitted to say so—I intend to do so unless I am subject to your strictures, Mr. Sayeed—that does not answer the core point. It would be perfectly reasonable for a legitimate business man to be unable to trade or even to appeal—I emphasise this important point—against de-registration in 28 days.

In those circumstances, it is surely right that there is some protection, which is why we propose lengthening the initial period from 28 to 60 days. That would, I hope, preclude many legitimate businesses from facing the de-registration process in the first place. We also want to include the caveat of

    without good cause or reason.

That is to say, people should not be de-registered simply for failing to trade for 28 days, without good cause or reason. That protective device would catch people in circumstances such as I described—urgent family or personal business that necessitates the sudden closure of the business for an uncertain duration.

An analogy might be more meaningful. We must always be conscious of the fact that we are proposing, albeit perhaps justifiably, a rather specific and almost exceptional system for this type of business relative to others. I believe that the hon. Member for Eastleigh touched on that point earlier. He said that the vast majority of businesses, although they must comply with health and safety legislation and all other aspects of the law, are not subject to a specific registration procedure.

For example, no registration procedure applies to fruiterers, although they are important business people. There may be a good reason for that. Most fruiterers are not a vehicle—if that is not an unfortunate and unintended pun—for the commission of criminal offences. That is why they are treated rather differently and why a registration procedure, or a Fruiterers (Crime Reduction) Bill, is unnecessary, whereas a good case can be made for this Bill. Nevertheless, the example is analogous in a sense, and I hope that it will commend itself to those members of the Committee who regularly walk the high street or attend their village stores.

Fruiteries, grocery stores or corner shops—micro-businesses, with which, Mr. Sayeed, you will be familiar from your own Mid-Bedfordshire constituency, many of whose villages, I imagine, contain exemplary cases of such stores—might from time to time stop trading. They are family businesses, and circumstances may arise that cause those who run them to down tools and accept a loss of business because they must go away. That could happen to a registered plate supplier, and it is surely right that we should build in maximum protection for those who stop trading with good cause or reason that might take the authorities some time to establish.

We also propose to alter the de-registration process. The Secretary of State should not be allowed to assume that the business would never again be included on the register. The de-registration process should also include sufficient information about being added to the register once more. The register should be an enabling rather than a disabling device, and we should take great care not to de-register people in a short time without giving them an adequate opportunity to show why de-registration is not justified.

I hope that I have, in accordance with the Minister's earlier strictures, explained in fairly short order the main purport of the amendments. We want to protect legitimate businesses and give them an opportunity to explain that their temporary cessation of trade is for entirely lawful, and possibly even noble, reasons, so that they are not penalised. I hope that, in rightly trying to ensure that the Bill is tough on crime and tough on the likely commissioners of crime, Ministers will ensure that the Bill is not also tough on those who have not a criminal bone in their bodies. I look forward to the Under-Secretary's response and to hon. Members' comments.

Mr. Chidgey: Members of the Committee may have noticed that I tabled amendments that were not selected, calling for the clause and the following relevant clauses to be deleted. I did so because I felt that we needed an explanation of why it should be necessary for a company trading in the supply of plates to be deregistered if it ceases to trade. I am at a loss to understand how this exercise is different from any other commercial enterprise, as we have discussed at some length. The question of the length of time after which it is deemed that a company or organisation has ceased trading is one that has also exercised me. I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham when he asks on what basis we decide on 28 days: that it is just plucked out of the air and all the problems arise from the shortness of that period.

I have received advice from the European branch of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, which has looked at this issue in some detail and has advised the Government and Committees on how this legislation should proceed. One of its members has suggested, for example, that a period of six months would be more appropriate for determining whether a supplier has ceased to trade.

The key issue is that there must be innumerable small companies that trade sporadically in the supply of registration plates. We have already discussed the characteristics of rural communities and small garages. It is quite likely that, in many cases, the plates are supplied at irregular intervals. It does not seem reasonable to me that if a garage happens not to sell a plate for 28 days it should be deregistered. That does not seem to be in the spirit of what we are trying to achieve. I would suggest to the Minister, therefore, that due consideration be given to the characteristics of the trade when trying to determine the period after which a trader is deemed to have ceased to trade and his registration should be cancelled.

Perhaps the most important point is to determine what are we trying to achieve by this registration and deregistration process. Surely the key issue is the audit trail by which the authorities can check that the registration plates are being legally supplied and that they are not being used to allow stolen vehicles to go back into the motor fleet. In that case, surely the most important thing is not to specify a short period after which someone is deemed to have ceased trading but to require that the records be made available to the DVLA after trading has ceased. The police and other authorities would then continue to have access to records of transactions and could determine whether illegal and criminal activities had taken place.

I may have missed it in the Bill, but I do not see anything there to tell me that that audit trail linking registration plates to vehicle transactions is there, is robust and is effective. It is vital to have a robust audit trail to reduce vehicle crime.

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