Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Clause 21

Right to make representations: Part II

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 11, line 40, leave out

    ``a person appointed by the Secretary of State''

and insert ``an independent adjudicator''.

The amendment is intended to ensure that an individual registered plate supplier who is subject to the threat of deregistration and wishes to make representations about it can be heard by an independent person. We prefer the wording ``an independent adjudicator'' to

    ``a person appointed by the Secretary of State''.

I shall not develop the point at length, as what we are saying is obvious. My concern is that on the principle—precedents may be invoked either way—that no person should be judge in his own cause and also the principles that business people should receive equitable treatment and that proper regard should be paid to protecting the interests of the ``small guy'' and the ``small gal'' against the regulatory leviathan of the state, it is surely right that the person making the representations should have a fair hearing. I hope that the hon. Member for Eastleigh is attending closely, because I would value his thoughts on the subject. What worries me is that, if the person before whom the potentially deregistered supplier appears is chosen by the Secretary of State and, in a sense, is acting on his behalf, it is not entirely clear that the process is fair.

6.30 pm

I make the point honestly, but I shall not labour the argument because, in another context—I hope that you will allow me briefly to allude to it, Mr. Sayeed, because it is relevant—one could argue slightly differently. The Committee may have thought of parallels and of models of adjudication used by other Government Departments or their agencies. For example, we are all familiar with the Child Support Agency and the Benefits Agency and the fact that such matters as the over or under-payment of benefits or entitlements and the possible recovery of that money can be referred to another authority. In some cases, but not all, those authorities comprise individuals who are entrusted with responsibility by, and, in a sense, are acting on behalf of, the Secretary of State. I was recently involved in such a case but, although that authority was acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, I am pleased to say that it found for my constituent and against the Benefits Agency. That saved my constituent a considerable sum of money, which she and her husband could ill afford to lose.

The Minister may think that I am arguing against myself, but I am not. I am making the point that, although those who act on behalf of the Secretary of State can sometimes make a fair judgment, that may not necessarily be so. I am concerned that, especially in the early stages once the legislation has come into force, the volume of correspondence about such matters might not be remotely approximate to the volume that we habitually expect to receive in relation to cases involving the Child Support Agency or the Benefits Agency.

In those circumstances, it is possible that no representations will be made to Members of Parliament, that Members themselves may make no representations to the person appointed by the Secretary of State and that that person will side with the Secretary of State's initial judgment unless the threatened registered plate supplier can provide an overwhelming weight of evidence to the contrary. A case can therefore be made that it would be useful to appoint someone independent of, and separate from, the Secretary of State, who is capable of coming to a different conclusion. I simply put the thought forward. If the Minister knows of a good reason why that would not be appropriate, and if a compelling case can be made for the status quo, I shall no doubt be so advised.

I do not wish to be unduly suspicious, but as I speak another slip of paper is progressing from the top desk to the ministerial Bench. I may have a feverish imagination, but it occurs to me that it might not be entirely unrelated to my observations in support of the amendment.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would prefer Ministers to speak advised or not advised.

Mr. Bercow: I very much prefer Ministers to speak advised. I thought that I might regret saying that, and that the Minister was about to deflate me somewhat by saying that what was written on the paper was nothing to do with my observations but was simply an updated commentary on the cricket score or something similar. I am reassured to know that those who are paid to advise Ministers do not engage in such frivolities.

Mr. Keith Simpson: It says, ``You are on your own, guv.''

Mr. Bercow: Indeed, it may. If I am right, the Under-Secretary and the Minister of State are unlikely to be put in that position by their advisers. There are two reasons for that. First, I do not doubt for a minute that their advisers are of the most impeccable quality and the highest moral probity to be found anywhere in the British civil service. Secondly, that sort of situation would tend to apply only to a Minister who was habitually beastly to his advisers. As the Under-Secretary is a decent cove and as the Minister of State is not only a decent cove by an ambitious decent cove who is in business to make friends and influence people while he greases his way up the pole, they are unlikely to be anything other than scrupulously polite to, and generous in their dealings with, their officials. I look forward to an explanation.

The second concern that we have highlighted, in amendment No. 24—

The Chairman: Order. We are not debating that amendment yet.

Mr. Bercow: I apologise, Mr. Sayeed. I thought that we had reached that point.

The Chairman: Just amendment No. 22.

Mr. Miller: The hon. Gentleman is just making his usual speech.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is unwise to provoke me. He is making a grave error if he thinks that I have only one speech in my locker, rather than a panoply of different speeches, which I intend at different stages to unleash on behalf of the Opposition. I am grateful for your timely correction, Mr. Sayeed, and look forward to the Minister's response.

Mr. Chidgey: That was an entertaining interlude from the hon. Member for Buckingham. I think that it was the first time that I have ever known him be ahead of himself.

However, some important points have been raised, especially in regard to the question of independence in judging an appeal from a person who wants to restore his registration. One example comes to mind. In my experience as a constituency Member, I have known taxi operators to complain to me that they did not get a fair deal when they lost their licence, issued by the local authority. It was extremely difficult to assure them that they were receiving a fair and unbiased hearing from the appointed officer in charge of issuing hackney cab licences. That is not a unique experience. Therefore, I think that the Minister might be a little clearer about whom he believes that the Secretary of State should appoint. Clearly, there is some unease about that post being delegated to a local authority officer, who may not be especially skilled in those matters and may have other issues that are more important to him or her.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Buckingham uses the expression ``an independent adjudicator'', but I would have been happier if he had suggested an independent tribunal, as that is a process with which we are all familiar. An organisation outside the apparatus of the state may sit and hear appeals on a range of issues—

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Is not there a misapprehension here? Is not the process whereby the Secretary of State makes a decision whether to cancel a registration and, in doing so, allows the opportunity to make representations, an excellent measure and a model for future legislation? When a person makes representations, the Secretary of State appoints a person to hear them—the Secretary of State makes the decision. The hon. Member for Eastleigh mentioned independent tribunals and appeals; should he not examine the Bill, which provides for an appeal to the magistrate's court?

Mr. Charles Clarke: That is right.

Mr. Chidgey: The Minister may say that, but I am not convinced. Although lawyers can set such matters out in glib terms, we deal with real people, at the sharp end. I am conscious that, when my constituents are faced with such issues, they benefit greatly from the independence of the panels that sit and adjudicate on their particular problem. I am uneasy that the Bill does not specify clearly that there will be an independent source to which an appellant may go for redress. I am not convinced that the wording in the Bill would meet that requirement.

Mr. Hill: Let me make an observation on the issue of messages that may or may not wing their way towards Ministers. Although I wholly cleave to the principle of Ministers' responsibility and accountability for the decisions that they take and the measures that they recommend to the House, I have never been a supporter of the view that they should also demonstrate omniscience in all circumstances.

Mr. Keith Simpson: Very wise.

Mr. Hill: The hon. Gentleman says that that is wise, which is slightly unnecessary because I was going to say, of course, that I am living proof of Ministers' lack of omniscience. I therefore make no apology for the advice on which I operate. Indeed, I am most grateful for that advice, which has been extremely helpful on more than one occasion. In relation to the interventions of the hon. Members for Buckingham and for East Leigh—

Mr. Bercow: Eastleigh.

Mr. Hill: I apologise. I do not know how Hansard will record that confusion. However, if I have unwittingly mispronounced the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, I apologise to him and his constituents.

Mr. Bercow: I do not want the Minister to be embarrassed, because his error is comparatively minor. Is he aware, however, that the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce committed the unfortunate howler of referring to A Rundel and South Downs? Any civilised or half-civilised human being knows that the correct pronunciation is Arundel.

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