Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Is the hon. Gentleman assuming that, in all circumstances, the inspections are to discover whether the registered person is doing something illegal? I ask that because for many years I knew the police officer whose job it was under the scrap metal merchants' registered scheme—

Mr. Bercow: 1964?

Mr. Kidney: Indeed, 1964. His job was to inspect the records, not to see whether an operator was behaving criminally, but to find out whether the records of transactions raised suspicions in the police mind that other people were operating illegally. So it was of assistance to the police when carrying out their general duties, and scrap metal merchants were willing to assist them.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who makes a fair point. It might well be that a constable, or other authorised person, would wish to enter and inspect for that purpose. I am certainly prepared to accept that the focus of suspicion would not be necessarily and invariably on the registered—or unregistered—plate supplier. Nevertheless, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept from me that in the United Kingdom there is a natural respect for—and occasionally even fear of—authority. That is part of the law-abiding, perhaps even God-fearing, instinct of large numbers of people in our country. Unless an individual had advance notice of not only the intended visit but the rationale behind it, he could well be worried. Of course, he would then be relieved when the police constable or other authorised person told him that the purpose of the inquiry related to possible illegal or criminal activity by others, not by himself. However, he would experience some anxiety in the run-up to the visit.

I do not think that the constable or other authorised person will be required to give notice of the intended visit, although I would like the Minister to clarify that, and I hope that such notice is, in fact, required. I am pretty sure, however—here I stick my neck out—that even if the constable or other authorised person is expected or required to give notice of the intended visit, he is not required or expected to explain its purpose. I would not want legitimate business people to worry about the reason for such a visit; there should be a requirement in the clause for a constable or other authorised person to obtain a warrant, and it would be a matter of good order to give some idea of the visit's purpose, too.

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I anticipate that the Minister will say that what I suggest is a bad idea because giving someone who is engaged in improper or criminal activity advance notice of the entry and inspection might give him time to conceal evidence. That is an arguable point, but there is something to be said for at least providing advance notice. We will not dilate upon the matter at this point, Mr. Wells, because that would incur your disfavour, but there is something to be said, too, for the argument made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh in amendment No. 9.

I welcome some clarification from the Minister, hoping that he will recognise from the way in which I developed the argument that it is a matter of legitimate concern. My hon. Friends and I would be greatly obliged if he could assuage my concern and prove that my libertarian instincts should not be in any way offended by the clause as it stands.

Mr. Chidgey: The final comments made by the hon. Member for Buckingham come close to the heart of the matter. I have discussed the issue with members of the police force who have dealt with the criminal activity in this part of the motor trade for many years. They told me that too often, when trying to inspect records or premises, they have been told, ``We are closed for the weekend—can you come back on Monday?'' Of course, over the weekend, all the suspect records mysteriously disappear.

We have something of a dichotomy here. The clause states that a police officer ``may at any reasonable time'' request permission to see records. By using that phrasing, the Minister may presume that a police officer can, within that time frame, expect access and entry to the premises. That should remove the opportunity for the villain—after all, we are dealing with villains here—to remove or doctor the records. However, the clause limits the time frame for the police officer by specifying ``any reasonable time''. I do not know whether the Minister can follow my argument. In giving the police more freedom, we have limited the time in which they can exercise it. That may not work well in practice.

To return to the salient point—the aim of the Bill is to enable police officers to establish an audit trail of registration plates and to follow, as part of a criminal inquiry, what happens to a vehicle and its registration plates. We must try to find a way of overcoming the blocks, deviations and hurdles that villains put in the way of police officers trying to exercise their duties. My amendment is intended to tease that out, as I am not sure that the way in which the clause is phrased will achieve that aim. The clause gives police officers powers to demand the right of access, but it stipulates that they can do so only at a reasonable time. As we have debated previously, reasonable means ``reasonable under the circumstances'', which could lead to yet another debate.

Mr. Bercow: As I said, I see much merit in the hon. Gentleman's amendment. I was wrong to suggest that I could not dilate on it at this point, as it is grouped with amendments Nos. 26 and 27. I was, uncharacteristically, applying a self-denying ordinance that I did not need to apply. I suggest that the feature of the clause that allows the use of reasonable force becomes especially important in the event that entry is secured outside normal working hours, as it is reasonable to suppose that no one from the company would be present. Therefore, door-forcing, for example, might be necessary.

Mr. Chidgey: That is a good point. I say that without hesitation as the hon. Gentleman brings me on to my final point, for which I thank him.

It is likely that criminal activities on the premises would take place outside of normal business hours. That is another Catch-22 situation. I am far from sure that the clause enables police officers to establish an audit trail in relation to what is happening, and therefore to discover whether criminal activities are taking place.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am grateful for this opportunity to make a couple of general points. I preface my remarks by saying how delighted I am, Mr. Wells, to serve under your unexpected but most welcome chairmanship.

The Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front-Benchers have spoken eloquently to the three amendments. I want to make one or two general points relating to clause 25, and the thrust of the Government's thinking on the matter. If the Government are determined to make the Bill succeed, they will have to allocate more constables to the duties contained in it. That is the source of my grave concern. I represent a rural area, and I am unable to say at this moment whether faulty registration and rogue registration are currently a problem there. However, following my meeting with the chief constable tomorrow, I expect to be much better briefed on the matter for the Committee's sittings next week.

North Yorkshire has the highest incidence of road traffic accidents in the country. It is a source of alarm to my constituents in the Vale of York and residents elsewhere in North Yorkshire that newspaper reports have suggested that the number of traffic police will be reduced in view of the current shortfall in police officers. At the end of last year, we were short of 43 constables. That figure is rising, which was confirmed, I believe, in Prime Minister's questions yesterday.

We are already facing a crisis in policing in rural areas such as North Yorkshire. Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm or deny those newspaper reports? Will he assure the Committee that road traffic police officers will not be taken away from their important duties, and that they will not be given new duties under the Bill?

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Does the hon. Lady agree that that is a matter for chief constables? It is an operational matter, and not one for my hon. Friend the Minister or the Home Secretary.

Miss McIntosh: The hon. Gentleman is wilfully missing the thrust of my remarks and misinterpreting them. My point is that chief constables are given a precept each year and in North Yorkshire we are woefully short of our quota.

Mr. Bercow: The observation made by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) was unworthy of a man of his calibre.

One might clarify the issue by using the analogy of a professional cake provider who knows that a certain number of slices of cake will be divided between a set number of people. If he subsequently discovers that there will be many more consumers or eaters than expected, is it not absurd to describe the situation as unchanged and to say, ``Oh, well. That is the cake and they will just have to argue about how to divvy it up''? If a new category of offences is to be created, with a new requirement for the police to investigate them, it is absurd to argue that the number of police available to do the work is immaterial. That argument is so preposterous that it should not be advanced even by a Back-Bench Labour Member.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, whose remarks show that one cannot have one's cake and eat it.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I should make a couple of important points. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford was entirely and importantly constitutionally correct in his remarks, and I am grateful to him for making the point. He benefits from the fact that the chief constable of Kent, who is one of the most outstanding in the country, has paid great attention to vehicle crime. My hon. Friend is very aware of and familiar with the issues, which we have discussed outside the Committee.

A critical point is that whatever happens, the operational responsibility of chief constables is paramount. Politicians, police authorities and local councils cannot and should not challenge that operational autonomy in the allocation of resources. However, I assure the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that there is no guidance from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers or other organisations to suggest that resources should be shifted from road traffic policing to other policing responsibilities. There is no such guidance or doctrine.

Government initiatives, in particular on speeding, with pilot schemes for speed cameras, have achieved significant results. Some staffing pressures have been relieved in the seven or eight authorities where the pilot schemes are taking place, and the approach will be spread across the country. However, that is not a matter of general guidance. It is, of course, open to the hon. Lady to make general points about police numbers and resources, but her point about the shift of resources from road traffic policing to other policing is a matter for the chief constable of her county. No doubt she will talk to him about it tomorrow.

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