Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Chidgey: I should like to correct the Under-Secretary on a small point. He got himself into a bit of knot by saying first that someone is suspected of acting illegally and then that they are acting illegally. They should be assumed allegedly to be acting illegally until such time as the court decides.

Mr. Hill: I must state for the record the phrase ``allegedly illegally''.

The power to enter and inspect registered premises without a warrant is precedented in the famous Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, which gives that power to local authority officers as well as to constables.

Mr. Bercow: A seminal Act.

Mr. Hill: It is a very important Act, which also reflects the principle that a warrant is required as a safeguard to liberty in the case of unregistered premises that may prove to be not for trade but of a private nature.

Inspections on registered premises will not be primarily to unearth criminal activity on the part of the supplier, but to find information to assist with investigations. Inspections of unregistered suppliers will seek to discover whether they were supplying plates illegally—or allegedly illegally. Constables will not have to give notice, because that would be a burden on the police. Furthermore, if the police are trying to unearth criminal activity, a requirement to give notice would hinder their inquiries. They will visit at reasonable times, and if a business has up-to-date records, as it should, it will be easy to hand them over to a constable.

11 am

Miss McIntosh: I drew a parallel with the authority of the European Union Commissioners to allow premises to be entered without permission. However, that power is always subject to prior notice. Will the Under-Secretary put hon. Members' minds at rest by explaining why the Government do not intend to give prior notice—even if it is short notice? Would it not be better to co-operate with those who are suspected of perpetrating the crime, rather than going in on spec?

Mr. Hill: It seems entirely reasonable that no notice should be required for registered suppliers. As I have said already, they have signed up, as it were, to such inspections. However, I am confounded by the idea of giving notice to those who are suspected of carrying out illegal activities. That would surely offer them the opportunity to disguise their activities. If the hon. Lady wants to come back on that point, she is at liberty to do so. Returning to the issue of reasonable time, one would expect a supplier to be available during business hours. We do not want constables to wake law-abiding people at midnight to ask to see their records.

We had a series of exchanges about reasonable force. We expect that the police will enter outside reasonable hours only if a business has refused to give records to a constable or is unregistered. In those cases, the police must obtain a warrant and may use reasonable force. The hon. Member for Vale of York explained, in an especially cogent section of her speech, that the definition of reasonable force is found in common law: if a matter is brought before a court, it decides whether the force used was reasonable in the circumstances. It goes without saying that statute cannot easily specify reasonable force in all cases. There will, of course, be a power to use reasonable force, but only where there is a warrant; it will be impossible to use reasonable force without a warrant.

Let me deal with the right to enter without a warrant premises that are not registered as number plate suppliers. We take the view that to give that power to constables would be heavy-handed. A general search of premises to uncover evidence of involvement in the supply of number plates should be undertaken only with the authority of a justice of the peace.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh tabled amendment No. 9, which is intended to ensure that inspections of premises can take place only during normal business hours. The amendment is defective because it does not specify that the business hours are those of the business in question. However, the proposed change is unnecessary because a reasonable time would be when the premises were open.

Mr. Bercow: I entirely understand the Minister's thinking. He will know that I am not altogether satisfied with the amendment, but specifically on the over-arching issue of the differential treatment I beg to differ with him. Some of his points about reasonable force, which in any case are not subject to an amendment from the official Opposition, were more compelling. However, I have listened to the debate and my hon. Friends and I do not wish to press our amendment to the vote, although we may wish to return to these matters at a later stage. On the strength of those brief remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26

Notification requirements: Part II

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 14, line 8, leave out `28' and insert `14'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 10, in page 14, line 10, leave out `subsection (3)'.

No. 12, in page 14, line 11, leave out `28 days', and insert `42 days'.

No. 29, in page 14, line 11, leave out `28' and insert `14'.

No. 11, in page 14, line 15, leave out `, (2) or (3)' and insert `or (2)'.

Mr. Bercow: As the Committee will be aware and you will certainly have fully digested, Mr. Wells, clause 26 deals with the notification requirements of those who seek registration as registration plate suppliers. There seems to be some inconsistency in the clause. The Bill contains a requirement to register—that is, after all, the principle of the Bill—and a specific offence of trading as a registration plate supplier without being registered. The perpetrator of that offence is liable to a fine of up to £5,000. The central principle of our amendments is that, if we are to reflect the importance of registration and to penalise non-compliance, it is curious to treat lightly the provision of inadequate or out-of-date information. The unamended clause is in danger of doing that.

The clause deals specifically with changes to the details in the register. At present, any change must be notified within 28 days. I invite the Committee to consider whether that is right. Is it a proper time scale? Do Ministers concede that, as in other parts of the Bill where time periods are specified, there is necessarily an element of arbitrariness involved? I say that in no uncritical vein. We have to choose what seems to be a reasonable time, but there is nothing absolute or sacrosanct about one period rather than another.

My concern and that of my hon. Friends is that the Bill should be effective in achieving its purpose. I hope that we have provided sufficient evidence of our bona fides for the Minister to accept that my motives in this matter are good, as are those of my hon. Friends. I am concerned that the provision as it stands is too lax.

I see no good reason why a registered business that is obviously aware of its legal obligations cannot notify the central authority of relevant changes within 14 days. A period of 28 days seems to leave the system open to abuse. If the requirement were 14 rather than 28 days, the provision could be properly and reasonably applied. There may be extenuating or mitigating circumstances which prevent the provision of the amended information within that time scale. The principle of reasonableness is contained elsewhere in the Bill and Ministers regularly assert it when they are in any way criticised. If we are to be strong-minded about the provision that businesses should be required to notify the authority of any changes, we should ensure that there is a reasonable, but not excessive, period of time within which those changes should be notified.

If it is proper to apply a severe penalty for people who do not register—we suggest that the penalty should be up to £5,000—why should failure to notify the authority of changes to the information required on the register be subject to a lesser penalty? It is surely wrong that failure to keep the details up to date should be punishable by anything less than a maximum fine of £5,000. Having inaccurate details on the register is the equivalent of not being registered at all and should be dealt with as such.

This information is of significance not only to two parties. As several hon. Members have pointed out, it is of significance not only to the plate supplier providing the information and the central authority that processes and retains it, but to third parties who seek the information and who, as I understand it, would ordinarily be entitled to receive it. Unless they are in a category of persons who are not eligible to receive it, they will get the information.

It would be damaging for third parties to receive inaccurate and misleading information that caused them to make commercial errors and perhaps to incur financial loss. In those circumstances, the merit of the individual's being registered is not at all clear. People might almost be better off not knowing that the individual is registered than finding that material facts relating to the registration are incorrect. So, equivalence of treatment is the principle that should inform us and it is certainly the principle that lies behind the amendments. If it is right to make registration compulsory, and failure to register punishable, it is surely right to require people to register accurately and make failure to do that equally punishable. The punishment that my hon. Friends and I propose of a fine of up to £5,000 is precisely that. It is a maximum fine and, as the Minister explained in a different context earlier, it would be open to the courts to impose a lesser penalty if they wished.

Finally, I emphasise that it is odd that selling or supplying plates for illegal use is a lesser offence than failure to register as a business. It is the process of supplying plates that facilitates crime so, if anything, it should be treated more seriously than merely failing to register. We have proposed a notification period of 14 days to tighten up the regulations, while also raising the level of the fine from a maximum of £1,000 to a maximum of £5,000. That seems to me to be a reasonable proposition. I hope that the Minister will see some merit in it. I would be genuinely interested to hear other Committee members' comments and, above all, fascinated to learn the response of the Minister on the Treasury Bench.

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Prepared 11 January 2001