Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: What the hon. Gentleman has told the Committee is helpful and definitely influences my thinking. However, it also provokes another thought which is that, on the face of it, it seems slightly curious that for the time being the Government intend that the inspectorate alone should conduct checks and that, therefore, until any change in the arrangement is made, there will effectively be a monopoly. Will the Under-Secretary confirm that, subject to any policy change whereby others would be invited to tender, there has been no market test or tender?

Mr. Hill: There certainly has been no market test or tender, but for all the reasons that I gave, which were based on the soundings that we took in preparation for this Bill, we consider this to be the appropriate step. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has total confidence in the integrity and propriety of the vehicle inspectorate which, as he well knows, is an agency of Government established by the previous Administration. That is why it is impractical to move to the immediate implementation of these measures.

The amendment is unnecessary because the Secretary of State will exercise his discretion to ensure that appropriate regulations are made at the appropriate time. Part of the reason why we have not yet carried out a market test is that we feel that it would not be possible to charge less than the vehicle inspectorate's £20 to £25. Of course, the inspectorate makes no profit. Having drawn that to the hon. Gentleman's attention, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Bercow: On the strength of what the Under-Secretary has said, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33

Imposition of requirements concerning registration plates

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 18, leave out lines 22 and 23 and insert

    `relating to their size, shape and material of manufacture only.'

The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 56, in clause 33, page 18, line 26, leave out from `marks' to end of line 27 and insert `as may be necessary to link the registration plate to the vehicle for which it is intended'. New clause 5 -Provisions relating to regional symbols - (27A)(1) The Secretary of State shall prescribe no specifications that require a registration plate to contain or display any flag or symbol of the European Union. (2) Notwithstanding subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for any registration plate to contain or display a flag specified by the owner of the relevant vehicle.''.'. Mr. Bercow: You correctly indicated to the Committee, Mr. Wells, the content and, by implication, the purpose of the amendments. I shall deal with amendment No. 56 first and then move, in chronological sequence, to my other points.

My concern is about the relevance of clause 33 to section 27 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. I focus on what I think that I would describe as the offending words ``or otherwise''. I have a preference—it might seem fastidious, or even pedantic—for specificity in legislation rather than for generality. I am against the high-falutin' declaration or the inclusion of vague wording that potentially admits of a number of interpretations, to which those invited to give their support might not subscribe if they knew what those interpretations would subsequently be. I do not know what ``or otherwise'' means. The point was raised on Second Reading, and the Minister may recall that I spoke on the subject in exchanges with other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—I was going to call him the bitten Member, but my hon. Friend did not suffer that misfortune until later.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Unbitten.

Mr. Bercow: As the Minister correctly observes, he was then the unbitten Member for Lichfield.

My hon. Friend and I referred to this part of the Bill on Second Reading. The Minister gave what might be described as a buoyant and spirited response to the debate, and he commented on many of the points raised by Opposition Members, but the ``or otherwise'' point was not at the forefront of his mind. I do not attack the Minister for that; he was more concerned with broad principles and the general thrust of the Bill. However, he could not resist becoming entangled in a discussion of registration marks and the potential for the display of a European flag on the registration plate, a matter that excited the attention of several right hon. and hon. Members.

The Minister did not say anything about ``or otherwise'' on Second Reading, and I would like to know exactly what that phrase means. In the absence of any justification for those words, my hon. Friends and I propose their removal. We believe that the clause would be perfectly cogent and tight—it would certainly be tighter—if it referred instead to the power in regulations to prescribe specifications that relate to only to the size, shape and material of manufacture.

I turn to amendment No. 56. We believe that it is entirely legitimate that the regulations should give the Secretary of State power to ensure the proper identification of a vehicle. Insofar as those regulations specify steps to achieve it, they are acceptable, but it should not be necessary to go beyond that. In a sense, the amendment would limit—fetter might be a more evaluative term—the Secretary of State's discretion when drawing up the regulations. To a degree, the amendment may circumscribe the Secretary of State, but I hope that the Under-Secretary, who from time to time accuses us of imposing a straitjacket and pleads for discretion, will accept the important principle that with power comes responsibility. My argument is that the Government must justify the powers that they want to arrogate to the Secretary of State if regulations are to be brought forward. That will be especially true—I know that the subject is a regular hobby horse of mine—if the regulations are to subject to negative rather than affirmative procedure. If so, there will not be an opportunity for the House to debate them, so it is vital that we have an idea of what Ministers have in mind now.

Under my eminently reasonable proposal, the Bill would state that the power of the Secretary of State should

    provide for registration plates to contain or display such information other than registration may be necessary to link the registration plate to the vehicle for which it is intended.

I would have thought that that would be enough. The clause refers to

    special registration marks as may be specified or described in the regulations.

I am bound to say that that is mighty vague. I do not know exactly what Ministers have in mind. I sincerely hope that they will not propose the creation of different categories of vehicle-driving citizen.

The Under-Secretary claims to be impartial—partial only in the sense that he is partial to the reduction of vehicle crime. I do not in any way want to impugn his integrity or talents, but I am not sure that that is fair. After all, he has owned up to something important this afternoon, which is the fact that he has one thing in common with the previous Member for Putney, Mr. David Mellor. I would not have thought that it was a source of pride for him to have anything in common with Mr. David Mellor, but the Under-Secretary has vouchsafed to the Committee that he does, as he does not possess or drive a car. He is in uncomfortable company in making that admission.

So long as the Under-Secretary does not have a car—for which there may be good reason, as I think that there is in the case of Mr. Mellor—he will not be affected by the regulations because he simply tromps around, if I may use that indelicate term, in a ministerial car driven by A. N. Other. The registration, upkeep, taxation, goodly appearance and effective function of that car are not matters for the Under-Secretary; he is a very important man, and he has others to look after such matters for him. If he eventually ceases to hold ministerial office—which I obviously hope very much will happen sooner rather than later, not because I bear him any ill will, but because I want a Conservative Government—he will revert to his normal practice on his parliamentary business as well as his private business by tromping around—

Mr. Hill: On the 159.

Mr. Bercow: By means of the 159, as the Under-Secretary correctly points out, which will of course go from the Millbank area to Streatham. I regularly travelled that route in days of yore. He is not affected. The

    special registration marks as may be specified or described in the regulations

do not trouble him at all. There is an hauteur on his part towards the matters, a lofty imperiousness, if that is not an unfair description. He will think that millions of drivers will be affected and that those who advise him, who are brainy and know all the facts, tell him that is necessary to have reference to

    special registration marks as may be specified or described in the regulations,

so on that basis he can reject my amendment. That is not good enough for me. I want to know exactly what is wrong with the amendment, which is specific and tightly drawn.

Alternatively, I want to know whether nothing is wrong with the amendment. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of leading for the massed ranks of the official Opposition on a Committee considering a Bill. I hope that it is not the last.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Member for Vale of York has left because she does not agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bercow: There is a good reason for her absence, which I think that I should point out, because there is a matter of manners involved.

Mr. Clarke: Was she bitten?

Mr. Bercow: No, she was not bitten.

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