Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Fabricant: That is a helpful intervention. I hope that the Minister will provide an answer, after he stops laughing at the appalling state of police numbers in Staffordshire.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): First, Mr. O'Brien, I must apologise for being late for the Committee. I had to attend the debate on rural policing in Westminster Hall.

The hon. Member for Lichfield made an assertion that was entirely untrue. He suggested that I put pressure on the chief constable in his area not to give him information. That is utterly untrue, and I ask him to withdraw it immediately.

Mr. Fabricant: I can only go by the information that I received, and I like to be truthful in the Committee, so I will not withdraw my remarks.

Mr. Clarke: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien, may I have some clarification? The suggestion that a Minister of the Crown has instructed or required a chief constable, who is operationally independent, not to give information to a Member of Parliament, is outrageous, damaging and utterly untrue. Is it a matter that I should raise through the Speaker, on the Floor of the House? How should I deal with the matter?

The Chairman: I would suggest that, as the allegation is a serious one, the Minister should consult the Speaker and the Clerk of the House.

Mr. Clarke: I accept your guidance, Mr. O'Brien.

Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. O'Brien. You will know that I would not state anything in Committee unless I had clear knowledge that it was correct.

Mr. Bercow: I do not want to intrude into the detail of the matter, and I respect the Minister's concern. I listened to what my hon. Friend said very carefully; does he accept that a substantial difference exists between an instruction or requirement and an exhortation?

The Chairman: Before the hon. Member for Lichfield responds, I would like us to dispense with this business. It would be in everyone's interest for him to withdraw the remark and consider it further, because it can be raised in some other forum. I want to clear the matter up, and I appeal to him to withdraw the remark.

Mr. Fabricant: I will withdraw my remark out of respect for your request, Mr. O'Brien. However, I am aware of what the chief constable said to me—I leave the matter at that point.

I reassert the point that I made on Second Reading that the article by Fred Broughton entitled ``Policing in Crisis'' is certainly relevant to the situation in Staffordshire. There are fewer police officers than there were three years ago; in Lichfield there are only three police officers, supported by a small band of unpaid special constables, on a Friday or Saturday night. As the chief constable wrote to me, that decision was not made lightly by Staffordshire police, but was forced on them by the funding available—or, rather, unavailable—from central Government. I support the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester, who said that he, too, would be concerned if yet another financial burden were placed on the police. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that no charges will be made to the police. Such charges could result in further losses in police numbers not only in Staffordshire but in other parts of the United Kingdom to which the Bill applies.

Miss McIntosh: The explanatory notes tell us that enforcement of the Bill—especially part I— would be the sole responsibility of the police and would cost about £110,000 per annum. It would therefore appear inappropriate, pursuant to clause 2(9) and (10), to place an additional charge on the police for a copy of the register. It also begs the question whether a separate allocation has been made to the police, both for the overall enforcement of part I and specifically in respect of any fee proposed under those subsections.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Colchester for moving the amendment. As he said, its purpose is explicitly to prevent local authorities from charging a fee to the police for copies of records held on the motor salvage register. The Government accept the principle of what he and other hon. Members have said, but there is no evidence that local authorities would try to obstruct the police by charging fees.

The hon. Member for Buckingham raised issues covered by clause 2(9) and (10), which would allow a local authority to waive any fee. To clarify one point, the Government accept that the term ``members of the public'' in clause 2(9) does not include the police.

I also want to make it clear that we firmly believe that no fee would be charged in the event of local authorities dealing with the police. Fees are, however, an important issue when establishing a code of conduct and guidance for the charging regime in general, which we have also discussed in other contexts and wish to discuss in detail with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Local Government Association. We want to handle the matter by general guidance rather than specific legislation.

Mr. Bob Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassuring observation. The whole purpose of the amendment is the avoidance of doubt. As one who comes from a local government background, I can assure the Minister that confusion sometimes reigns between a county and a borough council, let alone between a local authority and the police, who are a further arm's length away. For the avoidance of doubt, the charging regime should be clearly stated in the Bill. If the Minister can assure us that the matter will be reconsidered during further consultation, that would be welcome.

Mr. Clarke: I can give that assurance. First, the charging regime is a matter for discussion with the police and the Local Government Association. Secondly, it is the Government's policy that there should be no charge, for reasons that have been put forward in the Committee. Thirdly, we are trying all the time to develop effective partnership between the police and local government on a range of issues. Many interchange relationships develop and it is more effective to deal with them through guidance than by primary legislation; that is why we resist amendment No. 34. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Russell: I am more than happy to withdraw the amendment, because the Minister has given us an assurance—beyond what I was hoping for today—that what I am seeking will be taken on board in the detailed workings of the legislation and the guidance that follows. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: The choice of amendments for debate is a matter for you, Mr. O'Brien. It is a weighty responsibility, but one that you discharge stoically—perhaps even with relish. I am mildly disappointed, although I make no complaint about it, that the cherished Opposition amendment No. 64 to clause 2 was not chosen for debate. I respect that, of course, but the amendment was of such significance to the overall content and ramifications of the clause that, without it, we are uneasy. I want to flag up my concern.

We are anxious that a proper registration procedure should be in place, which, as far as possible, should be a guarantee and protection against fraud. It should be effective but minimally burdensome as far as legitimate businesses are concerned. My hon. Friends and I wanted to try to tie down, as far as possible, the registration process in clause 2. Subsection (2) states:

    The register shall, subject to any requirements that may be prescribed, be in such form as the local authority consider appropriate.

That causes us concern. The Bill allows local authorities to make provisions in relation to the form of application. However, as hon. Members will have noticed through their close perusal of the text, at no stage does the Bill state that the information requested from each business should be the same, or that there should be a standard application procedure. In theory, at least, it is therefore feasible for one local authority employee to request a different set of details than another. I feel sure that the Minister is attending closely to the argument.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I am.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for his confirmation that he is listening intently to what I have to say.

We want a standardised process to be enforced. Our ambition is limited in that regard. We are not arguing for a uniform procedure for the whole country—we could argue the toss on another occasion, but I shall not dilate now, Mr. O'Brien, as you would not allow me to do so. Equally, we are not saying that the registration procedure and documentation in support thereof must be the same in every local authority area. However, the procedure adopted by a local authority, in accordance with the discretion conferred by the clause, should be uniform in its application to everyone within that area. The scope for a differential impact of the regulations based on the whims, caprices or judgments of different local authority officials should therefore not be a problem; it should not be allowed to happen.

There should be a standardised process, which is fair to all businesses in a local authority area applying for registration. We would leave the discretion with the local authority, but, in referring to ``a standard form'', we would specify that each business in a local authority area should be subject to the same process of application. That, in a nutshell, is our argument. The wording of the clause is vaguer than that, and allows for greater discretion and variability of practice within one local authority area. That seems problematic.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which is perfectly reasonable. It is part of the general debate that always takes place about the role of a local authority versus the role of a national, centralising Government. Unlike some or our predecessors in office, we always try to elevate the role of the local authority in deciding such matters. We considered the option of establishing a central agency, but decided that the operation was so enormous that the responsibilities should be given to local government. That is why we are requiring every local authority to set up and keep a register. Authorities can decide in what form that register will be kept, although some general requirements and details will be prescribed by order. That will allow the opportunity for further consultation with local authorities. We will produce joint guidance with the Local Government Association when the Bill is enacted.

11.15 am

The precise requirements to be specified by order will be the subject of discussion with the Local Government Association before the order is made and considered by Parliament. I can give the hon. Member for Buckingham the assurance that he seeks; we will aim to ensure as much consistency as possible between the approaches of different authorities. Amendment No. 64, which was tabled but not called, would have inserted the phrase

    a standard form as defined by the local authority.

We do not need to go so far as to set a standard form for every authority, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that basic requirements should be centrally established so that data can be exchanged electronically between authorities. We will ensure that the guidance that we create together with the Local Government Association will do that.

I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham accepts that our proposals will have a similar effect to his, without using his draconian big stick to remove local authority independence in key areas. I hope, too, that he agrees that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

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