Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: This is not duplication, and the hon. Member for Buckingham is right in what he said. Clause 10(1) is aimed at those who have changed the details between submission and determination of their application. The issues raised earlier, which the hon. Member for Lichfield was concerned might create duplication, arose after submission had taken place and were not about changes in the process. This is about dealing with changes in the process.

Amendment No. 75 would remove the offence of failure to notify the Secretary of State of any changes to application papers before registration. The hon. Member for Buckingham seeks to delete clause 10(1), but we feel that it is essential that information provided by applicants to local authorities that formed the basis of their decision to register should be kept up to date. This will help local authorities to ensure that motor salvage operators remain fit and proper persons and to maintain the integrity of the public register.

Mr. Bercow: I can see the force of what the Minister is telling the Committee. I am glad that what I thought might be the rationale for the inclusion of the subsection turned out to be right. Does the Minister agree that while it might well be justified to make it an offence to fail to disclose information during the period in which the application is being considered, we do not want to encourage through dilatory processing, a greater number of offences than necessary. Will he therefore say something about the expected period within which applications will be determined, because that might tell us something about the frequency with which such situations are likely to arise. In other words, the more quickly applications can be determined, the less likely it is that there will be a change in material circumstances during the period of consideration and the less prone applicants will be to commit an offence.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I said in an earlier debate, we will be issuing guidance on the time scales involved because he is patently correct that the greater the delay, the worse the situation. It is clear that the clause does not cover false information; it deals with changes to information that goes through, but with no suggestion of falsity or anything of that kind.

Amendment No. 76 deals with the level of the fine. We simply think that the level 3 fine is more appropriate than level 5, because the offence of not notifying changes in the required way is not as serious as failing to register as a motor salvage operator at all. It is obviously less serious not to mark the changes than not to register at all.

I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will be prepared to withdraw the amendment.

7 pm

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister of State because he has given a full and largely cogent explanation of his position. I certainly found the first of his explanations cogent, and it was naturally a joy for me to behold that he was able to confirm my suspicion as to the rationale for the inclusion of subsection (1). In other words, he was telling me that my amendment was not justified, but only because I was right in suspecting the reason why Ministers had not anticipated and provided for it. It is 50:50, or one set all. I am happy to rest content with that result, especially when I reflect on the fact that I am up against a senior, highly influential, greatly respected, heavily committed Minister with great ambitions, a very full diary and high expectations of his future.

On the second amendment, the Minister has an argument, but I am not convinced that one offence is less serious than the other. However, I note his comments and I shall reflect on it.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

7.1 pm

Sitting suspended.

8.30 pm

On resuming—

Clause 11

Offence of giving false particulars on sale for salvage

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

Mr. Miller: I rise to clarify a point for the record. Clause 11 sets out a specific offence and, to avoid ambiguity in the minds of police officers and others concerned with offences that might result in a car being wrecked, I want my hon. Friend the Minister of State to confirm that the clause does not mean that a person who sells a wrecked motor car to a salvage operator cannot be charged with other offences. In such circumstances, a charge of, for example, misleading the police in the course of their inquiries and other charges might be appropriate. I have dealt with many cases in which vehicles have been illegitimately disposed of to disguise evidence when people have been involved in crashes that caused death or serious injury, and it is worth asking my hon. Friend to put on the record the fact that the provision does not preclude other offences relating to vehicles.

Mr. Fabricant: I welcome the clause—it echoes the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991 and the Medway Council and Kent County Council Bills—which makes it an offence for someone who sells a vehicle to a salvage operator to fail to give information or give a false name and address. However, I question the level of the fine at level 3. The Minister has said clearly that there should be different levels so that someone who does not provide information or does not comply with the Bill innocently is fined at one level. He justified the level 5 fine by saying that it was right to impose a higher level when someone deliberately provided false information. Yet clause 11 states:

    Any person who, on selling a motor vehicle to a person who is in the course of carrying on business as a motor salvage operator ... gives that person a false name or address shall be guilty of an offence.

That is quite right, but someone who gives a false name and address is clearly committing an offence with intent. The Minister of State defended the consistency of the Bill and argued correctly just before 7 o'clock that there should be two levels of fine, depending on whether someone committed an offence with intent or unwittingly. However, someone who gives a false name and address does so deliberately to commit a crime. It is right that clause 11 is in the Bill, but it should have teeth. The fine should be at a high enough level to provide those teeth, and it is questionable whether level 3 is high enough.

Mr. Bercow: There is, as my hon. Friend poignantly observes, a distinction between intention to commit a serious crime and negligence. There is common ground between the Opposition and the Government because the Minister of State said that failing through negligence, incompetence, oversight or inattention, or a combination of all four, to provide requisite information is a lesser offence and should not be on a par with an intention to commit a serious offence. However, as my hon. Friend helpfully said, it could be argued that that was what was involved. When my hon. Friends and I were considering the Bill, we did not feel strongly enough to table an amendment on the issue. We tabled a great many amendments to other clauses, so we cannot be accused of insufficient tabling. However, there is an issue here: somebody who gives a false name and address is likely to be doing so as protection against discovery in relation to another crime. A deliberate intention to mislead, or arguably to defraud, is a serious matter. I do not use the word ``defraud'' lightly; I use it advisedly. Therefore, the Minister owes us an explanation of his judgment on the point before we give our assent to the clause.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I am delighted to give my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston the precise reassurances that he seeks in the most flowery terms I possibly can. Nothing in the Bill precludes dealing with other offences as they occur. For reasons that I shall give in a moment, it is necessary to have this offence, but there is no preclusion, and I am glad that he has given me the chance to make that clear.

The clause makes it a summary offence for someone to give a false name or address to a salvage dealer when purchasing a vehicle. I emphasise ``to a salvage dealer'', not to the police or a local authority. The idea, and perhaps this will help to clarify the point helpfully raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham, is to deter people from, for example, falsely reporting that their car has been stolen in order to claim on the insurance, when in fact they have secretly sold it to a salvage dealer. It will also help to ensure the integrity of the salvage dealer's records. As we discussed earlier, salvage dealers will be obliged by regulation to keep full and accurate records that may be inspected by the police.

The judgment that we have made, and this addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield, is that giving a false name or address to a salvage dealer is a qualitatively different offence from giving a false name or address to the police or a local authority when they are collecting data as outlined in the Bill. It is still an offence, but at a qualitatively different level, which is why we have selected level 3. I should make it clear that level 3 applies only if no other offences have been committed. If someone commits other offences, such as giving a false name and address to people other than a salvage dealer, that may be taken into account.

I have dealt with the issue of the appropriate level of fine for an offence in three Standing Committees, without having the benefit of the knowledge that the hon. Member for Vale of York derived from her Scottish experience. As a non-lawyer, I confess frankly to the hon. Member for Buckingham that I find myself forced back to the point that one is making a balanced judgment of what is more or less serious. We chose level 3 because it seems to us that it is a less serious offence to give a false name or address to a salvage dealer than to give false information to the police or a local authority.

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