Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Fabricant: If the object of the exercise is to commit a crime, I am not sure that it is morally less of an offence to give false information to a salvage dealer than to a police officer. To use the Minister's example, a crime committed against an insurance company is still a crime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham pointed out, this is not a question of negligence; this is a question of deliberately setting out to give false information for financial gain. For that reason, it is irrelevant whether one gives false information to a salvage dealer, a police office or anyone else.

Mr. Clarke: That is simply a repetition of the argument. I understand it, and I shall address it in a second when I conclude, after giving way again to the hon. Member for Buckingham.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister of State will probably accuse me of repetition, but, not surprisingly, my hon. Friend and I largely approach the matter from a similar perspective. That is healthy. If we did not, the Minister of State would accuse us of inconsistency and cutting across one another.

Is the Minister of State making a value judgment about the perceived status of individuals depending on the profession in which they are engaged? Although that is often done in debate, it is dangerous. Is he not guilty of a certain sort of professional, as opposed to social, snobbery?

Mr. Clarke: Certainly not snobbery—in no way. I am making a value judgment. We make value judgments every second when we consider amendments. Should we treat someone who gives a false name or address to a salvage dealer in the same way as someone who gives a false name or address to the police? The value judgment that I make is that we should ascribe different values to them, as we do in many things that we do. I agree that, in a philosophical sense, one is almost splitting hairs as regards the direction that one takes.

I am giving my explanation, which I believe is consistent and reasonable. The hon. Gentleman must decide whether he wants to vote against the clause that creates this offence. If he wants to, perhaps he will table an amendment on Report on the level of the offence so that we can have a debate around that, but I urge the Committee to agree that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: I have noted what the Minister of State said. He is right to say that we can, if we wish, raise the matter at a later stage. My hon. Friends and I may choose to do so.

Miss McIntosh: Absolutely.

Mr. Bercow: ``Absolutely'', says my hon. Friend, with gusto and enthusiasm from a sedentary position. We may return to these matters at a later stage, but I—I feel sure that my hon. Friends will take a similar view—am not inclined to prevent the approval of the clause at this stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Application of ``fit and proper'' test to companies etc.

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

Mr. Fabricant: I have a couple of technical queries about clause 12, the general principle of which there can be no argument against. The clause deals with the definition of who and who is not a fit and proper person to carry on a business. Subsection (1) deals with a limited company, while subsection (2) deals with a limited liability partnership.

Miss McIntosh: Does it not seem extraordinary that clause 11 should be taken out of context with clause 4?

The Chairman: Order. We have dealt with clause 11. We are now on clause 12.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful, Mr. O'Brien. As the words are ``fit and proper person'', we should have considered clause 12 and clause 4 together.

The Chairman: That is a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Fabricant: I listen to what my learned and honourable Friend from the Vale of York says. No doubt she will be thinking of the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991, to which we referred earlier, which deals with the keeping of a register. In that respect, I fully agree with her.

Mr. Clarke: Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to give way to the hon. Member for Vale of York to allow her to explain the precise nature of the North Yorkshire Act for the benefit of the Committee? He has referred to it several times, but I am sure that his hon. Friend would be prepared to clarify the matter.

8.45 pm

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady may be prepared to do so, but I am not prepared to allow it.

Mr. Fabricant: In clause 12 (1) it is proposed that

    a local authority shall be satisfied that a company is not a fit and proper person to carry on business as a motor salvage operator if they are satisfied that any director of the company is not a fit and proper person to carry on such a business

Earlier, we skirted the issue of directors acting as a front for an illegal business. I recall that the Minister said in effect that the buck had to stop somewhere and that in the Companies Act, it stopped with the directors of a company. I wonder whether clause 12 is limited in its effectiveness simply by the reference to directors of a company. Under the terms of the Companies Act, a director of a company is not just someone who is registered as such with Companies House, but anyone else who is accustomed to act for them. Nevertheless, although that is a tight definition in law, it is difficult to prove. Restricting the provisions of clause 12(1) to the directors of a company makes the lives of police officers particularly difficult.

Miss McIntosh: Assuming that I can offer my services to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, would he be disposed to put the question to the Minister rather than to the Committee?

Mr. Fabricant: Yes. While I am addressing the Committee as a whole, I am asking the Minister for a specific answer. Do the Minister and other members of the Committee agree that restricting the criterion to directors of the company makes the job of police officers and the authority operating the register more difficult? I have said that I accept that in company law any director is a director, not simply those who are registered with Companies House. It is difficult to prove that someone is a director in that sense, unless there is evidence that directors registered with Companies House are acting under instruction from people who are not registered as directors. Why is the clause limited to directors? Should it not be extended to include management and staff in general? We have not chosen to table an amendment, because I suspect that the Minister might have a reasonable answer to this question, but he owes it to the Committee to tell us.

My second point is about the reference in 12(2) to ``members of the partnership''. Why is the clause restricted to that of a limited liability partnership? There are not many of these and there are far more partnerships. Is the Minister saying that partnerships are not included because members of them are individuals and therefore not protected by law and would be prosecuted anyway? Or is this an omission? Most partnerships are not limited liability partnerships. My question to the Minister is simply this. Why does the Bill specifically mention a limited liability partnership and not partnerships in general?

My third and final point is that the criterion refers not to directors, because there are no directors of a partnership whether it is a limited liability partnership or a general partnership, but generally to the members of the partnership. However, to be a member of a partnership, one must have signed a partnership agreement or, if my memory serves me well—I read law some 30 years ago, so this may well be out of date—one must be understood to be a member of a partnership under the terms of the Partnership Act 1890. There may have been subsequent legislation.

Again I seek clarification. Just as in clause 12(1) the reference to ``any director'' unnecessarily limits the ambit of the clause—a clause that I welcome—surely the reference to ``any member of the partnership'' could exclude other influential people in the limited liability partnership. I say limited liability partnership because general partnerships are not mentioned in subsection (2). Not mentioning employees of the company could exclude them, even though they may have considerable influence over the partners. Again, what happens in the case of a front company the directors or partners of which are put up and do not know that they are committing an offence? The people lower down in the structure of the organisation are not covered by the clause. An organisation under inspection might well not be a fit and proper organisation to be registered and yet it would not come within the ambit of the Bill because the Bill is focused too tightly on the people at the top, while people lower down in the organisational structure may have the real power.

Mr. Bercow: The fit and proper test is entirely sensible. I certainly do not cavil at it. That is the main reason why my hon. Friends and I have not proposed any amendment to the clause. However, before we give our assent to it, it is entirely reasonable to raise legitimate concerns. I am happy to concede that if my hon. Friend had been around for the first few sittings of the Committee and had been engaged in productive speculation about the Bill's contents rather than the unproductive and painful experience of being bitten by a spider he might have wanted to table an amendment. However, that opportunity did not arise for him and he has to make do with my genuine and earnest, albeit pedestrian efforts to amend the Bill.

My concern here is not with the principle of the fit and proper test but with the issue of transparency. Transparency is something of a buzz word in our politics.

Mr. Charles Clarke: In your politics.

Mr. Bercow: I am sure that the Minister is making a frightfully clever point, but it eludes me.

Mr. Keith Simpson: It is not transparent enough.

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