Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Bercow: As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk wittily observes, it is not sufficiently transparent. My concern is with transparency. I ask the Minister to respond to this fairly straightforward challenge. Will the company that is refused registration or re-registration, or has its registration cancelled in the course of a financial year, be informed that one unfit and improper director or member of the partnership is preventing the registration from being continued? Will the applicant or registered operator be told exactly which director or member of the partnership was in such poor odour as to cause the business to fail to continue to be on the register? In other words, will it be done in a hole-and-corner fashion or are we to assume that where registration is not approved, those making the judgment of unfitness and impropriety will fully communicate the facts to the relevant operator? That is of the essence, so will the Minister clarify that straightforward point?

Mr. Charles Clarke: To deal with the last point first, under clause 5(2)(b):

    The local authority shall serve a notice on the person concerned stating... the reasons for it.

Those reasons offer the transparency that the hon. Gentleman quite reasonably seeks.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Lichfield to clause 1(1):

    Any person who carries on business as a motor salvage operator in the area of a local authority without being registered for that area by the authority shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

That deals with sole traders and partners other than limited liability partners— individuals carrying on business in the specified way. As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, the provisions need to be wider to cover companies and limited liability partnerships. That takes us to clause 12(1) and (2), which demonstrate how that is to be done. We specify limited liability partnerships here because non-limited liability and ordinary partnerships are covered by clause 1(1).

The hon. Member for Lichfield's further two points amount to the same question—whether anyone other than the director or partners can play a significant role and should therefore be identified—and we debated it earlier in our proceedings. The legal responsibility of directors or partners is clear: it is absolute, and it remains so, however pernicious the influence acting on them. If the police were aware of such an influence and that blackmail or other illegal activities were taking place, further criminal offices could be considered. It would not be right, however, to specify in the Bill the process for identifying pernicious influences; it is better to say that responsibility lies with the organisation, its directors or partners.

An alternative would be to include a wider range of people, principally employees or business associates of the organisation. We could do that, but as I said earlier, it would amount to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and could undermine the fundamental principle that directors and limited liability partners are responsible. Those are the key issues, and I hope that the Committee will accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Proceedings for offences under Part I

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

Mr. Fabricant: I wholly welcome the clause, particularly paragraph (b). My point relates not so much to the clause as to consistency in the Bill. The Minister argued powerfully against accepting our amendment to clause 6, under which there would be the right of appeal to the Secretary of State to extend the period during—

The Chairman: Order. We are not discussing clause 6. There are 30 words in clause 13. It is very narrow and I ask the hon. Gentleman to stick to it.

9 pm

Mr. Fabricant: I shall take your advice Mr O'Brien. Why, when the Minister argued cogently in relation to another clause that the same thing would not be appropriate, is it considered appropriate in clause 13(b) to create a right of appeal under which an organisation other than a local authority or a constable can initiate proceedings but must make the appeal—I use the word in the broad, rather than the legal sense—to the Attorney-General?

Mr. Charles Clarke: The reason is straightforward. The purpose of the clause will be even more straightforward in just a second.

Mr. Simpson: The Minister is on his own.

Mr. Clarke: We in this Government are never on our own. We are strongly supported by our officials whom I applaud greatly for the work they have done throughout the Committee. The Opposition will not succeed in their efforts to divide us.

Mr. Bercow: Can the Minister confirm that a piece of paper has wafted down to him from which he is now benefiting?

Mr. Clarke: I can confirm two things. First, a piece of paper wafted down to me before this sitting even started from which I have benefited while presenting my views to the Committee. Secondly, in response to a question another piece of paper wafted down to me to help me elaborate my arguments in a way that I hope will be convincing to the Committee. I am happy to share with the Committee the contents of the first piece of paper.

The clause allows for proceedings on offences under part I to be brought by a local authority or the police. Proceedings may not otherwise be brought except with the consent of the Attorney-General. That will ensure some control over private prosecutions. I was asked whether, other than stopping and filtering vexatious and malicious prosecutions, which is the obvious purpose of the Bill, and ensuring that local authorities do not have the burden of coping with a large number of private prosecutions, specific circumstances should be brought to the attention of the Committee. There were no such circumstances. The purpose of the clause, which refers to the consent of the Attorney-General, is to ensure we do not have vexatious litigants and can proceed effectively. That is a commonplace in many Bills.

Miss McIntosh: I bow to the Minister's authority. What other Bills contain such a clause?

Mr. Clarke: The Minister's authority, as the hon. Lady knows, is almost endless, but on this occasion it does not extend to answering her question. I cannot cite other Bills. As an experienced parliamentarian, however, she will acknowledge that such provisions exist in other legislation. I am happy to write to her with other examples that may assist her.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Power to amend or repeal private or local acts

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

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. Fabricant: He's just like Zebedee.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is accusing me of being like Zebedee. I think that Zebedee would have a view about that. If he were able to pursue action in the courts for defamation, he would do so. However, I cannot allow myself to be troubled unduly.

Mr. Fabricant: Although I do not wish to introduce levity into the debate, does my hon. Friend not think that merely stating ``Boing!''—as Zebedee used to do—is not adequate for presenting an argument in a court?

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not reply to that.

Mr. Bercow: I shall apply Sellotape to my lips as a result of your instruction, Mr. O'Brien, but shall then rip it off to comment on matters on which you authorise me to speak, as opposed to those about which I am precluded from speaking.

I am concerned about clause 14(2) because it involves what I might call the tantalising technique of creating just a little encouragement for the Opposition. There is a scintilla of hope—if I may pithily describe it thus—that the Secretary of State, in exercising the magisterial functions that the Bill's powers confer on him, will engage in some consultation. We are grateful for that. We are, of course, talking about the relatively dry but nevertheless important matter of the Secretary of State's power to amend or repeal private or local Acts

    if it appears to him necessary or expedient to do so in consequence of this Part.

Subsection (2) refers to the exercise of the Secretary of State's power

    under subsection (1) in relation to any Act which concerns the area of a local authority or county council.

It specifically stipulates that, in that circumstance,

    the Secretary of State shall consult the local authority or county council concerned.

My response to that is ``goodie'', followed by a number of fairly straightforward questions to which I feel sure that the Minister will know the answers without the need for any pieces of paper to wing their way down to him from the highly qualified officials nearby.

First, how will the consultation be conducted? That is not specified in subsection (2). Is the consultation to be undertaken in writing and, in that sense, a formal process? Would it be legitimate for it to be conducted by a conference call by telephone to affected parties, without a minute—a little like last week's Programming Sub-Committee—still less a verbatim account of proceedings? Could the consultation be undertaken in a series of bilateral meetings with a Minister or designated officials acting on his or her behalf? We do not know, because the subsection does not tell us. Further and better particulars are required.

I am not suggesting that anything sinister is involved—[Laughter.] I suppose that I could suggest that: the Minister probably thinks that I am being rather generous in not doing so. Governments often wish to give the imprimatur of a consultation process, which really amounts to the briefest of confabs with one or two interviewees, selected because it is thought that they will be ready to listen to the ministerial line and then to acquiesce to it readily and without complaint.

We need to know the extent to which the consultation will be serious. Will it be in writing? Will it be undertaken at Member level or with very little attention from Members, even if it will ultimately be undertaken on their behalf by officials acting on behalf of the Secretary of State? Will it be invested with the degree of seriousness that consultation between a Minister and a senior councillor would represent?

Secondly, over what period will the consultation be conducted? In a sense, that is inextricably bound up with the question of the consultation's authenticity and seriousness. Will it be undertaken over one, two or three months? Is the local authority obliged to consult among its wider membership or will the consultation be compartmentalised within the particular department of the district, borough or county council concerned? We know not, but it is uncertain whether the Department has given detailed thought to that point.

It is fairly certain that the Minister has not yet given it detailed thought. He is weighty, distinguished, influential, respected, busy and ambitious, and he has a very full diary. He has important responsibilities to discharge—a lot of rubber-chicken circuit dinners to attend, people to cultivate, friendships to maintain and new sources of influence to embrace. He has worthy objectives, so far be it from me—a humble junior servant of the masses—to cavil at what the Minister has on his plate.

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