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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Standing Committee A

Thursday 18 January 2001


[Mr. Jonathan Sayeed in the Chair]

Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Clause 15

Interpretation of part I

Amendment proposed [16 January]: No. 46, in page 8, line 16, leave out the word `substantial'.—[Mr. Bob Russell.]

9.55 am

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Sayeed. This has been a roller-coaster Committee, and it is absolutely delightful that you are presiding over our proceedings. I shall try to respond positively and constructively to helpful suggestions, and to consider the amendments that have been tabled. However, I am not willing to give time to insignificant and insubstantial interventions, so I appreciate the way in which you and Mr. O'Brien conduct our proceedings.

The word ``substantial'' is important, as it defines the scope of the Bill. If we defined a written-off vehicle as one which is in need of only repair, not substantial repair, we would bring within Bill a new category of vehicle—one which may have only superficial or minor damage, such as the bumps and scrapes that can occur in regular life, but which an owner considers is not worth repairing. For example, if a car fails its MOT, its owner may decide not to carry out the necessary repairs, but to sell it to a garage for an arbitrary sum or to part-exchange it for a newer car. I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), with his family experience, can talk eloquently about that—but hopefully not at length. The garage would repair the car and sell it on.

By not using the word ``substantial'', we might catch many garages that occasionally buy cars that their owners write off ,or receive them in part-exchange for newer cars. We do not believe that such action has an air of criminality about it, and the amendment would add a burden to the business, about which we have not consulted. The purpose of the Bill is to bite specifically on motor salvage operators. A significant criminal element is taking advantage of the industry, but I emphasise that we have no evidence that the same can be said about garages that buy or receive in part-exchange cars that the owners do not believe are worth repairing. That is why the word ``substantial'' is important.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): The Minister has set out a reasoned case for the word ``substantial''. Does he agree, however, that it is open to various interpretations and therefore could be challenged?

Mr. Clarke: As the hon. Member for Buckingham has said, we are lawmakers, trying to find the right words to express the law. However, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) is right. Challenges can be made, and courts will have to make a judgment based ultimately on the intention of the law. To remove the word ``substantial'' would make the situation more open. For example, a second-hand dealer who took a slightly damaged car, repaired it and sold it on may consider that he might be covered by the Bill and want to receive legal advice. That would be a significant burden, so we consider that the word ``substantial'' should be in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The phrase ``written-off'' needs clarification. Clearly, my hon. Friend the Minister is right to say that people write off cars in different circumstances, and that removing the word ``substantial'' would create a risk. Does he intend the phrase to apply in all circumstances?

There are three potential definitions. First, the vehicle may be written off by the owner because he cannot afford to keep it on the road. The vehicle may not be unroadworthy; it may simply need a new engine. He cannot afford to replace it, so he sells the vehicle to a scrap dealer. Secondly, the vehicle may be written off by the insurance company because the cost of the body repair is greater than the value of the vehicle. In those circumstances, it would be totally inappropriate to delete the word ``substantial'', because one could have an expensive vehicle for which the parts are, as is frequently the case, hard to find. The owner cannot replace them so, although the damage to the vehicle may be minor, he decides to scrap it. Some other person with access to those parts may choose to put the vehicle back on the road, however; the clause as drafted, including the word ``substantial'', would allow that person to do that. Thirdly, a vehicle may be written off by an insurance company after a professional judgment has been made that, irrespective of the vehicle's value, it could not safely be repaired to meet safety standards. That is the circumstance that causes a great deal of concern among road safety organisations. We must ensure that the Bill is totally clear about that definition.

10 am

Some things may change with time. For example, Howard Basford, a successful company in my constituency, does fantastically difficult repair jobs on cars on behalf of insurance companies, with professional jigs and tools that meet the manufacturer's original specifications.

Some of the other definitions may need to be altered over the course of time. I do not want to be pedantic, because one pedant on the Committee is enough, but the phrase ``mechanically propelled vehicle'' in line 5 is clearly intended to refer to the power units of the vehicle. There will be circumstances in the not too distant future when the power unit will not be of a mechanical nature. Are the Government satisfied with the definitions as they stand? Do they accept that some of them may have to be changed to meet circumstances, as technology evolves?

Mr. Clarke: I fundamentally agree with my hon. Friend, who has set out the situation clearly. The first of the three categories to which he referred—a vehicle that has been written off by the owner—is dealt with by what I said earlier. It is clear that those circumstances are covered by the definition. The second category—a vehicle written off by the insurance company because of the assessment of costs—is explicitly included within the definition. The third category—a vehicle written off by an insurance company that has come to the judgment that the vehicle cannot safely be repaired—is, again, specifically included within the definition. I am happy to confirm that my hon. Friend's understanding of the matter is correct

The issues that my hon. Friend reasonably and rightly raises concern road safety, but the Bill is not principally about that, although I think and I hope that there will be a knock-on effect, for the sake of the safety considerations that he has mentioned. The Bill is principally about who conducts the repairs in the circumstances that he mentioned; it is about the salvage companies. They are what we are trying to target. I hope that in the light of that, the hon. Member for Colchester will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Russell: I still feel that ``substantial'' is a word that could be open to challenge and misinterpretation, but in view of the Minister's assurances, which will be on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Notification by scrap metal dealers of destruction of motor vehicles

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 19, line 8, leave out `may' and insert `shall'.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Sayeed, and we look forward to good constructive progress in the course of today's proceedings. Clause 34 concerns information requirements. Specifically, it requires notification by scrap metal dealers of the destruction of motor vehicles. My hon. Friends and I believe that the clause is inadequately drafted because it is permissive rather than prescriptive, and it seems to us that it should be prescriptive.

We are concerned about the extent of regulation, and the burgeoning phenomenon of delegated legislation across a wide field of public policy. We object to the fact that frequently, such regulations are not debated in the House. They can subsequently have an effect that was not anticipated, and would not have received the approval of hon. Members. That process should be arrested, and reversed wherever possible.

The proposal is curious in that it seems to contain hesitancy and uncertainty. It is not clear to us why the clause cannot be more robustly worded to give a clear indication of Government intent. As in so many other features of the Bill—[Interruption.]—despite the sedentary chuntering of he who should be silent, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), the clause leaves open the possibility that the Secretary of State might do something, but equally admits of the possibility that he, or as the case may be, she, might not do something. There seems little point in having legislation—and, specifically, the clause—if it is not to be prescriptive.

After all, this is not a question of looking into the crystal ball; we can read the book. We know that there are to be notification requirements. We can readily anticipate the sorts of requirements that will need to be imposed, so it is not clear to me why the word should be ``may'' rather than ``shall''. The provision is in that sense similar to clause 8, on motor salvage operators. The owner must ensure that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is notified of the destruction of motor vehicles so that they may not be re-registered. Thus, in a sense, the measure is supposed to reduce crime.

I have read and re-read the clause several times, but it is not clear to me why it specifies that the Secretary of State ``may'' make regulations. Either the Government are committed to the reduction of vehicle crime or they are not. The Government say that they are. They have a ``challenging'' target. Challenging is a word in popular parlance, as you will have discovered, Mr. Sayeed—we have even found Labour Back Benchers using it themselves in debates.


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