Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Clarke: As we were saying before our proceedings began, fashion is not one of my fortes, and neither is geography. I was having trouble with my belly button, rather than my trousers.

Mr. Bercow: We love the Minister none the less. I have not scrutinised it, and have no desire to do so, but there appears to be nothing wrong with his belly button.

Mr. Clarke: Yes, indeed—and I am not hiding an insect in it either.

The Chairman: Let us return to the Bill.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Member for Lichfield is correct in thinking that we are developing the co-operation that he mentioned. The European Union motor insurance directive to which I referred will put in place a legal framework within which it can be achieved. That is one of the many examples of the benefits to this country of European Union membership, which would be jeopardised if the hon. Member for Buckingham were to have his way.

I need to clarify my answer to the question about whether all insurance companies are members of the database; I was almost right, but not exactly right. All insurance companies are obliged to keep information pursuant to the Road Traffic Act 1988. The clause would oblige such persons to disclose information to the police, so any insurance company not linked to the database must still comply with the clause. The police will have complete information that reflects the data available from all insurance companies.

Mrs. Gilroy: I have written to the Minister on this subject, and I would be grateful if he could clarify for me in writing the position of those who self-insure. Some concerns have been expressed as to whether and how that will fall within the ambit of the Bill.

Mr. Clarke: I will clarify the matter for my hon. Friend in writing.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the Minister clarify the answer he gave to my earlier question? He said that every insurance company was obliged to keep its own record and that those records must be available to the police.

Does he mean the bulk database? If a driver were insured with a smaller insurance company that kept its own database, the police proactive interrogation of the bulk database would still come up negative. That would require the insurance company to give the police information some days later, perhaps of a written rather than an electronic nature, putting the driver to some inconvenience. Does the Minister understand the difference between the two possibilities?

Mr. Clarke: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I can best answer it by reading out the wording of the clause:

    The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for relevant information which is required to be kept by regulations made by virtue of section 160(2)(b) of the Road Traffic Act 1988—

that is the Act that requires the information to be kept—

    to be made available to the Police Information Technology Organisation for use by constables.

The Bill goes on to state that regulations may

    require all such information or such information of a particular description to be made available to the Organisation.

Mr. Fabricant: For the sake of clarity, will the Minister explain whether the Police Information Technology Organisation, rather than any third party, will maintain the bulk database? It may just be my ignorance, but people reading Hansard may ask the same question.

Mr. Clarke: The bulk database is maintained by the insurance industry itself. PITO, which is controlled by police forces in conjunction with the Home Office, and whose governing board is made up of nominees from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and various other bodies, will get the information from the insurance database. From there, it can be made available to individual police forces.

Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to the Minister for persevering, but I am still unclear as to why subsection (1) provides the answer to my initial question. If PITO does not operate the bulk database, how do we know that the information maintained by the insurance companies in one big database contains all the information to be found on the smaller databases of all the individual companies?

Mr. Clarke: The information kept by the insurance companies is the information that they are required to keep by the Road Traffic Act 1988, so we know exactly what information every company keeps. The motor insurance industry database collects all that information together from all insurance companies in the way specified by law. The clause states that PITO can get access to that information. I am sorry if I am being unclear; if it would help the hon. Gentleman, I will pursue the matter in correspondence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) asked about self-insurance. The current definition of ``relevant information'' in subsection (3) does not properly cover the point that she raises, which she has also raised in correspondence. That is partly why I was ready earlier to state that we were willing to consider the process again before Report, to get our definitions exactly right. That applies to the points raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield, too. There are points of substance on which we need to check that our wording is correct, which is why we are ready to introduce amendments on Report.

I hope that after those assurances, the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Mr. Bercow: Yes, I am happy to do so, as I was pleased by the Minister's response, and, especially, by his commitment to come back to us on the question of specificity before Report. I assume that that means that some correspondence will take place between us—or at least that there will be a letter from him on the subject, which I can copy for my hon. Friends. On the strength of what he said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36

Taking a conveyance without authority:extension of prosecution time-limits

Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 87, in page 20, line 34, leave out `any' and insert `the'.

The clause relates to the taking of a conveyance without authority and the extension of time limits for prosecution. The argument for our amendment can be extremely crisply made. Prosecutions can be initiated by only one person. The Bill states that the extended time period under clause 36 begins from

    the day on which sufficient

knowledge ``to justify the proceedings'' is obtained by ``any person responsible''. This is a genuine drafting point—whether it is minor is a matter for debate—but it seems more sensible to us that the clause should read, ``the person responsible'', rather than ``any person responsible''. Surely an individual should make the decision.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's point was an illumination to me when I studied it. The phrase ``any person'' is used to ensure that Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors are unable to get round the six-month time limit by passing the file to another prosecutor. A CPS prosecutor who had sat on the file for six months could pass the file to another prosecutor and another six months could commence. The reference to ``any'' rather than ``the'' person responsible for deciding whether to commence prosecutions will prevent that from happening. The six months will start as soon as a prosecutor capable of taking the decision to prosecute has the evidence in his possession. If he fails to do so, no subsequent prosecution can be commenced. That legalistic response illuminated me, and that is the reason for using ``any'' rather than ``the''.

Mr. Bercow: Although what the Minister said sounds eminently sensible, and I might well choose to withdraw the amendment, it is very unfortunate if that sort of excuse has been used at any stage. It would be quite improper for a public official to do so, as it would not be in the spirit of the legislation under which a matter was being considered.

Mr. Clarke: I cannot give chapter and verse, but I, too, was surprised to discover that information. Obviously, making such an excuse would be bad practice, and as we are making the law it is important not to allow bad practice to be used to evade the law.

Mr. Bercow: As I think that the Minister will accept, the purpose of our drafting amendment was to tighten the law and discover the reason for the Minister's preferred wording. The last thing that any of us wants inadvertently to do, is to weaken the provision by providing a get-out clause. I am not certain that my proposed wording would do that, but the Minister is. He is confident that his wording would not allow for such a get-out, and on the basis of his good intentions and the advice that he has taken, I am happy to accept his word on this occasion and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Fabricant: I was wondering about the purpose of clause 36. I believe that the prosecution has a general time limit of three years from the date of an offence taking place. Why, in the clause, has that been limited to six months? Was the aim to speed up the process and stop a queueing system within the prosecuting authority or the police, or was it meant to provide some form of protection to someone who had committed an offence? Why has the general principle of a three-year gap been breached by a change, in this instance, to six months?

Mr. Charles Clarke: As the hon. Gentleman said, the clause extends the time for bringing prosecutions for unauthorised vehicle-taking—joy-riding—by amending the Theft Act 1968. It thereby extends the limit from six months after the offence to a maximum of three years, subject to the requirement that the prosecution be brought within six months of sufficient information coming to the attention of ``the'' or ``any'' any prosecutor. So-called joy-riders cause deep distress to their victims. They may be involved in accidents, and their offences are sometimes—some would say often—the gateway to more serious crime.

At present, some people escape justice because, as the law stands, no charges may be brought more than six months after the offence was committed. We want to make prosecution possible, signalling that the offence is not to be taken lightly. The extended time limit also allows us to take account of technological advances, particularly DNA and fingerprinting. Such developments may allow evidence to come to light later than six months after the offence.

Those are the principal reasons why we wish to make the change. The Crown Prosecution Service requested the limit of three years, and there are precedents, such as section 146A of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. That is why, with an offence for which it is not always easy to identify the offender, there should be more time to use the benefit of technological changes to help us to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Funding of certain magistrates' courts' costsrelating to vehicle crime

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