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Mr. Salmond: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As you know, no Member is allowed to criticise the Chairman's choice of speaker or amendment, but is that not, in effect, what has just happened in terms of the Government's restriction of time motion? Nine amendments, duly selected by Mr. Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means, were down for debate, in order, yet as a result of the timetable motion we have not even been allowed to start that debate. The timetable motion is so restrictive that the Minister did not even have time to introduce them[Interruption.]
Mr. Salmond: Those key amendments affect Scotland and Wales. The Minister, who represents Kilmarnock and Loudoun, has arranged for them not to be discussed. Is not that an abuse not just of the House and its procedures but of the Chair? Given that no hon. Member would be allowed to do that, why should the Government be allowed to do it?
Mr. Browne: During debate in Committee, I undertook to look again at the legal status of the counterpart driving licence, which forms part of the definition of a UK driving licence in clause 28. The clause lists the identity documents to which the clause 27 offences of possessing false identity documents apply. Doubts were raised at the time about whether the counterpartthat is, the paper part of a photographic card driving licenceshould be considered an identity document.
On 3 February, I wrote to the Chair of the Committee with the results of my consideration, which I will briefly summarise. Both the photocard licence and the counterpart have to be produced to the police and courts in certain circumstances relating to road traffic offences. Many people of course still hold valid paper driving licences that incorporate the counterpart. However, the Road Safety Bill, currently before Parliament, will enable the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to create an electronic driving record that will be available to the police. The legislation includes a provision to remove references to the counterpart in existing legislation. It is anticipated that the Bill, if enacted, would not come into force until about 2007 or 2008.
In view of the intention to abolish the counterpart licence, I have decided that we should simplify the definition of a UK driving licence by removing it from clause 28(3)(c) in respect of that offence. I therefore invite the House to agree to the amendment.
Government amendments Nos. 59 and 60 bring the commissioner and his staff within the remit of the clause 29 offence of unauthorised disclosure of information. Disclosures made as part of the commissioner's functions will not be caught by the offence, but clearly it would be unacceptable for the commissioner's staff to make unauthorised disclosures of information to which they had access as a result of their employment. I see no reason why such behaviour should not be criminalised. It is therefore right that the clause 29 offence should be extended in the way proposed in Government amendments Nos. 59 and 60, and I invite the House to accept them.
Government amendments Nos. 75, 76 and 78 restructure the offence in clause 31 of tampering with the register and Government amendment No. 77 is a technical amendment which replaces "is" with "may be". It is not intended to be a substantial change. The effect of amendments Nos. 75, 76 and 78 is to make it clearer that it is a defence to a charge under this clause to have an honest and reasonable, albeit mistaken, belief that the modification made to the register was authorised. The way in which a prosecution under clause 31 would work is as follows. The prosecution would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant caused a modification of the register and that the modification was unauthorised. "Unauthorised" is a term defined in subsection (5); it is an objective concept.
It would be a defence for a defendant to show on the balance of probabilities that, notwithstanding the lack of objective authority, he held a reasonable subjective belief that the modification was authorised. I consider that the amendments structure the offence in a clearer way, and I urge hon. Members to support them.
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Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Minister. There were times in Committee when it seemed that we were making no progress and that nothing at all was being given by the Minister. Therefore, much of what he has just said meets with our approval, especially about amendment No. 57, which relates to clause 28 and the driving licence. It strikes me as a helpful and sensible way forward. I suggest that our amendment No. 41 would have been clearer, simpler and probably easier than Government amendments Nos. 59 and 60, which achieve the same end.
Everything that the Minister says about so-called whistleblowers and public interest disclosures makes a great deal of sense. We dwelt on that quite long enough in Committee to show how important it was. I broadly welcome what he has said.
Mr. Allan: I echo the hon. Gentleman's comments. This is an example of constructive Committee work. We had to go through the clauses to which these amendments relate fairly quickly. It would have been good to spend a little more time on them in Committee. The issues that we picked up are ones that the Government have accepted.
I raised the issue of the counterpart driving licence as much as anything so that I could highlight the ridiculous system for getting a replacement driving licence. If one loses the whole licence, it is considerably easier to get a replacement than if one loses one part of it. The Minister has told us today that there is a broader solution to that, which will filter its way through to the provisions in the Bill, and has tabled amendments for that purpose. That is entirely welcome.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) raised the point about whistleblowing or public interest disclosure. We feel that it is an important one. People should be able to report abuses of the system. We felt we had good reason for that because there have been abuses of other systems such as the police national computer, and they have resulted in prosecutions. Fortunately, they are few and far between, but when they occur it is important that no one feels legally constrained in making allegations if they are justified.
Both sets of amendments are thoroughly welcome and non-contentious. I hazard to suggest that if we had longer in Committee we could have made even more helpful suggestions to improve a Bill that the Liberal Democrats do not want to see go through, but wish to do what they can to make it less bad.
I wish to take a few more minutes of the House's time to put on record how grateful I am to the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) for their constructive response. As this may be the last opportunity that I have to speak to the Bill in the Houseit may not; we do not knowI wish to say that I appreciate the constructive way in which the Committee conducted most of its work. I greatly appreciated the atmosphere in which its work was done, even when I did not think that significant progress was being madeand that was a comparatively short period.
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The Government amendments contain examples of the Government listening to constructive criticism and responding, and I hope that that response has improved the Bill. I am particularly proud of the Bill for the paucity of Government amendments that had to be introduced unprompted by the Committee. That is a credit to the officials and the draftsmanship of the Bill, as well as the pre-legislative scrutiny that it received.
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