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Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): So that I may understand the hon. Lady's new clause better, will she say whether an abandoned vehicle will have to meet all those criteria or just one to be deemed to be abandoned? What consultation has she had with respect to her proposed definition? Has she taken advice from the Local Government Association, for example, or others who would have to implement this definition?
Miss McIntosh: I am not disclosing a secret by saying that the Automobile Association provided that definition, and it has had several discussions and followed closely how effectively it would be implemented. There would be no point in having a definition that did not work in practice. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make that point.
Not all the criteria would have to be met, but they are indicative criteria. The two most useful would probably be statutory off-road notification, which is the official declaration that a vehicle will not be used on the public highwayevery vehicle in normal circumstances must be taxed or have been given SORN, as being in limbo or any other status is simply not permissibleand the vehicle identification number. The VIN is unique to each vehicle, marked on its engineconcealed on the chassis, I am toldand gives more information than simple registration numbers. It is therefore important to have a definition. That follows up the loophole that has been found.
Other criteria include: all identification features have been removed, including the number plates and VIN; no SORN has ever been notified and recorded on the DVLA record; the vehicle is burnt out; the vehicle is deemed to have no value, which could be verified by the official motor trade estimate; and the vehicle is a hazard or a danger.
I hope that the Minister will look favourably on new clause 6. Any one of those criteria would be helpful in determining the status of a vehicle as abandoned. The Minister must see the difficulties that the former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions got into by failing to have a definition of an abandoned vehicle. This definition is put forward in the same spirit of co-operation as was demonstrated throughout the Committee stage.
I now come to amendments Nos. 12 to 14. Amendment No. 12 relates to clause 3 and touches on one of the most sensitive and contentious parts of the Bill, which time did not permit us to reach in Committeethe imposition of a reverse burden of proof on exposing vehicles for sale on a road. We would prefer to reverse that by removing the offending words,
Historically, in England and Wales and in Scotland, in law, it has normally been the case that a party is innocent until proved guilty. This provision reverses
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that presumption and puts the onus on the accused to prove his innocence. That reverses one of the most fundamental tenets of English law, and we take a grave view of it.
Mr. Davey: I have looked at the amendment and tried to work out what is behind it. I cannot agree with the hon. Lady, although hers would be a serious charge if it were justified. Surely a court would have to decide whether a person was guilty under clause 3(1) first, and clause 3(2) merely provides an extra protection for an innocent person. There is no change from the basic legal presumption of "innocent until proven guilty". I think that what the hon. Lady has said represents a misreading of the clause.
Paragraph 303 of the Government's explanatory notes, on page 47, refers to the court case. I understand from a radio interview in which I took part yesterday that there is already a legal precedent, although I do not know whether it relates to the court case in question. As I have said, we take a serious view of any removal of the presumption of "innocent until proven guilty". Paragraph 303 states:
"The Bill contains a number of new reverse burdens of proof (which means that, to take advantage of a defence provided, the accused is required to demonstrate his innocence once the prosecution has proved certain facts, rather than the prosecution being required to prove the accused's guilt on all issues)."
"where the burden is on the accused to prove that the defence applies to him on a balance of probabilities, or evidential, where the accused must bring sufficient evidence for the defence to be an issue, and then the prosecution must disprove the defence."
The Minister may be able to refer to other cases, but paragraph 304 tells usI challenge this in amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 14that reverse burdens enjoy a lawfulness confirmed, in the Government's view, by the House of Lords in the cases of Sheldrake in 2004 and R v. Johnstone in 2003,
"where the prosecution has to prove the ingredients of the offence and the overall effect is that the accused has a fair trial, and the reverse burden is reasonable, proportionate and in the public interest. The Court of Appeal gave guidance on reverse burdens in AG'S REFERENCE (no 1 of 2004 . . . The European Court of Human Rights has recognised that reverse burdens are lawful in SALABIAKU V FRANCE (1988) . . . and PHILLIPS V UK if the overall presumption of innocence is maintained."
"The Government believes that the reverse burdens contained in the Bill are within those criteria and seek to promote the general interest of environmental protection. The Government therefore concludes that the new provisions are compatible with Convention rights."
Let me say at this early stage, before the Bill goes to another place, that I believe that the reverse burden of proof has no place in environmental crimesnot that
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Conservative Members do not accept the seriousness of such crimes, and the frequency with which they are committed. We believe that in a free and fair society and in accordance with the terms of natural justice, there should be no place for a reverse burden of proof.
Mr. Edward Davey: I am a new boy to these proceedings as I did not serve on the Committee, unlike the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), the Minister and one or two other Members present. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) has been detained, so I have taken his place. However, it was with great interest that I prepared for this debate, read Hansard reports of proceedings in Committee and listened to the hon. Member for Vale of York. [Interruption.] Others doubtless also read those reports with great interest.
In principle, the hon. Lady is on to something with new clause 6. I replied to the Government consultation on abandoned vehicles. I do not often reply formally, as a constituency MP, to such consultations, but abandoned vehicles have been a huge problem in my constituency, where we have been pressing the Government to act for some time. Although that consultation was conducted several years ago, it was an important move and it led to some significant changes. In the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames, initiatives taken at local level, along with some of the policy changes supported by the Government, have had a major impact in terms of clearing up abandoned vehicles. It was a good consultation, which moved the game forward. The question is: can we go further through the Bill and the new clause?
I agree with the intention behind the hon. Lady's proposal, in that we may well need the benefit of a stricter definition of what counts as an abandoned vehicle. The question is whether she and the AA have produced that definition. On reading it, I am not convinced that she has done so, although I congratulate her on trying. The new clause would lead to two problems. It could prove too weak in some cases by failing to catch some vehicles that are actually abandoned, and prove too strong in others by catching vehicles that have not been abandoned, the lawful owners still having the right to their property. Therefore, there is a danger that the new clause will result in the worst of all possible worlds. I should emphasise that that does not mean that the Government should not try to come up with a suitable definition, perhaps in another place.
In Committee, the Minister said that local authority officers who have to implement such legislation can understand the wording of the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, which has been clarified through case law. He made a fair point, and it has proven difficult for the AA and the hon. Lady to produce a definition that covers all circumstances. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister is prepared to examine this matter again, and to see whether we can go further than the 1978 Act.
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The hon. Lady has just spoken to amendments Nos.12, 13 and 14 and, as I suggested in my intervention, I have some problems with them. She is worried about removing the presumption of innocence. As far as I can see, the Bill and clause 3 do not do that, except in respect of fixed penalty notices.
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