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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman missed our proceedings in Committee and I hope that the Hansard reports have captured the excitement of them. However, he should look at clause 3, which includes the phrase
It seems to me that the presumption of innocence is taken away with respect to fixed penalty notices, which is the whole point about fixed penalty notices. However, on clause 3, we are talking not about fixed penalty notices but about a court's decision to levy a fine if there has been an appeal. If a case comes before a court, I presume that it will look at it afresh.
Mr. Davey: My point is that the fixed penalty notice provisions in this and other parts of the Bill remove the presumption of innocence, but that clause 3(2), which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) are so concerned about, offers extra protection for the innocent person. It provides them with a plea at the court, if the matter goes that far. I repeat my initial point that there has been some misunderstanding of the drafting. Everyone in the House would, presumably, agree with the hon. Lady that removing the presumption of innocence before a court would be wrong, but I do not know whether the Conservatives are now against all fixed penalty notices in all circumstances. If so, that is an interesting development, but I had assumed that previously they were not. We are discussing the only removal of the presumption of innocence that appears in the Bill. We understand the hon. Lady's concerns, but if she presses her amendments to the vote, we would have to dissent because we do not believe that her analysis is correct.
I wholeheartedly welcome Government amendments Nos. 24 and 25, because similar amendments were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow in Committee and the Minister undertook to reconsider the points that he made, particularly those relating to
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whether the fines should move up a category from level 3 to level 4 in order to assist proper prosecution and to act as a sufficient deterrent to persistent offenders. Clearly, the Government have reflected on what my hon. Friend said, so I am sure that he is proud of his influence on the Minister and glad that the Government amendments have been tabled.
The Government amendments and other provisions are very important, but hon. Members will know from their constituencies that when car selling or car repair businesses are set up in communities, they can cause a huge nuisance and great offence to those communities. The Government are right to tackle that problem, and they have our full support. I know of a number of streets and areas in my constituency that have been subject to massive disruption and great inconvenience by such businesses. Vehicles can often take up empty spaces on roads when parking is scarce, and the noise and pollution generated by those businesses are additional problems. The Government are right to act.
Having read the explanatory notes and the Committee debate, I wonder whether the terms of that provision might be somewhat restrictive. I know of areas in my constituency that have suffered because a local person has caused great problems by selling or repairing vehicles on two or three adjoining roads. I understand why the phrase "on the same road" has been used, but its terms could be too restrictive for some communities. I am not asking the Minister to promise tonight that he will amend the provision, but I would be grateful if he reflected further on it. As I said, in parts of my constituency, the current provision would not deal with the problem that the Minister wants to solve.
Alun Michael: I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) as a fresh face to our consideration of the Bill. I also welcome the fact that he has engaged with these issues from a constituency point of view, which is what most of my hon. Friends did on Second Reading and in Committee.
I was rather surprised to hear that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) did not have time in Committee to investigate one or two points. I recall, and comments were made by various members of the Committee, that the hon. Lady had all the time in the world while every clause was debated to the exhaustion of those listening, so I am surprised that she feels that she did not have enough time. She was absent on one day and if that is what she meant, it was not lack of time that defeated her, but the need to be elsewhere.
The hon. Lady claims that the AA supports her new clause 6, but that is surprising because the AA has not contacted me as a Minister, nor as one of its members. I thought that I should declare my membership, although it is not a substantial interest under the provisions of the House.
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Put simply, new clause 6 is unnecessary. Plenty of guidance is available to local authorities, not least from ENCAMS and the Local Government Association, as well as from their own experience, on the characteristics to take into account when deciding whether a vehicle has been abandoned. Such a definition is not necessary in the Bill. Legislation leaves the decision on whether a vehicle has been abandoned to local authority discretion. Specifying criteria would remove councils' flexibility, so this appears to be another example of the old-fashioned Stalinism that seems to be rampant in the Conservative party. More seriously, it would fly in the face of experience. The fact is that local authorities have rarely been challenged on any decision concerning abandonment. My advice to the hon. Lady is, "If it ain't broke, don't look for ways to fix it."
Mr. Davey: During the Government's consultation, the main practical problem seemed to be deciding whether the car was merely untaxed and, therefore, a matter for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, or abandoned and, therefore, a matter for the local authority or the police. Does the Minister have any comments on that aspect of definition and whether greater clarity is required?
Alun Michael: Clearly, deciding whether a vehicle is abandoned is one issue. Vehicles are not considered to have been abandoned if they are taxed and the Bill will help with that. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that was one obstacle. Others include the length of time a car has been left and so on. Those are the sort of issues that we are tackling in the Bill.
Detailed considerations such as those set out in new clause 6, as opposed to the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman pointed out, are not appropriate for primary legislation. Clause 13 requires local authorities to have regard, when carrying out their functions under the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, to guidance issued by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales. If necessary, the new provision can be used to put the current guidance on a statutory footing.
On amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 14, it is a matter of fact and practical experience that local authorities have had great difficulty in proving that someone is acting in the course of a business when a transaction occurs in the street. The offence of exposing for sale specifically covers two or more vehicles because we want to make it clear that we are targeting rogue traders, not private sellers. The offence relates to two or more vehicles being advertised for sale on the same road, which would suggest the presence of a business venture, so the burden of proof should be on the defendant. In the unlikely case of a private seller selling two or more vehicles at the same time, it would be easy for them to prove with DVLA documentation that the vehicles were registered in their own or their family's name and that it was coincidence that they were being sold at the same time. The burden of proof is not beyond reasonable doubt, but on the balance of probabilities.
The clause provides a clear line of defence if there is prima facie evidence of an offence, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. It is a line of defence more than
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a reverse burden even if, technically, it is a reverse burden to some extent. The first part of the clause as drafted indicates what amounts to a person being guilty of the offence. They must be shown to have left
Subsection (2), on the other hand, provides the defence that someone who is not a trader can bring forward. If the words are removed, as proposed, that defence would be rendered meaningless as a person would not have to prove that it applied in their case. I suggest that the proposals would render nonsense the legislation as drafted.
I shall now explain Government amendments Nos. 24 and 25, which, you will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I support and want added to the Bill. Cars sold on the road through commercial businesses can cause problems and annoyance for ordinary people and a significant blight on an area. Cars repaired on the road can take up valuable parking spaces, look unsightly and pollute the local environment. The amendments are minor but important and would raise the maximum penalty for offences of nuisance parking to ensure consistency and to bring them in line with other environmental offences.
As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton pointed out, the hon. Members for Guildford (Sue Doughty) and for Ludlow (Matthew Green) tabled a similar amendment in Committee, and I undertook to consider the points that they made in discussion. Having done so, I have proposed the amendments. The maximum fine for other environmental offences, such as abandoning a vehicle or littering, is level 4, so they are appropriate.
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