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The Chairman: Order. There is quite a lot of sedentary chuntering going on, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want hon. Members to tone it down a bit.
Mr. Leech: The introduction of penalty deposits is certainly a welcome move towards ensuring that all those who are stopped for road traffic offences pay their dues wherever they live. However, foreign drivers will, in some cases, still escape the full ramifications of their actions by paying their deposit while failing to answer a court summons.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Rather than chunter, may I ask a specific question? It seems that the hon. Gentleman is driving at some sort of database so that such people can be pursued. Does he agree that one way of solving the problem would be through the introduction of ID cards?
Mr. Leech: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but no, I do not agree, because the police already have an accessible database for previous traffic offences. Therefore the suggestion that an identity card might improve the situation is false.
John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand the point that a database is no good unless we can correlate the individual to the database. That is why there is an ID card.
Mr. Leech: I simply do not accept that.
Foreign drivers will still in some cases escape the full ramifications of their actions by paying their deposit but not turning up to court. We need to work closely with other EU countries so that, as with Ireland, we recognise each other’s driving licences and legal systems. Until we have similar agreements in place with other EU countries, foreign drivers will continue to avoid court. When the 2006 Act was discussed in Committee, the then Minister stated:
“The sooner we sign similar agreements with the other 23 partner states, the better.”
He stated that he was
“keen to push forward on that with EU colleagues.”——[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 March 2006; c. 118-119.]
I therefore ask this Minister whether negotiations on that matter have taken place. If so, how far have the negotiations developed and when does he estimate that agreements might be in place?
10.51 am
Mr. Knight: It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. We all welcome the cracking down on foreign drivers who are breaking the law in the UK, particularly when in most cases they are taking work from British truckers who are not able to have the advantage of using cheaper fuel. The thought that those foreign drivers are doing so in vehicles that are unroadworthy or dangerous is intolerable. Every sensible Member of the House will therefore support what is proposed.
I am grateful to the Minister, however, for confirming that the order does not cover just foreign drivers and foreign truckers; it includes any motorist on our roads. For that reason, I have some questions and concerns that I wish to put to the Minister. In his comprehensive opening remarks, he talked about when a police officer will require a deposit to be paid. I stand to be corrected, but I think that he said that a deposit will be required only where the police officer does not know where the driver is reasonably located. It seemed to me that that is a fair way of putting it.
However, according to the explanatory memorandum that the Minister has produced, that is not the definition that the police and VOSA will be using when they are looking to exercise the powers under the order. It states:
“A ‘satisfactory address’ is defined in new section 90A(4) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 as an address in the United Kingdom at which a police constable or vehicle examiner considers it likely that it would be possible to find the person whenever necessary to do so in connection with the proceedings”.
It seems to me that that is a higher test than the Minister alluded to in his opening remarks. The phrase is
“whenever necessary to do so”.
Why not “when reasonably necessary to do so” or “when reasonable”?
I am thinking of a scenario that I think may be caught by the description. Let us say that a long-distance lorry driver has one of those double cabs that have a bed in the back and the driver is at home only at weekends. In those circumstances, could a police officer argue that because the driver is not at home during the week and is at home only intermittently that the definition that he will be contactable “whenever necessary” is not met and therefore a deposit could be insisted on? I think that most of us would feel that it was unreasonable to ask for a deposit in such a case. I wonder why the definition the Minister is using does not match the definition he gave in his reasonable opening statement.
My other concern is about the mobilisation of vehicles, which is referred to in the memorandum. I accept that when a vehicle is deemed to be dangerous, it is quite proper that it be immobilised. What form will that immobilisation take? I suspect that in many cases when the vehicle is on a busy, narrow road it will not just be immobilised, but that there will be a mechanism for it to be taken to a compound. The Minister did not mention that in his opening remarks.
In such cases, in addition to paying the deposit, what other charges will the hapless motorist have to pay? Some companies in the field of wheel-clamping on private land charge an exorbitant amount for the release of vehicles. If immobilisation can also mean taking away to a compound, I hope that to get the vehicle back the driver will not be faced with having to pay the deposit and a huge per-day fee set by the compound operator, which is way in excess of what anyone would deem reasonable. I hope that the Minister will give some assurances about that.
Mr. Leech: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if people do not commit an offence in the first place, such things will not happen? That might be good encouragement not to break the law.
Mr. Knight: I do not think that the state behaving unreasonably is ever good encouragement for anything. For example, with heavy goods vehicles it is not always possible to know if the brakes are working on every wheel. It is not always possible to know whether one’s stop lights have failed when one is in the course of a long journey. While I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should encourage a system that deters breaking the law, when a vehicle is impounded, only reasonable fees should be charged.
In some cases, the driver will not be dealt with harshly by the courts. What will happen to the fees for impounding a vehicle when the defendant is acquitted? What will happen in cases when VOSA or the police make a mistake and on looking at the evidence the court does not feel that the case has been proved and yet there have been compound charges? When a court deems that there is no case to answer, will the fees for impounding the vehicle be returned in addition to the deposit?
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington mentioned payments. Can the Minister say whether motorists who are stopped will have the option to pay by credit card? There will be circumstances in which the driver does not have cash. Visitors from overseas might have cash that they need for other purposes. If they have a credit or debit card, will the police be equipped to accept payment by that method?
Paragraph 9 of the explanatory memorandum refers to guidance. I accept that it is reasonable for VOSA and the police to produce and update operational guidance. Who will authorise the updating of guidance? I suspect that it will not come before this or any other Committee, or indeed the House. Who will sign off any updated guidance to ensure that it remains reasonable and appropriate? I hope that Ministers will be involved in the process at the very least because they are accountable to Parliament. I hope that the Minister will reassure me on that point.
10.59 am
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.
I have been listening carefully to the debate, which is an important one for my Leicestershire constituents. Many road hauliers are suffering from the illegal activity of foreign road hauliers who come into the country with substandard vehicles—massive diesel tanks—and undercut their market. I absolutely welcome the measure, but I have one or two general concerns to raise with the Committee.
Although it is sensible for the police to have powers that make enforcement easier, I am slightly concerned about the mechanism, particularly the use of statutory instruments. I say that as someone who chaired both the Statutory Instruments Committee and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for two Parliaments from 1997, when the use of statutory instruments increased massively. It worries me that the Government have the opportunity to make changes to legislation without proper consideration on the Floor of the House. I find that concerning, particularly when I read in the explanatory memorandum that the order is
“one of a package of eight Statutory Instruments to implement what is called the Graduated Fixed Penalty”
Will the penalties increase ad nauseam, as the London congestion charge did one year after its introduction? Where will that lead us? I can illustrate the concerns. A long time ago, when we debated the introduction of speed cameras in the House, it was generally agreed that they were a good idea but that in order to carry the public, they needed to be marked. That was the general agreement. On the Christmas Adjournment, I raised the fact that there was a particular camera in the Metropolitan police district that was not marked with a yellow sticker. The Minister wrote to me, telling me that it was none of my business and an operational matter for the police. However, the day after I raised the matter in that debate, the camera was marked with yellow stickers. I am concerned that the measure will be another opportunity for poor scrutiny.
The Minister said that our inability to deal effectively with foreign drivers has a detrimental effect on the prosecution of UK drivers. I must say that is a complete non sequitur. It is nonsense. Most UK drivers do not know the foreign drivers concerned. I do not believe that it has an impact. We are dealing with a totally separate situation.
I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the point that I have made about statutory instruments in particular and give us some reassurance that the scheme will not be one where charges are ratcheted up by stealth, which seems to be the habit of this Government.
11.3 am
Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful for the welcoming comments of all those who have raised questions and points of information in their responses to my remarks. The measure clearly has widespread support, but it is absolutely appropriate that colleagues should have the chance to question some of the details. I am happy to try to respond to most of those questions now, if not all of them.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked about the extra £24 million that VOSA was allocated to improve its inspection arrangements of HGVs. That was announced last year. I remind him that the amount was spread over three years. It has not all been spent, but VOSA is on course to spend it. It was meant to provide for 97 extra officers, 24/7 inspections, extra weigh-in-motion sensors on the roads and extra inspection sites to improve VOSA’s performance in tackling HGVs that do not conform to road traffic regulations and laws.
I got into some bother initially. To start with, I was saying in response to pressure from various groups that we were focusing on foreign HGVs because of the disproportionate number of collisions, crashes and offences found when such vehicles were examined. I was told that I could not say foreign HGVs because we were not excluding UK HGVs that were breaking the law. However, what we were doing was intelligence-led. We knew the vehicles that were regularly transgressing, and were able to focus on them. Detection rates have risen as a result, so that money is being spent wisely.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the Government failing to take action to create a level playing field regarding cheap diesel on the continent. Obviously, diesel prices and taxation rates are a matter for the Treasury, as he is only too well aware, but enforcement of the rules is a matter for the Department for Transport, and we have been trying to do that. He will know that Ministers worked hard with the road haulage industry at the most recent Transport Council late last year to protect the UK road haulage industry against the liberalisation of cabotage without that level playing field. The haulage industry was grateful for that support, and we got a fairly reasonable outcome as regards better information and a level playing field before liberalisation kicks in, which is still some years off.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members asked whether VOSA will be allowed credit card arrangements. Yes, it will be supplied with chip and pin machines to allow those who have to pay deposits to pay them in that way. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about automatic increases, there will not be automatic increases in fines or penalty deposits. The Act requires that the level of penalty is set by affirmative order, so that should reassure him that the matter will be subject to parliamentary review. We will keep the review of fixed penalty levels as part of our work within the Home Office working group.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about interest. That is a matter for the Treasury, which has a mechanism for calculating interest that is also kept under review. Similarly, in answer to his question about monitoring court files, that, too, will be kept under review, as will the whole new arrangement, as I have said.
The hon. Gentleman asked about automatic number plate recognition and whether the European database would be used to check insurance. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington also asked about the European database. Colleagues will know, because we debate these issues fairly regularly, that we are not there yet. There are several initiatives within the EU to develop the common database in the future, and we hope that will happen sooner rather than later.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked whether fine collection will be retrospective, to which the answer is no. There have been few prosecutions in the past, other than for very serious offences, so no fines are owed, because serious offences are normally dealt with by way of custodial sentences.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asked about higher fines for those who exceed speed limits in more sensitive areas. I know that he is aware of our recent compliance and enforcement consultation on whether to have graduated fines for people who speed at way above the normal speed level in sensitive areas. We do not have graduated fixed penalties for speeding yet, and they will be subject to the separate consultation, so there is currently no flexibility, but we are looking into that.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asked whether the deposit amount could be flexible, to which the answer is no. As I said earlier, the amount of the court deposit has been set at £300 for every offence that goes to court. The order has to provide for a wide range of offences. I have responded to the point about chip and pin machines, which several other colleagues asked about.
Both the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire asked what constitutes a satisfactory UK address. A satisfactory UK address is one at which a police officer or VOSA examiner considers that the person is likely to be found whenever necessary in connection with proceedings or fixed-penalty notices. There is a degree of common sense in respect of the proof that the individual can supply and thus in the officer’s ability to accept that the officer can reach them in the event that they must be found.
I think that I answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question about previous offences when responding to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. The DVLA will keep a record of foreign drivers, and those who clock up endorsements will feature in it. Both the police and VOSA will therefore know about future endorsed offences.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington raised links with other member states and our tentative agreement with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in respect of acknowledging offences from each other’s jurisdiction. Discussions with other member states are ongoing. It is possible to access vehicle keeper details for foreign vehicles, but we do not yet have full access to foreign driver information. We will continue to press for action on that.
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