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Vehicles (Crime) Bill

8.26 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 21 [Cancellation of registration by the Secretary of State]:

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was kind enough to point out in a letter to some of us who spoke in Committee that the cancellation of registration after 28 days is a power, not a duty and whether it is exercised in any particular case will depend on the authority's assessment of a person's business status, taking account of all available evidence, including, for example, VAT.

I realise that the Minister was trying to be helpful and I am grateful to him for writing that letter, but we still feel, for various reasons, that 28 days is not long enough. First, although he says that it is a power and not a duty, we know that if the legislation says 28 days, local authorities will always go for that period. They will not consider whether the period should be longer or shorter, so 28 days will become the norm. The idea that it will not is a misunderstanding.

The Minister said that guidance would be issued that would take full account of the points made during the passage of the Bill. That may be so, but if we are to rely on guidance it would be better not to specify a short period in the Bill and to allow the number of days to be set out in guidance so that the Government could change it if they found that it was not working because the period was either too short or too long. That would be more sensible. The guidance cannot specify, because the Bill already does so. The guidance cannot contradict the Bill.

Various organisations have expressed concern, particularly some of the smaller organisations whose members have seasonal operations. The caravan industry, for example, is a seasonal business. Someone could easily be claimed to be not operating for 28 days at certain times of year. Such organisations favour a longer period. The Government will have to issue guidance. Extending the period to 90 days would give them the flexibility to set out that that was the maximum period and that local authorities should

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seek to act within a shorter period if that was right. However, we feel that the 28-day period suggested by the Government is too short.

I am sure that the noble Lord will point out that in another place the Official Opposition put forward a different view in relation to the number of days from the one that I suggest in the amendment. However, that proves that we are a flexible and thinking Opposition and indicates that we have been able to examine the matter in greater detail. I know that the two Ministers who are dealing with the Bill are also flexible and that they take account of the views expressed. We all learn more about the industry as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.

Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider the matter carefully. My amendment is meant to be helpful and is intended to elicit a positive response from the Government. It is not in any way intended as an attack on any of the principles of the Bill. I believe that it will make it easier for the Government to issue guidance on the matter. On that basis, I commend the amendment to the House. I beg to move.

Lord McNally: My Lords, as Ministers will be aware, in Committee my noble friend Lady Scott expressed broad sympathy for the thinking behind the amendment. We still believe that 28 days is too short a time and that it will bear down most unfairly on the small operator. However, in case the Opposition feel lucky and believe that they can lure us into their Lobby, perhaps I may make it clear that we would not join them in the Lobby if they divided on this issue. But we share their concerns and hope that the Government show some of the flexibility that has been urged on them.

Lord Brougham and Vaux: My Lords, my noble friend on the Front Bench talked about the passage of the Bill in another place. I believe that your Lordships' House has given the Bill very good scrutiny. Although we have not persuaded the Government to accept any amendments, I believe that people outside will be much clearer as to what the Government intend to achieve through the Bill.

I turn to the last paragraph of the Minister's letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. I take it that the noble Lord is saying that, although the Bill cannot be amended in this House because the Government fear that they will lose the legislation if, as everyone believes, a general election is forthcoming, amendments will be made in regulations. If that is the case, that will probably be a good idea. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I could not possibly comment on some aspects of the recent remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brougham. I believed that the letter which I sent to several noble Lords who took part in the earlier debate set out the situation and explained how flexible we already were. I shall have another attempt at doing so and shall perhaps focus a little more on the procedures.

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The provision for the cancellation of registrations is not intended as a punitive measure but as an informational one so that the register is kept up to date and does not include businesses which no longer operate as number plate suppliers. Before cancelling a registration, the registration authority must serve notice on the person concerned and must give him the opportunity to make representations. Following that, he has at least 14 days in which to respond to the notice. That should guard against cancellations based on misinformation.

As an additional safeguard, if the registration authority decides to proceed with a cancellation, the supplier may still appeal to the magistrates' court within 21 days. That means that in total, through the process built into the Bill, at least 63 days will have elapsed from the day when, according to the judgment of the authorities, the person ceased to trade. I say "at least" because the 63 days does not take account of delays in administration and decision-making time between each stage. In practice, the time taken is likely to be much longer than 63 days.

If a supplier avails himself of the extensive safeguards in the Bill, there will be plenty of opportunity to make clear to the registration authority that the authority is wrong and that he is still trading as a number plate supplier. In most cases, the registration authority will be told by someone else that the business is not continuing. We shall not require a constant check on every business. Of course, a duty rests on the suppliers because they are required to give such notice under Clause 26.

The noble Lord asked why the notice period should be specified in the Bill. He asked why it cannot be provided for through guidance or, as the noble Lord, Lord Brougham, said, through regulations. The period of 28 days was not plucked out of the air. It follows the precedent of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. I do not believe that in practice the application of a 28-day period to that industry has given rise to difficulties.

Therefore, the 28-day period is consistent with the period within which registered persons are required to notify the registration authority that they are not carrying on a business. That is an important link because it would be slightly peculiar if the authorities had to wait for 90 days before acting on information that the supplier was required to provide within 28 days. Of course, as we debated earlier, the 28-day period also applies to the cancellation of registration as a motor salvage operator.

I believe that some of the misgivings about this provision are misplaced. A business that continues to offer number plates for sale is carrying on the business even if no one buys the plates. Therefore, it is not as though a seasonal trader in, for example, caravan number plates would be deemed to have ceased to trade simply because he had not sold any plates between November and Easter. There is no question of putting people out of business simply because they have not been successful in selling their number plates.

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Likewise, the temporary closure of a business for a holiday or because of a seasonal fluctuation in trade, or some other reason, does not constitute a break in the activities of the business. The business of a number plate seller continues in existence until a decision is made to stop selling number plates as part of that business. At that point, there is a requirement on the supplier to notify the authorities, and he has 28 days in which to do so.

Therefore, this process is more subtle and sophisticated than is implied by the suggestion that the 28-day period will lead immediately to a cut-off point and that it is an arbitrary figure with no bearing on anything else. I hope that that is understood within the industry, and I hope that the guidance that we issue will spell out how the provision will operate. I do not believe that there is a case for deleting the 28-day period from the face of the Bill. However, there is a case for explaining the matter more clearly when we come to implement this part of the Bill.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Minister has been helpful. He has gone further than he did in his letter in explaining the point in relation to seasonal operators and the fact that, even if they do not sell goods, they are considered still to be trading. I believe that that is helpful. The noble Lord has gone a long way towards satisfying my concerns. I shall obviously study carefully what he said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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