Clause 26 - Notification requirements: Part II
Vehicles (Crime) Bill
11:00 am

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 14, line 8, leave out `28' and insert `14'.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 10, in page 14, line 10, leave out `subsection (3)'.

No. 12, in page 14, line 11, leave out `28 days', and insert `42 days'.

No. 29, in page 14, line 11, leave out `28' and insert `14'.

No. 11, in page 14, line 15, leave out `, (2) or (3)' and insert `or (2)'.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

As the Committee will be aware and you will certainly have fully digested, Mr. Wells, clause 26 deals with the notification requirements of those who seek registration as registration plate suppliers. There seems to be some inconsistency in the clause. The Bill contains a requirement to register—that is, after all, the principle of the Bill—and a specific offence of trading as a registration plate supplier without being registered. The perpetrator of that offence is liable to a fine of up to £5,000. The central principle of our amendments is that, if we are to reflect the importance of registration and to penalise non-compliance, it is curious to treat lightly the provision of inadequate or out-of-date information. The unamended clause is in danger of doing that.

The clause deals specifically with changes to the details in the register. At present, any change must be notified within 28 days. I invite the Committee to consider whether that is right. Is it a proper time scale? Do Ministers concede that, as in other parts of the Bill where time periods are specified, there is necessarily an element of arbitrariness involved? I say that in no uncritical vein. We have to choose what seems to be a reasonable time, but there is nothing absolute or sacrosanct about one period rather than another.

My concern and that of my hon. Friends is that the Bill should be effective in achieving its purpose. I hope that we have provided sufficient evidence of our bona fides for the Minister to accept that my motives in this matter are good, as are those of my hon. Friends. I am concerned that the provision as it stands is too lax.

I see no good reason why a registered business that is obviously aware of its legal obligations cannot notify the central authority of relevant changes within 14 days. A period of 28 days seems to leave the system open to abuse. If the requirement were 14 rather than 28 days, the provision could be properly and reasonably applied. There may be extenuating or mitigating circumstances which prevent the provision of the amended information within that time scale. The principle of reasonableness is contained elsewhere in the Bill and Ministers regularly assert it when they are in any way criticised. If we are to be strong-minded about the provision that businesses should be required to notify the authority of any changes, we should ensure that there is a reasonable, but not excessive, period of time within which those changes should be notified.

If it is proper to apply a severe penalty for people who do not register—we suggest that the penalty should be up to £5,000—why should failure to notify the authority of changes to the information required on the register be subject to a lesser penalty? It is surely wrong that failure to keep the details up to date should be punishable by anything less than a maximum fine of £5,000. Having inaccurate details on the register is the equivalent of not being registered at all and should be dealt with as such.

This information is of significance not only to two parties. As several hon. Members have pointed out, it is of significance not only to the plate supplier providing the information and the central authority that processes and retains it, but to third parties who seek the information and who, as I understand it, would ordinarily be entitled to receive it. Unless they are in a category of persons who are not eligible to receive it, they will get the information.

It would be damaging for third parties to receive inaccurate and misleading information that caused them to make commercial errors and perhaps to incur financial loss. In those circumstances, the merit of the individual's being registered is not at all clear. People might almost be better off not knowing that the individual is registered than finding that material facts relating to the registration are incorrect. So, equivalence of treatment is the principle that should inform us and it is certainly the principle that lies behind the amendments. If it is right to make registration compulsory, and failure to register punishable, it is surely right to require people to register accurately and make failure to do that equally punishable. The punishment that my hon. Friends and I propose of a fine of up to £5,000 is precisely that. It is a maximum fine and, as the Minister explained in a different context earlier, it would be open to the courts to impose a lesser penalty if they wished.

Finally, I emphasise that it is odd that selling or supplying plates for illegal use is a lesser offence than failure to register as a business. It is the process of supplying plates that facilitates crime so, if anything, it should be treated more seriously than merely failing to register. We have proposed a notification period of 14 days to tighten up the regulations, while also raising the level of the fine from a maximum of £1,000 to a maximum of £5,000. That seems to me to be a reasonable proposition. I hope that the Minister will see some merit in it. I would be genuinely interested to hear other Committee members' comments and, above all, fascinated to learn the response of the Minister on the Treasury Bench.

Mr. Chidgey rose—

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

Order. I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that we are not discussing amendments Nos. 30 and 31 with this group.

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Mr David Chidgey (Eastleigh, Liberal Democrat)

On a point of order, Mr. Wells. Are amendments Nos. 10, 12 and 11, which you mentioned when we began debating clause 26, subject for debate at this point?

11:15 am
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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

That is correct. In addition to amendment No. 28, we are debating amendments Nos. 10, 12, 29 and 11, but not amendments Nos. 30 and 31, which deal with fines.

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Mr David Chidgey (Eastleigh, Liberal Democrat)

I am most grateful for that information. I shall detain the Committee only briefly on several points relating to the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. In the main, we debated the issues raised by the amendments at a previous stage in our proceedings, and I do not intend to revisit those debates.

Subsection (3) requires a registered person who is not carrying on business to give notice of that fact to the Secretary of State. We must revisit the issue of what a person who ceases to trade is required to do with his or her records. We are talking about an onerous fine. In fact, the hon. Member for Buckingham would like a much larger penalty for failure to comply. As yet, we have no guidance on a company or registered person who ceases to carry on business passing on his or her records for proper scrutiny at a later stage when the police may want to make inquiries.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

It is pretty obvious that there is disagreement between Opposition parties on the matter. The official Opposition suggest that the period should be reduced to 14 days, whereas the Liberal Democrats suggest an increase to 42 days. Surely that shows the reasonableness of the Government's position: 28 days is an extremely reasonable compromise.

Amendment No. 12 would introduce a period of 42 days—

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

Let me first set the scene.

Amendment No. 12 would introduce a period of 42 days for notification of changes or that a business has ceased trading as a registration plate supplier. The Government contend that a period of 28 days is adequate for that purpose.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

There are two simple points. First, if the Minister were familiar with and a student of—[Interruption.] I sincerely hope that the Minister is listening to my intervention, because it is deeply germane. If he were familiar with and a student of the works of Karl Popper or even, alternatively, the works of the distinguished logical positivist, Professor A. J. Ayer, he would know that he is guilty of bogus logic. It is absurd for the Minister to say that, because two alternative positions are suggested by other people, his position, which he lobs into the equation as a third, equidistant between the other two, is a reasonable compromise.

Secondly, does he not accept that it is a trifle cheeky, not to say disingenuous, for him to claim that his position is a compromise between the other two suggestions, when the proposal was inserted into the Bill before he knew which amendments would be tabled by the hon. Member for Eastleigh and by me? His claim of reasonableness and compromise is utterly bogus, and I know that he will now have the good grace to withdraw it.

Mr. Hill rose—

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Mr David Chidgey (Eastleigh, Liberal Democrat)

Surely the Minister understands that the amendments have been tabled to give him the opportunity to explain to the Committee why the Government have chosen their figure and not simply plucked it out of the air, as seemed to be the case from previous debates. It is extremely disingenuous and, if I may say, a little impolite to assume that the Committee is doing other than trying to help the Government.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

Good heavens! I seem to have stirred up a hornets' nest. I am grateful for the hon. Member for Buckingham's demonstration of positive logic. The Government anticipated the extreme positions that would be adopted by the opposition parties: the Official Opposition's right-wing libertarianism and the Liberal Democrats' usual attempts to outflank on the left. Our position is not an ex post facto compromise, but one well thought out in advance of the debate.

Amendment No. 11 is consequential on amendment No. 10, which would remove the offence of failure to notify cessation of business as a registration plate supplier. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, in his usual reasonable fashion, we have already had that debate. However, he again raised the matter of records. In our earlier exchanges, I said that one proposal was for the retention of records for two years. However, that raises the interesting question how and where the records would be retained, which I hope to be able to answer in due course. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will return to the issue at a later stage.

Amendment No. 28 would reduce the period for notifying alterations to the register from 28 days to 14, and amendment No. 29 would reduce the period for notifying cessation of business as a registration plate supplier from 28 days to 14. Both amendments would create difficulties, especially for larger businesses that must keep track of a greater number of retail outlets. There is no need to create such a difficulty; the clause affords a reasonable period that strikes a balance between the need to keep the register up to date and the need to reduce the burden on business. Large businesses must gather information from many outlets, which takes time; 28 days is a reasonable period, and consistently used in the Bill. It would be wrong to introduce different time scales for interlinked circumstances.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I am not entirely persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's argument, but we have had a good canter round the course. As a caveat, I say that we may wish to return to the matter later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 14, line 16, leave out `3' and insert `5'.

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Mr Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford, Conservative)

With this we may take amendment No. 31, in clause 27, page 14, line 34, leave out `4' and insert `5'.

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Mr John Bercow (Buckingham, Conservative)

I cheekily dilated these points earlier and such was your tolerance, Mr. Wells, that you did not bring me to book for doing so. We had not quite reached amendments Nos. 30 and 31, but I inserted them into the thrust of my remarks on the time scale within which notifications to the register should be made of the cessation of business. Having indicated the seriousness with which my hon. Friends and I take these matters and the need for sufficient penalties, there is no reason to comment further. There is a case for tougher penalties and I rest that case.

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Mr Keith Hill (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; Streatham, Labour)

A fine at level 3 on the standard scale is £1,000. A fine at level 5 of £5,000 is too draconian for failing to notify changes. We are seeking the notification of details which might comprise only a small part of the information on the register. That is certainly not as serious as operating as an unregistered supplier. We therefore believe that the proposed scale is appropriate for such failures. It is also consistent with the vehicle and driver records proposal.

Amendment No. 31—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman put the Questions necessary under the terms of the programme resolution to complete the business.

Amendment negatived.

Clauses 26 to 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.