Offence of Making False Statements

Orders of the Day — Vehicles (Crime) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 30th January 2001.

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`.—(1) A person who, in making an application to be registered in the register of a local authority or to renew his registration in such a register—

  1. (a) makes a statement which he knows to be false in a material particular; or
  2. (b) recklessly makes a statement which is false in a material particular,
shall be guilty of an offence and, subject to subsection (2), liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

(2) A person who is guilty of an offence under subsection (1) shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale if—

  1. (a) any previous application of his to the local authority concerned for registration or renewal of registration was refused under section 3(3); or
  2. (b) previous registration of his in the register of the local authority concerned was cancelled under section 4(1).'.—[Mr. Hill.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 37, in clause 3, page 3, line 21, at end insert— '( ) Any person who knowingly makes a false application under this section shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.'. Government amendments Nos. 1 and 4 to 6.

Amendment No. 40, in clause 18, page 10, line 25, at end insert— '( ) Any person who knowingly makes a false application under this section shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.'. Government amendments Nos. 7 to 14.

Amendment No. 41, in clause 26, page 14, line 16, leave out "3" and insert "5".

Government amendments Nos. 15 to 17.

Amendment No. 42, in clause 27, page 14, line 34, leave out "4" and insert "5".

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Discussion in Committee—prompted primarily by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—showed that there was a gap in the range of offences created by clauses 10 and 18, and I agreed to consider the matter further. I am happy to designate new clause 1 and the associated amendments as "the Buckingham amendments".

Clauses 10 and 18 created offences of failing to notify the local authority or the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of various changes, but they did not make it an offence to make a false statement in an application for registration, or for renewal of registration. New clause 1 plugs the gap for salvage operators by making it an offence to make a false statement that is material to the application.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

How was it that civil servants in the Minister's Department, when they scrutinised the Bill before it reached the House, failed to spot something that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) managed to spot? Should not the Minister make an apology to my hon. Friend?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I hardly think that an apology is in order. I fully recognise that there was an oversight in the drafting. We are extremely grateful to the Opposition, and to the hon. Member for Buckingham specifically, for drawing our attention to the lacuna in the Bill that the new clause is intended to fill.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I thank the Minister for his generosity in calling the new clause the Buckingham amendment. However, does not he agree that, more scrutiny, with other lacunae might have been spotted? Can he guarantee that there are no other lacunae that might have been spotted had more scrutiny time been made available?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I suggest to the House that, in the context of this debate, we should stick to the lacuna that is before us.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I am delighted to deal with this particular lacuna, which we debated at some length in Committee. We dealt with a wide range of matters in Committee. We debated all the amendments that had been tabled, and in fact finished early. All the issues that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members wanted to raise were covered more than adequately in Committee, and the time provided was more than adequate for the purpose.

The offence that I described is punishable by a fine at level 3—that is, £1,000—in line with the penalties for the other clause 10 offences. However, we believe that a higher penalty is appropriate for those who make false statements when they have previously had an application refused—or registration cancelled—on the grounds that they were not "fit and proper" persons.

Such people have been through the procedures before and know what is required. They know that if they applied in their own right, their application would not be successful. We must not allow them to think that an attempt to deceive the local authority is less risky than trading while unregistered. The penalty for trading while unregistered is set at level 5—that is, £5,000-and new clause 1 provides for the same penalty to apply to those caught by subsection (2).

Government amendment No. 1 qualifies the offence in clause 10(1), so that any change affecting the accuracy of the information submitted with an application must be "material". That makes it consistent with new clause 1. It is likely that a wide range of information will be submitted with applications, and we do not want the offence to apply to inaccuracies that will not weigh in the balance when local authorities are making decisions. Such inaccuracies might include, for example, mistakes in the spelling of names or addresses. A similar amendment, Government amendment No. 14, has been proposed for the number plate scheme.

Government amendments Nos. 4 to 9 and Government amendment No. 12, which relate to clause 18, on the application for registration for registration plate suppliers, have a similar effect to the changes proposed for salvage operators. We propose to introduce a new offence, with a level 3 fine, of either knowingly or recklessly making a false statement when applying for registration.

A business convicted of making a false statement might not be considered in some cases to have made a valid registration, so the option of suspension from the register might not be open to the court. We therefore propose to give the court the power to impose a period of up to five years during which such a business will be barred from making a false application.

We also want to address the situation in which a business that has been suspended from the register or debarred from making a further application attempts to reapply before the relevant period has elapsed.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not least for his kind remarks of a few moments ago. I do not want to be pedantic, but I do want to be precise. The hon. Gentleman said that it would be possible under the new arrangements to prevent someone from making a false application for a period of five years. I think that the hon. Gentleman meant to say a further false application.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

To the extent that the applicant has already been barred or suspended from the register, an offence has been committed. I certainly accept the rephrasing of the expression along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman. However, this is a somewhat convoluted way of dealing with the issue. We have tussled hard to find an appropriate way forward on the matter. It is a convoluted form; nevertheless, it serves to achieve the desired effect.

As I was saying, this may involve a deliberate attempt to deceive the registration authority by providing false details. In line with the proposals for salvage operators, we are proposing a level 5 fine. This offence is more serious than simply providing false information, and ranks alongside the offence of trading while unregistered.

Government amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 13 relate to clause 19, which provides that a suspension from the register of number plate suppliers imposed by a magistrates court should not have effect until the time for appealing to the Crown court runs out. This is a sensible provision, because suspension from the register means that it will no longer be possible for someone to trade legally as a number plate supplier and that should not occur while there is still the possibility of a successful appeal.

There are two ways of dealing with an adverse decision of the magistrates court. One is to appeal to the Crown court; the other is to state a case on a point of law to the High Court. This is done when the magistrates court has exceeded its powers or seriously erred in law. The procedure should be used only in exceptional circumstances; it is, indeed, seldom used. Nevertheless, the legislation must allow for such circumstances.

Amendments Nos. 10 and 13 apply the same provision as on appeals to circumstances where a case is stated to the High Court.

Amendment No. 11 places a statutory duty on the courts to notify the DVLA when a registration is suspended or a business is ordered not to make another application for a specified period following a conviction for making a false statement. Unless the amendment is made, there will be no mechanism in law for notification from the courts. It is essential that the courts provide the DVLA with this information so that the register can be amended accordingly.

The purpose of amendments Nos. 15 to 17 is to describe the new offence relating to the sale of counterfeit plates more accurately, and to introduce a defence. The amendments relate to clause 27, which sets out to address two scenarios. The first is when defective number plates are sold to an unwitting customer. The second deals with the problem of customising number plates to a customer's specifications. It is already an offence under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 to display such a number plate, but many suppliers are happy to sell such plates and let the motorist take the risk of being caught. We want to deter that practice. It is right, however, that the defence should be available to cover any genuine cases in which the defect was slight and the supplier could prove he did not know of the defect and was not reckless with regard to the defect. In the light of those observations, I commend the Government amendments to the House.

I fear that I must resist Opposition amendments Nos. 37, 40, 41 and 42,. Let me explain why. Amendments Nos. 37 and 40 would make it an offence, punishable by a fine of up to £5,000, knowingly to make a false application for entry in the register of motor salvage operators or number plate suppliers. The Bill requires a motor salvage operator to make an application for registration. It does not, however, address the situation in which someone makes a false declaration as part of that application.

We appreciate the motivation behind the amendments. Indeed, the same proposals in Committee prompted us to table new clause 1, the related amendments to part I, amendment No. 4 and the related amendments to clause 18.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The crucial difference between the Opposition's amendments and the Government's new clause is that, whereas under the Government's proposals the offence occurs when someone either knowingly or recklessly makes a false statement, under the Opposition's proposals, the offence is committed when it is done knowingly, but not in circumstances of recklessness. Why does the Minister believe that recklessness should be included in the offence? What sort of circumstances does he think would be covered? How would he deal with the point made by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), when I proposed that recklessness should be imported into the offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000? He said that to import recklessness would introduce great complexity, legal technicalities and difficulties to the situation. How would the Under-Secretary deal with that point in this context?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I hope to come on to those points and set out the Government's objections in the course of my remarks.

We prefer the Government amendments chiefly because, unlike the others, they draw a worthwhile distinction between a false application per se and deception attempted by an applicant whose previous registration has been cancelled or refused. We consider the latter more serious, and deserving of a higher maximum penalty.

Amendment No. 41 relates to the registration of number plate suppliers. It seeks to increase the level of the fine for failure to notify a change of particulars from a level 4 fine of £2,500 to a level 5 fine of £5,000. We believe that that lacks a sense of proportion. One must compare the various offences in the Bill and give each its due weight. Is a failure to notify the DVLA of a change of address as serious as failure to register altogether? We do not think so. Our view is that the two cannot be treated in the same way. To carry on a business while unregistered is to flout the core purpose of the legislation. It cannot be compared with a failure to keep the DVLA updated in every material detail.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he is, no doubt inadvertently, giving the impression that the offence of failing to communicate a new address to the DVLA is somehow trifling. Will he, by contrast, accept that it would not be at all trifling if a change of business premises was not notified to the DVLA, so that, as far as that central authority was concerned, the registered salvage operator or registration plate supplier might just as well not be registered at all?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but an element of intention must be taken into account in this context. A bona fide supplier has obviously gone through the registration process, thereby demonstrating his integrity and acceptability as a supplier, but he may inadvertently fall into the trap of failing to convey a change of address in due course. That is a problem—but although it is an offence, it is not deeply serious and certainly falls into the category of possible accident rather than malevolence. On those grounds, we think that a worthwhile distinction can be made in the degree of seriousness of the offence. I am sure that we can return to those matters in due course.

Like amendment No. 41, amendment No. 42 treats an offence more gravely than is warranted. The offence under clause 27 is designed to deal with the practice of selling number plates where the characters are so arranged as to make them resemble a personal name or other word that might mean something to the owner.

The Government want to stop that practice, as it can make it difficult for cameras and witnesses to read number plates. That is already an offence, punishable by a level 3 fine of £1,000. However, we do not believe that selling a plate with the numbers "1" and "3" placed close together to look like a "B" is as serious as failure to register as a registration plate supplier, which, of course, attracts a level 5 fine.

In the light of those reasonable objections, I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) will feel able to withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My question was obviously quite difficult as the Under-Secretary completely failed to address it, despite saying that he would do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on the way in which he has taken up the issue and brought it to a conclusion—which, even if it is not not an entirely satisfactory one, is miles better than what preceded it. My hon. Friend identified the serious risk of people working illegally as motor salvage operators trying to obtain registration by giving false details. In almost every walk of crime, whenever there is an opportunity to make money by using false particulars to obtain the imprimatur of the state—the necessary licences or documentation—there are always cases of false representation. That is true in every field of crime; for example, the use of false identities to claim benefits or for the abuse of credit cards. It is surprising that the Government failed to identify that risk.

If the offence had not been created, gangs would have tried to obtain several registrations using false materials and representations. They would have been able to enter the system; they would have been seen as clean operators and would have been able to salvage vehicles, break them up and sell the parts. My hon. Friend has done an invaluable service; the amendments should indeed be known as the Buckingham amendments. The whole House owes my hon. Friend a debt, and I was pleased that the Government were able to acknowledge that.

In Committee, the Under-Secretary was rather shocked when that point was made. He said: Although I shall resist the new clause, I shall resist it in an extremely qualified fashion."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 9 January 2001; c. 66.] He was obviously in retreat before the logic of my hon. Friend. However, that is no bad thing; it is good for Ministers to retreat when good points are made. They can then make better proposals on Report. The Minister of State, Home Office will be doing a good deal of that when we consider the Criminal Justice and Police Bill in Committee next week.

The creation of an offence of knowingly or recklessly making a false statement in registering as a motor salvage operator, instead of the provision that we proposed—that it should be an offence when a false application is made knowingly—begs the question: why do the Government believe that the words "knowingly or recklessly" are the way to go?

There is a problem with the use of the word "recklessness", as the Minister of State pointed out to me during our discussions on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which included an offence of unlawfully intercepting a communication. Such an offence could only be committed by the authorities—or was most likely to be. I suggested that, if the authorities were to use their powers and facilities to intercept the communications of private citizens, it was wrong if the offence was only that they did so knowingly because, as servants of the state, they should be guilty if they acted recklessly.

6.15 pm

The forces of the state—the authorities—in this country do an excellent job, but we do not want them to be able to act recklessly without redress. The Minister replied that we could not make such a provision because the law on recklessness is so complex that no one really understands it, and the Court of Appeal had made contradictory decisions on it. I ventured to suggest that the definition of "recklessness" was a simple matter. If there is a clearly identifiable risk that damage would result from particular conduct and if, having recognised that risk, people engage in that conduct, they are reckless. However, the Minister said that that was not the only definition and cited various cases. I was so concerned at the Minister's reply that I asked that the Attorney-General attend our Committee to give us a proper legal definition. I did not agree with the Minister.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. People who may be brought before the courts for making a false statement "recklessly" to register as motor salvage operators may simply be innocent business men who made their statement in ignorance. They may not have understood what was needed on the form. They may be very good at salvaging cars, but not much good at paperwork.

If there is a problem with the law on recklessness, it is wrong that we cannot have recklessness in an offence that applies to the state and its servants—the authorities—because it is far too difficult and complicated and nobody will understand it, but that it can apply to a man running a small business. Such businesses may involve breaking up vehicles—occasionally for spare parts. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) knows such small businesses only too well from his days in Southwark—I do not suggest that he ever took his taxi to them.

Is it right that an ordinary business man, with a small business, should be put at risk of being found guilty of acting recklessly, when the real mischief that we want to attack is committed by the fraudster? We want to go after people who knowingly make false statements when registering as motor salvage operators. It was worrying that the Under-Secretary could not give me a ready reply to my question, because he drafted the provisions. There is clearly a significant difference between our suggestions in Committee and his proposals: it is the word "recklessness". If that word has been inserted without the hon. Gentleman's knowledge—or if he has not even thought about it—that really is a poor do. I hope that he will reflect on the matter. Perhaps during the debate he will recall why he thought that the word "recklessness" offered the way forward.

Our amendment No. 37 provides for an offence of "knowingly" making a false application. That is the basis on which we should proceed. Government amendment No. 4 provides for the offence of recklessly or knowingly making a false statement as to the registration of a number plate supplier. Again, I make the same point that I made about the earlier provision: there is an offence not merely in respect of "knowingly" but in respect of "recklessly" making a false statement.

Government amendment No. 4 includes proposed new subsection (2B), under which no application can be made for up to five years if the person has been banned from registering as a result of a conviction for making a false statement to apply. That is sensible; it is right that fraudsters should be banned, but is it fair to ban someone who has acted recklessly? Clearly, such a ban is fair enough if someone has behaved dishonestly, and knowingly so, but recklessness is a borderline issue and the Minister may feel that the provision presents dangers for small business men.

Government amendment No. 5 is technical and Government amendment No. 6 is consequential. Government amendment No. 7 provides that if a person has been convicted of making a false application, he can be removed from the register and a prohibition will apply. We have no problem with that. Amendment No. 40, which we tabled, would make it an offence to submit a false application to register as a number plate supplier. Again, it includes the word "knowingly".

We suggest that a level 5 fine should be imposed for the offence of failing to notify changes in information on the register. The Under-Secretary dismissed that suggestion, saying that there is a great difference between not notifying a change in circumstances and making a false statement at the outset. However, my experience, as a Minister with responsibility for benefit fraud, was that people would often make a genuine claim initially, but their circumstances would change and they would not tell the authorities. That was a big problem. In a sense, such fraud was almost a crime of omission, although dishonesty and guilt were involved. People often find it easier to mislead the authorities by not doing what they have a duty to do than by deliberately setting out to lie. The same applies to these provisions.

If a motor salvage operator begins perfectly satisfactorily, tells no lies and has a good business, but that business goes badly wrong, he may be tempted to make changes to the business that may lead it into the black market and to become involved in the activities that the Government want to curtail. In those circumstances, not giving notification of a change of address could be a crucial indicator of the fact that that operator is operating dishonestly and is misleading the authorities. It is often easier to detect crimes in which people have to tell the authorities something and lie than those in which they do not have to tell them anything. It is therefore important to impose a fairly tough penalty in such cases to dissuade those who may be tempted to fail to give the information to which the authorities are entitled. I ask the Under-Secretary to respond to that important issue.

Government amendment No. 15 will add the concept of guilty knowledge to the offence of selling a counterfeit registration plate. Again, it states that someone must know, or be reckless about the fact that, something is not a true plate. It is good that that will no longer be an absolute offence and that the Minister is prepared to introduce the mental element or the golden thread to which I have referred—but not too often because the Minister of State hates lawyers and does not like to be reminded too much about the country's legal history. I am not sure why that is so, because if the Minister of State ever becomes Prime Minister, he will look with delight on the country's history and think himself part of a great chain of historical events. He might think that our legal system is rather good; it is one of the things for which this country is most prized. Our common law is recognised internationally as one of the things that we have given to the world and our system of justice is well respected across the Commonwealth and half the world. Perhaps it is not the law but the lawyers at which he aims his attack.

It is good that the golden thread of knowledge and the mental element of crime will be introduced under Government amendment No. 15, but the Under-Secretary should explain the use of the term "recklessness". Why has that complicated concept been introduced, given that the Minister of State has told us that it is almost impossible to understand?

Amendment No. 42 would increase from level 4 to level 5 the penalty for selling a counterfeit plate. Such matters depend on whether people believe that selling a counterfeit plate is a serious crime. On Second Reading, we were told that it was important, that it fuelled crime and that it should be stamped out. I agree with that; everyone who hears media reports of criminals who steal cars and fit counterfeit plates to them knows that it is a way in which they mask their identity. If that is crucial to the commission of crime, surely selling such a plate is an important matter for which a substantial sentence should be imposed.

With the best will in the world, we have to recognise that those who commit such an offence do so for money. It is a commercial offence, so a £2,000 fine is surely too low. If this is a commercial exercise designed to stop people committing the offence, it seems wrong to set the penalty at such a low level. I hope that the Under-Secretary is prepared to reply to those points. Perhaps he will tell us his detailed views on the law of recklessness. If not, perhaps the Attorney-General will tell us what he thinks later.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I, too, rise to support amendments Nos. 37, 40, 41 and 42, tabled by my hon. Friends. As I said during the debate on the programme motion, I find it extraordinary that the provisions contained in new clause 1 were left out of the Bill. Many hon. Members know that I am pro-American. Being so pro-American, I think that they should be called not the Buckingham amendments but the Bercow amendments because that is what they would be called in the United States and it would be in recognition of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) discovered this lacuna in the Bill. It is a truly amazing gap.

The Bill is primarily intended to enable the registration of licence plate suppliers and motor salvage operators, but there was no provision imposing sanctions on those who deliberately provide false information when registering. That extraordinary omission clearly demonstrates the need for scrutiny—and, indeed, the need for the House—so it ill behoves the Government deliberately to limit the time available for such scrutiny.

In the previous Session, the Utilities Bill was cut in half, but the Government propose additions to this Bill. I suppose that we could argue that we at least have a listening Government because, now that the Opposition have had time to identify gaps in the legislation, they now suggest the inclusion of the missing provisions. I am not convinced that the Bill does not contain other, similar lacunae. Of course, the Under-Secretary cannot guarantee us that no other lacunae exist because there has been insufficient time to deal with such issues.

I want to speak to Government amendment No. 15. The Under-Secretary wondered whether it was trivial for the numbers 1 and 3 to be put together to make the letter B. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has already asked whether the £2,000 fine is sufficient to deter criminals from altering number plates, given that such crimes often involve large sums. This morning I met Sir John Stevens, the London police commissioner, who said that people under the age of 17 commit about 70 per cent. of crime in London—a sobering statistic. Nevertheless major crime is committed to obtain big money. I hardly think that a fine of £2,000 is an adequate deterrent.


Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend agree that his proposition is supported by the Government's own advocacy for the Bill on Second Reading? They made it clear that the measures were designed to tackle car crime in and of itself, not only because of the damage that it does and the emotional scars that it can cause but because it is the gateway to the commission of more serious offences, including drug trafficking and terrorism.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

As ever, my hon. Friend is completely correct. He leads me on to a fresh point. The police are beginning to use interesting new technology in their fight against crime. I welcome the use of the automatic licence plate recognition equipment, which is already used at some of our ports. I hope that it will also be introduced on major trunk roads. The equipment is made up of television cameras that are linked to computers that can recognise and read the licence plates of cars as they move by. If a car is stolen or if the police need to survey it for any reason, the computer will immediately flag up its existence and draw it to the attention of the relevant authorities.

I was about to intervene on the Under-Secretary when he concluded his remarks. I believe that he said he did not think it was too serious a crime to alter a licence plate by putting a "1" and a "3" together to look like a "B" or to use italic instead of standard script, even though to do so would contravene existing road traffic and other Acts. What would be the effect on the new equipment if plates were altered in that way? Surely, if a police officer were trying to detect the whereabouts of a stolen vehicle or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham suggests, one containing drugs and a "1" and a "3" were together on its licence plate, is it not possible that the equipment might see that as a "B" and not highlight to the relevant authorities the fact that the vehicle had just moved by or entered the country? At present, the equipment just recognises UK licence plates, but it will shortly recognise those from other countries.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Does the hon. Gentleman approve or disapprove of people who amend their licence plates in the way that he has described?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I hope that I made myself clear. However, if I have not done so, I make it absolutely clear now that I disapprove of such conduct. I regret the fact that the Under-Secretary finished his speech before I could intervene, but I got the impression that he was making light of the fact that people could amend their licence plates to make them more attractive. I am sure that he will clarify that when he winds up this debate. For example, if I had the licence plate "FA 13", would I be tempted to change it to "FAB"? I think not. Unlike the late lamented Gerald Nabarro, I have no desire to have a series of vehicles with the licence plates, "NAB 1", "NAB 2" and "NAB 3", or even "FAB 1", "FAB 2" and "FAB 3".

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Or "FAB FM", as the Minister suggests, referring to a non-existent radio station with which he thinks I was involved some years ago.

This is a serious matter. If one changes a licence plate to such a degree that a police officer cannot recognise it either with the naked eye or automatic equipment and thus is unable to follow the vehicle or stop it if it is stolen, surely that negates the whole point of having plates in the first place. Does the Under-Secretary not think that he was being reckless in suggesting that such an offence would not be as serious as some of the others in the Bill?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Before my hon. Friend moves on from the issue of automatic licence plate recognition, will he tell us whether he shares the concerns that I and other hon. Members have about the misuse of such technology and the civil liberties implications? Does he not consider it possible that the existence of such technology might make it more likely that people will wish to change their licence plate numbers even if they are not guilty of a crime?

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

If people were to change their licence plates, they would be guilty of a crime. I shall not go into great detail on that question, because that would be out of order, but I merely say that I do not regard the use of the equipment as an invasion of civil liberties. However, I accept that some people will argue that it is another example of big brother.

However, one could argue that if one had a police officer on every street corner—oh, I dream about that nightly for Lichfield, but it will not come about.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I shall give way to the Minister, who tried engagingly to intervene on me in the debate on the ten-minute Bill. I realise that he is a relatively new boy and did not know that one cannot intervene in such a debate. I promised that I would give way to him at a suitable juncture; I suspect this is the point.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I was almost out of order earlier, but the hon. Gentleman helped me. However, I wish to point out that there was a useful Adjournment debate this morning with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) on the issue of police numbers in Staffordshire. We were all disappointed that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) could not attend to discuss his views in detail in the appropriate forum.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I am glad that the Minister has raised that point, because I can now put on record where I was this morning.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The House is mainly concerned by the fact that the hon. Gentleman is here now, and should be addressing the new clause that is before us.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Of course I will abide by your instructions, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, if I had been able to attend the debate, I would have been there. I was with the Staffordshire Regiment, but I cannot say any more because that would be out of order. It was an equally important event to do with my constituency of Lichfield, but I was torn because I wanted to attend that debate.

To answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), I do not believe that the use of the equipment is an invasion of civil liberties. I regard the use of extra police officers or new technology to apprehend criminals as protection for all law-abiding people. It helps to protect innocent, decent, honourable people—and, by definition, we are all honourable in this House—so it is a good thing.

My hon. Friend is a philosopher. Like Topol in "Fiddler on the Roof", he always see two sides to an argument. He has an Hasidic viewpoint—on the one hand this, on the other hand that—and he is right because he is truly a statesman. On balance, I would prefer it for the new technology to be rolled out. I accept that the civil liberties lobby will say that it is an example of big brother but, if big brother is there to protect me, I am happy. Big brother will be a good brother provided that the Bill is properly scrutinised by the House. That is why I get so upset when Bills are rushed through under timetable motions.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because it enables me to pick him up on an important theme in the debate. Does he not agree that one of the reasons—a reason on which I did not dilate in the debate on the programme motion—for us to have more time thoroughly to consider the contents of the Bill is that several of its key provisions, amendments and new clauses are not ultimately a matter of party politics? They involve matters of discretion and judgment by individual Members in different parties. There is no uniformity of view on some of the issues, so does my hon. Friend accept that we need a—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We cannot rehearse the arguments that we heard in the debate on the programme motion. There are many groups of amendments to cover and other hon. Members may want to contribute to the debate. I should be grateful if that were borne in mind.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

My final point relates to recklessness. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said that what was sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander when we compare the Bill with other legislation. However, I have a specific issue to raise.

New clause 1(1)(b) states that someone who recklessly makes a statement which is false in a material particular, shall be guilty of an offence". How will it be possible to prove in a court of law that a statement was made recklessly? The principle of English common law, about which my hon. Friend waxed so lyrically and accurately, is the gift that we have given the world. Under common law, it is necessary to prove a guilty mind—there must be mens rea. How will we be able to get a conviction under new clause 1(1)(b)? How will people be able to prove that a statement was made recklessly rather than by pure accident or out of innocence? How can we get into the mind of the individual? That is my criticism of the word "recklessly".

I suspect that the Minister used the same argument when we discussed the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, to which my hon. Friend referred.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The word "reckless" was not mentioned in the Standing Committee's deliberations. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is describing the distinction between inadvertent neglect and wilful contempt? It is important that that be clarified.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

As ever, my hon. Friend uses words carefully. The courts would try to differentiate in that way, but it would be difficult for them to do so because English law is about evidence. If a crime has been committed, the evidence has to be provided in court so that a magistrate or jury believes that the person has committed the crime. There must be a guilty mind; there must be mens rea. How will we get into the mind of the individual to show that he was reckless rather than in contempt of the law? It will be impossible to prove that.

The Bill was hastily presented, which gave rise to the massive lacuna that the Government are attempting to fill with new clause 1. I suspect that the new clause has also been hastily tabled. It contains a series of lacunae, or at least loopholes, that will keep lawyers, who are so hated by the Minister, in business for many a year. It is sad that, since 1997, Bills have been hastily prepared and, although they have been filled with good intentions, they have also been filled with giant loopholes. Either they contain loopholes that keep lawyers in business for years or, as happened with the Utilities Act 2000, great chunks are removed before they reach the statute book.

Can the Under-Secretary assure me that the new clause has not been recklessly compiled? Can he assure me that there will be convictions under new clause 1(1)(b)? Can he assure me that, if licence plates are changed—for example, when the numbers 1 and 3 are put together to make the letter B—so that police officers and the vehicle licence plate recognition equipment cannot read them correctly, that is not an unimportant matter? If so, why will a level 5 penalty not be applied?


Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

The exchanges to which we have just been treated demonstrate that there is not much difference between the Government and the official Opposition. I shall attempt to deal with the points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) mentioned the level of fines if a person fails to notify a change of address. The Government are responding to most people's perception that such a failure, which is more likely to be an unwitting action, is not as serious as providing false information.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the Under-Secretary wants to table a manuscript amendment that contains the word "knowingly", I shall be more than happy to consider it.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

It is with great enthusiasm that I address the vexed issue of recklessness and knowingness. I shall have several stabs at answering the questions. Let me set out my stall. It is vital that the application process generates true and accurate information. No doubt we would all agree on that. Clause 10 deals with accuracy; the new clause deals with true information. Why should people who are reckless and do not care whether the information that they submit is true be allowed to escape? That must be discouraged. The conscientious who make a mistake are unlikely to be reckless.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

No, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have another opportunity to return to the issue of recklessness.

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked how we can get a conviction on the grounds of recklessness. Bearing in mind the amount of time that he took to make his point, I am extremely glad that he is not my lawyer.

It is for the judicial process—the courts—to decide whether an act was reckless. It is incumbent on the prosecution to show that the accused took no steps to verify the information. The prosecution would have to ask whether a reasonable person knew that his statement was false. The fact is that there are many reckless offences in statute. The Criminal Damage Act 1971 contains such offences and successful prosecutions take place under it.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I made those arguments when we discussed unlawful interceptions by the state authorities in our debates on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. When we dealt with the important matter of the state committing offences, the Minister told me that it was impossible to have the offence of recklessness when the arrogant use of power was the issue. He said that the subject was so complicated that the courts could not understand it and that there were different interpretations of the law. Now, why should the poor old garagiste in Peckham, Southwark, Eltham or north Hertfordshire have to wrestle with the concept of recklessness if it is not good enough for the Secret Intelligence Service and the authorities in Britain?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

It is a matter of eternal regret to me that I was not a member of the Committee that considered that Bill and was therefore unable to listen to the hon. Gentleman at even greater length. We are dealing now with an entirely different Bill, and there is no comparison between the two measures.

I return to the issues of recklessness and knowingness, on which I was seeking to help the Opposition. At present, a person accused of knowingly committing an offence will escape conviction if he shows that he does not know because he does not care. The introduction of the concept of recklessness fills that gap, as it does in other legislation, and it differs from knowingness in that "knowingly" means that someone has subjective knowledge—he knows that he is making a false statement, rather than just not caring. That is a pretty clear distinction between concepts.

I shall have a final stab at explaining that difference to the Opposition. "Reckless" means not taking pains to ensure whether what is said is true. We want to deter that in the application process, where it is important to be accurate, and that is consistent with clause 10, where reckless failure to notify will also be an offence. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is perfectly clear to me from the acclaim that I am receiving from my hon. Friends that I have explained that distinction to the satisfaction of the majority party.

I propose then to proceed to the last issue of minor substance, the question of offences in connection with the supply of number plates, which was raised by the Opposition in their response to my opening remarks. As we have explained repeatedly during our many fascinating discussions on the subject, the issue that the Government are seeking to tackle is the abuse of the number plates supplied, which is the most serious problem.

It is not our purpose to criminalise the number plate supply industry. However, we wish to deter the practice of selling number plates with characters so arranged as to make them resemble a person's name. As I have said before, we think that a level 3 fine is just about appropriate in those circumstances, and we are pretty sure that the majority of the great British public—25 million of whom are motorists—would agree.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.