Clause 10 - Financial penalty deposits

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 25th January 2005.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 10:15 am, 25th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 23, in clause 10, page 9, line 10, at end insert—

'(Za) that the motor vehicle is not registered in Great Britain or Northern Ireland.'.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Labour, Doncaster North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 24, in clause 10, page 9, line 12, at end insert—

'(aa) the person committing the offence is not normally resident in the United Kingdom and'.

No. 46, in clause 10, page 9, line 23, leave out 'United Kingdom' and insert 'European Union'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In addition to moving amendment No. 23, I shall speak to amendment No. 24, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire has   something to say about his amendment No. 46. Amendment No. 23 would limit the ambit of clause 10 to vehicles that were not registered in the UK. Amendment No. 24 would limit its ambit to people who were committing an offence or had committed an offence when they were not ordinarily resident in the UK. I tabled those amendments to test why the Government were making the ambit of the financial penalty deposit system set out in the clause much wider than the ostensible justification for it suggests. The justification for the system is that it will enable us to get even with all the foreign lorry drivers who are breaking the UK traffic laws with impunity.

Interestingly, at the helpful briefing provided by the Minister and his officials, it was said that 44,000 offences by foreign vehicle drivers went unpunished in the last year for which figures were available, which gives some idea of the extent of the problem. It was also made clear that nothing in the clause would give immediate relief, because there is nothing in it to ensure that the driver of a lorry that has triggered a speed camera, for example, at a site where nobody is present to stop him, will pay the penalty before he returns to the continent, whence most of the foreign lorries emanate.

The Government are taking extra powers in the clause, which can be used against UK citizens and residents and people with UK-registered vehicles, ostensibly to deal with the foreign lorry drivers who are breaking our speed limits with impunity and committing other offences against the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986. However, we understand that there will not be much opportunity to catch those drivers and that the financial deposit system will be of only limited use. In that case, why are the Government extending the scheme to local residents as well as to foreigners?

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 10:30 am, 25th January 2005

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's amendment and I have the same broad questions. Paragraph 39 of the explanatory notes says:

''The effect of these provisions is to provide a means of enforcement against offenders who avoid payment . . . by not having a satisfactory address in the United Kingdom.''

At the briefing there was mention of 44,000 such offences. I had understood them to be camera offences. The clause will have no impact on anybody trapped by a camera, because they will not be stopped. I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

The Library briefing says that, broadly speaking, 85 per cent. of offences are now detected by cameras as opposed to the police. If 44,000 represents 85 per cent., something close to 8,000 would represent the remaining 15 per cent. If my maths are right, a £60 fixed payment would produce less than £500,000 in income. We are talking about only a small number of offences and a small amount of money.

We cannot discriminate against foreigners, however, so any legislation must cover UK citizens too. I am therefore interested in the impact of a deposit   on a UK citizen. If the police stop somebody at present, presumably they try to ascertain an address. If they are satisfied with the address, the person is released. Presumably the clause does not change that: the police will still release them. If the police are not satisfied with the address, they may take the person to a police station to make further inquiries; they will not simply release them. Presumably that will continue. The only change that I can foresee for British people would be in the case of somebody who could not prove their identity but had sufficient cash on them to pay the deposit. It seems to me that somebody who cannot prove their identity but has cash is probably quite a suspicious person, but they appear to be the only ones who will benefit from the clause.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I rise to speak briefly to amendment No. 46 and to tease out of the Minister his own view about this matter. I broadly welcome clause 10. It is sensible, and I am delighted that it is in the Bill, but it is an odd proposal from a Government who are pro-European. Is the Minister alone in being off message by putting forward such a proposal? The Government want us to sign up to the European constitution, and to get rid of our own currency and join the euro. They have supported giving up the veto in a number of areas and giving police in other European states far more power, in some cases power over citizens of this country.

One could argue that new section 90A(4) adopts a little Englander approach by stipulating that a satisfactory address is only an address in the United Kingdom. Given the Government's pro-European credentials, why is the Minister not proposing that a satisfactory address be any address in the European Union? What he is proposing appears to go against the drift of Government policy in every other area.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The effect of amendments Nos. 23 and 24 would be, first, to restrict the requirement for a deposit payment to a non-resident offender driving a vehicle registered abroad. Secondly, they would restrict such a requirement to an offender not normally resident in the UK. That would make it much easier for drivers to escape the penalties. The problem is that people without a satisfactory address in this country—that is to say, an address that can be used to find them for enforcement purposes—are able to escape fines. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire knows that our police have no power to check addresses in other parts of Europe or the world, but can act only in the UK. Such persons may be, for example, driving UK-registered cars that they have hired or borrowed temporarily. It is the offender that we are concerned with, not just the vehicle.

Normal residence is also not the right approach. A person might not normally reside here, but have an address that is satisfactory if, for example, they are a frequent visitor. In short, not being normally resident does not mean that penalties cannot necessarily be enforced against a person. However, a satisfactory address is not to be confused with an accommodation address. Our enforcement agencies have experienced problems with offenders who offer accommodation addresses where summonses never get passed on, with   the result that the offenders avoid the penalties and the fines. We wish to ensure that all offenders are punished on the same basis to ensure fairness for everybody. New section 90A(4) adequately defines those offenders required to pay a deposit.

I turn now to amendment No. 46. There is no effective means available to the enforcement agencies in this country of pursuing non-payment of fines by employing competent authorities in the country of origin of the non-UK resident offender. So, all pre-enlargement EU member states with the exception of ourselves, Finland and the Irish Republic have arrangements similar to the measures introduced by clause 10. The amendment would defeat one of the primary purposes for introducing the provision: the financial penalty deposits. At the moment, some offenders—the majority of them EU nationals, because of our proximity to other countries in the EU—are able to avoid financial penalties simply by leaving the country before they have settled their fines. Our enforcement agencies have no device for following up fines in other countries.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In view of the co-operation that exists between EU member states in many areas, are not negotiations taking place on the matter? Will the Minister give a precis of the stage we are at in achieving an agreement with our European partners on the problem?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I cannot go into too much detail, because I would be testing the Committee's patience if I did, but it is true that we are having discussions with our European colleagues about how we can enforce the laws on driving offences throughout the EU. That will take time. The difficulty is that the current laws are so disparate. What is an offence in one country may not be an offence in another, and there are other considerable difficulties.

Moreover, we do not want the EU to have competence in some areas, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want that either. We could find ourselves obliged to have the same traffic laws as other countries, which I would resist. We have a good road safety record in this country and a good record of enforcing the law on the road. I would not want to see that diluted in any way by agreements that reduce the impact of that law enforcement.

In future, we have to look at the way that police forces share information about vehicles and offenders so that people cannot commit and get away with an offence in one country, then freely move across EU borders to another country. That is not in anyone's interest. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he has made a good argument for being pro-European. One of the purposes of being a member of a union is to allow states to work together against that minority of people who may be committing offences on the road, and as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, some of those people may be undertaking other nefarious activities.

The penalty will allow the police officer to make a judgment about the offence that has been committed, and it will ensure that a person will receive a   punishment based on what they would have received if they had been taken to court and received a penalty point. I accept, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that that will have a limited effect in the first instance, but in time, once more of the speed cameras use digital systems rather than wet-film systems, it will be possible for ANPR cameras to pick up some of those vehicles at the ports where they are leaving or entering. We will be able to check on some of those vehicles. If they had been regularly committing offences, the new technology would allow us to pull them over to insist that the penalty was paid, either before they left the country or when they came back into it.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

That is the next challenge. The number plates are varied in size and in the information that they carry. Activity is under way to see whether we can recognise the large majority of number plates from foreign countries. The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is a considerable challenge to create software that can read number plates from 25 different countries. I am assured that currently the majority of them can be read.

In future, we will be able to carry out enforcement activities at the ports of departure. That is one of the advantages of being an island nation; in some countries, borders are exceedingly difficult to police.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The Minister has, as always, been helpful, but I am not sure that he has allayed our concerns about the fact that increasing numbers of foreign drivers are committing speed camera offences with impunity. The Government are doing nothing about that. They could put more traffic police on the roads, targeting vehicles with foreign number plates in the knowledge that their drivers will not be brought to book if they commit road traffic offences detected by camera. It is often difficult for ordinary citizens to read the number plates on foreign vehicles. We need an enforcement clampdown aimed at foreign vehicles. That does not seem to be on the Government's agenda. I fear that the consequence of the clause will be a lot more oppression of individuals in this country who cannot demonstrate to the satisfaction of the police that they have got what is described as a permanent address; they might have only an accommodation address.

I will not press the matter to a vote because I can envisage circumstances in which the provision might be useful. My constituency, probably like that of many hon. Members, is plagued by the problem of so-called Travellers. In Christchurch, one of these Travellers was recently apprehended by the police, but because the person had no fixed address the police said that the option available to them was to arrest the person, take them to the police station and present them to a magistrates court as soon as possible, which would mean keeping them in custody for many hours. At the court, the person would probably get a rap on the   knuckles and be on their way to commit some more offences. The police decided that in the end they would not bother to arrest the Travellers for the miscellany of road traffic offences of which they seemed, prima facie, guilty. If the Minister had said that he would use the powers to target the problem of those people who call themselves Travellers, but who actually come into our country, cause mayhem and have no regard for the law, I would have a lot more confidence about them than I do at the moment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:45 am, 25th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 47, in clause 10, page 12, line 23, at end insert

'provided that such direction is reasonable in the circumstances and does not result in or require the person so directed to pay any costs fees or expenses to any third party as a direct consequence of the direction.'.

The Minister said that we do not want to have the same traffic laws as Europe. Generally speaking, I agree, although I have to say that when I find myself travelling home on the motorway during a non-rush-hour period, and mine is the only vehicle around, I sometimes wish that we could harmonise our upper speed limits with our partners in France and Germany.

We welcome the clause, but only if the powers are fairly used. The amendment is intended to ensure that any removal direction imposed on a motorist is reasonable. The clause is a wide one. I refer the Committee to page 11, where it says that a constable has the right to prohibit a person from driving if he has been stopped and fails to make a payment. I can understand why that may be necessary. The constable can prohibit the person from driving on a road

''any vehicle of which the person was in charge at the time of the offence by giving to the person notice in writing of the prohibition.''

So far, so good. However, the provisions go on to say:

''A constable or vehicle examiner may by direction in writing require the person to remove the vehicle to which the prohibition relates . . . to such place and subject to such conditions as are specified in the direction''.

We can understand why that might be necessary. It could well be that the vehicle, in its present position, is causing or may cause an obstruction, so the police officer wants it moved to a particular place. However, when the police make such a direction, it should be fair and should not directly result in the person who has committed an offence being subjected to a huge extra cost.

I am thinking of a scenario in which a police officer tells the person in charge of a vehicle to remove it to an inner London car compound, which happens to be next to a perfectly acceptable car park that charges £10 a day, whereas the compound charges £80 a day for the storage of vehicles. If a police officer were to make such a direction, the driver who had committed the offence could face storage charges of up to five times the fixed penalty that he has not paid, which would not be reasonable. Most car compounds charge exorbitant fees, and it could well take a driver who had been   arrested for a relatively minor offence three days to get the money to pay the penalty. Why should he have to pay a whopping fee to some profiteering car compound, the effect of which would be to turn a relatively minor financial penalty into a huge burden on him, when he had made only a minor transgression in the law? We must ensure that the powers under the clause, which we welcome, are exercised fairly and reasonably, and that they do not result in an accused person being penalised excessively.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The clause provides for cases in which people will not pay a deposit by enabling enforcement officers to prohibit the driving of vehicles. In such cases, it may be necessary for the enforcement officer to direct that the vehicle be moved to a place of safety or a place where it will not cause any further problems. We want to avoid situations in which offenders required to pay a deposit simply abandon their vehicles, thereby causing additional costs to enforcement agencies and unnecessary disruption and inconvenience to other road users. Someone with a vehicle of little value could walk away, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab of removing the vehicle and doing whatever is necessary.

The police already have powers to prohibit the use of vehicles on the grounds of roadworthiness, drivers' hours and other offences. They frequently direct drivers to take their vehicle to a place where it can safely be parked until the problem is remedied. That is quite right; some of those vehicles should not be on the road, and the police and the enforcement agencies should not have to pick up the tab. The powers in the clause are based closely on those powers, and the same parking areas will be used for prohibitions that require the payment of a deposit. They are normally close to the checkpoint and generally cause little inconvenience.

I am a little surprised at the Opposition tabling the amendment. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the taxpayer should pick up the bill if a driver cannot provide an adequate address and will not pay the penalty fine, and the vehicle must be moved from the side of the road to a safe place? I am surprised that the hon. Member for Christchurch did not leap up and say that that was a stealth tax. That is what he usually does in such circumstances.

The taxpayer should not have to pick up the tab for such offenders. The initial offence may be small, but people who offend in that way should not be able to get away with it. Neither should they be able to place a further burden on the taxpayer. I ask the Committee most emphatically to reject the amendment.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not entirely convinced by what the Minister says, and I do not buy his scenario of there being no alternative but to take a vehicle to an expensive, profiteering car compound. There are many other places where it could be parked while the offender obtained the money. In an area near where I live, where the police regularly undertake checks, there is a perfectly satisfactory lay-by which could be used in such circumstances. In many places there are picnic   sites and other areas where there would be no cost to the defendant of leaving his vehicle in a secure state until he could pay the fixed penalty ticket.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

These powers are now being used by the police. When enforcement is being carried out, usually in relation to HGVs, there is a often a park or compound nearby where the vehicles can be parked. There is no intention of directing them miles away to places where they will incur an excessive cost. The checks are usually set up in places that require the minimum movement of the vehicle. My reason for rejecting the amendment is that the taxpayer should not have to pick up the tab if there are additional costs because the process takes longer than anticipated.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

On the latter point we are at one. I would not wish the taxpayer to pick up the tab either, but as stated in the amendment, I want any removal direction to be reasonable. What the Minister said partly satisfies me as he made it clear that it would not be common practice for an expensive car compound to be used. However, there is a case for stating that the direction must be reasonable, and I want to reflect on the matter before Report.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

There is a complaints system for the police and one for the VOSA inspectors who carry out the inspections and give vehicles directions. There is also an independent complaints officer who can take up those complaints if people feel that they have been unfairly treated. I am told that the latter service has never been used because no one has yet made a complaint.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not entirely satisfied with the Minister's reply. If a foreign national, whose English may not be good, falls foul of these provisions, his main concern will be to get back his vehicle and to get home. A complaints procedure is not necessarily the answer to that problem if, having paid three days' excessive storage charges, he has to go through a procedure that may require him to set out his case in writing or to meet someone.

As I was about to say before the Minister intervened, my main concern is that the powers should be used reasonably, which could be done by drafting an amendment with slightly different wording from mine. I want to reflect on what the Minister said, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In an earlier debate on an amendment in my name, the Minister was helpful in showing sympathy for my point of view about the need for enforcement in the case of the lawlessness of Travellers who use vehicles without regard to the prevailing road traffic laws. When do the Government intend to use the powers in the clause to deal with a situation involving Travellers? Page 69 of the regulatory impact assessment addresses the clause on the basis that it is a means of dealing with offences relating particularly to   commercial vehicles. Page 33 of the Library research paper also says that the intention is to deal with commercial vehicles. It states:

''The intention is to introduce the schemes for the commercial sector. No decision has yet been taken about whether to apply the deposit scheme to other motorists without a UK address but the enabling powers would allow this.''

In light of the real concern about the growing problem of Travellers, will the Minister undertake to ensure that the powers being taken under the clause are used to deal with that problem, thereby giving the law enforcement authorities an additional string to their bow? That would bring some comfort to hard-pressed communities up and down the country who are fed up to their back teeth with the fact that there seems to be one law for them and another for Travellers. If the Minister cannot give such an assurance I will be very disappointed. I hope that he believes that the discussion in this Standing Committee is sufficient to ensure that the powers are applied to that kind of case.

I would also be grateful if the Minister could tell us when the main powers in the clause will be introduced. How soon will we see a rebalancing of the penalties imposed on foreign lorry drivers so that they are more proportionate to the number of foreign lorry drivers on our roads? The figures given in the regulatory impact assessment suggest that the number of prosecutions against foreign drivers is minute: there were just seven cases, with 10 offences, from 1 April 2003 to 31 March 2004 compared with 7,835 prosecutions against non-foreign drivers. That is a wholly disproportionate way of dealing with the matter, considering the number of offences of which foreign drivers are guilty. If we give the Government these powers, how soon will they be implemented?

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 11:00 am, 25th January 2005

We are broadly content with the clause, but I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify one part of it. Subsections (6)(b) and (10)(b) of new section 90C both refer to refunds to be made when a deposit has been taken and some of the amount is required to be applied for a fine. Subsection (6)(a) says that the Secretary of State must

''apply so much of the payment as does not exceed the amount of the fixed penalty in or towards payment of the fixed penalty''.

Subsection (6)(b) deals with the refund. Its wording caught my eye over the weekend. It says that the Secretary of State must

''take the appropriate steps to make any appropriate refund to the person.''

It would have been possible to phrase that by saying simply, ''refund so much of the payment as exceeds the amount specified in (a)''. That would have been absolutely clear. The amount needed for the fine would be taken under paragraph (a) and the rest would be given back under paragraph (b).

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

Is not that exactly the definition of ''the appropriate refund'' given in new section 90C(12)?

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was coming to precisely that point. Will the Minister confirm that what will be refunded is the difference   between the two amounts, and there is no latitude for excessive charging, administrative costs or all the other things that might arise?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Member for Christchurch went round in a wonderful circle when speaking to his amendments. He started by asking why those penalties should apply to the good, upstanding citizens of this country. The truth is, of course, that they will not. People who provide an address and adequate information to a police or enforcement officer will not be affected. There was then a flash of light in the hon. Gentleman's head, and his constituency case work must have come to mind. He remembered complaints about travellers in and around his constituency, and recalled that there are UK citizens who do not have a fixed address, and against whom, currently, the powers of the police are not always adequate. The clause gives the police the power to impose a penalty deposit on such a person, who may well be a UK citizen but who cannot or will not provide an adequate address.

In some cases the provision may mean that, if the person does not pay the penalty, the vehicle can be impounded so that they are prevented from moving until they have paid. Whether they are UK citizens or foreign drivers is neither here nor there. We should take action against those who currently slip through the net. The hon. Gentleman presented a wonderful argument which went round in a circle; he asked questions and then answered them, which was very helpful to me.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

It is one of the frustrations of not being in government that we must both raise and answer questions from the Opposition Benches. One question that the Minister has not answered is whether the provision applies only to commercial vehicles.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

There are many hazards and frustrations of being in opposition. I have been there, as have one or two of my hon. Friends.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Well, all I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that some of the hazards that he mentioned will be with him a little longer—unless, of course, he wants to follow the example of some of his hon. Friends and move to this side of the Committee.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am told that the parliamentary Labour party is full, but the hon. Member for Christchurch can go on the waiting list if he wants to.

Initially the measure is aimed at commercial drivers, because, as hon. Members know, they may not commit the majority of offences but, when they do commit them—and particularly when they are involved in collisions—they tend to be among the more serious events. They tend to happen on our main trunk and motorway network. HGVs are disproportionately represented in the figures for serious incidents involving death and injury. I am afraid to say that a   worrying number of foreign vehicles are involved in those figures too. The majority drivers are safe and the majority of vehicles are good, but those that are bad are represented in the figures. We are tackling the problem first where it is worst.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the provision will come into force. Assuming that the Bill obtains Royal Assent, there will be a period of consultation, which we will be obliged to undertake, followed by secondary legislation. I anticipate that if the timetable goes well that will certainly happen before the end of the year. It would then be up to us to decide how in future we might extend the provision to other vehicles.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross raised the question of the refund. I assure him that that would be the excess, if appropriate, paid over any fine. If the fine subsequently turned out to be less than the deposit there would be a refund. That is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) pointed out, proposed new section 90C(12) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 defines ''the appropriate refund''. It is, obviously, the difference between one amount and the other, and that had to be included in the Bill. I hope that that has been helpful.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The Minister said that the Government will decide in due course on the applicability of the provision. If he cannot answer the question now, will he write to us before Report to let us know the Government's specific intentions for the application of the deposit scheme to non-commercial vehicles being used in this country by people without a fixed address, particularly Travellers, the example that I gave?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I will try to give an indication to the Committee and the House on that subject as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.