HC Deb 30 January 2001 vol 362 cc260-80

Amendments made: No. 53, in title, line 3, leave out "Lord Chancellor" and insert "Secretary of State".

No. 54, in title, line 4, leave out from "certain" to "to" in line 5 and insert "expenditure relating".—[Mr. Pope.]

Order for Third Reading read.

8.45 pm
Mr. Charles Clarke

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I shall repeat some of the points that I made earlier when we discussed the programme motion. The Bill has been subjected to thorough scrutiny in Committee. I express my appreciation to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members who led that debate and to my colleagues who made constructive contributions throughout. As I said earlier, some aspects were less than constructive, but the overwhelming majority of contributions were positive in tone.

The Bill has emerged the better for its time in Committee. Helpful suggestions were made to improve it, and on Report we discussed some of the proposed changes, but its essential principles remain unaltered.

I shall assess the issues that arose over the guillotining and programming of the Bill. We moved a programme motion on the meetings of the Committee itself. It is generally acknowledged that a full debate was held in Committee; Members had the chance to make their case in the time available and the arguments were fully and substantially made.

That was less true for the programmed debate on Report, which we have just concluded, because four groups of amendments could not be discussed. The new clause on specifications of registration plates, tabled by the Opposition, had no relation to the Bill. The matter arose from the euro-fanaticism of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) who wanted to raise a marginal issue. The second group related to the scope of activities and persons covered in parts I and II. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be generous enough to acknowledge that the debate—like that on inspection of premises—would have been a reprise of the Committee debate, when we discussed the issues in great detail.

The third group related to fees for registration; again, we discussed that matter in detail and at great length in Committee.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Some of us were not in the Committee. Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke

I will give way, but first I will reply to the right hon. Gentleman's sedentary remark. During the debate on the programme motion, the hon. Member for Buckingham made the point that the purpose of the Report stage was to allow hon. Members who might not have been members of the Standing Committee, such as the right hon. Gentleman, to participate in the debate. Throughout the whole debate on Report, there was no participation from Conservative Members, apart from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen, who were in constant attendance and participated fully in the debate; the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who was a member of the Committee, and also participated fully in this debate; and an intervention from another Opposition Member. Although it is true that, in theory, hon. Members should be able to discuss the measure—I acknowledge that—in practice, no other Members wanted to discuss the issues.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Minister, who daily demonstrates his lack of parliamentary experience, but I suppose he will learn—if he is spared to spend a bit more time in this place. The reality is that Report gives an opportunity to those Members who are not on the Committee to participate, if they choose so to do. I suspect that one reason why so few Members chose to participate is that the Government are not allowing a proper opportunity for proper debates on Report. The Government cannot have it both ways—they cannot crush all debate and then complain that hon. Members do not turn up to participate.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making his points, which are pretty familiar to the House. As I said in the debate on the programme motion, the difficulty, which is reflected in the exchanges that occurred just before I spoke, involves those on the Conservative Front Bench ensuring that hon. Members, such as the right hon. Gentleman, can operate through the usual channels. That is one of the key issues in the House. The right hon. Gentleman also makes some offensive remarks, which he is entitled to do, but I have attended fully throughout all the debates—perhaps ad nauseam—and have dealt with the issues raised by my hon. Friends, if not all those raised by Opposition Members.

The final group of amendments contained several technical amendments and a point of substance on the affirmative procedure, on which the hon. Member for Buckingham might have divided the House, but, as he will acknowledge, that matter was debated fully in Committee. I make those points, which are perhaps not fully relevant to Third Reading, because I am aware of the arguments made by Members such as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and want to place on record my belief that the debates in Committee and on Report have been constructive and positive. The debates in Committee took place within the time constraints of the programme resolution and were finished in a way that allowed all hon. Members to make their points.

Mr. Bob Russell

Almost all.

Mr. Clarke

We addressed that matter earlier.

Although we did not debate certain amendments on Report, my assessment is that the various points represent a reprise of the debates in Committee. Notably, few Opposition Members participated, other than those on the Front Benches and the hon. Member for Lichfield, to whom I give due credit.

The Bill is necessary because the public are greatly concerned about vehicle crime. It is a serious matter, and the statistics speak for themselves. Some 350,000 vehicles are stolen annually, of which more than two fifths are not recovered. We are on target to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. over five years. It has already fallen by 20 per cent. since we took office. The Bill will help significantly to reduce it further and shows that partnership is a central precept of the Government's approach to reducing crime.

We established the vehicle crime reduction action team, whose membership included a broad cross-section of the vehicle industry, the police, motorists, local government and insurers. The team proposed a series of important recommendations, which the Government have sought to honour. One set of recommendations dealt with changes in the law, which is why we introduced the Bill. It is not simply a clever Government idea; it is the result of a considered and proper process—the model for developing such proposals.

The Bill will fill the gaps in the existing law. At present, stolen vehicles may find their way into a salvage trade that is quite unregulated, as may vehicles that are fraudulently reported to have been stolen. Criminals can all too easily get hold of false number plates to disguise such vehicles that come into their hands and others that they have stolen themselves.

Vehicles that have been written off may be repaired and put back on the road. They are not required to undergo any check as to their true identity. Some of those vehicles are of course stolen. Those problems are addressed in the Bill, which will cut the scope for profit from vehicle crime, so diminishing its appeal. As a result, we hope that there will be at least 39,000 fewer vehicle thefts and 6,000 fewer fraudulent insurance claims—so-called theft claims—each year.

The Bill will also extend the time limit for prosecuting the crime of unauthorised vehicle taking. It will assist the detection of uninsured driving, by giving the police the right of general access to the motor insurance database. It will make it possible for the money collected from fixed-penalty fines for speeding and jumping red lights to be directly applied to road safety in the ways that have been discussed.

Part I deals with the regulation of motor salvage dealers. More than 40 per cent. of stolen vehicles are not recovered. Criminals in the salvage industry can disguise stolen vehicles or break them up and sell them as parts. Vehicles may be reported stolen when they have been sold to the salvage trade. That is insurance fraud. Part I will require motor salvage operators to register with their local authority and to renew their registration at intervals.

Concern was expressed in Committee about whether applications to register could be made on a standard form. It would be possible to prescribe such a form in secondary legislation, and we acknowledge the suggestions that were made in Committee. We will consult local authorities and the industry fully on the regulations to be made, and standardisation will be discussed. The Committee also said that it might be necessary to have slightly different information-collecting methods for different types of business. It discussed that issue fully.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Buckingham and other Conservative Members suggested making it an offence to supply false information when applying to be registered. The House will have heard from the discussions on Report that we have taken that point on board. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that and I acknowledged publicly the role that he played in drawing our attention so clearly to this issue. The suggestion has become a helpful addition to our measures to regulate the salvage industry.

Part I also enables us to make sure that registered dealers keep proper records. The police will have powers to enter and inspect their premises without a warrant. That will make it difficult to dispose of stolen vehicles, and it will deter insurance fraud.

Part II regulates the supply and issue of number plates. Many people are surprised to discover that there are no controls over this trade, and vehicle thieves naturally take advantage of that. However, the consequences of the current lack of regulation are by no means confined to vehicle theft. Burglars and terrorists use false plates; others use them just to deceive speed cameras. Under part II, number plate suppliers will have to register with the DVLA.

Mr. Fabricant

The Minister has raised an important point, but how easy is it to forge a number plate? Although many in the House may recognise the importance of controlling the manufacturers of number plates, if the plates can be forged easily by someone in his own home, that will negate the whole effectiveness of part II.

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman raised that point fully and positively in Committee. I reinforce the point that regulations can be made under the Bill to specify further information to be held on number plates. That will make it difficult to forge plates or to disguise the identity of a vehicle. There will be a link between the information on the number plate and the vehicle for which the plate is intended. The specific purpose of the provision is to enable the Government to specify, after wide consultation, the form of the number plate, so that it is clear that every number plate meets certain criteria. I accept that forgery can never be outlawed, but it will be made a great deal more difficult. The identification that results from that will enable us to deal with vehicle crime more effectively.

The Bill also provides powers to make suppliers keep records, which should deter the purchase of plates for criminal purposes. Record keeping will provide an audit trail for the police, who will be able to enter and inspect registered premises without a warrant. It will be an offence to provide plates or materials to an unregistered supplier or to sell counterfeit plates. The Committee persuaded us that it should also be an offence to supply false information to the DVLA in an application to register. We have introduced proposals to that effect.

Part III deals with vehicle licensing and registration. There will be a compulsory identity check before the issue of a new registration document for a vehicle that has previously been written off. That should help tackle illegal tampering. Part III also targets uninsured driving, which can be associated with dangerous driving and other illegal activity, but is all too often undetected. To deal with the problem, the motor insurance industry has proposed, and the Bill provides, that the police should have bulk access to insurance information. We expect this access to be available from 2003.

Clause 36 lengthens the time limit for prosecuting so-called joyriders. Those who take vehicles without authority cause immense distress and may even become involved in accidents. Joyriding sometimes leads to yet more serious crime. However, as the law stands, no charges may be brought for this offence more than six months after it was committed. We want the Crown Prosecution Service to be able to bring charges so as to signal that joyriding is not an offence that will be treated lightly.

Mr. Heald

We have just voted on a proposal to allow the Minister to determine that certain activities do not constitute the sale of registration plates. The Committee discussed whether manufacturers who do not sell directly to the public would be exempted. Does the Minister have that possibility in mind?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question, although I think that we covered it in Committee. The purpose of the proposals is to ensure that the Bill is targeted on the right people. We had a long discussion about people who deal in parts. The vintage bike industry was mentioned. The Committee tried to respect the needs of hobbyists by ensuring that the Bill did not become a sledgehammer that hit the legitimate activities of such people. That is why we wanted the sensitivity with which the Government always exercise their Executive powers to be enshrined in legislation.

Clause 36 will extend the time limit to three years and enable proceedings for taking a vehicle without authority to be brought at any time within six months from the date when sufficient knowledge came to the attention of the prosecutor.

A more widespread threat to public safety is speeding, which we debated at length on Report. Rolling out speed cameras nationally is a vital part of our road safety strategy. New clause 7 will allow the money that magistrates courts receive from fixed penalties for speeding or jumping red lights to be used to fund road safety. The funds will be ploughed directly back into the fight against road crime and our efforts to improve road safety. That will ensure that funding is available to increase the number and geographical spread of safety cameras, for example, which will aid the prevention and detection of speeding and red traffic light offences. As speeding drivers may be guilty of other offences, there will also be a wider crime reduction benefit.

Mr. Shaw

Will my hon. Friend's hypothecation pertain to motorways? Some 33,000 vehicles were found to be breaking the speed limit on the M2, which runs through my constituency.

Mr. Clarke

I saw the press coverage of the M2 speed cameras. Our proposal does apply to motorways. However, I must emphasise, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) did, that the process is about promoting road safety, and road safety alone. Some of the press coverage of the M2 cameras suggested that there might be a financial motive. That is not the case.

Mr. Bob Russell

The Minister said that the revenue from the fines would be used for road safety measures. How broad is the definition of road safety in that sense?

Mr. Clarke

I think that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary fully explained the situation on Report Road safety will primarily focus on increasing the number and geographical spread of safety cameras. That is the principal consideration. I do not want to hide that fact from the House, but it does not exclude taking a wider look at road safety implications. Safety cameras make an important contribution to road safety and our proposals will extend to motorways.

Mr. Brady

The Minister told the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) that the cameras' primary purpose is to promote road safety. Is he clear that motorway cameras will focus on stretches where there are roadworks and lower speed restrictions, instead of being rolled out generally across all the network?

Mr. Clarke

I can confirm that the police identified and focused on accident black spots in the pilot schemes. It is intended that that practice should be followed across the country. The cameras might be related to roadworks and other restrictions, which might be temporary in nature. However, most police forces have a detailed mapping of where road accidents occur most frequently. They naturally want to put cameras at those locations, both to act as a deterrent, which the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) mentioned on Report, slowing drivers down at the key points of danger, and to record the drivers who break the law.

Mr. Brady

I thank the Minister for his full reply. Given that we would all wish to maximise the deterrent effect, can he confirm that it is the Government's policy, where possible, to ensure that signs to warn of the presence of speed cameras are in place on motorways?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and his colleagues in the DETR are considering carefully how we can improve the signage of road speed limits. The need for improvement has been forcefully pointed out by the AA and the RAC, and it is necessary to work harder to ensure that motorists are fully aware of the speed limit wherever they are. That is an important aspect of the road safety proposals that the Government are considering.

The operation of those proposals will be a matter for each local authority. My own county, Norfolk, has published a good road safety document, which is in my constituency file. I was reading it earlier because I want to respond to the authority's proposals for improving signage and policies. Road safety is the general thrust of local government policies, and they have been much encouraged by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and his colleagues in the DETR.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) was asking about the signs warning of speed cameras rather than of the speed limit itself.

Mr. Clarke

I am sorry if my answer was unclear. I was trying to refer to the specific signage for speed cameras and the more general signage for speed limits. When I drive, I find it frustrating to see a picture of a speed camera without a speed limit attached. Putting those signs together is important. It is a matter not for me but for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I know that DETR is working hard on that.

Mr. Fabricant

Do the Minister and the Under-Secretary agree that if there is to be more widespread distribution of speed cameras, there needs also to be a wholesale review of speed limits? In some cases, limits might need to be lower, but in others they may need to be higher.

Mr. Clarke

I was just consulting the oracle on this matter—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Mr. Fabricant

Does the Under-Secretary drive?

Mr. Clarke

I do not know whether my hon. Friend drives. He is an outstanding Transport Minister, and the people of the country are fortunate to have him. The hon. Member for Buckingham made it clear that he did not use computers, but I do not think that that disqualifies him from being a Member of the House, even though in the modern information age, one might think that he would want to know what was going on around him in the world. Perhaps that is reflected in his contributions.

Mr. Bercow

The Under-Secretary is unassailable.

Mr. Clarke

I never use the word "unassailable". Unlike the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I have a lot of experience outside the House, if not in it, and I know that the word "unassailable", especially when uttered by Conservative politicians, should not be used in circumstances that pertain to any significant development.

In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Lichfield, the Government are developing our road safety strategy, which includes signage. Those matters are also being considered by individual local highways authorities. In my county, for example, the authority is specifically considering, among other things, a 20 mph speed limit in specific areas such as those surrounding schools.

I emphasise again that the focus of the approach is on improving road safety. As part of the national roll-out of the programme, the Government will issue guidance to local partnerships on signage for speed cameras. I can therefore make a stronger commitment than I did in my off-the-cuff response to the hon. Gentleman that the guidance on signage for speed cameras will include precisely the points that he raised.

It is the Government's intention to cut vehicle crime at the roots. That means reducing the market for stolen vehicles. We will do that by regulating the motor salvage trade and the supply of number plates, which is the Bill's main purpose. Vehicle identity checks and new requirements for documentation by the DVLA will reinforce the system of regulation. The Bill has three ancillary purposes: first, to extend the time limit for prosecuting so-called joyriders; secondly, to make it easier for the police to detect uninsured driving; and thirdly, to enable magistrates courts receipts to be directly applied to road safety.

The Bill has been closely examined in Committee and has been strengthened as a result. Its consideration by the House means that it will go to the other place in good shape. We shall continue throughout its passage in Parliament to listen to constructive criticism, as we have tried to do in this House, and to consider changes if they will help to deliver the sound legislation to which we are committed. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.9 pm

Mr. Bercow

The Minister of State, Home Office had the temerity to criticise the Opposition for a poor attendance this evening. He demonstrated not only temerity but unwisdom, given the fact, to which I must refer at the outset, that the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who were all members of the Committee that examined the Bill, have toddled out of the Chamber and have not been present to hear the Minister of State make the case for the Third Reading. It ill behoves the Minister to chide us, to suggest indifference and to accuse us of being part-timers when his hon. Friends, who might have been expected gleefully to listen to his honeyed words, have absented themselves from the Chamber and possibly from the Palace.

Mr. Bob Russell

For the sake of accuracy, will the hon. Gentleman tell us what has happened to about 50 per cent. of Conservative Members who served in Committee, who are not with us this evening?

Mr. Bercow

Yes. I regret to say that to the best of my knowledge, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) is indisposed. That is why she is not present. What is important is that my hon. Friend has demonstrated on Second Reading, in Committee and on other occasions the closest possible interest in the Bill. I am sure that the Minister—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We must now get on with Third Reading rather than talk about the attendance or non-attendance of members of the Committee that considered the Bill.

Mr. Bercow

We were considering the level of interest on Third Reading. That would be fairly clear. I am developing the argument, and that is precisely what I intend to continue to do, as was my initial intention.

The Minister's recollection of proceedings in Committee does not entirely square with mine. It is true that the Government were guilty of the most extraordinary Horlicks in failing to determine that false applications to register as a salvage operator or registration plate supplier should be a criminal offence. We pointed that out to the Government, and to their credit they have belatedly accepted the point. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions for the tribute that he paid. Beyond that, I do not agree with much that the Minister of State, Home Office said about our proceedings in Committee.

I accept that we made some progress. However, we were hurried and heavily circumscribed. There was inadequate time and we got through the proceedings only because the vast majority of Labour Members either had nothing to say or had something to say but were instructed in no uncertain terms by the powers that be not to say it.

I much regret that we are embarking on Third Reading after the most derisory and cursory consideration of the amendments and new clauses that were tabled on Report. There were eight groups and no fewer than 61 new clauses and amendments. By my recollection, we got through four groups. We really only considered three groups, although we voted on the fourth as well. Even if we include matters relating to the inspection of premises, we have covered in a desultory fashion only 38 of the new clauses and amendments, leaving a remaining 23 still to be debated, some of which were new clauses and amendments tabled by the Government.

In the circumstances, it is preposterous for the Minister to claim that there has been adequate debate on the Bill. I must emphasise, as the Government are seeking a Third Reading, that we think it profoundly unsatisfactory that there was such minimal consideration on Report. One of the reasons for that—I have made the point before and I have had no effective rejoinder to it—is that the Government, in their arrogant, imperious and inconsiderate fashion chose a timetable on Report. They did not consult, there was no discussion and we had no debate. We are being invited to give a Third Reading to a Bill the consideration of which on Report was scanty, to put it mildly. We did not properly get through even half of the groups of new clauses and amendments.

Mr. Forth

Can I try to lift my hon. Friend into a more optimistic frame of mind? Does he not agree that, as a result of the process that he accurately described, it is imperative that the House of Lords should give the matter the detailed consideration that the Government have not allowed it in this House? At the very least, a compensatory factor might then enter our parliamentary proceedings, so that for every occasion on which the Government denied the Commons the opportunity to examine a Bill properly the Lords had to do so in the utmost detail.

Mr. Bercow

My right hon. Friend is right. I have referred before, without embarrassment—and I do so again—to the symbiotic political relationship between us. What my right hon. Friend says is pertinent and I hope that it will be heard in another place. Our consideration of the Bill has been inadequate, although marginally less so as the result of deliberations in Committee—[Interruption.] I am bound to tell the Under-Secretary, who is chuntering from a sedentary position and not paying proper attention to what I am saying, that the Bill is better in spite of the Ministers and not because of them. Frankly, they were Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Committee, and did not achieve very much. I was grateful for their tribute to Conservative efforts, but we have seen only a modest improvement in the Bill and it is pitiful that we have made so little progress today.

I emphasise the fact that, traditionally, Members on both sides of the House have seen it as their responsibility to scrutinise, probe, inquire, test and seek improvement. In this case—and this is an important point in support of our claim that inadequate time has been dedicated to the subject—Conservative Members alone have played any significant part in the proceedings, together with a little input of variable quality and irregular frequency from Liberal Democrat Members. The only Labour Members to have contributed on any significant scale were those who themselves wanted to table new clauses and amendments. The fact is that there have been few of them. The vast majority sat doing other things, were not engaged and did not take an interest. Their minds were elsewhere, to use a term that is common parlance in relation to other matters at the moment.

Mr. Charles Clarke

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

Yes, briefly, but I must warn the Minister that many points need to be made on Third Reading, and I intend to make them in detail and at whatever length is necessary.

Mr. Clarke

I wish to place on record the fact that the hon. Gentleman's remarks on the participation of Labour Members in Committee were simply untrue.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the Minister. He is accusing me of telling an untruth, which is dangerous, especially as he is a senior, respected, important and ambitious Member with a full diary. He has great claims and hopes for the future, and it would be unwise for him to traduce me. 1 do not know what he knows but, by now, he ought to be aware that I have a fairly good recollection of who spoke at earlier stages of the Bill's consideration and who did not. I simply make the point that far more Government Members did not speak regularly in Committee than did. That is a matter not of dubiety or speculation but of recorded fact. If the Minister wants to have a wager with me about it, I shall be only too delighted.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend talked about the contribution of Conservative Members in Committee. The Minister himself said that it was a useful and important contribution. Does my hon. Friend share my unease at the continuing lack of scrutiny? By introducing a new clause, we filled a gaping hole in the Bill. The Bill was incomplete when it came to Committee. Does my hon. Friend share my unease about the fact that, because of lack of scrutiny, there may well be other giant loopholes through which criminals and lawyers will be able to pass?

Mr. Bercow

I am worried about that. I am even more worried when a rising Minister—or would-be rising Minister—complains to the House that had we had this or that debate, it would probably only have been a re-run of what took place in Committee. I made the point before and, for the avoidance of doubt, I remind the Minister now that the purpose of the exercise is for those who served on Committee to report to the House as a whole so that its wider membership can engage in the debate—as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to name but one, is ever keen to do. It will not do for the Government to behave in such a navel-gazing, inward-looking, selfish fashion by seeking to dismiss the claims of those who were not fortunate enough to serve on the Committee, but who wish to contribute to the consideration of the Bill. However, I am not to be diverted for a moment longer from focusing on the purpose of the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill—to cut car crime—is valid. It is the Bill's effectiveness in achieving that purpose which is uncertain, to put it mildly. The Minister of State, Home Office, knows perfectly well that between March 1998 and March 1999, 1,482,889 car crimes were committed. In the ensuing year, from March 1999 to March 2000, there was, if I remember correctly, a reduction of exactly 7,000 car crimes, so the incidence of car crime fell by 0.5 per cent. in that period.

The Minister of State and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions are committed to the goal of a 30 per cent. cut in car crime between now and 2004.

I am ordinarily an understated fellow, as you know from your own experience, Madam Deputy Speaker. I tend to beat about the bush. I am not very good at putting my points strongly. I sometimes think that if only I spoke up and made the argument a little more forcefully, I might have a greater impact. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rather unkindly accuses me of being wet and weedy, but he is probably justified in this case.

I put it on the record that I wish the Government well in achieving the 30 per cent. reduction in car crime by 2004, but do I believe that it will happen? I am bound to ask the Minister of State, who may have trotted off elsewhere by 2004, "What are those pigs that I see flying in front of my very eyes?" I do not believe that that target will be achieved. The notion that the Bill will be instrumental in achieving that purpose strikes many of us as a triumph of optimism over reality.

The Minister drew attention to the incidence and cost of car crime. That is germane to the consideration of the Bill. There is an annual cost of £3.5 billion arising from car crime. The hon. Gentleman speaks glibly of the intention to ensure that there are 39,000 fewer vehicle thefts as a result of the provisions of the Bill, but he failed at any stage—on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report or on Third Reading—to explain how that objective is compatible with or delivered by the reduction of at least 2,500 in the number of policemen. It is extraordinary that the Government expect more with less: fewer people must satisfy higher targets, but there is no indication how those are to be achieved.

Another problem in relation to the Government's target, and a lacuna in the Bill, if I may satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, is that it does nothing about thefts from vehicles, concerning itself exclusively and perhaps narrowly with the theft of vehicles. If the Minister of State wants to trumpet the Bill as a flagship measure for the greater good not only of the community, but of his rising ministerial reputation, it is a pity that the terms of the Bill have been so narrowly drawn. The Minister is getting itchy. Although there are many other points and other lacunae to which I want to draw attention, I give way to him.

Mr. Charles Clarke

It would be helpful to the House if the hon. Gentleman set out the legislative changes that he would recommend to deal with thefts from vehicles. Our overall strategy deals with thefts from vehicles, but the Bill deals with one aspect of that strategy. What are the hon. Gentleman's proposals for legislative change?

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman tempts me into a potentially lengthy lecture on the subject. If I embarked upon it, he would be the first to complain. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position. A useful signal that we could send to those who engage in car crime of the kind to which I have just referred would be immediately to scrap the home detention curfew scheme or the early release scheme—that ludicrous policy that entitles anyone serving a sentence of more than three months but less than four years to be released from jail on a tag, typically having served less than half of his or her sentence.

I sense that you are getting itchy, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is an undesirable prospect for you, as well as for hon. Members who think that you may be about to pounce upon them, if I may put it that way. I shall not dilate further, as you would not want me to do so. I was led astray by the Minister of State and I must not pursue the point, although I must say that it is unwise of the hon. Gentleman to make interventions that invite further and legitimate criticism of other aspects of Home Office penal and sentencing policy.

Mr. Brady

Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that one of this Government's characteristics is their tendency to announce policies or to take legislative measures when they believe that the results will be achieved regardless of their actions? May they not have decided that vehicle theft will decrease because of technological improvements, not least in the security devices built into cars? May they not have concluded that results would accrue on theft of vehicles without their intervention? On the other hand, they have no meaningful policy to address the problem of thefts from vehicles.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend makes a sound point, to which I suspect the Minister of State cannot respond.

Mr. Charles Clarke

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow

Well, I shall give the hon. Gentleman one last chance. Perhaps not. He now appears to have had second thoughts.

Mr. Clarke


Mr. Bercow

He now has third thoughts. As he is an ambitious chap, I warn him that such indecisiveness is inconsistent with the tributes that have so far been paid to him.

Mr. Clarke

With all respect, I point out that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) was confusing thefts from vehicles with thefts of vehicles. Technology makes a difference with regard to both sorts of crime. With regard to thefts from vehicles, the most important changes have occurred in vehicle security, in respect of which we are encouraging manufacturers and have introduced various other changes. As the hon. Gentleman said, those changes will reduce vehicle crime as the motor fleet becomes larger.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the Minister, who has clarified his position in so far as he judged it necessary to do so. I shall not get into a debate about prepositions at this stage, not least because a number of my hon. Friends want to contribute.

Suffice it to say that the Opposition are anxious about a serious issue that relates to the integrity—or otherwise—of the Bill. That issue is, of course, the use of the proceeds of fines to finance a widespread roll-out of speed cameras throughout the country. An interesting exchange about that subject occurred earlier between the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, who has sadly departed the Chamber. Knowingly or otherwise—a term that I use advisedly—the latter seemed to be pressurising the Minister. He asked him to confirm that all fine proceeds must be used for road safety measures, as doing otherwise would be defying the will of the House.

Rather too quickly, and with too great an enthusiasm, the Under-Secretary rushed to agree. I then challenged him to confirm that it was Government policy to ring-fence. I sought a commitment that there would be an exact equivalence between the money raised and the money spent. I did not ask for a commitment in respect of every year, but for the five-year term of a Parliament, although I acknowledged that it would last for only four years if the Government cut and run. I demanded an assurance that all the proceeds of the fines would be spent on road safety measures alone.

That was when the Under-Secretary's usual self-confidence and unfailing fluency collapsed and he started to use a combination of the obfuscatory and the coy. He was obfuscatory as he sought to get away from the issue, and coy in the charming manner with which we are now familiar. In effect, he said "Oh, I am but a junior Minister and it is not a matter for me. Hon. Members cannot expect me, as a mere junior Minister, to commit to what might happen in future, although I can speak in general terms about what we want to do."

Mr. Heald

In due course.

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend observes that things will occur in due course. Indeed, it was on that point that the Under-Secretary's previously silky advocacy became nothing more than a celebration of motherhood and apple pie. That issue has not been properly considered. My hon. Friends and I do not intend to divide the House on Third Reading. I have already been subjected to verbal flagellation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who is disappointed and strongly opposes the Bill and who believes that we should take a more oppositional line.

However, I am fair minded, and prepared even now to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. Given the Bill's risible consideration in Committee, the other place will want to scrutinise the provisions in great detail. There is therefore at least an argument for keeping an open mind.

Speed cameras and the Government's integrity or lack of it on that subject are important. Their attitude to local authorities' responsibility for disposing of abandoned vehicles shows them indulging in an orgy of complacency—a complacency displayed not least by Back-Bench Labour Members.

Let us consider inspection of premises, which the Bill covers. I am a right-wing libertarian, sometimes known as a Conservative libertarian. I am alarmed by the constant arrogation of powers to the state. I do not like the fact that so many officers of the state, public agencies and other officials can, without warrants, enter and inspect commercial premises, domestic property or both in pursuit of their claims. That is unsatisfactory. I generally support the view that, when police or other authorities want to inspect and consider evidence to ascertain whether criminal acts have been committed, they should first be obliged to obtain a warrant.

The Government's position is that warrants neither should nor should not be required. They have an extraordinary attitude, which is neurotic, difficult to justify in theory and impossible to substantiate in practice. Under the Bill, registered motor salvage operators or registration plates suppliers have somehow signed up to a more rigorous regime, and are able to have their premises entered by a police constable or other authorised person without a warrant. Those who are not registered and are suspected of unlawful or perhaps even criminal activity can have their premises entered and inspected only if the constable or other representative of authority has first acquired a warrant. The registered person therefore gets a worse deal than the unregistered person.

That is the logic of new Labour in 2001. No amount of vacuous half-hearted attempts at explanation by the two highbrow characters who represent the Government on the Treasury Bench could alleviate our anxieties about the provisions on inspection of premises.

The Government's performance on the specifications for registration plates was even more pitiful. Many of us are worried that the current drafting of clause 33, especially proposed new section 27A(1)(a) and (b), could allow for the mandatory display of a European Union flag on the registration plate of a car. We debated that matter at reasonable length in Committee. I enjoyed the exchange with the Under-Secretary, my former constituent when I was a Lambeth borough councillor. However, the same technique was employed as on previous clauses.

The Under-Secretary tried to brush our argument aside; he dismissed it with a good deal of rhetorical tomfoolery. However, when I challenged him to guarantee that the British Government would oppose any proposal to require the display of the EU flag, he retreated into obfuscation and coyness. He said that I was paranoid and that I was getting too excited. He then used the modesty defence, claiming to be only a humble servant, a mere Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, a son of toil who could not question the judgment of the Secretary of State, still less that of the Prime Minister.

The Under-Secretary also had the brass neck to say that I could not commit the Conservative party to opposing such a proposal. The hon. Gentleman then conjured up an absurd scenario in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was suddenly the leader of the Conservative party. I said that, although I did not anticipate such a scenario, it was conceivable that if such a scenario arose, my right hon. and learned Friend might—though I doubt it—be so unwise as to agree to such a proposal. I also made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that no such proposal would be advanced with my support from the Conservative Front Bench, from which I would immediately feel it necessary to depart in such circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman made no such clarion call, and no such obvious declaration. The risk is that, in future, a proposal could be introduced and the purpose of clause 33 would be to facilitate the ready transposition into British law of the provisions that the hon. Gentleman's European masters intended.

The hon. Gentleman argued that any fees to be levied would cover only administration costs. However, when we tabled amendments that would tie the Government down more precisely, so that no stealth taxes could be levied, the hon. Gentleman resisted them. He engaged in the merest casuistry to try to justify his position and argued that the wording in the Government's existing, unamended clause was preferable to ours. I therefore asked the hon. Gentleman to confirm that the charges levied would never be greater than the level of the administration costs, at which point we had the normal retreat into obfuscation and coyness. I received no answer, no satisfaction and no reassurance. That was not good enough.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend reminds me—although this was not my reason for intervening—that, on Second Reading, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) boasted about such stealth taxes being used to build car parks in her constituency.

Why is my hon. Friend so surprised at the Minister's refusing to guarantee that the European Union flag would not be put on to licence plates? Does he not recall that, although the Labour party in opposition said that it would object to having the European Union flag put on to the credit card-type driving licences, all driving licences now bear the European Union flag?

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the tergiversation of the Government on matters European. They have changed their mind seven times on the issue of whether the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Government are as inconsistent in this important but secondary matter as they have shown themselves to be in the past.

The Government's position on this issue is unsatisfactory. The hon. Gentleman was invited to provide reassurance, and he conspicuously and repeatedly failed to do so. I fear the worst. I do not suspect the hon. Gentleman's integrity, but he is—as he has already suggested—but a puppet on a string. The puppet-master is elsewhere, and we have good reason to fear an obnoxious proposal being introduced in the future which it would not be feasible for us effectively to resist.

One of the most unattractive features of the Bill is that nine of its clauses provide effectively for government by regulation. I am a strong supporter of the affirmative resolution procedure, and highly resistant to the over-zealous use of the negative resolution procedure. To elucidate that point for those who may be listening to our proceedings elsewhere, the issue is whether we debate the regulations or whether they go through on the nod.

The hon. Gentleman sought to justify the fact that the Government did not intend to debate these matters by saying that they were not big enough, and that such debate would not be a proper use of parliamentary time. I responded that the Government have often made a mess of regulations that have not been debated in the House, and, as a consequence, have had to return to the House to improve the regulations and seek the House's approval for that redrafting. The Government could save themselves a future headache if they were more tolerant of present debate. It is most unfortunate that they are taking this dismissive, imperious and arrogant attitude towards the House.

My right hon. and hon. Friends may ask, "What's new?" That attitude is not new, but it is unsatisfactory, worrying and indicative of the Government's disdain, indifference and contempt for the legislature's right to act as a check on the Executive. That right and responsibility is of the greatest importance to me and my right hon. Friends, even if it is not important to high-flying, very ambitious and, if I may say so, somewhat indifferent Ministers.

The Bill involves substantial costs and the Government have estimated them, though their estimates usually turn out to be on the low side. I have been very generous—

Mr. Forth

Too generous.

Mr. Bercow

From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend chunters that I have been too generous. He does not think that I have been robust enough and believes that we should divide the House on Third Reading. I am resisting his exhortation to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and I have made the judgment that we shall look to the other place properly to scrutinise all the provisions with a view to their further and dramatic improvement.

I am happy to await the outcome of the deliberations of the other place. Nevertheless, although the Bill is slightly improved, it has many defects. It is the cause of real concern. It is not satisfactory. [Interruption.] The Minister of State can chunter dismissively from a sedentary position, but he cannot disregard the fact that many things were wrong with the Bill, that it still has defects and that substantial progress still has to be made.

9.41 pm
Mr. Chidgey

I shall draw myself back to the topics that I would hope to discuss on Third Reading, although that is quite an effort following such an interlude.

I must place on record my disappointment with the debate. Considering the number of amendments and new clauses that were tabled, we barely scratched the surface of much of the agenda. The Minister, in his winding-up speech on Report, made an effort to explain the substance of the various amendments that were not covered, but that is no substitute for proper examination and the ability to reassure the House about the meaning of Government amendments.

We have been denied an opportunity properly to scrutinise many amendments tabled not only by the Government but by the two Opposition parties. I am particularly disappointed not to have debated amendments Nos. 27, 28 and 29, which stood in my name. I know that the British Motorcyclists Federation was interested in those proposals because they covered theft, which is a theme throughout. However, although the Bill concentrates on motor vehicle theft, there are few references to the theft and illegal resale of spare parts, which is a matter of great concern in many quarters that would have appreciated a proper discussion of the issues.

I am quick to say that, in the main, the Bill is welcome. It is clearly intended to have an effect on vehicle crime, and I believe that it will do so. I agree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who spoke for the Conservatives, that the Bill is better than it was on Second Reading. However, we should put its effect in context. The Minister mentioned the number of cars that are stolen and rightly said that the measure will stop the ringing of cars. However, one must remember that even though the Bill may reduce vehicle thefts by 36,000, a total of 350,000 vehicles are stolen in this country every year, and such a reduction represents a mere 10 per cent. of that.

Although we should welcome this brief Bill, which will have some effect, we must bear in mind the context. It is not a panacea nor the answer to vehicle theft and vehicle crime. For example, it will make no impact on the 130,000 vehicles that are stolen, recovered and recorded as recovered. Of course, those vehicles are often wrecked beyond repair and of no use. Nor will it make an impact on the 700,000 thefts from vehicles every year, which the hon. Member for Buckingham touched on. Those 700,000 thefts are, of course, only recorded thefts. Other sources claim that the total number, unrecorded and recorded, is about four times that figure—close to 3 million.

The Bill will have no impact on spiralling motor cycle theft: the current rate is 25,000 a year, and increasing rapidly. Nor will it have an impact on the organised criminal trade in car and motor cycle spare parts, which is estimated to cost the economy five times as much as vehicle theft.

Much more needs to be done to prevent the theft of vehicles and parts. As the Minister said in response to an intervention, we need to do far more to make vehicles more secure and more readily traceable, but we also need to do far more to change the culture. As I think was said on Second Reading, we must recognise that there are areas in which communities are disruptive, crime rates are high and, consequently, the rates of vehicle thefts and thefts from vehicles are also high. It is not enough to encourage vehicle manufacturers to make their vehicles more secure; better policing must be provided in the areas that are most prone to theft.

Mr. Fabricant

I have just noted a statistic. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that between 6 million and 7 million plates are issued every year? Can he imagine how a diminishing police force could possibly regulate that area, in practice?

Mr. Chidgey

I generally welcome interventions from the hon. Gentleman. Because we share a profession, I always feel that it would be churlish not to listen to his contributions, whatever their worth may be. Perhaps he should refer to the debate on Second Reading, when I drew attention to the manufacture of between 6 million and 7 million plates every year. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would listen for a minute, he might get the benefit of my explanation. I speak from memory, but I think that some 2 million new plates are manufactured every year, and some 2 million are used for transfers in the trade. On Second Reading, I asked what happened to the other 2 million. I found it incredible that as many plates were damaged as were distributed for new cars and transferred in the trade.

That is, of course, the whole purpose of the new legislation on the regulation of manufacture and distribution of registration plates. It is a welcome feature of the Bill, but it can only be aimed at preventing the ringing of cars, which involves a mere 36,000 of the 375,000 vehicles that are stolen each year.

There are still fears in the motor cycle industry that the Bill does not address the vulnerability of motor cycles to theft. The Motorcycle Action Group, the British Motorcyclists Federation and the Motor Cycle Industry Association have all expressed strong, well-thought-out and genuine concerns about the lack of protection for motor cycle owners. They are dismayed that the Bill's aspirations are so limited.

While car theft is falling—although at a far lower rate than the Prime Minister would wish, judging by his projections relating to targeted vehicle crime—the theft of motor cycles, and the trade in stolen parts from them, is rising dramatically. According to the RAC Foundation, it rose by some 25 per cent. in the last 12 months alone. The Association of Chief Police Officers has estimated that the value of stolen spares from motor cycles in circulation is about £400 million. That is a significant measure of the seriousness of motor cycle theft and the theft and circulation of spares.

The Bill is very limited in its aspirations. However, so far as it goes and in what it aims to achieve, it is welcome. As the Minister explained, part I will extend statutory regulation to motor salvage, reduce the opportunities to dispose of stolen motor vehicles and assist police in their investigation of vehicle thefts. Those are necessary and welcome provisions.

Part II has highlighted throughout our debates the shambles of vehicle registration plate manufacture and distribution. There are 27,000 outlets supplying up to 7 million plates annually. Clearly that needs regulation.

Mr. Fabricant

It is a shambles?

Mr. Chidgey


Mr. Fabricant


Mr. Chidgey

I do not think that I will bother with that type of sedentary comment. The hon. Gentleman must be a little tired. He has been in the Chamber for most of the debate, unlike many of his colleagues. I think that we should make allowances for that.

We hope that, as amended, part II will go some way towards bringing order out of that particular chaos.

As for part III, the new laws on vehicle licensing and registration and on raising standards should provide a more effective way of tackling vehicle crime, particularly—as the Minister said on many occasions—in eliminating the ringing of stolen cars.

New clause 7, which is now clause 37, deals with a matter of great debate, concern and, sometimes, contention. Allowing fines from speed camera offences to fund the costs of extending the system and improving road safety is of course welcome. There is also clear evidence that reducing speed, particularly in dangerous locations, improves road safety. There is, however, a caveat. That funding should not be used as a way of proliferating speed cameras regardless of the need for, and benefit of, more cameras. If that happens, the effectiveness of speed cameras and their impact on improving safety will be reduced.

The Ministers will recall that, in Committee, various issues were raised to which they offered to return, with amendments, on Report. I have not heard replies to those points in the Government's amendments, perhaps because we have had so little time for today's debates. I shall therefore mention two of them again, to which the Ministers can reply either now or later.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), will remember our discussion on what happens when salvage operators cease to trade. What happens to their records? Who is responsible for collecting and storing them? Those records are necessary if we are to maintain an audit trail, which is so important in tracing vehicles. In Committee, we accepted that it was unfair to expect the Minister to have an immediate reply on that point. However, he will remember that he recognised that it was an important point and said that he would return to it. I do not think the point has been dealt with in any of the amendments that we have debated today, although we have not debated all of them.

The Minister may also recall that, in Committee, we raised the issue of stolen cars that are covered only by third-party insurance. As such cars are not covered for theft and no claim is made when they are stolen, they do not become a part of the insurance companies' written-off trail and simply disappear. In Committee, I expressed very strong concerns about how we can close that loop and catch those who steal the vehicles. As I understand it, about one third of all damaged vehicles fall into that category. Perhaps the Government's amendment No. 22 has addressed the issue. However, as hon. Members will know, we have not had the opportunity to debate that amendment.

I look forward to the Minister's response.

9.54 pm
Mr. Forth

This measure tells us a lot more about Front Benchers in the House than it does necessarily about its specific provisions. It is a typical Labour response to a problem. The arrangement of clauses at the beginning of the Bill includes the tired litany of words and phrases such as "registration", "keeping of records", "right to enter and inspect premises", and so on. Unbelievably, the Bill suggests that local authorities should judge whether a company is fit and proper to conduct its business.

That is bad enough, but clause 32 says all that needs to be said about Labour's approach to a problem. In that one clause, 10 stages of bureaucracy, intervention and regulation can be identified. They are what the Government seem to believe will solve all the problems in this area. The clause mentions "notification", "issue of duplicates", "correction of errors", "payment of fees", "making of appeals", "carrying out of examinations", "courses of instruction"—

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman leading up to advocating the well-known Conservative approach of market testing? Under that regime, private firms could bid to provide the registration service that he describes. Perhaps Arthur Daley would be an appropriate person.

Mr. Forth

That is a very attractive suggestion. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the great world of market economics, but my point is this: although I would expect from the Government the bureaucratic, regulatory and interventionist response to problems that this Bill contains, I am very disappointed to find that it has the support of hon. Members on my own party's Front Bench. I thought that I belonged to a party that believed in the operation of the market, in enterprise, in small businesses, and which was against the nanny state. The Bill is a monument to the nanny state, if I ever saw one, and I find it unbelievable and inexcusable that my hon. Friends have been prepared to accept it.

It appears that the official Opposition are increasingly prepared to accept measures such as this, for reasons that are unclear to me. Perhaps I shall have a word with my hon. Friends after the debate to see whether I can find out what on earth is going on.

Presumably, we shall have a chance to start opposing the Government's approach—perhaps not in connection with this Bill, but with some other. It is interesting that those who toiled through the Committee stage and who sat through Report spent a lot of time identifying weaknesses that remained in the Bill and in the Government's approach. The Government assert over and again that they want to support and encourage small business, but this measure, through the mountain of regulation that it proposes, can only damage new, small and struggling enterprises. The Government have not yet been able to resolve that apparent dilemma.

The Bill poses a challenge to the Government and to the Opposition. Have either thought through all the implications of the measures for which they so readily reach? The tired ideas of registration, endless record-keeping, inspections, examinations, tests, expenses, fees, charges and all the rest may or may not go some way towards resolving the problem that has been identified. However, I have heard nothing in our debates of the adverse and negative effects that the Bill is likely to have.

Bureaucracy will not suffer—the Bill will be yet another of the Government's job-creation schemes, creating even more bureaucrats, officials and inspectors. Whether there will be enough police officers to implement the Bill effectively is another matter, but it will certainly provide more bureaucrats. The one growth area that can be identified is officialdom—the Bill will fail in its adverse effect on small businesses.

This is a matter of regret to me. I wish that I could divide the House to oppose the Bill. Regrettably, on this occasion, I can only give vocal expression to my opposition to the Bill and hope that next time my right hon. and hon. Friends will do better.

Mr. Charles Clarke

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I should like to respond to a couple of points.

First, I note that all Members who wished to speak in the time allocated to the Bill have been able to do so, thus fulfilling the proposition in the programme motion. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will write to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) on the points he has raised, because I do not have time to reply to them now. Thirdly, I simply make the observation that the deep division in the ranks of the official Opposition on whether to oppose the Bill shows their position.

It being Ten o'clock, MR. SPEAKER put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.