HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc793-7
Norman Baker

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 60, line 28, after "occasion", insert— 'within the last six months'. When I raised the issue of the seizure of motor vehicles in Committee, I came away from our relatively short discussion a little concerned about the Minister's reply, so I hope that he will forgive me for raising it again today. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for selecting the amendment tabled in my name and in that of my hon. Friends the Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke).

I want to outline a theoretical case which I hope will interest the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Clause 60 allows for the following scenario. A constable who has reasonable grounds for believing that a motor vehicle is being used in a way that causes or is likely to cause alarm, distress or annoyance has the power, if the vehicle is moving, to order the person who is driving it to stop, and the power to seize and remove the vehicle, using reasonable force to do so. So far, so good. The constable is required to warn the person that that will be the consequence if the vehicle's use is continued or repeated, or if the use has continued or has been repeated after the warning. Equally, I see no problem there. The clause includes the reasonable provision that a warning is not required if the circumstances would make it impracticable for the warning to be given. It also includes certain other let-outs that make good common sense. Again, so far, so good.

What worries me is subsection (2), which states: A constable in uniform shall also have the powers set in subsection (3) that is, the power to stop and seize— where he has reasonable grounds for believing that a motor vehicle has been used on any occasion"— I repeat, on any occasion— in a manner falling within subsection (1). That worries me for two reasons. The immediate problem that would cause the constable to wish to seize or stop the vehicle has gone, because the vehicle is no longer causing any problem. Therefore, the necessity to stop the vehicle has completely gone, and the necessity to seize it is perhaps limited to the constable's fear or suspicion that the intimidatory behaviour may be repeated. That may be justifiable if it turns out that the person who owns the vehicle has a history of behaving in a way that leads the constable reasonably to conclude that they will again use their vehicle in a way that will cause alarm, distress and annoyance to members of the public.

The problem is that there is no time limit on such a seizure. Moreover, the constable may not have been able to give a warning to the person driving the vehicle. That means that it is possible that some months or years later—I accept that it is a remote possibility, but it is what the clause allows—a constable could come along and seize a vehicle, saying, "I wanted to give you a warning at the time, but I could not stop you. This vehicle was involved in an incident, so I am exercising my powers to seize it." The Minister may think that that is rather far-fetched, but it is a possibility, as he admitted himself. I remind him of what he said in Committee: The hon. Gentleman conjures up the possibility of the seizure without warning of a vehicle many months after an event. As the clause is constructed, that is a theoretical possibility, although whether it is likely to happen is a matter for speculation."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 25 June 2002; c. 365.] The Minister is rightly keen on removing theoretical possibilities—indeed, he did so about 10 minutes ago when he dealt with a matter to do with blood specimens, saying, "It remains a theoretical possibility, so we are acting to remove it." I therefore hope that he will apply that logic to the matter that I have drawn to the House's attention and remove the theoretical possibility that is conjured up by the clause.

6.15 pm

The six-month limit that my colleagues and I are trying to insert is reasonable. Surely, the Minister can envisage no circumstances in which a constable would wish to seize a vehicle after six months. If he does not wish to have a time limit, he must accept that the theoretical possibility that I have outlined could happen, which would be a gross distortion of justice. After all, there can be no certainty that the vehicle seized was driven by the person who owned it. A person could have a vehicle stolen and because it is subsequently found three streets away, that person does not bother to tell the police that it happened. During the time that it was missing, the vehicle could have been used for purposes to cause alarm, distress or noise to members of the public. Some months later, the law-abiding citizen who retrieved his or her missing car could be confronted by a constable who says, "On one occasion this vehicle was driven in such a way that I am now going to seize it, because I was not able to give a warning to the person driving it." If the person then says, "It went missing but I didn't report it because it turned up three hours later", the constable will say, "That's a likely story, sir—I'm seizing your vehicle."

Although that is obviously not the intention of the clause, I suggest to the Minister that it is drafted in such a way as to allow the possibility to occur, and he therefore needs to insert some safeguards. The safeguard that I propose is a six-month time restriction. That is a normal time restriction which is applied by the police in all sorts of cases, and it would not be unreasonable to include it in the clause. Given that the Minister recognises that theoretical possibilities need to be removed, as he said 10 minutes ago in respect of blood samples, I am sure that he will support the amendment.

Mr. Hogg

Although I am not sure that I support the amendment, the hon. Gentleman identifies a point of some substance. There are two issues here, because clauses 60 and 61 have to be read together. Clause 60(2) enables the police to stop an individual who was not responsible for the antisocial behaviour set out in subsection (1), and to do so on the basis of hearsay—that is, information that is neither known to him personally nor within his ability to check. So a driver can be stopped and have his vehicle seized for behaviour that was not carried out by himself, in a situation where the constable has less than adequate knowledge on which to base his decision.

Yet more problematic is what happens where the owner is perfectly innocent. Under clause 61, the regulations to enable the owner to recover the seized vehicle are couched in permissive terms only, so the Secretary of State is not obliged to lay regulations enabling an innocent owner to recover it, but only "may" do so. Together, the two clauses represent an undesirable curtailment of liberty.

Mr. Hawkins

I can be brief in dealing with this. On 25 June there was a short debate in Committee, which is recorded at columns 364 to 366 of Hansard. We understand the point that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has raised, but we anticipate that the Minister may say that an artificial time constraint of only six months might be rather too restrictive. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) spoke in Committee to express his view that the measures were very widely framed. Although we do not support what the hon. Member for Lewes says, we recognise, as did the Minister in Committee, that he raises a theoretical possibility.

Mr. Denham

The hon. Gentleman correctly anticipates that I am going to ask the House to resist the amendment on the grounds that I am not sure that an arbitrary time limit is a good idea in this context. It is worth noting clause 60's reliance—not exclusively, but for the most part—on circumstances in which a constable has already given a warning to those indulging in the antisocial use of a motor car. I have some discomfort with the idea that a warning that has been given might lapse because of some arbitrary time limit. I will therefore ask hon. Members to resist the amendment.

On late seizure and the effects on an innocent person, the Bill makes it mandatory that people who did not know about the vehicle's use should get it back without charge. That is a provision in the Bill, although there are details about charging through regulations.

Mr. Hogg

I wonder whether the Minister is right. I presume that the power to reclaim the vehicle will be made under the regulations. Clause 61(1) provides: The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to…the procedure by which a person who claims to be the owner… may seek to have it released". Why is not the provision to lay the regulations mandatory rather than permissive?

Mr. Denham

Draftsmen have different views about whether "may" means "shall" and vice versa in legislation, and we are in one of those terrible debates. However, the Secretary of State intends to make regulations. He will thus fulfil the requirements of clause 61(3), which states: Regulations … must provide that a person…shall not be liable to pay…if…the use by reference to which the motor vehicle in question was seized was not a use by him; and…he did not know of the use of the vehicle in the manner which led to its seizure".

Norman Baker

I understand why the Minister does not want an arbitrary time limit. However, clause 60 is loosely worded or widely drawn. Will he recognise that there is at least the potential for injustice? What further safeguards does he propose? Does he acknowledge that clause 60(5) provides that a warning is not necessary?

Mr. Denham

I made a point of saying that the clause relies largely but not exclusively on warnings. Subsection (5) allows for circumstances under which a warning is not practicable. I do not agree that the clause is loosely worded. It allows necessary operational flexibility. We should not forget the severe disruption that many of our constituents suffer through the irresponsible and unauthorised use of off-road vehicles, such as motor cycles, and people who joyride repeatedly around the same residential estates and roads. That causes great distress. I believe that clauses 60 and 61 reflect the mood in Committee and respond to a genuine environmental nuisance caused by irresponsible people against which action must be taken. Seizing vehicles will often be the best method of tackling that.

Norman Baker

The Minister is right that vehicles that are used in a manner causing alarm, distress or annoyance create severe disruption. Nobody disagrees with that, and the Committee's mood was to support the clause's intention. My colleagues and I fully support its purpose. It is sensible that steps are available to the police to deal with vehicles that are used in the manner described by the clause. My constituents, like others, are subject to such unwelcome use of vehicles, and we support measures to give the police powers to tackle that. However, we do not support provisions, the drafting of which allows injustice to occur. The Minister has failed to deal with that.

The Minister accepted that a warning will not necessarily be given and that a vehicle could be subsequently seized without warning. He has not explained why subsequent seizure, rather than seizure during an alarming incident, is appropriate. The alarm has, by definition, passed if the vehicle is not seized or stopped during the incident. He did not state that a vehicle may not seized from an owner who has no knowledge of the vehicle's use. The potential for injustice cannot be justified by the Government's proper attempts to deal with the nuisance caused by vehicles used in the manner that clause 60 describes.

Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government or the parliamentary draftsmen to draw up a clause that deals with the "alarm, distress or annoyance", which hon. Members of all parties want to tackle, while ensuring that injustice does not occur. I am disappointed that the Minister has failed to deal with that aspect of my argument.

However, we have a timetable motion and there are other matters to discuss, and I shall therefore not try to divide the House. I am disappointed by the Minister's reply, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to