HL Deb 17 April 1969 vol 301 cc194-207

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received. Before I move the first Amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper, may I apologise to the House for a difference in wording between the Amendment laid before the House on April 10 and that laid before the House on April 16. I am afraid that I can offer no more excuse than that there has been a muddle. I assure noble Lords that there is no sinister intention in the change. We are substituting the word "foregoing" for the word "preceding", and for the words "for the purposes of functions which are not relevant functions" the words "for the purposes of relevant and other functions". This is purely a drafting correction and I am sorry that I have not been able to give noble Lords earlier notice of it.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Lord Winterbottom.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 2 [Provisions supplementary to section 1]:

LORD WINTER BOTTOM moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 21, at end insert— ("( ) The Minister shall not make an order uncle the foregoing subsection with respect to the transfer of premises appearing to him to form part of premises held by a local authority for the purposes of relevant and other functions unless he has given notice to the authority of his proposal to make the order and has specified in the notice the time within which the authority may request that the order shall be in accordance with the following provisions of this subsection; and where the authority does so request and the Minister decides to make the order, then—

  1. (a) the order shall secure that the transfer is for such period only as the Minister may determine, being a period ending not later than the end of the period of seven years beginning with the transfer date; and
  2. (b) without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing subsection, the other terms of the transfer shall be such as may be specified in the order.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords this Amendment in its new form is the result of a debate in Committee on a related Amendment put down by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who has at this stage of the Bill put down an Amendment prescribing a limit of seven years (instead of five years) from the transfer date on the period during which local authority premises which form part of premises used for functions other than licensing functions can be transferred to the Minister. In the light of misgivings expressed by local authorities and the strong arguments put forward by noble Lords in this House for a measure of certainty on this point, which I conveyed to my right honourable friend as I promised, the Government have decided that an Amendment should be made.

I should like to emphasise that the Government Amendment is similar in substance to that of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, but it has certain technical advantages. It allows a local authority not to invoke the seven-year limit if it does not want to do so. This may be the case where the local authority have no objection to the Minister's taking over the premises but where they are not empowered to let him do so; or the authority may simply not wish to have a formal time limit. The Amendment is also drafted so as to pave the way for any transfers which may have to be made for a stipulated period. In such cases special legal arrangements about the status of the premises will need to be made, since the Minister will only be having their use rather than taking them over altogether. I should like to stress to noble Lords that it should be remembered that the powers of Clause 2(1) may well not be needed at all, and I hope that this Amendment of ours will meet the wishes of noble Lords and the local authorities as well. I beg to move.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for explaining the purpose of his Amendment and the correction which he has put into it, which has a refinement of drafting which does not seem to make much difference in substance to me. The substance is there and I thank the noble Lord for putting down his Amendment. I naturally had not expected my version to be accepted; that would not be in the best tradition. Nevertheless, I accept that the substance of it has been met. Local authorities were anxious that they might lose their premises indefinitely, and I thank the noble Lord for the Amendment that he has moved. I shall not move mine.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 12 [Provisions supplementary to section 11]:

LORD NUGENT OF GUILDFORD moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 13, line 37, at end insert— ("( ) A person who is aggrieved by any decision of the Minister that he is liable by virtue of subsection (1) of this section to pay duty under the Act of 1962 in respect of a vehicle may, after giving to the Minister notice of his intention to do so, appeal to a magistrates' court acting for the petty sessions area in which he resides or, if he resides in Scotland, to the sheriff within whose jurisdiction he resides; and on any such appeal the court or sheriff may make such order as it or he thinks fit and the order shall be binding on the Minister.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 3 on the Order Paper, which is in the same terms as the Amendment that I moved at the Committee stage. The Amendment goes to the substance of this Bill, and raises a quite important point. This Bill will introduce an innovation in the licensing of vehicles by establishing a new principle called "continuing liability", which means that all vehicles will be liable for tax. In so far as there is an owner or a keeper of the vehicle, he will be liable for the road tax unless a notification has been made to the Minister of Transport that the vehicle has been laid up. So if, in the future, an owner fails to notify the Minister that he is laying up his vehicle, he will nevertheless still be liable to pay the tax. I accept this innovation of continuing liability. It is quite an important one in law. It lays a heavy responsibility on the many millions of people who own vehicles in the community, and all I hope is that they will understand that they have this liability before some misfortune strikes them.

Perhaps I may briefly recapitulate the point which I was making on Second Reading. I should say that there has been some correspondence between the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, and myself in the interval, but the point has not been completely resolved. The noble Lord has given me further reasons why he thinks that my Amendment is not needed, or is not possible, but I feel that your Lordships should hear why he thinks it undesirable and why I think it could be desirable.

The point being established that continuous liability will be a new responsibility for vehicle owners, my Amendment provides that where a vehicle owner has failed to notify the Minister that he has laid up his vehicle, and a demand for arrears of tax is then made by the Minister to the vehicle owner, in a case of dispute the owner shall have the right of appeal to the magistrates' court. The Bill provides that the Minister shall have discretion to consider cases on their merits, and it does not need a great stretch of imagination to realise that there will be an infinite number of reasons why individual owners of vehicles may have failed to notify the Minister that they were going to lay up their vehicle. They might have had some terrible accident; the car might have run over a cliff, and that was an end of it; and it simply would not occur to them to write to the Minister and say that this had happened. They would not have a vehicle, and they naturally would not think of writing. Obviously, where we are concerned with many millions of cases there will be an infinite variety of possibilities.

I am sure that in most cases the Minister will use reasonably the power of discretion which this Bill gives him, but there will inevitably be some cases where the owner of the vehicle is not satisfied that the Minister has been reasonable; where the Minister is still demanding that the arrears of tax be paid. This is the case that my Amendment is designed to meet, to give the citizen concerned the right of appeal to a magistrates' court in order to have his case heard by an independent body, instead of by the Minister who is responsible for collecting the tax. I concede that there are technical difficulties, but there seems quite a hit to recommend my Amendment. That is why I feel justified in bringing it before the House again. I beg to move.


My Lords, may I support the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, on this Amendment? I should have thought it would be quite simple, when a vehicle was laid up, to ask for the registration book to be handed in to the local authority and for it then to be withdrawn at such time as one wished to nut the vehicle on the road again. It would not be a very difficult administrative job, and the book has to be handed in for re-licensing, anyway.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has said, while we were processing this Bill through your Lordships' House, we suddenly realised that we were talking about something that was not simply routine. The principle of continuous liability is of importance and is something new, and we had an interesting discussion, at the end of which the noble Lord kindly withdrew his Amendment in order to enable my right honourable friend to have another thought about the circumstances, particularly in the light of what your Lordships had to say on the subject. Before going on, may I make a small point? I think there is a small typing error in the noble Lord's Amendment. The correct reference is to subsection (1) of Clause 11, rather than to subsection (1) of Clause 12, as stated in the Amendment. It is the key clause that is of importance, rather than the subsidiary clause. But that point is entirely secondary and not of importance. The important point is one of principle.

Let us take first the Minister's decision that the person is liable for duty for some back period because the period has not been covered either by a licence or by a notice of laying-up. In these circumstances, the Minister has only two ways of recovering back duty from an unwilling person—I am talking now about the situation under the Bill, and not the situation as foreseen by the noble Lord. First, he can sue for it in a county court. The person can then argue that all or some of the duty claimed is not owed. Secondly, if the person later applies for a fresh licence from a current date the Minister can deduct any back duty owing and issue a licence for a shorter period. If this second situation arises, the individual has a right of appeal, under Clause 24, either to a county court or, in Scotland, to the sheriff. In both cases under the Bill the matter would be decided by a civil court and not by a magistrates' court and the power of appeal exists, However, we are proposing that the appeal should be to a civil court, while the noble Lord is saying that the appeal should be to a magistrates' court.

If we turn to the Minister's decision not to deem notice to have been given by exercising his powers under regulations which he will make under Clause 12(3)(e), then I think the individual would have to satisfy the court that the vehicle was laid up during the period and that he had some sufficiently good reason for not notifying the laying up in advance. But when we get down to the business of making this Bill work this is essentially a matter of administrative discretion and what is a reasonable excuse for not complying with the law. What is really at issue is not a conflict of evidence about facts, but a conflict of opinion about excuses. In our view in a tax-collecting field, which this is, this judgment can best be exercised so as to combine protection of the Revenue—which is important—with fairness to the individual—which is even more important—by the normal administrative discretion of the tax-collecting authority. Rather as Customs and Excise have discretion to waive duty in a case where a person has failed to declare something, the Minister would decide whether to exercise discretion and deem a notification of laying up to have been given. We think that the Minister will be in a better position than the courts to ensure consistency of treatment. The problem is that we have to treat individuals as reasonably quickly and fairly as we can; and with a single centre for deciding policy in this matter the Minister would be a better source.

If the Bill gave a statutory right to leniency, a major difficulty would arise from the need to define for court purposes, as would be necessary, an official list of excuses. It would be difficult to compile a really comprehensive list: there would almost certainly be circumstances which had not been thought of, and which the courts would not then be able to take into account. But the Minister will be able to recognise them in considering whether to deem a notification of laying up to be given. On the other hand, assuming that we listed the possible exemptions, the very existence of such a list in a Statute would, I am afraid, encourage certain people not to take the law seriously in the first place.

In short, my case is that, so far as the matters at issue here are appropriate for decision by a court—that is, so far as they concern conflicts of fact, for instance, as to the identity of the vehicle and the registered keeper, as to the dates when the vehicle was licensed, as to whether notices were or were not given, and so on—the Bill already provides for these matters to be determined by a court if the person wishes. So far as the matter in dispute is the exercise of the discretion of the Minister as the authority responsible for collecting the duty—that is, deciding whether or not the person has a good excuse for failing to comply with the law and should therefore be let off some or all of the back duty which under the law he owes—I hope that I have said sufficient to convince your Lordships that these matters are best left to the discretion of the Minister. As was said in our earlier discussion, the Minister will be subject to constitutional checks of Parliament and, if necessary, of the Parliamentary Commissioner. For this reason I hope that the noble Lord will feel, on reflection, that the Bill as it stands provides a sound working basis for the introduction of the new principle of continuous liability (and he has been good enough to support the principle in general terms) and will feel able to withdraw his Amendment.


My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not this continuous liability will be indicated on the licence application form?


My Lords, this is a very major change and it will be announced very much in the form of a communication. There will be a major publicity programme before this new system is brought into effect. People will have to be told pretty clearly, by all the media of mass communication open to us, what this is all about. It is a little way off, but we intend by a massive publicity campaign to make the whole of this new principle abundantly clear to all the people concerned.


Massive communication or not, my Lords, this doctrine of continuous liability is going to appear a very strange one to the people of this country. Where will it end, having started on vehicles? What about wireless licences? Has the person who takes out a wireless licence to inform the Minister if he ceases to listen to the wireless and does not wish to take out another licence? What about the person who sells tobacco, and so on? One could take it throughout the whole gambit of taxation. Is this a precedent? Is this the thin end of the wedge? Do the British people realise that this extraordinary doctrine is being imposed upon them? I very much doubt whether they do.


My Lords, may I identify myself with the two noble Lords who have just spoken in being somewhat worried about how the public will be made aware of what my noble friend Lord Nugent has referred to as an innovation—to which, of course, in principle, we give our support? May I, at the same time, ask the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, about a matter which still worries me? At the last stage of this Bill my noble friend Lord Nugent referred to the different cases of dispute which undoubtedly may arise in this new process, involving over 10 million vehicle-owners. Among these cases, as he pointed out, will be cases of breakdowns in notification procedure, of people who have failed to understand the new law and of deliberate evaders. In all these cases, I suggest that if justice is not seen to be done by permitting an appeal to a magistrates' court—the point of this Amendment—there will often be a sense of grievance. If this feeling is added to the possibility that people guilty of licensing offences are sometimes poor payers, I very much fear that back duty due for contravention of Clause 11(1) may often remain unpaid, and this will presumably mean that these people will end up in the courts because they owe money—the very situation which the Government are apparently so eager should be avoided.


My Lords, the right of appeal is not denied to the individual. What we are discussing today is to whom the appeal is made. We believe that the appeal should be made to the county court in extreme cases; and we believe that as this new principle is developed the Minister, with his overall view of the situation, will be in a better position to give uniform rulings over the whole field of—I will not say conflict, but of dispute between the individual and the legal machine. It is not a question of denying the individual his right of appeal. All we are talking about is: to whom does he appeal if there is conflict between the individual and the State?

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, that of course this is not really a new situation. I think I mentioned the point in our earlier discussion that the principle of continuous liability exists in respect of wireless and television sets, but since they are not such expensive pieces of equipment as motor cars and the charges on them are not so heavy, perhaps we do not take the situation as seriously. As we know, if you sell your wireless set you cease to be liable for duty, and it will be an exactly similar situation if you sell your motor vehicle. But, as I said to my noble friend, we have had the principle before; it is not a new principle. It is, however, a very great extension of an existing principle, and we do not intend to spring this on the British people suddenly. They will be told about what is going to happen, about the benefits that they will draw from it—and there are real benefits which the British public will draw from it—and about what they will have to do to help the new procedures to work so that they can draw the benefits and so that the State can at the same time benefit from what will be in fact a much more efficient procedure. Nothing very terrible is happening here. All the individual has to do is to let the authorities know when he changes his address, if he sells his car or if he scraps it. He has to co-operate with the State to a certain extent, but, for the benefits that he will draw from it and the benefits that society will draw from it, I think it is very little to ask.


My Lords, the noble Lord has produced another new one on me. If a vehicle owner moves house, will he have to notify not only all his friends but also the vehicle licensing people that he has moved house?


My Lords, are we not now in danger of discussing the principles of the Bill, and ought not the discussion which is now taking place to have taken place in Committee, on the Question, That the clause stand part of the Bill? What we are now discussing, or ought to be discussing, in my opinion, is the issue as between the Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and the reply of my noble friend—namely, whether the appeal should lie to the magistrates' court or to the county court. I believe that we ought to confine ourselves to that issue.


My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, for trying to answer the various points that were raised. As I suspected, there is a certain measure of uneasiness about the very far-reaching implications which this new principle will have. I think most of us, at any rate, accept it as being the right way to deal with the evasion of tax due, which is now taking place on a widespread scale. But I still feel some uneasiness about it, although I have to accept that the noble Lord's arguments about the difficulty of defining what would be the matter on which the magistrates' court would be judging is a difficult one. For this reason, the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, says that the Minister could be much more consistent than the courts. It may be that he could, but if he always says "No" this is not going to give much comfort to the disgruntled citizens.

There is no getting away from the point that my noble friend Lord Belstead made, that undoubtedly the Minister will say "No" when cases are put to him from time to time. Very often, I do not doubt, he would be right to say "No"; but this will not alter the fact that the owner of the vehicle concerned will still be very angry and aggrieved. I think that the noble Lord may find that, in practice, this is not going to be a very easy piece of administration; that the Minister will find buzzing around his head continuously a hornets' nest of aggrieved motor car owners who feel that they had a perfectly good excuse for not letting him know that they had laid up the car and that they ought not to be charged the back duty.

However, I cannot think of a better way to deal with the problem. I agree that my Amendment is not entirely satisfactory, and so therefore I think we ought to accept the Government's view on this. But I should like the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, to give us the assurance that this will be something which the Ombudsman will be able to investigate, because I think he may be very busy on these cases in the future and I feel that some safety valve is necessary. However good the noble Lord's publicity cam- paign, people learn these new arrangements very slowly. However, having heard what the noble Lord has said to us, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, may I answer one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent? I should like to repeat the point that I made: that the Ombudsman is empowered to deal with maladministration in this field.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.49 p.m.

LORD NUGENT OF GUILDFORD moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 13, line 37, at end insert— ("( ) The period in respect of which the keeper of a vehicle may he held liable to pay duty following the end of a period in respect of which duty has been paid shall not exceed 4 months.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this Amendment—and this, again, is the same Amendment as that which I put down on the Committee stage—is to limit the period of arrears of duty which the Minister might reclaim in order to protect the owner of the car who had failed to notify the laying up of the car against a lengthy delay in the Ministry of Transport which resulted, therefore, in an excessive demand for repayment by the Minister, perhaps a year or so. For that reason, I have put down this Amendment limiting the period for which the Minister can reclaim arrears of duty to four months. Again, technical difficulties are involved here. The noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, has been good enough to write to me about it. I think he has a good answer to it, and if your Lordships are prepared to accept it I shall be, too. I beg to move.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his co-operative attitude. I think the noble Lord and I are in sympathy with the individual who has defaulted. I am at the moment in a certain measure of default in that my licence is overdue and I have mislaid my log book. During the transitional period this is going to happen fairly often. As the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, said, one thing that we shall all have to do automatically when we change our houses and let our friends know that we have moved, is also to let the Ministry of Transport know that we have moved. In our discussions during the Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, made this point. He was kind enough to withdraw his Amendment before I had the opportunity of replying to it, and it may be of use to tell your Lordships the position.

The problem is: how is one to distinguish the innocent and forgetful man who forgets to notify a change of address and who has in fact laid up his vehicle from the owner of a car or goods vehicle who deliberately fails to notify changes of address and succeeds in evading not only the reminders and warning letters but also efforts to serve a summons on him—perhaps for a considerable period? If the Amendment is passed, anyone who can get away with this for four months will receive a positive encouragement to continue to seek to evade the law indefinitely, for his liability for back duty when he is eventually caught will be limited to four months. Cars and goods vehicles are essentially mobile objects. Not only car owners but some kinds of goods vehicle operators move about the country quite frequently and over quite long distances. Experience shows that they are very difficult to catch up with.

The type of people I have in mind are operators of dump trucks who follow excavations around the country; they are as mobile as the navigators who dug the canals. I am sure that to amend the Bill in the way proposed here would be a positive encouragement to these individuals to disappear from sight. So I believe that limiting the penalty to one of four months would encourage individuals to get away with as much tax as they can.

For this reason we oppose the Amendment. I can give the House the assurance that during the transitional period, after the period during which a massive publicity campaign will be mounted, the Minister will use his powers with the utmost sympathy. There must be a transitional period. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will be willing to withdraw his Amendment.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, for his reply. I think that I am satisfied with it, as I am sure are noble Lords generally. I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 [Admissibility of records as evidence]:

LORD WINTERBOTTOM moved Amendments Nos. 5 and 6:

Page 30, line 28, after ("Act") insert ("or a part of any other records maintained by the Minister with respect to vehicles")

Page 30, line 33, leave out ("the authority in question") and insert (", in the case of records maintained by a local authority, by the authority ")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 on the Marshalled List. No. 6 is consequential upon No. 5. The purpose of these Amendments is to enable a statement in a document purporting to be an extract of the records maintained by the Minister with respect to the plating and testing of goods vehicles to be admissible as evidence in any prosecution brought under Sections 14(1) or 14(2) of the Road Safety Act 1967 which respectively make it an offence to use on roads a goods vehicle to which the Goods Vehicles (Plating and Testing) Regulations 1968 apply, without a plating certificate or a goods vehicle test certificate being in force for the vehicle. In other words, the Amendments would make it unnecessary for a Ministry official to be present at proceedings in order to give evidence that no certificate had been produced.

The Road Safety Act 1967 introduced statutory provisions for enabling the plating and testing of goods vehicles to be undertaken and, in particular, gave the Minister powers to make regulations to establish an organisation for this purpose. The Ministry have established heavy goods vehicles test stations throughout the country at which the necessary examinations of the vehicles are carried out. At the first examination a vehicle is allocated its plated weight (or weights) and a plating certificate is issued accordingly for it. At the same time a test certificate is issued, which remains valid until the vehicle has to be submitted for its next annual examination. Copies of both these certificates are sent to the Minister's goods vehicle centre in Swansea, where a central record of all plating and testing particulars is maintained. It may be necessary to prove in court, for example, either that no plating or test certificate has been issued, or that the period of validity of a test certificate has expired, and for this purpose it will be necessary to prove the date of expiry shown on the last test certificate. Unless provision is made for the courts to accept a document giving the relevant details which has been prepared at the goods vehicle centre by the person whose duty it is to maintain the records, it would be necessary for an official from the centre to attend in court to give evidence in person about these details. This would be very time consuming and could mean that additional staff might have to be employed to deal with such a requirement. To avoid this, Clause 27, as it is now proposed to be amended by Amendments Nos. 5 and 6, could be invoked, so as to enable the relevant evidence to be given in the form of a document rather than in person.

On Question, Amendments agreed to.