HL Deb 27 March 2001 vol 624 cc135-43

5.12 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Requirement of registration for motor salvage operators]:

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 3, leave out "cognate" and insert "related

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 5. It is important that legislation is intelligible to a reasonably educated person. I am a humble hereditary Peer—sadly not a graduate. Outside the House, I am a logistician and/or an automotive engineer. In my short time in your Lordships' House, I have become familiar with primary legislation, but I have never before seen the word "cognate". I raised the issue in Committee when the Minister had an ingenious explanation. He claimed "cognate" was more precise and that substituting the word "related" would not improve clarity. How can "cognate" be clearer if no one understands what it means? I wonder how many of your Lordships could define the word even in this context, let alone out of context, before we considered the Bill.

Noble Lords may be tempted to think that there is no need for a layman to be able to understand our laws. Before I came to this House, I found myself studying primary legislation, particularly the Road Traffic Act 1988. This is a simple Bill. I believe that it is slightly flawed—we shall come to that later—but I accept that it is desirable. If one understands the meaning of the term "Secretary of State" and the fact that a person can be a body corporate, there is no difficulty in understanding the Bill—with the exception of the word "cognate". I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, on these Benches, we have some general sympathy with the view that language should be kept as straightforward as possible to facilitate understanding. However, in this case we had a fairly good thrash round the word "cognate" and related expressions in Committee. So we hope that the noble Earl will not press his amendment.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, we have already had a substantial discussion on this rather limited topic. I have been asked to reply to the amendment not because of any qualifications in Latin. I know that my noble friends are equally well qualified.

Different draftsmen prefer different terms to express the same or similar things. In this case we have used "cognate", which can be defined as, "representing the same original word" or, "coming from the same root". I recognise that we are discussing marginal issues, but it is more precise than "related", which is defined as "associated or connected with". It is a slightly stronger association.

A number of recent Acts have used the word "cognate", including the Postal Services Act 2000, the Local Government Act 2000, the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 and the Finance Act 2000. Members of the public seeking to understand our legislation will become familiar with the word.

We recognise that the noble Earl prefers "related", but we do not believe that it would improve the clarity of the drafting. Like the noble Baroness, I hope that the noble Earl will recognise that, although he has a point, no great issue is at stake and it is not worth delaying the passage of the Bill for the sake of a change that would not enhance it. Indeed, if anything, we believe that it would make the drafting marginally less clear. As this is the second time that we have been through the issue, I hope that the noble Earl will be prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I believe that legislation should be as intelligible as possible. I did not realise that the Government had been inserting unintelligible words into other legislation. The Minister should be aware that I shall raise the issue every time that I see "cognate" in legislation. Perhaps he can select a draftsman who does not use the word in future.

Today's press release from the Plain English Campaign says it all: And most of all, it will irritate those people who think only the legal elite should be able to understand our laws". I was strongly tempted to test the opinion of the House on the issue, but the Minister has been terribly persuasive and I have reluctantly decided not to do so. However, I sincerely hope that Ministers will in future select draftsmen who do not use "cognate". I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 4: After Clause 25, insert the following new clause—


  1. (1) A registered supplier who supplies a registration plate to another person when he knows or reasonably suspects that it will be used for an unlawful purpose shall be guilty of an offence.
  2. (2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 of the standard scale."

The noble Lord said: This is another point that we have discussed at earlier stages of the Bill. We have gradually focused more on our precise concerns so that the point has got smaller and smaller.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was kind enough to write to my noble friend Lord Astor yesterday expanding on the point. He said that the regulations to be made under Clause 25 would prescribe documents that would be acceptable as proof of identity and entitlement to a number plate. The Government's initial view, he said, was that a driving licence or passport might provide proof of identity and that a vehicle registration document might provide proof of entitlement to the registration mark being issued. Without wishing to pre-empt the consultation period into which the Government will enter, that appears to me to involve quite enough bureaucracy.

The amendment also raises the question of what will happen in the case of collusion. As I read the Bill, if a supplier knowingly supplies a number plate which will be used falsely by an associate and the case subsequently comes to court, only the associate who uses the number plate wrongly will be deemed guilty of an offence and not the person who supplied it. I wish to press the Minister only on that small point.

In relation to the general point, we are introducing a whole new element of bureaucracy mainly for small businesses. I am always most cautious about doing that; certainly I do not want to make life more difficult for them. However, where there is crime and collusion in crime, it is important that we ensure that offences are listed properly in the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

My Lords, although I have not been deeply involved in the Bill, I strongly support this amendment and, indeed, Amendments Nos. 6 and 7. It appears that Britain has proportionately the highest rate of car theft in the civilised world. It seems that acceptance of these amendments would go some way towards remedying that shameful state of affairs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for recognising that the combination of what I said in our previous debate and the letter sent to his noble friend Lord Astor have at least narrowed the area of problem in relation to this matter.

Our difficulty lies not with the objectives of the noble Lord but with the fact that we believe that we are fully covered in this respect. There is already provision in the Bill to prevent suppliers selling plates that could be used for disguising the identity of vehicles. As the noble Lord said, under Clause 25 registered number plate suppliers would be required to obtain proof. The regulations to which he referred and which are provided for under Clause 25(1) will define the documents that will be regarded as proof. On our initial thinking, and, again, as the noble Lord said, such proof would be a vehicle registration document and a registration mark. We shall consult on the detail.

The noble Lord also needs to consider that if a person contravened the provision under Clause 25(3)—in other words, if he failed to check the information—he would be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine. If collusion took place, that would mean that the supplier had not discharged the duty under the clause and, therefore, would be susceptible to action under Clause 25(3). It is possible that he would also be susceptible to common law action for conspiracy. However, certainly Clause 25(3) already catches someone who has failed either by design or by negligence to check the documentation that is required by regulations under Clause 25(1).

The amendment also adds a subjective element. It indicates that the supplier should pass a subjective judgment on the legality of the future intentions of a purchaser and of any subsequent owner. That is a step too far. It is not reasonable to require a supplier to guess the intentions or divine the criminal intent of a potential purchaser. That would be regarded as an unreasonable burden on suppliers, particularly as the regulations made under the Bill and the guidelines to be issued before its implementation should provide a clear and unambiguous procedure for suppliers in checking the specified documents when selling registration plates. To go further and require a subjective judgment from the supplier would be regarded by most of the small firms which operate such a business as a step too far. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue the matter.

As I explained during our earlier debates on the Bill, a purchaser would also commit a serious offence if he provided false documentation and attempted to deceive. Therefore, I believe that we have dealt with the matter from all angles without the need for this slightly unclear amendment, which requires subjective judgment on the part of the supplier.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I do not consider that the amendment would force honest suppliers to make a judgment in a normal case. The only intention of the amendment is to help to catch people in cases of collusion. However, the Minister has explained how the Government hope to pursue anyone who indulges in that type of activity. If the Bill is incomplete in that respect, no doubt we shall be able to return to the point when some other Bill is introduced. In any event, I am allergic to the idea that we may be putting too great a burden on honest suppliers and, in particular, small businesses. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Clause 33 [Issue of new registration documents: vehicle identity checks etc.]:

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 6: Page 18, line 14, at end insert—

"( ) After section 22(1)(h) of that Act there shall be inserted ", and (i) require a person who is a motor salvage operator to whom a vehicle is sold. transferred or received in the course of his business to furnish the particulars prescribed by the regulations in the manner so prescribed."

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 6, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 7. We return to the issue of the need to destroy the identity of a vehicle or, at least, to make it unusable to criminals. Some of my previous amendments were slightly off target. I was grateful for the Minister's understanding. I believe that my new amendment is much more precise and on target. It may even score a bull's-eye. Therefore, the Minister will have to show that my amendment is unnecessary. He may even succeed.

Noble Lords are well aware of my concerns regarding gaps and loopholes in this legislation. I shall not weary your Lordships by repeating them this evening. Since Report stage, I, too, have received correspondence from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. I understand that the gap may be rather smaller than at first we thought. It is possible that the Minister will easily be able to meet my concerns. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that the noble Earl's amendments may be more precise but I regret to say that I do not consider them to be on target. I understand what he is trying to achieve. The amendments require motor salvage operators, as defined under Clauses 1 and 2, to furnish particulars. But it is not clear from the wording what particulars are referred to. It is most likely that the amendments would be used to try to ensure that all written-off vehicles were notified to the DVLA when they were received by a motor salvage operator. That is the objective.

I understand the concern expressed previously that seriously damaged vehicles which are not comprehensively insured may not be notified to the DVLA and thus may escape the requirements of the VIC scheme. However, that is not absolutely correct. First, since 1971 regulations have required people to notify the DVLA if they intend to destroy a vehicle. That would cover the situation where a person sold or gave the vehicle to a motor salvage operator for scrapping. It would apply as much to vehicles which are not comprehensively insured as it would to those which have comprehensive insurance.

Secondly, there is a code of practice in the industry that requires members to notify MIAFTR—the motor insurance anti-theft and fraud register—which in turn notifies DVLA when it writes off vehicles. It also provides for alternative notifications to the DVLA by paper using form V23.

The code of practice will be incorporated into the BVRLA code of conduct when it is revised later this year. There is also an expectation that over time the V23 system will be replaced through modifications to the codes. The BVRLA continues to encourage its members to fulfil their obligations.

Written-off vehicles with third-party insurance will be covered by the Bill. Under Clause 1(2)(b), a business engaged, wholly or mainly in the purchase of written-off vehicles and their subsequent repair and re-sale". will in effect fall within the definition of "motor salvage". It is immaterial whether the vehicles in question have been comprehensively insured; the vehicle simply needs to have been "written off" in effect by its owner, not necessarily by an insurance company.

Under Clause 7, a business will be subject to regulations and will be required to keep records of any written-off vehicles that it repairs and sells. The police will be able to enter the premises of a business without a warrant and to inspect its records. That is to a large extent a matter for the police.

In addition, we plan to introduce extra measures further to ensure that both categories are subject to a VIC. We will do so either by introducing requirements for the registration document, form V5, to be returned to the DVLA in any case in which a vehicle is sold to a motor salvage operator; or we will require "self-insured" operators to return form V5 to the DVLA. Those provisions will be the subject of secondary legislation and we will consult on that in due course.

Provisions therefore already exist or are in the pipeline to ensure that vehicles are reported to the DVLA as having been written off by insurance companies or owners who intend their vehicle to be destroyed. I have spelt out in detail that point and our future intentions because the noble Earl needs the full picture. I hope that I have covered most of the concerns that lie behind his amendment.

Additionally—this is why I say that the noble Earl's amendment is not entirely on target—the amendment is linked to Clause 33, which applies to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, whereas the salvage provisions cover only England and Wales. Agreeing to the amendments would mean that all the requirements relating to motor salvage operators would apply to England and Wales, except for those that would be introduced by the amendment, which would also extend to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The amendment is therefore in the wrong place and would have a slightly strange effect on the devolved administrations.

We are covering by various means the ending of the identity of a vehicle, which is what the noble Earl seeks. In any case, the amendment is in the wrong place and would have unfortunate consequences on the administration of motor salvage. I recognise that the noble Earl is expressing concerns that are felt within the industry but I hope that he will accept that we are well on the way to resolving all of those problems and that he will withdraw the amendment.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, before the Minister concludes, is he convinced that he has all the necessary primary legislative powers? It would be embarrassing to have to come back to the House at a later stage to ask for more powers. Additionally, what is the penalty for failing to comply with the V5 procedure that he described, and how many prosecutions have there been for failing to make the notifications?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I fear that I would have required notice to have answered the second part of the noble Earl's question. On the first part of his question, it would be jolly embarrassing for the Government to have to return to the House to secure primary legislation. That is not unknown but it would be embarrassing. I am reasonably confident that the necessary primary legislative powers will be in place. As I said, we will introduce some additional secondary legislation in relation to the requirements for the registration document to be returned to the DVLA. I accept that the total system is not yet in place, but it could be put in place through secondary legislation. The necessary primary legislation is already in hand.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I know what "shortly" means in parliamentary speak, and the phrase "reasonably confident" fills me with alarm.

The Minister's initial observations suggest that I did not intend to catch just written-off vehicles. I intended to catch all vehicles that a salvage contractor receives, apart from his own domestic vehicles. I am quite a bit happier, although we are still left with a small loophole. Let us suppose that a self-insured operator damages his car and sells it to his so-called friend, who finds that he cannot repair it and, to make some sort of financial gain, rings it with another vehicle; I am not convinced that my amendment would cover that loophole. There are many potential loopholes in this context and I expect that the Minister will continue to discover more as time goes on. I hope that the necessary primary legislation will be in place to deal with them through regulations. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

5.36 p.m.

Lord Whitty

I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Whitty.)

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, as a relative newcomer to your Lordships' House, I have learnt much during the passage of the Bill, and I am therefore very grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the House who contributed to our debates. We all support the Bill's aim of reducing vehicle crime. Noble Lords on all sides have been unusually co-operative during the Bill's passage. However, we should not imagine that the Bill is not without its weaknesses. We have identified and debated some of them. In the interests of the Bill's smooth passage at this interesting time in our legislative programme, we have not tested the opinion of the House. I therefore conclude by seeking assurances about the processes of regulation and guidance. I ask for the fullest possible consultation. In this case, it will be more than usually important to ensure that some of the loopholes will be dealt with in that way.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, we are at one, as the noble Baroness said, in wanting to fight vehicle crime. For that reason, we support the Bill. However, it will set up two new sets of regulations: new licensing schemes for motor salvage operators and for registration plate suppliers. It is not alone in setting up new licensing systems. Such quangos multiply all the time, and a whole forest—or a small wood, at any rate—of regulations will flow from the Bill. Such regulations are also being made all the time. The cumulative effect of all of those new individual licensing systems, with all of their detail, is damaging to small businesses in particular. Firms in some trades have to comply with literally dozens of sets of regulations and get themselves licensed with different bodies for different parts of their activities. Each of those systems is desirable in itself, but it is the cumulative effect that makes it so difficult to run a business these days. Having got that off my chest, we are against vehicle crime and we want to fight it. That is why we support the Bill.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my colleagues and I are deeply grateful for the co-operation from both Opposition Front Benches and from noble Lords generally in the passage of the Bill. We believe that it is an important part of the fight against vehicle crime. I agree with the noble Lord about trying to minimise the burdens on small business, but we are clearly dealing with an industry in which a number of scams are running. We hope that we have blocked off the vast majority of them through our proposals and the regulations that will flow from them. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that there will be full consultation.

We hope that we have dealt with all of the major problems in the industry and that we are setting up a regime in which one can get a reputation for being a decent trader—the best in the industry already deserve that—and a regime which will help consumers; that is, the car owners and motorists of this country. We will be making a major contribution towards that. The fact that we have got the provisions through this House, despite the reservations expressed by your Lordships, means that although we may not have gone as far as some noble Lords would wish, we have done a good deal. This is a good Bill and one which will make the life of motorists and honest people throughout the land that much better. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Bill passed.

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