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Vehicles (Crime) Bill

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2001

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

8.26 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 21 [ Cancellation of registration by the Secretary of State]:

Page 12, line 20, leave out "28" and insert "90"

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was kind enough to point out in a letter to some of us who spoke in Committee that the cancellation of registration after 28 days is a power, not a duty and whether it is exercised in any particular case will depend on the authority's assessment of a person's business status, taking account of all available evidence, including, for example, VAT.

I realise that the Minister was trying to be helpful and I am grateful to him for writing that letter, but we still feel, for various reasons, that 28 days is not long enough. First, although he says that it is a power and not a duty, we know that if the legislation says 28 days, local authorities will always go for that period. They will not consider whether the period should be longer or shorter, so 28 days will become the norm. The idea that it will not is a misunderstanding.

The Minister said that guidance would be issued that would take full account of the points made during the passage of the Bill. That may be so, but if we are to rely on guidance it would be better not to specify a short period in the Bill and to allow the number of days to be set out in guidance so that the Government could change it if they found that it was not working because the period was either too short or too long. That would be more sensible. The guidance cannot specify, because the Bill already does so. The guidance cannot contradict the Bill.

Various organisations have expressed concern, particularly some of the smaller organisations whose members have seasonal operations. The caravan industry, for example, is a seasonal business. Someone could easily be claimed to be not operating for 28 days at certain times of year. Such organisations favour a longer period. The Government will have to issue guidance. Extending the period to 90 days would give them the flexibility to set out that that was the maximum period and that local authorities should seek to act within a shorter period if that was right. However, we feel that the 28-day period suggested by the Government is too short.

I am sure that the noble Lord will point out that in another place the Official Opposition put forward a different view in relation to the number of days from the one that I suggest in the amendment. However, that proves that we are a flexible and thinking Opposition and indicates that we have been able to examine the matter in greater detail. I know that the two Ministers who are dealing with the Bill are also flexible and that they take account of the views expressed. We all learn more about the industry as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.

Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider the matter carefully. My amendment is meant to be helpful and is intended to elicit a positive response from the Government. It is not in any way intended as an attack on any of the principles of the Bill. I believe that it will make it easier for the Government to issue guidance on the matter. On that basis, I commend the amendment to the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, as Ministers will be aware, in Committee my noble friend Lady Scott expressed broad sympathy for the thinking behind the amendment. We still believe that 28 days is too short a time and that it will bear down most unfairly on the small operator. However, in case the Opposition feel lucky and believe that they can lure us into their Lobby, perhaps I may make it clear that we would not join them in the Lobby if they divided on this issue. But we share their concerns and hope that the Government show some of the flexibility that has been urged on them.

My Lords, my noble friend on the Front Bench talked about the passage of the Bill in another place. I believe that your Lordships' House has given the Bill very good scrutiny. Although we have not persuaded the Government to accept any amendments, I believe that people outside will be much clearer as to what the Government intend to achieve through the Bill.

I turn to the last paragraph of the Minister's letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. I take it that the noble Lord is saying that, although the Bill cannot be amended in this House because the Government fear that they will lose the legislation if, as everyone believes, a general election is forthcoming, amendments will be made in regulations. If that is the case, that will probably be a good idea. I look forward to the Minister's response.

My Lords, I could not possibly comment on some aspects of the recent remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brougham. I believed that the letter which I sent to several noble Lords who took part in the earlier debate set out the situation and explained how flexible we already were. I shall have another attempt at doing so and shall perhaps focus a little more on the procedures.

The provision for the cancellation of registrations is not intended as a punitive measure but as an informational one so that the register is kept up to date and does not include businesses which no longer operate as number plate suppliers. Before cancelling a registration, the registration authority must serve notice on the person concerned and must give him the opportunity to make representations. Following that, he has at least 14 days in which to respond to the notice. That should guard against cancellations based on misinformation.

As an additional safeguard, if the registration authority decides to proceed with a cancellation, the supplier may still appeal to the magistrates' court within 21 days. That means that in total, through the process built into the Bill, at least 63 days will have elapsed from the day when, according to the judgment of the authorities, the person ceased to trade, say "at least" because the 63 days does not take account of delays in administration and decision-making time between each stage. In practice, the time taken is likely to be much longer than 63 days.

If a supplier avails himself of the extensive safeguards in the Bill, there will be plenty of opportunity to make clear to the registration authority that the authority is wrong and that he is still trading as a number plate supplier. In most cases, the registration authority will be told by someone else that the business is not continuing. We shall not require a constant check on every business. Of course, a duty rests on the suppliers because they are required to give such notice under Clause 26.

The noble Lord asked why the notice period should be specified in the Bill. He asked why it cannot be provided for through guidance or, as the noble Lord. Lord Brougham, said, through regulations. The period of 28 days was not plucked out of the air. It follows the precedent of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. I do not believe that in practice the application of a 28-day period to that industry has given rise to difficulties.

Therefore, the 28-day period is consistent with the period within which registered persons are required to notify the registration authority that they are not carrying on a business. That is an important link because it would be slightly peculiar if the authorities had to wait for 90 days before acting on information that the supplier was required to provide within 28 days. Of course, as we debated earlier, the 28-day period also applies to the cancellation of registration as a motor salvage operator.

I believe that some of the misgivings about this provision are misplaced. A business that continues to offer number plates for sale is carrying on the business even if no one buys the plates. Therefore, it is not as though a seasonal trader in, for example, caravan number plates would be deemed to have ceased to trade simply because he had not sold any plates between November and Easter. There is no question of putting people out of business simply because they have not been successful in selling their number plates.

Likewise, the temporary closure of a business for a holiday or because of a seasonal fluctuation in trade, or some other reason, does not constitute a break in the activities of the business. The business of a number plate seller continues in existence until a decision is made to stop selling number plates as part of that business. At that point, there is a requirement on the supplier to notify the authorities, and he has 28 days in which to do so.

Therefore, this process is more subtle and sophisticated than is implied by the suggestion that the 28-day period will lead immediately to a cut-off point and that it is an arbitrary figure with no bearing on anything else. I hope that that is understood within the industry, and I hope that the guidance that we issue will spell out how the provision will operate. I do not believe that there is a case for deleting the 28-day period from the face of the Bill. However, there is a case for explaining the matter more clearly when we come to implement this part of the Bill.

My Lords, the Minister has been helpful. He has gone further than he did in his letter in explaining the point in relation to seasonal operators and the fact that, even if they do not sell goods, they are considered still to be trading. I believe that that is helpful. The noble Lord has gone a long way towards satisfying my concerns. I shall obviously study carefully what he said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

After Clause 25, insert the following new clause—


(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) 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 Viscount said: My Lords, Amendment No. 2 follows an amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux in Committee. On that occasion, I believe that the Minister tried to give a helpful answer. However, we find ourselves somewhat confused by the Bill in relation to the offences. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said:

"Although we require a new offence in relation to the supplier, it is not necessary to create a new offence in relation to the purchaser. While I understand the intention behind the amendment, I do not accept that it is necessary".—[Official Report, 6/3/01; col. 151.]

I have studied the Bill with as much care as I can muster, but I admit that I am not a lawyer. It seems to me that the Minister has acknowledged a need for a new offence relating to the supplier. I cannot find in the Bill any provision for such an offence. That is why I have tabled Amendment No. 2. I beg to move.

My Lords, as my noble friend has said, we discussed this matter fully in Committee. I should briefly like to say that, having considered all the responses made in Committee, we do not believe that the Bill as currently drafted makes provision for this offence. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

My Lords, the Bill deals with the question of who can supply number plates and on what terms. To go beyond those terms would clearly constitute an offence under the provisions of Clause 25(1) of the Bill. The Bill would require the supplier to carry out checks to ensure that the purchaser is entitled to the plates that he asks for. The question of deciding whether the plates would be used for illegal purposes would not then arise. If the requisite checks are made with due diligence, the plates would be sold only to a genuine purchaser.

If this amendment is passed, it will place an unreasonable burden on suppliers by forcing them to make a subjective judgment about whether plates may be used for an unlawful purpose. If, in checking the credentials of the purchaser, due diligence was established, it would be difficult to place a further burden on the supplier to establish that he was supplying somebody who was deceiving him.

The existing criminal sanctions already allow for the prosecution of persons who obtain plates by deception. Section 1 of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act makes it an offence to issue a false instrument. That would cover any attempt to pass off as genuine a false document in order to deceive a supplier of number plates. There are also specific offences of forging driving licences with intent to deceive and forging vehicle registration documents. Therefore, offences already exist which deal with a purchaser practising a deception in such a way that leads to him being legally supplied with number plates by a supplier, without an offence being committed by the supplier. This amendment attempts to create a new offence relating to the purchaser, and that is covered by existing legislation. I hope thatߞ

My Lords, before the Minister proceeds, perhaps I may ask a question which I hope will be helpful. The Minister said that my amendment would impose a burden because it would mean that a supplier would have to make a judgment. My amendment states,

"when he knows or reasonably suspects".
If he does not know or does not reasonably suspect, he does not need to make any difficult judgments. Does the Minister accept that? I believe that that is the case. What he said implies that a supplier would have to guess, and that is certainly not the case; nor is it part of the amendment.

My Lords, a supplier would clearly have to check the documentation. If apparently genuine documentation is provided, it would be unreasonable to expect a supplier to make further additional checks in relation to whether those documents were in order, whether they related to the vehicle to which they purported to relate, and whether the individual possessed the personal driving documents to establish that he was the keeper of the vehicle. But if those documents were forged, or if a person claimed a different identity—in other words, if they were not forged documents but stolen documents—there should be no duty on the supplier to establish that. One would not expect that. But a criminal act would already have been committed by that purchaser either forging documents or representing himself to be another person. Either way, the offence by the purchaser is covered by long-standing law.

8.45 p.m.

My Lords, the Minister has put forward an interesting argument. However, it does not address the bones of this amendment. The Minister has talked about the purchaser. This amendment has nothing to do with the purchaser; it concerns the supplier. The Minister has referred to forged documents. This amendment is quite simple. It does not suggest that the supplier should make a huge number of background checks on anybody. The Minister has used an argument against it which does not relate to the amendment. The amendment is quite simple. It states:

"when he knows or reasonably suspects that it will be used for an unlawful purpose".
If he does not know and does not reasonably suspect, there will be no offence. The Minister does not appear to accept that. If the Minister wants to intervene and agree that that is the case—some form of divine intervention may reach him to help to settle this debate—or if he would like to clarify any point before I decide what to do with this amendment, I shall, of course, be grateful for any assistance.

My Lords, I shall have to repeat the point that I am making. There is provision under Clause 25(1) for the supplier to obtain proof that a prospective purchaser is entitled to receive plates. What does the noble Viscount's amendment mean over and above the requirement that he "knows or reasonably suspects"? What requirement does that put on the supplier over and above that which already exists in Clause 25(1)? If it does not require the supplier to do what I suggest—that is, to go behind the documents and make further inquiries to establish evidence one way or another that a purchaser is entitled or not entitled to present those documents, and therefore is an unreasonable burden on the supplier—what other additional requirement does his amendment mean? We believe that what he has just said is covered by Clause 25(1) in any event, or will be covered by the regulations to be made under Clause 25(1).

My Lords, the Minister has moved on. When he began his reply, he said that its provisions were covered by Clause 25(1). They are not presently covered by Clause 25(1). That refers to,

"information of a prescribed description from their prospective purchasers before the completion of a sale".
But the first line states that the Secretary of State "may by regulations provide" that. If the Minister is suggesting that the regulations will cover the instances that this amendment addresses, that is a different matter altogether.

I recognise that the Minister has, as ever, tried to be helpful. However, his initial arguments on this amendment did not help the process very much. He has moved a little. I hope that he now understands more clearly our thinking behind these amendments. I am not satisfied with the Government's answer, but it is an area that we might be able to consider between now and the next stage of the Bill. I hope that the Minister too will study Hansard and consider what has been said. I think that the intention is the same. It is a matter of how we reach agreement. It is quite clear to me that as drafted Clause 25(1) does not cover the offences that are dealt with by my Amendment No. 2.

The noble Lord said that he will bring forward regulations but he has not been clear what those regulations will be and how they will work. We shall certainly give him the opportunity to do that at Third Reading. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Page 18, line 34, at end insertߞ
  • "( ) notification of serious damage to vehicles,"

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this amendment deals with the need to destroy the identity of a vehicle, especially when it is unlikely to be used again. That is necessary in order to avoid the cloning and ringing of stolen vehicles which, as your Lordships know, is one of the key objectives of the Bill.

In Committee, I moved Amendment No. 27. A t the time I accepted that it was not perfectly drafted and therefore the Minister was unable to give as full an answer as he would have liked. I described why it was desirable to destroy the identity of the vehicle as scion as possible, or perhaps not to destroy it but to make the identity unusable for a criminal. In order to do that, we must make sure that the DVLA is aware that a particular chassis number or a particular vehicle registration number no longer relates to a serviceable or repairable vehicle. Of course the chassis number and vehicle registration number should not be erased from the DVLA computer for obvious reasons.

The Minister said that he had some sympathy for my point and, subsequently, I received a helpful letter from him which referred to the Motor Conference code of practice regarding the destruction of a vehicle's identity. In principle, that requires the salvage operator to remove the number plate and the vehicle identification number plate—the shiny little plate that is in the engine compartment.

But the problem is that criminals are interested only in a vehicle's identity; that is, the VIN number and the registration number to which it relates. The log-book or registration document would be helpful, but at the moment, although the Minister may have plans to change this, it is possible to tax vehicles without their registration documents.

Your Lordships will recall that in Committee we agreed that only company directors of salvage companies need to be clean, if I can use that expression. Very few checks would be carried out on employees of vehicle salvage organisations. So there would certainly be no criminal record check and it would be impossible, for practical reasons, to avoid dubious characters accessing the information.

Noble Lords should not get too excited about the VIN plate being destroyed under the code of practice. It is very easy to manufacture and forge a vehicle identification plate. It is a simple photographic process. Indeed, I have my own kit for making aluminium name plates. It is for a strictly legal purpose—doing decals on controls on some sophisticated engineering equipment. I assure your Lordships that I have no intention of making an illegal VIN plate.

But I suggest that the solution to all this is for the DVLA to be informed as soon as either the vehicle is a complete write-off—that is, a burn-out—or is so severely damaged that its future is questionable. If the vehicle finds that it has a second life after extensive repairs, the Bill provides for how that vehicle can continue to be registered.

It is no use relying on the Hire Purchase Investigations database because, as we discussed in Committee and on Second Reading, not all write-offs are recorded. That occurs especially if the vehicle comes to grief when it is only covered by third party insurance or, indeed, no insurance at all.

If the Minister accepts my amendment, he will be able to use his powers under new Section 22A of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 to avoid the possibility of a cloned vehicle being taxed and, therefore, used apparently legally on the road, because the DVLA will have put a flag against that particular vehicle registration number, indicating that there is something questionable about that vehicle.

Without my amendment, the Bill will be weak, unless one looks at the operation of the vehicle salvage industry through rose-tinted spectacles. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have my name to this amendment. When the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, replied in Committee to a similar amendment, he said that he speculated that the matter was best dealt with in other ways but that he would think further about it. I wonder whether he has thought further. I look forward to his response.

Unfortunately, I shall not be here next week for Third Reading. However, I thank my noble friends on the Front Bench and Ministers on the Government Front Bench for all the work they have done on the Bill. It is not quite right but I think we shall get there. In the long run, it will achieve what the Government, my noble friends, the European Secure Vehicle Alliance and I want. I look forward to the publication of the regulations, which we shall study with care.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords opposite for raising this issue again. My understanding of the amendment suggests that it allows for the making of regulations to notify a person presenting a vehicle for an identity check of serious damage to the vehicle. That would effectively involve making a very thorough inspection of a vehicle over and above simply checking its identity. We did not include such a provision because we did not consider that it would be justified to do so. In particular, there is no evidence to show that accident repair vehicles are a particular threat to road safety.

My Lords, did I hear the Minister say that accident repair vehicles have no effect on road safety? It is well proven that two parts of a vehicle welded together have a tremendous effect on road safety.

My Lords, I accept that particular point, which is rather different from the point that I was making. I entirely accept the noble Lord's point. Of course that is the case.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that there is a need to destroy a vehicle's identity when it is taken to a salvage yard if it is to be destroyed. That need is addressed by the Motor Conference code of practice for the disposal of motor vehicle salvage. That requires scrap dealers to remove number plates and vehicle identity number plates from vehicles at the time of scrapping. In addition, a scrap dealer is required to supply the DVLA with a notification of destruction when vehicles are destroyed, thereby providing an audit trail for each destroyed vehicle.

However, if a vehicle is taken to a salvage yard in a repairable condition, then it is necessary to keep the identity of the vehicle until and unless it is destroyed. If the vehicle is repaired, it will be subject to a vehicle identity check under Clause 33 before it is allowed back on the road to ensure that it is the vehicle it is purported to be. There is nothing in the Bill which relates specifically to when the identity of a vehicle should be eliminated.

We take the view that that does not necessarily result in a loophole for criminals to exploit. The Bill contains two measures which will reduce the criminal demand for stolen vehicle identities. First, under the provisions of the Bill, salvage dealers will need to be licensed and keep records. Secondly, as I have already indicated, written-off vehicles will need to have their identity corroborated before returning to the road after repair.

We believe that these two measures make the idea of controlling the date of destruction of a vehicle's identity unnecessarily burdensome on the industry and over-regulatory. That is an argument that I know noble Lords opposite have been particularly keen to follow and with which, in broad measure, they have agreed. For those reasons we do not believe that this amendment, well-intentioned as it is, is entirely necessary. I hope that the noble Earl will agree to withdraw it.

On a final legal point on the amendment, the noble Earl agreed that his previous effort in drafting this amendment was not technically correct and this one is also technically defective. It would empower the Secretary of State to notify but would not empower him to carry out the kind of thorough inspection that would be necessary in order to decide whether or not to give such a notification. I do not believe that the amendment achieves what the noble Earl seeks.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. At this time in the parliamentary calendar I understand his reluctance to accept any form of amendment. Does the Minister agree that it is easy to forge the VIN plate? Although the code of practice, to which he referred, mentions destruction of the VIN plate, does he agree that it is easy to forge, especially when one considers how much money can be made by cloning or ringing a vehicle? We are talking of thousands and thousands of pounds and it may cost only £100 to forge a VIN plate.

The Minister referred to the need for thorough inspection. Surely, the regulations to be made by the Secretary of State will state how thorough the inspection will need to be. It should be fairly obvious whether a vehicle is seriously damaged or whether the damage to a vehicle as a result of an accident is cosmetic. When a vehicle ends up in a vehicle salvage dealer's yard it has probably had some serious damage inflicted, otherwise the original owner of the vehicle would have had it repaired and would not dispose of it.

The Minister referred to notification of destruction of the vehicle. At what point does the Minister consider that the DVLA would be notified that the vehicle has been destroyed in the salvage yard? Perhaps the Minister could answer those points before I decide what to do with the amendment.

My Lords, as to the noble Earl's first point, it is clear that, for whatever reason, he knows far more of such matters than I do. However, I do not agree with him entirely because, if I were to, it would suggest that measures currently in place and those that we anticipate putting in place would be wholly ineffective. I do not think that the noble Earl believes that to be the case.

My Lords, in that case, I venture to disagree with him firmly. I accept that it can happen, but I do not believe that it is something that happens regularly; nor do I believe with regard to the proposed legislation that that is likely to happen often. I accept that it is an issue, but this is not necessarily the best way to deal with it—a point on which the noble Earl may want to reflect. In any event, I believe that the amendment is technically deficient.

In answer to the second point raised by the noble Earl on when to notify the DVLA, we can certainly address the issue in guidance. I do not see why there should be any cause for delay in that matter at all. It is an issue that we can deal with fairly immediately. While I understand the sincerity and the well-meaning nature of the amendment, I do not believe that it achieves what the noble Earl seeks. As we can cover the DVLA issue in guidance, I urge the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment and to reflect on those points.

My Lords, it must be comforting for the Minister to know that he is confronted with a defective amendment. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply.

My Lords, I am even more comfortable when I know that there is a defective argument behind an amendment.

My Lords, it also makes me comfortable to know that the Minister's argument is defective. I am concerned that it is extremely easy to forge a VIN plate. Although the Bill has desirable objectives, I fear that a number of loopholes are left in relation to the way in which the Bill will operate. I suspect that it will not work as well as the Minister would like. Unfortunately, in view of the way things are, we shall not be able to improve it as much as your Lordships would like. I am not happy with the Minister's reply and I intend to return to the matter at a later stage with considerable vigour. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.