HC Deb 03 March 1966 vol 725 cc1638-48

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

I am very grateful for this opportunity—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

Mr. Harris

I am very grateful for this opportunity of raising the vitally important subject of the scandal of unlicensed vehicles which, understandably, has created nation-wide interest.

When in the main Budget last year the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased the road fund licence for cars from £15 to £17 10s., I had many letters from constituents bitterly complaining of the vast number of car owners who were not paying their road taxes and were literally getting away with it. I immediately contacted the Treasury and subsequently received a letter from the Financial Secretary stating that the unlicensed vehicles were estimated by the Government at only one per 100 of licensed vehicles. But, as I will be able to prove, the Minister was completely wrong in his estimate, for the truth is that this is a very extensive and outrageous evasion.

I have been running a kind of one-man campaign on this issue which my local Press in Croydon has fully supported and to which the national Press, on a very broad basis, has also drawn attention. Naturally, this has brought me letters from all over the country confirming that this is a very serious abuse indeed which calls for immediate and stern action.

The Greater London Council, covering the whole of the Greater London Area, is advised annually of about 80,000 unlicensed vehicles. I stress that those are only the ones reported to the Council. They must be only a portion of the number of unlicensed vehicles. But of the 80,000 reported only about 16 per cent. are subsequently found to have complied with the law in that the owners requested licences; 84 per cent. have not. Following the actions of the Greater London Council, approximately 30 per cent. of the owners sent for licences. Some of them paid mitigated penalties.

In about 7½ per cent. of the cases proceedings are taken, but a mystery surrounds the remaining 46½ per cent. These cases are described, in correspondence anyhow, as being under investigation. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me something of what is happening to this 46½ per cent. My investigations confirm that the system is virtually breaking down. I think that this is because of shortage of staff, for in many cases this evasion cannot be followed up by correspondence; it means many personal visits. The forgetful, honest people subsequently pay the penalty, including, often, mitigated penalties. But those who set out to defraud seem, in the main, to get away with it. This must mean that our system is out-dated, out-moded and antiquated and that some urgent rethinking by the Ministry is surely necessary.

The Greater London Council's figures confirm that in Greater London at least 67,000 car owners a year are running their cars without road fund licences. I stress that these figures are conservative, because they are based only on the reported cases. This means that throughout the country at least 400,000 car owners a year, and possibly even half-a-million, are running their cars without a road fund licence. I am told in much of the correspondence which I have received—and I believe this to be a fact—that in some suburban areas the situation is even worse than in the London area.

There are nearly 9 million cars on our roads. If my conclusions are even approximately correct, as I claim they are, then about 4½ per cent. and maybe more of the present car owners do not pay their road fund licence fees. This is a very different story from the 1 per cent. suggested by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. From the correspondence which I have received I realise that this 1 per cent. has come from a general answer to many letters which hon. Members have sent from their constituents.

Until recently this has been the Ministry's thinking, but presumably the Minister will tell us tonight what is the Government's estimate of the loss to the Exchequer. Any reasonable calculations, even on the most conservative basis, suggest that it must be about £5 million a year or more. How galling this is when the Minister of Transport two or three weeks ago announced in the House a cut in the road programme for 1966–67 of £19 million at a time when, as we all know, road deaths are tragically at the very highest and we need the best possible roads to help combat this problem.

There are two kinds of offender. The first is the honest person who forgets, unfortunately, to take out a road fund licence. The second is the dishonest person who will get away with it as long as he or she possibly can. I submit that if the present out-of-date system is retained, then administrative action needs to be taken quickly. If reminders for driving licences can be sent to us and reminders about licences for wireless sets in our cars, surely some system could immediately be put into operation to deal with the much more substantial problem of road fund licences. Forget-fulness is often genuine, as I found for myself when I looked once or twice in the House car park. Confirmation, too, that a reminder would be extremely helpful has been provided by advice received from many quarters that since the Press gave so much publicity to the matter, road fund licences have been taken out that much more quickly.

The real problem is the number of those who are deliberately defrauding. For them the present out-of-date system is a gift. Our overworked police note the unlicensed cars and then go through a detailed rigmarole of paperwork when passing the details to the local authority. Meanwhile the frustrated policemen are constantly badgered—as I found out for myself—by local people who, understandably, feel that nothing is being done about the car owners who have been reported, often when their cars are standing outside their houses all the time. Until we in Croydon were swallowed up by the Greater London Council, we had a most efficient local taxation office which has now been transferred very inconveniently to Wimbledon. I ask the Minister, if he has not already been there, to be kind enough to go to this Wimbledon office and see the situation for himself. He would then appreciate how easy it is under our present system for anyone to get away with it.

Why do not the Government insist that all the police who operate on this kind of work are fully issued with stick-on labels for car windscreens? By use of stickers car-owners could be asked to report to the local police station within seven days to produce evidence that they have a current road fund licence or eventually face the penalty. This is only partially done at present.

Why are so many cars, for instance, able daily to be on our roads without displaying a licence? This in itself is an offence. Why do not the Government look again at the penalties, which are far too kind for deliberate fraud? Why do they permit each local authority to operate its own separate mitigating penalty scheme? Surely, this could be standardised on a tougher basis.

Why do not the Government use all the full facilities of publicity on radio and television to put over this whole problem? Why does not the Minister arrange a spot check in a certain town to appreciate the extent of the problem? I would not mind if he chose Croydon for this purpose, because regrettably, I am sorry to say, the police are reporting something like 300 cases a month to the Greater London Council. Why does an honest taxpayer have to pay £2 on the spot for wrongly parking his car or pay a heavy penalty if he crosses the yellow line while others can get away with this major abuse? How unfair can the law be?

When the Chancellor last increased the road fund duty, he made it clear in his statement that it was a stop-gap move. If eventually he increases the tax further, the abuse will be the greater, because the honest pay for the dishonest. The Government should ensure that taxes are properly paid before extracting more money from the honest taxpayer.

Road users with no road fund licences are, regrettably, invariably without insurance. Many insurance companies will not honour insurance cover if the road fund licence is out of date at the time of an accident. Anyone who is at the receiving end of an accident from a defaulter of that kind—and I have had many personal friends who have been so placed—is in a serious position. In my submission, the law should protect such innocent victims.

Another major issue, which is linked with this one, is that of cars which are abandoned. Here, again, I can quote the alarming figures of Croydon, which in 1962 had 40 cars abandoned; in 1963, 124; in 1964, 300; and in 1965 the number jumped to 716. I know that an hon. Friend of mine tried to introduce a Private Bill to draw attention to this matter and to deal with it. None of us wants to be a snooper, but the unfairness irritates the people beyond measure. Snooping is obviously repugnant, but the avoidance of such taxation is even more repugnant.

This debate limits any serious alternative suggestions. In any event, it is up to the Ministry to tackle the job, and to do it quickly. Nevertheless, we have an overburdened police force. We simply cannot afford the large number of civil servants who would be required to tackle the task properly. Indeed, as a country, we can ill afford the tremendous administrative costs involved in the handling of the problem, let alone the loss of the tax itself. From knowledge of the cost of the former taxation office in Croydon, I estimate that the handling of the matter must be costing at least £2 million, and possibly more. It would be much more simple if we could cancel the present system and get rid of all these encumbrances and just put another 6d. on petrol or something like that.

However, whatever the solution is, no one can deny that the present situation is really quite disgraceful and most unfair, and, in justice, it really is up to the Minister to try to find the answer, for this is indeed a fast-worsening problem. I can only hope at least that this very short debate will really pinpoint the problem, and that immediate action will follow.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me, very courteously, advance notice of the very detailed points he has raised in this debate. I appreciate very much that he has been running, as he said, a one-man campaign. Perhaps this debate will be useful, so that we can meet some of the points which he has raised.

He has referred to the existence of unlicensed motor vehicles as a scandal. I suppose any infringement of the law could be considered a scandal, but the hon. Member has made it clear that the scandalous nature of the position as he sees it is the extent to which vehicle owners can or do neglect to pay the vehicle excise duty and get away with it. So I think that I should first of all say a few words about the machinery for enforcing this particular part of the law, and then talk about what evidence there is of unlicensed vehicle use.

Under the relevant Act of 1962 all mechanically propelled vehicles, with few exceptions, when used or kept on public roads are subject to excise duty. Various rates are laid down according to the vehicle or its use, and licences must be obtained. The law lays down penalties for unlicensed use. The maximum penalty is £20 or three times the annual rate of duty chargeable in respect of the vehicle, whichever is the greater. This is, in fact, a pretty severe penalty. Even for a private car taxed at £17 10s. the maximum penalty is over £50. It is, of course, for the courts to determine, in the light of the circumstances, the penalty appropriate to any particular case, and it would be quite wrong of me to attempt to pass any opion on the level of fines which are in fact imposed by the courts.

Coming to the collection of vehicle excise duty and the enforcement of the law in this regard, this rests under Statute with the county councils, and it is these councils which are empowered to take action against defaulters. The first step in enforcement of the law is, of course, observation of the suspected offender. That is, perhaps, the first difficulty. In this the councils rely very considerably on police observation of vehicles on the roads, but it must be accepted, of course, that the amount of effort which the police can devote to this particular activity must depend upon the resources they have available, and, of course, these vary in different areas.

My Department is in continuous touch with both the Home Office and the councils on this matter, and I am quite sure that the closest possible links are maintained at local level between councils and police. Apart from regular routine reporting, special spot checks are often arranged. As well as using information supplied to them by the police, councils may, and do, apply their own staff to observe and report cases of the use of apparently unlicensed vehicles on the roads. Incidentally, I was very surprised and somewhat shocked to see newspaper reports last week which suggested that checks on unlicensed vehicles which Durham County Council proposed to carry out, using its own staff, were somehow underhand or un-British. "Spying" was the word used. I say quite firmly, and I am sure the hon. Member will agree with me, that action of this kind by a county council is no more than the proper exercise of the duties imposed on it by Statute. How this can be regarded, as apparently it was by some people and organisations, as being reprehensible, or as some kind of infringement of liberty, passes my comprehension.

The mere noting of an apparently unlicensed vehicle is not, of course, the end of the matter. It is the beginning. Investigation is necessary to establish the true facts. I shall give some figures which will go to show that the amount of time and effort put into this aspect of law enforcement is quite considerable. Establishing the fact that an offence has been committed, and the responsibility for it, calls for a significant amount of preparatory work. I must make the point that the mere fact that a vehicle is not displaying a licence does not necessarily mean that a current licence has not been obtained. Indeed, the investigation of many reports of apparent unlicensed use has shown only a failure to display the licence. I shall give some figures later. Non-display in itself, of course, is an offence, but not an excise one. There is no loss of revenue on that score. It is commonplace for members of the public to write to us saying that they have observed many unlicensed vehicles in a particular street, amounting to as many as 25 per cent. of the total number of vehicles seen, and then to assume that all those are unlicensed. It is that kind of apparent situation which the hon. Gentleman has in mind. He has been quoted in the Press as suggesting that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 unlicensed vehicles on the roads. I do not know whether the reports are accurate. He gave a figure of about 400,000 in the course of his speech. I cannot disprove that, any more, I suggest, than anyone can prove it.

I have myself had a count made in streets not very far from here to see how many apparently unlicensed vehicles could be found. A count of that kind has only a limited value, of course. Out of the 342 vehicles checked, we found 14 with no licences or expired licences. Of those, five were found on inquiry to be properly licensed. In other words, only 2.6 per cent. of the vehicles in this check were not properly licensed.

Spot checks in other parts of the country also reveal situations which are considerably better than the one suggested by the hon. Member. For example, in Birmingham a check last September showed one unlicensed vehicle in 225; in Blackpool, 1,665 vehicles were checked, and none was unlicensed; in Wolverhampton, 29 unlicensed vehicles were found out of about 7,000 checked—that is 0.4 per cent. Obviously, there is some evasion of the vehicle excise law; and by definition, no one can really know how much undetected use of vehicles there is—if we knew, it would not be undetected. But I suggest that the figures I have quoted show that it would be quite wrong to suppose that evasion is as widespread as is often said. Still less would it be true to suppose that the authorities concerned do nothing about it.

I hope I can help the hon. Member a little more on this. There are now 13 million vehicles on the roads. Enforcement of the excise law, and the reporting of apparent offences, is a continuous process. The most recent complete annual figures, those for 1964, show that there were 137,847 reports of proved unlicensed use in a vehicle population then of just over 12¼ million. This represents one report for every 89 vehicles on the roads, or unlicensed use to the extent of 1.1 per cent. of the vehicle population. These were the ones who were caught. It cannot be denied that some offenders are not detected, but the extent of reporting of unlicensed use continues to increase steadily, and shows, I am sure, that both councils and the police are fully aware of the need for continuing vigilance.

Offenders against the vehicle excise law, provided that they can be traced or sufficient evidence obtained, are dealt with in one of three ways at the discretion of the council. Where there are special or extenuating circumstances, or where the offence was committed unintentionally or through genuine forgetfulness, and provided that the duty has been paid, the council usually administers a caution. This offence is recorded and, if the offence is repeated, a more drastic punishment would be meted out on subsequent occasions.

In cases of ordinary carelessness, where there is no reason to suspect intention to defraud, offenders are often offered the opportunity of paying a mitigated penalty in lieu of proceedings being taken against them. Many factors, related to the particular case, are reflected in these mitigated penalities, and a national scale as suggested by the hon. Member would not be appropriate. In the remaining cases legal proceedings are normally undertaken by the councils but where, in the course of their investigations, the police find that offences other than the excise one have been committed, they include the excise offence in the prosecution they undertake.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that of the 137,847 reports of unlicensed use dealt with in 1964 throughout the country, cautions were administered in 17,500 cases; 45,000 mitgated penalties were imposed and just over 56,000 offenders were prosecuted. Eighteen thousand cases sould not be proceeded with because the offenders could not be traced or the evidence was insufficient to take action. A mere handful of cases were still in various stages of investigation at the end of the year.

As he made clear, the hon. Gentleman is specially concerned about unlicensed vehicles in the area of the Greater London Council. As he knows, this Council took over the registration and licensing functions of the former London County Council together with similar work from the whole or parts of eight other authorities, including that carried out by the former Croydon County Borough Council.

In the Greater London area there are now nearly 1¾ million vehicles, about one-seventh of the total number throughout the country. Between 1st April and 31st December, 1965, the Greater London Council dealt with some 57,000 reports of unlicensed use. Of these, some 3,000 were at various stages of investigation by the former authorities and were inherited by the Council. Of the total, 9,365, or just over 16 per cent., were found, on investigation, to disclose no excise offence. These were the ones where the only offence was a failure to display a licence, where an application for renewal was actually in the post at the time of the alleged offence, or where the report was made during the extra-statutory 14 days' "period of grace" permitted at the end of each month.

Of the remaining 47,000 reports, 8,436 were dealt with by cautioning the offenders; mitigated penalties were paid in more than 7,000 cases, and prosecutions were undertaken in just over 4,700 cases. Of these latter 2,486 have been completed. At 31st December more than 17,000 reports were at various stages of investigations. Ten thousand, four hundred and four could not be proceeded with for various reasons. Of course, in 3,000 cases the offender could not be traced or responsibility established. In another 3,800 cases licences had been taken out by the time the reports had been checked. The remaining 3,600 had to be abandoned as, on legal advice, too much time had elapsed between the date of the reported offence and the prospect of laying information.

These abandoned cases are, it must be said, unfortunate. But it is only fair to say that the Greater London Council was beset by many difficulties and staff shortages in setting up the new licensing organisation which came into being in April last year following the London Govern- ment Act, 1963. Some priority necessarily had to be given to keeping the registration and licensing service in operation and implementing the changes in duty introduced in last year's Budget. The back-log of work has been reduced, and it may be of interest that, whereas in July, 1965 it dealt with 657 offences involving penalty action, the figures for October, November and December were 1,782,2,156 and 2,042 respectively. Another interesting comparison is that, during January and February, 1965, the former Croydon County Borough Council received from the police 232 reports of apparent unlicensed use, whereas the South Western Office of the Greater London Council, which is about three times greater than and includes the former County Borough area, received during November and December, 1965, 2,362 reports—ten times the number.

Outside London, many police forces, after observing cases of apparent unlicensed use, make enquiries to establish the facts and then report the results to the taxation authorities. In the Metropolitan Police area, which covers the whole of Greater London, the procedure is somewhat different.

The hon. Gentleman made—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.