HC Deb 14 April 1967 vol 744 cc1552-67
Mr. More

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 13, line 5, to leave out from 'period' to end of line 9.

Subsection (2) of Clause 16 proposes to do two things. The first is to protect the interest of the owner of private land by requiring the local authority to give him notice before removing a vehicle. The second is to relieve the local authority from the obligation … to remove a vehicle situated otherwise than on a carriage way … if it appears to them that the cost of its removal would be unreasonably high. The Amendment brings us to the crux of the Bill, because it really concerns a direct conflict between what one might assume to be the wishes of the owner of land and the wishes of the local authority. All of us who have taken an interest in the Bill and support it realise the serious liabilities that it will or may involve for local authorities and obviously we do not want to add to them more than we have to. I least of all would want to do such a thing, for I am closely related to and a keen supporter of the rural district councils. The last thing I would want to do would be to impose on them much increased expenditure on matters of this kind.

We must look to the real purpose of the Bill in considering the Amendment. It is to try to do something comprehensive in the way of improving the appearance of our country as a whole and getting rid of unsightly litter. It is fair to say that there is no more unsightly litter than the abandoned motor vehicle to which Clause 16 relates.

The matter affects not only the public, who object, not unreasonably, to the sight of abandoned vehicles, but also to the landowner who is apt, much to his displeasure, to find these vehicles abandoned on his land. Subsection (2) distinguishes, quite rightly, between the case of vehicles left on highways or carriage ways and vehicles left elsewhere. But, of course, it is obvious that a local landowner is being discriminated against if a local authority is being relieved from the obligation of removing a vehicle simply because it has been abandoned on private land, which may be only a few yards away from a highway or carriage way.

If a local authority is ill disposed towards carrying out the Bill, this provision provides a very wide loophole. One is always rather reluctant in any form of legislation to let a public authority be judge in its own cause, but that is what subsection (2) does, because the concluding words are: … if it appears to them"— the local authority— that the cost of its removal would be unreasonably high. It remains for the local authority to say, apparently without argument or contradiction, what would be reasonable and what would be unreasonable. One could find local authorities not well disposed to carrying out the Bill or unsympathetic to private landowners taking the opportunity to evade the objective of the Bill on a wide scale.

That is the principle objection to the Bill and it is not a frivolous one, because anyone who has walked across agricultural land must have been confronted with these horrible specimens of modern civilisation, the rusty, derelict cars abandoned on private property. There is, oddly enough, another objection of a rather different kind to Clause 16 as it stands.

It is surely possible that, if the law lays down a positive duty to remove from the carriageway only, this could act as an encouragement for people to want to abandon vehicles to leave them on the carriageway. That again would be a matter of grave concern to local communities, because it would increase the possibility of obstruction, especially on rural roads. What is needed, if we are to achieve the objectives of the Bill, is, in spite of the objections of local authorities, to put a wider obligation on them.

I can see the objections that will be raised—for example, does a local authority have to recover and remove an abandoned vehicle lying at the bottom of a deep ravine, which is probably private property, in spite of the fantastic cost involved? Of course, there may be ridiculous cases and we do not want to extend the liability to that degree. But this does not alter the fact that, to leave the Clause as it is, would be to defeat the objective of the Bill on too wide a scale, leaving the possibility that, in certain areas, the duty we hope will be assumed by the local authorities is not assumed because they have the excuse that the vehicle is not on a carriageway and that the cost of removal would be unreasonable.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) has pointed out clearly why Clause 16 is unsatisfactory at present. I am glad that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris), is to reply, because this is as much a problem in South Wales as in any other part of the country. The main point of the Amendment is that the Clause is wrongly drafted and does not extend the responsibility for getting rid of these vehicles as far as we should like to see it extended.

The highway extends from fence to fence. Therefore, where roads are fenced we shall undoutedly, because of number of vehicles on our roads, find that the problem is made worse by this provision. But it will not only be made worse on fenced roads. In parts of South Wales, for example, there are many commons at the side of roads which, of course, are unfenced. As the Clause stands, it would be incumbent upon a local authority to remove a derelict vehicle only from the highway, which would be the area from one fence to another.

We must be careful not to require a local authority to go to great lengths to remove derelict and ugly vehicles from almost inaccessible places. Again, it is a question of the Clause being wrongly drafted. It should be so drafted that the responsibility lies upon a local authority to make arrangements for vehicles abandoned off the highways to be accommodated in dumps, or to be so cut up that they can be destroyed and sent away. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow made the important point that if the responsibility of a local authority is limited to vehicles abandoned actually on the highway—in the case of a fenced road, between the two fences—it will provide an incentive for people who intend to dump their vehicles to do so actually on the highway.

1.0 p.m.

Those who live in or near big cities may find it very difficult to believe, but in rural areas it would be possible for vehicles so dumped between fences on the highway—and therefore on the highway—to remain undiscovered for a long time. This question presents a difficult problem to local authorities responsible for the removal of such vehicles.

Another important question arises in the relationship between agricultural owners and the general public. We do not wish to see every owner of agricultural land locking all the gates along the sides of every road adjoining his land. Unfortunately, this happens in many parts of the country. The question of the relationships that exist between the general public and landowners is an extremely important one, for the reasons which have been put forward the Amendment should be given active consideration by the Government, and I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the Government have had second thoughts and will accept it.

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

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) have been most persuasive, as I expected. There is no difference between us as to the objects we have in mind; the difference lies in the way in which we would achieve those objects. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Hereford about cars abandoned in Wales, England, or even Scotland—with respect to my hon. Friend.

These unsightly abandoned cars, in various stages of decay, mar some of our great areas of natural beauty. Despite the strictures of hon. Members opposite, I am confident that the Clause provides ample powers for local authorities to deal with the situation in areas of natural beauty and other affected areas.

The difficulty is that a different duty is imposed upon local authorities in dealing with carriageways than that which is imposed upon them in respect of land other than carriageways. Local authorities are under an absolute duty in regard to carriageways, but on other land the duty to remove does not apply if it appears to a local authority that the cost of removal would be unreasonably high.

The two hon. Members opposite who have spoken have great experience in local government, and they would not wish to impose an undue burden upon any local authority. The net return of the operation might be very small in some instances, bearing in mind the immense cost that might sometimes be involved in the removal of unsightly vehicles placed in almost inaccessible positions. The Clause has, therefore, been deliberately drafted to restrict the duty of local authorities—except in the case of carriageways—to the requirement to remove only where the expense incurred would not be unreasonably high.

Mr. Channon

Although local authorities would not have a duty to remove vehicles in such cases I am sure that the Minister would agree that they should be able to do so whenever possible, and that they should not do so only if it would involve an unreasonably high cost.

Mr. Morris

The hon. Member is right. Power to remove would remain. The reduction of their absolute duty would be limited only by the question of unreasonable expense. Their activity would be strictly limited by the exact wording of the proviso in the subsection. Discretion would be left to them. I have greater confidence in local authorities than do hon. Members opposite. Under Clause 16(6) the Minister of Transport or the Secretary of State may exercise his authority to require a local authority to act, after a mandatory local inquiry, when it has failed in its duty to remove an abandoned vehicle properly.

I think that that covers both sides of the coin and insures a completeness in respect of the duty and powers of local authorities, and in those circumstances I hope that the Amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt), I am worried about this question and about the limitation on undue expense being incurred by local authorities. The Minister seems to have failed to appreciate the change in technique of abandoned motor car dumping. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford has pointed out that on the perimeter of any large town or conurbation the agricultural community is forced to lock all its gates. This is very unattractive and inconvenient for people who want to go about their legal and justified business.

The motor car dumper is also faced with a problem. He has to get the car to the place where he is going to dump it illegally, and it must, therefore, have wheels on it. When he has placed it in position, however, he wants to take the wheels off, because they have some value. It is clear that he will not want to do this on the edge of a large town. It is also interesting to note that there is a tendency for the dumping of motor cars on the edge of main roads and on motorways—with their inviting grass verges—to cease, because of the high scrap value of parts that the dumper wants to take away after the vehicle is dumped. The operation must, therefore, be done in the most rural places where it is expensive for local authorities to recover the vehicle, once the wheels and tyres have been removed and the engine number chipped off to prevent identification.

The Clause will not be effective with this limitation on undue expense. In a constituency like mine, in Lincolnshire, at the edge of an enormous northern conurbation with a growing industrial centre just across the Trent, the byways and bridle ways are the best possible places for these illegal activities. It is shattering to see how many vehicles are dumped on green lanes when the lanes are hard and dry, which become an eyesore only in the winter when the leaf is off the trees and hedges. The local authorities then have to get a wheel-less vehicle out of a lane and have to hire expensive equipment for the purpose. This goes on in the summer, but the eyesore is not seen until the winter.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at this point again, as we will spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar if we do not allow the local authorities to spend the necessary money to tidy up the countryside.

I see the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) opposite. His constituency is by far the best managed area of the countryside. It is surrounded by the largest population, but remains the most beautiful part of England. I should be interested to hear his views. Even behind those efficient stone walls and lurking in the stone pits and quarries of the High Peak area there is rarely an unsightly vehicle. The Derbyshire County Council and the High Peak authority do a magnificent job. Under the arrangements of the High Peak National Park, there is no limitation on the amount the council can spend to remove unsightly vehicles.

This is a disturbing aspect of an important and successful Bill. These motor cars are the greatest menace in the countryside. It is lucky that we do not have the problem which exists in Ireland, where derelict cars form an integral part of the farming scene, with many gateways blocked with a wheel or half a car. Fields are partially fenced with derelict industrial waste, collected from the gipsy and tinker camps.

This is not the practice of our agricultural community. People even take the trouble to ensure that, if the gates in their area are mainly four-barred they do not put up five-barred gates and spoil the appearance of the countryside. The agricultural community is free of blame, perhaps because agricultural machinery is too expensive to be left rotting in inaccessible places, or perhaps because the community is so squeezed by the Government that it is conscious of the value of scrap.

The only way to tidy up this problem is to ensure that there are proper facilities to encourage people to dump their cars in the legal places. After all, there is a scheme for some kind of subsidisation of scrap metal of a ship and the Government must consider seriously setting up a proper disposal system for derelict motor cars in the countryside. That will be a great deal more expensive—

Mr. John Morris

I am not sure how far the hon. Gentleman is aware of the Bill's other provisions. I do not want him to misunderstand. The idea of the Bill is that there should be such a scheme and a duty on local authorities, I understand, to ensure that there are adequate dumping places. That meets the gist of the hon. Member's remarks. Perhaps he has not read the whole Bill.

Mr. Kimball

I am aware of the provisions and grateful for the hon. Gentleman's assurance. I am delighted that he thinks that these facilities are sufficient, but I still think that the Bill is weak if local authorities cannot incur necessary expense to do the job properly.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

The Parliamentary Secretary has defended the drafting of the Bill. There is no disagreement about the need to achieve a fair balance between local authorities' obligations and the need to prevent the spread of this offence, but I am sure that this drafting wants looking at again.

There is always a difficulty, when legislation is designed to prevent a bad course of conduct, if we seek to limit the offence or any corresponding local authority obligations to the limits of the highway or a public place. This has occurred in similar legislation over the last few years. The evolution of the anti-litter legislation, which is comparable, had to cross this boundary. The original Whitehall conception was that action could be taken about litter in a public place, but not on private land.

As that legislation developed, so did the conception that litter thrown on to private land from the highway constituted an offence. The same happened with the Firearms Bill. In these cases it should not be said that some action is an offence on the highway, but not a little way off the highway or a bridle path which is a public carriageway.

This is the difficulty in the present Bill. It does not conform to the trend and principles of recent similar legislation, which is why we are in trouble and why it must be looked at again. The Parliamentary Secretary talked about the onerous expense on the remote rural authority—

Mr. John Morris

The hon. Gentleman must not misunderstand. I was talking not about the remote authority, but about the particular difficulty which any local authority may have because of the inaccessibility of a vehicle. The Clause relates only to unreasonably high expense and not to "undue" or "unnecessary" expense. This will apply where-ever the local authority may be.

Mr. Hill

I accept that, but it follows that the more remote authority is more likely to face high expense. If an authority is not so remote and has a very high incidence of car ownership and car abondonment, it may be able to pro-vied these facilities at a lower average cost. Farmland nearest the conurbations suffers most from abandoned vehicles.

The Parliamentary Secretary's case surely does not meet our objection. If a vehicle is left on even the most remote carriageway, the local authority has an obligation to remove it, whatever the cost. This is the difficulty. It is no answer if the vehicle is left on the bridleway and not, for example, pushed into a field. Probably the right course is to examine the economics a little more closely.

If the vehicle is pushed into a field, will the local authority be able to take as the yardstick of expense the cost of removing the vehicle from the field to wherever it dumps it? If so, that is unfair on the owner or occupier of the field bearing in mind that if the car had been left 20 yards nearer the public right of way for carriages the local authority would have had to accept the whole expense.

There is clearly an argument for considering whether the measure of unreasonableness in the expense should not relate to the cost of removing the vehicle from wherever it has been abandoned off the highway to the nearest point of the highway. This would bring in the concept of equity. It might be very unfair on a local authority to be required to pay the expense of retrieving a car from a roadside quarry or ravine, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) accepted. On the other hand, if the same vehicle were left on the road above the quarry, the local authority would have to remove it. Therefore, the test of what is unreasonable expense should be related, in the example which I have given, to the cost, as between the roadside and the quarry.

If we were to think in those terms and make the Bill more specific in that way, that would be a basis for a reasonable compromise. One wants local authorities to try to get rid of abandoned cars. If they realise that they must bear the cost up to the edge of the highway in all cases they will be much more likely to take the Bill seriously and, at the same time, they need not be saddled with the extra and unreasonable expense of particular circumstances. They might be able to make all kinds of satisfactory arrangements with the owners of the land to share the cost of removal with the possibility of recouping the cost when offenders can be traced through their vehicles. A perfectly workable solution could, therefore, be reached.

Because I am sure that more thinking should be done on those and other lines, I feel that my hon. Friends should press the Amendment, unless, as I hope, the Minister will agree to consider the matter again and see whether a more exact and satisfactory definition of expense and of the respective obligations on the local authority and, possibly, on the owner of land on which vehicles have been abandoned can be devised.

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

I was disappointed by the Parliamentary Secretary's reply, because this group of Clauses are not only some of the most important in the Bill, but are epoch-making. I do not think that any Western nation which suffers from cars as we do has comparable legislation. It is a tremendous credit to the House, to the sponsors of the Bill and the Government, who have helped them, that we should have reached the point of getting the Bill on to the Statute Book.

As we are at that point, why do we put in this escape clause? That is what it is. I hope that as a result of the Bill becoming law, people will realise that the dumping of cars is an offence, and a costly one when punished by law, and that the practice may reasonably come to an end in exactly the same way as local authorities now collect rubbish.

Getting rid of unwanted cars is a tremendous contribution to the health and enjoyment of the people. Inconsiderate people who dump cars will be taught by the Bill that it does not pay to do so. Now, however, we are producing an escape clause whereby some authorities which are, perhaps, less enlightened than the greater authorities with which we are familiar will say that they will not collect motor vehicles which are a couple of miles off the road because the expense is unreasonable. The vehicles will thus remain, defacing the countryside or blocking the bridlepaths. The habit of leaving abandoned vehicles will spread and there will be, not one vehicle, but a dozen vehicles, because of this unnecessary escape clause.

I entirely support the Amendment. Local authorities will not in practice spend hundreds of pounds removing cars. They will do it on a reasonable basis. The fact that "reasonable" is left for them to interpret may well mean that vehicles which have been driven along a bridlepath will block it from the use of succeeding generations for a number of years simply because a local authority says that it is unreasonably expensive to remove the vehicles.

Why include in this admirable Measure an escape clause which carries the danger of nullifying the good that so many of the Clauses of the Bill will do? For this reason, I support the Amendment.

Mr. John Morris

I want to be reasonable at all times and I do not want to delay the proceedings on the Bill. I am attracted by some of the points concerning definition made by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) but I fear that hon. Members opposite have taken undue alarm from the drafting of the Clause. There is no intention of having a general escape clause. The duty is squarely laid upon local authorities.

I must protect ratepayers generally. It would be quite unreasonable to impose upon ratepayers an outrageous expenditure for removing a vehicle which had been placed in a quarry which was almost inaccessible, which would impose a fantastic duty on the local authority and resulting expense on the ratepayers and might, in the event, achieve very little. There must be a limit to the amount of expenditure that is imposed upon the rates, and I must protect ratepayers generally in this respect.

We all want to achieve the maximum result. We all want to clear as many as possible of these derelict vehicles. That is what we seek to do in the Clause. We impose an absolute duty on local authorities concerning carriageways. As regards places which are not carriageways, there is still a duty on local authorities with the proviso concerning the cost of removal when it would be unreasonably high.

I do not think that hon. Members opposite would wish to impose—or do they—upon a local authority the duty to collect some of these vehicles even though the cost might be unreasonably high and might be charged to the rates. I differentiate the hon. Member for Norfolk, South, who has made a reasonable and moderate speech, from some other hon. Members who have spoken.

I must make it clear that on behalf of the Government I must reject the Amendment. If, however, there is any difficulty concerning definition or the exercise of a discretion by local authorities—I certainly have confidence that they will exercise their discretion properly—or whatever might be the difficulties canvassed by hon. Members opposite—

1.30 p.m.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

I am sure that hon. Members who support the Amendment would be happier if my hon. Friend would give an indication of what he understands to be meant by the phrase "unreasonably high". I do not wish to repeat my maiden speech, but that was made on the subject of derelict cars having to be dealt with in The High Peak. Vehicles which must be taken up from the bottom of ravines obviously present a costly business for local authorities. If my hon. Friend would indicate a round figure—an administrative direction to local authorities of the sum of money which he considers would be reasonable to be expended in these cases —the anxiety of hon. Members who support the Amendment might be met.

Mr. John Morris

With respect to my hon. Friend, this is the very point at issue. The definition of the phrase "unreasonably high" is the crux of the problem and the subject of this discussion. Whatever difficulty might arise, some hon. Members are bound not to be as satisfied as others with whatever definition one arrives at. I am prepared to discuss the matter with the sponsors of the Bill, who are responsible people, to see how we might overcome any difficulty.

I do not anticipate any serious difficulty. I believe that, as drafted, the provision provides the right kind of balance, but in view of the apprehensions of some hon. Members about the matter, I am willing to discuss with the sponsors any difficulty that exists, or is envisaged, to see what might be done about it.

Mr. Sandys

My hon. Friends welcome the assurance of the Minister. If the Clause is allowed to go through as it stands there would be value in some consultation taking place between the sponsors of the Bill and other hon. Members who have backed the Amendment and the Government to see whether, between now and the Measure being discussed in another place, there might be a possibility of tightening up this definition.

I have had a great deal of correspondence with the local authorities and local authority associations about the Bill. The gist of the remarks made by them is that they are anxious about whether the duties being placed on them are likely to prove too onerous. On the other hand, the Bill has met with the universal approval of local authorities and is warmly welcomed by them. It is immensely important that we should have their goodwill and positive co-operation if we are to make a success of the Measure. If we go beyond what they think is reasonable, we might produce the opposite effect to what we desire.

My hon. Friends realise that I am second to no one in the House in wishing to deal with the problem of litter, disorder and the desecration of the countryside. The right answer would, I suggest, be to accept, in the spirit in which it was put forward, the Minister's suggestion to have further consultation and that, meanwhile, the Clause should be allowed to remain as it stands.

Mr. More

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his remarks, particularly since there is room for further definition in the drafting of the Clause to mark out the duties of local authorities. Having heard the fine words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) I am glad to note that before the Bill goes to another place there can be a coming together of the sponsors and the Government; and I hope that the result will be to get this matter better defined to carry out the purpose which we all wish to achieve.

On that understanding, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Cordle

I beg to move, Amendment No. 38, in line 21 to leave out 'in respect of the vehicle'. This is a drafting Amendment which deals with the fact that subsection (4), which it amends, provides that vehicles removed by the council of a London borough or the city council must be delivered to the Greater London Council in accordance with the arrangements agreed between the two councils. The Minister of Housing and Local Government is empowered to determine the arrangements in default of agreement and provides for … arrangements (including arrangements as to the sharing of any expenses incurred or sums received by the council and the Greater London Council in respect of the vehicle … It is intended that these arrangements should be of a general character and the Amendment is designed to make it clear that they should not be made separately in respect of individual vehicles.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Cordle

I bee to move Amendment No. 39 in line 36, to leave out 'of Transport'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Would it be convenient to discuss, at the same time, Amendment No. 40.

Mr. Cordle

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker because Amendment No. 40 is consequential upon Amendment No. 39, which has been prepared by the Government as a matter of drafting by virtue of the defini- tion of "the Minister" in Clause 24(1), which applies to the whole Bill, modified, however, by the definition of "the Minister" in Clause 22(1), which applies only to Part III. The effect of the Amendment is that the reference to "the Minister" in Clause 16(6) means the Minister of Transport in respect of England, excluding Monmouthshire, and the Secretaries of State in respect of Scotland, Wales and Monmouthshire.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 40, in line 42, leave out from '(6), to end of line 44 and insert 'for the words from "the Minister of Housing" to the end there shall be substituted the words "there were substituted a reference to the duties aforesaid":—[Mr. Cordle.]

Mr. Cordle

I beg to move Amendment No. 41, in page 14, line 1, to leave out from 'shall' to 'period' in line 6 and insert 'have effect during the period of six months beginning with the commencement of this Act as if for the words "the duty of" in subsection (1) and "but" in subsection (2) there were substituted respectively the words "lawful for" and 'before doing so and" and as if in subsection (2) the words from "and a" onwards and subsections (6) and (7) were omitted; and the Minister may, by order made before the expiration of the period of six months beginning with the commencement of this Act, provide that this subsection shall have effect in relation to any area specified by the order as if for the first reference to the period of six months there were substituted a reference to such longer'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Would it be convenient to discuss, at the same time, Amendments Nos. 42 and 45?

Mr. Cordle

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This Amendment contains a small element of principle. It has been prepared by the Government to provide that Clause 16 will come into force for an initial period of six months. The Clause has been modified so that local authorities have power, but no duty, to remove abandoned motor vehicles in that six-month period, after which the duty would apply. There might be, after the passing of the Measure, a total period of a year—two periods of six months—before the duty would apply. This will enable the necessary preparations to be made, including the acquisition of land for dumps and pounds. There is also provision in the Amendment to enable the duty on local authorities to remove abandoned motor vehicles to be further postponed in respect of specific areas, areas to be specified by the Minister in the form of a Statutory Instrument subject to annulment by either House. Under a later Amendment this order would not have to be made by Statutory Instrument but could be made by a Ministerial measure not subject to the Parliamentary procedure.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 42, in line 7, at end insert: (9) This section and sections 17 and 18 of this Act shall come into force on the expiration of the period of six months beginning with the passing of this Act or on such earlier date as the Minister may by order appoint.—[Mr. Cordle.]