HC Deb 19 July 1968 vol 768 cc1895-902
Mr. Onslow

I beg to move Amendment No. 12, in page 6, line 37, at end insert: Provided that the British Airports Authority shall not dispose of any vehicle until they have taken all reasonable steps to ascertain the name of the owner, whether he has left the United Kingdom in an aircraft operating out of the aerodrome concerned and if that be the case whether there is any reason to believe that he has died or been unavoidably prevented both from returning to the United Kingdom and from communicating with the British Airports Authority in regard to the disposal of the said vehicle This is self-explanatory and it may also come into the probing category. The Minister will by now know that in Committee it was argued that if somebody had been unavoidably detained abroad, or had died or been killed while travelling abroad, leaving his car behind at a British Airports Authority airport— possibly in a multi-storey car park— there was a duty imposed upon the Authority to make sure precisely in what circumstances the vehicle had come to be apparently abandoned on its property, and to make the necessary searches to establish the ownership and to enable the owner's representatives or heirs to reclaim possession before putting it up for sale.

The Minister may say that the words subject to such exceptions, adaptations or modifications as appear to him necessary". will cover the point. If so, I do not wish to press the Amendment. But it is important to draw a distinction between the situation, which is covered by legislation, in which old motor cars are abandoned in the countryside or in the streets and the situation—which is much more likely to arise with the British Airports Authority—in which quite valuable motor cars are lodged in its care and parked under arrangements provided at aiports and when, for some reason, they are not reclaimed within a certain period.

It is not necessary to cite the case of the aircraft which was detained overseas for a considerable period, the pilots— although they had committed no offence —being incarcerated for a considerable time before being able to get back to this country. If those pilots had found that in addition to the restraints to which they had been subjected they had suffered the indignity of having their motor cars sold it would not be a happy state of affairs.

I hope that the Minister can assure us that the purpose of the Amendment is covered by the Clause, or will tell us that he can accept the Amendment.

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Burden

The Clause deals with abandoned vehicles. It is interesting to note that in Committee the Minister's predecessor said: I fully agree with the points about abandonment of cars through no fault of the owners—when it is not genuine abandonment. I cannot define 'abandoment' "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee G, 13th June, 1968; c. 198.] This underlines the tremendous care that must be taken before assuming that any car left on an aerodrome has been abandoned.

I hope that the Minister will take that remark of his hon. Friend very much to heart. There is always considerable pressure on an aerodrome to get cars moving and to make sure that they are not left too long, but it is essential that every step should be taken to ensure that a car is abandoned, and has been left for a considerable time, and also that every effort should be made to discover the whereabouts of the owner and whether he is in this country or has been detained abroad on business, or through an accident, or has even died abroad.

I ask the Minister to consider this point carefully. My hon. Friend and I will be happy if the Minister can assure us that every precaution will be taken to make sure, before any car is taken away or disposed of, that the owner has left it at the airport with no intention of reclaiming it.

Mr. Holland

I should like to have a specific definition of an abandoned car. Is it abandoned after a specific period? It must be remembered that we are responsible only for framing the law; we do not have to interpret it. We must therefore find wording so conclusive that its interpretation is exactly what we intend.

Is a car said to be abandoned after it has remained in the car park for a specific period, or is it after so many attempts have been made, without success, to persuade the owner to remove it, or after so many attempts have been made to find the owner, whose identity may not be known? I do not know where we begin or end, or whether we are to take a combination of all three possibilities. Whatever power we intend to give to an airport authority we must carefully define the circumstances under which that power shall be used.

Unless we do this the Clause might be interpreted in a way that we would not wish it to be interpreted. If we cannot have a legal definition of the term "abandon" in this context, I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendment. This, at least, makes an attempt to restrict the activity of the airport authority in this respect.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

We went into this matter fairly thoroughly in Committee. One point that was raised concerned the position of executors. A car may not have been moved because the person who deposited the car in the airport garage has been killed in an aircraft accident, or has died abroad. It is possible that his executors; will not have been able to discover the whereabouts of the car. There does not seem to be any duty laid upon an airport authority to contact executors.

This point was drawn forcibly to the attention of the then Minister of State, who responded by saying: The executor point is one that I had not thought of. I will certainly look at that. Something, clearly, will have to be done on that point."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee G, 13th June, 1968; c. 198.] What I want to ask his successor is, what has been done? There is no Government Amendment to cover the point, so in what way is that undertaking to be honoured? We are entitled to insist on this, because debate is always curtailed and Amendments withdrawn when the Minister in charge of a Bill gives a specific commitment to do something later.

What do the Government propose to do? In our usual helpful way, we have tabled Amendment No. 12, which largely covers this point. The Minister has, in honour, only one of two alternatives—to accept our Amendment, or to offer one of his own. He has not offered one of his own, unless there has been a manuscript Amendment handed in in the last few minutes—which I doubt—so we must call on him to honour his predecessor's cheque.

Two weeks ago, at the beginning of the Committee stage, we drew to his attention the fact that his predecessor had given 23 commitments, which were recorded in the OFFICIAL REPORT. He has now had plenty of time to read through them, to find out what they were and to honour them. In the absence of any Government Amendment on this commitment, the least he can do is welcome our Amendment and advise the House to accept it.

Mr. William Rodgers

I welcome this further airing of a proper problem, although it is possible to argue that, while the circumstances of cars parked at airports are in some respects peculiar, one cannot exclude the possibility of someone parking a car elsewhere, then flying to Majorca and staying for three weeks instead of two. Therefore, even if it were decided to amend the Bill, the man who left his Jaguar at London Airport and then flew out might be provided for, whereas the man who left his Jaguar elsewhere, under the Civic Amenities Act of 1966, would not be provided for.

Although I recognise that there is a point here which must properly be considered, one cannot say that it is exclusively a problem of cars left at airports. Equally, under legislation of this kind, it is conceivable that someone who left his car on the street might fall sick, be incarcerated somewhere and might suffer a similar fate, if a fate is to be suffered at all—

Mr. Burden

The point is that, if that happened in this country, it would be much easier to establish whether a man was in hospital or had been killed in an accident than if it happened abroad. This is where care is necessary.

Mr. Rodgers

We are on the same wavelength. My point was that it is possible to park a car and fly in an aircraft without having parked the car at an airport—and someone who had done so would be in the same condition.

I am saying two things which appear to be contradictory but which must be considered. First, it is more likely in the case of an airport that this may arise and I am therefore grateful to hon. Gentlemen for having drawn attention to it. On the other hand, if we are to be logical, we must recognise that the same circumstances could prevail with a car parked outside an airport, in which case the present provisions of the Civic Amenities Act would apply—

Mr. Holland

What we are discussing is disposal of the vehicle by the Airports Authority, which would not be concerned with vehicles parked outside but only with vehicles parked on its property.

Mr. Rodgers

I take the point, but the argument is that there are special circumstances about flight and people travelling abroad which therefore apply to cars which may or may not have been abandoned. I am saying that those special circumstances could apply to the person who has gone abroad but not left his car at the airport.

Therefore, I would argue that it is not right to amend the Bill and that it is much better that its provisions should remain in line with the Civic Amenities Act. I wholly understand that there is a special point here. I have been considering how best I could meet the wishes of the House, bearing in mind the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). What I propose to do is this. As the House knows, Regulations in this respect are made by the Minister of Transport. I intend to write to my right hon. Friend, who will be drafting the Regulations, drawing his attention to these discussions and those in Committee, and to say that I am sure that he will bear in mind the points which have been made.

Mr. Corfield

I am sure that the Minister of State is doing his best, but there is a real difference between the powers conferred on the Airports Authority and the powers which may or may not apply where a motor car is abandoned, or appears to be abandoned, somewhere else. In the fortnight which has elapsed since we began this Report stage, my recollection of the Civic Amenities Act may have suffered, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me. I seem to recall that the Act does not give local authorities power to enter a private garage, that is a com- mercial garage, and remove someone's car because the proprietor complains that it has been there a long time.

If one goes abroad in an aeroplane and does not leave one's motor car in a garage which is part of the aerodrome, the probability is that one leaves it at a commercial garage. If it is left in the street, of course, one must "lump it", whether or not one falls out of the aeroplane. But most people leave their cars in a commercial garage or car park. I understand that if that garage is privately-owned, the Civic Amenities Act does not entitle the local authority to remove the car.

We are dealing with the situation when a car is left on the property of the Airports Authority. After all, one function of its car parks is to enable people using aeroplanes to leave their cars there. This provision puts them in a special position to dispose of cars which may have been there for a long time, when the logical thing is that the special position should be in favour of the car owner rather than the garage owner.

With respect to the Minister, to say that he is grateful to us for having drawn this to his attention is not enough. The attention was drawn by my hon. Friends, who were remarkably assiduous in Committee, and the Minister has had more than enough time to consider this and ensure that the pledge given by his predecessor is fulfilled. It is not good enough to say that attention has been drawn to it, without giving reasons why the words of his predecessor, who clearly said that something needed to be done, are no longer applicable.

2.30 p.m.

This is not the way to treat the House. This is one of the reasons why, on the second day of the Report stage of this relatively small Bill, we are still here at half-past two and will probably still be here at four o'clock. It does not help when the Minister—I do not blame him—is not provided with a sensible brief. We are just as anxious as he is to get to our constituencies, but we will not let this sort of thing go through.

Mr. William Rodgers

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has lost his spirit of sweet reasonableness. I want to make it clear that if there is any fault, which I do not acknowledge, it lies with me and not with anybody else. I know that the hon. Member, with his great sense of responsibility and Ministerial experience, does not seek to blame others who cannot be held to be responsible.

I thought that I had been fairminded. We have considered this matter fully and I acknowledge that there is an important point. I hoped that I was speeding the Bill forward in its improved form and taking note of all that had been said when I offered to write to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. If the House does not wish me to do that, I shall be glad to be saved the trouble, although it is within my proper responsibilities, even if the hon. Gentleman does not find it satisfactory, to do so.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Onslow

I beg to move Amendment No. 13, in page 7, line 26, at end insert: (4) The British Airports Authority shall include in their Annual Report a statement indicating the number of occasions on which a note as to the circumstances in which they have availed themselves of the powers accorded to them by any Order made by the Minister under this section. This Amendment is self-explanatory and its purpose obvious. When the British Airports Authority gets powers by courtesy of the Ministry of Transport and with the advice of the President of the Board of Trade, it should be obliged to account to Parliament for their use. It is a matter of general interest that Parliament should have knowledge of the effects of legislation which it passes. If motor cars are deemed to have been abandoned and are disposed of by sale by the Airports Authority under the Clause, the House should know and should be in a position to judge whether the legislation is effective.

The obvious method for a report on the use of these powers to be rendered annually to Parliament would seem to me to be by inclusion in the annual report of the British Airports Authority. I hope that we can persuade the Minister of this.

Mr. William Rodgers

Alas, I am not persuaded. As, I think, the hon. Member knows, if it was considered essential to have this information the Board of Trade already has power to direct the Authority to provide it in its annual report. Whether at some stage we might choose to give such a direction is not for me at present to say.

Again, we must have a sense of proportion. I do not minimise the importance of the issue when I say that, at the moment, I do not think that such a direction need be given. Obviously, however, if circumsances prove otherwise, as we have power we can certainly exercise it. I am sure that the hon. Member and the House as a whole will remind us if we fall short.

Amendment negatived.

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