HC Deb 24 July 1968 vol 769 cc908-20

8.24 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I have been trying to resolve the subject which I propose to raise for nearly four years. I find that the various Ministries are very adept at "passing the buck".

The position on the question of road fund licences is this. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for putting on the tax, and he delegates to the Ministry of Transport responsibility for ensuring that it is collected. That Ministry passes it on to local authorities which act as collecting authorities. The police locally are supposed to report cases of unlicensed vehicles.

During the four or five years in which I have been raising this subject each Ministry has passed the matter on from one to the other. Five years ago, because I could not get anywhere with the Chancellor, the Home Office, or the Ministry of Transport, I tried with the Greater London Council. Debates take place in the House about allocations of money for essential purposes, yet when I give evidence to the Ministry that a minimum of about £3½ million of tax evasion is taking place no action follows. It is true that reported cases are investigated. After nine months and five or six reportings, the vehicles are still being investigated.

I emphasise that I am not getting at the law-abiding motorist. I am all for helping him. If every motorist paid the tax, which even at the increased rate of £25 is only Is. 6d. a day, 1 estimate that an extra £3½ million a year would come in and there would have been no need to increase the tax. I am, therefore, trying to help the law-abiding road user.

Nor am I getting at the poor, those who run old "jalopies". The offence of which I complain affects all types of road users and road vehicles. It is not confined to what I call the poorer sections of the population or private motorists. The offence is now being committed by businesses, by contractors, by wealthy people and, believe it or not, even by the police. When the police are asked to take action, they say that the offence is now so prevalent that when they report a case and no action is taken for many months they give up reporting.

The police have told me this. The G.L.C. and the various Departments confirm it. I have a letter from the G.L.C, dated 23rd July, saying that I have notified the council in 88 letters, of 4,200 vehicles which have been seen by me on London roads unlicensed. I emphasise that this is not the case of the man who overlooks or forgets for a week or two, or accidentally knocks it off his vehicle; this is the man who deliberately, month after month, and, indeed, year after year, refuses to pay this licence fee.

I have reported these vehicles. I have given names, addresses and telephone numbers in some instances of the owners of contractors' vehicles and where the vehicles can be seen parked. I can take the Minister to roads, which I can name, in and around the London area, where he will see different vehicles—a new sports car, sand and gravel lorries, five-ton trucks—the drivers of which are turning over £200 to £300 per week tax tree. Yet, when tackled, they say that they refuse to pay, and they will not pay-Why is it that no action has been taken concerning vehicles parked in Durham Road, N.7, details of which I have supplied to the G.L.C. dozens of times over the last three years? To be fair, the police and I have reported them. But what happens? Still no licence is taken out. When one inquires why no action has been taken, the G.L.C. says, "There is so much of this going on that by the time our inspectors get round a period of perhaps nine or even 12 months has elapsed."

There are aspects other than actual tax evasion. First, there are a number of schools of motoring taking learners out on the road without road fund licences on their cars. I have another letter here from the G.L.C. I reported 25 cars belonging to a school of motoring which have never been licensed. After two or three months I got a letter from the G.L.C. saying that it was true. On 23rd July, the G.L.C. wrote to me: Since writing to you on 28th May, a further 32 reports in respect of offences committed by Regal School of Motoring Ltd."— it has one office in North London and another in East London— have been passed to the council's solicitor for the institution of legal proceedings. At least, in this instance, some progress is being made in that a school of motoring is now to be prosecuted.

But there are other aspects. Two matters arise concerning the reason why this dodging is done. I have mentioned sand and gravel contractors' lorries. But there are many people in private business who do not like paying Income Tax. Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you and I do not like paying it, but we know it is the law and we pay it. If we are a bit over in payments we are soon tackled.

I have reported to the police, to the Chancellor, to the Ministry of Transport and to the Home Office three vehicles owned by a fruit and greengrocery firm which are to be found parked every day in Wood Green High Road on a yellow band, which is illegal, and halfway on the pavement, which is also illegal. I have spoken to the police, and seen them speaking to the drivers concerned, but for 12 months these vehicles have been at the same place. I asked one driver, "How is it that you get away with this?", and he said, "If you give the police some fruit and vegetables they do not touch you". I am not saying whether that is the truth, but I can prove that I have reported three police officers for driving without licences. They admitted that they did not have licences, and said that they had no intention of getting them.

The people about whom I am talking do not take out vehicle Excise licences because they know that when they become due for renewal they would have to produce insurance certificates, and if they took out the necessary insurance they may be traceable for tax purposes. Many of these people do not tax their vehicles because they know that they could not get a certificate of roadworthiness for them. In this way they save themselves 25s., or whatever it costs, to have the vehicle tested. The danger of these people not being insured is that that if they injure someone on the road that person is not able to claim damages from an insurance company.

I have been trying to raise this matter in the House for some considerable time now, and here I want to make a complaint. I have no complaint to make against you, Mr. Speaker, or against the Table Office. Both you and the Table Office have been very kind, understanding, and helpful. According to the Library, I have asked 65 Questions. According to the Table Office I have asked 70. Let us split the different and say the figure is 67.

On 23rd July, I put down five Questions to the Home Secretary. I did so after having given details of the names of the people involved, the numbers of the cars involved, and the roads on which the offences occurred, to the police, to the Home Office, to the Ministry of Transport, and to the G.L.C., and still having got nowhere. I asked for an investigation, but the Home Secretary gave me the "brush off" by saying that he was asking the police to investigate. For the last five years I have been asking the police to investigate.

From the evidence available to him the Minister knows that 300,000 cases are reported in a year. I am not suggesting that all those vehicles are unlicensed, but let us assume that half of them are not. This means a loss of revenue of 150,000 multiplied by £25 for the Vehicle Excise duty licence, plus 25s. for each car for a roadworthiness certificate. It may be that many of these cars are not insured, which means that the insurance companies are not getting money on which they would have to pay tax. Further, because they are not receiving this income, they have to increase the premiums paid by those who do insure their cars.

I admit that the police have a tremendous job to do, but outside Caledonian Road police station, and outside many others, too, one can see unlicensed cars parked for months on end. Things have got so bad that the police have given up trying to take action because they find that it is virtually impossible to make progress. But it is not, because I explained to the Ministry a simple remedy, to which I got what I regard as a stupid reply, on 30th April.

I pointed out that it was rather unfair for a person to have a car or van which had had no licence for three or four years and to take that vehicle to a parking meter and park it there, thus preventing other car owners who had paid their licence fees from using that meter. Strangely enough, although I pay my tax, when I recently tried to park in a yellow band area to see what happened a policeman came up very soon and asked me to move on—quite rightly. I asked him to tell me why he was asking me to move when a van had been standing there— with three postal order counterfoils marked in respect of Vernon's and Littlewood's Football Pools in the windscreen—for the last three months, to my knowledge, without anybody having had to move it.

It seems that when a person who has paid his correct tax and cannot get to a parking meter parks in a yellow band area a traffic warden or a policeman—or both—comes long within a quarter of an hour and sticks a £2 fine ticket on his vehicle.

I could suggest a simple scheme which would help the G.L.C., the Ministry of Transport and the Home Office to counteract this tax dodging. Under this scheme the police would stick a notice on to any vehicle not displaying a current road fund licence, to the effect that it had been noted that the vehicle— number so-and-so—was not displaying a current road fund licence and that the driver was thereby notified that he was committing a technical offence and was required to produce his licence at a police station within a certain period— perhaps 48 hours—failing which he would be liable to an automatic fine, unless he wished to contest the case in the courts. There is nothing wrong in that.

If the owner had genuinely forgotten to take out a current licence he would need only to go to the post office to get one, which he could easily produce at a police station within 48 hours. The dodger might have been able to get away with it for three or four years, but under the present arrangement he gets away with itad infinitum.

There is a dodge, which I shall not reveal, under which a person need never pay for a licence or for a certificate of roadworthiness, and he will never be traceable. I merely ask the Minister to consider something that the police say is becoming more prevalent, namely, refusing to register vehicles. A police superintendent told me that he saw a hit-and-run car knock down an old lady on a pedestrian crossing. He took the number of the car and helped the old lady. Fortunately, she was not too badly injured. He thought he would be able to trace the number, but after 10 months of investigation he had to give up, because there was no record of the vehicle. This is a shocking situation.

We now have the Ministry imposing on motorists restrictions that just cannot be enforced. There are about 2,000 regulations which those whom I call "guilty" do not observe. The man who genuinely forgets to renew for a few months—he is caught, and so is the man who breaks the speed limit, but how often does the Ministry see to the observance of the regulations in respect of the testing of brakes, tyres, belts, lamps and all the rest? The police tell me that they never check up unless there is an accident, when they might check whether the vehicle is taxed and insured, and the like.

I do not want to be "brushed off" on this subject again, because I just will not give up. It is a crying shame that we should have heavy lorries belonging to big firms and private cars whose drivers are consistently flouting the law and the the G.L.C. and the police just not able to see that the regulations are enforced. I have suggested a simple remedy. Until the Minister does something about this matter I shall keep on raising it until I see some improvement in the position.

8.47 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

I do not think that anyone could do other than pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) for his persistence in pursuing this matter. I shall not attempt to deny that there is some evasion of Excise duty, but it is fair to say that there is some evasion of any law. Nevertheless, I think that my hon. Friend clearly exaggerates the extent to which the Excise duty is evaded. It is true that there are black spots and that certain areas of London come into that category, and my hon. Friend's constituency is clearly that type of area. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the extent of evasion over the country as a whole could be gauged by reference to the proportion of apparent unlicensed use in these areas.

My hon. Friend referred to particular places in London. In big cities such as London, where there is a lot of back-street parking and a tremendous turnover of population month by month, there are tremendous difficulties in identifying and prosecuting the individual responsible for the unlicensed keeping of a motor vehicle, especially if the current ownership of the vehicle has not been reported to the taxation authority.

The situation in London is further complicated by the fact that the Metropolitan Police have found it impossible, because of manpower difficulties, to do more than report apparent offences to the G.L.C, leaving that body to pursue all the subsequent inquiries. The adoption of that procedure by the police was beneficial in the one respect that far more cars could be reported, but this created the need for the G.L.C. to create and develop an effective investigation organisation for itself. This gave rise to some immediate difficulties, but it is fair to say that the G.L.C. now has the situation under a much better control than was formerly the case.

My hon. Friend tended to infer, if not to say directly, that no action is taken in a multitude of cases. It is only right that I should look at the country as a whole rather than simply at London. In 1966, with a total vehicle population of 13,191,149, there were 282,092 Excise offences. This is an incidence of one in 47. In 1967, with an increased vehicle population of 14,012,398, there was an increase to 348,053 excise offences, an incidence of one in 40. This clearly indicates the level of recording which compares quite favourably with the level of unlicensed use of just under 2 per cent. These were detected in spot checks carried out from time to time in different parts of the country. This suggests that the majority of offenders are caught.

Some spot checks of vehicles were carried out between 12th and 18th April this year by Birmingham County Borough Council, Bedfordshire County Council and Northamptonshire County Council. In Birmingham, 1,513 vehicles were checked, 44 were apparently not currently licensed and 17 were known to be unlicensed. This represents 1.12 per cent. In Bedfordshire, 2,606 vehicles were checked, 43 apparently were not currently licensed and 12 were known to be unlicensed. In five cases inquiries are still continuing. Here were 17 evasions or 0.65 per cent.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Will my hon. Friend accept an offer from me to come with me after this debate to three or four roads within a stone's throw of this place, where I will show him, and give him the numbers of vehicles which have been there for 12 months to my knowledge? They have been reported several time and they are unlicensed. There is a spot check for him. Come with me today.

Mr. Brown

That is a kind offer to make, but I do not intend to get embroiled in spot checking, which is the responsibility of the police.

In Northamptonshire, 1,543 vehicles were checked, 40 were apparently not currently licensed, 20 were known to be unlicensed, there are five inquiries continuing and the maximum extent of evasion was 1.62 per cent.

This series of checks indicates that the general extent of evasion is much less than is generally supposed or as suggested by my hon. Friend. Many cases of apparent unlicensed use are cases where a licence has in fact been taken out and duty paid but it is not being displayed for one reason or another. Reference was made by my hon. Friend to the time it takes to get a case into court. I do not want to enter into discussion about particular vehicles to which he has referred, but the House might find it useful if I try to explain the steps which have to be taken before a case can be brought into court. The mere noting of an apparently unlicensed vehicle is only the beginning of the matter. Much investigation is necessary, particularly in the case of unaccompanied parked vehicles which feature prominently in the reports.

As I have said, much investigation is necessary to establish that an offence has been committed. Between one-quarter and one-fifth of apparent offenders have properly taken out licences, but are not displaying them. As we all know, it is a requirement of the law that they should be displayed.

When it is shown that duty has not been paid, the identity of the person responsible for the offence, who may not be the registered owner, has to be established. The police usually conduct or assist with such inquiries, but notably in London and in one or two other towns they are unable to do so because of lack of manpower. The follow-up inquiries have to be conducted by the councils.

When offenders have been identified by those inquiries, they are dealt with in a number of ways according to the circumstances of the case. One is to give a caution for mere oversight. I am certain that my hon. Friend would agree that a man who inadvertently forgets that his licence has expired should not be caned too hard.

There is the mitigated penalty of a nominal amount which is imposed by a council under its powers as commissioners of Customs and Excise for the rather more culpable offender, or prosecution in a magistrates' court for the more serious and blatant type of offences. Some of the cases referred to by my hon. Friend are blatant oases, and clearly, I suggest, in the case of many of those to which he has referred, the preliminary steps to which I am now referring, leading up to prosecution, will have been taken.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Three years?

Mr. Brown

I cannot enter into individual cases. That is something that my hon. Friend will have to pursue.

Mr. Lewis

With whom?

Mr. Brown

In all these cases there is no loss of revenue, because, apart from the fines which are ordered to be paid, arrears of duty have also to be made good.

It might be asked what more can be done. The general level of reporting throughout the country is already reasonably high, but it is essentially a question of manpower. We are reasonably satisfied that councils and the police are probably deploying all the personnel they can on this task.

As with any enforcement activity, there comes a time when the cost of increased enforcement staff ceases to be an economic proposition. I do not think that it would please my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer if we reached the situation that he was proposing taxes, and local authorities and other bodies were proposing enforcement organisations which would more than gobble up the taxes proposed by my right hon. Friend.

Where it helps to increase the reporting rate, councils are encouraged to relieve the police of as much of the investigation and administrative side of the work as possible. The Ministry is in touch with the Home Office with a view to streamlining reporting procedures in a way which will enable the person detecting an offence to report direct to the council concerned without the need for immediate office procedure.

My hon. Friend has referred to the use of traffic wardens. They can undoubtedly be allowed to give more assistance than they do, and there is pro- vision in the Transport Bill, which is now before Parliament, whereby the Home Secretary will be able to add vehicle Excise licence spotting and subsequent investigation work in connection therewith to the list of functions which wardens may officially perform. I hope that this wider power that the Transport Bill will give when it becomes law in November will be widely used by local authorities.

Now, a word about penalties. Clearly, the most effective way of reducing evasion is to make it more distinctly unprofitable for the detected evader. To this end, the Finance Act, 1967 not only raised the Excise penalty from £20—or three times the annual duty, whichever be the greater—for each offence to £50 —or five times the annual duty, whichever be the greater—but it placed the courts under an obligation to order an offender to pay all the back duty. This a council can claim automatically.

The onus of establishing that no duty has, in fact, been incurred, either by reason of non-use or disposal of the vehicle since the last licence was taken out, is now put on the offender himself. A private motorist who evades for a year is thus currently faced with an order for payment of between £17 10s. and £25 back duty, the actual amount depending on how many months were pre-Budget and how many were post-Budget, and a penalty of anything up to £125, that is, five times the annual duty at the date of the offence. For the operator of a goods vehicle of 4 tons unladen weight, there is the current back duty of £135 and a maximum penalty on top of £675.

I suggest that penalties of that type are a clear deterrent. If we find that the deterrents are not working well enough, I should hope that in future Budgets or other Measures we would think clearly about putting on heavier penalties still.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

It is not a question of the level of penalty. These people are not being prosecuted because—I agree—there is so much to be done. If they are not being prosecuted, the size of the penalty does not matter. My suggestion is that we should have an automatic fine or production of the licence. If I have an accident, or I am pulled up by the police and I am called upon to show my certificate of insurance, I have to show it or produce it within 48 hours. Why not do the same here? There is the evidence for prosecution.

Mr. Brown

I know that my hon. Friend has pursued his proposal for automatic fines at great length, just as I have pursued at great length in correspondence with him the reasons why it is not practical. No one likes to concede that a good idea he has is not practical, but we have been very fair in pointing out the flaws in what, on the face of it, is an attractive scheme.

The most important flaws, which my hon. Friend knows well enough, are these. It would impose the same fine whether the offence was of unlicensed keeping, unlicensed use or only the less serious offence of failure to display the licence.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The Minister ought not to say that. It need do nothing of the kind.

Mr. Brown

Will my hon. Friend let me get on with my explanation?

It would be impossible to set a fair figure for the suggested automatic fine. One appropriate to the offence of not displaying would not be appropriate if the offence was of unlicensed keeping or unlicensed use. Further, a figure appropriate for the unlicensed use of a small motorcycle with a duty of £2 10s. would be nonsense in relation to the unlicensed use of a heavy lorry with an annual duty of £400 or more. Those are two simple reasons, straight off, for rejecting the idea of the automatic fine.

On the question of display, the key to enforcement is the display of the licence disc from which it is easy to see whether the vehicle is licensed. But about one-fifth of motorists do not bother to exhibit the licences that they have obtained. This wastes a tremendous amount of the enforcement authorities' time. Although the failure to display a licence is an offence in itself, the courts tend to regard it as a technical offence. But there is a provision in the Transport Bill to extend the range of offences to which fixed penalty treatment may be applied, and failure to display an Excise licence will be brought within this extended range. This could go a long way not only to securing better observation of the vehicle licensing law, but to saving the great deal of wasted enforcement effort.

My hon. Friend has made great play of the question of automatic fines. I want to be fair and objective, but it is quite impractical because of the impos-siblity of determining the proper level of the automatic fine. The persistent offender would not heed notices stuck on his windscreen, and so the relatively blameless man would be the one who was caught by this type of thing.

My hon. Friend also made much of the question of changes of ownership not being recorded, and he criticised the way in which offenders can escape by this practice. This is, admittedly, something of a difficulty. It is one of the reasons why investigations often take such a long time while the enforcing officer must follow the trail through successive owners. We are studying this problem. My hon. Friend referred to an issue that he did not want to publicise, and this is something to which I do not want to give any publicity either, except to say that we are actively pursuing this.

Where the vehicle is of testable age the test certificate must be produced when the licence is bought, but my hon. Friend argued that people who did not apply for the vehicle licence did not need to trouble to get a test certificate. This means that they get away scot free, because there is no means of checking on them. It is less than fair to the police when my hon. Friend states that they have given up the ghost and do not take any notice whether motorists have a test certificate, Excise licence or anything else. If a constable in a police force here in the Metropolis has told my hon. Friend that, I am not prepared to accept that police forces up and down the country close their eyes to wrong-doing as he suggests. As with insurance or any of the other requirements of the law, the police can challenge a motorist at any time to produce his test certificate.

For my hon. Friend to suggest that the police make a check only when an accident happens is completely unfair to every police force in the country, because a moving traffic offence gives police cause to make such checks, and I have every reason to believe that police forces up and down the country make them regularly.