HC Deb 24 February 1969 vol 778 cc1166-82

The penalties laid down in section 7 of the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1962 (as amended by section 11 of the Finance Act 1967) for using and keeping vehicles without a licence shall not be subject to mitigation under the provisions of section 27 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1952 (as amended by section 5 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1957) and of section 286 of the Customs and Excise Act 1952.—[Mr. Arthur Lewis.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The object of the Clause is to give a determined and definite punishment where punishment is due to those who persistently and deliberately flout the law, many of them for years on end. At present, magistrates can lessen a penalty at their discretion when someone is found guilty of deliberately evading the payment of the road fund licence. I interpose the explanation that the very few honourable men and women who occasionally overlook the payment of the road fund licence because of forgetful-ness or some other good reason will not be affected.

I shall use the example of London, but what I have to say applies to the country generally. If I were so stupid or forgetful as to forget to renew my licence, the Greater London Council would notify me and would give me an opportunity to put the matter right. If I then forgot or deliberately ignored what might be called the warning, the G.L.C. would follow up the matter and tell me that I had been two or three years—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) laughs, but this is what happens. The G.L.C. would tell me that I was now two or three years in arrears, and, rather than take the trouble of taking me to court, it would settle the matter if some of the arrears were cleared up. The Council has been very generous in its approach to this work.

The G.L.C. takes this line because the offence is now so prevalent.

Mr. Carmichael indicated dissent.

Mr. Lewis

My hon. Friend shakes his head, but I assure him that it is prevalent. In Adjournment debates and on other occasions I have often been told that it is not prevalent. My view is to the contrary. If it were not prevalent there would be no need for this Bill. Figures recently issued by the G.L.C. show that there were 40,000 prosecutions—prosecutions, not offences. I have evidence to prove that there are hundreds of thousands of such offences. This figure of 40,000 includes not only cars, people with "jalopies", but people driving luxury cars and business firms with heavy and light lorries. The total amount of fines from that 40,000 was £450,000. That gives a figure of approximately £11 per head. The heavy lorry owners would have to pay about £300 or £400 in licence fees.

I am not dealing just with one year. This goes back many years, and I can give the Minister, and any hon. Member, complete and absolute proof of cases where a vehicle has been reported without a licence not for one or two months but for 12 months. After 12 months, the G.L.C, having tried to enforce mitigated penalties, eventually prosecutes. I could quote cases, giving the numbers of vehicles and where they are parked to prove this. The G.L.C. has had hundreds of thousands of reports from the police, enforcement officers and the general public. After years of such reports, no action is taken, in many instances because the courts just cannot cope. Since I have been running a campaign about this, I have had some fascinating details given to me by some very reputable people.

A justice of the peace in Greater London carried out a survey. He gave figures to me, which I submitted to the Ministry, showing what a ludicrous situation we have now reached. It is wrong that a law-abiding person who pays for his road fund licence, his vehicle insurance, his roadworthiness test, and his parking meter fines—and sometimes these are caused because he cannot get on the meter because there are unlicensed cars parked there—should be fined if he inadvertently stops on a yellow band or overstays the limit at a meter for ten minutes. There is a set figure and there is no question of any mitigation here. He can go to the court, of course, but if it can be proved that he has overstayed his time or parked on the yellow line, although it may not have been a deliberate offence, then he is fined. Such people can give excuses; they can say that they were delayed ten minutes because of the wants of nature. It is then said to them: "Sorry, but you should have taken note of that and not left it to the last minute". This has happened.

They could say that they were delayed at a shop and could not get out; but still the fine would apply. I suggest that the same sort of thing should apply here. I have it on the authority of the enforcement officers that they would welcome something like this because, as a result of the lapse of time, the whole thing now becomes a mockery. I will give an example of five 5-ton lorries working for the Islington Borough Council, taking away rubble from a building site. They have been unlicensed for two years, and for two years they have been reported at monthly intervals. The number of the vehicles, the type, the colour, where they are parked, where the driver lives—all has been given to the G.L.C., the Ministry of Transport, the Home Secretary. After two years the Home Office told the informant that it could not trace the vehicles—they seemed to have vanished. Yet the firm has a fleet of these lorries, and the Ministry has the name and address of the companies. So another investigation was made. After two years, one of the lorries was traced and the firm taken to court. The fine was £5. That is making a mockery of justice.

Mr. John Nott (St. Ives)

I thought that the hon. Member said that these lorries were owned by the Islington Council?

Mr. Lewis If I did say that, I did not mean it. They were working for the Islington Borough Council, taking away rubble. They get something like £3 or £4 a load, and they do five or six loads a day. They do this tax-free, and the reason why they will not licence their lorries is that they do not want to be registered for tax purposes. The firm is getting £300 or £400 a week tax-free.

This is in Durham Road, Islington, at the corner of Lennox Road. One can go there any day of the week and find hundreds of vehicles. I pass this road every week and see the same vehicles parked in the same areas. Yet, when the information is given to the authorities, they say that there is so much of it that they cannot deal with it. By the time they do get round to it, the vehicle is probably not in existence or has vanished. If the drivers and owners knew that these deliberate offences would automatically render them liable to the maximum penalty, two things would happen.

First, the deliberate dodgers would know what would happen, and many would take out licences. It would also mean that the G.L.C. and other local authorities would get on with the job of enforcement in the one or two cases where deliberate dodging continued. I ask the Minister to see that this would relieve our forces. It would not introduce any new principle, because this is operated in relation to a number of other offences. The Minister would be doing a good job through easing the work of the enforcement officers, he would be doing a good job by assisting the local authorities, and he would be relieving the courts. Perhaps even more important, he would get millions of pounds extra into the revenue, which is at present being lost because of this dodging.

With the wireless and television licences, a big effort is made to get in £5, but when it comes to getting in £25—and in the case of the heavy lorries hundreds of pounds are involved—no effort is made to track down these persistent offenders. My new Clause, if it were accepted, would be helpful to all concerned.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Tavistock)

The argument of the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) on this theme, which he has made particularly his own, namely, that the lack of flexibility in the fining procedure for parking meter offences should be extended to those people who appear before magistrates accused of evading their licence duty obligations, does not stand up. If flexibility is desirable in this case, as I believe it is, there is a case for extending it to fines for parking meter offences rather than saying that because fines for parking meter offences are not flexible we should introduce the same rigidity in the matter which we are discussing.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman missed my point. There is already flexibility concerning road licences as distinct from parking meter fines. The council can and does give a person the opportunity to clear the debt before prosecuting. That does not happen in the case of parking offences and others.

Mr. Heseltine

I appreciate that that was one of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. But the Clause does not deal with the councils; it deals with the discretion of magistrates. I should have thought that there was an argument for giving magistrates the benefit of flexibility in both cases. I should have thought that the argument which the hon. Gentleman could have put forward and with which I might have sympathised was that if there was widespread and deliberate evasion there should be provision to enable increased penalties to be imposed by magistrates.

The point which concerns me is that this is the third time in, I should think, three months that I have heard this argument put forward by the hon. Member for West Ham, North. I am aware that he has made numerous presentions on this subject through the channels available to him in the House. It is incumbent on the Parliamentary Secretary to reply to the points which have been made time and again. If the hon. Member's allegations are true, he is entitled to an answer. If they are not true, he is entitled to a Select Committee. If the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that in many streets, the names of which the hon. Gentleman has provided, there are people who are deliberately avoiding their obligations, somebody in the Ministry of Transport or the Home Office should by now have conducted an inquiry.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to say whether an investigation has been made, because it is fair both to the House and to the good name of many motorists and owners of heavy vehicles——

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

Has the hon. Gentleman taken a look in the House of Commons car park? There are a good few out-of-date licences there.

Mr. Heseltine

I should have thought that that called for another Select Committee.

It is necessary for the reputation of motorists and owners of large lorries that this matter should be thoroughly investigated and reported on. I cannot understand why there has been no inquiry of this sort. If an investigation has not taken place, I should like to know what the Parliamentary Secretary, who has heard these allegations over the last few months, has done about consulting people, for example, the police or local authorities, on the extent to which they believe this problem exists.

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware from the figures which we were given a few weeks ago that there were 40,000 prosecutions for the evasion of tax in the Greater London Council area. Surely that proves that there is widespread evasion.

Mr. Heseltine

That is a prima facie case in support of what the hon. Member for West Ham, North has said. But what the hon. Member for West Ham, North says is not that there are a lot of prosecutions, but that there is a vaster field in which no action at all is taken. This is the point which concerns me. If the police are doing their duty, and prosecutions are being instituted, the hon. Member for West Ham, North has not a great deal to be aggrieved about. But his repeated argument is that, despite all the evidence which he has sent to the Ministry of Transport or anybody else prepared to receive it, nothing happens. Therefore, the 40,000 prosecutions about which we have heard are not relevant to the case made by the hon. Member for West Ham, North.

One thing which is likely to solve this problem is the certainty of detection, and. having been detected, the certainty of prosecution.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

The hon. Gentleman refers to the certainty of prosecution. I could give him the name and address of a driver who pulled up suddenly on a pedestrian crossing and nearly knocked an old lady down. I reported the vehicle. because it was unlicensed, to the Greater London Council. Twelve months afterwards, I saw the same vehicle. I spoke to the driver and he said to me, "You reported me 12 months ago, but nothing has happened. I could not care less". Twelve months after the event the same vehicle can be seen, and I will take the hon. Gentleman and show it to him tomorrow, unlicensed.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must not widen the debate too much. The hon. Gentleman moved a new Clause which tackles the problem, or part of it, in a specific way.

Mr. Heseltine

It is not for me to accompany the hon. Gentleman, but I am sympathetic to his point. It merely reinforces what I am saying to the Parliamentary Secretary. If the case as we have heard it detailed by the hon. Gentleman is true, it calls for serious action on the part of the Parliamentary Secretary. I should be glad to hear that action is anticipated. I would be even more pleased to hear that it has been taken.

I suspect that the answer to the problem is a much greater fear of detection and much greater awareness in the event of detection that there will be prosecutions. In the event of a prosecution, the magistrates should have flexibility in the fines that they impose. But to be certain of prosecution the police must be brought up to the strength which they believe necessary to enable them to carry out their duties. The House cannot let this debate end without realising that the police are being held back in the number of recruits that they want.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Brief reference to another subject.

Mr. Heseltine

The reference was complete, Mr. Speaker.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with the very serious allegations of the hon. Member for West Ham, North. The House has heard the same allegations repeated too often for there not to be a full and detailed reply.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

I have listened to the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) on this subject on a number of occasions. He has done enough to prove his case and is entitled to an answer. As a moderately law-abiding citizen, I am alarmed about the great evasion of the road vehicle tax. If a person wants to lay up his car, if he does not tell the licensing authorities, he is liable to pay the whole of the road fund tax. The hon. Member, by his new Clause, wants the whole of the tax to be paid plus a penalty as against a nominal sum when people are found out two or three years later.

This is a very opportune time for the Parliamentary Secretary to accept the new Clause, or, if he is not happy about its drafting—and I know that the hon. Member for West Ham, North would give way on that—something similar, as the temptation to evade the tax will be much greater in the coming months because of the drastic increase in the cost of the licence. The duty has already gone up from £15 to £17 10s. and it is now £25, and those who do not pay the big increases in the duty for lorries evade having their vehicles inspected.

The position has reached such a stage that the hon. Member for West Ham, North is quite right to put down his new Clause. He is entitled to an answer. I hope that if he does not get a satisfactory answer he will continue with his campaign, when I shall be glad to support him in his efforts.

Mr. Carmichael

We have heard my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) many times on this subject and he has been extremely helpful in many ways during Second Reading and the Committee stage of the Bill.

I have given the figures before, but it should be realised that this is not a question of inactivity. The number of Excise offences reported and investigated has risen steadily. In 1958, for example, in a vehicle population of almost 8 million, the number of offences reported and investigated was 59,000, or one in 133. In 1967, with a vehicle population of just over 14 million, 348,000 Excise offences were reported and investigated—that is, one in 40. There is undoubtedly an increase. It would be wrong to suggest that nothing was being done about it and that the authorities and the police were not doing something.

On a number of occasions during the passage of the Bill, I have tried to say that the job of spotting and, with the present system of registration, the job of tracing become very absorbing of manpower and require great effort. Nevertheless, the figures show that in 1967 nearly 350,000 cases were investigated and some prosecuted, depending on the results of the investigation.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that a police inspector at Caledonian Road Police Station said to me that he knows that thousands of these cases are reported and that the police do their job but nothing is ever done and so they get fed up with reporting these offences? This surely means that the figure of 350,000 could be doubled.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is Report stage. We do not want too many interventions in the debate from one hon. Member.

Mr. Carmichael

Certain subjects which have been raised during this debate are not within the province of the Ministry of Transport. The basic purpose of the Bill, however, has been, because of the reports which we have had from my hon. Friend and many others, to look at the whole subject of vehicle licensing.

There are two basic reasons. One is that the present system is in great difficulty because of the numbers, and we believe the evidence to be that in the next few years it will be unworkable. Secondly, the new system, particularly with the continuous liability, will make it much more difficult, and certainly much more costly, for anyone to be able to evade his due Revenue duty to the Government. The whole purpose of the Bill will be upheld if during the course of the evening we can get through the problems of continuous liability with the enthusiasm with which the new Clause has been referred to.

The hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) mentioned the certainty of detection. This is a point which is already covered in the Bill. With computerisation, the certainty of detection is much greater than before.

The hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) spoke about something being done to increase the size of the police force and its ability to discover offences——

Sir H. Harrison

I do not think I mentioned the police force.

Mr. Carmichael

Perhaps I was mistaken. I was working out the response to the hon. and gallant Member to reassure him that when some of the provisions of the 1968 Act come into operation there will be a great release of police for other jobs because traffic wardens will be taking over many of the jobs of the police. They have been doing this during the last 10 years, and they have done an extremely good job. Many things have been done.

7.45 p.m.

Various of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North, including the specific instance which he quoted, are matters for the Home Office. As for the investigation, however, about which the hon. Member for Tavistock and my hon. Friend have asked, the Bill is the result of many of the cases which have been brought to the notice of the Ministry of Transport, the Government and the licensing authorities.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

Am I to understand that nothing is to be done about this until 1975, when the computer centre is in use? Can we not have an answer on the specific details and cases which have been given by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis)?

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Give them to the G.L.C.

Mr. Carmichael

My hon. Friend has raised those cases, but the hon. Member for Tavistock will agree that these are matters for the enforcement authorities and not for the Ministry of Transport.

Mr. Lewis

Everyone passes the buck.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Carmichael

As I say, this is a matter for the Home Office and for the local licensing authorities, and not for the Ministry of Transport.

In other instances the hon. Member, or many of his hon. Friends, has spoken of the over-centralisation of government. This is one matter in which it would hardly be appropriate for the Ministry of Transport to do this type of job. Our job is to provide the framework for a thorough reappraisal of the whole system in order, as well as doing the other practical job, which is vital also, to revise the system in such a way that evasion will be much more difficult.

My hon. Friend in his new Clause asks that there should be a flat-rate fine at a high level for evasion. He has mentioned that in certain courts only nominal fines have been imposed for evasion of duty. While we believe that the penalty should be appropriate for the offence—at least, to discourage people from committing the offence—we are not implying what the appropriate penalty should be.

To impose a maximum penalty without regard to the circumstances would not fail to cause considerable injustice and hardship. No matter how grave the offence, there will always be cases in which the extenuating circumstances are such as to make the imposition of a standard penalty inequitable. For instance, in some cases concerning heavy lorries there could be a fine of up to £1,500 or even more. While, perhaps, in the case cited by my hon. Friend, that might be a just penalty—although that is for the court to decide—in many cases a fine of £1,500 would be quite inappropriate. As always, it should be left to the courts to decide, and it would be wrong for the Minister to lay down a rigid maximum penalty. It would be quite unusual to do so, except in matters such as parking fines.

Parking fines, however, are usually fairly nominal. I know that some motoring organisations do not feel that in congested areas they are sufficiently high. It has been argued in motoring journals that the penalty for parking offences is sufficiently low to be worth taking the risk, whereas if it were higher in congested areas people would not take the risk.

There was, of course, a serious increase in the penalty from £20 or three times the normal rate of duty for the vehicle concerned to £50 or five times the annual rate of duty, whichever was the higher. This is the maximum penalty. To insist that it should always be the penalty in all the very large variety of cases which must come forward, giving no flexibility to the courts, would be asking too much. It would be a complete change in our attitude to the power and discretion of the courts.

Although I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's statement that some of the fines have not been as high as he would like, it would be wrong to tell the courts that they must impose a minimum penalty as high as the present maximum. When the Bill is law, there will be a maximum penalty of £50 or five times the annual duty. That is just about right. I hope that, having heard the arguments, my hon. Friend will withdraw his Clause.

Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

I have listened with interest to the debate and the Parliamentary Secretary's reply, which I found, like the curate's egg, good in parts. I agree with him about the inflexibility of the penalties inherent in the new Clause, but was not satisfied with his failure to meet the point about widespread evasion. He said that this is not a matter for his Department, but for enforcement, and, therefore, for the Home Office.

But my hon. Friend is a member of the Government, and if he were seized of the seriousness of the argument, he could at least see that what has been said, on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, was drawn to the attention of his colleague in the Home Office and an undertaking sought from them that the law would be more energetically pursued. The House is entitled to that assurance.

The Bill will not be enforced for a number of years and, meanwhile, my hon. Friend has proved that the court's interpretation of the law seems to be too lenient. That was clearly implicit in his figure, which the Parliamentary Secretary did not reject, that the 40,000 prosecutions by the G.L.C. had produced an average of £11 per case. Clearly, if there had been the long-standing and widespread evasion to which my hon. Friend has referred so many times, the average should have been higher.

I support those who have said that the time is long since gone when Ministers can say, "This has nothing to do with us." I urge the Parliamentary Secretary—I see that the Minister also is here—at least to say that these repeated allegations have been convincing enough for him to draw the matter to the attention of his Home Office colleagues to ensure a more vigorous prosecution of the law between now and the implementation of the Bill.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister has joined us for this very serious debate. Although we had the usual courteous and helpful reply from the Parliamentary Secretary, he did not seem to appreciate the extent of the problem. The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) has an honourable record in pursuing this matter, but something which he did not mention is our obligation not only to enforce the law, but to the hard-pressed and perhaps over-taxed motorist who pays his dues without question and who carries so much of the burden. We have an obligation to the law-abiding citizens to see that those who step out of line deliberately are hammered hard.

One point made by the hon. Member should be cleared up. He spoke of mitigating arrangements before prosecution, but any question of mitigation can arise only when a case comes to court. Perhaps the Minister should put this right for the record.

We are entitled to some indication of the extent of this problem. Figures have been bandied around. The hon. Member talked of hundreds of thousands of cases. If that is so, millions of pounds are involved. There is a delicate relationship here, with local authorities acting as the Government's agents in revenue collection. This is not a matter of conflicting interests, but of responsibilities carried out by different authorities. We have a greater obligation than to the Treasury—to the vast majority of decent and law abiding motorists who an; paying a great deal for the privilege of driving on our roads.

The hon. Member has carried out this campaign over a long time, has done a great deal of research and has worked very hard on behalf of the Treasury and the law abiding motorist. It would be wrong to complete our discussion without some assurance being given to him of a fresh initiative by the Government. We should hear that there will be a new drive against those who are evading their responsibilities and their taxes.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I, too, was hoping for a more favourable reply. I thank those hon. Members who have supported me on this matter. I would tell the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) that the G.L.C. itself has advised me that it has mitigating powers before prosecution, which are invariably operated.

I am astounded to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say again, "We will do this later; the police are overworked." Of course, but what I cannot seem to get over to him is that, whether or not the Bill is passed and, in 1975, the law is enforced more rigorously, an Act of Parliament is already on the Statute Book which lays down certain things which are not happening.

I mentioned the lorries which I have reported to the Ministry, to the Home Office and the G.L.C. I should have explained that when, after two years of having these reported, the authorities eventually catch up with one to impose a £5 fine, they then tell me that the lorry was dangerous, the steering and tyres were defective, and that it should not even have been on the road. This is very serious. These five-ton sand and gravel lorries which I and the police have reported are lethal weapons. The Home Office could not trace them and the Ministry referred the matter back to me; then the G.L.C. after two years saw a derisory fine of £5 imposed.

8.0 p.m.

The need is for action. There is no need for reports, because reports are made already. I can show the Minister a great file of them, and I can show him letters today from the G.L.C. I have reported cases. I have described the type of vehicle, its colour, its number, where it is parked, where its driver lives. I have all but said whether or not he is married and whether or not he cohabits with his wife. Yet two years after that there is that same unlicensed vehicle and still in the same road. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, I ask the Minister—I would ask the Home Secretary but he is not here—suppose I were to report a drug party going on at such and such an address: would no action be taken for two years? I rather doubt it. I think that action would be taken immediately. There is no need for new legislation if only the law of the land were carried out. I am not concerned whether it is the Ministry of Transport or the Home Office or the G.L.C.; I could not care less about that. What I care about is that they should carry out the law, rather than tell me—and this is what I deeply resent—that, of course, when this Bill has been passed, and come 1975, then we can have proper reporting and investigation and all the rest. Why should they say that? These things are already reported this very day. I could take the Minister or the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tomorrow or any day this week to roads, not far from this House, where they can see these vehicles which have been reported for two years on end.

Why is it action is not taken? I will tell the Minister. Because the G.L.C. tells me that the fines are so derisory that it is not worth taking action, and that such fines are prevalent. That is why I wish something to be done on the lines I have suggested.

Mr. Carmichael

Perhaps I may, with permission, reply to some of the points which have just been put.

I have already tried to point out that it is not as though nothing is happening. The increase in the reporting and investigation of excise evasion has been very remarkable in the last few years, and there is a great deal of enforcement not only in London but all over the country. I gave the figures. In 1958 there was one prosecution in 133 cases; today the figure is one in 40. There has been a very big increase in the number of prosecutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths), as others have done, spoke about widespread evasion. While there may be widespread evasion, there is also the greater seriousness with which the local authorities are tackling the problem. Of course I am seized of the seriousness of the argument which my hon. Friends have put, and the points which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) has made have been drawn, not only by him but by myself, to the attention of the appropriate Ministry. Having done that, I still say that this is basically a matter for enforcement by the authorities and not any particular Minister or my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cath-cart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) said that people who have been evading should be hammered and hammered hard. I think those were his words. I took them down. That may be something we ourselves believe, but, fortunately, while Parliament lays down penalties, it leaves it to the courts to make decisions about imposing them, and while hon. Members may feel that in some cases the courts have been more lenient than they ought to have been, I think it would be a very big departure from our practice to legislate that the maximum penalty should be the automatic penalty, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North suggests. In some cases that would be too severe and too punitive. Flexibility must be left to the courts as long as we have the system which we have. We hope that that flexibility will be used by the courts in the best possible way as a deterrent to those likely to evade and also as a punishment for those who actually evade.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North spoke about defects found in lorries whose owners were evading tax, and he said there was no need for new legislation. We think there is a great need for legislation, and this is part of it. I agree that it will not bite right away, but I hope that he will realise that a great deal is already being done, and we believe that this is the best solution to the problem. As for defects in lorries, they are being dealt with right now. Last year compulsory testing of heavy vehicles was started—

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Yes, I agree about that.

Mr. Carmichael

—and that is another method of catching up with defects in vehicles on the roads. The penalties there are also very severe.

So while we know that there is evasion, and while we have looked at the points which have been made by my hon. Friend over a very long period, I must again emphasise that it is not as though nothing is being done, and it is unfair to the enforcement authorities to suggest that nothing has been done. A great deal has been done, and in very difficult circumstances, because it is a difficult, cumbersome and time-consuming business to check up on the vehicles and find their owners. None the less, 348,000 were chased up in 1967. That is a very high figure indeed. While there is no doubt that this is indeed a very serious problem, I think the method suggested by my hon. Friend, that there should be penalties of such a nature as he suggests, would be quite contrary to practice in this country, and I ask him to think on this and to withdraw his new Clause.

Question put and negatived.

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