HC Deb 26 July 1974 vol 877 cc2099-106

Where a vehicle is displaying an excise duty disc which is more than two months out of date it shall be permissible for the vehicle to be removed forthwith to a police pound and if reclaimed, all charges shall first be paid by the owner '.—[Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

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

The clause deals with excise licences. This is an important matter and I pay tribute here to the work done in this respect by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis). I have not given him warning that I intended to mention him in a complimentary way. I have been looking at various Questions and Answers given in the past 18 months or so. I notice that in 1972 in the Metropolitan Police area 38,000 cases of persons not having an excise licence were reported. From other sources there is a figure of 405,000 such offences. There were 31,000 prosecutions, resulting in fines totalling £436,000, while 32,000 cases were settled out of court involving mitigated penalties of £223,000.

An interesting figure is that for the number of people who took out road fund licences during the weeks when petrol coupons were allocated. It will be remembered that it was necessary to produce a current road fund licence to obtain the coupons. The Greater London Council issued 136,000 vehicle licences between 26th November and 14th December 1973. A little more information on this subject was obtained at that time by the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who discovered that Lancashire County Council issued 210,000 licences for the whole of 1973 and 177,000 in the period November December.

We all know that vehicles are left on the streets or are being used without current excise discs. This is not merely defrauding the Revenue, it is defrauding law-abiding motorists who tax their vehicles and contribute to general Road Fund taxation. Apart from anything else it is an anti-social practice. I realise that the right hon. Gentleman will say that the clause is technically badly drafted or that this is not the right Bill. He will give at least half a dozen reasons why we should not accept the clause.

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Member is doing very well. Perhaps he will continue on those lines.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

I recall that the same points were made about amendments that I tabled to the Housing Bill. However, they were finally accepted, badly drafted as they were, so that the Government could get the Bill. I am sure that there are many such reasons that could be put against this clause and I am willing to withdraw it if the Minister will assure me that he will make an effort to try to toughen up vehicle excise licensing enforcement. No Minister of any Government has made such an effort for the past 20 years.

I am not prepared to continue to see a growing number of people flout the law and act in this anti-social way, just because they know that the chance of getting away with it is pretty good. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to make some helpful noises.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) on his initiative in putting forward this new clause. He put the arguments for it very well, and they are sufficiently familiar to us all. Statistics on unpaid vehicle excise duty are now reaching not discomfiting but positively alarming proportions. I do not intend to go into detail on the arguments, but I wholeheartedly support the clause.

Incidentally, I greatly admired the anticipatory prejudgment by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead on what the Minister might say in reply. I do not know whether my hon. Friend was suggesting that he was hoping to introduce the clause if not in this Bill then in a housing Bill; that would be remarkable.

We must accept that the wording of the clause may be deficient and defective, for understandable reasons, but that does not detract from its logic and urgency. There is an increasing feeling of anger amongst many motorists on this matter. Earlier, in relation to another matter, the Minister said that the hump did not have a duration. On this subject people now have a hump which is of considerable duration.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

Does my hon. Friend agree that in this context the term "sleeping policeman" might be applicable, even if it is not the fault of the police?

Mr. Dykes

I take my hon. Friend's point. I hope that the Government will respond to the sentiment and spirit of the clause. If no action is taken by the judicial authorities, local authorities and the Government Departments involved, in due course this already alarming abuse will grow to proportions which may raise considerable feeling among motorists who are already increasingly confronted with high costs which may, incidentally, tempt some of them to try to avoid paying excise duty.

If the Minister and his advisers have an opportunity to consider this matter and take account of experience in other countries, they will find that the number of cases of unpaid excise duty in countries such as France, for instance, is much lower than in this country. Other countries also have more efficient methods for enforcing payment of excise duty and arranging vehicle licensing. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Berry

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) complimented the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis)—rightly so—for his work in connection with this matter. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, is absent, and bearing in mind that he is a constituent of mine, perhaps I may accept the compliment on his behalf.

This is an important clause and I hope that the Minister will accept it, or at least the spirit of it. The police are having to spend a lot of time, which could be better used in maintaining the law in more important aspects, in checking cars to see whether excise duty has been paid.

Unfortunately, many people leave cars without licences in parking bays, including residential parking bays, and in meter bays, and under the existing law there is considerable time lapse before the police have the right to tow the cars away. Many of us know of instances of this in the areas where we live, or in our constituencies. If the clause became law the police would have the right to remove cars not displaying excise duty discs much sooner than at present, and this would be helpful to the community at large.

Mr. Durant

There are advantages in the new clause. One of the current problems is that a vehicle may be left on the roadside for a long time before the police are able to take any action, and by the time they have power to act the vehicle may be in a dangerous condition. For instance, children may climb in and the wheels may be taken off, so that the whole vehicle begins to disintegrate.

Allowing a time of two months only would give a safety valve to the police to take early action, and that would help them to find the owner. One of their great difficulties after a car has been left for between six and nine months is finding the owner.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

The arguments advanced by my hon. Friends are persuasive. I am sure that there are serious problems connected with the removal of abandoned vehicles, but I am not sure that the argument should be pursued under this new clause. Certainly if these powers existed they could be used by the authorities to deal with the problem, but that is very different from using these powers for the collection of an excise duty.

Certainly there is an abuse and certainly there should be some means for dealing with the problem more rapidly and effectively, but I am a little worried about the idea of increasing the number of policemen involved in the removal of vehicles. It is one of the least attractive activities of the police in the London area. I am sure that they would not welcome spending their day removing cars to a car pound, particularly when, almost by definition, many of the vehicles are not causing an obstruction, because they are just overstaying their time at a meter.

The police services are under a great strain and have great manpower problems. If we use the police to collect cars for which the excise duty has not been paid, we shall be putting an intolerable strain on them.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

The new clause was carefully worded, so that it did not provide that the police would have to take the car away. They could contract out the work to firms to do it on their behalf.

Mr. Moate

I find that even less attractive. We should have private companies going around London collecting cars because the car licence had not been paid by the owners. That is not an attractive proposition.

Although I agree in principle that we need to find some means of dealing with a serious problem—I am sure that my hon. Friend is to be congratulated on having initiated a debate on the subject—I hope that the new clause will not be pursued, for it has implications and dangers that the House ought not to accept.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I shall be brief, for I think that I can rely on the Minister to turn down the new clause. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) on bringing it forward, but I hope that that is as far as it goes.

This is a revenue matter. This temptation to make everything a very serious offence takes me back to my wartime days, standing beside the commanding officer on the ship and taking defaulters, when everything, even the most minor infringement of regulations, was a very serious offence. It is difficult to think of an offence more minor than not paying one's excise licence on time.

We talk about the police being undermanned. The rate of burglaries is rising almost like a rocket. How are the police to cope with serious crime if they have to mess around dealing with the obsession of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis), who has been battering on the subject of excise licences for years? We should give our attention to something more important and let the police get on with their job.

The idea that they would be saving time and manpower by towing cars away I find difficult to understand. It would take more of their time. Do not let us forget that most people who are a bit late in paying their excise licences are law-abiding, ordinary people who are a bit neglectful and a bit forgetful, and the police very much need their cooperation in the general enforcement of the law. That co-operation will not be helped if the police tow away cars. We should not seek to add to the acerbity between police and public by including a clause of this kind.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

My hon. Friend said that not to pay the tax was a minor offence. Does he appreciate that driving an unlicensed car nullifies one's third-party insurance, which is an extremely serious offence?

Mr. Bell

I see no reason whatever why failing to pay the excise licence should have any effect on third-party insurance.

Mr. Mulley

This has been interesting debate. The problem for most Ministers is that whatever they try to do they cannot succeed in pleasing all their friends all the time. I am delighted to have the support of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). The hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) would have had a powerful supporter in my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) had he been present for this debate. That would be a formidable coalition.

I am bound to take the clause seriously. It is not technically deficient so far as I can see, but it has an odd ring about it. It would make it permissible for the forgetful, absent-minded person who did not renew the tax to have his car towed away and be caught by the provision, whereas the smart lad who did not want to pay duty would only have to remove the disc and the clause would not bite at all. I appreciate that by doing that he would be guilty of not displaying a road fund licence, but that would be a different matter. I am making the point that the clause would be directed against the less serious offenders.

I take a serious view of people who do not pay the excise duty, because they are not making a contribution which all other motorists are expected to do. All Governments and Ministers are anxious to collect for the nation as much money as possible. I do not differ from my predecessors in that respect.

Perhaps unwittingly, today, the House has taken a remarkable step in dealing with these offences. Clauses 1 to 5 of the Bill provide for fixed penalties. If we can avoid a good deal of abortive police effort in trying to chase up owners, it must have a good effect on police resources. I give the assurance that we shall do all we can to reduce the number—and it is a serious matter—of people who do not pay duty. This is unfair to the community and in these hard times all the extra money would be helpful.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

My hon. Friends have not quite followed what was saying. Certainly, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) has not taken my point. There is nothing in the clause to involve the police in these activities. In the Greater London area the licensing authority is technically the Greater London Council. This work could be done by street inspectors delegated by the GLC to the London boroughs. It could be done by a wide variety of people—by traffic wardens, or by contract firms, once the report has been made by the street inspector. There is no need to use police manpower.

I accept that a person displaying a disc would be worse off than a person displaying no disc. That is a technical defect. I hoped that the Minister would accept the clause and on Report move an amendment to insert the words "no disc". There is already one month's grace, and people are being offered two months more. In the majority of cases where the licence is three months out of date, the omission is deliberate. I do not believe that people are so forgetful as that.

Even if I press the amendment, I can see that I am unlikely to overcome the payroll vote. I do not wish to prevent the payroll from disappearing to do other work that might be more remunerative than sitting here—

Mr. Mulley

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman would carry most of his hon. Friends if he pressed the clause.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

I am not certain about that. The Minister has replied genuinely, and I willingly accept that he and his colleagues will give emphasis to the drive to make people pay. On that understanding, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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