HC Deb 08 November 1990 vol 180 cc224-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sackville]

10 pm

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise, during the week of the debate in reply to the Queen's Speech, the growing problem of car crime. The stealing of cars, the stealing from cars and joyriding in cars are becoming a plague. It is a danger to the public, including the people who own cars, and often a menace to the people who joyride in them. The problem afflicts the whole country and has special application in my county of Leicestershire, where, unfortunately, in the first part of 1990 the number of these offences increased by nearly 50 per cent. What is more, nearly half those offences are known to have been committed by lads aged between 13 and 17.

This morning, I went to two schools in my constituency in Beaumont Leys, which is comparatively new and includes a series of estates where a tremendous number of good citizens live. It is also an area in which crime of this kind has been growing enormously. I talked to and listened to the children at Buswells Lodge and Barleycroft schools. I was told that, during the past year or so, 38 of the 50 families of the children in one class at Barleycroft school suffered from the theft of a car or motor cycle at their homes or outside them. The children told me what happens to those vehicles. Sometimes they are dumped in a field. Sometimes they never reappear. Sometimes the joyriders set them alight—on one occasion, they drove a car into a school car park and set it alight.

This picture of car crime has spread throughout the country. It is scarcely recognised and is certainly not dealt with. It is, of course, part of a much wider picture of crime which is growing more than ever before. We have a picture of violent crimes against the person, of burglary, of robbery and of constituents—old and sometimes young—afraid to go out at night for fear of attack. Some of them are even afraid to stay in at night for fear of attack.

When we bring this to the Government's attention, the result is always the same. There are statistics to show that, theoretically, more money has been spent on the fight against crime. However, that is a wholly inadequate admission of the extent to which the plague of crime in general, and of car crime in particular, has afflicted our society. Successive chief constables of Leicestershire have begged for an adequate number of policemen on the beat and for more resources so that they can increase the number of police who are visible and available. That would mean that there was less temptation to crime, because there would be a greater chance of criminals being caught.

However, time after time the Government, who are meant to be a Government of law and order, have replied, "Sorry, we cannot afford it." We cannot afford the level of crime that has been reached, we cannot afford the misery that it has caused and we certainly cannot afford the high cost that this country has to bear as a result of car crime.

It has been estimated that car theft costs Britain approximately £1 billion a year, with car-related crime now accounting for more than one quarter of all reported crime. For the year ending June 1990, thefts from vehicles have increased by 13.1 per cent. and thefts of vehicles have increased by 20.6 per cent. Crime overall went up by 12.6 per cent. over the same period. It is true that statistics on crime, like all other statistics, have to be treated with a certain amount of caution. However, while more crimes are being reported, many are still not reported. It is estimated that, of thefts from cars, only 30 per cent. reach the statistics.

Crime is increasing and the clear-up rate for theft remains low. The figure for thefts from vehicles is 23 per cent. and for thefts of vehicles it is 27 per cent. In Leicestershire, thefts of vehicles and joy riding increased by 25 per cent. in 1989 and, I repeat, in the first half of 1990, car thefts and joy riding jumped by 47.3 per cent. Up to September of this year, car crime represented 44.2 per cent. of all reported crime. Over the past 10 years in Leicestershire, thefts of cars increased by 79 per cent. and theft from cars increased by 223 per cent.—a massive and wholly unacceptable increase.

That increase affects everyone who owns a car, a motorcycle or a van, but there is also danger to the youngsters who commit the crimes. On 16 April this year, for example, a Leicester couple who had six children were killed by a 16-year-old joyrider. Not only did the man and woman suffer, but the joyrider and his 16-year-old passenger were killed. Four people died in the same joyriding accident.

How are we to deal with such crime? We must recognise the facts and what is being stolen. In the past, most stolen cars were Fords and small cars. Small cars were mainly involved because many of the youngsters who stole them could not steal big cars because their feet could not reach the pedals. Now that has changed, and they have learnt to move the seats—and there are bigger cars. I have been told by the police, both nationally and locally, that the move is away from the ordinary car to the souped-up vehicle—the more powerful car, which is more dangerous when on the road. It is dangerous to others and to the individual, but it is a car that is regarded as more fun to drive.

We look for some response to the problem. What do we find? In 1988, a Home Office working group on car crime outlined four broad areas for action. It wanted further study of potential solutions. That has got nowhere. It also wanted improved statistics. Perhaps the statistics are a little better, but they have not brought any joy.

Another requirement was programmes to divert youth from taking up car crime. That is extremely important. Earlier this evening, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Sir John Dellow, deputy chief commissioner of the Metropolitan police. Let me pause to say how much I—along with all hon. Members I am sure—regret the illness that has been suffered by Sir Peter Imbert, the commissioner, and how glad we are that he is making such excellent progress. We all hope that he will be back at his post very soon.

I talked to Sir John about this debate. It is not an easy task to say to a leading police officer "What can you do?" He told me, for instance, about some initiatives that he and fellow officers had been pursuing in various parts of London: they have been setting up operations separate from normal police work. In those operations, youngsters who are besotted with cars and want to learn to drive— and to take cars apart and put them together again—are encouraged and helped to do so. The schemes are flourishing, and they are certainly worthy of compliment.

This morning I was taken to Boswells Lodge and Barleycroft schools by a police community officer, PC Parker. He is working with the youngsters and their families to try to change the atmosphere. However, it is a difficult task, because the position of ordinary folk is becoming more difficult. Disadvantage is growing, and resources are fewer. When local authorities' resources are cut, everyone suffers. In this case, it is the youth service, the youth clubs and the places where youngsters can be helped to make the best of their talents, and kept away from the temptations of joyriding and theft. Given the cuts, it is difficult for local authorities to create alternative programmes to divert youth from taking up car crime.

Finally, the Home Office working group recommended design improvements in car security by manufacturers. I raised this matter with Ford, because so many of its cars were being stolen as a result of inadequate security arrangements. I am glad to say that it is aware of that and is taking the appropriate steps.

However, the sad fact is that it is impossible to prevent people from stealing a vehicle if they are sufficiently determined. They can smash the window and get in, and then attach wires to bypass the ignition. Members of the public, however, must make it more difficult for car thieves. We must try to deter people by locking up cars—if possible, in a garage—and by ensuring that they are locked in the street. We should use visible and invisible devices to immobilise cars in the hope that they will not be stolen. Of course, the thieves may go off and steal someone else's car, so that is only a start, but, if it gets hard enough for the thief, with a bit of luck the deterrent will work.

Meanwhile, it is fair to ask the Government—as one would any Government—whether they have recognised the growth of car crime. Do the Government know about the serious problems that this type of crime is creating? Do they recognise that the people who are creating the problem tend to be young men or boys who can find no other recreation that they will enjoy?

I have outlined the problem. I want to pay tribute to my assistants, David Ramsden, Brian Silver, and Michael Fertleman, who have been kind enough to help me with this brief. I wish that I had had more help from the Government with finding ways to deal with the problems which, for my constituents and for many people throughout the country, give rise to alarm. Car crime is a plague of misery that requires immediate and active attention.

10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) who has raised an extremely important matter—car crime, thefts of and from cars—which, despite what he said, is of major concern to the Government.

Recent increases in the numbers of these offences have been disappointing and worrying. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right: they are particularly marked in the county of Leicestershire. The House will have been as impressed as I was by the graphic accounts that the hon. and learned Gentleman heard from the children that he met recently, but I am sorry that he sought to suggest that the Government do not recognise the problem. They most certainly do, and I hope that my remarks will convince the hon. and learned Gentleman of that.

Car crimes account for more than a quarter of all recorded crime; of that the Government are well aware. They cause great inconvenience to the motoring public and they impose costs on everyone due to the police time taken up in dealing with them, the cost of taking offenders through the criminal justice system and the higher insurance premiums.

Stolen cars are also a real danger on our roads. The driver of a stolen car is all too often involved in an accident, with tragic consequences for himself and innocent road users. The hon. and learned Gentleman gave a particularly horrific example from his knowledge. So what must be done to counter this menace? First, the Government must ensure that there are adequate numbers of police officers to help prevent and detect crime. There are now more than 127,000 police officers—an increase of more than 15,000 since 1979. To release more police officers for operational duties, we have provided an additional 10,000 civilian staff, of whom there are now more than 45,000.

The hon. and learned Gentleman complained that calls for more police officers in Leicester had fallen on deaf ears——

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

It is true.

Mr. Lloyd

In fact, the figures contradict him. There are 68 more police officers in Leicester now than in 1979, so there are most certainly more. Secondly, 130 police officers have been redeployed to active policing thanks to the civilianisation programme. Last year alone, 27 more posts were given to the Leicestershire police force. I know that it has asked for additional posts for this year; they are being considered by the Home Secretary at this very moment.

The Government must also ensure that the courts have adequate powers to deal with those who steal cars or steal from cars. As the hon. and learned Gentleman will know, the maximum penalty for theft of or from a vehicle is, and will continue to be under the proposals set out in the criminal justice White Paper, a long period of imprisonment. The penalty for taking a vehicle without authority is a fine of £2,000 or six month' imprisonment, or both. We are therefore fully supporting the police in their efforts, and we have ensured that the penalties for car crime are more than adequate.

Action by the Government, by the police and within the criminal justice system, however, is not enough. I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman about that. We know that the vast majority of thefts of or from cars are committed not by professional thieves but by opportunists who take advantage of an unlocked car or of a wallet or handbag left temptingly on display inside. We know that much car crime is preventable, so it requires action by the whole community. The Government, the police and the courts must play their part, but so too must the car manufacturers, the insurance industry and car owners.

Home Office crime prevention campaigns have quite rightly highlighted the need for car owners to take care to park their cars safely. That campaign seems to have helped to convince the hon. and learned Gentleman that that is an important factor if the number of car crimes is to be reduced. Cars must be locked and valuables removed.

Adequate security devices or anti-theft equipment such as security-coded radios should be fitted. That advice is reflected in our crime prevention handbook entitled "Practical Ways to Crack Crime", more than 3 million copies of which have been distributed.

Next year, our publicity campaign will take a new turn, with the holding of Crime Prevention Week 1991. From Monday 15 to Friday 19 April, each day will be assigned a theme which we hope will focus on local crime prevention activity all over the country, backed up by a national television and press advertising campaign. One of those themes is car crime, and that day should provide an excellent opportunity for police crime prevention departments, crime prevention panels and others to demonstrate to the public what can be done to reduce the risk of their cars being stolen or broken into.

Through our publicity campaigns, we have also stressed the need for the public to seek better in-built security when buying a new car. We know from the British crime survey that 64 per cent. of those interviewed would be willing to pay more for a car with comprehensive security and that 40 per cent. of those would be willing to pay up to £250 more. We know that some manufacturers have responded to that demand by providing better security in their cars. We welcome that.

Earlier this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary asked the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders for a comprehensive industry view of the steps which are being taken and which are proposed to improve inherent car security. Home Office officials met society representatives today and received their report. We shall be considering that carefully.

To help manufacturers, the British Standards Institution has produced a five-part standard covering mechanical door locks, radio-cassette security, glass marking, central locking: and deadlocking. While it is open to motor manufacturers to adopt the standard voluntarily, a mandatory requirement for all United Kingdom manufacturers to fit security devices to a specified standard would require an amendment to the existing EC directive on vehicle security.

The Department of Transport is engaged in discussions with its counterparts in Europe to have key elements of the British standard incorporated into this EC directive, but there has been, alas, opposition from other EC member states and foreign vehicle manufacturers and, as a result, progress has been slow. We in the Home Office are considering ways in which, with the help of motor manufacturers and consumer organisations, the obstacles to progress may be overcome.

An international crime survey published earlier this year showed that, while the rate of car crime in the United Kingdom compares unfavourably with that of other western European countries included in the survey, car crime is a significant problem in Europe and should be a matter of concern for other European Community member states. I hope that we can look to Europe for support for our initiative in that area.

However, whatever security devices are fitted, there is a need for car owners to make use of them and generally to take better care of their cars. A recent survey found that one car in five was left insecure. It is incredible that while, for most people, the purchase of a car represents their second largest investment, one in five car owners do not take the basic precautions of locking their car, closing the windows and securing the boot before they leave it.

Of course, the majority of new cars are purchased by business, and we believe that businesses could do more to encourage motor manufacturers to improve inherent car security. An example of what can be achieved there is the local authority in Strathclyde, which demands that its vehicle fleet is fitted with car alarms, and that low-cost radio-cassette players must be fitted to any vehicle from which there have been two previous thefts of radio-cassette players. We understand that that has had a significant and beneficial effect on the fleet's vulnerability.

We were concerned to note the decision, earlier this year, by the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association to withhold its annual anti-car theft award because little or no progress had been made by motor manufacturers towards combating car crime. My officials will be discussing with the association tomorrow ways in which it can help with Home Office initiatives against car crime.

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the Home Office is also producing a car theft index, which will show which makes and models of cars are particularly prone to theft. We hope that the index will inform manufacturers and car owners about which cars are particularly attractive to the car thief——

Mr. Janner

And potential car buyers.

Mr. Lloyd

Very much so—particularly the car buyer. We also hope that the index will help with the targeting of security measures. We are consulting motor manufacturers and others about the index.

Car crime is, of course, also of the greatest interest to the insurance industry. The Association of British Insurers estimated recently that insurance industry payments for losses on car crime will total £400 million by the end of this year. I know that insurers are anxious to help to reduce the number of car crime offences. I am pleased that the Association of British Insurers plans to revise its vehicle insurance group rating system, which will in the future take account of a car's security features. I am sure that that will help to alert car manufacturers and car buyers to the benefits of good car security.

Finally, I should mention another innovation in the prevention of car crime which is to be welcomed. It is the development of vehicle watch schemes. In the schemes, which are run by police forces, car owners register with the police that their car is not normally used between certain hours, and they are provided with stickers to be fixed to the front and rear windows. If a car bearing the stickers is observed by the police being driven outside the prohibited period, it is liable to be stopped. A recent survey by the Home Office crime prevention centre found that 13 vehicle watch schemes are now in operation, and that a further 10 are proposed.

As the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West is aware, the Leicestershire constabulary is to launch its vehicle watch scheme on 26 November. I am sure that it will have his support. It is an imaginative initiative, and we look forward to hearing of the development of the schemes.

I hope that what I have said will help to assure the hon. and learned Gentleman, and indeed the whole House, that the Government regard car crime as a very serious problem and that practical and co-ordinated steps are being taken to reduce it. I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his justified concern on the issue and for giving me the chance of outlining what is being done. It is far more than he was prepared to acknowledge in his opening speech, and I hope that, on reflection, he will recognise that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.