HC Deb 05 December 1991 vol 200 cc382-4
4. Mr. Battle

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has received about his proposal to introduce a Bill to address problems of youngsters under 17 years stealing cars.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

My right hon. Friend introduced a Bill last week to strengthen the law against those who criminally take other people's vehicles. We had numerous written and oral representations from hon. and right hon. Members and from members of the public. I am happy to report that they were all in support of an early change in the law.

Mr. Battle

I welcome the Bill, but will the Minister take seriously the views of the chief constable of West Yorkshire, whose recent report on vehicle theft—which has reached 85 per cent. in Leeds and 53 per cent. in West Yorkshire—stresses the need for preventive measures to identify potential offenders at an early stage, rather than wait for tragedies to occur? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of those measures could be a Government publicity campaign to warn youngsters that car stealing is as dangerous as alcohol or drug abuse?

Mr. Patten

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of more Government publicity campaigns and I shall listen to his advice on that. I have not read the report of the chief constable of West Yorkshire, but I shall do so. Yesterday I was in Salford in the metropolitan police area and I went to a crime prevention scheme that endeavours to divert youngsters from continuing with or getting into car crime. It is an excellent scheme and such schemes should be developed more generally.

Mr. Lawrence

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if more people locked their cars fewer 17-year-olds would get into them? If car manufacturers treated alarm systems as standard, there would be even fewer. Will the Government look into a way to encourage car manufacturers to install alarm systems as standard equipment?

Mr. Patten

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I shall see British car manufacturers again in the near future to urge them speedily to incorporate immobilisation devices into cars. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is doing all that he can within Europe to achieve the speedy adoption of a Europewide directive, on which Great Britain has been in the lead, to get our Western European car manufacturing colleagues to do exactly the same.

Mr. Trimble

I welcome the Government's moves in that matter. Does the Minister agree that, although the problem in English cities is bad—I do not wish to underplay the tragedies that have occurred there—the problem in Northern Ireland, especially in West Belfast, is much worse? Many more tragic and fatal accidents have occurred there. Should not the Government act with similar urgency to remedy that situation?

Mr. Patten

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is considering whether to change the law in Northern Ireland to meet the ends to which the hon. Gentleman referred. While noting that what the hon. Gentleman says about west Belfast is right, we should also note that, setting terrorism aside, Northern Ireland is the most law-abiding part of the United Kingdom. Long may it remain so.

Sir Michael Neubert

If my right hon. Friend is looking for ways to cut down car crime, will he have a word with the producers of "Inspector Morse". That police officer habitually, at the end of each episode, parks his red Jaguar unlocked and then strolls off—not into the sunset but into the nearest pub. What sort of an example is that?

Mr. Patten

I am happy to inform my hon. Friend that that excellent series is filmed in my constituency. However, Inspector Morse's behaviour in not locking his car and in drinking heavily before driving is utterly disgraceful.

Miss Lestor

I agree with what the Minister said. May I add that the promotion of fast cars and reckless driving by the media is not good for the youngsters attracted by such aspects? I refer the Minister to his reference earlier to a scheme in Salford, where my constituency is. Surveys have shown that of 4,500 youngsters on diversion schemes to stop them stealing cars, only about 100 have reoffended. Bearing in mind their success, does the Minister support such schemes, as many of us do, and will resources be forthcoming to finance them and make them viable?

Mr. Patten

On the hon. Lady's first point. it is disappointing that car manufacturers advertise maximum speeds and acceleration more than security devices. In a period when car crime is a problem, I hope that manufacturers will begin to advertise cars using better security as a selling point.

On the hon. Lady's second point, yes, I entirely support such schemes. They are an important part of our twin-track approach so that we not only come down hard on offenders who commit the crime of taking vehicles, but we do all we can to prevent youngsters from offending. More resources will be made available through the safer cities scheme, which is funded by the Home Office.

Mr. Marlow

Can we use a bit of common sense on this vexed problem? Is it not true that giving 17-year-olds fines does not work and sending them to prison is counterproductive? Could we arrange for such offenders to have a sound thrashing? Will my right hon. Friend do something about it?—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has every right to express his views.

Mr. Patten

As you know, Mr. Speaker, I often turn to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) for common sense advice. However, I deplore the way in which he is becoming increasingly moderate. This week he urges a sound thrashing; last month he recommended immediate castration.