§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During my 20 years of practice in the law, there has been a great deal of vehicle taking, in precisely the kind of circumstances that led to the promulgation of the Bill by the Government. The courts have had powers over the years to deal with those offences. I wonder whether you could define the circumstances in which it is appropriate for the Government to introduce a law reform Bill and seek to push it through all its procedures in a day without it going to a Standing Committee to be considered carefully as to its detail, when it happens that there is no particular circumstance of urgency and when the reform concerned could lead to considerable difficulties for the courts if the measure is not fully considered?
§ Mr. Speaker
It is within the knowledge of the House that Bills have gone through all their stages in one day. The House itself will take a decision on the matter later this evening when the Question will be put whether the Bill should or should not be considered in Committee of the whole House.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), presumably the Government's contention is that, either because of prevalence or because of some emergency, it is necessary today, without the normal consultation, to go through every stage of the Bill. If there is such an emergency, why is it that there is no analogous Bill for Scotland? Is it the Government's contention that such an emergency, if there be an emergency, is relevant only in England and Wales? What are the intentions, therefore, in respect of Scotland?
§ Mr. Speaker
Of course, this Bill will go through all its stages in the normal way. The unusual feature is that that may happen in one day. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the Question will be put from the Chair at the appropriate moment, That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House. The House will then decide to agree—or to disagree.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said earlier that other Bills have gone through all their stages in one day. That is true of some uncontroversial matters, but recently there have been several Bills of this kind, such as the one after the Hungerford massacre—that was rushed through the House and not dealt with properly—the council tax Bill —that was rushed through the House and is a mess—and the Dangerous Dogs Bill that was also rushed through all its stages. Yes, you are right, there are precedents, but most of them have ended in tears.
§ 4.7 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has two simple aims. The first is to make sure that everyone who gets involved in the taking of someone else's vehicle is made criminally liable for the consequences. The second is to give the courts power to sentence the serious cases in the way that they deserve.
Car crime, I think it is generally agreed, is a curse on our society. Let me give just a few facts and figures. In the 12 months to June 1991, over 550,000 cars were stolen. There were over 800,000 thefts from vehicles. About 30 per cent. of all recorded crime is car crime, and car crime is rising rapidly. It accounted for more than a third of the overall increase in recorded crime this year.
It is a curse that affects us all. Many hundreds of thousands of members of the public have had their cars stolen, or their cars broken into and their possessions taken. We have seen recently how car crime can destroy the peace of mind of whole communities in Oxford and in Newcastle.
We are taking action on a number of fronts to tackle this problem. Over the last year, I have held a series of meetings with the major motor manufacturers to see what action they can take in the battle against car crime. Many manufacturers have made great improvements in the security of their vehicles. I welcome that, but there is much more that can be done. When I last met them in September, I asked them to consider urgently three specific point: first, the introduction of visible vehicle identification numbers; secondly, the fitting of deadlocking across all their vehicle ranges; and, most important, the development of an effective vehicle immobilising device that would make it impossible to move a car even if it had been broken into.
I am meeting the manufacturers again this Wednesday, and I shall ask what progress they have made. I think that all hon. Members have been sent a circular about the Bill by the Consumers Association. It says that it has been urging motor manufacturers to make cars more secure since 1961. I applaud what it and Which? have done.
The Government have an important role in improving vehicle security. We want to see the British standard on vehicle security adopted as a compulsory European Community directive. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have raised this with our European colleagues. The standard covers locking systems, glass marking, security of in-car entertainment and deadlocking. We are working hard in the EC to get all member states to accept those requirements.
The insurance industry is also very concerned about rising car crime. When I met the Association of British Insurers about six months ago, it was reluctant to take a collective view, but when I met it about two months ago, its views had changed considerably, because the claims paid by insurers rose by 46 per cent. to £225 million in the first half of the year—a substantial sum. That is equal to the value of the claims in the whole of 1989.
Since that meeting, I am glad that the industry has announced its plan to double the number of insurance ratings, for the first time taking account of factory-fitted security measures in assessing insurance grouping. I have 622 asked the ABI to consider whether there is scope for offering discounts to car owners who fit effective security devices after initial sale.
There is much that the Government, the car industry, the insurance industry and others are doing to prevent car crime, but tackling the roots of car crime means, in part, tackling the roots of criminality. We must consider what leads young men—it is predominantly young men—to see crime as a better outlet for their abilities and energies than lawful activity. What causes young people to fall into crime? This year, I have been having a series of informal discussions with Church leaders, the voluntary sector, leading members of the police, probation and prison services, magistrates and others to consider what we can do to get at the roots of criminality. I intend to set out our proposals in the new year.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
Has my right hon. Friend seen the view of the chief constable of west Yorkshire, Mr. Peter Nobes, that the upsurge in the taking of motor vehicles has probably occurred since the change in the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which reduced the unauthorised taking of a motor vehicle to a summary offence triable only at a magistrates court? He believes that the deterrent effect, which no longer seems to exist for young people, should be reinstated. Is my right hon. Friend willing to consider that further?
§ Mr. Baker
My hon. Friend should bear in mind the fact that, before 1988, only 3 per cent. of sentences were longer than six months. That effectively answers my hon. Friend. That is why I believe that the Bill is necessary.
The Bill is one of a wide range of urgent measures that we are taking to stop the plague of car crime getting out of hand.
§ Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
I am glad that the Home Secretary recognises that we must tackle the whole question of crime to get a grip of the dreadful problem of stealing vehicles, which has affected my area of Newcastle. Is the right hon. Gentleman frustrated by the edicts of the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose rate-capping proposals have reduced Newcastle city council's ability to tackle the core of the problem? Many youth clubs in Elswick, Benwell and Lemington have had to close because of that lack of funding.
§ Mr. Baker
Deprived urban areas have had one of the largest increases in expenditure since we took office. From memory, I believe that the figure was about £100 million when we took office but about £900 million or £1 billion this year. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this year I secured not only a good standard spending assessment for the police but an urban crime fund for the Northumbrian police of £3.66 million. That shows our commitment to dealing with those very problems.
The Bill is not the whole answer to car crime, nor does it pretend to be, but it is an important, new and urgently needed part of the legislative answer. It is difficult enough to identify anyone who was in a vehicle. It is much more difficult to establish precisely when damage occurred, who was responsible and what they intended at the time.
What is new about the Bill is that, where a vehicle is taken and damage or injury are caused, all those involved in the taking, including the passengers, will be equally 623 liable to the more severe punishment for the aggravating events. All the criminals involved in taking the vehicle will be held responsible for what followed the original taking.
Of course, not all cases of vehicle taking are so serious: our whole approach to sentencing—brought to fruition in last Session's Criminal Justice Act—is to have a range of custodial and exacting community penalties graduated to fit the seriousness of the offence. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has raised that matter with me on other occasions.
For example, my Department funds various motor projects which have played an increasing role, and there are some excellent examples which focus on demanding programmes to get motor offenders to change to adopt responsible attitudes and behaviour. I believe that, organised properly, those can be effective. My Department is providing £200,000 this financial year to motor projects dealing with young offenders, thereby keeping them out of custody. That includes more than £150,000 to projects supervising offenders through the young adult offenders grant scheme. That fund is set to increase by a further £1 million next year, and I certainly expect motor projects to figure significantly within that increased expenditure.
What we are talking about today is the need to ensure that bad cases do not elude tough penalties, because the present law puts burdens on the police and prosecution which they can have difficulty in discharging.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman said something a little earlier that was factually inaccurate. He has implied that all those who are involved in taking a vehicle are not already committing an offence, but they are. Everyone who is involved in taking a vehicle is implicitly committing an offence. The right hon. Gentleman has implied that those who travel in such a vehicle are not already committing an offence, but they are. There is the offence of being carried.
If the right hon. Gentleman took the measure which has been suggested of restoring indictability to the offence of taking and driving away, would not the courts be left with a wide range of penalties? Would not the courts therefore be able to take into account the facts of offences without going through the restrictive provisions in this ill-considered new Bill? Every item in clause 1(2) imposes a restriction on the courts. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that he is setting an obstacle course for the courts which will make it more difficult for them to pass tough sentences in serious cases?
§ Mr. Baker
Let me reply to one point at a time.
I knew perfectly well what I was saying with regard to the Theft Act 1968. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) is right—when a person is charged with taking and driving away, there is a collective responsibility on all those in the car. We are extending that provision to the aggravated events that follow the taking away. The hon. and learned Gentleman can rightly say, "Leave the present offence and just increase the penalties," but it would be difficult, in respect of the offence of taking and driving away, to prove culpability for the aggravated offence and the damage that followed. That is the point of the Bill, and I shall justify it in a moment.
§ Mr. Anderson
I wish to follow the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile).
624 If the Government were serious about this matter, would they not remove some of the obstacles that now stand in the way of successful prosecutions under section 12 of the Theft Act? Under that section, the prosecution has to prove mens rea in respect of "knowing", whereas, under section 22, the handling provision, it has to prove a case in respect of "knowing or believing". By importing into section 12 "knowing or believing" for the purposes of means rea, could not the Government give an extra tool to the prosecution to deal with this prevalent offence?
§ Mr. Baker
We believe that the right way to deal with that offence is to build on the offence under the Theft Act 1968—the taking and driving away—and add to it the aggravated offence covered in clause 1. Clearly. the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) take an entirely different view which I do not believe would be an effective way in which to deal with the problem. My view is shared by all the chief constables to whom I have spoken.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
Will the Bill deal with the problem of people reoffending while on bail'? Chief Superintendent Riding of Bolton said that one youth has been arrested 30 times so far this year for taking vehicles.
§ Mr. Baker
That is a separate matter. I shall publish—shortly after Christmas, I suspect—the results of our survey of research on reoffending while on bail, and I shall introduce proposals. However, the Bill does not deal with that point.
I resume my explanation of the Bill, and this goes to the very heart of the issues raised by the two hon. Gentlemen. Let us consider the problems that there may be in proving the more serious offence of criminal damage. Let us suppose that the vehicle is found abandoned in a wood, seriously damaged or completely burnt out. Perhaps one of those involved in the taking—perhaps the original taker—is caught. His fingerprints are all over the car. He admits that he took the vehicle, but says that it was already damaged when he got in or that it was not damaged when he left the scene and that it must have been damaged by someone who took it later.
Perhaps the vehicle was seen colliding with another as it swerved around a corner. The witness says that he cannot be sure—at that speed, everything was blurred or it was dark—that the person being questioned by the police was behind the wheel or even in the vehicle. The accused says that it was not him, or perhaps he says nothing at all. In that case, there is a great deal of uncertainty.
What is certain—what is well beyond all reasonable doubt—is that none of the damage would have occurred had the vehicle not been taken in the first place. It is that certainty which drives the Bill.
The facts are that at least 40 per cent. of cars which are criminally taken are damaged when the owner gets them back. Home Office statistics show, however, that criminal damage is charged in only 6 per cent. of cases. So, whatever the serious damage, in the remaining cases it goes 625 unpunished by the criminal law. I believe that that is completely unacceptable. People who get involved in such activities need to know that they will be liable for the consequences—the aggravated offence, and not merely the taking away.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
My question arises out of genuine curiosity. Will the circumstances outlined by the Secretary of State also pertain in Scotland? I should be interested to know why Scotland is not included in the legislation. Whether or not this is the right solution, it seems odd that it does not apply to one part of the United Kingdom. Many people in Scotland—including, for example, the Scottish Campaign Against Irresponsible Driving—are deeply upset about the present level of sentencing in exactly the circumstances which have been outlined.
§ Mr. Baker
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the Bill applies only to England and Wales. I have discussed the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and he believes that there is no need to extend the Bill to Scotland, as there is different legislation for this, as for many other Scottish matters.
It is not for me—as a member of the Executive—to comment on the level of sentencing. As Home Secretary, I do not comment on the length of sentences. I have personal views, but I keep them to myself in such matters.
I remind the House of the basic statistics. At least 40 per cent. of the cars which are criminally taken are damaged when the owner gets them back, but criminal damage is charged in only 6 per cent. of cases. That is the problem which the Bill seeks to solve.
I deal now with dangerous driving and the injuries that it causes. Under the law at present, conviction for reckless driving or for causing death by reckless driving needs proof of who was driving at the material time and what was his state of mind. It will be easier to convict under the Road Traffic Act 1991, but it will still be necessary to identify the driver. That is perhaps not so difficult when the vehicle is registered in his name, but it is a different story when he is one of a number of possible drivers, all certainly involved but none of them owning up to it.
The criminal law demands certainty—and rightly so —before a person is found guilty of having committed a specific criminal act. However, is it relevant to know precisely which of a group of people who are already guilty of knowingly taking or travelling in that vehicle—the point on which we agreed a moment ago—had his foot on the pedal at that moment? The mischief would not have happened had the vehicle not been taken in the first place. Who is to say which of the takers or passengers is sufficiently personally culpable to get extra punishment? The Bill answers that question: they all are.
Over the past few months we have witnessed a succession of very nasty cases of aggravated vehicle taking. In some cases, the law has been able to punish the basic taking itself. It has also, on occasion, been able to provide more serious charges against some of the offenders involved—in some cases it has been possible to charge for manslaughter. Thanks to the efforts of the police, the Crown prosecution service and the courts, it has, on occasion, managed to bring serious charges in some really 626 bad cases, but it has not, and cannot, treat the total mischief with the certainty and severity which it deserves. The Bill will enable it to do so.
Clause 1, which is the heart of the Bill, defines the new offence and sets out what needs to be proved, and what does not need to be proved, before someone can be convicted under it. It is important to recognise at the outset that the Bill does not create a stand-alone criminal offence. Its penalties apply only to those who took the vehicle or got criminally involved with it before it was recovered. The standard of proof for the basic taking of the vehicle remains unchanged.
Under clause 1, it must also be proved beyond doubt that at least one of the four specified aggravating events occurred after the vehicle was first taken and before it was recovered. I emphasise to the House that those "aggravating events" are the four events listed at the bottom of page 1 of the Bill:
- "(a) that the vehicle was driven dangerously on a road or other public place;
- "(b) that, owing to the driving of the vehicle, an accident occurred by which injury was caused to any person;
- "(c) that, owing to the driving of the vehicle, an accident occurred by which damage was caused to any property, other than the vehicle;
- "(d) that damage was caused to the vehicle itself."
The Bill will not convict anybody of the crime of criminal damage, or the crime of reckless or dangerous driving, or any crime against the person. It is simply recognising an aggravated form of an existing Theft Act 1968 offence, where a vehicle is taken without the owner's consent, and damage, danger or injury follow which would not have happened if the vehicle had not been taken in the first place.
The House will also understand that clause 1 does not reverse the normal onus of proving who committed an offence. It does not do so because, under the Bill, who may or may not have committed a separate criminal offence is not relevant. The Bill does not want any legal argument about the precise state of mind of those involved. It does not want to know whose foot was on the pedal, whose hand on the wheel or handbrake, or who might have said what to whom. The Bill is looking at the total aggravating consequences of the whole joyriding event, and it states that everyone guilty of taking, or travelling in the car should be liable for more serious punishment.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
The offence differs from the existing regime, in that there is to be a new maximum penalty of five years. Where the offender is under 18—a juvenile—he is presumably still caught by the ceiling of the maximum of two years for all juveniles. In the north of England, which can readily claim to be the taking-and-driving-away capital of Europe, about 90 per cent. of offences are committed by juveniles. How will the Bill improve the way that they are treated?
§ Mr. Baker
At present, 15 and 16-year-olds may receive a sentence of only one year's custody unless they are guilty of an offence likely to carry a penalty of more than 14 years —usually rape, domestic burglary, murder, arson and such offences. That will not change. To answer my hon. Friend's question directly, at present, the maximum penalty for the existing offence is six months, but very few offenders actually receive six months: instead, they receive about two or three months. Due to the custody rule of one year, the period for 15 and 16-year-olds can rise to one year.
627 I know what lies behind the anxieties of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery—that the onus of proving who committed an offence should not be reversed. I daresay that that will be debated not only on Second Reading but in Committee later today. The only excuses to which the Bill will listen will be the two set out in subsection (3) of new clause 12A: that the relevant aggravating offence—the damage to the car or other property or injury to people—occurred before the person committed his basic taking offence, or that he was nowhere near the vehicle at the time.
Those defences depart from the liability principle at the heart of the Bill only to this limited extent. When the accused can show that the damage occurred before he got involved or after he had abandoned the car—perhaps two days later—the Bill lifts his liability. The accused has to be able to show that to the court. In common with other statutory defences of this kind, it is for the defence to show on the balance of probabilities that they apply.
A person convicted under clause 1 could face an unlimited fine and up to five years' imprisonment for the worst cases. Clause 3 also provides for obligatory disqualification in magistrates courts and the Crown court, and for obligatory endorsement and penalty points when, for some exceptional reason, the first penalty is not applied.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
What evidence does the Home Office have that these young people will be deterred by large increases in fines? Many of them are unable to pay fines of this sort in any case, so how do they constitute a deterrent?
§ Mr. Baker
Many young people will be deterred from joyriding by this Bill. First, not only the person doing the driving away will be liable to the penalties under the Bill: all the other people in the car will be. That is an extension of the existing offence of taking and driving away. Such people will also be liable to be charged with the aggravating offence. That will have some effect on people piling into a car to go off joyriding.
There is also a possibility of an unlimited fine. My hon. Friend will know that under other legislation passed by the House, parents can be held liable for such fines. That too is a deterrent. We are building into the offence a series of deterrents, including disqualification. We are trying to prevent these young hooligans and criminals from grabbing cars and creating mayhem thereafter.
I remind the House that clause 2 provides that the new offence is to be tried summarily if the only aggravating event was damage and the total value of that damage was below the threshold set in the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 —£2,000—for criminal damage. The offence can be tried either in a magistrates court or a Crown court.
This Bill has been described as tough on joyriders. It is, and I make no apologies for that. It is tough because this so-called joyriding is tough—tough on victims, tough on property, tough on whole communities whose daily life and business have been ruined by hooligans on wheels. The Bill will enable the law to recognise the full consequences of what is involved. It will send the clearest possible message to the people who get involved that society will not tolerate such behaviour.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
No one can or should doubt the seriousness of the problem to which the Bill relates. Car crime is now endemic in Great Britain, and the disease has reached epidemic proportions. The Home Secretary talked of attempting to prevent the plague of car crime from getting out of hand, but it is out of hand already. Last year, there were almost 500,000 recorded offences of theft or unauthorised taking of motor vehicles—an increase of 25 per cent. on the previous year's figure. Many of those offences were due to young men —it is a peculiarly male crime—taking cars, not to sell them for profit, but to drive them illegally in a fashion mortally dangerous to themselves and to others.
The question that we must decide today is whether the Bill will achieve a material reduction in the number of such offences. I have no doubt that, from time to time, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) will pop up in the House or on television to tell us that it will indeed have exactly the prescribed effect. In the spirit of Christmas, I must say that I have no doubt at all that. if the Government announced their intention to slaughter the holy innocents on 28 December, the hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friend would pop up again to congratulate the Home Secretary on his perception, sagacity, compassion and commitment to the public good. Other more objective observers have concluded that the Bill will have little or no effect.
The majority of known car crime offenders are teenage boys: 34 per cent. of offenders are aged between 15 and 16 and 39 per cent. between 17 and 20. The need to prevent young men from behaving in a way that is often lethal to themselves and to others, and at the very best causes inconvenience and distress, is not in doubt: the question is whether the Bill will have that effect. Its purpose is the creation of deterrents so severe that young men will think twice before embarking on theft and reckless driving. Unfortunately, the group whom the Bill targets are uniquely unlikely to be deterred even by the threat of a most extreme punishment.
Deterrents act only on rational men and women who consider and calculate the consequences of their actions. The car thief who takes a car to drive with reckless disregard for his own life and the lives of others does not make a careful calculation of what will happen when he is caught. In any event, those who take cars can already be imprisoned for up to six months for the simple act of taking and driving away. If reckless driving—it is now called dangerous driving—is involved, sentences of up to two years' imprisonment are possible. A young man who causes death by dangerous driving can be sentenced to five years' imprisonment and could be convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned for life. It is difficult to follow the argument that the penalties in the Bill will provide a deterrent which is not available at present. That point was made in an intervention by the hon. and learned member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile).
I wish to ask the Minister of State a specific question which I asked his right hon. Friend the Minister of State., Home Office, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) during her wind-up speech in the prison security debate. Why do the Government think that, by passing an Act which does little more than duplicate sentences already on the statute book, they will 629 achieve a reduction in crime? The only possible reason is the hope that the publicity involved in passing a new Act of Parliament will in itself have some effect. I have my doubts. I do not believe that potential criminals of this type read Hansard or, for that matter, newspaper reports of Parliament with the assiduity that we would all wish. In any case, I am opposed to the idea of legislation as a form of public relations. That can only lead to bad law.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for giving me the opportunity to answer his question, which I shall do in two ways. First, the right hon. Gentleman asked why we need this change in the law. He echoed the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlisle). It is because of the evidential difficulties of bringing a successful prosecution, under all the different statutory provisions to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, when so-called joyriding takes place. Secondly, we can argue until the proverbial cows come home about whether deterrents work in this or that circumstance, but deterrence is very important, as also is punishment and keeping offenders off the streets.
§ Mr. Hattersley
Perhaps the Minister of State did not altogether follow my point. Rightly or wrongly—I believe it to be right—my point is that punishment, by which the Minister sets great store, is already available. The Bill is mere duplication. As to the arguments about evidence, the Minister must know that we are concerned only with the very small proportion of young men who commit this particular offence. On some occasions evidence may be more easily obtained and more readily lead to a conviction, but we are very dubious about the procedures that the Bill sets down for obtaining evidence and obtaining conviction.
I should like to echo another point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. I agree that there are the greatest dangers in completing all the stages of the Bill in a single day—as is the Government's intention and as, no doubt, will be the outcome of today's deliberations—but it seems particularly foolish to rush through the Bill in this way when penalties and punishments are already available to deal with the offence that we are debating. We may, of course, argue about how adequately those penalties and punishments deal with it—
§ Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)
If the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with the Government's approach, does he, on behalf of his party, have any specific proposals for dealing with the problem, especially in relation to 15 and 16-year-olds?
§ Mr. Hattersley
Of course I do. I listed them briefly in our debate on the Gracious Speech and have advocated them on many other occasions. If the hon. Gentleman can bear to remain with us until the end of my speech, he will hear exactly what they are.
§ Mr. Devlin
I was interested in the right hon. Gentleman's reply, because his proposals have not come to fruition in the amendments. Nothing on the amendment paper would beef up the law in terms of the aggravated offence.
§ Mr. Hattersley
When the hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House for a little longer—representing another seat after the general election—he will come to understand that one can amend a Bill only according to what is in it. One cannot deal with its inadequacies in terms of its total omissions. If he, too, will bear with me until the end of my speech, he will hear me list some of those total omissions.
The truth about the Bill is that it is a return to the formula that has characterised the Home Secretary's behaviour throughout the year. A real problem is identified, such as dangerous dogs, prison mutiny and, now, reckless driving. The right hon. Gentleman said several times that this problem had come to light "over the last few months". Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman's epitaph will be "over the last few months" or "over the last few weeks" or "over the last few days", because he lives according to a very short time scale.
The right hon. Gentleman discovered the problem through reading the headlines, and decided to take action on it. There was then much vacillation about what, if any, response was possible and about what that response should be. In the case of dangerous dogs, the Home Secretary said that nothing could be done; then he promised wholesale slaughter; and then he left us with an inefficient and ineffective compromise.
Today is the culmination of a process which began with the promise to the Tory party conference of "robust action". As we now know, that was said before the legislation was prepared. The process continued with the omission of the Bill from the Queen's Speech, because at that time there was no certainty that the legislation could be prepared. The process now ends with a proposal which is probably ineffective and which does nothing whatever to deal with the generality of car thefts.
We are again left with the conclusion that the Home Secretary's principal intention is to make headlines rather than to find solutions. It is reminiscent of the great spring offensive against crime, which was based on a massive advertising campaign and encountered the signal problem that neither the thieves nor the burglars seemed to read the advertisements.
§ Mr. Anderson
Can my right hon. Friend speculate on the Home Secretary's motive for truncating all stages into one day? Is the Home Secretary saying that allowing the Bill to go to a Special Standing Committee, which might have the benefit of advice from outside legal opinion which might improve the Bill, would have no potential benefit for the quality of the legislation? What is the emergency which demands that the Bill's passage must be completed before Christmas?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The only possible conclusion is that rushing the Bill through the House in one day adds to the air of urgency. I have sworn to do two things never in any circumstances. The first is to try to read the Home Secretary's mind and the second is to call for his resignation.
§ Mr. Baker
I must continue to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman on both counts. If he wants to read my mind, he should read what I say.
It is clear from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said that he is opposed to the general thrust of the Bill. If he is so opposed, why do we have an agreement, through the usual channels, to take the Bill through in one day? The 631 right hon. Gentleman must have been party to that. He must have been asked about it and approved it. If he is really opposed to the thrust of the Bill—which I assure him, if he is about to criticise whether the law will be tougher, marks a considerable toughening of the law and is much tougher than the right hon. Gentleman could produce—he should vote against the Bill tonight so that the whole country can see how he wants to water the law down and how lame his proposals are.
§ Mr. Hattersley
When provoked, the right hon. Gentleman always changes from a second-class Home Secretary to a third-class party chairman—[Interruption.] We shall certainly not oppose the Bill but we shall, of course, vote for the amendments that are necessary to improve it. If the Home Secretary, like some of his Back Benchers, will contain himself with patience for a little longer, I shall describe some of our improvements to the whole area of policy which the right hon. Gentleman touched on but did not deal with in sufficient detail.
§ Mr. Shersby
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need for urgency and asked why the Bill was being rushed through the House. That is a perfectly fair question, but does he agree that the tragic deaths of several people, as recently as the day on which the Queen's Speech was being read in the other place, must place on all hon. Members a degree of urgency to deal with this terrible problem?
§ Mr. Hattersley
Of course I agree with that in principle, but it begs the question whether the Bill will prevent the tragic occurrences to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We rushed through the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, but a young boy was killed by dogs a fortnight ago. The idea that passing the Bill will automatically prevent such things is a mistake—
§ Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)
How do we know when the right hon. Gentleman is at the end of his paragraph?
§ Mr. Hattersley
I shall give way to the Whip if he would like to intervene.
I was in the process of commending the Home Secretary for the Government's one positive initiative. I refer to the attempt to persuade British motor manufacturers to produce more secure cars. However, after three years of attempted persuasion, beginning with a meeting in Downing street in 1988, the initiative has not yet succeeded. I was delighted to see a television commercial last night which commended a car that was unlikely to be stolen. In the age of European car production, there are difficulties in persuading manufacturers to incorporate security features the necessity for which is limited to 632 Britain. The French, Germans and Italians do not suffer from the disease to the same extent. That, I suppose, is why it is necessary to obtain common European standards—
§ Mr. Hattersley
In one moment. I will let the Home Secretary know when I have finished.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on initiating and pursuing the idea of a common European safety standard—
§ Mr. Hattersley
As this is the first day of the Maastricht summit, I cannot resist asking the Home Secretary why he believes that car locks are a suitable subject for Community competence when unfair dismissal procedures and minimum working conditions are not. By any standard, car locks and safety devices are intruding into what the Foreign Secretary calls the "nooks and crannies" of our normal life. I am in favour of that, but I thought that the Government were not.
§ Mr. Baker
A paragraph from the right hon. Gentleman borders upon eternity, but before he started that long, long paragraph, he made a careless, damaging and harmful comment about a tragic accident which took place a few weeks ago when a young boy was killed in his own garden, alas, by three dogs. It is typical of how the right hon. Gentleman argues in his ill-informed way, grabbing at a few facts, imperfectly understood, that he should try to say that the Dangerous Dogs Act was imperfect because it allowed that tragic accident to occur. It had no effect on that tragic accident because, as the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, to do away with the possibility of such accidents, one would have to forbid the ownership of all dogs in almost all circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman should try not to make such cheap points, but I am afraid that that is typical of the way in which he seeks, time and again, to argue his case.
§ Mr. Hattersley
The Home Secretary simply makes the point that I made, at rather less length. The fact that we pass legislation to prevent tragedies of one sort or another does not mean that those tragedies will be avoided, although I trust and hope that that will be so. The contention of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), with which I entirely agree, is that the House has a special duty to move swiftly when it is sure that to do so will avoid a national ill, but I am not prepared to accept the assumption underlying his contention that by passing the Bill we shall solve the problem.
I welcome the one positive initiative that the Home Secretary has taken, to which he referred during his speech —the attempt to make British cars more secure—but that positive action should have been reinforced by a swathe of other positive proposals. Chief among them should have been a co-ordinated attempt to deflect young men at the first opportunity from a practice which turns into an obsession. The problem with such young men is the numbers in which they commit their crime.
633 The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was intended to overcome the difficulty of Crown courts being inundated with young men who had taken cars and been apprehended before they had done any damage to themselves or anyone else. That Act amended section 12 of the Theft Act 1968, which virtually created the offence of taking and driving away. The offence carried a maximum penalty on summary conviction of six months' imprisonment and a £2,000 fine.
Although the offence was intended to be a low-grade offence with a low-grade punishment, police authorities throughout the country complained of difficulties of getting prosecutions into court. The Crown prosecution service often insists that the cost of prosecution, which is estimated at £190 per hour, is not justified, and proposes a caution instead of prosecution. That is especially the case when the crime is committed by juveniles.
I have no doubt that action should be taken to prevent young men—some of whom, as the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) said, have been cautioned up to a dozen times—from developing an ingrained course of conduct. We know how that can be achieved. The Home Office working group which reported as long ago as 1988 showed that of 4,500 youngsters who, having been held responsible for motoring offences, attended special motor projects, only 100 committed car-related offences in the weeks and months that immediately followed.
There are examples from throughout Britain of the success of such schemes. One notable example is in south London, where, according to the probation officers who run the scheme, the reoffending rate is 9 per cent., compared with 80 per cent. in adjacent areas. There is no doubt that widespread development of such schemes would cut the number of car thefts.
However, the schemes that I have described suffer from one disadvantage. They seem to the unthinking to provide pleasure rather than punishment. I take a wholly pragmatic view. If schemes result in a reduction in car crime, I am in favour of them. That seems to be the sensible approach, and one which the sufferers from this epidemic would welcome.
I admit that many young men who are required to attend such schemes might have to go through the courts to obtain a probation order, but that would be a price well worth paying for an extension of sentencing in the community where it is a proven success. That is why the Opposition regret that, alongside the proposals that the Home Secretary has made today, he has not already instituted a massive programme of the nature which his own research demonstrates to be the most effective way of tackling car theft.
Such a programme would have tackled the causes of the crime and prevented thousands of young men from developing an obsession which can lead to destruction of property, injury and even death. It would not have sounded spectacular, as the Bill does, and it would not have appealed to the people who believe that the only response to crime is more severe punishment, but it would have been effective. As the only virtue of such schemes is practicality, however, they do not appeal to the Home Secretary.
I ask the Home Secretary specifically what is happening to the proposed scheme in Oxford, where the Blackbird 634 Leys incident last summer caused so much damage and distress. I understand that the police and the probation service are anxious to develop motor projects and are waiting for Home Office approval and the promise of a Home Office grant.
There is one immensely important objection to the Bill as it is currently drafted. I shall deal with it briefly, not to minimise the strength of our objection, but because it is the subject of the first group of amendments with which we hope to deal in the Committee stage. In effect, the Bill creates two levels of car crime. The basic act of stealing a car is defined in section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968. Clause 1(2) stipulates the ways in which offences can be aggravated, or made more serious, and attract additional penalties.
I understand—and, within the limited value of the Bill, accept—the advantages of warning a young man who steals a car that if, by his reckless behaviour, a pedestrian is killed or injured or damage is done to property, he will be subject to more severe penalties. Within the limitations of the Bill, I understand the purpose and advantage of that proposal, although it is worth repeating that the young man is probably already liable to penalties of similar severity even before the Bill is passed.
Surely it cannot be right that the man who commits the basic offence—and is liable to prosecution under the 1968 Act—may become liable under the Bill, even though his actions, or those which he is accused of taking, are not actions which he takes knowingly or wilfully or which are likely to exaggerate the offence in the way the Bill stipulates. That is in defiance of the principle of English law which requires the prosecution to demonstrate the wilful commission of an unlawful act. [Interruption.] As I see some scepticism on the Treasury Bench, I shall give an example of what I mean, which I hope will demonstrate the unacceptable point.
A young man steals a car and is indictable under the original Act. Let us assume that the young man loses his nerve, or retains his senses, and pulls up in a lay-by with the intention of leaving the car and walking home. If he succeeds in that endeavour and leaves the car and walks home, he can still rightfully be prosecuted under the Theft Act 1968. Clearly, no one would object to that. But if he climbs out of the car to walk home and another driver, legally in charge of his vehicle, swerves off the road and hits the stolen stationary car, the man who stole the car is guilty of the aggravated offence and liable to the additional penalties.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I hear the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) say that that is right. How can it be right to say that someone is guilty of an offence if he gets out of the car and walks away, but guilty of a worse offence if he gets out of the car and walks away and someone hits the car?
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem goes a stage further? Courts will not sentence people for those things which they have not done. Whenever a case comes before a court, there will be a prosecution version and a defence version of the facts. The label given to the offence is often misleading, because if the defence disputes the prosecution's version of the facts—even if there is a guilty plea—there will be what is called a 635 Newton hearing to determine exactly what the defendant did. Therefore, if the facts are as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, the young man will receive the sentence that he would have had for the lesser offence in any event. So the distinction is wholly artificial.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I think that we are about to hear why the courts will sentence a man for something that he has not done, did not wish to do and, indeed, attempted not to do.
§ Sir Anthony Grant
There is a much simpler explanation of the point that the right hon. Gentleman made. The fact is that, if the offence of stealing and taking away the car had not been committed, the other car would not have run into the first one.
§ Mr. Hattersley
While that is patently true, the man in my hypothesis has created exactly the same circumstances and committed exactly the same offence whether or not something wholly fortuitous happens to him. I agree with the hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). The distinction may be clear to Conservative Members, but it will not be obvious to the courts. In consequence, the courts will not share the Home Secretary's judgment.
The Home Secretary's judgment is that the Bill makes individuals responsible for the consequences of their actions. We are all in favour of that, but it can be seen from examples which anyone can make up that the Bill makes people responsible for actions which are not their own but the actions of others. I do not believe that that will be acceptable to the courts, not least because the issue is much complicated by the defence set out in clause 4, which reverses the burden of proof in a way which extends the innovation which first came into English law in the legislation prohibiting the carrying of knives in public places.
According to clause 1(3)(b), a conviction is not possible if a driver proves thathe was neither in nor on nor in the immediate vicinity of the vehiclewhen the aggravated offence took place. That vitiates the defence of the Bill by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West, who said that because the person stole the car he was responsible even if he wasneither in nor on nor in the immediate vicinity of the vehiclewhen the aggraved offence took place. The hon. Gentleman's argument is totally invalidated by the Bill. More importantly in terms of that argument, however, the defence of clause 1(3)(b) requires the defendant to prove his innocence, and thus contradicts a basic principle of English law.
I draw the Home Secretary's attention to another area of legitimate doubt—automatic disqualification from driving as set out in clause 3.
§ Mr. John Patten
On that basic point of principle, the right hon. Gentleman surely recalls that, under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1916, a person convicted of corruption has to prove that moneys in his possession were gained from activities which were other than corrupt activities, or that under the Sexual Offences Act 1956 a convicted pimp has to prove that his moneys were not gained from immoral activity? Also, under the 1971 drug legislation, a person with a cannabis plant in their garden 636 has to prove that they did not know what it was. There is no great principle adduced in British law, and the right hon. Gentleman cannot refer to one because it does not exist, as I have just demonstrated.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I confess my ignorance of the three laws that the Minister has brought to my attention, but I recall vividly the first Act of this Parliament, which concerned carrying offensive weapons in public places. I read the speech of the then Home Secretary—now the Foreign Secretary—this morning, in which he dealt at great length with what he described as a new principle of English law, in which a man found to be carrying such weapons was required to demonstrate that he was not doing so for an unlawful purpose. He described that as a reversal of our normal rules of evidence. His speech four and a half years ago was explicit in saying that that was unique to that sort of offence. If it was unique, this is the first extension of it that I know of.
§ Mr. Anderson
Surely the new principle of law to which my right hon. Friend takes exception is that a penalty can be aggravated as a result of circumstances over which the person has no control. That was the case in the example that my right hon. Friend gave about a lay-by. That penalty would be even more aggravated in the case of a passenger, whose mens rea may extend to riding in a vehicle which he knows to be stolen, but it does not follow that he has any control over the manner of driving.
§ Mr. Hattersley
That was my first objection. My second concerns the reversal of the burden of proof, and my third concerns the automatic disqualification from driving, as set out in clause 3. However, that may not be an objection if the Minister of State can give a cogent explanation. There is some doubt about whether a 14 or 15-year-old offender will be influenced by the discovery that he will be denied a licence two or three years later. More important is the effect that automatic disqualification would have on proper rehabilitation, which in some ways would be made impossible by such a requirement.
When the Minister of State winds up the debate, will he tell us if he can imagine circumstances in which a sentence —perhaps a custodial sentence—has been served and it would be sensible to direct the offender into some activity which requires a driving licence? I can imagine that that might be part of the corrective training, or even part of the punishment. Will he think about that and tell us whether he still believes that mandatory disqualification is the right course to follow?
I admit that all those considerations are practical, and the Government are far less concerned with practical consequences than with public impact. In our way, we shall persist in examining each Bill brought before us in terms of its real and relevant issues, and that is how we intend to continue to behave when we get in to Government.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. Has the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) completed his speech?
§ 5.4 pm
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
There can be few more mindless crimes than that which used to be known as "joyriding", but is now correctly described as death riding, because that is what, sadly, it so often becomes, as far too many families in the land now know.
Under the present law, the penalty for taking and driving away a car is a derisory six months, yet those thugs —usually young thugs—wreck people's lives, destroy property and terrify innocent pedestrians of all ages.
I was delighted when I heard the Home Secretary say in October that he proposed to introduce a new offence to tackle the problem. At that time, he proposed to provide for automatic disqualification, a maximum penalty of two years in imprisonment and an unlimited fine—good, but not quite good enough.
I was glad that, when the Bill was drafted, the proposed penalty was increased from two to five years. However, even that is not a sufficient penalty for those who mindlessly destroy other people's lives—and not only the lives of the people they kill. To lose a much-loved child or partner—often the parent of a young family—can cruelly affect many more lives than the person who was killed. We must bring home to these scatterbrained young hooligans the seriousness of what, to them, is a light-hearted prank or blatant exhibitionism.
The thought of spending a few dull years in gaol although the Opposition appear to discount it—should help to dampen even the most foolhardy. Under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, there is a power to disqualify youngsters who are under the legal driving age. It is used far too rarely. All too often those youths are legally able to drive when they become 17. It is to be hoped devoutly that, whatever the Opposition may say—they do not seem to like this provision at all—that power will now be more widely used.
Moreover, since the offences covered by the Bill are usually committed by the young, more youngsters will be caught in the net and will be liable to a term of disqualification, which can be unlimited and applies—as do the other penalties—to passengers as well as to the driver. That is important and fair, since egging-on by passengers is all too often the cause of the disaster, as a recent case has shown only too clearly. It will no longer be necessary to prove who was driving, which is sometimes difficult, since all those involved will now be liable. Thus another loophole is usefully closed by the Bill.
Apart from the penalties under the Bill, penalties of life imprisonment for murder or manslaughter are still available under other legislation. However, the Bill tackles not merely injury to persons, but the damage to other people's property which criminals can cause.
As with much criminal law, it is essential for people who have knowledge of the offenders to speak out. It is no kindness to a son or daughter—however much loved—to shield them from the consequences of their criminal behaviour. It must be agonisingly hard to shop someone whom one loves, but we must create a climate of opinion in which that can and will be done.
Anyone taking a vehicle without the owner's consent, or driving or being a passenger in such a vehicle, will be liable under the Bill for tougher sentences if any of the aggravating circumstances—injury, death or damage— 638 takes place between the taking and the recovery of the vehicle. I am bound to say that the shadow Home Secretary's example was ludicrous in the extreme.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
The right hon. Gentleman would not give way to the Home Secretary.
It will be no excuse to plead that the consequences were not intended or foreseen or directly caused by that person. All too often, especially on motorways, a relatively small initial error can cause an horrendous chain of consequences. In the right hon. Gentleman's example, that was exactly what happened: the man got out of the car and another driver swerved to avoid him. If the young man did not cause that to occur, I should like to know who did, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) asked. Under the Bill, the person taking and driving away the vehicle will be liable for the chaos and mayhem that can follow the initial act of folly.
All in all, I welcome the Bill and wish it a speedy passage. The only matter that puzzles me is why those on the Liberal and Labour Benches do not see the urgent need for the legislation. Those in Oxford, Liverpool, Newcastle and many other cities undoubtedly do.
§ Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)
It is not for me to analyse in the House today the reasons for the escalation in car theft. Part of it may be due to boredom caused by unemployment and some of it may well be due to our acquisitive society. Where material gain is everything, the law suffers as a result.
It is clear that, in many of these cases, there is complete contempt for the law as it stands, not unlike that shown by certain store owners who, when faced with a vacillating and weak Government, use their commercial power to bring the entire law into disrepute. I see little difference between the contempt in which a car thief holds the law and that of those who continue to open their stores because the Government are not prepared to uphold the law. I will not comment on who those store owners support financially, but many are the financial friends of the Tory party.
Car theft is not simply an offence against property: it is potentially a lethal offence. Between 1 September and 30 October 1991, about 12 youngsters died. Some died as a result of their own actions, but others were innocent people who were mown down by cars being driven at least recklessly or by cars certainly out of control.
This is a serious problem in Bolton. In the first 10 months of 1991, 4,589 vehicles were taken and there were 4,903 thefts from vehicles and 2,533 charges of criminal damage involving vehicles. In total, about 11,000 innocent Boltonians suffered in one way or another from the crime. When these crimes continue to occur, it is the innocent who pay. It is the nurse who comes late off her shift to find her car stolen. It is the young man trying to hold down a job who finds his means of transport taken from him. Worst of all, it is those who are killed by the stolen cars. If we believe in a law-abiding society, this must be a matter of concern to us all.
What saddens me most is that we do not have as much will as we should have to get rid of the crime. With a small 639 amount of the dedication that the Tory party showed in the way it attacked miners and trade unions, we would live in a law-abiding society. What we have is not a society of law and order, but a society of law and disorder.
I do not condemn the police for that. The clear-up rate in Bolton increased from 27 per cent. last to 41 per cent. this year. That is a creditable performance, but there remains a tremendous backlog from which criminals benefit.
§ Mr. Young
I will not give way now, because other Members wish to speak.
There is little point in passing legislation if the police do not have the means to apprehend the criminals.They cannot deal with people they do not catch. The problem in Bolton is that it is often the same people who repeat crimes. The crimes are not simply committed by people on bail. They are also committed by the same people time and again. This morning, the chief superintendent in charge told me of an individual who had stolen 30 vehicles. Clearly, if we wish to rid our streets of this danger, it is not enough to pass legislation. We must also provide the resources to enable the police to carry out the legislation.
§ Mr. Young
I am not giving way.
Equally important is the requisite facility of communication between police forces in different areas because, obviously, car crimes are not exclusive to one town or county. They spread across the length and breadth of the country.
What is apparently lacking is a meaningful deterrent. I am not talking simply about custodial sentences, although I do not rule them out. The Government must take in hand by every means in their power any scheme that will stop this crime. As I have emphasised time and again, we are not talking simply about the loss of property, bad as that may be; we are talking about the loss of life.
The people involved are often between the ages of 13 and 19. Often they have no worry about losing a licence, because a person who applies for a licence in the first place has some respect for the law. For the person with no respect for the law, why should the removal of a licence be any deterrent when that person has never had a licence anyway? Many of those involved are without funds.
The Bill has been cobbled together as a hopeful public relations exercise, but it will result in only a small reduction in the crime.
When such crimes are committed, it is the innocent in our society who pay. It is no good passing new legislation unless it reduces the incidence of the crime. We are seeking not simply to introduce punitive measures for use against the criminal, but to stop the crime of car theft and sweep it from our streets.
A few months ago, our television screens showed entire communities that were terrified. Men and women were afraid to walk on the streets of their own town or city because someone was racing around in a high-powered car that he could not control.
The preservation of the law is a matter for all parties. It is no good simply to claim in words, without actions, 640 that one supports law and order, because, as the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So far, the taste of the proposed legislation has been nasty.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
I declare that I am, as the House knows, parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales.
The federation and I support the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should be in no doubt that he has the full support of the federated ranks in trying to deal with this difficult problem.
The increased penalties are necessary. The penalty for the aggravated taking away of a vehicle, causing the death of innocent members of the public, must be introduced because the recent events in Oxford, Elswick and other towns and cities have shown that we cannot sit idly by and watch them repeated.
Until the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, persons convicted of taking away vehicles without consent could be given a custodial sentence of up to three years. My right hon. Friend told us today that, of those sentenced, only about 3 per cent. each year received custodial sentences of more than six months. It is one thing to say that only 3 per cent. of those convicted receive custodial sentences, but it is interesting to consider the number of offences involved.
Those figures, which were given in answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled on 15 November, reveal that, in 1988, more than 20,000 persons were convicted, of whom 3,658 received immediate custodial sentences. Of those, 491 received a sentence of more than six months; 103 received a sentence of between a year and 18 months; 36 received a sentence of between 18 months and two years, and six received a sentence of between two years and three years.
Those figures show that substantial custodial sentences were imposed which cannot be considered light or as encouraging young people to take a risk in the belief that nothing serious will happen to them. The figure of 3 per cent. is a little misleading. The custodial sentences and the number of individuals who receive them are significant.
§ Mr. Anderson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not just the actual number of those who are sentenced to immediate imprisonment or to terms of imprisonment of six months or more that is significant? What is crucial is the signal given about the importance the Government attach to this offence. In 1988, the Government sent a clear signal that that offence was no longer so high in their scale of priorities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that that scale of priorities provides a deterrent in itself?
§ Mr. Shersby
I entirely agree. However, in 1988, the Government, and indeed the House, decided to reduce the penalty for the offence to a maximum of six months. The House agreed to the proposition that we should rely more on cautions and community service punishment. That decision was part of the policy, which had received support from all sections of the House, of reducing the number of people, particularly juveniles, sent to prison. It was also part of the policy of reducing the cost of criminal proceedings. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said about that.
641 To some extent, the decision in 1988 has resulted—it is difficult to judge to how great an extent—in a massive increase in auto crime—the taking away of cars without the consent of their owners and, in some cases, racing them on the public highway. I cannot believe that there is no connection between the abolition of the custodial sentence of up to three years and the subsequent increase in auto crime.
§ Mr. Shersby
I shall give way to my hon. and learned Friend a little later.
The number of vehicles that have been used to ram-raid shops and other premises to steal goods of every kind from hard-working shopkeepers has also increased. That crime has not been referred to today, but it is a worrying and major part of the auto-crime scene.
Why do such things happen in our country? Some people will say that such crime is caused by unemployment and the recession, but that is not necessarily so. On the Blackbird Leys estate, it was clear to the police that the damage to cars and shops was done merely for pleasure, not for gain. Many of the youths involved in that crime were in full-time work or full-time education. It is true that some were unemployed, but there did not appear to the police to be any common denominator among them except that they lived on the estate or had relatives living there.
§ Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East)
I live on the Blackbird Leys estate, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that by no means all those who were caught up in the events were residents of the estate. It is an unfortunate feature of such confrontations that, once they start, every psychopath for miles around who wants to have a go at the police is pulled in. The people of Blackbird Leys and other parts of Oxford who are plagued with this problem are decent, law-abiding citizens. They are more anxious than anyone in the House to see this business brought to an end.
§ Mr. Shersby
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened, because I know that he has a unique knowledge of precisely what happened.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that a number of youths who were in full-time education or in full-time work were responsible for what happened. Many of those in full-time education did not attend school, and some visited Oxford and committed shoplifting offences or car crimes around the city.
During September, the people of our nation sat watching a unique spectacle on their television sets. They watched as young people drove stolen cars at high speed on several estates, to the great danger of residents. "Hotting" was the term used by many of those youngsters to describe their activity. Stealing cars and driving them to destruction had become a dangerous craze, almost to the point of addiction.
§ Mr. Shersby
I will do so in a moment.
The House will recall that a computer scientist, Mr. Melvyn Davies, was clubbed and slashed in Oxford while going to the help of his girl friend, who had herself been stabbed in the body and in the face. He gave a succinct judgment about what happened when he said: 642We have got to stamp out this sort of thing or it will spread like wildfire and become a new craze for the yobs. We cannot let them ruin our lives.That is one powerful reason why the House is considering the Bill. I believe that we owe it to Mr. Davies and to many others to pass it quickly.
We owe it not only to the people of Oxford but to those of Birmingham, Cardiff, Elswick, and even of rural Shropshire who have suffered. We owe it to the people of my own borough of Hillingdon, where only a week or so ago a teenager who had just stolen a car killed himself when he drove it into a tree at nearly 100 mph. There is no joy in those dangerous rides to death.
It is only as a result of sensitive and skilful policing in towns and cities that the problem will be kept under control. That kind of policing requires good police intelligence and first-class training. Fortunately for us all, those skills are possessed to a considerable degree by police officers of every rank.
The police have also demonstrated considerable success in building good relationships with the community, but they need the backing of the law and a powerful deterrent to prevent the craze of "honing" from becoming a permanent feature of life in British towns and on estates.
§ Sir Nicholas Fairbairn
My hon. Friend spoke of "our nation", which includes a place called Scotland. Those new crimes are not occurring in Scotland—but if they were, there would be no difficulty in charging a person with reckless driving under the Road Traffic Act 1988, or, under common law, with assault to the danger of life, which should, if necessary, carry a penalty of life imprisonment.
Am I being told that the law of England is so deficient that, if one assaults a person by driving a car at them to the danger of that person's life or property—whether or not one damages either—that is not a crime known to the common law of England, and would it not attract the most condign penalties?
§ Mr. Shersby
My hon. and learned Friend makes an extremely valuable point. I am glad that he has drawn the attention of the House to the situation in Scotland and to the law of Scotland, which in so many ways is superior to that of England.
Although the Police Federation welcomes the Bill, it would prefer the basic offence of taking away without consent possibly to incur the same penalty as was available until 1988, of up to three years' custodial sentence. The Bill does not propose that: it proposes only that those who cause injury or damage shall be liable to imprisonment for up to two years—or, if it is proved that an accident caused death, of up to five years.
Over the past few days, police officers have asked me why a community has to wait until someone is injured or killed before an offender is sent to prison for a lengthy period. For most juveniles who steal cars and engage in "hotting", the maximum penalty will remain a six-month custodial sentence—although, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said this afternoon, the fine will increase next year to £5,000.
I doubt whether many young people will be deterred by a fine of £1,000 or £5,000, because they do not have that kind of money available. However, it will be interesting to see whether, under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, their parents will have some liability, and perhaps exercise more supervision over their youngsters than they have in the past.
§ Mr. John Patten
Is my hon. Friend aware that, under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, the parents of convicted children will leave themselves liable to meeting an unlimited fine, as levied by a Crown court, if their children cannot themselves pay? That will act as a considerable encouragment to greater parental responsibility.
§ Mr. Shersby
I am aware of that provision, to which I was referring before I gave way to my right hon. Friend —and I hope that it will be widely understood by parents throughout the country. For the first time, to anything like that extent, parents are liable for the criminal activities of juveniles.
The Bill also imposes an automatic one-year driving ban, but I cannot help wondering how many young people will be deterred by that—particularly as many of them drive without a licence anyway. The police know that "hotting", ram-raiding, and related offences are committed by a comparatively small number of people, many of whom are persistent young criminals. Surely the threat of a custodial sentence would be a stronger deterrent—as it was before 1988—in addition to the longer sentences for which the Bill provides.
The Government give as reason for not reverting to the 1988 arrangements the small number of convictions previously secured. I believe that the real problem was that, before 1988, magistrates were under pressure from the Home Office not to award custodial sentences. If the will had been there and secure accommodation and prison accommodation had been available, I suggest that magistrates would have applied the law in the way that was intended when that legislation was passed.
I am told that, even today, most juveniles are cautioned or sentenced to community service, or receive a discharge because magistrates remain reluctant to award custodial sentences. However, in so many cases, the police and the courts are dealing with persistent reoffenders rather than with first-time offenders, for whom a caution or community service would be an appropriate penalty.
I turn to the taking away of children. Does my right hon. Friend consider that the Bill's provisions will deter the kind of thief who stole Mr. Peter Brown's BMW from a garage forecourt while Mr. Brown's infant daughter was in the back seat? According to Martin Newland's article in The Daily Telegraph today, Mr. Brown turned his back on his car for less than one minute. Mercifully, his car was abandoned three miles away, and two-year-old Natasha Brown was able to tell a passing couple that "a naughty man" had taken the car.
The prospect of community punishment or even six months' imprisonment did not deter the thief in that case. According to The Daily Telegraph, that was the latest in a series of incidents in which children were inadvertently taken by car thieves.
In another recent case, two-year-old James Austin. who had been left strapped into his baby seat by his mother, was driven away while she took some refuse to a rubbish dump some 50 yards from her parked car. Luckily, he was reunited with his mother unharmed.
Were both offences aggravated taking away? Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House when he winds up. Neither child was injured, and nor were the cars damaged. I suppose that the thieves concerned could be charged with kidnapping or some other offence under 644 common law. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could clarify that point, because that danger is a cause of great concern to many parents.
It is proper for the Government to act promptly, early in this Session, to deal with the problem. I understand the reservations expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the speed with which the Bill is being enacted. However, the offence is so serious, and parents and car owners are so concerned, that the House should not delay but ought to place the Bill on the statute hook as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East)
This matter is of the greatest concern to my constituents, many of whom are at their wits' end as to what can be done to halt the murderous menace of the theft and racing of cars in residential city streets.
I support the Bill, because anything that can add to the action that can be taken against car thieves is welcome. Much more needs to be done. The Bill is much too little and comes much too late. It is, by itself, little more than window dressing on the part of the Government. Anyone who believes that the Bill will really be effective in catching, punishing and deterring the criminals in question is living in cloud cuckoo land.
The extensive national media coverage in August and September of confrontations with the police left many of the wider public with a distorted picture of the problem. Some of the media were interested only in portraying a violent image of Blackbird Leys. I know the estate well, because I live there. I place it on record that Blackbird Leys, Barton and the other parts of Oxford that are plagued by this menace are good places, with a terrific community spirit. Decent people who are sick and tired of the criminal activities of the few deserve a much better portrayal by the national media and more support from Government.
On Saturday night, volunteers from Blackbird Leys community centre provided—as they do every year—a free dinner and social evening, drinks and gifts for 250 local pensioners. They held a similar event back in the summer, when Blackbird Leys was in the headlines. On neither occasion were the media at all interested in covering the good news; they were interested only in hyping up the bad news.
When I add that youngsters have reportedly been paid by film crews to put on displays in stolen cars and that a recent Channel 4 programme tried—ludicrously and dangerously—to suggest that the real problem was police brutality, hon. Members will have some idea of the anger felt by my constituents about the gross irresponsibility shown by some of the media. They have let down the public and also let down colleagues who, in the local media and in some national programmes such as "Newsnight'', have succeeded in giving a more accurate and balanced picture of events.
Now that the events of the summer are out of the headlines, some hon. Members, and members of the public who are not immediately affected, may imagine that the problem of theft and racing of cars has gone away. Sadly, that is not so. Reported car crimes in Oxford are running at 600 per month; car crime has doubled in the past four years, constituting one third of all crime reported in the city, and this year's figures are one third up on last year's.
645 Residents and police are in the front line of a war against hooliganism and car crime, including the displaying of stolen vehicles, which is now running at some 10 to 12 reported incidents per week. They were at it last night, as they are nearly every night.
Just a week ago on Saturday, the secretary of our Headington Labour club, remonstrating with a thug outside her home, was knocked to the ground and beaten. She, and all the other residents with the courage to stand up and defend decent values on behalf of their families and communities, deserve more support than they are receiving from the Government.
The police have taken action to combat the wave of car crime. In the past three months, there have been some 150 arrests in Oxford for car theft. I have the highest praise for the professionalism and dedication of the Oxford police and for the bravery that they have shown when confronted by ugly and sickening attacks.
Let there be no mistake: the Oxford public strongly support the police and they have our confidence. It is evident, however, that the police are overstretched and are having to fight the rising tide of car crime with insufficient officers and with one hand tied behind their backs. The Bill will barely scratch the surface of either problem. If the law is to be effective, the criminals must know that the chance of their being caught is high, as is the chance of their being convicted; and that they are certain to receive a sentence that matches the severity of their crime. Sadly, none of those factors applies today.
Even when their offences are of the ultimate gravity, some people are getting off far too lightly. An example is the appalling tragedy of lorry driver Leslie Parsons, who was killed last February when he was just doing his job. Let me quote from last Saturday's Oxford Mail:A teenager whose night of joyriding ended in the death of a lorry driver, was sent to a young offenders' institution for two years.Alan Dawtrey was driving a Metro at about 80 mph on the wrong side of the road before it smashed into a lorry coming in the opposite direction, Oxford Crown Court heard.Lorry driver Mr. Leslie Parsons, 51, lost control of the 28-ton lorry after colliding with the H-reg. car.The lorry careered across the A423 Oxford to Henley road, hitting a second Metro before ploughing into the Harcourt Arms pub.Mr. Parsons, of Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, a driver with Fine Lady Bakeries in Banbury, died from multiple injuries in the crash early on February 18.The court was told that Dawtrey had been racing against the other Metro shortly before the crash in the village of Nuneham Courtenay, where there is a 40mph restriction.Dawtrey, 18, of Boundary Brook Road, Oxford. who admitted causing death by reckless driving and five offences of taking vehicles without consent, was also banned from driving for four years.The driver of the second Metro. Jamie Hughes … of King's Lane, Harwell, was also convicted of causing death by reckless driving. His sentence was adjourned for social inquiry reports.Judge Leo Clark told Dawtrey it was a bad case, with a number of aggravating features which included running away from the scene 'in complete disregard for the lorry and its driver'.Surely it is clear to anyone who might imagine that we are discussing an activity that could legitimately be called "joyriding"—from the incident that I have cited and from the horrors of the case in Liverpool, where a car ploughed into some children—just what a murderous evil that activity is.
646 I am fully aware of the importance of the independence of the courts and of the constraints that they face when sentencing juveniles. I imagine that, in the case that I cited, the offender was given the maximum sentence that could be conferred for causing death by reckless driving; but, given normal remission and remission for good behaviour, there is every possibility that that young man will be freed after nine months in custody. I cannot believe that many members of the public believe that that is justice, or that it conveys the right message to those who, tonight, will steal a car and race it in the path of some other innocent victim.
We should remember that causing death by reckless driving carries the same five-year maximum penalty as is included in the Bill. The public will want to know how many people who are convicted will serve five years and how many will serve nine months.
As the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) pointed out, the courts and the public receive very confused and contradictory messages from the Home Office and from Ministers, whose words suggest that the police and the magistrates must be backed up, but whose actions have on occasion deprived them of the support that they need. An example is the injunction on magistrates to do everything possible to keep people under 21 out of custody.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, some supervised car projects may be an effective alternative to custody; but do the Government give the probation service the resources that it needs to run such projects? Why, in Oxford, has it been left so far to the police, the voluntary sector and private sponsorship to try to cobble together a scheme? As my right hon. Friend asked earlier, when will the Home Office commit resources to that scheme?
§ Mr. John Patten
As the hon. Gentleman and I both have constituencies in the city of Oxford, I was interested to learn of the comparatively recent endeavours to introduce motor projects there. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Home Office received the first application from Oxfordshire only last week, on 5 December? It is under active consideration, however.
That application relates to the Oxfordshire motor project—which is aimed at those on probation, following conviction, unlike the diversionary projects to which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) referred.
§ Mr. Smith
I hope that that means that support will be forthcoming.
My point is that, in general, the courts are under an injunction not to give custodial sentences to offenders under 21. If the alternatives are to work, we must take care that they are not seen as a reward for those who become involved in such activities. What about the kids who do not steal cars? Where are the projects that might stop them from doing so in the first place? Where the alternatives are to be provided, however, I believe that the Government are obliged, through the Home Office and the probation service, to fund them adequately.
Another example that illustrates the need for change is the diminished opportunity to pass deterrent sentences, not just in terms of the threat to society of a particular offender, but the threat to society that is posed by the crime at large in which these people are involved. That 647 important point is well argued in an article in "Justice of the Peace" by Mr. T. G. Moore, who is deputy clerk to the justices in Nottingham. He points out:A court faced with a young offender who Juts been involved in the taking of vehicles, even though it may be his third or possibly fourth appearance, cannot simply pass a deterrent sentence on the basis of the prevalence of such offending in the locality … Section 1(4A)(b) of the 1982 Act deals with protecting the public from serious harm from the offender. The importance of the amendment by the 1988 Criminal Justice Act was that it added the words 'from serious harm from him' to the end of the sentence 'only a custodial sentence would he adequate to protect the public'. The case of R.v. Jacobs and Kinsella … makes it clear that the consideration which courts must now take into account is not whether a custodial sentence was necessary to protect the public from offenders generally of the same type, but whether it was necessary to protect the public from a particular offender. This indicates that if the court's desire is to protect the public from persons who take vehicles without the owner's consent, that is by a sense of general deterrence, then this particular criterion of the Criminal Justice Act will not be applicable … The question posed for the courts must be whether taking a vehicle without consent can ever, as an individual offence, be so serious that a non-custodial sentence cannot be considered. It is on this point, that the ordinary member of the public and, it is suspected, the average police officer finds it difficult to equate his own perception of the offence of taking without consent with the strictures placed upon the courts by legislation.We are responsible for legislation. We have to take account of that article and ask what difference the Bill will make in this respect. The answer is that it will make no difference at all.
Even with such opportunities as the Bill presents to get cases into the Crown court, where the offence involves only damage to vehicles or property—the vast bulk of cases—it is the value of the damage to property, as set out in clause 2, that is the criterion, not the extent of the nuisance and danger, although that is the real problem with which we need to get to grips. To get such cases to the Crown court will therefore involve further cost to victims and trouble to the police in obtaining estimates from garages, builders and so on. An element of bureaucratic waste is built into the Bill.
I support the measure, but for those reasons I have no confidence that the Bill will make more than a very small difference. It is much too little much too late. Why has it taken the Government so long to take even this inadequate action? Local residents, the Thames Valley police and I were urging, long before the events of the summer, that something should be done. The Government cannot say, as an excuse, that they did not know what was going on and how it could escalate. I shall give some examples.
I raised what was happening—the racing and the attacks on police—at a meeting with the chief constable on 2 November 1990 at which the Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), and the present Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), were present. The Home Secretary was fully briefed about the position when he visited Cowley in May this year. Again I stressed the seriousness of the matter and the need for more police officers at a meeting of Thames valley Members of Parliament which the Home Secretary was supposed to take, but which Lord Ferrers took instead, on 23 July this year.
The Home Office took more than six weeks even to respond to the points made, by which time the situation in my constituency had already exploded out of control.
648 Home Office Ministers fiddled while tyres and a few petrol bombs burned. If the Government had listened to the police and taken prompt action on any of those warnings —action for which they could have secured all-party support—I have no doubt that some of this summer's tragedies would have been avoided.
Much more vigorous action than is provided for in the Bill is needed. We need more police officers, urgent changes to sentencing policy and an end to the nonesense whereby attempting to steal a car and attempting to drive while disqualified are no longer arrestable offences. Where the Government propose alternatives to custody, they must provide the resources to make them work.
As for the motor manufacturers, we need more progress and Home Office action to build on the excellent collaboration that the Rover Group has with Thames Valley police. We also need Government investment to back up the youth services, teachers and parents so that the next generation of youngsters does not include a minority whose self-discipline, self-esteem and respect for their own future are so lacking that they get kicks from racing stolen cars or lobbing bottles at the police.
The first duty of the Government is to work with the people to ensure security and freedom from fear for the people. This Home Secretary and this Government have failed that test. The Bill should be supported, but unless a much more determined attack on the problem, and its roots, is launched, we shall, I fear, have to address at some point in the future an even more hideous nightmare than that which confronts us now.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
We on this side of the House agree with much of what the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said. It is a rare example of ecumenism—on a day other than a Friday—across party lines. However, before I so much as opened my mouth, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) had attacked me. He had the impertinence to berate me for knee-jerk reactions on behalf of the Government when he opposes absolutely everything that the Government do, however sensible it obviously is. That is as genuine an example of a knee-jerk reaction as it is possible to get in this place. The right hon. Gentleman does it every time and under any circumstances.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook—and, I suspect, many other Opposition Members—are against all deterrent sentences. In addition, the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to be aware that, although potential joyriders may not read Hansard, the word about tough sentences having been imposed has a habit of getting around. Anyway, if the right hon. Gentleman had remained in the Chamber, he would have realised that much of what he said was total nonsense, for reasons to which I shall turn in a moment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on taking action against death riders—I agree with those who have already said that that is a much better way to describe these offenders who are not joyriders—and others who think that it is good fun to take somebody's car and drive it dangerously, thereby damaging property and sometimes killing people, thus causing appalling misery to those whose lives may be wrecked in the process. The public will be thankful to my right hon. Friend for his 649 timely action, following the recent bout of appalling abuse in Oxford and the north of England and the immense misery that this atrocious behaviour has caused.
It is also important that we should all realise that surveys show that a quarter of all stolen cars are used for death riding, just as a quarter of all car thefts happen to unlocked vehicles—which is our fault. There is no reason why we should not lock our vehicles when we leave them and thus prevent that crime.
My right hon. Friend's action at large—to spur manufacturers to action to improve security—is also very welcome, as is his acknowledgement of the Government's role. If we can give tax concessions for unleaded petrol to improve the environment, surely we should not be aghast at the prospect of tax concessions to secure that alarms are fitted in our cars and that some protection is provided to stop a lot of this senseless crime.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on identifying the fact that, apart from the commission of the taking and driving away offence, there is an additional factor that arises when injury and damage are caused, but that there is no adequate deterrent penalty for that aspect of the offence. However, deterrence will exist only when young people can be locked up in secure accommodation: if they cannot be locked up, all this will be a waste of time.
Having said all that, I am afraid that I cannot be as enthusiastic about the Bill as I should like. We support and accept the good sense of increasing sentences for offences that are worse than taking and driving away and of extending the deterrent of disqualification where personal injury and damage occurs, but it is quite another thing for someone to be guilty of additional offences that he does not commit, to which he is not a party and which he might not have foreseen as the likely consequences of his taking and driving away.
How would that occur? It would arise where a defendant could not prove, on the balance of probabilities, that his story was correct, that someone else was responsible for causing personal injury or damage to the vehicle taken or to other vehicles and articles, and that he was not a party to the offence. It would arise where, for example, the original taker and driver away was arrested, but after he had left the car and was going to have no more to do with it. He may not be able to call upon the driver who took over the car to support his defence and to help him discharge the balance of probabilities in his favour, because that driver would not want to expose himself to the criminal charges of aggravated car theft.
In the environment in which these cases occur, witnesses are young and can easily be intimidated. The accused also might not be able to call witnesses who saw the damage-causing driver, because that driver may have terrified the witnesses to prevent them from giving evidence. That seems to be the stuff of which miscarriages of justice are made.
I appreciate that the number of cases in which the taker and driver away is not the driver who goes on to cause personal injury or damage will be comparatively few, but I ask my right hon. Friend whether it is necessary to make such a draconian change in the traditional principles of British law, or to do it by reversing the normal burden of proof. Clause 1(3) says:A person is not guilty of an offence under this section if he proves".650 Will my right hon. Friend reconsider whether this part of the Bill is necessary?
I support the intention of the Bill and its important deterrent aspects, and I shall support it for the same reason as the hon. Member for Oxford, East, but I must confess that I do so with some reluctance at this stage.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
If the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) had been here for the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)—[HON. MEMBERS: "He was here."] If he had been listening, then, he would have heard my right hon. Friend's point about the lay-by.
Having said that, the hon. and learned Member for Burton makes a good point: it would offend against the views of ordinary persons and would be a crying sense of injustice if people who were not party to the aggravated crime and who had sought to distance themselves from it were found guilty because the balance of probabilities had fallen on them to prove their innocence. Anyone who has practised at the Bar knows well that, in the sort of case that arises on an estate, where a number of people are involved, intimidation is such that it may prove impossible for a young man to find witnesses to say that he had left the scene of the crime and that another person was guilty of aggravated theft.
Any amendment to the law that provides an aggravated penalty for someone who could not have foreseen that for which he is sentenced must be wrong. The Government must find an answer to that key point, which was made by the hon. and learned Member for Burton. who has long experience at the Bar, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook.
The Bill is an attempt to respond to widespread public concern. No one doubts that concern or that the offence is prevalent. Almost daily, my local newspaper, the South Wales Evening Post, publishes examples of what used to be called taking and driving away—joyriding. There is a graveyard for cars at Kilvey hill, where young men drive cars that they have taken without authority and then burn them. There is an immense feeling of anger among ordinary members of the public at the extent to which they are inconvenienced, and they are crying out for something to be done.
Magistrates are under a constraint not to send young people to prison. There is the problem of general deterrence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) set out in his excellent speech on behalf of his constituents. Surely the Lord Chancellor should have issued guidance to justices on the tariff for sentencing in such cases.
The House may be interested to learn that hon. Members who represent south Wales constituencies hold fairly regular meetings with the south Wales constabulary. The main item on the agenda of our last meeting was joyriding. We saw several videos that the police had taken from helicopters showing the nature of the driving of some young drivers and the constraints on police in pursuing them, particularly in built-up areas. Guidelines have been issued to them on the point at which they must desist from the chase because of danger to the public. They expressed various other concerns, few of which are addressed in the Bill.
651 Although we must respond to the offence, we must avoid the "Something must be done" syndrome and ensure that we do not lash out wildly in some public relations exercise. Why must the Bill be completed today? Why do the Government reject the argument that even a Home Office Bill is capable of improvement? A Special Standing Committee could hear the views of practitioners, police officers and others on how the Bill could be improved.
Is the Home Office alleging or claiming that an emergency has arisen since the Conservative party conference, that the Bill must be completed in one day and that it is inconceivable that it could be improved in Committee? That is an arrogant view to take of the Bill. If there is such an emergency, why is there not a similar Bill for Scotland? Do the Government contend that the emergency is confined to England and Wales and somehow stops at the border?
The legal situation in Scotland differs from that in England and Wales. Section 178 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 applies in Scotland, rather than section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968. Will the Government give an assurance that there will be a similar attempt to alter the law in Scotland if there is an emergency there?
Penalties in Scotland also differ from those in England and Wales. In Scotland, the penalty for a summary offence is three months' imprisonment or a fine, but not both. On indictment, the maximum sentence under section 178 of the 1988 Act is 12 months. Why is there a difference? If the emergency is so important, why are not the penalties for these aggravated offences equally applicable in Scotland?
As a Conservative Member asked in an intervention, if there is an adequate remedy under existing law, why is there a void in the current law in England and Wales? Surely the Government must either say that the position in Scotland is essentially different from that in England and Wales or provide a timetable within which they will aim to introduce equivalent legislation in Scotland.
There are other differences in penalties between England and Wales and Scotland with which we should deal. We must ask ourselves: who are the perpetrators of these offences, and what are their motives? As several hon. Members have asked, are these individuals, who typically are young men in their teens, likely to be deterred by the changes brought about by the Bill?
The south Wales constabulary interviewed young men who had committed these offences and the factors involved were set out. The plus factors included the kicks that those people got from driving in that way. One of the minus factors was clearly the risk of being caught and the associated penalty. How do we ensure that there is a much greater chance of catching those young men and adequately dealing with them? Is that matter addressed by the Bill?
The key question was put forcefully and eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook: is the lack of an adequate penalty the root of the problem, or can we tackle the matter in other ways—for example, by extending motor schemes in the way he described? My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East said that such schemes should be available not only for those who have already committed offences but for young people who might be tempted to do so, perhaps for kicks. Extending schemes, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, would be a cost-effective way of dealing with the problem.
652 I am afraid that we are assuming too much from this proposed change and that it is a little too simplistic—a sort of professional defamation from those who believe that applying law and order is the only way of solving what are, in part, deep-seated social problems.
The issue is much more multi-layered than that. There are other key considerations, one of which is the near-certainty of detection. In this respect, police manpower levels are important. There was great astonishment and anger in south Wales when we heard by letter of 28 November 1991 the news that the Home Secretary was unwilling to agree any additional manpower for the South Wales police authority in 1992–93. The letter boasted:the South Wales Police has received approval for 99 extra police posts since the Government took office, with actual strength increasing by 198—or 7 per cent.—over that period.That 7 per cent. must be put in the context of the more than 100 per cent. increase in this type of crime.
I certainly would not boast about that 7 per cent. Like everyone in the area covered by the South Wales police authority, I must ask why built-up urban areas such as Cardiff and Swansea will pass this Christmas—with all the great temptations offered to young people at that time—and go through 1992–93 with no increase in police manpower.
A wide range of powers are already available under statute law to combat this crime. Maximum sentences could he increased. As several hon. Members have said, the changes brought about by the 1988 Act—making this crime only a summary offence—should be reconsidered If the Government are concerned about public expenditure and court time, will they make offences under section 12(1) of the 1968 Act indictable, rather than purely summary, offences for people who are making a second or subsequent court appearances?
The Bill does not deal with other key matters. If the Government wanted to reduce the number of obstacles that prevent prosecution of offenders, thereby making convictions more certain, they would alter the mens rea principle under section 12(1) of the 1988 Act and import the term "knowing or believing" from section 22 of that Act. That would put a lighter burden on the prosecution, and improve the chances of convicting an offender. Had the Government not thought that they could get the Bill passed without the House having a serious attempt to debate or qualify it, those matters could have been discussed with experts.
Our police forces have another major complaint about the Bill. They say that it does not deal with the problem of people who persistently reoffend while on bail. My local police force has given me remarkable examples of young people in the south Wales constabulary area who have persistently reoffended. In South Glamorgan, over a period of a year, a 15-year-old male took 15 cars and was involved in six house burglaries, one handling offence arid six thefts. The most that that young man received was a supervision order for one year.
I shall not bore the House with the details of another case, but I shall summarise it. In West Glamorgan, a juvenile male was found guilty between the ages of 13 and 15 of offences involving 45 takings of cars, but it was only towards the end that he received a custodial sentence. One can well understand the anger and frustration of the police force. In another case in Mid Glamorgan, a young man between the age of 11 and 16—I pass over six or seven 653 pages of antecedents—was involved in 32 burglaries, 34 thefts, 15 offences of criminal damage and 41 offences involving motor vehicles, but the most severe penalty that he received was a supervision order for 12 months. He gaily continued to offend and reoffend, to the point where the police wondered whether it was worth bothering to pick him up. Those are the problems that face our police force.
In 1990, 20 per cent. of detected crime in Mid Glamorgan was committed by juveniles. In South Glamorgan, that figure was 17 per cent. of the total, and in my area of West Glamorgan, the figure was more than 22 per cent. However, the police ask how the Government are helping them to deal with those who persistently offend. What happens when the police do detain such individuals? Should not more secure units be available for those juveniles while they are on remand? Some investment is at last being made in south Wales in that respect.
Other issues with which I shall not detain the House but which have been mentioned by other hon. Members include the design of motor vehicles, the admirable Which? survey, the question of insurance and rewarding those who take adequate precautions to secure their vehicles by having the means to immobilise them in case of theft, safety improvements and cases such as those in Swansea, where, for example, the local authority has now put attendants in several of the key car parks. The authority charges people to park there but the editor of my local papar—The South Wales Evening Post—said on 3 December:Many people will be pleased, and reassured, that Swansea City Council appears to be moving towards a policy of providing attendants for selected car parks.The paper went on the say that such a move would at least give the people who came into the city centre greater reassurance, even if they had to pay for the privilege. The Government must deal with the issue of making crime more difficult for the young people who are tempted to perpetrate it, and local authorities can also help.
Clearly, the Bill is a step forward, by and large. It is an attempt to deal with a prevalent problem, but I fear a distortion—the Government are considering only one aspect of the issue. They are not attempting to modify the existing law in ways which would help the prosecution. I have mentioned some ways in which section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968 might be amended. I have also mentioned the question of indictment after the first court appearance, and other hon. Members have suggested other means to tackle the problem. However, it would be wrong for the Government to hype the Bill too much, and to raise expectations which they certainly cannot meet.
§ Mr. Michael Irvine (Ipswich)
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) delivered what I thought was a curiously muddled speech.
§ Mr. Irvine
I shall confine myself to "muddled".
In the fist half of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman complained that the Bill was irrelevant, that it did nothing, that it was wholly superfluous and was simply aimed at the headlines. In the second half, he suddenly changed tack.
654 Far from arguing that the Bill did nothing, he argued that it was too draconian. He criticised the changing of the evidential requirements and complained that the burden of proof has been reversed in certain important respects. He also attacked the provisions for automatic disqualification.
Such a muddled approach is symptomatic of a tendency, among all too many people who should know better, to treat the taking and driving away of vehicles as a less serious offence than it is. It is such loose, flaccid and irresponsible thinking which has led to the widespread use of the offensive term "joyriding". Such thinking was behind the absurd argument that the police should be restrained from giving hot pursuit to stolen cars, and it also lay behind much of the nit-picking objection to the Bill that we heard from the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook.
For many people—if not most—their car is, after their home, their most valuable piece of property. When their car is taken, they suffer, at the very least, considerable inconvenience and very often substantial financial loss. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated that as many as 40 per cent. of all vehicles taken and driven away unlawfully are damaged when returned to their owner. If a car is unlawfully taken and then returned in a damaged state, it seems absolutely right that the person or persons responsible for taking it should be assumed to be responsible for causing the damage unless they can prove the contrary. After all, they removed it from the custody of its owner and, prima facie, they should bear the responsibility for any damage which occurs between that time and the owner getting it back. Some hon. Members may think that that is unfair, but I believe that car owners whose vehicles have been taken would think differently.
The unlawful taking and driving away of vehicles goes well beyond damage to property. Car thieves are usually young and unused to driving the particular car that they have taken, and they are usually attracted to high performance cars. That is a lethal combination. "Lethal" is the right word. A few years ago, a Government publication entitled "Practical Ways to Crack Crime" stated:A stolen car is about 200 times more likely to be involved in an accident than the same car driven by its owner.The unlawful theft of cars all too often leads to injury and death.
We know that legislation alone cannot provide a remedy. but it can make convictions easier to obtain. It can increase deterrents. It can single out for special treatment the special aggravating features of a crime. The Bill does exactly that, and I believe that it deserves the support of the House.
§ Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
I begin with an apology to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), the Home Secretary and other hon. Members who spoke before I entered the Chamber. My late arrival was entirely due to an unenjoyable ride on British Rail. I must apologise if I repeat some of the points already made—I do not expect that I shall, except perhaps in my introduction.
In 1990, nearly 500,000 vehicles were stolen in the United Kingdom—one every minute of the night and day. Some 30,000 vehicles were stolen in Northumbria alone, and more than 770,000 thefts were reported from vehicles.
655 Insurers paid out nearly £500 million for car theft claims. Nearly one third of all recorded crimes were due to thefts from or of motor vehicles. About one quarter of missing vehicles were never recovered. A stolen car is 200 times more likely to be involved in an accident than one driven by its owner. At least three car owners out of every 20 have experienced theft from their vehicles, and it takes as little as four seconds for a car thief to break into a car without a key.
Most joy riders—or death-riders, as they should more accurately be described—are aged between 13 and 16, and the Bill does little to deal with that problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) gave one example from his constituency. In a recent case in Northumbria, a youth under 15 years of age was arrested and admitted 100 offences of taking vehicles without their owners' consent. He eventually appeared before the court and was placed in the custody of the local authority. He soon escaped and was rearrested five hours later, when he admitted having taken 10 vehicles within those five hours. That is a serious problem. The perpetrators, who are usually male, come from all social classes and backgrounds, and all districts of the country. It is against that background that we must examine the Bill's likely impact.
While heavier penalties may be appropriate, they will not affect the level of car crime to any significant degree. I believe that the Bill. when enacted, will make no contribution to relieving the communities on Tyneside and elsewhere of the terrifying levels of car-related crime and its sometimes lethal consequences. The heavier penalties outlined in the Bill will go some way to balance the punishment and the seriousness of the crime to which that punishment relates. I have no doubt that those penalties will be welcomed by many who, day and night, suffer from the madness of high-speed driving through residential districts. However, I fear that the welcome will be short-lived once it becomes clear that, while those who are caught may be dealt with more severely, the level of car crime will not be noticeably reduced.
The Bill would not have altered the punishment meted out to those responsible for the death of baby Richard Harthill, who was killed by car thieves in my constituency just over a year ago. Even if the penalty had been increased, it would not have brought back Richard Harthill. Those who commit such crimes will not be deterred by the measures outlined in the Bill. Such people often lack the intellect to comprehend or fear legal reprisals and, more often, do not expect to be caught.
There have been many instances in which car thieves have been killed or badly injured while committing their crimes. The misplaced hero worship of two such thieves was recently blamed for an outbreak of disturbances on north Tyneside later spreading to Newcastle. The knowledge that there is a great risk of death or serious injury has not led to a reduction in the rate of such crimes. One must therefore ask: if people are not deterred by the thought of losing their lives, what deterrent will a longer gaol sentence provide?
While I welcome the Bill in so far as it at long last recognises that something must be done, I believe that, it avoids the issue of prevention. It is far too easy for cars to be taken: often drivers make it easy by not taking the proper precautions—as the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said. I have heard of people with company cars, hire cars or contract vehicles who take a 656 relaxed view of car security because they believe that, if the car is stolen, they will be supplied with another one. Such reckless and irresponsible behaviour could lead to the death or serious injury of an innocent victim.
I welcome the fact that the Government have said that new British standards have been introduced for car security and that the Department of Transport is pressing for such standards to be included in a new European directive. However, I do not accept the argument put to me by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in a letter of 24 February.It would be a breach of European Community law for the Government to introduce national legislation to strengthen the existing community requirements for vehicle security since this would constitute a technical barrier to trade with other Member States.That would be true only if British legislation required all new cars sold to be fitted with anti-theft devices. Surely there is nothing in the European legislation to prevent Her Majesty's Government from introducing measures requiring drivers to ensure that their vehicles are properly secured against theft. That would not necessitate any technical changes in imported vehicles.
I should like all new cars to be fitted with good quality security devices. I do not know why we should have to wait for European directives, or the 20 years or so that it would take for a new generation of such cars to find their way on to our roads. By placing the onus on the driver in the first instance, our Government could introduce measures quickly and independently. I know that that would not be universally popular, but if it saved one innocent life, who could say that it was not worth it?
What standards should be set in such legislation? Car alarms are one form of deterrent, but they are often riot detected by a thief until triggered, by which time he is already in the vehicle and often merely continues in his task. A visible and substantial immobilising device should be fitted to the gear stick or steering wheel. That would deter most opportunist thieves, particularly if the device were complemented by an alarm. Some 90 per cent. of car thefts are committed by opportunist thieves. Minimum standards laid down by the Department of Transport would prevent the use of cheap and easily overcome equipment.
I must add—in some way against my own argument —that I am still awaiting a reply to my letter of 27 September to the Home Office, in which I once again asked what was to be done to stop the general sale of skeleton car keys. The House will no doubt be as shocked as I was to hear of the following recently circulated advertisement. I shall leave out the name of the device and its manufacturer for obvious reasons, but I will quote from the rest of the advertisement:The ߪ Key Set consists of three skeleton keys to suit different types of lock, and will open the majority of British and foreign cars. Previously only available to the Motor Trade these keys are now available to other businesses.A note at the bottom of the advertisement states:These keys are intended for use by management and authorised staff only, in connection with their trade and must not be used for any illegitimate reasons.I do not think that potential car thieves are likely to take much notice of that qualification. The Government must take action urgently to stop the sale of general equipment which makes stealing cars so much easier.
If we are to make an impact on the astronomical levels of car crime in the short term, substantial and visible security devices are a must, but they will be useless unless 657 they are used by drivers. I have already referred to the irresponsible attitude of some drivers, so alongside the requirement to have such devices fitted must go the legal requirement to use them. It should be an offence for a car to be left unattended without such a device properly engaged. Because they are visible it would be quite easy for a patrolling policeman or traffic warden to spot offenders and issue a ticket. Finally, to ensure that the devices are kept in good working order, they should form part of the inspection required for the issuing of an MOT certificate.
The motor car can be a joy. It brings freedom and mobility to millions of people, but it can also be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands. It is within our power hugely to reduce the number of thefts, accidents and fatalities which too often result from that. Unfortunately, the Bill does not introduce measures that would be effective. I realise that to legislate effectively will mean as it so often does that there will be some cost, inconvenience and loss of liberty on the part of the innocent and the victims, but that is the price we pay for not tackling seriously and effectively enough the root social causes of such crimes. They are, however, another issue for another day.
§ Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)
Later, I shall say something about car security which follows on from what the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said.
Many Back Benchers have highlighted the dangers of joyriding and the urgent need to do something about it. I believe that they reflected public anxiety in so doing, but the nitpicking approach of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman was entirely out of keeping with the public mood and will be seen as such. It would take a wizard to find out precisely what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was proposing as an alternative.
I declare an interest: I have the honour to be president of the Guild of Experienced Motorists, a body wholly dedicated to road safety. It has been so for many years. For a long time we have urged tougher measures to stop the curse of joyriding, which should never have been given that name in the first place. I do not know what ass coined the phrase, but it gives the impression that this is just a harmless frolic on the part of light-hearted youngsters. Sometimes the courts have tended to take the same view. Of course, it is nothing of the sort; it is a serious crime which all too often leads to more serious crime—to death or injury for life and to human suffering. I would call it misery-riding.
I welcome the Bill, therefore. The Theft Act 1968 was hopelessly inadequate to deal with the problem, so I hope that the Bill will reach the statute book without delay—and with enough publicity to show criminals, young and old, that the public are not prepared to tolerate this menace any longer.
I wish to question some of the Bill's provisions, nevertheless. The Opposition amendments seem half-baked; their only effect would be to water down the Bill. I take a rather different view which might be called draconian, but the issue calls for draconian measures. I do 658 not know whether my alterations to the Bill may be considered in another place, but I did not have time to table amendments for this debate.
My amendments would increase the severity of the penalties. The maximum sentence of five years when death is caused—clause 1(4)—is inadequate. I would be happy to increase that to 10 or 14 years, or even to life if the offence was serious enough. The two-year maximum sentence for other offences may not be enough to deter, either. I hope that that will be considered in another place.
As for clause 2, I cannot see why the offence should not be triable by magistrates courts or the Crown courts without the rigmarole stipulating the amount of damages. One can imagine wicked cases in which only a small amount of damage was caused. This curse must be stamped out, but it will not be stamped out by probation or wishy-washy telling off from the Bench—or by some of the alternatives mentioned by Opposition Members. We need a much more severe approach and that will usually come only from the Crown courts, to which many of these cases should go.
The courts have used disqualification far too feebly. I see no reason why there should not be a minimum rather than a maximum period of disqualification. When death or permanent injury result from an offence, I would have no objection to imposing a life ban. It may be said that many offenders are young people who do not even have a licence, but if they were threatened with not being able to get one for some years until they were more sensible or mature, that would constitute a deterrent. I should like the courts to use disqualification more frequently.
As the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge said, the real deterrent is better security. Not only those who let out company cars but car manufacturers must accept some responsibility. It is ridiculous that security systems should be regarded as no more important than cassette players. They should be as compulsory as seat belts. I sometimes wonder whether car manufacturers would have fitted brakes if there were no sales benefit in them. I hope that the Minister will be robust in the discussions that he is pursuing with the manufacturers, and I hope that they will respond with a sense of responsibility.
I also hope that the Home Secretary will deal robustly with the European Community, and will resist any nonsense about non-tariff barriers to trade, on which the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge touched. It is possible to get round such nonsense. The Minister should remind Europe that, despite what some people think, car crime is just as prevalent there—it happens in Germany and France, too, as some of our colleagues on the Council of Europe know to their cost. The Minister should receive a sympathetic hearing from the European Community, and the sooner a directive in this area is introduced the better.
No system is 100 per cent. foolproof, but many new ideas are emerging. Since I published a letter in The Times, I have been sent suggestions from all over the country, some of them rather wild and others which I am not qualified to understand. I have, however, gone in some detail into one sent to me by a constituent. My constituent, Mr. Musker, has patented a practical device involving a simple combination lock, the number of which—as with an executive case—is held only in the mind of the user of the car. I shall not go into more detail now, but I have asked the Home Secretary to put Mr. Musker in touch with the experts in his Department or in the Department 659 of Transport and to ask them to study the device in great detail with my constituent. I hope that my right hon. Friend will respond as soon as possible.
We regard this Bill as urgently needed, but the study of these new devices is equally urgently needed. I have made a special plea to the Home Secretary in writing that Mr. Musker's case be seriously considered.
The criticism has been levelled that the Bill is being rushed through. It is not the first Bill to be rushed through in my time in the House, nor will it be the last. It is certainly one of the most necessary Bills to be rushed through the House, and I wish it well.
§ Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
I, too, welcome the legislation and the mood of the House. It shows that hon. Members are deeply concerned about joyriding and about the need to ensure that proper measures are taken to resolve the terrible wave of crime that is affecting people in this country. Like the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant), hon. Members are prepared to put forward fresh ideas which we hope will be considered by the Minister of State. I also intend to put forward a couple of new ideas, and I hope that they will be examined.
I realise the enormous pressure that must now bear on right hon. and hon. Members to pass the legislation as quickly as possible. I, too, am not a great fan of any procedure which would prevent hon. Members from taking a careful and measured look at proposed legislation. One of our most important functions is to study carefully what the Government present, and to make suggestions that would directly benefit the victims of that appalling crime.
On 22 July 1991, four people needlessly died in Leicestershire. Two of them were a husband and wife who had travelled to Leicestershire the previous afternoon. The other two were teenagers, the driver and passenger of a stolen Austin Metro involved in a two-car crash. In April last year, four people died near Melton Mowbray. Two were 16-year-olds, the others were a husband and wife in their 60s. In May, a 16-year-old died after the car he had stolen careered off the road between Loughborough and Copt Oak. Earlier this year, a 16-year-old passenger died after a crash at Wanlip. The car had been stolen. Hon. Members will have other examples of the horror that such crime perpetrates. The few examples that I give are an appalling record for a county such as Leicestershire. According to the police, every day about 22 cars are stolen in Leicestershire.
There are, of course, suggestions on which we can all agree. We would like car manufacturers to play a much more important role in installing locks which halt thieves. Far too few ensure that that happens. I accept the need for car manufacturers to meet the Home Secretary early and regularly, and I hope that the Minister of State will tell us when the Home Secretary or he last met car manufacturers.
§ Mr. John Patten
I will tell the hon. Gentleman now. We last met car manufacturers within the past two months. My right hon. Friend and I will be seeing all car manufacturers—not only British Car manufacturers, but representatives of European and Japanese car manufacturers—on Wednesday, and we shall speak very forcefully to them.
§ Mr. Vaz
I welcome that intervention. I am pleased that the Minister will speak forcefully to car manufacturers. When he says that he will do something, he does it. I hope that he will also take on board the comments of car manufacturers and retailers who have told me that they face a difficult situation in terms of this country's economic conditions. The recession is affecting them. If they are to allocate resources to installing devices to prevent theft, they should be helped in some way by the Government. For example, they refer to car tax as one form of help, but they have other suggestions, including the price of petrol and other issues. I hope that in Wednesday's dialogue the Government will take car manufacturers' concerns on board.
The next matter relates to the need for the police to be able to allocate more resources to deal with car theft and to be able to provide the necessary personpower and administrative help. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with that. The problem is that police forces such as Leicestershire police force find it difficult to allocate more resources when they have not been given sufficient resources over several years. The Minister of State, with his encyclopaedic knowledge, will jump up and tell the House that the police force in Leicestershire has been allocated an extra 27 police officers. We know that, but the Leicestershire police force asked for considerably more officers than that. It asked for additional resources to deal with the high level of crime.
We are talking about car theft and about what happens when cars are taken away and damaged and injury is caused. That is only one matter that the police have to examine. The Leicestershire police force pleads for additional resources. I hope that the Government will bear that point in mind. It is not sufficient just to pass legislation to ensure that there are new criminal offences. We must have police officers to detect crime and to bring people to justice and to ensure that the administration of justice is properly examined.
We need to ensure that our courts take a much tougher line. They will welcome the proposed penalties. Some of our magistrates in Leicestershire have other ideas. Councillor Adoline Smith JP was quoted earlier this year as calling for culprits to be birched. She said that Parliament was not acting quickly enough. I see the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) getting very excited. The Minister of State will recall that, last week, he incorrectly said that the hon. Member for Northampton, North had called for castration in respect of certain matters, but he later realised that it was another Conservative Member.
The hon. Gentleman finds a friend in Councillor Adoline Smith, who says that birching is one way to ensure that young people are aware of what they are doing. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to hon. Members—it will be a relief to the Opposition Front Bench—that I do not support birching, and I do not intend to move amendments in Committee suggesting that we should birch young people.
Councillor Adoline Smith also said that Parliament had not acted quickly enough. I hope that, on reading Hansard and realising the timetable that has been set, she will know that we are taking this matter very seriously indeed. Another suggestion has been put forward by Mr. Alan Gayton, the head magistrate in Leicestershire.
§ Mr. Vaz
The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) will remember him, as the hon. Gentleman practised in the Leicestershire courts. Mr. Gayton's suggestion is a result of his great frustration. He suggested that those who perpetrate such crimes should be taken to the scene of the crime. He feels that young people will be more aware of the damage that they do if they are taken to watch what the emergency services have to do and see the carnage that has been wreaked. He said:Actually watching the emergency services prising the killed and injured out of mangled metal might just bring home to these fools the enormity of the likely consequences of their behaviour.The probation service in Leicestershire has welcomed such a suggestion. I do not know how it will work in practice, but Mr. Gayton, who has 27 years' legal experience, says that there is a need to remind young people of what they have done. Of course there are psychological and psychiatric implications of that suggestion. I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist, but that suggestion was put by one of our most senior magistrates.
I should be grateful if the Minister could comment also on the suggestion made by the chief constable of Leicestershire. On 17 April, he suggested that young people should be taught to drive as young as 13. He felt strongly that that would be one way to show young people that driving a car was not exciting or different. It would mean that young people would not have to steal cars if they wanted to drive, and it would enable them to understand that driving a car was something responsible. He said:I would like to see introduced into schools car driving and maintenance for children as young as 13.A third of reported crime in the county is juvenile crime.That is an interesting suggestion, upon which local people have seized as one way of dealing with the problem. I hope that when the Minister will say whether he agrees with the chief constable and whether he hopes to examine that practical suggestion carefully. Such matters need to be examined carefully.
I turn finally to a couple of things that should have been in the Bill, but which are not. We need to place greater emphasis on preventing such crimes. The chief constable's suggestion that those as young as 13 should be taught to drive is one way in which such preventive work could operate. However, it is important that the Government make more resources available at local level and ring fence them so that we can deal with the issue and prevent young people from embarking on such careers. That is the only way to deal with the long-term problems of car theft and death riding.
We must ensure that young people are made aware of what is happening. That means putting much more emphasis on teaching about such things in our schools. We should ensure that police officers spend time in schools on this. Many schools in my constituency invite police officers who are on the beat to explain the law to young people at school. Too few people are made available by police forces —no doubt because of the personpower implications—to ensure that such educative and preventive work is carried out, but that would be one way to ensure that young people are made aware of the serious issues at stake.
662 I very much hope that the Minister will respond to the debate in the spirit that has been evident in the speeches of hon. Members from all parties. This is a serious problem and the public demand that we should do something, and do it quickly. We should be aware of the tremendous implications of such legislation, especially because it brings into question the fundamental principles of the way in which we prosecute and the way in which our criminal justice system operates. Bearing all that in mind, we must listen to the real fears and concerns of local people.
I had intended to conclude on that point, but very finally, I should like to bring another suggestion to the Minister's attention. I had almost forgotten it, but I should never have been forgiven if I had. I refer to the Leicester Mercury's Leicestershire vehicle watch campaign, which was initiated and launched by our local newspaper with the support of all local Members of Parliament. Given that that newspaper's editor and other journalists are coming down here tomorrow, I would be seriously criticised if I did not mention their serious suggestion.
The campaign involves the owners of vehicles putting a fluorescent sign in their windscreen, proclaiming their membership of the campaign. About 30,000 motorists signed up for the scheme, and fewer cars bearing the mark were stolen than would otherwise have been expected. We all support that new idea and campaign. I very much hope that the Minister will also support what the Leicester Mercury and Leicestershire constabulary are doing, and that he will adopt the scheme and apply it nationally.
§ 7.4 pm
§ Mr. lain Mills (Meriden)
As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is not in his place, perhaps the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) will inform him of my opening comments. I had asked the right hon. Gentleman, if he disagreed with the Bill, to tell us the Labour party's policy, and the right hon. Gentleman referred me to his speech in our debate on the Loyal Address. Although I have now read the right hon. Gentleman's speech three or four times during this excellent debate. I must advise the House that I cannot see a clear policy.
When the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman replies to the debate—I do not know whether that will be the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook or one of his right hon. Friends—I hope that the Labour party's policy will be made absolutely clear. I find it bewildering that so many of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues, including the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), have made it clear that they want action and teeth. Although they may want teeth of a different shape from those of the Government, they do want action. I should therefore be grateful if the Opposition could make their policy clear.
I agree with colleagues of all parties who have talked about "joyriding" being a most inappropriate term. We should use either the phrase "misery riding" or, as has been suggested, "death riding". They would be much better terms and might help to discourage those who indulge in what is a deliberate crime, not a disease.
Although I do not want to detain the House for too long, I should like first to make a few points about demographics. I am informed that there is no easy demographic feature to this problem, except age. The problem involves the young and men, but they are not social class C2s and DEs only. They also include ABs. I 663 have seen reports stating that the perpetrators' designer jeans, jackets and trainers, together with money and credit cards in their wallets, show clearly that those who commit the crime of death riding are not unemployed or doing it through boredom because they do not have a job. Often they have money and are doing it for fun.
Let us go a little further and look at how it happens. I do not know whether hon. Members realise what happens at the sort of scenes that have occurred in my constituency. It contains the national exhibition centre, Birmingham international airport and Birmingham international station, which have given rise to what is possibly the largest concentration of car parks for high-powered, new and decent cars in the west midlands, if not in the country. Those areas are difficult to police because they are huge. Anybody who passes down the M6 and looks at the national exhibition centre knows how gigantic its car parks are. They have to be to service that most excellent institution. They are a target.
What happens is often quite well organised. One of the lads will spot a really good car, such as a Ford Sierra Cosworth, a BMW 7 series or the right sort of Jaguar entering the car park at either the station or the NEC. His mates will be alerted and will come down the road from the north of my constituency. It takes them about three minutes at most to get into the car. They do not operate by having only one fellow who sneaks up to drive the car away; a whole group is involved. The more people they can get into the car, the more fun it is. I assure the House that all this is true. They then spray on the back of the car, "Chase me, Charlie" or "This is stolen", and deliberately look for a police car so that they can induce a chase.
One of the guys who does this has said—this has been published in a national newspaper—that they like cars with big boots because they can then get lads not only in the car, but also I in the boot. That is why nobody, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), can convince me that those who indulge as passengers do not have equal responsibility for what happens. In fact, those involved vie with each other about who will drive. It is a case of peer group pressure. Driving the car becomes a way of proving one's manhood or that one is macho. Sometimes they take it in turns to drive. Indeed, having spotted the cars, they sometimes steal them and store them in garages for use on special occasions.
This is not a crime committed by young people who are bored and out looking for a bit of fun. It is a deliberate crime. The offenders intend to take the car and use it for dangerous purposes. The aggravated taking of a car is not just for fun. It is serious and the more dangerous young people can make it, the more they enjoy it. That is why I greatly welcome the penalties introduced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for those who take cars in such circumstances.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ignore any comments made about the speed of the legislation. I assure him that in the west midlands and in my constituency where, as I said, we have a particular problem, it will be welcomed just as soon as it can be put on the statute book. The Bill will be welcomed not just by me but by the many magistrates in Birmingham and Solihull who have come to me wringing their hands. They understand that I, too, am worried about the problem, but they ask what they can do in their courts to make sure that the criminals are given adequate penalties that will act as a deterrent.
664 I remind hon. Members on both sides of the House, but perhaps especially Labour Members, that they should not fool themselves that the lads who gather together around the boot of a Sierra Cosworth and say, "Let's get this Cossie and go lads," are unaware of the penalties. They know the penalties very well. They look at the lad who is under 17 and say, "You have a better chance. If they catch us, you will not get the penalties that we would." But in any case, what does it matter to them? They do not have any money, or, if they have, it is their parents' money.
The introduction of extra responsibilities for parents in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 is welcome. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will expand slightly on the penalties that 15 and 16-year-olds who commit this crime would attract. I am aware that driving under a ban is in itself a further offence which carries a six-month penalty, and that the ban on driving can be extended until after the offender is old enough to drive. The magistrates in my area are greatly worried about how the under-17s and particularly the 15 and 16-year-olds will see the sentence.
§ Mr. John Patten
My hon. Friend gives way with characteristic courtesy. Once the Bill becomes law and the parallel changes made in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 are brought into force, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to do in October next year, offenders in the 15-to-17 age group could be sentenced to up to one year in a young offenders institution rather than six months, as was previously the case.
§ Mr. Mills
I welcome that, and thank my right hon. Friend for his interjection.
As one who spent 20 years in the car industry, I know that the market demands goodies and nice things. It has never demanded safety. Therefore, the ability to sell cars on the basis of safety or security is limited. The motives are simply not there. The provision of greater security will need some encouragement. The industry has responded well, but I ask the House to recall a story which I gather is correct. In the Members' Cloakroom, we all have our hooks to hang our coats on and our pink strings to hang our swords on. To prevent his car from being stolen from just up the river, one hon. Member used to take the steering wheel off his car and hang it on the pink string.
The House will forgive me for saying that, in these days of high technology, there must be some way in which the vehicle industry could provide more foolproof methods of preventing people from breaking into cars. It might be deadlocking or visual identification. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) spoke about vehicle watch schemes. Such schemes have been established in Warwickshire, near my constituency, and in the west midlands in my constituency. They are extremely important, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to encourage them.
§ Mr. Clelland
The hon. Gentleman has touched on prosecution, which is the key to the problem, if the hon. Gentleman will pardon the pun. He talked about encouraging manufacturers to fit security devices. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should consider legislating to make manufacturers fit such devices? We did not talk about encouraging manufacturers to fit safety belts: we legislated on safety belts. We should also legislate on car security.
§ Mr. Mills
The hon. Gentleman puts me in a difficult position. I was one of the prime supporters of the Bill which introduced compulsory wearing of seat belts. I have also worked in the car industry. I am not sure that we need primary legislation. British standards exist now. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary attended a meeting of the Association of British Insurers, which provides good incentives for car manufacturers to produce more secure cars by reducing the insurance premiums for the people who buy them.
My right hon. Friend's speech to the association was excellent. He has also met the car manufacturers and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, is seeing them again on Wednesday. Perhaps we shall have to legislate, but I believe that out of their technological skills car manufacturers could provide the necessary mechanisms. I cannot believe that in these days of high technology there is not a relatively simple and inexpensive way of immobilising a car.
In the old days in the army we used to take the rotor arm off the vehicles. The lads in the other battalion had the same rotor arms, so they put it on and drove the vehicle off. The House will forgive me for being slightly facetious.
§ Mr. Vaz
I was interested to hear about the vehicle watch scheme in the west midlands, which is similar to the scheme in Leicester. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that different parts of the country do different things and that it would be helpful to have a national scheme supported by the Home Secretary which could be supported everywhere? At present we run the risk that, if some vehicles from my area go into the hon. Gentleman's area, people may not understand what the sign means. If we had one scheme supported by the Home Secretary, it could be of great help in solving the problem.
§ Mr. Mills
I would have no objection to a national scheme. The Warwickshire and West Midlands police work closely together, especially in policing the M6. I understand that the fluorescent disc is common to both police forces. I would not disagree with some form of national co-ordination.
I had hoped to raise in more detail one of the matters raised by my eminent constituent, His Honour Frank Blennerhasset. He asked me to say that many of the crimes with which we are dealing are aggravated by drug and alcohol abuse. He is still worried about the difficulty that the courts have when dealing with death riding or other matters. The definition of alcohol abuse by the World Health Organisation as a serious disability creates a disadvantage for the court in giving serious penalties for ignoring and breaking the law where alcohol or drug abuse is involved. Alcohol and drug abuse is certainly a factor in death riding and aggravated taking of cars. If it is not appropriate to deal with it tonight, I have written to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I should be grateful if he would respond in writing.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
This is one of the rare occasions when the two sides of the House are at one. The Secretary of State and the Minister of State, who has just left the Chamber, agree that we have a problem on our hands. Members of Parliament have a common interest in doing something about a serious problem and doing it quickly. The interesting thing is that there is a tendency to 666 presume that an action takes place, the culprit is found and we have to decide what sentence to apply in the courts to settle the matter. It is not so easy as that.
Experience has shown that the idea of getting caught takes into account very little the sentence that might be around the corner. Accessory to murder is a particular example. The notion of not getting caught is much stronger than the deterrent of a sentence. Nevertheless, we need some judicial procedure to deal with the matter. Where does the responsibility really lie? First, as the vehicle is created and manufactured by someone, that person has a responsibility. There is no point in putting on the market a product that will cause death, if that can be avoided.
The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), among others, pinpointed the fact that in the first place responsibility rests with the manufacturers. Undoubtedly, the technology exists to make stationary cars safer. Therefore, we should not be talking in terms merely of encouragement: we should get the thing done. The Government should require car manufacturers to provide the necessary safety. If motorists have to pay a little more for their cars, so what? It is far better to be a law-abiding motorist—as the majority of us are—and to know that we have made some contribution to our added safety. It is not only the poor woman with her child living on an estate who may be killed—as in the case cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge—because motorists use the roads while death riders are about.
Where does the next responsibility lie? It lies with motorists who, as the customers, should encourage motor manufacturers by saying that they want safe cars and are prepared to pay whatever it costs—I believe that the sum would he nominal—to make the car safe when it is stationary and not being used.
The first two responsibilities lie with the manufacturer and the buyer. Where is the third? It is with the parent. It serves no useful purpose when a parent boasts on television that his son is the best of the bunch and not likely to be caught, as happened in the case of the ram raiders in Tyne Bridge during the riots some weeks ago. The total ignorance of some parents must be attacked and public consensus must provide another responsibility. Where does that lie? It lies with the media, which serve no good if they are prepared to give time to parents who are so blatantly ignorant. Other parents, who are equally ignorant, may think that it is bravado to appear on television and boast about a serious wrong, which is potentially murder.
Where else does responsibility lie? It lies in schools, colleges of further education and polytechnics, where young people should be given regular reminders—from the police, through video and by other means—of the full horror that their actions can bring about, and the loss and distress that can be caused to families, whether young or old. When grandmothers and grandfathers lose children, they suffer grief. Whenever someone is hurt, their family suffers grievously, and that may take years to overcome.
I have listed a number of responsibilities on which I call upon the House to take action. The final responsibility lies with the police.
§ Mr. Clelland
My hon. Friend referred to the fact that manufacturers have some responsibility to provide safe and secure vehicles. He is making the same mistake as the Minister of State and the Home Secretary. Even if 667 manufacturers could be encouraged to produce vehicles with security devices, it would take about 20 years for the new generation of cars to find their way on to our roads. The problem is here and now. What is to be done about cars on our roads now, which do not have adequate security devices?
§ Mr. Leadbitter
I thought that I had made it clear that manufacturers should be obliged to provide such vehicles. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge mentions cars on the road now. If we can modify our cars to use lead-free petrol at reasonable extra cost, it will surely not be too difficult to overcome that little matter. Some time would need to be taken because of the large numbers involved, but I should have thought that a programme lasting between one year and 18 months could mop up the cars on the road now and ensure that they comply with the safety standards to which the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge rightly referred. I note that he has tabled an amendment to deal with that in Committee.
The police also have a responsibility. Although they do excellent work and face many problems. there is nevertheless a weakness in their deployment of forces and in their operations. Too many police officers seem to be driving around in patrol cars and too few are on their feet in the estates. While the police may have felt that patrol cars were a priority to ensure efficient operations, perhaps there should now be a shift of emphasis, with more police on the beat around the neighbourhoods.
I have referred only in passing to the victims. There is no doubt that in modern times we seem to be becoming partially immune to regular, daily reports of tragedy. We seem to take it for granted that it will happen. We are sorry, but the next day another incident occurs. This problem has been with us for some time, and we have taken it for granted. Due to recent publicity, we are urging that a Bill be pushed through the House quickly, and quite rightly so.
The House must remember that we have a responsibility to highlight the real tragedy of this type of offence. Unless we do so, tomorrow will be just another occasion. Next week, after the Bill has passed through another stage, it will be just another occasion. Like cats playing with pieces of different coloured wool, in a few weeks' time we shall have another interest. That is one of the penalties of modern life, which is very racy and interesting, and it is bound to happen. It is not a fault. but we must recognise that it exists.
I am pleased that the Minister of State said that he would speak firmly to the manufacturers next week. There is no doubt that we have a common interest, but as well as meeting a legislative requirement we must provide a service, using what publicity we can, to make it abundantly clear that there is a disease called death riding in our society, and that it must be brought to a halt. That will happen only if all those responsible act together to end it.
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's introduction of the Bill and certainly support the need for urgent action. I only wish that we could perhaps have tougher action, because the level of car crime is absolutely intolerable. The figures for 1989 showed that we had the worst problem in 668 Europe, with 400,000 thefts in England and Wales. The latest figure, if I heard my right hon. Friend correctly, is 550,000.
The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Mr. Young) referred to the figures for Bolton. I do not know whether he saw the editorial in today's Bolton Evening News headed "Car crime puzzle", asking why we should have such high car crime figures. The hon. Gentleman mentioned what he described as 11,000 innocent Boltonians who were affected in the past 10 months, and the editorial asks what the Government are intending to do about it.
If the national surveys are to be believed, 25 per cent. of people who had their cars stolen did not lock them. With the inadequacy of the locks fitted by some manufacturers, they perhaps felt that locking the car did not make any difference. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister is successful in his efforts to persuade manufacturers to fit better locks, and I hope that people will lock their cars when they have those better locks.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) spoke about the vehicle watch scheme in Leicester. I am pleased to say that I helped to launch such a scheme in Bolton, and I recommend that everybody should use the stickers.
The Government certainly support the police. What annoys me about the Opposition is that they are ambivalent in their support of the police. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) said that we had a common approach and that the police face many problems. One of their problems is the sort of statement made by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant). I hope that the hon. Member for Hartlepool would dissociate himself from the remarks of the hon. Member for Tottenham, who said that if the killer of PC Blakelockcame forward and said he did it, hut didn't want me to tell the police, I would not tell them.I hope that Labour Members would completely dissociate themselves from such an attitude. Our first duty is to support the police, if we are to get on top of these crime figures.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
That is an easy one. I have no hesitation in saying that I found that comment disgusting. I rebut it and I would have nothing whatever to do with it.
§ Mr. Thurnham
I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. Perhaps the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and others who have intimated that they would not support the police will do likewise.
The Government have supported the police with an extra 16,000 men and women in uniform and an extra 12,000 on civilian duties, totalling 28,000 extra posts. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) has already welcomed the extra £20 million for Greater Manchester police, although I am not able to translate that into the equivalent number of police positions that one would expect from that sum. It would appear that only 20 extra police are allocated for Greaster Manchester police in 1992–93.
I support the extra powers in the Bill making all passengers liable and increasing the maximum sentence to two years, or five years in the case of a death, and the maximum fine to £5,000. There is a problem with 17-year-olds. The proposal that we should ban them from driving after their 17th birthday, even if the offence was committed before that, is long overdue.
669 I should like to draw attention to repeated offenders. When I intervened in my right hon. Friend's speech to ask about an offender in Bolton who had already stolen 30 vehicles this year, he said that the Bill would not address that problem and that we would have to wait for his proposals in the new year. Why do we have to wait? Of the 400,000 offences that occurred in 1990, only 5,000 offenders went to prison or a youth offenders institution, of whom 4,000 went in for six months or less, so only 1,000 were given sentences of six months or more. No doubt many of those were released before the six months were up. I call on my right hon. Friend to do all he can to introduce measures urgently.
The study by the Northumbria police shows that 40 per cent. of crimes detected by the police in 1989 were committed by people on bail. Those likely to reoffend on bail must be deterred either by a new offence or by altering the rules governing the granting of bail. The chief superintendent in Bolton wrote to me saying:the current legal system is not capable of dealing with the worst offenders effectively.The chief clerk to Bolton magistrates court, Mr. Peter Dawson, sent me a letter from Mr. Moiser of Plymouth magistrates court, which appeared in The Times in September. He wrote:the Bail Act needs immediate amendment ߪ there is no reason whythe Governmentcannot act quickly".I would have hoped that we could have included an amendment to the Bail Act 1976 in this Bill to put that matter right immediately. Obviously, measures should be taken to provide more places in bail hostels. Not enough is being done in that area. There are 500 extra places now and 700 extra places to come in the next two years or so, but we should do a great deal more.
We have a great problem knowing what to do with criminal youths. Some 30 per cent. of crime is committed by youths under 17. We have heard about special schemes in Salford and elsewhere, and they seem to have promise, but social services in Bolton and everywhere else must face up to the challenge. We need more secure units and special schools.
The other day, when we debated child abuse in Leicestershire, I drew the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to the chasm in social services provision for juvenile delinquents. In some local authority homes, 85 per cent. of the staff are unqualified. In other words, only 15 per cent. are properly qualified. When we consider the best provision outside local authority provision, it raises many questions. There is a great challenge which social services must face up to.
In considering the best practice elsewhere, Mr. Melvyn Rose has spoken of the work done at Peper Harow. I understand that the charge there is £1,000 per week. If that is what it costs to bring offenders back into society as helpful and constructive people, it is well worth while. We need to see what provision is being made. There are profitable organisations as well as the non-profitable, charitable ones, such as Peper Harow.
I was somewhat surprised the other day to look at the accounts of a private sector company which provides homes for disturbed children. The proprietor of Helsey Hall Ltd. Mr. Stephen Lloyd whom I meet shortly, draws 670 substantial sums for his work running these special schools. The accounts for 1990 show that his salary was £507,750 and his total emoluments, including pension contributions, were £782,750. Substantial sums are being made by people in the private sector who are addressing the problem.
What are the social services doing? There seems to be an enormous chasm between what local authority homes provide and the provision elsewhere. Can my right hon. Friend consider that problem? In Bolton we have a young Houdini aged 14 or perhaps 15 now who, when I last spoke to the police, had committed more than 140 offences at colossal cost to society. It is worth facing up to the costs of institutions such as Peper Harow if we are to put such offenders on to the right track.
I look forward to my right hon. Friend's proposals for dealing with repeated offenders. I hope that he can bear to listen to all that is said to him by the police and other community workers. What further action will follow from the "Safer Communities" report that came out in the summer? I have certainly written to my right hon. Friend about that and I am awaiting a reply to my recent letters. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to visit Bolton in the near future. He was in Manchester recently. I can assure him that every opinion survey that I have done shows that law and order is the number one issue for my constituents.
Obviously I could speak for much longer on this subject, but I know that time is pressing. I look forward to my right hon. Friend visiting Bolton and seeing for himself some of the problems that we have.
§ Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)
I apologise to the House for my absence at the beginning of the debate on this important matter. As usual on a Monday, I was held up by British Rail. I was held up for two hours today; last week I was held up for an hour, so things are getting worse.
I support the Bill. Obviously, it has been put together quickly—I would not use the harsh expression "cobbled together"—and I accept that it may contain one or two quirks. I do not criticise the Government for that, because I believe that we needed such a Bill three months ago. I am more than happy to see it now. If there are any problems, adjustments can be made. I look forward to discussing the amendments that have been tabled by my hon. Friends, which will improve the Bill.
I am not sure whether the true reasons for young people, particularly those in my constituency, committing this type of crime have been identified. I know of no young person in the socio-economic category A who has stolen a car; most of the young people involved seem to belong to the C and D groups. I hesitate to put people in such categories, but those young people have little income and little or no prospect of getting a job. I know of children as young as 10 in my constituency who are worried about getting a job. Perhaps that concern accurately reflects the attitude of young people there. The possibility of such young people owning a car without a wait of many years is slim. Perhaps that is one more reason why they indulge in such a "hobby".
In my younger days, a hobby meant playing with a top and whip, playing marbles as well as cricket and football in the right season. Stealing cars and computer hacking are modern versions of such hobbies. I have no ability to do 671 either, especially computer hacking. Car crime seems to be the in thing. The other guy is a chicken if he has not stolen a car, and the thief considers himself one better. Perhaps that person is more attractive to the girls, as well. Perhaps they encourage young men to do such things.
I accept what has been said about the influence of the media. In the limited time available to hon. Members to watch television, I have seen some of the American police programmes. Inevitably, those programmes involve a car chase at high speed, and numerous cars are smashed up and damaged. Surely that must influence young people. That is yet another reason for car crime—there are as many reasons as there are answers to the problem. However, something must be done, and I am delighted that the Bill has been introduced.
The son of one of my constituents, Mrs. McVitie, was killed as a result of a crash in a stolen car. He was not driving, and there is some doubt whether he got into the car voluntarily or whether it was a case of him being judged a chicken if he had not. He went through the windscreen when the car crashed. Mrs. McVitie, all credit to her, recognised that her son had committed, in essence, an offence, although it is not in the book as such. She has campaigned for months for the introduction of relevant legislation to deal with the problem. I pay tribute to Mrs. McVitie because she tries to discourage other young people from doing the same as her son.
I believe that prevention is better than cure. I do not want to argue the pros and cons of the sentences and fines advocated; time will tell whether they are appropriate. It will be possible to adjust them if they are not. I would prefer the introduction of the means to prevent car crime. A number of good suggestions have been made.
Many sophisticated devices have been developed to improve house security. I recently had a new system installed in my house, and I am amazed at how it works. Those developments came about because of the demands of house owners who did not want their houses burgled. The market has responded to that demand by producing new, sophisticated devices. They cannot guarantee the absolute security of a house, but they can make it more secure. Perhaps some of those marvellous devices can be considered for cars.
A simple device has been used by a number of car showrooms in my constituency. I do not know how efficient it is, but it is worth considering. Many of those companies are unable to put the cars on sale inside when the showrooms are locked up, so they put a wheel clamp on the vehicles, which is a simple device. Its use originated in London as a means of preventing people from parking in the wrong place, but I believe that it is a useful device to prevent the theft of a car.
I pass a car showroom in my constituency regularly and the cars on display do not seem to have been disturbed —because it uses wheel clamps. At least that device reduces the chance of cars being stolen. I do not know how much such a device costs, but, given the ready market, I am sure that it could be reasonably priced. I have even considered using one myself, but I have a secure garage, I hope.
§ Mr. Clelland
The wheel clamp is extremely useful, because it is visible. Potential thieves are put off because they can see that it would be difficult to steal the car. I am not sure whether a wheel clamp would be particularly 672 attractive to owners in inclement weather, but does my hon. Friend agree that, if a device is visible, inside or outside a car, it acts as a valuable deterrent?
§ Mr. Thompson
Yes. I hope that the Home Secretary will consider all the suggestions that have been made in this sensible debate.
The debate has been marred only by the snide remarks of the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) about my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant). This issue has generated cross-party support and those remarks were a hit off, given what we are trying to achieve.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
I support the aims of the Bill, and I shall vote for it tonight. I want to concentrate on whether it will provide a sufficiently good means of dealing with young people.
As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the maximum penalty for someone aged 16 or 17 is subject to a ceiling of one year. However, if one takes off time for remission and good behaviour, one is left with a sentence of four months. We are often talking about young people who have been through the entire menu of alternatives to imprisonment before they are sent to a young offenders institution, formerly known as a detention centre. The penalty offers little deterrent to those youngsters.
In the summer, I visited my local crime prevention panel and the police to discuss this matter. I was told of one particular youngster in Stockton-on-Tees who has been arrested and charged no fewer than 17 times this year. He has been convicted of car crimes 16 times and had one charge pending at the time of our discussions three months ago.
The last time that that young person went into secure accommodation in Middlesbrough, he went in through the front door at 3.30 pm, and at 5.30 pm he disappeared out the back door and stole a car to make his escape. He was rounded up about a week later, having stolen four more vehicles. That one 14-year-old has been responsible for the loss of cars to the value of £2.5 million in the last year alone.
The superintendent of police in my area has told me that, were we to round up about 150 people in the county of Cleveland, it would eradicate about 80 per cent. of all car crime, which itself constitutes about 60 per cent. of total crime in the county.
Two types of car crime offenders concern us. First, there are those juveniles who steal and wreck fast cars. They are the death riders or joyriders—just stupid and irresponsible people. Above that is a thin veneer of hard cases, who continue offending into their twenties. They are the people to whom the Bill will have some relevance.
There are many other hon. Members present from the north-east, who have struggled down on British Rail to participate in this debate because we have seen in recent months horrifying scenes on our televisions. They include high-speed chases through densely packed suburban areas, filmed from the air by helicopters. At the crime prevention panel, I watched a video of a police chase through the centre of Middlesbrough, in which a 14-year-old drove a Vauxhall Astra at 90 miles per hour on the wrong side of the road, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic.
673 That offender damaged no fewer than eight vehicles, and the police gave up the chase on four separate occasions because it was too dangerous to continue pursuing the stolen vehicle at various stages. The situation is getting completely out of hand.
In the north-east, we also saw on our televisions a gentleman—if one can call him that—being interviewed after the death of his son in a 90-mph crash involving a stolen car on the outskirts of Newcastle. That father said, "No, my son wasn't a joy rider. He was a professional car thief. He was one of the best in the business." Many hon. Members are nodding, because they remember that interview. Our constituents were horrified that the media should have given such a person a platform, and that the father's attitude was so wholly irresponsible.
What are we to do? The Bill makes a good start, but it is only a start. It does not deal with hard-core, habitual car thieves—most of whom are in their teens, and who will grow out of it by their mid-twenties. I am told by the probation service, social workers, educationists, and those involved in the youth offenders institute in my constituency that the turning point comes in the late teens, when such offenders get a regular girl friend and decide that it is about time that they acted a little more responsibly. However, in that window between the ages of 13 and 17, there are some dangerous young men who will not be taught any lessons until they are contained.
I would like the Bill to contain a first offence penalty of a six-month custodial sentence—with no remission and no time off for good behaviour—in a properly funded and managed institution. A second offence would merit two six-month sentences; a third, three six-month sentences, and so on.
If the individual kept on offending, he would simply be given six months' custodial sentence for each offence—not to run concurrently, but consecutively. Then, a youngster who stole three cars would go to a young offenders institution for one and a half years. I am told by those who have responsibility for the care and custody of young people that they can actually do something with them over that period—but little can be achieved with a young man in one or two months. He returns to the same circumstances as before, to associate with the same peer group, and starts behaving the same way as before.
I have written at great length to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I emphasise that juvenile crime is not the same as adult crime. I once defended a juvenile on a charge of reckless driving, and he was banned from driving for two years after being found guilty of the most horrific driving at night without lights. As I pulled out of the court car park into the road afterwards, I was almost rammed by some genius in a gold Capri. It was none other than the juvenile that I had just been defending. The way such people behave is quite unbelievable.
We must recognise the essential difference between juvenile crime and adult crime, and start to treat it seriously. The opposition to the Bill that we have heard tonight, to the effect that it will make such offences more difficult to prove, will not go down well in the country. The public want the House to do something serious about the problem. I doubt that the public will think that the Bill goes far enough—but it makes a good start.
§ Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department for being unable to attend at the start of the debate, due to the aggravated taking of British Rail, which took three hours to take me from York to the metropolis. I am none the less glad to make a short contribution to the cross-party connection in support of the Bill. Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House agree that something must be done, and quickly.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) that the Bill is a rapid reaction to the tip of what is obviously a substantial iceberg—and rightly, because the extent of public anger had to be addressed. The iceberg is the result of a rapid rise in vehicle theft by young persons which goes back some time. It is at its most active in urban areas such as my constituency, the metropolitan city of Leeds, and other big cities such as Newcastle, Bradford and Manchester, whose Members of Parliament have contributed to the debate.
Figures from the police forces of North and West Yorkshire show the astonishing rate at which vehicle theft has risen. In 1990–91, the six-monthly average for vehicle thefts in West Yorkshire was 20,900. Between 1989–90, there was a 53 per cent. increase in recorded vehicle theft offences in the county and the number recorded in the Leeds metropolitan district rose by 85 per cent.
There is a disturbing trend for younger children to involve themselves in that kind of crime. In 1989, 19 per cent. of all those convicted of vehicle theft were aged under 17. So far this year, the figure has risen to 27 per cent. West Yorkshire police statistics suggest that the peak age for the offence of taking a vehicle without consent is 15. That is the outrageous undercurrent against which the real bravados—the macho bunch—have participated in so-called joyriding or death riding. That is a dangerous cult and it must be dealt with harshly.
Between July and October this year in Leeds, two children aged under 10 came to the attention of the police for vehicle theft offences. The Bill does not attempt to address that aspect—and understandably so, because the problem must be dealt with in a short and concise way.
Many devices and initiatives are available, but the view of West Yorkshire's chief constable is this:It is interesting to note that the upsurge in vehicle crime began in earnest in 1989. It may be no coincidence that just prior to this the Criminal Justice Act 1988 reduced the unauthorised taking of motor vehicles to a summary offence, triable only at magistrates courts. Following this reduction to a less serious' offence, sentencing policy seems to be that the offence of taking vehicles without consent is not in isolation deemed to be serious enough to attract a custodial sentence. In consequence, young offenders may take many cars and never face the prospect of a deterrent sentence.That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South. The chief constable adds:The proposed legislation to deal with aggravated taking of vehicles is most welcomed as recognition that there is a real problem to be addressed. I am left wondering, however, whether it will address the basic problem of the volume of car crime committed, particularly by significant numbers of young offenders who are not dealt with in a way that effectively deters their criminal activities.There are only three reasons for the Bill. First, we have seen a rapid growth of horrendous proportions in the incidence of this crime. Secondly, the Home Secretary and his colleagues have found a way in which to deal with the 675 problem swiftly and, I believe, to remove the uppermost element. Thirdly, the Bill has received all-party support, which has enabled us to deal with it in the current Session.
I am bound to say, however, that the Bill does nothing to deter younger vehicle takers—and it will stand or fall according to its deterrent qualities. We do not want to see a massive amount of custodial sentencing, although we are glad that provision is made for it; what we do want is a reduction in the number of people who participate in such a horrendous cult and in the equally horrendous statistics relating to youngsters who take cars, go to court and then take more cars.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
I support the Bill because it seeks to address a serious problem, but I believe that that problem is greater than it appears to be. My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I speak from gut reaction rather than a detailed knowledge of the law or the statistics, but I believe that my gut reaction is shared by the vast majority of people in this country.
Over the past few years, there has been a massive increase in hooligan crime—crime perpetrated by maladjusted, ill-disciplined adolescents: vehicle theft, theft from vehicles, vandalism, mugging and, at a lower level, intimidatory cycling on modern pedestrian estates, which is very disturbing for residents. In short, young hooligans are terrorising and destroying the neighbourhoods in which they live.
At the weekend, a constituent came to see me. A neighbour's child had been breaking my constituent's windows, hurling abusive language and stealing property at will. The youth in question had been before the courts, but was still at large. The police had been round to have a supportive chat; there was nothing else that they could do in the circumstances. While a police constable was in the living room, the car parked outside was being daubed by the youth.
How much worse the problem must be in our larger inner-city areas, whose suffering has recently been laid bare by the national press. The fact that it is concentrated in the poorer areas is no justification for such behaviour, for which there can be no justification; it increases the urgency of the need to find a solution. Until the blight is eradicated, no one will wish to employ people from the areas where this menace exists, and the poor will become poorer.
Of course there are people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds; of course we must do what we can about it. Sadly, however, there will always be people from disadvantaged backgrounds and there will always be a few people—many of them not from disadvantaged backgrounds—with strong and perverted personalities, who, through macho perversity, gain satisfaction from bullying and terrorism. The influence of their degradation is way beyond their puny numbers.
Where the problem exists in one part of the country, or in one community, it is greatly magnified through the small screens in the sitting room, which multiply that problem by stimulating its imitation. The situation is becoming worse, not better. This is a useful Bill, but it papers over only one crack. To be effective, justice must deter and it must he swift; at present, it is neither.
676 Manifestly, we have no effective deterrent for hooligan crime, or we would not be debating the issue. What about fines? Fines—for people with no jobs and no money? My right hon. Friend the Minister rightly said that their parents could be fined, but some parents have less control over their children than Robert Maxwell's children had over their fraudulent father.
What about prison? Should we send such people to prison, so that they can learn how to become professional criminals? In the majority of cases, neither society nor the youths in question would be served by that. What about community service? In some cases, yes; but, in general, the people with whom we are concerned would not be deterred. We require a proper deterrent and I am increasingly of the view that we need some threat of pain and humiliation to purge people of the pseudo-macho personalities that cause the problem. The realisation must be forced on the "big man" that, in reality, he is a little man.
Last week in the House, I suggested that such people should be given a sound thrashing. I believe that my suggestion caused something of a stir. I am not sure why; perhaps it was due to the appreciation that, in the country as a whole, the idea would—not surprisingly—gain considerable support. It is done; it is over; it is finished. It is a deterrent. I wonder how the young Napoleons who terrorise their neighbourhoods would react if they believed that, in the end, they would suffer a sound thrashing.
Alternatively, what about a kind of hooligan litter squad? Perhaps hooligans should be attired in some drab and identifying dress and required to carry out repairs and clean up the areas in which their depredations have taken place. William the Conqueror was a cruel and harsh ruler, and I do not suggest that we should harry the north; but during his reign, although people were fearful of the monarch, they were not fearful of their fellow citizens. There may be a moral here: perhaps we need a touch of barbarism to secure civilisation.
We must also have swifter justice. A large proportion of these anti-social crimes are committed by young people who are on bail or yet to be tried—people who laugh at the law while continuing to break it. Notwithstanding the striking lessons of the Birmingham Six and the other cases, I feel that we are in great danger of over-indulging civil libertarians at the expense of civil peace.
For one reason or another, either it is too long before the courts are available to try the cases, or the lawyers appear to require too much time to prepare the defence. To say the very least, there is a suspicion that the legal system has been devised to suit the lawyers rather than to protect the public. Justice without immediacy is justice perverted, not least when the guilty go free after a case has lapsed because the credibility of identity evidence has been undermined by delay.
I recently wrote to my right hon. Friend about a specific case. I received an answer, but I am afraid that it was a long catalogue of half-measures and good intentions. We need action—action this day. It is fine for many of us, given the privileged lives that we lead; it is hell for many of our citizens and we owe them a great deal more urgency than is provided by this useful but inadequate measure.
§ 8.7 pm
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, although it is a little depressing that some hon. Members should despair of finding any real answers to the problem. After all, law and order has collapsed in this country. The crime rate has doubled in the past 12 years, and there has been a whirlwind of crime committed by young people: 50 per cent. of all crime, and 75 per cent. of burglary, is carried out by them. That is very worrying. Surely a Government's job is to address the overall rise in crime that has taken place while they have been in office, and also to deal with this new phenomenon —the amazing increase in youth crime.
If we consider only the superficial elements of these changes in society, and deal with the problem purely at the level at which the Bill deals with it, we shall not do justice to the House or to the people of this country. Although we support elements of the Bill, we want to modify it; that is why we have tabled amendments, which we hope will improve it. We had considerable reservations last week about the Prison Security Bill: we felt that our debate missed the opportunity to create a real piece of penal reform—legislation that would change our penal system radically, along the lines of the Woolf report. We do not have great enthusiasm for the Bill. We believe that it is a missed opportunity for tackling the deep-seated causes of crime.
The Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Bill follows a course that we have come to expect from the Home Secretary and the Government. When a matter of serious public concern arises which leads to a great deal of media interest, someone in central office says, "We must show that something is being done." To the horror of Home Department civil servants, they suddenly receive an order from the Home Secretary, to the effect that a quick fix is needed to make it look as though something is being done. This, therefore, is a quick fix Bill.
Car theft is a matter of great public concern. More than half of all recorded crimes are car crimes, involving the theft of vehicles or the theft of property from vehicles. These offences are very much in the public eye, due to the appalling scenes that we saw on television. Oxford, Bristol —which I visited last week—and Newcastle are suffering great problems. The appalling scenes that we saw on television were brought home to us there. Some of the reporting was irresponsible. With hindsight, it appears that disturbances in other towns and cities can be attributed to the copycat element.
Most people do not want such offences to be tolerated. Councils that conduct local polls say that that is the primary concern. Only a couple of months ago, I visited a major industrial city where a poll had taken place. I was told that people in that city were more concerned about being able to live safely in their homes, not having their cars stolen, and not being burgled or mugged than about unemployment or any of the other big economic issues.
This is not a new offence. It involves predominantly young people who have been involved in taking vehicles without consent for many years. The problem, however, has become very much worse. It is escalating and taking on worryingly new manifestations. It is happening with many other crimes, as crime figures spiral out of control. The tragedy is that the Government have stood idly by and done little to prevent youth crime in general and this aspect of youth crime in particular.
678 I draw the Government's attention to the Home Office standing conference on crime prevention, chaired by James Morgan, which reported in August this year. The working party, chaired by James Morgan, studied crime prevention programmes. Of youth crime, it said:Considering the significant contribution that young people make to the crime problem, both as victims and offenders, the working group was surprised by the lack of references to specific strategies for preventing crime by and against young people.That is an important point.
We know that almost half of all recorded crime is carried out by people under the age of 21, yet far from developing a strategy that focuses on youth, as other countries, such as France, have done, the Government have been involved in a war of attrition against young people. I do not draw the simple conclusion that young people have been badly treated—as they have—during the last 12 years. One only has to look at the halving of the value of the youth training allowance and the way in which young people between the ages of 16 and 18 can no longer claim benefit, including housing benefit. Many of them have been forced into having no stake in society. All that is true, but I do not say that young people who have been deprived in that way should go out and steal cars. There is, however, a clear relationship, as the Home Office research and all the other research shows, between deprivation and crime.
The Home Secretary pointed out in the debate on the Metropolitan police that Sir Peter Imbert had said that the map of deprivation matched almost exactly the map of crime in London. The Home Office's own research shows the same close relationship. I have studied some interesting research which shows that, on previous occasions, the Home Secretary and the Minister of State have drawn a comparison with the depression in the 1930s. They state that crime did not rise then, and they ask why it did not rise then. The research now available shows that crime tripled between the two world wars, particularly at the time of the great depression.
There is therefore a clear relationship between deprivation and crime. The training and employment opportunities available to young people have declined and benefit has been reduced. The result has been a substantial increase in homelessness and deprivation. We can see it on the streets of London.
§ Mr. Sheerman
No, not for the moment. I am trying to keep to a very strict timetable.
All those factors are linked to rising crime rates. No doubt a Conservative Member will cite the 1930s, just as has happened in the past. I refer Conservative Members to the research, and I hope that they will learn a little from it.
Painfully little has been done specifically to tackle car crime, which is a major aspect of youth crime. This is even more depressing when one realises that in various parts of the country there are projects run by the probation service and the voluntary organisations which provide an alternative to custody. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have said that these schemes are successful.
The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has some interesting ways of looking at the problem, but he did not look at the fact that there are proven ways of taking young people who have committed offences and giving them a chance to confront their 679 criminality. They become involved in schemes which allow them to use up their energy. The schemes involve the use of motor vehicles off the road. There is a high success rate.
All too often, when I visit successful schemes throughout the country, I find that they are about to announce that they cannot carry on, or that they cannot diversify or increase the take-up because the Government have not provided any money. I visited a scheme in Kirklees, near my constituency, which wants to turn into a car project instead of remaining a motor cycle project, but there is no money available for that purpose, even though it is a proven, cost-effective way of deterring young people from continuing to commit this kind of car crime.
The Government have done little to encourage such schemes. The Opposition believe that we should consider alternatives and the ability of magistrates to say that something must be done with first offenders and that an alternative can work. Instead of a young person being sentenced to a period in custody, which means that it is all too likely that he or she will continue in a life of crime, become a professional criminal and never get out of the criminal world, the alternative makes both moral and economic sense. Is it morally right to sentence a young person to a period in custody?
The Home Office has also been remiss about security devices, an important subject that has been debated at length today. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) knows a lot about the car industry, but my patience with it is wearing a little thin. Six years ago, the Prime Minister invited the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to No. 10. They told her that they would respond, but they have not done so. If uniformly high standards were imposed, manufacturers would have to meet them. Competition would he the same and vehicle security would rapidly improve. That is what people want. With the change of cars, higher security would soon be achieved.
Young people often steal the most attractive and new models rather than old bangers. I have been told that, in some cities, if someone wants to ensure that their car is not tampered with or taken, they should buy the rustiest and least attractive car available.
Against the background of Government inertia, we have a Bill that will achieve little, because powers already exist to deal with the taking of a car and aggravating factors. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said this afternoon, any passenger who encourages and any driver who recklessly drives causing injury or damage is guilty of reckless driving, which was renamed dangerous driving in the Road Traffic Act 1991 and is liable to two years imprisonment. The offence of causing death by reckless driving carries a maximum of five years, manslaughter carries a maximum of life, and deliberately damaging a vehicle carries a maximum of 10 years. One wonders what contribution the Bill will make.
I share the misgivings of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook about the speed of the passage of the Bill. Hurried legislation is never good legislation; there are many examples of that. There are deep deficiencies in the drafting of the Bill. The Opposition have tabled a cluster of amendments. We hope that the Government will listen reasonably to them, because they have been tabled in a reasonable frame of mind and do not make party political points. If the Government use their majority, the 680 only guarantee of consideration is another place. We do not think that that is good enough. The Bill should have been investigated in Committee.
I say that with some feeling because, in the three years, that I have been doing this job I have not heard so many well-qualified solicitors and barristers, people from the legal community and inquests and from pressure groups say that there are areas of deep concern. That is not an ideological or party-political point; real concern has been expressed by our professional associations and by those who practise in the courts. They worry that the Bill will damage British justice.
The most worrying feature of the Bill is the issue of fault. A passenger who is screaming to get out of a car, who is trying to stop a driver driving dangerously, will still be guilty of the aggravated offence. If any damage is done or if any injury occurs after the initial taking while the car is being driven, the aggravated offence is committed, even if the car is being driven sensibly or carefully. The car does not have to be driven recklessly. If it was travelling at 20 mph and someone else recklessly drove into it, the aggravated offence would have been committed. The situation is the same if someone walked in front of the car and the driver had no chance of stopping. A defendant would be guilty of the offence if he took the car, abandoned it and someone else damaged it before it was recovered.
The chairman of the Bar Council, Mr. Tony Scrivener —[Interruption.] I hope that the remarks of Conservative Members from a sedentary position are not an attack on the Bar Council, which I think all of us would regard as an important and esteemed body. Mr. Tony Scrivener referred to the Bill. [Interruption.] If the Home Secretary would listen to more experts, he would probably be a better Home Secretary. If he listened to Anthony Scrivener, he would be a darned sight better.
Anthony Scrivener referred to the Bill as unique in jurisprudence because a defendant can be guilty of the aggravated offence even though he does no other act than commit the basic offence, and the event which makes the crime aggravated is outside his or her control. That is bad law, which will lead to miscarriages of justice, and we shall seek to amend it.
It was refreshing to hear the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) express his misgivings about this part of the Bill. I say again—this is not based on party acrimony—that we have severe reservations about two clauses, which must be given serious consideration today or in another place. There is the important question of the reversal of the burden of proof. The defendant has to prove that he was not in, or in the immediate vicinity of, a car rather than the prosecution having to prove that he was.
On the face of it, that seems to be in breach of article 6(2) of the European convention on human rights, which states that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Have the Government taken legal advice? The reversal of the burden of proof is wrong in principle and will lead to injustice. Surely we have had enough problems in the British judicial system with miscarriages of justice. As the hon. and learned Member for Burton said, that reversal could easily lead to miscarriages of justice that we could sort out now. It should not be an issue between us. I hope that the Minister of State will respond positively to my criticisms.
681 The use of the term "in the immediate vicinity" will raise enormous problems. What if the passenger gets out because he is terrified by what is going on and the car crashes at the next corner? He is still in the immediate vicinity. What if the passenger gets out half an hour before the crash, but the driver continues driving in the area and crashes near where the passenger is still standing talking to his mates? The reversal of the burden of proof would also affect alibi evidence called on behalf of the accused.
In many cases, a disqualification will be appropriate. We believe that that is right, but the court should have a discretion, particularly where no fault lies with the defendant.
§ Mr. Sheerman
Where perhaps a defendant has been a passenger and is not accused of reckless driving. May I finish my argument?
Disqualification can have a counter-productive effect. Young people with years of disqualification ahead of them have no opportunity to take part in motor projects, to drive legitimately and to channel enthusiasm into responsible behaviour. The Minister will know from many of the schemes that he visits that one of the carrots that they hold out to young people is the ability to drive vehicles off road and eventually to train for a full licence. That is often the spur which gets them back to a proper relationship with the almighty car.
There is a national crisis of youth crime, but the Bill does not deal with its roots. If Dickens could come back and watch the debate, he would see that most of us are dwelling on the surface of the problem, while beneath the surface something is wrong in England and Wales.
§ Mr. Sheerman
But not, apparently, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland.
There is something deeply wrong. The Labour party has a crime prevention policy and a youth crime prevention policy which will begin to deal with that problem. We shall support the Bill but we shall also try to amend it sensibly. We do not believe that it is the full answer which could have been brought to the House.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) down every path of his argument, particularly the last third of his speech. If the House so decides, we may be able to consider some of the detailed points during the debate on the four sets of amendments which will be considered in Committee.
This has been a good debate. I say that because some lawyers have spoken—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). Most of us listened carefully to those hon. Members whose constituencies have been affected by this hooliganism—the hon. Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). I was particularly taken by a good phrase used by the hon. Member for Hartlepool, who suggested that we should stop using the word "joyriding"—none of us in the House 682 does so any longer, except in unspoken inverted commas. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) said that we should refer to "car hooliganism", which is another exceptionally good phrase.
Much closer to home for me, we listened to the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who represents and lives in the Blackbird Leys part of Oxford. I represent the other half and represented the area in which he now lives until the boundary commissioners so cruelly took it from me in 1983.
I begin by revisiting the arguments in the opening speeches about why we need the Bill. When the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) kindly let me intervene, I said that the Bill, should it pass into law, would provide us with not only a deterrent but a punishment and a way of keeping repetitive car crime offenders off the streets.
We need to legislate on this offence because of an evidential difficulty, which is compounded in several ways. It is compounded when several people are involved in the aggravated taking of a vehicle—my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) said that such people were not content with being in a car but wanted to be in the boot as well—and by the speed and lethal power of the Cosworths and other vehicles which they steal. It is difficult for the forces of law and order to identify who is responsible for what, as the hon. Member for Oxford, East saw in Oxford in the autumn. It is also difficult to establish when the damage occurred.
There are three problems—of identification, of intent and of witnesses. That is why we need the Bill. The difficulties are demonstrated by a simple statistic—only 6 per cent. of the people who take without consent are charged with criminal damage, yet four out of every 10 vehicles returned to their unfortunate owners suffer substantial damage.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook and the hon. Member for Huddersfield spoke about the unintended consequences of people's actions, and I understand the worries about that matter. That an offender can be held criminally liable for the unintended consequences of his or her actions is a well-established legal principle. A person who attacks someone and who wishes to do grievous bodily harm but unfortunately kills his victim can be convicted of murder after due process.
Moving closer to home, on the offence of causing death by dangerous or drunken driving, the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to the Road Traffic Act 1991, whereby an offender will be found guilty if he drives dangerously, thereby causing someone's death, whether or not he intended to do so or even knew about it.
§ Mr. Patten
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, following the example of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I must try to make progress in the interests of speed. The hon. Member for Swansea, East obviously believes that the matter is important. I always think that my points are important as well. I give way to him.
§ Mr. Anderson
Surely it is not difficult to distinguish the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about assaults. That is done by considering a case in which a passenger can be held equally liable even though he sought to avoid being identified with the aggravated crime. He may know 683 that the vehicle has been taken, but seek positively to absent himself from the scene and the commission of the aggravated offence.
§ Mr. Patten
I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he felt that his point was important, but it is covered by section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968. People who get in a car when it is stolen are associated with that act and can be convicted of exactly the same offence.
I shall take a more up-to-date example than one from 1968. In the recent House of Lords judgment in the aptly named Savage case, the court ruled that a person can be guilty of actual bodily harm regardless of whether she—in that case—intended any harm or was reckless about causing harm, so long as she intended the assault. In that case, Mrs. or Miss Savage emptied a beer glass over a person's head, the glass went with the beer and the person was hurt. There was no intent, but she was found guilty and the conviction was sustained on appeal.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook made an important point about the minimum and maximum periods for banning and questioned whether that would help or hinder rehabilitation of an offender. A youngster may have committed the offence only once. However, such people must not be favoured, as the hon. Member for Oxford. East said in his powerful speech. If a court decides on a two-year probation order, during the first year the person is mandatorily banned under the Bill and there is nothing to stop the court ruling that during the second year he or she should attend a motor course. I have been to many throughout the country. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, we are funding a great many such courses.
I have referred to some of the powerful speeches made by Opposition Members with particular constituency interests. Among Conservative Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) asked in her characteristically robust way why the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats do not see the urgency of this matter. That urgency is self-evident. Several hon. Members who spoke after the opening speakers—I shall not name them for fear of causing inter-party embarrassment—said that it was an urgent matter, and I applaud them. Clearly, there is a gap between the Opposition Front Bench and those who have experienced these problems in their constituencies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) and the police for their warm welcome of the Bill. My hon. Friend raised the important point of what happens under the Bill if a man or woman leaves a child in the car and the car is taken. He gave two examples. I hope that I am not thought too patronising or authoritarian when I say that I do not believe that parents should leave children in unattended cars and they certainly should not leave the keys in the car as well. But should parents do that and should the car be taken away with a child in it, those who took the car could be charged with a much more serious offence under section 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984, punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton is a member of the council of Justice—an organisation for which I have great respect and which operates under the presidency of Lord Alexander of Weedon. He raised two particular areas where he felt that there might be some 684 danger of miscarriages of justice should the legislation go through in its present form. I listened carefully to what he said, and I have some answers.
First, on the "liability for others' acts" point, the Bill contains safeguards—as my hon. and learned Friend knows from his study of it—when the accused can show that the aggravating event occurred before he committed his basic offence or that he was not near the vehicle at the time. However, the general principle of liability for the acts of others to which my hon. and learned Friend referred is not at all out of line with the Theft Act 1968. The basic taking without consent offence is that the taker and any passenger may be punished equally.
That was the point I made when responding to the intervention of the hon. Member for Swansea, East, when I mentioned section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968. It is also precedented in section 35(2) of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973—[Interruption.] It is important that those who are concerned about the possibility of injustice pay attention.
That section states that a person convicted of taking without consent is liable to pay compensation for any—and I emphasise that word—damage to the property "occurring while it was out of the owner's possession" and that such damage is to be treated ashaving resulted from the offence, 'however and by whomsoever' the damage was caused.The precedents are clear for the action which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is taking in the Bill.
Secondly, on the issue of the precedents for making a defendant prove his defence in the way in which the Bill requires, I argue that every year—certainly since I have been in the House—we have created numerous new offences which have defences attached to them, usually for those who an show that they acted reasonably or that they used due diligence to ensure that they avoided committing an offence. All those defences are for the defendant to establish on the balance of probabilities.
We have traditional defences on, for example, diminished responsibility which allow murder to be reduced to manslaughter, or defences introduced in Acts that have been passed in the last couple of years. The Food Safety Act 1990 is one which has a large number of such defences built into it, as does the recent Environmental Protection Act 1990.
§ Mr. Lawrence
I hope that my right hon. Friend will appreciate that objection is taken to eating more and more into the principle by which the burden of proof is on the prosecution to establish guilt and not on the defendant to establish innocence. He is perfectly right that in recent years we have been eating into that principle, but if we continue to do so, the principle will go, and that is the civil liberties issue which the system of justice has always been anxious to maintain.
§ Mr. Patten
I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend about the civil liberties issue. If the principle ever was firmly established, it has gone, but the principle's underlying weight is protected by the fact that the defences are there in law. That is the way we have evolved the law over the years, but I shall consider carefully what my hon. and learned Friend said, and I shall read it tomorrow in Hansard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) was pretty savage about Labour Front-Bench spokesmen and criticised muddled Opposition speeches. The notable 685 fellow East Anglian and friend to both of us—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant)—was not satisfied and added "nit-picking" to that criticism. He also wanted us to be more severe in our handling of these offenders. A life term is available for those who are convicted of deliberately causing death, whether the conviction is manslaughter—
§ Mr. Patten
I am finishing my sentence. The hon. Gentleman is treating me as though he were talking to someone from Louisiana and wanting to finish the sentence before it has been started. However, I shall complete what I was saying.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West was right about car security and what he said was reflected in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, who urged us to do more about car security. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I will meet car manufacturers for a return match this Wednesday and there will be some plain speaking.
I pay tribute to the Association of British Insurers, to which we began talking a couple of years ago. It said that it was difficult to use insurance mechanisms to cut car crime, but two years on, it is now using insurance premiums formidably well. We look to the British car manufacturing industry and its European counterparts to do the same as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) was concerned about people who reoffend while on bail, and we shall deal as quickly as we can with the reports—and the analysis of them—which deal with that. He and my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) were concerned about 15, 16 and 17-year-olds and their involvement with the social services. I understand that the social services want to help people, but sometimes one can help people a bit more by nipping problems in the bud and dealing with them at an earlier stage.
Sometimes, to be firm with people can be more helpful than leaving problems until it is too late. It is much better to step in and help people firmly rather than having to punish them at a later stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and others were quite right. The strongest support of all for the Bill came from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), who had a range of interesting ways in which to stoke up the legislation to higher and higher levels of severity.
I hope that there will not be a vote on Second Reading. I understand that there will not be one, but I end on this note: that will allow the official Opposition to say that they did not oppose the Bill because there was no vote on Second Reading. However, should we decide to consider the Bill in a Committee of the whole House, the first set of amendments tabled by the Opposition—should the Opposition win the vote or should we accede to them—would torpedo the Bill below the water line and sink it lock, stock and barrel. They are wrecking amendments of the worst type.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook and the hon. Member for Huddersfield are trying to have their political cake and eat it. They are trying to say to the general public 686 and to their constituents that they have supported the Bill. but, in a few moments, if we resolve to go into a Committee of the whole House, they will then try to sink the Bill. I have a message for them. We have no intention of allowing the Bill to be sunk, and we shall make it as clear as we possibly can to our constituents and to the hon. Gentleman who tried to have their cake and eat it exactly what they have done. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills), That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. David Davis.]
§ Question agreed to.
§ Bill immediately considered in Committee.
§ [SIR PAUL DEAN in the Chair]