§ Order for Second Reading read.3.33 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As the House knows, vehicle crime is a serious problem, and one of the crimes that most concerns the public. Nearly 400,000 cars are stolen each year and 120,000 of those are never recovered. Vehicle crime accounts for nearly a fifth of all recorded crime and costs, at a conservative estimate, about £3 billion a year. It causes great distress and inconvenience to victims, as all of us know who have suffered from vehicle crime—in my case, before 1997, although I accept that it has gone on since 1997—[Laughter.] Thank you. Vehicle crime also ties up the resources of the criminal justice system.
Two years ago my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set a national target of reducing vehicle crime by 30 per cent. by 2004. As the Minister with responsibility for delivering the target, I thought that that was, in the current parlance, challenging, but I accepted it none the less. There is a good possibility that we will reach that target. The Bill forms an integral part of our strategy for reducing vehicle crime.
Although it is some time since I suffered from vehicle crime—there were special reasons for that—it is still a serious problem. None the less, vehicle crime has already fallen by 17 per cent. according to recorded crime figures. In a different context, I must tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that, after about two months of denying its veracity, yesterday the Leader of the Opposition prayed in aid the British crime survey, which is the most thorough and authoritative survey of the total levels of recorded and unrecorded crime. The survey shows a similar trend for vehicle crime, and shows that it fell by 15.1 per cent. in the period—
§ Mr. Straw
Just let me finish the sentence. That period covered the calendar year 1997 and the calendar year 1999. The reduction in vehicle crime is the result of effective targeting by the police, working in partnership with manufacturers and the community. However, we have to do more. I shall give way, first to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and then to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).
§ Mr. Blunt
The Home Secretary referred to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Will he take the opportunity to make it clear that he does not believe that 23 my right hon. Friend is a racist or was guilty of racism? If people have taken the Home Secretary's remarks in that way and believe that, will he apologise for their effect?
§ Mr. Straw
The answer is no. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman's question is in order, as we are discussing the Vehicles (Crime) Bill. However, if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to say parenthetically in the House, as I have done outside, that I believe that the Leader of the Opposition played the race card in his speech, I am happy to do so. In case the hon. Gentleman has not caught up with the news, I note that the apologies on the record have been forthcoming from the shadow Home Secretary, who said that she was extremely sorry if the Taylor family was distressed about the remarks made by the Leader of the Opposition. That is my understanding of what has been said.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Is his position that, any time that we decide to raise the issue of stop and search or the aftermath of the Macpherson report, that is playing the race card? Will he note that I did not apologise for comments made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? The only thing for which I expressed any regret at all was any distress that might have been felt. However, I did not believe that that was caused by my right hon. Friend's remarks, but rather by the press coverage and the interpretation of those remarks by the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Now that the right hon. Lady has finished, we will get on to the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ Mr. Bercow
Given the Home Secretary's enthusiasm for the British crime survey, will he confirm that he accepts its finding that vehicle crime is approximately twice the level of that which is recorded in the official statistics?
§ Mr. Straw
Yes, I will. The British crime survey tells us what we already knew—that the number of recorded vehicle thefts is pretty near 100 per cent. of the figure shown by the survey. When people's vehicles are stolen, most of them report that for insurance purposes. However, the recording of thefts from vehicles is much lower than that for vehicle theft, not least because the items stolen are sometimes below the excess on the insurance. Speaking personally, during the ancien regime, my stereo was stolen twice when my vehicle was parked at Preston station. On both occasions, I did not report the theft, because it was not really worth it. The vehicle was then stolen from outside my house in Blackburn.
§ Mr. Straw
I did use a crook lock but, unfortunately, a crook lock has not yet been designed that can anchor 24 the stereo to a vehicle. That may, however, be dealt with in the next Conservative manifesto, which might tell us that the Conservatives have solved that geometric problem.
I was about to point out—this comment is both in order and timely—that when my vehicle was stolen, I reported its theft not only to the police, but to the world's most important newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. I offered as a reward two tickets for the next game to be played at Ewood Park by Blackburn Rovers. I am pleased to say that the temptation of the tickets was such that, within half an hour of the newspaper's appearance on the streets, someone had telephoned the local criminal investigation department to tell it who had stolen the vehicle. Someone else who happened to spot the vehicle also phoned the local CID to tell it where it was. As a result, I got my vehicle back and the offenders were arrested, charged and subsequently convicted.
§ Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend can tell the House whether the Bill extends to dodging bandwagons, but will he comment on whether it extends to abandoned vehicles? Such vehicles are currently dealt with by the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978. Does the Bill have scope to criminalise the abandonment of vehicles? Kent county council has given me statistics showing that 1,472 vehicles were abandoned between 1997 and 1998. It is estimated that that figure will increase to 11,600, which will cost the council and the council tax payer in Kent some £650,000. The increase is set to continue, as the price of scrap and of cars is falling. Is there scope in the Bill to deal with the problem?
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Did the right hon. Gentleman plead guilty to contributory negligence for failing to fit a crook lock when he lost his vehicle? Furthermore, does he accept that the Bill does not go far enough on the investigation and seeking out by the police of stolen vehicles? Will he consider contributing proper resources to that investigation, which is more important than the issue of an incident number for insurance purposes?
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Lady's first point gives me the opportunity to return to the traumatic moment when I lost my vehicle. I thank her for that opportunity, as it was thanks to the great affection in which Blackburn Rovers is held that I got the vehicle back—a fact that enables me to put on record in Parliament my affection and support for the team and my congratulations to it on its magnificent victory against Burnley yesterday. 25 [Interruption.] There is no point in Opposition Front Benchers chuntering. There have been few more important occasions in Blackburn and Burnley than yesterday's victory.
The hon. Lady's second and more serious point related to investigation. The police are doing a great deal of work on investigating the criminal rings that are often responsible for vehicle theft and are trying not to treat each such theft as a single crime committed by an individual crook without any other criminal record. That is why we are investing a lot of resources in intelligence analysis. I accept that a good deal more can be done, but the decrease of recorded and unrecorded vehicle crime, including thefts of and from vehicle is a testament to the partnership between manufacturers and the community that I mentioned earlier.
§ Mr. Straw
If I may, I shall make progress, but I shall take more interventions later.
We believe that the Bill will make a significant impact in achieving our target. In drawing up the Bill, we were advised by the vehicle crime reduction action team, which included representatives from even sector of the vehicle industry as well as the police, motorists and insurers. I helped to launch its report at about this time last year in Leicester.
A number of problems that are not covered by existing legislation were identified by the action team. There is no control over motor salvage dealers, who may receive stolen vehicles, nor, astonishingly, has there been any control over the supply of number plates to unscrupulous motorists. Indeed, plenty of motorists who get a number plate, as I did not long ago for a trailer, are surprised that they can walk into the premises of any supplier of plates and tell the supplier what numbers they want. A plate can be supplied without any record being held.
§ Mr. Chidgey
On registration plates, is the Home Secretary aware that some 7 million plates are produced every year, and that 2 million go on new cars and 2 million on trade-ins? Where do the others go?
§ Mr. Fabricant
What estimate has the Home Secretary made of the number of extra police officers who will be required to enforce the new legislation? Has he had a 26 chance to read this week's edition of The House Magazine, which carries an article by the chairman of the Police Federation entitled "Policing in Crisis"? He says:There's a huge suspicion and a powerful sense of unease in the police service …There is a drive to reduce costs whatever the consequences.Morale is the worst I have ever seen it.Has the Home Secretary read that article? How can the legislation be enforced with police numbers lower than those recorded in 1997?
§ Mr. Straw
As it happens, I have not read the Christmas edition of The House Magazine, but look forward to doing so. I am familiar, however, with the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I do not accept that the police service is in crisis. I happen to note that the chairman of the Police Federation, for whom I have a lot of regard, tends to make such remarks about every six months and has been doing so for the past 10 years—they are just a hardy annual. On other occasions, he has claimed that the single most damaging policy—pursued not only by this Government, but by the previous one—was the abolition of the housing allowance in 1994 in the wake of the Sheehy report. A direct consequence of that was that it became more difficult to recruit additional police officers, which is why, perhaps, the reduction in the Metropolitan police service under the previous Administration was significantly greater than that recorded since we have been in office. Those numbers are, at last, turning round.
We want costs to be reduced in the police service, as we do in every other public authority, and that is happening. We are now all agreed that the British crime survey is the best measure of crime and I am therefore delighted to note that, not least as a result of the good work of the police service, overall crime has gone down under this Administration by 10 per cent.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). There are matters that the Bill does not necessarily cover that my constituents would want it to include, such as the frustrating issue of dumped vehicles. I have the dishonour to represent the car crime capital of Britain—there are more thefts from motor vehicles in Slough than in any other constituency. Obviously, that has nothing to do with how the local force polices, and although vehicle crime in my constituency has increased over the past year, it has reduced by a third in Milton Keynes, which is in the same police force area. Will the Home Secretary consider extending the scope of the Bill to include measures to reduce theft from motor vehicles and to deal with the problem of dumped cars?
§ Mr. Straw
I hope that I have already given an answer about the problem of dumped cars. It is already a serious criminal offence to abandon a vehicle. However, we have undertaken to re-examine the offence, and we shall do so.
27 Manufacturers themselves have undertaken a great deal of work to ensure that thefts from vehicles are less likely. The figures we have published show both an inverse relationship between the value of a vehicle and the likelihood of its being stolen or broken into, and a direct relationship between a vehicle's age and the propensity for crimes against it. Although more modern vehicles are much more valuable, they are also much less likely to be broken into because breaking into them is more difficult.
§ Mr. Fabricant
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the frenzy of the debate, the Home Secretary—who is normally assiduous in answering questions—may have forgotten about one of my questions. I asked how many extra police officers would be required to enforce the legislation.
§ Mr. Speaker
That is not a point of order. The Home Secretary is responsible for replying to the hon. Gentleman's question.
§ Mr. Straw
I was about to reply. The answer is none, because no more officers are needed.
We have got vehicle crime down, and we aim to get it down further. The idea that every change in the law that is designed to drive crime down will lead to an increase in demands on the police is utter nonsense. Indeed, because we have driven crime down, there are fewer demands on the police in respect of crime, not more—although I fully recognise that that has been compensated for by additional calls in respect of disorder and other matters.
There was a long period during which the Conservative Government understood that, intellectually and financially. It is no good Conservative Members going on about police numbers now, insinuating that they would increase those numbers, because the one thing that the shadow Chancellor has absolutely refused to do is even promise to match our spending on the police, still less increase it.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Will the right hon. Gentleman just tell the House this? Three years ago, we were funding 3,000 more police officers on a lower budget. What on earth has the right hon. Gentleman done with the money, given that he cannot afford them now?
§ Mr. Straw
What happened was this. It explains why, in January 1997, the right hon. Lady told the House that the budget she was presenting for 1997–98 would provide for 5,000 more officers, when in fact it provided for fewer officers. The budgets that were set did not properly take account of cost pressures on the police service. It is not a question of any kind of magic. In particular, those budgets did not take account of the increased pressures of pension payments.
28 I should add that, under a Bill for which the right hon. Lady's party was responsible, the police service was relieved of requirements to follow any direction from the Home Secretary involving overall police numbers, which then became a matte for individual chief constables. Some chief constables decided to use the limited resources available to them to maintain police numbers, but many decided to spend their resources for other purposes, such as civilianization—those numbers have remained stable—and information technology.
§ Mr. Straw
No; the number of civilians has increased marginally since 1997.
The right hon. Lady may be interested to learn that I have had various analyses carried out to find out whether there is any correlation between forces whose total budgets have been increased or reduced, forces whose total officer and civilian numbers have been increased or reduced, and forces that have experienced an increase or a decrease in crime. The answer is that there is no correlation between those three variables, which is very interesting. The right hon. Lady must understand. She asks what I have done with the money. I have done absolutely nothing with it because it is spent not by me, but by the police authorities.
§ Mr. Straw
If the right hon. Lady bothered to ask the police authorities, they would tell her that the money had been spent. If she wants to increase police numbers even further than we are proposing, she will have to increase the money even further. There is not a voter in the country who does not understand that.
§ Mr. Straw
No. I am sorry, but I wish to make some progress.
In addition to the other problems that I have specified, the police have no general right of access to the motor insurers' database, which would allow them to identify uninsured drivers as they drive past. The Bill will tackle those problems.
The Bill will make vehicle crime less attractive by reducing opportunities for professional car thieves to profit. The estimate is that it could prevent up to 39,000 car thefts and 6,000 fraudulent insurance theft claims each year.
§ Mr. Straw
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to make some progress first.
The Bill will extend the time limit for prosecuting car thieves or those who take a car without the consent of the owner. It will make it easier for the police to detect uninsured driving. It will enable magistrates courts' 29 receipts from fixed penalties for speeding and for jumping red lights to be directly applied to the funding of more safety cameras.
§ Mr. Heald
Does the Home Secretary agree with the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain, which deals with salvage, which has said that, to meet his target of preventing 39,000 thefts, there must be effective enforcement of the laws? If so, how will he do that with no extra police officers? If he is to achieve that with the same police officers, what jobs will they not be able to do?
§ Mr. Straw
What the hon. Gentleman has to grasp is that, to enforce such a measure, additional police officers are not necessarily required. When they were in government, we heard Conservative Members talk time and again about the need to make all public services more effective. I do not exclude the police service from that, even though there is a tiny minority of police officers who do not like the fact that we are trying to make the system more effective.
We are trying to deal, for example, with unnecessary sickness absence. We have already cut the paperwork, but there are a few police officers who do not mind paperwork because it keeps them out of action on the street—not very many, but a few. That needs to be borne in mind, too.
The police service is no different from other organisations. The quality of what that service delivers depends on the quality of the individuals employed by it, which can vary, and the quality of the management and the leadership.
§ Mr. Straw
We know clearly that even within London the level of crime recorded—robbery, burglary, vehicle theft and many other offences—in different boroughs varies a lot. It is dependent not on the number of officers in those areas, but on the quality of the leadership and of the officers on the streets. It is one of the matters about which I have asked the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to raise performance—he has fully embraced that. We need to identify the boroughs that are not performing well and to raise their performance to the level of the best. It is in that way, as well as through our huge additional investment in the police service, that we will be able to make this country safer, after the appalling 18 years when crime doubled.
§ Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at what we do in Plymouth to cut down on car crime and, in particular, the joint approach that is taken through environmental health, taxation and the police? The law is difficult to enforce at the moment. The Bill should make things much easier. The detection of vehicle crime will take up not only less police time, but that of other departments' staff.
§ Mr. Straw
I am indeed aware of what is going on in Plymouth because I was told about it by Sir John Evans, who was the chief constable. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. There are many examples—Plymouth is one, Milton Keynes is another—where police 30 using similar resources per head are able to do significant things. There are lessons there for other boroughs, whether they are represented by Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Members, that are not doing as well. They can make progress with more imagination. Often, greater imagination by the police service and better partnerships with local authorities and others can ensure that fewer resources are used more effectively.
§ Mr. Straw
No; I shall take the House through the Bill.
Part I introduces regulation of motor salvage dealers. Most salvage dealers already operate to high standards and fully within the law; however, as all hon. Members know, some do not. Almost one third of stolen cars are never recovered, and the motor salvage industry offers opportunities for the identities of stolen cars to be disguised and for stolen cars to be broken up and resold as parts.
There is also a link between salvage dealers and insurance fraud. Some cars that are reported stolen are sold to motor salvage dealers and broken up for their parts, or they are given the identity of written-off cars and resold. Therefore, clauses 1 to 6 establish a registration system, and clauses 7 to 11 will allow us to ensure that registered dealers keep appropriate records, including a note of the destruction of vehicles.
Part II regulates the supply and issue of number plates. I cannot believe that there will be any argument at all in the House about that scheme, except perhaps about whether it goes far enough.
§ Mr. Straw
No; I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
As all hon. Members know, the effects of the number plate problem go beyond vehicle crime. Burglars may use false number plates to cover their traces when making a getaway, and terrorists also may use them. Many other people may use false plates simply to avoid penalties from safety cameras.
Clauses 16 to 22 require number plate suppliers to register with the Secretary of State—which, in this case, in practice, means with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Number plate suppliers will have to allow police to enter and inspect their premises without a warrant. It will also be an offence for a wholesaler to supply an unregistered supplier and to sell fake plates. The prospect that details of the transaction will be recorded should deter prospective purchasers of number plates who require them for criminal purposes. Record keeping will provide police with the means of tracing the source of plates used in criminal activities.
There will be a power in clause 33 to make regulations prescribing additional information to be held on number plates and the way in which it should be contained or displayed. Therefore, it will not be easy to forge plates. The information on the number plate will link it to the vehicle for which it is intended, making it difficult to swap vehicle identities.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
I offer a general welcome to the provision that the Home Secretary of State 31 has just outlined, but may I ask him to address himself to a problem that has arisen in Wales—the display of the Welsh flag on number plates? I have received a note from the Library saying that, currently, such display is illegal. I should also tell the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) that some of the number plates in Wales have been created simply to show off the Welsh flag.
Will the Home Secretary clarify whether such display is illegal? Will it remain illegal to display a Welsh flag or an English flag? Will it be necessary to display an EU flag? Does clause 33 give the Home Secretary the power to vary the restriction, to make it legal to display the Welsh flag? Will he consider doing that?
§ Mr. Straw
It says in my brief—I knew it anyway because I am a swot—that use of the Euro symbol will be permitted as a means of aiding the circulation of vehicles in Europe, and also of increasing the blood pressure of Conservative Members of Parliament. No other emblems will be permitted as they could cause confusion. The Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Executive were consulted on that and—the brief says—raised no objection.
I am happy for the issue to be raised in Committee. There are other places on the back of vehicles where those who are proud of their national heritage can display a sticker identifying their nationality, and long may that continue. In the legislation, we are addressing only the issue of identification on the vehicle plate.
§ Mr. Straw
It is permitted to show the European Union symbol, and country identification letters are also shown on the vehicle number plate. I have no briefing on the Union flag, but I would be happy for that question to be dealt with in the winding-up speech. There is nothing to stop motorists from proudly displaying a representation of the Union flag on the rear of their vehicles—many do—but not necessarily on the vehicle plate.
§ Mr. Straw
If it were, I would, but it is not, so I shall not.
Part III of the Bill deals with vehicle licensing and registration, and other measures to combat vehicle crime. The present law allows written-off vehicles to return to the road without being checked. That means that the unscrupulous can get away with illegal tampering. The Bill will change that by insisting on an identity check before a new registration document can be issued.
32 Part III also contains our proposals for tackling uninsured driving. That offence too often goes undetected, yet uninsured drivers are often dangerous and, like those who speed, may well have broken other laws. To combat the problem, the motor insurance industry has proposed that the police should have bulk access to its new database, which will be available from 2003. The Bill will enable that to happen.
Clause 36 extends the time limit for prosecuting unauthorised vehicle taking. Those who take vehicles without the consent of their owners, as well those who thieve from them, cause great distress to their victims and are often also involved in accidents. At the moment, such people can escape justice because of the six-month time limit on the prosecution of offences that are summary only. Advances in DNA and fingerprinting mean that evidence may come to light after the six months have expired.
Clause 37 represents a real improvement in joined-up government. It will allow money received by magistrates courts from fixed penalties for speeding or from jumping red lights to be used to fund the roll-out of safety cameras.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
I am sure that the whole House welcomes the decision by the Law Lords a fortnight ago to overturn the rather silly decision in Scotland about the use of speed cameras. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the evidence in the pilot areas now clearly shows that increased use of speed cameras saves lives, and that they are a worthwhile investment? Will he join me in encouraging the House to campaign vigorously against the right-wing libertarian view, as expressed in the Daily Mail, that these measures would be controversial and used as an incentive to trap more motorists? They are a means of saving lives, and that is the justification for them.
§ Mr. Straw
I share my hon. Friend's view about this improvement. What those at the Daily Mail have to say about it is a matter for them. I dare say that that newspaper opposed the introduction of the breathalyser and the use of seat belts on a similar basis, yet those changes have helped to create a much safer environment for road users. When I was a young man, people used to drink and drive, friends of mine lost their lives, and terrible damage and injury were caused to others. The number of road deaths and injuries is still far too high, but we should be proud that this country's record is far better than that of any other European country that I can think of. We must continue to make progress to improve that record still further.
To give a direct answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), since the pilot schemes came into or operation in eight police force areas, there has been a 20 per cent. improvement in road safety in those areas.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am not sure why the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) used the description "right-wing libertarian" as though it were a term of abuse. I am more than happy to have that description conferred on me.
Although we have no objection to the use of speed cameras in principle—or, very often, in practice—will the Home Secretary accept that our concern is with the 33 avoidance of regulation for the sake of regulation? We are also concerned to avoid yet another stealth tax from the Government.
§ Mr. Straw
I note what the hon. Gentleman says. This road safety measure has broad support across the country, and if the Conservatives want to oppose it, that is a matter for them. However, I am in no doubt that speed cameras moderate drivers' behaviour. After I was apprehended because of a speed camera in 1993—after I had paid my fine and got three points on my licence—my driving behaviour improved, and I think that that is true of other people. I say that from personal experience—incidentally, I have not had any points since then.
I have put on record the need for the Bill and hope that it will have the endorsement of the whole House. I do not doubt that it could be improved in Committee—indeed, I have not introduced a single Bill in the House that has not been improved as a result of the parliamentary process.
We want to build on the Government's strong record in fighting vehicle crime. We should be able to unite against the criminal on the issue of vehicle security. There is a comprehensive set of proposals in the Bill which, I hope the House will agree, deserves a Second Reading. It is a measured response to a number of serious problems, and I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
I should say at the outset that the official Opposition does not intend to divide the House on Second Reading. The principle of the Bill is unobjectionable and its purpose is valid, although we are at this stage uncertain about its probable effects. The jury is out on that, and we shall have to wait and see.
I greatly enjoyed the Home Secretary's speech—there is nothing unusual in that. I cannot promise that my contribution will be exciting or racy on this important subject, but I will endeavour to address the facts.
I was intrigued by what the right hon. Gentleman said about car crime. He started off by giving the clear impression that he regarded it as a matter of great seriousness, and that although he was pleased that some progress had been made, he was fully conscious of the seriousness of the incidence of offences that still plague the country. However, as he continued, he seemed to display a certain insouciance towards those of us who criticised the Government's record, suggested that an improvement would require an additional resource and were not convinced that the Government's bona fides on the subject were satisfactory.
For the avoidance of doubt, let the facts be placed on the record. I think it very likely that Labour Members will have the precise figures for the number of offences committed over the past couple of years. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), for example, is a veritable walking—or, in this case, sedentary—encyclopaedia on the Labour Benches. She always knows the facts. However, there may be some who require clarification.
Between March 1998 and March 1999, 1,482,889 car crimes were committed. The following year, there was, interestingly, a reduction in the incidence of car crimes of exactly 7,000, taking the figure down to 1,475,000.
§ Mr. Bercow
In a moment, if my hon. Friend will just contain himself. That figure represented a cut in the incidence of car crime of 0.5 per cent., of which more anon.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend is, as ever, more than generous to me. Does he agree that some of the reduction in car crime is due to the introduction of closed circuit television cameras? In that respect, will he pay tribute to the previous Government who were responsible for the widespread introduction of closed circuit television cameras throughout the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Bercow
I am delighted to pay tribute to the previous Government. I do not always do so on every subject, but in that respect their record was very good. We got the CCTV programme under way and it secured real benefits. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that point.
§ Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)
As the hon. Gentleman gives credit to the previous Government for the introduction of CCTV, does he agree that, because many police officers are scrutinising those videotapes, they may not be on the streets—the point he has been going on about over the past few months?
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman makes a slightly ungracious point. I hope that he does not deny the significance of CCTV in combating crime; it has an important role to play. I am well aware that, in general, the hon. Gentleman identifies with what might be described as the new Labour philosophy and programme, so he will want to be fully on-message. He will appreciate that Members on the Treasury Bench are accustomed to drawing attention to the plans for the expansion of CCTV schemes in the following year; I hope that he will not cavil at that.
Obviously, the study of the videotapes takes time and requires the commitment of certain officers. Despite Labour Members' unrealistic expectations of the police, it goes without saying that the police cannot be expected to do two things at once. Manifestly, if an officer is studying the video, he or she cannot also be out detecting crime and apprehending criminals.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
I am rather surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman describe CCTV as a libertarian measure. I should have thought that his libertarianism would mean that he thought of CCTV as non-libertarian. However, as he accepts CCTV, does he agree that there is no difference between the use of CCTV and of speed cameras?
§ Mr. Bercow
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's analogy. While we are engaged in a philosophical discussion about what constitutes libertarianism, I emphasise that nothing incumbent on someone who takes a broadly liberal-minded view of the world obliges him to oppose measures that are likely to be successful in reducing the incidence of crime.
The point that I am making about speed cameras is that there is no justification for a massive, universal roll-out of such cameras across the country. The resource required to facilitate such a roll-out is enormous. One can only 35 assume that Ministers are anxious to extract rich pickings from unsuspecting motorists in the form of heavy fines. In so far as that policy is by way of being a stealth tax, it does not commend itself to Her Majesty's Opposition.
§ Mr. Miller
I hope that the reduction in deaths that would occur as a result of such a policy commends itself to Her Majesty's Opposition.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am in favour of reducing both car crime and the incidence of death on the roads. The idea that in order to reduce death on the roads a universal system of CCTV or video speed cameras is required across the country is not sound. If the hon. Gentleman wants to persuade the House of the merits of his argument, I hope that he will be successful in catching your eye in due course, Mr. Speaker.
I shall not be distracted by Labour Members from emphasising that there had been a reduction of 0.5 per cent.—[Interruption] It is no good the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) chuntering at me from a sedentary position. He wants to cover his blushes; he is embarrassed about the record, which shows clearly that in the period to which I referred
§ Mr. Bercow
I have already given the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to intervene and he made a mess of it—I do not see why I should cause him to suffer embarrassment a second time.
Between March 1998–99 and March 1999–2000, there was a reduction of 0.5 per cent. in the incidence of vehicle crime. The significance of that reduction should surely not be lost on even the most obsequious and sycophantic Labour Member. As the Home Secretary helpfully explained, the Government have committed themselves over a five-year period to a 30 per cent. reduction in car crime. The point that I am making—a point that is so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily clever person could fail to see it—is that, at present, the Government are a long way from meeting their target. If in the first year, they have secured a cut of only 0.5 per cent. that does not augur well for the prospects of achieving by 2004 the 30 per cent. reduction that the Home Secretary himself described as challenging, but to which the Prime Minister has nevertheless committed the Government. There would need to be an improvement of about 900 per cent. in the Government's performance over the next four years if they were to meet the target for the reduction of vehicle crime with which the Prime Minister has lumbered the Home Secretary.
The Home Secretary is, of course, justified in pointing out the progress that has been made. He is normally a generous man, not only in providing people with match tickets but in conferring praise on those who deserve it. I therefore hope that he will join me in congratulating the previous Government on securing a 26.6 per cent. fall in vehicle crime between 1993 and 1997. That was a real and creditable achievement. I wish the Government well in reducing car crime. It was, shall we say, bold to set the target of a 30 per cent. cut over five years, but at present it does not look as if the Government are likely to achieve it.
36 It is important to clarify the categories of car crime about which we are speaking. The figure that I mentioned, of slightly fewer than 1.5 million offences between March 1999 and March 2000, included 374,686 offences of the theft of a vehicle, but also 669,232 offences of theft from a vehicle. A clear and large majority of the offences committed are thefts from, rather than of, vehicles.
I was sorry to hear about the Home Secretary's personal misfortune, in respect both of the theft of his car and of the extraction of his stereo. I wanted to intervene to congratulate him on his generosity in offering match tickets, but I could hardly have congratulated him on the measures that he took—or failed to take—to protect his property. He gave the distinct impression that he had failed to secrete his stereo or cassette player in one of the obvious places. He could have put it in the glove compartment or the boot, or he could have wandered off to his next meeting with it on his person.
§ Mr. Bercow
It is perfectly possible to extract the frontage to prevent a stereo from being stolen.
§ Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
Is that general advice from those on the Opposition Front Bench—that if some me has a fixed stereo unit they should dismantle it and secrete it in the glove compartment?
§ Mr. Bercow
I grant that if the unit is fixed that makes it more difficult. I have a different arrangement myself, and I would be happy to communicate the obvious benefits to the Home Secretary. If he wishes to accompany me to the car park I will show him my system, which has a real advantage over his, and I could advise him on what steps to take so as greatly to reduce the chances of his suffering such a crime again.
The significance of car crime is well understood, but so too, should be the significance of Government policy in relation to it. I acknowledge that the Government have taken some steps to counteract the threat of car criminals, but they have also taken other steps that give altogether the opposite impression of their intentions.
I hope that I shall enjoy the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends when I say that it is pitiful that since the inception of the home detention curfew scheme in January 1999—I remind the House that that has resulted in the early release of 27,000 serious offenders—no fewer than 300 car thieves have been let out of jail early. Typically, as the figures demonstrate, they are released before they have served half their sentence.
That sends the wrong signal. The undesirable message is: "Don't worry. You will be caught, sentenced and locked up, but you will only be incarcerated for a short time. Then you will be released and have the opportunity to resume your life of crime." That is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is peculiar that the Government should, on one hand, introduce the Bill—which has at least the appearance of robustness—and, on the other, pursue a policy that genuinely merits my recent description of the Home Secretary as a lily-livered liberal.
Is it any wonder that this country's criminal classes are praying for a Labour election victory? [Interruption.] I am surprised that that causes such surprise among 37 Government Members; they must know that if they pursue soft penal policies and release people from jail before they have typically served half their sentence, people will be encouraged in the belief that crime is not taken all that seriously and that they can come out of prison and, either immediately, or after a reasonable, decent interval, embark on a continuing life of crime. I must emphasise the fact that that is so obvious that it is surprising that anyone chooses to dispute it.
I was grateful to the Home Secretary for his confirmation of the position as shown by the British crime survey. I know that he is greatly attached to that survey; he clutches sheaves of statistics to his breast every time he comes to the Chamber, but I was pleased that he confirmed the British crime survey's finding that the level of car crime is roughly twice what is officially recorded. Interestingly, as the Home Secretary will know and as my right hon. and hon. Friends should be aware, 61 per cent. of thefts are from vehicles and only 11 per cent. are thefts of vehicles. That confirms the overall trend, and it is relevant to the Bill, for as I will say later, and I have support from outside organisations in doing so, the Bill overwhelmingly deals with the theft of vehicles rather than with the statistically more significant phenomenon of theft from vehicles—[Interruption]—as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) concurs from a sedentary position. So we are talking about 28 per cent. of all recorded crime in 1999–2000—crime that costs about £3.5 billion a year.
The Home Secretary was right to emphasise the effect of such crime, but unless I misheard him he did not emphasise its full effects. He rightly said that financial loss, inconvenience and personal distress are involved, but more than that is at stake. Vehicle crime is not only distressing to its victims, but represents a gateway to the commission of other serious offences, such as drug trafficking and terrorism. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that we need to view such crime in that context.
The target for the reduction is good, challenging and bold; it might even be describedw—this will terrify the Home Secretary—as a brave target. Despite the announcement of the target, we know two facts about the Bill. First, almost certainly, it will not reach the statute book before the Prime Minister tames the day for a general election, so it should be considered in context. I do not doubt that on the basis of pager messages and Millbank tower briefings, there will be no shortage of supportive speeches from Labour Members; they will rush to shower confetti on the Home Secretary, tell him what a good chap he is and embolden him to pursue the measures contained in the Bill; but the reality is that the Bill, introduced at the fag end—if that is not a politically incorrect term—of this Parliament will not reach the statute book before a general election takes place.
§ Mr. Forth
I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will deal with this matter later in his speech, but in the context of what he has just said, does he agree that, lest anyone should imagine that the Bill is uncontroversial, clause 9 contains our old friend, the right to enter and inspect premises? I pick that clause at random to emphasise the fact that if the Government are under any illusion that they can introduce the Bill now, declare it uncontroversial 38 and try to blackmail both Houses of Parliament into slipping it through without very thorough scrutiny, they will be very much mistaken.
§ Mr. Bercow
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend's observation. It is no secret that he and I have what in political terms might be described as a symbiotic relationship; periodically, I can anticipate my right hon. Friend, but he is invariably able to anticipate me. Lest he should worry, I assure him that I intend to say something about that provision. What is more, I had fully intended to do so even without his characteristically helpful observation. The Bill will not become law before the election in any case.
The second fact that we know about the Bill is that there will be 3,000 fewer police officers to enforce it. I was as shocked as my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary by the Home Secretary's alarming display of complacency. Of course, we do not have to increase the size of the police force every time a new Bill is introduced, but people outside the House will now start to get the clear message that there is a chronic mismatch—a gaping chasm—between Ministers' rhetoric and the reality of the policies that they pursue. Again and again, Ministers promise more, but deliver less. It is not reasonable of them to push through legislation, to make highfalutin promises and to commit themselves to great policy objectives while expecting others who are reduced in number, increased in terms of pressure and diminished in terms of political support from those on the Treasury Bench still to achieve those objectives.
The leaders of our police forces do not lightly speak out in public. I hope that, when they do so, the Home Secretary will listen. I was concerned when, in a response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), the Home Secretary airily dismissed the observations of a senior policeman by saying that he says something every six months or so, that he has been doing so for about 10 years and, therefore, that no special significance should be attached to his remarks. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, just as he is an important, highly influential and greatly respected man with a full diary, the same goes for the chairman of the Police Federation. When the chairman of the Police Federation speaks out, the Home Secretary should listen, especially because the chairman has castigated the right hon. Gentleman for the inadequacy of the support that he has made available to the police while increasing their responsibilities all the while.
Let us consider the detailed proposals for cutting car crime. The Home Secretary rightly referred to the vehicle crime reduction action team. As he well knows, its strategy focuses on several objectives. The first is better vehicle security and several measures offer the prospect of improving the detection of car crime and deterring its incidence. Electronic immobilisers on new cars are compulsory under the European Union law of 1998 and the anti-theft directive of 1995–96.
It is now proposed that it should be compulsory for cars that are seven to 10 years old to have electronic immobilisers. Instead of applying the idea simply to new cars, it is possible that the owners of old cars will be requested—or more likely, obliged—to install immobilisers. I have not yet observed my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) quivering at that suggestion, but it is only a matter of time 39 before he becomes alarmed. It is a cost issue, and we have to strike a balance. Although we want to improve vehicle security, we do not want to impose burdens that people cannot realistically be expected shoulder. I do not know what the cost of developing the policy would be, but it is incumbent on the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), to share that information with us when he winds up.
The Government have not yet pursued the idea of making the installation of electronic immobilisers compulsory on cars of seven to 10 years old. I do not know whether they intend to do so, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary can enlighten me. I hope that he will. The vehicle crime reduction action team has estimated that such a development could result in the commission of 60,000 fewer offences by 2004.
That raises an interesting question. Do the Government intend to make installation compulsory for seven to 10-year-old cars? The answer is important. If they do not intend to do that, there will be a saving—a burden for consumers forgone—but the prospect of reducing offences by 60,000 by 2004, after which the Under-Secretary no doubt hankers, will be removed. If they intend to go ahead with the compulsory policy for older vehicles, they might have a slightly greater chance of achieving their car crime reduction target, but only at the personal expense of a large number of car buyers of—I must emphasise—more modest means.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
Has it escaped my hon. Friend's notice that drivers of more modest means drive more modest and older vehicles and are much less likely to have their vehicles stolen, precisely as a consequence of the modest and elderly nature of the vehicle?
§ Mr. Bercow
I am not sure that that is true. Some car criminals are fairly undiscriminating. We know that they steal to feed a habit. It is uncertain that they take a sophisticated view as part of the car cognoscenti. For once, I am sorry to say, I fear that my hon. Friend might be wrong.
§ Mr. Chidgey
Perhaps I can help. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) might be wrong. Work by Sallybanks and Thomas shows that the highest number of vehicles stolen are owned by people on the lowest incomes, who live in the most disrupted areas and whose cars are of a lower value and older.
§ Mr. Bercow
That is a helpful observation. It might be churlish to suggest this, but I wonder whether that important information was given to the hon. Member for Eastleigh by my very good friend, the excellent prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh, Mr. Conor Burns. I know not—but it is likely.
We have talked about better vehicle security, but we should also mention better enforcement. I must emphasise that enforcement is a great task for the police, but they have suffered a huge cut in numbers, which will not change immediately. It is also a challenge for the crime 40 and disorder partners. Although there is no strict statistical relationship between areas in which police numbers have been reduced and those in which car crime is alarmingly high, it must logically follow that if fewer officers are available, it is more difficult to investigate thefts. The trend, therefore, is not likely to improve, but over a period it will be exacerbated.
The Government have emphasised the importance of a safer environment. They are right to do so, because 22 per cent. of vehicle crime occurs in car parks. Ministers are justified in highlighting the need for CCTV. The secured car parks scheme is also significant, but has not been mentioned. It is supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers and some evidence suggests that it is achieving worthwhile results. Ministers tell us that £153 million is available until March 2002 for CCTV. We anticipate that they will not get around to spending that money because we hope to have crossed to the other side of the House by then, but we are strongly committed to continuing the programme.
There is also a role for the modernisation of information systems. The motor industry anti-fraud and theft computerised database holds information about insured vehicles that are stolen or subject to insurance write-offs. The register will be linked to DVLA from next year, which augurs well for the prospects of a reduction in car crime. The motor insurance database will hold details of all insurance policies on individually insured vehicles and will, I think, be operational in 2001. It will link directly to the police national computer and should enable uninsured drivers to be more easily identified. I think that I am also correct in saying that the MOT record is to be computerised and fully operational from 2002–03. That bodes well, although I am getting no signal from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on that point.
Part I deals with the regulation of motor salvage operators, on which the Home Secretary dwelt for a few minutes. Let us be clear about our definitions. Salvage or recycling companies are defined asany person, persons, company or organisation taking possession of or dealing in stolen and recovered, damaged or redundant motor vehicles for the purpose or repair, salvage or recycling.The Bill defines motor salvage as:the recovery for re-use or sale of salvageable parts from motor vehicles,followed by thesale or other disposal for scrap of the remainder of the vehicles concerned.It goes on to define it as:the purchase of written-off vehicles and their subsequent repair and re-sale.
It should be emphasised that most decent, reputable motor salvage operators provide an excellent service, which consists of disposing of about 1.5 million vehicles each year. In 1998, about 430,000 vehicles were written off by insurance companies; it is those vehicles that currently provide the cover to disguise the true identity of some of the 120,000 vehicles stolen and not recovered in 1997–98. The police estimate that about 65 per cent., or 78,000, of the stolen and unrecovered vehicles are either rung—of which more anon—or broken for spare parts: it is thought that approximately 25 per cent. are rung and 40 per cent. broken for spare parts. In addition, insurance 41 fraud is thought to account for a further 20 per cent., or 24,000 vehicles, some of which will end up in the salvage industry and be reported stolen by the owner.
Advocates of statutory regulation contend that the lack of it provides a green light for the disposal of stolen vehicles. Existing regulation is controlled by the insurance industry and the trade associations. The British Vehicle Salvage Federation represents 75 larger salvage dealers which together represent about 75 per cent. of the insurance industry salvage business. The Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain represents smaller dealers whose primary function is dismantling; it represents only about 10 per cent. of the 2,000 to 2,500 dismantlers in Great Britain, which is significant in the context of the Bill's regulatory provisions. So that we are aware of the terms and the context in which we are debating the Bill, the sector as a whole consists of about 2,500 to 3,000 companies, which together employ between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
The trade associations operate a code of practice that is based on co-operation with the DVLA and, through it, with the police, but that approach is thought to suffer from several weaknesses. First, the ability of those organisations to police their own members is limited. Secondly, the code of practice has not been adopted by hire companies or by the Crown, which operates large fleets of vehicles that carry their own insurance against total loss. Thirdly, and most significantly, up to 25 per cent. of the salvage business and up to 90 per cent. of the dismantling business are not covered by the code. That is the rationale behind the issuing by the Home Office of its consultation document on the proposed regulation of the motor salvage industry. I feel sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends are aware that that document flagged up several possibilities, of which statutory regulation was one. If memory serves correctly, of the 26 organisations that responded to the exercise, 22 favoured the option of statutory regulation.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I have been listening with great interest to my hon. Friend's comments on the failure to some extent of self-regulation within the industry. Does that not imply that, for the legislation to be successful, there must be a degree of supervision by the regulatory authorities, in this case the police? Does that not provide prima facie evidence either that there will have to be extra police officers to do the work, or that other aspects of law and order will suffer as a consequence?
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend is invariably perceptive, and his observation was no exception to the general rule. He is right. It upsets and perturbs me that the Home Secretary, who much of the time is a sensible fellow, persists in ignoring or denying this obvious point.
I can see that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) is becoming itchy, so I shall give way.
§ Mr. McCabe
I want to clarify a simple point that arises from the intervention of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). Does not clause 13 give the local authority powers to prosecute and supervise in relation to that part of the Bill?
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that observation. He is partly right, but he should be 42 aware—I do not dispute his textual reference—that there will be a responsibility on police constables as well. I am sure that he will not dispute that. If there are fewer of them, if there is more crime to detect and if the political pressure on them to be successful in doing so is greater, I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to recognise that somewhere along the line the equation breaks down. That is not fair on the police.
I find it curious—I am sure that this has not escaped the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends—that whereas in respect of many of the great public services, Labour Members rush to the defence of those employed in delivering them and are always anxious to improve their conditions in recognising what a difficult job they do, when it comes to the police they are happy to increase the burdens but not ready to pay tribute to the enormous work against the odds, often under severe physical threat, that the officers undertake. I am not applying that point to the Home Secretary, but many Back-Bench Labour Members are guilty of that approach.
Under part I, motor salvage operators will need to be registered with the local authority in which they are based. The local authority will have powers to refuse renewal of registrations, having originally granted them. Operators will have to keep records of the vehicles entering the industry and of disposals. The Government believe that their policy could avoid about 39,000 vehicle thefts and 6,000 fraudulent insurance claims each year, with an economic benefit of £183 million.
Allan Greenouff on behalf of the British Vehicle Salvage Federation, John Hesketh on behalf of the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association, Richard Allen on behalf of the Association of British Insurers, Sandy Dalgano on behalf of the National Salvage Group, the AA, and Ken Williams, the chief constable of Norfolk and the representative of the Association of Chief Police Officers on VCRAT, have all welcomed the Bill. Nevertheless, several issues require the close attention of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst characteristically identified one of them at an early stage in the debate.
I have in mind, of course, clause 9, which will give police constables the power to enter and inspect registered motor salvage premises and their records without warrant. It makes provision for searches with warrants to take place at premises that are unregistered or where a police constable has previously been refused entry.
Is that necessary? It is not clear to me that it is.
§ Mr. Bercow
It is not even clear to me, as indicated by the sedentary intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, that there will be sufficient police officers effectively to discharge the statutory obligation.
There appears to be a slightly curious differential between the treatment of premises that are registered and that of those that are not. Why are registered operators apparently subject to harsher treatment than that meted out to their unregistered counterparts? I shall be grateful for the comments of the Under-Secretary of State when he replies.
Secondly, clause 8 will require all motor salvage dealers to provide notifications of the destruction of a vehicle. At present, under the code of conduct, those who 43 belong to the BVSF and the MVDA comply with that process. They already send certificates, which are V860s, to the DVLA. The idea behind the code of conduct was that when the DVLA has received a V860 for a vehicle, it will refuse to issue a V5 in response to any future request as it would know that the car in question was permanently broken and that the request must therefore be fraudulent.
I consider myself no great authority on the matter, but I am told that the arrangement worked well for a while, before someone spotted a loophole in the law. Apparently—I should be grateful for comeback on this point from the Under-Secretary, who is looking earnestly in the direction of those who advise—the DVLA is technically not allowed to refuse a V5 request. All that it can do is to issue the V5 and ask the police to investigate. I feel sure that I am carrying my right hon. and hon. Friends with me on this important theme.
Now the DVLA must issue V5s for cars that it knows no longer exist, and it can only notify the police—the underfunded, overburdened, insufficiently supported police. In practice, of course, the police investigate different proportions of such referrals in different police areas. Some routinely investigate all, but some investigate only a few.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he concede that it is his experience, as it is mine and that of many other people, that the police, rightly but regrettably, give greater priority to crimes involving violence, violence against the person, housebreaking and so on, and that vehicle offences come, rightly, pretty low down on the priority list of most, if not all, police forces? If my hon. Friend agrees with that general contention, what does he think will be the effectiveness of the role of the police in discharging the responsibilities given to them by the Bill?
§ Mr. Bercow
My right hon. Friend's judgment of the significance of car crime in the overall scale of police priorities is almost certainly right. They are more likely to focus on violent crime and they are especially justified in doing so in light of the figures for increasing violent crime over the past 12 months or so. In other words, the position on violent crime is being made substantially worse. In London, for example, another 36,000, I think, violent offences were committed over the past 12 months. That requires a police resource.
The police will have to focus first and foremost on that, yet they are faced with the introduction of the Bill. I would like to think that Ministers will be modest, but I suspect that they will trumpet the provisions of the Bill, claim to be robust and insist that they are involved in a ferocious crackdown on vehicle crime.
All that the Home Secretary will have done, which is not an insignificant accomplishment, but it is an exiguous one, is to pilot through the Bill. Police officers will have to do the dirty work—police officers of whom there are not enough, who face greater regulatory burdens and who are confronted with a large increase in violent crime, not least as a result of the lily-livered feebleness that the right hon. Gentleman has displayed over the past three and a half years.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman correctly made the link between motor vehicle crime and 44 drug crime. He will acknowledge, I think, that there is also a link between drug crime and violent crime. Will he therefore give a little more credit to our police to assign priority to such matters?
§ Mr. Bercow
I am sorry to be so misinterpreted by the hon. Lady, who usually has a keen ear and attends closely to what is said. I was not in any way criticising or casting aspersions on the police. For the avoidance of doubt, I. was criticising and casting aspersions on the Government's record, from which both the innocent public and the police suffer.
I am not cavilling at the achievement of the police, nor am I saying—I emphasise this to the hon. Lady—that they should not give priority to the pursuit of violent criminals. [Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Lady chuntering from a sedentary position in an entirely unintelligible manner, when I am seeking to respond effectively to the half-point that she made.
Of course, the police are right to focus on violent crime. However, they are being charged with additional responsibilities under the Bill, but are not being promised increased resources to discharge those responsibilities. I made that point earlier, but I am repeating it, as it is so obvious that it is extraordinary that even a new Labour apparatchik can choose to ignore or deny it.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being generous in giving way for the third, or even fourth, time. Is he surprised to learn that the office of the chief constable of Staffordshire has informed me that the latest Government initiative—the crackdown on yob culture—will be difficult to achieve on a Friday or Saturday night in Lichfield, where there are only three or four police officers, backed up by, perhaps, five or six special constables? How will those police officers meet the provisions of clause 9? The clause states that, in addition to cracking down on yob culture,A constable may at am reasonable timeenter and inspect premises for the purposes of the Bill.
§ Mr. Bercow
Police officers will be able to do that only with great difficulty, if at all. The experience in the centre of Lichfield to which my hon. Friend referred is by no means atypical. He will find that it is replicated throughout the country in constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends and importantly, those of Government Members. I hope that Government Members will have something to say about the mismatch between the responsibility that will be imposed and the resources that will be provided. How ever, I am not to be distracted from the important point.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
The hon. Gentleman may wish to take advice from the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), in whose constituency violent crime has gone down in the first eight months of this year. Violent crime has gone down by 23 per cent. in Plymstock Radford in that constituency; by 13 per cent. in my constituency; by 38 per cent. in Efford; by 21 per cent. in Plymstock Dunstone; by 4 per cent. in Plympton St. Mary; and by 18 per cent. in Plympton Erle. Therefore, there are examples to which the hon. Gentleman can look to see what works.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful for the hon. Lady's observation, but I am not sure that she has advanced her 45 cause greatly. Of course, there are examples of the reduction of crime. I join the hon. Lady in celebrating the reduction in violent crime. However, I hope that she will acknowledge that, statistically, it is clear that, overall, violent crime is increasing substantially. We know that in London, the Thames valley area, and throughout the country.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Sylvia Heal)
I remind hon. Members that this is a debate about vehicles. It is not a debate about statistics and the levels of crime.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for steering me back on to the path of virtue, along which, as you know, I ordinarily tread. I am not going to be diverted again by observations about violent crime, and shall focus on vehicle crime.
As I said a few moments ago, I want to emphasise the fact that the DVLA must issue V5s for cars which, it knows, no longer exist, and of which it can only notify the police. In practice, the police investigate differently in different areas. Some police investigate routinely, but others investigate only a few offences. It is notable that an experienced observer advised Her Majesty's Opposition that, nationally, the chance of being investigated is about 7 per cent. I must tell the Home Secretary that I can see nothing in the Bill that will change the law and allow the DVLA to refuse V5 applications for vehicles for which it has received V860s. Is that not a loophole, and do the Government intend to close it? If not, Ministers must provide more police to allow for routine investigation of such cases, which the fight against crime and the protection of the public patently require.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his usual courtesy in giving way. To help him, does not clause 32 enable the Secretary of State to make new regulations to permit the DVLA to refuse to issue the new certificate?
§ Mr. Bercow
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in supposing that the Bill will prevent the automatic issue of V5s. I have looked at the Bill closely and consulted on it. However, I am a generous and gracious chap, so I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is a keen observer of all our proceedings, that I shall happily concede to him if he is right and I am wrong. I hope that he is right, but I am not optimistic.
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman is welcome to do so and he knows that I shall not seek to avoid responsibility for dealing with the point.
Page 4 of the Home Office consultation paper on the proposal to regulate the motor salvage industry contains a statement that should be of some concern to the House. Paragraph 34 states:It is not considered that it would be necessary to formally monitor the effectiveness of the regulation.I shall not dwell on the split infinitive, but I point out that that observation is complacent and irresponsible. Ministers should intend to monitor closely, regularly and publicly the outcome of any measures in the Bill if they eventually become law.
46 There are a number of other concerns about part I. For example, the British Motorcyclists Federation thinks that it is deficient in particular respects and is susceptible to amendment in Committee. For now, however, I shall focus on part II, which deals with the regulation of registration plate suppliers. It is estimated that approximately 27,000 outlets assemble number plates and that they supply about 6 million to 7 million plates each year. About 2 million plates are fitted to new vehicles and a further 2 million are trade-ins. Replacement plates account for the balance.
The main objective of part II is to regulate the supply of number plates in order to combat vehicle ringing and cloning. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary is pointing to the time. I am sure that other hon. Members want to contribute, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the matter must be thoroughly examined. Earlier, he referred indirectly to the phenomenon of vehicle ringing, but did not define it. It is, however, important, as it is central to the Bill. To elucidate for people outside the House who are listening to our proceedings, I should point out that vehicle ringing is the name attached to the process of giving to stolen vehicles the identity of legitimate vehicles that have been seriously damaged or written off. Vehicle cloning uses the identity of an existing vehicle to disguise another vehicle.
I think that I am right in saying that Sweden, which has tightly controlled number plate supply since 1993, is much more successful in deterring criminal offences and in identifying those that have been perpetrated. Part II, which contains clauses 16 to 30, provides for the registration of persons who supply number plates and allows the Secretary of State to make details of the register available to the police. It provides also for the charging of a registration fee and confers a power by which the court may suspend registrations of persons who contravene it. In addition, it provides a power to prosecute for contravention of statutory requirements.
§ Mr. Bercow
I shall do so in a moment. Part II also allows the Secretary of State to remove from the register persons whom he believes to have ceased trading. There is some uncertainty about the reason for the specific provision on that. However, before I come to that concern, I must, of course, come to my hon. Friend's aid.
§ Mr. Fabricant
After his study of the Bill, does my hon. Friend know whether licence plate manufacturers will be subject to a tighter obligation to ensure that they produce plates in the proper manner? Has he noticed the number of licence plates with italic writing or strange graphics that make them difficult to read? Such plates are not printed in Roman, sanserif script, which is the prescribed form.
§ Mr. Bercow
I do not know how heavy an obligation will be placed on plate manufacturers. On the plates' composition and appearance, my feeling is that what counts is the capacity to detect crime. If virtual or total uniformity of appearance aids and abets the detection of crime, I am happy to settle for it. However, I must emphasise to my hon. Friend that if the different composition or appearance of number plates seemed to be insignificant to the level of crime, I would be much more 47 relaxed about that. Fighting crime is what matters, although, in general terms, as he knows, I favour choice and diversity.
I want to deal with the point about removing people from the register of practising plate suppliers, about which, I say to the Home Secretary, I was a little quizzical. If memory serves me correctly, the Bill provides a power, which he can exercise, to deregister a registered plates supplier who has not practised that trade or profession for 28 days. I do not want to do him a disservice: the Bill provides for such an individual to make representations, there is a period of grace—14 days, if memory serves me correctly—in which to make those representations, there is the prospect of an appeal and, ultimately, in the event of a continuing disagreement between a plate supplier and the Secretary of State, the matter can go to a magistrates court. However, I am intrigued, first, as to why 28 days was chosen. I have made discreet inquiries and understand that the figure was a brainwave of those in his Department who advise him, though it was plucked arbitrarily from the air and there is no particular reason for specifying 28 days rather than 42 or 56.
Secondly, what would lead Ministers to suspect that someone had ceased to trade? I may have failed to notice an obvious point, but feel sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham, would put my mind at rest in such circumstances. I put it to the Home Secretary that it is entirely possible that someone might cease to trade for such a period because he or she had gone abroad or for personal or family reasons, so it seems rather draconian to put or to threaten to put such a person out of business. What scope will there be for recompense should it transpire that an error has been made in deregistering him or her?
§ Mr. Blunt
That point also applies to the regulation of motor salvage operators. The Bill will not allow them to receive restitution should their business be affected by local authority registration and should they successfully appeal through the magistrates courts and on through the legal system. Why does not it enable them to obtain such restitution, as required under the European convention on human rights, even though the explanatory notes refer to that convention? I am grateful to the Clerks for acknowledging that there has been an administrative error. There may be a convention problem in respect of the lack of provision for restitution.
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend asks why the Bill does not make such provision. I do not know because I am not psychic, but I feel sure that Ministers know and they will be able to advise us during the winding-up speech or before.
Clause 25 will give police constables and local authority inspectors the power to enter and inspect registered suppliers and their records without a warrant. It also provides for searches with warrants to take place on unregistered premises. Again, I flag up the concern that that seems to be harder on suppliers who are registered than on those who are not. In that context, the Bill also creates three new offences, one of which is knowingly supplying plates to a person who is in the 48 business of selling fake registration plates. That will be hard to prove, and I should be interested to know what thinking took place on the measure, but I certainly wish Ministers God speed in relation to it.
Clause 20 will allow the Secretary of State to cancel a person's registration if he is satisfied that the registered person has ceased trading. That relates to the point about ceasing to trade for 28 days. I must re-emphasise that we need to know not only the rationale for that proposal, but what recompense would be available should a mistaken decision be made.
Another concern of some importance has been raised by the European Secure Vehicle Alliance. A plate that does not meet the technical design specifications established by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and which is intended, for example, to deceive a roadside camera will be deemed to be counterfeit. Is it also intended to deem counterfeit plates that are supplied without due diligence to a buyer seeking to deceive the purchaser of a vehicle of uncertain provenance? I feel sure that Ministers know the answer, and I hope we shall hear it in the winding-up speech.
Clause 33 allows the Secretary of State, by regulations, to prescribe specifications for number plates, and/or to require them to contain or display such information as he thinks fit. The DETR consultation paper raised the possibility—alluded to earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—that the information would include anything from the vehicle inspection number to the European flag. It would be helpful to know whether the Government plan to include vehicle inspection numbers, and what impact Ministers think that would have on vehicle security and car crime.
If the Government intend to make the change, will it be made to coincide with the introduction of the new licence-plate system next year? For my part, I have little doubt about the impact of any European-flag provision: it would probably damage the car, and it would certainly damage my concentration when driving it.
I was a little perturbed to hear the Home Secretary say that he had no briefing on whether it would be possible to display a Union flag. If the right hon. Gentleman had allowed me to intervene, I would have said I assumed that—as a senior and respected Minister—he ran his Department, and did not allow his Department to run him. If he agrees with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that a person should be allowed to display a Union flag, why does he not just say so?
If the Bill requires amendment in order to facilitate that option, let it be amended in Committee. It would, however, be intolerable to be presented with a scenario allowing people to display a European Union flag, but not a Union flag. The only succour I can derive from what we have been told so far is that, at least for the time being, the provision in respect of the display of the European flag is permissive rather than prescriptive: that is, its display would be voluntary rather than compulsory.
I am not a great driver; I am not even an enthusiastic driver. I am happy to vouchsafe that I regard driving as an unavoidable necessity—a chore—a means by which to get from A to B. Unlike most men, I do not claim to be a good driver. In certain circumstances, I could be tempted to desist from driving at all, and one of those circumstances would be an obligation to display a European Union flag. If for the remaining years of my 49 parliamentary service—and I hope there will be many—I had to travel to and from my constituency by means other than a car, I would do so, if the alternative were being obliged to display a vulgar—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject of the debate is clearly not to do with the European flag. We are actually debating vehicle crime.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. You have brought me to book, and I hope you will not have reason to do so again.
§ Mr. Forth
As car registration plates are a matter directly connected with the Bill, and as my hon. Friend is now correctly discussing the issue of car registration plates, he may consider this point relating to car registration plates.
My hon. Friend will know of recent reports that London taxi cab drivers have been prohibited from displaying the English flag on their registration plates. A question was asked earlier about the display of the Welsh flag on Welsh car registration plates, which would of course be covered by the Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that we face very peculiar circumstances, in which we shall apparently be unable to identify ourselves voluntarily with a specific part of this country—whether by means of a flag or by other means—but obliged to subscribe to the idea that we are all Europeans?
§ Mr. Bercow
I am genuinely alarmed by the news that my right hon. Friend has volunteered. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, pointed out that I must not dilate on the subject of the European flag, however great the temptation otherwise so to do might be. Of course, I immediately comply with your instruction, but I point out that clause 33 specifically enables the Secretary of State by regulation to provide specifications for registration plates—it will not have escaped the beady eye of my right hon. Friend—(whether relating to their size, shape, material of manufacture or otherwise)."Otherwise" is an all-embracing term. Specifications may relate to size, shape and material of manufacture, but also "otherwise". I emphasise to the Home Secretary—I do not think that he will deny it—that, if he wanted, under the Bill and specifically under clause 33(1)(a), he would be able to specify either that people could fly a particular flag on the plate, or that they could not do so. That is perfectly within his competence under the clause.
§ Mr. Blunt
I think that my hon. Friend will find that the European Union flag will come under subsection (b), the next one in the Bill, but I do not understand what his complaint is. If this country is unfortunate enough still to have the Government after the next election, the flag of the European Union will indeed be his national flag.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind all hon. Members that "Erskine May" makes it clear that the Second Reading debate should not extend to the details of clauses. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and others not to anticipate debates that are properly held in Committee.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful for that guidance. I simply accept the correction that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) issued.
50 A number of important issues in relation to vehicle crime are covered by part III. The proposed vehicle identity checks, for example, have received a mixed reception, but the Association of British Insurers welcomes them. However, it emphasises that many total loss vehicles are not regulated by the current code of practice because they do not pass through the hands of insurers.
That prompts two concerns. I feel sure that the Home Secretary is listening attentively to the two concerns that I wish to highlight.
§ Mr. Bercow
The Under-Secretary of State says, "Why should he?" I will tell him why the Home Secretary should be listening and why he should be concerned. There are real grievances about the Bill. There are anxieties about cost. There are concerns about over-regulation. There is a desire that it should achieve the purpose that has been established for it.
If the Under-Secretary of State in the fag end of the Parliament is so arrogant as to suppose that, simply because officials draft a Bill and the Home Secretary commends it to the House, there should be no further significant debate on the principles which inform it, he is wrong. So long as I and my right hon. and hon. Friends are in the House, he is to be disappointed because we will continue to argue the toss. We will look at the detail. We will expose the mismatch between Government words and Government deeds. If he wishes to provoke me further, he can do so. We will not abandon our obligation, which is to look at the detail.
I said that the ABI emphasised that total loss vehicles were not regulated by the current code of practice because they did not pass through the hands of insurers. There are two concerns on that front. First, some vehicles are returned by the owner either because he does not wish to give up the salvage to the insurer who has settled the claim—perhaps because he wishes to rebuild the car—or because he was himself liable for the accident and is not comprehensively insured. In the latter case, the insurer may never become aware of the damage to the vehicle.
The Government apparently believe that human rights legislation prevents them from compelling those motorists to hand over their vehicles to insurers, or to ensure that they are disposed of in accordance with the code of practice. The ABI believes that that is contrary to the public interest. I should genuinely be grateful for the response of the Under-Secretary of State when he winds up the debate.
Secondly, there is the numerically larger problem of "self-insured" vehicles. Some large organisations give securities or deposits and have no commercial insurance cover at all. Certain Crown vehicles come into that category. Other vehicles have insurance cover only for the third party element of any claim, and their owners themselves are therefore responsible for the disposal of damaged vehicles. The Association of British Insurers would like those organisations to abide by the code of practice because the higher specification newer models of which they dispose are a prime source of vehicles for ringing.
51 Clarification of the Government's intentions on those two types of cases would be helpful. However, in both types of cases, the ABI emphasises that it is essential that vehicle identity checks are conducted on total-loss vehicles returning to the road and that the regulations will be drafted accordingly.
I gather that the initial legislation will also require the conduct of vehicle identity checks on only three of the four total-loss categories. Do the Government intend to extend the provision to the fourth category? I am looking in eager anticipation of some guidance on that point from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, whose at least partial responsibility it is. The fourth category, of course, is that in which a vehicle is reparable but still written off by the insurer to minimise overheads during the repair period, if the Government intend that the provision should apply to the fourth category, can Ministers give some idea of when they intend to ensure that it does so?
Clause 36 will extend the time-limit for bringing prosecutions for theft of a vehicle. As the current provision effectively prevents many car criminals from being apprehended and prosecuted because the time-limit has been reached, that extension seems to be an eminently sensible change. The current situation is silly, and we are right to try to assist the fight against crime as the Government seem to be proposing.
Clause 37 will allow the Lord Chancellor's Department to make payments to magistrates courts to cover their costs in administering and hearing speed and traffic-camera cases. That provision, too, seems unobjectionable in principle.
I now come to the matter of costs. It is estimated that costs on business will be about £13 million to £20 million in the first year, and £11 million to £18 million annually thereafter. We are told by Ministers that costs to the Exchequer will be met from within departmental limits. The impression is given, therefore, that there is nothing with which we need to concern ourselves.
We are told that the cost to police will be about £110,000 annually. Ministers seem relaxed about that cost, too, on the basis that, as the checks would form part of the routine police investigation, police would "absorb the costs". It is rather less certain that police are quite as relaxed about the burden that Ministers have cheerfully imposed on them.
On behalf of the British Vehicle Salvage Federation, Allan Greenouff—I think that the Home Secretary owes it to the sector to pay attention to this—stated:any costs, particularly for registration, which will fall on the vehicle salvage industry, as a result of the new legislation, must be kept to a minimum. So many requirements are being imposed on the industry at the present time, which is a very bad economic period, and any additional costs must be fixed for administration only and should not include any costs for police enforcement. If this is not the case, the new law will represent an unfair burden on the salvage industry which could lead to more withdrawals in the market. This would be disastrous at a time when maximum capacity is needed to handle end of life vehicles according to the forthcoming ELV directive and the ever increasing problem of abandoned vehicles.
Mr. Greenouff adds that the proposed regulations on vehicle identity checks are a cause of concern to his members. He is sceptical of the cost and practicality of 52 the proposals in part III, and he gives notice that the drafting of proposals that are both workable and acceptable mayresult in protracted negotiations in the coming months.
We have glancingly referred to the subject of regulations. No fewer than nine clauses in the Bill—clauses 7, 8, 17, 23, 24, 32, 33, 34 and 35—provide for government by regulation. When will the regulations be published in draft? Will they be debated in the House, or are they to be rammed through under the negative procedure, which allows no debate? Can the Home Secretary guarantee that a minimum of three months will be allowed for consultation? How much notice will be given of the intended date for implementation?
The regulation issue is important. Small business has to negotiate a sea of regulation that is unprecedented in the history of the United Kingdom. I call to mind an important observation made by the director-general of British Chambers of Commerce, Mr. Chris Humphries—on 20 January 2000, if I remember correctly—that, despite the Government's rhetoric, they had dramatically increased the regulatory burdens that threaten small business competitiveness. In Britain, 99.6 per cent. of businesses employ fewer than 100 people. Those businesses account for approximately 57 per cent. of the private sector work force and generate two fifths of national output.
I am sure that the Home Secretary will acknowledge from the figures that I gave earlier, and from his own knowledge of the motor salvage and dismantling industries, that the great majority of companies in the sector are small businesses. Indeed, some of them qualify for the Department of Trade and Industry's description "micro-businesses", because they employ fewer than 10 people. If regulation can be justified because the benefit that it will achieve outweighs the cost that it will impose, we are game for that. However, it makes sense to ensure that the regulation is proportionate.
I hope that the Home Secretary, as an experienced Minister, will accept that one of the problems that has bedevilled business over the years—under Governments of both complexions, I readily concede—is that British officials have tended over-zealously to interpret European directives and regulations to the detriment of British businesses. Whereas our continental counterparts sign up to highfalutin declarations with only the vaguest intention of complying with them, we play by the Queensberry rules and regard that as an earnest of our serious intent to get on with the business of proper enforcement and compliance without delay. I do not object to that, but let us not make regulations over-elaborate. Let us not impose a burden that the pubic policy objective does not justify.
What is the lesson of the past three and a half years of the Labour Government? The Home Secretary knows that I admire him personally, but I fear that the Government's record is of hyping policy, raising expectations, failing to deliver and letting people down. Despite the considerable personal qualities of the right hon. Gentleman, his performance as Hon to Secretary has confirmed that general drift. The Government make great claims for what they are going to achieve and encourage people to believe that major progress will be realised, but then fail to match reality to rhetoric and people end up feeling deflated. At best, people think, "Oh, is that all that came of all the good intent and fine words?" At worst, they feel bitterly betrayed and let down by the inadequacy of the Government's performance.
53 My advice to Ministers is to be honest and realistic and not to over-hype the measure and make out that it is going to make dramatic strides towards the achievement of the target of a 30 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime by 2004. It is unlikely to do so. As the European secure vehicle alliance put it:There is little evidence that this proposed legislation will make an immediate impact on organised vehicle crime but it must be the intention of all parties to create the climate whereby we increase the risk of detection of organised vehicle crime.
Ministers should not give the wrong impression. They sometimes like to create an image of themselves rushing to the rescue. Previously, we all quaked in our boots and shivered in our beds at the prospect of our cars being stolen, or of objects being taken from them, but now we need no longer worry, because jumping Jack Flash is at hand. That is an unwise approach for Ministers to take.
It would surely be sensible to be modest about the impact of the Bill, because, as the European secure vehicle alliance stresses, it focuses entirely on the theft of vehicles, but makes no reference to theft from vehicles—the incidence, albeit not the cost of which is much greater. Moreover, the Bill will struggle to reach the statute book before Britain goes to the polls, so Ministers should keep calm and stick to the facts.
I offer Ministers two facts about the attitude of Conservative Members. First, we shall scrutinise the Bill fully and fairly. Secondly, we propose to tackle car crime by restoring the numbers of police, increasing their visibility and instilling fear into the hearts of criminals. Such an approach is the offer of a breath of fresh air after 43 months of miserable failure by the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I begin by declaring a non-pecuniary interest in this matter. I am a vice-chairman of the European secure vehicle alliance—ESVA—to which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred. As the organisation is dedicated to combating vehicle crime, I obviously welcome the Bill and many of the measures that it contains, for which ESVA has campaigned for a number of years.
It is fair to say that this has been a light-hearted and good-humoured debate so far. Over the past hour and 19 minutes, we have witnessed almost the full range of the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary repertoire. Perhaps that is it for the term—I do not know. However, this is a serious matter, and we have to pay attention to its serious elements.
Vehicle crime not only concerns us at a national level but has international implications. It crosses all boundaries and impacts on all people at different levels in society. It is certainly not confined to cars nor, as the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) suggested earlier, to new vehicles. In fact, older vehicles are more likely to be stolen, although there is clearly a market in stealing to order high-performance sports cars and other specialist vehicles, which often end up in former Soviet Union countries such as Russia
Vehicle crime is not confined to motor vehicles. It also covers motor cycles, plant and machinery and quite costly pieces of equipment.
§ Mr. McCabe
Indeed, it covers farm machinery as well. As vehicle crime has a serious impact on people's 54 livelihood, we must put it in perspective and treat it seriously. Many of us regard the figures in the explanatory notes to the Bill as an underestimate, but if it is true that 375,000 vehicles were stolen last year, with a recovery rate of around 70 per cent., that means that about 112,000 were not recovered, which in turn means that about 300 vehicles a day were lost and never recovered. So we must treat the matter seriously, however light-hearted the debate.
This is not the kind of problem that we can deal with exclusively through Government measures. The Bill provides measures from the top that can make a difference and tackle some areas with which we are familiar, but we also need measures at the bottom through the community safety partnerships. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) referred to the situation in Plymouth. Measures can be taken at a local level, and I think that a combined approach will have the most useful impact.
The Government have demonstrated that they treat the matter seriously. We should welcome the vehicle crime reduction action team initiative and the Government targets. I was somewhat surprised when the hon. Member for Buckingham suggested that his figures showed that the achievement towards the target had been only 0.5 per cent. I may have misunderstood him, but I think that I am right in saying that the most recent British crime survey shows something like a 15 per cent. reduction between 1997 and 1999.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am listening with interest and some respect to the hon. Gentleman's contribution. If I may clarify my remarks, I was referring to the change from the period of March 1998–99 to March 1999–2000. I no longer have my speech in front of me, but I think that I said that the figure in March 1998–99 was 1,482,889 and that it had gone down by exactly 7,000 12 months later. That represents a reduction, over that 12-month period, of only 0.5 per cent.—welcome, but modest.
§ Mr. McCabe
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. It demonstrates why we should all support the Bill; if we want to make quicker progress, we need to implement the measures that would enable us to do so. I would have thought that that was self-evident.
We can draw on the example offered by the approach on road safety where there was a 30 per cent. target for the reduction of accidents. Significant progress was made, although the figures dipped during some periods. Two lessons from that approach could be effective in the present case. The first is that such a system works best when there is co-operation among all the parties. The second is that, if there are deficiencies in the system, it is best for the Government to introduce supplementary measures to plug the gaps. It seems to me that we are trying to do that with the Bill.
It is fair to say that, in England and Wales, the rate of vehicle theft is the highest and the rate of recovery the poorest in the developed world. Despite some good operations recently by the West Midlands police, the Birmingham and west midlands area has one of the worst recovery rates in western Europe. From talking to policemen and to my constituents, I know that they are desperately worried about the problem of vehicle crime; they are anxious to see measures to tackle it.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman is aware that I know his constituency and at least two of his constituents 55 extremely well. Does he believe that there might be a correlation between the fall in police numbers in the west midlands and the inability of the police to recover stolen vehicles? He will be aware that the West Midlands police force has experienced one of the greatest drops in numbers in England and Wales.
§ Mr. McCabe
If my information is correct, the figures show a slight drop in vehicle crime in the west midlands, because of the operations that the police have been carrying out. I am not sure whether that necessarily supports the hon. Gentleman's observations. I shall make no comment about the people he knows in Hall Green.
I do have some comments on police operations. Earlier, there was some debate as to whether the Bill would add to the pressures on the police. In my conversations with officers in the west midlands, they admit that vehicle crime operations are labour intensive, but they enjoy undertaking them because of the other crimes and criminal activities that they uncover. The police consider that, although such operations are labour intensive, they have significant benefits because they enable the police to clear up and identify other forms of crime. That is a judgment on the use of police resources.
I welcome measures to develop more rigorous and integrated information systems. That will be of considerable benefit. The hon. Member for Buckingham referred to the Swedish experience. Theft rates in Sweden are only about half those in the UK and there is a much higher clear-up rate—almost 90 per cent. One of the clear reasons for that is the much greater use made in Sweden of integrated information systems, so that, when the police stop a vehicle, they can almost immediately, at the road-side, establish its excise duty, insurance and MOT status as well as the identity of the owner. If anything, we might argue that although the Government have gone some way towards addressing the problems and information gaps in our system, they could have gone much further. Had they looked more closely at the Swedish experience, that aspect of the Bill might have been better.
I strongly support the measures introducing registration and enforcement schemes for the salvage industry and those who deal in number plates. As both the Home Secretary and other hon. Members have said, there is a real problem in this country because it is so easy to produce and acquire number plates. That is clearly a contributory factor in vehicle crime.
It is true that there will be some costs. We heard something about those towards the end of the speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham, and I would be the first to acknowledge that there will be some cost burden. However, we should balance those against the enormous costs associated with vehicle crime, which are estimated to amount to about £3 billion a year.
Everyone is affected. People cannot go to work because their vehicles have been stolen or damaged, vital machinery is taken from contractors, and hire purchase and vehicle rental companies lose their vehicles. In that context, although it is important to guard against the costs of the Bill being too onerous, we must set them against the existing costs to society. Provided that the burden is not excessive, the price will be worth paying.
56 We should welcome the measures relating to the salvage industry, and acknowledge that they are long overdue. It should no longer be possible for vehicles that have been written off to have their identities swapped with those of stolen vehicles, which can then be put back on the road. We should also try to reduce the market in spare parts, and the sale of goods such as the Home Secretary's stereo.
We should also try to tighten the regulations to ensure that vehicles written off in a smash are not patched up, put back on the market and passed on to some innocent unsuspecting buyer. That would not be directly related to the provisions in the Bill, but the restraining of the salvage industry will have a welcome impact on such activity.
I was a bit surprised to hear people asking whether the police should have the power to enter premises to inspect the register. It would seem strange to give tacit approval to legislation that requires those in the salvage industry to keep a register, yet deny the police the power to gain access to it. That is the worst kind of burden to put on industry, because it would create a register without providing any mechanism whereby the information in it could be used. That would be absurd.
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the main concern that I highlighted was the seemingly differential treatment between registered and unregistered operators, to the disadvantage of the former. What is his view of that?
§ Mr. McCabe
There is a simple answer to that concern. There is an expectation that the police will build up good relationships with registered dealers and will know who is who, so they will be able to work with them in a way that is not intrusive or burdensome. As for unregistered operators, the police, through their intelligence, will now have a clear ready-made target. That is a persuasive argument for the approach being taken, as I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree.
The hon. Member for Buckingham asked whether someone who supplies plates without due diligence will be guilty of supplying counterfeit plates. I should be grateful if the Minister would make that point clear.
The Bill is welcome, so far as it goes. Some things are missing from it and there are areas where we could strengthen it. As at least two or three of my hon. Friends said earlier, it does not cover theft from vehicles, which is a crime of much greater proportions, although the financial sum involved may be less. As we are dealing with vehicle crime, it would be sensible to tackle not only the theft of vehicles, but theft from them. I do not know whether there is scope to study that in Committee, but it would be welcome.
We should wonder why there has not been greater concentration on the industry. We should acknowledge the efforts that it has made in the past few years. The theft of new vehicles has decreased in direct relation to the measures that the industry has taken and such crime would be further reduced if further measures were taken. The introduction of laminated glass for side glazing panels is a simple example. I understand that, at the current rate, it will take 10 years for that to apply to most vehicles. If the industry were required to speed up that introduction, we could make more significant progress and reach the target more quickly.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am sorry to trouble the hon. Gentleman, but this is an important point. The target of a 30 per cent. 57 reduction by 2004 is challenging, in the Home Secretary's words. Would he bet on its achievement, and if so, how much?
§ Mr. McCabe
I am afraid that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman because I do not gamble. That is why I am a Labour Member of Parliament.
I am surprised that the Bill does not contain measures on the way in which the insurance industry deals with vehicle theft. There are enormously high pay-outs and no restriction on people continuing to make claims. There was some debate earlier about the measures that people should take to protect their property. If people persistently do not take action to protect their property and continue to receive insurance pay-outs, we encourage the notion that such crime is victimless, but we know that everyone pays for it through increased premiums. The Bill could provide the opportunity to oblige individuals to protect their property. If they do not, insurance companies might take that fact into account in determining pay-outs.
An interesting experiment recently took place in Merseyside, where the police and an insurance company worked jointly to recover stolen vehicles. People may be worried about the Bill's impact on the police, but that experiment had the great advantage that the insurance company made money available to the police, so extra resources were available to target vehicle crime. The consequence was a massive increase in recovery and the insurance company gained because the pay-outs were dramatically reduced. We could learn from that example. Perhaps the Bill should include enabling powers to try to encourage that approach in other parts of the country.
The Bill is primarily about trying to reduce the market for stolen vehicles and, therefore, the opportunities for vehicle crime. In that sense, it is inevitable that it is a regulatory Bill, and we cannot object strongly to that fact despite some of the comments that have been made. However, we could take complementary measures that would immensely strengthen the approach to such crime. For example, the European secure vehicle alliance has campaigned for some time on the issue of education. We must try not only to reduce the market for stolen vehicles, but to change people attitude's to vehicles and to the theft of vehicles. That involves our notions of ownership and behaviour.
To some extent, the Government have acknowledged that point in their advertising campaigns. The campaign to reduce crime focused on individual behaviour, but the Government have been reluctant to consider the issue of younger people. We know that, sadly, younger people are over-represented in some crime statistics and in the accident statistics. At present, there does not appear to be a process by which we attempt to educate younger people about responsible driving, safe behaviour and the ownership and security of vehicles.
One complementary measure that the Government could consider would involve the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department for Education and Employment working together. They could consider key stage 4 requirements for those youngsters who do not respond to the conventional or standard national curriculum. Such youngsters already opt out and they are in danger of drifting, but we have an opportunity to develop a community safety education model that is designed to complement the other regulatory 58 work that aims to reduce the market for stolen vehicles. The other side of the equation is to educate the next generation of drivers to be more responsible and to treat driving more seriously.
§ Mr. Heald
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some projects in the voluntary sector, such as the "wheels" project in Hertfordshire and the excellent project in Oxford, concentrate on exactly the point that he is making? They seem to be achieving good results with young people, including those who have had difficulties with the police.
§ Mr. McCabe
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he makes my point for me. We already have one or two examples that show how effective such an approach can be. It is complementary to the other measures designed to tackle crime, so it would be helpful if the three Departments could come together to give a further boost to such work and to consider whether something could be done at key stage 4 of the curriculum.
I am conscious that I have spoken for rather longer than I intended and that other Members wish to speak. With that in mind, I conclude my remarks.
§ Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)
I listened to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) with great interest. He made several important points. In particular, he confirmed that hon. Members on both sides of the House share concerns about the amount of vehicle crime in this country. It is one of the most pervasive, far-reaching and invidious crimes from which we suffer. According to the analysis of the European secure vehicle alliance, to which the hon. Gentleman referred several times, one in three car owners in England and Wales fear that their vehicle will be stolen. In fact, one in eight vehicles owners had their vehicle stolen last year.
For most people, a car is probably their most expensive purchase after buying their home. For non-home owners, it is certainly the most expensive purchase. Cars are often bought on credit and the period of repayment often stretches up to five years. To have one's vehicle stolen and to go through the misery of trying to obtain its full worth from an insurance company is quite a traumatic experience that should not be underplayed or ignored.
Every day 1,000 cars are stolen in England and Wales. Thirty per cent. are never recovered, and of the 70 per cent. that are recovered more than half are damaged beyond repair. Vehicle crime is a major feature of the criminal statistics. The Home Secretary gave a figure of less than 20 per cent., but some estimates put the figure at more than 20 per cent. However, it is clear that it is a major area of criminal activity.
Vehicle crime takes up a disproportionate amount of the resources of the criminal justice system, crime detection, prosecution and front-line policing. A reduction in vehicle crime might lead to a reduction in the police resources needed to pursue and prosecute offenders.
So far I have referred to recorded crime, but the British crime survey—everyone seems to recognise it as a valuable source of information—suggests that fewer than half the thefts from vehicles are reported to the police, and that fewer than 60 per cent. of reported thefts are recorded by the police. Therefore, only a quarter of thefts from vehicles 59 enter the statistics of recorded crime. The Bill deals exclusively with the theft of vehicles, but theft from vehicles is a major area of criminal activity that should be tackled with equal vigour. Theft from vehicles accounts for two thirds of all recorded vehicle crime. The work of Joanna Sallybanks and Nerys Thomas provides an important reference point, and I shall return to that point.
Although the Bill is limited in its aspirations, it proposes useful measures aimed at reducing vehicle crime. As other hon. Members have said, the draft Bill was welcomed by many organisations as disparate as, among others, the European secure vehicle alliance, the Automobile Association, the RAC and the Motorcycle Action Group. The industry and those interested in motor vehicles have broadly accepted the Bill, and we certainly welcome it in principle. However, we have some particular concerns that I shall discuss later. I am sure that they will be examined as the Bill goes through the due process. Improvements can be made by amendment. I listened to the Home Secretary and I hope that his remarks referred not just to the spirit of accepting amendments, but to the practice of accepting them. There are many ways in which the Bill can usefully be improved.
The Home Secretary and other hon. Members have referred to the Prime Minister's commitment to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. in five years. That commitment has been described as "challenging" or "frightening", and there has been much argument about how much progress has been made. However, it is clear that we are still a long way from the target and the clock is ticking. There is not much time left.
The Bill is aimed specifically at reducing crime in the ringing of stolen vehicles and breaking them for spare parts. The Home Office estimates that, along with a reduction in insurance fraud, the Bill could reduce vehicle crime by 36,000 vehicles a year. That is an admirable aim, but we have to compare that figure with the fact that 375,000 vehicles are stolen every year. Whatever the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said about his figures, it is a fact that reducing the number of vehicles stolen by 36,000 represents less than 10 per cent. of the vehicles stolen every year. Those are Home Office figures.
The Bill will make no impact on reducing the 130,000 vehicles that are stolen every year and recovered, but wrecked beyond repair. It will have no impact on the more than 700,000 thefts from vehicles every year. Those are recorded thefts, but they represent probably only a quarter of actual thefts from vehicles. To put the Bill in the context of the research carried out by Sallybanks and Thomas and the statistics of the British crime survey, it aims to reduce vehicle crime by about 1.5 per cent. of the total. It is still a good objective, but let us be realistic and admit that the Prime Minister's target is, indeed, challenging.
England and Wales suffer some of the highest vehicle crime rates in the developed world. Other hon. Members have highlighted the fact that we are far in front of many other western countries in that respect. Hardy's work on European vehicle crime shows that the most reliable comparison of the rate of vehicle crime is the rate of theft deducted from the total number of vehicles in the vehicle "parc" in a particular country. It is worth considering 60 those figures and putting the scale of the problem in context. In England and Wales, the rate of theft is 16 per cent. higher than it is in France, 70 per cent. higher than it is in Italy and nearly four times higher than it is in Germany.
Vehicle crime rates in England and Wales are not universal. There are significant regional variations, but the most important variations are due to demography. The Conservatives seemed to be unsure about what cars were stolen most frequently I can advise them that the highest levels of theft occur from low-income, inner-city estates and in areas with the highest incidence of disorder, and that the highest rates of theft are of lower value, older and less-secure vehicles. The issue of vehicle crime is clearly wider than just preventing the ringing of stolen vehicles or the recycling of stolen vehicle parts.
Although the Bill's aims are welcome, there are wider issues to consider in connection with vehicle crime, such as crime prevention, law enforcement and community policing. A major aspect of vehicle crime is the theft of parts, which is estimated to cost our economy five times as much as vehicle theft. Although the Bill attempts to regulate the trade in second-hand parts, much more needs to be done to prevent their theft.
The hon. Member for Hall Green was right to say that the industry has a responsibility to produce better-designed vehicles and to make parts more secure and more easily traceable. It is common sense to produce a car in which the spare wheel is kept within the main body and not in a tray that is accessible outside the car. It is simple for the design shop to incorporate lockable wheel nuts before a car is produced, and they are a vital aid to ensuring that car wheels are not stolen. I feel for the Home Secretary, who commented on the fate of the audio systems in his car, but surely the technology is available to make them more secure. As the hon. Member for Hall Green said, we should accelerate the introduction of laminated side glazing so that it is a standard feature on all cars. We should not wait another eight years, when we shall hit the end of the 10-year programme.
There is great scope for improving vehicle crime prevention measures. Industry must take the lead, with Government prodding, probing, persuasion and, if necessary, regulation to ensure that such issues take a higher priority in the design of cars. However, the Bill does not address that.
§ Mr. Heald
I am following carefully what the hon. Gentleman says about the areas from which cars are likely to be stolen. Does he agree that the people most at risk are on low incomes, are unemployed or are single parents? Is it enough simply to say that the manufacturers must find solutions, because many of those people's cars would require retrospective fitting to make them more secure? Where would the money come from for that?
§ Mr. Chidgey
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which accurately reflect the research by the scientists to whom I referred. I said that in areas where such vehicle crime is prevalent, it is necessary to put more emphasis on crime prevention, law enforcement and community policing, because the crime from which those communities suffer is part of a wider scene of criminality and disorder. We must see such crime in the wider sense of crime prevention, and not just in terms of preventing vehicle theft.
61 A more significant aspect of vehicle crime prevention is secure parking. That is not addressed in the Bill, but several hon. Members alluded to it. A quarter of all vehicle thefts are from car parks. For the past five years, the AA has been administering secure car park schemes on behalf of the police, but fewer than 700 out of an estimated 10,000 car parks have achieved that secure status.
According to the law, a motorist who buys a ticket and enters a car park is merely paying a licence fee for the space. The car park operator has no duty of care for a car that is parked on his land. Most car park operators do not provide basic security—why should I they when there are queues of motorists at the entrance to most car parks around our major cities? Either the industry must be confronted and made to embrace the secure car parks scheme, or consumer protection legislation must be introduced so that a payment for car parking is a payment for a service, and not just a licence fee to enter the land. Until there is radical change, public car parks will continue to be the honeypot for cat thieves.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I endorse my hon. Friend's comments on car parks. In addition, will he consider the fact, which I learned in Oxfordshire, that railway station car parks are traditionally policed by the British Transport police and not the local police? As the British Transport police cannot be in all places at all times and station car parks are not on their patch in the same way as they are for local police does he agree not only that the landlord should take proper responsibility but that there should be a change in policing to ensure that community parking is the responsibility of the community police service, and not people who are rarely there?
§ Mr. Chidgey
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I agree that we need not only joined-up government, but joined-up policing.
The main thrust of the Bill is aimed at reducing the number of unrecovered stolen vehicles, which is a small proportion of vehicle crime. In that regard, its measures are broadly welcome. However, we need to consider how effective they might be. Some 30 per cent. of stolen cars are not recovered. In proportion to cars that are stolen from the fleet, they are, by definition, practice and statistics, of the highest value. They tend to be top of the range and the police estimate that professional theft of such cars is rising.
About 20 per cent. of uncovered stolen vehicles are in that category, and the number is increasing. Many are stolen to order and, within hours, are crated up whole or stripped into parts and exported to mainland Europe for resale, where they are virtually untraceable. There is no requirement to include full details on shipping documents for container transport. Individual stolen cars can be driven out of the country and are unlikely to be checked. There is clearly a need, which the Bill could address, to consider how we can improve checks and identification at our ports to help to reduce the number of vehicles that are exported by professional thieves.
It is unclear what measures are proposed to reduce crime as the Bill relates to other categories of vehicles. The hon. Member for Hall Green mentioned construction plant and motor cycles. Other hon. Members referred to agricultural equipment, and there is a roaring trade in second-hand caravans that have been stolen from forecourts or drives.
62 The theft of construction plant involves individual items and vehicles that are often valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds. There is a thriving world market in those expensive and highly valuable items, and professional criminals certainly specialise in their theft and export to that market. The important point is that many of those vehicles are outside the DVLA system, and will not be covered by the Bill's provisions on notification of ownership. They are not necessarily registered as road vehicles.
The most serious issue pertaining to those categories of vehicles is the theft of motor cycles. Car theft is falling, but the theft of motor cycles, scooters and mopeds is soaring, and the RAC Foundation reports that there has been a dramatic 25 per cent. increase in the past 12 months. Statistics show that only 14 per cent. of those bikes will be recovered, which is less than a fifth of the recovery figure for cars. The Association of Chief Police Officers has confirmed that its computer lists more than 80,000 bikes as stolen and not recovered. It believes that most are broken for spares, and estimates that there are already nearly £400 million-worth of black market spares in circulation.
It is essential that the Bill fully addresses the rising rates of motor cycle theft. It is far easier to steal a motor cycle than it is to steal a car; it is a simple matter of loading it into the back of a van and driving off. There is a strong case for crime prevention measures such as the provision of more secure on and off-street parking for motor cycles.
I turn now to the details of the Bill. I am cognisant of the Chair's advice that "Erskine May" requires us to consider the clauses not in detail, but in general, and I shall try to obey that ruling. An important omission from the Bill is any mention of safety. The regulations on rebuilt vehicles and recycled parts concentrate on the provenance of those goods, but it is equally important that they are safe when they are offered for sale. There is a strong case for introducing inspection for fitness of purpose to the regulatory chain.
In the main, we agree with the aims in part I to bring the motor salvage industry within the framework of statutory regulation. It is important to reduce opportunities for disposing of stolen vehicles and to assist the police in their investigation of those offences. The majority of salvage operators are extremely responsible and law-abiding citizens who run properly regulated companies, but it is important to eliminate opportunities for the minority to give stolen vehicles the identities of legitimate vehicles that have been written off or seriously damaged. It is important to eliminate opportunities for them to break stolen vehicles and use their component parts for repairs or for resale to the second-hand market and fraudulently to report vehicles as stolen to insurance companies and dispose of them through the trade. Many hon. Members have emphasised that point, and those aspects of the Bill are very important.
Concerns have been expressed outside the House that part I is incomplete. The British Motorcyclists Federation has expressed concern that it does not cover situations in which breakers use their legitimate business as a cover to purchase stolen parts from criminals or break stolen vehicles and sell the parts on. It does not cover dealers who buy stolen vehicles along with legitimate second-hand cars so that they can ring the cars or strip them and supply other vehicles with the parts.
63 I turn now to the role of local authorities as registrars, as it were, of salvage companies. Part I does not supply local authorities with funds to pursue inquiries into the fitness of an applicant for registration, nor does it require them to provide the funds themselves, so there is no statutory requirement for them to give any priority to vehicle theft prevention. It might be only one of the jobs that they have to do, but I should have thought that it was important to have a sense of priority if we are to hit the Prime Minister's target of a 30 per cent. reduction in car crime in five years.
What provisions does the Bill contain for effective liaison with the police? They, more than anyone else, have a strong motive for ensuring that applicants for registration are fit and proper persons. I am sure that the police would welcome the right to express to local authorities their concerns about particular applicants in the area. Part I recognises that some local authorities would welcome statutory guidance on who constitutes a fit and proper person to act as a motor salvage operator, and there is scope for amending the Bill to expand and amplify that guidance.
Part II deals with the regulation of registration plate suppliers. Other hon. Members have compared the Swedish system with that in this country. It is clear that our system is a mess, with 27,000 outlets supplying between 6 million and 7 million plates a year. In Sweden, one supplier produces and distributes registration plates within a carefully regulated system. As the hon. Member for Hall Green said, that allows the police to make immediate roadside checks to ensure that a vehicle is properly taxed and insured and has an MOT.
§ Mr. Chidgey
As always, I am delighted by the right hon. Gentleman's curiosity, but the issue is the regulation of plates to ensure that they are not manufactured and distributed illegally. The supply chain must be audited, whether there is one supplier or several. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that I was merely quoting the example of Sweden. We want to achieve the end result that Sweden achieves, not necessarily to use the same system.
Clearly, the laxity of this country's vehicle document and registration procedures are a major factor contributing to our high rate of non-recovery of stolen vehicles. New registration plates are essential for a "rung" vehicle, and denying them could reduce the number of unrecovered stolen vehicles by as much as a quarter. The Association of British Insurers estimates that the losses through ringing amount to more than £100 million a year.
The regulation of registration plates is clearly long overdue, and we broadly welcome that part of the Bill, provided that it is aimed at vehicle crime prevention. However, we must ask whether it is also aimed at reducing, or monitoring, motor offences in general. That would raise concerns about civil liberties, and we need to know how those would be addressed and overcome.
64 Part III deals with vehicle licensing and registration. The vehicle crime reduction action team has reported that the most effective way of combating crime, particularly ringing, is to raise the standards of the vehicle registration document, the V5. I support the requirement of proof of identity at the time of issue of the V5, the compulsory transfer of the appropriate part of the V5 when the vehicle is sold, the production of the V5 when applying for a vehicle excise duty licence and the compulsory collection of mileage data. The latter provides an important opportunity to stop what is commonly called "clocking" cars and selling them to an unsuspecting buyer.
Part III also deals with information requirements, allowing the police access to insurance information. I understand that this important measure is intended to enable the police to have access to the motor insurance database, in conjunction with the automatic number plate recognition system, and to help them to detect people without insurance. The cost to the Motor Insurers Bureau of covering and aiding the victims of accidents in which the perpetrator is uninsured is £215 million a year. In addition, the direct cost to insurance companies is at least as much again. That cost is passed on to bona fide policyholders, and we all end up paying £15 to £20 a year extra. There are benefits to be derived from identifying unlicensed and uninsured drivers, and there is widespread support in the industry for improvements. The Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety supports a proposal to link the DVLA database to the police national computer, and I think that it is worth exploring, along with introducing access to other databases. However, we must ensure that the Bill does not fall foul of data protection and civil liberties provisions.
Clause 37 covers the funding of certain magistrates courts' costs relating to the administration of speed and traffic camera cases. Let me make it clear that I and my colleagues welcome the reduction in the number of injuries and accidents that has resulted from the introduction of speed cameras. The measure is an important one that should help to finance the introduction of speed cameras in areas where great need has been proved. However, I do not want speed cameras to proliferate willy-nilly, perhaps with the aim of exploiting the opportunity to raise revenue, rather than reducing the number of accidents. If speed cameras are installed, it is most important that they work. I shall not detain the House with my explanation of the reverse collapse theory of traffic management, but those who know about it will know that a law work; only when it is self-enforcing and it is known to be self-enforcing. It is hopeless to have alongside the road little grey boxes with no cameras inside, because people, who use a route regularly get to know quickly which cameras work. Correctly channelled, we would support raising funds to install cameras that work in places where they are needed.
My final comments relate to the financial effects of the Bill. I find rather strange the calculation of costs to the salvage industry, estimated to be £285,000 a year, of checking the identity of vehicles and recording details. That sum assumes a labour rate of £5 an hour, but most people recognise that today, the cost of labour includes an overhead, which is rarely less than 50 per cent. and is sometimes as much as 100 per cent. Therefore, if a calculation states that £5 an hour is the cost of labour, either it is assumed that salvage operators pay less than the national minimum wage, or a gross error has been 65 made. The costing exercise at the back of the Bill is riddled with lots of rather broad a estimates—for example, the time for vehicle identification inspections is estimated at between 12 and 18 minutes, a 50 per cent. difference. The figures must be examined and made into a more robust analysis of the real costs to the industry and other financial effects.
Despite the issues that I have raised and our concerns about the opportunity to amend the Bill later to address those issues, Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill and we hope to help to speed its passage.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)
I declare a non-pecuniary interest as one who, with the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), co-chairs the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety—PACTS. Later in my speech, I shall focus more on those parts of the Bill that have the potential to improve road safety, but I shall comment first on the provisions that have the potential to help to reduce vehicle crime.
My reading of the explanatory notes leads me to understand that scrap merchants have been registered since at least 1964, but that motor salvage dealers and the sellers of registered number plates are not registered. It strikes me as high time that consistency was established through a registration scheme for all. Vehicle crime accounts for almost one fifth of al1 recorded crime, and the Bill as it stands—several hon. Members have voiced ambitions to extend it—cracks down on three types of vehicle crime: the replacing of written-off cars with stolen ones, or "ringers"; the breaking up of stolen cars and the sale of the parts; and falsely claiming an insurance pay-out for the theft of a car that has, in fact, been disposed of by some other means.
The value of the vehicles involved is high: the Association of British Insurers says that insurance pay-outs for vehicle crime totalled £498 million last year; and the explanatory notes estimate potential savings of as much as £112 million each year. Therefore, in terms of the cost of vehicles and their value to the economy, it is important to crack down on vehicle crime. Other hon. Members have commented on the importance of protecting the public. Vehicles that have been stolen, changed and given a false identity might well be unsafe on the road. Anything we can do to stamp out their use and keep them off the road is a safety gain.
I should give credit to the motor manufacturing industry for its great efforts to make vehicles more secure from theft and removal, and I believe that the Bill will complement their efforts. It will protect all of us from unknowingly buying stolen vehicles and protect legitimate dealers in salvage and number plates from unfair competition that is, quite literally, criminal. In addition, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) said, the costs of our motor insurance should fall.
Information systems have the potential to contribute to the fight against this type of crime. There are five legal requirements to meet before one drives a vehicle on our roads: a driving licence, an insurance policy, an MOT test certificate if applicable, the excise licence and the registration document. A different organisation collects the information relevant to each of those requirements and holds it electronically, but, in most cases, it cannot pool that information with other agencies, nor share it 66 with them. Another major player in the collection of data about the movement of vehicles and their occupants is the police national computer. The Bill contains a provision to enable the police to have access to the insurance industry's databases, but I would argue that it should be extended to address the broader issue of information exchange between all of the agencies. In any sharing of information that takes place, it is important to protect the individual's reasonable expectations of privacy, but the goal of reducing crime and making our roads safe is worthy.
I should like Ministers to consider the provision of a new time limit for prosecuting offences of taking vehicles. Many offences are dealt with summarily and are subject to a six-month time limit for commencement of prosecution. The justification for extending the time limit in respect of only one offence is that modern investigation techniques and the availability of DNA analysis might result in the police coming upon evidence more than six months after a crime was committed. However, that argument can be used in respect of all other summary offences, and I suspect that the provision is the forerunner to a wider debate on extending time limits generally for summary offences.
Clause 35 is a crime-cutting measure, but I contend that it also relates to road safety. It would allow the police access to motor insurance databases. The Government have been encouraging insurers to form a common database containing details of policyholders—the motor insurers database, or MID. That should help the police to identify those who are driving without insurance. The more police are given responsibility for processing automatic fixed fines, such as those levied when someone is caught speeding on a speed camera, the more helpful it would be to have access to such information during the process of prosecution. In that way, having detected someone committing a speeding offence, for example, the police will have the ability to check whether another offence has been committed, such as driving without insurance. That is important. Over the weekend, a newspaper reported that there are about 80,000 drivers who are not covered by insurance. Some people are doing so because they have not bought insurance for the vehicle that they are using. Others do not have insurance because they cannot obtain it. They may be disqualified by age and should not be driving. Others may be disqualified by a court order. That disqualification may be because their driving record is so bad that they have forfeited the right to drive. Detecting those who have been disqualified is very much an attempt to make our roads safer for those lawfully using them.
Clause 37 is indisputably a road safety measure. It will allow a proportion of speed fines to be recycled for use in increasing the use of speed cameras and traffic light cameras. I drew attention to the contribution that speed cameras make to road safety in an Adjournment debate that I initiated about a year ago. I gave figures for casualty reduction in Staffordshire, and I shall give the latest figures shortly.
The Government responded positively to my Adjournment debate. The Minister announced that they intended to set up a pilot scheme to test giving back to the police and local authorities a proportion of the income collected from fines imposed for speeding. From April, eight authorities have been allowed to use a proportion of speed fines to invest in more cameras. Although it is a 67 two-year scheme, we have before us suggested primary legislation to enable a national scheme to be established. Is that because the results of the pilot schemes are so obviously successful already?
I understand that over the first six months in Northamptonshire, for example, there has been a 20 per cent. reduction in deaths and injuries, with a fall of 50 per cent. in August alone. I return to the success of Staffordshire, which was an early authority to invest in speed cameras. It started to do so in 1995 and—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying into too much detail. He must remember that this is a Second Reading debate.
§ Mr. Kidney
I need only to show that there is a safety implication in allowing the police to have access to some of the money that comes from fines imposed for speeding. Results in Staffordshire tell us that the number of vehicles travelling at speeds in excess of the fixed penalty level has fallen by 98 per cent. Eighty five percentile speeds, on roads with speed limits of 30 or 40 miles per hour that are monitored by speed cameras, have reduced by between 6 to 40 per cent. Most important of all these statistics, the three-year personal injury records at county sites show a reduction in fatal and serious injuries of 60 per cent., and 24 per cent. for all injuries.
According to the Government's new safety strategy, which is called "Tomorrow's Roads—Safer for Everyone", speed is a factor in one in three of all collisions. With about 3,400 people dying on our roads every year, it can be seen that reducing excessive and inappropriate speeds can contribute greatly to meeting the Government's new challenging target for reducing the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads by 40 per cent. by 2010. The target is 50 per cent. for children.
Reducing speed is only one element in making roads safer. Education, enforcement, road engineering and careful evaluation all have a role. In Staffordshire, the speed camera strategy is only one part of a comprehensive road safety strategy, and one that has been remarkably successful. Fatal and serious injuries have been cut from 628 in 1994 to 350 last year. We have performed well in Staffordshire to date. The local authority and the police have set themselves a target of meeting the 300 figure that the Government's new targets imply for Staffordshire by 2005 instead of 2010.
I have concentrated on road safety to show that more speed cameras nationally will be a means towards making roads safer. In this way, I hope that I can reassure those who fear that the measure is only a money-raising scheme.
Staffordshire's experience of the finances derived from speed cameras would contradict any critic who talks of a stealth tax. The local authority and the police have invested £2.5 million in speed cameras since 1995. In the same period, the sum of all the fixed-penalty tickets for speeding offences has been £2 million. That money has gone to the Exchequer, but clearly it has not even covered the investment.
A further reassurance can be gained by studying the criteria by which we decide on where to site speed cameras in Staffordshire. An assessment is made that is based on a points system. Points are awarded for various 68 factors, including the number of collisions involving personal injury, the severity of the injuries and the volume of traffic.
To keep the public's confidence, the message must be that more speed cameras are intended to make our roads safer, not to raise more money. The message will be reinforced by expressly indicating that the siting of new speed cameras will be in accordance with objective criteria.
There is a financial benefit to the public purse in introducing more speed cameras, and one that we should publicise widely. Fewer fatal and serious injuries mean less expenditure to deal with the aftermath, fewer attendances by emergency services at the scene, less use of stretched health services and reduced social security payments. The Government estimate that the cost of one fatality on our roads is about £1 million. For a serious injury, the cost is about £100,000. Little wonder that Staffordshire reports a first year economic rate of return on its investment in speed cameras of 1,200 per cent.
The answer to the allegation of a stealth tax is that the true purpose and effect of using speed cameras and traffic light cameras more widely is to reduce law-breaking and to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads. The overall objectives of the Bill—reducing vehicle crime and road casualties—should be welcomed by everyone.
§ Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has returned to his place. His contribution from the Opposition Front Bench was the usual pessimistic and, at times, pedantic perambulation.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am content to plead guilty to the charge of pessimism. Will the hon. Lady now, without further ado, give me one example of pedantry?
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I would prefer to make progress to relieve the pessimistic mood in which the hon. Gentleman left the Chamber. I hope to show that there is every reason to be optimistic about the Bill and that some of his worst fears will not come to light.
In contrast, the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary were restrained and responsible in referring to some of the tools that are essential for places such as Plymouth, which have been able to bear down significantly on car crime generally and on the theft of motor vehicles, about which the hon. Gentleman made a great deal. Places such as Plymouth, which have a significant track record, especially need the proposals that are set out in the Bill to continue to bear down on car crime.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to the reduction of 17 per cent. in vehicle crime nationally since the election, and that achievement is even more marked in Plymouth, where we have been fortunate in being able to build on six years of partnership between the police, the council it and the community to reduce crime and improve community safety. The Plymouth community safety partnership was set up during the time of a Labour-led council, and more than 100 partners have contributed to the success of the crime reduction strategy in Plymouth.
69 From the beginning, auto crime has been one of the key elements of that strategy. That is hardly surprising. Even with the lower level of vehicle crime in Plymouth, it represents almost one in four of all reported crimes. The success of the strategy in Plymouth has resulted in a fall from the initial audit level in 1994–95, the year before the partnership came into being, of 2,555 crimes—that is, theft of vehicles—to 1,300 in the past full year. That is a reduction of 50 per cent. in theft of vehicles. Car crime as a whole fell by 50 per cent. in the first three years and is approaching 70 to 80 per cent. for the whole period.
Plymouth's success is all the more remarkable when one considers the difficult background against which the partnership emerged. According to the 1995 index of local conditions, the St. Peter ward in Plymouth, Sutton was the poorest ward in England, with high unemployment. However, education, employment and health action zones have enabled us to pull together to address that effectively. The city now has unemployment at the national average for the first time in 20 years. Unemployment has plummeted from 12,000 to fewer than 4,000, and a further 2,000 people who were not even registered as unemployed are now in work.
Over the first three years of the community safety partnership, theft of vehicles fell by 29 per cent., and in the three years from the year of the election, such offences fell by a further 29 per cent. They have continued to fall but, naturally, after such successes, it becomes much more difficult to see significant results. A figure of 1,300 car crimes in Plymouth is still too many. Despite some success in prosecuting some of the individuals responsible for substantial amounts of such crime—
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Yes. I am happy to admit that CCTV has had some impact, but the greater impact has come from the people involved in the community safety partnership—the 100 partners from neighbourhood watch schemes and others, which I may mention if time permits.
The Bill will help us by making it much more difficult to profit from car theft, by licensing those involved in the salvage industry and controlling the supply of number plates. Both proposals will reduce the opportunities for criminals to disguise the identity of stolen cars, by preventing criminals from swapping the identity of a vehicle that they have stolen with that of a written-off or scrapped vehicle. They will take the profit out of stealing cars.
The Bill will also help to prevent unsuspecting purchasers from buying stolen cars, which in turn will bring benefits to the vehicle insurance industry and its customers. It will back up the work that the vehicle insurance industry is undertaking to develop the motor insurers database to prevent uninsured driving which, we know, costs each policyholder about £20 a year and the insurance industry more than £400 million.
I hope that the Bill will also help the work of trading standards officers. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) highlighted some interesting points. Some of the most difficult cases with which trading standards officers have had to deal entail spotting cut and shut 70 vehicles before they become a problem, with huge safety implications for consumers, whom their service aims to protect. The ownership of stolen vehicles has always been a problem for purchasers who find that they have paid a significant sum for something that turns out to belong to someone else. I hope that we will draw on the long experience of trading standards officers in such matters, to ensure that safety, title to property and car clocking are dealt with more effectively in future.
Re-investing money from speed camera enforcement in road safety will be popular with many of my constituents. We have in Plymouth one of 20 pilot home zones, and I know that all over the country there is huge demand for effective traffic calming, including the use of more speed cameras. Like many hon. Members, I have had to explain to too many constituents who fear for their own and their children's safety that speed cameras are not available for all the circumstances that might merit their use. The most recent discussion that I have had about that was at this time last week, when I was speaking to some young members of the Efford youth club. One of them asked me what we could do to stop speeding motorists like the one who had recently knocked down and injured his cousin.
I understand that the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), visited my constituency on Friday. I am delighted that she did so, and especially that she visited the St. Peter ward, which I mentioned earlier. I understand that she visited the Millfields police station, which was opened after a campaign in that community supported by local residents, their Labour councillors and myself, and which received a positive response from our then local chief inspector of police, Mr. Russ Mitchell.
I am delighted that the right hon. Lady viewed that important project, which has brought local policing back to an area that is still among the poorest in the country. I am only sorry that I did not know in advance about her visit. Perhaps hon. Members on the Conservative Benches will bring to her attention my remarks about aspects of vehicle crime and how we are tackling it in Plymouth, which I would have been delighted to show her.
For although the lives of my constituents are still spoiled by levels of deprivation and crime—including vehicle crime—that are far too high, the right hon. Lady could not have chosen a better constituency or ward to see how things are at last turning round, and how our policies are working to improve people's lives and give them back the feeling that they have some control over their quality of life.
The local community is working on a neighbourhood compact. The ward will get five more police with the extra funding from the crime-fighting fund and the Devon and Cornwall police budget, which will help to combat vehicle crime, using the new measures. The statistics for the eight months to October this year show an overall 8 per cent. reduction in crime in that ward, and 13 per cent. in Plymouth as a whole.
The impressive reduction in car crime in Plymouth is the more remarkable because it occurred against the background of deep-seated poverty, which was getting worse when we were elected in 1997. The people of Stonehouse showed early determination to deal with that appalling Tory legacy. The successful campaign to re-open a police station in the area was one early result. The work with an adjacent ward of Sutton produced some 71 remarkably successful projects to tackle vehicle crime. The significant reduction of some 50 per cent. in car crime over the period could not have happened without such initiatives.
If I were to pick out a project that illustrates why Plymouth has been so successful, I would suggest Treads, a training programme in which more than 500 young people have participated this year. It makes a special contribution to working with those who have a history of involvement in auto crime. The partnership is led by the Devon Youth Association and involves Plymouth city council and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. Young people are referred to the programme by the youth offending team, and they learn responsible driving and car mechanics. The programme has Open College Federation accreditation.
Just last week, two young people from North Prospect received a Crimebeat award of several hundred pounds for a project to build a car from a kit. The award was made in the presence of Major Ranulph Rayner, Devon's high sheriff, who is backing such Crimebeat initiatives during his term of office, and Sir John Evans, our chief constable.
In addition to showing the right hon. Member for Maidstone and the Weald that excellent project, I would have shared with her my concern about the car park at the rear of the Theatre Royal.
In May this year, the Tories took control of the council [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Well, it is not "hear, hear", as far as we are concerned. Since May, there have been several worrying signs that the Tories do not fully understand the importance of putting time and money into the partnership work for which Plymouth has become well known. In the case of the crime partnership, they have cut the council's contribution to the youth offending team. Personally, I should have thought that that would be one of the last things that one would think of cutting. Even less would one expect the Tories to cut car parking charges within weeks or almost days of taking office. In fact, they did not just cut them, but abolished them on evenings and Sundays.
The car park that I am concerned about is inspected by patrols, which see whether cars have tickets. In doing so, those patrols provide a degree of security against theft from, and of, cars. The Tories say that they will maintain the patrols, but there are signs that crime in the car park is going up. The police have introduced dog patrols since December, which may help for the time being and over Christmas.
The idea is to create a partnership. The Tories on Plymouth city council, however, seem to think that people who can afford to come in and pay £20 for a theatre ticket and, often, have a meal out as well—but who do not even pay our community charge—cannot afford to contribute to the cost of car parking and security for their own cars.
§ Mr. Heald
I followed with great interest the hon. Lady's comments on Treads, which is the sort of scheme that I mentioned earlier. However, I do not understand what she is saying about the Conservative group on Plymouth council. From what she is saying, it has not only cut car parking charges, but is continuing the checks made on vehicles in car parks. Dog patrols have also been 72 introduced. Surely, that is an improvement. I am sure that local residents quite like not having to pay car parking charges.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Those people are not local residents, as they come from outside Plymouth. Plymouth city council is losing £400,000 in income this year, and would lose £800,000 in a full year. That could be used for better things and for work under the community safety partnership.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
It is not a tax cut, but a cut in the funding for fighting crime. It is a public services funding cut by stealth.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Indeed, it is a stealth cut. In my constituency, the Tories will have to make stealth cuts such as that, and, in the city of Plymouth, cuts amounting to £55 million to meet their £16 billion pledge of cuts.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. For a little while, the hon. Lady has been straying rather too far from the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I think that I might be tempted down another path along which I ought not to be tempted, so I shall not give way at this stage.
I urge my hon. Friends and the Home Secretary to try to ensure that Opposition Members understand that all the initiatives that I have described work together. I have tried to highlight the point at which successful community safety partnerships have apparently achieved as much as they can. While other types of crime are going down, the one that is showing signs of edging up again by a percentage point or two is vehicle crime, especially theft of vehicles. As we have reached that point, the Bill provides useful tools, which are not currently available, to plug the gaps. As we discussed earlier, those tools make far better use of the time of the police and other enforcement agencies. That ensures that their time is used in the best possible way so that they can tackle car crime, violent crime and other sorts of crime.
As we are discussing vehicle crime, when my hon. Friend the Minister comes to sum up, will he consider whether he could add a clause or two to the Bill to control the Tories' wish to drive a coach and horses through our partnership work? My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) referred to clauses perhaps being added for protection. I am not sure whether he meant that bandwagons should be protected, but they certainly should be protected from Tories who are constantly leaping on them, thus proving to be a great danger to themselves and other people.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Until those particular bandwagons need registration plates, the hon. Lady is out of order.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
The bandwagons to which I was referring are particularly badly maintained as they keep backfiring 73 loudly, frightening Opposition Members rather more than they frighten anyone else. Seriously, however, I have real fears for partnership work and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary can find a means of enabling Opposition Members to get their heads around the need to tackle the issue of auto crime from both non-legislative and legislative angles; otherwise, I fear that the measure's great potential to bear down on vehicle crime in Plymouth and elsewhere will be neutralised—or, indeed, worse. That would be dispiriting for all those involved in working together in community organisations in the city and throughout the county of Devon, as well as those in the community safety partnership team. I know that my right hon. Friend understands those things, and I hope that he will try to educate the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who speaks for the Opposition.
Plymouth's community safety partnership has matured and developed over a longer period than most crime and disorder partnerships. As other partnerships have a chance to develop and achieve similar successes to Plymouth's—which they ought to be able to achieve faster once we introduce the Bill's provisions—they will find that those new tools are essential.
§ Mr. Bercow
I have been listening to the hon. Lady with no little interest. She will be aware that the largest two parts of this four-part Bill concern the regulation of motor salvage operators and number plate suppliers. In order that the House can get a feel for the significance of the Bill's regulatory impact in the hon. Lady's constituency, will she say approximately how many motor salvage operators and plate suppliers there are in Plymouth, Sutton?
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I am reliably advised that there are about five. As we discussed earlier, it will not be necessary for the enforcement agencies to focus on all of them. As the hon. Gentleman himself has pointed out, many of those in the salvage industry make a highly respected contribution to the local economy. As with all trading standards issues, they have as much to gain as anybody else from the proper regulation of their trade, which will safeguard their reputation.
Earlier, the hon. Member for Buckingham said that it was important to have enough police to make good use of the provisions in the Bill. As I indicated, I believe that, throughout the country, there are now 400 community safety-type partnerships under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. They have been in existence for only a year or two but, in Plymouth's case, we have been working on the issues for six years. I was making the point that police time would be freed up to be used in a better way if legislation were clarified and the police could enforce things far more quickly.
The Bill's contents are extremely important to all of those who take auto crime seriously. I referred to Tory bandwagons and coaches and horses. I hope that, in five to 10 years' time, those will be the only vehicle crimes still causing problems. Who knows? With appropriate amendments in Committee, we, might even have eliminated them.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
I have been following the debate with considerable interest. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) made an 74 interesting point; she thought that it was wrong that a council under Conservative control should cut taxes, yet provide additional services. She then showed a complete incomprehension of local business men in her area, by saying that the worst thing was that 14,000 people from outside the constituency came into her city to shop. How wrong that is.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Not only is Plymouth city council reducing the youth offending team budget—one of the last budgets that should be cut—but it is also closing old people's homes. Those are not my priorities or those of the people of Plymouth.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I would ask him to return to the Bill.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I accept your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and shall not discuss the sad position of the people of Plymouth, Sutton with their Member of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) waxed lyrical about the number of speed cameras in Staffordshire, but not once did he speak about the appalling loss by Staffordshire of 240 police officers. He mentioned his consultation with the chief constable's department, but he did not say how difficult it would be to enforce the Bill without sufficient police numbers.
Such a Bill is needed, however. As we heard earlier, the British crime survey said that 2,956,000 thefts occurred in 1999, representing about 20 per cent. of all British crime. Slightly more than one in 10—or 11 per cent.—of those crimes were thefts of vehicles. We are discussing these matters hot on the heels of the Queen's Speech, in which we heard about another Home Office initiative to control yob culture in our streets. How can that aim be achieved without the police officers necessary for enforcement?
As we heard earlier, the 18 December issue of The House Magazine contains an article entitled "Policing in Crisis" by the chairman of the Police Federation. It is worth repeating two lines of the article that are directly relevant to the Bill:There's a huge suspicion and a powerful sense of unease in the police service … Morale is the worst I have ever seen it.I remind hon. Members that those are the words of Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation. Although we all welcome the Bill, we must ask how it will be enforced.
§ Mr. Bercow
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was alarming to hear the Home Secretary accuse, to all intents and purposes, the chairman of the Police Federation of crying wolf?
§ Mr. Fabricant
Very few things shock me in this life nowadays. Having just had my 50th birthday, I have seen many things. However, it is frightening to hear a Home Secretary say that the comments of the chairman of the Police Federation are pointless and useless, and that he cries wolf and makes similar statements every six months. I shall not pursue the matter in detail, because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rule me out of order. I point out, however, that the Home's Secretary's remarks are especially 75 alarming as, according to the article, the Police Federation is making its first ever call for the establishment of a royal commission to consider the future of policing in this country.
I can forgive the Home Secretary, as he said that he had not read this most serious article in The House Magazine, but I hope that my raising the issue again will ensure that he reads it. No matter what the right hon. Gentleman says, no sensible person would doubt that police officers will be needed to enforce the Bill. We all welcome the legislation, providing that the Home Office supplies resources for the police officers who are necessary to enforce it.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I thank the kind hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the police training schools are full to overflowing, to the extent that it has been necessary to open a new facility? When did such circumstances exist under the previous Conservative Government?
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Lady knows that record numbers of officers are leaving the police force and that the numbers are higher now than they ever were during 18 years of Conservative government.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I welcome the opportunity of pursuing a point that I cut short in my speech. I did so because I was afraid that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might stop me continuing. In Plymouth, there will be 41 extra police officers, of whom I have seen some of the early recruits. I imagine that the shadow Home Secretary was told when she visited the St. Peter ward on Monday that five of the officers would be located there.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have allowed the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) to pursue that point, but we have now had enough background remarks on the number of policemen. I ask the hon. Gentleman to return to the contents of the Bill.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I shall not speak further about police officer numbers. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady laughs from a sedentary position, but I make that comment only because I am obeying your correct instruction, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
It is, however, worth setting out a little background. Interestingly, 12.6 per cent. of vehicle-owning households have been victims of car crime at least once. Of those households, 8.1 per cent. suffered thefts from their vehicles and 3.7 per cent. suffered attempted thefts. For those who belittle attempted thefts, I point out that such thefts often involve damage to the car, whether it is 76 caused by smashing side windows, forcing boots or breaking locks. Anyone who has been a victim of such crime knows that it involves considerable cost, either directly, through payment to avoid loss of a no-claims bonus, or indirectly, through the loss of such a bonus.
I have never been a victim—I touch the wood of the Bench in front of me when making this comment—of vehicle crime in this country. In the past three years, however, I have suffered it twice in France. That will be almost my only Euro-sceptic remark this evening. I may be tempted to say a bit more when we discuss provisions on the production of licence plates.
People who have suffered crime feel not only that they have lost something tangible, but that they have been emotionally affected. That is understandable, but revealingly, the British crime survey states that 89 per cent. of victims reported anger. Again, that is understandable; indeed, I am surprised that only 89 per cent of people felt anger. However, only 22 per cent. of people whose cars were broken into or stolen reported shock. We should consider that figure for a moment, as it demonstrates what this country has come to. The statement that only 22 per cent. of victims were shocked implies that 78 per cent. of them expected the crimes to occur.
§ Mr. McCabe
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that might be the case because people were conditioned during 18 years under the previous Administration to expect soaring vehicle crime, cuts in police numbers and other law and order failures?
§ Mr. Fabricant
Police officer numbers increased under the previous Government and vehicle crime fell by 27 per cent. In the past three years, however, such crime has fallen only by 2 per cent. That is why I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman, whose remarks are not logical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said, the Government build up an exciting picture of what will happen, only to disappoint people later. That happens because adequate resources are not being made available.
§ Mr. Forth
Before my hon. Friend leaves the matter of expectation, disappointment and rage, does he have any figures on the regional and rural/urban breakdown of the incidence of such events? Those blanket figures are informative, and I am grateful to him for bringing them to the attention of the House, but must not we be much more aware of the enormous variations—between one area or region and another and among different parts of our communities—that underlie those figures and the bearing that they must have on policy making and direction of resources?
§ Mr. Fabricant
Sadly, I do not have the figures, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question. I hope that the Minister, who is listening to the debate keenly, will be able to report some of those variations in his winding-up speech.
§ Mr. Fabricant
In a moment. I will say that the hon. Lady is a marvellous advocate for her constituency, or at least tries to be.
77 We may find that there is a variation between urban and rural areas. For too long, the Government have underestimated the amount of rural crime throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that the constituency of the hon. Member for Birmingham. Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) has more vehicle crime than other parts of the west midlands, though I would be the last person to blame the sitting Member for that.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
On that point, I have a specific example. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be extremely pleased to hear that there were a mere 15 thefts of motor vehicles in a ward in the constituency of his colleague, the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), in the seven months from April to October 2000. However, there were 73 such thefts in the inner-city ward of St. Peter, to which I have referred. That shows the stark contrast between rich and poor areas and between the leafy suburb and the inner city. No doubt the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) represents an area akin to the leafy suburb.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention, which shows that there huge differences not only in regions or between urban and rural areas, but in small regions. However, I do lot represent only the leafy lanes of Lichfield—far, far from it. My constituency lost Stone because of a boundary change, but has gained the small ex-mining town of Burntwood, which is slightly larger than Lichfield and was Labour controlled. All I can say is that that shows that I am a Member of the House because of the loyalty of the people of Lichfield.
I am interested not only in the number of cars that have been stolen or broken into, but in the rather startling difference in the recovery rate for stolen vehicles, which I find disturbing. Again, I have to ask whether the figures arise directly from the lack of police officers in Staffordshire, the west midlands and elsewhere. In particular, two figures stand in stark contrast: 63 per cent. of all stolen vehicles were recovered in 1997, but after just three years of Labour government, that has fallen to 58 per cent. The sad fact that we face is that that directly mirrors the fall in the number of police officers. Vehicle crime fell by 27 per cent. under the previous Government, but over the past few years there has been a decrease of only 2 or 3 per cent., which is appaillingly low.
Although we welcome the Bill, the key fact is that we need extra police officers to ensure that its provisions are observed. Police constables—not local council employees, as the Home Secretary suggested—will have the right to enter certain premises, but to facilitate that, constables on the ground must be available. That means either providing extra constables or constables entering such premises instead of doing other jobs. It is facile of the Home Secretary and others to say that constables could perform such functions in the normal course of their duties.
§ Mr. Forth
Does not my hon. Friend think it slightly bizarre that the Bill, which is supposed to be an anti-crime measure, allows and by implication encourages the entry 78 by constables and others of registered premises, although it says nothing about premises from which criminal activities are being pursued? Is it not perverse that the heavy boots of Mr. Plod will enter premises that are already registered and therefore known to the authorities and that, by implication, there are not enough resources for the police to root out those operating from unregistered premises?
§ Mr. Fabricant
My right hon. Friend raises a fascinating point, although I have not read the Bill closely enough to deal with it. Perhaps the Minister will address it in his winding-up speech. Are police officers expressly forbidden—explicitly or by implication—to enter non-registered premises? By definition, registered premises will be those of law-abiding people who have registered, whereas those who break the law will not register.
§ Mr. McCabe
There is a slight danger that Conservative Members have been so programmed on their script about police numbers that they have missed the point of the Bill. That is a serious omission. I put a simple question to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree with Chief Superintendent Mike McAndrew, the Metropolitan police operational command unit commander and a member of the national executive of the Police Superintendents Association, who said:The Police Superintendents' Association … welcomes the proposals …The proposed measures illustrate our view that this is not a job for police alone. The involvement of local authorities in the regulation of the motor salvage industry and improvements in vehicle licensing and registration will provide much needed backing for prevention and detection activity by the police service …?Is not that the whole point of the Bill and have not he and his colleagues missed it?
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman has not been listening to what I have said. We welcome the Bill, and I certainly welcome the statement made by the representative of the superintendents, but the hon. Gentleman himself said that the job is not for police officers alone. As was said during a previous American presidential election, "read my lips": there are 3,000 fewer police officers than in 1997. Until those numbers are restored, how can such legislation be successfully introduced? I shall not vote against the Bill, but how can it be effectively enforced?
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
The Bill will allow an officer to enter premises without a warrant, but is not that insidious, dangerous and part of a trend? The Transport Act 2000 deals with congestion charging and workplace parking and also gives powers for individuals to enter private property to carry out certain functions. Does not that represent a slippery slope?
§ Mr. Fabricant
That could be a slippery slope, but I shall not go into detail, as that would be completely out of order. However, I have been involved in scrutinising private legislation—the Kent County Council and Medway Council Bills—under which Kent county council and Medway council are asking for similar powers for police officers to enter registered premises dealing with second-hand goods. Hon. Members have discussed those very issues and whether it would be right for the police to have such powers. That question, however, must be balanced against the attempt to prevent crime.
§ Mr. Bercow
Nothing said by the hon. Member for Hall Green detracts from the point that we Conservatives 79 have been making, which, as my hon. Friend knows, relates to the nature, extent and differing application of police powers. Does my hon. Friend share my understanding that the police will require a warrant to inspect unregistered premises, but will require no such warrant to inspect their registered counterparts?
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bill clearly states that registered premises require a police officer only to visit and inspect, and that no warrant will be required. What worries me is the presence of an imbalance almost favouring those who act unlawfully, rather than those who carry out their business lawfully.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I have been following my hon. Friend's argument, as well as the interventions that have come thick and fast. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether council employees—who, I gather, may be involved in these matters—will have to be accompanied by a police officer, or can themselves enter a registered property without a warrant, or an unregistered property with a warrant? I am interested in this, because I share the fear expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) that we are beginning to live in a rather dangerous state.
§ Mr. Fabricant
While my hon. Friend asked his question, I was looking feverishly through the Bill. I am well aware that on Second Reading we should not go into the details of individual clauses, but I think it worth mentioning, in the context of principle, that clause 9(1) states:A constable may at any reasonable time enter and inspect premises for the time being entered in the register of a local authority.The subsection goes on to cite certain premises, such as those occupied as a motor salvage yard. I think it implies that the constable would have to be a police officer, and that no one could enter the premises without a police officer being present.
I see no reference in clause 9—here I return to the subject of police numbers—to local authority officers entering the premises. Those who enter can only be police officers, which can only result in a demand on police officers' time and resources. If that takes police officers away from the beat—if it stops police officers preventing hideous crimes like those we have witnessed over the past few weeks—it must be wrong. It is the presence of police officers on the beat, and on housing estates, that prevents crime. I do not know how anyone can seriously argue against common sense like that.
§ Mr. Heald
According to the Motor Vehicle Demolishers Association, the absence of effective enforcement of registration could penalise the honest, hard-working demolisher. Others who did not register would be able to go about their business while breaking all the laws under the sun. Is it not important for registration to be enforced properly—and, if that is to be done, do we not need the officers to do it?
§ Mr. Fabricant
What my hon. Friend says is self-evident. Without such enforcement, there will be no disincentive to prevent dishonest people from registering. By their nature, if they think they can get away with it, 80 they will. As my hon. Friend says, police officers—or at least the threat of a check by them—will be needed to make dishonest people register and thus, presumably, become honest.
A few details in the Bill worry me. It says, for instance, that local authorities will have discretion in the levying of a fee for the processing of applications by demolishers. I thought that the more technical term was "motor salvage operators", but—as a chartered engineer—I will not get on to my favourite subject and start talking about the fact that people call themselves engineers when they are really technicians, because they want to give themselves a grand name. My point is this: if local authorities are to have discretion in the levying of fees for the processing of applications, I wonder whether fees will vary from authority to authority.
I can envisage the hon. Member for Plymouth. Sutton arguing that the fees should be very high. She does not argue in favour of stealth taxes, because she thinks that taxes should be obvious in her constituency. She spoke earlier about parking charges. I can well imagine her standing up—if she were a local councillor, which she is not—and arguing that registration charges in her area should be high. As she said earlier, they would pay for old-age homes. In fact, the money would go into two separate funds.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I have never been a councillor, but as a Member of Parliament I have a very good relationship with my local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses. I think it would be very alarmed to hear that I had advanced such arguments, and I hotly deny having done so.
§ Mr. Heald
I misread my notes earlier: I should have referred to the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association. I apologise to the House.
The Federation of Small Businesses has made clear its view that small businesses should be exempt from requirements to register, and from the regulation for which the Bill provides. Does my hon. Friend agree with that, and did he hear the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) say she supported it?
§ Mr. Fabricant
No, I did not. No doubt, if there is a vote, she will vote to ensure that small businesses are brought into the ambit, or orbit, of the Bill.
I am worried about the apparent absence of a right of appeal. Salvage operators are obliged to register. In some circumstances a local authority may remove someone from the register, or may feel that someone working on the fringes of the business should be on the register. I do not think there is currently a right of appeal if an authority decides that someone ought to have been registered, or will be taken off the register. I hope the Minister will tell us whether there will be a right of appeal, or, if there will be none in the Bill,. whether he will accept amendments in Committee allowing a procedure for people to appeal if they have to.
81 Part II deals with the regulation of registration suppliers. Like the Home Secretary, I am surprised by how easy it is to go into Halfords or any other shop and ask for a licence plate to be made. It is only necessary to specify a licence plate number: there seems to be no check on whether you own a car with that licence.
I have a particular irritation in life. Now that I am forced on to the road and am no longer able to take a train to Lichfield—there do not seem to be any trains from Lichfield to Trent Valley station any more—I see cars on the motorway with licence plates in italics, barely legible. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham—who has drifted from the Front Bench to the Back Bench, and is now drifting back—told me that he welcomed choice and variety.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I too welcome diversity, up to a point.
I do not know whether the Minister will talk about the latest licence plate recognition technology using mobile cameras. It will be a marvellous new and important innovation when it is introduced into this country. It will enable a police officer anywhere in the country to enter the licence plate of a stolen or wanted vehicle. If a car with that licence plate drives past the mobile camera, wherever it may be, it will automatically be read by a computer and flagged up, so that the police will know where that particular car is.
The question is: will the cameras recognise all sorts of licence plates? Will the registration always have to be in sanserif script, of which I spoke earlier?
§ Mr. Forth
I am fascinated by that analysis of a matter that is relevant to the Bill and to the licence plate regime that is proposed. Is my hon. Friend not worried, as I tend to be, about the possible effect on that technology of either stray dirt, or a strategically placed item to change the nature of a letter or a number, which is prevalent, as he will know? How confident can we be that the technology, in which I know he places great faith, will be able to produce accurate and not misleading information on vehicle registration plates?
§ Mr. Fabricant
We can never be confident of that. A machine will always be a machine and will never be able to think in quite the way we think, although some people might say, "Thank God for that." Nevertheless, it is important that we try to standardise to some degree licence plates to ensure that they are readable—if nothing else, by police officers from a distance when they are following in a police car.
We heard a eulogy for speed cameras from the hon. Member for Stafford. He would wish to see them in every street, every lane and every village of Staffordshire, let alone the rest of the country.
§ Mr. Kidney
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is misrepresenting the speech that I made in this very Chamber on this very day, and that it is important that speed cameras are in areas where they will reduce casualties? We should not put them in every street in the country.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am greatly relieved to hear that, but what a shame that we did not hear about how there are so 82 few police officers in Staffordshire to arrest the people who have gone over the speed limit and then do not pay their fine.
There needs to be a register of those who supply registration plates to ensure that they supply plates to people who own the cars with that particular registration. That makes good sense. The register will be held centrally by the Secretary of State—by the Home Secretary presumably, although I am not sure. Will it be held by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions? Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State can clarify that.
The Secretary of State will have discretion to levy a fee to cover "all reasonable costs incurred". What does that mean? What if I am not Halfords plc, but a small dealer in auto spares who also makes money by making licence plates? How much will I have to pay to be registered with the Secretary of State? Is another burden on small businesses being imposed by the Government?
How easy will it be for me to register? How will I get the form? Will it be available on the internet? Three years ago, the Government boasted that, within two years, we would have internet-based government, where every form could be downloaded. Nothing has happened—it is another broken promise. What burden will there be on small businesses to register? We need the details. The small business man needs the detail.
§ Mr. Syms
My hon. Friend is developing an argument about information and processing information. Under clause 35, it is clear that the Government wish the insurance industry database to be made available to the police. There may be good reasons why that should be so, but there is an issue of data protection. I served on the Committee that considered the Data Protection Bill, which was based on a European directive. Is there not a danger that the Government will have to go to Europe to get a derogation to allow the database to be available to the police?
§ Mr. Fabricant
That comes under the new police powers, which I will go into later, but, again, there is the problem of intrusion into people's private lives. It is a question of balance. I will not condemn it outright. There must be some control over the activities of people who might be behaving unlawfully.
It is like the debate that we hear from time to time on identity cards. The civil liberties people say that they are dreadful. I am not arguing for them tonight—far from it—but people say that they are terrible because they would give police and other authorities extra access to information about our private lives, but let us not kid ourselves. There is a central police database. There is the database for cars at DVLC in Swansea. They are all interconnected anyway, so there is already a fair amount of intrusion into our lives. We have to trust those who are stewards of that information to ensure that they hold it for the betterment of the good. We have to trust that they are not big brother and that those who are behaving lawfully and decently have nothing to fear.
It seems fairly logical that people such as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend and I, who pay a lot of money for fully comprehensive insurance, should not pay a proportion of that insurance for people who are uninsured. A person involved in a car accident where the 83 person at fault is not insured finds that his insurance company has to bail him out. It puts up the cost for those of us who are law abiding.
Therefore, the move is a logical extension of modern technology. I welcome it, provided, again, that there are safeguards. There need to be safeguards to ensure that this country's privacy laws and databases are not—[Interruption.] Would my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) like to intervene? No.
With regard to the register for licence plate suppliers, we must discuss what will happen where an error is made in adding or deleting a person from the register. Where will the line of accountability be? Will it lead to the decision maker, and if so, who is the decision maker in that instance? There need to be adequate provisions for the vehicle plate supplier to seek recompense where an error is made.
Clause 33 allows the Home Secretary to make regulations on the size and content of registration plates for motor vehicles. It is a particularly interesting matter. Does the Secretary of State—again, I wonder whether it will be the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions—envisage a change in the shape of licence plates? We are aware of the fact that, for example, Belgium has much smaller licence plates. Holland's licence plate sizes are similar to our own.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend raises a valid and powerful point. I will repeat it for a third time, although I shall not push the—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman did not repeat it. He is getting very repetitive, particularly on police numbers.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I certainly shall not mention the number of police, of whom there are fewer now, but it is worth answering the question; I think that that is in order.
§ Mr. Fabricant
It is not, so I shall not answer the question, but I fear that little can be enforced if there are not the police officers there to do it.
Clause 33 allows the Home Secretary to make regulations on the size and content of registration plates. That is understandable. Does that mean that there will be a change in the size of number plates? If that happens, will those who have the "wrong-sized" licence plates have to change them? If so, how long will they have to do so? How much will it cost them to change their plates? The Home Secretary did not address those issues in his speech.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The reason why they were not addressed is that they are issues for consideration in Committee. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are on Second Reading.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I thank you for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
84 The other issue that was not addressed, possibly because it is for consideration in Committee, is that of national identification on licence plates.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and of course I shall observe your exhortation, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not to discuss the Bill's specific details. However, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to know whether the regulatory impact assessment, in making a judgment on the costs imposed by the Bill, has taken account of the potential for change as a result of the specifications provided for in clause 33? We need to know whether the prognosis on cost has fully taken on board that potential for change, or whether it has failed so far to do so.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I rather suspect that the Government have failed to take account of that cost. I do not believe, from the question-and-answer session that we had during the Home Secretary's speech, that the Government have considered the cost of implementing any of the Bill's provisions, or the change in costs for those who are affected by the provisions.
Will we, for example, be forced to have the European Union flag on our licence plates? At one point, the Home Secretary said that having the flag would be an option, not a necessity. Later, however, he said that he thought that it would be a necessity. I certainly share the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on that matter. Even without trains to Lichfield, I will be blowed if I am going to go in a car with a European Union flag on the back of it. Will we have to have a European Union flag on our licence plates? As I have a Union flag stuck on the side of my licence plate, am I committing an offence?
§ Mr. Heald
Does my hon. Friend agree that the whole purpose of that part of the Bill is to make licence plates more distinctive and less easy to forge, to make them easier for police to detect? Does he also agree that the smaller the geographical area depicted on the licence plate, the better? For enforcement, would it not be better to have, for example, the Union flag or the cross of St. George rather than something like the European flag, which covers a large geographical area and 350 million people, soon to become half a billion?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Not only is that matter too detailed for this debate, but it has already been dealt with today. I ask the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) to deal more specifically with the Bill and Second Reading.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Of course I shall abide by your instruction, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
A licence plate is there to be recognised. That is the important point. Anything that impedes recognition of a licence plate by a police officer—where police officers are available—or by an automatic camera has to be wrong. Those are the types of issue on which we need clarification.
If I may, ever so briefly, I should like to make this one interesting point—at least I think that it is interesting. A survey has shown that the British flag is the most recognised flag in the world. Is not that something to be proud of?
§ Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept, first, that the free movement of goods, 85 services and people is allowed within the European Union? Therefore, as the boundaries in which we can move freely are far greater than those of individual nation states, would it not be more appropriate to have a European Union flag than a Welsh flag, the flag of St. George or the Union flag?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The first point will be enough. We have also dealt more than enough with any type of flag.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I shall not deal even with flags of convenience, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Let us move on to the issue of funding new traffic cameras. I agree with the hon. Member for Stafford that traffic cameras are to be encouraged when they minimise injury and death at accident black spots. However, as we have all read in various newspaper articles, many traffic cameras do not contain film. Nevertheless, that is not a problem as long as we do not know whether the cameras contain film, as they would still act as a deterrent, which is the point of speed cameras. The point of speed cameras is not to catch people, but to deter them from committing the crime initially.
Too many people know, however, that lack of police funding has led not only to fewer police officers, but to a financial inability to put film in cameras. I do not know the specific situation in Staffordshire, because—fingers crossed—so far I have not been caught by a traffic camera there. However, I have to admit that, on one occasion, on Park lane, a flash went off, making me realise that I had been going just a few miles over the limit. For three or four weeks, I waited anxiously to see whether I would receive a speeding ticket. I did not. I can only assume that the Metropolitan police, who are so underfunded, did not have film in their camera.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Several hon. Members have mentioned speeding, but the Bill has nothing at all to do with speeding.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Mr. Deputy Speaker, the funding of new traffic cameras is the key provision of part III.
I shall, however, deal with the provision in clause 9 of new police powers. To some extent, I have already dealt with that matter, partly because of the helpful interventions of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). The clause states:A constable may at any reasonable time enter and inspect premises for the time being entered in the register.
It is worth rehearsing again the argument about whether a police officer should have access to premises—at a reasonable time or a not reasonable time—without a warrant. If we think that it is good that police have access to registered premises, would it not be even better to provide that police have similar rights to enter unregistered premises where people may be conducting unlawful business? As I said, it seems strange that those who are sufficiently decent, honest and law-abiding to register can be inspected regularly, whereas those who are deliberately conducting unlawful business and choose not to register are protected in law and are not required to submit to an inspection unless the police obtain a warrant.
86 I have heard of many occasions when the police have heard about illegal activities at specific premises, but, by the time that they obtained a warrant and gained entry, the illegal act was finished and those who committed the act were long gone and could not be brought to book. As ever more legislation is requiring people to join a register, we have to ask if there is not an imbalance and the police should not have powers to enter the same type of premises regardless of whether they are registered or unregistered.
For all the reasons that I have mentioned, I welcome clause 35, which grants the police access to insurance industry databases. To some extent, I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole that such access could be an invasion of privacy. However, when I consider my car insurance bill of £1,000—which seems excessive; perhaps I should use one of those telephone insurers—I cannot help but think that 25 per cent. of my premium is subsidising those who are not insured. Anything that will help to reduce the cost of insurance is to be welcomed. More importantly, anything that will bring to book those who are committing a crime by not taking out insurance is to be applauded. I am not sure how the proposals would be affected by the Data Protection Act 1988. I invite the Minister to go into considerable detail, in what I suspect will be a rather lengthy summing-up, on that.
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend has just focused on clause 35, one of the nine clauses in the Bill introducing regulations. Does he agree that the Minister should tell us whether those regulations will be subject to the negative or the affirmative procedure, because that is not clear from the Bill?
§ Mr. Fabricant
I have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham make that point before to Ministers and it has floored them. I have no doubt that the Minister could answer now with a lightning riposte. However, he does not have to do so, because he will give us the answer at about 10 o'clock tonight, having had two hours' notice, and after the officials have provided him with the information.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Clearly, the Minister knew that he would be facing my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, and that he might be asked that question. I challenge the Minister to intervene and to tell us the answer.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The Minister chooses not to intervene, and I suspect that that could be because of the doleful glare of the Government Whip.
In summary, of course I welcome the Vehicles (Crime) Bill. Anything that can prevent vehicle crime is to be applauded, and anything that can use new technology is to be applauded. However, the legislation—which I fear will not see the light of day before the end of the parliamentary Session—is so much like other Bills being introduced by the Government. They glitter in the short term, rather like a sparkler on new year's eve or on 5 November, but after a few seconds of bright, shining light, they phutter out. They phutter and die, because the 87 Government do not give them the resources that they need. Like the Bill on yob culture, and all the other proposed legislation about which we hear so much from the Home Office, this measure will phutter and die because the resources for extra police officers are not being given. The police need extra money, extra resources and extra policemen on the ground, if only to restore them to the levels that they had when Labour came into power in 1997.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
I intend to be brief, unlike the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), largely because I am still reeling from the shock of being complimented by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) at the start of the debate. He has managed to put the kibosh on what little hope I had of a political career in one fell swoop.
I want to talk about the principles of the Bill, as you have instructed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There was much discussion in last week's debate on the Loyal Address on the problems of lawlessness and anti-social behaviour, and the climate of fear and insecurity that they create. However, it struck me that there was little reference in that debate to the problems of vehicle crime, which accounts for one fifth of recorded crime, or to the effects of those crimes on the public. That is symptomatic of the way in which we often treat such offences, and indicative of why we have to change and why we need the Bill.
Many people, especially those who live in areas where car theft is prevalent, know that such crime contributes to the climate of insecurity that was being discussed last week, and blights people's everyday lives. They know only too well the awful feeling that one has when one hears a noise outside and has to look to see whether one's car is being damaged or stolen. They also know the relief that one can feel in the morning, in certain areas, when one opens the curtains and finds that the car is still there. That happens to many people. Like many crimes, it affects not only those who are the victims of the crime, but those who fear that they might become the victims of such crimes.
I welcome any measure to ensure that we create a climate in which it will be more difficult for car thieves to operate. The Bill contains several sensible measures of that nature. I was concerned to see it damned with faint praise by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who said that it wasworthy but not terribly important.—[Official Report, 12 December 2000: Vol. 359, c. 539.]I can only assume that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has never had a car stolen, and never known that sinking feeling when one returns to where one thought one had parked, only to discover an empty space, especially at night.
Like many hon. Members, I have experienced that feeling. I have had two cars stolen—one in Manchester and one in Liverpool, so I am quite even-handed between the two cities. Recently, we had another car damaged on our driveway. At that stage, I was nothing like a woolly liberal. I thought that those events were important, and my constituents find such matters important, as well. However, there has been too great a tendency to treat such 88 matters almost as victimless crimes, as though we can simply shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, the insurance will deal with it, and that is that." Nothing could be further from the truth. We all pay, through increased insurance premiums.
This kind of crime hits those on the lowest incomes the hardest. They have to cope with the logistical problems of getting to work and getting the children to school without any reserves of cash. However, they often incur a serious financial penalty; if their car is old, but runs perfectly well, the insurance pay-out that they receive might not be enough to purchase a vehicle in similar condition. Many families on low incomes, who might have no savings on which to fall back, and who find it difficult to borrow money, could then find themselves desperate to meet the shortfall. If we fail to get a grip on crimes such as these, people on low incomes in places such as the centre of my constituency will pay the price. That is why we should welcome the Bill.
It is precisely because it is so difficult to catch car thieves in the act that we ought to make it harder for people to profit from disposing of stolen vehicles. I particularly welcome the proposals in the Bill to regulate the motor salvage industry and scrap metal dealers to reduce the opportunities for ringing or for using stolen vehicles for spare parts. It is not surprising that the replies to the consultation document that went out before the Bill was produced were overwhelmingly in favour of a statutory scheme of regulation. I say to Conservative Members who seemed concerned about this measure that the Bill will deal with precisely those people who would not conform to a voluntary code of practice: the dodgy dealers, the Arthur Daleys of this world.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. However, does she agree that, if someone does not register voluntarily, and if there is no methodology by which the police can detect those people who ought to have registered but have not done so, there will be a problem as to how the measure can be enforced? The Bill sets up a register only for those who voluntarily allow themselves to be registered.
§ Helen Jones
Yes, of course, but the hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the Bill creates an offence. People will have to register, and local authorities will maintain the register. That is the compulsion in the Bill, and a very necessary compulsion it is. Those who want to register or participate in a voluntary code of practice are precisely those who are likely to be running a genuine business. We need to deal with the others.
§ Helen Jones
In a moment. If, as is estimated, 78,000 vehicles a year are used for ringing or broken up for spare parts, the more we can do to reduce that number, the greater will be our contribution to reducing vehicle crime. In the spirit of Christmas, I will now give way to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. The majority of respondents to the consultation who supported statutory regulation might well be justified in doing so. However, will the hon. Lady concede that one of the organisations that expressed 89 opposition to the statutory regulation model was the Federation of Small Businesses, which is a highly respected and worthwhile organisation, and that at least part of its reason for objecting to the statutory route was that it calculated that about two and a half times as many businesses will be affected by the regulation as the Government calculate?
§ Helen Jones
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and we can debate the precise figures in Committee. However, I cannot see the logic of arguing that we should try to prevent these crimes from taking place in large businesses but not in small ones. There is no sense in that argument.
The Bill provides for regulating the supply of number plates and registering those who supply them. We should see that not only as a method of tackling car crime but as an important contribution to making it difficult to commit other crimes as well. Fake number plates are often used in robberies, burglaries and—God forbid—in terrorist activities. We have to make it as difficult as possible for criminals to behave in that manner. We should certainly not be making it easy for them to dodge recognition when they commit crimes.
I also want to comment on the measures to give the police access to the insurance industry database to help detect people who are driving without insurance. Before I came to the House I was a solicitor, specialising in personal injury. I have seen too often the results of accidents caused by uninsured drivers. In my view, they are a menace on the road, and this proposal will make an important contribution to road safety as well as crime reduction. Uninsured drivers are much more likely to be in vehicles that are not well maintained and are thus much more likely to be involved in accidents. If they cause personal injury, their victims have one more hurdle to cross before they can claim compensation for their injuries.
There are, of course, many other important provisions. Right hon. and hon. Members who have said that we should judge the regulations by their outcome are quite right. The Bill imposes more regulation in certain areas, but it is regulation for a good purpose. It is intended to stop a major cause of crime and a major problem for many of my constituents.
There are other issues on which I could comment, but I know that some of my colleagues wish to speak. So I hope that I have said enough to convince the House that the measure is far from unimportant. It sets out to tackle a real problem for many of the people whom we represent. It is an important part of the Government's overall strategy of tackling anti-social behaviour and the yob culture and the resulting fear and insecurity. Accepting such crimes as a part of life is likely to lead to their increase. It is time that we took them seriously and introduced proper measures to protect our constituents. The Bill will go a long way towards doing that, and I commend it to the House.
§ 8.4 pm
§ Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
I too welcome the Bill. It will give the police and local authorities another club in the fight against vehicle crime. It is not a panacea; instead, it should be seen as part of a package of measures with which to tackle the problem.
90 This is a very important issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) said, it affects people's lives. When people have their cars stolen, it affects their livelihood, causing misery and hassle. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) mention agricultural vehicles. Farmers in my constituency report a growing concern that plant taken from farms is difficult to trace.
Closer co-operation between the agencies will lead to better intelligence with which to deal with this menace. We have seen that happen in Kent and Medway. Kent is a model of excellence in terms of using the intelligence-led model of policing. Car crime in Kent and Medway has fallen. It is a tribute to the Medway towns that they have beacon status for their community partnerships and for tackling crime.
I am concerned about people living on limited means who require a car and cannot always afford to buy a new one if theirs is stolen. I have not had my car stolen—although there has been an attempt to break into it—but I have sat on the jury at the trial of a car ringing gang. It was clear that the people before the court were not making vast sums out of car ringing. They were very much at the bottom of the food chain; they operated a small garage in a deprived area of Chatham. They bought the cars, so they were up for handling. It was quite a serious crime, and they were found guilty and sentenced.
During the deliberations, the judge said to one of the defendants, "What do you actually do to these cars when they are brought to you?" The defendant replied, "We T-cut the cars and we did the tappits." The judge looked at him rather curiously and said, "T-cut? What is this T-cut? And, pray tell me, who are the tappits?" So he was clearly in touch with car crime. 1 told a colleague who is a lawyer, and he said that that was just lawyers' humour. From the perplexed reaction on the judge's face, I was not convinced.
I welcome the measures to allow the police to have access to insurance companies' records. People who drive without insurance are, more often than not, dangerous drivers. Co-operation between insurance companies and the police will be very welcome.
I welcome the idea of hypothecating the fines resulting from speed cameras to fund other ones. That is absolutely right. Communities which have to suffer the menace of people driving through their area at dangerous speeds should get something back. If that means that they get speed cameras, and it drives down the number of accidents in the area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) suggested, that is welcome.
The registration of scrap dealers is also welcome. In my former career as a social worker, one of the foster carriers whom I supervised for a period was very keen to get her hands on a people carrier when they first came out. She eventually found one that she could afford. She drove it around for a couple of months, but discovered when it had its MOT that it was actually two vehicles. She had been driving around children for whom she was responsible, and one can imagine her concern and anguish as to what could have happened. So the registration measure is very welcome.
In an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I referred to abandoned cars. He suggested that he would be willing to consider further provisions in Committee. I am grateful to Mr. David Alexander of Kent 91 county council and to Mr. Les Preston of Medway council for providing me with some statistics. The number of such vehicles has risen dramatically—mainly because the value of scrap has fallen and cars are cheaper. It is the responsibility of local authorities to clear abandoned cars from our streets, under the auspices of the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978—there is some irony in that because 1978 has not gone down in Labour's history as the best year for collecting rubbish from the streets.
The increase shown by the statistics is alarming. Between 1997 and 1998, 1,472 vehicles were abandoned throughout the county of Kent and it is estimated that in 2000–01 that the number will be 11,600. The cost for that is £650,000—for removal as well as storage costs. In 1999–2000, the cost to Medway council will be about £57,000—an increase of about 132 per cent. since last year.
§ Mr. Syms
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There will be widespread support throughout the House for dealing with abandoned cars. It is most frustrating for residents to find such cars outside their homes, with the wheels taken, the vehicle burnt and a complete wreck—the whole area goes down.
§ Mr. Shaw
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree with him. He is absolutely right; not only are such vehicles an eyesore, they are extremely dangerous. More often than not, the largest concentration of abandoned vehicles is found in less well-off and more deprived areas. In my constituency, there are Victorian terraces that were designed for horses and carts—not cars—and such vehicles occupy much-needed parking space.
I hope that Ministers will look closely at those matters. I shall do all that I can—as will Kent county council, which has prepared an excellent document—to assist in drafting the necessary provisions. Current legislation is outmoded. We need to review it and the Bill provides us with an excellent opportunity to do so.
The measure will assist the police and agencies to co-operate in tackling a menace—an unacceptable scourge. We should not say that such crimes just happen in our society; that is not good enough. We must provide the law enforcement agencies with the means to tackle them. I hope that the Bill will successfully provide that and that Ministers will carefully consider drafting amendments to deal with abandoned vehicles. I am only too willing to be a member of the Standing Committee and to table such amendments.
§ Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)
I, too, welcome the Bill. I apologise to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for leaving the Chamber during his speech, but I had to attend a Standing Committee meeting.
The Bill, combined with other measures to which I shall refer, will make a significant contribution to achieving the Government's target of a 30 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime by 2004. That target offers a challenge; it will be difficult but not impossible to reach, provided we allocate resources and a range of initiatives has a combined effect. The measure will undoubtedly protect motorists from car theft and will protect legitimate salvage traders.
92 I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and other Members who referred to abandoned vehicles. I support the point made by hon. Members that the measure should be considered more broadly. My hon. Friend's proposals should be considered during proceedings on the Bill; some thought should be given to tightening the existing law to which he referred, so as to assist with its enforcement. I urge the Government and the House to do so.
Such provisions would mesh well with the measure and we should not stray too wide of the mark if we considered them at present. In my constituency, the number of abandoned vehicles is increasing considerably—so much so that the local authority officers responsible for removing such vehicles find that, at the end of a week, they have more cars to deal with than they did at the beginning. Abandoned vehicles are an aspect of vehicle crime that is of increasing concern to our constituents.
The cost of dealing with such vehicles adds to the overall costs of vehicle crime, which are well documented in the Library research paper analysing the Bill. Vehicle crime is the largest single category of recorded crime in England and Wales. In 1999–2000, 1,475,889 such crimes were recorded, including 374,686 thefts of vehicles and 669,232 thefts from vehicles—28 per cent. of all recorded crime during the period.
The estimated cost of vehicle crime is £3.5 billion a year; that includes the costs of the criminal justice system. Of course, that is only part of the misery. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) pointed out, the fear of vehicle crime is great and the impact on victims ranges from nuisance to disaster and severe financial loss. The Home Office estimates that the average economic cost—including justice costs—of each stolen vehicle is about £4,700; that amounts to £367 million a year. There are about 12,000 cases of insurance fraud, estimated at £2,800 each, giving a total cost of £400 million a year. Those statistics show the need for better legislation.
The measure is important and will benefit many of our constituents. However, despite its importance to our constituents and despite the overall economic and public sector costs of vehicle crime, we need to ensure that the regulatory burdens that we impose have an overall benefit. In the light of that, I urge hon. Members to consider the regulatory impact assessments that have been made by the Home Office.
Opposition Members often make points about increasing red tape They made such points regularly while they were in government, but did precious little about the matter. In the unlikely event that they were to return to government, they would do no better. In essence, to tackle problems such as vehicle crime—where businesses can be used by unscrupulous people and those with criminal intent—we need regulation. The overall benefit to the public of such regulation must be balanced against the burden that it imposes.
§ Mr. Bercow
To what, if not to a reduction in police numbers, does the hon. Gentleman attribute the deterioration in the rates of detection and recovery of stolen vehicles during the past three years?
§ Mr. Darvill
I have not analysed the statistics for the detection of those crimes, but clearly police numbers will 93 have an effect. We also need to consider the effect of other measures. Reducing any type of crime will have a beneficial effect on the police force generally, and may affect the other decisions that chief constables may make. To answer the hon. Gentleman's question, one would need to analyse the overall crime pattern in an area.
That is why the local crime partnerships are welcome. For example, I have estates in my constituency where vehicle crime is particularly prevalent, and the local authority and the police can target resources so as to have an impact on that.
§ Mr. McCabe
Is not one obvious answer to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) to say that the various engineering and voluntary arrangements put in place over the past few years have now achieved their maximum effect, and the improvement is levelling off? Is that not why we need further enforcement measures to tackle the vehicle crime that we have not previously been able to reach?
§ Mr. Darvill
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As I listened to his speech I recognised his expertise on the subject. Where voluntary measures have no impact, clearly the ability of the police will be diminished. If I read the results of the consultation aright, there is a general consensus in favour of regulation, so that attacks on such crimes can be further developed. There appears to be considerable agreement about the legislation, and approval of the proposals for regulation.
The purpose of part I is to bring the motor salvage industry within a framework of statutory regulation, so as to reduce the opportunity for the disposal of stolen vehicles. That will also assist the police and the other authorities investigating such offences. It is believed that regulating the industry could prevent about 30,000 vehicle thefts and 6,000 fraudulent insurance claims each year.
When my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate, will he let the House know what the cost burden of carrying out their registration duties will be for local authorities, and whether he believes that the schemes will adequately cover councils' costs?
I realise that there has been consultation, but my reading of the references in the Library research paper suggests that the costs, if the regulatory regime is to be effective, have been underestimated. Although there are gains to be made from the measure, I have some sympathy with some of the points made earlier by Conservative Members. This is not a party political point, because when the Conservative party was in government it made the same mistakes. Often we pass good measures in the House, but do not give local authorities the necessary resources to enforce them.
If we allow registration to take place in a cursory way, without insisting on the possible advantages of correct enforcement, we shall not get the benefits of that registration.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman is making a good and powerful point, but does he agree that something else that will affect the effectiveness of the legislation is the criminal's perception of the capabilities of the police? If 94 the criminal believes that he can get away with something because the police do not have the resources to enforce the Act adequately—
§ Mr. Fabricant
My right hon. Friend is right; the criminal will try to get away with it. Perception is all-important, and if that sort of perception is to be overcome, the police will have to have adequate resources.
§ Mr. Darvill
I do not share the criminal mind of someone who might want to steal vehicles, but surely the point is that we want to make the legislation work. It is a combination of crime partnerships, police resourcing and a range of other measures that will deter the criminal.
We must approach the Bill in a bipartisan way, because the cost benefits for the country will be considerable. There is unlikely to be much division between us in terms of supporting the principle behind it.
Before leaving part I, we need to consider the end of life vehicles directive, which will be with us by April 2002. The Government will ask police forces and local authorities to monitor the impact of the regulations, which they intend to review in the light of the implementation information, and of the directive.
There are opportunities here for a more joined-up approach, because there is an environmental aspect to the way in which we deal with end-of-life vehicles—the abandoned vehicles that I mentioned earlier. Within the next two years there might be some opportunity to mesh the various provisions to give a better cost benefit for the public sector.
That might mean greater co-operation between local authorities, the police and so on, and the matter needs considering in detail. There might be an opportunity to make some provision in the Bill, so that when the end of life vehicles directive comes into force the necessary regulations can be amended. That would be easier than using primary legislation again.
Part II deals with the registration of number plate suppliers. The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe where number plates are so readily accessible. The Bill will ensure that plates are issued only for genuine reasons, and are used only on the correct vehicles. That long-overdue provision will help to reduce crime.
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that clause 33 contains an enabling power for the Secretary of State to specify the size and shape, and the other dimensions and particulars, of registration plates. Does he agree that that provision should not enable the Secretary of State, in the name of uniformity, to do away with personalised number plates, which I think add to the colour and gaiety of the nation? As a humble son of toil, I, of course, do not possess personalised number plates, and I have no expectation of possessing them at any stage in my career. None the less, I defend the right of those who can afford to buy them to continue to do so. Does the hon. Gentleman also defend that right?
§ Mr. Darvill
I defend the right of anyone to do that, provided that the overall effect is not negative—but if there were an advantage to be gained in more conformity 95 and more standardised provisions in terms of technology, enforcement and detection, and if the overall benefit of that could be proven, I would be happy to go along with it. I have no desire for personalised number plates myself, but I appreciate that some do. To me, it is not a major issue.
I welcome the provisions on disclosure of information, especially those in clause 17(7) about the police information technology organisation. That will be a powerful provision and will have some benefit.
It is interesting that when the views of small and medium-sized businesses were sought, to assess the effectiveness of the proposed regulations in this part of the Bill, none opposed them, and all considered the potential costs to be insignificant.
On part III, I particularly welcome clause 36, which deals with the extension of time limits for prosecution, and clause 37, which provides that the income that criminal courts receive from speed camera penalties can be used to fund more speed cameras and to improve road safety. The impact of speed cameras has been generally beneficial. More speed cameras are required in my area and funding from that source will be welcomed. I should be interested to learn how those funds will be allocated between areas—perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us in his winding-up speech.
In conclusion, the Bill will not end vehicle crime, but it will help to reduce it. That must be welcome. Public awareness initiatives, greater security in car parks, extended CCTV, improved vehicle design, schemes targeted at those young people at risk of involvement in vehicle crime and a range of other initiatives will all contribute to meeting the Government's targets. Hon. Members should not ignore the range of initiatives that will have that impact. With the Bill on the statute book, the fight against crime will be helped, and for that reason it will receive my support and, I hope, that of the rest of the House.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
I want to contribute briefly to what has been a pretty good debate. I begin by declaring my interest, as stated in the Register of Members' Interests: I have a family business in the building industry, and I intend to mention plant and equipment.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) made a good contribution, because he set out the background against which the debate is taking place. He mentioned the fact that, after the purchase of a house, the purchase of a car involves the largest sum that people spend. People are very attached to their cars; they are important parts of their lives. Most of us who represent rural constituencies know that cars are a necessity of life; our constituents cannot do without them. Therefore, any threat to those vehicles, which they perceive as enabling them to live a free life, is treated very seriously.
Broadly speaking, I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced the Bill. Of course, the devil is in the detail and it is for the Committee to consider the various proposals to determine whether they will achieve the Government's ambitious target of a 30 per cent. reduction in such crime by 2004. Nevertheless, why 96 should not we be ambitious and set targets, especially on car crime, from which many people have suffered greatly? The debates in Committee will be interesting.
As the hon. Member for Eastleigh also mentioned, such crime does not purely involve road-going vehicles; there has been a growth in the theft of farm vehicles and plant. The building industry has suffered greatly from its plant and equipment being stolen from sites. Some years ago, the vehicle registration authorities used to register, for example, vibrating rollers for no fee. However, because no tax was paid on such vehicles, the registration authorities introduced a form of tax and builders had to choose whether to play to license them, or not to license them and keep them off the road on building sites. Those decisions, which the industry has been pushed into taking, have contributed to the rise in such crime. It is right and proper that vehicle crime should be a high priority for the Government. Where they are right, they will receive the support of Conservative Members.
The hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) raised the issue of abandoned cars. Many of us feel pretty strongly about that matter. I do not think that there is a Member whose constituents have not written to him or her about abandoned cars in their streets and communities and the frustration involved in writing to the police and the vehicle licensing people. They are trying to get rid of vehicles that cause great angst; kids play on them and their windows are broken, which presents a danger to children. Often reasonable-looking vehicles are quickly torn to pieces and sometimes torched. Even in my constituency, many such vehicles can be counted in certain estates. I urge the Government to consider whether the law on abandoned cars should be reviewed in Committee; we all think that more should be done about them.
As has been said, it is important to get the balance right when setting up a regulatory framework. Various figures for the costs have lot en cited—£13 million to £20 million in the first year and £11 million to £18 million thereafter. There is always a danger that law-abiding people will sign up, but those who are not reputable will try to avoid doing so. It is important to ensure that there is widespread acceptance of the legislation before cracking down on the rotten apples in the barrel.
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend wisely draws attention to the importance of thoroughly considering the proposed regulations. Therefore, does he agree that it is essential that, either tonight or very soon, the Government undertake to introduce a minimum period—perhaps three months—during which affected organisations are consulted and that decent notice of the requirement to implement the regulations is provided to those who will have to give effect to them?
§ Mr. Syms
That is a good point. Many people are trying to run their businesses—life as a small business man can be hard—and they may not initially be aware that they must comply. Therefore, there should be reasonable consultation and a reasonable period before the regulations come into force, but sufficient penalties should be imposed on those who do not comply with the law of the land, so that the scheme receives widespread acceptance as early as possible.
97 Local authority costs have been mentioned. All Governments are guilty of underestimating the costs to local authorities. I spent 12 years as a local councillor, and such proposals always cost more than was originally thought. If a charging regime is introduced through local government, those in the inner cities may have to charge higher fees because they have more client businesses. That is a problem.
§ Mr. Syms
That is a good point. I too, would focus on abandoned vehicles. If we could trace their owners and impose a large fine, that might be the solution. Of course, hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware that there is a risk that either local authorities will have to bear the costs, and all local authorities are under pressure these days, or they will have to recover those costs by charging people in the industry. We all know that costs are eventually passed on to those who use the authority's services, and we must all be aware of that.
We have debated funding for new traffic cameras. One of the great successes of the past 20 years has been the way in which people have accepted the drink-drive laws. Attitudes have changed considerably It is also important to obtain public support for speed cameras. It is not enough to pass laws; we must change people's attitudes.
§ Mr. Syms
I will give way in a moment.
It is important that people understand that the overwhelming priority in the installation of speed cameras is safety and saving lives. They must appreciate that cameras have not been put in particular spots to catch people and to be used as an easy means of raising revenue. When the Bill goes to Committee, we need to be reassured that the priority will be safety and saving lives.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend has almost answered my question by developing his argument. However, does he not think that people have a responsible attitude towards drinking and driving because of the limits for alcohol in the blood that have been set? Does he not also think that certain aspects of the speed limits that have been set must be reconsidered? Does he not think that, at times, speed limits are set too high or too low? If there are to be many more speed cameras and much more enforcement, we must take a more rigorous approach to the limits.
§ Mr. Syms
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I do not want to stray too far into a discussion of that issue. This debate is not about drinking and driving. However, legislation will be accepted if it contains a reasonable balance.
My principal point is that if people understand that speed cameras are intended to save lives and to prevent accidents, there will be widespread acceptance of them. However, if people think that they are intended merely to annoy drivers and to raise extra revenue, there will not be 98 such acceptance. On some patches of road, people know where the speed cameras are and they slow down for a mile. However, the moment they have passed the cameras, they put their foot down to make up for the delay in their journey. Therefore, if money is recycled from magistrates courts to providing more cameras, we need to be reassured that safety will be the No.1 priority.
I do not have the figures to hand, but the costs to the nation of road accidents were quoted earlier. We would make substantial savings if we could reduce the number of casualties on the roads. The casualties are not only drivers; too many children are knocked over.
Clause 35 and police access to the insurance industry's database were mentioned. There might be benefits to the insurance industry and the police if that happens, but certain data protection issues will have to be examined in Committee. Under the current Data Protection Acts, a local authority housing department cannot give housing information to another department in the local authority, because access to the information is strictly controlled. Therefore, giving all the insurance companies' information to the police is bound to raise data protection issues.
This country is slightly unusual. We have many company cars and many of them are insured under block policies. Cover notes are also widely used when people purchase vehicles. Unless insurance companies have very up-to-date data systems that keep daily track of cover notes, it will not be worth providing information, because many thousands of vehicles are covered by cover notes. The police might think that they have stopped someone who does not have proper insurance only to find that he has a cover note. The proposal needs to be thought out carefully.
Under current law, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is unable to refuse to grant a licence to a vehicle when one is requested. That means that vehicles that it knows to be fraudulent are issued with roadworthiness certificates. Nothing in the Bill will alter that law and, as a result, the new provision will have little practical effect. We should consider that point in Committee. It was highlighted by Sandy Dalgano of the National Salvage Group, and we need further clarification on it.
To some extent, the issue of police numbers has been done to death, but the fact is that there are 3,000 fewer police officers than in 1997. The police face tremendous pressures, and, as a society, we constantly introduce crime Bills but do not grapple with crime. The Government have promised to tackle the problem, and I was pleased to hear from several hon. Members that the police colleges are filling up with recruits. They will be needed because of the amount of legislation that is being introduced.
Overall, a Bill on vehicle crime is a good proposal, but the devil will certainly be in the detail. I am not sure that the Government have got all their proposals right, but there will be a lively debate on them in Committee. I hope that we eventually have a Bill that does the job of reducing vehicle crime, which most people believe needs to be done.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Surely our task as the House of Commons is—if nothing else—to assess the balance of benefit that the Government's proposed measures might bring to our constituents. I am always more suspicious when consensus breaks out 99 because it usually means that a measure is ill considered. That is especially the case when my Front-Bench colleagues sign up to it—that almost guarantees that it is rotten. The debate has some way to run and, although I am mindful of the need to allow adequate time for Front-Bench spokesmen to sum up—no doubt consensually—it is incumbent on us to identify less-than-perfect aspects of the Bill before we rush headlong into agreeing to it.
Nearly every contribution has referred to the Government's target to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. I confess that I have always been suspicious of the concept of targets. I am not sure what they mean. I do not know where the figure of 30 per cent. came from; I do not know what it means or to what it relates; I do not know who thinks that it is an ambitious or unambitious target and, what is worse, I am not sure what happens if we do not meet it.
My Government went through a phase of being fond of targets. They are presentationally sexy and it looks good for Ministers to say, "We have set a target" for a reduction in, for example, smoking. Indeed, I recall that one of our Health Ministers set a target for the reduction of suicide. That must be the ultimate in a triumph of hope over expectation.
§ Mr. Forth
To be honest, I do not know the answer. Even if I did, I suspect that Madam Deputy Speaker might take a dim view of an excursion too far into that territory.
A vehicle crime reduction target of 30 per cent. is utterly meaningless and has no substance. If, at the end of the arbitrary period for which the arbitrary figure was set, we discovered that the target had not been achieved, would that mean that the measures were a failure? Would it mean that we needed more, fewer or different measures? The issue of targets should be set aside and be paid far less attention.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My right hon. Friend is often persuasive, but he is failing to persuade me with that argument. Does he not think that a target—provided that it is reasonably realistic—gives one something to aim for and to measure success against?
§ Mr. Forth
No, I do not. It should surely be the objective of any Government, judicial system and police force constantly to reduce crime. That should be their very essence. Does my hon. Friend think that if a heavy-handed bureaucrat or politician says, "I am now going to set a target of 30 per cent.", police officers and civil servants will work harder and the judiciary will play its part? I doubt it. I question the concept of targeting and its likely effect.
§ Mr. Bercow
I should put it on the record that I have not expressed support for the Bill. However, although the Government's target to reduce vehicle crime by 30 per cent. by 2004 is ambitious, is my right hon. Friend aware that they have gone so far as to set out in some detail 100 the means by which that is to be achieved? In short, the Government expect 50,000 offences to be prevented by the secure car parks scheme, 50,000 by improved DVLA procedures, 50,000 by better regulation of the salvage industry, 180,000 by improved use of security features and new car security and 80,000 by what is conveniently described as better policing and community responses, which is a total of more than 400,000. Do the words "pigs flying in front of one's very eyes" spring to my right hon. Friend's mind?
§ Mr. Forth
Indeed they do, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for illustrating my point even more effectively than I have, which is not an unusual occurrence.
I would be more convinced by targeting if we heard more Ministers say, as some have said, "If the target is not achieved, I will resign." In a debate on a subject akin to that of the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said that if car usage had not fallen by the end of the Labour Government's first term, they would have failed. If there was more of that, I might be more attracted by the notion of targeting; so far, however, I regard it as a distraction.
It is always useful to mine the explanatory notes to a Bill. In this case, we find our old friend "consultation". Paragraph 6 of the notes usefully provided by Her Majesty's Government states:Twenty-six organisations replied to the consultation document. Of these twenty-two endorsed the proposal for statutory regulation.It would have aided the cause of transparency if the Government had told us which organisations they had consulted.
§ Mr. Darvill
When going through the Home Office website, I found in the regulatory impact assessment a list of the organisations that were consulted.
§ Mr. Darvill
I shall not, save to say that the list begins with the Association of British Insurers and ends with the Welsh Development Agency.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not do websites, so that information would have evaded me. However, the fact that the Welsh Development Agency said yes to its paymasters does not surprise me in the slightest. I should have been astonished if the bureaucrats of that agency had slapped their paymasters in the face by saying that the idea was a rotten one and they opposed it.
That makes my case. I do not know whether this website thing reveals who said no during the act of so-called consultation. It might well list all those who said yes and it might even tell us who boldly and bravely said no, but my point is altogether different. It is that when regulation is on offer in a consultation, as it was in this case, it is highly likely that the bureaucratic organisations responding to the consultation will be in favour. Bureaucracies like regulation. The association of this and the institute of that will tend to be sympathetic to the idea of regulation, because it allows them to continue to exist 101 and enables them to charge their hapless members greater membership fees to deal with the regulations to which they have agreed. There is a circularity in the process which I have always found highly suspicious.
Furthermore, large businesses tend to favour proposals for regulations. They have administrative structures that enable them to respond to regulation in a way that small businesses cannot and do not.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who must look up websites like the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill). Perhaps one of these days I shall get into the websites thing, but I have resisted it so far. My hon. Friend is quite right.
The other aspect of that important point is that a regulatory regime tends to lessen the likelihood of new businesses being created. Is it not odd that Governments—I do not exclude Conservative Governments—constantly say how much they want to encourage the creation of new businesses and the growth of small businesses, but, at the same time, show no reluctance to heap ever heavier regulation on such businesses? I should have thought that those who deal in car number plates would tend to fall into the category of small business. Throughout the debate, we have been congratulating ourselves on how wonderful the Bill is, but let us not forget that the very people who will, almost inevitably, be most adversely affected by its plethora of proposals are not the bureaucracies, the representative bodies, or the large firms with their administrative and clerical resources, but small businesses.
For that reason, I am not convinced by the consultation process. Consultation is something that Governments like to say that they are doing and they like to go though the motions, but only rarely have I found an example of a Government quietly dropping a proposal after a majority of those consulted, however measured, have said no to it. If I had found more cases of Government's behaving in that way, I might be more impressed by the so-called consultation process mentioned in the explanatory notes.
Of course, a totalitarian regime can deliver an almost crime-free society. We will all remember the proud boast of the Soviet Union, as it was, and other totalitarian regimes, that they were free of drug abuse and street muggings and that there was almost no car crime. There was almost no car crime because nobody could afford a car. The more heavy-handed, interventionist and regulatory the Government of a society is, the more they are likely to claim that they have reduced or eliminated crime. It is not a difficult thing to do
At the other end of the spectrum I suppose that the freer a society is—the freer people are to move around and the freer they are from identity checks, for example, and registering addresses with the police—the more likely it is that acts of criminality will be committed. In the context of the Bill, our job is surely to make our judgment on where within the spectrum we want to place ourselves as a society, the Government and the legal system.
I am suspicious of Bills of this sort because all too readily they reach for the apparatus of regulation and intervention to claim a reduction in crime. No one would 102 argue that a reduction in crime is not a good thing, but it is not an absolute in the sense in which it is often argued to be. Surely our job is to make an assessment. How far do we believe that it is proper, advantageous and beneficial in an overall sense to allow for increasing encroachment on individuals, their families and their businesses by bureaucracy and the forces of law and order to deliver a reduction in crime?
I am uneasy because I believe that in many important ways the Bill potentially tips the balance too far. In his excellent analysis, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) identified many areas of the Bill where new regulations and regulatory measures will be introduced. If I heard him correctly, he said that there are nine. If my hon. Friend says that, we can bet that it is correct.
That should give us pause for thought. The Bill is introducing nine distinct regulatory regimes, mechanisms and apparatuses. It is worse than that because it is all that goes with them. We have only to glance at the summary of clauses 1 to 15, with all the references to registration, renewal, cancellation, representations, appeals and the introductions of the courts, which are brought in almost casually. We have the maintenance of records and notifications of change. All that is before we get into the detail.
We have our old friend, rights of entry and inspection. Given the nature of the Bill, that should claim our attention. The oddity or irony is that the proposed regime will say, "Those who have taken the trouble to obey the law"—that is if it becomes the law—"register and be identified, will be vulnerable to the right of entry being exercised by a constable." Those who have not registered—those who persist in trying to dismantle vehicles and deal in vehicle registration plates outside the regime—will not be subject to entry or inspection by the police. First, almost by definition, the police will not know where they are. Secondly, I suspect—I am open to correction because I am not a lawyer—that if the police want to invade the premises of someone who is not registered, they will have to obtain permission or a warrant, which they would not have to obtain to inspect someone who had registered. That must be the ultimate absurdity, yet it is set out in the Bill.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the imbalance in the protection of registered and unregistered dealers. Would he argue that there ought to be equality between them as regards rights of entry? If so, would he argue that a warrant should be necessary for entry into the property of registered as well as unregistered dealers, or would he go so far as to say that the property of both registered and unregistered dealers may be entered by the police without a warrant?
§ Mr. Forth
Certainly not the latter. I confess to my hon. Friend, as it is relevant to his question, that I have always been uneasy about the general powers of entry that we give, for example, to Customs and Excise in respect of value added tax and other matters. If I had to express my preference, it would be against a general power of entry. I would want to rely on the more traditional British or English approach, if I may so characterise it: that one's 103 property is sacrosanct unless a judicial authority such as a judge or a magistrate gives the forces of law and order the authority to enter those premises.
§ Mr. Bercow
Will my right hon. Friend accept that in that view, he is not alone? I, for one, regard with extreme distaste the prospect of hundreds, if not thousands, of petty officials charging into people's property across the country, without let or hindrance and usually without a warrant. I find that prospect deeply unattractive.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
The problem is slightly different. The Bill explicitly gives to constables the power of entry. As my hon. Friends have been at pains to point out all through the debate, whether we have sufficient constables and whether they should spend their time in that way is a matter on which we must exercise our judgment. Again, I may return to that later in my remarks.
Suffice it to say at this stage in my preliminary analysis that the burdens placed on local authorities and more particularly on businesses to comply with the mechanisms set out in the Bill will be very much greater than the Government have so far been prepared to concede. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, we tend to say rather glibly that local authorities exist almost to have regulatory burdens imposed on them. That is almost their raison d'etre, if I may slip briefly into another language. We should challenge that belief, but I am much more concerned about the burdens on business to which the Bill will give rise.
From a glance at the Bill, one begins to realise the enormity of its consequences for business. In clause 2 the responsibilities laid on local authorities are set out. I must praise the draftsmen, as the Bill is much more comprehensible and readable than are most Bills. That is a welcome development.
Clause 2(1) states:Every local authority shall establish and maintain a register for their area of persons carrying on business as motor salvage operators in that area.That immediately raises the prospect of a variation in the approach that could be taken by our many authorities to the principles on which they will set up the register, to say nothing of the bureaucracy implied by it.
Clause 2(9) goes on to state:The local authority shall secure that the contents of the register are available for inspection by members of the public at all reasonable times subject to such reasonable fees (if any) as the local authority may determine.The possibility arises that there could be considerable variation in the fees charged by local authorities.
Part II gives responsibility to the Secretary of State, rather than to local authorities. There we have the monolith of the Secretary of State, who will administer that part of the Bill, as opposed to the great patchwork or mosaic of local authorities to which responsibility is given in part I. That variation in the terms of the Bill itself suggests that one approach or the other may be the correct one, but almost certainly not both.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there could be a large variation in the sums that 104 salvage operators might be charged for registering on their local authority register. Does he share my suspicion that a local authority may choose to set abnormally high fees as an alternative to panning, to try to drive some types of business out of its area? Alternatively, it may try to drive certain businesses out of the area for political reasons, to create higher unemployment.
§ Mr. Forth
I am happy to say that I do not think that that would be the case. Subsection (9) states:subject to such reasonable fees (if any) as the local authority may determine.That includes a double lock, as the implication is that fees may not be the norm. Our old friend "reasonable" comes to the rescue. What a wonderful English word it is; we should be proud of it. In English jurisprudence, history and culture the word "reasonable" has probably been one of the greatest barriers against the abuse of authority over the centuries. I regret that our continental friends have not yet learned to share it. In fact, I do not think that such a word—rather like fair play—exists in most of the languages of the European Union; I can therefore reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who asked a good question. I hope that he will accept that the inclusion of "reasonable" in clause 2(9) gives a degree of protection. However, I am worried about the basis on which the local authority will admit people to the register. Clause 3(3) refers to the fact that the local authority must be satisfied that someone isa fit and proper person to carry on business.Who on earth in a local authority is in a position to judge whether someone is fit and proper to carry on a business? I should have thought that that was almost a contradiction in terms. Local authority people may be excellent and skilled in drains, planning and all sorts of other things. Whether someone whom I would characterise, I hope not unkindly, as a bureaucrat can judge who is fit to carry out a proper business is another matter—I doubt it very much indeed.
It gets worse, clause 3(4) states that, when judging people's suitability, the local authority shall "in particular" consider whether they havebeen convicted of any offences.That rather gives away the psychology behind the measure. The main criterion against which we are being urged to judge people's suitability for running a business seems to be whether they have form, which strikes me as an odd, simplistic and completely wrong approach. I hope that that matter will be looked at in Committee.
§ Mr. Bercow
Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite apart from any other objections to the clause, the suggestion or inference that someone convicted of an offence might reasonably be decided to be an unsuitable person to operate a motor salvage business is inconsistent with the principle of the reform and resettlement of offenders, to which, I believed, the Government adhered?
§ Mr. Forth
That is yet another contradiction that becomes apparent the more that we start to look at the Bill. We shall come on to consider the length of time that it is proposed be made available for the Bill's Committee stage. The more that I listen to the debate, most of which I have heard, and the more I hear what my hon. Friends have to say, the more I realise that a long Committee stage 105 will be needed to do justice to the Bill, which is very substantial. The more that we look at it, even in this broad tour d'horizon of Second Reading—I must try not to lapse into these ghastly foreign phrases—the worse it appears. The people who have the honour to be on the Committee will have a fascinating time.
Let me give another example. I am moving on swiftly, you will be happy to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, and making great progress through the Bill, as I am now at clause 5(6), which deals with representations. I am happy that that important right is in the Bill Then, however, the Government spoil it. Every time they do something useful, positive and helpful, such as providing a right to make representations, they ruin the whole thing. Clause 5(6) states:If the person concerned informs the local authority that he desires to make oral representations, the local authority shall give him—this is the good news—an opportunity of appearing before, and being heard by—and this is the bad news—a person appointed by the local authority.As a citizen, I shall be expected to be happy and content that my rights are being well protected by the Government because I shall be heard by somebody who is appointed by the local authority. That is not good enough. The measure is that of a bureaucrat's bureaucrat, and I fear that the worst may happen.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My right hon. Friend disagreed with me just now on excessive charges, on the basis of the principle of reasonability. Does he believe that there could be large variations between councils in the people who are appointed to hear appeals and the judgments that they make?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)
Order. We are now straying into considerable detail. I must again remind hon. Members that that is not permissible on Second Reading.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful for your, guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was about momentarily to argue against myself. This debate has been very one sided, and I am the only hon. Member who seems prepared to introduce another side. I take issue with a phrase that appears in clause 9(1), which deals with rights to enter and inspect premises. It states:A constable may at any reasonable time enter and inspect premises …That provision seems to undermine the idea of entry and inspection. I do not know how a reasonable time will be defined, but we will eventually be given a definition, as we must all understand what is reasonable. Will it mean office hours? Do salvage operators work office hours? They may work 24 hours a day, for all I know. What is a reasonable time? Furthermore, why should the time be reasonable? If constables are to inspect premises in which crimes are committed, I want them to enter at unreasonable times if that is effective. I am uneasy about the right of entry and inspection, but, if it is to be introduced, I would prefer constables to be given more freedom to enter at unreasonable times to identify the crimes that are allegedly being committed, rather than for their hands to be unreasonably tied.
§ Mr. Bercow
Has my right hon. Friend noticed that clause 9(2) refers to the right of a constable at any reasonable time toinspect and take copies of or extracts from any records which the person carrying on business … is required to keep?Does he accept that there is an important difference between taking copies—an activity that does not threaten to impede the conduct of the business—and taking extracts from records, which might impact adversely on a motor salvage operator?
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend is right to make that point, which should be further considered in Committee. Later in my remarks, I should like to refer to a peculiar element of the Bill; I notify the House that I think that it is contained in clause 39(6). The point that I shall make is not unadjacent to that made by my hon. Friend, as, bizarrely, that provision relates to the electronic transmission of some rather important documents. In spite of my hon. Friend's excellent question, I shall not go into any detail on the matter, although I should point out that when such a measure is being considered, hon. Members must be careful of its viability, security and integrity as a process, if we are to make it of any value whatever.
Many questions arise in respect of technology. For example, where would the copies be made? Is it assumed that they will be made on the premises, or will they be removed? If they are to be removed, how much security will there be and for how long will they be kept away from the premises? All those questions will arise when we consider the Bill in detail.
I shall move very swiftly on because I do not want to delay proceedings. I am conscious of the passage of time and know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is itching to get stuck into his summary of the Bill, but I want to comment on one or two other items. I have already reached clause 28(1)—what a leap, Madam Deputy Speaker—although I have passed over a lot of material that I had wanted to cover. It is another loose provision that does no justice to the Minister or, dare I say it, to the draftsmen. It deals with the offence of supplying vehicle registration plates to unregistered persons and who would be guilty of an offence, referring to a person whosupplies a plate, device or other object to an unregistered person who is carrying on a business which consists wholly or partly in selling registration plates …The grammar is somewhat doubtful and there are clauses in the wrong place, but I pass over that and simply ask how I would know whether a person was registered or unregistered. Have we reached the stage at which people who do business with one another, probably through small businesses, will have to go through a process of satisfying themselves as to whether those with whom they are dealing are registered or unregistered? I think that we have. How will all that be done? What sort of intrusion on the business of doing business, personal privacy and business confidentiality does the measure represent? I believe that such a phrase in such a Bill could cause untold difficulty.
107 Furthermore, subsection (1)(b) refers to someone whoknows or reasonably suspects that the plate, device or other object will be used for the purposes of that other person's business …Going through a process of establishing whether a person reasonably suspects that the item that he is selling to or buying from someone else will be usedfor the purposes of that other person's businesswill put a terrible burden on small businesses. I believe that it stretches the matter way too far, and we must give that a lot of detailed consideration.
I draw the attention of the House to clause 32. Should we vote for the Bill's Second Reading, I hope that the Committee will also pay it close attention. Although I had wanted to go into detail, I shall not do so, even though the measure represents the high point of bureaucratic absurdity. It starts innocently enough—such things ever do—by referring to vehicle identity checks and applies to regulationswhich confer a power on the Secretary of State to refuse to issue a new registration document in respect of a registered vehicle if he is not satisfied that the vehicle for which the document is being sought is the registered vehicle.Well, that is a bit convoluted. I praised the Bill for its clear English, but I am afraid that that high standard has been deserted.
The measure is a bureaucratic nightmare. Subsections (2)(a) and (b) and (3)(a) to (j) set out in chilling detail what the regulations provide for, such asthe examination … of all vehicles for which new registration documents are being sought … the provision of other evidence in relation tothose vehicles. They also refer tonotification of examinations … the issue of duplicates or copies … the correction of errors in certificates … the payment of fees for examinations—yet another burden enters the matter—andthe making of appeals … courses of instruction … the authorisation of examiners …The clause is truly a construct at which we must wonder. It contains all the favourite elements of a Government out of control who cannot wait to get their hands round the necks of innocent businesses: notifications, duplicates, errors, fees, appeals, instructions, examiners—we have gone mad! We have finally taken collective leave of our senses.
I regret to say that many of my hon. Friends have said all through the debate that the Bill is rather a good idea. Well, I am sorry, but I ask them to read clause 32 before they vote and hope that they will think again. I do not know how long those on the Front Benches want for their winding-up speeches. I am looking at the clock; I am aware of the passage of time. The Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire look pretty relaxed to me. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend has just indicated with his inimitable body language—his body certainly exudes language—that he is anxious to get on with his summing up.
I shall not keep my hon. Friend waiting much longer, nor will I detain the House on the subject of flags as we have heard a lot about them tonight. All I will say is that I hope that the Minister will favour hon. Members with 108 his detailed explanation of exactly what the Government and the Secretary of State intend by the reference to registration plates in clause 33.
I believe the Government owe it to the House, and to those outside, to tell us the direction in which they will take us, because people attach great importance to the issue. We recently encountered controversy about the flying of the European Union flag outside Departments of State, and I have reason to believe that the Government may have thought better of that.
The Government must tell us what they intend with regard to either mandatory or optional display of European Union symbols on British car registration plates, and/or prohibition of the use of the Union flag—or, indeed, the flags of member countries of the Union—on registration plates. If the Government have nothing to be ashamed of, let the Minister tell us in clear language what they are going to do and why. We shall then be able to use that in deciding whether to support the Bill, either tonight or on Third Reading.
I cannot share the enthusiasm displayed by others. Of course, I have had only a short time in which to talk about the Bill: I have been able only to skip over it superficially. That falls far short of my normal standards, but I want to leave as much time as possible for my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. Because I am sure he has much to say, and because I know that regrettably we must finish at 10 pm, I shall end my speech. However, I hope that, both at this stage and subsequently, my hon. Friends will not regard the Bill as an unalloyed benefit that does not contain problems, difficulties and disadvantages.
It is possible that if we are not ultimately satisfied by the answers given to my hon. Friends and me, we shall have to think very carefully about whether to support the Bill; but with a bit of luck the general election will intervene, and we shall hear no more of it for some time.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has done me a great courtesy in sitting down. It is clear from the way he spoke that he could have said a good deal more about the Bill.
We have had a good debate. Not only my right hon. Friend but my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—all of them speaking from the Back Benches—demonstrated what my hon. Friend the Me member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made obvious from the Front Bench: the fact that the Bill raises a host of issues. They are important issues; difficult issues; perhaps not the sort of issues that would lead to a Division on Second Reading, but none the less the sort of issues that will require full scrutiny, and—as my right hon. Friend said—which will take up considerable time in Committee.
All who spoke acknowledged the seriousness with which we should all take vehicle crime, which is the largest single category of recorded crime in England and Wales. As the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) pointed out, it represents 28 per cent. of all crime. There were nearly 1.5 million offences in the last year, and 375,000 thefts of vehicles—1,000 a day, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) pointed out.
109 As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole illustrated so graphically, car crime causes great distress to its victims. The problem is not just the damage to property, but the damage to a prized item—a means of transport, which is important to many people's quality of life. Cars are obviously important to all of us, but one of the cruellest aspects of these offences is that they are usually perpetrated on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. The vehicles are often elderly, but necessary for their owners to go to work and lead their lives.
We are talking about a serious offence, or set of offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield summed it up when he described the feelings people have when they see that their vehicles have been damaged or stolen, or that items have been taken from them.
The background and the history of vehicle crime have been well documented and detailed in the debate. It is right to give credit to the previous Government. Of course I would say that, having been a junior Minister in it, but even the Under-Secretary of State might be prepared to because, between 1993 and 1997, there was a substantial fall in vehicle crime: it went down by 27 per cent. The combination of the introduction of closed circuit television, the rise in the number of police constables under the Conservatives, and a series of measures such as the code of practice concentrating on dealing with security of vehicles led to the start of that fall.
The Home Secretary is right to say that the target to cut vehicle crime by 30 per cent. by 2004 is challenging. It is challenging because the rate of improvement—the diminishment in the number of offences—is declining. In 1998–99, there was a fall in vehicle crime of 2.2 per cent., but last year, the decrease was just 0.5 per cent. The trend is not a happy one. I can see why the Government wish to take measures to improve the position.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was correct to say that there was a balance to be struck in regulating. Part I requires the registration of all motor salvage operators on pain of criminal conviction. It would allow local authorities to control the membership of the register by cancellation and registration, allow the Secretary of State to specify records to be kept, require notifications of destructions, and allow a power of entry for the registered, although a warrant would still be needed for the unregistered; but we are right to look at the balance and to see how those measures would affect businesses.
If one reads the consultation responses and the Government's documents in relation to the Bill, one of the things that is worrying is that it is not even clear how many businesses will be affected. The Government say between 2,000 and 2,500, but the Federation of Small Businesses is clear: it says 7,500.
The British Vehicle Salvage Federation and the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain suggest that 2,500 to 3,000 companies employing 20,000 to 30,000 people may be involved, but as the House of Commons Library says, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many companies will be affected. I notice that, between them, the two trade organisations represent about 325 of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 companies involved. There is no way of knowing how they have made those estimates. The trade organisations cover quite a small proportion of the total number of operators.
110 Can the Under-Secretary of State help us a bit on that? Is not one of the major problems with assessing the size of the industry the fact that many vehicle and car repairers will undertake a small amount of salvage work when it presents itself? Their main business is car repair, but if there is an opportunity to salvage parts, they will.
We could do with an assurance from the Under-Secretary of State—the point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield—that the registration provisions will be supported by an effective enforcement regime. In answer to the consultation, the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association of Great Britain felt strongly that the targets for fewer vehicle thefts could be achieved only if enforcement was effective. Does the Minister agree that, if registration is not fully enforced, there is a risk that some small operators will comply but that others will not, putting the responsible operators at a competitive disadvantage?
The Government have so far said that enforcement will be by the police, that the costs, which they estimate, thanks to the Association of Chief Police Officers, at £110,000, will be absorbed and that enforcement will form part of routine investigations. As the Home Secretary knows, £110,000 is not much money when it comes to providing police officers to undertake duties—it is about four police officers fully engaged for a year. Is the Minister seriously saying that, if there are 2,500, 3,000 or even 7,500 businesses, four police officers fully engaged for one year will be adequate to police the registration scheme and inspections? It seems to me that that is not a lot of money to conduct such an exercise. If regulation is not effective, some people—honest, genuine motor vehicle salvage operators—will lose out.
Opposition Members take Government pledges on action in such matters with a pinch of salt. The fact is that we need police officers if we are to enforce regulations. We know that the Government's record on police numbers is deplorable. Police numbers are down by 3,000, and there are 5,000 fewer special constables. In this debate, we have also heard quoted the Police Federation chairman's remarks on the crisis among police officers.
Just today, I received a reply from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), telling me that, since 1997, just in London, in addition to the police stations that have been closed, 27 police stations have reduced their hours. When police numbers are stretched, will it be possible for police simply to absorb the costs of enforcing the regulations? Will there be a great headline proclaiming "Government take action on vehicle crime", but very little action? I ask the Minister to tell us what work will be done for £110,000. How many police hours and visits will that provide? What enforcement will that sum make possible? It is not at all clear to the Opposition that that sum is adequate.
§ Mr. Miller
I accept the hon. Gentleman's comments on those figures. In my own constituency, for example, a police station is no longer manned in the evenings. The problem, however, is that such decisions are of course for chief constables. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the matter of station coverage should be dealt with by the Home Secretary?
§ Mr. Heald
I am always very happy to answer the Home Secretary in my own way. In the Conservative years, there was never a year in which the number of police constables decreased. As the National Audit Office has made clear, under this Government, that trend has been completely reversed.
I am not privy to the reason why a chief constable closes a particular police station in a particular place. I do not know what happened in North Yorkshire. However, I can tell the Home Secretary that 1 do know, from talking to police officers across the country, that they want to do a job of high-visibility policing and that they want to have open police stations, which he is failing to provide. If he is happy that, during his period in office, 27 police stations in London have reduced their hours and other police stations in London have closed, he should not be. We need a visible presence on the streets of London if we are to do the job. It is not good enough that a police presence is visible on the streets only when the Home Secretary is there.
Does the Minister agree that there are concerns about the effect of registration on the availability of salvage services? We have heard much in this debate about the rash of abandoned vehicles across the country. If the effect of registration and record keeping is that small operators regard them simply as Government-created hurdles that they are not prepared to jump, would not one of the primary losers be those who wish an end to the rash of abandoned vehicles? Is there not a risk that the cost to vehicle owners of salvage disposal will rise, leading to more cars being abandoned in public places? What effect is the Bill likely to have on the cost of vehicle removal to councils and the police? If more cars are abandoned, will not that lead to a reduction in the amount of recycling taking place? I know that the Minister considers that matter important.
Will the Minister tell us the case for universal registration? Would it not be possible instead to employ a light touch on the tiller and introduce measures to bar those who transgress from operating—and, perhaps, improve record keeping and police powers—without insisting that every small car repairer who might want to do a couple of salvages a year must be registered in this way?
Is the relationship between the regulatory regimes important—a point made by the hon. Member for Upminster? Given the nine regulatory regimes proposed in the Bill, there could come a point at which some business men might decide that all that regulation was too much for them. Scrap metal dealers already have to register under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Some salvage operators already have to be licensed or registered 112 under the European directive on end-of-life vehicles. The Bill proposes nine other forms of regulation. Is there some way of simplifying the scheme? What is the Minister's view on the relationship between all these regulatory approaches? Is it not a bit of a mess? Should he not have found a way of achieving these aims more simply?
Number plates have been much discussed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was very keen that we should not end up with a system such as the one in Sweden, which has one supplier for the entire country. Obviously, it would be good if we could ensure that false plates were not available to criminals. Some of the worst criminals use plates that do not belong to a vehicle to commit crimes without being detected. Every other European country has a tougher regime than ours, so we welcome the proposals to deal with the problems relating to number plates.
The form that number plates will take, under the regulations, has also been discussed. In other countries, counties, cantons, and Länder are represented on number plates. However, we have been told that the only symbol to be permitted in this country is the European Union symbol. What is the logic of that? The Home Secretary promised that the Minister would give us an answer on this matter. Why cannot we have the Union flag, the cross of St. George, or the Welsh dragon—symbols that relate to a smaller area? Surely the purpose of the measure is to ensure that number plates are more distinctive, easier to identify and more difficult to forge.
I have one or two points on the ability of the police to undertake certain other duties. No one in the House will disagree with measures that will allow the funding for a speed camera to be placed somewhere useful, such as in a hotspot or a place where numerous complaints have been made about speeding. However, concerns have been expressed that such measures could introduce something of a stealth tax. Speed cameras could be positioned everywhere, with the parameters for camera use set at very low levels. That could become a way for the Government to raise revenue by the back door—an area in which they are uniquely competent. Will the Minister reassure us that the measure will be properly targeted?
Reference was made to designing out crime. A case was made for improved car security, better door locks, better glazing, better immobilisers, and improved car park security. Can the Minister assure us that he is doing something about that, and that it is not all just talk? One of the task group's recommendations was that action should be taken on measures to design out crime.
The Conservative party achieved a huge fall in vehicle crime between 1993 and 1997—it went down by 27 per cent. We support initiatives that will genuinely cut car crime further. The Bill introduces measures that may be useful, but simply introducing laws will not stop crime. As so many right hon. and hon. Members have said, enforcement is important. A Government who have cut police numbers, let out 300 car thieves under the early release scheme, and introduced a whole raft of regulation must be suspect in this respect. So let us have a clear pledge from the Minister as to exactly what enforcement is to be provided. Is it just £110,000 worth? The worst thing would be to raise expectations without providing adequate enforcement. That would let down the public 113 and the honest motor vehicle salvage operators. It is not what the House wants. So let us see firm action, but let us ensure also that there is firm enforcement.
Overall, the Government's problem is that they talk a great deal. There is a lot of rhetoric, but precious little delivery. We want to see a Government in power with the will to tackle crime. It will be a Conservative Government, and that day is not far away.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)
This has been a long and, on the whole, interesting debate, with an exceptionally large number of questions for me to deal with in my winding-up speech. I calculated that there were between 30 and 40 before the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) spoke, and he has just asked another 20. I mean to answer them all, if possible. Some questions I shall respond to as I comment on the various contributions to the debate, and others in the course of my substantive speech. I shall, of course, be responding to the questions of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.
I turn first to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), my former representative on Lambeth council. The hon. Gentleman made an exceptionally long speech. I might even say that it was excruciatingly long, but I am not in a mood to provoke the hon. Gentleman, who needs little excuse to leap to his feet. His speech ranged from the wildly general to the highly particular. As Madam Deputy Speaker said, Mr. Speaker, most of his points were more appropriate to the Committee stage. As far as I am able to identify the issues of priority to the hon. Gentleman in his lengthy performance, I shall endeavour to deal with them.
On safety cameras, the hon. Gentleman, predictably, had the gall to produce the familiar canard—if I might adopt the model of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—of a stealth tax. His sidekick, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, made the same allegation. We heard about rich pickings from unsuspecting motorists. The speed limit is the speed limit, and a red light is a red light. If this is a tax, it is a tax on those who break the law. Are we to understand that the Opposition's tax guarantee would mean lower fines for crime?
§ Mr. Hill
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not because I have an awful lot to cover and awfully little time in which to do so.
The hon. Member for Buckingham and many of his colleagues made much of the issue of police numbers. Although enforcement of the regulations applying to the salvage industry will fall to the police, much of the day-to-day scrutiny will fall to local authorities, probably in the form of trading standards officers. Local authorities will have responsibility for processing applications to be entered on a register. They will have discretion to refuse or cancel registration—a point effectively made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birningham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe).
The measure will allow local authorities to close down salvage operators about whose activities there are serious questions. The new arrangements will act as a deterrent 114 on questionable operators. What is more, ACPO—the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland—is one of the Bill's greatest supporters. ACPO was fully involved in VCRAT and was consulted about all elements of the Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is to reduce vehicle crime; it will provide the greatest scrutiny of the salvage industry and a greater deterrent to rogue salvage operators. If vehicle crime is reduced by as much as we think it will be, police resources will be freed up for better enforcement—as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) correctly observed.
I shall deal with some of the particular issues raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham. He and the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked why registered salvage dealers will be treated differently from non-registered dealers. The answer is that all salvage dealers will have to be registered—that is made clear in clause 1, which makes it an offence not to be registered. If the police believe that someone is operating as a salvage dealer without being registered, they can enter premises with a warrant. Greater safeguards, by way of a warrant, are needed for unregistered premises as there would be only a suspicion that the person was operating as an unregistered dealer. By virtue of the fact that dealers are registered, they know that the police can enter at any time—they have signed up to that.
The hon. Member for Buckingham also asked about V5s—the registration documents. He said that currently, if a request for a V5 is made, the DVLA notifies the police if the vehicle is supposed to have been crushed or broken up. That is true. The Bill adds strength to that practice; it makes provision for a refusal to issue a V5 if the DVLA is not satisfied that the vehicle for which the V5 is sought is the registered vehicle. The vehicle will have to pass a vehicle identity test before a V5 will be issued.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether vehicle identity numbers—VINs—would be included on the plate. That is rather a detailed point, but in the spirit of glasnost, I am willing to respond to it. That provision will be introduced by order. We shall hold consultations about what is to be included—VINs may not be included as it has been suggested that they might help ringers; it is more likely to be a manufacturer's mark, so that the police can trace the maker of the plate.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be consultations before the introduction of the provisions. Yes, there will be consultations. We have already consulted industry and will do so again before the introduction of secondary legislation—that will, incidentally, be by means of negative resolutions.
We shall issue guidance notes on number plates and salvage, and shall hold consultations on the matter. In his ever-inquisitive way, the hon. Gentleman asked why there is no provision for restitution if the names of number plate suppliers are mistakenly removed from the register. There should be no need for such a provision, as only a genuine cessation of trade will result in de-registration. The operator will not be removed from the register without notice; he will be notified prior to any de-registration and will thus have the opportunity to make representations if he has not ceased trading.
Finally—although I hope to cover other points made by the hon. Gentleman in due course—[HON. MEMBERS: "Keep going".] I have no hesitation whatever about 115 keeping going—nor any problems in doing so. The hon. Gentleman asserted that the Federation of Small Businesses was opposed to the statutory regulation of number plates. That is not true. I am holding a letter that shows that the FSB welcomes the measures. In a letter sent to the Government on 11 December, the transport spokesman for the FSB states:The FSB welcomes the decision that the Secretary of State for Transport should hold the proposed register of number plate suppliers … The FSB has never opposed the Government's efforts to combat vehicle crime by controlling the supply of number plates.
After that lengthy aside, I now turn to the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green. I am grateful for the welcome that he extended to the measure. His was a wide-ranging and highly knowledgeable speech, as we would expect from the vice-chairman of the European secure vehicle alliance. We shall want to study his remarks carefully, because there is much food for thought in them.
My hon. Friend asked about counterfeit plates. A registered supplier will not be guilty of an offence if he inadvertently supplies a plate to someone who is not entitled to it—but again, that is a detail that would perhaps more appropriately be dealt with in Committee.
The speech by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) was characteristically reasonable and well informed, and drew on his wide experience in civil engineering and transport consultancy. I am grateful that he, too, gave the Bill a broad welcome. Clearly, he had a number of ideas for improving it, which we shall, of course, be ready to consider with an open mind in Committee.
The hon. Gentleman asked several questions, which I shall try to deal with later, but he also asked specifically about costs, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill). We have already consulted local authorities and business about costs, but the provisions will be introduced through secondary legislation, and we shall be happy to consult further; indeed, we have promised the industry that we shall do so. I hope that that is at least some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
I now come to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), the first of a cabal of lawyers who participated in the debate—a prospect that I had anticipated with some foreboding, but in fact, I was grateful for their eminently reasonable contributions and support.
My hon. Friend made a learned and supportive speech, and he made an interesting point, in connection with the proposed sharing of the motor insurance database, about wider sharing of information in the interests of road safety. I imagine that we are likely to hear more about that in Committee.
I pay tribute to the campaigning work on safety cameras that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has done. We all remember his Adjournment debate earlier this year. He asked whether the experience of the eight pilot schemes had encouraged us to go for a national extension of safety cameras, and the answer is yes. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, the evidence so far is of a very significant 20 per cent. reduction in road accidents.
116 My hon. Friend was right to condemn the facile attacks on those proposals by people who call them a stealth tax. The excellent example of Staffordshire shows the clear benefits and the saving of lives brought about by an effective safety carnera network.
§ Mr. Miller
All the, data available show that, as well as the pain and suffering for the bereaved families, every death on the roads costs the country more than £1 million, so does my hon. Friend agree that it is nonsense to talk about a stealth tax? The truth is the reverse: such an investment will save both money and lives.
§ Mr. Hill
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; as a leading member of RoadPeace, he speaks with knowledge and passion, and we are grateful to him for contribution on this subject.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) for her warm support of the Bill. She described Plymouth's impressive record in reducing car crime as a result of an effective partnership between the police, the local authority and other agencies, in the form of a community safety partnership.
My hon. Friend also asked a number of questions that I hope to deal with later. Obviously, in her we have another willing member of the Standing Committee; I admire her commitment.
I now turn to the long speech made by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). I do not talk of pressed men in this context, but until late in the debate, his promised to be the only speech that we would hear from the Conservative Back Benches. In the event, we heard only three speeches from Conservative Members—a telling comment on the low priority that they attach to vehicle crime, for all their bluster on the subject and their ludicrous claims to represent the party of law and order.
Notwithstanding the perhaps excessive length of the contribution of the hon. Member for Lichfield, he made several interesting and thoughtful points. He asked a specific question about rural crime, and I should point out that, according to the British crime survey, for every crime in rural areas, there are two crimes in urban areas and four in the inner cities. Those are the figures for crime in general, although the hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that the pattern for vehicle crime is less clear—the urban-rural distinction is less marked.
If I may say so, the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) piggy backed on the speech of the hon. Member for Lichfield in asking about data sharing and data protection. He asked whether it will be necessary to go to Europe to secure a derogation from the motor insurers database provision.
§ Mr. Hill
I am coming to that. If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, I shall deal with that.
117 On whether we will need to go to Europe to get a derogation from the MID provision, the answer is no. The EU directive on data protection and the Data Protection Act 1998 allow exemptions from the data protection principles for disclosures and data sharing where necessary for the prevention and detection of crime—of course, that applies to the Bill.
I now turn to the well adumbrated issue of the Union flag on number plates. It is important that number plates remain uncluttered and easily legible, particularly because they need to be read quickly by safety cameras or people reporting crimes. The Europlate, which incorporates the 12 stars with the national identity of the member state below, will be optional for vehicles registered in the United Kingdom from September 2001. Motorists will not be allowed, however, to place other distinguishing signs on the number plates for the reasons that I have given. I agreed with the hon. Member for Lichfield when he said that we have dealt more than enough with flags of any description, so I propose to draw a line under that issue.
I turn briefly to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who spoke with authority and from personal experience about car theft. She rightly drew attention to the greater impact of car theft on those on low incomes. She spoke powerfully in condemnation of those who drive without insurance, whom she called a menace on the road. I am most grateful to her for welcoming the Bill.
I turn to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). Like my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton, he spoke about the benefits of community partnerships in reducing crime locally. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North, he highlighted the severity of vehicle crime for the less well-off in society. I am grateful to him for his support for the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill)—another highly knowledgeable contribution from another solicitor—made a powerful point in saying that, although we need to take a cautious approach, further regulation is clearly justified in this case. I am grateful to him for his support for the Bill.
The hon. Member for Poole made a typically rational and brief speech, for which the House is grateful. He raised several interesting points, which I am sure we shall eagerly pursue in Committee. I turn finally to the speech of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). He also made a typical speech, in which he bounced off the contents of the Bill as he perused them in the Chamber. I urge the House to give its whole-hearted support to the measure.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.