HC Deb 24 October 2001 vol 373 cc386-92

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

10 12 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a problem that is causing great concern in Skelmersdale, the largest town in my constituency and the place where I live. I am even more grateful that it falls to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) to reply to the debate. He and I were two members of a notable band of brothers who were incarcerated in the Cloisters when we arrived in Parliament in 1992. At that time, my hon. Friend was our man in the south-west, now thankfully joined by several other colleagues in the region. He was, and probably still is, famed for the clarity and resonance of his voice. In my first six months or so in Parliament, I came to know more about Plymouth docks than I did about West Lancashire. This evening, I aim to return the favour; I am delighted that my hon. Friend is now a Minister, and trust that he will be so for a very long time indeed.

The new part of Skelmersdale was built for pedestrians and is a labyrinth of walkways, which were intended—admirably at that time—to separate pedestrians from traffic. Inside the estates, the pedestrian ways often pass right before front doors without intervening gardens. The estates are tunnelled by passageways which debouch unannounced on to further pedestrian ways. The town is characterised by a high proportion of young people; it is an extended playground for young children, and many hundreds of young mothers push prams and baby carriers about the place.

In recent years, many of the estates have been bedevilled by off-road motor bikes, both youngsters' bikes and adult trial bikes of the type usually associated with scrambling, a sport of which I strongly approve. My estimate, which can only be a rough estimate, is that there are about 100 off-road bikes being used inside the estates, mostly by teenagers, but sometimes by children as young as six or seven.

Residents have for some years complained bitterly about the noise nuisance, but in recent months increasingly about the physical danger presented by bikes roaring round their houses. The police are deeply concerned about the matter, but are severely handicapped by the impossibility of giving chase to the offenders. Given the structure of the estates, any chase would simply multiply the chances of a serious accident. We have seen many examples on our roads in recent years.

Two citizens in particular in Skelmersdale have given me vivid accounts of the activities of bikers. Mr. John Gresty of Eavesdale has researched the problem and tells me that it is also common in inner Liverpool, which is not far away. Mr. Gordon Leather of Feltons describes how he was struck by a trial bike ridden by a 13-year-old on a footpath. Mr. Leather was catapulted over a garden wall and received injuries to his legs, back and shoulders, for which he has been receiving hospital treatment since March. He tried to pursue the matter to seek redress, only to be informed by solicitors from the Motor Insurers Bureau that he could not claim because the motor bike was on the pavement. In any case, he could never have identified the lad responsible for the accident.

I have a personal experience to record. While I was driving through one of my estates during the general election campaign, my car was struck by a young man aged about 17 on a trial bike, who shot out of the shrubbery and hit the front of my car. He went underneath the car. Fortunately, I was going very slowly, at about 10 mph. It was an election campaign and—my hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar with this—I was looking for a long-lost canvass team, buried somewhere in the estate. However, from the crunching noise, I honestly believed that I had run over the young man's head. I got out of the car, terrified and shaking. It turned out that he was not seriously hurt, but the bike was completely demolished, to his evident distress, as he said it was "a mate's". It had no identifying marks on it at all. I was so relieved at the outcome of the accident that I took no further action, especially as his bike fell to bits as he tried to pick it up, which was rather comical. In retrospect, I should have carted him off to the police, especially as about £300-worth of damage had been done to my car.

The police in Skelmersdale have taken the problem seriously and are close to prosecution in a number of cases, but they are frustrated by the fact that when they catch and deal with a young offender for dangerous driving or riding on the highway, the culprit, once he has been dealt with, returns to his bike. There are no powers to confiscate bikes, which would be a terrific sanction fir the police to be able to employ.

I know that consideration of such powers is a matter for the Home Office, but I also know from my time as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Office that there are regular discussions between officials and Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Home Office on interface issues, particularly concerning sentencing for road offences. I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the serious problem that I have described is included in those discussions as a matter of urgency. There is no doubt in my mind that there are deaths waiting to happen out there on the estates in Skelmersdale.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, about something that is a problem for many of his fellow Members of Parliament. The Doncaster crime and disorder partnership has identified motor bike nuisance as one of the issues that it intends to address. I concur with my hon. Friend on the fact that the police need powers to confiscate the bike, but does he also agree that housing departments should consider seeking eviction if a family are conniving and encouraging their children to cause this nuisance?

Mr. Pickthall

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I have been unable to ascertain the extent of the problem and it is interesting to know that it is happening in her constituency as well. I am a little uneasy about the idea of eviction sitting on the back of it, but that is another matter.

The police have dramatic evidence of the dangers that my hon. Friend and I have described, and they have shown it to me. Some weeks ago, the Lancashire police helicopter was in the vicinity of Skelmersdale and was asked to look at a motor cyclist who was riding dangerously through one of the estates. It captured on video many minutes of this 13-year-old, as he turned out to be, zooming past people's doors, along footpaths and through the ginnels. At one point—I have seen the tape—he shot through a group of people, striking a man and spinning him round. Fortunately, the man was not seriously injured. The rider spotted the helicopter and sought to shake it off, but he could not; it followed him and the chase ended when the lad got home. His mother came out of the house and hid the bike in the kitchen. I am reliably informed that many of the kids hide these bikes in their bedrooms, although how they get them upstairs, I do not know.

To my mind, the case for action against these characters is clear. I believe that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that police have more powers to deal with them. However, there are other aspects of the problem that need to be addressed. A couple of weeks ago, I met two young 14-year-old bikers to discuss these problems. David McCullock and Karl Matthews told me that they wished to use their bikes legally—they were decent young lads and I believed them—but that that presented them with great difficulties as to how and where they could ride them in safety.

We must consider whether it is reasonable and safe to allow children to own motor bikes, which can be lethal weapons. No doubt, some parents believe that they are doing their children a great favour by buying them bikes, not taking into account the fact that their use almost inevitably involves riding on roads and thus breaking the law. They consider neither legality nor insurance responsibility. Having paid large sums for the bikes, they are then reluctant to prevent the children from using them.

I heard of one case in which the sale of a bike to a boy who is an epileptic was refused by the vendor, so his father turned up and bought it for him. In my opinion, that was very misplaced generosity. Parents have a huge responsibility. One of the boys to whom I spoke told me that he had possessed a motor bike since he was seven years old. David and Karl made the incontrovertible point that, as long as it is legal for them to own an off-road motor bike, it is reasonable for them to have somewhere to use it legally.

The police, youth service and council in West Lancashire are all keen to identify an area where bikes can be used without causing danger to pedestrians. I am very keen to help with that. We have tried to establish a site before, but people living close to the area that was identified made an enormous protest about the potential noise nuisance, which is always a problem in urban areas. Even in rural areas, where scrambling tracks are not uncommon, the noise can be ferocious and can carry a long way. I have a problem on the border of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), where noise created at a track in one local authority and constituency area is causing nuisance in the neighbouring one, which is mine. Such cross-border problems are very difficult to deal with. We may be able to identify suitable areas in industrial estates, but we will then face the problem of ensuring that the off-road bikes get to the legal venues without riding on roads or using footpaths. The logistics could be very difficult, although that is matter for local agencies and councils to consider, alongside the many other demands on their resources.

I was uncertain as to how widespread the problem was. I raised the matter at a Lancashire police forum a couple of months ago and was told that, in Lancashire, it seemed to be confined to Skelmersdale. However, since then, I have learned that it is a problem in inner Liverpool and in Doncaster. It may be that there is a particular problem in Skelmersdale because of the peculiar geography of the town.

In summary, I am certain that it is not right to place the onus on pedestrians in Skelmersdale to dodge these missiles. It is not right that the residents should be harassed by the persistent noise emanating from bikes roaring up and down the walkways just outside their homes, often in the early hours of the morning. That happens very frequently; it is not an odd occurrence. It is not right that a situation that clearly presents a risk to life and limb should be allowed to drift without an effective remedy.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend to use his ministerial authority to institute an examination of the whole issue of off-road motor bikes: the circumstances of their sale; the suitability or otherwise of young children's ownership of such bikes; the insurance requirements; and the powers of the authorities to prevent the abuse of these bikes and to protect citizens from the effects of their abuse. It is my duty as the MP representing Skelmersdale to do something about this menace before one of my constituents—one of my neighbours, indeed—is killed, rather than seeking to do something after a killing has happened.

10.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). He and I first came to the House in 1992 and I remember those heady days in the Cloisters when we almost had to sit on each other's laps. It says a lot for the accommodation situation in this place that things have improved so much over the years. I remember my hon. Friend as a strong advocate for many causes, but, as we have heard tonight, he has most of all been a powerful voice in this place for his constituents.

I will ensure that the points that my hon. Friend has raised are dealt with in my Department's discussions with the Home Office. In the short time that I have this evening, I shall give some background to the issue and try to clarify the law as it stands at the moment. During my hon. Friend's contribution, I could not help thinking that, yes, the law is there to make sure that people are protected, but that there would be no need for the police or other agencies to intervene with these young children, some as young as seven, if parents were doing their job and making sure that their children were not causing the kind of nuisance that my hon. Friend so clearly described.

I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend was the victim of such an incident; I know how distressing that can be. I was glad that neither the young man nor my hon. Friend was injured. I also hope that my hon. Friend's constituents who have been involved in these unfortunate incidents are making a rapid recovery.

I assure my hon. Friend that I appreciate his concern about the use of these vehicles in inappropriate places, and about the noise nuisance and safety problems that they cause. This debate gives me the opportunity to explain to the House my Department's current consideration of the ways in which we might better regulate their off-road use. I shall go into a little detail about that, and I shall outline the current position on the use of off-road motor cycles on the public highway and on the pavement.

When an off-road motor cycle, such as a scramble or trial bike, is used on the highway, it is considered to be a mechanically propelled vehicle. As such, it is subject to the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, which requires such vehicles to have vehicle excise duty paid in respect of their use. It should also comply with the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 and the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989. These require that vehicles must be safely constructed in terms of lighting, braking, tyres and so on. Anyone riding an off-road machine on a road could be prosecuted for failing to comply with these regulations.

Riding or driving any vehicle on the pavement is an offence under section 72 of the Highway Act 1835, and the police are responsible for enforcing those provisions. That became a fixed-penalty notice offence on 1 August 1999, which has made enforcement somewhat easier. Before issuing a fixed-penalty notice, however, the police and traffic wardens must see the vehicle being driven on the pavement, as opposed to simply being parked there.

My hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) suggest giving the police powers to confiscate vehicles. Although the police have no powers to confiscate vehicles used illegally off road—there are no plans to give them such powers—a general power exists for the courts to enable them to confiscate property used in the commission of crime, which includes vehicles when certain conditions are fulfilled. One is that an offence—perhaps, for example, drinking and driving, causing death by dangerous driving, an offence of manslaughter or wanton and furious driving—be imprisonable under the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Other powers are available that may be relevant to the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire. For instance, charges may be brought for breach of the peace and causing a nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Part III of the Act, as amended by the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, provides local authorities with the powers to prevent or abate noise nuisance from any vehicle, machinery or equipment on the street, premises or land.

Those powers could apply to the use of off-road motor cycles, but it would be for the local authority environmental health officer to judge whether a problem complained about could be deemed a statutory nuisance. If that were the case, the authority would have to serve an abatement notice on the person responsible for the vehicle. If the person responsible could be found, the notice could be fixed to the vehicle.

Other available powers are in the Road Traffic Act 1991, which allows for prosecution against dangerous driving and careless and inconsiderate driving of a mechanically propelled vehicle in a public place. They enable prosecutions to be brought for offences committed while driving vehicles in off-road areas to which the public have access. Under section 35 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—the example of wanton or furious driving—a rider of any such vehicle causing death or bodily harm to any person whatever could be prosecuted by the police.

As scramble or trial bikes are classed as off-road vehicles, other statutory requirements relating to on-road motor cycles do not apply. That means that there is no minimum age restriction, nor is there any requirement to have a driving licence, hold insurance or wear a safety helmet.

The Motor Cycles (Protective Helmets) Regulations 1998 require riders and passengers on motor bikes to wear helmets when on a road. We currently have no plans to extend that to off-road use of bikes. The nature of off-road use, which tends to be infrequent, often on private land and usually over difficult terrain, means that effective enforcement would require many scarce police resources.

To ensure that every off-road motor cycle rider has a driving licence, a national registration scheme for all off-road motor cycles would have to be put in place, but it would be costly to set up and administer. It is doubtful whether those who occasionally use unlicensed off-road motor cycles would comply with the scheme and it would be difficult to enforce, which would add to the burden on the police.

I understand from the Association of Chief Police Officers that, in its view, the current legislation is sufficient to deal with the majority of off-road motor cyclists and it is not seeking the introduction of any additional offences or powers in that respect.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I do not want to contradict the police officers who advise my hon. Friend, but I must reinforce the point that this is a key issue. Apart from car dumping, it is the worst environmental crime in most of our constituencies. We cannot cope. Whatever advice has been provided to my hon. Friend we need changes in the law and it is critical that we tackle the issue. Lives are at risk on pavements, in public parks and elsewhere.

Mr. Jamieson

I thank my hon. Friend. Perhaps the following remarks will deal with the issues that are important to his area.

I shall now say something about what we have done to combat the problem of off-road motor cycles in public spaces and on land. Under section 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is an offence to drive a motor vehicle without permission on to common land, moorland or land of any description that does not form part of a road. It is also an offence under that section to drive a motor vehicle on a footpath or bridleway.

The offences under section 34 did not extend to off-road vehicles, because a motor vehicle was defined in section 185 of the 1988 Act as a mechanically propelled vehicle intended or adapted for use on the roads". As some motor cycles, for example scramble motor cycles, are classified as off-road vehicles, such vehicles were not covered by the prohibition in section 34. However, an amendment to section 34 was included in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which received Royal Assent on 30 November. That amendment had the effect of extending to off-road vehicles, the offence under section 34 of the 1988 Act, and came into force on 1 February 2001.

Another use of off-road motor cycles is for off-road motor-cycle racing. Under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, any land can be used for up to 14 days in any year for motor cycle racing, including trials of speed, without the need for an application for planning permission. The only exception is land within a site of special scientific interest, where express planning permission is always required.

The Government recognise that, although such activity is restricted to 14 days a year, local people can be significantly disturbed by the noise that it creates. Without the requirement for planning permission, a local planning authority has no opportunity to impose suitable conditions that could reduce the impact of such activity.

Last year we commissioned Baker Associates to conduct research including consideration of the temporary uses provisions. Its report was published in September this year. The researchers recommended that the "temporary uses" provisions should be withdrawn entirely, and that no temporary use should be allowed without express planning permission. That recommendation would apply to off-road motor cycle activities. I am sure that that comes as good news to my hon. Friends.

Before deciding whether to accept the researchers' recommendations, we will issue a public consultation paper early next year. It will include options for amending the "temporary uses" provisions. I hope that my hon. Friends' constituents who are affected will participate, and will make their views known either directly or through my hon. Friends.

Caroline Flint

Would my hon. Friend consider discussing with his counterparts in the Home Office how local authorities and the police can use antisocial behaviour orders to build a case against persistent harassment on estates when residents—independent witnesses—can give accounts to the police, so that those kids can be dealt with under the regulations and laws already provided by Government?

Mr. Jamieson

I think that in certain cases in which disturbances are extreme, it would be worth establishing whether they fell within the relevant part of the law. Tonight I have tried to refer to matters that are the responsibility of my Department; when we have finished our consultation, we will—rapidly, I hope—decide on the most appropriate way in which to proceed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire for raising an issue that is important to many people in many constituencies. Such offences often affect the quality of life of the most vulnerable, such as younger children and the elderly. My hon. Friend spoke with his usual thoroughness and, as always, with great good sense.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.