HC Deb 08 May 2002 vol 385 cc178-87

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Flight

I would expect cross-party agreement on the need for effective measures to deal with the problem of abandoned cars, of which there are some 350,000 each year. The Government's proposals amount, broadly, to clause 19, which implements the terms of schedule 5.

The crucial issue is whether the proposals will be effective. The problem of abandoned cars is growing because scrap yards are not interested in taking clapped-out cars and tend to demand payment for doing so. In turn, that has resulted from the fall in scrap prices. There has been broad support for the DTLR consultation and broad agreement that measures are needed to incentivise and provide proper arrangements for the disposal of old cars, and to ensure that the keepers of cars are made responsible for the registration formalities of transfer and disposal.

Without reform and implementation by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of a proper receipting system, clause 19 and schedule 5 will not satisfactorily address the problem of abandoned vehicles and could indeed compound it. At the heart of the matter is the fact that the DVLA does not have a records system that carries accurate real-time information to enable the tracing of vehicles' owners at the time of abandonment.

The problem is major. There are some 12 million old vehicles on the road without proper registration papers. For example, the number of vehicles registered in 1989 totalled some 2.3 million, of which about 624,000—some 27 per cent.—are not accounted for. That takes into account all those that have already been scrapped or for which SORN—statutory off-road notification—has been given.

The DTLR has indicated that the schedule 5 measures, which clause 19 implements, may be used to pursue the last keeper on record if the car in question is not taxed or recorded as being off the road. Many of the cars making up the numbers that I have just cited will have changed hands several times through the back door or may be sitting on rotting land. We take the view that it would be a monstrous travesty for the view last official recorded keeper of such a vehicle, who may be entirely innocent, to be accused and charged with non-payment of road tax and failure to notify that the vehicle is off the road, and even given speeding fines, when that person may be two, three or four people back in the vehicle's chain of car abandonment, as there is a greater incentive to dump non-roadworthy cars rather than store them on private land in order simply to avoid vehicle excise duty liabilities.

If the proposals are to be practical and not potentially unfair, the DVLA must be reformed significantly and be in a position to issue and record accurate receipts of information about change of ownership, so that individuals who have duly notified it of changes have evidence to show that they have done so. I understand that a recent court case on that territory found against the DVLA. hon. Members will be aware that the Automobile Association has advised that it would be wrong to press ahead with the proposals until the DVLA can offer a real-time customer service and provide receipts on change of ownership.

5.15 pm

There are other problems, The liberal UK vehicle registration system allows any name to be recorded as the keeper, even a child's, if the proposals are to work, we need a timetable on DVLA modernisation. vehicles that have not changed hands since march 1997 have old registration papers, which do not provide for dual registration. Again, that issue needs to be implemented fairly and effectively.

The abandonment problem requires a carrot-and-stick approach. it also probably needs the provision of easy and free take-back facilities for cars that have reached the end of their lives, and it needs effective but fair pursuit of the owner at the time cars are dumped. That can happen only if the DVLA has the necessary records.

Is the intent of clause 19 and schedule 5 to include veteran cars and cars that may have been kept on a farm all their lives I still find the wording unclear, but there is the implication that both might be covered.

We believe that much more consultation is necessary, especially on the detailed proposals in schedule 5, which if implemented as they stand could have a contrary and grossly unfair impact on innocent parties. We fear that the Government may be rushing through measures in the name of spin—to be able to say that they are doing something about abandoned vehicles—and without reforming the DVLS to ensure that the necessary information is available.

We would like to that the Government will consult further before they implement clause 19, noting the latitude given to them in terms of implement the clause and schedule 5 until the DVLA has been reformed adequately. We will want to return to this issue on Report. If the issues that I have raised are not satisfactorily addressed, we will want to oppose the proposal, but we cannot imagine that the Government intend to implement these measures without the necessary reforms of the DVLA.

Mr. Edward Davey

The Liberal Democrats sought to have clause 19 debated in a Committee of the whole House because we are extremely concerned about the problem of abandoned vehicles. We recognise that the Government have taken action and that the clause is part of the strategy for dealing with the problem.

My constituency of Kingston and Surbiton has experienced an epidemic of abandoned vehicles, which has caused huge problems for many residents. They are literally fed up of contacting the council or the DVLA and getting nowhere. I have many examples. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) says that it is a Liberal Democrat council. It is a Liberal Democrat council now because last Thursday the Liberal Democrats made 11 gains and took over from an incompetent minority Tory administration in Kingston upon Thames. As we now have a Liberal Democrat administration in Kingston upon Thames we will see improvements in the removal of abandoned vehicles.

The problem of abandoned vehicles is exceptionally serious, as such vehicles give rise to significant health and safety concerns. Children are often hurt playing on them, and they are sometimes set alight by vandals, causing significant damage. The Financial Secretary and the Paymaster General should therefore not make light of this serious issue. To some hon. Members, it may seem like pavement politics, but it is a real issue.

The Government are to be congratulated on the consultation document—published last October by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, to which I responded on my party's behalf—which proposes various ways of tackling the problem of abandoned cars. It contains many measures that I support, such as reducing notice periods for the removal of abandoned vehicles, and for their destruction once removed. I am particularly in favour of empowering local authorities to remove unlicensed vehicles; currently, such powers lie only with the DVLA. As the DVLA is rather stretched and does not have as great a local presence as councils, unlicensed vehicles often remain undealt with. Under current legislation, local authorities cannot deal with such vehicles because they are not abandoned. Bizarrely, the problem is ping-ponged between statutory agencies, one passing the buck to the other. The Government have recognised that fact in the consultation document and are taking steps to deal with it.

Another key proposal that I fully support is giving local councils greater access to the DVLA's database, which I have advocated for my constituency for many years. I once persuaded the then head of enforcement at the DVLA, Haydon Madoc, to travel from Swansea to witness the epidemic of abandoned vehicles in my constituency. One solution that I discussed with him was enabling my local council to access the DVLA's database. It took a long time, but I believe that that key solution is now in place.

The consultation document contains many useful proposals, and although the proposal before us is a step in the right direction I have some concerns about the detail. I make that point in a spirit of genuine, constructive and effective opposition. The document states that the Government wanted to consult widely, and it mentions some of the measures now included in clause 19 and schedule 5, but it describes them as longer term. I shall quote from it to give hon. Members an idea of the Government's thinking last October. Paragraph 36 of section 5, headed "Longer term proposals", states: In the longer term, the Government believes that stringent measures are needed to ensure that all vehicles can be associated with a registered keeper who has clear responsibility for ensuring that the vehicle is operated legally, and who remains responsible for civil and criminal penalties arising from misuse of that vehicle while it is in his possession. The document predicts that the Government will consult on the measures before us, but to my knowledge their conclusions have not been published. They have not responded to the consultation process, or to submissions from people such as me.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) that the Government are ploughing ahead without hearing the results of the consultation. They may be going in the right direction, but as long ago as October we were told that the changes were longer-term reforms on which the Government would consult. I should like to see the results of the consultation before we enact the new powers.

clause 19(2) says that the provision shall not come into force until such day as the Secretary of State may appoint by order made by statutory instrument". Therefore, the Government are allowing extra time for consultation. They have produced the enabling legislative framework and will introduce the orders bringing the provisions into effect later. The Government may have realised that they are acting too quickly, but there is a protection against that in clause 19(2). If that is the case, I would like the Minister to say so. When will the Government introduce the orders in question? Will it be before the summer recess, and what will happen before the orders are considered by the House? We need to know, because they could implement significant changes.

The Government need to consult on the orders beforehand. It is right to require people to retain fiscal responsibility for a motor vehicle unless and until they register the fact that they have sold the vehicle or it is no longer used on the road. However, if the Bill is passed, it will be the first time that VED will apply to vehicles not kept on the public road. What will that mean in practice? Will it mean that all the exemptions that currently apply—whether to classic cars or any of the other long list of exemptions in schedule 2 (a) to (q) of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, which I shall not list but which includes vehicles used on tram lines and electrically assisted pedal cycles—will continue to apply? I hope that the Minister can assure us that they will.

The effect of the provision will be to enable excise duty to apply to vehicles not kept on public roads. I hope that that is only a device to ensure that abandoned cars that are not on the public road have to be registered so that the owner can be tracked down and held liable for any fines. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government have no intention of extending the tax net? If that is the object of the exercise, many right hon. and hon. Members will object.

The most serious concern is whether the proposals introduce an element of retrospection. Many people in the last 10 or 20 years might have passed on a vehicle to a relative or friend but not registered the change in ownership properly and, when the change took place, the extra duties and penalties were not in force. Those people could be linked to one of the many millions of vehicles no longer on the DVLA's register and thus fall foul of the new legislation. The Government need to convince the House that they will not apply those provisions in a draconian way.

5.30 pm

The Minister could reassure the Committee by saying how many licensed vehicles are on the DVLA register. Of that number, how many have statutory off-road notification? For how many vehicles has there been no recent activity or registration? A note from the Library leads me to understand that there may be as many as 2 million vehicles in the latter category. As a result, if we are not careful, 2 million owners could become liable for fiscal penalties under this retrospective measure.

The matter is complex. I read through the 1994 Act and must admit that I had to put a hot towel around my head to understand its intricacies. However, it is clear that some proposals in the Bill may not have been thought through as completely as might be necessary.

My final point touches on a matter, raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, that is key to the Government's aim of using the Bill to deal with abandoned cars. The hon. Gentleman noted that the DVLA does not provide receipts when cars are registered: a person who notifies the DVLA that a car has been sold on receives no receipt for that notification.

The problem was at the heart of the court case to which the hon. Gentleman referred. In November last year, Mr. Phil Davies from south Wales took on the DVLA in the magistrates court, the county court and the Court of Appeal. Eventually, he won the case. The DVLA had tried to fine Mr. Davies £35 for not returning a form in July 2001. Mr. Davies was adamant that he had returned the form, but he cold not prove it as the DVLA issued no receipt for it. However, the Court of Appeal finally found in favour of Mr. Davies, on the grounds that the DVLA had been remiss.

If the Government are trying to use the Bill to deal with the problem of abandoned cars by developing continuous licensing, they will probably enjoy the support of the House. However, the problem with continuous licensing is that the DVLA would need to work out how to provide receipts for those members of the public who wanted to receive them. The receipts would prove that a person had notified the DVLA of a transfer of ownership.

I suggest that the question of issuing receipts is at the core of the clause. I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that the Government will take on board the legitimate concerns that have been expressed. If they do, they will enjoy the support of hon. Members of all parties. The move is important, and such an assurance would allow the Government to promote the objectives of their policy that much more strongly.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Abandoned cars are a blight on the landscape, and action is clearly needed. Some local authorities find the cost of dealing with the problem to be great. I do not see why local council tax payers should have to foot the bill when irresponsible citizens dump their property in public places. Therefore, I begin by saying that I wish the Government well in their quest for a solution to the problem, but I share some of the doubts expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) about whether—I hope that the Minister will pardon the pun—the proposed measure is the correct vehicle for dealing with the problem.

The proposal seems rather akin to a sledgehammer. Will the Minister say why the Bill does not contain a requirement that the duty would be payable only when a vehicle had clearly been abandoned, or left on a public highway or on public land? I am worried about the scope of the provisions. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the Committee that my fears are groundless.

Clause 19 refers to schedule 5 of the Bill, which provides for vehicle excise duty to be charged in respect of vehicles registered under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 that are neither used nor kept on a public road, for vehicle excise duty to be charged in respect of things that have been but have ceased to be mechanically propelled vehicles". Does the phrase "to be charged" necessarily mean that a fee has to be charged? Alternatively, when a particular class of registration under the 1994 Act gives rise to payment of a nil duty, would the clause also give rise to payment of a nil duty? My concern is about historic, classic and veteran vehicles. Not every Member may be aware that such vehicles are classified under a different category.

Most right hon. and hon. Members who travel to this place by car do so in a vehicle that is registered under the class "private light goods". To put that vehicle lawfully on the road, one has to pay an annual fee to obtain one's tax disc. In 1994 or 1995, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was Chancellor of the Exchequer, a new provision was introduced whereby a vehicle that was roadworthy but was more than 25 years old could be classed as "25 year exempt". That category has since been renamed "historic". Owners of vehicles manufactured before 1 January 1973 must still go through the process of producing their insurance documents and MOT certificate for their vehicle to obtain a tax disc, but they do not pay a fee for it.

It used to be the case that as soon as a vehicle became 25 years old, it was entitled to claim exempt status, but the present Chancellor of the Exchequer froze the exemption so that only vehicles manufactured before 1973 can claim historic status. It is not automatic, however: the owner must go through the process of changing the taxation class on the logbook. Will the Minister give us an assurance today&—or if he cannot, will he look at the issue and come back before Report—to make it clear that it is not the Government's intention to use the clause to introduce taxation on historic vehicles that currently pay a nil duty?

The Bill's wording gives me cause for concern. The provisions will catch not only the historic vehicle owned by a member of the public but every vehicle housed in a motor museum or other historic collection. Many of those vehicles are not in working condition. They may look pristine, but in many cases the engine or part of the fuel system has been removed, usually for insurance purposes.

I hope that the Minister is prepared to say that the Bill is not intended to hit those who own, maintain and cherish historic vehicles, and that it will not do so.

Mr. Boateng

We should, I suppose, be grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for giving us the opportunity to debate the clause. However, it is always the way with Liberal Democrats that even as they enable us to share with the wider world the benefits of an action taken by this Government alone to tackle the menace of dumped and abandoned cars, one is struck by the piety, self-satisfaction and smugness that all too often, I am afraid, characterises Liberal Democrat interventions in any debate. I am afraid that this debate is no exception.

I detected something else that all hon. Members who are to serve on the Standing Committee will want to bear in mind. I am thinking particularly of the shadow Chief Secretary, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who will share our many hours of deliberation on these matters. As Liberal Democrat Members share their reflections in Standing Committee, we will find time and again that every word they utter is designed to be replicated at street level in "Focus". The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton gave that impression: I sensed "Focus" coming on. It is therefore only right, to lighten the hours that lie ahead of us, that we should introduce what I would describe as "Focus"-watch. A prize should be initiated for the member of the Standing Committee who is able to identify the most frequently repeated strictures that show a direct link with subsequent publication in "Focus".

Roger Casale

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He has issued the sort of challenge that I find almost irresistible. However, I should tell him that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is genuine in his desire for measures to aid the removal of abandoned cars. His constituency borders mine, and he has visited with me abandoned and dumped cars in New Malden on my side of the border. I have done likewise on his side of the border. I hope that the support that he gives to the measures that we are taking to deal with the problem through the tax system will be replicated when we discuss the other measures that we are taking to make it easier for local authorities and other bodies to work together to remove abandoned carsx2014;an exercise in joined-up government to tackle this pernicious problem in our communities.

Mr. Boateng

Liberal Democrats are often genuine—they have a genuine desire to see their good works replicated in "Focus". I promise to donate to the member of the Standing Committee who identifies the most frequent references for subsequent publication in "Focus" one twentieth of a hectolitre of real ale produced in a micro-brewery of their choice, in any constituency. I fear that I must exempt Liberal Democrat Members from that genuine prize, because that would undermine the whole point of it.

With that challenge, I turn to the substance of the points that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton raised. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) rightly drew attention to the no doubt genuine concern of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—have long been worried about the menace of dumped vehicles. We issued a consultation paper on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman should know, in March this year the summary of responses to that paper was published and placed in the Library. It was entitled, perhaps not surprisingly, "Report on responses to the consultation paper on Abandoned Vehicles 2001–2002".

5.45 pm

The provision must be seen in the context of the wider range of measures for tackling the problem of abandoned vehicles announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on 10 April. They include powers to remove vehicles abandoned on the street anywhere in England after 24 hours, instead of the present seven days; increased opportunities to work with the DVLA to remove unlicensed cars; powers to dispose more quickly of unlicensed vehicles removed under DVLA powers after seven rather than 35 days; and easier tracing and clarification of vehicle ownership through additional funding from the invest to save Budget. That will be seen as a comprehensive response to the menace.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) and the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) that the new measures in no way affect current policy on vehicles that are exempt, for whatever reason, from payment of vehicle excise duty. That includes classic cars manufactured before 1973. The right hon. Gentleman has a distinguished track record as regards his interest in the preservation of historic cars. Keepers of classic cars who want to take their vehicles off the road, thus paying no duty, will continue to be able to do so, provided that they make a statutory off-road notification, as required at present. There is no intention to bring classic cars into taxation. I hope that reassurance sets minds at rest.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs suggested that DVLA systems might not be capable of handling the proposed change. The DVLA makes strenuous efforts to ensure that the information on its vehicle record is as up to date and accurate as possible. However, we are all fallible; there is always the risk of mistakes at the DVLA, as there is in every human institution. Most vehicles are relicensed at post offices and errors might also be made there. We are taking steps, including the piloting of measures such as the use of bar codes on licensing reminder forms, to ensure that the vehicle record can be updated instantly when the vehicle is relicensed.

We have no intention of hitting the honest trader or dealer. If the vehicle is taxed, or if the DVLA has been notified of changed circumstances that mean that tax is no longer due, there is no risk that an offence will be committed. I do not accept the charge that this is a motorist-bashing measure, although, to be fair, I do not think that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs was making that claim.

The measure is certainly not designed to catch people who have genuine reasons for licensing their vehicle a few days late. We are not out to hit the honest motorist, but we believe that the motorist who plays by the rules has everything to gain when those who abuse the system are brought to book. Honest motorists will welcome the reforms. Motorists are citizens, too, and they are affected by that abuse.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs asked what would happen to vehicles currently wrongly recorded, and said that it was unfair to go after the keepers. It is not our intention to act against keepers who have acted in good faith. We shall need to consult with motorists' organisations and others on the best and fairest way to implement clause 19. It is our intention to consult. We shall focus our attention on ensuring that vehicles that are correctly recorded do not become incorrectly recorded.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked about issuing receipts; that suggestion could certainly be considered as part of our further consultation. I repeat that we recognise the need to protect the keeper who acts in good faith.

Mr. Flight

In addition to vintage cars, I raised the issue of cars that are used on farms. May I also ask what would be the position of firms whose business is dealing in second-hand cars? I understand that, under the measures, in future they would need to pay VED while such cars were on their forecourt pending sale.

Mr. Boateng

I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman on the latter issue. I believe that in his speech he referred to vehicles that have lived on farms all their lives, which raised the spectre of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I am sure that, with this measure, it is not our intention to bring into the arena those vehicles that were previously outside it, but we must ensure that we have an effective regime, whose integrity is respected. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on those points to ensure that we get things absolutely right.

Bearing in mind our intention to ensure that we get the clause right and to consult with the motoring organisations and others on the detail of its implementation, I am sure that, on reflection, hon. Members will find that it has much to commend it. Before finalising the details of the system and bringing it into effect, we will consult on the implementation of a supplementary penalty for late renewal or non-renewal, and the levels of that penalty. Those will be subject to affirmative resolution, and the House will have an opportunity to debate them in due course.

We are adding this measure to the series of practical measures that are being taken to address a menace that, we have all agreed, can be the bane of our constituents' lives. It degrades the quality of life in all too many communities and is a spur to crime, including arson and vandalism. Action in this area is long overdue and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Mr. Davey

I am grateful for the Financial Secretary's reply, which has reassured me on many points. I am glad to hear that he is consulting. When he and his colleagues and officials consult, will they particularly look at retrospection, which he was not able to deal with in his reply?

Will the Financial Secretary deal with another issue? I have been told by people in the AA that it is an increasing practice for people to register vehicles at an address that they do not live at. The solution is not legislative change but tighter practices governing registration at post offices or by post to the DVLA to ensure that identity is checked more rigorously. I hope that the Financial Secretary will ensure that that point is also covered in the consultation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Forward to