HL Deb 15 October 1991 vol 531 cc1000-2

3.6 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking further steps to reduce thefts of motor vehicles and the consequent danger to the public.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Home Secretary recently announced the Government's intention to bring forward proposals to strengthen the law against taking vehicles when the offence is aggravated by damage or dangerous driving. Car manufacturers also have an important role to play in this area. The Home Secretary met leading car manufacturers in September to discuss the further measures that should be taken to improve car security and he plans to meet with them again in December.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. I welcome the proposal to increase penalties for the public menace of uninsured joyriding. Will the Government take into account the use of stolen cars to ram shop fronts in smash and grab raids? Will the Government also continue to press car manufacturers to make it less easy to break into motor cars?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the terms of the new offences will be drafted and published in due course. All those considerations will be taken into account. With regard to manufacturers, the British standard on vehicle security is voluntary. It is prohibited under EC law for any member state to set a stricter requirement than is laid down in the existing EC directive on vehicle security. My right honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. Patten, wrote to the interior ministers of the EC in July requesting their support in introducing legislation which would strengthen this.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the noble Viscount mentioned that car manufacturers are going to deal with the situation in new cars. There are millions of new cars on the roads today. Therefore, would it not be a good idea if manufacturers could give owners some tips as to how to make their car ignitions safer than by just pulling out the wires as is done at the present moment?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, there are various devices which car owners can buy that will help. For example, steering wheel locks. It is important that all car owners should ensure that they park securely and lock their cars when leaving them. Many cars are left unlocked. Owners should also take all valuables with them, or lock them out of sight in the boot. They can also fit an alarm, have the car security coded and have a removable radio. Those steps will help in all areas.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that regardless of any changes in the law, one of the biggest problems in this area is the failure of many courts to regard this activity as anything other than a childish prank?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, as I have already said, the Government intend to strengthen the law. One of the problems has been that for evidential reasons it has been difficult to sustain a charge of reckless driving or criminal damage in addition to one of taking a vehicle without the owner's consent. The purpose of the new offences combine these aggravated elements with taking a vehicle without the owner's consent. The new offence of aggravated criminal taking will carry obligatory disqualification. That means that the court will have to ban the offender and will be able to impose the ban and ensure that the offender will not be able to drive. If it is a young offender, then the ban will be effective even when he is old enough to have a licence.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, would not a profitable move be to encourage the insurance companies to place prohibitive premiums on cars that are not fitted with anti-theft devices and to void claims involving an unlocked car? People do things because of financial sticks or carrots. There should be a loaded premium for a car without an anti-theft device and an unloaded premium for a car with one.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. When the Home Secretary met the Association of British Insurers in September it reported that this month it intended to double the number of insurance ratings from nine to 20 and in doing so for the first time take account of factory fitted security measures in assessing insurance groupings. The Home Secretary also asked the Association of British Insurers to consider whether there was still more scope for offering discounts to car owners who fitted effective security devices.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, can the noble Viscount say whether in his opinion audible car alarm systems which waken the neighbours at all times of the night are effective in deterring car thieves? Would not effective silent systems which serve the purpose of crime prevention but at the same time do not awaken everyone in the neighbourhood be preferable?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Department of the Environment set up a noise review working party which reported in 1990. The working party's report recommended among other things that the maximum legal sounding time of car alarms should be reduced from five minutes to 30 seconds. Draft regulations giving effect to the working party's recommendations were prepared earlier this year and were the subject of formal consultation during the summer. The Government are currently considering the responses of interested parties.

Lord Richard

My Lords, the Minister has told the House that he is seeking some kind of European action on this matter. Do I take it from that that his discussions with the car manufacturers have proved to be abortive and that they are not prepared voluntarily to take the action that the Government think necessary to try to make new cars safer? If that is so, does the Minister agree that that is a most disappointing and disturbing state of affairs? How far is he getting with his European colleagues in trying to agree a directive?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is up to car manufacturers to decide whether they wish to incorporate all the measures into the manufacture of their new cars. We are discussing various measures such as central locking and deadlocking. There are many different ways of helping to secure a car. The British standard is voluntary. There is no point in our going down that road unless we get some more support from Europe. My right honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. John Patten, has written to this effect. We have had positive replies from Ministers in Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Denmark, and we await further replies.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, the Government increase the number of offences and increase the penalties for such offences but at the same time they make it increasingly difficult for magistrates to impose such penalties. Most of the time youngsters are given warnings. It is no use increasing the penalties unless the magistrates are allowed to impose them.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. It will certainly be taken into account in looking at the new law.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, will the noble Viscount try to dissuade the press, the media and everyone else from using the term "joyrider" —a term which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has used today? The term has a romantic sound about it. We should call these people what they are—car thieves.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. We deplore the violence that has been caused and we have the deepest sympathy for the victims of these abhorrent crimes.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, arising out of the question on joining up with Europe, what can Europe do that we cannot do ourselves if we feel inclined to do it?

Viscount Astor

Agree an EC directive, my Lords.