HL Deb 16 February 1994 vol 552 cc240-70

5.31 p.m

Lord Brougham and Vaux rose to call attention to the increase in vehicle thefts and related crimes; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of my remarks in this debate, which I believe to be the first of its kind, is to consider what part we in this House can play in reducing vehicle crime in the United Kingdom.

I must declare an interest in that I have served as chairman of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance since its formation in June 1992. The aim of the alliance is, put simply, to seek a reduction of vehicle crime in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The alliance (ESVA) has two related components: first, a registered parliamentary group which enjoys the support of Members of all parties in both Houses, and, secondly, a network which includes manufacturers, insurers, motoring associations, component suppliers, police, the probation service and several other organisations which aim by their combined efforts to reach a shared goal of significantly reducing vehicle crime.

I have had the privilege of meeting Ministers from the Home Office, the Department of Transport, and the Department for Education over the past 18 months and I am encouraged by their interest and support. Furthermore, all those departments, together with the Department of Trade and Industry, have been shown a draft of my speech to encourage input and support in combating this problem.

Although our remit includes road vehicles and we have an awareness of closely related problems associated with the construction and plant industry, I propose to concentrate today on theft of cars.

The situation is very serious: reported crime for the 12 months to June 1993 indicates that vehicle crime, at 28 per cent, is the most reported offence in England and Wales. In round numbers-1 million offences of theft from cars and 600,000 thefts of cars were reported, and the insurance industry paid out over £ 700 million in vehicle crime claims. Actual theft from cars is probably closer to 2.5 million offences per year rather than the reported 1 million and is clearly a serious problem which will be raised later in this debate.

The gravity of the car theft problem in England and Wales is well illustrated by the following two points. First, I refer to the key findings from two recent international crime surveys compiled by two researchers from the Dutch Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. This research, conducted in 20 countries across the world, reveals that England and Wales have the worst record for theft of cars. Furthermore, there is no other crime where we compare so unfavourably. Secondly, professional, as opposed to unplanned, theft of cars is growing rapidly. The Metropolitan Police reported that 36 per cent. of cars stolen in England and Wales in 1991 were not recovered. That indicates a professional crime where the vehicle's identity is changed, it is broken down for parts or it is shipped out of the country. The Metropolitan Police now report that in London over 50 per cent. of cars are not recovered and that vehicle crime is clearly becoming more and more organised.

How and why England and Wales have reached this unhappy state is unknown. It should be noted that theft of vehicles in Northern Ireland, and especially Scotland, appears to be less of a problem. A key point, to which I shall return, is that our information systems are inadequate and deny us all the opportunity to study and correct this situation.

Let us consider what is being and can be done. The Home Office declared 1992 as "Car Crime Prevention Year" and I consider that it has made solid progress. Its campaign slogan, "Car Crime— Together— We Can Crack It", has been taken up by motorists, manufacturers, insurers and police. While that attitude is developing in our communities, I would like to explore how the same winning strategy can be developed within government and its various departments.

When we think of cars, I suggest that we all turn first towards the Department of Transport. The MoT test is currently under review, primarily to review its overall integrity, but I would urge the department to be mindful of the opportunities to incorporate significant vehicle theft detection and prevention initiatives while conducting this review.

The House is probably aware that a car's registration mark (commonly known as the number plate) is not the "identifying or distinctive mark" of a car. There is a unique vehicle identification number (VIN number) which is stamped into the vehicle's chassis. It is also carried on the VIN plate located under the bonnet, and in new cars may also be present, and visible through the windscreen, on the nearside of the dashboard. This number— and, incidentally, the engine serial number — is recorded on the vehicle registration document (more commonly known as the log book).

We propose that all this information is checked at every MoT inspection to ensure that the car is what it is said to be. This would discourage the practice of vehicle ringing. For those of my noble friends who are unfamiliar with the expression "ringing", I should explain that the term was originally used in connection with the antecedent of the car; namely, the horse. A "ringer" was a racehorse that raced under the false identity of a poorer performing animal and won at long odds. In vehicle crime, the criminal normally obtains a badly damaged vehicle, then steals a similar car in good condition and transfers the vehicle identification details from the damaged to the stolen car. The stolen car will then be sold with little risk of detection and is also called a "ringer".

It could be said that it is an imposition to ask motorists to present their vehicle log book when applying for an MoT certificate, but it would also represent a small contribution by every motorist to combating vehicle crime. I would also encourage the Department of Transport in its efforts to tighten up on administrative procedures associated with the MoT to reduce inspection incompetence and outright fraud. The development of a national computer base recording all MoT checks, together with mileage information, would have a dramatic effect on organised crime while also enhancing the quality and perception of the MoT system.

Another review currently being undertaken by the Department of Transport concerns the format and efficacy of the driving test. While this may not at first sight have much relevance to the reduction of vehicle crime, I would suggest that it may well have the greatest potential in enhancing the attitudes of young adults both towards driving safely and towards the avoidance of vehicle crime.

Over 50 per cent. of applications and passes of the current system are achieved by 17 year-olds— and yet no reference whatsoever of this important landmark in a young adult's maturation has ever featured in a debate about the curriculum for 12 to 16 year-olds. The Green Cross Code and cycling awareness schemes feature in the education of our 5– 12 year-old children, but then there is a great void.

I urge the Departments of Transport and Education to work together to see how best they can both reduce vehicle accidents and vehicle crime among young adults, by using as a catalyst for some fresh thinking the proposed changes in the format of the driving test, which were outlined last week. I suggest that we can travel an extra mile in our efforts to meet our objectives of reducing both accidents and vehicle crime.

The House is probably not aware of the fact that over one-third of known vehicle crime offenders are aged 16 or under. Furthermore, no other crime is reported as exhibiting such a high proportion of such young offenders.

This evidence alone suggests that we must aim to build a formal dialogue with all 12– 16 year-olds as to their attitudes to vehicles. A successful attitude to driving, and indeed to life itself, should start to be formed not at 16 years, as suggested last week, but at a much earlier age. Furthermore, our road safety officers across the whole nation, and many other experts in both road safety and crime prevention, are anxious to increase their effectiveness in influencing this vital 12— 16 year-old age group.

It is also clearly going to be a challenge to produce relevant teaching material for young adults. I have read reports of sophisticated video games playing a part in teaching hazard perception. I suggest that we issue a much greater challenge; the development of vehicle simulators which can play a part in the training of all drivers. Teaching methods that are used for today's pilots should be employed to train tomorrow's motorists.

While we are addressing young offenders, I feel that I should also bring to my noble friend's attention some vehicle crime analysis recently completed by Northumbria Probation Service, which works at the forefront in combating vehicle crime. The issue of driving while disqualified (including also driving without insurance) is such that the case load as a result of this offence has increased by a factor of four in the past three years and is now matching the case load for vehicle theft itself.

The downward spiral associated with crime is clearly in evidence and will need to be addressed. The consequences of vehicle crime, and indeed of unsafe driving, must be clearly established in the minds of young people.

The Department of Trade and Industry is also included in this vision of government departments working in partnership — especially as it is the lead department for the motor industry. Programmes are already in place to explore vehicle recycling; the "cradle to grave" approach for the motor car. A significant degree of vehicle crime arises as a result of poor practice associated with vehicle salvage. There is currently no firm requirement for any party to record the "end of life of a vehicle". As a nation we operate an asset register for vehicles with no requirement to remove spent assets. However, the DVLA, which also has a vital role to play in the reduction of vehicle crime, is to be congratulated upon working with the industry in launching a trial "certificate of destruction" initiative. There will be significant benefits to both the environment and vehicle crime reduction if vehicle recycling is approached with both goals firmly in view.

Finally, perhaps I may address some observations to the Home Office. Our studies of successful vehicle crime prevention campaigns around the world— and it has to be said that there are not very many, as it is a most challenging issue — have one common strand: sound management data which illustrate the problem and allow one to measure the outcome of any intervention. As I mentioned earlier, currently we have no capacity within the UK to access the type of information necessary to allow any organisation or group of organisations to make a measured contribution to combating vehicle crime. I am, however, aware of the plans, which were announced in the most general outline last week, for the formation of the National Stolen Vehicle Intelligence Bureau.

It is vital that this information is made available as quickly as possible and I also suggest that such an initiative is undertaken jointly by a number of interested parties and not left to reside under public sector control. The need is great and I understand that private companies already have the capacity to deliver most of, if not all, the necessary information today.

In conclusion, there is unquestionably a need to protect the integrity of markings stamped by manufacturers on to vehicles and their components. Information systems will play a major part in reducing vehicle crime but will depend on the quality of information on record. This information will be based largely on vehicle manufacturer markings and it is vital that these markings are protected. The current situation is that it is permissible for such markings to be erased and not an offence to trade in vehicles or components where markings have been erased or tampered with in some way. While I am not an expert in the drafting of law, I do feel strongly that a small step of the kind needed to protect the markings, implemented effectively, will greatly encourage the manufacturers, the insurers, the police and indeed all those associated with the challenge of reducing vehicle crime.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have put their names down to speak. I and many other people will read this debate with great interest. I beg to move for Papers.

5.46 p.m

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux for having chosen this subject for debate today. It is an increasing and widespread problem. Home Office statistics for 1992, the latest available figures, show that nearly 600,000 cars were stolen and that more than 950,000 were reported as being broken into and having property stolen from them.

If my experience is anything to go by, the figure for the number of cars broken into is on the low side. I am afraid to say that I have been a victim three times during the past six months. On the first occasion, sadly, my golf clubs were stolen from the back of my car. There is an expression of horror on noble Lords' faces, but it was most serious. I reported the matter to the police, who were most attentive. They came round, did their best and made all the right kind of noises. Unfortunately, my clubs were never recovered, but the theft was recorded.

On the second occasion my spare wheel was stolen from underneath my car, which was perhaps even more irritating. The theft was committed in broad daylight in a London street. Naturally, I telephoned the police, who said that if I wanted to report the matter I should go to the station. They said that there did not seem a lot of point, however, because a great deal of that went on and there was not much that they could do about it. From the point of view of insurance, it was not worth my while to report the theft and therefore I did not go to the station

On the third occasion a rear window was broken but fortunately nothing was taken from the car. On that occasion it was not worth reporting the matter. I dare say that other noble Lords have had similar experiences, but if mine is anything to go by, two out of three incidents go unreported.

My noble friend's Motion covers three areas of crime. The first is theft from cars such as I have described. In recent years manufacturers have done a great deal to improve security. They have provided better locks, coded radio cassette players with removable fronts and so forth and, I am glad to say, spare wheels that are less easy to remove. After buying a car only recently, it is slightly irritating to learn that there is now a better part for this.

The motorist has two parts to play. First, it is amazing how many people neglect to lock their cars when they leave them. If they locked their cars, the incidence of theft and stolen cars would decrease considerably. I suppose I should declare an interest. I am a member of the RAC Public Policy Committee and I commend the document which the RAC has produced called Car Crime: How To Avoid It. It gives useful tips for those who wish to avoid these unpleasant experiences.

I also believe that motorists can help themselves by not buying things like radios or spare wheels which they know or suspect may have been stolen. That may well be a pious hope — I suspect it is— but for everything stolen there is presumably a buyer somewhere. If people were a little more careful about what they bought, maybe there would be less incentive for others to steal.

A second main area of anxiety, which is much more serious, is the taking of cars without the consent of the owner, so-called joy riding, or for other criminal purposes. It accounts for some two-thirds of car thefts and, as we know, may have the most horrific results which are all too frequently reported in the newspapers. The Government have recently taken steps and powers to deal with that and one hopes that they will have an effect. I should like to see penalties go even further, with consideration being given to banning young offenders from driving for a long time, perhaps to the age of 30. That would be a serious disincentive to youngsters from indulging in that type of joy riding.

The third main area, which accounts for the other one-third of car thefts, is the more traditional taking away of cars which then have their identities changed and are sold on to unsuspecting or uncaring new owners, increasingly, I believe, abroad. Here there are two measures which the Government and manufacturers could consider taking together to help combat the problem. My noble friend Lord Brougham has already mentioned vehicle identification numbers. Following manufacture, all vehicles are issued with a unique vehicle identification number prior to sale. That number is recorded both by the manufacturer and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The DVLA record contains other relevant details of the vehicle and the keeper and can be accessed by police officers. As such, it provides a valuable means of detecting stolen or incorrectly registered vehicles.

However, vehicle identification numbers are not easily visible. In most cars they are located on a plate fixed in the engine compartment or are stamped into the floor adjacent to the driver's seat. Neither location can be seen from outside the car and both sorts of vehicle identification numbers can and are tampered with by thieves. A visible number etched into the left-hand side of the facia would provide an added deterrent to criminals. It would allow a further critically important check to be made by police seeking to verify the bona fides of the car. It would also have other implications, not only for the detection of car crime but for other criminal use of cars.

I understand that a number of manufacturers are considering the provision of visible numbers. Government encouragement, or the enactment of regulations accompanied by a criminal offence of unlawfully and without reasonable excuse removing, defacing or altering a vehicle identification number, would undoubtedly meet with a positive response from the motoring public.

The other issue is vehicle registration. Of the almost 200,000 vehicles which disappear each year, a substantial number are given a new and false identity and sold on to unsuspecting or uncaring buyers, either in the UK or abroad. An essential step in the process is a ready supply of vehicle registration documents, which we used to know as log books. Many vehicle registration documents are acquired with scrapped vehicles; that is, vehicles which have been damaged beyond economic repair or, in other words, write-offs. While many such vehicles are legitimately transferred, professional thieves can use registration documents to legitimate stolen or rebuilt cars of the same model.

Incidentally, my suggestion would also help with the problem of insurance write-offs which I know was raised only a short while ago at Question Time by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. The practice could be reduced if the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency would de-register a vehicle upon being notified by police and insurers that it was considered a total loss. Any subsequent attempt to use the original registration mark would be detected by inquiry of the DVLA files. A rebuilt vehicle previously notified as a total loss would only be re-registered once inspected and pronounced roadworthy. The inspection could be undertaken by the vehicle inspectorate at the owner's expense or by an approved agency such as a motoring organisation.

Those are two avenues for possible action to combat the growing problem. I commend them to the Government and to motor manufacturers in their appropriate place. However, I should not like to conclude my speech without paying tribute to what the Government, the police and the manufacturers are at present trying to do to tackle the problem. My noble friend referred to the initiative between the Home Office and the vehicle manufacturers to improve safety and security of vehicles. That is important and should be given encouragement. The police forces that have set up stolen vehicle squads— perhaps the best known one is the Metropolitan Police— should also be given every encouragement in their efforts.

This is a serious problem which my noble friend has identified in this afternoon's debate. I hope that we shall all benefit from the suggestions which have been made.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, for introducing the debate in such a positive way. I hope that the Government will listen to and read the noble Lord's remarks, take them very much to heart and act on them.

Noble Lords will appreciate that I shall take a slightly different tack. It would not be useful if everyone said the same in the debate so my remarks will be slightly differently angled from the opening remarks so far. This afternoon I wish to talk about crimes related to the subject on the Order Paper and look at some of the causes and suggest actions which might be taken to tackle the causes of the crimes.

I wish to give a list of the crimes. Stealing motor cars, driving without tax, without insurance and without MoT are crimes which are horrendously prevalent, as we have heard. But what is the social impact of those crimes? At one end we can see, particularly, enormous numbers of young men locked up in police cells or prison because they have engaged in the crimes. It is even more serious than that. In Manchester recently, a murder was committed which, we understand, was associated with dealing in MoT certificates. When we realise that that can be the result of such crimes, we must understand and recognise the serious nature of the problem.

To touch on the causes, what has happened over the past few years to make this country almost the car crime country of the world? On the one side, we must recognise that motor cars are an accoutrement of modern living. Young men in particular aspire to own and run motor cars. That is compounded by the lack and cost of public transport. Quite often, the only way to get about is to have a motor car or access to one. However, on the other side is the fact that far too many of our young people are, effectively, part of the underclass which is becoming so recognisable now as a feature of our society. They are young people who do not have a job or who have very poorly paid jobs. They do not necessarily have the resources to buy, maintain, tax and insure motor cars. Yet the pressures of society are on them to do so.

In those circumstances, what can society do about the situation? We should, first, do something about the general problem of the underclass— that is, the under-privileged part of our community— by reducing unemployment and increasing low wages. Moreover, we could reduce the cost of legitimate car ownership for people of limited means. For example, we could consider doing away with the vehicle excise duty, the road tax. There is no reason why the revenue that is raised therefrom should not be raised by an increase in the price of petrol. That would save the motor car owner having to find a chunk of money each year. I accept that for most Members of your Lordships' House, the £ 100 or so that is required every year is almost a flea bite; it is not very significant. However, for someone who is living on unemployment benefit or income support it is an enormous chunk of money to find.

Further, we could encourage car manufacturers to produce low cost, low-powered cars. I say "low-powered" particularly because that would perhaps prevent some of the horrendous accidents that happen with young drivers who drive high-powered cars and who, because of their lack of driving experience, end up either killing them selves or other people or seriously maiming themselves or others.

We could also look at the prospect of reducing the cost of the MoT certificate. I take on board the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, about getting more information into the MoT process as a mechanism to counteract theft of motor vehicles and having things like the vehicle identification number recorded by the DVLA.

Similarly, we could look at the encouragement of low cost insurance for young, impecunious car drivers. That could be associated with the low cost, low-powered cars which it is to be hoped motor manufacturers could produce. Alternatively, we could invest significantly in public transport. Over the past few years, we have seen an effective reduction in such investment. Following deregulation, bus transport systems are far too expensive and, indeed, are just not available in large areas. That forces people to need to run and own motor cars— and, usually, they are the poorest people in our society. We put tremendous pressures upon them.

Another area that we could investigate is the provision of car parking and garage facilities, especially for council tenants. It is interesting to note that the council estates which were extensively built both before and after the war, and up until the 1960s, made no provision for the ownership of motor cars. The net result is that those people in such estates who have acquired motor cars end up harking them on the road or even around the corner from where they live. Such vehicles are ready targets for crime associated with motor cars. If there was some government support for the provision of drive-ins and garages so that people would have somewhere to put their cars, that might help reduce the incidence of the kind of crimes about which we are talking.

I have attempted to try to pitch my remarks in the debate at a slightly different angle from other speakers. I hope that the Government will take note of my remarks and that they will act upon them.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I was quite sure about how I was going to start my contribution to this evening's interesting debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux until the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, started to speak. I cannot let his remarks go unchallenged. He said that we must look at the problem against the background of being the country with the most car crime in the world. Well, the noble Lord is wrong; it is not the biggest car crime country in the world. The noble Lord then went on to elaborate on a number of reasons for the situation.

The noble Lord started by talking about the cost of transport and an underclass. He said that we should, somehow or other, make motor cars cheaper to buy, to tax, to insure and to run. Whether or not you can afford to buy, tax or insure a car is totally irrelevant to the stealing from motor vehicles and the stealing of them; and, indeed, the use of a stolen vehicle for another crime. Damn it! Some of the best thieves of motor cars, art, furniture, property and shares are not an underclass by any manner of means.

The noble Lord also said that we must reduce the costs associated with motor cars— for example, the VED, the price of petrol and the £ 100, or so, licence fee. He said that we must also produce low-cost, low-powered cars. However, it is the market-place that demands what the manufacturer makes in terms of motor cycles, pedal cycles or motor cars. I cannot afford to buy a Rolls Royce; indeed, I do not think I could afford to rent one for a day. Therefore, am 1 a member of an underclass? I have bought a motor car which suits my circumstances. There was a day not so many years ago when I could not even afford that and had to rely on what else was available.

The noble Lord is not living in the real world when he talks about the reduction in such costs. Who is going to pay— the taxpayer? The noble Lord? It is a market situation. If you are a thief you are a thief. The circumstances of your background do not excuse your offence. I will not hear from the noble Lord opposite excuses couched in such social terms. I see that the noble Lord wishes to respond. I give way.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I am most grateful. I hope that I did not give the impression that I was making excuses. I was trying to tackle the causes of crime. I believe that to be most important. If we do not tackle the causes, we shall get nowhere in resolving the problem.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving that explanation of his speech. I placed a slightly different interpretation on it. This is a timed debate and therefore I must move on. Originally I wished to begin by congratulating the Government. Frequently we read in the press that the Government do not care about the matters that are the subject of my noble friend's Motion. In 1988 the Government set up the police research group of the Crime Prevention Unit within the Home Office police department. In June 1992 Mr. George Houghton produced an interesting paper entitled The Car Theft Index. The paper dealt with the matter of stolen vehicles.

The police research group has pulled together various pieces of information from the Association of British Insurers, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, motoring organisations and other interested groups, and compiled a single document. I hope the police department will continue with this piece of work. This interesting document raises a number of points. It is interesting to note that it is the older cars registered in 1978 and 1979 that are two-and-a-half times more likely to be stolen than modern cars. That indicates to me that cars produced since 1988 and 1989 incorporate more safety and security features than do older cars.

Some noble Lords and others outside your Lordships' Chamber may accuse the motor industry of being a little laggardly in meeting security requirements. Motor car security has become more and more important and in recent years the motor industry has responded to this need. Some 90 per cent. of motor cars produced today contain enhanced security devices. Nearly all of them have electronic central locking, deadlocks and other such features. All these devices aim to make the stealing and removal of a motor car more difficult.

I do not disagree with the remarks of either of my noble friends as regards vehicle identification numbers. I suggest that they are helpful after a vehicle has been recovered. However, I believe we should aim to prevent a car being taken away in the first place whether it is being stolen to order, for fun, to enable someone to get home because he has missed the last bus, to be broken up for spare parts, or to be sold abroad. If we could prevent cars from being taken away by improved vehicle security through the use of immobilisers or other such devices— in another three or four years no car will be produced that does not contain such security devices — car theft would be greatly reduced.

As my noble friend Lord Brabazon of Tara said, it is the car owner's responsibility to lock his car. However, there are measures that the Government can take to alleviate this problem. The Royal Automobile Club has suggested time and time again that public car parks should be brought into the domain of consumer legislation. Many motor cars, parts from motor cars and objects from motor cars are stolen in public car parks. The Government should introduce a simple piece of legislation imposing certain duties on car park owners. That would involve higher car park charges— I am afraid that that would not please the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell— but it would lead to a net reduction in the incidence of theft of motor cars and theft from motor cars which would result in lower costs for the state, insurance companies and, ultimately, for us as users.

I also wish to refer to the other aspect of the Motion; namely, associated crime such as ram-raiding and physical assault. I understand that the RAC has gone to the assistance of some 44,000 motorists, many of whom were ladies, who were afraid that they were being followed. We hear of cars being used in the furtherance of post office robberies or other such crimes. I believe it is in that area that we can legitimately call upon my noble friend the Minister to assess what the Government can do to make it more difficult for people to commit these crimes. Further, when people are apprehended for committing these crimes, we should ensure that the penalty fits the crime.

Incidentally, my own car was stolen some three years ago. That car has been stolen twice in the past two years. The thieves were apprehended in the car. They had smashed it into a shop window. They failed to appear in court. An order was made for their arrest, but, as I understand it, nothing has happened since. My noble friend Lord Brabazon suggested there should be a disqualification from driving for perhaps 30 years for certain offences. I am sure that my noble friend was trying to ensure that the penalty fitted the crime when he made that suggestion.

I wonder whether the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes the job it has to do with as much energy as it should devote to that task. I also wonder whether magistrates use all the powers which are at their disposal in this area. I believe that these matters give far greater cause for worry than the smashing of car windscreens or the removal of vehicles which will diminish as modern technology advances.

6.17 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux for bringing this matter before us for debate. It always seems to me that any discussion concerning cars is emotive and in a strange way encourages the participants to show their often surprisingly heated and strong feelings.

I understand that in the boardroom or at partners' meetings any agenda item relating to cars— who should have what type of car, and why— leads to long and boring discussion and can constitute the lengthiest item on the agenda. I fully understand that people consider owning a car to be an important matter but arguments rage about the type of car that is accorded to someone according to his status. I believe that over the years practically everyone has acquired the expectation of owning a car. After a house, a car is probably the most expensive item we ever purchase. Two-car families are becoming increasingly common and often families who have three grown-up children will have five cars sitting outside the house. That can be a source of temptation to those criminally minded individuals who view the theft of vehicles, or of articles inside them, as an easy route to financial gain. Most houses were built before the demand for multi-garages was apparent. Today, with the high cost of land, it is inconceivable that people will ever be able to keep their cars in secure accommodation, as they would any other item of comparable value in their possession.

As a magistrate I hear many cases relating to car crime. I believe that car-related crime accounts for over a quarter of all crime. The statistics show that 10 per cent. of all cars are broken into each year. However, the statistic that always shatters me the most is that 70 per cent. of all car crimes are believed to fund the culprits' drug addiction.

Of the annual total of one and a half million car crimes, nearly one million relate to theft from vehicles, the remainder being the theft of the vehicle itself. That figure has increased dramatically over the years but so, of course, have the number of vehicles on the road. The better news is that the increase appears to be slowing down and the numbers fell in some areas last year. It therefore seems to me that, if we are unable to keep cars in secure conditions, then we must concentrate on another approach.

I applaud the Government's initiative in helping the police to catch the criminals and, when that is done, dealing with the culprits quickly, and also in ensuring that the courts have the necessary powers for effective sentencing. Perhaps the most important initiative is one with which we can all become involved in partnership, by improving methods of crime prevention.

As we have heard from my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth, those of us who are fortunate enough to have bought a new car in the past few years have marvelled at the new technology which is included in the purchase price. Alarms, deadlocks and immobilisers are frequently installed. However, the majority of cars on the road are older models and it seems to me that discounts on insurance premiums should be allowed for those who actively take preventive measures. That would be a gesture which would be welcomed and, I believe, cost-effective.

As a woman I particularly welcome the new Secured Car Parks scheme. That voluntary scheme makes awards to those car parks which give security a high priority by the use of such measures as closed circuit TV, improved lighting and better layout. I am convinced that initiatives will develop as technology itself develops. Sadly, criminals always try to be one jump ahead, but I am sure that, although this problem has been an escalating one, we shall see a decline as the culprits find that it is not so easy to break into vehicles and get away before the loss has been detected.

There is as much scope for tackling vehicle crime as any other crime, and technology will obviously be a great aid in the fight. But I feel most strongly that the real battle will only be won by a partnership of manufacturers, insurers, the police and, of paramount importance, the public.

I end by thanking my noble friend for initiating this debate, which in itself helps to give the issue a higher profile.

6.22 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Brougham for initiating this important debate tonight. I must also compliment him on having the initiative, with Barry Sheerman from the other place, to set up the European Secure Vehicle Alliance two years ago. In that short time it has forced many organisations to attach much greater priority to reducing vehicle crime. I was happy to be one of the initial parliamentary members.

I should like to concentrate tonight on the importance and success of the police and private industry in co-operating together to fight vehicle crime. One police force which has offered a remarkably successful example is Northumbria. Until 1991, Newcastle, and Tyne and Wear in general, had a car theft rate triple the United Kingdom average. The growth of car crime was matched only by the proliferation of security devices. Insurers, the police and the Government struggled to keep up as there was a lack of any universal standard against which to measure products. The Northumbria Police conceived the idea of evaluating and advising the public on security products and they turned the tide of vehicle crime in their area with PACT (Partnership Against Car Theft), which maintains and updates a register of vehicle security equipment. Only those members who fit effective products and systems are included, and they each pay an annual subscription of £ 100. Launched in 1992, the scheme has now merged with Essex Police's Sold Secure Scheme and is in partnership with the Retail Motor Industry Federation, the Master Locksmiths Association and the Car Radio Industry Association. It is supported technically by the Home Office, the police scientific development branch and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has decided to support the initiative on a national basis. All police forces in England, Wales and Scotland will be covered by the scheme by the end of this year.

Products are tested to an exacting specification and must withstand attack by various means for five minutes. Products meeting the PACT requirements are placed on a computerised database, but 80 per cent. of those submitted for testing fail. As a result of the scheme, Northumbria has already seen vehicle crime fall dramatically. In 1990 thefts of motor vehicles increased by 30 per cent. but in 1992 they were down 5 per cent. and they fell again last year. Thefts from motor vehicles have also been reduced dramatically.

The police and the insurance industry are successfully coming together to find common ground. That is hardly surprising as Norwich Union reckons that the average car theft costs the victim £ 1,700 in lost no claims discount, excess and hire car payments. Even the average policy holder who has never made a claim has seen the cost of premiums double since 1989 to cover other clients' losses.

With police encouragement, insurance companies are offering 25 per cent. reductions to owners who fit an officially approved (for instance, by PACT) alarm or immobiliser. On the other hand, new customers may be refused insurance until they fit one of those devices. Immobilisers are a successful response to car crime and, so far, have the crooks beaten. Because they take hours in a workshop to remove, thieves are put off. German insurers are already placing pressure on manufacturers to fit immobilisers, and that will have a knock-on effect on cars sold across Europe.

The Stolen Vehicle Tracking System (Tracker) has received some publicity recently for its success in helping police track down stolen cars quickly, leading to several arrests. The opportunity provided by the Tracker system to attack car crime was recognised by the police in England, Wales and Scotland. In 1992 they agreed to support the implementation of the system throughout Great Britain. That is the first occasion on which all 51 police forces have agreed to work together with a commercial enterprise to tackle a major social problem.

The Metropolitan Police are working closely with manufacturers on the fitting to all models at the production stage of effective deadlocking to prevent entry to vehicles. What Car? magazine's security experts were dismayed to find lamentably old-fashioned locks on three of the latest "hot hatches" they tested last month. That is obviously not good enough, but manufacturers are now getting the message.

The Metropolitan Police are also co-operating with manufacturers on the increased safeguarding of the VIN, to which my noble friend Lord Brougham has already referred. Partnerships such as these are vital for the future if vehicle crime is to be reduced.

6.28 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, mentioned in his opening remarks, against a background of vehicle crime in 1992 accounting for almost 30 per cent. of all reported crime and the fact that every two minutes a vehicle is stolen and every minute a car is broken into in the United Kingdom, today's debate focuses on one of Britain's major social problems. I am delighted that the noble Lord has brought this subject to your Lordships' attention this evening.

I have a similar tale to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon. Since I moved to London some eight years ago from South Africa, where they have an equally major problem of car crime, I have on several occasions had my motor car, my scooter and two of my bicycles stolen and my house burgled. I have often asked myself, "What have I done to deserve this?" Many disturbing figures have been mentioned this evening, in addition to the measures that the Government and the police have taken over the years to combat car crime. In my brief contribution to this evening's debate I wish to focus on the measures which are being taken and which will be taken in the future constructively to counter car crime.

Given the magnitude of the problem, it appears that, despite the consistent efforts of the police to tackle car crime, their actions have been largely reactive. Although statutes such as the Theft Act 1968, and more recently the Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Act of 1992, have laid down the framework for punitive measures against car thieves— more specifically, joy riders and dangerous driving causing injury and damage — the approach to tackling the problem must surely be prevention rather than cure. Certainly the fitting of car alarms, immobilisers, crook-locks, radio safeguards and wheel clamps have assisted in the fight against car theft. But countering all this has been the emergence of scanner and grabber devices which can home in on radio controlled car alarms and central locking systems and unscramble the codes and even unlock the vehicles. I understand that these devices can be legally purchased.

In researching for this evening's debate I also came across the Tracker system which has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. This can be installed in motor cars and provide an extremely simple but effective method of recovering stolen vehicles. With the link-up between the motorists' tracker units and the police tracking computers, since their launch in September last year there have been, as the noble Viscount mentioned, a number of major successes in recovering stolen cars. I understand that in the United States some 94 per cent. of all cars fitted with this device are located within two hours of the alarm being raised.

In a Written Answer in another place on the 4th November last year, the Minister confirmed that the Home Office and the police had for some time been encouraging manufacturers to include visible vehicle identification on all cars to improve vehicle security. It is encouraging that 51 per cent. of British-made made cars now have alarms fitted as standard, compared, so I understand, to just 10 per cent. of imported cars— although one might ask how many British cars are being manufactured now.

One of the more ingenious inventions in North Yorkshire has interested the police of late— liquid crystal display number plates which can change to read "stolen" when anyone without the correct pin number starts the car's engine. The police in Greater Manchester have also had much success recently in their trials with the "stinger" device, that being a mat covered in hollow nails about one-and-a-half inches in length which is used to bring joy riders to a rather controlled halt. I understand, however, that unless the mat is pulled away it can have a similar effect on the chasing police car.

Apart from considering the devices used to prevent car theft, it is important when addressing this subject to focus on the reasons for car crime. A recent Home Office research bulletin, No.33 of 1993, looks at the subject of careers in car crime. Perhaps I may mention briefly some of the findings. Out of a sample of 100 convicted car thieves who were interviewed— 98 per cent. of whom were male— most had several years' experience in car theft and nearly half said that they had stolen more than 100 cars. Some 35 among them said that they had stolen more than 500 cars. Most had become involved between the ages of 14 and 15 and nearly always in the company of experienced friends. Among the many reasons given for car theft was the excitement, the "buzz", the thrill of driving at high speeds in high-performance stolen cars, the relieving of boredom, as well as the financial benefits of course. All these were highlighted.

With joy riding accounting for almost two-thirds of stolen cars, this has led to the suggestion that there should be provision for a legal alternative involving comparable excitement and interest such as the provision in certain areas where there is a high rate of car theft of well structured motor projects which challenge offending behaviour and which teach car maintenance and driving skills. Would the Minister comment on what, if any, educational programmes the Government have promoted to tackle the problem in this way?

I shall not deal with the subject of the trade in stolen cars. Suffice it to say that there appears to be a burgeoning market in stolen cars, which go to Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean, Africa and even Japan. There is also a large market for stolen lorries and spare parts in the third world. Here again I would like to ask the Minister to comment on what control there has been on the trade in second-hand spare parts, as well as scrapyard dealing. Could he also comment on the RAC's recent proposed initiative to ask the Government to divert £ 1 per vehicle from the new 3 per cent. increase in car insurance premiums into a central fund to counter crime? Initiatives of this nature in Michigan in the United States have had remarkable success.

In conclusion I would say that there is clearly no simple solution to the problem, whether through more punitive measures against car thieves or more protective devices in cars. I repeat my belief that we need to focus on preventive rather than curative measures if we want to see a reduction in this major social problem.

6.38 p.m.

The Viscount of Oxfuird

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Brougham has brought to us this evening a debate which covers a subject which is very serious. He has done so with his customary enthusiasm and experience because the subject is one which encompasses very broadly the areas of interest which I know he has previously raised in your Lordships' House.

Most of us have seen in our lifetime quite a considerable and remarkable rise in the production of the motor vehicle. Some of the statistics are now quite terrifying. Last year we had a debate, in which I was involved, on the use of diesel engines in motor cars. We were given the statistic that if we took the entire population of motor cars in the whole of the London area and decided to park them on the M.25, we would have to increase the number of lanes to 50. That is a pretty useless statistic, but it does give us some indication of how many motor cars there are just within the London area. Each one of those cars represents an opportunity, or a potential opportunity, for crime.

This debate concerns the sensitive area of motor car security. It is a subject which is fraught with potential minefields. The subject of security has already been mentioned. If, for instance, I wished to buy a set of tools or an electronic device with which to break into a motor car, I could do so quite easily. I would buy a certain magazine. It advertises such equipment for sale. To purchase that equipment I would need no licence and no permission. Not even the Home Office would hinder me since its view is that if I did not actually use the apparatus to break into another person's motor car for criminal purposes, there is no reason in law to prevent me from purchasing and being in possession of it. Let me assure noble Lords that I do not possess such equipment, although I must confess that when my dog locked herself in the car last summer I wished that I possessed such equipment. That equipment is available to all.

The incidence of motor car theft now impinges on all of us. It is now essential to immobilise one's motor car before leaving it even for a matter of minutes. Even so, it can still fall into the hands of a professional car thief. It is important for us to be aware of the new technologies that, first, will prevent access to the car, and, secondly, will enable the police to recover the vehicle. I should like to spend a little more time on the subject of the Tracker system. I have been encouraged in my enthusiasm following a visit to the police stolen vehicles squad in London. I have seen the system in operation, as have other noble Lords. Noble Lords may have noted the Starred Questions by my noble friends Lord Campbell of Croy, Lord Astor of Hever, and the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, during the past year. The so-called Tracker system has been available in this country since September last year. I do not know how many units have been fitted to motor cars. However, since their installation from September of last year, six motor cars fitted with the tracker device have been stolen.

The particular occasion which is worth noting involves the sixth and last vehicle which was stolen. The car was broken into, started up and set off on its journey. The incident was reported on the morning of 26th January this year. A police tracking computer picked up the system's signal at 3.30 in the afternoon and the car's exact location was pinpointed by four o'clock— half an hour later. The car had been driven into a compound in which there were another 25 stolen vehicles including sports cars, high value cars and a JCB back-hoe loader. We have already referred to ram-raiding. We might also remember that a device of that nature is used for removing entire money dispensing systems used by banks. When the police entered the compound, the registration plates, chassis numbers and engine numbers had already been removed from the vehicle. That is an example of the professionalism of such criminals.

If a motor car fitted with the system is lost or stolen, the owner makes two telephone calls. The unit is then activated through the Tracker system. The first call is to the police to report the loss or theft of the vehicle; the second is to the Tracker network. The police then contact the Tracker network. However, the police also interrogate the person who has lost the car. That is very important. If the car were taken under duress, a police crew might be in a difficult position if, for instance, the car was full of armed thugs. Therefore the police need to know the circumstances so that they can adjust their action accordingly.

The unit is activated by the police computer. The police crew follow the unit's signal; the response is created by an inaudible homing signal. The technology has been available in the United States since 1986. The first area in which it was used was Boston, Massachusetts, where car crime has fallen by 41 per cent. since 1986. In the remainder of the United States car crime has risen by 31 per cent. In this country I understand that all the police forces have the equipment. If we consider the experience of the United States over that period,95 per cent. of all vehicles fitted with such a device are usually recovered within 24 hours. The average recovery time is 90 minutes; the best success time to date is seven minutes. A speedy recovery is vital in reducing the damage sustained by the vehicle. Again, the experience of the United States is that the average claim on a stolen car has been in the region of 5,000 dollars. For those vehicles which have been fitted with a tracking device, owing to the speed of finding them, the claim for damage has been reduced to between 500 dollars and 1,000 dollars. Obviously that is a compelling reason for considering discount on insurance.

I suggest to noble Lords that the privilege of owning a motor car brings with it certain responsibilities. They include initially protecting the vehicle against theft. In my remarks today I have dealt almost exclusively with technological aids for the suppression and detection of crime. I am sure that it will not be too long before other systems are available. I am sure that they will be equally as effective, if not more so. However, the most effective method is, of course, for us all to work to create a society in which we have respect for other people's property. A. P. Herbert reminded us in his dissertation, Reasonable Man, which I gather he wrote in 1935, that, The Common Law of England has been laboriously built about a mythical figure— the figure of the Reasonable Man". All I urge is that in our future actions, be they in the use of new technology or in the attitude of our society, we should all act like reasonable men.

6.49 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, for giving me an opportunity to speak in the debate. I start at the point at which many noble Lords will expect me to begin. I refer to theft of motor cycles. I am thankful to count five members of the all-party motor cycle group present in the Chamber. We have, if not a success story, an encouraging story to tell so far as concerns motor cycle theft. I am not trying to get any praise for myself (though of course I shall be thankful if any is forthcoming) when I say that I am chairman of the motor cycle industry theft action group, which was formed some two years ago in response to the appalling state of affairs that existed as regards the theft of motor cycles throughout the United Kingdom. The insurance companies discovered— it took some time for it to register— that they were losing 50p on every £ 1 of premium that they received. Not surprisingly, they had to do something in a hurry. The leading underwriters decided that they would no longer take on any new business and that they would exclude particularly the business of younger riders. That had an effect on the prospects for motor cycle manufacturers' sales in this country. It was quite clear that something had to be done quickly.

We formed the group and brought together round a table all those who were involved in the problem. We did that with some trepidation. In a short time we reached a consensus, an agreement, between the insurers, the police, the manufacturers, the retail outlets and owners' groups. I am happy to say that as a result of some of the action taken by that group motor cycle thefts in this country have gone down in recent times by between 5 and 7 per cent. That reduction has of course something to do with a change in the pattern of ownership of motor cycles. There now are fewer smaller machines on the road. People coming into motor cycling tend to buy the more expensive, bigger machines and take a great deal of care to protect their investment— though it is still not enough.

A tagging system has been introduced for motor cycles using transponders. On a motor cycle the application is quite simple. One adds to the vehicle five chips which can be read by means of a "reader". The readers are in the possession of most of the 51 police authorities in the country. Of course, that does not stop the machine being stolen, although there should be a hologram on the machine to tell thieves that the machine is protected by that technology. It makes it a great deal easier for the police to track down vehicles should they suspect that in some back-street garage, for example, there are suspicious vehicles. A number of arrests have resulted from the use of this technology. We believe that it has had a significant deterrent effect on the theft of motor cycles.

I should also say that some praise is due to local authorities, which have in some instances spent money on installing rings and bars as permanent fixtures to which motor cycles in bays can be chained. That makes them a lot more difficult to steal; a motor cycle is a relatively easy piece of equipment to steal, particularly at night, if it is not fixed to a ring or a lamp-post (which incidentally is illegal) because it can be lifted by three or four able-bodied men into a van.

My work with the theft action group has led me to quite a close relationship with the Metropolitan Police stolen vehicles squad, whose work I have come to admire enormously. They carry out painstaking and prolonged investigations, not only into motor cycle thefts but into the thefts of cars and even of heavy earth-moving equipment and horse-boxes— about which I am quite sure, if she has time, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, will talk to us. I was told by the police that they had apprehended a large Caterpillar heavy earth-moving piece of equipment, a digger, which was trundling through in the small hours of the morning on its way to a port— they thought in Ireland. The only reason that they were able to stop it was that the thief had no idea how to turn on the lights. The police said that they were lucky in that instance because the amount of earth-moving equipment that now goes abroad is quite staggering.

The police do the painstaking work. But I am afraid that police morale is quite low. The noble Earl will be aware of that, and perhaps he will be able to reassure us on steps that the Government are taking to increase that morale. It is difficult for the police to get convictions. Often they have substantial evidence; but, either because of loopholes in the law or because the Crown Prosecution Service deems it uneconomical to proceed with the case, thieves are let off. Often when thieves are on bail they continue to offend. We all know that.

The noble Earl and his department have been most helpful in response to suggestions which I have made in recent times, particularly about written-off vehicles and their documentation. I know that the noble Earl's department has urged the DVLA in Swansea to take action to see that the documents do not fall into the hands of criminals who will secure such documents and steal vehicles to match the descriptions on the documents, which was a common practice.

I say to the noble Earl— I have mentioned this point before to his noble friend Lord Mackay— that I am told by the Metropolitan Police that there is an alarming new development. As one would expect, the crooks are agile and flexible in these matters. They see that the returns from using stolen documents here are not as they were; and a great number of write-offs are being imported from abroad. They come through the normal ports of entry, where the Customs and Excise issue the receipt form on payment of duty, which can be quite small. The receipt is then taken to the DVLA, which will then issue new registration documents. That is a very dangerous loophole. I am told that such vehicles are coming in in their thousands.

The main point about this particular practice is that those imported machines, which are technically write-offs, do not go on to the police computer when they are re-registered. The practice now for write-offs is that when the documentation goes back to Swansea and a reconstituted vehicle comes about for whatever reason — it is to be hoped legal— information is then put on to the police computer, which enables the vehicle to be tracked.

I have abbreviated my remarks because the issues have been so well covered by other noble Lords. I should like to touch briefly on what is known in the trade and in government circles as aggravated vehicle taking, or joy riding. That subject stimulated a vigorous reply to the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. I shall not be so brutal as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I understand what the noble Lord is trying to say; but I disagree with his analysis of the situation. I do not like the term "underclass". If you give a dog a bad name, you will hang him. I believe that is the expression. There are many disenchanted, unmotivated, uneducated and potentially dangerous young people about. They form gangs. Gangs apply a kind of peer group pressure. They are attracted to vehicles and they steal them. There is kudos and status attached to such activity. It gives them an identity. It is quite understandable.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, who said that one cannot lose anything by getting such people on to some kind of scheme. There was such a scheme at Deptford, which put young people into workshops to work on cars and to show skills. Showing skills is the key. In many cases that scheme had remarkable effects on those young people. It gave them the feeling that they were worth something. The only problem (I say this in summary) is that once one has a young person who has a conviction for taking a car under the aggravated vehicle taking law, it is almost impossible for that young man— such people are usually under age— when he comes to the age of having a licence to get insurance for his motor car since he has that record.

I should appreciate the noble Earl giving his views on whether it would be worthwhile for at least a pilot scheme undertaken by the insurance companies with the encouragement of government to try to give suitable youngsters who have a record the opportunity to have some insurance, even if it means that it is subsidised insurance. If those youngsters do not get insurance, they will drive without it. That is why, although I agree with almost everything in his interesting speech, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, on one point. To ban someone from driving for 30 years is just no good. That person will drive the cars anyway and not even try to get insurance. That will be a worse menace and possibly fatalities will result. Having said that, I again thank the noble Lord for giving us the opportunity to debate this matter.

7 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, we on these Benches are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Brougham, not only for the work that he has done in this area but also for providing the House with the opportunity to debate a subject which directly affects something like five and a half million people in this country each year.

The most recent crime survey figures suggest that 14 people out of every 100 are likely to be victims of some form of car theft this year. Among car owners, that figure rises to one in five. Those bare statistics hide a picture which ranges from minor inconvenience and mere irritation through considerable expense and on to real hardship many noble Lords have contributed to those statistics— I hope as victims rather than perpetrators.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, and the singularly unfortunate noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, I know that I have done so. Some months ago my husband's car was broken into at night on a London street. I lost my fishing bag, which contained a Connemara black fly to which I was devoted, having succeeded in catching my first fish with it. But rather worse, my husband, who is a barrister, lost his wig. I often wonder whether the thief now wears it when he goes fishing and whether the same man is playing golf with the clubs of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, as well. Those were minor irritations for me. But for those who rely on a car to get to work, to take their children to school, to get about at all or to transport the necessities of life, it may not be simply a question of inconvenience. If they cannot afford to carry out the necessary repairs or buy a replacement vehicle, it may amount to a personal disaster too.

The cost of car crime in human terms is incalculable, as it is also in economic terms. Quite apart from the policing and law enforcement costs, its scale is reflected in insurance premiums, which in turn affect the price of just about everything that we buy. No government should forget when looking at crime that car crime is serious. It amounts to something approaching 30 per cent. of all reported crime. Nor should they forget that for most people personal experience of crime as its victim comes through being on the receiving end of this type of activity. The way in which a government reacts to car crime plays a significant part in determining the level of confidence that the public have in that government's ability to tackle crime generally. The explosion of car crime in recent years perhaps says more eloquently than I can that a change of policy is needed.

So what is needed and what can in fact be done? A number of noble Lords referred to professional car crime as a type of offence which is growing. Vehicles are stolen to order, stolen to be professionally dismantled and sold off and stolen for ringing operations. Many of us know of examples. I shall not disappoint the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. No fewer than six of my immediate neighbours in the country have lost horse boxes in the past six months. One lost two in four weeks. All of them were secured and some were parked in farmyards by houses. Only one went at night. All disappeared without trace. Those people were not youngsters joyriding; they were professional thieves. And that is in just one part of the country.

Noble Lords with experience and expertise have made a number of suggestions. To me, as a layman, three developments in relation to which the Government could encourage investment and take initiatives, possibly through legislation, seem particularly worth while. I speak purely as a layman. First of all, surely it cannot be beyond the wit of manufacturers of new vehicles to fit them with some form of hidden identification which can be read by a police officer with the appropriate decoder. At present, changes can be made without any difficulty whatsoever to number plates and even to vehicle identification numbers. It must be possible to give a new vehicle an identification which cannot be erased and which would enable an accurate check to be made swiftly on its history and ownership.

Secondly, it must surely be possible to devise effective methods of immobilisation which can be fitted as standard straightaway to new cars or to old vehicles which lack such sophisticated systems. The rising number of attempted thefts is perhaps a measure of some success in this area. I am encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, had to say about it. But far too many vehicles, including new ones, can still be started and driven away in seconds by anyone who is in the know.

Thirdly, I share the feelings of encouragement of a number of noble Lords who have spoken on this matter: the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, the noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, and the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso talked of tracking devices and the effective way in which experiments in the United States have shown that cars can be recovered very quickly. I know that such devices are expensive and here, as yet, they are a rarity. But, when dealing with car crime, where I understand— perhaps the noble Earl will confirm it— that the detection rate is something under 3 per cent, such devices could surely make a real impact. I hope to hear that some or all of those three developments are matters which not only are receiving attention from the Government and encouragement from a distance, but will receive practical encouragement also, which means money and legislation, where appropriate.

Much more needs to be done— noble Lords, and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, have spoken about this matter— to ensure safer parking areas. In particular, all stations, whether they are railway stations or underground stations would benefit from better lighting, perimeter fencing, attendance when possible, patrols and above all security cameras. My local station at High Wycombe, has been transformed from a place where one could expect the back window of a car to be knocked out and the contents pinched if the vehicle were left overnight to a place where one can have reasonable confidence that one will find the car in one piece, even after several days, as a result of investment of just that kind. But most cars are stolen from streets near people's houses. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that it is essential when there is urban redevelopment or new development that consideration should be given to secure parking provision for those who will live in those areas.

Rural areas present even greater difficulties and are suffering increased car crime. In many parts of Exmoor, which I know well, it is no longer considered safe to leave your car unattended while you go walking on the moor. Every summer there are heartbreaking stories of visitors who have done just that and come back to find that the consequences are the unexpected theft or breaking into of their vehicle.

Police patrols cannot provide 24-hour cover. But initiatives such as Neighbourhood Watch and the Car Watch schemes which have been set up with great effect in Lincolnshire and Cleveland have shown that they can work. I hope that the noble Earl, when he comes to reply, will give some indication of the steps that the Government are prepared to take to give practical encouragement to such schemes and to setting up schemes of that type.

It is perfectly right to say, as did the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, that a large proportion of car crime involves young people. I agree with the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, in relation to the unhappy inability of many youngsters to respect or appreciate the importance of property which belongs to others.

There is a real need— and this was something said by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux, at the outset of the debate— to educate young people into their responsibilities towards cars and the effects that their driving will have on others. For many bored youngsters on housing estates where stolen cars have become the real menace and spoil the lives of those who live there, there is, in addition, a clear need to provide the sort of schemes about which other noble Lords spoke; schemes which provide an exciting and legitimate application for young people's understandable enthusiasm for cars. Motor projects in particular, as has been demonstrated time and again, when they play some part of a probation order or even when provided for those who are not offenders but are on the fringe of offending, can divert people from committing further offences. In 1991–92 the Government provided— according to the figures given in answer to a Question in another place— £ 300,000 through probation supervision grant schemes for that purpose. Perhaps when the noble Earl replies he will indicate that that level of expenditure can be raised and that the Government will give further encouragement to schemes of that nature.

It is not sufficient to tackle crime of this sort merely by dealing with the symptoms with legislation such as the Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Act nor, unhappily, to disqualify people for longer and longer periods as suggested by the Noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. Experience shows that that simply increases the number of offences of driving while disqualified. This type of crime can be tackled only by co-operation between the public, manufacturers and the Government, and that co-operation must tackle the root causes, which are boredom, lack of respect for the property of others, easy opportunity to steal, poor security and a low rate of detection.

I hope that in what he says in answer to us tonight the noble Earl will give us encouragement that the Government see the matter as a priority. If not, at the very least the quality of life for many people will continue to be adversely affected and, at worst, more youngsters will take cars, go joyriding and tragically kill others in the process.

7.12 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I entirely agree with the last point of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Those who indulge in what is described as "joyriding"— more appropriately called "deathriding"— cause enormous distress to other people. They are a huge danger to life and to civilians and it is totally indefensible in any way. That is the reason we have taken the action that we have, particularly for those involved in aggravated vehicle taking. It is the most unpleasant form of car crime. It is considered by some to be brave; it is not. It is foolish and dangerous from which only misery can come.

My noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux outlined the scale of the problem of car theft and I shall not repeat the statistics. As usual, a debate of this nature has shown your Lordships to be a fund of information, knowledge, experience and indeed sometimes of sorrow. Everyone has had some experience in this field. I felt sorry for my noble friend Lord Brabazon when he said that he had experienced vehicle crime three times in six months and among other things he lost his golf clubs and his spare wheel. It reminded me of one individual who was more unfortunate even than my noble friend. He decided that car theft was so bad that he would tie the wheel of his car by a chain to a lamp post— as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, reminded us, that is an offence in itself. He thought that that would at least secure his car. When he returned next morning he found the wheel still attached to the lamp post but the remainder of the car gone.

I was sorry also that the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, lost her special black fishing fly and her husband's wig. The interesting part was that the noble Baroness did not say which caused her or him the greatest distress. I fancy I know what caused at least the noble Baroness the greatest distress!

I agree with the noble Baroness that the figures given on statistics, although they are alarming in themselves, mask the real misery and distress, apart from the costs, associated with the menace of car crime. But I should like to clarify one point in relation to the figures quoted by my noble friend Lord Brougham. He said that the recent international crime survey revealed that England and Wales have the worst record of thefts of cars. That made the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, describe, rather indelicately I thought, the United Kingdom as the "car crime centre of the world".

It is true that England and Wales have the worst record of car thefts. But it is worth remembering, though it does not give us much comfort, that Italy, France and Australia follow us very closely, and that the United States is not far behind. Since the breakdown of the Eastern Bloc, car crime in countries such as Germany has also increased dramatically, although statistics are not yet available to show that. Therefore we should not see car crime as a uniquely English problem, although it is a bad problem.

Victims in England and Wales are more likely than average actually to get their cars back, while recovery rates are much lower in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. That at least is something for which we might feel grateful. Nonetheless, as my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux pointed out, vehicle crime accounted for a staggering 28 per cent. of all recorded crime in England and Wales in 1992. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that a great deal of our crime prevention activity has been geared towards tackling that specific problem.

There is clear evidence that measures can be taken which can have a significant impact on reducing car crime. The Government have been pursuing those vigorously in recent years. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said how a government approach car crime determines people's attitude to it. I can say that we have concentrated a great deal of effort in that direction.

Obviously the police cannot be left to fight car crime alone. It is something in which everyone, particularly car manufacturers and owners, must play a part. My noble friend Lord Brabazon reminded us that people simply do not lock their cars and therefore it is not surprising when they find them stolen or vandalized. It is the responsibility of everyone to look after their property, inconvenient though that may be.

The Government's main efforts are directed towards reducing the opportunity for car crime by, for instance, encouraging motor manufacturers to improve vehicle security. My noble friend Lord Brabazon was concerned' about visible identification numbers. For some time the Home Office has been encouraging motor manufacturers to introduce visible identification numbers on all new cars. I am glad to say that there has been good progress in that regard. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, made a plea for immobilisers to be fitted. The Government and the police have been encouraging motor manufacturers to fit effective immobilisers and by 1992 immobilisers were available as standard or on request at the point of sale on no less than 96 per cent. of United Kingdom produced models and on 75 per cent. of imports.

Efforts are also directed at increasing public awareness of the costs of car crime and encouraging motorists to take appropriate security measures. That is a key part of our car crime prevention campaign. Our efforts are also directed at giving the courts the powers they need, such as in the Aggravated Vehicle-Taking Act 1992 and in the Criminal Justice Act 1993, which increased the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from five to 10 years. We also encourage local probation services, voluntary groups and others to work to counter motor offending and, of course, we support the police in developing their response to this form of crime as well as to other forms of crime.

As the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, said, there is no one solution. He is correct. Car crime must be tackled from a number of different points of view. I agree with him that it is important not just to tackle car crime but to prevent it as far as we can also.

As many of your Lordships will be aware, the Home Office ran a major national campaign throughout 1992, which we called "Car Crime Prevention Year". This campaign, which featured the imaginative use of hyenas, was continued during 1993, and another "burst" of it is planned again soon. The campaign was designed to demonstrate just what could be done if car owners, the police, motor manufacturers, the insurance industry, motoring organisations and everyone else who is particularly affected by car crime all made a concerted effort to deal with the problem. And it has provided the background against which many local initiatives have been developed. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, will feel at least that there is a concerted effort by all people to try to beat this problem.

Evaluation of the results of the campaign, and of the many practical activities which formed an essential part of it, have produced some very encouraging news. Two-thirds of the people surveyed said that they would be more vigilant about car security as a result of the campaign. This has been shown in practice by a 20 per cent. increase in sales of car security equipment during 1992. Because of this new awareness— and because of other Home Office efforts in recent years— more motor manufacturers are now actually building improved security into their cars when they are manufactured. This was a matter to which my noble friend Lady Seccombe referred. For the first time they are highlighting this in their advertising. Motor manufacturers are to be congratulated on this, although, of course, much more remains to be done.

The Government are doing what they can to help the motor manufacturers in their efforts. For example, a significant new contribution is being made by the Home Office's Police Scientific Development Branch, which is offering motor manufacturers some important practical help by testing the effectiveness of the security systems which they fit on their vehicles. The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, was concerned about car alarm deactivators. I think that they are sometimes called grabbers and scanners. The Home Office and the police are looking into the availability and effectiveness of these devices in order to assess what additional action may be required. Motor manufacturers and the vehicle security industry are also aware of the capabilities of these devices and are working to improve the security of their products in order to counter the threat which is posed by this new technology.

I can assure your Lordships that the Government are committed to introducing improvements to existing requirements of vehicle security in order to reduce car crime. Proposals are currently being considered in Europe, and the Department of Transport is playing an active role in supporting the development of European security standards for vehicles.

I agreed with my noble friend Lady Seccombe when she said that the insurance industry also has an important part to play in encouraging both manufacturers and motorists to improve vehicle security. This can be done by offering reduced premiums to those who fit effective security to their vehicles. Home Office Ministers have met regularly with representatives of the insurance industry, who are now beginning to take account of the risk of car crime and vehicle security when they set their premiums. I was interested in the remark made by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever. He said that the Norwich Union said that each car theft costs the victim £ 1,700 in the loss of the no-claims bonus. That was an important point to make because so often people think, "Oh well, the insurance will pay". In fact, of course, people lose their no-claims bonus, and the cost of the loss of the vehicle is put on to the general rates which the insurance industry has to charge.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, made a plea that insurers should be encouraged to give people with car crime records some form of insurance. I do not know whether it was subsidised insurance or cheap insurance. He contrasted that with the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Brabazon that people ought to get 30 years. No, he did not say that they should get 30 years; he said that they should be disqualified from driving until they were 30 years of age. I can understand my noble friend's enthusiasm for that point of view. I fail totally to understand the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. What he is really suggesting is that people who are the cause and have been the cause of other people's distress, of other people's expenditure and of higher insurance premiums should then get cheap or subsidised insurance to let the poor little dears go and drive again. He said that if we do not allow them to drive, they will go and drive and then break the law. All I can say is that I found that the most astonishing logic coming even from the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. But I shall pass over that as being an incident to which I expect the noble Viscount does not appear to attach too much importance.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, the noble Earl is very courteous to give way. In the speed with which I had to finish my speech I obviously explained myself very badly. I was suggesting that some young offenders who had gone through a court which had in some way rehabilitated them and who were coming to the age when they could qualify for a driving licence were unable to take up this opportunity because they could not get insurance. I was suggesting that this might be a way of stopping people from driving without insurance.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for explaining that further. I do not think that it makes my view alter very much. I find it an astonishing suggestion.

The police have also been encouraged in their efforts, and a number of major initiatives have been launched by them. These include the national Secured Car Parks scheme, to which my noble friend Lady Seccombe referred; Partnership Against Car Theft in Northumbria, to which my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever referred; and Sold Secure n Essex. As my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever said, these last two— the Partnership Against Car Theft and Sold Secure in Essex — have now been combined and are being developed nationally. I was glad that they had my noble friend's approval. I was also glad that he referred to the success of the Northumbria police, who have worked so hard and enormously successfully in their efforts over car crime.

My noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth was concerned about c it parks. He suggested that car park operators should be made liable for compensation for crime in their car parks. Car park operators could not be held liable in many circumstances. There are a number of problems in going down that route. There is still much that car park operators can do voluntarily. We prefer to support them in partnership to make these changes through schemes such as Secured Car Parks rather than to impose regulations on them.

At the beginning, of this month my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary at the Home Office, Mr. Wardle, met major car park operators and other interested bodies to stress the need for improvements in car parks. This is vitally important, because 25 per cent. of car crimes take place in car parks. The Car Crime Prevention Group of the National Board for Crime Prevention has been asked to monitor progress in this area.

The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, mentioned the Michigan car crime prevention initiative. The Car Crime Prevention Group has agreed, in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police, to consider how this scheme might be adopted in the United Kingdom.

The Car Crime Prevention Group, which will shortly be expanded to cover motorbikes— that will give the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, great pleasure— as well as commercial lorries, has been developed out of the Car Crime Prevention Advisory Committee. That committee was set up in 1992 to provide a channel for expert advice to the Home. Office.

My noble friend Lord Brougham mentioned that the annual MoT test also presents an ideal opportunity to detect and to deter car crime. He is quite right. It does. This is something which both the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers have discussed with the Department of Transport in the past. As a result, the Department of Transport is looking at how the MoT test could play a more useful role in crime prevention.

My noble friend also thought that the driving test should be used to enhance the attitudes of young adults both towards driving safely and towards avoiding vehicle crime. He mentioned the proposals announced last week by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. Those provide a positive encouragement to improving young people's understanding of car safety and security. The Road Runner proposal, which has been devised by Crime Concern, is also relevant. This is aimed at 15 to 16 year-olds and is designed to teach them basic lessons about safe driving, avoiding accidents and avoiding car crime. Officials from the Department of Transport are currently looking at this initiative.

My noble friend Lord Brougham raised the question of the removal of vehicle identification markings, as did other noble Lords. He argued that it should be an offence to trade in vehicles or components where the numbers have been tampered with. I sympathise with my noble friend's view which, on the face of it, certainly appears to provide some means of tackling the villains in the car trade. There are, though, a number of practical difficulties which attach to it.

The main difficulty is the possibility of criminalising the innocent seller. Those who sell these parts would not necessarily know that numbers had originally been present or that the numbers which had been originally present had been removed. Such an offence might also catch any individual who subsequently sold, in innocence, a "ringed" vehicle which he had previously purchased.

The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, mentioned the need to regulate the salvage industry. I am not convinced that regulation is the best way to tackle the problem of ringed vehicles. There are other promising means which are being developed. In particular, the DVLA is working with insurers and the police to tighten the vehicle registration process. The salvage industry itself, in the form of the National Salvage Group, is also working to tackle the problem. Their certificate of destruction scheme should help to ensure that vehicle registration documents do not fall into the wrong hands. The whole issue of vehicle documentation and registration is something which the car crime prevention sub-group of the national board, intends to consider at its next meeting.

My noble friend Lord Brougham also raised the issue of a vehicle crime data-base. He has adduced (quite rightly, I think) that the application of information technology to the detection and prevention of vehicle crime is by no means exhausted. There can, though, be no doubt that existing applications already provide a vital aid to the police and to the public in dealing with this type of crime.

One may take, for example, the police national computer's stolen vehicle application. This contains details of around 300,000 vehicles which have been reported as lost or stolen. Fast searches allow vehicles — perhaps a hundred miles or more from the point of theft— to be rapidly identified by the police, and the suspects arrested.

Where a car is being driven in a way which gives grounds for suspicion, but which is not recorded as stolen, the 30 million records in the vehicle owner's file can quickly be searched to determine the name and address of the registered owner. The facilities have led to the rapid solution of many vehicle crimes.

Of course, crime prevention is not just a matter for the police. For a number of years, details of stolen vehicles have been made available to HP Information Plc. Potential purchasers are able to contact HP Information Plc and, for a small fee, can have the vehicle checked to determine whether, among other things, it is recorded as having been stolen. The Government would like to encourage this type of mutually beneficial co-operation between the statutory and private sectors.

If I understand my noble friend Lord Brougham correctly, he is suggesting that information technology should be further utilised to assist with the evaluation of vehicle crime prevention schemes and to provide vehicle crime intelligence. I am sure that information technology has the potential to provide considerable assistance in these areas, but there are other applications, such as Phoenix, the National Criminal Record system, and the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which, for the moment, must receive priority in the face of limited public resources.

Both my noble friend Lord Oxfuird and the noble Lord, St. John of Bletso, referred to Tracker. I am glad that they did because it has been very successful. My noble friend Lord Oxfuird did a very good PR job for Tracker this evening in what he said. I heard too of a story of how one individual had his car traced by the police. His car had a tracking system on it. The police went to a house and they were directed towards the garage doors. They knocked on the door of the house and asked the owner if they could have a look in the garage. In the garage was the stolen vehicle. So the system has been a great success.

I hope that the partnership with the private sector will evolve, bear fruit, and that it will allow a more rapid development of vehicle intelligence applications than would have been possible in the public sector alone. There are proposals from the Europe Secure Vehicle Alliance for a joint initiative on vehicle intelligence. That has been discussed by officials from my department and the Police Information Services Board.

I hope from what I have said that your Lordships will see that there is a lot of activity going on in an effort to tackle vehicle crime— and there is much more to which I have not had time to refer. But it is reasonable to say at the end, "So what? What effect is it having?". Recorded car crime rose by 24 per cent. in 1990 and by 18 per cent. in 1991. It increased by only 3 per cent. in 1992. It actually fell in 10 police force areas. So at least that is an achievement and where there is any improvement in crime statistics let us rejoice in that.

Although there was a disappointing increase of 5 per cent. in car crime in the 12-month period to June 1993 — the latest period for which figures are available— this rate is still much less than it has been in previous years. It just goes to show that we cannot let up.

Much has been done, but still more needs to be done. Car crime must remain high on the crime prevention agenda, and we must build on the excellent work which has been carried right across the country in the past few years. As far as the Government are concerned, I can assure your Lordships that car crime prevention will continue to be given a very high priority.

7.36 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, we have had an extremely interesting and useful debate this afternoon covering all aspects of car crime and most aspects of car crime prevention. It seems that we have all had our cars broken into or stolen at some point. There is no doubt that a lot of co-operation is taking place between all parties to combat this problem. I know that this debate will be read by all those in the motor industry and concerned with car crime prevention. I know that my colleagues and I will study the debate with interest.

I wish to thank all noble Lords for their contributions this evening, especially the noble Viscount and the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Benches. I would especially like to thank my noble friend the Minister who has replied to this debate. I suppose that, after yesterday, it must seem rather like a busman's holiday to him. As he said, car crime is still a big problem; there is a long way to go; and there is a great deal more to be done on the subject. I shall study my noble friend's reply with interest. I was glad to hear of the inter-departmental co-operation which is going on. My noble friend has given us a lot of food for thought. I thank all noble Lords, especially my noble friend the Minister, for his very full reply. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.