HL Deb 24 January 1994 vol 551 cc806-9

2.50 p.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are contemplating strengthening the law in relation to the "clocking" of second-hand vehicles and the resale of insurance write-offs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the practice of falsifying odometer readings is already a criminal offence and we do not consider that further statutory provision is necessary. There is no law preventing the resale of vehicles which have previously been written off by insurance companies. Many are capable of being repaired to the required safety standards.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord may recall that in 1990 I introduced a Bill to deal with those matters. It passed through this House but failed in another place. Will the Minister accept that in the meantime the situation has worsened? Purchasers of second-hand cars are being defrauded of more than £100 million a year through the falsifying of speedometer readings; many also face possible injury through poor reconditioning of written-off cars. Is the noble Lord aware that, due to the increased number of complaints in relation to second-hand car sales, the Office of Fair Trading is now looking into the matter?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am aware that the noble Lord introduced a Bill. It was before my time and therefore I cannot recall it, but if have read the exchanges which took place at the time. It is an infringement of the Trades Description Act 1968 to falsify odometer readings and many hundreds of successful prosecutions are carried out by trading standards officers each year. I cannot see therefore what another piece of legislation would do that the existing law does not do perfectly adequately.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, why should it not be made obligatory for mileages to be recorded with the vehicle licensing office at certain times in the, vehicle's life, such as at the annual renewal of licences or change of ownership? That seems to be the only practical way of making any real impact on this widespread offence.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to say that that would be the only practical step we could take. However, it would add hugely to the bureaucracy of the vehicle licensing body. There are other complications. For example, a remarkable number of people manage to lose their registration forms in the course of a car's life. The amount of bureaucracy required to deal with that would be enormous. In addition, we would need a system for checking that the correct figures had been entered: a whole army of inspectors would be required.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, on the assumption that the law is adequate to deal with the situation—that is the impression given by the Minister—is it not clear that steps should be taken to increase the rate of detection and to ensure a more rigid enforcement of the law? To say that it would need an increase in bureaucracy invites a value-for-money assessment as to whether the amount of bureaucracy needed would cost less than the vast sums lost at the present time.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the amount of bureaucracy would be considerable, as would be the number of inspections necessary to ensure that the figures given by an individual on the registration document were reliable. At present many hundreds of cases are brought each year to the magistrates' courts. The magistrates can impose fines of up to £5,000; that is the standard scale level at which they are allowed to impose punishment.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on an annual basis the MoT test certificate requires the recording of the mileage and the validation of that recording by the tester? Are the Government aware also that with modern computer techniques the problems of a rise in bureaucracy would be minimal? Do the Government realise that in the modern age in which we live the suggested proposals are extremely sensible?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am aware that the MoT certificate shows the mileage. However, some of my earlier points relate to that as well. I am sorry to tell the noble Lord that very often the existence of computer technology increases bureaucracy because more figures can be collected.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that this all too prevalent crime effectively robs the unsuspecting purchaser of a great deal of money—possibly hundreds of pounds? Is it only a fine that can be imposed on conviction of the offence or is imprisonment also available? If so, can the Minister say how many people each year on average are imprisoned for the offence?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I cannot say how many people are imprisoned. In the magistrates' courts, where the level 5 fine of £5,000 is the top level, there is no alternative of imprisonment. Should the individual elect to go to Crown Court, an unlimited fine or a custodial sentence of up to two years can be imposed.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that since 1992 a mileage box is included on vehicle registration forms—V5s—but it is not compulsory to fill it in? Perhaps it should now be made compulsory. Is my noble friend further aware that one of the difficulties is that 50 per cent. of motorists do not bother to return the form when they change their car, although it is a legal requirement so to do?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I alluded to the fact that many documents are lost. Even if that has not happened, many motorists do not return the form. If one insists that the mileage is recorded and the form returned, there is the difficulty of checking. Dare I say that if somebody is going to cheat on the issue, then they are likely to cheat just as much with the filling in of the form as they are with the odometer.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, will the Minister consider the introduction of a licensing system for car auctions? That is where the majority of fiddles now take place. Secondly, will he consider a requirement that purchasers of vehicles at car auctions provide proof of identity when they make their purchase? As the Minister said, trading standards officers have done exceedingly well on what we call the "car lots" in towns and cities. But fraud is taking place with "M. Mouse" and "D. Duck" appearing on some documents as the name of the person purchasing the vehicle.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, car auctions are a little wide of the Question on the Order Paper. However, I understand the point made by the noble Baroness that car auctions may be places where some infringements take place. I shall certainly consider the possibility of solving the problem by licensing car auctions.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to consider giving trading standards officers more powers? Their extensive knowledge may help to prevent some of the frauds by cheats and rogues. The officers have a great deal of knowledge but require more authority. Can that proposal be considered?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am not aware that trading standards officers are looking for more authority. Nothing that I have read in preparation for today leads me to that conclusion. However, I shall look into the specific aspect mentioned by the noble Lord and see whether the officers are satisfied with their current powers.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not clear that far too many lotteries are involved in the purchase of second-hand vehicles? Is it not clear also, from questions asked of the Minister, that further action is required not only in dealing with the two points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, but also in dealing with the serious matter of "cut and shut" cars? I refer to the situation where two vehicle bodies are welded together. Is it not plain that many frauds are practised and that the Government are turning their eyes away from reality if they say that something ought not to be done about them?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the Government are not turning their eyes away from the reality of these problems. That is why there are two laws on the statute book—one which we have addressed in this Question and the other which particularly pertains to unroadworthy vehicles. It is an absolute offence to offer for sale or supply or expose for sale a vehicle deemed to be unroadworthy or altered so as to be rendered unroadworthy. Both the problems raised this afternoon are already the subject of offences, and trading standards officers are already active. My problem with the noble Lord's question is that it is easy to say that something must be done, but it is sometimes very difficult to translate that into meaningful legislation which can be properly enforced.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, perhaps it is because the inspection of these matters is grossly inadequate, particularly as the Government seem to have their mind on deregulation and virtually nothing else.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the fact that the Government have laws in this regard illustrates that we do take the matter seriously and are not looking at deregulating this issue. But what we are sure about is that there is absolutely no point in passing laws if they cannot be properly enforced in an efficient and effective way.