HL Deb 23 January 1996 vol 568 cc903-5

2.51 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made in reducing the illegal alteration of mileometers in motor vehicles, commonly known as "clocking".

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, in 1992 the Government introduced a voluntary mileage recording scheme, administered by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, to address the problem of vehicle "clocking". We are currently reviewing the possibilities for improving the procedures in the light of the responses to a recent consultation paper.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Did he notice the conviction in Scotland of a crook who admitted 47 offences, and was known to have committed many more, wiping altogether about 3 million miles off the "clocks"? Will the Government congratulate the trading standards departments concerned and the police on their painstaking work and success in detection and in obtaining a conviction in this particular case? Since these criminals are becoming even more cunning and devious, can the Government do any more to ensure that further efforts are made to stamp out the fraudulent deception of the public?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, this is a very serious issue. My noble friend is quite right to highlight the enforcement effort made by trading standards officers. I understand that in the case to which my noble friend referred, the individual in question was found to have "clocked" about 47 cars. I understand that the figure of 3 million miles is roughly correct. Enforcement must form a major part of the strategy to address this major issue of vehicle "clocking".

Lord Ezra

My Lords, about three years ago I introduced a Bill to strengthen the law in this respect but unfortunately it never reached the statute book.

Bearing in mind that at that time the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, of which I was president, estimated that the public, the purchaser of secondhand cars, had paid about £100 million more than they should have for vehicles that had been "clocked", can the noble Viscount indicate what the figure is now and whether, in the light of the developments to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred, the law might now be strengthened?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not believe that it is possible to put a precise figure to the question which the noble Lord has raised. The point is that it would be a guess at the very best of times. Suffice it to say that it is a very serious problem indeed and one on which we must make a three-stranded attack: first, to pursue our efforts to record more vehicle mileages at the time of sale; secondly, to make sure that the enforcement is up to scratch; and, thirdly, for manufacturers to continue their efforts to produce odometers which are more difficult to tamper with.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that one way to curb this crime is for guidelines to be set whereby a conviction would almost always result in a prison sentence, together with an order for substantial compensation to be paid to the victim?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it is fair to say that sentencing is an extremely complicated issue. We must have the proper penalties. We must put proper effort into catching the criminals in the first place. I believe that is possibly where the difficulties lie.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that this is serious fraud and against the consumers' charter? Does he further agree that it is important that the Government pay greater attention to this matter? It is 12 months since there was a report that this problem was being studied and that action would be taken, but nothing seems to progress. Does the Minister agree that it is important to recognise that trading standards departments have the task of taking people to court, but that the departments are limited by the amount of funds from government? When the noble Viscount says that the authorities are doing all they can, that is very little.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is not the case at all. We have introduced a new system which gathers information on a voluntary basis when vehicles change hands. That must be a major factor in addressing this situation. We must get correct information which can then be disseminated. That is a major plank in our attack on vehicle fraud. Not only is this matter a serious offence but it also contravenes the Trades Description Act. Where evidence is available, trading standards officers take action which results in convictions.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the potential purchaser can go a long way to protect himself against fraud by buying through a franchised dealer outlet and/or using the services of independent engineers and/or the motoring services to carry out an examination which would reveal such a fraud?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that would be one way for a potential customer to gain greater security. However, with private purchasers that is not always possible. We have tried to make more information available. We have pursued our attempts to make more drivers fill in a form, including the mileage, when they sell the vehicle so that that information can then be disseminated and people will have a much more reliable idea of the actual mileage covered. It is an important road safety issue.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, are the Government aware that there is an annual record of the mileage of cars over three years of age taken at the time of the MoT test? What is the Government's estimate of the cost of recording those figures centrally—presumably at the DLVA—in such a way that that record can be interrogated by the prospective purchasers of vehicles?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I welcome back the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, to the House after his enforced absence yesterday. He raises an important question about the MoT test. In the event that the test is computerised, that would provide a good avenue for the collection of this information. That might well be a useful tool at that stage.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, can the noble Viscount say what is the position of a motorist whose car mileometer breaks and who has to purchase a new one which begins at nought? What obligation is there for him to record the mileage on the old mileometer and then to start again with the new one?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the offence is selling a car and making false representation about the mileage. If the speedometer cable breaks and one replaces the speedometer with a new one, the appropriate action would be to declare the total mileage of the vehicle.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this fraudulent activity has become something of a national epidemic? In those circumstances, why do not the Government translate their voluntary advice into a compulsory and mandatory requirement? Would not that materially assist? Can the Minister say why the DVLA does not take this issue as seriously as it does tax dodging? Is it because there is no revenue in it?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the two matters are entirely different. As regards the noble Lord's first point about making the system mandatory, that would be one option, but it would not help in guaranteeing further the accuracy of the information and that is an important point. It would also put a very substantial regulatory burden on motorists. We shall pursue our voluntary approach and see whether in the course of time that produces the full results which we are looking for. The DVLA takes this issue seriously and that is why we have introduced a new scheme. The information is disseminated to companies, and the public will be able to inquire about vehicle histories.