HL Deb 24 April 2001 vol 625 cc88-90

3 p.m.

Lord Hoyle asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that every vehicle owner has a valid motor insurance policy.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the law requires the user of a vehicle to have insurance. Each time a vehicle is relicensed evidence of insurance covering the use of the vehicle must be produced. Police have powers to stop vehicles to check insurance and other matters. There are about 300,000 convictions and 29,000 disqualifications each year. The Vehicles (Crime) Act which came into force on 10th April will give police additional powers to check the computerised insurance database which will be set up later this year with government support. This should enable the police to detect and prosecute more drivers at less cost.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that statistics demonstrate that at least one driver in 20 or perhaps as many as one in 10 is driving without insurance, involving between 1 million and 2 million vehicles? It costs the industry over £400 million and adds £20 to £30 to the premium of the law-abiding motorist. Even if those drivers come to court, the penalty is usually £150, which is hardly a deterrent. Will the Minister make the punishment fit the crime by advising the courts that the penalty should at least equal the cost of third party insurance, which is roughly £350?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend is correct that the average level of fine is relatively low. In the last full year the figure was £210. He is also right to say that that does not represent the cost avoided of insurance. However, the magistrates' courts have to take account of the likelihood of payment in these cases. The maximum fine available to the courts is £5,000; and disqualification is available. Therefore, I believe that the level of potential penalty is adequate.

However, the Home Office has just engaged in consultation on road traffic offences in general. It suggests that with regard to uninsured, untaxed cases we should also consider community service orders, or forfeiture of vehicle when the driver owns the vehicle, as well as the existing penalties.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those who steal vehicles appear to cause more trouble than vehicle owners? We have had recent tragic cases of young boys who steal cars, have no insurance, and kill people. Should not the Government initiate a fund which can be used for compensation in that sort of crime?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is such a fund. The Motor Insurance Bureau provides for compensation in cases where an uninsured driver has been involved. That is what gives rise to the additional cost to the law-abiding insured motorist to which my noble friend Lord Hoyle referred. The bureau pays out a substantial amount each year for uninsured accidents, so the system exists. The cost to the law-abiding motorist is effectively an additional £15 to £30 a year on his premium.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, will the Government give consideration to the automatic confiscation of any vehicle in such circumstances?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, even if we were to adopt the option proposed in the Home Office consultation paper to which I referred, we need to give the courts some discretion. But forfeiture of a vehicle should be an option. The problem is that in a large number of cases, including those referred to, the driver is not the owner and may have stolen the car.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, while the Motor Insurance Bureau picks up the tab and the remainder of the premium-paying public has to bear the cost, is the Minister satisfied that the amount of compensation paid to people who are injured by noninsured drivers is adequate in all the circumstances?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the payments will be on the same basis as though the drivers were insured. That is the whole point of the Motor Insurance Bureau safety net in these circumstances. Whether the victims or their families regard the payments as adequate can, I admit, in individual cases be open to dispute and may well invoke some sympathy from myself and this House. However, the payments by the Motor Insurance Bureau should reflect the kind of payments which would be paid if those drivers were insured.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, under the proposal set out by the Minister, are those sentenced to community service orders likely to be set to work to clear up litter on the roads which the Highways Agency looks after?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General says to me, that is an inspired suggestion! We shall certainly commend it to the courts.

Forward to