HL Deb 04 December 2003 vol 655 cc481-4

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Byford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they have taken to reduce the number of abandoned vehicles in England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government take very seriously the problems posed by abandoned vehicles. We are taking a number of initiatives to reduce their incidence. We have enabled local authorities to remove such vehicles more quickly by reducing the statutory notice period for removal and giving them wheel-clamping powers. We are introducing continuous registration in January 2004, and will ensure provision of free take-back and treatment for all end-of-life vehicles by January 2007.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Is he not disappointed that the number of abandoned vehicles is very much on the rise? London continues to have the highest number, which increased by 84,000 in 2000–01. More worrying is the position of Yorkshire and Humber, where the number of abandoned vehicles has increased by 54 per cent, and the eastern area, where there has been a 47 per cent increase. How does the Minister expect the police to cope with that when the Home Office's own figures of 17th November reported that rural crime had trebled since 1980?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, any relationship to rural crime is caused by entirely different social factors. The increase in abandoned cars is largely explicable by the drastic fall in scrap metal prices. One gets virtually nothing for a scrapped car. For that reason, and because of the non-registration and illegal driving of cars, there has been a significant increase. The combination of the greater powers that we have already given local authorities to remove abandoned cars, better co-ordination between authorities and, shortly, continuous registration will place responsibility on owners and give local authorities and police more powers.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I apologise for adding a United Kingdom dimension to the Question. Is the noble Lord aware that the price of scrapping a vehicle at my local scrapyard in Alloa is £30 plus the keys? Does he agree that under the new regulations at least an extra £50 will be required? Does he further agree that the likelihood of dumping in the countryside, whether in England or Scotland, will increase so long as the last user must pay at least £80, which, in the case of a banger, may be more than was originally paid for the vehicle?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. Not long ago, people paid you for your car, but now you must pay them to take it and give them access to it if it is revivible. The economics have changed. The end-of-life vehicle directive will also create a further responsibility and a cost. Continuous registration will require the last registered owner to take that responsibility, and, from 2007, the responsibility will be on the producer. We have a two-stage programme to deal with the fundamentals of the problem In the mean time, we have given local authorities more powers.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, most abandoned vehicles that I come across do not have many wheels, if any, and some have been set on fire. What is the point of allowing local authorities to clamp such cars?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the back streets that my noble friend frequents are perhaps not a great case in point Such powers would be somewhat belated there. Nevertheless, in some places there are abandoned cars in perfectly good condition but which the alleged owner is not prepared to remove. Under previous regulations, we had very little leverage in such situations Clamping helps in those cases and when cars are abandoned on private land.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that abandoned cars are merely one particularly objectionable form of litter? Litter is increasing hugely on our roads, particularly on trunk roads, which are the responsibility of local authorities, which simply do not do their job. Would it not be simple for the Highways Agency to clear up the roads that local authorities have failed to clear up and send them the bill?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I doubt it, as there is a clear demarcation between Highways Agency roads and local authority roads. A local authority is responsible for keeping all its roads clear and in reasonable condition. Although the noble Lord has been concerned about the issue for some time, statistics indicate that roadside litter has improved—though it is still a serious problem is some parts of the country. I am not sure that the problem could be dealt with under the powers to deal with abandoned cars, although strictly speaking they are litter, too.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, the SORN regulations have been in place for some time. How many prosecutions have been initiated under them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is a very good question I shall write to the noble Earl. Although the SORN regulations are helpful where there are records, they are not particularly helpful in cases where a car is not registered. That is why continuous registration and placing responsibility on the last known, reported and registered owner are an important improvement.

Lord Monson

My Lords, further to the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, approximately what proportion of abandoned cars have been stolen by yobs and set on fire for fun? Lincolnshire is full of such burnt-out wrecks.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot give an overall figure. Most abandoned cars are faintly serviceable and therefore not burnt out. I am afraid that information on the number of wheels on such cars is beyond my statistical records.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, tracing the previous owner of an abandoned vehicle, making him liable, as the law says, and extracting money from him to remove the vehicle and have it destroyed is likely to be costlier than disposing of the vehicle in the first place and likely to lead to an unreasonable delay. How do the Government intend to handle that dilemma?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, tracing the previous owner does not stop a local authority removing a car and disposing of it after the due notice period. Much of the cost of that would be met under the system of continuous registration by the previous registered owner. We cannot have a situation where the last traceable owner says, "I sold it in a pub and it is no longer my responsibility". The fact that the alleged new owner had not registered the car can no longer be used as an excuse by the previous owner.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, the Minister said that the owners of abandoned vehicles were not prepared to remove them. What, then, is the point of clamping them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in certain circumstances, it is clear that an abandoned car is worth something and that at some point, therefore, the owner will return to collect it. The authorities will have to use their discretion in deciding whether to tow away a car or clamp it. It will depend on their view of the nature of the offence and the value of the car. If the owner wants it back, he will have to pay the unclamping fee and a fine.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, what happens when a vehicle has apparently been abandoned but yet has current vehicle excise duty?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is still an abandoned car, but it is taxed. If the car has a tax disc, there will be a record of the owner, who will be liable.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, are the Government considering altering the current situation whereby, if a car is abandoned on private land, particularly farming land, the cost of removal lies with the landowner, whereas if one is abandoned in a street it is a local authority matter?

Lord Whitty

In some respects, my Lords, in that we have recently consulted on reducing, from 15 days to five, the period of notice to landowners in which they might object to a local authority going on to the land to remove a car itself. Although there has been opposition to the reduction, most local authorities are in favour of it, as are some landowners. We will decide whether to proceed with it very shortly.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, who is liable if a car has been stolen and then considered abandoned? If the police have been notified of the theft, who is responsible?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, if the police have been notified of the theft, the owner would not be responsible so long as the theft was reported prior to the car being found abandoned.