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Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I begin by declaring a non-pecuniary interest in this matter. I am a vice-chairman of the European secure vehicle alliance--ESVA--to which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred. As the organisation is dedicated to combating vehicle crime, I obviously welcome the Bill and many of the measures that it contains, for which ESVA has campaigned for a number of years.
It is fair to say that this has been a light-hearted and good-humoured debate so far. Over the past hour and 19 minutes, we have witnessed almost the full range of the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary repertoire. Perhaps that is it for the term--I do not know. However, this is a serious matter, and we have to pay attention to its serious elements.
Vehicle crime not only concerns us at a national level but has international implications. It crosses all boundaries and impacts on all people at different levels in society. It is certainly not confined to cars nor, as the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) suggested earlier, to new vehicles. In fact, older vehicles are more likely to be stolen, although there is clearly a market in stealing to order high-performance sports cars and other specialist vehicles, which often end up in former Soviet Union countries such as Russia.
This is not the kind of problem that we can deal with exclusively through Government measures. The Bill provides measures from the top that can make a difference and tackle some areas with which we are familiar, but we also need measures at the bottom through the community safety partnerships. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) referred to the situation in Plymouth. Measures can be taken at a local level, and I think that a combined approach will have the most useful impact.
The Government have demonstrated that they treat the matter seriously. We should welcome the vehicle crime reduction action team initiative and the Government targets. I was somewhat surprised when the hon. Member for Buckingham suggested that his figures showed that the achievement towards the target had been only 0.5 per cent. I may have misunderstood him, but I think that I am right in saying that the most recent British crime survey shows something like a 15 per cent. reduction between 1997 and 1999.
Mr. Bercow: I am listening with interest and some respect to the hon. Gentleman's contribution. If I may clarify my remarks, I was referring to the change from the period of March 1998-99 to March 1999-2000. I no longer have my speech in front of me, but I think that I said that the figure in March 1998-99 was 1,482,889 and that it had gone down by exactly 7,000 12 months later. That represents a reduction, over that 12-month period, of only 0.5 per cent.--welcome, but modest.
Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. It demonstrates why we should all support the Bill; if we want to make quicker progress, we need to implement the measures that would enable us to do so. I would have thought that that was self-evident.
We can draw on the example offered by the approach on road safety where there was a 30 per cent. target for the reduction of accidents. Significant progress was made, although the figures dipped during some periods. Two lessons from that approach could be effective in the present case. The first is that such a system works best when there is co-operation among all the parties. The second is that, if there are deficiencies in the system, it is best for the Government to introduce supplementary measures to plug the gaps. It seems to me that we are trying to do that with the Bill.
It is fair to say that, in England and Wales, the rate of vehicle theft is the highest and the rate of recovery the poorest in the developed world. Despite some good operations recently by the West Midlands police, the Birmingham and west midlands area has one of the worst recovery rates in western Europe. From talking to policemen and to my constituents, I know that they are desperately worried about the problem of vehicle crime; they are anxious to see measures to tackle it.
Mr. McCabe: If my information is correct, the figures show a slight drop in vehicle crime in the west midlands, because of the operations that the police have been carrying out. I am not sure whether that necessarily supports the hon. Gentleman's observations. I shall make no comment about the people he knows in Hall Green.
I do have some comments on police operations. Earlier, there was some debate as to whether the Bill would add to the pressures on the police. In my conversations with officers in the west midlands, they admit that vehicle crime operations are labour intensive, but they enjoy undertaking them because of the other crimes and criminal activities that they uncover. The police consider that, although such operations are labour intensive, they have significant benefits because they enable the police to clear up and identify other forms of crime. That is a judgment on the use of police resources.
I welcome measures to develop more rigorous and integrated information systems. That will be of considerable benefit. The hon. Member for Buckingham referred to the Swedish experience. Theft rates in Sweden are only about half those in the UK and there is a much higher clear-up rate--almost 90 per cent. One of the clear reasons for that is the much greater use made in Sweden of integrated information systems, so that, when the police stop a vehicle, they can almost immediately, at the road-side, establish its excise duty, insurance and MOT status as well as the identity of the owner. If anything, we might argue that although the Government have gone some way towards addressing the problems and information gaps in our system, they could have gone much further. Had they looked more closely at the Swedish experience, that aspect of the Bill might have been better.
I strongly support the measures introducing registration and enforcement schemes for the salvage industry and those who deal in number plates. As both the Home Secretary and other hon. Members have said, there is a real problem in this country because it is so easy to produce and acquire number plates. That is clearly a contributory factor in vehicle crime.
It is true that there will be some costs. We heard something about those towards the end of the speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham, and I would be the first to acknowledge that there will be some cost burden. However, we should balance those against the enormous costs associated with vehicle crime, which are estimated to amount to about £3 billion a year.
Everyone is affected. People cannot go to work because their vehicles have been stolen or damaged, vital machinery is taken from contractors, and hire purchase and vehicle rental companies lose their vehicles. In that context, although it is important to guard against the costs of the Bill being too onerous, we must set them against the existing costs to society. Provided that the burden is not excessive, the price will be worth paying.
We should welcome the measures relating to the salvage industry, and acknowledge that they are long overdue. It should no longer be possible for vehicles that have been written off to have their identities swapped with those of stolen vehicles, which can then be put back on the road. We should also try to reduce the market in spare parts, and the sale of goods such as the Home Secretary's stereo.
We should also try to tighten the regulations to ensure that vehicles written off in a smash are not patched up, put back on the market and passed on to some innocent unsuspecting buyer. That would not be directly related to the provisions in the Bill, but the restraining of the salvage industry will have a welcome impact on such activity.
I was a bit surprised to hear people asking whether the police should have the power to enter premises to inspect the register. It would seem strange to give tacit approval to legislation that requires those in the salvage industry to keep a register, yet deny the police the power to gain access to it. That is the worst kind of burden to put on industry, because it would create a register without providing any mechanism whereby the information in it could be used. That would be absurd.
Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman will recall that the main concern that I highlighted was the seemingly differential treatment between registered and unregistered operators, to the disadvantage of the former. What is his view of that?