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Mr. Heald: I am following carefully what the hon. Gentleman says about the areas from which cars are likely to be stolen. Does he agree that the people most at risk are on low incomes, are unemployed or are single parents? Is it enough simply to say that the manufacturers must find solutions, because many of those people's cars would require retrospective fitting to make them more secure? Where would the money come from for that?
Mr. Chidgey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, which accurately reflect the research by the scientists to whom I referred. I said that in areas where such vehicle crime is prevalent, it is necessary to put more emphasis on crime prevention, law enforcement and community policing, because the crime from which those communities suffer is part of a wider scene of criminality and disorder. We must see such crime in the wider sense of crime prevention, and not just in terms of preventing vehicle theft.
A more significant aspect of vehicle crime prevention is secure parking. That is not addressed in the Bill, but several hon. Members alluded to it. A quarter of all vehicle thefts are from car parks. For the past five years, the AA has been administering secure car park schemes on behalf of the police, but fewer than 700 out of an estimated 10,000 car parks have achieved that secure status.
According to the law, a motorist who buys a ticket and enters a car park is merely paying a licence fee for the space. The car park operator has no duty of care for a car that is parked on his land. Most car park operators do not provide basic security--why should they when there are queues of motorists at the entrance to most car parks around our major cities? Either the industry must be confronted and made to embrace the secure car parks scheme, or consumer protection legislation must be introduced so that a payment for car parking is a payment for a service, and not just a licence fee to enter the land. Until there is radical change, public car parks will continue to be the honeypot for car thieves.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I endorse my hon. Friend's comments on car parks. In addition, will he consider the fact, which I learned in Oxfordshire, that railway station car parks are traditionally policed by the British Transport police and not the local police? As the British Transport police cannot be in all places at all times and station car parks are not on their patch in the same way as they are for local police, does he agree not only that the landlord should take proper responsibility but that there should be a change in policing to ensure that community parking is the responsibility of the community police service, and not people who are rarely there?
The main thrust of the Bill is aimed at reducing the number of unrecovered stolen vehicles, which is a small proportion of vehicle crime. In that regard, its measures are broadly welcome. However, we need to consider how effective they might be. Some 30 per cent. of stolen cars are not recovered. In proportion to cars that are stolen from the fleet, they are, by definition, practice and statistics, of the highest value. They tend to be top of the range and the police estimate that professional theft of such cars is rising.
About 20 per cent. of unrecovered stolen vehicles are in that category, and the number is increasing. Many are stolen to order and, within hours, are crated up whole or stripped into parts and exported to mainland Europe for resale, where they are virtually untraceable. There is no requirement to include full details on shipping documents for container transport. Individual stolen cars can be driven out of the country and are unlikely to be checked. There is clearly a need, which the Bill could address, to consider how we can improve checks and identification at our ports to help to reduce the number of vehicles that are exported by professional thieves.
It is unclear what measures are proposed to reduce crime as the Bill relates to other categories of vehicles. The hon. Member for Hall Green mentioned construction plant and motor cycles. Other hon. Members referred to agricultural equipment, and there is a roaring trade in second-hand caravans that have been stolen from forecourts or drives.
The theft of construction plant involves individual items and vehicles that are often valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds. There is a thriving world market in those expensive and highly valuable items, and professional criminals certainly specialise in their theft and export to that market. The important point is that many of those vehicles are outside the DVLA system, and will not be covered by the Bill's provisions on notification of ownership. They are not necessarily registered as road vehicles.
The most serious issue pertaining to those categories of vehicles is the theft of motor cycles. Car theft is falling, but the theft of motor cycles, scooters and mopeds is soaring, and the RAC Foundation reports that there has been a dramatic 25 per cent. increase in the past 12 months. Statistics show that only 14 per cent. of those bikes will be recovered, which is less than a fifth of the recovery figure for cars. The Association of Chief Police Officers has confirmed that its computer lists more than 80,000 bikes as stolen and not recovered. It believes that most are broken for spares, and estimates that there are already nearly £400 million-worth of black market spares in circulation.
It is essential that the Bill fully addresses the rising rates of motor cycle theft. It is far easier to steal a motor cycle than it is to steal a car; it is a simple matter of loading it into the back of a van and driving off. There is a strong case for crime prevention measures such as the provision of more secure on and off-street parking for motor cycles.
I turn now to the details of the Bill. I am cognisant of the Chair's advice that "Erskine May" requires us to consider the clauses not in detail, but in general, and I shall try to obey that ruling. An important omission from the Bill is any mention of safety. The regulations on rebuilt vehicles and recycled parts concentrate on the provenance of those goods, but it is equally important that they are safe when they are offered for sale. There is a strong case for introducing inspection for fitness of purpose to the regulatory chain.
In the main, we agree with the aims in part I to bring the motor salvage industry within the framework of statutory regulation. It is important to reduce opportunities for disposing of stolen vehicles and to assist the police in their investigation of those offences. The majority of salvage operators are extremely responsible and law-abiding citizens who run properly regulated companies, but it is important to eliminate opportunities for the minority to give stolen vehicles the identities of legitimate vehicles that have been written off or seriously damaged. It is important to eliminate opportunities for them to break stolen vehicles and use their component parts for repairs or for resale to the second-hand market and fraudulently to report vehicles as stolen to insurance companies and dispose of them through the trade. Many hon. Members have emphasised that point, and those aspects of the Bill are very important.
Concerns have been expressed outside the House that part I is incomplete. The British Motorcyclists Federation has expressed concern that it does not cover situations in which breakers use their legitimate business as a cover to purchase stolen parts from criminals or break stolen vehicles and sell the parts on. It does not cover dealers who buy stolen vehicles along with legitimate second-hand cars so that they can ring the cars or strip them and supply other vehicles with the parts.
I turn now to the role of local authorities as registrars, as it were, of salvage companies. Part I does not supply local authorities with funds to pursue inquiries into the fitness of an applicant for registration, nor does it require them to provide the funds themselves, so there is no statutory requirement for them to give any priority to vehicle theft prevention. It might be only one of the jobs that they have to do, but I should have thought that it was important to have a sense of priority if we are to hit the Prime Minister's target of a 30 per cent. reduction in car crime in five years.
What provisions does the Bill contain for effective liaison with the police? They, more than anyone else, have a strong motive for ensuring that applicants for registration are fit and proper persons. I am sure that the police would welcome the right to express to local authorities their concerns about particular applicants in the area. Part I recognises that some local authorities would welcome statutory guidance on who constitutes a fit and proper person to act as a motor salvage operator, and there is scope for amending the Bill to expand and amplify that guidance.
Part II deals with the regulation of registration plate suppliers. Other hon. Members have compared the Swedish system with that in this country. It is clear that our system is a mess, with 27,000 outlets supplying between 6 million and 7 million plates a year. In Sweden, one supplier produces and distributes registration plates within a carefully regulated system. As the hon. Member for Hall Green said, that allows the police to make immediate roadside checks to ensure that a vehicle is properly taxed and insured and has an MOT.
Mr. Forth: I am curious about whether it is a new Liberal policy that having one supplier is superior to having many. Does that apply in all circumstances, or only in this one, and how far does it rely on the effectiveness of the regulatory regime to deliver value for money and security of supply?