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8.13 pm

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I, too, welcome the Bill. I apologise to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for leaving the Chamber during his speech, but I had to attend a Standing Committee meeting.

The Bill, combined with other measures to which I shall refer, will make a significant contribution to achieving the Government's target of a 30 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime by 2004. That target offers a challenge; it will be difficult but not impossible to reach, provided we allocate resources and a range of initiatives has a combined effect. The measure will undoubtedly protect motorists from car theft and will protect legitimate salvage traders.

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I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and other Members who referred to abandoned vehicles. I support the point made by hon. Members that the measure should be considered more broadly. My hon. Friend's proposals should be considered during proceedings on the Bill; some thought should be given to tightening the existing law to which he referred, so as to assist with its enforcement. I urge the Government and the House to do so.

Such provisions would mesh well with the measure and we should not stray too wide of the mark if we considered them at present. In my constituency, the number of abandoned vehicles is increasing considerably--so much so that the local authority officers responsible for removing such vehicles find that, at the end of a week, they have more cars to deal with than they did at the beginning. Abandoned vehicles are an aspect of vehicle crime that is of increasing concern to our constituents.

The cost of dealing with such vehicles adds to the overall costs of vehicle crime, which are well documented in the Library research paper analysing the Bill. Vehicle crime is the largest single category of recorded crime in England and Wales. In 1999-2000, 1,475,889 such crimes were recorded, including 374,686 thefts of vehicles and 669,232 thefts from vehicles--28 per cent. of all recorded crime during the period.

The estimated cost of vehicle crime is £3.5 billion a year; that includes the costs of the criminal justice system. Of course, that is only part of the misery. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) pointed out, the fear of vehicle crime is great and the impact on victims ranges from nuisance to disaster and severe financial loss. The Home Office estimates that the average economic cost--including justice costs--of each stolen vehicle is about £4,700; that amounts to £367 million a year. There are about 12,000 cases of insurance fraud, estimated at £2,800 each, giving a total cost of £400 million a year. Those statistics show the need for better legislation.

The measure is important and will benefit many of our constituents. However, despite its importance to our constituents and despite the overall economic and public sector costs of vehicle crime, we need to ensure that the regulatory burdens that we impose have an overall benefit. In the light of that, I urge hon. Members to consider the regulatory impact assessments that have been made by the Home Office.

Opposition Members often make points about increasing red tape. They made such points regularly while they were in government, but did precious little about the matter. In the unlikely event that they were to return to government, they would do no better. In essence, to tackle problems such as vehicle crime--where businesses can be used by unscrupulous people and those with criminal intent--we need regulation. The overall benefit to the public of such regulation must be balanced against the burden that it imposes.

Mr. Bercow: To what, if not to a reduction in police numbers, does the hon. Gentleman attribute the deterioration in the rates of detection and recovery of stolen vehicles during the past three years?

Mr. Darvill: I have not analysed the statistics for the detection of those crimes, but clearly police numbers will

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have an effect. We also need to consider the effect of other measures. Reducing any type of crime will have a beneficial effect on the police force generally, and may affect the other decisions that chief constables may make. To answer the hon. Gentleman's question, one would need to analyse the overall crime pattern in an area.

That is why the local crime partnerships are welcome. For example, I have estates in my constituency where vehicle crime is particularly prevalent, and the local authority and the police can target resources so as to have an impact on that.

Mr. McCabe: Is not one obvious answer to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) to say that the various engineering and voluntary arrangements put in place over the past few years have now achieved their maximum effect, and the improvement is levelling off? Is that not why we need further enforcement measures to tackle the vehicle crime that we have not previously been able to reach?

Mr. Darvill: My hon. Friend makes a good point. As I listened to his speech I recognised his expertise on the subject. Where voluntary measures have no impact, clearly the ability of the police will be diminished. If I read the results of the consultation aright, there is a general consensus in favour of regulation, so that attacks on such crimes can be further developed. There appears to be considerable agreement about the legislation, and approval of the proposals for regulation.

The purpose of part I is to bring the motor salvage industry within a framework of statutory regulation, so as to reduce the opportunity for the disposal of stolen vehicles. That will also assist the police and the other authorities investigating such offences. It is believed that regulating the industry could prevent about 30,000 vehicle thefts and 6,000 fraudulent insurance claims each year.

When my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate, will he let the House know what the cost burden of carrying out their registration duties will be for local authorities, and whether he believes that the schemes will adequately cover councils' costs?

I realise that there has been consultation, but my reading of the references in the Library research paper suggests that the costs, if the regulatory regime is to be effective, have been underestimated. Although there are gains to be made from the measure, I have some sympathy with some of the points made earlier by Conservative Members. This is not a party political point, because when the Conservative party was in government it made the same mistakes. Often we pass good measures in the House, but do not give local authorities the necessary resources to enforce them.

If we allow registration to take place in a cursory way, without insisting on the possible advantages of correct enforcement, we shall not get the benefits of that registration.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is making a good and powerful point, but does he agree that something else that will affect the effectiveness of the legislation is the criminal's perception of the capabilities of the police? If

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the criminal believes that he can get away with something because the police do not have the resources to enforce the Act adequately--

Mr. Forth: If?

Mr. Fabricant: My right hon. Friend is right; the criminal will try to get away with it. Perception is all-important, and if that sort of perception is to be overcome, the police will have to have adequate resources.

Mr. Darvill: I do not share the criminal mind of someone who might want to steal vehicles, but surely the point is that we want to make the legislation work. It is a combination of crime partnerships, police resourcing and a range of other measures that will deter the criminal.

We must approach the Bill in a bipartisan way, because the cost benefits for the country will be considerable. There is unlikely to be much division between us in terms of supporting the principle behind it.

Before leaving part I, we need to consider the end of life vehicles directive, which will be with us by April 2002. The Government will ask police forces and local authorities to monitor the impact of the regulations, which they intend to review in the light of the implementation information, and of the directive.

There are opportunities here for a more joined-up approach, because there is an environmental aspect to the way in which we deal with end-of-life vehicles--the abandoned vehicles that I mentioned earlier. Within the next two years there might be some opportunity to mesh the various provisions to give a better cost benefit for the public sector.

That might mean greater co-operation between local authorities, the police and so on, and the matter needs considering in detail. There might be an opportunity to make some provision in the Bill, so that when the end of life vehicles directive comes into force the necessary regulations can be amended. That would be easier than using primary legislation again.

Part II deals with the registration of number plate suppliers. The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe where number plates are so readily accessible. The Bill will ensure that plates are issued only for genuine reasons, and are used only on the correct vehicles. That long-overdue provision will help to reduce crime.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that clause 33 contains an enabling power for the Secretary of State to specify the size and shape, and the other dimensions and particulars, of registration plates. Does he agree that that provision should not enable the Secretary of State, in the name of uniformity, to do away with personalised number plates, which I think add to the colour and gaiety of the nation? As a humble son of toil, I, of course, do not possess personalised number plates, and I have no expectation of possessing them at any stage in my career. None the less, I defend the right of those who can afford to buy them to continue to do so. Does the hon. Gentleman also defend that right?

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