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Mr. Darvill: I defend the right of anyone to do that, provided that the overall effect is not negative--but if there were an advantage to be gained in more conformity

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and more standardised provisions in terms of technology, enforcement and detection, and if the overall benefit of that could be proven, I would be happy to go along with it. I have no desire for personalised number plates myself, but I appreciate that some do. To me, it is not a major issue.

I welcome the provisions on disclosure of information, especially those in clause 17(7) about the police information technology organisation. That will be a powerful provision and will have some benefit.

It is interesting that when the views of small and medium-sized businesses were sought, to assess the effectiveness of the proposed regulations in this part of the Bill, none opposed them, and all considered the potential costs to be insignificant.

On part III, I particularly welcome clause 36, which deals with the extension of time limits for prosecution, and clause 37, which provides that the income that criminal courts receive from speed camera penalties can be used to fund more speed cameras and to improve road safety. The impact of speed cameras has been generally beneficial. More speed cameras are required in my area and funding from that source will be welcomed. I should be interested to learn how those funds will be allocated between areas--perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us in his winding-up speech.

In conclusion, the Bill will not end vehicle crime, but it will help to reduce it. That must be welcome. Public awareness initiatives, greater security in car parks, extended CCTV, improved vehicle design, schemes targeted at those young people at risk of involvement in vehicle crime and a range of other initiatives will all contribute to meeting the Government's targets. Hon. Members should not ignore the range of initiatives that will have that impact. With the Bill on the statute book, the fight against crime will be helped, and for that reason it will receive my support and, I hope, that of the rest of the House.

8.31 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I want to contribute briefly to what has been a pretty good debate. I begin by declaring my interest, as stated in the Register of Members' Interests: I have a family business in the building industry, and I intend to mention plant and equipment.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) made a good contribution, because he set out the background against which the debate is taking place. He mentioned the fact that, after the purchase of a house, the purchase of a car involves the largest sum that people spend. People are very attached to their cars; they are important parts of their lives. Most of us who represent rural constituencies know that cars are a necessity of life; our constituents cannot do without them. Therefore, any threat to those vehicles, which they perceive as enabling them to live a free life, is treated very seriously.

Broadly speaking, I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced the Bill. Of course, the devil is in the detail and it is for the Committee to consider the various proposals to determine whether they will achieve the Government's ambitious target of a 30 per cent. reduction in such crime by 2004. Nevertheless, why

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should not we be ambitious and set targets, especially on car crime, from which many people have suffered greatly? The debates in Committee will be interesting.

As the hon. Member for Eastleigh also mentioned, such crime does not purely involve road-going vehicles; there has been a growth in the theft of farm vehicles and plant. The building industry has suffered greatly from its plant and equipment being stolen from sites. Some years ago, the vehicle registration authorities used to register, for example, vibrating rollers for no fee. However, because no tax was paid on such vehicles, the registration authorities introduced a form of tax and builders had to choose whether to pay to license them, or not to license them and keep them off the road on building sites. Those decisions, which the industry has been pushed into taking, have contributed to the rise in such crime. It is right and proper that vehicle crime should be a high priority for the Government. Where they are right, they will receive the support of Conservative Members.

The hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) raised the issue of abandoned cars. Many of us feel pretty strongly about that matter. I do not think that there is a Member whose constituents have not written to him or her about abandoned cars in their streets and communities and the frustration involved in writing to the police and the vehicle licensing people. They are trying to get rid of vehicles that cause great angst; kids play on them and their windows are broken, which presents a danger to children. Often reasonable-looking vehicles are quickly torn to pieces and sometimes torched. Even in my constituency, many such vehicles can be counted in certain estates. I urge the Government to consider whether the law on abandoned cars should be reviewed in Committee; we all think that more should be done about them.

As has been said, it is important to get the balance right when setting up a regulatory framework. Various figures for the costs have been cited--£13 million to £20 million in the first year and £11 million to £18 million thereafter. There is always a danger that law-abiding people will sign up, but those who are not reputable will try to avoid doing so. It is important to ensure that there is widespread acceptance of the legislation before cracking down on the rotten apples in the barrel.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend wisely draws attention to the importance of thoroughly considering the proposed regulations. Therefore, does he agree that it is essential that, either tonight or very soon, the Government undertake to introduce a minimum period--perhaps three months--during which affected organisations are consulted and that decent notice of the requirement to implement the regulations is provided to those who will have to give effect to them?

Mr. Syms: That is a good point. Many people are trying to run their businesses--life as a small business man can be hard--and they may not initially be aware that they must comply. Therefore, there should be reasonable consultation and a reasonable period before the regulations come into force, but sufficient penalties should be imposed on those who do not comply with the law of the land, so that the scheme receives widespread acceptance as early as possible.

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Local authority costs have been mentioned. All Governments are guilty of underestimating the costs to local authorities. I spent 12 years as a local councillor, and such proposals always cost more than was originally thought. If a charging regime is introduced through local government, those in the inner cities may have to charge higher fees because they have more client businesses. That is a problem.

Mr. Shaw: I referred to high figures for local authorities, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cost of dealing with abandoned vehicles should not be placed on council tax payers and that those who abandon the vehicles should face far stiffer and higher fines?

Mr. Syms: That is a good point. I, too, would focus on abandoned vehicles. If we could trace their owners and impose a large fine, that might be the solution. Of course, hon. Members on both sides of the House will be aware that there is a risk that either local authorities will have to bear the costs, and all local authorities are under pressure these days, or they will have to recover those costs by charging people in the industry. We all know that costs are eventually passed on to those who use the authority's services, and we must all be aware of that.

We have debated funding for new traffic cameras. One of the great successes of the past 20 years has been the way in which people have accepted the drink-drive laws. Attitudes have changed considerably. It is also important to obtain public support for speed cameras. It is not enough to pass laws; we must change people's attitudes.

Mr. Fabricant: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Syms: I will give way in a moment.

It is important that people understand that the overwhelming priority in the installation of speed cameras is safety and saving lives. They must appreciate that cameras have not been put in particular spots to catch people and to be used as an easy means of raising revenue. When the Bill goes to Committee, we need to be reassured that the priority will be safety and saving lives.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend has almost answered my question by developing his argument. However, does he not think that people have a responsible attitude towards drinking and driving because of the limits for alcohol in the blood that have been set? Does he not also think that certain aspects of the speed limits that have been set must be reconsidered? Does he not think that, at times, speed limits are set too high or too low? If there are to be many more speed cameras and much more enforcement, we must take a more rigorous approach to the limits.

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I do not want to stray too far into a discussion of that issue. This debate is not about drinking and driving. However, legislation will be accepted if it contains a reasonable balance.

My principal point is that if people understand that speed cameras are intended to save lives and to prevent accidents, there will be widespread acceptance of them. However, if people think that they are intended merely to annoy drivers and to raise extra revenue, there will not be

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such acceptance. On some patches of road, people know where the speed cameras are and they slow down for a mile. However, the moment they have passed the cameras, they put their foot down to make up for the delay in their journey. Therefore, if money is recycled from magistrates courts to providing more cameras, we need to be reassured that safety will be the No.1 priority.

I do not have the figures to hand, but the costs to the nation of road accidents were quoted earlier. We would make substantial savings if we could reduce the number of casualties on the roads. The casualties are not only drivers; too many children are knocked over.

Clause 35 and police access to the insurance industry's database were mentioned. There might be benefits to the insurance industry and the police if that happens, but certain data protection issues will have to be examined in Committee. Under the current Data Protection Acts, a local authority housing department cannot give housing information to another department in the local authority, because access to the information is strictly controlled. Therefore, giving all the insurance companies' information to the police is bound to raise data protection issues.

This country is slightly unusual. We have many company cars and many of them are insured under block policies. Cover notes are also widely used when people purchase vehicles. Unless insurance companies have very up-to-date data systems that keep daily track of cover notes, it will not be worth providing information, because many thousands of vehicles are covered by cover notes. The police might think that they have stopped someone who does not have proper insurance only to find that he has a cover note. The proposal needs to be thought out carefully.

Under current law, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is unable to refuse to grant a licence to a vehicle when one is requested. That means that vehicles that it knows to be fraudulent are issued with roadworthiness certificates. Nothing in the Bill will alter that law and, as a result, the new provision will have little practical effect. We should consider that point in Committee. It was highlighted by Sandy Dalgano of the National Salvage Group, and we need further clarification on it.

To some extent, the issue of police numbers has been done to death, but the fact is that there are 3,000 fewer police officers than in 1997. The police face tremendous pressures, and, as a society, we constantly introduce crime Bills but do not grapple with crime. The Government have promised to tackle the problem, and I was pleased to hear from several hon. Members that the police colleges are filling up with recruits. They will be needed because of the amount of legislation that is being introduced.

Overall, a Bill on vehicle crime is a good proposal, but the devil will certainly be in the detail. I am not sure that the Government have got all their proposals right, but there will be a lively debate on them in Committee. I hope that we eventually have a Bill that does the job of reducing vehicle crime, which most people believe needs to be done.

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