Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Mr. Fabricant: As far as I can see, the only obligation in the new clause is that a car park operator be registered and that the local authority maintain the register. The hon. Gentleman began to say that he wants car park operators to take reasonable steps to ensure that the car is protected while parked, but I see nothing of that in the new clause.

Mr. Chidgey: The purpose of the new clause is to open the debate on the issue of the significant amount of car crime that takes place in car parks. It would make it a requirement for car park operators to register with local authorities. I hope that Ministers will take that point seriously so that, at a later stage, regulations could be developed to state what was required of operators for them to be placed on that register. We are trying to engage Ministers in debate on the important issue of the high level of crime that takes place in car parks.

Mr. Bercow: I apologise for having had to pop out during the hon. Gentleman's presentation of the new clause. I understand what he is saying about the incidence of crime in car parks, but can he explain to what extent, if at all, he feels that car park operators are themselves culpable and that the problem would be diminished by registration?

Mr. Chidgey: I believe that the statistics show that car park operators are, in the main, ignoring the recommendations for developing car parks to secure standards that the police and the AA, among others, have promoted and advised on.

We do not suggest that car park operators should be entirely liable and responsible for cars in their car parks. However, we propose that an obligation be placed on operators to take reasonable measures to protect motorists' property in exchange for the parking charge paid. A reasonable measure would be defined as a standard equal to the secured car park award. The AA currently administers the secured car parks scheme on behalf of the police. The scheme has been in operation for more than five years.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham, so far, of more than 10,000 car parks, fewer than 700 have achieved secured status. With 25 per cent. of car crime taking place in car parks, that is a matter of great anxiety, and Ministers should take it extremely seriously.

To emphasise the point, I should like to discuss the case of one town that was plagued by high levels of vehicle crime in its car parks during the mid-1990s—and presumably for some years before. The local council, working with the police and the AA, implemented a policy of improving its car parks to secured car park standards. The salient and telling point is that in 1995 thefts from vehicles in those car parks were 38, and thefts of vehicles 34, but in 1999, with the secured car park regime in operation, there were no thefts from or of vehicles—a significant difference if ever there was one.

It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that that astute and effective policy was introduced by an award-winning local council, my own, Liberal Democrat-controlled council, Eastleigh borough council—

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. Chidgey: I did not for one moment believe that I would be able to continue my presentation without arousing the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm and interest. No doubt he will find an explanation in his own mind of why the scheme was so successful. I await his intervention with bated breath.

Mr. Bercow: I fear that on this occasion I shall disappoint the hon. Gentleman, as I did not want to make a partisan point, and I shall ignore that comment. I was interested in, and rather struck by, his comment about the small proportion of operators who are compliant. I was going to ask him whether, as far as he is aware, it is only the larger operators that are compliant. In other words, is a financial factor involved?

Mr. Chidgey: I misjudged the hon. Gentleman, who makes an important and thoughtful point. I shall answer his question as best I can.

The statistics currently available do not distinguish between large and small operators. However, a cost is involved—that of closed circuit television cameras and better lighting and policing. Perhaps that is why car park operators are not subscribing voluntarily to the scheme. However, I must point out again that 25 per cent. of vehicle crime takes place in car parks. The cost of that must far outweigh the cost of basic measures to improve security. It is clear from the statistics that the car industry will not embrace the secured car park scheme without Government action. Why should it, when motorists are queueing to pay to go in, even though they know that criminals are allowed to go about their work with no interference—and perhaps no interest—from the car park owner?

The new clause would place a reasonable obligation on car park operators to bring car parks up to secure parking standards and would make inroads into tackling the quarter of all vehicle crime that currently takes place in car parks.

Mr. Fabricant: I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastleigh on tabling the new clause. Although, for a couple of reasons that I shall give shortly, I do not believe that it should be included in the Bill, the fact that it has been tabled is important. The Minister has listened patiently and politely—and, I am sure, with great interest—to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. It is a sobering thought that less than 7 per cent. of all car parks meet the requirement. At present, the number of trains running is severely diminished. I have to drive to and from Lichfield every weekend instead of taking the train from Lichfield Trent Valley. I am relieved that at least the House of Commons car parks are among the 7 per cent.

One of the problems of the new clause—I accept the spirit in which the hon. Member for Eastleigh presented it—is subsection (5), which states:

    The register shall, subject to any requirements that may be prescribed, be in such form as the local authority consider appropriate.

It is another of the blank cheques to which I object so strongly. Nevertheless, it highlights the real problem of vehicle crime: so much of it is committed in car parks. As more and more people have access to more and more cars, more and more people need to park them, especially when public transport is not up to the standard that we should like, and it is more important that vehicle crime be diminished by having reasonable standards. I invite an intervention from the hon. Member for Eastleigh to outline briefly what he would like subsection (5) to contain—is he thinking of closed circuit television?—and why.

Mr. Chidgey: One must remember that the AA secured car park scheme set out the measures that one should take to achieve the standard that is recognised by the award of a plaque. To be precise, I am in favour of CCTV; clear, effective lighting within the car park, the access to it and the lift areas; good visibility; and regular checks by parking attendants—all of which will improve standards.

A survey has shown that as a result of improvements in the car parks in the town that I mentioned earlier—which happens to be in my constituency—to the standards that we are discussing, customer satisfaction with the car parks was, from memory, 84 per cent. and feelings of safety when using them was over 90 per cent. Let me put that into perspective. I know the car park well. It is a multi-storey building close to the railway station. Before the improvements, it was well known as an area to be avoided. It was a question of not only whether to park one's car there, but whether to enter it at all, such was the feeling of insecurity and danger. I hope that I have helped hon. Members by talking about the measures that can be taken and their effect on the patronage of car parks—in Eastleigh, on one that was usually left empty.

12 noon

Mr. Fabricant: That was a very helpful intervention. The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, not only about crimes against the car and its contents, but about the fear of crime against the person. All members of the Committee will know of many car parks that people feel unhappy and uncomfortable about going into at night, especially when they are badly lit. Will the Minister outline some of the provisions of the AA secured car park scheme and say whether, in different legislation, the Government would be minded to adopt all those provisions?

I was surprised to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) would not be speaking this morning. I should have thought that the matter would come more under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions than of the Home Office. Perhaps I can tempt him to intervene at some point or to make a statement. He is nodding in the negative.

Mr. Bercow: It is worth noting that, although the Under-Secretary intends to be silent, he earnestly assured me in the Tea Room last night that he had devoured the proceedings of last Thursday afternoon in readiness for his silent attendance today. Is my hon. Friend aware that I share his concern about the all-embracing and factual character of subsection (5)? Does he agree that it would be helpful if the hon. Member for Eastleigh would explain whether registration under the new clause would carry a fee?

Mr. Fabricant: Yet again, my hon. Friend raises an interesting, valid and pertinent point. In inviting the hon. Member for Eastleigh to intervene on me—I thought at one point that he might intervene on my hon. Friend, who was intervening on me—to respond to that point, will he also comment on whether the scheme would be self-financing? What dissuaded him from including the provisions of the AA secured car park scheme in subsection (5) instead of having such an all-embracing, catch-all subsection?

Mr. Chidgey: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Chairmen of Committees rarely like to have interventions on interventions, but I am more than happy to be patient on such matters.

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