Vehicles (Crime) Bill

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that the tome to which he referred is well known to me, as it applies in both England and Scotland. During my short practice at the Scottish bar, we relied on it heavily.

Has my hon. Friend considered the implications of the possibility that a car may be deemed to be abandoned if it is no longer taxed in England, but may not be deemed to be abandoned in similar circumstances in Scotland?

Mr. Bercow: I should have thought that a great deal more removal activity would take place south of the border than north, and that enforcement issues would be involved. However, I have not reflected closely on my hon. Friend's point, and perhaps she will want to develop it in a thoughtful, eloquent and enticing contribution of her own, once my effort has concluded.

Conservatives believe that abandoned cars should be treated like litter, and that local authorities should be more efficient at towing them away. Given that councils have no problem towing away cars that are illegally parked, it is unclear why they should have difficulty with abandoned ones. We are therefore seeking to introduce a legal means by which councils would be able to keep the revenue generated by enforcing fines for abandoning cars. That policy, which would help to clean up our streets, was also announced by the Conservative and Unionist party in our war on litter document, which was published in September 2000.

5.25 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.40 pm

On resuming—

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Drawing on my short intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I wonder whether the Minister will take this opportunity to put my mind at rest by confirming that circumstances north of the border will not differ from those in England. If the new clause were accepted, that problem could probably be avoided. My understanding is that the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 applies uniformly in England and Scotland, so it would concern me greatly if the original provisions were applied in different ways in the two countries. That is my argument in a nutshell, and I shall not rehearse the points made in my intervention on my hon. Friend.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Although I welcome the new clause, it is sadly flawed in that it would not provide the revenue stream that the Conservatives claim. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, under the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978—the Labour party's finest year in terms of rubbish collection—the maximum fine for abandoning a vehicle is £2,500, and abandoned cars are treated the same as any other litter. However, according to officers of Kent county council and Medway council—one is Conservative-run and the other is a minority administration, so I am not voicing a partisan perspective—more than 90 per cent. of abandoned cars are untraceable. People act irresponsibly by failing to send the logbook and accompanying paperwork to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, so finding those concerned and imposing the necessary fines is an enormous task that bears little fruit.

The new clause would prove extremely costly, place an extra burden on local authorities and prove unworkable in terms of the revenue stream. The hon. Member for Buckingham is nodding—

Mr. Bercow: I was shaking my head.

Mr. Shaw: Well, perhaps he will be nodding his head by the time I have finished my contribution.

Mr. Bercow: That is optimism.

Mr. Shaw: Socialists are always optimists. [Hon. Members: ``Oh!''] I and many of my colleagues have always been very comfortable with that word. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Colchester breathes in any more deeply, he will swallow his teeth.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Is my hon. Friend aware of the phrase ``optimism of the soul, pessimism of the intellect,'' which Antonio Gramsci used to describe the way in which socialists should address such issues? That phrase fits precisely with my hon. Friend's description.

Mr. Bercow: Does it appear in the ``Prison Notebooks''?

Mr. Clarke: No, it is from a speech and it should guide us all.

The Chairman: Order. Could we return to new clause 9?

5.45 pm

Mr. Shaw: I am grateful to you, Mr. O'Brien, for bringing my hon. Friend the Minister to order. To answer his question, I was not aware of that quotation, but I shall take a reference from him and look it up.

The new clause would not provide the necessary revenue stream for local authorities and it would sap other services and resources. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, this is a serious problem that is getting increasingly worse. As he eloquently pointed out, the scrap value of cars has gone down, along with their retail value. They are not the commodity that they were in 1978, when the abandoning of cars was regarded as an important matter and there was an onus on local authorities to find the owner. The Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978 requires local authority officers to place a seven-day notice on abandoned cars, but in 2001 such notices are an invitation to burn the cars and smash their windows. If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, we would not want the laws that we have today, because they make matters worse.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman argues—quite convincingly—that the proposal might not work because the owners of abandoned vehicles are difficult to trace and therefore to fine. However, does he agree that we need mechanisms to ensure that such matters are reported to the DVLA, so that its database can be maintained accurately, and how would he ensure that such rules are adhered to?

Mr. Shaw: The problem is that the system was designed many years ago and does not meet today's needs. There are inherent structural problems. My local authority and I discussed the matter with the DVLA, the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry, but we went round in circles. We would not set up today the system that we have.

Euro-sceptic Opposition Members might find uncomfortable the fact that, in France, people who pass a driving test at 17 or 18 purchase a number plate for their car that is then transferred to any new vehicle that they may buy. A number plate in France is therefore personal, rather like a national insurance number, so there is little problem with abandoned vehicles. Such a system would be my solution to the problem in this country, but it would require primary legislation.

We have heard about the Kent County Council Bill and the Medway Council Bill; once again the Medway is proving a trailblazer. A pilot scheme has just begun that brings together the powers of DVLA officers, local authority officers and the police. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, road traffic legislation allows the DVLA to clamp and remove untaxed vehicles quickly. Officers do not have to place a seven-day notice. If all the agencies worked together and had special arrangement with the contractor to remove the cars, big inroads could well be made into the number of abandoned vehicles in Medway, and, if the pilot proves successful, throughout Kent. We hope that it will fan out across the county.

The costs are enormous. As I said on Second Reading, Kent county council spent £650,000 removing cars, and an officer told me that that figure will soon top a million. The new clause, however, will raise costs further without sorting out the structural problems. The officers of Kent county council, Medway council and the police advised me that they have no recollection of anyone ever being prosecuted for abandoning a vehicle.

I agree with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Buckingham on an issue that is close to my heart. We must resolve the problem; otherwise it will get worse. The new clause, however, is not the solution. We should await the outcome of the Medway pilot. The Home Office and the DETR are watching it closely. One solution could be to unite the powers of the two agencies, perhaps by having a local authority officer operate as an agent for the DVLA.

We must cut the time of seven-day notices, which are a disaster—particularly in urban areas and on private land. It is a honey pot for vandals. The hon. Member for Lichfield spoke about the dangers created for individuals when cars are abandoned. Uniting the powers and speeding up the time in which vehicles are removed and stored may provide a better solution. As I said, we should carefully study the outcomes of the pilot before deciding whether primary legislation is necessary. The new clause will simply impose further burdens on local authorities and would not resolve the problems that all our communities face.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I commend the new clause and agree that it was put constructively. Abandoned vehicles are a serious problem. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), who has been an assiduous campaigner on this matter. The problem is that an individual event—an abandoned car—requires a multi-agency solution. It requires the local authority, the police, DVLA and often the fire authorities to work together. We may have failed in the past because the partnership was not close enough to deal with the problem effectively. Apart from Kent's scheme, some in the north-east have seen effective partnership between the fire service and others in dealing with abandoned vehicles.

One of my most fascinating experiences as a Minister was to hear a presentation by the chief constable of Kent, Sir David Phillips, on abandoned cars and the issues that led to the project in Medway to which the my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred. We do need the co-ordinated action of that approach.

The pilot scheme has at its core that abandoned vehicles, which are usually untaxed, will be wheel-clamped by a DVLA contractor—in Medway it is one called Sureway. If the vehicles are not taxed within 24 hours they will be removed to one of two car pounds and disposed of after 35 days, so the seven-day problem simply does not arise. Summary action is taken to deal with the situation immediately because the law has been broken by the car not being taxed.

The pilot is a multi-agency approach to the problem and could be used effectively and positively elsewhere. Earlier today, one of the Government Whips asked me whether it could be done in the county that he represents, as it is a beneficial general practice. The aim is to deliver a shock to the owners of unlicensed vehicles and force them to relicense and we believe that a number of abandoned vehicles will be caught in the net.

We are evaluating the scheme very carefully, and we hope it will provide us with solutions that we can introduce nationally. I should emphasise that some of them may require legislative changes, because of questions in respect of the legal relationships between the various agencies that we need to get right.

The reason why we resist the new clause is first because it does not seem to be multi-agency in its approach. That is not designed as a grade-one criticism, but it seems to us that the provision needs to be multi-agency as it is proper and right to look at all the legislative changes that would be needed in a combined way.

On the horizon is the famous end of life vehicle directive, which seeks to make provision for the collection and environmentally sound destruction or recovery and re-use of vehicles that have outlived their usefulness. We are currently looking at how best to implement the directive, which we hope would tackle the problem that the new clause seeks to address.

I hope that, on consideration, the hon. Member for Buckingham will consider withdrawing the new clause. I can give him the assurance that it is a matter of high concern to the Government, and what might be of more interest and concern to him is that we do not see this as a party political matter, as my hon. Friend has indicated and that particular ideas, either from the hon. Member for Buckingham or from his party would be looked at positively.

As we are not proposing the acceptance of this new clause, the interesting and learned points from the hon. Member for the Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) about the relationship between Scotland and England do not apply.

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