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Mr. Allen: We all know that, and our constituents know it, but unfortunately the police have to be extremely careful about the legal position. A clear and explicit guidance note would give them the security to act immediately on those problems.

Fifthly, greater use should be made of existing powers to prosecute those who abandon cars, linked into the faster track system of registered keepers to which my hon. Friend referred. Many vehicles change hands for a few pounds in the pub and nobody bothers to register them, making life extremely difficult for the police. People who abandon cars should also get penalty points on their licence for all future vehicles.

Many Labour Members are present and any one of them—along with 200 or 300 others—could speak on the subject.

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that many local authorities, and indeed the police, are getting a very poor press on the issue, when it is no fault of theirs? Many authorities are doing a lot to tackle the issue in innovative and imaginative ways, but the legislation does not allow them to take the steps that we and our constituents so want them to take.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend makes the point eloquently. All we are asking, as a group of Members of Parliament, is that the Government take a number of simple, clear and almost entirely cost-free measures. They are small technical changes that will be welcomed in every town and city throughout the land. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister not to delay on this heartland issue but to introduce a package of simple measures as soon as he can.

10.13 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) on securing this debate on an issue that is unquestionably of concern not only in Stevenage but throughout the country. The fact that so many of my hon. Friends have attended the debate and made a series of sensible points that the Government will take very seriously in the consultation that is now under way is an indication of the importance that we attach to the subject—but I note that not a single Opposition Member is here.

We are well aware that abandoned vehicles are a major and growing headache not only for Stevenage borough council but for many local authorities in England. My hon. Friend was right to mention the change in the scrap metal price and the fact that one now has to pay the car breakers to collect a car, rather than receiving money for it. That is the nub of the problem.

The number of old vehicles dumped in Britain last year is estimated at one third of a million, and the level of dumping has increased enormously in recent years. All too often vehicles are abandoned in residential streets, where, as my hon. Friends have said, they quickly become an eyesore and attract the attention of vandals. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough

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(Fiona Mactaggart) said, in the worst cases they become an explosive nightmare. Many are burned out, which places an increasing burden on the fire service. The police, too, have to get involved when abandoned vehicles are in a condition that is dangerous to members of the public and to children who, unfortunately, find them particularly attractive.

Local authorities often have difficulty in tracing the last known keeper of a vehicle—I shall return to that problem in a moment—and are thus unable often to recover the costs of dealing with such vehicles. Those problems are now being accentuated because of the falling price of scrap metal and the fact that the value of old cars has fallen, as a result of which we know that old cars are changing hands in an informal market, without documentation, for no more than a few pounds.

What action are the Government taking? That is what my hon. Friends want me to tell them. Since the election, my Department and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have been working together on proposals for tackling the problem of abandoned vehicles.

The main proposals are as follows. We shall reduce the present notice periods used by local authorities, so that abandoned vehicles can be removed more quickly and efficiently, thus reducing the risk of vandalism and the likelihood that a particular vehicle will be reported as abandoned several times in different places. That will reduce costs. We shall also enable local authorities to use the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's wheel- clamping powers to remove unlicensed vehicles—possibly by acting as the DVLA's contractor—and provide better access to the DVLA's records. I shall return to that point in a moment.

In the longer term, it is proposed to change vehicle registration and licensing procedures to ensure that the DVLA's vehicle record is more accurate—although this would almost certainly require primary legislation. I am happy to tell the House that we now aim to consult on proposals resulting from those recommendations in the very near future.

What action is being taken by the DVLA? The DVLA has an interest in tackling unlicensed vehicles, which up to 80 per cent. of abandoned vehicles are. The agency operates a nationwide scheme to wheel-clamp and impound unlicensed vehicles to tackle the problem of vehicle excise duty evasion. To date, about 71,000 vehicles have been clamped or impounded, and about half of these have been disposed of, mainly by crushing. The scheme is proving very successful, and has already encouraged more than 384,000 extra motorists to relicense voluntarily—although "voluntarily" is a bit of a term of art. That brings in more than £47 million in additional revenue, which is quite useful.

Siobhain McDonagh: I am sure that all Members will be pleased with the increase in revenue and the effect of the DVLA tow-away vehicles, but I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that there are only two tow-away teams in Greater London. That means that each constituency is visited less than once a year. Would it not

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be better to double, or even triple, the number of tow-away teams, given the high incidence of untaxed cars in the capital?

Mr. Meacher: It certainly would, and we intend to do exactly that.

A national scheme to detect vehicle excise duty evasion, using automated number plate reader camera systems, was launched on 11 October in London. The system, called Stingray, is van based and operated by DVLA staff. The system will be used to supplement the police and other enforcement agencies in detecting and deterring VED evasion.

A number of pilot schemes are being run to counteract the problem of unlicensed and abandoned vehicles. We look to the success of those pilot schemes in order to roll out similar schemes nationally. The first began in Kent, as my hon. Friend said—I cannot remember his constituency. [Hon. Members: "Chatham and Aylesford".] How could I forget Aylesford after all the discussions? The first pilot scheme began in Kent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) mentioned. It began on 22 January and involved the agency joining forces with Kent police, Kent county council, Medway borough council and Kent fire service. For the first time, the agency's wheel-clamping contractor targeted abandoned vehicles under the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978—to which several of my hon. Friends referred—as well as wheel-clamping unlicensed vehicles. The pilot scheme ran for eight weeks. It was called Operation Cubit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage said—she gave the correct derivation of the name—and resulted in more than 700 vehicles being removed and destroyed. The downside was that the number of vehicle fires increased significantly, presumably as the local villains sought to destroy forensic evidence—you cannot win them all—but that is not a reason for not continuing or extending the project.

Mr. Shaw: As my right hon. Friend said, several hundred vehicles were removed from the streets of the Medway towns, including many in my constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) pointed out, the removal of those cars also meant the freeing up of several hundred legitimate parking spaces, especially for people who live in terraced housing where parking is at a premium.

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend is right. It is a win-win-win situation. It stops offenders, collects more money, ensures that the DVLA has more accurate information and provides more parking spaces, which are also none too available in London.

Two pilot schemes in London—in Newham and Lewisham—are looking at the scope for local authorities to use the DVLA's powers to wheel-clamp abandoned vehicles and remove them after 24 hours—I stress that time, because it is significant. Since 9 April, more than 900 vehicles in Newham have been wheel-clamped, with more than 460 released on payment of fees. More than 250 vehicles have been destroyed, mainly by crushing. The remainder are in the pound awaiting their fate. Lewisham experienced similar, albeit lower, figures.

If those pilots are successful, the Prime Minister has said—as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) pointed out, the Prime Minister

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regarded it as significant enough to make it an important item in a speech earlier this year—consideration will be given to rolling out the scheme more widely. The initial assessment of the schemes suggests the makings of a solution to the problem.

Keeping the vehicle register up to date is also an important part of our armoury. The DVLA is very much aware that if the enforcement of abandoned vehicles is to be improved, and it is to support initiatives such as congestion charging and speed and red light camera enforcement, the vehicle register has to be accurate, up to date and capable of identifying the vehicle owner. Without that ability, there is no effective sanction against those who dump cars, and it is not possible for local authorities and the police to recover the costs of removing dumped cars.

The DVLA register is estimated to be up to 94 per cent. accurate, but it is clear that there is a significant hard core of vehicles for which it is not possible to trace a current owner. Those are also the vehicles that tend to be uninsured, without an MOT certificate, to be involved in fail-to-stop accidents and to flout parking and speed regulations. They are also the cars that are most likely to be abandoned. Targeting those cars effectively is critical. Car owners are under a legal obligation to notify the DVLA when they transfer a vehicle, but a minority of owners deliberately avoid notification to avoid the costs of keeping their cars taxed, insured and roadworthy, and to escape detection by enforcement cameras.

Keepers are under a legal obligation to notify the DVLA when they transfer a vehicle, but there is a minority that deliberately avoid notification in order to avoid the costs of keeping their cars taxed, insured and roadworthy, and to escape detection by enforcement cameras. They are, inevitably, largely old and low-value cars. Action is taken against those who refuse to comply when they are identified. Last year the DVLA pursued more than 36,000 motorists for failure to notify it of changes to vehicle ownership. That, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to consider how this hard core of vehicles can be brought within the system.

I believe that the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001 has allowed some important initiatives to be launched. For example, the requirement for those applying for duplicate vehicle registration documents to provide proof of identity, making it more difficult for traders to sell on vehicles without documentation, is a useful extra weapon in our armoury, but we recognise that more needs to be done. The Government's consultation exercise will contain further proposals for tightening up the system and ensuring that the last recorded keepers of vehicles cannot avoid their responsibilities.

There are indications that the new procedure is fulfilling its objective of achieving higher compliance with registration requirements, thereby improving the accuracy of the information held on the DVLA's vehicle record.

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