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24 Oct 2001 : Column 386

Off-road Motor Cycles

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

10.12 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a problem that is causing great concern in Skelmersdale, the largest town in my constituency and the place where I live. I am even more grateful that it falls to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) to reply to the debate. He and I were two members of a notable band of brothers who were incarcerated in the Cloisters when we arrived in Parliament in 1992. At that time, my hon. Friend was our man in the south-west, now thankfully joined by several other colleagues in the region. He was, and probably still is, famed for the clarity and resonance of his voice. In my first six months or so in Parliament, I came to know more about Plymouth docks than I did about West Lancashire. This evening, I aim to return the favour; I am delighted that my hon. Friend is now a Minister, and trust that he will be so for a very long time indeed.

The new part of Skelmersdale was built for pedestrians and is a labyrinth of walkways, which were intended—admirably at that time—to separate pedestrians from traffic. Inside the estates, the pedestrian ways often pass right before front doors without intervening gardens. The estates are tunnelled by passageways which debouch unannounced on to further pedestrian ways. The town is characterised by a high proportion of young people; it is an extended playground for young children, and many hundreds of young mothers push prams and baby carriers about the place.

In recent years, many of the estates have been bedevilled by off-road motor bikes, both youngsters' bikes and adult trial bikes of the type usually associated with scrambling, a sport of which I strongly approve. My estimate, which can only be a rough estimate, is that there are about 100 off-road bikes being used inside the estates, mostly by teenagers, but sometimes by children as young as six or seven.

Residents have for some years complained bitterly about the noise nuisance, but in recent months increasingly about the physical danger presented by bikes roaring round their houses. The police are deeply concerned about the matter, but are severely handicapped by the impossibility of giving chase to the offenders. Given the structure of the estates, any chase would simply multiply the chances of a serious accident. We have seen many examples on our roads in recent years.

Two citizens in particular in Skelmersdale have given me vivid accounts of the activities of bikers. Mr. John Gresty of Eavesdale has researched the problem and tells me that it is also common in inner Liverpool, which is not far away. Mr. Gordon Leather of Feltons describes how he was struck by a trial bike ridden by a 13-year-old on a footpath. Mr. Leather was catapulted over a garden wall and received injuries to his legs, back and shoulders, for which he has been receiving hospital treatment since March. He tried to pursue the matter to seek redress, only to be informed by solicitors from the Motor Insurers Bureau that he could not claim because the motor bike was on the pavement. In any case, he could never have identified the lad responsible for the accident.

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I have a personal experience to record. While I was driving through one of my estates during the general election campaign, my car was struck by a young man aged about 17 on a trial bike, who shot out of the shrubbery and hit the front of my car. He went underneath the car. Fortunately, I was going very slowly, at about 10 mph. It was an election campaign and—my hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar with this—I was looking for a long-lost canvass team, buried somewhere in the estate. However, from the crunching noise, I honestly believed that I had run over the young man's head. I got out of the car, terrified and shaking. It turned out that he was not seriously hurt, but the bike was completely demolished, to his evident distress, as he said it was "a mate's". It had no identifying marks on it at all. I was so relieved at the outcome of the accident that I took no further action, especially as his bike fell to bits as he tried to pick it up, which was rather comical. In retrospect, I should have carted him off to the police, especially as about £300-worth of damage had been done to my car.

The police in Skelmersdale have taken the problem seriously and are close to prosecution in a number of cases, but they are frustrated by the fact that when they catch and deal with a young offender for dangerous driving or riding on the highway, the culprit, once he has been dealt with, returns to his bike. There are no powers to confiscate bikes, which would be a terrific sanction for the police to be able to employ.

I know that consideration of such powers is a matter for the Home Office, but I also know from my time as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Office that there are regular discussions between officials and Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Home Office on interface issues, particularly concerning sentencing for road offences. I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the serious problem that I have described is included in those discussions as a matter of urgency. There is no doubt in my mind that there are deaths waiting to happen out there on the estates in Skelmersdale.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, about something that is a problem for many of his fellow Members of Parliament. The Doncaster crime and disorder partnership has identified motor bike nuisance as one of the issues that it intends to address. I concur with my hon. Friend on the fact that the police need powers to confiscate the bikes, but does he also agree that housing departments should consider seeking eviction if a family are conniving and encouraging their children to cause this nuisance?

Mr. Pickthall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I have been unable to ascertain the extent of the problem and it is interesting to know that it is happening in her constituency as well. I am a little uneasy about the idea of eviction sitting on the back of it, but that is another matter.

The police have dramatic evidence of the dangers that my hon. Friend and I have described, and they have shown it to me. Some weeks ago, the Lancashire police helicopter was in the vicinity of Skelmersdale and was asked to look at a motor cyclist who was riding dangerously through one of the estates. It captured on video many minutes of this 13-year-old, as he turned out to be, zooming past people's doors, along footpaths and

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through the ginnels. At one point—I have seen the tape—he shot through a group of people, striking a man and spinning him round. Fortunately, the man was not seriously injured. The rider spotted the helicopter and sought to shake it off, but he could not; it followed him and the chase ended when the lad got home. His mother came out of the house and hid the bike in the kitchen. I am reliably informed that many of the kids hide these bikes in their bedrooms, although how they get them upstairs, I do not know.

To my mind, the case for action against these characters is clear. I believe that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that police have more powers to deal with them. However, there are other aspects of the problem that need to be addressed. A couple of weeks ago, I met two young 14-year-old bikers to discuss these problems. David McCullock and Karl Matthews told me that they wished to use their bikes legally—they were decent young lads and I believed them—but that that presented them with great difficulties as to how and where they could ride them in safety.

We must consider whether it is reasonable and safe to allow children to own motor bikes, which can be lethal weapons. No doubt, some parents believe that they are doing their children a great favour by buying them bikes, not taking into account the fact that their use almost inevitably involves riding on roads and thus breaking the law. They consider neither legality nor insurance responsibility. Having paid large sums for the bikes, they are then reluctant to prevent the children from using them.

I heard of one case in which the sale of a bike to a boy who is an epileptic was refused by the vendor, so his father turned up and bought it for him. In my opinion, that was very misplaced generosity. Parents have a huge responsibility. One of the boys to whom I spoke told me that he had possessed a motor bike since he was seven years old. David and Karl made the incontrovertible point that, as long as it is legal for them to own an off-road motor bike, it is reasonable for them to have somewhere to use it legally.

The police, youth service and council in West Lancashire are all keen to identify an area where bikes can be used without causing danger to pedestrians. I am very keen to help with that. We have tried to establish a site before, but people living close to the area that was identified made an enormous protest about the potential noise nuisance, which is always a problem in urban areas. Even in rural areas, where scrambling tracks are not uncommon, the noise can be ferocious and can carry a long way. I have a problem on the border of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), where noise created at a track in one local authority and constituency area is causing nuisance in the neighbouring one, which is mine. Such cross-border problems are very difficult to deal with. We may be able to identify suitable areas in industrial estates, but we will then face the problem of ensuring that the off-road bikes get to the legal venues without riding on roads or using footpaths. The logistics could be very difficult, although that is matter for local agencies and councils to consider, alongside the many other demands on their resources.

I was uncertain as to how widespread the problem was. I raised the matter at a Lancashire police forum a couple of months ago and was told that, in Lancashire, it seemed to be confined to Skelmersdale. However, since then,

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I have learned that it is a problem in inner Liverpool and in Doncaster. It may be that there is a particular problem in Skelmersdale because of the peculiar geography of the town.

In summary, I am certain that it is not right to place the onus on pedestrians in Skelmersdale to dodge these missiles. It is not right that the residents should be harassed by the persistent noise emanating from bikes roaring up and down the walkways just outside their homes, often in the early hours of the morning. That happens very frequently; it is not an odd occurrence. It is not right that a situation that clearly presents a risk to life and limb should be allowed to drift without an effective remedy.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend to use his ministerial authority to institute an examination of the whole issue of off-road motor bikes: the circumstances of their sale; the suitability or otherwise of young children's ownership of such bikes; the insurance requirements; and the powers of the authorities to prevent the abuse of these bikes and to protect citizens from the effects of their abuse. It is my duty as the MP representing Skelmersdale to do something about this menace before one of my constituents—one of my neighbours, indeed—is killed, rather than seeking to do something after a killing has happened.

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