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Perhaps I can offer my hon. Friend that assurance. I agree that it is important for people to understand where legislation applies, and it is frequently the case that people get confused and wonder which
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areas are intended to be covered. I will be happy to give further chapter and verse about that when we debate the issue in Committee. I certainly underline the importance of the point that my hon. Friend is raising.
Mr. Hall: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I also look for assurance that the Bill will deal with the issue of deliberate abandonment, about which I believe the courts have set some tests. That will be essential if the welcome idea of serving a fixed penalty notice on a known perpetrator for abandoning a vehicle is to become an effective deterrent.
Finally, I want to stress the efficacy of keeping accurate records of car ownershipor, more precisely, of the registered keeper of vehicles. The Finance Act 2002 amended the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, and from January 2004 brought in continuous registration, which involves a monthly computer check of vehicle licensing by the DVLA. It has the ability to fine people up to £80 for not renewing or declaring a statutory off-road notice.
I know that my constituent, Mr. Meadows, hoped that this change in the law would require the registered keeper to be responsible for the costs associated with the vehicle in addition to the licence fee. I understand that, technically, it does not do that, but since the change was enacted, the DVLA generated an additional 4 million vehicle licensing, registration and SORN transactions in the first nine months of last year in comparison with the first nine months of the previous yeara considerable increase in business. More people are coming within the system and more accurate records mean that more people are traceable when it comes to parking fines or towing-away costs for abandoned vehicles.
It has to be acknowledged, however, that it will still be difficult to tackle people who deliberately operate outside the systemthose who give false names and addresses and who frequently change address. They are the very people who disproportionately cause problems to everyone else through criminal and antisocial behaviour involving vehiclesnot paying the road tax, for example, not registering ownership or not insuring vehicles, never mind abandoning them when they are no longer needed.
The reforms proposed in the Bill and the benefits of continuous registration will put the squeezeif I may use that expressionon abandoned cars, but will not remove the need for more and more effective on-road enforcement. Thus, savings that should follow from speeding up the process may well need to be absorbed elsewhere. As to people who operate outside society and rely on false identity, we will not have the means to make life more difficult for them unless and until we introduce something that is not mentioned in the Billa system of identity cards.
In conclusion, I welcome the Bill, and especially its provisions to deal with abandoned cars. It proposes constructive steps, as I see it, without pretending to offer a total solution. It is part of a process. In my view, that process is in tune with my constituents' aspirations to tackle antisocial behaviour and improve the quality of the public realm.
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Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I was rather perplexed when I saw that the Opposition were going to vote against the Bill. It seems to me that the problems that the Bill deals with are equally likely to occur in the northern parts of the rural area of my constituency as they are in the urban areas, and I would have thought that that was the same throughout the country.
One of the main points of the Bill is to give local authorities the ability to construct an overarching strategy to tackle many of those issues. The fact that powers are currently spread across different authorities and agencies is what brings the conflict into being at the moment, but the Bill is designed to tackle rather than exacerbate the difficulties to which the Opposition allude. I was also pleased to see that the quality of the local environment can be taken into account in crime reduction partnerships. It is important for them to have that ability.
I want to discuss part 6, which deals with dogs. Neither of the two Opposition Members who spoke about them is in his place at present, but I am sure that I am not alone among Government Members in having received many complaints about the packs of stray dogs that roam about the estates within our constituencies. They can cause huge problems for our constituents and they are difficult to deal with. The police attach low priority to that problem for understandable reasons: it is not one of their major concerns and looking after packs of dogs is not high among their priorities. Passing responsibility over to local authorities, which are generally more responsive to local needs, is a better way of tackling the problem.
I am not wholly clear about the changes proposed for dealing with dog foulinganother common problem in our constituencies. It appears from a cursory reading of the Bill that the fines can be levied only in places where a dog control area has been established. That seems a retrograde stepI hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurance, either in his summing up or in Committee, that that is not the case. I hope to hear that fines for dog fouling on pavements can be levied throughout our constituencies.
Moving on to fixed penalty notices, it is important that they are applied within the scale of fines that courts can levy for similar offences. Not doing so would undermine the belief that there is justice in the system. Once people feel that something is unjust, it undermines public confidence in the system. It is immensely important that people are supportive of the Bill. It is equally important that fixed penalty notices are viewed as an effective deterrent. I generally welcome the idea of allowing local authorities to vary the level of fines, which shows their responsibility and responsiveness to their communities. However, I am not fully convinced that local accountability in this particular case is more significant than the deterrent value of having a clear national tariff. It is another matter that I hope to explore with the Minister in Committee.
Similarly, I am unclear about the hypothecation of fines to local authorities and hope to discuss that further in Committee. I understand that it will provide an
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important new source of funding and enable local authorities to carry out their duties and responsibilities specified in the Bill. However, I hope that hypothecation will not mean tying down authorities too much, forcing them to use the funds gained from the fines to deliver goals specifically defined in the Bill. I want them to be able to use those funds for other purposes if they so wish. That is the thrust behind the present good idea of allowing good and excellent councils more discretion. I hope that we will continue to allow that to happen. As I understand it, the comprehensive performance assessment includes measures of environmental quality, so good and excellent councils will be in danger of losing their status if they do not achieve in that respect. I feel that that already provides sufficient incentive for councils to act in ways to promote the environment and that the proposals on hypothecation are therefore unnecessary.
The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) mentioned clause 47, which gives powers to local authorities to run their own waste disposal authorities. As a former chair of an effective waste disposal organisation that was dismembered, on purely dogmatic grounds, by the previous Conservative Government, I welcome the proposal and hope that some local authorities are able to do that. I fear that it might be too late and that the huge costs involved will prevent it, but at least the proposal removes the pure dogma that existed previously.
The Bill will do much to improve people's attitudes to the environment. Statutes can do this, as we have seen in road traffic, where the wearing of seat belts and crash helmets and the use of breathalysers have made people more aware of road safety. That will be the case with the Bill. It is also important that we continue to educate and raise awareness through the work done by the Wigan-based ENCAMS authority, which enthusiastically supports the Bill, despite the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) did not include it in his list of organisations. ENCAMS works closely with schools and community organisations to raise awareness of problems such as litter.
The Bill will improve the environment in urban and rural areas and in communities throughout the country and it fully deserves our support. I shall be happy to vote for it tonight and will support it in Committee if chosen to be a member.
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