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1 Nov 2006 : Column 300

Point of Order

12.32 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning’s edition of The Sun newspaper carries a report of a threatened crime wave arising from immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. The report appears to be based on a leaked Cabinet Office memo that was given to a reporter from The Sun. It seems that, once again, the press have access to a document that is not available to this House. Could you use your offices to cause the document to be placed in the Library of the House of Commons?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for me. The hon. Gentleman has the right to put questions down to the appropriate Minister.

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Registration of Off-road Bikes

12.33 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I beg to move,

This is the third time in the past four weeks that a Member has asked for leave to be given to introduce a Bill related to off-road bikes. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) introduced a Bill to deal with scrambler bikes three weeks ago, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) presented a Bill for the regulation of mini-motos one week ago. Further, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) recently tabled early-day motion 2040. It was signed by 79 Members, and it calls on the Government to ensure that mini-bikes are clearly defined as motor vehicles.

I agreed some months ago to support the Greater Manchester police authority’s “Stop off-road motorcycle nuisance” campaign, which has been ably supported by a campaign in the Manchester Evening News. Those campaigns were prompted by the 26,000 complaints about off-road bike nuisance that were received by Greater Manchester police in the 12 months to July of this year.

The Motor Cycle Industry Association estimates that as many as 300,000 such bikes have been sold since 2001. Yet the existing statutory vehicle registration scheme applies only to those vehicles required to be licensed, and the requirement for licensing a vehicle is that it is to be used on the public highway. That means that bikes introduced into circulation as off-road bikes are not registered and do not have to undergo any meaningful safety evaluation, and that they can be marketed as toys and sold to children, despite the fact that many now reach speeds of up to 60 mph.

I believe that mandatory registration should be extended to cover motorcycles, motor tricycles and motor quad-bikes that are designed for use off-road. Early-day motion 2852, which I tabled last week, has been signed in its first few days by 52 hon. Members. It notes that off-road bikes are associated with antisocial behaviour, which disrupts communities, and calls for a mandatory and retrospective registration scheme for these bikes.

During the summer and autumn months, my constituents and those of many other hon. Members were affected badly by noise nuisance and damage to land and property, and were put in physical danger by the reckless, dangerous and illegal use of off-road bikes. Those who live near open land, canal banks, football fields or even local parks can be affected by the relentless noise nuisance generated by off-road bikes ridden across these places. This can cause particular aggravation to the most vulnerable in our society. One Worsley constituent who has very limited eyesight told me he feared to go out of his own gate on many days in summer, in case one of the young people constantly riding off-road bikes on the adjacent field rode into him. Evidence has also been given to Greater Manchester police by the brother of a child with learning difficulties on the autistic spectrum. The child found the constant noise from two off-road bikes
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ridden near his home so distressing that he could not go out to play in his own garden.

I have spoken this week to two Worsley constituents who have seen damage done to land and property by off-road bikes during the summer months. Mr. Les Higgins coaches a junior football team in Little Hulton, in my constituency, and on many occasions the team could not continue with their practice or play on the football pitch due to being ridden at by off-road bikes. The bikes, which were often ridden by two or three young people at a time, were ridden at the young football players, with the riders only swerving at the last minute. Mrs. Renee Cavanaugh, who also lives in Little Hulton, has been plagued by the nuisance from off-road bikes being ridden at the rear of her property, sometimes from as early as 8 am on weekends. Damage was also caused to her car when an off-road bike ran into it. Those riding such bikes illegally in this way are uninsured, so people whose land or vehicles are damaged by these riders have no source of redress.

Sadly, we now have the concept of the “hit-and-run” off-road biker. A police officer in Greater Manchester was injured when he was knocked off his bike and ridden over by an off-road biker riding in a gang of 20 such bikes on a public footpath. Pedestrians aged from 14 to 77 have also been injured in collisions with off-road bikers, and a 16-year-old cyclist from Greater Manchester died after a collision with an-off-road bike.

So off-road bikers can cause death and injury to others, but they are also at risk themselves. I am saddened whenever I drive past a particular lamp post in my constituency, which is strewn with floral tributes to the young man aged 18 who died there last year when the off-road bike that he was riding along the pavement hit the lamp post. In Greater Manchester alone, one teenage rider per month dies as a result of riding off-road bikes illegally or dangerously.

Greater Manchester police believe that preventing the irresponsible use of off-road bikes is difficult because the nature of the bikes enables a speedy getaway, and current legislation is not strong enough to enable police enforcement. There is an inherent problem for the police in trying to catch those misbehaving on these bikes. An untrained teenager is at grave risk of accident or injury if he or she tries to flee at speed from the police on an off-road bike. Chases would also endanger the police and pedestrians.

Although the police do have some powers under section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, Greater Manchester police believe that these powers are cumbersome and ineffective in dealing with the scale of the problem. The powers are also seen as balanced in favour of those who commit antisocial behaviour. To deal with this, the Greater Manchester police authority has set out plans for a registration scheme for off-road bikes analogous to that for licensed road-going vehicles. That will have the following benefits. First, it will reduce the theft of such bikes, as a clear system of ownership will be established. That will also help to deal with the flourishing criminal market in stolen bikes. Secondly, it will improve consumer protection. Bikes will be subject to safety checks and it will also be impossible to market the bikes as toys. Thirdly, it will increase the efficiency of police action through the ability to identify owners.

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Those are the benefits of a mandatory registration scheme, which will help to reduce the danger posed to communities and also help to militate against the antisocial use of off-road bikes.

I accept and welcome the measures already taken to combat the problem of off-road bike nuisance. The Government's respect taskforce recently published a step-by-step guide for practitioners, and additional finance has been made available for communities affected by the problem.

I mentioned earlier that Greater Manchester police authority has been running a campaign called “Stop off-road motorcycle nuisance”. As a result of an intensive crackdown in late spring and early summer, the local police were able to seize 78 bikes, make six arrests, issue 94 fixed penalty notices and issue 233 warnings. That was commendable work by the police and it has made some difference. However, as the testimony from my constituents Mr. Higgins and Mrs Cavanaugh shows, such campaigns by the police have only limited scope for success while the registration of off-road bikes is not mandatory or retrospective.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have shown through their tabling of questions, ten-minute rule Bills and early-day motions that the need for such a registration scheme exists. In a month in which we have heard so much about the nuisance of off-road bikes, I hope that I have helped to convince the House that it is time we stopped that nuisance by bringing in a mandatory and retrospective registration scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Barbara Keeley, Anne Snelgrove, Chris Bryant, Natascha Engel, Lynda Waltho, Mr. Ian Austin, Jim Dobbin, Mrs. Sharon Hodgson, Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods, Mr. Andy Reed, Sarah McCarthy-Fry and Mrs. Siân C. James.

Registration of Off-road Bikes

Barbara Keeley accordingly presented a Bill to require off-road bikes to be registered; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 November, and to be printed [Bill 239].



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Legislative Process

12.43 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker: I understand that it will be convenient to discuss the following motions: Legislative Process (Standing Orders); Legislative Process (Notice for Amendments in Public Bill Committee); Communications Allowance; and September Sittings.

I notify the House that I have selected the amendment to the motion on September sittings in the name of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

Mr. Straw: There are nine other motions covering the legislative process, the communications allowance, September sittings and other matters and I will deal with them in that order. As the House has just agreed, it is for the convenience of the House that they should be debated in one block.

Let me set the scene. The motions before the House have the potential to deliver significant improvements to the business of the Commons and the effectiveness of the legislative process. In so doing, they will help Members to carry out their work and to strengthen their bond, and that of Parliament more generally, with the public, whom we are here to serve.

It is a commonplace that Parliament is weak or out of touch, but the truth is that the Commons is much more active and influential today than at any time since the second world war. Scrutiny of Government is far more substantial than, for example, when I was a special adviser to the 1970s Labour Government. The establishment of permanent departmental Select Committees by the then Norman St. John-Stevas, when he was Conservative Leader of the House, was an important step forward. I paid tribute to him at the time, and I continue to do so.

Since 1997, however, we have sought to make further changes with a view both to modernising and strengthening the role of this place: the introduction of Westminster Hall; greater freedom for Select Committees to establish Sub-Committees and joint inquiries; the honouring of Select Committee and Standing Committee chairs by proper remuneration; reduced deadlines for tabling oral questions; answering parliamentary questions when Parliament is in recess;
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and the Prime Minister’s appearance before the Liaison Committee twice a year. Those are just several of the changes.

Having seen the work of Government for almost four years as a special adviser in the 1970s, and comparing that with my work as a senior Minister for nearly 10 years, the level of scrutiny to which Ministers are now properly subjected is much greater, in all sorts of respects, than it ever was 20 or 30 years ago. As Michael Ryle, a former Commons Clerk, recently noted,

Let me now turn to the main part of our debate, the three motions on the report from the Modernisation Committee on the legislative process, which was published in early September. A key part of my role as Leader of the House is to ensure that our work is understandable to, and open to involvement from, the public. The unanimous proposals in the Committee’s report will help to achieve that. I am grateful to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and all the other members of the Modernisation Committee, many of whom are here today, who have conducted the inquiry.

The central proposal in the package is for improved Committee consideration of Bills. There has long been concern about the ritual nature of Standing Committee proceedings. I can see the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) nodding. All that I can say is that it is a bit less ritual than when I entered the House, when the aim of Opposition Members when they first joined a Standing Committee—and none was more practised than me in that regard, for the 18 years that I spent in that penury—was to speak as long as possible into the small hours, in the mistaken belief that one’s constituents or anyone else was noticing. The Government Back-Benchers simply did their correspondence or went outside to make phone calls, to be called back by the Whips. Proceedings gradually ground to halt, which was what everyone was aiming for. Then there was a three-hour guillotine debate, when outrage was expressed by the Opposition, and the Government routinely quoted all the occasions when the Opposition had introduced the guillotine when in government. The guillotine was passed, and the rest of the Bill sailed through without proper scrutiny.

We now have programming, which is a start, but we recognise that the system still requires improvement. Therefore, when a programmed Bill is being considered upstairs, we propose that it should now be considered in a Committee that has the power to take oral evidence before it begins its line-by-line consideration. The model for that would be the so-called Special Standing Committee system, first introduced in the 1980s but rarely used. When it has been used, it has been regarded as successful, but it has only been used occasionally, and very rarely on contentious Bills. I think that the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Bill,
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which was introduced when I was Home Secretary, was the first example of a contentious Bill being subject to that procedure. I think that it worked to the advantage of both sides of the House, and it certainly improved the Bill, which I witnessed as the senior Minister.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I very much welcome the development of a wider use of the Special Standing Committee procedure, which will help to focus minds on the purposes of Bills rather than just on their wording. Will the Leader of the House consider an aspect of Government practice that might help that process along? Will he ensure that the regulatory impact assessment for a Bill—or the impact assessment, as it is going to be called—contains a comprehensive account of what the Government intend to achieve through a Bill and how they intend to do so? That would help to focus Committee evidence sessions on the right thing.

Mr. Straw: I certainly accept the point that if Ministers are not explaining what they hope to achieve by a Bill, they should not be bringing it forward. That is a modest aspiration. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip will testify, when colleagues bid for Bills—there are always many more bids than legislative space—they have to explain why they want them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that should be explicit in the regulatory impact assessment, but it should also be spelt out in the explanatory memorandum and in what is said publicly about the Bill, in this place and outside.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In common with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), I welcome the proposed extension of the Special Standing Committee procedure, as I said in my oral evidence to the Modernisation Committee. However, if that is to become established practice, it would make much more sense for such Committees to be chaired by members of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen—I declare an interest as a newly appointed member—than by the Chairman of a Select Committee or another member. The analogy is not with the study of a policy issue, but with the study of a proposed piece of legislation, the Chairman of the Committee upon which should be, and should be seen to be, scrupulously impartial, not a participant in the study.

Mr. Straw: I know that there is much to be said on both sides on that issue. The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case, but it is ultimately a matter for the House, Mr. Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means. It will come as no great surprise to the hon. Gentleman that the Chairman of Ways and Means shares his view. It is for us to follow what the Chair says on that, not to try to lead it.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does the Leader of the House support the point my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) makes?

Mr. Straw: Well, I am treading on broken glass on this matter. As I said, I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham makes a strong case.

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