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2 Mar 2007 : Column 1190

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend makes a point that I was just about to make. The Bill is not a total solution; there is no total solution to antisocial behaviour and nuisance, but we can reduce it. Laws do not prevent people from murdering each other, and they do not prevent theft or burglary, but laws can help to reduce crime, because of the threat of penalties and the likelihood of getting caught.

Mr. Flello: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Graham Stringer: This will be the last intervention that I take for some time.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is kind in giving way again. He has not yet mentioned the issue of educating parents who buy mini-motos for their youngsters. Does he agree that one benefit that may result from his Bill is that it may make parents realise what they are buying? As he has made clear, for a variety of reasons the bikes are often death-traps for the young people who use them. Does he agree that the Bill may lead to better education for parents who buy the machines?

Graham Stringer: Again, my hon. Friend makes a point that I shall make. Many parents buy the machines believing that they are toys, but they are not; they are dangerous machines that can travel at up to 60 mph. Having to register as keepers and having to register the machine would be part of that education, as it would make it clear that the bikes are not toys.

The Bill is not a complete solution, but it would amend the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 so that the current system of registration for vehicles on the road was extended to off-road vehicles. It is not a licensing scheme; a licensing scheme is, in effect, a road tax, but the machines that we are talking about are not meant to go on the road. The Bill would amend the 1994 Act so that the machine and its keeper were required to be registered at the time of sale. In a sense, the Bill is retrospective, because it would also oblige current users to register at some time, and, as I said, there are between 100,000 and 200,000 such machines in circulation. That time can be defined in regulations. Clearly, there would have to be an amnesty before that obligation were implemented.

Registration would require the manufacturers to put registration marks on the machines. Some of those marks would be recognisable to the public, but others would be secret—similarly, we cannot find all the registration marks on our cars—and the regulations would require both kinds. My hon. Friend the Minister may say that that is not covered by the Bill, but it could be covered by changing the relevant regulations. There are many powers in the 1994 Act that could be used to cover registration. A moot point is whether there should be a registration plate, as there are arguments for and against that. I have not come to a final decision—on balance, I think that it is helpful to have a registration plate—but the matter could be debated in Committee. Clause 2 amends section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, and effectively gives police officers the right, if they have due cause, to stop a bike without warning and, if it does not comply with registration
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measures—I know that this will raise a cheer—take it away and squash it. Most hon. Members are in favour of squashing those machines when possible.

It is worth going through the arguments that have been made against the Bill by the Government and the Association of Chief Police Officers, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) referred. The Government’s position, which is made clear in a document circulated to all hon. Members, is that all the necessary powers are provided by the current legislative framework in several different Acts of Parliament. I accept that the Government are acting in good faith, but if police authorities had to use all those powers, that would take up so much time and resources that they probably would not have much time to do anything else. It is true that powers are available to deal with one bike in one situation, as long as the police have a handy helicopter, a police car, and police officers trained on off-road bikes, as well as the necessary information to show that the bike belongs to the person riding it, who cannot argue that it belongs to their mate, so it can be taken away. However, if that law is in place, why were 26,000 complaints made in Greater Manchester last year? Greater Manchester police authority is one of the best equipped authorities to deal with the problem, as it has a dedicated unit. It has dealt with the problem in certain places, but it cannot eradicate it, as the law is not effective.

My hon. Friend the Minister told me in private that ACPO’s position formed the basis of the Government’s position; if ACPO changed its position, the Government would change theirs. However, after all the discussions, I am not sure whether ACPO’s position reflects the Government’s or whether the Government’s position reflects ACPO’s, so it is worth examining ACPO’s comments in detail.

Fortunately, ACPO representatives appeared before the Select Committee on Transport on 7 March, so we had the opportunity to discover what they believed. In written evidence, ACPO said that it was satisfied with the law, and asked what was the point—I urge hon. Members to ponder this—in making something that was unlawful more unlawful. I was not quite sure what that meant and, having examined its representatives, I am not sure that they know what it means. It is a way of saying that ACPO does not want to consider more effective measures to deal with the problem.

In its written evidence, ACPO qualified its opposition by admitting that a registration scheme could have long-term benefits and could save resources. The Select Committee examined the ACPO representative, Mr. Griffin, in detail, and asked him whether it would be beneficial to do what most hon. Members want, and allow police officers to stop and seize a bike without warning. He accepted that that was right. We then asked whether a registration scheme would be helpful in cases in which the police did not know the owner, and the rider said that the bike was not theirs. He accepted that it probably would be helpful, as that was a problem. We then asked him about registration plates. Police forces have tried to tackle the problem, but it has escalated and intensified, as people using such bikes simply drive off. There is a limited number of off-road-trained police, so those people often get away, as trained officers are simply not available. We asked Mr. Griffin whether a registration
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plate would be helpful in preventing chases, as officers could go to someone’s home and find out whether they were the bike’s registered keeper. If the bike did not have a registration plate, it could be confiscated. He said, “That is true.”

As I suggested to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello), the bikes are not toys. If someone registers their vehicle and pays a sum of money, they have important responsibilities as a keeper, including responsibility for the safety of the machine. We asked whether it would be helpful to make that point when the bike was sold, and we were told in unequivocal terms, “Yes, it would.” Although ACPO’s headline position is against the Bill, when one looks at the evidence in detail one can see that it accepts that the scheme would work rather well.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Graham Stringer: I have spoken for a long time, and I would prefer not to take up much more time.

As there is still a problem, we asked ACPO what the solution was. It accepted that certain areas could be targeted, but in many cases in which that had been done, there was often a resurgence of the problem after the initial removal of machines. It said that it could provide facilities such as those provided for skateboarders. We asked about the cost of doing so, and whether it would solve the entire problem. Would there be a special area for the mini-bikes in every constituency or part of a constituency? Of course not: there are no resources left to deal with that. Finally, in a rather despairing way, the ACPO representative said that hula hoops and skateboards had disappeared, so perhaps mini-bikes would disappear, too. That was an expression of hope that the problem will go away, rather than an attempt to tackle the problem by making the law more effective so that it can deal with people who refuse to reveal identification of ownership.

I accept that setting up a scheme involves costs, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister in what, I suspect, will be a lengthy response, to explain why, if registration is a bad idea, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency operates a voluntary scheme? That scheme helps owners and keepers, as it deals with the problem of stolen vehicles—at present, that is the only way of dealing with the problem—and the Bill would assist with that. As the voluntary scheme is already in place, registration would be sensible, even if there is a cost. To be blunt, it could be self-financing—I am sure that my hon. Friend will offer some horrifically high registration fees that will wind up the motorcycling lobby—and I am not convinced that a scheme that is added on to the DVLA scheme would require a large fee. However, I hope that the vast majority of these machines will not get through the registration process—that it will get rid of them. If that happens, any overhead costs of the scheme will obviously have to be met by the Government and the DVLA. I would say that that is a cost well worth paying.

I have spoken for longer than I intended and given way several times. The question that I leave with the House is not why should we have a registration scheme, but why should we not have a scheme of registration for these very dangerous machines?

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10.20 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I shall not detain the House long. I suspect others will seek to do that.

In broad terms, the Liberal Democrats support the Bill. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) does the House and his community a great service by introducing the Bill. Earlier this week, he organised for Members a helpful briefing by the Greater Manchester police authority and officers of that authority that established very effectively the case that he expanded on today.

For the reasons that the hon. Gentleman outlined, we can all agree that the machines are a social menace. Many safety implications have arisen from the explosion in their use. According to a briefing from the Motor Cycle Industry Association, the number of mini-motos alone, quite apart from other off-road motorcycles, has risen from 10,000 in 2002 to 100,000 in 2005. That is the scale and nature of the problem. There is doubtless an element of fashion in that, but the phenomenon seems to be enduring, and even if it is not, that is no reason for failing to act in the way that he suggests.

The hon. Gentleman spoke from his constituency perspective. I have a very different constituency perspective. I am delighted to say that, as yet, there is not a marked problem in my constituency; no doubt it will come to us eventually, like everything else. However, I have some experience to bring to the debate, having worked as a prosecutor and a defence agent in the criminal courts before coming to this place. As a prosecutor in particular, I formed a view over a number of years that the most effective legislation for the prosecution of road traffic offences is section 172 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

The purpose and effect of section 172 is to require the registered keeper of a vehicle under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 to give information about who was driving the vehicle at a time when it was seen to be committing an offence under the Road Traffic Act. In terms of the antisocial nuisance, that is the real benefit of a registration scheme. If we bring these off-road vehicles, in particular mini-motos, within the ambit of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act, we allow police officers investigating their use to employ section 172 of the Road Traffic Act.

In practical terms, that means that, if the parent has registered the vehicle, it is the parent to whom the police officers will go in the first instance to say, “This mini-moto was being driven in this place at this time in this way. Who was driving it?” That brings responsibility right back to the door of the parent and means that they are required to co-operate with the police. Failure to do so is a further offence.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I am following the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, which seems sound. Presumably that would cover the full range of potential offences, including manslaughter.

Mr. Carmichael: It would not cover manslaughter, because that is a common law offence, which is not part of the Road Traffic Act. It would cover causing death
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by dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving, so to all intents and purposes, the hon. Gentleman’s supposition is correct.

Section 172 is one of the most important tools that police officers have for road traffic enforcement. As I know from experience, what constitutes a road can be a lot more than just a stretch of tarmac. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said that there were problems about police officers not being able to pursue people in the way that they would wish. The provision means that they would have the opportunity of using section 172.

Mr. David Hamilton: In my part of Scotland, there is a major problem. I stay on the biggest council estate in Midlothian and every day these cycles run up and down the park destroying the life of everybody round about. As a police officer told me, a major benefit of registration would be that people could take a photograph with their mobile phone camera. They would not need to get involved with the individual riding the cycle, which is another problem or need to challenge them. They could simply take a photograph and give it to the police, who could follow it up if there was a registration number.

Mr. Carmichael: That is exactly the point. If the police were given a photograph of a bike being used in that way, or perhaps even a short video of it, that would give them grounds to employ section 172, leading to the investigation and apprehension of the person who was responsible.

I am puzzled that the Minister does not support the Bill. I do not understand why. I hope the House gives the Bill a Second Reading. If there is an issue such as the one that he raised in an intervention, about whether tricycles were covered by the Bill, that is exactly the sort of point that could be dealt with in Committee. I do not understand even that point. If hon. Members have regard to the Bill—when all else fails, it is a good idea to read the Bill—it states that the

To be a motorcycle, a vehicle must have a motor and wheels. It makes no difference whether it is a motor bicycle or a motor tricycle. At the risk of getting involved in a lengthy debate on the rules of statutory construction, I do not see the Minister’s problem.

Dr. Ladyman: If the Bill defined vehicles in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested, it would not also be necessary to define motor quad bikes, because they would come under the definition of vehicles that had wheels and a motor. Tricycles have been specifically missed out of the Bill for some reason, although I entirely accept that, if the Bill went into Committee, we could include them, but we would have to put in a vast amount of other things to make the measure even remotely work in the way that is intended.

Mr. Carmichael: As I said, I do not intend to get into a lengthy debate on the rules of statutory construction. I have made my point and I stand by it. A quad bike is a different term of art, and I see that it is referred to later in subsection (4) on interpretation.

I have sat on plenty of Bill Committees, including some with the Minister, and I have seen rafts of
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Government amendments tabled, sometimes after the Bill has been through the entire process in the Lords. It is only when it reaches Report on the Floor of this House that we get a raft of Government amendments. If amendments are needed to the Bill, if the political will existed in the Department, they could be made and the very useful device that is offered to police officers by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley in his Bill might be made available to them.

10.29 am

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on his success in the ballot and on his choice of Bill. I am very pleased to be one its sponsors. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) sought leave to introduce a similar Bill last November and many right hon. and hon. Members have asked for action to be taken on behalf of their constituents to deal with the nuisance caused by off-road motorcycles and mini-motos.

Last summer, my office was inundated with complaints about the matter and I am concerned that, as we approach the better weather, my constituents will experience the same problems. Off-road motorbikes are too often ridden by youths who show no respect for other people or the environment, and mini-motos are too often bought for children by adults who show no comprehension of safety or sense of community.

I have received many letters and e-mails about the matter. One was sent by a young couple who could not sit in their garden with their baby daughter all last summer because a nearby field that was once filled with children playing and families walking their dogs contained these monstrously noisy machines. The couple first approached me in despair after one Sunday in June, when the bikes made continuous and uninterrupted noise for seven consecutive hours. Another constituent from Davenport said that youths were deliberately driving at people in the fields.

I received a disturbing e-mail from a woman and her friend, who were horse riding on a bridle path in Reddish Vale when they were attacked by three boys on off-road bikes. The youths ignored a polite request from the woman to switch off their bikes until the horses had passed. Instead, they rode their bikes quickly towards the horses three times. On the third occasion, one bike went up the banking while the other two were driven straight at the horses.

Mr. Flello: Does my hon. Friend agree that good, law-abiding people get frustrated and angry with the constant harassment and unpleasantness, to put it mildly, caused by such behaviour? Sometimes otherwise law-abiding people lose their temper when they experience such behaviour.

Ann Coffey: I agree with my hon. Friend. By the time a constituent reaches the point of ringing my office, their anger and frustration is often huge.

I shall go into detail about the case of the lady who was riding to demonstrate the difficulty for individuals. The e-mail describes what happened next and says:

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