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Motor Vehicle Crime

3.8 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to call attention to the amount of crime in the United Kingdom involving theft of road vehicles or breaking into them to steal the contents; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the hazards of the ballots for debate in the House has led to this debate being held on the day before the Recess and after two late nights of a marathon Second Reading debate on a Bill. I am therefore extremely grateful to those noble Lords who have put down their names to speak.

As parliamentarians we should be doing what we can to reduce car crime. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom has the worst record in western Europe, although the position has been improving over the past five years. We must continue the efforts that have been made and try to change attitudes towards car crime. Recent

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improvements are largely due, I believe, to the work of organisations that have been co-operating to this end in ways I shall describe.

Nonetheless, there is still a large number of criminal offences being committed, regrettably by young people, very often teenagers. Stealing a vehicle, or from it, is regarded by some young people as a game, an acceptable pastime. Combined with joyriding, this becomes a serious threat to life. A driver not qualified by training and with no licence or insurance causes a crash. It can be fatal. For example, a press report early in January indicated that in Hampshire two people had been killed in a crash in which the other vehicle, a Range Rover, was being driven by a 14 year-old. That vehicle had been, as it is described, taken without the owner's consent. Two passengers in the vehicle were aged 15 and 16. It was an episode which, I believe, the 14 year-old will regret for the rest of his life.

It is important to influence young people and to dissuade them from starting on this course. I initiated a debate in your Lordships' House on 9th February last year on a computer game entitled "Grand Theft Auto", which appeared to bless the stealing of cars and associated criminal offences as normal pastimes. It almost glamorised them. I shall not repeat what I said then but I described it as a disservice to the general public to produce that kind of computer game. Although the game was classified with an 18 certificate, making it a criminal offence to supply or sell it to a person under the age of 18, it is clear that the game is played usually by teenagers under that age and that very few people of 18 or over play it. The producers and suppliers of the game said, "Oh, well it's just a game. It's not serious". The trouble is that that is exactly the impression given for the real world as vehicles continue to be stolen.

Later last year, in a speech on the publication of the Consumers' Association's Car Security Guide, the Home Secretary was reported to be taking a similar line to the one I have taken about the regrettable number of young people committing car crimes. He was concentrating on the absence of deterrents or punishments for youngsters who offend. He pointed out that under the youth court system a conditional discharge or similar "let-off" is normal. No wonder the police have named this court process "the revolving door." The young offenders know that nothing unpleasant will happen to them if they are caught and they go out and do it again. I understand, however, that steps are being taken to change that situation in the courts described by Mr. Straw. The right honourable gentleman also said that he himself had been the victim at least three times of car crimes of this kind. So have I, my Lords. In one case, my car, parked near the House, was broken into by two young teenagers who smashed the side window with a brick in a sack. They were seen and chased by helpful "have-a-go" pedestrians and dropped the contents of my overnight bag--the only object that was worth stealing--as they ran. Usually, thieves go for car radios, cassettes or items more valuable than an overnight bag.

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In any group of adults, if one asks, "Is there anyone here whose car has not at some time been stolen or broken into?", one seldom finds someone who comes forward because so many have experienced the inconvenience and distress that car crime can cause.

I am glad that the Home Secretary accepts that this is a serious subject and that he has made many of the points that I articulated in my debate earlier in the year. He intends to be tougher in dealing with young offenders when caught, and he has my support. There is also a positive side. Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who I am glad to know is to reply to the debate, this question. Can more be done in educating youngsters to look forward to being legitimate drivers and owners, acquiring the skills and ability to look after a vehicle and enjoy the benefits?

An organisation that brings together a wide variety of bodies whose aim is to suppress car crime is the European Secure Vehicle Alliance, ESVA. Its membership includes the police and it enables useful exchanges of ideas and information to be made. I am myself a member. Its chairman is my noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux. He intended to speak in the debate but I am sorry to say that he is not able to do so because of medical advice. I commend to the House the booklet recently published jointly by ESVA and two other bodies entitled Tackling Vehicle Crime.

Vehicle crime has been reduced by about 30 per cent. in the past six years. I understand that the Government are aiming at a 30 per cent. improvement over the next five years. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, could comment and expand on that point. Last September the Government established a vehicle crime reduction team, which should now be at work. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could give the House the latest information on that.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to some significant ways of defeating both the hardened criminals and the young offenders. First, a few years ago the locating system called "Tracker" became available. A small object was incorporated and concealed in a vehicle's structure. If stolen the vehicle could be traced and found. It proved very successful. In its early days it not only led to the recovery of the single vehicle but also revealed secret hiding places where 20 or 30 other stolen vehicles had been collected together by the thieves. The Tracker Network (UK) has successfully recovered well over 4,000 vehicles since it was launched in 1993 and has renewed its operating agreement until 2003 with all the 52 police forces in the United Kingdom, with which it has worked closely.

Another new protection is resistant laminated side glazing in vehicles. Cars are more secure if all the glass is so strong as to be virtually unbreakable. The glass industry and motor manufacturers have been collaborating to produce laminated glazing. The youths who attacked my car in the incident I described would have been frustrated and unsuccessful if that glass had been in the car. It inevitably makes a car more expensive and purchasers will have to choose how much they value security.

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I should mention here a further consideration--the safety of the driver and the passengers in an accident. If the glass is unbreakable, there should nonetheless be ways of getting out if the car body is damaged or the doors are jammed. Furthermore, helpers and ambulance crews should be able to get in to release injured occupants. I hope that this development is proceeding and overcoming such problems to enable owners to make a choice in future.

Defeating car crime can be approached from different directions. About 30 per cent. of vehicle crime occurs in car parks, so measures to make them safer would help. Six years ago the secured car parks scheme was launched by the Association of Chief Police Officers. It is supported by other organisations and administered by the Automobile Association. Under the scheme awards are granted to car parks which meet the requirements of certain security criteria. On my latest count, some 600 car parks are in the scheme, with the prospect of many more joining. The striking result, shown by a recent survey, was a 70 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime in those parks after they qualified under the scheme.

I should not fail to mention another scheme which noble Lords may have heard about in connection with other kinds of crime. I refer to a registered charity called Crimestoppers. Telephone calls can be made, anonymously and free of charge, to provide instant information about a crime or suspected crime. It operates in close co-operation with the police and has proved successful in leading to recovery of stolen vehicles and to arrests. I carry the telephone number with me always. Noble Lords will no doubt ask me for it, so I shall give it now: it is 0800 555 111. That organisation has done very useful work in helping the police over thefts.

Another approach to reducing thefts exists in the scrap metal and vehicle salvage trades. Here I ask the Government to do more, as legislation will probably be needed. Of course, crooks remove identity marks, such as engine and chassis numbers, if it suits them. Vehicles are twinned by them or cloned with legitimate vehicles. Older vehicles near the end of their lives are welcome prey to crooks who can cannibalise them and use parts to construct supposed second-hand vehicles for sale, which are often extremely unsafe on the roads. This illegal trade is practised in particular with motorcycles. I draw to the attention of the Government the fact that a simple legislative measure could reduce these fraudulent ploys by incorporating vehicle salvage operations into the current scrap metal dealer legislation.

I remind your Lordships that some years ago, at the time when lead was being stripped off church roofs by thieves, legislation was introduced that gave the police powers to inspect the records of scrap metal dealers in order to establish that they were trading legitimately. The unscrupulous trade in elderly or damaged vehicles is a factor in the organised theft of vehicles. I suggest that police inspection of premises and records of the dealers in question should be permitted, as with those dealing in lead.

It is estimated that car crime represents about a quarter of all recorded crime in the United Kingdom. It causes distress and great inconvenience. It can be

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devastating to those who have to rely on their vehicles for their livelihood and for disabled people who depend on their cars. I urge everyone to give help and co-operation in reducing car crime. I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for his successful initiative in securing a debate on this important subject. I do not wish to detain the House long, but I have a few points to offer which I believe are of significance.

The noble Lord is right to say that people depend on their cars. We need to extend and improve public transport, but the car is an essential item, both socially and economically. For people, particularly poorer or disabled people, to be denied the use of their car because of theft is tragic. We tend to forget that for millions of people acquiring a car is not easy. It represents a substantial part of a family's budget. Because a car will be insured, the courts and the community may think that penalties are sufficient; but the loss of a no-claims bonus can be a substantial item.

As the noble Lord said, car theft represents a substantial part of the total number of crimes which occur in Britain. In my own area, South Yorkshire, the police campaigned for at least 10 years to try to persuade people to lock their cars and not to leave valuables visible inside. Many people took very little notice. Some took the view that breaking into a car was then so easy that there was no point in locking it. Valuables continued to be stolen because people were careless.

The pace at which car theft rose in my area was substantial. In 1988, for example, there were 8,522 recorded cases of car theft in South Yorkshire. The figure had risen to 22,500 by 1993. It peaked at about that figure until the South Yorkshire police acquired a helicopter. I confess that when the chief constable at that time, Richard Wells, told me that the Home Office had given his force permission to obtain a helicopter, I was a little concerned. I recognised that a helicopter could be very valuable, but I did not trust the previous administration. I could see it wanting the political adulation for allowing the South Yorkshire police to acquire a helicopter, but helicopters are very expensive to run. I asked the chief constable whether he was quite sure that the Home Office would give sufficient support to allow the helicopter to be used after it had been purchased.

I accepted that the helicopter would be useful, and useful it certainly has been. As soon as it came into operation, it began to have an effect upon car crime. In the first year of its operation, 1997, the number of car thefts fell to 15,245 and in the past 12 months has fallen again to 13,326, which is 10,000 fewer car thefts than in the peak year of 1993. I accept that the reduction is not only as a result of the use of the helicopter. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, told us of the organisational arrangements which seek to respond to

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the problem of car crime. But having a helicopter looking down has certainly proved quite a deterrent to many opportunist car thieves.

I believe that the police in my area, and probably everywhere else, as the noble Lord may have indicated, would recognise that professional car thieves may be less deterred than the opportunists. We need to see action of the kind recommended by the noble Lord to try to tackle this matter in a rather more sophisticated way. I take the point that the noble Lord made about introducing an arrangement similar to that which applies in the case of theft of lead from church roofs. There needs to be adequate mechanistic arrangements. The trouble is that all these measures increase the prices of cars, which makes the purchase of a car even more of a burden and makes it even more distressing when a car is stolen.

I have one suggestion which the Home Office might care to consider. We have to look at definitions. When a car is stolen, it is recorded as a theft. However, if the car is subsequently recovered--and many of them are--the crime is recorded as a taking without consent. It was a theft when the car was stolen and should be recorded and regarded as a theft even if the car is subsequently recovered. When the vehicle is recovered it may not be in quite the same condition or command the same respect as the driver had for it before it was taken away. Heaven knows what may be the effects of teenage joyriding, especially if the vehicle has been driven over rough ground which may not have done the suspension any good. Therefore, the question of definition should certainly be considered. That may well encourage those courts that tend to be a little complacent about the matter because of the benefit of insurance to recognise that this offence is likely to cause distress, great inconvenience and economic disadvantage to the vehicle owner.

I am very pleased with the work of the helicopter unit in South Yorkshire. I hope that many other forces that are now developing this particular facility will have the same experience. We need a sharper, more incisive attack on the professionals who are responsible for the possible disposal of vehicles in scrapyards, their illegal sale in England and an export trade in them that we can well do without. When the noble Lord gave a telephone number some noble Lords took out their diaries, as I did. By the time that I had found my diary and a pen I had forgotten the number. Perhaps at the end of the debate the noble Lord will remind us of it.

3.31 p.m.

The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy is to be congratulated on the way in which he set out the agenda for this debate, which is most important. Like him, I am a member of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance. In all of its work to reduce the level of vehicle crime throughout most of this decade there is one area which potentially offers great success but which to date has received little attention: education. I refer particularly to the education of young people to become responsible road users and citizens and, in the process, to reduce vehicle crime and road accidents. Vehicle crime is mainly a young people's crime.

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Last year a publication entitled Tackling Vehicle Crime was produced by the ESVA, an associate parliamentary group, together with Crime Concern and Vauxhall Motors. Referring to some of the Home Office statistics quoted in that publication, 75 per cent. of vehicle crime offenders are under the age of 21 and 36 per cent. are 16 years of age and under. That key issue has been focused upon by the ESVA since its formation in 1992. At that time one of the key aims was to seek to establish the driving test within the context of lifelong learning. The intention was to harness the enthusiasm of the young for cars and motorcycles within their education. However, as the philosophy of lifelong learning becomes more widely adopted, there is still no linkage being made between the driving test and learning for life. The driving test has fallen into the divide between the traditional school-based curriculum and the vocational-based provision associated with employers. Each has left the matter to the other. The newly-constituted Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is mindful of the issue but considers that no ready solution is apparent.

In response to the Queen's Speech on 30th November last year my noble friend Lord Brougham was able to report that considerable success could be achieved when the subject of education was addressed. For example, the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, which launched an initiative entitled Operation Impact in 1992, has produced figures which reveal that since then vehicle crime has fallen by 37 per cent. in its area as compared with 32 per cent. in England and Wales over the same period. That difference of 5 per cent. applied to the whole country could represent a very considerable improvement. Its assessment concluded that the work of its diversion team for young people was the most significant element of that programme. For example, 13 young people lost their lives in accidents involving stolen vehicles between 1992 and 1994. In 1997 there was only one fatality involving a stolen vehicle--12 young lives were saved by that initiative. In 1992 the research of Avon and Somerset Constabulary revealed that 33 per cent. of car thieves were under 16 and some were as young as 10, 11 or 12. The percentage of offenders aged 16 or under fell from 33 per cent. in 1992 to 13 per cent. in 1997.

The efforts of many competent practitioners in an area that can be defined as "community education involving vehicles" is detailed in the Tackling Vehicle Crime guide. But a shadow has been cast over the work since the publication of a Home Office report on motor projects last autumn. That Home Office report evaluated the 42 Probation Service-led schemes designed to deal with road crime. Reconviction rates after two years were examined in the case of over 1,000 offenders who attended projects between 1989 and 1993. It is unfortunate that it has taken until September 1998 for the report to be published, especially as the nature of most motor projects has changed dramatically over that time. The report concluded that actual reconviction rates were higher than predicted. The average reconviction rate was measured at 79 per cent. Yet a project operating since 1994 in Northumbria with a similar aim to those

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projects assessed in the original study reports only a 20 per cent. re-offending rate. That is a markedly more positive finding.

It is vital that the Home Office not only commissions new research into current projects which work with offenders but also recruits young people at risk and young people in general. In these circumstances outcomes such as "coursework accreditation" and "pathways into employment" are as appropriate as the measurement of re-offending rates. I hope that my remarks have highlighted that there remains an area of government policy that is (in common parlance) waiting to be joined up.

The Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team formed last autumn has as its target the reduction of vehicle crime by 30 per cent. over the next five years. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 places considerable emphasis on reducing the incidence of vehicle crime. Similarly, the Department for Education and Employment is concentrating on reducing truanting and exclusions and finding pathways into employment. The Department of Health is committed to reducing the accident rate among young people. The work of the Social Exclusion Unit also touches on these issues.

There is much to be done at government department level, as there is at local level, to take full advantage of this approach--which could be described as "community education involving vehicles". That will not only reduce vehicle crime and road accidents, but also provide pathways for young people to become responsible road users and citizens.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has, in introducing the debate, taken us into the realms of a £3½ billion crime business. That figure sounds fairly staggering. As my noble friend pointed out, it represents about a quarter of all reported crime. I say "reported" crime, because offences involving motor cars, particularly theft of the motor car and/or the valuables inside, are frequently not reported at all to the police, insurance companies or anyone else. So all the figures bandied about in this kind of debate are hugely suspect.

My noble friend Lord Oxfuird concluded his remarks by saying that there is much to be done. He emphasised the role of government departments. A vast number of the motor cars that are taken or broken into are left unlocked. Figures resulting from surveys by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders prove that categorically. So measures must begin with the owner.

In the motor business one of the hardest things to sell to a buyer is security. The next, oddly enough, is safety. One should not, therefore, be overly alarmed at press reports such as the recent report referring to tests on 35 motor cars, 16 of which were opened within seconds. Motor manufacturers can only put into a motor car what they can actually sell. They are continually playing catch-up. Experts will find a way of getting into the most secure vehicle or premises. What one is in fact doing is buying time. Many people are not prepared to buy that amount of time.

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The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, spoke about the export business in stolen vehicles, a business that we do not want. Of the 400,000-odd cars reported stolen--whether or not they are subsequently recovered is a moot point--the vast majority are older vehicles. They will never be able to be made secure. It is physically impossible. One can buy a steering-wheel lock, a clamp or something of that nature, but such devices are comparatively easy to disengage. Those cars are stolen for spare parts for re-identification of other motor cars. They are mainly stolen from car parks or on the street. My noble friend referred to the secured car parks scheme. That has proved enormously successful, with some very good reduction rates. But it is a great problem persuading car park operators to join the scheme. I should like car park operators to be required compulsorily to provide some elements of security.

Here, I must take a side-swipe at the railways. They seem more concerned with revenue earning and contracted clamping, which, incidentally, I believe is a crime in itself. There is nothing one can do at half-past one in the morning but pay one's £100 to have the motor car freed.

Another aspect of the stealing of cars relates to the more expensive, luxurious motor car. Most are stolen to order. Few cannot be entered within seven to 10 minutes, despite fairly sophisticated locking systems. Such cars mainly find their way into eastern Europe on the black market. It surprises me that they can be shipped within 12 hours of being stolen. The manifest will already have been made out, not describing the contents of the container as a motor car. Often the description is "farming machinery". Within 12 hours the motor car is in a container, on a boat, on its way ultimately to eastern Europe. I should like to see greater support and resources given to Customs and Excise to make the necessary examinations. This is big business. My noble friend has given the kind of figures we are talking about. I suggest that it is the responsibility of owners to look after their goods. If they did, much of this type of crime would be reduced.

I am not unhappy at the idea of compulsory excess payments where it can be shown that an insurance company's customer, the owner of the vehicle, has not demonstrated personal responsibility. It would be very difficult to introduce that provision into a policy. But there are well-known cases of people knowing that they can "steal" their own car, sell it and receive the insurance value. Loss adjusters have been able to find the so-called stolen motor car, which was never stolen in the first place. Insurance companies have a far greater responsibility to help the police, manufacturers and owners to combat crime.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, figures from the Metropolitan Police Stolen Vehicle Unit indicate that nearly 52,000 motor cycles were stolen in 1997. Motor cycle sales were less than double that figure, at 93,000. Those figures show the appalling level of motor cycle

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thefts in this country. I am personally familiar with the problem, having twice had a powered two-wheeler (PTW) stolen in London in the past couple of years, one of which was lifted from a PTW parking space outside the High Court buildings.

Manufacturers ensure that PTWs have extensive primary security devices such as immobilisers and data tags. Even so thieves steal the vehicles by simply lifting them with relative ease into vans and lorries. Therefore, secondary anti-theft devices are needed, such as stands or racks to which PTWs can be secured. The Home Office puts the cost of all vehicle crimes at nearly £4 billion when one adds the hidden costs. We all have to pay higher prices, taxes and raised insurance premiums because of these thefts.

PTW registrations continue to rise. The number of registrations in May 1998 was up 55 per cent. on the 1997 figure and is up 33 per cent. in the year to date. All sections of the community use this means of transport, including many women and, believe it or not, disabled bikers who have specially modified PTWs.

In order to help to address this appalling theft dilemma, I presented the Road Traffic Regulation (Cycle Parking) Bill which received its First Reading yesterday. Briefly, the Bill will amend Section 63 of the Road Traffic Act so that authorities will be able to provide stands or racks or devices for securing motorcycles. The Bill aims to be as non-contentious as possible. The new powers would be discretionary on the authorities. I am particularly grateful to the Government for their help and support in enabling this Bill to be brought forward.

All parties pledged support for PTWs in their general election manifestos. When this Bill comes to your Lordships' House I hope that it will be allowed a speedy passage. The Bill is due for Second Reading on 28th April.

3.51 p.m.

The Earl of Haddington: My Lords, perhaps I may rise in the gap to point out that most of the car crime committed today involves the misappropriation of vehicles rather than theft. The crime of theft is extremely hard to prosecute successfully in relation to the illegal appropriation of a vehicle. When the thief is caught he could say that he intended to dump the vehicle and not to remove it on a permanent basis. Theft can be proved as a crime only if the vehicle is exported or resold. That is the one point that I would like to make. It is a pity that misappropriation was not included in the Bill.

3.52 p.m.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, I am sorry that I was not in my place a few seconds earlier. I was inquiring the name of the noble Lord who has just spoken in the gap. I had not been informed that he was going to speak. It may be that the courtesies have changed in recent times. Nevertheless, his points were interesting and I welcome him to the debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for giving us the chance to discuss what has become a very important problem.

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One thing I have learnt in 15 years in your Lordships' House is that if it is an issue on which one seeks action one needs the support of No. 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister has given support to a vigorous attack on vehicle crime. I congratulate him on taking that initiative. Vehicle crime has been with us for some time.

I have to declare an interest. I am the unpaid chairman of the motorcycle industry's Motorcycle Theft Action Group, which was formed in 1991 during a period of crisis as regards the theft of motorcycles--a crisis of such proportion that in 1990-91 the insurance industry said that it was not going to write any further business for motorcycles. It was even considering withdrawing existing cover, including that for despatch riders. It was a moment of crisis.

I have enjoyed my position as chairman over the years. That is largely due to the fact that the all-party motorcycle group, of which I have the honour to be secretary, made quite a lot of noise about the problem of motorcycle theft and other issues. I am glad to see my fellow member, the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, here today. He is a very valuable member. As noble Lords heard, he has taken a very important step by introducing legislation to increase the safety of parking. I congratulate him on that initiative.

I believe that the group we set up was successful. I would like to think that in some way it gave inspiration to the ministerial group set up in response to the Prime Minister's concern. It is called the Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team. It has asked the Motorcycle Theft Action Group to take part and to be one of the task groups. We are very willing to co-operate. When we set up our group it comprised everyone concerned with the issues and got them around the table to discuss the problems. We did not expect such an immediate response. It was very heartening for me to see such a disparate group working together within a very short time, throwing off individual prejudices and joining in targeted action against motorcycle theft. The group included manufacturers, dealers, riders, insurance organisations, spokesmen for sporting and motoring organisations and, importantly, the Home Office and the police.

The remit of the group initially was to attempt to persuade the insurance industry that it needed to take a different view of motorcycle insurance cover which had been provided in a rather uninspired way over a number of years. It should look at the statistics and identify where the risks lay. We also encouraged the introduction of certain secondary security measures, including locks and chains and a very important electronic device which made it more difficult for criminals to take motorcycles. It made the recovery of the vehicles more likely. Progress was slow. The police needed a scanner for vehicles which appeared to be suspiciously concocted from stolen parts. Gradually, an impact was made; eventually, it became profound. By 1996, a gradual reduction in motorcycle theft had been achieved.

Since 1996 we have returned to a steeper climb. That is largely due to the reintroduction on our streets and roads of scooters and mopeds in great numbers. Scooters have become a fashion item which young people find

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essential, including a rather large pair of white shoes and often a baseball cap. They are expensive machines. As noble Lords know, everything in this country is expensive.

Parts, in particular, are expensive. Noble Lords who drive cars know that it is far more expensive to buy spares in this country than in Germany or France. I have a cracked lens on a foglamp on my car. It would cost about £20 to replace in Belgium, France, Holland or Germany. Here it costs £150. That is repeated throughout the motor car and motorcycle industry.

As noble Lords have said, vehicle crime is somewhere near 30 per cent. of total crime. There is a great temptation for young people to scour the trade papers and small advertisements to buy parts cheaply from vehicle breakers. Young people nowadays like to ride motorcycles for leisure purposes rather than for travelling to work. I agree with the noble Lord who suggested that registration of vehicle breakers might be an important step in making it more difficult and less desirable for criminals to sell stolen vehicles to breakers.

One of the fundamental problems with motorcycles is that they fall over; cars bash into them. They are expensive to repair, and there is good business to be done by dishonest breakers. I hope that the Vehicle Crime Reduction Action Team will address the problem. I know that it is on the team's 14-point plan.

Why do people steal vehicles? For a criminal it is a relatively low risk reward ratio activity. If, on leaving this House, any noble Lord attempted to become a criminal (which I hope he will not) I suggest that he does not burgle my house but considers vehicle crime. It is more remunerative and one is less likely to be caught. A dispiriting factor for those who have done excellent work in the stolen vehicle squads is that when they have set up long and expensive operations to catch thieves--we have been told that the theft of vehicles represents about £3 billion a year--the Crown Prosecution Service says that it is unlikely that there will be a conviction. We have even had cases where individuals have committed crimes when they are on bail for serious offences of stealing motorcycles. It is a worrying area.

Other noble Lords have given statistics. They are worrying. Overall the figures are on the increase. There has been a decrease as regards expensive saloon and other cars. I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said. Nowadays it is at least possible to protect a car pretty thoroughly if one is prepared to spend the money. Although people spend a large amount on motor cars, as they do on houses, they do not act to protect their property until they suffer a loss. One can protect a car adequately now for about £250. That is a small part of the cost of a new car.

Vehicle crime pays. I hope that through their efforts the Government will make it a crime which does not pay. It is clear that through No. 10 we now have the political will to do so. We have the expertise in the police. We have the support of ACPO. It is a time-consuming business for police officers. It is extremely worrying and expensive for those who own vehicles to have them stolen. The cost of the whole

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exercise is prohibitive. It is a self-perpetuating problem in society. I do not think that it is as bad as statistics indicate because, as noble Lords have said, the basis on which the figures are calculated is slightly different in different countries. Nevertheless, this country is probably the Mecca for motorcycle thieves.

It is possible to deal with the problem. I hope that we shall now hear from the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, that the initiative is under way. It has the full support of motorcyclists. I hope that together we can substantially reduce the problem.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for initiating the debate with his customary clarity and careful research. It has given rise to a debate which has been particularly well informed. It so happens that five hereditary Peers spoke one after another; that may not have been sheer coincidence but it is a fact.

Many have suffered from car crime. I have to tell my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth that my car was stolen from a railway car park several years ago when I was a Member of another place. It was used in an attempted robbery of the bar of the local rugger club. Fortunately Hansard provided me with a first class alibi; and I therefore have even more reason to be grateful to that noble institution.

I do not ride a motor cycle these days except occasionally with the excellent motor cycle chauffeurs, which provide an excellent way to get about town. My noble friend was quite right to say that car crime has come down because of a series of actions encouraged by the former government and this Government. A number of factors are involved, as has been demonstrated already in the debate. First, the police are targeting car crime much more. The force I know best is the Avon and Somerset force, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Oxfuird. It gave the matter high priority several years ago, and showed me recently what it was doing. Like the South Yorkshire Police, about four years ago it also acquired a helicopter which has proved valuable. It is particularly effective in dealing with criminals who use stolen cars to smash shop fronts, to steal from the shops and race away. That crime was becoming prevalent outside Bristol. The helicopter has been valuable in dealing with that rather specialist form of car crime.

Giving a high priority to improved intelligence gathering and improved analysis of the details of the car crimes committed is extremely valuable. My noble friend Lord Oxfuird mentioned the initiatives to handle young offenders which are important in reducing re-offending.

Car manufacturers have also given a higher priority to security. My noble friend Lord Lucas is right to tell us from his own experience of the difficulty of selling security to car buyers. But there is no doubt in my mind that it has been a real sales point on the part of the manufacturers and dealers to emphasise that new cars are now made more difficult to steal because of

31 Mar 1999 : Column 454

electronic locks, the tracker systems for the more desirable types of expensive cars, and so on. Car radios have been made more difficult to steal. They are coded and have removable fronts so that they can be disabled and difficult to operate in another car.

Mention was rightly made of secure car parks with the use of closed-circuit television. The use of CCTV is effective in providing security and in bring subsequent prosecutions of the criminals. It is also an extremely good deterrent, even if the cameras are dummy cameras. I was recently shown a video by the police force in which the criminal had been clearly photographed by a concealed camera doing his best to damage the dummy camera before stealing a car. I am pleased to say that his efforts were ineffective.

We were also right to be warned today that motorists have a part to play. In particular, they should not leave items in cars and should lock their cars properly. Warnings have been given by the police, by successive governments and other bodies, but it cannot be said too often that one is personally responsible for one's own property, including a car and anything in it. The suggestions about insurance were a valuable contribution to the debate.

All those factors have contributed to the reduction in car crime, but we, the Government and other agencies involved must not relax our efforts. It was rightly said that car crime is proportionately high in this country as compared with others. Those fighting car and motor cycle crime need some encouragement and I am sure that the debate will have provided the right kind.

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