Abandoned Vehicles

– in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 5 March 2001.

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

10 pm

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw attention to the problems caused by abandoned vehicles, which are becoming particularly acute in Reading and in many other places. I have initiated the debate because those problems and the number of abandoned vehicles are on the increase in Reading and Woodley. More than 2,000 suspected abandoned cars have been reported to the council in the past nine months alone—up 60 per cent. on the previous year.

A sign of the magnitude of the problem is this week's launch of the "Enough is enough" campaign by my local weekly newspaper, the Reading Chronicle. In an excellent article on the problem, which I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister, it said: The familiar sight of burnt out or smashed cars is ruining Reading's image as an aspiring city. They make our roads dangerous and are a magnet for vandals and thieves.

There is also a serious problem with untaxed cars. Between 1 October and 31 December last year, Reading magistrates, who cover a different area from the borough council, heard 245 cases of using a vehicle without an excise licence. The problems of abandoned and untaxed cars should be treated no differently from any other waste problems: if vehicles are not where they should be, they are rubbish and should be removed.

We know the cause of the epidemic. The decline in the scrap value of cars means that it costs people to have a vehicle taken away. That has resulted in cars being left on the street or being taken somewhere quiet to be dumped. Some abandoned cars are the consequence of joyriding and are torched to remove the evidence of who was involved in the theft.

I have personal experience of the problem of abandoned vehicles, as there has been a van outside my constituency office for more than six weeks. It has had a "police aware" sticker on it for most of that time and pieces of it are being removed every day. It has also become a magnet for children who attack it, smash its windows and cover it in graffiti. The bulk of the damage was done in school half-term week and the dangers to children presented by such activity should be obvious to all.

There is evidence that an unscrupulous garage owner is dumping vehicles on the streets of the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I believe that there is a public meeting in the area tonight, which was called by a constituent of mine who is a councillor there. Councillor Askar Sheibani has done sterling work against the scourge of abandoned vehicles in Southcote. However, it is an uphill struggle.

A case in Whitley, which is in my constituency of Reading, East, concerns Mr. Clifford of 113, Blagdon road. This man, who is believed to be secretary of the local Hell's Angels chapter, has made his neighbours' lives a misery for almost 20 years. He has kept tens of cars on the street as part of a vehicle breaking business that he runs. In 1998, a neighbour of his complained to me of the 30 or more vehicles that had been outside Mr. Clifford's house and on the highway for eight years.

Contractors in the Reading area have all been threatened by Mr. Clifford and refuse to take the abandoned vehicles away. No one would call that a lawless area.

The late Councillor Maureen Lockey worked hard to get something done about the problem, but to no avail. I know that Councillors Wilf Wild and Chris Goodall have worked hard, and still are doing so, to get action taken to end this nuisance for local, law-abiding residents.

I had further discussions with residents about the problem in Blagdon road on the day of last year's by-election, which saw the election of Councillor Christine Grieve. Since her election, she has also been working hard to try to tackle the problem, but has come up against the same brick wall. This morning, I received a copy of a letter to a resident in Blagdon road from Councillor Grieve, and was delighted to read: I have now received a reply"— from the chief executive of Reading borough council— in which it is suggested that the residents near to number 113 need only be patient for a little longer, as negotiations between the different agencies are well advanced.

I am pleased that Mr. Clifford has been successfully prosecuted by the council's planning enforcement officers for running a business from a residential property. Like local residents, I look forward to the day when negotiations between the different agencies are complete and action is taken to remove the rubbish from his garden and the untaxed vehicles in various states of destruction from the public highway in Blagdon road.

Those are extreme examples of the problems caused by abandoned and untaxed vehicles, but such problems are everywhere. Putting those extreme examples aside, what is the nature of the problem, what remedies are there and what can be done to improve the process of removal of abandoned vehicles? Reading borough council expects to have received 2,800 reports of abandoned vehicles in the year to 31 March 2001, which is a 60 per cent. increase on the previous year. This year, £9,309 has been spent removing abandoned vehicles against a budget of £3,000. It is expected that the full-year cost will have doubled since last year. Those figures take no account of the cost of the housing officers and environmental maintenance inspectors who spot, report and attach notices to the vehicles. Two full-time posts are devoted to abandoned vehicles, and the administrative overheads amount to £36,000.

The problem is also increasing in the Woodley and Earley parts of the Wokingham district that I represent, although the scale of the problem in Wokingham district is not as large as it is in Reading. From 1 April, Reading borough council will introduce a carrot and stick approach. For the cost of its removal, a vehicle will be taken away and disposed of. On council-owned land, the council will use its power as a landowner to remove abandoned vehicles, with a seven-day wreckers' notice speeding up the removal of the vehicles. The council will also charge the last registered owner for the removal, and it now has a link to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency computer to speed up the identification of the last registered owner.

One problem experienced when trying to deal with abandoned cars is that people do not pass on registration documents at the point of sale. The details of up to 80 per cent. of abandoned vehicles have not been passed on to the DVLA. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) for that information. I welcome the measures in the Vehicles (Crime) Bill that will make it an offence, punishable by fine, not to pass on a registration document, so it will be easier to track the registered owner of a vehicle.

The problem with untaxed vehicles remains. The manager of the Reading office of the DVLA has no field staff, and has the smallest enforcement team in the whole southern region. The enforcement team is entirely office based. Thames Valley police, together with the DVLA, have begun a clampdown on untaxed vehicles in Reading. They had an advertising blitz telling people to license their vehicles, and aim to step up enforcement shortly.

This morning, I was holding my regular surgery at the Whitley advice shop near to Blagdon road. I was pleased to receive a copy of the Surveyor of 22 February from Celia, who works in the advice shop and had read about this debate in the local papers. The article in Surveyor outlines a scheme in Lewisham whereby the council has the powers of the DVLA to remove untaxed vehicles as if they were abandoned. People must then pay to get their vehicles back.

The magazine goes on to say: The new measures will send a clear message to an anti-social minority of motorists that the public highway cannot be regarded as a convenient dumping-ground for their scrap metal.And with parking spaces in short supply, it will free up capacity for the law-abiding majority who understand that using a car is a privilege that must be paid for. I entirely agree with those sentiments.

Reading borough council has now taken on parking enforcement. It is starting to make a real difference, with people being caught and fined for parking illegally. It is the first time in a long while that that has happened. I am pleased that the introduction of decriminalised parking enforcement in Reading is proving to be such a success, but it would be even better if Reading could also be allowed to pilot the Lewisham scheme, freeing more space for people to park legitimately and allowing the rubbish of abandoned vehicles to be removed from our streets even more quickly.

There is also the problem of removing abandoned and untaxed cars from private land. Reading borough council is working towards a concordat with private landowners in the area, allowing the removal of such abandoned and untaxed vehicles.

What can be done for the future? As I said earlier, I do not see why cars should be any different from anything else: if they are not where they should be, they are rubbish and should be removed. In the short term, the agencies involved could work together even more closely. I have already asked for a scheme like the one in Lewisham to be introduced in Reading; there is another pilot scheme in Kent, where untaxed vehicles are clamped and, if not taxed within a day, are removed and disposed of.

The figures in the Disposal of Vehicles Regulations 1986 are weighted in favour of vehicle owners. The penalties that a local authority can impose on the owner of an abandoned vehicle should be increased to cover at least the cost of removal and destruction. After all, why should the community pay through its taxes for the anti-social behaviour of a few?] favour an increase providing for penalisation of people who dump vehicles.

In the longer term, dealing with abandoned or untaxed vehicles should become the province of one authority, with power to remove abandoned vehicles swiftly, to charge for removal and to impose a penalty. An opportunity to introduce such a proposal is provided by the European Union end-of-life vehicle directive, which states that manufacturers of vehicles must meet all or a significant part of the costs involved in establishing and operating a vehicle disposal system under which last owners may dispose of their vehicles free of charge. I hope that the introduction of such a scheme will lead to a reduction in the number of abandoned vehicles; however, I believe that any scheme introduced under the EU directive must still allow for people abandoning vehicles, and for people not taxing their vehicles.

As the DVLA in Reading has not the enforcement capability on the streets to deal with the problem in Reading, I would like the councils that cover Reading and Woodley to be given powers to remove untaxed and abandoned vehicles. I also believe that the last owner of a vehicle should be made to pay the cost of such a service: I do not see why council tax payers should deal with other people's anti-social behaviour.

I end by returning to where I began. Enough is enough. The anti-social minority abandoning vehicles, or not taxing vehicles, is on the rise in Reading and Woodley; Reading borough council and Wokingham district council are starting to do something about the problem, but there are things that could be done to speed up and clarify the process for removing this rubbish from our streets. I hope the Minister will give serious thought to the ideas that I have suggested in relation to the disposal of vehicles regulations, allowing Reading borough council to trial a pilot similar to those in Kent and Lewisham, and the implementation of regulations implementing the EU end-of-life directive.

I am grateful for the chance to raise an issue that is so important to my constituents. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's reply.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 10:14, 5 March 2001

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing the debate and on choosing this topic, which is of concern in many parts of the country. As she says, abandoned vehicles are a major headache for Reading borough council. I understand that since April last year it has had more than 2,000 cases, and is now proposing action.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that while I was preparing for the debate it came to my attention that other hon. Friends are equally concerned and are taking action. Indeed, only last Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) called a summit in the city of Nottingham to try to make the action proposed there more effective.

Abandoned vehicles are a problem for many local authorities in England. All too often, vehicles are abandoned in residential streets, become an eyesore and attract the attention of vandals. That is a serious problem. The police also have to get involved where abandoned vehicles are dangerous to members of the public, as they often will be if they are left for a long time. As my hon. Friend said, local authorities often have difficulty in tracing the last known keeper of a vehicle. The problems are being accentuated by the falling price of scrap metal.

May I tell my hon. Friend what powers are available? Local authorities have a duty under section 3(1) of the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978 to remove any vehicle that has been abandoned on any land in the open air, or on any other land forming part of a highway in their area. The maximum penalty for abandoning a vehicle is a fine of £2,500, three months' imprisonment or both. Local authorities and the Environment Agency have additional powers under section 59 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to effect the removal of abandoned vehicles and to recover the costs from those responsible. In addition to that duty, local authorities have to deal with vehicles abandoned on private land.

In all instances, before it can remove a vehicle, the local authority must ensure that it has made every effort to trace the owner and can demonstrate that it has done so. That is done by fixing a warning notice to the vehicle for a specified number of days. The period of notification will depend on whether the vehicle has been abandoned on the highway or on private land. After that statutory notification period has elapsed and any representations have been considered, the local authority can remove the vehicle.

There are certain circumstances in which the police, under the Removal and Disposal of Vehicles Regulations 1986, can remove a vehicle. Those are: where a vehicle is left in breach of local traffic regulation orders, is causing an obstruction, or is likely to cause danger and is broken down or abandoned without lawful authority. If a vehicle to which a warning notice has been attached deteriorates to such an extent that it becomes a danger to the public, the council can ask the police to remove the vehicle immediately.

I am aware that there are a number of difficulties for local authorities when dealing with abandoned vehicles. I have already mentioned the difficulty of tracking down the last known keeper of the vehicle. Suggestions have been made, including by my hon. Friend, that the person shown on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's database as the current keeper should be held responsible for the removal and storage costs when the vehicle is abandoned. Others have suggested that the various notice periods need to be shorter, so that the vehicles are not left on the road for so long. We are actively considering those suggestions as part of a review of legislation covering abandoned vehicles, and will consider what action needs to be taken, which might include primary legislation.

The DVLA is responsible for unlicensed vehicles but not for abandoned vehicles. The agency operates a nationwide scheme to wheelclamp and to impound unlicensed vehicles to tackle the problem of vehicle excise duty evasion. To date, about 53,000 vehicles have been clamped or impounded and about half have been disposed of, mainly by crushing.

The scheme is very successful and has already encouraged more than 333,000 extra motorists to relicense voluntarily, bringing in more than £39 million in additional revenue. The police are supportive, as they recognise that such evaders are frequently also committing other road traffic offences. I raise that issue because, as my hon. Friend herself has recognised, there is a strong link between unlicensed and abandoned vehicles.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

Will the Minister follow up the request from the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) and say whether she is prepared to extend to local authorities the DVLA's powers to remove untaxed vehicles, so that untaxed vehicles—which are often abandoned—can be removed without delay? In my constituency of Kingston and Surbiton, my constituents are being adversely affected by the problem of untaxed and abandoned vehicles. I think that strengthening the law as the hon. Member for Reading, East suggests would go some way towards enabling the local authority to tackle the problem without delay.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

As I said, we are considering various suggestions to deal specifically with abandoned vehicles, and the DVLA scheme to deal with unlicensed vehicles is very successful. Moreover, local authorities already have powers to remove abandoned vehicles after going through the current process. I accept that that process can sometimes take an unacceptably long time for local residents, but I am not convinced that simply giving the powers currently held by the DVLA to local authorities will address that issue effectively. Various considerations have to be balanced. I think that vehicle owners have the right to expect an attempt to be made to find a solution. The question is how long we should allow that process to continue. There are some difficulties, but, as I said, we are examining them.

A number of pilot schemes are being run, demonstrating the agency's willingness to operate in a joined-up manner with other agencies to counteract the problem of unlicensed and abandoned vehicles. The first of the schemes began in Kent on 22 January, and involves the agency joining forces with Kent police, Kent county council, Medway borough council and Kent fire service. The agency's wheelclamping contractor will for the first time target abandoned vehicles under the 1978 Act, as well as wheelclamping unlicensed vehicles. That is perhaps another way of addressing the issue that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) raised.

We shall examine the results of that pilot, which will run for two months in the Medway towns and be jointly funded. If it is successful, we hope to establish a permanent operation to cover the whole of Kent. Results to date have been very encouraging, with large numbers of vehicles removed A full analysis will be completed shortly.

The second initiative involves two London boroughs—Lewisham and Newham—which will use their own contractors to target unlicensed vehicles under the agency's wheelclamping regulations. They understand that wheelclamping for tax evasion is unlikely to be self-funding, but recognise that the operation could bring with it economies of scale. They will be able to retain the release fees and storage fees. The Newham pilot will start on 2 April, with Lewisham following shortly afterwards. Both will run for 12 months. Both councils will utilise their existing compounds, which are currently used for abandoned vehicles, to store the unlicensed vehicles during the pilot.

Those three pilot projects comprise the first action that we are considering and taking. Additionally, the Local Government Association has established a working group—in which the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the DVLA and the Association of Chief Police Officers are included—to examine the problem. Apart from data gathering, the group's main aims are to suggest improvements to the current arrangements and to disseminate examples of good practice. Last year, the LGA conducted a survey on the scale of the problem, how it was being managed locally and the operating costs involved. The work of that group will feed into my Department's current deliberations.

Furthermore, the Institute of Wastes Management has established a working group on abandoned and end-of-life vehicles, to examine the problems caused by abandoned vehicles in the local environment and some of the technical issues of best practice in disposal.

Abandoned vehicles are often associated with so-called joyriders. We appreciate the problems that joyriders cause and, as my hon. Friend said, we are introducing measures to help to combat them under the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. Under the Bill, the time limit for prosecuting person for taking a car without authority will be extended from six months to three years, although to ensure that proceedings are not unnecessarily delayed, a prosecution must be brought within six months of evidence becoming available. The impact will be to allow the police to make greater use of DNA and new technology and bring more people who commit that offence to justice.

As my hon. Friend knows, measures will be introduced under the Bill to regulate the motor salvage industry and to require businesses to keep records of transactions. Nothing in the Bill will make it an offence for a motor salvage operator to sell a vehicle to someone who is under 18, but it is, of course, already an offence for a person who is under 17 to drive a car. Under the new provisions, the police will be able to trace the driver more easily, as the records kept by salvage operators will give details of the person who bought the vehicle.

In addition, it will be compulsory under the Bill for any previously written-off vehicles to have an identity check before they are allowed back on the road. That is primarily intended to ensure that the vehicle is the one that it is purported it to be, not a disguised stolen car. However, owners will be made aware that their vehicles have been previously written off and will be encouraged to check that they are roadworthy.

Clearly, the European directive ort end-of-life vehicles, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, may contribute to a reduction in the number of abandoned vehicles in the United Kingdom, and we are now focusing on how it can be implemented to achieve that aim The directive is due to be implemented in the United Kingdom by spring next year, and requires member states to introduce legislation to allow last owners to deliver their vehicles to an authorised treatment facility free of charge. That requirement must be introduced by July 2002 for vehicles put on the market from that date, and by January 2007 for all vehicles on the road. However, we have the option to introduce free take-back for all vehicles from 2002, and we are carefully considering whether we could do so, because it would clearly help to reduce the number of abandoned vehicles substantially. In addition, the directive requires systems to be set up for the collection of all end-of-life vehicles, with adequate availability of such facilities across the United Kingdom.

A system of so-called bounty payments to the last holders of end-of-life vehicles—another possible option—could be funded by a charge on new car purchases or by an increased annual excise duty. That could also reduce the number of abandoned vehicles. Some EU member states already operate such systems, which obviously provide a direct financial incentive for end-of-life vehicles to be handed in. That would also ensure that all vehicles were sent for reuse, recovery and recycling, thus contributing to the targets set out in the directive.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

The Minister is talking about the resources that might become available to deal with the problem. I am sure that she is aware that local authorities—whether in Reading or in Kingston—want to tackle the problem, and they need resources to ensure that they have the necessary full-time officials to track down the abandoned vehicles, to liaise with the DVLA and to ensure that those vehicles are taken off the streets. Will she consider that matter as part of the resource analysis that the Department is undertaking?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I am certainly not going to put on my other hat and be drawn into a discussion of the local government settlement. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the very significant increases that all local authorities have received from the Government during the previous three years, and will receive in the forthcoming three years as a result of the spending review. Although I recognise that such problems involve spending pressures, all local authorities have pressures of one kind or another, and they must decide how to spend their money. The best help that we can give them is to facilitate the process as much as we can by changing the legislation or the procedures so that they are not so lengthy and time-consuming. I accept the main point that the hon. Gentleman makes—that for local authorities to undertake extensive searches for owners while the vehicles are still on the streets certainly not only takes a long time, but involves local authority resources, which are all too precious.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.