Abandoned Vehicles

– in the House of Commons at 9:56 pm on 22 October 2001.

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

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage 10:00, 22 October 2001

I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on a problem that has been causing me, my constituents and many other hon. Members great concern in the past three years—abandoned vehicles, or more accurately, abandoned cars. No one living in Britain today can have failed to notice the number of burned out and rusting hulks that are being dumped on the streets of our towns, in the playgrounds of our schools, in the car parks of our businesses and on the verges of our country lanes. Some of those cars stay in place for months. They provide a dangerously unsafe playground for our children and amusement for our vandals, who occasionally set them on fire.

In the past two years in my constituency, the number of cars removed and scrapped has increased by 67 per cent. However, it is a countrywide problem. Last year, in Birmingham, 10,000 cars were dumped and scrapped; in Dagenham more than 4,000 cars were dumped and scrapped, which is a 41 per cent. increase; and in Glasgow 2,000 cars were dumped and scrapped.

The reason behind the sudden proliferation of abandoned vehicles is simple. Scrap metal dealers used to pay drivers about £50 for their old cars; now drivers have to pay scrap metal dealers £50 to get rid of their cars. The change is due to a decline in the global market for scrap metal since 1998. Three years ago, scrap metal was worth £60 a tonne, but now it is worth only £3 a tonne. The worldwide decline in the price of scrap metal has led to a countrywide increase in the number of abandoned cars, costing councils such as mine and those of my hon. Friends a great deal of time and money.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with abandoned cars is the length of time they have to be stored? Councils such as my own London borough of Merton have to pay to store such cars, so that a car's value is soon exceeded by the cost to the council of storing it.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage

That is precisely right. As many councils like mine have nowhere to store abandoned cars, the cars tend to be stored on our streets and in our lanes.

Contractors charge local councils a minimum of £25 per vehicle to remove cars, and many staff hours have to be worked before local councils can be legally rid of cars. Local authorities have the power to recover the costs of disposing of dumped cars from their owners, but as ownership is almost impossible to prove or incredibly expensive to prove, that power is more theoretical than practical. Currently, Stevenage borough council, like most other councils in the United Kingdom, is providing an almost free service to car owners who cannot or will not pay for their vehicles to be scrapped.

Depending on how it is implemented, the European Union end-of-life vehicles directive, which comes into force in April 2002, could make matters significantly more difficult and expensive for councils in the short term. The directive will impose strict controls on the hazardous components of end-of-life vehicles. It will also make the recycling of batteries, tyres and oil a priority. Under the European end-of-life vehicles directive, recycling can be done only after the vehicle has been transferred to an authorised treatment facility. How many councils have such a facility? I know that my council does not have one. Although all that is highly commendable and very desirable, it will significantly add to the cost, the complexity and, even worse, the time required to dispose of those vehicles.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Does my hon. Friend agree that the current long-winded process of removing abandoned and burned out cars is completely incomprehensible to our constituents who suffer that degradation in their neighbourhood?

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage

I could not agree more. The way in which this problem brings down neighbourhoods is terrible. In one neighbourhood in my constituency, 10 or 12 cars are parked to a street. They are removed, but a week later they are back.

I am here tonight to ask the Government to act now to reduce the financial and administrative burden on local authorities. It is expected that when the directive comes into place in April, local councils could be charged anything between 50 per cent. and 250 per cent. more per vehicle than they are now.

There are four ways in which we can help. First and foremost we can shorten the period of notice required before councils can legally remove and scrap a vehicle. At present, the length of time is seven days. In my opinion, those are seven wasted days, as drivers almost never reclaim their vehicles. In a recent pilot scheme in Medway, around 600 abandoned vehicles were removed without notice and scrapped. I believe that only one driver came forward to reclaim his vehicle.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

One of the reasons why the scheme was so successful was that the DVLA and the local authority were operating together. If we allowed local authority officers to use DVLA legislation, they could react much quicker. The current legislation is the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, which many of us—particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment—will remember was not Labour's finest year in terms of collecting rubbish. We need to bring the two powers together.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage

I could not agree more. Indeed, my second point is that we should ensure that all local authorities have an electronic link to the DVLA. This would enable them to trace the last registered owner swiftly. My borough council has such a link, but unlike the local police, they have to pay for it. Could Ministers consider providing local councils with such a link free of charge, as they do for the police?

Thirdly, we could make the DVLA's registration process more effective so that the final owner of a vehicle can be accurately identified and action taken if they abandon their car. Fourthly, as my hon. Friend Mr. Shaw said, we can encourage the DVLA and the police to work in partnership with local councils to speed up the disposal of abandoned vehicles. For example, a 12-week partnership called Cube It was launched at the beginning of the month in Gravesham. Council officers there are working with the police and posting untaxed cars with notices. The DVLA's contractors come in immediately and remove them for scrapping. They then fold them into cubes, which is why the scheme is called Cube It.

Finally, it might be helpful if drivers of cars that are over three years old were obliged to display their MOT certificates on the windscreens of their cars. If a car was neither taxed nor had its MOT certificate—in other words, if it were deemed unroadworthy—and appeared to be abandoned, local authorities could be given the right to remove it and scrap it at once.

I know that the measures I have outlined are short term and do not address all the problems caused by the increase in abandoned vehicles and the introduction of the European directive. However, something has to be done urgently to prevent the proliferation of rusting hulks across our once green and pleasant land. Local authorities need national Government help now to tackle this problem. This is what I and other hon. Members are seeking tonight.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 10:08, 22 October 2001

With the leave of my hon. Friend Barbara Follett and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, I will make a brief contribution.

You will know, Mr. Speaker, that hundreds of Members of all parties have asked you for debates on this issue, which is a matter of concern across the country and across all parties. You will know also that the Prime Minister raised the issue in a speech on 26 April this year. One might not think that this was an issue worthy of prime ministerial speeches, but it is of great concern—a quality of life issue—for people in towns and cities throughout the land. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage on raising the issue tonight.

I have taken the liberty of talking to a large number of Members, and I want to distil briefly what colleagues have told me are their priorities, which are shared by Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire constabulary.

First, notices to remove vehicles under the Amenities Act 1978 should have immediate effect rather than being implemented only after seven days; otherwise, those vehicles are joyridden, abandoned and smashed in, and then another group of youngsters may set fire to them.

Secondly, we should extend to police and local authorities the powers that my hon. Friend mentioned, in line with those of the DVLA, to remove untaxed vehicles within one day, which would require amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Thirdly, we should provide greater resources to the DVLA to increase countrywide coverage for checking untaxed vehicles. At present, one contractor is employed to cover the whole country and has to move around from area to area.

Fourthly, there must be a greater use of police discretion in removing hazardous or obstructing vehicles. Again, a simple, cost-free guidance note from the Home Secretary to all local authorities and police would enable that to happen.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Does my hon. Friend agree that nearly all abandoned vehicles are hazardous, because they are potential bombs? In Slough, the average abandoned vehicle—there are plenty to choose from—is burned out in short order, and is very dangerous because young children are involved.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

We all know that, and our constituents know it, but unfortunately the police have to be extremely careful about the legal position. A clear and explicit guidance note would give them the security to act immediately on those problems.

Fifthly, greater use should be made of existing powers to prosecute those who abandon cars, linked into the faster track system of registered keepers to which my hon. Friend referred. Many vehicles change hands for a few pounds in the pub and nobody bothers to register them, making life extremely difficult for the police. People who abandon cars should also get penalty points on their licence for all future vehicles.

Many Labour Members are present and any one of them—along with 200 or 300 others—could speak on the subject.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Does my hon. Friend agree that many local authorities, and indeed the police, are getting a very poor press on the issue, when it is no fault of theirs? Many authorities are doing a lot to tackle the issue in innovative and imaginative ways, but the legislation does not allow them to take the steps that we and our constituents so want them to take.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

My hon. Friend makes the point eloquently. All we are asking, as a group of Members of Parliament, is that the Government take a number of simple, clear and almost entirely cost-free measures. They are small technical changes that will be welcomed in every town and city throughout the land. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister not to delay on this heartland issue but to introduce a package of simple measures as soon as he can.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 10:13, 22 October 2001

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Barbara Follett on securing this debate on an issue that is unquestionably of concern not only in Stevenage but throughout the country. The fact that so many of my hon. Friends have attended the debate and made a series of sensible points that the Government will take very seriously in the consultation that is now under way is an indication of the importance that we attach to the subject—but I note that not a single Opposition Member is here.

We are well aware that abandoned vehicles are a major and growing headache not only for Stevenage borough council but for many local authorities in England. My hon. Friend was right to mention the change in the scrap metal price and the fact that one now has to pay the car breakers to collect a car, rather than receiving money for it. That is the nub of the problem.

The number of old vehicles dumped in Britain last year is estimated at one third of a million, and the level of dumping has increased enormously in recent years. All too often vehicles are abandoned in residential streets, where, as my hon. Friends have said, they quickly become an eyesore and attract the attention of vandals. Indeed, as my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart said, in the worst cases they become an explosive nightmare. Many are burned out, which places an increasing burden on the fire service. The police, too, have to get involved when abandoned vehicles are in a condition that is dangerous to members of the public and to children who, unfortunately, find them particularly attractive.

Local authorities often have difficulty in tracing the last known keeper of a vehicle—I shall return to that problem in a moment—and are thus unable often to recover the costs of dealing with such vehicles. Those problems are now being accentuated because of the falling price of scrap metal and the fact that the value of old cars has fallen, as a result of which we know that old cars are changing hands in an informal market, without documentation, for no more than a few pounds.

What action are the Government taking? That is what my hon. Friends want me to tell them. Since the election, my Department and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have been working together on proposals for tackling the problem of abandoned vehicles.

The main proposals are as follows. We shall reduce the present notice periods used by local authorities, so that abandoned vehicles can be removed more quickly and efficiently, thus reducing the risk of vandalism and the likelihood that a particular vehicle will be reported as abandoned several times in different places. That will reduce costs. We shall also enable local authorities to use the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's wheel- clamping powers to remove unlicensed vehicles—possibly by acting as the DVLA's contractor—and provide better access to the DVLA's records. I shall return to that point in a moment.

In the longer term, it is proposed to change vehicle registration and licensing procedures to ensure that the DVLA's vehicle record is more accurate—although this would almost certainly require primary legislation. I am happy to tell the House that we now aim to consult on proposals resulting from those recommendations in the very near future.

What action is being taken by the DVLA? The DVLA has an interest in tackling unlicensed vehicles, which up to 80 per cent. of abandoned vehicles are. The agency operates a nationwide scheme to wheel-clamp and impound unlicensed vehicles to tackle the problem of vehicle excise duty evasion. To date, about 71,000 vehicles have been clamped or impounded, and about half of these have been disposed of, mainly by crushing. The scheme is proving very successful, and has already encouraged more than 384,000 extra motorists to relicense voluntarily—although "voluntarily" is a bit of a term of art. That brings in more than £47 million in additional revenue, which is quite useful.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I am sure that all Members will be pleased with the increase in revenue and the effect of the DVLA tow-away vehicles, but I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that there are only two tow-away teams in Greater London. That means that each constituency is visited less than once a year. Would it not be better to double, or even triple, the number of tow-away teams, given the high incidence of untaxed cars in the capital?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

It certainly would, and we intend to do exactly that.

A national scheme to detect vehicle excise duty evasion, using automated number plate reader camera systems, was launched on 11 October in London. The system, called Stingray, is van based and operated by DVLA staff. The system will be used to supplement the police and other enforcement agencies in detecting and deterring VED evasion.

A number of pilot schemes are being run to counteract the problem of unlicensed and abandoned vehicles. We look to the success of those pilot schemes in order to roll out similar schemes nationally. The first began in Kent, as my hon. Friend said—I cannot remember his constituency. [Hon. Members: "Chatham and Aylesford".] How could I forget Aylesford after all the discussions? The first pilot scheme began in Kent, as my hon. Friend Mr. Shaw mentioned. It began on 22 January and involved the agency joining forces with Kent police, Kent county council, Medway borough council and Kent fire service. For the first time, the agency's wheel-clamping contractor targeted abandoned vehicles under the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978—to which several of my hon. Friends referred—as well as wheel-clamping unlicensed vehicles. The pilot scheme ran for eight weeks. It was called Operation Cubit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage said—she gave the correct derivation of the name—and resulted in more than 700 vehicles being removed and destroyed. The downside was that the number of vehicle fires increased significantly, presumably as the local villains sought to destroy forensic evidence—you cannot win them all—but that is not a reason for not continuing or extending the project.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

As my right hon. Friend said, several hundred vehicles were removed from the streets of the Medway towns, including many in my constituency. As my hon. Friend Barbara Follett pointed out, the removal of those cars also meant the freeing up of several hundred legitimate parking spaces, especially for people who live in terraced housing where parking is at a premium.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

My hon. Friend is right. It is a win-win-win situation. It stops offenders, collects more money, ensures that the DVLA has more accurate information and provides more parking spaces, which are also none too available in London.

Two pilot schemes in London—in Newham and Lewisham—are looking at the scope for local authorities to use the DVLA's powers to wheel-clamp abandoned vehicles and remove them after 24 hours—I stress that time, because it is significant. Since 9 April, more than 900 vehicles in Newham have been wheel-clamped, with more than 460 released on payment of fees. More than 250 vehicles have been destroyed, mainly by crushing. The remainder are in the pound awaiting their fate. Lewisham experienced similar, albeit lower, figures.

If those pilots are successful, the Prime Minister has said—as my hon. Friend Mr. Allen pointed out, the Prime Minister regarded it as significant enough to make it an important item in a speech earlier this year—consideration will be given to rolling out the scheme more widely. The initial assessment of the schemes suggests the makings of a solution to the problem.

Keeping the vehicle register up to date is also an important part of our armoury. The DVLA is very much aware that if the enforcement of abandoned vehicles is to be improved, and it is to support initiatives such as congestion charging and speed and red light camera enforcement, the vehicle register has to be accurate, up to date and capable of identifying the vehicle owner. Without that ability, there is no effective sanction against those who dump cars, and it is not possible for local authorities and the police to recover the costs of removing dumped cars.

The DVLA register is estimated to be up to 94 per cent. accurate, but it is clear that there is a significant hard core of vehicles for which it is not possible to trace a current owner. Those are also the vehicles that tend to be uninsured, without an MOT certificate, to be involved in fail-to-stop accidents and to flout parking and speed regulations. They are also the cars that are most likely to be abandoned. Targeting those cars effectively is critical. Car owners are under a legal obligation to notify the DVLA when they transfer a vehicle, but a minority of owners deliberately avoid notification to avoid the costs of keeping their cars taxed, insured and roadworthy, and to escape detection by enforcement cameras.

Keepers are under a legal obligation to notify the DVLA when they transfer a vehicle, but there is a minority that deliberately avoid notification in order to avoid the costs of keeping their cars taxed, insured and roadworthy, and to escape detection by enforcement cameras. They are, inevitably, largely old and low-value cars. Action is taken against those who refuse to comply when they are identified. Last year the DVLA pursued more than 36,000 motorists for failure to notify it of changes to vehicle ownership. That, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to consider how this hard core of vehicles can be brought within the system.

I believe that the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001 has allowed some important initiatives to be launched. For example, the requirement for those applying for duplicate vehicle registration documents to provide proof of identity, making it more difficult for traders to sell on vehicles without documentation, is a useful extra weapon in our armoury, but we recognise that more needs to be done. The Government's consultation exercise will contain further proposals for tightening up the system and ensuring that the last recorded keepers of vehicles cannot avoid their responsibilities.

There are indications that the new procedure is fulfilling its objective of achieving higher compliance with registration requirements, thereby improving the accuracy of the information held on the DVLA's vehicle record.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

My right hon. Friend has hit four of the five points that were of concern to many colleagues in my little round robin. To achieve the score of 10 out of 10, will he also deal with the question raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) about the removal of hazardous and obstructing vehicles and getting the definition right from the Home Office? If he does not have that information with him—I fully understand why that may be the case—will he undertake to write to me and to my hon. Friends about what the Home Office can do in that respect?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I will. Burned-out vehicles are dangerous to children as they often contain noxious substances, as well as being an eyesore. Prompt action is needed to get these vehicles off the street immediately. The local police and the local authority must work together to achieve that. I understand that the arrangements in place in Stevenage borough council have been quite effective in this respect, and that the local police have a good record. I am keen to see more examples of such co-operation as it benefits all the parties involved. I will give a fuller answer to my hon. Friend's question in consultation with the Home Office.

I was trying to achieve five out of five, if not 10 out of 10, by referring to end-of-life vehicles which are an important part of the equation. The end-of-life vehicles directive's aim is to reduce and prevent waste produced from old vehicles. The directive is not about abandoned vehicles except in the sense that they often tend to be end-of-life vehicles. The directive introduces certain provisions which will require all end-of-life vehicles to be taken back and treated by authorised treatment facilities. The directive also requires producers to pay for all or a significant part of the cost of free takeback and treatment of an end-of-life vehicle from 2007 for vehicles made before 2002, and from 2002 for vehicles made from that date. That should reduce costs and ease the current burden of abandoned vehicles incurred by local authorities.

The directive also allows member states to fund free takeback and treatment between 2002 and 2007 at their discretion. That means that from 2007 the implementation of the directive should mean that local authorities should not have to pay for the takeback—

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way in the last seconds of his reply. Might he consider giving councils money under that takeback provision for European member countries?

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

Obviously, that is an option. Under the European Union directive, that is at the discretion of member states. This is ultimately a matter for the Treasury, but the important point is that within a reasonably short time scale, local authorities, as a result of the operation of the directive itself, will be removed from the burden of the costs, which are considerable and growing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.