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Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to review the current legislation governing scrambler and quad bikes; and further calls on the PSNI and other responsible agencies to ensure that the current legislation governing these machines is enforced in a robust way. — [Ms J McCann.]
I thank Ms McCann and her colleagues for bringing this important motion to the Floor. The fact that we do not have a divided House, that voices from all corners of the Chamber spoke in unison and that there is an acknowledgement that there is no silver bullet on the issue and, from all sides and all corners and in all forums, we need to work together is a positive development. At the outset, I also wish to add my sincere condolences to the family of Valerie Armstrong, who sadly lost her life after being struck by a scrambler. Her needless death leaves three young children without their mother. All of us in the House must consider how best to take action to ensure that that type of tragedy never happens again.
Under current arrangements, my Department's remit extends to the regulation of on-road vehicles only. However, as Minister for road safety, I welcome the opportunity to take a lead role in the debate and share the concerns of the MLAs who have brought the issue to the Floor of the Assembly. We need to do all in our power to tackle what appears to be a growing problem. I am prepared to play my part, and I believe that an overwhelming number of Members feel the same.
The law, as it stands, is relatively simple. If you wish to use a scrambler or quad on the public road, you must have an appropriate driving licence and insurance and the vehicle must be type-approved and meet the necessary safety standards. It must be registered and display a number plate, and you must have paid your vehicle excise duty. If you cannot fulfil those conditions, you may use the vehicle on private land if and only if you have the clear permission of the landowner. You may not ride the scrambler or quad in parks, on footpaths or on land belonging to any public body. I understand that the PSNI considers that current legislation provides sufficient powers to take action against those who illegally use scramblers or quads off-road but the difficulty lies with detecting and catching offenders.
I recently met Ms McCann to discuss the issue, and I am aware that she has also met the Justice Minister to voice her concerns. It is clear that, whatever the legislation might say, we have a growing problem with the illegal and antisocial use of the vehicles. They are being imported in increasingly large numbers and can be bought cheaply. Many are being bought by parents for young children. The problem is not limited to the North of Ireland, and I have looked across these islands to see how other jurisdictions are dealing with it. The legislative framework is broadly similar in the South and in Britain, in that on-road use is regulated and off-road use is only with the permission of landowners. Media and newspaper reports make it clear that effective enforcement is an issue for all of us in all jurisdictions.
During my meeting with Ms McCann, we discussed the introduction of a registration scheme for these off-road vehicles; in effect, that would extend the current scheme for on-road motorcycles. The potential advantage of registration at the point of sale would be to make it clear, particularly to parents, that such vehicles are not toys. It would enable us to monitor the number of vehicles in circulation and easily identify owners. However, it is unlikely to resolve the practical problems around enforcement. The introduction of such a scheme would require powers that have not been devolved to the Assembly. I am aware that, in Britain, several attempts have been made to legislate to require all off-road motorcycles to be registered. As this is an excepted matter, the proposed schemes would have to be extended here. All of those attempts have faltered, mainly, it seems, due to the failure to address the enforcement issue. The Association of Chief Police Officers does not believe that a registration scheme would be viable. That is because there is not an established, reputable dealer network to ensure registration at the point of sale and because identifying marks can be easily removed from the vehicles. The Motorcycle Action Group and the Motorcycle Industry Association also believe that a registration scheme would be unworkable and that the real issue is the lack of enforcement of the current law.
Against that background, I am unconvinced that the answer lies solely in legislative change. Nevertheless, I would not rule it out at this stage and will keep the legislation available to us under review. I am happy to work with Members and communities to strengthen the legislation that we have at our disposal. It is also important to bear it in mind that the success of any legislative change would depend on our ability to use it to change behaviours. Traditionally, that is achieved at least partly through enforcement, and I note that the motion calls on responsible agencies to ensure that the current legislation governing these regimes is enforced in a robust way. Under current legislation, the PSNI has the power to seize and dispose of vehicles and to prosecute riders for a range of road safety offences. In certain circumstances, parents and guardians can also be reported for prosecution or issued with a fixed penalty notice.
I have already held a brief discussion with the Justice Minister, who shares my concerns and determination to take some positive steps to address the matter. We discussed potential options and are keen to explore those further in the months ahead. One area that could be addressed immediately is education. Realistically, we cannot have a police officer on every corner. Enforcement is important, but the PSNI cannot do this alone.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I agree entirely with the Minister on that very point. A number of Members referred to the police: the police cannot tackle and address this on their own, because there is an issue of resource and enforcement and so on. I welcome the Minister saying that he had a joint meeting with the Minister of Justice on the issue.
I think that the only way that we can tackle this is if there is a round-table approach and a joined-upness across government and with the councils and police. Would the Minister welcome such an initiative?
I thank the Chair of the Committee for his remarks. Indeed, this will have to be done in partnership, not just between MLAs and government but, of course, with our councils, which are very often the landowners and control the land that a lot of this is taking place on. I am more than happy to work in conjunction with the Justice Minister and councils as we go forward.
At my meetings with Ms McCann and the Justice Minister, we also discussed the development of an awareness campaign. I note that the policing and community safety partnerships have already taken a step in this direction with the publication of an advice and information leaflet that sets out the law. It also contains a section aimed at parents, and that is vital. All too often, parents buy these vehicles for their children without giving any thought to where and how they will be used. The vehicles are not toys and, as we have seen, can be lethal weapons if not used considerately and in line with the law.
I want to widen the awareness effort and will work with the Justice Minister to explore what we can do jointly on the development of a campaign targeted at parents who have purchased or may be thinking of purchasing a scrambler or quad for their children, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. I am also keen to raise awareness that it is a community issue and that we can all help to make a difference. If you see someone riding one of these vehicles illegally, please call 101 with a description of the bike and the rider. Those who are breaking the law in that manner need to realise that their neighbours will not tolerate that sort of antisocial behaviour.
In conclusion, the use of scramblers and quads as a leisure activity can be exciting and fun, and a number of clubs and societies across the North can give out information about where to pursue the hobby lawfully and safely. People need to stop taking risks with their own lives and those of the community around them. We must not lose sight of the pain and suffering caused by those who use these vehicles illegally without any thought of the consequences or concern for others. We must take action to address the matter now, and my Department and I will do our part.
I am glad that my colleague Jennifer brought the motion to the Floor of the House. It has been on the minds of many people in many areas of the North for a long time.
Just before I speak about the motion and relay what people said, we are coming into the run-up to Christmas — it was mentioned earlier — when parents will be coming under pressure from their children to purchase these machines and will be actively looking for them. About three or four years ago, I remember going onto the front of the Falls Road in my community on Christmas morning and hearing the bikes and quads coming along the road. There were a number of young people — about 11 or 12 of them — and it was like a youth chapter of Hell's Angels coming down the road at high speed. They are a novelty in many communities on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and afterwards. While some of them end up disappearing into sheds or cupboards, many more cause serious accidents, and their riders will be brought to hospital with broken arms, legs and whatever else. Pedestrians may also suffer from being run over by these machines going at speed.
One thing that was not mentioned — it is not a new phenomenon — is death driving. Last Saturday, a young man in my constituency was attacked by three people and had his bike taken from him. The bike was then used to drive at high speed around the area, putting people's lives at risk. That is an ever-increasing problem. People have said that there is legislation for theft, but a fact of life is that this can happen day and daily within communities.
The Minister spoke about education, and that is a crucial thing. If parents realised that there has to be a licence and insurance and realised all the additional costs attached, many would have second thoughts about buying these machines for their children.
Jennifer spoke about the number of adults and children who have lost their life. She said that parents need to be more aware of the laws and talked about the impact that well-run designated sites could have.
William Humphrey spoke personally about some of the stuff that has happened in his constituency. He emphasised that this is not about stopping people enjoying scramblers; it is about reducing danger to pedestrians on the road. The focus of the House should be on the protection of life. Councils need to look at providing facilities.
Doug Beattie supports the motion. There is legislation in place, but he does not know whether it is being implemented to the full. The police say that there are enough powers; yet deaths still occur. Judges need to take stronger action, and the legislation needs to be stronger.
Alex Attwood said that everyone understands the circumstances that brought the motion to the Chamber. He said that we need to mitigate the risk of future deaths and injuries. He commended Belfast City Council for some of the stuff that it is doing and supported legislative intervention and, if required, new laws.
Pam Cameron said that quads and scramblers, when used properly, can be enjoyable. She said that the root of the problem is that legislation is not being used properly, and the robust implementation of existing powers would help.
Raymond McCartney stated that Jennifer has been fairly robust in raising the issue at the Policing Board time and again over the past couple of months. He said the legislation needs to be used in a robust manner and that we need to speak to the PSNI to find out how it would enforce any new legislation. He went on to describe how the police had seized scramblers and quads in his constituency.
Paul Girvan said that many of us have been contacted about the misuse of these bikes. The responsibility is on parents when buying scramblers. We need to understand the difficulty for landowners, who may not know that people are using their land illegally and yet could find themselves with serious problems if someone is seriously injured or worse.
Roy Beggs said that some parents might already be contemplating buying a quad or a scrambler at this time of year. They need to understand the serious consequences.
Paul Frew said that his constituency of North Antrim has been plagued with the same problem. Even in a controlled setting, these machines are dangerous. People drive recklessly on footpaths in built-up areas.
Nichola Mallon said that a number of people have lost their life, some after being run down by these machines outside controlled settings. These machines can cause death and devastating injury. Enforcement needs to be robust.
George Robinson said that the police need to be more proactive. The activity has been brought into focus by the death of Valerie Armstrong.
The Minister laid out the legislation. The PSNI has said that there is enough legislation already to deal with the problem. Detection and enforcement are the problems. He does not rule out legislative change, but he feels that education is crucial. That has run through the contributions: the protection of life and the education of parents. As William Humphrey and others said, maybe together we can find something that allows us to deal effectively with this growing problem.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to review the current legislation governing scrambler and quad bikes; and further calls on the PSNI and other responsible agencies to ensure that the current legislation governing these machines is enforced in a robust way.