Clause 10 - Offence of abandoning a vehicle: fixed penalty notices

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 18th January 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

This is equally, if not more, testing territory. It is our assertion that because this Government have signed up to successive EU directives—for example, the end-of-life vehicles directive—the problem of abandoned vehicles has increased.

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

I just want to get the underlying philosophy clear at the start of the debate. Am I not right in saying that at an earlier stage the hon. Lady was urging on the Government the strict and stringent enforcement of EU regulations?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

When they are able to deliver. In 10 years as an elected Member of the European Parliament and five and a half years advising the Conservatives before that, I always endeavoured, where possible, to ensure that we did not sign up to anything. As the leader of my party says, we should not make promises we cannot keep.

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

Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to be even more historical and explain how most of the regulation that was signed up to came during the time in office of her former party leader, Lady Thatcher?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Not with regard to end-of-life vehicles, which is what we are talking about.

Let me give the Committee an idea of the scale of the problem. According to a House of Commons Library   research paper, there were only 3,100 abandoned vehicles in the north-east of England in 2000-01. That number had more than doubled by 2002-03 to 6,900. In my region, Yorkshire and the Humber, the number of abandoned vehicles in 2000-01 was 7,900. By 2002-03, it had increased to nearly double: 15,700. The national figure is not quite so graphic. The figures for England are 223,600 abandoned vehicles in 2000-01, rising in 2002-03 to 309,300.

I am sure that the Minister is aware—because it is in the regulatory impact assessment that forms part of the directive—that the relative costs and benefits of alternative implementation options for the directive have to be considered until 1 January 2007, when producers become responsible for a significant part of the costs. There are three options before the Government. On the principle that the last owner pays, the cost will be £6 million or £40 million, depending on whether the cost of collecting abandoned cars is taken into account. Under the option that the producer pays, there are various scenarios: individual contracting, £43 million; individual contracting collective scheme, £32 million; or a fund of £24 million. What is probably the Department's least favourite option—the Exchequer paying—will mean a tax on car sales of £26 million to £27 million, or a levy of £36 million, included in vehicle excise duty.

On page 32 of the regulatory impact assessment for the Bill, we are told that the cost in England of investigating, removing and disposing of abandoned vehicles was £26 million in 2002-03. If we were able under the Bill to reduce those costs nationwide by 10 per cent., it would represent a cost saving to local authorities of £2.6 million. That would be a compelling reason for the Government and local authorities to abandon such a function.

The Library note states that there are no national statistics on the number of abandoned cars, but when local authority reports are collated it suggests that about 300,000 cars are dumped every year, against the 1.8 million cars that are scrapped. As I say, it is clear from the figures in the impartial Library research paper that the position is getting worse. I would like to see Britain take its European responsibilities seriously. I work closely with Members of the European Parliament, but in this case we are seeing a blight on the countryside, particularly in rural areas.

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment was helpful in an Adjournment debate last week, being at pains to assert that the Government were not seeking to discriminate between rural and urban areas in their proposals, particularly under clause 10. We shall monitor and pursue vigorously the operation of the Bill in that respect.

We note that in the fixed penalty notices relating to businesses under clauses 3 and 6, the penalty payable to a local authority will be £100. However, under proposed new section 2A(8), the penalty payable to a local authority is deemed to be £200. It was asserted   that the reason for the fine being £100 rising to £200 was that businesses rather than individuals were involved. Will the Minister explain why the initial fixed penalty notice is higher for abandoned vehicles than for nuisance vehicles?

I understand that a period of 14 days must elapse before proceedings may be instituted. That seems a reasonable time, but I would like to know how the Government decided on that time rather than on one or two months.

Proposed new subsection 2A(3) states that a notice should

''give such particulars of the circumstances alleged to constitute the offence as are necessary for giving reasonable information of the offence.''

Could the Minister elucidate what level of information should be given in that fixed notice, and in whose view it will be deemed to be ''reasonable'' information?

It is interesting to note that the penalty may be paid by pre-paying and sending the payment by post. Is the Minister taking it on good authority that it will not be a spot fine? We are assuming, under proposed new section 2A(5), that the penalty can be paid through the post, but what proof will there be at the time of the offence that payment has been made? Should there not be more evidence of such a payment?

Proposed new section 2A(14) refers to the ''authorised officer'', who is described as

''an employee of the authority who is authorised in writing by the authority for the purposes of giving notices under this section''.

As the abandonment of a vehicle can regrettably have a criminal element to it, will the police have a residual responsibility in that regard, as a back-up? I imagine that that would not be required in most instances, but for the police to absolved of all responsibilities in that regard, should there not be a transfer of resources?

Proposed new section 2A(14) says that

'''chief finance officer', in relation to a local authority, means the person having responsibility for the financial affairs of the authority.''

Is the chief finance officer responsible for confirming that payment under clause 10 has been made?

Proposed new section 2C(8), entitled ''Use of fixed penalties under section 2A'', says:

''The powers to make regulations conferred by this section are, for the purposes of subsection (1) of section 100 of the Local Government Act 2003, to be regarded as included among the powers mentioned in subsection (2) of that section.''

Is the Minister saying, to all intents and purposes, that the primary legislation—that is, clause 10—does not set out all the procedures that must be followed when issuing a fixed penalty notice for the offence of abandoning vehicles? Will he say what he assumes the time scale to be for the Government issuing those regulations? Can he confirm that those regulations, like those we discussed previously, will be laid before Parliament? The matter is not expressly clear and the reference to guidance in clause 17 does not elucidate on it further. 

Will the Minister confirm who the authorised officer is under proposed new section 2B, entitled ''Fixed penalty notices: power to require name and address''? Will he also confirm that the authorised officer will have sufficient seniority to explain to the persons subject to fixed penalty notices the consequences not only of those notices, but of not paying and thereby committing further offences?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:00 pm, 18th January 2005

I think we have heard the nearest thing yet to an apology for the barmy amendment tabled on Second Reading by the hon. Lady's party. The issue certainly affects some rural areas as well as urban ones. I could not underline that point more strongly.

The hon. Lady asks why the penalty for abandoned vehicles is distinct from that for nuisance vehicles. To a degree, the difference arises from experience and from consultation with local authorities and others on the nature of the nuisance caused. Abandoned vehicles are serious, as they cause danger to the public as well as degradation of the environment. It is important that the often serious offences relating to abandoned vehicles should be dealt with proportionately.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

Does the Minister agree that having an abandoned vehicle removed by the local authority imposes far greater costs than issuing fixed penalty notices for vehicles parked on the road, which local authorities do not remove themselves, but which they want the business running them to remove? The cost on the public purse is much greater with abandoned vehicles.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. An abandoned vehicle can also be regarded a hazardous waste. If we consider the petrol tank of an abandoned vehicle in a residential area and what can be done with a couple of matches, the seriousness of the offence becomes clear indeed. I am sure that many of us have constituency experience of the extent to which repeated abandoning of vehicles can cause enormous distress. Unfortunately, an abandoned vehicle can also sometimes cause injury to children who attempt to play with it. A series of issues lead to the appropriateness of the penalty being clear.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

On fixed penalty notices, I made the point on Second Reading that a defence from someone receiving a fixed penalty notice may well be that a vehicle was not deliberately abandoned. I understand that the courts have had some difficulty in accepting that it can be easily proved that a vehicle was deliberately abandoned. Will the Bill provide the remedy for this?

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

I think that goes beyond what we can do in the Bill, but I am happy to write to my hon. Friend to set out my understanding of the position. The point he raises is serious but also difficult, as it comes down to quality of evidence, what the courts are willing to accept and where the line of reasonable   doubt can be drawn. I undertake to develop on that point more fully in writing.

There are a number of matters that we think should be left to the local authority, such as the level of the employee involved and the training offered to employees undertaking such work. Generally, the arrangements are for the local authority, which is the case with the question of the authorised officer. We have always said—this is not a matter of contention between us and local government generally—that the local authority ought to consider the appropriate level of staff, the experience of the staff and what training might be needed to meet the circumstances in which people will undertake those duties.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

One point is absolutely crucial here: where police have been responsible for applying fixed penalty notices to either abandoned or nuisance vehicles, they were in most circumstances uniformed police officers. I understand that a big change could be that the authorised officers under clause 10 may not be uniformed. This could mean that, inadvertently, a more junior officer, or even the wrong sort of officer, is involved. That could confuse the person who receives the fixed penalty notice.

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

There are certainly many duties that have had to be done by trained uniformed police officers whose services are required elsewhere—for instance, at the back of this Room. Their training might be called on at any time, but they are undertaking fairly bureaucratic but important duties. Community support officers and the use of local authority officers in enforcement, support and wardening duties are part of trying to ensure that we not only increase the number of police officers available, as we have done, but make the largest possible proportion of the police force available for the most important duties.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

On abandoned vehicles, surely it is unlikely that the person will be with them. By definition they are abandoned, so a fixed penalty notice is likely to arrive in the post at the address of the person who is the registered keeper of the vehicle. It will make little difference to the person posting it whether they wear a uniform or not.

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

It is becoming a habit to agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a very sensible point.

I ought to make it clear that I responded specifically to the question from the hon. Member for Vale of York on what is done by police officers and what is not. Some things that were done by police officers are now not appropriate for them to do and are best done in other ways. I should make the point that in this clause there is no change. Local authorities enforce   abandoned vehicles legislation. Police do as well, but they do not have a duty to remove abandoned vehicles, because that lies with the local authority. I hope that clarification is helpful.

The hon. Lady encouraged us to diligence and even enthusiasm on European directives, but the number of vehicles being abandoned had already increased significantly in the years before the introduction of the higher de-pollution and treatment standards required by the end-of-life vehicles directive.

The Government have taken a number of initiatives to make it more difficult for vehicles to be dumped with impunity. I am sure that is encouraged and supported by most people. From 2007, car owners will be eligible for what is described as free take-back of their vehicles at accessible end-of-life vehicle treatment facilities. Regulations will be laid before the House in the coming weeks, so the situation will be made clear. Those arrangements will provide a further disincentive to abandon vehicles.

Under the current proposals for the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, retailers will provide finance to local authorities to upgrade their sites separately to collect the WEEE directive material. Producers will then be responsible for the costs of onward transport, treatment and recycling of those items. There is, therefore, no reason that the WEEE directive should result in fly-tipping. The arrangements proposed in the clause are sensible and I hope they receive the Committee's full support.

The penalty, set at £200, can be amended by order, but the flexibility for a local authority to accept a lesser amount—if the fine is paid before the specified date in the fixed penalty notice—is a common-sense provision that aims at encouraging people to pay and therefore increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.