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Column 643Mr. John Patten : Is my hon. Friend aware that, under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, the parents of convicted children will leave themselves liable to meeting an unlimited fine, as levied by a Crown court, if their children cannot themselves pay? That will act as a considerable encouragment to greater parental responsibility.
Mr. Shersby : I am aware of that provision, to which I was referring before I gave way to my right hon. Friend--and I hope that it will be widely understood by parents throughout the country. For the first time, to anything like that extent, parents are liable for the criminal activities of juveniles.
The Bill also imposes an automatic one-year driving ban, but I cannot help wondering how many young people will be deterred by that--particularly as many of them drive without a licence anyway. The police know that "hotting", ram-raiding, and related offences are committed by a comparatively small number of people, many of whom are persistent young criminals. Surely the threat of a custodial sentence would be a stronger deterrent--as it was before 1988--in addition to the longer sentences for which the Bill provides.
The Government give as reason for not reverting to the 1988 arrangements the small number of convictions previously secured. I believe that the real problem was that, before 1988, magistrates were under pressure from the Home Office not to award custodial sentences. If the will had been there and secure accommodation and prison accommodation had been available, I suggest that magistrates would have applied the law in the way that was intended when that legislation was passed.
I am told that, even today, most juveniles are cautioned or sentenced to community service, or receive a discharge because magistrates remain reluctant to award custodial sentences. However, in so many cases, the police and the courts are dealing with persistent reoffenders rather than with first-time offenders, for whom a caution or community service would be an appropriate penalty. I turn to the taking away of children. Does my right hon. Friend consider that the Bill's provisions will deter the kind of thief who stole Mr. Peter Brown's BMW from a garage forecourt while Mr. Brown's infant daughter was in the back seat? According to Martin Newland's article in The Daily Telegraph today, Mr. Brown turned his back on his car for less than one minute. Mercifully, his car was abandoned three miles away, and two-year-old Natasha Brown was able to tell a passing couple that "a naughty man" had taken the car.
The prospect of community punishment or even six months' imprisonment did not deter the thief in that case. According to The Daily Telegraph, that was the latest in a series of incidents in which children were inadvertently taken by car thieves.
In another recent case, two-year-old James Austin, who had been left strapped into his baby seat by his mother, was driven away while she took some refuse to a rubbish dump some 50 yards from her parked car. Luckily, he was reunited with his mother unharmed.
Were both offences aggravated taking away? Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House when he winds up. Neither child was injured, and nor were the cars damaged. I suppose that the thieves concerned could be charged with kidnapping or some other offence under
Column 644common law. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could clarify that point, because that danger is a cause of great concern to many parents. It is proper for the Government to act promptly, early in this Session, to deal with the problem. I understand the reservations expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the speed with which the Bill is being enacted. However, the offence is so serious, and parents and car owners are so concerned, that the House should not delay but ought to place the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible.
Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) : This matter is of the greatest concern to my constituents, many of whom are at their wits' end as to what can be done to halt the murderous menace of the theft and racing of cars in residential city streets.
I support the Bill, because anything that can add to the action that can be taken against car thieves is welcome. Much more needs to be done. The Bill is much too little and comes much too late. It is, by itself, little more than window dressing on the part of the Government. Anyone who believes that the Bill will really be effective in catching, punishing and deterring the criminals in question is living in cloud cuckoo land.
The extensive national media coverage in August and September of confrontations with the police left many of the wider public with a distorted picture of the problem. Some of the media were interested only in portraying a violent image of Blackbird Leys. I know the estate well, because I live there. I place it on record that Blackbird Leys, Barton and the other parts of Oxford that are plagued by this menace are good places, with a terrific community spirit. Decent people who are sick and tired of the criminal activities of the few deserve a much better portrayal by the national media and more support from Government.
On Saturday night, volunteers from Blackbird Leys community centre provided --as they do every year--a free dinner and social evening, drinks and gifts for 250 local pensioners. They held a similar event back in the summer, when Blackbird Leys was in the headlines. On neither occasion were the media at all interested in covering the good news ; they were interested only in hyping up the bad news. When I add that youngsters have reportedly been paid by film crews to put on displays in stolen cars and that a recent Channel 4 programme tried--ludicrously and dangerously--to suggest that the real problem was police brutality, hon. Members will have some idea of the anger felt by my constituents about the gross irresponsibility shown by some of the media. They have let down the public and also let down colleagues who, in the local media and in some national programmes such as "Newsnight", have succeeded in giving a more accurate and balanced picture of events.
Now that the events of the summer are out of the headlines, some hon. Members, and members of the public who are not immediately affected, may imagine that the problem of theft and racing of cars has gone away. Sadly, that is not so. Reported car crimes in Oxford are running at 600 per month ; car crime has doubled in the past four years, constituting one third of all crime reported in the city, and this year's figures are one third up on last year's.
Column 645Residents and police are in the front line of a war against hooliganism and car crime, including the displaying of stolen vehicles, which is now running at some 10 to 12 reported incidents per week. They were at it last night, as they are nearly every night.
Just a week ago on Saturday, the secretary of our Headington Labour club, remonstrating with a thug outside her home, was knocked to the ground and beaten. She, and all the other residents with the courage to stand up and defend decent values on behalf of their families and communities, deserve more support than they are receiving from the Government.
The police have taken action to combat the wave of car crime. In the past three months, there have been some 150 arrests in Oxford for car theft. I have the highest praise for the professionalism and dedication of the Oxford police and for the bravery that they have shown when confronted by ugly and sickening attacks.
Let there be no mistake : the Oxford public strongly support the police and they have our confidence. It is evident, however, that the police are overstretched and are having to fight the rising tide of car crime with insufficient officers and with one hand tied behind their backs. The Bill will barely scratch the surface of either problem. If the law is to be effective, the criminals must know that the chance of their being caught is high, as is the chance of their being convicted ; and that they are certain to receive a sentence that matches the severity of their crime. Sadly, none of those factors applies today.
Even when their offences are of the ultimate gravity, some people are getting off far too lightly. An example is the appalling tragedy of lorry driver Leslie Parsons, who was killed last February when he was just doing his job. Let me quote from last Saturday's Oxford Mail :
"A teenager whose night of joyriding ended in the death of a lorry driver, was sent to a young offenders' institution for two years. Alan Dawtrey was driving a Metro at about 80 mph on the wrong side of the road before it smashed into a lorry coming in the opposite direction, Oxford Crown Court heard.
Lorry driver Mr. Leslie Parsons, 51, lost control of the 28-ton lorry after colliding with the H-reg. car.
The lorry careered across the A423 Oxford to Henley road, hitting a second Metro before ploughing into the Harcourt Arms pub. Mr. Parsons, of Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, a driver with Fine Lady Bakeries in Banbury, died from multiple injuries in the crash early on February 18.
The court was told that Dawtrey had been racing against the other Metro shortly before the crash in the village of Nuneham Courtenay, where there is a 40mph restriction.
Dawtrey, 18, of Boundary Brook Road, Oxford, who admitted causing death by reckless driving and five offences of taking vehicles without consent, was also banned from driving for four years. The driver of the second Metro, Jamie Hughes of King's Lane, Harwell, was also convicted of causing death by reckless driving. His sentence was adjourned for social inquiry reports.
Judge Leo Clark told Dawtrey it was a bad case, with a number of aggravating features which included running away from the scene in complete disregard for the lorry and its driver'."
Surely it is clear to anyone who might imagine that we are discussing an activity that could legitimately be called "joyriding"--from the incident that I have cited and from the horrors of the case in Liverpool, where a car ploughed into some children--just what a murderous evil that activity is.
Column 646I am fully aware of the importance of the independence of the courts and of the constraints that they face when sentencing juveniles. I imagine that, in the case that I cited, the offender was given the maximum sentence that could be conferred for causing death by reckless driving ; but, given normal remission and remission for good behaviour, there is every possibility that that young man will be freed after nine months in custody. I cannot believe that many members of the public believe that that is justice, or that it conveys the right message to those who, tonight, will steal a car and race it in the path of some other innocent victim.
We should remember that causing death by reckless driving carries the same five-year maximum penalty as is included in the Bill. The public will want to know how many people who are convicted will serve five years and how many will serve nine months.
As the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) pointed out, the courts and the public receive very confused and contradictory messages from the Home Office and from Ministers, whose words suggest that the police and the magistrates must be backed up, but whose actions have on occasion deprived them of the support that they need. An example is the injunction on magistrates to do everything possible to keep people under 21 out of custody.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, some supervised car projects may be an effective alternative to custody ; but do the Government give the probation service the resources that it needs to run such projects? Why, in Oxford, has it been left so far to the police, the voluntary sector and private sponsorship to try to cobble together a scheme? As my right hon. Friend asked earlier, when will the Home Office commit resources to that scheme?
Mr. John Patten : As the hon. Gentleman and I both have constituencies in the city of Oxford, I was interested to learn of the comparatively recent endeavours to introduce motor projects there. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Home Office received the first application from Oxfordshire only last week, on 5 December? It is under active consideration, however.
That application relates to the Oxfordshire motor project--which is aimed at those on probation, following conviction, unlike the diversionary projects to which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) referred.
My point is that, in general, the courts are under an injunction not to give custodial sentences to offenders under 21. If the alternatives are to work, we must take care that they are not seen as a reward for those who become involved in such activities. What about the kids who do not steal cars? Where are the projects that might stop them from doing so in the first place? Where the alternatives are to be provided, however, I believe that the Government are obliged, through the Home Office and the probation service, to fund them adequately.
Another example that illustrates the need for change is the diminished opportunity to pass deterrent sentences, not just in terms of the threat to society of a particular offender, but the threat to society that is posed by the crime at large in which these people are involved. That
Column 647important point is well argued in an article in "Justice of the Peace" by Mr. T. G. Moore, who is deputy clerk to the justices in Nottingham. He points out :
"A court faced with a young offender who has been involved in the taking of vehicles, even though it may be his third or possibly fourth appearance, cannot simply pass a deterrent sentence on the basis of the prevalence of such offending in the locality Section 1(4A)(b) of the 1982 Act deals with protecting the public from serious harm from the offender. The importance of the amendment by the 1988 Criminal Justice Act was that it added the words from serious harm from him' to the end of the sentence only a custodial sentence would be adequate to protect the public'. The case of R. v. Jacobs and Kinsella makes it clear that the consideration which courts must now take into account is not whether a custodial sentence was necessary to protect the public from offenders generally of the same type, but whether it was necessary to protect the public from a particular offender. This indicates that if the court's desire is to protect the public from persons who take vehicles without the owner's consent, that is by a sense of general deterrence, then this particular criterion of the Criminal Justice Act will not be applicable The question posed for the courts must be whether taking a vehicle without consent can ever, as an individual offence, be so serious that a non-custodial sentence cannot be considered. It is on this point, that the ordinary member of the public and, it is suspected, the average police officer finds it difficult to equate his own perception of the offence of taking without consent with the strictures placed upon the courts by legislation."
We are responsible for legislation. We have to take account of that article and ask what difference the Bill will make in this respect. The answer is that it will make no difference at all.
Even with such opportunities as the Bill presents to get cases into the Crown court, where the offence involves only damage to vehicles or property --the vast bulk of cases--it is the value of the damage to property, as set out in clause 2, that is the criterion, not the extent of the nuisance and danger, although that is the real problem with which we need to get to grips. To get such cases to the Crown court will therefore involve further cost to victims and trouble to the police in obtaining estimates from garages, builders and so on. An element of bureaucratic waste is built into the Bill.
I support the measure, but for those reasons I have no confidence that the Bill will make more than a very small difference. It is much too little much too late. Why has it taken the Government so long to take even this inadequate action? Local residents, the Thames Valley police and I were urging, long before the events of the summer, that something should be done. The Government cannot say, as an excuse, that they did not know what was going on and how it could escalate. I shall give some examples.
I raised what was happening--the racing and the attacks on police--at a meeting with the chief constable on 2 November 1990 at which the Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), and the present Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), were present. The Home Secretary was fully briefed about the position when he visited Cowley in May this year. Again I stressed the seriousness of the matter and the need for more police officers at a meeting of Thames valley Members of Parliament which the Home Secretary was supposed to take, but which Lord Ferrers took instead, on 23 July this year.
The Home Office took more than six weeks even to respond to the points made, by which time the situation in my constituency had already exploded out of control.
Column 648Home Office Ministers fiddled while tyres and a few petrol bombs burned. If the Government had listened to the police and taken prompt action on any of those warnings--action for which they could have secured all-party support--I have no doubt that some of this summer's tragedies would have been avoided.
Much more vigorous action than is provided for in the Bill is needed. We need more police officers, urgent changes to sentencing policy and an end to the nonesense whereby attempting to steal a car and attempting to drive while disqualified are no longer arrestable offences. Where the Government propose alternatives to custody, they must provide the resources to make them work.
As for the motor manufacturers, we need more progress and Home Office action to build on the excellent collaboration that the Rover Group has with Thames Valley police. We also need Government investment to back up the youth services, teachers and parents so that the next generation of youngsters does not include a minority whose self-discipline, self-esteem and respect for their own future are so lacking that they get kicks from racing stolen cars or lobbing bottles at the police.
The first duty of the Government is to work with the people to ensure security and freedom from fear for the people. This Home Secretary and this Government have failed that test. The Bill should be supported, but unless a much more determined attack on the problem, and its roots, is launched, we shall, I fear, have to address at some point in the future an even more hideous nightmare than that which confronts us now.
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : We on this side of the House agree with much of what the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said. It is a rare example of ecumenism--on a day other than a Friday--across party lines. However, before I so much as opened my mouth, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) had attacked me. He had the impertinence to berate me for knee-jerk reactions on behalf of the Government when he opposes absolutely everything that the Government do, however sensible it obviously is. That is as genuine an example of a knee- jerk reaction as it is possible to get in this place. The right hon. Gentleman does it every time and under any circumstances.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook--and, I suspect, many other Opposition Members--are against all deterrent sentences. In addition, the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to be aware that, although potential joyriders may not read Hansard, the word about tough sentences having been imposed has a habit of getting around. Anyway, if the right hon. Gentleman had remained in the Chamber, he would have realised that much of what he said was total nonsense, for reasons to which I shall turn in a moment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on taking action against death riders--I agree with those who have already said that that is a much better way to describe these offenders who are not joyriders--and others who think that it is good fun to take somebody's car and drive it dangerously, thereby damaging property and sometimes killing people, thus causing appalling misery to those whose lives may be wrecked in the process. The public will be thankful to my right hon. Friend for his
Column 649timely action, following the recent bout of appalling abuse in Oxford and the north of England and the immense misery that this atrocious behaviour has caused.
It is also important that we should all realise that surveys show that a quarter of all stolen cars are used for death riding, just as a quarter of all car thefts happen to unlocked vehicles--which is our fault. There is no reason why we should not lock our vehicles when we leave them and thus prevent that crime.
My right hon. Friend's action at large--to spur manufacturers to action to improve security--is also very welcome, as is his acknowledgement of the Government's role. If we can give tax concessions for unleaded petrol to improve the environment, surely we should not be aghast at the prospect of tax concessions to secure that alarms are fitted in our cars and that some protection is provided to stop a lot of this senseless crime.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on identifying the fact that, apart from the commission of the taking and driving away offence, there is an additional factor that arises when injury and damage are caused, but that there is no adequate deterrent penalty for that aspect of the offence. However, deterrence will exist only when young people can be locked up in secure accommodation : if they cannot be locked up, all this will be a waste of time.
Having said all that, I am afraid that I cannot be as enthusiastic about the Bill as I should like. We support and accept the good sense of increasing sentences for offences that are worse than taking and driving away and of extending the deterrent of disqualification where personal injury and damage occurs, but it is quite another thing for someone to be guilty of additional offences that he does not commit, to which he is not a party and which he might not have foreseen as the likely consequences of his taking and driving away.
How would that occur? It would arise where a defendant could not prove, on the balance of probabilities, that his story was correct, that someone else was responsible for causing personal injury or damage to the vehicle taken or to other vehicles and articles, and that he was not a party to the offence. It would arise where, for example, the original taker and driver away was arrested, but after he had left the car and was going to have no more to do with it. He may not be able to call upon the driver who took over the car to support his defence and to help him discharge the balance of probabilities in his favour, because that driver would not want to expose himself to the criminal charges of aggravated car theft. In the environment in which these cases occur, witnesses are young and can easily be intimidated. The accused also might not be able to call witnesses who saw the damage-causing driver, because that driver may have terrified the witnesses to prevent them from giving evidence. That seems to be the stuff of which miscarriages of justice are made.
I appreciate that the number of cases in which the taker and driver away is not the driver who goes on to cause personal injury or damage will be comparatively few, but I ask my right hon. Friend whether it is necessary to make such a draconian change in the traditional principles of British law, or to do it by reversing the normal burden of proof. Clause 1(3) says :
"A person is not guilty of an offence under this section if he proves".
Column 650Will my right hon. Friend reconsider whether this part of the Bill is necessary?
I support the intention of the Bill and its important deterrent aspects, and I shall support it for the same reason as the hon. Member for Oxford, East, but I must confess that I do so with some reluctance at this stage.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : If the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) had been here for the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)--[ Hon. Members :-- "He was here."] If he had been listening, then, he would have heard my right hon. Friend's point about the lay-by.
Having said that, the hon. and learned Member for Burton makes a good point : it would offend against the views of ordinary persons and would be a crying sense of injustice if people who were not party to the aggravated crime and who had sought to distance themselves from it were found guilty because the balance of probabilities had fallen on them to prove their innocence. Anyone who has practised at the Bar knows well that, in the sort of case that arises on an estate, where a number of people are involved, intimidation is such that it may prove impossible for a young man to find witnesses to say that he had left the scene of the crime and that another person was guilty of aggravated theft.
Any amendment to the law that provides an aggravated penalty for someone who could not have foreseen that for which he is sentenced must be wrong. The Government must find an answer to that key point, which was made by the hon. and learned Member for Burton, who has long experience at the Bar, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook.
The Bill is an attempt to respond to widespread public concern. No one doubts that concern or that the offence is prevalent. Almost daily, my local newspaper, the South Wales Evening Post, publishes examples of what used to be called taking and driving away--joyriding. There is a graveyard for cars at Kilvey hill, where young men drive cars that they have taken without authority and then burn them. There is an immense feeling of anger among ordinary members of the public at the extent to which they are inconvenienced, and they are crying out for something to be done.
Magistrates are under a constraint not to send young people to prison. There is the problem of general deterrence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) set out in his excellent speech on behalf of his constituents. Surely the Lord Chancellor should have issued guidance to justices on the tariff for sentencing in such cases.
The House may be interested to learn that hon. Members who represent south Wales constituencies hold fairly regular meetings with the south Wales constabulary. The main item on the agenda of our last meeting was joyriding. We saw several videos that the police had taken from helicopters showing the nature of the driving of some young drivers and the constraints on police in pursuing them, particularly in built-up areas. Guidelines have been issued to them on the point at which they must desist from the chase because of danger to the public. They expressed various other concerns, few of which are addressed in the Bill.
Column 651Although we must respond to the offence, we must avoid the "Something must be done" syndrome and ensure that we do not lash out wildly in some public relations exercise. Why must the Bill be completed today? Why do the Government reject the argument that even a Home Office Bill is capable of improvement? A Special Standing Committee could hear the views of practitioners, police officers and others on how the Bill could be improved.
Is the Home Office alleging or claiming that an emergency has arisen since the Conservative party conference, that the Bill must be completed in one day and that it is inconceivable that it could be improved in Committee? That is an arrogant view to take of the Bill. If there is such an emergency, why is there not a similar Bill for Scotland? Do the Government contend that the emergency is confined to England and Wales and somehow stops at the border?
The legal situation in Scotland differs from that in England and Wales. Section 178 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 applies in Scotland, rather than section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968. Will the Government give an assurance that there will be a similar attempt to alter the law in Scotland if there is an emergency there?
Penalties in Scotland also differ from those in England and Wales. In Scotland, the penalty for a summary offence is three months' imprisonment or a fine, but not both. On indictment, the maximum sentence under section 178 of the 1988 Act is 12 months. Why is there a difference? If the emergency is so important, why are not the penalties for these aggravated offences equally applicable in Scotland?
As a Conservative Member asked in an intervention, if there is an adequate remedy under existing law, why is there a void in the current law in England and Wales? Surely the Government must either say that the position in Scotland is essentially different from that in England and Wales or provide a timetable within which they will aim to introduce equivalent legislation in Scotland.
There are other differences in penalties between England and Wales and Scotland with which we should deal. We must ask ourselves : who are the perpetrators of these offences, and what are their motives? As several hon. Members have asked, are these individuals, who typically are young men in their teens, likely to be deterred by the changes brought about by the Bill?
The south Wales constabulary interviewed young men who had committed these offences and the factors involved were set out. The plus factors included the kicks that those people got from driving in that way. One of the minus factors was clearly the risk of being caught and the associated penalty. How do we ensure that there is a much greater chance of catching those young men and adequately dealing with them? Is that matter addressed by the Bill?
The key question was put forcefully and eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook : is the lack of an adequate penalty the root of the problem, or can we tackle the matter in other ways--for example, by extending motor schemes in the way he described? My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East said that such schemes should be available not only for those who have already committed offences but for young people who might be tempted to do so, perhaps for kicks. Extending schemes, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, would be a cost-effective way of dealing with the problem.
Column 652I am afraid that we are assuming too much from this proposed change and that it is a little too simplistic--a sort of professional defamation from those who believe that applying law and order is the only way of solving what are, in part, deep-seated social problems. The issue is much more multi-layered than that. There are other key considerations, one of which is the near-certainty of detection. In this respect, police manpower levels are important. There was great astonishment and anger in south Wales when we heard by letter of 28 November 1991 the news that the Home Secretary was unwilling to agree any additional manpower for the South Wales police authority in 1992-93. The letter boasted :
"the South Wales Police has received approval for 99 extra police posts since the Government took office, with actual strength increasing by 198-- or 7 per cent.--over that period."
That 7 per cent. must be put in the context of the more than 100 per cent. increase in this type of crime.
I certainly would not boast about that 7 per cent. Like everyone in the area covered by the South Wales police authority, I must ask why built-up urban areas such as Cardiff and Swansea will pass this Christmas--with all the great temptations offered to young people at that time--and go through 1992-93 with no increase in police manpower.
A wide range of powers are already available under statute law to combat this crime. Maximum sentences could be increased. As several hon. Members have said, the changes brought about by the 1988 Act--making this crime only a summary offence--should be reconsidered. If the Government are concerned about public expenditure and court time, will they make offences under section 12(1) of the 1968 Act indictable, rather than purely summary, offences for people who are making a second or subsequent court appearances?
The Bill does not deal with other key matters. If the Government wanted to reduce the number of obstacles that prevent prosecution of offenders, thereby making convictions more certain, they would alter the mens rea principle under section 12(1) of the 1988 Act and import the term "knowing or believing" from section 22 of that Act. That would put a lighter burden on the prosecution, and improve the chances of convicting an offender. Had the Government not thought that they could get the Bill passed without the House having a serious attempt to debate or qualify it, those matters could have been discussed with experts.
Our police forces have another major complaint about the Bill. They say that it does not deal with the problem of people who persistently reoffend while on bail. My local police force has given me remarkable examples of young people in the south Wales constabulary area who have persistently reoffended. In South Glamorgan, over a period of a year, a 15-year-old male took 15 cars and was involved in six house burglaries, one handling offence and six thefts. The most that that young man received was a supervision order for one year.
I shall not bore the House with the details of another case, but I shall summarise it. In West Glamorgan, a juvenile male was found guilty between the ages of 13 and 15 of offences involving 45 takings of cars, but it was only towards the end that he received a custodial sentence. One can well understand the anger and frustration of the police force. In another case in Mid Glamorgan, a young man between the age of 11 and 16--I pass over six or seven
Column 653pages of antecedents--was involved in 32 burglaries, 34 thefts, 15 offences of criminal damage and 41 offences involving motor vehicles, but the most severe penalty that he received was a supervision order for 12 months. He gaily continued to offend and reoffend, to the point where the police wondered whether it was worth bothering to pick him up. Those are the problems that face our police force. In 1990, 20 per cent. of detected crime in Mid Glamorgan was committed by juveniles. In South Glamorgan, that figure was 17 per cent. of the total, and in my area of West Glamorgan, the figure was more than 22 per cent. However, the police ask how the Government are helping them to deal with those who persistently offend. What happens when the police do detain such individuals? Should not more secure units be available for those juveniles while they are on remand? Some investment is at last being made in south Wales in that respect. Other issues with which I shall not detain the House but which have been mentioned by other hon. Members include the design of motor vehicles, the admirable Which? survey, the question of insurance and rewarding those who take adequate precautions to secure their vehicles by having the means to immobilise them in case of theft, safety improvements and cases such as those in Swansea, where, for example, the local authority has now put attendants in several of the key car parks. The authority charges people to park there but the editor of my local papar-- The South Wales Evening Post --said on 3 December :
"Many people will be pleased, and reassured, that Swansea City Council appears to be moving towards a policy of providing attendants for selected car parks."
The paper went on the say that such a move would at least give the people who came into the city centre greater reassurance, even if they had to pay for the privilege. The Government must deal with the issue of making crime more difficult for the young people who are tempted to perpetrate it, and local authorities can also help. Clearly, the Bill is a step forward, by and large. It is an attempt to deal with a prevalent problem, but I fear a distortion--the Government are considering only one aspect of the issue. They are not attempting to modify the existing law in ways which would help the prosecution. I have mentioned some ways in which section 12(1) of the Theft Act 1968 might be amended. I have also mentioned the question of indictment after the first court appearance, and other hon. Members have suggested other means to tackle the problem. However, it would be wrong for the Government to hype the Bill too much, and to raise expectations which they certainly cannot meet.
In the fist half of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman complained that the Bill was irrelevant, that it did nothing, that it was wholly superfluous and was simply aimed at the headlines. In the second half, he suddenly changed tack.
Column 654Far from arguing that the Bill did nothing, he argued that it was too draconian. He criticised the changing of the evidential requirements and complained that the burden of proof has been reversed in certain important respects. He also attacked the provisions for automatic disqualification.
Such a muddled approach is symptomatic of a tendency, among all too many people who should know better, to treat the taking and driving away of vehicles as a less serious offence than it is. It is such loose, flaccid and irresponsible thinking which has led to the widespread use of the offensive term "joyriding". Such thinking was behind the absurd argument that the police should be restrained from giving hot pursuit to stolen cars, and it also lay behind much of the nit-picking objection to the Bill that we heard from the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook.
For many people--if not most--their car is, after their home, their most valuable piece of property. When their car is taken, they suffer, at the very least, considerable inconvenience and very often substantial financial loss. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated that as many as 40 per cent. of all vehicles taken and driven away unlawfully are damaged when returned to their owner. If a car is unlawfully taken and then returned in a damaged state, it seems absolutely right that the person or persons responsible for taking it should be assumed to be responsible for causing the damage unless they can prove the contrary. After all, they removed it from the custody of its owner and, prima facie, they should bear the responsibility for any damage which occurs between that time and the owner getting it back. Some hon. Members may think that that is unfair, but I believe that car owners whose vehicles have been taken would think differently.
The unlawful taking and driving away of vehicles goes well beyond damage to property. Car thieves are usually young and unused to driving the particular car that they have taken, and they are usually attracted to high performance cars. That is a lethal combination. "Lethal" is the right word. A few years ago, a Government publication entitled "Practical Ways to Crack Crime" stated :
"A stolen car is about 200 times more likely to be involved in an accident than the same car driven by its owner."
The unlawful theft of cars all too often leads to injury and death.
We know that legislation alone cannot provide a remedy, but it can make convictions easier to obtain. It can increase deterrents. It can single out for special treatment the special aggravating features of a crime. The Bill does exactly that, and I believe that it deserves the support of the House.