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10.14 pm

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

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

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

May I tell my hon. Friend what powers are available? Local authorities have a duty under section 3(1) of the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978 to remove any

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vehicle that has been abandoned on any land in the open air, or on any other land forming part of a highway in their area. The maximum penalty for abandoning a vehicle is a fine of £2,500, three months' imprisonment or both. Local authorities and the Environment Agency have additional powers under section 59 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to effect the removal of abandoned vehicles and to recover the costs from those responsible. In addition to that duty, local authorities have to deal with vehicles abandoned on private land.

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Will the Minister follow up the request from the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) and say whether she is

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prepared to extend to local authorities the DVLA's powers to remove untaxed vehicles, so that untaxed vehicles--which are often abandoned--can be removed without delay? In my constituency of Kingston and Surbiton, my constituents are being adversely affected by the problem of untaxed and abandoned vehicles. I think that strengthening the law as the hon. Member for Reading, East suggests would go some way towards enabling the local authority to tackle the problem without delay.

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

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

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

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

Those three pilot projects comprise the first action that we are considering and taking. Additionally, the Local Government Association has established a working group--in which the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the DVLA and the Association of Chief Police Officers are included--to examine the problem. Apart from data gathering, the group's main aims are to suggest improvements to the current

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arrangements and to disseminate examples of good practice. Last year, the LGA conducted a survey on the scale of the problem, how it was being managed locally and the operating costs involved. The work of that group will feed into my Department's current deliberations.

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

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

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

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

Clearly, the European directive on end-of-life vehicles, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, may contribute to a reduction in the number of abandoned vehicles in the United Kingdom, and we are now focusing on how it can be implemented to achieve that aim. The directive is due to be implemented in the United Kingdom by spring next year, and requires member states to introduce legislation to allow last owners to deliver their vehicles to an authorised treatment facility free of charge. That requirement must be introduced by July 2002 for vehicles

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put on the market from that date, and by January 2007 for all vehicles on the road. However, we have the option to introduce free take-back for all vehicles from 2002, and we are carefully considering whether we could do so, because it would clearly help to reduce the number of abandoned vehicles substantially. In addition, the directive requires systems to be set up for the collection of all end-of-life vehicles, with adequate availability of such facilities across the United Kingdom.

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

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