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10.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). He and I first came to the House in 1992 and I remember those heady days in the Cloisters when we almost had to sit on each other's laps. It says a lot for the accommodation situation in this place that things have improved so much over the years. I remember my hon. Friend as a strong advocate for many causes, but, as we have heard tonight, he has most of all been a powerful voice in this place for his constituents.

I will ensure that the points that my hon. Friend has raised are dealt with in my Department's discussions with the Home Office. In the short time that I have this evening, I shall give some background to the issue and try to clarify the law as it stands at the moment. During my hon. Friend's contribution, I could not help thinking that, yes, the law is there to make sure that people are protected, but that there would be no need for the police or other agencies to intervene with these young children, some as young as seven, if parents were doing their job and making sure that their children were not causing the kind of nuisance that my hon. Friend so clearly described.

I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend was the victim of such an incident; I know how distressing that can be. I was glad that neither the young man nor my hon. Friend was injured. I also hope that my hon. Friend's constituents who have been involved in these unfortunate incidents are making a rapid recovery.

I assure my hon. Friend that I appreciate his concern about the use of these vehicles in inappropriate places, and about the noise nuisance and safety problems that they cause. This debate gives me the opportunity to explain to the House my Department's current

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consideration of the ways in which we might better regulate their off-road use. I shall go into a little detail about that, and I shall outline the current position on the use of off-road motor cycles on the public highway and on the pavement.

When an off-road motor cycle, such as a scramble or trial bike, is used on the highway, it is considered to be a mechanically propelled vehicle. As such, it is subject to the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, which requires such vehicles to have vehicle excise duty paid in respect of their use. It should also comply with the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 and the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989. These require that vehicles must be safely constructed in terms of lighting, braking, tyres and so on. Anyone riding an off-road machine on a road could be prosecuted for failing to comply with these regulations.

Riding or driving any vehicle on the pavement is an offence under section 72 of the Highway Act 1835, and the police are responsible for enforcing those provisions. That became a fixed-penalty notice offence on 1 August 1999, which has made enforcement somewhat easier. Before issuing a fixed-penalty notice, however, the police and traffic wardens must see the vehicle being driven on the pavement, as opposed to simply being parked there.

My hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) suggest giving the police powers to confiscate vehicles. Although the police have no powers to confiscate vehicles used illegally off road—there are no plans to give them such powers—a general power exists for the courts to enable them to confiscate property used in the commission of crime, which includes vehicles when certain conditions are fulfilled. One is that an offence—perhaps, for example, drinking and driving, causing death by dangerous driving, an offence of manslaughter or wanton and furious driving—be imprisonable under the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Other powers are available that may be relevant to the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire. For instance, charges may be brought for breach of the peace and causing a nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Part III of the Act, as amended by the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, provides local authorities with the powers to prevent or abate noise nuisance from any vehicle, machinery or equipment on the street, premises or land.

Those powers could apply to the use of off-road motor cycles, but it would be for the local authority environmental health officer to judge whether a problem complained about could be deemed a statutory nuisance. If that were the case, the authority would have to serve an abatement notice on the person responsible for the vehicle. If the person responsible could be found, the notice could be fixed to the vehicle.

Other available powers are in the Road Traffic Act 1991, which allows for prosecution against dangerous driving and careless and inconsiderate driving of a mechanically propelled vehicle in a public place. They enable prosecutions to be brought for offences committed while driving vehicles in off-road areas to which the public have access. Under section 35 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—the example of wanton or furious driving—a rider of any such vehicle causing death or bodily harm to any person whatever could be prosecuted by the police.

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As scramble or trial bikes are classed as off-road vehicles, other statutory requirements relating to on-road motor cycles do not apply. That means that there is no minimum age restriction, nor is there any requirement to have a driving licence, hold insurance or wear a safety helmet.

The Motor Cycles (Protective Helmets) Regulations 1998 require riders and passengers on motor bikes to wear helmets when on a road. We currently have no plans to extend that to off-road use of bikes. The nature of off-road use, which tends to be infrequent, often on private land and usually over difficult terrain, means that effective enforcement would require many scarce police resources.

To ensure that every off-road motor cycle rider has a driving licence, a national registration scheme for all off-road motor cycles would have to be put in place, but it would be costly to set up and administer. It is doubtful whether those who occasionally use unlicensed off-road motor cycles would comply with the scheme and it would be difficult to enforce, which would add to the burden on the police.

I understand from the Association of Chief Police Officers that, in its view, the current legislation is sufficient to deal with the majority of off-road motor cyclists and it is not seeking the introduction of any additional offences or powers in that respect.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I do not want to contradict the police officers who advise my hon. Friend, but I must reinforce the point that this is a key issue. Apart from car dumping, it is the worst environmental crime in most of our constituencies. We cannot cope. Whatever advice has been provided to my hon. Friend we need changes in the law and it is critical that we tackle the issue. Lives are at risk on pavements, in public parks and elsewhere.

Mr. Jamieson: I thank my hon. Friend. Perhaps the following remarks will deal with the issues that are important to his area.

I shall now say something about what we have done to combat the problem of off-road motor cycles in public spaces and on land. Under section 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is an offence to drive a motor vehicle without permission on to common land, moorland or land of any description that does not form part of a road. It is also an offence under that section to drive a motor vehicle on a footpath or bridleway.

The offences under section 34 did not extend to off-road vehicles, because a motor vehicle was defined in section 185 of the 1988 Act as

As some motor cycles, for example scramble motor cycles, are classified as off-road vehicles, such vehicles were not covered by the prohibition in section 34. However, an amendment to section 34 was included in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which received Royal Assent on 30 November. That amendment had the

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effect of extending to off-road vehicles, the offence under section 34 of the 1988 Act, and came into force on 1 February 2001.

Another use of off-road motor cycles is for off-road motor-cycle racing. Under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, any land can be used for up to 14 days in any year for motor cycle racing, including trials of speed, without the need for an application for planning permission. The only exception is land within a site of special scientific interest, where express planning permission is always required.

The Government recognise that, although such activity is restricted to 14 days a year, local people can be significantly disturbed by the noise that it creates. Without the requirement for planning permission, a local planning authority has no opportunity to impose suitable conditions that could reduce the impact of such activity.

Last year we commissioned Baker Associates to conduct research including consideration of the temporary uses provisions. Its report was published in September this year. The researchers recommended that the "temporary uses" provisions should be withdrawn entirely, and that no temporary use should be allowed without express planning permission. That recommendation would apply to off-road motor cycle activities. I am sure that that comes as good news to my hon. Friends.

Before deciding whether to accept the researchers' recommendations, we will issue a public consultation paper early next year. It will include options for amending the "temporary uses" provisions. I hope that my hon. Friends' constituents who are affected will participate, and will make their views known either directly or through my hon. Friends.

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