Previous SectionIndexHome Page

20 Mar 2002 : Column 116WH


12.30 pm

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of car-jacking for what I believe is the first time in this House. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to pass on my congratulations and regards to the Prime Minister, who has pre-empted this debate and has set up a street crime and car-jacking taskforce to deal with the problems that I shall outline?

I hope that the taskforce will consider not only car-jacking but new measures to tackle the junior criminals who move from bullying in the classroom to taking part in antisocial behaviour on street corners. In West Bromwich, East, my neighbours are driven to misery by teenagers who create mayhem late at night. Although they conduct relatively minor acts of antisocial behaviour, they belong to the generation that can graduate to street crime and violent car-jacking. I hope that addressing persistent and defiant behaviour in very young people will be a core goal of the taskforce.

The Government have worked closely with the car industry in the past couple of years and have successfully introduced new security measures in vehicles. However, we now see the flip side of that. At the end of January, the violent stabbing to death of 25-year-old Timothy Robinson outside his home by a gang of suspected car-jackers brought this new crime to the attention of the public. Thieves often target motorists who have items on their passenger seats, such as a handbag or laptop computer, and in nearly all cases they strike when the vehicle is stationary at traffic lights. A common tactic is to force minor collisions and then to ambush motorists when they approach them to exchange insurance information. The most public case happened when Gloria Hamilton, a 41-year-old mother of three, was knocked unconscious by a gang of thieves who stole her vehicle in south London. While all motorists who are involved in accidents should report and pass on their details to the police, this kind of crime has prompted the RAC Foundation, on whose policy committee I sit, to encourage motorists to go directly to a police station if they are uncomfortable about a minor collision.

Because the crime is classed as robbery under UK law, few statistics exist on the extent of the phenomenon. Metropolitan police figures suggest that 1,200 car-jacking style crimes took place in London last year.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): Is my hon. Friend aware of an incident in Cardiff earlier this week in which a young man who stopped to answer his mobile phone was set upon by a gang of youths, who kidnapped him and took him for a hair-raising drive before stealing all the money that he had on him and taking his CD player? Car-jacking is often seen as a London crime—it is not; it is spreading to all parts of the country and we must address it in that light.

Mr. Watson : I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that point to my attention. Car-jacking is not countrywide but, like street crime, it has hot spots. There are certainly some in my region, the west midlands, and there are others in Salford, Bradford and West Yorkshire. Last

20 Mar 2002 : Column 117WH

week, a particularly savage attack on a young driver that took place just outside my constituency made the front page of the Great Barr Observer. In that case, the man was violently pulled over to the kerbside and attacked by two men who punched him to the ground and then stole his vehicle.

Many examples of such attacks in the west midlands illustrate the growing problem. In one case, a female motorist—female motorists are often targeted—was parking her BMW in her front drive. A man approached the car to ask her the time and she was assaulted with an iron bar and viciously dragged from her car. Luckily, the car was fitted with a tracker device and, although she was injured, the police were able to retrieve the car about eight miles from the incident and arrest the man. Will my hon. Friend consider how new technology might combat that crime? Will he tell the House how the Home Office pilot scheme in Northampton—the automatic number plate identification scheme—is progressing? It might deter further developments in that crime.

Although car-jacking is a relatively new phenomenon in the United Kingdom, it is far from new in other parts of the world. South Africa has suffered the crime since the mid-1970s. Until 1986, car-jackings were recorded as robberies, but the South African Government changed the law in 1986 to allow the specific offence of car-jacking. I am not saying that the problem is as bad in the UK as it is in South Africa, but a number of lessons could be learned from the way in which other countries deal with the crime. The number of violent car-jackings in South Africa has escalated to a horrific extent. Two years ago, more than 12,000 incidents took place; through the greater use of hit squads to target crime hot spots, that number has been reduced by 1,000 during the past 12 months.

I hope that my hon. Friend will consider introducing a new specific offence of car-jacking. It is my strong view that harsh and stern penalties should be imposed that truly reflect the terrifying and violent nature of the crime. We need to send to those dangerous and violent criminals the clear message that, when caught, they will go to jail for a long time. Introducing a specific crime of car-jacking with harsh minimum tariffs would also ensure that criminals who took part in that activity would not be let off as a result of legal ambiguities.

I refer my hon. Friend to some rather contradictory statements made by Lord Woolf during the past few months. In early January, he said that mobile phone muggers should be sent to prison for up to five years—I strongly agree with that sentiment, as do many of my constituents. Only two months later, on 6 March, The Guardian reported him as saying that the courts should think twice about sending criminals to jail. I want to make sure that when car-jackers are found guilty, the judges have no choice but to send them to jail. If the Government decide that that is not appropriate now, will they at least put pressure on police forces throughout the United Kingdom to record car-jackings and smash-and-grab attacks separately from robberies? With accurate statistics, we can properly assess the true extent of the crime.

The RAC Foundation is concerned that insurance companies have refused, or tried to refuse, to pay out money to motorists involved in car-jackings when the vehicle is stolen. Clearly, we cannot let that continue. The majority of car insurance policies say in the small

20 Mar 2002 : Column 118WH

print that claims are invalid if the key was left in the ignition or if the car was not locked. The Association of British Insurers said that insurance companies should always pay out on claims made as a result of car-jacking attacks, and I sincerely hope that all insurance companies will follow that sensitive approach. It will add insult to injury if those companies use the small print to shirk their responsibilities. In his deliberations with the insurance industry, could the Minister ask insurers to make a public statement to reassure car drivers that they will be able to achieve at least some recompense if they are victims of attacks?

In the Minister's discussions with police authorities, will he consider the possibility of issuing guidelines to drivers on how to avoid becoming victims of car-jacking attacks? The RAC Foundation has responded to this public information issue in its PR and marketing. It has issued helpful guidelines to its members and motorists in general, saying that thieves will be more tempted to target a vehicle if goods are visible, so drivers should ensure that valuables are not left on the passenger seat or dashboard when travelling. The RAC Foundation also says that car-jacking gangs are more likely to target motorists who seem unsure where they are going—when they look at maps at traffic lights, for example.

Such guidelines as planning a route before travelling should be handed down by a police authority. They should be a police force responsibility, not simply left to the motoring organisations, because they are an important part of crime prevention. I hope that the Chancellor's Budget will include greater funding for police forces, and I know that the Minister will be negotiating behind the scenes on that matter. When the Budget is known, some money should be spared for public campaigns, as they do so much to reduce crime. As everyone knows, crime prevention is better than law enforcement.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter in the House for the first time. It is of great concern to my constituents and of increasing national concern. I look forward to the Minister's comments.

12.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) on securing the debate on an issue that relates to not only his constituents but people throughout the country. The Government share his concerns about this despicable crime. We need to be as tough and effective on car-jacking as we have been on tackling other vehicle crime offences.

Some terrible incidents have been reported in recent weeks, and we extend our sympathies to the victims of those crimes. The incident in Cardiff has been mentioned, but others have occurred throughout the country. The victims are not only the people involved in the incidents, but those who are instilled with the fear that the same thing might happen to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) is right in saying that the issue is not simply London based, as it is a problem in areas such as the west midlands and most other conurbations. We are determined to reduce violent crime by pursuing a concerted strategy of targeted policing, effective

20 Mar 2002 : Column 119WH

punishment and tackling the underlying conditions that breed violence. I welcome the opportunity to describe our strategies. The increase in violent theft of cars and burglaries in which car keys are stolen is possibly a result of the increased security for new vehicles that follows Government pressure on manufacturers to make cars more difficult to steal. The publication of the Home Office car theft index has helped to raise awareness of car security issues among motorists and encouraged manufacturers to raise standards continually. It is massively unfortunate that so-called "car-jacking" stems in part from our success, in that criminals have been forced to resort to more violent means of stealing vehicles. I do not underestimate the task ahead. We must deal with the issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East made clear, and we shall certainly do so.

My hon. Friend raised the subject of personal safety and some action that motorists could take. The Home Office has published a leaflet, "Your Practical Guide to Crime Prevention", which we intend to make available on our website. I shall ask officials to check that some of the advice that my hon. Friend mentioned is covered adequately in that guidance, as he was right to say that we could not class the issue simply with motoring offences. There is a role for the Government and the Home Office in ensuring that guidance is as comprehensive and effective as possible.

We support the use of tracking devices in high-performance and expensive vehicles, but recognise that in some cases those are beyond the means of the majority of motorists, especially those who drive older models of cars. An average price for the installation of a tracking device is about £400, and then an annual subscription must be paid. However, they are playing a part in discouraging vehicle crime.

My hon. Friend was right to point out that the police do not record car-jacking as a separate offence, nor is there a legal offence category of car-jacking. When there is a threat or use of actual violence, the offence is robbery, which carries a maximum penalty of life. He said that, in terms of the criminal justice system and sentencing, a separate offence of car-jacking was necessary. I am not convinced of that, as the problem has so many manifestations and different levels, as in other cases of robbery. I am broadly satisfied that the framework is adequate for the purposes of sentencing.

The other issue to which my hon. Friend alluded was that of reporting and whether, without a specific sentence, we have an adequate and accurate method of measuring the size and geographical spread of the problem. That point is well worth considering, so I give him a commitment that I shall consider it. Although we have statistics, we are not confident that they properly cover the size of the problem or measure the severity of individual instances. Sentencing capability is covered, but the issue of reporting is worth further examination.

It is important that the courts then treat the offences with the seriousness that they deserve. The Lord Chief Justice recently emphasised their seriousness when he gave a judgment on several cases that involved robbery of mobile phones from young people. One such offender

20 Mar 2002 : Column 120WH

received a six-year custodial sentence, and three young men convicted of car-jacking recently received custodial sentences of up to four and a half years.

The Lord Chief Justice's view accords with that of the Government, which is that those who prey on the vulnerable using violence or the threat of violence should expect a commensurate sentence. He is perfectly capable of defending himself. My hon. Friend said that there were contradictions in what he said, but I do not think that the Lord Chief Justice tried to suggest that custodial sentences were inappropriate in cases of robbery, especially the aggravated robberies and more serious car-jacking offences that have been highlighted in the press of late, to which my hon. Friend referred. We believe that the sentencing framework needs to be adequate and the courts need to take the matter seriously and respond appropriately to the severity of the crime. I hope that the comments of the Lord Chief Justice encourage that; we agree with them.

My hon. Friend alluded to the announcement by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary this morning. We have made it clear that the whole of Government as well as other agencies should give the highest priority to tackling robbery and dealing quickly and effectively with offenders. Additional funds of £20 million have already been committed to tackling the robbery problem in the five forces with the greatest problem, including the West Midlands police force, which received an additional £3.3 million and has set a target of reducing robbery by 34.1 per cent. by March 2004.

The subject discussed this morning was stepping up action to deal with robbery. The robbery reduction initiative announced by the Home Secretary over the weekend involves a clampdown on all street crime, which of course includes the specific issue of car-jacking that my hon. Friend has raised. My hon. Friend will probably agree that knowing that one will be caught must be the biggest deterrent, particularly if that prospect is supported by an appropriate punishment regime. We must reclaim our streets for decent, law-abiding citizens, who want no more than to be able to walk or drive safely, to live peacefully and to go about their business freely and untroubled by the fear of attack.

The Prime Minister chaired the first meeting of the new cross-departmental street crime action group this morning. It is drawing together all the resources, expertise and initiative of Government Departments and all the relevant agencies, in a concerted effort to attack the problem. This morning's announcement contained five main strands relating to the police and criminal justice system. The police should step up operations against robbery by targeting hot spots—an issue on which I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend has said—making more arrests and ensuring that evidence is brought to bear swiftly and systematically to enable early charges to be laid; the Crown Prosecution Service should step up the priority that it gives to robbery case preparation, fast-tracking cases, deploying top-quality lawyers and working closely with the police.

The courts need to give priority to robbery cases, if necessary introducing extra sittings to deal with the increased work load that will arise from the initiative. Youth offending teams need to give priority to the work on robbery cases, including the preparation of pre-sentencing reports. The Prison Service and probation

20 Mar 2002 : Column 121WH

service will need plans to deal with what we hope, sadly, will be an increase in the number of robbery offenders to be brought to justice, who could be given prison sentences.

My hon. Friend rightly said that the matter needs to be tackled more widely than by the police and criminal justice systems, so I think that he will be happy to learn that a leading contribution to this morning's announcement was made by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who has been considering what schools can do to help to identify problems and to take early action. An example might be supporting the police in truancy sweeps. My hon. Friend mentioned the way in which young people become involved in minor criminality, which, if left unchecked, leads inevitably to the more serious consequences that he has identified.

We intend that the initiative announced this morning will at first apply to the 10 police areas with the greatest robbery problem. That includes the West Midlands police because, as I have said, the increase in robbery and the problem of car-jacking is sadly not just a London issue, but exists far outside the capital. Then we intend to try to spread the good practice that is learned in the initiatives to other forces beyond the 10 that are initially targeted. Furthermore, we shall bring together the other agencies across government who can work together to support the police in tackling the problem and its causes. We must not forget that the whole community has a responsibility to work with the police and help them in their task.

West Midlands police are well aware of the public's concerns about car-jacking. In common with other forces, they are dealing with it as part of their wider anti-robbery strategy, to which the robbery reduction initiative provides added stimulus. The problem is being given the high priority that it deserves. I am told that West Midlands police intend to enhance their strategy by adopting intelligence-led policing, which targets the offenders in all robberies. I hope that that means that the national intelligence model will be introduced throughout the West Midlands police service. West midlands Members will want to make sure that it is introduced, because there is much to be gained from encouraging all our police services to adopt the national intelligence model, although I know that many police forces have not been able to do so to date.

My hon. Friend talked about how technology can assist us in that regard. I know that, as a result of his association with motoring organisations, he is aware of

20 Mar 2002 : Column 122WH

the pilot scheme in Northampton on automatic number plate recognition. We need to look into the benefits of such a scheme. Criminals of all kinds need to use the roads and their vehicles to go about their criminal activities, so there are great benefits to be gained from automatic number plate recognition in dealing with car-jacking as well as other crime. That information needs to be fed into the robbery initiative, and I shall ensure that that happens.

We must do better at learning from international lessons. Some of the ideas that we try to put to good effect in this country have been learnt from other jurisdictions. We must do better in learning from the problems of other countries.

Crucially, we must not forget, especially if we want the community to support the police, that there is a victim in every car-jacking. We are fully committed to providing a better deal for victims of crime and ensuring that they receive the support that they deserve. A major plank of our programme to support victims is provided by the voluntary organisation Victim Support. Since May 1997, we have doubled our grant to Victim Support, and I am pleased to say that, as part of the robbery reduction initiative, we will see whether we can do even more to support victims and witnesses in those terrible crimes. It is not only important to support victims because their circumstances mean that they need support; victims are often the best people to help us to bring criminals to justice by acting as witnesses. The British public will help the police to do their job and help the criminal justice system to bring people to book only if their confidence in the police enables them to come forward to act as witnesses without fear of further victimisation. Therefore, there is a double benefit to any assistance that we can give victims, because not only do we help vulnerable people who have been victimised by crime—an end in itself—but we build the confidence of the community so that people will work with the police to reduce crime levels.

I welcome the opportunity that this debate has given us to talk about car-jacking. It is a problem that is closely associated with the recent increase in robbery and street crime. I hope that hon. Members will accept that the Government are taking the issue seriously. We are doing everything that we can to support the police and the courts in bringing the situation under control and to ensure that people are again confident to walk the streets in safety.

20 Mar 2002 : Column 121WH

20 Mar 2002 : Column 123WH

Next Section

IndexHome Page