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Registered vehicles etc

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

Mr. Flight: I would expect cross-party agreement on the need for effective measures to deal with the problem of abandoned cars, of which there are some 350,000 each year. The Government's proposals amount, broadly, to clause 19, which implements the terms of schedule 5.

The crucial issue is whether the proposals will be effective. The problem of abandoned cars is growing because scrap yards are not interested in taking clapped-out cars and tend to demand payment for doing so. In turn, that has resulted from the fall in scrap prices. There has been broad support for the DTLR consultation and broad agreement that measures are needed to incentivise and provide proper arrangements for the disposal of old cars, and to ensure that the keepers of cars are made responsible for the registration formalities of transfer and disposal.

Without reform and implementation by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of a proper receipting system, clause 19 and schedule 5 will not satisfactorily address the problem of abandoned vehicles and could indeed compound it. At the heart of the matter is the fact that the DVLA does not have a records system that carries accurate real-time information to enable the tracing of vehicles' owners at the time of abandonment.

The problem is major. There are some 12 million old vehicles on the road without proper registration papers. For example, the number of vehicles registered in 1989 totalled some 2.3 million, of which about 624,000—some 27 per cent.—are not accounted for. That takes into account all those that have already been scrapped or for which SORN—statutory off-road notification—has been given.

The DTLR has indicated that the schedule 5 measures, which clause 19 implements, may be used to pursue the last keeper on record if the car in question is not taxed or recorded as being off the road. Many of the cars making up the numbers that I have just cited will have changed

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hands several times through the back door or may be sitting on rotting land. We take the view that it would be a monstrous travesty for the last official recorded keeper of such a vehicle, who may be entirely innocent, to be accused and charged with non-payment of road tax and failure to notify that the vehicle is off the road, and even given speeding fines, when that person may be two, three or four people back in the vehicle's chain of ownership. Indeed, the measures could worsen the problem of car abandonment, as there is a greater incentive to dump non-roadworthy cars rather than store them on private land in order simply to avoid vehicle excise duty liabilities.

If the proposals are to be practical and not potentially unfair, the DVLA must be reformed significantly and be in a position to issue and record accurate receipts of information about change of ownership, so that individuals who have duly notified it of changes have evidence to show that they have done so. I understand that a recent court case on that territory found against the DVLA. Hon. Members will be aware that the Automobile Association has advised that it would be wrong to press ahead with the proposals until the DVLA can offer a real-time customer service and provide receipts on change of ownership.

5.15 pm

There are other problems. The liberal UK vehicle registration system allows any name to be recorded as the keeper, even a child's, which can make deliberate false registration relatively easy. If the proposals are to work, we need a timetable on DVLA modernisation. Vehicles that have not changed hands since March 1997 have old registration papers, which do not provide for dual registration. Again, that issue needs to be dealt with if clause 19 and schedule 5 are to be implemented fairly and effectively.

The abandonment problem requires a carrot-and-stick approach. It also probably needs the provision of easy and free take-back facilities for cars that have reached the end of their lives, and it needs effective but fair pursuit of the owner at the time cars are dumped. That can happen only if the DVLA has the necessary records.

Is the intent of clause 19 and schedule 5 to include veteran cars and cars that may have been kept on a farm all their lives? I still find the wording unclear, but there is the implication that both might be covered.

We believe that much more consultation is necessary, especially on the detailed proposals in schedule 5, which if implemented as they stand could have a contrary and grossly unfair impact on innocent parties. We fear that the Government may be rushing through measures in the name of spin—to be able to say that they are doing something about abandoned vehicles—and without reforming the DVLA to ensure that the necessary information is available.

We would like to hear that the Government will consult further before they implement clause 19, noting the latitude given to them in terms of implementation, and that in principle they do not intend to implement the clause and schedule 5 until the DVLA has been reformed adequately. We will want to return to this issue on Report. If the issues that I have raised are not satisfactorily addressed, we will want to oppose the proposals, but we

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cannot imagine that the Government intend to implement these measures without the necessary reforms of the DVLA.

Mr. Edward Davey: The Liberal Democrats sought to have clause 19 debated in a Committee of the whole House because we are extremely concerned about the problem of abandoned vehicles. We recognise that the Government have taken action and that the clause is part of the strategy for dealing with the problem.

My constituency of Kingston and Surbiton has experienced an epidemic of abandoned vehicles, which has caused huge problems for many residents. They are literally fed up of contacting the council or the DVLA and getting nowhere. I have many examples. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) says that it is a Liberal Democrat council. It is a Liberal Democrat council now because last Thursday the Liberal Democrats made 11 gains and took over from an incompetent minority Tory administration in Kingston upon Thames. As we now have a Liberal Democrat administration in Kingston upon Thames we will see improvements in the removal of abandoned vehicles.

The problem of abandoned vehicles is exceptionally serious, as such vehicles give rise to significant health and safety concerns. Children are often hurt playing on them, and they are sometimes set alight by vandals, causing significant damage. The Financial Secretary and the Paymaster General should therefore not make light of this serious issue. To some hon. Members, it may seem like pavement politics, but it is a real issue.

The Government are to be congratulated on the consultation document—published last October by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, to which I responded on my party's behalf—which proposes various ways of tackling the problem of abandoned cars. It contains many measures that I support, such as reducing notice periods for the removal of abandoned vehicles, and for their destruction once removed. I am particularly in favour of empowering local authorities to remove unlicensed vehicles; currently, such powers lie only with the DVLA. As the DVLA is rather stretched and does not have as great a local presence as councils, unlicensed vehicles often remain undealt with. Under current legislation, local authorities cannot deal with such vehicles because they are not abandoned. Bizarrely, the problem is ping-ponged between statutory agencies, one passing the buck to the other. The Government have recognised that fact in the consultation document and are taking steps to deal with it.

Another key proposal that I fully support is giving local councils greater access to the DVLA's database, which I have advocated for my constituency for many years. I once persuaded the then head of enforcement at the DVLA, Haydon Madoc, to travel from Swansea to witness the epidemic of abandoned vehicles in my constituency. One solution that I discussed with him was enabling my local council to access the DVLA's database. It took a long time, but I believe that that key solution is now in place.

The consultation document contains many useful proposals, and although the proposal before us is a step in the right direction I have some concerns about the detail.

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I make that point in a spirit of genuine, constructive and effective opposition. The document states that the Government wanted to consult widely, and it mentions some of the measures now included in clause 19 and schedule 5, but it describes them as longer term. I shall quote from it to give hon. Members an idea of the Government's thinking last October. Paragraph 36 of section 5, headed "Longer term proposals", states:

The document predicts that the Government will consult on the measures before us, but to my knowledge their conclusions have not been published. They have not responded to the consultation process, or to submissions from people such as me.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) that the Government are ploughing ahead without hearing the results of the consultation. They may be going in the right direction, but as long ago as October we were told that the changes were longer-term reforms on which the Government would consult. I should like to see the results of the consultation before we enact the new powers.

Clause 19(2) says that the provision

Therefore, the Government are allowing extra time for consultation. They have produced the enabling legislative framework and will introduce the orders bringing the provisions into effect later. The Government may have realised that they are acting too quickly, but there is a protection against that in clause 19(2). If that is the case, I would like the Minister to say so. When will the Government introduce the orders in question? Will it be before the summer recess, and what will happen before the orders are considered by the House? We need to know, because they could implement significant changes.

The Government need to consult on the orders beforehand. It is right to require people to retain fiscal responsibility for a motor vehicle unless and until they register the fact that they have sold the vehicle or it is no longer used on the road. However, if the Bill is passed, it will be the first time that VED will apply to vehicles not kept on the public road. What will that mean in practice? Will it mean that all the exemptions that currently apply—whether to classic cars or any of the other long list of exemptions in schedule 2 (a) to (q) of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, which I shall not list but which includes vehicles used on tram lines and electrically assisted pedal cycles—will continue to apply? I hope that the Minister can assure us that they will.

The effect of the provision will be to enable excise duty to apply to vehicles not kept on public roads. I hope that that is only a device to ensure that abandoned cars that are not on the public road have to be registered so that the owner can be tracked down and held liable for any fines. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government have no intention of extending the tax net? If that is the object of the exercise, many right hon. and hon. Members will object.

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The most serious concern is whether the proposals introduce an element of retrospection. Many people in the last 10 or 20 years might have passed on a vehicle to a relative or friend but not registered the change in ownership properly and, when the change took place, the extra duties and penalties were not in force. Those people could be linked to one of the many millions of vehicles no longer on the DVLA's register and thus fall foul of the new legislation. The Government need to convince the House that they will not apply those provisions in a draconian way.

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