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Written-Off Motor Vehicles (Log Books)

Volume 885: debated on Wednesday 5 February 1975

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10.40 p.m.

This is the second occasion on which I have raised, on the Adjournment of the House, the question of the need to protect the purchaser of a car that has been totally written-off by an insurance company and subsequently repaired. I first ventilated the matter two years ago, following a series of Parliamentary Questions. Prior to that Adjournment debate the Minister decided to set up a working party from the Department to consider the problem.

The working party met on 16th February 1972. Together with the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association and other organisations, I met the working party to discuss the issue. At the end of the year, after many months of meetings, the working party reported that it was of the opinion that reconstituted cars—cars that had been wrecked and subsequently repaired—were only a minor factor in road safety. The working party recommended that no action should be taken. Since then we have had a new Government, and I hope that the Minister will look upon this problem more favourably.

Let me detail the situation again. Three or four years ago, when a car was so badly damaged in an accident that the cost of repairing it exceeded its value it was written-off by the insurance company as a total loss. This information was stamped on the log book. If the car was subsequently repaired an intending purchaser knew that he was buying a car that had been extensively damaged in an accident. He could then make his own arrangements to have the car examined by a competent inspector. This scheme of stamping log books, which was voluntarily entered into by the insurance companies, was abandoned. I have yet to discover the reason why. I suspect that the insurance companies could get a better price for their written-of wrecks if the log books were not stamped. I am only hazarding a guess here. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why this was done.

Many of these wrecked cars get into the hands of back-street repairers who have no scruples. They do not possess the jigs, tools or expensive machinery needed to realign a badly buckled car, or to assess whether the axles and the steering of a car are out of true. As a consequence, corroded bodywork is sometimes patched up with fibre glass. This looks fine until three or four weeks after the car has been bought, when the fibre glass falls out. In some cases when a dealer has a car with a smashed front end he will cut a front end from a similar model that has rear damage and weld it to the first car. In many cases these cars are sold at inflated prices. They are a danger not only to the driver but to all road users. In my opinion there should be some protection against these practices.

I must make it clear that many cars that have been written-off are repaired by reputable garages. Rebuilding wrecked cars is not illegal, and vehicles repaired by reputable manufacturers are safe and roadworthy. That is why reputable dealers organised in the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association, the Motor Agents Association and the Institute of Automobile Assessors are backing this campaign to put the back-street dealer out of business.

Let me give an illustration of the situation by quoting a letter—one among many—which I received from a constituents on this subject:
"We advertised recently for a 1600E Cortina, as they are in rather short supply, and had a telephone call from a young man who offered to bring his 1600E over for us to look at. This he did. He explained that it had had a slight bump on the bonnet and that he had had it resprayed. He took my husband and son out for a ride, and they thought the car was in quite good condition. After thinking it over for 24 hours, my husband decided to buy the car. The young man said that he had two log books, as one had been lost and turned up after the second one had been issued, and that we could have either. He added that he would prefer the transactions to be in cash. My husband arranged to collect the £900 from the bank, but the two log books worried me, so I telephoned the Taxation Office who told me the car had been in an accident in July 1971. I telephoned the seller to say that we wished to have the car inspected by the RAC. He was quite annoyed at the delay Ȧ".
My constituent said that at the point the seller became very abusive. She continued:
"Last weekend we bought a car from a reliable garage and while chatting to the mechanic mentioned the other car. The mechanic knew the seller and said that it had been two scrap cars joined togetherȦ".
That is just one of a number of letters I have received from people who have been defrauded by back-street, so-called garage proprietors who are cannibalising wrecked cars and selling them, often at inflated prices. The cars are a hazard and a danger to road users.

I am asking the Minister tonight to say why the scheme for the stamping of log books has been abandoned. Has the Minister consulted the insurance companies? Has he agreed with those companies that they should abandon the stamping of log books? If they have done so, what reasons have been advanced for this practice having been discontinued?

I should like to see an arrangement—this would probably require amendment of the law—to provide that if a car is totally written off the log book is surrendered to the licensing authority and not reissued until the reconstituted vehicle has been examined by a competent Ministry examiner.

I am asking the Minister to afford protection to the intending purchaser of a car which has been written off as a total wreck and has been reconstituted. I am asking that that intending purchaser should be given the same protection as that given to any other consumer. We all know about the mass of legislation which has been envisaged to give protection to the consumer so that in almost every commodity he buys the consumer is protected against false trade descriptions. Yet the intending purchaser of a second-hand car is given no protection whatever. In ignorance he can buy a car which has been totally wrecked, rebuilt and sold again. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that he will now try to renegotiate with the insurance companies an agreement whereby they will stamp the log books.

The Department has been much too complacent about this matter. I first raised it at Question Time four years ago. We are not asking for a revolution; we simply want protection to be given to a prospective purchaser of a secondhand car so that he will at least know that at some time or other the vehicle has been a wreck.

I cannot understand the Department's adamant attitude—setting up a departmental committee that meets for 10 months to consider the question, and fobbing me off time and time again with parliamentary answers that are meaningless. Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that he will now renegotiate an agreement with the insurers that log books of wrecked cars will be stamped to the effect that the cars have been wrecked, and that, if necessary, he will tell the insurers that if they are not prepared to enter into a voluntary agreement he will take steps to make the system compulsory?

I hope that after this long and constant battle we shall be able to win a minor victory. We have a different Government, with a different outlook. We have a different Minister. I hope that they will look afresh at the problem, and that at long last the motorist will have some assurance that he will be protected when he buys a second-hand car.

10.51 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a matter that every hon. Member must surely support—the adequate protection of the purchaser of a seriously damaged car which, if improperly repaired, would constitute a road safety hazard.

My hon. Friend has been involved in the matter for a long time. I am sorry if the answers he has received from the Department in the past have not been helpful. I hope that many of the answers I have given him have been slightly more helpful than he suggested. I shall try to answer some of the points he raised tonight, and I hope that I can give him some satisfaction, but it is a slightly more complicated question than he may realise.

My Department is vitally concerned with road safety. It is constantly seeking ways of reducing the tragic toll of road accidents and looking for ways of effectively utilising the resources available to us.

My hon. Friend has suggested that a written-off car should have its log book withdrawn until satisfactory repairs have been carried out, it has been certified as roadworthy by a competent examiner, and the log book has been endorsed showing that the car was a written-off vehicle. This would ensure proper repair and warn the prospective purchaser of the vehicle's history.

The endorsement proposal was tried in 1967, when insurance companies entered into a voluntary agreement whereby written-off vehicles were notified to the local motor taxation offices and their log books endorsed. Purchasers were thus forewarned. Experience showed that the arrangement had many faults: the "written-off" principle was not a satisfactory basis for defining a badly damaged vehicle, as other factors also affect the insurance company's decision; the system did not cover cars that were not comprehensively insured, or cars badly damaged but not written off; and properly repaired cars were marked for the rest of their lives by the log book endorsement. The arrangement was ended in February 1973 because it was unfair, and made no discernible contribution to road safety, as there was no evidence from the accident statistics that repaired vehicles were less safe than others of their age and type.

Despite the lack of evidence that a significant problem exists, I have considered whether badly damaged vehicles should be tested before being returned to the road. There are a number of difficulties here, the first being the size of the problem. A "seriously damaged vehicle" is not a clearly defined term, and hence there are no statistics for the number of vehicles involved. It is estimated that the insurance companies pay compensation for the total loss of some 50,000 vehicles a year, and there are others which would qualify if they were insured. No one knows how many of these vehicles find their way back on to the roads, and there are no guesses at all of how many vehicles require major repairs without reaching this stage. Nevertheless, the chief constables do not regard the faulty repair of damaged vehicles as a significant cause of accidents. For example, the West Yorkshire police had not heard of a single example in a sample of over 9,600 accidents.

Secondly, there is the nature of the sort of fault which is usually instanced when expressing concern over seriously damaged vehicles. This is either distortion of the chassis or the welding together of the frame from disparate parts. Neither is easily detected and neither would show up on a normal MOT test. If seriously damaged vehicles are to be retested before re-use, logic demands that they should be subjected to a different test, which should inevitably be more thorough and expensive.

We also have the problem of enforcement. The first difficulty lies in identifying the vehicles. Not all accidents which result in serious damage are reported to the police. Likewise, the insurance companies do not hear of those accidents where vehicles are not insured against damage. Nor do garages carry out all repairs to seriously damaged vehicles. There is, therefore, no easy way of identifying these vehicles.

The second difficulty lies in ensuring that a vehicle once identified as seriously damaged is not used again until tested. Theoretically, this would be easier, but it would involve resources in keeping records of vehicles notified and following up applications to an extent which would not be justified in the light of the size of the problem.

My conclusion, therefore, must be that any proposal to test these vehicles should be resisted on the ground that it is not a cost-effective use of resources. However, if anyone can produce evidence of a significant road accident danger from these vehicles, I shall review my policy in the light of that evidence.

My hon. Friend is approaching this problem entirely from the statistical point of view, which is that these reconstituted vehicles do not cause accidents. The statistical evidence is not available. Apart from that, will he approach the matter from the consumer's point of view? Cars may break down; they may not cause accidents. However, the motorist is being defrauded when he buys a reconstituted car. Therefore, from the consumer's point of view, will my hon. Friend consider ensuring that log books are stamped?

I was going to deal with the consumer aspect. I may have given my hon. Friend the wrong impression. I dealt with the statistics to some extent when I quoted the example of the West Yorkshire police, which I have no reason to believe is exceptional. They have not heard of one example of a reconstituted car being involved in any of the 9,600 accidents that they sampled.

Referring to consumer protection, on 1st January last the House took measures to increase the protection given to purchasers of motor cars by strengthening the law regarding the sale of unroadworthy vehicles. It is now an offence to expose for sale, to put on display in a showroom or offer for sale at auction, a vehicle which contravenes the construction and use regulations relating to brakes, steering, tyres, construction, lights and general safety. However, the prospective buyer is wise if he has the vehicle examined before purchase. I cannot stress that strongly enough.

I have been interested in motor cars for a long time. The motor car is a peculiar symbol in our society. The number of people who save for a long time and invest a great deal of money in the purchase of motor cars is incredible. A number of salesmen—by no means all—know how to play on the psychological desire of people to own motor cars. It is quite unusual for people buying a car to behave as the writer of that letter to my hon. Friend behaved. That is an estimable way to go about it. But many people, having saved for a long time, when they are spending a lot of money to buy a car, do so in a most haphazard and thoughtless way. I cannot stress too much that if one is spending between £600 and £900 for a car one should also spend £10 or £20 to have it examined by an association or an examiner.

Unfortunately, I know—friends of mine go out and do it—that people go out to buy a car saying that they must have it that weekend. It is the fraility of human nature which many car salesmen are masters at exploiting.

I would say a word about consumer protection in the more general sense of value for money—a subject more properly for my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act 1973 have greatly strengthened the purchasers' position, and if he is sold a car which is falsely described he may well have good grounds for redress in the civil courts.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has read of many cases—I know of his interest in this subject—where a car's "clock" has been turned back. That was one method which was used to try to sell a car—pretending that it had done much less mileage than was the case. There have been a number of cases in the courts where car salesmen and companies have got into serious difficulty. There are protections.

I am not trying to brush my hon. Friend off with the lethargy of the Department. I have looked at this matter with care. I thought it was much easier than I have since found it to be. It is not something we are sleeping on. We are very concerned, and any measures that hon. Members can suggest which will improve or maintain road safety—anything to help in the battle for road safety—will be looked at carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.