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Dvla Tow-Away Teams

Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2003

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3.30 pm

I am pleased to have secured the debate as it gives me the opportunity to tackle an issue that causes annoyance to my constituents and, I am sure, to others throughout the United Kingdom. Given that London accounts for more than one in 10 untaxed cars in the UK, the quality of life of Londoners is disproportionately affected by them. I will therefore speak today about the troubling problem of untaxed cars, which is a major aggravation for my constituents in Mitcham and Morden.

I begin by applauding the action that the Government took, initially under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), in tackling the vexed issue of abandoned cars. The alteration in the law overseen by my right hon. Friend dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to remove cars from where they have been dumped and to dispose of them. It has done much to reduce the problem of end-of-life vehicles being dumped on the roads of my constituency.

However, the problem has not yet gone away. I think I am right in saying that in one year recently, the London borough of Merton had to deal with more dumped cars than the entire city of Manchester. Local people were outraged at the fact that people from other boroughs were bringing their clapped-out cars to dump on Merton's streets. For Merton, that legislation came not a minute too soon.

We may not be preventing the problem—its solution lies in the hands of the antisocial people who cannot be bothered to ring the council for help with the disposal of their redundant vehicles—but at least we are reducing its unacceptable effects, which are the cause of significant irritation and are an eyesore for many council-taxpaying constituents. They want and deserve to live in a clean, tidy community of which they are proud, rather than somewhere that sometimes appears like a war zone.

Untaxed and abandoned cars can be magnets for other low-level antisocial behaviour, such as graffiti, vandalism, fly tipping and noise nuisance. All such activities drag down communities and magnify the fear of crime. We in the House have a responsibility to do more to stem the tide of antisocial behaviour. Having lobbied for so long for action, I am pleased and proud that the Government have introduced the first ever Anti-social Behaviour Bill, through which they hope to tackle some of those activities. However, we can always do more.

A large number of my constituents have written to me, or come to see me, about untaxed cars, asking me what the Government are doing or will do about the issue. I can tell them only about the arrangements that already exist—we should be glad that they do—but given the scale of the problem, those arrangements often seem inadequate to my constituents. They feel that it is rather like using a nut to crack a sledgehammer, to reverse the usual saying.

According to the DVLA annual accounts of 2001–02, enforcement and wheel clamping cost £39.9 million, but it was estimated that £110 million was recovered through enforcement activities in fines, penalties and re- licensing revenue from bringing 800,000 offenders to book. That was the basis for the estimate that the Minister gave me in his written answer in December 2002 of a return of 3:1 on clamping activity. Clearly, given the return on the outlay, funding is not the issue, so perhaps it is a matter of capacity.

The DVLA has 18 clamping teams operating from 14 pounds around the UK, and I have no doubt that they do a good job with the limited resources available to them. I understand that four of the clamping teams operate in the London area, covering the north, south, east and west. In addition, there are two national mobile clamping units, which rove around the UK when particular hot spots are identified.

I also understand that DVLA clamping teams spend the equivalent of a fortnight twice a year in each of London's 33 boroughs. Given that the Minister has estimated that there were 171,000 unlicensed vehicles in the London area in 2001–02, the number of teams and the amount of time the teams spend on the ground in each borough, perhaps he would tell me if he considers that to be sufficient coverage. It would appear that in London, capacity and coverage are the problems.

Another issue is that of car pounds. I understand that the DVLA operates only one permanent car pound for the whole of London and only 13 in the rest of the UK. I would be interested to know what plans, if any, the Government have to encourage, or perhaps incentivise, local authorities to earmark land for their own car pounds, either on their own or in partnership with neighbouring authorities, to allow for an increase in their clamping and crushing efforts.

As I hope the Minister will agree, local authorities represent a real hope for getting on top of the untaxed car problem. Local authorities could act as contractors or agents of the DVLA, since they have the local presence, the local contact and the local interest to be able to deal quickly and efficiently with reported cases. They can be more responsive than the DVLA teams.

Why should local authorities not become fully fledged agents of the DVLA? If all local authorities had their own pounds, they might have a greater incentive to remove abandoned cars before they become dangerous or are set alight. Similarly, if there were more pounds willing to take dilapidated cars at no cost, some offenders might actually be willing to take their cars there instead of leaving them on the streets to be towed away at the expense, of council tax payers.

My understanding is that the provisions of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, applying to the removal of unlicensed vehicles, give the Secretary of State powers to appoint contractors to undertake this removal work. Initially, this function has been exercised through a contractor acting for DVLA. However, pilot schemes in both Lewisham and Newham have been carried out in which the local authority acts as the DVLA's contractors, removing and impounding unlicensed vehicles. That can be a major tool in dealing with the blight of abandoned vehicles.

In Newham, the DVLA pilot scheme has worked well and has encouraged residents to register their vehicles. During the 12 months of the pilot scheme, I gather that 2,000 vehicles were wheel-clamped. Half of those vehicles were released upon payment and, as the Department for Transport notes, surveys undertaken by Newham council before and at the end of the pilot scheme showed that the level of evasion had reduced by 15 per cent. as a result of additional and visible enforcement in the borough.

I understand that five other local authorities—Croydon, Lewisham, Wandsworth, Hastings and Southend—have taken on devolved powers to clamp and impound unlicensed vehicles in partnership with the DVLA. Each authority has its own car pound for the purpose. I was intrigued to learn that the DVLA is in discussion with 11 other local authorities to agree similar devolved powers. That all seems very promising, but as always there is a problem, money.

Newham officers estimate that the pilot has made £2.1 million for the Treasury in new registrations but the scheme has operated at a net loss to the borough of approximately £300. Therefore, for any scheme to be a success in other boroughs, such as my own, Merton, there would need to be some element of ring-fencing of revenue raised for covering costs. Will the Minister say whether the Government would be willing to entertain the notion that local authorities would be not only the agents of the DVLA, but would be allowed to keep the revenue they generate from clamping operations, or just the part that would cover their costs?

I would like to talk briefly about the success of the Operation Cubit scheme in the Medway towns, which I believe contains many useful lessons for local authorities dealing with untaxed and dumped cars. The first pilot Cubit operation took place in Medway, from 22 January 2001 to 16 March 2001 and the second in Swanley, from 11 June 2001 to 6 July 2001. Operation Cubit brought together the key agencies that have powers in relation to abandoned and untaxed vehicles: namely, the police, the local authorities, and the DVLA. The main aim of Operation Cubit was to use these agencies' powers in combination to remove vehicles quickly and efficiently from the streets and other areas. The results of Operation Cubit were that a total of 642 vehicles were removed during the eight-week Medway operation, and the operational team inspected an additional 102 vehicles. In the four weeks of the Swanley pilot, 184 vehicles were removed, 26 were clamped and subsequently de-clamped prior to removal, and the DVLA took action against a further 60 untaxed vehicles.

I understand that officers involved in both operations believed that the operations had a beneficial effect, at least in the short term, on community safety and the local environment—a perception shared by many of the local residents surveyed. According to DVLA estimates, the operations encouraged 3,919 motorists in Kent to re-license their vehicles between February and July 2001. Induced re-licensing improves official tracking of vehicles, encouraging motorists to take greater responsibility for their vehicles. In turn that leads to a greater number of insured and MOT -ed vehicles on the road. Operation Cubit improved the accuracy of vehicle registration, which assists the police in enforcing criminal and road traffic law. It also created more than £600,000 in additional revenue for the Treasury. Operational costs were approximately £136,000, showing its clear cost-effectiveness.

Operation Cubit was originally seen as having the potential to reduce the problem of vehicle arson by removing the vehicles most likely to be magnets for such vandalism. Local police intelligence suggests that a number of vehicles associated with local crime or offenders were removed by the Medway and Swanley operations, indicating that some crime prevention impacts may be associated with that type of operation. Operation Cubit and similar schemes may provide police with another method of targeting persistent offenders.

I understand that there is now a counterpart to Operation Cubit in London, which is called Operation Scrapit, that uses powers shared by various agencies, including the DVLA, the police, the fire service and seven London boroughs, to pick up and remove untaxed and abandoned vehicles in short, sharp, shock-style operations. Those operations have proved to be successful in removing and destroying vehicles quickly and have been very popular with local residents. In some circumstances, they have cleared up one third of all street crime, but they require funding and access to a vehicle-storage pound.

There are proven, cost-effective ways in which the problem of untaxed cars can be dealt with while providing local authorities with income—if the Treasury allows local authorities to use them. I realise that the Minister is not in a position to dictate Treasury policy, but I would be grateful for his comments on that and on the other matters that I have raised. I can only conclude by reiterating that this is an issue of great frustration to a significant number of my constituents in Mitcham and Morden, and their frustration should not be underestimated. I am sure that they hope not for comforting words, but for a firm assurance that the Government intend to enable local authorities such as Merton to crack down on untaxed cars.

3.43 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue. There cannot be many Members who have not encountered the problems that arise from untaxed cars, which are often abandoned, in their constituencies.

Vehicle excise duty evasion is a serious problem in this country. The national roadside survey undertaken in 2002 showed that the VED evasion rate is 4.5 per cent. The compliance rate is high, but the number of untaxed vehicles involved and the sums of money lost to the Exchequer are huge. We estimate that as many as 1.75 million vehicles are untaxed, which costs more than £190 million every year in lost revenue.

The police and other enforcement agencies report untaxed vehicles as part of their day-to-day work, but the task of enforcing VED falls to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. It has about 780 staff, who are dedicated to enforcing vehicle excise and registration offences. Their efforts last year resulted in record success, bringing nearly 820,000 offenders to book and collecting more than £110 million in fines, penalties and induced revenue. The agency is on course to do even better this year but despite that success, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there is still a hard core of evaders who seem determined to do all that they can to avoid paying their road tax. It is not just the tax that those people are evading. We know that many will also be uninsured, unregistered and driving unroadworthy vehicles.

Northamptonshire police have pioneered the use of automatic number plate recognition to target criminals using the roads. Their study showed that many of the vehicles that they stopped for having no tax were also involved in some other form of criminality, including drugs offences, burglary, theft, disqualified driving, outstanding warrants and various vehicle-related offences. All right-minded people worry that this is a very big problem. The Home Office recently extended the pilot on the use of ANPR systems to another 23 police force areas, which I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome. That means that we will be targeting criminals using the roads in many more parts of the country.

The DVLA also operates ANPR camera vans to catch road tax dodgers—the Stingray systems that have been deployed across the UK. They are type approved to the highest standards by the Home Office and work by linking digital cameras to an on-board computer that stores the images of untaxed cars. They catch tax dodgers on the move and can operate night and day at speeds in excess of 100 mph. I assume that it is the tax dodgers that are doing 100 mph, not the vans containing the systems.

ANPR systems operated by the police and the DVLA, together with safety cameras, red light cameras, parking and bus lane enforcement, and the enforcement of VED, all rely on an accurate record of vehicle keepers to be fully effective. The accuracy of the vehicle records held by the DVLA is therefore vital.

3.47 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.58 pm

On resuming

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced proposals on 22 May this year to modernise the vehicle registration and licensing system in Great Britain to ensure that records are as accurate as possible. Continuous registration will be introduced from 1 January 2004. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden is most concerned that that should happen, and it will. That is designed to close the loophole of vehicle keepers failing to re-license their vehicles or declare statutory off-road notification—SORN. We will be able to enforce this measure directly from the DVLA's computer system. We will not have to rely on the police or others making a formal sighting of the vehicle being used or kept on a public road to prove a continuous registration offence. That is a very important step forward.

The move to continuous registration will not do away with the need for on-road enforcement. Experience shows that some motorists will continue to defy the rules. The vast majority pay their tax on time and rightly become very annoyed with those who continue to dodge their responsibilities. The postbags of many right hon. and hon. Members are full of complaints about untaxed and abandoned cars in their constituencies. We need a robust enforcement regime to catch those offenders.

The proliferation of abandoned cars is a plague that affects whole communities. It certainly affects mine. They lower the tone of neighbourhoods, and act as a magnet for the criminal element. They also attract the worst kind of antisocial behaviour. They are regularly trashed and torched, which is a danger to children. They cost the police, the fire service and local authorities time and money to investigate and to clear up the mess. It can cost the fire service up to £5,000 to deal with a vehicle fire. More importantly, however, it diverts the service from dealing with other, potentially life-threatening, situations. It is not always recognised that today's untaxed car is tomorrow's abandoned car. The vigorous pursuit of tax dodgers will therefore reduce the abandoned vehicle problem.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the cost element and why some local authorities have been put off taking part in the scheme or contacting the DVLA to become a partner in such schemes. There are costs to councils in taking on DVLA powers. The scheme is unlikely to be self-financing, but there are considerable benefits in dealing with vehicles before they are abandoned. As I said, costs could be saved in the long run. The earlier that the vehicle is dealt with, the lower the cost.

During its pilot, Newham found that VED evasion was reduced from 20 per cent. to 5 per cent. locally, and that the number of abandoned cars in the borough was reduced by 10 per cent. at a time when the trend was firmly upwards elsewhere. Many councils that are already involved consider the costs to be a price worth paying to deal with nuisance vehicles. Unlicensed vehicles are often involved in crime and antisocial behaviour, and local residents are usually only too pleased to see unlicensed vehicles removed from the streets.

Direct hypothecation of tax revenue is not on the cards, but we are keen to examine ways in which the considerable benefits to the public sector as a whole are more accurately reflected in funding mechanisms. Such benefits include reducing arson and other forms of antisocial behaviour, regeneration and improving the quality of our public space.

The DVLA incurs costs by employing its current contractor to run the tow-away teams. Surely, therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the money that the DVLA already pays to its tow-away contractors might also be given to local authorities if they take on these powers? I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the cost involved of £300,000, especially to a borough such as Newham—one of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country—is an awfully large decision to take.

I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned the £300,000, because initially she said £300. I just wanted to make sure that that was on the record, as I am sure that Newham would not thank her for saying that the scheme had cost it only £300. I very much accept what she says. As I said, we will try hard to gauge the effectiveness of the funding mechanisms to ensure that the benefits that I mentioned are fully reflected in the way in which we ensure that the job is carried out.

The police and the DVLA ANPR systems will be invaluable in that. The DVLA's wheel-clamping powers are another key weapon in tackling these outlaws. Those powers make it possible to remove the vehicles from the street. In most cases, they are removed permanently as they end up being crushed.

The wheel-clamping scheme starred in August 1997. Since then, we have clamped 135,000 vehicles throughout the United Kingdom, 67,000 of which have been crushed. Those are 67,000 vehicles that will never be abandoned. Perhaps the biggest success has been the publicity that accompanies the scheme. It has persuaded no fewer than 651,000 would-be evaders to re-license their vehicles rather than risk being clamped, which has brought in another £85 million in induced revenue. Wheel clamping and the surrounding publicity have proved to be a powerful deterrent to VED evasion. Those who are caught cannot ignore the clamp, and the costs of having it removed are high.

The fees were increased in April 2001. You might be interested in this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The cost of having a clamp removed is £80 plus a surety of £120 in lieu of a current tax disc. The surety is refunded only if a valid disc is produced within 14 days. If the vehicle is not reclaimed within 24 hours, it is removed to a secure compound, and the fee for its release is increased to £160 plus the £120 surety. I will certainly consider the number of car pounds, to which my hon. Friend referred, because that issue is important, too. There is a storage charge of £15 for every day that the vehicle is in the compound. If it is not reclaimed within seven days, it can be crushed. As well as those charges, the offender will be brought to book for the VED offence, which carries a maximum fine of £1,000 for a car. It is much more for a lorry.

We have 14 permanent wheel-clamping sites throughout the UK. They are located in Belfast, Barnsley, Blackpool, Birmingham, Bridgend, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool. Loughborough, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle and London. The London site has four dedicated clamping teams, which operate across the capital. As my hon. Friend made clear, however, that is not enough; we could do with more. We are interested in partnership arrangements with local authorities, because they have local knowledge and the incentive to use clamping as a means of ridding the streets of these vehicles. The four London teams account for more than 20 per cent. of the total number of vehicles clamped and 16 per cent. of those crushed. In addition to the permanent compounds, the DVLA operates two mobile clamping teams, which operate in other parts of the country where there are no permanent compounds.

Following a successful trial in the London borough of Newham, we have made the DVLA's powers to clamp and impound untaxed vehicles available to any local authority that wants to tackle the problem of untaxed cars in their area. That complements the DVLA's clamping operations and brings wheel clamping to parts of the country that are not served by a permanent compound. So far, the wheel-clamping powers have been devolved to 11 councils: Southend-on-Sea, Hastings, Doncaster, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees and the London boroughs of Newham, Lewisham, Enfield, Croydon and Wandsworth. Four more councils have been trained in readiness for the start of operations, and the DVLA is in discussions with a further 17 councils that have expressed an interest in taking devolved powers. As my hon. Friend well knows, unfortunately, the London borough of Merton is not one of them at the moment, but I am sure that she is urging it to take a serious look at the matter. We will certainly be ready to work in partnership with that borough if it decides so to do.

The police have recognised the importance of wheel clamping and increasingly arrange joint operations with their ANPR vehicles. The cameras identify a vehicle for action. The police use their powers to stop the vehicle and, if it is untaxed, it is clamped at the roadside. Such high-profile enforcement shows the law-abiding majority and any would-be evaders what can happen to those who continue to dodge their responsibilities. The additional use of the wheel-clamping scheme has put it under pressure, as my hon. Friend made clear. We recognise that we need additional clamping capacity and I am glad that she brought it to our attention. An extension of the wheel-clamping scheme is being addressed as part of our proposals to modernise the vehicle registration and licensing system because the Government treat the problem of vehicle excise duty evasion very seriously. The DVLA's wheel-clamping scheme is arguably the most high profile of all the weapons that we deploy to tackle tax dodgers and enforce vehicle excise duty.

Finally, I assure my hon. Friend that if she feels it would be useful to discuss the matter with officials, we will be only too pleased to make the necessary arrangements.