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Vehicle Ownership: Fatal Accidents and Rural Crime

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2022

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current guidance from the Government and the House of Commons Commission. I remind hon. Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered fatal accidents, rural crime and the adequacy of vehicle ownership restrictions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to the family of Andrew Rowlands, one of my constituents who died in 2020. His parents, Karen and John, are here today. I have met them before, as well as their daughter, Becca. Andrew was killed in a car crash in June 2020. The car he was travelling in was bought not long before for £100. It had no valid MOT and was described by the judge at the time as a wreck. The driver of that vehicle had no driving licence—they had not even had a driving lesson—yet they had still been able to buy the vehicle. They were jailed in June 2021. Later that year, I met John in my constituency surgery.

My request of the Minister today is to look at one simple change to the law. If a person wants to buy a car, they should have to have a driving licence. That means a simple change to the V5 form. At the moment, filling in the date of birth and the details of the driving licence of the person purchasing the car is voluntary. All we want is for that to be made mandatory. That would prevent people without driving licences being able to buy cars.

To buy a shotgun or rifle, the buyer must provide a licence and be over the age of 18. To buy an alcoholic drink, lottery scratchcard or lottery ticket, the buyer must provide ID. To scrap a car, a person must provide ID and have a UK bank account, yet to buy a car—even a totally unroadworthy one, such as the one driven on the day Andrew was killed—a buyer does not have to do those things. It is taken on trust, on the V5 form, that the buyer is a suitable person and able to own a vehicle.

In the modern day, it is totally unacceptable for somebody without a driving licence—without even having had a driving lesson—to own a car, and there are three reasons for that. The first, obviously, is the death of one of my constituents. We do not want to see more young people being killed because other people can buy totally unroadworthy vehicles and use them on a public highway.

Secondly, it has broader implications. Since I met John in my constituency office, I have been talking more broadly to Durham police and the rural community to find out what other impacts such a change could have. For example, Durham police are very concerned about so-called community vehicles. Basically, what happens is that I buy a car off anybody, but I do not provide my address or details, because I can sort of fill it in. There is no requirement to check a driving licence and no requirement to put down a date of birth—it is just an option. Those vehicles are then used in county lines drug trafficking; they are used to move people around the country. They are often parked up somewhere slightly out of sight, and they are easy to use. There is a real crime angle there for towns and cities.

Thirdly, I have spoken to local farmers, and there is a real rural crime angle as well. Since I was elected, I have lost count of the number of farmers who have got in touch about people trespassing on their land. This is not trespassing in the form of a poacher with a couple of pheasants under their jacket, like something from the 1940s. This is people driving through farm gates, smashing up land, destroying crops, worrying livestock and allowing animals out on to the roads.

I applaud my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate on this important issue and for highlighting the tragic case in his constituency. Does he agree that the rural crime he talks about is part of a bigger picture that people in rural communities face? It could be vehicle crime, property damage, fly-tipping, poaching, farm machinery theft or animal theft—they are all part of a bigger picture that our rural communities have to suffer. It is great that Cumbria police and Durham police are working hard to support communities, but these crimes have a major impact on the mental health of people in rural communities.

They do have a big impact on people in rural communities, particularly on their mental health, because of the isolation element of living in a rural area. My hon. Friend makes a broader point about the use of such vehicles for other crimes. The police have told me in conversations that if people are involved in what some might consider low-level crimes, such as lamping or poaching, they are usually involved in other crimes as well. It is a major issue that they are able to move around almost at will by using vehicles that nobody can trace. That is exactly the issue that I am trying to point to.

Some of the farmers I recently met over in Satley in my constituency face these issues on a regular basis—so regular that they have set up their own local WhatsApp group. Fences have been driven through, causing thousands of pounds of damage for the farmers, but even if they spot the vehicle and get the number plate, it is impossible to trace the ownership because the vehicles have basically disappeared into the system.

In Stanhope and all the way up in rural Weardale, farmers have faced similar issues. It was at one of my first constituency surgeries after being elected, in Stanhope town hall, that this issue of rural crime and untraceable vehicles was brought to me. More recently, down in Muggleswick, during the pandemic, when people were meant to be staying at home, there were people driving such vehicles—totally untraceable—to do drug deals in rural areas. People phone the police to say, “We have the number plates”—people have done the right thing on their farms and rural homes and put up CCTV—but that is totally useless if the ownership of the vehicle cannot be traced.

This proposed change would mean the traceability of vehicle ownership, and it would therefore prevent people being able to use such vehicles to commit rural crime. Thirdly, it would stop people without driving licences from using such vehicles.

We have seen the impact of changes to the scrappage scheme. We used to hear all the time about people nicking bits of railway and trains having to be stopped. We used to hear about people dying in substations when they were trying to nick expensive metals. We used to hear regularly about lead being stripped from church roofs. All of that ended with a simple change in the law that meant someone had to provide ID and bank account details if they were selling scrap metal—a really simple change. All I seek is a similar change for people when they are selling cars.

I am not asking the Minister today for an immediate yes or no to a piece of legislation; I am asking to meet her in order to talk in more detail and find a suitable legislative vehicle for addressing this issue. I cannot see why the Government would not want to push forward with this, because it would tackle rural crime and the criminal exploitation of young people in our towns and cities, and it has the ability to stop more tragic deaths, like that of Andrew, from happening in the future. It is a sensible change that I cannot see the Opposition opposing. Will the Minister today commit to meeting me to talk about this further, to see what we can do to make this very sensible change, which will save lives?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for opening the debate and for his continued championing of rural issues. I also thank my neighbour in Cumbria, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson). As the Member of Parliament for Copeland, in Cumbria, I truly live, breathe and understand the challenges of rurality, rural crime and, particularly, rural roads. I commend the work that has been done by Andrew’s parents, John and Karen Rowlands, who are here today.

As the mother of four daughters aged 18, 19, 21 and 23, who are all on the road, I worry every time they go out on our rural roads, as every parent does. We recognise that in rural areas a driving licence is all too often a passport to adulthood. It is a necessity in order to be able to access college, training, apprenticeships, work and social life, but rural roads have disproportionately more collisions. It is a priority for the Department for Transport to reduce that as far as possible, and we continue to work towards that every day, across the Department.

Today’s debate is primarily about vehicle ownership and fatal collisions, but my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham also raised a number of questions about rural crime, which I will pick up with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and at the Home Office. His overwhelming request was for a meeting with me to discuss the issue in more detail, which I am very able and willing to have, in short order.

I start by expressing my sincere condolences to Andrew’s family, to John and Karen and to his sister, Becca. I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government take road safety and deaths occurring on the road incredibly seriously.

It is true that a driving licence is not needed to purchase a vehicle. To make it a requirement of a purchaser to show a valid driving licence would, in our view, be impracticable in many vehicle purchasing transactions. However, I say that with the caveat that I am very willing to meet my hon. Friend to discuss ways in which this could assist or may be possible. Examples of such transactions include fleets purchased by companies to be sold on or leased, companies that acquire vehicles for the use of employees and those for whom a licence is not required, as their vehicles are only driven on private land, not to mention the many private vehicle sales that occur every day, in which it would be difficult, if not near impossible, to verify the authenticity of a driving licence.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the buyer of a vehicle to ensure that they behave within the law and only drive it if they are legally able to do so, as well as ensuring that the vehicle is roadworthy and has a valid MOT certificate. It is of course unfortunate that some individuals choose not to obey these laws, endangering themselves and others on the road or in the vehicle. In some cases, that has very tragic consequences, as we have heard this morning.

I heard what the Minister said about the practical difficulties of authenticating a driver’s licence at the point of sale. When she meets the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), I wonder whether she might consider another way of doing things. If it is too difficult to authenticate a driver’s licence at the point of sale, perhaps a driving licence would have to be presented when a vehicle goes for an MOT, for example. That is another way of ensuring that whoever is using a vehicle and is responsible for it has, as the hon. Gentleman so eloquently said, the skills and the responsibilities to do so safely.

The hon. Member makes a valid point. Although I am not the Minister with responsibility for roads—that is Baroness Vere of Norbiton—I will discuss exactly that point with her. I know that there have been significant improvements in the way that police and the Motor Insurers’ Bureau are able to check, for example, on motorists’ insurance, using technology, software and interoperable connectivity to improve safety and check the eligibility of people to be behind the wheel on UK roads. I thank the hon. Member for his intervention.

Any death or serious injury on our roads is, of course, unacceptable. My deepest condolences go to the victims of road collisions and their families, and I pay particular tribute to John and Karen for their work to raise awareness of the importance of young drivers in particular, and all they do to support our THINK! campaign, as well as generally improving awareness of the dangers of driving and the responsibility involved in being behind a wheel.

The Government take uninsured driving very seriously. Driving without insurance is, of course, a criminal offence. Since 2005, the police have had the power to seize vehicles driven by someone without insurance. By 2020, 2 million vehicles had been seized in Great Britain and the level of uninsured driving has dropped by 50% over the last 10 years.

I appreciate that the Government are considering ways to try to tackle issues such as driving without insurance. However, should there not be a change to ensure that we know who owns a vehicle, which would make it even easier to prosecute people for crimes such as driving without insurance? If we do not know who owns a vehicle, it is very difficult to bring a prosecution against somebody for driving without insurance.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is all part of the conversation that he and I will have when we meet. Over the next week, I will look at arranging that meeting, which will happen certainly by the end of this month. I am very happy to involve officials in that meeting as well, so that we get the full breadth of the Department for Transport’s understanding of all the issues pertaining to his request.

Under continuous insurance enforcement, or CIE, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency works with the MIB to identify those who are driving without insurance, enabling enforcement action to be taken.

I turn to driving on private land. I know that is a burden to so many farmers and landowners across Cumbria, and indeed in all rural areas. For some landowners, it is a real problem that they face all too often, so I will continue to engage with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to find solutions to it, and I understand that concerns have been raised about it today.

Vehicles that are driven illegally on private land may be seized, of course, by a police officer. However, any change in the law to cover driving offences occurring on private land would be significant and require legislation that had potentially wide-ranging impacts. We have a regime of licensing, which ensures that only people who have demonstrated a competence to drive a vehicle on the highway are permitted to do so.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham for his championing of these rural issues in my Department and all other Departments. Driving on private land is not subject to the same licensing regime. To change this would have consequences for many people who only drive on their own land, most notably the farming community.

I am not proposing that we change the requirements for driving on private land. I am just proposing that, to own a vehicle, someone has to have a driving licence. That would mean that they could give the vehicle to another, perhaps younger, person to drive on private land or for stock car racing or something like that. I am not proposing that we require a driving licence for driving on private land.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. I know that more can be done; I absolutely acknowledge that. Our calls for evidence will be published before this summer, so now is a good time to discuss the issue, and we would welcome any evidence given to support that. We all recognise that more can be done.

We are delivering on our commitment to change the law on a number of matters at the moment, including causing death by dangerous driving or careless driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill introduces changes to increase the maximum term of imprisonment to life. The Department is introducing an increase to the minimum disqualification periods for those two offences in the Bill to reinforce the seriousness with which the Government view them. Instead of two years, they will be increased to five years.

We are working on a call for evidence on parts of the Road Traffic Act 1988. We expect to be in a position to publish that in the first half of this year. While details are still being worked up on the scope of that particular issue, I know that officials are paying close attention to the points raised in this debate. We would welcome thoughts on where issues could be tackled by the call for evidence, and that is why I think that that meeting will be particularly helpful at this time. The evidence is expected to include drink and drug driving offences and the offence of failing to stop and report. My hon. Friend has not referred to that in this debate, but I wanted to set that out, and when we meet, we can discuss validation ahead of purchasing a vehicle.

Rural roads account for nearly 66% of all fatalities, while carrying only 33% of the traffic, with casualties mostly being vulnerable road users, such as young drivers and motorcyclists. My Department is developing a new road safety strategic framework, which will outline our ambitions to improve road safety in the UK. We are considering how we can best incorporate rural road safety into it.

We have also just concluded a consultation on the potential for creating a road collision investigation branch. That independent safety body would work to better understand the root causes of road collisions, learning lessons and making recommendations for interventions and policy changes that could help reduce collisions and their severity and improve rural safety for all road users. We hope to be able to set out the next steps over the coming months. It is my aim that these developments make a real difference to road safety in the UK, including reducing road traffic collisions and the tragic deaths and injuries that they cause.

I thank John and Karen Rowlands for their presence today and for the courageous way in which they are trying to prevent collisions, serious injuries and fatalities, particularly among young road users. I also thank them for their work in supporting the Department’s THINK! campaign.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, who so eloquently champions rural issues. Today, he has drawn attention to rural crime and demonstrated the importance of identity in preventing further incidents. I welcome his interventions and the conversation we will have with officials shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.