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Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill

Volume 830: debated on Friday 19 May 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I am delighted to see that my fan club on the Labour Front Bench has turned out in force to hear about this very important Bill. I am disappointed that my neighbour in Cumbria, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, is not performing today. I normally assume that on every single Bill going through this House, the Labour Whips have given her the job of handling some of it.

The Bill comes from the other place, and is the initiative of my honourable friend Greg Smith MP, who started this process with a 10-minute rule Bill in 2021. I make no apologies for lifting verbatim large parts of his Second Reading speech, since I simply cannot improve on it. Since then, he has had extensive negotiations with industry, insurers, the police, representative bodies such as the National Farmers’ Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance, and of course the Government, in order to craft the Bill before us today.

The concept started with a focus on combating thefts of equipment stolen far too often across rural communities, such as quad bikes, all-terrain vehicles and side-by-sides. The Bill provides a power for the Home Secretary to make regulations to ensure that immobilisers and forensic marking are fitted as standard to all new ATVs before vehicles are sold to customers.

The Bill also provides a power for the Home Secretary to extend the requirements to other agricultural equipment, such as larger agricultural machinery or tractor GPS units. However, the Bill’s powers could require the forensic marking of power tools and equipment in other trades and industries, such as building. The Bill will help to make it harder to steal equipment in the first place but, equally importantly, also make it harder to resell stolen equipment.

The Bill is supported by all countryside organisations and the police and was passed in the other place with the approval of the Government and all opposition parties.

More than 40 years ago, a significant change took place in UK farming which transformed the way many farmers operate. That revolution in farming methods was brought about by the introduction of all-terrain vehicles. Indeed, I used one myself to get round parts of my huge rural constituency in Cumbria when my legs began to get a bit ropy a few years ago. They are now a crucial element of livestock farming. However, the versatility of all-terrain vehicles has meant that they have also become an essential piece of machinery in moorland management, urban parks and beaches. They also play fundamental roles in our military, emergency services and mountain rescue teams across the country, carrying out essential functions.

Without all-terrain vehicles, many farms would simply not be able to meet the demands of caring for livestock over large geographic areas. It is a common sight in the Lake District to see farmers set off on their quad bikes to tend to their sheep flock, with their collie dog perched on the back, ready to work flat out once they get up the fell.

The level of theft is awful. All-terrain vehicle thefts in the United Kingdom amounted to between 800 and 1,100 per year in the last decade, and the trend is upwards every year. In January 2022, across the country, 52 quad bikes were stolen, but in January this year that number was up to 78. The numbers for larger machinery, particularly agricultural machinery, are even more frightening. In January 2022 there were 29 thefts of large machines, but in January 2023 I am afraid the number was up to 131. In February 2022 it was 19, but in February this year it was 122.

In the 43 years since ATVs’ introduction, ATV technology has developed significantly. Today’s all-terrain vehicles are much more advanced and sophisticated than their predecessors and incorporate features such as four-wheel drive, tank tracks, cabs, heaters, winches, power steering, electric start buttons, LED lights, et cetera, and they cost between £7,000 and £20,000 each, making them highly attractive to thieves.

Despite all those advances and everything else that is offered on modern ATVs, they still have primitive anti-theft devices. Most manufacturers of quad bikes and ATVs tend to make other equipment, such as motorcycles and construction equipment. Those are fitted with immobilisers and other security equipment, but not ATVs. Mr Smith MP found that some leading manufacturers have used the very same basic key system for 35 years. Indeed, when I lost my quad bike key, I simply used a little key from a suitcase lock. Both were equally useless, of course.

This Bill will tackle these theft problems head on. First, Clause 1(1) sets out that most of the powers in the Bill will be enacted by regulations laid by the Secretary of State. They will all be draft affirmative, meaning the regulations will be laid before both Houses and will become law only if both Houses approve. I recommend that approach to all government departments that bring forward masses of negative SIs. The most important Select Committee of this House, the Delegated Powers Committee, has looked at the Bill and has no criticism to make of it.

However, even before the House sees the regulations it is important that the Government consult extensively with constructors, suppliers, trade associations and users. I know this will happen, but I want to give my noble friend the Minister the chance to put this on the record in this House and give us all the assurances I read about in the debates in the other place.

Noble Lords may have seen copies of correspondence from the Agricultural Engineers Association, raising concerns about the cost and speed of implementation and details about immobilisers and forensic marking. It wants full consultation before any regulations are laid. The Minister in the other place promised that. He said at Third Reading:

“We need proper consultations with industry groups and others to ensure that we get the details right … Those consultations are very important … We will work with industry groups, the police-led national business crime centre and the combined industries theft solutions group to help us understand the details. We are grateful for the expertise that those bodies bring to bear in this area”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/23; col. 1052.]

It would be helpful if my noble friend the Minister repeated those assurances for the benefit of the House and all outside parties who may be concerned about the proposed powers.

Subsection (2) sets out the type of equipment which could be covered. Although the initial concern was ATVs, the definition provided at subsection (2)(a) covers:

“mechanically propelled vehicles that … are designed or adapted primarily for use other than on a road


“have an engine capacity of at least 250 cubic centimetres or two kilowatts”.

Paragraph (b) goes on to refer to

“other equipment designed or adapted primarily for use in agricultural or commercial activities”.

In the other place, MPs were keen that “other commercial activities” should be covered, including tools and equipment in the building trade. Indeed, the Minister there agreed and said:

“I can confirm that my intention is to make statutory instruments under the Bill that deal not just with ATVs, but with other agricultural machinery and with tradespeople’s high-value tools. We will need to consult to ensure that we get the details right, but I would like us to cover all such equipment … It strikes me as sensible to use the powers in the Bill to address that equipment as well”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/23; cols. 1051-52.]

I am certain that that is still Home Office policy, but again, it would be good to get it on the record in this House also.

Subsection (3) sets out a requirement that

“the equipment is fitted with a device designed, or adapted … for the purposes of preventing the equipment from being driven or otherwise put in motion”,

and that a “unique identifier” is attached with

“a visible indication that it is marked with a unique identifier”.

I understand that the equipment will be an electronic immobiliser, which prevents the vehicle being moved. I hope these systems will be better than the keyless locks on top-of-the-range Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes and Porsche cars, which account for 48% of vehicle theft.

I understand that quite a range of anti-theft and recovery gadgets is available, including RFID devices and GPS tracker, SmartWater and microdot identifiers. I trust noble Lords will ask me to explain the details of these things.

The Bill mandates the fitting of forensic markings at source, the details of which will be recorded on an appropriate database and accessible to all police forces across the country. There are many manufacturers and different standards and options out there, but the quads, ATVs and side-by-sides fitted with this forensic marking will be almost as unique as our own DNA. This will make them entirely traceable and identifiable to the police officers who have the scanning equipment to read and understand the forensic marking. That will streamline the ability of each force involved to work with the same resources simultaneously, thus increasing the opportunity to apprehend the suspect and identify and return the stolen machine to its owner.

For more than 20 years—since October 1998—immobilisers have been mandatory for all new passenger cars sold in the UK. Immobilisers are fundamental to preventing vehicle theft. Without the ignition system talking to the engine there is simply no way that a car can be operated under its own power. Yet, despite the many sophisticated functions of both quad bikes and ATVs, that rule does not currently apply to either.

I understand that Hitachi has introduced immobilisers and forensic marking for all its equipment sold in the UK. If Hitachi can do it then so can everybody else. Let the message go out to a minority of manufacturers that their sales strategy of selling equipment which can be easily stolen so that they can sell replacements over and over again is coming to an end.

Subsection (4) says that the regulations do not apply if

“the sale is solely for the purposes of onward sale”

to a wholesaler or another trader, and that the requirements will not apply to the sale of second-hand machinery. Subsection (5) makes it clear that the regulations do not apply if the equipment is being demonstrated to a potential buyer. That makes sense.

Clause 2 contains various powers and requirements about record-keeping. Again, the details will be set out in regs made by the Secretary of State. I will not go through the list of matters to be covered, since I think noble Lords will find them blindingly obvious. A key element for the Secretary of State to prescribe in regulations is an online storage and recording system which can be accessed by police forces across the country and other legitimate organisations. Great stress was laid in the other place on cross-border policing and cross-industry co-operation to create better anti-theft measures and deterrence and to allow equipment recovery if articles are stolen. This Bill will prevent the need to pursue the current time-consuming and extremely costly legal process by ensuring that quads, ATVs and other equipment currently stolen in the first place, or through forensic marking, are made less attractive to would-be thieves.

Clause 3 deals with enforcement and makes it clear that breaches of Clauses 1 and 2 are criminal offences, with fines from £200 to unlimited. I urge the Sentencing Council not to dilute the penalties so they become just a little cost irritant to any manufacturers that break the law. These machines are expensive, the loss to users is colossal and damaging, and manufacturers and suppliers that fail to comply should suffer great financial penalties related to the cost of the machines and the profits they make.

Related to that, I want to send a message from this House to the CPS and the Sentencing Council that we take rural crime seriously. We legislate for maximum sentences, and we want to see them used, so we do not want advice given to our magistrates and judges to undermine the penalties we have set for theft of equipment essential for farming. In every case, with no excuse, the CPS must apply for orders to confiscate the proceeds of these crimes. Criminals are stealing very expensive equipment, and a fine does not worry them; clearing out their criminal bank accounts does, and I suggest that this House demands it happens.

Clause 4 sets out regulation-making powers. As I said previously, they are all draft affirmative, so both Houses will have a chance to debate them before they become law. While the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will come into force six months after Royal Assent, not a single thing will change until the Government produce the regulations required under the various clauses of the Bill. These regulations will require a great deal of consultation, so can the Minister tell me when he expects to issue a call for evidence on what he proposes, and does he anticipate calling for evidence on just quad bikes and agricultural machinery or on industrial and construction equipment as well?

That is the Bill. The CLA estimates that the average financial impact on a victim of rural crime equates to £4,800, and that figure increases each day as supply-chain costs and overheads continue to rise. The value of quad bikes and ATV thefts reported to NFU Mutual in 2021 was £2.2 million. Close collaboration between communities and the police is essential to tackle theft. Cross-industry co-operation is crucial for crime prevention, and prevention is fundamentally better than cure. That is what the Bill enables.

Dealerships will be required by law to submit details of a vehicle’s appearance and registration and the location of its forensic marking to an appropriate database that is accessible to all police forces right across the United Kingdom. This would enable an officer of any police force to identify the rightful owner of equipment, making it quicker to establish that an item is stolen and to apprehend the thieves in an effective and timely manner. The Bill will also allow my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and future Home Secretaries to expand the scope where necessary and ensure that rural communities remain protected as the threat evolves and changes.

These thefts are largely by a globalised criminal network which moves the vehicles overseas within hours of them being stolen. There are vast amounts of specialist equipment and vehicles found everywhere, from farmyards to driveways and building sites, containing everything from power tools to excavators, all of which are top targets for organised crime. The Bill can begin to close down those criminal networks by making it too dangerous for them to steal equipment which is immobilised and forensically marked.

I have stated that the police and every rural organisation as well as politicians of all parties in the other place have enthusiastically supported this Bill. However, I am always sceptical when everyone agrees to passing a new law, since there will always be the little guy somewhere who suffers. In this case, I hope I have demonstrated to your Lordships that this Bill deserves to pass on its merits and not just because the great and the good support it. Accordingly, I commend it to the House, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to support the principle behind the Bill. Equipment theft has been an increasing problem, particularly in rural areas, in recent years and is a serious drain on the resources of both farmers and the police. However, I want to raise a couple of specific queries. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, referred in passing to a couple of the issues that I am raising.

First, Clause 1(2)(b) allows regulations to specify

“other equipment designed or adapted primarily for use in agriculture or commercial activities”.

That is an extraordinarily broad statement, especially in contrast with Clause 1(2)(a), which is very specific in defining all-terrain vehicles. It is very unfortunate that the Government’s consultation on whether to extend this Bill, which sounds a very specific Bill, to other equipment was launched only yesterday—although of course I welcome the fact that the consultation has been launched at all. The consultation is about whether to extend the Bill to other

“large agricultural equipment and power tools”,

but that is not what the Bill allows. The Bill does not specify “large”, and I will be interested in the Minister’s definition of what “large” means.

The Bill also extends to equipment related to commercial activities. “Commercial activities” could mean almost anything. It could mean construction, and I think it probably does mean that. It could mean things connected with the leisure industries. There is a broad spectrum of leisure equipment. It could mean things connected with tourism—caravanning, for example. I would welcome specific answers from the Minister about what the Government have in mind here, because there is real concern among trade bodies and other sector representatives at the extent of the potential application. If you are making compulsory the sort of measures this Bill includes to apply to equipment which is rarely stolen, you are adding a considerable additional expense to those who purchase it without giving them the concomitant benefit, so the Government need to clarify their intent.

It is ironic that the Government are backing such a vague clause at the same time as they are avowedly trying to reduce regulations through the Bill to revoke EU law. We could have regulation gone mad here. I think the Government need to be very specific and make it very clear what they wish to apply this to, because it has potential for enormous benefit, but it could also be a real problem and an additional cost for people across a huge spectrum of society.

My second concern is much more specific. The Explanatory Notes refer to the CESAR scheme for identification. Why? There are loads of schemes out there. Clearly there has been no comparative work so far on the effectiveness of different schemes—the Explanatory Notes say so, at paragraph 10:

“The evidence of the impact of forensic marking is less certain, and mainly relates to domestic burglary”.

This refers to a benefit that we are not sure will actually exist.

The consultation gives a valuable opportunity to compare systems. I urge the Government to keep an open mind and draw up a specific scheme only after the conclusions of the consultation. It is important that the Bill is used as an opportunity to future-proof any scheme that the Government decide to adopt. The Bill sounds modest but could be expanded rapidly depending on the interpretation of that small clause.

My Lords, I rise briefly in support of the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on the thorough and clear manner in which he introduced it, taking us through all its provisions. It has to be a positive Bill with respect to the equipment and kit that so many often small businesses and individuals rely on; to make that equipment more difficult to steal and more difficult to sell is clearly a positive thing. The Bill brings support to our rural communities and the countryside and, through that, to our country. I support it and I wish it a swift, positive passage on to the statute book

My Lords, I am very grateful to the House for giving me this opportunity to speak in the gap. I am very keen on the Bill and would have been very sorry not to have been able to record my support for it at this early stage. I am also very grateful to my noble friend Lord Blencathra for taking on the more or less thankless task of steering it through your Lordships’ House and on to our statute books. I congratulate him on the clarity, comprehensiveness and persuasiveness—and his usual good humour—of the way he explained the Bill to us.

As I said in a recent debate on a group of amendments to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, it has long been accepted that the first responsibility of government is to keep us all safe. I went on to say that if we judge this Government and their predecessors stretching back to May 2010 by the objective standard of the crime statistics, I do not think there can be any doubt that they have carried out this vital responsibility pretty successfully.

Most people think that community safety refers mainly to safety from assault and other forms of physical harm. Of course, our main concern is to keep ourselves and our families free from physical harm; that is why our media tend to focus mainly on violence and abuse. But a safe community is much more than that. It is also a community where those who work and live in it feel that their property is safe from theft and damage. Sadly, this aspect of community safety is too often neglected by the media and, hence, too often short-changed when it comes to resources and government action.

The Bill gives us a rare chance to redress that balance—and just as its responsibility for keeping us free from physical harm is one that the Government cannot carry out entirely on their own, so is the responsibility for keeping our property safe. What I mean is that community safety in both senses requires more than an efficient and effective professional police service. It requires that all of us play an active part; and by all of us, I include businesses of all kinds which make up our national economy.

One might have thought that businesses would be prepared to do this without the need for active encouragement. I wish that this were true. But the truth is that successful companies are always on the lookout for ways of cutting costs so as to increase their profitability. They have come to recognise that product features aimed primarily at reducing crime are not the features that are most attractive to customers. On the whole, therefore, such features as immobilisers and forensic marking are seen mainly as optional extras and, as we all know from personal experience, optional extras are features that customers tend to decline when times are tough, as they have been for our farmers in recent years. That is why the Government, if they are really determined to keep communities safe, sometimes have to force the private sector to play its role in fighting crime by introducing legislation of the kind we have been considering today.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra has already explained the Bill to us. I will not say any more about it, except that, based on my long career of working with police forces both here and abroad, I strongly believe that the provisions of the Bill would make the work of our police forces much easier and more effective and, for this reason, would make the lives of those of us who live and work in our rural communities very significantly safer.

I want to make one further point: because of the close links between criminals who operate in rural areas and those who operate in our major cities, I am sure that your Lordships will see that the effects of the Bill will extend far beyond our rural communities. In short, the Bill will make us all much safer. For this reason, I enthusiastically welcome it. I urge noble Lords to give it a Second Reading and a swift passage on to our statute books.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for his extensive introduction to this debate. The contribution from my noble friend Lady Randerson has raised some interesting questions; I look forward to the answers.

The Bill seeks to help with the prevention of theft of agricultural equipment and assist with recovery when it has been stolen. The main targets of theft from rural and farm buildings are all-terrain vehicles. The ATV is a vital assistant to the modern farmer, helping him or her to get around, feed and check on stock, often in otherwise inaccessible areas of farms and holdings. Farmers have come to depend on ATVs as an essential time-saving device. Shepherds on uplands use ATVs to help both feed their flocks in winter and gather in their sheep in the spring. The Government estimate that between 900 and 1,200 ATVs are stolen each year. Where are all these going? The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, seems to indicate that they are going overseas. It is not just ATVs—farm tractors have also been stolen, along with essential tools. Direct Line estimates that some £46 million-worth of tools were stolen in the six months to April 2021. The NFU similarly estimates that the cost resulting from the theft of quad bikes and ATVs was £2.2 million for its customers in 2021.

The solution to help prevent these thefts and return property to their owners is suggested in the Bill to be fitting immobilisers during manufacture or retrofitting, coupled with forensic marking and a register of who owns what and the identifying number from the forensic mark. This latter would assist the police to identify stolen goods.

I turn to the loss of other equipment and tools. The building industry is also a target, with the Federation of Master Builders saying that eight in 10 builders have had their tools stolen. Again, Direct Line estimates that £245,893-worth—a very precise sum for an estimate—of tools are stolen from vehicles every day. Direct Line also reports that a third of UK consumers had bought second-hand tools at some point.

I declare an interest, in that my husband is a great fan of second-hand tool stalls at markets and has often bought something that he claims he has been looking for some time and will “come in handy” in the future—a phrase often used in our household. There is an app called The Tool Register where tradespeople and agricultural workers can record details of their tools and equipment and report if they have been stolen. The stolen goods then appear on a search engine aptly named Dodgy Gear. The app allows people to check whether the goods they are proposing to buy have been stolen.

The Countryside Alliance found in its 2022 rural crime survey that 35% of respondents said they had been victims of agricultural machinery theft—the second most reported crime, just 3% behind fly-tipping, the other scourge of the countryside and farmland. Wildlife crime, including hare poaching and animal rights activism, was also on the list. There are few prosecutions but, where they do occur and are successful, the penalties can be high—in one case, over six years in prison.

The Countryside Alliance supports the fitting of a marked engine immobiliser. That view is shared by the NFU, which provided a similar brief to that of the Countryside Alliance. They have indicated that the direct effects of the Bill will be on product and sales standards, trading standards authorities and local authorities. I was hearing only last week of the desperate shortage of trading standards officers, and we all know that local authorities are cash-strapped, with little or no room for manoeuvre, so we must be careful about putting extra unfunded burdens on local authorities.

There is no doubt that this is a real problem that affects primarily farmers, but it also affects other industries. I have been contacted by the National Caravan Council, which is concerned about industries involved in the leisure business and believes that the scope of the Bill is too broad. It also believes that the fitting of immobilisers could compromise the safety or use of the vehicle. As every law enforcement body across the world, including in the UK, uses the vehicle identification number—VIN—system, the NCC asks why that is not being used to identify vehicles. Perhaps the Minister can provide some clarification.

The Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill indicate that the cost of retrofitting an immobiliser to an ATV is £150, but there is no mention of what the cost of compliance might be for other industries outside agriculture. This is a Private Member’s Bill, but I would like to ask the Minister whether he knows what consultation, if any, has taken place outside the agriculture sector. The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, indicates that the consultation has not so far taken place. I mention that because I believe there is some concern that the Bill might have a detrimental impact on the financial viability of those sectors involved in the leisure industry. My noble friend Lady Randerson has raised the issue of consultation and extending the scope of the Bill.

That said, I am supportive of the aims of the Bill. I know from having lived in a lively farming community that the theft of ATVs and other farming equipment happens on a fairly regular basis and can have a devasting financial effect on the small farms often found in rural villages. Theft of any sort affects the victims. If that theft affects the way in which a victim carries out the activities that provide their livelihood, that raises the crime much higher up the scale, and something should be done to both prevent the crime in the first place and deal with returning the stolen property afterwards. The noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, raised the issue of personal and property safety. The Bill, while not being a panacea for all rural crimes, would certainly help towards addressing some of the issues that farmers face. We support it, and we look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for sponsoring the Bill in this House. It presents a much-needed opportunity to reduce rural crime, and Labour is pleased to support it. I thank the noble Lord for his openness in sharing information on the Bill and for the background to its introduction in the other place, both in advance of today’s debate and in his speech today.

I thought it was very helpful, in light of the genuine cross-party consensus on the Bill, that the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised concerns, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to them. Like the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, I would like to see this introduced swiftly, but with due consideration of some of the potential issues and unintended consequences that have been highlighted today.

This is not the first time that the need for greater regulation on the issue of quad bikes has been raised through a Private Member’s Bill. In addition to the previous work by the honourable Member for Buckingham in relation to this, the honourable Member for Bradford South raised it in her Quad Bikes Bill last year. The Bill before us today presents an opportunity for a common-sense approach to be taken forward. Labour would welcome the security measures outlined in this proposed Bill. The NFU has particularly highlighted the benefit of fitting trackers and immobilisers, and of forensic marking, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on what measures the Secretary of State might opt for in the first instance and when that might become clearer.

The theft of all-terrain vehicles is a widespread issue in rural areas, as noble Lords have said today. Quad bikes and ATVs are a vital piece of equipment for many farmers and, as the National Farmers’ Union highlights, they are used routinely for a range of essential tasks on farms.

NFU Mutual states—these figures have already come up in the debate today—that between 900 and 1,200 quad bikes or ATVs are stolen from farms every year. This is an issue that is increasing. Rural theft rose 40% between 2021 and 2022, costing the economy over £40 million. A lot of this theft is theft to order, often, as has been noted, by organised criminals. With most ATVs not having even basic, let alone sophisticated, security systems, they are simply too easy for criminals to steal—not least as, once stolen, they are extremely hard to trace. The noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, is right that optional extras are too often omitted, hence the need for the Bill.

Currently, quad bikes and ATVs tend to be difficult to replace. They are stolen for a variety of reasons. The NFU highlights both Covid and Brexit as issues—the lack of availability of ATVs in the UK market means that it can take between three and six months to replace a stolen vehicle. They are not cheap, and the cost of a replacement has also risen.

ATV theft is also related to anti-social behaviour and vandalism, which is a particular concern for both rural and urban communities. We should note that is not only farms and farmers that this legislation might help: my understanding is that it would also resolve issues relating to the theft of ATVs and quad bikes from those involved in the leisure industry such as caravan parks, which rely on them, as well as the emergency services.

I am pleased that the Government confirmed in Committee in the Commons that they will be looking at expansions to cover other farm and construction equipment. Beyond the theft of ATVs, tool theft is a significant concern for agriculture, as well as clearly being of particular interest to other sectors such as the construction industry.

Theft is driven by the strong second-hand market in power tools, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, highlighted. She noted that the insurance company Direct Line found that 65% of roofers, 58% of electricians and 55% of plumbers had had tools stolen. The Federation of Master Builders found that eight out of 10 builders had had tools stolen, causing losses of £10,000 and six working days to the average builder. The FMB also stated that tool theft was a mental health concern for builders, with 15% having suffered from anxiety caused by tool theft. Put simply, their livelihood depends on the security of their equipment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, made clear, tool theft could also be covered by the Bill. It would be useful for the Minister to give additional detail on what the Government are considering by way of expansion of the scope of the Bill. That would significantly change its scope, and it would be useful to understand whether any intended changes would be included in the Bill or would come under other legislation. I agree with the noble Lord that details of the Government’s consultation and its scope would be useful for this House to hear.

In addition, I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on how far the Government would meet the ask of the NFU to include other agricultural equipment, noting that agricultural vehicle theft, including of tractors and trailers, costs NFU Mutual more than four times what quad and ATV theft cost. I note the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about definition and scope, and I agree that clarity would be useful.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, also outlined the need for penalties for theft of equipment to act as a deterrent. This feels entirely proportionate. As I said at the outset, this is a common-sense Bill and I hope that other common-sense elements that could be incorporated at minimal cost are included. In so many ways, this could provide additional security and protection that is currently lacking and help tackle the scourge of rural crime.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Blencathra for bringing forward this Private Member’s Bill to the House. I join him in paying tribute to Greg Smith MP in the other place for all his work on it. I also commend him on the eloquent and considered case he has made for the included measures and thank all those who contributed to this short debate and welcome their support.

I am delighted to be able to say that the Government support this Bill. As has been noted, it received cross-party support from the outset. My noble friend Lord Wasserman is quite right that the Government are determined to make our cities, towns, villages and rural areas safer. Our blueprint for cutting crime was set out in the Beating Crime Plan in July 2021, which outlined the concerted and wide-ranging actions we are taking to cut crime and make our society a safer place to live and work in.

To bear down on all forms of crime, this Government committed to recruiting an additional 20,000 officers across England and Wales by the end of March 2023. We have delivered on this manifesto commitment; 20,951 additional officers were recruited by the end of March 2023. A record number of officers are now in post, bringing the total number to nearly 150,000 across England and Wales, exceeding the previous peak in 2010 by 3,500. This means that there are now more police on the streets to tackle crime in all areas of England and Wales. That includes crime affecting rural communities, such as machinery theft, which this Bill is designed to prevent.

As all noble Lords have noted, the theft of agricultural machinery, in particular all-terrain vehicles, is of great concern. The Government recognise the significant impact of these thefts on both individuals and businesses and understand the distress and disruption caused when property is stolen. For example, the theft of an agricultural vehicle from a farmer can cause severe disruption to essential cultivation work, risk animal welfare and put livelihoods on the line. It is therefore essential to ensure that they are adequately protected. I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lord Blencathra describe the widespread support for this Bill from interested parties, including the National Farmers’ Union and NFU Mutual. The principle of this Bill is very important: the Government expect manufacturers to play their part in protecting items from theft.

As well as the personal and practical consequences, there is a significant economic impact, as noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross. As we heard during this debate, more than 900 quad bikes and ATVs are stolen every year. NFU Mutual’s Rural Crime Report 2022 put the total cost of insurance claims due to the theft of agricultural vehicles at £9.1 million last year. This figure includes more than ATVs; we know that other high-value machinery such as tractors and GPS systems are also targeted by organised criminal gangs. Of that £9.1 million, the theft of quad bikes and ATVs alone costs the UK £2.2 million. This is an unacceptably high amount.

To go into a little more detail on other types of machinery theft, figures provided by the National Police Chiefs’ Council show that there has been a total of 626 thefts of large agricultural machinery so far in 2023. These figures include large or high-value machines such as tractors, excavators and diggers. In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, the most I can do to clarify “large” here is to say that it means “big”.

This is why the Government are taking action by supporting this Bill. Despite significant technological advancements made across the ATV market, the inclusion of basic security features on machines has been much slower. Fitting immobilisers and forensic markings as standard is inexpensive, and they are readily available. The Government do not wish unnecessarily to impose additional costs on individuals. The cost of fitting an immobiliser and forensically marking a machine is estimated to be under £200. This cost is far outweighed by the benefit of reducing disruption caused by theft.

The Government are focused on the prevention of crime. As we have heard during this debate, increased policing is not the only answer. Prevention is by far the most effective means of reducing these thefts and this Bill proposes simple action to achieve that. We need the most effective technology, such as immobilisers and forensic marking, to be rolled out and fitted as standard to drive down these preventable thefts.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra asked about databases. The Government have no intention of creating a single national database for the purpose of recording and retaining this information. The owner’s information will be registered on the database maintained by the company whose forensic marking product has been used. For example, many companies, such as CESAR—which has been mentioned and I will come back to—Datatag, Selectamark and SmartWater operate databases to record forensic marking and owners’ details.

In answer to the noble Baronesses, Lady Randerson and Lady Bakewell, the Explanatory Notes refer to CESAR as an example of a forensic marking scheme. The legislation, to be clear, will not endorse any particular product, product line or service. A number of forensic marking schemes are already widely adopted by the agricultural sector and construction industry. The secondary legislation will specify the standards of forensic marking which may be used—in order to set a minimum standard, not to restrict the market or stifle innovation. I should also be clear that police officers are very aware of how to search for any stolen items using these databases. They are able to access these databases at any time in order to ascertain if they are dealing with things such as stolen ATVs.

The Government expect to see a real decrease in the theft of ATVs as a result of the measures in this Bill. The introduction of immobilisers and forensic marking as standard will help prevent them being stolen. Importantly, it will be harder for criminals to sell on stolen machinery, and that will have a deterrent effect. The Bill is a great example of government, law enforcement and industry working together to protect hard-working people from theft.

The Bill includes a power for the Secretary of State to extend its provisions via secondary legislation to other types of machinery, as has been noted. During the Commons stages, the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire committed to consider extending the provisions to other equipment designed or adapted primarily for use in agricultural or commercial activities, including tradespeople’s tools. Minister Philp recognised that the regulations would require careful consideration to ensure the technical detail is correct. The legislation must be practical and straightforward for manufacturers and dealers to implement, without causing a detrimental impact on businesses.

My noble friend asked about calls for evidence. I am very pleased, as has been noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that the call for evidence was launched this week. It has been published on GOV.UK and will run for eight weeks. I am not sure why it is unfortunate that it was introduced only this week. Home Office officials will ensure that it is widely shared with those who may be affected by the legislation. That includes manufacturers, dealers, retailers, forensic marking companies, trade associations, tradespeople and law enforcement practitioners. I urge all interested parties to engage with this call for evidence and make their feelings and opinions known.

I have also been lobbied by the National Caravan Council, which should definitely engage with this, as should the Agricultural Engineers Association and others. The call for evidence includes questions about the feasibility of including handheld power tools and large agricultural equipment in the secondary legislation. We recognise that there is an overlap between equipment used in the agriculture, construction and land management industries, but we want to ensure that the legislation covers equipment that is vulnerable to theft and needs to be protected.

The Bill is broad in scope. It allows for these requirements to be extended to other equipment, as we have discussed, via secondary legislation. That is why this call for evidence is so important to engage with—to make sure, as I think has been noted, that we do not end up with unintended consequences.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked me about vehicle identification numbers. The fact is that criminals are very adept at changing a quad bike’s identity to legitimise it for resale. In most instances, the VIN is replaced by false or cloned details, which can be harder to detect.

Regarding the forensic marking of tradespeople’s tools, as has been noted, the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, Chris Philp, committed to consulting on that. Again, the appropriate way of consulting is through the call for evidence. I actively encourage all relevant stakeholders and interested parties to participate in the call for evidence.

I finish by reiterating my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for bringing this Private Member’s Bill to the House. I echo the thanks to the National Farmers’ Union and to the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for construction and agricultural machinery theft, Superintendent Andy Huddleston, for all his work in developing the measures in the Bill. I hope to see the Bill receive Royal Assent, as I believe it can have a significant impact on these thefts; the Government are in full support of it.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short but important debate. First, I thank my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond for his short but highly supportive speech. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, for speaking in the gap. I agree entirely with him that preventing crime is a duty on us all—it cannot be left to the police alone—and that, where industry is not pulling its weight voluntarily by fitting immobilisers and doing forensic marking, legislation is, unfortunately, necessary.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised some very important points. I know that my noble friend the Minister responded to her—he is completely in charge; I am not making policy here—but I stress to her that consultation will happen. Theoretically, other commercial activities are completely open-ended—a Home Secretary could wake up one morning with an aberrant wish to extend it to weird and wonderful things—but no regulations will be made unless there is full consultation first. Obviously, the police will also have an input.

I simply say this: if nothing has been stolen, there is no point doing the regulations. If a lot of things are being stolen, the industry will then come forward to say that it wants forensic marking too. I received a note this morning from the leisure industry worried about equipment; I responded in a short email saying, “Well, if you have a lot of kit being stolen, you may want to do this. If nothing has been stolen in the gigs you’re doing around the country, I can’t imagine the Home Secretary or the police wanting to do this”. My final point to the noble Baroness is that the regulations will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure. They will not be bounced through under the negative procedure; they will come before both Houses of Parliament. If noble Lords and Members of Parliament do not think they are right, we will be able to say so.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for the very good points she raised; I am grateful for her support. As she noted, £46 million worth of tools were stolen in six months; that is about £240,000 every day. I commend her husband—he sounds like an excellent chap—because I am also one of those who cannot resist buying tools which may be necessary one day. I assure the House that, once every 30 years, I have something in the back of the cupboard which is essential to fix something.

With all due respect to the National Caravan Council, the advice I received was that it may be slightly off the point on this matter. I do not think that the point it is making is relevant; it raises a valid concern, but I think that it has misjudged it slightly.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, for her highly supportive comments. She made an excellent speech—and not just because I agreed with it.

I knew that my noble friend the Minister would be supportive, but I am delighted that he set out the details of the consultation and the standards of the forensic marking, which answers the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. I am delighted to hear that the call for evidence has gone out this week—I had thought so, but was not sure—and that it will be widely shared. It is important that we get the details right. This is the chance for everybody in the industry, the police and so on to be able to draft the legislation; it will not be written up just by the brilliant civil servants in the Home Office. The consultation on the technical details is terribly important. All Governments are good at general policy-making, but sometimes they do not get technical details right, so this is a chance for the industry to have an input in the legislation. As I said—I am sorry for repeating this—the regulations will come before both Houses, and we will have a chance to say whether or not they are right.

I am very grateful to all noble Peers who have taken part and to my noble friend the Minister for his assurance. I will not thank everyone at this stage; if we get to Third Reading, I will thank those heavily involved then. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.