§ 2.44 p.m.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What measures they are taking to check vehicle theft in this country.4
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is to meet the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and the Association of British Insurers next week and motor manufacturing companies the following week in order to discuss ways of improving car security. We shall discuss further with the Department of Transport how best to secure agreement in Europe to a new European Community directive on vehicle security. Home Office publicity, which is aimed at the prevention of car crime, will continue at a high level. The car theft index, which was published last week, will be widely circulated.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that informative Answer. His round over those jumps dealing with the crime campaign last week was successful. However, is he aware that our record on car theft in this country is second only to that of Denmark, if we take Europe as a whole, and last year amounted to 494,000 car thefts? Is he further aware that there is an epidemic of this kind of prank by youngsters? Will he consider the point that the offence with which these offenders are charged—taking and driving away—is not adequate in the magistrates' courts, where the penalty is normally small, and that it should be graded as a theft, which it certainly is?
My Lords, I agree that the number of thefts that take place of and from cars is alarming. My noble friend referred to 494,000 recorded offences in 1990. That was an increase of 26 per cent. over the previous year. Then there were 773,000 offences of theft from vehicles, which was an increase of 23 per cent. over the previous year. Those offences amounted to 25 per cent. of all recorded crime. A great deal can and should be done by owners themselves. Twenty-three per cent. of car owners admit leaving their car unlocked at some time. The last British crime survey showed that 10 per cent. of those who were interviewed and who had had their car stolen admitted that they had not locked it. It is one thing to penalise people for the crime that they have committed, but it is quite another to prevent them as far as possible from carrying out crimes against property.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he has the golden opportunity, with the Criminal Justice Bill before the House, to consider an amendment which would define the offence as theft, which it is? Will he be so good as to consider that point?
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that alarm systems fitted in cars would be one deterrent against theft? However, does he further agree that many alarm systems fitted these days go off without any external interference whatsoever and that the point of having an alarm is impaired if it simply disturbs the neighbours? Could it not be made mandatory for alarm systems fitted in cars to work effectively?
My Lords, it is presumably the commercial objective of all manufacturers of car protection equipment to ensure that their items work effectively and do not go off at the wrong time. If the alarms go off at the wrong time and the manufacturers are in competition with others whose products work satisfactorily, they will not sell many pieces of equipment. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that it is one of the problems relating to all forms of protection from burglary or theft that instruments go off inadvertently. The car manufacturers are aware of that problem.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford, is not taking away someone's car in that way theft and is it riot already open to the Crown Prosecution Service to charge with theft rather than merely with unlawful taking away?
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that his announcement about the conferences will be welcomed and that we hope that something constrictive will come from them? However, at street level—the level about which we are most concerned—is he aware that it is possible to go into almost any car accessory shop and buy a set of number plates for any number that you care to mention? The shop will simply make it up on the spot and you will walk out with a set of number plates to your order. Surely that could be tightened up for a start. Does the noble Earl agree that there must be something wrong when that can happen so easily?
My Lords, it is difficult to make a law which states that people are physically incapable of making up their own number plates. It is an offence when you display a wrong number plate. It would be difficult to make a law which stated that people may not make up their number plates when the components are available.
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, if the noble Earl will forgive me for saying so, I am not talking about people who make up their own number plates. I am speaking of car accessory shops which make up sets of number plates. The number may be totally different from that on a car which the customer may or may not own. Any set of number plates can be supplied. I do not ask the Government to ensure that a person should be stopped from making up his own number plates. I merely say that it ought to be easy to require him to produce evidence that he needs the number plates and that the number is the one applicable to his vehicle. He should not be able to buy any set of number plates to transfer to other vehicles.
My Lords, I am now on the same line as the noble Lord. I misunderstood. I shall certainly look into the point.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, as has been suggested by other noble Lords, the problem of the charge of car theft is that one has to establish the 6 intention permanently to deprive the owner of it. Is it not for that reason—joy riders account for a large proportion of these offenders—that we have the other offence of taking and driving away?
My Lords, joy riding is a particularly bad name. It invites people to consider that it is fun, whereas in fact it is exceedingly dangerous. It is frequently carried out by young people and can result in injury and death. Often these cars are driven by people without licences.
I welcome the fact that the Association of British Insurers has produced a new anti-joy riding video which was launched during last week's Crime Prevention Week. It is probably not a wholly reliable figure, but in the United States a stolen car is 200 times more likely to be involved in an accident than is a car driven lawfully. Obviously it is a problem which needs to be addressed.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, the Minister must be aware of the concern expressed by police forces about the number of people killed by those who steal cars and drive them away. They are then involved in a police chase and often crash into some innocent person who is driving in the opposite direction. That is happening on an increasing scale. People are being killed and maimed. Will that be taken into consideration if the Government intend to look into the point put by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and consider the offence with which people who do such things ought to be charged?
My Lords, one of the greatest problems is to ensure that people do not get into the cars in order to use them for a joy ride. That comes back to the point that people can do much more to prevent that happening by taking their own security measures with their cars.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, it is obviously true that people can do more to prevent their cars being broken into. I urge yet again upon the Minister, for the fourth time now, that the only answer to this problem is that policemen should be more visible and that there should be more men on the beat. Does he agree that to spend £4.5 million on a somewhat glossy advertising campaign, the main purpose of which seems to be to persuade people that they are the victims of crimes for which they are primarily responsible, is no substitute for a uniform?
My Lords, the noble Lord knows perfectly well that I was not suggesting that spending money in that way is a substitute for a uniform. I am quite sure that he has not forgotten—because I reminded him of the fact last Friday—that there are now 15,600 more police officers than there were 12 years ago. There will be another 700 this year. There are also another 11,300 civilian staff. That has allowed for an extra 4,700 police officers to go on the beat or elsewhere. I cannot guarantee that every single one of them has gone on the beat but corporately and collectively they aim to work against crime.