Vehicle Tampering Offences Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Vehicle Tampering Offences

James Sunderland Excerpts
Monday 25th April 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for bringing the petition to the House. This is a really important debate, and it is important that I get my views on the record.

In 2021, the Department for Transport started a consultation on modernising vehicle standards and sought views

“on areas of vehicle standards regulation that are outdated, a barrier to innovation or not designed with new technologies and business models in mind.”

Understandably, many people, including classic car enthusiasts who restore old vehicles, have raised concerns about that, hence the petition we are discussing today. There is also great concern that the Government’s proposals could impact cars that have been adapted for racing in motorsport events. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport, that is of great concern to me and those I represent here in Westminster.

There are some facts worth raising. In 2020—noting the pandemic—approximately 56,000 people participated in motorsport events across the UK. Today, there are 720 registered motorsport clubs in the UK and approximately 5,000 motorsport events are held across the UK annually. There are millions of car owners in the UK and millions of motorsport fans, aside from those who directly compete in and support these events.

What is the Government’s position right now? The consultation proposes the creation of a number of new offences for

“tampering with a system, part or component of a vehicle intended or adapted to be used on a road.”

The Government say that such measures would enable them

“to address existing gaps in legislation, ensuring cleaner and safer vehicles.”

Of course, that is fine in principle. Reassuringly, the Minister assured the House last year that

“Department for Transport officials have been instructed to ensure that proposals do not prevent activities such as restoration, repairs or legitimate improvements to classic cars, or do any damage to the motor sports businesses involved in these activities.”—[Official Report, 4 November 2021; Vol. 702, c. 1047.]

We heard earlier just how much money is involved and how many jobs and livelihoods are at stake; the sector is really important to the UK and to our economy.

We know that modified vehicles used on the roads are currently subject to the same MOT testing as any other road vehicles, and therefore adequate safeguards are in place to ensure that these vehicles are roadworthy. That includes emissions testing, which importantly ensures that modified cars do not breach emissions standards. However, my view is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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I appreciate the points that the hon. Member is making, but part of the problem in my constituency of Pontypridd and Taff Ely is illegal modifications to cars done by boy racers, who are not motorsport professionals but drag race up and down our dual carriageways, with exhausts going off, sounding like shotguns, causing real antisocial behaviour and nuisance. Those exhausts are removed before the MOT and then put back on, so, sadly, they are missed. Does the hon. Member agree that more needs to be done to try to tackle that problem?

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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It is really important that we do this in the right way. In my constituency of Bracknell, we have a problem with boy racers, noisy exhausts and antisocial driving; that is a real issue in my part of the world as well. The devil is in the detail, and I will come on to what I think needs to be done to reconcile the two apparently opposing poles.

My point is that we need clarification from the Government of how these new rules would be implemented. What modifications are classed as legitimate? We should also be acutely aware that these rules must not impact in any way the legitimate classic car and motorsport sectors, which we have spoken about.

The Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance recently found that the classic vehicles sector alone is worth £18.3 billion to the UK economy. The HCVA contends that cars belong to their owners and the owners have a right to repair them. We know that; it goes for all vehicles of all ages, classic and modern. The proposals may limit access to hardware and software required to maintain and repair these vehicles. Of course, the cars of today cannot become classics in the future if they are forced to rely on services from individual manufacturers that may be withdrawn.

The industry for maintaining historic vehicles and motorsport vehicles is large and globally renowned, employing highly skilled professionals—over 100,000 people, as we have heard. Much of that work, such as engine maintenance, alterations to exhaust systems and changes to engine control units, would cross over into the current definition of tampering. The proposed definition of tampering is far too broad and needs to be nailed down. It could include changing wheels and tyres, altering the body of a car, limiting access to period panels or enhancing safety. It might include lightening a car for period-correct performance or racing improvements. It might involve newer classic cars requiring changes to ECUs as fuel standards change. The definition is really broad. Ultimately, we need to ensure that new cars today that become classics in the future are still maintainable and serviceable.

So what? Having admired the problem for the last few minutes, what do we need to do, and what do I advise the Government? If the Department is determined to go ahead with this kind of anti-tamper legislation, we request, as a minimum, specific exemptions for historic and classic vehicles, as described. The legislation needs to include legal protections for owners of classic vehicles who make modifications to their cars, and for garages, engineers and those involved in the historic and classic industry who do likewise. We need to ensure that owners, engineers and the historic and classic industry have access to the tools they require in perpetuity to maintain roadworthy historic and classic vehicles. The legislation needs to include protections for classic vehicles that have been modified, so that they can still be sold, with protections for dealers, auctioneers, agents and all those involved in the sale of the cars. It must also include protections for individuals and firms who transport and deliver vehicles that have been modified.

To refer to an earlier question, how do we draw the distinction between legitimate activities and those activities that result in antisocial driving? I do not have the answer. I suspect that this may be a wicked problem where lines are difficult to define. Where is the boundary between the two poles that we have discussed? I do not know. It may be that the Department decides to drop these plans altogether. These are really difficult proposals, and they will upset many people—legitimate owners of cars who are proud of what they have in their garage. Alternatively, it may be that the Department works with Motorsport UK, the Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance, motor manufacturers, those with specialist expertise across the UK, and the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport, to ensure that we do not self-harm. I urge the Minister to make sure that we do not do ourselves real damage.

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Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane
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I am grateful to the hon. Member. I love motorsport as well, and I love classic cars. There is nothing better than jumping up on my NorthRoad cycle—those bikes are produced in my constituency—cycling the 10 miles to Tatton Park, the Cheshire County Council and National Trust park, watching a traditional car show there and seeing the pride that people have in those cars. We do not want to see anything that would stop that.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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I commend the hon. Gentleman for his very eloquent and pragmatic speech; it is resonating with me. Does he agree that when it comes to the cars themselves, the issue is not necessarily the cars; it is the way in which they are driven? Therefore, what we need to do is to go after those who are driving irresponsibly, making noise, breaking the law and breaking the rules, rather than going after legitimate vehicle owners, who just want to look after their vehicles.

Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane
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We should not be going after legitimate car owners, who take great pride in their cars, but with 40 million vehicle licences on UK roads, this plague of antisocial behaviour with these modified cars is absolutely sickening. With tens of thousands of police cut in this country, and a decimation of community policing, we now cannot police these hooligans driving their cars in the way they do. There is a philosophical debate to be had, but something needs to be done. We need to be tough on these people who are plaguing our communities.

Last year, the Government consulted on modernising vehicle standards, specifically looking at new measures to tackle tampering with vehicles. This petition came about almost immediately, with 112,000 signatures, and it managed to unite motorcyclists, classic car owners and motor racing aficionados with one voice. Despite the DFT stating that it did not intend the proposals to prevent motorsport or people repairing classic cars or motorbikes, it is keen to ensure that no businesses engaged in those pursuits are negatively affected.

The proposals seem to be a broadly positive move from Government to tackle tampering, which we know has impacts on safety and the environment. Of course, we support ensuring that emission standards are met and cannot be worked around. However, we also know that some modifications can negatively affect the safety and health of the vehicle owner, its occupants, other road users and the wider population, and that some tampering activities that prevent a vehicle’s emission system from operating correctly, such as the removal of the diesel particulate filter from a vehicle’s exhaust, can significantly increase harmful pollutant emissions, and sometimes be used as a weapon as these hooligans pass cyclists and let out a load of smoke—gassing, I think it is known as.

However, we know that the motorsport community have concerns about restoration, repairs and legitimate improvements, and their voices must be heard. The Government have said that it is not their intention to target these legitimate improvements, yet there has been no detail about how they would ensure that that will not happen. We know the consultation ended in November 2021—over six months ago—and we have not heard since that time what the Government intend to do.

I have a few questions for the Minister. When will the consultation response be published? When will the Government think about bringing legislation forward? Collectors and businesses in the aftermarket industry are being left in the dark, and we need to shed some light for them. Will changes apply retrospectively? What sort of alterations will be considered tampering? Will it just be ones that impact emissions and noise, or are wider proposals on the cards? How will they work with the motorsport and restoration industry? What steps are the Government taking to engage with stakeholders who have legitimate concerns over the changes? I would welcome answers from the Minister on this important debate.

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Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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I refer to my earlier comment on detection and how we use and improve sound-monitoring devices—noise cameras, as they are being called—to monitor those motorists who are, without a doubt, breaking the law. We recognise the health and environmental impacts of noise. They include the risk of heart attacks, strokes and dementia, and while air quality has improved since 2010, air pollution remains the top environmental risk to human health in the UK.

As vehicles increasingly become automated, new safety and security risks will be associated with making alterations to a vehicle’s integral software and sensing technologies. Already, many new vehicles offer advanced driver-assistance systems—I recognise, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe will choose not to use those—which partially automate some of the driving tasks.

With the advent of self-driving vehicles, which will allow the driver to hand over the driving task to the system, if desired, the problem becomes even more acute. These highly sophisticated systems will have taken years to develop. Even a minor modification could significantly affect an automated vehicle’s operation and, if done badly, would have the potential to kill its occupants and other road users.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell referred to the MOT test. The challenge is that we cannot rely on that alone. The MOT test is an important part of ensuring that vehicles on our roads are safe and roadworthy, but there are inevitably limitations to what can be assessed through a relatively simple static inspection of a vehicle. When it comes to automation and self-driving technologies, it becomes even more challenging for sufficient checks to be carried out to guard against dangerous or illegal modifications. I trust that Members can see that it is essential that we have the powers to respond to advances in vehicle construction and operation, to target and prevent dangerous and inappropriate tampering, which could put people’s lives at risk.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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As we know, the devil is in the detail. When are we likely to see the Bill and the wording that will come with it?

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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I will write to my hon. Friend with more specific details of the timeframe. I can certainly say that we will publish our response to the consultation this summer—it will be a matter of a few months, rather than having to wait any longer. In answer to another of his questions, the changes will not be retrospectively applied.

We have listened carefully to the concerns raised by the e-petition through our consultation on the subject. We recognise the importance of striking an appropriate balance between allowing for legitimate modifications and ensuring that we have the powers to tackle those that are dangerous and inappropriate. We are absolutely not proposing that all modifications be prevented. We recognise that vehicle owners and businesses may have many legitimate reasons to modify a vehicle, and our intention is to ensure that we maintain a thriving aftermarket including motorsports, restoration, repairs and other legitimate improvements and alterations to vehicles.

We are considering all the responses received during the consultation. As I say, we will publish a consultation response, in which we will summarise those responses and set out our next steps, in the summer.

Over the past 60 years, cleaner, safer and more accessible transport has transformed people’s lives for the better. The Government are committed to maximising the benefits and minimising the risks of new technological advances. The broad programme of work we have launched will help us to ensure that our regulatory framework is flexible and forward-looking so that we can foster innovation, safeguard the public and bring the most benefit to transport users and society, while recognising our rich cultural and industrial heritage in motor vehicles, which dates back to the late 1800s. It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate.