Vehicle Tampering Offences Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Vehicle Tampering Offences

Steve Baker Excerpts
Monday 25th April 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
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I want to begin with a confession that, these days, is increasingly socially unacceptable: I enjoy driving. I enjoy riding a motorcycle. I love petrol engine vehicles. I have three reasons for being interested in this debate: a Yamaha MT-10, a KTM 950 Supermoto and a ratty old runabout Vauxhall Corsa that I would get rid of if I had the opportunity to drive properly. I would buy a decent car, but there is no point while I am an MP. A long time ago, before I became an MP, I put some effort into becoming a decent driver, although I would not like to make any particular claims about the quality of my driving, but I did put the effort in. I enjoy my driving and I love vehicles. I like to get in a car, such as a classic 911 Club Sport that I once drove, where I could actually feel what the tyres were doing on the road, because it had mechanical steering.

As we go forward in this life, there seems to be a systematic effort to ruin motoring—to make motorcycles and cars more boring and more of a black box. We now have endless cars with electric steering, and it is impossible to feel a thing that is going on on the road. Somehow, we are losing something about what it is to be a human being who takes responsibility and cares about their relationship with a vehicle. It is an old-fashioned and increasingly unpopular point of view, but I think there is joy to be found in driving a vehicle that does not have an anti-lock braking system or traction control and has carburettors not fuel injection, but has, as is the case with the KTM, very sharp brakes. It is a great joy and pleasure to be united with a vehicle and care about how it is working on the road.

That is why I object to the idea of anti-tampering legislation. It is not because I have a problem with safety. I used to be a professional air-worthiness engineer, so I like safety; I do not like hospital food. I want to be safe and for everybody to be safe. There is no going back if someone injures another person with a vehicle. That is why I want responsible motorists and motorcyclists—people who care about how they operate their vehicle and care about what kind of vehicle they are in. The problem with this so-called anti-tampering legislation is that it will increasingly turn vehicles into black boxes, where we do not have to care. Indeed, it will be so anodyne and boring to drive the thing, and the driver will be so disconnected from the mechanics and the experience, that they will be positively discouraged from caring about the vehicle because there is no point.

In contrast to my amazing KTM 950, with its absence of electronic devices, I recently hired a car in Norway—a Volkswagen ID4. It was a lovely car in many ways. It was all electric and had cruise control and a stupid speed limiter that knows where the car is and so starts to reduce the cruise control as it gets into town. The car steers itself. When I was positioning the car on the road, it decided that it did not want to be there and suddenly jerked the steering wheel in my hand. It cannot be switched off permanently; every time I switched it off it was switched back on when I next got in the car. I would like to switch that nonsense off because I want to drive the car. I do not want the car deciding I should be two feet to the left on the road. I was once in a Tesla—with somebody else driving—that nearly put us in a hedge because it decided it wanted to be two feet to the left. The Volkswagen ID4 was not quite self-driving, but it is clear where we are going here—cars that decide how fast they go and where they are going to be on the road. I do not mind people having self-driving cars. I would not mind having a car that drove itself if it meant that I did not have to drive when it was boring—for example, when commuting to this place—but when I want to drive the car, I want to drive the car.

I am extremely concerned that this future involves a wide range of practical and philosophical problems. I do not want to trust a car to decide where it is. I remember doing 70 mph down the motorway in a Golf that had its lane assistance turned on. I went through a shadow of a tree and the car swerved because it decided it wanted to be in a different place. I was until recently a chartered aerospace engineer—I have just declined to renew my subscription—so I am not a technophobe; aeroplanes often fly themselves. However, I would like not to have to put up with the nonsense of the car deciding it wants to go at a different speed or be in a different place.

I have possibly laboured my point, but I want the Minister, who is listening carefully, to at least see one keen and passionate driver—sorry, guys—who wants to have personal responsibility as a free man. I will say it: I want to be a free man, personally in charge of what the vehicle does. I am offended by the name anti-tampering. I do not doubt that there are some irresponsible people who want to tamper with safety systems, but the point I am trying to put on the record is that even some safety systems can be dangerous—for example, when that Volkswagen Golf swerved across the road because it did not like the shadow on the dual carriageway.

We have talked about racing and custom vehicles. When it comes to minor modifications, I like to think that I do not modify my vehicles, but my MT10 has a different screen, hand guards, and luggage as well as a charging lead that I put on myself to ensure that it is trickle charged. It is modified; it has got a Scottoiler on it, so I can commute without having to constantly lubricate the chain. Many of those accessories were fitted by the dealer because he would do it at no cost, but what if I had decided to fit them? Is that tampering? Surely not—all I have done is convert one kind of Yamaha MT10 into another. People like me are afraid that we are moving into this anodyne world where we cannot even change the screen on our BMW R1200GS—as I did. We do not want to have to check the rules to see whether we can. With great respect, I am not interested in the Minister’s view about what size screen I should have on my motorcycle. I do not want to have to go and check the rules to see whether I can change it—I am now labouring the point.

As Conservatives, we should be wanting to live in a society of free and responsible individuals. We will not create or perpetuate a society of free and responsible individuals if we keep taking away from them, at every chance, the opportunity to exercise freedom responsibly and to enjoy themselves while doing that, because we make life miserable if we say to people, “Before you can fit heated grips on your motorbike, you have to go and check whether you’re allowed to.” It is too boring—it is too boring. We sit in here all the time, doing this technocratic nonsense and going up to the Committee Rooms to pass statutory instruments that most of us in this House do not even read. That is another bugbear of mine on which I have laboured another point. We are taking away people’s freedoms by using statutory instruments that we do not even read and almost never speak to. This is not where we should be going as Conservatives; we should be letting people be free. If they want to have stupid self-driving cars that steer themselves when they should not, let them, but I want to switch that off, and if the manufacturer provided it to me and I was unable to switch it off, I would like to be able to change the software so that I could switch it off and drive the car myself. I rest my case.

Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate Gareth James on securing 112,000—is that right?—signatures on the petition in order to get this debate. That is no mean feat in itself, so my congratulations go to him, and to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who I think looks very young indeed; he should not disparage himself. In fact, I might check out after the debate what moisturiser he uses. I congratulate him on bringing the petition to us in Parliament today. My congratulations go also to the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) on a very elegant speech. I thank him for all he does for the APPG for motorsport.

We then heard a passionate speech from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I am a big fan of the hon. Member, as he knows. We are both big Cobden fans, for different reasons possibly, but I would never describe the hon. Member as being 2 feet to the left in any situation at all, and perhaps particularly in a car. He made a great defence. As somebody who cycled here today on a Brompton—Brompton is a proud British manufacturer—I may have some different views about how sometimes I am close passed and the possibility that my life may be prolonged by speed limiters. As I canvassed yesterday in a tight marginal seat between Labour and the Conservatives in Brooklands, Trafford, I was sickened by seeing exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) pointed out—adjusted cars doing 60 to 80 mph down a road with a 30-mph limit and with modified exhausts banging out. The antisocial behaviour that that brings to our estates is appalling. I remember the Secretary of State going on the record about how he does not like that type of thing, either.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker
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I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his compliments. I was once very nearly run down in High Wycombe by somebody doing just what he has suggested: they were in a modified car and going far too fast in town. Such people need prosecuting. In the case raised by the hon. Gentleman, if they are doing 80 mph where there is a 30 mph limit, they should be going to prison. I am very clear about that. I just wanted to ensure that we all understood one another.

--- Later in debate ---
Trudy Harrison Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Trudy Harrison)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, in a debate on a subject for which I have a great deal of personal adoration. This is certainly not the first time I have debated it with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport. I pay particular thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who started the whole thing off but was unable to speak in today’s debate and, most importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I hope I can reassure hon. Members following what we have heard. I have been pleased to listen to the incredibly valuable and thorough contributions that have been made. It is a privilege to be closing the debate.

Of course, the UK has a very long and proud history of companies and individuals dedicated to the modification and improvement of vehicles, whether in motorsports, professional customisation or enthusiastic owners enjoying their hobby and improving their pride and joy. That was me when I was 18 and purchased my second car, moving up from a Ford Escort 1.3L to a Peugeot 309 GTI, complete with skirts and low-profile tyres. I was partial to a whale tail, but I did not go that far.

I was able to do that because my dad helped me. He was a great engineer and I am quite sure that he learned his craft by starting out with a push-bike, moving up to a BSA Bantam and transitioning through various vehicles to a 1972 Porsche 911T, moving, I believe, from left-hand to right-hand drive. I most definitely grew up with this and I understand that many engineers hone their craft in their garage or, when it comes to motorcycles, their living room.

I agree with a lot of what I have heard today, including on the importance of ensuring that we allow for that continued healthy aftermarket for vehicle modification, and that our plans do not negatively impact on our thriving motorsports. I pay tribute to the Wigton Motor Club in my own area—I was delighted to open its new facility at Moota—and to the Rotating Wheels car show in West Lakeland. I will be adjudicating at that vintage and classic car show again this summer.

The intention behind our proposals is to prevent tampering that can have serious consequences for health and the environment. We have, however, issued a clarification that we do not intend our proposals to prevent legitimate motorsport activities, restoration, repairs or legitimate improvements to vehicles such as classic cars and motorbikes. We also do not intend our proposals to impact negatively on businesses involved in such activities.

The consultation received 7,891 responses—a large number. Their particular focus was on concerns that the proposals, as set out in the regulatory review, are too broad and would restrict any modification of vehicles, which would negatively impact on the motorsports industry, the restoration and customisation industry, classic car enthusiasts and motorcycles. We have yet to publish our response to the consultation—I will speak about that in a moment—but Members can absolutely be reassured that the proposals will not prevent all forms of vehicle modification. That is not the intention—it is certainly not my intention. We are carefully considering the scope of the policy, to ensure that it does not prevent legitimate alterations or modification, including repair work.

As the Minister with responsibility for the future of transport, my role is to ensure that we have a regulatory regime that is fit for the future and that will achieve our vision of a better, greener UK. To achieve that, we are conducting a series of regulatory reviews to consider how transport regulations need to change, to make journeys faster, safer, easier and more secure. However, I absolutely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I love driving. I have been driving for 28 years, and I hope to drive for the rest of my safe and capable life. I absolutely understand the desire to be in control of a motor vehicle.

Certain modifications, however, can negatively affect the safety and health of drivers or riders, passengers, other road users and the wider population. One such example is the modification or removal of part of the emissions system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, that can have significant consequences. If it is done because the vehicle’s performance has failed—the system can fail to boost the vehicle’s performance—it can be really serious. Removing a diesel particulate filter from a vehicle’s exhaust can increase harmful pollutant emissions by up to 1,000 times.

The risks associated with air and noise pollution, including from modified exhausts, cannot be understated. In England alone, the annual social cost of urban road noise was estimated to be between £7 billion and £10 billion in 2010.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker
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I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning road noise. I have annoyed fellow motorcyclists by telling them that they must have lawful end-cans and exhaust systems, because nothing prejudices people against motorcycling more than noisy motorcycles with illegal cans. The problem with noisy motorcycles today is not that the lawful equipment is too noisy, but that people break the law and the law is not enforced. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind me saying that we have to enforce the law on some of these things, instead of constantly tightening up regulations and hoping that compliance will follow, because it does not. We must have reasonable regulations that people want to comply with. That is a very old principle.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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The Department is looking right now at understanding how we can better monitor the noise and make it easier for the transport police in particular to do so.