Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 600954, relating to vehicle tampering offences.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. This petition was created by Gareth James, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week. It is a response to proposed new offences that would cover any individual who tampers with a vehicle that is to be used on the road where the principal effect is
“to bypass, defeat, reduce the effectiveness of or render inoperative a system, part or component”.
I am grateful to be on the Petitions Committee; not always, but very often, it allows me to be made aware of aspects of our society that I might not always see. It allows me to meet the great British public, and to seek the right thing from the Government. This is one of those times. Doing the right thing for the right reasons is a principle I seek to live by, as an individual and as a Member of Parliament. This petition has force behind it, and it needs to be listened to.
I have spoken with many stakeholders during my time on the Petitions Committee, and one concern is that these new offences may affect cars that are used solely on the racetrack. That is a legitimate concern, as that would adversely affect motorsports throughout the country. I believe that is not the case, but I ask the Minister to clarify and confirm that point in her response.
That leads me to the issue of vehicles that will be affected—road-going vehicles that are altered just to be more individual, as well as those that are driven to a track in order to race and/or be shown. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of going to Santa Pod Raceway and meeting stakeholders in the industry, including Dan Melrose, who spent his time showing me around the event, and Santa Pod’s chief executive officer, Keith Bartlett, plus members of the national street rod and street eliminator associations, to name just a few. They told me about not just the economic value of this industry to the country, but the education and joy that it brings to so many people, including many young people—I do remember being young.
The day I attended Santa Pod was apparently a quiet day, as the industry, like many, is still recovering from the covid pandemic—or so I was told. It did not seem very quiet to me. Thousands upon thousands of people were enjoying their day off, getting together and having fun at nobody else’s expense. Many were there closely examining the vehicles on show and comparing myriad improvements to their own vehicles. Every car was unique in its own way, the result of many pounds and many hours spent perfecting it and making it exactly how its owner wanted it to be. It was literally a labour of love.
Like most things in life, we only ever see the end product; we do not see the hours spent in the freezing cold garage in a dimly lit area, taking a car to pieces and successfully putting it back together again. The engineers in this industry probably all started their journey in their garage at home, keeping busy and out of trouble, gaining skills for the future, not hurting anybody and doing what they love. More than anything else, that is what I want to protect; indeed, all of us in this House must protect the freedom to do what we enjoy that hurts nobody. The freedom to do something that causes no harm to others should never be proscribed. I agree that the Government have a duty to keep us safe, but they should do so only in a way that is carefully thought through. If the Government are not careful in this instance, they may just fail to do that.
Gareth, who started this petition, started working on cars in his late teens; a friend’s dad worked for Vauxhall, and they worked on cars together. Many of our engineers started with similar hobbies, which are of paramount importance if the UK is to continue to be the innovative country that it is. This is not a hobby like football or Formula 1 that appears to be pumped full of money at every opportunity; in fact, it is usually the lack of money that gets people started in the first place, fixing cars for themselves rather than taking them to a garage. We must be able to let this industry continue, as to let it fail would be a crying shame and cost us dearly over the coming years. It can never have been the Government’s intention, when drafting these proposals, to cause the demise of the motorsport and classic car industries.
I spoke recently to Motorsport UK, which informed me that the industry is worth £9 billion, with 4,500 companies actively involved and 87% exporting their products and services. It also informed me that the classic car industry supports 113,000 jobs. Those are huge numbers, but the industry understands that we cannot have cars on the road that have been altered to a poor standard and are not fit for purpose. However, it points out that many of the alterations improve the car’s safety, especially in the classic car market. It has asked the Government to look at excluding vehicles involved in motorsport and all classic vehicles. It would like a passport system, under which modifications could be done only by members of accredited organisations, and which would allow vehicles to drive to and from events on a limited number of days each year. That seems fairly sensible to me. Transporting a vehicle on the back of a heavy goods vehicle is expensive and hardly good for the environment.
There are still many people who enjoy improving their vehicles but do not want to race or show them, so joining an association would be a further cost, with what they might think has no benefit at all. I spoke to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which generally agrees with what the Government are trying to do, but it also understands the aftermarket industry’s value, so it believes that a blanket ban might not be the best way forward. We have to ask ourselves what can be done.
We need clarification of what is classed as tampering. Good tampering should not be made an offence. I am a believer in climate change and that we must act to mitigate its worst effects. I therefore start from the premise that tampering with any part of the system that can increase the original vehicle’s emissions is wrong and should be discouraged. That may include the mapping of cars, which can dump fuel to create popping from the exhaust. If a system creates just a little more noise than first intended but does not break current noise regulations, that is fine, but we must have regard to climate change and look after our planet.
Then there are areas that are mainly cosmetic: wheels, spoilers, decals and so on. I see no harm in those, so I hope that that form of tampering continues to be allowed. It hurts nobody and there seems to be no reason why it should be proscribed. Then there are modifications that make the car safer for the track but do not affect any of the main mechanicals that keep the car on the road—items such as roll cages, seating, electrical cut-outs and fire extinguishers. Again, those should be allowed. They hurt nobody and there is no reason why they should be proscribed.
I understand that works on suspension, brakes and the main engine and gearbox ought to be carried out by a trained professional using good aftermarket parts. I know many will disagree with me, but the Government have a duty to keep all road users safe, and a braking system that is not installed correctly, for example, could cause serious harm. A way forward is to make sure that all vehicle manufacturers support the aftermarket industry with specifications for all parts that could be replaced or uprated at a later date so that there are no monopolies on servicing. If the Government insist on stopping tampering, perhaps a compromise could be that any altered vehicle is tested again after each major improvement. The SMMT thought that an extension of the individual vehicle approval scheme might also be a way forward, so I ask the Minister whether that could be explored further.
One final point is the fact that the concerns of the 30,000-plus independent workshops that support UK consumers’ competitive choice and affordable mobility are not explicitly included in the proposals. The UK Alliance for the Freedom of Car Repair stated:
“Great care is needed to avoid discriminating against the aftermarket.”
This is an extremely complex subject. I reiterate that I understand what the Government are trying to achieve, but I also understand the industry’s concerns. A consultation has taken place, and I hope that the Government can now offer the clarification that the industry needs as the legislation moves forward.
I hope that the Government, the industry and the petitioners can see that I have tried to take a pragmatic approach to the subject, and I hope that I have understood the issues in the time I have had to learn what this industry means to so many. It has been wonderful to meet so many enthusiastic people and learn so much, and I thank them all for three things that they have allowed me to see—their obvious joy in what they do, their professionalism, and their understanding when speaking to a layman like me.