Off-road Biking — [Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am 11:18 am ar 20 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington 2:30, 20 Chwefror 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of tackling off-road biking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. A core part of our role as Members of Parliament is to advocate for the safety and protection of our constituents; indeed, the principal role of Government is to ensure the safety and security of all citizens. One threat to citizens feeling safe and secure is antisocial behaviour, in particular the misuse of off-road bikes and quad bikes.

I make no apologies for raising this issue again, which has previously been raised here in the House by my hon. Friend Matt Vickers; in fact, it has been raised by many other Members, too, in recent years. The fact that there have been debates, parliamentary questions and now a private Member’s Bill on this subject should tell the Government that it is an issue in our communities and that although there are measures to help address the problem, it has not gone away.

Off-road bikes and quad bikes are great pieces of equipment. They are great for going scrambling on or for getting around rural farmland; essentially, those are their legal and intended purposes. They were not designed to be used on our streets by people intent on causing terror and fear; they were not designed to be used by criminals wearing balaclavas or masks to evade police detection; and they were not designed to create a noise nuisance and safety fear in our community. Yet in Darlington, those things are precisely what we see happening. Indeed, we continue to see them happening and I know, having spoken to colleagues from across the House, that they see the same issues in their constituencies.

Reckless bikers have no care for others, nor do they seem to care about themselves when they opt not to wear a helmet and instead don balaclavas, for no other reason than to conceal their identity. They sail through red lights and ride on pavements, all without lights. It is a miracle that we have not yet seen the tragic death of a pedestrian, a rider or both, such is the danger this issue poses. I will not wait around until such an event happens, which is why I continue to raise this issue.

I pay tribute to Durham constabulary and to Darlington’s civic enforcement team for their work on Operation Endurance, which focuses on this issue. Operation Endurance sees the team gather data and monitor intelligence on these people, so that we can take action to disrupt them and stop their offending. There has been a big campaign to encourage residents to report any nuisance bikers, who will then face punishment. However, poor performance of the 101 service has meant that many members of the public are losing faith with this service and are not reporting as much as they could and should, meaning that the police have less intelligence than otherwise to tackle the problem.

Op Endurance has seen more bikes seized by police and if the perpetrators are Darlington council tenants, they could potentially lose their home. Section 59 orders under the Police Reform Act 2002 enable officers to seize vehicles that are being used illegally. However, that process must be made as quick and easy to use as possible by officers.

It is absolutely right that those who disrupt civilised society pay a price, and I welcome the efficiency with which the forces in Darlington deal with such criminals. I would value hearing the Minister’s thoughts on how we can ensure that the process of dealing with these people, when they are reported, gets sorted as soon as possible, and does he agree that they should automatically have their vehicle removed and should be prevented from buying another one in the future?

We also must reflect on what to do with the seized vehicles. Currently, the police recoup the recovery and storage charges for seized vehicles by auctioning them off. However, that leads to a merry-go-round of offenders buying back vehicles. Our forces need a ring-fenced pot of money to enable them to crush these vehicles and meet the costs of recovery.

To ensure that the police can act, we must make sure that the mechanisms to report are fit for purpose. In a previous debate, I have spoken about speeding up the response times of the 101 service, because these are fast-moving incidents that require intelligence to be passed quickly to the police.

There has long been a discussion about registration schemes for off-road bikes. I understand that the Government do not believe that the introduction of a mandatory registration scheme would be the most effective way to tackle dangerous and antisocial use, but it would certainly help. As we see more e-bikes, e-scooters and various other motorised transport, the problem is only going to continue to escalate. The current view is that registration would place a burden and a cost on law-abiding citizens. I understand that view, but law-abiding insurance payers meet the cost of damage caused by those who steal and cause damage every day. It is clear to me that when vehicles are registered, the possibility of people misusing them is lower. I therefore urge the Minister to look at ways of registering these bikes, which could deter the people who misuse them and make those people easier to track, trace and ban from offending further.

I remain an advocate of compulsory insurance for off-road and quad bikes, which would dissuade the casual user from illegal use of bikes on the road. Compulsory registration of off-road bikes would make the identification of those vehicles much easier for law enforcement. Mandating manufacturers to install immobilisers on those vehicles would also help to reduce theft and misuse by unauthorised riders. We really do need to see the Home Office, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Justice work more closely on a package of measures to tackle the antisocial behaviour associated with off-road bikes.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important subject. From what he said earlier, it sounded to me like a lot of the antisocial behaviour was taking place in inner cities, and not necessarily off road—albeit, on the pavement is off road, but not in terms of an urban or rural environment. Does he welcome the Government’s £160 million for tackling antisocial behaviour, and can he assure me that legitimate, sensible and responsible users are not dragged down by the sort of people he is referring to, who bring us all into disrepute?

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington

Of course, I welcome any additional funding from the Government to tackle antisocial behaviour. There is a very clear distinction between lawful, legitimate users of these vehicles, who go about their business lawfully, and those who are terrorising a street by misusing them, so I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Our constituents will thank us for tackling this problem and making our streets safer. The registering, insuring and tracking of vehicles would also help to protect farmers, who have thousands of quad bikes stolen every year. The National Farmers Union’s figures for 2022 estimate that this comes at a cost of some £3 million to our farmers, who are the backbones of our rural communities.

As well as deterrents and justice being served, an ongoing issue that we see in Darlington and across the country is actually catching offenders. Police are often unable to chase them as they tear through communities, making them difficult to track and trace. That is why we need to see greater investment in technology to track them. I have spent time with my local force, which is using high-powered drones that can see over considerable distances to help to track perpetrators, enabling the police to safely arrest offenders without the need to engage in dangerous chases on the street. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on what more can be done with drones and the funding that the Government will provide for them.

In addition to the antisocial behaviour being a danger to communities like mine impacted by this issue, it is also clear that organised crime gangs are making use of cycle paths, quad bikes and off-road bikes to distribute drugs. Therefore, there is not only the crime of the behaviour of the bikers; they are often also involved in the dark trade of transporting illegal substances. That is yet another reason why we must end this abuse of the system. As well as causing a danger to other vehicles, pedestrians and livestock, by supplying drugs, these people are adding yet another layer of crime and danger to our communities.

Finally, I want to thank the Minister for the progress that has already been made on this issue and for the investment in drones and the efficiency of tracking the criminals. Equally, I urge the Minister to consider my suggestions. We must see better response times from the 101 service and the introduction of insurance, registration and tracking devices on the vehicles. We must end the merry-go-round of offenders being able to pick up another bike and take every step possible to make our communities safer.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:40, 20 Chwefror 2024

I did not expect to be called so early, Mrs Latham, so thank you for doing so. I congratulate Peter Gibson on securing this debate on a subject that I have some knowledge of, primarily because of my role as an MP. It is clear to me that there are people who use quads legitimately. Sir Bill Wiggin, who intervened earlier, is probably in the same category as me. There are those who use them for a purpose, but there are others who abuse the system. I will refer to both categories.

As a landowner, I have quads on the land to help with farming and basic upkeep. They are an essential tool. We had one for the boys when they were small, probably for fun, but now we use it for a purpose. It is used on the farm almost every day of the week. I know a number of farmers who use a motorbike to help them move their livestock across their fields, and they also use a motorbike or a quad in areas that their jeeps or tractors have difficulty crossing. It is probably niftier and quicker on a quad than it is on a tractor or a four-wheel drive.

I taught my boys early to use a quad safely and to enjoy doing so. I am all for the appropriate use of scramblers and quads as needed. However, I also made it clear to my boys at an early stage, and now to my grandchildren, that those were for use on our own land, with an awareness of the impact on other people’s land. In other words, they do not use them anywhere else unless it is legitimate or permission has been granted.

Such consideration used to be universally accepted, but increasingly I come across farmers who are upset at the high level of damage to their crop land by those who come with their quads or scramblers and set up a cross-country course. This has also been a problem on council land, with actual tracks set up without permission or, indeed, insurance in place, so there is an issue if something goes wrong. Many landowners find themselves in a difficult position if they have not taken steps to stop it happening. If somebody has an accident on the land, they could find themselves culpable for any injuries.

I have been at the home of people whose peace and quiet has been destroyed by scramblers on wasteland behind them and whose fence and property have also been damaged. It is clear that councils need to have greater fines and enforcement powers to help deal with the antisocial behaviour problems that off-road bikes cause.

I also wish to put on record that Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick in the House of Lords and I pushed for legislation to have a safety roll bar over the tops of quads because a friend of ours was killed in an accident on a quad. We feel that safety is important and pertinent. That is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to highlight that issue and ensure that quads are safe for those who use them.

On the usage of land, I wish to differentiate between organised groups and individuals who have no care or thought for others. I offer my support to those who wish to find areas to carry out and enjoy their sport sensibly and responsibly with insurance in place. I worked with a motorbike group involved in scrambling. When I was on the council before coming to this place in 2010, I worked alongside them and other representatives to ensure that they got some land to use at the Whitespots between Newtownards and Bangor. They wanted to do it correctly and provide insurance cover. There are organisations that wish to do that, and we should work alongside them, to ensure that their sport can be delivered. That was done in partnership with Ards Borough Council, which is now known as Ards and North Down Borough Council. The council plans for Conlig and Whitespots include setting aside that portion of land for that group, which seeks safety and does not want to annoy people, in a way that is controlled, regulated and monitored. There are ways to do that.

My local council has sought to provide land to host scheduled organised events, such as the Ulster MTB XC championships, held at Whitespots, but it has neither the finances or manpower to provide good circuits and venues to help facilitate this sensible sport, without help and support from central Government. I add my voice to calls for councils to receive additional funding. That portion of land that we got from the council some time ago was land exclusively for the club’s use, so it does not match the requirements and regulations of an organised event. That is why that was unable to be taken forward.

In closing, my three boys were blessed with space to enjoy their quads. My grandchildren—the two eldest girls of eight and 14—are also blessed to have the same opportunity to use the quad on our land. I believe that the Government can step up to help provide facilities to give a standard of safety, as well as prevent farmland and livestock from being harmed by those who see a field and just want a wee jaunt.

Let us recognise that there is a valid sport, with a need to be helped, but those who have no care must be held accountable. Those are the people the hon. Member for Darlington referred to—those who have total disrespect. We have to draw a differential between the two: those who do it legitimately and try to work within the law, and those who disregard the law. Today’s debate is important to highlight the issue, as the hon. Member for Darlington has done, and others will do shortly. Although not responsible for Northern Ireland, the Minister is always very responsible and comes back with answers to our questions.

I always try to add a Northern Ireland perspective to a debate; colleagues would never expect anything else from an MP from Northern Ireland. I think it adds to the debate and gives an idea of what we have done in my constituency of Strangford, working alongside clubs to make it happen, while highlighting the issue of those who have no regard for landowners. We need to ensure that the law of the land is in place so that it can regulate and punish, if necessary, those who damage land or property.

Photo of Jill Mortimer Jill Mortimer Ceidwadwyr, Hartlepool 2:48, 20 Chwefror 2024

I, too, thank my hon. Friend Peter Gibson for securing this important debate. I have spoken on this subject previously in the House, alongside colleagues, including my hon. Friend, because we are desperate to fight this blight, which causes so much damage to our communities.

Off-road bikes plague Hartlepool and are prevalent across Teesside. Although the name suggests they are normally found on farmland, they can often be seen driving around our marina, streets and even main roads. They storm through parks and playgrounds, along our headland, and even destroy constituents’ front lawns. If the appearance of a young person wearing a balaclava, riding a heavy off-road bike, heading towards a young family is not intimidating, their lack of regard for the laws of our roads will be. The bikes do not have licensing or insurance, and those riding them show no understanding of the highway code.

My main concerns, of course, lie with the safety and quality of life of Hartlepool’s residents. I am worried about the distractions posed by these young people showboating along central reservations, the constant noise pollution, and how they are completely camouflaged in the darkness, with no reflective wear or helmets. I fear for the victims of the accidents they will cause; it is only a matter of time before innocent people are seriously hurt or worse, because of the riders’ complete disregard for others’ safety.

I speak on behalf of many frustrated constituents who have shared their experiences with me, although I only need to drive from Throston to West View to experience it, or stand on the cliffs near Steetley pier to see the bikes haring up and down where people are walking with prams, pushchairs, dogs and children.

I will share an anecdote from my inbox this morning, to fill in the colour of how common an occurrence this is. I was unsurprised to receive emails from a constituent overnight, sharing photographs showing how owners of illegal off-road bikes had been spinning their back wheels on the driveway so that dirt was spread right across the road, the footpath and up the wall of their house. Another contacted me to share how they were unable to get a full night’s sleep because of roaring engines outside their bedroom window. That is just this morning’s inbox.

This is no fault of Cleveland police, who continue to provide a country-leading effort to tackle the issue, but my concern is rising, as year on year the issue only appears to get worse, despite the 267 extra police in Cleveland and funding secured towards hotspot policing. Cleveland police are leading the UK in techniques to tackle off-road bikes, but are still reliant on anonymous tips from residents coming forward to report neighbours. Operation Endurance has been ongoing since 2017, and includes techniques such as seizing vehicles and patrolling, but for a force that is already under strain, I cannot help but felt that other enforcement techniques should be put into play. Today, anyone seen riding an off-road bike in Hartlepool will have their vehicle seized on the spot by the police. I do think that those young people fear the consequences, should they be caught—but they just do not believe that they will be.

Introducing compulsory insurance would be a first step to removing off-road bikes from our roads and for those driving them to take full responsibility. The second step is to regulate the sale of the bikes, including off-road bikes, quads, electric bikes and scooters. That would make identifying illegal off-road bikes and their users much simpler for law enforcement, freeing up crucial police time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, off-road bikes go hand-in-hand with antisocial behaviour, and are often used to transport drugs or to act as a quick getaway from other crime scenes. The young people riding the bikes make little effort to deny that, shielding their identities through wearing balaclavas or masks. If our police were able to quickly scan a number plate to pull up the owner’s details, that anonymity would be removed. More importantly, the bikes would be less likely to find themselves in the wrong hands from the outset.

One thing is clear: we need to do more to stop the scourge of off-road bikes. I ask the Minister to consider the steps we have suggested—insurance and a register. People who are using these bikes innocently, on farmland, as I have myself, are already insured and will not object to having bikes registered. As Jim Shannon pointed out, it would also be a good idea to provide facilities for riding the bikes properly. That would put some clear water between those who use them recreationally and those who use them for criminal activity. I ask the Minister to consider what more can be done and thank him for the steps already taken.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 2:53, 20 Chwefror 2024

Thank you, Mrs Latham, for calling me to speak in this debate. I did not intend to speak, but some issues have been raised that I feel strongly about. I declare that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on motorcycling, so I take a very specific interest in the issue as a licence holder and bike rider for recreational and commuting purposes.

There are a couple of issues that the Government could grasp here. We wrestle with the issue of wayward youth, verging on criminality—and I think there are a couple of things that can be done. Young people want the exhilaration of speed and the enjoyment of a bike or a quad, and unfortunately they do not always get to do that with good parental control or wise adult supervision, so they can go wayward. It is important to try to stop it at that point.

In Northern Ireland, we developed a scheme where the Department of Justice and the police, recognising that there was a problem in parts of Belfast and County Antrim, brought together a motorcycle club and a very active individual within the motorcycle fraternity who was able to bring the young people together, speak to them on the street and encourage them to come to a track set aside for them. They were encouraged and shown how to develop their motorcycling skills, which means they have become competent riders, both off and on-road. They were then taught how to maintain and manage their motorcycle, as a lot of them are used illegally and do not have proper braking equipment or proper lighting, and are not properly regulated, licensed or looked after. They were shown how to maintain the bike and have pride in the machinery they were using, and therefore to see it not as a reckless, youthful toy but as what it should be seen as: a helpful and productive piece of machinery that can be used sensibly and help them in their daily lives.

That process has taken young people who were right on the verge of doing stupid things with their lives and lifted them into an area where they have pride in and recognise the importance of motorcycling, but also recognise the danger of both motorcycling and using quads illegally. They have become advocates and ambassadors to other young people in their areas, reaching a very hard-to-reach section of the community. That was a brilliant, one-off programme that achieved some fantastic results. I have tried to encourage the police across Northern Ireland to roll that programme out, not just in other parts of Northern Ireland but across the UK, and to learn from it. We are at the cutting edge; we are doing something important for that wayward youth element.

Unfortunately, we also have another section of people who are involved in criminality with regard to quads. They are reckless, dangerous and do not care, and they put people’s lives at risk; unfortunately, people have lost their lives. A few years ago, a lovely young woman in west Belfast lost her life when an off-road motorcycle hit her and killed her outright. Two of my constituents—two young kids—lost their lives riding motorcycles in an unlawful way, and the tragedy had such a massive and heavy impact on the housing estate where those kids were from and the local community.

We have to encourage people to stay away. The consequences of getting this wrong—one wrong turn, one broken brake lever, one gear missed and someone is hit—for the rider, the pedestrian or both are significant and life-changing. We have to make sure that that is understood. I know those quad deaths and off-road motorcycle deaths are awful for people, so we need to tackle the issue. I encourage the police here to address the issue in the way that we have tried to with the pilot programme in Northern Ireland—to lift that into the national picture.

We should look at the quantities: there are 1.5 million daily motorcycle riders in the UK and a further 3.5 million motorcycle licence holders in the UK. That is a massive section of the community—most people will know someone who rides a bike—and the subject therefore generates significant interest across society. I encourage the Minister to look at some of the programme work that has been done, and even to visit, and then to say, “Yes, this pilot could be lifted and applied elsewhere.” That way, we could start to address some of the problems identified in the very able speeches made across the Chamber and see progress.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing) 2:58, 20 Chwefror 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. I congratulate Peter Gibson on securing the debate, and all those who have contributed. The hon. Member was right to make a robust case in favour of the reforms he mentioned. This is a real and significant issue. All our constituencies are of a slightly different nature, as we have heard, but the issue is having an impact in all our communities in some way, and in many of our communities in a really serious way. The recklessness that the hon. Member talked about is having everyday consequences, which I will unpack in a little bit.

I was particularly struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Darlington about the merry-go-round of auctioned-off products then being re-entered and chased again. We have clearly not reached where we need to be in deciding what the final sanction ought to be for those who misuse this technology in the ways that they do. For me, the final destination is crushing: that is the ultimate sanction, which should provide some awareness of the consequences of misusing this technology.

This issue will be hugely important over the next few years. If, even as recently as the last general election, when we were returned to this place, we had said that by the end of the Parliament we would be talking about what are now seeing—millions of illegal journeys on our roads across the whole year, and that is before we get to what the hon. Gentleman says has happened off-road—I think we would have been surprised, but that is essentially what we have now. We have new technologies that mean that people are using roads and riding off-road in ways that we were not expecting, and in ways that they are not personally covered for and that those who fall victim to them might not be either.

In my community, I think in particular of a woman from just outside my constituency, Linda Davis, who was 71 years old when she was killed by a 14-year-old riding a privately owned e-scooter on the pavements. That is a shocking story, and it is obviously terrible for her family, but as the hon. Gentleman said, we are seeing those sorts of journeys on pavements throughout the country. Indeed, as Jill Mortimer said, “off road” is perhaps not the most useful distinction, because it literally means anything that is not the road itself, yet we are seeing this across all aspects of our community, whether on the pavements, as in that case, or on the headland, as she mentioned. This place needs to catch up with that, because behaviour change and technology change are currently outpacing us.

Jim Shannon made some important points about the legitimate uses for these technologies. Indeed, they are essential in rural communities and for those operating rural businesses, and we should recognise that those people have a long, established record of using the technology properly. He gave the example from his own family of passing it down across generations, and of responsible ownership and usage, and said that actually it can be good sport as well—he talked about an example from outside Newtownards. It should not be beyond us to promote a regime in which that is possible.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this is not just an urban-versus-rural issue. He talked about the damage that can be done to fields, crops or livestock, which would also frustrate those rural business owners who are doing the right thing. As I say, these two things do not have to be in competition; however, he also talked about disrespect, which is what I think sits at the root of this issue. I will come to this when I make some points of my own, but that brings us to what we do about antisocial behaviour in this country—how we measure it and match up against it.

Ian Paisley talked about how we could turn this into something positive and use it as a diversionary activity. I have to say that speeding around on a motorbike is not for me, but for millions of people it is, as he says, and we know that it can be attractive for young people. We can make that work for us. I think of the wonderful Crisp Vocational Provision in my constituency, which offers alternative provision to young people for whom mainstream education is not working by using this sort of industry, and particularly motor cars, as a way to connect with them, develop their interests and channel that energy into a positive place. We can do that too, so there could already be some positives from this debate.

Just to make a few points of my own, people who are going about their business, whatever it may be, should not have to contend with people riding off-road bikes, often without helmets and with face coverings, as we have heard, or perhaps without tax and insurance, churning up public and private land and creating other sorts of damage. We know that dangerous riding can put road users and pedestrians at risk of injury if they lose control of their vehicles, which, when we think of how they are sometimes ridden—wheelies down the middle of the road—is not unforeseeable.

Again, I think of an example from my own community —which happily we have been able to resolve to a significant degree—where residents of a care home for older people said that they did not want to leave and go into town, which was just down the road. Because the road has humps, bikes would come down the pavement instead, so as not to be restricted by the humps, and in many cases they had physically knocked people over. That was having a real quality-of-life impact on those residents, and of course the same thing can play out in a countryside setting or when people are walking their dogs.

I think this myself when I am walking the dog: when he is off the lead running around and I hear that buzz, which can be hard to place, it is a moment of panic. I would like to say that I have full control of the dog and he always listens to me, but he is still a dog, and we know that the riders often do not have full control, or may not see the dog. That is a moment of real risk when I think the dog is going to get hit, so I instantly charge around, get the dog on the lead and leave, and I see various other people do that, with parents and children scattering as well. There are real consequences to this behaviour, and it is really sad.

I am not going to do too much political analysis, but I know the Minister will; we have to do a little bit each. The sense of powerlessness in communities—that these things just happen to them now and that is the reality in their towns—is a sad thing. This is an issue of antisocial behaviour, but we are still learning from the impact and experience of having 10,000 fewer police officers on the beat. They are being added back, but we have seen 20,000 overall losses, which means there are now 10,000 fewer police officers and police community support officers on the frontline.

Police officers have a huge impact on creating a deterrent but—I know the Government are moving on this, and I am sure the Minister will say something about this—our police are not crime counters. Our police should be problem solvers, and this is one of those local problems that needs to be solved. Some of the solutions may involve the physical environment and how we can configure it to make sure that people are not recklessly travelling around, but other solutions will be more positive. As the hon. Members for North Antrim and for Strangford said, those solutions should involve channelling that energy elsewhere—that is what we want to see from proper neighbourhood and community policing.

At the moment we have a situation in which 50% of the population say that they no longer see police on their streets, and we know that 90% of crimes currently go unsolved. Our police are making the best of what is available to them, but they are stretched too thinly. We need the restoration of problem solving and hotspot policing so that communities are not defenceless and powerless, and so that they can start to take that power back.

I wonder whether the Minister will make some interesting points, because we have had the conversation about registration. The case for registration is strong, but my anxiety with it is that I fear it might fall on those who do the right thing, and that those who choose not to follow law—as they are not doing in this case—will try to work round it. That loop could be closed with detection. The Minister and I had significant conversations about that during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill—indeed, with you in the Chair, Mrs Latham.

On the use of technology, this problem is fundamentally a new and novel challenge driven by technology, and the solutions may well be there too. I know that the Minister has a short, medium and very long version of his facial recognition speech, and I am not trying to bait that longer version out of him again. Facial recognition software would not always be useful because of mask wearing, but it could be useful in many cases. Has he considered it with regard to off-road biking?

I want to take this opportunity to talk about what I think is a limiting factor in how we can tackle this problem: our data collection on antisocial behaviour. There is significant variety across the country in how antisocial behaviour is reported and dealt with, so it would be very difficult to compare even Derbyshire with Nottinghamshire—never mind the rest of our communities—when considering prioritisation. What are the Minister’s thoughts on better data collection in respect of off-road biking? We all clearly face the same problem, but I do not think we are able to understand it, in either an aggregate or comparative sense. Getting a grip of it and adequate resourcing are likely to be challenges as well, as will be building public confidence. I hope we will come back to that in due course.

I shall finish by saying that we are legislators, so there is a temptation to fall on legislation as a solution to all our problems, but I am not sure that that would work in this case. This is a behaviour problem and a respect problem. The issue is the fact that we have not competed on our streets on the side of the vast majority who do the right thing. Better and more active community policing that solves problems and is based around hotspots is a better model than the one we have had over the past 14 years. I suspect we might hear something similar from the Minister—I hope so—but there remains a resourcing issue, because we are short by 10,000 important pairs of boots. I hope we hear more from the Minister on the Government’s commitment in that respect.

This is an issue that is not going away. We will keep coming back to it because every day as we open social media or our emails, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool did, there will be more evidence of this happening, time and again. People are rightly looking to us for action, and we need to ensure that we meet that expectation.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department 3:10, 20 Chwefror 2024

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Gibson on securing this important debate. As has been said, this is a question that comes up quite often, and a number of hon. Members, some of whom are here and some of whom are not, have raised this issue over recent months.

I will start by making some remarks about antisocial behaviour more widely. I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington and for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), and the shadow Minister, Alex Norris that antisocial behaviour is something we should take extremely seriously. It causes people to feel a sense of menace in their own communities. It can create a sense of disorder and unease, and a sense that people’s local neighbourhoods, parks, high streets or other public places are not places of safety. That is why we should be taking all forms of antisocial behaviour, including the abuse of off-road bikes, extremely seriously.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

In Gwent, we have a regional roundtable that considers illegal off-road bikers. MPs, MSs, council officials, farmers and passionate bike riders come together to try to deal with this ongoing scourge. It is worth reporting that in recent months Gwent police has, with local councillors, launched a team, with shared prosperity funding, to look at this important, ongoing and growing issue. Does the Minister agree that sustained, strong enforcement is at the root of dealing with this difficulty? Illegal off-road bikers who badly damage our environment, endanger animal stock, intimidate hikers and dog walkers, and sometimes threaten farmers need to be dealt with properly. What police powers does he think can be brought to bear to beat this blight? Lots of my constituents are concerned about this issue. Will the Minister clarify why he has until now believed that registration is not necessary to help with this growing problem?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I agree that strong enforcement is critical. We should have a zero-tolerance approach to off-road biking, as we should to all forms of antisocial behaviour. As I said, it is a menace. It makes people feel uneasy and unsafe, and there should be strong enforcement not sometimes but always, and I hope that is what Gwent police force is doing locally.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the police’s powers; I was going to come to this, but since he has asked about it, I will address it now. The most relevant power is the power the police have under section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to seize vehicles, including off-road bikes, that are used antisocially. That can be the result of using a vehicle in a careless or inconsiderate manner or in a manner that causes alarm, distress or annoyance. A vehicle can also be seized under different provisions if it is being driven without insurance. There are, then, a number of powers, but particularly that section 59 power. I would expect all forces to use those powers to the fullest possible extent, and I know that Durham constabulary, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington referred, is doing that as part of its Operation Endurance.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about registration and, I suppose, the associated question of insurance. If an off-road bike is ridden or used on a public road, it needs to be insured and licensed. However, the Government are not convinced that it would be reasonable to introduce a requirement for insurance or licensing—the requirement to have a number plate—for off-road bikes driven only on private property such as farmland. Although there are significant problems, the vast majority of people who use off-road bikes privately on farmland or their own land do so reasonably and lawfully, and we do not want to impose on those lawful and reasonable owners the extra costs, which could be quite significant, of either having to register and get a number plate or having to insure. We would prefer to focus on those off-road bikes and all-terrain vehicles that are used illegally on the roads because they are uninsured or unlicensed or because they are being driven in an antisocial manner.

Before I come on to the specifics of tackling off-road bikes, which is the topic of the debate, let me say that we are taking antisocial behaviour more widely very seriously.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The issue of registration is important and does need working through. On the mountain tops of our valleys in south Wales, we have thousands of acres of common land, and that is where the illegal off-road bikers spend the majority of their time. They create a proper mess, and it is really awful—it destroys our environment. What is the best way of dealing with off-road bikers on common land, which is found across large parts of the UK?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent for posing that question. I think that the requirement to have insurance under section 165 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 includes public places, and I will go away and find out whether common land counts as a public place, because that is potentially a relevant question. I will also look into whether the requirement to carry a licence plate applies just to those driving on public roads or whether it also applies on common land, which might be—I am not saying it is, but it might be—categorised as a public place. So I will look into the insurance and licence plate requirements for common land, which might be considered by the law as a public place, and write back to the hon. Gentleman with an answer. In relation to purely private land, I think that the comments I made earlier do stand.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington

The Minister referred to the disproportionate impact that may be felt by farmers who use off-road quad bikes in the management of their farm. Has any assessment of that been made by his Department or any other Department? Perhaps the National Farmers Union might be able to assist us with that. It is not uncommon for a farmer who uses his tractor primarily on his fields to have to go on a road. It is not uncommon for him to register his quad bike, because he may need to travel on roads. The impact a farmer would feel is perhaps relatively modest, and some further assessment could establish whether it is indeed a problem and a real barrier to the Government looking at registration. I appreciate that the Minister does not have the figures and statistics in front of him, but it would be great if he could come back to me on that point.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Some tractors, off-road bikes and ATVs are used on farms and private land and also on the road, so they do need to be insured and licensed, but quite a few vehicles—off-road bikes and ATVs, in particular—are used exclusively on private land. My hon. Friend suggested that we could consult the National Farmers Union to ascertain its opinion. If through his good offices, he could facilitate the NFU making contact with me to offer its opinion, I would listen to it carefully. If the NFU said that the proposal would have minimal impact on its members, I would give that some consideration. If the NFU does want to make such a representation, I would be happy to look at it.

During that intervention, I obtained some clarification on the question asked by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. Common land counts as a public place for legal purposes. In a public place, which includes common land, a driver needs to carry registration plates and be insured. If someone is driving an ATV, such as a 4x4 quad bike or an off-road bike, on common land on top of a mountain or a large hill in the hon. Member’s constituency, or around the valleys, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, they should be licensed and insured. If they are not, that in itself is a breach of the law.

Photo of Jill Mortimer Jill Mortimer Ceidwadwyr, Hartlepool

I want to add to the comment made by my hon. Friend Peter Gibson about bikes. Having been a farmer myself, I know that most farmers have a farm policy: bikes, quads and things used around the farm are covered on their vehicle policy, so those vehicles are insured anyway. It is very rare to find a farm so large that a farmer would never have to go across a lane to move things from field to field, so most things are already licensed and insured. I think that the impact would be minimal.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I would be interested to hear representations from the NFU or any others on that specific question, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for sharing her experience as a former farmer.

As I was saying, we want to have zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour more widely because it blights communities. In the spring of last year, we launched an action plan with a number of measures, which are now being rolled out. One of those is providing extra funding in England and Wales—there may be a Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland as well—over and above the regular police funding settlement to enable hotspot patrols in every police force area. There is £66 million of extra money in total, and the amounts vary between a minimum of £1 million per force up to about £8 million or £9 million for the largest, which is the Met. We expect that to deliver over 1 million hours of hotspot patrolling in the next financial year—it will start in April. Where the scheme has been piloted, it has been shown to be very effective, reducing antisocial behaviour and violent crime by up to 30%.

I strongly urge any Members present and any colleagues watching to ask their local chief constable or police and crime commissioner to select any areas where they are worried about antisocial behaviour for hotspot patrolling, which will then happen regularly throughout the next financial year. It will be visible to the public, but also catch and deter antisocial behaviour. Where it has been piloted—in places such as Lancashire, Staffordshire and Essex—it has been very effective.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington

The Minister is being incredibly generous with his time, and I thank him for highlighting hotspot policing. Darlington has had hotspot policing allocated to seven of our key wards. We can see that increased policing, but it does not solve our ongoing issues with off-road bikes. We have two police officers out on patrol providing visible policing, but they cannot chase these bikes and they have no means of identifying them. Although I fully welcome the additional funding, resources and visible policing that hotspot patrolling brings, it will not solve the underlying problems with this particular offence.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes hotspot policing, which will provide an opportunity for officers patrolling on foot to report to their colleagues if they see off-road bikes being used.

Let me turn to the question of catching off-road bikers behaving antisocially, which has been raised by a number of Members. First, as I said, hotspot patrolling will help to identify those people so that help can be called in. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington made a point about 101 response times, which vary greatly by police force. Some are very good, and some are frankly terrible. From March this year—next month—we will be publishing tables of 101 response times, as we do already for 999 response times, to shine a light on which forces are doing well and which are not. I hope that that will include not just the answer time but the abandon rate—what percentage of incoming calls get abandoned. I hope that that will shine a light on the 101 issue and provide an opportunity for those forces that are doing badly to improve their performance dramatically.

We then come to the question of how we catch people after the incident has been reported or noticed. I know there are different policies in different police forces around pursuit and what is sometimes called tactical contact. That is an operational matter for police chiefs, but I would urge chief constables, within the law and the realms of a proper approach to safety, to pursue people on ATVs and off-road bikes. If we do not pursue them, the problem just escalates.

I am a London MP, and we do not really have this problem so much here, but we did have a slightly different version of it a few years ago. People were using mopeds to commit crimes such as stealing mobile phones and expensive handbags or stealing from a shop. They would flee on a moped because Metropolitan police policy at the time—this was about four or five years ago—was not to pursue if the person on the moped was not wearing a helmet. Word soon got around that this was the case, and so-called moped-enabled crime went through the roof because criminals knew that if they were on a moped with no helmet, they would not get chased—they would just get away.

I remember having meetings with the then commissioner of the Met and other London MPs about this, urging the then commissioner to change the policy and consider pursuing and on occasion even using tactical contact, which means physical contact to stop the person. Eventually, the problem got so bad that they did adopt a pursue policy and a carefully calibrated tactical contact policy, and the problem rapidly and dramatically reduced. I would ask all chief constables around the country to keep that example in mind. I understand that they do not want to cause an injury, but equally, if we do nothing and do not pursue, the problem snowballs and gets worse and worse.

There is more we can do on technology, which a number of Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North, mentioned. Using drones to pursue and track off-road bikes and ATVs is really important. We need to work with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that we can fly these drones beyond the line of sight. There are currently some restrictions, so I will meet the Civil Aviation Authority soon to try to get those relaxed for the purpose of law enforcement. I have met a company from America with a very interesting solution that is used by many American police departments, including the New York police department. They have autonomous drones that can fly to a specified location automatically, with a system that avoids crashing into buildings, electricity pylons, people and so on. I think they can even lock on to a target and pursue it automatically. They can provide video feedback to the control room. That technology solution will help us a lot.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

It is excellent; the hon. Gentleman should definitely look at it. Once we have got the Civil Aviation Authority regulations modified, this autonomous drone technology has enormous potential.

I am delighted that the shadow Minister mentioned facial recognition. If we can get a picture of the miscreants mounted on the ATV or the off-road bike, we can run that through the retrospective facial recognition database and hopefully get a match. Even if they flee the scene, at least we will know who they are. As I have explained previously, the quality of the AI algorithm is now much better than it was, so the chances of getting a match are really quite high. [Interruption.] By the way, I apologise for my hoarse voice, Mrs Latham. I have a slight cough, as you can probably tell, so I am sorry if I am a little bit croaky.

Some Members have mentioned the problems with balaclavas. We are about to make an amendment on Report to the Criminal Justice Bill to change and expand the existing police power under section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which concerns face coverings, including balaclavas. At the moment, the police can only ask someone to take off a balaclava or a face covering. They can make the request, but they must do that proactively, and then the person can drive off and put it back on. We will amend that so that it will be possible to require face coverings to not be used at all in particular areas, unless for medical or religious purposes. If there was a particular physical area, whether it was the top of a Welsh mountain or anywhere else, where face coverings were a problem, the police could potentially use the updated section 60AA power to say to people that they could not wear balaclavas or face coverings in that area. If a police officer then saw someone driving along, even if they were initially driving lawfully and safely and were registered, licensed and insured, and they had a face covering, perhaps because they intended to behave antisocially later on, the officer would have a basis on which to stop them. I hope that that is a change that colleagues will welcome at Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill on the Floor of the House in a few weeks’ time.

I think I have covered a number of the points that have arisen during the debate. However, I will add one point around preventing these bikes from being stolen and then misused. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend Greg Smith for his private Member’s Bill, which became the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Act 2023 after receiving Royal Assent last July. Once we fully commence that Act, which we will do shortly, it will require all-terrain vehicles, among other things, to be forensically marked upon sale, with the forensic marking to be recorded in a register. It will also require an immobiliser to be fitted to such vehicles, which will make it much harder—I would not say impossible, but a lot harder—for these ATVs to be stolen and then misused for the purposes of antisocial behaviour. That would address this carousel issue, whereby ATVs or off-road bikes get stolen and then used antisocially, which the hon. Members for Strangford and for North Antrim, and my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool and for Darlington, all referred to.

Reference was also made to vehicle recovery charges, which are applied when a vehicle is taken off the road and seized by the police. Following a review, the Government made changes last year to increase those vehicle recovery fees by 28%, which will hopefully assist police forces in recovering the cost of taking such vehicles off the streets.

We now have record police officer numbers across England and Wales—more than we have ever had at any time in history. The numbers of officers allocated to particular local areas are also at a record level. The subset of that, which the shadow Minister likes to quote, is not 10,000 any more; it is a much, much lower figure, so he should update his figures. The number of officers allocated to local policing duties is at a record level, and we expect those officers not to be behind desks, because we are investing in technology to do a lot of the administration; we expect them to be on the street, visibly patrolling and catching criminals.

We consider all forms of crime to be serious, whether it is antisocial behaviour, criminal damage, reckless driving, as we have been discussing, or theft from shops. All of that needs to be taken seriously. The police need to patrol and make arrests for all those criminal offences. We have now given them the resources, combined with the over £900 million a year extra in the next financial year that will go to police and crime commissioners. The police have the resources and the officer numbers, and we are making sure that the law keeps up with these issues, so we expect robust action by the police on behalf of constituents.

I would like to conclude by thanking Members again for participating in the debate. There are some points to look at a little further, and I am very happy to do that. However, I conclude by again commending my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington for bringing this important issue to the attention of the House.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Ceidwadwyr, Mid Derbyshire

I call Peter Gibson to wind up, but it will have to be brief, because we are going to vote soon.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington 3:33, 20 Chwefror 2024

Thank you, Mrs Latham, and I will be brief.

I thank everyone who has attended this debate and made a contribution. We have heard some interesting contributions from across the House, largely focused on safety. I was particularly interested in the concerns Jim Shannon raised about roll cages for quad bikes. My hon. Friend Jill Mortimer talked about the safety of her community, as did Alex Norris, who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. However, the one thing I will really take away from this debate was raised in the contribution by Ian Paisley. I would love to go and see the work—the collaboration—going on in his constituency, and I hope the Minister can find the time to go again.

I am really pleased to hear that the Minister is willing and able to look at the NFU and the registration issue; I undertake to write to the NFU and to engage in that piece of collaboration with him. I look forward to continuing to tackle this issue on behalf of my constituents and to improving the safety of the streets of Darlington.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the matter of tackling off-road biking.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Ceidwadwyr, Mid Derbyshire

Order. The sitting is suspended. We will probably have three votes, so it will be suspended until 4 o’clock, unless we continue to vote after that.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.