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Vehicle crime powers the criminal economy

ESVA/NACRO Conference On
Vehicle Crime and Disorder Reduction
14 November 2001

It is a great pleasure to be here today.  We have heard from the Minister, John Denham; George Pothecary; and distinguished speakers from the insurance and motor industry.

This has given us a really good picture of the national scene.  There were important issues to be tackled – and still more to be cracked. Much of what we have heard is about making cars more difficult to steal, improving regulation and traceability and all that.  This is essential if we are to make progress and it is good to have the co-operation of the industry.

We take our licensing framework for granted but I have heard it said that abandoned cars are far less common on the Continent, because their licensing systems give better control and traceability.  Except, that is, in Calais, which has a problem with abandoned English cars!  So there is work to be done. Under our current legislation, car owners often feel that there is no effective method of penalising them if they abandon their cars.

I want to speak about how we can tackle these issues on the ground.  It is good for my purpose that we are also today launching a comprehensive – and thoroughly excellent – booklet on reducing vehicle crime.  In essence I want to underline some key messages in the booklet.

Vehicle crime is bound up with most crime

First, that offenders who steal cars and steal from cars are just ordinary thieves.  There is nothing special about them: they are into other offending as well.  Intelligence about them is intelligence about criminals in the area.  Gerry Rose showed in his report on the criminal histories of serious traffic offenders  that they were just a sub-group of serious offenders.  Disqualified drivers, for instance, have similar criminal histories, number of convictions and likelihood of re-offending as other offenders (HORS 206).

Paul Wiles and Andrew Costello showed that over 50% of burglars had committed a TWOC and over 50% of TWOCers had committed a burglary : “most offenders are generalists and opportunists rather than specialists” (HORS 207). If you know what is going on in car crime, you will know about a great deal more besides.  As Gerry Rose said “targeting repeat serious traffic offenders could be used as a tool to help disrupt mainstream crime … there is a very close association between disqualified driving and other kinds of offending and this link should be exploited”.  You should see car crime as an integral part of your area’s crime picture.

Secondly, just as we use cars for business and pleasure, so do offenders.  Using cars for burglary and using them for joyriding are two sides of the same coin.  And, just as cars sustain much of our economic life, so they sustain the criminal economy.  There’s nothing surprising about that.  It’s easier to throw two videos and a TV into the back of a car than to take them home on the bus.  Cars can be an integral part of offending.  It is interesting to see how far this extends: Ken Pease found that people who parked illegally on disabled parking places were significantly more likely to have been convicted of an indictable offence.  If there are any traffic wardens here, just keep an eye on the plates in the disabled spaces.

Thirdly, cars are a commodity, to be stolen, sold and traded, like any other goods.  There are parts of the South East where the cars are so cool, it is worth burgling a house just to get the car keys.  Nowadays the average offender can’t overwhelm the latest immobilisers fitted on modern cars – so they have to steal the key in order to steal the car.

Seeing car crime as being an integral part of general crime makes a few things clearer.  First, it gives you a properly-focussed rationale for tackling it.  If you tackle car crime effectively, the chances are that you will reduce other crime as well.

Secondly, it’s becomes worth tackling car crime in partnership.  Like other crime issues, car crime isn’t something just for the police. All the other partners in the crime and disorder partnership need to be engaged too: the local authority, probation, DATs and YOTs, for instance.

Thirdly, you know how to tackle it – because you do it in the same way as any other crime.  As the booklet says, you use that famous triangle which solves so much: repeat victims, repeat locations, repeat offenders.  That will always get you a long way.  Most of all, you will begin to see the full scope of car crime in context.

Burglaries in South Buckinghamshire

In the South East, South Buckinghamshire is rural and rich. Estate agents describe the houses as “Executive”.  They are well spaced out, with big gardens and lots of locks and alarms.  But South Bucks has a one of the highest burglary rates in the country. This is unlikely to be as the result of offenders living in South Bucks’s high-priced houses.  I think cars are more likely to be the answer.

But, surely, no burglar will be using his own much-loved, licensed, taxed and insured motor to do these offences?  He would be so easily traced.  I suspect that a fair proportion of these offences are committed with stolen, unlicensed or insured vehicles.  Car crime links to burglary.

If so, one approach to burglary in South Bucks may well lie through tackling car crime.  We are to hear this afternoon from Mike Franklin about Northampton’s inventive use of automatic number plate readers (ANPRs).  In only six months, this new technology has allowed a small number of police officers to make a staggering number of arrests.  Although only a tiny fraction of cars are picked out by ANPR, a high proportion of these carry offenders who are well known to us, and not just for car crime.  When we are tackling crime we have to think across the lines.  We are naturally considering the potential for ANPR to tackle burglary in South Bucks.

Car parks

There are a number of issues around car parks which also need addressing.   Over 20% of car crime takes place in car parks and cars are 200 times more at risk in a public car park than in a private garage.  That is why we have invested so heavily in CCTV and other security for car parks and nearly 1000 now have secured car park status.

But we still have blind spots.  Firstly, there are still some companies which won’t secure their car parks.  In the South East we have international hotels (some of which are members of well-known chains) that, in my view, have car parks which are so insecure as to put their customers cars at unnecessary risk.  That is one battle to be had.

Secondly, we can overlook railway station car parks, because they often fall under the British Transport Police who may not be properly linked into the CDRP.  Make sure that they are.


And, thirdly, we do not always make full use of CCTV in our crime reduction strategy.  This is odd.  Many places now have an effective CCTV system, yet many crime and disorder audits do not include much CCTV data, and so their crime and disorder strategies do not make as much as they should of the potential of CCTV.

CCTV is central to tackling many forms of car crime, particularly now that automatic number plate reading has improved so much.  We should take maximum advantage of it.

Abandoned vehicles

Tackling abandoned cars is essential to tackling car crime.  Kent have initiated an innovative and hard-hitting programme of removing untaxed and abandoned vehicles and crushing them.  They call it Operation Cubit.

Abandoned vehicles are a pain in their own right.  They are unsightly and dangerous. Children play in them and are exposed to these dangers. Sometimes they become used for joyriding and kill people.  They are a source of fires.  They increase the fear of crime.  They take up parking places.  They make the place look untidy.  Removing abandoned cars will always get public approval, quite rightly.  In Kent, they do so swiftly by using an irresistible combination of police, local authority and DVLA powers, in partnership.

But abandoned and unlicensed vehicles are a more serious issue than heavy litter.  We can see that from the process by which an unlicensed and untaxed vehicle moves on to become piranhaed, derelict and burnt out.  Kent Police see unlicensed cars as the pool cars of thieves and drug dealers, an integral part of the criminal economy. Unlicensed vehicles are untraceable and anonymous and don’t forget that a relatively high proportion of motor bikes are untaxed.

Removing abandoned and unlicensed cars therefore goes much further than taking away an eyesore.  It makes crime more difficult.  That is why Kent attaches so much importance to Operation Cubit and has put in a Capital Modernisation Bid to extend it from a few pilot areas across the whole of Kent. Sussex Police have just launched a pilot of their Operation Crackdown in Arun and Chichester for a similar reason.  This work properly links cars to the promotion of crime.


Exactly the same kind or argument applies to bilking – driving off without paying for your petrol. As a £20 theft, bilking may seem rather trivial within the scale of things.  But many of the cars which are involved in bilking will be thieves and drug dealers using unlicensed or stolen vehicles to go about their unlawful business.

Bilking is, therefore, about fuelling the criminal economy. That is why intelligence about bilking is valuable: there will be repeat locations and repeat offenders. The Metropolitan Police are doing good work on this in Lewisham and finding that, not surprisingly, some garages are more often the target of bilking than others, and that bilking cars do indeed carry a high proportion of known criminals.

I should add that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the solution to bilking lies in the criminal justice system.  Just as the response to the theft of CDs from some stores should be not leaving CDs on open stacks, so the response to bilking must surely lie in not turning on the pumps to cars that have bilked – even claiming the money for the last time and pre-payment for this. I recognise that this will involve development and investment in order to make it work smartly but we are talking petrol companies here.


I come to offenders.  For much of my working life, there has been an orthodoxy that the criminal justice system fiddles around only with the tip of some iceberg.  You will have heard the argument: one way of putting it is that, of 100 crimes committed, only two come to justice.  People have sought to argue from this that what we do in the criminal justice system does not make much impact.

I have always thought this to be not merely dangerously close to nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. It seems to me to be obvious that no criminal justice system will ever detect and bring to justice every offence – we would be surprised if we were caught and prosecuted on every occasion that we exceeded 30 mph in a restricted area.

What is much more important is that offenders should not be getting away with it.  I don’t believe they are, and I am glad to say that, as the Halliday report shows, at last the orthodoxy is changing and a different view is winning the day.

This is that, in this country, we catch and punish the vast majority of persistent offenders. People who go on committing offences get caught and are punished for it. Known offenders account for the vast majority of reported crime.

We saw this first from the figures for car crimes and offenders who are caught for it.  We know the number of car crimes with some level of accuracy – they are reliably reported to the police for insurance reasons – and we know the number of offenders who are caught each year for car crime.  If those figures are correct, offenders are breaking into around 25 cars before they are next caught.

25 is regrettable: but at this level it means that the majority of car offenders are likely to come before the courts as often as once a year.  That matches with their pre-cons lists which can be as long as their arm.  That also matches with any probation officer’s despair at trying to keep them out of trouble. Our prisons are full. The Halliday report contains the figure that there are just 1.2m active offenders in this country (p92) and that, in any one year, the criminal justice system processes 1.4m people. There aren’t many who are getting away with it.

The importance of this for how we tackle crime is profound. A handful of offenders is responsible for a high proportion of crime. We probably already know the names of many of the people who will offend next year. So every crime strategy must have regard for what to do about persistent offenders – in terms of both detection and treatment.

Motor projects

As far as car crime is concerned, there are already schemes which address this directly.  Some are described in the ESVA/NACRO booklet, including the excellent SKIDZ project in Wycombe in the South East.  These schemes will help many offenders – cars are an important part of life for so many of them – and they are likely to be particularly valuable with very prolific car thieves.  If you have a car crime project in your area, find out what it offers.

But that may not be the only kind of intervention you should be considering. A number of CDRPs have found that if they tackle drug offenders, the level of car crime reduces accordingly.  We should not be surprised by that: stealing goods which are displayed on the back seat of a car must be one of the quickest ways of getting the money for a fix.  Most of us know about the existence of drug treatment facilities – I acknowledge that their availability is sometimes an issue – but good treatment for drug takers will surely reduce the pressure on car crime.

Just as, in South Bucks, tackling car crime may be a way of tackling burglary, in other places, tackling drug taking may be a way of tackling car crime.


In the South East we cannot ignore laptop thefts.  We have had a long-standing drive to persuade women not to leave handbags visible in cars and, by and large, that is working.  But we still have a real problem with laptops.  In the Thames Valley area in particular, so many are left on back seats and are stolen as a result.

The solution to that must lie primarily in company policies which prohibit the leaving of laptops in visible places in cars.  That would reduce the problem, and reduce the loss, without the need of a criminal justice intervention.  That is another partnership issue. But the point is that careless attitudes over leaving laptops visible in cars sustains drug taking as well as car crime.

The importance of effective partnership working

My last point is where I normally end.  How successful you are in tackling car crime will depend, as does so much crime reduction, on how good your crime reduction partnership is: in exchanging information and ideas, in drawing up a really comprehensive picture of what is going on and in working out new solutions to old problems.

But remember that sometimes the new solution will follow changes in legislation and central government initiatives: so you should make sure that your strategy makes use of new legislation just as soon as you can.

Tackling car crime is about tackling crime, no more and no less.  Many partnerships have found over the last year that, through their inventiveness and co-operation, they can make progress against crime generally.  I have no doubt that they can do exactly the same with car crime, with the same encouraging results.  I hope that we can take this forward in our sessions this afternoon.

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Crime Reduction Director, Government Office for the South East