James Sunderland raises concerns about proposed new vehicle tampering offences

James Sunderland speaks up for the motorsport and heritage vehicle industries to raise concerns that the Government’s proposed new vehicle tampering offences are too broad and could impact those who legitimately restore, maintain and service historic and classic vehicles.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

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

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

“on areas of vehicle standards regulation that are outdated, a barrier to innovation or not designed with new technologies and business models in mind.”

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

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

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

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

The Government say that such measures would enable them

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)

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

James Sunderland 

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

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

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

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

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

To refer to an earlier question, how do we draw the distinction between legitimate activities and those activities that result in antisocial driving? I do not have the answer. I suspect that this may be a wicked problem where lines are difficult to define. Where is the boundary between the two poles that we have discussed? I do not know. It may be that the Department decides to drop these plans altogether. These are really difficult proposals, and they will upset many people—legitimate owners of cars who are proud of what they have in their garage. 

Alternatively, it may be that the Department works with Motorsport UK, the Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance, motor manufacturers, those with specialist expertise across the UK, and the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport, to ensure that we do not self-harm. I urge the Minister to make sure that we do not do ourselves real damage.


Interventions in the same debate

James Sunderland 

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

Mike Kane 

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


James Sunderland 

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

Trudy Harrison (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)

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