Directly after First Minister’s Questions on Thursday I held a debate on the illegal and anti-social use of off-road motorcycles, particularly quad bikes and scramblers. The debate was an opportunity to make the case for action to address the problems we are seeing throughout Fife, particularly the examples I raised in Levenmouth and Kirkcaldy.
I have been campaigning for action on this issue for some time and I’m delighted that following my meeting with the Justice Minister earlier this year that he met with Police Scotland and they introduced a new police data management system.This will hopefully aid them in their attempts to tackle the issue of stolen bikes.
However, I am clear that more still needs to be done. We need to ensure that our local police have all the relevant tools in their box to deal with this problem, and we must look at what more can be done including looking at compulsory registration.
You can watch the debate on the video below, along with a copy of my motion and speech.
Motion S4M-13293, in the name of Claire Baker, on promoting responsible off-road motorbike and quad bike ownership:
That the Parliament understands that there is increasing popularity and affordability of off-road motorbikes and quad bikes; is concerned at reports from communities across Scotland, including Mid-Scotland and Fife, of antisocial behaviour on off-road motorbikes and quad bikes, which causes noise pollution, can be threatening to pedestrians and too often causes distress in public parks and public footpaths; also notes reports of damage to farm land, leading to financial loss for farmers, as well as damage to coastal and woodland paths resulting in repair costs for local authorities and others; notes the local police initiative to tackle antisocial behaviour in Fife, Operation Ducati; notes the view that consideration should be given to any additional tools for Police Scotland to address such antisocial behaviour; acknowledges that the responsible use of quad bikes and off-road motorcycles is a legitimate recreational activity that is enjoyed by many people both as individuals and through off-road motorcycle clubs; believes in the importance of education to encourage responsible off-road activity and raise awareness among owners; notes encouragement for owners to register bikes through the DVLA’s voluntary registration scheme and, given the increasing popularity of off-road activity, notes the view that mandatory registration should be considered for introduction across the UK.
Speech by Claire Baker MSP:
I am pleased to have secured the debate this afternoon, and I thank members from parties around the chamber who have supported the motion. I hope that this can be a constructive debate. I am sure that members will be keen to reflect the experiences of their constituents and to contribute to finding solutions.
I welcome Shelagh Cooper to the gallery. Her dog, Millie, died following a collision with an off-road motorbike. The incident is the subject of a current court case, so I will not say any more about it, but it has been very traumatic for Shelagh. She is now campaigning for action on illegal bike use and has collected more than 15,000 signatures in support of her campaign. I am pleased that today’s debate provides the opportunity to highlight her hard work.
I also welcome David Paton and Gordon Gourlay from the Kingdom Off Road Motorcycle Club. Although I expect that much of the debate will be about problematic off-road biking, clubs such as KORMC offer opportunities for people to learn and enjoy an exciting and exhilarating sport, and they offer part of the solution to the challenges. I will say more about that later.
The popularity of quad bikes and off-road bikes has grown in recent years. With an increase in cheap imports, off-road bikes, quads and mini-motorbikes are now much more accessible and affordable than ever before. People of all ages are attracted to bikes; bike ownership and the desire to enjoy the bikes is not going away.
How do we support responsible ownership and deal with the negative impacts of illegal off-road biking? As the popularity and accessibility of such bikes grow, there has been an increase in reports of antisocial behaviour, with communities being blighted by noise pollution. In addition, people are being threatened by antisocial behaviour in public parks and on footpaths and pavements. A recent example is the fact that nursery staff with small children who were playing in Beveridge park in Kirkcaldy reported being alarmed and threatened by people who were tearing around on off-road bikes. Off-road bikes can be ridden on private land with the landowner’s permission, but other activity is illegal.
When we talk about antisocial behaviour, we often assume that it is teenagers who are involved, but that is not the experience in Mid Scotland and Fife, where adults have also been involved in dangerous and disruptive behaviour. Because of that irresponsible behaviour, too many people are not feeling safe in their communities. That is not acceptable. People report to me that when they challenge such behaviour they often receive abuse and feel more threatened.
Earlier this year in Fife, another dog was injured in a collision. The comment that the police made at the time was:
“It is by pure chance that the dog’s owner was not injured in this incident and once again this incident reinforces the danger posed to pedestrians by the illegal use of motorcycles on and off-road.”
That is the threat that people are living with.
I have also had conversations with farmers in Fife whose land is being damaged—thousands of pounds’ worth of damage is being done to their crops. Efforts to restrict access through use of gates have led to chains being cut, and riders wearing hoods and balaclavas means that closed-circuit television has not been much use.
Constituents have also expressed to me the frustration that they have experienced in phoning 101 on the matter. I have had reports of lengthy waits for the phone to be answered, of lack of local knowledge on the part of the person answering and of frustration that the person answering cannot contact the local officer. The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs will have heard such concerns before.
In Fife, local police officers are running operation Ducati in the Levenmouth area, and operation Fireblade has recently been launched in Kirkcaldy. The police are making efforts to clamp down on people who use their bikes illegally on-road and off-road, as part of which they are making arrests. Officers cannot pursue offenders, but they are working to identify those who are responsible, and to take action to stop their behaviour. I very much appreciate the steps that the police in Fife are taking.
I know that in other areas officers use bikes to contain illegal activity; if that is effective, we should consider greater use of the measure. We must ensure that the police have in their box all the tools to deal with the issue. In discussions with stakeholders, the strengthening of fixed-penalty notices has been highlighted as a way of giving the police more options to deal with antisocial behaviour, The minister might wish to comment on that proposal when he closes the debate.
The police can use powers to seize bikes from owners. In some cases, that might solve the problem but, in others, it only gives respite. In the past year in Fife, the incidence of theft of quad bikes and off-road bikes has doubled, with 43 bikes having been reported as stolen. We could also look at changing the licensing system for off-road bikes. Under the current rules, an off-road vehicle does not need to be taxed or registered. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has introduced an off-road register on which people can record their off-road bikes, which would help the police in the event that such a bike is stolen.
However, there is a view that mandatory registration should be introduced for all bikes. That is seen as a way to encourage responsible ownership, to record properly the details of owners and to make it possible to trace bikes. On the other hand, many off-road bikes are not suitable for on-road use, so it needs to be considered whether it would be proportionate to introduce that level of registration for recreational bikes that are used responsibly. The DVLA is reserved, but we should still consider the merits of registration and whether we want to make representations on the matter.
A full police response is important because that would recognise the severity of the activity and deal with criminal behaviour, as well as providing assurance to the public. However, the issue is complex and we need a holistic approach to the problem. We need to stress the importance of education to encourage responsible off-road activity and to raise awareness among owners. What can the Government do to increase responsible ownership? Is there a need for an awareness-raising campaign among retailers to encourage responsible sales, and for buyers to have a full understanding of the law?
We need to support opportunities for recreational use for everyone and to focus on diversionary activity for problematic users in cases in which behaviour change could be achieved. Kingdom Off Road Motorcycle Club plans to run a summer programme in the next few weeks in which it will work with young people who are referred to it by Sacro and the police. Those young people will learn bike maintenance skills, bike safety and responsible behaviour. KORMC first ran a pilot that was successful in reducing problematic behaviour in 2009. Such programmes will not address all antisocial behaviour—off-road bikes are sometimes used in much more serious criminal activity—but they can make a difference to the behaviour of young people, which offers a longer lasting and more sustainable solution to the problems that we are discussing.
The availability of legitimate opportunities to enjoy off-road biking is also part of the solution. I am supportive of Kingdom Off Road Motorcycle Club’s efforts to establish an indoor motor track in Levenmouth. The proposed model would give access to affordable, accessible and legal off-road biking within controlled conditions. It could also encourage responsible ownership, offer skills development, provide employment and aim to get bikes off the streets in communities in Levenmouth and Fife. I wish KORMC well with the project.
We have a responsibility to respond to the problem. We cannot be complacent about the degree of illegal off-road motorbiking and the accompanying antisocial behaviour that is happening in some of our communities. We must take action to stop it.