CAR thieves intent on destroying forensic evidence could be responsible for more than half of the cars deliberately set alight on our streets, says new research.

Academics at Huddersfield and Liverpool universities said the link between car theft and arson is much stronger than previously thought.

Their discovery came after a survey for the Arson Control Forum, funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Researchers looked at police and fire service records and interviewed offenders involved in car crime.

Fire Safety Minister Phil Hope said police, councils and the fire rescue service must work together to reduce the numbers of stolen or derelict vehicles being burned out on the streets.

He said: "I hope that all those involved in crime prevention and arson reduction at local and national level will be encouraged to work closely together, building on shared data and good practice, to tackle this blight on our communities."

Funds of £759,000 over three years are being made available to fire brigades in Yorkshire and the Humber to combat arson.

The number of cars stolen each year has been falling since the early 1990s, with 317,200 stolen in England and Wales in 2002, compared with 390,900 in 1998.

But the study found that although the figure is decreasing, an increasing proportion is now being burnt-out by offenders in order to destroy forensic evidence.