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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): My hon. Friend mentioned carnival committees. He may be aware that we have a thriving carnival tradition in Somerset. Many of the carnival committees and other clubs in my constituency are concerned that the effect of the 1871 Act has been to divert funds from collections at carnivals and from charitable purposes to private hands. Those organisations look forward to a revision of the law that will deal with the situation.

Dr. Brand: I am grateful for that intervention, and shall touch on that issue as I develop my speech. My hon. Friend also provided a demonstration of the fact that the matter is one not purely for the Isle of Wight--although we probably have more carnival committees per head of population than anywhere else in the country.

Pedlars are a particular problem for areas that are dependent on seasonal trade. Established traders, who have to be in such areas the year round, are undercut and damaged severely by--dare one say it--fly-by-night pedlars dropping in, creaming off the profits and then disappearing again.

It might be helpful if I reminded the House of a few facts. Pedlars are supposed to trade only on foot, although they are allowed to push barrows. They are not supposed to be in the same place for more than an hour, but are

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supposed to move a bit each time that they make a sale. One can readily realise the impossibility of policing such regulations. I know that many local authority officers have spent many hours video-taping suspect traders in the hope of securing a prosecution, which is extremely hard to bring.

Pedlars are known only to their own local police authority. There is no obligation on their part to inform police in the place where they are operating. Although they have to show a pedlar's licence when apprehended, they are allowed to carry on the trade for which they have been licensed if they are on the public roads--which presents the problem for charity organisers who hold events on public land. It is not unusual for pedlars to move from one such event to the next, creaming off the take that really should be going to the societies organising the event.

Not only is it important for carnival committees or bonfire societies themselves to receive an income from the events that they organise--if they do not, they cannot continue operating, and it has been very difficult for some organisations to continue operating--but, when they are in surplus, they are big contributors to local charities. We should encourage such practices as a part of the great diversity and richness of the British tradition.

Pedlars pay only £12.50 annually for a licence. Street traders usually have to pay up to 100 times that amount to be licensed by a local authority. Again, it shows that there is an unfair competition.

Street traders, whose goods can be checked by local authorities, are often undercut by pedlars working in the same area. In my constituency, many street traders provide valuable employment by selling well-made, locally produced goods. Pedlars coming in undercut those street traders, very often with shoddy goods that are very difficult to return as the pedlars move off immediately once one discovers that a new watch has fallen to bits or that those new bright lights no longer shine.

Street traders are strictly controlled. Before they are given a licence, nuisance to local tenants and competition with other shops and cafes are carefully considered, and noise and smell nuisance are taken into account by local authorities, which find it extremely difficult to exercise the same types of control over the peddling fraternity.

There is some evidence that, because their goods are not controlled, pedlars can do harm to the general public. There have been cases of goods, especially toys, being sold that would not have been approved by local trading standards officers. However, in such cases--especially if there is no organisation sending pedlars out--it is extremely difficult to attribute blame if something happens. The idea of caveat emptor is a wonderful one. However, when in the middle of a charity event a child wants a specific teddy, it is very difficult to say no. Moreover, nowadays people expect goods on sale to be of a marketable quality. I am afraid that, because of the loophole in current legislation, we are failing in meeting such expectations.

As I said, it is difficult for police to take action if pedlars are not breaking a criminal law. It is also extraordinarily difficult and time consuming to have to establish that pedlars have not moved the appropriate number of times. Such exercises are extremely expensive for local authorities.

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I should like to return very briefly to the harm that peddling does to charitable organisations. It is important that we continue to support and enable community organisations--which very much are community-based organisations--to continue with activities such as providing carnival floats and organising local bonfires, fetes and other village green activities. It is not unreasonable to allow organisers of such events to recoup some of their expense, by licensing agreements with the local authority, to pay for the associated costs of the carnival, fireworks or bonfire. Many societies are on the brink of failure because their finances are being severely damaged by people coming from far away whose only purpose is to cream off some money and then disappear. These people make no contribution to the local community, unlike local shopkeepers, local street traders and, of course, the organisers of charitable events.

It is not in order for me to ask for a change to the legislation. I know that the Home Office has had the issue of pedlars and their licensing under review since 1994, so I hope that it is in order for me to ask the Minister when that review will be published and what the Government's plans are to deal with an extraordinarily anomalous situation.

12.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) for initiating this debate. This is not a subject that often gets an airing in the House, but I know from my correspondence with him, to which he referred, that it is one which in some areas gives rise to considerable concern.

Pedlars have long been a feature of life in this country, but many people are unclear about precisely what the term means today. To some it is an anachronism with little relevance to modern life. A quick glance at the Pedlars Act 1871--and, indeed, the subsequent legislation of 1881--supports the view that the hon. Gentleman expressed. For example, references to "caster of metals", "mender of chairs" and a person who "travels and trades" without any horse or other beast "bearing or drawing burden" certainly prompt questions about the continued relevance of the legislation.

However, there is no doubt that peddling continues to be a distinctive method of trading, even though the nature of the business may have changed. For example, certain door-to-door salesmen are classified as pedlars, although that by no means covers the wide range of people who conduct their business by calling at people's homes.

It is the type of pedlar who plies his trade in busy streets in the centres of towns and cities who is of particular concern to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight says, in law pedlars are not street traders and are subject to different regulations. Councils can designate streets for street trading, and street traders must obtain from the local authority a licence, or at least a consent, to trade in those streets, usually from a specific pitch. They must also pay the requisite fees and charges and observe various conditions.

On the other hand, a pedlar obtains a certificate from the police for only a modest fee. This allows the pedlar to conduct his or her trade anywhere in the

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United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the difficulties to which that might give rise in that the certificate is issued in one area but can apply in other areas. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point very well.

The essential point is that pedlars are expected to move from place to place. Court judgments in recent years have tended to confirm this. The effect of those judgments is that a pedlar must keep on the move, apart from when conducting a sale. This gives a useful pointer to the type of trader we are talking about. We have all seen people wandering the streets with, typically, foil balloons, T-shirts or similar items for sale. Those traders are clearly pedlars.

The hon. Gentleman described the problems which he says are being caused by pedlars in his area. If he did not go so far as to say that the law favours pedlars, he suggested that it needed some adjustment and should be changed accordingly. I shall return to that issue shortly.

Perhaps I should comment on the rationale behind the present arrangements. Street trading is a more regulated and costly business than peddling because it is a more substantial operation. A street trader can establish a fixed pitch, which will inevitably involve the local authority in cleaning and other costs that we can fairly readily imagine.

Dr. Brand: In practice, it is often extremely difficult to spot the difference between a pedlar and a trader, other than the fact that the pedlar has to move on. Traders and pedlars leave the same amount of litter, but street traders are rather more responsible because they know that they risk losing their pitch.

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