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Mr. Howarth: That is precisely the point that I was making. A street trader may leave a mess but the process is properly regulated. The difference is that he has the opportunity to sell a wide range of goods and to build up a regular turnover, customer recognition and, in some cases, customer loyalty. I say that, not in defence of pedlars, but merely to draw attention to the fact that there is a crucial distinction.

A pedlar who is genuinely operating as a pedlar has no fixed spot. He must keep on the move, which means that there are fewer associated costs. It also means that he is limited to selling only those goods he can carry. Pedlars are therefore offering a rather different service from that offered by street traders. That is reflected in the "lighter touch" regulation that they enjoy.

I understand how frustrating it must be for established traders to face competition from what are in effect opportunistic operators. It is clearly wrong that licensed street traders, who have responsibilities and expenses, lose business to fly-by-night, unlicensed competitors. It is not entirely clear how far the problems we have heard about today are caused, or exacerbated, by unlicensed street traders as opposed to genuine pedlars.

The fact is that anyone who simply sets up a pitch, or conducts business from a stationary position, in a designated street, is likely to be engaging in unlicensed trading. This attracts a maximum penalty of a £1,000 fine. This would be the case even if the person concerned produced a pedlar's certificate. The courts have made this clear. The question is whether a pedlar remained on one spot for any length of time, so effectively inviting customers to come to him. If so, he would be street trading without the necessary authority.

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Unauthorised traders can pose significant problems, particularly in town centres at busy times. I accept that, as the hon. Gentleman said, they can cause a real headache for local authorities in terms of enforcing the law, which can become a difficult and burdensome process. In some cases, there could be problems in establishing the point at which a pedlar--with or without a certificate--is actually engaged in unlicensed street trading. The fact remains, however, that in these circumstances remedies are available. Anyone who acts as a pedlar without a valid certificate is also liable to prosecution. In addition, he may be causing an obstruction under the Highways Act 1980.

There have been suggestions that the sentences available to the courts are inadequate. The hon. Gentleman referred to that implicitly, if not explicitly.

Dr. Brand: I am grateful to the Minister for trying to read my mind, but that is not the case. The problem is in securing a conviction. It is extremely difficult to get the evidence on which to convict. I hear what the Minister says, but as his speech progresses I hope that he will comment on whether it is still appropriate for someone who is supposed to trade on foot to travel in a car, or by coach or lorry, from the area in which he has been given his licence and then to walk but use the vehicle as a base.

Mr. Howarth: That is an interesting point and I shall reflect on it. I do not want to give a precipitate answer that would not necessarily be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, so I shall write to him and attempt to provide some sensible guidance as to how an authority should operate in those circumstances.

Mr. David Heath: I am most grateful to the Minister. Will he also touch on the competition with charitable collections, particularly in the context of carnivals, which by definition move around? The current position is perverse, as the Charities Act 1992 makes it more difficult to obtain a licence to collect money for charitable purposes than to obtain a pedlar's licence and extract money from the same crowd under what I consider to be a false pretext.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who raised that point in an earlier intervention. I shall comment on it later in my speech.

Our general policy on sentencing levels is to ensure that they are proportionate to the degree of mischief caused. Before we make any decision to increase the penalties available, we need to look carefully at a number of factors, including the sentencing practice of magistrates within the existing scale. The information available suggests that the sentences imposed for street trading and peddling offences generally fall well short of the maximum. There must therefore be real doubts as to whether increasing the level of fine, for example, would make any appreciable difference. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, there may be other ways of facilitating prosecution and I promise to look into that.

It is sometimes said that pedlar's certificates are used as a cover for unlicensed street trading. I know that some pedlars attempt to exploit the certificate in that way, but the number of pedlar's certificates issued--around 2,000 a year--appears to be declining. On the other hand,

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reports of unlicensed street trading are on the increase. It is a persistent problem in many areas. It is arguable whether the presence of pedlars makes matters a great deal worse. Many of those involved in unlicensed street trading are not pedlars and, what is more, make no claim to be so. I know from my own experience on Merseyside where there is a particular problem. I have had direct experience of it in the centre of Liverpool so I do not want to underplay it.

I understand why street traders and other businesses may feel that even genuine pedlars present unfair competition. After all, they are exempt from street trading controls and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, their costs are lower. However, a bona fide pedlar has to be able to carry his wares. Given the more limited range of goods that he can sell, I am not sure how far he can be said to damage the business of street traders. It could be argued that the competition offered by pedlars is no more unfair than that between street traders and small shops--it is a matter of different considerations--or between small shops and out-of-town stores. Pedlars often quickly move on. Many people will therefore choose to buy goods from more established traders whom they will inevitably regard as more reliable.

Dr. Brand: I am sorry to ask your indulgence again, but there is a significant difference between the various groups that you have mentioned and pedlars.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be using the third person.

Dr. Brand: Does the Minister agree that there is a substantial difference in that the list of activities that he mentioned are all either licensed by or governed by planning controls and are subject to the local authority and the anomaly is that there is absolutely no local control over pedlars?

Mr. Howarth: Of course, but planning controls invariably relate either to pitches in the case of street traders or fixed location properties and it would be difficult to apply them to somebody who, by definition, must keep moving. Of course I accept that additional controls apply to other traders.

As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, in the Isle of Wight there are particular worries about the practice and the standard of goods on offer. Unscrupulous operators are clearly a menace and the licensing of street traders and certification of pedlars is designed to reduce that risk. Consumer protection legislation applies just as much to goods bought from street traders or pedlars as to those purchased from other outlets. I recognise, of course, that

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such traders--particularly pedlars--may be rather more difficult to track down. However, a customer can, and should, ask to see a pedlar's certificate before buying from someone on that basis. Most people are fairly cautious about what they are prepared to hand over money for in the street, although particularly in places such as the Isle of Wight, and perhaps Somerset, many people are on holiday so their defences may be somewhat lowered.

The hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for Somerton and Frome mentioned charitable collections. I share their concern about the abuse of the pedlar's certificate for fraudulent charity collections. Where individuals collect money or sell goods on behalf of a named charity, the promoters are required to obtain a licence from the local authority. Part III of the Charities Act 1992, which has yet to be implemented, will simplify and strengthen the existing controls. However, the issues involved are indeed complex and the Government are considering when and how the measure might be implemented.

I accept that a pedlar's certificate may make life easier for those determined to mislead the public. Unfortunately, carnivals--to which both hon. Gentlemen referred--or similar large-scale events, will always attract such characters. I shall give further thought to the real and serious points that both hon. Gentlemen have raised and if there is anything that we can usefully do, I shall notify the House in a suitable manner.

As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, in 1994 the previous Government began reviews of pedlars and street trading legislation. I should make it clear that they did so in the context of their deregulation exercise. The aim of the reviews was to see whether the burdens imposed by the legislation could be reduced, but some complex issues were raised and the responses to both reviews were very mixed. In the case of the pedlars legislation they were fairly evenly divided, but a small majority favoured strengthening the controls.

The hon. Gentleman has argued for pedlars to be brought within street trading controls. That would require primary legislation and he realises the difficulty involved in that. We need to recognise that such an option is available, but be cautious about using it. Nevertheless, I shall certainly consider the points he has made about the problems posed by pedlars. Similar arguments were raised in some of the responses to the 1994 consultation paper and I accept that they are the subject of real concern.

At this stage I have reached no firm conclusions about the merits of further action in relation to either pedlars or street traders. Although I am not yet persuaded that increasing controls on pedlars would greatly alleviate the difficulties experienced by street traders and local authorities, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look carefully at the issues in considering our future policy. In doing that, I shall reflect carefully on the points that he and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome have raised during the debate.

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