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Mr. Wyatt: As my hon. Friend knows, it is a question of philosophy. I am not sure that we actually fundamentally disagree but, in philosophical terms, I think that the legislation should be introduced nationally and not locally. The antiques trade operates in a national and international marketplace and these Bills penalise it in an unreasonable manner.
The Opposed Private Bill Committee is not the only body in the House to identify a strong need for public legislation. I am a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and our report, "Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade" stated:
The question is whether the subject of the Bills--the regulation of the antiques trade in Kent--is appropriate for local legislation. The answer to that question is emphatically no, and the objection that this is not a suitable topic for local legislation underlies my every objection to the principle of the Bills.
In a unified country with one Parliament, which is not a federal united states, it is a powerful argument that the criminal law should be the same in every county. A local Bill creates criminal offences that are unlikely to be
The Bill creates criminal offences with fines of up to £1,000 which are unlikely to be known by a substantial number of the people whom they will affect. Dealers in the antiques trade who carry on business in Kent are from all parts of the United Kingdom and abroad. Inevitably, some people will carry on businesses in Kent without knowing the local law, will commit criminal offences and will be liable to prosecution.
It is not a sound and satisfactory basis for legislation to create criminal offences that might not be known to a substantial number of people whom they affect. The Bill is not making local byelaws that are published locally for everyone to see, such as the regulation of the use of a park or a library, with a fine of £25 or £50 attached for anyone who disobeys. It is doing nothing of that nature. Instead, it creates serious criminal offences with fines of up to £1,000 that will not be known generally throughout the trade. The Bill traps honest and decent citizens who are unaware that they have committed an offence that is susceptible to criminal prosecution, with all the humiliation that that can imply.
The Bill's principles are not underpinned by a moral consideration, unlike the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which applies nationally. Everyone is deemed to know national legislation. Anyone who does not and is in business should know that, under the terms of that Act, they must not mislead their customers by the way in which they represent their goods for sale. There is a strong underlying moral theme to the 1968 Act, which is not the case with these Bills. Obligation to register is not underpinned by a moral consideration. The dealer who comes from outside Kent is genuinely an unwary individual, without a reason to suspect or know that the Bill exists.
The Bills' principles are not even part of the culture of the antiques trade. That would change, however, if there were national legislation, which is where I stand on the matter. The Bill, will not become part of the culture of the trade because they will affect only those who come to Kent from time to time.
The promoters are easily content with the notion that Parliament should enact a Bill to create absolute offences that have an impact on innocent and responsible people who will have no defence if prosecution is brought. That is wholly unprincipled and exceptional in our legal system, although I am mindful of similar Bills in other counties.
The civil liberty issues cannot be ignored. They arise because we are dealing with local legislation that purports to regulate a trade that operates nationwide. The issue would not arise so acutely if the exponents of the trade operated wholly within the county of Kent, because such dealers could be targeted and informed about the law with comparative ease. That is not the case with the antiques trade because of the national and international marketplace.
Mr. Paul Clark: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that similar Acts exist in other parts of the country? He seems to be making the case that the Bill will be detrimental to people who come to Kent. Does he accept that of all the registrations under the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991, sources outside Kent confirm that about 51 per cent. are of traders who run their business outside the county and go into it to operate? There is a 50:50 split between those inside and those outside the county.
Mr. Wyatt: That Act was passed 10 years ago, but crime figures have only just started to fall. Other counties have introduced their own Bills, so the antiques business is regulated differently in seven or eight counties. That does not assist our attempts to deregulate, to help young entrepreneurs to prosper and to enable those who want to trade to do so. We are obfuscating the issue by increasing bureaucracy.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Does my hon. Friend accept that every police force has the right to operate differently and that styles of policing vary? Measures should be available, therefore, that may be particularly appropriate for one force, but not for all the others.
Mr. Wyatt: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. We are trying to encourage best practice in police forces to be used nationally. The fundamental point is that we do not yet have best practice in the culture of policing, but we hope that we will achieve it. My question, which I dwelt on before, is whether we are equal citizens under the law or only under some laws.
I mentioned the Worcester City Council Act 1985. There is also the County of Lancashire Act 1984 and the City of Newcastle upon Tyne Act 2000. I will not read out the whole list of such Acts, but if other local authorities with similar legislation decide to enforce it, dealers will be required to cope with numerous Acts, all of them different. If other local authorities follow suit, as Newcastle upon Tyne has, the position will get worse. The position of antiques dealers in this country will become completely untenable. Do we want that business here or not? It is a massive revenue earner within UK plc and outside the country. The promoters hope and expect that other local authorities will follow suit. That is the wrong way round. Philosophically, if the proposal is right, the Home Office should introduce it nationally.
As many hon. Members know, a local Bill enables the promoter to avoid carrying out a cost benefit analysis and, in some cases, to avoid consulting the trade. The absence of a cost benefit analysis makes it impossible to strike a fair balance between the interests of the public and the police in reducing crime on the one hand, and the interests of the antiques trade in carrying out its business without undue interference on the other.
If national legislation were introduced, a proper scientific study would be carried out with the assistance of trade associations and others to ascertain the effects of regulating the antiques trade in various ways and the benefit in terms of reducing the market in stolen goods. There would be full consultation, initiated by a Green Paper and followed by a Government proposal set out in a White Paper. We all know how that system works. Such a study would inevitably involve the investigation of different types of dealers, their income and expenditure, different methods of business and the nature and extent of the problem--the market in stolen goods. It would investigate traffic in stolen goods at each level of the trade and different ways to prevent it. There would be consultation not only of Kent police but of other police forces.