Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Paul Clark: This is not national legislation and there is no requirement for a cost benefit analysis, but does my hon. Friend accept that consultation on the ideas behind the Bill has been extensive and began even before the first draft was started two and a half years ago? Does he accept also that the proposals have been part and parcel of Operation Radium in Kent and Medway, so it is not as though the legislation has suddenly been introduced to the House without any discussion taking place? Do not the amendments show that the promoters have listened to members of the trade?

Mr. Wyatt: I agree in part, but I have attended public meetings and received letters and e-mails from hundreds of people saying that they were not consulted or asked for their opinion. That is a genuine grievance held especially by those in the antiques trade.

A suggestion has been made in some quarters that the opposition to the Bill of the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association and DMG Antiques Fairs Ltd. implies that they are willing to tolerate trafficking in stolen goods. That is not true. They want properly thought out national legislation that serves the interests of the public as well as the trade--LAPADA has campaigned for that. They strongly oppose the Bill's clumsy sledgehammer approach, which will require dealers to record thousands of transactions involving articles ranging from 18th-century dining tables to tie pins, most of which will be of no value to the police.

Anyone who has visited Detling, which is one of the great antiques fairs, will realise that the Bill carries serious implications for the way in which such fairs operate. Its framing will ensure that Kent dealers have to register transactions whereas non-Kent people will not. That is a disappointment to me and those who share my views.

Many of the records will have nothing to do with reducing trafficking or tracing stolen goods in Kent. In his evidence to the Committee, Mr. Scott, representing Kent county council's trading standards department, conceded as much. His department does not even intend

22 Mar 2001 : Column 556

to range outside Kent to inspect the records of registered dealers outside the county. Such records will be inspected only if the dealer brings them to Kent and a trading standards officer happens to run into him. Why impose a requirement to keep such records if it is not going to be enforced? That is yet another anomaly arising from this local Bill. From their evidence to the Committee, it was apparent that the Bill's promoters hoped that if the local Bill was a success, the Government would intervene with national legislation; however, the Bill's enactment will not encourage the Executive to intervene.

I ask the Minister to think again. One might as well give a drink to an alcoholic. The only way to encourage an alcoholic to seek a cure is to withhold drink. If the Government see local authorities enacting local legislation around the country, they will be satisfied that there is no need for them to intervene, but the harm done to the antiques trade in the intervening period will be dramatic.

In their evidence to the Committee, the promoters accepted that if the police case for the Bill could not be proved, there would be no basis for enacting the Bill to serve the interests of the trading standards department. Mr. Scott's evidence made it clear that any benefit to the trading standards department would be purely incidental and that the Bill must stand or fall according to whether the police have made out their case. However, last year, the value of stolen antiquities in the county of Kent constituted only 2.4 per cent. of the total value of stolen goods in Kent. That statistic was thoroughly tested in Committee.

Furthermore, in their evidence, Kent police accepted that the more organised burglar--as opposed to the burglar who is driven by addictive drugs--will transport antiques a great distance to dispose of them. If antiques are taken outside the county before disposal, they will not be affected by the Bill and will fall outside its recording provisions. Antiques that are taken outside the county will have been stolen by the more organised and trained burglar and are likely to be more valuable.

As I have said, the out-and-out rogue dealer is unlikely to register under the Bill, and the Bill will not impinge on goods disposed by those who remain unregistered. If a dealer remains unregistered, the powers of recording conferred by the Bill will be inapplicable to him; equally, the powers of entry and inspection afforded to the police by the Bill will not apply to him. The local unorganised burglar who has stolen an antique will not generally have gone out of his way to steal antiques. He will steal the more usual items, such as video recorders and the latest PlayStation. The Bill deals with an extremely small proportion of the stolen goods in Kent.

The gain to the police to be derived from the Bill in relation to the antiques trade is wholly unproven. The measure of assistance that they can reasonably hope to gain from it, whether in reducing the market in stolen antiques or in tracing such goods, will be very small indeed. In contrast, the Bill will cause dealers in the antiques trade to prepare thousands of different sets of records. Some of those records will cover thousands of transactions. As I explained, a house clearance can involve between 3,000 and 4,000 items. Trying to use such records to trace stolen goods will be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

In the Committee, Kent police were asked how they would know where to start looking if somebody reported a Lowestoft jug stolen. With a list of thousands of names,

22 Mar 2001 : Column 557

where would they start to look? The police response was, "Well, our intelligence-led policing will target certain dealers." From that answer, it follows that the ordinary honest dealer, who has no wish to accept stolen goods, is not going to be targeted by the police unless, by pure chance, the police are tipped off and told that the Lowestoft jug has regrettably ended up with an honest dealer. The out-and-out rogue dealer, on the other hand, will get by without registering. The dishonest antiques dealer will register, but he is unlikely to oblige by recording correct names, addresses and descriptions of articles. Inventive means can be used by the rogue dealer to avoid the provisions of the Bill.

Some individuals may be caught, but they will be liable to fines of only £1,000. The inference is that the burden of the Bill will be borne by the honest dealer--not by the crook or the dodgy dealer--for little gain.

We know from the North Yorkshire experience that for the first three or four years the Act that applied to that area was never enforced. It was then enforced for a period, and resources were diverted and re-prioritised elsewhere. The same will happen in Kent. The police change their tactics to meet the changing tactics of the criminal and resources are reapplied elsewhere. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the crime rate has gone down. What happens? We lose five police officers.

Kali Mountford: I accept my hon. Friend's argument that tactics used by the police and burglars change. Burglars who are now taking certain items may be finding it difficult to dispose of them. If antiques were exempted, would burglars not find themselves a new market?

Mr. Wyatt: There is some logic in what my hon. Friend says.

Kent-registered dealers at antiques fairs will lose business, whether in Kent or elsewhere, in the important period at the beginning of the fair when dealers are operating at close quarters and in hectic competition. In such circumstances, a dealer will not stop to provide his name and address or other forms of identification to the Kent-registered dealer, who will therefore lose out on the best available deals. Although in theory the purchaser can take the badge number of the seller, by no means all fairs issue badges.

I shall give the example of an Act that relates to the registration of adults who work with children. The sum involved was £10. The Scottish Parliament said that it would pay that sum. I tabled a question asking whether it would be all right for scouts, football teams and guides in my constituency to register as a PO Box in Edinburgh. As the House will know, there is now no charge in England. Antique dealers and others will find ways of getting round the Bill's provisions. That is why the issue is national and not local.

It is clear from the evidence that business will be lost by dealers at antique fairs, and not merely in the first few hours of trade. Similarly, it will be lost outside antique fairs in the normal course of business, because people will refuse to give their names and addresses. It is equally clear that alternative methods of identification will not be the answer. Not everyone has a driving licence, and not everyone who has a licence carries it. Not many people

22 Mar 2001 : Column 558

will produce a credit card to identify themselves. They may pay by credit card, but that is their chosen method of payment, assuming that the dealer will accept one. The dealer will not necessarily have credit card facilities. Most people cannot remember their national insurance number, and who walks around with a passport?

Dealers who buy from abroad or from tourists will, in many instances, be unable to get the names and addresses of the vendors, as a result of which business will be lost. A witness to the Committee, whose plight is by no means unusual, described graphically the difficulties experienced in buying at brocantes and fairs in France, and in buying from Japanese tourists. It is difficult to see how a Kent dealer could continue in business if the Bill were enacted, including the provisions relating to antiques.

The requirement of the Bill to record a description sufficient to identify the article was amended in Committee. If an antiques dealer is asked to describe an antique, he will naturally resort to the method that has been used since time immemorial. We will not change the animal by requiring the dealer to describe the article in another way. It is common to find that one dealer backs his hunch or judgment against another when it comes to the date of an article, who made it and so forth. Such differing views, it is suggested, would be converted into criminal offences.

That is the cause of anxiety to the dealer. Of course, a mis-description could blot out the tracing facility of the records. That could give rise to annoyance on the part of the police or the trading standards officer, for example. No one can predict the extent to which a dealer will be criticised if he makes a mistake in his description of an article.

Some antiques dealers buy goods in lots, whether it be at a house clearance or otherwise; they then sell on in lots. The lots can include 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 or more articles. Sometimes they do not even look at them. They do not want them. They are not interested in the overwhelming majority of the contents of a house, but they notice the odd clock or the odd piece of furniture. That is what attracts them. The dealer will now have to log everything. He will have to make up his mind whether it is worth logging each article and whether an article can go to sale for less than £10. He will have to consider whether he is under an obligation to enter a description of each and every article. That is becoming ridiculous for those in the trade.

Is it right to impose the burden of more book-keeping on the trade, as those people are busy? We have reached the stage in our history where we do not think it justifiable to impose regulations on individuals without real justification. The Bill indiscriminately imposes regulation, regardless of the level of turnover or the number of transactions, which is a grievous imposition. It is not valid to argue that people are required to enter such records under the VAT margin scheme, as the global accounting scheme has been specially provided by Customs and Excise to meet the particular requirements of businesses with a high turnover of low-value articles. They do not have to enter such records in relation to transactions of £500 or less.

If the Bill becomes law, the prospects are bad for antiques fairs in Kent, which will be driven out of the county altogether. The Bill will have a considerable effect on many businesses that attend those fairs. We do not

22 Mar 2001 : Column 559

know to what extent dealers will say, "I am not going to bother with Kent any more; I am going to go elsewhere." No study has been carried out to determine that. A drop of only 20 per cent. in the number of stall holders at Detling, the largest fair in Kent, will turn it into a loss-making enterprise. If it closes, the effect on the local economy will be devastating.

The question of how to exclude the antiques trade from the Bill is a natural progression from my earlier statements. It merely becomes a question of definition; the VAT regulations are an excellent starting point because a great deal of thought has been given to the Value Added Tax (Special Provisions) Order 1995, S.I. 1268, as amended by the Value Added Tax (Special Provisions) (Amendment No. 2) Order 1999, S.I. 3120. I venture to suggest that those regulations contain concise, simple definitions that have been well thought through by those advising Customs and Excise. While not a perfect fit, they require little modification and provide the comfort of being based on a substantial amount of research and consultation. I shall therefore oppose the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page