Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Jun 2008 : Column 519

Private Business

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords](By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

3.29 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Before I call the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), I should inform the House that although we are dealing principally with the Manchester City Council Bill, it will be in order for Members to refer, where appropriate, to any or all of the six Bills listed on the Order Paper.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Following your ruling, can you intimate what will happen at the end of the proceedings? Will the Bills be voted on seriatim, or will they be voted on together?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: While a blocking motion is in place, they will not be voted on at all. We will see how the debate proceeds, but the position is not as it would be if we were discussing private Members’ Bills. This is a different procedure, and the blocking motion prevents the Question from being put on the Second Reading of the other Bills.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I suppose I should congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on his assiduity in managing to bring us six Bills for the price of one—a six-for-one offer of which many street traders would be proud.

I shall try to be relatively brief. The Manchester City Council Bill and the five other Bills on the Order Paper seek to achieve a number of common purposes. There are slight variations between them, but essentially their purpose is to control street trading in six geographical areas, and to deal with a point of contention by regulating in a way different from that specified in the Pedlars Act 1871. The role of pedlars is, I think, the meat of the argument.

Let me deal first with the way the Bill affects licensed street traders. In my city, the council has to a large extent worked in tandem with street traders, who are licensed under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 and work within the framework of that legislation. On occasion, however, matters of concern arise. From time to time, it is obvious that even those with legitimate street trader licences are operating outside the spirit of the Act. The council is now asking for a power that already exists in London, Liverpool and a number of other cities: the power of seizure and forfeiture of goods that are being sold against the clear interests of the general public, such as counterfeit goods or goods that simply do not do what the traders claim that they do.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Can the hon. Gentleman be more specific about the type of goods involved? As we know, many pedlars sell a vast
12 Jun 2008 : Column 520
range of goods. Is the hon. Gentleman referring to white goods, goods brought in from overseas, or goods that are potentially illegal?

Tony Lloyd: Any of those might be involved. I should emphasise, however, that I am not yet talking specifically about those who use the pedlars licence. I am talking about those who apply for street traders licences. The distinction is important, as the meat and drink of the Bill applies to pedlars.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): One of the other councils bidding for a change in the rules is Leeds city council. It is controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, so I think there is some political consensus on the matter. I understand that it is possible to obtain a pedlars licence from the police for £12.25, and then go to sell goods not in Leeds but in Blackpool. Would it not be better if the council controlled its own streets, and could use the street trading laws to regulate what is sold on the streets to ensure fairness for everyone in the vicinity?

Tony Lloyd: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I shall come on to the specific question of pedlars shortly, as I first wish to clarify the situation concerning those using the street traders licence.

Seizure and forfeiture are specific powers that are used in, for example, London to clear away the unregulated—those who abuse the street-trading licence system. The example is often given of hamburger and hot-dog sellers who operate in a way that is inconsistent with the licence and that causes public nuisance.

Mr. Chope: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that anybody who regularly crosses Westminster bridge, as I do, would recognise the weakness even of seizure and forfeiture, because there are hamburger stalls on that bridge almost continuously, yet they do not seem to be seized or forfeited?

Tony Lloyd: I cannot, of course, speak on behalf of Westminster or Lambeth councils—I am not quite sure where in relation to the dividing line between them on the bridge these rogue traders operate—but the power does exist across London. The hon. Gentleman is assiduous in putting forward his points of view, so I am sure he could raise this matter with the Westminsters and the Lambeths in order to make sure they use the powers they have. I join him, however, in saying that the powers should be used—and Manchester, Leeds, Canterbury, Bournemouth and others want these powers under the street trading legislation.

The second change to normal street trading would be the issuing of fixed penalty notices. They have been found to be useful to prevent acts such as littering. That is a relatively light penalty in the grand scheme of things: it does not revoke licences, but it does allow the local authority to have the control to prevent unnecessary public nuisance and to bring to the attention of traders the need to conform properly to their wider social duties.

The final significant change in street trading licences is the extension of the current definition of simply “goods” to “goods or services”. In my city, an issue has arisen to do with the provision of services such as teeth
12 Jun 2008 : Column 521
whitening. Many people think that, regardless of whether the provision of teeth-whitening services on the streets is desirable, that ought to come under the same form of regulation as the sale of goods such as wristwatches on the streets. Bringing in parallel provision for services and goods is a simple and necessary step, and I hope that there is agreement on it.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I cannot resist rising to say something about teeth whitening. There is ample legislation to deal with that through trading standards and in other ways. Let me explain what I find curious about the hon. Gentleman’s position. There are a very few councils that wish to extend their powers—penalties and so forth—but the majority of the councils in this country do not. I know that the hon. Gentleman represents Manchester and this is a Manchester Bill and he probably feels obligated to carry it forward, but has he not questioned why just a few councils want to do this, and the rest seem to be able to manage?

Tony Lloyd: There are a few councils before us today, but there is an increasing demand for these issues to be dealt with through national legislation rather than individual private Bills. Although six councils have applied for these powers today, London, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Medway, Maidstone and the whole of Northern Ireland have already sought equivalent powers. The hon. Gentleman refers to there being just a few councils, but if he adds up the total population base of those before us today and those who already take these powers, he will discover that we are talking about quite a large slice of the country—and, more importantly perhaps, a large slice of those conurbations that see themselves as being affected by, and attractive to, those who want to use, and are occasionally prepared to abuse, the street licensing system.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Perhaps I could add to that point. The problem for a number of councils, including Canterbury city council, which I represent, is that disproportionate numbers of pedlars have descended on the city and at times in the summer our high street is completely blocked by vast numbers of them. Given that all three parties are now nominally committed to localism, surely allowing local authorities the power to have a dispensation in these matters is a good thing.

Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which partly answers the question asked by one of his colleagues a few moments ago. The real issue is not why so few or so many councils want this power; it is that, where councils want and need this power, there is great sense in ensuring that it is available. That is what we are debating today, and I am delighted that this clearly is not a party political debate—it is a debate that joins together Members from across the Chamber.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the reason I proposed my Pedlars (Street Trading Regulations) Bill is because, apart from the six Bills before the House today and the seven that have already gone, there is, according to the Private Bill Office in this place, potential for 50 more of these Bills
12 Jun 2008 : Column 522
to be introduced? The Local Government Association has conducted a survey on my behalf, and we have received 74 responses from local authorities that very much want a Bill of this kind.

Tony Lloyd: That is a helpful piece of information. Of course, my hon. Friend has played a significant role in trying to get this concept at least debated in this Chamber and more generally.

Perhaps it would be opportune if I were to turn to the area of greatest interest: the role of pedlars. The Pedlars Act 1871 gives a wonderful definition of a pedlar as

Even the strongest promoters of the role of the pedlar would accept that that definition is a little out of date and antiquated; it refers to a time long gone. However, the legislation that regulates pedlars is that Act of almost 140 years ago.

I concede a point to the hon. Member for Christchurch, who I know has taken a keen interest in this matter. I do not want the remarks that I make today to be construed, in any sense, as dismissing the role of all pedlars, because there are pedlars who are perfectly legitimate traders seeking to provide a small service that adds colour to all our streets. I accept that the danger, as with any piece of legislation, is that we might make this legislation too heavy-handed. We do not want it to drive out the role of the genuinely desirable pedlar within that context. When Bournemouth borough council and Manchester city council presented their Bills to the upper House, they both gave certain undertakings about their recognising the need to treat with a light touch the role of those legitimate pedlars.

It must be accepted, as the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said a few moments ago, that in some circumstances pedlars abuse the licence. Some pedlars operate way beyond anything either for which the pedlars licence was intended or even that it is accepted in modern times as trying to achieve. Pedlars can be a nuisance on our streets and, because of the way the pedlars licensing system operates, they operate in a very different way from legitimate street traders.

A pedlars licence can be obtained virtually anywhere in the country by anyone claiming to have good character and who is resident in the area for no more than one month. I am told that the checking by the police, who issue pedlars licences, is minimal and the concept of “good character” is not properly defined. Any pedlar given a licence in any part of the country can move to any other part of the country with the same licence and operate as a pedlar. That means that pedlars operate under a very different framework from those with street traders licences. First, the pedlars licence is massively cheaper, and some may say that that is an advantage. Those with a pedlars licence have a commercial advantage over street traders, and that is seen as unfair by those who operate market stalls or who have proper street licences. They not only pay a bigger fee and make a contribution to the community more generally, but accept a tighter framework of regulation on their operations, in accordance with local need.

12 Jun 2008 : Column 523

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman seems to be attacking the Greater Manchester police authority for not complying with its statutory responsibilities in respect of the issuing of pedlars certificates. Can he tell the House how many pedlars certificates Manchester police have issued in the past year? In Dorset, by contrast, thorough checks are made on people who apply for pedlars certificates, so it may be an issue for the police rather than for Parliament.

Tony Lloyd: It may be a matter for the police, but in my city the problem is that it is not necessarily the Greater Manchester police who issue the pedlars licences to the pedlars who peddle on the streets of Manchester. I am delighted to learn that pedlars in Dorset are reliably checked, and no doubt we welcome every Dorset pedlar on the streets of Manchester. It may be that the pedlars who cause the nuisance and who run off with their goods when approached—and when asked if they pay tax, run even more quickly—are not from Dorset, but from other areas where the character check is not as rigorous as that performed by the estimable Dorset police force.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a cogent case. Is not the real problem that, whatever one’s view of pedlars—under the present legislation they are entitled to peddle—it is very difficult to bring a prosecution against someone who abuses the rules? They have to be monitored and warned, and it is time consuming and expensive for any police authority to bring a prosecution against them. It is therefore very difficult under existing legislation to do anything about the small number who bring the rest into disrepute.

Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman is right and that is the nub of the problem. Let us accept happily that many pedlars operate in a way of which we would all approve. However, there are those who abuse the pedlars licence in various ways, such as by their trading methods or by selling items of dubious value. The innocent customer may be unable to obtain redress in the event of product or service failure, because the pedlar is long gone by the time the product is found to be defective. Sometimes, as in my city and, obviously, in Canterbury, the individual’s behaviour is assertive or aggressive—or the collective behaviour of a group of pedlars leads to the same level of social deterioration. In any case, it is difficult to enforce any sanction under the present legislation.

The police do not see this as a priority. In my city, they are quite busy with a number of other issues. It is more appropriate that it should be for the local authority to enforce the legislation through other means, but they need the power to do so—

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman has left the most important example off his list, although he mentions some valid problems. Pedlars are meant to be mobile, but many stay in one place. A council can take a view on how many street licences it should issue, but then finds that many people claiming to be pedlars stay on its high street, and that is the problem.

Tony Lloyd: Again, the hon. Gentleman moves me on to my next point. That is what is unfair about the pedlar who abuses the system. Stall holders who pay business rates, operate in a proper framework of regulation and
12 Jun 2008 : Column 524
demonstrate a proper desire to work with the local authority and the wider community face competition, which they accept goes with the street trader licence, albeit that the licence carries fewer overheads and all the rest. Street traders and shopkeepers find themselves disadvantaged when they are in competition with the pedlar, who has no regulation and can effectively sell what he wants because of the almost total lack of control that we have discussed. The problem in all that is that the ability to control the pedlar is minimal.

Although the concept of peddling is, in common-sense terms, one of constant movement—the door-to-door trader, or even the person who walks the streets with helium-filled balloons or miniature kites, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is concerned about—the person with the fixed stand on wheels has to move only every 20 minutes, as case law has demonstrated. As long as the stall is effectively mobile enough to move a matter of yards down the street, the person can avoid the street trader legislation and, as a pedlar, producing a peddling licence, can say, “I am operating within the technical limits of the law.” The technical limits of the law are not fair to the proper street trader or stall holder.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Has not my hon. Friend put his finger on one of the major logistical problems of enforcing the legislation as it stands, which is keeping track of whether pedlars are moving every 20 minutes or not?

Tony Lloyd: In the end, that is the real issue. Do we really want the police to spend huge amounts of time chasing round and checking after 19 minutes and 59 seconds whether the pedlar has moved far enough away to guarantee that they fit the framework of the Pedlars Act? Of course, it would be nonsense to ask for that to be done. Both the local authority and the police would end up spending massive amounts of time, sometimes intensely in short bursts, to try to rectify a problem that would simply come back again as soon as the intense effort disappeared. That is central to the case.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am interested in the genesis of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. When he originally discussed it with his council, did he discuss the alternatives? Has he discussed the alternatives with those on his Front Bench? Would it not have been better to bring forward national legislation to deal with the problem across the entire country rather than dealing with it one council at a time? Surely if we deal with it one council at a time, we could be merely transporting the problem to a neighbouring council.

Next Section Index Home Page