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4.14 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am glad that I have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am mindful of the fact that the sponsor of the Manchester City Council Bill, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), is present; I congratulate him on opening the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) are here to represent their areas. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) are here as they have an interest in Leeds. I do not believe that anyone connected with Nottingham is present. [Interruption.] I had forgotten; importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) is here to represent the interests of Reading. I congratulate all of them.

The private Bill procedure being used by the House today is arcane. For the sake of absolute clarity, it is totally different from the private Member’s Bill procedure. I have great knowledge of private Bill procedure, because within a fortnight of coming to this place, I was approached by my party’s deputy Chief Whip, who asked what I was doing in a fortnight’s time. Rather naively, I said, “Nothing in particular.” He said, “Then I’d like you to serve on the Committee considering the British Waterways Bill.” A year and a half later, we were still debating that private Bill, so I understand what is involved in the procedure relating to the private Bill that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central has brought before the House.

I also understand the great difficulty that the local authorities involved face in trying to get their Bill enacted under that arcane procedure. Probably one of the greatest services that we could do those local authorities, the House and the country today is to try to press the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to hold an overarching review of the way in which the market system works. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) did the House a huge service by introducing a Bill under the private Member’s Bill procedure. Unfortunately, his Bill faltered, but I think that he was on the right lines. He wanted an amendment to section 3 and schedule 4 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 to regulate the problem across the country. Previous private Bills on the same subject that have been enacted did exactly that. They—and, on the whole, the six Bills before us—insert the provisions of the Pedlars Act 1871 in paragraph (2)(a) of schedule 4 to the 1982 Act, so
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that pedlars are included in the schedule. I think that that is what the Bill of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East sought to do.

Mr. Brazier: With his legal mind, my hon. Friend has gone right to the heart of the issue. What he says surely explains the debate that we have had across the Chamber on national versus local. The problem is that there is a piece of national legislation that rides roughshod over local rules and regulations. That is why, locally, we have to find a way of getting round the problem piecemeal, although the most sensible thing to do would be to have a national framework that allowed each council to decide what to do locally, on this matter and on others.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is exactly right. Today, if we get a commitment from the Minister, we will have advanced a huge amount. I suspect that the sponsors speaking for the councils involved would then not be too upset if their Bill fell through.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Clifton-Brown: A host of people are trying to intervene on me. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East, was first.

Mr. Ellwood: If the Minister today supported the seeming consensus that there should be a review of the legislation, would my hon. Friend be willing to take up the issue in 2010, when it is clear that there may be a change of Government?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend on two counts. I can assure him that I have the utmost confidence that there will be a change of Government, whenever the Government choose to call a general election. On the assumption that we will assume government shortly, I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will want to look at the problem in the round, with a view to deciding whether a change in legislation is appropriate.

Mr. Ellwood: If the Minister were willing to do some work on the issue now, it would not be in vain because we would pick it up after a general election.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has pressed the Minister, and I am confident that the Minister has some good news for us. It would be very useful if the Government did the right thing, which would save us the job when we come into government.

On a serious point, if the hon. Member for Manchester, Central is right that there are in the pipeline up to 50 more Bills similar to those that we are dealing with today, all of which the Chairman of Ways and Means will have to find time for, I do not know how the House will deal with them, not to mention the cost to those 50 local authorities. Given the cost of the six Bills before us, it would be much more sensible for the Minister to initiate an overarching review of the process. I press him strongly on that and hope he will have some good news.

Mr. Truswell: A picture is developing over the days and weeks. Earlier we debated dangerous dogs and although the critique from those on the Opposition Benches was first class, all the Opposition promised was
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a review. The hon. Gentleman’s critique so far is first class, but all he is promising is a review. What role will the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) play in influencing the outcome of that review?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: That is a little unkind. The hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to his hon. Friend the Minister, who is in a position to do something about the problem. I am in a position only to offer prospectively to look at it. I am sure we will be able to do that.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My hon. Friend is aware that Bills on Newcastle upon Tyne, Liverpool, Leicester, Medway, Maidstone, the whole of Northern Ireland and London have already passed. They are all slightly different, as my hon. Friend knows. Will the framework agreement mean having to ask all those councils and the Greater London authority to scrap all that, go back to the drawing board and start again?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend asks me a technical question. My own view on the matter is that if we reviewed the framework on a national basis, most of the private Bills would be unnecessary and would be revoked. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Manchester, Central, it would be much better to deal with the problem in the round, on a national basis, for a number of reasons—partly because some of the miscreants can go from one place to another, get a certificate for £12.50, undercutting all the street traders, whose average licence costs £500, £600 or £700, do a bit of peddling in one place, say, in Manchester city, and move on somewhere else close by, do their peddling and, if they are of that bent, cause a problem in another area. The problem must be dealt with in the round, or it causes distortion and moves the problem from one area to another.

Mr. Chope: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his major policy announcement. When the policy is developed, will he ensure that he has with him a transcript of the debate on Radio Solent this morning, in which it became apparent that there is tremendous public sympathy for lawful pedlars? There would be much concern at his remarks about almost making miscreants equivalent to lawful pedlars. Rogue traders and lawful pedlars are two different categories.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I regret to say that I cannot listen to every local programme, so I was not able to listen to the programme from the Solent, but when the study is undertaken I have no doubt that those undertaking it will want to pay close attention to the transcript of Radio Solent’s programme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, as I wish to make it clear that we on the Conservative Benches and, I am sure, the Government and the Liberal Benches as well, do not in any way want to stigmatise lawful pedlars. I make that clear. It is only the small minority who cause a nuisance. It is they who have caused us all to be here this afternoon. That is the problem that we need to deal with.

Mr. Greg Knight: Will my hon. Friend not be blown off course by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) because it is quite clear that a review is the way forward? If we are to legislate, we should do so on the basis of
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evidence that has been properly collected and collated, not merely on the basis of the whingeing of a few chief council officers who are unhappy about not getting their hands on the fees paid for pedlars certificates because they were bought elsewhere.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My right hon. Friend’s remarks are very important. I can assure him that we will not be blown off course by anybody. We will want to take evidence from anyone who wishes to give it to us, frankly, including—and I am absolutely certain of this—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who is a great expert on this subject and will no doubt have a great deal to say in giving evidence.

Much has been said about pedlars. One fairly easy way of dealing with the problem is to include them in a schedule, which in my view would give a local authority a power, not a duty. In other words, each local authority would have the power to take action against pedlars if they caused a problem in their area, but they would not be obliged to do so. We should look carefully into that.

It is interesting in that context to look at the Pedlars Act 1871. It may come as a surprise to most people—it certainly came as a surprise to me—that this Act, drawn up more than 100 years ago, contains a definition that is effectively the nub of what we are debating today. I refer to section 3 of the Act:

That is a wide-ranging definition and the opportunities for mischief within it are correspondingly wide.

That is why I say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central that it is very difficult to bring a prosecution—precisely for some of the reasons that he adduced—because it means watching people. Somebody—the police or somebody else—has to watch such people, see how long they stay in one place before moving on, ensure that the goods they sell are of merchandisable quality and that they do not abuse the street-trading regulations. They must be genuine pedlars. I gather that they have to be warned at least once and if they commit an offence a second time, which involves more monitoring and more watching, the police may be able to bring a prosecution. It would be interesting to know from the Minister how many prosecutions have been brought for contraventions of those market laws, not only by pedlars, but by other market traders. We should remember that these Bills deal with market traders as well as pedlars.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger rose—

Mr. Rob Wilson rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My goodness, I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), who has not intervened before.

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Mr. Wilson: Will my hon. Friend explain exactly what he means when he talks about local authorities having the power, but not the duty, to act in these cases? Does he mean council officers going out and seizing goods; does he mean informing the police; does he mean informing trading standards officers? What exactly does he mean?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend will be aware that a number of Acts contain powers for local authorities to do things, but not duties to do so. What that actually means is that if the proper standing orders and resolutions were passed in their particular council, an authority would be able to make use of an Act’s provisions, which, as I have argued, should be overarching. Those provisions will be framed in such a way that the councils will be able to regularise the activities of pedlars and other market traders along the lines that I have suggested. We do not want to make it an absolute duty on every local authority to have to exercise those powers if they do not wish to do so. For example, if the councils of some of my hon. Friends, perhaps including my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East, feel that they have a problem, they would have the ability to exercise regulatory powers against pedlars and other market traders, but they would not be obliged to do so.

Mr. Wilson rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I see that my hon. Friend is still puzzled, so I give way to him again.

Mr. Wilson: Can my hon. Friend explain where such powers do not exist currently?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The powers, as I have said, are currently contained in that definition of pedlars. The problem, as has been amply demonstrated, is that pedlars can get a certificate for £12.71 on very little evidence of good character and then peddle in any area of the country they want. That is fine if they do the job on a genuine peddling basis, but if they misbehave—and the opportunities for misbehaving under that definition are huge—it is difficult to prosecute.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: One of the definitions in the six Bills, which are all slightly different, is of “perishable goods”. What happens if perishable goods are seized by one council, but another council has a different policy? The person concerned will sue the council that has seized the goods, because they will have a right to do so. Until we sort out that mess and a framework is put in statute, the difficulty will be people not understanding what they are meant to be doing and therefore having recourse against the council.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He, too, is a great expert in the subject, so I am sure that he has read the transcript of the Opposed Private Bill Committee in the other place. Noble Lords touched on that precise problem, which is one reason why it needs to be dealt with nationally, so that it is quite clear how goods that are seized, and perishable goods in particular, have to be dealt with. That would probably involve keeping them in cool conditions for up to 24 or 48 hours, to allow for appeal, after which they would be destroyed. However, those are matters that we
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would want to take evidence on in our overarching review, to ensure that the proposal was workable.

Mr. Greg Knight: My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. The fact that a genuine pedlar applies for a licence in one part of the country and during the year trades in another is not of itself offensive or behaviour that should be outlawed. Does he accept that he inadvertently misled the House when he said that a pedlar can get a certificate with very little evidence of good character? As I understand it, the police check their database when an application is made. It is not for the applicant to prove his character. If the police see that he does not have a record, he clearly is of good character.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My right hon. Friend makes a number of points. I stress again that we on the Conservative Front Bench—and, I am sure, those on the Government Front Bench—do not in any way wish to stigmatise pedlars. Those who go about their business in a lawful way are fully entitled to do so. The problem is that those who cause a nuisance are likely to be shifted from one area to another. If they find that the policing regime in one area is too onerous, they will move to another area where the police are overstretched and do not have time to deal with the problem.

Although he did not actually say this, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch indicated that the Manchester Bill applies only to Manchester city. If the Manchester city police were to police the matter rigorously, the pedlars and other street traders—we are not talking about just pedlars—would move on to Greater Manchester or nearby areas. That is the crux of the problem and why it is so difficult to deal with the problem locally.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is in danger of misleading himself about the complexity of the law relating to pedlars. It is the view of Philip Hyde, in his seminal work “Local Authority Licensing and Registration”, that the law in this area is pretty clear.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The law may be clear, but I am sure that the learned gentleman to whom my hon. Friend refers has not said that it is easy to secure a prosecution against someone who has committed a crime.

Tony Lloyd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will happily give way, but for the last time, as I want to give other hon. Members a chance to speak.

Tony Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman’s exchange with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is interesting because the problem is that the pedlar’s behaviour can be perfectly legal but still amount to nuisance. The issue is not the law’s lack of clarity, but its lack of effectiveness in giving remedy to communities that suffer the excesses of those pedlars who are indifferent to their needs.

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