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The hon. Gentleman made a particularly interesting point in his speech: when the definition of pedlars in the 1871 Act was framed, people were much less mobile. There were no motor cars; one could not simply hop in a motor car and go from
Manchester to Bournemouth and cause a nuisance there. We live in a totally different age and face a different problem from the one faced by our forefathers when the Act was introduced.
The hon. Gentleman made the interesting point in his previous intervention that one or two or even half a dozen pedlars might not cause a nuisance, but if several hundred pedlars are present in one point, which I understand is the issue faced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East, the scale of the problem is very different. Pedlars are also a problem, even if they are acting within the law, if they undercut the lawful competition of ordinary street traders. As has been said, a pedlar can get a pedlars certificate for £12.71, whereas the average licence for a street trader is between £500 and £700a different order of magnitude. Different laws apply to street traders from those that apply to pedlars. On the whole, the law for pedlars is easier than the law for street traders, which is quite onerous in many respects.
If the Bills fall today, will the Minister undertake on behalf of the Government to have a comprehensive, overarching look at the whole issue of street trading, including market traders and pedlars, with a view to bringing forward legislation when time allows? Does he agree that dealing with the matter on an authority-by-authority basis is unsatisfactory, for the reasons adduced in the debate todaynotably, the distortional effect and the different regimes encompassed by each individual local authority Bill? If he will undertake a review of the whole subject, how long does he expect that to take, and when might he conclude a review and bring forward legislation? If we can get solid answers to those problems, he will have moved the whole matter forward. The House would then congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on having originally raised and tried to solve the matter on a national basis, which is surely the approach on which the Government ought to make progress. We look forward very much to hearing the Ministers comments.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), whose opening remarks reminded me of the one previous time that I engaged seriously with private Bill business. It was on the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill and a particularly traumatic experience, because a combination of the chief executive of the City of London and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) ensured that that Bill took an awfully long time to get through the House. As a result of that formative experience, I have studiously avoided private Bill business up to now.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to represent the Government in this debate, not least for the opportunity to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd). I was almost tempted to say that he made an extremely cogent case for the Bill that he sponsors todayI say almost tempted because, as he will understand, it is a tradition that Governments do not offer views on private Bills. That, and the fact that he lumped me in with the hon. Member for Christchurch
(Mr. Chope), makes me hesitate to endorse completely the points that he made. Nevertheless, he dealt with many of the points that Opposition Members raised with him.
The Government have reflected on the opinions set out in letters to my Department from town centre managers and bodies representing licensed street traders, and on how the proposed legislation might alter the framework of law that affects street trading, and indeed the very old statute that relates to certified pedlary. I understand why some local authorities favour the changes set out in the Bills, and I recognise that some face particular difficulties with street trading. It is true that some of the difficulties may be caused by certified pedlars, but difficulties may equally be caused by traders acting outside either street trading or pedlar legislation.
Unsurprisingly, some of the views stated in the debate echo the sentiments expressed by some noble Lords who contributed to the debate on the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill and the Manchester City Council Bill last November in the other place. As has been made clear, a number of interested parties believe strongly that there should be additional national street trading legislation.
As well as the views expressed on one side of the debate, other views of course need to be considered. I am sure that some hon. Members have constituents who make their living as certified pedlars and whose livelihoods may be affected by changes to the law. Equally, some constituents whose interests are represented by hon. Members will benefit from the activity of legitimate pedlars. Their views must also be considered.
As I made clear, it is not my role to offer a view on behalf of the Government on the contents of the private Bills. It is my specific role to confirm my view that the Bills promoters have undertaken a full assessment of their compatibility with the European convention on human rights and that we do not see a need to dispute their conclusions.
The hon. Member for Cotswold and, I suspect, one or two others raised the specific issue of the number of similar private Bills affecting the regulation of licensed street trading and certified pedlary. Seven private pieces of legislation affect street trading in addition to the Bills under discussion. However, hon. Members should bear it in mind that that is in the context of 410 city and borough councils in England and Wales. In saying that, I acknowledge that further similar private Bills may be introduced later this year. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has led a campaign, including through the private Members Bill that he has introduced, for a national street trading Act, creating additional local authority powers to regulate street trading and pedlary.
The evidence at the moment for national legislation across all 410 local authority borough and district councils in England and Wales remains unclear. I have no doubt that there are particular problems in some areas, as some hon. Members have alluded to in the debate. However, it is not clear whether they are spread nationwide. In principle, it is our view that they are local matters best tackled in communities by local authorities.
Is the Minister saying that the matter is to be dealt with by local authorities and that he will therefore endorse the Bills? If he is saying that there is
not enough evidence for a national decision to be made and a national Bill to be put through, how does he square the circle with the fact that some areas of Britainnamely places such as the whole of Northern Ireland and, indeed, London, Medway, Liverpool and Leicesterhave already had this legislation? We find ourselves in a strange position that surely needs to be reconciled.
Mr. Thomas: What I said was that the evidence in favour of national legislation is still unclear. As for our view as a Government, I have made it clear that the Government have no particular view, as is traditional in the case of private Bills.
Sarah Teather: The Minister says that it is unclear whether we need national legislation, and I agree that a uniform piece of national legislation giving all councils these powers immediately may not be what is required. However, enabling councils to adopt the powers by means of secondary legislationa byelaw, for examplewould allow local decision making while also maintaining a transparent framework.
Mr. Thomas: As I said earlier, my hon. Friend has led a very effective campaign in favour of national legislation, but I repeat that my view and that of the Government more generally is that the evidence is unclear.
Mr. Truswell: What evidence does my hon. Friend need to be persuaded of the validity of the case? As has been pointed out, some authorities are already able to exercise the powers sought by the six that we are discussing.
Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friends point is similar to the point made by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), although he made it in a different way. If he will allow me to make a little progress, he may welcome some of what I am about to say.
We should not forget that local authorities are already able to tackle illegal street trading, and street traders selling counterfeit or dangerous goods. Last November in the other place, Lord Bach observed that enforcement officers already undertake activity to regulate the streets. In practice, that means that they can conduct initial advisory discussions with unlicensed traders, that they can counsel those traders to obtain the necessary licence or pedlars certificate, and that they canand dotell them the consequences of continuing to trade outside the law. They can take action resulting in a fine of up to £1,000 against a persistent unlicensed trader who has already been subject to oral and written warnings.
Last November, the Government introduced the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill. Part 3 will, where appropriate, allow local authorities and other regulators to impose a range of administrative sanctions as an alternative to criminal prosecution when enforcing existing legislation. The Pedlars Act 1871 is within the scope of part 3, and the new powersincluding, in
particular, fixed monetary penaltiescould be used by local authorities as an alternative to prosecuting those involved in pedlary without a licence. When implemented, the powers in part 3 may reduce the need for the promotion of individual private Bills.
I have reflected further, however, on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, on the debate in the other place back in November, and on the fact that, as a number of Members have made clear, there is considerablealbeit not uniforminterest in further powers throughout the local authority world. As a result, I have initiated a research project led by Durham university, which will consider the current position, whether the existing powers are sufficient, albeit underused, and whatif anydifferent powers would be useful to the tackling of problems relating to street trading in our towns and cities.
Should the evidence resulting from that forthcoming research project demonstrate that there is a case for national legislation, we will assess the options available to us. Towards the end of the year, we will publish a report on the Departments website setting out the research findings and the Governments views on the appropriate next steps. It would not be right for me to commit to national legislation before we have the evidence base to justify the case for that. It is clear that there are particular problems in particular areas, which is why a series of local authorities have brought forward individual Bills to deal with the problems that they feel exist in their areas. It is for the House to take a judgment on the merit, or otherwise, of those Bills.
Mr. Brazier: The announcement the Minister has just made is, of course, welcome, but can we be clear about the ground rules? The central problem with pedlars is that they are supposed to move but some of them choose to cluster in very large numbers at a limited number of locations, thereby effectively acting as street traders, not pedlars. I urge the Minister to say that if it can be shown that a numberalbeit, perhaps, a small minorityof areas have a problem, that should be sufficient grounds for moving to the sort of national framework for which many Members on both sides of the House have called?
Mr. Thomas: As I have said, we will be conducting research. The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point, and the Durham university researchers who will be conducting the research for us will, of course, want to refer to our debate today. I will make sure that his point, and other specific and important points that other Members have raised, are drawn to the researchers attention.
I am sure that the whole House will welcome the Ministers remarks as a significant indication of progress. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) raises an important point. Few people argue for national legislation in the sense of uniform legislation from one end of the country to the other. Most people argue for a national framework that allows for local variation. In that context, it would be helpful if the Minister could ask the Durham university research team to look at specific problems, and it would also help if they were to look in particular at the geographical areas under discussion in todays six Bills. Will he draw their attention to the fact that they can consider as part
of their conclusions the need for variation within that national framework, so that, for example, Manchester does not need to have the same framework as Reading or Bournemouth, if that is appropriate?
Mr. Thomas: I assure my hon. Friend that all the points made in todays debate will be drawn to the researchers attention. We are asking them to build the evidence baseto take a look across England and Wales at what powers are already available and whether they need to be changed. It will then be for the Government to reflect on the evidence that Durham university collects. I have no doubt that there will be continuing interest in the House both on what is drawn out as a result of that research work and on how we go forward if there is indeed a case for further action.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Although the Ministers announcement goes some way towards beginning to address the problem, the process sounds very long-winded. Meanwhile, certain local authorities have a real problem. They are involved in huge expenditure in bringing these Bills before the House today, and that has a public expenditure implication. This is still a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. What does the Minister intend should be done in the interim while his research is taking place?
Mr. Thomas: We hope that the research will be completed by the autumn and, as I said, we expect it to be published on the Departments website by the end of the year, so that interested parties, including Members of the House, can examine it. If there is sufficient evidence of a national problem, clearly the Government will have to reflect on what further action, if any, they should take. I recognise the need to draw the evidence together to see the scale of the problem. As is perhaps the situation now, it might be found that there are particular problems in particular places and it should still be the responsibility of individual authorities to make a judgment as to whether they need extra powers.
In initiating this national review of the evidence base by Durham university, I am not seeking to cast aspersions on the case that the sponsors of the Bills are making today. It is for the House to reach its own judgment, in the traditional way, on the case that each of the Bills makes, and the Government remain neutral. As I have said, I recognise the concerns that have been raised, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, who led in that regard, and we shall look at the national situation. I have made it clear that the evidence base remains unclear at the moment. We are seeking to clarify that by launching the research project in the way that I have described.
I must press the Minister a little more on this matter. Seven local authorities have gone through this arcane and tortuous private Bill procedure, six Bills are before us today and we are told that a further 50 are in the pipeline. That has huge public expenditure implications and it also demonstrates the size of the problem. To follow up the question asked by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell): how much more evidence do we need? Local authorities would not be spending taxpayers money on a whim; they would not be doing that unless they thought that they had a real problem. So, the Government have a problem and I ask the Minister the question again: how much evidence
does he expect Durham university to be able to produce to convince him that there is a national problem that needs addressing?
Mr. Thomas: With respect, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are some 410 local authorities in England and Wales, and nothing like close to a majority of them are seeking to introduce private Bills. On occasion, when local authorities have particular problems, it is for them to consider what actions they can take to deal with those problems. That is the principle of devolution and the principle behind the legislation that enables local authorities to take the specific actions required in their areas. Nevertheless, I recognise that there is a case for examining whether there is a need for national legislation and for examining the national evidence base. The evidence is unclear, which is why we are seeking to clarify the situation.
Mr. Thomas: All sorts of people have made representations to us, and I have no doubt that representations of all sorts will have been made to the promoters of the Bills before us today. I also have no doubt that Durham university will want to draw on a range of sources in pulling together the evidence base for deciding whether to take further action.
Mr. Thomas: The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was not present at the start of the debate, so if he will forgive me, I shall not give way to him. I shall, however, give way to the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger).
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Will the Minister draw the researchers attention to the Macrory review of November 2006, many of whose recommendations the Government have accepted? It addressed statutory obligations and tightening up the way in which statute on the regulation of the likes of pedlars and on the penalties is used and enforced. Does he agree that that should be a starting point?
Mr. Thomas: As I have made clear, the whole of this debate will be drawn to the attention of the researchers, and the point that the hon. Gentleman makes will be taken into account in the work that they do.
Tony Lloyd: I hope that I may help my hon. Friend and the House. When the Manchester City Council Bill was considered in the other place, representatives of the Greater Manchester police gave evidence in support. Their view is not untypical of police forces throughout the country, but it would be helpful if the Durham research team were specifically charged with researching the polices view and whether they want to be rid of this duty because they now regard it as a burden.
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