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Some defenders of the existing legislation have made great play of the current licensing arrangements, but in reality those people who have tried to get to grips with it and seen the arrangements in operation in our areas know that they are ineffective and that the police do not have the resources to enforce themnor should we expect them to. We have twice heard the definition in section 3 of the 1871 ActI do not intend to repeat itbut my perception is that the issuing of a pedlars certificate does not follow any national guidance or procedure. It is based on a police officer issuing the
certificate, which, as we know, may then be used anywhere in the country. There may be exceptions, but many certificates are issued on the basis of nominal checks. There is no procedure to follow up on certificates that have expired, and the National Association of British Market Authorities has considerable evidence of forged and out-of-date certificates being used to support pedlars activities.
The police and trading standards officers have also told NABMA that many unlawful street traders using pedlars certificates are involved with crime syndicates, and that very large sums of money are involvedeither directly, from the sale of counterfeit goods, or as a front for more sinister activities. I appreciate that we do not want to attack legitimate and reasonable pedlars, but it is often difficult to address those wider issues in the public interest without there being some fallout or innocent victims. The question for the House is always one of balance.
Mr. Chope: Has the hon. Gentleman any idea of the number of occasions when pedlars have been charged and convicted for forging certificates, as defined by the legislation on pedlars? Has he considered that legislation, which makes it clear that there has to be a standard form and that there are set procedures for police authorities?
Mr. Truswell: No, I cannot respond to that, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not expect me to be able to. We are getting into the minutiae; the problem is that in doing so we expend even more resources on an issue that could be addressed through the Billand certainly through a more national approach to this issue; there is cross-party support for that.
I understand that there is no database to check the validity of the certificates. Obviously, as has been said, one issued in Blackpool could be requested by a police officer in Bournemouth. It is said that pedlars have a duty to exchange or give refunds on goods with which customers are dissatisfied, in much the same way as other traders do. However, we know from practical experience that pedlars frequently go out of business or simply disappear after making seasonal sales of poor-quality productsproducts without kitemarks, for example. We are all aware of instances when vulnerable members of the public have purchased a toy for their grandchild only to find that spikes or leaded paint had been used to make them. The traders who sold such toys are usually long gone when anyone seeks so-called after-sales service.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very generous. The problem with his argument is that even if we get framework agreements or whatever we want to call them, even in respect of Canterbury, Bournemouth or wherever, the practices will continue, no matter how good the policing, trading standards or regulation. We have no evidence that things have changed in London, Northern Ireland or anywhere else in which this has been in force. Has the hon. Gentleman any confidence that what he is saying will be correct?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that matters would be considerably improved. The provisions would reduce the parameters within which the traders we are talking about can
operate. If we all accepted the hon. Gentlemans argument, we could go home for the whole of the year; we legislate all the time against offences and activities that continue despite the legislation. We have a law against murder, but unfortunately it still happens.
Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend agree that whatever areas such Bills coverNewcastle, for examplethere has been a dramatic effect on this type of trading? Bills such as this give local authorities the powers of seizure, which immediately stop the trading and deter the sort of pedlars we have been discussing today from ever peddling in that town or city again.
Mr. Truswell: I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot conceive that the authorities that have pursued such legislation in the past and those that are pursuing the legislation that we are discussing todayincluding Leeds city council, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said, is controlled by Liberal Democrats and Torieswould embark on this time-consuming and expensive process if they did not feel it would make a substantial difference. In fact, if they put money into something found to be ineffectual, they would probably be open to investigation by the district auditor.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is more knowledgeable than most of us on this issue, but the problem is that there is as yet no evidence, as far as I am aware, on the statistics. I am prepared to be proved wrong, but I looked quickly to see whether there was any. I have just asked the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) whether there was any such information from London, and she was not aware of any. That is one of the problemswe just do not know. Okay, we can say that it is early days and that Durham university may come up with more information, but it is not a convincing argument to say of such legislation, Well, it must be making a difference; thats why we introduced it. Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the way to do such things is based on logic, argument and statistics?
Part of the problem with the hon. Gentlemans argument is that it is difficult to represent some of the issues in statistics unless we ask enforcement officers and the police to say how much time they have spent pursuing a particular issue. If we simply consider those who have been pursued under the existing legislation who might have been better dealt with under the new legislation, the statistics are probably quite marginal. We have to have confidence in the professionalism of
police officers, trading standards officers and council officers, and in bodies such as NABMA, which try to come to grips with the issue, year in and year out. The evidence may sound anecdotal, but the problem is that the statistical case will never be as watertight as the hon. Gentleman seems to want it to be.
John Battle: I put it to my hon. Friend that Westminster city council had legislation passed in 1999, and it has not come back to the House to change it. Perhaps if hon. Members consulted that council, they would find that its experience demonstrated that the legislation gave it a satisfactory resolution that other councils needbut only in the short term, until there is a framework, so that legislation is not built up piecemeal.
Mr. Truswell: I accept what my right hon. Friend says. The situation is the same for much of the legislation intended to protect consumers. A statistical approach is difficult, because some of the people we want to chase are not easily tracked down. If we get bound up in statistics, the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and the House will never be satisfied. We have to work on the basis of the information that comes from those who have to get to grips with the issue daily.
I understand that NABMA has reported evidence from around the country that shows that many towns have problems with unlawful street trading. A mini-survey conducted by the Local Government Association showed that of 100 local authorities, 90 reported problems with unlawful street traders. That might be a statistic, or it might be an opinion poll, but I think it is a significant addition to the argument.
Finally, I should like to reiterate a point made by other Members, and made forcefully by Opposition Members: we should not have to debate the Bills before us today. Instead, we should have a piece of national legislation that gives local authorities a discretionary power to tackle the issues when they identify a problem in their locality, now or in future.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I will be brief, because a number of Members are waiting to speak and most of the points that I wanted to make have already been made very clearly, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), our Front-Bench spokesman.
In a nutshell, the problem is that we are dealing with a very old and worthy piece of Victorian legislation that applies nationally and cuts across the ability of local councils to use the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. The Act was designed to, among other things, enable a council to say how many street traders it wanted and what it expected of them, and it allowed a council to enforce those decisions through a system of annual licensing. In some cases, the interval is much shorter than a year, but it should not be longer than a year.
I shall take Canterbury city council as my example. The council has decided how many street traders it wants and how many it is fair to have on the high street. I understand that at the moment it has given 13 annual licences and five temporary licences. The pitches are all on one side of the street to allow free movement of
people on our very crowded high street, which is pedestrianised. In summer, it is sometimes so full that people try to use side streets if they want to make their way somewhere on foot. That whole system is effectively blown away by the Pedlars Act 1871. As the hon. Members for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), and for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), said, the 1871 Act effectively means that people who have no local locus at all, and who could have picked up a pedlars certificate from almost anywhere in the countrythey are very easy to forge, so the person may not even have bothered to pay the £12.50can put up a stand on wheels on the wrong side of the road, blocking an already extremely crowded street. Even if they commit no other offence at all, that in itself is a huge problem in a city that is a major regional shopping and tourist centre.
There are a number of other problems, some of which are already familiar from the remarks of other hon. Members. I ask my hon. Friends who object to the measures to think for a moment about enforcement. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is a good friend and we see eye to eye on many subjects. He is a man of total integrity and is recognised as such across the House. I do not for a moment accuse him of having a vested interest, but the plain fact is that any attempt to enforce the measure involves lots of money for lawyers. It is extremely expensive not only in terms of money, but in manpower.
Mr. Chope: Can my hon. Friend explain why it is expensive in money for lawyers and manpower to find out that somebody has a pedlars certificate that is forged and to prosecute that person, when there is in every police authority in the country a register of pedlars certificates that have been issued?
Mr. Brazier: Let us take that as an example. Somebody has to approach the person and find out whether they have a pedlars certificate. They may say that it is not on them. They can be warned that they must produce it. One such person gave the address of a local womens refuge as the address from which he was operating.
Let us suppose that the person has a legitimate pedlars licence, which has cost him only about 12 quid, and he produces that; none the less, he is static. How is that to be proved? Answer: an official must watch him for a period. Some of those people are organised with runners, often youngsters, who will warn if a council official approaches. A relatively limited number of council officials in Canterbury are involved in such matters. Let us suppose that the official is not noticed and that the trader has not been tipped off. The official notices that the trader remains in the same place for a long timeas we heard earlier, this is all an expensive officials time ticking byand is then required to give the person a verbal warning. That has to be followed on the next occasion with a written warning. Only then can proceedings be adopted. However, the penalties are terribly smallmuch, much lower than what it costs to be a legitimate street trader. They are seen as a modest overhead, but to achieve that, an official will have been deployed on at least three separate occasions and sent to court, and a lawyer will have been employed.
My constituency is a relatively poor one. Our unemployment rate, each time I look, is roughly the national average, but within Canterbury city, which is
the poorest part of the Canterbury city council area, we have one wardnext to the cathedralthat has a national designation for deprivation. The council is a busy council, and council officers have a great deal to do. In our broken society, many of those tasks, sadly, relate to antisocial behaviour. The last thing I want as the Member of Parliament is to see council officials wasting their time going through all the mechanics involved in enforcing the provisions of a Victorian Act that was never designed with that in mind.
I suspect that, as was hinted at earlier, we could fix most of the problem by putting in clause 5, I thinkthe clause which effectively states that the exemption from the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 for pedlars should apply only if they conduct their business house to house. Many of the other clauses, which are common across all the Bills that we are discussing, relate to snapping up the enforcement.
I end with three or four examples of the types of problem we have had. In one case, legitimate street traders complained that when the illegal traders set their stalls up, they often send somebody, usually a young girl, round to check the prices being charged by the legitimate traders selling the same kind of goods. Because they do not have the same overheads, they then underprice those traders and undercut the market. It might be said that that gives the consumer a better chance, but the problem iswe heard a harrowing example relating to a shopkeeper earlierthat operating without the licence that a real shop has to provide and without the annual check-up to which a legitimate street trader is subject makes it so easy to undercut in that way. Counterfeit goods are commonly sold and people often complain that when they bring poor goods back, the person has gone. I understand from the police that stolen goods are often marketed in this way and that some of these people have even got into drugs.
Let me provide some examples of court cases to illustrate how the system simply does not work. One man was prosecuted three times. Let us remember what prosecuting someone entails: first, we have to find and monitor these people; then we have to warn them; then we must warn them in writing; and finally we get to prosecution. Then there was a second prosecution and then a third. This man received a £50 fine, £300 costs on the last offence and a conditional discharge. In other words, he got off at a much lower total cost than if he had paid for a proper street licence. No organisation funded by the taxpayer should be expected to go through that kind of nonsense. One man caught selling items, as I mentioned earlier, gave a womans refuge as his address to the relevant official. Some people have been prosecuted up to four times. We have also experienced problems as a result of people being physically and verbally aggressive when they are checked up on. That can be difficult for officials to deal with.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend and the House a succinct way of dealing with the problem? This is how it has been dealt of with in the Manchester City Council Bill and other Bills. As I pointed out in my speech, it is simply to amend schedule 4 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 to restrict the definition of pedlar to someone
who goes only from house to house. That would deal with the problem of static stalls in any of the busy areas in my hon. Friends city, and it would allow his council to designate a particular area as one where nobody may trade. The council could then prohibit anyone from trading in any such difficult area.
Mr. Chope: Surely the problem that my hon. Friend is describing is one of enforcement in respect of rogue traders, people who purport to be pedlars but are not, people who do not have pedlar certificates and people who are operating outside existing pedlar law. My hon. Friend is trying to change the law, which might penalise the lawful and legitimate pedlar.
Mr. Brazier: I am afraid that my hon. Friend leaves me totally at a loss. I have spent the last few minutes explaining why the present law is unenforceable. If he were not such a good friend, I would say that only a lawyer could fail to understand that argument. Having made that point, I rest my case.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who spoke passionately about why the Bill is appropriate in his area and offered insight by providing examples of the current situation that we face.
I rise to support the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill, which my council firmly supports. The irony of todays debate is that it has been very illuminating because it has been quite an education to hear all sides putting forward their views on the clear predicament created by the differences between the Pedlars (Street Trading Regulations) Bill and the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. What I feel is sad
Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend accept that if we had not had the Second Reading debates, which would not have taken place if the Bill had not been blocked, we would not have been illuminated in the way that we have been?
Mr. Ellwood: The second irony today is the fact that my hon. Friend has, if I may say so politely, perhaps been responsible for a couple of the delays in being able to debate the Bill, whereas there has been a full and forthright debate on it in the other place, including in Committee. My point, to him and the House, is that there should be more opportunity to debate it.
The Ministers announcement that there is to be a study of the issue by Durham university is broadly welcome. Why not allow the Bill to move on to Committee, where we would be able to take evidence from more individuals and organisations, so that we could reach a
better understanding of what is happening? The Bill would then, if I am correct, return on Report, which would give the hon. GentlemanI mean my hon. Friend; I must remember that he is still my friendthe opportunity to say, Ive had enoughI believe we should let this one go. Let me plead with him now, as I probably will at the end, to allow the Bill to advance. It has to come back on Report, but there is clearly much to learn.
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