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12 Jun 2008 : Column 561

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I came here today because I am sympathetic to Bournemouth’s problems, but I am a little concerned about the 70 or so local authorities that are in the queue to which my hon. Friend refers. Does he feel that if Bournemouth’s legislation is successful, those traders will move north into my constituency, right on the edge of Bournemouth? We have Wimborne market, a big open-air market that operates three days a week. Those traders might create problems for East Dorset district council, which might not have the resources that Bournemouth borough council has to introduce similar legislation.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes a valid point that has been repeated again and again. In Newcastle, such legislation was brought in successfully, and a lot of the pedlars moved across to Gateshead. The first question is: why are those pedlars who wanted to operate in Newcastle not applying to be legitimate? Why are they not choosing to do things above board? I do not wish to disparage my hon. Friend’s constituency but, as in the case of Bournemouth, there has to be a threshold of a thoroughfare of people—either residents or tourists. I am sure that there are many visitors to his area. But there are some areas—I mentioned Purbeck as an example—where such legislation would not be required. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold made it clear: any new legislation should empower rather than enforce councils to operate revised pedlar provisions.

Time is running short, so I shall end by simply saying that the Government have taken a small step in the right direction. I hope that the Minister, and other Members, will listen to those whose voices we are hearing throughout the United Kingdom. There is, I believe, a consensus in the House and the nation in favour of change. I certainly believe that we need to give councils the power—but not necessarily the duty—to make decisions locally.

I welcome the Government’s announcement, because I do not support the status quo. This is unfinished business, and if it is not finished today, I hope that it will be in 24 months’ time if not earlier, after a general election.

6.10 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I rise to speak with some sadness, because although I agree with my hon. Friends about 90 per cent. of what we are discussing, I cannot agree with what they have said today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said that it would be democratic to pass the motion, I believe that it is also democratic to oppose it. I feel that these Bills must be stopped, for a simple reason. As was made clear a moment ago, if a Bill affecting a particular area is enacted, people will move and the problem will be passed on. I am not at all convinced that the county, district and unitary councils that have adopted these measures so far have seen the major change that they expected to see.

Let me issue a challenge. All those other towns, including London and towns in Northern Ireland, have highly competent CCTV systems, which they ought to use to collect evidence in order to demonstrate whether the measures are making a difference. According to evidence presented in another place, Bournemouth said that although its system was good, it did not know whether that could be done. Of course Bournemouth’s
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system may need to be updated, but I can assure the House that, without a shadow of doubt, London and Northern Ireland—and, I think, Newcastle, of which I have a little experience—have extremely good systems, which would certainly be able to provide clear evidence.

The problem is that we are not all discussing the same Bill. We are discussing different Bills and different problems, and each Bill is trying to achieve a slightly different aim. That is fine as far as it goes, but in the long run it cannot be right. What we need—dare I say, as a Tory—is standardisation: each licence, whether it costs £600-odd in Manchester or the £12.25 paid by a pedlar, must be standardised.

I am pleased that the Government are to undertake sensible research, which I think should be done as quickly but also, as the Minister said, as diligently as possible. What worries me slightly is that I think the Minister said—I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—that he wants Durham university to deliver the results of that research by August.

Mr. Thomas: I said “autumn”. Let me also take this opportunity to assure the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that we will publish the terms of reference on the Department’s website.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the Minister for clarifying the position, and apologise for mishearing the word “autumn”.

One group that has kept very quiet about this, perhaps for a reason of which I am not aware, is the Local Government Association, which covers every area of local government in the country. I have yet to hear anything from the LGA.

Mr. Ellwood: May I return my hon. Friend to what he said about CCTV? It is a great idea, but Bridgwater must be an extremely rich council, because CCTV is expensive. If my hon. Friend gave Bournemouth some money, we would be delighted to install it. More to the point, the Local Government Association supports these Bills.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The subject was raised in evidence in the other place. The witness was called Mr. Smith. I cannot tell the House who he is, but no doubt he is a council official: of course, they are all called Smith. He was asked whether there was sufficient CCTV in the area to be able to gather evidence, to which he replied that at present there was not, but that that could and would be put in place. That is the difference—and the situation in Bournemouth may have moved on from that.

Dr. Iddon: A few weeks ago, the LGA carried out an e-mail survey on my behalf so that I could pressurise the Minister. More than 70 local authorities had replied when I talked to the Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has mentioned the figure of 90. Therefore, it is simply not true to say that the LGA has not consulted on this; it has done, although by e-mail, admittedly. I also ask the hon. Gentleman to consult the trading standards officers in Newcastle and hear their version of how much the town centre has improved since the Newcastle Bill was enacted.

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Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. His experience is, of course, greater than mine. I suspect that the LGA has decided that it now needs to do something about this, although I am a little concerned that it has consulted by e-mail. I am unsure whether that went to all Members of the House, as I do not remember seeing it, but I accept that it went to 70 local councils—there are, however, 410 local councils. I also do not know whether that figure included the original councils that have signed up already; if it does, that makes a difference, especially taking London into account.

Dr. Iddon: Not all local authorities are affected in the same way as are York, Bournemouth, Manchester and Liverpool. A substantial number of authorities are affected, but not all 410 are.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: All authorities will be affected if we allow the Manchester and Bournemouth Bills to go through.

Mr. Ellwood: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: May I finish my point first? They will all be affected because people will be moved on—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) made this point. This will affect us all. We have a large fair in Bridgwater and we have had a problem, but through sensible and constructive actions by the police, trading officers and the council, we have not had a problem with pedlars. We have been proactive and the action we have taken has worked extremely well.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend made a statement at the outset, which I am still waiting for him to justify as it represents a complete departure from anything said earlier in the debate. He said he wanted pedlars and street traders to be treated in exactly the same way. Does he really mean that, because the concern has been repeatedly expressed in the debate that some pedlars behave as though they are street traders—which is something quite different—but do so in a way that makes it impossible to make the law enforceable?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I will try to clarify the position. I was trying to say—probably unsuccessfully—that there is a major difference. In Manchester, street traders are charged £623 whereas the figure for a pedlar is £12.25. There is no similarity; they operate in different ways. I hope that that clarifies the position.

Mr. Greg Knight: Does my hon. Friend accept that we should view with some scepticism any opinions expressed by the LGA, and when we gather evidence we need evidence other than the fact that councils want these powers? Local authorities might want these powers because the fact that pedlars can operate at a cheaper rate shows that their high fees for street trading are unjustifiable.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I was going to come on to that point, but may I first remonstrate with the LGA? I am concerned that it has taken so long to get on to this issue, which has been around for a long time. Successive
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Governments have tinkered with it. In respect of the last reviews of the statutory obligations, the Government accepted all nine recommendations, but I am not aware of the LGA having put forward any form of consultative document on that. It has been very slow.

On the fees, of course local councils want to raise more money. If Canterbury, Bournemouth and elsewhere, including Manchester, had their wits about them, they would increase those fees—to, say, £600—and door-to-door salesmen, or pedlars, or whatever we want to call them, would be priced out of business. That would be unfortunate, because people should not be precluded from going from door to door; that should be encouraged. The point has been made—we all know this, as we have recently had a by-election in Crewe and Nantwich—that we are not always welcomed on doorsteps. Surely one has the right to be able to go from door to door; that activity should not be covered by the Bill and we should not allow its prohibition in the longer term.

I had promised to speak for only 10 minutes, but I wish to make a final point. Enforcement is possible as things stand, but it requires people who are willing to do it. We have heard a lot of arguments today that it costs such and such a figure, but there are ways of enforcing this and they should be used. We do not have to introduce new Bills and new statutory obligations. Let us leave things to the review that the Government are going to undertake, and let us see what the rights and wrongs are. As I have said before to hon. Members in this debate, what evidence do we have that our system is not working? The evidence is pitifully little. I suggest that councillors need to take a stronger line, using trading standards, the police and their own council resources—CCTV and so on—to administer this situation, because it is not beyond the wit of man. If we can solve parking problems, we can solve a lot of things in city centres. Let us be honest, the matter is a bit of a hot potato, with various crimes that I do not need to discuss, but I am sure that we could deal with this.

I continue to oppose this Bill, because I strongly believe that it is not the way to make progress. I believe that we need a framework document, put together by the Government and enacted either by this Government or the next Government—I know who that will be; it will be our Government. I would like to think that we could have this debate again after the autumn, when we could look at what the Government are proposing in much more detail. At that point, we should stop what is going on and examine it in the cold light of day, before we make another mistake.

6.21 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The first thing that is apparent is that my blocking motion has ensured that none of these six Bills received a Second Reading on the nod. The quality of today’s debate has shown that I was right to insist that the Bills should be properly debated on Second Reading. The Minister’s statement and the major policy announcement made by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), would not have been possible but for this debate.

Mr. Greg Knight: Will my hon. Friend not waste any time in speaking to the Nottingham City Council Bill? We have not heard from any Nottingham Member, so I can only conclude that that Bill is not required.

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Mr. Chope: I had not yet got on to Nottingham. I was going to begin by discussing Bournemouth, because that is closer to home and my constituency. Those hon. Members who were not able to listen to BBC Radio Solent this morning might like to know that on it, Mark Smith, Bournemouth borough council’s head of tourism, asserted that he thought one of the problems in Bournemouth town centre was that pedlars were harassing people. Many people subsequently phoned in, e-mailed or sent text messages to BBC Radio Solent saying that they disagreed fundamentally with what he had said. The context of that discussion was very much that the case had not been proved for introducing such draconian changes to the law on a unilateral basis, which is what Bournemouth borough council intends to do.

May I briefly share with the House some correspondence that I have had with the store manager of Marks & Spencer in Bournemouth? He wrote to me expressing concern about my attitude to the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill. I wrote back saying:

He has not responded to that question. I also asked him:

—the people who are at the beginning of an entrepreneurial career—

I have yet to receive a response to that either.

Mr. Ellwood: Now that my hon. Friend has alienated Marks & Spencer, I am not sure where he will now buy his underwear—perhaps Beales in Bournemouth. He mentioned balloons, but they can still be sold in Bournemouth or Christchurch. It is simply that, under the new legislation, they will be sold legally. That is the point of the change.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend misunderstands the law. At the moment, someone with a lawful pedlars certificate can sell balloons wherever he wishes. If my hon. Friend has his way and the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill becomes law, it will no longer be possible for someone with a certificate to sell balloons on the street in Bournemouth unless he also has a street trading licence for which he may have to pay a substantial amount of money.

The issue of pedlars is romantic and evokes entrepreneurs of a previous age. W. B. Rands, the originator of The Boy’s Own Paper, had a little ditty about them:

That is most people’s view of the pedlar—someone who travels from town to town selling his wares and passing the time of day with his customers. The essence of the law is that he seeks out his customers rather than expecting them to come to him, in the same way as we go out canvassing during elections. We go to meet our constituents rather than expecting them to come to us at our surgeries, which is the form the rest of the time.

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Tony Lloyd: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, because while he has intervened, he has not used an excessive amount of time today. He made a point about the quality of the debate today, but does he agree that it would be in the interests of the pedlars, whose cause he espouses, if we could move from this Second Reading debate to more detailed consideration in Committee?

Mr. Chope: I am sure that in due course the Bills will get a Second Reading. It would be better, in terms of the costs for the councils that are promoting the Bills, if the Committee stages did not start until after we have had the evidence from the Durham university study. That would prevent abortive expenditure by the local authorities and that evidence would also inform the Committee stage. Our procedures mean that persistence pays off and, in due course, the Bills will get a Second Reading, if enough people vote for them. But whether that will be today, I can only speculate.

As a local resident close to the Bournemouth conurbation, I have made it my business to try to be the healer in this issue. I went in January to an early-morning meeting at Bournemouth town hall to discuss possible compromises in relation to the objection that I was making to the Bill. I have to express my disappointment that I have not had a full response from the council to some of the concerns that I expressed. I asked one of the key councillors, in writing, whether he could let me know what estimate he had of the number of lawful pedlars operating in Bournemouth, what consultations had been carried out with those people about the contents of the Bill—

It being t hree hours after the commencement of proceedings on the private business set down by the Chairman of Ways and Means , Madam Deputy Speaker interrupted the business pursuant to Order [4 June].

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Thursday 19 June.

Bournemouth borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second Time on Thursday 19 June.

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