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So the promoters could argue that they are trying to be cost-effective in not leaving the matter in abeyance by waiting to hear what the Government say and starting again at a later stage.

Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is noted for his contrariness on such occasions, and it is important that that point should be put on the record—it does not appear that anyone else was intending to refer to it. My response would be that the relatively small fees associated with the placing of a private Bill in Parliament are modest compared with the costs of giving evidence and providing support during the Committee stage in respect of parts of the Bill that subsequently come to be regarded as redundant or incapable of achieving enactment.
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My right hon. Friend’s background and knowledge as a distinguished lawyer show that he is without self-interest in these matters. He is always as keen to minimise costs to members of the public as he used to be to his clients.

In summary, I have some strong reservations about the merits of reviving the Bills, and I hope that I am not the only Member who has such reservations.

7.52 pm

The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Gareth Thomas): As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd). I welcome this opportunity to consider the revival motions and I will listen with interest to the contributions from other hon. Members.

In an attempt to inform the debate and to help Members in deciding whether to support the motions, I thought that I should comment on the research referred to by the hon. Gentleman. While I have considerable respect for him, as I do for every right hon. and hon. Member, I would not want the House to allow his view of what he thinks the Government’s position should be to stand without any Government comment. I should also make it clear that, following the custom, the Government do not take any view on the content or progress of private Bills—that is a matter for Parliament.

The House will be aware that the research I was able to announce when these Bills were debated last June was published by my Department in February this year. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, we agree with the main conclusions from the research findings. First, there is scope for a more flexible enforcement regime in respect of unlicensed street trading, including the possibility of less burdensome options to criminal prosecution. Secondly, there would be support from Government for national guidance on the meaning and application of the current arrangements, which contain ambiguities, the interpretation of which varies across the country, as the research found. Thirdly, we accept too that there is scope for modernising the Pedlars Act 1871, for example by updating and standardising the pedlar’s certificate to enable easier identification of genuine certificates and to clarify the definition of permitted activities of certified pedlars, among other things. I also want to acknowledge that the Government accept that, in some areas and on some occasions, there might be a reasonable case for additional restrictions.

As to what our next steps will be, I should tell the House that there has already been considerable feedback on the research from various organisations, as well as from licensed street traders, individual certified pedlars, and local authorities and so on. Last month, my officials met representatives from the local authorities whose Bills are under discussion tonight. Hon. Members might wish to note that that this summer, my Department will be issuing a consultation document and will seek views from as wide a constituency as we can on the findings of the research and on possible ways forward.

I am not yet in a position to set out firm proposals, but I expect that, in general, the consultation would cover more flexible enforcement tools, the possibility of guidance for pedlars and enforcers, the question of updating the Pedlars Act and the possibility of adapting the street trader licensing scheme in respect of the activities of pedlars.

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I and others in Government have not formed our view on what the exact response to the research should be. We genuinely want feedback and evidence from as wide a group as possible to help us think through the various options. Developments in the consultation will be highlighted on the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform website. I hope that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) will follow it and study it with a little more care, if he will forgive me for saying so, in future.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about consultation and I am sure that he will be consulting local authorities and local councils. Will he also give a commitment to consulting business improvement district boards, where they exist, across the country? They take a particular view about the areas that they represent in relation to this issue.

Mr. Thomas: I certainly want the views of business. I would welcome comments from business improvement districts, and I welcome the chance to put that on the record. I shall certainly ensure that my officials consider whether there are particular business improvement districts to which we need to ensure that we highlight the consultation document.

Finally, I should make it clear that the Government would not have a problem if the revival motions were to be carried.

Philip Davies: Does the Minister not understand, though, the logic of the argument? I commend the Government for what they are doing, for having commissioned the report and for carrying out extensive consultation. That is certainly to be welcomed. However, does he not understand the logic of the position that reviving the Bills would be premature, given that the Government are undertaking a process that which should be welcomed by both sides of the House?

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to have the hon. Gentleman’s support. I hope that he will be sufficiently open-minded to support more of what the Government are seeking to do. Let me point him gently towards the point made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). The Government accept that, on occasion, there are particular circumstances in particular areas that are worthy of consideration.

Mr. Chope: The Minister is being typically generous in giving way. May I press him a little further on the time scale, because that is obviously very relevant to our debate this evening? If he issues the consultation paper in the summer, when will he expect the closing date for that consultation to be? When does he anticipate that the Government would make an announcement? Would there be the possibility, for example, that legislation might be introduced, if the Government reached the conclusion that that was necessary, during the next Session of Parliament? If he could answer that question, it might give some of the promoters of these Bills grounds to say, “Let’s hold our horses for the time being.”

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is sufficiently long in the tooth to know that I cannot tonight give commitments about legislation in the way that he would like. I recognise that there is concern about this issue across the House,
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and that is one of the reasons why we took the initiative to carry out the research. We want to respond to hon. Members’ concerns about the need for a national response to the issue, and to make progress as quickly as possible.

Finally, I return to the point that I was making when the hon. Member for Shipley intervened, which is that the Government would not have a problem if the revival motions were to be carried tonight.

8 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, the genesis of these revival motions was as long ago as 22 January 2007. We had a considerable debate on this matter on Second Reading on 2 June 2008, there was a further debate on 29 October 2008, and here we are today with these revival motions. The private Bills that we are seeking to revive all do much the same thing—that is, they try to incorporate the definition in clause 3 of the Pedlars Act 1871 into schedule 4 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982.

Much of the debate about the Bill does not focus on the true problem of what a pedlar is. Does he go from door to door, or occupy the same spot in a market square every day? It is a debatable point. To be totally clear, the House needs to hear again how chapter 96 of the 1871 Act defines a pedlar. Clause 3 states:

It is obvious that a pedlar is very different from a street market trader, who is covered by different legislation. The legislation covering pedlars requires them to go to the local police for a certificate, which they can usually obtain for about £12 or £15, whereas a street market trader has to obtain a licence from the local authority that costs in the region of £500 to £1,000. That is a different order of cost.

Tony Lloyd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am happy to give way to the sponsor of the Manchester Bill.

Tony Lloyd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall be brief, as I do not want to encourage long speeches. Will he confirm that what he said is not absolutely accurate, in that to obtain a pedlar’s licence a person does not have to go to the local police force in the area where he or she intends to peddle? The licence can be obtained from any force, even though its officers know nothing about the area where the purported trade might take place.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and he makes a point that I was coming to. For purposes of convenience, a pedlar would normally go to his local police force, but he does not necessarily have to do so. Having got a certificate, he can trade in any
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area where legislation does not prohibit him from doing so. At the moment, therefore, he can trade in Manchester, Bournemouth, Canterbury or any other area of the country, provided that he has that certificate.

That is part of the problem, and I was delighted to hear what the Minister said about the Government’s intentions in relation to the Durham study. Anyone interested in the subject should read that study—or at least its summary, opening remarks and some of its evidence on prosecutions and complaints—as I think that the problem may have been exaggerated around the country. I think that, on the whole, the perceived problem is much greater than the actual problem because, on the whole, pedlars are law-abiding people who go about their business peacefully.

The main complaint is about competition, given the procedure that I described: pedlars can buy a certificate for £12 or £15, whereas a street trader has to pay between £500 and £1,000. Street traders object to pedlars trading alongside them—sometimes with exactly the same sort of goods, be it balloons, trinkets, bits of jewellery or whatever—because there is unfair competition. That is where some of the complaints stem from.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend has great mastery of the subject and of the Durham report. May I draw to his attention an extract from page 66? It states:

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend usefully draws attention to that paragraph, but somewhere else the report notes that competition is one of the causes of complaint. On the whole, the number of complaints in any local authority area is fairly low, so it seems to me that every sponsor of such a Bill—the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) has spoken in support of his Bill—has to make a crystal-clear case as to why their Bill should be revived.

Like the Government, the Opposition have no particular view officially about whether the Bills should be revived. I have no problem if they are revived; if the House in its wisdom votes in favour of their revival and they go into Committee, I have no problem with that. Even if they go through Committee, pass their other stages and are enacted I shall have no problem with it. However, when we discussed the matter on 12 June 2008 I argued from the Opposition Benches that we should have a national study. We now have such a study and on the whole it concludes that there are special circumstances in each local authority area. On the whole, contrary to what I argued on 12 June 2008, the Durham report seems to make it clear that each local case should be taken on its merits, although whether that will continue to be the prevailing view I do not know.

As to whether the Bills should be revived, I was delighted to hear from the Minister at the Dispatch Box that we shall have new guidance from his Department when it has taken evidence. That is really important. Evidence is the key to the whole matter. I repeat even more strongly that it is up to each local authority area that brings forward a Bill to produce evidence of why it needs those powers. All too often in this country—in this place, if nowhere else—we tend to rush into legislation
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because there is a perceived problem. There may indeed be a small actual problem, but one has to consider whether it is sufficient to warrant a change in legislation.

There is no doubt that a change in legislation would make the act of peddling a very different craft—if we can call it that—from what it is at present, so I was pleased to hear that the Government have embarked on gathering evidence from any interested party. Once they have the evidence they will produce guidance, which will run along some of the useful lines to which the Durham report alludes.

We need better methods of enforcement and of issuing certificates. The certificates need to be clear; they need to include a photograph and to be held on a national database. They should be enforceable across the country, so that a pedlar moving from Manchester to Canterbury to Bournemouth can be apprehended and prosecuted if he is misbehaving. We want clear laws that are easily interpreted and operated, so I was delighted to hear about the guidance.

I was delighted to hear that the whole licensing regime will be considered. At present, the local police force issues the licence—or in fact, it may not be the local police force, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Central said. That police force would be relying only on Criminal Records Bureau information, not even local knowledge of the person and whether they are a true and fit person to hold such a certificate. We need to tighten up that procedure.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman admit that a residency requirement must be met to obtain a certificate from the police force? That suggests that the police force involved would have to be the local police force.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am delighted to hear that intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who of course has a long record of trying to introduce a private Member’s Bill to amend national legislation, so that these private Bills are not necessary. We had a long argument about that in the previous debate on the subject, and I do not want to go over that again. There may be a residency requirement, but as the hon. Member for Manchester, Central, made absolutely clear, the person concerned does not have to go to his local police force. A person from Manchester can go to a police force in London, for example, to obtain a certificate. Although he needs to prove residency and prove a good character through the CRB records, there is no local knowledge of his character. That is a flaw in the argument. Some argue—indeed, in the Durham report it is argued—that the local authority should be the licensing authority, so that the provisions are coterminous with those in the street trading legislation. There are arguments for and against that.

I do not think that we want to prolong these proceedings too much, because I know that the sponsor of the Manchester City Council Bill—the hon. Member for Manchester, Central—and my hon. Friends want to get to a vote. It is important that we get to a vote, so that we can at least consider the next motion that is due to come before the House.

In summing up, I simply say that the whole thing is very unsatisfactory; I think that the whole House would agree with that. The private Bill procedure is arcane. It
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is difficult to get a private Bill through the House, and it is expensive and time-consuming for a local authority. I therefore maintain my position, despite what the Durham report says. That is why I shall be very interested to see what happens. If we come into government after the next election, we will certainly continue the Government’s process of gathering evidence, producing guidance and considering whether the national legislation needs to be altered. If we are not careful, we will, in addition to having to consider the Bills before the House tonight, be here many times considering similar Bills from other local authorities. That is an unsatisfactory way to deal with the matter, and it is a very bad use of the House’s time.

8.12 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The question before us tonight is whether the Bills should be allowed to be revived. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) says no; he says that the Durham report has discredited the provisions of the Bills. He says that the Government will produce their own report over the summer. However, there is to be a free vote; the Government have said that they will not oppose the motion. The question tonight is really whether the will of the House should be observed, and whether a small number of MPs should be allowed to hold up the progress that will apparently—we will find out—start to be made. If there are flaws in the Bills, why not let them make progress? Why not allow the hon. Gentleman to use his undoubted extensive knowledge in Committee, where he can help to iron out the flaws that he perceives?

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who speaks for the Conservatives, has said that many local authorities have already got their private Bills through the House. It seems inequitable for us to try to halt the process now. The train is in motion, but suddenly we are having to put the brakes on. That means that some local authorities can implement their private legislation, but some will not be able to do so. If whether the Bills can make progress is at the discretion of the House, we should let the House divide and decide. Councils are suffering because of the problems caused by pedlars. Of course they want to serve the best interests of their constituents.

We have heard from the Minister that, if the Bills are not revived and the process does not go through, the Government have agreed to carry out a consultation. My plea to them, on behalf of local authorities that have not introduced Bills, is that they should bring forward a national framework which local authorities can adopt through a byelaw at their own discretion. My colleagues and I will support the progress of the revival motions tonight.

8.15 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I shall be brief, as I had not intended to speak in the debate. We have heard a great deal about the merits of the Bills, but the issue tonight is whether such Bills should be revived. It is rather like an LBW decision. All the boxes must be ticked to make sure that they apply, so that the Bills can be revived.

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