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3.59 pm

Sitting suspended (Standing Order No. 20).

3 Jun 2009 : Column 329

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order )

Second Reading

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Before I call the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), I wish to inform Members that I believe that it will be for the convenience of the House if we debate the Leeds City Council Bill, the Nottingham City Council Bill and the Reading Borough Council Bill together. I also wish to remind Members of the rulings I have given on the previous occasions when this substantive matter has been before the House. As three Bills that bear a considerable likeness to those before the House today have gone through, it seems to me to be in our best interests to make progress in the determination of the House’s view on the Bills before us today so that there can, more or less, be parity of treatment in later stages of proceedings, as I understand that some of the promoters of the Bills may wish to propose detailed amendments if the House grants these Bills a Committee stage.

4.1 pm

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill follows on from other Bills that have already been debated at length. We have discussed the purposes of the Bills and the definitions of pedlars and street traders, and I do not intend to rehearse those arguments—I abide by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) cannot be with us today as, sadly, he is unwell; we wish him well. He said in our last deliberations:

I hope we can proceed in that spirit this afternoon.

On the Leeds Bill, the problems the city faces in these matters are similar to those faced by other cities with strong, dynamic centres: the difficulties of enforcing street-trading legislation against people who are, effectively, acting as street traders but under the guise of pedlars. These people cause great resentment among licensed street traders, who pay significant sums for their licences, and among retailers, who pay rent and rates. Following on from the publication of the Durham university report and, not least, taking into account the long deliberations in this House, Leeds city council suggests an amendment that will be formally made in Committee if its Bill proceeds today, as I hope it will. The amendment would enable pedlars to continue to trade in most areas of the city as long as they do not use stalls or other physical means of support; that is subject to a clear definition. That is a significant, practical and workable concession as a result of this House’s deliberations and comments made in the other place.

I should like to refer to the results of two court cases against illegal street traders in the city of Leeds that came before magistrates on 15 May this year as examples that drive home why Leeds needs this Bill. The first offender did not attend the court and the case was proved. He was fined just £50, with £350 costs. The second offender attended the court and pleaded guilty to six counts of illegal street trading, but due to outstanding fines and costs for other matters he was given a conditional discharge for one year and no order for costs. From
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both those cases we could conclude that the current arrangements are ineffective and make it worth while for illegal street traders to carry on their activities because they are safe in the knowledge that any sanctions are unlikely to result in any financial deterrent.

In a similar case before the courts, proceedings were taken against an illegal flower seller who had seriously undermined the business of others in the city. It is therefore clear that businesses can be undermined by such illegal activities. Those examples illustrate that Leeds has an enforcement problem in relation to illegal street traders.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): As always, the right hon. Gentleman is a powerful advocate for Leeds. I represent the neighbouring district of Bradford and in particular Shipley, and I have a concern. If this is such a big problem in Leeds and is to be dealt with at a Leeds level, what reassurance can be given that the problem will not simply move across the boundary to Shipley or the wider Bradford district? Would it not be better to tackle this problem from a national perspective, rather than looking after the interests of Leeds alone?

John Battle: I shall simply make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, the Durham report suggests that there could be local, rather than national, solutions to this problem. We take that on board, and I respect the Durham report. Secondly, I walk regularly from my constituency to his, which is 12 miles along the Leeds and Liverpool canal. One has to go through my constituency and a few others to get to his, so if the problem were to migrate out of the city centre, it would come into my neighbourhood first. I have no intention of seeing the problem simply migrate, and I hope he would accept that reassurance.

The amendment to be proposed by Leeds takes on board the Durham research published earlier this year that suggests that there is no evidence to support the removal of the pedlars’ exemption from the national street trading regime. This proposal aims simply to get a grip on the streets in the centre and those who, as it were, pretend that they are engaged in street trading when they are really engaged in peddling—the amendment will help to achieve that. I hope that Members on both sides of this House will give this modest Bill a fair wind and that the amendment might help others too. Let us get this Bill through its Second Reading and into Committee. Let us iron out the details and let us give the councils the enforcement help that they need, because that is the crucial issue at this stage.

4.6 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): First, may I make an apology on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who is unwell? He has a detached retina, which has been incredibly painful. I know that he was very keen to be here to continue debating these matters, but unfortunately he is not able to attend. I can report that he is well on the way to recovery. Although it will not be much longer before he is back in the House, I am sure that we will all miss him in this particular debate.

I accept the ruling that you made at the start, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and my intention is not to delay the House unduly, but it is important to go through some of the
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arguments. It would be fair to begin by praising the people in Leeds and Reading, who have shown a great desire to compromise, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said. They have looked at the issue, listened to the debate as the Bills have gone through the House and agreed to address some of the legitimate concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I therefore see no reason why the Bills that relate specifically to Leeds and Reading should not be agreed to fairly readily.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for reaching out across the House. Does he acknowledge that, just as Labour Members are not seeking to restrict unduly the legitimate work of legal pedlars, we are deeply concerned about people using our ancient pedlar procedure as a flag of convenience to undermine legitimate traders who pay hard cash for their market stalls?

Philip Davies: I appreciate the points made by the hon. Gentleman, who is, again, a powerful advocate for his town. We may disagree on the extent of the problem. I still have a concern that this is a solution looking for a problem; I am not sure that there is a massive problem. In the spirit of co-operation, I shall certainly praise the approach that Reading has taken in finding a sensible compromise that not only suits its needs, but protects the legitimate rights of pedlars. Therefore, I see no reason why the Bills relating to Leeds and Reading should not be readily agreed.

The case is slightly different as regards Nottingham. My understanding—the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) may well be able to help here—is that Nottingham has not been quite as keen as Leeds or Reading to co-operate and recognise some of the legitimate concerns raised, particularly those discussed in previous debates by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I hope that before we finally consider whether to divide on the Bills, the hon. Member for Nottingham, East might offer some reassurance that Nottingham will go down a similar line to Leeds and Reading and will look to incorporate some of the compromises that those cities have adopted.

It is important to consider, albeit briefly, some new points that have emerged from the report published by the university of Durham, which was not available to the House when we previously debated these matters.

As the House will know, in paragraph 4 of a statement made by the promoters of the Bills they state:

In paragraph 5, they go on to quote the report from Durham university:

The promoters use that statement to argue against any further delay or debate about these matters, but the Durham university report, published since those Second Reading debates, makes it clear—in paragraph 212,
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page 70, if anybody has a copy of the report—that there should be a heavy burden of proof attached to those seeking private legislation

My contention is that no such case has been made for any of these cities, as far as I am aware.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) quoted two recent court cases from 15 May, which, in the case of Leeds, prove that the sanctions against such street traders are simply not tough enough. The results of those cases prove that those sanctions act as no deterrent to such individuals. Has the hon. Gentleman been to the centre of Leeds on a busy Saturday, or even during the week, and seen some of the illegal street trading that is going on? He would realise, then, that this is not a solution looking for a problem but very much a problem that needs this solution.

Philip Davies: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but are one or two examples sufficient to make us go through the whole process of a new Act of Parliament and to justify the time that is being taken up? In answer to his question, I have regularly visited the centre of Leeds. In fact, in the eight years before I entered Parliament I worked in the centre of Leeds for Asda. I am well aware of the pros and cons of Leeds city centre, but I am not entirely sure that in the haste to get the Bills passed we have heard a coherent case about the problems encountered.

The Durham university report shows that the test for the legislation should be quite high. It appears to me, at the moment, that we are being asked to support the Bills on the basis of rather limited information. It would help if we had some firm evidence of the problems. I welcome the specific examples relating to Leeds that the right hon. Member for Leeds, West cited and I hope that we will hear the same points made about Reading and, in particular, about Nottingham. Given Nottingham’s reluctance to compromise at all, above all else the council must demonstrate that it has a specific problem that cannot be dealt with under existing powers. So where is that evidence? Paragraph 211 on page 70 of the Durham university report states that those who took part in its public survey

The report does not seem to be stating that there is a great case for the Bills; it seems to be saying something rather different. It goes on to say that there is

and that the people surveyed

I am not entirely sure whether the Durham university report makes the case for the promoters of the Bills, as they try to indicate in their statement. The report concluded that

Paragraph 6 of the statement from the promoters of the Bills says that

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That statement misunderstands the fact that it is imperative, before approval be given, in principle, to the restriction of rights of pedlars on Second Reading, that there should be

as the Durham university report said.

I am not a big fan of the idea that we should say, “Let’s agree to anything on Second Reading, because all matters can be decided, one way or the other, in Committee. If we think that we have got it wrong, we can change things then. We can always vote against the measure on Third Reading.” That seems rather a strange approach to parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary legislation, because on that basis, presumably no one would ever vote against the Second Reading of anything. We might say, “We can deal with all the issues in Committee,” but that is not sufficient reason to support the Bills on Second Reading.

Nottingham is, it seems, the least keen to compromise. If there is such a serious problem in Nottingham that the city not only needs the Nottingham City Council Bill to be agreed to, but is not even prepared to compromise on it, presumably it should not be difficult to provide some cogent evidence and some good examples of where the problem is. However, the only evidence that the House has had drawn to its attention is on page 34 of the Durham university report, which shows that in 2006, in the whole of the Nottinghamshire police force area, only two defendants were found guilty of offences under the Pedlars Act 1871. In 2005, the number was seven, and in 2004 it was four. I would submit that that does not indicate that there is an issue of such gravity and importance that the House should spend, or perhaps waste, time and money considering legislation to cover Nottingham specifically.

All the evidence from the report, which the Government commissioned, suggests that there is not really much of a problem in Nottingham. Perhaps the promoters of the Bills—again, I look particularly to the promoters of the Nottingham City Council Bill—can let us have the details of whether the offences identified in the report took place in the city of Nottingham, or a different part of the Nottinghamshire police force area. That is not entirely clear from the information that we have. Perhaps they can also tell us what the nature of the offences was, so that we can have a basis on which to decide whether we need legislation for Nottingham. I genuinely think that the case has not been made. I have attended all the Second Reading debates that we have had on such Bills, and I have heard little from those who support the Bills about why the Bills are so good. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West probably made the best case that I have heard at such a Second Reading, even though his speech was incredibly brief. We need people to put forward a case before the House accepts it; it should not accept the proposals willy-nilly without even challenging whether they are necessary.

I come back to the point that I made in my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman. I represent a seat neighbouring Leeds, and I absolutely understand that his constituency
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is much nearer the centre of Leeds than mine is. If anyone were to move from Leeds to Shipley, they would certainly go through his patch. They may well not even come to Shipley, but go straight to Bradford or somewhere else. However, Members who represent neighbouring areas should be concerned.

On page 32 of the report, paragraph 94 deals with the number of complaints that have been made and the number of prosecutions that have taken place. The report examines the particularly high rate of guilty verdicts in Derbyshire and Kent under the terms of the Pedlars Act and states:

So the Durham university report clearly makes the point that by restricting the rights of pedlars in specific centres, there is a good chance that they will move to other parts of the country.

It seems perverse for us as a national Parliament to say it is all right to restrict pedlars in particular cities, but we are happy for them to move on to other cities nearby. That is a bizarre and divisive approach for a national Parliament to take. I know the point has been made before, so in line with Mr. Deputy Speaker’s ruling, I shall not go over it, but that paragraph of the report is important for people living in areas neighbouring the cities under discussion. We should consider whether there is a national problem and whether we need national legislation, rather than adopting a piecemeal approach which may suit the centre of Leeds, Nottingham or Reading, but gives no thought to cities and towns nearby.

When we come to decide these matters, potentially in a vote, I see no reason why the Bills that relate to Leeds and Reading should not progress to Committee, even though we do not yet have the results of the Government’s consultation. Those cities are keen to compromise, and in that spirit we should not unduly delay the progress of those Bills. I hope they will be able to proceed without the need for a Division.

However, the case for Nottingham has not been made. The Durham university report does not show that there is a particular problem in Nottingham, as opposed to any other part of the country. If the case is not made properly, the House should decide that that Bill does not deserve a Second Reading today.

4.23 pm

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): I shall be brief, as I recognise that the subject has been debated for almost a year. For anyone to pretend now that we have not heard all the arguments and that we need to produce details is nonsense. I do not need to produce any evidence of what is happening in Nottingham in order to make a decision.

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