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3 Jun 2009 : Column 341

I have also engaged in correspondence with the Berkshire West BCU commander Richard Bennett, who has informed me that the police are required to regulate pedlars while the local council regulates street traders. There is therefore a division of responsibility. The main conflict occurs when people use pedlar certificates to avoid the regulations and limitations placed on street traders. One of the main barriers to prosecution is the requirement on pedlars to keep moving. Is it sensible to ask our police to regulate that, and make them watch pedlars, who pull big trolleys up and down Broad street, waiting for them to stop for a period of time so that they can prosecute them? Is that not a waste of valuable time and resources, when the police could engage with far greater priorities for my constituents?

Philip Davies: I believe that my hon. Friend’s constituency is covered by Thames Valley police. According to the Durham university report, three people were found guilty of offences in 2006 under the Pedlars Act 1871, and in 2005, there were no prosecutions. Is my hon. Friend saying that there is a big problem but the police do not have the resources to deal with it, or that the conviction rate is so low because there is not that much of problem in Reading? Is he saying that there is a problem, but the police simply have no time or resources to tackle it?

Mr. Wilson: From my direct experience, I can say that there is a problem. There are a significant number of pedlars, but the difficulty is proving that they have committed an offence. One has to watch pedlars pulling trolleys up and down the street for a long time—several hours. There can be six, eight, sometimes even 10 big trolleys—some are the size of a street stall. That is not easy to police and one has to watch carefully if one wants the prosecution to stick. It is a question of resources, and I sympathise with the police’s problem, which is why it is probably better for the local authority to play a bigger role in policing peddling.

Rather than expecting the police to take action against pedlars, it is much better that local authorities should have sufficient powers to regulate the offending behaviour themselves. Richard Bennett also reiterated the fact that neighbourhood policing is not intended to address all the licensing and trading issues that the local authority is meant to control. The local police response was that Reading borough council has a responsibility to create the sort of conditions in the town centre that will help legitimate street traders to prosper.

The upshot of the police response is simple. Although each case is complex, giving limited additional powers to other agencies, such as Reading borough council, would increase the range of options available to all authorities to put sensible measures in place. Although I would not wish to generalise about other forces across the country, Reading police made it clear that it sees the Bill not as being about handing over power to the council, but as being about sharing responsibility, which will make enforcement action much quicker and more coherent.

That is a logical and sensible approach. If the Reading Borough Council Bill is passed, it would undoubtedly free up the police’s valuable resources to address more pressing issues in the Reading area. Steve Kirk, Reading’s local police area commander, has also written in support
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of the application for a change in the legislation, which, as we know, dates back to 1871. He says that the 1871 Act is now simply not fit for the purpose of controlling the activity that it was originally intended to control.

I want to draw hon. Members’ attention to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in our previous debate. He advocated dealing with the problem through an overarching, national solution, rather than through piecemeal legislation. He rightly asked: if the Reading Borough Council Bill receives Royal Assent, what is to stop other local authorities from seeking the same legislation in their town centres? Not only would valuable parliamentary time have to be found for each separate Bill, but there would be a detrimental effect on the public purse.

That is a serious point, because I understand that each such Bill that is brought to Parliament costs about £100,000. I understand that a portion of the cost of the Reading Borough Council Bill is being funded by the business improvement district, but perhaps there are better ways of spending local taxpayers’ money than bringing forward such Bills from across the country in the way that we are. I am digressing slightly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but with 50 Bills in the pipeline, a significant amount of public money would be needed to try to take them all through Parliament.

There is an argument that much of the current private legislation would be unnecessary if the Government agreed to a national legislative framework. Indeed, some hon. Members argued strongly for that in previous debates. That is one reason why I read with interest the research conducted by St. Chad’s college, Durham, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has referred, that was commissioned by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. That research raised several interesting points that are worthy of mention in this debate in relation to Reading borough council.

The research concluded that the scale of pedlary in the UK is relatively modest—although one would not know that from some of our debates—with an estimated 3,000 to 4,500 people being granted certificates by police forces across the country. The study found little evidence that certificated pedlars present problems in most city centres or that they are in direct competition with shops or street traders. The evidence also suggested that consumers value pedlars’ presence in town centres and regard buying from them as a positive experience, as I found when I was out looking at the issue in Reading town centre. The study ended by stating that there is no need for national legislation, although solutions may be required to deal with local problems in particular areas.

Although I have already highlighted the legal anomaly that would arise because of the split of my constituency into two areas under separate local authorities, I believe that the conclusions of the report are sensible and fair. It says that the most common desire of local authorities is to be able to exercise more flexible and powerful sanctions, such as the ability to seize goods, issue fixed penalty notices and move traders on. However, the most evident concern related to the issues of obstruction or public safety caused by large numbers of street traders gathering in small areas, such as around football grounds or in city centres in the run-up to Christmas. My experience in Reading town centre is that large numbers of pedlars gather there with their big trolleys.
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At certain times, that causes an obstruction and becomes a public safety issue for my constituents. There is therefore a need for action in that area.

Pedlars and police respondents to the research by the university of Durham also recognised the need to modernise and standardise, rather than repeal or replace, the 1871 Act. The inadequacies of the present system lead to inconsistency in enforcement practice between areas, which is exacerbated by a degree of ignorance among enforcement officers. I am sure that we all agree that greater clarity on this issue is needed for enforcement officers and pedlars alike. Interestingly, many of the local authorities that submitted evidence said that there were few, if any, difficulties stemming from illegal street trading. Only half the local authority respondents wished to change the existing legislation. This shows that, while certain councils—Reading included—wish to add to their statutory powers, many are happy with the status quo. Such information raises concerns about how important the new legislation really is. The Durham research concluded that possible changes to procedures relating to pedlars could include a more concrete nationally applicable set of definitions and guidelines relating to the issuing of certificates and to pedlars’ activities, the redesign and standardisation of the pedlars’ certificate and a greater burden on the pedlar to prove that they are a legitimate trader.

As a former entrepreneur—indeed, I still like to think of myself as a businessman—I strongly believe in the right to free, open and fair trade. I do not wish in any way to be seen to be against pedlars, because legitimate traders have a rightful place on every high street and add to the colour and diversity of our towns and cities. I do not want this legislation to drive out the genuine pedlar. However, I also do not believe that an ambiguity in the law should enable certain individuals to flout the rules at the expense of others.

Having aired these arguments and raised a few points of continued concern, I am going to support the Bill on this occasion, but on the clear understanding that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch—whose diligence must be commended—has brokered a very sensible compromise with Reading borough council. I congratulate the borough officer responsible, Clare Bradley, on agreeing a sensible compromise that all parties, including myself, appear to be happy with. That compromise will allow pedlars to continue to trade in the heart of my constituency, but without using the massive rolling trolleys to which I have referred. They are more akin to street traders’ stalls on wheels, and they allow unfair competition. The pedlars will be able to trade in the more traditional way intended, and their enterprise will therefore be properly rewarded. I welcome the compromise and will therefore not detain the House any further.

4.58 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): It would be churlish of me not to welcome the conversion of the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), but it is fair to say that it has been some time coming. The House has been entertained by hon. Members airing of the arguments on the Durham university report on many occasions. I welcome the fact that a compromise has been struck.

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In the short contribution that I made earlier, I sought to highlight that there was no intention by Reading borough council or its officers—or, indeed, the business community of Reading—to restrict the more traditional role of the pedlar. There is, however, a problem with their wheeled monstrosities. I call them that because I have seen bogus pedlars trying to move them, and it can take four or five people to move them only a yard or two. Reports from the police and from the council officer concerned show that attempts to move these mobile stalls have resulted in goods and wares falling on to the ground in a chaotic manner.

My experience of trying to buy something from a pedlar is less romantic than that of the hon. Member for Reading, East. The last time I approached a pedlar in Reading town centre, I was just about to investigate his wares when he was arrested by the police and the Border and Immigration Agency and subsequently deported as an illegal immigrant. So there is, I am afraid, a direct parallel, with people using the pedlar certificate and the arcane provisions of the Pedlars Act 1871 as a straightforward flag of convenience—this applies in Reading and in other communities—in order to undercut, undermine and provide unfair competition for legitimate street traders.

It is worth reading into the record that the street trader fees currently levied for Broad street in the centre of Reading are £5,425 a year—and there were six of these at the time—so it equates to approximately £15 a day, whereas a pedlar’s certificate can be obtained anywhere in the country, I believe, for about £12.50.

It is also worth stating, notwithstanding the Durham report—much of it does not apply to Reading because Reading does not restrict pedlars or street traders to the peripheries of the town centre—that the definition of a pedlar is somewhat arcane in itself. According to the definition in the 1871 Act, a pedlar is

whatever that means—

Now, about 130 years down the track, it is time to define exactly what we mean by pedlar in the modern context. I have to say that some of the starry-eyed romanticism I heard from the hon. Member for Reading, East—not so much in his recent contribution as in previous ones—is well wide of the mark.

When it comes to the Reading Borough Council Bill, I very much regret the fact that while making provision for important measures to support legitimate businesses in our communities, we are putting increasing and unnecessary pressures on the police, and so on and so forth. I worry that we are proceeding through the measure of a private Bill and I worry about all the expense, the trouble and all the parliamentary time taken up. However, we are where we are. As the former Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, once said, we have to live in the world as we find it, and the world as we find it in Reading is that we have a real, live problem that needs to be dealt with. I am thus delighted that it looks as though we are going to send this Bill on to due parliamentary process this afternoon.

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The Bill is supported by the business investment district, which is a coalition of Reading street traders, by the Thames Valley police, by all parties on Reading borough council and particularly by the legal street traders who pay their dues. I seriously take issue with the hon. Member for Reading, East about the notion of consumer rights, particularly the idea that we should somehow frame a policy prescription for consumer rights on the basis that it does not really matter whether a chain store is going to be there today or tomorrow. If people are ripped off and sold dodgy goods, it is important that, wherever possible, they have the opportunity to take them back to the specific retailer. I very much regret the fact that Woolworths went under—it is no laughing matter—but I would certainly not frame public policy on the basis that because any business may cease trading at any time, we do not need to worry about the rights of consumers.

Mr. Rob Wilson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Salter: Very briefly.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman, who I thank for giving way, is operating under a misunderstanding. If he read the Hansard, he would find that I was directly reporting the comments of one of my constituents rather than commenting about Woolworths myself, so he should correct his error.

Martin Salter: Frankly, if I read some of the speeches on this subject, I would lose the will to live, but I will certainly check the Hansard to ensure that I have not misrepresented the hon. Gentleman’s laughing at the closure of Woolworths in Reading, which I think many people view as a matter of regret.

As to where we go from here, I hope that all these Bills will pass to their next stages and that we can continue the consensus that we have finally forged. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have sought to find a solution to a very real problem, albeit through a rather tortuous parliamentary route.

5.5 pm

The Minister for Trade, Development and Consumer Affairs (Mr. Gareth Thomas): This has been an interesting debate, which has carried on from previous discussions of similar private Bills.

I acknowledge the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), who is a great champion of his city. He made a short, concise but nevertheless significant speech in favour of the Leeds City Council Bill, backed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton). My right hon. Friend noted in particular an amendment proposed by Leeds. I share his regret at the absence of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope)—I am not sure he will welcome the Government wishing him well in his recovery, but I do so nevertheless.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made a series of interesting points, and has clearly been doing his research. As part of that, I hope he is now reading the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform website—a confession to which he alluded in previous debates—more thoroughly and rigorously. I am happy to be corrected by him, but he seemed to argue that either there is a national problem in relation
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to pedlar legislation and the way in which pedlars are handled or there is not. Although I acknowledge the number of private Bills that have been brought to the attention of the House, the number of local authorities across the UK that have not sought to introduce legislation on the issue to date is also worth noting.

There has been growing pressure on the Government to consider the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has been particularly astute in his consistent lobbying of the Government to take action. As the House knows, we have responded to such calls.

Philip Davies: Does the Minister not acknowledge the domino effect as local authorities request legislation to sort out their city, and then other local authorities find the problem transferred to them and also request legislation? Does he not agree that national legislation would sort out the problem once and for all?

Mr. Thomas: I do not necessarily accept that that is the case. Where local authorities face problems, they have sought a private Bill in the usual way to address local issues. I also acknowledge that a growing number, albeit a minority, of local authorities have been concerned about how pedlar legislation has been used, and have made the case for reform. In that spirit, we have sought to conduct the research led by Durham university, to which I will refer in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) again made a passionate and powerful speech in favour of the Reading Borough Council Bill. The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) also made a thoughtful and considered case for the Bill. I was almost sympathetic to his plight as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West intervened on him: his interventions made me grateful that he continues to be on my side. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) also made a passionate defence of his city’s need for the legislation under consideration.

For the convenience of the House, let me set out the Government’s updated thinking on the issues. In March, during the revival debate on these and three other private Bills, I confirmed that my Department would undertake a consultation this summer on street trading and pedlary, as a result of the research findings set out in the Durham university report, which my Department commissioned last year. As I have said, we hope to launch the consultation by the summer recess. Details will appear on the DBERR website in the usual way, and no doubt the hon. Member for Shipley will be one of the first to spot them.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I welcome the consultation on the Pedlars Act. May I ask the Minister, however, whether in the future he might recognise that £100,000 is a relatively high threshold, and that nothing should necessarily be read into the fact that local authority nuisance has not reached the threshold of £100,000-worth of expenditure?

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