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John Hemming: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is not ideologically driven but driven merely by the difficulties of our current circumstances?
John McDonnell: I do not believe that many civil servants who will be affected by job losses believe that the Government are seeking to resolve this matter by negotiation, and I am trying to reflect those views. We in this House, and the Government in particular, need to go the extra mile to get back to an atmosphere where there is confidence among the people who may well be threatened with the loss of their jobs, and we need to convince them that there is the opportunity of a genuine negotiated settlement. As I said in Committee, our responsibility is to seek to create a climate in which a just, negotiated settlement can be engendered.
John Hemming: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that the Government are inserting a new clause that prevents this from being a money Bill is a sign of good faith from them?
John McDonnell: I will come to that.
There has been a litany of disasters during these negotiations. If we want to secure an agreement, we need to try to keep everyone on board. The puerile attempts to divide the unions have been completely counter-productive. The first attempt was to try to insinuate that the PCS negotiator had agreed the terms but had been overturned by the PCS executive. That was put to the PCS negotiator in the Public Bill Committee and it was denied, so it is not true. In fact, the PCS did what it always does as a democratic union-it takes the issues back to the executive. It is probably one of those unions that consults its members more than any other.
The second attempt to divide the unions was by the reference to five unions having agreed a settlement and only the PCS being excluded by refusing to do so. The Minister put out a press release that caused anger among the trade unions. The Prison Officers Association immediately issued a press release saying that letters written to the Minister, in confidence and without prejudice, were put in the public domain. The result is that this week the POA has rejected the deal.
It seems that four of the six unions were originally going to put the deal to their members, but the POA and PCS represent more than 90% of the people who will be affected. They are the unions that we have to convince if we want a negotiated settlement, and they are negotiating on behalf of their members based on what those members tell them through their executive.
Mr Maude: The hon. Gentleman asserts that the POA and PCS represent more than 90% of the people affected, but only 60% of civil servants are members of trade unions to begin with.
John McDonnell: I meant 90% of the trade union members with whom the Government are negotiating.
May I tell the Minister what the POA has said about his words? Its general secretary Steve Gillan has said:
"I am annoyed that Mr Maude has leaked without prejudice discussions but I believe this has been deliberate in an attempt to drive a wedge between the POA and PCS. The POA will not allow him to do so."
The Minister's actions have meant that the union has now rejected the deal. Those actions were not responsible, and they were in contrast to the words of comfort that he has used here today and elsewhere in trying to engender a good industrial relations climate.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) said, Members need to understand the strength of feeling among PCS, POA and other trade union members about the impact that the changes will have on their lives. We have had heart-rending cases submitted to us by people who have entered into mortgages, for example, believing that they had the security that even if they lost their job, they would have redundancy pay that would cover their mortgages. Now, they might lose their homes. We have heard of other people who were expecting significant compensation related to their salaries, one of whom would now lose £90,000 as a result of the Government's proposals. No wonder people are angry and concerned. That is why they want their Government and their trade unions to come together to agree a fair way forward.
Harriett Baldwin: May I ask again the question that I asked earlier? Can the hon. Gentleman see a way for the PCS to agree to any negotiating position?
John McDonnell: Yes I can, and the PCS has written to the Minister again recently asking for meetings. I believe that one meeting has taken place, so there is potential. However, we cannot expect a negotiated settlement to take place when tactics are used that undermine the confidence not only of the PCS but now of the POA. That lack of confidence is now infesting other unions as well.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns about employees beyond those directly affected by the Bill? I am concerned about the hundreds of thousands of employees in the rest of the public sector who will be watching the process closely and wondering what the next stage will be as we rebalance the economy from public sector jobs to private sector jobs.
John McDonnell: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, which is valid and valuable. The Bill sets what many believe is a precedent for what will happen elsewhere, so it behoves us to get it right and ensure that we create a climate in which people at least understand that they will get a fair deal.
The Government's tactic of the use of a money Bill was derisory. This was never really a money Bill, and when we asked for the justification for its being used as one, nothing was forthcoming. I have seen no note from Minister even defining it as such. It was simply a tactic whereby the Lords would have been excluded from amending the Bill, which would therefore have been implemented earlier. This House would have been denied the second opportunity for debate provided by Lords amendments. That tactic had an impact on people's confidence in the genuineness of the Government's approach to the negotiations.
The Government's approach to the concept of accrued rights has been blasé. Their interpretation of accrued rights-that they are not really accrued but are obtained only at the time of a redundancy-seems contrary to not just law but common sense. I cannot see it standing
up in any court of law, and it could indeed be challenged in court. As was said on Second Reading-by the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, I believe-the Bill could be enacted and then the scheme challenged in a court of law and the European courts. The Government could lose again, as they already have once, and then we would have to pay compensation to all the people who had been made redundant in the interim. That is no way to treat people and certainly no way to enact legislation.
I have some anxieties about the Government's new clause, which is why I support my party's Front Benchers' efforts to eradicate it. It is there as a threat that the Government will drive people out of employment on the lowest terms possible. It would also enable them to amend the scheme in future. There are now additional proposals to change the protocol involved, the notice period for redundancy and other matters, which would undermine the protection of people who lose their jobs and the flexibility of a manager to avoid compulsory redundancies, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley sought.
The Government's handling of the issue has soured the industrial relations climate in the civil service and sent a message to trade unions in other areas, such as health, teaching and local government, that what has come to the civil service unions affected may be visited on them. If the Government do not learn the lessons of the debates on the Bill over the past few weeks, they will provoke industrial action, and that action will be justifiable. Unions will have sought to negotiate a reasonable settlement, but the Government will have played fast and loose with the process, refused to listen and imposed something that will have a considerable effect on the lives of people threatened with the loss of their jobs.
To answer the question that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) asked me, the position of the PCS, and now of all the other unions, is that they would welcome the Government going back to the negotiating table for serious negotiations. I urge the Lords to amend the Bill so that it will be brought back here for debate. I welcome the Government's proposals for amendments in the Lords, because they would give us the opportunity for further debate and a further period in which there would hopefully be serious negotiations. They would give this House a long-stop role, so that we could determine whether there had been a just settlement and whether the Bill should therefore pass.
Finally, the House should not underestimate the strength of feeling of public servants on this issue. We have a responsibility to them and to our constituents whom they serve. If we undermine their role in any way through the Bill, we will live to regret it and so will the Government.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I am puzzled by the logic of the Opposition's position this afternoon. At the beginning of the Bill's passage, it was agreed throughout the House that every party recognised the need for change. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) tried to bring it about. She introduced her Bill, but she was blocked and prevented from taking it through. The ball passed to the coalition parties, and we have now introduced a new Bill that recognises the bluntness of the instrument required to achieve a negotiated settlement.
We have heard this afternoon from my right hon. Friend the Minister about the deal on the table, which, if I understand it correctly, will offer up to 21 months' pay on voluntary terms, plus a notice period of three months, making a maximum total of 24 months' redundancy pay for all civil servants earning less than £23,000 a year, but based on that £23,000 figure. That is a better deal than the one that the Labour party offered civil servants earlier this year. When the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said that she would oppose new clause 1 on the basis that our civil servants deserve better, I was left wondering which civil servants she meant. The truth is that the debate clearly shows that those of us who support new clause 1 do so precisely because we want a much better deal for lower-paid civil servants, which is the whole exercise of the Bill.
Tessa Jowell: Again, I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman were quite specific on the respects in which the Bill's provisions or those of the improved offer, which are not in the Bill, are better than the February 2010 offer?
Richard Graham: The right hon. Lady asks in which ways the Bill's provisions are better. My understanding is that under the new deal that is being negotiated, a lower-paid civil servant-for example, one on a salary of £10,000-would receive up to 24 months' statutory redundancy payment based on a salary of £23,000, which is better than the deal put on the table by the Labour party.
Harriett Baldwin: One theme that has come up in all debates on the Bill, including in Committee, was that we want better treatment for the low paid. I agree with my hon. Friend. I would have thought that the Opposition would welcome the low-pay aspects of the Bill and the improvement in the negotiating position.
Richard Graham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
If I may continue where I left off-
Tessa Jowell Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Richard Graham: May I make some progress first?
Richard Graham: I will give way to the right hon. Lady for the third time.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Is the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) giving way?
The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury (Jeremy Wright): No, don't! She is being discourteous.
Richard Graham: The point that I had reached was that many in the House clearly agree that civil servants deserve better. Those of us who support new clause 1 are absolutely clear-I have talked to PCS members in my constituency-that many members of the trade unions involved do not understand, and are indeed being misled by their unions on, what is on offer and what is being negotiated. I therefore put it to the House that Members who believe in supporting lower-paid civil servants will support the new clause, precisely because those people deserve better. That is what the measure will achieve and why I support it.
Mr Maude: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to make one or two comments at the end of what has been a good discussion of Government new clause 1, Government amendment 1 and the amendments in the name of the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell).
My first point is that the coalition Government earnestly hope to avoid redundancies. It is in our mind at all times that every job lost, whether in the public sector or elsewhere, represents a personal disaster for that individual and their family. All hon. Members should bear in mind that these are grave matters for a lot of hard-working, dedicated public servants. Everything that we do in government will bend towards trying to find ways to avoid redundancies in whatever way we can.
Sadly, because of the lamentable state of the public finances, which the coalition Government inherited from their predecessor, it is unrealistic to expect that there will be no redundancies. Our concern throughout the Bill is to ensure that the terms on which people are made redundant are fair to the individuals affected and to the taxpayer. The aim therefore must be, as I have said repeatedly, a secure and sustainable negotiated agreement with which all are willing to live.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has said that the PCS wishes to engage and believes that there should be serious negotiation-he is very close to that union-and I wholeheartedly endorse that approach. The negotiations, which I am bound to say have proceeded without the PCS, have been serious and constructive, and that they have been entered into in a spirit of good will. They may have been fractious from time to time, because these are difficult matters that make a great difference to a lot of people's lives, but throughout the process, despite repeated invitations to do so, the PCS has not made constructive proposals.
When Mark Serwotka came to see me at the beginning of this week-I spent a long time with him-and asked to be allowed to put forward proposals to reopen the proposed new scheme that had been brokered by the representatives of, and negotiators for, the other five unions, I said to him, "Yes, I am willing for that to happen, but the PCS must come forward with serious, constructive proposals." I am still waiting. I want those proposals. I said that they must be discussed with the other five unions, because those unions have put in the hard yards of negotiating among themselves and with the Government on the configuration that best meets their varied needs and requirements.
The PCS must engage with not only the Government-it must do that-but with the other unions, because there is a limit to what can be afforded in these straitened times, and that limit has been reached. Within those constraints, however, there could be scope for reconfiguring the proposed new scheme to meet the PCS's concerns. However, the first port of call for the PCS is to make genuine proposals to, and to engage with, the other unions involved. As I have said, those unions have been involved much more constructively and in a more open spirit than the PCS.
I want briefly to deal with the points made by the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, who led for the Opposition, because her position-I
will put this as charitably as I can-is somewhat inconsistent. She has said that amendment 4 would remove the caps, which are at the heart of the Bill. That is possible, because new clause 1 would create a power for the Government to impose a new scheme in any event. There is a certain slender logic in that, but I point out that there is a long way to go in the legislative process before that power comes into existence.
That slender logic completely self-destructed when the right hon. Lady said that she would oppose new clause 1. If the House did as she urged, it would not only remove the caps in the original Bill, but deny the Government any power to impose a new scheme in any event. The Government would therefore have no ability reform the existing scheme, which is what she and everyone who has spoken accepts is needed. Frankly, I am at a loss to understand how she can reconcile her opposition to my new clause and her support for her amendments.
Tessa Jowell: For the record, I think I have made the position absolutely clear. The Minister's words were more of a debating game than a substantive discussion of policy. We oppose new clause 1, because it creates no specific obligation to consult. Removing the caps would remove the structure of a settlement that the Opposition believe is profoundly and fundamentally unfair. The settlement is substantially detrimental to 500,000 civil servants compared with our February 2010 scheme, which has been grossly misrepresented by Government Members.
Mr Maude: This is not a debating game. The Bill is deadly serious for hundreds of thousands of hard-working, dedicated public servants. The fact is that the right hon. Lady has today proposed removing everything-the ability to create caps on the existing scheme, which she says needs to be changed, and the Government's ability to impose changes.
Let us look at what the right hon. Lady has argued on new clause 1. She accepts that my new clause is necessary and needed-both words that she has used at times to describe it-but she plans to vote against it on the grounds that it is, she says, an "unbridled power". It is exactly the same power that she herself exercised earlier this year. Did she feel then that it was an unbridled power? Of course she did not, because there is already on the face of the Superannuation Act 1972 a clear and explicit obligation on the Minister to consult trade unions before imposing a scheme. Sadly, she seems to be unaware of that, so I am happy for the opportunity to enlighten her. She followed that obligation, and I undertake to follow it as well.
In the spirit of good will that has-broadly-dominated these deliberations, I have made a clear commitment that if further amendments are needed to make it clear in the Bill that proper consultation must take place before a scheme is imposed, they will be introduced in the other place. However, it must be recognised that as a "bridling" of this power-to adopt the right hon. Lady's word-the legislation already contains an obligation to consult, and it has done so for nearly 40 years.
This new clause is necessary to give effect to a successor scheme to the current unsustainable, unaffordable and frankly unfair scheme, and the whole House accepts the need for that change. I stress again that it is the
Government's aim-we will strain every sinew towards it-to achieve a negotiated scheme that is supported by all six trade unions, in which case neither the caps nor this power will need to be exercised. However, to have any chance of reaching that point, it is necessary to reject the right hon. Lady's amendments and to support the new clause.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 1 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
Amendment proposed: 4, page 1, line 1, leave out clause 1.- (Tessa Jowell .)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment made: 1, in title, at end insert:
"; and to make provision modifying the effect of section 2(3) of the Superannuation Act 1972 in relation to such benefits".- (Mr Maude .)
Mr Maude: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill has been debated extensively on Second Reading and in the good deliberations in the Public Bill Committee. We canvassed the central issues again in the course of today's discussions on the Government new clause and the Opposition amendments. I say again that we are dealing with matters of huge significance to large numbers of dedicated public servants, who are in a state of considerable uncertainty and anxiety about their futures, which I completely understand.
We wish to avoid redundancies wherever that is possible, because we recognise-as everyone in the House should-that every single job lost is a personal disaster for that person and their family. We will therefore do everything we can to avoid them, but where they are inevitable it is important that the terms on which civil servants become redundant are fair, both to the individual and to the taxpayer. That is what we are seeking to achieve. I say again that the Government will strain every nerve to achieve a negotiated new scheme that will make the caps imposed by the Bill unnecessary. That would also mean that the power reinstated by the Government's new clause and amendment that have just been agreed-which simply reinstate a power that previously existed and that was exercised by the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell)-would not need to be exercised.
The effect of the passing of the amendments and new clause is that the question of whether this is a money Bill no longer arises, so it will move on to the other place and undergo full scrutiny. As I have said, I undertake to introduce further amendments there to clarify and entrench, to the extent that that is needed, the obligation to consult before any new scheme is imposed. I will ensure that that happens and will discuss the content and format of such amendments with the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood and with the relevant unions.
The Bill remains as essential today as it was when I announced our intention to introduce it back in July. We have made huge progress since in configuring what a new replacement successor scheme would look like-sustainable, affordable and fair. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
Tessa Jowell: I agree with much that the Minister said, particularly the extent to which the prospects for negotiated settlement on behalf of 500,000 civil servants, although not necessarily the Bill itself, have improved as a direct result of the parliamentary process to date and the probing questions asked by the Opposition. The offer now on the table is substantially improved, and I welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce further amendments in the other place that will substantially improve what we believe to be a profoundly flawed Bill. I also welcome the Minister's commitment to avoid redundancy in every available circumstance. I think that the civil servants who service so diligently the purpose of government will be listening closely to what he says.
Perhaps my final piece of advice is to remember that this settlement will have to remain in place for these kinds of negotiations for a very long time, so I urge the Minister to resist the pressure he is doubtless getting from the Treasury to reach the quickest and cheapest settlement, as that will not extend to those deserving civil servants the treatment that not just they but the country expect.
John Hemming: In a sense, it is sad not to see massive press interest in an issue that is very important to many people in this country. I am pleased to hear the Minister express the same views as I have expressed on the need to minimise the number of redundancies, and, if there have to be any, to maximise the number who go voluntarily through agreement so that we absolutely minimise the number of compulsory redundancies. This is about the way we manage staff-I have managed staff for more than half of my lifetime-and I believe it is important to work in consultation with people and to tell them what is going on. Discussions and negotiations are crucial. I very much welcome the Government's approach to that.
The reality is that this process was started in July 2009 by the previous Government. This is a continuation of a process that everyone recognises was necessary. The Opposition now think that none of this should be done and they want to oppose it all. It is their prerogative to change their minds, but the reality is that we have to get on with it all and manage a very difficult situation. To that extent, we support Third Reading.
John McDonnell: Much has been said about the need for the unions to negotiate. Let me be clear about the unions' position, as a number of general secretaries are in the building today. The POA makes it clear in its statement that it has rejected the Government's final offer, but it has left the door open for further dialogue with the Government, which must be meaningful with all the Council of Civil Service Unions present and with no exclusions.
Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union has written to the Government and briefed other MPs to the effect that he is keen to re-enter talks, but stresses again that they must be meaningful. The PCS believes it has worked hard to reach a settlement. Let me quote Mark Serwotka:
"From the outset PCS has worked hard to come to a fair deal. We cannot accept the current offer and are calling for further talks. If those talks do not take place we will continue to oppose the Bill in Parliament and will take legal action when appropriate as we have successfully done in the past."
The two unions representing the vast bulk of the civil service members who will be affected by the Bill are willing to negotiate.
The problem seems to be not the Minister's willingness to negotiate, but the Treasury envelope within which he is negotiating. If that is the problem, I suggest that the Treasury gets directly involved in these negotiations as well, so that it can see that its attempt to gain a short-term saving will have a long-term cost to the Government. That might help to get some productive negotiations going. By the time the Bill comes back from the other place, we might have a settlement across all the unions, but any attempt to try to divide the unions again will, I believe, be counter-productive. We now need to create a climate of industrial relations that will enable these negotiations to take place successfully for all the unions, not just for a small minority.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the 10th London Local Authorities Bill and it is promoted on behalf of the 32 London boroughs and the City of London Corporation, speaking for Londoners. Although many of us would prefer a reduction in regulation and a lessening of the intrusive nature of government both national and local as that is a laudable aim, we have a responsibility to address the real issues facing Londoners.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): As he represents Finchley and Golders Green, my hon. Friend will be aware that today is the 85th anniversary of a distinguished predecessor as Member for that constituency, the noble Baroness Thatcher. Has he had a chance to speak to the noble Baroness about whether she agrees with the proposition he has just put to the House, namely that there is an excuse for why we should not be deregulating but that instead we need to regulate more?
Mike Freer: The last time I spoke to the good lady we discussed many things but the London Local Authorities Bill was not one of them. Having said that, however, I know that she took a great interest in the environment. In fact, she was the Prime Minister who pushed through much of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and many of the regulations we are now seeking to give local authorities power over will allow them to clean up and make the polluter pay. I therefore have no doubt that the good lady would be supportive of the thrust of these proposals even though she is, of course, averse to regulation in itself, as I am too.
The Bill allows local councils to combat the many problems and their effects that we now face in our daily lives. There is a difficulty here in that many of us in this House would like to turn back the clock to a gentler age but, sadly, we live in an irresponsible society in which many traders or other individuals can cause problems for our residents.
The Bill's main purpose is to replace certain existing regulations and consolidate others. The regulations addressed include those dealing with the sale of vehicles on the highway, nudity in bars, tenant safety in houses of multiple occupation and issues that have serious implications for public health. The Bill seeks to introduce clarity into consumer protection here in London, particularly in respect of food hygiene and the sale of vehicles.
I would like to explain some specific provisions, in order to help Members to come to a decision on the Bill. Let me turn first to clause 4-I do not mean to excite Labour Members by referring to that phrase. Clause 4 allows police community support officers and, most importantly, other authorised individuals-predominantly civil enforcement officers-to require people to give their names and addresses when penalty charge notices have been issued. At present, people are not required to provide that information, thus making enforcement difficult. This measure is particularly important
in respect of decriminalised offences such as littering. Those of us who live in urban areas will know the scourge that is the litter left on our doorsteps on a daily basis. That costs all of our councils millions of pounds to clean up. This provision will allow councils to recoup that cost by being able to force those who cause the litter to pay a fixed penalty charge or to pay for the cleaning up. If we believe in the "polluter pays" principle, we should support this provision. Some people might ask whether that is not the role of the police. If we want our police to focus on more serious crimes, it is essential that we allow such low-level crime to be dealt with by civil environment officers and PCSOs. I therefore urge Members to support this clause.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, but should this power for police support officers not be a general power decided by this Parliament for the whole country, if that is what Parliament wishes? Why should individual councils have different powers in relation to police support officers?
Mike Freer: It is for the Government to decide whether they wish to give that general power to the police. The difficulty here is that, especially with regard to authorised officers such as civil enforcement officers, there is a gap in the legislation. London councils wish to plug that gap. If my hon. Friend wishes to push, through the Backbench Business Committee or other channels, for the Government to pursue this, I will wish him well and support him. However, we have a loophole in London that needs to be addressed.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The problem with that is that London is unique: it is visited by large numbers of people from all over the country and my constituents, for instance, would not be used to such a regime in the Bradford district. How are they supposed to feel when they find on a day visit to London that these powers have been given to local authorities in the capital? How are they supposed to know whether the people concerned have got that power or not? They should be able to have an expectation of what powers people in this country have and do not have.
Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I believe that the basic premise is that abuse of the law is no excuse. If people are seeking to litter in London, they should take the consequences. I am sure my hon. Friend's constituents would do no such thing when visiting our fine city of London, however.
Clause 6 corrects an anomaly. At present, only commercial premises are required to prevent the accumulation of litter outside their buildings. This measure allows all public buildings-whether schools, hospitals or police stations-to be covered by the legislation. Closing that anomaly makes all people responsible for keeping their buildings clear of detritus.
Clause 7 includes the rather peculiar measure of the reintroduction of the power to install turnstiles in public lavatories. I never thought I would be elected to talk about public lavatories. I thought I had left that behind when I left Barnet council. However, this is not the old-fashioned, almost portcullis-type turnstile of the 1960s and 1970s; this is the modern turnstile that we are more used to in tube stations, which is fully disability-accessible. This measure will allow particularly the City of Westminster to use the revenue from the turnstiles to
be reinvested in the provision of services, including those facilities themselves. We are asking our councils to do more with less and we expect public toilets, particularly in the centre of London, to help in that. This provision will allow the City of Westminster to continue to provide much-valued services.
Clause 8 is predominantly about the "polluter pays" principle. Those of us who live near fast-food establishments will be increasingly annoyed about getting up every morning to find a line of fast-food wrappers all down the highway or pavement. We are used to the people responsible being prosecuted for the litter they generate, but this measure allows councils to recover the costs from the commercial operator trading from the public highway. At present, the council can recover only the cost of the administration of issuing a street-trading licence. This allows the council to recover the costs of clearing and sweeping the highway, and particularly of taking away the litter generated by that street trading. In this age of austerity, if we are asking our councils to do more with less, we should allow them to recoup the cost of providing such services from those who caused the problem.
Philip Davies: I am puzzled that my hon. Friend blames local takeaway establishments for litter. Surely he would accept that it is not those establishments that cause the litter, but the individuals who visit them. So why does he want to penalise people who are not responsible and let off those who are?
Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but if he wants to deal with the people who cause the litter, he should support the clause that requires people to supply their name and address when fixed penalty notices are being served. This is a pincer movement, because one provision deals with those who operate the businesses that generate the litter and the other clause deals with those who drop it, and therefore both sides of the argument are covered. The cost of collecting litter in London runs to millions of pounds and it falls on the innocent taxpayer, so either the businesses have to be more responsible or the individuals who cause the litter have to be prosecuted. Either way, the Bill provides the necessary regulations to allow the London councils to get on with it.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I have sympathy with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), because we do not want to have a complicated provision that penalises everybody when, often, the actions of an irresponsibility minority are to blame. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) agree that some of the more innovative work has been undertaken in the City of Westminster, although not exclusively there, and that it has aimed at ensuring that as part of a licensing arrangement some of these fast-food outlets must have full-time staff employed outside their establishment-within about 100 yards of it-to ensure that litter is not disposed of there? That takes place at the Oxford street McDonald's, but I am sure that it is not the only establishment where such an arrangement is in place. I hope that such an approach would get around the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. That sort of voluntary arrangement made at the outset should be encouraged.
Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some operators, such as McDonald's, are very responsible and do provide regular litter patrols. However, other fast-food operators, in particular the smaller ones, but even some of the national chains-I shall not give names, but one is at the end of my road-simply do not provide them. They take no responsibility for the litter that they generate outside their premises, nor do they try to persuade their customers to act more responsibly. The Bill would allow local councils to deal with both instances.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend must be aware of the concerns of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association. They feel that their members already pay significantly and that this measure will be an additional charge on them. Those bodies have petitioned against the Bill, so what plans does he have to address their concerns?
Mike Freer: We do not know what those specific concerns are; I have certainly not been made aware of the detail, but I would be more than happy to give it some close attention because, as a former leader of a London borough, I have some experience in dealing with street licensing. I share my hon. Friend's concern that many of our businesses pay large sums in business rates, but that money does not go back to the local councils in full. In fact, my local authority is a net contributor of £20 million a year in business rates. I understand the concerns of business, but the real issue, which the Treasury needs to address, is that of having a fair distribution of business rates so that businesses in London do not feel they are paying twice. That does not address the problem we face with litter caused by street trading in London, and it has to be addressed. I do not think it is fair that the council tax payer has to pick up the bill, although I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend raised.
Clauses 9 and 10 are slightly meatier parts of the Bill. They deal with food hygiene, particularly for those businesses involved in the production, processing and distribution of food, requiring them to display their most recent hygiene star rating. In many London boroughs this has been a voluntary scheme and it has performed reasonably well. However, the London boroughs have come together and feel that this needs now to be put on a statutory footing. Over the years, environmental health has become something of a Cinderella service-I hope I am not being too blunt-in that it has been subject to spending reductions. Again, I return to the fact that many London councils will continue to be underfunded and will, in the next few years, have to make ever more efficiency savings and be required to do more with less. Over the past few years, that has led to a risk-based assessment for food hygiene. That means that a good establishment is inspected and receives three, four or five stars and is then left alone for 18 months or so. An establishment that gets one star immediately becomes higher risk and is subject to more frequent inspections, which could take place the following day or the following week. As it is a light-touch, light-regulation regime, the consumer needs some protection. The information on standards should be provided to them at the point of entry to the establishment or should be clearly visible when they are at the establishment.
I do not think that it is unreasonable that food establishments should be required to display their most recent grading. I understand that some members of the British Hospitality Association are concerned that if they get one star, they will be stuck with it. However, a one-star establishment is high risk and will therefore be re-inspected pretty quickly. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that I think that the promoters of the Bill are willing to consider whether those who scored poorly should be able to pay for a quick inspection, if they feel that they have had an off day, in order to improve their score. I think that is quite reasonable.
Mr Bone: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he is introducing the Bill on Second Reading, which is most helpful to Members. In my constituency, there already seems to be such a scheme. The problem is that, even if an establishment's one-star rating is found on re-inspection the following week to be a blip, the stars cannot be reinstated for a whole year, which has caused one restaurant many problems.
Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but that is not my understanding of how the scheme in London would work. I am more than happy to take that away and to get him some reassurance on it, but my understanding is that if an establishment is inspected on a Monday and gets one star, it is deemed to be an off day. The environmental health officers will probably know whether it is an off day; if they have had cause for complaint about an establishment before, they will know of a pattern of behaviour. If they go into somewhere such as McDonald's and it is a poor visit, they will know that the company takes such matters seriously and that it is likely to have been an off day, but it is less likely to be an off day in a local corner shop that has had a history of complaints, so it will go back on the risk register. I am happy to take away my hon. Friend's point and to confirm whether the inspection would be within a matter of weeks, if requested by the establishment, to ensure that people are not stuck with an unfortunate grading that they felt to be unfair.
Philip Davies: I understand my hon. Friend's point, although I have a fear that this is a solution looking for a problem. Who will know what a star rating means? If I walked into an establishment that had three stars on the outside, I would have absolutely no idea what those three stars meant. I would not know what the criteria were for one star, two stars or three stars. It might satisfy the bureaucratic instincts of the local authority, but it would not add a great deal to the customer's experience. I am not even convinced that local councils are best placed to decide these things. I am sure that according to the bureaucratic monsters in local authorities the jam produced by the Mothers' Union would have only a one-star rating, but I would be perfectly happy to eat it. I am not sure that this is an entirely meaningful measure.
I am sure that the jam made by the women's institute in Shipley is a fine product. The system with one, two, three, four and five stars is relatively understandable. Most people understand: five stars good; one star bad. My hon. Friend understands a three-star or five-star rating on a hotel, but I suspect that he does not know the mechanics of how that star rating was awarded. If he wants to understand just how the gradings
have been arrived at, that information is available to him and I shall happily forward him the details. Most people seem to understand one, two, three, four and five stars.
Mr Mark Field: Having been out recently with the environmental protection team at Westminster city council and watched them in action, I can give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that these systems, at least in Westminster, work moderately well although, as he rightly says, the test is fairly objective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) must be the first person to have mentioned Cinderella in such seasonal terms in only the second week of October, but this is a Cinderella department and there will clearly be downward pressure on costs for local authorities, so my slight concern is that what is deemed, rightly in my view, to be a deregulatory measure might end up becoming awfully bureaucratic, particularly if a massive set of appeals procedures are to be put in place. My instinctive view is that, if we are going down that route, we should have a review every six or 12 months. The idea that the well-funded muscle of large operators can overturn a hygiene ruling in such a way is unfavourable and would militate against small, independently owned and family-run establishments that had fallen foul of clauses 8 or 9 when it came to their hygiene regulation in any year.
Mike Freer: I understand the concern that big operators can dominate the appeals process. That is why larger operators are probably less likely to be high-risk establishments. I understand the concern about burdening our local businesses, but there was an instance in my constituency in which a long-established butcher put many local pensioners into hospital because of its food hygiene standards and the way that chopping boards were used. It was not a chain, but it was a reasonable-sized local business that had been there for many years and had a good reputation among the public. Sadly, it had a bad reputation among environmental health officers. Had there been a grading system on the door, the public might have had a slightly better inkling as to the standard of food hygiene on the cutting boards, which put two or three pensioners into hospital with serious food poisoning. I am keen to avoid regulation, but we have a responsibility, at times, to ensure that consumers have some protection.
Mr Chope: Does my hon. Friend accept that the Food Standards Agency, which has been given a national remit to look into these areas, believes in the principle of voluntarism? It is very concerned about introducing a mandatory requirement for premises to put signs on their doors that might reflect the result of a survey or inspection that was carried out many weeks or months previously.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend is lauding a national regulatory quango while arguing against regulation. That seems slightly contradictory. Personally, I have no faith in the FSA. In my time as the leader of a large council that had many food outlets in the borough, I had no knowledge of what the FSA did in the borough, of any prosecutions that it brought to bear or of how it improved food standards. London councils, environmental health officers and practitioners on the ground say that we need a system that provides
information to consumers so that they can have consumer protection if we are to have a local, light-touch regulatory regime and if we are not to have environmental health officers knocking on doors every week, which clearly is not going to happen.
Let me address clauses 11 to 20 on houses in multiple occupation. The measures give councils the power to issue management notices on the owners of defective HMOs. There are various amendments, one of which is rather minor, regarding the method of doing so-by post as opposed to registered post. One area that my hon. Friends will be pleased about is the simplification of regulation. Currently, if a housing team believe that an HMO operator is operating unsafe premises, they have to go through a fairly convoluted matrix of assessing the risk, the implications, what needs to be done to be put it right and the relevant time scale. That is very resource-intensive, and is particularly onerous if the issue is simply a damaged stair or a wonky banister. The measures allow councils to simplify that process. Normally, that would involve a 24-hour notice period, but the proposal would allow local councils to waive or avoid that 24-hour notice period if a tenant's health or safety were at risk.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend will know that no less a person than the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the previous Government, has expressed concern about the measure, and indeed opposed part 4 because she believed that further legislation was not necessary. She was particularly strongly against the idea of giving powers in relation to the fitness of HMO stock in London that were not to be given for the rest of England. To what extent will the Bill's promoters respond to those concerns, because they do not seem to have responded to them so far?
Mike Freer: My understanding is that the promoters have responded in that the power to seek entry is now restricted to the directors, assistant directors and one named individual, and is no longer a more wide-ranging power for members of the housing team. The proposers have offered that restriction and I am sure that we can deal with the matter if the Bill is considered in Committee.
Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once again and I am sorry to have to criticise him on this matter. If he looks at the report produced by the former Secretary of State, he will see that there were two separate issues: total opposition to everything contained in part 4 and concerns over provisions relating to powers of entry under clause 21 in part 5. I accept that modifications have been made in the latter case, but he will also be aware that, even subsequent to that, the former Secretary of State was still not quite sure that those concessions or amendments were sufficient.
Mike Freer: I cannot speak for the Secretary of State or the former Secretary of State, but perhaps the Minister wishes to give us some insight into the Department's view. I am sorry to land him in it, but I cannot speak for him. I understand the concerns, but having a power of entry that is restricted to named individuals or senior members of the housing team is not unreasonable if a tenant is at risk.
I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) the fact that many HMOs are now operated by offshore companies or overseas owners. Therefore, tracking people down and serving a notice can be particularly difficult. This proposal would allow housing officers to gain access in circumstances where they might be frustrated by an absentee landlord. I am sure that the specific issue and the concerns expressed by the former Secretary of State can be addressed if the Bill reaches Committee.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. This is the position: since 2004, the problems of HMOs, particularly in London, have magnified significantly, as every local authority is reporting. The view in 2004 was that certain powers were not required, but local authorities have now made it clear that they are certainly required, as reflected by many constituency MPs. The House must remember that the London Local Authorities Act 2004 took some powers away from local authorities. If we had those powers now, we could use them in these instances.
Mike Freer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.
Mr Mark Field: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being generous with his time. While I entirely endorse what has just been said, particularly in relation to a number of ownerships that are in the Cayman Islands and some offshore companies that are difficult to police properly, these proposals also raise another rather obvious question, which is, who polices the policeman? Some of the worst offenders are local authorities, through either arm's length management organisations or directly owning property in multiple occupation. Where are the powers for individuals or other interested parties to be able to stand up and say that local authorities, which have some say in the running of particular properties, should also be subject to the powers being brought into play under clauses 11 to 20? It seems to me essential that there should be such protections, because in some cases local authorities are the worst offender in such instances.
Mike Freer: My hon. Friend is quite correct, but the big difference between a local authority or an ALMO and an offshore HMO operator is that the local council has democratically elected members who are responsible and accessible to their local residents. If council tenants, ALMO tenants or housing association tenants have a grievance about the way their stock is being managed, they have direct access to the board of the ALMO, which often includes local councillors, or to the local council.
Although I appreciate that there may be difficulties, the major problem with HMOs is not with local authority stock. If the Government are seeking to loosen the regulation on HMOs and move to light-touch regulation, there must be checks and balances that do not allow us to abdicate responsibility. There must be some form of safety net to ensure that local authorities have the ability to step in if they believe that an HMO operator is putting tenants at risk, however deregulated the market becomes.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am a temporary substitute for my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who has had to go to a ministerial meeting. He and I have both been troubled by the provisions relating to power of entry. Is not the way to protect the rights of absentee occupants under part 5 to make sure that there is a code of practice to back up the way in which senior housing officers or their nominee behave?
The wording is relatively loose because it is a survey in which any delay is likely to give rise to unnecessary and imminent risk. That is serious, but intervention could take place more often than any of us would like. Members will need careful reassurance in Committee that the measure does not allow an officer of the authority to go in without giving an account, maintaining a record and knowing when permission has been granted. A code of practice is needed, as well as a clear record that is examinable as to when it was applied for, why and what the outcome was.
Mike Freer: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If we get to Committee stage, we can consider defining reasonable grounds for entry and the provision of a record of why, who and when. The problem is not insurmountable.
I shall make progress and deal with some of the other significant clauses, particularly clauses 26 to 28. Members are aware that there have been problems in Westminster concerning hot dog vendors. The City of Westminster has been effective in dealing with those rather disreputable vendors, and the proposal allows the council to confiscate the trolleys as they hit the pavement. It provides Camden council with the same powers. I should point out that the measure does not impact on street pedlars, a subject in which some colleagues in the House take a particular interest.
Clause 25 deals with a problem in many residential areas. Historically, we have seen lines of parked cars for sale causing an obstruction, particularly in residential streets, and causing a nuisance to local residents. These unregulated car dealers have got round placing a handwritten note in the window by advertising the cars on the internet, and possibly holding out as a private seller, meeting the potential purchaser on the pavement. The proposal allows councils to prohibit that and gives some consumer protection to local residents from such rogue traders.
Mr Chope: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mike Freer: Indeed. [Interruption.]
Mr Chope: I am sorry that the Whip thinks it unreasonable for my hon. Friend to give way. I think it is very reasonable for him to give way. That is how we make progress in the House on contentious legislation. Can my hon. Friend explain whether the vehicles that he has in mind are already licensed with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and whether they have resident parking permits if they are in areas with residents parking? If they have those permits and the licence has been paid in respect of each of those vehicles, what is the problem?
The problem is that it is already an offence to advertise cars for sale on the highway. Even if the seller is a private resident selling a car outside his
own house, that is an offence. Over the years we have seen a proliferation of rogue dealers with five, six or 10 cars for sale on the highway, previously with handwritten stickers in the window, pretending to be private sellers. Purchasers would not get the consumer protection that they would by buying from a normal dealership. Owing to the prohibition of such advertising, people have moved their activities on to the web, so the Bill allows for the same prohibition to apply to sales on the internet. It does not affect people trying to sell their own car through a local newspaper; it enforces the existing law, whereby it is illegal to sell a car on the highway, and extends it to the internet.
Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mike Freer: If I could wind up-
Simon Hughes: One last question?
Simon Hughes: The Whip's not looking; he's slipped out of the Chamber for a second.
Will the promoters of the Bill, in collaboration with Ministers, look at whether the same power for dealing with hot dog trolleys-the power to nick them if there is abuse-might apply to car salespeople who put cars on the road outside their premises? That has been a frequent problem in Rotherhithe, with firms selling second-hand vehicles that are always parked illegally on the road. They have never been effectively stopped, and it seems to me that the way to deal with it is to give the local authority the power to remove the car if it is parked illegally on the highway.
Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the Bill deals with only the removal of an obstruction on the pavement. It is a valid point that I am more than happy to take away to the Bill's promoters, however.
I understand that many Members might be concerned about increasing the regulatory burden, but I urge them-
Mr Chope: Will my hon. Friend give way before he finishes his speech?
Mike Freer: I shall make progress, because I have been generous with my time.
We need to ensure that Londoners are protected. Consumer protection is important, and the Bill will not only allow local councils to adopt regulations when it suits their local needs, but more importantly put information at the disposal of London residents for their own protection.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I call Chris Williamson. Welcome to the Front Bench.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Thank you very much, indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am absolutely delighted and somewhat surprised to speak from the Dispatch Box for the first time today, particularly as it is so early in my parliamentary career. It is an incredible privilege, and I genuinely look forward to my exchanges with the Minister in the weeks and months ahead. I am sure that on most occasions we will take entirely different positions, but the Opposition support this Bill, and I believe that the Government are of a similar mind.
The arguments in support of the Bill have already been made, and I do not want to detain the House any longer than is necessary, but I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), the former leader of Barnet council, who eloquently set out the rationale behind it.
I shall briefly set out our support for the Bill. It is worth reminding the House that the Bill has already been agreed to by all 33 London local authorities. As the House will know, London's councils are controlled by all three main political parties, and, although they may disagree on many issues, on this Bill they speak with one voice. It has been subjected to detailed scrutiny for almost three years by those local authorities and, indeed, by Parliament, too.
Many of the Bill's provisions are eminently sensible. For instance, it gives local authorities the powers to install turnstiles in public lavatories when they consider it appropriate to do so. That measure is necessary because the Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act 1963 prohibits the use of turnstiles in any part of a local-authority owned or managed public toilet. The Bill contains many other reasonable provisions.
Mr Bone: On that point, if Parliament has expressed a view nationally about turnstiles, why should there be an exemption for one particular local authority?
Chris Williamson: The measure was asked for and debated at length by the local authorities. Indeed, there have been debates in this House about the Bill's provisions. If Members have difficulties with specific aspects, then surely the appropriate time to raise them in more detail would be in Committee.
Let me point out some of the other very reasonable provisions contained in the Bill, which include powers to recover any additional cleaning costs where businesses put out tables and chairs on the street, and the right to improve the regulation of strip clubs. It also provides the ability to put on a mandatory footing the Scores on the Doors scheme, which is an initiative that has driven up food hygiene standards in pubs, bars and restaurants all over London. That should be welcomed.
The Bill is not prescriptive and does not require local authorities in London to do certain things; it simply gives them the powers to use as they see fit. In the end, it is up to local authorities themselves to deploy the powers at their disposal in the interests of the communities they represent. On that basis, I am pleased to offer our support for the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on the way in which he introduced the Bill. I pay tribute to the Bill's proponents, who continue an established tradition for London local authorities in bringing forward private legislation. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on a very assured debut at the Dispatch Box and on his swift appointment. Indeed, I welcome a very considerable percentage of the new shadow Communities and Local Government team. All I can say is this: welcome to the merry world of local
government private legislation. I am delighted to see them there, and I hope they will not take it ill if I wish them a long tenure on the Opposition Benches.
From a localist perspective, I broadly agree with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Derby North. The Bill should be enabled to make progress. However, it may be helpful if I indicate aspects where the Government have concerns and flag up some areas where further attention may be appropriate as the Bill progresses.
Several of the Bill's provisions are to be welcomed as a genuine step forward, such as those in clause 6 which tackle the proliferation of smoking-related litter outside buildings. Indeed, I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking for opportunities for primary legislation to introduce a similar change across England. Similarly, clause 33 represents a valiant attempt to deal with enduring problems in dealing with litter emanating from vehicles. At the same time, it remedies a drafting error in the original legislation-the London Local Authorities Act 2007-which rendered the provision inoperable, so there is value-added there as well.
The Bill has had a pretty long gestation; it came into being during the tenure of the previous Administration. Following the change of Government, Departments continue to consider the provisions, in some cases, and will want to scrutinise them with a view to the current legislative programme and in terms of the coalition agreement and the Government's current priorities. For example, my colleagues in the Home Office will wish to reflect on some of the provisions in clauses 4 and 5. I understand the point that is made as regards their advantages, but we need to be cautious in extending powers to issue fines beyond recognisably uniformed police and police community support officers. While not ruling it out, we must be proportionate and avoid a proliferation of fines for what might be perceived as genuinely minor breaches, as that might create in the public a sense of unfairness.
Mr Mark Field: I strongly support much of what is in the Bill, but I have some concerns about these penalty charges. We all know as London MPs-or perhaps I have a particular problem with this-that we get a huge amount in our postbags from local residents or people from outside Westminster concerned about the antics of traffic management people putting tickets on cars. Extending penalty notices, particularly giving a power to PCSOs, creates the risk that there will be a perception, at least, of rather untrammelled and somewhat arbitrary powers being utilised by local authorities. Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), it may also be somewhat confusing for many people who do not live in London when they suddenly realise that there is an entirely different set of regulations whereby they can fall foul of expensive fines for fairly minor breaches of whatever civil code might be in place. We need to pin this down, as far as we can, to ensure that that level of arbitrariness and untrammelled power is kept to an absolute minimum.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but rather than regard that point as fatal to the Bill's future progress, the right approach is to say, as I will in relation
to other matters, that I hope the Bill's promoters will discuss with officials in the relevant Departments how they might seek clarification and improvements. I am grateful to him for highlighting that matter.
Similarly, we have to ensure that there is fairness in relation to the provisions in clause 8 for pavement charges. I understand the argument behind the clause, but equally we must ensure that an undue burden is not placed upon small local shops. We need to ensure proportionality.
Simon Hughes: May I reinforce that point clearly? The danger is shown in the service charges for people who have bought their property from the local authority, which we all know about. They end up being far higher than anybody ever envisaged, even though they are technically "reasonable" in law. The ability to deal with what is called "street furniture"-tables and chairs-is important, but within limits it should be permitted wherever possible. We need to ensure that local authorities do not give themselves powers that prevent cafés and restaurants from allowing people to sit outside, which is often much healthier than sitting inside.
Robert Neill: I have enjoyed sitting outside the occasional premises myself in the past, and the hon. Gentleman is right. It is entirely a question of getting the right balance, and I hope that we can do that with some good will as the Bill makes progress.
Mr Chope: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Robert Neill: I will on this occasion, although I might not be as generous as the Bill's sponsor throughout the whole debate.
Mr Chope: I find that rather disappointing, because I do not seek to intervene unless I have a question.
The Minister says that he and Ministers from other Departments such as the Home Office will have to reflect on the contents of the Bill, but it has been around since 2007 and the coalition Government have been in office for many months. How will those deliberations reach a conclusion, and how will it be communicated to the promoters of the Bill and other people who are interested in the subject?
Robert Neill: I do not believe the Department for Communities and Local Government can be accused of having twiddled our thumbs unduly. In fact, a number of people would argue the contrary. Our officials are already in discussions with the promoters of the Bill, as are those of other Departments. Difficulties sometimes arise because a number of Departments have an interest in a Bill of this kind, and it is important to get it right, so I do not believe there can be any criticism of the current Government. It is in the nature of private Bills that they sometimes progress more slowly than other types of legislation. I do not intend to disappoint my hon. Friend gratuitously when he seeks to intervene, but equally I am sure that the House will want to make progress.
I wish to touch upon a matter where I understand the point that my hon. Friend and other Members have made. The Government have made a clear pledge to reverse the erosion of civil liberties and roll back the
state's power to intrude on citizens. That is an important principle and may be pertinent in considering some of the provisions on houses in multiple occupation in parts 4 and 5 of the Bill, which have been mentioned. It may help if I offer a little detail.
The Housing Act 2004 introduced a range of measures intended to improve the management standards and condition of privately rented accommodation such as HMOs. It provided local authorities with extensive tools and powers to take action when the condition or management of HMOs falls below required standards. It introduced mandatory licensing of larger, higher-risk HMOs and provided local authorities with the discretion to extend licensing to other categories of HMOs to address particular management problems in smaller properties. It also introduced management regulations for all HMOs, regardless of whether they are licensable, which local authorities can use to take action when they find management problems in specific properties.
HMO licensing works alongside the housing health and safety rating system, which was also introduced in 2004, under which local authorities can make a risk assessment of the likely impact of property condition on occupants of privately rented accommodation. When that happens and when a category 1 or 2 hazard is identified, local authorities have powers to impose improvements.
Of course, failure to comply with an improvement notice and a breach of the HMO management regulations are already criminal offences. Both the licensing and the housing health and safety rating system regimes provide local authorities with an extensive enforcement framework to take action in cases in which the condition and management of HMOs fall below required standards.
Therefore, with regard to part 5 of the Bill, the existing powers-of-entry provisions in the Housing Act 2004 provide local authorities with extensive powers to enter properties and to take immediate enforcement action in cases in which the condition and management of the property falls well below required standards. In such cases, local authorities are required to give a minimum of 24 hours' notice to the owner and occupiers of a property prior to an inspection. However, in emergency cases-those that involve an imminent risk of serious harm to the health and safety of any occupier of a property or when it is suspected that an offence has been committed in relation to HMO licensing-local authorities may enter the property immediately without giving notice. The legislation also requires authorisation by a deputy chief officer to ensure that such powers are used in the appropriate circumstances, where the severity of the case warrants emergency action.
As I have said, the Government pledged to reverse the erosion of civil liberties and to roll back the ability of the state to intrude on citizens. Extending the powers of entry beyond those that exist would therefore, on the face of it, tend to undermine the purpose of the freedom Bill, which is delivering a key objective of the coalition Government. We have also made it clear that we do not propose to introduce new burdens on the private-rented sector. The Government therefore oppose parts 4 and 5 of the Bill. However, I recommend further consultation between the Bill's proponents and my officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government to see whether improvements can be made that sit in harmony with the Government's wider civil liberties ambitions.
Mr Bone: I am grateful to the Minister for the great attention he is giving to the detail of the Bill. Clearly, the Government have reservations about some aspects of it. Are they interested in a localism that derives from moving more general powers to local authorities to decide such matters, or will such private business continue to have to come through the House?
Robert Neill: As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed, through the localism and decentralisation Bill, to giving a wider range of general powers-for example, a power of general competence-but equally, it will sometimes be more appropriate and proportionate to give more specific flexibilities, such as those in the Bill. Both approaches can be part of the mix.
May I turn to the issue of entertainment involving nudity, which is addressed in clause 23? When the measure was considered in the House of Lords, the previous Government argued that it should be deleted. Clause 23 would amend the Licensing Act 2003 to allow local authorities greater powers to regulate lap-dancing clubs by allowing them to impose clauses on premises' licences to prohibit entertainment involving nudity. That, I believe, is motivated by the concern that their powers under the 2003 Act are insufficient to allow them to prevent lap-dancing clubs operating within their area, or within certain parts of their area, or to regulate the nature of the entertainment provided within lap-dancing clubs.
When the measure was considered in the House of Lords, the previous Government sought its deletion because at the time, they were seeking the views of local authorities nationally. As a result of that consultation, they introduced legislation. Section 27 and schedule 3 to the Policing and Crime Act 2009 amended the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 to allow local authorities the power to regulate lap-dancing clubs as sex establishments. This provides local authorities with much greater powers than those provided by the Licensing Act 2003, and those that would be provided by clause 23.
In opposition, we broadly supported the amendments to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 as they went through Parliament, and we remain supportive of those measures, As such, we believe that it would improve the Bill if clause 23 were deleted. It could complicate the licensing framework in London, and possibly undermine the new legislation in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. Given that since the London Local Authorities Bill was introduced Parliament has introduced national legislation to deal with the same issue that clause 23 seeks to address, it is no longer necessary and Home Office Ministers may well seek to have it removed. I hope that the sponsor of the Bill will reflect on that point as the Bill progresses.
Simon Hughes: I hope that that point will be accepted by the sponsors and that we end up with a regime that gives discretion on whether to allow nudity or partial nudity without taking too puritanical a view. However, often the problem is not that people are appearing in the nude, but that some of them were pressured into the job by being trafficked. That is the issue, not whether adults should be able to go and see what they want to see in licensed premises, which should clearly be permitted where possible.
Robert Neill: I understand and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's point, but he will recognise that that is a wider issue than the provisions of this Bill.
Philip Davies: Will the Minister give way?
Robert Neill: I must draw my remarks to a conclusion. I have been generous so far-
Robert Neill: There is an argument about whether fairness includes desserts, but I will give way to my hon. Friend.
Philip Davies: The Minister has picked up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I agree with the point that he has just made about sex encounter establishments and that, in that regard, the legislation is unnecessary. Will he consider those aspects of the Bill that are worth while-and that would therefore be worth while for every local authority-and introduce legislation to cover the whole country, so that we do not have to do this piecemeal, authority by authority?
Robert Neill: I hear my hon. Friend's point and I have already set out some of the aspects of the Bill that we think are advantageous and why we wish to see it make progress. I am not sure that my hon. Friend is in a very localist frame of mind, and we may therefore have to part company on the ultimate destination of the Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I hope that my observations are of help to the House and the promoters of the Bill, and I again reiterate my offer of consultation in those areas about which we have reservations. We are committed to giving local authorities more flexibility to reflect local needs and priorities and it would therefore be appropriate for the Bill to progress further. We will seek amendments in Committee to address the areas of concern that I have highlighted.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to speak briefly on a point of constituency interest. I am especially concerned about the powers in regard to houses in multiple occupation, and I am grateful to the Minister for offering further consultation in that area. The existing situation is not working for my constituency. We have seen the growth of buy-to-let schemes into small and large HMOs, which have been the bane of my constituents' lives, whether because of mismanagement in a particular street or the safety of people living in them.
I know that London local authorities have gone through an exhaustive process of consultation and come forward with the Bill. They have identified problems with the ability to identify the landlord of an HMO, or to achieve prompt entry into premises to inspect or take remedial action. I accept what the Minister has said about the powers in existing legislation, but they are clearly not working, especially in London. As the capital city, London has seen immense growth in HMOs, because of housing problems, so the situation in some constituencies has become nightmarish.
The previous Government introduced increased planning powers to try to deal with the matter, but in some ways the current Government have watered them down. I
regret that, but the Bill gives the opportunity for more direct, prompt and forceful action to be taken to address some of the problems from which my constituents are suffering. I hope that the consultation will be timely and enable us to pass the legislation, in some form, after the Committee stage.
Finally, the sale of cars on streets has been a nightmare problem in my constituency. We have tried using traffic restrictions, but there are some streets with no traffic restrictions where the whole street has effectively been used as a garage for the sale of cars. We have taken action and resolved the problem where we have seen notices advertising cars for sale with telephone numbers on them. I congratulate my local authority on the work that it has done, but the problem has moved on. The use of the internet now means that those car salesmen can effectively bypass the existing law. I therefore welcome the conditions in this legislation. In a former life, I was responsible for the promotion and drafting of such Bills, but from my past practice, I have never known one to be in gestation for as long as this one. I hope that we can eventually implement it and that that will happen as soon as possible.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate. If some of us had not objected to the Bill going through on the nod on Second Reading, we would not be having this useful debate. We would not have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer explain why he thinks the Bill is a good one, nor would we have heard the Minister say what he thinks all the Bill's shortcomings are. He suggested that clauses 11 to 22 inclusive should be deleted, because he does not support them, and that clause 23 is redundant. It is useful to get that on the record.
This has also been a useful debate because we have been able to welcome the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who made his maiden speech from the Opposition Front Bench. It must be approaching a record to be able to speak from the Front Bench so soon after being first elected. I congratulate him on that, and I listened with interest to some of the things that he said. I cannot accuse him of saying something inconsistent with what happened under the previous Government, which is one of the strengths of being a completely new Member with a shadow ministerial office.
I have a number of concerns about the Bill. Many of them centre around the principle of whether we need to regulate more and whether we need to do so proportionately, and the need to ensure that we listen to groups of people- sometimes quite small groups of people-who are potentially adversely affected or treated unfairly as a result of private Bills. That is why it is so important that such Bills should be considered carefully in Committee, as I am sure this Bill will be in Opposed Private Bill Committee. The Bill is already the subject of petitions against it, some of which I referred to in my interventions on my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green.
I shall begin by dealing with the concerns of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association.
Mr Bone: Will my hon. Friend clarify for the House that what we are doing today-deciding whether to give the Bill its Second Reading-is about the principle of the Bill? Also, is it not unusual to have so many different things in private business? I have spent hours considering private business, but it is normally about a specific, single thing for a specific area. This seems to be a very wide-ranging Bill.
Mr Chope: I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a very wide-ranging Bill. The fact that it is the 10th such Bill to emanate from London local authorities in a reasonably short space of time shows that London local authorities are pushing at what are reasonable bounds on the powers that they should be taking in legislation. They keep trying to extend those bounds, taking more powers for themselves; indeed, there are powers in the Bill that I think go too far. The consequence of what my hon. Friend has described so pertinently-the fact that the Bill contains a large number of contentious clauses-is that unless its promoters listen to reason and allow it to be amended, it will find it jolly difficult to make fast progress through the House. Even it were to sail through the Opposed Private Bill Committee, it would encounter the same kind of difficulties on Report that the pedlars Bills were up against during the last Parliament.
Significantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green did not refer to the pedlary and street trading provisions in this Bill, but the Bill contains powers to seize commercial goods on the ground not of reasonable belief but of reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed. We brought in the reasonable suspicion test, reluctantly, under anti-terrorism legislation. It is draconian in the extreme to seize people's goods or interfere with their liberty on the ground of reasonable suspicion that they might have committed an offence. Because of the strength of that argument, amendments replacing the term "reasonable suspicion" with "reasonable belief" were accepted by the promoters of the Bournemouth Borough Council Act 2010 and the Manchester City Council Act 2010-two pedlars Bills that reached the end of their proceedings during the last Parliament. The fact that no such amendments have been offered by the promoters of this Bill represents a pretty bad prospect for the Bill, because it suggests a certain intransigence and resistance on the part of the promoters to listen to reason. It might also suggest that they want to give themselves extremely wide powers to seize goods. I believe that such powers go far beyond what is reasonable.
Philip Davies: As my hon. Friend knows from our debates on the pedlars Bills, I agree with him wholeheartedly on this matter. I believe, however, that this Bill is worse than those Bills. It deals not only with a suspicion that an offence has been committed, but with a suspicion that an offence might be about to take place. A person could be suspected of being about to commit an offence that might take place. Furthermore, in addition to property being confiscated on that basis, the Bill would also confer a power to confiscate the vehicle in which the property was carried. The idea that central Government are bad and local government is good is surely wrong; the problem in both cases relates to the word "government". We should not allow any government, local or central, to have such draconian powers.
Mr Chope: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that, when hon. Members start to look at the detail of these provisions, they will be as concerned as he and I are about their implications for civil liberties. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will report back to his colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice on our concerns about these fundamental issues of human rights and individual liberty.
Philip Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me a second bite of the cherry. Does he agree that it is unacceptable for the Government to hide behind the idea of localism on these matters? They should not be allowed to say that local authorities are entitled to do anything they want to, simply on the basis that such decisions are being taken locally. Surely localism must come with some responsibilities.
Mr Chope: Absolutely; I hope that that is what the Government believe as well, even though my hon. Friend has expressed his concern that that might not be so. Time will tell.
"Localism" is a good term, but it was rejected by Front Benchers in relation to pedlars. I remember Front-Bench colleagues during the previous Parliament arguing that there was a strong case for having national legislation on pedlars, so that there could be consistency across all local authority areas. There is also an enormously strong case for saying that we need consistency in the application of the criminal law, and that people should not have their goods seized unless there is a reasonable belief that they have committed an offence.
May I briefly revert to the petition of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association, as I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green really addressed the concerns set out in it? They are concerned that commercial theatre in London, which is not finding it easy in the present economic climate, is going to be burdened with additional charges as a result of clause 8. The petition submits that its members are already making their own arrangements for the cleaning of the pavement and so forth, and that the basis for the additional charge has not been made clear. The petition submits that the existing wording of section 115F of the Highways Act 1980 is sufficient in so far as it enables London borough councils to recover their reasonable expenses in connection with the granting of permission to put items on the pavement. I hope that the promoters will address that concern before the Bill makes further progress.
Let me move on to clauses 9 and 10, which deal with what is colloquially known as Scores on the Doors-a system intended to ensure that the people providing catering services at retail food outlets have to display their standing by putting up a notice in the window. A petition against this has been drawn up by the British Hospitality Association and another petition has come from the pubs organisation, the British Beer and Pub Association. Both those petitions highlight the fact that there should be a voluntary aspect to this scheme, but London councils are usurping the position of the Food Standards Agency, which has already said that it thinks these issues should be a matter for voluntarism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has said that he and his council have no faith in the Food Standards Agency. If he brings forward a Bill to abolish the Food Standards Agency, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and I will strongly support it. In fact, we put in a bid to become co-sponsors of such a Bill, but unless and until the Food Standards Agency is abolished, the reality is that it has the responsibilities given to it by Parliament. It ill behoves a group of councillors, however experienced they might be, to second-guess that organisation and say that it has no faith in it and is therefore going to try to duplicate its role and go further than it has gone.
Chris Williamson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is appropriate for local authorities to seek to protect the public whom they represent? Does he not accept that the Scores on the Doors scheme has had the effect of driving up standards in pubs, clubs and restaurants that provide foodstuffs for the general public?
Mr Chope: The hon. Gentleman's intervention is timely, as I was just going to refer to Scores on the Doors, which has been described as a national food hygiene rating scheme. I downloaded material on it from the internet earlier today, which made it clear that Scores on the Doors is a commercial organisation, describing itself as
"the No. 1 national food hygiene rating scheme",
enabling official local authority hygiene ratings for food businesses to be found.
Scores on the Doors is the largest such scheme in the world, but it does not cover all local authorities. According to the internet site, there are 124 contributing councils, but interestingly not all the London councils are included in that number. It does not include the London borough of Wandsworth, which I had the privilege to lead some years ago. I am immediately alerted to the fact that even the Scores on the Doors scheme is not universally accepted by London boroughs, let alone by councils more widely across the country.
Someone wishing to search for one of the premises listed on the internet will find that there are 145,931 of them. That is the number of premises that will be affected by legislation second-guessing the Food Standards Agency and introducing a national requirement, subject to criminal penalties for non-compliance. I looked for a reference to a restaurant in my area, but to gain further access to the website I had to accept a general disclaimer. The disclaimer is quite interesting, because it shows that even Scores on the Doors is by no means a panacea:
"The information on the food premises listed here is held by us on behalf of our member local authorities. By accepting this disclaimer, you are submitting a request... to the relevant local authority for the disclosure of summary inspection reports under the Freedom of Information Act 2000."
"The information... has been gathered by authorised Environmental Health Officers".
"The hygiene rating given to premises on this web site has been based on the latest Primary Inspection carried out and as such represents the situation as found by the officer on the day of that inspection. Therefore the score may not be representative of the
overall, long-term food hygiene standards of the business and should not be relied upon as a guide to food safety or food quality."
Yet the London boroughs are seeking not only to encourage but to require premises to put up signs which are meaningless. If they do not do so, they will be subject to penalties up to scale 3. If they deface the signs-perhaps by adding material from the internet, such as the extract that I have just read out-they may be subject to a penalty on scale 5.
The situation is ludicrous. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green did not have a chance to go into more detail, because if he had done so even more people would be saying that the Bill goes far too far, and that it would be best to make a fresh start.
Mr Bone: In my constituency, many restaurants enter the scheme voluntarily, which is fine. However, the rating is a snapshot of a single day, and it can cause great concern to people who are given a bad rating one day and cannot get it altered the next day. It is quite proper for restaurants to have a right to opt into the scheme, but it seems wholly wrong to compel them to enter it.
Mr Chope: I entirely agree. The disclaimer states:
"Food premises may only be inspected every 6-36 months as specified in the Food Standards Agency Code of Practice."
There is the potential for an enormous amount of damage to be caused to the reputation of commercial businesses that will have to stick on their doors something that is unrepresentative of the true position.
Philip Davies: I congratulate my hon. Friend on wiping the floor with this part of the Bill and illustrating so effectively what nonsense it is. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), said that the Scores on the Doors process had already raised standards. If the voluntary scheme is working well and raising standards, and if seeing the stars on display is so important to customers, will customers not instinctively prefer to visit only the restaurants that display their stars? If a restaurant or other food establishment chooses not to display its star rating, it will risk not receiving any custom from the people who consider the system so important.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend makes his point perfectly. We in this House have the privilege of the opportunity to try to introduce some common sense into these measures before they become set in law. I hope this debate will enable that to happen, certainly in relation to clauses 8 and 9, against which petitions have, for good reason, been submitted. Depressingly, the petitions were presented in the other place as well, and they did not have any impact. Nobody seems to have been listening. I hope somebody will start to listen soon because we are talking about potential threats to the viability of lots of small businesses in the ever-important hospitality industry. There is the possibility of gross injustices arising from these provisions.
Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): If this Bill were to be enacted, how would the provisions of clause 9 apply to a vendor who has no window to his customers and no door, such as the owner of a hot dog cart?
Mr Chope: My right hon. Friend brings his legal expertise to bear on this issue and asks a very pertinent question. I am not in a position to answer it, but if the promoter of the Bill-or the promoter's representative in this place today-wishes to intervene to do so, I will gladly give way. If the Bill has been as well prepared as one would hope after three years of gestation, one would expect that point to have been taken into account by its drafters-although perhaps we should not be so certain about that.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was enthusiastic about the only parts of the Bill that my hon. Friend the Minister said the Government were concerned about. That is an interesting cameo within this debate. I hope my hon. Friend will stick to his guns in pursuing his concerns about clauses 11 to 22 and will insist that clause 23 is removed as being absolutely redundant.
Philip Davies: The Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association are worried that clause 23 will have a big impact on their theatres. Occasionally, there is some nudity or semi-nudity in a production and this measure may well have a negative impact on such shows. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that concern as well?
Mr Chope: Absolutely. My hon. Friend the Minister said the legislation that had been introduced nationally since the Bill was first produced covers the national picture. I am sure it takes properly into account the concerns that have been expressed, and to which my hon. Friend has referred.
I want to refer back to an earlier part of the Bill. Clause 7 deals with access to public lavatories. I have the privilege of representing a constituency with one of the highest proportions of elderly people in the country, and we in Christchurch are proud to have been the winner of the loo of the year awards on many occasions. Ours is a prudent council, and it has now reached the stage where the councillor and the officers responsible for winning those accolades do not attend the awards ceremony because they cannot afford the cost of the travel, but they are grateful recipients of the awards.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is going to flush out the subject a little more, but we are dealing with a London Bill, rather than toilets in his constituency. I know that there is a connection, but I would like to try to keep it a little tighter if we can.
Mr Chope: Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. The great joy for people in Christchurch is that even when they reach a certain age they can travel. They travel outside their constituency to places such as London, and they expect that in London they will find facilities similar to those that they enjoy in Christchurch. Sometimes they are disappointed, and that is where the relevance of all this lies. As they have such high standards at home, they seek them elsewhere.
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