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Lord Jenkin of Roding: I shall not detain the Committee long against this clause, but I should like to draw the Government's attention to the fact that a number of substantial anxieties have been expressed about the way in which the new power has been drawn up, the body to which the registration and inspection has been entrusted and some of the detail about the powers to be given. In the course of his replies, the Minister has given us what I can only describe as some very bland assurances. One is dealing with the matter, as it were, at third hand. The Minister is here to say what he believes the Government will do. We have what is in the Bill as to what that means; then there is the question of the regulations which will follow; and, perhaps most important of all, the actual operation of the registration and inspection as it will be carried out by the people on the ground.
I have a fear that we shall find ourselves with some rather heavy-handed detailed inspections and regulation in an area which, on the whole--although of course there are variations across the country--in the case of well-run local authorities, has actually run fairly satisfactorily. As a result, large numbers of people are prepared to offer child-minding and day care services and, as the Minister himself properly said, that is of great value in present day society when so many more women go out to work.
I simply ask the Minister to take account of the anxieties that have been expressed; and to look seriously at some of the points raised--he has indicated for some of them that he is not disposed to change his mind, although he will listen--because I believe that we risk setting up something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Yes, there should be national standards--we agree on that. But I seriously wonder whether we are justified in setting up a whole new national bureaucracy to run them. I have a horrid feeling that, as it unfolds over the years ahead, one will find a rising tide of protest and a falling number of childminders and day care providers. That would be in no one's interest.
Lord Bach: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. I am sorry if my remarks seemed to him to be bland; I am sure that, when he was a senior Secretary of State, his remarks at any stage of any Bill for which he was responsible were not bland. I take seriously the comments and discussion that we have had in the Committee today at the proper stage of the Bill. We do not believe that the consequences of passing the Bill into legislation will be as the noble Lord predicts. However, we have further thinking to do; we shall no doubt return to the House on Report on those matters; and the noble Lord may rest assured that the remarks and comments made from all Benches--some supportive, some not so supportive--on this important part of this important Bill will be taken into careful consideration.
I believe that it will be for the convenience of your Lordships' House if, in speaking to this Bill, I speak also to the identical Bill which relates to the Medway Council. Together, these two Bills seek to alleviate the problem of burglary and the disposal of stolen goods over the whole geographical area of Kent covered by the Kent Police.
The Bills have the support of all political parties in the two councils. Wide consultation among organisations in Kent have shown that they are supported strongly by the general public, who are deeply concerned by the losses which they suffer when their homes are burgled. I declare an interest in this matter--a common interest, I am afraid, with many of your Lordships--as a personal victim of burglary in my own home in Kent. I declare an interest also as chairman of the Leeds Castle Foundation, where we have had bitter experience of the theft of valuable and historic items, which later turn up in the second-hand market.
To give some indication of the scale of the problem, over 1997-98 it is estimated that goods worth £105 million were stolen in Kent, with a recovery rate of only 25 per cent. The Home Office has given support of £350,000 to a project in the Medway towns called "Radium". That was recently launched officially by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, and is designed to tackle the fact revealed by Home Office research and by police intelligence that a large proportion of stolen property passes through unregulated second-hand dealers.
The legislation will not solve the problem, but I believe that it will make possible a more effective partnership between the police and the consumer protection work of trading standards officers. The provisions of the two Bills go a good deal beyond antiques, which I believe may be the focus of a large part of our debate. However, they will help to tackle, for example, the second-hand car abuse of fiddling the mileage reading of odometers--a fraud which provides profits of many millions of pounds for unscrupulous car dealers. The legislation will deal also with a new development called "squat trading", where rogue traders illegally enter vacant high street premises for what amount to hit-and-run sales.
The main provisions of the Bill are simple. They require registration, which will be free, of businesses which deal in second-hand goods. There is a requirement to keep a record of purchases and addresses, and of the sale of an article worth over £100. The penalties for failure to observe those provisions are set out in the Bills as a range of fines.
The Bills have been before the public in Kent for a long time--indeed, since November 1998. As I said, they have been the subject of wide consultations, including discussions with LAPADA, the national antiques organisation. Those have resulted in a whole series of exemptions being negotiated: for occasional sales by auctioneers; for regular private markets of traders; and for dealers outside Kent who come in either to sell or to buy. There is a total exemption for books, and an amendment to protect the collectors of antiques who must disclose the location of their collections. Those amendments show that the councils listened to the concerns raised with them by various trade interests and took positive steps to address the concerns. As a result, there were no Petitions outstanding that required a Committee stage in your Lordships' House. Therefore, I am bound to say that I am a little puzzled that at this 11th hour the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, should table his amendments, which, if carried, will kill these useful Bills.
Through the good offices of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the president of LAPADA--a national body of standing in the antiques field--some of us had the opportunity last week to hear and study its concerns and those of some antique dealers within Kent. I am bound to say that I recognise the strength of feeling behind those concerns. LAPADA expresses support for the motives behind the Bills but believes that the only approach should be through national legislation. It appears to argue that it is wrong in principle to make what it calls "local criminal law". Local by-laws and private Acts lie at the very heart of the whole local government system. I may do something which is perfectly all right in my native Dundee but it may attract a fine if I try it in my adopted county of Kent. In any case, there is no practical prospect of national legislation in this field. I believe that LAPADA's point of view in the matter is a typical example of the ideal being the enemy of the good. That is no more than to argue that if you cannot do something worth while everywhere, you should not be allowed to do it anywhere.
There are, in fact, a number of local authorities which have sought and operate similar powers to those now being sought by Kent County Council and by Medway Council. I shall not take up your Lordships' time in the brief period available by reciting all of them. However, there is a list of eight local authorities with similar powers. I asked the Kent Police to contact all those councils. Every one of them has confirmed that it finds the legislation useful and that the councils work with the local police forces to enforce it.
The second objection is that the Bills' requirements to keep simple records will impose an unreasonable bureaucratic burden on small businesses. Certainly, it will be a bureaucratic burden; I do not deny that. But
Finally, the noble Viscount's amendments seem to me to raise issues of significant parliamentary principle. LAPADA and the local antique dealers have raised objections which certainly deserve serious consideration. There were discussions between the councils and LAPADA during the consultation period on the Bills and, indeed, I believe that a number of amendments were made to meet their wishes. Personally, I believe that it is a great pity that if LAPADA and the antique dealers in Kent felt as strongly as they now say they do, they should not have put in their Petitions at the appropriate period and therefore enabled a Select Committee of your Lordships' House to deal with the matter in the kind of detail which it deserves and which, I believe, is impossible in this kind of abbreviated debate during the dinner hour. For whatever reason, that was not done. They will, or should, have a further opportunity to do so when the Bill passes to the other place, as it ought to do.
I say seriously to the noble Viscount that surely it would be a great error of judgment and quite wrong if this House, in a sparsely attended debate during the dinner hour, were to prevent the elected Chamber, including the elected Members for Kent, dealing with proposals from the Kent local authorities which are designed to protect householders from burglaries and loss of precious possessions. I commend the Bill to the House.