|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, I rise to support the Bill and oppose the amendment. I spent 35 years as a police officer and I know the value of such regulation. Similar provisions were passed in relation to scrap metal dealers. The Gaming Act controls gaming clubs. Licensees are regulated in the same way. The provisions would be valuable.
The Chief Constable of Kent is totally supportive of the Bill. He is chairman of the ACPO Crime Committee, so, when it comes to crime, he knows what he is talking about. He is one of the top chief constables and has shown a marked reduction in crime. Crime is an expensive business. The last estimate from the insurers' association indicates that £31 billion-worth of goods are stolen each year.
Any measure that can prevent crime and detect offenders must be valuable. I do not believe it matters if it is confined to one area. If the people enforcing it believe it would be well worth while, this House has a duty to support it. Any crime reduction measure is valuable, not just to the police but to the community concerned. Clearly, if there are no disposal points for stolen goods, it is more difficult to sell the goods. There is also a deterrent effect if thieves are fully aware of the fact that there may be difficulty in selling the goods. The point made about being able to give false names and addresses is perfectly valid. However, if this Bill has any effect at all in deterring crime, we have a duty to support it. I believe that the Bill should continue its passage.
I believe it is unfair of the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, to compare antique dealers to scrap metal dealers. I take exception to that. In this business there are a great number of small traders. There are the smart people in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and the smart people in London, but the whole business is based on small people going backwards and forwards, saying, "Can I buy or sell your picture for you?" and so forth. Much of the business is conducted as a second business, not as a first business. The amount of bureaucracy which will be necessary to make this provision work is far more than is justified by the gains that will be made.
The noble Lord, Lord Thompson of Monifieth, mentioned the fact that books will be exempt. There are extremely valuable books available. If this is such a good idea, I cannot see why books should be exempt. That is extraordinary. As regards the provision applying only in Kent, Manchester, North Yorkshire and wherever else, dealers do not respect county boundaries; they move around all over the place. I find it extraordinary, if, as the Minister stated, the Government think this is such a good idea, that they do not come forward with a national scheme, properly worked out, which will then cover the whole country and perhaps make some difference to the disposal of stolen goods.
I cannot see that this scheme, relating only to Kent, can have any good, viable result. It will create a great deal of extra legislation. It will be oppressive to the smaller trader and I support the amendment of my noble friend all the way down the line.
Lord Mayhew: My Lords, I too begin by declaring an interest. My home is in the county of Kent. I have an interest in doing whatever I can to contribute to the reduction in the amount of stolen property which is never recovered. As we have already heard today, only around 25 per cent of stolen property in Kent is recovered, in spite of the attention of an extremely efficient police force under a Chief Constable of whose distinction we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate.
I also have a specific interest in hoping that such antiques, cars or other desirables as I may possess remain in my possession and are not stolen. In the course of 23 years as the MP for a constituency already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Luke, my constituents, if they agreed with me in nothing else, passionately shared that concern.
We therefore have the spectacle of the House tonight being invited to consider in all of one hour--the dinner hour at that--a substantial measure affecting law and order in an important way which has been one-and-a-half years in preparation by a major county council and which has the full support of the chief constable and the police committee. I invite the House of course to do the best it can in the short time available to consider the merits of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Astor. But it is quite impossible in this short time for us to begin to do anything like justice to the merits of the arguments. We heard arguments about incompatibility with liberty; about impracticability of enforcement and so forth. We cannot resolve those within the half hour left to us.
A procedure was open for objectors to petition, whereupon all these important discussions could have taken place with, if desired, witnesses being called before a Select Committee. That was not done. My noble friend Lord Astor--I do not say this disrespectfully--says rather loftily, "I have no knowledge as to why there was no petition". I am sure he is right, but that is not enough to dispose of the point. We have here a Bill which can, if it receives a Third Reading tonight, receive after a petition in the other place the examination which it could and evidently should have received here.
One must deal with the principal point made; namely, that piecemeal legislation of this character is wrong. If so, that "wrongness" seems to have eluded Parliament over the past 10 years in a large number of instances. Similar, though not identical Bills, were promoted and passed in respect of South Yorkshire, the county of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Humberside, the county of Lancashire, Herefordshire City Council, Worcester City Council, North Yorkshire County Council and, most recently, the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I understand that that Bill passed its stages in this House and is now before the other place.
I agree with the Minister that we must not allow the best to be the enemy of the good. Because there is no prospect of national legislation coming forward--one understands the pressures--is it to be said that Kent and those who live there are to be denied the advantage of provisions which the residents of a substantial part of the country received? I cannot see why it should be said that Kent should be singled out and dismissed.
It is said that the police cannot engage in this sort of activity. It is strange that that argument eluded the Chief Constable of Kent, the police authority and an extremely properly cost-conscious county council that is certainly not in the habit of authorising, let alone instigating, expenditure which will be impractical.
I venture to suggest that it is not enough merely to say that this is a well-intentioned but wrong Bill, as my noble friend Lord Astor said. Of course it is well intentioned and those intentions are shared by those who object. They made that clear. The Bill concerns the reduction of crime and the ease with which the police can get on top of the problem of stolen property. The promoters of the Bill are doing something about it. They do not seek to have it spirited through Parliament without examination; they would welcome it being properly examined. They have already shown that they are prepared to respond to a case made against it by a number of amendments which have been made in this House, although the Bill was unopposed. But they wish the Bill to pass and the people of Kent are entitled to that.
I conclude by repeating a point already alluded to but about which I feel most strongly. I was tempted to say it would be frivolous but it would certainly be remarkable, and I believe bizarre, for a Bill of this
I join every speaker to date in saying that the expressed objects of the Bill are praiseworthy. I join my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew in saying that we owe a great deal of respect to the people and democratic structures of Kent and Medway, who have every right, as has every local council, to make the lives of their citizens as difficult and inconvenient as possible within the normal bounds we set on such things. It should be no part of our life in this House to interfere with that sort of arrangement, which is internal to a county council and with which the voters of that county can properly deal at their elections.
I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, that we should pay close attention to what the police say about these matters. I do not go as far as he in saying that, if the police support something, we should give it our support. Even the Liberal Democrat Party would be a little more critical than that on most issues. I do not share the disparagement by my noble friend Lord Luke of scrap metal dealers--I believe most of them these days are called "modern art" dealers.
But there are precedents for these Bills. I have read them. I have been through all the Bills which passed through this House. They are entirely acceptable local Bills. They are local in their concept, local in their effect and reasonable in their terms.
In many aspects, this Bill goes much further than any existing legislation. It is not just a national Bill; it is an international Bill in its effects. It is positing the powers of the Kent Police operating world-wide. I find the idea of a Kent policeman or trading standards officer looking over the behaviour of the registered Kent antique dealer, or dealer in second-hand goods, wherever he may be in the world, to be extraordinary.
There are a number of the Bill's aspects that concern me, many of them small but one great. I shall deal, first, with the small ones. I start with the matter of consultation. This may have been public; indeed, I believe it was subject to an advertisement in the Evening Standard, which I do not think is widely read in all parts of Kent. However, clearly it has not been discussed sufficiently with the main organisations representing dealers in second-hand goods. One or two of them have been involved and little exemptions have appeared in the Bill; for example, my noble friend Lord Astor mentioned books, which is extraordinary. Books are a valuable part of many people's possessions. I understand that they are to be exempted
Secondly, there has been very little exposure of the benefits of the Bill. It may be lack of talent on my part, but I have been unable to find anyone in the police force of North Yorkshire who is willing to say anything in great support of the past 10 years' experience at their end. It is a nice little piece of bureaucracy and is enforced keenly by the trading standards officers. However, as far as I can discover, it does not do much to prevent crime.
The difficulty about the way this Bill is expressed is that it is in danger of turning you and me--that is, ordinary people who may have a little hobby collecting this or that--into criminals without our knowing about it. When we decide what should be a local law and what should be a national one, one of the most important things we must have regard to is whether people coming into the area can reasonably know what is criminal and what is not within that county. We set our traffic regulations in such a way that I know what the signs on the side of the road mean. I know what a thirty-mile-an-hour speed limit is because such limits are set nationally. But parking regulations, and in particular how you get a parking permit, and so on, are set locally because they concern local people. That is the way that the other Bills in this area have been drafted. They set out local regulations applying to people who have premises in the county or area concerned so that they properly know about them.
For example, if you have a shop in Winchester or one in Lancashire, you are governed by the local regulations and when you make a trip to Kent you do not expect, as is the case with this Bill, to find that you are governed by the Kent or Medway regulations, which may be separate. Indeed, if the precedent of this particular type of Bill is followed, we may end up with 200 different sets of criminal legislation covering the country. It would be totally impossible for the ordinary person to know where he or she stands.
I turn to my third point. It is the practice with Bills these days to say where they stand vis-a-vis the Human Rights Act. But there is nothing of that sort in this Bill, although it contains extensive powers of entry and criminal penalties that are quite interesting in the effect that they would have on the ordinary citizen. I believe that that is something which should be looked at in this Bill. Similarly, the consequences of the Data Protection Act are not covered, although the Bill requires record keeping in a quite extensive way, especially as regards purchase transactions by individuals. That will amount to a great dictionary for a thief if he happens to come across it; indeed, he might find information about interesting things around the county.
There is no recognition in the Bill of e-commerce. It is a recently-enough drafted Bill so it ought to have contemplated such consequences. The forms of record which are to be kept are not set out in the Bill--this is different from any other Act--and can be set by the council at a later date. Many of these people will keep records for VAT purposes and that sort of record will do under any other legislation. They are keeping a record for VAT and that same record will do. However, under this Bill, the Kent County Council or the Medway Council can demand that a different sort of record be kept.
There is a phrase in the Bill of what is required to be recorded; namely, a description "sufficient to identify" the articles. That is an innovation in this Bill. How do you come by a description sufficient to identify, say, a Penny Black or the exhaust of an old Austin 1100? They are asking the impossible. They are also asking the impossible at the other end of the scale when it comes to a house clearance. To comply with that particular wording, which is different from the wording in any other similar Act, you would have to record every single pin that you picked up in a House--or perhaps you would be allowed to say "a box of pins". But when you have paid £200 for the general contents of someone's house, it is ridiculous to have to spend two days on record keeping.
In other Bills the definition of "dealer" is quite clearly confined to people who would ordinarily consider themselves to be dealers. If we take the Yorkshire Act, which goes furthest, you would find yourself having to register with North Yorkshire if you go to deal at the Harrogate antiques fair. But if you just turn up in Yorkshire to buy a few things from an antique shop, you are fine. However, under this Bill, if you make one or two transactions--for example, a couple of items bought from an antique shop--or if you are a dealer somewhere else in the country, or, indeed, anywhere else in the world, you will be caught by the provisions and will have to register. The whole business occurs in several places in the legislation; indeed, there can be a variation of the terms of this Act by local order which can apply to people outside the county who will only come across this jurisdiction occasionally. It is something which is fraught with danger for the ordinary citizen. For the record, I should also point out here that there is a typographical error at line 21 on page five.
The great problem with this Bill is that it seeks to deal with a local problem in a way that has national and international effects. It would produce a chaotic and, indeed, comic effect if it were to come into practice. It would be like a combination of the Keystone Cops and "Passport to Pimlico". If an outsider coming into Kent is a dealer he must register; but how does he know that he must do so? If he is on holiday from France, how does he know who he must register with before he drops into an antique shop? He will not even know whether he must do so in Kent, in Medway or, indeed, in one of the other counties which may bring forward this sort of legislation in the future. But if he fails to register he is committing a criminal offence.
Wherever a Kent dealer goes in the world and whenever he does a deal in second-hand goods, he has to read a form of wording to anyone with whom he is doing a deal to warn them of the consequences of failing to provide the correct name and address of whoever he is selling to or buying from. One can imagine a dealer trying this on in Australia and only guess at the reply he would get from the average Australian if he were to try to warn him that, if he did not give the correct name and address, the Kent police would be after him.
If this Bill is to be a blueprint for future Acts, any dealer in second-hand goods who is at all widespread in his activities in the UK will have to register with every local authority, and there might be 200 of them if we follow this practice. He will have to display 200 notices of registration with each local authority. He will have to keep up to date with 200 sets of local rules, which are changed locally and not subject to national advertising or any form of national notification; in other words, things that can be changed just by local regulation. That would change the way he has to behave when he deals in a particular county. He will also face 200 sets of criminal penalties if he gets it wrong, and may well have to keep different forms of record for each county with which he is registered because those things can be changed locally and are not laid down in the Bill. That would mean that every transaction would have to be recorded a number of times. This is oppressive to the honest and it is very hard to see how it will be effective as regards the dishonest: it is costly, tedious and unenforceable. It just will not do as legislation.
We have to live within the procedures of this House as we find them. Like my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, I find it deeply unsatisfactory that we have not had a proper opportunity to debate this Bill. But we in this Chamber are not in the business of letting through deeply unsatisfactory legislation. I know that we do it sometimes; indeed, I am sad to say that we have done it in the past at my government's request. I deeply regret the handguns and the dangerous dogs legislation, which have harmed innocent people and done very little to deal with the guilty. I do not think that it is an honour to this House to let go flawed legislation just because the procedures of the House have not allowed us to debate it properly. We have a responsibility--
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page