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The noble Lord said: My Lords, as with compulsory liquidation, the official receiver's obligation to investigate the conduct of the bankrupt should be mandatory in all cases. The clause leaves the decision on whether to investigate to the discretion of the official receiver.
We believe that an investigation should be conducted, in all cases, to justify a decision on whether it is appropriate to bring an application for a bankruptcy restrictions order. The report should be filed with the Secretary of State as well as the court, to enable a decision to be made on whether to bring such an application. Without that, it is impossible to see on what basis a proper decision can be made. Nor will creditors have any confidence that their interests are being protected.
If the number of bankruptcies increases significantly under the new system, as we anticipate, the importance of investigating each case will increase to prevent the abuse of the system. That should be addressed by the provision of appropriate levels of training and resources rather than by removing the obligation to investigate. I beg to move.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we have seen this amendment before in this House and in another place. Its aim is to ensure that there is a mandatory duty on the official receiver to investigate all cases. The Insolvency Act 1986 introduced for the first time the concept that the official receiver did not have to investigate in small casesthat is, where the bankrupt had unsecured liabilities of less than £20,000. Such cases are termed "summary bankruptcies". The official receiver has used that discretion to investigate for 16 years.
Summary cases account for a large proportion of the annual total of bankruptcy cases. For the remainder of non-summary cases, there is a mandatory duty on the official receiver to investigate. The exercise of that discretion has been carried out responsibly and effectively by the official receiver and has not, as far as I am aware, led to any significant number of complaints from creditors or other interest groups in the past 16 years.
The Bill will remove the existing provisions relating to summary bankruptcy and introduce discretion to investigate in all bankruptcies, including the larger ones. That will ensure that resources are properly targeted and used effectively. Every case will be looked at on its merits, based on an assessment of the facts, rather than, as is currently the case, taking the level of unsecured debts as the deciding criterion.
Some cases with large unsecured debts do not merit investigation and some cases where the unsecured liabilities are less than £20,000 do require investigation. What is important is that all cases that warrant it are investigated.
The amendment would require the official receiver to conduct a full investigation into every case without regard to its individual facts and circumstances. That would go further than the current position and would be a wasteful use of investigative resource.
There may be concerns that if the duty to investigate is made discretionary, some who show misconduct or are potentially guilty of criminal offences might slip through the net, or that resource pressures on the official receiver will mean that cases that should be investigated are not fully investigated. Under the new
It should be remembered that even after a case has been investigated under the current system, very little can be done to address misconduct, other than criminal sanctions in a very small number of cases. The bankruptcy restrictions order regime introduced under these proposals will provide an effective weapon at the official receiver's disposal and will significantly improve the level of public protection. That will allow a distinction to be made by all, including the credit industry, between those who show misconduct and those who do not.
As I have already said, the Bill allows for the proper and focussed targeting of investigative resources on those cases that merit it, and we see no reason to amend it. I hope that that shows that I do not support the amendment.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, this time the Minister has made that clear. He thinks that the safeguards in the Bill are sufficient to allay any fears that I might have about the operation of the system. In those circumstances, I shall not press the amendment again on Third Reading and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I do so as the joint president of the Association of London Government, with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. I am delighted to see him in his place and intending to speak.
The Bill has been promoted by one boroughWestminster City Councilon behalf of all the other London boroughs and Transport for London. London local authorities have a long tradition of using their powers to promote private legislation, often because of the limited time available for public Bills.
The joint promotion between the London authorities and Transport for London is a clear sign of close working together between all the traffic and highway authorities in London. This is an excellent example of what can be done if political differences can be put aside for the good of all Londoners. I am glad to say that there is a strong political consensus among all the parties in support of this legislation.
I begin with Clauses 3 to 6, which seek to decriminalise some minor traffic offences to allow effective and efficient enforcement. London boroughs and Transport for London believe that by decriminalising some minor traffic offences, police time can be spent on more serious offences and alternative enforcement can be effectively conducted at no additional expense to the public purse. The Bill's promoters propose that offences such as the infringement of rules on box junctions, vehicles making right or left turns in prohibited locations, and vehicles entering pedestrian zones should be managed in a similar manner to the existing enforcement regime for bus lanesby camera. In areas where cameras police bus lanes, there has been a major reduction in the number of bus lane contraventions. The use of camera technology has also proved successful in policing box junctions.
Local authorities and Transport for London police the majority of London's bus lanes using powers obtained under the London Local Authorities Act 1996. The process for the enforcement of bus lane use and the system proposed for other minor traffic offences is similar. In both cases, liability generally rests with the vehicle keeper. There are of course some exceptions, such as hire vehicles. Specific provision for hire vehicles is currently made in Clause 6, but amendments simplifying those provisions will be sought at the Committee stage.
Clause 4 makes provision for decriminalising the enforcement of the London night-time and weekend lorry ban. Local authority officers already enforce this scheme. The officers take prosecutions to the magistrates' courts. Magistrates can, and do, impose fines of up to £1,000 on operators guilty of breaching the ban. The London lorry ban minimises the environmental impact of heavy lorries in London. The scheme does not prevent essential night and weekend deliveries being made; it simply prevents excessive and unnecessary lorry traffic at these times. The Bill provides for no changes in either the scheme itself, the legislation which governs it, or the liability for penalties. It would also ease the pressure on magistrates' courts.
Clause 7 proposes that councils should be able to share informationsuch as car ownershipobtained through the Bill's powers with other borough councils and Transport for London. This will aid enforcement
Noble Lordsespecially those who frequently travel on the capital's roadsmay be surprised to hear that surveys have shown that there is a £100-million road maintenance backlog in London. The Bill proposes in Clause 8 to allow surplus revenue from the highway authority's parking accounts to be used to reduce this backlog. These accounts receive all income from parking traffic enforcement and have statutory limits on the use of any surplus.
In some parts of London where the demand for residents' parking permits is particularly high, fraudulent applications are not uncommon. Such fraudulent applications are an offence. Currently, however, the time limit for bringing prosecutions is so strict that fraudulent application can escape prosecution because of the time taken to gather sufficient evidence. Clause 9 provides that prosecution can take place at any time within six months of suitable evidence coming to light and at any time within three years of the offence being committed.
The Bill seeks in Clause 10 to provide a London-wide decriminalised offence of parking alongside dropped pavements. Such parking can block entries to drives and garages and block crossing points for wheelchair users and those with pushchairs and prams. The clause will extend the powers that highway authorities already have to enforce this rule in controlled parking zones. The Association of London Government has agreed to draft and consult on a code of practice for the enforcement of this contravention.
After all the avenues for challenging the parking or traffic penalty have been exhausted, if the penalty remains unpaid, the authority will register it as a debt at the county court. At this point, the vehicle's keeper may make a statutory declaration if he did not receive the original parking notice or the council or adjudicator did not respond to his appeals. Clause 11 seeks to close some of the loopholes which have occasionally been used by vehicle owners making improper statutory declarations.
Clause 12 deals with cases in which a property owner drives his vehicle over the pavement into his property without an authorised footway crossover. It is preferable for a number of reasons for council-approved measures, including dropped curbs, to be constructed where people wish to drive over the pavement into their property. Such approval can be given under Section 184 of the Highways Act 1980. This is to avoid damage to the curb and to allow for the protection of any underground services such as water or gas mains under the footway. Under this clause, it would be an offence, if no approval for the crossing has been given, for the property owner to drive across the pavement to park on his property. If the council has served a notice requiring the property owner to desist, in extreme cases, the highway authority may erect bollards or similar devices to prevent vehicles from
Clauses 15 to 18 concern current offences that highway authorities may prosecute in the magistrates' courts. These offences include, for example, obstructing the highway or depositing material on the highway. These clauses will allow the authorities to issue fixed-penalty notices in these cases rather than prosecuting each case separately in the magistrates' courts.
Clauses 19 to 21 propose giving highway authorities enhanced powers to remove items unlawfully deposited on the highway. The powers are aimed particularly at persistent offenders, such as shop owners who litter the pavement with their goods, often causing an obstruction.
I should make the House aware that, of the 19 petitions originally submitted against the Bill, none are left. That is due mainly to the withdrawal by the promoters of Clauses 13 and 14, which concerned the reinstatement of street works and obligations to statutory undertakers to place apparatus in the street so that subsequent works do not require the street to be broken up again. I am pleased to say that, as the Government themselves are considering such proposals, the promoters have been happy to drop those clauses.
I apologise to the House for having spoken at such length, but, given the nature of the Bill, I am afraid that that was unavoidable. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. I look forward to hearing the speeches of other noble Lords who have indicated that they wish to follow me. I beg to move.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that I might be forgiven, and not misunderstood, if I start by saying that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringeywho is on the Front Bench to make observations on behalf of the Government in relation to this debatehas been on that Bench all afternoon dealing with the Enterprise Bill. Noble Lords who are now in the Chamber might already understand that. I hope that the GovernmentI say this without the slightest ironyrealise how fortunate they are to have such a servant as the noble Lord.
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