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London County Council (General Powers) Bill (By Order)

Volume 654: debated on Monday 19 February 1962

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Read a Second time and committed.

7.1 p.m.

I beg to move,

That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill to leave out Clause 25.
I apologise to the London County Council for delaying the passage of its Bill and also to hon. Members for taking some of their time from a most important debate to deal with a matter which is of some concern and interest to Stepney. I hope that hon. Members will agree with me, after hearing what I have to say, that it is just as well that this question should be ventilated, not only in an endeavour to see that the right thing is done, but also to provide information about some of the things which take place in London.

Section 25 of the London County Council (General Powers) Bill deals with the allocation of licences for street trading. I believe that it is not the London County Council that is really pressing for this Clause, but, mainly, the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee. Representatives of the Stepney Borough Council, the London County Council and the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee and I met on Tuesday to try to come to some reasonable understanding on the Clause.

There are more annual trading licences issued each year in Stepney than in any other borough in the whole of London. There are approximately 1,250 street trading licences issued in Stepney annually, which is much more than in Hackney, and three or four times the number issued in most of the other boroughs represented on the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee.

The allocation of street trading licences was put into the hands of the borough councils in London by the London County Council (General Powers) Act, 1927. There has always been some difficulty about the proper way of granting licences to applicants for pitches in street markets and in 1947 the London County Council introduced an amendment to the allocation of street trading licences but did not deal with the major problem with which Stepney is concerned and, no doubt, other boroughs in London. Apart from having in Stepney the largest number of street traders, it has also the well-known Petticoat Lane, and, of course, there is a large number of applicants for pitches in that street on Sunday mornings.

The way in which Stepney Borough Council and, I think, all the other metropolitan borough councils with markets in their areas operated after the passing of the 1927 Act, was to allow applicants for street trading licences to send in their names and addresses and the name of the street in which they wanted to trade. Those names and addresses were collated and eventually placed before a meeting of the market committees of the borough councils.

That system went on until the war. There was, however, a provision in the London County Council (General Powers) Act for an aggrieved applicant to appeal to a magistrates' court against the decision of a borough council in the granting of an application to another person, and the magistrates had power under the Act to grant a licence to the aggrieved person over and above the local authority.

The experience of the Stepney Borough Council—I know something about this, because I was on the local authority myself from 1934 until 1959—was that it was gradually becoming extremely difficult, under the system of choosing from a list of people, for the council to satisfy the applicant or even the magistrates.

After a large number of appeals had been allowed by the local magistrates against the decisions of the borough council on the granting of licences, the borough council felt that it might be better if it set up sub-committees of the market committee, which is called panels, to interview the applicants in the various parts of the borough. That began after the war, but even this system broke down because, again, appeals were made to the magistrates against the decisions of the council, and again, on many occasions, the magistrates allowed the appeals.

Obviously, this situation was making it difficult for a local authority to carry out its duties in a proper way. It was decided by the Stepney Borough Council that there should be a test case to find out exactly what were the powers of the Council in regard to the allocation of street licences so that it might apply the construction of the divisional court to applications under the Act.

That appeal was heard in the Queen's Bench Division in 1960 and the court decided that the procedure which had been applied by Stepney Borough Council and, I think, by other borough councils in London, of choosing from a number if there was more than one applicant, was wrong under the Act. That being so, the Stepney Borough Council has, in dealing with applications for street trading licences, followed the ruling of the divisional court in 1960. The court said that the proper way of working the Act in relation to applications for street trading licences was that the first applicant for a pitch should get it, regardless of those who came afterwards.

The council has followed this procedure since 1960. It has been greatly relieved to know that the procedure has caused great satisfaction to applicants and also relieved members of the council from much criticism. When a committee of the council has to deal with many applicants for one pitch it is bound to upset more people than it pleases. Criticism in this respect has been more or less eradicated.

The council had hoped that this procedure would continue, but, unfortunately, it appears that some other borough councils in London think that the Act as defined by the divisional court should now be altered so that what the procedure which obtained before the judgment of the divisional court should now become law by virtue of Clause 25. What is being asked for in the Clause is that we should revert to the previous position and leave it to councils—presumably to their market committees. If there are one or more applicants for a pitch, the markets committee will decide which applicant, regardless of anything else, shall be given the licence.

Previous to the judgment of the divisional court, applicants had the opportunity of appealing to the magistrates against the refusal to grant them a licence. But Clause 25 will not even permit that. It takes away the opportunity for an aggrieved applicant to appeal to the magistrates' court. If the Clause is carried, we shall return to the old position, less the right of appeal to magistrates, and we shall again be faced with all the difficulties which confront local authorities when dealing with a large number of applications. I repeat that we in Stepney have a large number of applications, even if other boroughs do not. We want to avoid these difficulties and that is one reason why my council prefers the ruling of the divisional court to the scheme proposed in the Bill.

It can rightly be argued that the Stepney Borough Council is a member of the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee and that it had the right to make representations to the Committee when this matter was being considered. However, as we pointed out in the discussions which were held before the Bill came before the House, unfortunately our delegate on the Works Sub-Committee of the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee was very ill last year and was unable to make a verbal contribution.

All we want the London County Council and the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee to do is let things remain as they are for at least another twelve months. Let us see how the divisional court ruling works. I repeat that Stepney is the borough with the largest number of street trading licences. We are convinced that the system we advocate is the best system and that no infallible system will ever be devised. After all, somebody is dissatisfied even if the policy of first come first served is followed.

If there are 20 applicants for a pitch and the licence is granted to one, one person will be pleased and 19 will be dissatisfied. However, after thirty-five years' experience in the allocation of street trading licences, we are convinced that in the last two years the system adopted has been the most beneficial to the smooth running of the council, has been to the satisfaction of applicants, and has led to a reduction in the number of appeals.

I do not know whether anybody will argue against my proposal tonight, but there are hon. Members present who know much more about local authorities than I do. Another part of Clause 25 states that favour should be given to the dependants of holders of street licences who die. The part of the Clause dealing with this aspect is not very precise and will need much more clarification before it becomes law. However, even without this provision, since the ruling in the divisional court we in Stepney, in the 15 cases in which licensed traders have died, have been able to give the licences to relatives of the deceased in 13 cases. In the other two cases there was no application from relatives and the licences were granted to other applicants. I emphasise that all the relatives of the deceased have been satisfied under the present procedure. This provision is not necessary.

I believe that the London County Council argued that under the system of first come first served there might be a sale of licences. The Council presumably meant that a man might, knowing that he was to relinquish his licence, sell it to a friend, who could then apply and be certain of being the first. There may be something in this argument. There is "fiddling" in all sections of society, certainly on the Stock Exchange. However, even this suggested difficulty does not enable me to support Clause 25. I would far rather the council was able to carry out its duty in the way it wants to and has carried it out since the divisional court ruling. I would far rather take the chance of there being a rogue here and there than that there should be a return to the thirty-three years' distress which we had in Stepney when carrying out what was thought to be the law, but which was held by the divisional court not to be the law.

For these reasons, I ask the House to support the Motion.

7.20 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) has covered a large number of the points both for and against the Instruction. It is true that nearly all Metropolitan borough councils, the members of the Standing Joint Committee, were following the rule of exercising their discretion in the granting of street trading licences. But as a result of the Schneider decision they found that they were left with no discretion whatever but were bound to hand out licences to the first-comers.

Many of the Metropolitan borough councils disliked that decision largely because it turned them into nothing but rubber stamps. They were left with no discretion and no ability to discriminate between one application and another. Not long after that decision—in May, 1961—a Mr. Porritt, a Lewisham street trader, was killed violently and the borough council, immediately after his death, received an application for a licence to carry on trading on the late Mr. Porritt's site. The council was forced to give that licence to the first application although, within ten days of Mr. Porritt's death, Mrs. Porritt and her son made application for the licence.

The decision in the Schneider case was further reinforced by the Porritt case, because Lewisham Borough Council appealed in the Porritt case and the appeal was allowed. It then became clear that there was no claim in law on behalf of Mrs. Porritt and her son for a licence for Mr. Porritt's pitch. This seems a quite iniquitous state of affairs and means than anyone stricken with grief at the death of a husband or father, and delaying making application for the lost one's licence, will lose the opportunity of gaining that licence.

After all, news of a death spreads quickly in a close-knit community and anyone hearing of the death of a street trader can immediately apply for the licence, and thus the pitch, and cannot be denied it. The Clause seeks to set that position right. The hon. Member for Stepney has already mentioned the possibility that anyone wishing to give up his licence could trade it for a considerable amount of money merely by telling someone else of his intention and going along with the second party to the town hall, the second person being able immediately to step into the trader's pitch.

Despite his great experience of local government affairs, the hon. Member for Stepney rather slid over this point; that in law there is no protection for the grief stricken relatives, having allowed the chance to slip once, to put the matter right. Or it might be the case of a man giving up his licence in the face of opposition from his family. We wish to protect the people from injustice.

Regarding the right of appeal, if one is giving absolute discretion to a body then that discretion must be fully exercisable and not easily overthrown. The Standing Joint Committee feels that having had all the applications before it, if there should be an appeal the successful applicant and the unsuccessful one should be able to appear before a magistrate so that the original award of the licence cannot be overthrown. Although I realise that there have been difficulties in Stepney, the representatives of the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee and London County Council have discussed this matter fully with Stepney's representative, but have been unable to satisfy them.

Thus, I could not quite understand the hon. Gentleman's argument that this matter had not been fully discussed by the Standing Joint Committee. The Stepney representatives feel that they should remain rubber stamps—a relatively easy task—and, therefore, wish to overthrow the Clause. I am opposed to such action.

7.26 p.m.

While I hesitate and hate to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards), particularly in view of his long experience in local government matters and his knowledge of markets, I must support the view of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Compton Carr) and urge the House to allow Clause 25 to go through.

The hon. Member for Barons Court has dealt with the hardship that arose in the Porritt case. I have that clearly in mind because it took place in a neighbouring constituency. I also have in mind the hardship that is occasioned in Deptford where, although we do not have as many street traders as there are in Stepney, we have a considerable number of them who perform an extremely useful function in the borough, a function which is no less important than that carried out by the shopkeepers themselves.

If the suggestion of the hon. Member for Stepney were approved, an application for a site would be decided solely on a chronological basis, and I can see hardship arising in such circumstances for street traders or their dependants. In all London boroughs considerable changes are taking place. Streets are being widened, some are being abolished, others are being closed, buildings are being pulled down and sites that were in occupation are no longer so. I fear that if we acted solely on a chronological selection system there would be an opportunity for someone, simply because his name was on the list, to get a substitute site in place of a person who, perhaps as the result of a street being closed, has been displaced.

We had an example of the possibility of this happening in my constituency. It happened in Brockley when a site was abolished. This was done for good reason with which I will not weary the House. Had a chronological system been in force the men displaced would not have had their essential right to a site if there were others ahead of them on such a list. In such circumstances it is better that each and every case should be considered on its merits, having regard to the possibility of hardship, and councils should have the authority to take these things into consideration.

These street traders stand out in all weathers. Running a street stall in Deptford High Street when it is sleeting, snowing and cold is not the jolliest of occupations, yet they are there, doing their business, just as the shopkeepers are doing theirs. If a man gets pneumonia and dies, I think that his family, if they are suitable people, should have the right to carry on at the site exactly as though the man had had a shop. Therefore, in the interests of the shopper, which is important; of control being kept in the hands of the local authority—the borough council—which is equally important; and of the stall holder—who, we should not forget, is an integral part of our London retail system—I hope that my hon. Friend will not press his opposition to the Clause.

7.31 p.m.

I want to support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Compton Carr) and by the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer). My constituency may not have in it as many street traders as has Stepney, but there are a number—and most colourful, valuable, public-spirited citizens they are. I have two fears about the present arrangement, and they are shared by those street traders. The first is that if the borough council is to have no powers at all in deciding who or who shall not be a street trader, the standard of street traders will undoubtedly drop. If the borough council is to continue as a rubber stamp, it may well be that people, however undesirable, may have to be granted street licences.

Secondly, I take this point about corruption more seriously than, I think, does the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards). He said with a light, throw-away remark, that there is "fiddling" everywhere—as if to justify any "fiddling" there may be under the present arrangement for granting street licences. I am sure that he would agree that it is highly unsatisfactory that there should be allowed to persist an arrangement that undoubtedly leads to corruption.

I have been told by street traders in my constituency of instances in London where quite large sums have changed hands in recent months. A street trader who intends to give up his licence simply arranges with the man who is to buy it from him that he will walk into the town hall immediately behind him, and there is nothing that the borough council can do—

Did the hon. Gentleman's informant tell him to which borough that applied? I understand that only the Stepney Borough Council has been applying the divisional court's ruling, and that the others have carried on as before.

Not, I think, since the Schneider case, because since then it has been clear to all borough councils that they are obliged to give the licence to the first comer.

In those circumstances, I hope that the Bill will go through as it stands. The House will probably be fortified in its decision to let Clause 25 stand when it considers that it not only has the support of the London County Council, through the Joint Standing Committee, but of the Federation of Street Traders' Unions. I believe that the vast majority of street traders, as well as the authorities, want this Clause to remain in the Bill.

7.34 p.m.

The London County Council was anxious that this difference between Stepney and the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee should not be brought to the House. A great deal of work has gone on behind the scenes. Stepney has missed its opportunity to petition against this Bill; not that it needed to have done so, but I think that it was quite genuinely convinced that an arrangement could be come to, or that the matter might, perhaps, be postponed from this year until next, by which time agreement might have been reached. As we now see, agreement did not eventuate, but Stepney still has time to petition another place if, in the light of tonight's debate, it thinks that it would be worth while to do so.

I think that the consensus of opinion here is against Stepney, as it was on the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee. The L.C.C., as a good father—or, perhaps, as a good mother—in the County of London, was anxious to balance the scales of justice. We felt that there could be no better arbiter, in this instance, than this Chamber, and if the Committee to which this Bill will be referred reads tonight's debate it will no doubt make up its mind on the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) spoke of the abolition of the right of appeal. In effect, there is no right of appeal today on this particular point. Neither the borough council nor the court has any discretion. First come, first served, is the principle that both have to uphold, as has been only too recently proved. The right of appeal that is being abolished has nothing to do with the other general grounds—the right of appeal on grounds of the character of the person, the space available, and so forth, which still remain.

My hon. Friend referred to the lack of precision in the Clause in regard to the right of the relatives to have a right to the succession of the stall in question. It is really difficult to get this, but we are advised that the phrase
"… more desirable in the interests of the public or more equitable …"
would be an instruction to the borough council to take account of the natural justice of the case. I hope that the House will not support the exclusion of the Clause.

7.39 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)

Street traders, like so many other people, are under the special protection of the Home Office, so perhaps I might be allowed, very shortly and humbly, to give a word of advice to hon. Members on whether they should accept or reject the Motion which has been moved by the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W, Edwards).

We feel that there are two problems here—the problem of the widow, and the problem of the "fiddle". I think that they can be quickly described in those terms. Since the Schneider decision, there is a case for saying that something should be done to deal with those problems. We therefore think that the Clause should be examined and dealt with in the usual way, when the detailed evidence for its need will be displayed.

I should not like it to be thought that we think that the Clause is perfect. In particular, I should not necessarily want to be taken as supporting everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Compton Carr) and the hon. Member for Peckham (Mrs. Corbet) have said on the right of appeal.

It may well be that the Committee, in its wisdom, will feel that in this vital matter, affecting the livelihood of stallholders in the way in which the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) described it to us, there should be some sort of appeal. I do not know. In one or two very small details, which it would be wrong to take up the time of the House in describing, this Clause is not in our view quite right, but, nevertheless, there is more good in it than bad.

If my advice is acceptable, I would ask the hon. Member for Stepney, in spite of the strong local feeling which he has, and in spite of the fact that Stepney seems to operate the Schneider decision with equity and justice in a way which other people, perhaps not so skilled, do not seem to be able to do, to agree that if he would withdraw his opposition, it would be in the interests of street traders, of the boroughs and of London as a whole.

7.42 p.m.

I do not think that we should underestimate the importance of the Motion which has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards). I do not think that anybody suggests that we should count heads and say that more boroughs are against Stepney than are for it, because this is a matter for which Stepney has a very great responsibility, and there must be a very great burden upon it in comparison with many other boroughs, whose views on all these matters have been taken into account among people who have had the exercise of responsibility.

No doubt, my hon. Friend, with his long service on the Stepney Borough Council, has had very difficult duties to perform, and his views on this practical side of the matter must be regarded as having very great weight indeed. Therefore, I do not think that we should lightly dispose of the matter.

On the other hand, I am judging myself and what advice I should give my hon. Friend as based on free consideration. The first is that any proposal to increase the discretion of a local authority rather than to restrict it is something for which I will always have very warm approval, and, therefore, I would need to be convinced with very great care before I assented to a proposition that something should be done to make local authorities merely rubber stamps and to limit their discretion.

Secondly, I feel some sympathy with the L.C.C. about this, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mrs. Corbet) said, that Council is only the honest broker. She spoke, perhaps as is a woman's privilege, of the L.C.C. as being a mother balancing the scales of justice, but that is not a very happy position for a mother to be in. I should prefer to call the L.C.C. the honest broker. Its job is to try to get its General Powers Bill through, and it has put at the disposal of the boroughs this facility, which they very greatly value. The Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee, which is the constitutional body of the metropolitan boroughs, having given a decision that it should go forward, I think that it should be supported.

Finally, as the Joint Under-Secretary of State said, the details can be looked at in Committee, but I want to say a word about the question of appeal. I am not very happy about appeals from a local authority to a magistrate on a matter of a policy decision or an administrative decision. This is a question of somebody's livelihood, and may be there ought to be a right of appeal, but that point can be looked at in the later stages of the Bill. I hope that now my hon. Friend, having made a valuable point and having had it examined, will feel that he can withdraw the Motion.

7.44 p.m.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) will not press this matter. The situation is summed up admirably by the Town Clerk of Hackney, who says:

"The basis of the decision is that the Borough Council cannot refuse to grant a street trading licence to an applicant if there is a vacant pitch in the street applied for, and if two or more applications are received in respect of a vacant pitch, the applications must be considered in the order in which they were received, and must be granted accordingly."
I have served on a local authority for very many years, and if I, as a member of a street markets committee, or a sub-committee of the works committee, had to consider applications for street trading licences, and then had to submit to the decision of a magistrate who probably knew nothing of the local conditions at all, but who could reverse the decision of a committee composed of people living in the area, I should feel, as a member of that local authority, that the best thing would be to let the magistrates get on with granting licences for street traders. That is my view. I think that many members of local authorities have felt very strongly about this decision.

Street trading committees have to consider many factors. For instance, though a man is supposed to trade for seven days in a market, he may not turn up, or he may turn up only on the most lucrative days in the market, so the stall is vacant and the requirements of the public are not being met. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) that trading in the street is an occupation that is very onerous, and sometimes is not very remunerative. On the other hand, the local authority has to have regard to the orderly conduct of its business in its market places.

Therefore, the most competent people to decide on the relative merits of the applications and the applicants before them must be the members of a local authority. I do not think that we necessarily have to go into the antecedents and character of the person applying, but we must consider certain factors. I believe that that decision, taking away a discretion from the Metropolitan boroughs, was a retrograde step. I hope we shall not agree that magistrates should have the power to carry out the functions of a local authority, but if they want to carry them out let the local authorities drop the street trading powers and let the magistrates deal with them.

In view of the statement made by the Joint Under-Secretary of State, which has been supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), suggesting that this matter will be very seriously considered when it goes to the Committee, I have no intention of pressing it to a Division. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.