Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [12 June], That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question again proposed.
Before I call the hon. Gentleman, I would like to remind the House of the ruling that the Chairman of Ways and Means gave at the start of proceedings on 12 June. As the content of the Bills on the Order Paper is similar, if not identical, it was judged to be for the convenience of the House to have a general debate to cover all six measures. However, when the House disposes of the Manchester City Council Bill, debate on the subsequent measures will be local-authority specific. It would be contrary to the spirit of the original ruling to seek to conduct a generalised debate on each Bill.
I am grateful to you for reminding us of that ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try to keep my remarks general rather than specific at this stage. When this debate was adjourned on 12 June, I was eight minutes into my remarks. Only 20 minutes of our three hours of debate on 12 June were taken up by hon. Members who are concerned about the Bills. The rest of the time was taken up by their sponsors and supporters. I therefore hope that those who are impatient to move things on will ensure that the other side of the argument can be heard, and will not try to curtail the debate before that is possible.
A number of things have happened since the last debate. The promoters have published a further statement in support of the Second Reading of the Bills, paragraph 4 of which is very partial. It says:
“The Bills were debated on second reading on 12th June, when a number of MPs took the opportunity to speak in favour of them. At the end of the allotted period, the proceedings had not been concluded and the debate was adjourned.”
There is no reference whatever to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), who made a succinct and pithy speech against the Bills, nor to my earlier remarks or the severe reservations that a large number of my right hon. and hon. Friends raised in interventions. I do not know whether this further statement contravenes the conventions of the House. I hope that none of the Members present will be taken in by paragraph 4, and that they will look at the rest of the statement with a similarly jaundiced eye.
What else has happened since our last debate? Quite a lot of things. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has become a father, and I congratulate him on that. Secondly, the pedlars resource centre has been established online at www.pedlars.info and, for the first time in this country, individual pedlars are realising that unless they get together and organise themselves, their future could be in severe jeopardy.
My hon. Friend says that pedlars’ future will be endangered if these provisions go through. Surely, if the provisions are properly controlled, the rights of genuine pedlars will be enhanced rather than endangered.
My right hon. Friend has got the line that is being promoted by the promoters of the Bill. However, if we look at the contents of the Bill, we see that they are totally incompatible with the preservation of individual pedlars’ rights as they now stand. The proponents of the Bills are seeking to limit the rights of individual pedlars, so that they will only be able to go from house to house and from door to door. They will no longer be permitted to be pedlars in the streets as they are under the present law. On the basis that unlawful, rogue street trading is taking place at the moment, the Bills seek to penalise the lawful pedlar and take away the rights that he has had since legislation was introduced in 1871.
I have to confess that I am not a great expert on this subject. However, I have had a representation from a constituent who tells me that part of the problem is that there is insufficient evidence to take a view on these Bills one way or another. Research is being carried out by Durham university, and an interim report—which has not been released—has been submitted to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. A further, full report will be submitted to the Department in November and released some time later. Is it not extraordinary that this legislation is going through before that research and information has been made available to the House?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that if he stays a little longer to listen to the debate, the ignorance to which he has confessed will be remedied. There is a valuable learning experience in store for him. He is always slightly self-effacing about his knowledge and abilities, but he has hit the nail on the head in identifying a weakness in the promoters’ case: that the research project led by Durham university—which the Minister, whom I am delighted to see in his place, announced on Second Reading—has taken evidence and produced an interim report.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the best research is practical? Some three years ago, Maidstone took measures of a very similar nature to these, and they have been a resounding success from all points of view. Is not that rather more telling than academic research, which might inform my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), but which will be nothing like as conclusive as practical results?
My right hon. Friend will know that there has been an opportunity for councils such as Maidstone to feed in evidence to the Durham university research project, where it can be balanced against any other evidence that there might be. Of course, what concerns me about my right hon. Friend’s stance is that, contrary to the stance that she and I jointly adopted in last night’s debate on climate change, when we expressed concern about unilateral action, she is now promoting the case for one or two councils to take unilateral action instead of a multilateral approach.
I am very grateful. However, my hon. Friend’s comparison with last night does not stand up at all. Last night, of course, we were talking about the idea of being the pioneers of that crazy action. What I am saying to my hon. Friend now, however, is that we have previous examples—in Maidstone and other councils—so the action is not unilateral, but follows something that is well established.
It may well have been established by Maidstone council, but my right hon. Friend will know from having looked at the detail of the six Bills before us that they vary in significant ways from many of the measures in the Maidstone legislation that is now on the statute book. One consequence of this piecemeal legislation is that problems that may have been evident in a particular locality are then transferred to another. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made that point from the Front Bench on Second Reading, arguing that there was a strong case for looking at this issue on a national rather than a local basis.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) may remember that a Select Committee was set up in the other place to look into this matter. Is the research likely to be carried out by Durham university superior to that of a House of Lords Select Committee? The argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is now making—that it would be much better to have a blanket Bill covering all pedlars—was quite rightly rejected by Lord Bach, the Minister in the other place, who said that because of the dissimilarities between one borough and another, it was much more appropriate to bring forward individual Bills. He said that the Government had no intention of bringing forward a portmanteau Bill of the type that my hon. Friend is suggesting.
My hon. Friend is articulating a different point of view from the one articulated in June by our hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and many other Members. As for whether the Durham university report represents good value for taxpayers’ money, only time will tell, when we see its contents. All I can say is that I believe we should wait to see what it says. I would have liked to be able to see it today. I tabled a written question last week and received a holding reply from the relevant Minister on Thursday. Yesterday, I received a substantive answer, saying that although the interim report from Durham was already in the hands of the Minister and his officials, it could not be disclosed, and that the full report could be expected before the end of the year. It said that the report would not be available to the general public until the Minister had had a chance to look at it himself and take a view on its contents.
I have learned much about pedlars from my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour, who is aware of the interim stage of the Durham report. If he were to agree to Second Reading, he could apply to sit in Committee to examine these matters in more detail. By that time, the report would be complete in all its fullness, and my hon. Friend would have had the opportunity to study the detail.
Obviously, I will read the detail of the report if and when it becomes available. I do not know what will be the position of these Bills in Committee, but I very much hope that their promoters will hold back until we have the evidence from Durham university, as local taxpayers’ money is at stake. If as a result of the Durham university report the Government decided that national legislation were appropriate, a great deal of money could be saved for private taxpayers through rates and council taxes. The Government might even be able to legislate on the framework basis for which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has campaigned, but we must wait and see what results from the report.
May I return to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)? As the hon. Gentleman will know, other councils—Medway, Newcastle upon Tyne, Westminster, Leicester and Liverpool—have promoted similar measures, which I understand have worked well in those areas. Is he aware of any problems resulting from private Bills such as the ones that Reading and other councils are seeking to put on the statute book?
Actually, I am. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, as a result of the publicity engendered by this legislation in the pedlar community, I have been the recipient of a fair number of representations. I shall say more about those representations later, in the context of the specific Bills that we are discussing, but in the meantime I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have received strong representations about what has been going on in Leicester. Considerable concern has been caused by the fact that although Leicester city council’s Bill was passed on the basis that its provisions would operate only in a limited part of the city, there is now a proposal to extend them throughout the city, to the detriment of people who have traditionally engaged in lawful peddling there.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the Bills that have been passed so far have not been a complete success by any means, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Bills we are discussing today seek to go further than those that have already reached the statute book. There is, for example, the extension of legislation to the use of services—and Reading, the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, is trying to deal with the issue of touting. Although touting is not covered by all six of these Bills, it is certainly an issue in the Reading Borough Council Bill and, if I recall correctly, also in the Canterbury City Council Bill.
I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying, and my learning curve is becoming steeper all the time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) challenged me as to whether I believed that Durham university’s research was better than that of the House of Lords. I cannot answer the question until I have seen the results of the research, but what I do know, as a simple lawyer, is that when people argue on a subjective basis on behalf of particular local interests, it is better for those who, like me, are not involved in those direct arguments to see all the evidence—and that includes the Durham university evidence—before reaching a judgment. I suspect that most Members are in the same position.
May I give a practical example? Has the hon. Gentleman considered the effect on local charitable events? Every year the wonderful Otley Victorian fayre is held in my constituency—this year it will take place on Friday 12 December—and every year there is an absolute menace from unlicensed traders selling things in the street. The council can do nothing, the police can do nothing and the organisers can do nothing, to everyone’s great frustration. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that if the organisers want it, if local charities want it, if the local police want it and if—in this instance—Leeds city council wants it, he should not stand in the way of those who wish to improve an event and give councils powers to regulate activity of that kind?
The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension if he thinks that I am standing in the way of anything. What I am trying to do is ensure that we have a rational debate. I do not know the extent of the hon. Gentleman’s reading on the subject, but if he reads a bit more he will find that some of the local authorities that are campaigning for the measures in the Bills and asking for a wider application of legislative measures would regard certain charitable activities as themselves offensive and in need of further regulation. In due course, I may be able to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to specific evidence with which I can support that proposition. Therefore, let him not think that charities are at present the victim of the pedlar, and that they can only benefit from the activities of these councils if the Bills are enacted. The councils’ agenda is to reduce some of the charitable activities.
In our previous debate, almost all the talk was to do with equating pedlars with rogue traders. After dealing with the Durham issue, I shall try to rebalance that by giving an example of a genuine pedlar who is doing great work in raising money for charity, which, if these Bills were implemented, he would no longer be able to do.
I have to say that in my Northamptonshire constituency there is not a flood of people saying, “We must have legislation on pedlars.” However, I have listened to what Members have said, and if this is a national issue it should not be addressed in piecemeal fashion, but should be dealt with by the Government through national legislation. We are in an extraordinary position today.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
I was about to share with the House the avowed purpose of the Durham university research. When we last debated this matter, I asked the Minister to publish the terms of reference for the research, which he kindly did. It included the following:
“The purpose of the research is to gather qualitative and quantitative evidence on how the current street trading and Pedlars’ laws are currently working.
Recent local authority and private Members’ Bills have suggested that some local authorities may need greater powers to enforce street licensing and to restrict the activities of pedlars. However BERR wants to gather information about the level of issues nationally and views from key interested parties eg local authorities, street traders, pedlars etc before it reaches a decision on whether to amend existing legislation or introduce new national legislation.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for educating me and other Members on this subject. It seems to me that there are two issues: whether those pedlars are a menace, and if so, whether that should be dealt with in this way. May I refer back to the intervention of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), whose constituency borders mine? Does my hon. Friend agree that even if the pedlars are a menace, if action were taken on a Leeds city council basis, the upshot might well be to cause a problem in my constituency, so even if they are a menace, it might be in my best interests not to support the proposed legislation?
My hon. Friend is on to a very good point. Indeed, I have made it in relation to my Christchurch constituency. If the Bournemouth Bill were to pass into law, if there were an issue to do with rogue trading and peddling in Bournemouth—which is hotly disputed—that activity might well transfer either to the ancient borough and market town of Christchurch, or to Wimborne, or to Poole. That is why we should, as the Minister seems to have accepted, take the opportunity to look at this on a national basis and see whether we need to make any changes within a national legislative framework.
The Department commissioned St. Chad’s college, Durham university to conduct the research, and the terms of reference stated:
“This should be complete this autumn.”
I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) will be pleased to learn that it also stated that the research would include
“contacting all England, Wales and Scotland local authorities and trading standards as appropriate”—
not Northern Ireland—
“contacting street trader representative organisations and sample groups of street traders; contacting pedlar representative groups and sample groups of pedlars; contacting the police to establish numbers of pedlars certificates, costs involved in issue and problems with enforcement including knowledge of existing legislation; gathering statistics across all these organisations and from any other source, that cover complaints, enforcement activity and costs of this, numbers of certificates and licences issued and revoked with related costs and court cases and costs. Number of prosecutions of traders in the street for selling counterfeit goods and/or dangerous goods and whether they involved licensed street traders, non-licensed trading in the street, holders of pedlars certificates or people without pedlars certificates.”
I congratulate the Minister on having developed such a broad, and, I think, highly relevant and pertinent, scope for that research project. The disappointment is that we do not have any of the outcome of that research available today to inform the debate.
In June, the Minister said that the university project would
“consider the current position, whether the existing powers are sufficient…and what—if any—different powers would be useful to the tackling of problems relating to street trading in our towns and cities.”
“Should the evidence…demonstrate that there is a case for national legislation, we”—
“will assess the options available to us.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 540.]
I understand entirely my hon. Friend’s point that we do not have up-to-date information, but we do have some information provided by the Government on the number of prosecutions under the Pedlars Act 1871. One would think that, if there were a problem, those prosecutions would be increasing. In fact, the high point was in 2004, when there were 107 prosecutions. The number fell in 2005 and fell again in 2006, to 74. That does not indicate that there is a growing problem.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to those figures. Indeed, earlier today I was engaged in an interview for the regional BBC news, and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) was also present. He will bear witness to the fact that he asked the interviewer—not on camera—about the outcome of the investigation that the camera people had done down in Bournemouth, where they had gone to film pedlars in action. The interviewer had to admit that they could not find any pedlars, so they did not have anything to film. That may indicate that there is a certain exaggeration of the problem.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend finds the debate humorous. The problem is costing Bournemouth borough council tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to get the Bill through. It is a serious piece of legislation, and if the problem were trivial or there were no problem, the council would not be trying to push it through. Nor would places such as Winchester, Southampton, Portsmouth and London have bothered to secure such legislation already. I think that he supports the idea that there should be national legislation to empower local councils, and I do not understand why he is so adamant about hindering Bournemouth’s ability to do something about a local matter in the interim.
I tried to make my case clear to my hon. Friend in the interventions during the previous debate, but I shall make my Bournemouth-specific points when we discuss the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill in particular. At the moment, I wish to deal with the more general issues that relate to all six Bills.
When we talked in the previous debate about seeing whether we needed national legislation, the Minister kindly said that he would organise that research. He was working with the grain of the mood of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) argued from the Opposition Front Bench in favour of national legislation to deal with the problem. He said that if we dealt with it one council at a time,
“we could be merely transporting the problem to a neighbouring council.”
The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who spoke to support the Manchester City Council Bill, said:
“The most sensible way forward is to have a national framework.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 524.]
That was supported from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I believe that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, whom I am pleased to see in his place, also supports the case for a national framework. So, in setting up this research project and asking for the work to be done by Durham university, the Minister was responding to a strong request.
Question accordingly put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
Bill read a Second time and committed.