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Leeds City Council Bill

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 28 January 2010

Third Reading

It may be helpful if I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Leeds City Council Bill and the Reading Borough Council Bill are virtually identical, and I think it will therefore be for the convenience of the House if the Bills are debated together.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I do not intend to detain the House with a very long speech. I hope that even the most assiduous students of the Bill will now be satisfied that it addresses a major abuse of the peddling laws in Leeds, while not affecting the ability of genuine pedlars to continue to ply their trade.

In a previous debate, I gave the example of one of my constituents who ran a stall in the centre of Leeds. He employed staff, had a street trading licence and paid taxes and business rates. His business and staff were nearly driven to the wall by a competitor who abused legislation on peddling by setting up in direct competition. Of course, he was able to do so without paying any of the overheads of my constituent. The Bill is intended to give the authorities in Leeds the opportunity to prevent such abuses from occurring while allowing genuine pedlars who are mobile and can carry their wares around with them to continue to trade unaffected.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who made a commendably brief speech. The reason why I will be similarly brief is that when Leeds city council realised that I and a number of other Members were concerned about the contents of clause 5, it sought discussions. As a result of those discussions, the clause was amended significantly to the form in which we see it today. That form means that pedlars will be able to continue to act in Leeds city centre provided that they do not have goods anywhere other than immediately about their person. That means that they cannot have goods in a container or, particularly, in a trolley.

When I had my discussions with council officers from both Leeds and Reading, it became apparent that the real mischief that they wanted dealt with was people with large trolleys blocking up the town centre. They showed me photographs, which I looked at, and I thought that they had made a strong case. The current law means that before Bills are brought forward to restrict the rights of pedlars, the Government require a strong case to be made justifying them. I took the view that that case had been made out in Leeds and Reading, so I said that if the required amendments were made—we discussed the detail of those amendments, which are now incorporated in clause 5 of the Leeds Bill and a similar clause of the Reading Bill—I would allow the Bills an easy passage through the House. We have now reached Third Reading, and after the Bills get their Third Reading shortly, they will go to the other place.

I want briefly to set out what I want to happen in the other place because I hope that the Bills will be amended further. I know that pedlars also hope that that will happen. It is appropriate to deal with the Leeds City Council Bill first because Mr. Marks, one of the founding fathers of Marks and Spencer, was originally a pedlar in Leeds. There is an argument about whether he or his father was a pedlar, but in any case, if the father was a pedlar, the son may have been a hawker—the two categories are the same under the Bill. My hon. Friends and I have been keen to ensure that the Bill’s ambit and application are reasonable and proportionate.

Clause 4 deals with provision of services. I do not invite the Minister to make a long speech, but I hope that he can explain the interaction between the services directive and clause 4 and the equivalent provision in the Reading Borough Council Bill. There has been much uncertainty after the implementation of the services directive at the end of last year. Although I spoke about the subject in some detail in an earlier debate, a closure motion was unfortunately moved, which meant that the Minister was unable to comment—I am sure that he was itching to do so. I therefore hope that if he comments on nothing else, he deals with that matter because it would be helpful to ventilate the information in the public arena and enable people to have a better understanding of what is happening.

Clause 5 and the equivalent in the Reading Borough Council Bill do not permit trading by pedlars with any wheeled vehicle, not even one that is no greater than 1 cubic metre in capacity. In that respect, the Bill and the Reading measure are different from the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill and the Manchester City Council Bill. Following an opposed Committee hearing, the latter Bills were amended to allow pedlars to have with them a wheeled vehicle no greater than 1 cubic metre in capacity. I know that some pedlars would like a similar amendment to be made in another place to the measure that we are discussing.

Clause 6 deals with seizure. The Bill and the Reading Bill require only

“reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has committed”

an offence before enabling an officer or a constable to seize goods. I am pleased that the equivalent provisions in the Manchester and Bournemouth Bills will be amended later this afternoon by amendments that I tabled and that have been conceded by the Bills’ sponsors to change the necessity for mere “suspecting” to a requirement for “reasonable grounds” for belief. A whole series of amendments were tabled and I hope that, when the Leeds and Reading Bills reach the other place, they will be amended in a similar fashion.

In respect of clause 7, “Seizure of perishable items”, the Leeds City Council Bill and the Reading Borough Council Bill are different from the Manchester City Council Bill and the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill. The clause allows seizure of perishable items, which is not allowed under the Manchester and Bournemouth measures. I hope that that aspect of those Bills will be looked at in the other place.

I hope that similar amendments will be made to clause 8 of the Leeds City Council Bill, “Return and disposal of seized items”, as are going to be made to the Bournemouth and Manchester Bills.

We then come to clause 10, “Compensation where seizure unlawful”. Manchester and Bournemouth are going to concede that it is reasonable to exclude the provision that means that goods can continue to be held even following acquittal, if there is an appeal—in other words, an appeal for judicial review. I took the view that the measure was rather oppressive and I am pleased that it is the subject of an amendment that will be accepted by Manchester and Bournemouth councils. I hope that the Leeds and Reading provisions will be amended in that respect when they reach the other place.

Probably the most significant concessions to be made later today by Bournemouth and Manchester relate to the fixed penalty regime, which is contained in clauses 11 to 14 in the Leeds City Council Bill and clauses 12 to 15 of the Reading Borough Council Bill. I tabled a lot of amendments to the equivalent provisions in the Bournemouth and Manchester Bills, and I am delighted that their promoters have told me that they intend to accept my proposals, which will result in the removal of all clauses relating to fixed penalties. I hope that similar amendments to remove the fixed penalty regime from the Leeds and Reading measures will be made when they reach the other place.

In clause 16, “Provision of information to authorised officer”, the Leeds City Council Bill contains a power that goes beyond those in the Manchester and Bournemouth measures. Because that is a distinct provision of the Reading Borough Council Bill and the Leeds City Council Bill, I hope it will be subject to detailed scrutiny in the other place.

The Leeds City Council Bill and the Reading Borough Council Bill are indeed pretty similar, but there are two differences. The latter deals with touting. The reasons for that have been explained to me by Reading borough council, but because it is a unique provision, I hope it will be the subject of detailed scrutiny when it reaches the other place. The same goes for clause 18 of that Bill, “Powers of community support officers”, in relation to fixed penalties.

I think there is going to be quite a lot of work for the other place in respect of the four Bills. They came to the House without having any petitions against them, but I am sure there will be petitions against them in the other place. I hope that as a result, there will be the usual detailed consideration of their contents.

What is so important about this—it is also why I am so pleased that the Leeds and Reading measures are at the top of our agenda today—is that both councils have negotiated with Members of the House who had concerns about the contents of the Bills.

I remember sitting on the Opposed Bill Committee to discuss the Bournemouth Bill some months ago. During the course of that Committee, some of us sought to reach a fair compromise that looked after the interests of genuine pedlars, and from what my hon. Friend is saying, it appears that such a compromise has been reached.

I am sure that many genuine pedlars remain concerned about aspects of these two Bills, and some have suggested to me that without the ability to take some of their goods with them in a wheeled trolley or receptacle, even if limited to 1 cubic metre in size, their ability to operate will be significantly reduced. However, I accept that we should concentrate not on reaching the perfect solution, but on trying to find a reasonable compromise.

It is great that a compromise has been brokered. However, my hon. Friend referred to all the work that was done in the other place. Does he share my concern that there will be a lot of work for this place if some of the 410 local authorities are tempted to bring forward private Bills to deal with their local issues? Does he agree that we must do something to ensure that we have a form of legislation that will be permissive, to allow—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying wide. We are now on the Third Reading of these two Bills. Whatever happens in the future will have to be dealt with then.

The difficulty of reaching this stage on these Bills has deterred many other councils from bringing forward Bills that have not been thought through. I am sure that ultimately we will need a national solution, because otherwise it will take up an enormous amount of the time of hon. Members. There are other issues that we need to address.

There was a recent case of a pedlar who was prosecuted because she had two milk trolleys stuck together. What would be the effect of the Bills on this lady? Would she be able to carry on trading?

If she had two milk trolleys stuck together and sought to peddle in the areas covered by these two Bills, she would not be able to claim that she was operating lawfully as a pedlar. If my hon. Friend had seen some of the pictures from the city centres in Leeds and Reading, he would understand why I accepted the amendments. The issue of permissible trolley size can be revisited in the other place, and I am sure that petitioners will attempt to make their lordships take a different view. I thought that the amendments to clause 5 of the Bills was a substantial step forward for pedlars’ rights, compared with the highly restrictive regime that was originally included. That is why I accepted the amendments. The price that I have had to pay for doing so, on behalf of the pedlar community, is undertaking not to obstruct further the progress of the Bills through this House. I cannot give an undertaking on behalf of others, but I hope that my hon. Friend will respect that agreement so that these Bills receive a Third Reading. I hope that the reservations that he understandably still has can be resolved in the other place.

So is my hon. Friend telling me that under the Pedlars Act 1871, not only would Mrs. Crofts, the woman who was prosecuted, have had to approach people, but she would have had to be carrying the stuff? Is that right?

Yes, she would have had to be carrying the goods on her person. I do not know what the goods were, but she could have had them in a tray, up her sleeves, in her pockets—

Order. I have allowed some latitude, but we are now straying rather wide of the Third Reading of the two Bills.

The last thing that I want to do is be led astray by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). If more such Bills are brought before the House, he will have a chance to make similar points about them. However, for now let me say that I am content that the Bills that we are discussing should receive a Third Reading.

I certainly do not intend to detain the House for long, but I want first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who has done a sterling job on behalf of pedlars in this country. Whatever one’s view happens to be on the merits or otherwise of the Bills that we are discussing, I am sure that everybody would commend him on how he has argued his case and won concessions as a result. I am full of admiration for what he has done.

Because of my regard and respect for my hon. Friend, I will certainly follow what he said about the further progress of the Leeds City Council Bill and the Reading Borough Council Bill. In many respects he is a very reasonable man; in fact, one could argue that on those two Bills he is perhaps far too reasonable a man. I am still concerned about a number of aspects of the Bills, some of which he touched on. He raised an important point about whether clause 4 falls within European directives that have been introduced since the Bills were brought forward. Like him, I await the Minister’s response on that.

I would be more inclined to give that if I felt that there was some progress being made—as I felt there was a few moments ago—and if that continued.

I am grateful to the Minister, but I hope that he will allow me to go through one or two other concerns that I happen to have about the Bills. Not only have my concerns been recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in our various debates on the issues, but in some cases they have been recognised by the promoters of these Bills and some of the others that we might come to discuss later.

I want to touch on the issue of fixed penalty notices, which are covered by clauses 11 to 15 of the Leeds City Council Bill. I remain nervous at the prospect of council officers having the power under the Bill to serve fixed penalty notices on people. It is perfectly clear from our debates that the local authorities concerned simply do not want pedlars in their cities. For council officers representing cities that clearly do not want them there under any circumstances to have the power to issue fixed penalty notices without, in my opinion, particularly strong safeguards is dangerous. We also face the ludicrous situation whereby clause 13 allows the council to fix the level of the fixed penalty notice. On the one hand we are giving the council a blank cheque to set the notice at a level that it feels is appropriate, whereas clause 14 pulls back from that and gives the Secretary of State reserve powers to reduce that fixed penalty notice where he considers it to be excessive. Why the Bill says that is beyond me. The Secretary of State must know what level he would consider excessive, so, rather than go through a ridiculous rigmarole whereby a council sets a fixed penalty, only for the Secretary of State to decide that it is excessive, why can we not set the actual amount in the Bill so that we all know where we stand? It seems utterly ludicrous that we cannot do that.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case in pointing out why the provisions relating to fixed penalties in the two Bills are unreasonable, oppressive and disproportionate. The good news is that the concerns relating to the fixed penalty provisions in the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill and the Manchester City Council Bill have been accepted by the promoters of those Bills, albeit late in the day. We can only hope that, when these two Bills get to the other place, their promoters will accept that these provisions should be removed. We could not have done what we did without tabling amendments. Having reached that agreement, however, I was unable to table amendments on Report because I might have been accused of delaying the progress of these two Bills.

I accept that. I understand my hon. Friend’s position on this, but I return to the point I made earlier: I think that he is being far too reasonable about these Bills.

The fixed penalty is supposed to be set at a reasonable level to cover the costs incurred by the local authority in issuing it. Clause 15, however, deals with how a surplus in an authority’s accounts may be spent or applied. If a fixed penalty were set at a level that only covered costs, we should not even be talking about a surplus in the accounts. I worry, when I see such provisions in a Bill, where they might lead to. Perhaps the fixed penalties would end up being a money-raising measure for the local authority.

I want to concentrate on clause 4 of the Reading Borough Council Bill, which relates to ticket touting. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, on which I have the privilege to serve, recently carried out an inquiry into ticket touting. I cannot see what a Bill about pedlars has to do with ticket touting.

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, but if he looks at the Bill, he will see that it is clause 11 that deals with ticket touting.

My hon. Friend is entirely right.

I do not understand what ticket touting has to do with pedlars; these are, in many cases, separate issues. That point was conceded by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) when we debated the Canterbury City Council Bill. Indeed, that Bill’s promoters agreed that the inclusion of such a provision was muddying the waters, and they kindly removed the relevant clause. However, the Reading Bill still contains such a clause. I perfectly understand the points that have been made about events such as the Reading festival—I know that that is a big event—but a Bill about pedlars should not be interfering in the wider issue of ticket touting.

As the Select Committee found, the secondary market for the sale of tickets is a perfectly legitimate market; it has never been considered otherwise. No one in this country has ever been taken to court because of it. One court case took place in Australia, and the ticket tout won. The Office of Fair Trading made it clear in its evidence to the Select Committee that the secondary market for tickets works in the best interests of the consumer. It does so because people who buy a ticket for an event that they subsequently cannot attend often find that they cannot get a refund. The promoters of events often do not make provision for refunds. People who find subsequently that they cannot go to the event are therefore left with a ticket that they cannot sell on, and that they cannot give back to the promoter, who will not refund them. They have no option but to sell it to someone else, to get their money back or even make a profit. That is in the interests of people in Reading, who want to go to the Reading festival but subsequently find that they cannot.

Equally, people who were not sure whether they could go to the Reading festival when the tickets were issued for sale, and therefore did not buy a ticket, but then found that they could go to the event, would be unable, without a secondary market, to exercise their choice—nobody forces them to do it—to pay a perhaps inflated price at a later date.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the potency of his argument can be developed in another place, particularly if some of the people engaged in such activities petition against the Bill when it reaches the other place shortly?

I accept what my hon. Friend says, but we might be in the ridiculous situation—I will happily give way to him if he can convince me otherwise—whereby a secondary market for tickets to the Reading festival, which is of interest to people across the country and perhaps even internationally, is available to people everywhere, including on the internet, except Reading. It seems perverse that the Bill’s promoter should want to deny choice to the people of Reading, while allowing people in the rest of the country, and perhaps further afield, the opportunity to exercise such choice. Why should a Bill that is supposed to deal with peddling affect the legitimate secondary market, which works in the best interest of the consumer?

I accept the advice of my hon. Friend that such matters should not be delayed unnecessarily. I hope that the grave concerns that I have raised will be addressed in the other place, because the Bills will be better for the cities and towns concerned if such points are taken heed of. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for extracting the concessions that he has, but I wish that he had managed to extract further concessions.

I for one, I think along with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Davies), am pleased that the Reading Borough Council Bill provides in clause 15 for the Secretary of State to have reserve powers in respect of the levels of fixed penalties. We look forward shortly to hear the Minister’s comments, because we want councils to treat their powers circumspectly and to remember that pedlars often trade on a very small scale. The explanatory memorandum to the Reading Borough Council Bill states that clause 14

“provides that the Council must fix the levels of fixed penalties”—

that is fine; I am sure we can trust Reading borough council to be circumspect. It continues:

“In doing so the council must have regard to the reasonable costs incurred by them in administering the street trading regime under Schedule 4 to the 1982 Act, the costs of enforcing the provisions of Schedule 4 and the administration and enforcement costs under Clause 11.”

What worries me is that if we take into account all those costs, the council could argue that the cost of enforcing the regime to deal with pedlars is heavy. I do not want councils who are under pressure regarding their spending to level fixed penalties that will drive these people out of the market.

I have referred to Mrs Crofts, who trades in south Yorkshire and around the country. Although she was peddling in a small way, with two milk floats joined together, when she was sentenced the magistrates took into account that she had to pay a £110,000 confiscation order issued by Swansea Crown court in 2007 for possessing goods with false trademarks. I cannot believe that such a lady could have such property and I can only assume that that fine was a maximum amount. I only mention this case to show that the Secretary of State must be very circumspect in keeping an eye on these borough councils to ensure that they are not imposing too large a fine on these people. This lady was trading from two milk trolleys stuck together and, rather pathetically, she said after the court case that she would continue to trade but would be downsizing. How much more pathetic can you get?

When councils implement clause 14, they must have regard to people like Robert Edwards, who has a licence under the Pedlars Act 1871 and sells his own poetry. Apparently not many people are interested in buying his poetry. In 15 months on the road, he has sold 750 books but most were through established retail bookshops. His best day ever, he has said, was when he sold seven. This chap is hardly a great—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. Perhaps he would now confine his remarks to the Third Reading of the two Bills.

I am very happy to do so. I just wanted to quote those two examples to try to convince the Minister, who I think will not need any convincing, to reassure us that he will use his reserved powers under clause 15 to ensure that when fines are imposed, they are at a low level so that this traditional activity, which is dying out, will carry on in the country.

The House is aware that, prompted by the number of local authorities seeking these additional powers contained in the two Bills, we are undertaking research to look at the perceptions and applications of the national and local regimes. We are now consulting. The consultation period will come to an end on 12 February and we will publish the Government’s response in due course.

In the light of the questions about the service directive, I can say that, in effect, it limits authorisation schemes for service providers so as not unduly to limit cross-border provision of services. It is for local authorities to be able to justify any such authorisation schemes under the terms of the directive and the Department has drawn the attention of local authorities to this.

We all have to take our turn in the Opposition Business team in dealing with these private Bills, which have had a long genesis in terms of getting through the House. As long ago as 12 June 2008, I argued from the Dispatch Box that we should have a national review of this whole subject, so I am delighted to hear today from the Minister that we will have the results of such a review by the end of February. He then said that he would consider those and in due course we would have a result. Does he think “in due course” is likely to be before the general election or not?

For the sake of clarity, what I said was that it will conclude on 12 February and then in due course the Government will report—“in due course” means exactly that.

We can conclude from that that “in due course” probably means after the general election, so, with a bit of luck, it will be a Conservative Government who will have to consider these matters. We will do just that; we will see whether this procedure is satisfactory and what we can do on a more national basis.

I was delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that such good progress has been made that he now feels able to support a Third Reading, although I was careful to note what he said about the amount of work that needs to be done in the other place.

My hon. Friend used the word “support”, but I would prefer to be quoted as saying that I was “allowing progress”.

My hon. Friend speaks clearly for himself, but I do not think he would demur from the second part of my comment, which was that there is still a lot of work to be done in the other place. In “allowing” his support for these Third Readings today, I hope that he will provide every possible assistance to the other place to ensure that these Bills get on to the statute book. I say that because, as the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, his local authority and other authorities have spent a great deal of time and resources in trying to achieve that aim. It is incumbent on both Houses to try to make progress and get the Bills on to the statute book.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has managed to secure some useful amendments, which I shall discuss briefly: the provision in clause 5 about pedlars having goods about their person does mean that they cannot have vast great floats, which take up space and cause a nuisance; the Minister has made it clear how the interactivity between the services directive and the provision of services by pedlars is supposed to work; we have had a great deal of debate about clause 6 and about the issue of seizure, particularly the seizure of perishable goods, as set out in clauses 7 and 8; and our long debates seem to have produced eminently sensible amendments to clause 10(1)(ii) in respect of goods held on acquittal. They are proportionate and reasonable, they are not oppressive and my hon. Friend has done the promoters of the Bill a favour in securing such amendments. I also agree with him about the apparent inconsistencies in the Bills about the fixed penalties, and it would have been much more sensible to have specified a maximum level of fine in clauses 11 to 14, even if local authorities could then set a level below that. It would be up to them to use their discretion, according to the severity of the problem that they face in their local area, to determine what level of fine to set.

I was initially opposed to the appointment of community support officers—when they were proposed by this Government I thought that they were about getting policing on the cheap—but I must say that this is one of the very few examples of when the Government have introduced something and I have completely changed my mind about it. These officers do a great job of work in their localities and they provide a lot of reassurance for the public by their visibility. The amendments of their powers that my hon. Friend has managed to secure in the Bill in respect of requiring information from those who might have committed an offence is also of benefit.

With those few words, I hope that the House will proceed to support the Third Reading of these two Bills and that we can move on to the other Bills that we have to discuss. I also hope that the other place will give a fair wind to the Bills, so that we can get them on the statute book.

It is with considerable interest, if not exactly unalloyed pleasure, that I have followed the proceedings on these Bills over a number of afternoons. Among other things, that has had the unintended consequence that at a recent dinner party I attended I was able to speak at length and depth on the subject of pedlary, much to the dismay of the other guests. Notwithstanding that, the protagonists have clearly arrived at a workable, if not necessarily amicable, truce. In that regard, it would be quite wrong of me or anybody else to stand in the way of this Bill’s further progress and I hope that the House accords it a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.