I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is the 10th London Local Authorities Bill and it is promoted on behalf of the 32 London boroughs and the City of London Corporation, speaking for Londoners. Although many of us would prefer a reduction in regulation and a lessening of the intrusive nature of government both national and local as that is a laudable aim, we have a responsibility to address the real issues facing Londoners.
As he represents Finchley and Golders Green, my hon. Friend will be aware that today is the 85th anniversary of a distinguished predecessor as Member for that constituency, the noble Baroness Thatcher. Has he had a chance to speak to the noble Baroness about whether she agrees with the proposition he has just put to the House, namely that there is an excuse for why we should not be deregulating but that instead we need to regulate more?
The last time I spoke to the good lady we discussed many things but the London Local Authorities Bill was not one of them. Having said that, however, I know that she took a great interest in the environment. In fact, she was the Prime Minister who pushed through much of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and many of the regulations we are now seeking to give local authorities power over will allow them to clean up and make the polluter pay. I therefore have no doubt that the good lady would be supportive of the thrust of these proposals even though she is, of course, averse to regulation in itself, as I am too.
The Bill allows local councils to combat the many problems and their effects that we now face in our daily lives. There is a difficulty here in that many of us in this House would like to turn back the clock to a gentler age but, sadly, we live in an irresponsible society in which many traders or other individuals can cause problems for our residents.
The Bill’s main purpose is to replace certain existing regulations and consolidate others. The regulations addressed include those dealing with the sale of vehicles on the highway, nudity in bars, tenant safety in houses of multiple occupation and issues that have serious implications for public health. The Bill seeks to introduce clarity into consumer protection here in London, particularly in respect of food hygiene and the sale of vehicles.
I would like to explain some specific provisions, in order to help Members to come to a decision on the Bill. Let me turn first to clause 4—I do not mean to excite Labour Members by referring to that phrase. Clause 4 allows police community support officers and, most importantly, other authorised individuals—predominantly civil enforcement officers—to require people to give their names and addresses when penalty charge notices have been issued. At present, people are not required to provide that information, thus making enforcement difficult. This measure is particularly important in respect of decriminalised offences such as littering. Those of us who live in urban areas will know the scourge that is the litter left on our doorsteps on a daily basis. That costs all of our councils millions of pounds to clean up. This provision will allow councils to recoup that cost by being able to force those who cause the litter to pay a fixed penalty charge or to pay for the cleaning up. If we believe in the “polluter pays” principle, we should support this provision. Some people might ask whether that is not the role of the police. If we want our police to focus on more serious crimes, it is essential that we allow such low-level crime to be dealt with by civil environment officers and PCSOs. I therefore urge Members to support this clause.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, but should this power for police support officers not be a general power decided by this Parliament for the whole country, if that is what Parliament wishes? Why should individual councils have different powers in relation to police support officers?
It is for the Government to decide whether they wish to give that general power to the police. The difficulty here is that, especially with regard to authorised officers such as civil enforcement officers, there is a gap in the legislation. London councils wish to plug that gap. If my hon. Friend wishes to push, through the Backbench Business Committee or other channels, for the Government to pursue this, I will wish him well and support him. However, we have a loophole in London that needs to be addressed.
The problem with that is that London is unique: it is visited by large numbers of people from all over the country and my constituents, for instance, would not be used to such a regime in the Bradford district. How are they supposed to feel when they find on a day visit to London that these powers have been given to local authorities in the capital? How are they supposed to know whether the people concerned have got that power or not? They should be able to have an expectation of what powers people in this country have and do not have.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I believe that the basic premise is that abuse of the law is no excuse. If people are seeking to litter in London, they should take the consequences. I am sure my hon. Friend’s constituents would do no such thing when visiting our fine city of London, however.
Clause 6 corrects an anomaly. At present, only commercial premises are required to prevent the accumulation of litter outside their buildings. This measure allows all public buildings—whether schools, hospitals or police stations—to be covered by the legislation. Closing that anomaly makes all people responsible for keeping their buildings clear of detritus.
Clause 7 includes the rather peculiar measure of the reintroduction of the power to install turnstiles in public lavatories. I never thought I would be elected to talk about public lavatories. I thought I had left that behind when I left Barnet council. However, this is not the old-fashioned, almost portcullis-type turnstile of the 1960s and 1970s; this is the modern turnstile that we are more used to in tube stations, which is fully disability-accessible. This measure will allow particularly the City of Westminster to use the revenue from the turnstiles to be reinvested in the provision of services, including those facilities themselves. We are asking our councils to do more with less and we expect public toilets, particularly in the centre of London, to help in that. This provision will allow the City of Westminster to continue to provide much-valued services.
Clause 8 is predominantly about the “polluter pays” principle. Those of us who live near fast-food establishments will be increasingly annoyed about getting up every morning to find a line of fast-food wrappers all down the highway or pavement. We are used to the people responsible being prosecuted for the litter they generate, but this measure allows councils to recover the costs from the commercial operator trading from the public highway. At present, the council can recover only the cost of the administration of issuing a street-trading licence. This allows the council to recover the costs of clearing and sweeping the highway, and particularly of taking away the litter generated by that street trading. In this age of austerity, if we are asking our councils to do more with less, we should allow them to recoup the cost of providing such services from those who caused the problem.
I am puzzled that my hon. Friend blames local takeaway establishments for litter. Surely he would accept that it is not those establishments that cause the litter, but the individuals who visit them. So why does he want to penalise people who are not responsible and let off those who are?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but if he wants to deal with the people who cause the litter, he should support the clause that requires people to supply their name and address when fixed penalty notices are being served. This is a pincer movement, because one provision deals with those who operate the businesses that generate the litter and the other clause deals with those who drop it, and therefore both sides of the argument are covered. The cost of collecting litter in London runs to millions of pounds and it falls on the innocent taxpayer, so either the businesses have to be more responsible or the individuals who cause the litter have to be prosecuted. Either way, the Bill provides the necessary regulations to allow the London councils to get on with it.
I have sympathy with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), because we do not want to have a complicated provision that penalises everybody when, often, the actions of an irresponsibility minority are to blame. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) agree that some of the more innovative work has been undertaken in the City of Westminster, although not exclusively there, and that it has aimed at ensuring that as part of a licensing arrangement some of these fast-food outlets must have full-time staff employed outside their establishment—within about 100 yards of it—to ensure that litter is not disposed of there? That takes place at the Oxford street McDonald’s, but I am sure that it is not the only establishment where such an arrangement is in place. I hope that such an approach would get around the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. That sort of voluntary arrangement made at the outset should be encouraged.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some operators, such as McDonald’s, are very responsible and do provide regular litter patrols. However, other fast-food operators, in particular the smaller ones, but even some of the national chains—I shall not give names, but one is at the end of my road—simply do not provide them. They take no responsibility for the litter that they generate outside their premises, nor do they try to persuade their customers to act more responsibly. The Bill would allow local councils to deal with both instances.
My hon. Friend must be aware of the concerns of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association. They feel that their members already pay significantly and that this measure will be an additional charge on them. Those bodies have petitioned against the Bill, so what plans does he have to address their concerns?
We do not know what those specific concerns are; I have certainly not been made aware of the detail, but I would be more than happy to give it some close attention because, as a former leader of a London borough, I have some experience in dealing with street licensing. I share my hon. Friend’s concern that many of our businesses pay large sums in business rates, but that money does not go back to the local councils in full. In fact, my local authority is a net contributor of £20 million a year in business rates. I understand the concerns of business, but the real issue, which the Treasury needs to address, is that of having a fair distribution of business rates so that businesses in London do not feel they are paying twice. That does not address the problem we face with litter caused by street trading in London, and it has to be addressed. I do not think it is fair that the council tax payer has to pick up the bill, although I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend raised.
Clauses 9 and 10 are slightly meatier parts of the Bill. They deal with food hygiene, particularly for those businesses involved in the production, processing and distribution of food, requiring them to display their most recent hygiene star rating. In many London boroughs this has been a voluntary scheme and it has performed reasonably well. However, the London boroughs have come together and feel that this needs now to be put on a statutory footing. Over the years, environmental health has become something of a Cinderella service—I hope I am not being too blunt—in that it has been subject to spending reductions. Again, I return to the fact that many London councils will continue to be underfunded and will, in the next few years, have to make ever more efficiency savings and be required to do more with less. Over the past few years, that has led to a risk-based assessment for food hygiene. That means that a good establishment is inspected and receives three, four or five stars and is then left alone for 18 months or so. An establishment that gets one star immediately becomes higher risk and is subject to more frequent inspections, which could take place the following day or the following week. As it is a light-touch, light-regulation regime, the consumer needs some protection. The information on standards should be provided to them at the point of entry to the establishment or should be clearly visible when they are at the establishment.
I do not think that it is unreasonable that food establishments should be required to display their most recent grading. I understand that some members of the British Hospitality Association are concerned that if they get one star, they will be stuck with it. However, a one-star establishment is high risk and will therefore be re-inspected pretty quickly. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that I think that the promoters of the Bill are willing to consider whether those who scored poorly should be able to pay for a quick inspection, if they feel that they have had an off day, in order to improve their score. I think that is quite reasonable.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he is introducing the Bill on Second Reading, which is most helpful to Members. In my constituency, there already seems to be such a scheme. The problem is that, even if an establishment’s one-star rating is found on re-inspection the following week to be a blip, the stars cannot be reinstated for a whole year, which has caused one restaurant many problems.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but that is not my understanding of how the scheme in London would work. I am more than happy to take that away and to get him some reassurance on it, but my understanding is that if an establishment is inspected on a Monday and gets one star, it is deemed to be an off day. The environmental health officers will probably know whether it is an off day; if they have had cause for complaint about an establishment before, they will know of a pattern of behaviour. If they go into somewhere such as McDonald’s and it is a poor visit, they will know that the company takes such matters seriously and that it is likely to have been an off day, but it is less likely to be an off day in a local corner shop that has had a history of complaints, so it will go back on the risk register. I am happy to take away my hon. Friend’s point and to confirm whether the inspection would be within a matter of weeks, if requested by the establishment, to ensure that people are not stuck with an unfortunate grading that they felt to be unfair.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, although I have a fear that this is a solution looking for a problem. Who will know what a star rating means? If I walked into an establishment that had three stars on the outside, I would have absolutely no idea what those three stars meant. I would not know what the criteria were for one star, two stars or three stars. It might satisfy the bureaucratic instincts of the local authority, but it would not add a great deal to the customer’s experience. I am not even convinced that local councils are best placed to decide these things. I am sure that according to the bureaucratic monsters in local authorities the jam produced by the Mothers’ Union would have only a one-star rating, but I would be perfectly happy to eat it. I am not sure that this is an entirely meaningful measure.
I am sure that the jam made by the women’s institute in Shipley is a fine product. The system with one, two, three, four and five stars is relatively understandable. Most people understand: five stars good; one star bad. My hon. Friend understands a three-star or five-star rating on a hotel, but I suspect that he does not know the mechanics of how that star rating was awarded. If he wants to understand just how the gradings have been arrived at, that information is available to him and I shall happily forward him the details. Most people seem to understand one, two, three, four and five stars.
Having been out recently with the environmental protection team at Westminster city council and watched them in action, I can give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that these systems, at least in Westminster, work moderately well although, as he rightly says, the test is fairly objective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) must be the first person to have mentioned Cinderella in such seasonal terms in only the second week of October, but this is a Cinderella department and there will clearly be downward pressure on costs for local authorities, so my slight concern is that what is deemed, rightly in my view, to be a deregulatory measure might end up becoming awfully bureaucratic, particularly if a massive set of appeals procedures are to be put in place. My instinctive view is that, if we are going down that route, we should have a review every six or 12 months. The idea that the well-funded muscle of large operators can overturn a hygiene ruling in such a way is unfavourable and would militate against small, independently owned and family-run establishments that had fallen foul of clauses 8 or 9 when it came to their hygiene regulation in any year.
I understand the concern that big operators can dominate the appeals process. That is why larger operators are probably less likely to be high-risk establishments. I understand the concern about burdening our local businesses, but there was an instance in my constituency in which a long-established butcher put many local pensioners into hospital because of its food hygiene standards and the way that chopping boards were used. It was not a chain, but it was a reasonable-sized local business that had been there for many years and had a good reputation among the public. Sadly, it had a bad reputation among environmental health officers. Had there been a grading system on the door, the public might have had a slightly better inkling as to the standard of food hygiene on the cutting boards, which put two or three pensioners into hospital with serious food poisoning. I am keen to avoid regulation, but we have a responsibility, at times, to ensure that consumers have some protection.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Food Standards Agency, which has been given a national remit to look into these areas, believes in the principle of voluntarism? It is very concerned about introducing a mandatory requirement for premises to put signs on their doors that might reflect the result of a survey or inspection that was carried out many weeks or months previously.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend is lauding a national regulatory quango while arguing against regulation. That seems slightly contradictory. Personally, I have no faith in the FSA. In my time as the leader of a large council that had many food outlets in the borough, I had no knowledge of what the FSA did in the borough, of any prosecutions that it brought to bear or of how it improved food standards. London councils, environmental health officers and practitioners on the ground say that we need a system that provides information to consumers so that they can have consumer protection if we are to have a local, light-touch regulatory regime and if we are not to have environmental health officers knocking on doors every week, which clearly is not going to happen.
Let me address clauses 11 to 20 on houses in multiple occupation. The measures give councils the power to issue management notices on the owners of defective HMOs. There are various amendments, one of which is rather minor, regarding the method of doing so—by post as opposed to registered post. One area that my hon. Friends will be pleased about is the simplification of regulation. Currently, if a housing team believe that an HMO operator is operating unsafe premises, they have to go through a fairly convoluted matrix of assessing the risk, the implications, what needs to be done to be put it right and the relevant time scale. That is very resource-intensive, and is particularly onerous if the issue is simply a damaged stair or a wonky banister. The measures allow councils to simplify that process. Normally, that would involve a 24-hour notice period, but the proposal would allow local councils to waive or avoid that 24-hour notice period if a tenant’s health or safety were at risk.
My hon. Friend will know that no less a person than the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the previous Government, has expressed concern about the measure, and indeed opposed part 4 because she believed that further legislation was not necessary. She was particularly strongly against the idea of giving powers in relation to the fitness of HMO stock in London that were not to be given for the rest of England. To what extent will the Bill’s promoters respond to those concerns, because they do not seem to have responded to them so far?
My understanding is that the promoters have responded in that the power to seek entry is now restricted to the directors, assistant directors and one named individual, and is no longer a more wide-ranging power for members of the housing team. The proposers have offered that restriction and I am sure that we can deal with the matter if the Bill is considered in Committee.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once again and I am sorry to have to criticise him on this matter. If he looks at the report produced by the former Secretary of State, he will see that there were two separate issues: total opposition to everything contained in part 4 and concerns over provisions relating to powers of entry under clause 21 in part 5. I accept that modifications have been made in the latter case, but he will also be aware that, even subsequent to that, the former Secretary of State was still not quite sure that those concessions or amendments were sufficient.
I cannot speak for the Secretary of State or the former Secretary of State, but perhaps the Minister wishes to give us some insight into the Department’s view. I am sorry to land him in it, but I cannot speak for him. I understand the concerns, but having a power of entry that is restricted to named individuals or senior members of the housing team is not unreasonable if a tenant is at risk.
I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) the fact that many HMOs are now operated by offshore companies or overseas owners. Therefore, tracking people down and serving a notice can be particularly difficult. This proposal would allow housing officers to gain access in circumstances where they might be frustrated by an absentee landlord. I am sure that the specific issue and the concerns expressed by the former Secretary of State can be addressed if the Bill reaches Committee.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. This is the position: since 2004, the problems of HMOs, particularly in London, have magnified significantly, as every local authority is reporting. The view in 2004 was that certain powers were not required, but local authorities have now made it clear that they are certainly required, as reflected by many constituency MPs. The House must remember that the London Local Authorities Act 2004 took some powers away from local authorities. If we had those powers now, we could use them in these instances.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being generous with his time. While I entirely endorse what has just been said, particularly in relation to a number of ownerships that are in the Cayman Islands and some offshore companies that are difficult to police properly, these proposals also raise another rather obvious question, which is, who polices the policeman? Some of the worst offenders are local authorities, through either arm’s length management organisations or directly owning property in multiple occupation. Where are the powers for individuals or other interested parties to be able to stand up and say that local authorities, which have some say in the running of particular properties, should also be subject to the powers being brought into play under clauses 11 to 20? It seems to me essential that there should be such protections, because in some cases local authorities are the worst offender in such instances.
My hon. Friend is quite correct, but the big difference between a local authority or an ALMO and an offshore HMO operator is that the local council has democratically elected members who are responsible and accessible to their local residents. If council tenants, ALMO tenants or housing association tenants have a grievance about the way their stock is being managed, they have direct access to the board of the ALMO, which often includes local councillors, or to the local council.
Although I appreciate that there may be difficulties, the major problem with HMOs is not with local authority stock. If the Government are seeking to loosen the regulation on HMOs and move to light-touch regulation, there must be checks and balances that do not allow us to abdicate responsibility. There must be some form of safety net to ensure that local authorities have the ability to step in if they believe that an HMO operator is putting tenants at risk, however deregulated the market becomes.
I am a temporary substitute for my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who has had to go to a ministerial meeting. He and I have both been troubled by the provisions relating to power of entry. Is not the way to protect the rights of absentee occupants under part 5 to make sure that there is a code of practice to back up the way in which senior housing officers or their nominee behave?
The wording is relatively loose because it is a survey in which any delay is likely to give rise to unnecessary and imminent risk. That is serious, but intervention could take place more often than any of us would like. Members will need careful reassurance in Committee that the measure does not allow an officer of the authority to go in without giving an account, maintaining a record and knowing when permission has been granted. A code of practice is needed, as well as a clear record that is examinable as to when it was applied for, why and what the outcome was.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If we get to Committee stage, we can consider defining reasonable grounds for entry and the provision of a record of why, who and when. The problem is not insurmountable.
I shall make progress and deal with some of the other significant clauses, particularly clauses 26 to 28. Members are aware that there have been problems in Westminster concerning hot dog vendors. The City of Westminster has been effective in dealing with those rather disreputable vendors, and the proposal allows the council to confiscate the trolleys as they hit the pavement. It provides Camden council with the same powers. I should point out that the measure does not impact on street pedlars, a subject in which some colleagues in the House take a particular interest.
Clause 25 deals with a problem in many residential areas. Historically, we have seen lines of parked cars for sale causing an obstruction, particularly in residential streets, and causing a nuisance to local residents. These unregulated car dealers have got round placing a handwritten note in the window by advertising the cars on the internet, and possibly holding out as a private seller, meeting the potential purchaser on the pavement. The proposal allows councils to prohibit that and gives some consumer protection to local residents from such rogue traders.
I am sorry that the Whip thinks it unreasonable for my hon. Friend to give way. I think it is very reasonable for him to give way. That is how we make progress in the House on contentious legislation. Can my hon. Friend explain whether the vehicles that he has in mind are already licensed with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and whether they have resident parking permits if they are in areas with residents parking? If they have those permits and the licence has been paid in respect of each of those vehicles, what is the problem?
The problem is that it is already an offence to advertise cars for sale on the highway. Even if the seller is a private resident selling a car outside his own house, that is an offence. Over the years we have seen a proliferation of rogue dealers with five, six or 10 cars for sale on the highway, previously with handwritten stickers in the window, pretending to be private sellers. Purchasers would not get the consumer protection that they would by buying from a normal dealership. Owing to the prohibition of such advertising, people have moved their activities on to the web, so the Bill allows for the same prohibition to apply to sales on the internet. It does not affect people trying to sell their own car through a local newspaper; it enforces the existing law, whereby it is illegal to sell a car on the highway, and extends it to the internet.
The Whip’s not looking; he’s slipped out of the Chamber for a second.
Will the promoters of the Bill, in collaboration with Ministers, look at whether the same power for dealing with hot dog trolleys—the power to nick them if there is abuse—might apply to car salespeople who put cars on the road outside their premises? That has been a frequent problem in Rotherhithe, with firms selling second-hand vehicles that are always parked illegally on the road. They have never been effectively stopped, and it seems to me that the way to deal with it is to give the local authority the power to remove the car if it is parked illegally on the highway.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the Bill deals with only the removal of an obstruction on the pavement. It is a valid point that I am more than happy to take away to the Bill’s promoters, however.
I understand that many Members might be concerned about increasing the regulatory burden, but I urge them—
I shall make progress, because I have been generous with my time.
We need to ensure that Londoners are protected. Consumer protection is important, and the Bill will not only allow local councils to adopt regulations when it suits their local needs, but more importantly put information at the disposal of London residents for their own protection.
Thank you very much, indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am absolutely delighted and somewhat surprised to speak from the Dispatch Box for the first time today, particularly as it is so early in my parliamentary career. It is an incredible privilege, and I genuinely look forward to my exchanges with the Minister in the weeks and months ahead. I am sure that on most occasions we will take entirely different positions, but the Opposition support this Bill, and I believe that the Government are of a similar mind.
The arguments in support of the Bill have already been made, and I do not want to detain the House any longer than is necessary, but I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), the former leader of Barnet council, who eloquently set out the rationale behind it.
I shall briefly set out our support for the Bill. It is worth reminding the House that the Bill has already been agreed to by all 33 London local authorities. As the House will know, London’s councils are controlled by all three main political parties, and, although they may disagree on many issues, on this Bill they speak with one voice. It has been subjected to detailed scrutiny for almost three years by those local authorities and, indeed, by Parliament, too.
Many of the Bill’s provisions are eminently sensible. For instance, it gives local authorities the powers to install turnstiles in public lavatories when they consider it appropriate to do so. That measure is necessary because the Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act 1963 prohibits the use of turnstiles in any part of a local-authority owned or managed public toilet. The Bill contains many other reasonable provisions.
The measure was asked for and debated at length by the local authorities. Indeed, there have been debates in this House about the Bill’s provisions. If Members have difficulties with specific aspects, then surely the appropriate time to raise them in more detail would be in Committee.
Let me point out some of the other very reasonable provisions contained in the Bill, which include powers to recover any additional cleaning costs where businesses put out tables and chairs on the street, and the right to improve the regulation of strip clubs. It also provides the ability to put on a mandatory footing the Scores on the Doors scheme, which is an initiative that has driven up food hygiene standards in pubs, bars and restaurants all over London. That should be welcomed.
The Bill is not prescriptive and does not require local authorities in London to do certain things; it simply gives them the powers to use as they see fit. In the end, it is up to local authorities themselves to deploy the powers at their disposal in the interests of the communities they represent. On that basis, I am pleased to offer our support for the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on the way in which he introduced the Bill. I pay tribute to the Bill’s proponents, who continue an established tradition for London local authorities in bringing forward private legislation. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on a very assured debut at the Dispatch Box and on his swift appointment. Indeed, I welcome a very considerable percentage of the new shadow Communities and Local Government team. All I can say is this: welcome to the merry world of local government private legislation. I am delighted to see them there, and I hope they will not take it ill if I wish them a long tenure on the Opposition Benches.
From a localist perspective, I broadly agree with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Derby North. The Bill should be enabled to make progress. However, it may be helpful if I indicate aspects where the Government have concerns and flag up some areas where further attention may be appropriate as the Bill progresses.
Several of the Bill’s provisions are to be welcomed as a genuine step forward, such as those in clause 6 which tackle the proliferation of smoking-related litter outside buildings. Indeed, I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking for opportunities for primary legislation to introduce a similar change across England. Similarly, clause 33 represents a valiant attempt to deal with enduring problems in dealing with litter emanating from vehicles. At the same time, it remedies a drafting error in the original legislation—the London Local Authorities Act 2007—which rendered the provision inoperable, so there is value-added there as well.
The Bill has had a pretty long gestation; it came into being during the tenure of the previous Administration. Following the change of Government, Departments continue to consider the provisions, in some cases, and will want to scrutinise them with a view to the current legislative programme and in terms of the coalition agreement and the Government’s current priorities. For example, my colleagues in the Home Office will wish to reflect on some of the provisions in clauses 4 and 5. I understand the point that is made as regards their advantages, but we need to be cautious in extending powers to issue fines beyond recognisably uniformed police and police community support officers. While not ruling it out, we must be proportionate and avoid a proliferation of fines for what might be perceived as genuinely minor breaches, as that might create in the public a sense of unfairness.
I strongly support much of what is in the Bill, but I have some concerns about these penalty charges. We all know as London MPs—or perhaps I have a particular problem with this—that we get a huge amount in our postbags from local residents or people from outside Westminster concerned about the antics of traffic management people putting tickets on cars. Extending penalty notices, particularly giving a power to PCSOs, creates the risk that there will be a perception, at least, of rather untrammelled and somewhat arbitrary powers being utilised by local authorities. Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), it may also be somewhat confusing for many people who do not live in London when they suddenly realise that there is an entirely different set of regulations whereby they can fall foul of expensive fines for fairly minor breaches of whatever civil code might be in place. We need to pin this down, as far as we can, to ensure that that level of arbitrariness and untrammelled power is kept to an absolute minimum.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but rather than regard that point as fatal to the Bill’s future progress, the right approach is to say, as I will in relation to other matters, that I hope the Bill’s promoters will discuss with officials in the relevant Departments how they might seek clarification and improvements. I am grateful to him for highlighting that matter.
Similarly, we have to ensure that there is fairness in relation to the provisions in clause 8 for pavement charges. I understand the argument behind the clause, but equally we must ensure that an undue burden is not placed upon small local shops. We need to ensure proportionality.
May I reinforce that point clearly? The danger is shown in the service charges for people who have bought their property from the local authority, which we all know about. They end up being far higher than anybody ever envisaged, even though they are technically “reasonable” in law. The ability to deal with what is called “street furniture”—tables and chairs—is important, but within limits it should be permitted wherever possible. We need to ensure that local authorities do not give themselves powers that prevent cafés and restaurants from allowing people to sit outside, which is often much healthier than sitting inside.
I find that rather disappointing, because I do not seek to intervene unless I have a question.
The Minister says that he and Ministers from other Departments such as the Home Office will have to reflect on the contents of the Bill, but it has been around since 2007 and the coalition Government have been in office for many months. How will those deliberations reach a conclusion, and how will it be communicated to the promoters of the Bill and other people who are interested in the subject?
I do not believe the Department for Communities and Local Government can be accused of having twiddled our thumbs unduly. In fact, a number of people would argue the contrary. Our officials are already in discussions with the promoters of the Bill, as are those of other Departments. Difficulties sometimes arise because a number of Departments have an interest in a Bill of this kind, and it is important to get it right, so I do not believe there can be any criticism of the current Government. It is in the nature of private Bills that they sometimes progress more slowly than other types of legislation. I do not intend to disappoint my hon. Friend gratuitously when he seeks to intervene, but equally I am sure that the House will want to make progress.
I wish to touch upon a matter where I understand the point that my hon. Friend and other Members have made. The Government have made a clear pledge to reverse the erosion of civil liberties and roll back the state’s power to intrude on citizens. That is an important principle and may be pertinent in considering some of the provisions on houses in multiple occupation in parts 4 and 5 of the Bill, which have been mentioned. It may help if I offer a little detail.
The Housing Act 2004 introduced a range of measures intended to improve the management standards and condition of privately rented accommodation such as HMOs. It provided local authorities with extensive tools and powers to take action when the condition or management of HMOs falls below required standards. It introduced mandatory licensing of larger, higher-risk HMOs and provided local authorities with the discretion to extend licensing to other categories of HMOs to address particular management problems in smaller properties. It also introduced management regulations for all HMOs, regardless of whether they are licensable, which local authorities can use to take action when they find management problems in specific properties.
HMO licensing works alongside the housing health and safety rating system, which was also introduced in 2004, under which local authorities can make a risk assessment of the likely impact of property condition on occupants of privately rented accommodation. When that happens and when a category 1 or 2 hazard is identified, local authorities have powers to impose improvements.
Of course, failure to comply with an improvement notice and a breach of the HMO management regulations are already criminal offences. Both the licensing and the housing health and safety rating system regimes provide local authorities with an extensive enforcement framework to take action in cases in which the condition and management of HMOs fall below required standards.
Therefore, with regard to part 5 of the Bill, the existing powers-of-entry provisions in the Housing Act 2004 provide local authorities with extensive powers to enter properties and to take immediate enforcement action in cases in which the condition and management of the property falls well below required standards. In such cases, local authorities are required to give a minimum of 24 hours’ notice to the owner and occupiers of a property prior to an inspection. However, in emergency cases—those that involve an imminent risk of serious harm to the health and safety of any occupier of a property or when it is suspected that an offence has been committed in relation to HMO licensing—local authorities may enter the property immediately without giving notice. The legislation also requires authorisation by a deputy chief officer to ensure that such powers are used in the appropriate circumstances, where the severity of the case warrants emergency action.
As I have said, the Government pledged to reverse the erosion of civil liberties and to roll back the ability of the state to intrude on citizens. Extending the powers of entry beyond those that exist would therefore, on the face of it, tend to undermine the purpose of the freedom Bill, which is delivering a key objective of the coalition Government. We have also made it clear that we do not propose to introduce new burdens on the private-rented sector. The Government therefore oppose parts 4 and 5 of the Bill. However, I recommend further consultation between the Bill’s proponents and my officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government to see whether improvements can be made that sit in harmony with the Government’s wider civil liberties ambitions.
I am grateful to the Minister for the great attention he is giving to the detail of the Bill. Clearly, the Government have reservations about some aspects of it. Are they interested in a localism that derives from moving more general powers to local authorities to decide such matters, or will such private business continue to have to come through the House?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed, through the localism and decentralisation Bill, to giving a wider range of general powers—for example, a power of general competence—but equally, it will sometimes be more appropriate and proportionate to give more specific flexibilities, such as those in the Bill. Both approaches can be part of the mix.
May I turn to the issue of entertainment involving nudity, which is addressed in clause 23? When the measure was considered in the House of Lords, the previous Government argued that it should be deleted. Clause 23 would amend the Licensing Act 2003 to allow local authorities greater powers to regulate lap-dancing clubs by allowing them to impose clauses on premises’ licences to prohibit entertainment involving nudity. That, I believe, is motivated by the concern that their powers under the 2003 Act are insufficient to allow them to prevent lap-dancing clubs operating within their area, or within certain parts of their area, or to regulate the nature of the entertainment provided within lap-dancing clubs.
When the measure was considered in the House of Lords, the previous Government sought its deletion because at the time, they were seeking the views of local authorities nationally. As a result of that consultation, they introduced legislation. Section 27 and schedule 3 to the Policing and Crime Act 2009 amended the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 to allow local authorities the power to regulate lap-dancing clubs as sex establishments. This provides local authorities with much greater powers than those provided by the Licensing Act 2003, and those that would be provided by clause 23.
In opposition, we broadly supported the amendments to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 as they went through Parliament, and we remain supportive of those measures, As such, we believe that it would improve the Bill if clause 23 were deleted. It could complicate the licensing framework in London, and possibly undermine the new legislation in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. Given that since the London Local Authorities Bill was introduced Parliament has introduced national legislation to deal with the same issue that clause 23 seeks to address, it is no longer necessary and Home Office Ministers may well seek to have it removed. I hope that the sponsor of the Bill will reflect on that point as the Bill progresses.
I hope that that point will be accepted by the sponsors and that we end up with a regime that gives discretion on whether to allow nudity or partial nudity without taking too puritanical a view. However, often the problem is not that people are appearing in the nude, but that some of them were pressured into the job by being trafficked. That is the issue, not whether adults should be able to go and see what they want to see in licensed premises, which should clearly be permitted where possible.
The Minister has picked up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I agree with the point that he has just made about sex encounter establishments and that, in that regard, the legislation is unnecessary. Will he consider those aspects of the Bill that are worth while—and that would therefore be worth while for every local authority—and introduce legislation to cover the whole country, so that we do not have to do this piecemeal, authority by authority?
I hear my hon. Friend’s point and I have already set out some of the aspects of the Bill that we think are advantageous and why we wish to see it make progress. I am not sure that my hon. Friend is in a very localist frame of mind, and we may therefore have to part company on the ultimate destination of the Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I hope that my observations are of help to the House and the promoters of the Bill, and I again reiterate my offer of consultation in those areas about which we have reservations. We are committed to giving local authorities more flexibility to reflect local needs and priorities and it would therefore be appropriate for the Bill to progress further. We will seek amendments in Committee to address the areas of concern that I have highlighted.
I want to speak briefly on a point of constituency interest. I am especially concerned about the powers in regard to houses in multiple occupation, and I am grateful to the Minister for offering further consultation in that area. The existing situation is not working for my constituency. We have seen the growth of buy-to-let schemes into small and large HMOs, which have been the bane of my constituents’ lives, whether because of mismanagement in a particular street or the safety of people living in them.
I know that London local authorities have gone through an exhaustive process of consultation and come forward with the Bill. They have identified problems with the ability to identify the landlord of an HMO, or to achieve prompt entry into premises to inspect or take remedial action. I accept what the Minister has said about the powers in existing legislation, but they are clearly not working, especially in London. As the capital city, London has seen immense growth in HMOs, because of housing problems, so the situation in some constituencies has become nightmarish.
The previous Government introduced increased planning powers to try to deal with the matter, but in some ways the current Government have watered them down. I regret that, but the Bill gives the opportunity for more direct, prompt and forceful action to be taken to address some of the problems from which my constituents are suffering. I hope that the consultation will be timely and enable us to pass the legislation, in some form, after the Committee stage.
Finally, the sale of cars on streets has been a nightmare problem in my constituency. We have tried using traffic restrictions, but there are some streets with no traffic restrictions where the whole street has effectively been used as a garage for the sale of cars. We have taken action and resolved the problem where we have seen notices advertising cars for sale with telephone numbers on them. I congratulate my local authority on the work that it has done, but the problem has moved on. The use of the internet now means that those car salesmen can effectively bypass the existing law. I therefore welcome the conditions in this legislation. In a former life, I was responsible for the promotion and drafting of such Bills, but from my past practice, I have never known one to be in gestation for as long as this one. I hope that we can eventually implement it and that that will happen as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate. If some of us had not objected to the Bill going through on the nod on Second Reading, we would not be having this useful debate. We would not have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer explain why he thinks the Bill is a good one, nor would we have heard the Minister say what he thinks all the Bill’s shortcomings are. He suggested that clauses 11 to 22 inclusive should be deleted, because he does not support them, and that clause 23 is redundant. It is useful to get that on the record.
This has also been a useful debate because we have been able to welcome the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who made his maiden speech from the Opposition Front Bench. It must be approaching a record to be able to speak from the Front Bench so soon after being first elected. I congratulate him on that, and I listened with interest to some of the things that he said. I cannot accuse him of saying something inconsistent with what happened under the previous Government, which is one of the strengths of being a completely new Member with a shadow ministerial office.
I have a number of concerns about the Bill. Many of them centre around the principle of whether we need to regulate more and whether we need to do so proportionately, and the need to ensure that we listen to groups of people— sometimes quite small groups of people—who are potentially adversely affected or treated unfairly as a result of private Bills. That is why it is so important that such Bills should be considered carefully in Committee, as I am sure this Bill will be in Opposed Private Bill Committee. The Bill is already the subject of petitions against it, some of which I referred to in my interventions on my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green.
I shall begin by dealing with the concerns of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association.
Will my hon. Friend clarify for the House that what we are doing today—deciding whether to give the Bill its Second Reading—is about the principle of the Bill? Also, is it not unusual to have so many different things in private business? I have spent hours considering private business, but it is normally about a specific, single thing for a specific area. This seems to be a very wide-ranging Bill.
I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a very wide-ranging Bill. The fact that it is the 10th such Bill to emanate from London local authorities in a reasonably short space of time shows that London local authorities are pushing at what are reasonable bounds on the powers that they should be taking in legislation. They keep trying to extend those bounds, taking more powers for themselves; indeed, there are powers in the Bill that I think go too far. The consequence of what my hon. Friend has described so pertinently—the fact that the Bill contains a large number of contentious clauses—is that unless its promoters listen to reason and allow it to be amended, it will find it jolly difficult to make fast progress through the House. Even it were to sail through the Opposed Private Bill Committee, it would encounter the same kind of difficulties on Report that the pedlars Bills were up against during the last Parliament.
Significantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green did not refer to the pedlary and street trading provisions in this Bill, but the Bill contains powers to seize commercial goods on the ground not of reasonable belief but of reasonable suspicion that an offence has been committed. We brought in the reasonable suspicion test, reluctantly, under anti-terrorism legislation. It is draconian in the extreme to seize people’s goods or interfere with their liberty on the ground of reasonable suspicion that they might have committed an offence. Because of the strength of that argument, amendments replacing the term “reasonable suspicion” with “reasonable belief” were accepted by the promoters of the Bournemouth Borough Council Act 2010 and the Manchester City Council Act 2010—two pedlars Bills that reached the end of their proceedings during the last Parliament. The fact that no such amendments have been offered by the promoters of this Bill represents a pretty bad prospect for the Bill, because it suggests a certain intransigence and resistance on the part of the promoters to listen to reason. It might also suggest that they want to give themselves extremely wide powers to seize goods. I believe that such powers go far beyond what is reasonable.
As my hon. Friend knows from our debates on the pedlars Bills, I agree with him wholeheartedly on this matter. I believe, however, that this Bill is worse than those Bills. It deals not only with a suspicion that an offence has been committed, but with a suspicion that an offence might be about to take place. A person could be suspected of being about to commit an offence that might take place. Furthermore, in addition to property being confiscated on that basis, the Bill would also confer a power to confiscate the vehicle in which the property was carried. The idea that central Government are bad and local government is good is surely wrong; the problem in both cases relates to the word “government”. We should not allow any government, local or central, to have such draconian powers.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that, when hon. Members start to look at the detail of these provisions, they will be as concerned as he and I are about their implications for civil liberties. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will report back to his colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice on our concerns about these fundamental issues of human rights and individual liberty.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me a second bite of the cherry. Does he agree that it is unacceptable for the Government to hide behind the idea of localism on these matters? They should not be allowed to say that local authorities are entitled to do anything they want to, simply on the basis that such decisions are being taken locally. Surely localism must come with some responsibilities.
Absolutely; I hope that that is what the Government believe as well, even though my hon. Friend has expressed his concern that that might not be so. Time will tell.
“Localism” is a good term, but it was rejected by Front Benchers in relation to pedlars. I remember Front-Bench colleagues during the previous Parliament arguing that there was a strong case for having national legislation on pedlars, so that there could be consistency across all local authority areas. There is also an enormously strong case for saying that we need consistency in the application of the criminal law, and that people should not have their goods seized unless there is a reasonable belief that they have committed an offence.
May I briefly revert to the petition of the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association, as I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green really addressed the concerns set out in it? They are concerned that commercial theatre in London, which is not finding it easy in the present economic climate, is going to be burdened with additional charges as a result of clause 8. The petition submits that its members are already making their own arrangements for the cleaning of the pavement and so forth, and that the basis for the additional charge has not been made clear. The petition submits that the existing wording of section 115F of the Highways Act 1980 is sufficient in so far as it enables London borough councils to recover their reasonable expenses in connection with the granting of permission to put items on the pavement. I hope that the promoters will address that concern before the Bill makes further progress.
Let me move on to clauses 9 and 10, which deal with what is colloquially known as Scores on the Doors—a system intended to ensure that the people providing catering services at retail food outlets have to display their standing by putting up a notice in the window. A petition against this has been drawn up by the British Hospitality Association and another petition has come from the pubs organisation, the British Beer and Pub Association. Both those petitions highlight the fact that there should be a voluntary aspect to this scheme, but London councils are usurping the position of the Food Standards Agency, which has already said that it thinks these issues should be a matter for voluntarism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has said that he and his council have no faith in the Food Standards Agency. If he brings forward a Bill to abolish the Food Standards Agency, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and I will strongly support it. In fact, we put in a bid to become co-sponsors of such a Bill, but unless and until the Food Standards Agency is abolished, the reality is that it has the responsibilities given to it by Parliament. It ill behoves a group of councillors, however experienced they might be, to second-guess that organisation and say that it has no faith in it and is therefore going to try to duplicate its role and go further than it has gone.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is appropriate for local authorities to seek to protect the public whom they represent? Does he not accept that the Scores on the Doors scheme has had the effect of driving up standards in pubs, clubs and restaurants that provide foodstuffs for the general public?
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is timely, as I was just going to refer to Scores on the Doors, which has been described as a national food hygiene rating scheme. I downloaded material on it from the internet earlier today, which made it clear that Scores on the Doors is a commercial organisation, describing itself as
“the No. 1 national food hygiene rating scheme”,
enabling official local authority hygiene ratings for food businesses to be found.
Scores on the Doors is the largest such scheme in the world, but it does not cover all local authorities. According to the internet site, there are 124 contributing councils, but interestingly not all the London councils are included in that number. It does not include the London borough of Wandsworth, which I had the privilege to lead some years ago. I am immediately alerted to the fact that even the Scores on the Doors scheme is not universally accepted by London boroughs, let alone by councils more widely across the country.
Someone wishing to search for one of the premises listed on the internet will find that there are 145,931 of them. That is the number of premises that will be affected by legislation second-guessing the Food Standards Agency and introducing a national requirement, subject to criminal penalties for non-compliance. I looked for a reference to a restaurant in my area, but to gain further access to the website I had to accept a general disclaimer. The disclaimer is quite interesting, because it shows that even Scores on the Doors is by no means a panacea:
“The information on the food premises listed here is held by us on behalf of our member local authorities. By accepting this disclaimer, you are submitting a request… to the relevant local authority for the disclosure of summary inspection reports under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”
It also states:
“The information… has been gathered by authorised Environmental Health Officers”.
However, it goes on to say:
“The hygiene rating given to premises on this web site has been based on the latest Primary Inspection carried out and as such represents the situation as found by the officer on the day of that inspection. Therefore the score may not be representative of the overall, long-term food hygiene standards of the business and should not be relied upon as a guide to food safety or food quality.”
Yet the London boroughs are seeking not only to encourage but to require premises to put up signs which are meaningless. If they do not do so, they will be subject to penalties up to scale 3. If they deface the signs—perhaps by adding material from the internet, such as the extract that I have just read out—they may be subject to a penalty on scale 5.
The situation is ludicrous. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green did not have a chance to go into more detail, because if he had done so even more people would be saying that the Bill goes far too far, and that it would be best to make a fresh start.
In my constituency, many restaurants enter the scheme voluntarily, which is fine. However, the rating is a snapshot of a single day, and it can cause great concern to people who are given a bad rating one day and cannot get it altered the next day. It is quite proper for restaurants to have a right to opt into the scheme, but it seems wholly wrong to compel them to enter it.
I entirely agree. The disclaimer states:
“Food premises may only be inspected every 6-36 months as specified in the Food Standards Agency Code of Practice.”
There is the potential for an enormous amount of damage to be caused to the reputation of commercial businesses that will have to stick on their doors something that is unrepresentative of the true position.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on wiping the floor with this part of the Bill and illustrating so effectively what nonsense it is. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), said that the Scores on the Doors process had already raised standards. If the voluntary scheme is working well and raising standards, and if seeing the stars on display is so important to customers, will customers not instinctively prefer to visit only the restaurants that display their stars? If a restaurant or other food establishment chooses not to display its star rating, it will risk not receiving any custom from the people who consider the system so important.
My hon. Friend makes his point perfectly. We in this House have the privilege of the opportunity to try to introduce some common sense into these measures before they become set in law. I hope this debate will enable that to happen, certainly in relation to clauses 8 and 9, against which petitions have, for good reason, been submitted. Depressingly, the petitions were presented in the other place as well, and they did not have any impact. Nobody seems to have been listening. I hope somebody will start to listen soon because we are talking about potential threats to the viability of lots of small businesses in the ever-important hospitality industry. There is the possibility of gross injustices arising from these provisions.
My right hon. Friend brings his legal expertise to bear on this issue and asks a very pertinent question. I am not in a position to answer it, but if the promoter of the Bill—or the promoter’s representative in this place today—wishes to intervene to do so, I will gladly give way. If the Bill has been as well prepared as one would hope after three years of gestation, one would expect that point to have been taken into account by its drafters—although perhaps we should not be so certain about that.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was enthusiastic about the only parts of the Bill that my hon. Friend the Minister said the Government were concerned about. That is an interesting cameo within this debate. I hope my hon. Friend will stick to his guns in pursuing his concerns about clauses 11 to 22 and will insist that clause 23 is removed as being absolutely redundant.
The Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association are worried that clause 23 will have a big impact on their theatres. Occasionally, there is some nudity or semi-nudity in a production and this measure may well have a negative impact on such shows. Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that concern as well?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend the Minister said the legislation that had been introduced nationally since the Bill was first produced covers the national picture. I am sure it takes properly into account the concerns that have been expressed, and to which my hon. Friend has referred.
I want to refer back to an earlier part of the Bill. Clause 7 deals with access to public lavatories. I have the privilege of representing a constituency with one of the highest proportions of elderly people in the country, and we in Christchurch are proud to have been the winner of the loo of the year awards on many occasions. Ours is a prudent council, and it has now reached the stage where the councillor and the officers responsible for winning those accolades do not attend the awards ceremony because they cannot afford the cost of the travel, but they are grateful recipients of the awards.
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is going to flush out the subject a little more, but we are dealing with a London Bill, rather than toilets in his constituency. I know that there is a connection, but I would like to try to keep it a little tighter if we can.
Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. The great joy for people in Christchurch is that even when they reach a certain age they can travel. They travel outside their constituency to places such as London, and they expect that in London they will find facilities similar to those that they enjoy in Christchurch. Sometimes they are disappointed, and that is where the relevance of all this lies. As they have such high standards at home, they seek them elsewhere.
I am concerned that it would be a retrograde move to allow local authorities in London to reintroduce turnstiles. Not long ago, a short debate was held in the other place in which Baroness Greengross asked Baroness Andrews, who was then an Under-Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, about extending the provisions of the Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act 1963 to railway premises. The answer was that it would not be desirable because a lot of railway premises were having their loos and the access to them modernised. However, it was implicit in the answer that the then Government did not believe that the law needed to be changed and that they thought it desirable that we should not need turnstiles in order to gain access to public toilet facilities. This is a particular issue for disabled people, because they find it most difficult, although others may wish to gain access to a public toilet as quickly as possible and they do not want to have their progress impeded. I do not think that we need to spell out the point at any greater length, Mr Deputy Speaker.
May I put it gently to my hon. Friend that he has the argument the wrong way round? Surely we should be applauding this measure, because if local authorities are allowed to introduce turnstiles and thereby charge people an exorbitant rate to use the lavatory, the people of London will have far more lavatories to use as more and more councils seek to tap into this revenue raising idea.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he was making that observation, but I suspect that he did. If he did not, he is living on another planet. In the City of Westminster, for example, the council raises an enormous surplus in parking charges, many of which are paid by people who do not reside in the borough. The original idea was that those fees should be reinvested to improve public facilities in Westminster, but that has not happened in practice. The idea that if local authorities can impose more charges for access to public toilets, the quality and availability of those toilets will improve is pie in the sky.
Does my hon. Friend accept that this could be argued the other way round? He says that turnstiles are not desirable, and that is a perfectly legitimate view. Even if someone would argue that they are legitimate, surely any local authority should be able to introduce them in their local toilets, not just London boroughs. Why would we just extend this privilege to London, and why would the Government not extend it to every local authority that so chooses to use it? I hope that he would accept that such an approach would be pure localism, as opposed to giving localism only to London.
My hon. Friend makes another very good point. I am sure that if the coalition Government are short of new policies to enact they will think seriously about my hon. Friend’s suggestion. Before they do so, however, they might look at the document produced a couple of years ago by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which set out a strategic guide, spread over the best part of 100 pages, on “Improving Public Access to Better Quality Toilets”. Nowhere in that strategic guide was anything that suggested that the answer to all the problems was to reintroduce turnstiles, which were outlawed in an enlightened moment in 1963. They should probably remain outlawed and I do not think that the case for reintroducing them has been made.
I am also very concerned about the Bill’s provisions on pedlars and street trading, to which I have already referred—my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley engaged in a short exchange with me on that point. Those powers go far in excess of what is reasonable. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green did not consider them when he introduced the Bill. In a sense, this is a warning shot, because a number of us have been jealous of the rights of small groups to be able to carry on their activities and not to find themselves subject to harassment by officialdom. The wide powers that are given under the Bill to Westminster city council and to Camden borough council are a licence for harassment. They give tremendous powers to local authorities to harass the people they wish to drive out of business because it does not suit their purposes and because they find it rather difficult to try to enforce the law as it stands nationally. They want to give themselves extra powers to impose penalties on the grounds of suspicion, and I think that that is wrong.
One is left asking whether anything in the Bill is worth saving, or whether it would be much better to put the promoters out of their misery and not give it a Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Minister thinks that we should give the promoters the benefit of the doubt. For my part, I think that they have had three years in which to try to get their tackle in order and they have manifestly failed so to do. They have not really come to terms with the change in the mood out there, which is very much against interference and regulation by local authorities, pettifogging bureaucracy, penalties, putting pressure on people and making it very difficult for them to argue against penalties, which makes them have to go along and pay another fine or penalty. The promoters misunderstand the mood and there is a great demand for some consistency in our criminal law across the whole country rather than having special regimes for licensing in the London area, as proposed in clause 23, or special regimes for penalties for street trading, as found in the clauses that promote powers for Westminster and Camden.
I obviously support my hon. Friend the Minister as regards the parts of the Bill to which he is opposed. There is so much wrong with the Bill that there is a danger that if we allow it a Second Reading, an enormous amount of our colleagues’ time will be taken up in the Opposed Private Bill Committee. If the promoters are as reluctant to compromise as they appear to have been in the other place, we will end up taking up a lot of time on the Floor of the House on Report and Third Reading. It might be better to put the promoters out of their misery at this stage and force them to go back to the drawing board and propose a fresh Bill that is more in tune with current thinking.
I hear my hon. Friend’s argument, but all what he says could be put right in Committee. If he feels that the Bill is too pettifogging in some areas, amendments could be moved in Committee to improve it to such a state that only reasonable actions could be taken by local authorities to deal with what is a very real problem. The argument he is developing is not against the Bill per se but against its current drafting. Is it not then for us to amend it in Committee?
My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point, but he and I will in our time in this place have been confronted many times with Bills that we disliked so much that, although parts of them were not so bad, we felt obliged to vote against them on Second Reading to make a point. This Bill has not arrived here de novo, but has already been through the other place. We have to look on the past as a guide to the future unless we are otherwise advised. The Bill has not been subject to voluntary amendment by its promoters despite the petitions against it from the London theatres, the British Beer and Pub Association and others. If the promoters did not listen to those petitions in the other place, what guarantee is there that they will listen to petitions now? We have not heard anything from my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green to the effect that they will accept amendments. If, when he sums up the debate, he says that he feels, on behalf of the promoters, slightly chastened by the criticisms that have been made, and if he says that they will introduce amendments to meet some of those concerns, I might have a different attitude. Currently, however, I fear that there is so much wrong with the Bill that it does not deserve a Second Reading.
The Bill is deeply disagreeable and it is remarkable that the House of Commons should spend so much time considering something that would take freedoms from law-abiding people in London, particularly in the City of Westminster.
What is the purpose of the Bill’s opening part? It is to give to borough officials powers that are normally reserved for policemen. One might go out of this House and some person employed by Westminster city council, with or without a peaked cap, might come up and say that he does not like what one is doing because one is selling a car over the internet or doing some other desperately evil activity. That employee will then levy a fine and will levy a second fine if the person does not tell him their name and address. I thought it was no right of anybody’s to demand the names and addresses of people going about their lawful business, but, under the Bill, someone who refuses to give it to some official from Westminster city council will commit an offence. I do not want to tell officials from Westminster city council my address—they could look it up on the electoral register, which would not take them very long. That is an initial intrusion on freedoms that we ought to value and that ought to be at the forefront of what the House does.
Having dealt with clauses 4 and 5, let me address clause 8, which is one of the meanest-minded measures we have seen recently. A few years ago, Westminster city council was all for a café culture: “Let’s have people putting chairs out on the pavement and have people drinking in the street”, it said. “Let’s have them pretending they are in Venice or Florence; in spite of the weather, they can think that the sun is shining because they are out on the street.” Now, having persuaded a few restaurants and cafés to put out some tables and chairs, the self-same council wants to say, “You’ve done what we asked and we are very pleased with this charming and delightful café culture”—otherwise known as binge drinking—“and because of that we want to charge you for it.” Does that seem a reasonable way for a council to behave, and is it proper for us as a Parliament to give it a special bit of law to make itself obnoxious to a free people?
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has gone through the hygiene aspects, but I thought I was elected on a platform of deregulation. The Labour Government, for all their virtues, were great ones for regulating and for insisting that everything should be signed, sealed and delivered. Even in a church, there has to be a sign saying that people are not allowed to smoke to deter all those who used to go into a church just to roll a cigarette, light up and smoke away.
There are signs everywhere and the mass of bureaucracy is upon us. Now, the Conservative Government want to ensure that when someone wanders into a café for a small cup of coffee, tea or whatever his preference happens to be, there must be a sign saying the café is hygienic. Otherwise, he might be poisoned by whatever desperate thing it is that the café puts in its tea. Is this necessary? Is it proportionate? Is it a sensible use of the money of business to spend it on putting up signs when people who go into restaurants know that there are forms of regulation and whether the food is any good. If they do not like it, they can have an argument with the restaurateur, say that they are not paying and tell all their friends not to go there. The free market copes here much more adequately than increased regulation.
I am glad to say that the Minister is against all the stuff on housing. Those proposals concern me because they are broadly an attack on private property, which is one of the mainstays of our constitutional settlement. The rights of private property are that which underpins a free society—the right for people to own their own home or to let it out to somebody else—as opposed to what is in clause 21, whereby the self-same peaked-capped man who was fining me for refusing to tell him my name and address then barges into somebody’s house just to check that they are complying with regulations.
As I understood it, the aim of Her Majesty’s Government was to ensure that the right to enter houses applied only when a warrant had been issued—a warrant duly signed by a magistrate—so as to protect us from aggressive officialdom. On the one hand, there will be warrants; on the other, officials from particular and peculiar councils will barge in on people in their homes or in houses that have been let out, telling them what they may or may not do.
I shall finish by referring to the trading of cars on the internet. The absurdity here is palpable. Why can I not put a little sticker in my car, offering to sell it? If somebody wanders past and says, “That’s worth £100,” and I accept it, surely that is commerce at its most basic and simple level. Surely it is what gets people into the culture of trading and activity, and leads to the prosperity of a capitalist society.
There are all sorts of rules and regulations on planning that affect how someone may trade as a business. I do not think that there is a feeling that that area is not covered. What is not covered is people doing small amounts of personal trading, but the whole approach is so unnecessarily draconian. Indeed, Draco would be rather embarrassed about the harshness of some of the measures being proposed on people doing little bits and pieces—selling a few Christmas cards on the side of the street, selling their car, running a restaurant without having to put up 27 stickers or wandering about without giving their name and address to every peaked-capped official who comes up to them and issues them with a fixed penalty notice.
Why are we even considering giving this Bill a Second Reading? It is against everything Conservatives stand for. It is against what a lot of Liberal Democrats stand for, and I think many socialists as well. We want a free and prosperous society. We do not want, through localism, to have local authorities barging into our lives at every opportunity. As I understand the forms of the House, the Bill will not be thrown out today. More’s the pity.
I am rather nervous about contributing to the debate, following my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who expertly filleted the Bill in a way that I could not possibly do. I shall not spend a great deal of time adding to their comments, but I shall make a few brief points
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is right to say that the Bill is disagreeable, but I do not doubt the intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who wishes to do what he sees as in the best interests of his local area and other parts of London. I hope he listened carefully to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for North East Somerset and that he will reflect on them at length. Both speeches made it abundantly clear why the Bill should be unacceptable to anybody with a Conservative philosophy. It strikes at the heart of the values that Conservatives should believe in.
I have no doubt that Opposition Members will think that many of the provisions are marvellous. The Bill represents the state running riot. It is a charter for bossy local authorities. That is what brought many of those on the Opposition Benches into politics in the first place. Surely, as Conservatives, we should protect the public from bossy local authorities and over-zealous bureaucrats. We have all seen in our own lives that the moment local authority staff put on their car park warden’s jacket, they think they have become something akin to Hitler, and take great pleasure in ordering everybody about and telling people what to do. We should be guarding against that, not expanding their powers and giving them a charter to go even further.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said, the first part of the Bill, which deals with penalty charges and gives local authority bureaucrats powers that we would normally reserve for the police, is deeply disturbing. We should not countenance such a proposal. We saw such freedoms undermined during the 13 years of the previous Government. The last thing we want under the new coalition Government, particularly a coalition that incorporates the word “liberal”, is to go further, giving the state more power over individuals to impinge on personal freedoms. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset so ably said, the right of officials to demand people’s names and addresses is something that we might have expected to see in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, not in a free country. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green will think about that again.
I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset about street furniture on the highway. Presumably local authorities will agree to let businesses have street furniture on the highway because they think it is a good thing for their local residents. If so, why do they not let those businesses get on with it? Why would they want to take money off businesses that are trying to provide a service that the local authority presumably thinks is a good one, which is why they gave them the permission in the first place?
One of my major problems with the Bill is that it is intended to damage small businesses. Such bureaucracy is meat and drink to large businesses. I used to work for a large multinational company. Although we may occasionally have been irritated by the volume of regulation and unnecessary bureaucracy, we could afford to employ teams of people to deal with it. We could afford to put up with the extra costs sometimes incurred. Many small businesses, which are struggling enough, especially in the current economic climate, do not have the financial capability to deal with the powers that the Bill would give local authorities.
The Bill reflects the mindset that running a small business is a licence to print money, that everybody who has a small business must have millions of pounds in the bank, that they are unscrupulously ripping off their customers in order to make an unhealthy profit, and that it is the duty of the local authority to get some of that nasty wealth off them. What sort of Conservative would want to promote a Bill with such an attitude behind it?
The only way businesses make money is by looking after their customers and giving them a good service. Anybody who does not do so does not have a business for very long. Businesses are some of the most acutely aware organisations when it comes to social responsibility and contributing to local communities. Local businesses often have a better record of making a positive contribution to their local community than do many local authorities, which are given power after power by such Bills. We should be deeply suspicious of attempts to give local authorities more powers to trample all over small businesses—the many people who are trying their best to earn a living and to put back into this country the entrepreneurial spirit that we have lost.
I cannot really add a great deal to the Scores on the Doors scheme, because my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made it abundantly clear that it is an absolutely ludicrous provision. When even the Scores on the Doors people themselves claim that their ratings cannot be relied on as a decent guide to the food hygiene of premises, why on earth should we make it mandatory for customers to see such information and for businesses to display something in which the people who promote it do not have confidence?
If the voluntary scheme works well, and that seems to be the consensus, why on earth would we want to make it statutory? Why not just allow the voluntary scheme to flourish? As I said in a brief intervention on my hon. Friend, if a star scheme is so important to customers, and if it is the be-all and end-all of the information that they want in order to judge a premises, any business that does not display it basically invites people to walk past and go somewhere else. The market will sort those things out. If the scheme is so important to customers, all premises will want to display it anyway. That is what the free market is about. Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green understands the principle of the free market and how it works. He should want it to flourish, rather than having such little faith in it. That is what we have seen for the past 13 years, with a Labour Government and the mess that that got us into.
Unfortunately, I do not know my hon. Friend’s constituency well, but in my constituency, where there is a tremendous number of takeaway shops and licensed restaurants, we have tried to encourage some responsible behaviour, because many customers have been leaving areas that one sometimes has to tread through with great care. The voluntary approach has not quite worked, so does my hon. Friend not accept that, where it has not worked so well, some legislation should be introduced to encourage a better neighbourhood and environment?
No, I absolutely do not, because I do not want unnecessary regulation. My hon. Friend’s point of view is that the voluntary scheme has not worked, but his colleagues have not expressed that view. Even if it has not worked, however, I reiterate the point that if such information is so important to customers, they will presumably give their trade only to premises that already display it. If they do not like the fact that it is not displayed, they do not have to go to such places; they can go somewhere else. That is how the free market operates, and it is the free market that I believe in. I am sorry that my hon. Friend has such little faith in the free market and the principles upon which it works.
My hon. Friend is much bigger than I am, so I would not want to get into an argument with him.
I accept absolutely the points that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset made about selling cars on the street and via the internet. I came into politics because I wanted to try to encourage people to be entrepreneurs, to believe in the free market, to sell their goods and to be buyers and sellers. I do not want the Government or local government sticking their noses into every aspect of people’s lives. If people want to sell a car and somebody wants to buy it, and they are both happy with the price, why not let them get on with it? Why do we need government, either local or central, interfering in every aspect of people’s lives? Surely we should try to encourage people to do things themselves, so that they do not have to go to big car dealerships. Why do we not just let them get on with it and stop interfering?
If somebody is legally able to park their vehicle on a particular part of the street, it does not matter to me whether it is my next-door neighbour’s car, a car somebody is selling, or an ice cream van. My suggested solution to the hon. Gentleman, to which he may not have given any consideration, is that if he does not think that cars should be parked in a particular location, his local authority should put down double yellow lines so that people are not allowed to park there. If people are allowed to park at a particular point, what on earth does it matter whether it is my next-door neighbour’s car or somebody else’s car with a small sticker saying, “For sale: £500”. It seems to make a big difference to the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot see why. I ask him to reflect on why he decides that he is a Liberal when he has such an illiberal approach towards people selling their property.
I wish to concentrate on the licensing aspects of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister made a perfectly good point about clause 23, which is wholly unnecessary. A couple of years ago, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I serve, undertook a report on the Licensing Act 2003. We took evidence about certain clubs, including lap-dancing clubs, and we made recommendations about how best they might be licensed. As my hon. Friend made clear, the previous Government, in the last throes of the last Parliament, created new legislation enabling lap-dancing clubs to be licensed as sex encounter establishments—something that people may or may not agree with. As he said, the job has been done. The last thing anybody needs is a London Local Authorities Bill to start trampling all over the licensing regime dealt with by the previous Government and which does much of what the Bill seeks to do. I seek confirmation from him that he will strike out clause 23, which even the biggest supporters of the Bill would concede is completely and utterly unnecessary.
My main point concerns the seizure of goods. I cannot emphasise enough how absolutely outrageous the Bill’s provisions are in this regard. The only fair way to do this is to quote a small section of the explanatory notes. I would be astonished if people who read it were not completely outraged by what is proposed. It says:
“Westminster City Council officers already have power to seize items used in unlawful street trading where the items are required for evidential purposes, or where the items are subject to forfeiture by the courts. On a street trading prosecution, if there is a conviction, the magistrates’ court can order the forfeiture of any goods seized in relation to the offence.”
So the provision is already in statute. It continues:
“Authorised officers cannot exercise their powers of seizure unless they suspect that a street trading offence has been committed.”
The London local authorities are complaining that they cannot exercise their powers of seizure unless they suspect that a street trading offence has been committed. That is not good enough for them: they want to be able to seize these goods even when they do not suspect that an offence has been committed. They say that Westminster city council officers already
“use the powers regularly in the West End”
to deal with
“unlawful sales of hotdogs and other hot food from portable stands.”
But they complain:
“City council officers are unable to seize hotdog trolleys until the vending begins.”
That is not good enough for the poor local authorities—they cannot seize these things until an offence has been committed and somebody actually trades. So they want, through the Bill, to
“enable City Council officers”—
pettifogging bureaucrats in the local authority with, no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said, their peaked caps—
“to seize receptacles which are in a street and which the officers have reasonable cause to suspect are intended to be used in connection with a street trading offence.”
Can Members imagine where we would be if the police started arresting everybody who was walking down the street because they might go into the nearest shop and start shoplifting? We are giving such a power to council officers, which is totally unacceptable. Any hon. Member who supports a Bill that provides such powers should be ashamed of themselves if they believe that they support freedoms in this country.
I certainly am. I would urge any right-minded person, particularly with a conservative philosophy, to do so, because nothing in it supports such a philosophy.
It gets worse than local authorities wanting the power to seize things they have reasonable cause to suspect are intended for some kind of offence. Let us imagine that I am walking down the streets of Westminster trying to take home a hot-dog trolley that I had just bought. What would I do if a local council bureaucrat came along and said, “Hold on, you might use that to sell hot-dogs illegally, so I’m going to take it off you”? Is that really the type of country we want to live in, and are we happy to pass such legislation? Not only would local authorities be able to seize the hot-dog trolley that I had bought legitimately and was transporting home, but they would be able to seize any vehicle used to transport it where they found it in the street. Are we going to give council officers that power? We must be stark raving mad even to think about giving the Bill a Second Reading.
The Minister and the shadow Minister say casually, “Oh, well, of course there are some deficiencies in the Bill, but let’s just iron them out in Committee.” On that basis we may as well not bother with the Second Reading of any Bill. If we are saying, “We all know the Bill’s a load of drivel, but we’ll pass it now so we look as if we’re being supportive and then fillet it in Committee”, we might as well just let every Bill go into Committee and see what we can do from there on.
The point of Second Readings is that Members may not like certain legislation in principle. I do not like this Bill or the philosophy behind it, which is anti-small business and anti-freedom, and I do not like the draconian powers that some council officers seem to think are theirs by right—not in the country that I want to live in.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on the admirable way in which he moved Second Reading. I found it very helpful.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has certainly enticed me to vote against Second Reading. Many people see this whole process as a waste of time, and I think the business managers would like the Bill to go through straight away. However, we have an important role to play in examining and scrutinising private business. When I came into the House after being a local councillor, I did not expect to be worrying about turnstiles in public lavatories—I thought I had left all that behind. However, we do spend hours scrutinising private Bills, even though only a few Members come to the House to do so. That is what we are here to do, and it is definitely not a waste of time.
In deciding how to vote, we must ask whether a local borough or council has a particular need that is different from the needs of the rest of the country. If it can prove that it does, I am inclined to support it. What concerns me is the tens of thousands of pounds of council tax payers’ money that local authorities spend bringing Bills such as this to the House.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but I was just about to discuss that dilemma. However, I shall quickly digress, because what concerned me most was that the Minister had so many reservations. I have never heard a Minister at the Dispatch Box with so many reservations about private business, but the shadow Minister, whom I welcome to the Dispatch Box and who did exceptionally well today, welcomed every measure with great glee. As a Conservative, the principle of that position worries me.
However, to return to why we are here today, we must decide whether there is merit in the Bill proceeding and whether there are only one or two measures that need to be addressed in Committee. On Second Reading, every Member of the House can come to the Chamber, but in Committee only a few will examine the Bill. The advantage is that if the House flags up issues on Second Reading, members of the Committee can take them into account.
I was slightly encouraged by the Minister, who is a most excellent Minister, because he ruled out certain things, but I have a dilemma to do with localism. I like the idea of local boroughs and local councils making their own decisions, but there must be an overall cap on that. I am looking forward to what the Government do on localism. The more we allow councils to do, the less necessary it will be to consider Bills such as this in the House.
I am still undecided. Perhaps the Bill’s sponsor will have a few words to say and perhaps he will persuade me that because there are many good things in the Bill, I should let it go through. However, I am of the view that I will oppose it.
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill read a Second time and committed.