Consideration of Bill, as amended
Powers exercisable by police civilians and accredited persons
This Bill has been before the House for four years. Earlier this year, it went through an Opposed Bill Committee and as a result of the diligent work of its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and its members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), some of the clauses that were a cause of concern on Second Reading were removed. Many of those clauses were the subject of petitions.
Sadly, however—this is no criticism of the Opposed Bill Committee—sufficient consideration was not given to the clauses that were unopposed in the sense that they were not the subject of petitions. It is incumbent on us as legislators to assure ourselves that we are satisfied with the contents of these private Bills and that those contents are consistent with the principles that we apply to our law in general. What the Bill tries to do—this is why it is a private Bill—is to create a separate legal regime among the 33 London authorities or in certain circumstances just within the City of Westminster. As I say, it is incumbent on us to pay careful attention to the detail. That applies particularly to the powers relating to penalty charges, enforcement and recovery of costs—the powers that are dealt with in this group of amendments.
Amendment 5 to clause 3 would insert after “payable” in line 14 of page 3
“by the person being served”.
The fact that that phrase is omitted from the Bill exemplifies what I would describe as the sloppy, haphazard drafting, which often happens with private Bills. I think that when a private Bill has been before Parliament for four years, it should have been tidied up. Clause 3(1) reads at the moment:
“Where a designation order under section 38 of the Police Reform Act 2002 applies paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 to that Act…to any person, that person shall have the power of a borough council to serve a penalty charge notice…where he has reason to believe that a penalty charge is payable to the borough council”.
It does not say that he has to believe that the penalty charge notice is payable by the person on whom the notice is being served. It seems to me that that is pretty basic material, and that we should not have people going around serving penalty charge notices on people they do not believe to be the persons to whom the penalty charge applies.
Is it really the case that the Bill as drafted means that these officers could go around willy-nilly serving charges on people who had nothing to do with the penalty committed? Is my hon. Friend not absolutely right to say that this shows the shoddy drafting of the legislation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that would be the consequence and that it indicates the shoddy drafting. One has to ask why the provision is so broad brush. That is why I tabled amendment 5. It is only a small amendment; it does not address all that I think is wrong with clause 3, but it would at least remove part of the wide ambit and prevent people who have not been the subject of penalty charges from being served with penalty charge notices. One might ask whether it really matters if penalty notices are served on people who should not be served with them. It does if we also look at clause 4. If the person being served with a penalty charge notice to which he should not be subject, as he has been wrongly accused of having liability for it, is asked to give his name and address and refuses to do so, he then becomes under clause 4 a criminal and is liable to a summary fine on strict liability of up to £1,000.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying this, but could it not be argued that his amendment, too, is guilty of sloppy drafting? What would happen if his amendment were accepted and the responsibility belonged to a body corporate? Surely it would mean that the person serving the notice could not hand it to a director, but would have to post it or deliver it to the company’s registered office. That is what would happen if my hon. Friend’s amendment were accepted.
If a body corporate were liable for the penalty charge, it could be served on its director. My right hon. Friend, who will have looked assiduously at the Bill, will know that there are references in clause 20 to the liability of directors for offences committed by a body corporate. I am not sure, therefore, that my amendment would be out of order in that sense. I think it would improve the Bill, given that the issue of corporate liability is covered by clause 20. Although I say it myself, I believe that amendment 5 will bring about a modest improvement in the drafting.
Amendment 6 is the second in the group; it would leave out subsection (2) of clause 3. That subsection talks about giving these powers, to which I have already referred, not just to the police or police community support officers, but to an “accredited person”. It proposes to make these significant powers available to anybody who is an accredited person. My amendment would leave out the provision to enable those accredited people to have the powers given to PCSOs.
Amendment 7 would likewise leave out subsection (3), which is consequential, as it states:
“An accreditation may only specify that subsection (2) applies to an accredited person”
and so forth. That will be taken out, so that clause 3 would not apply to accredited persons.
That is a very good question, but it is probable that only the promoters of the Bill can answer it definitively. It seems to be a rather murky area. I do not think that we should build up a bureaucracy in this country in which a lot of officials are going around with powers to ask people for their names and addresses and to ensure, if they refuse to give them, that they are subject to criminal penalties including fines of up to £1,000, when it is not known who those officials are. There will be plenty of opportunities for bluff and bluster. Who will do the accrediting, how will those who do the accrediting be made accountable, and who will know who they are? I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), will be able to respond to those and other questions, because I understand that there is a fair amount of support among the Bill’s supporters for an extension of the powers to accredited people.
I think that the answer to my hon. Friend’s specific question can be found in the schedule to the Police Reform Act 2002 that contains definitions relating to accredited persons. However, I must admit that the interaction between those definitions and what is in the Bill is not exactly as plain as a pikestaff to me.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. He is being very generous.
We all know that a police officer who is involved in the issuing of a fixed penalty ticket will have been trained in the rules of evidence, and will know that the starting point should be a presumption of innocence. What assurances does the Bill give us that an accredited person will have been given similar training in our law? Does it contain any provision to prevent a local authority from putting an accredited person on a pay scale enabling that person to receive a bonus based on the number of tickets that he or she issues? In other words, might the accredited person have a vested interest in giving out tickets willy-nilly, even when no offence has been committed?
My right hon. Friend has made a powerful point. There is evidence that local authorities have given just such financial incentives to their officials, based on the number of people to whom they can issue tickets for offences, or alleged offences. The Bill would give those same officials an additional power to issue penalty notices.
One of the weakest parts of the “accredited person” concept, which does not apply under the present law, is that someone who declined to give his name and address to an accredited person would be guilty prima facie of an offence, but the accredited person himself would have no power of arrest. What would he do then? Would he just wait there? If he were a police community support officer, he would be able to ask the person to wait for up to half an hour for a police officer to arrive, and the police officer could exercise his own power to arrest the person concerned for not having given his name and address. However, no such power extends to accredited persons. This provision would not work in practice, and I do not think that it has been thought through by the promoters.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Perhaps he could answer two questions. First, will the accredited people have to wear a uniform of any kind? I wondered whether they might wear bowler hats, for instance, so that it would be clear that they were from the council—proper, thoroughgoing bureaucrats. Secondly, would an accredited person who used his bowler hat to detain someone whose name he wanted be potentially guilty of false arrest?
The answer to my hon. Friend’s second question is yes. As for what uniform would be appropriate, I think that there is much to be said for requiring the accredited people to wear bowler hats, because they could be easily identified. People would know when an accredited person was approaching, and would be able to scarper. There is a lot of common sense in that suggestion from my hon. Friend. A better solution, however, would be not allowing the Bill to extend the power to accredited persons in the first place.
Amendment 8 mirrors amendment 5, again proposing the insertion after the word “payable” the words
“by the person being served”.
I do not think that I need go into it further.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his sedentary intervention, because it has given me an opportunity to welcome him to the Chamber. Unusually for him, he has been a bit late in arriving. I am afraid that he will have to look at the Official Report to find out what I said in support of amendment 5.
Amendment 9 proposes that clause 4 should be left out completely. Clause 4 relates to the power to require names and addresses. This goes to the heart of the whole issue of civil liberties. Increasingly in this country, we are seeing a departure from the principle that people cannot be required to give their details to anyone who comes up to them and says, “I require your name and address.”
In preparation for the debate, I looked at a website called freeBEAGLES, which provides “legal advice for activists” and includes some helpful advice on when people are and are not required to give their details. For instance, it states:
“Other than under road traffic and anti-social behaviour legislation, you do not commit an offence in English law by refusing to give your name and address to the police.”
The Bill refers not to the police but to accredited people and police civilians. The advice continues:
“However there are certain situations where the police may arrest you if they cannot establish your name and address”
—Members should note that it is the police who can do the arresting—
“and if you are arrested and charged with an offence you will be unlikely to be granted bail unless they can establish these details.”
It adds that the general principle
“is that you never have to give your name and address to the police prior to arrest”
“the police reasonably suspect you of a non-arrestable offence, and require your name and address for the service of a summons …where you are the driver of a vehicle…where the police say they suspect you of ‘anti-social behaviour’”.
Will my hon. Friend explain how this will work in practice? If someone who is asked for his name and address by a representative from the council makes up a name and address, what mechanism will the council have to check the information and establish whether it was genuine?
At present, a council officer has no more power than any other individual. Let me cite a constituency case. Someone with a shopping trolley ran into and damaged a car belonging to one of my constituents in Christchurch. My constituent saw that the trolley had dented the car, but the person who had been pushing it then got into her own car and drove away. My constituent tried to identify the person by asking the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for details of the registered keeper of the vehicle. The DVLA could not give her the details, however, because no criminal offence had been committed. It might have been accidental criminal damage, but it was a civil matter and therefore the DVLA could not release the details that would have enabled her to bring a civil action against the individual.
That is similar to the situation before us: if somebody commits a civil offence but their identity cannot be ascertained or they were not photographed, hard luck! Nothing can be done about it. Obviously if the person is driving a vehicle, specific laws apply requiring them to give their name and address to the police. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) looks a bit perplexed and disappointed, but if he analyses the matter, I am sure that he would agree that it would be wrong to allow people to make accusations and then immediately, on the back of those accusations, require people to give their names and addresses, and to back that up with criminal sanctions for failure to give either a name and address or an accurate name and address.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—I take his point and I support his amendment—but there is one thing that I still do not understand. The clause that he wants to delete states that someone
“commits an offence if…he gives a false or inaccurate name or address”,
and would be liable to conviction and a fine. If his amendment is not accepted and someone gives a false name and address, how on earth would they be found out in order for a fine to be imposed?
I am sorry to keep on interrupting my hon. Friend, but his speech is so compelling and raises so many fascinating aspects of each clause. If councils can find out people’s names and addresses, would they need a gigantic and expensive national database of names and addresses? If so, who would pay for it—Westminster city council or Her Majesty’s Government?
I sympathise extensively with what my hon. Friend says about the civil liberties issues, but on this specific matter I suspect that the official concerned would have computer access to the electoral register and could therefore make at least a cursory check, although that might not necessarily resolve the matter. Is his concern—it is a relatively valid one, and I would be interested to hear what the promoters think—that were clause 4 to be deleted, law-abiding citizens would find themselves subject to the penalties under clause 3, while less law-abiding citizens would get away scot-free? In other words, there would be a strong disincentive for those willing to play by the rules, while others would find a way of avoiding the consequences. Although I accept his civil liberties argument, surely there is a concern that many pedlars of no fixed abode, or of an abode many miles away, could get away with such things more easily than others.
My hon. Friend almost answered his own point in his preamble, when he said that this was a civil liberties issue. I think that he and I agree. If there is a civil liberties issue, on the whole our instinct is to come down on the side of maintaining the civil liberty rather than giving an arbitrary power to an official to intervene—a power that might be subject to abuse or result in oppression, and which would certainly undermine the long-standing principle in this country that people are not required to give their name and address to any Tom, Dick and Harry whom they happen to meet in the street.
Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), will my hon. Friend explain how somebody of no fixed abode could give a false address? If someone does not have an address, they cannot give either a right one or a wrong one. Would they be penalised simply for being of no fixed abode?
Again, my hon. Friend is spot on. I am not sure whether the promoters have thought about that. It seems that if someone gave their name but could not give an address—because they did not have one—they would automatically be guilty of failing to supply a name and address, if there were not the defence of reasonable excuse, so they could be penalised merely for being itinerant or vagrant. This is another example of the law of unintended consequences that so often applies to private Bills that have not been thought through properly.
I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) is right: the officials would probably use the electoral register to check the names and addresses that people give. Would my hon. Friend agree, though, that there are a multitude of reasons why somebody’s name might not yet be on the electoral register at a particular address, so that does not mean that they have given a false name and address? The register may not yet have been updated. Would it not be worrying if local officials were handing out fixed penalty notices or fines on the basis of who is on the electoral register?
I agree with my hon. Friend, but this opens up a much larger debate that we will not go into now—the whole question of the electoral register and the proposed changes to it. The Government are thinking of effectively making filling in the registration form voluntary. The powers in the Bill, coupled with people’s freedom to decide whether to put their name on the electoral register, could result in a significant reduction in the number of people choosing to do so.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling speech, but could he deal with a point that we have not yet touched upon? What about cases in which a visitor to this country from abroad, who may have no knowledge of our procedures, gives a foreign address that cannot be checked against the electoral register?
My hon. Friend cites another good example. Again, the conscientious law-abiding citizen could find himself penalised, while an irresponsible person from overseas might get away scot-free. That will create increasing resentment. There is already enough resentment in this country against some foreigners, and we do not want to do anything that will increase that resentment.
If a constituent of mine, confident that they did not have to give their name and address to a local council official in Shipley, came down to London and was asked by a council official to give their name and address, they would reasonably expect the same rules to apply in London. Would it not be perverse were they found to be breaking the law because of some rather officious rule introduced in London that did not apply in any other part of the country?
My hon. Friend is on to a really important point: if we are to change the balance between officialdom and civil liberties, it should be done nationally rather than on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis, which could lead to laws in London being different from those in Shipley—different, indeed, from those anywhere else outside London.
It should be for Home Office Ministers to come forward with these proposals, if they think it reasonable to extend such powers to councils in the way suggested in the Bill, but they manifestly have not done so; there have been extensions, but nothing in this area, despite the fact that the Bill was printed back in 2007. The Government have not chosen to extend these powers to police community support officer and others, or to extend officials’ ability to require names and addresses nationally. Implicit in that is that the Government would not support such an extension of restrictions on civil liberties. If they do not support such restrictions on civil liberties nationally, why should they support them in London?
Is the following statement an accurate précis of the situation: my hon. Friend’s amendments are an attempt to thwart the promoters of the Bill who are seeking to decriminalise a number of offences and to replace them with a far more draconian council-operated system?
Yes. Over time, offences have been decriminalised, and when I was a Transport Minister I supported the decriminalising of offences, but I never had in mind that that would be coupled with extending the powers of the police to deal with people such as those who do not give their name and address, and there are not as strong safeguards in respect of officials as there are for police officers.
The income or yield from decriminalised offences goes straight into the coffers of the local authorities, and local authorities cannot expect to have it both ways. They cannot expect both to receive all that money and to have the powers of the police given to their officials. My right hon. Friend therefore highlights a key issue.
We must remember that over time the Cities of London and Westminster and the London local authorities have salami-sliced the powers and rights of individual citizens in favour of bureaucratic local government. If this Bill is passed unamended, it will be argued that that trend should be extended, yet this Bill will not have been subjected to the same degree of parliamentary scrutiny as a public Bill.
Is there any popular support for this measure? A number of colleagues representing London constituencies are present, but not a single Opposition Back Bencher is in the Chamber. It does not seem to me that there is popular demand for this measure. I can understand why money-grubbing council officers might want this matter to proceed, but do the public?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. It certainly appears that the public’s representatives are not keen on this matter. Although I have not checked the No. 10 website to see whether there is an online petition with hundreds or thousands of signatures in support of this Bill, I suspect not, and I think we would have been told about it if there was. The Bill’s passage through this House has not yet concluded, however, so it is still open to somebody to start an online petition in support of it, and against today’s amendments.
I have some sympathy with the view that certain parts of the country should not have an entirely different regime, and I share many of my hon. Friend’s concerns about council or local authority officers having these powers—although I am a big supporter of the two London local authorities in my constituency. However, I do not think he can legitimately argue that there has not been an opportunity to scrutinise this Bill properly, as it has had far more scrutiny than any Public Bill would normally receive, not least over the past four years as it has slowly made its way through the House and the other place.
Does my hon. Friend also recognise that there are differences between London and, for instance, the leafy parts of Christchurch that he represents in sunny Dorset? There is a huge mass of humanity in London, particularly in the centre of the metropolis, and that gives rise to at least the idea that there should be a slightly different regime for some public order and health and safety matters compared with those for the wide acres of much of the rest of England. If we believe in localism, as I hope many of us do, there is a place for having somewhat different regimes of bylaws, and I suspect they would be understood by many people who visit central London even from faraway places such as Shipley, Bury North or East Yorkshire.
My hon. Friend is doing a great job in defending his local authorities, and I hope that as a result he will in due course be granted the freedom of his boroughs, if that has not already happened. I accept what he says about localism and about London, especially parts of central London, being different in character from other parts of the country, but I do not believe that we should have one regime of civil liberties in London and another elsewhere. If that were the case, we could, for instance, introduce much more draconian laws for people causing trouble or holding demonstrations in London. Nobody has yet suggested we should have a different criminal law according to where an offence takes place, yet that is what we are building up to under this decriminalised regime of law. It will result in alternative sets of laws applying to London as opposed to the rest of the country.
I argued that point when we were discussing various Bills concerning pedlars. Pedlars travelling across the country want the certainty of knowing what the law is; they do not want different laws in different parts of the country. That argument applies even more strongly in the context of whether someone has the right to ask for our name and address and whether we will be subject to a criminal penalty if we refuse to give that information.
Clauses 3 and 4 address important matters of principle, and amendment 10 seeks to alter clause 4 as follows:
“leave out ‘a community support officer or an accredited person’ and insert ‘or a community support officer’.”
Amendments 11, 12 and 13 address the same theme, and seek to remove from clause 4 powers relating to accredited persons and to confine them to police community support officers. The reasoning behind that is the same as the reasoning I articulated in respect of the amendments to clause 3.
I do not want to advertise, but I agree that readers of tourist guides such as those produced by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides might find it useful to know about such penalty regimes. I am sure that if this legislation is put on to the statute book in its current form the editors of those books will want to ensure they are up to date in respect of the fact that there are fewer civil liberties in London than in other parts of the country, as visitors may wish to steer clear of London in order to enjoy the full range of English freedoms outside London. Those are important points.
In respect of this group of amendments, instead of simply restricting the provision so it applies to community support officers and not the accredited persons of the county, would it not be better to delete it entirely, because if it applied solely to community support officers, councils would be for ever tying up their time by ringing them up to ask them to come and carry out these functions, when the public want community support officers to be a visible police presence on the ground deterring proper crime?
I agree, which is why I have tabled amendment 9 seeking to leave out clause 4 entirely. I have provided an alternative solution so that if we cannot leave out the whole of clause 4 we can at least leave out the part of it relating to accredited persons. Fortunately, both amendments have been selected for debate by the Chairman of Ways and Means, so it is up to the House to decide whether it prefers the entire removal of clause 4 or a modified version of it deleting the reference to the accredited persons.
Has my hon. Friend any idea how often these provisions would be enforced, if his amendments were not accepted? How many times would local authorities expect to be demanding somebody’s name and address? It would be nice to know how much time our PCSOs would be expected to give to pursue this line of inquiry on behalf of local authorities.
Again, that is a very important point. On a Bill such as this, we do not need to have any cost-benefit analysis or any financial memorandum setting out what the costs are going to be, but I imagine that the Bill’s promoters are discussing the matter with their local authorities and that elected representatives in London are conscious of that fact.
On the quantity issue, I know that I speak on behalf of lots of members of the Government—the leader of the other place and others—who have spoken out strongly against Westminster city council’s proposed extension of restrictions on street parking on Sundays. If that goes ahead, we can expect that it will result in many more fixed penalty notices as people are caught unawares, and that in due course will result in more of these notices being served in the way described in clauses 3 and 4, whether or not by accredited people or community support officers. It is likely that there will be an increase in the bureaucracy and the activity of unelected officials, and a consequent diminution in the civil liberties of the ordinary citizens.
That is an important point, because most borough councils are saying that they are short of funds and will want to ensure that these accredited people at least cover their costs. In order to do that, these authorities may well give these people incentives to ensure that they get sufficient income for their activity in any tour of duty. So that is another serious problem. As far as I am aware, we have never had a system in this country where police officers are incentivised for the number of arrests they make, but it seems that people are being incentivised for the number of civil offences they can detect.
Although I very much understand the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on incentivisation, I should put the following point on the record: Westminster city council has often been accused of incentive schemes for its parking attendants, but it is the case, and has been expressly so over past four years at least, that there is no such incentive scheme. In other words, traffic wardens do not have any sort of quota or incentive to issue tickets, and one very much hopes that a similar regime would apply to offences under this Bill.
Amendment 14 is, again, a consequential amendment relating to the need to remove references to an “accredited person”. Amendment 21 deals with a different part of the Bill, but again no explanation is given as to why it is thought necessary to include the change being made in the Bill. The explanatory notes state:
“Clause 8 amends the City of Westminster Act 1996 which provides Westminster City Council with enhanced enforcement powers in relation to unlicensed sex establishments. The first amendment is a minor typographical amendment and the second amends section 8 of the 1996 Act, which relates to the service of notices. Under section 8, if notices under the Act are to be served by post, then they have to be served by registered post or the recorded delivery service. The amendments would enable notices to be served by ordinary post.”
Surely it is important that the notices should be served by registered post or recorded delivery, because that means there is a tracking service and Westminster city council will know whether or not the notices have been properly served. The idea is that the notices should be sent by what is described in the explanatory notes as “ordinary post”, but that is becoming very much below par for many people, as it is increasingly unreliable. Are we really saying that delivering a letter with someone’s name on it to a block of flats is going to count as proper service in respect of the enforcement powers in clause 8? Nowhere is it explained why it would be fair, reasonable or equitable to change the long-established way of sending out such notices, which is by recorded delivery or registered post. Apart from anything else, some of us are keen to encourage Royal Mail and give it income, and this proposal would deprive it of income that it is currently able to obtain from such notices being sent by recorded delivery or registered post. The case for this change is just not made, so my amendment 21 would remove subsections (3) and (4) from clause 8.
May I tap into my hon. Friend’s legal expertise, because his amendment could well be very helpful to Westminster city council? What would happen if something was sent out by ordinary post and the intended recipient simply said that they did not receive it, whether or not that was the case? Would that nullify the provisions detailed in that letter? Perhaps he knows whether or not that would make a difference.
Again, I do not purport to be an expert on this Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green may wish to respond on that matter when winding up this debate. The explanatory notes are totally silent on this issue and to obtain the right answer one would need to have a greater knowledge than I have of the enforcement powers in relation to unlicensed sex establishments in the City of Westminster.
I have almost got to the end of this group, but I shall now deal with amendments 35 to 39 to clauses 18 and 20. I find clause 18 to be particularly offensive, because it creates a new criminal offence, stating:
“Any person who intentionally obstructs any authorised officer acting in the exercise of his powers under this Act shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.”
In other words, they would be subject to a fine of up to £1,000. There used to be an offence on the statute book of obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty, and there probably still is. In the days when I used to practise a bit in the criminal courts as a barrister, what one might describe as an “over-enthusiastic” or “over-zealous” police officer might often throw in a couple of charges of obstruction in the execution of duty to press a point home against a hapless defendant. If that was happening with the police, how much more dangerous is it for civil liberties for the authorised officer to be able to say, “You’ve obstructed me, so I will make sure you get a £1,000 fine”? The decision about what the obstruction would be and so on would be left to the officer, and I think that goes far too far.
That might be the situation. They seem just to have gone for level 3 fines, which are a maximum of £1,000, but there is no explanation for choosing that penalty, so I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s point, I am afraid.
The provision on the obstruction of authorised officers goes far too far, giving rise to the creation of an inappropriate criminal penalty.
Exactly. To go back to the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), somebody who sees the authorised officer with a bowler hat and heads off in the opposite direction might be regarded as intentionally obstructing the officer. Who knows? If we are going to create new offences, it is important that they should be very tightly drawn so that they can be clearly understood. The offence in the Bill is wide and vague and therefore oppressive, and that is why I find it particularly offensive.
I was amazed to see the wide terms in which clause 20 has been drafted. Without taking up too much of the House’s time, it is worth spelling out exactly what it says. It states:
“Where an offence under this Act committed by a body corporate is proved to have been committed with the consent”,
we can understand that,
“or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of, a director”,
again, we can understand the reference to a director,
“manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate or any person who was purporting to act in any such capacity, he, as well as the body corporate, shall be guilty of the offence.”
Subsection (2) states:
“Where the affairs of the body corporate are managed by its members, subsection (1) above shall apply to the acts and defaults of a member in connection with his functions of management as if he were a director of the body corporate.”
If the clause was the result of a competition among law students to see who could draft the most unreasonably wide new criminal sanctions against corporate bodies, the person who drafted this would probably get a capital alpha. It is drawn so widely and so unreasonably that, I would submit, it cannot have been analysed properly. I cannot believe that the promoters of the Bill really want the clause to be in the condition it is in at the moment.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is not only unreasonable but totally and utterly ridiculous. Can he offer any suggestion at all as to why the Bill and the clause specifically pick on secretaries? I can imagine that if someone was particularly illiberal, as the people promoting the Bill appear to be, they might want to pick on directors and managers—I can see why they would be the obvious target for people who wanted to go down this illiberal route—but can my hon. Friend think of any reason whatsoever why anybody would reasonably want to attack secretaries in particular?
I can think of all sorts of reasons, but I do not necessarily want to share them with the House in response to my hon. Friend’s intervention. I would not say, as my hon. Friend did, that it would be reasonable to include a manager. A director of a company or organisation has a particular responsibility and although it might be over the top to extend the provision to them, I thought the best thing to do was to try to limit the corporate liability to a director who committed an offence directly.
That would have been an improvement, but I hope that my hon. Friend will think it better to support my amendment, which effectively removes any references to managers, secretaries, other officers or any person purporting to act in such a capacity.
I have introduced as briefly as I could some of the reasoning behind my amendments, which have been grouped together. I would like to tell hon. Members who have been following this debate—the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) has been sitting patiently on the Opposition Front Bench and will, I hope, participate—that at about 1 o’clock, when it looked as though this business would start at nearer 4 o’clock rather than 10 minutes to 2, I received a phone call from the counsel acting on behalf of the promoters of the Bill. I needed to sit down at this point, because I was told that some of my amendments would be acceptable to the promoters.
In anticipation of the response that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green will make to this debate, perhaps I can explain to the House my understanding—and he can correct me if I am wrong—of the amendments that the promoters will be willing to accept in this group. I understand they include amendment 5, which inserts
“by the person being served”
into clause 3 in line 13 of page 3, and its mirror, amendment 8, which inserts the same words into that clause in line 20. They also include amendments 10, 11 and 12, which deal with leaving out the references to accredited persons from clause 4 and remove references to the powers of accredited persons to require a name and address and to instigate a criminal penalty when that name and address is not supplied, as well as amendment 14, which is consequential on the removal of the references to accredited persons. I am also told—I think I am correct—that the promoters are willing to accept my amendment 35, which would leave out clause 18 on the obstruction of an authorised officer. I understand that amendments 36 to 39, which would introduce my amendments to clause 20, thereby limiting the liability to a director or directors, would also be acceptable to the promoters.
We will have to see what happens, and of course the procedural way of dealing with matters will be in your hands, Mr Deputy Speaker, but if that large number of amendments is acceptable to the promoters, I hope the amendments will be able to go through on the nod in due course. There is a lot more meat to this group of amendments than just those that have been accepted by the promoters, but it would be churlish of me not to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green for at least agreeing to those amendments. Of course, none of the amendments could have been discussed if we had not blocked this Bill and required its consideration in the House on Report. Whatever happens, if the promoters accept the amendments, the Bill will be better than it would have been without them.
I have greatly enjoyed this perambulation around local government, with bowler-hatted civil servants prodding miscreants with their money-grabbing umbrellas, but that picture bears no relation to the local government that I know. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and I have sparred on this Bill in the past—I still have the scars—but I appreciate the vigour and genuine honesty of his approach to scrutiny and to his amendments.
The Bill would not simply allow any local authority employee to prowl the streets of their borough looking for fines. Certainly, the concept that they would be able to collect £1,000 a go as they went about their business is fanciful. I understand that fixed penalty notices would have a set price and would be collected by the borough. The £1,000 fines to which Members have referred would be applied only by magistrates at their discretion and not by local authorities. I shall come back to whether my hon. Friend's amendments remain acceptable.
The Bill has been scrutinised by the Opposed Bill Committee and I am grateful to its members for their work. My hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch have made some valid points about civil liberties, but what about the civil liberties of the silent majority who are tired of the antisocial behaviour of a small number of individuals and corporate bodies? It is the silent majority—the council tax payers—who are having to pick up the bill for clearing up enviro-crime. This low-level antisocial behaviour plagues many parts of the country, including the parts of London we are discussing.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley takes a great interest in combating antisocial behaviour. Indeed, he has gone on record as supporting Mayor Giuliani’s zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and the broken window syndrome. I believe there has been a local problem in his constituency with youths ripping out flower beds and generally causing litter, about which he has called for police intervention.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I do take a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and to crimes being committed—but as he has said, I have urged the police to take action. I have not called for the local authority to have wide-ranging powers to tackle this issue. I think that is where he and I part company.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention and I guessed that was where we would part company. I wish him luck in getting the police to deal with flower beds being turned over, litter outside fast-food establishments and litter being thrown out of cars, because I simply cannot get my local borough command to take those issues seriously. We could argue for a whole afternoon about whether these are serious crimes and whether the police ought to deal with them, but that is a different issue. The current problem is that the police in London, certainly—I cannot comment on the borough command in Shipley—will not prioritise dealing with litter and enviro-crime. Therefore, we must either leave the issue to fester or allow authorised officers of the local authority to deal with it.
On accreditation, the idea is not that every employee of a council will have the power to go out and start levying fixed penalty notices or taking people to the magistrates court to be fined. We are talking about civil enforcement officers who are already accredited and have significant training on how to prove that an offence has been committed. Councils also have environmental health officers who are highly trained and accredited on how to follow the rules of law and how to provide evidence should a case have to go to court. The notion that the town hall cat will be wandering around the borough levying fines is fanciful. We are talking about seriously trained officials who have been taught how to comply with the law and how to make sure that if there is a prosecution, evidence can be provided.
There are already a number of police civilians—not just police community support officers but accredited civilians—who have the authority to issue notices. We have talked about whether London should be exempt and be a special case, but it is often the starting point for national legislation. It is not unusual for London to set the tone and for other parts of the country follow suit, but it is not only London that does that. I do not know whether many Members are acquainted with Brunel university, but apparently its security officers can issue fixed penalty notices. This is not just about widening scope because London has asked for it—a significant number of authorised civilians can already issue such notices. What we are saying is that London has some specific problems and that specific powers are needed for accredited, trained individuals.
I have covered the point about £1,000 fines being targeted willy-nilly, which simply is not true. That would be the remit of the magistrates court. Let me make a point about the powers of authorised officers. They would be able to take action only where they believed that someone was committing a criminal offence, so the powers would not be used in respect of people going about their lawful business. Hon. Members have talked about conscientious, law-abiding citizens, but conscientious, law-abiding citizens would not be stopped and asked for their name and address and would not face the risk of prosecution. Only those believed to be committing an offence would be caught by the rules in the Bill.
The issue of people giving false names and addresses has been raised. Clearly, with matters such as littering from cars, accredited officers would have access to the registration number, which could be cross-checked with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Many of the enviro-crimes that we see in London boroughs involve repeat offenders, particularly corporates—the large retailers that cause litter on the high street—or other organisations that cause problems on our high streets. Much dumping in our residential streets also involves repeat offenders and there may be a corporate address that officers can go back to if they believe or find out that they have been given a false name and address by the person they have stopped. Clearly, if a false name and address is given by someone of no fixed abode, that person cannot be prosecuted. That is a common problem with the current law that police officers face.
I am slightly puzzled about the corporate causes of litter. Is my hon. Friend insinuating that if somebody walks into a McDonald’s, buys a Big Mac, fries and a Coke, leaves McDonald’s and drops litter on the floor, the responsibility for the litter lies with McDonald’s? Surely the only person with whom the responsibility lies is the person who dropped the litter, and the company cannot be held accountable for what its customers do.
That is the very point. There are two issues. McDonald’s is a fine organisation based in my constituency. It takes a great deal of trouble to ensure through litter patrols that its customers do not create a nuisance, but if an organisation—say, Finchley Fried Chicken—decided to pour fat over the pavement, which sounds fanciful but has been known to be true, the officer can deal with that corporate body. However, if a person who has bought a take-away from Finchley Fried Chicken then chooses to drive down my street, which they do—I declare a passionate interest in the subject, as my street is often littered with take-away cartons—it is the person throwing the litter from the vehicle who would be stopped and served a notice. My hon. Friend is quite right: there are two issues. The corporates that are guilty of misdemeanours, such as dumping fat, will be dealt with as a corporate body, but if someone is caught throwing litter from a car, it is the litterer who would be caught.
I know that these measures sound draconian, and they often are in black and white. Some Members may have a dim view of council officials. As a former leader of the London borough of Barnet, I can tell them that my officers took great care to ensure that the powers vested in them were used very sparingly and only where the offence was commensurate with the action that they proposed to take.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was correct that the promoters of the Bill suggested that we could compromise on the amendments. However, my hon. Friend has not been able to compromise on some of them. We will therefore continue to sponsor the Bill unamended, apart from the three amendments suggested by the promoters.
I support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). He has made a noble effort to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. One can see a vision of all the mulberry trees in China, with all the silkworms on them working busily away to provide enough silk to produce a purse, but I fear that even these fine worms have failed in their effort. Even though I support the amendments before us, the Bill remains broadly a pig’s ear. Let me go through it point by point, one by one, as quickly as I can so that others may speak on these important subjects.
Amendment 5 deals with clause 3 on “Powers exercisable by police civilians and accredited persons”. How worrying it is, how concerning that legislation should be drafted in such a way that the penalties might be issued to somebody other than the person by whom the penalty ought to be paid. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, of all people, as innocent, as pure as the driven snow, could find some accredited person coming along, catching you by the scruff of the neck—an outrage in itself—and saying, “This penalty is for you,” when you had nothing to do with it, you knew nothing of it, you were, as I said, not guilty and as pure as the driven snow.
With the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch things begin to be tided up a bit. We put in the words
“by the person being served”.
That seems right and proper and sensible, even though the clause itself is not particularly attractive.
Now let us come on to these accredited persons. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) made them sound like very nice approachable chappies who are all doing a good day’s work and fine stuff. I am sure that that is true of many of them, but do we not have in our mind—have we not always had in our mind—that vision of the officious traffic warden who comes round, the jobsworth who is out to get you, who stands there, shaking the parking meter, waiting for the seconds to tick past so that a £70 fine, going up to £140 if you do not pay it quickly, whacks upon your head? Is that the type of accredited person we wish to see going around?
Does that not most fundamentally, and as a point of the greatest principle, undermine the role of constable? We have had in this country, since the founding of the Metropolitan police by Sir Robert Peel, a system of constables who have a warrant from the Crown, are trained, are authorised and are in a position to exercise fine judgments. They are regulated in a different way from others. They have different terms and conditions of service. They cannot go on strike, for example. We noticed this only last week, when we saw that the police, that fine body of men and women, were doing their duty while others were on strike.
Do we not downgrade the police when we have these accredited persons who suddenly can wander around and issue penalties—accredited by the council, we know not how; the type of accreditation given to them, we know not what, but we do know that it is not a constable with the full majesty of the law and the warrant of the Crown behind him or her? Once we start doing it in London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Golders Green, or rather, for Finchley and Golders Green—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has territorial ambitions, but probably they do not go that far—said, what happens in London may spread out to the rest of the country.
Let us be absolutely clear. In North East Somerset we do not want this. We want the proper office of constable to be upheld. People in Nempnett Thrubwell do not want somebody appointed by the council to come round and dig them in the ribs when they accidentally drop a little bit of mud off their wellington boots or something like that, and are then accused of dropping litter. We must object. My hon. Friend is right to have objected to the principle of the accredited person because of the way in which it downgrades the role of the constable—a great and noble role.
I saw the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police earlier today. This man, a chief constable, recently plunged into a river to rescue a driver who had had an accident, because that is the level of service and of commitment that we get from a constable. It is fundamentally different from that of an accredited person.
I have further concerns about these accredited personages. How do we know who is and who is not an accredited person? I said that they should wear a bowler hat, though it occurred to me subsequently that there might be a few wigs going spare because I believe the Supreme Court has given them up. Certain people in the House of Commons have given up wearing wigs too, so perhaps there are a few wigs that could go round to these accredited persons so that we would know who they were as they went about their duties—fine full-bottomed wigs in 18th-century fashion. But perhaps in the 21st century we should be more modern and it should be the bowler hat, which is perhaps a better symbol nowadays of authority than the full-bottomed wig.
I am grateful for support from Opposition Members.
What we currently have—Westminster city council did this with its parking attendants—are some desperately scruffy tatterdemalions who wander around as accredited persons. They are parking meter attendants and they look as though they have been dragged through a hedge backwards. Their uniforms are anoraky things, not the sort of thing that an officer of the Crown would ever be seen wearing—the sort of thing that could be worn by anybody. Who knows who may come up to us and say, “I am an accredited person. You are fined £10. Cash only. Thank you very much.”
As we go about our lawful business, are we to be shocked and appalled by the attempts to extort money from us that come from accredited persons who are accredited only by themselves, because they have no fixed uniform, no set outfit, no clarity of purpose in what they are doing? I am very much with my hon. Friend in getting rid of all the references to accredited personages under section 47 of the Police Reform Act 2002 and any form of accrediting of these personages until we settle exactly who they are and whether they should be officers of the Crown and constables.
Let us move on to clause 4. I am so pleased that the Opposition Benches are almost entirely empty, with only two notable and most honourable exceptions, as we discuss the abolition of clause 4. I know it is a matter of great sensitivity to Opposition Members for historic reasons, but they may have been a bit confused today. This is not the famous clause IV; this is another one. It relates to the power to require a name and address.
I know that sometimes I bore the House with historical examples, but on this occasion I thought that I would go back to Odysseus. In order to escape from Polyphemus the Cyclops, Odysseus, when asked his name, replied “Nobody” and he got away. Do hon. Members think that there should have been an accredited person sitting by the Cyclops to tell Odysseus, “Look here, that won’t do at all. You’re fined £1,000 for saying your name is Nobody”?
Indeed, that is what he was trying to do. He wanted him for his dinner. It seems to me that sometimes local councils wish to take their dinner off our plates through the fines they want to levy. Odysseus would have been caught out by that and prevented from escaping with his men, so there are circumstances in which one must be able not to give one’s name and address because doing so might not be in one’s best interests. Of course, Odysseus, in his hubris, called out his real name as he left. The Cyclops, who was blinded by then, screamed out, and his father, Poseidon, heard it and made Odysseus’s trip home that much harder. When a person’s name gets out into the public presses, things can become very difficult for them. I maintain the ancient right of Greeks, among others, not to give their name and address when asked.
I will appeal to another source of history: P.G. Wodehouse. Many Members will remember that Bertie Wooster, when arrested for pinching a policeman’s helmet on boat race night—I think wines had been taken—gave a false name when arrested. I cannot remember what name he gave, but I think he said that he lived in Acacia avenue. It might be a good address to give if you are ever caught doing things you should not do. There was no additional fine for giving a false name and Bertie Wooster paid the fine handed down at the magistrates court in London—five guineas, which was a lot of money in those days—but got away with giving a false name. There is a great tradition, from Odysseus to Bertie Wooster, of being allowed to hide one’s name from people who do not necessarily have the full authority to request it.
There are serious points within this as well. One may think that it is all frivolity and ancient history, but it is not. It is all about our ancient civil liberties. Until an individual has been shown to have done something that is wrong enough to be arrested, the state has no right to know who they are. As I go about my lawful business, the state does not have the right to stop me and ask me to prove my identity or address. Only if I have committed a crime can the state intervene.
We come to the question of why this should be done by people other than police officers. The argument is always one of necessity or triviality, meaning that the crime is so unimportant that the police will not want to be bothered with it. If the police do not want to be bothered with it, and if it is not worth the time of the magistrates court to deal with it, is it really worth punishing someone for it in the first place? That is where the clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch proposes removing is so fundamentally wrong. It takes something that is trivial, gives a power to someone who is not an officer of the Crown and then promotes it to a high offence for which one can be fined £1,000. It is entirely disproportional to the initial activity that has led to the official being involved with the otherwise law-abiding subject.
I think that the point my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made is profoundly important, although I was a little worried about the impression he gave that everyone who came down from Shipley was likely to commit an offence when they arrived in central London—perhaps the excitement of the bright lights gets to them. I can assure the House that when people from North East Somerset come to London they are as law abiding here as they are in North East Somerset, which I am glad to say has one of the lowest rates of crime in the whole United Kingdom. It is unfair, unreasonable and unjust to have different rules governing what one is supposed to say to unnamed, unknown, unspecified and unclear public officials here, in Shipley, in North East Somerset, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland. We need a clear law so that people understand whether they are in danger of committing a crime and know what their rights, liberties and entitlements are.
Some can argue, “Well, London’s busy”, but we all know that. If it is busy, it has more police. Rather shockingly, there are more police in London than there are in Avon and Somerset. One would have thought that we should have more police to keep crime even lower, but there is a general adjustment for the reality that London has serious problems that are different from those across the rest of the country. It has the level of expenditure that ensures that it can deal with these issues without having special laws and situations.
At this point I will diverge from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, because I think that, other than his amendment that proposes to get rid of clause 4 altogether, his other consequential amendments are unsatisfactory. They still leave the right of a police community support officer to ask for a name and address, which I would not be in favour of. If this consideration comes to a vote, I will certainly vote against any amendment other than the complete removal of the clause.
Let me move on to the Royal Mail and the Postage Act. This is a rather embarrassing bit of the Bill, because it refers to sex establishments, and we do not like talking about those in polite society, but on this occasion it is necessary to do so. It seems to me that there is a wonderful naivety in the Bill and a suggestion that the Royal Mail is as good as it was in the days of Trollope, when a letter could be posted before lunch, would arrive in the early afternoon and that one could then reply and correspondence goes backwards and forwards perfectly. Sadly, that is not how it is anymore.
I happen to live on a street in London that has a relatively frequent name and so receive quite a lot of post for a branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, which is on a street of the same name south of the river. Occasionally I receive coins in the mail which people wish to deposit in their bank accounts. As I am sure you realise, Mr Deputy Speaker, I hastily pass these on to a branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation so that they can be credited to the right person’s account. I use the example to remind hon. Members of the difficulties of relying on the ordinary post. The first-class post might or might not get there the next day, and the second-class post will get there before Christmas, so long as it is posted in the new year. The Bill does not even establish that it should be the first-class post. That means that the people running these dodgy establishments—I must confess that I have little sympathy for them—will be deprived of a right of justice, which I think is a mistake.
The important thing about our ancient liberties and about justice is that we should apply it to people we slightly disapprove of and think are a little beneath the salt just as much as we do to those we think are good, honest fellows. I think that that should apply to those who run sex clubs. They are just as entitled to receive a summons, notification or a missive from the council in way that means we can be certain it has arrived, by registered post, as someone involved in more salubrious activities. I must confess that it is a shame that the Post Office is not in the state it was in the days of her late Majesty Queen Victoria, but there we are—O tempora, o mores, as I am sure I have said in the House before and will no doubt at some future date say again, possibly on a Friday morning.
I was glad to hear that there was a thought that clause 18 might be withdrawn, but it seems to have been put back again, so I think that I am still entitled to speak in favour of the amendment that would abolish the clause that has been taken out and put back in again—it sounds a little like a soft-shoe shuffle or some such dance.
That is extremely helpful. Indeed, it is both encouraging and worrying: it is encouraging in one sense, because it shows the generosity—the parliamentary spirit—of my hon. Friend, and that is extraordinarily welcome, but it is slightly worrying, given the inconsistency of the Bill. Should we really be negotiating with a group of councils—after we have been debating some of the amendments for little more than an hour—what they will and will not accept? I am not sure that the dignity of Parliament—the House of Commons, this honourable House—is properly and justly reflected by bandying about amendments in that way, so I had better, just in case clause 18 changes again, which would concern me, say a few words about it and the obstruction of an authorised officer.
I am not in any way churlish about the generosity of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) in accepting so many of my amendments. It is right for us to put on the record that he is in charge of the Bill and of taking it through this place; it is nothing to do with officials. He makes the decisions, and the decision that he has made is an excellent one.
Quite right. How could I fail to agree? I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green comes to the decision of withdrawing the whole Bill, we will welcome that decision even more. But just—just—in case it comes back at some later stage, let us look at it briefly and in passing, because we come back to the same problem of the authorised officer not being a constable.
Who is this authorised officer? What is an obstruction? What is an intentional obstruction? What if you, Mr Deputy Speaker, fall over in front of him and he trips over you? Is that an obstruction, or do you have to be more aggressive? What happens if you see him coming but he is not in his uniform—you may not know it is him—and you scarper? Is that an obstruction of him in his duties because you are not there and, therefore, he cannot catch you, whereas if you were there he could catch you? That seems to me, arguably, an obstruction, even an intentional one, because you had to run away to be away from the person who was trying to catch you—because if you had not decided to run away, you would still be there, and then he would have caught you. So if you follow the logic of what I am saying, Mr Deputy Speaker—and if you do follow it, you are doing jolly well—you will see that the clause really ought to be removed and should never have been in the Bill in the first place.
Again, the fines really do seem excessive, and I go back to the point that I was making about the traffic wardens in the city of Westminster, who were put in uniforms that any civilised fellow would have been ashamed to be seen dead in. They were the most scruffy things that really did make the wardens look as if they were vagrants, and I should have thought that most people would scarper if they saw somebody like that coming after them, particularly if they were bringing out a book of fines. One would think, “I’m getting out of his way pretty sharpish, because I don’t know really who he is and I don’t know why he’s got his fines book out, because I don’t think I have done anything wrong.” If we are going to authorise those sorts of people, many of us might obstruct them and say, “Who the Dickens do you think you are?” or words to that effect.
That gives me the opportunity to answer the valid point, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green, that if one is innocent one has nothing to fear. If only it worked like that. Those of us who have contested parking tickets over the years—when we have done absolutely nothing wrong but the machine has broken or the person coming round has misread his own figures and all that stuff—have found that when we appeal we get off. It happens to those of us who are innocent again and again. I was even stopped under one of those ludicrous terrorist Acts that the previous Government passed—going about my lawful business.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that I look like one. If I look like one, there is not a lot of hope for the rest of you, I have to say.
Therefore, this idea that those of us who are innocent have absolutely nothing to fear at all and can go about our business safely, because it will not be us, is the wrong line to take. It is crucial to defend the liberties of those we dislike and disapprove of, as well as of those we like and approve of, and that is the essence of my objection to much of the Bill but, in particular, to clause 18.
What my hon. Friend says is reinforced by the fact that almost everybody who goes to a parking tribunal and appeals is successful, but very many people do not realise that they have such a right of appeal and, therefore, pay reluctantly and, probably, when they should not.
My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely spot on, and I should advise anybody in the Chamber today or listening outside to appeal if they get a parking ticket, because it is often wrong and unfair and being issued just as a money-grabbing exercise. Westminster city council is now conducting such an exercise by extending parking charges to midnight, and that is a pretty awful thing to be doing—[Interruption]—but not, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I see you, panther-like, waiting to pounce on an irrelevant comment, part of the amendments under discussion.
So I turn to clause 20, the last measure related to the amendments under consideration, and agree again with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that it is drawn far too widely. It has to be the people at the top who are responsible, but the clause refers to
“a manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate”,
so I am a little worried that the cleaning lady is going to be nicked by some bod coming round in unrecognisable garb, whom we do not really know, saying, “We’ll have a few quid off you.” The measure is going to be a swindler’s charter if it goes through, because people will pretend that they are these authorised officers and sneak up on us and try to get money out of us for doing something that we should not, saying, “Well, it does catch you because you are an ‘other similar officer’. I am an ‘authorised officer’, you’re an ‘other similar officer’ and, therefore, we’ll take a fine off you.”
To conclude my relatively brief remarks—though it would be possible to go on and on about this Bill, so many are its flaws and faults, so good are the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend and so wise was he to bring them forward to try, as I said at the very beginning, to make a silk purse out a sow’s ear—I am afraid to say, after all is said and done, that it is still the meat of pigs.
It is always a trial to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), because, as I am sure we all agree, we could happily sit here all afternoon and listen to him, so wise is his counsel and so entertaining is his delivery. I am afraid that I cannot match it, but I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on tabling the amendments, and because today appears to have been a red letter day for him. Such was the speed at which our hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) rattled through the amendments which have now been accepted, that I struggled to keep up with them all, so my comments will be based on my understanding of the current situation, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong at any point.
I certainly support the thrust of what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said about the amendments, and particularly about the position of accredited persons. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green made the point that such council officials and officers are reasonable people who will use the powers only when necessary and sparingly, that they would not be used willy-nilly, and that that was his experience of council officials.
My hon. Friend talked to me about my experience of my local police when investigating what might be considered petty or minor crime, and my experience of the police in Shipley is, as it happens, very good—but he must not only have had good experiences of council officials and officers, but also have come across the rather petty council officer who is a stickler for something and does not use any discretion or common sense.
I am sure that we have all come across those people. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset referred to traffic wardens who wait for the clock to tick down before they put their £70 ticket on a vehicle, and there are also those who measure up to see whether one inch of a car is parked on a double yellow line, even though the vast bulk of the car is well within the parking space. I am sure that we have all had experiences of these things.
It is completely unacceptable to give that kind of person additional powers to go about and terrorise what we would largely call law-abiding members of the public. In my hon. Friend’s part of the world there may well be very reasonable people who use their powers very sparingly. However, the rules would apply not only to the council officials whom he has in mind, and not only to the council officials in place at the moment, all of whom may be very reasonable people, but to council officials in future—and who knows what kind of people we may have running some of our local authorities in future? We should not be giving people all these powers just because the people we know at the moment seem to be okay. We have to bear in mind how they may be used, or abused, in future.
Amendment 9, which is one of the few amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green is not accepting, is about the power to require names and addresses. That is a completely unacceptable aspect of the Bill. He said that that power would be exercised only where council officials believed that an offence was being committed. I have a problem with that, because the definition of when somebody believes that an offence is being committed is fairly loose. In a situation where there was no real reason for anybody to think that an offence was being committed, but one of these officials merely stated that they did believe that an offence was being committed, would that be good enough for them then to exercise the power granted in the Bill? Where is the check on whether they were right in believing that an offence had been, or was about to be, committed? By allowing them to use these powers in such circumstances we are, in effect, allowing them to use them whenever and wherever they like. That is totally unacceptable.
I come back to the point that I made briefly in an earlier intervention. Lots of my constituents come down from Shipley to London. They may not come down very often, perhaps only every now and then, but they know that they do not have to give their name and address to a council official when it is requested of them. If a council officer from Bradford city council demands to know their name and address, my constituents know that they do not have to tell him, and they can tell him to go forth and multiply. When my constituents come down to London on their day trip, or for a week’s holiday, or to visit the theatre, or whatever it may be, and a council official in Westminster says to them, “You must give me your name and address,” they would be perfectly reasonably entitled to expect to be able to say to him, “Go forth and multiply. I know I can tell my council official in Bradford to go forth and multiply, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to tell a Westminster city council official the same thing.”
It is totally intolerable, unacceptable and unjust that my constituents in that situation would be committing an offence and liable to pay a fine. How are they supposed to know? Many of my constituents are avid watchers of the Parliament Channel; they want to know what is going on and like to be very well informed about the political debate. However, are we really expecting them to be fully aware, having looked it up before they came down on their trip to London, of the powers of Westminster city council officials, on the off-chance that they may have been given a power that council officials in Bradford have not been given?
It is complete nonsense to think that that could be acceptable in this country. This is not just a matter of minor interest; we are talking about our fundamental individual freedoms, and surely those apply equally right across the United Kingdom. I am a believer in localism, but surely we cannot farm out our fundamental freedoms to the principle of localism and allow every local authority to decide how illiberal it wants to be in its area. That is unacceptable. It is for this House to stand up against that kind of assault on our individual freedoms.
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green said that he would not accept amendment 9, which would delete clause 4. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I am not an expert in parliamentary procedure, so I do not know whether we can put any of the amendments to a vote. However, as the promoter is now prepared to accept amendment 5, the lead amendment, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will say that he wishes to press amendment 9 to a Division, because we are talking about a fundamental freedom.
I hope that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be minded to allow a Division on that amendment if it is in order, because it is the most important amendment in the group. This is something that everybody in this House should be concerned about, because it could affect all our constituents. This might be the London Local Authorities Bill, but as so many of our constituents come down to London, it could affect any of our constituents.
I hope that we will have the opportunity to test the opinion of the House on amendment 9, because most of the debate has centred on the powers under clause 4 to require names and addresses, and the penalties associated with the refusal to provide them. My hon. Friend is addressing the same issue, which is one of the most fundamental civil liberties issues in the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I said earlier that this would be a red letter day for him, as so many of his amendments are being accepted. I am beginning to think that it is a red letter day for me too, because I appear to have persuaded him that amendment 9 is the most important amendment to put to a Division. I fear that I must now rely on you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to complete my red letter day, which would be a rarity for me in this House.
I think that I am right in saying that the sponsor is minded to accept amendments 35 to 39, the final amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has tabled to the Bill. In case I have got that wrong, I want to touch on clause 18 and amendment 35, which relates to it. The clause talks about
“Any person who intentionally obstructs any authorised officer”.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clearing that up, because I had a great deal of concern about what constituted an intentional obstruction of an authorised officer and what constituted an unintentional obstruction. As he has made it clear that he will accept amendment 35, which will delete clause 18, I do not propose to waste the House’s time by going through it.
I will mention amendment 21, because it appears that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has not accepted it. It relates to clause 8 and the issue of postage. Given that he has been so generous in accepting the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has not accepted amendment 21. I will give it a whirl and try to persuade him that he should accept that amendment as well. It seems not only to be harmless, but to be in the best interests of the local authorities.
Clause 8 attempts to strike out the requirement that the council send its enforcement notices
“in a prepaid registered letter, or by the recorded delivery service”,
and to substitute for it a requirement to send them “by post”. Amendment 21 would strike out that change and ensure that local authorities had to send notices by prepaid registered letter or the recorded delivery service. It is perfectly reasonable that councils should do that, for a number of reasons. These are important matters, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green will accept. That is why the Bill tries to address them. If they are such important matters, surely the local authority should have to reflect that importance by sending notices out by recorded delivery or registered post.
I wonder how many of these infringements my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green expects to occur, given that clause 8 relates to the City of Westminster Act 1996, which makes provision about the closure of unlawful sex establishments.
I cannot give my hon. Friend a particular number, but I can try to help him on the issue of postage. My recollection is that county court judgments, council tax arrears notices or bailiff action, penalty charge notices and speeding tickets are not issued by registered post. They are all issued through the Royal Mail. If it is good enough for the police or the courts, surely it is good enough for councils.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a fair point, but of course the big difference between the cases that he mentions and this one is that there is quite a large volume of those notices to go out in the post, so there is a substantial cost saving to the taxpayer in having them sent out by post rather than registered post or recorded delivery.
That brings me back to my question about how many notices my hon. Friend expects to be sent out under the provisions of the 1996 Act about the closure of unlawful sex establishments. I cannot for the life of me believe that the local authority will send out hundreds of thousands of them in any given year. Surely we are talking about a handful at the most—maybe, on the generous side, 15 or 20. I cannot imagine it could possibly be any more than that. So what cost saving would there be? It seems to me that the local authority might save itself £50 or £60 if the change were made, and I suspect that that is a very generous estimate. I am all for local authorities saving money, but surely there are far bigger fish to fry in that context.
I believe that the change would not save the local authority money but end up costing it more. When somebody is sent something simply through the post rather than by registered post or recorded delivery, we do not know whether it has been delivered. When something is sent by registered post or recorded delivery we do know that, because it can be traced back through the Royal Mail. Nobody can deny that they have received the letter. If it is sent out by ordinary post, who is to know whether it has been received by the intended recipient? It may well have been, but it may not.
If the intended recipient claimed, rightly or wrongly, that they had not received it, and the council intended to pursue an enforcement notice on the back of the letter that they sent out, where would the local authority stand? Would it be able to pursue an enforcement notice if the recipient said, “Well, you may have sent it by post, but I never received it, and you’ve got no evidence at all to say that I did”? Might that be contested in the courts? Might a magistrates court or district judge say, “Well, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this person did not receive the letter, so we’re not allowing this enforcement notice to go ahead until we can be sure that they’ve received the official documentation from the local authority”? To risk going down that road to save a maximum of £50 or £60 a year, or whatever, seems to me unbelievably ridiculous. I suspect that the change would cost local authorities more in the long run. As my hon. Friend has been so generous in accepting other amendments, I really do not see why he is not prepared to accept one that seems so very small.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case against clause 8(3) and (4). Does he accept that one problem with the proposed change is that it could well result in a lot of injustice? People could find that they faced the closure of an establishment alleged by the council to be an unlawful sex establishment, although they had not received the notice because it had been sent by ordinary post.
I was describing people who would simply pretend that they had not received the notice because there would be no trace of it, but my hon. Friend is right that there would be another group—those who genuinely did not receive the notice. What happens in that situation? Does the local authority simply send people to close down an establishment even though the proprietor has no knowledge that that is about to happen? Could that happen when the proprietor has lots of customers inside their establishment, which would cause a great deal of embarrassment for them and damage any legitimate businesses they might have?
That is a totally unsatisfactory state of affairs. If someone is having their business closed by the local authority and if their establishment is deemed to be unlawful, surely the least they can expect is a guarantee that they will receive the notice that makes that clear. Surely it is this House’s responsibility to defend people’s freedoms in this country, and to ensure that local authorities have taken every reasonable step to ensure that somebody knows about an enforcement that is about to take place.
We should not allow there to be doubt as to whether someone has or has not received a notice. I am sure that Royal Mail does a fantastic job, but even it would not guarantee that every letter reaches its intended recipient. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green to think again on amendment 21 and also to think of the upside and downside for local authorities of defying it. I hope that he will reflect on that and decide, in the spirit of consensus that he has adopted, to accept it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch on his diligence and hard work. Such things are very important to people. We see from the lack of numbers in the Chamber that other hon. Members have probably not even bothered to look at the provisions in the Bill, whereas he has gone through them with a fine-tooth comb and found where our individual freedoms are being put at risk by unnecessary local council bureaucracy and officialdom—and sometimes even worse.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for tabling the amendments, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has accepted them. I do not know whether he has done so tactically to oil the wheels of the Bill or whether he has been persuaded by the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I suspect the latter. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green is a reasonable man who listens to the arguments, and I genuinely believe that he has been persuaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has been persuaded of the merits of amendment 21 and that he will reflect on it while there is still time. I suspect that he will not change his mind on amendment 9, which is why I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will find a way to press it to a Division, and that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will find a way to accept that. I can assure my hon. Friend that if that happens I will support him in the Division Lobby, because I want to support and defend the fundamental freedoms of people in this country, not least those of people from my constituency who visit London.
I very much concur with the contribution made by the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). Far from there being a lack of support for the Bill from London Members, I remind hon. Members that on Second Reading, there was considerable representation on both sides of the Chamber and hon. Members spoke with enthusiasm for the provisions. It is very unfair for hon. Members today to suggest that the lack of Members in the Chamber justifies their stance.
The hon. Gentleman will know that since the Bill was debated on Second Reading, the Opposed Bill Committee has deleted quite a lot of its contents. Given, as he says, that the Bill was supported so enthusiastically on Second Reading, is it not possible that the reason why so few people are interested now is that so much of it has been deleted?
I suspect that that might be part of the explanation. I regret that some of the clauses were removed in Committee, particularly the ones relating to food hygiene—the scores on the door proposals—and to houses in multiple occupation. Having said that, the Bill is still worthy of support from this House. If these measures are subject to a Division, I urge hon. Members to do the right thing and support the Bill.
The hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope), for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) have subjected us to a range of fairly spurious and absurd criticisms of the Bill. They have enjoyed poking fun at local authorities, which is an indication of their lack of support for local government and what local authorities do in our communities. The Opposition take the view that local authorities are very much a force for good. They are a form of government that is close to the people whom they serve. Elected members at a local level—local councillors—do an excellent job in representing and standing up for their constituents. This Bill has the support of all 33 local councils across London of every political persuasion, so it has cross-party support. It gives local authorities in London the ability to stand up for their communities and the residents who elect them.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating a curious line of argument. Is he really suggesting that in order to demonstrate our support for local authorities, we have, by definition, to agree to give them the same powers that police officers have? To suggest that that is the only way to support them is surely absurd.
It is not absurd. It is the hon. Gentleman who has been making a number of absurd criticisms. The point is that this Bill has cross-party support; all 33 London councils support the powers that this Bill would give to them to stand up for their communities. There are very real problems that this Bill will help to address.
The hon. Gentleman talked about freedom. It seems to me that he wants to stand up for the freedom of an individual to act in an antisocial way. What about the silent majority of decent, law-abiding citizens whose neighbourhoods are often blighted by the activities of a small minority? If this Bill is passed, it will give local authorities, where it is appropriate and necessary, an ability to address those concerns of local residents. At the moment, local authorities are in many ways powerless to deal with the problems that confront them. It is important that this House gives local authorities the tools that they need to do their job.
Let us be clear about this. One hon. Member—I cannot remember whether it was the hon. Member for Christchurch, the hon. Member for North East Somerset or the hon. Member for Shipley—talked about the austere times in which we live. I accept that that is true and that local authorities are being subject to unjustified cuts. The problem is that if these measures are not agreed today and local authorities are not given these new powers, the cost of dealing with the consequences of the sorts of activities that we have been talking about will be that much higher. I cannot believe that the Government Members who oppose the Bill think it a good idea that we should deny local authorities the ability to address more effectively problems that not only blight neighbourhoods and the lives of ordinary people, but cost council tax payers in those local authority areas considerable sums. Surely it is far better to give local authorities the powers to deal with those problems and put in place the deterrent measures provided for in the Bill, which might help to stamp out problems that are a cause of considerable concern.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that on issues as fundamental as civil liberties we should have national laws rather than local laws? Is it not incumbent on this House to speak not only on behalf of the residents of London, but on behalf of the people who come to London—the visitors, the people who work in London and those with other interests in London? Is it not our responsibility to look at the big picture, rather than the sectional interest?
If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman seems to be overstating the civil liberties argument. In my view, this is not an illiberal Bill in any way, shape or form, nor does it impinge on the civil liberties of decent, law-abiding citizens. Surely he can see that it is sensible and proportionate to give local authorities the tools they need to address the genuine concerns of large numbers of their constituents about what are significant problems. Surely he can see that if we do not give local authorities the tools to do that job, the whole political process is brought into disrepute. When constituents approach their Member of Parliament or their councillors to ask for assistance in finding a resolution to the sorts of issues that this Bill would deal with, and find that they are unable to assist them, people lose faith in the political process. Surely that is a more important issue than some spurious argument about civil liberties.
I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that civil liberties are a spurious issue, although that gives an insight into what the Labour party believes in these days. How does he expect his constituents in Derby to know that although they do not have to give their names and addresses to a council official in Derby, they do have to give them to a council official in London? Is he going to go around personally communicating that message to every one of his constituents, or are they expected to know by some remote control device?
The hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth. I did not say that civil liberties were a “spurious issue”. My point is that he and his hon. Friends are using the civil liberties argument in a spurious way.
As for my constituents coming down to London, if the hon. Gentleman reads the relevant clause in the Bill, he will see that it deals with the anxiety—if it is a genuine anxiety—that he has expressed. The Bill is clear that a designated individual from the council would have to demonstrate their authorisation to seek the information that they were requesting, so that issue is dealt with. However, the vast majority of people coming from Derby to visit our great capital would have no difficulty with council officers as a result of the Bill. This Bill is about ensuring that local authorities can stand up for the silent majority—in other words, the vast majority—of those living in London, who want local authorities to be able to respond effectively to local residents’ concerns about a range of issues that the Bill would go some way towards addressing.
To dwell a moment more on the issue of Derby, is the hon. Gentleman content that under the Bill a council officer or accredited person from London could go to one of his Derby constituents and serve a fixed penalty notice on him that had resulted from a parking offence in London, whereas a similar official from Derby council could not go to the same resident to serve a fixed penalty notice in relation to an offence committed in Derby?
I do not have a major problem with that. I think that the circumstances of London are, to be fair, unique. It is a more populated—I will not say overpopulated—and busy city with unique problems and unique issues. That means that different measures and powers might be more appropriate in London than they might be, say, in Derby. As I say, I have no difficulty at all with that, and for the reasons I have outlined, I support the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green. The Opposition are quite content with the Bill’s provisions.
I rise to speak very briefly. First, I declare an interest in that my wife works for a London local authority. Secondly, I support the Bill. It is entirely appropriate for Parliament to support giving greater powers to local authorities where necessary. We should not be scared of there being a patchwork quilt of different powers at different levels in different places. I am sure that we and our constituents can cope with that. The portrayal by some Members of people who work in local authorities as being either little dictators or scruffy bureaucrats is extremely unfair. I am sure that some of those Members must be hoping that their constituents, many of whom work for local authorities, will not read Hansard too closely; if they do, they will see the views of their MPs contained therein.
I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to sit through this almost unique debate. I hope to participate fairly briefly, as Members still wish to consider other aspects of the Bill in the time available.
It is fair to say that this is an unusual type of Bill and this is probably an even rarer stage of debate on it. I am grateful to all Members who have participated and hope they will forgive me if I do not follow them down all the highways and byways through which the debate has ranged. I shall say a few words factually about the Government’s stance and position on the Bill as we now find it, and I shall cover a little of the history.
I believe this Bill started out before the last general election. It is, of course, a private Bill, so a different set of procedures apply. It has been changed a great deal in the course of its passage. It is worth remembering that it is more than a year since the Bill was last debated in this House and there have been some significant changes. Because it is an unusual form of legislation, it is right that the appropriate level of scrutiny is given to it. I appreciate the spirit in which Members of all parties have approached the debate.
The changes take on board to some extent the concerns raised by the Government at an earlier stage. I hope hon. Members will recollect—I looked back and checked—that my concerns focused in particular on measures that potentially placed undue burdens on businesses, business owners and entrepreneurs or that otherwise did not sit comfortably with Government policies.
In fairness, the principal elements that concerned the Government on Second Reading have been removed, and I thank the Bill’s supporters for their flexibility and willingness to compromise. As is normal in the case of such Bills, all the Departments that might be affected have been consulted, and no concern has been expressed about direct conflict with Government policy. As far as can be ascertained, it has historically been the convention for Governments to take a neutral position on private Bills, and that is what the Government intend to do in this instance. The Bill has been scrutinised by the House, and it is therefore appropriate for the Government to defer to the conclusions that Members reach on the basis of what we have heard so far, and of what we may yet hear before the day is out.
It seems that the Government are now saying that they are taking a neutral position. However, on Second Reading they expressed something other than neutrality: they expressed opposition to certain provisions. Can I tease out from my hon. Friend a little more about how the Government decide when they will be neutral, when they will be opposed, and when they will support a private Bill?
Because there is comparatively little of what could almost be described as jurisprudence in this regard, we must depend to some extent on precedent, while also applying a measure of practicality on a case-by-case basis.
Given that background, I do not think it appropriate to elaborate further at this stage.
We have had an excellent debate. I thank all who have participated, including those who have made telling interventions. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was not present for much of the debate, but I am grateful to him for his participation, although he did not go into much detail. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for listening to the arguments and, as a result, giving notice that, on behalf of the promoters, he will accept a fair number of my amendments.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) for supporting the amendments, thereby contributing significantly to the decision of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green to accept so many of them. They go some way towards improving some of the clauses in the Bill, but, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, they do not do anything other than ameliorate the Bill. They do not address some of the most fundamental issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset spoke for some time about clause 4, which contains the power to require names and addresses. He cited a number of historical precedents. I thought the Homeric example was the most telling, but the reference to P. G. Wodehouse was also very pertinent. However, underlying his argument, which he made in his inimitable and witty style, were some serious issues that touched on the reason why we have not had revolutions in the United Kingdom for centuries. We have always accepted the primary importance of allowing citizens their liberties, and we take away those liberties only if there is a strong case for so doing. Recently, however, there has been a gradual erosion of the right to which he referred—the right of a person not to tell anybody their name, address and identity unless they have committed, or are thought to be committing, a criminal offence, and even then only if that information is demanded by a police constable.
That right was jealously guarded when the House considered the legislation relating to police community support officers. The House realised that PCSOs might need to ask the identity of individuals who they thought were committing criminal offences. Even then, however, the House did not allow PCSOs to have the power of arrest. Instead, it said that PCSOs could ask someone who refused to give their name and address or whom they suspected of giving an inaccurate name and address to stay behind for up to half an hour, during which time a police constable could come along and effect the necessary arrest.
Clause 4 would significantly extend that power to borough councils and police community support officers, although as a result of the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has accepted, clause 4 will no longer apply to accredited persons. Obviously we are grateful for that, but we think that the power in clause 4 to require names and address, coupled with the power effectively to criminalise a person and subject them to a maximum £1,000 fine for refusing to supply that information, is wrong in principle.
It is all the more wrong that the law should apply in one part of the country and not across the country as a whole. The House should deal with issues of civil liberties on a national basis, rather than on a piecemeal basis. Nobody has made the case for why borough councils or PCSOs in London should have greater powers to obtain names and addresses and to impose penalties if they are not supplied than powers elsewhere in the country. At the heart of the provision, therefore, is a problem. It is a misuse of a private Bill to extend powers at the expense of ordinary citizens in London, especially if the same is not being done elsewhere in the country.
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, quite reasonably, that the Bill was supported by the 33 London boroughs, but that is not an end in itself. If this was simply a matter of byelaws, those London boroughs could implement them; but here we are introducing public law and criminal restrictions in London and not elsewhere in the country. It is incumbent upon the House to consider the matter not only from the point of view of a resident of a London borough, but in a national context and from the point of view of people who work in London, visitors and others.
Is that not the crux of the matter? It is no surprise that local authorities are in favour of the provisions. If the House is to provide for hugely extended powers, it is perfectly likely that the bodies getting those increased powers will be in favour of them. Is it not the House’s duty to prevent such bodies from having undue extra powers at the expense of individuals in our constituencies?
My hon. Friend is right, and he made a powerful speech asking why people in Shipley should be dealt with differently from people in London, and why people from Shipley who happen to be visiting London should find they are subject to a different set of laws from those that would apply if they were in their own constituency. We realise that the laws will be different if we visit a foreign country, but we do not expect that to be the case between different parts of England—such as for people from Shipley, Christchurch or even Derby—let alone the rest of the United Kingdom.
There is a fundamental issue of principle here, and I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister says the Government are neutral on this matter. How can the Government be neutral on an issue of civil liberties that affects the entire country? How can they say, “We are totally relaxed about whether there is an erosion of civil liberties in London but not elsewhere”? It seems to me that the Government ought to have a view on that.
My hon. Friend the Minister says that the jurisprudence is unclear. I impress on him the fact that he, as the Minister, is able to establish precedent from the Dispatch Box. Perhaps he will seize that opportunity, if not on this set of amendments then on subsequent amendments, and thereby set a precedent and establish the future jurisprudence on when the Government are neutral, when they are opposed and when they are in favour of a particular provision of a private Bill.
I must not be too critical of the Minister, however, as he could have expressed the view that he was supportive of the promoters of the Bill in this regard. I must take some solace from the fact that he and the Government are neutral. The message that that sends to Members is that, as private Bill business should be, this is very much a matter of private conscience. It is nothing to do with the Whips. Each Member must make up their own mind as to whether they think it is reasonable that we should extend to London the power to require names and addresses subject to a penalty for failure to give that information as proposed in clause 4, or whether we should say that if we are going to extend that power to local authorities in the future it should be extended across the entire country after a proper debate.
This has been an excellent debate and I thank all those who have participated. The promoters of the Bill have indicated a willingness to accept a number of the amendments, and I seek to have them incorporated into the Bill, if that is the will of the House, but I also wish to test the opinion of the House on amendment 9.
Amendment 5 agreed to.
Amendment 8 made.—(Mr Chope.)
Power to require name and address
Amendment proposed: 9, leave out clause 4—[Mr Chope.]
Question put, That the amendment be made.
With the leave of the House—[Interruption.] I know it is exciting, Mr Percy, being a Teller, but perhaps if Members took their seats it would make the business easier. With the leave of the House we will take amendments 10 to 12 and 14 together.
Amendments made: 10 to 12 and 14.—(Mr Chope.)
Street litter control notices
It is a great pleasure to speak to this group of amendments. The lead amendment would remove clause 5 from the Bill and I tabled it because the clause extends significantly the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 in relation to street litter. It offends against the principle that we were discussing on the previous group of amendments by making this extension apply merely in Greater London, rather than across the country as a whole. It is implicit in the fact that this is being brought forward in a private Bill that the Government would not support such an extension across the whole country. My argument is that in a unitary state we should have the same laws on street litter control in London as apply in the rest of the country.
The effect of clause 5 is summarised on page 2 of the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, which states:
“Street litter control notices are notices served under section 93 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. They can be served by the principal litter authority (in London, the borough council) imposing requirements on occupiers of premises with a view to the prevention of accumulations of litter or refuse in and around any street or open land adjacent to any street. Under section 94 of the 1990 Act, the Secretary of State is given power to prescribe the descriptions of commercial or retail premises in respect of which a street litter control notice may be issued, amongst other things.”
The 1990 Act deals with commercial or retail premises. It gives the power to the Secretary of State to prescribe the descriptions of commercial or retail premises—in other words, to limit the application so that it extends not to all commercial or retail premises, but only to some of them. The effect of clause 5 would be to extend the type of premises that the Secretary of State can prescribe under section 94 so that it includes all premises in Greater London, except for what are described as dwellings, which most of us would call houses. This will bring into the scope of the street litter control notice procedures public buildings and other buildings that are not commercial or retail premises.
This sweeping power was brought in to deal with the problem that many of us experience with premises occupied by takeaway food shops. For example, people go into the takeaway food shop, collect their food in a container, then think it best to deposit their container on the public highway or on the pavement after they have consumed its contents, and sometimes before they have consumed all of its contents. That causes a nuisance.
Similarly, where there are retail banking premises with cash tills, people often ask for a receipt, take their money, and as soon as the receipt is issued, they throw it on to the ground. That is the sort of litter nuisance which the existing provisions of the Environmental Protection Act are designed to address.
What has obviously come to the notice of the officers of Westminster city council and other councils in London is that people sometimes hang around in the porches of offices smoking, because they are not allowed to smoke inside the offices. It is said that as a result of that, enormously increased powers are needed under the provisions of clause 5 in order to extend to every single building in London, other than a dwelling, the ability of the council to impose a litter requirement on the occupiers of those premises. That could involve them having to regularly sweep or maintain areas well beyond their own premises, in effect duplicating the role of the public street sweeper.
It seems that this, like so much in the Bill, is a sweeping provision to deal with what is, according to any view, a relatively small issue. If people stand outside a building to smoke and deposit their litter on the street, they are already guilty of an offence that can be enforced, but if the litter falls on private land it is the responsibility of the owner of the land to clear up the detritus and debris. Sensibly, containers are often provided outside buildings so that people can stub out their cigarettes and throw away their fag packets. I am not a smoker, but I know that that is what happens in the designated smoking area on Speaker’s Green, where people working on the premises can put their smoking litter in a receptacle.
Considering the pretext set out in the Bill’s preamble, one wonders why this enormously wide power is being taken. If this is a problem in London, it is obviously not unique to the city and applies in every town and city across the land. Many people think that the councils have a hidden agenda to transfer responsibility for cleaning public highways to adjacent landowners. For example, almost every office on Victoria street could have a litter control notice issued to it, the consequence of which would be that their owners would have collective responsibility for cleaning the pavement along the entire length of the street. That would be true of almost every street in central London, which on the whole are occupied by commercial premises and Government buildings, rather than residential accommodation.
There is a concern that this provision is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is far too extensive. Indeed, one of the petitions initially put forward against the Bill noted the objections of the society of theatre managers, which could see that it was effectively another stealth tax on their activities. People leaving the theatre might drop their tickets or cigarette butts, but that is not the fault of the theatre. If those people drop their litter, surely it should be the responsibility of the local authority to collect it as part of its normal street sweeping exercises.
A large number of people are very concerned about Westminster city council’s plans to raise vast sums of additional income by extending on-street parking restrictions until midnight on weekdays and introducing them for the first time on Sundays. The council’s income will increase significantly, yet this provision in the Bill allows the council the opportunity to absolve itself of responsibility for keeping the streets clean and to pass the cost of doing so on to office owners. There is a complete difference between a takeaway food shop, which makes its profits out of giving customers food in packages that they can take out of the shop and dispose of, and an office or public building, where people congregate outside the front door to have a discussion over a cigarette.
That is the background to clause 5. It is one of the Bill’s provisions that was not really discussed in the opposed Bill Committee, and that is why it is worth discussing it in the House this afternoon. We need to take into account its genuine motives, because the current explanation does not add up. It is implausible and it shows that there is a secret agenda to transfer the responsibility for and cost of street sweeping from local authorities to the adjacent occupiers of premises such as public buildings and offices.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green were to make a compelling case, explaining exactly why those wide-ranging additional powers are needed, the House would take that into account, and amendment 15 gives him the opportunity to do just that.
That brings me to clause 6, and to amendment 16, which would leave the clause out of the Bill. Clause 6 removes the prohibition on turnstiles in public lavatories in London, stating:
“Section 1 of the Public Lavatories (Turnstiles) Act 1963…shall not apply in respect of a public lavatory or public sanitary convenience controlled or managed by a borough council.”
In that context, it is relevant to note that the Bill was presented to the House in November 2007, but that it was not until the following spring that the then Government, of whom you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were a distinguished ministerial member, issued a paper on public conveniences. The paper was introduced by Baroness Andrews and entitled, “Improving Public Access to Better Quality Toilets: A Strategic Guide”. I do not know, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether it ever had your approval as a Treasury Minister, but it extended to many pages and refers to the turnstile provision under discussion. As though that were not enough, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government then carried out an inquiry into the issue.
That reminds me of when I was a trainee barrister and we had occasion to go down to the Old Bailey and watch some cross-examination. Learned counsel said to the witness, “And what happened next in the lavatory?” and the witness said, “Well, what happened in the toilet was this,” and so it went on, with the witness insisting that the right expression was “toilet” and learned counsel insisting that it was “lavatory”. Anyway, under the erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister, who was in charge at the time I think, the paper was very much about improving public access to better quality “toilets” rather than “lavatories”.
Be that as it may, the Select Committee looked into the issue and concluded that the problem was one of too many turnstiles in public lavatories on private land, citing the difficulties one sees at some railway stations, where people try to get through the turnstile with their luggage, trolley or pushchair and cannot do so. The Committee therefore suggested that a similar prohibition on turnstiles should be extended to private premises, but the Bill before us goes in completely the opposite direction and removes the prohibition on turnstiles in public lavatories on council-owned premises.
If we have to finish these proceedings shortly, I hope that my hon. Friends will have a chance to look in greater detail at the abundant material on the issue, and that when they look at it they will be persuaded—
Three hours having elapsed since the start of proceedings on the Bill, the business was interrupted (Order, 1 December).
Bill to be further considered on Tuesday 13 December.