Further consideration of Bill, as amended
Street trading: vehicles and the internet
Clause 9 makes further provision about street trading in relation to the sale of vehicles over the internet. Under the existing street trading legislation in London, street trading is defined, broadly speaking, as the selling, or the exposure or offer for sale, of any article, and the supplying of, or offering to supply, any service in a street for gain or reward, whether or not the gain or reward accrues to the person actually carrying out the trade. It is unclear whether the sale of motor vehicles on the internet when the vehicle is kept on the highway is covered by that definition, but clause 9 will ensure that it is. That is my answer to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer).
It was an important and relevant intervention, because my concern has been about the criminalising of people who put their car outside their front door with a little label on it saying “For sale”, and of those who do not even put a little label on it but just list it on the internet and say that it is for sale and that it can be found outside No. 22 Acacia avenue. Some bossy bureaucrat may come round and say, “This is absolutely outrageous. You are not allowed to sell your car outside No. 22 Acacia avenue because that is a residential street, so we are fining you and we are going to put all sorts of fierce penalties on you.” That is why I added my name to amendment 22, which proposes to abolish the whole of clause 9—
Order. One moment, Mr Rees-Mogg. As Mr Chope is still in his place, may I say, in response to his point of order a few minutes ago, that I have looked again at motions 11 and 12, and I wish to make it absolutely clear that if either of those motions is objected to after 10 pm, it could not be taken—there would be no deferred Division. I would like to clarify that for the record.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
As I was saying, I added my name to amendment 22, which seeks to remove clause 9, because that clause is a rather vicious clause. It is an unattractive and cruel clause, which attacks people who may simply be making an honest effort to earn their living. Broadly speaking, Conservatives are in favour of people earning their living; we think it is a good thing that people should earn an honest crust. We are not in favour of the something-for-nothing society—we think that that is a bad idea—and we believe in the historic liberties of the British subject. We believe in the freedom to have all sorts of things, not only trial by jury but that great historic freedom, which has built up over 100 years, to sell one’s car outside one’s front door by putting a little notice on it.
The marvellous technology that we have and the incredible electronics at our fingertips allow us to use little things in our pockets to sell our motor cars outside our front door, whether we live at No. 22 Acacia avenue or, for that matter, at No. 23, No. 24 or No. 25 Acacia avenue. Wherever we live in Acacia avenue or in other similarly named streets—Laburnum drive comes to find, as one of these very good addresses—if we want to sell our car via the internet we clearly ought to be allowed to do so. It seems to me to be tremendously important that amendment 22 should be carried by this House to remove a pernicious little clause.
I am grateful for that intervention. I would be happy to be a car salesman, because that is an honourable and worthy profession. My reason for saying that is because trading cars is the way to starting in business. People can start off in a small way by putting the little Morris Minor that they bought 20 years ago outside their front door with a sticker on it saying, “This car is for sale for £500, with MOT. It has not been clocked or had done to it any of those terrible things that rogues do.” Somebody might then come along and give them £500, so they go out to buy a second-hand Mini Cooper, which they sell for £800. They then buy a second-hand Ford Cortina and sell it for £2,000. Eventually, they are buying Aston Martin DB5s and putting them outside their front door with a price of £150,000—cheap at twice the price, some might say. That is before they have even got on to thinking about Bentleys, great cars that they are, too—although some might say that they are not quite as good as Aston Martins in their style and sleek lines.
We need to get an entrepreneurial spirit and get people starting in business. How are we going to revive this economy if we do not encourage the small business man, and the tall business man, too? I always feel that this “heightism” on business men and business ladies, who should not be excluded, is a bit unfair. We want to help enterprise. We know that job creation comes from small enterprises, not from big business. Historically—very good figures from the United States are available on this—big business has reduced its labour force, year in, year out, and companies that are starting up develop into bigger businesses employing more and more people. A fascinating statistic in this week’s edition of The Sunday Times suggested that an American business, in its first two years of operation, increases the number of its employees by 160%, whereas an Italian company does so by 20%. That is because America, the land of free enterprise, encourages people to set up their own businesses and to do things in a little way without this overburdening, this overwhelming and this overweening regulation that makes it so difficult for them to earn an honest crust.
Clause 9 is where my objections are centred at the moment, but I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have many more objections to certain aspects of this Bill to come. The clause states that “fees and charges” can be levied on people selling their car, but offering it on the internet is illegal and keeping it on the street for the period that it is on the internet is illegal. That is very unfair, because someone can put something up on the internet one week and it can then be cached—it can be caught—and it remains there ad infinitum. Someone could have traded their car and completed the transaction—they could be the new buyer—but the car could still appear on the internet under an historical cache. They may then find that a council busybody—not one wearing a bowler hat, because the councils did not seem enthused by that idea when I gave them it at an earlier stage in the debate—or some odd-bod could come along and say, “This car is now getting you a fine.” That is why I object—
My hon. Friend refers to council officials today as “odd-bods”. When we considered the first group of amendments on 7 December 2011, he referred to parking attendants and council officials as “desperately scruffy tatterdemalions”. Has he subsequently received any adverse representations from any local authority officials?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I ought to clarify things. A lot of council officials are splendid fellows. They are good, honest, hard-working people who do a difficult job that I would not particularly like to do myself. I am very grateful that I can find a parking space when I want one, as a resident. Some traffic wardens really are noble fellows. However, notwithstanding that, there are some carrying out these particularly pernicious activities whom I think we should discourage. We should try to persuade them that their career opportunities lie elsewhere. To answer my hon. Friend’s specific questions about tatterdemalions, I have had very little response from councils. I thought that I might be bombarded with letters from councils. Perhaps these might have come from people from the City of London saying, “This is not how we dress in our borough.” Such letters might have come from that other great city of London, Westminster, but no—there was no correspondence from them. None came from Barking and Dagenham; there was not a jot from Barnet; nor from Bexley, Brent or Bromley.
Camden was silent and Croydon had nothing to say on the issue of whether council officers should be smart and tidy. Ealing, Enfield, Greenwich—they were all lie-abeds, not a word, not a peep, not an utterance came from them. Hackney, Hammersmith—and Fulham, we must not forget poor old Fulham—Haringey, Harrow, Havering, Hillingdon and Hounslow; all of them were horribly quiet on this important issue. Islington—one would have thought that somebody from Islington might have a word or two—
I am very grateful for the correction. I did think of saying in my best Eliza Doolittle tones, “’ackney, ’ammersmith, ’aringey, ’arrow, ’avering, ’illingdon and ’ounslow,” but I thought that I had better not phrase myself in that way because, realistically, I am probably more Professor Higgins than Eliza Doolittle in my normal pronunciation.
We have missed out Kensington and Chelsea. They had nothing to say—not a word, not an utterance—about how smart or otherwise their officers should be. Kingston upon Thames, Lambeth, Lewisham—Lewisham, for heaven’s sake. Would one not have thought that the burghers of Lewisham would be up in arms defending the honour of their council officials? Merton was mysteriously silent. From Newham, nothing. Redbridge? No, not an utterance. Richmond, Southwark, Sutton and Tower Hamlets: Tower Hamlets, a grand and noble borough on the edge of the City, with the great Tower of London nobly looking down upon it, had nothing to say. It has the Beefeaters to look at, so one would have thought it would be proud of having fine people who are well dressed. Then there is Waltham Forest—I am not particularly clear where Waltham Forest is, but it is clearly a London borough of the utmost importance. I apologise to anybody here from that distinguished borough. In Wandsworth, they are a very good lot. They are very Tory, so I expect that they are all splendidly and finely attired in gold braid and so on, so when you see them coming you know that they are from Wandsworth and that they are proper gentlemen and ladies of the borough rather than, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) so rightly reminds me, tatterdemalions.
On clause 9, which will make life so unpleasant for people, we made the basic, simple and clean proposition—that which is easiest and cleanest to absorb—that we scrap the whole thing altogether. Bingo—gone. “Goodnight Charlie,” as cricket commentators say. I am not a cricket commentator, so “Goodnight Charlie” is not usually one of my phrases, but I thought it was apposite on this occasion.
We tabled some other amendments in case the promoters of the Bill decided, through some eccentricity of their own, not to remove the clause. The aim is to ensure that what the clause does is watered down, that it is limited in its scope and that there is a proper burden of proof on the authorities so that they must show that it really is business trading activity and not just an individual. It might be an old lady, for example, who needs to supplement her pension and suddenly finds that she is not allowed to sell her car and is penalised for doing so. Some of the amendments—23, 24, 61 and so on—try to clarify and to ameliorate the harshness of clause 9 and to allow a little free enterprise to be encouraged through the boroughs and cities of London. I am glad to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you now know the names of all the boroughs and cities of the noble Greater London area, so I do not think I need to repeat them, although I might do so later if I feel moved and if it is relevant to the issue under discussion.
I want to look at some of the other amendments. It is very disappointing that the city of Westminster, which has been for decades one of the best run cities not just in London but in the world—if they had cities on the moon, it would be one of the best run in our part of the solar system, but as far as I know they do not yet have cities on the moon, so I shall stick to the world—and is a fine, noble city run by great Conservative leaders who provided low council tax, low poll tax before that and low rates before that—
My hon. Friend says community charge from a sedentary position, and I admire his pedantry. I am delighted that there are people in this House who are more pedantic than I am. It is an admirable trait and one that I fear is not encouraged often enough.
I was merely trying to correct my hon. Friend’s description of that wonderful piece of legislation. He might well not have heard that our right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher said she still referred to it as a community charge because she was a great fan of the Polish people and would never have tried to tax them.
That is, of course, extremely wise, as is anything the great lady says. In ancient Rome, the Senate had a practice of deifying great leaders and if this were ancient Rome, I would propose that that great lady be deified, but as it is not I feel that I had better not, particularly as I am talking about clause 10 of the London Local Authorities Bill, the City of Westminster Act 1999 and amendments thereto on street trading in the city of Westminster.
Those who have been paying close attention to what I have been saying will know that I am now up to amendment 26, which is, in line eight on page six, to put after the first reference to vehicle
“in the course of business”.
That goes back to the crux of what I was saying about clause 9, that particularly pernicious and ghastly clause that none of us like that will take effect in all the boroughs across London, including the two cities. It is even less clear in clause 10, about the city of Westminster, whether it affects only business or residents, too.
I want to clarify and to pick up the point where we left off some weeks ago. The amendment is accepted, and, to clarify, it is not meant to apply to Mr and Mrs Smith at 26 Acacia avenue but to those who seek to trade through the internet in the course of business, which narrows down the definition considerably.
Some people might wonder why some of us speak for hours in these debates, but I must say that is exactly why. By banging on a little, we get steady improvement and amelioration of the penalties on the British people.
As I tried to explain in my opening remarks on this group of amendments, this is all about protecting the liberty of individuals from the constant encroachment of the state, bit by bit, day by day, not to meet some urgent or desperate cause, not because we are at war or because we face terrorists, but because it is more administratively convenient. One of the most important things that this Parliament can do is, by the proper scrutinising of legislation, ensure that the penalties on individuals are always minimised and that the greatest number of freedoms that can be preserved are preserved. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green for notifying us of that fact, which is a considerable improvement in the Bill and helps us to get to where we want to go.
My hon. Friend is introducing this group of amendments with such expertise. In fairness to our hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), he indicated some time ago that the promoter was prepared to accept the amendment. I was surprised, however, by the implication in his intervention just now that it was basically a drafting error that resulted in
“in the course of business”
being left out of clause 10 whereas it was included in clause 9. If it was just a drafting error, it is surprising that the Bill has gone through the other place and through detailed consideration in Committee in this House before that error emerged.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. It is, of course, human to err and divine to forgive, so we will be very forgiving of that error in this instance.
I do not like the clause at all. I have tabled my own amendment, which would get rid of it altogether, for much the same arguments as those I made about clause 9. In reality, we do not want high penalties for people who do things that cause modest inconvenience. A few people having a few cars on the road is not the end of the world.
I think my hon. Friend is misunderstanding the scale of the problem, which is often not a modest inconvenience. I have residents in my borough of Castle Point, which will not be covered by this legislation, who have been extremely inconvenienced by large numbers of cars parked on residential streets. That means that young mums with lots of children and paraphernalia have to walk a considerable distance to their homes and the elderly lady of whom my hon. Friend spoke, who might wish to sell her car, is also an elderly lady who cannot get close to her home for other cars and who is frightened by having to walk several streets in the dark at night because she cannot park near her home. I do not think that that is a modest inconvenience.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for an extremely helpful and important intervention, which suggests that the Bill should be a public one covering the whole country. If there is a widespread problem in Castle Point, in North East Somerset and possibly in Scotland, Yorkshire and other parts—even in Wales, where my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) represents his constituency so nobly and so well—there should be a Bill that covers the whole of the United Kingdom. It may be a devolved power, so we may not be able to legislate for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although their Assemblies may like to ask us to do so. However, if the problem is not so widespread and if it is not a matter for public law, is it really right that in certain areas a private Bill should institute the legal penalties with the full force of law behind them that we get in Westminster and some London boroughs but not in Castle Point? Thus residents in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) will not have the benefit of the Bill, but if they happened to move to London and then decided to sell a car, they would risk being caught out because they were not aware of the law.
We are creating bad law from the start. One of the great principles of law is that it should be clear and simple to understand. It should not be arbitrary; it should apply uniformly to each equally. Bringing in the type of law that is in the Bill is to make arbitrary law with the full force of penalties behind it, including the possible confiscation of vehicles, if the person does not pay the fees and charges levied. Is that a reasonable way to proceed? If the matter is so urgent and essential—to return to my earlier point—it ought to be a public Bill and the Government ought to be driving it through. The problem should be dealt with in the country at large; simply dealing with it in some London boroughs, in particular the City of Westminster, is not satisfactory.
If the Bill goes through in its current state, the problem described by our hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) could become worse. Residents involved in the motor trade in London will move their vehicles from the streets of London to the streets of Castle Point and other areas outside London. I hope that in due course she will vote with us to remove the clauses from the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that wise intervention. It is like squeezing a balloon. I doubt, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you have ever squeezed a balloon, which is rather a childish habit, but if people do, they find that it goes in at the middle and a bit goes up and down and out of the way—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire says it is like a water bed; I have never had the disadvantage—or advantage or pleasure—of sleeping on a water bed, so I really cannot comment.
To develop the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), if people shift from the centre towards the suburbs and then further out, it would not be too bad because at least business would be carried on. We rail against the European Union for introducing more and more regulation against business. In speech after speech, particularly from the Government Benches, we say we want more business and we want to deregulate so that business can get on with what it is trying to do. But then what do we do? We have this musty, hangover Bill that has been mouldering around in Parliament for several years, and because nobody is willing to stand up and say that it ought to be a dead duck, it keeps on going. I am sorry for the mixed metaphors; the dead ducks would have had to be stuffed to be in that musty and mouldering condition.
The Bill is an improper and bad way of legislating, and it is fundamentally against Conservative principles. I am glad that there are Lib Dems in the Chamber, because I do not think the Bill upholds Lib Dem principles either. One of the great virtues of the historic Liberal party, and one of the things that I have always thought made it so attractive and why I quite like the coalition, is that Liberals are genuinely liberal in parts; they believe that people should be relatively free and regulated only when it is essential, rather than for the convenience of the bureaucrat. In the order of priority, the bureaucrat comes pretty low down. The measure may be convenient for a few people who are strolling along, but we have to weigh up the inconvenience caused when parking spaces are taken, with the weight of the law coming down on people and the risk of putting them out of business and conceivably out of work.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the difficulties imposed on legitimate car traders, who have planning permission and pay business rates and rent for their parking lot? They are being undercut by people who park large numbers of cars on residential streets, without planning permission, and who sometimes evade paying tax or registering the sale. Does he think that is a legitimate or fair way to proceed?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s conversion to deregulation and low taxes. If the problem is that we are encouraging the black market, we should free up the white market and reduce taxes and decrease regulation. If something unfair is happening, the answer of the bureaucrat is always to regulate to make it fair, not to deregulate to make it fair. Actually, we should tell legitimate traders, “Okay, you’re in competition with somebody who isn’t paying rates so let’s have lower rates because otherwise you’ll go out of business.” We should look at whether planning permission is a proper way to regulate business, or whether there are already too many burdens and costs on business. As so often, I am at one with my hon. Friend in feeling that the situation offers a good argument for deregulation, cutting taxes and getting at things from a positive angle, rather than always looking at the negative and stopping people doing things. How do we make the economy grow? We free people from the shackles of the state, removing the dead hand of regulation; not by putting more regulation on them.
One of my bugbears about a number of clauses is the level of proof required and the seniority of the person who can enforce penalties, so I have tabled a number of amendments, in particular 42 and 43, to raise the standard of proof and of the person who will issue a certificate. In subsection (7), amendment 42 would replace the words “reasonable cause” with “proof that”. That would mean that we could be certain.
Right back to Magna Carta, we have had a high standard of legal protection for people and their goods. People cannot have their goods taken from them without a court order. It is a good historic principle of British law and it is in the Magna Carta; no free man shall be taken or his goods taken without the judgment of a court against him. As we know, the principle developed with jury trial—although juries predate the Magna Carta —but in recent years we have been moving to an administrative system that allows not the courts to decide whether something should happen, but people at a much lower level who require lower levels of proof; hence, reasonable cause. Is it really satisfactory that somebody who is not even a police officer and does not need proof that a person is breaking the law can impose penalties? That seems fundamentally unjust.
The Bill provides that if a person sells their car in the street in Westminster, it can be seized by an “authorised officer” who has “reasonable cause” to suspect that that is what they are doing. My amendment would require there to be proof of the activity and that the order should be issued by a magistrate. The magistrates court is the lowest court in the land, but at least the person would have the judgment of a court against them. One of our most ancient liberties is protected if the judgment comes from a magistrate and is not given simply by an authorised officer or a constable.
It is easy to pass private Bills that include penalties and forfeitures that are not to the standard that would be required in a public Bill, because the standard of scrutiny is considerably lower. I realise we have many hours to discuss the Bill—we are on our third set of three hours—but we do so with a relatively thinly attended Chamber and without great enthusiasm for looking at the nitty-gritty and the detail of the Bill.
I find my hon. Friend’s argument persuasive, but does he agree that when we give authority to people, it changes the nature of the people to whom authority has been given? Suddenly, perfectly ordinary, rational people become hugely important and full of the power that they have been given. They make the situation far worse by becoming dominant and forceful.
I have the greatest sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view. It can often be a mistake to give an excessive amount of power in one particular area to relatively junior people. The authorised officer who is entitled to seize a vehicle is likely to be a relatively low-paid official who suddenly has the power to go round and confiscate a car. It might be quite a nice car—possibly that Aston Martin DB5 that I was talking about a few moments ago, which somebody was trying to sell on the internet for a good price. Then some teenaged council officer comes round and says, “I rather like that.” Bang. He says, “I’ve seen that on the internet. I’m going to issue a seizure notice and seize it.”
That does not build in the proper protections that we ought to have as British subjects. I know this is a long-winded speech and that many aspects of it are not entirely serious, but this is serious. The protection of our individual liberties ought to be the daily concern—the hourly concern—of Members of Parliament, because we are the people who can do something about that. It is in the nature of Government to erode people’s liberties because liberties are inconvenient. Liberties make people object to things that Governments are doing. They stop the great steamroller of Government coming down the tarmac. We as Members of Parliament are here to constrain that great urge of Government—to bind them down so that their infringements of liberty can occur only when they are essential.
I find it hard to believe that it is essential for the good of this great nation that my teenage authorised officer should be able to seize a motor car because somebody wanted to sell it on the internet, just because he has reasonable suspicion and not with any proof or any order of a court. I said that I disliked the whole clause altogether, but if we are to have this rotten clause, let us make it a little less rotten so that we can at least have protections for the individual.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that the concern of many is that that could lead to disputes between neighbours? Someone could maliciously advertise on the internet a car belonging not to him, but to the neighbour with whom he has fallen out? The low-grade officer to whom my hon. Friend refers could then use the powers under the Bill to seize that vehicle, thereby causing great embarrassment and injustice.
My hon. Friend’s imagination is so wonderful and glorious that it allows us to consider the possibility that a malevolent neighbour—you could not possibly have a malevolent neighbour, Mr Deputy Speaker, being so good-natured yourself, but others may—could take a little photograph of the car. Do you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you can take photographs with your telephone nowadays? This is one of the great delights of modern technology.
People take photographs even of MPs going about their daily business and put them on websites. They have not yet said that any MP is for sale, but they could take a photograph with their mobile telephone of a motor car, put it on the internet, say it is for sale, and then ring up the council and say, “Look what my neighbour is doing,” and how outrageous that is. Around comes the authorised officer and practically drives off in a brand-new Bentley. That would be very tiresome for the person who had bought a brand-new Bentley, if anybody could afford such things in these days of austerity.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He identifies a concern that we should all have. We in the House are all in favour of brotherly love—I look at my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) as I say that, and I know how much he values brotherly love among all peoples and all nations—but I am sorry to say that that is not how people live sometimes in the real world. They sometimes have disputes. They sometimes go to law courts over a hedge that is 2 or 3 inches above where it should be. They sometimes go to law courts over a perch of land, if that is still a unit that is allowed in these European days, and they argue through the courts for years and years, decades and decades, and cost themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds for a piece of land that was worth £20 or £1,000 to start with.
We could in this way, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, have neighbourly disputes made worse. The injunction that we get from the Bible, “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” would fall on sandy ground, as we found that all those cars were being purloined, in effect, by those authorised officers.
My amendment 44 deals with the form of the notice and the detail. We have got to the standard of proof: there ought to be proof. We have got to the fact that the notice ought to be issued by a magistrate, not by some tatterdemalion council officer, to quote the word so beloved of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. I come on to how the notice is determined. It is important that that should be done by the Secretary of State, by somebody of standing and seniority, somebody who can take the broader view into consideration when determining how the notice ought to be drawn up, the details that would be put in it and how precisely it is set out.
Why do I choose the Secretary of State? Because the Secretary of State, who may have faults—it has occurred that Her Majesty’s advisers have had faults over many centuries; indeed, this place has executed one or two of them over the years for having those terrible faults, but they are accountable to Parliament, so that if they agree to a notice that is unfair, they can be called to account here by the constituency MP or by other MPs who happen to take an interest in the rights of the individual. However, if the matter is left to the council, there are some councils across the land that never change hands. They remain Conservative or Labour for generation after generation. They become laws unto themselves, able to treat their people as they wish, without the real weekly, monthly, yearly accountability that the Secretary of State might have.
Even accepting that there have been Secretaries of State to whom one would not wish to give house room, the broad principle is that the Secretary of State, by virtue of his responsibilities in office and his accountability not only to this House, but to the other House of Parliament, and the fact that he holds his seals of office by a commission from Her Majesty the Queen, and that the Prime Minister can remove him from the holding of those seals of office by the wiggling of an eyebrow, if he is so determined to wiggle his eyebrows, gives us a degree of protection. That is why I and a number of hon. Friends have tabled amendment 44 to replace the words “the council” with the words “the Secretary of State”.
My hon. Friend will have seen amendment 67, which was tabled by our hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), proposing that the power be given to the Mayor of London. Would my hon. Friend like to give the House the benefit of his views about the merits of that proposal?
I am very interested to think about that proposal. The current Mayor of London is one of the greatest men who has ever lived. That is without question. He is a genius par excellence. He is an exciting, charismatic figure who bestrides the nation as a colossus of political affairs. There is a “but” coming, as my hon. Friends probably realised, though it does not relate to the former hon. Member for Henley, Mr Boris Johnson. It relates to who may come after him.
I go back to what I was saying about Lady Thatcher. If it were possible to deify people, Mr Boris Johnson would be next on the list, after the great lady, but he will not live for ever. He will not be Mayor for ever. Indeed, some people think—some people are heard to gossip and to speculate—that the Mayor of London has higher ambitions and is looking to come back into alternative places to carry out his duties. Therefore “the Mayor of London” refers, sadly, not to the individual who currently holds the office, but to the office itself, so I am not entirely supportive of amendment 67 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I feel that we would be taking a risk, a gamble.
We would, to use that term that is rarely heard, be playing with fire. We would be risking the happiness of our prospective fellow countrymen, or of our constituents if we represent London constituencies, by putting in somebody who might be a left-wing firebrand—some dangerous socialist figure who wanted only to penalise motor car owners—as the Mayor of London. We might—heaven help us—end up with a Green Mayor of London. The mind boggles at the thought of what a Green Mayor might do—a red one would be bad enough. Therefore, I think that it is safer to leave the power with the Secretary of State, as my amendment proposes.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you might expect me to prefer my own amendment to another Member’s, however wise and good they are, but I fear that we might not always have the Mayor of London that we would want, particularly through a long parliamentary Session. Sometimes the electors become bored with the party in power, and they might elect someone else to the mayoralty midway through the Session just to show the governing party that they can do so. Of course, we are not worried about that happening this time. The great Boris Johnson is so far ahead, by every measure that humanity can discover, that it is extremely unlikely that we will find some red, green or—I will whisper this very quietly—yellow candidate getting close to the mayoralty. If they did, however, we might find that the protection that I am trying to put in the Bill was not there.
Some very fine people have been, and are, Secretaries of State. I am thinking in particular of the Department that is relevant to this debate, which has one of the finest Secretaries of State in Her Majesty’s Government, a man who is hugely respected by everyone, and not only in the Conservative party, but in all parties up and down the country, and probably further afield, but as they do not have votes in British general elections we are not too worried about them for the purposes of this debate.
Amendment 45, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, seeks to ameliorate the pains and penalties of the Bill by giving people a chance to get things right and not to be penalised too quickly. It proposes that they should have 28 days, rather than 14, to abide by the notice that has been issued under the order of the Secretary of State, rather than the council, if my amendment 44 is accepted, or under the order of the Mayor of London if the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is accepted.
It looks as though the cost of a Royal Mail second-class stamp is about to go up to 55p. Councils are rather mean when sending such notices out and are unlikely to use the recorded delivery service. E-mail is no good if the council does not have the individual’s e-mail address, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency asks only for a postal address, not an e-mail address, when people register with it, so these things have to go through the post. It seems to me that, considering the standard of the postal service sometimes, particularly around Christmas, 14 days is far too short. People might find that they have been penalised extremely unfairly.
I reiterate that everything I am trying to do with this batch of amendments, as with others, is alleviate the penalties, pains, powers and restrictions of freedom set out in the Bill. It might not be the will of the House that I get rid of the entire clause, but at least the House will understand why it is important to ensure that people have justice. The great call of this House over many centuries has been to provide people with the justice they need to protect them from an over-mighty state that wishes to interfere in their liberties.
The next set of amendments relate to clause 14. I do not wish to sound like a broken record or for people to say, “Turn to the flip-side”, or whatever it is they say when they want the tone to change, but I believe that clause 14 ought to go in its entirety, and that is what amendment 46, which I and a number of hon. Friends have tabled, would do. Once again, we are dealing with the power to take people’s goods without the judgment of a court, and that cannot conceivably be right, just or in line with our understanding of the historic liberties of the individual, which should be protected.
Clause 14 applies to the city of Westminster; it is not a general clause. It states:
“An authorised officer of the Council or a constable may in the Borough seize any receptacle or equipment (other than a motor vehicle) which… is in a street”.
We could have someone wandering along the street who can seize a receptacle without so much as a “by your leave”, an order of a court or, at this stage, any proof that something is going on. The clause continues that the authorised officer may do this if he has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the receptacle is intended to be used in connection with unlicensed street trading. Who knows what could happen? Someone could be pushing a pram along the street and taking goods home in it while their baby was at nursery school, and the pram and goods could be seized because it might look as though they could be used for trading. Indeed, people might start trading their goods in prams because that might be a way of getting around the rules. The provision is so broad that all that it requires is for the officer to have “reasonable cause to suspect” that the receptacle is intended to be used in connection with unlicensed street trading. What if someone had been shopping and perhaps bought a few saucepans and a barbecue set and was wheeling it home? Would a council officer suddenly pounce on them and say, “I’d rather like that for my own home. I think I’ll take it, thank you so much, because you look like you’re about to do a little unlicensed street trading.”
It comes back to this desperate opposition to free trade, free markets and enterprise and a belief that regulating everything will create a perfect world. I am sorry to disappoint you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but however much we regulate, we will not create a perfect world. It simply will not happen, even in the great, noble and wondrous city of Westminster.
What are my various proposals? My first proposal is to get rid of the whole beastly clause. I understand that people do not like the smell of onions outside their front door when people are trading, and I know that one of the front doors in question is that of Buckingham palace, a front door that I think should be particularly protected from the smell of onions when people are doing a bit of street trading. Perhaps even this place should be protected in that way, although I do not think that it would do MPs any harm to walk past the smell of onions on their way to work in the mornings. I appreciate that that is unpleasant. I also understand that criminal gangs might be involved but, if they are, they should be got for serious criminal crime—that is a bit of a tautology, even when speaking so briefly—rather than for an invented crime of just looking as though one might want to sell something in the street.
What about Big Issue sellers? Will their copies of the Big Issue be confiscated because they might be doing a bit of unlicensed street trading? Some of them of course have licences. I hope that all the people who give out the Evening Standard have licences—they can hardly sell it, now that they give it out for free. This is just another attack on trade, and we need trade. We need people to be in employment and to work and we need the economy to boom. We will never get the boom back into Britain without some street trading or if we have some terrible and draconian regulations. I do not think that Draco would ever have thought up such regulations—I am not sure that there was a lot of street trading in Athens when he was around, but there might have been for all I know. They are draconian regulations that seek to discourage trade and penalise the entrepreneur and those who are trying to do their bit for society, rather than those who want something for nothing.
As with clause 10, I have looked at clause 14 in detail and thought that, although it is a nasty and pernicious clause—one might say that it is so nasty that it smells of rancid onions—if we are not to get rid of it in its entirely, let us at least try to ameliorate some of its faults and see what we can do to make it more reasonable and in line with our great traditions. Therefore, I have made certain suggestions. Amendment 47 would leave out “an authorised officer” and replace it with “a magistrate”. The magistracy really is the foundation of our courts system. It has a wonderful history and tradition. The lay magistracy has been particularly important in protecting our freedoms and bringing people from the community with a degree of wisdom and understanding of their local area to enforce the law there. The stipendiary magistracy, now called district judges, has formalised that, and in an urban setting it would more usually be a stipendiary magistrate who would have that responsibility, but Magna Carta still ought to count.
In these few words that is the third time I have mentioned Magna Carta—that was the fourth—but it is very important, because that document is what set us on the path to freedom, rights of property and the rule of law, which has led to the prosperity not just of this nation but of the United States and of Commonwealth nations that have had the benefit of that great history and tradition.
For some reason, and I think it is to do with the European Communities Act and the administrative approach taken across the Channel, in recent years we have removed the protection of the court from our subjects, and that is wrong. If we can put it back, we ought to put it back.
I have tabled various other amendments. Amendment 47 would insert “A magistrate”, and amendment 48 would insert a “public” street. One may think that there are not many private streets in Westminster, but there are one or two, and if the Duke of Westminster, who owns most of them, really wishes to become a hawker, it should be up to him, on His Grace’s private property, to decide whether to do a bit of hawking, instead of being caught by this Bill. I therefore thought that “public” would just help a little to clarify exactly what we are trying to cover. Where is that place with all the embassies? It is actually in Kensington and Chelsea, so it does not really apply, but there are private streets in Westminster, and if people who own them really do wish to sell fried onions they should be at liberty to do so, although I should not claim that the right to sell onions is a great, historic British liberty.
Amendment 49 is again a proposal to move to more “proof”. On amendment 60, I was very concerned that these authorised officers would not have any uniform, and that was how we got on to tatterdemalions before and why I made the point that we really ought to consider the dress of these people so that everybody would know exactly what they ought to look like and that they were proper representatives. I had an idea that the dress could be drawn up for councils by somebody like the College of Arms, and I thought that in Westminster it would be rather splendid if the attendants had the crest of Westminster. I am sure that all Members would like to know what it is:
“On a Wreath Or and Azure a Portcullis Sable studded and chained Or between on the dexter side a united Rose, the flower Argent upon Gules and on the sinister side a Lily both stalked leaved and erect proper.”
I think it would be rather smart if there were a
“Lily both stalked leaved and erect proper”
on the uniforms of these council officials.
This is perhaps one area—the uniform—where I feel rather suspicious of what we are talking about. In my experience we should be careful, because whenever we put a uniform on somebody we immediately enhance their own self-importance. My previous intervention was about junior officers becoming hugely important when given authority, and that importance would be multiplied if we gave them a uniform.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, as always, and it is one of those occasions when one needs balance: one needs the Lib-Dem approach to it—neither one thing nor the other, but something in between. One needs to have sufficient respectability of the person so that people know that it is an officer with some authority, but equally one needs to be in a position where the officer does not let that authority go to their head by being so overburdened with gold braid and pride that they feel they are enormously powerful and must intervene. I should not give them one of those spiked helmets that one sees in old first world war films with the Prussian officers marching out; that might give the wrong impression. I suggested earlier that a bowler hat might be suitable, and that may be the right way.
Some people may have been thinking from my speech that, despite not being in a uniform, I have an undue level of self-importance, so my hon. Friend’s point is probably one that Members, as much as others, should bear in mind.
If we develop the uniform theme and decide that it gives such officials too much power, we might decide that they should just have the badge of Westminster on their ordinary clothes, so that at least one would knew who they were. I thought that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would be dying to know what the badge is:
“A Portcullis chained and ensigned of a Mural Crown between on the dexter side a united Rose and on the sinister side a Lily”—
once again stalked, but—
“both stalked and leaved all Or,”
which is exactly the ticket for issuing tickets, so to speak.
That is an idea of the most sumptuous gloriousness. It would be a fine way of raising money and reducing the council tax for residents if we could get Westminster city council into a bit of unlicensed street trading on the side, and of course its officers would not penalise it because it would be effectively above the law.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, but would not the advent of selling such badges—badges of honour, perhaps—mean that unscrupulous individuals might get hold of replicas and do to other members of the community precisely what he has been describing?
It was Winston Churchill who said that he had often had to eat his words and had found it a very good diet. I am very much in the same position now: I am dutifully eating my words in relation to the earlier answer I gave, because that is exactly the problem that we might have. People might get those badges, which I described earlier, and of which I am sure the House would like to be reminded:
“A Portcullis chained and ensigned of a Mural Crown between on the dexter side a united Rose and on the sinister side a Lily both stalked and leaved all Or.”
But perhaps instead of having them “all Or” we should have them “all Argent”. Then we would know that they were not the real thing, and it would allow us to sell them and raise a bit of money without allowing anybody to go around impersonating one of those officers. My hon. Friend’s point is of serious importance: one would have to have a uniform that could not be easily replicated, but if one could make a little money on the side by selling something similar that would be beneficial.
One thinks of cricket teams that do so. Somerset county cricket club sells its shirts, which are extraordinarily popular. I do not wear them myself, but with younger people they are very popular and a good way of raising money and keeping ticket prices down, so perhaps one would get some benefit from that, as tourists came along and decided to buy imitations rather than the real thing.
One can buy imitation policeman’s helmets, which have plastic insignia on them and little plastic silver things on top, and that does not confuse too many people. My four-year-old enjoys wearing one, and he has never been arrested for impersonating an officer, although he is actually under the age of criminal responsibility so he cannot be arrested anyway. He cannot even be got by one of these council officers, because he has not worked out how to sell a car on the internet, although if he sold mine I would not be unduly delighted.
I have proposed adding “in uniform”, and if we look at some of the other parts of clauses 14 and 15, we find that for consistency I have proposed making sure that we have “magistrates” as well. I do not wish to repeat myself unduly, but the point is one worth making, and I have always thought, “If it is a good point, make it again and again and perhaps one day somebody will listen,” because we need orders from magistrates to ensure that the measure is proper, valid, just, right and observes—respects—the historic rights that we have had for so many centuries.
I want to move on at quite some speed, because there are any number of people who are looking forward to speaking on this great subject and have tabled amendments—many more than I have. Indeed, the Bill’s sponsor has proposed some of his own amendments, which people will want to debate at considerable length, so I turn to amendments 56 and 57 to clause 16. Earlier in the clause I suggest that an object’s disposal be subject to an order by “A magistrate”, but these proposed changes would just tie down the councils on costs, amending clause 16(3) so that it stated that the council may recover its “reasonable” costs, rather than any costs.
When councils take enforcement action, they should not do so as a profit centre. Although, strictly speaking, they would not be allowed to do so, it is amazing how people wangle their way around the rules. We know that from parking tickets, which started as a means of stopping congestion. Suddenly, we discover that councils are using them to build up their bank reserves because they are not getting the money that they want from other sources in this age of austerity, such as from central Government. A little bit extra from parking fines is very helpful. That is particularly iniquitous. Let us therefore put in the word “reasonable” and tie the councils down. I cannot really see why they would object, if they have no sinister motive. I am sure that they have no sinister motive because otherwise we would have spotted it earlier and thrown out the Bill on Second Reading. Clause 16 should therefore read “reasonable costs”.
When a seizure takes place and what is seized is sold, under amendment 57 any excess money would go back to the person and the fine would not exceed the value of what has been confiscated. Again, it is unfair to penalise people twice for the same thing: once for a minor offence is more than enough, and twice—to go on and on and repeat it again and again—seems to me to be fundamentally unfair. We should therefore put in some limits.
The whole thread of my amendments is to protect the legitimate individual, and perhaps even the slightly spivvy individual who wanders between the right and the wrong side of the law. When he is on the right side of the law, he has rights too. Just because somebody has been a bit spivvy once does not mean that all his rights should be suspended, destroyed, eroded or removed. Even that fellow Mr Qatada was let out of prison when there was no reasonable prospect of deporting him. Even the nastiest people have some rights. People who have been selling a few things on an illegal stall must surely be protected, if they are having their livelihood taken away, from having their utensils taken away and an unreasonable fine served upon them as well. It is important to maintain the great, historic liberties.
That brings me to clause 18. I really will be coming to an end quite soon. This is not my proposal, but it is in this group and I think that it is particularly sensible. Amendment 35 suggests getting rid of clause 18 altogether. One might say that we should get rid of the whole Bill, but that may come a little later, on Third Reading. Clause 18 will apply a fine at level 3 for people who obstruct one of the council officers. The reason that I have taken objection to that, do take objection to it and will continue to take objection to it is that one does not know who the officer is. One cannot be certain that somebody genuinely is an officer of the council. One may be fooled. As a general principle, the law must be clear.
If some foolish person steals a policeman’s helmet on boat race night, as we all know Bertie Wooster did, he knows that when he is brought up before the beak, he is being charged fairly and justly. If instead of pinching a policeman’s helmet, Bertie Wooster had met one of these authorised officers, who said that he thought his Widgeon Seven was for sale on the internet, Mr Wooster might have said, “Who are you? How I do know that you have any authority to tell me not to sell my Widgeon Seven on the internet?” For the sake of clarity, the internet was not invented when Mr Bertie Wooster was driving the Widgeon Seven, which was some decades ago. However, I do not think that that invalidates the argument. It is an example of what could happen. It might not be Mr Wooster with a Widgeon Seven; it might be any one of our constituents who happens to be in London with a Ford or Renault, if people buy French cars. They simply might not know whether the person who tries to give them a ticket is an authorised officer.
Any true-born English person, and probably any Welsh person or Scots person, would be very affronted if some busybody came up to them saying, “I’m giving you a fine,” unless they could be certain who that person really was and that they had a legitimate authority. This proposal is even more pernicious because people coming to London will not know that rules in London are different to those where they come from. My constituents who come to London will find these peculiar officers bouncing out at them from around corners saying, “We’re giving you a fine.” My constituents will definitely take no notice of that. They will say, “I don’t give a fig for your fine.” They will then be done under clause 18 and receive a fine not exceeding level 3 for saying that they do not give a fig for a fine. I think that a man from Somerset should be allowed to say that to somebody unless he knows clearly that that person is who he pretends to be and has a uniform to prove it.
We have discussed what the uniforms should be and what coats of arms could be on them. It happens that there are coats of arms for every borough of London, so they could each have their own uniform. Earlier, we talked only about Westminster. That is why I did not regale the House with the arms of all the boroughs of London. I thought it would be interesting to do so and I may be able to do so on another occasion.
That leaves me with my final amendment. Amendment 58 relates to clause 19 on the proof of resolution, which is outrageous. The whole thing is outrageous, but amendment 58 would put right a particular outrage. All the cards are stacked in favour of the bureaucrat. If the bureaucrat gets something wrong, he gets off scot-free. If the bureaucrat does not send something out, it is presumed that he has sent it out. However, if poor Mr Jones who is selling his car on the high street gets a ticket, the car is taken off him by an authorised officer without the approval of a magistrate and without anything being proved. This law, this rotten law, this dreadful, mean little Bill for some of the London boroughs, is an attack on freedom that builds up the bureaucrat and enables him to do all sorts of things without any protection for the individual. The bureaucrat can take one’s car, seize one’s goods, sell one’s goods and send one a notice with only 14 days to do anything about it. If that bureaucrat makes a bureaucratic mistake, he is scot free and it is assumed that he got everything right, because he is such a wonderful and clever bureaucrat.
This party came into government to protect the freedoms of the British subject. That was in our manifesto. The Lib Dems have been just as sound on the freedoms of the British subject since the Liberal party was founded. What on earth are we doing passing these nasty little clauses into law? They deal with a problem that is of insufficient scale to warrant this loading of the dice in favour of the state to oppress and do down the freedom-loving Briton.
I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on another brilliant contribution to this debate. I particularly enjoyed his peroration, which was a paean of praise for liberty. It is appropriate that the people who support liberty are well represented in the Chamber tonight, whereas those who have always been in favour of restricting liberty are not well represented.
As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, this group of amendments was first debated on the occasion of our Prime Minister’s visit to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It was the first time that a Prime Minister had visited the Parliamentary Assembly for some 30 years. As a member of the Parliamentary Assembly, I was in Strasbourg rather than here. That is why I was unable to introduce the group of amendments and to move amendment 22. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has done so with tremendous expertise. He has kept his remarks succinct and to the point, and has given us an example of how we should deal with such matters in this Chamber.
Amendment 22 goes to the root of the Bill and is likely to be the one in this group upon which we will have a Division, but I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) has accepted amendment 26, and I hope that in due course I will have the chance to move it formally and that the House will support it.
Amendment 22 suggests leaving out clause 9, entitled “Street trading: vehicles and the internet”. The way in which the promoters of the Bill have described the purpose of the clause is slightly disingenuous, because they state that it
“would amend the street trading provisions of the London Local Authorities Act 1990 so as to clarify that vehicles which are for sale in the course of a business on the internet and which are parked on the street fall within the licensing regime.”
That implies that they believe such vehicles may already be covered by that Act. Why do they not have the courage of their convictions and say that the purpose of the clause is to extend the current provisions to bring the sale of vehicles on the internet in the course of business within the ambit of that Act? They say that it
“would not apply to residents or other individuals selling their own vehicle on an occasional basis.”
We must be grateful for small mercies such as that and the fact that amendment 26 is to be incorporated into clause 10, so that it will carry a similar caveat.
I have always believed that we need to examine carefully the text of Bills such as this, to ensure that they have apparent clarity. We are discussing the creation of new offences, and if people are to be charged with those offences, or find themselves losing their trade and livelihood or being otherwise punished, it is vital that they should know exactly where they stand. The exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset and my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) illustrated vividly the misunderstandings that can arise when there is ambiguous wording. Clause 9 does not state where the street in question has to be. It states that the motor vehicle has to be
“kept on a street during the period when it is so exposed or offered for sale”.
There is ambiguity about the location at which an offence will be committed. Will it be where the vehicle is kept or where the owner resides? That is a significant question, because if there is a problem in Castle Point—I accept what my hon. Friend said about that—it will inevitably be made worse if we interpret clause 9 as prohibiting people who are resident in London from keeping their cars on a street in London when they are exposed or offered for sale on the internet.
For how long must a vehicle be kept on a street? The clause states that it must be
“during the period when it is so exposed or offered for sale.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said, it is possible to put something on the internet and leave it there for some time. Sometimes, one looks at a property on the internet and says, “Gosh, that’s a really well priced property”, but when one looks at it in more detail, one finds that it was actually being offered at that price about five years ago and has long since been either sold or withdrawn from the market. Things can be advertised for sale on the internet without anybody being sure whether that exposure or offer for sale is current and up to date.
“exposed or offered for sale”
is used in the Bill. What is the difference between being exposed for sale and offered for sale on the internet? I hope that when my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green responds to the debate he will be able to explain why it was thought necessary to include both those expressions.
A lot of people buy and sell vehicles, and it is hard to know when they cross the dividing line between a purely private sale and a sale in the course of a business. How will that be defined and policed? If a person sells one vehicle on the internet, will that mean he is doing so in the course of a business, or will there need to be evidence that he has sold other vehicles on the internet, or that the internet site or advertisement used contains more than one vehicle registered in his name?
Nor do we know whether the person exposing a motor vehicle for sale on the internet will have to be its owner. Many people have agents acting on their behalf who sell things without ownership having passed to them. If a sale is made, a commission payment may be due to them. We do not know whether it is intended that the clause will apply to anybody whose vehicle is advertised whether or not they are selling it in the course of a business. For example, if I were to use an intermediary to advertise my vehicle on the internet on my behalf, although I would be exposing it for sale as a private individual, the intermediary would be doing so as a business proposition. Would that mean that my private sale would contradict the provisions of clause 9? It is disingenuous in the extreme for the promoters to say that it is a clause of clarification, because it significantly extends the restrictions upon street trading by widening enormously the definition of street trading in London.
A point that has already been made in the debate, but is worth making again, is that we are talking about London local authorities. If there is a real problem such as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point described, it should surely be dealt with in a public Bill rather than in piecemeal, incremental legislation such as the Bill. Clause 9 relates specifically to the whole of London; clauses 10, 11 and 12 relate specifically to the City of Westminster; and clauses 13, 14, 15 and 16 relate to Camden. That follows a pattern that we have seen with a number of private Bills whereby the City of Westminster goes ahead first, and then the legislation that they get through is applied for by the London local authorities collectively, or perhaps by the London borough of Camden or another London authority—the idea being, I think, that nobody will take much notice if just one borough is doing it. Then the precedent is set and other boroughs follow suit, and before we know it we have a whole series of pieces of private legislation that come together and act significantly to restrict the liberties of the individual.
When I have had responsibility, I have always found that if one tries something out and it works, other people want to copy it. Local authorities will need to promote their own legislation in order to have the same powers as those in places where it has worked elsewhere. Surely the critical thing is whether the powers have had a beneficial effect on the public.
That is a very potent intervention, because it covers several different issues. My hon. Friend is basically saying that it should be open to an individual local authority to be able to carry out an experiment. I do not think that anybody disputes the advantages that certain experiments can have, but there is no reason why an experiment cannot be contained in a public Bill or have a sunset clause. I am not sure that he has dealt with the concerns that we have been expressing.
As for whether the Bill is in the public interest, it is obviously important that any legislation that goes on to the statute book is in the public interest, but what do we mean by “public”? A private Bill operates differently as between one part of the country and another. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green may say that the Bill is arguably in the interests of the public in London, but is it also in the interests of the public in boroughs adjacent to London that will not be covered by it and where there may well be a spill-over effect that is adverse to their interests?
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, is my hon. Friend arguing that we should not allow local authorities to apply for powers to try something out, or that because it might be suitable for one local authority, every local authority should have the same powers at the same time? One has to decide whether one is a conservative or a socialist, and I think that my hon. Friend is trespassing slightly from our side of the House.
If my hon. Friend’s intention is to provoke me by describing me as a socialist, he has certainly succeeded. I have always been a great believer in enabling legislation. There is nothing to prevent the Government from introducing a public Bill that enables local authorities to carry out an experiment if they want to, and then, if they do not like what they are doing, to amend the laws locally. A public Bill with enabling powers is a much better way of meeting my hon. Friend’s concerns.
I note from my hon. Friend’s gestures that he accepts that that would be a better way forward. I hope that the Minister will also be able to endorse that line of argument when he expresses his views about why local authorities should not be encouraged to bring forward these private Bills, which seem to be taking up an inordinate amount of debating time in the House.
Again, I differ with my hon. Friend. It is a function of the quality of the legislation. A good Bill that is well drafted and commands popular support will go through very quickly, as we saw earlier in this Session with the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord). He hardly had a chance to get a word in edgeways on his own Bill—his maiden Bill—because it sped through all its stages, and that is because it was well drafted, pertinent and met a need.
The hon. Gentleman talks about popular support. Is it not significant that not one single Member of Parliament from London who will be affected by this Bill has spoken in opposition to it? Does not that suggest that there is popular support for it?
I see that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) are the only two representatives on the Opposition Benches. I interpret the lack of attendance from London Members differently. Is it not extraordinary that a Bill which, we are told, is so essential to the well-being of the people of London has received no support from large numbers of London Members? I would expect them to be here in droves, intervening and saying how antisocial I am.
That is the more proper interpretation of the fact that there are no London Members in the Chamber with the exception of my hon. Friends the Members for Finchley and Golders Green and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I congratulate the latter on his assiduous attendance in such debates and on receiving the accolade of sponsoring subsequent private Bills on behalf of London local authorities. I understand he will take over from my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green the onerous responsibility of sponsoring London local authority private Bills because the latter has decided that one is enough. With the exception of my two enthusiastic hon. Friends there is a conspicuous absence of London Members in the debate.
Clause 9 is seriously flawed and ill-conceived. In the end, it will result in people who are innocently trying to sell their motor vehicles to get the maximum benefit will find themselves on the wrong side of some officious council officer. They will then find that their vehicle is seized or suffer another penalty. If clause 9 is passed and gets on to the statute book, the real villains of whom we have heard—those who park large numbers of cars on the highway, perhaps with labels in them saying that they are for sale on the internet—will escape scot-free. The innocent bystanders, so to speak, will find themselves suffering penalties as a result.
In practice, if the local authority wants to restrict parking on the highway, it can introduce parking controls—it has the power to do so. Why should not licensed vehicles, as they must be, be parked in a lawful place on the high street or the public highway? Does the fact that they have a label inside saying that they are for sale cause any offence? I suspect it does not—
The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it does cause offence. If he thinks so, why does he not get something done about it in his local authority area? Why does he not campaign for a public Bill to deal with that? I find the Opposition spokesman’s support for this partisan legislation quite bizarre. He seems to think that his local authority suffers similar problems to London local authorities, yet he is doing nothing about it at the same time as imposing upon the people of London new burdens and responsibilities. I hope in due course we will hear more from the hon. Gentleman and that he will expand on his views.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that the streets of London are relatively congested with parking. One frequent complaint from residents is that the places where they can legitimately park are taken up by people who are running a business by putting their cars for sale on the street, taking up the very parking places that residents could occupy. Does he not accept that that is one of the purposes of the Bill?
I think that my hon. Friend has taken our hon. Friend’s words too precisely. If these are places where residents park, rather than places restricted to residents parking, and if, in effect, it becomes a street market for cars, why should there not be the same regulations as for street markets of stalls? Will he address his mind to that issue? A local authority does not tolerate street markets without local byelaws. The same thing applies to the sale of cars in places where residents park.
I understand the distinction between the points made by my two hon. Friends. Surely the solution to the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) is for the local authority to create a residents’ parking regime on the road that is being used, to the annoyance of local residents, by a lot of vehicles not based in that area.
Even in my constituency, which is semi-rural, people are taking literally the idea that the Government are encouraging them to park and ride. They think that they can park on any piece of highway, even if it causes lots of problems. I have an issue involving a residential school for disabled children where the staff can no longer park on the highway by the school because people commuting to London are parking there earlier in the morning—about 7 o’clock—and teaming up for lifts to places such as Southampton Parkway station. That is creating a problem.
The solution is not, however, for East Dorset district council to promote a private Bill; the solution is for it to use the powers it already has to regulate parking in that area. From my experience as a London borough councillor, I would suggest that where a lot of people are parking in residential streets close to rail termini or underground stations, the solution is for the local authority to introduce a parking restriction between, say, 8 am and 10 am, making it impossible for a commuter to park in that space over the period and leaving it available for longer-term residents or people who wish to use the space for legitimate residential purposes.
If there is a mischief here, it applies not just to parts of London but right across the country, and it can be resolved by local authorities exercising their powers sensibly under the principle of localism without having to introduce heavy-handed private legislation.
Is my hon. Friend now advancing the view that in the light of the Localism Act 2011, which the House wisely passed and which gives local authorities a general power of competence, none of the Bill is applicable and every council in London can do all this without reference to the law because it has a general power of competence? Is that his stance?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Obviously, the Bill started off four or five years ago, long before anybody dreamt that a general power of competence would be given to local authorities under a major Act of Parliament. In the days when I was a local government Minister, central Government was absolutely dead against giving local authorities a general power of competence. Local authorities have won that argument, and now it is open to them, using their imagination, to see to what ends they can use that general power. In my view, though, it is much better to use it to introduce arrangements suited to a particular locality where the people introducing the arrangements will be accountable, at the ballot box, to the electorate, than to introduce proposals in the way that the Bill’s promoters are seeking to do.
On residents’ parking, is it not the case that, whether or not a car is being offered for sale, it will still be taking up space on a road? Whether or not it has a little sign in the back window, all that would happen is that it would be displaced somewhere else; therefore, the problem that our hon. Friends are describing is really one of lack of space in total.
Either that or there are too many cars—that might be another interpretation. Or, there are too many people—I should perhaps plead guilty to this myself—who aspire to sort out the car that is firing on only two cylinders, but in the meantime they get another car and keep the car that is not working very well, thinking that at some stage it will be useful to them, so they end up with more cars than they really need. The Government are dealing with that problem by increasing car tax well beyond the rate of inflation.
However, I return to the point that if there is a scarcity of on-road parking space, that is for the local authority to deal with. If somebody has a lot of cars on a space, they can remain there provided they are licensed. However, if the local authority introduces a rule saying that a resident can have only one parking permit, for example—I am sure that is the situation in quite a lot of London boroughs, and certainly Lambeth, which I know for these purposes—that means that each resident in a household can have only one car with a residents’ parking permit. Therefore, introducing a residential control zone will sort out the problem of vehicles being sold on the internet for street trading purposes.
In the last 30 minutes I have failed to distinguish whether my hon. Friend, in his clever way, is saying that he is against local authorities having the powers in question or whether he thinks that they should not have them under this Bill. Could he please clear up the confusion?
I am sorry that there is any confusion, but I am happy to try to clear it up. I am speaking to the proposals in this Bill that local authorities should have the powers, because I am against cluttering up the statute book with unnecessary legislation, particularly that which purports to be necessary to address a particular mischief, when that mischief can be addressed in another way, without using public or private legislation. In answer to my hon. Friend’s point, my objection is to this particular Bill and the way it is being used to try to deal with a mischief that, if there be that mischief, could be dealt with another way, without the use of these draconian powers.
I think my hon. Friend’s point is one of absolute clarity, justness and truth. It seems to me that clause 10, which applies to Westminster city council, stops people doing something that they cannot do anyway, because as far as I am aware, there is not a yard of parking space in Westminster city council area that is not regulated by the council, either through residents’ parking, a meter, or a single or even double yellow line. Therefore, this is just a ridiculous piece of legislation to introduce a nasty set of penalties, quite unnecessarily, when councils can ensure that there is no problem through their existing powers.
That is probably one of the most compelling points made in this evening’s debate. My hon. Friend, with his knowledge of the city of Westminster, says that people are not able to do the mischief that clause 10 seeks to address, so what is the point of it? I hope that our hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green will be able to get some advice as to why it is necessary at all. Perhaps the problem arises because some residents are a bit snooty and worry that, when visitors come for dinner, they might see a car parked in the street with a sign in it saying that it is for sale and that more information is available on the internet. Perhaps they think that that would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even in circumstances in which residents were limited to one parking permit, they could still display such a label inside their vehicle, which could, in the eyes of some people, lower the tone of the neighbourhood. I do not know whether that is the justification for the proposal. We could debate whether it was a sensible reason for introducing this kind of legislation, and for introducing clause 10 in particular, but I do not think that it is sufficient justification.
Amendments have been made to the Bill, and some clauses have been completely cut out of it. That shows that, in its original conception, it was put forward without proper forethought by a lot of rather ambitious officials. No doubt the ratepayers of those local authorities have paid dearly for the services of the parliamentary agents and other advisers involved. As with so many private Bills, however, it would have been better if those people had spent more time thinking about what they really wanted to put into it and about whether it was really necessary, before launching it for our consideration in the House.
Some vehicles that are being sold on the street have signs in their window saying that they are for sale at a given price, and that is quite clear. One of the problems associated with selling motor vehicles on the street, however, is that some unscrupulous individuals do not put such signs into the windows of the cars; they merely advertise them for sale on the internet. So the priggish neighbour who worries about what their visitors will think when they come round for dinner could be faced with a whole street filled with cars that are being sold on the internet by a business, rather than being labelled as for sale for everyone to see.
I understand the scenario that my hon. Friend is describing, but could not that problem be resolved by introducing a residents’ parking regime, such as the one that already exists in Westminster, under which no resident may have more than one parking permit? That mischief would not exist under such a regime.
I hesitate to suggest a practical answer to the problem, but there are plenty of people living in Westminster who like to park on the single yellow lines after 6.30 and at weekends, and it is also possible for their friends and family members to do so. If they were to discover that some business was taking up all that parking space, and not paying rates as most conventional sellers of cars do, they would want that problem to be solved. When my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) was a distinguished local councillor in London, he and his council occasionally used the kind of legislation that is being proposed here to the great advantage of his local residents, and I suspect that those who are promoting this Bill would like it to allow them to do the same.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the latter part of his intervention. I like to think that, when I was the leader of Wandsworth council, we did not waste a lot of money on promoting private Bills to try to oppress our residents. Our policy was very much the reverse of that. If Westminster can deal with this problem, I do not see why other councils cannot do so. My hon. Friend talks about there being a problem after hours, but what would happen to the cars during the day? Would they suddenly appear after hours?
My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) has conjured up a marvellous picture of some incredibly efficient businesses that race along and park their cars on the single yellow lines at 6.30 every evening and race them off again at 8.30 every morning. Whither they would go, heaven only knows. That would hardly be practical, and it would not represent a real risk to residents.
That is absolutely right.
It is sometimes difficult to give personal examples, but I shall give the House an example involving my daughter. Last autumn, she was in the market for her first car, and she saw one advertised on the internet, on Auto Trader. I went with her—apparently, my cheque book was needed—to view this vehicle and we went to what appeared to be a private house, although I suspect it was being used for a business.
The vehicle was parked on the street outside. It was a car advertised on the internet, parked on a residential road and, as far as I could make out, it was not causing any problems. If this had taken place inside the London area, the person trying to sell that car would have been found guilty of street trading under the terms of the provisions. For the life of me, I cannot see what was wrong with advertising that car on the Auto Trader site or with a potential purchaser looking at it, doing a test drive and visiting the residential premises where the person selling it was based. I simply do not see the problem, and by going on that sort of website, one can arguably get much better value for money. I shall not spoil my own story—or perhaps I will—by saying that we did not purchase this particular car because I found out that it had been clocked by 100,000 miles—but that is a separate story, and this Bill does not go into dealing with that. Perhaps it is a cautionary tale for people who try to buy cars in such circumstances.
I think I have exhausted my concerns about clause 9. It is an over-the-top reaction, and clause 10 has the same problems in relation to the city of Westminster. I know that other hon. Friends want to contribute to the debate, so I shall not repeat further points made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. However, his arguments for removing clauses 18 and 19, which are of general application and are wholly inimical to the principles of liberty, are very strong, so I heartily endorse them.
If it is not already clear, let me say that I have grave concerns about most of the clauses we are debating this evening, and particularly about clause 9. I hope that in due course we will have the opportunity to test the will of the House on that clause.
I shall deal with a couple of points before talking about the amendments. Let me try to lay to rest this issue about the variance of laws across the UK and how people visiting London are suddenly going to be terribly confused—as if people living outside London lack the competence to understand that laws change.
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is not in his place this evening, as I took the opportunity to look at some of the vagaries of local laws in his local authority of Bradford. If I were minded to take a petrol-fuelled model plane into a local park there, I would be prohibited from doing so, and I am sure that the people of London who also wished to do so would be confused if they took their plane up the M1. If I chose to fly my kite dangerously, although it is not made clear what is dangerous and what is safe kite flying, that would also be prohibited. If I were innocently to strum a guitar in a public park, I would be intercepted by what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would no doubt call a peak-capped local government official who would immediately throw me out of the park.
As ever, I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s perspicacity. There has always been a variance in local authority legislation in the United Kingdom, and, in fact, that represents localism at its best.
I may be wrong, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I am, but my understanding of the “power of competence” is that councils would be allowed to do only what an individual can do. Given that individuals do not have the power to regulate street trading, and, however attractive the prospect of ridding ourselves of a tortuous experience may seem, that sadly would not work in this instance. I also take the point that bad legislation is being promoted because constant amendments are being proposed, but even Government legislation is subject to amendment and redrafting. We accept that as part of the process.
As I have said, I support amendment 26, which proposes the insertion of the words “in the course of business” to deal with the sale of vehicles on the internet. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that vehicle traders are causing a problem and inconveniencing many residents in London streets where parking is at a premium. However, the Bill is not intended to target the innocent Mr and Mrs Bloggs who are trying to sell their Morris Minor outside 22 Acacia avenue; it is aimed at those who are seeking to sell more than one car on the highway in the course of a business. At present, existing legislation can deal with those who seek to trade and advertise a car for sale on the highway, but, as we know, unscrupulous traders can always find a loophole and, in this instance, they have found it in the internet. We must adapt to that, and ensure that such traders cannot continue to clog up our residential streets and inconvenience our local council tax payers without having to meet the legal requirements by ceasing to trade or regularising their activities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch suggested that we should extend controlled parking zones. Westminster has been mentioned in that context. I am not a great parker in Westminster—I cannot possibly afford it—and for all I know most of it may well consist of yellow lines or requirements for residents’ parking permits, but Westminster council is a very small council, one of the smallest in the country. My local authority, Barnet, is the largest borough in London in geographical terms. The suggestion that the whole borough of Barnet should become a single CPZ to deal with the problem of unscrupulous traders of vehicles on the highway simply does not hold water, not least because our residents already oppose the continued expansion of CPZs. To make the whole borough a CPZ would simply not be practical, let alone popular.
My hon. Friend is beginning to expose one of the problems that the Bill seeks to resolve. When CPZs are put into residential streets in London, up to 80% of parking bays are often removed because of legislation that specifies the space in which parking is permitted, and residents are charged a premium to park in their own streets. The Bill’s opponents would like that to be imposed on the whole of London, rather than favouring sensible regulation to control on-street trading.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. Those of us who have had to implement widespread CPZs in our boroughs know that wherever there is a crossover edging must be allowed on either side, and wherever there is a junction there must be regulation on yellow lines and on signage. CPZs are not only increasing street clutter but, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, reducing the amount of parking, which is already at a premium in London.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I take the libertarian view that regulation of, and taxes on, legitimate businesses are excessive, and I should like to do everything possible to ensure that that burden is reduced. But until the Government bring forward a true bonfire of regulation and a true reduction in business taxes, and until we can achieve the utopia for which we strive, we have to live in the real world and deal with a pressing problem that is affecting London residents.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the vehicles to which he refers have to be taxed if they are parked on the public highway? They cannot just have trade plates, as those of an ordinary motor dealer can. Untaxed vehicles have to be kept off the highway and therefore, by definition, all the cars on the highway are entitled to be there as taxed vehicles.
My hon. Friend is right, in that it is a legitimate use of the highway if a car is taxed and insured. However, it is not legitimate for an unscrupulous trader to exploit the loophole of the internet to take up acres of our public highway. If Mrs Smith is trying to sell her own car outside her own house, that is legitimate. But it is stretching the point to say that because vehicles are taxed and insured, someone should be able to park 12 or 20 cars—as I have seen in my borough—without any regulation.
I turn now to the vexed issue of hot dog trolleys. When I was elected, I was looking forward to dealing with great matters of state, and hot dog trolleys are certainly high up on my list. Amendments P1, P2 and P40 relate to this issue. If any Member who opposes this Bill would like to join me on an evening out in Westminster to see the activities of these hot dog sellers, I would be more than happy to arrange such an evening perambulation with colleagues from Westminster council. It would not be around the high spots of the west end, sniffing the fabulous aroma of onions: it would be witnessing the trucks rolling up and offloading these flimsy wooden trolleys, with a bit of metal, a hotplate and a gas bottle, on to the public highway and pavements. These are not some ancient tradition of Britain—people being able to sell food on the pavement—but a dangerous practice. Let alone the public safety issues, behind those who are unloading these trolleys is organised crime.
To my knowledge, no one has requested that a single seized trolley be returned, but Westminster council is forced to store them for a period of time and then dispose of them. That is an unfair cost on the good council tax payers of Westminster. No one has gone to the magistrates court and said, “I’d like my trolley back.” Even under these provisions, the owner of a seized hot dog trolley, if so minded, could seek to have it returned, but I doubt that it will ever happen.
My hon. Friend suggests that this trade is related to organised crime. If so, the police commissioner in London should be getting to grips with the issue, instead of relying on piecemeal private legislation such as we are discussing. Why do not the Mayor of London and the police commissioner get to grips with this aspect of organised crime in London?
I have no doubt that the police commissioner is trying to deal with the gangs behind this activity. Members will know that in organised crime as soon as one captain is removed another steps forward. It is an ongoing battle. The battle takes many forms, not least through the police dealing with the crimes, but also through dealing with the symptoms on the streets of London. That is why I do not seek to trivialise the issue and make it just about the aroma of onions, although I am sure that that may weigh heavily for some of the good residents of Westminster. This is about public health and public safety, about the cost to the taxpayer and about dealing with a criminal activity that needs to be dealt with at all ends. I therefore hope that the House will support my amendments.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for his great patience and unfailing courtesy in facilitating the progress of this Bill, albeit progress at a speed that must appear to many people to be that of a particularly sluggish glacier.
I entirely agree. The quality of the legislation that passes through this House would be enormously improved if it was subjected to the sort of Report stage that this Bill is enjoying, when we have the time to examine each clause and, to be fair, the promoters listen to the argument and, where necessary, make amendments, accepting amendments that they find agreeable in this place rather than in the other place. Such amendments improve the quality of the legislation, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green for his patience in this matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on his comprehensive and detailed analysis of the merits of the various amendments in this third debate. He built on and developed the excellent critique offered by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who continued where he left off on 25 January, with his customary erudite evaluation and critical assessment of street trading. It is a matter of regret that on this occasion we are not able to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who always speaks with such common sense on these matters. We hope that even in his absence our deliberations will not leave any stone unturned.
I agreed with all the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for North East Somerset, but one or two further areas of concern and perhaps unease need additional examination this evening. As you will have seen, Madam Deputy Speaker, this group is very large, comprising no fewer than 53 amendments, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset managed to deal with each one in slightly more than a minute, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch dealt with each of them in less than one minute. I shall try to be as quick.
The lead amendment relates to clause 9. My concern is not primarily on my own account. My principal concern is that the provisions may have an effect on my constituents living in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington. When many people hear the word “London”, particularly those living outside the capital, they concentrate their minds on the centre of London, where the principal tourist attractions are located. Of course it is much more than that; it is home to millions of people.
I know from the example of many of my friends that many of my constituents will, for one reason or another, at some time live in one of the 32 London boroughs or perhaps even in the City of London. That might be because they are studying at one of the universities in London or because they have moved to the capital for work. Either way, they would be affected by the provisions in the Bill. We should knock on the head at the outset the idea that the Bill, simply because it is called the London Local Authorities Bill, is of no consequence to anyone outside the capital. The Bill seeks to make laws applicable only to London but I would not wish to see any of my constituents unwittingly fall foul of them.
All the amendments in this group relate to the clauses that come under the general heading of part 4, “Licensing”, and, in particular, clause 9 on street trading. The explanatory memorandum that usefully accompanies the Bill states:
“Clause 9 makes further provision about street trading, in relation to the sale of vehicles over the internet. Under the existing street trading legislation in London, ‘street trading’ is defined, broadly speaking, as meaning the selling or the exposure or offer for sale of any article and the supplying of or offering to supply any service in a street for gain or reward (whether or not the gain or reward accrues to the person actually carrying out the trading).”
It goes on:
“Under that definition it is unclear whether the sale of motor vehicles on the internet, where the vehicle is kept on the highway, is included and the effect of Clause 9 will be to ensure that it is.”
Clause 9 seeks to amend the London Local Authorities Act 1990 by altering the definition in section 21 to provide a new subsection (1ZA), stating:
“In this Part of this Act ‘street trading’ shall also include the selling or exposure or offer for sale of any motor vehicle in the course of a business if the vehicle is…exposed or offered for sale on the internet; and…kept on a street during the period when it is so exposed or offered for sale.”
Amendment 22 offers what might be called the nuclear option of taking clause 9 out completely, which would be my preferred option. Why do I say that? I have a number of reasons. First, it has been suggested that the sale of a single motor vehicle would not constitute an offence, but there is evidence, which I shall provide to the House, that that has not been the case in the past. I refer to the case of the London borough of Haringey v. Mariuz Michniewicz in 2004. The defendant, who did not hold a street trading licence, was alleged to be the owner of a car parked in the street showing a notice that it was for sale with a price and a telephone number. The justices at the magistrates court dismissed an information laid by Haringey borough council, which had alleged that unlicensed street trading had taken place, holding that no offence had been committed by the defendant under section 38 of the 1990 Act on the grounds that the offer of one car for sale did not amount to trading.
However, the council appealed the decision by way of case stated and the divisional court allowed the appeal. It held that section 38 was intended to include a situation where just one vehicle was offered for sale, and that accordingly the case should be remitted to the justices to bear that in mind with a direction to continue the hearing. The ratio decidendi of Haringey borough council against Michniewicz was that the display for sale in a street of a single vehicle is capable of giving rise to an offence under section 38 of the London Local Authorities Act 1990—engaging in street trading when not the holder of a street trading licence or a temporary licence.
The case raises some very worrying points indeed. I have always maintained that there is a grey area relating to the repair of cars involved in a motor vehicle accident or that are nearing the end of their useful working life by someone for whom that is a lifelong hobby. In the course of a year, they could easily repair two or three vehicles that are damaged or of an elderly nature and then offer them for sale by putting a note in the window, or perhaps nowadays by using the internet. Whether that is a business may be a grey area. Clearly, they would want to cover the cost of the repairs—their time, labour and parts. They may want to make a small extra amount that some would call a profit to cover their time and trouble. Either way, it would be difficult for a council official, whether in Westminster or any other London borough, to decide whether or not that man was engaged in a trade.
I am extraordinarily grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is most generous. I am concerned about who would decide whether it was a trade. Would it simply be a council flunkey or would there be any form of appeal to protect an individual who was not really trading but might be accused of trading?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I realise that he is going through his speech rapidly so that we have a chance to get to Third Reading this evening, but I wish he would slow down a little and think about the point in a bit more detail. Surely, there is only one institution that decides whether a person is trading—Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs may well have reached a conclusion about the activities of an individual who is engaged in what might in another sphere be called hobby trading, in the way that many people engage in what is known as hobby farming by keeping a few hens, a couple of sheep or some cattle. But someone who sells two or three vehicles a year, having repaired them as a hobby, would probably not be regarded and ought not to be regarded as being engaged in a business.
The position from HMRC’s point of view is interesting and important. Motor cars are exempt from capital gains tax. Therefore, if somebody was selling just one, it would not be subject to a profits tax and would be exempt from capital gains tax, so it is quite a good thing to do from a tax point of view.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If the Revenue decided to investigate such matters and concluded that the profits were taxable, there would be the difficulty of ascertaining what was taxable profit, because much of the cost would be for materials expended on the vehicle. In any event, unless it was the type of vehicle that my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech—an Aston Martin or a Ferrari—I suspect that the “profit” would be less than the annual personal allowance for capital gains tax purposes, which would probably mean that although it ought to be properly disclosed to the Revenue, no tax was payable.
My hon. Friend is talking about a new subject which has not been discussed tonight. I am glad we are exploring something new, but is it not the case that whether or not the person in the example pays tax, he will be regarded as trading? It is the Revenue that will make that decision.
Even if that were the case and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs decided that trading had taken place, it might well be too late. HMRC may not consider the matter until some time after the event. It could be as much as 10 months after the end of the tax year before that taxpayer was required to file an income tax return. The local authority official would be trying to make up their own mind on a fairly random basis, which might differ from borough to borough, whether trading had taken place.
I shall touch briefly on another way in which the Bill would impinge on traders at the other end of the scale who take the plunge and open their own large or medium-sized lot, selling cars as a genuine business. They are quite open about it and have established their business with a trade name, they advertise in the newspaper and they have all their cars together on a car lot. It is often the case with such businesses that from time to time their stock overflows the land that they have, and they must temporarily resort to placing vehicles outside their premises—on the street, perhaps. They would be caught by the provision, even though for the rest of the time they were good, law-abiding citizens. It is very much a case of the law of unintended consequences when we pass such legislation, because the regulations might catch people who were perhaps not at the forefront of our minds when we considered these clauses.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clause 9 states that the provisions should include any vehicle that is
“kept on a street during the period when it is so exposed or offered for sale”.
He is basically saying that that should be changed to being throughout the period when it is so exposed or offered to sale, because a short period could still make the owner vulnerable to being charged with an offence.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It again comes down to the precise wording of clause 9, and I think that that change would be beneficial and would clarify the danger I have identified. Amendment 24, which I will move on to later, might well deal with the matter.
It occurs to me that a trader could be caught out by accident simply if someone took a car for a test drive and stopped by the side of the road. Suddenly, hey presto, the car would appear to be on the side of the road at the same time as being offered for sale on the internet and so could then be confiscated. That would be absolutely terrible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is a risk that an over-zealous tatterdemalion—I have finally used the word—who was keen to impress his local authority superiors might be driving down that road and could photograph the vehicle and take action under this provision, should it pass into law.
The other, more fundamental, point about the clause is that it might prevent young entrepreneurs from setting out to make a living. I see car salesmen not as street traders but as entrepreneurs. One of the reasons I came into politics was that I wanted to encourage people to become entrepreneurs, to believe in the free market and to sell their goods and be buyers and sellers. We do not want a situation in which local government sticks its nose into every aspect of people’s lives.
We now get to the nub of the matter. What we are seeing tonight is regulation being brought in for apparently good reasons, but that is what happens all the time. Parliament continually brings in regulation, but then we say that there is too much of it. We should be looking at entrepreneurs and saying that what they are doing is right, not adding regulation. That is what is wrong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the dangers of these provisions, and one of the ills that the amendments seek to address, is that they send out a very negative message about entrepreneurship. It sends out the message that if someone tries to use their initiative and start off in the motor trade we will jump on them, try to put an end to it and stop them starting out in life.
Unintentionally. If the entrepreneur were selling soap from a stall with four wheels on the public highway, with or without the use of the internet, that would normally be caught by local government regulations. The fact is that selling a car with four wheels on the highway, using the internet, is not the same as selling soap. One can either ignore the fact that the internet has been developed since previous local authority powers over selling cars on the highway were introduced, or say that the internet needs to be taken into account. If a local authority is saying, “We would like to have the same power to deal with trading on the public highway using the internet for advertising as we have for trading using the local newspaper,” I am not absolutely certain that a single sentence of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North is directed at what the power in clause 9, or clause 10, are aiming to do.
I see where my hon. Friend is coming from, but clause 9 does send out a message, because I do not see such people as street traders. They may well have just one vehicle to sell, and they have to put it somewhere, but, as we have seen from the case to which I referred earlier, there is a danger that it would be caught by the clause.
I also draw the attention of the House to another problem that I have identified with the clause. The clause is headed, “Street trading: vehicles and the internet” and deals specifically and only with
“exposed or offered for sale on the internet”,
in subsection (2). It does not deal with the many other ways in which a vehicle might be offered for sale in the modern world without actually being said to be “on the internet”. Perhaps the biggest example is when a company has an intranet. An intranet is by all definitions, as far I have been able to check in my research, not regarded—
Question put accordingly, That the amendment be made.
Amendment 26 made.—(Mr Chope.)
Amendments P1 and P2 made.—(Mike Freer.)
Amendments 35 to 39 made.—(Mr Chope.)
Amendment P40 made.—(Mike Freer.)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—(Mike Freer.)
Everybody seems to be rather reluctant to engage in this Third Reading debate—admittedly, we probably have only two minutes for it. By the time we are able to debate Third Reading properly, I hope that the promoters will have ensured that the Bill is reprinted, because a large number of amendments have been made to the Bill in this House.
I think that may well be so. Indeed, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because in the course of this Bill’s progress the promoters have accepted a lot of the ideas and criticism put forward by me and my parliamentary colleagues. That vindicates the whole process of giving such Bills detailed scrutiny.
I do not understand that, because what happened was that the wisdom of a lot of the amendments that we tabled immediately commended itself to the promoters of the Bill. That is why we have just agreed to a group of amendments that will make the Bill much better than it would have been. Fortunately, some of the most pernicious parts of the Bill were taken out in Committee. Therefore, the Bill that we will be considering when we resume our Third Reading debate will be very different from the Bill that was presented to this House after it had gone through the other place.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There are times in Committee when an amendment has been discussed at length and then the Chair can decide that there has been sufficient debate on the issues and the question is put. Would it be acceptable to move that the question now be put that the Bill be read a third time, on the grounds that during the discussions on the various amendments we have had sufficient discussion of the purpose of the Bill, and if so, may I move that the question now be put?
That was an unnecessarily impertinent and provocative intervention by my hon. Friend.
As we were deprived of a speech from the Minister on the last group of amendments on Report and because the Government abstained from the vote on clause 9, everybody is gagging to hear from the Minister what the Government’s approach is to the full contents of the Bill, now that it has been amended. When we reflect on what has happened this evening, we will inevitably regret that we did not hear from the Minister, who has been sitting in his place for the best part of three hours and who, from my recollection, has not uttered a word.
One of the advantages in the House is that after Report, Members such as me who did not have a chance to speak have a chance to speak on Third Reading. There are so many more Members who are now interested in the Bill that I am sure they will turn up when we next debate the Bill on Third Reading.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope that he will be able to make a significant contribution to the Third Reading of this Bill.
I give notice that although the Bill is significantly amended compared with what it was at the outset, in my view it still contains a lot that is pernicious and detrimental to the freedom of the citizens of this country. Visitors to London will be taken by surprise when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. One of the Bill’s biggest problems is that it legislates partially for a particular area of the country. If there is a mischief, that mischief applies across the whole of the country and should be dealt with in a public Bill, if necessary on the basis of enabling legislation so that local authorities could opt in—
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the debate was interrupted (Order, 7 February).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Tuesday 28 February.