House of Commons
Friday 9 November 2012
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Disabled Persons’ Parking Badges Bill
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Use of fraudulent parking badge
‘Anyone found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of three months.’.—(Philip Davies.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Misuse of parking badge—
‘Anyone found guilty of knowingly allowing another to use their disabled parking badge shall be liable on summary conviction to fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.’.
New clause 3—Use of stolen disabled parking badge—
‘Anyone found guilty of using a stolen disabled parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of six months.’.
Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert ‘in writing’.
Amendment 4, page 2, line 18, at end insert
‘the written notification must be sent by registered post and signed for by the applicant or someone living at that address.’.
Amendment 2, in clause 3, page 2, line 34, at end insert—
‘(c) it is a defence to the offence in this section if a new valid parking badge has been issued that covers the time the badge was used or if the person being prosecuted has not received notification of the cancellation of the badge in question.’.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 35, at end insert
‘in subsection (4C), leave out the words after “on summary conviction to’ to end of line and insert “a custodial sentence not exceeding one month”.’.
Amendment 8, page 2, line 35, at end insert
‘after subsection (6) insert—
‘(6A) An issuing authority has a duty to send out badges that are being renewed no less than three weeks prior to the date of expiration of the badge in question provided the applicant has completed the necessary paperwork by the authority’s deadline for such paperwork.”.’.
Amendment 9, page 2, line 35, at end insert
‘after subsection (6) insert—
‘(6A) An issuing authority has a duty to invite members of the badge scheme in writing to renew their membership two months before the badge is due to lapse.”.’.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) on his great achievement in getting this far with his private Member’s Bill. He has steered it through with his customary charm and skill. I very much hope that it will find its way on to the statute book and that it will make further progress today, but I believe that the Bill could be improved in some areas, so my amendments are proposed in a spirit of constructiveness more than anything else. I have not given up hope that he may be persuaded that some, if not all, of my amendments would greatly enhance not just the Bill’s wording but the spirit of what he is trying to achieve.
I should make it clear from the start that this subject is very close to my heart. Members may know that before I entered Parliament I spent many a year working for Asda. During that time, I was delighted to have the role of trying to improve the facilities and services for our disabled customers. The biggest issue that they used to complain about, by a considerable distance and without any real competition, was disabled parking—the abuse of disabled parking spaces and the fact that they found it difficult to get them and that there was a lack of them.
I spent a great deal of time considering that particular issue and was very proud to be a member of a campaign called baywatch. Before anybody gets the wrong idea, it had nothing to do with Pamela Anderson or people dashing around in red swimsuits and bikinis. The campaign was set up to improve disabled parking. Its members were the four major supermarket chains, as well as disability groups such as the Disabled Drivers Motor Club, the Disabled Drivers Association and Scope, which used to host our monthly meetings; Disability Now magazine was also an active participant.
Parking badges were without doubt one of the biggest problems, and the solutions are not as easy as people may think. I will not go through all the problems but I want to touch on why we need to tread carefully. People have blue badges for good reason—they have them because they need them to park close to where they need to go—but complications arise when, for example, somebody has been on holiday and broken their leg. They would not qualify for a blue badge, because they are reserved for people with more permanent conditions, but that person is incapacitated, albeit temporarily, and might need a parking space close to the store. The issue is not always as black and white as people may want it to be; shades of grey and nuances have to be taken into consideration.
I have spoken to organisations that represent people with disabilities who are particularly exercised by the problem of disabled parking, and my amendments are based on some of their thoughts. They would strengthen my hon. Friend’s Bill, and I hope he will be persuaded of the need to do that.
New clause 1 is fairly straightforward and self-explanatory:
“Anyone found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of three months.”
The Bill, although excellent, is rather silent on the penalties for people who break the rules. These are serious offences and they should be treated as such.
One reason why we needed the baywatch group in the first place and why many people with disabilities are so exercised about this matter is the scale of the problem. It is not something that happens on just a few occasions; it happens day in, day out. I urge hon. Members to go around places where there are disabled parking bays to see how many of the cars display a valid badge. I think that they will be staggered by the number of times they come across one or more cars where a proper badge is not displayed. In my opinion, that is the case because the penalties for not displaying the correct badge are insufficient. The purpose of the new clause is that if the penalties were more severe, they would reduce the abuse of disabled parking bays.
May I seek a little clarification? The new clause refers to
“a minimum custodial sentence of three months.”
Does that mean that three months would have to be served in prison or that the sentence passed by the court would be three months, which might mean that only a few days would be served in prison?
It would be the sentence passed by the court. My hon. Friend makes the good point that people who are sent to prison these days serve a maximum of only half their sentence. People with short sentences, such as three months, may serve considerably less than half their sentence. However, to reassure him that I am not going soft on crime in my old age, I still hope that one day we will have a Government who bring back honesty in sentencing so that the sentence handed down by the court is the one that is served. I obviously think that a person who is sentenced to three months in prison should serve three months in prison. Unfortunately, that is not the case under the current lax regime, but we should not give up hope that it may happen one day.
I have suggested this specific offence because my understanding is that there is currently no such offence. There are many people who are more qualified than I am, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who is a lawyer of considerable distinction, who will perhaps clarify whether that is correct. Currently, anybody who is found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge would have to be pursued under the Fraud Act 2006. As far as I understand it, no other offence would have been committed. Under the 2006 Act, the maximum sentence is six months in prison. Hon. Members could argue that we have the relevant offence in the 2006 Act and that there is already a maximum sentence of six months in prison, and ask why we need the sentence of three months. What I am trying to get across is the need for a minimum sentence.
Most people with disabilities are under the impression that nothing ever happens to people who go around using fraudulent blue badges. I wonder whether the Minister can give us any figures on that. The feeling is that such people are rarely caught, that if they are caught, they are very rarely prosecuted, and that if they are prosecuted, nothing really happens to them. That is why the problem persists. A minimum custodial sentence of three months would not only send out a message about how seriously the House takes this problem, but would act as a useful deterrent—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but there is a lot of noisy wittering at the back of the Chamber. I am sure that hon. Members, whether Back Benchers or Ministers, will wish to listen to the speech of the hon. Gentleman and to show some courtesy. If they do not wish to do so, they are perfectly free to exit the Chamber. That might be a great relief, as it would allow the rest of us to focus on the hon. Gentleman’s speech.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. When you talked about wittering, I thought for a moment that you were referring to my speech. The people concerned have voted with their feet and left the Chamber, rather than listen to my speech, so they should at least be commended for good taste.
We need to make it clear that this is a serious issue. The new clause would send out the message that we take this issue seriously and it would act as a useful deterrent. We should make the point that this is not only something that is wrong and immoral, but something that has a negative impact on somebody’s life. Such people are knowingly taking up a space that they do not need and preventing somebody who does need it from taking it up. They should suffer a more severe consequence than just a financial penalty.
In expressing some reservations about this proposal, I say to my hon. Friend that setting a minimum sentence removes from the court any discretion. A rather dangerous precedent may be set by the European Union, which is thinking of passing a law that would mean that anybody who committed fraud against the European Union would be subject to a much higher minimum sentence than anybody who commits fraud against any other organisation. Is that not an example of a very bad precedent?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point and he is far more expert in matters of law than I am or ever will be. I bow to his superior knowledge in that regard and, in the matters that we are discussing, as a former Transport Minister.
We would all be happy to leave more discretion to the courts if we felt that they were treating certain offences with the seriousness with which they are treated by the public and the people who are affected by them. People with disabilities and people like me who are concerned about the impact on people who need disabled spaces simply do not feel that anybody, including the courts, takes this matter seriously enough. This proposal is a last resort. If there was any evidence that this matter was being treated more seriously, I would not have brought it forward. I am making the point that the matter is not being treated seriously enough. It seems to me that this is the only way of doing so.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. There can be problems if discretion is taken away from the courts, but there are not many nuances at play in this issue. It is not as if there could be lots of mitigating factors. We are talking about somebody who is
“knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge”
Perhaps I am too strict on these matters, but I do not see that there could be much mitigation. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished barrister, could come up with some marvellous mitigation for one of his clients, but I cannot say that I would be greatly impressed by it. This is therefore the kind of offence where a minimum sentence would be useful.
Without getting into too much detail, I would say that members of the legal profession benefit from the fact that the court has discretion when they put forward arguments on behalf of their clients and seek mitigation. If the court had no discretion, it might remove the role of the lawyer.
My proposal would not end all discretion because, as I made clear, a court may send somebody to prison for up to six months. If my hon. Friend represented somebody as a barrister, and did so with great distinction, as he always used to in his previous life, I am sure that his client would be pleased to escape with just a three-month sentence. The point is that we must have lines in the sand to show that the offence is unacceptable.
I am interested by my hon. Friend’s new clause, which refers to people “knowingly using” a permit but does not say for what purpose. Would there be a three-month sentence for knowingly using a fraudulent permit as a Christmas decoration, or something like that, or would it have to be knowingly used for the purpose for which it was issued?
As ever, my hon. Friend comes up with an entertaining point, and no doubt a rather good one. He may well be criticising the wording of my new clause in his customary charming way, but I think it is safe to say that using a fraudulent badge as a Christmas decoration would not land somebody in prison for three months. The offence would be using it fraudulently for the purpose for which parking badges are designed.
New clause 2 is along similar lines and states:
“Anyone found guilty of knowingly allowing another to use their disabled parking badge shall be liable on summary conviction to fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
For the avoidance of doubt, I believe that means a fine of up to £5,000. One thing that particularly frustrates people with disabilities is when people who have a genuine blue badge hand it on to a family member, friend or whoever so that they can park in a convenient location where they would otherwise not be able to park. That undermines the rigour and fitness for purpose of the system, and it is a serious matter. It denies a space to someone who needs it and gives it to someone who does not. Again, I believe it deserves a more serious penalty.
I believe that the offence is currently covered by section 115 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown or the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. The new clause would make the offence specific to the Bill, and it would attract a higher fine than it currently does. We should punish not just people who steal blue badges or own them fraudulently but those who abuse badges that are handed out genuinely. I hope my hon. Friend will see that those are serious matters that need more serious penalties.
New clause 3 states:
“Anyone found guilty of using a stolen disabled parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of six months.”
I suspect that, again, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be concerned about the lack of discretion that the new clause would give the courts, and some people may well be concerned that it sets out an even longer sentence than new clause 1 does for the use of a fraudulent disabled parking badge. The reason why I believe the offence of using a stolen badge needs a more serious sentence is the double whammy effect that it has. If somebody uses a fraudulent blue badge that they have cooked up and designed to look like the real thing, they effectively take away a space from somebody who needs it. If somebody steals a blue badge, however, the double whammy effect is that not only are they using a space that they do not need and denying it to somebody else, but they have taken the blue badge away from the person who genuinely needs it. That person is therefore also unable to find a space. The reason for the length of the sentences suggested in the new clause is that a stolen blue badge is twice as serious as a fraudulent one—the offender not only benefits but deprives somebody else.
I will not get distracted by going off piste and talking about other offences that should have minimum sentences, but they are not an unusual idea. In fact, earlier this year we passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which included minimum sentences for threatening someone with a knife. The concept is not unusual, and the Government have been quite happy to use it.
My hon. Friend says that misusing a blue badge is only a parking offence, and he is clearly right, but I suggest to him that it causes a great deal of distress to many people. It not only causes inconvenience but can deprive people of the ability to go out and live their lives. I have spoken to many people who use blue badges, and sometimes they cannot go out because they know there will not be a parking space available to them, as they will all be clogged up by people who do not need them.
Planning regulations now set out a certain number of disabled parking spaces that should be available, so there should be an ample number, but we still find that people are abusing the system. I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but I do not see these offences as being just road traffic offences like not wearing a seat belt, which largely has an impact only on the person who does it. I see them as much more serious, because they deprive people of their freedom to go about their daily lives. It seems to me that when someone is found guilty of knowingly and recklessly denying others their freedoms, it is a reasonable punishment that their freedoms are taken away as well.
Is not the problem with the new clause that there is no requirement that a person found guilty of using a stolen disabled parking badge should have done so knowing that it was stolen? Introducing a minimum sentence higher than the standard sentence for handling stolen goods, for example, which requires knowledge or belief that the goods are stolen, is surely far too draconian.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am quite happy to be found guilty of being draconian, and I seem to spend my life in Parliament asking for more draconian sentences for a range of offences. I do not mind his describing me in that way, because there are far worse things to be described as when it comes to law and order. I would sooner take the tag of being draconian than the tag of being soft on dealing with crime. However, he makes a perfectly valid point. As ever, his quick and insightful mind is a benefit to the House.
Amendment 1 suggests that when someone is given notice of the cancellation of a parking badge, it should be given in writing. It is simply intended to clarify what is expected of local authorities. Notification can be given in all sorts of forms, but it is important that everybody knows where they are and that there is a clear record that notice was given. If notice is given over the phone, a person who denies they ever received that phone call may well be on strong ground. Notification given in writing, however, is perfectly clear, so we should ensure that that is what happens.
Amendment 4 inserts in clause 2
“the written notification must be sent by registered post and signed for by the applicant or someone living at that address.”
Clause 2 concerns the cancellation of parking badges, and states that local authorities “may cancel a badge”. That is perfectly fair and I absolutely agree. However, if a badge has been cancelled by the local authority, but the person concerned denies knowing about that cancellation, we could be in a slightly tricky situation. Who knows whether the clause as currently constituted would be effective? It would therefore be extremely worthwhile to make it clear that written notification
“must be sent by registered post and signed for by the applicant or someone living at that address.”
The notification must be sent by registered post because the person who receives it will have to sign for it and there will be no doubt that they have received it. That would satisfy any test, and certainly a court test. I included
“someone living at that address”
because it might be difficult to ensure that the person in receipt of the notification actually signed for it at the door; that may not be possible given the nature of what we are discussing. However, if someone living at that address signs for the letter, we can reasonably expect that the person in question knows that their badge has been cancelled, and subsequent actions can therefore be taken accordingly. If these amendments are not included in the Bill, I fear we may get into needless dispute and argy-bargy about whether someone actually received their notification. It is not unheard of for things to go missing in the post, and given the serious matters under discussion, amendments 1 and 4 will help rather than hinder the situation.
Amendment 2 is to clause 3 on the use of parking badges that are no longer valid—a point my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown rightly tackles in his Bill. I have high hopes that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will support this amendments as it states that
“it is a defence to the offence in this section if a new valid parking badge has been issued that covers the time the badge was used or if the person being prosecuted has not received notification of the cancellation of the badge in question.”
In some respects that tackles the problem identified by amendments 1 and 4, but in a slightly different way. If somebody has not received or did not know about their cancellation letter, they should not be prosecuted or get into trouble. We should also protect people who are getting a new, valid, parking badge to cover the time in question. It would be pointless to prosecute somebody for using a badge that was no longer valid when a new badge covering the period in question was on its way. I hope my amendment will find favour; I have high hopes that my hon. Friend will be pleased with it as it seems to me the type of amendment that he would table.
I am not sure whether it is a compliment or an insult to say that I am no longer draconian, but I will take it as a compliment in the spirit in which I think it was intended.
Amendment 3 to clause 3 would insert in subsection (4C) of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970
“a custodial sentence not exceeding one month.”.
As I understand it, the existing penalty is a level 3 fine, which I believe is up to £1,000—I am sure the Minister or my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown will happily correct me if I am wrong. It would not be the first time I have been wrong, and it will not be the last time. The amendment would increase that penalty to one month’s imprisonment, meaning that anything up to that could be used as a punishment, including, for example, a community order or prison for repeat offenders. That would also allow the use of increased fines, as suggested by Disabled Motoring UK—one of the organisations I consulted in advance of this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be elated with this amendment. I have moved away from the principle of a minimum sentence, and the provision would simply allow the courts to increase the penalty to up to one month’s imprisonment, if they saw fit. It would place no more onerous obligations on them than that, but it would reflect how seriously these offences should be taken. It may be that for persistent offenders, a short prison sentence is the most appropriate penalty, and I commend the amendment to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown.
Amendments 8 and 9 also relate to clause 3. Amendment 8 would insert in subsection (6) of the 1970 Act:
“An issuing authority has a duty to send out badges that are being renewed no less than three weeks prior to the date of expiration of the badge in question provided the applicant has completed the necessary paperwork by the authority’s deadline for such paperwork.”
That was suggested to me by Disabled Motoring UK, and, if I may, I extend my thanks to that organisation for its help in considering the Bill and ways that it may be improved.
All local authorities should be required to send out badges in good time. Clause 3 is about the use of parking badges that are no longer valid. When a badge is being renewed—unless my earlier amendments regarding the defence that someone did not receive a letter or can still use their old badge in some circumstances are incorporated in the Bill—amendment 8 is a further defence mechanism. If we do not have such defences in the Bill, we must find some way to ensure that local authorities send out renewals in good time. We must ensure that people receive their badges on time and do not inadvertently fall foul of my hon. Friend’s Bill.
In terms of time scale, I am the first to concede that my choice of three weeks is somewhat arbitrary, and I accept criticism for that. It seems to me, however, that three weeks is a reasonable time for any delays in the post to be dealt with, and it should ensure that everybody receives their renewal before their previous badge has expired.
Will my hon. Friend clarify what he means by “renewal”? My understanding is that many disabled parking badges are issued indefinitely for people who are permanently disabled rather than limited to a period. If they were so limited, we might not have so many problems, but what does he mean by “renewal”?
I mean exactly what I say. My hon. Friend is right, but some badges have an expiry date and must therefore be renewed, and my proposal deals with that. Some renewals are automatic. I am in favour of expiry dates in some cases, because people’s disabilities change over time—people might not need a blue badge further down the line as the nature of their disability changes. However, people should expect to receive a renewal on time. If they do not, it makes a mockery of the system.
As I have said, amendment 8 would provide a further safeguard if my other proposals are not accepted, but I should make it clear that any one amendment is not dependent on the acceptance of the others. There is no reason why amendments 2, 3 and 8 should not be accepted—they are not contradictory, but in many respects complementary. However, if one or other is not accepted, we still need a safeguard in the Bill.
Amendment 9 is on a theme similar to amendment 8. It asks that an
“issuing authority has a duty to invite members of the badge scheme in writing to renew their membership two months before the badge is due to lapse.”
That, too, would be an additional safeguard. We need to ensure that the people who use badges are the people who need and are entitled to them, and we need to prevent people who do not need and are not entitled to them from using them. The problem we could end up with is that some people could fall foul of the law even if they genuinely need a blue badge and if they would have one in other circumstances.
Amendment 9 would ensure that issuing authorities have a duty to remind people that the expiry date is coming up and they need to renew, so that people are not caught out with an out-of-date badge. They would fall foul of clause 3, even though they are not the people whom the Bill chases. The amendment would ensure that we go after people only if we should be going after them, and that people do not inadvertently fall foul of the regulations.
My general theme is that the offences are serious, and hon. Members have a duty to tackle them. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for introducing the Bill. He has picked a subject that is incredibly important to people around the country. I met many such people in my years at Asda when we tried to tackle this thorny problem, and many of my constituents are incredibly frustrated by it. The theme of my proposals is to stiffen the penalties for people who fall foul of the rules, abuse the blue badge scheme, and knowingly take places away from people who need them, and to treat such offences with the seriousness with which many constituents treat them. People are appalled by those who abuse disabled parking spaces and who use blue badges when they are not entitled to them. I seek to punish them properly, but I also want to ensure that the Bill does not catch people for whom the blue badge scheme was designed and who inadvertently fall foul of it.
I commend my proposals. I look forward to the Minister’s support and to my hon. Friend incorporating them in the Bill.
I had hoped that we would hear from the Minister and the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), whether any of the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) would be acceptable. I have set out in interventions why I am nervous about the introduction of more minimum custodial sentences, because it undermines the discretion that we should allow the courts in deciding the appropriate penalty, subject to a maximum penalty.
My hon. Friend is right in one sense. Instead of independent courts deciding sentences, the Government give sentencing guidelines, which inhibit courts’ ability to implement the sentences that they believe to be appropriate. I accept that that undermines the independence of the magistracy and the judiciary in deciding on the right sentence. The guidelines cross the line between the Executive and the judiciary, which leads to pressure on my hon. Friend to introduce measures such as new clause 1. He believes that introducing a legal minimum sentence is the only way to ensure that courts genuinely have the discretion to give a serious sentence if they believe it is merited, and are not undermined by the sentencing guidelines.
I am with my hon. Friend to that extent, but I am nervous, because as with so many things, introducing one constraint results in unforeseen consequences. In an intervention, I cited a current example. The Ministry of Justice is fighting the EU over the suggestion that a fraud against the EU is somehow much more serious than fraud against anybody else, even though for time immemorial the EU has not been able to get its accounts audited. That is the difficulty with proposals to introduce minimum custodial sentences, although I recognise that my hon. Friend’s proposal rightly takes account of the strength of public outrage at the abuse of the disabled parking badge system.
I understand my hon. Friend’s parallel, but I am not asking for a more severe sentence for disabled badge fraud than for any other kind of fraud. The maximum sentence under the relevant part of the Fraud Act is six months. I am asking merely for a minimum of three months. I am not treating the offence more seriously, but saying that the powers to deal with such offences should be invoked.
My hon. Friend is saying that if somebody is found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge, the court should be limited to giving a sentence of anything between three and six months, but would have no discretion, for example, to issue a community sentence or a fine, and could not take account of a situation in which sending the offender to prison would be unthinkable. I am probably sounding rather soft compared with my hon. Friend, but that is an example of a court’s discretion. If the offence carries a maximum penalty of six months, why can we not leave it to the courts to decide what penalty should be imposed without requiring them to impose a minimum three-month sentence? That is my difficulty with new clause 1.
By contrast, in new clause 2 my hon. Friend is talking about a maximum fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, thereby ensuring that the sentencing authorities have discretion to decide the level of fine or whether indeed a fine would be appropriate.
The other points that my hon. Friend made are centred around the issue of renewal of disabled parking permits, and that fits in with his opening remarks. It is now some 20 years since I was the Minister responsible for this area of policy, and at that stage we still had the problem of people who were very disabled for a short period of time because of an accident, for example—they would make a recovery in due course, so they were not permanently disabled, but their mobility was just as lacking as that of someone who was permanently disabled. The fact that the disabled persons’ parking badges scheme has not accommodated the temporarily disabled has caused a lot of misunderstanding and resentment. I have had many constituency cases—I am sure that my hon. Friend has too—of people who thought that they were more disabled than someone living next door, but because their disability was not, or might not be, permanent, they were not entitled to a badge.
I think I made it clear in my speech that we had the same issue when I was working for Asda. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that, because of that anomaly, it would be acceptable for someone who has a blue badge to hand it over to someone with a temporary disability and that that should not be penalised?
Far from it; I am not suggesting that at all. I believe in the rule of law and at the moment that is unlawful. The point that I was trying to make is that, although the Bill was discussed briefly in Committee, it was never debated on Second Reading because it went through on the nod. When I read the Bill, I thought that one of the best things about it was that it would give discretion to local authorities to award disabled persons’ parking badges for a limited period. So if, for example, someone had a medical certificate saying that their disability was such that they would lack normal mobility for six months, the local authority would be able to issue a disabled parking permit for that period instead of being able only to issue an indefinite one. It is my understanding that the Bill would give local authorities that additional discretion—
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot take the opportunity now to initiate a Second Reading debate, the absence of which he spent some moments lamenting. He must now focus his remarks on the new clause, accompanying new clauses and amendments. I feel sure that after that brief diversion that is precisely what he is now minded to do.
Absolutely, Mr Speaker. In commenting on my hon. Friend’s amendments relating to the notice period following the renewal of licence, I was speculating on the discretion that a local authority has to set a fixed period for a licence after which it would have to be renewed and notification would have to be given to the recipient. I may be wrong, but my understanding is that standard procedure at the moment is for local authorities to issue a licence for an indefinite period that is coterminous with the lifetime of the person to whom the licence has been issued. The Bill would give a new discretion to local authorities to set renewal periods, and it would be to the exercise of that discretion that the provisions in my hon. Friend’s amendments relating to the process of notification for renewals would be relevant. That is the background to the point that I was making.
You said that I lamented the lack of a Second Reading debate, Mr Speaker, although I did not use that word. The lack of such a debate means that speculation about the intent of the Bill in relation to local authority discretion is at large, and has perhaps been anticipated by several of my hon. Friend’s amendments.
If local authorities have discretion to renew licences and issue them for fixed periods of time, it is reasonable to say that there should be a specified period within which the local authority would send to the licence holder notification that it had to be renewed, giving the holder time in which to obtain the relevant documents to facilitate the renewal, should that be necessary.
There is much to commend some of my hon. Friend’s amendments, although I am sorry that I cannot go along with him on all of them—
I find amendment 9 quite appealing. It states:
“An issuing authority has a duty to invite members of the badge scheme in writing to renew their membership two months before the badge is due to lapse.”
That is a reasonable amendment, especially in the light of the draconian penalties for not having a licence in order. New clause 2 is also perfectly reasonable, as it states:
“Anyone found guilty of knowingly allowing another to use their disabled parking badge shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
However, new clause 3, for the reasons I have already put forward, goes too far. There is already an offence of handling stolen goods. If a disabled parking badge has been stolen, anyone using it would effectively be handling it and would be liable to the full force of the law, and the maximum penalty for handling stolen goods is several years in prison. Indeed, it is often said that without handlers there would be no thieves, and that is why the courts have always come down heavily on handlers.
I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend on that point, although courts and politicians have said over many years that we should not necessarily treat thieves with more severity than we do handlers. Anybody who handles a stolen disabled parking badge should be severely dealt with, but the problem with new clause 3 is that there is no requirement that the person found guilty of using a badge did so with mens rea—guilty intent.
My hon. Friend suggests that the person using the badge might not know that it was stolen, but by definition they would know that it was not theirs and that they were not entitled to use it. It is not as though they could be an innocent bystander in this scenario. They would know that they did not have the disability that qualified them for a blue badge. My hon. Friend might be splitting hairs on this point.
That is indeed the trade in which lawyers work—they do split hairs. As legislators, we need to try to anticipate how those hairs might be split, or what opportunities there are for splitting them, and thereby ensure that the laws that we pass in this House are clear beyond peradventure. That is what I am trying to ensure happens in this case.
That takes us back to the word “using” in my hon. Friend’s new clause 1, because it depends on whether, by a person using the badge, we mean that the person driving the vehicle does not know that the disabled person sitting next to him has a disabled permit or badge but is not entitled to it because he has stolen it, whether we mean that the person driving the car is using it, or whether the person sitting next to him is purporting to be disabled and is the person who is using it. There would therefore be scope for lawyers to be engaged in that, if the wording remains as it is.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have the privilege of representing a constituency with, I think, the highest proportion of people aged over 85, I am familiar with one aspect of what he refers to: people sign postcards to which I respond by saying that I have sent their postcard to the Minister, but quite often I receive a letter back from the person denying that they have ever signed such a postcard. I then send a copy of the signed postcard to the constituent, who then writes back—people in the Christchurch constituency are ever so polite—full of apologies saying that, yes, they recognise that it is their signature and their handwriting and they must indeed have signed this postcard, but they could not recall having so done. My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has tried to encourage me to expand on my concerns about his amendments, but I do not think that I need to do so any more. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), the promoter of the Bill, who will have the first opportunity to discuss, in the presence of the whole House, the virtues of the Bill, not having had that opportunity on Second Reading.
I have listened carefully to the clearly thought out arguments of my hon. Friends. I admit to having some sympathy with the amendments, as the Bill is designed to stop the abuse of the blue badge scheme, but I would like to make some observations that I hope will be helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned section 115 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, but he did not mention the Fraud Act 2006 or the Theft Act 1968, which may also apply in some circumstances. The Bill is about enforcement, not sentencing, as that is properly dealt with elsewhere.
There was some concern about people not being notified. The proposed subsection 7AB to the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 states clearly that cancellation takes effect only when notice is given. Therefore, if a person has not received a notice, the badge is not cancelled. On that note, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendments so that we may proceed with some haste.
I have listened carefully to the contributions of the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and of course to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby).
I understand why the amendments and new clauses have been tabled. They have been tabled, as the hon. Member for Shipley will appreciate, somewhat late in the day. Therefore, it has not been possible for us to give full consideration to the implications of what he has put forward. What I would say in general terms is that some of the measures he proposes do seem draconian, to use a word that was bandied around earlier today, and some of the measures that he wants to introduce may not be entirely necessary. For example, it is not necessary to have a separate offence of allowing another person to use a blue badge, as that conduct is already covered by section 115 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Sections of 44 and 45 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 also have a role to play. At this stage, I do not think there is a case for accepting any of his new clauses or amendments, but I will undertake to look at them carefully. If there is any merit to any of them, I will be prepared to look at them and so will the Lords.
The Minister will have heard my exchange with Mr Speaker. Can the Minister confirm that the wording of the Bill is such that local authorities will now have discretion to give disabled parking badges for limited periods of time to people who are temporarily disabled?
That matter is either reflected in the Bill or by the existing legislation, and it is one to which I, as a Minister, have given some consideration over time. I think we all have sympathy with those who have temporary impairments and might have a condition that may be similar to a permanent disability. However, the reality is that the administration costs of setting up such a system to deal with temporary impairments would be very high. With 2.5 million blue badge holders in this country, if that number were extended significantly, as would be the case if those with temporary impairments were able to have blue badges or something similar for a period of time, the consequences would be to put enormous pressure on existing parking space. Individuals with genuine but limited mobility problems could occupy spaces designed for those with much more serious conditions. The conclusion I have therefore reached is that this should be a matter for local discretion. There are opportunities for individual local authorities to take forward schemes in their own patches if they choose to do so, depending on the availability of road space. The likelihood is that some local authorities will do that.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he think that one way of reducing the large number of disabled parking badges would be to ensure that there has to be a renewal date for any disabled parking badge issued, so that they are not in effect issued for a lifetime?
I agree with that, and that is indeed the position. We require blue badges to be renewed on a regular basis—I think it is every three years—to take account of the possibility of improvement to people’s mobility and disabilities. We hope that there are such improvements, and in some cases that is true. Even for those with permanent disabilities—loss of a limb, for example —we still need to ensure that the photograph on the badge is up to date, the address information is correct and that the badge has not faded, which has been a factor in the past, though it is less so now with the new badge design. It is sensible to have badges renewed on a regular basis and that already happens. There are no indefinite badges; that problem has already been taken care of.
As I said to the hon. Member for Shipley, we have not had a huge amount of time to examine the new clauses and amendments. I am not convinced that they have merit, but I will undertake to ask officials to look at them. If there is any merit, we will deal with that in another place. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause.
I am grateful to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate on my amendments, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who did not agree with them all but adopted his normal forensic approach and pointed out some flaws that I accept.
I am also grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) and the Minister. If I heard correctly, in his brief comments the Minister said that he would consider my amendments in more detail and, if there was any merit in them, would deal with them later. I will take that offer in the good faith in which I am sure it was intended. I will happily meet him to discuss some points in order to improve the Bill even further. That will be to the benefit of genuine blue badge holders. On the basis of his kind offer, for which I am genuinely grateful, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This is a small Bill but one that could make a big difference to the lives of disabled people. For that reason, I am most grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House for their support so far.
The blue badge scheme is administered by local authorities and enables more than 2.6 million severely disabled people to retain their independence by allowing them to park close to where they need to go. There is widespread abuse of the scheme, however, as the substantial financial value of a badge is an incentive for some people to commit fraud and misuse badges. In particular, non-disabled people will often seek to use someone else’s badge for their own purposes, especially to avoid parking charges. Badge forgery is another serious form of abuse faced by local authorities. It affects the quality of life of disabled people by depriving them of the spaces allocated for their use near to the places and services they need to access. Furthermore, the National Fraud Authority estimates that abuse of the scheme costs local authorities £46 million per annum in lost parking revenue.
The Bill includes some important provisions to improve the ability of local authorities to tackle fraud on-street and make more parking spaces available to disabled people. Currently, if a local authority enforcement officer inspects a badge that is fake, cancelled, due for return or being misused, he is obliged to return it to the offender. This clearly makes no sense. The Bill will give those officers the necessary power to retain the badge, which will prevent continued abuse. The Bill will also enable an employee or contractor of a local authority, wearing plain clothes, to inspect badges. Currently, inspections must be carried out in uniform, which in effect denies local authorities the flexibility of using their specialist fraud teams who typically operate in plain clothes.
Local authorities will also be given the power to cancel a badge that is no longer in the holder’s possession—for example, when it has been lost or stolen—and this will ensure that the legal status of such a badge is never in doubt, facilitating the appropriate enforcement action. The Bill will also remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to prescribe the design of a parking badge on the face of regulations. This will protect the confidential high-security features of the badge from disclosure and so help to prevent forgery. In addition, it will make it certain that the existing offence of misusing a blue badge includes the use of a badge that should have been returned. This makes sense. It will also remove the very limited right of appeal to the Secretary of State, as the local government ombudsman has powers to consider complaints against local authorities and already does so.
Last, but by no means least, I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to note that the Bill will enable disabled members of our armed forces resident on UK bases overseas to apply for a badge via the Ministry of Defence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill this far. In particular, I congratulate him on the clause about looking after our disabled armed services members. I think that all our constituents will receive that news gratefully.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. It is a vital part of the Bill. We must do all we can for our brave armed services personnel.
In conclusion, the Bill is designed to protect the blue badge lifeline for the disabled people who rely on it for everyday living, and to help tackle fraud against the public sector amounting to millions. Disabled people and local authorities want these measures, and, judging by the Bill’s passage through the House, it seems that hon. Members do, too. I commend the Bill to the House and wish it a speedy journey through the other place.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) for the progress he has made with the Bill and the deft way in which he has mastered the Standing Orders to ensure that his Bill leapfrogged over others Bills into the first slot today. He is already an old hand at this. His Bill is in first place today because it went through Second Reading without a Division—without even any debate—and was agreed to unanimously by the House. It also had a short Committee stage, confirming that everybody thinks that it will improve matters and deserves to get on to the statute book.
The better controls over the abuse of the blue badge scheme will be welcomed in my constituency. A large number of my constituents have blue badges, and they resent the fact that the system is abused and that sometimes this means they cannot park close to where they want to be, because their parking space has been occupied by someone who purports to have a valid blue badge but whose badge is not valid or does not apply to them. The changes in the Bill are very good, therefore. It is desirable that we give local authorities greater discretion. It will, I hope, result in local authorities considering what is best in their own circumstances.
I remain concerned about the fact that people who are temporarily severely disabled cannot access disabled parking concessions. I hope that the Minister’s comments implied that local authorities will now have the discretion to decide that they can.
The Minister is nodding. That is very helpful. Dorset county council has always told me that it does not have the discretion to allow temporarily disabled people to access disabled parking permits. If we now have much tighter control over the abuse of those permits, greater flexibility for local authorities should flow from that. When given the appropriate medical evidence, they should be able to issue disabled parking permits to people with temporary disabilities. That is a really good benefit that could come from the Bill.
It is interesting that the Bill sets out why the form of the disabled badge should not be prescribed in detail—if it is set out in statute, the fraudsters will know exactly what is in it and can follow the same format. The Bill proposes that there should be some form of encryption, which will enable more effective enforcement to take place and make it much more difficult to forge the badges.
All in all, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. I hope that, having got himself ahead of the queue, he can get the Bill into the other place and that before too long it will find its way on to the statute book.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby). Thus far he has steered his Bill through with great skill, like an old hand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said. Indeed, if he can introduce a private Member’s Bill that finds favour with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, he is doing particularly well—certainly a lot better than what many others can hope to achieve—and I congratulate him on that.
Joking aside, this is an important Bill. As I have made clear, I spent an awful lot of time at Asda trying to improve the facilities and services for our disabled customers. The Bill deals with what I would say is by far and away the biggest issue facing people with disabilities who need a place to park close to where they need to go. It is not only immensely frustrating for them, but I think we all feel a sense of revulsion when people needlessly and thoughtlessly use a bay or abuse the badge system to park in a place to which they are not entitled. It is something we should be much stronger about. In concentrating on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown has found an issue on which we can all agree that something needs to be done.
My hon. Friend’s Bill finds the right balance. It will be a big step forward in ensuring that badges are not abused and will be a useful tool in ensuring that there are no unaccounted badges out there that should not be out there. It gives local authorities the appropriate powers they need to clamp down on the problem. If there is a big problem in an area, it is useful to give the local authority the flexibility to take the action they feel is necessary in their local community to tackle it. My hon. Friend’s Bill is excellent on all those points.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about the issue of temporary disabilities, if I may describe it that way. It was an issue we tried to deal with in our “bay watch” meetings about disabled parking; indeed, what to do when somebody has a temporary disability, which may have been caused by an accident, was a big issue at Asda. The Bill may not be the final word on that matter, but it strikes the balance given what is possible at the moment.
To conclude, I am extremely grateful that the Minister is going to look again at my amendments. They are modest amendments, and the Bill could be improved in another place by adopting just one or two of them, even if he did not accept my new clauses. Some of the other amendments would strengthen the Bill by making the duties on local authorities much clearer, which is a help to them as much as the people they deal with. The Bill is excellent; making that change would be the cherry on top and would make it even more excellent, so I hope the Minister will look favourably on it. In the meantime, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. I hope the Bill goes speedily through the House of Lords. Many of my constituents, along with many constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and many others round the country, will think that today we have achieved something incredibly worth while.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) on securing his place in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and on achieving such smooth and speedy progress for his Bill—certainly at least until today.
Clearly there is cross-party support for such legislation. We all recognise the vital role that the blue badge scheme plays in enabling disabled people to have better access to the places they want to go to and giving them greater independence. The need to reform the scheme to strengthen enforcement has long been recognised. The last Government published their independent strategic review as far back as 2007. The Select Committee on Transport published a report in 2008, and in 2009 the then Labour Government set out their timetable for implementing reforms. After the general election, it is good that the coalition Government have continued that work. The hon. Gentleman’s Bill, with its reference to improving enforcement of the scheme, is valuable, particularly in ensuring that the blue badge scheme’s public reputation is maintained.
I do not want to delay the House longer than is necessary; however, I want to place the Bill in its wider context and also seek clarification on one or two areas. First, the blue badge scheme is vital in promoting disabled people’s independence, and therefore continued Government support for it is welcome. Unfortunately, I am concerned that other Government transport policy is having the reverse effect. Under their comprehensive spending review, local transport budgets were cut by 28%, with support for bus services from the bus service operators grant reduced by 20%. As a result, one in five publicly supported bus services have been cut, with services removed, reduced or altered.
Those cuts have a disproportionate impact on passengers who cannot drive and for whom bus services are essential. They include the young, the old and, in particular, disabled people. Passenger Focus, the independent watchdog, produced a report in July on the impact on passengers of bus service reductions. One of those impacts was that “dependency on others increased”, which Passenger Focus found had led to
“a reduction in the quality of life.”
The report contained moving personal testimonies from older and disabled people illustrating how the loss of independence affected them. How will the Minister ensure consistency in Government policy on ensuring independence of travel for disabled people?
My second point about the wider context relates to my concern about how disabled people—of whom we know there are 10 million in the UK, a number that is set to rise as a result of our ageing population—will have a voice when it comes to decisions about transport, be it the blue badge scheme or other measures. The Government’s “bonfire of the quangos” recommended that the Department for Transport’s disabled persons transport advisory committee should close. However, it was not a very real bonfire, because at the same time the Government recognised that they needed a new group, so that they could still get advice on disabled people’s needs. It was a case of “one quango out, one quango in”. Two years on from that recommendation, we still do not know how the Department intends to ensure that disabled people have an effective voice to shape and influence Government policy. Perhaps the Minister can confirm when he expects to make further progress on that.
Finally, I want to return to the themes raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He sought reassurances that the Bill would not give rise to resourcing implications for local authorities, and also about the provisions for the right of appeal, which is effectively devolved from the Secretary of State. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond)—it was not the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on that occasion—stated that he did not believe there were any resourcing implications. However, I question whether that is still the case, when we consider the Bill in conjunction with the forthcoming changes to the arrangements for determining eligibility for a blue badge, which arise from the implementation of the personal independence payment.
The Government anticipate that fewer people will qualify for the personal independence payment than are currently in receipt of disability living allowance. I note that about 36% of blue badges are issued to people as a result of their receiving the higher rate of the mobility component of DLA. It is therefore possible that a proportion of those who are currently eligible for a blue badge might not be eligible under the new scheme, despite having no change in their condition. Will the Minister assure me that he has considered how that might impact on the implementation of the enforcement measures in the Bill, and the consequent level of appeals that might arise from that?
This is an excellent Bill. It will help to improve the acceptability of the blue badge scheme and ensure that disabled people are able to get where they need to go, as was intended when the Bill was introduced. Subject to the Minister’s responses to the points that I have just raised, I give the Bill my wholehearted support.
I am pleased that my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), has introduced the Bill, and I congratulate him on its progress to date. It will help to tackle the abuse that seriously threatens the value of the blue badge scheme for disabled people. The Government have long understood the need to reform the disabled parking scheme. Very few changes have been made to it since it was established in the 1970s. It is a crucial service for promoting improved mobility for disabled people; 75% of badge holders say that, without it, they would go out less often.
Since this Government came to power, my officials and I have been working with badge holders, disability groups and local authorities to deliver improvements. To ensure that badges are issued more fairly and consistently across the country, I introduced independent mobility assessments to help to determine eligibility. The provision in my hon. Friend’s Bill enabling members of the armed forces overseas to apply for a badge is also about fairness, of course, and it complements the Department’s reforms.
More recently, on 1 January this year, I introduced on behalf of the Government the blue badge improvement service. This is a major initiative aimed at tackling rising levels of fraud and abuse, while helping to ensure that disabled people receive improved customer service. It provides for online applications and provides local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales with a single national database of all blue badge holders and their key details, thereby preventing multiple and fraudulent applications.
Importantly, enforcement officers can also run quick validity checks via their hand-held devices, before taking the appropriate enforcement action. This new tool is a major step forward in tackling fraud. The powers in the Bill to allow inspections in plain clothes and the recovery of badges mean that, when an enforcement officer has checked the status of a badge on the central system, he or she will be able to take it off the street immediately if it is being misused.
Furthermore, since the improvement service went live, we have added a facility for members of the public to report lost and stolen badges. The Bill enhances that facility by enabling local authorities legally to cancel badges that are no longer in the holder’s possession. That will put the status of such badges beyond doubt. To help to counteract fraud, we have also introduced a new badge design that is harder to copy, forge or alter. The old-style cardboard badges have been replaced by new ones made from a hard plastic material which contains a number of overt and covert security features, as used in banknotes and driving licences.
The Bill will enhance that development by removing the requirement to prescribe the badge details in regulations. To disclose the high-security features of the badge would play directly into the hands of those who seek to make forgeries for their own gain. That will happen, however. People are already attempting to make copies of the new badge. I am pleased to say they are bad copies, but even so, we do not want to help the criminals by publishing badge security details.
Public consultation has demonstrated widespread support for the measures contained in my hon. Friend’s Bill, which are long overdue. I know that the Bill has cross-party support. I am sure that hon. Members will have received representations from disabled constituents, as I have, complaining about abuse of the blue badge scheme and the impact that it has on their lives.
I want to deal with the points that have been raised. I should clarify that badge holders will still have recourse to an appeal and review procedure. That is not being taken away. The difference will be that it will involve the local authority and then the ombudsman. The ombudsman service is free to users and has the expertise to deal with more than 10,000 complaints a year.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to bus journeys, a subject that is some distance away from the Bill’s contents. I note, however, that the number of bus journeys undertaken over the past 12 months is on a par with the number undertaken in the previous year and in the year before that. There has not been the reduction in bus travel that she implied. We fully accept the importance of independence of travel. That is why my officials in the Department and I are taking forward a new accessibility strategy to enhance that need and right. We are consulting widely with disabled groups, which have been participating in the construction and formulation of that strategy. I can therefore assure the hon. Lady that they are fully involved in the Department’s processes.
In regard to the questions about disabled persons tax credit, the answer that I gave at the Dispatch Box recently was that a consultation has been initiated on what should or should not happen to DATAC and on any successor arrangements. We will make a statement in due course on what we conclude as a result of the responses to the consultation. I am sure that the hon. Lady would want us to give full weight to those responses and to analyse them properly, rather than rushing into a precipitate decision. I can assure her that the Bill will have no impact on local authority resources. I hope that that puts her mind at rest.
There is a consultation process under way on the personal independence payment, but the Government’s preferred option is one of minimum change. It is not in any way our intention to reduce the number of people who qualify for a badge. The consultation has been necessitated by the changes to the nature of benefits being brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions, but so far as the Department for Transport is concerned, we want the result of any consequential changes to stay as close as possible to the current arrangements. That is our preferred option, but obviously we will look at the responses to the consultation.
We believe that the Bill will help disabled people. It will help to fill the gaps and it will complement the Government’s own legislation. It will be an asset for those who rely on the scheme for independent living, and the Government fully support it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Scrap Metal Dealers Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Display of licence
‘(1) A scrap metal dealer who holds a site licence must display a copy of the licence at each site identified in the licence.
(2) The copy must be displayed in a prominent place in an area accessible to the public.
(3) A scrap metal dealer who holds a collector’s licence must display a copy of the licence on any vehicle that is being used in the course of the dealer’s business.
(4) The copy must be displayed in a manner which enables it easily to be read by a person outside the vehicle.
(5) A scrap metal dealer who fails to comply with this section is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (c) to new clause 1, subsection (3), leave out ‘a copy’ and insert ‘details of’.
Amendment (d) to new clause 1, subsection (4), at end insert
‘Such details shall be in a form prescribed by the local authority.’.
Amendment (a) to new clause 1, subsection (5), after ‘who’, insert ‘knowingly’.
Amendment (b) to new clause 1, subsection (5), at end add—
‘( ) It shall be a defence to any offence under this section if a copy of the licence had been displayed but had then been removed from display without the knowledge or consent of the scrap metal dealer.’.
New clause 5—Fraudulent display of licence—
‘Any scrap metal dealer who displays a licence purporting to be a site licence or a collector’s licence when the scrap metal dealer is not the holder of such a licence shall be guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.’.
Amendment 27, page 1, line 3, in clause 1, leave out ‘carry on business’ and insert ‘engage in activity’.
Amendment 28, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘carry on business’ and insert ‘engage in activity’.
Amendment 29, page 1, line 6, leave out ‘carries on business’ and insert ‘engages in activity’.
Amendment 34, page 1, line 8, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘3’.
Amendment 35, page 1, line 8, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 31, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘( ) If a local authority has reasonable cause to believe that a person is engaging in activity as a scrap metal dealer without a licence an injunction shall be applied for by the local authority against that person within 28 days.’.
Government amendment 1, in clause 2, page 1, line 17, at end insert ‘( ) name the authority,’.
Amendment 36, page 2, line 1, leave out paragraph (c).
Government amendment 2, page 2, line 6, after ‘licensee,’ insert ‘( ) name the authority,’.
Government amendment 3, page 2, line 8, leave out subsection (7) and insert—
‘( ) A licence is to be in a form which—
(a) complies with subsections (4) and (6), and
(b) enables the licensee to comply with section [Display of licence] (display of licence).
Amendment 37, page 2, line 10, leave out from ‘licence’ to end of line 11.
Amendment 90, page 2, line 15, in clause 3, at end insert—
‘(1A) No person with an unspent criminal conviction shall be a suitable person to hold a scrap metal licence.’.
Amendment 38, page 2, line 19, leave out ‘or any site manager’.
Amendment 97, page 2, line 2, leave out ‘the applicant or’.
Amendment 39, page 2, line 21, leave out ‘or any site manager’.
Amendment 40, page 2, line 25, leave out paragraph (d).
Amendment 41, page 2, line 33, leave out paragraph (a).
Amendment 42, page 3, line 7, leave out subsection (6).
Amendment 92, page 3, line 9, leave out subsection (7).
Government amendment 4, page 3, line 12, at end insert—
‘( ) the Natural Resources Body for Wales;’.
Amendment 43, page 3, line 14, leave out ‘or any site manager’.
Amendment 147, page 3, line 14, leave out
‘has been convicted of a relevant offence’
‘has any unspent convictions for any offence’.
Amendment 44, page 3, line 15, leave out ‘one or both of’.
Amendment 45, page 3, line 16, leave out ‘conditions’ and insert ‘condition’.
Amendment 46, page 3, line 17, leave out paragraph (a).
Government amendment 5, page 3, line 17, leave out
‘between specified hours of the day’
‘except between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on any day’.
Amendment 49, page 3, line 20, leave out ‘72’ and insert ‘48’.
Amendment 50, page 3, line 20, leave out ‘72’ and insert ‘96’.
Amendment 94, page 3, line 24, in clause 4, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
Amendment 53, page 3, line 26, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment 93, page 3, line 26, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
Amendment 95, page 3, line 29, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
Amendment 57, page 3, line 31, leave out subsection (4).
Amendment 54, page 3, line 32, leave out ‘or any site manager’.
Amendment 55, page 3, line 33, leave out ‘one or both of’.
Amendment 56, page 3, line 34, leave out ‘conditions’ and insert ‘condition’.
Government amendment 6, page 3, line 35, leave out from beginning to ‘comes’ and insert—
‘A revocation or variation under this section’.
Government amendment 7, page 3, line 38, at end insert—
‘(6A) But if the authority considers that the licence should not continue in force without conditions, it may by notice provide—
(a) that, until a revocation under this section comes into effect, the licence is subject to one or both of the conditions set out in section 3(8), or
(b) that a variation under this section comes into effect immediately.’.
Government amendment 8, in clause 6, page 4, line 8, after ‘Agency,’, insert—
‘( ) the Natural Resources Body for Wales;’.
Government amendment 9, page 4, line 13, in clause 7, at end insert
‘issued by authorities in England.
( ) The Natural Resources Body for Wales must maintain a register of scrap metal licences issued by authorities in Wales.’.
Government amendment 10, page 4, line 14, leave out ‘register’ and insert ‘registers’.
Government amendment 11, page 4, line 21, leave out ‘register is’ and insert ‘registers are’.
Government amendment 12, page 4, line 22, after ‘Agency’, insert
‘or the Natural Resources Body for Wales’.
Government amendment 13, page 4, line 22, leave out second ‘the’ and insert ‘its’.
Amendment 58, in clause 8, page 4, line 30, leave out from ‘licence’ to end of line and insert—
‘need not notify the authority of that fact.’.
Amendment 59, page 4, line 31, leave out ‘28 days’ and insert ‘three months’.
Amendment 60, page 4, line 31, leave out ‘28 days’ and insert ‘six months’.
Amendment 61, page 4, line 36, leave out ‘28 days’ and insert ‘three months’.
Government amendment 14, page 4, line 38, leave out ‘the Environment Agency’ and insert ‘the relevant environment body’.
Amendment 62, page 4, line 39, leave out ‘(2) or’.
Amendment 63, page 5, line 2, leave out ‘28 days’ and insert ‘three months’.
Government amendment 15, page 5, line 4, leave out ‘the Environment Agency’ and insert ‘the relevant environment body’.
Government amendment 16, page 5, line 5, leave out ‘Agency’ and insert ‘body’.
Amendment 64, page 5, line 7, leave out ‘3’ and insert ‘1’.
Government amendment 17, page 5, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) In this section “the relevant environment body” means—
(a) for an authority in England, the Environment Agency;
(b) for an authority in Wales, the Natural Resources Body for Wales.’.
Amendment 88, in clause 13, page 7, line 40, leave out subsection (3).
Amendment 78, page 8, line 14, leave out
‘or an officer of a local authority’.
Amendment 79, page 8, line 15, leave out ‘one month’ and insert ‘14 days’.
Amendment 80, page 8, line 16, leave out ‘or an officer of a local authority’.
Amendment 81, page 8, line 19, leave out ‘or an officer of a local authority’.
Amendment 82, page 8, line 26, leave out ‘or an officer of a local authority’.
Amendment 83, page 8, line 33, leave out subsection (12).
Amendment 84, page 8, line 40, leave out ‘3’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 140, in clause 19, page 11, line 5, leave out
‘the council of a district’
‘county council or unitary authority’.
Amendment 106, page 11, line 5, leave out ‘district’ and insert ‘county, unitary authority’.
Amendment 107, page 11, line 9, leave out from ‘(a’) to ‘dealer’ and insert—
‘collects, purchases or sells discarded metal suitable for reprocessing for reward’.
Amendment 141, page 11, line 10, leave out ‘regularly engages’ and insert—
‘engages on more than 300 days in a calendar year’.
Amendment 108, page 11, line 10, leave out ‘in the course of that business’.
Amendment 142, page 11, line 31, leave out subsection (10).
Amendment 143, page 11, line 34, leave out subsection (11).
Amendment 145, page 15, line 1, in schedule 1, leave out paragraph (b).
Amendment 146, page 15, line 3, leave out ‘3’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 89, in schedule 2, page 17, line 14, leave out sub-paragraph (2).
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that you were about to read out in full all the amendments in the group, which would have meant my not being called to action for quite a while, as there is a substantial number of them. I shall speak principally to new clause 1 and the other Government amendments relating to the heading “Licensing regime”.
The group relates to the licensing regime in the Bill, and in it the Government wish to create one new clause and to add 17 amendments to the Bill. Unfortunately, in our view, the amendments have been diluted by a significant number of amendments tabled by other hon. Members. I do not propose to address all the non-Government amendments separately, but we take the view that, as a whole, they do not add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) is seeking to achieve. We are therefore minded not to support them.
From what the Minister says, there already appears to be a difference of emphasis. As a victim of scrap metal crime myself, like many others, I am strongly in favour of this Bill. These amendments—this applies to all private Members’ Bills—have a sensitive life. I urge the Minister to ensure that this Bill becomes law, even if he has to make some concessions on the amendments. He has to give more time, because out there, the churches and many members of the public want this Bill to become law.
I strongly endorse the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. I visited a church in my Taunton constituency a few weeks ago and I was told about the theft of metal from the church roof and the damage it had done. The church was very supportive of the proposals brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, as are Members on both sides of the House. We are keen to see Parliament pass the Bill and for it to come into law. It is obviously not a Government Bill, and my hon. Friend may well be keen to permit a degree of flexibility, but the Government want to see achieved the objective that we both share—to pass this legislation into law.
The Minister talks about the amendments that he thinks do not add to what the Government are trying to achieve, so it would be useful if he made clear exactly what the Government are trying to achieve with this Bill. Some people think that its main purpose is to try to reduce scrap metal theft, which is something we all want to do, but the scrap metal industry seems to think that it is to try to deal with the unintended consequences of changes made in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, so will he clarify what exactly the purpose is?
Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. Suffice it to say, the objective of the Bill is to prevent scrap metal theft and protect all our constituents, but let me turn to new clause 1 and the other amendments in the group.
In respect of the Government amendments, during the Bill’s Committee in September, members of the Committee contributed to a wide and interesting discussion as to whether the licence should be prominently displayed. That was prompted by an amendment from the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who wished to mandate this requirement and made a constructive contribution to our deliberations. The Government resisted the hon. Gentleman’s amendment on the basis that I agreed to consult appropriate organisations on the point before deciding whether local authorities should be burdened with a requirement that might have been considered unnecessary.
I duly undertook that consultation, as I said I would, and on 18 December I wrote to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Local Government Association, the Welsh Local Government Association and the British Metals Recycling Association, asking three questions about the physical form of the licence. I am happy to provide any Member with the detailed response to the consultation at the end of the debate, but the overwhelming response from all the organisations was that the licence should be in a form that can be displayed.
New clause 1 reflects the consultation, creating a requirement that a scrap metal dealer, whether they be a site licensee or a collector, display their licence to operate. It requires that a site licensee displays a copy of the licence at each site identified in the licence
“in a prominent place in an area accessible to the public.”
Collectors must display a copy of the licence on their vehicle
“in a manner which enables it easily to be read by a person outside the vehicle.”
This is a very important new clause, and I am grateful that it has been brought forward. I know that the people of South Derbyshire, who are plagued by people going around in vans trying to get scrap, will be delighted that, if the new clause is accepted, the licence has to be displayed prominently on the vehicle, too.
I am grateful for that intervention. Of course, this is not Government legislation, but the legislation of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South. However, the Government, in supporting him, have sought to take a constructive and broadminded view. Where good ideas have been forthcoming from Members of any party, we have sought to give them proper consideration and accommodate them—with my hon. Friend’s permission—if we feel that it enhances the legislation. That is very much the approach we have taken in this instance.
The Minister will recall that I mentioned in Committee the support of neighbourhood watch organisations throughout the country, arguing in particular that their job of helping the police to enforce this Bill would be made much easier if licences were prominently displayed. I therefore join others, on behalf of all those neighbourhood watch organisations—and, particularly, St John’s neighbourhood watch in Worcester—in strongly welcoming the Minister’s announcement.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I join him in celebrating the work of St John’s neighbourhood watch in Worcestershire as well as other neighbourhood watch schemes around the country that do so much to make our communities safer.
This new clause will ensure that the intention is complied with, in that a licence can be easily seen by anyone who wishes to see it, whether they be law enforcers, consumers or members of the general public. The Home Office has carefully considered whether there needs to be a sanction attached to failure to display a licence—a point that I know will be of interest to certain of my hon. Friends. We have taken the view that a sanction is needed and that a criminal offence is appropriate, albeit one that applies a modest financial penalty—namely a maximum £1,000 fine. We would expect law enforcement agencies to seek compliance in the first instance, rather than proceeding immediately to prosecution. Compliance with the requirement is relatively straightforward in that the licence with which a dealer is issued is to be displayed. This, coupled with the low penalty and the requirement to create a visual licence regime, is what has drawn us to this conclusion.
It is on this basis that I resist amendments (a) and (b). Amendment (a) seeks to place a mental element into the criminal offence so that the elements of the offence are made out only if a scrap metal dealer “knowingly” fails to comply. Proving the dealer’s mental state—the motivation—at the point when the decision was made to criminal standards of proof would be extremely difficult to prove in a court of law and it would make the securing of convictions very difficult. Amendment (b) creates a defence against the charge—namely, that if the licence was
“removed from display without the knowledge or consent”
of the dealer, that dealer will have a clear statutory defence to the charge against him. I also resist amendments (c) and (d) on the grounds that we are requiring a copy of the licence, not merely its “details”, to be displayed. I believe that requiring a licence or its copy would considerably strengthen the requirements.
The Minister says he is not prepared to accept amendment (b), which I think is an excellent amendment, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). What happens if someone comes in to steal a scrap metal dealer’s licence from the wall, a few moments, minutes or hours before the local authority comes in to inspect where the licence is? Surely we cannot be penalising scrap metal dealers whose licences are stolen without their permission.
That is an ingenious intervention, but the obligation is on the party required to display the licence. If a defence could be made along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, it would create a major loophole. Ironically, given the view that he usually takes on these matters, that would make it easier for people to avoid prosecutions and the fine that I mentioned than would otherwise be the case. Our view is that if there is an obligation on a party to display a licence, then there is an obligation on that party to display a licence. That is clear cut; there is no need to muddy the waters.
If the licence is removed from display without the knowledge or consent of the scrap metal dealer, why should the scrap metal dealer be guilty of an offence? Surely the Minister’s line here is inconsistent with the line he adopts, for example, in moving amendments to clause 10, which remove the offence of strict liability and provide a defence if the person did not know that an offence was being committed.
I hope the House will be reassured to learn that what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) suggested could not, in fact, occur. Local authorities are effectively the prosecuting authorities, and like any prosecuting authority they have discretion over whether they actually prosecute, although the offence concerned may be one of absolute liability. If the scrap metal dealer can produce a genuine explanation, a local authority is hardly likely to embark on a prosecution, given the time and expense involved. It is a matter of common sense.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing on all the expertise that he gained in public life. As I have said, we would expect law enforcement agencies to seek compliance in the first instance rather than proceeding immediately to prosecution. Not only does that discretion exist, but we would encourage it. However, we do not want to create a large amount of uncertainty about the obligations on scrap metal dealers, which is why I responded to the earlier interventions in the way that I did.
I do not believe that new clause 5, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, is necessary, on the grounds that clause 1 already makes carrying on a business as a scrap metal dealer without a licence a criminal offence. The Government are also committed to preventing the unnecessary proliferation of criminal offences, which is the principle that underpins the Ministry of Justice gateway process.
Amendments 1 and 2 require the issuing local authority to be named on both site and collector licences, so that any queries relating to a licence can be directed to the correct authority. Amendment 3 outlines for local authorities the form in which a licence should be issued, namely the information that must be displayed on it, and requires the licence to be in a form that enables the licensee to comply with the new duty to display it. A delegated power remains so that the Secretary of State can make regulations prescribing further requirements enabling the form and content of the licence to change over time, for example to keep pace with developments in technology and the industry.
The Bill currently applies a number of requirements to the Environment Agency, but from 1 April 2013 the agency’s environmental functions in respect of Wales will be assumed by the Natural Resources Body for Wales. Amendments 4 and 8 to 17 ensure that the new body is referred to throughout the Bill. We do not propose any difference between the functions of the two bodies, but it was brought to our attention that there would be insufficient clarity in Wales if the Bill were not amended in this way.
Amendments 5, 6 and 7 relate to the conditions that a local authority can use to vary a licence. Clause 3(8)(a) allows an authority to restrict a scrap metal dealer’s trading hours, while clause 3(8)(b) requires all scrap metal received to be kept in the same form for up to 72 hours. We believe that those provisions could prove too onerous, so amendment 5 specifies the hours during which the condition can apply. We believe that allowing trading between 9 am and 5 pm will give dealers reasonable hours in which to operate, while also aligning their operating hours with those of local authorities so that they can monitor dealers more closely. I know that some Government Members, at least, will welcome our liberalising approach to what some may regard as the excessively burdensome obligations placed on scrap metal dealers.
Clause 4 allows a local authority to revoke a licence if it is no longer satisfied that the licensee is a suitable person to conduct a business as a scrap metal dealer. In September, members of the Public Bill Committee expressed the fear that allowing a licensee to operate without restriction pending an appeal against the revocation of his licence could lead to further criminal or undesirable behaviour during the transition period. Since then my Department has reviewed the issue, and has concluded that it would be sensible to amend the Bill in the light of what was said in Committee. Amendment 7 does not remove a licensee’s right to appeal against a local authority’s decision to revoke his licence, but does provide that the authority can impose conditions on the licence pending an appeal or a decision to vary the licence by adding conditions. That means that when a licensee appeals, the authority may impose one or both of the conditions contained in clause 3(8).
The powers under the clause will apply when a licence has been revoked or has been varied by the authority with conditions added. In both circumstances, that will mostly be a result of the licensee’s conviction on a relevant offence, or of the emergence of another reason to question his suitability to hold a licence. As with the conditions more generally, the powers are designed not to prevent an individual from engaging in work as a scrap metal dealer, but to impose some restrictions so that, although dealers can still operate, local authorities and law enforcement organisations can monitor their behaviour closely should they wish to reduce the opportunities for further offending. Once an appeal has been heard, if it is decided that the dealer is suitable to operate, the conditions will be lifted and he should be able to trade unhindered.
Amendment 6 introduces a drafting improvement. It seeks to clarify the wording of clause 4(6) as a result of the change made by amendment 7, but does not alter the principles of the clause in any way.
I do not propose to deal with all the amendments in the group, including the Opposition amendments, because there are a great many of them, but I hope that I have explained to the House’s satisfaction the motivation behind the Government new clause and amendments, and have conveyed our general desire to take a broad and collegiate approach in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South. We hope that the Bill will enjoy a speedy passage this morning.
The Committee stage of the Bill was a very positive event. We had some very good discussions about a number of issues. The Government new clause and amendments reflect that, and I therefore broadly support them, especially new clause 1 and amendments 6 and 7.
I think that our debates on Second Reading and in Committee made clear the common purpose of the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Minister to end, as far as possible, the scourge of metal theft, and to tighten the law relating to, in particular, the points of collection and disposal of metal that could be coming from rogue sources. That has been welcomed throughout the Bill’s passage so far.
New clause 1 deals with an issue that was raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). I am pleased that the Minister considered his points in detail, accepted them in principle, and accordingly tabled the new clause. It is intended to ensure that both the site licence and the collector’s licence are in a form that can be displayed in a prominent place. I believe that, following the consultations with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Local Government Association, the Welsh Local Government Association and the industry itself that we asked the Minister to undertake in Committee, there is consensus that the prominent display of the licence would be a welcome development, leading to increased public confidence while also enabling enforcing authorities to ensure that traders have licences.
I also support this amendment. It will give great succour to my communities and my local authority. The forest above Garw valley and the Bwlch mountain is where much of the metal cabling that is stolen—off railways, for instance—is burnt. This measure could be very effective in stamping out what is currently the fairly easy transit of stolen metal.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As he will know, last year metal theft from railways caused 117 hours of delay on train services. The coming Remembrance weekend reminds us of another major problem: the desecration of war memorials has particularly offended Members and the communities we represent.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the Government amendments and new clauses. That demonstrates the bipartisan approach taken to these issues. Importantly from my point of view, it also reflects the bipartisan approach adopted by the LGA. The support of local authorities is critical. They are the key enforcers, and they and their council tax payers are also often major victims of metal theft. Some nine out of 10 local authorities have been victims of metal theft, never mind the disgraceful types of theft to which the right hon. Gentleman has just referred. As a result of these amendments, we will have an enforcement regime that has the support of the enforcers, and it is therefore to be welcomed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is a former local government Minister and understands the cross-party nature of the attempt to tackle the scourge of metal theft. There are now about 1,000 incidents of metal theft each week. That puts considerable pressure on the resources of local authorities, churches, the police, the voluntary sector, the railway services and all of us who are victims of such crime.
My right hon. Friend made a good point about war memorials. In such thefts, the value of the metal stolen is often very low, but the harm and hurt caused are very great. I know from my area that companies might have equipment stolen that is worth tens of thousands of pounds, yet the value of the scrap metal is very low.
On the issue of war memorials, this coming Sunday we will pay our respects to those who sacrificed their lives for our country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not passing this Bill today would cause tremendous disappointment to transport companies, churches and our constituents? I might add that we in the west midlands have perhaps suffered more than other parts of the country as a result of the rise in metal theft over the past few years.
My hon. Friend highlights that this is an issue of considerable concern. The issues before the House today have been raised over the past year because of the difficulties caused by the increase in metal theft from war memorials, businesses, schools, churches, voluntary organisations, the police, railway companies and others. There has been considerable cross-party support on this issue. Although we had some discussions in Committee, there has been general agreement, and new clause 1 is a reflection of that.
We have just under three hours before our discussions in the House today must end, and I hope that by then we will have dealt with and agreed to all matters concerning the Bill. If not, I hope the Minister will assure us that the Bill will be brought back in Government time.
Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn cannot be present today. He tabled a number of amendments, including amendment (d) to new clause 1, which would give the local authority flexibility to examine the form of a licence that is displayed. The Minister has given a view on that, and I know that if he were willing to accept the amendment my hon. Friend would be very grateful. It is in keeping with the localism agenda that we set the display of a licence as a national criterion while also giving local authorities some flexibility to determine the size or form of that licence, as amendment (d) proposes.
I also welcome amendments 4 and 8 to 17. As the Minister said, they simply change the wording of the application of the legislation to Wales to reflect the changing administrative situation as bodies such as the Environment Agency Wales and Natural Resources Wales are established.
Amendments 6 and 7 are particularly welcome. I raised the issues addressed in amendment 7 in Committee. There was a fear that the appeal procedure would allow people whose licence had been revoked to carry on operating and therefore, in effect, to flout the legislation with no further penalties. I ask the Minister to reflect on that point and, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I ask that amendment 7 be accepted. We advocated in Committee the approach that it sets out. Local authorities should be able to put strict conditions on a licence where an appeal is pending. That would add to public confidence and ensure no further offences are committed.
The hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) have tabled a number of amendments, but I do not want to comment on them. There was general consensus in the Bill Committee, and I shall talk instead about those new clauses and amendments that have been tabled following discussions in Committee. This Bill has received detailed consideration over many months in the other place, in this House and in Committee.
My hon. Friend is right. Responsible scrap metal dealers want effective regulation, and the loopholes to be closed down. The Bill’s provisions on cashless payments and other matters are very important in that regard.
I welcome the Minister’s new clause and amendments. I welcome, too, the fact that we have reached consensus on almost every issue. I remind the Minister that the Bill as it currently stands is, effectively, the official Opposition’s Bill that the Government rejected in February in another place, and, to add just one discordant note, as a result of that there has been a delay.
There are 1,000 incidents of metal theft per week. Some 300 tonnes of metal—the equivalent of 300 cars—is stolen per week. Metal theft is causing 117 hours of delays in train services. Some 23 churches are attacked every week by thieves. This Bill will go some way towards helping to give additional powers to reduce those incidents. It is welcome, therefore, and I hope Members across the House will give it the fair wind that we agreed to give it in Committee and on Second Reading.
I wish to discuss the amendments I have tabled, Government new clause 1 and the Minister’s comments. My amendments in this group are all designed to make the Bill stronger and more effective. I spent much of last Saturday discussing these issues with a prominent scrap metal dealer in my constituency, and I have also spoken on the phone to the Archdeacon of Bournemouth. I am conscious of the large number of serious thefts from churches and war memorials, not only in my constituency but throughout the dioceses of Winchester and Salisbury. I am concerned that the Bill concentrates only on the good, licensed scrap metal dealers and ignores the real villains—the people for whom law enforcement means nothing. It is fine to tighten up the law in relation to those who comply with it and believe in law enforcement, provided that at the same time we get really heavy with those who do not comply with it, and are intent on defying it and carrying on as they are.
I am disappointed that the Minister did not respond to some of my amendments; he just said he thought they were unnecessary. My amendment 31 proposes the following:
“If a local authority has reasonable cause to believe that a person is engaging in activity as a scrap metal dealer without a licence an injunction shall be applied for by the local authority against that person within 28 days.”
If a local authority has reasonable cause to believe that a person is dealing in scrap metal without a licence, why should it not be required to take action against that person within 28 days? The Bill, as drafted, has a convoluted system for depriving licensed scrap metal dealers of their licences, but it is very weak—the provisions are almost non-existent—on dealing with people who operate without licences. Where it comes to a local authority’s attention that somebody is operating without a licence we should surely require that authority to take effective action against that person within 28 days. I would be interested to know why the Government or the promoter of the Bill think that such a provision undermines the purpose of the Bill; it would reinforce the Bill so that it becomes more effective.
My hon. Friend may find it helpful if I set out the Government’s view on amendment 31, and this illustrates why I did not go through every amendment he has tabled. We feel that the amendment is legally deficient, as injunctions cannot be made by a local authority—they are court orders that can be issued only by the courts. In addition, we do not believe that such a measure is required, as the Bill already contains powers to close unlicensed scrap metal dealers and the yards in which they operate. I intervene to make a general point: we have not sought not to take account of his amendment because of a misplaced sense of malice; we have taken our approach because we judge the amendments to be either unnecessary or deficient, and we would rather the Bill were neither of those things.
I accept that that is what the Government say. If they do not want an amendment, they always say that the wording is deficient. However, the main reason they do not want to address this amendment is that they say that the Bill already contains powers to close unlicensed premises. If one looks at what those powers are and how long it may take to get them implemented, one realises that they are not going to achieve very much very quickly. One is reminded of situations afflicting many of our constituents: unlicensed campsites; unlicensed Gypsy encampments; and people carrying on businesses without authority. It takes months—indeed, sometimes years—to get effective action taken against those things. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, I think that the powers in the Bill to deal with those who are unlicensed are paltry.
That brings me to amendment 90, which proposes:
“No person with an unspent criminal conviction shall be a suitable person to hold a scrap metal licence.”
I would have thought that that clarifies and strengthens the Bill, because it would mean that Parliament would be setting out our desire to ensure that people with criminal convictions could not become licensed scrap metal dealers. I am told that quite a lot of people with criminal convictions operate in that trade. If honesty is to be the watchword and if we are to try to enforce the law, the first thing we should be doing is saying that the people who are going to be given these licences should not have unspent criminal convictions. I do not see how anybody can suggest that that amendment is designed to undermine the Bill; it would actually reinforce it, and amendment 97 is linked to that.
The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, eloquent and putting forward a reasoned case. I always take pleasure in listening to him. Is it his wish to see progress made on the Bill today, despite the criticisms he has made? For all we know, his amendments may not be accepted. He started his remarks by referring to the problems that make the Bill necessary—he said that he has spoken to his constituents and to Church people—so is it his wish to see progress made to ensure that the Bill is not lost?
Indeed it is. It is my desire to see not only progress, but some amendments accepted. As an indication of that desire, I have tabled an amendment, which we will come to later, proposing that the commencement date should be two months after Royal Assent. What we have heard so far from the Government is that it may be six months or more after Royal Assent before they have anything in place. That would mean that it may not be until this time next year that the provisions of the Bill are in force. The situation is sufficiently serious to warrant much quicker action than that. The regulations that local authorities are going to have to apply could be being drafted as we speak, but that does not seem to be happening. What is happening at the moment is that some of us are saying that the Bill is not perfect—obviously it is not perfect because the Government have introduced about 30 amendments—and an attempt is being made to vilify us by suggesting that we want to promote the cause of people who steal from our war memorials and so on.
The reality is quite the reverse; I am impatient, because even the legislation that we passed earlier this year on requiring names, addresses and identification to be provided and on prohibiting cash transactions at scrap metal dealers does not come into force until 3 December. When it was passed, that was done on the basis that it was going to be transforming. When I was at a scrap metal dealers last Saturday, some people came with an old car and said that they wanted cash for it. The dealer said that he was already operating under the provisions of Operation Tornado, but they said that they understood they could still get cash for scrap until December. That just shows the extent to which loopholes and an unwillingness to implement our legislation quickly can be exploited by the criminal fraternity.
I am taken by surprise by that point—I do not know whether I did or not, as I have not looked at the official record. If I did, I was obviously wrong to do so, but there is a limit to the number of times I can have discussions with my Whips. I am sorry that I overlooked that opportunity, but I will check the record and speak in the knowledge that the right hon. Gentleman is on my side in trying to get these issues dealt with sooner rather than later—[Interruption.] I do speak for myself, as the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), knows very well. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate him on getting back into the Whips Office, which he knows and understands so well and where he is so effective.
Amendment 92 would delete subsection (7) from clause 3 and is probably one of the least significant of my amendments. Nevertheless, I thought that it would sharpen up the Bill by leaving less discretion on the need to consult other local authorities, the Environment Agency or officers of police forces. Obviously, that can be done anyway, so do we need to put that sort of detail into the Bill when we are refusing to put in the sort of detail that I have talked about, such as the suggestion that people should not be able to be licensed scrap metal dealers if they have previous convictions?
Similarly, any reasonable person would interpret my amendments 94, 93 and 95 to clause 4 as being designed to tighten up the Bill, rather than relax it. Under clause 4, the local authority has a power to
“revoke a scrap metal licence if it is satisfied that the licensee does not carry on business at any of the sites identified”.
Likewise, it has a power to
“revoke a licence if it is satisfied that a site manager named in the licence does not act as site manager”
and if it is not
“satisfied that the licensee is a suitable person to carry on business as a scrap metal dealer.”
My amendments would mean that instead of being discretionary, it would be mandatory for the local authority to revoke the licence in those three circumstances. What is the matter with that? Surely it is a useful tightening up of the Bill.
Amendments 88 and 89 deal with the issue of residential sites. At the moment, the Bill excludes any residential premises from its ambit, which means that there is an enormous loophole. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) is nodding in agreement. For example, someone might have some wire and want to burn the rubber off it so that they can sell the wire on while ensuring that there is no way of finding out where it has come from—I have had such cases in my constituency. If they are doing it in their back garden—for example, if they are, for want of a better expression, Gypsies, or Travellers, or people who probably often operate beneath the radar of the law—and unless we allow amendments 88 and 89, the local authority will not be able to take any action, as those people will say that their premises are residential.
The official Opposition raised this point in Committee. I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the complexities was the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, for which he will have voted, which stops residential accommodation falling under the auspices of this Bill. I pressed the Minister on that very point in Committee, and he wrote to its members after he had gone away for reflection. He has consulted the police, who have agreed that they can implement what the hon. Gentleman wants within the auspices of the Act, which he will have supported.
I am in danger of acting as I used to do as a Minister in responding to the hon. Gentleman, but after I raised those same points in Committee, the Minister assured me that the police can undertake the very action the hon. Gentleman mentions. I, too, was concerned that the residential loophole could have been exploited by unscrupulous dealers. The difficulty is that the Protection of Freedoms Act has reduced the number of circumstances that allow for the examination of residential properties, and he will have voted for that.
I will not go over my voting record again, but all I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that in the constituency case I have in mind the police know well what is going on but say that they cannot do anything about it—or they do not have the will to do anything about it. I still do not understand why we have specifically to exclude all residential premises, because as soon as we have such a wide exclusion, it will be impossible for anyone to say that there should be an exemption to that exclusion. I read the exchange in Committee, but I have not had the benefit of seeing the correspondence between the right hon. Gentleman and the Government. I hope that the Minister, when he responds to this short debate, will explain why he thinks that this provision can be left as it is. More importantly, does the Minister accept that allowing residential premises to be exempt and allowing people to burn the coverings off scrap metal in their back yards will facilitate rather than restrict criminal activity?
Amendments 106, 107 and 108 deal with the issue of which local authorities will carry out the enforcing and regulating. It seems to me that the larger authorities—for example, the county councils rather than the district councils—are better equipped to do that. In my constituency, two of the small district councils, East Dorset and Christchurch, are effectively working together because neither has the resources to have a full-time person to deal with particular types of licensing or planning applications. Much of the activity regarding scrap metal and its environmental impact is monitored by county councils and it seems to me that it would be better for them to deal with it rather than district authorities which, by definition, have fewer resources.
Amendment 108 is designed to deal with a loophole that runs through the whole Bill, namely the definition of scrap metal trading. It says, in effect, that such trading means people who trade in the course of business, which is a very precise definition that means that people have to do it for a livelihood. Amendment 108 would remove the provision in clause 19 that a person who goes from door to door would be offending only if they were doing that in the course of their business.
It is interesting that the British Metals Recycling Association, which briefed us on the Bill, is under the misapprehension that the Bill extends the definition of a scrap metal dealer
“to all businesses and individuals that collect, purchase, process or sell discarded metals suitable for reprocessing for reward”.
The Bill as it stands, however, does not do that. It limits the definition to people engaged in business, which is why I commend the amendment to the Minister.
Contrary to suggestions in some parts of the media that those of us who want to speak on this issue want to destroy the Bill, it is not every day of the week that we have the chance to legislate on such an issue and we want to ensure that the legislation that we introduce will actually do what we want it to do and what it says on the tin, namely eliminate the unlawful activity that is besmirching our country and causing so much distress to our constituents. If we can tighten the Bill to achieve that objective, rather than sloganise about it, I think that this House will earn more respect from the public than it has done in dealing with such issues in the past, when it has talked the talk but not passed the legislation to enable the enforcing authorities to do what is necessary to eliminate the criminal activity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on getting his Bill to this stage. I want to follow on from the closing remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), which were crucial. I do not think that any Member of any party does not want to do something about the scourge of metal theft, which is an outrage and needs to be tackled in a far more robust manner than has so far been the case and, indeed, than is proposed by the Bill.
The purpose of my amendments, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, is to improve what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South is trying to achieve. I do not doubt that the way in which the Bill is drafted is well intentioned, nor that it has some good parts, but my amendments, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, are designed to improve it. To be honest, that is the purpose of a Bill’s Report stage. The idea that some people have that we should simply nod through legislation as it appears, whether it is flawed or not, is novel but highly irresponsible. This House’s job is to scrutinise legislation and make sure that it is fit for purpose. We do ourselves a great disservice when we pass legislation without proper scrutiny; it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences. That is what my amendments seek to address. I want to improve the Bill, not bury it. For the record, if my hon. Friend and I had intended to bury the Bill we would have talked it out on Second Reading. I made my objections at that time and I am now seeking to do something about them on Report.
I will not dwell too much on other Members’ amendments, because my hon. Friend has, as ever, eloquently spoken to his, as has the Minister, albeit briefly. It is a shame that the Minister did not discuss my hon. Friend’s amendments in detail, or mine for that matter, which takes us back to my point about proper scrutiny of legislation. It is all very well for the Minister to take the approach, “Well, we’ve looked at the amendments and we don’t agree with them,” but that is not scrutiny or a debate; it is an attempt to impose the will of the Executive on everybody else. We need to do much better and have a proper debate in order to get what we all want, namely a fit-for-purpose Bill.
Amendments 34 and 35, which I tabled, deal with the maximum penalty for people who are in breach of clause 1. The maximum penalty has been set at a level 5 fine, which is currently £5,000. I have proposed a level 3 fine in amendment 34 and a level 1 fine in amendment 35 to find out whether we want there to be a fixed amount. The problem with the level 5 amount is that it may change to an unlimited fine if the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 are implemented. I tabled the amendments so that all hon. Members would know what is being proposed. The fine might not just go up to £5,000, but be unlimited. I want the House to determine whether it finds that proportionate or over the top.
Amendments 36 and 37 relate to clause 2. Amendment 36 would leave out subsection (4)(c), which states that the site licence must
“name the site manager of each site”
as well as the licensee. That seems to be somewhat over the top, as it would bring site managers into the criminal proceedings set out in clause 10(4)(b). That should be removed.
Amendment 37 would leave out the provision that somebody
“may not hold more than one licence issued by any one authority.”
There may be business reasons for having more than one licence that covers more than one authority. For example, there might be separate businesses with separate managers that are owned by one person. Once again with this provision, the Bill, although well intentioned, is not particularly practical and perhaps needs to be thought about again.
Before I go on to amendments 38 to 43, which relate to the next clause, I want to touch on amendment 90, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. It states that somebody with unspent convictions should not be able to hold a licence. That seems to be a perfectly sensible amendment that would beef up the legislation, rather than water it down. Thus far, we have not heard the case why somebody in that situation should have a licence. If people do not accept my hon. Friend’s amendment, they are basically saying that even though this whole area is subject to lots of criminal activity, we are still happy for somebody with an unspent conviction to hold a licence. That is complete nonsense. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South to accept the amendment. I am certain that anybody who is following these proceedings would urge him to do so as well. This is a clear loophole that could be closed with immediate effect. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for bringing the amendment forward.
I also want to touch on Government amendment 5, which would get us into the ludicrous situation of changing the business hours during which scrap metal may be traded to between 9 o’clock in the morning and 5 o’clock in the evening. Although the Minister’s comments were rather brief, he seemed to say that that was to fit the pattern of local authority working hours. It would be a ludicrous state of affairs if the whole of industry had to work to local authority working hours. Local authorities have to monitor many things. For argument’s sake, let us take the selling of alcohol to people who are under age. I am not sure that the Government would introduce legislation to say that alcohol may be served only between the hours of 9 and 5, so that local authorities can keep on top of all the legislation.
I have been resisting the urge to intervene on every amendment that my hon. Friend has mentioned, but I do so in this case because the Government have sought to protect people from the state behaving with excessive authority. Under the current wording, a local council could stipulate that a scrap metal dealer can operate for only one hour a week, which would effectively put it out of business. We thought that if interim arrangements were in place, perhaps pending an appeal, it would not be reasonable for a scrap metal dealer who may eventually be found not to have behaved inappropriately to be put out of business by a local authority. We have tried to find an arrangement that will enable the dealer to continue to operate, and I would have thought my hon. Friend would approve of that. He should not assume that the Government have malign motives the whole time. Often we are trying to do things that balance various considerations but overall serve the public good.
I never question the Government’s motives, but I often question their output. It was the Minister, not I, who raised the idea of businesses fitting in with local authority hours. That is a rather strange state of affairs, because it seems to me that local authorities ought to align themselves with business hours rather than businesses with local authority working hours. That may well be a debate for another day, but I hope he will at least reflect on it.
Amendment 38 would leave out the reference to the site manager in clause 3(2)(a). Bringing the site manager into the determination of whether a licence should be granted is not appropriate, because the responsibility should lie with the applicant for the licence. Also, the site manager can change from time to time. Amendment 39 is on exactly the same lines.
Amendment 40 relates to the provision that someone’s suitability to hold a licence can depend on
“any previous refusal of an application for a relevant environmental permit or registration (and the reasons for the refusal)”.
It is intended to probe why there should be consideration of a relevant environmental permit. Why not just judge each applicant afresh on their merits? If there are reasons to refuse an application, it should be refused, so that provision does not seem necessary. Amendment 41, like amendments 38 and 39, relates to site managers.
Amendment 42 relates to the provision giving the Secretary of State the power to change the licensing criteria by issuing new guidance that the local authority must follow. My point is that the Government should instead get the criteria right now. The whole point of our debates is to scrutinise the Bill and make it fit for purpose, but it seems that the Government’s approach is to pass any old Bill and then give themselves the power to vary it at a later date as they think appropriate. Legislation should not be made in that way. Amendment 43, again, relates to site managers.
Amendment 147 relates to the provision allowing a council to issue a licence on the condition that the scrap metal dealer does not receive scrap metal between specified hours of the day if they have a relevant conviction. My point is the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in his amendment 90. I believe that the reference should be to unspent rather than relevant convictions, because the term “relevant” may well be open to debate.
Amendment 46 relates to the same provision, on which I wish to press the Minister a bit further. Where is the evidence that that condition will prevent the trading of stolen metal? We all want that to happen, but I am not entirely sure that clause 3(8)(a) will achieve it. It will place conditions on legitimate businesses, but where is the evidence that it will make any difference at all to metal theft? I asked what the purpose of the Bill was, because if it is to stop metal theft, as the Minister said, I am not entirely sure that such conditions will help.
Clause 3(8) states that scrap metal must be kept in its original form for up to 72 hours, which amendment 49 would change to 48 hours. Why is the figure in the Bill 72 hours and not a shorter period if the system is efficient? The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 cites 72 hours in respect of an available punishment in the form of an additional licence requirement, but I wondered why 72 hours is in the Bill. If someone can explain that point, we can soon deal with the amendment. Amendment 50 would change 72 hours to 96, so if people think the period in question should be longer, we have an alternative, just as we do if they think it should be shorter.
Members of the House who may believe that my hon. Friend has malign motives in trying to talk at greater length than is strictly necessary, or in tabling amendments that are not wholly necessary, may find evidence to support that assertion in precisely this type of measure. We could spend ages discussing whether 71 or 73 hours would be better than 72, but the Government have consulted the scrap metal sector and local governments, and the consensus from those with relevant interest in the area is that a time limit of 72 hours is appropriate. It does not seem a particularly good use of the House’s time to spend long periods discussing whether 72 hours is perfect. Of course that figure is, by its nature, somewhat arbitrary. It happens to be three days, but it is no less arbitrary than any other figure, and all relevant parties consider it an appropriate amount of time.
I am grateful for that explanation, which is the purpose of this stage of the Bill. The Minister talked about spending ages on this issue, but his answer took longer than my question. He has spent more time on this point than I have—I should have thought he would congratulate me on rattling through my amendments with great haste. I cannot say that I am dwelling on my amendments, but if the Minister thinks I should spend more time on them, I am sure I could. However, I will resist that temptation.
Amendments 53 to 57 relate to the site manager named in the licence and, as I have said, were tabled for consistency with earlier amendments. Amendments 58 to 64 relate to clause 8 which states that when a scrap metal dealer has stopped dealing, they must notify the local authority within 28 days. Why is that the case? If someone has stopped trading, I presume that they will not renew their licence, so why must we place that extra burden on them? That seems quite unnecessary. If we are to have a notification period, why must it be 28 days? That seems a short space of time and it might not be that easy. Businesses do not always have neat cut-off points, and if sales were increasingly infrequent, notifying the local authority might not be at the forefront of someone’s mind. That might put them in breach of the clause and mean they fall into disrepute, so to speak. I am not clear why we need this measure, and my amendments change 28 days to either “three months” or “six months”, which would give businesses more time to meet that requirement. I am not persuaded, however, that such a provision needs to exist.
Amendments 62 and 63 relate to the time given to people to deal with issues. Under clause 8, the local authority has a duty to pass information it receives to the Environment Agency within 28 days, which the amendment would change to three months. Amendments 78 to 84 relate to clause 13 of the Bill which confirms that council officials have the powers to execute a magistrates’ warrant. I flag that up because I wonder whether it would be more appropriate for that to be done by the police. I am rather suspicious of giving council officers police powers that are not entirely necessary. When my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch discussed another proposal, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said that reasonableness is a matter of common sense. All hon. Members have at some point in their lives come across the pettifogging council official. I am not saying that such officials are in the majority or even that there is a sizeable number of them, but by the law of averages, there are bound to be some. Giving council officers police powers is a worrying development, and I hope the Government look again at the proposal. My other amendments in that sphere relate to the same issue.
Amendments 140 to 143 to clause 19 relate to the fact that responsibility for the registration of the scheme will lie with district councils. Amendment 140 would mean that county councils or unitary authorities would be responsible. If I remember rightly—I do not have my note to hand—the 1964 Act refers to county councils, but for some reason, strikingly, the Bill changes that to district councils. Given the scale of each district authority, I believe the matter would be better dealt with at county council or unitary authority level. I hope the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South will consider that. It might be a mistake in the drafting of the Bill.
The Bill is a private Member’s Bill, not a Government Bill. My understanding is that it is compliant with the degree of standardisation in government as to what is commonly meant by terms such as “local authorities”. Of course, licensing in other regards is done at district level, so I would not read into the Bill anything more than exists. It was thought that that would be an appropriate, effective and efficient level for the regulations to be undertaken to everyone’s satisfaction.
It looks like lazy drafting to me. Certain things should be carried out by district councils and others by county councils. The point of legislation is to deem which is the most appropriate. I would venture, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has done, that the matter should be dealt with by county councils, but we will see what others think.
Amendment 141 would be significant. With regard to mobile collectors, it would replace the term “regularly engages” with
“engages on more than 300 days in a calendar year”.
This gets at whether mobile collecting is somebody’s full-time occupation. The Bill states that the mobile collector must be regularly engaged in door-to-door sales to be registered, but what constitutes “regularly” is surely open to dispute. My amendment would make sense of that. Does the measure regularise the “Steptoe and Son” people who might be out there? I do not know what the Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mean by “regularly”, so some clarity on that would help.
Amendments 145 and 146 relate to the offence of recklessly making a statement after being requested to provide further evidence. It is one thing to have an offence of knowingly making a false statement, but adding the word “recklessly” gets us into dangerous territory. I am not entirely sure what the definition of “reckless” is in this regard. Perhaps the Minister could help, or perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who is usually an expert in this field, could tell us what “recklessly” means. It would be best to leave the word out and leave it at “knowingly”.
That relates to my amendments in this group. I am not too happy with one or two others, and I intended to talk about those, but given that time is pressing and we have other matters to discuss, I will leave my comments there. I do so in the hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South will accept that my amendments have been tabled in an attempt to help the Bill and provide the scrutiny that it deserves, so that we end up with legislation that we are all happy with—that is the whole point of the Report stage of a Bill.
I have to confess, having listened to my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) for the past hour or two, that I have quite a lot of affection for both of them. The contribution that they make to scrutinising private Members’ Bills should not be ignored. To that extent, they do the House a service. I call them friends in the political sense, and in the opposition years we worked closely together on the 1922 Committee. I do not therefore dismiss their arguments lightly. But given that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, in an interview with Materials Recycling World, said that he would not talk out the Bill, I do not want to do his job for him. I shall simply say that I support the new clause moved by the Minister, but I am not persuaded by the force of the arguments for the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) for the brevity of his contribution. I will not match it entirely, but I will be brief. To a degree, I too commend my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) on the rigour with which they scrutinise Government and non-Government legislation. I by no means wish to imply that that is an inappropriate role for them to play in the House, but this is a fairly uncontroversial Bill. It has been supported by all parties and there was a collegiate spirit in Committee, where we sought collectively to try to ensure that the Bill is as successful as possible. Some of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends would not add to the Bill, and I shall give a couple of examples.
The question of whether it was appropriate to include the site manager in the relevant document was discussed at length. The Government have consulted on this issue with relevant authorities and it was felt appropriate to include the site manager, for reasons that Members will understand. The site manager is responsible for managing the site, and so ultimately what happens on the site is for him or her to oversee, so we regard him or her as an appropriate person.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley mentioned the period of 300 days for people who collect door to door. In earlier stages of the Bill, we were criticised for being arbitrary about figures, but we have sought to make the legislation workable in practice. It would be very hard to determine precisely which days a person was collecting and which they were not. I think most people would still regard that person as being a full-time metal collector, so we have sought to amend the Bill to work in practice, with the agreement of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley talked about 28 days’ notice and whether that was an appropriate amount of time. His amendment suggested three months. We do regard 28 days as appropriate, but one can argue for another number. We want the register to be up to date, both with the local authority and the Environment Agency, which is why we want notification of those who have ceased to trade. Therefore, 28 days strikes us as an appropriate figure.
Rather than going on at greater length, not least because my cough is making my voice momentarily fail, I will just say that, as I said at the beginning, the Government new clause and amendments strengthen the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South. The other amendments do not have that effect, so we urge the House to agree to the Government new clause and amendments and reject the others.
I was just about to suggest that the Minister might like to have a drink of water, to give him a break.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 2
Records of dealings: disposal of metal
‘(1) This section applies if a scrap metal dealer disposes of any scrap metal in the course of the dealer’s business.
(2) For these purposes metal is disposed of—
(a) whether or not it is in the same form in which it was received;
(b) whether or not the disposal is to another person;
(c) whether or not the metal is despatched from a site.
(3) Where the disposal is in the course of business under a site licence, the dealer must record the following information—
(a) the description of the metal (including its type (or types if mixed), form and weight);
(b) the date and time of its disposal;
(c) if the disposal is to another person, the full name and address of that person;
(d) if the dealer receives payment for the metal (whether by way of sale or exchange), the price or other consideration received.
(4) Where the disposal is in the course of business under a collector’s licence, the dealer must record the following information—
(a) the date and time of the disposal;
(b) if the disposal is to another person, the full name and address of that person.’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment (a) to Government new clause 2, in subsection (3), after ‘record’, insert ‘and verify’.
New clause 4—Sale of scrap metal—
‘(1) No person shall sell or attempt to sell scrap metal other than to a scrap metal dealer licensed under the provisions of this Act.
(2) No person aged under 21 shall sell or attempt to sell scrap metal.
(3) A person who sells or attempts to sell scrap metal in breach of subsection 1 or 2 above is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.’.
New clause 6—Metal marked with smart water—
‘(1) A scrap metal dealer must not purchase scrap metal from a person without first checking that the metal has not been marked with smart water.
(2) If a scrap metal dealer purchases scrap metal in breach of subsection (1) he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.’.
Amendment 66, page 5, line 39, in clause 10, leave out ‘3’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 67, page 6, line 3, leave out ‘3’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 98, page 6, line 10, in clause 11, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment 71, page 6, line 25, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 72, page 6, line 25, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘3’.
Government amendment 18, page 6, line 26, in clause 12, divide Clause 12 into two clauses, the first [Records of dealings: receipt of metal] to consist of subsections (1) to (5) and the second [Records: supplementary] to consist of subsections (6) to (11).
Government amendment 19, page 6, line 30, leave out ‘type and weight’ and insert
‘type (or types if mixed), form, condition, weight and any marks identifying previous owners or other distinguishing features’.
Amendment 87, page 6, line 38, at end insert—
‘(f) whether the metal has been tested for smart water and the result of that test’.
Government amendment 20, page 6, line 42, leave out subsections (4) and (5) and insert—
‘(4) If the dealer pays for the metal by cheque, the dealer must keep a copy of the cheque.
(5) If the dealer pays for the metal by electronic transfer—
(a) the dealer must keep the receipt identifying the transfer, or
(b) if no receipt identifying the transfer was obtained, the dealer must record particulars identifying the transfer.’.
Amendment 73, page 7, line 7, leave out subsection (6).
Government amendment 21, page 7, line 7, after ‘subsections (2) and (5)’, insert
‘and section [Records of dealings: disposal of metal](3) and (4)’.
Government amendment 22, page 7, line 13, after ‘subsections (2) to (5)’, insert
‘and section [Records of dealings: disposal of metal](3) and (4)’.
Amendment 74, page 7, line 13, leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘1 year’.
Government amendment 23, page 7, line 14, at end insert
‘or (as the case may be) disposed of.’.
Government amendment 24, page 7, line 15, after ‘under’, insert
‘section [Records of dealings: receipt of metal], section [Records of dealings: disposal of metal] or’.
Government amendment 25, page 7, line 18, after ‘at’, insert
‘or (as the case may be) despatched from’.
Amendment 76, page 7, line 27, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘1’.
Amendment 77, page 7, line 27, leave out ‘5’ and insert ‘3’.
Government amendment 26, page 8, line 24, clause 13, leave out ‘section 12’ and insert
‘section [Records of dealings: receipt of metal] or [Records of dealings: disposal of metal]’.
Amendment 101, page 10, line 10, in clause 18, leave out from ‘(a)’ to ‘whether’ in line 11 and insert
‘collects, purchases or sells discarded metal suitable for reprocessing for reward’.
Amendment 132, page 10, line 13, leave out paragraph (b).
Amendment 133, page 10, line 19, leave out subsection (4).
Amendment 30, page 10, line 19, leave out ‘carries on business’ and insert ‘engages in activity’.
Amendment 134, page 10, line 32, leave out ‘includes and insert ‘is’.
Amendment 102, page 10, line 33, leave out ‘old’ and insert ‘used’.
Amendment 135, page 10, line 33, after ‘old’, insert ‘used’.
Amendment 103, page 10, line 36, at end insert—
‘(c) any new product article or assembly which is made from or contains metal and is not being used for the purpose for which it was intended when originally purchased.’.
Amendment 136, page 10, line 36, at end insert—
‘(c) items made from or containing metal which are of sentimental or heritage value,
(d) war memorials that are made from or contain metal,
(e) property made from or containing metal belonging to any place of worship, and
(f) property made from or containing metal belonging to or used for the purposes of rail travel.’.
Amendment 104, page 10, line 38, leave out paragraph (a).
Amendment 138, page 10, line 39, at end insert—
‘(c) platinum, iridium, osmium, palladium and ruthenium, and’
Amendment 105, page 10, line 42, leave out subsection (8).
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the excellent timing with which you brought our debate on the previous group of amendments to a conclusion and for allowing me to introduce this second group of amendments.
This group relates to the trading in scrap metal. Within this grouping, the Government wish to create one new clause and make seven amendments to the Bill. Unfortunately, like the previous grouping, there are a significant number of other amendments which we fear may dilute the effectiveness of the Bill, although hon. Members are entirely within their rights to table them. It is therefore not our intention to accept those amendments. I do not propose to address each of them separately, though I have sought, and will continue to do so, to clarify points where that may help the House.
On the Government amendments, clause 12 currently requires that scrap metal dealers record all metal that is received in the course of their business, and includes a criminal offence of failure to fulfil the requirement of the clause. Following discussion with the police, they have suggested continuing the requirement in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 to record both the metal being received in the course of their business and the metal being dispatched. We have considered that suggestion and believe that there are merits to justify its inclusion, allowing law enforcement officers and local authorities to trace metals through the scrap metal sector.
New clause 2 outlines that requirement, defining the meaning of disposed of metal and stipulating information that needs to be recorded by scrap metal dealers, both in respect of mobile collectors and those who hold a site licence. As I have said, although the amendment creates a new requirement in the Bill on the scrap metal dealer, recording metals that are dispatched is not a new burden on the industry—an important point—as that provision already exists in the 1964 Act, which currently applies. It should be noted that the proposed recording requirement for collectors appears slightly less onerous than that for site licence holders.
We considered carefully what information should be recorded to bring value to the records that are kept. Collectors should not process metals; they collect metals and then sell them to scrap metal dealers who operate a site to process them. Therefore, the metal that a collector receives and records must be the metal that they dispatch. It is for that reason that the regulations differ slightly for them and are slightly less onerous. We did not therefore consider it necessary to require collectors to double-record the metal; rather we are simply requiring them to record to whom the metal was sold and when.
I do not believe that the amendment to new clause 2 is necessary. All records that a scrap metal dealer is required to retain as part of this new scrap metal regime should be accurate. Amendment (a) to new clause 2 requires that information relating to disposed of metals be verified, which, aside from the person’s name and address, is an almost impossible task and one that makes the amendment unworkable.
We feel that we have the appropriate level of verification and the means by which it can be effectively undertaken, so we do not feel it is necessary in this regard.
I shall turn to the other Government amendments. Amendment 18 separates clause 12 into two. The first proposed clause relates to the requirements when recording received metal, and the second deals with the requirements relating to record keeping more generally, including the criminal offence of not fulfilling the requirement. This separation, together with amendments 21 to 25, will ensure that the main thrust of the record-keeping requirements and the criminal offence will apply to both metal received and metal disposed of, with the same principles applying to both.
Since Committee, we have come to the view, following advice received, that we need to define more accurately the information in the descriptions of metals received. The current draft, requiring only that its type and weight be recorded, allows the scrap metal dealer to be as vague as they wish, potentially reducing the value of the records. Amendment 19 seeks to expand the wording, requiring that information on the metal’s type, form, condition and weight be included. Marks identifying the previous owner and other distinguishing features must also be recorded. That should considerably increase the value of the records, allowing for the metal to be identified, as opposed to the vagueness that the current Bill allows.
Amendment 20, on the recording requirement to keep evidence of non-cash payments, is a drafting improvement and does not amend the principle of the provision. Amendment 26 allows for officers of a local authority and police force to require the production of, and to inspect, records of received and disposed of metals. The power in the current Bill relates only to received metals.
Two further new clauses have been tabled—new clauses 4 and 6. New clause 4 relates to sellers of metal and would create a criminal offence covering two issues: first, individuals would be able to sell metal only to licensed scrap metal dealers; and, secondly, no one under 21 would be able to sell metal. The requirement to sell metal only to licensed businesses is a desirable outcome, but in the Government’s view it must be done through education and raising public awareness, as opposed to a criminal sanction. The displaying of a licence and the single national register will assist with that.
The Minister has made an assertion, but can he give some reasons? Surely, if we legislate to prevent anyone from selling or attempting to sell scrap metal other than to a licensed scrap metal dealer, we will be promoting the cause of licensed scrap metal dealers and undermining the criminal fraternity.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but our feeling is that the level of licensing proposed in the Bill will have his desired effect.
I turn to the point about age. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 included the requirement not to purchase metal from anyone under the age of 16. This has been removed in the current Bill, and there is no age restriction. In part, that is because placing an age restriction would be discriminatory on the grounds of age and contrary to section 13 of the Equality Act 2010, which deals with direct discrimination. The law allows for direct discrimination on the grounds of age only where it can be demonstrated that less favourable treatment is in pursuit of a legitimate aim and proportionate. Since there is no evidence base suggesting that abuse is concentrated in the under-21 age group, it would be extremely difficult to demonstrate that an outright ban on under-21s selling scrap metal is proportionate. We do not believe, therefore, that such a ban would be lawful.
Finally, new clause 6 would create a new criminal offence, which would apply where a dealer purchased scrap metal without checking that it had not been marked with SmartWater. We cannot support the creation of this offence for a number of reasons. We do not believe it would be appropriate for the Bill to refer to one particular commercial product, rather than the full range of products. Although SmartWater is a known product, it is one of many known forensic property markers on the market. I am not aware of any independent evaluation of its effectiveness; nor have I seen any comparison with other products on the market. In addition, what would happen if we specified one product in legislation and a superior product entered the market, or if SmartWater ceased to exist? The approach taken in new clause 6 does not facilitate our objective to future-proof the legislation further.
A number of scrap metal dealers check for forensic property marker products when purchasing metal. That is a good practice, and certainly something we want to see encouraged. However, mandating it as a requirement, as the new clause seeks to do, would create a significant burden for the industry. It might also create an unachievable burden, given the vast quantities of metal that enter scrapyards on a daily basis, and I know that hon. Members would not wish the regulations imposed by the Government to be unduly burdensome on businesses going about their legitimate day-to-day trade. Therefore, for the various reasons I have outlined, the Government would resist new clause 6.
I do not propose to talk to the other non-Government amendments at this stage, so perhaps I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion and let others make their contributions.
I will not delay the House for very long because the official Opposition support new clause 2 and welcome the Government’s consideration of this matter.
As the Minister said, new clause 2 has come about because the police have said that they want the record of dealings to be tightened and the Government to introduce measures to improve proof of accuracy. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Minister have responded to those requests with new clause 2. As the Minister said, it will require dealers to record more information about metal disposed of by paying attention to the description of the metal and the date and time of disposal, as well as who disposed of it, to whom it was disposed and any consideration received. This is an important matter, because the new clause adopts a firmer approach to tightening the outlets for stolen metal, as does the rest of the Bill. In our earlier discussions we were clear across the House that our approach to the desecration of war memorials and damage done to railways, churches and voluntary organisations needs to be tightened considerably. The way to do that is to cut off, at source, openings for the disposal of stolen metal through metal outlets. New clause 2 is an additional measure in supporting that approach.
I wish to make two quick points about new clause 4. I can understand why the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has tabled it, but—I am in danger of sounding ministerial—I agree with the Minister’s approach. There is no evidence to my knowledge that individuals under the age of 21 are committing more offences than those over 21. I do not believe the Bill should contain a discriminatory clause that, if enacted, would prevent people under 21 from engaging in legitimate metal dealings. If people are committing offences, it does not matter whether they are 19 or 23. The important thing is the offence being committed. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue new clause 4. If he does so, he will not have the support of the official Opposition, which I know will trouble him greatly.
I also agree with the Minister that the use of SmartWater, as proposed by new clause 6, would be restrictive rather than expansive. SmartWater is a trade name. It is not necessarily the final product: other products may eventually come on the market. New clause 6 would be restrictive, rather than creating fuller powers under the Act—as I hope the Bill will become shortly—to be implemented in a reasonable way. With those few comments, I give the Minister a fair wind.
I intend to speak to my amendments in the group and, in doing so, say how disappointed I am that the Minister chose entirely to ignore them. We might have to tease him into leaping to his feet at some point to clarify certain points. I will leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) to explain his amendments, as he will be able to do that far better than I ever could.
My amendments 66, 67, 71 and 72 relate to clauses 10 and 11 of the Bill. Their purpose is to tease out the appropriate level of fines for the offences involved. The Bill, as drafted, sets them at level 5, which involves a maximum of £5,000 that could change to an unlimited amount in the future. I believe that that could be disproportionate.
My amendments 73 to 77 relate to clause 12. Subsection (6), which amendment 73 would remove, prescribes that all information needs to be
“recorded in a manner which allows the information and the scrap metal to which it relates to be readily indentified by reference to each other.”
That is micro-management on a grand scale. If there is to be a general legal duty for people to keep records, I believe that it should be up to the scrap metal dealers to prove that they have done what is required of them. The level of detail set out in the Bill could penalise people who are untidy yet perfectly well organised and who know what they are doing. The Bill places a rather over-the-top requirement on such people.
Amendment 74 relates to clause 12(8), which requires a scrap metal dealer to keep all the paperwork associated with each transaction for three years. That is a very long time. Surely one year would be more than adequate, given the purpose of the measure. Funnily enough, the time period was actually increased in Committee, from two years to three. A requirement of two years was onerous enough, never mind three. I would prefer it to be just one.
Amendment 75 relates to site managers. I have already talked about that matter in our debate on the earlier group of amendments, so I shall not go into it again. Amendment 76 relates to the fine to be levied for not getting every single piece of paper in order for a sale. That fine is currently set at level 5, which is the maximum level. As I have said, it involves a £5,000 fine, with the possibility of an increase to an unlimited amount. Given the onerous requirements in the Bill relating to how long people need to keep every single piece of paper, and how they have to keep them, the prospect of a £5,000 or possibly unlimited fine is slightly over the top. The amendment would reduce it.
Amendments 132 to 136 relate to clause 18. This is where the Bill brings those in the motor salvage industry into the whole new licensing regime, and amendment 132 deals with that. As I understand it—the Minister will be in a better position to clarify it—motor salvage operators have a separate licence. I am not entirely sure what the conditions of the licence are, but I suspect that they are unlikely to be as onerous as they would be under this Bill. I am aware of the Motor Salvage Operators Regulations 2002 and of changes that a 2001 Act made to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, which have not yet been introduced, but I am not entirely sure that there is any suggestion that any of the problems that this Bill seeks to address relate to the car industry—other than, perhaps, the odd rogue dealing in used cars as a cover for having a load of scrap metal in the boot. It seems to me, however, that that could be fixed easily under existing law, so I am not entirely sure why this Bill should affect the motor salvage industry. Amendment 133 relates to the motor salvage industry, too, and makes the same point.
Amendments 134 and 135 are going to need some clarification from somebody—whether it be the Minister, the Bill’s promoter or whoever. I am happy to take advice from wherever it comes. We have a problem with the definition of a scrap metal dealer and with what scrap metal actually is. Clause 18(6) says that
“‘scrap metal’ includes—
any old, waste or discarded metal or metallic material…and…any product, article or assembly which is made from or contains metal and is broken, worn out or regarded by its last holder as having reached the end of its useful life.”
Amendment 134 changes the word “includes” to “is”, essentially making this a definition of scrap metal. As it stands, the Bill says that scrap metal “includes” what is set out in subsection (6)(a) and (b), but it does not say whether that is the last word on the matter, whether that is it, or whether there is something else somewhere else that we should refer to. It just says that it “includes” those definitions. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether that definition is as the Government intend it to be or whether there are other things as well that are not listed in this particular subsection. I am not entirely sure whether it should mean “includes” or “is”, and my amendment seeks to clarify that particular point.
Amendment 135 seeks to change the definition of scrap metal, because I have a feeling that there are going to be lots of disappointed people out there when they look at what is included in the definition of scrap metal. I have heard that many people are understandably concerned about war memorials and the outrageous examples we have seen of thefts from them. Church roofs are another example. I just want it to be clear, as I am not entirely sure that the current wording is specific enough.
The current wording on what scrap metal “includes”—or it would be “is” if my amendment 134 were accepted—is, first,
“any old, waste or discarded metal or metallic material”
“any product, article or assembly which is made from or contains metal and is broken, worn out or regarded by its last holder as having reached the end of its useful life.”
I am not entirely convinced that that includes church roofs, for example. They do not seem to be old or waste; they are often in good working order and have not reached the end of their useful life. All those people clamouring for this Bill may well be disappointed to find out that their main item of concern is not covered in the listed description of scrap metal—and the same applies to war memorials.
I really urge my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Minister to look seriously at this problem, as otherwise people might have their hopes dashed. I have therefore added, after the word “old”, the word “used”. If we put something that has been “used” in there as well, it makes it perfectly clear that the things to which I have referred, which I think lots of people want to be referred to, are included. As drafted, the Bill is not entirely clear about whether those things are included in it, and it would be an absolute outrage if people got off on that kind of technicality, when I am sure the will of the House is that they should not get off. I really urge the Minister and my hon. Friend to look very carefully at that definition of scrap metal.
Amendment 136 proposes the inclusion of further definitions of scrap metal in clause 18 for the purpose of clarity. It inserts the following definitions to ensure that they are all covered by the Bill:
“(c) items made from or containing metal which are of sentimental or heritage value,
(d) war memorials that are made from or contain metal,
(e) property made from or containing metal belonging to any place of worship, and
(f) property made from or containing metal belonging to or used for the purposes of rail travel.”
I entirely support the Bill and its intention, and hope very much that it will make progress today and subsequently become law. However, while my constituents, like many other commuters, have suffered all the train delays that we have talked about, it is also the case that the treasure of Forty Hall has been ransacked far too often. I hope that the Minister will assure me that the Bill in its current form covers theft from the roofs of such properties.
We all want to ensure that the Bill covers such thefts, but I fear that it does not. If accepted, my amendments 135 and 16 would make it clear beyond any doubt that they were covered. If we are building up people’s hopes, it is in all our interests to make the position clear in the Bill. I am not suggesting the replacement of any definitions; I merely wish to ensure that everything is covered.
Although I think that the word “used” would be more appropriate than the word “old” in clause 18, amendment 135 adds the word “used” rather than deleting the word “old”. I have a feeling that those who drafted the Bill intended the clause to contain the word “used” rather than the word “old”, but the fact is people might well take advantage of the technicality, and that would disappoint me just as much as it would disappoint my hon. Friend.
Clause 18 lists the metals that are not to be treated as scrap metal. Amendment 138 inserts the further metals listed in the original Bill, minus one, namely rhodium. Reducing the number of metals covered by the Bill surely reduces its scope. The 1964 Act contained the same exclusions as the original Bill, so I am not entirely sure what has changed.
Although 135 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I signed it because, although I am sure all his amendments are good, I thought this one was particularly good. Clause 18 enables the Secretary of State to change the definition of scrap metal by order. It seems to me that the definition could change all the time as a result. People could be caught by the definition of a scrap metal dealer one day, no longer caught by it the next day, and caught by it again the day after that, which is not an entirely satisfactory state of affairs. Given that the whole Bill is about scrap metal and scrap metal dealers, a proper definition is surely not too much to ask. We do not want to have to keep revisiting the definition.
If the Government and my hon. Friend are willing to accept my earlier amendments specifying exactly what is meant by scrap metal, we can safely get rid of this part of the Bill, which is what my hon. Friend’s amendment would do. As things stand, there could be some controversy. It seems to me that the Bill in its current form would allow someone to continue to operate a business under the name “Stolen War Memorials R Us” outside Parliament, because it does not make clear what the definition of scrap metal includes. Time is pressing, but let me particularly commend the amendments relating to that definition. We want everyone outside this place to know exactly what the Bill covers, and to ensure that there are no loopholes. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably.
First, I want to repeat the final point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies): there is no proper definition. The public will be amazed to learn that at this late stage we still do not have an exhaustive definition of what we mean by “scrap metal” and “scrap metal dealer.” There is therefore an enormous amount of misunderstanding.
It is clear from the letter we have received from the British Metals Recycling Association that its idea of the Bill’s definition of a scrap metal dealer is incorrect:
“We particularly welcome the provisions within the Bill to: extend the definition of a scrap metal dealer to all those businesses and individuals that collect, purchase, process or sell discarded metal suitable for reprocessing for reward”.
It supports them
“in order to close current loopholes relating to the limited scope of current legislation. We also believe, on the question of which metals should be covered by this legislation, that the definition of scrap should be as inclusive as possible”.
I have to tell the BMRA that if that is what it thinks the Bill says, it needs to have another look at the text, because it does not say anything of the sort. That shows the problem with so much of this Bill. The Government will the end, but they do not will the means. They want to sort out the metal theft problem, but there are enormous loopholes in how they propose to set about achieving that.
There is, for instance, a loophole relating to individuals and those who steal metal for gain but who are not part of a business. There is another loophole to do with the material involved and whether it is new or used. Much of the material that is sold as scrap is new, but the Bill specifies that it must be old. That is why I tabled an amendment proposing that we should replace the term “old” with “used”.
Further evidence of the fact that the Government are going through the motions of wanting to put something on the statute book to deal with this issue without having worked out whether it will achieve the objective was provided by what I can only describe as the Minister’s very lame response to the discussion of new clause 4. It states:
“No person shall sell or attempt to sell scrap metal”—
that points to the key issue: people steal scrap metal to sell it and to make a profit so that they have money to spend at the local pub or wherever—
“other than to a scrap metal dealer licensed under the provisions of this Act.”
If we want to boost the status and standing of licensed scrap metal dealers and force those who are not licensed dealers out of the business, what would be more logical than to say that people can only sell scrap metal to a licensed scrap metal dealer? The response we got from the Minister was, “Well, we believe in education and raising the public profile on this matter.” Why will the Government not legislate against the villains who are selling, or attempting to sell, scrap metal to people other than scrap metal dealers licensed under this legislation?
There is a secondary issue to do with the age of people. I proposed that nobody under 21 should sell, or attempt to sell, scrap metal. That is because people might use others who are under 21 as intermediaries knowing that the likely penalties they will suffer in the event of being caught will be small and they will be able to plead ignorance. If we want to tighten up this regime, we should put in place an age limit. After all, we have age limits for the purchase of lawful commodities such as cigarettes and alcohol. We have provisions dealing with the sale of illegal drugs, so why can we not deal with this by saying that anybody who sells or attempts to sell scrap metal to an unlicensed scrap metal dealer is committing an offence? If there were ever something that exposes the big vacuum between the Government’s avowed intent and what is actually going to happen in practice, this is it.
New clause 6 provides another example of where the Government could do something more. It proposes:
“A scrap metal dealer must not purchase scrap metal from a person without first checking that the metal has not been marked with smart water.”
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) raised this issue in Committee. She said that she was a trustee of the War Memorials Trust and bemoaned the fact that people steal war memorial plaques to sell them for the value of the metal, little realising their value in terms of sentiment and their part in our history and heritage. She referred to the work the trust was doing with SmartWater Technology Ltd, which I understand has agreed to put its product on every war memorial in the country. If we want a positive message to send out on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, surely it would be: is that not a fantastic example of co-operation between the private sector and the public interest? If we put SmartWater on all the memorials, that should, in principle, deter people from stealing them.
However, that approach will not work unless we have a way of detecting SmartWater on the product after it has been stolen. I discussed the issue with the Archdeacon of Bournemouth, who said that the priory church in my constituency has suffered on several occasions from having lead stolen from its roof, despite having both CCTV and SmartWater. His impression was that indicating that there was SmartWater on the metal was almost an invitation to potential thieves to think it was worth stealing and it did not, therefore, have the necessary deterrent effect. That is because people can take metal to their local scrap dealer and it will not be tested for SmartWater, and once the metal has gone into the system and been processed, the SmartWater mark will have been eliminated.
If the Government were really serious about this, they would be saying, “Why don’t we tighten up this area so that nobody can sell other than to a licensed scrap metal dealer and every licensed dealer must test the product to see whether it has SmartWater on it?” The Minister says that such an approach uses just one particular commercial product. If he prefers to say that dealers must test metal for any forensic property markers, which could include other products and thereby be future-proofed—again, I use what he was saying—so be it, but instead of a constructive alternative suggestion from the Minister, we heard a rubbishing of this one. It is put forward in all seriousness—it has support from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and, no doubt, others—as a sensible way of trying to tighten up the system.
It has been suggested that such a provision would be burdensome on licensed scrap metal dealers. I talked to one experienced and successful scrap metal dealer last week, and I do not think he would find it a burden. He would see it as a way of ensuring that the whole trade is cleaned up. He does not want to take a stolen product. One way of ensuring that he does not is to test it for the presence of SmartWater.
I find the Government’s approach negative in the extreme. More than that, it is distressing that they are not prepared to engage in a way that would tighten up the regime significantly for the benefit of the public. One is left wondering whether they are worried about too many people being locked up or charged if we start outlawing the sale of scrap metal other than to licensed dealers or about the fact that there might be quite a lot of metal stolen that would be identified by this SmartWater test. Perhaps it is a case of “not invented here” syndrome, because SmartWater was invented not by the Government but by some rather clever people in this country who understand the science. It could be used effectively to facilitate a tough clampdown on the theft of war memorials, in particular, as well as of other metals. The Government are not seizing every opportunity available to them to take action effectively in this respect.
Let me refer briefly to some of the other amendments, as I know that time is constrained.
While my hon. Friend is trying to find his place in his notes, I wonder whether he would like to comment on my amendments, which specify property from war memorials and places of worship as part of the definition of scrap metal. Does he think that that would be helpful?
I think that it would be extremely helpful. It comes back to the point we were making originally about the lack of any clear definition. If a church roof is renewed and the new lead is taken away and sold, that is new product, not old product. It is used product, however, which is why I have tabled the amendment to incorporate the word “used”, which is not in the Bill at the moment. Perhaps the Minister will tell us that he will accept amendment 102, which would clarify that matter for the benefit of all.
Amendment 98, the last of my amendments, concerns the power to amend the means of purchase by regulation. I do not see the need for that and the Minister has not made the case for it. Amendment 87 deals with the need for a test in relation to SmartWater, and amendment 101 deals with the definition and uses the exact words provided by the scrap metal dealers association, the British Metals Recycling Association, which thought they were already incorporated in the Bill. If the Minister responds to nothing else, perhaps he could explain to members of that association why what they told us in their briefing for Third Reading and Report is not in the text of the Bill.
These amendments contain a lot of constructive suggestions to strengthen the regime for controlling scrap metal theft and to ensure that those guilty of it are brought to justice. I regret that the Government are not prepared to be bigger-hearted, particularly on the eve of Remembrance Sunday.
I am afraid that I cannot offer much comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) either. Although I support the Government’s new clause and their amendments, I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the amendments tabled by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies).
I will engage briefly with the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope).
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley spoke to amendment 66 on financial penalties. Of course, we can always believe that such penalties should be higher or lower, but we believe that those in the Bill are proportionate. He also tabled amendment 73, on proper records, and amendment 74, on the requirement to keep paperwork for three years. A desire to regulate the industry effectively goes to the heart of the Bill. Obviously, we need scrap metal dealers to keep proper, orderly records; otherwise it is not possible for local authorities or the police to check that they are buying and selling the metal that they claim to be buying and selling. We cannot have a Bill in which there is no requirement to keep proper records, because that would mean that we would have to be satisfied with improper, sloppy or inadequate records instead. We are seeking to be consistent and to make the Bill sufficiently onerous in order for it to be effective.
In amendment 66, my hon. Friend seems to be concerned that the fines are too onerous. It is a difficult situation, because my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch thinks that the Government are too worried about punishing transgressors, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley seems to have adopted a whole new approach, namely that the Government’s attitude is overly tough and that they fine at a level that is, in his view, inappropriately high. We think that we have struck the right balance.
On amendment 132, I am reliably informed that most metal salvage operators are scrap metal dealers. We do not want two overlapping schemes. The way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has framed the Bill should reduce the regulatory burden on motor salvage operators.
There has been considerable discussion of what constitutes scrap metal and a scrap metal dealer. We are satisfied with the definition in the Bill. It does not specify every single item that could be construed as being scrap metal, but we think that the definition encompasses them, to the satisfaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois). On the difference between old and used, as I understand it, if I have an old car that has reached the end of its life—this is the crucial point—it might be suitable to be turned into scrap metal. Under the definition provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, if I had bought a car yesterday and had driven it back from the showroom and it was then turned into scrap metal by someone on my behalf, it would also be regarded as scrap metal, but I think that most people would understand the distinction that it would not be old and, therefore, not scrap metal.
Does the Minister think that the definition is suitable for everything that we want to be covered by the Bill? What harm would by done by accepting amendment 136? It would not take anything away from the existing definition, but add, for the sake of clarity, items of sentimental or heritage value, war memorials, places of worship and metal used for the purposes of rail travel, so that we were certain that they were all covered.
The Government do not agree with the amendment, because we believe that the definition covers those items and because I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for legislative simplicity and for not implementing legislation that is too difficult for people to understand or comply with. People in this House or beyond may have strong beliefs about how inappropriate it would be to steal and trade other types of metal. It would be impossible to have an exhaustive list in the Bill of every single type of metal, what form it takes and in what circumstances it is displayed. We are confident that the definition includes exactly those items, which is, in part, why the Government are such enthusiastic supporters of my hon. Friend’s Bill.
I am afraid that that is entirely unsatisfactory, because nobody is asking for a comprehensive definition of every type of metal. Amendment 136 would not take away anything from the definition in the Bill, but would simply add to it. The Minister said that he does not want the legislation to be complicated. The amendment would make it more simple, because it would make it abundantly clear that such matters are covered by the Bill. Whether the Minister thinks that my amendment is needed or not, I do not see how he thinks that it would make the Bill worse.
I can think of literally nothing else that could add to the points that I have made. It would detain the House unnecessarily to give way, because there is nothing further to add on amendment 136.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley talked about amendment 138, which lists platinum, iridium and other elements that remind me of being at school. He proposes to take those metals out of the legislation, but the Government want them to be in the legislation, because theft of those materials, for example from catalytic converters, has grown.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch spoke about SmartWater. The Government do not want to discourage the kind of work by private companies that he described. Quite the contrary: we are enthusiastic about it and believe that it can provide an extra safeguard. However, I think that he will understand that the Government cannot endorse a particular product from a particular manufacturer, nor can we reasonably put a product in the Bill when other products in the field may claim to be as effective or more effective. That includes products that have not yet been invented, but that might become usable within the lifetime of the Bill. That we have not included SmartWater in the Bill does not mean that we do not think that it is one measure that can be used to mark metal and deter thieves. However, the Bill is not an advert for companies that have theft-reduction products, but is meant to be broad and all-encompassing and to stand the test of time. For those reasons, we do not think that it would be appropriate to name a particular commercial product.
I take the Minister’s point about not naming a particular product, but why could we not have a provision that deals with such products generically and, to future-proof it, that provides for the Government to widen the definition as appropriate? Surely this is an essential safeguard. If we force scrap metal dealers to test whether such products have been used on the material that they have, we will be more likely to find out whether it has been stolen.
I will return to what I think is a tension in the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Shipley. They seem to be arguing, at the same time, that the proposals are unduly burdensome on scrap metal dealers and that they should be far more burdensome. We are trying to strike a balance that will work in practice between dealing, to a large degree, with the terrible problem of scrap metal theft and not unfairly penalising legitimate scrap metal dealers, who we believe will be perfectly able to keep records and comply with the Bill presented to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South. That is the balance that we are seeking to strike, and we believe that he has got that balance broadly right. That is why, with a few minor Government amendments, we support his Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 2 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 7
‘(1) This Act shall expire one year from the date on which it receives Royal Assent.
(2) Section 146 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Offence of buying scrap metal for cash etc.) and amendments made by that section to previous legislation shall expire on the same date.’.—(Philip Davies.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 114, in clause 15, page 9, line 8, leave out ‘5 years’ and insert ‘1 year’.
Amendment 115, page 9, line 8, leave out ‘5 years’ and insert ‘2 years’.
Amendment 116, page 9, line 8, leave out ‘5 years’ and insert ‘3 years’.
Amendment 117, page 9, line 8, leave out ‘5 years’ and insert ‘4 years’.
Amendment 118, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(c) publish the crime figures associated with scrap metal theft for the whole of the period of the review.’.
Amendment 119, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(d) publish the crime figures associated with metal theft generally for the whole of the period of the review.’.
Amendment 120, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(e) publish comparative figures for 1(c) and 1(d) for the preceding equivalent period to the review to show trends in metal crime.’.
Amendment 121, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(f) publish figures showing the number of convictions for each new offence created in the Bill.’.
Amendment 122, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(g) publish a study comparing the use of all legislation in existence prior to the introduction of this Act to this Act and the role that has played in tackling metal theft.’.
Amendment 123, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(h) publish an assessment of the effect that prohibiting scrap metal dealers from using cash has had on business.’.
Amendment 124, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(i) publish a study of the cost to all scrap metal businesses over the period of the review of the new legislation.’.
Amendment 126, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(k) publish a comparison of convictions under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 compared to the convictions for the same offences under this Act for a period of the same length as the term of the review.’.
Amendment 127, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(l) assess the prevalence of the export of stolen scrap metal to Scotland in the whole of the period of the review.’.
Amendment 128, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(m) assess the prevalence of the export of stolen scrap metal to Europe in the whole of the period of the review.’.
Amendment 129, page 9, line 11, at end insert—
‘(n) assess the prevalence of the export of stolen scrap metal through UK ports to other countries exlcuding Scotland and Europe in the whole of the period of the review.’.
Amendment 99, in clause 17, page 9, line 37, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment 100, page 9, line 40, leave out ‘under section 11(2) or 18(8)’ and insert
‘or regulations under this Act’.
Amendment 131, page 10, line 1, leave out subsection (4).
Amendment 85, in clause 20, page 11, line 41, leave out from ‘Act’ to end of line 42 and insert
‘shall come into force two months after Royal Assent’.
Amendment 86, page 12, line 1, leave out subsection (3).
I hope to strike more oil with this group of amendments than I have managed thus far. I am rather disappointed that the Minister’s approach so far has been, “This is my script. I won’t listen to the debate, I will just stick to my script come what may.” My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and I will have another go at persuading him that the Bill could be improved.
May I gently say to my hon. Friend that he makes a slightly unfair criticism? The first part of our deliberation today was on new clause 1, which the Government introduced after listening to representations made in Committee by a Member who is in neither of the governing parties. We have sought to have a collegiate and broad-based approach throughout the process, and we continue to do so.
I am even more disappointed now, because it appears that only my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I were excluded from the deliberations. The Minister might have been hoping to satisfy me with that intervention, but he has done the exact opposite.
The background to new clause 7 is my fear that we are being asked to agree, in a rushed way and without proper scrutiny, to a Bill that really should have been a Government Bill. It should have gone through the full rigour of scrutiny in the House, and that clearly has not been the case, which is most unsatisfactory. It seems to me perfectly legitimate when one-clause private Members’ Bills are introduced to tidy up technicalities, but we are being asked to rush through a wide-ranging Bill that will have wide-ranging consequences for the public, a particular industry, people linked to that industry and various organisations that are hoping that their property will be better protected. The House should therefore give the Bill proper scrutiny, and that has not been the case.
Our job is to hold the Government’s feet to the fire and ensure that the legislation that we pass is fit for purpose. Based on our deliberations so far, I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that that is the case with this Bill, because of the rushed time scale. The new clause is designed to address that problem. It states that the Act—should the Bill become an Act—
“shall expire one year from the date on which it receives Royal Assent”,
and that section 146 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which dealt with the banning of cash payments in the industry, shall expire on the same date. That provision itself was a late entry to the 2012 Act, rushed through at the last minute as a knee-jerk reaction without proper scrutiny. It was the “looking as if we’re doing something” approach to politics.
The new clause would enable the measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has worked incredibly hard to bring to the statute book to be brought into force, but give the Government time to come back to us with legislation that was better thought through and better scrutinised by both Houses. We would therefore end up with legislation that we could all be satisfied was fit for purpose, rather than the final word being this Bill, which is being rushed through and in which we may well make a mistake.
My worry with the hon. Gentleman’s approach is that, as he will know, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 includes measures on metal theft that have not yet come into force but which the Bill would repeal. He now indicates that those measures could be reviewed again in 12 months’ time after Royal Assent. The Government—and, I hope, the industry—want certainty that a clear regime is in place. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments on that, as this legislation could lead to further uncertainty in the industry.
That does not need to be the case. The Government could set out their intention to bring forward a Bill that deals with the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman, and we could at least give that proper scrutiny. We are heading towards a scenario in which legislation is rushed through without proper scrutiny. I would have thought that the shadow Minister would be in favour of making the Government return to the House and go through a proper legislative process, rather than simply rushing it through. Nothing of what I propose will prevent any of the provisions from being included in the Bill; I just want to ensure that they get proper consideration.
I thought that the ban on cash payments was ill-advised and extremely un-British. If somebody is breaking the law, the illegal part is the crime they are committing, not the method of payment they use. Somebody might go into a newsagent and steal newspapers, but it would be ridiculous to propose banning people from buying newspapers for cash. I do not see the logic; it is a totally un-British approach. There is nothing to stop the Government bringing this legislation back, but we must ensure that it receives proper consideration.
New clause 7 proposes that the Act shall expire within a year, which I think gives the Government plenty of opportunity to bring forward new legislation. If this matter is so important to the Government—they say that it is and I do not doubt that is true—a year is a perfectly long enough time for them to bring forward a proper Bill, including all the measures in this Bill, that can proceed through both Houses of Parliament.
I am listening closely to my hon. Friend, and I confess that I agree that some sort of review would be appropriate. I disagree, however, with the assertion that the legislation is being rushed, as it seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time.
Perhaps I may assist my hon. Friend. If the Bill concludes all stages today, including Report and Third Reading, I would be prepared to recommend to the Government—and would seek to persuade them to introduce it in another place—an amendment to clause 15 which would provide for the review that my hon. Friend wants three years after section 1 comes into force. In addition, although new clause 7 provides for a sunset clause after one year, I would seek to persuade the Government to introduce in another place a sunset or expiry clause for five years after section 1 comes into force. I hope my hon. Friend will recognise that that balance would provide for the review he wants but allow the Act time to operate so that an accurate, worthy assessment and review can be made.
I thank my hon. Friend for listening to my case and responding so positively. As it happens, amendment 116 would bring forward the review from five years to three years, and I have also tabled amendments to explore whether we could bring it forward to two years or one. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful comments and suggestion, and although the expiry date he offers is not nearly as soon as I would wish, I accept the spirit in which it was offered and the principle behind it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) may have noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) prefaced his helpful suggestion by saying he would seek to persuade the Government to introduce the measure in another place. I hope the Minister will now say that he is persuaded, so that we do not have to speculate.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I, too, noted that form of words. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South is promoting the Bill, I trust that what he says will happen will happen, and urge the Minister to accept his suggestion. I would be happy to pause in my remarks to allow him to leap to his feet, as he has been prone to do throughout my contributions, to confirm whether the Government will accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
I was wondering whether it would be better to react at the end of the debate on this group of amendments, and whether that might encourage brevity from my hon. Friend, or whether to react now. What does he believe would be most likely to bring proceedings to an appropriate conclusion?
I suspected that that might be the case, which is why I have leapt to my feet again. Having had the opportunity to consider my hon. Friend’s amendments and having heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) of his wish for the Government to make the concession when the other place deliberates on the Bill, I endorse that approach, as do the Government as a whole—to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), there is no conspiracy. The Government will seek to support the undertaking given by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South.
Some may argue that this is a red letter day for me—it is the first time I have extracted a concession from a Government of any persuasion. I accept it in the spirit it was given, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South for showing such a flexible attitude. A review is essential, as is an expiry date which, in effect, forces the Government to return to the legislation in future, having considered all the evidence from the review. That will ensure that we get legislation that is right in the long term. That is absolutely the right approach—I gently suggest that it is a model for future legislation, but I will not push my luck too far.
To tidy up the other amendments in my name in the group, I suggest that the Government should, as part of the review, publish the crime figures associated with scrap metal theft for the whole of the period of the review. Given that we are seeking to tackle the problem of metal theft, those figures will be an important part of any review. My amendments would ensure that they would be part of it, so—I am on a roll—I hope the Minister agrees to them.
I also ask the Government to publish a study comparing the use of all legislation prior to the introduction of the Bill, and an assessment of the effect that prohibiting scrap metal dealers from using cash has on business. The general tenor of the amendments is to ensure that crime and the scrap metal industry are properly considered by the review. I am sure that that is what all hon. Members would want and expect, and the amendments will ensure that it happens.
On that note, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South for his flexible approach and his willingness to accept an earlier review than the Bill allows and an expiry date. That is a great credit not only to him, but to the Bill.
I suspect that in the future when an unknown university student in an unknown university does a model exercise on legislating on a particular problem, they will look at the Bill on scrap metal dealers as an example of how not to proceed with legislation. With due respect to the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Minister, new clause 7 would add a potential further delay to the legislation.
The problem of metal theft was identified on both sides of the House as an urgent issue, because the inflated price of metal was causing an increase in the amount of metal stolen from churches, war memorials and so on. The Opposition, trying to focus the Government’s mind on the matter, tabled amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill about a year ago. Those amendments were rejected by the Government, who kicked the matter into the long grass. The Government came to realise, through pressure from Members including the hon. Members for Croydon South, for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), that this was a problem and revisited the matter. They tabled amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that broadly reflected the Opposition’s earlier amendments. Most of the aspects that we had included were there. With Opposition support, the amendments on metal theft were included in the Bill, now an Act.
Sections 145 to 147 of the Act were scheduled for implementation in December. However, the Bill before us today would repeal those sections before they have even been brought into effect, because the Government have realised that the points that the Opposition made nearly 12 months ago—with, I accept, cross-party support from coalition Back Benchers—were valid.
The Government have supported the hon. Member for Croydon South in bringing forward the Bill, which had full support from the Opposition on Second Reading. The Minister and the hon. Gentleman have been very gracious in their approach to the Bill and they have accepted amendments that the Opposition tabled in Committee. Now we face the threat of the Bill being talked out because the hon. Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) have concerns about it. In the light of the new clause calling for a delay—[Interruption.] For a review, then. As a result, the Minister and the hon. Member for Croydon South have agreed a review date after three years and a sunset clause after five years.
I have a great deal of time for the shadow Minister and we agree with each other on far too many occasions, but I do not know what he is talking about. The new clause would not introduce any delay into the Bill—far from it. It would introduce a review, but there was a review in the Bill anyway and it would merely be brought forward. It would also mean that in five years’ time, the Government would have to bring back more considered legislation. I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman’s problem is.
My problem is that the way in which the Government have approached this issue has been piecemeal, unco-ordinated and involved U-turns on legislation before it has even come into effect. What we most want out of this is certainty for the people who provide scrap metal services and are trying to plan their businesses and invest in providing that valuable service to the community, as well as certainty in the deterrent effect of the legislation for those people who are carrying out despicable acts. All the way through, the Government’s approach has been piecemeal: there have been U-turns, uncertainty and not a great deal of focus, and I say that while respecting what the hon. Member for Croydon South has done in introducing the Bill, and respecting the Minister for accepting amendments in Committee.
On new clause 7, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Croydon South has made his offer, as that will provide for a longer period before review. I accept that the five-year period is now a sunset clause and we will not oppose it. Who knows who will be in ministerial office in five or six years’ time and having to deal with these matters? I accept the review on the grounds that we do not yet know what will happen in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as the Bill impacts on England and Wales only.
To return to the unnamed student in the unnamed university, when they look at how the issue of regulating scrap metal dealers and updating the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 was tackled, they will see a Government who failed to step up to the plate. The Government have not done their job efficiently—they have U-turned and created uncertainty. The hon. Member for Croydon South has done a good job in introducing the Bill and there is some agreement with the hon. Member for Shipley that we need to accept some issues for review. I therefore hope the Bill will get a fair reading and be considered in the other place. However, let nobody get away from the fact that the Government have not been effective and have not done a good job. I hope that that student will review that and learn lessons on how to handle legislation on important matters.
I must say that the speech the right hon. Gentleman has just delivered is one of the most disappointing I have heard in the House for a long time. What is emerging today is an example of Parliament at its best. Indeed, it has been exemplary. As a result of the force of argument on the shortcomings of the Bill—recognised by the fact that the Government have moved a number of new clauses and amendments—the amendments that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley tabled have demonstrated that, although people might assert that the Bill is now perfect and the complete answer, there can be nagging doubts.
I am not sure that I would go along with that, because 11 months ago the Government had a Bill going through Parliament and they wanted to amend it. They made what most think was the most cogent amendment, which will probably transform, as quickly as possible, the whole regime by outlawing cash payments. That is what the scrap metal dealer with whom I was having discussions told me last week. He thinks that what is already being done voluntarily under Operation Tornado, will, when it becomes compulsory at the beginning of next month, make a difference. There is some concern about whether all the additional measures will make a significant difference. There is also the problem, borne out by some scrap metal dealers themselves, that there are a lot of rogue elements, and we are not sure that we have dealt with them adequately through the existing legislation, or even through the Bill.
Surely it is desirable for us to debate these issues in the House. If it is clear that there is a reasonable way forward by saying, “Well, you may be right, I may be right, but let us have a review and a sunset clause after five years and have a chance to rethink the whole thing”, that surely must be a good way to take forward legislation. There has been much criticism about legislation coming through on a piecemeal basis, often too rapidly and insufficiently scrutinised. In times to come, just as people talk about the Rooker-Wise amendment, people will think about the Philip Davies new clause that revolutionised how the House considers legislation. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) wants some credit too. I am more than willing to give him enormous credit, because he had the vision to introduce the Bill in the first place, and he has used his knowledge and experience to recognise that such a Bill should be taken forward on a consensual basis, working with people rather than against them. Perhaps it will be called the Davies-Ottaway new clause. Either way, it is something we should be pleased about.
Before I close, I want to refer to my amendments 85 and 86, which would ensure that the Bill comes into effect two months after Royal Assent. At the moment, the Bill is so drafted that the measures will take effect only when the Government decide they should. I would have thought that if the Government were serious about getting on with this, they could accept these amendments or undertake to implement the Bill two months after Royal Assent, and put pressure on the people drafting the regulations and negotiating with the local authorities to ensure that this is given the impetus that people in the House and outside want. That would be preferable to waiting until this time next year before a lot of these measures are implemented.
I am delighted that we have managed to work the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) into a state of parliamentary euphoria not only about the procedures in this place but about the fact that, in his words, the Government are really making a difference here. I wholeheartedly endorse his endorsement of what the Government are doing. We are seeking to make a difference. I am slightly discomforted by his laissez-faire approach to the legislative process, but we want to be accommodating and collegiate, and I am pleased that that spirit has come across in our approach to the amendments.
I will pass over the more churlish contribution from the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) as being entirely out of character.
I shall speak briefly to new clause 7. It was envisaged that this legislation would expire after one year, but, although I enjoy having regular discussions about this subject, I do not know whether the Government would be entirely happy about having an annual scrap metal traders Bill to discuss in detail. The Government do not take the view, therefore, that the legislation expiring after one year is suitable, but, because this is a wide-ranging Bill, it would be wise to review its progress, should it come into force. We would obviously want that review to be comprehensive, and the proposal for a five-year expiry strikes the right balance. It will give the legislation time to bed in and, we hope, take effect. The legislation would then expire after five years and, if need be, be replaced by even more effective legislation, drawing on the experience that will have been accrued over those five years and after we have had a review. The Government are happy to endorse the generous approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) in putting forward the proposal for a five-year review. I know that the legislation will proceed on that basis, with the enthusiastic support of Members across the House.
I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Minister for showing such flexibility, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that the shadow Minister was not at his best—let us phrase it like that—on this group of amendments. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for thinking that the process could be named after me, but, if it is to bear my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, it would certainly be better as the Ottaway-Davies new clause—we should get the seniority right in these matters.
On the basis of the Minister’s offer that the Bill will be reviewed after three years and expire after five, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Form and effect of licence
Amendments made: 1, page 1, line 17, at end insert—
‘() name the authority,’.
Amendment 2, page 2, line 6, after ‘licensee,’, insert—
‘() name the authority,’.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 8, leave out subsection (7) and insert—
‘( ) A licence is to be in a form which—
(a) complies with subsections (4) and (6), and
(b) enables the licensee to comply with section [Display of licence] (display of licence).
( ) The Secretary of State may in regulations prescribe further requirements as to the form and content of licences.’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Issue of licence
Amendments made: 4, page 3, line 12, at end insert—
‘() the Natural Resources Body for Wales;’.
Amendment 5, page 3, line 17, leave out ‘between specified hours of the day’ and insert
‘except between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on any day’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Revocation of licence and imposition of conditions
Amendments made: 6, page 3, line 35, leave out from beginning to ‘comes’ and insert
‘A revocation or variation under this section’.
Amendment 7, page 3, line 38, at end insert—
‘(6A) But if the authority considers that the licence should not continue in force without conditions, it may by notice provide—
(a) that, until a revocation under this section comes into effect, the licence is subject to one or both of the conditions set out in section3(8), or
(b) that a variation under this section comes into effect immediately.’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Supply of information by authority
Amendment made: 8, page 4, line 8, after ‘Agency,’, insert—
‘() the Natural Resources Body for Wales,’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Register of licences
Amendments made: 9, page 4, line 13, at end insert
‘issued by authorities in England.
‘( ) The Natural Resources Body for Wales must maintain a register of scrap metal licences issued by authorities in Wales.’.
Amendment 10, page 4, line 14, leave out ‘register’ and insert ‘registers’.
Amendment 11, page 4, line 21, leave out ‘register is’ and insert ‘registers are’.
Amendment 12, page 4, line 22, after ‘Agency’, insert
‘or the Natural Resources Body for Wales’.
Amendment 13, page 4, line 22, leave out second ‘the’ and insert ‘its’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Amendments made: 14, page 4, line 38, leave out ‘the Environment Agency’ and insert ‘the relevant environment body’.
Amendment 15, page 5, line 4, leave out ‘the Environment Agency’ and insert ‘the relevant environment body’.
Amendment 16, page 5, line 5, leave out ‘Agency’ and insert ‘body’.
Amendment 17, page 5, line 10, at end insert—
‘( ) In this section “the relevant environment body” means—
(a) for an authority in England, the Environment Agency;
(b) for an authority in Wales, the Natural Resources Body for Wales.’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Records of dealings
Amendments made: 18, page 6, line 26, divide Clause 12 into two clauses, the first [Records of dealings: receipt of metal] to consist of subsections (1) to (5) and the second [Records: supplementary] to consist of subsections (6) to (11).
Amendment 19, page 6, line 30, leave out ‘type and weight’ and insert
‘type (or types if mixed), form, condition, weight and any marks identifying previous owners or other distinguishing features’.
Amendment 20, page 6, line 42, leave out subsections (4) and (5) and insert—
‘(4) If the dealer pays for the metal by cheque, the dealer must keep a copy of the cheque.
(5) If the dealer pays for the metal by electronic transfer—
(a) the dealer must keep the receipt identifying the transfer, or
(b) if no receipt identifying the transfer was obtained, the dealer must record particulars identifying the transfer.’.
Amendment 21, page 7, line 7, after ‘subsections (2) and (5)’, insert
‘and section [Records of dealings: disposal of metal](3) and (4)’.
Amendment 22, page 7, line 13, after ‘subsections (2) to (5)’, insert
‘and section [Records of dealings: disposal of metal](3) and (4)’.
Amendment 23, page 7, line 14, at end insert
‘or (as the case may be) disposed of.’.
Amendment 24, page 7, line 15, after ‘under’, insert
‘section [Records of dealings: receipt of metal], section [Records of dealings: disposal of metal] or’.
Amendment 25, page 7, line 18, after ‘at’, insert
‘or (as the case may be) despatched from’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
Right to enter and inspect
Amendment made: 26, page 8, line 24, leave out ‘section 12’ and insert
‘section [Records of dealings: receipt of metal] or [Records of dealings: disposal of metal]’.—(Mr Jeremy Browne.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.
I am grateful to the House for the progress we have made and I am optimistic that we will get a Third Reading in the time available. I have spent a lot of time on this Bill, and the more I have got into it, the more passionate I have become about it. Without it, the principal outlet for stolen metals will go unchecked. Without this Bill, the cash-in-hand, no-questions-asked culture at scrap metal yards, which allows criminals to shift stolen metals and avoid tax, will continue to thrive. The problem of metal theft has spiked in recent years, owing to a sharp rise in world commodity prices. Unscrupulous thieves are growing bolder and more prolific. Hardly a day goes by when we do not hear reports of metal thefts targeting transport systems, telecommunications, energy networks, monuments, memorials or churches. Every constituency has a story to tell. The epidemic is holding ordinary hard-working people to ransom.
When I addressed the House on Second Reading in July, I referred to several devastating examples of metal theft resulting in entire communities being cut off, cancer operations being cancelled, war memorials and burial plaques being defaced, and historic artefacts being lost to us for ever. Since then the incidents have piled up. Today there were media reports of vandals destroying a world war two memorial in Brentwood, just days before Britain honours its heroes on Remembrance Sunday.
The Bill proposes wholesale reform of the scrap metal industry, which is the principal outlet for stolen metal. Significantly, it has the backing of the Royal British Legion, for whose support I am very grateful, the War Memorials Trust and the Church of England, which sees the Bill as a major tool in the fight to prevent the desecration of war memorials. According to The Times this morning, the new Archbishop of Canterbury is a supporter of the Bill, which also has the support of leading organisations that have all suffered from the devastating impact of metal theft. They include Network Rail, BT, the Energy Networks Association, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, Arts Council England, the Tate galleries, the Henry Moore Foundation, the Local Government Association and the British Transport police. The British Metals Recycling Association—the industry’s only trade association—has also been heavily involved in drafting the Bill. I am extremely grateful to everyone in those organisations who has given me unfailing and unstinting support throughout the Bill’s progress.
I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and his Opposition colleagues. I pay tribute to the early work done by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who did a lot to pave the way for the passage of this Bill. I am also grateful to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who has been unfailing in his support and whose officials throughout have given me advice without hesitation whenever I wanted it.
For too long, the cash-in-hand culture in the scrap metal industry has allowed criminals to ply their trade under the cloak of anonymity. As a result of this largely unregulated £5.6 billion industry—up to £1.5 billion of which thrives tax-free because of a lack of honest record keeping—our transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructure is under constant threat. This is no petty crime. We hear regular reports of metal thefts that cut off power to communities and hospitals, putting people’s lives in danger. Even more sickening are the attacks on churches, crematoria and war memorials. Many tributes will be paid to this nation’s heroes who laid down their lives for this country on Remembrance Sunday. This momentous anniversary falls two days after my Bill is debated in the House, when I will wear my poppy with pride and optimism. For that reason alone, I hope the House will give the Bill a Third Reading.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). I pay tribute to him for his work on introducing the Bill and for the courtesy that he has shown to me, to other Opposition Members and to all Members of the House during its passage.
The Bill will be a welcome addition to the armoury that the police and local authorities can use to tackle rogue traders and the scourge of metal theft. As the hon. Gentleman said, metal theft is a great problem. It affects churches, war memorials, local authorities, train companies and many other organisations. More than 117 hours of delay in train services have been recorded owing to metal theft, and the railways have incurred costs of more than £60 million over the past two years alone. The incidence of metal theft in churches has risen by 48% in the past two years. The desecration of war memorials has been particularly appalling; it has offended many in our communities.
I do not think that we have paid sufficient tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). There are a heck of a lot of people who get deeply upset when their relatives’ names disappear from war memorials and, on their behalf, I should like to thank everyone in the House—and particularly my hon. Friend—for sorting this out and perhaps avoiding further anguish for the many little people in the country who have seen their relatives’ names disappear from a war memorial.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with authority and with the support of the whole House.
As the hon. Member for Croydon South said, we are discussing these matters on 9 November, two days before Remembrance Sunday, and I hope that the Bill will ensure that next year’s Remembrance Sunday will not have thefts from war memorials as its backdrop. We remember the incident in Warrington, where metal from the memorial to the victims of terrorism was taken in a disgraceful and shameless way.
I hope that the Bill will give power to those who want metal theft to be reduced. I agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that this has been a good process. My only regret is that the measures in the Bill were put before the House earlier this year and rejected. I hope that the House will now support this Bill fully, so that it can go to the other place and receive Royal Assent speedily. We will then be able to look back on this process and acknowledge the Bill’s great contribution to reducing metal theft and to bringing comfort to those who have been upset and disappointed, and those who have lost out financially, as a result of these despicable acts.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on getting his Bill this far. He has done so with a fair amount of determination and dedication to the cause, and he is to be commended for that.
On Second Reading, I set out some of my concerns about how the legislation would play out. I still have many of those concerns and I am not entirely sure that the Bill will deliver what we and the public want it to—namely, a reduction in metal theft. The biggest problem is the derisory sentences given out by the courts to those who ply this despicable trade. Unfortunately, the Bill will do nothing to alter that state of affairs. I hope that the Government will not imagine that, once the Bill is passed, metal theft will have been dealt with and that we will be able to walk away from the problem and forget all about it. I hope that they will think about the sentencing regime that needs to be put in place to ensure that the severity of the crimes is reflected in the sentences given out by the courts. Until that happens, there will still be people who think that it is worth their while to indulge in this crime, and that cannot be a satisfactory state of affairs.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South has said that there will be an earlier review and an expiry date, so I am happy to support the Bill’s Third Reading. I wish it well. He will understand that I shall follow its progress in another place very closely, and I look forward to it receiving Royal Assent. We all want the Bill to succeed, and I want it to do so as much as anyone else does. I congratulate him on getting it as far as this.
I spoke on Second Reading, and I want to congratulate again the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on bringing this measure forward. I would also like to take the opportunity, having congratulated one Conservative Member, to congratulate another one—the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) who, on a number of occasions, made it quite clear how important this legislation is for the Church, on whose behalf, of course, he speaks and answers questions here. As I have said on more than one occasion, he implored some of his colleagues not to stop this Bill becoming law.
I endorse, too, the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). I am bound to do so, because I work on the assumption that from my Front-Bench team there can only be words of wisdom—[Interruption.] Well, on 99% of occasions when we are in opposition.
There can be no disagreement that scrap metal theft is, as everyone has said, an acute public nuisance. The hon. Member for Croydon South mentioned, as I did earlier, what we all going to do on Sunday to pay our respects to those who sacrificed their lives for our country. It is difficult to understand the sort of sickness—there is no other way to describe it—of those who are willing to wreck war memorials up and down this country purely and simply to make some profit. I spoke on Second Reading about the trouble and the nuisance it causes and about the danger to train passengers. Many of my constituents’ lives are being made a misery as a result of these thefts.
The sooner this measure gets its final parliamentary approval and gets on to the statute book, the better. It may well be, as the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said, that there are weaknesses in the Bill and that they need to be looked at. I do not question that, but the important thing is to get this measure on the statute book. If further measures are subsequently necessary to strengthen it, I hope we will not be reluctant to take them. This is an essential measure, and I am very pleased to support it.
I thank the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) for his kind comments. On behalf of the Church of England and all the churches, I want to congratulate—and thank—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on introducing the Bill. I thank, too, Home Office Ministers for the constructive way in which they have engaged with it, ensuring that it passes into law. Finally, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for the way in which they have approached the Bill today. I am quite sure that in Salisbury and Bradford cathedrals this Sunday, there will be prayers of thanksgiving for how they have approached this—[Laughter.] I am being serious.
For the Church of England and for churches as a whole, getting this measure on to the statute book is something of real importance. It is not without significance that, earlier today, the new Archbishop of Canterbury was announced. He and everyone in the Church of England, collectively with the heritage lobby, came to the conclusion that this was the only way to help to deal with this horrendous crime. Of course my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is right that other things need to be done—people do need to be arrested, prosecuted and firmly sentenced for such a despicable offence. I am absolutely certain, though, that this Bill will do much to stamp out this crime.
Again, on behalf of the Church of England, I would like to thank everyone who has made this possible. I have renewed confidence in the sagacity of the Leader of the House. A couple of weeks ago, he said he felt it unnecessary to make provision for extra Government time for this Bill because he was confident it would pass today. What words of wisdom they were.
I support the Bill on Third Reading and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) on the excellent work he has done throughout many weeks and months. I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) that prayers will be said in Salisbury and Bradford cathedrals this weekend. As one who represents parts of the Hereford and Lichfield dioceses, let me say that I need all the prayers I can get and that any prayers are welcome. On behalf of my constituents who sit in churches within those dioceses, I thank my hon. Friend for all his work, and thank other Members who have contributed to the passage and, I hope, the passing of the Bill.
I trust that the Minister has noted the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), whose Desecration of War Memorials Bill encouraged the Government to designate metal theft from war memorials an aggravated offence. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will encourage the Government to ensure that the Sentencing Council takes the issue extremely seriously, and that, following the passing of my hon. Friend’s Bill, it will be guided by his work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. Let me also convey my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). Many of us, including our constituents, will be delighted by what he has done. The War Memorials Trust will be particularly delighted, recognising that the Bill is part of a wider campaign. The In Memoriam 2014 campaign is intended to ensure that, as we look forward to remembering the outbreak of the 1914 war, we ensure that we protect and preserve our war memorials by using methods such as SmartWater to identify and trace acts of desecration.
My hon. Friend makes some valid points, as articulately as ever. I hope that the Minister will note what he says.
Let me end by again commending the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, and by urging all Members to encourage their churches to use SmartWater, especially given that it is developed in and sold out of Shropshire.
I am delighted to hear that SmartWater is sold out of Shropshire, but my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who was not present earlier, will probably be disappointed to learn that it is not mentioned specifically in the Bill because the Government did not accept an amendment that I had tabled to that effect.
It was a pleasure to hear what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry). He and I have worked together in the House for a long time. Today we have a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and we see the prospect of the Churches, and particularly the Church of England, uniting to seek a constructive way forward. Willing the end is one thing, but willing the means is another. Willing the means is one of the tasks that confront the new Archbishop, and it is a task that the Government have had to perform in dealing with the Bill.
There is much in the Bill that will improve matters. Only time will tell whether I am right in feeling that it should have contained additional measures which would have made it more effective, but I do not think that we have heard the last of this issue. However, I shall not refer to the measures that were not included in the Bill, because in a Third Reading debate we can only comment on what it contains now. I think that, as far as it goes, it is great. Let us ensure that the Government bring it into effect very quickly, because there is still scope for the dragging of feet. I see no reason why it should not receive Royal Assent fairly soon, and be implemented within two months of that.
I have a simple message from the many friends and supporters of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). Forty Hall, which has been ransacked repeatedly, is a great treasure not just for Greater London and Enfield, but for the country as a whole, and the Bill will make a magnificent difference to its future. My constituents have asked me to convey their thanks to my hon. Friend and to the House if the Bill is given a Third Reading, and I have honoured my pledge to do so.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make this concluding speech. Let me begin by saying what a privilege it is for me to be in this position at this stage in the Bill’s passage. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with feeling and emotion about the devastating impact that metal theft has had on the communities that they represent.
Let me briefly describe the approach that the Government are keen to take. We want legitimate metal dealers to be able to operate in a way that is productive and profitable for them. We hope this legislation will make it easier for their businesses to be successful because they will not have to compete with other businesses that behave illegally or inappropriately. This is a major industry and there are people employed in it who work hard and do a valuable job, and we want them to be successful.
The Government and others have identified that there is a vulnerability in the system at the point at which metal is traded. Even if people are able to steal metal, it is far too easy for them then to be able to launder it, so to speak, through the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) seeks to address that problem in his Bill by adding greater resilience, and we strongly support him. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that this is only one part of the process, however. All the law enforcement agencies must play their part and do everything possible to prevent metal theft.
It is a distressing and disruptive crime in many ways, and we have heard about the disruption caused to train services. For the perpetrators, it can be a dangerous crime, too, and we heard about people being killed while stealing metal. For a lot of people, it is an emotionally distressing crime. Artwork has been stolen. Lead has been taken from church roofs. The stealing of metal from war memorials is monstrous, as people who have fought and died to give us the opportunity to have debates of this sort have their memory desecrated. People rightly feel very strongly about that, and I am pleased legislation has been introduced.
On behalf of the Government, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and everyone else, including officials, who has been involved in the drafting and progress of this Bill. We believe it is extremely important, and its provisions will make a tangible and major difference to the lives of many of our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill
Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I shall be brief as the Bill has been discussed very thoroughly at previous stages. I want to remind Members about the need for it, however. An Audit Commission report published only this week found that 98,000 social tenancies are deemed to be improper and illegal sub-lettings. Those properties could house people who are properly on waiting lists and who deserve social housing. The Audit Commission estimates this problem costs the public purse about three times more than housing benefit fraud. Given that there are 2 million people on housing waiting lists, it should be clear to all Members that it is important that we legislate.
I am delighted that there is a political consensus in favour of the Bill. It originated from a speech by the former Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who has been very helpful to me and has introduced me to the current shadow Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). I pay tribute to him and his Opposition colleagues for the help they have given me. I am also delighted that the Bill has been supported by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and others.
The Bill creates offences that will stop people perpetrating social housing fraud and that will allow those who deserve to occupy such housing to do so. It will therefore also dramatically shorten our housing waiting lists. I thank everyone who has supported the Bill, and I hope we can introduce its provisions into law as swiftly as possible.
In view of the short time available, I intend to keep my remarks brief. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on introducing this Bill, because it is an appropriate step to take, given the scale of the problem he outlined. When so many people in desperate need of housing are on the waiting list, it is clearly completely wrong for a number of rogue tenants to abuse the system to make money and deny people in genuine need an affordable home. If we can agree the Bill today and it ultimately reaches the statute book, it will enable additional powers to be brought to bear to deal with this real problem.
It is important also to take into account the fact that the vast majority—probably 99% or more—of social housing tenants are decent, law-abiding, good people who would never think of sub-letting. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not implying, in any way, shape of form, that they would. Those people can be given a bad name by the actions of a tiny minority, and it is important for us to acknowledge that only a small minority of individuals are indulging in this activity. It is worth saying that although the Bill is a useful tool, as we are having to wrestle with a massive housing crisis, it will go only part of the way in dealing with the housing need in this country, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree with that.
It is essential that we use the Bill as just one of the tools at our disposal. I know that the Government are looking, for example, at ways to free up empty homes and bring them back into use. Derby has several thousand empty homes, some of which have been empty for more than five years—200 or so have been empty for more than 10 years. So it is important that we encourage local authorities to take the appropriate steps to deal with that as part of an overall menu of options to address the housing crisis befalling us. As part of the overall picture in ensuring that people can get the homes they need, which is what the Bill is designed to do by assisting people on the waiting lists, the Government also need to look at how we can build more affordable homes to deal with the difficulties that people are encountering. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that, too.
I do not want to say a great deal more, because I know that the Minister wishes to say a few words. I suspect that the hon. Member for Watford may have a few concluding remarks to make, and other Members may wish to add their thoughts in the few moments remaining. Once again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill, and I congratulate colleagues who have supported him in his endeavours. I encourage the Government to give the Bill their full support, as I believe they are doing—we will hear from the Minister in a moment on that. I hope that, with a fair wind, the Bill will get on to the statute book and assist local authorities in dealing with a real problem, which I hope we can stamp out once and for all.
The mission of this Government is to support the aspirations of hard-working people. The aspiration to have a home of one’s own is one that all people share, so affordable homes are one of the most precious assets we have. I therefore hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you will not take as a sign of a lack of enthusiasm for this measure, which the Government are supporting, the fact that I will keep my comments very brief. I shall simply commend my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on introducing this Bill, commend the Opposition on supporting it and recommend that all hon. Members do the same.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Public Debt Management Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The coalition Government are bringing order to the finances of the state. It is a great and historic enterprise that is as politically bold as it is innovative. The deficit the coalition inherited was the largest in our nation’s peacetime history, and despite the extraordinary events in the eurozone that have continued since the coalition Government came to power, my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and his colleagues at the Treasury are making steady progress towards meeting their targets in bringing that deficit to balance.
In defeating the deficit, we have only started on the first leg of a long journey. At the end, we will be met with a national debt approaching £1.4 trillion, on which the interest paid will amount to some £53 billion a year—larger than the defence budget, the budget for secondary education, the budget for transport or the budget for foreign aid. That extraordinary figure is more than just a toxic bequest to future generations. It will inhibit growth and our ability to try to get our country back on its feet again. For what? Not to defeat a foreign foe in battle or win a war of survival, but because of a structural deficit that we now understand was £73 billion on the eve of the financial crisis—a structural deficit hidden in the fog of credit, which was so terribly whipped away by the cold financial winds of the global economic meltdown.
My Bill is intended to ensure that we will never face that situation again by building on the Government’s commendable fiscal targets for the period after the next comprehensive spending review and putting in place a structure to deal with ongoing Government debt and the deficits it creates. There is no need to start from a fresh position, as there is a very good example in which measures taken by a Government have succeeded already. One need only look at Sweden, which had a national debt of 78% of GDP in 2000 but will next year see that debt reduced to 26% of GDP. That is a figure that we have not achieved in this country at any point since the second world war.
I have merely taken what the Swedes have done and transposed it to an appropriate form for a British Parliament, a British Government and the debt that we have inherited in Britain, which is approaching a figure very similar to the 78% that the Swedes had in 2000. The Bill is very simple and asks the Chancellor of the Exchequer to set an annual expenditure limit, which will be advised on and decided to be appropriate by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Once that limit is set, the Government will maintain a surplus of 1% within that expenditure limit over the course of the business cycle, which will be decided by the OBR. Parliament will vote on that expenditure limit. In so doing it will not only force the Government to keep to their spending plans and to maintain a surplus so that we can bear down on debt, but give back to Parliament our primary responsibility of ensuring that we keep the finances of the nation in check on behalf of our constituents and the subjects of the Crown.
The Bill contains a clause to ensure that in times of national emergency or war, the OBR can advise the Government on how that expenditure limit can be relaxed and on how it can be reeled back to ensure that within the business cycle the surplus can be maintained.
This is all intended merely to start a conversation about what happens after we have defeated the deficit—this great mission of the coalition Government—at the beginning of the next stage of the journey, when we will have to bear down on the national debt that has been the accumulated result of the faults of the previous Government and when we will try to bequeath to future generations a better inheritance than the one we had.