House of Lords
Friday, 30 November 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.
Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill
My Lords, there are around 4 million social homes in England and more than 200,000 in Wales. These homes provide safety and security, allowing roots to be put down and families to flourish. Social tenants enjoy a comparatively high level of statutory protection and, of course, benefit from submarket rents. In some parts of the country, social rent is less than 50% of the market rent. In addition, many social homes can ultimately be purchased by the tenant at a substantial discount under the right-to-buy scheme. It is therefore unsurprising that there is such a high level of demand for these homes: almost 2 million households are on the waiting list, many of whom are living in accommodation that is completely unsuited to their needs.
At the same time, some people are cheating the system. Whether it is by subletting a home they have been allocated or by lying about their circumstances to be allocated one in the first place, they are depriving of a settled home those in genuine need who play by the rules. Earlier this month, the Audit Commission revised upwards its estimate of the number of social homes in England that are being unlawfully occupied. That figure now stands at 98,000. I should of course remind the House that the vast majority of social tenants play by the rules and are no doubt as appalled as everyone else by this abuse.
The Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill has a very simple aim: to reduce the amount of social housing that is being misused, thereby ensuring that more of it is available to those in genuine need and who play by the rules. It seeks to do this by increasing the deterrent to those considering cheating the system and by strengthening the ability of landlords to detect and punish those who do. I congratulate Richard Harrington MP both on introducing this important Bill in the other place and on ensuring its rapid progress there, which I know was helped greatly by the generous support given by the Opposition.
Over the past few years, social landlords have been encouraged, both by this Government and the previous one, to crack down on the abuse of their stock. It is pleasing that an ever-increasing number are doing just this. However, while it is perfectly reasonable to expect social landlords to tackle this abuse, it is essential that there is legislation in place that will both help and encourage them to do so. That is where the Bill comes in.
This is not the time to go through each clause of the Bill in detail, but I will very briefly highlight its main provisions. Many forms of social housing fraud are already criminal offences: fraudulent right-to-buy applications and lying on the form when applying for a social home are caught by existing criminal legislation. However, there is a gap when it comes to what is often perceived to be the most prevalent form of social housing fraud: subletting. It is very important that this gap is filled.
A subletter can earn very substantial amounts of money, often by continuing to pay social rent to their local authority or housing association landlord while charging the subtenant the market rent. In areas where there is a big difference between social and market rents, it is not unusual for a tenant to make many thousands of pounds a year, all of it hidden from the tax man. As the Second Reading debate in the other place made clear, subletting is a problem even in low-rent areas.
In the vast majority of cases currently detected, the subletting tenant simply has to hand back the keys, resulting in the loss of a home that they were not living in anyway. They walk away, often with a very tidy profit and nothing to deter them from trying their luck somewhere else. The Bill deals with this by creating new criminal offences of subletting without permission, as well as enabling a court to award to the landlord any profit the tenant has made from the subletting, regardless of whether the landlord has incurred a loss.
The other area is access to data. Landlords often cite their lack of access to data as a significant obstacle that prevents them recovering as many homes as they otherwise could and they compare the powers available to them with those available to their housing benefit counterparts, who can compel a long list of organisations to provide them with data in connection with their investigations. By contrast, social housing fraud investigators cannot compel anyone to supply them with data. As a result, they are able to detect and prosecute far fewer cases than they otherwise could. Both forms of fraud come at a considerable cost to the taxpayer and it is not right that there is such a difference in the powers available to detect them.
The Bill would rectify this imbalance by allowing the making of regulations that would give social housing fraud investigators similar powers to those currently enjoyed by housing benefit investigators. These regulations will be subject to affirmative resolution. Importantly, this Bill will not affect tenants' current rights to take in lodgers or to sublet part of the property, provided that the tenant lives there too. In some cases this is a statutory right, in others it is a common feature of the tenancy agreement. I should add that the Bill would not criminalise those tenants who sublet not knowing it to be against the rules and would not criminalise those who unwittingly rent a social home from the tenant.
Discussions with landlords have shown that often subtenants do not know that the home in which they are living is in fact a social home. If, as can happen, they have seen the property advertised by an estate agent, have put down a deposit and pay market rent then it is fair that they would assume they are renting from a private owner. The first time many realise that the home they are renting is in fact a social home is when the local authority or housing association landlord knocks on their door. As I hope I have made clear, this is not an attack on social tenants, most of whom I am sure would welcome this Bill. What it seeks is to bring about a fairer system, rectifying the anomalous situation where the incentive to cheat is so much greater than both the risk of detection and the eventual penalty incurred.
This is a Private Member's Bill, but it does contain some significant provisions that will be welcomed by the housing sector and, no doubt, by the taxpayer. I hope the wide support it has received up to this point will continue in this House. I do not claim this Bill to be the single answer to all the issues affecting social housing in this country, but it will undoubtedly ensure that more of it is used by those in genuine need.
My Lords, I first congratulate my noble friend Lady Eaton on bringing the Bill to this House, her presentation of it, her clear explanation of its basic contents and the balanced way in which she put it forward. I join her in thanking Richard Harrington for introducing the Bill in the House of Commons and welcome the Government’s support. There is every likelihood that it will come into law.
In one sense, it is quite extraordinary that in so many cases councils and housing associations do not know who is living in their houses and that this clear misuse and abuse of the system of what we now call social housing in this country is so prevalent. It may well be that the true figure is around 100,000. Nobody knows exactly, but it is fairly clear that it takes place on a wide scale. I think back to the days when I started getting involved in local government and how the world has changed. Forty years ago, it would have been almost impossible for this kind of fraud to take place because the local authorities, who then owned almost all the social housing, simply knew who was living in their houses and what they were doing. Before local government reorganisation, when a council house became empty in one of our local authorities—a small urban district of which I was not a member—then its housing committee, consisting of all the authority’s members, would sit round the table at its next meeting and decide who would get the tenancy of that council house.
This is clearly a world away from the present circumstances in which local authorities and housing associations in particular are large-scale organisations run in what some people might think is a bureaucratic way. They are run much more like a business, rather than as the local community-based organisation that we looked to in the past, when everybody knew exactly what was going on. The world has changed. Now local authorities and housing associations do not generally employ rent collectors. In the days when the rent collector went round every week, it would be impossible for this kind of fraud to take place. It is often similar with repairs. When repairs are ordered now, they are either done by a large-scale organisation employed directly by the landlords or often by outside contractors. There is not the local knowledge there was when one or two tradesmen directly employed by the authority went round the estate or a local area doing the repairs. Again, these people would know who the tenants were. Councillors representing much smaller wards in those days would also be able to keep an eye on this kind of thing.
I come from an area where I do not think that this type of fraud takes place on any sort of scale. I was trying to think of an instance in my ward in either the main housing association in the area, which looks after the former council housing, or one of the other housing associations which have small numbers of properties in the area, but I do not think that this kind of fraud takes place on any scale at all in that kind of area. However, rents are generally low in both the private sector and the social housing sector in such areas and there is not the great gap in the level of rents described by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, that exists, for example, in many parts of London. However, it is clear that in many parts of the country this kind of fraud is rife, and the Bill is welcome as a means of dealing with it.
There is a hope that the Bill will not need an extended Committee stage; it is in a good form and could be passed into law fairly quickly. That is the hope around the House and I would like to ask the Minister, when she speaks from the Government’s point of view, what they will do if and when this Bill becomes law.
First, it is clear that a fundamental part of this legislation will be the need to inform and advise tenants about exactly what they can and cannot do and about the important distinction between their right to take in lodgers and their non-right—and the fact that it will be illegal—to sublet without permission following the passing of this Bill. It is very important that people occupying social housing legitimately understand the difference between those two positions because it might not be too obvious to people who do not go into the details of the different legislation. We do not want to discourage people in council and other social housing from taking in legitimate lodgers, which is a perfectly proper and reasonable way of using accommodation to its full and of providing accommodation for people who need it and who otherwise might not have it.
Secondly, what will happen in circumstances where people, whether or not they know about the rules, contravene the new legislation by not asking for permission to sublet but, if they had asked, it would have been granted? It would be wrong if they were to be arraigned before the courts. It is a typical situation in planning legislation and planning control that people often carry out development or changes of use without asking for permission, but when complaints are made and the enforcement process goes into operation it becomes clear that if they had asked for permission they would have got it. There is a parallel here and it would be wrong for people to be arraigned before the courts and action taken against them if they would have received permission. In other words, what advice will be given to local authorities for retrospective permission to be given when it would otherwise have been thought to be reasonable?
Thirdly, if and when this legislation is passed—which we hope will be soon—what is the Government’s intention on commencement? Is it that commencement orders will be made fairly quickly and advice given to local authorities and social landlords so that the new system can be brought into operation? Perhaps the Minister will give an assurance about that.
Some of the MPs who took part in the debate in the House of Commons were a little optimistic about the extent to which this legislation will release a great deal of new council and social housing for people on waiting lists. It will clearly have some effect there but the real effect will be that it will stop people abusing the system and bring this housing back into the use for which it is intended. On that basis, I am pleased to support the legislation.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on taking on responsibility for this Private Member’s Bill and for the comprehensive manner in which she introduced it. It is understood that the Bill has the continuing support of the Government and it should also be clear from its consideration in another place that it has our support also. I was pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that it has his support. He took us down memory lane to the years when a rent collector would go round the estates on a weekly basis. The housing committee in the authority on which I served did not have every member of the council on it. It was seen as a committee for senior members and it was about 10 years before they would let me near it.
There are various forms of tenancy fraud but this Bill concentrates on the unlawful subletting of social rented housing. The scale of this tenancy fraud is difficult to measure but, as we have heard, the Audit Commission’s updated figures now show that social landlords have lost control of some 98,000 properties. The original estimated cost to the Exchequer of £900 million will obviously have grown since. We know that it is a particular problem in London because high private sector rent levels provide an opportunity to make significant profits. However, it is a problem which is by no means limited to London.
There are, of course, current civil remedies available to landlords through repossession action and recovery of unlawful profit. Some councils have sought to use the Fraud Act, although there remains some doubt about its general applicability in cases of tenancy fraud. There was a major national crackdown in 2009 involving some 150 councils and specific additional funding has been committed by this Administration to tackle the problem. While increasing numbers of tenancy fraud have been identified and challenged, the crackdown has come nowhere near eradicating the fraud. More needs to be done and the measures in this Bill will make an important contribution to the effort.
As we have heard, the Bill includes the creation of new criminal offences of unlawful subletting by assured and secure tenants in social housing; the power for local authorities to prosecute; the ability for courts to order the recovery of any profit from unlawful subletting; and a restriction on assured tenants who sublet regaining their security of tenure.
We should remember that the primary victims of tenancy fraud are those individuals and families on the waiting list and in temporary, often substandard, accommodation who are denied the opportunity to access decent affordable housing. The public purse also suffers because the cost of supporting those denied will inevitably be greater than supporting them in affordable housing. However, increasingly, restrictions on housing benefit will mean that tenants denied access to affordable housing will have to pick up part of this tab themselves. With some 2 million estimated to be on a waiting list for social housing already and the collapse in new social housing starts, the leakage of even 50,000 properties—now estimated at 98,000—from the system should not be allowed to continue
These new criminal powers will undoubtedly assist in providing another route to landlords gaining possession but will, as importantly, also act as a deterrent. The two-tier approach for both secure and assured tenancies, with offences involving dishonesty carrying higher penalties, will reinforce this. We support the exclusions in Clauses 1 and 2, particularly those relating to domestic violence. We also support the provisions in the Bill for the court to make an unlawful profit order, the proceeds of which can flow to the landlord. The maximum payable under these provisions is the amount of rent receivable by the offender less any payments—rents and service charges—payable to the landlord. However, I have a question about how the tax system will fit into all of this.
The rental income receivable for the letting will be taxable, subject, of course, to deductions for rent paid to the landlord. Presumably it would be for the court to take account of this in evaluating any unlawful profit, but it is quite possible, of course, that somebody involved in unlawful subletting would not be rushing to file a self-assessment form. How is it intended that information relating to informal subletting will be shared with HMRC? Noble Lords will be aware of the provisions in the Welfare Reform Act which restrict housing benefit for tenants of social housing when they are deemed to underoccupy their home. We have made clear on numerous occasions, as indeed has this House, how much we deplore this pernicious legislation. However, my point in raising it this morning is not to revisit these arguments, which we will continue to pursue on other occasions, but to examine a related point, the one touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
The Government have suggested that one of the ways a tenant might mitigate the loss of benefit is to sublet a room or take in a lodger. Of course, there are strong reasons why such a course of action would be inappropriate for many families, but for those who might consider it we need to know that there is nothing in the Bill which would make it more difficult to do. It is understood that secure tenants, which includes most council tenants, have a statutory right to take in a lodger. Both secure and assured tenants will need their landlord’s permission to sublet. It seems clear that for secure tenancies, subletting would not create an offence if the written permission of the landlord is obtained, but the drafting in respect of assured tenancies is different and does not seem to allow an exemption even when the landlord gives written permission. Doubtless there is a good reason for this drafting, so perhaps the Minister will explain what it is.
The power to deal with tenancy fraud is one thing; what is as important is the ability to identify and detect cases. The government response to the consultation on social housing fraud indicates support for the creation of a mandatory gateway to require certain bodies to provide relevant information to facilitate detection and prosecution of tenancy fraud. We support this. That response indicates that work on this is being undertaken across government and that the Government will bring forward legislation when the right opportunity arises. Perhaps the Minister will indicate when this might be. Is it intended that this be done utilising the regulation-making powers in the Bill, or otherwise?
There has not been much focus at the other end, although it has been touched upon today by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on the position of tenants to whom property is sublet fraudulently. Clearly, a consequence of the Bill will be that they have to give up possession, and presumably thereafter have to seek alternative accommodation, presumably in the private sector. However, in so far as they have a right to access social housing, can it be confirmed that no detriment will arise for them if they have not been complicit in the fraudulent subletting? Indeed, what if they have? Tenancy fraud is a serious issue and the Bill will help to tackle it, but we must not allow that effort to stigmatise the overwhelming majority of tenants who properly occupy social housing, who strive to pay their rent and be good neighbours.
In conclusion, this is a worthy Bill, we thank the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for taking it forward and we trust that it will have a speedy passage on to the statute book.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Eaton for bringing the Bill to this House and my honourable friend Richard Harrington for having taken it through the House of Commons. As the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has said, it is an important Bill: it may have a small number of clauses but its effect is very serious indeed. I am happy to confirm that the Government have been very pleased to support it through the House of Commons and will continue to support it here. This is a Private Member’s Bill and noble Lords will know that it is up to the mover to respond to questions, but I think it is appropriate for me to say at the outset that we want to see this legislation introduced as soon as possible.
As other noble Lords have said, social housing fraud is a stain on our communities. It causes substantial financial loss and damage, especially to those who are stuck on a waiting list and in desperate need of housing: it denies them that opportunity. Introducing measures to reduce the number of homes occupied by those who are cheating the system and who often make a substantial profit in doing so, as my noble friend Lady Eaton said, is, by the sound of it, something that the whole House is going to endorse and I am grateful for that. We cannot ignore the financial cost. To replace social homes that are being unlawfully occupied, to house those who are being denied a property by tenancy fraudsters, would cost several billion pounds. We already know that we need to build a very substantial number of new houses to meet the demand anyway.
The Government have worked with local authorities and housing associations over the past couple of years to help them recognise that fraud is taking place and to deal with the problem. In 2010, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said, grant aid to local authorities of £19 million over four years was announced, as well as the Government funding a team at the Chartered Institute of Housing to help increase expertise and spread good practice. Both these factors, as well as a number of conferences, which I hope that I helped at, have raised the profile of this issue and, importantly, increased the number of homes recovered for reallocation to those in genuine need. The Audit Committee has estimated that 1,800 local authority properties have been recovered in the past year, but noble Lords will recognise that that still leaves a substantial number.
My noble friend Lady Eaton touched upon the importance of increasing landlords’ ability to access data: that is another matter that has been raised by the two noble Lords who have spoken. Those data should be available when investigating social housing fraud and I am very pleased that the Bill contains regulation-making powers to this end. The Government are, of course, committed to introducing the appropriate safeguards alongside any enhancement of landlords’ powers in this area. Of course, access to data will be limited, as one would expect.
Social landlords should be able to make best use of their stock in a way which satisfactorily meets the needs of their local area. Cutting down fraud is a key part of ensuring that this happens. Many landlords have stepped up their efforts and are now giving this matter the attention it deserves, but it is only right—I do not know whether there has been an oversight up to now—that there is proper legislation to support their work, as well as criminal procedures and penalties. That is what has been missing in order to underline the seriousness of this matter: they have been civil penalties up to now.
I was asked a couple of questions, but noble Lords will know that it is the mover of a Private Member’s Bill who answers those. I shall therefore not steal my noble friend’s thunder; I reiterate that we support what she says, and I am grateful that, so far, the House has indicated that it supports it too.
My Lords, I thank most sincerely the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord McKenzie of Luton, and my noble friend Lady Hanham, who have so kindly contributed to the debate on the Bill. I am delighted that there is support for the proposal that this Bill should reach the statute book speedily. I was very interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the changing scene in landlords and social housing. Having cut my teeth as a new councillor in the field of housing, I realise what a different arena it is some 28 years on. We now have large landlords who often stretch across a number of authorities and into the regions. It is very different from the days when someone could walk around the streets and know precisely who lived in each house.
The noble Lord asked about prosecuting tenants who may have sublet their property. My understanding is that whether subletting is allowed or not is normally made very clear in the tenancy agreement. In the Bill we recognise that it is the landlord who will decide whether to prosecute. It is expected that criminal sanctions will be used only in the most serious cases of deliberate attempts to defraud. If the activity of subletting has been allowed, it is understood that that would be taken into account in any course of action that the landlord may wish to take.
The question on tax from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, was most interesting. Because of the expectations of self-certification, I will need to take further advice and write to the noble Lord on that point. However, it is a valid question given that one of the main thrusts of the Bill is to save the public purse from fraudulent behaviour. I will make sure that these points are addressed. I am also pleased to note that the Government are working closely with the housing sector, and indeed my noble friend Lady Hanham mentioned the Chartered Institute of Housing. The Local Government Association is working to ensure that, as far as possible, tenants will be aware of the new arrangements and there is an expectation that landlords will make the implications of any new legislation clear to tenants.
Again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Disabled Persons’ Parking Badges Bill
My Lords, this Bill is a vital step in the fight against the fraudulent use of the much-prized blue badge. It will give local authorities some clear powers of enforcement and provide a welcome extension of the blue badge scheme to Armed Forces personnel and their families posted overseas on UK bases. I congratulate Simon Kirby MP on steering the Bill through the sometimes choppy waters of the other place, although it did have cross-party support, and making sure that it landed safely on the firmer ground for Private Member’s Bills of this House. I am extremely grateful for the help I have had from officials in my noble friend’s department. Also, before I go any further, I must declare my interest in that I am a blue badge holder.
The disabled parking scheme administered by local authorities has existed since 1971 and has enabled over 2.5 million disabled people to park close to where they need to be if they display a valid blue badge. It was originally introduced in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the late Lord Morris of Manchester’s pioneering Act which has done so much for disabled people since that date, and who we have been remembering a lot since his death in August this year. There is no doubt that the blue badge scheme has transformed the lives of those of us who rely on it on a daily basis for our independence. We rely on it for where we live and how we live, and for our ability to travel the length and breadth of the country, knowing that we can nearly always park somewhere suitable to our needs.
However, as time goes on, the value of the badge becomes ever higher, sadly leading to an incentive to fraudsters to abuse the scheme. The National Fraud Authority estimates that abuse of the scheme is now costing local authorities up to £46 million per annum in lost parking revenue, added to which is the deprivation of suitable parking places for genuinely disabled people. Examples of abuse include copying and forging badges, changing the expiry date on the badge, failing to return expired badges, or the misuse of genuine badges by those who are not disabled in any way and who are often, I fear, family members. We all know about the families who take granny and her blue badge out and leave her in the car parked in the disabled bay while they go shopping. No one can do anything about that kind of abuse.
Reform is clearly necessary to try to stop the growing tide of real blue badge fraud. The Government have already introduced important non-regulatory improvements to the scheme, including a new fraud-resistant badge design and a common, shared database across the UK that will prevent multiple and fraudulent applications and enable quick and easy validity checks. It is now time for the law to be clarified to strengthen powers against fraud even further.
Before describing the clauses of the Bill in a bit more detail, I should spell out what the Bill is not about. It is not about the detail of eligibility for a blue badge; or about the exact details of where and when a person can park with a badge; and it is not about the admittedly rigorous application process or the equally rigorous renewal process. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister is prepared to answer questions about those aspects if necessary, but they do not come within the parameters of this Bill.
I turn now to the Bill. Clause 1 removes the requirement for the Secretary of State to prescribe the exact design of the badge in regulations. This will protect the high security features of new blue badges from disclosure, thus helping to prevent forgery. Clause 2 gives local authorities the power to cancel a badge that has been lost or stolen. Up to 25,000 badges come into this category each year. This means that if enforcement officers come across such a badge, they can check its validity on the national database quickly and, if appropriate, can recover it. The person who has lost the badge or has had it stolen will still be able to be issued with a replacement in the knowledge that the original badge has been cancelled and the thief will not be able to use it. Clause 3 clarifies the existing offences relating to the wrongful use of a badge. Existing legislation is ambiguous about whether it is an offence to use a badge which should have been returned to the issuing authority, and this clause makes it clear that it is an offence. However, it is important to point out that, under the Bill, it will not be an offence not to return a badge that should have been returned to the local authority, for example, on the death of a badge holder, because it might just have been overlooked. However, it will be an offence for another person to use the badge.
Clause 4 gives a power to enforcement officers in plain clothes but with appropriate identification to retain a badge which appears to be fake, which has been cancelled and due for return, or is being misused. I must make it clear that enforcement officers will not be empowered to use force to seize a badge and they will not, contrary to some reports, be able to make a value judgment as to the mobility of the blue badge holder. They will be able to check immediately on a national database and discover whether the blue badge holder is on that database, because of the number on the badge that is displayed on the windscreen. At present, a local authority can only recover a badge if a police officer is summoned. This clause brings the law up to date with the current practice of parking enforcement being largely a civil matter. If an enforcement officer finds that someone is misusing another person’s valid badge, regulations will require that the local authority returns it to the legitimate badge holder. A growing number of local authorities are establishing dedicated fraud teams to undertake blue badge enforcement, thus recognising the seriousness of fraud and misuse. This Bill will greatly facilitate this practice.
Clause 5 removes, in England, a very limited right of appeal to the Secretary of State. This right of appeal does not apply to badge applications or eligibility —it applies only to cases relating to the misuse of badges, such as where an authority may require the return of a badge following a conviction. There are only one or two such appeals each year. Currently, the Local Government Ombudsman resolves most complaints against local authorities about blue badges; in future the ombudsman will also review complaints in the circumstances I have described.
Finally, Clause 6 extends the blue badge scheme to UK military bases overseas. This extension will be widely welcomed and will allow disabled members of the Armed Forces community who are resident on UK military bases abroad to apply for a badge.
The provisions in the Bill have been widely consulted on and guidance will be given to local authorities about their enhanced powers of enforcement. To sum up, this Bill is vital to bring the invaluable blue badge scheme up to date and, in particular, to help tackle fraud. Those involved in both using and administering the scheme are eager to see these measures implemented. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, on this Bill and the opportunity it gives us all to debate a pretty important issue. We do this having had the most successful Paralympics in history, so that the country as a whole is more conscious of the situation and needs of disabled people. I hope that the tendency to abuse the blue badge scheme will itself be lessened through a greater awareness of the situation of disabled people.
I have some experience of the blue badge scheme, because a member of my family has one. It is amazing how, if one is closely involved with a scheme, one is so much more conscious of its use and misuse. Even if I am not with that disabled person, when I drive somewhere I look at every blue badge parking space to see whether it is being used properly or not. I look into the windscreens to see whether the car has the blue badge there. One is much more aware of these things, as one is if one is pushing a wheelchair around. In theory we all know about kerbstones and all the other impediments, but if you get behind a wheelchair and push, you know just what it is like when you are in a local authority area that does not have the kerbstones adjusted so that one can push the wheelchair up. However, I have digressed from the Bill.
I am aware of the fraud and misuse of blue badges. It is extremely upsetting when this happens for people who have a blue badge and want to park but cannot find anywhere to do it. There is also the misuse of spaces that are designated for blue badge holders by other people, thereby denying the blue badge holder ease of access to the building, home or whatever it is. I will say a little more about that in a minute.
Some years ago, when I was a junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, this particular area was one of my responsibilities. The disability organisations in Belfast came to me saying that far too few spaces were designated for blue badge holders in Belfast city centre—I realise that the Bill is for England only, but the example applies—so that people with a blue badge could not find anywhere to park, as the spaces were all taken up by other motorists. One of the beauties of being a direct rule Minister was that I could change things very quickly, and I got a few more spaces installed right away. I am not even sure we had to do any consultation, and it happened within a short period of time. Sometimes there is a case for not having too much consultation if you want to get something done. It made me much more aware of the difficulties and the situations.
I understand that even ahead of this Bill, arrangements for the renewal of blue badges have been tightened up. The blue badge must now be collected in person by the holder within a six-week period, otherwise the badge is revoked. However, getting to the place where the blue badges are issued can sometimes be a problem, and one should be aware that these are extra burdens imposed on people who do not have the ease of access and mobility that the rest of us have.
There is one issue about enforcement that I will just mention. I once drove a disabled person and dropped him near a shop that he wanted to go to. I then drove the car to a parking space and put the blue badge up, but thought to myself that if someone sees me doing that and hopping out of the car, they will say I am abusing it. I thought I might have to explain this, so was ready with my explanation; which was that it was too far to get the disabled person from the space to the shop he wanted to go to, so I left him at the edge of the kerb with somebody else. If one is being tough on enforcement—as one should be—there are certain sensitivities about the way other people help disabled people. Although the Bill does not apply to supermarket and other private car parks, there is still a problem of enforcement there. I only hope that, as a result of this measure, the owners of supermarkets and other private car parks will enforce the blue badge parking bays. There are blue badge parking bays at my local Sainsbury’s, and I think they are being properly used—because I tend to look at them to see—but enforcement is sometimes not carried out as well in some supermarkets as it might be.
One key point is that there is still a lot of confusion and uncertainty about the scheme and the entitlements of blue badge holders. There is a very good website, which is clear, but you cannot always say to people when they get a blue badge, “Look at the website and go through it all before you go out in the vehicle”. I understand that these Explanatory Notes have been prepared by the government department, but there is at least one mistake in them. In paragraph 4, the notes say that the Bill,
“provides parking concessions for certain severely disabled people to enable them to park without charge or time limit”.
Unfortunately, in the four central London boroughs—Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, part of Camden and the City of London—there is a three-hour time limit. That may be necessary because of the enormous pressure on parking in the central London boroughs; on the other hand, if you do not know about it and come from outer London, you can be caught. Even a three-hour time limit can be difficult, because a lot of the hospitals that people with blue badges may need to visit for appointments are in the three-hour time limit area. One cannot always predict that one will be seen within the three-hour period and therefore it is hard to know how to manage the parking to make a hospital appointment. My point is that there is some confusion and uncertainly about it. It is fair enough in one’s own local area, because the blue badge holder gets to know what the conditions are there, but that does not apply if one goes outside one’s local authority area. All I can do is plead for more sensitivity and more information, because if a blue badge holder goes outside their own area, or is driven outside it, there are not always signs up saying what the conditions are.
One thing I did not know, which I checked with the carer for a blue badge holder, and which is also in the Explanatory Notes, is that there is permission to park on yellow lines in England for up to three hours. The carer did not know that; she had no idea one could park on yellow lines. Did your Lordships all know that? Maybe I am the only one who did not, but I certainly did not. However, it is not quite as simple as that, because it also applies to double yellow lines—but there are exceptions, such as where there are the vertical kerbstone markings, although that does not always apply in all local authorities, so the advice is to phone up the local authority and check. That is a bit of a performance but I understand that is how the system works. Confusion and uncertainty are a problem for those with blue badges.
Another problem is that some local authorities have bays that are designated for named persons. That is fair enough. Others do not. If one has a blue badge bay outside one’s house, which is not designated to the person in the house, and somebody else parks there it can be very difficult getting into one’s home because there is not a parking bay there. That designation of parking spaces for individual blue badge holders varies from local authority to local authority. I understand that Westminster does it, but others do not, so there can be a real problem there.
I will quote an example that I have quoted once before. The carer of a blue badge holder parked in the blue badge space outside the home. Life can be pretty stressful and she did not put the blue badge up, although she also had a resident’s parking permit for the borough. The wheelchair was perfectly visible in the back of the car. The car was towed away within minutes and that cost her £250. I thought that the insensitivity of the local authority to tow away a disabled person’s car with a wheelchair in it, without any notice, took some beating.
I very much welcome this Bill. Obviously, we would all like to go a bit further but Private Members’ Bills can only go so far and so quickly. The noble Baroness is nodding; she understands that. I welcome the tougher enforcement that is going to happen; that is a good thing, but there also needs to be greater clarity so that legitimate holders of blue badges are not caught by the tougher enforcement.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as the holder of a disabled person’s parking badge. This Bill is an essential tool for the prevention and reduction of fraud and is long overdue, for many of the reasons that have been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester.
Picking up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on the abuse of space—which I have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House—there is a cultural issue in this country where people do not think that it is particularly upsetting, if there are lots of disabled spaces, to just nip into one briefly for a while. Compare that with France, where the major supermarket chain Leclerc has a little sign below each blue badge that says, “You take my space, you can take my handicap”. There is very little abuse of the system in France, and it is that cultural change that forces people to think about what they are doing that we need to get to in this country. In the mean time, we need to make sure that fraud and abuse of the system are reduced.
I, too, have looked at the web guide. In the main, I found it extremely helpful but I wondered if I needed to print out some of the 20-odd pages, particularly those on when you can and cannot use your badge on a yellow line. Having looked at it, I certainly could not memorise all the different strands. Perhaps there is a way of simplifying that, perhaps into a handy little pocket thing that might go out with the new badge when it is reissued that would give users and their carers an easy aide-memoire.
I note that the Bill does not tackle the highly contentious issue of eligibility for a badge, although I suspect that eligibility is the area that many people with disabilities are more concerned about.
Most of this short Bill is very sensible, and helpful to local authorities and the police in terms of setting out formal processes for the cancelling of badges when they are no longer held by the person to whom they were issued, and to increase the number of people able to inspect badges.
I am sure that it is right and helpful to permit authorised enforcement officers in plain clothes to inspect badges. It is also right for them to be able to confiscate a badge which they believe to have been cancelled, due for return, or because it is a fake. However, I have slight concerns about the wording in Clause 3(4)(a), which could be interpreted as a very sweeping statement. It says,
“should have been returned to the issuing authority in compliance with regulations under subsection (6) of that section or a notice under subsection (7A)(b) of that section”.
My noble friend Lady Thomas has helpfully clarified that these powers are limited and do not give an enforcement officer the right to confiscate a badge should they believe the holder is no longer displaying a level of disability that would entitle them to a badge. If so, I am reassured. It would be very worrying if untrained officers, who know nothing about the wide range of disabilities and how they manifest themselves, took it upon themselves to seize a badge. For example, someone with an invisible heart condition might appear well, might even be able to walk to the shop that they are trying to get to, and to all intents and purposes look fit and healthy to an untrained eye.
This raises the more general issue about the training of enforcement officers. Will my noble friend Lady Thomas or the Minister tell the House what training there is for those police or enforcement officers who have the power to confiscate? Do they have training to understand and recognise disabilities and how to work with people with disabilities? For example, what skills are they given in communicating with people with disabilities such as severe hearing loss, who may be unable to discuss the matter easily with an officer? Perhaps this is an area that local authorities could look at with their staff and enforcement officers.
I have a minor concern about Clause 5, which concerns appeals. I absolutely agree that it should not be necessary for a badge holder to appeal to the Secretary of State should they be refused a badge, but I am worried that it appears there is no recourse to appeal against the decision of a local authority. Can the Minister confirm that this is the case? If so, is it right or fair that there is no appeal? For example, can a sub-committee be set up in a local authority to review that initial decision? That seems to be against natural justice.
Finally, I am pleased with the proposals for the Secretary of State to be responsible for issuing blue badges to members of the Armed Forces and persons employed in their support who are resident overseas. This is eminently sensible, given the movement of service personnel and the European nature of the current badge.
I thank my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester for bringing forward this Bill to your Lordships’ House. With those very minor concerns, I absolutely support the Bill.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for giving us this opportunity to support her Bill.
As Minister for Transport between 1999 and 2001, I was aware of the widespread concern about the misuse of blue badges and had hoped to act to reduce fraud and abuse. Unfortunately, in those years the Department for Transport was preoccupied with a series of crises, particularly regarding the safety of our railways, which understandably took priority.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will remember that difficult period very well since he was even then the opposition spokesman for transport in your Lordships’ House. His knowledge of transport legislation is very extensive. His open mind and his direct but courteous manner as a Minister are also much admired, and I am sure that he will make every effort to get this Bill passed and implemented as soon as possible.
As has been mentioned, it is also reassuring that this Private Member’s Bill has come to us from the House of Common with cross-party support. Let us now ensure that it passes through its remaining stages in this House quickly and intact.
The blue badge system was introduced in 1970 but despite growing concern over the decades about the increase in its abuse, government in general have been very slow to act. However, in 2007 the then Labour Government at long last reviewed the blue badge regime. The following year the Department for Transport published its Comprehensive Blue Badge (Disabled Parking) Reform Strategy.
The consultation process that followed was certainly comprehensive. Indeed, it was not concluded until 2010 —just in time to be picked up by the incoming coalition Government. After such a long wait, it is good to see that some overdue reforms are already in place. We now have the Blue Badge Improvement Service, which will offer more secure printing, supply and distribution of blue badges. Its database will also enable verification checks to be made quickly and easily. The responsible local authorities will now share access to a BBIS management information system, which should make blue badge schemes more consistent across the county and help reduce abuse. Most importantly, since the start of this year, new blue badges are being issued which have been redesigned to make them harder to alter, copy or forge. In addition, badge holders are now able to report lost or stolen badges online, which, combined with the measures proposed in this Bill, should also reduce fraud.
Let us hope that these reforms lead to a greater commitment at local authority level. At present, regrettably, it is estimated that about 80% of councils are not actively enforcing existing rules. These inactive councils should be made aware that tighter enforcement in large cities has significantly reduced offending rates. This has been most effective in London boroughs where, of course, with high parking charges and the Transport for London congestion charge in the centre of town, abusers can save large sums of money. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, the National Fraud Authority estimates that abuse of the blue badge scheme might be costing around £50 million a year, although we cannot be sure of that figure because detection and prosecution rates at present are so low. But that, too, might now change. What we do know is that half of all blue badge holders blame the widespread abuse of the scheme by able-bodied drivers for the difficulties that they often find in parking.
However, our concern should not just be about the cost of fraud or even the inconvenience caused to the disabled; it must also be about the cynicism bred by the old, ineffective regime which contributes to the general disillusionment about government’s inability at local and national level to sort out such common problems. With 2.5 million badges in circulation and subject to widespread fraud, those motorists who play by the rules become increasingly, and quite understandably, frustrated and angry about our failure to act. Sadly, disabled badge holders have also been increasingly embarrassed by resentment of their parking privileges, fuelled by suspicion that they, too, might somehow be abusing the system.
Therefore, if and when the overdue but very welcome reform proposed in the Bill becomes law, I hope that the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will encourage the transport department and local authorities to make a special effort to publicise their improved security measures and enforcement powers. Such a campaign would not only act as a deterrent by warning of the increased likelihood of getting caught and punished for misuse and abuse of the scheme but it might also reassure all those law-abiding motorists who do not have a blue badge that government, at local and national level, is now as keen as they are to combat fraud and abuse on our roads.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for agreeing to pilot this Bill through your Lordships’ House. I should begin by declaring an interest: I am president of Access, a campaigning group working for the benefit of people with disabilities. I certainly welcome this Bill. It will ensure that people who genuinely need the blue badge are better protected and will help clamp down on the abuse of this very worthwhile scheme.
I know from talking to public officials in my own part of Wales that they are often frustrated by the lack of opportunity to act against those who abuse the present scheme. They welcome amendments to inspection powers so that officers in plain clothes may inspect badges. This, coupled with provision to allow councils to cancel badges which are not held by the person to whom they have been issued, will go a long way to improving the governance and management of the scheme.
They tell me that demand for blue badges is constantly increasing, yet there is no incentive for people to hand back a blue badge if and when they are no longer required. Among the commonplace scams are using a blue badge without the badge holder’s knowledge, keeping the blue badge when the person to whom it was awarded has died, photocopying genuine badges and acquiring stolen ones. I remember reading an article in the Daily Telegraph more than two years ago which stated that in Leeds, it was estimated that 60% of badges were misused; that in Newcastle around half the 4,000 issued badges were used illegally; and that in Edinburgh the figure jumped to 70%. I know that in south-east Wales, close to the English border, misuse of the blue badge is popular because possession of it allows motorists to cross the Severn bridges without paying. I therefore commend the Welsh Government on having launched a new blue badge scheme in March this year with many additional security features which make them harder to forge.
However, more than one in three people in Wales do not understand the eligibility rules for blue badge disability parking. In some cases, this has led to unpleasant remarks being aimed at legitimate users of the blue badge scheme in accessing parking spaces. Thirty-five per cent of people questioned in a survey said that they believed that disabled persons' parking spaces were provided only for vehicles carrying a wheelchair user. In fact, they are reserved for a wide range of people with mobility problems, including those with less obvious disabilities such as severe sight impairment, heart or lung conditions, or a prosthetic limb that may make it difficult for them to walk even short distances.
The misconceptions about the blue badge parking system emerged in a survey of more than a thousand people conducted for the Welsh Government as part of their drive to encourage greater respect for the parking rights of disabled vehicle users. The Welsh Government released the survey figures as part of their “space invaders” campaign to promote the new-style, more secure blue badge and to deter ineligible motorists being tempted to abuse the scheme. An earlier survey across Wales showed that one in 10 motorists admitted using blue badge spaces illegally and, in some areas, the figure was as high as one in four. Recently, on a very wet Saturday while driving out of the car park at my local Sainsbury’s at Pontllanfraith, I saw a motorist drive in, park in a disabled person’s parking space, get out of the car and run into the store. I am only sorry that the Bill does not give the police powers to seize and to crush the cars of motorists who take a disabled person’s parking space. Frankly, for me, whether they remove the driver first is an option for them. If they had such powers, it would certainly help deter these space invaders.
Another misunderstanding about the scheme was revealed in the Welsh survey, with 10% of respondents believing that anyone using a blue badge holder’s vehicle could park in the restricted spaces even if the eligible person was not with them. Former Royal Welch Fusilier Paul Davies, of Bargoed, who was paralysed from the waist down after being injured in a military rugby game, said that he regularly encountered these space invaders. Mr Davies helped launch the Welsh Government’s blue badge scheme and was quoted as saying:
“Drivers take no notice of the signs, either because of laziness or ignorance of how difficult it really is for a disabled person to park in a normal space”.
Finally, I welcome Clause 6, covering the provision of badges for disabled service personnel. This is a well intentioned move to bolster the Armed Forces covenant. As a former Veterans Minister, I believe that any new commitment to improve the quality of life of those who have served our country and to whom we owe a debt that we can never fully repay is right and just.
People who take a disabled person’s parking space and who abuse the blue badge scheme do a considerable disservice to disabled people and harm their quality of life. The Government are right to do something about this, and I certainly welcome this Bill.
My Lords, as has been indicated by a number of speakers in the debate, we all owe a real debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for sponsoring this Bill and introducing it into the House. We also appreciate the accuracy with which she took us through each clause, hoping, I think, to ward off too many contributions which might stray a little far from its direct content. That is in the nature of Private Member’s Bills. This House always has a large number of noble Lords with experience in the field of any particular Private Member’s Bill. They will make their major issues part of the debate. Therefore, I hope the Minister will not be too upset by the fact that several contributions already have ranged quite widely in advocacy of the interests of the disabled. I hope, too, that I may be forgiven in that respect.
As my noble friend Lord Macdonald indicated, this Bill clearly has cross-party support. We from the opposition Front Bench wish it every success. We appreciate of course that the Bill is also derivative of the seminal work of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which our great friend Lord Morris of Manchester introduced at that time. He of course succeeded subsequently in developing many areas of work of great help to the disabled. I am pleased that this is my first opportunity to put that on record. I knew Alf for nearly 40 years. There was no one I held in greater respect in terms of his contribution. This issue with regard to the blue badge is a small tribute to his work. The blue badge scheme is of course of immense value to the disabled, but because of that it also incurs the tendency to a great deal of fraud and illegitimate use. That is why we welcome the fact that the Bill tightens up areas in significant ways that will aid the direct purposes of the blue badge concept—that is, service to the disabled.
I hope that the Minister is able to reassure us that there are no extra demands upon the resources of local authorities as a consequence of the Bill because we are all too well aware that our local authority budgets are greatly stretched at present. I want some reassurance on that front. Also, have the Government addressed this question of enforcement? We all recognise the very different concepts of civil enforcement and the operation of the police with regard to criminal enforcement. The police are able pretty much instantaneously to have access to the police databank on vehicles and their misuse. I am not at all sure that the enforcement officers envisaged in this Bill would have anything like that access to the resources necessary for them to carry out the role.
Let me say how very difficult this can be. On this occasion, an authority acted in my view entirely properly but it was of great distress to a dear neighbour of mine who is safely into her 90s. First, she found that in order to renew her badge there was a six-week period and she was late with that so the new badge was not issued in time. She got a ticket for the car parked outside her house in her reserved space because the old badge was out of date. Credit is due to those carrying out enforcement, except that they might have regarded the situation of a ratepayer of the local authority perched on a space correctly created for her with a little more understanding and consideration. Worse, she went straight to the local authority to complain about this and parked in a disabled spot. When she came out, a second ticket had appeared on her car. We need to recognise that as far as the disabled are concerned some understanding needs to be employed. I am therefore interested in this question of enforcement. We all want rigorous enforcement against those who misuse badges but we also want to make sure that the interests of those who legitimately use badges are safeguarded.
The Minister will also want to comment on the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. We recognise how limited appeals were to the Secretary of State and there is no great loss in the withdrawal of that particular aspect but we want to be reassured about the question of appeals against the withdrawal of a badge. We all know how significant a badge is to a disabled person. It would be a significant loss, which can only be justified if every conceivable angle on the issue has been considered. That is why we need some kind of consideration on the question of scope for appeals.
I also appreciated the contribution by my noble friend Lord Dubs, who pressed the case for consistency with regard to application. Life is complex enough for all of us who cope with the myriad problems of parking. For the disabled to have the additional difficulties of the complexity and uncertainty of application is something we must take very seriously. I want reassurances from the Minister that the points that my noble friend Lord Dubs made will be taken fully into account.
This has been an extraordinarily constructive debate. It has shown the House at its best in circumstances where we seek to aid a very important part of our community—the disabled—and particularly to protect them in areas where the existence of fraud in the use of badges has been a clear abuse and very much to their detriment and the effectiveness of the scheme. I very much welcome the extent to which the Bill advances the interests of the scheme and gives great help to the disabled.
My Lords, today’s Second Reading marks an important step in the reform of the blue badge disabled parking scheme and I thank my noble friend Lady Thomas for the excellent way in which she introduced her Bill. It has the full support of the Government.
As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, observed, Governments have long understood the need to reform the blue badge scheme. Until last year, very few changes had been made to the scheme since its establishment in the 1970s. I had an office near to that of Lord Morris of Manchester and I much enjoyed his company and wise counsel. Since coming to power, this Government have continued to work with disabled people’s groups and local authorities to develop improvements. The changes we have introduced are neatly complemented by the contents of my noble friend’s Bill, which in essence completes the reform package which has obviously been in gestation for many years. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, suggested that cars involved in abuse should be crushed. That might be a bit draconian for this Government but if we did go down that route, I think the power should be invested in a Minister in the Government Whips Office.
Last year, the Government announced plans for reforming the scheme. Those plans were two-fold: first, to tackle rising levels of fraud and abuse; secondly, to ensure that badges are issued more fairly and consistently across the country. This would thereby ensure the scheme remains sustainable in the long term for those who rely upon it most. Given my background as a Territorial Army officer, I am delighted to see the provision in my noble friend’s Bill enabling the Armed Forces on UK bases overseas to apply for a badge, as this is about fairness and complements the Government’s aims.
The Government have made great strides in delivering reforms. Last year we amended regulations so that a badge can be withdrawn by a local authority following a relevant conviction for misuse. Previously, a local authority was obliged to obtain three relevant convictions before a badge could be withdrawn. That was unduly cumbersome. We have reduced that to one conviction to support local authorities in their attempts to stamp out abuse. In this context, the provision in my noble friend’s Bill to clarify existing offences relating to the wrongful use of parking badges is extremely important. Local authorities need to be clear about what constitutes an offence and what behaviour may be prosecuted.
More recently, on 1 January this year the Government introduced 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. I am delighted to say that every local authority in England has signed up to use it. It is a service that provides for online applications and, since it went live, over 800,000 badges have been issued. The local authorities use a central, secure print facility to supply and distribute badges and are able to make administrative savings by sharing services.
I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, when he described the system, which provides local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales with a single, national database of all blue badge holders and their key details, therefore preventing multiple and fraudulent applications. This new tool is a major step forwards in tackling fraud and the powers being proposed in this Bill—specifically, allowing inspections by officers in plain clothes and enabling on-street recovery of badges that are fake, cancelled or being misused—will enhance its value. Enforcement officers can run quick validity checks of badges on the street via their handheld devices and if a badge is forged, stolen, expired or being misused they will be able to take it off the offender to prevent further abuse.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, touched on the possibility of photocopying a badge. I assure him that the new badge is completely resistant to this type of fraud. Furthermore, since the new system went live the Government have built on the functionality available in the online form and members of the public can now report lost and stolen badges and any changes of circumstances online. This function will be enhanced by the new power proposed in the Bill enabling local authorities to cancel badges that are no longer in the holder’s possession, which means that on-street enforcement officers will have access to the most up-to-date information when interrogating the database.
To help counteract fraud, the Government have also introduced a new badge design that is harder to copy, forge or alter. The old-style cardboard badge has been replaced by a superb new badge made from a hard plastic material, which contains a number of overt and covert security features as used in banknotes and driving licences. As my noble friend Lady Thomas explained, the Bill has an important role here too by removing the need to prescribe the badge details in regulations. Already, people are attempting to make copies of the new badge and I am pleased to say that they are bad copies. However, we do not want to help those criminals by publishing the badge security details.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about misuse of the blue badge. It is important to understand that there is a limitation on how much we can do. If we have too many badges in use, too many parking spaces will be used and we will devalue the badge itself. Of course, the same arguments apply to abuse. He also talked about the need to collect badges in person within six weeks. There is no requirement for this practice. It is for local authorities to decide their own arrangements. Some ask people to collect them to help ensure that they are delivered to the right people; some also take payment at that time. The noble Lord referred to signs and parking on yellow lines; my noble friend Lady Brinton also touched on this. Local authorities are required to put signs up explaining who can park there. All badge holders receive a rights and responsibilities leaflet, explaining about yellow lines. I am afraid that they may have to check the rules in their local area because local authorities have to manage their own traffic situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also talked about towing and clamping. A vehicle displaying a blue badge must not be clamped but if the vehicle avoids clamping in circumstances where the badge was being misused, an offence is committed and the badge user could be prosecuted. The department advises local authorities that vehicles displaying blue badges should be removed only for emergency, security or ceremonial reasons, where the vehicle is a serious safety hazard or obstruction. However, local authorities may remove a vehicle displaying a blue badge if it is in contravention of a parking prohibition and a penalty charge notice has been appropriately issued. Depending upon the terms of the parking orders, contraventions could include circumstances where a blue badge is not valid or is being misused by a third party.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also talked about parking bays. Broadly speaking, there are two types of on-street disabled persons’ parking bay. The first type is installed by local authorities who have powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to designate by order a parking place reserved for a disabled badge holder. If a disabled persons’ parking bay has been designated, it would be an offence for a non-disabled person to use the space. Contraventions can be enforced with penalty charges; the offender may also be prosecuted and be liable for a fine of up to £1,000. Disabled bays that are backed by an order take longer to implement, as their provision requires public consultation and objections need to be considered before they can be implemented. It can therefore take some considerable time for such bays to be installed, unlike advisory bays which can be given quick consideration. Their use, however, cannot be enforced by parking authorities. Such bays are marked out on the road surface and are often installed by local authorities in residential areas, where it is expected that neighbours will respect them.
Many noble Lords talked about off-street parking. There are no plans to apply the scheme to off-street parking or private land. The Government do not believe that they should impose a prescriptive regulatory scheme on car parks, which are very often privately owned. Where car parks are on private land and owned, for example, by a supermarket it is entirely a matter for the landowner to determine the terms and conditions by which that land may be used and how parking spaces may be allocated. However, I am sure that supermarkets would pay attention to the presence of a blue badge. The Equality Act already places a broad duty on providers of services, including car parks, to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people are not substantially disadvantaged compared to nondisabled people when accessing a service. This has implications for car park owners, who may have to demonstrate that as well as marking out disabled persons’ parking spaces they have taken reasonable steps to ensure that they are made available to disabled people. My noble friend Mr Norman Baker, the Transport Minister, wrote to the main supermarkets in March and September last year to encourage them to actively monitor and enforce their disabled bays.
The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, asked about local publicity campaigns. The Government issue guidelines to local authorities recommending that they enforce a scheme and publicise activity locally, but it is of course a matter for local authorities as to how they do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, suggested that there is no incentive to hand back a badge if no longer needed. This is required in the legislation; local authorities can take action to recover a badge and the Bill would make it an offence to use a badge that should have been returned. Of course, the badge will have limited utility because if an enforcement officer uses his scanner, he will straightaway be able to see that the badge is no longer in effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, touched on public expenditure. The Bill is expected to have no impact on public service manpower and will impose no significant additional public expenditure. Use of the new powers by local authorities will be voluntary and badges could be recovered in the course of current routine enforcement patrols. Local authorities choosing to use the new powers could benefit from a reduction in lost parking revenue through better enforcement—and with the security features in the new badge, it will be much more efficient for local authorities to police it. There may be a minimal cost to the Government in issuing badges to eligible members of the Armed Forces resident overseas, but this could be offset by charging applicants the £10 fee payable by other badge holders.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, touched on the problem of when a badge holder’s badge becomes out of date. The Blue Badge Improvement Service automatically notifies badge holders when their badge is due for renewal. The noble Lord also talked about parking tickets for expired badges. It is the responsibility of the holder not to display an expired badge. I have already touched on the benefits of the Blue Badge Improvement Service.
The noble Lord asked about appeals, and this is quite an important point. There is no formal appeal route to the Secretary of State when a local authority determines that an applicant is not eligible for a badge. However, local authorities may have their own appeal procedures. In addition, if the applicant believes that the regulations have not been applied properly, he may ask the Local Government Ombudsman to review his complaint. The Bill, as my noble friend explained when she introduced it, removes in England the limited right of appeal to the Secretary of State in cases where, for example, an authority requires the return of a badge or for reasons relating to the misuse of badges. Only one or two such appeals are made each year. It is an anomaly that, while local authorities administer the blue badge scheme, the Secretary of State for Transport is required to consider these appeals. The department is not best placed to consider these. In future the Local Government Ombudsman will review these complaints under existing powers. The ombudsman has the expertise of dealing with over 10,000 complaints per year.
During Questions last month I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about an appeal process for people who might lose their right to a badge following the introduction of the personal independence payment. If someone did not qualify for a badge via the PIP, they would be free to make a separate application to the local authority for a blue badge. If the authority assessed that the individual met the eligibility requirements set down in the regulations, they would still qualify for a badge. If the individual did not meet the eligibility criteria, it would be correct for the local authority to refuse to issue a badge. There is no formal right of appeal against a decision not to issue a badge but, if an individual feels that he has been treated unfairly or that the local authority has not properly applied the regulations, he may ask the local authority to reconsider and/or take his complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
If I have missed any important points, I will of course write in the usual way, as I am sure will my noble friend Lady Thomas. To conclude, the Department for Transport undertook a full consultation on the reform measures introduced by the Government and those in my noble friend’s Bill. The consultation showed widespread support for the changes, which are long overdue. I hope that the House will recognise the considerable benefits that the Bill will bring to disabled people who rely upon the blue badge scheme and to local authorities in their efforts to reduce fraud against public sector. To that end, I join my noble friend Lady Thomas in commending it to the House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, which I have enjoyed very much and I hope that other noble Lords have as well. It has ranged much wider than the Bill, as I thought it probably would. I was hoping that my noble friend would answer all the non-Bill questions, and I think that he probably has.
I have a lot of sympathy with the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs; he lives in London, as do I, where there are completely different rules all over the place and you have to be pretty sharp to know what they are in each borough. I agree with him that it is a problem when someone drops off a very disabled person by a shop, then parks the car himself or herself in a disabled bay and gets out of the car but is an able-bodied person. Strictly speaking, the driver should not use that bay, but I understand that it is tempting to do that because then they are near to pick the person up again. However, that is one of those problems to which I do not think there is a solution.
My noble friend Lady Brinton talked about the training of enforcement officers, and that is a very good point. In one sense, their job will be much easier than it might have been because all they have to do is look at the number on a badge if they are in doubt about it and ring up the national database to check that that number is on it. That will stop them having to decide whether a person’s car is in the wrong place. On the other hand, it is important that they have training so that they are not tempted to make any sort of value judgment about people who may have hidden disabilities.
The speech by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, was extremely valuable in telling us about the scale of abuse. I take his point about crushing cars belonging to people who park in the wrong places; so many of us have seen people park in disabled bays at the supermarket, saying, “I’m just going to rush in and out”. You feel like saying, “It’s all very well for you; some of us can’t rush in and out”. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about resources, but I think that this is very much up to the local authority. Other noble Lords have talked about some of the problems with renewing badges and so on. I have used my local councillor to press my cause if I feel that I have been badly let down by a local authority. I was once given a ticket because the badge was on upside down; it had dropped off, and someone had kindly put it back on the windscreen but the wrong way up, and I had a penalty charge. That was ludicrous, and the councillor made quite sure that it did not go any further. Local authorities have to be aware that there are such problems.
I am pleased that there is support all around the House for the Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to Committee of the Whole House.
Scrap Metal Dealers Bill
My Lords, I am pleased to present the Second Reading of the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill to your Lordships’ House as a result of its successful passage through another place, where my honourable friend Richard Ottaway MP chose to reform the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 when he drew second place in the Private Members’ ballot. Metal theft and its illegal disposal have increased in recent years in line with world market prices for a range of metals commonly used in cabling, buildings and street furniture, among other things. Copper, aluminium, brass and lead are all widely used but so too, due to rising prices, are rare earths found in smartphones, computers and wind turbines. Thieves are quick to diversify their activities.
For too long, the disruption caused by the theft of metals has had a damaging impact on thousands of people and businesses. According to Network Rail, a cable theft in Crewe in October last year caused huge problems on the west coast main line as far as Preston and Liverpool, with 67 trains cancelled and 944 delayed as a result of that one incident. In Woking in June last year, 56 trains were cancelled and 43 part-cancelled when cable theft resulted in passengers alighting on to the tracks, causing extra delay and putting lives at risk. In Bermondsey in September last year, the theft of 65 metres of cable caused massive delays to services from London Bridge, with 146 trains cancelled and 840 delayed.
The Energy Networks Association reports an average of 20 attacks a day on its systems. The removal of BT cables from a small village can affect everyone: the till in the village shop, people working at home from computers and elderly people living alone with safety pendants who are suddenly left without a lifeline.
The cost to the economy is estimated by the Association of Chief Police Officers to cost £770 million a year, but the damage goes further than this. The theft of metal plaques from war memorials and graves causes great anguish to the loved ones. I saw only last week that a memorial bench on a cliff-top walk I take regularly had had the small brass plate removed. It was a couple of ounces at most, but the removal would be a distressing experience for the loved ones who placed it there.
Then there is the removal of lead from the roofs of churches. Many experience the theft several times over, with consequential difficulty in getting reinsurance. When I was a Minister at the Home Office in 2011, I was seized of the need to change the 1964 Act, as it was clearly inadequate. Among those making the case for change was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, who is in his place today. I am looking forward to his contribution.
At this point I should mention the work that has gone into mitigating the damage caused by metal theft. New technologies to mark metal cables, smart water and alternative materials to be used on roofs have all been adopted wherever possible. The combined efforts of the national metal theft task force, supported by the police, the industry and the Government, have been brought to bear to try to frustrate and stop the criminals. This work needs to continue, but weak regulation needs changing as it currently favours the criminal over the legitimate trade.
The Bill before us today will enable a more robust licensing scheme by repealing the 1964 Act. It will be replaced with legislation which will require an application for a licence which the local authority can turn down or revoke. Local authorities will have the power to turn down unsuitable applicants. There will be a more rigorous identification scheme at the point of sale. Sellers will have to provide recordable personal identification; there have been too many sales transacted by Minnie Mouse and D Duck. There will be new powers for the police and local authorities to enter and inspect sites. A central register will be created of all licensed dealers, which will be held by the Environment Agency. The definition of a scrap metal dealer will be widened to include motor salvage operators. The offence of buying metal with cash will be extended to itinerant metal collectors.
I know from previous debates in your Lordships’ House that cash transactions for the purchase of scrap metal have been a contributory factor that has compounded the rise in illegal sales of metal, and I am pleased that this has been addressed in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, due to a clause tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, who is in his place. I pay tribute to the hard work he has done on the proposed reforms before the House today.
It is encouraging that the Bill has received support from so many people across the political divide and among organisations that wish to see an end to illegal trading, not least the legitimate trade which is the target of metal thieves, losing some 15,000 tonnes of metal a year from its sites. The director-general of the British Metals Recycling Association told me this week,
“The association is in complete support of the steps being taken to replace the out-dated and ineffective Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Urgent regulatory reform is necessary to bear down on metal theft, give the authorities robust and enforceable powers to tackle illegal operators and deliver a much improved environment in which the legitimate metal recycling trade—the largest and most successful recycling sector in the UK—can operate. We endorse the Bill unreservedly”.
Metal theft is not petty crime. There is evidence that it is part of organised crime. It causes significant economic damage and personal distress, and too many criminals—those who steal and those who receive—have got away with it for too long. We now have the opportunity to support the legal trade and tighten the law on the illegal trade. My honourable friend’s Bill has the support of the Government, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken time to attend today’s Second Reading. I look forward to the contributions from the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I offer my congratulations and thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. I congratulate her on introducing the Bill with such skill, and I thank her for the very kind things she said about my contribution to this issue over the past year and a half or so. I am delighted that she has taken on the responsibility of piloting the Bill through your Lordships’ House. There is no better champion for it. In the regrettably all-too-short time that she was a Minister in the Home Office, she demonstrated commitment and sureness of touch on this issue. I have seen some of the letters that she wrote in support of measures that are not very different from those that are contained in the Bill before she left office in September 2011.
I also congratulate the honourable Member Richard Ottaway for his patience and skill in getting the Bill through the other place. There was a very trying final day when it looked as though some of his honourable friends might have sought to talk the Bill out. Happily, that did not happen, and the Bill is in front of us today in a form that I hope the whole House will be able to support. As the noble Baroness said, the Bill is supported by all responsible members of the scrap metal and recycling industry, by numerous trade bodies, the Local Government Association, the British Transport Police and the civilian police.
The noble Baroness referred to the fact that I raised the issue of metal theft in 2011. In October, I put a Question to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, whom I am delighted to see in his place, and I look forward to his speech. It was on cashless transactions, a cause that I pursued in March this year with an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I was happy to accept the Government’s alternative version, despite the inclusion of exemptions for itinerant sellers and motor salvage operators, the logic of which I never understood, and which I am happy to see disappear in this Bill.
The cashless provisions of the LASPO Act finally come into force this Monday, 3 December, and I would be most grateful if the Minister, when he replies, could give some indication of how he expects these measures to work. The measures in the LASPO Act were never intended to be the last word, and we all agreed that nothing short of a rewriting of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 would do. That is exactly what your Lordships have in front of you today. There is no need to go through the provisions of the Bill clause by clause. We will have the opportunity to do that if we have a Committee stage, although I hope it does not take too long or delay the Bill’s passage.
The need for the Bill is undeniable for all the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, said. I am sure that I am not alone in having received persuasive briefing from organisations as diverse as the Local Government Association, the Energy Networks Association, Network Rail, the British Metals Recycling Association and Alchemy Metals. All of them, without exception, fully support the Bill, and I have had no representations expressing a contrary view. It is worth putting on the record some of the points that they have made. I shall do so without repeating any of the points that the noble Baroness has made. The Local Government Association, for example, says that it carried out research into the levels of metal theft experienced by councils between April 2009 and early 2012. Only one in 10, or 12%, of respondents had not suffered any metal thefts. The Local Government Association says:
“Not only is there disruption to public transport, there is also the theft of lead from schools and other council buildings, the desecration of war memorials, along with the loss of bus shelters, street signs, and manhole and gully covers. This puts members of the public at risk of serious injury or harm and imposes a further financial burden on councils in replacing the stolen property”.
The Energy Networks Association reports that there continue to be deaths as a result of attempted metal theft, including a 16 year-old boy killed trying to steal earthing cable from an underground trench. He was aided by two other boys and, it is assumed, others to remove a 1.5 tonne concrete block used to access the trench for maintenance. Another example is of a father and son who had cut down a wooden pole to steal cable. The son was fatally electrocuted while trying to coil up the cable and his father suffered burns to the hands and arms. On presenting himself at hospital he denied all knowledge to the police that his son had been killed or that he had even been there.
Network Rail says that incidents of cable theft were responsible for,
“causing nearly 22,000 hours of passenger delays in past four years and costing the rail industry £61 million”.
I am sure that there are very few Members of your Lordships’ House who use the railway who have not been delayed as a consequence of theft of signalling cable.
The company Alchemy Metals has written to me to say,
“the 1964 Act … is abundantly unfit for purpose. The removal of loopholes such as the Itinerant Trader and Motor Salvage Operator exemption must now pass to law as a matter of urgency. This, combined with further police powers and a comprehensive registration system will give the relevant authorities and the scrap industry itself the powers needed to combat metal theft once and for all”.
Amid all this gloom there is a little heartening news, which the noble Baroness referred to. That is the success of Operation Tornado, for which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, certainly deserves credit, and the activities of the National Metal Theft Taskforce programme, announced by the Government on 29 November 2011. That received funding of £5 million for extra operational activity to tackle metal theft. The lead in this was taken by the British Transport Police, which set up a central team to manage the programme and provide dedicated co-ordination and support in each region of the country. The taskforce programme has financially supported the pilot of Operation Tornado and the implementation of Tornado tactics by forces and agencies across the country. It is an enhanced identification initiative agreed by the British Metals Recycling Association and the police. Of the forces providing figures, 72% of yards have signed up to Operation Tornado.
What has been the effect on metal theft? The British Transport Police tell me that there has been a decrease in reported metal theft of 52%. This is particularly good news for Network Rail, as it has led to a reduction of 59% in the total amount of delay minutes and has reduced the company’s compensation payments by £5.6 million. I understand that the Ecclesiastical Insurance company has reported that the number of claims for theft of metal from church buildings have fallen sharply; no doubt we will hear more about this from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, whose speech I am also very much looking forward to.
If we look at the national average reductions achieved in reported metal crime, currently 38%, and make a comparison with the figures in the Deloitte report in 2011 in which they said that metal theft costs the UK economy £220 million to £260 million a year, then it is likely that the £5 million taskforce money has delivered harm reduction for the UK of between £83 million and £98 million. That is a pretty good rate of return, as a relatively small investment of public money seems to have led to a substantial reduction in metal theft. Of course, this is a pilot study, not a complete picture. It needs now to be followed by the implementation of the measures contained in the Bill.
I have a question for the Minister on Operation Tornado. Its funding and that for the taskforce are due to come to an end in March 2013. Do the Government intend that this will be renewed, at least until the provisions of the Bill are fully implemented? The danger is that if the funding stops, police forces will start to focus on other priorities, and the momentum that they have gained will peter out. I cannot believe that that is what the Government would like to see happen.
Meanwhile, I am very happy indeed to support the Bill. I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing it, and I hope that it can pass speedily through this House.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. I had come here prepared to hear a number of anecdotes—indeed, horror stories—ranging on a spectrum from the inconvenient to the tragic; we have already heard some of them. It was clear that there was a real problem when the monitor of national concern, “The Archers”, had a storyline about metal theft.
When the issue hit the headlines, I found that every time I went past a group of people with a white van digging up the road, I started to suspect whether they were legitimate. I had to tell myself to take a rather more positive view of society. That was fulfilled by the occasions when members of the public got together to subscribe to replace war memorials, which happened locally to me in Twickenham. I heard of a scrap metal dealer in Sutton, I think it was, who spent £20,000 restoring a memorial for the sake of the reputation of his own trade. These things, as has been said, should never have happened in the first place.
There are a lot of statistics around this. The one which really grabbed my attention was seeing that almost 2,000 offences relating to metal theft occurred each week last year. I am delighted that the noble Baroness has been able to advance the Bill following its steering through the Commons by Richard Ottaway, MP. However, my biggest question is why this hand-out Bill did not come from the Government, who would not have needed to use a great deal of ingenuity to tack this on to their own legislation; it might well have been shoehorned, for instance, into the Crime and Courts Bill. One should not call into question House of Commons procedures, but hand-out Bills seem to be a way of going about things which detracts from the ability of Private Members’ Bills to be used for the large number of purposes for which there is a call. I do not expect the noble Baroness to answer that. Indeed, having once, many years ago, been able to move that “The Bill do now pass”, I certainly do not begrudge her the rosy glow that there will be in a very few weeks’ time. Some of that glow should spill over to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. It is clear that legislation is needed, even though the taskforce has actually undertaken tasks and not been a talking shop.
The second biggest puzzle to me, although it is one that one gets used to, is that of Treasury rules, which in this case have precluded the Environment Agency using income from the regulated sector to pay for enforcement work in the unregulated sector. It is to the credit of the legitimate trade that they have not just supported but actively promoted the Bill. It was not until I saw their briefing that I completely made the connection with the recycling industry and the need to use and re-use resources, and all those benefits that will come with this legislation. That will include reputational benefit. Disrepute can spill over. The first time that I went to Italy, the first phrase which was translated for me was “divieto di scarico”: “no tipping”.
I understand the call for extending the regulatory regime to second-hand domestic appliance traders; that is assuming that the appliances are not salvageable and refurbishable. However, I will not be pressing that amendment, nor any amendment. I understand the need to get the Bill on to the statute book. Enforcement has been mentioned. I wonder whether there will be teething problems as the industry becomes used to recording all the information that is required under the Bill. The dealers will require some of the information, such as type, weight and so on, for their own purposes. They also will be required to record identifying marks and “distinguishing features”, and I hope that they are never faced with having to work out how to describe a Barbara Hepworth or a Henry Moore again. They also will have to record,
“information and the scrap metal to which it relates to be readily identified by reference to each other”.
That could cause some challenges but they will have to face them.
I was concerned that I might hear that these provisions would be a burden on local authorities. I checked that their briefing, which I had printed out, was not more than one page. I remembered that my printer had run out of paper at about that time but the briefing was only one page and it was supportive. Local authorities will have new duties, so there will be burdens on them. The new duties will require more than just checking some tick-boxes, especially when they have to ensure that an applicant has demonstrated,
“adequate procedures to ensure that the provisions of”,
what I hope will soon be an Act, have been complied with.
I end with one question for the Minister. Will he tell the House when the Government will bring forward the regulations and guidance that will be needed to ensure that this Bill, when it is an Act, will not be just a piece of paper but a living and enforceable set of arrangements?
My Lords, perhaps I may add my voice to those of other Members of your Lordships’ House who have paid tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for the way in which she has introduced this legislation and for her sustained zeal in continuing to focus on this area. When it comes to prizes for sustained zeal, I think that we all are extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for his assiduity in following up this matter.
Of course, we are all grateful to Richard Ottaway. He has produced workable legislation having, as we have heard, worked not only with the Home Office but with the trade and the enforcement agencies to produce something that will make a difference. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, has said about the extreme importance of continuing the funding in the short term for Operation Tornado. As we know, it started in the north-east and has demonstrated that cashless transactions and closer ID examination reduce this crime.
However, Operation Tornado has also shown how necessary it is that we should have this new legislation, as the police have no powers to enter unlicensed yards or to close them down if they find strong evidence of illegal trade. It is vital that time is given to get this Bill through the necessary stages. As we have heard, metal theft is a major threat to the infrastructure of the whole country.
Of course, I represent one particular part of this problem and I must declare an interest as chairman of the church and cathedrals division of the Church of England. Perhaps our experience can underline the need for urgency as we look countrywide at a situation where there are, on average, three such thefts a day from churches alone. This year, ecclesiastical insurers already have handled 831 claims between January and October, which, in our small constituency, amounts to £1.5 million.
Security marking, roof alarms and increased vigilance are having some effect. In my diocese a neighbour acted promptly when, detecting people were on the roof lifting the lead, they simply removed the ladders which the felons had used to make their ascent. The neighbour phoned the police and the felons were still there fuming when the constabulary arrived. But those measures are not sufficient.
Since the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has provoked us to give examples, I shall give one or two from all over the country. St Peter’s Plemstall, a grade 1 listed building, is in the diocese of my brother, the Bishop of Chester. Because a comparatively small amount of lead was taken from the central valley of the roof, rain got in. The church had to be closed for several months to enable the interior to dry out. There was thousands of pounds worth of damage to the organ and the roof repairs cost a considerable sum. Those charges fall on volunteers who look after an inheritance of art and architecture which belongs to the whole community.
The church of St Mary, Wrawby, in the diocese of Lincoln, also a grade 1 listed building, has had eight thefts and has no indemnity left on its insurance. Therefore, at the moment the roof is felt, pending yet another campaign to replace it with something more adequate. In my diocese, All Saints Fulham had a bronze memorial sculpture by Helen Sinclair, which was a community, millennium project. Hundreds of people contributed to it. The thieves tried pulling it off its plinth but it had been installed too stoutly, so they took an angle grinder to it. We are looking at replacing it with stone resin. Finally, All Saints’ Church, Evesham, has been the victim of five thefts in seven months. The vicar, Andrew Spurr, has said, “Every time we have a roof replacement bill it damages our ability to serve the community in other ways”. Even the local policeman from the Evesham police station said that it was “an appalling theft from a community building which has only just had the roof replaced following a previous theft”.
I could go on but noble Lords cannot bear it now and I think that we are largely of one mind in your Lordships’ House. But suffice it to say that one-third of our 16,000 parish churches have suffered. There have been 10,700 claims, amounting to £27 million, which certainly is an underestimate of what it has cost local communities to repair the damage.
The scrap metal trade, which is worth more than £6 billion a year, is, as your Lordships know well, vital to the UK economy. Wearing another hat, as chairman of the church’s recycling and conservation campaign, I could not support measures that would harm the trade or have a negative environmental impact, because they do things of considerable value to the whole community.
However, certainly in view of the evidence that we have heard from the trade associations, I most emphatically support this Bill and underline the need to make sufficient parliamentary time available to pass it into law sooner rather than too late. I end again with gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for having brought this matter to the House today.
My Lords, as always, it is a privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate, particularly as he ended with remarks about the importance of the recycling industry. As a former Defra Minister, and particularly when I was a Home Office Minister with responsibility for metal theft, I always felt that it was very important that whatever we did, we maintained the success of that industry and continued to see that as much recycling of metal went on as possible but to make sure that it was legit. I think that that is what we are all trying to do.
I also thank the right reverend Prelate because I think that he was the first to come to see me after I moved to the Home Office to tell me about the problems that the church in particular was facing in terms of metal theft. I seem to remember that the day on which he came to see me also was the day when a few local difficulties were starting at St Paul’s. He might have had other matters on his mind but certainly he put his point to me forcefully. That point has been made by my noble friend Lady Browning and others as regards the problems that we are facing as a result of metal theft and the increased price of metal. We have seen an increased amount of metal theft. My noble friend made clear the problems we have been having with train delays and problems with the emergency services, hospitals losing power, loss of communications, theft from war memorials and churches, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said, we are now seeing deaths occurring as a result of metal theft.
In my time as a Home Office Minister, I made it clear that the old 1964 Act was past its sell-by date. I think that was the phrase which I used. New legislation is necessary. Therefore, I am very grateful to my honourable friend Richard Ottaway and to my noble friend Lady Browning for bringing forward legislation. However, legislation should not be the only method that we look at to help solve this problem. Therefore, I am also very grateful to my noble friend for stressing the importance of mitigation by means of design. I am very grateful for all the work that has been done in the Home Office. I hope that my noble friend will refer to that when he replies to the debate. That work involves making metals more traceable and looking for new materials which are less stealable to replace some metals. I appreciate the work that is being done on mitigation measures and that which has been done on enforcement.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for his comments on the success of Operation Tornado. I seem to remember that in the initial stages of that operation there was a decline in occurrences of this problem of something like 50% in the north-east. I would be grateful if my noble friend could give us further figures on declines in the incidence of this problem not only in the north-east but in the rest of the country.
I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for the amendment that he brought forward on the LASPO Bill. As he put it, he could not quite understand why we had to have the exemption for itinerant sellers in that Bill. I hoped that I had explained why it was necessary to have that exemption at the time, but the noble Lord obviously did not understand the explanations that I gave on that occasion. However, that problem will be dealt with in this Bill, so I hope that it will go away.
I wanted to make only a brief intervention in this debate to offer my support as a former Home Office Minister, and one who was very grateful for the fact that my honourable friend was able to introduce the Bill in the Commons. I am even more grateful for the fact that my noble friend was able to bring it forward in this House. I look forward to a very speedy passage of this Bill through this House. Given the support for it that we have had so far in this debate, and which I am sure it will continue to have, I am sure that it will be a very speedy passage. Like others, I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I start by reminding the House of my interest as a district councillor for Pendle in Lancashire. I think that I should have declared the same interest in a previous Second Reading debate this morning, on the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Bill. I apologise for not doing so at that time and do so belatedly now.
I, too, support all the past—and probably all the future—speakers in this debate in welcoming this Bill and supporting it. My noble friend Lady Hamwee said that we would hear lots of anecdotes from people about the situation in different areas and I am always reluctant to disappoint my noble friend. One of the main problems in my part of the world in east Lancashire is the theft of metal gully grates. That obviously causes great danger to people and expense to Lancashire County Council, which has to replace them. However, in many cases the county council refuses to replace them because they are in unadopted streets, and so potentially there could be, literally all over the place, very dangerous large square holes, particularly in back streets, which at this time of the year will be full of leaves and litter. In the event, it comes down to the borough council of Pendle and town and parish councils to put their hands in their pockets and provide the money for replacing the gully grates because relying on house owners and landlords to do so is an impossible situation.
There are also real problems with back yards in closely packed terraced streets, where people will simply take away anything that is left in a back yard, or they will go in and take pieces of the downspouts and the troughings—anything that they can come round and check out and then return at two o’clock in the morning to remove. I received an ironic telephone call fairly recently. Pendle council has a service for taking away washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and anything like that. You leave it out in the back yard, tell the council you want it removed and it comes and takes it away. Somebody rang me up and asked why the council was employing people to remove their washing machine at two o’clock in the morning. Of course, it was not the council but somebody who was taking it away and doing the council’s job for it. We hear accounts from the local police, who are obviously involved in all this, that raiding parties from over the border in Yorkshire often come and take away all this stuff. This seems to be their excuse, although it appears that people do come over the border from Yorkshire and steal our stuff. It is not just metal either. Metal theft is just part and parcel of a wider problem. This Bill is clearly restricted to metal theft.
As a Yorkshireman living in Lancashire, I sometimes find myself with dual loyalties. However, I can assure my noble friend that it is not Yorkshire as a whole that people blame: it is specifically people from Bradford. As a Bradfordian, I still have dual loyalties there.
Obviously, this Bill is just about metal. However, people steal not just metal but stone. Colne is a stone town and people will come and remove copings from people’s back yards and flagstones. They came to the parish church and raided not just the lead from the roof but took the big stone balls which were on top of the gate pillars outside the church. We are talking about a grade 1 listed building. So it is a huge problem. The most ludicrous example occurred last week. The council had just provided new turf to grass over a rather overgrown area where houses had been pulled down. Some people came, possibly over the border from Yorkshire, rolled up some of the new turf and took it away. It is quite extraordinary what people will do. I am not quite sure whether they wanted it for their cricket pitches in Yorkshire.
It would be out of character if I did not pick up a couple of detailed points. Perhaps the Minister or the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, can answer these points, or they can write to me later if they cannot answer them today. There is a question about the exclusion of residential premises from Schedule 2, which refers to closure notices and closure orders, and exactly what is meant by residential premises. I think that there was very brief discussion of this in the House of Commons Committee on whether, if somebody has a scrapyard and they put a caravan on it and have somebody living there, that counts as residential premises. To what degree would a house surrounded by a big garden have to be used for the purposes of buying and selling scrap metal before it was defined as a scrapyard? There is an issue there which may need resolution.
On the question of inspection and enforcement, I think it is fairly clear that the cost of the licences that people will have to take out under this Bill will be expected to cover a local authority’s administrative costs in running the system. Will they also be expected to cover the additional costs that will inevitably exist for local authorities that take seriously their duties of inspection and enforcement within the system? Inspection and enforcement will in part be the duty of the local police, working with the local authority, but clearly there will be extra work for the local authority. Will it be able to cover those costs from licensing?
The Bill will not solve all our problems. Noble Lords talked about other things that will be necessary, particularly an effective local neighbourhood policing system that can collect together the local knowledge and information that is so often necessary in order to track down people who are doing this—even if they are coming over the border from Yorkshire. However, it is a useful and necessary step forward. It may not be a panacea but it is welcome and I, too, join my noble friend in asking the Government to give guarantees that they will bring the legislation into operation pretty quickly after it has—as we hope—passed through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who is already beginning to apply his forensic skills to the Bill. It is a great pleasure to welcome the Bill and to join so many others around the House who have already given it their support. Private Members’ Bills are often precarious little craft. The whole House has expressed its pleasure in knowing that this Bill is in such a safe and experienced pair of hands as that of the noble Baroness, Lady Browning. The way she introduced it demonstrated her complete grasp of the issues. It will be a pleasure to engage with the Bill as it goes—I hope very swiftly—through the House. It is very good to know that it has the support of the Government. It can do nothing but bring credit to them. The fact that it has the support of the scrap industry is also extremely significant. Clearly it meets the industry’s aspirations to be seen as reputable and determined to outlaw rogue traders. That is extremely encouraging.
My reason for supporting the Bill is obvious. I declare an interest as the chair of English Heritage. We have been very concerned for a long time about metal theft. We have taken active steps to protect the very precious heritage that is put at risk by the very wicked activity of metal thieves. We very much welcome the Bill as a beneficiary of what it will do rather than as a body that will be directly concerned with its operation. At first sight it may seem an unglamorous Bill, but often the best legislation that has the greatest impact is not glamorous. Both in the House today and at the excellent Second Reading debate in the House of Commons, many examples were given of the way in which metal theft creates private grief and impacts on public safety, of the failure of existing regulation to prevent it, of the timeliness of the Bill and of the complete chaos that exists around the identities of traders, record-keeping, transactions and tax. I hope that the Bill will address those issues.
We are talking about scrap metal, but the title of the Bill is something of a misnomer because these metals are very precious, for example because of the churches they protect. We very much welcome the words of the right reverend Prelate. English Heritage has been very proud in recent years to work with the Church of England and to do what it can. The metals are precious because of the names of our war heroes that are etched in their surfaces, and perhaps because of the extraordinary art and craftsmanship that their form displays. We are dealing with metal that has a value far beyond its market price and which reflects much of our history.
In recent years, all of that has proved vulnerable in a way that we could not have predicted. Like many other noble Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Faulkner. I am glad to hear that the task force has had such an impact, and I join him in hoping that that will continue. Metal theft is a relatively new threat to our heritage, which we are now addressing. The Bill is an act of public service and we welcome it. I shall not address the detail of the regulatory measures, but obviously we support the Bill because it will simply and effectively reduce the ease with which stolen metal can be converted into cash. We need prevention because the damage that is done is often irreversible. There is no cure.
We are not talking about a handful of distressing cases. As we heard, it is a large-scale problem. The crime is neither casual nor opportunistic, although there are such elements in the community that conducts these thefts. The operation is very sophisticated and well organised. It is driven by a market in metals that has shot up in recent years because it is very hard to control demand. Our research shows that last year 6% of all listed buildings were harmed by metal theft. That means around 22,000 of our nationally important, historic buildings suffer damage every year from metal theft. With that rate of attrition every year, we are looking at a potential catastrophe if it continues—a real danger that this generation will fail in its duty to protect our fabulously rich heritage.
The right reverend Prelate gave some very graphic illustrations of the impact of this crime. It is no surprise that churches and war memorials are the most vulnerable and worst hit buildings. The church’s own inquiry into metal theft in 2011 reported a 33% increase year-on-year in the number of claims and the cost of the crime. The average cost of a metal theft is £27,000. However, insurance cover is often capped at £5,000 or £10,000, so even the richest congregation has a challenge on its hands. The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, who cannot be in his place today, urged me to speak about Wales as well, which I will do with great pleasure. He drew attention to the situation in Wales, where the church has to look after 1,400 churches and where in the past five years it has paid out £300,000 on 90 insurance claims. Again, the insurance did not cover the costs. He referred to a particularly distressing case involving the theft of dozens of brass plates from a garden of rest. It is really hard to contemplate the nature of the people who commit these sorts of crimes. Our own research suggested that 14% of churches suffered metal theft in 2011 and Ecclesiastical Insurance says it has received 9,000 claims, worth £25 million, for churches in the past four years alone..
As we all agree, reeling off statistics hardly gives an idea of the real distress and damage caused to the confidence of small congregations who try their best with overwhelming problems and face yet another—maybe a third or fourth—attempt on the church roof. I have seen many sad cases in recent years. Most recently, I was in Yorkshire. I am sorry that the noble Lord from Yorkshire has left his place, because I was going to tell him how wonderful Yorkshire is, although I did not particularly want to join that debate. I was at St John’s Church at Birkby, near Huddersfield, where an extraordinary thing had happened. The thieves attached the end of the copper lightning conductor to a rope that was fixed to their getaway vehicle and they drove it away from the building. The lightning conductor was pulled away, but it brought down with it the top half of the steeple, which then crashed through the roof of the church. I leave you to imagine how the congregation is coping—and the cost, anxiety and frustration of it. The danger does not need to be described.
As for war memorials, it is absolutely impossible without quickly getting very angry to contemplate the contrast between the sacrifice of those whose names are inscribed and who died for the freedoms of this country and the callousness of the thieves. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, we are becoming more sensitive to the need to remember and record that debt. The legislation will provide a proper regulatory framework that will identify the decent traders and protect them but, as other noble Lords have said, it is not the only answer. I am pleased to say that we in English Heritage have been dealing with heritage crime of different sorts for a long time. We have received a fantastic response from the police and the other partners we have engaged with in our heritage crime programme. We have our own policeman in English Heritage who leads this work for us. For the past few years we have been working not just with the Church of England but with police and local authorities all over England to improve crime prevention for historic places and ensure that the law enforcement matches the seriousness of the offences.
It is a perennial task, but it is bearing fruit. For example, we recently worked in partnership with Lincolnshire Police and the Church of England in bringing justice to a gang which admitted stealing lead from more than 20 churches across that county. That case, among many others, shows the industrial scale of the threat as well as the benefits of conservation and law enforcement professionals working together. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for raising the wider issues around the theft of historic fabrics. When flagstones, cobblestones and building materials go, the character of the neighbourhood goes into a rapid decline. It is totally demoralising. These materials are vital.
The Bill is a significant step forward and I am cheering it on heartily, but I ask the Government, local authorities and the police and crime commissioners in particular to complete the task and really aid us in this, and ensure that heritage crime is embedded in all relevant law enforcement activities, as it should be. We are pleased that Chief Constable Andrew Bliss of Hertfordshire Police has agreed to be the national lead for heritage crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers. I know that he views this as a matter of great importance. I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, as Ministers, for giving a lead to the police on this. I will shortly write to police and crime commissioners to bring these issues to their attention and direct them to the help that English Heritage can give through the programme that we have devised.
In conclusion, I do not want to repeat anything that has been said, although it is clearly the case that metal theft does serious and rapid damage to public safety and to so much else in the country. It attacks the places where we should be able to see investment and economic life flourishing. When one drives out crime, one drives in investment, which is a wider story. I am confident that the Bill will have a swift and successful passage through the House. There is so much support for it and I can assure the noble Baroness that I will assist her in every way that I can.
My Lords, although this is a Private Member’s Bill, it is nevertheless still a Bill of 23 clauses and two schedules. I gather it is what is known in the parliamentary trade as a handout Bill, which is apparently a Bill offered by the Government to a Back-Bench MP to take forward as a Private Member’s Bill. It seems that Governments do this either because they cannot find the time in their legislative programme or because, for some other reason, they do not want to present it themselves. I am not sure in which of those two categories this Bill falls.
Last year we called for tougher powers to close down rogue traders; for everyone selling scrap to have proof of identity and a record from the point of sale; for the licensing of scrap metal dealers, rather than the current method of registration; and for a move to ban cash transactions, especially for large-scale, high-value scrap metal deals. These measures formed the basis of much of the Private Member’s Bill—the Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill—introduced by the Member of Parliament for Hyndburn in November 2011. That Bill, which amended the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, made provision for a new registration scheme for scrap dealers, restricted financial transactions to cashless payments and gave police officers new powers to enter, inspect and close scrap yards.
Unfortunately, the Bill was blocked at Second Reading in the Commons, with the active support of the government Front Bench team there. The following week, the Government announced that they would introduce their own amendments to the 1964 Act, banning cash payments by scrap metal dealers, but with an exemption for itinerant collectors; increasing the level of fines available for offences; and giving police new powers of entry to scrap yards. These amendments were introduced into what became the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Now the Government have accepted that their amendments to the LASPO Act 2012 were inadequate. This was pointed out at the time, not least by my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester, who has done so much to push successfully for the provisions in this Bill. The Government are now supporting the Bill we are debating today, which is very similar to the Bill from the Member of Parliament for Hyndburn that was blocked in the Commons last year. This Bill also repeals amendments—the Government’s own amendments —which were inserted into the LASPO Act 2012 only a few months ago, and which are in the process now of being repealed before they have even been implemented.
For a reason that is not clear, the Government did not produce a Bill of their own following the blocking of the Private Member’s Bill in the Commons last year. As a result, the Government are now supporting this very similar Private Member’s Bill after a year’s delay and, as a consequence of the measures being in a Private Member’s Bill, it appears that the Government found themselves boxed into a corner at the end of the proceedings on the Bill in the Commons by a handful of their own Back-Benchers and had, apparently, to agree to bring forward what is, in effect, a sunset or expiry clause for this Bill after five years in order not to risk losing the Bill in the Commons due to lack of time—a situation which, if I am correct, would not have arisen had the Government produced their own Bill. While this Bill is most welcome, the Government’s handling of legislation on this issue has not been without delay and indecision.
The Bill includes the measures for which we have been calling for some time and addresses the issues so powerfully highlighted and explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, which have been the cause of real concern. This is not only about the hundreds of millions of pounds that metal theft is costing the UK economy each year, serious though that is—with the biggest economic impact being on the telecoms, utilities and transport sectors, as well as on local authorities through the theft of lead from schools and other public buildings and the theft of street signs and manhole covers—but about the dangers to life and limb that metal theft can bring, not least, as has been said, on our railway network. This applies not only to those carrying out such thefts but, much more significantly, to the far greater numbers of those who might suffer not only serious and costly disruption and delay to their journey but could also conceivably be injured or killed in a railway accident attributed in part or in whole to such thefts which damage or put out of action line-side and other equipment crucial to the safety of the network. It is also about the wanton desecration of war memorials which mean so much to so many; it is about damage to our churches, which are part of our heritage as well as places of worship and centres for communities large and small; it is about the premeditated heartlessness, and often brazenness, of those who plan and commit these crimes, which are certainly not spur of the moment acts. Indeed, in the area in which I live, individuals dressed up to look like workmen were stripping the roof of a town hall in broad daylight.
With the rise in the value of metal, metal thefts have increased in number and in value and to many of those involved it has become big business. This Bill cannot, of course, stop people committing such thefts. However, what it can and does do is make it much more difficult to sell on the stolen metal without leaving a clear link back to the perpetrators of the theft, the handlers of the stolen goods or both. The scrap metal industry is the main outlet for stolen metal. It is inadequately regulated, with cash transactions all too often the norm, providing anonymity and a lack of traceability of stolen metals. No records are kept and almost certainly insufficient tax is paid. This Bill will do much to bring to an end the relatively risk-free way that metal thieves have for quickly disposing of stolen property and equally quickly converting it into cash.
Scrap metal dealers are already subject to controls under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The LASPO Act 2012 introduced further changes to the regulation of scrap metal dealers, including creating a new offence of buying scrap metal for cash and laying down that a scrap metal dealer must not pay for scrap metal except by a cheque or an electronic transfer of funds. That important but insufficient step began to close the door on transactions being undertaken that left no audit trail to help identify those involved. However, a number of issues still remained to be addressed, including limited powers to enter and inspect unregistered scrap metal dealer sites; inadequate record-keeping of transactions by scrap metal dealers; the inability by local authorities to revoke or vary licences granted to scrap metal dealers; and the fact that the ban on scrap metal dealers paying for metal with cash did not extend to all those who deal with scrap metal.
These issues and others are addressed in this Bill, which seeks to replace the 1964 Act. The Bill extends the offence of buying metal with cash to itinerant metal collectors; it gives new powers for the police and local authorities to enter and inspect sites; it requires all sellers of metal to provide personal identification at the point of sale, which is then recorded by the scrap metal dealer; and gives local authorities the power to revoke or vary a licence where appropriate, as well as the power to turn down unsuitable applicants for a scrap metal dealer licence. However, I want to raise a few points.
Concerns have been expressed that second-hand domestic appliances have been excluded from the Bill and that that creates a significant loophole because it will not be easy to distinguish whether an old appliance that is sold is scrap metal or a second-hand item that might be considered for repair. Secondly, gold and silver have been excluded from the definition of scrap. We have all seen the traders in the high street offering cash for gold. Since, under the Bill, they will continue to be able to offer cash, will they not provide unfair competition for more orthodox operators, as well as a potential ready outlet for quickly converting stolen metal into cash, when the Bill seeks to stop such transactions? Once again, what is the response to that concern?
Thirdly, the Bill extends the offence of buying metal with cash to itinerant metal collectors who, like scrap dealers, will not be allowed to pay for scrap metal except by cheque or by an electronic transfer of funds. However, payment by cheque may not necessarily achieve the desired objective. The dealer gives a cheque to the individual from whom he is purchasing scrap metal. The individual gives it straight back to the dealer, who is also an agent for one of those operators who offer people cash for cheques. Since the cheque the dealer is receiving back is not made out to him and he is acting as an agent for the cash-for-cheques operator, he now gives the individual from whom he is purchasing scrap metal cash equivalent to the value of the cheque. The cheque is then processed through the cash-for-cheques operator, and it could then involve considerable time and resources by the police to trace it back to the dealer and particular transactions. The effect would be very similar to a cash transaction for the potentially stolen scrap metal, in terms of finding an audit trail. Why was it not possible to say that payment for scrap metal had to be through a transfer of funds via the bank accounts of the dealer and the seller, and not leave a potential loophole open through payment by cheque?
Fourthly, local authorities will be managing a greatly enhanced licensing scheme. What is the estimate of the additional costs that this will place on local authorities and will all the additional costs be covered by the licence fee? What is the estimate of the likely level or range of the licence fee in order to cover the anticipated additional costs involved, bearing in mind that a local authority will have to have regard to the guidance issued from time to time by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Treasury? What will the additional workload for local authorities represent in terms of additional full-time posts? Will skills be required to carry out the new, enhanced role that do not currently exist, or do not currently exist to the required extent, within local authorities?
Apart from Clauses 20 and 23, when will the other provisions of the Bill be brought into force? The Explanatory Notes say that a period of at least six months will be required between Royal Assent and commencement,
“to allow licensing authorities to put in place suitable infrastructure to meet the new demands”.
What is this suitable infrastructure and will local authorities be able to recover these apparent start-up costs through the licence fee?
Finally, the minimum period for bringing in the Bill is at least six months. What is the maximum period after Royal Assent that the Secretary of State will allow to elapse before bringing in the provisions of the Bill, which everyone seems to accept are urgently needed? Does the delay after Royal Assent before bringing in the provisions of the Bill mean that the sections of the LASPO Act 2012 on prohibiting cash transactions for scrap metal dealers will be implemented, if they have not already been, and remain in force pending the provisions of the Bill coming into force?
We congratulate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for sponsoring this badly needed Bill, which we support. We will do what we can to see that it is passed in good time. We hope that we will not see in this House the kind of antics we saw from some government Back-Benchers in the Commons.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Browning for introducing so skilfully the Bill for noble Lords’ consideration and for her important contribution to developing the war against this abuse of metal theft, about which all noble Lords have spoken very robustly today. There is considerable consensus around the House that this illegal activity needs to be tackled. It is fitting that my noble friend was asked to take on this Bill by its sponsor, Richard Ottaway MP, because as noble Lords will know, my noble friend was a Minister in the Home Office when the metal theft epidemic erupted. During her term of office she played a considerable part in developing the Government’s response. I also join all noble Lords in acknowledging the work of my honourable friend the Member for Croydon South, Mr Richard Ottaway, and for bringing forward this Bill. He has immersed himself in this topic by meeting and consulting with stakeholders, and then developing and fostering cross-party and industry support. We have that evidenced in the correspondence that Peers in this House have received. There is widespread support for the Bill.
How pleasant it is for me to be able to thank my noble friend Lord Henley not only for his contribution to this debate, but also as my predecessor in the role that I am now undertaking. I know how deeply he was engaged in dealing with the challenge of legislating for this problem in the Home Office. It may not be particularly appropriate to use the analogy of apostolic succession, but at the very time that my noble friend moved to the Home Office, I was in Defra. We were working in conjunction with the Home Office through the Environment Agency to set up the task force and other arrangements for dealing with this abuse. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate will forgive me, but we have an apostolic succession here today and noble Lords have been able to hear from all three of us.
Let me make it clear that this Bill has wholehearted government support, and it is important to note that the support does not just end there. We have witnessed the support for it here in this Chamber. It is supported by police forces, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, and it is supported by the Local Government Association and local authorities across England and Wales which are keen to be given the powers to regulate scrap metal dealers properly. One of the problems is that there are insufficient powers for enforcement agencies actually to deal with this problem. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about local authorities’ attitude to seeing this legislation through. I know that they have made it clear that they are keen to see this legislation enacted and implemented as soon as possible. A number of other bodies have written to noble Lords, all expressing their support for the Bill. It is supported by those who have suffered from metal theft, including private industry, those responsible for transport infrastructure and, indeed, the church. More importantly, it is supported by many legitimate scrap metal dealers who seek more effective regulation of their sector. Before I move on, I would like to express my particular thanks for the contribution of the British Metals Recycling Association and its director-general, Ian Hetherington. The BMRA has worked closely with Richard Ottaway on the development of this Bill and with the Government on wider measures to tackle metal theft. The association has at all times sought to represent its members’ interests as well as those of the wider industry, and it continues to provide challenge to government on their behalf. Time and again we have heard examples of unscrupulous scrap metal dealers prospering at the expense of legitimate operators. I believe that this Bill will change that and level the playing field across the metal recycling sector.
The Bill seeks to reform the regulation of the industry, which is currently regulated by legislation dating back to the 1960s—the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. The Government believe that this Act is outdated and no longer reflects the 21st century. This is a £5.6 billion industry, and its development means that the legislation needs to be correspondingly robust. It may interest noble Lords to know that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 originated in this House, and that the Bill was introduced by Lord Auckland. However, its days are numbered and this Bill is designed to replace it.
Reform of the industry is important for many reasons but I believe that it will make a significant contribution to tackling metal theft. Parts of the scrap metal sector offer the principal market for stolen metal. Unscrupulous scrap metal dealers either purposefully purchase stolen metal, knowing full well what they are doing; or they purchase it without undertaking any checks or due diligence, knowing that lax regulation will allow them to do so without attracting the adverse attention of the authorities.
The rising commodity prices of metals on the world market, coupled with this low-risk, “no questions asked” marketplace, have seen the theft of metals turn into a growing, acquisitive crime. I have a number of examples of my own but will not rehearse them as noble Lords have all been able to come forward with very graphic examples of the economic and cultural damage that has been caused by this pernicious crime.
Metal theft peaked in the UK in 2010-11. Since then, there has been considerable work by a range of organisations to tackle metal theft, which is having some success. Last month, ACPO estimated that reported metal thefts have fallen by around 39% this year; an excellent achievement. I have some Home Office figures here that will perhaps help my noble friend Lord Henley, who wanted to know what the impact had actually been of the Operation Tornado task force and of the anti-theft design of many materials. I will read out this tabulation as it will be useful to put it on the record.
Scotland has seen a 64% reduction, north-east England 53% and north-west England 58%. I do not know what the noble Lords, Lord Greaves, and Lord Willis, will make of that. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, is not in his place now but Yorkshire and the Humber has only seen a 16% reduction. We would have to calculate whether that was because they were all going across to the north-west, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, alleged. The east Midlands has seen a 29% reduction, the West Midlands 48%, Wales 26%, south-west England 50%, south-east England 49%, London 29% and the east of England 60%. These are sizeable figures and show that there has already been an impact as a result of having more confident enforcement in this area. How much better it will be when we have these measures in place, which is why I hope we will be able to implement them.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, asked about funding. I cannot give him a positive response. Of course, we are awaiting the Autumn Statement. We are aware of the considerable representations that have been made on this issue, and will be looking at whether it will be possible to implement it. This debate has reinforced the continuing importance of this enforcement drive.
The reduction in metal theft can be put down to a number of different activities, including: greater law enforcement activity by a number of organisations, assisted by the £5 million made available to the national metal theft task force; seeking design solutions, which has made a great deal of difference, as my noble friend Lord Henley mentioned; strengthening the intelligence on metal thefts and offenders; working with the scrap metal industry to voluntarily improve its trading standards, in particular through Operation Tornado; and seeking to strengthen the criminal justice system response to metal theft cases, including working with the Crown Prosecution Service and metal theft victims to inform the courts of the full costs, including consequential costs, of all metal theft offences, especially to help inform sentencing decisions.
All this activity is making an impact and we hope the response will be strengthened further by the measures, commencing on Monday, that the Home Office included —at the prompting of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner—in the LASPO Act 2012. These measures include: the prohibition of cash payments to purchase scrap metal, which will bring greater traceability for those selling metals—I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that cheques given in payment need to be crossed, and a paper trail will still exist even in the circumstances that he described; increasing the financial penalty for offences in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964; and revising the police’s powers of entry into unregistered scrap metal yards, which was an anomaly that I think all noble Lords accept was one of the biggest difficulties for the police.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, asked how these measures will work. The Home Office has worked very closely with the British Transport Police and ACPO to deliver guidance in relation to the new provisions that come into force on Monday. We are confident that they will make a difference.
The Bill has been refined in its passage through the other place and I believe that it now provides effective and proportionate regulation of the scrap metal sector. The Bill has many important features. I will not talk about each one but will limit myself to what I consider to be the most important. The Bill will allow for local authorities to properly manage this sector, allowing them to decide who should and should not be licensed. The fee covers not just the costs associated with administering the licensing procedure but the enforcement that is involved for local authorities. Although the guidance will be given by the Secretary of State and we expect local authorities to abide by that, we anticipate that local authorities will be able to recover the costs that this Bill imposes upon them.
The Bill will also provide much needed closure powers to tackle unscrupulous dealers who operate without a licence. My noble friend Lord Greaves asked what “residential premises” are. No definition is provided in the Bill; it would be for the police to decide whether premises were predominantly used as a home or were business premises. This will be a question of substance rather than superficial appearance. I hope that that provides some answer to my noble friend on that issue.
The Bill will also require scrap metal dealers to record fully the metals that they are purchasing and disposing of, as well verifying the identification of the people with whom they transact. The Bill will end the exception for itinerant collectors, which the Government no longer wish to continue. Finally, the Bill will integrate the separate regulation for motor salvage operators with the scrap metal sector.
I know that the Bill was written and developed following close consultation with many legitimate scrap metal dealers, who, as the House knows, fully support the Bill. The Bill strikes the right balance between supporting legitimate operators and providing powers to tackle those who wilfully break the law. It should contribute to raising trading standards across the whole of the scrap metal sector. It will restrict the market for stolen metal that part of the industry currently offers. As noble Lords will know, there is a point at which stolen metal enters this trade, and it is sealing off that point of entry that the legislation is designed to do. The Bill will provide local authorities and the police with the powers they need to tackle businesses that operate illegally. The Bill will build on good practice already used by parts of the industry, such as strengthening the record-keeping requirements that have formed the key component of the successful Operation Tornado.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee, asked about the commencement of the provisions of the Bill. As has been said in guidance, it is recognised that around six months will probably be needed for local authorities to have in place the necessary provisions so that licensing can commence. Subject to any requirement to adhere to common commencement dates and the introduction of regulations, the dates are mandated by BIS, so we need to work this together. However, it is the Government’s intention that the Bill should be effective and brought into play as quickly as possible.
The response to metal theft does not rest with this Bill, but I remain convinced that the only long-term response to metal theft is to introduce a new, more robust system of regulation for the scrap metal sector, which is what this Bill is designed to achieve. I am delighted that it has been welcomed by all corners of the House.
My Lords, there was a suggestion that the Government intended to move an amendment in Committee to insert a sunset clause into the Bill. The Minister has not referred to that, and I cannot see why it should be necessary when one views Clause 18, which provides for review after five years. Is the Minister able to clarify that?
The noble Lord is right about the review, but my honourable friend the Minister for Crime Prevention, Mr Jeremy Browne, made a commitment to insert a sunset clause into the Bill. I imagine the details of that will be presented to this House in Committee. That provision was agreed by the Government during the Bill’s passage through the other place. I am pleased to confirm that. It was alluded to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.
I was in full-flight oratory, saying how much I welcome the support of the House at this Second Reading. We all wish the Bill well. It is designed to tackle an abuse that we all condemn. The Government give the Bill their full support.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister for rounding off the debate. It has been encouraging to hear so many contributions that clearly all travel in the same direction to bring about legislation that will put an end to this illegal trade. I am grateful, too, to the opposition Front Bench for its support for the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, has worked hard on this. Given his persistence, I hope that he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if not, I hope he will enjoy bathing in the rosy glow that my noble friend Lady Hamwee bestowed on him today. Of course, I thank her, too, for her contribution. As always, my noble friend had done her homework with attention to detail. She reminded us of the parts of the Bill that we need to focus on. If the Bill comes forward in Committee, I hope that we will be able to satisfy any concerns that she has.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London described the sheer scale of the damage to churches around the country, the word “plunder” came to mind. I do not know why but it did. It seems to be on that scale. It is quite horrifying that church communities have had to deal with that scale of illegal action. It has not just damaged the fabric of churches but also caused such damage to the hearts and souls of those who care for and look after these wonderful buildings.
My noble friend Lord Henley brought his support from experience in two ministries—Defra and the Home Office. I am enormously grateful for his contribution and for the fact that he carried the baton through the Home Office. As many noble Lords will know, however obvious the need for legislation and whatever Government are in power, it is not simply a matter of sitting down and saying, “Hey, I have a good idea: we really ought to do this as there is a problem here”. You have to battle and fight for change in all Governments. I thank my noble friend for the part he played.
I do not want to get too involved with my noble friend Lord Greaves in the Yorkshire/Lancashire thing but nor do I want him to be too disappointed. If the Bill is passed eventually, I do not think that it will solve the pending “War of the Roses”, which I sense is coming up over the hill. That might be for another piece of legislation. He explained the way in which gully grates are stolen; we have gone today from some of our most famous buildings down to gully grates. That just shows the scale to which these people will go to steal things that are not theirs for cash.
There is such an interest across the whole country in the heritage and buildings that are so important us. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, reminded us that that value is beyond market prices. That message went through many of the contributions we have had today. I am very grateful to everyone who has taken part today. I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 1.19 pm.