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Scrap Metal Dealers Bill

Volume 742: debated on Friday 18 January 2013


Relevant document: 10th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clauses 1 to 17 agreed.

Clause 18 : Review of Act

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 18, page 10, line 12, at end insert—

“( ) This Act expires at the end of 5 years beginning with the day on which section 1 comes into force.”

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 2 and 3. These three government amendments relate to the expiry and review of the Act. The Government made a commitment during the Bill’s Report stage in the other place to lay these amendments and I hope that noble Lords will view them in good favour.

Amendment 1 inserts an expiry clause into the Bill whereby the Act will automatically expire five years after commencement of the licensing requirement in Clause 1. Clause 18 contains a review provision and I would expect the Government of the day to carefully consider the outcome of the statutory review and bring forward an appropriate response to provide some long-term certainty for the regulation of the scrap metal industry.

While I am sure that the industry would prefer longer-term certainty, the review and subsequent expiry will see early action if this regulation is proving costly, difficult, or ineffective. That said, the Government are confident that the provisions in the Bill will have the desired effect and that any subsequent legislation will be based around this regulatory regime. However, having listened to the arguments made during the Bill’s passage in the other place for the inclusion of an expiry clause, we agreed to its inclusion, which is why we have laid this amendment today so that the Bill will automatically expire five years after commencement.

Amendment 2 modifies the review clause from five to three years. The statutory review will require the Secretary of State to assess the extent to which the Act’s objectives have been achieved and a shorter review period will therefore allow this consideration to be made at an earlier stage. This review will play a pivotal role in the development of future legislation and tie in with the timetable for bringing forward any new legislation after five years.

Finally, Amendment 3 reduces the scope of the review to remove the need to assess whether the Act should be repealed. This requirement is no longer necessary because Amendment 1 inserts a sunset clause—the expiry clause—and the Act will therefore automatically be repealed after five years. The review should, however, focus on assessing the effectiveness of the regime and recommending any future legislation required.

These three amendments will achieve the right overall framework for the future of this regulatory regime and allow for the Government of the day to bring forward effective long-term regulation following an assessment of the effectiveness of the Bill before us. I beg to move.

My Lords, I hold the noble Earl in the highest regard, so I know he will not take personally the criticism that I going to direct at the amendment which he has moved this morning. In my time here, I can recall a number of occasions when attempts have been made in this House to add a sunset clause to a Bill that has come to us from another place. In every case, these clauses had been felt necessary in order to improve an otherwise unsatisfactory Bill—often to insert a safeguard into a measure that was controversial or threatened civil liberties and human rights. That is not what we have in front of us this morning. This amendment will not improve the Bill; indeed, it will damage it in two material respects.

First, passing the amendment will delay the Bill’s enactment, as it would have to go back to the other place to get the amendment agreed. Given the track record of a small number of Conservative MPs who routinely try to use procedural devices to block Private Members’ Bills, who can be certain that those who threatened to talk out this Bill on 9 November—or some of their friends—would not attempt to do the same thing again? If, however, we pass the Bill unamended, it would not need to return to the House of Commons and could obtain Royal Assent almost immediately.

My second objection to the sunset clause is that it sends the worst possible signal to all those who are desperately attempting to tackle and defeat the metal thieves. Heroic efforts have been made in the last year by the British Transport Police and the civil police, local authorities, trade associations, reputable scrap metal dealers, the churches, the War Memorials Trust, the energy companies, Network Rail and the train operating companies and the Home Office. They have all worked tirelessly to bring down the incidence of metal theft, catch the offenders and ensure convictions.

As I said at Second Reading, as a result of all this activity, the British Transport Police told me that,

“there has been a decrease in reported metal theft of 52%”.—[Official Report, 30/11.2012; col. 412.]

There have been numerous press reports of successful prosecutions and convictions. In my own area recently, we saw the conviction of all eight members of a Romanian gang which had travelled from Birmingham to the Cotswolds to steal engineering cable from the railway worth nearly half a million pounds on the line between Evesham and Moreton-in-Marsh—two towns not known for their incidence of high crime. How can it make sense for this House now to agree an amendment which would take this vital new law off the statute book altogether in five years’ time and give whoever is in government then the headache of having to pass such a law all over again?

Thanks to the diligence of the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, and the Commons sponsor, Richard Ottaway MP, we have an excellent Bill in front of us, which, as every noble Lord who spoke on 30 November believes, will do the job expected of it. I am aware that the Minister in another place gave a commitment to give this House the opportunity to consider the addition of a sunset clause—not to improve the Bill, but in order to buy off the two Members who habitually cause trouble for Private Members’ Bills. The noble Earl has fulfilled that commitment by moving that amendment this morning. It does mean that the House is obliged to accept it.

My Lords, I could not be here on 30 November, as I was chairing a heritage meeting in Lincoln, where we have suffered from lead theft on the roof of the Medieval Bishops’ Palace. I have been a church warden in Staffordshire for 17 years and the church of which I was warden suffered from lead thieves on more than one occasion. No one could be more wholeheartedly in support of this Bill than I am, and I warmly congratulate my noble friend and Richard Ottaway on all the work that they have done.

I share a number of the misgivings and concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, but if this is the price that we have to pay for government support of this Bill—and it seems to be quite a high price—then we have to pay it, because the sooner this Bill gets on the statute book, the better. I hope that my noble friend, when he responds to this brief debate, will be able to give us the assurance that the Government have not only moved this amendment for understandable reasons, but have moved it with a total determination to ensure that the progress of the Bill is not delayed or impaired in any way.

My Lords, before my noble friend Lady Browning, whose Bill this is in this place, rises to speak, may I ask the Minister how the Government intend to use the next five years, assuming that this amendment is passed? Are there any plans in view for the Government to include in a government Bill the very necessary contents of this Bill?

My Lords, I support the comments of my noble friend Lord Faulkner. I find it quite extraordinary, with all the work that has gone on to get this Bill through, and all the damage, cost and disruption to railways, sculptures, communications and churches that we have seen, that here we have the coalition supporting an amendment that will dump the same problem on the next Government in five years’ time. I hope they will reflect on this, because whoever is in government then—and I am sure it will not be the present coalition—will be blamed. It is really totally unnecessary to have this sunset clause. I hope that the Minister, on reflection, will withdraw this amendment so that the legislation can go through as quickly as possible and we can get some protection from these thieves through a system that will record transactions and enable the police to charge people, thereby reducing the thefts and all the damage they are causing.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as my wife’s family has suffered from metal thieves taking memorial plaques from the side of a church in Dewsbury. I feel strongly about this: I do not think there are many people in this House who feel as strongly as I do about deregulation, but it seems quite extraordinary that we have Bills coming before this House—mainly originating from European directives—where there is no possibility of having a sunset clause and where the Government are unable to proceed. This looks like a bit of window dressing. We should listen very carefully to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, about the risk and the delay which will arise.

I hope my noble friend will tell us whether, if this amendment were not passed, the Government would continue to support this Bill with enthusiasm. It seems to be an unnecessary risk and an unnecessary delay to send it back to the House of Commons for further consideration. I understand the long-standing difficulties there are with Private Members’ Bills in the other place. My late colleague, Eric Forth, used to cause considerable irritation by what he regarded as a principled stand on this matter. However, this is a Bill which, as several speakers have said, is urgently needed. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Browning for the diligent way in which she has carried us forward. At this very late stage, I am sorry that the Government are proposing to put a spanner in the works, which will delay much needed legislation.

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Faulkner and what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I declare an interest as I am involved with war memorials around the United Kingdom. Metal theft has meant disaster for those memorials, and it has caused immense damage, sadness and pain to a number of people.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggests that this amendment is the price that we might have to pay for the Government to agree to this legislation, and that it would speed things up. Surely it will slow things down and surely things would happen much faster if we did not have this amendment.

My Lords, following the deregulation point, I am concerned about the message that we are sending out to the world. We are asking people to put in place a new system for such a short period. To anyone who does not know the intricacies of parliamentary proceedings, this must seem a very odd thing to be asked to do.

I should briefly indicate the support of these Benches for the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. Small country churches and churches in urban areas, which often have small, very poor congregations, find themselves at the forefront of these metal thefts over and over again, and then they find themselves hard-pressed to get the insurance cover that they need. If these amendments go through, the development will be viewed with great alarm and great distress by many people in small churches up and down the country.

My Lords, I strongly support the points put by my noble friend Lord Faulkner. I have had experience of these procedures in relation to the Commons. In 1977, I introduced an estate agents’ Bill that tried to deal with the scandal, at the time, of members of the public depositing money in the care of estate agents, and then almost as soon as that money was received, the estate agents’ offices closed down, the estate agents disappeared and the money was lost. There was widespread support for the remedy of that abuse and the House of Commons supported the Bill, apart from two Members who persisted through all stages, not against the merits of the Bill—how on earth could they do so?—but simply on the grounds that there was far too much legislation and they saw no reason why the Bill should go through. The result was that, two years later, the incoming Conservative Government took up the Bill and eventually it was passed and the abuse was remedied.

However, at the time, there was a delay of several years when, as Members of this House will recall, house purchases were taking place at a very intensive rate. Estate agents were mushrooming all over the place, although they were not the reputable ones who would not have dreamed of carrying out such a scandal, but fly-by-nights. The abuse continued for several years because of the delay in the legislation coming into force. The warning given by my noble friend about the dangers of these amendments should be heeded.

My Lords, when I became a Minister at the Home Office in 2011, metal theft was part of my portfolio of ministerial responsibilities. At the very first briefing I received on it, I was immediately seized of the fact that legislation and change needed to happen. Of course, having been a constituency MP, I was already aware of the difficulties and the serious crimes that were being committed, as Members have again outlined today.

Reference has been made to the Report stage of this Private Member’s Bill in the other place, taken forward by Richard Ottaway. Having studied it, Members will see that more than 70 amendments were tabled on one day. The reality is that, whatever our views on the way in which the other place conducts its business, had an accommodation and a promise not been given, we would not have received the Bill in this House at all.

My starting point is that this is a necessary Bill. I am enormously grateful for the support that it has received across the House, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester. He knows that I am very grateful for his support in taking this Bill forward. However, what I am about to say may sound old-fashioned, but I believe that it is important in another place and in this Chamber: I believe that if a mover of a Bill—in this case, my honourable friend Richard Ottaway MP moved the Bill in another place—and a government Minister give their word that they will do something, the honourable thing to do is to honour that pledge and I am now moving this Bill in your Lordships’ House.

Too often, politics is brought into disrepute because politicians play fast and loose with their word. A gentleman’s handshake and the word of an honourable man or woman is no longer held in esteem in this country and, passionate as I am for this Bill and as grateful as I am to the noble Lord for his support, I intend to do the honourable thing today if he chooses to move the amendment to a vote. I will keep the word of a politician and the word that has been given by a Minister. Others may choose to do as they will, but I believe that that is what I should do and that is what my political career for the past 30 years has taught me is the right thing to do.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Attlee for moving the amendment. Of course, a three-year review is already built into the substance of the Bill anyway, so it is not as though this will be put on the statute and left to see how it gets on. There are checks and balances here. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, not to press this to a vote.

My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has spoken powerfully on his objection to the amendment put forward by the noble Earl on behalf of the Government. It is not an amendment that has anything to do with the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the wording of the Bill; it has everything to do with the activities of a couple of Conservative Members in the other place who, apparently, were quite prepared to talk this Private Member’s Bill out, even though the Bill is supported by all political parties and widely supported by a range of organisations involved in the scrap metal trade or representing those who have been on the receiving end of metal thefts.

The reason these Members were able to wield such power, despite the insignificant minority view that they represent, was because the Government were not prepared to deal with this issue through a government Bill. They left it to be addressed in a Private Member’s Bill, which can be subject to the kind of action that we saw in the Commons. It led to the Minister in the Commons having to give an undertaking to put this clause into the Bill in your Lordships’ House in order to buy off the couple of Conservative MPs from talking the Bill out. That is the reality. Let us not beat about the bush on that score.

I hope that the Minister will do this House the courtesy of explaining why the Government did not address this vital issue through a government Bill, or alternatively take over the Private Member’s Bill themselves to prevent it being vulnerable to the kind of action seen in the Commons. It certainly cannot have been because no government time could be found, because it has been obvious this Session, in both the Commons and now in your Lordships’ House, that there is a shortage of business and not an excess.

I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester will be seeking a vote on this amendment, but he certainly has a very strong case, and the Minister will need to put up some strong arguments about why action by a couple of Conservative Members in the Commons should mean that this House should accept an amendment that the Government in their hearts do not believe is needed, except as a device to buy off two members of their own party who should never have been given the opportunity in the first place to take the action they did.

Clause 18, “Review of Act”, already contains a provision stating:

“Before the end of 5 years”—

you do not have to wait five years—

“the Secretary of State must—

(a) carry out a review of this Act, and

(b) publish a report of the conclusions of the review”.

In particular, the report must assess whether it is appropriate to retain or repeal the Act or any of its provisions in order to achieve the objectives. So what is the necessity for this sunset clause? To that extent, the issues are covered in the review. The review has to be carried out before the end of five years and the report has to assess whether it is appropriate to retain or repeal the Act.

I courteously remind the noble Lord that when his party was in office it, too, had mavericks on its Back Benches with or without anybody's agreement, who messed up Friday morning Private Members’ Bills. We should be careful of not reaping the whirlwind. If this House sets a precedent today that promises made in another place are not kept, that will affect not just this Bill but other rather important Private Members’ Bills that might come forward in the future.

This House has a right to assess the value or otherwise of the amendment before it. The reality is that the amendment will delay the Bill and put it at risk. It is for this House to decide, knowing that this Bill is widely supported by virtually everybody—whether it wants to delay it or put it at risk.

I will not ask the Minister to explain why the Government believe a sunset clause is needed in this Bill and not in virtually every other Bill that your Lordships’ House has discussed since the Government came into office, because I know that he cannot produce a credible reason other than that the Government had to bend to buy off a couple of members of its own party in the House of Commons.

We need to look at the possible consequences if the amendment is passed. For a start, it means that the Bill will have to go back to the Commons since it will have been amended in your Lordships’ House. If the amendment were not agreed or withdrawn, the Bill could complete all its stages in your Lordships’ House and be unchanged from how it left the Commons. It could then become law very quickly, which will not be the position if the amendment is accepted and the Bill has to go back to the Commons, presumably to continue to be dealt with under the Private Member’s Bill procedure. Accepting the amendment means further delaying the Bill; a Bill that virtually everyone apart from a couple of Conservative Members in the Commons believes is needed and needed fast.

I understand the noble Lord’s exasperation, but we have to accept the situation as it exists. It is unlikely that in the near future the procedure for Private Members’ Bills will alter. My noble friend Lady Browning put forward a real case for our reluctant acceptance of these amendments. She also made the point that we could reap the whirlwind. We could find many excellent Bills from your Lordships’ House sabotaged in the future. We have to bear in mind the realities of politics as they exist and the rules that govern Private Members’ Bills in the other place.

I have listened carefully to the arguments and seldom do I cross swords with the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, but surely, under the existing rules, all that the Government can agree is to put an amendment to this House, which this House must consider on its merits. It is not a matter of honour or honouring what has been done in the other place. We have been given an opportunity and personally, having heard all the evidence about the urgency of tackling this problem, I am grateful for being given the chance to consider an alternative proposal. But, as a Member of this House, it is my job to consider it and act on what I believe.

Clearly, it is a matter for this House to decide whether it wishes to consider the amendment on its merits. The amendment is not only not needed, it creates uncertainty in a situation where certainty in addressing scrap metal thefts is needed. The amendment would mean that nobody would know what the position would be in five years’ time. Nobody would know whether the changed practices and procedures provided for in the Bill will be permanent or whether we will be reverting back to the current arrangements in five years’ time.

What kind of message does it send to the law enforcement authorities? Are we to expect them to give some priority to enforcing the provisions of the Bill when we are also sending them a message through the sunset clause provided for in the amendment that we are so unsure about the need for the measures in the Bill that they will cease to be effective in five years’ time unless further legislation is passed?

What guarantees will there be that the Bill—

A three-year review does not mean that it automatically ceases after five years, which is the effect of the sunset clause. The two are different. The first is a review: the sunset clause means that the Bill ceases to exist unless further action is taken.

What guarantees will there be that the Bill, if the amendment is agreed, will not be subject to similar threats of being talked out that it has already experienced when it returns to the Commons once again as a Private Member’s Bill. It could be talked out either by the two Conservative Members already involved, who have after all already tasted blood, or through various amendments to the amendment that we are now considering by one or more other Members who might be less than impressed with what has already happened in the Commons and the way that the Government have dealt with it. They may feel that the Government should now be left with a choice of either having no Bill or bringing forward their own Bill.

The noble Earl does not know what will happen to the Bill if it has to go back to the Commons because it has been amended in your Lordships’ House. He cannot give any guarantees, since I assume that the Government are not at this stage thinking of taking the Bill over.

Agreeing to the amendment will create further delay and uncertainty for this Private Member’s Bill which, once again, will run the risk of being talked out in the Commons. The way to avoid further delay to the Bill becoming an Act and the way to avoid the uncertainty caused by the risk that it will be talked out if it has to return to the Commons, is to not agree to the amendment or, far better, for the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.

Failure on the part of the noble Earl to do that will surely show that addressing internal party problems is of more concern to the Government than securing the passage of the Bill as quickly as possible in the interests of all those who have suffered the consequences of metal thefts, whether from our war memorials, churches or railways. I urge the noble Earl to withdraw the amendment and let us get this Bill to the statute book as quickly as possible and not delay unnecessarily. There is no dishonour in this House in doing that.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to this important debate. First, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about the need to use Private Members’ Bills. The noble Lord knows perfectly well how difficult it is to secure time for a government Bill. My noble friend Lady Browning’s comments reminded me of my Road Traffic (Enforcement Powers) Bill that I ran as a Private Member’s Bill in your Lordships’ House on behalf of the Labour Government and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I experienced similar problems trying to get the Bill through the House of Commons because of the sadly deceased Mr Eric Forth.

There is no benefit to be gained from inadequate reform of the scrap metal industry. The clause would allow for the system of regulation to be fully reviewed and assessed and for the government of the day to re-legislate in five years. The Government are not making these amendments because we do not have faith in the Bill delivering what is required. We believe that the Bill will be effective and that the review will bear testament to that.

How the House of Commons decides to handle a Bill is clearly a matter for that House. I agree that the House of Commons has problems in the way that it handles Private Members’ legislation—in a way that we do not. I do not accept that this Bill would be at an unacceptable risk if we sent it back to the other place amended. The Government are fulfilling their commitment, made in the House of Commons. We expect individual Members of the House of Commons to fulfil their commitments.

My Lords, if the Bill is amended as my noble friend proposes and it then goes back to the other place and there are difficulties, will the Government take it on and ensure that it reaches the statute book?

My Lords, I am confident that individual Members of another place will undertake to meet their commitments. Perhaps I may carry on.

We should not risk the House of Commons being reluctant in the future to accept government commitments in the circumstances of private legislation. My noble friend Lady Browning talked about honour and the word of a politician. How right she is to do so. We all know in our hearts what the right thing to do is. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, is correct in what she says—

My Lords, the noble Earl says that we all know in our hearts what the right thing to do is. As has already been said, the Government fully support this Bill—it has the support of all parties—so all this amendment is doing is delaying it and introducing real uncertainty as to what will happen to it in the future.

My Lords, I will come on to talk about the future, but I am confident that it is not a problem.

As I was saying, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, is correct as usual, but that is trumped by the need for the House of Commons to be able to rely on government assurances made in respect of a private Bill.

My Lords, does the noble Earl intend to tell us that the Government gave an assurance as to the result of your Lordships’ consideration or merely that the Government would table an amendment, which they have in honour fulfilled. However, it is for this House to decide. The Government cannot give a commitment that your Lordships will vote in favour of that commitment.

The noble Baroness is, of course, absolutely and precisely correct, but my advice to the Committee is to accept this amendment.

I was asked whether there are any plans for the Government to include the contents of this Private Member’s Bill in a government Bill. The current Government do not have any such plans and it would be for the Government of the day to decide on the most suitable legislative vehicle to relegislate in this area. I would also point out in response to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, when he identified problems with renewing legislation, that as a defence spokesman he will know that the Armed Forces Act has to be renewed by order every year and by Act of Parliament every five years, but that does not mean that members of the Armed Forces do not have confidence in the legal arrangements of the Armed Forces.

I was asked the broad question of whether the Bill could not simply be re-enacted after five years. The outcome of the review could well recommend that the Bill meets its requirements and should be continued after five years. The Government of the day would have to make the case back before Parliament; that could be one approach that is taken. The principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that any future Parliament can legislate as it sees fit at any given time, even if this means acting inconsistently with the previous parliamentary intention.

Noble Lords will be aware that provisions to extend the life of a Bill are relatively easy to make, either by a Bill with a tightly worded Long Title or through an appropriate clause in a rather wider Bill. That would meet the need and it is not a difficult thing to do, as experienced noble Lords well know. In answer to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, I have already explained how the review system will work. Once the Bill becomes law, the fact that it was a Private Member’s Bill will make no difference. My noble friend Lord Forsyth asked whether, if an amendment is not agreed, a Bill can go to Royal Assent. Yes, of course it can, as all noble Lords well understand. If we do not agree this amendment, the Bill will go on to Royal Assent and become law. That is simple fact. However, future government assurances about Private Members’ Bills will carry a lot less weight, and I am not convinced that that is in anyone’s interests. Therefore, I beg to move.

Before my noble friend moves the amendment, could he explain the principle that a Bill will carry less weight when it has been passed by both Houses?

My Lords, perhaps my words were not clear. I did not mean that the Bill would carry less weight, but that a government assurance made at the Dispatch Box in respect of private legislation would carry less weight. If future Ministers experience the same problems in the House of Commons, they will not be able to get out of the problem so easily.

I apologise for interrupting my noble friend once again. My noble friend Lady Browning, who is a lady of considerable integrity, has done what she said she would, the Government have done what they said they would do, and their assurances have been met. However, neither the Government nor the movers of a Bill can anticipate and pre-empt the decision of a House of Parliament.

My Lords, I have already agreed exactly that point with the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. The Committee can decide this amendment as it pleases, but my strong advice to the Committee is to agree to it.

Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.

Clause 18 agreed.

Clauses 19 to 23 agreed.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.