Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Forth: No, that is a matter for Members of the House. I am making my opposition to the Bill absolutely

2 Feb 2001 : Column 590

clear. I hope that the hon. Gentleman at least concedes that. I rarely seek to conceal my position or to prevaricate on it. I regret that, in my introductory remarks thus far, I have been unable to persuade him about my position. I shall obviously have to make it much more clear cut and much better defined so that he is left in no doubt.

I do not like the Bill. It is ill-conceived. It will damage employment. It takes a scattergun rather than a focused approach. The cost-benefit analysis is adverse. The origins of the Bill are extremely dubious--being as they are NACAB, NCC and, worst of all, Her Majesty's Government in the shape of the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs with his obsession about murder. All in all, I am not impressed with the Bill's pedigree--to put it no more strongly.

Let me turn again to the briefing from NACAB and NCC--two quangos supported largely by taxpayers' money, unless things have changed since I was a Minister. It states:

What glib nonsense. The NCC is a Government-funded body, almost the sole purpose of which is to dream up ill-conceived Bills such as this one. That simply will not do. It does not persuade me in the slightest. Unless the Minister can tell me that things have changed a lot since I was dealing with such matters, I shall continue to be unimpressed.

I shall now turn in the direction of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker--I am sure that will give you some reassurance. I thought that I might deal with it slightly back to front in case I run out of time. I am anxious to deal first with the schedule.

Schedules are often ignored or overlooked parts of Bills. The wording of the Bill is sloppy; it has been poorly drafted. I suspect that the parliamentary draftsmen have been so busy on other things that they have had no chance to get their teeth into this measure. If it ever reaches Committee, which I trust it will not, it will need a great deal of remedial work; if it ever gets out of Committee and comes back to this place on Report, which I trust it will not, it will need even more remedial work. However, that is not our job today--I know that well enough, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Awful though the Bill is, I want to alert the House to the horrors of the schedule.

The schedule is headed "Enforcement" and "Enforcement authority". It was interesting to hear the promoter of the Bill and other Labour Members roll those words around their mouths; they positively enjoy the idea of criminal prosecutions. That is what Labour Members really like about the political world. The fact that the Bill would produce more criminal prosecutions seems extremely attractive to them. It is not the sort of world that I particularly want to live in. The measure gives a flavour of what the Government and their supporters are up to.

Reading the schedule gives us enough of a clue. It starts slightly blandly and, one might think, a bit encouragingly by stating:

That may be okay as far as it goes. We all like local weights and measures authorities, except when--as in the ghastly little statutory instrument that the Minister is

2 Feb 2001 : Column 591

trying to smuggle through the House at present--they are going to impose metrication on us, but not until 2009--[Interruption.] The Government Whip, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope)--to do him a favour, I shall get him into Hansard, so that his constituents know that he was in the Chamber today--says from a sedentary position that my colleagues and I voted for that measure. I can tell him--he can ask the Minister--that I voted against it yesterday. However, I shall not digress, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I am talking about the schedule and local weights and measures authorities.

Notwithstanding the bland and reassuring words at the beginning of the schedule, we then come to

Now we are getting to the nitty gritty. That is the kind of provision that Labour Members and the Government feel obliged to include in almost every Bill in order to up the rate of the criminal prosecutions that they seek so avidly in every aspect of life. The schedule states:

How may he act? He may enter the premises and then he may do all sorts of other things that I shall come to in a moment.

If I read the schedule correctly--although I am open to correction--we are moving, unusually, from powers that are normally given to police officers or Customs and Excise officers and, in this measure, importing a power of entry to premises for trading standards officers. That is the only way in which I can read the Bill. The authority is the local weights and measures authority, and I assume that the duly authorised officer is an officer of that authority--unless I am about to be told that it is a police officer.

This is either sloppy drafting--I hope that it is, in a funny sort of way--or something that will create a whole new group of officers who can enter premises. If we are really saying that the nature of the problem is so severe that we need such a provision in the Bill, I regret that. It is another example of the disproportionate cost as against the risk that has been exposed. I regret that that tendency is coming more and more into Bills.

The schedule goes on to talk about seizing and detaining documents. I mention this only in passing, because it has always intrigued me, but if we want to take seriously the powers of entry, enforcement and seizure, why does the schedule limit those powers in paragraph 2(8)? It says:

Well, we must have that, must we not? Why the reasonable hour? I take the view--I am not quite arguing against myself, but getting close to it--that if we are to have serious powers of enforcement, entry, seizure and detaining, we should not limit them to a reasonable hour. If I wanted my authorities to be effective in all this, I would want them to exercise their powers at an unreasonable hour so that they could find real evidence. We shall need to return to that issue as the Bill meanders its way through its further stages.

2 Feb 2001 : Column 592

Another aspect of the Bill that disturbs me has echoes of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, which we dealt with recently. I rather hoped that my party would oppose that Bill, but so far it has not. The schedule refers to something called "test responses". That bothers me. We have argued before that a policeman can deliberately send an under-aged person into a shop, get them to buy something illegally and then feel the collar of the shopkeeper. Here we have a similar sort of thing and I am instinctively unhappy about it. I do not want to say that I am completely against it, but I am uneasy about the direction in which the schedule seems to take us. Time and again, we say that something is illegal, but we want to use authorities to persuade someone to commit an illegal act so that we can entrap them. I believe that what are blandly called "test responses" could amount to entrapment and I want to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and many others to it.

I was intrigued to see a nice little reference in the schedule to impersonation of officers. It is terribly Mr. Plod, but I suppose that the drafters had to put it in somewhere, for reasons that I cannot begin to imagine. Paragraph 7 of the schedule says:

here we go, more prosecutions--

I cannot quite imagine who will go around impersonating trading standards officers. The promoter of the Bill, or whoever wrote the Bill, obviously can. We shall need to explore that rather more fully.

I did not want to spend a lot of time on the detail of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you and I know that that is appropriate at subsequent stages, but a glance at the Bill tells me that the wording is extremely unsatisfactory. It is full of loopholes and it will require a considerable amount of attention. I shall leave it to others to look at different aspects of it.

Labour Members, who, I hope, are still anxious to have their word about the Bill--I will not detain them much further--may have a mild criticism of my remarks, and I want to pre-empt it. They may say that what I have said has all been terribly negative. They may ask me, since I do not think that all these things should happen, what should be happening to protect the poor, innocent, ill-informed, ignorant people who walk into traps over and over again and get taken for 40 quid. One of my answers--here, there may be an area of agreement between me and perhaps, who knows, my Front-Bench spokesman and possibly the Government--is that we should inform people of the risks involved.

I am all for giving people information. I do not dissent from warnings on cigarette packets or other things that say, "The Government think that this is bad for you; the Government believe that this could damage your health; the Government this or the Government that". I have no problem with warnings from experts, authorities and well-meaning people. More could be done to warn people that they should be a little bit careful, and perhaps talk to friends or think about it before they send their money off

2 Feb 2001 : Column 593

to someone whom they do not know and have never heard of. One might have thought that most people would be careful about sending off their money. One would not imagine that they would do it serially. Labour Members have given us examples of people who have been caught out not just once but several times. I suspect that such people are beyond saving, even by the Bill.

Let me suggest another measure. I do so only reluctantly and I hope that my hon. Friends are not really listening because they will pull my leg about it endlessly. I suggest it in a spirit of helpfulness and reaching out to Labour Members.

Next Section

IndexHome Page