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5.16 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words in support of the Bill. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) was right that, despite our somewhat attenuated proceedings this afternoon, it has received a good deal of parliamentary scrutiny. On Second Reading, we had a good debate on its principles, and the Committee that considered it extremely conscientiously paid close attention to each of its provisions.

I have consistently supported the Bill but not, it is fair to say, without many misgivings. It is true that the Bill imposes significant additional regulation on the traders whose activities it covers. My hon. Friends and I are philosophically predisposed to object to further regulation; there is too much regulation, which ought to be diminished. That is a powerful argument against the Bill, as is the argument deployed by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey about consistency. I agree that national legislation would have been preferable, but we know that that it is not on the cards and is unlikely to be introduced in the near future.

Those of us who represent the people of Kent therefore have to face up to the question. We all want to do everything that we can to reduce crime in Kent. The question boils down to this: are we prepared to will the means as well as the end? I believe that the Bill will contribute to the reduction of crime in Kent. At least equally importantly, the chief constable, to whom I paid tribute on Second Reading and in whose judgment I have considerable confidence, is strongly of that view as well.

Despite the cogent points made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and the misgivings to which I referred, I believe that the Bill--which, I deeply regret, will impose difficulties on many traders, including many of my constituents--will make a significant contribution to making Kent a place with less property crime. That is an objective of considerable importance, which is why I have consistently supported the legislation.

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5.19 pm

Mr. Rowe: I shall be brief. Many of my constituents have, like those of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), taken a leading role in opposing the legislation and have written and spoken to me about it. I share a number of their anxieties. Their principal concern is that the Bill should be national legislation. The Government came to power on a pledge to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but it is a shame that when they are confronted with an opportunity to introduce relatively modest legislation nationwide, they allow it to grow up piecemeal through a series of private Bills.

It is a poor argument to suggest that there is no room to deal with a measure that controls crime, which impinges on every person in the country, in a legislative timetable that has given so much time to irrelevancies such as hunting with dogs. I would have supported the Bill with fervour if it had been national legislation, but I do not feel fervent about it. Instead, I feel anxious for constituents of mine who work in the trade, as there may be a small transfer of trade--I think it will be smaller than they fear--to other places, where people do not have to keep records.

In an increasingly international world, trade goes to the places where it is best regulated and organised. Most antique dealers in Kent have a justifiably high reputation for honesty and probity. I hope that the Bill will increase that impression, as a good reputation brings trade in its wake. It is for the police to prove that the Bill diminishes crime, however, and I look forward to considering their records during the next two or three years to find out whether it does so.

The other reason why I am keen to support the Bill is that I am outraged to know that there are shops in my constituency that send out thieves to steal to order. They are well known to the police and to some local people, but it is so difficult to catch them in the act that they continue to commit their crimes with apparent impunity. The sending out of youngsters to steal to order was a well-known feature of 19th-century London, but I am outraged by the idea that dealers in my constituency are doing the same thing now. Such crime is a significant way of increasing the drugs trade, as it is drug addicts who are most likely to do the stealing. Any measure that will diminish such activities is to be commended, which is why I support the Bill.

5.23 pm

Mr. Fallon: I, too, support the Bill, for the reasons that I outlined on Second Reading, which now seems a very long time ago. I do not do so with wild enthusiasm, however, as there are issues of bureaucracy and the central question of local or national legislation. As I made clear on Second Reading, a price may have to be paid for the Bill in terms of bureaucracy, as it could bear down heavily on people who are not involved in criminal activity of any sort, but who will now have to put up with some of the red tape to which the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) referred. Those issues have been explored both in Committee and in the House today, and the promoters' original proposals have been substantially amended during the Bill's passage through both Houses. I hope, therefore, that the bureaucratic burden will be less than it might otherwise have been.

22 Mar 2001 : Column 561

The only other argument about the Bill is whether it should have been a national measure. I made my position clear on Second Reading. I am not opposed to local innovation in developing the law. It is now for other counties and for police forces to see how Kent gets on and to decide whether to promote their own legislation.

The Bill is slightly different and it builds on experience from elsewhere. That is useful. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey may be right to say that a Bill that applies nationally is preferable. In response to my intervention he said that, despite his misgivings about the lack of a moral framework, he would support it if it applied nationally.

The Bill does not apply nationally, and there is no prospect of such a measure. I do not know what the position will be on 4 May, but there is little prospect of a national Bill in the next few days or weeks. We must therefore deal with the measure as it stands.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was right when he said that Kent police's case was unproven. That is the nature of such measures; the police cannot prove to Parliament that the Bill will work and make a substantial difference. It is for us to make a judgment. We must assess the likely impact, the bureaucratic cost and the red tape. We must set our judgment against that of those who are in the front line.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) expressed such a judgment today. He has been in the front line as one of the more successful Home Secretaries of recent times. Crime decreased during his term of office. We have also heard the judgment of the chief constable of Kent. The Government acknowledge that he is one of the more successful chief constables in the fight against crime. I am prepared to accept at least those two judgments.

The police believe that the Bill strengthens the instruments at their disposal, and that it will make a difference. Such measures have made a difference in other areas and to other trades--for example, scrap metal. A measure on that was introduced much earlier. It is important to remember that the Bill will apply to trades other than antiques. That is why the police support it.

None the less, we should not forget antiques, which are being stolen. If they could not be cashed in so easily, they would not be stolen. The ease with which antiques can be translated into cash lies behind the extraordinarily high rates of burglary.

If there is a Division, I shall support the Bill, albeit without huge enthusiasm. Its effect may be modest, but at least it will be modest on the right side. I suspect that Kent police will be proved right and the Bill will have a significant, but not huge, impact on the operation of criminals in Kent.

5.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I do not wish to say much; I simply want to deal briefly with the issue of local and national legislation. It is the convention that the Government are neutral on private Bills, and we intend to maintain that. However, Project Radium is already examining ways to reduce supply and demand of stolen

22 Mar 2001 : Column 562

goods in Kent. The Home Office is closely associated with the project; indeed, we are providing £462,000 for it and are paying for its evaluation. We are therefore keen to ensure that it is considered with great care. Without wishing to anticipate the results of the evaluation, I understand and sympathise with the view of the promoters of such Bills that voluntary action is not enough.

If the Bill is passed today, the Government must consider whether some of the rules for which it provides need to be introduced nationally. If Parliament decides to enact the Bill, we intend to discuss with Kent county police the best way in which its benefits can be evaluated in a reasonable time. If the Government can demonstrate through experience that the benefits of the measure outweigh the cost that it will impose on second-hand dealers, we will consider carefully whether the Bill and those like it that have already been passed should form the basis for national legislation.

I hope that those points will assist the House without compromising the Government's neutrality on the Bill.

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