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I am sure that the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) will welcome that intervention. On my hon. Friends specific point about the police helping the researchers with the evidence base, I should
make it clear that we want those researchers to seek out every possible source of evidence to help to draw their analysis together.
John Battle: In 1999, Westminster council had a private Bill to deal with this problem, with the result that people moved 10 yd further down Westminster bridge, so that they were in Lambeth. It was 2004 before Lambeth brought forward a Bill to sort out the issue for the whole of London. The history of this goes back nine or 10 years. I hope that the researchers will look at the tensions between legitimate pedlars, who have certificates, and street traders, who think that they are being priced out. The knock-on effect needs to be addressed.
Mr. Thomas: From my research in preparation for this debate, I recognise the considerable history behind this issue. I take my right hon. Friends point about the legislation that has been introduced previously. The points that have been made in this debate will be made available to the researchers. Ultimately it is a decision for the Government, in the first place, and the House, more generally, as to whether we need to take further action after we have seen the conclusions reached by the researchers.
As I have made clear, the Governments view is that the evidence base remains unclear. We are seeking to bring clarity to the issue, and that is the specific task of the Durham researchers. The research will be made available to all Members and those outside who are interested through publication on the Departments website.
Mr. Thomas: Work will formally commence soon, and we will make the details available on the Departments website. I hesitate to commit the researchers to meeting every individual who wants to give evidence, but if the hon. Gentleman knows of individuals who want to provide evidence, he should tell them that they can write to the Department and we will ensure that the letters are passed to the researchers.
I commend the Governments position to the House and I take this opportunity to encourage local authorities, hon. Members and other interested parties to engage with our researchers to help us to establish clearly the national evidence base for this situation.
I share the concerns that Members on both sides of the House have expressed that this is not the most sensible way of proceeding, given the sheer number of councils that have either brought forward private legislation or, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, might have plans to do so. As I have said several times during the course of the debate, a national framework, as suggested by the Conservative spokesman, would
seem most sensible and would meet the Ministers concerns about giving local authorities the priority to decide what they wished to do in their area. It would give the councils the flexibility to adopt the legislation through a byelaw. That would add extra transparency, which is a concern when there are so many slightly different variants. If they were wildly different, it would make it easier for itinerant traders to understand the differences between areas, but because they are only slightly different, especially as there is an issue about whether councils adopt any legislation, it can be confusing. The mark of good legislation should always be that it is easy to understand whether or not one is complying with it, and that is very important.
Mr. Hayes: The hon. Lady, with her eagle eye, will have spotted that the Minister said that if the research found there was a national problem, the Government would consider whether they needed to act. As has been reported, the problem is by its nature likely to be local and possibly sporadic. The research will not find a national problem, but that does not mean that there should not be a national framework of the type that she describes.
Sarah Teather: That is why it is important for the Minister to publish the terms of reference for the research. I hope it will be flexible enough to allow the Minister to make a decision on passing national legislation that enables councils to adopt the power or not, regardless of whether the problem is national. From the representations that have been made today, it is clear that the problem is concentrated in particular areas. The Minister needs the flexibility in his decision making.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) explained the procedure for applying for a pedlars licence and how it differs from the process of applying for a street traders licence. Obviously, the licence differs in cost, but it also differs in terms of the relative stringency of the criteria that people are required to meet and of the body that enforces action against the person applying for the licence. That is one other point that has not been brought out in the debate so far.
Dr. Iddon: Has the hon. Lady had any representations on the inconsistency of pedlars certificates? They vary from one police authority to another and when enforcement action is taken careful checks have to be made on whether the certificates are genuine or not.
Sarah Teather: I had not heard that. Another issue for a council trying to take enforcement action is that a pedlars licence might have been issued somewhere else. Although a council might have a good relationship with local police, it might not have such a close relationship with the police on the other side of the country, who might apply the criteria slightly differently. That makes it difficult for councils to take enforcement action against a pedlar who might be breaching the law.
The Conservative spokesperson also spoke about the difficulty of enforcing action against pedlars who are breaking the law. There are a number of reasons for that, one of which has been referred to by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East. The criteria are uncertain. That was certainly an issue that Brent council mentioned to me. Obviously, there is a different legislative framework
in London, but the council told me of the difficulties that it had had because it was unclear how the courts would interpret the definition of a pedlar. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central spoke about meeting the letter of the law if a pedlar moves around every 20 minutes. My council explained the difficulties caused by a pedlar who might move to the other side of the road in the afternoon, and say that they were moving around. For councils, because of the expense of taking action and the uncertainty of the criteria that courts might use, it is very difficult to decide whether to take action against a pedlar who is effectively operating as a street trader.
There are also wider issues. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) mentioned that the pedlar might operate entirely legally but be trading somewhere where the council might want to regulate that activity. The problem may not be that the law is being broken but simply that councils want to regulate what is happening in their areas. For instance, a pedlar might be causing an obstruction or inconveniencing peopleor, as has been mentioned, it might be dangerous to trade in certain locationsbut it is impossible to take enforcement action against someone with a pedlars licence.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister took solace in the fact that a Bill going through the House means that financial penalty notices could be issued to pedlars. However, pedlars are by their nature itinerant, so would it not be extremely difficult to enforce that procedure?
Sarah Teather: I agree. That Bill is about to enter Committee, so there is a lot of detail to be worked out. A pedlar may not be breaking the law, which is why these Bills have been brought forward, and why the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East wants to tighten the definition of pedlar. The Government supported the London Local Authorities Act 2007 because it tightened that definition, with the result that people are exempt only if they trade from home to home. The aim of all the different Bills is not to outlaw pedlars but to make the definition much tighter, so that people who effectively operate as street traders are brought within existing legislation.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I do not represent a London seat, but does the hon. Lady have any idea how many prosecutions there have been in Brent? How many people have been prevented from trading? What has happened to perishable goods? Other hon. Members have asked many similar questions this afternoon, so does she have any information on these matters?
Sarah Teather: I am afraid I have not done that sort of research, although I can give anecdotal information from my area. Perhaps the Minister might be willing to provide that information, and I am sure that his Department will be able to collect it.
Wembley stadium is in Brent, and the major football tournaments that are played there regularly cause problems with people trading illegal goods. Brent council had a particular problem during Euro 96, when pedlars with
licences from Newcastle were trading in fake goods and other illegal wares. When the council seized the goods, the people selling them were able to come back the next day because they had pedlars licences from Newcastle. As a result, it was impossible for the council to take effective action. The pedlars caused a nuisance to local people, and made the area very unsightly.
Mr. Chope: I am very interested in what the hon. lady is saying, but has she found out whether the people involved were prosecuted? If they were, they would never be able to get pedlars certificates in the future because they would not be considered to be of good character.
Sarah Teather: The people involved were itinerant. The fact that they came from somewhere else, constantly moved around and did not give clear identities made it almost impossible for Brent council to prosecute. The council said the law as it stood was completely unworkable, but it is confident that the new provisions will enable it to deal with people in a different way. For example, people who trade in one placein this case, outside Wembley stadiumare classed as street traders, and that makes it much easier for the council to take the action that local people want it to take.
The aim is not to criminalise all pedlars. The ones who operate effectively as street traders are being brought under the street trading legislation, and that is what most hon. Members present this afternoon are asking for. No one wants to criminalise people who sell from house to house: the aim is to bring those who do not conduct their business in that way under existing street trading law.
I support the Bills before us, but I have a couple of detailed concerns about the way they are drafted. As with similar pieces of private legislation, they allow councils to hold seized goods for up to 56 days before proceedings must be instituted. That contrasts with the legislation that applies to London, where local authorities are allowed to hold seized goods for only 28 days. They can hold vehicles for only two days, unless a repeat offence is involved. If goods are held for eight weeks without proceedings being instituted, or even an undertaking that they will be, there is a danger that the procedure is the punishment. That is not good legislation, so we need to iron out those details. Perhaps the wording can be changed to ensure that authorities have a duty to release goods as soon as there is a decision not to proceed. There are many ways of dealing with the situationit is just a matter of detailbut it is of concern to me.
The Bill has no provisions in respect of an appeals procedure. Normally, fixed penalty notices allow a person to discharge their liability for conviction for an offence by paying money to an authority. There are examples in many pieces of legislation, such as the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which provided for penalty notices for graffiti and fly-posting. In all those cases, individuals can discharge their liability for conviction by payment, and if they want to appeal they can do so through the criminal courts. Parking offences are a different matter as they are, in effect, decriminalised and a civil offence: there is an appeals procedure through local councils,
and enforcement action can be taken through civil courts if people do not pay their fine. There is a tribunal system and ultimately people can take their case to an independent parking adjudicator.
There are different ways to proceed. I think the right way would be an appeals procedure through the criminal courts, because we are considering criminal rather than civil offences, yet there is no provision in the Bill for an appeals procedure. We need to consider that. We shall be debating similar things in the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill, where I have similar concerns about the lack of enforcement procedures. The measures are analogous in respect of the way we deal with fixed penalty notices.
Like many Members, I come to the debate as someone with a record of pursuing consumer protection issues, and because I want to defend the rights and welfare of legal traders. I came to the issue several years ago when I was contacted by a former constituent. I appreciate that anecdotal evidence is not always the best basis for taking a view on legislation, but in this case it prompted me to look in more detail at the legislation that applies to pedlars. If I may detain the House for a few minutes, Members will see that my constituents words speak for themselves:
We are a small flower business trading from a shop...in Leeds. This shop has been trading flowers for some 30 years and provides a great service and focal point to the centre of Leeds.
Over the past year an illegal street trader
and an associate have been selling flowers from an oversized makeshift cart
some 100 yards up the parade from our shop. This inevitably has had a grave impact on our sales as he is able to undercut our prices as he has no rent, Council Tax or insurance to pay. The street traders licence (peddler) only allows him...to stop at the point of sale but in fact he occupies the same spot as a permanent fixture.
The Police and Leeds City Council are looking into this and have tried to help but whatever action they have, or are taking has so far had no impact as he remains trading in exactly the same place. It seems that he is blatantly able to flaunt the law
by bypassing any regulations at the expense of innocent paying shop traders.
The impact of his illegal actions has been so great that we are looking to close the business after Christmas with the loss of employment of 5 people.
My constituent calculated that he lost about 40 per cent. of what his takings had been before the pedlar began that illegal action, much of that trade having taken place in the run-up to Christmas and around Valentines day and mothers day.
Mr. Chope: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that case law is absolutely clear? The situation that he describes is a person operating outside the legal scope of a pedlars certificate. A notice from Dorset police makes it clear:
If you do not move around between sales or if you set up a pitch or stall you will be liable to prosecution and seizure of your goods.
Mr. Truswell: I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans intervention; he leapt in a little bit too quickly, because I am coming to the reason why what he said is not a realistic representation of the position.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Bill, which has been brought forward by Manchester city council, and the Bills from the other five councils. I just wanted to put it on the record that the problems that they experience are experienced in other areas. City of York council has asked me to attend the debate in order to express my support for the principles behind the Bills.
The case that I have just quoted prompted me to examine the issue in more detail. Although I cannot pretend in any way to be the peer of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), the detail that I discovered makes me an ardent supporter of the legislation under discussion. The situation is like a game of cat and mouse, but I am not sure who is the cat and who is the mouse. One would normally expect the enforcement authorities to be depicted as the cat, but in some respects the traders whom they try to pin down are the cats, and the police, the courts and the council turn out to be the mice. That is what gives rise to the frustration that has generated not only the enacted private Bills that now benefit other parts of the country, but the Bills before us and the 50 that we understand are in the pipeline. Councils have reached the end of their tether on the issue. They have lobbied us and found that, currently, as has already been said, the only possible way of proceeding is to go through this very convoluted andlet us face itexpensive process.
My back-of-an-envelope calculation, for what it is worth, shows that private Bills already cover a sizeable chunk of the countryone tenth, perhaps more. The six authorities that are pursuing their Bills will add to that mass, and if there are 50 in the pipeline, a significant proportion of the populationeven though it might still be a minoritymust be covered by the various authorities concerned.
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