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Mr. Thomas: I acknowledge the cost of bringing a private Bill to the Floor of the House of Commons. One of the reasons why the Government commissioned the Durham university research, and one of the reasons for the consultation that we are launching in the summer, is the fact that we received a number of representations
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from local authorities and hon. Members about the need for the Government to review this issue nationally. We have sought to respond to the concerns of the House. I am sure that, in his more generous moments, the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we are a listening Government and have listened to the concerns of the House in this instance.

As the House will recognise, the activities of unlawful street traders can adversely affect the livelihoods of licensed street traders, certified pedlars—those acting in accordance with the Pedlars Act—other retailers and consumers. We therefore strongly support the efforts of local authorities and their enforcement partners to use the powers at their disposal to regulate unlawful traders’ behaviour.

In due course, the street trading and pedlary consultation will seek to explore three main themes. First, it will seek views on options concerning the scope for providing extra enforcement powers along the lines of those which are subject to these Bills—in particular, fixed penalties and powers of seizure and confiscation to enable more effective control of illegal street traders. Secondly, it will seek views on the potential for updating the Pedlars Act to bring what is a 19th-century framework firmly into the 21st century. We will consider the future of the form of the pedlars’ certificate. We will consider which should be the issuing authority if it is not to be the police, as is currently the case. We will consider how to maintain the national nature of a genuine pedlar’s permission to trade while still meeting the valid wish of some local authorities to be able to control the level of trading activity in relation to special events or in particular areas where too much trading has an adverse effect.

Thirdly, we will seek views on draft guidance that offers clearer advice on what is permitted and what is not. We will also seek views on the future position of pedlars of services in the wake of alterations in the course of implementation of the services directive. We will seek to reach the pedlar community. We will also work with trading standards and other local authority officers in considering how the options before us might be usefully developed, and we will, of course, want to hear the views of the police.

A range of other key stakeholders are already considering what should be done. The National Association of British Market Authorities will hold a seminar later this month. As we have heard, some local authorities whose Bills are before the House have already discussed with a number of hon. Members their experience of the current legislation and their appetite for more change, and I understand that a number of pedlars also wish to share their experience of the current position.

I welcome the work of those other stakeholders, which we shall want to use in our deliberations. We shall also give further consideration to the debates on these Bills that have already taken place in the House, and those that will take place in the future, in deciding what action to take. I commend the Government’s neutrality on the Bills to the House.

5.15 pm

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I commend the industry and efforts of the different local councils who have brought the Bills to the House. As hon.
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Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, the process of bringing a private Bill before the House is expensive, quite complicated, pretty time-consuming and rather arcane.

It is worthy of note that these local councils have found their way through the different thickets and underbrush of parliamentary procedure to get to this point. It has been an achievement. It is also worth mentioning that a number of other local authorities may be deterred from bringing such Bills to the House because the process is so complicated and relatively expensive. That point was made by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

My constituency has similar problems with pedlars. Every autumn, the Weston-super-Mare carnival is held—carnivals are a wonderful west country, Somerset tradition. On a Monday evening in late autumn, a colourful and loud procession will wend its way through the streets of Weston-super-Mare, with a lot of people turning up to watch. I have had repeated representations from the organisers of the carnival, who perform that task in their free time, as volunteers, to raise money for a variety of good causes. They are concerned that, for that night, Weston-super-Mare is besieged by pedlars from throughout the country who come to sell their wares. The organisers are concerned that money spent with those pedlars might otherwise be spent or donated to the various good causes that benefit from the carnival. People are deeply concerned about that lost revenue.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I support the hon. Gentleman strongly on this matter. As he knows, the circuit includes many Somerset towns—no one outside Somerset has any concept of the scale of Somerset carnivals—so pedlars are a real problem throughout the county. As he knows, his predecessor tried hard to get the law changed to deal with the problem. I hope that through the process of private Bills, the Government will eventually recognise that the prevalence of pedlars is a problem for the charitable sector as well as for commercial traders.

John Penrose: I am grateful for my fellow Somerset MP’s support. What we have described is a microcosm of a much wider problem. My local council has considered bringing one of these Bills to the House but after extensive consideration it has so far decided that it cannot justify the expense, for the reasons that have been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I compliment those councils that have promoted the Bills before the House today. They have managed to wend their way to the Floor of the House but I suspect that a large number of other councils are either actively considering doing the same, or have so far been dissuaded because of the cost of the process. It is worth putting that point on record.

As we have heard, there are arguments about the merits and demerits of pedlars. It is worth saying that no one is suggesting that legal street traders and pedlars may not necessarily be a good thing—in fact, they are closely regulated and it is accepted that they can bring a useful buzz and colour to the streetscape and town centre, and can be an important aspect of a shopping centre’s life and fizz. However, the problem is with the unregulated or perhaps the rogue examples of the trade.

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My party shares the Government’s approach of maintaining a careful and studied neutrality on individual Bills brought before the House by individual councils. It would be wrong to adopt a national position on such special local Bills, but our overarching view is worth putting on the record. We think that it is important that the existing legislation is subject to some national reform and examination, especially given the fact that we have all these Bills coming through to the Floor of the House in a rather solemn procession. Clearly, that cannot be a sensible or useful use of this Chamber’s time and of the extensive resources that have to be spent in bringing each one of those Bills separately and in sequence to the Floor of the House. That cannot be a sensible use of anyone’s time or resources.

That is why I was extremely pleased to hear what I understood to be the beginnings of Government movement, and I just want to make sure that that is clearly put on the record. I think we heard the Minister say that the Government will now be considering, and consulting on, extra enforcement powers, clearer guidance and advice, and changing the Pedlars Act 1871—after 130-plus years, I suspect that may very well be sensible—not only to update some of the existing provisions, but to investigate whether it should cover services as well as goods. Everybody will broadly welcome that. If it avoids the need for any other local councils to bring yet more of these Bills, it will make everybody in all parts of the House happy—including my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), whom we all wish well in his recovery from his detached retina. I assure the House that my party will be carefully watching the Government’s progress in this matter, and will try to make sure they have all the necessary support if they are going to simplify processes so that we do not need a similar procession of such Bills in future.

5.21 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): We have been generally supportive of reform in this matter. It is obvious that there are widespread problems with pedlary, as the situation at Somerset carnivals shows, and it does not require a lot of evidence. We can, I think, take at face value the tales of, for example, the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) that there is a specific problem in their areas. It will clearly create unfair competition if in Reading, for example, people have to pay £5,000 a year for a licence, but for £12.50 people can wander around all over the place.

We should give more attention to the process whereby the law gets changed and how we have ended up with a sequence of Bills and to the fact that, until this point, the Government have not recognised the need for reform. To that extent, we greatly welcome the Government’s consultation on the issue of pedlary. A law put in place when people did not have easy transport around the country and would wander around with their goods is now undermining the regulation of the street scene. Street traders are very important, but when people come in to localities from different areas, that causes a difficulty.

Oddly enough, in my constituency, we have moved down the route of discouraging cold calling as well, which points to another issue that should, perhaps, be looked at in the consultation. Given that distraction burglaries are a great concern in Birmingham, Yardley, we might need to look at that wider issue as well.

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The Reading Bill contains interesting provisions relating to touting. It refers to:

It would be interesting to know how the courts would interpret that. Selecting the word “importunes” rather than “solicits” implies that somebody is being asked more than once. If we are to develop a framework for dealing with such issues, which we have supported all along, the Government’s consultation should also consider what might need to be done about touting, and whether that should be addressed in relation to soliciting or importuning, which is the term used in the Bill. It might be difficult to secure prosecutions if somebody says, “Well, I only asked them once”, given what, on the strict dictionary definition of the term used, the measure in the Bill means.

I had great encouragement from the hon. Member for Nottingham, East to give a very long speech, but I am not sure that I entirely understood his semaphoring so I shall stick to talking about the basic issues, as I have so far. We support these private Bills, but in future, we will have to look at how legislation can be changed by public demand without that having to be agreed by a Department, because it is clear from the Bills’ progress that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is resistant to necessary change. However, that resistance is gradually eroding as it is obvious that so many local authorities have reached the threshold where they are willing to spend more than £100,000—the £100,000 merely relates to the costs paid externally and there are obviously internal costs too.

In the context of reform within this House and how legislation is generated, there must be a better mechanism for reviewing how to alter things, so that changes do not come just through the civil service, but can be developed outside this House and promoted in this House more effectively in mainstream business. That is different from everything coming along with the bus, as it were, with a standard Bill, on whatever it might be, generated out of the civil service. Resistance from within a Department—we are pleased to see it ebbing away on this occasion—causes the difficulty of a sequence of expensive private Bills and potentially a situation where we drive a problem around the country as we deal with it in each place. I must welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that and are moving to consultation. Within that consultation they should also examine the issue of touting, because if Reading feels that it is worth examining, it is important that we deal with the wider point. On that basis, we will be supporting these Bills.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Bill read a Second time and committed.


Bill read a Second time and committed.

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European Working Time Directive (Fire Fighters)

5.26 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): By the leave of the House, I beg to lay a petition regarding the UK opt-out from the EU working time directive. The directive would pose a threat to the retained firefighting system in the UK. The petition has been collected by the residents of Brecon and Radnorshire and contains more than 1,000 names.

The petition states:


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Regional and Local Government

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ms Butler.)

5.28 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am enormously pleased, and I am sure that the Minister is delighted, that we have such a lot of time to debate this important issue—I was very much hoping that the House would have sufficient time to debate Government policy on regional and local government powers. I know that the Minister has received from my office an essay that I published three months ago, which, among other things, set out what I hope will prove to be a positive and constructive contribution to the debate on the new structure for local government in Cornwall. As a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which two weeks ago published its own report on the balance of power between local and central Government, I think it is a timely moment to debate this matter. Given that we are on the eve of important elections across the country—not only the European but the local elections—I am sure the Minister would like to take the opportunity to set out the Government’s vision. I hope he will accede to some of the ambitions I shall be highlighting and the points I shall be making.

I am sure that the Minister will have enjoyed reading the 21-page essay that I sent him, and he will have noticed that I attempted to raise the debate above what has often been, in many local areas, best described as petty recrimination and party political tribalism of the worst type. It is unfortunate that so much of the debate at a local government level often resorts to that. That is no less the case in Cornwall than in many other parts of the country. I believe that it is partly a reflection of the relative powerlessness of local people when it comes to considering what local authorities can achieve.

I often describe local authorities not as local authorities or local government as such but as local agents of central Government, given the constraints and straitjackets in which they operate as regards their duties and powers and the targets and responsibilities that are placed on them. In effect, the decisions that they take are often de facto taken remotely in Whitehall or in Government offices. In fact, the latitude available to local authorities is restricted when it comes to their ability to vary the way they deliver a number of Government services. I do not say that simply to make a point against the Labour Government, because I think this trend has been going on for some time and, to be fair, it has been happening across parties. It is part of the dynamic of the relationship between central and local government that we all need to be honest about.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is making his case incredibly well. Does he agree that that problem is best evidenced in planning, where local councils are often put in an invidious position and end up having to approve developments that they and their local communities do not want? They have no choice because of the plethora of guidance that comes down from central Government.

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Andrew George: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman but, I think that the one area where a certain amount of power is available to local authorities, in which—surprise, surprise, perhaps—there is often more competition among selected members to go on to the relevant committee, is planning. In fact, the planning committees make decisions on the economic, residential and other development of their communities. That happens very much at a local level and is, admittedly, site-specific and is applied case by case, but that committee has more power. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that power is not sufficient to allow the committee to direct development in the way I believe local authorities should be entitled to, but planning is probably the area in which local authorities have most power. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on that, he will see that it means that in all other areas of local government, powers are extremely restricted.

It is also worth reflecting for a moment on the Government’s record on regional government and regional government powers. Although I do not intend to take up a lot of time on this issue—it is one that has been widely debated on many occasions—it is perhaps worth reflecting that the Government set out with an honourable objective, which was to try to establish regional government across the country. They rightly set out to deliver devolution in Scotland and Wales and, as part of the peace process, in Northern Ireland. They set out to do so in London, too, of course. That was an appropriate approach to the concept and policy of delivering devolution across the UK.

Of course, devolution is a process rather than a single event, and those who understand how the process works recognise that. When addressing the issue of the vacuum or lack of devolved power in the rest of the country, the Government seemed to forget that the fundamental principle of devolution is that it is a process of letting go, rather than holding on for dear life. I would have hoped that, after 12 years in power, the Government might have had the opportunity to reflect on that but, disappointingly, so far they seem not to have done so.

I say that devolution is a process of letting go rather than holding on, because the Government appeared to take the view that they should define the boundaries of the so-called regions—I call them Government zones—in which powers were supposedly to be handed down. They also set the timetable by which they would deliver those powers. They set out the basis on which the north-east referendum of 2004 would be held. In all senses, the devolution process was very much led by central Government.

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