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That is a good point. Pedlars can make a living only if people are prepared to buy their products. Presumably, the fact that people want to buy those products at the price at which they are being offered shows that the pedlars are, by definition, providing a
useful service to the local community. If they were not doing so, they would not sell anything and, presumably, they would not stay in that place very long. My hon. Friend is right: by definition, these people are providing a very good service in the local community.
I want to make some progress, so I shall now move on to clauses 12, 13, 14 and 15 of the Nottingham City Council Bill, which relate to fixed penalty notices. I am not particularly comfortable with extending the powers of council officers to serve such notices whenever they see fit. This is not a good way to make and apply law, and we should hesitate before passing Bills that extend such powers to local authorities.
Clause 13 provides that the council must fix the level of the penalties, which will, to a certain extent, provide it with a blank cheque. Clause 14, however, provides the Secretary of State with reserve powers to reduce the level of a fixed penalty if he considers it excessive. The Bill seems to be telling the local authority that it can set the level but, if the Government think it excessive, they will change it.
Mr. Bone: My hon. Friend is making a valid point; I had not thought of that before. However, the Bills set out specific provisions for each council. They have no national application, so why cannot the fixed penalty rate be specified in each Bill?
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. If one clause allows the council to set a fixed penalty at a level that it deems reasonable, and the following clause says that the Secretary of State has the power to reduce it if he considers it excessive, we seem already to be in a position to set the level ourselves. Presumably, if the Secretary of State is going to judge whether the level is excessive, he will have to have an idea of what an appropriate level would be. We could therefore short-circuit the system by setting a specific amount in the Bills. Will the Minister enlighten us as to what the Government would consider excessive? We would then know where we stood, which would be helpful. Without that, I fear that local authorities will set excessive fixed penalty amounts and that we will give them a blank cheque to do so.
Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend accept that the biggest mischief is the trigger point for establishing the fixed penalty notice? The requirement under clause 12 of the Canterbury City Council Bill is that
"an authorised officer, constable or... a community support officer finds a person who he has reason to believe has... committed... a relevant offence".
It does not say that the officer has to have reasonable grounds, which would be a higher threshold, as he just needs "reason to believe". Even if the reason were mistaken, the officer would still be entitled to impose a fixed penalty notice under the Bill.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is another unfair element of the Bill. Of course, if someone reserves the right not to pay the fixed penalty notice, they would presumably find themselves in court and it would be for the court to decide whether or not they should have to pay. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that that creates a big financial risk for the pedlar concerned, who has to take a gamble-it could
be quite a costly gamble in many cases-where he feels that he has done nothing wrong yet has been served with this fixed penalty notice. I suspect that in many cases even people who feel that they have been badly done by would feel obliged to pay the fixed penalty notice because of fear about a much bigger penalty further down the line. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that these notices could be given out in a far too willy-nilly way for my liking. This legislation, which we are on the verge of passing today, will allow the authorities to hand out these fixed penalty notices willy-nilly-in a way that I think most people would consider unreasonable.
Mr. Chope: I am sure that my hon. Friend would accept that it would be an exaggeration to say that it is equivalent to "your money or your life", but what is being said and what will effectively happen in practice if the provisions come into law is that pedlars will be faced with a choice of either paying the fixed penalty notice or facing the forfeiture of their goods.
Philip Davies: Exactly. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is a Hobson's choice. It might not be "your money or your life", but it could easily be "your money or your livelihood". My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on that issue.
Further clauses about which we should at least raise an eyebrow relate to the accounting and application of fixed penalty receipts. It looks as if in respect of the Nottingham City Council Bill there is slavering at the mouth at the prospect of what the council may do with any surplus in the accounts raised from the application of these fixed penalty receipts. If we are talking about excessive or otherwise figures, any surplus in the accounts raised by these particular fixed penalties must, by definition, be excessive because they go over and above what is required in order to administer the scheme. In one clause we are being asked to support the council in providing a level of fixed penalty that is reasonable for administering the street trading regime, yet a later clause talks about what might happen if there is any surplus in these accounts, which does not fill me with a great deal of confidence.
"surplus... applied to purposes connected with the improvement of the amenity of the city or any part of the city"
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend may be right or may be wrong. It is difficult to know at this stage the main motivation behind these provisions, but he raises a very good point. I fear that the powers given to local authorities by these Bills will inevitably lead to some people on the council using them as a money-raising exercise, perhaps to plug the financial hole that will no doubt be left in local government because the Government are spent up and there is no money in the kitty for the future. I worry about the full implications of that.
In summary, these two Bills are flawed on many levels. I do not doubt the honourable intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and the hon.
Member for Nottingham, East, as they are clearly trying to do what is best for their local areas, but we must also consider the bigger picture of national law. Whatever aspect of the Bills that Members may be unhappy or nervous about-pedlars or ticket touting, for example-given that the Government have consultations under way on all these matters with responses from both sides of the argument, which they are considering very thoroughly, it would be premature to pass legislation in this way at this stage.
When legislation passes through the House, many organisations employ expensive lobbyists and have powerful groups to argue on their behalf. Pedlars are a disparate group by definition, and they probably do not have the resources to employ expensive lobbyists to argue on their behalf. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has done a tremendous job in arguing their point of view, but even with that, and with the reports and the research he has shared with us, I fear we are in danger of passing legislation without fully understanding its implications for pedlars.
Mr. Chope: I thank my hon. Friend for those very generous comments. There is another point: a disproportionate cost burden falls on the pedlars and the big councils. If councils were to reveal exactly how much money they had spent on funding Sharpe Pritchard and its advisers, their council tax payers might take the view that they were mistaken in putting so much emphasis on promoting these Bills.
Philip Davies: I think my hon. Friend is right. It is for the people in those areas to determine whether their authorities have spent too much time and money on all of this, but although they may have done so, my main concern is that these Bills are misguided. Considerable damage could be done to people trying to go about their legitimate business of selling goods for the benefit of their local community. We should think very carefully before passing, in a flash, legislation that could have very serious consequences for many people who are trying to do their best and to raise some much needed money for their households.
The Petition of constituents of Mr Paul Goodman MP for Wycombe and others,
Declares that following the end of hostilities in Sri Lanka as announced by President Mahinda Rajapakse, more than 280,000 Tamil civilians, including at least 50,000 children, remain detained indefinitely in cramped, squalid military run camps in the north of the island in breach of international law; further declares that there is a severe lack of medical and humanitarian aid for the needs of these wounded malnourished and severely traumatised war victims; further declares that with the current flooding, spread of diseases and the onset of the Monsoon rains the conditions in these already dilapidated camps will worsen drastically resulting in further deaths; further declares that the detained Tamil people are being held against their will, without any freedom of movement, with the intention of making these camps permanent; further declares that the traditional lands of these people are being colonised and illegally occupied by the armed forces; further declares that it is suspected that thousands of Tamils who are not accounted for are being detained incommunicado by the Sri Lankan armed forces; further declares that the perpetrators of war crimes and breaches of international law in Sri Lanka remain free from prosecution.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges HM Government to press for the implementation of the following: the United Nations, International Red Cross and voluntary agencies must be given full access to care for and protect the civilians in the camps, and then help them to return to their traditional homeland in the north and east; a list of all those still alive and in custody should be published, so that families can stop searching for loved ones who are dead; any who continue to be detained as alleged LTTE combatants must be treated in accordance with the provisions of international law, and urgently given access to legal representation; accountability processes must be established to ensure that international aid is not diverted to purposes other than those for which it was given; UN monitors must be given free access to all parts of the island; there must be a full UN investigation into war crimes committed during the war.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I am very grateful for the opportunity to bring the continuing incarceration of my constituent, Mr. Andrew Symeou, to the attention of the House and of the Minister for Europe.
As the Minister will know, Andrew, a 21-year-old man, has now been detained in Greece for nearly six months. His ordeal, however, began more than 18 months ago when the arrest warrant was first issued. Since then, I have been working closely with Andrew and his family. In that time, I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary and other Ministers. I have led a delegation to the Greek embassy and made representations to Ministers in Athens, and I am in frequent contact with consular staff in Greece. Yet Andrew still languishes in a prison that most international observers agree is one of the worst in Europe, denied bail and left with no information about when the case will come to court and, therefore, offered no end in sight. In the words of Andrew's family and friends, who took their concerns to the Greek embassy on Saturday, enough is enough.
I have two main concerns about Andrew's detention to raise this evening: first, the refusal of the Greek authorities to grant Andrew bail; and secondly, the number of inconsistencies and anomalies in the case file, which Andrew's legal team have obtained. When taken together, those suggest that, at best, there has been a serious abuse of process in the gathering of evidence and the production of written statements, and at worst that evidence has been manipulated and sometimes fabricated to incriminate Andrew falsely.
More to the point, even though those concerns have been repeatedly brought to the attention of the Greek authorities, they have been dismissed out of hand, which I believe raises real doubts about whether Andrew can expect to receive a fair trial. If the Greek authorities are unwilling or unable credibly to investigate those issues, it is incumbent on the British Government to raise them directly with the Greek Government.
At the outset, however, it might be useful briefly to set out the background to the case. In the early hours of Friday 20 July 2007, Jonathan Hiles, a young man from Wales, on the eve of his 19th birthday, was punched and fell from a stage at the Rescue nightclub on the island of Zakynthos. A few days later, he tragically died in hospital in Athens. Almost a year later, on 26 June 2008, my constituent, Andrew Symeou, was arrested under the European arrest warrant and charged with the manslaughter of Jonathan Hiles.
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