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The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, for whom I have great respect, said that this House should send these Bills to another place. I believe very firmly that one of the most important roles of this House is to make sure that we do not send bad Bills to another place. I shall seek to explain that and persuade your Lordships that that is the case this evening.
I believe that these Bills are well-intentioned but they are wrong. The primary reason for that is that they have a national implication. It is not merely a local government Bill affecting a small area. I have no interest to declare. I am not an antiques dealer. I admit that I occasionally pay the bill when my wife buys something from an antique shop but that is as far as it goes. I have no knowledge about why there has been no Petition or anything like that.
It is worth looking at the details of the Bill. It requires anyone who wishes to deal in second-hand goods in Kent to register himself and his premises with the county council. Once registered, the dealer may trade but he must keep a record of the names and addresses of any person from whom the articles are acquired. He must keep a record of the articles themselves, descriptions, the names and addresses of anyone to whom he sells an article valued at over £100 and the date of all transactions. On the face of it, that is perfectly reasonable. The records must be kept in a form prescribed by the county council and must be produced to a constable or authorised officer of the council on demand. There are exemptions which include registered charities, scrap dealers and pawn brokers.
But if one looks at Part III, one sees that it deals not only with occasional sales and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said, squat trading but also with auctions, fairs and car boot sales. Anybody wishing to engage in those activities must first give notice to the county council of his intention to do so. The notice must include the time and date of the event, the premises to be used, the type of goods to be sold, the names and addresses of all the organisers and an estimate of the numbers attending. In relation to a car boot sale, I should think it is extremely difficult to know all the types of goods which are to be sold, and, indeed, it must be difficult to estimate the likely numbers in attendance. If this Bill is passed, there will be no car boot sales in Kent. They will all be held in a field a mile across the border in East Sussex.
At any occasional sale, the organiser must make a record of the names and addresses of all those selling the goods, whether each article is new or second-hand and, indeed, the registration numbers of all the vehicles used to transport goods to the sale. That is a difficult task.
But there are other important concerns. Part IV grants powers of entry to registered premises by authorised officers of the council or the police in order to inspect, take away and copy records. Powers of entry are granted also to any premises, whether registered or not, in order to inspect records or to serve notice relating to an occasional sale or squat trade.
Although this provision was originally designed to clamp down on dishonesty in the second-hand car market and car boot sales, the Bill casts its net much more widely. More notably, it captures within its scope antique shops, antique fairs, antique auctions, country house sales and village fetes.
The Bill as it stands would mean that dealers in antiques registered in Kent must comply with the provisions of the Bill wherever they do business. Dealers from outside the county doing business in Kent must comply with the provisions, including the registration requirements. Dealers from outside the county include dealers from abroad. A dealer is apparently anyone carrying out just one single trade in a year. There is confusion in that regard. That seems to be the case on my reading of the Bill but I cannot believe that the Bill means to say that.
The powers of entry in Part IV are not dependent on a warrant and extend to premises outside Kent. As currently drafted, the Bill grants summary powers of entry to council officials and the police to enter private dwellings as well as business premises.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, says that there has been consultation and that is true. But, as I understand it, the outcome of that consultation is that there has been no agreement. But this Bill has important implications. No compliance cost assessment has been carried out. Therefore, we do not know what will be the cost to the trade nor to the police when they try to enforce this measure. Is there to be a cost of registration? What will be the costs to the council? Are we imposing burdens on the police? Who is to pay for this? That is not clear and perhaps the Minister will address that point.
The Bill fails an important test of principle; that is, that there should be national consistency in criminal law. Legislation which creates criminal offences arising from every-day commercial transactions should apply nationally throughout the country and not, as in this case, just to one county.
This Bill would impose regulation and burdens on small businesses. It would include a large amount of red tape, something of which the Government are not in favour. Because no regulatory impact assessment has been carried out, we have no estimate of the enforcement costs. There has been no cost benefit analysis. In many instances, it is difficult to see how the police can enforce many of the Bill's provisions when so much business is carried on around the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said that the problem of crime in Kent is serious and he quoted the figures. I totally agree with him about that. If one extrapolates those figures to other counties, one reaches the clear view that any legislation should be national legislation. The matter should not be left to individual authorities.
There are more than 200 authorities which may wish to bring forward their own Bills and they will all be slightly different. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said that, including North Yorkshire, there
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, I had not originally intended to speak at this early stage in the debate but it may help to clarify matters if I explain the Government's point of view.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. In doing so, I shall not depart from the convention that governments take a neutral stance on Private Bills. There are no exceptional grounds in relation to this Bill for me to do otherwise, despite the controversy which, at this late stage, it appears to be generating.
As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, explained, the Bill is principally intended, through tighter regulation, to help tackle some of the crime-related problems, especially as regards circulation of stolen goods, which have arisen in Kent from various forms of second-hand trading.
The House also knows that an identical Bill is to be brought before us by Medway Council, which is a unitary authority. To have two Bills is the only way to ensure that the whole county is covered. The fact that both Bills are strongly supported by Kent County Constabulary will, I am sure, be a point in their favour as far as this House is concerned.
Your Lordships will also wish to keep in mind that similar private legislation has been passed for other parts of the country as diverse as North Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Worcester. There is no shortage of precedents.
The Government initially had concerns about some of the provisions in the first draft of the Bill. Levels of proposed penalties seemed too high and proposed powers of entry and seizure were in our view too widely drawn. I am happy to report, however, that these concerns were resolved by consultation and in discussion with the Bill's sponsors prior to its consideration in Committee. The Bill now before the House reflects what has been agreed between all concerned.
I should like to mention at this point that the Government are currently funding, out of the £400 million we have made available for the crime reduction programme, two projects aimed at limiting the market for stolen goods. One is in Greater Manchester, and the other, "Project Radium" is, appropriately enough for this debate, in the Medway area of Kent to which I referred earlier. The latter project much impressed my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary and, I might add, myself when I visited the project last summer. So your Lordships will see how this Bill ties in with other efforts being directed towards the same ends.
I have been aware of the concerns expressed by representatives of some of the legitimate traders who would be affected by the Bill. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, has raised this with the Government specifically on behalf of art and antique dealers. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, echoed those concerns this evening. The concerns focus on the additional regulatory burden to be placed upon small businesses, the inconsistencies that arise across the country in having legislation applying in some areas and not others, and possible enforcement difficulties.
The inconsistency point cannot be denied. That is inevitably the consequence--perhaps one might even say the beauty--of having local legislation. Where there is no national legislation to deal with a particular problem, as is the case here--and there are no government plans for such legislation--I am sure your Lordships would not wish to deny any local authority its own legislation simply because others do not have it.
The Government are firmly committed to not adding unnecessarily to the regulatory burden on small businesses, and I understand the anxieties that have been voiced on this aspect of the matter. It is clear that a careful and balanced judgment is needed in each situation as to whether additional regulation can be justified. It is for your Lordships to form that judgment on this Bill in the light of the arguments put forward by its sponsors and their opponents.
It is equally for the Bill's sponsors, if necessary, to persuade Parliament that the proposed new laws are enforceable. I feel, though, bound to say--without, I hope, compromising my neutrality on the matter--that I find it very hard to believe that a measure prepared and promoted jointly by the local authority and the police could not be effectively enforced.
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