§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.
I believe that it will be for the convenience of your Lordships' House if, in speaking to this Bill, I speak also to the identical Bill which relates to the Medway Council. Together, these two Bills seek to alleviate the problem of burglary and the disposal of stolen goods over the whole geographical area of Kent covered by the Kent Police.
The Bills have the support of all political parties in the two councils. Wide consultation among organisations in Kent have shown that they are supported strongly by the general public, who are deeply concerned by the losses which they suffer when their homes are burgled. I declare an interest in this matter—a common interest, I am afraid, with many of your Lordships—as a personal victim of burglary in my own home in Kent. I declare an interest also as chairman of the Leeds Castle Foundation, where we have had bitter experience of the theft of valuable and historic items, which later turn up in the second-hand market.
To give some indication of the scale of the problem, over 1997–98 it is estimated that goods worth £105 million were stolen in Kent, with a recovery rate of only 25 per cent. The Home Office has given support of £350,000 to a project in the Medway towns called "Radium". That was recently launched officially by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, and is designed to tackle the fact revealed by Home Office research and by police intelligence that a large proportion of stolen property passes through unregulated second-hand dealers.
The legislation will not solve the problem, but I believe that it will make possible a more effective partnership between the police and the consumer protection work of trading standards officers. The provisions of the two Bills go a good deal beyond antiques, which I believe may be the focus of a large part of our debate. However, they will help to tackle, for example, the second-hand car abuse of fiddling the mileage reading of odometers—a fraud which provides profits of many millions of pounds for unscrupulous car dealers. The legislation will deal also with a new development called "squat trading", where rogue traders illegally enter vacant high street premises for what amount to hit-and-run sales.
1049 The main provisions of the Bill are simple. They require registration, which will be free, of businesses which deal in second-hand goods. There is a requirement to keep a record of purchases and addresses, and of the sale of an article worth over £100. The penalties for failure to observe those provisions are set out in the Bills as a range of fines.
The Bills have been before the public in Kent for a long time—indeed, since November 1998. As I said, they have been the subject of wide consultations, including discussions with LAPADA, the national antiques organisation. Those have resulted in a whole series of exemptions being negotiated: for occasional sales by auctioneers; for regular private markets of traders; and for dealers outside Kent who come in either to sell or to buy. There is a total exemption for books, and an amendment to protect the collectors of antiques who must disclose the location of their collections. Those amendments show that the councils listened to the concerns raised with them by various trade interests and took positive steps to address the concerns. As a result, there were no Petitions outstanding that required a Committee stage in your Lordships' House. Therefore, I am bound to say that I am a little puzzled that at this 11th hour the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, should table his amendments, which, if carried, will kill these useful Bills.
Through the good offices of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the president of'LAPADA—a national body of standing in the antiques field—some of us had the opportunity last week to hear and study its concerns and those of some antique dealers within Kent. I am bound to say that I recognise the strength of feeling behind those concerns. LAPADA expresses support for the motives behind the Bills but believes that the only approach should be through national legislation. It appears to argue that it is wrong in principle to make what it calls "local criminal law". Local by-laws and private Acts lie at the very heart of the whole local government system. I may do something which is perfectly all right in my native Dundee but it may attract a fine if I try it in my adopted county of Kent. In any case, there is no practical prospect of national legislation in this field. I believe that LAPADA's point of view in the matter is a typical example of the ideal being the enemy of the good. That is no more than to argue that if you cannot do something worth while everywhere, you should not be allowed to do it anywhere.
There are, in fact, a number of local authorities which have sought and operate similar powers to those now being sought by Kent County Council and by Medway Council. I shall not take up your Lordships' time in the brief period available by reciting all of them. However, there is a list of eight local authorities with similar powers.]" asked the Kent Police to contact all those councils. Every one of them has confirmed that it finds the legislation useful and that the councils work with the local police forces to enforce it.
The second objection is that the Bills' requirements to keep simple records will impose an unreasonable bureaucratic burden on small businesses. Certainly, it will be a bureaucratic burden; I do not deny that. But 1050 some bureaucracy is inevitable as the price of preventing the minority of wrongdoers from exploiting the law-abiding majority. Examples of social security benefit fraud and of income tax evasion readily come to mind. Neither of those can be dealt with without some degree of bureaucratic regulation. For the bona fide antique dealer, this registration should be a price worth paying for deterring the burglars from bringing discredit on decent businesses which deal in second-hand goods. They should be reassured that the police and trading standards officers in Kent have neither the desire nor, indeed, the manpower to impose a heavy-handed and intrusive regime of regulation. They plan a selective, targeted, intelligence-based campaign made more effective by pooling the police's intelligence sources with information from the registration records.
Finally, the noble Viscount's amendments seem to me to raise issues of significant parliamentary principle. LAPADA and the local antique dealers have raised objections which certainly deserve serious consideration. There were discussions between the councils and LAPADA during the consultation period on the Bills and, indeed, I believe that a number of amendments were made to meet their wishes. Personally, I believe that it is a great pity that if LAPADA and the antique dealers in Kent felt as strongly as they now say they do, they should not have put in their Petitions at the appropriate period and therefore enabled a Select Committee of your Lordships' House to deal with the matter in the kind of detail which it deserves and which, I believe, is impossible in this kind of abbreviated debate during the dinner hour. For whatever reason, that was not done. They will, or should, have a further opportunity to do so when the Bill passes to the other place, as it ought to do.
I say seriously to the noble Viscount that surely it would be a great error of judgment and quite wrong if this House, in a sparsely attended debate during the dinner hour, were to prevent the elected Chamber, including the elected Members for Kent, dealing with proposals from the Kent local authorities which are designed to protect householders from burglaries arid loss of precious possessions. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Thomson of Monyieth.)
§ Viscount Astor
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a third time, to leave out "now" and at end to insert "this day six months".
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.
1051 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.
1052 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.
Any country house sale conducted in Kent falls within the scope of Part III but those sales conducted by outside auctioneers are excluded. Again, that is another anomaly.
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.
As I said, there are clear issues which have not been addressed; for example, civil liberties issues with regard to the power of entry into domestic and private premises.
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 1053 are six local authorities which have brought forward similar legislation. That legislation varies dramatically. It is not the same. In some cases it is quite simple; in others, it does not work. It is different. If this Bill addresses a serious problem, it is up to the Government to address it. One cannot have piecemeal law-making in this country. It would bring the law into disrepute. I believe that that is the most important message that we wish to convey. The case has not been made for these two Bills. They are of national importance and should be dealt with nationally. In those circumstances, I hope that your Lordships will support the amendment which I have tabled this evening. I beg to move.
§ Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a third time, to leave out "now" and at end to insert "this day six months".—(Viscount Astor.)
§ 7.58 p.m.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bass am 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.
The Government have no objection in principle to the Bill. Last November we published our crime reduction strategy. At the heart of the strategy are the 1054 new steps we will be taking to ensure that every local crime and disorder reduction partnership and police force is performing to its maximum potential. There are now 375 such partnerships in England and Wales, in which police, local authorities and other agencies work together to identify and combat crime in their areas. The way the local authorities and police in Kent are working together to promote this Bill accords very closely with that approach, which I believe is in itself worthy of this House's commendation.
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.
As I said at the beginning, it is not for the Government to take sides. However, I remind the House that the Bill is due to proceed to its next stage in 1055 another place, where anyone opposed to it can petition against it if they so wish, and where any such petition would be fully considered. Your Lordships may feel it would be better for objections to be properly looked at and debated there, rather than take what I believe would be the most unusual step of refusing to let the Bill go beyond this Third Reading. Whatever noble Lords decide, I hope that this short contribution setting out the Government's view will help them in their careful deliberations on the Bill this evening.
§ Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate
My Lords, I rise to support the Bill and oppose the amendment. I spent 35 years as a police officer and I know the value of such regulation. Similar provisions were passed in relation to scrap metal dealers. The Gaming Act controls gaming clubs. Licensees are regulated in the same way. The provisions would be valuable.
The Chief Constable of Kent is totally supportive of the Bill. He is chairman of the ACPO Crime Committee, so, when it comes to crime, he knows what he is talking about. He is one of the top chief constables and has shown a marked reduction in crime. Crime is an expensive business. The last estimate from the insurers' association indicates that £31 billion-worth of goods are stolen each year.
Any measure that can prevent crime and detect offenders must be valuable. I do not believe it matters if it is confined to one area. If the people enforcing it believe it would be well worth while, this House has a duty to support it. Any crime reduction measure is valuable, not just to the police but to the community concerned. Clearly, if there are no disposal points for stolen goods, it is more difficult to sell the goods. There is also a deterrent effect if thieves are fully aware of the fact that there may be difficulty in selling the goods. The point made about being able to give false names and addresses is perfectly valid. However, if this Bill has any effect at all in deterring crime, we have a duty to support it. I believe that the Bill should continue its passage.
§ Lord Luke
My Lords, first I declare an interest as a dealer in second-hand goods. I buy and sell watercolours and have done so in Kent, so I would definitely be caught by the new regulations.
I believe it is unfair of the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, to compare antique dealers to scrap metal dealers. I take exception to that. In this business there are a great number of small traders. There are the smart people in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and the smart people in London, but the whole business is based on small people going backwards and forwards, saying, "Can I buy or sell your picture for you?" and so forth. Much of the business is conducted as a second business, not as a first business. The amount of bureaucracy which will be necessary to make this provision work is far more than is justified by the gains that will be made.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said that the police are keen to have this measure and that they will be able to enforce it. I very much doubt whether the 1056 police will have time to do so. These days so much police time is taken up with non-criminal work that they often take hours to turn up after a burglary. If they were busily trying to enforce these new regulations, given all the myriads of small dealers there are, I do not believe they would be able to cope.
The noble Lord, Lord Thompson of Monifieth, mentioned the fact that books will be exempt. There are extremely valuable books available. If this is such a good idea, I cannot see why books should be exempt. That is extraordinary. As regards the provision applying only in Kent, Manchester, North Yorkshire and wherever else, dealers do not respect county boundaries; they move around all over the place. I find it extraordinary, if, as the Minister stated, the Government think this is such a good idea, that they do not come forward with a national scheme, properly worked out, which will then cover the whole country and perhaps make some difference to the disposal of stolen goods.
I cannot see that this scheme, relating only to Kent, can have any good, viable result. It will create a great deal of extra legislation. It will be oppressive to the smaller trader and I support the amendment of my noble friend all the way down the line.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, I too begin by declaring an interest. My home is in the county of Kent. I have an interest in doing whatever I can to contribute to the reduction in the amount of stolen property which is never recovered. As we have already heard today, only around 25 per cent of stolen property in Kent is recovered, in spite of the attention of an extremely efficient police force under a Chief Constable of whose distinction we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate.
I also have a specific interest in hoping that such antiques, cars or other desirables as I may possess remain in my possession and are not stolen. In the course of 23 years as the MP for a constituency already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Luke, my constituents, if they agreed with me in nothing else, passionately shared that concern.
We therefore have the spectacle of the House tonight being invited to consider in all of one hour—the dinner hour at that—a substantial measure affecting law and order in an important way which has been one-and-a-half years in preparation by a major county council and which has the full support of the chief constable and the police committee. I invite the House of course to do the best it can in the short time available to consider the merits of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Astor. But it is quite impossible in this short time for us to begin to do anything like justice to the merits of the arguments. We heard arguments about incompatibility with liberty; about impracticability of enforcement and so forth. We cannot resolve those within the half hour left to us.
It is worth reminding ourselves how this extraordinary situation came about. It is not that this Bill has somehow been spirited in without complying with the rules which this House requires for 1057 advertisement. I inquired of the Private Bill Office whether or not the rules had been complied with and, as one might expect, the answer was that they had.
A procedure was open for objectors to petition, whereupon all these important discussions could have taken place with, if desired, witnesses being called before a Select Committee. That was not done. My noble friend Lord Astor—I do not say this disrespectfully—says rather loftily, "I have no knowledge as to why there was no petition". I am sure he is right, but that is not enough to dispose of the point. We have here a Bill which can, if it receives a Third Reading tonight, receive after a petition in the other place the examination which it could and evidently should have received here.
One must deal with the principal point made; namely, that piecemeal legislation of this character is wrong. If so, that "wrongness" seems to have eluded Parliament over the past 10 years in a large number of instances. Similar, though not identical Bills, were promoted and passed in respect of South Yorkshire, the county of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Humberside, the county of Lancashire, Herefordshire City Council, Worcester City Council, North Yorkshire County Council and, most recently, the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I understand that that Bill passed its stages in this House and is now before the other place.
I agree with the Minister that we must not allow the best to be the enemy of the good. Because there is no prospect of national legislation coming forward—one understands the pressures—is it to be said that Kent and those who live there are to be denied the advantage of provisions which the residents of a substantial part of the country received? I cannot see why it should be said that Kent should be singled out and dismissed.
It is said that the police cannot engage in this sort of activity. It is strange that that argument eluded the Chief Constable of Kent, the police authority and an extremely properly cost-conscious county council that is certainly not in the habit of authorising, let alone instigating, expenditure which will be impractical.
I venture to suggest that it is not enough merely to say that this is a well-intentioned but wrong Bill, as my noble friend Lord Astor said. Of course it is well intentioned and those intentions are shared by those who object. They made that clear. The Bill concerns the reduction of crime and the ease with which the police can get on top of the problem of stolen property. The promoters of the Bill are doing something about it. They do not seek to have it spirited through Parliament without examination; they would welcome it being properly examined. They have already shown that they are prepared to respond to a case made against it by a number of amendments which have been made in this House, although the Bill was unopposed. But they wish the Bill to pass and the people of Kent are entitled to that.
I conclude by repeating a point already alluded to but about which I feel most strongly. I was tempted to say it would be frivolous but it would certainly be remarkable, and I believe bizarre, for a Bill of this 1058 seriousness to be dismissed at the conclusion of one hour's discussion. That would not sit easily, let alone happily, with the reputation of which this House is so jealous for the serious, mature and scrupulous consideration of legislative proposals brought before it. I hope that my noble friend, having had an eloquent say—to which he will no doubt add—will cap his performance by withdrawing this amendment.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I found much with which to agree in what everybody said this evening and, to some extent, much with which to disagree.
I join every speaker to date in saying that the expressed objects of the Bill are praiseworthy. I join my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew in saying that we owe a great deal of respect to the people and democratic structures of Kent and Medway, who have every right, as has every local council, to make the lives of their citizens as difficult and inconvenient as possible within the normal bounds we set on such things. It should be no part of our life in this House to interfere with that sort of arrangement, which is internal to a county council and with which the voters of that county can properly deal at their elections.
I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, that we should pay close attention to what the police say about these matters. I do not go as far as he in saying that, if the police support something, we should give it our support. Even the Liberal Democrat Party would be a little more critical than that on most issues. I do not share the disparagement by my noble friend Lord Luke of scrap metal dealers—I believe most of them these days are called "modern art" dealers.
But there are precedents for these Bills. I have read them. I have been through all the Bills which passed through this House. They are entirely acceptable local Bills. They are local in their concept, local in their effect and reasonable in their terms.
In many aspects, this Bill goes much further than any existing legislation. It is not just a national Bill; it is an international Bill in its effects. It is positing the powers of the Kent Police operating world-wide. I find the idea of a Kent policeman or trading standards officer looking over the behaviour of the registered Kent antique dealer, or dealer in second-hand goods, wherever he may be in the world, to be extraordinary.
There are a number of the Bill's aspects that concern me, many of them small but one great. I shall deal, first, with the small ones. I start with the matter of consultation. This may have been public; indeed, I believe it was subject to an advertisement in the Evening Standard, which I do not think is widely read in all parts of Kent. However, clearly it has not been discussed sufficiently with the main organisations representing dealers in second-hand goods. One or two of them have been involved and little exemptions have appeared in the Bill; for example, my noble friend Lord Astor mentioned books, which is extraordinary. Books are a valuable part of many people's possessions. I understand that they are to be exempted 1059 in order to avoid the Bill being opposed in this House. The reason why we have not had a proper procedure in this Chamber is that deals were done with those who had the funds and the will to oppose such procedures in this House. We have not been afforded the chance to look at the Bill properly because of actions taken by Kent County Council, among other things.
Secondly, there has been very little exposure of the benefits of the Bill. It may be lack of talent on my part, but I have been unable to find anyone in the police force of North Yorkshire who is willing to say anything in great support of the past 10 years' experience at their end. It is a nice little piece of bureaucracy and is enforced keenly by the trading standards officers. However, as far as I can discover, it does not do much to prevent crime.
The difficulty about the way this Bill is expressed is that it is in danger of turning you and me—that is, ordinary people who may have a little hobby collecting this or that—into criminals without our knowing about it. When we decide what should be a local law and what should be a national one, one of the most important things we must have regard to is whether people coming into the area can reasonably know what is criminal and what is not within that county. We set our traffic regulations in such a way that I know what the signs on the side of the road mean. I know what a thirty-mile-an-hour speed limit is because such limits are set nationally. But parking regulations, and in particular how you get a parking permit, and so on, are set locally because they concern local people. That is the way that the other Bills in this area have been drafted. They set out local regulations applying to people who have premises in the county or area concerned so that they properly know about them.
For example, if you have a shop in Winchester or one in Lancashire, you are governed by the local regulations and when you make a trip to Kent you do not expect, as is the case with this Bill, to find that you are governed by the Kent or Medway regulations, which may be separate. Indeed, if the precedent of this particular type of Bill is followed, we may end up with 200 different sets of criminal legislation covering the country. It would be totally impossible for the ordinary person to know where he or she stands.
I turn to my third point. It is the practice with Bills these days to say where they stand vis-à-vis the Human Rights Act. But there is nothing of that sort in this Bill, although it contains extensive powers of entry and criminal penalties that are quite interesting in the effect that they would have on the ordinary citizen. I believe that that is something which should be looked at in this Bill. Similarly, the consequences of the Data Protection Act are not covered, although the Bill requires record keeping in a quite extensive way, especially as regards purchase transactions by individuals. That will amount to a great dictionary for a thief if he happens to come across it; indeed, he might find information about interesting things around the county.
1060 There is no recognition in the Bill of e-commerce. It is a recently-enough drafted Bill so it ought to have contemplated such consequences. The forms of record which are to be kept are not set out in the Bill—this is different from any other Act—and can be set by the council at a later date. Many of these people will keep records for VAT purposes and that sort of record will do under any other legislation. They are keeping a record for VAT and that same record will do. However, under this Bill, the Kent County Council or the Medway Council can demand that a different sort of record be kept.
There is a phrase in the Bill of what is required to be recorded; namely, a description "sufficient to identify" the articles. That is an innovation in this Bill. How do you come by a description sufficient to identify, say, a Penny Black or the exhaust of an old Austin 1100? They are asking the impossible. They are also asking the impossible at the other end of the scale when it comes to a house clearance. To comply with that particular wording, which is different from the wording in any other similar Act, you would have to record every single pin that you picked up in a House—or perhaps you would be allowed to say "a box of pins". But when you have paid £200 for the general contents of someone's house, it is ridiculous to have to spend two days on record keeping.
In other Bills the definition of "dealer" is quite clearly confined to people who would ordinarily consider themselves to be dealers. If we take the Yorkshire Act, which goes furthest, you would find yourself having to register with North Yorkshire if you go to deal at the Harrogate antiques fair. But if you just turn up in Yorkshire to buy a few things from an antique shop, you are fine. However, under this Bill, if you make one or two transactions—for example, a couple of items bought from an antique shop—or if you are a dealer somewhere else in the country, or, indeed, anywhere else in the world, you will be caught by the provisions and will have to register. The whole business occurs in several places in the legislation; indeed, there can be a variation of the terms of this Act by local order which can apply to people outside the county who will only come across this jurisdiction occasionally. It is something which is fraught with danger for the ordinary citizen. For the record, I should also point out here that there is a typographical error at line 21 on page five.
The great problem with this Bill is that it seeks to deal with a local problem in a way that has national and international effects. It would produce a chaotic and, indeed, comic effect if it were to come into practice. It would be like a combination of the Keystone Cops and "Passport to Pimlico". If an outsider coming into Kent is a dealer he must register; but how does he know that he must do so? If he is on holiday from France, how does he know who he must register with before he drops into an antique shop? He will not even know whether he must do so in Kent, in Medway or, indeed, in one of the other counties which may bring forward this sort of legislation in the future. But if he fails to register he is committing a criminal offence.
1061 Wherever a Kent dealer goes in the world and whenever he does a deal in second-hand goods, he has to read a form of wording to anyone with whom he is doing a deal to warn them of the consequences of failing to provide the correct name and address of whoever he is selling to or buying from. One can imagine a dealer trying this on in Australia and only guess at the reply he would get from the average Australian if he were to try to warn him that, if he did not give the correct name and address, the Kent police would be after him.
If this Bill is to be a blueprint for future Acts, any dealer in second-hand goods who is at all widespread in his activities in the UK will have to register with every local authority, and there might be 200 of them if we follow this practice. He will have to display 200 notices of registration with each local authority. He will have to keep up to date with 200 sets of local rules, which are changed locally and not subject to national advertising or any form of national notification; in other words, things that can be changed just by local regulation. That would change the way he has to behave when he deals in a particular county. He will also face 200 sets of criminal penalties if he gets it wrong, and may well have to keep different forms of record for each county with which he is registered because those things can be changed locally and are not laid down in the Bill. That would mean that every transaction would have to be recorded a number of times. This is oppressive to the honest and it is very hard to see how it will be effective as regards the dishonest: it is costly, tedious and unenforceable. It just will not do as legislation.
We have to live within the procedures of this House as we find them. Like my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, I find it deeply unsatisfactory that we have not had a proper opportunity to debate this Bill. But we in this Chamber are not in the business of letting through deeply unsatisfactory legislation. I know that we do it sometimes; indeed, I am sad to say that we have done it in the past at my government's request. I deeply regret the handguns and the dangerous dogs legislation, which have harmed innocent people and done very little to deal with the guilty. I do not think that it is an honour to this House to let go flawed legislation just because the procedures of the House have not allowed us to debate it properly. We have a responsibility—
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? This matter has been referred to on a number of occasions. I was prepared to give all the time that this issue required on a Friday. However, all of those interested in this subject said that they did not wish to discuss it on a Friday and that they preferred to discuss it during a dinner break.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I do not remember expressing any such reservation myself. 1 would have been quite happy to spend a long Friday on it but it is not obviously in my hands.
1062 I think that at the end of the day the honour and the position of this House depend on it taking care of the legislation that it lets go, of not being seen as a rubber-stamp, but rather as a critical and honest revising Chamber. On balance, when I look at the way this Bill has been drafted, I think that we owe it to ourselves to ask Kent County Council to think again.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord Rees
My Lords, my only pretext for intervening, I hope briefly, in this important debate is that I once had the privilege of representing part of east Kent in the other place and had a house in east Kent. I suppose that I bought, if I did not sell, some of the articles that are covered by this Bill.
I say in opening that I certainly applaud the objectives of the Bill. I do not seek to criticise the procedures that have been followed by the sponsors of both Bills in this case. It is difficult for us to say that Members of this House have been remiss in their duties. The petitions for the two Bills were deposited at the end of 1998. The Bills were introduced in this House and read a second time just under a year ago. No petition was deposited against the Medway Council Bill. However, a petition was deposited against the Kent County Council Bill but was withdrawn on 8th July 1999. The effect of that was of course that the Kent Bill became unopposed. A Home Office report was submitted on the two Bills and they were considered by the Unopposed Bill Committee. Amendments were made to both Bills at that stage.
Therefore in form at any rate, if not totally in substance, I believe that the proper procedures were followed. As I say, I believe that the objectives of the Bill are entirely laudable. I agree that the detail and the practicalities are questionable. Some of my noble friends, particularly my noble friend Lord Lucas, to whose speech I listened closely, drew particular attention to that. My noble friend Lord Astor set out attractively and accurately the criteria that ought to be applied to legislation of this kind. He drew attention to the matter of national consistency. I entirely sympathise with that point because if we do not have consistency in a field as important as this, those who want to operate in this field will experience difficulties and the kind of business likely to be covered by this Bill may be driven out of counties such as Kent into adjoining counties with possible unattractive economic consequences. I cannot see that they would be catastrophic but there may be unattractive economic consequences for people who wish to operate in Kent or in the Medway towns. That ought to be reflected upon.
The Minister owes it to the House to explain whether serious consideration has been given to legislation in this field that is national in scope. It is too late at night to go into all the delicacies that may arise from devolution. I cannot for the moment recollect whether this kind of matter would be covered by the Scottish or Welsh devolution Bills. However, as I am now resident in Wales I shall have to become more acquainted with that matter if this provision becomes law. At any rate I believe that there is rather a strong 1063 case for considering—I am sure that the Minister or his officials will have considered this—whether there is not a case for some national rather than council-based legislation in this field. Having had a brief spell in government I appreciate that there is always the pretext that there is not the time or the resources to consider a Bill of this kind in this particular Parliament. However, I hope that I may press the Minister to comment on that before this debate is concluded.
Various noble Lords have mentioned the regulatory burden. There is no estimate of the likely costs not only for the councils or the police forces who are involved in this matter but also of the likely transaction costs. Again, we owe it to ourselves and to the country to show that we have considered that aspect of the case. There is also the matter of the general regulatory burden. However, as other of my noble friends have touched on that matter, I do not think that I need comment further on it.
As regards the question of enforceability, I am in no position to say whether these measures are practically enforceable to any reasonable degree. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth—for whose views I have the warmest regard—said that the measure had been introduced in eight other council areas and they had found it useful. I hope that he will allow me to suggest that it is not so much a question of the utility to the council authorities, or even to the police authorities in those areas; we also have to consider the utility to those involved in the manner of business that we are discussing. There cannot be any presumption that they are somehow on the edges of the law and we can disregard the inconvenience of the practicalities as they affect them. I should like to hear a little more about this matter. During the procedures which have led this Bill to appear before this Chamber tonight, was that aspect of the matter considered at all carefully?
There is also the question of civil liberties. As this matter has been discussed at length and with authority, I shall not discuss it further, but we must take that matter into account. The House will be relieved to hear that I say in conclusion that I approve of the objectives of the Bill and I have no particular criticism—indeed, in some senses I approve—of the course taken by the sponsors of this Bill. There is no question of it being forced through in an underhand way, but evidently the points were not taken up in the appropriate quarters at the appropriate time. I therefore cannot go along with my noble friend Lord Astor. I do not think that after a rather limited debate it would be right for us to kill off these Bills at this stage. Were the matter to be taken to a Division, I would vote that the Bills should be passed tonight, but on the clear understanding on the part of the sponsors of the Bills that ample time will be found—I know that that does not rest entirely with them—for a proper debate and investigation of these two Bills in another place. Subject to that reservation I am prepared to let the Bills go through tonight.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)
My Lords, in what I hope will be a brief speech on one or two procedural matters, I must first of all apologise to your Lordships for being perhaps somewhat overdressed for an occasion of this kind. While no trouble is too great to take for the benefit of your Lordships, the reason I am dressed in this manner is that I am due to attend the dinner which is being given by Cross-Bench Peers to mark the retirement of the former Convenor, the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill.
I am sure that your Lordships have listened with considerable interest to the speeches which have been made both for and against the Third Reading of the two Bills. I am also sure that your Lordships will understand that it is not my responsibility to take part in any discussions on the merits of a Private Bill. However, as Motions have been tabled which, if carried, would have the practical effect of rejecting the Bills on Third Reading, your Lordships may find it helpful if I say something briefly to remind you, or perhaps to confirm in certain cases, some of the procedural implications of the amendments of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor.
As your Lordships have heard, neither the Kent County Council Bill nor the Medway Council Bill was referred to a Select Committee. This was because the only petition presented against the Kent County Council Bill was withdrawn, as has been indicated already, and the Medway Council Bill was never opposed in your Lordships' House at all. Neither Bill therefore received the detailed scrutiny of its merits which takes place in Select Committee if a Private Bill is opposed. I can assure your Lordships that both Bills received the detailed technical scrutiny that your Lordships would expect. Both Bills were amended, as has also been indicated, mainly on technical points, by the Unopposed Bill Committees.
Perhaps I should refer to one specific point which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, during the debate. I confirm that private legislation is not covered by the requirement that there should be a statement by the Minister that the Bill is compatible with the Human Rights Act. That is true for both Houses.
I should mention that it is unusual for Private Bills to be opposed at Third Reading. The last time a Private Bill was rejected at Third Reading in your Lordships' House was the Swanage Yacht Haven Bill in 1987. That Bill differed from the two present Bills in that it had been considered by a Select Committee, which had produced a special report on the Bill. If the House agrees to the Third Reading of the two Bills today—this has been mentioned by at least one noble Lord—they will of course pass to another place, where there will be a further opportunity for opponents of the Bills, or either of them, to petition against them and for the Bills to be considered by a Select Committee there.
Your Lordships may consider that such a course would be more appropriate than the outright rejection of the Bills by this House, where they have not been considered by a Select Committee. Without 1065 mentioning the merits of the Bills, I would suggest that, on the procedural point I am making, that may be the appropriate course for your Lordships' House to adopt.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, before the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees sits down, can he say whether the Bill—should we pass it here tonight—can be amended in another place, as opposed to being totally rejected following petitions against it? That would seem to be the deciding factor in how we shall vote if the amendment goes to a Division.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I can confirm that it would be possible for amendments to be made. The procedures in another place are similar to procedures here. If a Select Committee were to be appointed on either of the Bills, there would be opportunities to consider amendments there. Similarly, if the re were to be an Unopposed Bill Committee in an other place, just as happened in this House, it would be possible for amendments to be brought forward there.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
My Lords, I shall take one moment to reply to the amendment moved by the noble Viscount in the light of what has been said during this interesting debate. We are all grateful for the advice we received from the Minister, who spoke from his balanced position of neutrality. He conveyed some important information about the background to the Bill. Finally, we had some very clear advice from the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees.
I thought that the noble Viscount made two main points—both of them valid in their ways. One of his objections to the Bill was that there should be no "piecemeal law-making". With respect, it would put a stop to almost all local authority legislation if that concept were to be followed.
The debate has shown a number of detailed points of real concern. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, recited a great many of them. They cannot be dealt with in a debate of this kind, but they can be dealt with by accepting the advice of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees.I very much hope that the noble Viscount will feel able to follow that advice.
§ Viscount Astor
My Lords, we have had an interesting short debate. Perhaps I may deal with a few of the points that have been made.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said that the police had no problem dealing with scrap metal dealers. I am sure that he is aware that they are covered by the 1964 Act—which is a national Act, as is the Gaming Act.
It pains me greatly to disagree with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew. He has stated his distinguished views and he is concerned about the implications in Kent. So am I concerned about the implications in Kent. My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew pointed out that a number of other local authorities had introduced some kind of legislation. 1066 That is entirely true and entirely valid. But the difference is that that kind of legislation affects only the county to which it relates; it does not extend across the border. This legislation extends across the border and affects the whole country.
If the Minister had been prepared to stand up and say, "This is the blueprint that we should like local authorities to follow; this is the Government's view", that would be different. As it was a private Bill, the noble Lord said that he was neutral and sat on the fence. He got off it for a brief period and then jumped back on again. But he did not help the House. That is the difference.
My noble friend Lord Rees pointed out that there should be national consistency. I agree with him. I am not trying to deprive the citizens of Kent of any protection, but it is important that this House should consider legislation when it goes beyond affecting only a small area.
The noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, quite rightly said that the Bill has been subjected to technical scrutiny. That is entirely right. I am not looking at it from a point of technical scrutiny but from a point of principle. The point of principle is important for this House. I believe that this House has a role in legislation; I believe that we should not send Bills to another place unless we are entirely confident in those Bills. I know there is an opportunity to petition, but I do not know what will happen in another place.
There is a duty on this House, as a revising Chamber, not to send to another place anything that we believe is flawed. I believe this Bill is flawed because it affects the nation and, therefore, goes beyond the normal private Bill. I support the aims but I cannot support the Bill. Therefore, I feel that I must move my amendment.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 33; Not-Contents, 47.1067
|Division No. 1|
|Arran, E.||Lucas, L. [Teller]|
|Astor, V. [Teller]||Luke, L.|
|Attlee, E.||Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.|
|Blackwell, L.||Marlesford, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Nicol, B.|
|Bridgeman, V.||Norton of Louth, L.|
|Dixon-Smith, L.||Palmer, L.|
|Dundee, E.||Peel, E.|
|Flather, B.||Seccombe, B.|
|Fookes, B.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Fraser of Carmyllie, L.||Skidelsky, L.|
|Glenarthur, L.||Stewartby, L.|
|Hunt of Wirral, L.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Jenkin of Roding, L.||Strange, B.|
|Kimball, L.||Taylor of Blackburn, L.|
|Lindsay, E.||Warwick of Undercltffe, B.|
|Addington, L.||Mackie of Benshie, L.|
|Ahmed, L.||Mayhew of Twysden, L. [Teller]|
|Barker, B.||Milner of Leeds, L.|
|Barnett, L.||Molloy, L.|
|Blease, L.||Monson, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Newby, L.|
|Carlile of Berriew, L.||O'Neill of Bengarve, B.|
|Clement-Jones, L.||Phillips of Sudbury, L.|
|David, B.||Razzall, L.|
|Davies of Oldham, L.||Rea, L.|
|Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.||Rees, L.|
|Dormand of Easington, L.||Russell, E|
|Evans of Parkside, L.||Sawyer, L.|
|Falkland, V.||Sharman, L.|
|Geddes, L.||Sharp of Guildford, B.|
|Hamwee, B.||Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Hardy of Wath.L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.[Teller]|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.|
|Harris of Richmond, B.||Tope, L.|
|Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.||Tordoff, L.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Varley, L.|
|Laming, L.||Wallace of Saltaire, L.|
|Lyell, L.||Walpole, L.|
|Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.||Warner, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.