I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We are here to debate the Kent County Council Bill, but hon. Members will be fully aware that an identical Bill, the Medway Council Bill, relates to the Medway unitary authority. The purpose of the two Bills is to cover the administrative area of the county of Kent. Therefore, it will be for the convenience of the House if, in speaking to the Kent County Council Bill, I refer also to the Medway Council Bill.
Together, the Bills seek to reduce the levels of acquisitive crime such as burglary by making it harder to dispose of stolen goods and turn them into cash. The Bills have cross-party support on both councils and are a good example of inter-agency working and a co-operative approach to issues under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) responds to that, let me inform the hon. Lady and the House that although we are dealing principally with the Kent County Council Bill, it will be in order for hon. Members to refer, where appropriate, to both Bills.
The Kent County Council Bill follows a two-year period of consultation with business, commencing in 1998. The promoters have taken into account many of the comments that were received and have amended the Bill considerably to ensure that it properly recognises how the businesses that it covers work and to minimise its administrative impact on those businesses.
The Bill seeks to regulate the unregulated second-hand trade. Home Office research supported by police intelligence shows that a large proportion of stolen property passes through the unregulated second-hand market. During 1997 and 1998, more than £105 million worth of goods were stolen in Kent and the recovery rate was only 25 per cent.
The scope of the proposed legislation will jointly provide Kent county constabulary and local authority trading standards officers with a comprehensive intelligence picture enabling effective enforcement. Burglary and car crime are Home Office and Kent police priorities. The recording provisions in the Bill would lead to an increase in intelligence and allow stolen goods to be traced through the supply chain to identify dishonest businesses.
I have a particular interest as my constituency falls in the Kent policing area of Medway. In autumn 1999, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary launched an initiative called Radium, funded by the Home Office. A main thrust of the initiative is to investigate the disruption of markets for stolen goods.
Police and trading standards officers have encouraged local second-hand dealers to subscribe to a voluntary scheme requiring them to keep records to identify those selling goods to the dealer. As a result of this and other crime reduction strands of Operation Radium, the level of acquisitive crime in Medway has fallen by 19 per cent. Specifically, Operation Radium has supported the Home Office evidence and shown that a substantial proportion of stolen goods are disposed of locally through the second-hand trade. Although bona fide dealers have supported the voluntary scheme, there are a number of dealers selling goods of a type which are often stolen who will not participate or co-operate fully in that voluntary scheme.
There are particular types of businesses such as second-hand car parts shops that are particularly unwilling to operate the scheme. If a car is stolen and not recovered, what happens to it? How are the parts disposed of?
There is some confirmation of how some of these stolen goods are laundered. It comes directly from those involved in the thefts. When asked, "How do you dispose of your stolen property?", criminals responded to Kent police in this vein:
Cheques and credit cards to a female…antiques to a handler in Herne Bay and jewellery to a second hand shop in Margate.
Another contributor sent goods
to friends and known handlers in the Deal area and second hand shops in Dover…
The final contribution to the research stated:
Burglaries are committed between nine in the morning and two in the afternoon and property is sold to second hand shops later the same afternoon.
It is against that background that the Bill seeks to assist in tackling the problems. It addresses two main aspects—dealings in second-hand goods and occasional sales, and the relatively new activity of squat trading.
I turn now to some of the specific provisions of the Bill to ensure clarity of understanding. The need to register will apply only to persons dealing in second-hand goods in the course of a business. It will not apply to private individuals. Case law from other statutes indicates that there is scope for amateur collectors to dabble in the acquisition and disposal of goods without necessarily being treated as a trader.
Dealers will be required to register themselves and their business premises. To reduce the burden on businesses, registration is free and lasts for three years, and a single registration will cover both councils. There are exemptions because we recognise the issues involved. They include registered charities, for example. There are also exemptions for businesses already covered by similar provisions such as scrap-metal dealers and pawnbrokers. There are also exemptions for those dealing in goods in respect of which police statistics show that there is no particular problem, such as second-hand books.
Has the hon. Gentleman taken sufficient account of the legitimate architectural salvage trade, which can achieve considerable savings in energy by the re-use of materials? Is he willing to consider that matter in Committee?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Bill contains a provision to exempt those involved in recycling processes. The promoters and those who oppose the Bill will have an opportunity to discuss such details in the Select Committee.
Registered dealers will have to keep records detailing the name and address of the person from whom articles were acquired, the date of the transaction, a description sufficient to identify the articles and, in the case of motor vehicles, a record of the odometer reading. The promoters have taken note of comments from opponents of the Bill, and plan to introduce an amendment that will exclude items if the dealer has reasonable grounds to believe that they will be sold for less than £10. The legislation allows for that figure to be increased with the approval of the Secretary of State at the request of the council.
The provision will exclude a substantial number of low-value items from the record-keeping requirements, and will be helpful to businesses such as those that carry out house clearances as they effectively will not need to record the details of any goods that they expect to be sold for £10 or less.
If an article is sold for a price exceeding £100, the name and address of the purchaser must also be recorded. Consultation has shown that there are concerns about the purchaser of valuable items disclosing his personal details to an unknown dealer. An amendment has been incorporated to allow other details to be accepted—for example, payment by credit card or cheque, with the details being recorded, and for cash transactions, other forms of personal identification such as a driving licence or passport number.
As Operation Radium has shown, a substantial number of stolen goods pass through dealers' premises. However, there are other means of distributing stolen goods, including occasional sales and boot fairs. As a result, the legislation seeks to provide intelligence to the enforcement agencies to identify dealers and to obtain advance notice of such sales.
Both the owner and occupier of the premises on which the sale is to take place and the person operating the sale must give 21 days' written notification to the council. Operators of occasional sales will be required to keep a register of all sellers and their vehicle registration numbers. That will allow the police or trading standards officers to check on individuals attending sales, to see whether there is a pattern that suggests a trade status. The requirement to record a registration number is intended to reduce the likelihood of false information being given.
As I commented to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on Second Reading, we are considering the underlying principles of the Bill. The detail is a matter for the Select Committee.
There have been four petitions against the Kent County Council Bill, with duplicate petitions against the Medway Council Bill, with the exception of the petition from the Ashford cattle market, which relates solely to the Kent County Council Bill.
I shall deal briefly with the substantial issues raised by the petitioners.
There are substantial precedents in existing private legislation—about eight Acts. The provisions of the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991 are the closest to those of the Bill.
One of the main contentions of those who oppose the Bill is that such legislation should be on a national scale and should not be specific to one area. Although the promoters may agree with the petitioners about that, the simple fact is that the problem exists now in Kent for the 8,200-odd households that were burgled last year.
As I said, it is not as though precedents do not exist. Eight local authorities have similar powers. On Third Reading of the Bills in another place, Lord Mayhew commented on the claim that piecemeal legislation was wrong. He said:
If so, that "wrongness" seems to have eluded Parliament over the past 10 years in a large number of instances.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 January 2000; Vol. 608, c. 1057.]
I have already referred to Operation Radium in Medway. I hope that Home Office evaluation of that scheme will act as a springboard to achieve national legislation. Unfortunately, there appears to be no immediate prospect of that.
There is a further contention from the petitioners that the Bill will restrict competition. The promoters have taken a number of steps as a result of the consultation to ensure that the burden on businesses is reduced. That is why there have been so many amendments to the original Bill.
In addition, amendments have been moved to modify the impact on dealers who are based outside Kent and Medway if they occasionally sell items in Kent, and to remove them entirely from the scope of the legislation if they only occasionally buy items in the area.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The evidence suggests that such legislation would not have that effect. I can tell you that as a result of the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991, there are 8,100 registrations on the books this year, and I can tell you that 51 per cent. of those are organisations outside the North Yorkshire county council area, so there is an almost equal split. The legislation has not created any difference between operators in the area or outside.
It has been argued that the bureaucracy required by the Bill will impose too great a burden on business. However, the proposed legislation would require dealers only to keep good records, which is best business practice. Indeed, in the antiques trade there are codes of practice supported by LAPADA, now the Association of Art and Antique Dealers, which represents about 700 dealers nationally, and COPAT, the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft.
Those codes of practice are aimed at reducing the possibility of a trader selling stolen goods. Both codes suggest the need for accurate records showing where a dealer purchased goods and to whom they were sold.
I take note of your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. LAPADA has been involved in discussions and has referred information to the promoters of the Bill. It has not directly given support to the Bill.
LAPADA's code of practice, like that of other trade associations, rightly suggests that for their own protection its members should follow good business practice and keep records. The understandable recommendation is that records should be kept of the names and addresses of people from whom they buy and to whom they sell. The codes of practice contain suggestions that go far beyond the requirements of this Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is doing a good job of explaining the Bill, but will he say how it will apply to people who are enthusiasts rather than strictly commercial sellers? My constituent Mrs. Pope of Pitney has written to me, on behalf of the Vintage Motorcycle Club, about the two large autojumbles that the club holds at the Bath and West showground each year. She is worried that if the Bill were applied nationally, it would be impossible to get casual sellers of motorcycle parts to attend because of the bureaucracy and restrictions involved. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that, and give my constituent reassurances?
That is an important point. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that sales held for charitable reasons, for example, will be exempt from the terms of the Bill. As for people who dabble occasionally in such sales, the key question is whether they do so in the course of the conduct of a business. As I said earlier, substantial precedents exist in other legislation and its interpretation to suggest that people who dabble in such matters would not be affected by the Bill. The possibility of the Bill applying nationally is not a matter that is in my hands.
I was speaking earlier about the records already kept by businesses, and mentioned the codes of practice of the trade associations. I should also mention that many operators in this sector operate a scheme for value added tax purposes that is called the margin scheme. It requires dealers to produce and maintain numbered purchase invoices that must include the name and address of the seller, the dealer's name and address, the stock book number, the date of transaction, a description of the goods that must include any unique identification number, and the total price. That information must be recorded for the VAT margin scheme that is often in operation among dealers in second-hand goods.
It has been said that the legislation will be unenforceable. Enforcement resources must always be used wisely. Police and trading standards officers are used to working in an environment where intelligence is used to focus resources for maximum effect. For both agencies, the Bill will act as a tool to achieve business targets effectively. Indeed, Operation Radium has demonstrated that similar voluntary provisions are operated with current resources in Medway.
Finally, I turn to the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 to this Bill, which has been the subject of some discussion with the promoters of the Bill. The purpose of the Act is to give further effect in the United Kingdom to rights guaranteed under the European convention on human rights. Many of the provisions do not come into force until October, but section 19 of the Act requires that a Minister of the Crown in charge of a Bill must, before Second Reading, make a statement in writing that in his view the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the convention rights. If the Minister is unable to make that statement of compatibility, he or she must supply a written statement to the effect that the Government wish the House to proceed with the Bill regardless.
The provisions of section 19 do not apply to private Bills or to private Members' Bills. As a result, it is impossible for the promoters of private Bills to comply with the procedure laid down in section 19. An amendment was suggested to provide that the Bill would have no effect until the Secretary of State had stated that in his view the Bill complied with the rights given under the convention. However, the amendment could not be accepted, as the promoters of the Kent County Council Bill and Medway Council Bills have no idea about whether—or even when—the Secretary of State would be prepared to consider making such a statement.
The promoters undertook to obtain a legal opinion on the compatibility of the provisions of the Bill with the convention. They have obtained that opinion, in which counsel stated that
on the assumption that the amendments now proposed are incorporated in the Bill, I am of the opinion that if this was a public Bill and section 19 of the Human Rights Act applied, the Secretary of State would be in a position to provide a statement of compatibility.
To add just a little detail to that statement, I can tell the House that the amendments referred to are to be made to clause 14, which deals with the powers of entry. They would ensure that a warrant would be required in every case where powers of entry were exercised, in relation to private dwellings.
I am slightly confused by the application of clause 14. As I understand it, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allows police to enter private or business premises if they can present to a magistrate sufficient reason and cause for such entry. They would be able to satisfy those conditions in relation to serious criminal cases. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the provision should be made wider in Kent?
I had hoped that I had made it clear that the Bill would enable police and local trading standards officers to enter private properties. That would not be possible if officers could not prove to magistrates that a warrant was required.
The hon. Gentleman may have misheard or misunderstood the question that I asked, which had to do with the architectural salvage trade. People trade in bricks, staircases, tropical hard woods and all sorts of items that can be re-used. The re-use of such materials provides a considerable saving in terms of energy and scarce resources. That trade is not exempt from the provisions of the Bill, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the Bill's promoters will bear in mind that they need to ensure that the trade can continue to operate in the beneficial way that it does at present.
I am grateful for that clarification, and recognise the importance of the business to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I am aware that a similar problem arises with Kent pig tiles, for example. The issue is under active consideration, and further amendments to the Bill may be needed.
The promoters of the Bill have sought to reach agreement on practical issues and to amend the Bill in a way that will assist all concerned. However, the Bill's essential purpose will not be compromised. The process has demonstrated the partnership that exists in Kent between local authorities, police forces and other agencies. That partnership wants to make communities safer for residents, traders and consumers.
I ask the House to support the Bill. It will help to stem the tide of burglaries and offer support to legitimate traders and businesses in the county of Kent. Above all, it will help to close down outlets for stolen goods.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark). I congratulate him on his initiative in sponsoring the two Bills—the Bill before us and the Medway Council Bill—on behalf of the two local authorities. There is cross-party consensus in those authorities in favour of the measures. It is encouraging that the Bills at least begin their consideration on the basis of such consensus, although some of the noises off suggest that it may prove short lived.
When I became Home Secretary in 1993, I was given a briefing by Home Office civil servants. They showed me a graph, which clearly displayed the trend in crime. It vividly demonstrated that crime had increased inexorably, relentlessly and almost without interruption under Administrations of all political complexions for 50 years. They said, "This is what's happened to crime in the past 50 years and what will continue to happen in the next 50 years. The first thing you must recognise, Home Secretary, is that there is nothing you can do about it. Your job is to manage public expectations in the face of the inevitability of rising crime."
I did not take that advice. In the four years during which I held the office of Home Secretary, crime fell by approximately 18 per cent. [Laughter.] I am glad that Opposition Members believe that that is a laughing matter. Nearly 1 million fewer crimes occurred in 1997 than in 1993. It is the overriding duty of Government to do all they can to reduce crime, and increase people's safety in their homes and on their streets.
The Bills deal primarily with people's safety and that of their property in their homes. My home is in my constituency in Kent, therefore I, too, declare an interest. The main purpose of the Bill is to reduce burglary by making it more difficult for burglars to get rid of the property that they steal.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime—to coin a phrase—the Bills go some way towards attacking the causes of crime?
How would the Bills reduce the causes of crime? I did not hear a clear explanation of that. I appreciate that they might make it more difficult for people to place goods in the hands of those who sell them, but I do not understand why they would reduce the causes of crime. They might displace crime. One of the criticisms of the measure is that it is a local Bill, confined to Kent. It might therefore—
I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Newark (Mrs. Jones) was invited to the briefing that the chief constable of Kent gave this afternoon. The hon. Member for Gillingham nods. If she had accepted that invitation, she would have heard a clear explanation of the way in which the Bills would affect the causes of crime. He explained that professional, prolific burglars operate on a rational basis. They take account of the ease with which they can profitably dispose of the property they steal.
The hon. Lady must wait for the answer to her first question before she asks another. If burglars find it more difficult to dispose of stolen property because of measures such as the Bills that we are considering tonight, they will think twice about committing burglary, because there is so much less in it for them.
The hon. Lady made a point about burglars' ability to dispose of property in the same way in places other than the county of Kent and Medway. There is not a great deal of evidence from other parts of the country that that happens, but if it did, other areas have the remedy in their hands. Councillors in those areas could introduce similar measures. Doubtless they would have a similar effect.
There are only two relevant questions for hon. Members to consider when determining their attitude to the Bill. First, will it work? Secondly, are the burdens that it will impose on legitimate as well as illegitimate businesses justified? I have considered the evidence, and I believe that the answer to both questions is in the affirmative.
Evidence shows that such a measure has worked in North Yorkshire, which has enforced the legislation that is most similar to the Bills. There has been some dispute about the figures, but I am satisfied. I have seen correspondence with those who have the responsibility for implementing the legislation in North Yorkshire. During the period when it has been fully enforced and effectively used, there has been a considerable reduction in the burglary figures for the county.
As the hon. Member for Gillingham said, if one considers the evidence from Medway, where similar arrangements have been in force on a voluntary basis, one sees that there has been a fall in burglary there greater than that for the county of Kent as a whole. In addition, great weight should be given to the views of the chief constable of Kent, for whose leadership I have the greatest respect. He believes that the measures will be effective and make a difference.
I, too, attended the presentation by the chief constable of Kent. I was struck by the words of Mr. Alex Dalziel, the chief executive of Cash Converters. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with Mr. Dalziel that the Bill will be good for business? The survey that Cash Converters conducted showed that people were reluctant to go to its stores because they believed that many of the goods were stolen. The Bill will therefore be good for business.
The hon. Gentleman makes a telling point, and I agree with him.
Are the burdens justified? Clearly, there is scope for argument about many of the details in the Bill. The cut-off point may need to be amended, and there may well be circumstances in which those burdens should be eased. However, if we are to make a determined assault on crime, and do all we can to achieve what should be the primary objective of the policy—safety for citizens in their homes—the burdens that both Bills impose are justified.
Many of the opponents of the two Bills, including the hon. Member for Newark, have argued that such measures should not be introduced piecemeal and that we should have national legislation. That is a seductive argument. However, there is great merit in local experimentation. We should take advantage of the fact that the House can give local government powers to ascertain whether schemes work.
Many of the most imaginative innovations in criminal justice and social policy in the United States have resulted from local initiatives by individual states. We do not have a federal system and I would not want such a system to be introduced. However, where there is scope within our present constitutional arrangements for local innovation and experimentation to be introduced, it is something to be welcomed and used to our advantage and it is something that the Bill would provide. For all those reasons, I commend it to the House.
When I first got wind of this Bill I was sympathetic, but on reflection I have changed my mind—hon. Members may call it a U-turn if they like. After studying the philosophical aspects of the Bill, I have come to the conclusion that it is wrong in principle. It is not that I am in favour of supporting burglary; of course we want crime to decrease and sensible efforts to reduce it must be welcomed. Burglary is theft, usually, from houses or dwellings. The Bill deals with the passing of stolen goods.
This Bill and the Medway Council Bill would deal with the problem of stolen property in the county of Kent. They are not a new initiative, as other hon. Members have said, but are based mainly on the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991. I suspect that there is not an hon. Member in the House who has not been burgled in one way or another. I have had seven burglaries and am still counting—it gets very emotional. However, I want to detach myself from those experiences to consider how the Bill would help to reduce crime in Kent, whether the ends justify the means and whether it would have any real impact on the passing of stolen goods in the local area.
As well as considering how the legislation would work in practice, I wish to end on a positive note. Like every responsible citizen, I want a reduction in crime—I am still open to argument.
A balance of reasonableness must be struck between setting rules for the responsible conduct of a business and binding it so tightly in legislative bureaucracy that it is no longer able to conduct its perfectly legitimate business.
I entirely accept my hon. Friend's wish that crime be reduced, and I know that he would only oppose the Bill if he saw a key matter of principle in it. How does he square his view with the fact that the Bill would be no more onerous for the businesses affected than the industry's voluntary code of practice? How can he argue as a matter of principle, therefore, that it would impose burdens on them?
I wish that it were more than a voluntary code—that is the point. The voluntary code is not often practised. I will deal with the burden of that, if my hon. Friend will allow me to pursue my argument.
The two Bills have escaped any requirement for assessment, by being private Bills. Although, as hon. Members have said, they have been out to tender, as it were, and what people in Kent believe has been taken into account, I could show the House five or 10 letters from people who have not been consulted—especially people in the antiques trade, on which the measure would have an especially negative impact.
We do not know the financial or the proportional costs, and we cannot yet say what the significant benefit would be. Indeed, the two Bills might meet the description in the Government's better regulation taskforce report of two weeks ago, as being regulations heaped upon regulations, with no thought of how they might be implemented and practised by small businesses, especially those in the antiques trade.
It is fair to say that there was no consultation in the drafting of the two Bills and there has been little meaningful dialogue with the antiques trade since. The sheer quantity of paperwork that the Bills would demand of traders is extraordinary. An accurate description of the purchase of any items costing more than £10 would now have to include such things as—I take my examples from this week's edition of the magazine Loot—a used mattress, a pair of shoes, two office chairs and an eight-month-old neutered Himalayan rabbit called Barney.
Hon. Members should consider the example of the sale of the contents of a deceased person's house, which might well contain 400, 500 or 600 items to be catalogued for sale. We all know how much we gather in our lives. Much of the material does not have much value, but most individual items are worth more than £10. In the case of even one house, those detailed descriptions would run into hundreds of records. Let us think of the many records that would have to be collated in Kent; add them all up, add in purchases from individuals, check the fairs and go outside the county to check with dealers registered outside who deal inside the county. Hon. Members will appreciate that a mountain of paper would accumulate.
It will take the police an enormous amount of time to compile and store such records if they need access to them. The resources that will be required to catalogue, collate and inspect such a mass of information are much greater than we are being led to believe. When I talked to the police in Kent, I suggested that one solution would be to use software to enable everyone to do this, but that suggestion fell on stony ground.
Perhaps I should.
Some records at some time will always be useful to the authorities. However I cannot believe that anyone could defend placing such a bureaucratic burden on small businesses. The importance of precisely and accurately targeting only essential information is well illustrated by the newspaper advertisement that read:
Farmer aged 38 wishes to meet unmarried woman in early thirties who owns a tractor: please send photo of tractor.
I understand my hon. Friend's concerns about bureaucracy. We all have concerns about heaping yet more bureaucracy on people—but how on earth are we to know whether the goods in a second-hand or antique shop are stolen? Clearly, if they are stolen, they have been taken from someone's house and there has been a break-in. Surely, therefore, the bureaucracy is a relatively small price to pay for what could be an enormous reduction in the number of burglaries and in the heartache and anguish caused to families when someone breaks into their house for gain.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is the principle that I am trying to suggest. If it is of such fundamental importance, why is it being introduced piecemeal? If seven—perhaps eight—counties have such legislation and it is so important for reducing crime, it ought to be introduced by the Government and not in a back-door way in a private Bill.
If my hon. Friend does not mind I will just get going.
I mentioned small businesses because that is largely how the antiques trade works, and it may be difficult for hon. Members to understand that. Most stolen goods are of low value, for quick sale, and are drug and juvenile crime related. The Bill does not deal with that problem because such goods are not offered for sale to responsible second-hand traders. The dishonest traders will not register themselves with Kent county council, nor will they give their names and addresses when they sell, or keep descriptions and records.
The whole reason for the Bill is to close down the market for those stolen goods. Does my hon. Friend not accept the evidence on a market reduction approach that is stacked up in the Home Office, and is available from the Kent police authority? His constituency is covered by that authority. Does he not accept that evidence that much stolen property ends up in the second-hand market? We are told that by the criminals themselves. Does he not agree with their evidence?
I think that that was a speech rather than an intervention, but I will try to answer the questions. Boot sales are one of the central issues. The Bill is a catch-all to try to get to the bottom of what is going on in boot sales throughout the country, but in this instance in Kent. A simpler way to deal with the problem would be for the car boot sale organiser to register the car and the number plate as each car goes in. The Bill does not go about dealing with the problem in the right way.
Furthermore, as Kent has no bordering county to the east or north, the Bill will push this trade to Essex or Sussex—or, more probably, to south London. We all know that anything of real value that is stolen is immediately removed as far from the scene of the crime as possible. No burglar is likely to sell valuable stolen property on his doorstep. The Bill is likely to encourage the export of stolen goods, as others have said. That, for me, is the issue. If the legislation is so important, let us introduce it nationally.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's patience. Surely the point is that if the Bill is as successful as many hon. Members think it will be, the likelihood is that after an experimental period—to which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) referred—the Government of the day will almost certainly adopt it and introduce it nationally. I will make my hon. Friend an offer. In a year or two, when the legislation is a success, I will join him in encouraging the Home Secretary to introduce it on a national basis.
Again, I think that was probably a speech.
The measure relating to Yorkshire was passed in 1991. I take issue with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), as my figures for Yorkshire are slightly different from his, and I may discuss that in a minute. However, if the Yorkshire measure was so profound in 1991, why is there no follow-up Act in 2000? That is not the way to go. If I am correct and the Bill is based on improving the Yorkshire legislation, it is up to the Minister to introduce it as a major Bill.
May I just—[Interruption.] It is interesting that a former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), is speaking in our debate. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides for the police to enter private premises. It appears to me that if one strips away—
I confess that I do not have profound knowledge of the 1984 Act, so I take my hon. Friend's word that that is the case.
The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, of which I am a member, is examining the rather larger issue of stolen artefacts. If one buys a second-hand car, one gets a logbook; if one buys a house, one gets information. Therefore, when one buys an antique, why cannot it be logged? That is so fundamental as to be a national issue.
Hon. Members have referred to the Yorkshire experience and the legislation passed in 1991. I am happy to argue about figures, but mine show that there were 4,971 burglaries, and 4,806 last year. That is a reduction of only—
The hon. Gentleman may not have had the opportunity to consider that matter in more detail. However, the officer in the North Yorkshire force responsible for the implementation of the legislation has written a letter in which he states:
It was only later in 1995/96 and championed by the Crime Managers in the Force that the Police in North Yorkshire revealed the potential of the Act… This was the case in 1995/96 which saw a proactive approach to policing this Legislation.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of that? The officer goes on to provide figures. In 1995, there were 7,190 burglaries from dwellings in North Yorkshire. In 1998, there were 4,801 burglaries in North Yorkshire.
I accept the source of those figures. However, I got mine from a library. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, figures are used with great discretion in this place. I accept his, although they weaken my case. However, I am not pursuing the burglary element of my argument, but am trying to finesse the part on antiques.
In conclusion, these two private Bills on local matters are well meaning, but are philosophically flawed in principle and, for antique traders, oppressive in practice. I quote my constituent Georgina McKinnon of Newington Antiques who said:
The antiques trade in Kent is valuable and this will certainly do us damage. The Bills are wrong in the way they have been devised with no chance of succeeding. They will only serve to alienate the honest dealer from the authorities who try to carry out this ridiculous and unworkable legislation and it is not possible to make wrong right.
I do not propose to detain the House for long. I shall not oppose the Bill as I believe that it should proceed to Select Committee and be thoroughly examined there. However, several significant questions remain to be properly answered. I hope that the Select Committee will get to grips with that job.
The reasons and thinking behind the Bill are perfectly apparent. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed to the effects of burglary on individuals, and to the fact that most of us have probably had a property burgled. They highlighted the sense of intrusion and loss, especially in relation to items of intrinsic value, but not great commercial worth, which is traumatic for many people. Anything reasonable that can be done to curtail what is often drug-driven burglary and theft must be a good thing.
Kent police have taken significant steps on that and shown great courtesy in trying to explain the thinking behind the measure to those—including, I confess freely, me—who have expressed concerns about the Bill. Faced with representations from antique dealers in my constituency, it seemed to me, initially, that the Bill was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and was over-bureaucratic. I still have some misgivings, despite the explanations that the police have given me.
The Bill's promoters would have done themselves a favour if they had consulted more with antique dealers in the county. In my constituency, several reputable people—I know that they are reputable because I know their businesses—feel that they have not been consulted and that their views have not been considered. They are genuinely concerned about giving names and addresses and are anxious about the kind of record that they will be required to keep.
Such concerns may well be allayed. However, they are genuine and must be properly addressed. To date, those people do not feel that they have been treated with the courtesy which I, at least, feel they deserve.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary, described as beguiling the argument that the scheme should be nationwide. As is his wont, he then proceeded to deploy an even more beguiling argument, attempting to persuade the House that there was some purpose and magic in experimenting locally and allowing matters to develop. He said that, if the scheme was good for Kent, in time, others might follow. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) said, correctly, that the Yorkshire measure which has been prayed in aid came into force in 1991. Frankly, if it was that good and the previous Government—of whom my right hon. and learned Friend was a member—were going to get on with it, or if the present Home Secretary was going to get on with it, why is there not a national scheme?
Lord Bassam of Brighton, who is Under-Secretary at the Home Office, gave the Bill virtually unqualified support when he spoke on Third Reading in the House of Lords. Why, then, is the Bill not a Government Bill and why is there not a national scheme? It is apparent to everyone, in the House and outside, that burglars have learned how to ride bicycles and travel. The mere fact that something is stolen in Margate does not mean that it cannot swiftly be sold in Sussex, for instance. Indeed, it will be.
That brings me to the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991, which, as I said, several colleagues have prayed in aid. With the courteous assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and the North Yorkshire constabulary, I have probed the matter a little further. A few moments ago, my right hon. and learned Friend produced some impressive figures, as if producing a rabbit from a hat. I do not know which member of the constabulary he spoke to, but I have spoken to a detective constable to whom I was introduced by the chief constable, so he does not have an axe to grind, other than in favour of the constabulary—if I can put it like that. The officer was very candid, and said that the 1991 Act is difficult to enforce on car boot sales.
We are told that the Bill will get to grips with car boot sales. However, an officer responsible for enforcement told me that it is pretty darned impossible to enforce. We are told that all the good antique shops are already doing what the Bill proposes. I shall deal with the plus side of that in a moment. We are after rogues, who find it extremely easy to trade after hours and to circumvent the Act. They do not keep records. The back door opens and the loot goes in. Later, the loot comes out through the same back door. The Act does not deal with that activity. That is a weakness in the much vaunted North Yorkshire Act. I am not saying that that weakness cannot be corrected in other legislation. Indeed, perhaps that Act can be improved upon. However, given that the Bill is virtually a carbon copy of the Act, it seems that none of the lessons has been learned.
I am told by my informant that inadequate resources and only limited time are available to the hard-pressed members of the North Yorkshire constabulary to implement the Act. There are one or two other issues with which they are dealing. Given the manner in which the Government have treated Kent county council's finances, I do not see adequate resources being provided to enable the Bill to be implemented if it is enacted. Sadly, there are no signs from the Government that they are interested in properly financing Kent for this or any other purpose.
Antique dealers in my constituency have expressed real concerns to me about the manner in which names and addresses will be taken. However, the North Yorkshire constabulary has told me that, while it is true that they will be taken both on purchase and on sale, depending on the value of the goods, no identification will be necessary. Indeed, there is none. We do not have a national ID card. No one will have to present a passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate or council tax records to prove who he is. Michael Mouse will be able to trade cheerfully throughout Kent under the Bill. No one will be able to gainsay whether it is Michael or Minnie Mouse. That is not very satisfactory. Indeed, it is another weakness in the proposed legislation. It can probably be dealt with, but with no identification I fail to see how a name and address and a record will be of much real value.
I have mentioned that burglars cross county boundaries. The person who was extremely candid with me—that was the brief, and I am extremely grateful for the information, as, I hope, is the House—tells me that it is possible to drive from York to Leeds, even with traffic congestion, in 20 minutes. The crooks who are committing burglary in York jump in their motors, hop off to Leeds and flog their goods there. That is because the North Yorkshire Act has no remit in Leeds. Is that sensible? I cannot believe that it is.
Sadly, no longer does any constabulary throughout the country—not even the Metropolitan police—have a dedicated antiques unit. I stand to be corrected. The police do not have people who really know and understand what they are looking for. However, the burglars know. They identify the stuff and they burgle to order. They know exactly what they are going for. They leave the cheap stuff and the tat, but take the hallmarked goods and the pretty little things that will sell. The constabulary cannot provide identification because resources are not available to establish a dedicated antiques unit. However, such units will be needed if the legislation that is proposed, whether national or local, is to be properly enforced.
I note that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe shakes his head. I shall be delighted to give way to him if he disagrees with my argument.
I know that my hon. Friend's argument has been advanced by those who are opposed to the Bill. It is true that there is no longer a dedicated antiques unit. However, in the view of professionals in these matters—I am not one of them—there are officers based at headquarters who are in possession of the intelligence that they need to get to grips with the problem. They are capable of operating more effectively under the Kent police model, with which I am sure my hon. Friend is familiar, as we all are. As a result, they are able to operate more effectively in dealing with the crime that we are discussing than those officers who implemented the old-fashioned approach, which had a certain resonance about it. An antiques squad sounds very good, but it does not necessarily work as effectively as the current methods, which are being operated successfully by the Kent police.
I am surprised that my right hon. and learned Friend is quarrelling with me. I believe that there is a strong case for resourcing police forces properly so that they can have dedicated units that know what they are doing and what they are looking for.
There is a credit side to what I have heard from north Yorkshire. It would be improper of me to draw attention to the down side without putting the credit side on the record, and I think that the credit side is compelling. As I have said, I am not opposing the Bill. The North Yorkshire constabulary has established good links with reputable antiques shops through its officers. That has led to a two-way traffic of information and co-operation between those dealing honestly and those going about their proper policing business, seeking to prevent crime and recover stolen goods. Officers are able to provide lists of identifiable goods—we come back to whether people know what they are talking about—to antique shops so that the dealers know almost in advance, if possible, what they are likely to be looking for. They will know what has been stolen or what is hot, and what can be recovered and returned to its rightful owner. We hope that that process will lead to the prosecution of the thief. Those are two significant pluses.
In the main, antique shops in north Yorkshire have installed video cameras. I understand that dealers have become quite adept at keeping people who they suspect of trying to pass on stolen goods talking while they angle them so that there is a good shot on camera. That sounds as if it is helpful to the police, and it probably helps to solve crime. That is a plus.
I am told that there are emerging patterns. The police are now adept at tracing those who tend to specialise in second-hand and compact discs, for example. They know the outlets that are likely to handle them, and they are having considerable success. I do not quarrel with the figures of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, and if there has been such a dramatic reduction, it is probably in this area. As I have said, there are many pluses.
I do not want to see the baby thrown out with the bath water, or the best becoming the enemy of the good. However, if the case is proven at all, I believe strongly that it is proven nationally as well as merely locally. We should be getting to grips with the problem of crooks crossing a county boundary and passing on their goods somewhere else.
We should have a nationwide scheme embodied in a Government Bill, not a private Bill. If we are to treat the issue seriously, resources for enforcement must be made available. As the people of north Yorkshire have found, there is no point in having legislation on the statute book if it is not properly resourced.
My parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), has made some fair and constructive points. He appeared to be arguing for due diligence in Committee to try to improve the Bill. However, if something is not ideal and does not create a perfect world, that is not necessarily a reason for not proceeding. If it represents a step forward, let us take that step. I believe that the Bill offers us that. If it reduces the number of people who are burgled, even by only a few in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and in mine, I suspect that we shall have many happy constituents.
Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, I have been burgled in recent years. Fortunately, I have been able to replace virtually everything that was stolen. The exception is the greatest hits of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. If any hon. Member can help me identify the source of that estimable CD, I shall be delighted to hear from him. I suspect that I was the only person to buy it in the first place, and that the only person who has a copy of it now is the person who stole it.
Consultation took place before the Bill was drafted. Trade bodies that councils and trading standards officers believed would be interested were consulted, as were local chambers of commerce, town centre managers, district councils and some Kent Members. I was not consulted before the Bill was drafted, but others were. The police, obviously, were heavily involved in drafting the Bill, and several press articles stimulated debate in the county. That consultation has continued with the Association of Private Market Operators, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, the Registered Antiques Dealers Society and LAPADA—the Association of Art and Antiques Dealers, formerly the London and Provincial Art Dealers Association. I do not say that all those organisations support the Bill, but all have been consulted. It is not fair to say that there has not been wide consultation.
Some Members have expressed concern about bureaucratic burdens. I draw their attention to the book "Buying and Selling Art and Antiques—the Law", by Brian W. Harvey, a legal consultant to LAPADA. That book sets out the voluntary code of practice that the industry is supposed to adhere to. It requires vendors to provide their name and address and to sign a form identifying items for sale, and confirming that they are the unencumbered property of the vendors who are authorised to sell it.
The form must be dated, and there must be some verification of the identity and address of new vendors. Details must be recorded, and traders are asked to be suspicious of any item for which the asking price does not equate with market value. If they have any reason to be suspicious, they are expected to take a series of steps. If requested, they are expected to submit catalogues to the local police. For sales of £500 or more—single items, or accumulated amounts—special steps are expected to be taken. Vendors are expected to check registers for stolen property.
The industry has voluntarily signed up to that list of burdens, which in my view is no less burdensome than the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) said that many vendors do not adhere to the voluntary code, and he wished that they would. When the Bill is enacted, the code will be adhered to in Kent, and we shall have done the industry a favour by taking a step forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the example of a voluntary code of practice that is not being adhered to is a precise reason why we need a statutory code? If dealers do not adhere to a code that seems stricter than that proposed in the Bill, action is needed. Even if we do not reduce crime by a factor of Avogadro's number, the Bill will have a significant effect on crime reduction in Kent and, we hope, across the country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even if crime is only marginally reduced, we shall do a service for our constituents. If only one other owner of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers can be saved from the tragedy of losing his copy, we shall have taken a step forward.
I hope that the Bill will eventually become Government legislation. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to watch the experiment in Kent and Medway with great care, and, in a year or so, if it is the success that we believe it will be, to introduce a Bill covering the whole country. I should like him to say that he will do so, and if he does not, when the Bill is enacted and shown to be a success, I shall badger him to adopt it for the whole country.
Like many others, I have mixed feelings about the Bill. Its ultimate aim of crime reduction is admirable and a cause that we all support, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to scrutinise it. The Bill raises some difficult questions.
When the Bill was introduced in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth expressed concern that it was being discussed in the dinner hour, which did not imply that there would be a great deal of scrutiny or discussion. The other place welcomes the fact that we shall give it more discussion than it received there.
I should like to make some points about red tape, a much-discussed matter.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I was not misinformed. It was clearly stated in debate in the other place that it was regrettable that the Bill was taken during the so-called dinner hour so that there was not sufficient discussion. That is on the record, and I refer the hon. Gentleman to Hansard.
I was about to discuss red tape. Clearly, the Bill will create some extra work for dealers in Kent and Medway. The local Federation of Small Businesses stresses that the vast majority of companies engaged in second-hand business are small or micro-businesses that do not have the resources to allow them easily to adapt to the heavy administration that the Bill would require. As it is a private Bill, there is no requirement for an impact assessment, as there would be with a Government Bill, and that is a shame. Perhaps an impact assessment would dispel some concerns.
My second difficulty is over civil liberties, a perennial problem with Bills directed against crime. I am concerned that the balance of the Bill may go too far against liberty. The identity requirements attached to purchase and the powers of entry granted to the police both cause some concern. The fact that the powers will be localised seems pernicious. I accept the principle of private Bills, and consequent regional variations in criminal law, but I am far from convinced that such significant changes to rights should be made purely locally. Many Members have referred to the hope that the Bill could become a national measure rather than one restricted to a particular area. If I have any real concern about it, that is it.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), and other speakers, said that previous examples of such Bills exist. Indeed, they do. We have had time to assess such Bills and to see what is good and what is bad about them. There have been, I think, six such Acts, with slight variation in each case. If something is not done on a national basis, we have the prospect of a further 200 pieces of legislation clogging up the House when the issue could be dealt with nationally.
There has been talk about consultation. The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) referred to a long list of organisations that had been consulted. Part of the consultation was with ordinary members of the public in Kent and Medway, who were asked whether they liked the proposals or not. Many said that it was good news without really understanding what the Bill said. I am not saying that this Bill is particularly difficult to understand, but when it comes to consultation, it can be difficult for the general public to pick up on the pros and cons of a Bill. People might say that the Bill is good because its objective is good, without taking on board the detail. I know that concerns have been raised that trading standards officers and the police might be overburdened as a result of these provisions.
A strong case has been made for the issue to be addressed on a national basis, and I hope that that will be done in due course. I do not wish to stand in the way of a Bill that has such strong local support, but I think that it is right that the issue has been raised. Were the Bill to apply nationally, it could be refined further, with far more discussion taking place to ensure that the problems that I have touched on peripherally are no longer problems.
I repeat that I do not wish to obstruct the Bill although I am unhappy that this is a local Bill rather than a national one that will cover everybody.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) is no longer in his seat, because he began his speech by saying that he was originally in favour of the Bill and was now against it. I wanted to tell him that I have been on the opposite journey.
When I first heard about the Bill, I was somewhat suspicious. I had three principal concerns—the first was the additional cost to the county council, as more expenditure will be involved. My second concern has been touched on so often—why does the Bill apply only to Kent and not elsewhere? I speak as a Member whose constituency is bordered by Surrey and by the Metropolitan police area to the north and west. Thirdly, I heard concerns expressed about the level of consultation. Let me take those concerns one by one.
I inquired about the costs and had a letter back from the county council as long ago as October 1998. It said that there would be some start-up costs—promoting the Bill, of course—and then there would be the cost to the authority of appointing and maintaining the five enforcement staff. The cost of doing that was estimated, in 1998, to be between £120,000 and £130,000 a year. Those are substantial costs, and they need justifying. I think that they can be justified.
As for why the Bill applies only to Kent, I will come back to that a little later. On consultation, I have discussed the Bill with the promoters. I have had four representations from members of the antique trade in my constituency. I sent them the promoters' revised guidance document on the Bill, and have not, so far, heard further from them.
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Bill applies not only to the antiques trade—it will apply also to the stolen car trade. I have been told that some 30 per cent. of all stolen cars in Kent are never recovered. There is a huge amount of crime in Kent, and it is not all to do with antiques.
Let me deal with the objections to the Bill that have been raised so far. First, there are those who believe that the Bill should be avowedly compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. I am perfectly satisfied with the opinion that was read to the House by the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark), and the issue can anyway be tested further in Committee. Therefore, that objection need not delay us.
Secondly, it has been suggested that this is inappropriate material for a private Bill. Those who argue that have already ceded the point that there have been seven previous Bills, and we have had much discussion about the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991. I hope that it is not suggested that there is any further technical impropriety in the Bill—after all, it has been examined properly in both Houses.
There is a subsidiary point on the issue of the appropriateness of legislation as to whether there is any prospect of Government legislation being introduced. There clearly is not—nothing has been brought forward, despite the good experience in North Yorkshire. On that basis, the promoters of these Bills are perfectly entitled to ask leave of the House to introduce these schemes in Kent and Medway. There are always competing demands on legislative time, although that seems an odd point given that we have spent most of the afternoon dealing with the problem of burger carts in St. James's park.
The real reason I am not concerned about propriety is that I do not object to different approaches locally; indeed I rejoice in them. If it turns out that, as a result of putting these measures on to the statute book, Kent becomes a tougher place for criminals to operate in than East Sussex, Surrey or the Metropolitan police area, that is good news for Kent. It is up to those other authorities to learn from that and replicate the scheme elsewhere—if it is a success.
That may answer my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who referred to burglars driving from York to Leeds in 20 minutes. It is open to West Yorkshire to follow the example of North Yorkshire. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether other authorities are going down that route. I believe that some experimentation and difference is the essence of local democracy. I believe also that there is a significant advantage in a competition in ideas.
The scheme may not be successful in Kent; there is no guarantee. However, if it is successful, it can be copied elsewhere, just as those drawing up the Kent proposals have learned from the experience of North Yorkshire. That is a healthy development; it is stimulating and decentralising.
Will there be some inconsistencies? Will traders in Kent have to keep records of transactions outside Kent? As I understand the Bill, that will apply only to those traders who do most of their business in Kent. That seems logical to me.
It has been suggested that the Bill will result in more red tape, and that objection we should take most seriously. There is common cause on both sides of the House that, as the better regulation taskforce has reported, the burden on business is growing. I should be concerned about that, because I spent three years on the forerunner of that taskforce, the deregulation taskforce. I gave up half a day a week in the Cabinet Office—unpaid, I have to tell the House—trying to tackle red tape, and that requires needs constant vigilance.
Are we happy to increase slightly the burden of red tape in this instance, given the greater prize that we are assured may result? I welcome the concessions made on the £10 limit, those who do not trade principally in Kent and so on. It is important to remember that the Bill does not apply to private sales; that the registration process will be free; that charities and booksellers, for example, are exempt; and that the purchaser's name and address will be required only if the value is over £100.
As to the other objection concerning red tape—the burden on businesses of registration—let me say that at least half of all antique dealers are already registered for VAT. I cannot see that this would be any more significant a burden than registering every antique on some form of a national register, or supplying a name and address when one enters a car boot sale. The red tape argument cannot be sustained.
The promoters of the Bill have appeared to be flexible, and if there is further consultation to be done with the antiques trade or others, that is still possible. If further amendments can be agreed in Committee, I am sure that the promoters would be willing to consider them.
In the end, it comes down to the fact that burglary is far too easy. It is no use us moaning at the magistrates, griping at the police or chafing at the Crown Prosecution Service. We need to find more ways of tackling the problem at source. Burglary is easy and popular. The chance of being caught or imprisoned is relatively slight and burglars know that they can cash in the results. If they cannot cash in the results, why do they concentrate on silver, jewellery, pictures and so on? That is why I find the special pleading by some of the antique fairs rather hypocritical.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Newark (Mrs. Jones) in her place. When the church warden in my village was burgled just before Christmas, she was advised by Kent police to go straight to the Sunday antiques fair in Newark. She did that and recovered some of her stolen property, yet, we have perhaps all had a letter from DMG Antique Fairs in Newark banging on about the erosion of civil rights. Burglary victims have civil rights as well.
It may be that Mr. Hamden has written to us all because he feels that the Bill would hurt his business. However, if his business is not being underpinned by the proceeds of burglary, he has nothing to fear.
I am interested in the proposed legislation because the international antiques fair is held in my constituency. The legislation applies only to dealers and businesses from Kent. That is why it is unfair and unenforceable. That is the point made by representatives of the antiques fair in Newark. The hon. Gentleman must address the fact that dealers from the Kent area will be disadvantaged when they come to the international antiques fair. How does he propose to address that?
I have heard some special pleading in my time. I am not bothered about whether those who attend the Newark antiques fair will be disadvantaged. I am sure that there are reputable antique fairs in Newark. It is odd that this is the only group of antique fairs that seems worried about the Bill. I am concerned about the pleading over the erosion of civil rights. I do not believe that fences and dodgy dealers have civil rights.
I want to tell the House about another burglary that took place in my constituency just before Christmas. Commander Davidson, who lives in Seal, is a retired naval officer. He gave years of service to his country but burglars took almost everything dear to him. They took all his mementoes and naval objects, including his barograph, which had been collected over a lifetime of service to his country. What have we done for him? Police officers have called on him and he has received his letter from Victim Support. I have written on his behalf to the chief constable but he knows, as do we, that there is no chance of him recovering all the property that was stolen—an entire collection of a lifetime's service.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said, if we will the end of reducing burglary, we must be prepared to will the means. The Bill is a means, although it is only one, and the promoters have done enough to convince me that it should be supported.
The war against crime is a war not of the great gesture but of the constant little step here and there, trying to catch up with or to keep a step ahead of the burglary fraternity.
Many of the anxieties sparked by the Bill are misplaced. I understand that any respectable business that knows that what it does is wholly honest and scrupulous naturally feels that any further record keeping or opening of its books to outside inspectors is a further threat, but it is interesting to hear from the Medway towns that those respectable businesses that have signed up to the voluntary code of conduct have not found the paperwork particularly onerous. They have been pleased to think that they have done all that they can to ensure that when people buy something from them it cannot later be expropriated because it has to be given back to the person from whom it was stolen. Instead of being open to a series of bad debts, they have done as much as they can to ensure that what they sell is above board.
Dealers who refuse to join the voluntary scheme open themselves to having the provenance of their merchandise questioned. If they cannot answer the question, it clearly opens the possibility that the stuff that they are dealing in is dodgy. That is important. The fact that the police and the county council enforcement officers are likely to be understaffed provides a much greater security against oppression, because they will concentrate only on those dealers whom they have reason to suppose are in the dodgy trade.
The most difficult thing for the police in the fight against crime—and we all know it—is when they know virtually for certain that certain shops or individuals are crooked but cannot enforce any action against them. That drives them crazy. It drives my constituents crazy. A group of my constituents came to me and named a whole host of shops and dealers in my constituency that they know not only receive stolen goods but, in some cases, commission their stealing.
I went to the police, thunderstruck by that information, and asked whether it could really be true or whether my constituents were romancing. They said that it was absolutely true but that they found it almost impossible to get any evidence on which to proceed against the dodgy dealers. I believe that the Bill will do a small amount to make it harder for such people to continue in business.
There are plenty of highly sophisticated criminals around who, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said, can tell a genuine picture from a fake and can distinguish between George III silver and electro-plated nickel silver at the drop of a hat, and who know exactly where to go, how to steal the goods and how to get them out of the country. In Kent, that is only too easy: they can get across the channel in hours and may well be stealing to the order of some Dutch or Belgian fence. They are very hard to proceed against, and the Bill will do little to stop them.
The police and the criminal statistics tell us all the time that a vast proportion of the burglaries that cause so much distress to our constituents are carried out by a very small number of repeat burglars. They offend repeatedly because they have no difficulty whatever in travelling five miles down the road to flog off what they have stolen. They are not like the burglars who travel from York to Leeds or into the Metropolitan police area. They reckon that someone round the corner—in Deal, Dover, Folkestone or Canterbury—will take their stuff. The police often have a good idea who receives such goods, but boy is it difficult to pin that down!
The Bill will play a small but convincing part in making such people's lives a little more difficult. If a petty burglar who causes huge distress to many people in a lifetime of crime can be discouraged because his market has been taken from him, it is well worth supporting.
As a number of colleagues on both sides of the House have put the case so strongly, I shall be extremely brief.
To take us back to first principles, I refer to intelligence-led policing, of which David Phillips, our splendid chief constable of Kent, was a pioneer. It involves a shift, which is fundamental to both Bills, from targeting crime to targeting criminals, and from solving a crime after the event to identifying and following known criminals until they can be caught on the job and convicted. Most burglaries are carried out by a relatively small number of extremely active people, a growing proportion of whom are drug addicts, and the logic of the measure is to duplicate that searchlight by focusing on fences in the same way that intelligence-led policing focuses on burglars.
We need the Bill to target fences: although it is relatively easy to discover who they are, it is extraordinarily difficult to prove that somebody has deliberately and knowingly handled stolen goods. Incidentally, there is some misunderstanding in the House as the hon. Member for Newark (Mrs. Jones) referred to criminalisation. We are dealing with a civil offence. A relatively modest civil fine of up to £2,000 will be available, and repeatedly so, for those who do not adhere to a code that is voluntary at present and underpinned by many organisations, but which will become compulsory. The police will have a way to hit back at known fences. Intelligence-led policing has already led to a staggering 70 per cent. reduction in burglaries in Kent over the past few years, and we shall be able to harvest even more of its fruits.
I want to focus on the measure's local nature as there is a danger of us becoming confused. I would support its introduction nationally, but that option is not before the House and we can introduce it only for the county of Kent and the Medway area.
My hon. Friend is an historian. He will no doubt recall that the civil servants of Charles V, who tried to administer his far-flung empire, remarked to one another, "If death came from Spain, we should live for ever." Does he not think that there is a similar likelihood of obtaining national legislation on this issue?
Indeed. My hon. Friend is learned in these matters. He anticipates unconsciously the point that I was about to make. One of the differences between British local government when it was set up in the Victorian era, and its competitors in many continental countries was precisely that it was locally based and volunteer led, rather than centrally administered and bureaucratic. However, essentially the point is that we do not have an option to introduce the scheme nationally, but we do have an option to introduce it for Kent and for Medway.
I strongly support those colleagues, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who I am so pleased has joined us—the only Home Secretary in the past 50 years to achieve a substantial reduction in crime—who have said that it is worth having local initiatives. The whole point of a diverse system of local government is that local people's locally elected representatives should be able to experiment in such areas. I ask the House to give Kent and Medway that opportunity.
Still on the issue of the local nature of the measure, we should put to bed the red herring about displacing crime. When I became co-ordinator of one of the first neighbourhood watch schemes in London, people said, "All you are doing is displacing crime," but we hugely reduced the level of crime in our area. There is some anecdotal evidence that some of it was displaced, but that has not stopped successive Governments embracing neighbourhood watch as a successful concept.
Such a case with regard to the Bill, however, is much weaker than that on neighbourhood watch because we are not displacing burglaries. All we are displacing, in theory anyway, is the ability to fence goods, but if we compel every burglar to put his goods into a motor vehicle—and not every drug addict feeding his habit has access to a motor vehicle all the time—and to drive them a long way across a county boundary, that will give the police another opportunity, with the intelligence-led approach, if they are watching that chap to catch up with him, so I welcome the measure. It obviously does much to cut his margin.
For all those reasons, like many colleagues on both sides of the House I urge the House to support the measures.
I can be brief. The fascination of private business is that one sees differences of opinion within the parties and on different sides of the House. There is no doubt that we have had additional fascinations tonight.
Before coming to the debate, I was aware that different views were held by members of both the main parties on the issues. I knew that some Members representing Kent constituencies on the Government Back Benches supported the Bill and others, as we heard from the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), opposed it.
I was also aware that, among my right hon. and hon. Friends, some were strongly in favour, some had reservations and some were against, but we have had yet further variations on that theme. We have heard that the hon. Gentleman started off as a supporter of the Bill and has now turned against it, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has moved in the opposite direction, having previously been against it. He has now spoken in favour.
We have had the even greater fascination of the reference to Emperor Charles V. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), I studied that period of history. I welcome his use of that particular quotation, but one never knows what one will hear in dealing with private business.
Perhaps because of the many differences of opinion among my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, among Members on the Government Benches, Opposition Front Benchers can remain largely agnostic. It is for the sponsors of the Bill to make their case. I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has expressed some reservations. For myself, I always want to express some scepticism when further legislation is being contemplated, particularly if it puts burdens on small businesses. I am a deregulator by nature and by instinct.
Before I was on the Front Bench, I frequently said that if I was ever lucky enough to win a high place in the ballot, the Bill I would introduce—perhaps one day I will have the chance to do so—was the automatic repeal of legislation Bill, under which, for every new page of statute, we should find at least one page of existing statute to repeal. Perhaps we could follow that by repealing 10 pages for every new page.
The trouble with any Government, regardless of party, is that there is a constant flow of legislation. For many years, I was one of the vice-chairmen of the small business bureau. I know that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) shares my interest in these issues. He referred to another national organisation, the Federation of Small Businesses. I think he would agree that those and other organisations representing small business would have similar concerns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks referred to letters that many of us have received from a gentleman who runs an antiques fair business in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newark (Mrs. Jones). I was particularly concerned by one of the points made in the accompanying documentation about the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) spoke of displacing crime. As a Surrey Member, I have an interest in ensuring that we try to tackle crime throughout my constituency and my county. Everyone in Surrey is well aware that mobile criminals using the motorway network—in particular, the M25 and the M3—are frequently involved in burglary and other crimes. It is well known to my chief constable and all his officers in Surrey that a large amount of crime is committed by people outside our own county. The issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, who strongly supports the Bill, in relation to the displacement of crime are of concern to every county. Is it possible that those who have expressed reservations about private Bills and suggested that we should wait for national legislation have a point?
I was particularly struck by what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet. He said that the reasons for some of his personal reservations about Bills such as this were based on his discussions with our hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), relating to his experience in North Yorkshire. There are clearly different opinions—we have heard different opinions in the debate—about what the North Yorkshire experience actually means. If there is more than one view about the North Yorkshire experience, we need to take care before we impose yet further burdens on small businesses.
As the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association has said, Bills such as this would undoubtedly impose burdens if they became law. It suggests that, given the demand for detailed records of every second-hand purchase that takes place either in Kent or anywhere involving dealers registered in Kent, between half a million and a million records would have to be made each year, and then thrown away after three years. Everyone who has traded in Kent would keep those records—not only traders based in the county, but traders scattered across Britain. Moreover, we should consider the extra burden imposed by red tape on law-abiding and legitimate small and medium-sized businesses.
This has been a fascinating debate, not least because of the number of Labour Members who supported my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said about his having been the most successful Home Secretary in terms of tackling crime. It is a change to hear so many Labour Members support my right hon. and learned Friend. No doubt he welcomes that, as I do. We used to hear very different comments.
I would be reluctant to oppose what my right hon. and learned Friend and chief constables say will help to tackle crime, but there are undoubtedly balanced arguments, which is no doubt why members of the same party on both sides of the House have taken different views. This has been a fascinating debate, but not one that prompts the official Opposition to feel it necessary to come down on one side or the other.
As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said, this has been a most interesting and illuminating debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) both on prosecuting it and on the way in which he put his case. It is conventional in this type of debate for Governments to be neutral rather than to take a particular side, but there are one or two observations that I should like to make.
First, I should like to state that the Government did have objections to parts of the Kent County Council Bill, which were set out in our report of 17 March 1999, when the Bill was being discussed. I should like to place on record, however, that the Government are content that the Bill's promoters have taken on board our comments satisfactorily, so that the points covered in the report have been appropriately and properly met.
Secondly, I should like to join in the general tributes that have been paid to the chief constable of Kent. Not only does he chair the Association of Chief Police Officers crime committee, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appointed him to be the vice-chair of the taskforce, which I chair and which deals with crime reduction. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) described very well, the chief constable has led the whole drive towards intelligence-led policing not only in Kent but across the country. He has developed many of the approaches that we are now seeking to roll out across the country.
I myself have not spoken to the chief constable about the Bill but I am very keen to pay tribute to his work, and it is the case—I thought the hon. Member for Canterbury put it extremely well—that the chief constable's focus on sources of criminality, hot spots and patterns of behaviour is a model to us all in how crime should be fought. As Members on both of sides the House have described, the Bill reflects that type of approach to addressing such issues.
I therefore confirm on behalf of the Government that we understand the chief constable's support for the Bill, and understand that he supports it not only as chief constable of Kent but because he understands many of the wider issues that have been raised in the debate and sees advantages in it.
Various hon. Members have asked whether there should be national legislation in this sphere. The argument that we should await national legislation before acting has even been used as an argument against the Bill. However, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) that although I cannot follow him in his musical tastes, the Government will watch operation of this Bill and practice in other areas very closely for precisely the reason that I have just given—namely, to decide whether it would be appropriate to consider national legislation in that context. It is valuable to have this type of experiment, and to understand the issues and how they are being addressed. That is why we want to examine very carefully what is being done.
As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) said, it is true that there are always competing pressures for legislative time. That is certainly true in the Home Office, in dealing with the various items of legislation that the House is considering in this Session. Nevertheless, it is important that we examine what is happening, learn what we can from it and consider the desirability of appropriate national legislation.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was right to say that we always have to strike a balance between the burdens on industry, which he described, and the crime solution benefits that we can achieve in that regard. That will be a matter to be taken into consideration by the Government.
In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks, I am not aware of other examples in other parts of the country or of other police authorities and forces that are essentially queueing up behind the Bill with their own initiatives. However, I shall look into the matter, and if I am wrong in that I shall write to him. He made an entirely appropriate point.
I was interested in the comparison with Emperor Charles V used by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe). Although my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has in his recent life had to bear many comparisons with particular types of historical figures, I do not think that Charles V has previously arisen as a role model for him. However, I shall certainly draw the comparison to his attention and ask whether he needs to bear in mind any particular aspects of the emperor's behaviour in thinking how he should conduct his duties and meet his responsibilities.
I simply counsel hon. Members against making the best he the enemy of the good in discussion of the need for national legislation versus the need for local legislation. Obviously, there are real arguments about the advantages of national legislation, and the travelling arguments that have been made are real and substantial. However, that does not of itself convince that one should necessarily resist a particular item of legislation, regardless of whether one wants to follow the particular argument advanced by some hon. Members on the benefits or otherwise of local legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) raised some points about the Human Rights Act 1998 in a letter to me a few weeks ago. The situation is complicated. Private Acts are not exempt from the Human Rights Act 1998, which applies equally to public and private Bills once they are enacted. A higher court will be able to issue a declaration of incompatibility in respect of a private Act, just as it can for any primary legislation. However, Parliament has decided that under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, if a Minister of the Crown is in charge of a Bill, that Minister must make a statement of opinion on the Bill's compatibility with the convention rights. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham made clear, that section does not apply to private Bills because there is no Minister in charge. Some problems arise as a result of that.
Section 19 applies to a Government Bill or a consolidation Bill, but it does not apply to private Members' Bills or private Bills because there is no duty to make a statement about their compatibility with convention rights. However, concerns have been expressed about the Government giving a view about the compatibility of private Bills. We are considering the issue urgently and I hope that we may be able to make an announcement in the next few weeks, because there are important issues involved.
My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General made the position clear in the House on 13 April in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Accepting that my hon. Friend had raised a serious point about private Bills, my hon. and learned Friend said:
The concerns that he has expressed on previous occasions have been taken on board. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering them seriously.—[Official Report, 13 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 496.]
I can confirm that we are considering those important issues seriously.
I have tried to set out the Government's approach. We are conventionally neutral on such Bills and I hope that I have not said anything to suggest that we are anything other than neutral on this Bill. However, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham on the way in which he introduced the debate. It is important to look at all possible ways to combat crime and this offers many aspects of interest.
With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the debate, but I shall not detain the House for longer than necessary.
In my opening statement, I said that there was cross-party support for the Bills on both councils in question. I am delighted that there is also cross-party support in the Chamber. I appreciate the contributions that have been made from both sides. At one point, we were concentrating on antiques. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) drew attention to other aspects of the legislation, which also covers motor vehicle thefts and burglaries. Those issues have not all been covered in as much depth.
Several hon. Members asked whether there had been enough consultation. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) for listing all the consultation that had gone on in trade journals and papers. The number of amendments that the promoters have made to the original Bill shows that they have listened to the trade to ensure that the Bill is not overly burdensome, but still meets the essential requirements of reducing the market for stolen goods in the second-hand trade.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) made an interesting speech, but I was concerned by his point about the concept behind the Bill. We are seeking a market reduction which will help to reduce the incidence of burglaries and so on. However, it has to be seen as part and parcel of the overall approach.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) asked whether the Bill was practical and enforceable. When the Bill was considered on Third Reading in
another place Lord Bassam, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, responded to those who had raised the issue as follows:
I feel bound to say…that I find it hard to believe that a measure prepared and promoted jointly by the local authority and the police could not be effectively enforced.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 January 2000; Vol. 608, c.1054.]
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed admiration for the chief constable of Kent. That should be borne in mind in relation to the practicality and enforceability of the legislation.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), among others, referred to the burden of keeping records. Many of the amendments to the Bill have sought to reduce the burden on legitimate businesses. Codes of practice within the trade require businesses to keep records for far longer. The Bill proposes that records should be kept for only two years; the codes of practice require them to be kept for six or seven years. The records have to be kept for financial purposes such as VAT. One amendment that has been agreed by the councils is that almost any record will be acceptable, so there is no need for dual recording.
I am grateful for the speech by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I particularly noted his comment about the chief constable. The reservations in the report and guidance from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have been taken on board. It is useful to have clarification of the human rights issue involved and I reaffirm that the promoters of the Bill have taken counsel's opinion and produced a statement of compatibility.
Finally, I thank hon. Members for contributing to a positive and interesting debate. In Newark, the antiques liaison officer, DC Austin O'Driscoll, said that he supports the legislation wholeheartedly because so often one finds stolen goods but the chain goes cold. The Bill is about being able to set up a paper chain, to return stolen property to its rightful owners and to reduce the market for turning stolen property into quick cash. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill.