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Canterbury City Council Bill — Third Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 3rd December 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative 3:22 pm, 3rd December 2012

My Lords, we are all indebted to the masterly summary from my old friend and parliamentary neighbour for some years, the noble Lord, Lord Bilston. We had another guardian angel, and that is the noble Lord, Lord Lucas; I am delighted that we shall hear from him in a little while. When one is told one is to chair a Select Committee set up to examine a case put forward by quadruplets-three cities and a borough-it sounds like rather a dull old chore. That is wrong-in fact, it turned out to be a fascinating, educative, challenging and rewarding experience and I would not have missed it for the world.

I will put a slightly different complexion on what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Bilston, from the heart of the Select Committee, as it were. I would like to make it clear to the House that the team of colleagues I worked with could not possibly have been better. From all political corners of this House, we worked in happy unison. I begin with my heartfelt thanks to every one of them for their expertise, wisdom, patience, judgment and, may I also say, their friendship.

Basically, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilston, has said, these local authority Bills were seeking the total eradication of pedlars from their streets. The supporting counsel said that pedlars caused unacceptable congestion. The members of the committee asked for evidence and they produced photographs of their streets, which of course were very crowded. We scrutinised them carefully and asked questions. We concluded that nothing we had been shown, or told, proved the case that the local authorities were making.

We reached the conclusion, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilston, has touched on, that the local authorities were at least partly motivated by a desire to protect licensed street traders who pay a lot more for their licences than the pedlars pay for their permits. We did not accept the claim that pedlars should be banished because the quality of their goods might be inferior to that being sold in the shops or on the fixed stalls. We felt rather outraged by this; it has never been the business of local councils to set up as experts on what is unfair or fair trading, as regards the quality of the goods. So that claim went by the wayside.

The representatives of the councils then assured us that the public were much against pedlars, that they could not stand having pedlars in their streets and that we really should listen to what the public said. The committee asked for evidence on that issue. They could not produce a single letter or newspaper campaign in support of their contention. However, the pedlars gave us acceptable and valid reasons to say that there was good evidence of public approval.

The members also reflected that pedlars had been on the streets of England prior to Shakespeare. Even Chaucer mentioned pedlars and we saw no reason to go to war with them or to change history. However, as has been said, we felt that some changes should be made in the way in which pedlars operate. Some of the pictures submitted by the promoters showed that the small trolleys that pedlars are allowed to use to carry and display their wares were sometimes very much extended. The base was small with four little wheels, rather like those that we all wheel about when we come to London for the week. But enormous adjuncts, including poles, were put on and where the trolley started quite small, it finished up yards wide with, for example, pashminas and scarves hung all along it. We felt that those were not acceptable and could cause obstruction.

Therefore, the committee suggested amendments. We have heard a little about the changes but I have the exact measurements. The trolley used to carry the goods must not be more than 0.75 metres in width; 0.5 metres in depth; and 1.25 metres in height. The overall size of the trolley also is constrained. We gratefully accept the small amendments, which were necessary, on different subjects, about which we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bilston. Clearly, great care has been exercised on the whole of these applications by the councils.

However, we had several other concerns. So great was the interest of the members of the committee that one brought a pedlar's base to the Committee Room. We had it on the desk where we gazed at it, walked around it and figured out how it would look when it was dressed. We really concerned ourselves with how things were to work.

I am delighted to receive the news that other changes are to be made, because we felt that the four Bills presented would undoubtedly have given councils a disproportionate power in relation to suspected street trading offences. The pedlars were very worried about that, particularly the suggestion that almost at the drop of a hat all their goods could be confiscated for such a period of time that many would be useless when that time was up-they would have gone past their sell-by date by a long way. We have reduced these powers to the issuing of fixed penalty notices and we have made it a requirement that councils train all officials who exercise the remaining powers. We decided it would be best to put in place a statutory duty on councils, rather than just relying on an undertaking given under private Bill procedures.

The most important change of all is the piecemeal modification of national law by scores of individual little bits of private legislation that has gone on until now, but is now-thank heaven-to be changed. It really is extremely unsatisfactory. There are people who very much support the right of local authorities to put forward their own Bills-and long may that continue-but here we have a silly situation where the same objective has so far been put forward by 40 local authorities through their own legislation. There are some 300 others waiting around the corner to see when they are going to have their chance. These Bills would have come to this House, causing more time-wasting and money-wasting for the local councils, who have to employ counsels to put forward their case.

We heard a little about the arrests that this has led to, which are quite wrong and totally unfair. If a pedlar gets his certificate to trade, say, in Newcastle, that gives him the right to trade just as legally in Brighton, Bodmin, Birmingham or anywhere else; he can use the one certificate. However, a certificate in one place gives powers that are quite different from those in another place which has brought in its own rules. This is very confusing, and I am glad that we now see a light at the end of that tunnel and that this, too, will be altered. Incidentally, we heard evidence from a woman pedlar who had received her certificate quite legally, but who was arrested by the police in a town other than the one which had granted the licence and taken her money for it. She had no idea that she was breaking the law. That really must stop, and I am delighted that it will not be long before we see the change that we have all asked for.

It may be worth throwing in another point. We understand that there have been at least four other occasions when this House has held a Select Committee on very similar Bills. None of those committees came to the same conclusion that we did. They thought that the local authorities were right. That will have to be sorted out: they came to totally different conclusions, and those conclusions were wrong. Suffice to say that all the Bills were after the same thing: getting rid of pedlars.

Only a few weeks ago the Government published a consultation paper on repealing the Pedlars Act 1871 and the Pedlars Act 1881. The paper appeared after our committee had sat, but during our deliberations we warned that repealing the requirement on pedlars to obtain a certificate to trade would take away the exemption for certified pedlars from other street-trading restrictions. To do this without putting in its place a clear national exemption allowing pedlars to exercise their right to trade would be wholly unacceptable.

For more years than anyone wants to count, Peers have paid their tributes and uttered their thanks to the magnificent staff who serve us all in the Private Bill Office and the Public Bill Office. All of us on the committee wish to do so unreservedly. Nothing was too much trouble for the staff who worked with us. The bounty and quality of their help was absolutely endless. I will mention specifically the wonderful Kate Lawrence, whose expertise as clerk to the committee we relied on completely and endlessly, and Chris Bolton, who bears the impressive title Examiner of Private Acts. She, too, must be a very busy lady. Between them, these two ladies know absolutely everything and are a huge asset to the House.