With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 68, in clause 3, page 2, line 20, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 69, in clause 3, page 2, line 22, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 70, in clause 4, page 3, line 21, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 71, in clause 4, page 3, line 22, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 72, in clause 10, page 5, line 24, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 73, in clause 11, page 6, line 9, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 74, in clause 12, page 7, line 12, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 75, in clause 13, page 7, line 24, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 76, in clause 13, page 7, line 26, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 77, in clause 19, page 11, line 22, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 78, in clause 19, page 11, line 27, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 79, in clause 19, page 11, line 28, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
Amendment 80, in clause 19, page 11, line 29, after ‘site manager’, insert ‘or personal licence applicant’.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Benton, on what is quite a momentous day. The past 12 months have seen the issue of metal theft rise in the public’s mind. They are more conscious than ever of its impact. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon South for leading on the Bill, which seems to have considerable support. I hope that it will be enacted in the near future.
The Bill is very good but, going from 99% to 100%, or whatever the uplift is, a couple of small changes would make it better. One change would be the introduction of a personal licence as well as an operator’s licence. Nobody wants to add to local authorities’ red tape and bureaucracy. I certainly do not. My local authority is stretched, as are the local authorities of other hon. Members, but I do not think the proposal would bring extra red tape or burdens. We have a system at local authority level for licensing taxis, with an operator’s licence and a personal licence. It would be advantageous to have one system for a local licensing committee rather than two.
It would be easy to replicate the way the licensing of taxis operates and have a personal and operator’s licence in the scrap metal industry. It would also help local authority licensing committees, because it would give them more information about the fitness of the operator, and who exactly is being employed at various sites or in vehicles, or at some of the lesser intermediate sites. It would cover people who trade out of skips or out of the back of industrial buildings. It is not just about scrap metal dealers and mobile collectors; there are intermediaries as well. It would help to flag up who is dealing in or handling metal and give the local authority more information about the operator of the licence. It would also keep criminals in view; we know that they are operating in the sector. That is an important element for the police and for the Environment Agency and local authorities working together. For those reasons, the provision would be valid.
Is this more red tape? How big a problem would it be to introduce personal licences? I asked my local authority. We have about five scrap metal yards that employ about five individuals each: 25 employees. The police suggest that there are around 12 transient or mobile operators, with two or three people in each vehicle. Possibly another 25 people might be working in the industry, with 75 at most, but probably fewer.
If we consider taxis in my constituency, there are 400 to 500 personal licences. When we balance the cost of the introduction of a personal licence and the burden on the local authority against the benefits, the benefits vastly outweigh the costs. It would be a significant step forward. We know that criminal elements operate on certain sites, and they would be flagged up if, like taxi drivers, they had to get a personal licence.
Criminals’ other illegal activities would also be flagged up. Should scrap metal yards be used as a front for other criminal activity, and there is an indication that that sometimes is the case, the provision would allow that information to come before the licensing committee and the police. It would also allow those authorities to be able to assess the suitability of the operation and the operator’s licence as well as individuals in the particular business.
The site operator could feel pressurised about people on the site who are operating under his site licence and about whether the licence is vulnerable, so the increase in information will surely help him. Some big issues are involved. There is no doubt that in decades gone by, the underworld used scrap metal yards, and probably still do. The Krays used scrap metal yards, and Hollywood films are full of dead bodies being sent to scrap metal yards. We need to know who is on scrap metal yard sites and who is involved in the industry on a personal level. Putting the burden on the operator is unreasonable and assumes that the operator or manager will always be present on site, which is not necessarily the case because he may have several members of staff. It is grossly unfair to put such a burden on the site manager in an industry that probably does not have a good reputation and is difficult to manage.
Finally, let me turn to mobile collectors. Calling them an evasive group is not an unfair criticism. When I made a freedom of information request about collectors in Lancashire, the police suggested that at least 12 were operating in Hyndburn, but my local authority did not have even one itinerant mobile collector registered. When I asked the 14 authorities in Lancashire, I found that 10 were registered, which I thought was a bit of an improvement, only to find that nine were registered in Lancaster and one in Burnley. Twelve authorities have no mobile collectors registered at all.
Mobile collectors are an evasive group of people. We may register the driver of the vehicle, because many of them are single businesses, but some may be operating different vehicles, which raises an issue about managing different vehicles on the road. For example, if an operator has two or three vehicles, how can he be a site manager responsible for the drivers and the activities of the other vehicles operating under that business?
If an operator has a rogue employee, again it is unfair for the site licensee to be persecuted for that. We could have criminals knocking at the door of old age pensioners because we do not have a system for assessing those in the industry who are engaging with people in our constituencies. There is a real issue about who is actually operating. Whenever I, or others, stop a mobile collector, their evasiveness can be quite clever. They may say, “I wasn’t there. I didn’t know about it.” We will be putting licensing committees under undue pressure, because they will have to decide whether to take away a licence from a firm. They will have to decide whether the operator is telling the truth about an employer who may have been in another vehicle or about a manager who might not have been in the vehicle at the time. They will have to make a sharp distinction in deciding whether to take a livelihood away from an individual. In my constituency, where there are 50 or 75 personal licences compared with 500 licences for taxi drivers, the proposal would not be a burden and it would present the committee with flexibility in determining licences that come up for appeal or where there are problems. The case for introducing personal licences is overwhelming. It will not only help the industry but will help licensees and site operators to manage their businesses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your experienced chairmanship, Mr Benton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, who is an assiduous Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. As the newly appointed Minister in the relevant Department, I am pleased to be present in a supporting role for his Bill.
Let me say quickly, because I do not want to be out of order, that the Government remain strongly committed to my hon. Friend’s Bill. We share the anguish and anger of Members in all parts of the House about what has happened in the sector and about the numerous stories of metal theft from war memorials, art exhibitions, cabling and church roofs. All those crimes are well understood by our constituents. The Government and the Home Office have a strong desire to take new powers to enable the police and others to deal more effectively with the problem of scrap metal theft, and with dealers who collude in that practice. We are committed to the Bill.
I am speaking to a string of amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hyndburn, but I recognise that private Members’ legislation is a collective effort. Everyone serving on the Committee shares the same overall objective, so I do not want to take the position that I have sometimes seen Ministers take—mainly when I was in opposition—which seemed to be excessive inflexibility and perhaps a lack of willingness to acknowledge that Members on both sides of the House might have useful ideas to contribute. The Government have views, but I hope they are not so set in stone that we are not willing at least to consider or accommodate in a mature way some of the representations of Members who have taken a long-standing interest in the area.
Having said that, I am getting off on a footing that might not be entirely agreeable to the hon. Member for Hyndburn. The Government’s view is that clause 2 already introduces two licences, one for a site and the second for a collector, and that introducing a third licence, for an individual, would be excessively onerous and burdensome upon local authorities and the owners of sites.
I appreciate the Minister’s point of view. Can he provide any empirical evidence to the Committee that local authorities consider a licence burdensome? How many local authorities has he spoken to? Can he present any evidence to the Committee today that would clarify that view, or is it only his opinion?
The point I am seeking to make is that there is always a judgment to be made about how administratively burdensome legislation should be. Obviously, the more burdensome one makes it, the more one can claim that no areas of activity are failing to be constrained by the legislation and, as a result, we are more likely to achieve our objectives. At the same time, the criticism often made of Governments of all persuasions is that there is too much regulation and too much red tape. I have never heard a politician argue in favour of more red tape in the generality, but I have heard a lot of politicians of all parties suggest more red tape in the specific. We are trying to create the right balance and get that equilibrium. Both site and collector licences—
In a moment. Both licences require the licence holder and the site manager to be named. Even without being named, however, all employees must comply with the requirements of the licence, not least with regard to the criminal offences created in clauses 10, 11 and 12. An individual employee on a site, therefore, could not indulge in criminal activity without the fear that the Bill, which we hope will become an Act, will apply to them. Under clause 8, further measures are stipulated to ensure that rogue employees are not behaving in a way that puts them beyond the law. Should an employee undertake any activity that brings into question the suitability of the business to operate as a scrap metal dealer, local authorities will be entitled to consider revoking the licence under clause 4. My point is that the Bill as it stands, and not amended in the proposed form, achieves the objectives that the Committee wishes it to achieve. The amendments would create an unnecessary and considerable extra layer of administrative burden for local authorities, which will not substantially help deliver the objectives that we all share.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, and for the conviviality of the debate. I accept and share his view, and that of other Members: we all want to see the Bill go through. However, I want to press the Minister on something, because he seems to suggest that it is his opinion, not a local authority one, that the proposals are burdensome. Will he clarify, for the record, whether it is a local authority opinion or the Minister’s own opinion? If it is a local authority one, will he tell us which authorities hold it?
He mentions that employees will be liable for prosecution under the law, but that is provided that rogue employees are caught. There is the presumption that those who act outside the law will be caught, and I am not sure that such a presumption can be taken for granted.
If a licensed individual broke the law and was not caught, the fact that they were licensed would no more make them subject to the force of the law, or the consequences that would flow from their illegal activity, than if they were not licensed. It is the Home Office’s view that we can achieve the objectives of the Bill, which are shared by all members of the committee, by introducing two licences.
In case the Committee has overlooked this, the proposals in the Bill are far more onerous than the existing position, so we are taking a big step towards greater regulation. I read the Hansard record of the Second Reading debate over the weekend, and in that debate Members criticised the Bill for being far too onerous, and said that there was far too much regulation. We are introducing substantial extra administrative burdens for local authorities, but the Home Office’s judgment is that they are sufficiently substantial to achieve the objectives that we all share, without going down the further path that the hon. Member suggests.
Does the Minister agree that this is analogous to the situation of pub licensees? The licensees hold the licence but their staff are also liable if they commit a criminal offence, by serving alcohol to under-age drinkers, for example. It would not be sensible to licence every possible pub employee, nor would it be feasible to do so, but the system seems, nevertheless, to work well.
I will probably get into trouble with some lawyer if I concede that there is a precise analogy, but I accept my hon. Friend’s point. The broad analogy appears to apply, which is that the site manager has responsibility for his or her site and the behaviour of the employees. In later clauses and amendments, we are keen to toughen up provisions regarding the potential loophole whereby it could be argued that an employee—a rogue employee if you like—is acting without the knowledge of the site manager. We understand that concern, and are seeking to accommodate it, but we feel that two licences is a sufficient burden, for the reasons I have just given.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn mentioned the position of councils, and it might help to say that the briefing that a number of Members have received from the Local Government Association mentions a licensing regime analogous to that of pubs and gambling organisations rather than making a comparison with taxis, as the hon. Gentleman did. That might imply that local government, and certainly some local government organisations, would support such an institution-based regime, rather than a personal one.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that additional clarification. It is worth drawing to the Committee’s attention that the second type of licence—not the site licence but the collector’s one—would apply to the individual collector, so there is that individual feature for when there is no geographically-defined site.
Just for the record, as I understand it—I stand to be corrected—regarding the licensee trade, to which the hon. Member for Castle Point referred, I think one needs two licences, including a personal licence, to serve alcohol in off-licences. It is not just in taxis, but in licensing as well, that we have personal and owners’ and operators’ licensees. We have to look at the issue through the eyes of local authorities and try to simplify it, and not create a duplicated system.
I do not want to try your patience, Mr Benton, by going around in circles. I am anticipating debate on future clauses, but it is worth saying that the terms of the licence will be quite strict and onerous. They include having regard to previous criminal activity and there will be sanctions in place.
In summary, requiring a site operator to comply with those more onerous conditions and an individual collector, who is non-site specific, will be a considerable additional burden. I would not wish the Committee to feel that we have taken only a timid half-step in the direction in which we all collectively wish to go. We are putting a considerable burden on local authorities. As I say, we feel that that burden is adequate to meet our collective objectives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South on securing time for the Bill.
I should declare an interest. I have been a non-remunerated trustee of the War Memorials Trust for more than 10 years. One reason why I was keen to serve on the Committee was the raft of metal thefts we have been seeing across the public realm. We know that the Bill is supported by Network Rail, the Energy Networks Association, reputable scrap metal dealers, of whom there are quite a lot out there, the War Memorials Trust—I am here, obviously, as a Member of Parliament, but I am a trustee of that trust, which supports the Bill—and the Local Government Association.
It is a pleasure to serve on a private Member’s Bill Committee with Government support—without that, we would possibly not be here. To have secured the support of the Treasury is a small miracle. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on framing the Bill in a way that has managed to garner broad support across the arena.
Before I touch on some issues raised by clause 2 and the amendment, I would like to talk about some of the impact of metal theft, particularly on war memorials. It is worth reminding members of the Committee why the Bill is important. While there have been steps by Government to tackle metal theft previously, the law needs tightening up.
The War Memorials Trust, the charity that deals with the preservation solely of war memorials across the country, receives some funding from English Heritage for preserving certain memorials. We estimate that on average, around one report a week of a memorial suffering theft or damage is received by the trust. Last November, around Remembrance Sunday, when war memorials were, effectively, advertised to the scoundrels who steal metal from them, there were three reports a week of metal theft from war memorials.
People who do that are clever. There have been discussions about changing the law differently from the Bill, and creating an additional or more severe offence for theft of metal from a war memorial. Sadly, I feel that the people who steal metal from war memorials do not care that they are stealing from war memorials particularly—they want the metal wherever it comes from—and that may not act as a deterrent. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the Bill and the way in which it will regulate the industry, if it gets a fair wind.
The trust has embarked on other measures to try to tackle the problem. I have heard, in discussions of the Bill outside this room, that there could be other methods of doing that. The trust has been in collaboration with the SmartWater foundation to introduce a scheme called, “In Memoriam 2014”, recognising the centenary of the start of the first world war. That will protect war memorials with SmartWater, which is a genetic, chemical water that identifies where a piece of metal is from. That is fine up to a point. It is a deterrent, but once the metal is melted down, the deterrent effect is gone. The people who do that are clever. They often steal war memorial plaques where they cannot be seen. If a war memorial is on a roadside, they will steal from the side that does not face the road, so that the theft will not be detected. It is important that some of the measures about holding on to metal for a period of time before melting it down, which we will come to in other clauses, are maintained, because sometimes it takes a while.
Not long ago, I was on a walkabout in my constituency when a local resident said, “It’s terrible—I came out one day and the downpipe outside my wall, which was copper, had just been removed. It was not even a metre long.” Metal theft is rife. People will steal it, whatever deterrents exist; they will still think it is worth doing. That is why I welcome the measures in the Bill, which I think are proportionate. I am not in favour of extra regulation for the sake of it, but the measures are important for saving our war memorial heritage, and ensuring that our railways run on time and that our works of art are not destroyed.
The issue of personal licences is interesting. I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn, but I also recognise that we want to put legislation on the statute book to ensure that we can track those who deal in scrap metal, whether they operate from a site or are mobile collectors. The Minister’s proposal seems reasonable, but I think that the clause could include space for amendments, perhaps made in regulations, if what is proposed does not work.
Having sat on Committees over the past seven years or so, both on the Government Front Bench and as a Government and Opposition Back Bencher, I know that we often want to write so much detail into a Bill that it can be changed only by further primary legislation. Realistically, I think that all of us here know that it has taken a long time and a lot of effort for the hon. Member for Croydon South to get a Bill to this stage in the House. The chance of it happening again during the next couple of Parliaments is relatively slim. It would require the Government to be willing and co-operative.
It might be a solution to the discussions that we have just had if we added a line—I have not tabled an amendment formally, but maybe we could discuss it outside this room—to allow for further changes in regulation, should the Minister’s proposed regime not deliver as intended, because I think that we are all united on the intent. I suggest that as one option.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon South on introducing the Bill, negotiating the slalom course set for him, and getting to this point. We are being given a remarkable, possibly unprecedented opportunity to do something about an issue that affects every single one of our constituencies, regardless of party.
In a way, I am sorry that, on a private Member’s Bill, we have already divided Opposition and Government; I do not think that that is a good way to proceed. The division in the Committee, which I hope is minor, is between Members of Parliament who represent their constituencies assiduously, as we all do, and the Government. I welcome the Minister to his new position. I was pleased to hear him say that he will listen and take note of the great expertise across the Committee, so that we can improve the Bill. That is refreshing to hear on the first day of a Public Bill Committee.
We all have our own particular ideas for improving the Bill, but I say to all colleagues that the battle we must win is to pass the Bill. Whether we like it or not, it would be easy for Government, with so much else on their plate, to pull the plug and say, “We can’t be bothered. Get the Minister back in the Department; we’ve got other priorities.” I am not suggesting that we should not propose amendments, argue passionately for them or vote on them, but I want us all to keep our eyes on the bigger picture, which is ensuring that we take this unique opportunity and get the Bill to its next stage, so that we can do something practical for our constituents.
We all know of cases involving the railways, manhole covers or war memorials. To give a simple example, on Friday, I was at one of my local churches, St Martin’s, parts of which date back to the 1300s. The lead on the tower roof has historical graffiti on it that goes back to the Victorian era. It is irreplaceable because it is a work of art. It is part of the local culture and history, as well as being possibly £50-worth of lead. It has been stolen. That is one tiny example; there are many more hurtful and economically consequential examples, which I am sure we will hear as the Bill proceeds.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch listed a number of organisations that are behind the Bill—few are against it. One important group that is in favour of the Bill is the decent scrap metal dealers. They exist in great numbers, and they, as much as any of us, are strongly in favour of squeezing out the illegitimate traders and the people who feed this business of stolen scrap metal. I am delighted to serve on the Committee, Mr Benton. You have let me range far and wide in my first contribution. I will try to be much more in order in future.
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Nottingham North had the sagacity to cross the Floor to catch your eye more easily, Mr Benton. I want to make only one contribution to this Committee stage, in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner. At one stage 10 churches a day were having lead stripped from their roofs. I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said and almost all of what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch put the position very well.
To follow up on what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, as I understand it, the Bill has Government support. I suspect the system still works. When I was a Minister there was something called the legislation committee. I assume that this Bill has been ticked as being approved by that committee as a Bill that is acceptable to the Government.
I spent last Friday in the Chamber considering a completely different private Member’s Bill. A small group of parliamentary colleagues see it as a sport, almost, to come along—I described them as sextons and pallbearers—to try to bury any private Member’s Bill. Quite often they are encouraged by the Whip on duty to try to bury any private Members’ Bills that have not had their box ticked by the Government’s legislation committee. Sometimes they cannot quite work out the difference between those private Members’ Bills that the Government are keen on, and those on which they are not.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister is responsible only for the conduct of this Bill, not for the allocation of Government time, but I ask him to consider giving the Committee an undertaking that he will go with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South to tell the Leader of the House that if there is any scintilla of a suggestion that this Bill will be filibustered on Report and Third Reading, they will apply to him to ensure that there is further consideration on Report in Government time. The Bill had universal support on Second Reading and clearly has considerable support across the Committee, albeit that there are some parts that, between us, we wish to interrogate. If it were frustrated on Report and Third Reading, there would be real anger in the dioceses and churches I represent across England. I think that would apply to all sorts of other sectors.
The Minister needs to work out how he will get the Whips to call the attack dogs off and keep them in their kennels on Report and Third Reading. If he cannot do that, we will have to make it clear to them that sufficient Government time will be made available to get the Bill through its remaining stages in proper and decent order.
Richard Ottaway rose—
Order. We have had sufficient preamble on the Bill’s merits. I warn the Committee that it must now stick strictly to the amendments. Although all the contributions so far are welcome, we have now moved on.
I have listened to your strictures, Mr Benton, but I hope you will allow me briefly to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury.
We have got through Second Reading. There are a group of MPs who are ideologically opposed to private Members’ Bills, and I have had a constant dialogue with them. We can worry about Government time when we get there, but the matter has been addressed. I have offered them a meeting with the scrap metal industry in October, assuming the Bill passes through Committee, before Report and Third Reading. Hopefully, we can assuage them and meet their views. I want to work with them, not against them. Indeed, one of them has already told me that he will not oppose the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is right to be concerned, but there has been some thinking on that.
I also welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham North. Younger members of the Committee may not be aware that, once upon a time, I was the Member for Nottingham North—until I was defeated. Obviously, any contribution from a Member for Nottingham North is wise and important. We are right to follow his views.
I am grateful for the work of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch on the War Memorials Trust. I passed through her constituency several times in the past few weeks going out to the Olympic park. I appreciate the War Memorials Trust’s tremendous support of the Bill, and the hon. Lady is not alone in her support. I am pleased that the Institute of Directors has announced its support, which may help my more ideologically driven colleagues. The Bill’s supporters are not lightweight. They include: Arts Council England; the Church of England; the Energy Networks Association, which includes BT and Network Rail; the Henry Moore Foundation; the Tate galleries; the British Metals Recycling Association, an important trade association; Ecclesiastical Insurance; and British Transport police. We have to take the views of the hon. Member for Nottingham North seriously and keep our eyes on the big picture.
Although I can see where the hon. Member for Hyndburn is coming from, I think amendment 62 would result in additional cost and burden on the industry. He asked a straightforward and genuine question about where the local authorities are on this. The Local Government Association’s brief states that it wants a “proper licensing system,” comparable to the alcohol and gambling licensing regimes, which is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester. The LGA is comfortable with the regime set out in the Bill.
The Bill sets out two categories of licence: the site licence and the collector’s licence. Between them, the licences cover all categories of person who might trade in metal. The amendment does not define the purpose or requirements of the licence it proposes, which would potentially require every scrap metal dealer employee to register, regardless of role or terms of employment.
On whether individual employees are responsible for the behaviour, individual employers can take action against their employees should their conduct warrant such action. Individual employees will also be criminally liable for their activities should they do anything that breaches the requirements in clauses 10, 11 and 12 to verify the seller’s identification, not to pay in cash, and to complete records for every transaction. In addition, they would also be liable for any further offence committed: for example, offences of handling stolen goods under the Theft Act 1968 or breaches of health and safety legislation. The hon. Member for Hyndburn is absolutely right to bring the matter to the attention of the Committee, but I believe that his concerns are covered by the terms of the Bill and I urge him to withdraw the amendment.
On a point of clarification, I do not know exactly what I said earlier, but I was referring to the Local Government Association.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 46, in clause 19, page 11, line 1, leave out from ‘person’ to ‘in’ in line 2 and insert
( ) carries on business as a scrap metal dealer otherwise than at a site, and
( ) regularly engages, in the course of that business,’.
Amendment 47, in clause 19, page 11, line 3, leave out ‘house to house’ and insert ‘door to door’.
As is invariably the case, the Government want some clarity added to the Bill, which is what the four amendments will do. I will not detain the Committee long, but will explain briefly the purpose of each amendment.
Without amendment 18, some scrap metal dealers with site licences would require many licences to conduct their businesses from a single site. Such matters are best illustrated by example, as I found when trying to understand the purpose of the amendment. If a scrap metal dealer in Lambeth wished to open another site in Southwark, they would require a separate licence from Southwark council as well as the licence they hold from Lambeth council; but if they wished to collect metal from Southwark to bring to their Lambeth site, their Lambeth licence would be sufficient for them to do that, and if they had more than one site in Lambeth, that would also be fine, because they would be licensed by Lambeth council. Conversely, collectors have to have a licence for each area in which they operate, so if they operate in Southwark and in Lambeth, they would have to have a licence from both Southwark and Lambeth councils. The purpose of the amendment is to avoid penalising a site that collects metal from areas outside the local authority in which that site is located. Some sites might be right on the boundary of a local authority so they might literally be unable to collect metal from the other side of the road and bring it to their site without the burden of getting an extra licence from a different authority. We feel that the amendment is a sensible and practical way to head off potential problems.
Amendments 19 and 46 add clarity by removing the requirement that a collector cannot operate from a site. Collectors, by definition, do not have a site; if they had a site, they would need a site licence rather than a collector’s licence, so there is no need to include stipulations for collectors regarding whether they have a site.
Amendment 47 may interest the Committee more, because it makes a more substantial change. Removing the words “house to house” and replacing them with “door to door” may seem to be a minor change, but the amendment would enable collectors to collect from non-domestic properties—a house is interpreted as a domestic property, whereas a non-domestic property could have a door without being a house. The amendment gives collectors greater scope. It was felt to be unreasonable to prevent them from collecting scrap metal from commercial sites where that was an entirely legitimate part of their business.
I support the amendment because it makes sense to limit bureaucracy for operators and to streamline the process for local authorities. The Minister highlighted an example from London, and as a London MP, although I do not have any such businesses actively working in my constituency, I think it would be ridiculous if one could cross a borough boundary without even being aware of it and thus inadvertently break the law. As long as there is a base in the local authority area that is clearly identifiable with a postcode, it will be easy for a local authority to track down an operator that may be collecting from its area. That would be the same arrangement as in other regulatory regimes, so it makes sense.
The words “door to door” make a difference, for the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn. Because different types of operator, perhaps with different codes, may be involved, some control is necessary over who is collecting door to door from often quite vulnerable people, and that is better determined very locally. The suggestion that one local authority licenses each site-based operator makes considerable sense.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
‘(c) requires the licensee to display a large and visible identification badge on their vehicle(s), provided by the local authority.’.
Amendment 64, in clause 2, page 2, line 8, at end add—
‘(c) must be visibly displayed alongside road tax disc;
(d) must be carried at all times by the collector; and
(e) list all the vehicle registration details which are being used for the purpose of such business.’.
Amendments 63, 3 and 64 all deal with strengthening the ability to police the legislation. Under the Bill as drafted, only the police, the local authority and the Environment Agency can police its provisions, because only they have the information to hand about whether people are operating within the terms of the Bill. Of course, if there is an exchange of cash between the purchaser and seller, the seller will also be aware that the law has been broken, but they would be complicit and therefore unlikely to complain.
There is huge scope for extending the policing of the Bill by way of badging, as we do with taxis and other licensing regimes, so that the general public would be more aware that mobile collectors, at whom the amendment is aimed, are licensed by the local authority and that everything is probably in order, whereas operators without a badge would be operating illegally and likely to be identified far more quickly. Having the public police legislation is as desirable outcome, because that eases the burden on the police and local authority, barrelling in on abuses and on operators that are not operating within the law and offering the opportunity to identify rogue traders much quicker and more easily.
If the amendment were made, mobile collectors would be regarded as similar to taxi drivers: for example, a simple, cheap magnetic number plate that must be displayed at all times could be placed on the side of a vehicle, so that people could see precisely who is travelling up and down back alleys. In my constituency, a lot of metal is stolen by thieves who climb over back yards, or drive around suburban estates and enter via the front or the back to take anything they can out of the garage. Whatever they were carrying, people would see who those operators were and what the number on the vehicle was and could report that to the local authority, or, if there was not a number, they could report that to the local authority or, more appropriately, the police.
Containerisation is a huge issue that is not addressed in the Bill. The Bill covers scrap metal dealers, but organised criminals in the industry are stealing metals such as those in overhead power cables, and some evidence and analysis—or a guesstimate—seems to show that some 8 million tonnes is going out of the country in illegal exports in containers. There is some evidence that those metals do not even pass through the scrap metal industry. A lot of exported scrap metal goes to China to be reprocessed, because reprocessing does not really happen in this country. Vehicle badging will introduce a process of elimination for containers at ports, allowing ports authorities, police and highways authorities to identify stolen metal that is not badged and therefore is likely to have been stolen, meaning that those responsible would be in breach of the Bill. That is also an important aspect of the Bill. It is not an onerous or expensive provision. It is reasonable that those carrying metal identify themselves to the authorities and the general public. The legislation that we all want to succeed could do so even more significantly if that happens.
Site licences should be visibly displayed so that people can know and be assured, on entering a premises or a site, that the operator is cautious. That would seem obvious and perhaps unnecessary for those going to a big scrap metal yard, but, as has been mentioned in many discussions, a lot of intermediary sites are neither mobile collectors nor scrap metal yards, as might be determined by passersby. People would not know whether such sites, run by those making a living dealing out of skips or industrial units, or dealing in smaller quantities, were licensed. It is particularly important to consider those intermediary—the grey middle—sites.
The mobile collectors and the general public would feel a great deal of confidence, knowing that mobile collectors are licensed by the local authority with a visible licence. That would give much greater confidence in the legislation and would also have other minor benefits.
The Government ask the Committee not to accept this series of amendments. Clause 2 stipulates some criteria for the licence being given. Although the amendments do not directly change subsection (7), that says,
“A licence is to be in the form prescribed by the Secretary of State in regulations.”
The amendments would tie to a greater degree than is currently envisaged the hands of the Home Secretary when she or one of her successors decides what form the licence will take. We do not regard that as necessary. For example, the requirement to issue a badge could be regarded as excessively burdensome on local authorities. The requirement to collect a badge that had been issued to a licensee who no longer warranted the licence because they had offended may create an additional burden.
It might sound like a minor debating point for a Minister to put to the Committee, but essentially the degree of flexibility has been allowed for a reason, rather than setting out precise requirements for the colour and size of the badge, where it would be hung and how many would have to be shown at each site in order to comply. We share the objectives but are fearful that the measures would be cumbersome.
Before I give way, I propose an analogy, though it is not absolutely precise. People who drive cars are required to have a driving licence but not, as envisaged by this series of amendments, to stick it on their windscreens next to their road tax disc. I understand the point being made by the hon. Member for Hyndburn but, for reasons similar to the ones I gave earlier, we are keen that the burden of regulation is not excessively prescriptive.
I have a question about clause 2(7). As it is a matter of regulation, the Secretary of State could surely prescribe a minimum type of licence. I have seen in London’s Public Carriage Office the changes for minicabs, which now have a very distinctive badge. Whatever type of vehicle, be it a limousine or minicab at the cheaper end of the scale, it has to have a licence with a number displayed. That is different from the analogy the Minister raised of a driving licence. It does not include any personal information. There is obviously a small cost to produce them, but it does mean that anybody can see clearly that the operator is legitimate.
Under subsection (7), could the Secretary of State in regulations suggest something akin to the system used for minicabs in London that different local authorities could introduce along the lines they use for other regulatory regimes? That would keep costs low but would provide the much needed protection that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn outlined.
My understanding is that the Secretary of State could do precisely that. Indeed, the Secretary of State could also do something broadly in line with what is envisaged in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Hyndburn, if she chose. Our nervousness is about prescribing in greater detail the precise nature of the licensing arrangements for the visible product. We regard it as worth while that the Secretary of State should have the opportunity to consider whether the cost is justified, in terms of the burden put on the person applying for the licence, as well as whether we are being excessively prescriptive, whether the process would work in practice, whether the licences themselves would be too easily copied, whether there would be scope for fraud, or whether there would be practical considerations about licences being returned, if the holder of the licence were to infringe in some way.
My point is not that the Government do not share the concerns set out by the hon. Member for Hyndburn and others, but this is a question of whether the Government wish to constrain themselves to such a degree that the Secretary of State would be prevented from dealing with considerations that members of the Committee might regard as reasonable because the Bill was so tightly framed. We wish to retain a reasonable degree of flexibility—not absolute flexibility, obviously, because the clause makes all kinds of provisions—and we regard additional measures such as
“visibly displayed alongside road tax disc” as criteria that the Home Secretary does not necessarily require to put an effective regime in place.
Perhaps the Minister will indicate the Home Secretary’s views, given that it is her responsibility to put forward regulations prescribing the form of the licence under clause 2(7). The Minister might have to take such regulations through Parliament, but will the Government provide the time for that? There is merit in having something very visible, because it would be difficult for anyone to tell the difference between one white van and another going around collecting metal. The bad, unscrupulous scrap metal collectors might not have properly licensed vehicles that could be tracked down. There is merit in having a kind of visible licence that says, “You are handing over something to a legitimate collector.” Will the Minister indicate the Secretary of State’s thinking and the time scale in which regulations might be introduced?
My point is that there are lots of activities for which a person requires a licence, but we do not necessarily stipulate in legislation the precise terms of how that licence should be produced and displayed. We want to retain a degree of flexibility. It may well be that the Secretary of State, after being advised by Parliament and others, thinks that a visible badge is the right way to proceed, although I suppose somebody might challenge what constitutes
“a large and visible identification badge”,
as set out in amendment 3. I would not want the Secretary of State to fall foul of the amendments on the basis that such as badge was not as large as that envisaged by the hon. Member for Hyndburn. It might seem that I am making a trivial point, but it is not entirely trivial, because flexibility allows the Home Secretary to take account of perfectly reasonable representations that may be made to her about such areas as cost, proportionality and how prone to fraud the system is.
We are having a good debate, but I must say to the Minister and the hon. Member for Croydon South that the amendment is not prescriptive, apart from its use of the word “large”, although that is to ensure visibility. Given the localism agenda, I do not see why there is an objection to local authorities determining what is reasonable in terms of visibility, and that is what we are discussing. Does not the Minister accept that local authorities are able to determine reasonably what visible identification means, as they do with other licences, particularly in relation to vehicles?
The hon. Gentleman talks about localism. In theory, the Secretary of State could choose to put a less onerous system on local authorities than that envisaged in his amendments. Alternatively, she could choose to make the system more onerous and require even larger badges than he envisages. It could cut both ways.
I have just been given a note, and it might help the Committee if I say that, following a conversation with the Home Secretary, I am happy to provide in writing an indication of what form of identification she feels would work most effectively in practice. However, I accept that as she may not stay in her post for eternity, that might not provide ongoing satisfaction for the hon. Gentleman. Regulations under clause 2(7) will be made after Royal Assent, but before the commencement of the legislation.
Will the Minister therefore consider consulting with local authorities and police forces about the undoubted merits of the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and then reporting back to the House as part of the regulation-making process? We could then be assured that his view reflects that of police forces and local councils, whether that is in his terms or those expressed by my hon. Friend.
I am happy to give that undertaking to the right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Hyndburn and the Committee. I do not want hon. Members to think that we are operating at cross-purposes. There is value in having a clear demonstration of this licensing process, and in people understanding it and having the doubt removed about when they are transgressing. It may well be that the Home Secretary envisages a system that closely resembles that put forward in the amendments. I am more than happy to discuss this, but I just ask the Committee to give the Home Secretary the flexibility to make a judgment about precisely what form that system may take after taking account of a range of factors that she feels are appropriate, such as the potential for fraud and cost. I think that all members of the Committee would accept that it would be reasonable for her to consider such factors.
I want to add one other factor that the Home Secretary should take into account. One of the things that motivated me to get involved with this Committee was my experience talking to neighbourhood watch organisations in my constituency. They feel strongly about the threat of scrap metal theft and want to be able to do something about it. Greater visibility would help such organisations and other volunteers to combat scrap metal theft. I understand the need to maintain flexibility and the Home Secretary’s need to be able to take sensible decisions, but it is important that she bears in mind the role that neighbourhood watch organisations can play in dealing with scrap metal theft.
I accept that point; we all share the same objectives.
I hope that the hon. Member for Hyndburn will not press the amendment to a Division. We want a system that is onerous on scrap metal dealers, but that is not unduly onerous on legitimate scrap metal dealers. We want a system with proportionate costs. We want the Home Secretary to have scope to exercise discretion on the precise details of the scheme so that it is likely to be as effective as possible. Greater flexibility will allow for tweaks to be made over time on the basis of good practice, but that would be harder to achieve if the Home Secretary’s choices were restricted after the Bill is passed. We all envisage something similar, but I am just making a plea that the Home Secretary may bring what she might have in mind to the attention of Committee members, and that hon. Members will work on the basis that she will seek to act in good faith in line with their sentiments.
If the hon. Member for Hyndburn presses the amendment to a Division, I am afraid that I will not be able to support it, for the reasons that the Minister set out. The right hon. Member for Delyn made a sensible suggestion to which the Minister responded favourably, so I hope that the hon. Member for Hyndburn will withdraw the amendment.
Given the Minister’s comments, I am inclined to withdraw the amendment, but will he confirm that he will write to all police authorities and local authorities as part of a consultation on vehicle badges and make the information publicly available on the timetable that he described before the Bill comes into force?
I am a little reluctant to concede that I will write to all local authorities and police authorities, but I certainly give an undertaking that a considerable number of representative bodies will be consulted so that we can ascertain the views of people in police and local authorities. It might be excessively burdensome to trawl absolutely as widely as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I hope that his objections will be served by the undertaking that I have just given.
Mr Hanson rose—
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a minimum, it would be appropriate to consult the Local Government Association and the Welsh Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and, perhaps, the British Transport police, and that the results of the consultation should be published in due course as part of a statement by the Minister on the regulations?
It has got complicated, Mr Benton.
I am happy, through the hon. Member for Hyndburn, to communicate to the right hon. Member for Delyn that such an exercise with those types of representative bodies was what I had in mind. The Home Secretary could carry out such an appropriate consultation speedily, and that would inform the process and, I hope, satisfy the Committee. I undertake to do that.
We have had a good debate on this clause, so I will not delay the Committee other than to say that the clause authorises the licensee to carry out business as a scrap metal dealer in the local authority area, whether that be operating a site or collecting from door to door. The clause creates two separate licences. The first is a site licence, which should be obtained by any business that operates from a specific site, or sites, within a local authority area that is used to buy and sell scrap metal or where the business of a motor salvage operator is carried out. A site licence will cover all the premises operated by that business in the local authority area. The clause, as amended, will allow site licence holders to collect metal from any local authority area.
The second licence is for mobile collectors, who are referred to under the 1964 Act as itinerant collectors. Those individuals collect metals and are reliant on selling such metals to the scrap metal industry. The clause requires that collectors obtain a licence in each local authority area from which they will collect. That is right as it will allow local authorities to have control over the individuals who operate in their areas. That differs from a site licence, where holders can collect from any local authority area.