With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 48, in clause 19, page 11, line 25, leave out from ‘site’ to end of line 27.
Amendment 53, in schedule 1, page 13, line 23, leave out ‘site manager’ and insert ‘individual proposed to be named in the licence as a site manager’.
Amendment 54, in schedule 1, page 13, line 26, leave out ‘site manager’ and insert ‘individual proposed to be named in the licence as a site manager’.
Amendments 20, 21, 48, 53 and 54 are grouped together as they seek to clarify the use of the term “site manager” throughout the Bill. Amendment 20 seeks to ensure that local authorities consider the suitability of all individuals proposed to be named in the licence as a site manager at the point when the licence is being applied for. That is built upon further by amendment 48, which clarifies that the term “site manager” should only be used to define individuals who have day-to-day management control of a licensed site, rather than an individual manager of a proposed site.
Amendment 21 seeks to amend a drafting error in clause 3(3). The current wording states that a “relevant offence” committed by site managers is to be considered as part of the suitability test
“for the purposes of that subsection”.
That is incorrect, since a “relevant offence” needs to be considered for the purposes of “this section” as a whole.
Finally, amendments 53 and 54 seek to clarify the application process as outlined in schedule 1, making it clear that applications for a site licence should be accompanied by information relating to the
“individual proposed to be named in the licence”.
The amendments reflect the change made to the definition of a “site manager” by amendment 48, so that applications are not accompanied by information relating to licensed site managers; rather, information is provided on all proposed managers. Alternatively, in summary the definition of a “site manager” was thought to be a bit loose and the amendments seek to tighten it.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 6, in clause 3, page 3, line 8, at end add ‘and other environmental groups’.
Amendment 7, in clause 3, page 3, line 9, leave out ‘an officer of a police force’ and insert ‘the chief constable of a relevant police authority’.
May I reiterate, Mr Benton, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?
The official Opposition—Her Majesty’s Opposition—support the Bill in general terms, but we have tabled a number of amendments. I just want to place on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Croydon South for his courtesy in discussing the Bill, both prior to and after Second Reading.
However, there are a few amendments that we have tabled. Amendments 5, 6 and 7 to clause 3, which stand in my name, are designed to be helpful, as are all my amendments—genuinely, on this occasion—and to strengthen the Bill and provide consistency of approach across the country.
As you will know, Mr Benton, clause 3 is about the issue of a licence. Clause 3(1) states:
“A local authority must not issue or renew a scrap metal licence unless it is satisfied that the applicant is a suitable person to carry on business as a scrap metal dealer.”
The rest of clause 3 proposes how the local authority determines that activity.
Clause 3(7) states:
“The authority may consult other persons regarding the suitability of an applicant, including in particular—
(a) the Environment Agency;
(b) an officer of a police force.”
I welcome Government amendment 22, which looks at local authorities, but I wish to draw the Committee’s attention to two points about clause 3(7). The first is the word, “may”. Amendment 5 would delete the word, “may”, and insert the word, “must”. That is a simple approach to ensure that we have consistency across the country in relation to consultation.
For example—I pick these constituencies randomly—in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hendon, Barnet council “may” decide to consult the Environment Agency and a police officer, whereas in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Southwark council “may” decide not to do that. Alternatively, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the council “may” decide to consult the agency and the police, whereas in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead the council “may” decide not to do that. In London alone, we would potentially have four approaches, because the word “may” allows an authority to decide whether to consult the Environment Agency. Information from the Environment Agency may or may not be supplied. The word “must” simply gives certainty that the authority will consult as part of their consideration of subsection (1), which concerns the suitability of a person to carry on business as a scrap metal dealer.
The deletion of “may” and insertion of “must” gives consistency of approach from every local authority: in considering subsection (1), every local authority must consult the organisations in subsection (7). I support the Environment Agency and I am happy for it to be consulted. I have suggested that
“an officer of a police force” be deleted from subsection (7)(b), and the words
“the chief constable of a relevant police authority” be inserted. Again, it might be that such matters will be dealt with by officers of local authorities. Even under “may”, an officer of a local authority may consult the local PC that they know or the local superintendent or inspector. They may give a view as the local superintendent, local PC, or local inspector. If they consult the chief constable, the chief constable will undoubtedly delegate it down, but in delegating it down it will have been dealt with by the force, not by an individual officer. My amendment is designed to strengthen “may” to “must”, and to give a senior level of authority to the consultation that is undertaken.
I have also included “other environmental groups”, which I accept is a woolly statement and not one that legislation likes. When I was a Home Office Minister, I, too, was passed notes by the officials here today. If such an amendment had been proposed by the then Opposition, I am sure that notes would have been passed to me and drawn to my attention. I accept that it is a woolly statement, but I would welcome the Minister’s view on whether we should widen “Environment Agency” to “other environmental groups”. If the Minister feels that that is woolly, I am happy not to press that amendment. However, I feel strongly that “must” should replace “may”. I feel strongly that
“an officer of a police force” is too general and too specific and could relate to anybody. The chief constable has the authority and should be given that authority.
I welcome the amendment that the Minister has proposed. In doing so, may I welcome him to his post? It is a great privilege to serve at the Home Office. I am sure he will enjoy it. We look forward to dealing with him when he explains which bit of the Home Office he is ultimately dealing with. Some of us in the Opposition will deal with him on those matters in due course.
Mr Benton, welcome to the Chair. It is a pleasure to serve under you. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South for bringing forward the Bill. I have spoken before on this issue in the House. Like many colleagues, I have a constituency history of noticing that the law clearly needed to be improved and therefore the opportunity to contribute a little to this debate was much appreciated.
I want to say two things. First, I am sympathetic to the argument made by the right hon. Member for Delyn. I will obviously listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane—the new Minister—will say. I welcome him to his new job. I will also listen to what the sponsor of the Bill will say. One thing that I hope the amendments will address is the mischief of tracking back, as it were, through people and companies that were existing under one guise and now exist under another. In the world of small businesses, the rogues often trade under one name. They then disappear under that name, either because they have gone bankrupt, because of financial difficulties or because they attracted the interest of the law, and they reappear either with the same sole trader, the same single director or directors, or a combination of directors, under another name. It is important to ensure that we do not lose the intelligence and history.
When we have looked at this group of amendments and the other amendments to do with whether somebody, or a company, is suitable, I am keen that we look at who the director is, who the secretary is, and so on. We also have to look at local authorities’ engagement with the company—whether it has been refused, what its history is—so that we do not remain blind to the use of company law to disguise whom we are dealing with. That is a common problem for consumers—not necessarily in this industry alone. Recently, I have had other dealings with constituents who have not been paid by a trader, whom they then discover is trading under another name very happily—doing business down the road and clearly being paid for something else. We must ensure that people are not allowed to get away with that. There are a lot of good practitioners, good scrap metal dealers—I have some in Southwark, and there are many others—whom we need to ensure are allowed to get on with business reputably and whom we need to support.
I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman’s points. Does he consider Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be one of the organisations to which he refers? HMRC has been heavily involved in Operation Tornado and other initiatives to combat metal theft. It clearly has a stake as regards some of the larger sites—a considerable amount of cash was found at some of them during Operation Tornado, and HMRC was tracing all of that. That would be relevant to whether someone should have a licence to operate or a licence to operate across several sites.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: HMRC is a relevant player. Like most members of the Committee, I am keen to have a smaller Bill, rather than having lots of extra things added in. None the less, I hope—the right hon. Member for Delyn made the same point—that we do not get stuck with the same old phrase, which might come off the word processor in any Department, to describe something. For example, clause 3(7) states:
“The authority may consult other persons regarding the suitability of an applicant, including in particular…an officer of a police force.”
I know that last phrase is the traditional term of art, but the logic is that we go to the head of a force who then delegates the responsibility. I hope that we can be sensible and imaginative in getting the right words, so that the Bill says what it means and so that people reading it can understand it as clearly as possible.
The obvious players—the hon. Member for Hyndburn mentions one—should be seen to be people with whom checks are carried out, certainly including the Treasury, HMRC, the police, the Environment Agency and the local authority. Environmental groups, I accept, are a slightly broader issue. That information will be out there, and they could be covered by something along the lines of “other groups with an appropriate interest”. Obviously I am happy to hear what colleagues say, but in the end we must get it right.
There are ways of dealing with the hon. Gentleman’s points without ending up with a whole list a mile long—we could have government agencies, secondary legislation, guidance as to who can be consulted and so on. I am keen to get some clear legislation for people in the business and who deal with the business and for prospective punters who are looking for loopholes through the system.
I shall mention my example once and then I shall not have to do so again: people in my constituency got most agitated recently not because of churches or railway lines, although those might have been reasons, but because two valued works of art suddenly disappeared—the Barbara Hepworth sculpture down in the south of the borough and a lovely statue, on the wall in Rotherhithe, of one of my most eminent predecessors, Alfred Salter, a great Member of Parliament for Bermondsey. They were seen by many visitors, but were there one day, gone the next—nicked. They were of no real value in scrap terms, but of huge value in historical, local, cultural and interest terms. That really offended people.
We want to ensure that the so-and-sos—I could use a six-letter word—who think that they can get away with it in the end know that—[Interruption.] There are boundaries of parliamentary appropriateness, but I know what we would call them in Bermondsey. They should not be able to find loopholes through the system. That is what we are about: having tight legislation that catches the people who abuse the system but ensures that good traders have a good business and that in the end we have legislation that is readable, easy to understand and means what it says.
With your permission, Mr Benton, I will speak to Government amendment 22 and then amendments 5, 6 and 7 in the name of the right hon. Member for Delyn. Government amendment 22 concerns the person whom it is recommended that authorities consult although, as I will say in a moment, they are not obliged to do so. Subsection (7) gives the Environment Agency or an officer of a police force as examples of organisations that could be consulted. The amendment would add “any other local authority”. That gives a little more consistency to the Bill but in practical terms it would make sense to consult another licensing authority if there were reason to doubt the record of the person presenting himself or herself. Other licensing authorities are likely to have relevant background information, so it was felt useful to recommend that that conversation take place. I do not think that it is particularly controversial.
Senior officers often move from one local authority to the neighbouring authority, or to one nearby. The hon. Member for Walsall North is here; I know that officers from my local authority in Dudley have worked for Walsall and vice versa. These officers also take their expertise with them. It would be a good idea for local authorities to talk to each other at a senior level and exchange information. That is often done on a personal level through a relationship with an officer who once worked with another officer in a neighbouring authority.
I thank my hon. Friend. Indeed, a scrap metal dealer who has operated in a quite a confined geographical area might seek to expand his business into another part of the country. It would not be unreasonable for the authority there to ask the authority in the area where the dealer had predominantly operated whether it had ever had reason to withhold a licence from him. There is nothing to stop that happening now. Members of the Committee may think that the amendment is unnecessary, but we saw some value in it, partly for reasons of consistency with other parts of the Bill. It is not particularly controversial.
It would be slightly more controversial if amendments 5, 6 and 7 were agreed to by the Committee. Then it would become a requirement, rather than just an option, for the local authority to consult other local authorities. It is worth reminding the Committee that there are quite a lot of obligations on the licensing authority. Subsection (1) states:
“A local authority must not issue or renew a scrap metal licence unless it is satisfied that the applicant is a suitable person to carry on business as a scrap metal dealer.”
Subsection (6) states:
“The authority must also have regard to any guidance on determining suitability which is issued from time to time by the Secretary of State.”
I would not wish the Committee to form the impression that this is very loosely defined. The bit that the right hon. Member for Delyn seeks to change from “may” to “must” is about a consultation process in which other views may be sought. The Government are nervous about this point, because the list is not exhaustive. Local authorities can—may if they wish—consult any number of organisations if they feel that that is necessary in order to do their job properly. We are talking not about a definitive list, but merely a recommendation. There may be circumstances in which a particularly respected bona fide dealer has been operating for decades, is extremely well known in a tightly prescribed area, and renews their licence on a periodic basis. The absolute requirement in law to consult the Environment Agency may not be deemed to be necessary by the local authority. It may wish to do that, but we feel that it would be excessively onerous to require it to do so in those types of circumstances, which is why we do not support amendment 5.
Amendment 6, as the right hon. Member for Delyn acknowledged, is somewhat woolly. I am not sure what the definition of “other environmental groups” is. If the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion were still here, she may have regarded a consultation with her as being a stipulation under amendments 5 and 6, if both were to be passed. The Environment Agency is a clearly understood group, and the term “environmental groups” in broad, non-specified terms is too loose for the Bill.
Amendment 7 puts a routine burden on very senior police officers. If amendment 5 were passed, chief constables would be required to approve every single roving or site scrap metal licence in their area of jurisdiction, which seems a rather routine task for an officer of such seniority.
The chief constable would not have to approve the licence application. The simple requirement is that the authority must consult the chief constable, and therefore the force as a whole. Let me give the Minister an example. In Flintshire, the local police officer who may be consulted could be the superintendant or the inspector. The chief constable might have wider information to hand in the wider force that shows that the scrap metal dealer is not suitable for a licence. It is simply a delegated matter. An application will land on the chief constable’s desk and be delegated down.
My suspicion is that it will be delegated to
“an officer of a police force”, as stipulated under subsection (7)(b). The Government are arguing that councils have all kinds of obligations placed on them under the legislation, but we should like to have a degree of flexibility in the consultation, particularly because in the case of some applicants—it may be just a small minority of them—it would not be necessary, or should not be a requirement, to consult that widely if there was confidence in the local authority that that person was suitable. As for the level of organisations consulted, it is felt by the Government that those stipulated in the legislation are adequate.
The Minister said—I paraphrase—“In my view, this would be handed on to an officer of the police force.” There is a difference between the local chief constable delegating it to the right officer of the police force, and any officer of a police force being the statutory consultee, as is provided for in subsection (7). Let us talk through what would practically happen. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn has said, this would land on the desk of the chief constable. In my area, it could be done at borough level if that were more appropriate, because the Metropolitan police has a slightly different set-up. If it happened in my area, the borough commander would receive it and it would be delegated, probably without him even having sight of it, to the relevant officer or officers, rather than just any officer. I have a number of neighbourhood police teams in my area, so if the scrap metal merchant was based in their area, it might be good to consult them, depending on what was going on. If there was a suspicion that that scrap metal dealer had a wider area of work, then that would be picked up much more effectively at the higher level of a police authority.
Let us have an example. A scrap metal site dealer in Taunton Deane borough council administrative area applies for a licence to operate the site. The legislation puts all kinds of requirements on the local authority, and also suggests that it may wish to consult widely on the suitability of the applicant and the sites with, for example—this is not an exhaustive list—the Environment Agency, the local police and, if amendment 22 is agreed to, other relevant local authorities. There is a big difference between that and saying that when a person, perhaps a door-to-door collector, walks into Taunton Deane borough council’s offices, the council “must” consult the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police, whose headquarters are 50 miles away in Bristol—he has one of the biggest force areas in the country—and not the relevant chief superintendent in Taunton. People might regard the latter as a more sensible or suitable level at which to check on the reputation of an individual in Taunton Deane.
Under amendments 5 and 7, the council “must” consult the chief constable of Avon and Somerset, and we regard that as excessively prescriptive.
Opposition Members have conceded that if someone went along to the chief constable in Avon and Somerset and asked him what he thought of all the applications he had received from Taunton Deane borough council, he would say that he had not read them, because they would have passed so quickly across his desk. The Opposition appear to be putting a requirement on the chief constable that he would not be able to discharge to his satisfaction.
“an officer of a police force”, whoever that might be, why is the Minster allowing that an officer of a local authority “may” take that decision, rather than “must”? There might be information with the Environment Agency, or with whichever officer of a police force is consulted, that might have a material impact on the authority’s issue of a licence under subsection (1), yet the Minister says that it is a matter of choice for the local authority to consult, not a matter of need. He might as well not put the provision in the Bill, because there is no legislative framework for “may” consult; the authority “may” consult whether subsection (7) is there or not.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I may defer to the person whose Bill it is on why subsection (7) is in the Bill, on the basis that the authority may consult whomever it wishes—nothing in the Bill prevents the authority from doing that. It may consult the right hon. Gentleman—we could add that as an amendment as well. What we are nervous about is obliging the local authority to consult a list of organisations in all circumstances, even when it has good reason to believe that that is not necessary. If we make consulting a requirement rather than a suggestion, it makes more sense to make the list exhaustive, just to ensure that there are no organisations that could have been consulted that are not stipulated in the legislation.
Let me give the Minister an example. If the authority satisfies itself under subsection (1), without consulting the Environment Agency or a police force, that a licence is suitable, and subsequently it comes to light that the police force had information that would have had an impact on a decision under subsection (1), what liability does the authority have?
Indeed, but then one could draw the list even more widely, to include all kinds of organisations that might have relevant information. For example, under subsection (7)(b)
“an officer of a police force” could include an officer of the British Transport police. It would not necessarily have to be someone in the police force that geographically was responsible for the site within which the person wanted to operate. If there was a requirement, which is what the right hon. Gentleman says, rather than just a “may”, we would have to include a list of the organisations that “must” be consulted. To have recommendations of that sort rather than an exhaustive list would probably not be satisfactory, if it were an absolute requirement.
The Minister has mentioned a number of times a situation where local authorities might feel that someone is legitimate before they consult on them. Is there not another important situation that we need to deal with, where the licensing authority has information that someone should not be a scrap metal dealer and should not be licensed? The authority should not be forced to go through a long and arduous consultation process, but should be free to act. Would we not want our local authorities to be able to act without having to go through the process of writing to numerous organisations?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. If somebody is clearly unsuitable, why should the local authority be obliged to waste the time of people at the Environment Agency when they already know the outcome?
If that is the case, why do later clauses allow for 21 days and an appeal, and people to operate even though they have been denied a licence in the first place? We can return to that later.
In active negotiation, I will not press amendments 6 and 7. However, if the hon. Member for Croydon South felt that it was merited to mention that the Environment Agency and the police force may be consulted, those are two organisations put in the Bill as potentially having information that will materially impact on subsection (1). At the moment, in the Bill, consulting is left to the discretion of the local authority, rather than being compulsory. I wish the Minister and the hon. Member for Croydon South to consider “may” and “must”. In the spirit of co-operation, I will not take forward the concerns dealt with in amendments 6 and 7.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester put his finger on it. I can see what is being attempted here, but one has to trust the local authorities to a degree. They have discretion, and if they conclude that Hanson Rag and Bone Ltd, operating in Delyn, has behaved impeccably, as I am sure it would, for three years, why should they be bound by “must” to recheck and re-consult? One must give the local authority the discretion. I will ask the Home Office to look at the point and review it. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Delyn for his words. He has presumably said he is withdrawing amendment 5.
I am not necessarily withdrawing the amendment. I am trying to be helpful; we do not want to delay the Committee. The words “may consult” in the Bill are worthless, because the authority may or may not consult. There will be inconsistencies between authorities, both in London and in other areas. Some authorities will choose to consult on all applications, and some will not. In the spirit of localism, that might be a good thing.
However, there is also the spirit of ensuring that we have traders who, in accordance with clause 3(1), are “suitable” applicants to carry on a business as scrap metal dealers. The police might have information of which the local authority may not be aware. Hanson Rag and Bone Ltd in Delyn may have been operating fairly for many years, but the police may have information that it is not. The police might or might not want to volunteer that. If the authority has a statutory duty to consult the Environment Agency and a police force, the police force will have to respond to that “must”, rather than “may”.
In the spirit of co-operation, I will take it that the hon. Member for Croydon South wishes to consult Home Office officials. However, before I withdraw the amendments, I seek to know at what stage that consultation will take place and whether he will agree to report back to me by letter on the outcome, so that there is the potential for an amendment on Report or in another place.
I am not in a position to bind the Home Office; I am simply promoting the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman made the point, with regard to amendment 5, that the police may have some information. I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks talking to the police and local government about this. If the police had information, local government would certainly know about it because the co-operation of local government is needed to get into the yard and to carry out action. We will discuss that later.
I hope that I have put the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns to rest, but I cannot agree to the amendment and am not in a position to make any offers to him.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 2, in clause 3, page 3, line 16, at end add—
‘(c) other such conditions as are consistent with preventing crime.’.
Amendment 65, in clause 3, page 3, line 16, at end add—
‘(c) that all sales and purchases should be supported by photographic evidence.’.
Amendment 24, in clause 4, page 3, line 27, at beginning insert
‘If the licensee or any site manager named in the licence is convicted of a relevant offence,’.—
Amendment 60, in schedule 1, page 15, line 6, after ‘against’, insert ‘—
( ) the inclusion in a licence of a condition under section 3(8), or
( ) ’.
Amendment 61, in schedule 1, page 15, line 10, after ‘application,’, insert ‘to include the condition,’.
I will address this group of amendments in three sections. The amendments all substantially relate to clause 3(8), which states:
“The authority may include in the licence one or both of the following conditions”.
Members may think that paragraph (a) is potentially an extremely onerous requirement, as it states that
“the dealer must not receive scrap metal between specified hours of the day”.
One could say that the dealer will not receive metal between 4 o’clock in the afternoon and 3 o’clock the following afternoon. In other words, the dealer would be allowed to operate for only one hour in every 24-hour cycle. The point has been raised that, as set out in the Bill, that would give the local authority a potentially draconian power and appear to assume impropriety, even when there is no good reason to believe such impropriety exists.
Government amendments 23 and 24 would ensure that, instead of the conditions potentially being imposed by a local authority on any scrap metal dealer, the conditions could only be imposed on a scrap metal dealer if a transgression had taken place. The conditions would be probationary arrangements where there was reason to believe that the revocation of the licence would be excessive but where practices mean such greater restrictions were appropriate. In our view, giving local authorities the ability to impose such restrictions as a matter of course would be excessive for the reasons I have set out.
Government amendments 60 and 61 would put in place an appeals process. Again, the point was made to us—it is reasonable, because we want people to be able to operate legitimate businesses freely without feeling persecuted by the state—that if a local authority were to implement such onerous conditions under subsection 8(a) that it became impossible for a scrap metal dealer to operate on any commercially sensible basis and if the dealer felt that the grounds for suspicion did not justify such constraint, they should be able to appeal. I hope that the Committee regards that as naturally just.
The Government oppose amendments 1, 2 and 65, and I will explain why. Amendment 2’s insertion of
“other such conditions as are consistent with preventing crime” seems extraordinarily wide, covering crime in all its forms. If Government amendment 23 were passed, we could add specific extra conditions covering criminal activities that might be relevant and should be taken into account, but considering all crime in its grisly entirety is, in our view, too wide-ranging to be accommodated in practice.
The Government feel that amendment 65’s requirement that
“all sales and purchases should be supported by photographic evidence” is excessively onerous to deploy as a matter of course, and would impede legitimate businesses unnecessarily. As I said, if amendment 23 were accepted, we could consider putting a probationary requirement of that type on businesses that had already transgressed and shown errant behaviour, but the Government regard requiring it as a matter of course for all scrap metal dealers, even when there is no reason to assume that their behaviour as anything other than proper, as too burdensome on business.
It will not surprise Committee members that I recommend that they endorse Government amendments 23, 24, 60 and 61 but reject amendments 1, 2 and 65.
Let me start by saying what is pretty obvious, as I spoke on Second Reading: I fully support the measure before us. Even the provocative and controversial remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, who is not here at the moment, will not provoke me to controversy.
The wording of the amendments is on the amendment paper. Basically, they propose to provide some flexibility to local authorities on the cost and conditions of the licences to be granted. They are meant to be constructive and not controversial.
The amendments would allow local authorities to impose local conditions on the licence to be granted, in the same way as other forms of licensing. In many respects, it would also give local authorities the opportunity to deal with the sorts of dealer who are not considered to be acting in the public interest, and certainly not in the interest of the local community.
I have received a letter from Councillor Jennifer Brathwaite, the chair of the Lambeth metal theft scrutiny commission, who explained that Lambeth council in south London has established that commission to investigate what steps the council and others can take to reduce metal theft in and around the borough. She wrote:
“However, from the work we have undertaken it is clear that the ability to impose local conditions on a licence would enable us and our neighbours to better target the particular issues that we face in Lambeth and across South London. The flexibility in the Licensing Act 2003 has already proved successful in enabling the authority to address the local circumstances we face, such as responding to street-drinking.”
I therefore believe that my amendments would be useful in regard to metal dealing.
I have mentioned Lambeth in south London. I have become involved, by speaking on Second Reading and being a member of this Committee, because my borough of Walsall in the west midlands is absolutely plagued by the most unfortunate aspects of metal dealing. On Second Reading, I quoted a letter from one of my constituents—I do not wish to try your patience, Mr Benton—who explained the pain and agony that occurs daily as a result of what is happening.
There is no doubt that the Bill is required, but I simply reiterate that it is most important for local authorities to have some flexibility. I take the Minister’s point that preventing crime in the way he described would be to widen the issue, and I am willing to listen to other Members on that particular aspect. However, I hope that, even if the amendments are opposed in Committee, the Government and the promoter of the Bill will consider introducing some amendments on Report to provide the flexibility that the Bill now lacks.
I am interested to hear both sides of the argument. It puts me in mind of a case when I was first selected as a local authority councillor years ago. I had to deal with people illegally fixing cars on the street and illegally parking. As a local councillor, I had to pull together a large number of different agencies, including everything from—nationally—the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to different aspects of the council’s regulation process.
Although the activity was clearly antisocial, with bits of it verging on the illegal, it was very difficult to get the police or other licensing authorities to act in the round because the law was too prescriptive in each individual area. It took a great deal of co-ordination to attempt to tackle the problem effectively. I therefore have a lot of sympathy with the aims of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North.
I wonder whether, in the spirit of good will outlined by the Minister, the Home Office and the promoter of the Bill might look again at the wording; I back the intent. I clearly heard the Minister say that if the Bill is drawn too widely, without any restriction, issues might arise. I have to say that, in the spirit of the Government’s attachment to localism—I went into local government as a strong neighbourhood localist—I have some sympathy with such a position. It seems to me that if we trust local government to make its own decisions, we should listen to colleagues such as Councillor Jennifer Brathwaite in Lambeth and others, and trust them to do their job. After all, they are democratically accountable.
I hear the Home Office’s reservations, but, in the spirit of collaboration, perhaps there might be an attempt to make the wording more suitable for the Government, without losing the intention.
To follow on from the hon. Lady’s remarks and those of the hon. Member for Walsall North, the Government would not be happy to accept a wording as broad as
“other such conditions as are consistent with preventing crime”.
In our view, that would cast the net very widely, but provided that the case for new permissions was made and that they applied after conviction, we could look at toughening up that provision or the stipulations within it. As the hon. Member for Walsall North said, we could, with the permission of the sponsor of the Bill, consider ways of injecting a little bit more rigour without creating impracticalities.
It is not my Bill, but I can say on behalf of the Home Office that, assuming that the Government amendments are agreed to, we could consider what probationary measures are imposed on transgressors in a way that may satisfy the Committee to a greater extent than it is currently satisfied.
For the record, I am more than pleased for the Home Office to consider this matter. I will consult with its officials about the outcome of their deliberations.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 17, in schedule 1, page 14, line 2, leave out from ‘authority’ to end of line 4.
Amendment 57, in schedule 1, page 14, line 2, leave out from ‘authority’ to end of line 4 and insert—
‘(2) In setting a fee under this paragraph, the authority must have regard to any guidance issued from time to time by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Treasury.’.
I want to speak briefly to amendment 15, which, if I have drafted it correctly—I may not have done so—simply deals with the Secretary of State’s determining the level of the fee in schedule 1(6) and the guidance about it, which is important for local authorities.
If the Minister cannot agree to the amendment, I hope that he will reflect on whether the guidance should be considered by resolution in the House, thereby allowing hon. Members, who will undoubtedly receive representations about the guidance, at least to exercise their vote accordingly. That would provide the Minister with discretion do exactly what he wants, but with the House giving final approval.
Having said at the beginning that I was keen to try to be accommodating, and having not been that accommodating in the past two and a quarter hours, I now have the opportunity to be a bit more accommodating than I have been hitherto. This is a slightly complicated matter. Schedule 1(6) states:
“An application must be accompanied by a fee set by the authority, which must not exceed the amount set out in, or determined by, regulations made by the Secretary of State.”
In other words, the Secretary of State can impose a cap on the fee that the authority can charge.
The Home Office has given further consideration to the arrangement and, on that basis, has introduced Government amendment 57, which effectively removes the cap for a number of reasons. First, there is concern about why a cap is appropriate. If it is seeking to recover costs, which may vary in different parts of the country, for example, a cap may not be the right way to proceed.
There may be a tendency for local authorities to set their fee at the cap, as if there were a central-Government-stipulated level, which was not the intention. As members of the Committee can see, instead of having the cap originally envisaged, amendment 57 proposes that, in setting a fee under that paragraph, the authority must have regard to the guidance issued from time to time by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Treasury.
If Government amendment 57 were endorsed by the Committee, amendment 15, which proposes that the cap should be approved by Parliament, would no longer apply, because there would be no cap for Parliament to approve. Amendment 17 would also be redundant.
The matter about which I am most keen to be conciliatory is amendment 66, introduced so concisely by the hon. Member for Hyndburn, under which the local authority could charge for licences and fees chargeable, but the amount that they could charge would have to be published with that notice period so that people had an understanding. Other fees levied by local authorities have stipulated notice periods so people know where they stand and, if the fee were to change substantially, people may wish to take that into account.
With the indulgence of the Committee, I would prefer that the spirit of amendment 66 were taken away by the people at the Home Office who draft such measures and that the Government came up with their own version of the amendment. That is not because we wish to steal the thunder of the hon. Member for Hyndburn, but because those who draft policy on behalf of the Home Office seem to regard their ability to be superior to his when it comes to getting the details right.
The underlying sentiment of the hon. Gentleman’s argument is regarded as reasonable, so I hope that the Committee will remove the cap by supporting Government amendment 57, making amendments 15 and 17 redundant, and that amendment 66 is withdrawn with my undertaking that we shall seek to accommodate its spirit, although in our own precise drafting form.
I appreciate the tone of the Minister’s comments and thank him for accepting that the measure was drafted to help scrap metal dealers and the industry rather than hinder them. I presume that he did not mean 1966, but I shall take away the spirit of that year. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
A limitation of the 1964 Act was the inability of local authorities to refuse to register businesses as scrap metal dealers, regardless of how unlawful their behaviour was. The clause will remedy that by giving local authorities the ability to license only those operators who are considered suitable against set criteria.
The grounds against which suitability should be assessed are outlined under subsection (2). Suitability should be assessed in relation to previous relevant convictions; any previous relevant enforcement action; any previous scrap metal dealer and/or environmental permit application refusals; whether any scrap metal dealer licences have been previously refused; and whether the application has demonstrated that adequate procedures will be in place to ensure that the licence conditions will be met. A licence holder will need to demonstrate that the appropriate procedures are in place to comply with licence conditions and, in particular, whether people have a bank account to comply with the requirement not to purchase scrap metal for cash.
The requirements are not intended to be onerous; the clause reflects the views that I have perceived in a range of organisations and aims to help ensure that only law-abiding individuals and businesses are allowed to trade as scrap metal dealers. I believe that the grounds for suitability are reasonable and proportionate, and that there are enough safeguards under the Bill to ensure that local authority decisions are well considered and that there is a proper judicial appeal process.