HC Deb 24 April 1964 vol 693 cc1724-32

12.30 p.m.

Mr. W. Howie (Luton)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 6, after "place", to insert "or elsewhere".

Mr. Speaker

It will probably be convenient for the House to discuss at the same time the Amendment in line 8, after "place", insert "or elsewhere".

Mr. Howie

That will be convenient, Mr. Speaker.

The Bill generally is part of the modernisation of Britain which is going on. It has the effect of gathering together the rules under which the scrap metal trade is conducted. The laws date back to 1861, and the most recent Measure dates from 1907. In the Committee my hon. Friends were generally in agreement with the aims of the Bill and fully accepted its ideas, but some of us feel that there are aspects of the Measure which can be improved, and my Amendments are intended to deal with one difficulty which we have perceived. I am more interested in having the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry), the sponsor of the Bill, accept the principle of my Amendment rather than the precise words, about which I am a little doubtful.

Clause 2 obliges scrap metal dealers to keep a book in which to record the material which they have gathered in. Subsection (1,a) states that the dealer shall enter into the book particulars of all scrap metal received at "that place", that being the place where he conducts his business and has his store. I am told that certain scrap metal dealers in carrying out part of their business are in the habit of buying a lorry-load, cart-load or truck-load of scrap at one place and transferring it directly to the eventual purchaser. To comply with the Bill, the dealer would have to take the consignment into his store and receive it at "that place", register it in the book and then send it out to the eventual purchaser. This seems an unreasonable procedure.

I have been told in conversations that this difficulty is covered by Clause 3(5), but I notice that that is concerned with the scrap metal dealer who does not occupy any place as a scrap metal store. An Amendment along the lines that I have suggested would remove what seems to be an anomaly and improve the Bill.

Sir Donald Kaberry (Leeds, North-West)

I appreciate the motives of the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie), and I recognise that in Committee his colleagues showed that they wished to make the Bill a modern and workable proposition for the control and dealing in scrap metal of scrap metal dealers, but I hope that after what I have to say the hon. Member will feel disposed to withdraw his Amendment.

The object of the Bill is clearly set out in Clauses 1 and 2. Clause 1 provides that every local authority shall keep a register of everyone in the area dealing in scrap metal, and it becomes the duty of every scrap metal dealer, defined as in the Clause, to register at the place where he carries on his business. Clause 2 requires the dealer to keep very strict and clear records of all metals received by him at that place and all metals sold by him from that place of business.

The Bill lays down that it will be an offence for a dealer to carry on his business at a place other than that at which he is registered. It may well be that he will be carrying on business in the areas of several local authorities, and he will be required to register in each of those areas.

Despite the good intentions of the hon. Member for Luton, the effect of the Amendment would be to put an excessive burden upon the scrap metal dealer in any one area. If we added to the provision concerning scrap metal brought into or sent out of the dealer's place of business the words "or elsewhere", it would mean that at each place the dealer would have to keep a full record of all transactions at all his places of business. I am sure that hon. Members would accept that that would be an unnecessary burden for the dealer.

The hon. Member for Luton expressed fears about transactions taking place on a truck. I do not think this happens at all; if it does, it is on the rarest of occasions. No reputable scrap metal dealer does other than take the metal to his place of business or yard. He does that for specific reasons. He wants to weigh it in his yard, check its quality and quantity and sort it out.

In addition, if the Bill is to be a workable proposition it is absolutely essential that the fullest details of transactions shall be entered into the books required to be kept under Clause 2. The whole object of the Bill is to ensure that records are kept. Every local authority has insisted on this since 1861—though I need not go now into the details of why that is. If a scrap metal dealer got into the habit of carrying out transactions away from his place of business, he might well find himself in difficulties through carrying on business from a place at which he was not registered, for which he would be subject to fairly heavy penalties.

However, I draw attention to Clause 3(5). If a scrap metal dealer has no yard of his own and he is collecting metal elsewhere and immediately delivering it to somebody else, that provision requires; him to keep a full record of all metal received in the course of his business as a scrap metal dealer.

For all those reasons, I hope that the hon. Member will feel inclined to withdraw his Amendment, having made his point. I assure him and the House that I am fully conscious of the motives which inspired him to try to tighten up the law on this point to make sure that there is no gap through which a man who may be inclined to some degree of dishonesty tray escape the full provisions of the Bill. Having regard to the way the Bill is drawn and the existing practice, there is no fear that anything wrong will be done.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

I support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry). The Clause makes it clear what happens. The dealer often buys the scrap and then takes it into store and does what is known as a breakdown. He finds that he has perhaps a certain amount of brass, a certain amount of copper, a certain amount of steel and perhaps even some nickel. He has to break it all down and to check it in his yard, and he invoices it out in that form. Clause 2 refers to all scrap metal either processed at, or despatched from, that place". In paragraph (a) and (b) we have built in a certain degree of safeguard.

The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) envisaged a certain different type of transaction. I do not think that any reputable scrap metal dealer would indulge in this type of trading. Moreover, as I read the Amendment, I do not think that it would achieve the object which the hon. Member has in mind, because the wording would cover metal received by anyone, anywhere.

One of the problems is that there are two types of dealer both of whom we wish to bring under the scope of legislation. There is the type of dealer described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West, who brings the stuff in, weighs it, checks it, and then sends it out. This Clause and other Clauses endeavour to make sure that he has a proper record, that the public is protected, that larceny to some extent is prevented and that the law is brought up to date.

There is a different type of dealer, known as a totter, who buys from private households and various sources and then disposes of the material, usually to a dealer, though this may not be the case. This is the type of transaction which the hon. Member for Luton is trying to include, but I do not think that this is the right way to do it. This form of transaction could be dealt with under Clause 3(5) in respect of the itinerant dealer. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that this type of transaction would be better caught under a different Clause rather than by altering this Clause. I appreciate the sentiments which prompted the hon. Member to put down the Amendment and to give us an opportunity to discuss the matter, but I do not think that it achieves the object which could be achieved under Clause 3(5). I cannot support the Amendment and I hope that the hon. Member will, in due time, withdraw it.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I am somewhat in a quandary about the Amendment. I listened to the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) and I feel that there is something in what he said. Very reputable scrap dealers have contracts with smelting firms under which they deliver scrap, which most smelting firms want. The dealer goes round buying the scrap from factories and elsewhere, and he wishes to deliver it straight to the smelting firm, thus cutting down his handling and transport charges.

That is a respectable and useful contract, but it can be abused if a dishonest scrap dealer obtains scrap from a dishonest source, for he is not caught by the Bill. I heard what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry) about that, but I am awaiting the answer of the Under-Secretary of State to see whether the type of transaction to which the hon. Member for Luton referred, and to which I referred in a little more detail, is caught by the Bill. It could easily lend itself to dishonesty, and there is, therefore, a great deal to be said for the Amendment, which the House ought to consider carefully. If the type of transaction to which the hon. Member for Luton referred, and to which I have referred in greater detail, is not caught under the Bill, we ought to insert provisions to make certain that the Bill catches that type of transaction.

A dealer may take a lorry-load straight from the factory to the furnace, and he may weigh it and then enter it into his book a short time afterwards. Every factory is accustomed to weighing goods delivered by lorry. The lorry is weighed when full and again when empty, and the difference represents the load. We should not be imposing very difficult restrictions on any dealer who was required to do the same thing.

I shall listen with interest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to see whether the type of transaction mentioned by the hon. Member for Luton is caught by the Bill.

12.45 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn

Usually the metal which a dealer purchases is a mixed bag, and he would be very reluctant to deal with it in gross because he might be selling brass or some other metal in his consignment which was worth 15 times as much as scrap iron. The dealer prefers not to sell in gross but to break down his purchase and then to resell parts of it at the appropriate price.

Mr. Doughty

I entirely agree that when a dealer buys scrap of different kinds in gross he must break it down before he can sell it, because the buyer nearly always wants scrap of one kind. But there are factories from which the scrap is all of one kind, and it is in respect of this that there are contracts to sell direct to some other place. This is the type of transaction which the hon. Member for Luton and I have in mind, and which I am sure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will deal with when she advises the House what attitude to adopt towards the Amendment.

Mr George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Howie) in his Amendment. The confusion, if there is any confusion, arises from the very bad drafting of the Bill. I do not blame the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry) for this, because he has taken the Bill, as he explained in Committee, from the Report, but I think that the Home Office should be severely criticised for having put the Bill before us in this fashion. I will come to that point later because if I were to talk particularly about Clause 1, Mr. Speaker, you would rule me out of order.

But there is some confusion in all Clauses about where the intention of the Bill is directed. Surely in this case the purpose is to trace stolen metal. That is what the Bill is after, and for this purpose records must be kept.

Mr. Doughty

The purpose of the Bill is to catch the thieves.

Mr. Darling

But first of all it is to trace the stolen metal. The dealers are being asked, quite properly to keep a record of their transactions, because we hope—I do not know whether it will—that this will make it easier for the metal to be traced if the police want to trace it.

I apologise for making these criticisms at this stage, but I have been rather involved in other legislation lately, and, frankly, I did not read the Bill until last week-end. I was appalled by it. We are saying in Clause 2—and this is the part to which the Amendment is directed—that all scrap metal dealers must keep a book. Yet we are told that this is a modem Bill. Most records nowadays are kept in the form of a card index. Must it be a book? Why not say that a scrap metal dealer must keep a record of his transactions? Why all this involved language about a book? If it was clearly stated that a duty is imposed upon the scrap metal dealer to keep a record of his transactions, then, if the transactions were simply set out, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton would not be in this state of confusion, if there is confusion. I am not charging him with it.

I agree will the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East that we want to find out for certain, if this is the purpose of the Clause, whether in the Clause, or in a subsequent Clause, all transactions are properly covered and whether records must be kept of all transactions at every place where the transactions occur. I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I hope, as he does, that the Joint Under-Secretary can give an assurance that what my hon. Friend seeks to achieve by the Amendment is achieved already by the Bill.

Mr. F. M. Bennett (Torquay)

Like preceding speakers, I await with interest the comments of my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary. I think that something must be said at this stage. Although I, like everybody else, respect the intentions of the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Howie), who moved the Amendment, a point has been overlooked which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Sir D. Kaberry). If the suggested words were added to the Bill, a ridiculous and impracticable situation would be created. That is not to say that the Clause is perfect as it stands. My point is that the addition of the words in the Amendment would not make the position better, but worse.

This is because, as far as I understand it, the Bill would then mean that a scrap metal dealer with four, five or six stores—this often happens—would at each of the stores have to keep a record, not only of the metal received at that store, but of the metal received at all the other stories. This would be the most perfect example of cross-referencing which could exist. In practice, it would break down altogether. It is always very dangerous to pass into law words or provisions which we know in advance cannot be enforced because they are impracticable. It is not sensible to suggest that the individuals who would be expected to keep these books would be able to go from one store to another and check up that they had recorded everything which they had received at all their other stores.

Therefore, I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary tell us how the position is covered by the Bill as it stands, but, with all respect to the hon. Member for Luton, I do not believe that his Amendment would accomplish that purpose.

The Joint Under Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

There is very little that I can add to the very full description of what takes place which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) gave in his opening remarks. I stress that the purpose of the Bill is, as far as possible, to get the right balance between enabling scrap metal dealers to go ahead with their business as efficiently as possible, putting as few limitations on them as is feasible in the conditions under which they work, and ensuring that we are as far as possible stopping the loopholes for those engaged in dishonest transactions.

I cannot give a categorical assurance that every single loophole has been satisfactorily stopped, and stopped in a way which perhaps my hon. and learned Friend would like. To do this would add great complications to the Bill and would to some extent impede the efficient discharge of the scrap metal dealer's business. I believe that in the Bill we have the right balance. We believe that the real dishonesty will go. We are anxious not to add any undue complications to hinder further the efficient practice of those honest traders who do such a good job.

Mr. Howie

I agree with much of the criticism which has been levelled at my Parliamentary drafting. I am not very good at it. I would not die for the literary style of these two Amendments. They give rise to some difficulties. They are rather more wide-ranging in their wording than I had intended. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that a particular kind of business has not been covered in the Bill. I do not think that I am reassured by the comments which have been made by the promoters of the Bill and by its supporters. There are kinds of scrap which arise from industrial processes which are all of the same kind. In shipyards there are off-cuts of steel plate. In constructional engineering there are off-cuts of steel angles. In such places everything is of the same material. There are not the mixed up batches of steel and brass which have been mentioned.

Under the Bill a transaction which might be minor but which occurs in which a dealer buys from a source and transmits it to a buyer would now be made rather more difficult. Under the Bill, if someone wanted to conduct part of his business in this way, he would be obliged to bring the material in to his yard first and then take it out. This is unnecessary. It has been covered in the case of a dealer who has no yard. A dealer with a yard in which he wants to do this type of business should be permitted to do so without too much difficulty.

I agree that there are weaknesses in the Amendments, though I think they meet the principle. I hope that the Home Office will reconsider this and that second thoughts will prevail in the other place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.