HC Deb 15 March 1978 vol 946 cc536-42

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 7, line 10, leave out Clause 5.

This is one of the most important parts of the Bill because it deals with the Burgh Police Acts of Scotland, particularly that of 1892, which is still very much in force. I do not wish to go over the ground that we debated in Committee but it is strange that a working party was set up in 1972 as a result of the contemplated local government reorganisation and completed its report in 1976. Since then, a wide range of consultation has taken place and the findings were due to be implemented in 1979.

The Minister says that there will be further delay until no earlier than 1982. The question that we have put several times to him is, why? The reply that we get is totally unacceptable and should always be so regarded in the House. The reply is "We are waiting for the Assembly". That is no way for the Minister to act on a matter which, as he has said, is of considerable importance. When dealing with the consideration of principle in Committee, the Minister said: the Burgh Police Acts and their equivalents among the local Acts still have an effect on the life of the individual in Scotland. For example, the Act of 1892 is the source of powers to make byelaws on a wide range of matters, and the Acts give local authorities powers to issue licences covering a wide range of activities, both of which have a direct impact on the everyday life of the individual."—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 21st February 1978; c. 4.] With those words—they are the Minister's words in the debate on principle—the Minister made it clear that we are dealing with some important matters.

The hon. Gentleman has given no satisfactory reason for not going ahead with the original intention and carrying out implementation in 1979 rather than postponing it to 1982. Unless he can bring forward some new reason tonight for this unnecessary delay, and unless he can explain why the consultations that started in 1976 have to go on for six years, I am sure that the House will realise that we have no option but to press harder on this issue.

Mr. McElhone

The Burgh Police Acts comprise a vast volume of complex legislation, much of it seriously out of date, some of it superseded by more modern legislation but a great deal still in force and regularly relied upon by local authorities and the police for the regulation of many every day matters of civic government. There is an urgent need for it to be completely replaced by more modern legislation designed to suit present day conditions, but the working party which examined these provisions took nearly four years to produce a comprehensive report and this has been the subject of further examination and comment by local authorities and other interested persons and bodies. In addition, the Burgh Police Acts did not apply in the four former cities which, therefore, had their own comprehensive local legislation covering the same matters, and these also require to be replaced.

The Burgh Police Acts deal with a wide range of matters including licensing and the making of byelaws, regulation of certain building, safety and public health matters, a number of criminal offences including offences with a sexual connotation and suspicious conduct, and such miscellaneous matters as the regulation of markets, the control of activities on the seashore, the provision of clocks in public places, the naming of streets and numbering of houses.

The new provisions, which will be needed to replace all this legislation, will require at least one and probably two major Bills. It is likely to be most convenient to deal with some provisions of the Burgh Police Acts which deal with roads and streets in a separate roads Bill. The main civic government Bill is likely to require upwards of 200 clauses and will consequently make heavy demands on parliamentary time. Even if it had been possible from an earlier stage to take quicker steps to prepare such a Bill—

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Another excuse.

Mr. McElhone

It is a better excuse than the one to which the hon. Gentleman keeps referring about waiting for Assembly.

Even if it had been possible from an earlier stage to take quicker steps to prepare such a Bill, there would not now be time for it to be drafted and enacted before the date when the Burgh Police Acts will automatically expire. To allow them to expire—I hope that the Opposition will bear in mind that that is the effect of the amendment, which would cause chaos in local government—before replacement legislation had been enacted would leave a serious gap in the powers available to local authorities and the police and would seriously undermine the effective carrying on of municipal government throughout Scotland.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

The hon. Gentleman has been wagging his finger from the Government Dispatch Box and suggesting that the result of the amendment would be extremely damaging. At least it has had the result of flushing out the true reason. I do not know whether the reason has been thought out in the past week or so, but it would have assisted in Committee and at the beginning of our consideration of the Bill, if the Minister had admitted from the beginning that there was no Government legislative time to cope with these matters.

Mr. McElhone

It is a point that is well made to say that we were in Committee for only a hour. During that time not one Opposition Member raised any question on Clause 5. It does not do at this stage to go back, as it were, and to produce substantial opposition. One or two of my colleagues were missing, I accept. One was ill and two had travel difficulties.

Apart from this perfectly genuine need for more time to produce a highly complicated Bill which, it is to be hoped, will last for at least as long as its predecessor, the Government consider it right that since all these matters are of strictly local application and will fall within the powers of the Scottish Assembly, the task of enacting the new civic code should, if possible, be carried out by the Assembly. This would be exactly the sort of task for which the Assembly should be well fitted and able to discharge. Since the Government think it right to set up a Scottish Assembly, it would clearly be illogical for Parliament to occupy itself by passing new, complicated and detailed legislation concerned entirely with local Scottish matters, immediately before the Assembly were set up. But whether such legislation is eventually enacted by the Assembly or by Parliament, the extension of the time available for its preparation and debate until the end of 1982 is absolutely essential.

As Opposition Members, especially the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), are keen to point out the interests of the police, I hope that they will take cognisance of what I have said and will bear in mind the difficulties that would ensue for the police and local authorities if the amendment were passed.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

Having heard the debate, I should probably come down on the side of the Minister and say that it would not be a good thing to take out this part of the Bill, especially as I sought to hang a new clause on the provisions of Clause 5 to deal with the problem of stray dogs that concerns my part of the country. As the Minister has said, there are provisions in the Acts that the cities have that give them full powers, but I do not think that the rest of Scotland has the necessary powers for dealing, for instance, with stray dogs.

When the new 200-clause Bill sees the light of day and is debated, whether in the Assembly or in the House, I hope that the Minister will ensure that proper meas- ures are taken to ensure that stray dogs are dealt with in an appropriate manner. I should make it clear that I am not against dogs. I am against those who do not look after them. I have three dogs, and I should be in great trouble if I were in any way to give the impression that I am against dogs. I am not against them but against those who allow them to stray.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) has raised an important point about dogs. He has said that he has three dogs. I do not know whether he lives near me, but many dogs seem to congregate outside my house.

The Minister has made an important contribution to the debate. Those who are wondering what the Assembly is to do and those who are considering leaving this place to go to the Scottish Assembly thinking that they will be handling important matters such as jobs and the economy, will now realise the job that the Government have in store for them—a 200-clause Bill dealing with stray dogs, the numbering of streets and various other minor matters.

I am somewhat encouraged by what the Minister had to say. He thinks that the proposed Assembly will be well fitted to go ahead and consider these minor matters. In view of what he has said, we do not want to try to stop the consultation that is taking place. I think that he said that it will take six years and that he wants to make provision for an extra two years. To that extent we do not want to push the amendment.

I am sure the Secretary of State for the Home Department is very much interested in the point that I am about to make as it raises an important issue affecting home affairs legislation that passes through the House. Sometimes we are concerned about important issues. We pass legislation and think that thereby action will be taken.

The Minister is well aware that there is great concern about pornography—for example, the sale of pornographic literature. We have passed laws in the House of Commons to try to ensure that the strictest penalties are imposed on those who sell such pornography. There are provisions for enormous fines and substantial gaol sentences. But we frequently find that, when it comes to prosecuting people for the sale of hard pornography, such prosecutions are brought under local legislation as outlined in the clause and to that extent maximum fines of perhaps £20 are imposed. Many people engaged in this filthy trade regard that as normal trading expenses.

I hope that in asking us to continue the old Burgh Police Acts for another three years, the Minister will bear in mind that the actions of the House of Commons in bringing in what it regards as tough penalties for serious crimes are being undermined by prosecutions brought not under Acts of Parliament, but under old local Acts which provide for limited fines and have no effective deterrent result.

This is a matter of which I am certainly well aware in the City of Glasgow. I believe that the Minister must also be aware that, although we have passed laws in the House of Commons in an attempt to stamp out the sale of hard pornography, in Glasgow and in other cities in Scotland these pornographic shops continue to operate, sales of pornography go ahead and a great deal of money is made. Parliament wanted to stamp out that trade. But, because prosecutions take place under local legislation which provides for only limited fines, the trade continues to flourish.

The Minister has put forward a good argument against the amendment. However, I hope that he will bear in mind that the mere existence of the Burgh Police Acts and other local Acts can undermine the work that we are doing in the House of Commons in an attempt to stamp out practices to which we are all opposed.

Mr. McElhone

I share very few views with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), but I share his view on child pornography or any other kind of pornography. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have strong views on that matter, especially in our native city. I shall bear in mind and convey to my right hon. Friend what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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