HC Deb 05 July 2000 vol 353 cc381-92

Amendments made: No. 11, in page 63, line 2, after "TO" insert—


No. 12, in page 63, line 3, at end insert— 'A1. In subsection (2) of section 4, after "with respect to a vehicle" the words", by the owner of the vehicle," are inserted.'.

No. 13, in page 63, line 12, leave out "thereto".

No. 14, in page 63, line 12, after "notice" insert "or".

No. 15, in page 63, line 20, leave out "4" and insert "(4)".

No. 16, in page 63, line 21, leave out from "out" to end of line 22.

No. 17, in page 63, line 22, at end insert— '(e) after sub-paragraph (4)(b) insert ";or'; (f) the following sub-paragraph is substituted for sub-paragraph (4)(c)— (c) that at the time the alleged breach of such order or regulations took place the person who was in control of the vehicle was in control of the vehicle without the consent or the owner.";'.

No. 18, in page 63, line 23, leave out "(4)(c),".

No. 19, in page 63, line 33, after "11" insert "of Schedule 1".—[Ms Buck.]

Order for Third Reading read.

6.44 pm
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

May I spend a few minutes explaining a little about the Bill? I shall seek to be brief.

Although the Bill is technically promoted by Westminster city council, the Association of London Government has played a key role in promoting and steering the legislation through on behalf of all the boroughs, except the London borough of Barnet, which, for its own reasons, chose not to participate in the promotion of the Bill. However, Barnet has since written to the ALG to say that, when a further Bill is promoted, it would like the provisions of the current Bill to be applied to Barnet. As a result, I can say that the Bill is unanimously supported by the London boroughs.

The Bill has been given full and proper consideration in both Houses. In the House of Lords, there was a debate on Second Reading—which is uncommon for private Bills these days. Because there were petitions against the Bill, it was considered by a Select Committee. The Bill was also considered in detail by the Unopposed Bills Committee in the House of Lords. Reports on the Bill were submitted by the Home Office and by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. In this House, petitions were again deposited against the Bill, so it was considered in detail by a Select Committee. The Bill was unopposed on Second Reading. The Bill has therefore received intensive scrutiny from both Houses.

The Bill is what is generally known as a general powers Bill, in the sense that it deals with a number of subjects. Its provisions have been through a variety of different guises. Since the Bill's inception in 1996, a number of clauses have been dropped from the Bill following objections that have been taken on board and carefully considered by the promoters.

It was thought at one point that the Bill could deal with issues such as prostitutes' cards in London telephone boxes and laws relating to alcohol licensing and the licensing of buskers. In short, the Bill could simply have been summarised as the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" Bill, which would have been, had I been in a position to sponsor it, the summit of my parliamentary career. Alas, the provisions concerning cards in telephone boxes never came to pass, although the Government will soon introduce proposals on that.

The provisions that remain deal with parking, public health, licensing, busking, bus lane offences and some miscellaneous matters. I will go through them in the order in which they appear in the Bill.

Part II deals with parking. Under the Road Traffic Act 1991, except in certain areas such as the Whitehall security area and red routes, the London boroughs exercise powers of parking enforcement and control. The councils have already added to their parking powers by virtue of the London Local Authorities Act 1995.

The parking provisions in part II include provisions enabling the councils to serve penalty charge notices on offenders on the basis of evidence provided by cameras; enabling them to serve penalty charge notices where a parking attendant has been prevented from doing so; enabling the service of penalty charge notices to take place by fax or e-mail; and giving the councils powers of entry into vehicles that have been impounded where they contain things that may cause danger. There are a number of other technical provisions.

Part III deals with public health. It enhances the powers of councils' environmental health departments by extending various parts of the existing statutory waste collection regime. It also enables the local authorities to require owners of certain private courtyards and, if necessary, adjoining owners to keep the area clear of refuse.

In the main, the provisions of part IV are technical and consist of a number of amendments to the existing statutory licensing regime in subject areas such as public entertainment, cinemas and theatres.

Part V is concerned with the licensing of buskers. As some of my hon. Friends have raised concerns about part V, I shall spend a few minutes explaining the thinking behind it. First, I should point out that the Bill does not in any way seek to abolish busking in London. As a great fan of busking, I am pleased that that is the case. In fact, I think that the Bill will enhance the ability of buskers to perform and the opportunity for their music and entertainment to be enjoyed by Londoners, while dealing with a small area of nuisance. Part V enables each council to introduce a licensing regime to control busking on the highway and on open spaces controlled by them. The Bill does not, therefore, apply to the London underground, for which separate provision is, I believe, being made.

It should be noted that there are safeguards in the Bill governing the circumstances under which the councils may apply part V. Clause 33 provides that the council may pass a resolution if it wishes to apply the licensing regime to any part of its area. The crucial safeguard is contained in subsection (2), which provides: The council shall not pass a resolution under this section in respect of any part of their area unless they have reason to believe that there is a problem as a result of busking, including

  1. (a) undue interference with or inconvenience to or risk to safety of persons using a street
  2. (b) nuisance to the occupiers of property in or in the vicinity of a street in that part of their area.
The clause goes on to provide that the council must publicise the passing of a resolution by advertising in a local newspaper. Therefore, the council must have reason to believe that a problem is being caused by buskers in the first place. No doubt the receipt of complaints from local residents and businesses will play a large part in the council's thinking.

The second important point to note is that councils can target certain areas and apply the licensing regime to those areas. Westminster city council has said that there are at present only two areas where there is sufficient concern to adopt the licensing provisions: Leicester square and certain parts of Covent Garden.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

Will a local authority's decision to designate an area as a problem area, thus requiring the licensing regime for buskers, be reviewed at a future date?

Ms Buck

If the provisions are not applied properly and are not based on a genuine complaint or concern about nuisance, it will be possible to take the local authority to court and to challenge the decision. That is the bottom line, but no doubt local authorities will want to keep the situation under general review. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman whether the legislation contains other provisions, but there is that legal provision as a bottom line safeguard.

Evidence was given to the Select Committee by officers from Westminster city council and from the council of the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames about the number of complaints that have been received. There are more than 900 a year in Westminster-there are residents in Leicester square and in a large number of properties in Covent Garden. Thoroughfares such as Leicester square can become extremely crowded, and the problem is often exacerbated by the presence of buskers, and more so by their audiences.

It is important to note that in areas where part V does not apply—that is, the majority of areas—a licence will not be required for busking. That does not mean that buskers outside the licensing area can make as much noise as they like, because they will still be subject to the general law on nuisance and obstruction of the highway.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

If there is already legislation in force that enables local authorities and others to take action against noise nuisance, why is the Bill required?

Ms Buck

The difficulty is enforcement. The powers exist, but there are complications with regard to enforcement, which the provisions of the Bill will make easier. It will reduce the pressure on local authorities.

Mr. McDonnell

Could my hon. Friend describe those complications?

Ms Buck

I was coming to that. Part of the problem is that local authorities will have to serve an abatement notice on the person responsible for the noise, and later on prosecute the same person for a breach of the abatement notice in exactly the same location. That is impractical and difficult for a local authority to implement. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend.

Two buskers in particular—Mike Kay and Jeremy Helm—have opposed the Bill and continue to oppose it. Both petitioned against the Bill. They deposited their petition outside the time limits imposed by Standing Orders, but the Select Committee on Standing Orders allowed it to stand. Once their petition was allowed to stand, it gave Mr. Kay and Mr. Helm the right to appear before a Select Committee, which they did using their performing names of, respectively, Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy.

The Select Committee sat for over a day and examined in detail the promoters' case in favour of part V and the two petitioners' case against the Bill. The Select Committee decided that the Bill should be amended in favour of the petitioners to tighten up the wording on the circumstances under which the council can decide whether to apply part V to one of its areas, and the way in which the councils advertise meetings at which they resolve to make individual streets subject to the licensing requirements.

It should perhaps be noted that no other petitions were presented against the Bill by buskers, and there appears to have been no other adverse comment made by buskers about the Bill. In fact, Westminster city council has received a petition signed by a number of buskers supporting the provisions of the Bill.

Part V should not be seen as an attempt by the councils to ban busking. They recognise that buskers contribute to the environment and wish to encourage them. Part V is merely an attempt to control some of the problems that are caused by a few buskers in specific areas.

Part VI contains a few miscellaneous clauses that cannot be categorised in parts I to V, and includes provisions amending the current law on dangerous structures and the service of certain notices under the Highways Act 1980. Local authorities whose area includes royal parks will be able to make a charge to the Crown for any advice given on health and safety and crowd control measures required for open air concerts.

The Bill also contains amendments to certain provisions of the London Local Authorities Act 1995, which provide councils with the power to enforce bus lane controls. For the past year, four London boroughs and the City of London have been using CCTV cameras to enforce bus lane offences as part of a pilot project. However, it has very recently become apparent that the existing legislation does not make it clear who should pay a penalty charge notice when the owner and the driver of the vehicle are not the same person. Any motorist who has already paid his ticket has admitted his liability and no refund will be made.

However, given that ambiguity, any motorist who from now on challenges his liability will automatically win his case. In order to resolve the problem, the main thrust of the amendments in the Bill is to ensure that the owner of the vehicle is liable for a bus lane infringement, not the driver.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Am I to understand that if the 50,000 people in London who have been given tickets that they have paid applied, they could get the fine paid back by the local authority?

Ms Buck

That is not the situation. An offence has clearly been committed, and people have accepted liability by paying. The problem is that local authorities do not have the enforcement powers under current legislation to deal with people who dispute their liability to pay. I hope that the amendment will close that loophole, which arose from a drafting error, and will clarify the situation.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Buck

I have almost finished, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Davey

I want to support what the hon. Lady said in reply to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). Surely the motorists were admitting guilt when they paid their fine. Does she agree that Conservative Councillor Daniel Moylan, the vice-chairman of the Association of London Government transport and environment committee, was misleading people and being irresponsible when he suggested that councils should not have been able to collect these fines?

Ms Buck

Yes, I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is slightly perverse for a member of the Conservative party to endorse the actions of people who park illegally in bus lanes. All of us have a common interest in ensuring that the bus lane system operates properly, and that those people who are clearly in breach of the law have to face the penalties available under the legislation.

I urge the House to support the Bill, which the London boroughs and the Association of London Government believe is in the interests of London and Londoners. The Bill has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny by both Houses. It first commenced its parliamentary stages in 1996, and I ask that it now be passed.

6.57 pm
Mr. McDonnell

I shall be relatively brief. A number of hon. Members have blocked this Bill in the past, but they are on other parliamentary duties this evening—I mention my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen).

Anxieties were caused by the part of the Bill that refers to busking. However, I shall first deal with the issue of bus lanes. I feel culpable, as I was the secretary of the Association of London Authorities during that period, and then the chief executive of the Association of London Government. In mitigation, I must point out that when the legislation was proposed in 1996 I proposed that the ALG, and not the London borough of Westminster, should lead on it. Unfortunately, the leaders of the London boroughs defeated me, and Westminster led. If it had been the ALG, I am sure that we would not be in this mess, but that is an aside.

I want to deal with some of the detail of the legislation as regards busking. I shall not vote against the Bill, but some hon. Members want a message to be sent to the local authorities to ensure that they are not over-zealous in the prosecution of this legislation, so that we do not undermine people's basic human right to sing in the street.

I am interested in the detail of the legislation, especially clause 32, which exempts music performed as an incident of a religious meeting, procession or service. I take it that that is the Salvation Army clause. Does that mean that if a busker is singing "Abide with me" he or she will not be prosecuted? If it relates to demonstrations of a processional nature, such as the May day rallies of the London Labour party and the trade union movement, when music is performed and donations are collected for various striking causes, I hope that they will also be exempted under the legislation.

How is the existence of "a nuisance" to be determined under the legislation? I am not sure that previous private legislation can guide us on that. What type of evidence will have to be collected to establish the existence of a nuisance? Clause 35 provides not only that a council may license a person, but that it may impose such terms and conditions and…such restrictions as may be so specified. Obviously, those impositions may relate to the nature of "a nuisance". However, is it reasonable to impose terms, conditions and restrictions in relation to, for example, the nature of the music? Is clause 35 the Des O'Connor clause? Can we have busking without Des O'Connor? If that is the Bill's effect, we may well support it as we have never done before.

Clause 36 states that there will be a fee to cover administrative and other costs. How will that fee be determined? Will it be decided in a vote of a particular committee or of the full council? Will it be checked for reasonableness by someone who is independent of the local authority?

Clause 37 provides that the applicant can be refused a licence if he is reasonably regarded as not being a fit and proper person to hold a licence. In other licensing legislation, such as that regulating the sale of alcohol, "a fit and proper person" is a clearly defined term.

Ms Buck

The licensing regime would permit such a person quite freely to perform outside the licensed area, provided that he or she did not fall foul of other provisions such as those prohibiting obstruction of pavements. The regime would therefore not place undue restrictions on people in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes.

Mr. McDonnell

The legislation would enable the local authority not only to define the area, but to say that, within that area, it will not grant a licence to a particular person whom it believes to be not fit and proper.

I appreciate the need for that type of provision in the regulation of activities such as the sale of alcohol. Such a provision is entirely understandable in that case, because alcohol is a dangerous substance that could be distributed widely by those who are not fit and proper people and who are seeking to attain dubious objectives. But who is not a fit and proper person to play the tuba? Does such an instrument become a dangerous implement in the hands of some people, but not in the hands of others?

Perhaps we need to address the issue of how we define a fit and proper person, especially as we may be setting a precedent. The issue of the definition of "nuisance" is a thread running through the Bill, and I believe that it could be setting us up for future legal action.

I resent another intrusion on people's basic human rights. I accept that the Bill, as amended today, will be passed. However, I am also sure that it will result in an appeal to the magistrates courts and, subsequently, the Crown court. I believe that we are establishing a costly bureaucratic procedure to deal with a matter about which there has been only a limited number of complaints.

What worries me most is that we shall be handing over to a police constable, an officer of the council or even a contractor the opportunity to halt someone who is playing a musical instrument, to arrest him, and, if he continues playing, to take his musical instrument. In various designated licensed parts of London, we are about to see battles involving officers and contractors wrestling instruments from buskers. There will be the turbulence of the trombone in some parts of central London, and the battle of the bass guitar in others. Do we really envisage the legislation resulting in physical force being used to rip instruments from the hands of buskers?

Perhaps we shall hear of a police constable appearing in the witness box and explaining that, "As I was proceeding in a northerly direction through Leicester square, I happened to hear the tune of a trombone. I immediately arrested it." The legislation will make the situation even worse than that. If the arrested busker cannot pay the fine, the instrument gets it. The instrument will be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. Subsequently, the instrument will either be melted down or sent away for a period of detention, possibly—I would probably support this—at a school in the London borough of Hillingdon, perhaps in my constituency.

I simply feel that the Bill goes a step too far in extending a bureaucratic procedure to deal with a fairly natural activity. Although I shall not be voting against the Bill, I believe that the London boroughs will have to use it with a relatively light hand. As previous London authorities legislation may have been used to the disadvantage of individual Londoners, I think we need to send that message to the boroughs very clearly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock would be concerned if I did not make the point that the Bill is another piece of private legislation that has not been certified by a Minister as complying with the Human Rights Act 1998. Parliamentary procedure provides that private legislation does not require such a statement. I am sure that my hon. Friend would want me to say, as many hon. Members have said before, that this type of private legislation should be fully subject to the provisions of the 1998 Act and that it should require that statement.

7.6 pm

Mr. Davey

I welcome the vast majority of the Bill's provisions, which I believe will assist in the daily workings of London's local authorities. It will help to ensure that London's local authorities can do their job—as parking authorities, street-cleaning authorities and licensing authorities—without being impeded by legal loopholes.

The Bill will assist London's local authorities in many ways. It will enable local authorities to use remote cameras for parking enforcement. We are all aware that, in these days of tough budgets for local authorities, parking wardens and certainly police officers cannot be everywhere to ensure the enforcement of parking regulations. It has become increasingly difficult to ensure the enforcement of regulations meant to deter those who park illegally, hinder proper traffic flow and make residents' lives a misery. CCTV cameras seem to be a very sensible way of applying modern technology to a very modern problem, and I very much welcome that provision.

The Bill will also enable local authority contractors or employees to issue penalty charge notices by post if they have been unable to affix a notice to the vehicle. Parking attendants are often faced with various obstacles in performing their duties. Although parking offences may seem to be a relatively minor civil matter, it is ludicrous that parking attendants should not have an alternative way of issuing notices to those who perpetrate them. It is a sensible provision.

The Bill's provisions on bus lanes are particularly welcome. Like the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), I spent many happy hours as a member of the Standing Committee considering the Greater London Authority Act 1999, where we debated many transport issues.

Mr. McDonnell

Happy hours?

Mr. Davey

For me, listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), those were particularly happy hours. His insightful analysis of London local government, of the need for improvement in London government and of the Bill's proposals on London government made them happy hours indeed.

When we were having those discussions, we very much focused on transport and on the legislation's provision for a new body entitled Transport for London. That is now established and working. Its main responsibilities at the moment—before the signing of the public-private partnership contracts, after which the responsibility for the London underground will be transferred to it—are various highways and the operation of London buses. One of the major problems that has faced London buses for many years has been the enforcement of bus lanes. It seems ludicrous to many people who have fought long and hard to improve transport in the capital that the recent case has prevented bus lanes from taking on their strategic importance in the life of this city. Bus lanes can encourage people back on to buses by making them a reliable and fast means of transport.

I welcome the fact that amendment No. 12 was passed without opposition, as will those who run Transport for London. Without that amendment, much of the work that they are about to carry out would be severely hindered. I had thought, before I read the remarks of a Conservative councillor on the ALG, that that important amendment had all-party support and I am pleased that the Conservatives in the House did not oppose it. That would have gone against the spirit of the cross-party consensus and the need to get London moving. The amendment even had the support of an Evening Standard editorial, so it really is a consensus measure.

The Bill contains many commendable powers. However, I regret that one matter was not dealt with in the Bill and I hope that the Government will think carefully about it, because it relates—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I can give clear guidance to the hon. Gentleman that on Third Reading he may talk only about what is in the Bill.

Mr. Davey

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I feared that you might bring me to order on that point.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned his concerns about the licensing of buskers. When I heard about the new power, I shared many of his concerns. The royal borough of Kingston, along with the London borough of Westminster, asked for the change, so I inquired why it had made those representations. I am reliably informed that serious problems have been experienced in parts of Kingston town centre, which is a busy shopping area. There are large crowds on Saturday mornings outside the Bentalls centre in Claremont street and, occasionally, buskers get in the way. That is not to say that busking is not welcomed by people who shop in Kingston town centre. I have often seen large crowds gathering round both musical and performing arts buskers, enjoying the entertainment. That is welcome because it creates a happy, relaxed atmosphere in the centre of Kingston. [Interruption.] I shall not pursue the sedentary comment by the Whip, tempting though that might be.

Although some buskers abuse their right to perform freely on the streets, such cases are few and far between.

Mr. McDonnell

I agree that that concern exists, but other powers are available for use in such cases, including those dealing with obstruction. If too much leeway is given in legislation—for example, as it was in legislation on the distribution of leaflets some years ago—it can be misused. Several of my constituents were arrested three months ago for handing out animal rights leaflets under legislation rushed through the House some years ago.

Mr. Davey

I share some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. Some amendments have improved the legislation, especially following the Select Committee hearings mentioned by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North. I hope that London local authorities will think carefully before they use the new powers and will keep any use under regular review. If buskers know that the powers exist and that local authorities can step in, the Bill might assist self-regulation. I hope so.

I also hope that London authorities do not set up large bureaucracies to go over the top in using the powers. I hesitate to develop this train of thought, but I can imagine local authorities holding events to determine the quality of buskers. If local authorities decide to license certain areas for certain times, they will have to restrict the number of licences, and one hopes that they will not set up casting arrangements to decide the distribution of the busking licences.

I hope that London local authorities will use the powers sparingly, because busking is an honourable tradition, which is enjoyed by many people. Traditionally, people have had the right to entertain their fellow citizens on the streets. Arts budgets are being squeezed, but buskers, of their own free will, go out and entertain. It would be regrettable if the Bill were to reduce busking. That is not its intention, although we need to ensure that busking is undertaken responsibly. We shall see whether the measure helps to solve the problems experienced in Kingston.

I shall share with the House how the Bill will work in the royal borough of Kingston. We have been fortunate to benefit from the establishment of a town centre manager and Kingston Town Centre Ltd., which work to improve the quality of the town centre for shoppers, businesses and those who work in Kingston. Dr. Julie Grail, the chief executive of the organisation, works closely in partnership with the retailers—the organisation is funded by many of them—and the local authority. She supports the Bill as she feels that it could serve a useful purpose, and she does not want to see it being abused by the local authority. She has worked closely with the retailers and the local authority, so she is well placed to give a practical view of the need for the powers.

I could deal with many other issues, but I hope that at least one more Member wishes to speak.

Let me make one final point, about street cleaning. The Bill gives London local authorities stronger powers to require alleyways to be kept clean. That has proved a great problem in the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames, which the Deputy Prime Minister described as a leafy borough. It is true that it contains many trees, that gulleys are blocked when they shed their leaves, and that the streets need to be cleaned at such times; but the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong to imply that, because the borough is leafy, it is homogeneously wealthy. I have made that point many times. Anyway, given that cars are often parked on the streets for a long time, cleansing contractors may not be able to ensure that all the leaves are swept up and all the gulleys are cleared.

The measure is welcome, as I can attest on the basis of practical experience—again, in Kingston. In the summer of 1999, three freak storms in Kingston gave rise to a lot of flooding. It was an example of "microclimate": the flood was intensive in one area, but not in adjacent areas. It was a remarkable meteorological event, and the fact that it occurred three times was particularly remarkable. The event is relevant to the issue of street cleaning. Because some of the gulleys in the borough had not been cleaned for some time, the flood was severely aggravated and many people's homes and property were damaged as a result.

The powers conferred by the Bill will enable bodies such as the borough to ensure that that does not happen again. I have been given 250 pieces of case work, and 500 people have written to me about the floods that they experienced that summer. I think that those people will be particularly pleased about the new powers, and will feel reassured about Kingston council's ability, under the Bill, to fulfil its role—a role that it takes seriously—in keeping alleyways free of leaves and excess rubbish.

Let me say again how much the Liberal Democrats support the Bill. We believe that it will strengthen local government in the capital and help the 32 London boroughs to do the job that their citizens elect them to do. The tasks involved are often basic, everyday tasks: regulating parking, regulating street cleaning, licensing, and so on. They could be described as mundane. However, when I knock on doors in my constituency—in Chessington, New Malden, Tolworth, Berrylands, Surbiton, Kingston and Worcester Park—I find that people raise those basic issues. Members of Parliament often expect people to raise issues involving the health service, the police or education, but in my experience of knocking on doors, most people want to talk about parking and street cleaning.

I welcome the powers in the Bill, and hope that it will be given a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.