HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc548-64
Mr. Wyatt

I beg to move amendment No. 53, in page 12, line 41, leave out from beginning to end of line 4 on page 13.

This provision relates to another tough matter for the antique dealers. There is an implication that dealers will be penalised if they do not know or cannot be certain of the information that they were given. For example, if the information is from a stolen credit card or a false driving licence, the dealer will be penalised. With the best will in the world, how is a dealer to know whether such documents have been stolen? It is a tough call to ask dealers to be responsible for that. Will the sponsor consider my amendment?

Mr. Paul Clark

The defence provided under the clause is extremely well precedented in national as well as local legislation—for example, in the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, the Trade Marks Act 1994, the Video Recordings Act 1984 and many other Acts, and all other private Bills would contain such a provision. The amendment could result in courts wasting time and it would allow the person charged with an offence to pass the blame on to a third party, without allowing the council or the police to check the circumstances before going to court. So court time would be wasted and the circumstances could not be checked thereafter.

The provisions are well documented elsewhere. People are not criminally liable if they have in place a generally good system and can prove that fact. The clause, as drafted, will not resolve the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt).

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

If a group of dealers operates in a centre, one dealer may not be in the centre, or shop, on a particular day and may have to rely on the actions of another dealer. That is almost akin to a co-operative, and the dealers may watch one another's stalls and some of them may not go to the centre for two or three days, or two or three weeks. Will the clause on due diligence cover such eventualities?

Mr. Clark

The Select Committee considered in detail the case of someone who owns a permanent antiques fair or market that includes different traders. Obviously, the individual traders will be responsible for recording information and so on, and the provisions allow for those circumstances. Having said that, as I told the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), there will come a time when the number of times that provision is used becomes an issue further down the line. That scenario was discussed at length by the Committee, and it was satisfied that it will ultimately be covered.

Mr. Wyatt

My hon. Friend puts forward a good argument, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Order for Third Reading read.

4.43 pm
Mr. Paul Clark

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

I do not wish to take too much of the House's time, bearing in mind Mr. Speaker's earlier ruling. The Kent County Council Bill and the Medway Council Bill are identical and, therefore, the provisions cover the whole county of Kent. We had an interesting debate on Second Reading. I congratulate the Select Committee on its work and its members on their determination—they considered the Bill very carefully for 11 days.

The purpose of the Bill is to regulate the second-hand trade, with the aim of reducing the amount of acquisitive crime, such as burglary, by making it harder to dispose of stolen goods and turn them into cash. Home Office research, supported by police intelligence, shows that a large proportion of stolen property passes through unregulated second- hand dealers.

Hon. Members w ill know that the provisions will deal with second-hand Dealers, occasional sales and squat trading. The provisions will enable the paper trail—the evidence and information required—to be set up to support genuine traders, the vast majority of whom have been involved, through various associations, in consultations with the promoters. That is why several amendments have been drafted by the promoters and considered by the Select Committee. Those amendments reflect the genuine concerns of the trade and the way in which second-hand antique dealers operate. We did not want unduly to increase the burden on businesses.

I honestly believe that the Bills will not increase that burden because many of the records that we want are included in codes of practice that operate in the trade, or have to be kept for VAT purposes. The Bills will reinforce the hard work that has been undertaken by Kent police and the trading standards agencies to reduce the amount of theft and crime.

The Bills are good examples of inter-agency working, and adopt many of the principles that were laid down in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Without taking any more time, I wish to commend the Bills to the House because they will help us to defeat those criminals who wish to cause misery for many residents of Kent.

4.46 pm
Mr. Wyatt

It is fair to say that these Bills have faced greater and more intense scrutiny, debate and amendment than any private legislation that has come before the House in recent years. The reason for that is simple: the Bills are ill-conceived and wrong in principle. The list of amendments tabled by the promoters alone is testament to the fact that the Bills were originally drafted without proper consultation with those affected. The result is that legislation is being created on the hoof, which is not ideal.

Mr. Paul Clark

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wyatt

I shall give way in due course; I am sure that my hon. Friend will try to intervene again.

The Bills have faced opposition inside and outside the House for many reasons. Although they are aimed at dealers in second-hand goods in Kent and Medway, the United Kingdom antiques trade as a whole has been in the vanguard of opposition. We should be grateful to a small band of organisations and hard-pressed self-employed antiques dealers, especially one from Newington in my constituency and another from Tenham, just outside it.

The Bills have been subject to close examination by an Opposed Private Bill Committee. That is not to say that such actions are not supported and endorsed nationally.

A petition has been presented to the House today that carries the signatures of more than 2,300 antique dealers and members of the public who believe that the Kent County Council Bill should be withdrawn and any future legislation aimed at regulating the sale of second-hand goods be created on a national scale and preceded by full and proper consultation of those likely to be affected. I think that it speaks for itself that the Committee was sufficiently moved by what it heard to publish a special report in which it said: We think it appropriate to report the substance of our concerns—which go wider than the bills we were tasked with scrutinising—to the House. Indeed, such was the level of concern that one member of the Committee—I see my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in his place—felt moved consistently to block the Bill's return to the House.

The Committee's report succinctly sums up the tenor of opposition to the Bills, and its key, findings echo my concerns and those of my constituents and the second-hand goods trade as a whole, but especially the antiques trade. It will be appropriate if I quote the Committee's report further: Erskine May tells us that private legislation is 'legislation of a special kind for conferring particular powers or benefits on any person or body of persons—including individuals, local authorities, companies, or corporations—in excess of or in conflict with the general law. As such it is to be distinguished from the public general legislation, which is applicable to the general community. The local and particular nature of private Bills is reflected not only in the way in which they are dealt with on the Floor of the House, but in the powers of, and constraints upon, Committees charged with their close scrutiny.

Committees on opposed private Bills must weigh up the arguments presented by interested parties and determine whether the balance of interest lies with the promoters or the petitioners, as they are directly and specifically affected by the provisions of the Bills The Committees may not consider the cases of those who have not petitioned and, having no power to summon witnesses other than those presented by the parties, they have only a limited ability to compare the proposals with others previously made.

None the less, our attention was drawn by all parties to the precedent Acts. Although the provisions in the Kent County Council Bill and the Medway Council Bill were precedented, they differed in a number of respects from the earlier Acts, which were not themselves entirely uniform. For example, only one Act provided for the recording by registered dealers of sales as well as purchases.

We have heard from the petitioners that, although the provisions of these Bills are local, they will affect dealers who trade on a national basis. Consequently, there is a concern that, if provisions akin to those in the Bills were introduced in further such Bills, dealers would find themselves grappling with a number of subtly different regulatory regimes as they travelled around the country. We were told that the likelihood of dealers unwittingly committing offences against local legislation was strong. To me, that was a powerful argument in favour of introducing a single national regulatory structure. I do not think I disagree that such provisions will have a crime reduction impact, but I wish them to be fair and equitable across the country.

The promoters told us that national legislation to regulate the second-hand market was desirable but that they understood that there was little prospect of its being introduced in the near future. They therefore argued that the Bills were necessary to deal locally with the markets in stolen goods. It was put to Kent's deputy chief constable, Robert Ayling, that the introduction of such provisions on a local basis would have a displacement effect on criminal activity. He accepted that that might be the result. Sergeant Dan Murphy and Mr. Mark Dalrymple went further in suggesting that, as a consequence of the Bills' being enacted, the adjoining counties might in turn resort to local legislation as a means of tackling illegal trade.

Speculation as to the future activities of other authorities cannot form part of our deliberations today. None the less, we consider that, should an increasing number of local authorities seek equivalent powers, it would be profoundly undesirable in terms of enforcement and the burden on what I consider to be a very honest trade.

Mr. Paul Clark

I recognise the report to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. He will recognise that the Select Committee allowed the Bills to go forward. Although I accept that national legislation may well be preferable, does he agree that it is not on the horizon? Eight other measures, including the City of Newcastle upon Tyne Act 2000, contain similar provisions, so does he not agree that the people of Kent deserve that protection as well?

Mr. Wyatt

As my hon. Friend knows, it is a question of philosophy. I am not sure that we actually fundamentally disagree but, in philosophical terms, I think that the legislation should be introduced nationally and not locally. The antiques trade operates in a national and international marketplace and these Bills penalise it in an unreasonable manner.

The Opposed Private Bill Committee is not the only body in the House to identify a strong need for public legislation. I am a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and our report, "Cultural Property Return and Illicit Trade" stated: We recommend that the Home Office make a public commitment in the course of this year to establishing a national database of stolen cultural property and cultural property exported against the laws of countries concerned under national police control. The issue has been debated elsewhere. A national database is a good idea because it would strengthen our hand in the fight against crime and disorder. I gather that inquiries have been made to the Home Office and that some legislation may be forthcoming; perhaps the Minister will enlighten us later.

The question is whether the subject of the Bills—the regulation of the antiques trade in Kent—is appropriate for local legislation. The answer to that question is emphatically no, and the objection that this is not a suitable topic for local legislation underlies my every objection to the principle of the Bills.

In a unified country with one Parliament, which is not a federal united states, it is a powerful argument that the criminal law should be the same in every county. A local Bill creates criminal offences that are unlikely to be known of by a substantial number of people whom it will affect. It creates anomalies that lead to uncertainty, complexity and injustice. In addition, it enables the promoters not to carry out a cost benefit analysis and even some consultation, which makes it impossible to strike a fair balance between the interests of the public and the police in reducing crime and the interests of the antiques trade. It is disappointing not to have a cost benefit analysis. I find it hard to accept that the measure will not require additional policing.

The Bill creates criminal offences with fines of up to £1,000 which are unlikely to be known by a substantial number of the people whom they will affect. Dealers in the antiques trade who carry on business in Kent are from all parts of the United Kingdom and abroad. Inevitably, some people will carry on businesses in Kent without knowing the local law, will commit criminal offences and will be liable to prosecution.

It is not a sound and satisfactory basis for legislation to create criminal offences that might not be known to a substantial number of people whom they affect. The Bill is not making local byelaws that are published locally for everyone to see, such as the regulation of the use of a park or a library, with a fine of £25 or £50 attached for anyone who disobeys. It is doing nothing of that nature. Instead, it creates serious criminal offences with fines of up to £1,000 that will not be known generally throughout the trade. The Bill traps honest and decent citizens who are unaware that they have committed an offence that is susceptible to criminal prosecution, with all the humiliation that that can imply.

The Bill's principles are not underpinned by a moral consideration, unlike the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which applies nationally. Everyone is deemed to know national legislation. Anyone who does not and is in business should know that, under the terms of that Act, they must not mislead their customers by the way in which they represent their goods for sale. There is a strong underlying moral theme to the 1968 Act, which is not the case with these Bills. Obligation to register is not underpinned by a moral consideration. The dealer who comes from outside Kent is genuinely an unwary individual, without a reason to suspect or know that the Bill exists.

The Bills' principles are not even part of the culture of the antiques trade. That would change, however, if there were national legislation, which is where I stand on the matter. The Bill, will not become part of the culture of the trade because they will affect only those who come to Kent from time to time.

Mr. Fallon

If there were national legislation on those grounds, would the hon. Gentleman support it?

Mr. Wyatt

I would definitely support it. I am arguing philosophically that it is wrong for just some citizens of the United Kingdom to be covered by legislation.

The promoters are easily content with the notion that Parliament should enact a Bill to create absolute offences that have an impact on innocent and responsible people who will have no defence if prosecution is brought. That is wholly unprincipled and exceptional in our legal system, although I am mindful of similar Bills in other counties.

The civil liberty issues cannot be ignored. They arise because we are dealing with local legislation that purports to regulate a trade that operates nationwide. The issue would not arise so acutely if the exponents of the trade operated wholly within the county of Kent, because such dealers could be targeted and informed about the law with comparative ease. That is not the case with the antiques trade because of the national and international marketplace.

Mr. Paul Clark

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that similar Acts exist in other parts of the country? He seems to be making the case that the Bill will be detrimental to people who come to Kent. Does he accept that of all the registrations under the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991, sources outside Kent confirm that about 51 per cent. are of traders who run their business outside the county and go into it to operate? There is a 50:50 split between those inside and those outside the county.

Mr. Wyatt

That Act was passed 10 years ago, but crime figures have only just started to fall. Other counties have introduced their own Bills, so the antiques business is regulated differently in seven or eight counties. That does not assist our attempts to deregulate, to help young entrepreneurs to prosper and to enable those who want to trade to do so. We are obfuscating the issue by increasing bureaucracy.

A witness to the Opposed Private Bill Committee, Mr. Tripp, stated that principle succinctly, when he said: I would like to see the Bill scrapped because I really do believe that crime is a national problem and it should be dealt with in a national Bill. If I was sitting here today proposing that we have one Bill for Kent for drugs and another one for Sussex, so you could smoke cocaine on one side of the road and not on the other, you would all laugh me out of court and I cannot see that this is any different. He is absolutely right. The criminal law should be the same throughout the country.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Does my hon. Friend accept that every police force has the right to operate differently and that styles of policing vary? Measures should be available, therefore, that may be particularly appropriate for one force, but not for all the others.

Mr. Wyatt

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. We are trying to encourage best practice in police forces to be used nationally. The fundamental point is that we do not yet have best practice in the culture of policing, but we hope that we will achieve it. My question, which I dwelt on before, is whether we are equal citizens under the law or only under some laws.

I mentioned the Worcester City Council Act 1985. There is also the County of Lancashire Act 1984 and the City of Newcastle upon Tyne Act 2000. I will not read out the whole list of such Acts, but if other local authorities with similar legislation decide to enforce it, dealers will be required to cope with numerous Acts, all of them different. If other local authorities follow suit, as Newcastle upon Tyne has, the position will get worse. The position of antiques dealers in this country will become completely untenable. Do we want that business here or not? It is a massive revenue earner within UK plc and outside the country. The promoters hope and expect that other local authorities will follow suit. That is the wrong way round. Philosophically, if the proposal is right, the Home Office should introduce it nationally.

As many hon. Members know, a local Bill enables the promoter to avoid carrying out a cost benefit analysis and, in some cases, to avoid consulting the trade. The absence of a cost benefit analysis makes it impossible to strike a fair balance between the interests of the public and the police in reducing crime on the one hand, and the interests of the antiques trade in carrying out its business without undue interference on the other.

If national legislation were introduced, a proper scientific study would be carried out with the assistance of trade associations and others to ascertain the effects of regulating the antiques trade in various ways and the benefit in terms of reducing the market in stolen goods. There would be full consultation, initiated by a Green Paper and followed by a Government proposal set out in a White Paper. We all know how that system works. Such a study would inevitably involve the investigation of different types of dealers, their income and expenditure, different methods of business and the nature and extent of the problem—the market in stolen goods. It would investigate traffic in stolen goods at each level of the trade and different ways to prevent it. There would be consultation not only of Kent police but of other police forces.

Mr. Paul Clark

This is not national legislation and there is no requirement for a cost benefit analysis, but does my hon. Friend accept that consultation on the ideas behind the Bill has been extensive and began even before the first draft was started two and a half years ago? Does he accept also that the proposals have seen part and parcel of Operation Radium in Kent and Medway, so it is not as though the legislation has suddenly been introduced to the House without any discussion taking place? Do not the amendments show that the promoters have listened to members of the trade?

Mr. Wyatt

I agree in part, but I have attended public meetings and received letters and e-mails from hundreds of people saying that they were not consulted or asked for their opinion. That is a genuine grievance held especially by those in the antiques trade.

A suggestion has been made in some quarters that the opposition to the Bill of the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association and DMG Antiques Fairs Ltd. implies that they are willing to tolerate trafficking in stolen goods. That is not true. They want properly thought out national legislation that serves the interests of the public as well as the trade—LAPADA has campaigned for that. They strongly oppose the Bill's clumsy sledgehammer approach, which will require dealers to record thousands of transactions involving articles ranging from 18th-century dining tables to tie pins, most of which will be of no value to the police.

Anyone who has visited Detling, which is one of the great antiques fairs, will realise that the Bill carries serious implications for the way in which such fairs operate. Its framing will ensure that Kent dealers have to register transactions whereas non-Kent people will not. That is a disappointment to me and those who share my views.

Many of the records will have nothing to do with reducing trafficking or tracing stolen goods in Kent. In his evidence to the Committee, Mr. Scott, representing Kent county council's trading standards department, conceded as much. His department does not even intend to range outside Kent to inspect the records of registered dealers outside the county. Such records will be inspected only if the dealer brings them to Kent and a trading standards officer happens to run into him. Why impose a requirement to keep such records if it is not going to be enforced? That is yet another anomaly arising from this local Bill. From their evidence to the Committee, it was apparent that the Bill's promoters hoped that if the local Bill was a success, the Government would intervene with national legislation; however, the Bill's enactment will not encourage the Executive to intervene.

I ask the Minister to think again. One might as well give a drink to an alcoholic. The only way to encourage an alcoholic to seek a cure is to withhold drink. If the Government see local authorities enacting local legislation around the country, they will be satisfied that there is no need for them to intervene, but the harm done to the antiques trade in the intervening period will be dramatic.

In their evidence to the Committee, the promoters accepted that if the police case for the Bill could not be proved, there would be no basis for enacting the Bill to serve the interests of the trading standards department. Mr. Scott's evidence made it clear that any benefit to the trading standards department would be purely incidental and that the Bill must stand or fall according to whether the police have made out their case. However, last year, the value of stolen antiquities in the county of Kent constituted only 2.4 per cent. of the total value of stolen goods in Kent. That statistic was thoroughly tested in Committee.

Furthermore, in their evidence, Kent police accepted that the more organised burglar—as opposed to the burglar who is driven by addictive drugs—will transport antiques a great distance to dispose of them. If antiques are taken outside the county before disposal, they will not be affected by the Bill and will fall outside its recording provisions. Antiques that are taken outside the county will have been stolen by the more organised and trained burglar and are likely to be more valuable.

As I have said, the out-and-out rogue dealer is unlikely to register under the Bill, and the Bill will not impinge on goods disposed by those who remain unregistered. If a dealer remains unregistered, the powers of recording conferred by the Bill will be inapplicable to him; equally, the powers of entry and inspection afforded to the police by the Bill will not apply to him. The local unorganised burglar who has stolen an antique will not generally have gone out of his way to steal antiques. He will steal the more usual items, such as video recorders and the latest PlayStation. The Bill deals with an extremely small proportion of the stolen goods in Kent.

The gain to the police to be derived from the Bill in relation to the antiques trade is wholly unproven. The measure of assistance that they can reasonably hope to gain from it, whether in reducing the market in stolen antiques or in tracing such goods, will be very small indeed. In contrast, the Bill will cause dealers in the antiques trade to prepare thousands of different sets of records. Some of those records will cover thousands of transactions. As I explained, a house clearance can involve between 3,000 and 4,000 items. Trying to use such records to trace stolen goods will be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

In the Committee, Kent police were asked how they would know where to start looking if somebody reported a Lowestoft jug stolen. With a list of thousands of names, where would they start to look? The police response was, "Well, our intelligence-led policing will target certain dealers." From that answer, it follows that the ordinary honest dealer, who has no wish to accept stolen goods, is not going to be targeted by the police unless, by pure chance, the police are tipped off and told that the Lowestoft jug has regrettably ended up with an honest dealer. The out-and-out rogue dealer, on the other hand, will get by without registering. The dishonest antiques dealer will register, but he is unlikely to oblige by recording correct names, addresses and descriptions of articles. Inventive means can be used by the rogue dealer to avoid the provisions of the Bill.

Some individuals may be caught, but they will be liable to fines of only £1,000. The inference is that the burden of the Bill will be borne by the honest dealer—not by the crook or the dodgy dealer—for little gain.

We know from the North Yorkshire experience that for the first three or four years the Act that applied to that area was never enforced. It was then enforced for a period, and resources were diverted and re-prioritised elsewhere. The same will happen in Kent. The police change their tactics to meet the changing tactics of the criminal and resources are reapplied elsewhere. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the crime rate has gone down. What happens? We lose five police officers.

Kali Mountford

I accept my hon. Friend's argument that tactics used by the police and burglars change. Burglars who are now taking certain items may be finding it difficult to dispose of them. If antiques were exempted, would burglars not find themselves a new market?

Mr. Wyatt

There is some logic in what my hon. Friend says.

Kent-registered dealers at antiques fairs will lose business, whether in Kent or elsewhere, in the important period at the beginning of the fair when dealers are operating at close quarters and in hectic competition. In such circumstances, a dealer will not stop to provide his name and address or other forms of identification to the Kent-registered dealer, who will therefore lose out on the best available deals. Although in theory the purchaser can take the badge number of the seller, by no means all fairs issue badges.

I shall give the example of an Act that relates to the registration of adults who work with children. The sum involved was £10. The Scottish Parliament said that it would pay that sum. I tabled a question asking whether it would be all right for scouts, football teams and guides in my constituency to register as a PO Box in Edinburgh. As the House will know, there is now no charge in England. Antique dealers and others will find ways of getting round the Bill's provisions. That is why the issue is national and not local.

It is clear from the evidence that business will be lost by dealers at antique fairs, and not merely in the first few hours of trade. Similarly, it will be lost outside antique fairs in the normal course of business, because people will refuse to give their names and addresses. It is equally clear that alternative methods of identification will not be the answer. Not everyone has a driving licence, and not everyone who has a licence carries it. Not many people will produce a credit card to identify themselves. They may pay by credit card, but that is their chosen method of payment, assuming that the dealer will accept one. The dealer will not necessarily have credit card facilities. Most people cannot remember their national insurance number, and who walks around with a passport?

Dealers who buy from abroad or from tourists will, in many instances, be unable to get the names and addresses of the vendors, as a result of which business will be lost. A witness to the Committee, whose plight is by no means unusual, described graphically the difficulties experienced in buying at brocantes and fairs in France, and in buying from Japanese tourists. It is difficult to see how a Kent dealer could continue in business if the Bill were enacted, including the provisions relating to antiques.

The requirement of the Bill to record a description sufficient to identify the article was amended in Committee. If an antiques dealer is asked to describe an antique, he will naturally resort to the method that has been used since time immemorial. We will not change the animal by requiring the dealer to describe the article in another way. It is common to find that one dealer backs his hunch or judgment against another when it comes to the date of an article, who made it and so forth. Such differing views, it is suggested, would be converted into criminal offences.

That is the cause of anxiety to the dealer. Of course, a mis-description could blot out the tracing facility of the records. That could give rise to annoyance on the part of the police or the trading standards officer, for example. No one can predict the extent to which a dealer will be criticised if he makes a mistake in his description of an article.

Some antiques dealers buy goods in lots, whether it be at a house clearance or otherwise; they then sell on in lots. The lots can include 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 or more articles. Sometimes they do not even look at them. They do not want them. They are not interested in the overwhelming majority of the contents of a house, but they notice the odd clock or the odd piece of furniture. That is what attracts them. The dealer will now have to log everything. He will have to make up his mind whether it is worth logging each article and whether an article can go to sale for less than £10. He will have to consider whether he is under an obligation to enter a description of each and every article. That is becoming ridiculous for those in the trade.

Is it right to impose the burden of more book-keeping on the trade, as those people are busy? We have reached the stage in our history where we do not think it justifiable to impose regulations on individuals without real justification. The Bill indiscriminately imposes regulation, regardless of the level of turnover or the number of transactions, which is a grievous imposition. It is not valid to argue that people are required to enter such records under the VAT margin scheme, as the global accounting scheme has been specially provided by Customs and Excise to meet the particular requirements of businesses with a high turnover of low-value articles. They do not have to enter such records in relation to transactions of £500 or less

If the Bill becomes law, the prospects are bad for antiques fairs in Kent, which will be driven out of the county altogether. The Bill will have a considerable effect on many businesses that attend those fairs. We do not know to what extent dealers will say, "I am not going to bother with Kent any more; I am going to go elsewhere." No study has been carried out to determine that. A drop of only 20 per cent. in the number of stall holders at Detling, the largest fair in Kent, will turn it into a loss-making enterprise. If it closes, the effect on the local economy will be devastating.

The question of how to exclude the antiques trade from the Bill is a natural progression from my earlier statements. It merely becomes a question of definition; the VAT regulations are an excellent starting point because a great deal of thought has been given to the Value Added Tax (Special Provisions) Order 1995, S.I. 1268, as amended by the Value Added Tax (Special Provisions) (Amendment No. 2) Order 1999, S.I. 3120. I venture to suggest that those regulations contain concise, simple definitions that have been well thought through by those advising Customs and Excise. While not a perfect fit, they require little modification and provide the comfort of being based on a substantial amount of research and consultation. I shall therefore oppose the Bill.


Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words in support of the Bill. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) was right that, despite our somewhat attenuated proceedings this afternoon, it has received a good deal of parliamentary scrutiny. On Second Reading, we had a good debate on its principles, and the Committee that considered it extremely conscientiously paid close attention to each of its provisions.

I have consistently supported the Bill but not, it is fair to say, without many misgivings. It is true that the Bill imposes significant additional regulation on the traders whose activities it covers. My hon. Friends and I are philosophically predisposed to object to further regulation; there is too much regulation, which ought to be diminished. That is a powerful argument against the Bill, as is the argument deployed by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey about consistency. I agree that national legislation would have been preferable, but we know that that it is not on the cards and is unlikely to be introduced in the near future.

Those of us who represent the people of Kent therefore have to face up to the question. We all want to do everything that we can to reduce crime in Kent. The question boils down to this: are we prepared to will the means as well as the end? I believe that the Bill will contribute to the reduction of crime in Kent. At least equally importantly. the chief constable, to whom I paid tribute on Second Reading and in whose judgment I have considerable confidence, is strongly of that view as well.

Despite the cogent points made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and the misgivings to which I referred, I believe that the Bill—which, I deeply regret, will impose difficulties on many traders, including many of my constituents—will make a significant contribution to making Kent a place with less property crime. That is an objective of considerable importance, which is why I have consistently supported the legislation.


Mr. Rowe

I shall be brief. Many of my constituents have, like those of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), taken a leading role in opposing the legislation and have written and spoken to me about it. I share a number of their anxieties. Their principal concern is that the Bill should be national legislation. The Government came to power on a pledge to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but it is a shame that when they are confronted with an opportunity to introduce relatively modest legislation nationwide, they allow it to grow up piecemeal through a series of private Bills.

It is a poor argument to suggest that there is no room to deal with a measure that controls crime, which impinges on every person in the country, in a legislative timetable that has given so much time to irrelevancies such as hunting with dogs. I would have supported the Bill with fervour if it had been national legislation, but I do not feel fervent about it. Instead, I feel anxious for constituents of mine who work in the trade, as there may be a small transfer of trade—I think it will be smaller than they fear—to other places, where people do not have to keep records.

In an increasingly international world, trade goes to the places where it is best regulated and organised. Most antique dealers in Kent have a justifiably high reputation for honesty and probity. I hope that the Bill will increase that impression, as a good reputation brings trade in its wake. It is for the police to prove that the Bill diminishes crime, however, and I look forward to considering their records during the next two or three years to find out whether it does so.

The other reason why I am keen to support the Bill is that I am outraged to know that there are shops in my constituency that send out thieves to steal to order. They are well known to the police and to some local people, but it is so difficult to catch them in the act that they continue to commit their crimes with apparent impunity. The sending out of youngsters to steal to order was a well-known feature of 19th-century London, but I am outraged by the idea that dealers in my constituency are doing the same thing now. Such crime is a significant way of increasing the drugs trade, as it is drug addicts who are most likely to do the stealing. Any measure that will diminish such activities is to be commended, which is why I support the Bill.

5.23 pm
Mr. Fallon

I, too, support the Bill, for the reasons that I outlined on Second Reading, which now seems a very long time ago. I do not do so with wild enthusiasm, however, as there are issues of bureaucracy and the central question of local or national legislation. As I made clear on Second Reading, a price may have to be paid for the Bill in terms of bureaucracy, as it could bear down heavily on people who are not involved in criminal activity of any sort, but who will now have to put up with some of the red tape to which the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) referred. Those issues have been explored both in Committee and in the House today, and the promoters' original proposals have been substantially amended during the Bill's passage through both Houses. I hope, therefore, that the bureaucratic burden will be less than it might otherwise have been.

The only other argument about the Bill is whether it should have been a national measure. I made my position clear on Second Reading. I am not opposed to local innovation in developing the law. It is now for other counties and for police forces to see how Kent gets on and to decide whether to promote their own legislation.

The Bill is slightly different and it builds on experience from elsewhere. That is useful. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey may be right to say that a Bill that applies nationally is preferable. In response to my intervention he said that, despite his misgivings about the lack of a moral framework, he would support it if it applied nationally.

The Bill does not apply nationally, and there is no prospect of such a measure. I do not know what the position will be on 4 May, but there is little prospect of a national Bill in the next few days or weeks. We must therefore deal with the measure as it stands.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was right when he said that Kent police's case was unproven. That is the nature of such measures; the police cannot prove to Parliament that the Bill will work and make a substantial difference. It is for us to make a judgment. We must assess the likely impact, the bureaucratic cost and the red tape. We must set our judgment against that of those who are in the front line.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) expressed such a judgment today. He has been in the front line as one of the more successful Home Secretaries of recent times. Crime decreased during his term of office. We have also heard the judgment of the chief constable of Kent. The Government acknowledge that he is one of the more successful chief constables in the fight against crime. I am prepared to accept at least those two judgments.

The police believe that the Bill strengthens the instruments at their disposal, and that it will make a difference. Such measures have made a difference in other areas and to other trades—for example, scrap metal. A measure on that was introduced much earlier. It is important to remember that the Bill will apply to trades other than antiques. That is why the police support it.

None the less, we should not forget antiques, which are being stolen. If they could not be cashed in so easily, they would not be stolen. The ease with which antiques can be translated into cash lies behind the extraordinarily high rates of burglary.

If there is a Division, I shall support the Bill, albeit without huge enthusiasm. Its effect may be modest, but at least it will be modest on the right side. I suspect that Kent police will be proved right and the Bill will have a significant, but not huge, impact on the operation of criminals in Kent.

5.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I do not wish to say much; I simply want to deal briefly with the issue of local and national legislation. It is the convention that the Government are neutral on private Bills, and we intend to maintain that. However, Project Radium is already examining ways to reduce supply and demand of stolen goods in Kent. The Home Office is closely associated with the project; indeed, we are providing £462,000 for it and are paying for its evaluation. We are therefore keen to ensure that it is considered with great care. Without wishing to anticipate the results of the evaluation, I understand and sympathise with the view of the promoters of such Bills that voluntary action is not enough.

If the Bill is passed today, the Government must consider whether some of the rules for which it provides need to be introduced nationally. If Parliament decides to enact the Bill, we intend to discuss with Kent county police the best way in which its benefits can be evaluated in a reasonable time If the Government can demonstrate through experience that the benefits of the measure outweigh the cost that it will impose on second-hand dealers, we will consider carefully whether the Bill and those like it that have already been passed should form the basis for national legislation.

I hope that those points will assist the House without compromising the Government's neutrality on the Bill.

5.29 pm
Mr. Paul Clark

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate on Third Reading.

I welcome the comments by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), about looking carefully at the provisions of the Bill if it is passed tonight. He is absolutely right about Project Radium, which, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), has consistently contributed to the reduction in burglaries and associated crimes in the Medway area. It has been operating on a voluntary basis, but it has rightly been pointed out that that is not enough, which is why we are debating the Bill today.

The records that are being sought are not substantially more than those that would be required under the good practice guidance notes of various associations, the requirements for VAT, and so on. As the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) recognised, we have caught the mood in terms of the requirements and the cash-up limits required for record-keeping. That provision was introduced purely to ensure that we eased the burdens on traders as much as possible, and to ensure that we continue to have a healthy operation in Kent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey referred to removing antique dealers from the scope of the Bill. It is impossible to do that, and I hope that we covered that when we considered the amendments. Antique dealers trade not only in antiques but in many items, some of which—jewellery and watches, for example—have been identified by Kent police as items that ire frequently stolen and traded.

Let me add, for the benefit of hon. Members who have expressed concern, that new clause 20, which was added in Committee, provides a requirement for the promoters and the police to report to the Secretary of State on the benefits or otherwise of the Bill, no more than three years after the appointed day.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) referred to the burden of the regulatory effect of the Bill, and to the need to strike a balance between the interests of local businesses involved in this trade and helping and protecting residents. This is a question of balance, and we have taken steps to try to ease that burden.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) referred to the process of funding the purchase of drugs, and suggested that drugs might lead to much of this type of crime. He is absolutely right. It is believed that when burglaries are committed to fund drug-related habits, the problem is not exported over the boundary into neighbouring counties, because people want to sell the stolen goods quickly in order to get the cash, and they are not going to travel to another county to do that.

We have had a substantial debate on Third Reading that has aired a number of concerns that are shared by all Members of the House. We shall watch closely the effects of the Bill, which I am pleased to support.

Question put and agreed to.

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