HL Deb 08 June 1964 vol 258 cc695-708

3.42 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill I can assure your Lordships it is a brief and non-controversial Bill. There was a good deal of discussion on the Bill in another place, both in Standing Committee and on Report, where the Bill was initiated by my honourable friend the Member for North-West Leeds, and it is therefore not necessary for me to say more than a few words. Your Lordships will observe that the Bill consists of eleven clauses and one Schedule, but most of the clauses are brief. The Bill is based upon the report of the Working Party on the Sale of Old Metals and the Control of Dealers in Old Metals appointed in 1954 by the then Home Secretary, now the noble and learned Earl, Lord Kilmuir. The Report appeared in 1955, after several months of careful study of many of the aspects of scrap metal dealers and matters appertaining to them. The task before the Committee was quite a cumbrous one. A great deal of evidence was taken from all parts of the country and a great many subjects were discussed involving penalties and thefts and so on. Indeed, there are six parts of the Report and six Appendices.

Prior to the Bill now under discussion in your Lordships' House the only piece of similar legislation in the past hundred years or so was the Old Metal Dealers Act, 1861, which laid down certain penalties for receiving stolen goods and precluded persons under the age of sixteen from being employed by the dealers. The present Bill, as I will show in a moment, seeks to increase the penalties for dealers who fail to register with the local authority, and for other offences. The purpose of the Bill is primarily to give the maximum protection to the very many honest dealers in scrap metals and other substances appertaining to them. Most of these dealers are honest people, despite the jokes and burlesques which are made about them, and they do a very worthy trade. It is said that they make vast profits, but that is not always the case. They do in fact help the national effort to quite a large extent. But, of course, there are the black sheep and this Bill seeks to ensure that these people are punished.

To turn briefly to the clauses, Clause 1 deals with the registration of dealers in these metals and it requires every local authority to maintain a register of persons carrying on in business as scrap metal dealers. Subsection (4) of Clause l sets out the particulars required for notification, and subsection (5) requires the dealer to notify the local authority in the event of his moving his business. Subsection (7) sets out penalties for contravening this Bill. The maximum penalty of £100 may seem high, and in another place there was, I believe, some discussion on this. But in view of the large profits which can be made illicitly by unscrupulous dealers, despite the recommendations of the 1955 Working Party that these offences should carry a maximum penalty of only £20, it was felt that £100 in the present circumstances was a more practical sum, and this proposal is in keeping with the general desire to increase penalties for flagrantly dishonest acts of this kind.

Clause 2 requires records to be kept of dealings, as per paragraphs 49 and 50 of the 1955 Report. I will not go into detail on these records. Subsection (2) sets out the detailed particulars which the records must contain. Clause 4 requires dealers who have been convicted not to receive any kind of scrap between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. The reason for this is that thefts of scrap and the offences appertaining to them are nearly always carried out in the hours of darkness, for reasons which will be quite evident to your Lordships. Clause 5 makes it illegal to sell scrap to or to receive scrap from, or to engage in dealings with, children under the age of 16.

I think I have covered basically the contents of this Bill. As I have said, there was a lot of discussion in another place, and the Bill is, I think, a worthy attempt to give protection to the really scrupulous dealers in this matter. I know that my noble friend Lord Mancroft will be referring to a vital matter which is not actually directly connected with this Bill, but which is nevertheless an important corollary. I would only say in connection with that that in last week's Hertfordshire Express a court case about some dumped cars on a small road near Hitchin was reported. There one witness, who was a self-employed metal dealer, agreed with the defending solicitor in the case that the problem of abandoned cars was getting bigger both nationally and locally.

It is, of course, vital to remember that it is not the scrap dealer who receives these cars direct. A lot of people think that the scrap dealers "pinch" these cars and make vast profits from them. This is not so, and it is not this kind of offence that the Bill necessarily seeks to cover. The Bill seeks to cover those who are deliberately making profits out of other types of theft. I would therefore ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.(Lord Auckland.)

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House is appreciative of the detailed information which the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, has given of this Bill. Therefore, there is no need for repetition in regard to the effect of various clauses. May I say at the very outset that we on this side of the House welcome the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, said, the Bill is based largely on the Report of a Working Party which was set up in 1954 and which reported in 1955. The first comment I should like to make is that, small though this Bill is and important as it is to this section of the trade, it is really surprising and a little difficult to understand why it should have taken ten years to bring into effect the recommendations of these busy persons who were set up as a committee by the Government to go into this problem. Then, instead of the Government itself bringing forward a Bill, we have to do it through the good offices of a Private Member in another place.

The Bill provides for the important procedure of registration and supervision of the trade. As the noble Lord has said, this trade has come in for a certain amount of criticism. As with all trades, and even professions, it has some black sheep in it; but those black sheep are comparatively few, taking into account the general range of the trade. As always happens, it is the black sheep who get the notice because of their misdoings and convictions, but those who carry on an honest trade day in and day out, month in and month out and year in and year out, of course do not come in for commendation. The vast majority of dealers in the trade are honest folk, doing a good job and rendering good service to the community.

So far as this Bill is concerned—this is why we on this side of the House welcome it—the honest traders, the honest dealer, the honest tot, has nothing at all to fear. In fact, they should, and I believe do, welcome the Bill because of the added standing, status and security which it gives them and the protection it provides for them against any section of their community which might go "off the rails". We must face the fact that in this type of trade there is the problem of the receiver. If there were no receivers there would be many fewer thefts; it is the receiver who in fact provides the inducement to the criminal to steal and then to get rid of the scrap he has stolen. The Bill assists the police in enforcing the law and detecting crime. Therefore we welcome it.

Doubts were expressed in another place about certain phrasing within the Bill. In particular, the honourable and learned Member for Surrey East, and some of my honourable friends expressed some doubts as to the wording of the Bill. They also expressed the opinion—perhaps this is a compliment to this House—that when it came here there would be some revision. The noble Lord, Lord Auckland, did not mention that, and therefore I presume that the Promoter of the Bill has no further thoughts in regard to improving the language of the Bill. But I should be glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, when he comes to give the views of the Government, whether the Home Office are satisfied with the general terms of the Bill, and whether, as was suggested by some honourable Members of another place, it requires improvement by this House.

I have a note here: to express regret because certain matters were not covered in the Bill. This note relates to the fact that the Bill does nothing to deal with litter in the countryside, with abandoned motor cars and scrap metal which finds its way into the ditches and the woods in the country. I appreciate that it is outside the scope of this Bill, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, is going to deal with this point I will say nothing more about it. We on this side of the House welcome the Bill, but we hope that the Minister of State for the Home Office will express some view as to whether or not, as was suggested in another place, certain sections of the Bill need tidying up.

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to add a few words of welcome to this Bill. I must say that when I first saw it I was a little dubious. I thought it looked a bit too much like taking a steamhammer to crack a nut. I shared the views of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, that a Bill which had taken nearly ten years to find its way from the Minister's desk to your Lordships' House (and then, with all respect to my noble friend Lord Auckland, in the hands of a Private Member) meant that the Government could not be taking it quite as seriously as they wish us to. A short glance at the Working Party Report will show those who, like myself, are uninitiated in this subject what an important matter this is. Take, for instance, paragraph 19 of the Report, where we read: In the case of non-ferrous metals the latest figures for the year 1953 show that of the total volume of metal produced in this country roughly one-half of the copper and lead and one-third of the aluminium and zinc were derived from secondary and scrap metal. To replace this by virgin metal would have cost almost £100 million. In the case of steel, the figures for 1952 show that one-half of the total production was derived from scrap metal at a saving of £116 million. It is obvious that scrap metal plays an important part in the nation's economy. I do not doubt that since 1953 the figures have changed, but it is still obvious that this little Bill deals with an important branch of the country's economy.

It is also apparent, when one studies the law, that it is in need of reform and is in many respects a legal jumble. Those of your Lordship who are connoisseurs of legal jumbles will still give the prize to Clause 17 of the ill-fated Shops Bill of 1958, which took thirty-four lines of the draftsmen's fearless prose to establish the principle that only a Mohammedan or a practising Jew could operate as a barber in Scotland on a Sunday. The law we are amending to-day is in that class. If one looks carefully, one sees that it is a criminal offence to sell a secondhand anchor to anybody under the age of 16 before eight o'clock in the morning and after 6 at night. The penalty is £20. But if you do it from premises over which your name is not written in letters 6 inches long (not 6 inches high, mark you) the penalty is £10 more. This clearly is a law which is in need of reform.

The only thing that worries me is the fact that we may have been too pernickety in our reform. After all, as both noble Lords who have preceded me have mentioned, we are dealing largely with quite humble people. There are also, of course, big men in the trade, but there are a large number of humble people who earn their living in this trade—tinkers,gypsies,rag-and-bone men to mention only the three humblest categories—and, as Lord Lindgren says, Steptoes too. Here they have formidable stuff to cope with if they want to keep within the law. I must correct myself: I should not have said rag-and-bone men; that is now incorrect. The expression in the Bill is "itinerant collector". By virtue of Clause 9 "itinerant collector" means a person regularly engaged in collecting waste materials, and old, broken, worn out or defaced articles, by means of visits from house to house". In other words, a rag-and-bone man!

But I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, is moving with the times. We no longer talk about "rat-catchers"; we talk about "rodent operators". I see that a night-watchman, giving evidence in a trial at the Midland Assizes, recently described his profession as that of "Noctician"; and it will be within the memory of your Lordships that two or three years ago we had a Private Member's Bill to change the name of "sanitary engineers" to "public health officers". After a certain amount of protest your Lordships passed that Bill. I suppose we ought to consider ourselves lucky that the sanitary engineers did not go further and ask to be known as "privy councillors". I therefore withdraw the expression "rag-and-bone men" and will refer to them properly as "itinerant collectors". These are the people who are covered by this Bill—the small people who deal in this trade.

I was glad to hear both noble Lords emphasise the fact that these are predominantly honest people. I dislike legislation which assumes that nine-tenths of the people for whom it is intended are crooks, and that only one-tenth are honest men. I do not for a moment believe that to he so in this case. Paragraph 22 of the Working Party's Report gives this significant fact: In 1952 the total number of such thefts known to the police was 25,543, being rather less than 7 per cent. of the total number of offences of larceny known to the police. In 1953 this figure had fallen to 9,489… And I do not doubt that, with economic changes, that figure has fallen a great deal further. So that I hope we shall look at this Bill carefully, from the point of view of the honest dealer, rather than from the point of view of the very few people who indulge in a little jiggerypokery and hunkle-schmunkle from time to time. I believe it is the honest man for whom we ought to legislate.

My noble friend Lord Auckland was kind enough to tell your Lordships that I proposed to refer to a matter which has nothing whatever to do with the Bill. I am grateful for his helpful and friendly preface. I intend to refer to it, but in my view it has a great deal to do with the Bill. It concerns the one potential criminal who is omitted from the Bill. We have discussed the criminal who wrongly sells metal or who wrongly receives or buys metal, but what about the man who wrongly dumps metal all over the countryside? And as for those who feel the matter cannot be brought within the Bill, any beginner can introduce into a Bill a matter that is relevant. Introducing an irrelevant matter requires practice. The words in the Title to the Bill, "and for purposes connected therewith", I think most certainly refer to those who last year left 6,000 cars abandoned in the Metropolitan area alone; and I need not refer again to the figures I gave your Lordships of the importance of this metal to the country's economy. Surely we must devise some means not only of preventing this desecration of the countryside but of turning this metal to better use.

I raised this matter in your Lordships' House nearly three years ago when I drew attention to the sight which greets the visitor into London coming in from London Airport, down the Cromwell Road extension, just this side of St. Paul's School. On the day I happened to raise the matter in this House there were on the verge two prams, one motor-cycle, one disused cistern, and what appeared to me to be 700 tons of newsprint. I was given a soothing reply by the Government. I wrote letters to the newspapers, I tackled the L.C.C (as it then was) and the local authority, all of whom told me that it was somebody else's business. I was told, however, that I should soon see a change. That was perfectly true, because the next time I drove down the road the two prams had gone and their place had been taken by a disused Morris Minor and an old Victorian bedstead. I have been pursuing this business ever since. It does not seem to get any better. Your Lordships will have seen the photographs in the papers the other day of a lot of cars dumped in an orchard in a most beautiful part of Kent near Wrotham. This situation is repeated all over the countryside.

I exaggerate slightly when I say that the man who dumps his car without giving notice is a villain. I do not think he wants to dump it; I do not think he wants to throw away scrap metal which could contribute to the nation's economy: he just does not know what to do with it. There is no co-ordinated policy. The local authority cannot be expected to take on this job. I am willing to bet that very few of the cars in the orchard at Wrotham were put there by ratepayers in the Wrotham area. Why, then, should they be faced with the expense? This matter must be tackled on a national basis, and tackled soon.

I emphasise that the real difficulty is that there is nowhere for the legitimate dumper of a car who does not wish to commit this outrage to put the vehicle. This point was brought home to me strongly when I was responsible in this House for affairs in Wales. I had gone down to an afforestation area in Wales for an inspection, and the night before I was dining with the man in charge. He was complaining about this very point—the amount of beer bottles, tin cans, cigarette cartons, and all the other manifestations of civilisation, higher education and the Welfare State, that were littered all around the afforestation area. I said to him "Are you certain it is not to a small degree your own fault? Do you provide enough receptacles for this rubbish?"—because, with the best will in the world, a man cannot walk around carrying his child's semi-regurgitated Mars Bar with him the whole day. One must give him somewhere to put it. He said, "I think we do". So I made a mental note to have a good look next day to see whether there were enough receptacles for rubbish.

I must confess that I was taken aback to find, as we got out of the coach, a huge litter basket with the words "Put your litter here", written in Welsh, to keep the Welsh Nationalists happy, then in English so that others could understand it. Then, round the corner, there was as even bigger litter basket, and round the third corner a bigger litter basket still. So I realised that once again I had put my foot in it, and that the time had come for an apology. I turned to the officer who was taking me round and said, "Those are very good, first class, excellent; just what I wanted to see. "He looked at me a little angrily and said, "Very good, first class, excellent; just what you wanted to see. Well, and so they should be! Up half the blooming night making them, we were."

My Lords, those were emergency measures, but I would ask the Minister who is to reply if he can say whether in this respect this Bill does provide us with an opportunity of tidying this matter up, as well as of tidying the countryside up. We have been promised an inquiry into this matter. The Government, I hope and I am sure, are taking, this seriously, but we are getting near Election time. There are not many votes in disused prams and Victorian bedsteads, and I cannot see old Morris Minors appearing in the Queen's Speech. If we do not do something now it will again be delayed by the pressure of legislation for a long time, and here we have, I am sure, an opportunity of slipping something into this Bill which could deal with this problem here and now and on a national basis; we shall never be able to deal with it on a local basis.

Therefore I earnestly hope that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill, and the Minister who is to reply for the Home Office, will realise that in the expression "purposes connected therewith" the Title of the Bill could cover those 6,000 cars, which might contribute to the national economy but which otherwise litter our countryside and our towns. My Lords, I suppose I shall again be told that I am taking a steam-hammer to crack a nut, and that the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, will go further and say that if I am taking a second-hand steam-hammer after six o'clock at night I shall be committing an offence.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I could just ask my noble friend Lord Auckland for a little enlightenment as to the meaning of subsection (2)(b) and (c) of Clause 1. Subsection (2)(b) says: no place is occupied by him as a scrap metal store, whether in that area or elsewhere, but he has his usual place of residence in that area". Subsection (2)(c) goes on to say: no place is occupied by him as a scrap metal store, whether in that area or elsewhere, but a place in that area is occupied by him wholly or partly for the purposes of that business". We get a definition of "place" on page 10, where it says that it includes any land, whether consisting of enclosed premises or not", which seems fairly all-embracing. I cannot see, therefore, how "no place" can be occupied by someone. It seems to me that it will be unoccupied in that case. Surely, it really means that the place is not used by him as a scrap metal store. If that is the case, why do they use this strange word "occupied" and not the word "used"? That would seem to me to make more sense.


My Lords, surely the noble Duke will appreciate that there are some people who have no place to put their scrap. They just get it and take it to where they want to dispose of it. They have no store in the sense of the normal merchant who brings in his scrap, sorts it and sends the brass and gunmetal, or whatever it is, to other places. That is to deal with the fellow who buys and sells on direct trading.


But surely he must have somewhere where he puts the scrap while he has it in his possession, unless he keeps it on his lorry the whole time. Otherwise these people seem to be the very people who are littering the countryside with the articles mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mancroft.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to intervene for a moment at this stage to congratulate my noble friend on introducing this Bill and to make it clear that his proposals have the full support of Her Majesty's Government. As my noble friend has indicated, his Bill is founded upon the recommendations of an official Working Party which was appointed by my noble and learned friend Lord Kilmuir, when he was Home Secretary, to consider and report what changes, if any, in the law relating to the sale of old metals and the control of dealers in old metals were practicable and desirable.

The Working Party concluded that the present statutory provisions ought to be almost entirely repealed and re-enacted so far as necessary in one Statute, and they put forward a number of detailed proposals for making the present system of control more comprehensive and effective. These recommendations were accepted by the Government. Unfortunately, pressure on Government legislation time is such that we cannot always do what we should like to do. Inevitably this useful measure of reform has had to give place to other more pressing demands. We have good reason, therefore, to be grateful to my noble friend for giving us this opportunity to make the improvements which the Working Party's Report showed to be necessary.

The most important of the provisions which the Bill is intended to supersede is probably Section 86 of the Public Health Acts Amendment Act, 1907, which deals with the registration of scrap metal dealers. If any of your Lordships cared to look back at the 1907 Act as originally passed, he would find that it covered the most extraordinary miscellaneous subjects, ranging from infectious diseases and common lodging-houses to fire brigades and sky signs. Section 86 is to be found in Part VII of the Act, which is headed "Police". At first sight this may seem somewhat surprising to your Lordships. But that heading is the key to what the present Bill is about.

The whole purpose of the existing law governing the scrap metal trade, and the object of the Bill now before us, is to assist the police in the prevention and detection of crime. For as long as metal has been an industrial commodity it has been especially attractive to the thief, and it is to the scrap metal, dealer that the metal thief will usually turn to try to dispose of his unlawful gains. Time and again experience has shown that with such crimes the key to the recovery of the stolen property and to the identity of the thief is to be found in the scrap metal yard, and it 'is sometimes, of course, as other noble Lords have pointed out, in a scrap metal yard where the scrap metal dealer is perfectly honest. It is for this reason, which is well understood by the trade, that the law has for more than a hundred years made special provision for the supervision of scrap metal dealers.

Happily we have reason to believe that, despite the trend in other types of crime, the volume of metal stealing is not as great as it was some years ago. But this is only relative. During the immediate post-war years, when metal was scarce, the traffic in stolen metal was exceptionally high, and the law of supply and demand has since reduced its attraction for the thief. Nevertheless, thefts of metal, though fewer, are still a continuing problem and are likely to remain so. The Working Party observed that: Notwithstanding the reduction in the total volume of metal stealing … we are convinced that this is a serious and continuing problem which calls for permanent machinery designed to give the police reasonably adequate powers of investigation and supervision". Such machinery is what the Bill seeks to provide.

As regards some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, and my noble friend Lord Mancroft, I may say that I am not replying to this debate; that is the job of my noble friend Lord Auckland. But I think I might just say this to the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren. My noble friend Lord Auckland has been talking to me about certain Amendments to Clause 2, and all I will say—I do not know whether the noble Lord himself is going to mention it to-day—is that the Home Office will give him all the help and support he needs in the matter. As regards my noble friend Lord Mancroft, I am afraid that he is outside the Bill. The Short Title of the Bill is: An Act to amend the law relating to dealers in scrap metal and similar goods". People who dump their prams and their cars and their bedsteads are not dealers in scrap metal. I am very sorry, but they are not. I only wish they were, because then those articles would not be dumped. That matter really is outside the scope of this Bill.

I believe my noble friend Lord Mancroft challenged the Government to say whether they would persuade my noble friend Lord Auckland to put something in this Bill. They do not feel inclined to persuade him to do such a thing. I would only say that I will make certain that Lord Mancroft's remarks come to the attention of my right honourable friends the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister of Transport, because this problem really lies at their door. Strange to say, it does not, I think, lie at the door of the Home Office, as everything else seems to do. I think that is all I need say to your Lordships. The Bill will, I think, improve our defences against crime, without undue interference with honest trade, and Her Majesty's Government are glad to support it.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, and my noble friend Lord Mancroft for the speeches which they have made and for the support which they have given to the Bill. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, that a delay of ten years seems a long one, and it is a pity, in a way, that, like so many pieces of legislation of its kind, it is left to a Private Member to introduce. I can only presume it was due largely to the exigencies of Government Parliamentary time.

My noble friend Lord Mancroft made a simply brilliant speech, if I may say so, on the subject of litter. It would probably be difficult to bring this problem within the scope of the Bill, through the lack of Parliamentary time, but if my noble friend were to bring in a Private Member's Bill I would certainly, as I am sure would most Members of your Lord ships' House, support it to the hilt, because this business of old cars and other bits of scrap being left on our verges is an ever-growing menace. I would ask my noble friend Lord Derwent to look into one particular point in this matter, even though it is not directly connected with this Bill, and that is the question of safety, which does come within his Department. Many children go and play in these old crocks, these old cars and things, and suffer injuries, some of them fatal, and I think it is an important point to raise, even on a Bill of this kind.

The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, mentioned the problem of Clause 2 of the Bill, which problem was raised in another place, and my noble friend has given an assurance that in Committee an Amendment will be moved, when I shall be very pleased to deal with the point. I do not think there are any other matters with which I need deal now. I am grateful to your Lordships for your attention, and I trust that this Bill will now be read a second time.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.