Jacob Rees-Mogg on the London Local Authorities Bill

7th December, 2011, House of Commons

Jacob Rees-Mogg:I support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). He has made a noble effort to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. One can see a vision of all the mulberry trees in China, with all the silkworms on them working busily away to provide enough silk to produce a purse, but I fear that even these fine worms have failed in their effort. Even though I support the amendments before us, the Bill remains broadly a pig’s ear. Let me go through it point by point, one by one, as quickly as I can so that others may speak on these important subjects.

Amendment 5 deals with clause 3 on “Powers exercisable by police civilians and accredited persons”. How worrying it is, how concerning that legislation should be drafted in such a way that the penalties might be issued to somebody other than the person by whom the penalty ought to be paid. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, of all people, as innocent, as pure as the driven snow, could find some accredited person coming along, catching you by the scruff of the neck—an outrage in itself—and saying, “This penalty is for you,” when you had nothing to do with it, you knew nothing of it, you were, as I said, not guilty and as pure as the driven snow.

With the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch things begin to be tided up a bit. We put in the words:

by the person being served”.

That seems right and proper and sensible, even though the clause itself is not particularly attractive.

Now let us come on to these accredited persons. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) made them sound like very nice approachable chappies who are all doing a good day’s work and fine stuff. I am sure that that is true of many of them, but do we not have in our mind—have we not always had in our mind—that vision of the officious traffic warden who comes round, the jobsworth who is out to get you, who stands there, shaking the parking meter, waiting for the seconds to tick past so that a £70 fine, going up to £140 if you do not pay it quickly, whacks upon your head? Is that the type of accredited person we wish to see going around?

Does that not most fundamentally, and as a point of the greatest principle, undermine the role of constable? We have had in this country, since the founding of the Metropolitan police by Sir Robert Peel, a system of constables who have a warrant from the Crown, are trained, are authorised and are in a position to exercise fine judgments. They are regulated in a different way from others. They have different terms and conditions of service. They cannot go on strike, for example. We noticed this only last week, when we saw that the police, that fine body of men and women, were doing their duty while others were on strike.

Do we not downgrade the police when we have these accredited persons who suddenly can wander around and issue penalties—accredited by the council, we know not how; the type of accreditation given to them, we know not what, but we do know that it is not a constable with the full majesty of the law and the warrant of the Crown behind him or her? Once we start doing it in London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Golders Green, or rather, for Finchley and Golders Green—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has territorial ambitions, but probably they do not go that far—said that what happens in London may spread out to the rest of the country.

Let us be absolutely clear. In North East Somerset we do not want this. We want the proper office of constable to be upheld. People in Nempnett Thrubwell do not want somebody appointed by the council to come round and dig them in the ribs when they accidentally drop a little bit of mud off their wellington boots or something like that, and are then accused of dropping litter. We must object. My hon. Friend is right to have objected to the principle of the accredited person because of the way in which it downgrades the role of the constable—a great and noble role.

I saw the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police earlier today. This man, a chief constable, recently plunged into a river to rescue a driver who had had an accident, because that is the level of service and of commitment that we get from a constable. It is fundamentally different from that of an accredited person.

I have further concerns about these accredited personages. How do we know who is and who is not an accredited person? I said that they should wear a bowler hat, though it occurred to me subsequently that there might be a few wigs going spare because I believe the Supreme Court has given them up. Certain people in the House of Commons have given up wearing wigs too, so perhaps there are a few wigs that could go round to these accredited persons so that we would know who they were as they went about their duties—fine full-bottomed wigs in 18th-century fashion. But perhaps in the 21st century we should be more modern and it should be the bowler hat, which is perhaps a better symbol nowadays of authority than the full-bottomed wig.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Hear, hear.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful for support from Opposition Members.

What we currently have—Westminster city council did this with its parking attendants—are some desperately scruffy tatterdemalions who wander around as accredited persons. They are parking meter attendants and they look as though they have been dragged through a hedge backwards. Their uniforms are anoraky things, not the sort of thing that an officer of the Crown would ever be seen wearing—the sort of thing that could be worn by anybody. Who knows who may come up to us and say, “I am an accredited person. You are fined £10. Cash only. Thank you very much.”

As we go about our lawful business, are we to be shocked and appalled by the attempts to extort money from us that come from accredited persons who are accredited only by themselves, because they have no fixed uniform, no set outfit, no clarity of purpose in what they are doing? I am very much with my hon. Friend in getting rid of all the references to accredited personages under section 47 of the Police Reform Act 2002 or any form of accrediting of these personages until we settle exactly who they are and whether they should be officers of the Crown and constables.

Let us move on to clause 4. I am so pleased that the Opposition Benches are almost entirely empty, with only two notable and most honourable exceptions, as we discuss the abolition of clause 4. I know it is a matter of great sensitivity to Opposition Members for historic reasons, but they may have been a bit confused today. This is not the famous clause IV; this is another one. It relates to the power to require a name and address.

I know that sometimes I bore the House with historical examples, but on this occasion I thought that I would go back to Odysseus. In order to escape from Polyphemus the Cyclops, Odysseus, when asked his name, replied “Nobody” and he got away. Do hon. Members think that there should have been an accredited person sitting by the Cyclops to tell Odysseus, “Look here, that won’t do at all. You’re fined £1,000 for saying your name is Nobody”?

Chris Ruane: He would have eaten him.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Indeed, that is what he was trying to do. He wanted him for his dinner. It seems to me that sometimes local councils wish to take their dinner off our plates through the fines they want to levy. Odysseus would have been caught out by that and prevented from escaping with his men, so there are circumstances in which one must be able not to give one’s name and address because doing so might not be in one’s best interests. Of course, Odysseus, in his hubris, called out his real name as he left. The Cyclops, who was blinded by then, screamed out, and his father, Poseidon, heard it and made Odysseus’s trip home that much harder. When a person’s name gets out into the public presses, things can become very difficult for them. I maintain the ancient right of Greeks, among others, not to give their name and address when asked.

I will appeal to another source of history: P.G. Wodehouse. Many Members will remember that Bertie Wooster, when arrested for pinching a policeman’s helmet on boat race night—I think wines had been taken—gave a false name when arrested. I cannot remember what name he gave, but I think he said that he lived in Acacia avenue. It might be a good address to give if you are ever caught doing things you should not do. There was no additional fine for giving a false name and Bertie Wooster paid the fine handed down at the magistrates court in London—five guineas, which was a lot of money in those days—but got away with giving a false name. There is a great tradition, from Odysseus to Bertie Wooster, of being allowed to hide one’s name from people who do not necessarily have the full authority to request it.

There are serious points within this as well. One may think that it is all frivolity and ancient history, but it is not. It is all about our ancient civil liberties. Until an individual has been shown to have done something that is wrong enough to be arrested, the state has no right to know who they are. As I go about my lawful business, the state does not have the right to stop me and ask me to prove my identity or address. Only if I have committed a crime can the state intervene.

We come to the question of why this should be done by people other than police officers. The argument is always one of necessity or triviality, meaning that the crime is so unimportant that the police will not want to be bothered with it. It seems to me that if the police do not want to be bothered with it, and if it is not worth the time of the magistrates court to deal with it, is it really worth punishing someone for it in the first place. That is where the clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch proposes removing is so fundamentally wrong. It takes something that is trivial, gives a power to someone who is not an officer of the Crown and then promotes it to a high offence for which one can be fined £1,000. It is entirely disproportional to the initial activity that has led to the official being involved with the otherwise law-abiding subject.

I think that the point my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made is profoundly important, although I was a little worried about the impression he gave that everyone who came down from Shipley was likely to commit an offence when they arrived in central London—perhaps the excitement of the bright lights gets to them. I can assure the House that when people from North East Somerset come to London they are as law abiding here as they are in North East Somerset, which I am glad to say has one of the lowest rates of crime in the whole United Kingdom. It is unfair, unreasonable and unjust to have different rules governing what one is supposed to say to unnamed, unknown, unspecified and unclear public officials here, in Shipley, in North East Somerset, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland. We need a clear law so that people understand whether they are in danger of committing a crime and know what their rights, liberties and entitlements are.

Some can argue, “Well, London’s busy”, but we all know that. If it is busy, it has more police. Rather shockingly, there are more police in London than there are in Avon and Somerset. One would have thought that we should have more police to keep crime even lower, but there is a general adjustment for the reality that London has serious problems that are different from those across the rest of the country. It has the level of expenditure that ensures that it can deal with these issues without having special laws and situations.

At this point I will diverge from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, because I think that, other than his amendment that proposes to get rid of clause 4 altogether, his other consequential amendments are unsatisfactory. They still leave the right of a police community support officer to ask for a name and address, which I would not be in favour of. If this consideration comes to a vote, I will certainly vote against any amendment other than the complete removal of the clause.

Let me move on to the Royal Mail and the Postage Act. This is a rather embarrassing bit of the Bill, because it refers to sex establishments, and we do not like talking about those in polite society, but on this occasion it is necessary to do so. It seems to me that there is a wonderful naivety in the Bill and a suggestion that the Royal Mail is as good as it was in the days of Trollope, when a letter could be posted before lunch, would arrive in the early afternoon and that one could then reply and correspondence goes backwards and forwards perfectly. Sadly, that is not how it is anymore.

I happen to live on a street in London that has a relatively frequent name and so receive quite a lot of post for a branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, which is on a street of the same name south of the river. Occasionally I receive coins in the mail which people wish to deposit in their bank accounts. As I am sure you realise, Mr Deputy Speaker, I hastily pass these on to a branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation so that they can be credited to the right person’s account. I use the example to remind hon. Members of the difficulties of relying on the ordinary post. The first-class post might or might not get there the next day, and the second-class post will get there before Christmas, so long as it is posted in the new year. The Bill does not ever establish that it should be the fist-class post. That means that the people running these dodgy establishments—I must confess that I have little sympathy for them—will be deprived of a right of justice, which I think is a mistake.

The important thing about our ancient liberties and about justice is that we should apply it to people we slightly disapprove of and think are a little beneath the salt just as much as we do to those we think are good, honest fellows. I think that that should apply to those who run sex clubs. They are just as entitled to receive a summons, notification or a missive from the council in way that means we can be certain it has arrived by registered post as someone involved in more salubrious activities. I must confess that it is a shame that the Post Office is not in the state it was in the days of her late Majesty Queen Victoria, but there we are—O tempora, o mores, as I am sure I have said in the House before and will no doubt at some future date say again, possibly on a Friday morning.

I was glad to hear that there was a thought that clause 18 might be withdrawn, but it seems to have been put back again, so I think that I am still entitled to speak in favour of the amendment that would abolish the clause that has been taken out and put back in again—it sounds a little like a soft-shoe shuffle or some such dance.

Mike Freer: Having reflected on the kind offer made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), we are now happy to accept amendments 5, 8, 10 to 12, 14 and 35 to 39. I hope that that is of help to my hon. Friend.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is extremely helpful. Indeed, it is both encouraging and worrying: it is encouraging in one sense, because it shows the generosity—the parliamentary spirit—of my hon. Friend, and that is extraordinarily welcome; but it is slightly worrying, given the inconsistency of the Bill. Should we really be negotiating with a group of councils—after we have been debating some of the amendments for little more than an hour—what they will and will not accept? I am not sure that the dignity of Parliament—the House of Commons; this honourable House—is properly and justly reflected by bandying about amendments in that way, so I had better, just in case clause 18 changes again, which would concern me, say a few words about it and the obstruction of an authorised officer.

Mr Chope: I am not in any way churlish about the generosity of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) in accepting so many of my amendments. It is right for us to put on the record that he is in charge of the Bill and of taking it through this place; it is nothing to do with officials. He makes the decisions, and the decision that he has made is an excellent one.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Quite right. How could I fail to agree? I hope that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green comes to the decision of withdrawing the whole Bill, we will welcome that decision even more. But just—just—in case it comes back at some later stage, let us look at it briefly and in passing, because we come back to the same problem of the authorised officer not being a constable.

Who is this authorised officer? What is an obstruction? What is an intentional obstruction? What if you, Mr Deputy Speaker, fall over in front of him and he trips over you? Is that an obstruction, or do you have to be more aggressive? What happens if you see him coming but he is not in his uniform—you may not know it is him—and you scarper? Is that an obstruction of him in his duties because you are not there and, therefore, he cannot catch you, whereas if you were there he could catch you? That seems to me, arguably, an obstruction, even an intentional one, because you had to run away to be away from the person who was trying to catch you—because if you had not decided to run away, you would still be there, and then he would have caught you. So if you follow the logic of what I am saying, Mr Deputy Speaker, you are doing jolly well! But, if you follow the logic of what I am saying, you will see that the clause really ought to be removed and should never have been in the Bill in the first place.

Again, the fines really do seem excessive, and I go back to the point that I was making about the traffic wardens in the city of Westminster, who were put in uniforms that any civilised fellow would have been ashamed to be seen dead in. They were the most scruffy things that really did make the wardens look as if they were vagrants, and I should have thought that most people would scarper if they saw somebody like that coming after them, particularly if they were bringing out a book of fines. One would think, “I’m getting out of his way pretty sharpish, because I don’t know really who he is and I don’t know why he’s got his fines book out, because I don’t think I have done anything wrong.” If we are going to authorise those sorts of people, many of us might obstruct them and say, “Who the Dickens do you think you are?” or words to that effect.

That gives me the opportunity to answer the valid point, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green, that if one is innocent one has nothing to fear. If only it worked like that. Those of us who have contested parking tickets over the years—when we have done absolutely nothing wrong but the machine has broken or the person coming round has misread his own figures and all that stuff—have found that when we appeal we get off. It happens to those of us who are innocent again and again. I was even stopped under one of those ludicrous terrorist Acts that the previous Government passed—going about my lawful business.

Chris Ruane: You look like one!

Jacob Rees-Mogg: The hon. Gentleman suggests that I look like one. If I look like one, there is not a lot of hope for the rest of you, I have to say. Therefore, this idea that those of us who are innocent have absolutely nothing to fear at all and can go about our business safely, because it will not be us, is the wrong line to take. It is crucial to defend the liberties of those we dislike and disapprove of, as well as of those we like and approve of, and that is the essence of my objection to much of the Bill but, in particular, to clause 18.

Mr Chope: What my hon. Friend says is reinforced by the fact that almost everybody who goes to a parking tribunal and appeals is successful, but very many people do not realise that they have such a right of appeal and, therefore, pay reluctantly and, probably, when they should not.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely spot on, and I should advise anybody in the Chamber today or listening outside to appeal if they get a parking ticket, because it is often wrong and unfair and being issued just as a money-grabbing exercise. Westminster city council is now doing so by extending parking charges to midnight, and that is a pretty awful thing to be doing—[ Interruption ] but not, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I see you panther-like waiting to pounce on an irrelevant comment, part of the amendments under discussion.

So I turn to clause 20, the last measure related to the amendments under consideration, and agree again with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that it is drawn far too widely. It has to be the people at the top who are responsible, but the clause refers to

“a manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body corporate”,

so I am a little worried that the cleaning lady is going to be nicked by some bod coming round in unrecognisable garb, whom we do not really know, saying, “We’ll have a few quid off you.” The measure is going to be a swindler’s charter if it goes through, because people will pretend that they are these authorised officers and sneak up on us and try to get money out of us for doing something that we should not, saying, “Well, it does catch you because you are an ‘other similar officer’. I am an ‘authorised officer’, you’re an ‘other similar officer’ and, therefore, we’ll take a fine off you.”

To conclude my relatively brief remarks, though it would be possible to go on and on about this Bill, so many are its flaws and faults, so good are the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend and so wise was he to bring them forward to try, as I said at the very beginning, to make a silk purse out a sow’s ear, I am afraid to say, after all is said and done, that it is still—the meat of pigs.