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Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK
Battle over burger sellers
tourists in london
Ministers say vendors do not present a good image for tourists
From a debate the "appalling" smell of frying onions to consideration of the threat from organised crime, MPs have discussed moves to ban burger and hotdog vendors in London's Royal Parks.

The government believes the fast food sellers charge extortionate prices, that the food is unhygienic and that some vendors are linked to criminal gangs.

Alan Howarth, the minister responsible for the Royal Parks Agency, said: "This is a straightforward measure to deal with a pretty clear-cut problem."

He said the trade, backed by organised crime of a "pretty unpleasant nature", was "ripping off" visitors with high prices for "very unappetising" food.

Offenders had told police they could earn around 1,200 a day, although often the cash was spirited away before their arrest by a system of runners.

'Highest standards'

And alongside the financial implications there was "squalid" violence said Mr Howarth, including fights between rival vendors with knives and iron bars and, on one occasion, hot fat being poured over a policeman.

He said the Bill was not merely about dealing with "the generation of offensive odours".

But smell was certainly a concern for Labour's Robert Sheldon, who said he found the odour from the vendors trolleys "appalling" as he crossed one of the Royal Parks each day.

He added: "Anyone who has respect for our Royal Parks and our main palaces and places of interest where people come from all over the country and all over the world should want to see the highest standards that we have always been able to provide."

'Privilege and duty'

But former Tory minister Eric Forth said the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill - which would outlaw burger and hotdog vendors in tourist spots in London, had was "draconian".

Conservative John Greenway, however, said the official Tory line was to support the Bill, which started life as a private members' Bill sponsored by Tory ex-minister Peter Brooke.

The former police officer who patrolled Soho and Mayfair in the 1960s said it had been his "privilege and duty" to arrest hotdog sellers.

"Even in the 1960s it was not unusual for hotdog sellers to have 100 or more cash in their pockets when arrested," he said. "I think we can all accept that inflation since the 1960s would have meant 100 now being considerably in excess of 1,000."

Mr Greenway said the street traders "charge relatively high prices for relatively low quality food or items," he said, adding that counterfeit goods were also sold.

'Extremely valuable'

He added: "The scale of income can be seen from the widespread reports of Mafia activity amongst those who control the very people who are trading illegally within the Royal Parks.

"These so-called pitches are considered to be extremely valuable. We are dealing here with organised crime and acts of violence which I personally believe we should not tolerate within the Royal Parks and that is why I think this business has to be stamped out and brought under proper control and proper licensing."

But Tory ex-minister Michael Fallon said: "The idea that the Mafia are going to be deterred because the fine has been increased from 200 to 1,000 ... certainly would not bear serious examination on the streets of Palomo, in Sicily or anything else."

Fellow Tory Desmond Swayne intervened, to say: "I have been so attracted by this idea that the Mafia have become involved in the purveyance of hamburgers - I think that is something we ought to encourage.

"If the Mafia can be tied up with the distribution of hamburgers, I think society would clearly be much enhanced for the better."

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