Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Heald: When the Licensing (Young Persons) Bill was going through the House, the Minister suggested that the Department for Education and Employment card, Connexions, could be used as a national proof-of-age card. Does the hon. Gentleman have any further views on that?

Mr. Grogan: The hon. Gentleman gives me a perfect cue. We are now at a crucial stage of deciding whether to adopt the Connexions card. My understanding is that in the pilot scheme in Merseyside, there was provision for a proof-of-age element to be included on one side of the Connexions card. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that we are down to the last two tenderers for the Connexions card and that the decision will be made in March. At least one tenderer intends to incorporate a proof-of-age element in its card. Clearly, if the Connexions card is to be used for proof of age, a disadvantage is that it was intended to provide it only to those in full-time education over the age of 16. However, at least one of the tenderers sees no reason why a

29 Jan 2001 : Column 104

proof-of-age element could not be made available to all youngsters. Indeed, the proof-of-age logo could be common throughout the United Kingdom. A problem with the Connexions card, if used for this purpose, is that it is available only in England.

If we are to make this a responsibility that licensees and retailers can exercise effectively, we need to do more to help them--whether by public education, providing leadership or co-ordinating the various cards.

I have two further comments on other aspects of the Bill. I welcome the statutory force given for the first time to test-purchasing, which was pioneered by North Yorkshire police and is now used not only by police but by many pub companies as a method of improving standards and employee practice. That is greatly to be welcomed.

It is important to recognise that, under the Bill, the closure of pubs would take place only when there was a risk of public disorder. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) referred to the sounds and smells of a new year's eve party in her constituency. Unless there was a threat to public order, the Bill would not--quite rightly--lead to the closure of that pub as a temporary measure. The answer to her constituents' problems is the complete reform of the licensing laws and the introduction of a premises licence which specifies what activities should go on in a pub at any time.

I hope that we never reach the stage where publicans of well run pubs are frightened to call the police because they fear that their pub will be closed down. Many senior police officers see this as essentially a reserve power to deal with badly run pubs. The best way of ensuring that our pubs and bars are well run is a close partnership, such as the many pub-watch schemes involving police and licensees up and down the land.

8.44 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): Any Bill to reduce crime is to be welcomed. Any Bill that tackles head on the burgeoning yob culture prevalent in so many parts of society will be warmly greeted by our constituents.

I, too, welcome all the measures in the Bill, but I think that the Government have missed an opportunity to tackle a serious antisocial offence. I offer one or two suggestions as to how to improve the legislation to make it even more effective in the war against crime.

During the debate on the Gracious Speech, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said:

I could not agree more. That is why I find it disappointing that the Government have not taken the opportunity afforded by the Bill to tackle one of the prime causes of our graffiti-ridden neighbourhoods: the easy availability of spray paints.

Graffiti is a blight on even the best neighbourhoods, and costs councils a fortune to clean up. The London borough of Merton, in my constituency, calculated that if it were to clear up every piece of graffiti tomorrow,

29 Jan 2001 : Column 105

it would cost £60,000--enough money to employ two extra teachers. Furthermore, as we all know, the graffiti would re-appear within days and the expense of the clear-up would be money down the drain.

We often talk about crime in terms of vast statistics, and the media focus is on extreme cases such as murder, which is, thankfully, relatively rare. However, the experience of crime for the vast majority of ordinary people--our constituents--is having their garage doors sprayed with idiotic slogans, or their lifts vandalised and defaced. Just as importantly, graffiti has an impact on the fear of crime, which is out of all proportion to actual crime levels. If an otherwise safe and decent area experiences a wave of graffiti-writing, people begin to feel unsafe.

The Bill seeks to crack down on the sale of alcohol to children, and we all agree with that. I wonder whether the Government might consider tabling an amendment in Committee to extend the prohibition to the sale of spray paints to minors. My local police inspector reckons that the average age of graffiti writers is between 12 and 14. I can think of only one reason why a 12-year-old would want to buy a can of spray paint: to create graffiti. An unpleasant side effect of the use of spray paint is that the cans are frequently used by teenagers to gain the same effect as drugs, only more quickly and much more cheaply.

Making the acquisition of spray paint more difficult would certainly result in an immediate and dramatic decrease in instances of graffiti. As has been pointed out, that would lead to a fall in other crimes as well. I referred to the acquisition of spray paints, because many of the cans used to create graffiti have been stolen. We should try to make the sale of spray paint to minors illegal, and shops should be required to store cans of spray paint in secure areas, as they currently do with fireworks.

That provision could be extended to the sale of indelible marker pens, which are also used to disfigure and vandalise property. I never thought that I would say such a thing in the House of Commons, but I have received extensive lobbying on the issue from the chief inspector of my local police force and by councillors and council officers. Such a step would be drastic, and would have connotations of the nanny state, but something needs to be done to stamp on this problem, which is getting worse, and is not peculiar to my constituency.

I would go further, and suggest that we introduce a 10:1 ratio for fines involving graffiti. In other words, if it cost a council £100 to clean up someone's mess, that person should be fined £1,000, and so on. That would certainly have a shock effect. My hon. Friend the Minister might point out that steps to tackle the problem can be taken by means of council byelaws, and he would be right. My borough is actively considering taking action in that way, in partnership with the local police. Examples of good practice by responsible retailers already exist. However, byelaws are not enough. There would be little point in making the acquisition of spray paints difficult in one borough, if all an enterprising graffiti artist had to do was hop on the bus to the next borough to buy some.

The Bill seeks to extend certain schemes that were initiated through byelaws, and the Government could take this opportunity to send a clear signal that they are declaring war on graffiti. My constituents--and, no doubt, those of the Minister--would warmly welcome such a

29 Jan 2001 : Column 106

declaration. If, for whatever reason, it proves impossible to amend the Bill, will the Minister at least undertake to consider the matter with a view to future legislation?

This is a good Bill that will have a positive impact on crime reduction. If the Government could incorporate some tough action on graffiti, it would be even better.

8.49 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I begin on a note of some consensus. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on an excellent speech, full of constructive ideas. I hope that the Minister will have time to reflect on a number of them and will respond--although not tonight, perhaps--not just to the hon. Lady, but to the House in general. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that her suggestions have much to commend them. As she pointed out, the problem of graffiti is not confined to her borough or her area.

Also in the spirit of consensus, let me say that my constituency neighbour--the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Miss Smith) who, sadly, is not in her place--was correct to say that crime is a problem in the north-west of England. She rightly identified instances of crime increasing and said also that the problems did not begin in 1997, although I think that she was trying to be controversial, as no Conservative Member has ever pretended that Britain was without crime in 1997. Of course it was not; Britain certainly had problems with crime then.

I differ with Labour Members over their belief that the answer to Britain's crime problems somehow lies in providing the police with additional powers rather than additional numbers. The police's principal difficulty is not a lack of legislation, which they could study, be trained in and implement, but the lack of numbers to cope with the legislation and powers that Parliament has already given them.

Next Section

IndexHome Page