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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): None. Part of the Central Office of Information's remit is to arrange for the publication of some departmental information and statistics, for which individual Departments are responsible.
Simon Hughes : May I can encourage the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Office for National Statistics and, especially, the Home Office, so that when the COI or the Government Information and Communication Service produce publications, we have clear statistical information? The last crime statistics consisted of three sets of statistics, which left everyone confused, and the general view is that we must do much better if we are to have credible statistics that the public believe and that thus serve their intended purpose.
Mr. Alexander: We are keen not only for crime levels to fall but for confidence in the police service and law enforcement agencies to continue to rise. In that regard, I am happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments to Home Office Ministers.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government are committed to providing internet access for all who want it by 2005. Yesterday we launched a national campaign called "Get Started" to increase awareness of the benefits of the internet. During the campaign, people will be encouraged to visit one of those 6,000 UK Online centres, which I mentioned earlier, offering 7 million hours of free internet access.
Mr. Alexander: As I said, one of the principal challenges that we face in getting people online is a lack of confidence and skills. That is why we believe that the UK Online centres are uniquely equipped to meet that challenge. People in higher education institutions should have access to mentoring and support. We need to ensure that that is available at every income level and in every community across the country.
Mr. Turner : I thank the Minister for that answer, but in view of what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) said, is it not time for another review? She said that "errors" flow
Mr. Alexander: There is little that I can usefully add to the comments of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood yesterday. I fail to see that they have a direct bearing on the ministerial code, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that in the past two or three weeks a deadline has been set for posting letters to our constituents. If they are not posted by 6 o'clock, they will not be delivered the following day. I was involved in last night's debate and signed letters at about 9.30 pm. It used to be the case that the service would deliver letters that were sent at 8 or 9 pm to all parts of the United Kingdom. I see no reason why the new ruling has been introduced.
I make no criticism of the Post Office authorities here. Like all Members, I have always found them to be supportive in every possible way. The national organisation set the deadline, which should be unacceptable to the House. I wonder whether you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House can use whatever influence possible to reverse that decision.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. That information is most helpful to the House, but should not the Administration Committee also bear it in mind that when we changed to the new supposedly modern hours, the Leader of the House assured us that the facilities available to Members would remain available? As the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) said, one of the facilities that is most valued is that of being able to communicate with our constituents.
My constituents want tougher measures against the people who commit antisocial crimes. They will welcome the new Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which will introduce fixed penalties for people who spray graffiti, but they also want more done to clear up the mess left behind. It is vital to punish the perpetrators of these antisocial crimes and to be seen to being doing so. However, my Bill is designed to tackle the second part of the dual approach to graffitiremoving the eyesore from the streets.
Local authorities are working fantastically hard to remove graffiti. In my borough of Merton, dealing with incidents of graffiti has become increasingly challenging over the past few years. According to a report last year by the Greater London Assembly's graffiti investigative committee, local authorities in London spend about £7 million a year removing graffiti. Despite all that expenditure, paid for by council tax payers, survey after survey shows that people are still not satisfied. According to the Association of London Government, more than three quarters of Londoners list graffiti as a quality of life concern. Indeed, it is among the top three concerns of the residents of St. Helier and Cricket Green, two wards in my constituency that are part of a nationwide pilot on police reassurance.
Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undertook a consultation on measures that could help to improve the environment called "Living PlacesPowers, Rights, Responsibilities". Launching it, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life said:
My Bill is designed to overcome those difficulties and ensure that the proposals in "Living Places" are realised. It is relatively simple, but I shall briefly run through it. Clause 1 deals with removal notices for graffiti. Local authorities will be able to serve notice on statutory undertakers and telecoms companies to remove graffiti from street furniture within 14 days. If they fail to do so, the Bill gives local authorities the right to remove the graffiti themselves and claim "expenses reasonably incurred" from the owners. Clause 2 is concerned with an owner's right to appeal against the notice. I am not sure about the extent of that right, but I do not want to appear unreasonable. I do not want to penalise firms that are already victims of crime, but the multi-million pound businesses referred to in the Bill, like most people, do not want graffiti on their property. It undermines their image and makes them look unattractive to their customers, which is why clause 3 gives statutory undertakers the opportunity to have graffiti removed by local authorities as long as they cover the expenses involved.
For many companies, their standing within the community is a key aspect of their corporate social responsibility or CSR, which has now become a massive industry, with major corporations using it to demonstrate their commitment to the world that they live in. Companies understand the public relations value of contributing to the world around them, as it improves their reputation. It is therefore surprising that some companies with big PR budgets for lobbying are still unwilling to do something that would have a massive positive impact on local communitiesremoving graffiti from street furniture.
Telewest, for instance, is only too happy to invite people like me to receptions at party conferences, but when Merton council wanted to remove some graffiti from Telewest's cable boxes, the company threatened to sue. Indeed, so bad has Telewest been at tackling the issue that the 11 London boroughs that make up South West London against Graffiti have agreed a joint campaign to demand attendance from Telewest at their next meeting to explain their policies. I hope that I get an invitation.
Railtrack, whose PR budget extended to advertising in The House Magazine, which is aimed at people like us, was recently named and shamed by Merton council for not removing graffiti from its property, even though graffiti is so dispiriting for people who live in the area or
I do not want people to think that all is doom and gloom. There are many examples of progress being made in tackling graffiti. Many local councils have made a major impact. In my area, for instance, Merton council is making great strides. The innovative FLAG project, which covers fly tipping, abandoned cars and graffiti, and has involved publicity campaigns about these issues, has led to reductions in the incidence of graffiti and improvements in its removal. The Anti-Social Behaviour Bill will introduce fixed penalties for people who vandalise their communities with their graffiti.
That Bill will also make it an offence to sell spray paint to under-18s, which is an extremely positive step. With much fanfare, 26 shops in Merton recently launched a voluntary scheme, promising not to sell spray paint to under-18s. However, when council officers went back to the shops a few weeks later, they found that nine of the shops were still selling cans of spray paint to people as young as 13, so it is clear that, even when the intentions are good, the law needs toughening to prevent access to the materials used for tagging or other graffiti, and to punish the perpetrators.
My Bill will tackle the other side of the equation: removing the culprits' handiwork from our streets. It will make it easier for good businesses to seek the help of councils to remove graffiti from their property, and make it easier for local people to have graffiti removed from furniture that is owned by companies that do not really care about their corporate social responsibilities. For the sake of my constituents in Mitcham, Morden and Colliers Wood who want something done about antisocial crimes such as graffiti, which blight the streets and open spaces around their homes, I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Siobhain McDonagh, Laura Moffatt, Barbara Follett, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Jeff Ennis, Mr. Bob Blizzard, Mr. Tom Watson, Jonathan Shaw, John Mann, Geraint Davies, Mr. Gareth Thomas and Shona McIsaac.