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Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): On the issue of consultation, the Secretary of State may be aware that dog welfare organisations such as the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and so onI shall not list them all, but no doubt they have contacted the Departmentare concerned about the proposals for stray dogs in clause 68. What consultation has she or her colleagues had with the representative bodies of animal welfare charities that deal with stray dogs? I am sure that her intentions are good, but we would like to know what they have said to her.
The measures in this Bill respond directly to what local authorities and others told us in the consultation about obstacles to the enforcement of existing legislation, why some provisions are difficult to use, and about the changes that are needed if authorities are to tackle antisocial behaviour and environmental problems effectively. The Bill gives them the new powers and better tools for which they asked. It also gives new powers to parish councils so that the most local level of our democratic structures can play a part in making things better. Again, that recognises that there are
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problems in rural areas and that the best chance of tackling them is to empower parish councils to act in their own locality.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend has just mentioned an important part of the Bill, in which I declare an interest as a town councillor. Does she agree that it is wrong to regard the problem as either rural or urban, because waste goes from one area to another, usually, but not always, from urban to rural areas on the outskirts of larger cities? We must therefore tackle the problem overall, and does she agree that one way of doing so is by looking at the first tier of local government?
Margaret Beckett: Yes, I do. The issue that my hon. Friend and others have identified reflects the concerns of their contacts in local communities. Within the farming community, for example, there is widespread concern about the impact of some of those problems, and he is mindful of that.
The Bill requires crime and disorder reduction partnerships to tackle environmental crime where it is a priority in their area. That is something that the best partnerships are already doing, but others have been slower to recognise the evidence of the impact of such crime and to take action.
I should say at once that we do not want to be prescriptive about the strategies that those partnerships are required to develop. Where environmental crime is not much of a problem, we do not demand that it feature in a strategythe whole point of the partnership approach set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is to tackle offending as it affects individual communitiesbut where local environments are degraded, and especially where antisocial behaviour has taken root, we do expect local partnerships to tackle the problem robustly. Our approach, which has been strongly endorsed by senior police representatives, should ensure that local partnerships consider all the issues leading to crime and disorder in their communities, including environmental crime. To help them do so, we have drawn on the results of our consultation to give greater powers and greater flexibility to authorities and agencies to tackle such problems.
For example, alleyways giving rear access to properties are common in our towns and cities. Sadly, many provide opportunities for crime and are a magnet for antisocial behaviour. We plan to address the problem of nuisance alleyways by enabling local authorities to gate them more easily. This will allow local authorities for the first time to gate all alleyways that provide a haven for crime and antisocial behaviour, but it will also allow greater flexibility to make gating reversible, should local conditions improve or local needs change.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab):
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a problem in respect of unadopted alleyways? As the Bill goes through Committee, will she consider whether additional funding can be found to ensure that unadopted alleyways are adopted, so that they can be dealt with under the new legislation?
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Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which I am sure will be explored in Committee. Hitherto the major problem that has arisen in connection with gating alleyways has been access, and access legislation. That is what we are striving to overcome by means of the Bill.
Nuisance and abandoned vehicles often blight urban and rural communities alike. The Government intend to secure a major reduction in their number. The continuous registration scheme launched last year has resulted in a 65 per cent. reduction in the number of untaxed vehicles, and there has been a 30 per cent. reduction, for example, in abandoned vehicles in Kent following the national launch of Operation Cubit, which is a partnership between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, local authorities and the police and fire service to speed up the disposal of abandoned vehicles.
The Bill will also contribute to the Government's nuisance vehicle strategy, strengthening the existing powers of local authorities to remove abandoned vehicles from the streets and enabling them for the first time to do so as soon as an abandoned vehicle is identified. This should significantly reduce opportunities for arson and vandalism. Deliberate arson of motor vehicles costs some £230 million pounds a year. Common sense alone suggests that most of them are likely to be abandoned vehicles, so speedier removal should help to cut costs and reduce incidents that are both a nuisance and a danger.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I welcome the Bill, and especially this part, which will be of great assistance to many in my constituency. May I ask the Secretary of State two questions about this part? First, has she responded to the recommendation from the Environmental Audit Committee that local authorities should have ease of access to the DVLA database to identify the owners of abandoned vehicles? That was a key recommendation, to which the Government have not yet responded. The Bill is an opportunity to deliver it. Secondly, although I welcome the extension of getting rid of vehicles from streets to areas to which the public have access, one of the problems in my area is vehicles abandoned on farmland, which become the responsibility of the farmer. What does the Bill have to say about that?
Margaret Beckett: Both the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised might be best explored in Committee. I take his point about the database. There has been some discussion about whether and to what extent access creates a problem, but we believe that the powers that we are giving will assist local authorities. If, when the Bill is explored in Committee, there is any suggestionand evidence to back it upthat it is defective in some way, we will look into that. We discussed fly-tipping in rural communities earlier, and I am well aware that, as the hon. Gentleman says, abandoned vehicles are also a problem in some parts of the country.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab):
Last year, tragically, a youngster was killed in an abandoned vehicle on unfenced private property in my constituency. If during the Bill's progress a way could be
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found of giving councils authority to enter such land to remove dangerous vehicles, it would be a great comfort to the family who lost their son so tragically.
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend has made an interesting point, which I am sure will be explored in Committee. Obviously there are problems with authorities' going on to private land without permission, but I take his pointas I am sure all Members doabout the problems that can be caused in certain localities, and the dangers to children.
The Bill allows authorities to tackle a not uncommon neighbourhood problem by making it an offence to repair or sell a vehicle on a road as part of a business. It will also make dealing with offenders more cost-effective, securing better value for money for the taxpayer. It is both expensive and time-consuming for local authorities to have to prosecute offenders through the courts, and their full costs are often not recovered even in the case of successful prosecutions. We are told that that is one key reason why authorities can be reluctant to prosecute for environmental crimes. To allow and encourage better enforcement, the Bill significantly increases the number of offences for which fixed penalties can be used as an alternative to prosecution.
The Bill makes a number of other changes that should promote enforcement. In particular, for the first time local authorities will be able to retain all receipts from fixed penalties. That too will help to offset the cost of enforcing the legislation. It must be right for offenders, rather than council tax payers, to bear the impact of such costs whenever possible.
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