Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend will know, local authorities were first granted powers to retain receipts from fines by the Local Government Act 2003. Is she disappointed that, more than a year later, so many authorities have not taken up those powers? According to information from her Department, only 76 of 359 authorities have exercised them. Has she a message for those authorities?
Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend says, some authorities have used those powers well while others have been reluctant to do so. As I have said, there has been extensive consultation with authorities. That is part of the Bill's message. Although there are aspects that Members will want to discuss in Committee, we have done as much as we feel we can to address the major concerns of authorities, and to make it possible for them to use these powers to tackle problems that cause such distress in their communities. Having made the powers available, we hope and expect that authorities will use them when such problems arise.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con):
Will any part of the Bill give powers to the taxpayer? A constituent of mine wants a local authority to restrict the hours during which a playing field abutting his property is used. The noise from the playing field is making him ill and he is starting to become very distressed, but he cannot persuade the local authority to
10 Jan 2005 : Column 45
close the field during the evenings. What comeback is possible for the ordinary taxpayer when a local authority will not exercise its powers?
Margaret Beckett: I should have thought that existing powers could be used if the noise and difficulty were considered to be so great, but other powers in the Bill relate to noise, and it may be possible to explore the issue as the Bill proceeds.
I said a moment ago that local authorities would be able to retain the receipts from fixed penalties. Another important point is that in most cases they will be able to vary the amount of penalties to reflect local conditions. There will also be a power in all cases to offer discounts for early payment. Again, therefore, we have tried not just to incentivise enforcement but to give authorities much greater flexibility to shape their enforcement policy to what they judge to be local needs. To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), that will remove the excuse, if one may put it that way, for not using such powers, because local authorities will have much more flexibility to shape policy to local circumstances.
In the same vein, reflecting the desire for local solutions to local problems, we are extending the power to issue fixed penalty notices to parish and town councils and to the equivalent community councils in Wales. Those notices will cover a range of offences relating to litter, graffiti, fly-posting and dogs, all of which can degrade neighbourhoods.
Parish councils may often be best placed to deal with those essentially local problems. We recognise that not all parish councils will want or be able to take advantage of those powers, but others will welcome them and already have the necessary skills and resources. Extending powers to issue fixed penalty notices will strengthen the ability of local communities to deal with those problems. Parish councils, representing as they do our most local level of government, are often best placed to understand both the causes and the needs of the victims of such crimes.
Everywhere, litter is a growing problem, and the Bill contains a range of measures to help to tackle it. Under current law, littering on a footpath is an offence but littering in a private garden or in a river is not. We will close that loophole by making it an offence to drop litter anywhere, including on private land and rivers, lakes and ponds. That will make it clear once and for all that dropping litter anywhere is unacceptable.
All hon. Members will probably be familiar with the particular problem of littering on patches of open land. We will give local authorities a new power to require the owner or occupier of land that is heavily defaced with litter to clear it and to prevent it from becoming heavily littered again. That will replace the current system of litter control areas, which local authorities tell us they find burdensome, which they rarely use and which applies only to specific types of land.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend mentioned fly-tipping. Does she accept that there is a particular problem with gas cylinders? Industry and shops no longer accept rival brands of cylinders. Not only are they dumped in rural locations but they are left
10 Jan 2005 : Column 46
in abandoned buildings, which could cause a particular threat to our fire service should a fire happen in that building.
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend rightly highlights a specific problem. I must admit that it has not been raised with me specifically, but I take his point entirely and I hope that the powers that we are giving will enable it to be dealt with.
On the streets, litter control notices can help in dealing with litter generated by businesses such as fast food outlets. However, they, too, are difficult to enforce, with local authorities currently required to seek a court order. We will dispense with that step to make such notices easier to use.
We will also give local authorities new powers to control the distribution of flyers and leaflets, both of which can contribute to street litter, although I say at once to ease anyone's anxiety that political leafleting will not be affected. The Bill confirms once and for all that discarded cigarette butts and chewing gum are litter, and that it is an offence to discard them in the street. That makes the law explicit and should remove any lingering doubts, whether among local authorities or others.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend share my surprise about the reference in the amendment to the need to make producers more responsible, and does she welcome, as I do, the industry's steps to approach her Department to show at an early stage how it could play a role in this matter?
Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend may be aware, there has been extensive discussion between the industry and Ministers. I believe my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality will shortly visit one of the major companies. We are mindful of the need, as are the producers, as she rightly says, to engage in the discussions.
Graffiti often degrades our communities and is often the result of young people using spray paints illegally. The Bill tries to reduce the problem at source by reinforcing existing legislation banning their sale to those aged under 16, and it will also make it easier to prosecute retailers who sell spray paints to that age group. The provisions are in addition to the provision in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 that addresses the removal of graffiti in public spaces through graffiti removal notices. The Bill will extend that to cover fly-postinganother highly visible blight on our communities. As the Environmental Audit Committee pointed out in its report, the problem of fly-posting might be exacerbated by its potential commercial advantage in terms of low-cost event advertising. To help local authorities deal more effectively with illegally displayed advertisements, we are making it more difficult for those who benefit from such illegal advertising to avoid charges simply by claiming that they did not consent to it. We will also make it easier for local authorities to recover the cost of removing fly-posters.
Of course, the issue of waste goes beyond simple littering and fly-posting, as a number of interventions have highlighted. The illegal disposal of waste
10 Jan 2005 : Column 47
fly-tippingis a real problem in both town and countryside. As well as degrading the local area, it can have environmental and health risks, so we are also providing a range of measures to strengthen the legislation on, and penalties for, fly-tipping. That will enable the Environment Agency and local authorities to deal more effectively, and immediately, with those responsible. We intend to send out a clear message that this is a serious environmental crime that will not be tolerated.
The Bill will make it more difficult for those who transport waste illegally to evade the law. The circumstances in which enforcement agencies can currently stop, search and seize vehicles that could be involved in fly-tipping are somewhat limited, so we will widen and simplify their powers to do so. We will strengthen the courts' powers to deal with fly-tippers by raising the maximum penalty in a magistrates court to £50,000, and by harmonising the penalties for fly-tipping hazardous and non-hazardous waste to a maximum of five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. The courts will also get additional sentencing powers.
The Bill contains a number of other provisions relating to waste that will help local authorities to carry out their waste management obligations more effectively. For example, they will be given the power to issue a fixed penalty notice for waste left out on the streets, provided that they have previously given clear instructions on the arrangements for waste collection.
Finally on waste, we will reform the recycling credit scheme, the original purpose of which was to encourage local authorities to recycle household waste. The scheme does not sit comfortably with the newer economic and regulatory measures that we have put in place to promote recycling and re-use. Reform of it will allow local authorities to agree alternative ways of encouraging recycling, as fit best with local circumstances. That increased flexibility will itself contribute to sustainable waste management, and will promote better working between waste authorities, the community and businesses. It ties in well with the announcement in our five-year plan of novel ways to increase recycling through a major new retailer recycling initiative in conjunction with supermarkets, which will be launched this year; and with a Waste and Resources Action Programme project to pilot, in conjunction with supermarkets, new approaches such as financial incentives, discount vouchers and new technology. Recycling has already more than doubled since 199697, and we are working hard with local authorities and other partners to build on that.
The Bill contains new arrangements for controlling dogs, replacing the current dog byelaw system. They give district and parish councils greater freedom of action through new powers that will be simpler and easier to use, without the need for central Government confirmation. They also give local authorities full responsibility for dealing with strays, in order to relieveat their requestpressure on the police.
We are doing more to deal with the other nuisances that can make people's daily lives a misery. Nuisance caused by noise can be a major problem for those who live nearby. New measures for dealing with noise from
10 Jan 2005 : Column 48
malfunctioning burglar alarms, and from pubs and clubs at night, will help to alleviate these common disturbances. We are also extending the statutory nuisance regime to include two further nuisances that can degrade local quality of life: artificial light and nuisance from insects, both of which have given rise to public demand for greater action. Over-bright and badly sited security and other lighting can cause real problems for those who live nearby, and insect infestations attracted by activities such as sewage treatment works make local people's lives a real misery in certain locations. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for repeatedly bringing these issues to my ministerial team's attention as a result of their constituency experience, and for working with us on this issue. The changes that we are proposing will enable local authorities to intervene. While we hope that most disputes will then be resolved through mediation, legal action will be made possible in the last resort.
The Bill puts the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment on a statutory basis. Its establishment as a private company was an interim measure, but one that left it outside the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The commission's role will be unaffectedit is not a new quangobut its accountability to Parliament will be enhanced.
The Bill will play a major role in the Government's strategy for improving the environment, for developing a more sustainable future and for dealing with more of the antisocial behaviour that can blight communities. It builds on the measures in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and responds to calls by local authorities and others for practical tools that they can use to promote cleaner, safer, greener communities.
Few things contribute more to a feeling of powerlessness and disaffection in local communities than the persistence of sometimes relatively small-scale but distressing problems that no one seems willing or able to address. If, as our consultation suggests, the powers, flexibility and localised focus of the measures in the Bill will help to ensure that such issues are addressed, it will mean, for many of our fellow citizens, a real improvement in their quality of life. I commend the Bill to the House.