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Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, as I am one of the many Labour Members who have been working hard to get these issues to the top of the agenda. Many of my hon. Friends have spent the past few years using every parliamentary device available, whether private Members' Bills, ten-minute Bills or early-day motions, to promote these issues, because they are of concern to their constituents. I am grateful that the Government have been brave enough to take on these issues, for which many would ridicule us. This is an example of MPs devoting time and attention to reaching out to their constituents knowing long before the policy wonks and editorial writers that the issue was important to people. I am delighted that over the past few years we have been able to introduce more and better measures in the fight against graffiti, abandoned cars, fly-tipping and so on. The Bill is a further move in the right direction.
In a survey that I carried out not long ago of the views of hundreds of my constituents, I discovered that the principal worries of people in Mitcham, Morden and Colliers Wood were crime and environmental quality-of-life issues such as graffiti, abandoned cars and fly-tipping. Those were the top priorities of nearly two thirds of my constituents. On almost every question, respondents supported the toughest measures, including imposing fixed penalty notices for environmental crimes such as graffiti, vandalism and litter, even on childrennot for them the squeamishness of the Tories that we have seen today. Support for new powers was above 90 per cent. on almost every measure. That is how strongly people feel about them.
Every time we attempt to crack down on chewing gum, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) suggests, we are laughed at by some high-minded commentator. We heard some examples of that from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). We know that they are wrong, however, because unlike some we suffer from the same problems that our constituents experience. Because of the work carried out by MPs in giving that information to Ministers, we have seen: action against graffiti and a ban on the sale of spray paints to children; councils getting powers to remove graffiti from street furniture owned by the utilities; continuous registration of vehicles, which has reduced the number of untaxed cars on our streets by two thirds; and powers for councils to check firms' waste removal contracts, so that unscrupulous businesses can no longer just dump their rubbish on our streets.
MPs who work hard in their constituencies know that people hate graffiti, litter, fly-tipping and abandoned cars. We know that they want meaningful punishment for people who are guilty of such antisocial behaviour. That is why Back-Bench Labour MPs want the fight to continue, and why we support this Bill. It remains frustrating, however, that many existing powers are not yet in wide use, and that authorities are still only learning about how they can make a difference. I want to concentrate on that issue in the time that I have left.
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My constituents support what the Government are doing, but people's comments in the survey that I mentioned earlier also give a strong sense of frustration. They need reassurance that new laws will be firmly policed and that there will be a strong chance of the perpetrators being punished. As one couple told me:
"Unfortunately, the reported number of prosecutions for any of these offences is extremely low and, in some cases, non-existent. I believe it is pointless to introduce further legislation which will not be enforced."
People believe that the Government are sincere in our intentions, and support our proposals, but they are concerned about our ability to deliver. They hear stories about lenient punishments that do not begin to cover the cost of the damage caused. For instance, in Mertonof which Mitcham and Morden forms halfShane Simms admitted damaging buildings including a mosque and graveyards and peppering his tag all over buses, lorries, telephone boxes and many private and business premises around the borough. He caused tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. The police, Merton council and many others invested hundreds of hours in his case, yet he ended up getting community service.
I want the courts to be tougher on vandals, but I also want to ensure that bodies such as Merton council and the police do not spend time and money chasing people who commit vandalism, graffiti or even littering without being able to cover the cost. Unless local authorities can afford to use their powers, we can be fairly sure that these problems will remain.
Last year, the Government accepted my suggestion that statutory undertakers must keep their street furniture graffiti-free, and that if they do not, Merton council, and several others in the pilot scheme, can step in, clean the graffiti and bill the companies for cleaning costs. Unfortunately, Telewest is refusing to comply, and Merton has not yet taken action. I hope that it will do so, because this is a dreadful problem, and I do not want Telewest to get away with it. That highlights a difficulty, however, because if councils do not have the front-end resources or the willpower to deal with the issue, or to recover all the costs, such policies will not completely solve the problem. Although other organisations have improved their approach as a result of these powers, it takes only a few antisocial organisations, such as Telewest, for the problem to persist. Similarly, Merton council already has the power to fine people who drop litter £50, but it does not do sonot a single fine has been appliedbecause the process is complicated, and councils cannot recover the full cost.
The Bill will tackle many of these problems. It will enable councils and the Environment Agency to recover investigation and clear-up costs of fly-tipping. It will allow them to recover the costs of returning abandoned shopping trolleys to their ownersI am sure that that will be a source of amusement for tomorrow's papers. It will allow them to fine businesses that fail to produce waste transfer notes and to keep the receipts.
I know for a fact that Merton, and councils like it, would love to be able to take advantage of the powers in the Bill, but I want to ensure that they can do so without
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having to increase the amount of money that they need from council tax payers. The last thing that I want is for people to accuse us of creating new powers that are subsequently never used. That is why we must monitor what happens on the ground when these powers are introduced, to ensure that they are being used, and if they are not, we will consider what the disincentives are.
"we want to ensure that those who are responsible for ensuring that our public spaces are clean and safe have the powers that they need . . . We need everyone from businesses to community groups and individuals to share a common sense of pride and respect for our shared spaces".
Unless we can reduce antisocial behaviour and improve the environment, we will see a decline in participation and in voting, because although people may think that we are good at improving the big thingsunemployment, the health service or the economywe cannot allow them to feel that we are powerless to improve the condition of their streets. For the sake of thousands of people in my constituency and in others, who want to see cleaner neighbourhoods, where they feel safer and in more control, I support the Bill.
Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): This is a welcome Bill, which will provide relief to our constituents who daily face the myopic behaviour of a minority of people who defile and demean our local communities. It provides more powers for local councils and the police to tackle the low-level environmental despoliation of our streets and green spaces, and gives local people a greater voice in that seemingly never-ending struggle.
My experience on a recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into these issues taught me that there is no ready institutional answer to dealing with the antisocial mentality and dysfunctional behaviour that lead some people to make life a misery for their neighbours. When there exists a significant minority of people who simply do not care about the impact of their behaviour on others, it is not easy to bring them into line, but laws that give local communities the protection they need are clearly required. The Bill goes a long way towards addressing that deficiency.
I feel obliged to say, however, that the Government's assumption that extra resources will not, in general, be needed to make the legislation really effective needs to be carefully assessed. I say that even though we now have more police officers than at any other time in history. We now have police community support officers, and as a member of the Standing Committee on
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the Police Reform Act 2002, I seem to recall that there were people on both sides of the House who thought they were not a good ideabut how the sceptics have been proved wrong. We have also witnessed some of the largest increases in local government funding, well above the rate of inflation, and next year's settlement is no exception.
There are, however, still aspects that I hope, after this debate and other representations, the Government will consider carefully. In my district, covered by Leeds city council, with a population of 750,000 people, we had until recently an innovative and determined Labour-run authority that was bent on investing more in fighting antisocial behaviour. It introduced a noise nuisance hotline and antisocial behaviour crackdowns, helped to secure more PCSOs than anywhere else outside the Metropolitan police area and generally sought to be aware of people's concerns.
"In 1998/9 the Council allocated £10,000 to remove graffiti and illegal flyposting from the city centre, which was more than adequate. In the current financial year, more than twice that amount has already been spent and not all graffiti is being removed."
Those were the words of John Kearsley, the council's chief support officer, in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee in February 2004. He went on to say that at that time there were just 13 dedicated environmental enforcement officers to cover the whole city. Clearly, with the extra powers conferred on the council, which will be well publicised, not least by those of us who will be voting for them tonight, public expectations will be raised. New powers do not always mean that extra resources are required, but in this case they will be required, and we shall need to be alert to new ways of finding the money to achieve the Bill's objectives.
Let us consider alley gating. The idea of gating off alleyways, or ginnels as we call them in Leeds, is excellent, provided proper consultations are carried out. I can think of several areas in my constituency where the potential for gating is evident, but in one case where a ginnel was gated, the overall design fell somewhat short of a complete solution, as not only the entrances needed gating but the boundaries of the ginnel, adjacent to people's gardens, needed extra protection. Miscreants will simply go through people's gardens if the fencing is not up to the job. All that costs money, and the sums are not insignificant. An effective gating system could cost tens of thousands of pounds. In Tingley, in my constituency, I talked to constituents about gating a network of ginnels that connected different streets, the main branch of which was the real problem, but it was fed by tributary paths. In such a case, gating would be an expensive solution and even then, because of its nature, not all residents would want interference with their rights of way.
To make the powers effective, we will need to find new resources. Certainly, some will come from more effective working at local level, but there are clearly resource issues in both capital and revenue terms, especially if we want more dedicated environmental enforcement officers. On the latter point, it is obvious that noise and
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light pollution problems are primarily night-time complaints. The staffing costs are consequently higher, and may not be easily accommodated simply by finding more effective ways of workingperhaps through shift patterns.
I want to comment on some other aspects of this excellent Bill. I welcome the extra powers that parish and town councils will acquire to enable fixed penalty notices to be given out for things such as littering. Thanks to the Labour Government, such councils can now make a much bigger contribution to combating such low-level environmental crimes; for example, by helping to fund PCSOs. Once again, Labour's crime fighting initiatives, despite meeting initial opposition, have been grasped locally by all parties, some of which even pay us the compliment of taking the credit for them.
The Bill proposes regulations on how the receipts from such fixed penalty income should be spent. I hope that in the early stages such money will be used solely to offset the costs of employing people, such as PCSOs, who have a role in enforcing the law. Such legislation will have a far greater impact if there is a clear causal effect all the way through, so that people can see how transparently and effectively it is working, and that it does not become just another funding stream for the general pot.
Some parish councils might like some of the money collected from fixed penalty notices to be spent on all sorts of other things, the impact of which would not be so evident. Where that happened, parish councils might be less likely to improve their overall effectiveness, and might instead try to extend their functions beyond what is appropriate to that level of local government, which after all is funded by the not so accountable means of a precept. I know from local experience that precepts can be greatly increased without a commensurate increase in service delivery. Money has sometimes been used to increase balances at the taxpayer's expense. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that the use of extra powers in lower-tier councils is carefully monitored.
I very much welcome the new controls to be placed on the free distribution of printed matter, much of which is distributed on behalf of businesses. Of course, they have to advertise, but far too much of that material ends up on the streets. In my constituency, in the circulation area of a free weekly newspaper, copies are as likely to end up in the garden or on the doorstep as through the letterbox, adding to the litter problem, and in some cases letting burglars know which houses are unoccupied. In the same category, sadly, fall a number of charities, which chuck plastic collection bags on our doorsteps or leave them hanging out of the letterbox. Presumably, the idea is that if people have nothing to put in the bags the collectors will pick them up on their next round, but that does not always happen.
Charities and some other groups are exempt from the provisions of clause 23, but they should not be exempt from the expectation that they should adhere to the standards imposed by statute on others. I would also appreciate it if the Minister would make it plain whether the exemption for religious organisations is to be defined in the Bill in the same way as the protection of religious freedoms is defined in the draft convention on human
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rights, to ensure that discrimination on grounds of one's religion, or none, does not take place in the context of clause 23.
Finally, noise nuisance is addressed in the Bill in terms both of alarms going off and of noise from premises generally. Although those are serious problems, I wonder whether they are on the same scale as what is, I believe, a more prevalent nuisance: noise from cars and other vehicles. Would it be possible to extend the provisions to vehicles? Car alarms seem far more prone to go off than burglar alarms, and the other type of car noisefrom monster bass sound systemsis a real and deliberately manufactured nuisance. How many streets are blighted by those mobile noise terrorists, who clearly cannot hear anything outside their vehicles, and who often, because of their semi-blacked-out windows, can hardly see anything either, as they drive around? Such vehicles are almost as bad as the motor cycles that have had the silencers knocked out of their exhausts.
I do not understand why some people want to advertise their stupidity, but advertise it they do, causing considerable annoyance to residents who just want to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet in their own home. I hope that the Government will ensure that the use of fixed penalty notices for noise pollution can be made more widely available to tackle that problem.
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