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Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): This is a very important Bill indeed. That is demonstrated not just by the number of Labour Members who are seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but by the fact that the public think so too. One does not have to knock on too many doors or stand on too many doorsteps to know that. I rarely come across anyone who wants to discuss the five economic tests for the euro, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, or even the Human Rights Act 1998, but I regularly come across people who are concerned about litter, fly-tipping and abandoned vehicles. Those people will be amazed that there is no interest at all in that tonight among Opposition Members, and they will be shocked that the Conservative party will vote against the Bill.
My particular interest in the Bill relates to litter. I introduced two private Member's Bills on litter in 2001 and 2003, and I have always believed that litter is a very serious issue; it is not just unsightly, but a health risk, and it affects urban and rural communities, streets, open spaces, and in coastal constituencies such as mine, our beaches that mean so much to us.
It is an important matter in my constituency. My local newspaper, the Lowestoft Journal, has been running a campaign to clean up the streets for some time. People write in and report things to the paper; it focuses on the issue, and the aim is to put pressure on the local authority to do something about it. The campaign has had only limited success, because the truth is that we in this country are not very good at dealing with litter. The culture of litter management is wrong.
Despite having laws that prohibit the dropping of litterfixed penalties were introduced as long ago as 1990most of the time, if we are truthful about it, we tolerate that practice. We walk around in it for most of the day, and we concentrate our efforts on clearing it up,
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at a huge costsomething like £450 million a yearbut we then complain if the council or someone else does not clean it up properly or effectively. That approach is rather like that taken by Sisyphus: it offers no solution at all. There is evidence that the more effective and efficient we are at clearing away litter, the more of it is dumped, especially in terms of fly-tipping and abandoned cars. We have not tackled the problem at source, and we have not seriously enforced our litter laws.
The Government doubled the fixed penalty fine to £50, but, as I said in introducing one of my private Member's Bills, no more than about 3,000 fixed penalty notices were issued a year. I have further details. I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the figures that I gave earlier; they relate to the period before November 2003, when the Local Government Act 2003 came into force, but they make the point about how bad the then situation was. Only 76 out of 359 local authorities issued any fixed penalty notices at all, and of the 1,366 notices that were issued in that period, 624nearly halfwere issued by just five authorities. So if authorities take litter seriously, they can get down to dealing with it, but most authorities do nothing about it at all.
The problem has been that those local authorities have not had the resources to carry out the enforcement because they had to pay the money raised by the fines to central Government. In fact, very little money reached central Government because hardly any enforcement was taking place. So when I proposed those private Member's Bills, I introduced the simple idea of allowing local authorities to keep the revenue from the fixed penalties to provide an income stream for enforcementin other words, as has been said, to make the polluter, not the taxpayer, pay for dealing with the problem of litter. I was delighted when the Government incorporated that idea in the Local Government Act 2003, but I expressed concern at the time to my right hon. Friend the Minister about whether local authorities would take up the new powers that were given and spend that revenue specifically on enforcement or in a broader way.
The pilot schemes that took place during the year before the 2003 Act came into force showed that authorities, such as Newcastle and Manchestertwo of the five that had issued fixed penalty noticescould have success, but that even some of the pilot authorities that had signed up to public service agreements did nothing to use the powers that they were given. Since the 2003 Act, some progress has been made, but in the year 200304, still only 7,500 fixed penalties were issued for litteringnot a lot nationally for the amount of litter that is dropped on our streets and open spaces.
We know from our own experience that many local authoritiesprobably most of themsuch as my own, Waveney district council, have done absolutely nothing. They have not taken up the new powers. They have not changed their own culture of how they tackle litter. That was picked up in the Audit Commission's recent comprehensive performance assessment of
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Conservative-controlled Waveney district council that said:
"Key areas of weakness include weak performance in maintaining a clean and tidy environment. Street cleaning is not effective in Waveney. The council does not make full use of the range of enforcement powers available although it has effectively used some powers including those to tackle litter on private land. The dog warden service has been discontinued and, although the street wardens tackle a wider range of issues, they do not have the power to issue on the spot fines for dog fouling or littering."
The problem is that the council has not shared those findings with the public, so they are still not aware of what their council should be doing.
I very much welcome the Bill. I particularly welcome the measures that deal with litter, specifically the idea that local authorities can decide, within guidelines yet to be given, what the fixed penalty should be, but the default amount will be £75, so we can look forward to some heftier fines, thus producing a bigger income stream for those local authorities that take up that option. Local authorities will no longer have an excuse for not using the powers available to them.
I welcome the fact that beaches will be defined as areas where the litter law takes effect. I am delighted that it is also proposed that it will be an offence to drop litter on private land as well as on public land. It is a good idea that well-organised parish and town councils will have some powers. It is a particularly good idea that litter authorities will be able to authorise individuals other than their own employees to issue fixed penalty notices, as there have been some problems when using contracting companies.
My final point is that there will be no excuse for councils not to take up the new powers, but the Government and, indeed, the House still have a role in ensuring that they take them up. We do not want postcode litter enforcement in this country. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether his Department will carry out an annual survey of how many local authorities use the fixed penalty powers. Will he survey the number of enforcement officers employed by each local authority and the number of fines issued by each local authority? May we please have a league table, which is monitored? Perhaps we should consider penalties for not using fixed penalties, but we must change the culture, putting the onus on the polluter, not the taxpayer.
Our constituents care about litter, and they want greater action to be taken. They are proud of their neighbourhoods, and they want them to be clean. As taxpayers, they want such action to be taken. They want to make the litter louts pay. If we can focus our efforts on that, we would have cleaner neighbourhoods all around this country.
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab):
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate on this important Bill. I am pleased in particular to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), whose constituency is totally different from mine. His is coastal and mine is inland, although this debate points up the fact that we share the same problems to do with the quality of our local environment.
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Most of us remember the European elections in 1999, when the opportunity to take a swipe at the Government was taken by those who did not bother to vote or who did not vote Labour. Notionally, almost every Labour seat gained in 1997 would have been lost at a subsequent general election if that result in 1999 had been replicated. Why am I talking about the 1999 European elections in a debate on this Bill? One seat gained in 1997 that would not notionally have been lost in 1999 was that of Brent, North.
I had a discussion about that result with my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who is not present but is aware that I was planning to refer to him. That led me to import into Reading, East what became known as the Gardiner method. I have spent almost every weekend since knocking on doors in my constituency. I am not unusual in that; many hon. Members are regularly to be found on the doorstepsotherwise we would not be standing here this evening referring to what our constituents tell us on such occasions. However, most MPs use the roving surgery method, whereby leaflets are delivered and people are asked to put one in their window if they want their MP to call on them. The MP and their team then call on those displaying the leaflet. The Gardiner method is different: everyone gets a leaflet saying that their Member of Parliament is coming to see them, and every door is knocked on. Every household is contacted and asked whether there is anything at all that they want to raise with their MP.
This is not the occasion to enter into a debate about the merits of different methods of contacting our constituents, but the Gardiner method produces an unprompted view from my constituents on what bothers them, and that brings me to today's debate. What have been raised most with me are the very matters with which the Bill is concerned: abandoned vehicles, fly-tipping, fly-posting, graffiti, dog mess. I believe that that experience is shared by my hon. Friends. I echo the regret that so few Opposition Members are present; I imagine that their constituents will have noticed and that when the election comes they will vote accordingly.
I have often made the point publicly to local journalists in my constituency about what matters to people, and those journalists have expressed surprise that constituents are not more concerned about the war in Iraq or national themes such as the freedom of information. Those are not the things that people raise on the doorstep. If one goes out and talks to people where they live about what matters to them, the issues raised are the subjects of this Bill.
That is a powerful argument against those who deride the Bill as not important. We have seen some of that derision reflected in the media. I read in one national newspaper over the weekend that the Bill was a rag-tag piece of legislation, lacking in vision and typical of what might have been expected from John Major's Government before 1997. I suggest that the journalist who wrote that talks to real people about what concerns them. That journalist will find that the Bill does concern people.
In March 2001 I initiated an Adjournment debate on abandoned vehiclesone of the first occasions on which that issue was raised in the House. Action did follow that debate, in Reading and Wokingham, and nationally. I very much welcome the even greater
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powers that the Bill gives councils to remove some abandoned vehicles from the street immediately. The sometimes lengthy delays in removing such vehicles, which become a hazard, concern people.
I also welcome the powers to deal with nuisance parkingoffering for sale two or more vehicles or repairing a vehicle on the road as part of a business. Too many times it has been difficult to get action taken against such vehicles, but the practice has caused problems for small garages in my constituency, which pay for premises and other necessary overheads. People repairing vehicles on the street will also pour unwanted oil down drains, causing environmental problems. The new powers will therefore be welcomed not just by individuals but by small car repair businesses in my constituency.
I understand why the power to deal with offering vehicles for sale has been applied to two or more vehicles. After all, if someone wants to sell their own car, they might put a sign in the window offering it for sale and we do not want to penalise people for parking their car on the street or in their drive because they are offering it for sale. However, someone in my constituency serially offered vehicles for sale from the roadside at a secondary shopping centre. Each time only one vehicle was on the street, but as soon as it was sold, another appeared. The mobile phone number given to contact if interested in one of the cars was the same in all cases. Colleagues of mine rang the number on more than one occasion and the same person always answered. That person was using the public highway as a garage, causing a nuisance to my constituents and businesses, and the parking space taken up by the vehicle could not be used by those wanting to go to the shopping paradeyet nothing could be done by the police or the council.
I am concerned that the Bill would not offer an opportunity to deal properly with such a nuisance and I hope that my right hon. Friends will try to find a way to address that problem as the Bill progresses. Perhaps an amendment could be tabled to change the number of vehicles from two to one but include provision about intent to sell as a business. In that way, the nuisance that businesses and constituents have raised with me arising from a single, serial vehicle seller could be dealt with, but ordinary people trying to sell their own cars would not be caught by the provision.
To take issue with the journalist who disparaged the Bill over the weekend, let us consider the new requirement for local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to take antisocial behaviour affecting the local environment into account in developing crime and disorder strategies. That is most welcome, as it will put the views expressed to me by my constituents on the doorsteps of Reading and Woodley at the heart of action by our police and local councils to tackle that nuisance. The concerns expressed to me will be put at the centre of plans to tackle the nuisance that people experience in their everyday lives.
The greater use of fixed penalty notices as proposed in the Bill is most welcome too, particularly the opportunity for local authorities to keep the income from the fines to pay towards cleaning up our environment. I realise that people might use the same argument against that as they do about fines from speed cameras. My response is the same: "If you don't want to pay the fine, don't do the crime." I hope that the
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hypothecation of income from the fines will allow the expansion of services to catch people littering, fly-posting, fly-tipping, painting graffiti and allowing fouling by dogs.
In particular I welcome the opportunity for parish councils to issue fixed penalty fines in response to some of those problems, and I look forward to Woodley and Earley town councils in my area coming up with imaginative schemes to deal with that nuisance. It is what the people living in those areas want. I just hope that because Woodley is run by the Liberal Democrats it does not suffer the same fate as Woodley centre did when the Liberal Democrats ran Wokingham council and forgot to bid for money for closed-circuit television to tackle crime. I hope that this time the council will be responsive to its residents and that I will not have to run another campaign among local people so that the council does what it should.
There is one aspect that the Bill does not cover but which I would like to see in it: the power for local authorities to remove unnecessary street furniture. My constituency covers the entire town centre of Reading. In the main pedestrianised area of the town centre, there are a number of public payphone kiosks. The company that installed the kiosks has gone out of business and it is no longer possible to use them, but they remain in the street, getting in the way of people walking along it. They have been vandalised and so have become dangerous, yet the council is not currently in a position to remove them. Even if it did remove them, who would pay for doing so? The non-existent company cannot do so; perhaps the taxpayer would have to pay. I want a power in the Bill to remove third-party street furniture in the interests of safety and amenity. It would follow the philosophy of the rest of the Bill if the council were able to claim against the company responsible, or even against the administrators or receivers, for the cost of removing redundant third-party street furniture.
I welcome the provisions on fly-tipping. Far too many people think that they can avoid their responsibilities to the environment by dumping their rubbish. They cost all the rest of us, because we have to pay for the removal of such rubbish.
This is an important Bill for tackling the problems that affect people where they live. It is an example of this House and our Government doing best what they should do: introducing legislation to make the lives of ordinary, hard-working people in this country better.
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