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Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I begin by expressing my astonishment that on an issue that affects the quality of life of millions of ordinary people, so few Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members wished to speak or even to attend the debate. As the newest Member of the House, I find it unbelievable that there are only two Members of the Conservative Opposition on the Front Bench and only one Member on the Liberal Democrat Benches. That has been the case for 95 per cent. of the debate on a topic of such importance. I hope the Opposition do not make a habit of that.
I shall concentrate on the neighbourhood aspects of the Bill, although I recognise that the environmental aspects underpin all its key elements. The Bill could have been written with my constituency in mind. I hold weekly constituency surgeries each Friday and undertake street surgeries on Saturday morning in a different part of the town. People do not raise with me concerns or opinions about the state of the economy, about who is talking to whom in the Government or even about Iraq.
Almost without exception, constituents are concerned and want me to do something about antisocial behaviour and nuisance neighbours who play their music at 3 o'clock in the morning or let their dogs roam the streets. They want me, as the town's MP, to tackle graffiti, fly-tipping and abandoned cars that blight their streets. They want me to deal with ugly and neglected buildings and thoughtlessly planned alley gates and rat runs, which help breed and nurture crime, drug dealing and antisocial behaviour on their estates. During my street surgeries I see all too clearly how bad planning and environmental neglect and decline prove to be barriers to opportunity and fulfilling potential. An entrepreneur wants to invest and try to create wealth in areas where graffiti, rubbish and fly-tipping are cleared promptly and culprits are punished. Residents want to
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live on estates where decades of neglect and decline have been halted and reversed thanks to community involvement and investment in infrastructure, environment and people, and where one or two bad families' habits of causing litter and noise are not tolerated.
I welcome the Bill, not least because I know that it will work by and large. I know it because my constituency has already started to implement some of the measures. Hartlepool is a forward-looking town. It has made great leaps forward with regeneration initiatives such as the new deal for communities and neighbourhood renewal. With Labour the largest group in the local authority and, to be fair to him, an independent mayorunder Labour councillors' guidancewho has passionately embraced the Government's agenda of neighbourhood and environmental renewal, street-based policies are making an impact. In the past 12 months the local authority has responded to 362 complaints about graffiti, and has issued 89 fixed penalty notices for littering. More than 450 abandoned and untaxed cars have been removed from the streets of Hartlepool, which has led to a 65 per cent. reduction in overall vehicle-related crime in the town and a 55 per cent. reduction in vehicle arson. The Bill will help my local communities to build on that success, and to achieve even more.
As an MP who is passionate about minimising the incidences of antisocial behaviour on my patch, I welcome the amendment to the law to ensure that crime and disorder reduction partnerships consider such behaviour. Crime in Hartlepool has fallen dramatically in the past nine months, by between 35 and 40 per cent., thanks to enthusiastic embracing of the Government's policies by the police and other agencies; but this measure will make a specific, real difference.
As a result of the Bill, a hit list of all untaxed cars will be provided through a planned initiative between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the local authority. That will provide a quick response, and instant removal when that is appropriate. A direct link to a range of agencies' files and databases will help the council to ensure that crimes such as fly-tipping, dog fouling, littering, noise nuisance and damage to street furniture are tackled quickly, thus preventing the rot from seeping in and leading to neglect and long-term decline. I hope that advances will also be made to ensure that fast-food outlets work alongside the local authority and others, so that we no longer see pizza boxes and kebab wrappers after the pubs shut for the night.
The Bill greatly increases the powers of local councils. It enables local community councillors to play a significant role in the improvement of their neighbourhoods. It also provides much strongerand welcomepowers for parish councils to impose fines for litter and to ensure that they, like local authorities, play a role in making their areas safer and cleaner. I find it disappointing that other residents groups and agencies are not empowered to take the initiative in the same way.
As chair of the local strategic partnership, in which co-ordination of agencies' plans for the collective good of the town is undertaken, I find it unsatisfactory that LSPs and their role in this context are not mentioned in the Bill. As I said earlier, constituents expect me, as the local MP, to play a role in minimising antisocial
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behaviour and the dropping of litter. That could have been achieved more easily had the role of LSPs been made clear.
A couple of weeks ago, I planted bulbs in the Owton ward in Hartlepool with young people from the "Cool it" project, funded jointly by the Owton West residents' group and the Hartlepool primary care trust. Such initiatives could be encouraged by the Bill. However, I am sure that such moves to improve the neighbourhood and own a part of it would take place in Hartlepool anyway, thanks to the dynamic leadership provided in the residents group by John Reid and in the PCT by Gerald Wistow. Obviously there would need to be strict controls in relation to governance and accountability for residents associationsI agree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), who mentioned the need for legitimate elections to such associationsbut it would be gratifying if powers could be extended to groups that have the potential to make such an impact on their own neighbourhoods.
In the overall scheme of things, however, those are relatively minor gripes. The Bill will help to build on the work already done in neighbourhood renewal, and will make people feel safer and have more confidence and pride in their communities. I fully support it.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality on bringing it before the House. Its full significance will probably not be appreciated for some time but it will be as important as the Janner legislation of 1945 to 1951 on town and country planning and the legislation introduced by Arthur Skeffington during the Wilson Government to improve our environment. It is an important Bill with many elements, but above all it will improve and enhance the quality of life in urban areas and the countryside.
One of the things that has been repeatedly referred to over the past hour or two is the absence of Conservative Members in the Chamber. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have had to explain to constituents, as many other hon. Members have, why on many occasions we are unable to catch the Speaker's eye. We explain that the Speaker and his deputies have enormous difficulty meeting the needs of all 659 Members, who want to speak on a range of issues. We even have the phrase, "There is mileage on the clock." If Members have spoken too often in the Session, they are less likely, rightly, to get preferment and to catch the Speaker's eye. We also explain that the Speaker and his deputies swing from Opposition to Labour to Opposition in calling Members to speak.
Those who follow the Official Report and watch the parliamentary channel may ask, "How is it that Labour Member after Labour Member spoke in the debate?" The fact is that there are no Conservatives here except the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). She is not even like Horatiusshe is not even flanked by two others. That reflects badly on the Opposition, who not only are not attending or contributing to the debate but will have the audacity to vote against the Bill later. I find it breathtaking in the extreme.
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I listened carefully to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), when he tried to explain why he was going to vote against Second Reading and to commend that course to his colleagues. He did not offer any alternatives to ameliorate the problems of vandalism, fly-tipping, graffiti and litter, which are a terrible blot on our environment and a source of great irritation to Labour and Conservative voters alike. He did not make any proposals. To be fair, he said that existing powers could remedy the problems, but he did not tell us how he would ensure that those powers were triggered and what mechanism there was to flag up with all the various agencies that they should exercise their powers. I think that he is wrong, but he did not tell us or, more important, Conservative voters how he intended to tackle the issues that we are trying to deal with tonight. He owes it to the electors to explain why the Conservative Opposition voted against a measure that I would have thought and hoped commanded support across the political spectrum.
I want to refer to the proposals in the Bill on crime reduction strategies, which bring together the police and all the various agencies, empowering them but indicating to all of them that there is a public expectation that they get together to tackle crimes such as fly-tipping, graffiti, litter and other forms of vandalism that diminish our quality of life and environment. It is an important measure and will be welcomed by many of our constituents.
I see this as a class issue. The fact is that some of the poorest, most disadvantaged people suffer from these problems. They are exploited, often by unregulated business interests and by people who come into an area to dump litter. Some of the poorest, most disadvantaged but best citizens have to suffer and endure those problems.
I am conscious of the fact that many people think my constituency is urban. In fact, two thirds of the borough of Thurrock has very attractive green belt land, but of course it does suffer from the main problems that have been referred to this afternoon, including the dumping of waste on both public and private land. I welcome the fact that the Bill will remove discrimination between private and public land, put the burden of payment on the polluter, and impose significant sanctions on those who pollute and who dump controlled waste in particular. Indeed, such sanctions even include the seizing of vehicles when this crime is committed.
I took great interest in the proposal of gating minor highways when listening to the Secretary of State outline the Bill, and I am disappointed at the fact that the Conservative spokesman could not see that that will be beneficial. The explanatory notes state:
"range from narrow footpaths to highways capable of accommodating vehicular traffic. Some of these highways provide opportunities to access the rear of properties for illegal entry and concealment and cover for criminal acts and anti-social behaviour."
We are all familiar with the problems associated with abandoned and illegally parked cars, and the sale and repair of cars on our highways. Often, it is some of the best people, but who live in some of the poorest areas, who have to endure such problems. Cars that are put up on bricks for weeks and months on end constitute a real danger for small children. I welcome the measures in the Bill, which will streamline the action to be taken, but I ask that the Minister give me some assurance on this issue. When the police want to conduct a forensic examination of a stolen or vandalised car, its owner is sometimes charged for its impounding. That is wholly unsatisfactory, and I hope that this problem can be dealt with in Committee or in conjunction with the Home Office. People who have already lost out by having their car stolen or vandalised should not be further disadvantaged by being charged.
The issue of dog excrement sometimes gives rise to much levity. I have never understood why, as it is one of the most hazardous substances in our environment. Allowing one's dog to defecate in the street is a mediaeval practice, and I am amazed that it remains somehow socially acceptable. Contamination from dog excrement poses a considerable danger, particularly to children and to people's eyesight. I welcome the fact that we are making great efforts to combat this problem, and to point out to the public that allowing such things to happen without any regard to others is shameful.
I welcome the Bill's streamlining measure on stray dogs, but in my constituency the problem is also stray horses. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, who will wind up the debate, also has this problem in his constituency. We have a legislative opportunity to ensure that horses that are taken in by local authorities are redeemable by their owners only if and when they pay the full cost. A penalty should be imposed if they have not ensured that their horses are kept in and prevented from causing a hazard on the highways.
The nuisance caused by lighting is also a very important issue. People are far too often disadvantaged by so-called security lighting that is not proportionate to the problem that it is designed to solve.
Finally, the Bill's provisions should be extended to Northern Ireland. It is a great pity that much of the good legislation that passes through this House does not apply to Northern Ireland. Scotland has a devolved Administration but Northern Ireland does not, and it rather looks as though it will not have one for some time. The wonderful regions of Northern Ireland and its rich coastline should be enhanced by this legislation. I hope that the Minister will commend that idea to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because if the Bill's very helpful measures cannot be extended to Northern Ireland, a relevant order might be able to replicate them.
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