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It gives me great pleasure to introduce the Third Reading of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill. The Bill addresses the real concerns of people in urban and in rural areas, and I am delighted to have been associated with it. It has arrived here not only through the drafting at a policy level of the issues that it addresses, but from a great deal of consultation and discussion, particularly with the Local Government Association and with those who have to deal with the practicalities of enforcement.
When people are asked what is most important to them about the environment, most mention the state of their own neighbourhood. People want to live in communities that are not blighted by litter, graffiti, fly-posters and burnt-out cars. Rural and urban communities alike see this as a major issue. It is rather sad that the Conservatives' amendment on Second Reading, which demonstrated that they have a complete lack of understanding of the problems in rural and in urban communities, was negative about what the Bill seeks to do.
Derek Conway: The Minister mentioned the consultation that has taken place. I am puzzled by that because he made the same observations in Committee. I wonder whether he would care to comment on an e-mail dated 13 Januaryafter Second Readingthat was sent to me by the National Dog Warden Association and states categorically:
Given that the provisions on the control and care of dogs are being changed, perhaps rightly, for the first time in 100 years, will the Minister explain to the House exactly whom he has been consulting if not the body of people who round up the stray dogs of Britain on our behalf?
There has been the widest of consultations, including wide public consultation. We
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have tried to promote discussion around the country from all sorts of organisations. On the provisions on dogs, as I said in Committee two organisations approached me to express concernsthe Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust. I immediately agreed to meet them to discuss those concerns, which we addressed in Committee. Indeed, amendments to the Bill deal with one specific concern that both organisations expressedthe possibility that there might be the transfer of responsibilities that are currently shared between the police and local authorities without an appropriate transfer of resources. For that reason, I agreed to amend the Bill in order to state that the commencement of that provision would take place only once agreement had been reached on the appropriate transfer of resources. I gather that discussions are proceeding.
Generally, there has been a welcome for the fact that under the Bill one organisation will be responsible for dealing with strays. The organisation that the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) mentioned saw fit to concentrate on briefing Opposition Front Benchers, but there are other organisations concerned with the future of dogs. The issues have been discussed at length with the police and local authorities, which have the greatest experience of dealing directly with the problems of strays. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman, frustrated by being unable to debate specific amendments in relation to dogs, brought us back to the issue that has caused him concern, and did so in an appropriate manner.
The Conservatives made a major mistake in opposing the Bill when we first had our discussions on Second Reading. We believe that the problems that it addresses are of direct concern to urban and rural communities throughout the country. That is why we see it as such a priority and why it is an integral part of the Government's wider strategy on the environment and community safety. We want people to feel safe in their local community, and that can happen only if the environment is treated with respect. Fly-posting, fly-tipping, graffiti and other things that damage the local environment make people not only feel that they are in a place that is not cared for, but that is not a safe place to be.
The purpose of the Bill is to improve the local environment as it directly affects people's quality of life, wherever they live. Neglecting the local environment creates a sense of unease and that "nobody cares around here", which directly leads too many people to say, "I don't need to care." That can lead to escalating problems of antisocial behaviour. There is an important link between the state of the local environment, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime. That is why the Bill takes a strategic, cross-Government approach to the local environmental issues that affect our quality of life. I am particularly pleased by the joint working at official and ministerial levels between colleagues at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office, as well as the National Assembly for Wales, which has some responsibilities in relation to Wales.
The Bill forms a key part of wider Government action. It will be the backbone of our cross-cutting "Cleaner, Safer, Greener" agenda, which, again, is dealt with by several Departments. It tackles antisocial behaviour by building on the Crime and Disorder Act
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1998 and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. It also links closely with a number of other policies that we are taking forward, such as on abandoned cars. This is not a single stick approach. We are approaching this not only from the point of view of legislation, but of working closely with local authorities on improving performance, working through the best value agenda and the use of comprehensive performance assessment to place an emphasis on local environmental quality. Our work with the Local Government Association, in particular, has been very productive; I am pleased by its cross-party support for the approaches embodied in the Bill.
The Bill provides enhanced powers for local authorities and the Environment Agency to tackle local environmental quality and antisocial behaviour. It is the result of two years of intensive consultation, including our "Clean Neighbourhoods" consultation last summer, a series of road shows around the country with practitioners, and many meetings with community groups, local authorities and other organisations. I am also pleased that it is complementary to other approaches, such as the Home Office's "Together Academy" approach towards promoting local community safety and crime reduction. That placed an emphasis on dealing with local environmental crime and the two approaches are therefore complementary. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's sustainable communities approach again includes consideration of environmental issues. There is a balance to be struck in regeneration between environmental, economic and social issues. All are complementary.
Throughout the process, key gaps were identified in the legislation on which local authorities and the Environment Agency rely to deal with the antisocial behaviour that affects the quality of our neighbourhoods. They often find current legislation difficult to use. It is not wrong, but perhaps there are bureaucratic obstacles to ensuring that requirements are enforced or that available mechanisms are used effectively. The Bill therefore responds directly to calls from those agencies for improved, more practical powersbetter ways of doing things.
The Bill creates the environment for better partnership working between local authorities and the police, together with the local communities that they both serve. It will involve parish councils, local businesses and community groups in the fight against antisocial behaviour and help create strong, healthy local communities. Some parish councils are small and some do not want to use the powers for which the measure provides. However, many will want to exercise leadership locally. That is being encouraged through the quality parish council scheme and the work that we are undertaking with the National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks. I pay tribute to the engagement of both organisations with trying to improve the quality of leadership at that most local level of our democracy.
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