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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
A year or so ago, the Minister presented a quality award to the Poynton-with-Worth parish council. It was very grateful and so was I. Will he give an assurance that
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active councils that want to take up the extra powers will have the resources to do so? Sadly, everything for which the Government legislate has a resource implication.
Alun Michael: In some cases there is no resource implication, but in others powers need to be given to enable people to do things more simply. The way in which parish councils can undertake their work depends on the atmosphere of co-operation that we and the National Association of Local Councils and the Local Government Association engender through a contractual arrangement between the principal local authorities in an area and the parish and town councils that want to take their responsibilities further.
Local government in this country has come to recognise the value of the contribution that parish and town councils can make to achieving outcomes. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) may agree that there is sometimes conflict and competition between different levels of government. Counties and districts have not always treated each other with mutual respect, love and affection. Principal local authorities have certainly not always fully appreciated the potential of local councilsthe parish, town or community councilsin Wales. Sometimes the very local organisations have tended to be too inward looking, concentrating on the capacity to study the minutes of the previous meeting and say no to whatever is proposed for the area.
I believe that that has changed. Many principal local authorities have changed their attitude towards parish councils. That has been reciprocated. For example, parish councils have been encouraged through the parish plans approach not to wait and react to applications in their area, but to begin to consider the sort of future that they want. Poynton-with-Worth is a good example. That parish council has tried to look forward. Thinking through what is wanted for the parish in the long term helps to inform the principal authorities' decisions. That constitutes the partnership approach that it is in the interests of all parties to encourage.
The Bill shows respect for parish councils' capacity to undertake duties when they want and are able to do that. They are not forced to do so. The measure further encourages partnership by, for example, recognising the principal authorities' greater capacity for enforcement, thus allowing parish or town councils to exercise their powers, if taken up, in partnership rather than as if the different levels of local authorities existed in separate vacuums. They all exist together and, at their best, complement each other effectively. I hope that that deals with the hon. Gentleman's point. He is rightly proud of the performance of the Poynton-with-Worth council, where I enjoyed a productive visit and much discussion.
The Bill takes a strategic approach to engaging everyone in the work of improving the local environment and reducing crime and disorder in the local community. It especially extends the objectives of crime and disorder reduction partnerships, which are led by the police and local authorities, specifically to include local environmental crime.
The Bill also provides better tools for local authorities and the Environment Agency to deal with fly-tipping, litter, fly-posting, abandoned vehicles and other
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nuisances that blight our communities. Talking to people in my area and places such as Splott, which has experienced antisocial behaviour and environmental degradation, or constituents who complain that new graffiti is not a coincidental to the return of someone who has been in one of Her Majesty's institutions for some time, underlines the importance of making connections and ensuring that we create a better environment. I hear similar comments when I speak to farmers or those in rural communities who say that their areas are often degraded through fly-tipping or abandoned vehicles. Providing better tools for local authorities to tackle those problems is important. Local authorities and the Environment Agency have a will to tackle those issues better.
Throughout the Bill, we make greater use of fixed penalty fines and give local authorities the power to adapt them to fit with their local priorities. That is important. Fixed penalty fines can be imposed without the bureaucracy and obstacles that exist if people have to be taken to court. Of course, the right must exist for them to choose not to pay the fixed penalty, and thus for the option of prosecution to kick in. In some circumstances, it is up to local authorities to determine the level of the fine in accordance with their experience of what works best and the nature of the problems in their area. We are also giving greater powers to parish and town councils so that the most local level of our democratic structures can play a part in making things better. They will have the power to issue fixed penalty notices for litter, graffiti, fly-posting and dog offences.
Doing nothing is not an option. Dealing with local environmental quality and antisocial behaviour costs agencies about £3.4 billion per year. That is a massive amount of money and a burden that is ultimately borne by the taxpayer and the council tax payer. Abandoned vehicles cost local authorities £26 million in 200203. That is the cost of removal, clear-up and disposal. Even more significant is the damage to the morale of the local community. The measures in the Bill will help us to tackle these problems and to reduce the costs involved.
I know that the Minister for Housing and Planning, my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), has been a great supporter of the Bill, and I am delighted that he is here in the Chamber with us as we reach the latter stages of its consideration on Third Reading.
The Bill is a major part of the Government's strategy for improving the environment, for developing a more sustainable future and for dealing with antisocial behaviour. It will help to ensure a real improvement to the quality of life of many people in communities throughout the country, and I commend it to the House.
I echo the nuances expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). These proceedings have been marked by a flawed consultation procedure. To take the example of dogs, it is beyond belief that the one organisation that has been responsible for looking after stray dogsthe National Dog Warden Associationwas not even consulted or called in to see the Minister until we raised the issue in Committee. Many of the offences in the Bill already exist. I pay tribute to the
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Conservative councils that are implementing to the letter the powers provided in previous legislationnotably the Environmental Protection Act, which was passed in 1990 under a Conservative Administrationto enable them to fight environmental crime.
The cumbersome legislation before us today has not been given adequate scrutiny. It was deprived of such scrutiny in Committee, and I do not recall such an arbitrary use of knives and guillotines as we have seen today. We have been left with two hours for our Third Reading debate, and I hope that that will give us time to cover some of the remaining points. We were not allowed the time to give the Bill in-depth scrutiny in Committee or on Report, however, and the record will show our disappointment in that regard.
I want to talk briefly about costs. The Minister has referred in Committee and today to the reliance that the Government are putting on fixed penalty notices. I have a table here that has been prepared by the House of Commons Library, which is known for its impartiality and independence of thought and research. First, however, I must point out that as the Minister has failed to answer certain questions, either in Committee or on Report, I have taken the opportunity to ask the Solicitor-General what guidance she has provided to the Crown Prosecution Service on legislative provisions introduced since 1997 that involve a reversal of the burden of proof in environmental crimeswe learned today that that applies primarily to fixed penalty noticesand to ask her to make a statement to help us to understand such provisions. This was obviously a source of embarrassment to the Government. The Minister said that he had been talking to people in the countryside, but I am surprised that anyone there would want to talk to him at all since the Government have imposed the ban on hunting through their very ill-thought-out Bill.
Alun Michael: First, the Bill to which the hon. Lady refers is not ill-thought-out. It is very practical and straightforward and, as long as people want to obey the law, they will not have a problem in doing so. Secondly, people in the countryside are far more exercised about fly-tipping and the other issues that are dealt with in the Bill. Those matters are a bigger priority for rural people, as they are for urban people.
The Solicitor-General did not wish to make a statement today. In fact, she did not have to answer my question until today, which was probably very convenient. She has refused to give the information that I requested, and has promised to write to me shortly. It is most regrettable that the Government are not going to provide usand the wider British publicwith the information that we need to form a view on the Bill.
On the existing offences that are being extended, we believe that the categories involved are very confusing. The Bill creates three separate categories: nuisance parking; abandoned vehicles; and illegally parked vehicles. We learned on Second Reading that the provisions on abandoned vehicles will be purely discretionary. It will be entirely up to a local authority to decide if it wishes to apply them. We are also told that if fixed penalty notices are paid at a rate of 75per cent.,
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that is quite high. However, at the last Home Office questions we learned from Ministers that Home Office fixed penalty notices are paid at a rate of only 70 per cent. So, assuming that that rate reached the giddy heights of 75 per cent. in the first year in respect of the provisions on abandoned vehicles, local authorities in England and Wales would raise only £1.68 million across the board. The Library note tells us that the estimated cost of dealing with abandoned vehiclesthis is from the Local Government Association briefing, which was provided to us in December for use in Committeeis £34 million. That would leave a £32 million shortfall on that one provision alone.
In Committee, we were staggered to learn from Westminster city council that including chewing gum and redefining it in the description of litter will increase the cost to that council to more than £9 million, yet we see in this well-crafted table from the Library that it will get no extra receipts under the fixed penalty notices. It will have to pay that additional £9 million bill due to that one redefinition alone.
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