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I shall be brief, because other hon. Members wish to speak and many points have been made several times over. Not surprisingly, I welcome the Bill. Time and time again, we have heard about the link between antisocial behaviour and poor, neglected and abused environments. It is right that the Bill focuses on breaking that link. Environmental vandalism exists in all our constituencies, in small and large areas.
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The consultation was crucial in introducing the measures. As far as I can tell, it was extensive and rigorous. The outcome is that the Bill complements earlier legislation, including the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, with which I was pleased to be involved. One of the Bill's aspects is to strengthen existing partnerships by requiring responsible authorities to ensure that tackling such behaviour is at the heart of their strategies. It also extends powers to partners, including parishes, extends and toughens penalties, and simplifies processes and procedures, which is important because it makes them easier to implement.
I welcome in particular, as I am sure do my constituents, the wider use of fixed penalty notices, improvements to gating, which is especially relevant in Erewash, and tougher measures on fly-tipping, because Erewash has urban fringes that suffer from that crime, from graffiti, from nuisance vehicles and from dumped cars and litter. I recently conducted a large survey on issues that concern my constituents, and litter was at the top of the pile. In fact, it has risen to the top of the pile over the past couple of years.
Among the range of penalties and measures that the Bill provides to tackle litter specifically, one gem is the ability for responsible authorities to impose litter cleaning notices on private households. Interspersed between the well kept houses with beautiful gardens that people have taken an awful lot of time and trouble to nurturethe real homesit is demoralising to see front gardens that look like the local refuse tip, or worse. For the first time, the Bill gives powers to require those people to clean up their act. I am delighted with that measure.
There is more to do on environmental crime, but for me the centrality of the Bill is whether the measures in it will be implemented by those that have been given the responsibilities. I want to give some examples of episodes in my constituency over the past year or so which have led us to pause with concern.
West Hallam community centre in the village of West Hallam belongs to the Conservative parish council of West Hallam. The playgroup that rents the centre asked me to write to the management committee of the building to ask it to remove graffiti, and this is what I got back:
"We recognise graffiti is a problem and have on several previous occasions had it removed. In our experience, however, unlike the suggestion in your letter, we have found the removal of the graffiti gives the green light for it to appear again."
I am not speechless on many occasions, but that letter took my breath away. We are talking about transferring powers to such groups. I am not for one minute saying that all parish councils in Erewash hold that attitudeI am sure that they do notbut we must accept that there are still pockets of ignorance in our communities and we need to challenge them.
The other episode that I would like to mention concerns one of my leisure centres that has a big recycling park, which was covered in dumped rubbish a year ago at Christmas and new year. One of my constituents flagged up the problem, so I challenged the local Conservative council to do something about it. A year ago, I received a letter saying that the council had put in extra resources and would monitor the situation and make further resources available the following year.
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I went to the leisure centre for a swim on 2 January this year, and what I saw took my breath away. The area was stacked with plastic bags full of Christmas refuse and children were playing in it. I again wrote a very strong letter to the council, and got this reply:
"We deliberately stepped up our efforts to keep our main recycling sites tidy during the Christmas period following the problems experienced in previous years . . . Whilst this extra activity was successful, the real problem is residents using the recycling points to dump residual waste. This is in fact fly-tipping; a criminal offence carrying a maximum fine of £2,500. Whilst the Council plans to provide similar enhanced collection services next Christmas, we will be playing a much stronger enforcement role and persons caught fly-tipping will be prosecuted."
Local councils must get their act together. My council knew that there was a problem. It should have supplied more refuse collection facilities. It should also have challenged the behaviour of those fly-tipping, and should have ensured that the local tip was open. This is not just about enforcing the law but about ensuring that there is the capacity for people who want to dump their refuse legitimately.
Two years down the line, the council is putting a much better structure in place. It has made a significant investment in a warden system, which is about to come on stream, and more money is being invested in refuse collection and street cleaning. However, those measures must be implemented thoroughly and speedily, and the council must be transparent about its activities and schedules and make clear what people can expect from its services both on a regular basis and when a problem occurs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) has said, a hotline should be introduced so that people can report fly-tipping and littering, and feedback should be obtained on how services are working.
The Bill is good and the measures will work if all responsible bodies, and the public, understand that environmental crime can be tackled, but that we all have a role to play. It provides an excellent opportunity to do more to clean up the environment.
Derek Conway : It seems almost an eternity, Mr. Speaker, since I raised with you the question of whether we would get an opportunity to discuss a particular part of the Bill, about which I have driven the Minister to boredom and distraction because of my insistence on trying to flesh out some of the details of the legislation dealing with dogs. I do not apologise for my interest in the matter. I have served on several Standing Committees with the Minister and I know how he likes to operateif he can cross the street for a punch-up, he always will. I have no doubt that when he replies to my observations, which I hope will be brief, he will give me a kicking.
Conservative Members have made it plain that our opposition to parts of the Bill, which contains many good clauses, is not tooth and nail, and I do not have a great deal of difficulty with the Minister's proposals on the control of dogs and handling stray dogs. However, he should not have taken umbrage at a number of interventionsin particular, my interventionsbecause it is his job to explain the reasoning behind his proposals and it is our job to press him. I hope that he
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will not take undue offence at our pressing him, although we agree with much of what he is trying to do, because that is what he is paid for.
Sadly, I missed the seventh sitting of the Standing Committee on 27 January, because I was next door chairing the Committee on the Identity Cards Bill, which was equally riveting. The Minister was obviously having a good time that morning, because everybody was getting a good beating, and he mentioned that he had discussed the Bill with the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust and a vet. When I spoke briefly on Second Reading, however, those organisations had not been consulted.
Alun Michael: The meeting took place after Second Reading, when those organisations approached me with their concerns. We examined those concerns and amended the Bill, as I said earlier. We originally hoped that the discussions on the transfer of resources would be ready so that the Bill could be implemented as originally drafted three months after Royal Assent, but to put the question beyond all doubt, we amended it to ensure that that part of the Bill will be commenced after the discussion on resources.
Derek Conway: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and commend him on listening to those worthy organisations, which are experienced in such matters, and on amending the Bill, which is to his creditI am sure that those organisations are grateful. However, he must accept that hon. Members are astonished that a Minister could introduce a Bill to change the legislation on handling dogs, which has existed for more than 100 years, without consulting the biggest animal welfare charities that deal with dogs in the UKthe Dogs Trust, which used to be the National Canine Defence League, the Kennel Club and Battersea dogs homeit should properly be called the dogs home, Batterseawhich is not a million miles from this place. Battersea dogs home says that more than 51 per cent. of the stray dogs that it is asked to take in arrive on a Monday after the weekend, so there is a problem with what goes on out of hours.
In the light of the Minister's long experience, and my briefer experience, in government, I find it difficult to believe that a Department would have the effrontery to put before the House a Bill that will place a difficult burden on animal welfare charitiesincluding the National Dog Warden Association, whose representatives the Minister did not meet at allwithout consulting them beforehand. Those are the people who are doing the job. We can talk about it here, but they are the ones cleaning up the mess that we humans leave when we do not treat our animals properly.
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