Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Alun Michael: I am not crossing the road to beat up the hon. Gentleman, but I want to correct his assertions. The only outstanding issue is that of the transfer of resources necessary to make one organisation—the local authority—responsible for dealing with strays, which, as far as I can make out, everybody supports. That was the only reasonable point that was made—all the others were misapprehensions about what the Bill would do, and I was able to correct them. Often, the problem is not a lack of consultation but a
21 Feb 2005 : Column 119
misunderstanding about what a piece of legislation does, which needs to be corrected by additions long after the consultation has been completed.

Derek Conway: The Minister utters honeyed words, and I am tempted to believe them, because I know that he has the best of intentions. However, even when he did eventually deign to meet the biggest animal welfare charities that are doing the work that his Department is dealing with in the Bill, their conclusions—I think that they were circulated to him—were negative. The Dogs Trust, which he met, stated in a briefing:

It continues:

We wait to hear, because nobody yet knows, what this will cost or where the money will come from. The Minister is plucking figures out of the air. One would think that the House of Commons had some kind of fiscal responsibility concerning the government of our country, and would be entitled to know whether we are talking about millions, or hundreds of thousands, of pounds. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) gave some figures earlier, but the Minister is the man who is being paid to do that.

The briefing continues:

Whether we like it or not, when the Bill becomes law there will be confusion about who cares for the dog.

Miss McIntosh: I entirely support my hon. Friend. Is he even more shocked and alarmed that the National Dog Warden Association says in its conclusions:

Derek Conway: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I find it incredible that the Minister has not met the NDWA. He talks about local authorities, but it is not the chief executive or the clerk of some town council who rounds up dogs, but the people with the vans.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is making a meal of half a biscuit. I remind him that dog wardens are employed by local authorities, which have been fully consulted and engaged all along with the transfer of responsibilities. At no time—I underline this—has the NDWA sought a meeting, at ministerial or official level, with DEFRA. All the proposals have been in the public domain for a very long time. The hon. Gentleman is making a tremendous effort to find something to criticise, but if this is the worst he can do, we have done pretty well.

Derek Conway: The trouble is that when the Minister moves on to greater things, or whatever he does, it will be NDWA members who are rounding up the dogs. They, not he or any of the rest of us who take part in
21 Feb 2005 : Column 120
these debates, are the men and women out there in the cold trying to sort out society's problems when abandoned animals run off.

It is all very well for the Minister to be caustic about the NDWA and to write it off in the rather high-handed way that anyone who has had dealings with this Government has come to expect, but it will not wash. The other place will not unreasonably conclude not only that the time that this House has had for scrutiny was wholly inadequate—not because of you, Mr. Speaker, but because of the Government motions that have been forced upon us—but that it is incredible that the very bodies that will be involved in clearing up the mess left behind were not even remotely consulted, until the Minister was pressed on Second Reading to find out what they had to say.

I appreciate that other hon. Members have sat throughout our long debate and now wish to take part, so I shall conclude shortly. Although the Minister has made it clear that the responsibility is moving from the police to the local authorities, the chief executives of which he tells me he has consulted, he said, as is recorded in column 253 of the Official Report of the Committee's proceedings on 27 January, that the police could get hold of dogs and would retain some responsibilities. Some confusion therefore exists. The explanatory notes do not say that at all. Page 30 conveys a confused message about responsibilities when the Bill is enacted.

None of us claims that what the Minister is trying to do is bad. He is not a bad man and we do not say that the Bill is a bad measure. That is probably why the House will not divide on it. However, although the intentions are good, we are worried, especially from an animal welfare perspective, about whether the practicalities of some of the measure will be effected. I believe that local authorities will be confronted with a much higher bill than they or the Minister anticipate, and that the dog wardens who do the job and the animal welfare charities that try to rehome the dogs or care for those that local authorities do not put to sleep, made a reasonable point. However, they had to make it to the Minister in a grudging form because he and his officials did not see them before the Bill was introduced.

The Minister is trying to do something without thinking about it seriously, and I predict that, sadly, hon. Members will have to revert to the matter—doubtless when he has moved on to greater things.

9.46 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): It is a pleasure to make what I believe will be the last contribution on the Bill in this place. It is an excellent measure and my right hon. Friend the Minister deserves congratulations on piloting it through our proceedings. It shows that the Government are on the side of residents in my constituency—and others like it throughout the country—who play by the rules and want to live in a decent community. It is squarely in touch with their concerns. That contrasts sharply with the 40-minute whinge that we heard from Conservative Front Benchers, from which it was not even clear whether the Conservative party would support the Bill.

The measure will be directly relevant to all my constituents. It will deliver more for them and their lives than another high profile Bill with which the Minister
21 Feb 2005 : Column 121
has been involved. It addresses a subject that other hon. Members have mentioned: a growing anxiety about what people perceive as a decline in standards of respect and the culture of consideration for others. We all feel that there has been a trend in the past 15 or 20 years towards greater disrespect for others, antisocial behaviour and standards of behaviour that fall below what would have been acceptable 15, 20, 25 and 30 years ago.

In my constituency, people casually break bus shelters, drop litter and scrawl graffiti. I trace that to parenting and the importance of accepting parental responsibility—I hope that the Government will revert to those issues in their manifesto.

Colin Burgon: Thatcherism.

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend is right to mention Thatcherism, which meant that communities such as mine were cut adrift. The infrastructure was abandoned and neglected and people were left to fend for themselves. Today, we are picking up the pieces of the mantra of, "There is no such thing as society." It will take a generation to eradicate that culture, which the Conservative party bequeathed to the country.

The roots of the behaviour are complex but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) said in his excellent contribution, we must prevent it from becoming self-perpetuating. Communities witness the decline—the broken windows and the litter on the streets—and people decide that there is no point in getting involved and acting because things will not get better.

The Bill tries to tackle that defeatist culture, which can take hold of a community, whereby more and more properties go downhill and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) said, the decent residents who look after their front gardens are in the minority and private landlords allow their properties to go to rack and ruin and do not care as long as the cheque comes in at the end of every month.

Only last Friday, I met a group of residents from Glebe street in the heart of my constituency. More than anything else, they want the encouragement to fight back. They want to know that if they are going to make the effort to improve their community, they will have the power to do so and that they will get the encouragement to take positive, practical steps to clean up their community. They do not want to feel that the authorities are not on their side or that they are wasting their time. The Bill gives direct backing to those groups of residents who want to transform their communities, which is one of its key strengths.

I want to talk briefly about the provisions in clause 2 that deal with gating orders. The borough of Wigan has made a great effort to look into alley-gating schemes. It probably has among the highest number of back-to-back terraced properties in the country, both in the main towns of Wigan and Leigh and in the outlying towns of Golborne, Atherton and Hindley. One of the peculiarities of our borough is that, on the Wigan side, the backs—the alleys behind the terraced houses—are unadopted, so the council has been able to proceed with alley-gating schemes without any legal hindrance. The backs can be closed off without recourse to the courts.
21 Feb 2005 : Column 122
In my constituency, however, most of the backs are adopted highways, and the council has therefore had great difficulty in introducing orders to enable them to be gated for the benefit of the residents.

I can tell the Minister that those backs are the focal point for crime and antisocial behaviour. Only a few months ago, a young toddler in my constituency stepped on a discarded syringe in the backs behind his house. It is common for syringes to be discarded there, and he had the misfortune to step on one. His mother was beside herself with worry about him, as the Minister can imagine. This flags up the general problem that these places are used by people for drinking and drug taking, and they create an appallingly unsafe environment that causes great concern to the residents.

We have been trying to introduce alley-gating schemes in my constituency, but, as I have said, the alleyways there are adopted. At the moment, the council is bringing a test case under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, citing severe antisocial behaviour and public safety as reasons to have the public highway permanently gated. The case has been pioneered by my constituent, Deborah Murphy, who is the chair of the Wigan road residents association and neighbourhood watch. She has doggedly pursued efforts to gate the backs behind her house. Gates were erected, but they had to be taken down again because of legal difficulties relating to gating an adopted highway.

I hope that the Minister will dwell on this point as the Bill continues its passage through another place. The provisions in clause 2 relating to gating orders state that the Government may require

in regard to the gating of a particular area or community. My concern is that too much bureaucracy and red tape will be put in the way of residents such as Deborah Murphy, who are trying to do something to improve their community.

Next Section IndexHome Page