Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Like the Minister, I despise dog fouling; it is unnecessary, unhealthy and dangerous. The audit is one way of indicating whether the policy is a success. The other way is the number of prosecutions and the amount of enforcement. Does he believe that the availability of enforcement officials—I assume the police in most cases, but a number of other individuals may be empowered—will be sufficient to ensure that the policies that we are pushing forward will be enforced properly? The number of prosecutions will give us an indication of whether the policy is working.

Alun Michael: The number of prosecutions on its own does not indicate success. For instance, we have seen success in the reduction of dog fouling, but I doubt whether there has been a massive increase in the number of prosecutions. There have been some prosecutions, but the message is being put across in a variety of different ways, including through local campaigns. ENCAMS has run a very in-your-face—if no one minds me using that expression in relation to dog fouling—campaign to make it clear to people just how unpleasant the outcome of somebody not controlling their animal, or not clearing up after it, can be for the general public.

I had moved on a little from dog fouling—the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) seems to be stuck in it. In response to his comments, I would point to the large increase in the number of police officers that we have seen since this Government came to power, and to the work of community support officers in particular. That links directly to the point that I was about to make. The responsible authorities that make up the partnership that I have described have the responsibility to carry out an audit and not just to use the crime figures or the prosecution figures but to look at other indicators such as the experience of local accident and emergency departments.

Research that was undertaken in Cardiff, in my own area, by Professor John Shepherd and others, demonstrated that preventive measures could reduce the cost to the NHS of having to put people's faces back together again, as well as reducing the number of violent incidents that the police had to deal with. Targeted activity by the police, where numbers of incidents are happening, combined with preventive activity by landlords, and interviewing victims of offences and giving them support at accident and emergency units, would contribute to improving the situation. An improvement in the situation means that fewer people are victims of crime.

Of course the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is right to say that arrests and prosecutions are an important part of tackling those issues, but they are not the only factor that can bring about the long-term improvement that we want to see in the safety of the public.

Mr. Evans: In some instances, I am certain that the Minister is right. However, there are some individuals who simply will not be told. They think that they are
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above the law. Their attitude is, ''The law pertains to everybody else's dog, but not to mine.'' There may be problems with those sorts of individuals.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I agree with him. I have confessed to Labour Members in the past that I resisted the temptation to criticise the leader of the Conservative party when he was Home Secretary and the media tried to attack him for the prosecution of somebody who had dropped a crisp packet. The media said that the response was disproportionate and that the police should be out catching violent offenders. On looking into the matter, it was clear that the offender had done rather more than drop a crisp packet. There was a degree of generalisation in the media—which is most unusual. He had not responded to the summons and had not given an indication of his earnings, so of course the court gave him a pretty hefty fine, which could have been amended once the indication of earnings was received. That case received a lot of attention. The message that should come out of it is that it is important for such petty offences to be tackled.

At the time the media took a different tack, saying, ''Isn't this petty?'' Nowadays many of the media, reflecting public opinion and certainly reflecting our constituents' views, see that it is all part of the continuum to which I referred at the start of my remarks and that, therefore, tackling such offences is important. I look forward optimistically to the hon. Gentleman supporting the Bill and withdrawing—and even apologising for—his party's opposition to it on Second Reading.

9.45 am

These other forms of information, in addition to actual figures of crime and prosecution and so on, are important. The local authority, street wardens, neighbourhood wardens and community support officers can act as the eyes and ears at the sharp end of tackling local environmental crime, and can feed into the processes of the police, the local authority and the other partners. Therefore, in bringing that information together, it is sensible for the partnerships to consult on their facts and findings with their local communities and to develop strategies to tackle the problems identified.

Front-line responsibility lies with the local authority and the police, but others—fire and rescue authorities and primary care trusts in particular—have a major responsibility. These partners in turn work with local agencies and organisations and need to include the public as well as the private and the voluntary and community sector in their work. We have seen examples of where that succeeds. I referred on Second Reading to the extent to which in Manchester, during its 100 days' clean-up, there had been an enormous burgeoning of support from the local community. As a result of seeing the local authority, with the support of the police and other partners, tackling the issues, the community started to put its energy into the clean-up too. The local crime and disorder reduction
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partnerships must address the facts and the reality of crime and disorder in their area, and be conscious of the problems and priorities of local people.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I can hardly imagine the clause being seen as controversial, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, to give the strategies more strength and meaning, his Department should ensure that local crime and disorder reduction partnerships learn about best practice elsewhere in the country? Is he considering issuing guidance and indicating how that can be carried out?

Alun Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We are trying to spread best practice across the country, partly through the work that ENCAMS is undertaking in helping organisations to develop local campaigns and make the connections, and also through the work of the TOGETHER Academy—a Home Office initiative that has consciously engaged us. For instance, I have spoken at more than one event organised by the Home Office to promote best practice across the country, so I am pleased to say that the connection is being made strongly, not just in DEFRA but in the Home Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister too. At ministerial level, there is a clear commitment to supporting the best practice approach by looking across the spectrum of issues that are so closely interrelated. As the Bill goes on to the statute book, we will seek to promote best practice even more vigorously in the light of the provisions in the clause.

The impact of the clause is that the partnership must consider local environmental quality when carrying out its audit. It must then include local environmental quality in its public consultation and in developing its crime and disorder reduction strategy. We are not being prescriptive—I underline that—as it is vital that the strategy reflects local circumstances and priorities based on the evidence of the audit and the experience of local people. The basic message is that if there is no problem, it does not need to be tackled, but if the problem is part of the continuum, it does.

It follows that where environmental crime is not a problem and is not contributing to wider crime, disorder and the fear of crime, we would not expect it to feature in a strategy. On the other hand, where the local environment is degraded, or parts of the area are damaged and degraded by some aspects of the issues covered in the Bill, allowing or encouraging antisocial behaviour to take root, we would expect the local partnership to tackle the problem robustly.

Many partnerships take account of local environmental issues when reaching their conclusions and developing their strategies. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) said that the provision might not be controversial, but that does not make it any less important. Often, the important work that this House does is done quietly, because it is the application of basic common sense. I believe that that is the case with this provision. Many partnerships treat litter, graffiti, fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned cars and so on as important when seeking to tackle antisocial behaviour. This amendment to current
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legislation supports those partnerships that take that broad view of the continuum of crime and disorder, and it is intended to ensure that all local crime and disorder reduction partnerships adopt best practice and therefore reflect the priorities of local people throughout the country. In amending the requirements of and expectations placed on those partnerships, the clause will facilitate consideration of local concerns about environmental crime and ensure that a joined-up approach is taken, so that every community in the country becomes cleaner, safer and greener for the benefit of the entire community. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Miss McIntosh: In welcoming you as warmly as I did, Mr. Taylor, I also wanted to congratulate everyone on their appointment to the Committee, which I am sure will add to the excellent scrutiny of the Bill. I am delighted to follow the Minister.

To put the Environmental Audit Committee report on environmental crime, fly-tipping, fly-posting, litter, graffiti and noise in context, it took evidence from ENCAMS and recorded on page 9:

    ''On 30 September 2003 the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit at the Home Office held a one-day count of the cost of anti-social behaviour. They estimated that the total cost per year was £3.375 billion, with an anti-social act being reported on average every two seconds.''

I would like to press the Minister on the question of costs. He has spoken at some length about the partnership approach, and as this is the least contentious of all clauses, we shall not seek to divide the Committee on it. However, we heard from the Secretary of State on Second Reading that the powers vested in the local authorities are to all intents and purposes discretionary. There will be no fine or penalty imposed on local authorities that do not wish to use them. As the Local Government Association has pointed out, most local authorities are already doing precisely what is set out in the clause, so why do we need this Bill? It could be useful for highlighting good practice, but whether parliamentary time should be taken up in that regard is questionable.

The Minister dwelt on the partnership approach, and I refer him to the United States experience, where there is seamless unity between the police and the unitary authorities, in so far as they have tried to highlight and tackle environmental crimes. In this Bill, the Government are seeking perversely to do the opposite. If I have understood clause 1 and part 1, in many instances, and with abandoned vehicles, stray dogs and gating orders later in the Bill, their purpose is to transfer the powers that reside in the police to local authorities. They should be co-responsible, however, and the residual authority should remain with the police. I would prefer them to be uniformed police. The Minister must accept that, although a large number of community support officers have been appointed, they do not have the same qualifications, training and powers of arrest as fully qualified and licensed police officers. So, there will be a great deal of confusion in the public's mind, and local councils will have many difficulties in implementing clause 1.

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I understood on Second Reading and from the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on the reports of the Environmental Audit Committee— the report on the power of courts to impose the new penalties and the fly-tipping report to which I referred—that the Government are insisting that there will be no transfer of resources from the police, even though the powers are transferring.

The Government—albeit through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—are saying firmly that in the next financial year, 2005-06, there will be a strict limit or 5 per cent. cap on any potential increases in costs as a result of the Bill. As we go through the Bill, we will seek to expose its various costings, which are set out in the full regulatory impact assessment. Given the rising costs and the national insurance hit that local authorities faced more than a year ago, it is incumbent on the Government to realise that, as they have said that there will be a severe capping of the costs and that they will not transfer resources, no local authority will be in a position to implement the provisions of clause 1, let alone those of other clauses.

The Environmental Audit Committee referred to the growing partnership approach, but I argue that many of the types of antisocial behaviour that clause 1 is intended to address already carry fixed fines and penalties. Westminster city council, which is a flagship council, has issued 21,000 fines for litter offences alone in the past five years. Let us contrast that with a less than flagship council, Bath and North-East Somerset council, which has issued only one such fine.

Rather than taking up parliamentary time with a new Bill, would it not be better for the Minister and the Government to insist on pursuing councils such as Bath and North-East Somerset, which have used the existing powers only once between 1998 and 2003? Having considered other clauses in part 1, it is obvious that the Government have not allowed their existing legislation, such as the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, to have full effect before seeking to add new powers—the Secretary of State was specific that there are no corresponding duties—to local authorities.

I am sure that part of the reason why the Government felt moved to introduce the Bill and, in particular, clause 1, is that they have failed to implement fully successive EU directives to which they have signed up. The end-of-life vehicles directive, which establishes the principle that the last user of an old car is responsible for the vehicle to be scrapped and for the costs thereof—

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