Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I remind Committee members that mobile phones should be switched off.

Alun Michael: It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman waxing eloquent and showing what I would describe as over-enthusiasm, given that he has applied that term to local authorities. I would say in passing that it is a pity that the Conservatives have to maintain their opposition to the very existence of the Welsh Assembly—with the exception of the Conservative Assembly Members who are quite comfortable in their minuscule time capsule there, engaging in the negative politics one has come to expect from them. I hope that the general inclination of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in the direction of devolution might extend not only to Wales, but to local authorities and the parish and town councils to whom the clause is relevant.

I shall set out the general situation, which is very straightforward. If an authority sets a fixed penalty notice at a level that is unreasonably high, it is quite clear what people can do. They will refuse to pay, go to court and get a lower fine. That will be a matter for the courts, but they do not have a tendency to be over-exuberant in the level of fines that they apply, so the outcome will be fairly predictable if the level of the fixed penalty notice is too high.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that there might be an increase in activity in order to secure the money to
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finance that increased activity. It would be an odd authority that gambled on the likelihood that people would not notice the increased policing of the offensive activity, and would continue paying fines at a level that would pay for enforcement.

Mr. Evans: It happens with speeding.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman makes a comment from a sedentary position. I am sure that he is deliberately trying to provoke you, Mr. Taylor. I have already pointed out that an entirely different set of circumstances exists in relation to speeding. Speeding provisions are universal, but in this case a local authority specifies places where the problem arises and the enforcement is applied to those locations that are defined. As I said earlier, the public can frustrate any fund-raising efforts by a local authority by simply refusing to offend. That is a neat conclusion because the problem then disappears. The provisions exist to change behaviour and stop that offending.

As for the need to make regulations in that regard, I draw the attention of Committee members to clause 60(5), which states that

    ''Regulations under subsection (4) may (in particular)—

    (a) require an amount specified under subsection (1)(a) to fall within a range prescribed in the regulations;

    (b) restrict the extent to which, and the circumstances in which, a primary or secondary authority can make provision under subsection (3).

It makes plans for a change in the default figure in the subsequent part of the clause. Should there be an outbreak of collective elected insanity in our town and parish councils that leads to onerous burdens being placed on people who offend under the provisions, notwithstanding the safeguards that I described, the provisions exist to deal with that in the Bill. I hope that those provisions are never used because they are there as a fail-safe. It is an intelligent fail-safe, and it is clear that hon. Members think that it is intelligent to put it there because they asked us to include it, not appreciating that we already had.

I conclude by saying that I strongly resist the amendment. I am aware that the Kennel Club was attracted by the argument that equity would be best served by a national level of fixed penalty, but I have explained to it that a key feature of the Bill is a range of policies that give local councils the flexibility that they need to respond to local conditions. Dog control orders can be made to cover areas of different sizes, from the very specific and tightly controlled urban areas to wide areas in the countryside, if that appears appropriate to the relevant local authority. The orders can be made for different offences, and they will address many different circumstances.

The case for giving local authorities the ability to vary fixed penalty levels to suit local conditions is particularly strong. I would strongly resist any temptation to renationalise the level of fines in that way. There is a default mechanism in the clause. If local authorities, and parish and town councils, feel that that is the appropriate level and that they do not need to vary it upwards or downwards, they do not
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have to do so. The opportunity is there for them to do so if their local circumstances require a different level of fine in order to give the best service to the public in their area.

Mr. Evans: I hear what the Minister says and I am attracted by the argument that he makes. It is common sense that if those involved go over the top, there will be real problems for them. It could lead to their being taken to court, which would involve huge costs for them. Will he give me some reassurance that authorities will have to publicise the fines and the byelaws?

Alun Michael: It is important that the authorities make that certain because the whole purpose is to change behaviour, which involves making people aware of the penalty. I hope that the publicity will not simply be about the penalty available, but will be part of a local campaign to make people realise how failing to control their animals causes a nuisance to others. I referred earlier to the work that ENCAMS has done successfully. I hope that that will be associated with any circumstances of this sort.

Matthew Green: Does the Minister agree that any sensible local authority would include on any notice—say about a field—the level of the penalty for the simple reason that it wants the notice to have a deterrent effect? If the notice did not have a figure on it and just said, ''Please don't let your dog poop on this field,'' there is a fair chance that people might ignore it, whereas if it said, ''Don't let your dog poop on this field or you will pay £75,'' there is far more chance of its being enforced.

Alun Michael: That is absolutely correct. I hope that, in the light of that, we will have united support for the withdrawal of the amendment and for the clause.

Mr. Ruffley: Having heard what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendment proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 61

Power to require name and address

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Evans: We have had similar provisions in the past that relate to people not giving their names and addresses. It is relatively easy for an officer to know
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when people are not giving their names and addresses, so that will be taken further. If they give a false name and address, that is somewhat more difficult to detect, particularly if the officer has not the faintest idea who that person happens to be. I hope that the Minister can say what will happen when an officer goes up to somebody and says, ''Your dog has flouted the byelaws and you have done nothing to prevent it from doing so. Give me your name and address. If you do not do so, you are liable to a fine on summary conviction not exceeding level 3.'' The officer would have to tell them what the figure is because they would not have the faintest idea what level 3 is—I have not got the faintest idea what it is.

Matthew Green: It is £1,000.

Mr. Evans: It is £1,000 is it? That is quite a lot of money. The hon. Gentleman said earlier that one of the reasons why a fine is included is that it acts as a deterrent. That is quite right. If people know that if they do not give their name and address, or give a false name and address and are caught, they are liable to a fine of £1,000, it will act as a deterrent because that is a lot of money for the vast majority of people in this country. I hope that the Minister can give me an assurance that there are guidelines for officers when asking for names and addresses, and that they let the people from whom they are seeking the information know that there is a hefty fine and that they must give the information requested or pay £1,000.

Matthew Green: Will the Minister reassure me that, if an officer of the council saw the offence being committed, he could take the car's registration number and would have the right to find the person's name and address? The reason I ask is that there is a problem in Ludlow relating to a playing field in Wheeler road. Typically the people whose dogs are let loose on it do not get out of their cars—they pull up in their cars, open the back door and the dog runs out. They then call the dog back 10 minutes later, once it has done its business. There are people driving their dogs to a playing field to allow them to foul. That seems ridiculous.

The issuing of a fixed penalty notice to someone in their car might be difficult, but the officer might see the person leaving. I am trying to understand whether, if the officer took the number of the car, there might be sufficient grounds to make an inquiry to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority to ascertain that person's name and address so that the council could issue a fixed penalty notice.

Alun Michael: Yes, that would apply. We encourage good relationships and liaison between local authorities and the police and organisations such as the DVLA, which fully appreciates the value of such co-operation. I do not have a great deal of sympathy for people who are so obstructive that they will not give their name and address when they are being told clearly that they have committed an offence.
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Reaching that level of fine requires bringing a prosecution to court, and the level of reasonableness would depend on the exact response that had been given. If it were clear that somebody had not understood the situation, a court would be inclined to give a minimal penalty or a discharge, whereas if an individual had been repeatedly warned and had told the local authority official to ''F off'' in explicit terms, I suspect that the court would take a different view. That would be dealt with by a court, so proportionality is allowed.

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Prepared 25 January 2005