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The Bill has two parts. It is aimed at bringing the perpetrators of the criminal act of graffiti to justice, in terms of restorative justice, by getting them first to clear up the graffiti and secondly to meet their victims. That could have a massive impact on our towns, communities, villages and roads.

Mayor Giuliani in New York identified broken windows as an early indicator of the decline of society at street level. There is a similar decline in society at street level caused by graffiti. The Bill seeks to address that problem. It has cross-party support, and I especially thank the hon. Members for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who have been involved in drafting some of the detail. The Bill also has support from several national groups, including ENCAMS, which is known for the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. It also has the support of the British Transport police and the Restorative Justice Consortium.

Graffiti has a precise definition, and it is criminal damage under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Unfortunately, it is classified as “other criminal damage”, so it is difficult to estimate the exact size of the problem. However, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent. of that category is graffiti. Other estimates suggest that only 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. of graffiti is reported.

The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 defines graffiti well as

Hon. Members will know that the principal problem is not so-called graffiti art, but tagging, and it is on that issue that I shall concentrate—although graffiti art, whether one calls it art or not, if done on a private wall without the permission of the owner, is still criminal damage, under the 1971 Act.

There is a massive social and financial cost to graffiti, and I shall deal first with the social cost. It is not only an eyesore but a permanent reminder of the decline in society. Paradoxically, those who are most affected are those who are least likely to be the victims of crime—the elderly and the vulnerable. It is as if there are two parallel universes—one of the perpetrators of such crimes, who are mostly young males, and the other of the older members of our community, who are so intimidated by those crimes.

In 2001 the English house condition survey, produced by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, estimated that 500,000 households or dwellings had graffiti daubed on their walls. Poorer neighbourhoods were the worst affected, with a fifth of residents citing problems with graffiti—twice as many as elsewhere.

The financial costs of graffiti are difficult to pin down exactly, because so many people are affected—companies, local authorities, the British Transport
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police, train operating companies, Transport for London, utility companies, voluntary organisations and, particularly important, people’s homes. In Southend the local authority spends more than £120,000 a year clearing up graffiti, but that grossly underestimates the costs for local authorities as statutory organisations. The police estimate that at least 10 officers in Southend deal with that criminal activity, at a cost of about £500,000. Furthermore, in terms of broader antisocial behaviour and damage, there are costs of £500,000 for closed circuit television.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley estimates that the costs for Birmingham are more than £1 million. The most stunning figure, which probably under represented the problem and now needs updating in any case, was given in 2000 by a previous Home Secretary, who stated that the cost was in excess of £1 billion. It is probably much more now.

How would the Bill work? At present, youth and adult courts can use restorative justice as part of the sentencing process. I want that to be made mandatory. In addition, we need to catch people earlier. From the youth perspective that would be at the reprimand or warning stage, and for adults it would be at the point of caution, when the offender has already admitted criminal damage. The Bill proposes to make all such cautions conditional on participation in restorative justice. The principal change would be to move from ad hoc action to a strong statutory position to catch everyone.

Restorative justice works. At present it is available to only 1 per cent. of the population, but more than 40 per cent. of victims want to meet the offender. Between 75 and 95 per cent. of victims—depending on which study we read—said that they were satisfied with the restorative justice process.

The perpetrators of those criminal acts need to understand that there are two elements in the damage they do—the physical and the emotional. On the physical element, they need to be involved in clearing up the graffiti. It may not always be possible or appropriate to clear up the site that they have damaged but they should have to clean up somewhere. The Restorative Justice Consortium has excellent examples showing how such schemes work powerfully, and ENCAMS works with the National Offender Management Service and Crime Concern on projects such as Thames21. In some areas, parents are involved in the process. They see their son—it is usually a son rather than a daughter—doing the work, which broadens the family’s responsibility.

The most powerful part of the Bill is the second aspect—the emotional element—which involves the
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offender meeting the victim. Not all victims want to meet the perpetrator close up, even in a facilitated, multi-agency situation, but it is possible for victims of similar crimes to meet that perpetrator. In Southend, Karon Grant, who is charged with the team clearing up graffiti, spends a lot of her time in restorative justice panels explaining the impact of the crime to children, mums and dads and other adults.

I am sure that Members cannot understand why people commit the criminal act of graffiti, but a large number of offenders genuinely do not think that they are doing anything wrong. They do not understand that their actions are against the law, so bringing them face to face with their victims can help them to do so.

The Bill could have some costs. Reparative services and restorative justice panels cost about £500 a person, but the most up-to-date statistics produced by the Ministry of Justice show how powerful such schemes are. The Bill would initially introduce a pilot to prove that the money that we spend on this is saved in other areas, but logically this should make an awful lot of sense, and locally it does seem to be working in Southend.

In addition, Transport for London has a rather innovative scheme, in which it attempts civil recovery from the offender. That has two real advantages: money comes back into the system that can be spent on graffiti prevention, or if the perpetrator of the crime is unable or unwilling to pay the fine, they end up with a county court judgment against them, which provides a further deterrent to other individuals to commit this crime.

In conclusion, this is a billion-pound problem looking for a practical and effective solution. The Bill is part of that solution. It will change the attitudes and behaviour of offenders for the benefit of the offenders and the benefit of society. In the unlikely event that this ten-minute Bill does not go further, I will seek, on a cross-party basis, to amend the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to the same end.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by James Duddridge, Mr. Neil Turner, John Hemming, Daniel Kawczynski, Ian Lucas, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Greg Hands, Mr. Roger Williams, Sammy Wilson, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Richard Burden and Lynne Jones.

Criminal Damage (Graffiti)

James Duddridge accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for offences relating to graffiti; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 150].

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Opposition Day

[18th Allotted Day]

Penal System

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

5.28 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,

I am not surprised that the Government appear to have done their level best to minimise debate on this issue today. The first duty of any Government is to protect the public. Let us be clear about what that means. It means that if a Minister issues an instruction to release offenders early from prison, and those offenders go on to commit crimes, the public quite obviously have not been protected and Ministers have failed in their duty.

The early release of prisoners is “simply wrong”—not my words but those of the former Lord Chancellor, just weeks before he announced the scheme. So much for rebuilding trust in politics. Already, 2,000 prisoners have been released early on to the streets, equivalent to two prisons. They have been released without risk assessment and without accommodation checks, even though it is a requirement of the scheme that they have an address to go to. Nearly 1,400 of them have previously been refused release on home custody detention; apparently those offenders were unsuitable for release early with an electronic tag, but it is perfectly acceptable to release them on to the streets with no tag.

A fifth of the offenders released in the first week had committed crimes sufficiently serious that they were jailed for over a year. Three hundred and forty-four of them were violent offenders. The Prime Minister says that they had not committed serious violence, so apparently that makes their release acceptable. People who are jailed for violent assault or causing actual bodily harm are apparently entirely suitable to release from our prisons early. Well, it might be all right by the
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Government that more than 300 violent offenders have been tipped out of jail, but it is not all right by the public and it is not all right by us.

One hundred and forty-nine of those released had been in prison for burglary; 22 for robbery; more than 400 for theft; and 65 for drug offences. The Government do not even know what 32 of those released were imprisoned for in the first place. The former Prime Minister repeatedly said that the scheme would be temporary; the new Lord Chancellor says that it might be permanent. That is a measure of Ministers’ grip on the prison system.

Now we know that at least six of the released prisoners committed crimes, including two offenders who carried out a robbery while on their way to see a probation officer. Their original crime, assaulting a police officer, was not considered serious enough, according to the Prime Minister, to merit an apology. Eighteen early release prisoners still remain unlawfully at large.

Our position is unequivocal: those offenders should never have been released early in the first place, still less with more than £200 in their back pockets. That was their reward for getting out of prison early, and it is why the National Association of Probation Officers says that offenders are queuing up to get on to the scheme.

When he announced the scheme on 19 June, the Minister said that

Even by this Government’s standards, that is remarkable spin. How can an offender’s sentence be continuing if he is let out of jail, free to commit other offences? As the Prison Officers Association said,

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not understand what release on licence means. It is a long-established concept, whereby for the duration of the sentence imposed by the court, the prisoner is subject to recall to prison if he commits a further offence. The concept is clear, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand it.

Nick Herbert: How does the hon. Gentleman think that the 18 offenders who have not been tracked down will be recalled? As far as the public are concerned, those offenders are not continuing their sentence; they are free, out on the streets and able to commit further offences, which they could not otherwise have committed if they had been behind bars.

We all know why the Government are releasing prisoners earlier: the prisons are full. The reason they are full is that the Government, not least the Lord Chancellor, repeatedly ignored warnings that more capacity would be needed. As long ago as 1992, in his report on the Strangeways riot, Lord Woolf warned that the prison population would double from 44,000 to well above current levels by next year, 2008. In 2000, when the current Lord Chancellor was Home Secretary, his officials predicted that the prison
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population would be at current levels by this year. Two years later, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population today was 5,000 above the current capacity. The Government were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections. Their great claim is to have provided another 20,000 prison places. Well, let us examine that claim.

Only three new prisons in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration. In the year when the Government came to power, the number of new prison places was 4,716. By 2005, the number of new places had fallen to 940. During the current Lord Chancellor’s watch, prison capacity building fell by 86 per cent. over three years. The Government also tell us that they are providing an additional 9,500 prison places by 2012, but on their own projections, that will not be enough. Total capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their medium projection for the prison population by that time, assuming that prisons will be full to the gunnels, with prisoners continuing to be doubled up. As Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers said,

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The hon. Gentleman prayed in aid Lord Woolf, but he should not forget that Lord Woolf also said that

instead of

Nick Herbert: If we were able to rehabilitate offenders, we could reduce the prison population. We cannot rehabilitate them while prisons are so full, and I shall return to that point later.

The early release scheme can only be, in the words of the Prison Officers Association, a short-term fix. The Government have admitted that 25,000 offenders will be released early in the next year, but they will reduce the prison population by only 1,200.

At the current rate of incarceration, it is likely that prisons will fill up again and we will face a new crisis by the autumn. If the Government demur from that prediction, we would like to hear from them. As the Prison Officers Association has said, building new prisons

Last summer, in a BBC interview with Andrew Marr, the current Lord Chancellor said:

Clearly, that was nonsense, but he went on to say:

That was better. But then earlier this month there was an interesting front-page report in The Times, which stated:

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