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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as was indicated earlier, the Tote was set up in the 1920s. It has changed its function, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, indicated. It is not simply running pool betting at the moment, it runs a considerable number of licensed betting offices. We thought it right to set up the steering group. We examined its conclusions and we believe that all interests--I stress that--can be legitimately considered and properly reflected through consultation, with a view to the introduction of primary legislation.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, district councils and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive have a statutory authority to remove litter and graffiti from all public sector housing in Northern Ireland. Both carry out regular clean-ups of the areas for which they have responsibility.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his speedy return from Belfast. Will he, as Minister responsible for these matters, start some pilot schemes of environmental improvement on those estates that have been the most subject to violence in the past? Will he ensure that local residents are consulted in advance, that local people are employed on cleaning up and that the local residents are encouraged and enabled to take responsibility for their environment in future?
Lord Dubs: My Lords, certainly the housing executive has contracts in place for the removal of litter and graffiti which must be honoured. However, I have asked the executive to explore how the New Deal might be used in such instances. I understand that the housing executive is in discussion with the training employment agency, which is responsible for taking the new deal forward. I add that the housing executive tends to work through a community action group which in turn has links with tenants' associations on estates throughout Northern Ireland that are run by the housing executive.
Lord Eames: My Lords, does the Minister agree that quite apart from questions of cleanliness and morale in such areas in Northern Ireland there is unfortunately a rather sinister element to some of the graffiti which are used for purposes of intimidation and threat against
Lord Dubs: My Lords, one would certainly wish them to be removed. But there are difficulties in that it is hard to remove them if those graffiti, regrettably, have the support of local people. If housing executive officials try to remove the graffiti, they themselves are liable to threat and intimidation. The personal security of housing executive staff and contractors is an important consideration. But I accept the desirability of removing such graffiti wherever possible.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, does the Minister agree that graffiti on all housing estates is a deeply demoralising feature? Is he aware of the projects the Walthamstow action housing trust has produced? Walls decorated by local people have for several years been without graffiti because local people have been involved.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is it not true that, if there is an incentive to clean up graffiti, someone with a spray can could write, "Do nasty things to the Bishop of Rome" or "King William", on whichever side of the divide he happens to be? There develops a vicious circle of money being paid to clean up the graffiti, followed by the fun of spraying more on, followed by more cleaning up. All that happens is that the taxpayer is conned.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am afraid that that is a rather depressing view of human nature. It is not one to which I subscribe, although there are instances where there may be some truth in it. To get rid of the graffiti it is desirable and often essential to have the support of local people. Where that support is forthcoming, it is fairly straightforward to remove the graffiti. Where local people do not give that support, the job is much harder.
Lord Dunleath: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the problem of graffiti is one not solely for public sector housing? Some two years ago, just before the Drumcree incident, we had loyalist graffiti sprayed on the walls where we lived. We contacted the local authority who removed them within two days. Over the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend, some fly tipping occurred near us. We rang the Ards borough council on 1st June; it was removed on 2nd June. In non-public sector housing it is perhaps easy for the authorities to do that. I agree with the Minister that in public sector housing it is sometimes dangerous for staff to remove graffiti. Does he agree that the housing executive and local authority staff are to be congratulated on the good work they do, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances?
Lord Elton: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, offers a break-out from the vicious circle described by my noble friend Lord Onslow? In a recent case where the local community had provided the art work for a mural on a previously hideously defaced wall, the only graffito that arrived was the signature of Picasso.
Lord Dubs: Yes, my Lords, it is an interesting proposition. I wish to discuss it in Northern Ireland with the housing executive and other people who might have a part to play. From my own experience, when I had the privilege of representing the constituency of Battersea in the other place I know that some of the community murals on the walls--albeit pretty hostile to the Conservative Party--were never defaced and stayed there because local people regarded them as reflecting their views.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the processing of passport applications is currently taking longer than normal, but the Passport Agency is prioritising applications to meet applicants' declared travel dates. The agency is meeting travel dates in 99.99 per cent. of cases and will continue to do so throughout the summer.
The agency is recruiting more than 300 extra staff to help reduce the arrears. Its work is seasonal; intake falls from July onwards. This and the action the agency is taking to reduce current delays will bring turnround times back to 10 days by September.
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