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Lord Hylton: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord appreciate that his reply will be widely welcomed, because it is in line with the change made not so long ago in the oath required of new constables in the police service in Northern Ireland and with the need for state institutions to be neutral between different traditions in Northern Ireland?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the recent decision to change the declaration was taken in a spirit of compromise to resolve a continuing dispute in Northern Ireland without compromising the substantive meaning of the declaration. That has been achieved.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord knows perfectly well that the decision to change the declaration was taken in the context of settling outstanding litigation, as well as having regard to the best interests of Northern Ireland. There was no occasion to elaborate further than I did on the previous Question on this matter.
Lord McConnell: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor acknowledge that many people will be very relieved that the position of Her Majesty the Queen is not to be substantially altered in the appointment of new Queen's Counsel? Indeed, it would be quite absurd to be Queen's Counsel and not pursue any allegiance to the Queen.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, senior counsel in Northern Ireland will continue to be called "Queen's Counsel". The obligation to serve the Crown when required is unaffected by the new declaration and Northern Ireland is better off with one dispute fewer.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I welcome what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said, but will he confirm that in the hearing that was brought against him by two republican barristers, Seamus Treacy and Barry MacDonald, Mr Justice Kerr said on 2nd May that his position was,
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, in 1997, I decided to retain the existing declaration in the belief that, after a Bar Council report--the Elliott report--the judges in the High Court had been consulted and remained united in the view that the declaration should remain in its then form. That is what I had been informed by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.
In a recent judicial review, to which the noble Lord referred, in the High Court in Belfast, the judge held that I had been misinformed. The judges had been consulted earlier but they had not been consulted again, as I had been informed, after the Elliott report was published. On that basis alone--that my decision was based on a mistaken understanding of the facts--the decision was quashed. But all other arguments--that the declaration was unlawful, discriminatory and contrary to the Belfast agreement--were rejected.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the most effective way to tackle graffiti is through co-ordinated preventive action at local level involving police, local authorities, schools and voluntary organisations. Police and local authorities in England and Wales have now established crime reduction partnerships under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Those have carried out crime audits of each area in consultation with all interested parties and have developed strategies for tackling any local crime problems such as graffiti which were identified. The Scottish Executive and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland are taking similar steps to tackle graffiti in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Lord Randall of St Budeaux: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is my noble friend aware that the damage caused by graffiti is a disgrace to our nation? Does he agree that the time has come for much tougher action to be taken against what is very anti-social behaviour? Further, does he agree that the full costs--and I emphasise the word "full"--of cleaning defaced structures should be paid for by the yobs who create that damage?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government take this offence very seriously indeed. For that reason, the Criminal Damage Act 1971 potentially has a very high penalty for acts of criminal damage in the form of graffiti. Where the value of the criminal damage is more than £2,000, the maximum penalty is 10 years' imprisonment for those aged 18 and over and up to two years' detention in young offenders' institutions for those aged 15 to 17.
I repeat the point that I have made on a number of occasions on this subject. We believe that the best action is taken by the police, local authorities and voluntary sector organisations working together to counter graffiti with local graffiti-buster squads and by ensuring that we detect the crime where we can. It is extremely difficult to do that because by its very nature the way in which graffiti manifests itself means that it is difficult to track down the perpetrators.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there are no precise statistics on graffiti. It falls into the general crime category of criminal damage. During any one year, there are 229,000 offences of criminal damage to
Lord Borrie: My Lords, may it not be desirable to make a distinction between graffiti which are destructive, obscene or otherwise highly reprehensible on the one hand and graffiti which are sometimes quite trivial, decorative of otherwise ugly structures and which are sometimes as artistic as some of the exhibits in the Tate Modern?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that there is a lot in that. My attention has been drawn to the website on this. There are two sets of entries under the Excite search results which have been provided to me. One set of entries gives the history of graffiti art in museums, including photographs. The other set of entries gives the antidote to that--graffiti coatings and graffiti-removal products on sale. So clearly, there are two very distinct views on the subject.
Lord Monson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that recently my wife helped to entertain a party of German clergymen, none of whom had ever been in Britain before? One of the first comments they made was how impressed they were by the relative absence of graffiti in London compared with the graffiti which deface most German cities and, indeed, many cities in the Netherlands too. So does he agree that bad though things undoubtedly are here, they are even worse on much of the Continent?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for that powerful insight provided by his good lady wife. I congratulate her on bringing it to our attention. As we are often reminded in these matters, things can only get better here and they are certainly worse elsewhere.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there may be some instances where providing walls for graffiti art are of some value but that is a decision, as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, which is best made locally.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the worst graffiti are racist in nature. Since the passing of the Crime and Disorder Act in which there is a provision dealing with criminally aggravated racist damages, have any prosecutions been brought for racist graffiti? Also,
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as a matter of priority, I would always urge local authorities to remove racist and other offensive graffiti. I shall undertake to investigate whether specific prosecutions have been brought in relation to racist graffiti. I find it the most appalling form of graffiti and I am sure that that is a view widely shared in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord asks a very useful question and I shall take steps to follow it through.
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