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Baroness Hamwee: I am obviously grateful for the Minister's comments. Howeverand this is not confined to this Billalthough we are very close to the end of the Session, we are at only the Committee stage and it is disappointing to hear that it is too late to pursue something that has a good deal of support. The Minister's response was also sympathetic. Really, one wonders what we are all up to. I do not wish to have a go at the Minister because he is in a difficult position, but he tempts me to return to the matter on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: This group of amendments attempts to deal specifically with the issue of graffiti removal notices and how that general subject is dealt with. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, surmised a few moments ago, I have had some briefing from BT, NTL and Telewest on the subject.
It might be useful to fill in the background. As society develops, the demand for sophisticated communications increases. That involves cabling our streets and connecting into houses and commercial properties. It involves substations that can spread the network and identify who is using the signal and so on. The result is an increase in street furniture. There are steel boxes mounted on walls or standing on the pavement, manholes and that sort of thing.
Such objects are as vulnerable as any other structure in the street to people with a taste for graffiti. What should happen? My amendments are not exactly paralleled by the Government's group, which follows this, but both groups deal with the same subject. I am grateful to see the Government's amendments, in which they say what they see as being necessary to improve the Bill. The Government's amendments, with which the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will deal in a few minutes, will go a long way towards dealing with the problems.
I should explain that the three companies that I mentioned have pointed out that they already work closely with local authorities to try to establish what we might call a reasonable modus operandi for dealing with the graffiti that appear from time to time on their substations or whatever. Those structures are not there for fun; they contain sophisticated electronic equipment to the value, in many cases, of tens of thousands of pounds. Somebody who rolls up with a bucket of paint stripper and a bucket of water to clean them down can do a great deal of damage.
The Bill requires that, if graffiti appear, the relevant local authority will serve a graffiti removal notice on the owner of the property, requiring them to remove the graffiti within 28 days. The communications companies feel that they are the victims of the crime and are being made to pay for rectification. Victims of vandalism are rarely compensated, and it is rare for somebody else to clear up the mess. Usually, one has to do it oneself, unfortunately. Mostly, people have some sort of insurance that will cover most of the cost. The principle is not wholly new.
The real problem is how to handle the problem with communications. What guidance will be given to local authorities for dealing with the issue? How will a graffiti removal notice be served? Communications companies do not have teams of inspectors going around looking at their street furniture on a daily basis; it is probably on a several monthly basis, or an even a longer period. They know immediately if the electronics are out, but they will not know if someone has taken a paintbrush to it, and so on. If a local authority's way of serving a graffiti removal notice is to stick a bill on top of it, which states that there are 28 days to remove the graffiti, one is using one form of graffiti to request the removal of another. That really is not satisfactory. So we reach the need for a code of practice, which comes back to the relationships those companies were developing with local authorities.
I was surprised when in my discussions with one of the companies, which shall be nameless, I suggested that perhaps they should submit a schedule of their street furniture within a given local authority's areaand of course for each local authority they would have to submit a listby e-mail, with an e-mail address on the bottom to which the local authority could communicate when there was a problem. I suggested that the local authority could perfectly reasonably have someone with a digital camera who could photograph the piece of street furniture. That would ensure that the identification was correct, and would show what the problem was. The notification would be immediate and absolute and in those circumstances of course it would be perfectly reasonable to expect the graffiti to be removed in 28 days.
As I said, it would not do for the notice to begin with a period when a bill was stuck on top of the offending paintwork. So really we are talking about arriving at a series of procedures which will work. I do not intend to go through these amendments seriatim yet again. I expect the Government to say that these amendments will not achieve what I seek. I want some assurance from the Government that they will work with these companies to provide an achievable and practical modus operandi for dealing with this problem.
It is important because if we do not find a successful modus operandi for areas prone to graffiti, the companies will not put in the communications infrastructure to help those communities to develop and perhaps lift themselves out of the rather despairing stage which gives rise to graffiti in the first place. So the whole issue is very important.
I do not intend, as I said, to deal with the amendments in detail because I have explained the problem. The Government's amendments in the next group go some way towards answering the problem. To a certain extent the fact that we have two groups is unfortunate. On the other hand it is natural because the Government need to get their amendments on the face of the Bill. When they are there, we can see whether any further work is needed to improve them. If the Minister gives strong assurances that the Government are working with the communications industry to find a satisfactory modus operandi which will lead to guidance to local authorities on how the matter is to be dealt with, because the present Bill does not really sufficiently deal with it, we shall all be satisfied. With that, I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: One of the points made by the communications companies is that there has been no satisfactory regulatory impact assessment in connection with Clauses 54 and 55. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will be able to comment on that. Another point made was that there has been no opportunity for input. I support the points made by the noble Lord with regard to the code, which go some way to addressing what seem to be reasonable points raised by these companies.
Perhaps I may make a brief comment concerning Amendments Nos. 193J and 193L, which were referred to a little obliquely by the noble Lord. As I understand them, the amendments have the effect of excluding from these provisions areas designated as what he described as social inclusion priority areas; the argument being that the demand for a competitive range of utilities and electronic communication services is overriding. I do not understand that to be exclusive or in any way opposed to the environmental requirements of any and every area. It is particularly important in areas which are deprived and which do not have the advantages of some other areas where a sense of pride in the environment is fostered.
There has been reference to the need to ensure a good quality of environment as the basis for the continuation of other qualities and to the danger of letting the environment deteriorate. Once the environment starts to slip, a lot can slip with it. I hope that I have read the two amendments correctly; or perhaps I hope that I have not read them correctly. But if I read them as I described them, they are not amendments we would want to support.
Lord Hylton: I wonder whether we are perhaps trying to legislate in too much detail about what is, admittedly, a frustrating and often very annoying problem. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the situation where the victim of anti-social behaviour is required to remedy it himself. I suspect that in some cases the local authority may find that it is serving a notice on itself. I also suspect that the thrust of Clause 54 will be, to some extent, undone by exemptions in Clause 55. Perhaps the government amendment to be moved later will do something to clarify and sort out those items.
I should like to suggest to the Government that the removal of graffiti could be done, very suitably, by people on community service orders or by people who have been called upon by a court to make reparation for their offences through the mechanisms of restorative justice. Of course, that will frequently have to be done under supervision, particularly in the case of delicate and sophisticated technological equipment, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. However, I commend that thought to the Government.
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