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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The central purpose of the Bill is to improve the local environment, which directly affects people's quality of life. In my Department's five-year strategy, which we published last month, I set out our key objective of achieving environmental leadership. That is at the heart of our international agenda, but care for the environment begins at home.
When asked what is most important to them about the environment, most people mention the state of their own neighbourhood. That is not to say that there is not general concern about instances or levels of pollution, or concern about environmental hazards. When asked whether they have anxieties about the environment, the vast majority of our fellow citizens answer yes, but go on to talk about their locality, and especially about comparatively small-scale defacement of streets and parks, about run-down and decaying areas and about litter and dumping, over which it appears to them that no one takes action and no one cares.
Contrary to the reasoned amendment, that concern is felt and expressed just as much in rural areas as in urban areas. I was surprised to learn from their amendment that the Opposition appear to be so little in touch with concerns in rural areas as not to realise that.
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that there are about 180 Labour Members in rural and semi-rural constituencies. I have long believed that this was in notable part due to the fact that people living in those areas felt that their concerns were not understood. They feel that their concerns are better understood now. He is right to point out that that feeling is reflected in the Chamber.
If we are to create a genuinely sustainable society, we must tackle the more local aspects of environmental degradation and damage as well as dealing with our contribution to global warming. The Bill is an integral part of our environmental strategy. It is also an integral part of the Government's strategy for dealing with antisocial behaviour. The damage done to the community by such behaviour is clear: dirty streets, burned-out cars and piles of fly-tipped rubbish have a self-evident effect. What may be less immediately obvious is the financial aspect of such damage. It costs local authorities and other agencies, and thereby the taxpayer, more than £3 billion a year. The greater and, in some ways, more damaging costs may be hidden, as they are not evident in the physical appearance of our streets and neighbourhoods or in any effect on council tax or other bills. That greater cost lies in the contribution of such behaviour and of the attitudes behind it to wider criminal behaviour and to making a community feel neglected, powerless, unsafe and insecure.
The Labour party has long taken the lead in identifying and tackling that complex continuum of behaviour, which ranges from comparatively low-level environmental offences such as dropping litter and fly-posting to spraying graffiti, vandalism and more serious crimes. To deal with crime effectively, we have increasingly recognised the need to tackle the full range of criminal and antisocial behaviour. It is essential that we do not ignore low-level offences and allow a degraded local environment to give both victims and offenders the message that antisocial behaviour does not matter.
The measures in the Bill should help all those involved in local communities, rural as well as urban, to create neighbourhoods in which people are happy to live— cleaner, safer and greener communities. That means clean and safe streets, well-designed public buildings and spaces, welcoming parks and village greens, and a countryside free of fly-tipped waste. All those contribute to people's sense of well-being and to their overall health. The purpose of the Bill is to contribute to people's quality of life. Our belief that it will do so is based on extensive consultations led by my Department over the past two years, including our "Clean Neighbourhoods" consultation last summer, which aimed first to identify the problems and then to explore the solutions.
On the issue of consultation, the Secretary of State may be aware that dog welfare organisations such as the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and so on—I shall not list them all, but no doubt they have contacted the Department—are concerned about the proposals for stray dogs in clause 68. What consultation has she or her colleagues had with the representative bodies of animal welfare charities that deal with stray dogs? I am sure that her intentions are good, but we would like to know what they have said to her.
There has been general and wide consultation on the issue, but if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me I shall say a little more about dogs later.
The measures in this Bill respond directly to what local authorities and others told us in the consultation about obstacles to the enforcement of existing legislation, why some provisions are difficult to use, and about the changes that are needed if authorities are to tackle antisocial behaviour and environmental problems effectively. The Bill gives them the new powers and better tools for which they asked. It also gives new powers to parish councils so that the most local level of our democratic structures can play a part in making things better. Again, that recognises that there are problems in rural areas and that the best chance of tackling them is to empower parish councils to act in their own locality.
My right hon. Friend has just mentioned an important part of the Bill, in which I declare an interest as a town councillor. Does she agree that it is wrong to regard the problem as either rural or urban, because waste goes from one area to another, usually, but not always, from urban to rural areas on the outskirts of larger cities? We must therefore tackle the problem overall, and does she agree that one way of doing so is by looking at the first tier of local government?
Yes, I do. The issue that my hon. Friend and others have identified reflects the concerns of their contacts in local communities. Within the farming community, for example, there is widespread concern about the impact of some of those problems, and he is mindful of that.
The Bill requires crime and disorder reduction partnerships to tackle environmental crime where it is a priority in their area. That is something that the best partnerships are already doing, but others have been slower to recognise the evidence of the impact of such crime and to take action.
I should say at once that we do not want to be prescriptive about the strategies that those partnerships are required to develop. Where environmental crime is not much of a problem, we do not demand that it feature in a strategy—the whole point of the partnership approach set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is to tackle offending as it affects individual communities—but where local environments are degraded, and especially where antisocial behaviour has taken root, we do expect local partnerships to tackle the problem robustly. Our approach, which has been strongly endorsed by senior police representatives, should ensure that local partnerships consider all the issues leading to crime and disorder in their communities, including environmental crime. To help them do so, we have drawn on the results of our consultation to give greater powers and greater flexibility to authorities and agencies to tackle such problems.
For example, alleyways giving rear access to properties are common in our towns and cities. Sadly, many provide opportunities for crime and are a magnet for antisocial behaviour. We plan to address the problem of nuisance alleyways by enabling local authorities to gate them more easily. This will allow local authorities for the first time to gate all alleyways that provide a haven for crime and antisocial behaviour, but it will also allow greater flexibility to make gating reversible, should local conditions improve or local needs change.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a problem in respect of unadopted alleyways? As the Bill goes through Committee, will she consider whether additional funding can be found to ensure that unadopted alleyways are adopted, so that they can be dealt with under the new legislation?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which I am sure will be explored in Committee. Hitherto the major problem that has arisen in connection with gating alleyways has been access, and access legislation. That is what we are striving to overcome by means of the Bill.
Nuisance and abandoned vehicles often blight urban and rural communities alike. The Government intend to secure a major reduction in their number. The continuous registration scheme launched last year has resulted in a 65 per cent. reduction in the number of untaxed vehicles, and there has been a 30 per cent. reduction, for example, in abandoned vehicles in Kent following the national launch of Operation Cubit, which is a partnership between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, local authorities and the police and fire service to speed up the disposal of abandoned vehicles.
The Bill will also contribute to the Government's nuisance vehicle strategy, strengthening the existing powers of local authorities to remove abandoned vehicles from the streets and enabling them for the first time to do so as soon as an abandoned vehicle is identified. This should significantly reduce opportunities for arson and vandalism. Deliberate arson of motor vehicles costs some £230 million pounds a year. Common sense alone suggests that most of them are likely to be abandoned vehicles, so speedier removal should help to cut costs and reduce incidents that are both a nuisance and a danger.
I welcome the Bill, and especially this part, which will be of great assistance to many in my constituency. May I ask the Secretary of State two questions about this part? First, has she responded to the recommendation from the Environmental Audit Committee that local authorities should have ease of access to the DVLA database to identify the owners of abandoned vehicles? That was a key recommendation, to which the Government have not yet responded. The Bill is an opportunity to deliver it. Secondly, although I welcome the extension of getting rid of vehicles from streets to areas to which the public have access, one of the problems in my area is vehicles abandoned on farmland, which become the responsibility of the farmer. What does the Bill have to say about that?
Both the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised might be best explored in Committee. I take his point about the database. There has been some discussion about whether and to what extent access creates a problem, but we believe that the powers that we are giving will assist local authorities. If, when the Bill is explored in Committee, there is any suggestion—and evidence to back it up—that it is defective in some way, we will look into that. We discussed fly-tipping in rural communities earlier, and I am well aware that, as the hon. Gentleman says, abandoned vehicles are also a problem in some parts of the country.
Last year, tragically, a youngster was killed in an abandoned vehicle on unfenced private property in my constituency. If during the Bill's progress a way could be found of giving councils authority to enter such land to remove dangerous vehicles, it would be a great comfort to the family who lost their son so tragically.
My hon. Friend has made an interesting point, which I am sure will be explored in Committee. Obviously there are problems with authorities' going on to private land without permission, but I take his point—as I am sure all Members do—about the problems that can be caused in certain localities, and the dangers to children.
The Bill allows authorities to tackle a not uncommon neighbourhood problem by making it an offence to repair or sell a vehicle on a road as part of a business. It will also make dealing with offenders more cost-effective, securing better value for money for the taxpayer. It is both expensive and time-consuming for local authorities to have to prosecute offenders through the courts, and their full costs are often not recovered even in the case of successful prosecutions. We are told that that is one key reason why authorities can be reluctant to prosecute for environmental crimes. To allow and encourage better enforcement, the Bill significantly increases the number of offences for which fixed penalties can be used as an alternative to prosecution.
The Bill makes a number of other changes that should promote enforcement. In particular, for the first time local authorities will be able to retain all receipts from fixed penalties. That too will help to offset the cost of enforcing the legislation. It must be right for offenders, rather than council tax payers, to bear the impact of such costs whenever possible.
As my right hon. Friend will know, local authorities were first granted powers to retain receipts from fines by the Local Government Act 2003. Is she disappointed that, more than a year later, so many authorities have not taken up those powers? According to information from her Department, only 76 of 359 authorities have exercised them. Has she a message for those authorities?
As my hon. Friend says, some authorities have used those powers well while others have been reluctant to do so. As I have said, there has been extensive consultation with authorities. That is part of the Bill's message. Although there are aspects that Members will want to discuss in Committee, we have done as much as we feel we can to address the major concerns of authorities, and to make it possible for them to use these powers to tackle problems that cause such distress in their communities. Having made the powers available, we hope and expect that authorities will use them when such problems arise.
Will any part of the Bill give powers to the taxpayer? A constituent of mine wants a local authority to restrict the hours during which a playing field abutting his property is used. The noise from the playing field is making him ill and he is starting to become very distressed, but he cannot persuade the local authority to close the field during the evenings. What comeback is possible for the ordinary taxpayer when a local authority will not exercise its powers?
I should have thought that existing powers could be used if the noise and difficulty were considered to be so great, but other powers in the Bill relate to noise, and it may be possible to explore the issue as the Bill proceeds.
I said a moment ago that local authorities would be able to retain the receipts from fixed penalties. Another important point is that in most cases they will be able to vary the amount of penalties to reflect local conditions. There will also be a power in all cases to offer discounts for early payment. Again, therefore, we have tried not just to incentivise enforcement but to give authorities much greater flexibility to shape their enforcement policy to what they judge to be local needs. To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Blizzard, that will remove the excuse, if one may put it that way, for not using such powers, because local authorities will have much more flexibility to shape policy to local circumstances.
In the same vein, reflecting the desire for local solutions to local problems, we are extending the power to issue fixed penalty notices to parish and town councils and to the equivalent community councils in Wales. Those notices will cover a range of offences relating to litter, graffiti, fly-posting and dogs, all of which can degrade neighbourhoods.
Parish councils may often be best placed to deal with those essentially local problems. We recognise that not all parish councils will want or be able to take advantage of those powers, but others will welcome them and already have the necessary skills and resources. Extending powers to issue fixed penalty notices will strengthen the ability of local communities to deal with those problems. Parish councils, representing as they do our most local level of government, are often best placed to understand both the causes and the needs of the victims of such crimes.
Everywhere, litter is a growing problem, and the Bill contains a range of measures to help to tackle it. Under current law, littering on a footpath is an offence but littering in a private garden or in a river is not. We will close that loophole by making it an offence to drop litter anywhere, including on private land and rivers, lakes and ponds. That will make it clear once and for all that dropping litter anywhere is unacceptable.
All hon. Members will probably be familiar with the particular problem of littering on patches of open land. We will give local authorities a new power to require the owner or occupier of land that is heavily defaced with litter to clear it and to prevent it from becoming heavily littered again. That will replace the current system of litter control areas, which local authorities tell us they find burdensome, which they rarely use and which applies only to specific types of land.
My right hon. Friend mentioned fly-tipping. Does she accept that there is a particular problem with gas cylinders? Industry and shops no longer accept rival brands of cylinders. Not only are they dumped in rural locations but they are left in abandoned buildings, which could cause a particular threat to our fire service should a fire happen in that building.
My hon. Friend rightly highlights a specific problem. I must admit that it has not been raised with me specifically, but I take his point entirely and I hope that the powers that we are giving will enable it to be dealt with.
On the streets, litter control notices can help in dealing with litter generated by businesses such as fast food outlets. However, they, too, are difficult to enforce, with local authorities currently required to seek a court order. We will dispense with that step to make such notices easier to use.
We will also give local authorities new powers to control the distribution of flyers and leaflets, both of which can contribute to street litter, although I say at once to ease anyone's anxiety that political leafleting will not be affected. The Bill confirms once and for all that discarded cigarette butts and chewing gum are litter, and that it is an offence to discard them in the street. That makes the law explicit and should remove any lingering doubts, whether among local authorities or others.
Does my right hon. Friend share my surprise about the reference in the amendment to the need to make producers more responsible, and does she welcome, as I do, the industry's steps to approach her Department to show at an early stage how it could play a role in this matter?
As my hon. Friend may be aware, there has been extensive discussion between the industry and Ministers. I believe my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality will shortly visit one of the major companies. We are mindful of the need, as are the producers, as she rightly says, to engage in the discussions.
Graffiti often degrades our communities and is often the result of young people using spray paints illegally. The Bill tries to reduce the problem at source by reinforcing existing legislation banning their sale to those aged under 16, and it will also make it easier to prosecute retailers who sell spray paints to that age group. The provisions are in addition to the provision in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 that addresses the removal of graffiti in public spaces through graffiti removal notices. The Bill will extend that to cover fly-posting—another highly visible blight on our communities. As the Environmental Audit Committee pointed out in its report, the problem of fly-posting might be exacerbated by its potential commercial advantage in terms of low-cost event advertising. To help local authorities deal more effectively with illegally displayed advertisements, we are making it more difficult for those who benefit from such illegal advertising to avoid charges simply by claiming that they did not consent to it. We will also make it easier for local authorities to recover the cost of removing fly-posters.
Of course, the issue of waste goes beyond simple littering and fly-posting, as a number of interventions have highlighted. The illegal disposal of waste— fly-tipping—is a real problem in both town and countryside. As well as degrading the local area, it can have environmental and health risks, so we are also providing a range of measures to strengthen the legislation on, and penalties for, fly-tipping. That will enable the Environment Agency and local authorities to deal more effectively, and immediately, with those responsible. We intend to send out a clear message that this is a serious environmental crime that will not be tolerated.
The Bill will make it more difficult for those who transport waste illegally to evade the law. The circumstances in which enforcement agencies can currently stop, search and seize vehicles that could be involved in fly-tipping are somewhat limited, so we will widen and simplify their powers to do so. We will strengthen the courts' powers to deal with fly-tippers by raising the maximum penalty in a magistrates court to £50,000, and by harmonising the penalties for fly-tipping hazardous and non-hazardous waste to a maximum of five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. The courts will also get additional sentencing powers.
The Bill contains a number of other provisions relating to waste that will help local authorities to carry out their waste management obligations more effectively. For example, they will be given the power to issue a fixed penalty notice for waste left out on the streets, provided that they have previously given clear instructions on the arrangements for waste collection.
Finally on waste, we will reform the recycling credit scheme, the original purpose of which was to encourage local authorities to recycle household waste. The scheme does not sit comfortably with the newer economic and regulatory measures that we have put in place to promote recycling and re-use. Reform of it will allow local authorities to agree alternative ways of encouraging recycling, as fit best with local circumstances. That increased flexibility will itself contribute to sustainable waste management, and will promote better working between waste authorities, the community and businesses. It ties in well with the announcement in our five-year plan of novel ways to increase recycling through a major new retailer recycling initiative in conjunction with supermarkets, which will be launched this year; and with a Waste and Resources Action Programme project to pilot, in conjunction with supermarkets, new approaches such as financial incentives, discount vouchers and new technology. Recycling has already more than doubled since 1996–97, and we are working hard with local authorities and other partners to build on that.
The Bill contains new arrangements for controlling dogs, replacing the current dog byelaw system. They give district and parish councils greater freedom of action through new powers that will be simpler and easier to use, without the need for central Government confirmation. They also give local authorities full responsibility for dealing with strays, in order to relieve—at their request—pressure on the police.
We are doing more to deal with the other nuisances that can make people's daily lives a misery. Nuisance caused by noise can be a major problem for those who live nearby. New measures for dealing with noise from malfunctioning burglar alarms, and from pubs and clubs at night, will help to alleviate these common disturbances. We are also extending the statutory nuisance regime to include two further nuisances that can degrade local quality of life: artificial light and nuisance from insects, both of which have given rise to public demand for greater action. Over-bright and badly sited security and other lighting can cause real problems for those who live nearby, and insect infestations attracted by activities such as sewage treatment works make local people's lives a real misery in certain locations. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for repeatedly bringing these issues to my ministerial team's attention as a result of their constituency experience, and for working with us on this issue. The changes that we are proposing will enable local authorities to intervene. While we hope that most disputes will then be resolved through mediation, legal action will be made possible in the last resort.
The Bill puts the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment on a statutory basis. Its establishment as a private company was an interim measure, but one that left it outside the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The commission's role will be unaffected—it is not a new quango—but its accountability to Parliament will be enhanced.
The Bill will play a major role in the Government's strategy for improving the environment, for developing a more sustainable future and for dealing with more of the antisocial behaviour that can blight communities. It builds on the measures in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 and responds to calls by local authorities and others for practical tools that they can use to promote cleaner, safer, greener communities.
Few things contribute more to a feeling of powerlessness and disaffection in local communities than the persistence of sometimes relatively small-scale but distressing problems that no one seems willing or able to address. If, as our consultation suggests, the powers, flexibility and localised focus of the measures in the Bill will help to ensure that such issues are addressed, it will mean, for many of our fellow citizens, a real improvement in their quality of life. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House
declines to give the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill a Second Reading because the Bill focuses predominantly on urban issues while neglecting rural areas, creates another unnecessary quango and brings local authorities into conflict with police and other authorities which currently exercise powers in relation to abandoned vehicles and stray dogs;
because the Bill introduces provisions, such as clearing up chewing gum as extensively and frequently as litter, which will be prohibitively expensive yet fail to take account of producer responsibility;
and because the Bill contains many unnecessary provisions which would not be needed if existing legislation were properly enforced.
I begin by welcoming the Government's recognition of the growing threats to our environment. Part of the threat exists at the global level in terms of challenges such as climate change—an issue on which, so far, the Government's response appears to be all talk. The floods experienced in the north-west over the weekend are an example of the damage that climate change can cause locally, but we are not even hearing any talk from Ministers—not in Parliament, at least—about that.
I also accept that part of the threat to the environment is indeed evident at local level. I agree with the Secretary of State that many of the issues that matter deeply to a great many families and individuals throughout the country relate to what is going on in their immediate environment. The consequences of more litter, fly-tipping, graffiti, fly-posting, abandoned cars and so forth mean that more and more people are suffering from dirty streets, which can turn into run-down neighbourhoods and then to an increase in antisocial behaviour. Those consequences are part of our daily lives.
The threats to both the global and the local environment are important and both need action by the Government. Sadly, although they have begun to admit to the existence of the problem, all the Government have managed to do in this Bill is to cobble together a hotch-potch of measures, some of which are incoherent. Some may be individually useful, but in many cases, local authorities may struggle to enforce them. Many would not be needed at all if existing powers were being properly utilised and if other aspects of Government policy were designed to address the problems that have been identified.
A great many reports have confirmed the often depressing day-to-day experience of most city dwellers and of many who live in the countryside—the ugly intrusion into our lives and the degradation of our environment caused by careless attitudes towards the disposal of unwanted items, whether it be chewing gum, old cars or many other items. Another cause is the lack of respect for both the built and the natural environment and for property that does not belong to any particular individual. Increasingly, too, we suffer from noise and light pollution—forms of environmental damage that can be just as offensive as poor air quality and, in certain circumstances, equally damaging to health.
Damage to the environment derives from a great variety of sources, and Government policy can be one of them. In its 2002 report, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee pointed to the ghastly fiasco of the fridge mountain. Substantial costs were also suffered by taxpayers because the Government accepted new EU regulations without having the faintest idea of their implications. Individual and corporate behaviour is another source of environmental damage and criminal elements are believed to be at work, too.
A variety of organisations have produced evidence recently about the scale of the problems that we face. ENCAMS reported a 12 per cent. increase in litter last year; and the Environmental Audit Committee highlighted a 43 per cent. rise in the amount of fly-tipping dealt with by the Environment Agency since 2001. DEFRA's own municipal waste management survey highlights a 38 per cent. increase in the number of abandoned vehicles on the street. I am not sure whether the people who drafted the end-of-life vehicles directive had that outcome in mind, but that has been the effect of its introduction. There are nearly 100,000 abandoned vehicles in London alone, three for every 100 households; many are unlicensed and a significant number get vandalised.
According to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the area of land in England that experiences severe light pollution rose by 17 per cent. between 1993 and 2000.
I found it incredible that the Opposition intended to vote against Second Reading and I have listened with bated breath for six minutes to a litany of wrongs, but not one remedy has been suggested by the hon. Gentleman. The Conservative party owes it to the electorate—this will be an election issue—to suggest alternatives to the measures outlined in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman will have to be patient for a bit longer. I was emphasising what I had rather assumed might be common ground between the Government and the Opposition: that there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, a problem that, in any number of important respects, is getting worse rather than better.
We are voting against the Bill because we do not think that the remedies proposed are likely to be particularly effective and because we are concerned about areas of omission to which I shall refer shortly. We also suspect that the burden that the Bill will place on local authorities will not be matched by any accompanying funding.
One of the reasons why the Opposition seek to vote against Second Reading is that they have created this false dichotomy between urban and rural areas. I represent a seat that would be described by the National Farmers Union as an urban fringe seat, and the NFU's evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee said that, in 2000, 67 per cent. of farmers complained of fly-tipping on their land. In what way will the Opposition's stance help me and my farmers who suffer from that problem?
The Government have been in power for quite a long time and seem to have woken up to some of the issues. On fly-tipping, I am not opposed to all the measures in the Bill. [Interruption.] There are "Oohs" and "Aahs" of excitement from Government Members, but just because a Bill is so deeply flawed that without substantial amendment it would be better were it not to be passed does not prevent us from supporting some of its measures. Some of those relating to fly-tipping are important and we support them because we regard the problem of fly-tipping at least as seriously as the hon. Gentleman and the NFU members polled in the survey to which he referred. I am as keen as anyone to see more effective measures taken against what seems to be an increasing problem, to which I will refer again later.
Complaints about noise have doubled in the last five years and the number of noise abatement notices has increased proportionately. However, it is not only the environment that suffers; it is also the taxpayer.
The Local Government Association has estimated that local authorities spend £35 billion a year on moving abandoned vehicles. The Environment Agency has estimated that fly-tipping costs the UK economy £150 million a year. Indeed, ENCAMS has suggested that the number of individual local authorities that have to spend more than £40,000 to deal with fly-tipping has quadrupled. The Greater London Assembly says that London boroughs and transport companies spend £13 million a year on graffiti removal, on top, of course, of what private individuals and businesses spend.
Part of the problem of waste is the result of our failure to achieve better performance in relation to recycling. Britain recycles only a quarter as much household waste as Germany does and within the total recycling rates achieved by Britain, there are huge variations from one local authority to another. Conservative-led Daventry recycles 44 per cent. of waste, closely followed by Conservative-led Lichfield. That puts to shame Labour-controlled Sunderland, Labour-controlled Manchester and Liberal Democrat-controlled Liverpool, each of which musters a paltry 2 per cent. waste recycling rate.
I will be less selective, then. The 10 worst local authorities, none of which managed to recycle more than 4 per cent. of its waste, consist of nine Labour authorities and one Liberal Democrat authority. None of the worst performers is Conservative. By contrast, of the 10 best-performing local authorities, which all recycle more than 27 per cent. of waste, or seven times as much as the worst ones, five—surprise, surprise—are Conservative authorities, four are in no overall control and one is Liberal Democrat. Not a single one of the best performers is a Labour authority.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is widely considered that in many circumstances fly-tipping is a direct result of people attempting to enforce better recycling and what goes with it, rather than not enforcing better recycling? Given what he has just said, does it make any sense at all for his party to vote against the Bill?
I am not sure that I understood what point the hon. Gentleman was trying to make. If our recycling performance were better, the problem of waste would diminish and some of the adverse consequences that we are debating would take care of themselves. If there were less waste to be disposed of, because more was being recycled, the challenge we face would be at least partly addressed.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that when his party was in power he got the country to reach the position in which 7 per cent. of waste was being recycled. The figure is up to 17 per cent.—more than double—and we are on track to get it up to 25 per cent. Will he not at least acknowledge that under a Labour Government and with the measures that we have brought in to assist local authorities, the situation has got a great deal better than it was when his party was in power?
I would be horrified if we had not continued to make progress as a country in raising the recycling rates, and what is absolutely clear is that that improved performance is almost entirely the result of Conservative local government. Conservative authorities are consistently achieving recycling rates above the national average, and the national average is consistently being held down by Labour local authorities. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make that point even clearer than I had already done.
The hon. Gentleman is describing who is responsible for the better recycling rates. Worcester city council, which is Conservative controlled, has improved the rate of recycling from about 6 or 7 per cent. to 17 per cent. as a direct result of a £400,000 grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to recycle household waste. Who does the hon. Gentleman view as being responsible for that improvement—the Conservative-controlled council or the Labour Government?
Clearly, what happens locally is the direct responsibility of the council. The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, however: he suggests that funding from central Government is one means of achieving better waste management. I wonder if he can recall a single reference to any such link in the Secretary of State's half-hour speech—I think that that was how long she spoke for. The Government are giving significant extra powers to local authorities in the Bill, but they are not providing a single penny to assist those authorities to make use of those powers.
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that considerable resources have been made available through the spending review and various Budgets by the Government? This Bill is not the vehicle for that major source of funding. May I also point out to him that, in relation to his litany of who is and is not doing well—I accept that some councils are not doing well, although they are of every political party—one of the principal reasons for improvement in a local authority's performance, apart from the kind of funding to which my hon. Friend Mr. Foster has just referred, is the targets set by the Government, which authorities are required to try to reach?
Let me correct the Secretary of State. As I pointed out, but as I will repeat, not one of the worst performing councils is Conservative. Nine of the 10 worst are Labour, and one is Liberal Democrat. She has made a further interesting point, however, by drawing attention to the resources provided by the Government. We all know that funding for local government has now been grossly distorted for political reasons by the Labour Government, to provide more funding for their friends in urban, traditional Labour areas—the very authorities that are falling down on the job in relation to recycling.
May I try to spell out the issue to the hon. Gentleman even more clearly? Conservative-controlled Waveney district council would definitely have been at the bottom of that league, up until about a year ago. It is not at the bottom now, but what made the difference was the £400,000 grant given by my right hon. Friend's Department specifically for a recycling scheme. That money was not part of a funding formula. It was the Government grant that made the difference.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her wisdom in holding back such a grant until Waveney district council was under Conservative control. At least at that point she could be sure that the resources would be effectively used.
I want to return to the resourcing issue so that we are absolutely clear on it. The Secretary of State said that previous spending rounds had provided extra money for local authorities, which, of course, I accept. Is she saying, however, that the settlements already made reflect the extra costs that local authorities will incur if they choose to exercise the powers under the Bill, or are they expected to rebalance their budgets to use those powers?
We do not accept that local authorities will face substantial extra costs, for a number of reasons. First, we are talking about powers for local authorities, not duties—they are not required to exercise them, and I have little doubt that unless they believe that the exercise of such powers will be cost-effective, they will not choose to do so. Secondly, as I pointed out earlier, they will be able to retain fine income, so that if there are serious problems, they will have resources available to deal with them. In many cases, we are simplifying and providing greater flexibility, so that powers, which in some cases already exist, can be more effectively exercised. In those cases, local authorities are already resourced to carry out such activity. In many cases, there may be a net saving to local authorities. Certainly, we do not anticipate substantial extra burdens.
We are teasing out some interesting information. First, the Secretary of State has just admitted that some of the powers in the Bill are not really needed, as local authorities already have powers to deal with the problems. Secondly, it was widely suggested by Labour Members that achieving better performance was linked to extra money. Now the Secretary of State is saying that there will be no extra money, and no substantial extra costs to bear. I think, however, that that statement acknowledges that there will be some extra costs involved, and it will be interesting to see what the Local Government Association says about that. Then, most tellingly, she said that there would not be duties, only powers. That seems to lead us directly to the conclusion that if local authorities are merely to be given extra powers but no extra money, it is widely assumed on the Government Benches that they will be able to do no more than they did before, so the benefits that may flow from the legislation seem, even in the Government's eyes, rapidly to be growing smaller and smaller.
I do not need any help with my intervention, thank you very much.
I can understand the point that Mr. Yeo was making about the Government's tendency to give local authorities extra duties and responsibilities, but not to fund them. I agree with him wholeheartedly on that, although it is not something that would make me vote against the Bill, which addresses a series of problems. Does he have concerns that his local authority, or others, are spending much time and energy chasing around dealing with abandoned cars and fly-tipping and sorting out with the Environment Agency who is responsible for what—whether it is major fly-tipping and thus the Environment Agency's responsibility or minor and thus the authority's? At least the Bill helps to sort out who is responsible for what, although it does not follow through on the funding responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman is right about that, but does he at least agree that the Bill brings a clarity that is lacking at present?
Yes, I broadly agree. That is a fair point and, in view of the fact that there are some positive elements in the Bill, if my advocacy at the Dispatch Box does not succeed in persuading the House to vote for the Opposition's amendment, it will proceed to a Standing Committee next week—a fairly reasonable assumption—when we can explore further some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made.
As the Bill tightens responsibilities, and as it is supposed to be helpful, does my hon. Friend find clause 47 curious? It removes the requirement to contract out waste disposal functions. I can understand from a dogma point of view why the Government might take that on, but it is a very specialist area that involves huge capital costs generally. The contracts are long. The regulations and complications are intense and encyclopaedic. I am slightly worried that some mind-bogglingly dull local authority, of the wrong political complexion, will grab the provision with both hands and blunder in, with no competition, at great cost and great danger to its local people.
My hon. Friend speaks on the issue with great authority, not only as one of the most successful local authority leaders of the last generation but also as a Minister who dealt directly with many such matters in the last Conservative Government. I entirely share his concern. I had intended to mention clause 47 later in my speech, but I shall do so now. The Secretary of State did not, I think, allude to it in her speech. It is difficult to understand what benefit the Government expect to achieve by its introduction, and we shall certainly try to remove it from the Bill if the opportunity arises in Committee. I wholly share my hon. Friend's concerns about the clause; only harm can come from the proposal.
The need for action is clear from the statistics that I quoted and the background that I have outlined, where I think there is common ground between the Secretary of State and me. What is less obvious is how the Bill actually helps. As I said earlier, I welcome a number of its provisions. Preventing people from running a used car business that involves parking their stock in front of other people's houses will be welcomed in many neighbourhoods, including some in my area. Even though I represent a largely rural constituency, there are some London overspill areas and estates that were formerly entirely council housing, and that problem has arisen in some neighbourhoods. In that respect, as in many others, however, I wonder whether existing powers, if properly utilised, would not be sufficient to tackle the problem.
Action to curb litter will also command support, as will powers for local authorities to seize fly-tipped vehicles and attempts to curb fly-posting. Those are all important steps in the right direction. However, I have concerns about the Bill that relate first, to how effective it will be; secondly—a point that we have touched on already—to the costs of enforcement; thirdly, to its somewhat intrusive nature in certain respects; and fourthly, to those things that are omitted altogether.
Taking the enforcement issues first, the Bill will give local authorities extra power to deal with the growing problem of abandoned vehicles. I am not absolutely clear how the role that local authorities will be asked to play fits with the role of the police, but, no doubt, that can be explored in more detail in Committee. I am not clear why the Government believe that the new arrangements will be so much more effective than the present ones.
A central difficulty will surely remain in tracing the owners of those vehicles. That will not get any easier as a result of the Bill, although Mr. Thomas—I am not sure whether I pronounced his constituency correctly, but I know where it is—made a constructive point about that. In the circumstances, it seems unlikely that more than a handful of successful prosecutions will be brought. Even if local authorities can keep the proceeds of the fixed penalties levied on those who abandon vehicles, there is still a risk that the cost of pursuing offenders will exceed the income that they may generate. Local authorities must either burden council tax payers further or simply ignore the problem, despite the changes introduced in the Bill.
I am listening carefully to the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. It is some 25 minutes since he rose to speak. It is some 18 minutes since he gave a commitment to my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay that he would get around to the alternatives that the Conservatives would propose. We have just passed Christmas and next Christmas is coming fast. When will he get around to those alternatives, rather than saying what is wrong with the Bill and that he will vote against it?
I can give the hon. Gentleman a bankable assurance that I will do so by the start of the general election campaign. He may have more knowledge of when that will be than I do.
Effective action is certainly desirable against the growing menace of litter, but we have concerns about the unrestricted or widespread use of fixed penalties, not least because of the risk that they may quickly become a revenue source of their own for local authorities, rather than a deterrent to prevent litter from being dropped in the first place. The example of speed camera partnerships is a warning of what may happen when bureaucratic or unaccountable bodies see an income stream that they can tap into.
The Bill contains stronger measures to control outdoor advertising. I accept that uncontrolled fly-posting and illegal advertisements disfigure some neighbourhoods, but I share the concerns of the Campaign to Protect Rural England about the growth in moveable hoardings on trailers, and it is not clear whether the Bill will help in that respect.
My hon. Friend Miss McIntosh will deal in more detail with the waste provisions in the Bill when she speaks later. I want to move now to the crucial issue of noise and light pollution. The provisions in the Bill on noise may be valuable in tackling specific problems such as intruder alarms, although their effectiveness will depend heavily on whether local authorities decide to spend money on using them. The bigger noise problems, such as the noise from increased traffic and aircraft, are regrettably not addressed by the Bill, despite the fact that they affect a growing number of homes.
The consultation procedures, for example, for air traffic decisions, such as those that have led to an increased volume of air traffic over my constituency—South Suffolk—are seriously deficient. Similarly, the Government's present programme for introducing quieter road surfaces is very leisurely to say the least. The result is that villages such as Sproughton in my constituency must wait for years for relief from the noise from the nearby A14. Vehicle and aircraft noise is a bigger and more urgent problem for many residents than anything covered by the Bill, and I regret the fact that the Government are making no attempt to tackle it. Furthermore, the Government's introduction of 24-hour drinking is also likely to lead to more disturbance at normally quiet times of the night.
The Bill acknowledges growing public concern about light pollution, but I am afraid that the effectiveness of its provisions will be considerably reduced by the lengthy list of exemptions. I fully recognise the concerns of people who fear the consequences of yet more statutory regulation intruding into aspects of daily life, which common sense suggests could be safely left to self-regulation and voluntary initiatives. The Secretary of State herself said that she hoped that in many cases disputes about light pollution could be resolved by negotiation. We will want to explore those provisions in more detail in Committee.
That is exactly the sort of issue that we want to explore in Committee. There are situations—[Interruption.] Let me give an example of one that affects my constituency. Felixstowe port is one of the most successful in the country and has expanded to the point that its lights are visible for many miles around. That has become an issue of great concern and it will be of concern if there is further expansion on the Essex side of the estuary. There are categories such as that—
My hon. Friend mentions airports.
We should take the opportunity now that the issue of light pollution has been recognised in the Bill at least to explore whether other categories can be brought under some measure of control, because the effect of such lights is reaching a larger group of people. Let me emphasise that in principle it is highly desirable that there should be large parts of Britain where it remains possible to enjoy silence during the day and darkness during the night.
I question what benefit there is from giving a statutory basis to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—a body that has certainly not been without controversy during its short life so far. I note that, despite what the Secretary of State said about accountability, the Bill does not require the body to publish an annual report. As I have said, she has been coy on the subject of costs. That is no surprise at a time when public borrowing is spiralling out of control. The Government may not wish to face up to the fact that their policies are placing extra burdens on local authorities, but coping with those burdens may mean even bigger increases in council tax. After all, the Environmental Audit Committee pointed out that the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 would be more effective at curbing fly-tipping if the Environment Agency and local authorities had more resources to use the powers that the Act gives them.
Let me draw attention to some things that are omitted from the Bill but are directly relevant to clean neighbourhoods. DEFRA has admitted that in 2003 air pollution in urban areas was recorded as moderate or higher on 50 days on average per site measured, and in rural areas on 61 days on average per site measured. In both cases, those figures were more than double the comparable figures for 2002. The Bill is conspicuously silent on the subject of air quality, despite its obvious environmental and health importance.
I mentioned at the start of my speech that global issues such as climate change can have devastating local consequences. Nothing in the Bill addresses those challenges or even acknowledges the link between them. One week after Britain failed, along with Greece, the Czech Republic and Poland, to participate in the launch of the European Union emissions trading scheme, I can understand Ministers not wanting to talk about these issues, but the fact that despite having had years to prepare, Britain is not participating in one of the most important initiatives designed to tackle climate change should be a matter of shame for Ministers. It exposes the Prime Minister's claim to be putting climate change at the centre of his chairmanship of the G8 and presidency of the EU as nothing more than a hollow fraud. It is just talk, and very unconvincing talk at that.
The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned climate change, which is not, as far as I can see, mentioned in the reasoned amendment. I bring him back to the issue of chewing gum. The reasoned amendment says that the Government are failing
"to take account of producer responsibility".
Will he be clear on what precisely he means by that? What producer responsibility would he expect? The answer would be of great interest to the hundreds of my constituents who earn their living in the Wrigley's factory.
My hon. Friend Miss McIntosh is in discussions with Wrigley's—[Interruption.] We are not jumping to conclusions. She will deal with the problem because it is part of the Bill in which she takes a close interest. She will deal specifically with the concerns raised. Of course I understand that a business will be anxious about the possible impact of more stringent legislation on one of its products.
No. I will not damn the hon. Gentleman by saying that he is a friend of mine, but nevertheless I have given way enough.
The Bill is being introduced at a time when the issues with which it deals are becoming more urgent and serious. However, it does not provide evidence of a coherent Government strategy to deal with waste and pollution—things that damage the quality of many people's lives every day. Although we will use the Committee stage to make improvements, we remain concerned about the effectiveness of some of the provisions, the enforceability of others and the meddlesome nature of yet others. We are doubtful that local authorities, on which more responsibility is being placed, will be keen to embrace all the new measures unless they are accompanied by extra cash to implement them. The Bill ignores too many things. For all those reasons, I urge the House to support our amendment.
The Bill is significant in that it recognises and responds to the needs of local residents. For the past couple of years, I have had the great privilege of touring the country and talking to groups of people about what they would like future policy to contain. What struck me was the priority that they gave to their local environment. They want their local streetscapes lifted and their environment enhanced. That applies in both urban and rural areas.
I note with interest, for example, that the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Campaign to Protect Rural England broadly support the measures. If read carefully, the Bill can be seen to work for both urban and rural communities. For their own political interests, some people want to drive a wedge between the urban and rural communities whereas they are, in fact, integrated and need to work together.
It is the case that the LGA supports the Bill. It has been a strong advocate for a long time for more effective environmental legislation.
Let me mention some of the groups that I met. Kay Henshaw and her neighbours on Wigwam grove, Hucknall were fighting for the removal of litter and fences and for trees and grassland to be maintained properly. When the people in Rainworth were asked for their priorities, they wanted cleaner and safer streets, more trees, more flowers and better maintenance of grassland. The people who formed the Ollerton traffic action group wanted to stop traffic ingressing into their area. I also met farmers such as the Hammond family, who farm close to Bestwood country park, who were concerned about fly-tipping and abandoned cars on the urban fringes.
My hon. Friend Mr. Challen made a good point about the importance of urban fringes. We must build on the work of the Countryside Agency to ensure that our urban fringes are more than places where cars go to die and are not the final recipients of refrigerators. Urban fringes offer exciting opportunities. Reforming the system of paying farmers gives us an opportunity to intervene.
I argue strongly that people support the Bill because they know what happens when their neighbourhood is blighted. We all know too well what happens where streets are littered, where pavements are cracked and not repaired, where gardens are overgrown and where cars are abandoned or are repaired on the street. The Bill tackles that for the first time. It is in those neighbourhoods that we get crime and antisocial or nuisance behaviour. People feel strongly that if we can build cleaner, greener, stronger communities, and if we can adopt an attitude of no tolerance not only towards crime but towards environmental crime, we can build better communities. That is what inspires people. What hard-working people want is a better environment—a better place to bring up their children.
I believe strongly that the Bill provides a cornerstone for building such an environment. It will not be easy, but there are indications in the Bill that we are going in the right direction. There is a clear recognition that the problem cannot be solved by one Department, one agency or one group of people. The measures in the Bill are closely intertwined with those for dealing with antisocial behaviour. We have to take a comprehensive approach to lifting our communities and to building better, safer places. That is why it is important that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and other Departments, such as the Home Office, are involved in promoting the Bill.
It is significant that, building on the antisocial behaviour legislation that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality was instrumental in piloting through the House some years ago, crime and disorder reduction partnerships are to take environmental nuisance behaviour into account when making their plans. If we want cleaner, safer neighbourhoods and communities, it is fundamentally important that those working partnerships put that aspiration at the heart of their plans.
I am pleased that town and parish councils are to be given new powers, a point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew. If we believe in localities, we must trust local people to make decisions, and we must be big enough to recognise that the decisions that they make will not always be those that we would make. It is right that things should be different in, say, Nuneaton, Newcastle and Nottingham. There are different problems and different solutions, and we must empower people to move towards those solutions.
We need to involve people in this process. First, we must empower local authorities, which are increasingly recognising the importance of high quality streets and communities. But they must not be shy of involving local people in those discussions because, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, people know the needs in their area, and they know the solutions, too. Local authorities need to think more strategically. They need to empower local groups to take action themselves. We must move forward on the new localism agenda. We should not be afraid of volunteerism. These are people's streets; these are people's communities; these are people's problems. We must help them to find solutions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the Opposition seem to fear that fixed penalty notices might simply become a new revenue stream for local authorities if those notices are in the hands of town and parish councils and other local authorities, there will be greater accountability and transparency in the way that money raised from them is spent, if it is spent, on cleaning up local communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The issue is one of trust and devolving resources. We must ask people how they would spend the money, and the response will differ across the country. To be candid, we have not been good at doing that, but I hope that we will get better at it.
Local authorities face costs—for example, the Bill contains provisions for gating orders, building on the provision in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to close footpaths in high-crime areas. We all thought that that was a big step forward, but it has proved to be enormously difficult. One of my local authorities, Gedling borough council, expended a lot of staff time on trying to resolve those issues in the Bigwood area. I accept that some alleyways are the focus and locus of antisocial behaviour, but we have to be careful about using gating provisions. We have to consider why the provision in the 2000 Act has not worked. It has not worked because, at times, there is a clear conflict between the need to deny a venue for antisocial behaviour and people's legitimate right to take a short cut to school, to work or to the bus station. Many of the details of gating orders will be set out in regulations to be published later by the Secretary of State. I think that the Standing Committee should analyse the provisions so that we can be sure about simple matters such as who does the gating, who pays the costs of gating and who maintains the gates.
Local authorities will give priority to the issue, but I think that the most important thing we can do is to raise consciousness of the fact that antisocial behaviour and environmental crime are nuisance behaviours. Alongside the provisions of the Bill, we must drive forward a programme to ensure that people understand the significance of clean, green and prosperous communities. Cleanness and greenness will increase the prosperity of neighbourhoods, so that they are places to which people return rather than places from which they flee to rural areas.
The Bill refers to changing the regulations on the financial position on waste. I am rather disappointed that there is no suggestion of direct or variable charging. The Government have a good record on recycling: people said that we would never reach the 17 per cent. target, but we are on track to do that and we shall do more. Alongside the current measures, however, there is a strong case for financial instruments so that people who recycle more are rewarded in some way—perhaps by a reduction in their council tax. I have examined the long title fairly closely and I believe that the issue is one that the Standing Committee may discuss at some length.
The Bill paves the way to a better future. People want a better place to live. Hard-working people have high aspirations for their families. They know that houses in clean, green, well-maintained streets are more valuable, but what could be more valuable than a place that is safe for children and is not polluted by litter, antisocial behaviour, noise and light? The Bill contains new measures on all those problems. It gives people the tools for the job. We must provide the resources and find the processes that will make it work.
Let me make it clear at the start that we welcome the Bill. All the evidence that we have seen suggests that the penalties are not strong enough to deal with problems such as fly-tipping, graffiti and the sheer volume of rubbish on our streets. In several Adjournment debates, the House has discussed how to deter people from committing environmental crimes. We know that action is needed. Although the Bill has drawbacks, the problems can be dealt with in Committee, resulting in an improved Bill.
We have to get across to people the message that they share responsibility for the appearance, the feel and the safety of our communities and that environmental crime matters. However, the Bill jumps around—in some ways, it is a dog's breakfast of a Bill, the result of the Government's failure over the years to consider whole systems for legislation. Now, we are left to tidy up. We have had a slew of legislation on tangential issues. The Waste and Emissions Trading Act 2003 was introduced solely to deal with reducing biodegradable waste, but it could have done so much more: it could have covered littering, fly-tipping and many of the other issues dealt with in the Bill. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which the Bill would amend, could have dealt more effectively with graffiti and fly-posting. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is to be dealt with in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, rather than in a planning Bill. I get the feeling that we are taking the populist approach of giving people what they want ahead of the general election, but we know that people are asking for much of what is in the Bill, so while we regret that many of the issues have not been dealt with before, we will support the Bill that includes them.
We want clean and safe communities. It is essential that there is much better management both of the big problems, such as fly-tipping and the damage it causes, and of the smaller, more mundane problems of littering and chewing gum that cumulatively spoil our environment. When a neighbourhood is littered, when graffiti is present and where fly-posting is rife, the area is degraded and degenerated. When we fail to dispose correctly of the products that we have used or no longer require, we have a mess on our streets, in our rivers and in our countryside.
The Government have a mess on their hands now. Total municipal waste increased by 19 per cent. between 1997 and 2003. We are at the bottom of the European recycling league and municipal waste is continuing to increase. Our streets are littered with more abandoned cars than ever before: in the past two years their number has increased by 37 per cent. to more than 300,000 a year. The amount of high-level radioactive waste has increased by 9 per cent. and no one knows what we are going to do with batteries. Fly-tipping continues to increase—by how much we do not know. Last summer, I forecast that fly-tipping would increase as a result of DEFRA's last-minute approach to the provision of facilities for hazardous waste, but the Government say that it has not—their figures do not show an increase. I went back to the people who were reporting the increase—the farmers on whose land lorry-loads of asbestos have been dumped. They tell me that, if they report the matter and the perpetrators are not caught, the authorities charge the farmer for tidying up, so they say nothing. There is a slew of unreported waste littering our commons, our farms and our countryside. It must be dealt with, which is another reason why we support the Bill.
I have met farmers who have repeatedly been stuck with the problem. Even if they have seen someone dumping waste on their land, the Environment Agency has not had the resources to follow up on detection so that it can secure a conviction and penalties. Under the Bill, the Environment Agency will continue to face a shortfall in its resources for detection. Getting a conviction and penalties is great, but detection is extremely important.
Does the hon. Lady accept that some landowners—only a few—abuse the system? Waste is brought in and they do not ask too many questions about what is being tipped. We need the Environment Agency to be more proactive about enforcement. Does she share my hope that the Bill will achieve that?
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point and one with which we must deal. There is a difference between people who are willing to litter the countryside or have their land used in that way and those who are innocent victims of others who arrive at night, dump stuff and disappear, to leave others with the cost. I am worried about the Bill requiring owners to clear their land if they were not responsible for the litter or the dumping.
It is amazing that the Tories are not supporting the Bill. They say that it
"focuses predominantly on urban issues while neglecting rural areas".
That is flawed thinking. Does the Opposition's amendment mean that it does not matter that streets look like tips? Does it mean that people should have to tolerate mess day after day? Does it matter that not enough is being done about abandoned cars? Do the Tories think it acceptable that someone living in a private house should set up a car dealership and park cars along the road to the detriment of the entire community? That is being allowed in Guildford, and nothing is being done to eradicate the problem. I am astonished. Do the Tories want fly-tippers to keep the means by which they commit their crimes and not have the vehicles that are being used for that purpose seized?
It seems that a hugely imaginative step is being proposed. It is one that the Environmental Audit Committee recommended, as did other bodies. We can start to see some remedies taking effect. If we are to have more building in the south-east on brownfield sites, we need to manage the waste that will be produced. Construction waste must be better managed and we must introduce legislation to deal with that issue, but the Tories oppose that approach. Will they be happy when construction waste continues to appear on farmland, in quarries and on commons? Is that what they want? They do not want to deal with fly-tipping on farmland, even though the National Farmers Union supports the Bill. Are they no longer talking to farmers?
The Local Government Association, which is chaired by the Tories, is backing the Bill. As I have said, the Tories are not doing so in the House. The Tories do not want spot fines for those who drop chewing gum on the streets, yet councils face enormous costs in clearing that nuisance. Westminster city council—I think that it is Tory run—spends £90,000 a year on removing chewing gum. There are 300,000 pieces of gum in Oxford street, but nothing is being done to change the disgusting habit of throwing used chewing gum on the streets. It seems that that is what the Tories want. Their approach is opportunistic. They are running after a bandwagon that is missing.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me but I will not go along that route. It is a question that requires a few moments in the early morning while we lie awake worrying about the matter. It is something that can be questioned. I am not sure about the reason.
I am worried that the Tories are not proposing anything to sort out the mess. Rural policy is wider than restoring fox hunting. The problem with environmental crime is poor management. Fly-tipping in the countryside is being left for landowners to sort out. There is a lack of management.
Dogs are out of control and present a nuisance. As Mr. Drew said—he is no longer in his place—it is not a matter of urban versus rural. It is an issue that affects us all. If we are to get tough on crime, we must not walk away from environmental crime that ruins communities.
The Bill deals with what is obvious and visible, but it wills the end without the means. We want to ensure that funding is available to local government. It is clear that it will need pump priming. I accept that there may be savings in the end but there must be a realistic beginning. I was interested when the Secretary of State touched on that topic. I look forward to hearing more about it in Committee.
We are faced with increased mountains of hazardous waste. The door is wide open for cowboys and we need to do more to tackle the problem. There are only minor penalties on conviction for those who spoil our environment. Perhaps we are all in agreement that they are too low. They do not provide an incentive to stop the man in the white van agreeing to remove rubbish and then dumping it as soon as he can. They do not do much to stop fly-posting or anything to deal with the litter associated with street handouts. It is clear that the penalties need to be increased if they are to present real incentives.
As the Environmental Audit Committee said, we also need to ensure that courts are prepared to impose real fines and not opt for the lowest penalty when the issue comes to court.
The Secretary of State suggested that owners should limit access to sites subject to fly-tipping. We need to ensure also that when that is done a periodic review is undertaken. When alleys are gated off in urban areas or lanes in the countryside, there should be full consultation to ensure that access is still available to farmers and that they are not penalised.
The Bill could do much but it has weaknesses. There is the fixed penalty system. Who is handing out the fines? Are there opportunities for appeal? What is the position of persistent offenders? The garage to which I have referred—it was a private house a few years ago—constantly exceeds the number of cars that are permitted to be parked on the road. That situation is factored into its costs. A fine of £100 is probably not sufficient in those circumstances.
Will councils employ private contractors? If so, how will they be managed? In my constituency, and I am sure in many others, car clampers have come to work on behalf of councils. They have been predatory and disgraceful in their way of working. They have extracted penalties equivalent to a week's wages. There seems to be little opportunity of appeal and I want to ensure that people are entitled to justice when issued with fixed penalties.
We have problems with parish councils that become litter authorities. I am not criticising the larger parishes that are successful and hold elections for their members but there are too many parishes where the members are unelected. I would not want an unelected parish council to have the powers that are proposed. If we want quality parish councils, we want elected parish councils.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Does she agree that the Government were right to make the elected requirement a key element of the quality parish councils, and encourage parish councils to make use of the powers that the Bill will provide in the context of becoming genuine, well-run and elected councils?
I welcome the Minister's comments. I hope that we will hear more in Committee about how the process will work.
We have a problem with Traveller encroachment. Somehow, it seems that farmland is, again, no longer considered important. Those of us who have farms in our constituencies constantly hear of the devastation that may be caused after Travellers have illegally occupied land and left it in a mess, with asphalt laid and other problems. These are issues that we need to consider in Committee. It is clear that they need sorting out. I have no problems with prosecutions where people fly-tip. If there are powers to take away vehicles, and those vehicles are used to tow Travellers' caravans, there needs to be clarity, because there may be a human rights issue. I hope that the Government will be able to provide clarification.
I agree with the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who mentioned the tragic incident involving a child in a car in the countryside. We must deal with abandoned cars in the countryside as well as in the streets. Abandoned cars are a blight on the countryside, cause pollution and, as we have heard, are a hazard.
There is also the problem of houses in multiple occupation where there are broken-down cars awaiting repairs. The Government are right to draw attention to the problem. With increased brownfield development and infilling in towns leading to reductions in parking places and several people sharing a house, there is often not just one householder. If two cars break down that belong to two owners in one house, how will the Government deal with that? There is less off-road parking for private vehicles than there used to be, particularly in urban areas. There is a balance to be struck between the people who live in an area, who have a reasonable right to maintain their cars on the street if there is nowhere else available, and the people who live around them. More clarity is required.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady about people who may need to maintain their car on the street, but would she not draw a distinction between an individual maintaining one car and someone running a business in the street?
The hon. Gentleman is right. We do not want people to repair cars on the street for profit and there is nothing in the relevant clause that we dispute.
There are gaps in the Bill, including, for example, the import and disposal of nuclear waste. Liberal Democrats, including my hon. Friend Norman Baker, regularly urge the Government to address the problem of nuclear waste, and it is time that they did so. Only last month, however, they announced that they are going to allow foreign nuclear waste to be buried in the UK. It is a pity that the way in which we deal with nuclear waste is not covered by the Bill.
There is no mention of penalising people who deliver junk mail, even when householders express a preference about not receiving it. We are the junk mail capital of Europe. We do not need all that junk mail and if someone says that they do not want it, we should make sure that their wish is respected.
"Focus" is a high-quality leaflet and I am sure that no one would regard it as junk mail. [Interruption.] As I have just been told, it is informative and factual.
We welcome the freedom that the Bill gives to local authorities. Unlike the Conservatives, we welcome an end to the insistence that an authority should always contract out the functions of disposal. Surrey county council, for example, is bound into an inflexible 25-year contract that costs a fortune to maintain and does not allow it to move easily to more sustainable waste management. That is wrong. If a local authority has the skills and the ability to undertake disposal and can compete with private business, why should it not do so? We should create the flexibility to put better waste strategies in place.
There is another dog that did not bark. People have talked endlessly about allowing councils to make variable charges for waste management. In its report of December 2002, "Waste not, Want not", for example, the strategy unit identified a package of measures to reduce the growth in waste volume, including more freedom for local authorities to introduce variable charging and schemes that reward households that increase their recycling and reduce waste volumes. Such schemes included council tax discounts for households that compost waste, rewards and prizes for homes that recycle rubbish and variable charging schemes to reduce council tax for people who recycle the most.
"potential for significant long-term gains."
What are those risks? There is unanimity among the main parties in the Local Government Association, which supports the proposals. In Parliament, however, that is not the case. Have the Government rejected the proposals out of cowardice, and are the Tories going backwards because they prefer to accuse others of stealth taxes than introduce constructive proposals of their own? Another Government scheme that could result in increases in recycling will not see the light of day.
Moving on to the problem of noise, I agree with Mr. Yeo that the Bill does not go far enough. It deals with faulty burglar alarms, but not faulty car alarms, which plague some individuals. Excess road and air noise are a sheer misery for certain neighbourhoods. Constituents of mine who live by the A3 suffer day in, day out from excess noise—they cannot sleep and their walls rattle. That is not acceptable, but there is nothing in the Bill to deal with the problem. However, we welcome the opportunity to gate alleys and snickets. There was a successful pilot in Liverpool, where 5,200 alley gates were installed. Domestic burglary has been reduced by 24 per cent., but we must ensure that access is granted to people who require it. We must consider what happens when they no longer need access, but we must also make sure that the emergency services fully support such gating. They must be provided promptly with information and maps so that they know which roads are open and which are not. Too often, the police are not provided with such information, and they lose the opportunity to catch miscreants because they do not know where to go.
We welcome action on light pollution, but there are worrying exemptions. In Committee, I hope that we can discuss permissive action. BAA invited us to take part in an environmental safari at Gatwick airport, so that we could see how it had attempted to reduce light emissions and make the transition to lighting from renewable energy sources. It has undertaken a voluntary initiative to save money and reduce light, but exemptions should be introduced only after consultation. They should not be automatic, because much more needs to be done. If a car showroom is opened close to a residential area light is shed everywhere. The problem is not picked up in the planning application, and it is only when the garage has opened that the council says, "We never expected that to happen." People need lighting for safety purposes, but it should be directed downwards, not outwards and upwards.
The Bill should address the problems caused by other pollutants. After a weekend of devastating storms and floods leading to loss of life and huge damage—the House will sympathise with the distress experienced by the people of Carlisle—the Government have missed the opportunity to tighten local government powers on climate change adaptation and mitigations. Climate change is the responsibility not just of national and international Government but of local government. We are concerned about the way in which fixed penalty notices will work and we need to look at that in Committee. On Thursday, we will debate the report by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit on some issues covered by the Bill which, in general, we support. It needs to be improved, but it is definitely time to introduce it.
I very much welcome the Bill, not least because tackling environmental crime has been a constant theme of my time as a constituency Member.
The very first lobby that I received after becoming a Member of Parliament in 1987 was from tenants of the Silwood estate in Deptford, who came to see me because 10,000 tonnes of spoil and waste had been dumped on the fringes of their estate. I soon learned that environmental authorities had limited powers to deal with the problem. Although I castigated them for failing to do so, I knew that it would be difficult for them to achieve very much. I was warned early on of the personal danger that I would face if I tried to tackle the criminals who were dumping the waste. A year later, I won a place in the ballot for private Members' Bills, and introduced powers to register waste carriers and to stop illegal carriers and dumpers in the Control of Pollution (Amendment) Act 1989. Since then, those powers have passed to the Environment Agency, but it is often local authorities and vigilant constituents who identify the criminals, which is why local authorities such as Lewisham have campaigned for extended powers for local authorities to tackle fly-tipping. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues have responded positively and introduced a raft of powers to do so in the Bill.
Other people's rubbish is a constant affront to most residents, and local authorities have a hard task dealing with the antisocial behaviour of a minority of residents and businesses. The courts may not regard leaving piles of rubbish in plastic bags on the landings of communal blocks as a serious matter, but such behaviour is soul-destroying for other residents. It is also hazardous, as bags leak, break, stain the walkways, create smells and physical hazards, and attract vermin. Lewisham council has secured two convictions for such offences and has 13 prosecutions pending. The council has been using existing legislation but very much welcomes the fixed penalty notices in the Bill, which will enable it to deal much more effectively with residents and businesses that leave their bins and rubbish in the wrong place. Likewise, the extension of responsibility for clearing illegally dumped waste to landowners as well as occupiers offers the prospect of clearing up those gardens with which we are all so familiar in private properties that are often vacant.
Local authorities need to tackle other sources that give rise to fly-tipping, such as local businesses that fail to produce waste transfer notices and arrangements. Using existing legislation, Lewisham council has secured 10 convictions over the past year, with more pending. But Nigel Tyrell, head of environment at Lewisham council, points out that for a large waste producer it could be cheaper to pay the proposed fixed penalty fine of £300 than to have a contract with a bona fide waste collection scheme. Local authorities will have to judge whether the existing legislation or the new fixed penalty fines are more appropriate in such instances to secure behavioural change.
The illegal commercial waste disposal operators continue to cause most damage. Recently, residents on the Honor Oak estate in my constituency reported frequent sightings of a lorry that pulled off the main road into their garage area, switched its lights off, deposited a load of rubbish and quickly drove away, its licence plate completely covered with mud. That is the kind of operator that local council officers want to get their hands on. I am delighted to see new powers in the Bill for the immediate searching, seizing and impounding of such offending vehicles. All too often in the past, such criminals have evaded justice, particularly when the driver was able to say that he was acting on his employer's instructions. The removal of that defence is significant. It was excavation work in docklands 20 years ago that began the massive fly-tipping of spoil in Deptford. The much welcomed development of the Thames gateway now poses a similar problem for Lewisham. We will need all the new powers in the Bill to combat today's criminals.
Lewisham has a proud record of environmental activity and already includes the environment in its crime and disorder reduction partnership. Over the past nine months Lewisham has removed more than 5,000 items of graffiti within six days of their being reported, which amounts to 30,000 sq m of graffiti. It has held 15 graffiti-busting days with residents, councillors and local businesses, reduced the average time to remove fly-tips to 1.7 days, removed 538 untaxed vehicles and 1,165 abandoned vehicles, and—despite the fears of the Opposition that this is so difficult—successfully prosecuted 30 people for the abandonment of their vehicles and 83 people for fly-tipping and litter.
The new power to remove and crush hazardous vehicles will have a significant positive impact on our street scene, and new powers to deal with people repairing vehicles on the road will also be extremely welcome to residents who have to live alongside those nuisances, but although car repair shops are, thankfully, not on every street corner, litter and graffiti often are. It is a sad reflection on our society that the Government must legislate further to tackle those scourges and use yet more taxpayers' money to clear up after the minority of vandals.
I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will see that the extension of litter offences is backed by a public information campaign aimed especially at young people. I hope, too, that residents will appreciate that council sweepers cannot return every five minutes to sweep up the litter of wrappers and fast food boxes constantly dropped outside newsagents and takeaways. Litter clearing notices and street litter control notices will, I know, be used to great effect locally. I am particularly pleased to see the power to restrict the distribution of fliers, handouts and pamphlets that can end up as litter. Recently, on a walkabout on the Crossfields estate in my constituency, I saw great bundles of fliers placed on the bottom step of the concrete staircases to the flats. In no time at all, such fliers are blowing all over the landscaped public areas of the estate and should definitely be banned.
Along with graffiti, fly-posting is probably the other offence that most ruins a local environment and creates an air of neglect, dirt and criminality. Lewisham council has half a dozen cases pending under current legislation, but that legislation, requiring the council to show that the beneficiary consented to the fly-posting, is highly deficient. The new powers should transform the council's ability to tackle this offence, which is particularly extensive in Lewisham.
The Bill is excellent. It tackles the many offences that ruin our local environment and cause such irritation and hardship to our constituents. As I have described, my borough is extremely active on a wide range of issues covered by the Bill and will undoubtedly do much more when it is given the new powers. It will also make excellent use of the revenue that it is able to retain from fixed penalty notices. All efforts to deter, detect and punish those involved in environmental offences are to be applauded, but we will never be able to do enough to keep our neighbourhoods clean unless we change attitudes and behaviour. I warmly welcome the Bill and hope that in due course it will be much used by our local councils, and that our constituents will join in the spirit of it as well.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I shall concentrate on the animal welfare aspects of the Bill, about which I questioned the Secretary of State during her opening remarks. Many colleagues in the House know me best for my partiality to cats, as I have been chief executive of the largest feline welfare charity in Britain. I am delighted to see Dr. Palmer in his place. He is a distinguished supporter of cat protection. However, the subject of my remarks tonight is dogs.
As a result of my work with cats, I have frequently come into contact with the dog welfare charities in our country, particularly the larger ones, such as the Dogs Trust and the Kennel Club. Because of that contact, a number of them have raised with me their concerns about the content of the Bill. They are not against the Bill and they are not cynical about it, but they have concerns, which they have also expressed to my hon. Friend Mr. Amess, who is a remarkable champion of animal welfare. I am delighted that he is present, and I hope that he will catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye to raise our concerns.
The Minister kindly wrote to us during the parliamentary recess. His letters during a recess are always welcome and make relaxing reading. On page 2 of his letter he extolled the fact that the Bill would bring in a "simplified system" for dealing with stray animals. The Bill repeals section 3 of the Dogs Act 1906, which gives the police power to seize stray dogs in public places. The Bill also amends section 150 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which gives the opportunity for dogs to be taken to police stations when they are found. The responsibility will pass from the police—not that they were dealing with it exclusively—to local authorities. That may well work, but a number of us have reasonable doubts. I hope that my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, who will represent the Opposition in Committee, will press the Government in detail. I wish I could be there to support her, but as I shall be chairing the Committee considering the Identity Cards Bill next door, I shall have to wait for the breaks to find out what progress she is making.
The council dog warden scheme is remarkable. There are many dedicated men and women out there in the most dreadful conditions and weather, in poky little vans, doing a great deal to round up stray dogs and find their owners or, if they cannot, have the dogs taken into care. The dog wardens, who are represented on a number of animal welfare charity forums, do a splendid job for pretty poor pay and in dreadful working conditions. They do that job pretty well 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There are exceptions, but not many.
Out-of-hours cover is necessarily provided by the police. Although the Government will doubtless elucidate this in Committee, I can find no reference in the Bill to what will happen after 5 pm or before 9 am and on Saturdays and Sundays, when council dog wardens are not available. No doubt the Minister will also tell us the cost involved, but that too is not really dealt with in the Bill.
Where will a wandering dog be taken? If a dog is worrying children in a park, who will come? Most people would think of calling the police, for not enough dog wardens are floating around local authority areas for them to be on patrol as often as the police should be. In many of our constituencies, there is likely to be confusion over who is responsible for controlling stray dogs that worry children in public play areas.
In an excellent briefing, which I hope will be given to those appointed to the Committee—if not, I shall ensure that they receive it—the Kennel Club poses a number of very good questions about that, and about the cost issue. A 1998 independent study estimated the council cost at some £15 million, but the O'Dowd report on police costs suggested £1.8 million. I am no mathematician, but even I can work out that there is a bit of a gap between £1.8 million and £15 million. Clearly it is difficult to put a figure on this, but it is incumbent on the Government to do so if they expect the House to change arrangements that have been in force for so many decades. I hope that the programme motion will give the Committee an opportunity to consider the issue in some detail.
It is not clear whether, once the police arrangements have gone, enforcement of care for strays will become a local authority responsibility 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no such requirement in the Bill. I hope the Minister will tell us whether he will issue guidance to councils, and what enforcement will be possible if councils have neither the money nor the will to carry it out themselves.
Animal welfare charities do a phenomenal job in caring for stray dogs. Obviously everyone knows about the RSPCA: I do not think we need blow its trumpet too much. Dogs Trust is undoubtedly a leader in the field, but excellent work is done by the Blue Cross, by a wonderful organisation called Wood Green Animal Shelters, and of course by the Kennel Club, which is the oldest such charity. They have come together in a forum called the Pet Advisory Committee, in which local authority dog wardens are also represented. I hope that, on Report if not in Committee, the Minister will assure us that he and other representatives of his Department have met members of those welfare charities—as well as the Pet Advisory Committee and dog wardens—to establish that the proposals in the Bill will work.
This is a big problem. Dogs Trust, known to many as the National Canine Defence League, helps more than 12,000 dogs each year in its 15 centres. That is an awful lot of stray dogs. It also spends £2 million a year on neutering dogs whose owners receive state benefits. More bodies than just local authorities are trying to cope with the problem of unwanted dogs, and Dogs Trust in particular helps council dog wardens. The fact remains, however, that there are more than 5 million dogs in this country—although the 8 million cats are clearly in the lead—of which about 105,000 stray. That is of course a natural instinct; they are not yobboes, and should not be subject to antisocial behaviour orders. They foul pavements, which is also natural. In some respects they even emulate the House of Commons: they make a noise, which for many of us is a natural function. The general public, however, understandably want to see some control, especially those who do not like dogs.
I appreciate that the Minister is trying to do something about those problems, but I am sure he will bear it in mind that dogs, in particular, provide an enormous amount of companionship for many of our constituents. They give huge enjoyment, especially to children, and I think they genuinely improve the human lot. When society seeks to control this wonderful species, as it seeks to do in the Bill, we have a duty of care. I have known the Minister for 20-odd years and I believe his intentions are good, but I regret to say that I do not think he has addressed that duty of care in the Bill. As it stands the Bill is simply a shrug, which is not good enough. I hope that he will deal with the issues I have raised—if not tonight, in Committee and on Report.
I can assure Derek Conway, on the basis of dealings I have had with my right hon. Friend the Minister on animal welfare issues, that my right hon. Friend will be assiduous in considering the animal welfare implications of the Bill—as he has been in the case of other Bills that have come his way.
I welcome the key provisions of the Bill, which are intended to drive up local environmental quality. The Bill will also play an important part in tackling antisocial behaviour in places such as my constituency. I want to focus on the aspects that will benefit constituents who have raised problems with me over many years.
Gating orders are an urban issue. Planners seem to have designed short cuts and public access routes to facilitate easy escape from the police rather than easy access to local facilities. An example is the alley backing on to the Fairway in Worcester, which links Otley close to Tolladine road. The pathway is unlit and contains two 90-degree turns, so people cannot see from one end to the other. Certain individuals have used that footpath to push over brick walls, damage fences and urinate into people's gardens. That is unacceptable behaviour, and gating orders might enable us to end such problems.
I am, however, acutely aware of the potential conflict—raised by my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping—between those who suffer from antisocial behaviour, who are victims of crime, and law-abiding people who just want to go from their homes to local facilities. I would like to know how the Minister expects local authorities and crime reduction partnerships to deal with that conflict. Who, ultimately, will have priority—victims of antisocial behaviour, or those who argue on libertarian grounds that they should have the right to use a footpath? If time limits are imposed, allowing gates to be closed in the evenings or whenever it gets dark, who will be responsible for the prompt closing and opening of the gates?
Gating could perhaps be used as a way of tackling antisocial behaviour on the part of older youths abusing children's play areas. There is a play area in Barley crescent and Tolladine road, and another in Great Oaty gardens, Warndon Villages. They are designed for children of five, six and seven, but tend to be occupied late in the evening by teenagers and older young people. Those whose homes back on to the play areas are subjected to the throwing of bottles into their gardens, and to fireworks and noise. Playgrounds are set on fire, and unwanted waste is generated. The play areas also attract individuals who seek to capitalise on the presence of groups of young people who may be particularly vulnerable to the selling of drugs and other illegal substances. The detached youth team in Worcester has worked hard, but the local council has failed it in not recognising the problem and in taking so long to establish a strategy.
I think that we would all accept that the antisocial behaviour and crime that abandoned cars tend to attract and promote are a real problem. A notice placed on a windscreen is like a green light for vandals, who think, "No one cares. Let us have some fun and damage that car." I welcome the fact that we will have speedier action on such behaviour.
In Worcester city last year, 414 abandoned cars were dealt with by the local council, so the issue affects areas that are perceived to be nice and middle-class and middle England, as well as more challenging areas. Therefore, I was dismayed to read a month or so ago that the local Conservative ruling group on the city council decided that dealing with abandoned vehicles was not a priority area for action. The Conservatives are trying to put over a party political argument in their motion, but it is one that my constituents will fail to understand.
Nuisance parking is not a recent phenomenon but it is a growing problem. For example, it is dangerous to sell cars on busy highways such as the London road going in and out of Worcester, and cars parked on the grass verges of streets such as Windermere drive are an eyesore. They reduce and devalue the amenities of the land in that area.
Litter cleaning notices will be a much welcomed, more flexible approach. We can start to enforce more responsible behaviour, so that wider communities are not disadvantaged by irresponsible individuals. I have walked Teme road and Avon road with the chief executive of the city council. Those areas are a disgrace and certain individuals are letting down the neighbourhood. Although one-off measures such as bulk waste or refuse collection are used to make an immediate clear-up, within a few months the area goes back to its normal state because there is no regular enforcement.
That is why I welcome the fixed penalty notice scheme and the different treatments that the council can apply. If the litter and waste are seen to be detrimental to the amenity of the locality, the local authority can take action, rather than having to wait to see whether an environmental health hazard is posed by all that litter and waste. The work of good local councillors such as Geoff Williams and Roger Berry in those areas can be supported by the Bill.
On graffiti, Worcester city has had the benefit for a number of years of a local benefactor, Mr. Cecil Duckworth and the services of his Duckworth Trust in helping to clean up the city and to rid it of graffiti. He is particularly keen to see graffiti dealt with and the problems caused by chewing gum highlighted because those are the two main problems that his group of workers has been working on. He was surprised, as I was, at Liberal Democrat opposition to provisions in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to restrict the sale of spray paints to those aged under 16. It is rewarding to see the Liberal Democrats' conversion on that matter, which I believe is what we heard this evening. I welcome the pressure that will be put on local authorities to ensure that the Anti-social Behaviour Act provisions on spray paint sales are enforced.
On the issue of future changes to local government structure, the Minister needs to be aware of changes that will increasingly need to be made to introduce more local community involvement. In Worcester, we have a two-tier local government structure, which has become increasingly outdated and needs to be changed, but the move to a unitary authority would create a larger local authority body responsible for the enforcement of many of the matters that are raised in the Bill. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider, as the Bill makes progress, how powers can be delegated to the equivalent of parish and town councils in urban areas or to local area forums.
In summary, I welcome the measures, which are long overdue. I believe that they will help local government to reconnect with local communities, so that my constituents no longer hear the excuse that legislation does not allow local government officers to deal with the problems that they see day in, day out.
I assume that all Members of Parliament wish to live in a clean environment and a pleasant neighbourhood. If they do not, they are not representing their constituents because that is what each and every one of our constituents wants. The question is, and I have listened to the criticism of the Conservative party opposing the Bill: will this Bill achieve that which our constituents want?
I received a letter today from a constituent who posed that question. He says:
"Leigh on Sea is a wonderful Town populated by decent people, it has an excellent sense of community and feels safe to all, that is until it gets dark.
In recent months gangs of youths can be heard shouting/screaming up and down the Leigh Road, often marauding down the quiet residential streets causing minor damage and being a general nuisance. On many occasions youths can be seen walking along swigging from large bottles of cider or cans of beer.
I feel the biggest problem however is the graffiti, they seem to go on the rampage about twice a week scrawling over shop fronts and anything else that takes their fancy, as I said this seems to be getting worse on a weekly basis. The problems this causes can be easily realised, the primary inconvenience must be constant expenditure redecorating the defaced areas.
I am sure that the shop keepers must inform the Police, however I also believe that there is a Public mentality that 'there's no point complaining as nothing gets done anyway' or that 'the Police are powerless against these pests'".
I am delighted that the Government acknowledge that the problems of nuisance parking, abandoned vehicles, littering, graffiti, fly-posting, dogs behaving badly, audible intruder alarms, noise, abandoned shopping trolleys, insect infestation and artificial lighting nuisance have all got worse since the Government came to power in 1997. However, this Bill does nothing whatever about the underlying issues that cause all these problems.
Given what the hon. Gentleman has just said, why is it that there are so few Conservative Back Benchers here today? Is it conceivable that they have stayed away because they do not want to be associated with the blunder of their Front-Bench team in opposing the Bill?
I doubt that very much. I think that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition are increasingly disgusted by the way in which Parliament is treated by the Government.
There were a couple of major news articles in the national newspapers commenting on the Bill. One said:
"Only yesterday, there were two more additions to the depressingly long list of ways in which we must now expect to be policed or regulated. An army of busybodies is to be employed to issue fines to people who drop litter. And, even more ingeniously, people who cause unnecessary 'light pollution' are now also to be fined.
The public reaction to this will be one of deep distaste. Most of us know how we should behave if our lives are to be remotely enjoyable. We also know that government has, or should have, better things to do than pass laws that only aggrieve the respectable majority."
Another article from a national newspaper said:
"We have been forced into a kind of police state, in which regulation after regulation is imposed to ensure we act in a way of which the Government approves."
On the specific point of fixed penalty notices, I was attracted by the Law Society brief which express reservations about the further expansion of the use of fixed penalty notices. In Essex, for example, we have a record amount of revenue from fines imposed as a result of speed cameras. The Law Society feels:
"It is essential that only properly trained officials are allowed to issue Notices."
It also says:
"If the majority of Notices are issued against the more deprived members of society, their financial situation will only be made worse.
The level of a Fixed Penalty Notice does not take into account the means of the recipient and could therefore have a disproportionate effect on someone reliant on benefits. The Government must weigh the risk of further social exclusion with its commitment to tackling the 'causes of crime'."
Like my hon. Friend Derek Conway, I think that we are entirely right to take this opportunity to speak on behalf of dogs. I fully support the work of Dogs Trust, undertaken under the leadership of its chief executive, Clarissa Baldwin. I faithfully enter my black Labrador, Michael, every year in the Westminster dog of the year show, and I am not yet embittered by his failure to win on seven occasions. However, I do hope that, in summing up, the Minister will address the points that Dogs Trust has brought to my attention.
Part 6 deals with dogs, chapter 1 deals with dog control orders, and chapter 2 deals with stray dogs. Like Dogs Trust, I have no objection to the principles behind the Bill, but I have considerable misgivings about the implementation of chapter 2. As my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said and as Dogs Trust points out,
"Current legislation lays responsibility for dealing with stray dogs jointly between the police and local authority. The Environmental Protection Act lays a duty on local authorities to appoint a person to deal with stray dogs, hold them for a period of seven days and then to dispose of them, usually to a re-homing organisation such as Dogs Trust. This person is usually called the Dog Warden or Animal Welfare Officer.
In practice in most local authority areas the Dog Warden service is active during normal . . . working hours. Dogs found straying during these hours are collected and dealt with by the Dog Warden and, in general, there is a reasonable level of service.
However at night and at weekends when the Dog Warden service is not available the police have a duty to accept stray dogs. Usually the Dog Warden collects such dogs when they come back on duty and become responsible for their care. Because most dogs stray by accident and most are exercised in the evenings and at weekends it seems likely to Dogs Trust that a significant proportion of stray dogs will stray during the same period. This supposition is borne out by anecdotal evidence."
I very much agree with Dogs Trust that
"local authorities must provide 24 hour cover for the Dog Warden service."
I am also attracted to what the Kennel Club has to say on this issue and I fully support its endeavours, under the leadership of its chief executive, Mrs. Rosemary Smart. It has drawn my attention to clause 68, which deals with responsibility for receiving stray dogs, the costs in respect of which my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup has already referred to. The Kennel Club
"would like to see an obligation placed on local authorities to provide an around-the-clock service for stray dogs".
Clauses 55 to 58 deal with streamlining the dog control byelaw system. I hope that DEFRA Ministers will carry out proper consultation before drafting model offences and establishing the process that local authorities should undertake in making dog control orders, and that they will establish that interested parties should be consulted. Clauses 59 to 62 deal with fixed penalty notices, and I hope that the Minister will consider getting DEFRA to set a national figure for fines for breaches of dog control orders.
Since 1997, the House has introduced a huge amount of legislation, much of which is never enforced. This Bill is all about electioneering. More duties are being placed on local authorities, without proper funding. Yet more legislation will be placed on the statute book that will not be enforced, and it will not produce what my constituents want, which is a cleaner neighbourhood and a better environment in which to live.
I want to discuss the deeply antisocial act of abandoning vehicles, and initially to draw on the experience of a constituent of mine, Mr. Chris Meadows, who is co-director of a company that manages an apartment building in Bedford. Over the years, the company has paid hundreds of pounds to have abandoned cars removed from its car park. In order to identify the owner, it writes to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency giving a description of the vehicle and its registration number and requesting the name and address of the registered keeper, for which a fee of £2.50 is payable. On receiving the information, the company writes to the keeper, who invariably does not reply. It then instructs a private contractor to remove the vehicle, the cost of which is £30.
Bedford borough council will take instructions from private property owners to remove such a vehicle, but the fee is £88.13. The council sends an officer to inspect the site and, depending on the state of the vehicle, a decision is taken whether to remove it within 24 hours or seven days. The appropriate notice is stuck to the vehicle, which in itself can attract acts of vandalism, thereby rendering it a greater hazard than it was originally. If a seven-day notice is attached, removal takes place a little later than that and the vehicle is stored for some 10 days, or possibly for a lot longer if it is still taxed. If no one claims it at the end of the relevant period, the council sells it to a breaker for disposal. The whole process can take a few weeks. The costs are borne by the landowner and, as I have suggested, they are much too high, as my constituent has discovered.
In cases where a vehicle is abandoned on private land—perhaps in a prominent location—and is likely to become a hazard, and where the owner is not known or is not prepared to co-operate, councils have to place a 15-day notice on it. In those circumstances, cost recovery can prove very difficult indeed, which explains the reluctance of some councils to act in such cases. But where a council does act, it is the council tax payer who invariably foots the bill.
The Bill, combined with other legislative changes that I shall refer to later, will assist in improving the way in which abandoned cars are dealt with. The key is the speed and scope of action. Instead of waiting seven or 15 days, councils will henceforth be able to remove a vehicle immediately, which in practice will mean within 24 hours. Of course, councils can so act now, but only in respect of vehicles that are found to be in a dangerous or wrecked state.
It was pointed out earlier that because the Bill establishes a discretionary power rather than a duty, it need not be acted on. However, it is pretty certain that it will create a general expectation among the public—and, I hope, among councils—that the common practice will be the removal of such vehicles within 24 hours: removal not only from the public highway and public land, but from private land, unless, of course, the landowner has given permission for the vehicle to be there.
According to clause 11, private land includes a road
"within the meaning of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984", which means any road to which the public has access. Crucially, that includes roads owned by housing associations and registered social landlords, for example, but what about other land owned by RSLs to which the public has access? If car parks, play areas and greens are not included, in practice the Bill's scope will be severely limited. I am sure that the Government intend that such areas be included, but the wording of clause 11 is far from clear in that regard. I look for reassurance on this point—perhaps right now.
Perhaps I can offer my hon. Friend that assurance. I agree that it is important for people to understand where legislation applies, and it is frequently the case that people get confused and wonder which areas are intended to be covered. I will be happy to give further chapter and verse about that when we debate the issue in Committee. I certainly underline the importance of the point that my hon. Friend is raising.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I also look for assurance that the Bill will deal with the issue of deliberate abandonment, about which I believe the courts have set some tests. That will be essential if the welcome idea of serving a fixed penalty notice on a known perpetrator for abandoning a vehicle is to become an effective deterrent.
Finally, I want to stress the efficacy of keeping accurate records of car ownership—or, more precisely, of the registered keeper of vehicles. The Finance Act 2002 amended the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994, and from January 2004 brought in continuous registration, which involves a monthly computer check of vehicle licensing by the DVLA. It has the ability to fine people up to £80 for not renewing or declaring a statutory off-road notice.
I know that my constituent, Mr. Meadows, hoped that this change in the law would require the registered keeper to be responsible for the costs associated with the vehicle in addition to the licence fee. I understand that, technically, it does not do that, but since the change was enacted, the DVLA generated an additional 4 million vehicle licensing, registration and SORN transactions in the first nine months of last year in comparison with the first nine months of the previous year—a considerable increase in business. More people are coming within the system and more accurate records mean that more people are traceable when it comes to parking fines or towing-away costs for abandoned vehicles.
It has to be acknowledged, however, that it will still be difficult to tackle people who deliberately operate outside the system—those who give false names and addresses and who frequently change address. They are the very people who disproportionately cause problems to everyone else through criminal and antisocial behaviour involving vehicles—not paying the road tax, for example, not registering ownership or not insuring vehicles, never mind abandoning them when they are no longer needed.
The reforms proposed in the Bill and the benefits of continuous registration will put the squeeze—if I may use that expression—on abandoned cars, but will not remove the need for more and more effective on-road enforcement. Thus, savings that should follow from speeding up the process may well need to be absorbed elsewhere. As to people who operate outside society and rely on false identity, we will not have the means to make life more difficult for them unless and until we introduce something that is not mentioned in the Bill—a system of identity cards.
In conclusion, I welcome the Bill, and especially its provisions to deal with abandoned cars. It proposes constructive steps, as I see it, without pretending to offer a total solution. It is part of a process. In my view, that process is in tune with my constituents' aspirations to tackle antisocial behaviour and improve the quality of the public realm.
I was rather perplexed when I saw that the Opposition were going to vote against the Bill. It seems to me that the problems that the Bill deals with are equally likely to occur in the northern parts of the rural area of my constituency as they are in the urban areas, and I would have thought that that was the same throughout the country.
Equally perplexing is the reference in the Opposition motion to the Bill bringing
"local authorities into conflict with police and other authorities which currently exercise powers in relation to abandoned vehicles and stray dogs".
One of the main points of the Bill is to give local authorities the ability to construct an overarching strategy to tackle many of those issues. The fact that powers are currently spread across different authorities and agencies is what brings the conflict into being at the moment, but the Bill is designed to tackle rather than exacerbate the difficulties to which the Opposition allude. I was also pleased to see that the quality of the local environment can be taken into account in crime reduction partnerships. It is important for them to have that ability.
I want to discuss part 6, which deals with dogs. Neither of the two Opposition Members who spoke about them is in his place at present, but I am sure that I am not alone among Government Members in having received many complaints about the packs of stray dogs that roam about the estates within our constituencies. They can cause huge problems for our constituents and they are difficult to deal with. The police attach low priority to that problem for understandable reasons: it is not one of their major concerns and looking after packs of dogs is not high among their priorities. Passing responsibility over to local authorities, which are generally more responsive to local needs, is a better way of tackling the problem.
I am not wholly clear about the changes proposed for dealing with dog fouling—another common problem in our constituencies. It appears from a cursory reading of the Bill that the fines can be levied only in places where a dog control area has been established. That seems a retrograde step—I hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurance, either in his summing up or in Committee, that that is not the case. I hope to hear that fines for dog fouling on pavements can be levied throughout our constituencies.
Moving on to fixed penalty notices, it is important that they are applied within the scale of fines that courts can levy for similar offences. Not doing so would undermine the belief that there is justice in the system. Once people feel that something is unjust, it undermines public confidence in the system. It is immensely important that people are supportive of the Bill. It is equally important that fixed penalty notices are viewed as an effective deterrent. I generally welcome the idea of allowing local authorities to vary the level of fines, which shows their responsibility and responsiveness to their communities. However, I am not fully convinced that local accountability in this particular case is more significant than the deterrent value of having a clear national tariff. It is another matter that I hope to explore with the Minister in Committee.
Similarly, I am unclear about the hypothecation of fines to local authorities and hope to discuss that further in Committee. I understand that it will provide an important new source of funding and enable local authorities to carry out their duties and responsibilities specified in the Bill. However, I hope that hypothecation will not mean tying down authorities too much, forcing them to use the funds gained from the fines to deliver goals specifically defined in the Bill. I want them to be able to use those funds for other purposes if they so wish. That is the thrust behind the present good idea of allowing good and excellent councils more discretion. I hope that we will continue to allow that to happen. As I understand it, the comprehensive performance assessment includes measures of environmental quality, so good and excellent councils will be in danger of losing their status if they do not achieve in that respect. I feel that that already provides sufficient incentive for councils to act in ways to promote the environment and that the proposals on hypothecation are therefore unnecessary.
Sir Paul Beresford mentioned clause 47, which gives powers to local authorities to run their own waste disposal authorities. As a former chair of an effective waste disposal organisation that was dismembered, on purely dogmatic grounds, by the previous Conservative Government, I welcome the proposal and hope that some local authorities are able to do that. I fear that it might be too late and that the huge costs involved will prevent it, but at least the proposal removes the pure dogma that existed previously.
The Bill will do much to improve people's attitudes to the environment. Statutes can do this, as we have seen in road traffic, where the wearing of seat belts and crash helmets and the use of breathalysers have made people more aware of road safety. That will be the case with the Bill. It is also important that we continue to educate and raise awareness through the work done by the Wigan-based ENCAMS authority, which enthusiastically supports the Bill, despite the fact that my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping did not include it in his list of organisations. ENCAMS works closely with schools and community organisations to raise awareness of problems such as litter.
The Bill will improve the environment in urban and rural areas and in communities throughout the country and it fully deserves our support. I shall be happy to vote for it tonight and will support it in Committee if chosen to be a member.
Some of the hardest problems brought to me by constituents at surgeries concern antisocial behaviour and bad neighbours. These problems—noise, litter, abandoned vehicles, graffiti and vandalism—are associated with urban areas but, as many hon. Friends have pointed out, they are not exclusively urban problems. It is a surprise that so few Opposition Members representing rural communities have attended the debate.
When these problems take hold, they can change the character of a neighbourhood quickly. When there is litter in the gutter, people begin to think that it is acceptable to chuck litter in the gutter. The same goes for dog fouling, or when people park inconsiderately on the pavement or grass verge, chewing up the grass in front of people's houses. If there is not prompt action to deal with that, and if the community does not see that the inconsiderate driver pays a penalty for his actions, these problems will mushroom.
Conversely, when prompt action is taken, and when that action is taken together with enforceable and enforced penalties applied to transgressors, it helps to instil a sense of community pride and people become less willing to transgress the rules that are clearly established in their neighbourhood. Prompt action helps.
Fortunately, the Bill has received a good measure of support in local government from all political parties, which makes it all the more surprising that the official Opposition plan to vote against it. I have looked closely at the representations made to the Government by City of York council, my Liberal Democrat-controlled local authority. The council welcomed many of the measures—a welcome that was reiterated by Sue Doughty, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats.
The council welcomed the proposal to include environmental crime as a specific issue for local crime reduction partnerships. The council supports the decision to extend the litter offence to all types of land, including aquatic environments; that is, to the River Ouse and the River Foss. In York, the river is an important part of the landscape and townscape, an important recreational amenity and a source of drinking water.
The council welcomed the extension of cleansing notice powers to include graffiti and fly-posting in areas outside London and welcomed the proposal for fixed penalty notices for people who put out their refuse on the wrong day. We all know the problems that that can cause when cats, rodents or other animals get into the plastic bags and scatter the refuse around.I could go on but I would rather make progress. I thank City of York council for its support for this timely Bill.
I particularly welcome the measures that the Government are taking to tackle noise from private parties, licensed premises and malfunctioning burglar alarms, and their decision to take on the problem of light pollution, which has attracted people's attention more recently. That is seen as a particular problem in the countryside but it can be a problem in urban areas in public parks or open spaces or with light from industrial estates.
City of York council said that, because this was a new area, some guidance would be needed from the Department, perhaps in the form of a code of practice suggesting how local authorities should respond and what levels of light pollution would require enforcement action.
The council said that free literature distributed by retailers, pubs and clubs often results in litter and that that is a city-centre problem in York at all times of the day and night. The council welcomes the proposals to require consent to be obtained from a local authority by the people distributing such literature, but it makes the point that that in itself will not solve the problem because it is not the companies who produce the literature who drop it on the pavement—it is people. The enforcement powers, including the fixed penalty notices for dropping litter, are important, too.
Last but not least, I should like to say a word or two about chewing gum. I particularly welcome the proposal in clause 27 to amend the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to define cigarette butts and chewing gum as litter. When I raised the issue at Prime Minister's questions on
Some of us see the masses of e-mails that we get as a form of litter in itself, but I have to say that I received very strong support for what I said about chewing gum from many members of the public by letter and e-mail. One e-mail, from Mrs. Inge Knight, said:
"Thank you for raising the question of chewing gum litter . . . If our council tax bill highlighted the cost maybe the amusement would fade somewhat and your excellent suggestion would be taken up. As you so rightly pointed out, the problem is easily solved, and the manufacturers could make themselves popular overnight, if they had the wit to provide easy disposal within the packaging. Maybe you should contact the Patent Office yourself, Mr. Bayley!"
I can assure her and the House that I will not do so because I do not want to stop the sensible suggestion that chewing gum be marketed in packaging that allows people to pop it somewhere in the back of the packet so that it is not dropped on the ground.
After I said what I did at Prime Minister's Questions, the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionary Association, which represents manufacturers, wrote to tell me that it works closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Local Government Association, the Institute of Waste Management, the Department for Education and Skills and others to find ways to tackle the problem. In particular, it proposes a campaign later this year, paid for by the manufacturers, to try to persuade people not to drop gum on the ground and I welcome that.
The manufacturers association asserts that gum litter is caused by the irresponsible behaviour of a minority of chewers. I do not know whether that is true, but if it is, that minority does an awful lot of damage. The LGA estimates that local authorities in England spent £150 million last year on removing chewing gum from our streets. The average clean-up cost in a town centre is about £20,000. The hon. Member for Guildford mentioned that Westminster city council spent £90,000 last year cleaning Oxford street. That took seven weeks, but within 10 days the problem had returned. The council estimates—I wonder which council official was sent out to count them—that there are 300,000 pieces of gum on Oxford street.
I support the polluter pays principle and welcome the Government's proposal of fixed penalty notices for people who drop litter, including chewing gum. I am glad that local authorities will retain the fixed penalty revenue, but I do not think that that will raise the £150 million that it costs to remove the gum. The producers must do more. I am not the sort of person who leaps at the suggestion of putting a tax on producers—there is no guarantee that the tax income would get into the hands of the people who do the clearing up—but I do think that the producers need to do something about their packaging, and I ask the Minister to confirm that the joint chewing gum action group involving the Government and the manufacturers will address the issue.
The fact that so many Labour Members are taking part in the debate shows how much people care right across the country about the need to tackle pollution, fly-tipping and littering in our neighbourhoods. I welcome the debate, but I wish we were having a proper one, not looking across the Chamber at empty Benches. In my constituency, these matters are just about at the top of the list of what people have to deal with and I welcome the fact that Ministers are bringing real proposals before Parliament. I admit that some areas of the Bill perhaps need more attention to detail, and that can be considered in Committee, but I am pleased that the Government are tackling the issues, sending out a clear message that dealing with litter and graffiti and making our neighbourhoods clean really matter.
We have heard a lot of references to the report of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, which will be further debated on Thursday. The way in which the Committee has taken evidence and helped to maintain pressure for doing something about problems in neighbourhoods and communities all over the country shows that the issue is one that we really have to tackle.
When the issues from the debate are looked at in detail, I hope that DEFRA Ministers will be able to use the expertise of the officers of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health to see what needs to be ironed out in Committee. I speak as a vice-president of the institute, which has huge expertise.
I am pleased that so many different organisations and associations that have been consulted have played a part in shaping the Bill. The fact is that many people support it, from the Local Government Association, ENCAMS and other environmental groups and organisations to working parties set up by, for example, the police. The fact that we have legislation that will remove responsibility for stray dogs from the police to local authorities shows that day-to-day, detailed work done by many people has been acknowledged. I am pleased that the chief constable of Staffordshire, John Giffard, took part in that working party and that there has been progress into legislation.
When I speak to my constituents, I learn that whether they feel good about the place where they live, ensure that it is kept clean and have a sense of pride and belonging to a neighbourhood and community is linked to how we deliver on our policies. The public realm should be spick and span and we must have a way of making sure that local authorities implement the new powers the Bill will give them. I hope that the Minister will respond on the points about the money needed for that. I take the point that money will come in from fixed penalty notices to help with the financing of the Bill's implementation, but it will be important to have some pilot projects through the Environment Agency to show how we can make even more progress and to roll out best practice. It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that, when he comes to consider possible areas with the Environment Agency, it will be possible that Stoke-on-Trent will be one of the beneficiaries. The Environment Agency has something like £5 million, and we must consider options for achieving a joined-up approach that goes across the areas of responsibility of the police and magistrates courts while also engaging local people and getting everyone signed up to implementing the new powers.
The Environmental Audit Committee has set up a sub-committee on education and sustainable development. In all my years in Parliament looking at legislation, I have learned that we can legislate until the cows come home, but if we do not carry people with us and help to educate people in the wider sense, we will fail to have the legislation implemented on the ground. I hope that the Department will come back to us on how we can embed environmental education and achieve some environmental literacy about what changes of attitude will mean if we get citizens signed up to a new agenda. How can that be done in the wider education agenda? I hope that the Government will consider that question in some detail.
Earlier, I flagged up the issue of gating. In many areas, there are problems with alleys and keeping refuse out of them. People put refuse out the day after the bin men have been, for example. I welcome what the Bill does in dealing with such antisocial behaviour. Clause 2 says that highways agencies and local authorities are responsible for those alleyways, but I am concerned that Stoke-on-Trent has something like 21 km of unadopted alleyways, which are back entries to terraced homes. It seems absurd in the 21st century to have alleyways that are effectively gutters for nine months out of 12, with mud and water running down them, no proper drainage and no proper lighting. If someone puts in a new carpet through the back door, it begins instantly to be destroyed because of that. I urge the Government to see whether, in the Bill or in a wider joined-up approach, they could find ways, through neighbourhood renewal or through funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to speed up the way in which we adopt alleyways. Whatever powers are introduced in relation to providing a clean and green environment and neighbourhood, if we cannot deal with unadopted back alleyways, we will not achieve the goal of clean and green neighbourhoods where people feel proud to live. I urge the Government to consider that issue, as well as the cost of drainage and lighting, and the ongoing revenue costs. Certainly, across Stoke-on-Trent, at least 10 km urgently need to be adopted. I hope that the housing renewal programme can also help with that.
At the start of this debate, we heard a lot about whether this is a Bill for urban or rural areas. My view is that waste and antisocial behaviour has no boundaries—it stretches across rural and urban areas. From the discussions that I have had with parish councils in Bagnall, Brown Edge, Endon and Stanley, I feel sure that they will welcome the powers that they will have, as a result of this legislation, to deal with such issues.
In an initiative earlier this year, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency came to help us deal with abandoned cars, which was a huge success. Anything that the Government do through this Bill to deal with abandoned vehicles much more quickly, to stop problems such as youths leaving them abandoned on nature reserves and people being injured, is welcome, as they are a blight on our neighbourhoods.
I sincerely hope that the Bill will have a swift passage, with an opportunity to discuss some detail in Committee. I hope that a strong message will go out across the country that Labour Members really care about this Bill and envisage it making a real improvement to the lives of people the length and breadth of the country.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, as I am one of the many Labour Members who have been working hard to get these issues to the top of the agenda. Many of my hon. Friends have spent the past few years using every parliamentary device available, whether private Members' Bills, ten-minute Bills or early-day motions, to promote these issues, because they are of concern to their constituents. I am grateful that the Government have been brave enough to take on these issues, for which many would ridicule us. This is an example of MPs devoting time and attention to reaching out to their constituents knowing long before the policy wonks and editorial writers that the issue was important to people. I am delighted that over the past few years we have been able to introduce more and better measures in the fight against graffiti, abandoned cars, fly-tipping and so on. The Bill is a further move in the right direction.
In a survey that I carried out not long ago of the views of hundreds of my constituents, I discovered that the principal worries of people in Mitcham, Morden and Colliers Wood were crime and environmental quality-of-life issues such as graffiti, abandoned cars and fly-tipping. Those were the top priorities of nearly two thirds of my constituents. On almost every question, respondents supported the toughest measures, including imposing fixed penalty notices for environmental crimes such as graffiti, vandalism and litter, even on children—not for them the squeamishness of the Tories that we have seen today. Support for new powers was above 90 per cent. on almost every measure. That is how strongly people feel about them.
Every time we attempt to crack down on chewing gum, however, as my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley suggests, we are laughed at by some high-minded commentator. We heard some examples of that from Mr. Amess. We know that they are wrong, however, because unlike some we suffer from the same problems that our constituents experience. Because of the work carried out by MPs in giving that information to Ministers, we have seen: action against graffiti and a ban on the sale of spray paints to children; councils getting powers to remove graffiti from street furniture owned by the utilities; continuous registration of vehicles, which has reduced the number of untaxed cars on our streets by two thirds; and powers for councils to check firms' waste removal contracts, so that unscrupulous businesses can no longer just dump their rubbish on our streets.
MPs who work hard in their constituencies know that people hate graffiti, litter, fly-tipping and abandoned cars. We know that they want meaningful punishment for people who are guilty of such antisocial behaviour. That is why Back-Bench Labour MPs want the fight to continue, and why we support this Bill. It remains frustrating, however, that many existing powers are not yet in wide use, and that authorities are still only learning about how they can make a difference. I want to concentrate on that issue in the time that I have left.
My constituents support what the Government are doing, but people's comments in the survey that I mentioned earlier also give a strong sense of frustration. They need reassurance that new laws will be firmly policed and that there will be a strong chance of the perpetrators being punished. As one couple told me:
"Unfortunately, the reported number of prosecutions for any of these offences is extremely low and, in some cases, non-existent. I believe it is pointless to introduce further legislation which will not be enforced."
Another constituent said:
"Although I believe that the measures will help, the most effective deterrent is the probability of being caught and punished".
People believe that the Government are sincere in our intentions, and support our proposals, but they are concerned about our ability to deliver. They hear stories about lenient punishments that do not begin to cover the cost of the damage caused. For instance, in Merton—of which Mitcham and Morden forms half—Shane Simms admitted damaging buildings including a mosque and graveyards and peppering his tag all over buses, lorries, telephone boxes and many private and business premises around the borough. He caused tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. The police, Merton council and many others invested hundreds of hours in his case, yet he ended up getting community service.
I want the courts to be tougher on vandals, but I also want to ensure that bodies such as Merton council and the police do not spend time and money chasing people who commit vandalism, graffiti or even littering without being able to cover the cost. Unless local authorities can afford to use their powers, we can be fairly sure that these problems will remain.
Last year, the Government accepted my suggestion that statutory undertakers must keep their street furniture graffiti-free, and that if they do not, Merton council, and several others in the pilot scheme, can step in, clean the graffiti and bill the companies for cleaning costs. Unfortunately, Telewest is refusing to comply, and Merton has not yet taken action. I hope that it will do so, because this is a dreadful problem, and I do not want Telewest to get away with it. That highlights a difficulty, however, because if councils do not have the front-end resources or the willpower to deal with the issue, or to recover all the costs, such policies will not completely solve the problem. Although other organisations have improved their approach as a result of these powers, it takes only a few antisocial organisations, such as Telewest, for the problem to persist. Similarly, Merton council already has the power to fine people who drop litter £50, but it does not do so—not a single fine has been applied—because the process is complicated, and councils cannot recover the full cost.
The Bill will tackle many of these problems. It will enable councils and the Environment Agency to recover investigation and clear-up costs of fly-tipping. It will allow them to recover the costs of returning abandoned shopping trolleys to their owners—I am sure that that will be a source of amusement for tomorrow's papers. It will allow them to fine businesses that fail to produce waste transfer notes and to keep the receipts.
I know for a fact that Merton, and councils like it, would love to be able to take advantage of the powers in the Bill, but I want to ensure that they can do so without having to increase the amount of money that they need from council tax payers. The last thing that I want is for people to accuse us of creating new powers that are subsequently never used. That is why we must monitor what happens on the ground when these powers are introduced, to ensure that they are being used, and if they are not, we will consider what the disincentives are.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality launched "Living Places", he said:
"Enforcement bodies need useable powers . . . with the option of reclaiming costs. The powers that exist are regarded as limited and weak."
He also said that
"we want to ensure that those who are responsible for ensuring that our public spaces are clean and safe have the powers that they need . . . We need everyone from businesses to community groups and individuals to share a common sense of pride and respect for our shared spaces".
I agree. My constituents have to pay more and more through their council tax to clear up fly-tipping, graffiti, abandoned cars, litter and so many other things.
Unless we can reduce antisocial behaviour and improve the environment, we will see a decline in participation and in voting, because although people may think that we are good at improving the big things—unemployment, the health service or the economy—we cannot allow them to feel that we are powerless to improve the condition of their streets. For the sake of thousands of people in my constituency and in others, who want to see cleaner neighbourhoods, where they feel safer and in more control, I support the Bill.
This is a welcome Bill, which will provide relief to our constituents who daily face the myopic behaviour of a minority of people who defile and demean our local communities. It provides more powers for local councils and the police to tackle the low-level environmental despoliation of our streets and green spaces, and gives local people a greater voice in that seemingly never-ending struggle.
My experience on a recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into these issues taught me that there is no ready institutional answer to dealing with the antisocial mentality and dysfunctional behaviour that lead some people to make life a misery for their neighbours. When there exists a significant minority of people who simply do not care about the impact of their behaviour on others, it is not easy to bring them into line, but laws that give local communities the protection they need are clearly required. The Bill goes a long way towards addressing that deficiency.
I feel obliged to say, however, that the Government's assumption that extra resources will not, in general, be needed to make the legislation really effective needs to be carefully assessed. I say that even though we now have more police officers than at any other time in history. We now have police community support officers, and as a member of the Standing Committee on the Police Reform Act 2002, I seem to recall that there were people on both sides of the House who thought they were not a good idea—but how the sceptics have been proved wrong. We have also witnessed some of the largest increases in local government funding, well above the rate of inflation, and next year's settlement is no exception.
There are, however, still aspects that I hope, after this debate and other representations, the Government will consider carefully. In my district, covered by Leeds city council, with a population of 750,000 people, we had until recently an innovative and determined Labour-run authority that was bent on investing more in fighting antisocial behaviour. It introduced a noise nuisance hotline and antisocial behaviour crackdowns, helped to secure more PCSOs than anywhere else outside the Metropolitan police area and generally sought to be aware of people's concerns.
Yet antisocial behaviour does not cease, and it seems that money cannot always be saved in tackling it—perhaps it is simply that our expectations are raised. For example:
"In 1998/9 the Council allocated £10,000 to remove graffiti and illegal flyposting from the city centre, which was more than adequate. In the current financial year, more than twice that amount has already been spent and not all graffiti is being removed."
Those were the words of John Kearsley, the council's chief support officer, in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee in February 2004. He went on to say that at that time there were just 13 dedicated environmental enforcement officers to cover the whole city. Clearly, with the extra powers conferred on the council, which will be well publicised, not least by those of us who will be voting for them tonight, public expectations will be raised. New powers do not always mean that extra resources are required, but in this case they will be required, and we shall need to be alert to new ways of finding the money to achieve the Bill's objectives.
Let us consider alley gating. The idea of gating off alleyways, or ginnels as we call them in Leeds, is excellent, provided proper consultations are carried out. I can think of several areas in my constituency where the potential for gating is evident, but in one case where a ginnel was gated, the overall design fell somewhat short of a complete solution, as not only the entrances needed gating but the boundaries of the ginnel, adjacent to people's gardens, needed extra protection. Miscreants will simply go through people's gardens if the fencing is not up to the job. All that costs money, and the sums are not insignificant. An effective gating system could cost tens of thousands of pounds. In Tingley, in my constituency, I talked to constituents about gating a network of ginnels that connected different streets, the main branch of which was the real problem, but it was fed by tributary paths. In such a case, gating would be an expensive solution and even then, because of its nature, not all residents would want interference with their rights of way.
To make the powers effective, we will need to find new resources. Certainly, some will come from more effective working at local level, but there are clearly resource issues in both capital and revenue terms, especially if we want more dedicated environmental enforcement officers. On the latter point, it is obvious that noise and light pollution problems are primarily night-time complaints. The staffing costs are consequently higher, and may not be easily accommodated simply by finding more effective ways of working—perhaps through shift patterns.
I want to comment on some other aspects of this excellent Bill. I welcome the extra powers that parish and town councils will acquire to enable fixed penalty notices to be given out for things such as littering. Thanks to the Labour Government, such councils can now make a much bigger contribution to combating such low-level environmental crimes; for example, by helping to fund PCSOs. Once again, Labour's crime fighting initiatives, despite meeting initial opposition, have been grasped locally by all parties, some of which even pay us the compliment of taking the credit for them.
The Bill proposes regulations on how the receipts from such fixed penalty income should be spent. I hope that in the early stages such money will be used solely to offset the costs of employing people, such as PCSOs, who have a role in enforcing the law. Such legislation will have a far greater impact if there is a clear causal effect all the way through, so that people can see how transparently and effectively it is working, and that it does not become just another funding stream for the general pot.
Some parish councils might like some of the money collected from fixed penalty notices to be spent on all sorts of other things, the impact of which would not be so evident. Where that happened, parish councils might be less likely to improve their overall effectiveness, and might instead try to extend their functions beyond what is appropriate to that level of local government, which after all is funded by the not so accountable means of a precept. I know from local experience that precepts can be greatly increased without a commensurate increase in service delivery. Money has sometimes been used to increase balances at the taxpayer's expense. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that the use of extra powers in lower-tier councils is carefully monitored.
I very much welcome the new controls to be placed on the free distribution of printed matter, much of which is distributed on behalf of businesses. Of course, they have to advertise, but far too much of that material ends up on the streets. In my constituency, in the circulation area of a free weekly newspaper, copies are as likely to end up in the garden or on the doorstep as through the letterbox, adding to the litter problem, and in some cases letting burglars know which houses are unoccupied. In the same category, sadly, fall a number of charities, which chuck plastic collection bags on our doorsteps or leave them hanging out of the letterbox. Presumably, the idea is that if people have nothing to put in the bags the collectors will pick them up on their next round, but that does not always happen.
Charities and some other groups are exempt from the provisions of clause 23, but they should not be exempt from the expectation that they should adhere to the standards imposed by statute on others. I would also appreciate it if the Minister would make it plain whether the exemption for religious organisations is to be defined in the Bill in the same way as the protection of religious freedoms is defined in the draft convention on human rights, to ensure that discrimination on grounds of one's religion, or none, does not take place in the context of clause 23.
Finally, noise nuisance is addressed in the Bill in terms both of alarms going off and of noise from premises generally. Although those are serious problems, I wonder whether they are on the same scale as what is, I believe, a more prevalent nuisance: noise from cars and other vehicles. Would it be possible to extend the provisions to vehicles? Car alarms seem far more prone to go off than burglar alarms, and the other type of car noise—from monster bass sound systems—is a real and deliberately manufactured nuisance. How many streets are blighted by those mobile noise terrorists, who clearly cannot hear anything outside their vehicles, and who often, because of their semi-blacked-out windows, can hardly see anything either, as they drive around? Such vehicles are almost as bad as the motor cycles that have had the silencers knocked out of their exhausts.
I do not understand why some people want to advertise their stupidity, but advertise it they do, causing considerable annoyance to residents who just want to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet in their own home. I hope that the Government will ensure that the use of fixed penalty notices for noise pollution can be made more widely available to tackle that problem.
This is a very important Bill indeed. That is demonstrated not just by the number of Labour Members who are seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but by the fact that the public think so too. One does not have to knock on too many doors or stand on too many doorsteps to know that. I rarely come across anyone who wants to discuss the five economic tests for the euro, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, or even the Human Rights Act 1998, but I regularly come across people who are concerned about litter, fly-tipping and abandoned vehicles. Those people will be amazed that there is no interest at all in that tonight among Opposition Members, and they will be shocked that the Conservative party will vote against the Bill.
My particular interest in the Bill relates to litter. I introduced two private Member's Bills on litter in 2001 and 2003, and I have always believed that litter is a very serious issue; it is not just unsightly, but a health risk, and it affects urban and rural communities, streets, open spaces, and in coastal constituencies such as mine, our beaches that mean so much to us.
It is an important matter in my constituency. My local newspaper, the Lowestoft Journal, has been running a campaign to clean up the streets for some time. People write in and report things to the paper; it focuses on the issue, and the aim is to put pressure on the local authority to do something about it. The campaign has had only limited success, because the truth is that we in this country are not very good at dealing with litter. The culture of litter management is wrong.
Despite having laws that prohibit the dropping of litter—fixed penalties were introduced as long ago as 1990—most of the time, if we are truthful about it, we tolerate that practice. We walk around in it for most of the day, and we concentrate our efforts on clearing it up, at a huge cost—something like £450 million a year—but we then complain if the council or someone else does not clean it up properly or effectively. That approach is rather like that taken by Sisyphus: it offers no solution at all. There is evidence that the more effective and efficient we are at clearing away litter, the more of it is dumped, especially in terms of fly-tipping and abandoned cars. We have not tackled the problem at source, and we have not seriously enforced our litter laws.
The Government doubled the fixed penalty fine to £50, but, as I said in introducing one of my private Member's Bills, no more than about 3,000 fixed penalty notices were issued a year. I have further details. I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the figures that I gave earlier; they relate to the period before November 2003, when the Local Government Act 2003 came into force, but they make the point about how bad the then situation was. Only 76 out of 359 local authorities issued any fixed penalty notices at all, and of the 1,366 notices that were issued in that period, 624—nearly half—were issued by just five authorities. So if authorities take litter seriously, they can get down to dealing with it, but most authorities do nothing about it at all.
The problem has been that those local authorities have not had the resources to carry out the enforcement because they had to pay the money raised by the fines to central Government. In fact, very little money reached central Government because hardly any enforcement was taking place. So when I proposed those private Member's Bills, I introduced the simple idea of allowing local authorities to keep the revenue from the fixed penalties to provide an income stream for enforcement—in other words, as has been said, to make the polluter, not the taxpayer, pay for dealing with the problem of litter. I was delighted when the Government incorporated that idea in the Local Government Act 2003, but I expressed concern at the time to my right hon. Friend the Minister about whether local authorities would take up the new powers that were given and spend that revenue specifically on enforcement or in a broader way.
The pilot schemes that took place during the year before the 2003 Act came into force showed that authorities, such as Newcastle and Manchester—two of the five that had issued fixed penalty notices—could have success, but that even some of the pilot authorities that had signed up to public service agreements did nothing to use the powers that they were given. Since the 2003 Act, some progress has been made, but in the year 2003–04, still only 7,500 fixed penalties were issued for littering—not a lot nationally for the amount of litter that is dropped on our streets and open spaces.
We know from our own experience that many local authorities—probably most of them—such as my own, Waveney district council, have done absolutely nothing. They have not taken up the new powers. They have not changed their own culture of how they tackle litter. That was picked up in the Audit Commission's recent comprehensive performance assessment of Conservative-controlled Waveney district council that said:
"Key areas of weakness include weak performance in maintaining a clean and tidy environment. Street cleaning is not effective in Waveney. The council does not make full use of the range of enforcement powers available although it has effectively used some powers including those to tackle litter on private land. The dog warden service has been discontinued and, although the street wardens tackle a wider range of issues, they do not have the power to issue on the spot fines for dog fouling or littering."
The problem is that the council has not shared those findings with the public, so they are still not aware of what their council should be doing.
I very much welcome the Bill. I particularly welcome the measures that deal with litter, specifically the idea that local authorities can decide, within guidelines yet to be given, what the fixed penalty should be, but the default amount will be £75, so we can look forward to some heftier fines, thus producing a bigger income stream for those local authorities that take up that option. Local authorities will no longer have an excuse for not using the powers available to them.
I welcome the fact that beaches will be defined as areas where the litter law takes effect. I am delighted that it is also proposed that it will be an offence to drop litter on private land as well as on public land. It is a good idea that well-organised parish and town councils will have some powers. It is a particularly good idea that litter authorities will be able to authorise individuals other than their own employees to issue fixed penalty notices, as there have been some problems when using contracting companies.
My final point is that there will be no excuse for councils not to take up the new powers, but the Government and, indeed, the House still have a role in ensuring that they take them up. We do not want postcode litter enforcement in this country. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether his Department will carry out an annual survey of how many local authorities use the fixed penalty powers. Will he survey the number of enforcement officers employed by each local authority and the number of fines issued by each local authority? May we please have a league table, which is monitored? Perhaps we should consider penalties for not using fixed penalties, but we must change the culture, putting the onus on the polluter, not the taxpayer.
Our constituents care about litter, and they want greater action to be taken. They are proud of their neighbourhoods, and they want them to be clean. As taxpayers, they want such action to be taken. They want to make the litter louts pay. If we can focus our efforts on that, we would have cleaner neighbourhoods all around this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate on this important Bill. I am pleased in particular to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Blizzard, whose constituency is totally different from mine. His is coastal and mine is inland, although this debate points up the fact that we share the same problems to do with the quality of our local environment.
Most of us remember the European elections in 1999, when the opportunity to take a swipe at the Government was taken by those who did not bother to vote or who did not vote Labour. Notionally, almost every Labour seat gained in 1997 would have been lost at a subsequent general election if that result in 1999 had been replicated. Why am I talking about the 1999 European elections in a debate on this Bill? One seat gained in 1997 that would not notionally have been lost in 1999 was that of Brent, North.
I had a discussion about that result with my hon. Friend Mr. Gardiner, who is not present but is aware that I was planning to refer to him. That led me to import into Reading, East what became known as the Gardiner method. I have spent almost every weekend since knocking on doors in my constituency. I am not unusual in that; many hon. Members are regularly to be found on the doorsteps—otherwise we would not be standing here this evening referring to what our constituents tell us on such occasions. However, most MPs use the roving surgery method, whereby leaflets are delivered and people are asked to put one in their window if they want their MP to call on them. The MP and their team then call on those displaying the leaflet. The Gardiner method is different: everyone gets a leaflet saying that their Member of Parliament is coming to see them, and every door is knocked on. Every household is contacted and asked whether there is anything at all that they want to raise with their MP.
This is not the occasion to enter into a debate about the merits of different methods of contacting our constituents, but the Gardiner method produces an unprompted view from my constituents on what bothers them, and that brings me to today's debate. What have been raised most with me are the very matters with which the Bill is concerned: abandoned vehicles, fly-tipping, fly-posting, graffiti, dog mess. I believe that that experience is shared by my hon. Friends. I echo the regret that so few Opposition Members are present; I imagine that their constituents will have noticed and that when the election comes they will vote accordingly.
I have often made the point publicly to local journalists in my constituency about what matters to people, and those journalists have expressed surprise that constituents are not more concerned about the war in Iraq or national themes such as the freedom of information. Those are not the things that people raise on the doorstep. If one goes out and talks to people where they live about what matters to them, the issues raised are the subjects of this Bill.
That is a powerful argument against those who deride the Bill as not important. We have seen some of that derision reflected in the media. I read in one national newspaper over the weekend that the Bill was a rag-tag piece of legislation, lacking in vision and typical of what might have been expected from John Major's Government before 1997. I suggest that the journalist who wrote that talks to real people about what concerns them. That journalist will find that the Bill does concern people.
In March 2001 I initiated an Adjournment debate on abandoned vehicles—one of the first occasions on which that issue was raised in the House. Action did follow that debate, in Reading and Wokingham, and nationally. I very much welcome the even greater powers that the Bill gives councils to remove some abandoned vehicles from the street immediately. The sometimes lengthy delays in removing such vehicles, which become a hazard, concern people.
I also welcome the powers to deal with nuisance parking—offering for sale two or more vehicles or repairing a vehicle on the road as part of a business. Too many times it has been difficult to get action taken against such vehicles, but the practice has caused problems for small garages in my constituency, which pay for premises and other necessary overheads. People repairing vehicles on the street will also pour unwanted oil down drains, causing environmental problems. The new powers will therefore be welcomed not just by individuals but by small car repair businesses in my constituency.
I understand why the power to deal with offering vehicles for sale has been applied to two or more vehicles. After all, if someone wants to sell their own car, they might put a sign in the window offering it for sale and we do not want to penalise people for parking their car on the street or in their drive because they are offering it for sale. However, someone in my constituency serially offered vehicles for sale from the roadside at a secondary shopping centre. Each time only one vehicle was on the street, but as soon as it was sold, another appeared. The mobile phone number given to contact if interested in one of the cars was the same in all cases. Colleagues of mine rang the number on more than one occasion and the same person always answered. That person was using the public highway as a garage, causing a nuisance to my constituents and businesses, and the parking space taken up by the vehicle could not be used by those wanting to go to the shopping parade—yet nothing could be done by the police or the council.
I am concerned that the Bill would not offer an opportunity to deal properly with such a nuisance and I hope that my right hon. Friends will try to find a way to address that problem as the Bill progresses. Perhaps an amendment could be tabled to change the number of vehicles from two to one but include provision about intent to sell as a business. In that way, the nuisance that businesses and constituents have raised with me arising from a single, serial vehicle seller could be dealt with, but ordinary people trying to sell their own cars would not be caught by the provision.
To take issue with the journalist who disparaged the Bill over the weekend, let us consider the new requirement for local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to take antisocial behaviour affecting the local environment into account in developing crime and disorder strategies. That is most welcome, as it will put the views expressed to me by my constituents on the doorsteps of Reading and Woodley at the heart of action by our police and local councils to tackle that nuisance. The concerns expressed to me will be put at the centre of plans to tackle the nuisance that people experience in their everyday lives.
The greater use of fixed penalty notices as proposed in the Bill is most welcome too, particularly the opportunity for local authorities to keep the income from the fines to pay towards cleaning up our environment. I realise that people might use the same argument against that as they do about fines from speed cameras. My response is the same: "If you don't want to pay the fine, don't do the crime." I hope that the hypothecation of income from the fines will allow the expansion of services to catch people littering, fly-posting, fly-tipping, painting graffiti and allowing fouling by dogs.
In particular I welcome the opportunity for parish councils to issue fixed penalty fines in response to some of those problems, and I look forward to Woodley and Earley town councils in my area coming up with imaginative schemes to deal with that nuisance. It is what the people living in those areas want. I just hope that because Woodley is run by the Liberal Democrats it does not suffer the same fate as Woodley centre did when the Liberal Democrats ran Wokingham council and forgot to bid for money for closed-circuit television to tackle crime. I hope that this time the council will be responsive to its residents and that I will not have to run another campaign among local people so that the council does what it should.
There is one aspect that the Bill does not cover but which I would like to see in it: the power for local authorities to remove unnecessary street furniture. My constituency covers the entire town centre of Reading. In the main pedestrianised area of the town centre, there are a number of public payphone kiosks. The company that installed the kiosks has gone out of business and it is no longer possible to use them, but they remain in the street, getting in the way of people walking along it. They have been vandalised and so have become dangerous, yet the council is not currently in a position to remove them. Even if it did remove them, who would pay for doing so? The non-existent company cannot do so; perhaps the taxpayer would have to pay. I want a power in the Bill to remove third-party street furniture in the interests of safety and amenity. It would follow the philosophy of the rest of the Bill if the council were able to claim against the company responsible, or even against the administrators or receivers, for the cost of removing redundant third-party street furniture.
I welcome the provisions on fly-tipping. Far too many people think that they can avoid their responsibilities to the environment by dumping their rubbish. They cost all the rest of us, because we have to pay for the removal of such rubbish.
This is an important Bill for tackling the problems that affect people where they live. It is an example of this House and our Government doing best what they should do: introducing legislation to make the lives of ordinary, hard-working people in this country better.
Like my hon. Friend Jane Griffiths, I welcome the Bill—and I know that the people of Stevenage do, too. I have been incredibly frustrated in the seven years that I have been an MP because I have been unable to do anything about the things that concern my constituents most. Labour Members have talked a great deal about that, but Conservative Members have been mainly absent or have derided the Bill. They must be out of touch with what is happening in the real world.
My constituency is both urban and rural. Some 59,000 of my voters are in the urban area. Another 9,000 are in a very rural area. The problems are the same, however. There is not a divide. I live in the rural area and littering is worse there than it is in the urban area.
I want to concentrate on the problems facing a new town and the opportunities that the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s gives the graffiti artist. The concrete walls are the perfect canvass for graffiti. The underpasses are crying out to have things painted over them. The chewing gum that attaches itself to the town centre costs £45,000 a year to remove. If Westminster is spending £90,000 on de-gumming Oxford street, just imagine what we are doing in Stevenage.
I am not a chewer. I do not know how many hon. Members would own up to that vile habit, but I know that some do it. I have even seen some Ministers do it on the Front Bench, and I hope that the gum is disposed of well. Britain has an untidy culture. We only have to cross over to Paris to see the difference in people's attitudes. We should look at how people maintain their homes. I confess to being a tidiness freak. My five children say that I am in politics so that I can tidy up the world. This is my attempt to do so. I am glad that the Government are giving me a chance to pursue that because we need to tidy up.
Stevenage needs gating because the structure of the pedestrianised alleyways built by the planners of the 1950s and 1960s provides the perfect place for youths to race their mopeds. Those mopeds do not have silencers—so not only is it dangerous, but it is noisy. Most of that activity takes place after dark. There is gang racing and people are using motor cycles as well. For me, the gating provision is not only necessary but urgent.
Like many other hon. Members, I have fought to deal with abandoned cars, especially during the 2001 general election when I noticed an enormous number of such cars in the rural section of my community. I also initiated an Adjournment debate on that and have worked with the Government on some of their changes to the law. I welcome the further changes. It is incredibly frustrating to see a car sitting in the same place for 15 days and for it to be vandalised or set on fire by youths. It costs this country £230 million to deal with burnt-out vehicles. I can think of many other uses for that money. It costs Stevenage borough council £100,000 to deal with abandoned cars. That relatively small borough council spends more than £2.5 million on clearing up items mentioned in the Bill. Although it can find the money, it will welcome the fixed penalty system because it will get some revenue at last.
I am also glad that the selling and repairing of cars on the roadside is to be halted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East said, that fouls the pavements. In a new town, which was built when not many people had cars, people tend to pursue that activity on grass verges. It also ties up for long periods the few parking places that we have.
My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said how people cease to engage with politics when they find that we are powerless to change anything. That is one of the most important things that the Bill addresses. If we cannot change those daily irritants of the Englishman and Englishwoman in their castles—their homes—what are we in this building for? I am amazed that the Conservatives are voting against the Bill. Mr. Amess talked about his constituent who is affected by graffiti. What comfort does he offer that man? Nothing at all other than saying that people should take responsibility for it. Yes they should, but they do not and we probably have to make them do so. I regret the existence of the nanny state, but occasionally we need it.
The only thing I have in common with the hon. Gentleman is that I am the proud owner of a black Labrador. I also own a yellow Labrador. I am a doting dog owner. Derek Conway talked about the comfort that dogs bring. Mine are commuting dogs. They come in and out of London. I know that the fouling of pavements in Westminster is a problem. I carry those little blue bags and the pooper-scoopers. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there are 6.8 million dogs in Britain, rather more than the hon. Gentleman noted. They foul an amazing amount. The figure is incredible. Some 1,000 tonnes of dog fouling is produced a day, and my two contribute their bit. We have to get people to pick it up, but people do not. They say, "How can I control my dog?" It is not about controlling the dog, but about people controlling their own actions. The polluter must pay.
On graffiti, Stevenage has a good graffiti-busting team, but it costs the town's taxpayers £60,000 a year to clean up. I welcome identity cards simply because I will not get another shopkeeper saying to me, "I didn't know whether he was 16 or not, so I sold him the aerosol." That is one reason why we need ID cards and I cannot wait for them to be introduced.
Fly-posting costs Stevenage £13,000 a year to remove. It is not one of our greatest problems, although the concrete walls of the town centre offer the perfect place to stick posters. I should like my right hon. Friend to think about estate agents' signs as a form of fly-posting. Estate agents just leave those things to rot in alleyways and hedgerows once they have let or sold—or not sold—a property. They should have a duty to remove those signs in a timely fashion. I have just won a battle on that on behalf of a constituent.
It is a big welcome from Stevenage for the Bill, although I am sad that we need to legislate for clean neighbourhoods and environments in this day and age. However, how many of us are guilty of chucking papers on the Floor of the Chamber and of not caring what happens to them? Ministers have been honourable tonight and nothing is on the Floor, but there is often a great deal of waste. We have a master-servant mentality because I know that someone else will pick up after me, as someone said to me in Stevenage. The man who pulled up near me when I was walking my dogs on a country lane and who chucked out an entire McDonald's dinner also thought that someone else would pick up after him. But we should be doing that ourselves. Then, we would not have to spend all this money on enforcing something that, with a little bit of thought and care, would not be necessary.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to support the Second Reading of this Bill. Many of the proposed measures, which have been mentioned by my colleagues, will be of great benefit to people in my constituency who continue the suffer the effects of antisocial behaviour and the damage that litter, graffiti, fly-posting, fly-tipping and abandoned cars inflict on our environment, to name just a few of the things that the Bill will tackle.
We all want to live in a pleasant environment. We want clean, safe streets. Yet when an area becomes untidy and unloved, it is easy for those who live there to lose the respect for it that they once had. Once graffiti and litter take control, it often becomes too difficult to take pride in a street. The majority of the population do not litter, abandon cars or scribble graffiti on walls and buildings. They deserve the support and protection of their local authority and the Government in cleaning up the place. The Bill is for the majority of decent, ordinary people who want to live in a clean, safe environment.
There is no doubt in my mind that we face a greater problem than we did many years ago, and there is no doubt about the need for the Bill. I certainly remember that, as a child, I would not have thrown litter on to the street. On the contrary, everything disposable—sweet papers, cans, packets of crisps—was put into our pockets or bags and placed in a bin at the first opportunity. Now, sadly, it is common to see people come out of a newsagent, rip open their packet of cigarettes and discard the wrapper on the street, without a single thought about the cost of clearing up the mess. Cigarette butts, too, are a filthy but common addition to street litter, and I am pleased to note that they are now being classed as litter. Despite existing laws, there are few cases of fines for littering, so it is clear that local authorities need more powers to tackle the problems that affect our towns and local environments.
That is one reason why I welcome the Bill, and I am both surprised and saddened that the Conservative Opposition have decided not to support it. I listened carefully to the opening remarks of Mr. Yeo. Not only did I hear nothing about what the Conservatives might propose, but in many cases I heard the hon. Gentleman agreeing with the need for legislation. I remain baffled, as I think most members of our communities will be, about why the Conservatives have chosen not to support the Bill. Of course, Bills often require amendment, but the time to do that, as someone who has been on the Front Bench for many years should know, is in Committee, rather than opposing the whole Bill on Second Reading.
One reason that the Conservatives gave for opposing the Bill is their strange belief that it affects urban communities and ignores rural ones. I would not claim for a moment that Watford is a rural community; it is an urban environment, but it is surrounded by rural communities. Although I do not have many farmers in my constituency, the one or two who do live there have complained for many years about the problem of fly-tipping on their land, saying that they have to pick up the cost and no one is there to support them. I hope that the Bill will provide some comfort to them.
I also welcome the fact that as Watford is part of Hertfordshire, we have many town and rural parish councils and they will now be given an opportunity to contribute to controlling litter and graffiti through the use of fixed penalty notices. I hope that the parish councils in my constituency, particularly Abbots Langley, will take that opportunity.
I want to concentrate on a clause that will make a huge difference to many areas in Watford. Antisocial behaviour has been a particular problem for the people living on the Sherwoods estate. The design of the estate is such that it is dissected by an exceptionally high number of pathways. The community has been working closely with the police over the past 18 months to combat antisocial behaviour, and they have welcomed the many powers put into the toolbox for police and local authority use over that time. Dispersal powers under section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts are among the measures used to try to curb the problems affecting local people.
The difficulty is that the nature and design of the estate means that youths being chased by the police can disperse very quickly through the pathways. In addition, as many of the paths run along the back or side of people's properties, they provide easy access to those who want to try unlawfully to gain entry to people's houses and gardens. That does not help when one is trying to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. On top of that, Hertfordshire county council's difficulties with lighting contracts means that many of the areas and paths on the estate do not have sufficient lighting. All that means that, sadly, the estate has suffered from antisocial behaviour.
Earlier last year, the residents association, which formed to try to unite in dealing with those problems, asked the county council to make the relevant orders to close some of the pathways. The plan had been agreed by residents and the police, and although some routes would be gated, others would be left for people to use. The community had even been told that money was available to make sure that those gating orders could be made. However, under the current legislation the task is not so easy. The county council told residents that it had to put out a notice to inform various organisations of the plan, including the Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society and the British Horse Society.
Anybody who knows Watford, and in particular some of the estates, will know that it is not an area where one frequently sees ramblers. Even smaller is the chance of anybody using the paths in the middle of a housing estate for horse riding. I would not have believed it possible that the community's wishes could be thwarted by those organisations. Sadly, however, it was possible. Despite the attempts by Hertfordshire county council to reach a compromise and my attempts to contact the organisations' head offices, we were unable to reach an agreement on the paths that the residents wanted gated, even though there would have been a sufficient number of paths left for people to use.
The responses that I received from the organisations were varied. The British Horse Society merely acknowledged my letter and told me that it would be writing to me with more detail and in more depth in due course. That was in October, and I am still waiting. The Open Spaces Society sent what was, frankly, a rather arrogant letter that completely missed the point. In displaying such arrogance, the organisations seem to forget the people who have to endure the problems of antisocial behaviour and live, day in and day out, with the difficulties that result from the environment in which they live. They should make the decision, but others may decide that there is a greater principle at stake, keeping a pathway open rather than simply closing and gating it.
I hope that the Bill, in which I have great confidence, will provide people on the Sherwoods estate and elsewhere in Watford with an opportunity to have gating in areas where it is needed to tackle antisocial behaviour.
Like many hon. Members, I have puzzled about why the Conservatives decided to oppose this excellent Bill tonight, and I have come up with an explanation, which I shall advance later. However, I might excuse Mr. Yeo, as I got the—perhaps entirely erroneous—impression that he was winking at us while making his introductory remarks and that, in fact, he did not believe a word that he was saying. I might be entirely wrong about that.
This weekend, I spoke to residents of the Saltmead estate in my constituency. Although it is a well-appointed estate, the residents expressed considerable concern about graffiti, fly-posting, litter and other problems. If I told them that there was a Bill before Parliament that could make a real difference but that the Conservatives in the House of Commons argued that there was too much emphasis on urban areas so they would oppose it, they would not believe me. Residents around Gover road want a cutway and bridge closed or gated under the new legislation. The council thinks it does not have the powers to do that, even though the cutway and bridge seem to serve the sole function of enabling people to cause damage and run off undetected. If I told the residents that there was a Bill that would allow legal gating of that cutway and bridge, but that the Conservatives opposed it because they were worried about producer responsibility for chewing gum manufacturers, they would again not believe me.
Some have characterised the Bill as a number of disconnected measures, but it is a deeply connected Bill. It is about liveability—the ability of communities to live well on the basis of shared respect for their environment and for the circumstances in which they live. All of us hear in our surgeries about how our constituents' lives are being made hell by noise, graffiti or antisocial behaviour, and how their community is, as they see it, being degraded by fly-tipping, litter, abandoned cars and so on. Each act is carried out, often with no thought, by individuals who take the rights that they gain from living in a community but who, for some reason, decide on the occasion of their act that the responsibility that goes with it is not for them. Or they think that one such act—one van load of waste tipped in a field, one car abandoned in a car park, one tag on a wall announcing, "KBK kicks butt"—will make no difference, but it does.
I liken that sort of behaviour to irresponsible driving. We all drive—or at least, most of us do—on the same side of the road not only for our own safety, but for the benefit and mutual convenience of others. We do not consider that the nanny state has forced us all to drive on the correct side of the road and—with some exceptions—we do not think that a brief episode of driving on the wrong side of the road will go unnoticed. It does not, and it causes disproportionate disruption to all the other considerate behaviour on the road, so it is not surprising that it is an offence. Environmental crime should be an offence for the same reason.
Whether one calls it social capital or, as some have, the neighbourly society, it is a method—in this Bill, a positive one—of maintaining and strengthening the cohesion of society and liveability for the whole neighbourhood. The signals given by abandoned vehicles, fly-tipping, graffiti and litter are that that cohesion is falling away—that it does not really matter, that people can get away with worse and that there are no real responsibilities to be contemplated. I was interested to read a little while ago a statement that seemed to sum up that view, which said:
"The neighbourly society . . . inducts the individual into the community and the community sustains the neighbourly society . . . What we see in too many neighbourhoods is a vicious cycle of disorder leading to insecurity then to community breakdown, then into the retreat of socializing influences and therefore to further disorder."
That quote is drawn from a speech made to the Centre for Policy Studies by the shadow Chancellor, Mr. Letwin. It is clear that senior Conservatives will the end, but not the means. Do they support the view set out by the shadow Chancellor that there is a connection, that there is a cycle and that communities must be able to support themselves and to expect that, when they are attacked, they can defend themselves? That is the essence of the Bill.
Significantly—at this point, I offer my promised explanation—it is local councils, parish councils and town councils that are the subject of the powers and measures set out in the Bill. The police will have powers to confiscate fly-tippers' vans—an imaginative measure—but waste authorities will have new powers to manage recycling, and district councils will have powers to remove abandoned vehicles quickly and effectively and to deal with fly-posting. Local government bodies will, among other things, be able to restore errant shopping trolleys to their rightful location—a measure that Southampton city council tried, but was unable, to implement under section 5 of the Local Government Act 2000.
The end, if we order the means of getting to the end, is an issue about the public role. It is about the community and public space—roads, public buildings, parks and common lands and the space in which the public move and enjoy interaction with others. If we will the end, it is that public space that is the area in which society works well or does not work well. We have to will the end through public measures and the efforts of public authorities through which the liveability of communities thrives or declines.
I am minded of the call for minimal government that we have heard yet again from the Opposition. On every occasion their recourse is to the market. Their definition of politics is essentially about the private individual in his or her private sphere. In an intervention, Sir Paul Beresford bewailed the idea in the Bill that section 32 of the 1990 legislation should be turned off so that local authorities would not be forced to put out waste disposal contracts to third party companies.
The explanation is that public authorities acting together, acting imaginatively and bringing forward new ways of thinking about waste disposal, is an infinitely superior way of going forward as compared with the straitjacket that was imposed by the 1990 legislation. I would like other sections of the 1990 legislation, especially those relating to variable charges for local authorities in terms of collecting waste, also to be turned off. Perhaps that is another matter.
The issue of the private individual in his or her private sphere is perhaps at the heart of the opposition to the Bill. However, the Bill lies at the opposite of all that. It looks instead further to empower the community in the shape of its elected local organisations. That is not just to hold the line but to move forward the liveability of communities. That in reality is the common sense of community. People know that their lives can be greatly enriched by co-operation with their neighbours and by the shared sense of what their community is. They know also that that fragile enterprise is potentially prey to the actions of perhaps one or two who free ride on that community's efforts and actions. They want the measures that are set out in the Bill and they know that the market will not produce them for them.
I commend the Bill. I hope that those who vote against it will think long and hard when they talk about the community and its rights and responsibilities. They will have failed their own communities just as if they had gone out and dumped a car or plonked a pile of rubbish in a lay-by.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Having listened earlier to the statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the Indian ocean disaster and the earlier questions and answers on Iraq, many of us could be forgiven for thinking that we are dealing with an unimportant area of public concern. However, Labour Members, especially those who have served as local councillors, know that many of the issues dealt with by the Bill are at the heart of people's concerns. I welcome the Bill especially because it has the support of the Local Government Association. Many of the Bill's provisions stem directly from the concerns of those who have the responsibility of running local authorities at district, council or parish level.
Many of the measures set out in the Bill build on legislation that is already in place. Part of the problem, which many of us recognise, is that existing powers are difficult to operate and implement. If, through the Bill, their implementation can be speeded and made easier, and in many instances significantly strengthened, we shall be doing a good job of work.
Why is the Bill important now? Why is it not, as the Conservatives say, a measure only for urban areas? The headlines in the press would have us think that graffiti, litter and abandoned vehicles are all about run-down urban areas. My constituency is semi-rural with an unemployment rate of 1 per cent. South Ribble borough council in my constituency recently conducted a survey and discovered that the vast majority of its residents thought that South Ribble was a good place to live. It has good schools, low unemployment, nice housing and good health services. However, 24 per cent. of local residents thought that clean streets and litter were a high priority—only 1 per cent. less than the 25 per cent. who thought that crime and disorder was the most important issue. Crime and disorder, litter, clean streets and the environment are important in a constituency such as mine because issues that were of concern years ago have been dealt with. Residents have good schools and jobs, and we have low unemployment, interest rates and inflation. South Ribble is a nice place to live. However, when I knock on people's doors or meet them at coffee mornings, they talk to me about things that matter in their immediate neighbourhood. For example, they are worried about the ginnel in Penwortham that local youths use when going to and from school. It is covered in graffiti and terribly unpleasant, and a lady has been to see me regularly over the past seven years to try to get it cleaned up. The existing powers, however, make it difficult to deal with the problem properly.
My constituents are worried about cars that are abandoned in rural areas and not cleared away quickly enough. They are worried about litter, not just in town centres but in otherwise pleasant neighbourhoods. Sometimes, people allow their property or land to become an unsightly mess covered in litter or graffiti. No one seems to have the power to do anything about that—the argument is that it is private land or property so, unless it is a health hazard, nothing can be done. However, under the Bill, local authorities will be able to tackle the problem. Residents in the area who care about their homes and gardens and look after them, and who do not repair their vehicles on the street leaving oil everywhere, do not want their neighbourhood to depreciate in value or look a mess because one or two people fail to look after their properties and act as good neighbours. If the Bill makes it easier to deal with some of those problems, we should support it.
These are not simply issues for urban areas—all of them are raised in the 11 villages in my constituency time after time. When I write my weekly column for the rural issue of the free paper in my area, I will take great delight explaining to residents that the Bill is opposed by the Conservative party. I am sure that my probable Conservative opponent in the general election will be questioned about whether she supports her Front-Bench spokesmen, who continue to oppose the Bill.
I welcome the proposal to introduce greater powers to gate alleys. Lancashire county council has lobbied me for the past two years to try to secure powers to gate alleys throughout the county. It is a major issue in many Lancashire towns and I am glad that the Bill tackles it. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend Claire Ward, who talked about the problems of footpaths on an estate. Before I came to the House, I was a councillor for 10 years in Preston and one of my biggest bugbears was an estate with lots of little footpaths. The residents agreed that some of them should be closed to make the area more secure and safe, but every time that we tried to do something about it the ramblers and other organisations lodged an objection, so we did not succeed. If the Bill allows us to tackle the problem, that will be an important step forward.
I welcome the measures in the Bill for greater involvement of parish and town councils because such councils are often underestimated. When I was first elected and came into contact with parish councils, having previously represented an urban non-parished area, I was struck by the great range of activity and inactivity among parish councils. The best ones seek to represent and shape the lives of their local communities. They are proactive. They do not simply do the minimum. They look at ways in which they can make a difference. Several of the parish councils in my area—Hesketh Bank, Becconsall, Tarleton and North Meols in particular—are putting together village design plans with a vision of how their communities will develop. They are just the sort of parish councils that will want to take up some of the powers in the Bill to develop and lead their communities. That is as it should be.
I welcome much in the Bill. It will be a major step forward. It may seem trivial to some, but the fact that the powers were suggested by local authorities that have to deal with the problems at grassroots level means that there is a strong possibility that the Bill will improve the situation. If I have one concern—I should like my right hon. Friend to consider this—it is whether there will be sufficient resources for the measures in the Bill to be fully implemented by local authorities, and whether the Department should monitor the extent to which local authorities make use of the powers when the Bill is enacted, to ensure that we have got it right. There is little use in us here in Parliament passing good legislation that gives powers to make things happen if those who have been given the powers fail to use them.
I begin by expressing my astonishment that on an issue that affects the quality of life of millions of ordinary people, so few Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members wished to speak or even to attend the debate. As the newest Member of the House, I find it unbelievable that there are only two Members of the Conservative Opposition on the Front Bench and only one Member on the Liberal Democrat Benches. That has been the case for 95 per cent. of the debate on a topic of such importance. I hope the Opposition do not make a habit of that.
I shall concentrate on the neighbourhood aspects of the Bill, although I recognise that the environmental aspects underpin all its key elements. The Bill could have been written with my constituency in mind. I hold weekly constituency surgeries each Friday and undertake street surgeries on Saturday morning in a different part of the town. People do not raise with me concerns or opinions about the state of the economy, about who is talking to whom in the Government or even about Iraq.
Almost without exception, constituents are concerned and want me to do something about antisocial behaviour and nuisance neighbours who play their music at 3 o'clock in the morning or let their dogs roam the streets. They want me, as the town's MP, to tackle graffiti, fly-tipping and abandoned cars that blight their streets. They want me to deal with ugly and neglected buildings and thoughtlessly planned alley gates and rat runs, which help breed and nurture crime, drug dealing and antisocial behaviour on their estates. During my street surgeries I see all too clearly how bad planning and environmental neglect and decline prove to be barriers to opportunity and fulfilling potential. An entrepreneur wants to invest and try to create wealth in areas where graffiti, rubbish and fly-tipping are cleared promptly and culprits are punished. Residents want to live on estates where decades of neglect and decline have been halted and reversed thanks to community involvement and investment in infrastructure, environment and people, and where one or two bad families' habits of causing litter and noise are not tolerated.
I welcome the Bill, not least because I know that it will work by and large. I know it because my constituency has already started to implement some of the measures. Hartlepool is a forward-looking town. It has made great leaps forward with regeneration initiatives such as the new deal for communities and neighbourhood renewal. With Labour the largest group in the local authority and, to be fair to him, an independent mayor—under Labour councillors' guidance—who has passionately embraced the Government's agenda of neighbourhood and environmental renewal, street-based policies are making an impact. In the past 12 months the local authority has responded to 362 complaints about graffiti, and has issued 89 fixed penalty notices for littering. More than 450 abandoned and untaxed cars have been removed from the streets of Hartlepool, which has led to a 65 per cent. reduction in overall vehicle-related crime in the town and a 55 per cent. reduction in vehicle arson. The Bill will help my local communities to build on that success, and to achieve even more.
As an MP who is passionate about minimising the incidences of antisocial behaviour on my patch, I welcome the amendment to the law to ensure that crime and disorder reduction partnerships consider such behaviour. Crime in Hartlepool has fallen dramatically in the past nine months, by between 35 and 40 per cent., thanks to enthusiastic embracing of the Government's policies by the police and other agencies; but this measure will make a specific, real difference.
As a result of the Bill, a hit list of all untaxed cars will be provided through a planned initiative between the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the local authority. That will provide a quick response, and instant removal when that is appropriate. A direct link to a range of agencies' files and databases will help the council to ensure that crimes such as fly-tipping, dog fouling, littering, noise nuisance and damage to street furniture are tackled quickly, thus preventing the rot from seeping in and leading to neglect and long-term decline. I hope that advances will also be made to ensure that fast-food outlets work alongside the local authority and others, so that we no longer see pizza boxes and kebab wrappers after the pubs shut for the night.
The Bill greatly increases the powers of local councils. It enables local community councillors to play a significant role in the improvement of their neighbourhoods. It also provides much stronger—and welcome—powers for parish councils to impose fines for litter and to ensure that they, like local authorities, play a role in making their areas safer and cleaner. I find it disappointing that other residents groups and agencies are not empowered to take the initiative in the same way.
As chair of the local strategic partnership, in which co-ordination of agencies' plans for the collective good of the town is undertaken, I find it unsatisfactory that LSPs and their role in this context are not mentioned in the Bill. As I said earlier, constituents expect me, as the local MP, to play a role in minimising antisocial behaviour and the dropping of litter. That could have been achieved more easily had the role of LSPs been made clear.
A couple of weeks ago, I planted bulbs in the Owton ward in Hartlepool with young people from the "Cool it" project, funded jointly by the Owton West residents' group and the Hartlepool primary care trust. Such initiatives could be encouraged by the Bill. However, I am sure that such moves to improve the neighbourhood and own a part of it would take place in Hartlepool anyway, thanks to the dynamic leadership provided in the residents group by John Reid and in the PCT by Gerald Wistow. Obviously there would need to be strict controls in relation to governance and accountability for residents associations—I agree with the Minister and Sue Doughty, who mentioned the need for legitimate elections to such associations—but it would be gratifying if powers could be extended to groups that have the potential to make such an impact on their own neighbourhoods.
In the overall scheme of things, however, those are relatively minor gripes. The Bill will help to build on the work already done in neighbourhood renewal, and will make people feel safer and have more confidence and pride in their communities. I fully support it.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality on bringing it before the House. Its full significance will probably not be appreciated for some time but it will be as important as the Janner legislation of 1945 to 1951 on town and country planning and the legislation introduced by Arthur Skeffington during the Wilson Government to improve our environment. It is an important Bill with many elements, but above all it will improve and enhance the quality of life in urban areas and the countryside.
One of the things that has been repeatedly referred to over the past hour or two is the absence of Conservative Members in the Chamber. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have had to explain to constituents, as many other hon. Members have, why on many occasions we are unable to catch the Speaker's eye. We explain that the Speaker and his deputies have enormous difficulty meeting the needs of all 659 Members, who want to speak on a range of issues. We even have the phrase, "There is mileage on the clock." If Members have spoken too often in the Session, they are less likely, rightly, to get preferment and to catch the Speaker's eye. We also explain that the Speaker and his deputies swing from Opposition to Labour to Opposition in calling Members to speak.
Those who follow the Official Report and watch the parliamentary channel may ask, "How is it that Labour Member after Labour Member spoke in the debate?" The fact is that there are no Conservatives here except Miss McIntosh. She is not even like Horatius—she is not even flanked by two others. That reflects badly on the Opposition, who not only are not attending or contributing to the debate but will have the audacity to vote against the Bill later. I find it breathtaking in the extreme.
I listened carefully to the shadow Minister, Mr. Yeo, when he tried to explain why he was going to vote against Second Reading and to commend that course to his colleagues. He did not offer any alternatives to ameliorate the problems of vandalism, fly-tipping, graffiti and litter, which are a terrible blot on our environment and a source of great irritation to Labour and Conservative voters alike. He did not make any proposals. To be fair, he said that existing powers could remedy the problems, but he did not tell us how he would ensure that those powers were triggered and what mechanism there was to flag up with all the various agencies that they should exercise their powers. I think that he is wrong, but he did not tell us or, more important, Conservative voters how he intended to tackle the issues that we are trying to deal with tonight. He owes it to the electors to explain why the Conservative Opposition voted against a measure that I would have thought and hoped commanded support across the political spectrum.
I want to refer to the proposals in the Bill on crime reduction strategies, which bring together the police and all the various agencies, empowering them but indicating to all of them that there is a public expectation that they get together to tackle crimes such as fly-tipping, graffiti, litter and other forms of vandalism that diminish our quality of life and environment. It is an important measure and will be welcomed by many of our constituents.
I see this as a class issue. The fact is that some of the poorest, most disadvantaged people suffer from these problems. They are exploited, often by unregulated business interests and by people who come into an area to dump litter. Some of the poorest, most disadvantaged but best citizens have to suffer and endure those problems.
I am conscious of the fact that many people think my constituency is urban. In fact, two thirds of the borough of Thurrock has very attractive green belt land, but of course it does suffer from the main problems that have been referred to this afternoon, including the dumping of waste on both public and private land. I welcome the fact that the Bill will remove discrimination between private and public land, put the burden of payment on the polluter, and impose significant sanctions on those who pollute and who dump controlled waste in particular. Indeed, such sanctions even include the seizing of vehicles when this crime is committed.
I took great interest in the proposal of gating minor highways when listening to the Secretary of State outline the Bill, and I am disappointed at the fact that the Conservative spokesman could not see that that will be beneficial. The explanatory notes state:
"In built-up areas there are many minor highways giving rear and side access to properties and providing shortcuts between blocks of properties."
We can all identify with the problems that such access causes. Such highways
"range from narrow footpaths to highways capable of accommodating vehicular traffic. Some of these highways provide opportunities to access the rear of properties for illegal entry and concealment and cover for criminal acts and anti-social behaviour."
This Labour Government are tackling this problem in a very real way, yet the Conservative Opposition are opposing these measures.
We are all familiar with the problems associated with abandoned and illegally parked cars, and the sale and repair of cars on our highways. Often, it is some of the best people, but who live in some of the poorest areas, who have to endure such problems. Cars that are put up on bricks for weeks and months on end constitute a real danger for small children. I welcome the measures in the Bill, which will streamline the action to be taken, but I ask that the Minister give me some assurance on this issue. When the police want to conduct a forensic examination of a stolen or vandalised car, its owner is sometimes charged for its impounding. That is wholly unsatisfactory, and I hope that this problem can be dealt with in Committee or in conjunction with the Home Office. People who have already lost out by having their car stolen or vandalised should not be further disadvantaged by being charged.
The issue of dog excrement sometimes gives rise to much levity. I have never understood why, as it is one of the most hazardous substances in our environment. Allowing one's dog to defecate in the street is a mediaeval practice, and I am amazed that it remains somehow socially acceptable. Contamination from dog excrement poses a considerable danger, particularly to children and to people's eyesight. I welcome the fact that we are making great efforts to combat this problem, and to point out to the public that allowing such things to happen without any regard to others is shameful.
I welcome the Bill's streamlining measure on stray dogs, but in my constituency the problem is also stray horses. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, who will wind up the debate, also has this problem in his constituency. We have a legislative opportunity to ensure that horses that are taken in by local authorities are redeemable by their owners only if and when they pay the full cost. A penalty should be imposed if they have not ensured that their horses are kept in and prevented from causing a hazard on the highways.
The nuisance caused by lighting is also a very important issue. People are far too often disadvantaged by so-called security lighting that is not proportionate to the problem that it is designed to solve.
Finally, the Bill's provisions should be extended to Northern Ireland. It is a great pity that much of the good legislation that passes through this House does not apply to Northern Ireland. Scotland has a devolved Administration but Northern Ireland does not, and it rather looks as though it will not have one for some time. The wonderful regions of Northern Ireland and its rich coastline should be enhanced by this legislation. I hope that the Minister will commend that idea to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, because if the Bill's very helpful measures cannot be extended to Northern Ireland, a relevant order might be able to replicate them.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate, even if I am the last Back Bencher to speak and many things have already been said. I am even more delighted to follow my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, the penultimate Back Bencher to speak, because there is so much sense in what he says. I have no intention of going over the same ground and I want to discuss just a few issues.
Even at this late stage, my hon. Friends remain somewhat bemused about a point I made in an intervention on my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping—the extent of cross-party arrangements in local government, particularly in the Local Government Association, in the light of the fact that the official Opposition have decided to vote against the Bill on Second Reading. One of the advantages of finishing early is that Miss McIntosh will have every opportunity to urge her arguments. If she had a bag carrier besides the Opposition Whip, we might still be able to get the Opposition in place to persuade them of the merits of voting in favour of the Bill on Second Reading, even if, quite rightly, they call us to account in Committee.
Politicians are to some extent catching up with the general public. For a long time, they have viewed quality of life issues as crucial to how they live their lives, so we need to catch up with them. In my area, an active community campaign was initiated by Liz Hall. I know that my right hon. Friend was able to respond to a debate initiated by my hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda, in which we examined the relationship between urban centres and surrounding rural or semi-rural areas. It showed how much we were dependent on each other. This lady, Liz Hall, off her own back about nine months ago, called a community meeting in her village of Harescombe, to which people in some of the other villages—Haresfield, Edge, Painswick and so forth—were invited. The aim was to consider why they were having so many problems with fly-tipping in the beautiful woods of Cranham, Edge and Sheepscombe. The meetings continue to this day; in fact, there is one tomorrow. If I can get away from this place, I would like to attend it to advance some ideas on how further to bear down on an unacceptable form of antisocial behaviour.
We needed to persuade the Environment Agency that this was a good area in which to undertake a pilot project, and through the offices of myself and others, that persuasion did take place, which is very pleasing. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the Environment Agency is geared up for the legislative change and wants to make things happen, working in tandem with local communities and, dare I say it, parish and town councils.
I have already declared an interest as a town councillor. If I were not here tonight, I would be sitting in the town council's planning and transportation committee, and one of the matters that we would no doubt be considering would be fly-tipping. It is an ever-present problem in rural areas as it is in urban areas. I hope that we will reach a consensus as we go through the process and not sustain this false divide between rural and urban. It is quite simple: they face the same problems, albeit on a different scale.
I shall provide an example. This Sunday, after going to church rather early, I hope to work with others on clearing an old railway cutting, which unfortunately people have used for some time as a dump for all manner of waste. The problem is complicated by the fact that it is inhabited by the great crested newt. Anyone who knows anything about the great crested newt will know that it is a wonderful species that does not like being disturbed. You or I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may not be partial to having the odd tyre, mattress or bedstead thrown over into our habitats, but the great crested newts are even less partial to that, so we will have to be very careful how we do it on Sunday. That is the nature of working together to try to solve these problems. The essence of the Bill is not the consensus that is beginning to evolve between the parties, but the consensus between communities, the Environment Agency, the police and local authorities.
Mention has been made of parish and town councils, but smaller district authorities such as mine in Stroud have taken on board the antisocial behaviour agenda. I pay tribute to its antisocial behaviour co-ordinator, Colin Peake, who has highlighted the need to deal with fly-posting. While I would not say that he has cleared our streets of awful posters advertising nightclubs, he has a way of taking down the details, going to clubs and saying that the posters are their responsibility. On a Sunday, he goes to car boot sales and collects all the placards, puts them in the boot of his car and reminds the people concerned that they might like to collect them. If they do it again the next week, action is taken. He has a clear rule: they can have the placards up for 48 hours, after which those concerned have to go and pick them up. Otherwise, they cannot put them up again. Colin Peake needs support; the Bill is about co-ordination and making sure that someone like him can be supported by the political class and by the community.
Clearly there is a resource issue—no one is pretending that these things are cost-free—but it will not be a great one if we can share the costs around. We must make it clear that the police being asked to take on additional responsibilities does not mean that another layer of authority is washing its hands of an issue and giving it to the police, and vice versa if we are talking about the care of stray dogs, for example. There is a need for genuine partnership, and that must be action, not just words.
Like all Bills, the proof will not be in the law or in the amendments that we table, but in how it is seen out there. As my hon. Friend Iain Wright said, it will take some considerable time until we begin to see the impact of the Bill.That does not mean that we should not be trying now.
Some of us would argue that we should have had the wherewithal to be doing this some time before, because quality of life issues are gaining salience, not as a result of a selfish motivation but because of people's pride in their community. We are a more materialistic society; therefore, there is more waste that we have to deal with, and we must deal with it at source. In these days of extreme weather changes, one sees, sadly, that some of the waste that is allegedly fly-tipped is down to the wind blowing people's refuse. We have to look at a better way of integrating waste collection and disposal with other services.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at the resource issue and at working with other Departments to ensure that the Bill does not merely have lip service paid to it. We must work with local government and the other levels of authority so that they get the message that the Government are turned on to this issue and want to make a change. We can envisage our different communities improving the way they look. Therefore, people will think that, for once, politicians are in touch with them and care about quality of life issues.
First, I declare my interests in the Register that may be relevant to the debate, and add a further declaration: I chew chewing gum on occasion, but I can assure the House that I dispose of it in a socially responsible way. We have had an excellent debate. I hope that the Minister will have time to respond to all our concerns and those of his hon. Friends.
My party and I welcome the opportunity for full and proper scrutiny of the Bill, and we look forward enthusiastically to the Committee stage. As has been repeated numerous times, we believe that we should legislate less but better. I therefore fully support what my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo, the shadow Secretary of State, has stated. While we cautiously welcome certain aspects of the Bill, that is tempered by our regret that it appears to be a hotch-potch of ideas. The phrase "eye-catching initiatives" springs to mind.
There is no evidence in the Bill of a joined-up approach to government. It straddles at least three Departments—the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has obviously been engaged in other matters for the past week, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Secretary of State waxed lyrical about the new powers being granted to local authorities and the Environment Agency. However, she went so far as to say that while she was imposing and creating new offences and responsibilities, they should not be taken as duties. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to set out for the House's information what new resources have been allocated and what financial assessment has been made, particularly in view of the fact that Andrew Mackinlay, sharing the view of the Law Society, pointed out that it will, in many cases, be the poorer and more deprived members of society, who are least able to pay, who will be penalised. The Minister will, I am sure, hope to confirm what the Secretary of State said about there being no additional resources and no pump-priming. Seemingly, therefore, there will be no recognition of the new powers and the increased costs.
The Secretary of State said that in certain instances the Bill relieves the police of powers in relation to nuisance. That raises the question whether it will transfer resources from the police to local authorities to enable them to use those powers. A constant theme has been requests to local authorities to take on more powers, but what recognition have the Government given to the costs of empowering local councils. For example, there is the need for staff training and providing staff with the tools to do the work set out in the Bill.
The regulatory impact assessment was laid before the House in December. It says that receipts given to local authorities for various aspects of the Bill would amount to a little over £3 million if there were to be a forecast 50 per cent. payment rate. At a forecast of 75 per cent., the receipts would be £4 million. We shall use the Standing Committee's scrutiny procedures to focus on that. Will the Minister satisfy the House tonight, however, on the question of there being only a 10, 20 or 30 per cent. take-up of fixed penalty notices? If income was not forthcoming, how would the local authorities and the Environment Agency be expected to pay?
Can the hon. Lady confirm the contents of the James review, which suggests, I think, that DEFRA's budget should be cut by £500 million? Is she aware of the comments of the chief executive of the Environment Agency about what would happen to the local environment if those cuts took place?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to sit with us in Committee to explore those issues in greater detail.
To return to our reasoned amendment, which I commend to the House and urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support, a number of Members this evening have raised problems in relation to powers to seize and remove abandoned vehicles. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether vehicles can be removed immediately, without knowledge of who the registered owner is? In relation to clause 41, will he consider extending the power of immediate seizure of such vehicles to all white goods, including fridge-freezers, fridges and microwaves, following on the obligations to which his Government have signed up under EU directives, not least the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive?
One of the unintended consequences of the Bill relates to the implications for breakdown services. The current wording of the Bill leaves the provision of breakdown services exposed to actions that are surely not the primary intention of the Bill, as it implies that there are circumstances in which repair at the roadside following a breakdown or accident is not necessary. That raises the risk that the legislation could be used by authorities to justify the towing away of a vehicle to an off-road location in the interests of congestion management, following the provisions of the Traffic Management Act 2004, which grants such powers to local authorities and Highways Agency traffic officers. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the concerns raised by the Royal Automobile Club and the AA and would wish to respond on that point.
As regards waste, what progress has been made on the sharing of police information relating to organised and illegal fly-tipping, particularly that including a criminal element? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that powers of arrest under clause 41 will extend to all forms of illegal fly-tipping? What consultation with councils will take place on fixed penalty notices? Many councils and local authorities have expressed concerns about how the provisions will apply, and are concerned that there will not be a full and frank consultation. Will he confirm that he has not unintentionally and inadvertently discriminated in relation to the immediate removal of abandoned vehicles from urban areas, which the Bill explicitly empowers local authorities to do, whereas in rural areas, landowners are to remove them at their own cost? Surely the Government would intend powers to be applied uniformly in rural and urban areas.
In relation to clause 41, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether raising the maximum level of the fine and the maximum level of imprisonment, as I mentioned earlier, will relate to all forms of fly-tipping, not just hazardous or non-hazardous waste? Can he also confirm that offences under clause 41 are arrestable offences, so that perpetrators of the crime, not just vehicles, can be apprehended and seized—[Interruption.] His colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment, who is chuntering from a sedentary position, will be only too aware that the Environment Agency has said privately on a number of occasions that it or local authority enforcement officers are powerless if they cannot make a citizen's arrest, as the perpetrators of the offence can therefore escape the scene, and although the vehicle is seized, the perpetrators are free to acquire another vehicle and continue to commit the same offence. That is a glaring omission.
Clause 44 also relates to immediate seizure, and we would hope that an arrestable offence would be extended to those provisions. Clause 46 provides powers to stop and search a vehicle and its contents, but is again silent on whether the equal power of arrest in relation to suspected perpetrators will be granted.
I remind the House that the Government have been in power for almost 18 years—[Hon. Members: "Eight years."] Eight years. I am glad that the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment is paying attention. It seems like 18 years. They have been in power for almost eight years, but in 2003, litter increased by 13 per cent., and since 2001, chewing gum disposal has increased by 94 per cent.
Clause 18 relates to dropping or leaving litter on private land. Who will enforce it and who will place the additional enforcement obligation on the local authority?
Clause 19 empowers local authorities to set the level of fixed penalties. Will the penalties be fixed by statute or will they be subject to a national framework that sets maximum and minimum levels? We strongly urge the Minister to confirm that there will be full consultation before the levels are set and that there will be an opportunity for the House, as well as local authorities and businesses, to be consulted. Local authorities have expressed their concerns to us; some have found that the levels are set far too low to be effective.
I remind the Minister that in his written answer to me on
It will bring joy to the heart of my constituency neighbour, Hugh Bayley, that clause 27 specifically defines as litter chewing gum, including bubble gum, and smoking materials, including cigarette and cigar ends. However, redefining gum in that way will place a huge duty on local authorities to keep streets clear of gum and other such material at all times. Is the Minister aware that that will impose a massive increase in street-cleaning costs?
Linda Gilroy asked about the discussions we had held with chewing gum manufacturers. We are working extremely closely with the main chewing gum manufacturer, which is, I believe, in her constituency. The company wants to act responsibly—the words about producer responsibility are as much the company's as ours—and to reach consensus.
Will the hon. Lady clarify what discussions she has held with the company on its view about fines? It is my understanding that the company would like clarification about that situation. The company is frustrated, because it takes responsibility for raising awareness and for education programmes, but it would like the fines regime to be improved.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, I have already mentioned that the fines exist and I should be interested to hear from her—perhaps after the debate—whether her council imposes them where applicable. What is responsible in the case of that chewing gum manufacturer is that it seeks consensus with consumers and that it is trying to educate the primary users of chewing gum. I must confess that chewing gum has a certain dental function, and the company has an education policy and works through schools, scouts and guides. It is undertaking market-based research and is looking into more biodegradable forms of gum. It would be the first to accept the advice to consumers, which was followed religiously under the last Conservative Government but seems to be on the wane under the Labour Government: "Wrap it and bin it".
The least perfect option would be a purchase tax, but I wait with bated breath to hear what the Minister says about that. As I said, there is already a fixed penalty of £50 and it is regrettable that few councils impose it. I urge the Minister to answer this question: would not it be better to apply existing laws more effectively, rather than extending an all-round street cleansing policy? As was said earlier, no sooner has a street been cleared of chewing gum deposits than, a week later, the exercise has to be recommenced.
Is the hon. Lady suggesting that because people start to throw chewing gum on the ground the following week, one should ignore it? Can she clarify for the House whether she is in favour of local authorities cleaning up chewing up from the streets or against that?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can inform me whether the council shared by our constituencies, and those of several other colleagues, actually levies the fines that it is entitled to impose. Perhaps we should go on a publicity binge with the City of York council to ensure that it is aware of the fines that are available to it to impose.
Moving on to a more general policy for waste, further provision should be made to protect landowners from the unsolicited dumping of waste and litter on their land. Currently, the Bill is simply not clear. Local authorities should fine all those who illegally dispose of waste or litter on an equal footing, irrespective of whether it is disposed of on public or private land, or whether in urban or rural areas.
On the disposal of free printed matter, will the Minister explain whether that provision will extend to party political literature? If so, will there be unintended consequences on the freedom of speech? For the sake of repetition—I am unsure whether he heard that point—will he clarify the position on whether the provision relates to the disposal of free printed matter circulated by local parties?
In many regards, the Bill does not go far enough. Fly-tipping is a tremendous problem in urban and rural areas, and it continues to increase. The Environment Agency's officers should have the power of arrest. They should be permitted to have computer access to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database and to stop vehicles on public highways without the presence of the police. Without those powers, the Bill represents a hollow commitment in many respects.
I pay tribute to the most eloquent words of my hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who mentioned dogs. Their one omission was in not asking whether the Minister is aware that many of the dangerous injuries to stray dogs are caused by vehicles. The Bill is silent in that regard, and I wonder whether he has any proposal to firm up his provisions. By encouraging a programme of micro-chipping, the Government could have produced financial savings on the collection, kennelling, re-homing or possible destruction of unwanted animals. Does he have any intention to include a policy of micro-chipping?
On graffiti and general defacement, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has mentioned, the Law Society and others have expressed concern about the fixed penalty notices. Will the Minister ensure that only fully trained and fully qualified officers will be authorised to issue such notices? Again, local authorities will be given the power to fine those who fly-post. Currently, the fines authorised are up to £75. Why do the Government not choose either to increase that fine or to penalise those councils that do not impose them? We suggest that the definition of what is unlawful under clauses 33 and 34 must be improved and that there should be a right of appeal. I hope that the Minister will make a commitment to holding full and proper consultation with all relevant bodies, including the Outdoor Advertising Association. Perhaps he will take time to explain to the House the Bill's implications in respect of moving advertising boards.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady list those points—she is perfectly entitled to make them and to ask the Government to improve the Bill, and so on—but I have heard nothing in what she or Mr. Yeo, who leads for the Conservatives on this matter, have said about any fundamental point of principle that justifies opposing the Bill on Second Reading. All the matters that they have listed can be dealt with in Committee. Where is the principled objection to the Bill?
That leads neatly into my final point. We have a principled position that we urge the House to decline to give the Bill a Second Reading, for the reasons set out in our reasoned amendment. The fines are set too low. The powers are not real powers—they do not impose duties, as the Secretary of State told the House earlier. The procedures used are too cumbersome. The Bill fails to put rural and urban areas on an equal footing. It is unclear how fine revenue raised will be allocated. Will there be full consultation, not just with local authorities but with waste disposal companies? Will the Minister consider favourably our proposal that some of the moneys raised from fixed penalty notices should go to raising awareness of responsible waste disposal companies, so recycling the money rather than simply putting it into general local authority finances?
For all the reasons set out in my concluding remarks and our reasoned amendment, I urge hon. Members to decline to give the Bill a Second Reading and I commend our reasoned amendment to the House.
This excellent debate has illustrated why crime, disorder and local environmental issues are central and linked themes for this Government, for the Labour party nationally and locally, and for Labour MPs. The issues are inextricably linked and matter enormously to people in every part of the country, as has been illustrated by all the contributions from Labour Members to today's debate.
I am extremely disappointed that both the hon. Members for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—the hon. Lady is marginally more enthusiastic about the proposals than her hon. Friend—have missed an opportunity to rise above petty point scoring on an issue that is important to their constituents as well as to ours. The most absurd thing came at the end of the hon. Lady's speech when she tried to justify a so-called reasoned amendment, which looks as if it was written at a fairly exciting point during the office party, by saying that we should have more consultation. I had honestly expected some criticism from the Opposition over the fact that we have spent the past two years exhaustively consulting not just local authorities but everyone about the need to tackle the local environment and how to do that best. I was going to reply that it was that exhaustive consultation that had led us to such strong and vigorous proposals. The hon. Lady has missed an own goal. I feel compelled to answer the criticism that she could not even manage to make.
The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill shows the strategic, cross-Government approach that we are taking on local environmental issues that affect the quality of people's lives. The Bill tackles the important link between the state of the local environment, antisocial behaviour and fear of crime. Neglecting the local environment creates unease and a sense that "nobody cares around here", which can lead to escalating problems of antisocial behaviour. People want to live in communities that are not blighted by litter, graffiti, fly-posters and burnt-out cars. Most people mention the state of their own neighbourhood when asked what is most important to them about the environment. People do care.
A few months ago, I joined Councillor Paul Murphy, the cabinet member of Manchester city council responsible for the environment, on day 99 of Manchester's 100 days' clean-up. I have undertaken environmental work with young people, and a couple of days seem quite long. Ten days sounds very long; 100 days seems courageous in the extreme. What did I find when I visited Manchester on day 99? Did I find exhausted staff and people who were demoralised by having bitten off more than they could chew? No, I found councillors and officers exhilarated by the exponential growth in community involvement—the engagement of local communities, the increasing activity as people realised that they had time to get involved and that the issue was being taken seriously by a strong local authority.
That visit also helped to form our view on the graffiti and fly-posting measures in the Bill. I commend Manchester and a number of other major cities, including Nottingham and Cardiff, which have taken a grip on the issue. We have tried to put together legislation that will help them go further in their aspirations to govern clean cities.
My comments are of course informed by events in my constituency in Cardiff, just as the contributions of my hon. Friends have been informed by those in their constituencies. I pay tribute to Linda Thorne, for instance, who was the deputy leader of the council until last year. She took enormous care in driving forward environmental improvement in the partnership approach. Councillor Clarissa Holland, in the ward of Splott, has worked with the citizens of Bayside. They have been affected by the ingress of youngsters from outside the area who have done an enormous amount of damage to the local community. The people of Splott made use of antisocial behaviour orders and exclusion orders, working with the police and the local authority. When I spoke to them a few weeks ago, they paid tribute to the difference that our measures had made by enabling the police and the local authority to improve their quality of life.
Like Manchester's 100 days, the Bill is about empowering local communities to take ownership of their environment and therefore their future. That is why the speech of my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping was so telling when he illustrated, with the specific requests of his constituents, why it is so important that the Bill receive a ringing endorsement on Second Reading. Would it could be the case across all parties. It is sad that the Conservatives cannot see the importance of the measure.
My hon. Friend made the link to crime and antisocial behaviour. He rightly said that the Bill is a cornerstone for building better sustainable communities. He also rightly said that no one organisation or one Department can build cleaner, safer and greener communities. For that reason, I am happy to pay tribute to ministerial colleagues and officials at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office and to others who have helped to create the joined-up approach and the contents of the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on my role in the creation of crime reduction partnerships. I regularly hear from senior police officers about the importance of that measure. Linking environmental degradation to crime and disorder will be equally important and help us to tackle all those issues.
My hon. Friend Mr. Foster gave specific examples of how badly designed footpath and lane access allows local people to become the victims of abuse. I can happily explain how we expect the measure to work. We expect local authorities to start by trying prevention. A variety of measures could be taken, such as local and community action to clean up a footpath, to improve lighting or to use sightlines. It could be a case of examining why there is a problem in the first place. There are other approaches as well, including the use of exclusion orders or antisocial behaviour orders.
Abusive play was a challenge in the Bayside example. Good people were affected by environmental damage linked to crime, and the exclusion order worked. All those approaches, including the engagement of a local neighbourhood watch, may make a difference and make closing off an alley unnecessary. There is no universal answer—no panacea or magic wand—to the problem, but we are giving a range of practical powers. When measures have been insufficient in local circumstances, and several hon. Friends gave examples of that, the local authority and the police, with the local community, will be able to use what is the right option locally. We are removing the constraints on solving the problems.
All contributions by Labour Members were based on experience back home in the constituency, as is my approach. That was in stark contrast to the speech by the hon. Member for South Suffolk.
Let me deal with the hon. Member for South Suffolk first.
The hon. Gentleman will vote against common sense and for an unreasoned amendment. It is extraordinary. He demonstrated that he has little understanding of the issues tackled by the Bill and clearly does not understand the importance of them in rural communities. I was sorry to hear him refer to individual and corporate behaviour because it is not another contributor to environmental problems, but at its heart. What we do as individuals and collectively is what creates either a healthy or a damaged environment.
The hon. Gentleman referred to ENCAMS, saying that there had been a 12 per cent. increase in litter. I am delighted he quoted that—I have been quoting it all year. I also quoted the other side of the story. Where partnerships have got together, an improvement of something like 20 per cent. has been achieved. The ENCAMS message is that we can make a difference provided we wake people up to the need individually and collectively to care for their neighbourhoods. ENCAMS also said that the main issue is about how resources are used. That came out of its research and findings last year. Campaigning and challenging people to think about their local environment can make a difference, too.
The hon. Gentleman referred to light nuisance, saying that he was concerned about exceptions. But when he was challenged repeatedly to name one, he could only mention lighting of industrial activities in our ports. There are safety issues relating to our ports and other transport areas. It was a pathetic response, just as it is a pathetic, unreasoned amendment.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he regards the concerns and objections of the many thousands of people whose neighbourhoods are increasingly blighted by light pollution from ports as accurately described by the Government as pathetic?
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that ports should work only in daylight hours? Is he saying that he would sweep away the exemptions that exist for safety reasons? He needs to do a little more homework.
The hon. Gentleman needs to do a little more homework on chewing gum, too, because he talks about producer responsibility. What is he going to do? Fine the producers? He was challenged on that, and his answer was, "I haven't a clue." He is afraid of fixed penalties because they might lead to fund raising. I make the point to him that, with fixed penalties, people contribute only if they have offended. If people do not offend, they do not have to pay. Secondly, I make the point that partnership works. Partnership has been demonstrated to reduce many of these problems.
The hon. Member for Vale of York raises detailed issues in a rather confused way, and she, too, has clearly not understood the wide-ranging nature of our consultation and the support for the Bill from local government. We will deal with many of the issues that she raised in Committee.
I have met Wrigley's on several occasions, and we included it in the working group, along with local government and others. The company is a good deal more positive now than it was earlier. I say that frankly; initially, it was reluctant to recognise just how important the issue is to many people in their local environment. We have sought a partnership approach with Wrigley's and others. We brought the company and ENCAMS, which proposes campaigns on these issues, together in what we hope will be a partnership approach towards an issue that is important to the industry and to local communities and needs to be tackled positively.
In a slip of the tongue, the hon. Lady referred to 18 years. She is, I am sure, aware that that is the period for which the Conservatives were in power, and at the end of it they were still blaming Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson for everything that the Conservatives failed to do throughout those 18 years. We have a while to go before we stop reminding everybody of the failures of a Conservative Administration who cared little for the environment and abandoned it locally, nationally and internationally.
In the spirit of co-operation that, I am sure, will pertain during the hours that we look forward to spending in Committee, may I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to my question? If funding for the measures is not raised through fines, how are local authorities to implement them? Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify the Secretary of State's assertion that these are powers, not duties? Are they entirely discretionary? Will the Government seek to enforce them?
The hon. Lady has missed the point. I accept the courteous way in which she asked her question and I look forward to our debates in Committee. The point is that, at the moment, where there are no fixed penalties, local authorities have to go through the procedure of taking people to court, and where there are fixed penalties they come back to central Government. So, an area may have a problem that is leading to lots of fines being levied, but none of the money comes back to the local authority. If local authorities have a problem, they will now have the money in their coffers to continue to enforce penalties. It is a simple concept, and one that works.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend was, like me, bewildered when listening to the Conservative spokespersons saying that there are existing powers that should be enforced. They have not volunteered how, when and by whom those powers would be enforced even if they did provide a remedy, which they do not.
I look forward to amendments and new clauses being tabled in Committee that will demonstrate more creativity on the part of Conservative Front Benchers than we have seen today. However, I should not be too hard on the Front Benchers as their efforts to find speakers could only force two fairly innocuous contributions—and by 7 o'clock, there was nobody on the Conservative Back Benches. In fact, to be completely accurate, there were no Back Benchers in the Opposition half of the Chamber by 7 o'clock.
It is a simple fact that the Conservatives do not understand the local environment. They are not interested in it, which makes it all the more absurd that they will vote against the Bill. The reasoned amendment is itself absurd: either its so-called reasons would negate the Bill, or they are reasons to support it. The arguments advanced by hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)—one of those who was dragooned in by the Whips—seemed to have been culled from lobbying organisations. He painted himself into the libertarian end of the Conservative spectrum: he does not want to punish those who wreck the environment and ruin the lives of others in the community. The rhetoric he deployed made it clear that he had not read the Bill.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman can do better in Committee, because he has not done well today. I was surprised by his support for the Law Society's opposition to fixed penalties. I hope that the Law Society will reconsider and agree that fixed penalties offer an efficient means of tackling problems without wasting the time of the courts, local authorities and the police. I have just finished a period as the first Minister to serve on a jury, so I bring added experience to bear on the subject.
In contrast to Conservative Members, my hon. Friend Barbara Follett reminded us of local people's passion and appetite for the measures and the vigour with which Labour MPs have explored the issues. The Bill is based on the experience of Labour Back Benchers, local councillors, the police, voluntary organisations and local people. My hon. Friend Iain Wright correctly linked cleaning up the environment to economic and social regeneration. Social and economic regeneration go hand in hand with an improved environment—it is called sustainable development.
Sue Doughty made a positive contribution in which she stressed the shared responsibility that we all have for our environment. She made clear the Liberal Democrats' general support for the Bill, although she said that she would challenge and probe some issues in Committee, as she is right to do. However, she was not right to say that the Bill "jumps around". It is comprehensive, then specific: the unifying theme and central principle is that of joined-up action at local level and specific proposals are made on the various aspects. The Bill provides a real opportunity for local authorities, the police and the communities that are served by both to work together, and I hope that Liberal Democrats in local government will seize that opportunity.
The hon. Lady acknowledged the cumulative effect of individual decisions on littering and such things as gum stains. She also acknowledged the difference between responsible farmers and landowners and those who are part of the problem. I share her surprise at the Conservatives' opposition to the Bill—although I am also delighted by it, because it makes it clear that they do not understand what they are doing. She made an important specific comment about car alarms. In fact, car alarms can be silenced under the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, which amends the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to include
"noise that is prejudicial to health or a nuisance and is emitted from or caused by a vehicle, machinery or equipment in a street".
The provision allows local authorities to enter or open a vehicle, if necessary by force, to silence a car alarm and to remove the vehicle from the street to a secure place. I hope that greater use of that provision will be encouraged by the Bill's comprehensive approach to alarms on premises.
The hon. Lady rightly referred to Travellers and their impact on some communities—something that I have experienced in my constituency. She also made the case for greater flexibility in deciding whether to contract out waste functions. Greater clarity in waste disposal targets and improvements brought about by the Government, particularly the comprehensive performance assessment, which has been mentioned several times, make the narrow requirement that the Bill will remove unnecessary. I look forward to discussing in Committee some of the other concerns that she highlighted.
My hon. Friend Mr. Blizzard called on local authorities to use the powers that are given in the Bill. I assure him that I believe that there is a strong will among local authorities to do just that. I sit on the Central Local Partnership, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. With my ODPM colleague, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, we have co-chaired a working group with a variety of interests, including local government, on sustainable communities. The Local Government Association has been deeply involved with this work. I believe that it will strongly support not only the passage of the Bill, but its implementation to good effect throughout the country.
I believe that there is a will to use the powers that are set out in the Bill. Issues such as the comprehensive performance assessment will encourage that, as will the fact that a short while ago we published the third ENCAMS report. We never previously had a proper comparison year on year to tell us whether things were changing for the better or the worse. We now have that information. We also have best value performance indicator 199, which measures performance by local authorities. Finally, we have the annual survey of the use of fixed penalty notices. At present, there is a 70 per cent. response, but one that we want, with local government, to be improved.
Mr. Thomas suggested in an intervention that the Government had not responded to the recommendation for access to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency data. He is incorrect, as the Committee was in the first instance. The DVLA makes available to local authorities a website for such inquiries. It started rolling out free online access to its vehicle records for inquiries about abandoned vehicles in September 2002. About 220 local authorities are now connected to the service. I would encourage local authorities that are not already making use of this facility to do so.
My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said that she was delighted that the Government had been brave enough to take on these issues. I was impressed by the findings of her constituency surveys that showed that two thirds of responses identified problems with litter, graffiti, gum and abandoned cars as priorities. Her constituents want the new laws that we are now providing.
My hon. Friend Mr. Challen rightly referred to the determination of Labour councillors in Leeds to tackle local environmental issues. I have spoken to several of them about these matters. The powers do not require extra resources in general. We have made it simpler for local authorities effectively to undertake their work without placing greater weight on their responsibilities.
My hon. Friend referred to the accountability of parish councils, as did the hon. Member for Guildford. My confidence that we are adopting the right approach reflects the experience of the past three years. The National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks, nationally and at regional level, have shown great leadership. That is reflected at local level by many parish councils.
I know that Conservative Members are not interested in parish councils, but we on the Government Benches are, and we are seeing their reflected performance as a result of local community leadership. There are about 7,000 parishes, and 10,000 if we take into account community councils in Wales. There are plenty of poor examples, but elected accountability is a requirement for a quality parish council. Peer support is helping to create a cadre of hugely effective parish and town councils.
My hon. Friend Claire Ward said that antisocial behaviour in a community that wants to help itself requires the use of exclusion orders and antisocial behaviour orders. She is right. Having created antisocial behaviour orders at the Home Office, I am always happy to hear of their success. I have seen the orders make a real difference in local communities. My hon. Friend is right to say that no one measure will change everything and that proportionality and logic have to be brought to bear. I am saddened to hear of an obstruction put in the way of a local solution in closing off an access that is a problem in my hon. Friend's area.
Like everything, these powers will strengthen the ability of local authorities comprehensively to tackle crime, disorder and damage to the environment. I commend the Bill to the House.