HC Deb 11 July 2002 vol 388 cc1134-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jhon Ryan.]

7.2 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

I am grateful to have secured the opportunity to draw the attention of the House to an issue that is a constant, nagging headache for my constituents. Although it never features in nationwide opinion polls, it is the matter about which I receive most letters and about which people stop me most in the streets of my constituency.

We have debated graffiti on a number of recent occasions in the House, and I have received countless surgery visits, letters, telephone calls and e-mails from people whose homes, streets and local surroundings are persistently blighted by the mindless handiwork of the graffiti vandals. Not only does it visibly drag a community down when there are graffiti on fences, shop fronts, stairwells, bus stops and post boxes, or the windows of local buses have been scratched with glass-cutters or drawn on with permanent marker pens, but it tangibly affects the fear of crime in a community. In the end, it affects the community deeply.

I grew up in the constituency that I now represent, and in recent years I have seen a marked increase in graffiti in Mitcham, Morden and Colliers Wood. It often seems that as fast as the graffiti are cleared away, they reappear—often in a much worse form. People, particularly the elderly, are scared to go out if their neighbourhood is targeted by graffiti vandals. If we are serious about doing more to tackle crime and the fear of crime, we must do more to tackle graffiti. My constituents are deeply aggravated by graffiti vandalism. They want effective action on it, as do most hon. Members, I am sure.

Graffiti vandalism is commonly thought of as the random, thoughtless activity of an isolated few. That is only partly true. It is a far more organised criminal activity than many people realise, and like paedophilia and drug crime, it includes a great deal of underground activity on the internet. Because the activity has reached such an organised scale, businesses and private individuals spend millions of pounds each year trying to prevent and remove graffiti, and local authorities in London are spending millions to deal with the problem, too. Graffiti vandalism is a very costly crime indeed.

In the London borough of Merton, half of which covers my constituency, dealing with incidents of graffiti has become increasingly challenging for the council over the past two years. The volume of graffiti has increased and local residents feel that the action that has been taken to remove graffiti and to identify the culprits has not been enough to address the scale of the problem. One has only to walk down roads near Mitcham common, in Ravensbury or at Tooting junction, or even down my own road, to see what they mean.

Along with robbery, burglary and race crime, quality of life crimes such as graffiti are now one of Merton's big policing priorities. In common with other London boroughs, Merton council has its own graffiti strategy focused on three key aims: first, a reduction in the incidence of graffiti; secondly, improved responsiveness in graffiti removal; and thirdly, integrated communications, including campaigns, publicity and information.

Because of that approach, some progress has begun to be made, largely due to the council responding to the concerns of residents. The key during the past six months has been the funding made available from the Home Office, which was secured by Merton Metropolitan police, supported by Merton council. That created the innovative FLAG project, which covers fly tipping, abandoned cars and graffiti.

The result has been better partnership between the council and the police, and significant progress in intelligence gathering and information exchange, enforcement, graffiti removal, public engagement—awareness raising, reassurance and participation in graffiti removal squads—and the engagement of other key stakeholders, including the London fire brigade, the utilities and transport providers and, on graffiti, to a more limited extent, the business community. I understand that Merton will round off the FLAG initiative with a clean-up day in hotspots in the borough in late September, in which I hope to take part.

Merton is now building on the experience gained through FLAG by integrating many of the initiatives into its crime strategy and continuing the monitoring and working relationship by embedding it into its own partnership against crime implementation group. The council hopes that some projects that it has initiated on a voluntary basis can be backed up by legislative change and funding made available to take the work into integrated baseline services.

But all Merton's work and all the targeted policing in the borough does not stop graffiti. Anyone who stands in virtually any street in my constituency can see that the battle is not yet being won. Stopping graffiti completely is virtually impossible, but it is possible to limit, contain and police it while tackling the root social causes. That is where Government and business can and must play a stronger part.

We need concerted action from Government. A borough-by-borough approach can displace criminal damage activity simply as a result of different standards being applied. Equally, when one borough gets tough on environmental crime, vandals may go further afield to commit their crimes and obtain the necessary tools. Interviews with young people arrested for graffiti show that the spray paint was often obtained outside the borough. Have spray can, will travel; do not have spray can, will travel. As likely as not they will scratch and graffiti the public transport that they use in doing so, so strong central direction is needed from Government.

I realise that the Minister will have difficulty in commenting on a matter of business, but I for one would like to see more support coming from businesses, first in the form of voluntary restrictions on the sale of the tools of graffiti. A recent, small-scale, voluntary scheme in Colliers Wood high street has been successful in that 26 of the 27 businesses approached signed up to restricting their sales once the full seriousness of the problem that they were inadvertently adding to was explained to them. But small shopkeepers need to be helped in the fight against graffiti by larger companies, especially the companies that make the very paints, pens and cutters that they sell.

Corporate social responsibility is a hot issue. On its website, the Corporate Responsibility Group, which is just one of the many bodies that big businesses of all kinds are signing up to, states: A key part of any corporate social responsibility programme will be a focus on involvement with the local community—either directly or via partnerships within the community or voluntary sector organisations…community involvement can take the form of charitable donations, gifts in kind, employee volunteering initiatives and staff secondments. Yet many companies are also now developing sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships with community and voluntary organisations working in a variety of fields—including education, regeneration, employment and homelessness. I hope that the Minister will agree that there is a case for the companies that make and distribute the tools of graffiti—the spray paint manufacturers, glass-cutter makers, DIY shops, craft shops and garage and car maintenance shops—to do more to combat the environmental crime and local misery that their products are causing. A proportion of their profits should be used to clean up the areas in which they supply products or trade. I want to encourage the makers and sellers of the tools of graffiti to do more to ensure that their products do not fall into the wrong hands. I also want the Government to do more to achieve the same ends by introducing legislation to ban the sale of spray paints to people under 18.

The Minister will know that I have urged the Government in the past to take legislative measures to deal with graffiti. Last year, I exchanged letters with the Home Office to press for an amendment to the then Criminal Justice and Police Bill to prohibit the sale of spray paints and marker pens in the same way in which the sale of fireworks is prohibited. This was the reply from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth): Such a measure, although initially attractive, may penalise those who do have a legitimate reason for purchasing these products. It is also unlikely to deter the determined graffiti artists from obtaining them and continuing their criminal activity and it is hoped that retailers would as a matter of course give consideration to those to whom they sell such products. With regard to the sale of glass-cutters, Section 6 of the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 prohibits the sale of knives and certain articles with a blade or point to persons under the age of 16. Of course, there may be young people with a legitimate reason for purchasing such items, but I still do not see why, if they have such a reason, they could not ask parents or responsible adults to obtain them on their behalf. That is the situation with fireworks—and it works and is wholly sensible.

Nobody would seriously suggest that we can entirely stop the determined graffiti vandal—I will not use the word "artist" because graffiti is a crime of vandalism and vandalism is not art—but the point is that such a measure would be a significant step towards weakening the resolve of the casual and less determined. Incidentally, with regard to glass cutters, I do not agree that retailers of such items regard them in the same way as knives and other bladed items.

I also wrote to the Home Office about extending police stop-and-search powers to cover spray paints, marker pens and glass cutters. This was the reply: There are no plans for this…the police already have the power to arrest anyone whom they reasonably suspect has committed or is about to commit the offence of criminal damage. Where vandals are found in possession of these items with the intention of damaging property or already having done so, the criminal law can be brought to bear. Will the Minister indicate whether the Home Office position is open to change on that point? I ask that question because the discussions that I have had with serving police officers suggest that, although they have powers of arrest, they do not feel that they have what they would consider more appropriate powers to stop and search.

In chapter 2 of "Police Powers", it is made clear that the tools of graffiti are not prohibited articles for the purposes of the power of stop and search under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. To paraphrase section 1 of that Act slightly, A constable…may search…any person or vehicle or anything which is in or on a vehicle, for stolen or prohibited articles". A later provision explains that prohibited articles are intended to mean articles likely to be used in burglary, theft, vehicle theft or obtaining property by deception.

It appears to me—perhaps the Minister can clarify this point for me—that there is still a grey area that needs to be dealt with in terms of police stop-and-search powers for the tools of graffiti. Certainly, it is the belief of serving officers that they do not have the powers that they need to deal with graffiti vandals. To check on that issue in the light of the difference of opinion between my local police force and the Home Office, I have today spoken with our area commander and a number of police sergeants. They are all adamant that they do not have those powers.

I fully appreciate that stop-and-search issues, especially in London, are difficult and have been so for years. I believe, however, that the problems of street crime are now so great that many people would be happy for those powers to be extended, especially if they are used sensitively and if some upper or lower age limit were applied to those changes in the rules.

No one would seriously suggest that central or local government is to blame for the eyesore of graffiti on our streets. Nor would anyone suggest that manufacturers and retailers are to blame. The vandals are to blame and it is up to the Government and business to join the local authorities and police in seeking ways to limit and discourage their criminal activities. It is a matter of social responsibility and I implore the Government, as they did with abandoned cars, to take firm legislative action on graffiti.

715 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing the debate. In a very constructive and purposeful speech, she clearly explained why the problem of graffiti is a serious issue—not only in her constituency, although she graphically described the situation there, but in many other parts of the country. She is right to say that we need a concerted effort that must involve the Government, police and local authorities, but also the corporate sector, in tackling the problem. I shall try to respond to a number of the points that she raised.

Just to confirm the impact of graffiti, a Home Office study published in 2000 estimated the cost of criminal damage, which includes graffiti, to be £4.1 billion in the year 1999 to 2000. Of course, that is not all down to graffiti, but it is a significant issue. As my hon. Friend said, it has a social cost and can have a negative impact in terms of making an area feel run down and contributing to the fear of crime. It can also be a factor in deterring small or large businesses from investing in an area that looks neglected.

The British crime survey shows that public concern about graffiti and vandalism is increasing. I cannot anticipate the British crime survey that we will publish tomorrow, but it would be in line with previous trends if public concern was rising. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we cannot allow criminal damage, which is a crime, to be described as or claimed to be art. That needs to be said very clearly.

The Government want to take the graffiti problem seriously. If we are able to tackle graffiti successfully, we will contribute to more attractive public spaces for everyone to use, and one of our objectives in the next few years, especially in many of our urban areas, must be to reclaim public spaces for ordinary, decent, law-abiding people and their families to enjoy free of the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Given the title of the debate, I want to make a few points about business. There will be potential in future for making use of the business improvement districts described in the local government White Paper that was published last year. Business improvement districts will allow local authorities and local businesses to work together to put in place local projects to improve their area. Projects can cover a wide variety of objectives, including improvements to the quality of the local environment, the street environment or parks and open spaces.

There would effectively be a contract between local authorities and local business for additional services or improvements, funded by a levy raised through an additional rate. Businesses would know in advance how much would be raised and what it was being raised for. All businesses in the area would have a say in whether the scheme went ahead. If a majority were in favour, all ratepayers would contribute to the costs of the scheme; if a majority were against, it would not go ahead. We will need legislation to implement the business improvement district scheme. It is a way, among a number of important environmental initiatives, of building on existing collaboration between local businesses and local councils to tackle graffiti. In London, Great Yarmouth and Coventry, the circle initiative has set up business improvement district-type schemes, which are running successfully.

My hon. Friend mentioned restricting the sale of graffiti materials. Many people say that that makes sense to business people and local residents who are trying to eradicate graffiti from their area. We are aware of several local authorities that have been in the process of developing voluntary codes for vendors, of which my hon. Friend gave an example. Those are schemes whereby shops agree not to sell graffiti materials to people who are under the age of 16 unless they are accompanied by an adult. Shops taking part in the scheme display notices in their windows, and often the local authority trading standards department tests how effectively the code is working. A recent report by the London Assembly's graffiti investigative committee cited such voluntary initiatives, saying that although they work well, they need to be part of a range of measures to be most effective in preventing graffiti.

Clearly, as my hon. Friend said, retailers need to be supported in their efforts by integrated schemes to tackle graffiti at local level. Crime reduction partnerships have an important role in examining issues in their areas and developing the right local solutions. I congratulate my hon. Friend's council on explicitly mentioning graffiti as one of the top priorities in its partnership, reflecting the importance given to antisocial behaviour in its strategy.

The London Local Authorities Bill includes measures that would make it an offence in the course of business to supply aerosol paint or indelible marker pens to any person apparently under the age of 18. It would require retailers to restrict physical access to those materials, and that would apply to the area covered by London borough councils. The Bill has now had its Second Reading in the House of Lords.

My hon. Friend rightly said that we have resisted calls for national legislation banning the sale of spray paints and marker pens to those aged 18 or under. There has always been an argument about the balance to be struck between denying access to materials that can be used to cause criminal damage and allowing others who have legitimate uses to purchase them. My hon. Friend made her case rather persuasively. The measures in the London Local Authorities Bill, if enacted, could provide a useful pilot for determining the effectiveness of such an approach and whether we should be seeking to extend it further.

My hon. Friend raised what is probably a fresh issue: the extent to which manufacturers of materials that are used for graffiti should in some way be invited, encouraged and possibly even, as she suggested, compelled to contribute to the costs of the clean-up. I am not sure whether that issue has been examined in any detail, but I am certainly more than happy to refer her comments to my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry who have primary responsibility for the matter. I cannot make a commitment on the outcome, but the issue is certainly worth drawing to their attention.

There is another area of corporate responsibility for the clean-up. Clearly, the quicker graffiti can be cleaned up, the longer areas are likely to stay clean. Not all but a lot of the graffiti is so-called tagging, the aim of which is to leave a personal mark on a property. Some of the incentive to do that would be destroyed if graffiti were removed pretty quickly after it had appeared.

It is right to say to businesses that they need to play their part—especially companies that own street furniture such as telephone boxes, bus shelters and cable company utility boxes. They need to take responsibility for removing graffiti promptly from those structures. Local authorities are not able to require private companies to remove graffiti from their property. There needs to be a common, responsible approach towards graffiti among all service providers.

In most cases, the siting of cable boxes on the highway will have been exempt from planning control. That calls for companies to think carefully about where boxes are placed and to have agreed ways of keeping them in good order. Those producing street furniture need to think about how it can be made less attractive as a target to those intent on causing damage. As my hon. Friend said, I am aware that in Merton utility companies and transport operators are being approached regarding partnership working in order to achieve effective and timely removal of graffiti from their equipment and property in conjunction with council-led initiatives. I hope that that is successful; it is certainly the type of corporate responsibility that we want to encourage.

Others have not taken responsibility for removing graffiti from their property, and local authorities have found that they cannot do so because they would be liable for any damage caused. It is interesting that the London borough of Southwark secures a written disclaimer from companies before removing graffiti. Other local authorities are adopting that way of working, and we would like to encourage that.

Various town and country planning legislation enables local authorities to secure the removal of advertisements, but not graffiti. The legislation also allows local authorities to take action against occupiers and owners of land whose condition adversely affects the amenity area.

In view of the lack of time, I will not go through a list of local authority initiatives, such as hotlines for the reporting of graffiti and priority for the removal of racist, sexist and other offensive graffiti. Fortunately, such initiatives are developing in many places up and down the country. One of the responsibilities of my Department, under our overall commitment to reducing antisocial behaviour, is to bring together these examples of good practice and to make them widely available to crime and disorder reduction partnerships, so that people can build on that good practice.

There are a number of circumstances in which offending behaviour and cleaning up graffiti can be brought together, not least in relation to the role of the national probation service, which often requires groups of offenders to clean off graffiti as part of their community punishment order, enabling them to carry out work that is of benefit to the community and that can help them to see the effects of the damage on local communities and businesses.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the ability to stop and search to establish whether a person was carrying materials that had been, or might be, used for creating graffiti. She highlighted the lack of clarity in this area that had been described to her by serving police officers in her borough. The law allows police officers to stop and search in relation to any arrestable offence. There is, however, a question about whether creating graffiti qualifies under that definition; it would depend on the extent of the damage. She is right, however, to put her finger on an operational problem for the police, whatever the law might say.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that, for a whole range of reasons, stop and search is a sensitive issue, and we would need to take steps in that area only after proper consideration. We just happen to be carrying out a fairly extensive review of the guidance relating to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to which my hon. Friend referred. As she has raised this issue, I will ensure that that review—which is being undertaken jointly by the Home Office and the Cabinet Office—takes the opportunity to examine the passages that she has quoted from the underlying legislation, to see whether it might be appropriate to make any change. I cannot make any commitment on the outcome of that tonight, but, as that review is taking place, let us take the opportunity to see whether we can help with this issue.

My hon. Friend referred to public transport, including its use to go to another borough to get hold of spray paint. She is right to say that the damaging of public transport by glasscutters, and the spraying of graffiti on to vehicles, trains and their surroundings on the underground, in bus stations and at bus stops is a persistent problem. As a result, we face the costs of repair and replacement, the dangers that this behaviour can cause to the travelling public and to staff, and the delays to services through people being injured while producing graffiti. We must also take into account people's fear for their personal safety and the fear of crime, both of which are engendered by graffiti, which can make travelling unpleasant and may, in some cases, deter the public from travelling at all. We certainly see it as an important role of local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to examine graffiti issues on and around the transport system, and to work with private transport companies to tackle graffiti quickly and effectively.

Another area in which the corporate sector has a role to play, particularly in innovation, is in good design, whether of street furniture or of the materials used in construction, so as to make them less prone to attack by graffiti criminals, and to make clean-up quicker, cheaper and more effective where it does take place. We would like to encourage work on that.

I should like to highlight the initiatives that the Government are taking to increase the number of people available to patrol the streets of our towns and cities, involving a huge expansion in the number of neighbourhood and street wardens. Also, the measures in the Police Reform Bill—which received its Third Reading last night—to introduce community support officers and accredited community support officers will provide an enormously valuable complement to the work of the police in my hon. Friend's constituency and many others. One way of deterring graffiti is to have a sense of public order in our streets and communities, and the larger number of people—along with the police and the specials—who will be able to patrol those communities will help to tackle many types of antisocial behaviour, not least of which will be graffiti.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock