HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc528-35

Lords amendment: No. 23.

Ms Blears

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 24 to 38, and 65.

Ms Blears

This group of amendments relates to environmental matters that were originally in the Bill: night noise, graffiti, fly posting, spray paints and data on waste. Clause 48 amends the Noise Act 1996 to end, for England and Wales, the previously adoptive character of sections 2 to 9 of that Act. From now on, all local authorities in England and Wales will have the power to investigate complaints of excessive noise at night, give warning notices in respect of such noise and, where the noise remains excessive after the service of a warning notice, either prosecute or, more likely, issue a fixed penalty notice. Those powers will now be available for all local authorities, rather than having to be adopted.

Amendment No. 23 will allow local authorities to retain their receipts from night noise fixed penalty notices for use on any qualifying functions. The amendments will encourage and support the increased use of night noise fixed penalty notices by local authorities, with resulting benefits for people who suffer noise from their neighbours at night. The provisions are similar to those for the fixed penalty notices that can now be issued for littering and dog fouling, and we feel that if local authorities can keep the income from their fixed penalty notices, they will be more inclined to use their powers to relieve the considerable nuisance caused by excessive noise late at night.

Clauses 54 and 55 give local authorities the power to clean graffiti from property owned by public utility companies and statutory undertakers. I am delighted to say that amendments Nos. 24 to 33 will allow local authorities to recover the costs of removal from the owners of that property.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

I thank the Government, and especially my hon. Friend for her work on the amendments. They embody suggestions that I made in Committee, and I am thrilled that statutory undertakers will now be responsible for maintaining their street furniture, which when covered in graffiti not only causes offence, but makes people worried about moving about their local high streets and other areas. I am also thrilled that if local authorities remove that graffiti, they will have the power to recharge.

One of the many themes supported by Members on both sides of the Committee was that powers that are given must be workable and usable. I believe that these powers will be used, precisely because the local authorities will be able to recharge. I also think that many of the statutory undertakers will—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that she must resume her seat when the occupant of the Chair is on his feet, and also that there is a distinction between an intervention and a speech. However congratulatory she means to be, she must keep that balance.

Ms Blears

As I was saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, amendments Nos. 24 to 33 will allow local authorities to recover the costs of removal from the owners of such property. I am delighted to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has pursued this matter with such vigour, and without whose tenacity and determination these provisions might not have reached the statute book, as I hope they will.

We are aware of the concerns that have been raised about the financial impact that the amendments might have on the industries concerned. That is why we propose to pilot the measures in 12 authorities, so that they will not put an undue burden on business. The pilots will give us the opportunity to evaluate the impact of the measures, and we shall consult the companies and local authorities concerned to ensure that we get the scheme right.

The amendments also provide for guidance to be issued by the Secretary of State, or the National Assembly for Wales, on the operation of the provisions, and local authorities will have to comply with it. The guidance will be drawn up in consultation with the industries and local authorities concerned.

Hand in hand with the clean-up measures goes tougher enforcement action against the perpetrators. That is a common theme: more action, but more enforcement as well. Amendment No. 34 will increase the fine for those prosecuted under section 224 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 from level 3, a fine of up to £1,000, to level 4, a fine of up to £2,500. That increase recognises the growing incidence of fly posting, and the need for a more punitive deterrent for those responsible for that environmental crime.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Will the fly-posting provisions apply to political parties?

Ms Blears

Anybody who contravenes the Town and Country Planning Act will be liable to a fine higher than the current level 3 fine. I am aware that there are different provisions in different parts of the country about what kind of party political advertising can be permitted. For example, I know that in Birmingham there is a tradition of allowing posters to be stuck on street furniture. That certainly is not a tradition in my community, so the position varies from local authority to local authority. None the less, where those provisions are contravened, the fine will be up to £2,500 rather than the present level of £1,000.

Mr. Martlew

If there were a general election, and a political party—the Liberal Democrats, for example—was fined £2,500, would that be added to its election expenses?

6.15 pm
Ms Blears

That would be a matter for the returning officer and the Electoral Commission; it would be determined by electoral law at the time.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 concern the age below which sale of aerosol paint should be restricted. The Government have been open to argument on that point throughout the passage of the Bill. We remain convinced of the need to take the tools of the criminal damage trade out of the hands of the taggers, but the precise age at which it is proportionate to restrict sale of those items is a matter for debate. Having listened carefully to arguments both in this House and in another place, we agree that an age limit of 16 is more appropriate than one of 18.

Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 relate to the Secretary of State's power to require data returns to be made by local authorities and the Environment Agency about cases of fly-tipping with which they deal. There are currently no national data on levels of fly-tipping. The Environment Agency and most local authorities already collect some data, but not in any standardised way. It is important that we develop our information base on the extent of fly-tipping, to help inform future policy development both nationally and regionally. Local authorities will also benefit from the measure, as they will be able to access reports from the database.

The amendments introduce a new wording of section 71(4) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 with regard to the requirement for information. The previous provisions introduced a reporting requirement only in section 59 of that Act. The revised wording will ensure that local authorities may be required to report all the incidents with which they deal, no matter which power they use to do so. This is a wider provision, and I understand that local authorities welcome the power, rather than seeing it as a bureaucratic burden, because they want access to the database that will be developed. We shall try to ensure that it is a web-based facility, which can be accessed with minimum cost and trouble to local authorities, and I think that it will prove useful in determining our future policy on waste and fly-tipping, which, unfortunately, is an increasing problem.

Mr. Paice

I broadly welcome this group of amendments, and I particularly welcome the introduction of an appeal system. It is always a matter of concern to me when we give public bodies—be they local authorities or any other public body—powers over the private sector against which there is no appeal. The matter was debated in Committee. I am particularly concerned when we create a power for an authority to take action and to reclaim moneys from the private sector, so the introduction of an appeal mechanism is extremely welcome, and I thank the Minister and the Government for it.

I was interested to hear the Minister's remarks about the money side of this question and about the fact that she is putting into the Bill the way in which local authorities will be able to utilise the money that they have raised for approved purposes. It is worth bearing in mind that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made precisely such a suggestion in Committee and was, not for the first time, rebuffed by the Government and told that they did not believe in hypothecation and that it would not happen. Of course, they are now putting that precisely into the Bill, enabling income to be hypothecated directly for particular items of expenditure.

I cannot help but gloat a little—I suspect that the Liberal Democrats will, too—at the way in which the Minister so charmingly said that the Government had now been persuaded that 16, rather than 18, should be the minimum age in relation to the sale of aerosols. If my recollection is correct, the hon. Lady was not the Minister in Committee, but, if my recollection is correct, there are Members in the Chamber today—including the former Minister with responsibility for the police—who were around at that time, and who were members of the Committee. They will remember how totally and utterly the Government rejected the logic of the arguments put by my hon. Friends and me for reducing the age at which someone should be prevented from buying an aerosol. I remember drawing attention to the fact—I think it was on Second Reading—that someone can, at 16, use a shotgun, go into a pub and have a drink, or even get married. At that age, they can have a driving licence and buy a car, but if they bend the car, they cannot go and buy the paint to mend it until they are 18. That seems utterly ludicrous. I am delighted that the Government have heeded the arguments made in the other place, albeit at the eleventh hour, but I cannot pretend to be surprised or even disappointed that they did not heed the argument made in this place that 18 was too high an age at which to ban something as everyday as the purchase of a can of aerosol paint.

I do not wish to deny the damage that graffiti does. It is a serious problem, and my hon. Friends and I support the Government's efforts in that regard. I would also say in all honesty to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) that I do not in any way resent the fact that she has been extremely successful in getting her proposals into the Bill. As I said earlier, I support the amendments in their entirety, but I have to say to the Minister that she is extremely courageous to suggest that the Government have listened to the arguments and been persuaded on the issue of age, given the strength and volubility of the way in which several Ministers—and, indeed, Back Benchers who supported the Government in Committee—sought to decry the efforts that some of us were making to reduce the age to 16. Even at this late hour, however, this is a welcome concession, and I am delighted to support it.

Mrs. Brooke

I, too, welcome this group of amendments. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) welcomed the qualifying functions in amendment No. 23 in relation to what the money could be spent on. I would like a little clarification on that. In know from my past life in a local authority that sometimes, when money is ring-fenced too tightly, it cannot be spent on sensible things. Obviously, we want the receipts to be able to finance extra activity. My councils, like others, can barely afford noise patrols at the moment, for example. I wonder whether there will be any consultation before the provisions are finally drawn up.

I welcome the fact that amendment No. 29 puts guidance on to the face of the Bill. I have not seen such a provision on any other of the relatively few Bills with which I have been involved so far. I strongly support amendments Nos. 35 and 36. I well remember discussing those issues in Committee; in fact, I got the Committee report out so that I could revisit that debate. However, given the spirit in which we are discussing the Bill today, it would be unkind to quote some of the comments that were made. I am sure that these measures are the right ones. The obvious point has been made that if someone can have a driving licence at the age of 17, it is nonsense that they cannot go out and buy spray paint. Overkill such as that can be counter-productive.

I would like to make a serious point about amendment No. 30, which states that one of the grounds for appeal is that the defacement is neither detrimental to the amenity of the area nor offensive". I am all in favour of collaborative work to involve young people in creating attractive graffiti, but whenever that sort of work is undertaken, it should be with the permission of the property owner or landowner. I am concerned that this provision could create a complex situation if used as a general defence. I imagine that whether the graffiti was detrimental to the amenity of the area would be a subjective judgment.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I, too, am slightly puzzled by that defence, because it appears to invite those on the magistrates bench to substitute their artistic taste for that of the local authority. That does not seem to be an entirely sound legal ground for exemption, and I wonder whether guidance will be specifically given to the bench and to local authorities as to how they should interpret detrimental to the amenity of the area".

Mrs. Brooke

I thank my hon. Friend for making more clearly than I was the point that I was trying to make about subjective judgment. I support the measures on removing offensive graffiti, but I do not want to see a loophole that could lead to some rather strange debates about whether graffiti was detrimental to an area. I emphasise that I am very much in favour of partnership working and creating interesting graffiti, but it must be done with the permission of all the parties involved.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Can the hon. Lady come up with a single example anywhere in these broad and sweeping kingdoms of any bit of this foul, feral scrawl that we call graffiti that could possibly be described—even by a Liberal Democrat—as attractive and interesting?

Mrs. Brooke

A person who has painted something on a property could stand up in court and argue that it was beautiful. I probably would not think that it was, but if it was not obviously offensive, the person who had painted it could create a certain amount of legal difficulty. I am sure the Minister will reassure us on that.

Ms Blears

I shall deal first with the issues raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). He argued that our decision to allow the retention of moneys from the fixed penalty notices for night noise was inconsistent. However, we are already proposing, in clause 51, that local authorities should have the right to retain the income from fixed penalty notices for graffiti and fly posting. That builds on existing powers to retain fee income from littering and dog fouling. This is therefore nothing new. We are allowing local authorities to retain the money from the fixed penalty notices issued for night noise, in an attempt to encourage them to use the powers more widely. That is why we are getting rid of the adoptive provisions and making them apply across local authorities. It is therefore not new for us to introduce a measure to enable the authorities to retain such income. There is a consistency of approach here, and probably also a read-across to the retention of moneys by the police in relation to the income from fixed penalty notices for speeding, which is ploughed back into road safety measures. The Government have a coherent and consistent approach on those issues.

6.30 pm

The hon. Gentleman indulged in some unfortunate gloating in relation to spray paints. I never saw him as the kind of person who would gloat in such circumstances—perhaps I was mistaken—but I think that every Member of the House would acknowledge that graffiti is a huge problem for our communities. That is why we have made it a central part not just of the Bill, but of the "Together" action plan, which we issued a few weeks ago. If the hon. Gentleman has read that, he will know that we have a major programme called Operation Scrub It, which we hope will lead to the removal of graffiti up and down our land. We also have Operation Scrap It for abandoned cars and Operation Gate It for alley gating, so we have scrub it, scrap it and gate it, and our plans for tackling antisocial behaviour will be very effective indeed.

I am delighted to say to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) that I understand that when reducing the age in respect of possession of spray paints was discussed in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who was previously responsible for the Bill, said: I will continue to listen to representations, or any other evidence to show that it is not the age group that the Bill mentions that is presenting the problem. If people think that they have that evidence, they should let us have it, because I do not pretend that we have the whole picture mapped out, or that we know exactly what is going on in our society."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 22 May 2003; c. 405.] That is perfect evidence of my colleague's open-mindedness and his willingness to listen to evidence, take a rational decision and not reach foregone conclusions.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

I am delighted at the measures that my hon. Friend is putting through the House, but I am sorry that they do not apply to Scotland. Have there been any joint ministerial discussions between the Scottish Executive and her Department as to the possibility of having the same measures introduced in Scotland?

Ms Blears

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for these provisions. Although there have been no formal ministerial discussions as yet, I am aware that discussions are going on in Scotland around similar areas. Clearly, the matters that concern people living in England and Wales are of equal concern to residents in Scotland. Therefore, there will be discussions and, I hope, the sharing of good practice.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole raised the issue of night noise and whether her local authority could afford monitoring patrols. If she talks to her local authority, she will find that there are other ways to monitor noise, such as through the use of technology and electronic devices, which are much more cost-effective than local authority officers marauding on the streets late at night seeking out noise.

There is a serious issue here, and we want to make the powers as easy to use as we can, because the fact that they have been adoptive has militated against local authorities taking such action. Increasingly, when these powers are taken together with some of those to deal with noisy licensed premises under the licensing legislation, we will begin to have a coherent set of powers that really can help to attack the tremendous nuisance caused by excessive noise. Some people have to live with noise day in, day out—or rather night in, night out#x2014;which has a detrimental effect on their well-being.

The powers will be extremely welcome, and I am pleased that the hon. Lady will support them, although I am surprised by her enthusiasm—whether the powers be on environmental crime, tackling graffiti, fly posting or antisocial behaviour in general—which leads me to question why her party finds it impossible to support the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. I find this a very contradictory position to take: she is so supportive of all those proposals to tackle antisocial behaviour, yet her party cannot find it in itself to support the Government and the legislation.

Mr. Heath

Without any temptation to gloat at the Minister's expense, may I simply say that had her colleagues expressed their views in the way that she has this evening, committed themselves to the dual working that she has committed herself to this evening and introduced at an earlier stage those amendments that she has introduced this evening, the Bill might have taken a different course?

Ms Blears

It is perhaps more likely that we might have seen a very different response to the proposed legislation if there had been no change of Liberal Democrat spokespeople.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) that I understand that the Scottish Executive have published an antisocial behaviour Bill, which includes a ban on the sale of spray paints to under-16s. I am sure that there will be extensive joint working between us with regard to those issues.

I am pleased that the amendment, which I commend to hon. Members, commands the support of the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 24 to 38 agreed to [one with Special Entry].