Clause 48 - Penalty notices in respect of graffiti or

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:15 pm ar 20 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

It will be helpful to have a brief debate on the clause. I am glad to say that Opposition Members can welcome the fact that the Government propose to take further measures on graffiti and fly posting. I receive many letters from constituents about graffiti and fly posting, and I am sure that other members of the Committee receive similar letters.

It is fair to say that all of us who are rightly proud of our country are depressed about the image that is sometimes conveyed, particularly to overseas tourists, by the amount of graffiti here. The problem is not by any means restricted to the UK-I have observed a lot

of graffiti in other European countries as well. However, it is undoubtedly the case that parts of our major cities-not only London-have been severely damaged by graffiti. Local authorities, companies and other bodies have to spend an appalling amount of money on removing graffiti. One thinks in particular of the problems faced by railway companies and London Transport in trying to clean graffiti off railway and tube carriages. We therefore welcome the fact that further powers are being taken in clause 48 to enable authorised officers of local authorities to issue penalty notices. However, I have some questions for the Minister about the powers that the Government are taking.

One of the issues on which I considered tabling an amendment, but decided not to do so, is the level of penalty that has been chosen. Unfortunately, some graffiti artists are quite wealthy, and I wonder whether the £50 penalty specified in subsection (9) will be enough of a deterrent. I am rather surprised that the penalty is so low. Can the Minister explain the thinking behind that?

It occurred to me that, although the power is useful, the Government need to consider whether they are imposing extra bureaucracy on local authorities. I have previously mentioned my concern about the imposition of more and more duties and powers on local authorities without accompanying funding. I am particularly conscious of that matter, having just opened a letter from the chief executive of my local authority, in which it is pointed out that Surrey Heath borough council has experienced a net loss this year, because the extra money that it has had to pay out in salaries and national insurance outweighed the increase that it received from the Government. That is not the Minister's fault, but it is nevertheless relevant.

I hope that the Minister can explain the thinking behind the low penalty payable in pursuance of a notice, but I understand that in subsection (10):

''The appropriate person may by order substitute a different amount for the amount for the time being specified in subsection (9).''

It is useful that local authorities have the opportunity to increase the maximum penalty, but I wonder whether we should be delegating such matters to them. It is more common for the Government to set out the level of a penalty in the Bill, and then to increase it in due course, if new legislation or inflation mean that the amount is too low. I hope that the Minister can comment on that, but I do not want him to read into what I said any opposition to further measures against those responsible for graffiti or fly posting.

On another point, subsection (2) says that a fixed penalty may not be used if the offence was motivated wholly or partly by hostility towards a person based on his belonging to a racial or religious group or towards members of a racial or religious group. I assume that the thinking behind that is that such an offence would be pursued separately by the police, using other powers for offences of race hatred. Can the Minister give some guidance on how local authorities should respond? Should they go and consult senior

officers in the relevant police force the minute that they identify such an offence? As that aspect of fly posting or graffiti is excluded from the power, can the Minister explain what local authorities should do if a vast number of racist posters suddenly go up in an area over a weekend?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes 4:30, 20 Mai 2003

The hon. Gentleman said that he could imagine such things happening. In my constituency, Solomon court sheltered accommodation is particularly targeted by racist graffiti and posters, causing the elderly residents great distress.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

The hon. Lady is right. That is already happening in certain areas, and even where it has not happened so far, it is possible to imagine it happening. It would be helpful if the Minister could say something about that matter.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I want to confine my comments to a couple of points.

I have never believed that the quality of the environment is an add-on. It is essential to people's self-esteem and feeling of well-being and it enables them to feel part of the community. I welcome the clause.

I want to take up one of the issues identified by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath concerning the funding of the imposition of penalty notices. The revenue raised by speed cameras is already recycled back into the police pot. Will the Minister consider ways in which the revenue taken from penalty notices-or at least some of it-might find its way back into the local authority pot?

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. I think that the issues that the hon. Lady is addressing appear in clause 50.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I beg your pardon, Mr. Cran.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I have a couple of questions for the Minister.

Will there be an age limit for penalty notices? That may be dealt with elsewhere in the Bill, or it may be a well-known fact of which I was not aware. I am not thoroughly up on graffiti artists; I have an idea that wealthy people go round doing such things. I am not sure about that, but I accept the wisdom of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath on that matter. Such people are not necessarily impoverished, but some of them will be young and some will not. What effect would the Bill have on juveniles, or is that dealt with in existing legislation?

Is there anything in the Bill about obscenity in racial and religious graffiti? I can understand that deciding which words in a piece of graffiti were obscene would cause a sub-committee of departmental civil servants a problem-they would try to work out what points they would give for obscenity. Presumably fly posting comes under the Obscene Publications Act 1964? Is there any relevance in that?

My other question-and here I declare an interest-is whether fly posting includes advertising attached to lamp posts. I do not know whether that is a common practice in all constituencies. I know that it is only in Scotland that election notices are legally attached to lamp posts.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

No, it is done in various constituencies.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

In Uxbridge, we value our lamp posts. Some people use lamp posts and other street furniture for affixing adverts, such as ''Lose 20 stone in half an hour''. That one I did not take up.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I am not going to intervene on my hon. Friend on the issue of losing 20 stone, but he may be interested to know that I had cause-for reasons that I will not bore the Committee with-to look into election posters being fixed to lamp posts. In certain constituencies, there are specific byelaws to allow that, whereas in other places it is illegal. I know of one constituency in Staffordshire where all the lamp posts had, alternately, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat posters on them, and I wondered why any of the parties had bothered to do that, because they completely cancelled each other out. However, when I checked, I was surprised to find that a byelaw to allow the practice had been passed.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

You will be as delighted as I am, Mr. Cran, to discover that we learn so much in Committee. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information.

As I said, I have an interest. This is unfair to the bona fide retailers, who may have been trading in the same spot for over 100 years, who stick to the rules. Notices are put up, some by reputable companies-just about reputable, as they obviously do not offer quite the same value as others-and are left up for some time, unless they refer to an events such as a bank holiday weekend sale. I wonder whether that can be defined as fly posting, because if companies are advertising on those notices, it is obvious who is responsible for them. Those companies are advertising for nothing, whereas others have to pay to put up advertisement leaflets in prominent places, so it would be useful to slap a penalty notice on them for each poster. However, I do not know whether the Bill contains such a power.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Llafur, Don Valley

I wish to make two points that follow on from the hon. Gentleman's comments and relate to the fixed £50 penalty notice.

There may be companies that are getting others to fly post on their behalf. If that is the case, there is an issue about the level of the fine that the companies responsible should pay. We must also be clear that where a company passes the responsibility to another person-possibly a young person-for a few pounds, or more, that company must not escape its responsibilities if the person sticks up posters advertising its warehouse sale, for instance, in the streets of our communities.

I also want clarification on fixed penalty notices. As the Minister is aware, we had discussions in earlier debates about the age at which they will apply.

Without being ageist, one would assume people under 18 are responsible for a lot of graffiti, but earlier advice to the Committee was that notices would apply to those over 18, and only in pilot areas to those aged 16 and 17.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

May I make a couple of points, following on from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)?

The age at which young people can be given a fixed penalty notice is a crucial issue. Most hon. Members think that the police should be able to issue fixed penalty notices to youngsters aged 10 and above, and, as will become apparent when we address clause 51, there is a debate about whether community support officers should be able to do that. That raises this question: if a young person under 16-perhaps 11 or 12-is responsible, should the payment of their fixed penalty notice be a matter for their parents?

A range of issues need to be clarified to make the clause as effective as possible. In my area, the majority of people who are responsible for graffiti are under 16, and if we do not have a clause that deals with that, the Bill will not make a lot of difference to the current situation. Generally, I welcome the clause-but with that proviso.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was right-I have taken a straw poll among Labour Members, and we, too, think that £50 is not enough. Will the Minister address that and find out whether £50 is as effective a deterrent as we would want?

I well understand why the Minister wants to exclude graffiti that is racially motivated or against religious groups, as we would all agree that it is so serious that other powers can deal with it. However, the speed at which graffiti is removed is important, whatever sort it is, and I wonder whether the guidance for local authorities will mention the speed at which they are expected to remove graffiti.

Graffiti is a problem for all sorts of properties and premises. We have huge debates in my constituency when graffiti appears on a garden wall or on the side of a shop. We get into a nightmare in which the local authority says that it will remove graffiti if it is on a public building, but not if it is anywhere private; or it says that it will remove graffiti if it can get payment for doing so from the person who owns the property. Will the Minister clarify whether penalty notices will be available to deal with graffiti on any building or structure?

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to follow the hon. Gentleman's sensible points with specific questions on two linked matters. Who exactly will be given the penalty notice? Does the authorised officer of the local authority have to spot somebody fly posting or spraying graffiti and make them culpable by giving them the fixed penalty? What happens in the situation that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge talked about, which we all know to be commonplace, where the person doing the fly posting is acting as an agent for somebody else? Will the owner of the warehouse, or whoever is doing the sale, be liable and be hit by a fixed penalty? If so, £50 is nowhere near enough. That is the key issue for the Minister to address.

Linked to that is the issue of removal. I know that you will rule me out of order, Mr. Cran, if I start to talk about the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), which we will discuss later. However, they refer to the issue of removal. If, as I suspect-the Minister nodded earlier to suggest that I am right-the penalty notice must apply to somebody who is spotted doing the deed, surely clause 48 should include a power for the local authority officer to say, ''Remove that graffiti.'' That is not covered by a fixed penalty notice, so I would be grateful if the Minister explained why and said whether it could be covered.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

I want to ask one brief question. I appreciate what the clause is designed to achieve in respect of graffiti and fly posting, but-and this relates to what the hon. Member for Uxbridge was saying-I regularly receive complaints from my constituents about the proclivity of certain firms in the area to stick leaflets under car windscreens in car parks. I have had numerous complaints about that, sometimes because of the nature of the services and products advertised on those flyers. Will the clause catch that sort of behaviour?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow 4:45, 20 Mai 2003

This has been an interesting debate. During its course, I have spotted another problem. A council officer may give a fixed penalty notice to the person spraying the graffiti; in that sense it is rather like a traffic warden issuing a parking ticket. However, a traffic warden can at least write down a registration number in his book. Unlike a policeman, the council officer will not have the authority to stop that person if they try to run off or demand their name and address. How can an officer give people fixed penalty notices, and pursue them if they do not pay, if he does not know who they are? If a policeman were doing that, there would be no problem, but I can foresee problems for authorised council officers. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that I may have missed something.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have at least discovered the root of some of my problems during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is taking soundings on the Back Benches. The Whip was not here when he admitted it, but he is here now as my hon. Friend is deciding whether he supports the Government's position. I thought that I should make my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) aware of that, so that he could take the appropriate action at the appropriate time.

Clause 48 gives authorised local authority officials the ability to issue fixed penalty notices for graffiti and fly posting. The intention is that those notices will be used only in minor instances of those offences, which might not otherwise have been considered worth the time and expense of prosecution. We do not think that fixed penalty notices are appropriate for offences involving wholesale criminal damage, obscenity, or where racially motivated fly posting is part of the offence. In those cases, people should be prosecuted. The local authority should take the time and trouble to prosecute people, to provide the appropriate level of deterrent. However, as many hon. Members will know

from their constituencies, this is a growing problem. Methods are becoming more blatant and there is a need to provide an easy-to-use deterrent for those low-level instances of people who go round scrawling graffiti or fly posting. That is a great nuisance and we believe that the deterrent will be usable for such minor situations.

Offenders will have 14 days in which to pay the penalty, after which time a prosecution for the offence can be initiated. No proceedings will be brought where the payment of the fixed penalty has been made within 14 days. Clause 48 also prescribes how payment of the penalty is to be made. The penalty for such offences is currently set at £50, and it is aimed at the person who is fixing the fly poster or scrawling the graffiti. It is possible to prosecute the individuals who profit from the activity-the people who are behind it and are employing other people to do their work for them.

That is not easy; otherwise a lot more of it would be done. Such people do not make clear declarations about who they are; otherwise they would be prosecuted. They often put middlemen or legal problems in the way of prosecuting them as the people who stand to gain from the fly posting. This will not solve the whole problem-I do not pretend that it will. It will, however, be a useful intervention to provide a deterrent on those minor occasions where the local authority would otherwise say, ''It is not worth the court time or the aggravation. We are not going to prosecute in these cases''. That is why there is a propensity for the activity to grow and become a sizeable problem in many of our communities.

My hon. Friends were concerned about the age limits. Their concerns arose because they have logical minds; they thought that the fixed penalty notices applied in the same way as the others that we discussed earlier in the Bill. We would therefore have been talking about 18, but extending the age to 16 with an order-making power. That is not the case, because that power originates in different legislation.

The fixed penalty notices would apply to people over the age of 10-the age of criminal conviction for minors-but under-14s could not be convicted unless they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Potentially, therefore, the fixed penalty notice could apply to someone under the age of 14, but that would be difficult; it would be easier to apply to over-14s, which could catch many of the perpetrators of the crimes that my hon. Friends have mentioned. That is a different regime from that of the earlier fixed penalty notices, when we were looking to reduce the age.

I have talked about racist fly posting and graffiti, but we do not propose that fixed penalty notices should be used in those circumstances. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was concerned that we were giving the local authority the power to decide, but the appropriate person is the Secretary of State. In Wales, the appropriate person will be appointed by the National Assembly for Wales. Fly posting on lamp posts is covered by clause 49(1)(c)-[Interruption.] Instead of writing it clearly in the first place, someone is shouting out that it is 49(1)(e).

On the question of who gets the fixed penalty notices, the requirement will be either that the person should be caught in the act, or that someone can prove who was involved. That is a problem, but the provision will cover many circumstances. I know that blatant fly posting goes on in parts of Coventry-I am sure that it goes on in others parts of the country-and that people go along the ring road fixing posters to lamp posts from the back of a van. In such circumstances a registration number will be available, and that could provide a real deterrent.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

If a 16 or 17-year-old is caught writing on a wall, and if he gives a false name and address to the council officer, he cannot be dealt with, so a notice will have been handed out that will never be recovered. I wonder how on earth we can deal with that.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Sometimes the perpetrators or the vehicle registration numbers will be known, and then the fixed penalty notice would be a useful tool.

We need to consider whether to make the individual clear up the mess or remove the notices. However, without further thought on the question of restorative justice and the other issues that I know people are interested in developing, to impose a requirement on the local authority that issued a fixed penalty notice to ensure that the person cleared up their mess would be a logistical problem that could stand in the way of issuing a fixed penalty notice in the first place. The authority would need the appropriate equipment and the logistics to stay and see that the job was done.

The issuing of the fixed penalty itself is at least a deterrent. It is some recompense for the trouble that has been caused, but we do not want to impose a logistical burden on those who might use the power. None the less, we should consider the question of whether we should oblige people to mend and put right what they have done. I am sure that we shall return to that subject, as well as many others.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

With regard to fixed penalty notices, what happens if those aged 14 or under do not pay? What is the next step? We would hope that the parents-or a parent-would pay up, but is there any compulsion for them to do so, and if not, what happens?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

There is a legal obligation for the parents to pay the fine imposed on prosecution, so there is a deterrent, even for 14-year-olds.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

The Minister was touching on the idea of asking people to clean up their graffiti. One problem is that for some forms of graffiti, that would involve quite powerful chemicals, and there would be a health and safety issue. Some spray paints, unfortunately, take an enormous amount of activity to clean up, and only people who know what they are doing with those chemicals should use them. Unfortunately, that is one of the problems blocking the idea.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

If we are thinking about restorative justice issues, we should consider practicalities, too. People who try to deter others from littering their area by drawing graffiti or fly posting need to take effective

measures and move on. For all kinds of reasons, including those that the hon. Gentleman raises, that would not necessarily happen if the perpetrators were obliged to see to it that they put right and mended what they had done.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Llafur, Don Valley

Will the Minister elaborate on the distinction between those over 14, for whom the fixed penalty notices may apply under the clause, and those under 14? I think that he said that the basis for the distinction was that those under 14 would not know whether they were doing wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has told me that in 20 years of teaching, he never found a child who did not know that it was wrong to deface a wall. I want us to take the opportunity to nip bad practice in the bud. We have talked a lot in Committee about how, if such behaviour is not nipped in the bud as early as possible, it can lead to worse offences, and possibly a prosecution under criminal law.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

To be liable for a fixed penalty notice, an individual has to have committed a relevant offence. That takes us into the law that covers the criminal conviction of minors. Fixed penalty notices cross-reference with those laws. Although children are criminally responsible from the age of 10, those under 14 receive the benefit of a rule of common law that says that a child in that age group cannot be convicted, however uncontrollable or obnoxious his behaviour, unless he knows that what he was doing was either morally or legally wrong.

A fixed penalty notice could be issued to a child on or after his 10th birthday, but if the child was not yet 14, the issuer would have to be able to show in court that the child knew that by creating graffiti or fly posting, he was acting wrongly. We would not be providing that quick fix, because the matter would have to be provable in court. That is an issue that we need to consider in terms of the age of criminal responsibility-the age at which people become responsible for their actions-rather than as part of what we are trying to do under the Bill, which is to attach fixed penalty notices to give local authorities usable powers, rather than having to use the court system. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, that question is relevant to such matters, as it is to others.

I do not know whether I have covered all the points that hon. Members have raised.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:00, 20 Mai 2003

As the Minister was speaking I became concerned that not many of those notices will be issued. Will the Minister enlighten me about whether there are similar fines over which local authorities have such powers? For example, do some litter fines come under the same categories? My experience of local authorities is that they rarely implement their fining powers. Can the Minister give me an example of something that comes under the same category?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Local authorities have powers to issue fixed penalty notices for littering or dog fouling. The hon. Lady asked about the extent to which such powers are used and the extent to which local

authorities apply fixed penalty notices. We might be able to shed some light on that when we come to Government amendment No. 244, through which we intend to allow people to keep the money that is generated and to plough it back into services. That might lead to a step change in the extent to which some of those powers are used.

I think that I have covered all the points, so I had better sit down.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 49 ordered to stand part of the Bill.