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7.15 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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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