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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton) : We now move on to the final debate, which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). I advise the Chamber that one hon. Member has sought my permission, and that of both the Minister and the owner of debate, to take part, and I will be happy to call him.
The first question is whether graffiti is really an issue. Some people outside London consider it to be a minor distraction. However, again and again in local anecdotal evidence, from a large number of street surveys that we did recently, it came up as an issue about which people are worried. There is no doubt that it is a quality of life issue which people want to see addressed.
I did not want simply to rely on anecdotal evidence. I therefore asked my staff to do a ring-around to find out the scale of the problem across different boroughs. We received responses from 22 of the 33 London boroughs. The amount spent on the problem varies from one borough to the next. Wandsworth council, which runs a free service, spends £650,000 a year on removing graffiti. Croydon spends £250,000 a year, and a number of boroughs spend more than £100,000 a year on trying to address the issue. Graffiti is clearly a problem for the boroughs.
I also made contact with transport providers. Railtrack has a budget of £0.5 million to deal with the issue, but it went over that by £160,000, which means that the total cost to its southern region was £660,000. Graffiti is a significant problem, and although Railtrack has teams working around the clock, that has little, if any, impact on the issue. Hon. Members who travel by train know that they just have to glance out of the window to see evidence that graffiti on railway infrastructure is a problem that is not under control. Railtrack tries to remove any racist or obscene graffiti within a 24-hour period.
London Underground also has a significant problem, and it is spending £2.5 million a year on removal, prevention and security costs. Presumably, not all that is to do with tackling graffiti, because some of the security expenditure must be for other purposes, but the Underground is clearly spending a significant sum. I know from conversations with my local train operating company, GoVia, that graffiti is a significant issue. I am sure that it is a problem on other suburban commuter services in London such as Connex South Eastern.
We did not have time to go further afield in our survey. I am sure that if we had asked local NHS trusts, businesses and private individuals, they would also have revealed significant costs. Roughly speaking, the cost to the boroughs is £3.5 million a year. A quick calculation suggests that with that £3.5 million the boroughs could recruit between 100 and 150 teachers.
We must establish that this is a real problem, and the figures demonstrate that it is. We need to ensure that the people responsible for it understand that it is not a joke or art, it is not cool or clever, and it costs Londoners dear. We must then establish that every organisation with responsibility for the matter takes action. Most local authorities are aware of it, and are taking action to address it. However, the extent to which they prosecute seems to vary significantly. There have been some 117 arrests in Bexley, but none in other boroughs. Action is being taken, but the scale varies from one place to another.
Other organisations are unwilling to tackle the issue. The cable company in my constituency allowed the local authorityvery generouslyto paint over its graffitied boxes, which it had placed willy-nilly around the borough, and then complained that the council was not using the right coloured paint. It does not seem to want to tackle the problem; nor does it believe that getting on top of it is its responsibility. Others, too, contribute negatively. The last time I looked, Graffitism advertised products that graffiti vandals use and promoted them with pictures of Connex trains that had been ruined by graffitithere was a small disclaimer at the bottom stating that the magazine did not condone the activity. Arriva buses have drawn it to my attention that there is a shop in Croydon, which sells, alongside all the necessaries for carrying out graffiti vandalism, balaclavas. That does not seem positive or community-spirited.
We must establish that the problem is everyone's, and that it should be tackled through partnership. Local authorities that responded to our survey said that the availability of graffiti products, and access to them, needed to be examined. There must also be education through, for example, programmes that are not necessarily about sending those responsible to prison, but about actively involving them in cleaning up the mess for which they are responsible and, if necessary, making them pay the cost. Having more police officers, neighbourhood wardens and officers of the Royal Parks Constabulary would clearly assist, but, however many officers patrol, we will not get on top of the problem until the availability of products is examined.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Is my hon. Friend aware that graffiti vandalism remains a major problem in my borough? Kingston's Conservative-run council was dragged kicking and screaming into drawing up an action plan on graffiti, but it has failed to tackle the environmental hazard. Does he agree that councils can do more? He is right to say that the Government need to provide more powers, including those to which he referred and those that would make it legally easier for councils to clean up graffiti on private property.
I finish by asking the Minister to consider how glue sniffing, and the availability of solvent products, has been addressed. Could similar action be taken on the availability of products used for graffiti? Are the Government willing to support initiatives, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam may refer, relating to voluntary codes of practice for retailers?
The same could apply to solvent abuse. People could purchase solvents for the best reasons; nevertheless, the Government decided to take action. Can the Minister explain why the Government are not willing to investigate measures, perhaps targeted at the youngest age group, that would help to address the problem?
Graffiti is not a joke, and it is not clever. It is not a badge of honour, and should not be considered as such by those responsible. It harms communities and, if left unchecked, creates a climate of despair and depression. We need a partnership approach, and the Government must play their part. I will listen with interest to the Minister to hear how he thinks the Government could help.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on his initiative in securing an important debate on a serious subject. I am also grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to take part in the debate.
As my hon. Friend said, graffiti is neither cool nor clever. It is purely and simply a crime, which stokes up the fear of more generalised crime in our communities. Steps that serve to eradicate it do much to reduce the general fear of crime that imprisons many people in their homes.
I shall talk about initiatives in the London borough of Sutton, which is in my constituency, and that of my hon. Friend. Things being done there provide a useful template, which others should follow. I hope that the Minister endorses them, and finds ways in which they can be further supported. In Sutton, the police, the council and other players in the community take the issue of graffiti and tagging seriously. They treat them as a crime, and as part of the wider agenda of tackling environmental crime. It is important that we recognise tagging and graffiti as crimes and treat them as such. The cost of the damage is immense and, as my hon. Friend outlined, substantial costs arise for the public and private sectors, and for private householders who find their properties vandalised.
The police, in conjunction with the Royal Parks Constabulary, have been running operations to gather evidence on graffitiidentifying tags and the liketo enable them to mount successful operations to arrest and prosecute graffiti vandals in the borough of Sutton. That has proved successful, and has created a profile of an area that will not tolerate such crimes.
If we are serious about tackling the crime, it is important to consider how to reduce the sources that supply materials. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that concern. Will the Minister explain what the Home Office is doing to examine ways in which more encouragement can be given to those in the private sector who are involved in the supply of such materials to enter into voluntary codes in their localities to stop such sales to young people?
I am delighted that my local authority is about to expand its popular and effective neighbourhood warden service to add more eyes and ears on the streets to deal with the problem. However, a worry of the police, the council and those concerned with the partnership scheme in the London borough of Sutton is that, when such matters are taken to the courts, they are not prosecuted with full vigour. They do not result in damages that are commensurate with the cost to the individual.
I hope that the Minister is about to tell us that further steps will be taken to ensure that the courts understand the damage and blight of graffiti and graffiti vandals. Perhaps he will talk to his colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department to secure their co-operation in a real drive to ensure that law enforcement measures and the courts are driving down and getting rid of graffiti in our communities.
The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate. I shall respond to the points that were made by him and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). Graffiti is a widespread problem. Worry about it is growing and the costs of removing it are high. It is important to stress that it is not only the financial costs of cleaning and repairing damage caused by graffiti that are important. It can spoil the enjoyment of public places and add to the sense of fear and insecurity in local communities. It can feed a fear of crime, even though there may be nothing statistically to back that fear.
Graffiti is an important issue and, in addition to stressing that it is a crime, we should recognise that tackling graffiti has a part to play in dealing with the fear of crime in our communities. If it is left untouched for lengthy periods, it can send out a message that no one cares about the area and that, in itself, can bring its own decline to the detriment of rundown neighbourhoods.
Action against graffiti should form part of the local strategies for public reassurance and for tackling antisocial behaviour that we expect crime and disorder reduction partnerships to lead at local level. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will know, the objective was that from December last year every local authority should appoint an antisocial behaviour co-ordinator. Hon. Members may wish to check with their own boroughs that that has been done. Part of the remit of the co-ordinator should be to develop effective strategies for dealing with graffiti.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said that graffiti is not the responsibility of local authorities. I accept that, but local authorities are not responsible for people who drive their cars too fast in residential areas or for people who play their music loudly. However, we look to them to lead in traffic calming and environmental health matters. The leadership that local authorities must play in tackling graffiti in local communities is coherent.
The Government must ensure that we have in place measures that can support people at local level in tackling the problem. That means having in place appropriate sanctions and legal mechanisms to deal with those who write graffiti. It means encouraging best practice by design and the use of graffiti-resistant materials. It means supporting people in education and diversionary activities. Implementation of those measures will largely lie at local level.
Let us consider sanctions. First, graffiti is criminal damage for which there are appropriate penalties. Under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, damage in excess of £5,000 carries a maximum 10-year sentence for those aged 18 or over. Those aged 12 to 17 can receive a training order of up to 24 months. Lower levels of damageless than £5,000can result in a maximum of three months' imprisonment or a fine of up to £2,500 for a person aged 18 or over. For 12 to 17-year-olds, there is no custodial provision, but a range of measures is available, such as reparation orders, final warnings, local child curfews and antisocial behaviour orders. I accept that reparation orders can be an appropriate way of requiring offenders to put right the damage that they have caused.
It is important that appropriate use is made of antisocial behaviour orders, which we will amend during the passage of the Police Reform Bill and make simpler and more flexible and immediate in their application. They have already been used effectively in different parts of the country to tackle those using graffiti and causing criminal damage. Together with acceptable behaviour contracts, they should be part of local strategies to tackle graffiti.
Mr. Burstow : The London borough of Sutton uses CCTV to gather evidence that is presented to courts, but the courts do not use the penalties to give effect to the community's anger at the damage that has been done. Could not more be done about that?
On antisocial behaviour, constructive discussions at local level between crime reduction partnerships and area criminal justice committees or the magistracy, which generally deals with those cases, can be effective in building up an understanding of the scale of the problem and the impact on lives in local communities. That type of discussion at local level has proved to be effective and useful, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue that. I shall raise the issue with the Lord Chancellor's Department and get back to him.
Mr. Edward Davey : I can confirm to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam that magistrates are prepared to use the powers that the Government have given them when they are engaged in the process. The bench at Kingston upon Thames magistrates court has been using the powers, although the Government now wish to close that court. Some local police who are trying to focus on graffiti are frustrated because, even when they suspect that a vandal has spray-paint cans in his bag and has sprayed graffiti in a nearby street, they are not able to search that bag for the spray-paint can. Will the Minister comment?
Mr. Denham : Perhaps I can come to that point in a moment. Powers are normally available to police under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 code of conduct, which governs their powers to search when they think that a crime has been committed. That is slightly different from searching people randomly in case they have an aerosol can in their pocket. The operational distinction may seem fine, but the legal one is very important. If police saw someone coming away from an area of freshly painted graffiti, I do not think that they would be constrained in their ability to identify whether someone was carrying the tools of the trade. If I am wrong about that, I shall get back to the hon. Gentleman.
Much reference was made to the initiatives taken by the Government to support the spread of neighbourhood and street wardens. The extended police family that we described in the police White Paper is very important. The presence of more visible authority figures in the street, whether working for the police service as community support officers or working for local authorities and other agencies as street wardens, is particularly important. I am grateful for the support for the Government's initiatives that hon. Members have given. We hope that the measures that we are taking through the Police Reform Bill and the implementation of the police reform White Paper will enable us to extend that local presence of additional people who can assist in tackling antisocial behaviour, disorder and graffiti.
The supply of aerosol paints and indelible marker pens has been mentioned. Historically, Governments of all shades have been resistant to measures to tackle that trade. There is an obvious balance to be struck between denying access to spray paints and marker pens to those who want to cause damage and granting it to those who have a legitimate use for them. We could all sensibly recognise that glues that have killed large numbers of people over the years are of a different order of magnitude. The balance is easier to strike there.
It is worth noting, and it is particularly relevant to the debate's London focus, that the London Local Authorities Bill, which had its Second Reading in the House of Lords yesterday, includes measures that would make it an offence to supply aerosol paints or indelible marker pens to any person apparently under the age of 18. That would apply to the areas covered by the London borough councils. If the Bill reaches the statute book the measures in it could provide a useful pilot in determining the effectiveness of the approach and whether we should seek to extend it.
I want to stress the importance of effective clean-up as part of the response, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. Clean-up is a deterrent to taggers, particularly if there is a sense that no one will be around to see their handiwork. Adding to the list of best practice that we have had, I hope that no one will mind my mentioning my local authority in Southampton. Its best value review of the city's parks and cleansing services highlighted public dissatisfaction with the problem of graffiti. The council set aside resources to tackle the problem. It identified environmentally friendly products that are effective and easy to use and a full-time graffiti removal team backs up its commitment to remove obscene or racist graffiti within 24 hours.
In an interesting initiative launched in the last few weeks, which I shall watch carefully, the council has begun to supply graffiti removal kits free of charge to local community organisations. They comprise about £50-worth of different non-toxic water-soluble materials. Having been out one Sunday recently, cleaning graffiti off some shop fronts, I know that the
Mr. Denham : The Government are considering a range of measures in the Bill, so I cannot give a specific position on that or other measures at this stage. The hon. Gentleman will understand from what I have said that I am following its passage with some interest. Were it to be passed, it would be useful to see how it worked.
I support the comments made about education, which is important. We need to look at ways of persuading young people that graffiti is criminal damage and that there is a serious cost to the wider community. The Youth Justice Board has been funding a number of pilot initiatives, particularly one operated by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders in Brighton and Hove, Crawley and Worthing. It is intended to see what can be done by engaging young offenders in activities that tackle graffiti issues. We need to see what are the most successful and cost-effective forms of education of young people. Other schemes supported by the YJB focus on reparation, which has been mentioned, and using young people to clean off graffiti.
Railtrack has an initiative called "Track off", which was launched in April 2000 and is aimed at schools. It covers graffiti, but it is also aimed at stressing the dangers to young people of trespassing, particularly on what I still regard as the southern region three rail system, and of going on to electrified lineswhich also applies to the underground. Similarly, through a number of Home Office and Department for Education and Skills initiatives we are investing in diversionary activities for young people in general, some of which are aimed specifically at graffiti, while others aim at tackling a wider range of vandalism and criminal damage problems.