Skip to main content

Criminal Damage (Graffiti)

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for offences relating to graffiti; and for connected purposes.

The Bill has two parts. It is aimed at bringing the perpetrators of the criminal act of graffiti to justice, in terms of restorative justice, by getting them first to clear up the graffiti and secondly to meet their victims. That could have a massive impact on our towns, communities, villages and roads.

Mayor Giuliani in New York identified broken windows as an early indicator of the decline of society at street level. There is a similar decline in society at street level caused by graffiti. The Bill seeks to address that problem. It has cross-party support, and I especially thank the hon. Members for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who have been involved in drafting some of the detail. The Bill also has support from several national groups, including ENCAMS, which is known for the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. It also has the support of the British Transport police and the Restorative Justice Consortium.

Graffiti has a precise definition, and it is criminal damage under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Unfortunately, it is classified as “other criminal damage”, so it is difficult to estimate the exact size of the problem. However, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent. of that category is graffiti. Other estimates suggest that only 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. of graffiti is reported.

The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 defines graffiti well as

“painting, writing, soiling, marking or other defacing by whatever means”.

Hon. Members will know that the principal problem is not so-called graffiti art, but tagging, and it is on that issue that I shall concentrate—although graffiti art, whether one calls it art or not, if done on a private wall without the permission of the owner, is still criminal damage, under the 1971 Act.

There is a massive social and financial cost to graffiti, and I shall deal first with the social cost. It is not only an eyesore but a permanent reminder of the decline in society. Paradoxically, those who are most affected are those who are least likely to be the victims of crime—the elderly and the vulnerable. It is as if there are two parallel universes—one of the perpetrators of such crimes, who are mostly young males, and the other of the older members of our community, who are so intimidated by those crimes.

In 2001 the English house condition survey, produced by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, estimated that 500,000 households or dwellings had graffiti daubed on their walls. Poorer neighbourhoods were the worst affected, with a fifth of residents citing problems with graffiti—twice as many as elsewhere.

The financial costs of graffiti are difficult to pin down exactly, because so many people are affected—companies, local authorities, the British Transport police, train operating companies, Transport for London, utility companies, voluntary organisations and, particularly important, people’s homes. In Southend the local authority spends more than £120,000 a year clearing up graffiti, but that grossly underestimates the costs for local authorities as statutory organisations. The police estimate that at least 10 officers in Southend deal with that criminal activity, at a cost of about £500,000. Furthermore, in terms of broader antisocial behaviour and damage, there are costs of £500,000 for closed circuit television.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley estimates that the costs for Birmingham are more than £1 million. The most stunning figure, which probably under represented the problem and now needs updating in any case, was given in 2000 by a previous Home Secretary, who stated that the cost was in excess of £1 billion. It is probably much more now.

How would the Bill work? At present, youth and adult courts can use restorative justice as part of the sentencing process. I want that to be made mandatory. In addition, we need to catch people earlier. From the youth perspective that would be at the reprimand or warning stage, and for adults it would be at the point of caution, when the offender has already admitted criminal damage. The Bill proposes to make all such cautions conditional on participation in restorative justice. The principal change would be to move from ad hoc action to a strong statutory position to catch everyone.

Restorative justice works. At present it is available to only 1 per cent. of the population, but more than 40 per cent. of victims want to meet the offender. Between 75 and 95 per cent. of victims—depending on which study we read—said that they were satisfied with the restorative justice process.

The perpetrators of those criminal acts need to understand that there are two elements in the damage they do—the physical and the emotional. On the physical element, they need to be involved in clearing up the graffiti. It may not always be possible or appropriate to clear up the site that they have damaged but they should have to clean up somewhere. The Restorative Justice Consortium has excellent examples showing how such schemes work powerfully, and ENCAMS works with the National Offender Management Service and Crime Concern on projects such as Thames21. In some areas, parents are involved in the process. They see their son—it is usually a son rather than a daughter—doing the work, which broadens the family’s responsibility.

The most powerful part of the Bill is the second aspect—the emotional element—which involves the offender meeting the victim. Not all victims want to meet the perpetrator close up, even in a facilitated, multi-agency situation, but it is possible for victims of similar crimes to meet that perpetrator. In Southend, Karon Grant, who is charged with the team clearing up graffiti, spends a lot of her time in restorative justice panels explaining the impact of the crime to children, mums and dads and other adults.

I am sure that Members cannot understand why people commit the criminal act of graffiti, but a large number of offenders genuinely do not think that they are doing anything wrong. They do not understand that their actions are against the law, so bringing them face to face with their victims can help them to do so.

The Bill could have some costs. Reparative services and restorative justice panels cost about £500 a person, but the most up-to-date statistics produced by the Ministry of Justice show how powerful such schemes are. The Bill would initially introduce a pilot to prove that the money that we spend on this is saved in other areas, but logically this should make an awful lot of sense, and locally it does seem to be working in Southend.

In addition, Transport for London has a rather innovative scheme, in which it attempts civil recovery from the offender. That has two real advantages: money comes back into the system that can be spent on graffiti prevention, or if the perpetrator of the crime is unable or unwilling to pay the fine, they end up with a county court judgment against them, which provides a further deterrent to other individuals to commit this crime.

In conclusion, this is a billion-pound problem looking for a practical and effective solution. The Bill is part of that solution. It will change the attitudes and behaviour of offenders for the benefit of the offenders and the benefit of society. In the unlikely event that this ten-minute Bill does not go further, I will seek, on a cross-party basis, to amend the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to the same end.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by James Duddridge, Mr. Neil Turner, John Hemming, Daniel Kawczynski, Ian Lucas, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Greg Hands, Mr. Roger Williams, Sammy Wilson, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Richard Burden and Lynne Jones.

Criminal Damage (Graffiti)

James Duddridge accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for offences relating to graffiti; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 150].