HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc191-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Courlay.]

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

Had I been in any doubt about raising this matter in the House tonight, those doubts would have been dispelled by the volume of correspondence which I have received since I put down two probing questions on 31st January to the Ministry of Transport. Those questions were designed to discover whether the then Minister was proposing to include the control of musical chimes within the new decibel regulations. Most of the correspondence I have received relates to the noise nuisance aspect of the subject of my Adjournment debate, and some of the language in which the letters are couched is very lurid indeed. I hope to have an opportunity to quote a few extracts from those letters a little later on.

The debate which I am initiating this evening arises primarily out of a tragic event which occurred in my constituency and the subsequent representations that were made to me by the father of a child who was killed.

The accident happened on the morning of Sunday, 21st January, when the father was cleaning his car in the road outside his house, accompanied by his small son who was then aged two years eight months. An ice-cream van appeared in the road which was seen by the child but not by the father. The child ran across to the van and the driver, out of the generosity of his heart, gave the boy, who had no money, an iced lolly. It is presumed that the child then dropped this on the ground, probably stooped down to pick it up and was run over and killed.

The father visited my office on the following day and made certain representations which I thought were worth bringing to the notice of the House, because they were in the nature of suggestions for the improvement of child safety in connection with ice cream vans.

Perhaps I might read a short extract from a local Press report: The little boy did not have any money and, out of kindness, the driver gave him a lolly. It is thought that Jonathan dropped the lollypop and, while picking it up, was in collision with the ice cream van. Of course, one feels an element of sympathy for the driver, who showed both kindness and generosity to the child. But subsequent events reveal a rather disquieting situation.

My case is concerned essentially with child safety. I do not minimise the noise nuisance aspect because, judging from correspondence which I have received from all quarters, it is obvious that this is considered throughout the length and breadth of the country to be an intolerable public nuisance.

The first fact that I want to recognise is that ice-cream vending from vans is not only a perfectly legitimate business, because to some degree it is desirable and, in communities which are remote from shops, it can be a service. However, it would be no less a service if the danger and nuisance elements were eliminated.

Various traders provide a door-to-door service. The baker and the milkman usually call every day, and the mobile green grocery van probably comes twice or three times a week. In addition, one sees mobile grocery vans, hardware and oil vans, mobile libraries, and so on. A host of community needs are supplied by vans. They seem to do business quite successfully without playing the same flat tune on a worn-out record or tape almost ceaselessly within the present permitted hours.

The Noise Abatement Act, 1960, which was a Private Member's Measure, made certain provisions about the use of loudspeakers, public address systems and other instruments for calling attention to various matters. However, Section 2(3) made certain exemptions. It says: '…this section shall not apply to the operation of a loudspeaker between the hours of noon and seven o'clock in the evening on the same day if the loudspeaker—(a) is fixed to a vehicle which is being used for the conveyance of a perishable commodity for human consumption"— it is obvious what that is intended to mean— and (b) is operated solely for informing members of the public (otherwise than by means of words) that the commodity is on sale from the vehicle; and (c) is so operated as not to give reasonable cause for annoyance to persons in the vicinity. I want to dispute two aspects of that. The first concerns the permitted hours. Most of the correspondence that I have received complains that these instruments often are played long after the permitted hour in the evening. Only last evening, a van came into my road at 7.15 p.m. and played its chimes after the permitted time. Forty minutes later when I was leaving my home I heard these chimes being played again. I was just about to get into my car and I said to a friend of mine, "Did you notice where that van was?". He said "Yes, it has just passed the bottom of the road." It took me a minute or two to turn my car and try to find this van. I wanted to verify whether it was the same vehicle. Unfortunately I missed it.

On the question of nuisance, it is not unusual to find three different ice-cream vending vans in the same road within 30 minutes. I have seen them. I do not usually say things in this House which come to me second hand. I have myself seen this happen. There is not only the nuisance of the vans appearing and the playing of this distorted music often extremely loudly. There is the nuisance caused to mothers who are placed in the difficulty of constantly having to find the money to enable their children to purchase these ice creams when these vans come round at such regular and frequent intervals.

The Noise Abatement Act refers to the use of chimes for calling attention to perishable articles. I contend that the use of these chimes on ice cream vans is a breach of that provision. If there is one article of public consumption which is not perishable, it is ice cream. By the very nature of its name, ice cream is made with ice and it is preserved in ice container boxes. We know that what is not sold on one day can be put into freeze and sold the next day completely fresh, in the same way as we are able to keep milk for two or three days in refrigerators.

If there is any justification for using chimes to call attention to a perishable commodity which is sold from a van, it is surely greengrocery. This raises the question: where will this sort of thing stop? A greengrocer would be just as entitled to use chimes for calling attention to the commodity which he is selling as are ice cream vendors. In a debate which took place in this House in 1960 it was said over and over again, particularly by the late Sir Leslie Plummer, that the use of the chimes is obviously intended to attract attention to the presence of the van. This is the danger because the vendor—who I presume works on commission—is going to those areas within his district which have the highest child population. Therefore, the risk to the child is greatly increased.

I have got only half way through what I wanted to say, but in order to give my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to reply, I shall shortly conclude. I ask him to make representations to the Minister of Housing and Local Government—because this is where this legislation really belongs—asking him to consider granting greater powers to local authorities to make byelaws which would give them a discretionary power, according to what public feeling there may be in their areas, for the control of the use of these chimes. Without doubt it is about time that they were banned in the big cities and the larger conurbations. However, one recognises that there can be certain cases of smaller communities where the visits may be less frequent and where it might be desirable, because of the nature of the village or the hamlet, or whatever it may be, that attention should be called to the fact that the van is there. One has to be reasonable about it and agree that perhaps a total ban is not called for.

Secondly, in the interests of child safety—and this is where I presume that the Minister of Transport comes into the picture—will the Parliamentary Secretary give consideration to the dual manning of these vehicles, which is the suggestion made to me by the father of this child, the second person on the van at least having the primary responsibility for seeing that the van departs safely without injury to any child after it has made its stop in the road?

Thirdly, will he ask his right hon. Friend, the Minister of Labour, to examine the self-employment aspect of this matter? In the case to which I have referred, when I inquired the name of the driver, I was advised that he had absconded after the accident, that he was a deserter from the Royal Navy from the previous August, and was only apprehended about a week later in Portsmouth. I do not know to what extent this opportunity is used, but this is proof enough that in the case of deserters from the services, prisoners on the run and men who might want to avoid the payment of maintenance grants to their wives, this would appear to be one way in which they are able to maintain themselves and yet escape detection.

Fourthly, will the Parliamentary Secretary please not give me a negative or even an evasive answer?

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) has made a very powerful case. In the first instance, may I express my sympathy with his constituent on his tragic loss in the accident arising from the visit of the ice-cream van.

My hon. Friend has asked me to make four comments. First, to make representations to the Minister of Housing and Local Government concerning giving local authorities power to make byelaws on the issue that he has raised. In April, 1967, a circular was issued jointly by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Welsh Office to local authorities on the subject of noise. A paragraph was devoted to noise from chimes on ice-cream vans. In it local authorities were urged to make full use of the powers in Section 2 of the Noise Abatement Act to secure that this sort of nuisance was kept within reasonable bounds. The powers are there for local authorities to use if they think fit.

Local authority associations were consulted before the circular to which I have referred was issued, and none of them suggested that further control by the central Government was necessary. They seemed satisfied that adequate control could be exercised by the powers in Section 2 of that Act. Nevetheless, as my hon. Friend has asked me not to give a negative reply, I am prepared to pass his observations on to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

I can understand the parents of this poor little boy who lost his life suggesting that these vehicles should be manned by two people, but we must be practical about this. On the face of it it is a good idea, but if we were to introduce legislation to ensure that two men were on the van, would we have any guarantee that the second man would carry out the duty of seeing that children crossed the road safely? The chances are that he would merely be employed on selling ice-cream. We must remember, too, that if we insisted on two men being employed, the price of ice-cream would probably be increased.

My hon. Friend referred to the self-employed nature of the job. I think that this is something which gives cause for concern. I know that many firms hire out these vans to people on a full-time basis. They do so on the basis of getting back the cost of hiring out the vehicle and the cost of the ice-cream. The profit on the sale of the ice-cream goes to the hirer of the vehicle. I do not know whether the matter should be referred to the Minister of Social Security, or the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will consider the matter and refer it to the appropriate Minister.

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend said, but in fairness to the organised ice-cream industry I must tell him that it has introduced a code of practice which includes a clause that no chimes or audible means of recognition should be sounded for more than four seconds at a time, and that at least three minutes should be allowed between each playing. It also says that the vehicle should not be standing still while the chimes are playing, that they should be played while the van is moving to its stopping place. The industry also insists that particular care should be taken to avoid annoyance to night workers, sick persons, hospitals, nursing homes, and so on.

If my hon. Friend feels that those conditions are not being met in his area he should contact the appropriate authorities, which are the Ice-Cream Alliance and the Ice-cream Federation Limited. I think that it would be a good idea for him to make representations to them on the basis of his experience in his constituency, because it is clearly undesirable to have three or four of these vans going down his street in half an hour. If we were to attempt to control the number of ice-cream vehicles going down a street within a certain period, we would more or less be creating a monopoly in the industry. I am sure my hon. Friend would not wish that. He mentioned the almost ceaseless playing of the chimes. The best way to deal with that is to approach the manufacturers' associations. The majority of vendors are members—there are one or two fly-by-nights, but the majority belong lo the associations. The question of playing after the permitted hour of seven is a matter for the police.

Mr. Wilkins

This is the gravamen of my charge. I am not concerned about my road; I imagine that what happened last evening was a coincidence, but most of my correspondents say that this is ceaseless, particularly in the London area. There, it is said, they step up the noise of the chimes. When asked if they could not keep the noise down, they say that the noise has to be loud to overcome the sound of the family television set. There is no question that this is an intolerable nuisance and something must be done about it.

Mr. Brown

If the weight of my hon. Friend's correspondence is as he says, he has done a public service by initiating this debate. The police cannot be in every street, but I think notice will be taken by them of what has been said.

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend on the question of economic pressure being put on mothers. I am the father of two children who have now reached adulthood. There were ice-cream vans about when they were youngsters, but there was no economic pressure put on my wife or me three times within the space of half an hour as my hon. Friend has suggested. We made certain that the children were disciplined. I have not much sympathy with that argument.

I shall refer to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government the question of whether ice-cream is a perishable commodity coming under Section 2 of the Noise Abatement Act, 1960.

I think I have adequately covered the points my hon. Friend made. I am sorry if I had to sound a little negative on one issue, but generally I am certain that nothing but good will come from this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.