HC Deb 11 February 1981 vol 998 cc958-66

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

10.15 pm
Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I have sought this debate because of a West Indian party which took place in my constituency over the Christmas holidays. It began on 22 December, the Sunday before Christmas, and continued until 2 January, a period of 11 days. During that time, the harassment, noise and fear that my constituents had to endure was utterly intolerable. The nights were the worst.

The form was that people would start to arrive at about 9 pm from all parts of Birmingham but also from London, Bristol and the North. They came in cars and in vans, usually with hi-fi equipment blasting out reggae music from their transport, horns blaring as they cruised up and down the road looking for parking places. That went on all night, until 7.30 in the morning, and it went on every night.

I have visited that street many times and have seen the house at which these parties took place. It is a very small house. On the ground floor is just one window and the front door. Above is just one large window and a very tiny window over the door. It is a terraced inner-city house. Inside that house were crammed 200 people at any one time, although there was a good deal of coming and going.

Those who attended paid £2 to go in. There is plenty of evidence from people who saw the money changing hands. I do not think that much alcohol was drunk, although one West Indian who was at the party said that some was drunk. However, many observers say that marijuana was being smoked—and quite a quantity, because the smell outside was unmistakable.

The noise of the disco troubled the near-neighbours, as well it might, because the sound was turned up very high, but it was the rowdy behaviour in the street that was the main problem. There was a seething mass of people, 99 per cent. of whom were of the Rastafarian type, who can look a little frightening. Certainly their numbers were frightening.

The noise these people made was terrifying. They shouted at each other. One resident who tried to park his car in a space which was apparently reserved for a party-goer was intimidated and very frightened. Another of my constituents who went to ask whether the noise could please be turned down a little had a knife pulled on him. No doubt thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, he ran away with the man with the knife after him and only just got inside his house in time, where he slammed and bolted the door. He was very frightened.

Unfortunately, throughout all this time—11 days—nothing at all was done for my constituents.

The police were contacted many times, but they would do nothing. A petition signed by 40 of the residents of the street was taken to the police station. Both black and white people signed the petition because they wanted a bit of peace and quiet. But the police refused to accept the petition, so it was sent to them by recorded mail delivery.

The police were technically right. The law gives them no powers to stop noisy parties in private houses. In this case there was clear evidence of cannabis smoking and of the fact that people were paying to go in, and there was no licence to run such a party in the house. There were also knife threats being made. One might have thought that all this would be sufficient to get the police interested. Unfortunately, they stuck to their view that it was not their job. They stated that the law says that it is the job of the environment health officer of the local council to deal with such parties.

Sir Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

If there is no music and dancing licence for the house, and money is being paid for admission, is it not a matter for the police rather than for the Department of the Environment?

Mrs. Knight

I am describing exactly what happened on this disastrous occasion for my constituents. My hon. and learned Friend has a great knowledge of the law and I am sure that he is right.

It is all very well to say that the environmental health officer is the person who should deal with the matter, but the local council offices were shut tighter than a drum throughout Christmas and on to the new year. I have found out since that there was an Ansafone service technically operating which possibly might have been able to produce the right answer for my constituents, but unfortunately they did not know that. West Indian leaders were contacted. It should be stated that sometimes they are extremely helpful in stopping these parties, but on this occasion it did not work.

Finally, the police came, with fairly disastrous results. They came in some force, with police cars. The police cars were attacked by mobs of West Indian youths and stoned very severely. Several of the police were slightly injured. One policeman had to be taken to hospital with a serious head injury. He had to have 12 stitches in his head. In view of this fearsome attack on the police, it is no wonder that my poor constituents were so frightened.

It is because I believe that such incidents are totally intolerable that I have sought this debate. I have since discovered that such parties are by no means confined to my area. Since the case was publicised, I have received scores of letters indicating that the problem of all-night parties, sometimes continuing over many days or over the whole weekend, is common all over the country. Hon. Members will be well aware of the tragic consequences of a similar party at Deptford only two or three weeks ago.

I gather that these parties are called shebeens, and I understand that they are very common. I had a letter from the environmental health officer of Southampton. He tells me that shebeens are not merely unlicensed houses selling drink but are also associated with prostitution and drugs as well as amplified music and general revelry. Residents are disturbed, mainly at weekends, by shebeens starting about 11 pm and not ending until 5 am or 6 am. Stories of alarm clocks being vibrated off bedside tables in contiguous houses, of people having to go to relatives to sleep, and of elderly people in tears, are not uncommon, according to that environmental health officer.

I must be frank and voice my fears that because of the race connotation these parties are not treated as they would be if the persons concerned were of a different race. If we tried to cram 200 people into a very small house, charged them £2 a head for entry, smoked marijuana and played music all night, the authorities would be down on us like a ton of bricks.

Sir Ronald Bell

Quite right.

Mrs. Knight

Of course. I have no doubt that anyone who complains as I am doing runs the risk of being called a racist. My contention has nothing to do with race. All persons living in this land have a right to equal blame or equal protection under the law. No one, whatever his colour, has a right to make life unbearable for his neighbours. That is why I am asking my hon. Friend for action.

I do not seek to censure all parties. There are many parties that we all enjoy and to which neighbours do not object. I have in mind the ordinary birthday parties, 21st birthday celebrations and Christmas parties. Surely it is clear that there is a definable line between that sort of party and parties that go on and on with no consideration for the neighbours. I am asking for more co-operation between the police and the environmental departments of local authorities.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, West)

My hon. Friend need not be too worried about being classified as a racist. Part of the tragedy of these sorts of party is that they take place in an environment in which a large mass of the working population lives. There are some who have to get up extremely early each morning to go to work. They are being prevented from getting a good night's sleep. What may be in place in the sunny Caribbean may not be in place in my hon. Friend's constituency or in Deptford. This is a tragedy for the British people and for those whom I have mentioned specifically. My hon. Friend need have no fear that anyone will classify her or any of her colleagues as racist.

Mrs. Knight

My hon. Friend displays a real understanding of exactly what I am talking about. I had no idea of the spread of the problem. It is untenable that the situation should be allowed to continue when we bear in mind, for example, those who have to get up early in the morning to go to work.

There are some authorities—the London borough of Brent is one example—that have regular party patrols by environmental health officers. They have to have back-up from the police. If that can be done in Brent, why cannot it be done in other places where a similar problem exists? Why cannot there be uniformity of protection?

A prohibition order was placed on the house in Stirling Road, Edgbaston, where the party took place. That will give peace for a time. However, the process of serving enforcement orders in these cases is far from simple. If one has managed to serve such a notice, revisits and finds that there is non-compliance although the details on the notice are still valid, I am told that there is a tremendous problem in getting supportive evidence at the magistrates' court hearing. I am told that for shebeens it is invariably impossible to find witnesses to give court evidence.

Witnesses will not come forward because they are afraid—I consider this to be unacceptable—of retaliation in the form of having their cars scratched, their windscreens broken, their tyres slashed, or worse. It horrifies me that people should be in fear in our land.

I hope that the Minister will agree that this situation cannot be allowed to continue. There are other penalties that spring to mind. There are, for instance, powers to seize disco equipment. That might be possible on the authority of the environmental officer or perhaps that of a justice of the peace if either is satisfied that the noise amounted to a nuisance under the law, and after giving those running the equipment a warning.

I remind my hon. Friend that there is a legal precedent for that sort of action. Fishing gear is impounded if there has been illegal fishing in Britain's coastal waters. Of course, it would be much more dangerous to try to move the disco equipment than to try to move the fishing equipment. This is where I think that there is a real need for the police to be involved.

I had a great deal of trouble finding out exactly what happened during that terrible party in my constituency. The reason why I had such a job to find out was that people were afraid. They would not come forward to talk to me when I was first in the street and others could see that I was there. The doors were shut tight. But I received little messages asking me to call when nobody was there or to come back after dark, and bit by bit, I found out exactly what happened.

Is it not a terrible thing that in our country people should be afraid to come forward and defend themselves with evidence? Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue.

It must be stated that there will be a serious decline in race relations if that situation continues, because people are beginning to think "It is all right for that group, because nobody will touch them". That must have a very bad effect upon race relations, and eventually it will have a knock-on effect which could be very dangerous indeed.

Whether we should be talking about greater cooperation between the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, about greater involvement of the West Indian leaders themselves, asking them for their help, or about wider use of party patrols or any of the other possibilities that come to mind is for the Minister to decide. But I hope that he will agree that the case I have made cries out for action.

Mr. John Carlisle

My hon. Friend talked quite rightly about fear of the law, and of knifing or of intimidation, by neighbours. Does she agree that much of the fear is that people are afraid to come forward because they may be reported to the Commission for Racial Equality? This shows how society has gone completely out of balance. One of the greatest fears of people who will not come forward to give evidence is, as she has found, the fear of being cast in the role that she mentioned—that of a racist. They are frightened about the law, biased as it is in favour of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Mrs. Knight

That may well be another reason for such people being apprehensive and indeed fearful. I may add that I myself received an unsigned threatening letter from the West Indian community that if I took the matter any further I should be very sorry. None the less, it seems to me to be my duty to do so on behalf of my constituents. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will feel that I have made a case for action.

10.33 pm
Sir Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

I shall take just one minute or so from my hon. Friend the Minister, as I am sure he has enough time. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has done a great service in raising this matter, because it is one which causes great anxiety. I wish to say briefly to the Minister that there seems to be a great gap here. He has come to answer the debate tonight because there are clearly environmental considerations. But it should not be so difficult to get some kind of redress when these things happen. One should not have to try to chase around some kind of departmental responsibility. This is becoming rather frequent. Other kinds of harassment and interference in people's lives are also becoming far more common as a result of the massive immigration that has taken place. There really ought to be some kind of Government responsibility beyond what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, with the best will in the world, typifies here tonight.

10.34 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

I echo the comments of my hon. and leaned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell) in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) for raising this matter,, because I know that it has caused concern to a great many people, probably on both sides of the House, as it was clearly an incident of considerable scale.

In the course of her remarks, my hon. Friend rightly covered the various elements which go to make this particular incident. She will be the first to appreciate that the terms in which she has framed this Adjournment motion refer primarily to departmental advice to local authorities on control of nuisance arising from all-night parties. I hope that my hon. Friend will not be too disappointed if I say that it is not really within my compass to comment on aspects of, say, the responsibility of the Home Office for actions in connection with the police or, indeed, actions in connection with racial equality and local community services. As she will know, there are certain aspects of this case which, I believe, will shortly come before the courts. Therefore, there is a difficulty about proceeding too far into the details of what took place.

What my hon. Friend has raised, and what I must address myself to, is the question of the nuisance caused within those terms which apply to the Department of the Environment. Primarily, it was the night noise nuisance over this considerable time which gave rise to such an unpleasant experience for my hon. Friend's constituents.

Obviously, we in the Department of the Environment have policies on noise as a source of nuisance. We recognise that at worst it can cause great distress and extreme annoyance. While I, like every other hon. Member present, enjoy a good party, I also value sleep. A party of the kind described by my hon. Friend must have been a most substantial and persistent nuisance. That was a fair point for her to make.

It is generally a matter—I hope that my hon. Friend will accept this—for local authorities. That is why the motion correctly refers to what local authorities can or cannot do about this aspect of the nuisance.

We are considering issuing codes of practice under section 71 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974—which is the basis for taking action in relation to noise as a source of pollution—which would offer guidance on minimising noise. As these codes are in preparation, and as they cover a number of subjects including some things which are intrusive, such as ice cream van chimes, we shall consider whether we can give useful advice in relation to all-night parties. My hon. Friend has raised this matter at an appropriate point. It is right that we should look at it to see whether we can produce some guidance on how to deal with it.

I am conscious of the difficulties of offering advice on a subject such as this, on which there are so many variable factors—the type of party, the extent, the type of house, the character of the neighbourhood, and so on. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be among the first, as she suggested, to avoid the implication that it is the task of the Government to be a killjoy in respect of the regulation of parties. But the nuisance which is so clearly established in this kind of persistent intrusion is something on which we ought to take some specific action.

The powers to deal with this are within the Control of Pollution Act, and they rest with the local authority. Some authorities such as Brent, Haringey and Lewisham operate party patrols. I understand that one authority—I think that it is Lewisham—has extremely close and good working relations with the police in the handling of all-night parties. Under agreed arrangements, the local authority has an environmental health officer on duty every Saturday night from 10 pm to 6 am on Sunday morning. Complaints are usually first received by the police who themselves investigate to see whether they can deal with the problem under their own powers which cover, for example, unruly behaviour, the possibility of a breach of the peace or, indeed, unlicensed drinking. If the nuisance is solely a noise one, the police will accompany the local authority duty officer to the party in question. From there onwards, the matter can be handled within the terms and provisions of the Control of Pollution Act. If the nuisance continues, they can return after an hour or so and serve an instant notice to ensure that it is contained.

Another local authority, Brent, also operates a party patrol system in close liaison with the police. That has also worked most successfully. There again, duty officers from the local authority are there every Saturday to Sunday, 11 pm to 5 am, and likewise they carry out a patrol in areas where there have been difficulties. On the whole, local authorities in those areas are able to respond quickly and efficiently to a local problem by using their wisdom and good sense.

Mr. John Carlisle

Is my hon. Friend saying that the police cannot act without first some nuisance being reported to them by the environmental health officer concerned, and that they have no power to act unless they hear from him or her in the first place?

Mr. Shaw

The usual procedure is for a complaint to be made to the police from individual citizens. There is a course in law for the citizen to take a person to court under common law to establish that a nuisance has been created. But in terms of getting action, the report is investigated by the police with the environmental health officer concerned if the question of noise is the matter of the offence. That is where the law lies.

Mrs. Knight

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there is an element of fear in these matters, and that it is a growing fear? It arises partly from what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, (Sir R. Bell) said about being taken to the Commission for Racial Equality, but also from the fear of retaliation. Regulations formulated without taking account of the new dimension into which we have moved are not always as effective as they should be, for the reasons that I have adduced.

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend must recognise that what I cannot do in my response to this debate is to give her considered advice to the effect that the element of fear, which she suggests is part of the problem of obtaining evidence, and even of obtaining action, is something within the Department's control. It is not. We are dealing here with a social situation. I am prepared to believe that in certain circumstances fear becomes an element, but in terms of the law on noise abatement, the pollution to which my hon. Friend referred, and the action that local authorities can take—that is the basis of her Adjournment debate—the element of fear is not the matter for discussion. She has suggested that there are other elements, apart from the nuisance of noise which create and exacerbate the situation. That I understand. That is not what I am dealing with at the moment. I am concentrating on the power local authorities have to deal with the noise nuisance.

Mr. Michael Brotherton (Louth)

Will my hon. Friend make representations to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that this question of fear should lead to an alteration of the law? I know that that is not within my hon. Friend's sphere, but will he make clear to my right hon. Friend that the people of England fear very much what is happening to them?

Mr. Shaw

I accept my hon. Friend's last point. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to that.

In my discussions on this matter I discussed with the Home Office the elements involved here. Certainly, in the Birmingham case, as my hon. Friends made clear, the police were obviously substantially involved at the end of the proceedings. In some areas the individual local authorities have good relations with the community councils which provide voluntary assistance, for example, in helping to monitor parties and activities of that kind. I was emphasising the position of the local authority in relation to the law.

Let me turn from the general to the specific and come to the position in Birmingham. The local authority there says that it liaises closely with the police and has an established set of procedures which operates between them and works very well. They suggest that parties of this kind are not as frequent as they may have been in other areas, and that this one in Stirling Road was very much an exception to the general pattern of behaviour. But in regard to the procedure in Birmingham, I am advised that when the police receive a complaint they will investigate and send a detailed report to the local authority on a special form that has been drawn up. A notice is never served during a party, because no party patrol is operating. There was some years ago. Nor is one served after the first such party held by an occupier. But when a second complaint and report about the same address is received from the police the local authority is prepared to serve a notice if necessary. All notices are authorised by the city environmental health officer, and officers have no delegated powers to issue notices.

Birmingham operates an Ansafone system—my hon. Friend referred to this—with officers on duty at weekends and throughout holiday periods. Birmingham has now altered its system of trying to identify the main occupier, and where there is multiple occupation it will attempt to serve notices on landlords and tenants and everyone who might be involved and have a responsibility. I accept that that does not provide my hon. Friend with the assurances that she wants in relation to this nuisance, but I am suggesting there has been some change in the procedures in Birmingham, and I have no doubt that the case she has raised here tonight will make it even more certain that action will be taken in the future.

Let me explain further where the individal member of the public stands in this. It is open to an individual member of the public to take up a case direct with the magistrates' court and complain to the magistrate as the occupier of premises affected by noise nuisance. A civil action for noise nuisance can be taken at common law.

The Queston having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.