HC Deb 14 May 1993 vol 224 cc1042-7

Amendment proposed: No. 1, in page 15, line 33, after 'loudspeaker', insert 'in connection with any election or'.—[Mr. Hunter.]

9.37 am
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I wish to speak briefly to the amendment as an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the legislation. I fear that the Bill is another example of the way in which the House should follow the maxim The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Indeed, that maxim should be above the doorway here in appropriate Latin.

Undoubtedly, this is a well-intentioned Bill. Clause 8 is well intentioned, schedule 2 is well intentioned, and the amendment is well intentioned. However, I shall speak against the amendment because it would impose on the enforcement authorities an added burden that they simply cannot be asked to carry at this stage.

I am astounded by the cavalier way in which the House is being invited to deal with this important legislation. I do not believe that it is sufficient for the House to rely on the discussion in another place to correct the mistakes that may be made here. Hon. Members will be aware that there was a brief Committee stage—I do not hold that against the Committee. Obviously, that shows that there is great support for the Bill's intentions, but no one can pretend that every aspect of the legislation was adequately discussed upstairs. Similarly, the House has the opportunity to listen to democratic representations from our constituents and those who are affected by the legislation that we seek to enact. The other place has a different role.

I do not believe that the amendment, the schedule, the clause and the Bill deserve such inadequate attention, on three grounds: first, definition; secondly, enforcement; and, thirdly, consequent cost to the councils and the police who will have the responsibility for enforcing the legislation. In case some hon. Members are here on a false pretence—perhaps they are interested in other Bills—I should point out that the amendment will have this effect. Clause 8 says that a local authority may resolve that schedule 2 will apply—

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

What does my hon. Friend mean by "false pretence"? I hope that he will bear in mind that many hon. Members are here as supporters of an important Bill, which is supported by a great many Liberal Democrat supporters in the west country.

Mr. Tyler

I understand the point made by my right hon. Friend, but I will not be lured into a discussion on the merits of another Bill because I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker would rule me out of order. Perhaps I could also remind my right hon. Friend that interventions take time. My speech is reasonably elastic. I have time to answer any interventions that may be made, but I hope to stick to the point. I shall do so much more succinctly if I have no interference or interventions from my hon. Friends, or, indeed, from other hon. Members.

Clause 8 provides: A local authority may resolve that Schedule 2 is to apply to its area. Schedule 2(1)(2) says: A consent shall not be given to the operation of a loudspeaker for the purpose of advertising any entertainment, trade or business. The amendment seeks to insert in connection with any election". I am sure that you have read the report of the Committee proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There was no real discussion of this point. There was no demand from members of the Committee that the Bill should be extended in that way. There was no preliminary discussion of the amendment.

Let me turn to the question of definition. What does in connection with any election mean? Let us take an example. Suppose the noble Lord Tebbit toured Newbury in recent weeks in a loudspeaker van prophesying hell-fire and damnation if the Maastricht treaty was ratified, and inviting residents to meet him in the salubrious surroundings of Newbury racecourse. If he did not promote the candidature of an individual, would he be exempt? Who is to say?

Let us take another example. If the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) deafened the streets of his constituency calling on his local authority to take action under his legislation, that would be political. But would it be in connection with any election? If it fell outside an election period, clearly it would not. What is his justification for that discrimination? Why should an election be inherently more objectionable and why should the noise that it perpetrates be controlled with more vigour than another political campaign at a different time of the year?

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I give way.

The hon. Gentleman seems to have had second thoughts.

Suppose the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) drove around Westminster or Pimlico extolling the virtues of his "Access to Accommodation Bill" either during or outside an election period. That would surely be exempt under the schedule as amended by amendment No. 1. Who is to say? Who will act as thought police following the loudspeakers and recording every word? Will they say, "He has mentioned a candidate, so he is speaking in connection with an election", or, "No, he is talking about the council tax", or, "He is talking about the water rates."? How can anyone distinguish between the two without monitoring everything that is said over the loudspeaker system?

On the subject of enforcement, if the House intends to place extra responsibilities on the shoulders of environmental health officers or the police, I plead with it to listen to what their representatives say about placing those added burdens on them. Already both are rightly resentful that they are being asked to achieve the impossible with regard to noise nuisance. The Government have not given them adequate resources. Local authorities are starved of funds for existing statutory obligations on noise. The Government and Parliament keep inventing and adding more obligations, but they provide no more resources.

The public are being encouraged to have unrealistic expectations. I represent a rural area. People who go to live in rural areas all too often expect a level of quietness and peace which is unrealistic. I give one example. In the Western Morning News we have had a succession of interesting reports about the case of Corky the cockerel. The judge decided that its crowing was an assault on the ears which seriously interfered with the sleep and comfort of its neighbours. As a result, there was a £25,000 court bill for Corky the cockerel.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

I fully appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may be interested in the activities of Corky the cockerel, but does he accept that it seems to some of us that he is speaking at great length for no reason other than that he possibly wants to delay our reaching the next business? Given the allegation that he has contacts with the Shopping Hours Reform Council, I suspect that he is abusing the House in seeking to delay—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The Chair will decide whether there is any abuse of the House.

9.45 am
Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy speaker. I certainly do not intend to be lured into discussion of another issue.

If amendment No. 1 is passed, both the police and environmental health officers will be asked to encourage among the public an even greater expectation that every noise can be controlled. As in the case of the loudspeaker vans which are the subject of the amendment, subjective judgment will make all the difference.

What are we asking EHOs to do? Other hon. Members may have a different experience of their local authorities —perhaps the hon. Member for Basingstoke has—but my local authorities are already overworked. They have far too much responsibility in many areas and we should not add something that lacks definition and clarity and therefore relies on subjective judgment.

The law is already seen to be something of an ass on the subject of noise nuisance. In view of the anxiety of the hon. Member for Basingstoke to make progress, I shall not read the whole report, but a young mother has been warned by her local council to keep her teething baby quiet or face court and a fine of up to £5,000.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Tyler

A recent report said: Cannock Chase council 'noise pollution officers' issued the ultimatum to Jackie Whitehouse, 24, after neighbours complained that eight-month old Zoe was depriving them of sleep by crying through the night. Did the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

Mr. John Marshall

I merely wanted to find out which damn fool local authority had done that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for telling us.

Mr. Tyler

Enforcement costs a great deal of money. No precise figures have been given for the cost of introducing the Bill, with or without the amendment. But this confusing amendment will clearly add to that cost. The best estimate that has been made is that the cost to public funds will probably exceed £0.5 million. It probably will.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a court bill of £25,000 in the case of Corky the cockerel. It may be unusual for a Conservative Member to pray in aid the BBC, but Radio 4 went into the case of cockerels keeping people awake. It found that the solution was simply to raise the perch higher so that the cockerel could not get its head up to crow loudly. That would be a considerable saving on the £25,000 which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Tyler

I had better not follow the hon. Gentleman's point too far because, unless the cockerel is in a loudspeaker van, it is not germane to the debate. I do not propose to crow on that subject any longer.

Organisations representing environmental health officers and the police are sceptical about the Bill. They feel that it imposes on them extra responsibilities without the clarity that they need to ensure that the cost is kept to a minimum. There is no evidence of which I am aware —I am sure that the Minister will respond to this point; I see that he is taking advice —that local authorities have asked for the amendment, the schedule or the clause.

The rapid introduction of the measures in the Bill will put a special strain on local authorities throughout Britain which have difficult budgetary decisions to take. I tabled an amendment to postpone the implementation of the Bill. It was not selected. However, I hope that the point will be recognised as a serious one about the way in which the legislation is drafted.

Local authorities may share my fears and may simply refuse to take up schedule 2, which will remain a dead letter on the statute book, with or without the amendment. If that were to happen, surely it is irresponsible for the House to pass something that is innocuous because we believe that it will be useless. Why are we being asked to pass the amendment on the nod? To adopt such an attitude to the Bill does no credit to the hon. Member for Basingstoke or to the House.

Today we are all Back Benchers; this is a Back—Bench day. This Back Bencher has grave misgivings about slipshod legislation, such as the Bill. It would be irresponsible of us to rely on the other place to correct our mistakes. The resulting cost and confusion of passing the Bill, as amended, whatever its good intentions, will be to the discredit of the House. It will also lead to confusion on the part of those who are asked to enforce our legislation.

A persistent rumour has circulated that the accelerated and abbreviated procedure adopted this morning is an attempt by those on the respective Front Benches to manipulate the House. I am a Back Bencher and I am not party to what the Whips may do, but I do not believe that it is right for Back Benchers to allow themselves to be bullied on a Friday by the Whips. I invite the hon. Member for Basingstoke to justify his amendment or to answer my questions and decide to withdraw it.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I deeply regret that contribution from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), which was largely irrelevant. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not studied the Bill, because the amendment would maintain the status quo.

The hon. Gentleman may be unaware that loudspeakers can be used during election campaigns between the hours of 8 am and 9 pm. That practice is continued under the Bill. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should wax so lyrical about an amendment which he has obviously not understood.

I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman said that the Bill has not been considered sufficiently. The Committee, which lasted the best part of a morning, considered 38 amendments in great detail.

I shall explain briefly the effect of the amendment. It will ensure that loudspeakers can be used during elections between the hours of 8 am and 9 pm, as is currently the practice.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I served on the Committee and I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) has said.

Mr. Tyler

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown

I shall develop my argument first.

If the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has studied the Official Reportof the proceedings of Standing Committee C, he will be aware that I had lengthy discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside about noise nuisance. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke assured the Committee that by the time the Bill returned to the Floor of the House, the concerns that had been raised in Committee would have been addressed.

Nearly every member of the Committee said that, from experience, he or she would be happy if the use of loudspeakers were outlawed during general elections. We all felt that we were more likely to lose votes if we used such loudspeakers.

Mr. Tyler

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown

I shall do so in a moment.

I am more than satisfied that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, along with my hon. Friend the Minister, has addressed the concerns raised in the Committee.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Basingstoke have failed to address my point. I understand that the incumbent in a constituency might be only too pleased if one were not allowed to use loudspeakers during an election campaign, but the incumbent's interest is not always the same as that of the wider democracy. Neither of the hon. Members has taken up my key point about the distinction between in connection with any election and other political campaigning. I want to know how and why one should distinguish between the two.

Mr. Brown

We covered that point in Committee. We accepted that the use of loudspeakers in general elections was a special case, but hon. Members wanted to restrict their use on other occasions. I accept the restrictions that are imposed on the Bill and the specific circumstances for which we are legislating this morning.

Amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

Mr. Barry Field

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I invite you to leave the Chair for a moment and come down to my end of the Chamber, where you will observe that there is a footstool below the Mace? I wonder whether Madam Speaker has it in mind, later today, to confer some great honour of the House upon some hon. Member, as yet unknown. Perhaps the footstool has been placed there in readiness for that occasion. Can you enlighten the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I cannot enlighten the hon. Gentleman.