HC Deb 10 May 1996 vol 277 cc536-54
Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, leave out lines 6 to 18.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following: No. 2, in page 1, line 6, after 'authority', insert—

  1. '(a) if the local authority are the authority for an area which is a preponderantly urban area and have been so prescribed, or
  2. (b) in the case of any authority not so prescribed.'.
No. 5, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert— `( ) Where a local authority receive a complaint under subsection (2) and the offending dwelling is within the area of another local authority, the first local authority may act under this group of sections as if the offending dwelling were within their area, and accordingly may so act whether or not this group of sections applies to the area of the other local authority'.

Mr. Evennett

I am delighted to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) on promoting the Bill and successfully furthering it in Committee—a Committee on which I was pleased to serve. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for all the time and effort he has given, not only in Committee but in discussions with many of us, including discussions on the amendment. I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Department and hon. Friends who served on the Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) who gave such stalwart service in developing ideas to deal with the problem.

Tremendous work has been done to deal with the problem of noisy neighbours and noise nuisance. The Bill is the culmination of many years of work, which has brought together many different people who have suggested ways in which to deal with a growing problem. Noise nuisance, especially the problem of noisy and inconsiderate neighbours, is the scourge of modern life. It is a particular problem in urban areas, but it is not limited to them.

Over the past decade, my borough, the London borough of Bexley, has seen a tremendous increase in noise problems. Thamesmead, an exciting new development with new people and a new environment, is part of my constituency. Thamesmead contains a variety of properties, ranging from skyscraper tower blocks to small dwellings. There has been an increase in the number of people living close together, and thus an increased density of population. With that has come an increase in the problem of noisy neighbours. Modern properties are closer together than older ones and walls are thinner, which means that noise travels further and causes even more distress for our residents.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will know from our discussions in Committee, my reason for moving the amendment is not just the loud noise from music, which was highlighted in Committee and in discussions we had with my hon. Friend privately. Noise problems are also caused by do-it-yourself experts who work on home improvements very late at night or early in the morning so that they can finish the job. That is a problem that affects people across the country. Loud televisions and radios are also a problem.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that we had successful and good-humoured discussions in Committee, with contributions from Conservative and Opposition Members expressing all shades of opinion. We were constructive, and the amendments were an attempt to improve the Bill, which is a good one, but which needs more work.

My proposal in Committee that on-the-spot fines should go up from £40 to £100 met unanimous approval. Although I welcome the increase in on-the-spot fines, the general thrust of the Bill and the determination of the Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North to make it effective, I believe that we have not gone quite far enough. That is way I have moved the amendment.

If, after all the hours that we have spent not only in the House and in Committee but in discussions with outside organisations, including local authorities, which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) mentioned, the Bill is not implemented, we shall have wasted our time, and many hopes will be dashed. Good intentions are not enough. The remaining problems need to be addressed. The principles are excellent and the provisions are good, but implementation causes me some concern, which is why I tabled my amendment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North has drafted a good Bill, but it has one flaw, which I want to emphasise again. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham emphasised it in Committee, and we cannot emphasise it enough.

Local authorities will be allowed to opt in to the provisions. That is all very well, and I hope they will, but I am worried that many will not, especially in the urban areas, where the problem is greatest and where the number of noisy neighbours is growing. More and more of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends are suffering disturbed nights because of inconsiderate neighbours.

10 am

Local authorities will have the power to opt in, and they may do so. I certainly hope that my local borough of Bexley will. In Greater London and the other metropolitan districts, it is essential that authorities opt in. I have been campaigning for a change in the law for five years, with many colleagues from both sides of the House and with outside organisations such as the Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign, located in my constituency and run by Val Gibson, which has also campaigned effectively for five years.

We do not want local authorities to give excuses for not being able to implement the Bill, or indeed to give any reason, such as not being able to afford it. We have been greatly helped by other campaigning groups and by the editor and journalists of The Mail on Sunday, who have been champions of the cause. Thousands of people from all over the country have written to me saying that they want their local authorities to take action.

In Committee, we managed to extend the Bill to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) cannot be with us today, but he was vociferous in Committee, and keen that the Bill should be implemented in Belfast, just as in London and in the other metropolitan districts in England and Wales. But if the Bill is not mandatory, local authorities, especially the crucial ones in London and other metropolitan areas, may not implement the measure.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that four out of five environmental health officers believe that many local authorities will not implement the Bill if it is not mandatory—I sympathise with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far—and does not the fact that the officers themselves think that local authorities will find excuses not to implement make the amendment all the more necessary?

Mr. Evennett

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She represents a borough in Greater London, and knows the problems only too well. She is right to say that many environmental health officers think that the Bill will not be implemented unless we toughen it and make action compulsory. I share that view, and endorse her comments.

I believe that the public will be bitterly disappointed if, after all the campaigning that we have done, including the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North in the Evening Standard to get people on board, we do not achieve what we set out to do.

In Committee, the Minister was happy with the Bill as it stood. My hon. Friend promised that there would be a campaign to ensure that his borough implemented the measure, and I remember a graphic description—the vision has stayed with me—of my hon. Friend marching up Ealing High street with the protesters, demanding that his local council implement the Bill. Knowing what a champion he is of his constituents, and how effective he is in the local community, I think that he may be successful—but others may be less so, and may not be able to persuade their councils to do what we want them to do and implement the Bill.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall come back to that subject, but at this point may I simply say how powerful I think a local campaign can be? When, in 1987, the Labour council in Ealing put up the rates by 65 per cent., I led thousands of people through the streets to protest against that wicked rates increase, and I held a mass meeting on Ealing common, also with thousands of people. The council could do nothing. We swept the Labour councillors from power. We said, "Labour out," and they were out.

Mr. Evennett

I thank my hon. Friend for that little hint of what may be in his forthcoming memoirs. When he writes them, that will be an important chapter, and we look forward to reading the book—but not for many years yet, because we want him to continue campaigning from the Government Benches, supporting the Government and going from strength to strength.

I am afraid that that was a little digression, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I wanted to highlight my hon. Friend's determination to campaign to get his council to implement the Bill. I am sure that we shall all campaign to persuade our local authorities to do the same, but how successful we will be is a moot point. We may be successful in certain areas, but there will be other areas in which, through no fault of the campaigners, the authorities will not implement it.

That is why I tabled my amendment. I am passionate in my desire to see the Bill come into operation.

Mr. Thomason


Mr. Evennett

Does my hon. Friend want to intervene?

Mr. Thomason

No, but I would like to speak when my hon. Friend has finished.

Mr. Evennett

My hon. Friends are enthusiastic about speaking to my amendment, and I am grateful for that.

I do not want to detain the House too long, because I know that other people are waiting to speak; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) can hardly wait to participate and give the House the benefit of his experience.

We are looking to my hon. Friend the Minister to make some additional proposals to ensure that the Bill is implemented. My amendments may be defective, or there may be other reasons why neither my hon. Friend the Minister nor my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North can accept them, but in Committee both my hon. Friends agreed to take the matter away and think about it again.

It was discussed at length in Committee, and at that time both my hon. Friends were satisfied with the Bill. I think that they must have had more faith in the local authorities than I did—indeed, more faith than the environmental health officers have.

Mrs. Lait

In Committee, my hon. Friend was successful in increasing the fixed penalty to £100. Has he done any costings that can tell us whether the money would cover the extra costs to an environmental health department, thus removing the argument about the Bill imposing extra costs on local authorities?

Mr. Evennett

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. We have looked at the figures, but it is difficult to assess the implications. Whether local authorities would be allowed to keep the proceeds from the fines is another question. Certainly that could be a way forward, which the Minister could explore to try to help local authorities to meet the additional costs of implementing the Bill.

I have had the privilege of having discussions not only with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North but with the Minister and the Secretary of State—who is very sympathetic to and supportive of the Bill. They agreed that they would re-examine that matter, and I look forward with interest to their comments today, because, to reiterate, thousands of people across the country have suffered for far too long.

We have campaigned and achieved this excellent Bill, but it is still one step away from being a really great Bill that will solve the problems. It is a good Bill, but it needs improvement. If it is not improved, we will have raised people's hopes and expectations only to dash them, and many more people will continue to suffer the problems, agonies, anxieties and illnesses caused by lack of sleep and distress from extra noise.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can present measures to overcome the implementation problem. A good Bill that is not implemented is a waste of time, because it will not do what it needs to do and what we want it to do. There is a great deal of concern about the problem. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) has highlighted what environmental health officers think about it. Many local councillors feel the same way about it, and many people who have campaigned on noise nuisance feel that the Bill as drafted is insufficient.

I hope that the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will examine sympathetically the issues that have been raised in Committee and again today, so that the Bill can be improved and made more effective, so that it gives some respite to people who have suffered for so long from the effects of noisy neighbours.

Mr. Jenkin

I speak against the amendment, with deference and apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who spoke eloquently in favour of it. The amendment, in fact, transforms the Bill into something completely different.

The Bill is an admirable effort to increase local authorities' powers—to give them discretion, to decentralise, to enhance their autonomy and to allow them decide for themselves what action should be appropriate in their areas.

One lesson that the House should have learnt over the past 20 or 30 years is that the endless stream of obligations that have been placed on local authorities, combined with the very necessary and ever tighter fiscal and financial constraints placed on them, have a detrimental effect on the esteem with which they are held and the effectiveness with which they are accountable to their electors. The more local authorities have become proxies for national Government and for Parliament, to do our bidding, the less spontaneity and genuine democracy there has been at local authority level. This amendment turns a Bill that confers greater powers on local authorities into one that confers greater obligations on local authorities.

We need only consider community care, for example, in which we turned all the activities of local authorities into prescriptive obligations. There is a question whether that has left local authorities with sufficient discretion to decide how to distribute to best effect the substantial resources they have available for community care. They find that they have to follow certain procedures and categorise certain people in certain ways. This measure is falling into the same trap.

Hon. Members should take a step back and stop being a great regulatory machine, churning out the obligations that we tend to churn out. When, as in this case, we can do so, we should devolve power and discretion to local authorities so that, advised by their electors, they can decide for themselves what is appropriate, what they can afford and what are their priorities. Those matters must be decided locally.

If hon. Members think that we are more capable of deciding what local authorities' priorities should be, we are falling down a very dangerous and slippery slope. We have found it necessary to do that in a great many spheres, but this is surely not one of them, because every local authority will have its own demography, geography, distribution of housing and priorities.

Although I share the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford that hon. Members should ride valiantly to the rescue of our oppressed constituents—I have had my share of complaints from constituents complaining about noisy neighbours and dealing with their problems—

Mr. Evennett

I am interested in my hon. Friend's comments, but does not he agree that this is really a national and a growing problem? A tremendous number of people are suffering across the country from noisy neighbours, and subsequently from illness. Expenditure has to be increased on the health service because people have terrible illnesses resulting from noise. The problem is not only local: it is a problem of our society.

10.15 am
Mr. Jenkin

Of course it is a problem of our society. It is a problem of an ever more egocentric culture—of members of the "me generation" blaring their music to the detriment of everyone else. But my hon. Friend is employing the type of arguments that the European Commission would use to suggest that it is a Europewide problem—[Interruption.] Perhaps we should have a European directive to deal with noise across Europe, because of those little villages on the Belgian and French borders, for example. Noise knows no national boundaries: no doubt that is what we will be told.

The point, of course, is that, while there may be a national, European or even world malaise about selfishness and noise, the problems we are talking about are desperately local, affecting a few houses in one street or one block of flats. To describe the problem as one that requires nationally prescriptive legislation is really rather stretching the point. I think that we should not, in this case, put another obligation and another expense on local authorities, when it is not an obligation or expense that they would choose for themselves. As often as we can, we should draw back from such legislation.

Perhaps we should be considering spheres in which we can deregulate local authorities. This is not a regulatory measure as currently drafted, but, with the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, it will immediately become a regulatory burden on local authorities. Therefore, I hope that the House will reject the amendment.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

I support amendment No. 2, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett). I should mention that I, too, put my signature to the amendment, but that has somehow eluded those making up the Order Paper. I also have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), as I shall explain a little later.

But first I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) for his commendable initiative in introducing the Bill and for his sterling efforts in promoting it. As one of its sponsors, I am very happy to be associated with him in this campaign.

My sympathy with the Bill's objectives goes back many years—to the very beginning of my political activity, 35 or 40 years ago—when I was a member of the then Noise Abatement Society, which was founded by a great man, John Connell. Its slogan was "QP", which stood for "Quiet, Please". I have always believed that that is a right to which people are entitled and that it should be preserved as far as humanly possible in our increasingly urban environment. That is why I am strongly sympathetic to the amendment. Unless some effort is made to allay people's natural concerns, the Bill's provisions will not be implemented.

I think that all hon. Members have received a briefing from the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection. This organisation is not known to me, but it has undertaken a poll of local authority officers to gauge their initial response to Government proposals for a new noise offence. The survey showed that only a minority of authorities are likely to adopt the new powers proposed in the Bill, and that even fewer are in favour of the fixed penalty provisions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) said, people would be gravely disappointed if, having had their hopes raised by the Bill's passage through Parliament, at the end of the day—or perhaps during the night—its powers were not used to effect the necessary social objective.

Those of us with a local authority background—I was leader of the council and mayor of the borough of Bromley—

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

A fine man.

Sir Michael Neubert

There speaks a parliamentary representative of the borough of Bromley; I am delighted to have his commendation.

We understand that there are many calls on local authority resources. The opportunity for authorities to use their discretion is extremely limited, and I have some sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). There are only limited spheres in which local councils have the opportunity to decide their own priorities, but there is anxiety that, in the sphere of noise abatement, they will on occasion take the easy way out.

Common sense dictates that dealing with the problem of excessive noise is not an enviable task for anyone, designated or not. By definition, people who cause excessive noise to the annoyance of their neighbours are likely to be anti-social and, when tackled, to be aggressive. Assaults may follow, so the amendment would impose a very unenviable task on local government.

I hope, however, that the Minister can reassure us that the proposed powers stand a good chance of being exercised. If not, the House is conducting an empty exercise. I believe that that is the concern that prompted the amendment, which I am happy to support.

Mr. Thomason

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) for introducing an important debate that goes to the nub of the Bill. I am also grateful to him for offering to give way to me when I did not want to intervene—I hope that he will continue that practice.

I should like in passing to mention an issue touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, which is referred to more specifically in one of the associated amendments. There is some difference between urban and rural authorities in respect of the problems of noise.

It is certainly true that, where a large number of people live close together, one can expect greater problems, including the generation of noise. However, with the exception of those who live in total isolation in the countryside, the problems of noise are every bit as great in rural as in urban areas. In fact, they may sometimes be greater, because the very peace and quiet of villages and small communities means that any noise is more noticeable and disturbing. The problem of noise is not confined to urban areas but pervades almost the whole country.

Mr. Jenkin

I represent a constituency that is both urban and rural. Its two local authorities cover deeply rural areas as well as intensely urban areas—one authority covers Colchester, and Tendring district includes Clacton. I find the distinction between rural and urban authorities rather spurious, because very few local authorities cover wholly rural areas. We must remember that every local authority has an urban element, and that every authority is different. It is therefore wrong for a Bill to try to treat them the same.

Mr. Thomason

My hon. Friend is right, and makes my point powerfully.

Mr. Evennett

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). I have been concerned with the problems of noisy neighbours for many years. There has been a fantastic increase in metropolitan areas in the difficulties and illnesses caused by noise problems. Very few such cases have arisen in rural areas, or in the mixed areas to which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North referred. The majority of cases involving the breakdown of health and complaints of distress are in the Greater London area and the metropolitan urban districts.

Mr. Thomason

I cannot comment on the content of my hon. Friend's mailbag, but mine also contains complaints of the type that we have been debating. The problem is not confined to metropolitan areas, or even urban areas. I represent a semi-urban constituency not entirely dissimilar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North, and I am very aware of the harrowing experiences of a number of constituents.

The core of the debate on the amendment is whether an obligation should be placed on local authorities to implement the Bill's provisions, or whether it should be left to their discretion. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford or his surprising ally, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice). It is amazing that the Labour party, which is supposed to espouse the cause of local authority autonomy, should now be saying that it wishes to remove local discretion and oblige local authorities to introduce the Bill's provisions.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice

Let us assume for a moment that there is some difference between urban and rural areas. A street may be divided, with one side is covered by one local authority and the other side by another. Would there not be great injustice for the residents if one authority implemented the Bill's provisions and the other did not? Residents on one side of the street would have to suffer noise because their authority was not prepared to do anything about it.

Mr. Thomason

It depends on one's views, but there is great injustice for those who live in a street, one side of which is controlled by Wandsworth and the other Lambeth. What is the point of having local authorities if they cannot make some decisions? If they do not have any decision-making powers, we shall end up with total uniformity. Although it is necessary in the national interest to impose on local authorities certain standards—and spending limitations—authorities must be able to make decisions on matters affecting their communities.

If councillors in a particular authority perceive that there is a noise problem in their area, they should be able to respond to it under the Bill. If the neighbouring council feels that there is no noise problem or that it has other more important spending priorities, it must be able to act appropriately, which will mean not introducing the Bill's provisions.

It is entirely desirable that such matters are left to a local authority's discretion, and that councillors are able to respond to the views of their electorate. After all, councils are democratically elected institutions, and must respond to the views of the people who put them in office. Their responsibilities include environmental issues, which means dealing with noise. For us to sit here and pontificate and say that councils must implement the provisions would override the discretion that local authorities should often, quite properly, have.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North referred to the expense involved in introducing the provisions. I do not regard it as such a worrying issue as he does, but I acknowledge that there will be some expense for local government. It is right that councils should decide whether they can afford to implement the provisions of the Bill. It is matter that ties in with their budget priorities and overall financial position.

The question is whether we believe that local government ought to have discretion in these matters, and whether local councillors should be able to respond to the wishes of their electorate on noise nuisance. The issue of local democracy and local discretion makes this debate important, and I hope that it will be considered carefully by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. The Government should not be seduced by the persuasive arguments of those who support the amendment into acknowledging its validity. Local discretion should take priority, and the Bill as drafted is correct in this respect.

10.30 am
Mr. Merchant

The riposte to the argument ably outlined by hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) comes from those people who write to their Members of Parliament to complain that they are unable to get their local authority to take the action that they could take under the present law. That is the problem. This House must protect the rights of individuals, but we must also protect the rights of local authorities—including their autonomy—that they understandably wish to preserve. I am no opponent of that, but the arguments must be balanced, and one sometimes must take precedence.

Only yesterday, I received a letter from a constituent, Mrs. McCrory of Copers Cope road, Beckenham, in which she outlined the terrible problems she has had with noise from her neighbours. This has been going on for some months, and I was aware of the problem, which has not yet been resolved. She wrote that she was getting no response at all from the police and no response "from E. Heath." This puzzled me somewhat, until I realised that this was an error in her writing. She was not referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) but to E. Health, the local authority's department of environmental health, which was responsible for upholding the law.

It is a nightmare that members of the public feel that their local authority is not protecting them and is not using the powers to enable them to live in peace. Those people are having their lives upturned by irresponsible and antisocial neighbours.

Mr. Jenkin

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be misleading of us to suggest to the public that this Bill might cut noise at a stroke?

Mr. Merchant

There is wisdom in what my hon. Friend says—he is obviously following a good master. No supporter of the Bill believes that, as the Bill's purpose is to reduce the problems that the public are facing in some areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) referred to local authorities. In theory, I should like local authorities to have the freedom to decide on the issues dealt with in the Bill. It would be good to give them powers and then let them have the freedom to choose whether to exercise them. That, after all, would further empower local authorities by devolving powers to them. It would enable the legislation to be flexible, and would ensure that judgments were made at a local level where that was most applicable.

I do not automatically support the amendment, but I am in favour of local authorities retaining the ultimate decision-making power. We must look at the link between the views of individuals and those of local authorities, which, in practical terms, is often very tenuous. Voters do not necessarily express their feelings on individual local issues when it comes to local authority elections, as the events of the past few days have shown. In the vast majority of cases, voters do not vote in support of one particular issue.

A more effective way of achieving local consensus would be via a mechanism of which I am in favour, but which I accept is not fashionable—a local referendum. I would like many of the decisions that are particularly relevant to local people—for example, Sunday trading—to be settled at a local level by a referendum, which would accurately match the policy for an area with the views of local people. I merely float that as an idea, although I accept that there is at present insufficient support for it.

One recalcitrant authority failing to use the powers that the Bill will give it would completely neuter the decision of this House. What would we say to constituents who said, "We have a terrible problem with noise. We looked to you, as our elected representative acting through the House of Commons, to bring in a law to protect us. You have done that, yet it has had no impact, because our local authority has decided not to implement it"?

I hope that my local authority will use the powers—I have no reason to believe that it will not—but I can give no guarantee to the House or to my constituents that the Bromley authority will use the powers that the Bill will give it. I give as an example the powers that local authorities have to defend leaseholders by giving them support in actions taken through the courts against unreasonable freeholders. The local authority can exercise that power, but my authority decided not to, despite the fact that Bromley has one of the largest concentrations of leaseholders in one constituency—and probably in any one borough—in the country. That is an example of the powers that Parliament has given a local authority not being used.

For all those reasons, and because of the balance between the two sets of arguments, the amendment greatly appeals to me. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) has given this House an opportunity to have what will be the most important debate on Report.

I should be happy with a compromise. If the entire wording of the amendment is not acceptable, the Government could make it compulsory for some local authorities to exercise the powers. I believe that a distinction can be made between highly urban authorities and rural areas; I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North that no distinction could be drawn between them. I believe that such a distinction can be clearly drawn.

Sir Michael Neubert

May I express my support for my hon. Friend's comments? He will know the intense nuisance that can be caused by noise in an urban environment. He, of course, comes from the leafy avenues of Beckenham, but in the area of London where I live, noise is intrusive and does not always come from neighbours. Radio 3 is blotted out at the weekends by, presumably pirate, radio stations blaring out popular rock music. One cannot even escape noise within one's home when listening to the radio.

Mr. Merchant

I agree with my hon. Friend. He prompts me to back up what he said and my previous argument with the fact that my constituency is not all leafy avenues, much though I appreciate the leafy parts of it as well. My constituency is varied. It is interesting that by far the majority of complaints I receive on noise issues come from the part of the constituency in which housing is closer together and there is not the space for leafy avenues.

Leafy avenues themselves dissipate noise. The same volume of noise emanating from one house or flat in areas where the housing is close together will cause a great deal more disturbance than in one of the leafier, more spacious parts of the constituency. It is simply a question of the proximity of the housing; it is nothing to do with the people. That is a strong illustration of the difference between urban and rural areas.

If the amendment cannot be accepted and we cannot create a divide between urban and rural areas, I hope that some mechanism can be found to enable voters in an area to express their feelings and take some action if the problem is particularly acute. I hope that some means can be found by which they could require a local authority to institute the requirements of the Bill, or, at the very least, a mechanism to review the working of the Act, to enable the House or the Government to step in and take action if, in the fulness of time, it seems that local authorities are not taking up the power that the Bill will give them.

I do not see the point of the House going to great lengths to perfect a Bill if few local authorities use it. That would be futile. From my own, perhaps slightly selfish, point of view—that is why I was elected to the House—the Bill will be completely useless if my local authority does not act to implement the Bill, even if every other local authority does, because my constituents will not be protected.

I mentioned the letter that I received from Miss McCrory. I should like to quote two other examples among many complaints that I have received in the past few years.

Mr. Geoffrey Munn, who lives in the Upper Norwood part of my constituency—the Crystal Palace area—was driven to distraction by continuous noise from a neighbour. He encountered the same problem as Miss McCrory. The local authority, which is vigilant and tries to tackle noise problems, did not have sufficient energy to pursue the problem. The noisy neighbour was effectively able to outwit the local authority.

I believe that the law as it existed could have been enforced more effectively, but because the law is uncertain and ultimately requires rather unpredictable and expensive legal processes, local authorities are unwilling to press matters to a conclusion. If a noisy neighbour does not take notice of warnings and pressure, local authority environmental health departments will normally lay off. The police similarly take a step back these days and detach themselves from neighbourhood noise problems. Yet, as we all know, noise may be only the beginning of other problems, which can result in much more serious forms of criminal activity.

Where cases of noise are bad, they can be very bad indeed. I do not believe that local authorities would be inundated by complaints from the public. If we make the power compulsory, we will not be burdening local authorities with a massive new responsibility. The rest of my hon. Friend's excellent Bill will act mostly as a deterrent. It will stop noise, and therefore will not require great enforcement resources. By its very existence, the Bill will reduce the problems.

Bad problems do exist. We have a duty to our constituents to do our best to protect them. To leave the Bill uncertain in its impact or leave a question mark over its final implementation is not sufficient. That is what we shall do if we do not amend it. We owe our constituents a greater responsibility than that.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this stage in the debate on these most interesting and important amendments moved so admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), with powerful support from my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), thoughtful opposition from my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), a dramatic intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) and a compromise approach by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant). The compromise approach warms my heart, because I believe that that is the way in which we need to go in response to the amendments.

10.45 am

It would be absurd for my busy colleagues on both sides of the House to have given the time that we have devoted over the years to this important subject and this particular Bill if the Bill was not implemented where it was essential and needful that it be implemented. We need a device in the Bill whereby the Secretary of State can review the situation and see what can be done if local authorities do not implement the Bill where there is a clear and proven need to do so. That is the approach that is needed, instead of writing into the Bill the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, for the sound reasons given by some of my hon. Friends.

Areas are different. I lived in the country for many years. In some parts of the country, one house is distant from another and noise problems are very different from those in some parts of my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, where people are very close to each other, walls are thin and inconsiderate noise impacts desperately heavily on a neighbour. So it is unthinkable that local authorities such as mine, my hon. Friends' and others across London and in other urban areas will not implement the Act, as we hope and believe it will become. However, to force all local authorities to implement the Bill where it was not needed would be mistaken. That would simply put people through a bureaucratic process.

Therefore, I look forward to an amendment in the House of Lords, which my hon. Friend the Minister will develop in his speech, which will be a compromise. It will be written into the Act that there will be a review after two years of how the Act is being implemented and that there will be a trigger to ensure that it is implemented if it is not implemented where it should be. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford can accept that and that on that basis he will feel able to withdraw his amendments. I give him that assurance.

In some urban areas, one in 10 homes suffer severe noise. That is desperate. It is as serious as that. We cannot just sit back. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford certainly is not. I pay tribute to his determination to ensure that the measures that we are all so keen on are implemented, effective and properly policed and enforced. I believe that they would be effectively enforced under the compromise that I have suggested, which was also the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, whom I thank for his interesting speech.

My amendment No. 5 states: Where a local authority receive a complaint under subsection (2) and the offending dwelling is within the area of another local authority, the first authority may act under this group of sections as if the offending dwelling were within their area, and accordingly may so act whether or not this group of sections applies to the area of the other local authority". The amendment meets the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice), to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove referred with such clear force. It deals with cases where the complainant's and offender's dwellings are in different local authority areas. Where the complainant's local authority has adopted the night noise offence, it may take action against the offender regardless of whether the offender's local authority has adopted the provisions. It is a crucial amendment.

Many streets are bisected by local authority boundaries. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, East said, one side of a street can be in a different authority from the other; even one property may be in a different local authority from its neighbour. I am sure that we all agree that local authorities that adopt the night noise offence should be capable of taking action when their residents complain. I say in parenthesis that that would not apply to other matters such as council tax. The good people of Wandsworth may be assured that they will not be damaged by the dreadful Labour local authority of Lambeth or face any danger of paying a council tax four times their present one. The figure may be even higher, for all that I know.

My amendment seeks to ensure that, where the noise maker's dwelling is in a different local authority from that of the complainant, the complainant's local authority can take action regardless of whether the noise maker's authority has adopted the night noise offence. Hon. Members may like to know that, where such cases are brought and result in prosecution, the magistrates court involved will be the one that has jurisdiction in the area in which the offender's dwelling is situated.

Mrs. Lait

It gives me great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), for two reasons. First, I add my congratulations on his skill in moving a Bill that is very necessary to many of my constituents. Secondly, he mentioned his amendment, on which I wish to make a few remarks.

First, in respect of the Bill's principles, I support its original text and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin). Many local authorities will wish to implement the legislation. I am sure that my local council in Hastings will. If it does not, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, will be out demonstrating along with hundreds of people who have made complaints about noise—which, I have to say, usually come from council house tenants. I doubt whether Rother, which is the other local council that my constituency covers, would wish to implement the legislation.

I strongly believe that it should be up to the local authority to make the decision and to respond to the needs of its voters. We have been attacked for years for taking powers away from local authorities and being prescriptive about their roles and duties. It is about time that we started to give back to local authorities many of the local duties that their residents consider to be their responsibilities.

To digress briefly, I refer to the prescriptive powers that we gave environmental health officers on food and the necessary further action that we have taken to deregulate, to allow them to govern with a much lighter hand. The Bill embodies the practice of allowing environmental health officers to use their discretion, which I support. I hope that any compromise that my hon. Friend the Member Ealing, North and my hon. Friend the Minister reach will ensure that local authorities have the primary responsibility for deciding whether to implement the Bill.

I also ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether any costings have been done on the value to local authorities of the £100 fixed penalty, to find whether it would cover costs, which would encourage many local authorities to implement the legislation. While that may not be a financial incentive, it would not cost them any money. That would help to ensure that the legislation was implemented where it was most needed.

I support amendment No. 5 because, as I said earlier, my constituency covers two local authorities and I can envisage a situation where noise is a nuisance and the local authority involved has decided to do nothing about it. We must be able to take powers to ensure that the people who live in that unfortunate situation, whether between Wandsworth and Lambeth or between Hastings and Rother, can take action to end the disturbance. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North for including that provision.

On pressure to implement the Bill, the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) deletes the requirement for local authorities to advertise in a newspaper the fact that they will be implementing the legislation. I hope that in another place we can pluralise that, so that as many people as possible have access to that information.

Mr. Thomason

I tabled amendments to that effect. Does my hon. Friend accept that many district council areas are served by more than one local newspaper and that the reference to one newspaper circulating in the area is misleading? It may be appropriate in another place to consider giving local authorities an obligation to advertise in the local newspapers that reach the majority of their residents.

Mrs. Lait

I commend my hon. Friend for bringing out that point. I rather pirated his amendment for my comments. It is important that as many people as possible are apprised of the fact that local authorities have such powers on noise. I would go further, because of the growing number of licences for community radio. That would be a most appropriate channel for local authorities to use, to advertise their powers on noise. It would be a slur on community radio to suggest that it is so loud that it would be appropriate for action to be taken.

Mr. Evennett

Then people would have to turn the volume up.

Mrs. Lait

The volume would need to be turned down.

In another place, it may be possible to consider bringing that provision into line with the modern, diverse media service in our constituencies. I hope that the Minister can take up some of my points about making implementation easier, while ensuring that we do not impose an unwanted and costly burden of regulation on local authorities.

Mr. Clappison

This has been a good debate on an important amendment. I am alive to the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends, which in some cases reflected at least two different strands of thinking—giving local authorities the discretion to decide what is important for their residents and giving those who have suffered from noise the fullest possible protection. I am alive to the fact that there are those two different approaches and hope that I shall be able to suggest a balanced way of meeting both concerns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) was right to refer to the need for some balance. He came down strongly in favour of giving the fullest possible protection. To some extent, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has paved the way for what I want to say. I think that I shall be able to suggest an approach that meets both those lines of thinking.

11 am

I am grateful for the kind and generous comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), but the credit for choosing this subject for a private Member's Bill has to go to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, who has performed his role as promoter with some distinction and who took the Bill through Committee with some skill.

I was about to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford has been one of the loudest proponents of the Bill, but perhaps I should not do so. It would be fair to say that he has been one of the most active and interested sponsors of the Bill. He has certainly taken to heart the problem of noise, and I know that the Right to Peace and Quiet Campaign, run by Mrs. Val Gibson, is located in his constituency. He has spoken of the problems that noise has caused there. Truly, my hon. Friend has campaigned fully and energetically on behalf of his constituents, that campaign and all those who have suffered from the problem and contacted him.

The starting point of my response must be the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), who also speaks from a position of great experience in this matter and with the benefit of his previous association with the Noise Abatement Society. He said that he wanted the powers to be exercised where help was needed. That is a helpful approach. The Government certainly share that view.

Indeed, I am sure that we are all concerned that the remedies of the Bill should be available where they are needed and can be effectively operated. We considered that in some detail in Committee and I listened to the concerns expressed by hon. Friends who are present today, including the my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham and for Erith and Crayford, among others. They spoke with some considerable passion on the subject.

In approaching those concerns, I feel that it would be helpful if I dealt first with the two amendments, which are, in large measure, exclusive. Amendment No. 1 would apply the offence to all local authorities, while amendment No. 2 gives the Secretary of State the power to prescribe the "preponderantly urban" authorities where the new offence would operate, leaving those not prescribed to adopt it if they so wished.

I have argued that local authorities are in the best position to judge whether they need the additional power to deal with night noise problems from domestic premises. I have been conscious of the arguments in support of that approach. I have thought carefully about the matter, the point of view that the fullest possible protection should be given and the concern about whether local authorities will adopt the measure.

Amendment No. 1 would be too general in its application. Local authorities must give some thought to whether the measure is required in their area. There may be local authorities which, having considered the matter thoughtfully and carefully, as all hon. Members would wish them to do—they have mentioned the clarion calls that they will give authorities in their areas—will adopt the measure. Others may come to the conclusion, after careful consideration, that there is little demand for a night-time noise complaints service in their area. A blanket application of the measure would be wrong, as it would be wrong to impose it on authorities that had concluded that it was not required in their area.

I listened to what hon. Members said about the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. My previous comments are fortified by the view expressed when that organisation wrote to me, saying that it supported the provision of the new offence, but only if it were made discretionary, as it believed that it must be up to individual local authorities to tailor their noise service in accordance with the needs of the community. Having considered that view and being mindful of the position of local authorities that may conclude that they do not require the noise complaints service and of the public expenditure implications—I am also mindful of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) about the general applications, which was certainly germane—I cannot support the approach of amendment No. 1. I am, however, sympathetic to the concerns expressed, particularly those so strongly put forward by hon. Friends who represent urban and metropolitan areas. I agree with those who say that there may well be a distinction with regard to the offence and that the new measure will be needed in such areas as they are the most likely to suffer from that type of problem.

My hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Crayford, for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) and for Ealing, North will be at the head of the queue trying to force local authorities to take into account the needs of their local residents and to adopt the service. Sadly, as we all know and as we heard in Committee, local authorities of certain complexions have not always listened to the views put forward by local residents. I recognise that, in tabling amendment No. 2, hon. Members want to find a way of focusing on the authorities that are likely to have most need of the new offence. I am sympathetic and I support the idea of maintaining the adoptive approach, but with power to bring in the offence in some areas.

We are talking of a novel approach to the night noise problem. Never before have we sought to fix an objective standard in law as the basis for a noise nuisance offence. It is right that we should see how the new approach works in practice before deciding to impose it on any authorities. I have some doubts, therefore, as to whether amendment No. 2 is exactly right. It will be a couple of years before we know just how well the new offence works in practice and how useful an additional weapon it is in the hands of local authorities, and before the Government should consider overriding local judgment.

Furthermore, I am unsure whether the drafting of the amendment is sufficiently clear. There may be problems with the interpretation of "preponderantly urban". My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford is doing himself an injustice, as he has made a noble attempt at drafting, but there may be some problems. For example, there is the question whether the whole of the local authority area has to be predominantly urban, or just a part. I am alive to the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend—concerns shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North—and in particular those about urban and metropolitan areas. In the light of the debate today and in Committee, I can suggest an alternative approach, which I hope will deal with the problems that they mentioned.

As I have said, I have a lot of sympathy for my hon. Friends' objective in proposing amendment No. 2. I give them an undertaking that the Government will review the workings and take-up of the new noise offence after it has been operating for two years. At that stage, we shall be able to see the effect that the introduction of the new offence has had and whether its coverage should be extended. If the weight of opinion is that the new offence should be applied more widely, I can see a case for requiring local authorities to take up the new powers.

I should prefer to wait and see what the review brings, but I recognise the strength of hon. Members' views today. I am conscious that we cannot be sure that in two years' time a suitable legislative vehicle will be available for the sort of amendment that may be necessary—that is always a problem, and I know that my hon. Friends will be thinking of that. I confirm that we would, therefore, accept an amendment in another place to add to the Bill a reserve power, to allow the Secretary of State to direct local authorities to take up the new offence.

Mr. Thomason

Would that occur by regulation requiring an affirmative resolution in the House, or would it involve another procedure?

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend will have to wait and see what the regulations bring. We want the Secretary of State to have the reserve power to direct local authorities, as I have said. I shall consider the point that my hon. Friend made as to the form that that regulation should take.

Amendment No. 2 is not satisfactory and we cannot accept it as it stands. I am concerned that, if it is carried, it will cause more difficulties than it solves. Nevertheless, we are supportive of the aim of amendment No. 2, so I have suggested a workable alternative that will allow the objective of hon. Members to be achieved simply and effectively. In the light of that undertaking, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford will reflect and consider withdrawing his amendment.

Amendment No. 5 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North. I accept the amendment, as it is helpful. Hon. Members may be interested to know that section 81(2) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 makes a similar provision with regard to cases of statutory nuisance. It is right that a local authority that adopts the new offence should be able to take action against noise coming from dwellings over its border. That is a sensible amendment and I have no hesitation in accepting it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye asked for details about the costings of the proceeds of fines and fixed penalties. The fixed penalty will be a substitute for a fine in court, which will affect the destination of the fixed penalty. I shall write to her and give her the details of the costings. I am sure that she understands that her question requires some research and analysis.

Mr. Thomason

Is it not true that the fixed penalty that is collected, or any other fine under the provisions, will go to the Treasury in the normal way? However, because the Treasury coffers will be slightly replenished from those sources, would it not be appropriate for my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment to argue with the Treasury that the revenue support grant should be adjusted slightly, to take into account the extra costs and responsibilities that the local authorities might face?

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend will know that many interesting discussions take place between my Department, other Departments and the Treasury. I am sure that in any such discussions we shall have the opportunity to bring my hon. Friend's comments to the Treasury's attention. I cannot anticipate the form that the regulations will take—I cannot anticipate decisions that may be made later.

Mr. Evennett

I thank the Minister for his comments on the amendments. This has been an excellent debate, and hon. Members have placed varying degrees of emphasis on the issue, even though we all want to achieve the same thing. Many hon. Members will watch closely, to see whether councils implement the legislation when it is on the statute book, I hope in July. I have had discussions with the Minister, the Secretary of State and the promoter of the Bill, and I welcome the Bill. I look forward to seeing an amendment tabled in another place that deals with the concerns of my amendment No. 2.

I thank the Minister for the serious way in which he approached the problem, particularly for urban areas. In the light of what he said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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