HC Deb 10 May 1996 vol 277 cc531-6

`A local authority shall by resolution identify officers who are to be authorised to act on their behalf in relation to all matters contained herein:.—[Mr. Thomason.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 35, in clause 8, page 4, line 30, leave out `who is authorised for the purposes of this section.'.

Mr. Thomason

I want at the outset to make it clear that I am not opposing the spirit of the Bill, which I support. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) on introducing such an important Bill, and we are grateful to him for the time that he has spent both on its preparation and on its passage through the House.

There are one or two questions around the periphery of the Bill that need clarification, either today or later in another place. One of those questions is the subject of my new clause. If I catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker—perhaps on Third Reading—I want to raise other matters, such as the practicalities of enforcement, right of entry and so on.

It is well known that local authority environmental health officers—who will no doubt be responsible for enforcing the Bill—are usually properly authorised by their local authorities. The Bill is important—it gives significant powers to local authorities—and that importance and significance should be acknowledged within local authorities. It would not be appropriate to say to the junior office boy or office girl, "Off you go on your bicycle or in your car and deal with that noise nuisance." That would not treat the issue with the significance it deserves.

Enforcement will require properly qualified officers who know how to deal with the public and who are used to handling potentially sensitive and even explosive issues. We all know that problems with noise often involve neighbour disputes, which can put the public peace at risk if they are not handled sensitively and correctly. It is essential that local authorities instruct appropriate officers with the necessary qualifications, not least to handle the proper equipment to measure noise.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

I share my hon. Friend's view about the general intentions behind the Bill, and join in his congratulations to our hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway).

The point being made by my hon. Friend ignores the fact that the vast majority of local authorities already employ officers to deal with noise nuisance. I have letters from the two local authorities in my constituency—Tendring district council and Colchester borough council—each stating that it has an environmental community services department and a director of environmental and technical services. Those authorities are already dealing with the issue of noise.

The Bill is about giving additional powers to those who are already coping with the terrible problems in people's neighbourhoods; it is not about setting up new departments, which might be an unnecessary expense. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that his new clause will not require local authorities to go to the expense of setting up new departments?

Mr. Thomason

I am delighted to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. There is absolutely no reason why a local authority should set up a new department. However, we are all aware that, on occasion, local authorities want to extend their bureaucratic empires, and also that any piece of legislation is capable of being construed in a way that we would find unsatisfactory. Whether or not the new clause includes a specific authority is irrelevant to that point, although my hon. Friend is right to say that none of us should expect new departments to be created.

I said earlier that I anticipated that enforcement would be the responsibility of local authority environmental health officers. I stand to be corrected if others have different views, but I think that they are the appropriate officers.

I well remember from my days in local government that, when we appointed an environmental health officer, it was usual for the council to pass a resolution authorising an officer to deal with a whole variety of statutory powers and duties that were imposed on or could be undertaken by the local authority. I am merely suggesting that, when the Bill becomes an Act, its powers should be added to the list requiring resolutions.

In other words, a specific authority should be given to the environmental health officer, so that, in conducting their duties, he or she can say to members of the public that they are authorised persons and not any odd bod recruited by the local authority, that an appropriate resolution has been passed giving them the authority to deal with the matters, that they have such authority by virtue of the position they occupy, and that the local authority has considered the matter sufficiently grave and weighty to note that they are suitable persons to undertake the responsibilities.

The purpose of my new clause is not to create new empires or lead to local government taking on new employees, but simply to ensure that the matter is treated with the importance it deserves and that officers have the protection of being able to refer to an appropriate council resolution to show that they are statutorily authorised to deal with noise nuisance.

Amendment No. 35 is a technical adjustment, which, consequent on the adoption of the new clause, would change the drafting of the Bill. I invite the House to endorse the new clause.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) for his contribution to the debate. If I may anticipate the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), I should like to make one or two points.

I appreciate that the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove has tabled his new clause and amendment is entirely supportive of the Bill's aims. I understand his concerns about local authority personnel, and I am conscious that he speaks with great experience and some distinction on local authority matters. Although the Government will of course carefully consider his points, I have something of a presumption against the amendments at the moment, because I am concerned about the effect that they would have on the operations of local authorities.

The amendments would largely override the useful power available to a local authority to make arrangements for the exercise of its functions under section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972. That section allows a local authority to arrange for the discharge of any of its functions by a committee, a sub-committee or an officer of the authority. It further provides that such a committee may, in effect, further delegate any functions to a sub-committee or officer of the authority.

As I have said, I am concerned that the amendment and the new clause would override that power. For example, under clause 2(1), the amendments would mean that the only person who could investigate complaints would be a person who was named by a resolution of the full council. That could give rise to operational difficulties and practicalities, particularly if the authorised person named by the resolution of the full council was not available. I am sure that we can all envisage certain circumstances in which it might be difficult—if not impossible—to hold a meeting of the full council to pass a necessary resolution if the named person were not available.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

Is there misapprehension about the new clause and the Local Government Act to which my hon. Friend has referred? I get the impression that the Local Government Act specifies an official by name rather than by function. I get the impression from the new clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove is talking about specifying officers by function. If officers are specified by function, and we are talking about an environmental health department, more than one person would be involved. It would therefore make it much easier on a busy, hot Saturday night, when there were many calls on environmental health officers, to be able to deal with problems. The new clause may make it easier for a council rather than more difficult.

9.45 am
Mr. Clappison

I appreciate my hon. Friend's intervention. As I said, I am prepared to reflect on the matter, but as it stands, I am concerned that the amendments might make the provisions more inflexible by restricting the operation of the powers to local authority officers who had been named by the resolution of the full council.

In the event of such an officer being unavailable, it would be regrettable if the exercise of the powers were constrained, and the Bill's intention thereby defeated. I am certainly prepared to consider the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove has made. As he said, it may be possible to consider the matter with a view to dealing with it another place.

Mr. Thomason

Only a limited number of environmental health officers, technicians or whoever, would be able to operate the noise equipment. Such equipment is quite expensive, and I am sure that most local authorities would not be happy if someone who was not trained had an opportunity to fiddle with the buttons and possibly damage it. Since only a limited number of people are qualified to use it, those authorised to do so are quite a narrow band. If, unfortunately, nobody qualified were available, the local authority would probably not be able to conduct an inquiry anyway.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes an entirely reasonable point, and speaks, as I said, with great experience of local authorities. My concern is to make the provision as flexible and effective as possible for local authorities. That is the way in which I shall approach the new clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove made an important point about the identity of the person exercising the power when people were being investigated, particularly where powers are being exercised regarding entry and seizure under clause 10. It is important that the identity of the person exercising the power should be known. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to clause 10(3), which meets concerns about identification of persons exercising the power by requiring the person entering a property and seizing any equipment to produce the authority if required to do so. I hope that that sets to rest any concerns that my hon. Friend might have.

I appreciate the points made, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove were to consider withdrawing his amendments, I would reflect further on them—without, of course, giving any guarantee that any further amendments would necessarily result.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) for his most kind remarks; they are much appreciated.

I too think that the amendments are extremely important. It is very important that it should be clearly established that anyone operating any equipment by which people may be found guilty of a criminal offence should be properly qualified to do so, and that the equipment should be properly checked, guaranteed against a check sheet and efficient at the time of use. I understand that the very fact that we are saying so today in the House will help in any possible litigation in this area.

It is no good saying that the equipment was checked a year ago and that it was all right then, as has been said in one or two speeding cases. That cannot be right. The equipment clearly has to be right, or injustice could be done. The House is about avoiding such injustice, to ensure as far as possible justice for the citizens of this country. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has said that he will reflect on the matter, supports what I say.

The intention of the new clause is not absolutely clear, although what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove said was important. The meaning of the word "identify" is not entirely clear, as I read it. As I understand it—I am sure that my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong—the new clause would require each local authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to pass a resolution identifying the officers who were authorised to carry out the provisions on its behalf.

Personnel change all the time, so if an identification procedure was established, it would have to be updated regularly. There would be a serious possibility of dangerous slippage. If we accepted the new clause, we might create new bureaucracy, which we should seek to avoid. I think that my hon. Friend and I would, philosophically, oppose more bureaucracy.

I am sure that all hon. Members are aware that there will be occasions when, such are the demands on the noise complaints service of a local authority, an environmental health officer may have to be seconded from another area. That is a problem to watch. Anyone coming in from another area to undertake such work would have to be thoroughly competent.

The Bill lays a duty on local authorities to ensure that suitable people are appointed to the task. My remarks, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and the Minister, have underlined that point. If people are not competent, there will be a clear defence in a case brought under the Act, as I hope and believe the Bill will become. That point must be covered carefully.

I do not believe that the new clause would add to the effectiveness of the Bill, because of its lack of absolute clarity. My hon. Friend the Minister has said that he will reflect on the matter. I cannot make a commitment, but I believe that what my hon. Friend has said is important.

Mr. Jenkin

Our big anxiety about the Bill, however desirable it is, is the cost and complexity of implementation. One of my local authorities, Tendring district council, has written to me pointing out that the obligation under clause 2 to take "reasonable steps to investigate" all complaints between 11 pm and 7 am would require the current voluntary out-of-hours emergency-only service to be replaced by a formal standby service staffed by paid officers.

If the paid officers must be people who have been nominated in a resolution passed by the full council, as proposed in the new clause, many people will have to be invested with powers under the Bill. Do we seriously imagine that, in managing a comprehensive service throughout the night every night, all the people involved will be expert in operating the noise-measuring equipment? Would it not be better for local authorities to have more flexibility?

If there is sickness or holiday absence, different people will be on standby duty attempting to fulfil the obligations. Councils may operate a system whereby they call out the experts after officers have visited the scene of a complaint. After a preliminary investigation, they may then call out the experts with the noise-measuring equipment. This is a complicated area, and local authorities will want to gain operational experience before deciding how to deploy their resources.

The new clause would further complicate matters—I share the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister—and we should pause before accepting it. When the Bill is considered in the other place, as I hope it will be, the matter will be further discussed, and further representations from local authorities may be heard.

Mr. Thomason

In view of the comments made this morning, and especially in view of my hon. Friend the Minister's undertaking to look at the matter in more detail, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn

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