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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, yes, and it was a constant source of complaint. People could not live within any range of it. The noble Lord and I happened both to be associated with the area at the time.
The Earl of Balfour: My Lords, with the leave of your Lordships, I should like to take this opportunity to raise one point. Unless a noise intensity measurement is written on to the face of the Bill, I think that it will be very difficult to enforce.
Noise is often measured in decibels or the 10th part of a bel. A bel (spelt with one l, by the way) is a measure for comparing intensity of noise, electric currents, etc., based on a logarithmic scale.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for her explanation of the Bill. It occurs to me that I should declare two interests. First, I am a member of a local authority. Secondly, professionally, I and my firm act for a great many musicians who create the subject matter of the Bill, although I am sure that very few of them set out to cause offence.
In expressing concern about the Bill, I am not saying that noise is not a huge problem. I entirely agree that it is, but I do not believe that the Bill will be quite the panacea that some of the speeches in another place seemed to indicate. I understand that noise can drive people to distraction--literally, in some cases. I shall confine myself to one anecdote, although I cannot resist commenting that, when looking at the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I have never thought of pink elephants. A new vision appears.
I have a vivid mental image of what must have occurred over a bank holiday weekend, following which one of my colleagues, a very senior lawyer, came into the office and said that he had been approached by a neighbour, a High Court judge, holding a hammer and asked whether he would support a step ladder while the judge took the hammer to a ringing alarm. That is the kind of distraction to which upright members of society can be driven. I assume that ringing alarms fall outside the Bill since they are outside premises. There are other measures to deal with them, which I believe are cumbersome and probably inadequate.
My concern is whether the Bill will prove to be a workable measure. I was glad to hear the comments of the noble Baroness about the need for local discretion. I would be concerned if the provisions became mandatory. If so, I believe that that should arise only if the local authority had discretion as to the level of service to be provided. Many local authorities have anti-noise patrols and take decisions about the resources to be devoted to the service and the need to be met. Understandably, they provide the service on certain days of the week--the weekend--or times of the year. For example, the second and third quarters of the year tend to provoke more complaints because of outside parties and barbecues, which are matters that fall outside the
I have indicated my concern about what is covered by the Bill, not least because of the problems caused by other sources of noise. An insufficiently comprehensive Bill may lead to the law and law-enforcers being brought into disrepute. Perhaps the noble Baroness in her reply can give an indication of the "nuisances" to be covered by the Bill, in particular whether the vibration or beat from music, which is often a source of real irritation, albeit at a relatively low sound level, falls within the Bill. I believe that it comes within the Environmental Protection Act.
I wonder whether the noble Baroness can also comment on the connection between the level of noise which constitutes an offence and ambient noise levels, which the noble Earl has already raised. If the level is 35 dB(A)--which I understand is the level that has been debated and is the WHO guideline--in urban areas it may well be that existing levels exceed it. Further, I understand that it will be necessary to establish that the noise which is the subject of the potential offence exceeds the background noise by at least 10 decibels. I should be glad to receive information about background noise in an area where there are many overhead flights. For example, in west London the noise created by aircraft flying into Heathrow can be considerable during both night and day. I should be grateful to receive confirmation that that is not part of the ambient noise; in other words, that the noise is measured against the gap between aircraft, not against an aircraft. Comment has also been made that, where there is low background noise, noise of less than 35 dB(A) may create a disturbance.
I have been struck also by comments about the duality of the enforcement system. These provisions running alongside statutory nuisance measures may, I am told, lead to increased administrative effort, as both may have to be followed in case one procedure is not effective. I hope that that is an unwarranted fear.
I believe that local authorities will have to work with the police in enforcing these provisions. That is of course at a time when the Home Office review of police core activities recommends moving away from police involvement in local authority enforcement. I wonder
This is an area close to home for the noble Baroness, but has she received any comments from the Magistrates' Association? I ask that in the context of the level of the fixed penalty. I agree with the views of another place that the original proposal of £40 was rather low, but I wonder about £100. Perhaps from her own experience the noble Baroness can say whether that is likely to lead to more people opting for a court hearing, and the costs, delays, and so on that that will provoke. I shall be interested to know whether the magistrates have any comments.
Finally, if the fixed penalties are to go to the Secretary of State, as the Bill provides, one must ask why. If it is unobjectionable for the Secretary of State to collect the penalties, then I do not see that it is unobjectionable for the local authority to collect them. Enforcement and the penalty should be decoupled to avoid financial incentives.
I am aware that I have come out with a string of concerns. I call them concerns rather than criticisms because I do not want to pitch them so high as to appear to be entirely unwelcoming. I welcome the provisions relating to the seizure of equipment. I am sorry that I cannot be unreservedly enthusiastic about the Bill, because I am unenthusiastic about the problem of noise which the Bill seeks to address.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I begin, as is customary on this side of the House, by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. This may not be "Gardeners' Question Time", but it is an appropriate time to ask some questions. I start, as others did, by welcoming the initiative of her honourable friend in another place, Harry Greenway, whose parliamentary activities are well known to me. One can see from reading the reports that he has been most assiduous.
I see that four and a half hours were devoted to the Second Reading in another place. The Bill was discussed for a further eight and a half hours in Committee and four hours were spent on Report. There were 17 hours of discussion in all. That indicates, as the record shows, that many Members of Parliament wanted to contribute to the debate. They all brought to it, as do the noble Baronesses, Lady Gardner of Parkes and Lady Hamwee, and myself, experience at the sharp end from listening to constituents who have undoubtedly suffered. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, said that local authorities had received 130 complaints.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, that is right. The figure is rising. There are probably at least that many complaints that have not been reported because much fear is engendered in communities by people who are blatantly noisy, sometimes threatening and often violent. People sometimes keep quiet and do not complain in those circumstances. This is a serious problem. However, I share the reservations of the noble
It is right that we should place on record our questions as regards the Bill, but in this area it is easier to mention the problems than to find solutions to them. I do not think that Harry Greenway MP is expecting this measure to achieve a great deal immediately. The kind of noise people are subjected to arises from noisy parties, drinking parties and summer events. However, people who live in flats are subjected to other noise. I was proud to represent Edmonton which has many tower blocks. However, the first tower blocks in the London Borough of Enfield were built in Southgate. I attended the opening ceremony. In those days tower blocks had not acquired a bad name.
People who live in flats may suffer from noise which emanates from their neighbours. That noise may not arise as a result of parties but flat dwellers may still suffer from the noise created by their neighbours. I understand that the Government welcome the Bill and will do nothing to inhibit its passage. I have a briefing from the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection which appears to be a reputable body. The briefing asks whether,
There is also the matter of the resources which will be required by local authorities to enable them to carry out their responsibilities in this area. I share the anxiety of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as regards the role of the police. No one, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would wish to criticise the police for wishing to carry out what they consider to be more important work. However, it is the local authority officer who has the power to issue warning notices. Unless he has the co-operation of the police and is accompanied by a policeman when necessary, he and councillors will be frustrated as regards taking action and residents will despair of their problems being resolved. I hope that we can be told more--at a later stage, if not tonight--about how the police view this matter. I believe it was the honourable Member for Bromsgrove who said in another place that 17 people had been killed either through suicide or in disputes arising out of noise. We are discussing a matter which affects the health and mental stability of a great many people.
I wonder whether the noble Baroness has taken into account some of the information which the National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection has gathered. It contacted senior officers of local authorities on the Noise Bill prior to its introduction. It received some interesting and I would say depressing answers to its questions. To the question, "In addition to these new prosecution powers, would you also be likely to use the
Another question asked, "If the Government clarified the law on powers of equipment confiscation, how likely is your authority to use these powers?" To that, 181 replied, "Likely to use"; 21 replied, "Unlikely to use".
The most significant question asked local authorities to select what they considered to be the major constraints on their ability to control noise nuisance. Thirty-four said lack of police co-operation, 169 said lack of staff and resources, 47 said lack of effective legislation, and 35 replied that there were no major constraints.
The noble Baroness, who is always fair in these matters, will recognise that we should not indicate that the Bill is an instrument which will be welcomed by local authorities. The general intention to do something about noise is welcome. In my continuing role as joint president of the Association for London Government, I keep in touch with London local authorities. They have a horrendous task trying to sort out finances and priorities.
On this side of the House, we welcome this initiative. I realise that there are time constraints on the Government but had this been a government Bill it would have been taken much more seriously by local authorities. However, the Official Opposition welcome the Bill and we shall do nothing to inhibit its progress.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for bringing this Bill to the House. I congratulate her and my honourable friend Harry Greenway on giving it life in another place. I hope that its passage here will be speedier than it was in the other place and that it will attract fewer amendments than the Bill whose Committee stage we have completed this evening.
It is surely right that there should be an adequate system of controls on noisy neighbours. Where education and guidance no longer work, we need to address the problem through legislation. Local authorities already have powers to abate noise nuisance but they are slow and expensive and do not work as well as they might. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, this Bill is no panacea but neither is it a white elephant. It will fulfil a useful purpose in addition to the existing powers, and we welcome it.
My noble friend explained the provisions of the Bill in some detail. I shall not repeat what she said, but I should like to offer some comments on particular aspects of the Bill and on how we see it working in practice. After that, I shall make a few comments in response to the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Graham.
As regards whether the provisions of the night noise offence be adoptive or mandatory, it was decided in the other place that the offence should initially be adoptive but that this should be reviewed after two years. We also
That seems to us to be the right balance in the long term. The 24-hour complaints service required to fit in with this Bill is likely to be inappropriate for areas where night-time noise nuisance is uncommon, such as many rural areas. In those areas existing powers continue to be available, as elsewhere.
Next, I emphasise that there must be an actual sufferer from whose dwelling the nuisance is measurable. This Bill is no charter for busybodies or officious local authorities. There will be objective standards (determined by the Secretary of State) for noise nuisance both as to the permitted level and as to how that is measured.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, our proposals for the permitted noise level are that to trigger the offence noise would have to exceed 35 decibels and would have to exceed the underlying noise level by at least 10 decibels. That underlying noise level would be measured over a period of five minutes and would, therefore, include the "long lows" as well as the "short highs" of a building under an aeroplane flightpath.
We have not set the figure of 35 decibels or of 10 decibels on the face of the Bill. We believe that the figure should be flexible and one which can be adjusted from time to time as the technology advances or, indeed, as people's views of the offence change. Therefore, I disagree on that point with my noble friend Lord Balfour. Thirty-five decibels is typical of night-time noise levels in bedrooms with closed single-glazed windows fronting a busy suburban road. Just how many bells there are on a pink elephant I would not know.
Research indicates that 90 per cent. of the population of England and Wales is expected to experience noise levels of less than 35 decibels inside rooms on the front of their dwelling at night. The World Health Organisation issued guidance in 1980 that,
A possible measurement protocol, including the permitted level and the manner in which the noise is measured, has been tried out in a number of local authorities in England and Wales. Those trials have shown that the new offence is likely to apply to prolonged excessive noise such as that produced by amplified music.
The trials show that noise from conversation held at a reasonable volume or from listening to television, radio or amplified music in the normal course of life would not usually exceed the proposed permitted level. Intermittent or impulsive noise such as sporadic hammering, slamming of doors or dogs barking will not be measurable for technical reasons. As the owner of three peacocks, seven guinea fowl and a couple of dozen bantams, I must say that I am grateful for that fact.
The local authority officer, once he has established that an offence is being committed, will have a wide discretion. Such discretion will enable him to deal appropriately with cases where, for instance, an offending noise is simply the result of a one-off celebration such as a wedding, anniversary or a birthday. I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, that we expect those people to act with common sense.
The local authority officer may conclude that it would be inappropriate to take action in such circumstances. He may allow time for the event to finish; he may require the noise to be reduced to a reasonable level--and, indeed, may advise on what that level is; and he may seek to resolve the problem informally.
If a local authority officer issues a warning notice under the Bill and that notice is not complied with, he has the alternatives of taking the matter to court, where the maximum fine will be level 3--that is currently £1,000. We agree that that strikes the right balance and reflects the seriousness of the problem of neighbour noise. Alternatively, he will be able to serve a fixed penalty notice which not only provides a more immediate sanction on offenders but also prevents less serious cases reaching the court. The level was set in another place at £100. That is higher than any other fixed penalty currently in place. The Government's acceptance of that level for this offence should not be seen as a precedent for other fixed penalties.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked who would keep the money and why it should be the Government and not local authorities. It is a simple matter of it being a criminal offence. We do not believe that there should be a financial incentive for the people who are charged with creating, so to speak, that criminal offence. I see that the noble Baroness wishes to respond. I give way.
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