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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. However, my point was whether it was appropriate for the Secretary of State, presumably, of the Environment to do so. I assume that he would be a conduit into the Treasury and that, therefore, it would in fact be no different from the Home Office or another department collecting the money.
The point is this. Should the Secretary of State for the Environment or the Home Office collect the money? I am not clear where fixed penalties normally go. However, I should have thought that they would not necessarily go to the particular Secretary of State. I said that I thought it important to decouple any financial incentive from law enforcement.
The Bill also clarifies the law on confiscation of noise-making equipment. I can think of no more appropriate sanction against those who commit such offences than to deprive a persistent and thoughtless noise-maker of the source of the noise. The Bill provides safeguards for third party rights; and we welcome that.
I turn to some points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. The noble Lord referred to the NSCA survey. That was undertaken before local authorities had had an opportunity to examine the detail of the Bill. We agree that the Bill is only part of a solution. It is also necessary to improve local authority practice and the liaison with the police.
As regards whether the level of the fixed penalty is too high, it is a balancing act. If one sets the level too low, people do not take it seriously. If one sets it too high, people wish to take their chance in court. The other place has taken a view on it and we are content to see how that works out in practice. But we shall keep the matter under review.
As regards co-operation in practice with the police, in line with one of the recommendations of the neighbour noise working party, a joint code of practice is being prepared by the professional bodies of the environmental health officers and the police. This will offer best practice advice on effective liaison between the police and the local authority in environmental noise control. Currently police involvement in noise control enforcement is almost exclusively required where there is a threat of breach of the peace, public disorder or violence or where confiscation of noise-making equipment is being attempted. Where the threat so described continues to exist, I am sure that the police will still seek to attend as at present. However, in many instances I am told that the police involvement largely reflects the uncertainty felt by many local authority officers about the legality of their position in undertaking confiscation of sound equipment without specific power. We believe that the clarification provided by the Bill of the powers of temporary confiscation and forfeiture of such equipment may reduce the need for police involvement in such cases.
I turn now to resource implications for local authorities. The Government recognise that those local authorities which adopt the provisions of the night noise offence will need to provide a noise complaints service 24 hours a day. One of the messages from responses to the consultation paper on neighbour noise control was that those authorities with the greatest need for out-of-hours noise complaint services already tend to provide them. Indeed, in 1993-94, 35 per cent. of local authorities already operated a full 24-hour service.
The additional cost of manpower for local authorities to enforce the night noise offence is estimated to be £1 million in the first year, rising to £3 million per year in the third year. Our calculation of these additional costs is based on a gradual take-up of the night noise offence provisions by those local authorities not currently providing a 24-hour noise complaint service.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, although the additional cost is designed to take account of the additional take-up, will those authorities which have already voluntarily started a service be recompensed? Alternatively, will those who have been doing the job well for a short time have to soldier on paying their own costs, while the Johnny-come-latelies get a subsidy of some kind?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not believe that we will differentiate between those who came first and those who have yet to arrive. However, if there is any question about it, I shall write to the noble Lord.
The Bill before us will give local authorities an additional weapon in their attempts to address the distress and suffering that are caused by night-time neighbour noise. The Government welcome it as providing a suitable balance of increased controls on the thoughtless and persistent noise-maker, with provisions to ensure that the rights of the individual are not unduly curtailed.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their participation in the debate and for the many interesting points that have been made. The noble Earl, Lord Balfour, brought up the technical matter of defining the decibel level. I shall look into it to ascertain the technical answer for which he asked.
Another interesting point raised is the decibel level permitted at work by the Health and Safety Executive. It is a relevant point and we shall seek an answer to it. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned the problem of alarms, which I thought was already under control, and the Minister responded. Nowadays one has to have a 20-minute cut-off point on an alarm. Only someone whose alarm is defective or who has failed to replace it with one of the proper type will be an offender. For many years I suffered over long weekends when an alarm rang for three days. I quite understand the events which the noble Baroness describes.
Whether local action should be mandatory or discretionary is an important point to which we should return at Committee stage. The fact that it is discretionary at the beginning makes it clear that people will be able to determine whether the action suits their area and the demand for it.
I support the point made by both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that local authorities must balance tight budgets and assess value for every penny they spend. In this city, London, there is a 24-hour noise patrol which has proved hugely successful. It is so valued by the ratepayers that they would give up most benefits for it except the rubbish collection--that is the first priority on every resident's list. The noise patrol has been hugely successful, but it has experienced difficulties in getting a successful
Another advantage of the objective assessment is that the complainant would not have to appear if the case goes to court. A certified report would be issued by the qualified person. That would be helpful because many people are frightened to complain about a neighbour. We know from the road rage cases recently that people are often intimidated and do not wish to fall foul of their neighbours. Tempers can get very hot and recently there have been bad incidents with people who live near each other. It is a good point. There will be a more objective assessment which will be certified. There will be cases like the drink driving cases where people prove that the equipment is faulty. Hordes of people got off because the equipment was established as being defective. Plenty of cases will be argued on that basis.
The noble Baroness asked for my views regarding the £100. I have had no information from the Magistrates' Association, so I do not know its views. I quote only my own. A penalty has to hurt a little. By the time I had stopped being an active magistrate, parking fines did not mean a thing to people; they were just accumulated by the dozen. But what really upset them were wheel clamps, because those hurt; they were an inconvenience. I therefore think that a fine of £100 would be something of a pain to pay, while £40 would probably not be enough.
The other day I heard someone say: "I had to pay my dentist £40 for my treatment". I do not know whether it was national health treatment; it probably was. I heard people complaining about it on a television programme. Yesterday I paid the washing-machine man £40 to walk through the door--and he did not have to do all the years of studying that dentists have done. Forty pounds these days is the call-out fee on most appliances. Therefore the £100 proposed and accepted in the Commons is about right.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, perhaps I might intervene to pass on the advice I have heard that dentists ought to charge while the tooth is still hurting and not afterwards. Then people would be more willing to pay. I also want to ask whether my point about the views of the Magistrates' Association might be taken up during the Bill's passage through this House. I take the personal comments of the noble Baroness, but I am concerned about the balance between the fixed penalty hurting and the provocation to resist it and take the matter through the courts.
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