Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I think that I had better start by being polite before I get into being less polite. I understand and appreciate why noble Lords, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, are very keen to ensure that no one who should not be is caught up in these definitions because of the language used. I entirely understand that. However, I really do think that noble Lords need to take something of a reality check on this. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, put her finger on it. What we are looking at in trying to deal with this form of anti-social behaviour is a range of nuisances and annoyances which, singly or collectively, make people's lives unbearable.

I know that noble Lords, particularly those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, have a lot of local government experience. I do not know whether their experience is at all similar to mine—I represented and worked in a very busy city environment. In the nearly 20 years in which I was involved as a councillor, what I always found most shocking was what one neighbour or group of human beings was prepared to do to another, in many different manifestations, such as loud and persistent music during the night, the use of car repair equipment on front lawns, the outrage of a rave adjacent to housing or people banging on walls either persistently or occasionally, becoming persistent over time. I had to deal with many such unpleasant incidents. What we found most difficult was finding the means, and then willing the means, to deal with such behaviour. Such people can make other people's lives absolute hell and misery.

That is why our approach to dealing with anti-social behaviour has had the enthusiastic support of tenants and, in particular, tenants who have been affected by such behaviour. Let there be no doubt that there is real

11 Sept 2003 : Column 496

resonance for these measures, particularly on housing estates. Anyone who has had any experience in local government knows that to be a fact. Indeed, when consultation was undertaken on these issues, about 70 per cent of those consulted favoured widening the measures.

All the amendments, in one form or another, seek to narrow the measure, but that is not acceptable. I think that we have this right so far as the public are concerned. It is not about pandering to populism but about striking the right balance and, yes, dealing with the difficulties of language. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, with her seductive image of the warm bath and music, actually betrayed her own position in a sense. She talked about a menu, but that menu itself contains inconsistencies, as she was gracious enough to acknowledge.

I should like to go through the various amendments and pick up the points in them.

Baroness Hamwee: I am sorry to interrupt the flow of the Minister's reply. However, I think that it is important that we acknowledge—if we have not already done so; I think we have—that we are entirely at one with him in much of what he says. Where we are not at one with him—I shall go straight to the impolite bit—is that legislation ought to say what the Government mean and what he has just very clearly spelt out. No Member of the Committee wants to see legislation brought into disrepute or to provide what is not meant or more than is meant. So we are with him in his comments, but not with him in the written words he is advocating.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: Before the noble Lord winds up, and bearing in mind that I have the privilege of the last word in this debate—which is unusual, when my wife is around at any rate—I should like to make just one point now. In his description, the noble Lord himself used the word "offence" and also the words "over time". So the difference between us is one of margin.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: We shall see. I intend to go through the detail of the amendments. I think it only fair to deal with them in turn.

Amendments Nos. 30 to 36 seek to add to the criteria which behaviour must meet before that behaviour can be prohibited by means of an anti-social behaviour injunction and would make it harder to obtain injunctions and—this is important; it is the challenge I issue to noble Lords opposing the Government's approach here—reduce the protection available to those suffering anti-social behaviour.

Amendment No. 30, in particular, requires conduct to be both persistent and unreasonable before an injunction can be granted. A requirement that behaviour be persistent would rule out the use of injunctions where a single serious incident had occurred. It would be quite wrong to tell victims of such incidents that they could be given no protection until the behaviour became persistent.

11 Sept 2003 : Column 497

Amendments Nos. 31 and 34 revert back to the wording in the 1996 Act requiring the behaviour founding the injunction to have already caused nuisance or annoyance or be likely to do so. Amendments Nos. 32, 36 and 46 go further and require the conduct to be likely to cause significant nuisance and annoyance. Amendment No. 33A requires conduct to be a nuisance or a serious or repeated annoyance.

Amendments Nos. 33 and 35 narrow the circumstances in which a social landlord can obtain an injunction to occasions where the behaviour is deliberately intended to cause nuisance or annoyance. Inquiring into the "state of mind" or motive of the perpetrator is particularly unhelpful. For example, if someone is playing music until 4 a.m. and disturbing his neighbour, the neighbour does not care why he is doing so—the neighbour just wants him to stop. These amendments suggest that landlords should be required to provide evidence akin to that required to establish intent in criminal proceedings when seeking to obtain a civil injunction. I cannot believe that noble Lords want to create such a requirement.

New Section 153A deliberately widens the definition of anti-social conduct to include behaviour which is "capable" of causing nuisance and annoyance. That will enable social landlords to be more proactive in their management of anti-social behaviour and will avoid legal arguments about the exact severity or likelihood of anti-social behaviour causing nuisance and annoyance.

If a landlord presents evidence of anti-social behaviour to the court, it is for the court to determine whether the behaviour could cause nuisance or annoyance to a reasonable—not necessarily an ultra-sensitive—person and whether an injunction is both proportionate and necessary. An injunction is simply an order of the court asking someone to stop doing something. It is not a punishment in itself. The court simply needs to determine that the injunction is both necessary and proportionate.

Landlords should act promptly to stop anti-social behaviour escalating. An early application for an injunction—I think that this takes up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton—is essential and should nip such behaviour in the bud. An injunction will prohibit low-level anti-social behaviour that could lead to more serious problems later. Judicial discretion is the ultimate safeguard against the inappropriate use of injunctions. That is an important point and I am sure that noble Lords will wish to reflect on it.

I understand the concerns highlighted by Amendment No. 33A—that "annoyance" is too low a level of anti-social behaviour. In practice, however, injunctions have often been granted on the basis of an annoyance.

Lord Elton: The noble Lord has said that, in practice, annoyance has been caused and injunctions have been granted. If the power already exists, why do we have to put it in the Bill now?

11 Sept 2003 : Column 498

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall come to that point. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, challenged me on that issue. I intend to deal with it. Courts have held that in this context "nuisance" or "annoyance" should be interpreted widely. The behaviour must be such as to annoy an ordinary person, who, as I said, is not necessarily an ultra-sensitive one. Case law suggests that it can be difficult to distinguish between the words, but if both are used, annoyance is assumed to mean something less than nuisance and to have a wider meaning than nuisance. Annoyance has been described as something that reasonably troubles the mind and pleasure, not of a fanciful person, but of the ordinary, sensible person, although it may not appear to amount to a physical detriment to comfort. That is a very important point.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in particular, asked for examples of annoyance in legislation. Perhaps I may refer the noble Lord to existing injunctions issued under the Housing Act 1996. Annoyance is used in terms of grounds for possession for secure and assured tenancies. It is quoted in Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1985 (Ground 2) and it is also part of the Housing Act 1988 (Ground 14). The courts are familiar with it and it has been subject to interpretation. We believe it to be an appropriate way of dealing with this problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made a helpful suggestion. He always tries to be of assistance in these matters. Before Members of the Committee get fixated on dissecting the language used, which I think will prove to be popular, they need to think about the inconsistencies of language in their amendments and to reflect on the nuisance and annoyance with which we are trying to deal in this legislation. I think that the balance is right. I hope that noble Lords will withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Hamwee: Before the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, responds, I hope that I have assured the Minister and Members of the Committee that there is no need to encourage us to reflect on the seriousness of what we are dealing with. We understand that.

As I understand it, he bases much of his argument on the interpretation of annoyance, which the courts have previously applied under other legislation. Could he write to us giving the detail? All three of us have a technical and political interest in understanding that. We are open to persuasion. If what we are seeking is already the case—because of the way in which the courts have applied the term and that it would be read over without a problem—we are dealing with something rather different. I am afraid that because we are all technicians we need to see the detail.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page