Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Alun Michael: I am aware of the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on this subject, and I acknowledge that a range of options are now available for people who want to try to prevent car crime—both the theft of vehicles and breaking into vehicles. Indeed, one could point out that that range of options has made a significant contribution to the reduction of car crime.

In addition to achieving excellent public relations for his private Member's Bill, the hon. Gentleman recalled that I commented on car alarms on Second Reading. In fairness, he went on to remind the House that I also pointed out that legislation exists to address the problem. I reinforce that point now. Car alarms can be silenced under the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, which amends the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to include

21 Feb 2005 : Column 88

It allows local authorities to enter or open a vehicle, if necessary by force, to silence an alarm and to remove the vehicle from the street to a secure place. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that point, but suggested that the legislation was not working. However, I suggest that we should not consider whether that legislation is working, but the extent to which a real problem exists. He will know that consultation on the elements that form the Bill arose from considerable discussion with local authorities, and that the provisions are based on problems with which local authorities must deal after the public have brought them to their attention.

It is worth pointing out that under the Police Reform Act 2002, the police can seize any vehicle that causes annoyance or nuisance. It must also be borne in mind that there might be occasions when a car alarm needs to sound for longer than 90 seconds— for example, if it detects continued interference. Additionally, establishing requirements for the duration of alarms and assessing that during MOT tests could generate a lot of alarm noise around MOT stations, which might not be all that popular.

The hon. Gentleman told us about the experience in New York, so he might be interested in some of the findings from this country, as they come from rather closer to home—the area in which he wishes to legislate. In 1999–2000, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs national noise attitude survey questioned 2,849 people—I am not sure where the 2,850th person, to allow the figures to be rounded up, was. One question was:

The UK results were 39 per cent. "not at all", 13 per cent. "a little", 5 per cent. "moderately", 2 per cent. "very", 2 per cent. "extremely" and 40 per cent. "don't hear".

If we rank specific traffic noise sources in terms of the proportion of respondents bothered, annoyed or disturbed, we get an interesting hierarchy of complaints. At the top, at 34 per cent., are vehicles accelerating or going too fast; private cars and taxis are at 27 per cent.; heavy lorries are at 24 per cent.; motor bikes and scooters are at 24 per cent.; music from vehicles is at 23 per cent.; and problems associated with residential estate roads and country lanes are at 22 per cent. Car alarms are only seventh in the hierarchy, at 21 per cent.

We are not aware of specific statistics on complaints to local authorities about noise from car alarms, because they do not show up on current record keeping and reporting statistics. However, the complaint does not seem to get the attention from local authorities that the hon. Gentleman gives to it.

Norman Baker: I challenge the Minister's logic. The fact that six things are higher on the list does not mean that the seventh, about which 21 per cent. have complained, should not be dealt with. It is a curious logic to say that we should deal only with the top one or two on a list. There is an issue to address. Many people are irritated by car alarms, and the Minister should be less complacent.
21 Feb 2005 : Column 89

Alun Michael: I am not being complacent. I am saying that measures are in place to allow local authorities and the police to tackle the issue when it is a real problem. I tried to give a sense of proportion to the extent to which it is a nuisance. Clearly, it is a nuisance in some circumstances, and provisions are available to use in those cases.

The new clauses are not appropriate because their provisions could be achieved by changing relevant regulations made under the Road Traffic Act 1988. More importantly—this would be a serious concern for the House—they would involve the use of primary legislation to amend secondary legislation made under a different Act. That would result in amendments that could be amended or revoked only by primary legislation, while the rest of the regulations would still be amendable or revocable by secondary legislation. That would produce an unworkable hybrid.

I acknowledge the enthusiasm with which the hon. Gentleman tries to address the problem in his private Member's Bill and in the new clauses, and the way in which he has pursued the problem. My point is that if more action needs to be taken—although that does not come through strongly in the consultations that we have undertaken or in the views of the Local Government Association—the means are to hand. The hon. Gentleman will clearly pursue the matter further in his private Member's Bill and will receive a response to that when it is debated in due course, but the provisions are already in place. If a local authority has a problem, it can tackle it.

The primary problem is that the new clauses are not appropriate. They would require primary legislation to amend secondary legislation under a different Act, and that makes them totally unworkable as a proposition. The hon. Gentleman has succeeded, as he has a talent for doing, in airing the issue, but I hope that he accepts my problem with the technicalities, if not the principles, behind the new clauses. He raises his concerns quite genuinely, but I urge him to withdraw the motion.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Minister for considering the issues. I am always happy to accept that anything tabled by people who are not on the Government Benches may be imperfect, because we do not have the advantage of a parliamentary draftsman. He knows that the reason for tabling amendments and new clauses is to raise issues. We do not necessarily expect them to be adopted by the Government—although I always remain hopeful that that will be the case.

The Minister addressed one issue—the problem of noise nuisance, which is, after all, the primary purpose of this part of the Bill. I do not accept that the nuisance is as limited as he suggests. I have had correspondence from people up and down the country saying, "Thank God someone's raising the problem." Those of us who have followed the issue have had some indication that there is popular support for further measures to tackle car alarms. It may well be the case that for many people that has never been an issue, but for some it is a big
21 Feb 2005 : Column 90
nuisance and affects their quality of life dramatically. It is incumbent on us to find a way to help them, and I am sorry that the Minister did not come up with an alternative.

7.45 pm

The Minister says that relevant provisions exist in legislation enacted in the past 10 to 15 years. I do not agree that they are effective. I do not agree that the police are interested. They are stretched—overstretched, one might say—and their general response when an environmental health issue arises is to refer people to the local council. I spoke to Sussex police about car alarms. Their standard response when they are telephoned is to assume that it is a false alarm and refer people to the council unless there is immediate evidence that someone is breaking into a car. If someone rings up and says, "I can hear a car alarm," Sussex police say, "Ring the council." The police assume that no crime is being committed. The nuisance issue is not as minimal as the Minister suggests.

The provisions are not effective because they rely on councils taking action. They invariably take a long time before they do so, because if they responded immediately every time they were called out to a car alarm, they would do little else. I am not convinced that current legislation is effective in dealing with the nuisance.

The Minister did not refer to my point that car alarms, as used, are largely ineffective in preventing—

Alun Michael: I did.

Norman Baker: I beg to differ. It passed me by. I do not mean to be discourteous, but the Minister concentrated on the nuisance rather than the crime aspect.

Next Section IndexHome Page