Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Alun Michael: I assure the hon. Lady that my officials are fully aware of that chapter and probably sleep with copies of it under their pillows at night, such is the seamless nature of government.

I am quite clear that there is no conflict between the Bill and the 1993 Act. As I said in relation to the previous clause about a gap being filled, local authorities always have to choose the most suitable instrument for dealing with a particular set of circumstances. It is sensible that they should be able to make a graded and appropriate response. In some circumstances, powers that allow them to close down premises may be just what is needed and may be greeted with applause from neighbouring residents; in other circumstances, the powers that are provided are much more proportionate. It is sensible for local authorities not to be put in a position where they must use a large stick, when a small stick would do.

I assure the hon. Lady that the question of overlap was discussed between the officials of different Departments, and that we do not see a problem in that regard.

Miss McIntosh: That is all very nice, but those discussions are, by definition and by their very nature, private. I imagine that the guidelines for the 1993 Act
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were set out by regulation, and that similar guidelines will be published to give effect to schedule 1, and the whole of this part of the Bill.

Alun Michael: May I explain to the hon. Lady, in case she is not aware of it, that when regulations are devised, there is a good deal of discussion between policy officials, lawyers and, where appropriate, Ministers? Regulations are drafted by parliamentary counsel. A great deal is done to ensure that there is no conflict between the regulations that relate to different pieces of legislation. Those discussions take place within and between Departments; they do not take place simply in the silos of one Department.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister seems to be being particularly obtuse, and perhaps missing the point. We have been contacted by at least one organisation—the British Beer and Pub Association, in which I suppose I should declare an interest, because I go into pubs and occasionally drink beer. I should not like to say that I had no connection whatever with beer or pubs.

It is of particular concern to all the interest bodies, who have not just discussed their representations with the official Opposition, to know that they will be included at the level of drafting the regulations and setting out the guidelines. It is right and proper that individual Members of Parliament represent those interest groups, especially as we know that the deregulation of the licensing laws will affect pubs and clubs. In the market town of Thirsk, in my constituency, there is a noise problem because the pizza parlours stay open until quite late. At present, nothing can be done until the licence runs out. The only remedy is to object when the licence is up for renewal and tell the local authority that the conditions of the licence are not being respected.

As a non-practising Scottish advocate I welcome the fact that lawyers are involved. It is always wise for Departments to involve lawyers and parliamentary counsel.

Alun Michael: There is always extensive consultation on regulations. There is an opportunity for interest bodies to comment, and individual Members of Parliament—whether or not they are connected with the beer industry—can make their points. There is also the formality of consideration through the statutory instrument procedure. I do not understand the hon. Lady's point. She told us the name of the organisation that prompted her remarks, but she has not taken us much further.

Miss McIntosh: I do not wish to be exhaustive, as you might call me sharply to order, Mr. Forth. We had substantial responses on the matter before the Bill was published, and the summary of responses to the Department's consultation shows that there is deep unease about the extent to which the noise abatement
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proposals will be applied. It could be extremely controversial and lead to long delays in addressing complaints. Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 refers to a temporary event notice. There are instances where if there is a delay because of consultation or noise abatement procedure, it may well be that such a temporary event could not take place because of the period of time involved. There is a lot of meat in the schedule that the Minister is leaving to the Secretaries of State in the two Departments.

Paragraph 11 on page 83 gives the amount of the fixed penalty as £500 in the case of an offence under section 4A—an offence where noise from other premises exceeds the permitted level after service of notice. There are thus three different amounts. It would be helpful to know how the figure of £500 was reached. The Minister said that schedule 1 was entirely proportionate; I would argue that it could be entirely disproportionate in respect of applications for temporary events.

Clause 84 and schedule 1 extend the Noise Act 1996 from private premises to licensed premises and, with the other licensing deregulation provisions in the Licensing Act 2003, the Government are making substantial changes. We are leaving an awful lot to the Secretaries of State of both Departments. That is causing severe concern to a number of outside bodies; I have mentioned only one such body, but I assure the Minister and the Committee that there are substantially more.

Alun Michael: The hon. Lady refers to responses to consultation, thus making my point that there has been extensive consultation, so I am not sure how that can be a point of difference between us. The responses to the consultation were, of course, taken into account in drafting both the clauses and the schedule.

The hon. Lady asked how the level of £500 was reached, and commented that three levels of fine appear in the Bill. I should think that the answer to that point is blindingly obvious: we are dealing with three different offences, and the level of penalty that is appropriate and that will work is different in each case. The level of £500 was set in the way in which I have described: it is thought to be low enough to be paid with the minimum of bureaucracy while having some impact on the offenders who cause the nuisance in local areas, and not so high as to make it likely that offenders will fail to pay thus meaning that prosecution, and all the bureaucracy that comes with it, will have to follow. None of that should surprise the hon. Lady.

The hon. Lady's comment about temporary event notices in subsection (6)(b), to be inserted into the Noise Act 1996 by paragraph 4(5) of the schedule, surprised me because it would be rather odd if we had not made allowances for temporary events. Clearly, the main target of the measure is those premises where there are continuing problems, but situations also arise as a result of short-term events, and they need to be allowed for in the Bill.

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I am surprised at the hon. Lady's comments. Usually, when people express concerns about a new penalty, the extension of a penalty or the use of fixed penalties, they want to ensure that the change will not result in something that can be used disproportionately, without thought, or inappropriately. We received many representations along those lines, and those views have to be taken into consideration to get things right. I hope that the Committee agrees that, in the schedule, we have given the detail that goes with the amendments allowed for in the clauses in a way that is sensible and proportionate.

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful for the Minister's comments. He will know of a proposal, which I think is very good, that was in the list of responses to his consultation paper. It proposed that community service orders might, in certain conditions, be an appropriate penalty in lieu of fixed penalty notices under the Noise Act. Will he consider that in the guidelines?

Alun Michael: It would not be appropriate to consider them in the guidelines or regulations because there is no need for detailed regulation; what you see is what you get. The schedule is full and deals with everything except the permitted noise levels, on which work continues. We are consulting the organisations that have concerns on both sides of the equation: those that will be affected by the levels of noise, and those that manage premises and therefore have to consider what is reasonable and practical.

To consider a whole raft of alternative forms of punishment certainly goes wide of what we could do in considering the schedule. When it is the responsibility of the individual in charge of premises at the time, I cannot see that a community service order would be the appropriate order for those circumstances.

3.15 pm

Miss McIntosh: That is helpful as far as it goes. Concerns have also been raised about noisy vehicles, music from moving vehicles, fireworks and barking dogs, and there is particular concern about bonfire night. Could bonfire night, for example, fall under a temporary notice applied for under the terms of clause 84 and schedule 1?

Alun Michael: I cannot see how it could. The hon. Lady really has lost me on this occasion.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is losing me, too. Unless she is able to persuade me very quickly that bonfires have suddenly made an appearance in the Bill, I suggest that we move on.
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Miss McIntosh: Bonfires might not appear in the Bill at the moment, but we might look at that at a later stage. As regards the Minister's argument that schedule 1 and clause 84 are proportionate, we beg to differ.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 85 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 86

Deferral of duty to serve abatement notice

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: I seek clarification on new subsection (2C). The general thrust of the clause is to enable local authorities to defer serving an abatement notice for seven days after it has concluded that a noise constitutes a statutory nuisance. The Government believe that that short deferral will help local authorities resolve disputed cases without imposing significant delays. Will the Minister elucidate how, under new subsection (2C), the authority must demonstrate that it is satisfied

    ''before the end of the relevant period that the steps taken will not be successful''

    ''that the nuisance continues to exist''?

What would the test be?

New subsection (2D) states:

    ''The relevant period is the period of seven days starting with the day on which the authority was first satisfied that the nuisance existed''.

That seems reasonable enough, but how would that apply to a temporary, one-off application, which might be time-barred and made at reasonably short notice?

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