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6.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on securing this Adjournment debate on illegal raves. It is an extremely important matter, and he made his points in his usual dignified, concise and intelligent way. His constituents will know that he has raised this issue with me on a number of occasions, and he is standing up for them by raising what is an important issue not only for the people of Norfolk but for those in other parts of the country. The debate relates specifically to his constituency, but it will have a broader impact as well. I congratulate him on his work on trying to secure a benefit for his constituents that could affect other citizens of this country. I hope that I shall answer all his questions in the course of my speech, but if I appear to be reaching the end without having done so, he may wish to intervene.

I am aware of rave events occurring in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency this year, and I share his anxiety that they should not become an opportunity or an excuse for disorder, antisocial activity, criminality or behaviour that intimidates and alienates members of local communities. Nor should those events facilitate illicit drug cultures, with which they have also been associated. I also realise that the effects of raves are not limited to the duration of the event itself. These gatherings can cause traffic congestion to small and wholly unsuited roads, and also lead to the depositing of huge quantities of rubbish, ruining local residents’ surroundings.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office is committed to tackling criminality and antisocial behaviour, whatever form it takes. I welcome this opportunity to discuss raves, to outline the relevant legislation, and to update Members on the concerted efforts being made by the police to tackle the problem. We regard it as an extremely important matter that deserves our full attention.

I shall begin with the relevant legislation. The police are equipped with a number of powers specifically to
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deal with raves in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Following close liaison with the police on the changing nature of raves, that legislation was further updated in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. The police have powers to direct 20 or more rave-goers to leave an event. They also have pre-emptive powers to direct two or more persons preparing for a rave to leave land. It is a criminal offence to ignore those directions. The police also have powers to seize vehicles or sound equipment, and to direct people away from a gathering that has already been prohibited.

The hon. Gentleman and his constituents should also be aware that those successfully convicted may receive three month’s imprisonment or a fine. We always keep those matters under review, and I take his point about the need for sentencing to send out a message of deterrence to people who choose to ignore the law. Regarding enforcement, in the years from 2001 to 2005, 15 persons were prosecuted for failing to leave land when directed. Five of them were convicted. Also, three persons were prosecuted for failing to comply with a direction not to proceed in the direction of a rave, and one person was convicted. I repeat that we want the police to deal robustly with those events and, indeed, that we want the courts to support the police in their work.

It is not just legislation specific to raves that can be used by the police. I mentioned at the outset that unlawful raves have been associated with low-level public disorder, unacceptable nuisance and the possession of unlawful drugs. Members will know that a whole raft of legislation is in place and available to the police to deal with those offences—for example, sections 1 to 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and even antisocial behaviour orders. Clearly, a range of other legislation in respect of public order offences, drugs misuse and so forth is available to the police for dealing with illegal raves.

Authorities in Norfolk served a temporary antisocial behaviour order on a 62-year-old man accused of masterminding a series of illegal raves in the county. The ASBO prevents him from organising or participating in any further events in the area. As the hon. Gentleman will know, should he breach that ASBO, it would amount to a criminal offence in itself. In Thames Valley, the police have also put resources into tackling illegal raves through ASBOs, resulting in orders being placed on a couple of rave organisers, with more cases pending. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that those actions have been successful in preventing raves in the Thames Valley area.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of mess or rubbish left behind at rave sites. As he will know, a series of Acts of Parliament can be used to tackle the problem. For example, leaving litter is an offence under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and provisions in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 give authorities the power to deal with fly-tipping and littering of the sort that he mentioned. More recently, the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 provides considerably increased powers and levels of punishment in respect of those offences.

Mr. Fraser: May I make one observation? I accept and understand the laws that the Minister refers to, but they may well be more effective in an urban environment where it is easier to maintain surveillance on people. In
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very rural areas, where the fields are usually without light, it is much more difficult to catch people in the act of committing such offences.

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which I accept, and some of my later remarks may help to address it.

The use of legislation in an operational context is entirely a matter for the strategic direction that a chief officer provides for his or her force. Whether it be in an urban or rural area, this is an extremely important issue, which this debate helps to reinforce. Tactics on how individual raves should be policed are at the discretion of the officers deployed at the scene of an event and involve difficult judgments on minimising disturbance to local communities and residents, preventing any escalation in public disorder and ensuring the safety of police officers and rave-goers.

Although the detail of operational decisions is not necessarily a matter for ministerial interference, Ministers are keen—and I am certainly keen—to see best practice in policing raves disseminated across the police service, including in Norfolk. In that regard, a workshop on policing raves was hosted in June by the recently established National Policing Improvement Agency, which was attended by 100-plus police officers from around the country, including officers from Norfolk. I understand that police tactics, the sharing of intelligence, partnership working, national guidance and current legislation—issues also raised by the hon. Gentleman this evening—were all discussed, and that the feedback from the workshop will be collated and used both to promote short-term steps that forces can take further to improve their response to raves, and to inform longer-term strategic work, including whether any changes to legislation are required.

That should be of help to the hon. Gentleman, because, clearly, such a workshop will consider issues such as the policing of raves in remote rural areas, and the sharing of good practice between police forces, especially when one force has found a particular way of operating to be effective. I take his point that there is a big difference between policing a rave in a remote part of Norfolk and policing a rave in a field on the edge of London, for example.

The sub-group on raves, which was set up by the Association of Chief Police Officers working group on public order, provides an appropriate forum to take work forward, and further underlines police commitment to work nationally to improve policing of illegal raves. ACPO has recognised that the problem is growing, and
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the sub-group is building on work done in an earlier forum. I shall ask my officials to read the record of the debate, and to send the relevant points made by the hon. Gentleman to that working group for consideration. That might benefit him and perhaps other Members across the country who have had such problems. He asked, if I remember rightly, whether it would be possible for attendance at a rave, or organising a rave, to be made a criminal office. The group will be able to consider whether that is appropriate, whether other legislation covers that, or whether something could be done.

On the importance of partnership working, the hon. Gentleman might also like to know that the Local Government Association announced last month a five-point plan for councils to combat illegal raves. That included work with police and other agencies, intelligence gathering, which is crucial, and asking landowners to be vigilant. He might want to ask his local authority whether it is aware of that, and what steps if any it is taking in that respect.

Clearly, the hon. Gentleman called the debate because of concerns in his constituency of South-West Norfolk. I therefore want to conclude by providing him with some reassurance that Norfolk police are taking the matter seriously. They have an analyst working part-time monitoring rave websites, and the force holds a database of music rigs that are being used to organise raves in the Norfolk area. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, help to gather intelligence is critical if we are to move forward in this area. We are therefore required to look at rave websites, magazines and other types of media in which information about where an illegal rave might take place is shared. I congratulate Norfolk police on their use of an analyst, as that can help us to deal with the problem. Officers from Norfolk, Essex and Suffolk, together with other agencies, gathered information during this year’s Easter and May bank holidays to prevent illegal raves from taking place.

I hope that those remarks give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance, particularly my suggestion that the points that he has made should be referred to the ACPO sub-group, and that it should be asked to look at the legislation again, consider whether improvements can be made, share good practice and do something to prevent the appalling things that his constituents have had to suffer at the hands of people whose only goal is to make a good deal of money. Such a situation is not acceptable, and we need to work together to try to do even more about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o’clock.

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