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Noise Pollution

6.28 pm

Lord Beaumont of Whitley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to abate noise pollution caused by piped music.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, looking at the speakers' list, I am aware that I am probably the only volunteer to take part in this debate. Others, I suspect, have been drafted in. The subject is of considerable importance, however, even though it has not been aired seriously in your Lordships' House previously. I therefore hope that your Lordships will allow me to slightly overrun my allotted time for speaking, although I promise not to exceed the time limit for the whole Unstarred Question. There is a lot to be said on the subject, although I assure noble Lords that I have cut my speech to the bone.

Politicians from all main parties have declared that consumer choice—the rights of the consumer or citizen—is paramount and should now be extended to areas such as public education and health. People should in theory be able to choose in which hospital to have an operation or to which school to send their children in much the same way as they now choose a
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restaurant, shop or hotel. Such freedom of choice was unthinkable 40 years ago. Equally unthinkable 40 years ago was the now increasingly accepted freedom from cigarette smoke in public places.

One freedom, however, has become far less common during the same period: the freedom to shop, eat, travel and even work without having to endure non-stop, inescapable music. Unwanted music becomes noise and noise is a fast-growing, but still under-recognised, pollutant. When music is welcomed, it is far from being a pollutant. For many people, it is one of life's greatest pleasures. What can turn it into a pollutant—a real pain in the ear—is a lack of choice. Music freely chosen or accepted is one thing; enforced and inescapable music is quite another.

Consumers can vote with their feet and pockets and go to other pubs, shops or restaurants, so persuading retailers to change or end their tune. Many successful businesses such as Tesco flourish without piped music. However, such freedom of choice does not extend to public places such as hospitals, doctors' surgeries, public swimming pools and libraries, buses and trains, rail and bus stations and airports. There, the situation is radically different. These are places which people have to use and to which there is no practical alternative.

This lack of choice is most acutely felt in three significant areas. The first is the health service. Many hospitals, including outpatient departments and some blood donor clinics, are filled with the sound of music or television. People who are lying immobilised on a hospital bed or trolley, or waiting long hours as an out-patient, may literally be powerless to escape non-stop music, be it from a radio, a TV or some other music system. Such unwanted and inescapable noise can make their health problems worse.

There is more than anecdotal proof for this. A survey of 115 blood donors carried out by the University of Nottingham medical school in 1995 found that music made waiting donors, who were all volunteers but who were temporarily powerless, more anxious before donating, and more likely to be depressed after donating, than did silence. Individuals have given evidence on this matter. Sheila, a patient in the Western General hospital in Edinburgh, said:

For inpatients on hospital wards, the supply of headphones ought to be regarded as universal and mandatory, in the same way as smoking is prohibited in hospitals. Patients will then be able to enjoy their own choice of music or television without inflicting it on their neighbours. The best hospitals already operate such a policy. For outpatients, however, the supply of headphones is normally impractical, but their anxieties while waiting should not be aggravated by unwanted television or music.
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The second area is travel. Piped music and/or television are causing increasing concern on trains. Although all train-operating companies now have to supply a quiet carriage that is—theoretically—free of mobile phones and similarly intrusive noises, some companies have been experimenting with piped television. Although they claim to provide one quiet carriage per train, this can prove hard to locate. That is understandable when they operate mostly commuter trains where travellers surge on and off. The companies make their money from advertisements beamed at what—jammed in the train, possibly unable to sit down and certainly unable to move to a quiet area—ranks as a classic captive audience. If national transport policy is to encourage commuters to use trains rather than cars, this is surely a regressive step. One of the chief advantages of car travel is that you can choose what sort of music, if any, to listen to.

I turn to the workplace. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People, in a joint statement with the TUC in November 2004, highlighted the hearing problems of those 170,000-plus workers facing loud music in nightclubs and bars where damage can be clinically measurable. Proposals to lower the upper limit of noise permitted in such places to 80 from 85 decibels from next year should help those in the worst affected places.

The problem is far more widespread, if less obvious, for those working in places where the music is not normally loud enough to threaten hearing physically but where it can cause great psychological stress. The problem of course is at its most acute over Christmas, when "Jingle Bells" may be repeated in some department stores up to 300 times a day. That is a terrible infliction on the people who work there. People at workplaces filled with endless music that they cannot control may not care to protest for many reasons—including making themselves unpopular with management. Their silence, however, should not be taken as acquiescence.

To sum up, Pipedown, an admirable organisation to which I belong, and the UK Noise Association jointly call on all political parties and the relevant employers and trade unions to recognise that piped music often causes stress and psychological harm, even when not particularly loud. Legislation is needed to protect particularly the vulnerable groups, principally hospital patients, travellers and people working in environments filled with piped music, who are the victims of what has become a form of acoustic pollution.

I call on the Government to introduce legislation to, first, prohibit piped music or television noise in the public areas of hospitals, in the same way as smoking is prohibited in hospitals; secondly, to make wearing headphones mandatory for passengers on buses, coaches and trains who wish to listen to music, whether supplied by the travel company or by themselves; thirdly, to ban piped music and piped television in hospitals generally, in the same way as smoking is prohibited; fourthly, to make the wearing of headphones mandatory for inpatients listening to television or music in public wards; and, fifthly, to
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carry out a comprehensive study of the long-term ill effects of piped music on employees to discover what psychological or physiological impact it has on those who dislike it. I call on the Government to do those things and ask them what steps they propose to take. If they do not propose to take any steps, I shall probably try to introduce a Bill into your Lordships' House myself.

6.38 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, when it fell to me to comment on a Question about piped music, the first thing that happened was that several people said, "Ah, it's an anti-Scottish measure". Then some remarks were made about pan pipes. The term that I would have used is canned music.

At certain points, many of us will have been irritated by incessant background music that you do not choose. The big question is whether it does any real harm other than being a mild irritant. As the noble Lord said, we have to hear "Jingle Bells" 300 times at Christmas. I asked myself, "When do I like a certain degree of background music?" Occasionally, when you want to warm up for that season of festive spending and catching up with friends and relatives you do not see very often, inducing yourself to go and buy various things, the music builds up the atmosphere—or it becomes an irritant.

When does piped music become an irritant? When it is just loud enough to make you raise your voice or to drown out something that is being said. The question, I am afraid, that we must ask is: does this hurt anybody? Have the Government, for example, done any work on this? Is there any point at which background noise below the level at which hearing is damaged causes people not to function properly? An example would be a doctor's reception area when someone with laryngitis is desperately trying to make themselves heard over canned music. That is probably something that the Two Ronnies would have dealt with better than we ever will, but we must try to address it. Do the Government have any guidance or structure on when background music is or is not appropriate?

The question really posed by the noble Lord is: how should background music or noise be used? For instance, when a restaurant first opens, it puts on a little light music—I suppose the all-pervasive Mantovani might come into this—to get people in and so that it does not seem quite so empty for the first few diners. When it is not turned down, music forces the level of noise to creep up over the top, and then there is a problem. Often, if you ask someone in these situations to turn the music down, they will say yes. They do not really care either way, and, if they have heard the thing 500 times already, no one will be particularly listening.

Does the music perform any real function intrinsic to your experience? Maybe it is thought that hearing "Jingle Bells" several hundred times a day really is an intrinsic part of your Christmas shopping. As you
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stagger around shops with small children, fighting off the bored-looking person in the ill fitting elf costume, maybe it is important that you repeatedly hear children's versions of Christmas carols.

The only real reason for banning piped music or taking action against it is if it is damaging health or infringing on personal liberty. Have the Government any guidelines or thoughts about where that line should be drawn? Should it be removed when someone has to listen to it? I seem only to have one point here, but there is an idea that piped music causes further stress. We should be looking at it when it stops communication between two people, or makes it more difficult. However, if you are the consumer, you always have the advantage of being able to turn on your heel and get out.

What level of music is appropriate, and for how much time? Perhaps the Minister can give us some idea about what we should aspire to in the public service. Do the Government have any guidance for local authorities about shops or restaurants, taking into account the fact that in certain places that work on a quick turnover—for instance, a hamburger bar—maybe a bit of loud noise is desirable to get people to move on from their seats? Have the Government done any work on this?

6.42 pm

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