Illegal Raves (South-West Norfolk)

– in the House of Commons at 5:41 pm on 19 July 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk 6:00, 19 July 2007

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise concern about unlicensed music events known as raves, which are causing huge distress, damage and expense in my constituency. Throughout the summer months they have become a regular feature, and in the past few weeks, residents in Marham, Narborough and Cockley Cley have suffered. Unlicensed music events are hugely profitable to the organisers, and they have nothing to do with the altruistic values of young people. They are a product of a get-rich quick formula that tramples on the rural economy. Costs are minimised, no tax is paid, and there is no regard for anyone or anything but the profit made.

There are plenty of first-class licensed music venues in Norfolk, where events can be held legitimately and safely. I spent a memorable evening last summer with my family at a concert in Thetford forest. The event was extremely well managed by the Forestry Commission; excellent arrangements for public safety, public facilities, car parking, sound and lighting showed just how such events can be staged legitimately. Why should local people put up with unlicensed events on their land if all they amount to is a money-raising exercise for the organisers? Lawbreakers are getting rich at the expense of others, which in itself is criminal, in my opinion.

Constituents tell me that they were terrified by the experience of having up to 1,000 people on their property or near their home, and said how disgusted they were by the litter, human waste and excrement and drug paraphernalia, including needles, left behind after a rave. The Government have a duty to protect the law-abiding majority from the antisocial behaviour of others, and while I am conscious of the rules relating to Adjournment debates, I would like to devote a large proportion of this evening's debate to the shortcomings of the current legislation, and ask the Minister to consider the situation. I do not seek draconian powers that would affect private parties. I know that recent changes have made it easier to disrupt illegal raves, but the reality is that current regulations are not effective deterrents and do not achieve what I believe the objectives of the police should be.

Legislation is geared towards the termination of a rave. Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows the police to instruct rave-goers to leave an event. However, unless substantial numbers of police officers are quickly mustered, without notice, in rural areas at night, it is extremely difficult and potentially dangerous to try to end a party already in full swing. One journalist in the national press described the effects of an attempt by police to break up an illegal rave last year:

"Two hundred riot police from five counties dispersed the 1,000 party goers. During the clashes a police car was set on fire and nine officers were wounded, with injuries to police including a suspected broken collarbone and a severed finger. At least two revellers were also injured. Thirty people were arrested and released on bail."

Given this risk, police have to judge whether intervention is realistic. In many cases, they can do little more than monitor the event, and the organisers of the raves rely on that fact. They know that they will get away with it; that is why it is such good business for them. It appears that the organisers of the Marham event arranged for motorcyclists to help move their mobile equipment en route to the event. They also had heavies present, wearing hoods and balaclavas. The police attended but soon withdrew when it became clear that they could only monitor what was going on.

It often seems to the public that the police are not doing all they can to prevent a rave, but the site of the party is often revealed only a few hours or minutes beforehand, specifically so that the police have no time to act. That means that the law relating to the prohibition of "trespass assemblies", which requires an application to the district council for a prohibition order, cannot be applied. The police have the power to direct people away from a rave in a 5 mile radius of the site, but in the maze of country lanes that criss-cross Norfolk, that would demand huge numbers of police and is not workable.

In practice, the principal offence is:

"Failing to leave the site of a rave as soon as reasonable, once directed to do so."

Again, Norfolk constabulary simply does not have the resources to round up and arrest hundreds of young people who have no intention of leaving. Does the Minister agree that it would be helpful to make attendance at a rave an offence? What about an offence of organising, or being involved in organising, an event?

I am also concerned that the law focuses on single events. It does not pave the way to prosecuting persistent organisers or serial rave-goers. Power to confiscate equipment relates only to the failure to leave today's event, and is not retrospective. Norfolk constabulary told me:

"Because the legislation is aimed at stopping an event, interrogating and possibly arresting people leaving a site at the end of a rave is not within the spirit of the law."

Does the Minister agree that the ability to gather vital intelligence about regular rave-goers, the identity of the organisers or plans for future raves would be hugely helpful to the policing process? Would not it give the police a fighting chance of making progress?

What about the impact of such events on local people? Current legislation suggests that the only disruption caused by a rave comes from music which,

"by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality."

Although I do not underestimate the disturbance that continuous loud music causes, the illegal gatherings have other, equally distressing effects on local communities.

The presence of hundreds of people and vehicles in rural areas can cause terrible damage to farmers' fields, livestock and crops. We must not forget that when those are damaged, that has an impact on the livelihood of farmers going about their legitimate businesses. A farmer in my constituency recently wrote to me, saying:

"to protect my pigs from party-goers, I had to be present on my field from 3.30 in the morning until 8 o'clock the following night. On one occasion when I left for 5 minutes, I returned to find 4 men chasing them around their pens."

Is it any wonder that he was devastated to discover that the law appears to be on the side of the party-goers rather than on his side?

I have been advised that section 63 powers cannot be enforced in remote rural locations where there are only a few local residents. The law requires

"serious distress to be caused to the inhabitants of the locality."

That seems unfair—one law for urban areas and another for the countryside. It also suggests that a rave in the countryside is acceptable because only a few people suffer. Like my constituents, I take exception to that principle.

As the excellent Norfolk Farmwatch organisation told me, a small number of residents in a remote location can feel even more vulnerable than those in a village or town. I know of one elderly couple in my constituency who barricaded themselves into their isolated home for more than 12 hours while 1,000 revellers passed within feet of their front door. Two weeks later that couple were still trying to clear up the debris left in their barn. In a civilised society, how can the law ignore such people?

The existing criteria also fail to take account of the significant distress or damage caused to wildlife and plant life. Under section 28P(6) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is an offence to "intentionally or recklessly" destroy or damage any of the features of a site of special scientific interest, but only if the person knows that they are within an SSSI. Most rave-goers will be entirely ignorant of the existence of an SSSI and will therefore not be liable for any damage that they cause, no matter how serious. Why should ignorance be a factor? Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales both have powers to make byelaws under section 28R of the 1981 Act for

"the protection of a site of special scientific interest."

As far as I can determine, the power is rarely if ever used to control the harm caused by ravers. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

It is true that a number of rave organisers have been successfully prosecuted, but there is concern about the leniency of their sentences, which give those making huge profits little incentive to give up their business. There is an urgent need to review maximum sentences and even to elevate such offences from the magistrates court to the Crown court. Those found guilty face three months' imprisonment or a fine of up to £2,500. A Crown court could impose sentences twice as severe. Such a move would reflect the seriousness with which the Government view such crimes. Should the fines imposed take into account the cost of clearing up the site? Yes, they should. Many local landowners have spent thousands of pounds clearing their land with no help from anyone—yet another illustration of the imbalance that the rural economy has to fight.

The final issue that I want to raise is licensing. Norfolk constabulary and our local councils have told me that the Licensing Act 2003 could unintentionally facilitate raves, because it is possible to submit a temporary event notice application. The police then have just 48 hours to object, but objections can be lodged on only crime and disorder grounds. There is a view that the prospect of excessive noise might not be sufficient for the council to refuse the application. The 48-hour limit could be a particular problem if the application is delivered to a rural, largely unmanned police station on a Friday afternoon. If a licence application is granted, the benefit to the police is that it would bear the name of the organiser, against whom charges could be brought for noise and other disturbance. That in itself is reason enough for rave organisers to continue to hold unlicensed illegal events.

In conclusion, the problem of raves continues, despite recent changes in legislation. Far from the perception that the police are not using existing powers, it seems that they are in part prevented from acting because of legislative constraints. We will dissuade people from holding and supporting illegal gatherings only if the Government show that they are serious in their intent and provide an effective deterrent. I have known the Minister as a fellow parliamentarian for some time, and he has been honourable and fair in all my dealings with him. I hope that he will give an assurance to local landowners and others in constituencies such as mine throughout the country that they have a right to protection against these illegal events.

T

Interesting hoe he mentions the organizers making large profits. Where did he get that information from as these events are called 'free-partys' because they are free. No profit is made. The sor of people who attend these do so because they cannot afford the over-priced bars and clubs now associated in Tons and Citys so charging them and issueing fines is going to get nowhere, but just make matters worse. These events hav never been nor will ever be about profit. Just like-minded people from different backgrounds wanting to have a god time. Never thought that was illegal?

Submitted by Terry Gilliam

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 6:14, 19 July 2007

I congratulate 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 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.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

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 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.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

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 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.