Clause 69 - Designation of alarm notification areas

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 27th January 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 9:45 am, 27th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 118, in clause 69, page 56, line 34, leave out from 'area' to end of line 35.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 119, in clause 70, page 57, line 12, leave out from 'area' to end of line 13.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Again, this is a probing amendment. We are really considering how the designation of alarm notification areas will work. The Bill requires local authorities to send written notification to the   address of every premises in their area. Our amendment would remove that requirement. Our concern is whether it is practicable to mail every address, especially in view of the in-fill building that is going on; if someone was not notified, they could have a reasonable objection to the alarm notification later on and say that they had not received a letter about it.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I appreciate that this is a probing amendment; we will provide clarification when we can. I can clarify the point that failure by the post to deliver notification to all addresses in the area would not invalidate an order designating an area, provided that a genuine attempt had been made to notify people. There is no question of a clerical error or a mistake on an address invalidating the order. I am happy to give the hon. Lady that assurance.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I thank the Minister for his assurance.

Constituents often tell their MPs that they were not told about a planning application because the information was not extended to a wide enough area. How does the Minister expect people to be notified? It may be burdensome to send the notification by post to every area, and there will be costs, unless the mailing is sent out with the council tax bills, for example.

The Minister has already responded to the other point that I wanted to make. The amendments provide an opportunity for him to expand on how the proposal would work.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution to the debate. I am happy to give her the explicit clarification that she seeks. The creation of an alarm notification area creates a legal obligation on anyone in that area with an audible intruder alarm to register with the local authority; it will be a criminal offence not to do so. In those circumstances, it is important that everyone likely to be affected is told of the plans to create an alarm notification area and of the decision to designate such an area. That is the reason for the provision that the amendment would delete.

As I said, failure in a mailing round, if that is the means adopted, by accident or exception, would not invalidate the order. Individual notification by mail is not the only way in which the information could be given. Individual notification at the outset of designation or undesignation would not necessarily have to be a dedicated mailing; notice could be included in council tax bills, as the hon. Member for Guildford suggested. I confirm that that would be acceptable within the provisions of the Bill. The notices could also be included with news letters or other mailings, provided that they were likely to be received in advance of the decision to designate or undesignate an area taking effect.

These are common-sense provisions that people should be aware of the requirement on them which it will be a criminal offence not to observe. If there was a prosecution, the court would take into account matters such as the fact that an individual had been unaware of the requirement. An individual omission could be dealt with in that way. It is surely sensible to ensure that as far as is practicable everyone in an area   knows that they have that obligation, not least so that they can observe it and the nuisance to the neighbourhood can be avoided.

I hope that, having heard my explanation, the hon. Lady will accept my assurance and ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the matter; it was the information we sought. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 8—Installation of intruder alarms in alarm notification areas—

'(1) A person who installs an intruder alarm on or in any premises in an alarm notification area, shall comply with any regulations made by the Secretary of State.

(2) Regulations for the purposes of subsection (1) above may in particular include—

(a) requirements for an automatic cut-off mechanism to terminate the sounding of the alarm after a specified period; and

(b) requirements for the suitably visible display on the alarm or the premises of a telephone number by which the local authority can be notified of a noise nuisance from the alarm.'.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 10:15 am, 27th January 2005

The new clause is intended to clarify matters. We already have some legislation in London relating to the issue. For example, it has been a requirement to register the name and address of a key holder with the local authority since 1991. In London, two key holders are required and there is a 20-minute cut-out system on alarms. Local authorities were made aware of that through the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993. However, little use has been made of the legislation.

We want to ensure that those who may be ignorant of the person whom they need to contact when an alarm is causing a nuisance, can ring up somebody and say, ''We have a problem here.'' If the number is displayed somewhere prominently, it is easier for people to get on with the job and decide who to call. It is not much fun at 3 o'clock in the morning to be wondering who to contact. We are concerned that if the number is not displayed, people may ring the emergency services and waste their time. If someone is being driven up the wall by an alarm, they want to know whom they should ring, rather than disturbing people who do not have a duty to do anything about it.

The new clause is intended as clarification. The cut-off mechanism, which we believe is in place in London, is included, and mention is made of a telephone number so that the local authority knows who is causing the problem and can deal with it.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss clause stand part, which will put part 7 in context. My understanding is that the   clause sets out what the local authority must do to designate an alarm notification area. In particular, subsection (5) provides that an authority

''must consider any representations about the proposal'' to make a designation, and subsection (8) provides that when the authority decides to make a designation it must send notice of that decision to all premises in the area. Under subsections (8) and (4), the Bill makes it clear that

''The specified date must be at least 28 days after the date on which the notice is published''.

Elsewhere in the Bill, there are provisions for the nomination of key holders. To what extent will the obligation be on the local authority to inform the designated key holder? Or will it be for the householder or the business on whose premises the alarm is fitted to comply with the clause?

We have received a number of representations on that issue—not least from Westminster city council. The council responded to previous Government consultations and in its view a fundamental review of noise legislation is required to address what it sees as glaring deficiencies. I wonder why the Government chose to go down this path, rather than holding the fundamental review that Westminster city council would have preferred. The council does not consider that the minor proposals in the Bill, and which are addressed in the current consultation, meet the scale of the problem.

The Government's ''Clean Neighbourhoods'' document concluded that excessive noise is still regarded as a major problem by members of the public. The Library document includes the number of complaints. The latest figures show that in 2002-03 environmental health officers who, I understand, are those responsible for noise matters, received 224,502 complaints about noise at domestic premises and 305,090 complaints about noise in total. Confirmed nuisances for 2002-03 on domestic premises were 25,791 and complaints on all premises were 35,484. It is a big problem.

Westminster city council already has a 24-hour lawyer service responding to over 16,000 reports of noise problems a year. Its representatives are concerned that existing legislation provides insufficient disincentives to prevent excessive noise and that proposed measures fall far short of what is needed.

The city of Westminster council has found that the Noise Act 1996 has not provided much assistance. It relies largely on the application of statutory nuisance powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to deal with noise problems and therefore it does not see much benefit in extending local authority powers under sections 8 and 9 of the Noise Act. Would the Minister comment on that point?

The council points out that the noise service operated by Westminster city council costs £927,000 a year. The service is well used, respected and appreciated by local people and it is all that they have to protect them when they are subject to unacceptable noise.

The local authority has to maintain that personal data and therefore it is responsible for amending or deleting it, depending on the designated status. Will the Minister share with us the implications of the Data Protection Act 1998? We are led to believe as regards our constituency case files that it is normal to keep information for a maximum of three years.

For what length of time does the Minister expect that such information will be kept, bearing it in mind that in areas such as Westminster there will be substantial changes of ownership during a three-year period? Is it the Department's intention to ask local authorities to have and hold that information for one or two years or for the maximum three-year period, which is my understanding under the Data Protection Act?

A potential discrepancy in the Bill also brought to our attention by the British Security Industry Association is that, while only audible intruder alarms in alarm notification areas need to register key holder information, audible intruder alarms outside the designated areas can still cause a nuisance. We come to that matter later under clause 77. The authorised officer will have no key holder to contact while retaining the same powers of penalty as in alarm notification areas. Was it the wish and the intention of the Minister's Department to have that discrepancy? Should both clauses 69 and 77 apply in the same regard?

Owners of monitored audible alarms that are eligible for police response already incur additional costs and face possible penalties under the Association of Chief Police Officers' security systems policy for false alarms, which also requires them to register key holder details with their alarm receiving centre. As a result, owners who are in a designated area will have to notify both their alarm receiving centre and the local authority of key holder details. Would the Minister be minded to exempt them from the Bill?

Whereas in the past British Security Industry Association companies could advise customers to notify the local authority about alarm installations and the police about key holder information, they will now have to establish, via the local authority or the customer, whether the customer is in a designated area. That is subject to change at relatively short notice—28 days under the clause.

The clause introduces another level of bureaucracy for alarm companies and their customers, who already contend with a great deal of non-statutory regulation from the police. Local authorities may see it as an   opportunity to raise funds by charging for the registration of key holder information. Will regulations be introduced setting out detailed provision for that? The Minister will understand that such a move would be strongly resisted by the security companies, because it could be seen as a stealth tax on individuals who are investing in the security of their homes. We all know that where there is an intruder alarm on domestic premises, the insurance premium is slightly lower. I am sure that the same applies to business premises.

A disparity could also arise between local authority charges.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Order. The hon. Lady is straying a little wide of the clause.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion and simply ask the Minister to address the points that we have raised, in particular the implications of data protection, and to recognise that successive Governments and insurance companies have encouraged householders and owners of business premises to install intruder alarms. I am sure that the Government want to encourage that.

I have a final question for the Minister. Has his Department had a chance to discuss the provisions with the Association of Chief Police Officers? If so, has the Bill been adjusted to take its concerns into account?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Bill does not deal with wider issues of noise. I say that because the hon. Lady referred to comments from Westminster city council, which suggested that we should be dealing with wider noise issues instead of the particular nuisance of intruder alarms. That does not seem to me to be a terribly sensible comment, because the council should be aware that we are producing a neighbourhood noise strategy, which we hope to consult on later this year and which will include a thorough review of existing noise legislation. It is far too complex an issue to deal with in the context of the Bill, so a separate, full review is necessary. We are dealing here with the specific problem of intruder alarms, which has been raised with us during our long consultation on ways of improving the environment in local communities.

I was also asked whether regulations would be issued. No regulations are needed, but we will issue guidance. Therefore, local authorities will use the provisions in the Bill flexibly and in a way appropriate to the local area. The guidance will help them to decide how to do that.

I acknowledge that Westminster—a concentrated area with many premises involved with entertainment and late night activity—has particular problems, many of which are best dealt with in the wider context of noise, as it is widely defined, rather than under the issue of intruder alarms.

The provisions, which will replace existing requirements and London-specific legislation, will give local authorities the opportunity to provide answers for specific local problems. One example that I want to   address is the requirement that there should be two key holders in an area, although alarm companies obviously place requirements on people through their contractual arrangements. It is one thing to have two key holders in an area of high-density population, but quite another to have the same requirement in a rural area—rural and semi-rural areas might be included in designated areas—in which there might be only two houses within reasonable proximity of each other. In those circumstances, such a requirement would be inappropriate.

I could not quite follow the hon. Lady's problems regarding flexibility. Of course, the requirements of data protection legislation apply, but we are talking about the provision of information in order to contact key holders to silence alarms and avoid difficulty to the public. Sometimes data protection is discussed as though it forbids reasonable activity or common-sense use of data. It does not: it requires that data be used in a proper manner within legislation that is designed to protect the individual. That is why we had to include a provision in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to make it clear that information can be held and exchanged between bodies for the reduction of crime and disorder. I suggest that the Committee should not have a long discussion about the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998, and should accept that there needs to be sensible observance of data protection legislation—that might be covered in the guidance.

I think that the hon. Lady has misunderstood the provisions of clause 77, but I will deal with that when we debate that clause.

In drafting these measures, we tried to achieve a balance between the interests of local authorities and the community at large, and those of individual householders. We covered one such issue when we debated the amendment about notification. It is because of that need for balance that I cannot accept new clause 8, which would impose new burdens on individual householders. The benefits it would bring to local authorities and the wider community would not outweigh the cost to individuals.

It is not necessary to require audible intruder alarms to have a cut-off device, as it is already standard for modern intruder alarms to be fitted with a 20-minute cut-off device, and it is likely that nearly all new alarms will comply. Industry standards change. We are currently considering the introduction of European standards for intruder alarms—the EN 50131 series, as implemented by the British Standards Institution—which will require a 15-minute cut-off. It is more appropriate to address cut-offs through the trade, rather than by penalising individuals. As I have said, other provisions, such as those in clause 77, provide safeguards where there are particular problems.

It is not necessary for householders to display their local authority telephone number, as that information should already be publicised and readily available. Such a requirement would impose an unnecessary burden on individuals. I am sure that the hon. Lady sought to ensure that common sense will be applied. I   have indicated that guidance to deal with practical issues will be provided, thus enabling local authorities to take appropriate steps to deal with this problem in their areas.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:30 am, 27th January 2005

I listened carefully to the Minister's comments, and I look forward to hearing his views on the later clause. There is a serious point about the Data Protection Act, and it would be helpful to know how long he expects information to be held on file.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is not relevant to this clause, but if the hon. Lady has specific concerns, I would be happy to drop her a line to outline the relationship with the Data Protection Act.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Order. I am grateful for the Minister's commitment, but this point is not relevant to the clause.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I take that point. The Minister told us that there would be a separate consultation in response to the points I raised on behalf of Westminster city council. He has laid himself open to the charge that that is a knee-jerk reaction; perhaps it would have been better to have waited.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The specific problem for local authorities of dealing with intruder alarms has come out of consultation. Our reaction has not been knee-jerk; it has been a responsible reaction to provide local authorities with the means to deal with that problem. I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her remarks.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am not minded to withdraw my remarks. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the points I made earlier that in the view of at least one council—Westminster city council—the legislation is not necessary. That view is therefore held by local authorities and the industry that will be affected. They believe that the legislation could be extremely intrusive and costly to impose. We have had a good debate and we will reserve our judgment until Report stage on how the clause will apply.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

May I simply say that legislation should not be driven by one specific council? This legislation is not only for Westminster, or even for the whole of London, but for the whole country. The hon. Lady should search a little wider for the advice that she receives.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 69 ordered to stand part of the Bill.