Clause 71 - Notification of nominated key-holders

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 27th January 2005.

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Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 10:30 am, 27th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 111, in clause 71, page 57, line 22, leave out 'a key-holder' and insert 'at least two key-holders'.  

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 112, in clause 71, page 57, line 25, leave out 'key-holder' and insert 'key-holders'.

No. 113, in clause 72, page 57, line 35, leave out 'a person' and insert 'at least two persons'.

No. 114, in clause 77, page 61, line 32, leave out 'key-holder' and insert 'key-holders'.

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

The Minister touched on this matter in his remarks on previous clauses. We would like more information. In paragraph 13(2) of schedule 3 to the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993, it states that

''key-holders'', in relation to an alarm, means—

(a) two persons, other than the occupier of the premises . . . or

(b) a company which holds keys sufficient to obtain access to those premises, from which those keys can be obtained at any time''.

The Minister suggested that a requirement for two key holders in a rural area might be excessive. I understand his concern about that. In London two key holders are specified—but there are other place apart from London, as the Minister pointed out. Surely it would be better to allow councils to decide on the number of key holders, rather than arbitrarily to provide that there should be one or two. A council might want a requirement for only one key holder in an alarm notification area in a rural place.

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

There is nothing to prevent a local authority from asking or suggesting that people should nominate two key holders as best practice at local level. However, it seems inappropriate to require that under the Bill. Local authorities can keep as much information as they wish, provided that the minimum requirement under the Bill is met.

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

I thank the Minister for that clarification, which is helpful. I hope that it will be in the guidelines.

I should like to understand a little more about rural areas and difficulties; perhaps the Minister would expand a little on the information that he received, which led him to make the change to a requirement for one key holder.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I have reservations about the entire issue, although I understand the Minister when he says that there is a problem. I do not want to go into too much detail about my own security, but clearly I must declare an interest, in that I have an alarm in my property in Ribble Valley. Two years ago, the alarm went off. No one had broken into the premises. It is common sense, in any event, to get someone else to hold a key, and that is what I did. I gave my key to somebody I trust and they telephoned me, because I was not in the Ribble Valley, and said ''Your alarm has been going off for the last half an hour''. They had checked the premises to ensure that nobody had intruded, and I then gave them the code to switch the alarm off.

I suspect that that often happens up and down the country as a matter of course. A homeowner will give their key to somebody they trust, particularly these   days when people are out at work and the house is vacant for most of the working day, unlike 20 or 30 years ago. If people go on holiday for two weeks at a time, there may be nobody on the premises. There is common sense in giving the key to a designated person who regularly checks that the house is okay, looks to see whether there is anything urgent in the mail and feeds the goldfish, or something like that.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:45 am, 27th January 2005

The hon. Gentleman is describing common-sense and fairly universal requirements. Many of us have alarms and would be in that situation. This requirement only applies where the local authority has identified that there is a problem and has designated an area.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I fully appreciate that the local authority may not have a problem. We will not know until this legislation becomes an Act how often the notification will be used. There may be more of a problem in a residential urban area than in rural areas. In many rural areas the practice I have spoken about happens anyway.

I am not happy with the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Guildford, which go further than the one key holder that has already been notified. There must be a lot of publicity going out with this, so that everybody knows the obligations that will be placed on people with alarms.

Has the Minister considered the possibility that the police could be key holders in certain circumstances, so that they would have access to somebody's premises if the alarm went off. They could switch the alarm off themselves. That may be good practice in rural areas where houses are far apart, and it may be that the key holder is a relative who does not live anywhere near the premises. They may live on the other side of the city or town. In certain circumstances, instead of somebody designating a key holder, their mobile phone number could be logged somewhere, so that they could be notified that their alarm had gone off and could come back and switch it off.

It is the issue of privacy which bothers me. People may not want to give their keys to anybody, for all sort of reasons that may be of genuine concern to them. As the Minister has intimated, the only time that this provision will ever come into effect is if it is a designated or notified area and the alarm goes off. There is a problem in that case, because there is no key holder around and nobody knows who the notified person is. I know we talk about access to buildings in other clauses.

Clearly, forced access is not allowed. To require more than one key holder is going to cause problems. We will have enough problems as it is, because some people will say that they do not want even one person to have their key, not even a relative. They are just not interested. Their home is their castle, and they want to keep it that way, even if it means the alarm going off and disturbing people, as it would do if it went off for a long time. I am more of a mind to support the idea   of best practice being that the available alarms switch themselves off after a certain amount of time, whether it is a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes. I guess the real problem with that is that some people will have alarms that are 10, 15 or 20 years old. They would need to replace them, which would clearly lead to costs. If the hon. Lady does press these amendments, I certainly will not be supporting them.

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

We have responded to local authorities and others, because there has been nuisance in some areas and they wanted the problem to be addressed. We have also considered the requirements in the light of the experience in London. As I indicated earlier, the requirements that we will put in place are likely to be less costly and have more of a light touch than the arrangements that have applied in London. They will be more flexible and therefore more appropriate in a variety of circumstances.

In response to the comments made by the hon. Member for Guildford, I indicated that there is nothing to stop local authorities from suggesting that people nominate two key holders, as best practice at local level. Local authorities can keep as much information as they wish, provided that the minimum requirement is met.

It is also worth reflecting that the technology has improved massively over recent years. Modern alarms are not subject to as many false alarms—inappropriate false alarms in particular—as was the case a number of years ago, and therefore it is reasonable to place requirements on their owners to ensure that their alarm is in good order, that there is proper notification, and that it is simple to silence those alarms when a problem arises.

Some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) are not appropriate for consideration in the legislation, nor should they be included in the Bill. However, it is a good thing for the police and people in a local area if the arrangements are simple. I would not want to see the provisions of the Bill impose burdens on the police or local authorities that go beyond what is sensible. The arrangements that we propose are based on what we have learned from the London experience, and are less costly than the alternatives that have been in place in London. I therefore commend them to the Committee.

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

There is real concern that there will be an inconsistency between the situation in London, which requires that more than one key holder should be nominated, and the situation in other parts of the country. Is the Minister satisfied that those concerns have been properly addressed?

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

Yes, indeed. As I said, it is possible for a local authority to hold more than one key holder's details, and to indicate to people within a designated area that that is what it wishes to see happen, but that would not be a legal requirement. The legal requirement would be for a single key holder. The law should deal with the minimum that is necessary for an effective system to operate, rather than applying a provision that might be inappropriate in some circumstances.

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

I thank the Minister for his commitment to leave the matter with local councils, because that is where it should be.

Having listened to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, I am a little concerned about one aspect. I appreciate that people do not want someone else going into their home, and that there should be respect for their privacy. However, if their alarm is going off, which is no respecter of anyone else's privacy, I take the tough view that that nuisance cannot be allowed to continue unabated. That might mean that someone has to get a new alarm that switches off after a certain amount of time. If people want privacy, they must also reduce the risk that their alarm keeps going off.

We have got the answer that we were seeking in respect of the amendments that we tabled, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the clause or amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.