Spring is here, and summer is coming. It is a time for open windows, chairs in the garden, walks in the park and quiet strolls along town and village streets. However, it is also a time when we have to endure a relentless sonic assault from what are known as boom cars. In the United States, they are also known as trunk thumpers and street pounders. They are cars with sound systems that are designed to assault our senses, invade our privacy and pulverise our neighbourhoods, and they are driven by people who have an arrogant disregard for the basic civilities of community life.
We are talking not about cars with ordinary radio or CD players that are played inconsiderately loud, but about cars with separately installed audio systems—often in the boot—producing a relentless, pounding bass beat that can be heard from streets away. The volume output, which can exceed 1,000 W, can shake windows, penetrate walls and set off car alarms. It also causes annoyance, stress and misery to everyone who has such sonic mugging inflicted on them—no doubt adding immeasurably to the satisfaction of the perpetrators.
A recent survey on traffic and vehicle noise carried out by the UK Noise Association, an organisation to which I pay tribute and with which I have worked closely, revealed that boom cars were the greatest source of annoyance to people. There is also a safety factor. Research carried out by the RAC Foundation found that drivers who were listening to loud music with a fast beat were twice as likely to go through a red light, and that they have twice as many accidents. Cocooned in their sound bubble, they are oblivious to other road users and to their general environment.
Boom car equipment is big business. As cars have become quieter, the equipment has ensured that they can become much noisier. It is true of factory fitted sound systems, and even more so of the equipment that is fitted afterwards. System manufacturers have a sales pitch that deliberately plays to its antisocial potential, feeding a culture that thinks that blasting people out of their beds is the height of cool. Sony uses the brand name "Xplod", with the slogan, "Disturb the Peace". Pioneer Electronics has the slogans, "Disturb", "Defy", "Disrupt" and "Ignite". The car audio industry is an effective lobbyist. It has organised against anti-noise legislation in the United States and has sought to defeat attempts by local communities there to act against boom cars.
So what have we done, with our armoury of antisocial behaviour legislation, our respect agenda, our extra police, our community support officers and our street wardens? What action have we taken against the antisocial menace of boom cars? That was the question that I began with, puzzled as I was bythe seeming indifference displayed by the authorities in the face of such a pervasive and unavoidable assault. I have discovered that several pieces of existing legislation might be mobilised for an attack on boom cars, but that in practice none seems to be employed robustly and consistently for that purpose.
For example, section 62 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 deals with loudspeakers in a street and can be applied to car stereos, the test being annoyance to people in the vicinity. No enforcement agency is specified, but in practice the task falls to local authorities. However, they have no power to stop vehicles and there could be evidential problems in identifying the person responsible. There is also the Environmental Protection Act 1990, section 79 of which had a subsection added by the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993 to cover noise caused by a vehicle in a street. That subsection allows a local authority to serve an abatement notice. However, there is again no power either to stop vehicles or to require the names and addresses of drivers, and the same enforcement and evidential difficulties arise.
More recently, there has been the Police Reform Act 2002, section 59 of which enables the police to stop and seize a vehicle that is causing alarm, distress or annoyance to members of the public. If a police officer observes a car with a loud stereo, the offender can be warned to turn the volume down. In what was said to be a unique action, in Bradford in 2004, a man whose car sound system regularly caused shop windows to vibrate and stationary vehicles' alarms to be activated had his car seized by police. To get the vehicle back, the owner was required to pay a fine of £105 plus VAT, as well as £12 a day for storage charges, which, if not paid within 21 days, would lead to disposal of the vehicle. Finally, there are the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, which allow the police to take action through an oral warning, a fixed penalty notice or prosecution against the drivers of excessively noisy vehicles. However, there seems to be a question whether the regulations can be applied only to the mechanical parts of vehicles or to loud audio systems, too.
We have several pieces of legislation, with several different kinds of enforcement, which could be deployed against the problem of boom cars. The effect of that seems to be that there is no systematic or effective enforcement at all. As responsibility is diffused across Government and between enforcement agencies, the problem is nobody's particular responsibility—indeed, nobody seems to want it to be. I recently asked the Home Office
"how many prosecutions were brought in each of the last five years for offences involving excessive noise from car audio systems."
I was told that although data were collected on police action for noise offences, under the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, it was
"not possible to identify from the data those offences resulting from excessive noise from car audio systems."—[Hansard, 7 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 970W.]
No mention at all was made in that answer of data on noise offences under any other legislation. There are at least three Departments involved, but no single focus for attention and action. In that respect, it is revealing that when I was approached about this debate, I was asked which Department I would like to answer. I am of course delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister here, but the answer is that I do not care which Department answers, as long as there is a commitment to effective, coherent, joined-up action across Government to deal with the menace of boom cars.
That should not be too difficult. The noise is plainly audible, the cars are visible and identifiable, and the audio equipment is fitted to produce the intended sonic effects. We need on-the-spot fines, with seizure to follow if necessary. We need action against those who manufacture and those who sell sound equipment for cars in terms of its capacity for turning quiet streets into pounding hells. Boom cars are surely one kind of antisocial behaviour that we can do something about if we really want to. We may or may not need new legislation, but we certainly need better enforcement. As we look forward to the pleasures of warmer and longer days, let us resolve to have our peace disturbed no more by the bane of boom cars.
There is one final consideration. If Governments do not act effectively against the daily incivilities inflicted by some people on everybody else, not only will such incivility grow, but its victims will draw the conclusion that Governments are either impotent or indifferent in the face of the problem. That in turn will bring consequences for both individuals and society that we would do well to try to avoid.
Before I call the Minister, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am sorry that some of his speech was interrupted by noise nuisance from outside, which was caused by the work being done to build the visitor centre? I should also like to make the point to the Minister, which he might report to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, that it is not possible in Committees or this Chamber for civil servants to communicate directly with Ministers. In future, Ministers should either have a Parliamentary Private Secretary with them or a parliamentary colleague acting in that capacity.
Thank you, Mr. Conway. I apologise for the latter, while the former is not really my responsibility. However, as a Minister for the environment, I do have some responsibility for the subject of the debate, which I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Wright on securing. It is customary on these occasions for the Minister to congratulate the hon. Member who has secured the debate, often without really meaning it, but I do mean it in this case. The subject is important and affects us all, including me. I also congratulate my hon. Friend not only on the content of the debate, but on its poetic quality. With the help of the representative of the fourth estate who is here, I hope that the debate might reach a wider audience than those of us in Westminster Hall. It certainly deserves one and would, dare I suggest, make a fabulous "op-ed" piece for a Sunday newspaper.
My hon. Friend is right to identify the problem, which is growing. It causes nuisance and alarm to householders, pedestrians and other road users, and is, quite frankly, dangerous. How many people, I wonder, have been distracted by the sudden "Boom! Boom! Boom!" coming from one of those cars, wondering what on earth was happening, as the ground beneath them shook or the walls and windows of their home vibrated to the heavy thud of some violent bass beat? As a cyclist, I do not mind experiencing the varied musical tastes of car drivers as I sidle up beside them at the traffic lights, but at the appropriate volume. In fact, I sometimes quite like it; it can raise my spirits. However, the monster systems that cause cars to bounce and houses to shake are a completely different matter. They are a menace.
As my hon. Friend said, unwelcome noise can have a highly detrimental impact on our communities and quality of life. Statistics collected annually by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health show a year-on-year increase in the number of complaints made to local authorities about neighbourhood noise, which has been the most complained-about issue for more than a decade.
According to a MORI poll carried out last year, noisy cars and motorbikes are the second most irritating neighbourhood noise. Some 15 per cent. of the people questioned reported being annoyed by car and motorbike noises and 14 per cent. were annoyed by car or burglar alarms. The level of annoyance is clearly rising, given that noisy cars and motorbikes were only seventh on the list three years before. To some of us, noise coming from a passing car is momentary, so the annoyance goes as the car passes. However, for others, loud music played from stationary cars or those driving past houses—particularly at night—can result in serious disturbance and sleep deprivation.
Although it is unlikely that noise from cars would damage the hearing of residents or passers-by, the volumes that we are talking about pose a serious risk to the hearing of those inside the car. They also cause danger, because the drivers cannot possibly hear anything going on outside, such as another car's horn or an emergency vehicle's siren—certainly not my bicycle bell. Research has shown that loud music in cars causes accidents, particularly if it has a fast beat. The RAC Foundation research to which my hon. Friend referred found that drivers listening to such music were twice as likely to go through a red light and twice as likely to have an accident. There is also the potential to damage the hearing of drivers and passengers.
Modern car stereos fitted with the ubiquitous boom boxes can produce 110 dB if turned right up. That is almost as loud as what we would hear if standing just 30 m from a jet at its point of take-off at Heathrow airport and is far more than the 85 dB limit enforced by the Health and Safety Executive in the workplace. When that limit is exceeded, it is compulsory to wear hearing protection.
As my hon. Friend said, there are powers to deal with this menace, and I urge the police and local authorities to use them. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, local environmental health officers can take action where the relevant car is parked. Under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, local authorities also have enhanced powers to deal with noise. Under the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Police Reform Act 2002, the police have the powers to act when the car is moving or stationary in traffic. That legislation gives police the power to take action against someone who uses a vehicle in such a manner as to cause any excessive noise. The police may give an oral warning, an on-the-spot fine of £80 or make a report for prosecution, as appropriate.
Since January 2003, the police have also had the power to seize a vehicle, and my hon. Friend referred to a recent example of that in Bradford. Some police authorities have already made wider use of such powers to tackle noisy car audio systems. For example, Lancashire police recently undertook a crackdown called "Operation Cruiser" and North Yorkshire police have taken action to protect residents along the seafront in Scarborough. I strongly urge other police forces to take noise from car audio systems seriously and to use their powers. I also urge the public to report offenders.
My hon. Friend referred to certain adverts and marketing techniques, and I join him in deploring them. He may be interested to learn that the Advertising Standards Authority investigated a recent complaint against the Sony advert to which he referred. The member of the public concerned believed that the advert would encourage people to behave in an antisocial way. The complaint was upheld, and I hope that that will serve as a warning to some manufacturers that they should be a little more sensible about how they market such equipment.
My hon. Friend urged the Government to be more joined-up on the issue. I accept that, like many other things, noise and environmental quality crosses the responsibilities of a number of Departments. I hope that he accepts that legislation is now in place. However, we need to work more closely with colleagues from the Home Office and other Departments to ensure that every Department takes the issue seriously and that the message spreads to local authorities and the police. We are determined that people's lives and environments should not be blighted by noise or antisocial behaviour. We have legislated for that, although the implementation, certainly in respect of this problem, could be a lot better.
My hon. Friend should be made aware of one other matter that I hope will help us to be more joined-up and strategic. This year, the Government will publish our long-awaited national noise strategy, which will cover both neighbourhood and ambient noise. We intend it to go to consultation soon, and I would welcome the input of my hon. Friend, other hon. Members and anyone who has an interest in the subject. We hope that by highlighting the problem of noise and providing for the first time a joined-up national policy framework within which to work, we will give the issue of noise the importance that it deserves across Government, and that in future it will be addressed in a more strategic and proactive way.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Two o'clock.