Protection of Freedoms Bill: 1st March 2011

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is about striking a balance between maintaining law and order and ensuring that crimes are properly investigated, and maintaining civil liberties and ensuring that we do not live in the sort of society in which people who are completely exonerated of the smallest misdemeanour find that their DNA is kept for ever or even for a considerable period? The previous Government got that balance wrong, and this one are putting it right.

David T. C. Davies
One’s DNA might be kept for a long time, but that would be irrelevant if one did not go out and commit another offence. If one did, one would be arrested.

I agree, however, with my hon. Friend’s general point on the balance. The previous Government may have got it wrong—they have accepted as much—but we should also look at the context in which they took some of their decisions. The terrible tube bombings in 2005 caused people to think long and hard about it, and perhaps it always changes. To be philosophical for a moment, would my hon. Friend rather live in a failed state where there is no police presence or law and order whatever, or in a rather unpleasant dictatorship of the sort that we currently see falling in north Africa? Although that is not an easy choice, most people would rather live under Mubarak in Egypt than under whatever passes for a Government in Somalia, because at the end of the day, security is one of the most important things that people have—without it, we have nothing.

The only general complaint that I have heard about CCTV and surveillance cameras is that there are not enough of them, but I accept that the police and some local authorities have recorded people inappropriately. The police have a great deal of paperwork to fill out before they can use surveillance cameras on people, but I am not sure about local authorities.​

The stringent new rules will presumably stop the police targeting criminals and local authorities from targeting the ubiquitous karate instructor who claims disability benefits, but will they apply to newspaper editors? This is a serious point. As I said, men who have had consensual sexual relationships with other men will no longer have to declare that as an offence—and quite rightly; that is one of the many measures in the Bill with which I agree. However, what if a newspaper surreptitiously films people having consensual sex, and because they are in the public eye, publishes the details and puts the film on the internet? I suggest that if anyone else tried to do that in any capacity, they would quite rightly find that they had breached a law—yet newspapers get away with it. Will the Home Secretary assure us that, in future, newspapers will have to abide by the same codes and laws that are and will be applied to local authorities that are looking for benefit cheats or police officers who are looking for criminals? Benefits cheats and criminals should be targeted far more stringently than footballers who have slept with somebody to whom they are not married.

I have one final point on that. I notice that some sort of ombudsman or commissioner will be responsible for ensuring that the rules on surveillance cameras are applied, but they will have no powers. They will have the ability to say, “I think that that was wrong,” but they will not have the ability to do anything about it. However, they will have a salary of £250,000 a year. That is extraordinary, given that Members of Parliament have been told to change the law to ensure that we do not get any salary increase at all. We are being paid £65,000 a year, and if it is good enough for us, it should be good enough for whoever is put in charge of this rather toothless surveillance camera body. I would like an assurance from the Government that we are not putting through a Bill that will get rid of a lot of quangos only to create a job that will pay £250,000 a year. Mind you, there will be quite a few MPs looking for jobs in four years, so perhaps one of us will be the lucky one who gets the £250,000 salary.

Last but not least, a few people have got the wrong idea about the police. I know that you might think that I am a bit biased—not you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I forget the correct use of language or terminology. However, I am sure that most people will understand that the police have a very difficult job to do. One hon. Member went out with protesters during the G20 riots. I was out with the police the day before. I turned up for duty on the day, but spent most of my time sitting in a police station, drinking tea and watching the events unfold on Sky—such is the way when we sign up for these things. However, I went out the night before, and I was threatened by people. I knew that the police were outnumbered and felt very threatened. Police officers are human like everybody else. They get scared when confronted by people, when they are outnumbered 10 to one and when people are throwing iron bars and trying to attack them, and I think that we should show a little bit more understanding when we talk about a police state, and realise that the police are very often the victims of crime, yet also end up as the people about whom complaints are made. I hope that everybody in the House recognises the very difficult job that the vast majority of them do courageously and well.​

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)
I shall support the Second Reading of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, although I hope that some of the reservations I am about to express will be taken note of in Committee. There are at least two unintended consequences in the Bill concerning not so much the protection of freedoms for the law-abiding, as making life so much better for two categories of antisocial people. The first are those who park illegally on other people’s property, and the second are those who cause undue misery with late-night parties and so on. I cannot believe that there is a single Member here who has not had casework from constituents complaining about late-night noise or antisocial noise on summer afternoons. If the Bill passes as proposed, with its subsections and so on, I regret to say that it will be an open invitation for the antisocial noise people to up their game in the confident knowledge that local authorities will have fewer powers at their disposal to deal with them.

I will, however, begin with the wheel-clamping provision, which has been added to the Bill because—I think—it was here to have things added to it. I am not here to defend the rogue firms of wheel-clampers. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber is prepared to speak up for those cowboys, although I always think that to describe them as that is an insult to cowboys. Nevertheless, there are companies and individuals who have abused the wheel clamp, which used correctly and in the right way is a tool that helps the law-abiding.

The Minister for Equalities started this debate on 17 August last year. I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House before and spoken to her, so I am not saying anything that will come as a surprise. She announced that the freedom Bill would provide for an outright ban on clamping on private land, where it is carried out by private companies. I can just about understand that if the private land is a commercial property, but I am not sure about the idea when applied to private land owned by individual householders. At the moment, the Bill proposes that if somebody parked in the Minister’s drive, he would be restricted in the action that he could take to deal with the problem.

I want to quote the case of the Balkerne Heights residential area, which is right next to a multi-storey car park on the edge of Colchester town centre. The communal parking for the area’s housing became a magnet for illegal parking by late-night revellers, weekend shoppers and so on. The notion that polite requests not to park in people’s private parking areas will be acceded to is a little optimistic. The people causing the problem generally responded with certain words, the second of which was “off”. The only way that those parking abuses were dealt with was through the introduction of the wheel clamp. I would say that the Minister’s front drive is exactly the same as the communal parking area of people living in flats or communal housing. It is their drive: it is where they park their cars.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
Looking at the Bill, it is clear that people will be able to close their gates and stop somebody removing a car that way. There is implied consent to allowing a restriction under clause 54(3)(a), and if the case is broader than that, the people or the commercial organisation involved can ​apply to the council to come and do the clamping for them. I think the problem that my hon. Friend is worried about is covered.

Bob Russell
I hope that my hon. Friend is correct in his understanding, but that has to be spelt out in the Bill, because it is not my understanding. If he is right, no problem—but if I am right, there is a problem. That is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be fleshed out and firmly written down, because clause 54(3)(a) refers to cases where

“there is express or implied consent by the driver of the vehicle to restricting its movement by a fixed barrier”.

Whether the barrier is up or down is irrelevant. Currently, the local planning authority may well refuse an application to start erecting barriers in carefully designed new housing areas, with landscaped grounds and all the rest of it, but if the Bill goes ahead, they will have to erect barriers to meet the very point that has quite rightly been made. Those are the unintended consequences.

I would argue that if residents living on a private housing estate with their own private communal parking areas wish to put a wheel clamp on, why can they not do so? It is an extraordinary state of affairs when the coalition Government are putting forward a Bill with a clause that would give more rights to the illegal parker than the person who owns the land where the car is illegally parked. The notion that residents could run off to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or whoever else to get fines paid, and all the rest of it, is fanciful. Therefore, with the greatest of respect, what I would say is that more work needs to be done on that one.

The House of Commons Library has produced some excellent research—as ever, by the way—on the Bill. If Members who have the briefing would care to look at pages 26 through to 28, they will realise that the authors of the Bill need to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s in Committee, because—I repeat—what we have at the moment is an opportunity for those who want to park illegally in other people’s private, communal, residential parking areas to do so almost with impunity. Under a heading entitled “The Bill’s provisions”, the research paper tells us:

“The Government had not previously indicated that there would be any parking-related measures in the Bill, or in fact that it was planning to make any changes to parking regulation at all.”

Therefore, those provisions have been bolted on. People who live in town centres have the advantages of the town centre, but sometimes one of the disadvantages is people coming into town, not parking where they should and abusing other people’s private parking areas. I ask the Minister to address that issue in Committee. I understand the need to tackle rogue wheel-clamping firms, but, with the greatest respect, I think that private home owners should have the right to use wheel clamps on vehicles parked on their private property, whether it is a private drive or a communal parking area.

The second unintended consequence of the Bill relates to those people whom we all love and who delight in causing problems for their neighbours by, among other things, having all-night parties. Chapter 2 of the Bill covers safeguards for certain surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. I am grateful to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health for drawing my attention to the serious consequences of these provisions. There cannot be a Member here tonight who has not been contacted by constituents as a result of noisy antisocial neighbours.​

As an aside, I would like to make an important observation as the former chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on noise reduction. I wish that the coalition Government would introduce regulations to require greater noise insulation in new house building. A lot of attention is paid to heat retention in such buildings, but nothing is done about noise elimination. Perhaps another Government Department could pick that one up.

It has been suggested that the Bill has been prompted by claims in the popular press of unjustified snooping by local authorities, because it contains provisions to restrict the surveillance activities of those authorities by inserting additional tests into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. One such test would require authorisations given by senior local authority officers to be approved, in addition, by a magistrate. That would make the process of authorisation more time consuming, and it would make things harder for increasingly stretched authorities—not least at night, when most complaints of this nature are made. The likely outcome of the proposal is that many fewer noise complaints would be investigated.

Anna Soubry
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such matters are not the domain of local authorities? The last Government made a big mistake when they mixed up the role of the police with the civil functions of local authorities. I suggest that problems of noisy neighbours holding late-night parties are the domain of the police, not the local authority.
Bob Russell
I do not think that I can agree with the hon. Lady on that. We are talking about authority in its broadest sense, whether it involves the police, the local authority or whoever. The public are entitled to live in peace, and if their peace is disrupted, the matter could be dealt with by the police or by the local authority. The two working in concert would be the best way; that has always been the way in which I have approached these issues.

The Bill proposes a further test that the crime that is to be prevented or detected should carry a minimum prison sentence. Noise offences do not, however, carry custodial sentences, and the effect of the provision would be to remove that ground for authorising surveillance. This matter needs to be thrashed out in Committee, because RIPA was never intended to deal with problems such as these. At a time when local authorities are shedding significant numbers of officers, they will need to become more efficient in order to maintain services. I have no argument with that, but barriers to achieving it will need to be removed, rather than new ones being erected. When there is no evidence that noise investigations are being carried out inappropriately, additional controls are neither justified nor in the public interest. I suggest that we should take the opportunity in Committee to remove them from the ambit of RIPA altogether.

I am sure that many of us will have read the letter in The Times yesterday from Mr Howard Price, the principal policy officer of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health—[Interruption.] Well, Members are going to hear it now. It says:

“The Protection of Freedoms Bill is about to receive its second reading. It contains provisions to amend the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act…to limit the surveillance activity of local authorities by requiring authorisations made by senior ​officers to be approved in addition by magistrates. Hundreds of thousands of neighbour noise complaints are made to local authorities each year. Listening to such noise in the course of investigation amounts to ‘surveillance’ under the Act and arguably requires authorisation. The Bill will make that more time-consuming and harder for authorities to obtain, especially at night when most complaints are made. Complaints will go unanswered. RIPA was never intended to apply to this activity. It will be a further unintended consequence if this Bill protects the freedom of noise-makers over that of householders wanting only a peaceful night’s sleep. Noise investigations should be excluded”—