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Anti-loitering Devices: Safety

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

It is a great pleasure to speak on this important issue once again. Colleagues may remember that I introduced a private Member’s Bill to regulate the use of sonic anti-loitering devices in 2018. In my view, unregulated, these things can be a menace. They are discriminatory, painful to some, and can cause suffering to children, babies and animals. I find it amazing that some in civilised Britain even consider them to be a useful adjunct to policing—that is the stuff of totalitarian regimes. We police by consent, not by fear and pain.

I will not simply regurgitate my earlier speech now, but I would like to remind the House of some key points. Sonic anti-loitering devices, also known as mosquitos or teenager repellents, target young people with a pulsing sound. My daughters tell me it is like a prolonged beep, akin to tinnitus. Some devices emit ultrasound specifically to achieve that effect. There are no firm figures for how many of these devices there are nationally, although the manufacturers claim to have sold thousands. In 2010, the Council of Europe found that this device was “degrading and discriminatory” to youngsters and should be banned because it “violates legislation prohibiting torture.” Academics also contest that these devices contravene several pieces of UK legislation regarding antisocial behaviour and discrimination. Despite the assertion of manufacturers, there are reports that people as old as 40 can hear these devices, and those who use them neglect their impact on very young children, babies, and animals, all of whom will struggle to communicate any distress caused. Likewise, they ignore the impact on those with pre-existing conditions that make them especially sensitive, such as autism. Many children with these conditions cannot avoid long-term exposure, because they might live next door to somebody who has one of these devices, or their school might be close to one. They could equally struggle to communicate any distress.

There is a lack of research on the harm caused by these devices, especially the effects of ultrasound and the impact on those who cannot even hear them. Some 40% of young people regularly come across these devices, but 75% of young people said that they would just put up with the irritating noise and go where they want, when they want and do what they want anyway. These devices will not necessarily stop those who want to commit antisocial behaviour, but they will harm innocent young people in public spaces.

Finally, these devices have been banned on all council buildings in Sheffield, Kent, Edinburgh and Dublin on safety grounds, so as it stands I still believe that we do not know enough about them to be confident that they are indeed safe, and therefore we must control their use. Moreover, these potentially dangerous devices are not wholly successful in preventing antisocial behaviour, as they do not stop those intending to do harm from entering a certain public space if they are so minded. Even if these devices were effective against ASB in a certain location, we would just be moving criminals and their urge to cause damage somewhere else.

Consequently, I believe that these devices are not a solution for antisocial behaviour. They succeed only in causing distress to young people who cannot avoid them, but who have a right to use the public spaces where they are often located. There are plenty of examples of innocent young people feeling unable to use railway and bus stations, shops, schools, and spaces in their own town centres—all places where these devices have been installed, and all places that young people are entitled to visit safely.

Indeed, there are reports from a Scottish survey that 41% of young respondents experienced health effects or discomfort after encountering a device, and I highly doubt whether any of them were engaged in any sort of antisocial behaviour at the time. According to those respondents, discomfort included headaches, migraines, ear problems, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea, anxiety and/or panic. We have not even touched on the potential effect on wildlife and animal habitats, both of which can be equally affected.

However, despite my clear opposition to these devices, I am not seeking an outright ban, as I understand that there are circumstances where they could legitimately be used, such as warehouses, business premises, railway lines, industrial estates and electricity pylons—places where nobody should be in the first place. Also, there is a strong case for using them to deter animals around food stores and such. If the owners of such locations wish to use these devices, they should be able to do so, but they must be used responsibly, with proper oversight. That is why, in my private Member’s Bill, I argued that the use of these devices should be regulated, with a necessary licence obtained by the local authority before use.

In short, I do not argue that these devices should be better regulated just because they are ineffective; their use should be better regulated because they are also discriminatory and potentially hazardous to health, with a particularly acute impact on the most vulnerable. Moreover, I do not believe that it is fair for members of the public of any age to be exposed to these devices without adequate control. There are too many stories of families suffering because these devices have been installed nearby, and they have no effective power of redress under current legislation.

After bringing forward this proposal, I was grateful to the then Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), for engaging with me on the issue. In her letter she sent to me on 21 April 2019, she set out how she had asked officials in the Office for Product Safety and Standards to consider the evidence against these devices. I was disappointed by its conclusion that they do not present a safety risk, and I maintain that that position is based on insufficient evidence. We just do not know enough about these devices to know either way, because the research just is not there. The only safe approach is to be cautious.

Following a further letter to the same Minister arguing that point, she set out the following in her subsequent reply of 8 June 2019. First, in response to my suggestion that such devices infringe on the rights of young people, mirroring an argument put forward by Northumbria University, she asked the Ministry of Justice to reply, as that falls under its remit. Regrettably, with everything that we now know took place in late 2019, I quite understandably did not receive a reply from Justice at that time. I would be grateful if the current Minister would follow up with his colleagues at that Department on that point.

Secondly, I asked the then Minister for further research to be undertaken by the OPSS into these devices. Unfortunately, at the time the office had set out its priorities for research going into early 2020, so of course my request was not approved. I believe that needs to change. We must improve our understanding of such devices, especially when it comes to the effect of ultrasound. Worryingly, as the former Minister said in her first response to me, there is some evidence that ultrasound can cause potential health issues. Although there is insufficient evidence that those potential health risks constitute safety risks, that does not mean that they are not present.

Currently, our knowledge of ultrasound is limited and flawed. We simply do not fully understand its effects and cannot draw any definitive conclusions about its use. As Professor Timothy Leighton set out in September 2019 work on ultrasound,

“whilst there is over fifty years of anecdotal reports of the adverse effects of ultrasound on humans (supplemented by limited laboratory testing), the state of knowledge is insufficient to meet regulatory needs.”

He concludes that

“the priority must be on ensuring that these devices are safe for any humans they may expose. It is not possible to do this with the current data on the adverse effects on humans”.

We simply do not understand ultrasound enough to use it legitimately to support any policy positions, but we are doing just that by allowing the liberal use of devices that emit ultrasound, including anti-loitering sonic devices. We are dealing with a potential harm here, and we must increase our knowledge of these devices and their impacts. We owe that to those who have already been affected inadvertently by these devices, and until we do so we must be cautious and properly oversee the use of them.

We cannot continue to treat this as a case of safe until proven otherwise. Instead, I believe it must be a case of potential harm, used with caution and in controlled conditions. I understand from previous correspondence that

“if further data or research emerges about the safety impact of such devices, then the OPSS will review their assessment.”

I argue that such further research has emerged, some of which I have mentioned, and we need the OPSS to commission further work to increase our understanding of the long-term impact of ultrasound and the impact of exposure to such devices. I hope that the current Minister will consider taking that work forward. I would welcome a meeting with him, perhaps with a representative of the OPSS, to discuss that further. I also ask him to follow up with the Ministry of Justice on the point about children’s rights that I mentioned earlier. I will write to him to set out those requests further, but for now I thank him for listening, and will welcome any comments on these devices that he may have to share with us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) on securing today’s important debate. I assure him that, although the House did not need an anti-loitering device to empty this evening, that was in no way a reflection of his excellent speech, in which he outlined his concerns about this important issue.

As Consumer Minister, the safety of these products falls under my ministerial portfolio, and the safety of the public is a key priority for the Government. The safety of such products contributes to ensuring the safety of the public and, in particular, children and young people, so I am pleased to be able to discuss this important issue, and I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity for us to exchange views on it. I am aware that he had an exchange of letters with my predecessor on the subject and that, as he has outlined, he has a long history of discussing and raising his concerns.

Many of the issues raised go beyond safety and fall within the remit of ministerial colleagues in other Departments. I will ensure that my officials draw the Hansard of the debate to the attention of relevant counterparts and continue to join up on this issue. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issues further, as he has requested.

I thank the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for bringing the debate forward; it is on an excellent issue. On the safety of the general public, the Minister knows, as do I and others, about the effect of autism and the number of children and adults with autism across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that, for the safety of the general public, children and adults with autism must be taken on board as a priority?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which was as wise as always. It is important that we protect all children, but especially vulnerable children, and he raises an interesting point. I will talk a bit more about safety in a second.

It might be useful if I set out the context of the regulatory and enforcement regime with which products such as anti-loitering devices must comply. As my hon. Friend mentioned, OPSS is the UK’s national product safety regulator. It was established in 2018 to lead and co-ordinate the product safety system, providing national capacity and supporting local enforcement, and it plays a key role in protecting consumers from unsafe products and providing an environment that enables businesses to thrive. It works closely with a wide range of market surveillance authorities, including local authority trading standards in Great Britain and environmental health in Northern Ireland, which have responsibility for enforcing product safety and compliance in the UK.

The UK product safety system is one of the most robust in the world. It places strict obligations on those best placed to control or mitigate risk. We have a comprehensive regulatory framework in place for product safety, with stringent requirements on producers and distributors to ensure that their products are safe before they are placed on the market. Its approach places an obligation on those best placed to control and mitigate the risk.

The safety of acoustic anti-loitering devices, commonly known as mosquito devices, is regulated by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 and other product-specific laws, such as the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016. These provide a baseline of safety for applicable products, requiring that only safe products, in their normal or reasonably foreseeable usage, can be placed on the market. Where product-specific legislation applies, such as the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 2016, a product must comply with a specific set of essential safety requirements before it can be placed on the market. Once their products are on the market, businesses have a continuing responsibility to monitor them and to act if a safety issue is identified.

The current regulatory framework enables the relevant enforcing authority—either local authorities or the OPSS—to investigate specific allegations of unsafe products and take action where it is appropriate to do so. That includes prompting businesses to take corrective action and to provide additional advice to consumers or instigate a recall. I can confirm that there have been no reports of dangerous anti-loitering devices on the UK product safety database, which is used by regulators to share information about safety risks and ensure that appropriate action is taken.

When the Government last reviewed and set out their position on the safety of these products, in 2010, the Health and Safety Executive concluded that there was little likelihood of any long-term ill effects associated with them, and that the use of anti-loitering devices should remain an option available to local authorities in tackling antisocial behaviour. That decision followed testing that was carried out by the National Physical Laboratory, which determined that mosquito devices did not operate at a high enough volume to damage hearing. However, we continue to monitor reports of safety in relation to all products. If, as my predecessor said, there is further evidence or data on the use and impact of anti-loitering devices, clearly we will review it. The 2005 regulations already provide protection for consumers from unsafe products. Where specific products are found to be unsafe, they can be removed from the market, so there are no current plans to introduce a licensing regime for anti-loitering devices on the basis of safety, as our current assessment is that such devices do not present a safety risk.

What we are discussing today, several years after that testing was done, goes beyond safety and regulation by the 2005 regulations. The basis of the debate broadens to include considerations of human rights and potential psychological impacts, and the need to understand the potential for certain vulnerable groups to experience greater harms. My Department recognises that concern but maintains that the 2005 regulations already provide protection for consumers from unsafe products.

I want to take a few moments to talk about the wider protections already in place and what the Government are doing to ensure that the freedoms of individuals are protected while also protecting the public. While these are matters for my ministerial colleagues in other Departments, I feel that it would be useful to set these out to provide the broader context for our debate. Concern has been expressed about the impact of anti-loitering devices on the freedom of assembly. The Government are committed to upholding the right to freedom of assembly and association for all, as protected by article 11 of the European convention on human rights, which is given further effect domestically by the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Government are also committed to tackling and preventing antisocial behaviour, because we know the serious impact that persistent antisocial behaviour can have on both individuals and communities. Everybody has a right to feel safe in their own homes and neighbourhoods. The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 seeks to put victims first, giving power to local people and enabling professionals to find the best solutions for their local area. To do this, local enforcement agencies have a range of tools and powers that they can use to respond quickly and effectively to antisocial behaviour through the 2014 Act. It is up to local areas to decide how best to deploy such powers, depending on the specific circumstances. That is because they are best placed to understand what is driving the behaviour in question, the impact that it is having, and to determine the most appropriate response.

The Home Office issued statutory guidance for the 2014 Act, which was updated in January 2021, to support agencies to make appropriate and proportionate use of the powers, when they target specific problems in a public setting, depending on the circumstances. In a similar vein, where these devices are misused and create a noise nuisance for members of the public, there are statutory protections in place to deal with such nuisance.

The potential impact of anti-loitering devices on children’s rights has been discussed. The UK Government regularly report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the work that we have been doing across the UK to implement the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and to promote children’s rights. The UN committee published a list of issues for the UK to report against early next year. One of these issues relates to anti-loitering mosquito devices and the measures taken to guarantee children’s right to freedom of movement and peaceful assembly.

The UK Government response will involve the input of a number of Government Departments and devolved Administrations, including the Crown dependencies and British overseas territories, and children’s rights stakeholders to record progress. I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a copy of that response when it is issued.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this topic for debate today. It is really important that the Government continue to keep such issues, with wide-ranging interests and potential impacts, under close review, and I thank him for his dogged work in raising these concerns across Government. I would also like to reassure him, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is in his place today, and others that the Government will always take steps, where appropriate, to ensure safety and to protect the public.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.