Committee (3rd Day)(Continued)
Clause 40: Power to issue notices
22NA: Clause 40, page 22, line 31, after “a” insert “significant”
My Lords, I should probably start by saying, “as I was saying”. I apologise again to the Committee for some confusion about an earlier amendment. Members of the Committee were either excessively polite, in the manner of your Lordships’ House, or completely unengaged with what I was saying, and did not interrupt me for some time. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for eventually doing so.
I do not want to repeat what I have already said, but refer the avid reader of Hansard back to the report of earlier this evening. I will repeat my requests that we discuss before Report the relationship between how statutory nuisance and nuisance under the Bill are dealt with. Community protection notices, particularly noise abatement notices, address very similar problems. I am aware that guidance will have a role to play here, and I hope to contribute to it.
Amendment 22NA, which provides that the detriment under Clause 40(1) should be significant, speaks for itself. It should be more than a de minimis matter. Amendment 22ND deals with the possible clash of the use of CPNs and existing statutory powers, as does Amendment 22NE. Amendment 22NF, unlike the earlier amendments, seemed desirable to me—I do not mean that the others are not desirable but that this is my drafting, not someone else’s. I suggest that the community protection notice should explain not only the points set out in Clause 40 but the remedial action proposed given the powers to be provided under Clause 44, which will essentially allow the local authority to go in, carry out work and charge.
Amendments 22QD and 22QE take us into Clause 43, which is about appeals against community protection notices, and are probing in the hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that modification of a notice which the magistrates’ court may make on appeal can be only in favour of the applicant and that modification can include variation by reducing the requirements—in other words, that the appellant will not be in danger of finding himself with harsher restrictions or provisions. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have tabled Amendment 22QC in this group, which I will comment on in a minute or two. Since this is the first group about community protection notices, I thought that it might be helpful to say a few things on the back of that about them generally. Of all the new measures to deal with anti-social behaviour that are being put forward by the Government in their new battery of weapons, I am most enthusiastic about community protection notices if they are done in an appropriate way.
My first question to the Government is about those notices, which may be issued on reasonable grounds that,
“the conduct of the individual or body is having a detrimental effect, of a persistent or continuing nature, on the quality of life of those in the locality, and … the conduct is unreasonable”.
In what ways does this differ from the criteria and the test in Clause 1 for serving an IPNA? These require that a person,
“has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”.
What is the difference between “nuisance” and “annoyance” on the one hand, and on the other conduct that,
“is having a detrimental effect … on the quality of life”,
of people in the locality? I am not entirely sure what the difference in meaning is but perhaps the Minister can tell me.
Secondly, what kind of things are community protection notices intended to deal with? Clearly, they are intended to deal with different things from injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance. There is a hint in Clause 54, which talks of repeals and transitional provisions of litter abatement notices and two other litter notices under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and of defacement removal notices under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, which refer to graffiti really. What else is there? Is this just about litter and graffiti? I am sure that it is not, but for what other things do the Government envisage that this potentially wide-ranging power could be used?
For example, could it be used to deal with accumulations of rubbish in the back yards of empty houses, or of houses where tenants do not care too much about such things? Could it be used to deal with odour, if someone was making regular bonfires and causing lots of smoke in the area? Could it be used for animal nuisances, such as dog dirt? Could it be used for somebody who insisted on hanging out their washing across the front street rather than in other appropriate places at the back? Could it be used against gatherings in the street—for example, if people wished to use it, in the complaints being made at the moment about Roma people in Sheffield? Would this be an appropriate way of dealing with that or, whether or not it is appropriate, could it be used for that? It would be very helpful if, after this debate, the Minister could list 10 useful things it could be used for. Then we will have a fairly good idea of whether those of us who are local councillors and so on might consider that this is a power which we can use.
There are some concerns that a number of these powers and the existing ASBOs criminalise anti-social behaviour if notices are not complied with, although things such as litter already involve the criminal law. If this is an exciting new power that can be used for all sorts of things in a proportionate manner, there are concerns about the lack of resources, and of new resources, for local authorities to use it. As I keep saying in debates in this Committee: tackling anti-social behaviour and nuisances, and helping to make our residential streets more civilised places at local level, is resource-intensive. It means lots of different agencies co-operating.
For example, in my ward, every month there is a local environmental audit. People from the local neighbourhood policing team, localities officers, councillors and people from the council’s anti-social behaviour unit and its refuse collection and litter sections go round with a little wagon. If there are any accumulations of rubbish, they do not bother serving notices on anybody; they just stick it in the wagon and take it away. That kind of thing is quite resource-intensive and, at a time when all local authorities are under real pressure, it is the kind of thing that will be found difficult to keep going. Yet these powers will be no good whatever unless there are people on the ground who can investigate reported problems, see problems for themselves and have the resources to serve the notices, follow them up and deal with the people.
Amendment 22QC probes what happens in a slightly interesting situation. If you serve a notice in relation to a nuisance that refers to a piece of land and the person who you are serving it on transfers its ownership from, for example, one company that they own to another that they own or are involved in, or to their wife or their husband, you have to start all over again because you are dealing with different people. The proposal I am putting down here does not work but is there to probe. Have the Government got any ideas about how to deal with this? A remarkably high proportion of anti-social behaviour problems are caused by a few individuals who just enjoy playing the system and opposing the council. They regard it all as a great game. How on earth we deal with these people, I do not know but if my noble friend the Minister has any ideas, I would certainly like to hear them.
My Lords, at the risk of being mischievous, to some extent I am going to be. When the Minister responds to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, with his list of 10 things that local authorities might use these powers for, he might tell us whether the powers would extend to a local authority issuing community protection notices in respect of, say, a string of shops down its high street that promote payday loans. That is conduct having a detrimental effect of a persistent or continuing nature on the quality of life of those in the locality. Would it apply to the behaviour of a series of off-licences? In many high streets the only shops are betting shops, off-licences and payday loan companies. Would it be open to the local authority to serve community protection notices on those businesses setting a requirement that they should, effectively, cease to do business?
I am sure that that is not the intention of the legislation and I am not trying to belittle the important intention of the legislation in terms of the sorts of persistent nuisance that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is thinking of and that I, as a former local councillor, can certainly think of. These provisions require perhaps just a little clarification as I am sure that an inventive local authority lawyer could find all sorts of interesting ways in which you might argue that bodies are having,
“a detrimental effect, of a persistent or continuing nature, on the quality of life of those in the locality”.
I could labour the point at some length with many more examples but I suspect that the Minister’s patience—already wearing thin—will not survive it.
My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey has made the very powerful point that, frankly, everything depends on how intelligently or otherwise community protection notices are sought and applied and—to use the Minister’s words—whether anybody is acting mischievously in trying to seek or impose these notices. I am sure that when the Minister responds to the debate he will assure us that everybody will use them intelligently and everybody will work together in a great, grand partnership. That has been his basic theme throughout our debates but, of course, the Minister has no idea whether that will actually happen. I am sure that it will happen in the vast majority of cases, but it certainly will not happen in every case. The Minister must know that it is almost certain that, before long, the provision for community protection notices will be used in a way that is not being envisaged at the present time and, to that extent, is likely to be abused.
I will speak in particular to Amendments 22NB and 22NG which stand in my name. If a community protection notice is issued to an individual or body, the Bill states that they are required to,
“take reasonable steps to achieve specified results”.
Amendment 22NB deletes this wording because we would like to hear a little more from the Minister as to how this phrase will be interpreted and how it is expected to work. Can the Minister explain what counts as “reasonable” in this context and who will define what would be “reasonable steps”? Is it the intention that the person or body issued with a community protection notice will be told by the person issuing it what will be deemed to constitute,
“reasonable steps to achieve specified results”,
or is that all to be left up in the air?
Clause 40(3)(a) and (3)(b) refer to “specified things” with no requirement to take reasonable steps to do them but Clause 40(3)(c) refers to “specified results” and has a requirement to “take reasonable steps”. Why is there a difference in wording? If the reference to “reasonable steps” is so important, why does it not appear in Clause 40(3)(a) and (3)(b), which refer to “specified things”?
I turn now to Amendment 22NG. Clause 40(8) states:
“A community protection notice may specify periods within which, or times by which, requirements within subsection (3)(b) or (c) are to be complied with”.
Can the Minister explain why the Government have chosen to use the word “may” and not something more specific, such as “must” or “shall”? Why do the Government feel that there is no need for a specified period within which the requirements will be complied with—that is, requirements that are fair and clear to both the recipient of the community protection notice and the community itself? In what circumstances would a specified period not be helpful or would cause difficulties?
My Lords, these amendments seek to make a number of changes to the test for a community protection notice and to the arrangements of the service of a notice and the appeal against a notice. They also deal with the relationship with existing legislation, namely the statutory nuisance regime. I will first address the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee.
Amendment 22NA seeks to ensure that any detrimental effect on an individual is “significant” in order for the test to be met and the notice issued. I appreciate that a community protection notice should not be issued lightly. However, the test already includes appropriate safeguards. Not only does behaviour have to be persistent or continuing as well as unreasonable, but the individual in question has also to be served with a written warning. That is on top of any formal interventions that the council or a police officer may have already tried. By the time a community protection notice is issued there can be no doubt in the perpetrator’s mind that their behaviour is unacceptable. At that point the council or the police should be able to act, and quickly, to prevent further harm being caused to victims or communities.
I do not believe, given the multi-limbed test and written warning, that trivial or benign behaviours will be dealt with using the new notice. Not least, it is hard to see how those could be considered “unreasonable”. As my noble friend is aware, we have already published draft guidance for professionals, which provides some information on how the test should be interpreted. We are working closely with professionals and victims’ groups over the coming months to ensure that this is as helpful as possible. I will be very happy to look at this further to ensure that guidance is fit for purpose.
Amendment 22NF is well intentioned and I can understand why my noble friend raises it. When a community protection notice is issued, she is right that the person issued with it should fully understand the consequences of what is happening. In fact, as the draft guidance outlines, we would consider it good practice for some of this detail to be also included in the written warning. Under Clause 40(7)(b), the effects of Sections 43 to 48, including the possibility of remedial action and the financial implications of that, have to be outlined in the CPN, so that is already covered. Councils or the police should not be required to outline exactly what remedial action could be undertaken in case the situation changes. However, there is certainly nothing to stop the local agency from including it if appropriate. The purpose of a community protection notice is to require the person on whom it is served to take specified action. The power for a local authority to take remedial action is very much a fallback.
Amendment 22QB seeks to delete the ability for an authorised person to enter premises to serve a notice. I assure my noble friend that this is not a power of entry in the traditional sense. It simply allows the authorised person, when the occupier or owner is unascertainable, to serve the notice. That is only possible,
“to the extent reasonably necessary”.
For instance, where the problem occurs on derelict land that is owned by someone who cannot be identified, the authorised person can go on to the land to post the notice on, for instance, a prominent building on the site such as a shed. In many cases, posting the notice on the exterior of a building may be sufficient. It certainly does not give the authorised officer the ability to break down doors to serve the notice.
Amendments 22QD and 22QE seek to clarify the powers of the court when an individual appeals against a CPN served on them. I agree with my noble friend in the case of Amendment 22QE: the courts should be able to vary the notice by reducing the requirements. However, I believe that this is already covered in Clause 43(4)(b), which allows for the notice to be modified. I can also understand the point made by Amendment 22QD. It is hard to envisage a situation where an appeal would result in a notice being modified in a way that was not in favour of the appellant. However, the courts should have the flexibility to modify a notice in this way if it thinks that it is appropriate. Therefore, I do not believe that we should make this change to the legislation.
Amendments 22ND and 22NE bring us back to the subject of statutory nuisance. As my noble friend explained, the amendments are designed to ensure that there is no overlap between the new CPN and the statutory nuisance regime, established under Part III of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Amendment 22ND would ensure that the new notice was not used wherever conduct was already subject to a control under another statute. Amendment 22NE goes further still and seeks to carve out noise nuisance from the new CPN. This goes completely against what we are trying to achieve through these reforms, and I hope my noble friend will now understand the way in which we see this working alongside the existing powers. Victims do not care which power is being exercised or from which statute it is derived. They do not really care who deals with their problem or who answers their telephone call at 3 am. They just want anti-social behaviour to stop. That seems like a pretty reasonable wish to me; that is what this Bill is seeking to provide. Those tasked with stopping the behaviour should be able to respond quickly and effectively, using more than one power where this is appropriate and justified. This is not least because the community protection notice can cover behaviour which does not fall within the ambit of statutory nuisance, even though there may be some overlap. These amendments could result in officers being unnecessarily risk averse, potentially not using the new power and so allowing anti-social behaviour to continue, ruining victims’ lives for longer than necessary.
The new CPN will be available to deal with a wide range of anti-social behaviour. To say “It can be used for this behaviour but not that behaviour” would simply return us to mistakes from the past. We must move on from focusing on the behaviour and instead understand the impact it is having on the victims and communities that are being damaged.
I was asked by my noble friend Lord Greaves for 10 ways CPNs could be used. I can give him three—I have three prepared already—and no doubt a certain amount of inventiveness will allow me to write to him with another seven, but at least these give an idea. They can be issued to any individual or body persistently behaving in a way that has a detrimental effect on the quality of life of people in the locality. That is the essence. For example, there is no current notice system to cover an individual who regularly allows their dog to foul a communal garden. A group regularly taking the same route home late at night while drunk, making noise and waking their neighbours: this behaviour is not covered by the statutory nuisance regime. A third example might involve a takeaway which persistently allows its customers to drop litter on the pavement outside and causes noise nuisance late at night. It could be required to put bins outside the shop and ensure that customers leave quietly after 10 pm. Current notices can only be used to deal with one particular type of behaviour. I am trying to give illustrations of the sort of issues that have considerable anti-social consequences and which can be dealt with through a CPN regime.
I have to say to my noble friend that we have acknowledged the importance of the statutory nuisance regime in guidance. We have acknowledged the wealth of experience available on the subject and made it clear that, when problems are persistent, police officers and social landlords should speak to their partners in the local authority to determine which action is most appropriate. The CPN is a simple but powerful tool, available to protect communities from persistent and unreasonable behaviour that is having a detrimental effect on people’s quality of life. It must remain so and, as such, I urge my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
I turn to Amendment 22QC from my noble friend Lord Greaves. As I understand the issue, this would stop an individual appealing against a notice if they have transferred their interest in the issue to another person. I do not think that my noble friend was referring to transferring dogs but, if he were, I can give him an absolute assurance that, as currently drafted, it is not possible. A community protection notice would be issued to the person responsible for the dog and any conditions associated with the owner—for instance, attending a training course on how to look after the dog—would still apply. Ultimately, the notice would remain valid. I am happy to consider the issue further, but I would like to be clear that the notice should be framed in such a way as to deal with the current issue and, if possible, to prevent future anti-social behaviour.
I refer to a real case, which has been dealt with by serving planning notices, particularly Section 215 tidying-up notices, which are similar to the kind of notice that we are talking about now. The problem is associated with inappropriate use of land which is causing problems to people living adjacent to it. It is the use of the land that is the problem, but notices have to be served on the owner of the land, and the owner simply keeps transferring the ownership to somebody else, or to another company and then back again. The question that I am really asking is whether the Government could look at whether a community protection notice could be served on the land in some instances so that whoever owned that land would have to deal with the problems on it. If the problem is a dog, it is not associated directly with land—but, if it is a piece of land, could that possibly be considered?
I would certainly wish to consider the concept that my noble friend has presented to the Committee by tabling the amendment. It is well worth noting the illustration that he has given; we need to be certain that we have protected against that sort of situation. I shall no doubt be getting in touch with him and will try to consider this matter before Report. Meanwhile, I am grateful to him for raising this issue. Transferring the interest after a notice is issued may solve a problem, but it is not a ground for appeal, as he will understand.
My noble friend also asked about the difference between nuisance and annoyance and detrimental effect and how come the definitions are different. We have taken elements from existing powers; nuisance and annoyance has worked well, as we have said, in housing law, while detrimental effect is used in current environmental powers. It is also well understood. That is why we have transferred that language to this notice.
I turn to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. On Amendment 22NB, the provision specifically allows for a requirement to be attached to a community protection notice that includes reasonable steps to achieve specified results. This preventive limb of the new notice is integral to the process and I am surprised the noble Lord wishes to see it removed. Under this provision, authorised officers could, for example, include a requirement for a dog owner to attend dog training classes to ensure they are better able to control their dog in future. If there was any doubt as to why the provision is necessary, I hope I have clarified the issue.
In Clause 40(3)(a) there is,
“a requirement to stop doing specified things”.
In Clause 40(3)(b) there is,
“a requirement to do specified things.”
In Clause 40(3)(c) there is,
“a requirement to take reasonable steps to achieve specified results”.
I should have thought that what the Minister has just described is a requirement to do specified things and is covered by Clause 40(3)(b). What kind of things does Clause 40(3)(c) cover? Why is it, in relation to Clause 40(3)(c), a requirement to take reasonable steps to achieve specified results, whereas in Clause 40(3)(b), which is a requirement to do specified things, there is no reference to taking reasonable steps?
It is clear that, in the eyes of the Government, there is some significance in putting the requirement to take reasonable steps in Clause 40(3)(c), but not in Clause 40(3)(a) or Clause 40(3)(b). I should be grateful if the Minister could explain what that is and what the distinction is between a requirement to do specified things and a requirement to achieve specified results. I asked whether it was intended that the person or body issued with a community protection notice will be told, by the person issuing it, what will be deemed to constitute,
“reasonable steps to achieve specified results”.
Before the noble Lord answers, I wonder if I might add to his burden and suggest that the difference between paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) is really pretty obvious. In paragraphs (a) and (b), somebody has direct control over specified things that can or cannot be done, whereas in paragraph (c) we are talking about third parties, over whom the best that can be ordered is that reasonable steps are taken to achieve specified results. It is a classic example, frequently found in legislation.
I hope the noble Lord will accept that the definitions the Minister was giving seemed to come under the requirement to do specified things, not achieve specified results, which is what I had asked about.
My Lords, my much less elegant interpretation of these provisions is that paragraph (c) is about “how” and paragraphs (a) and (b) are about “what”. There is an absolute requirement to achieve paragraphs (a) and (b) but there can be only a reasonable requirement—and a choice of ways—as to how to to get there.
I would see it as being about outcomes as opposed to methodology. Noble Lords are familiar with this concept and understand the particular example.
Moving on to Amendment 22NG, while I cannot think of a specific example where it would not be necessary to include the specified time for actions to be undertaken on a notice, I am not the front-line officer dealing with anti-social behaviour on a daily basis. Those officers have told us that the additional flexibility afforded by the new powers is exactly what they want. They do not want to be constrained on a time limit. This is directional and they want to be satisfied that the direction of travel is working properly. To put a time limit on it may be counterproductive. The amendment would erode that flexibility.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked what is meant by “reasonable”. We have discussed “reasonable” before. In this case, the power will be used by council enforcement officers and police officers. These are trained professionals who make this judgment on a daily basis. What is reasonable in one situation is not reasonable in another. The judgment has to be made on a case-by-case basis. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, came up with the notion of CPNs for a string of shops promoting payday loans or for an off-licence. The conduct has to be defined as being unreasonable and a notice that imposes unreasonable requirements can be appealed. However, if an off-licence has benches outside encouraging people to congregate and engage in conduct that would be detrimental, it could be required through a CPN to remove the benches. That would be a perfectly reasonable request.
Except for the seven examples that I owe my noble friend Lord Greaves, I hope that I have given noble Lords the answers to their questions—but I appear not to have done so.
I really would like to hear the answers to my questions. I asked whether it was the intention that the person or body issued with a community protection notice would be told by the person issuing it what would be deemed to constitute,
“reasonable steps to achieve specified results”,
or will that be left in the air? Presumably, if there is an argument about the matter, it will be left for the courts to determine. Is that the case or will they be told what will be deemed to be reasonable steps to achieve specified results?
We should not make the methodology of serving the notice, which is what the noble Lord is referring to, specific. We discussed this when we talked about the requirement to do certain things. The steps that might have to be taken to achieve specified results may be up to the individual to judge. What is not in doubt is the need to indicate the specified result that is required. We discussed this issue when we were talking about the difference between paragraphs (a), (b) and (c).
I follow briefly and with some trepidation in the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Harris. I draw the Minister’s attention to Clause 41(2), which states:
“Conduct on, or affecting, premises occupied for the purposes of a government department is treated for the purposes of section 40 as conduct of the Minister in charge of that department”.
Can the Minister give us some examples of conduct that would be attributed to a Minister which might invoke the community protection notice procedure—for example, the activities of Jobcentre Plus, the DWP or some other government departments? What do the Government have in mind here?
I suppose that this comes back to the accountability of Ministers. I am accountable to the Committee this evening in giving answers to somewhat difficult questions. I promise to write to the noble Lord with an explanation. He was very astute. I saw him leap with alacrity at a particular point and show it to a colleague on his Bench, so I knew that something might be up. I will write to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I should have thought that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would have been glad to ensure that if there were conduct on the part of a government department that might justify a CPN there would be someone there on whom it could be, not literally, pinned.
I come back to my amendments. The Minister said that victims do not care how a problem is solved or who solves it. I agree with that. In my group of amendments I am seeking to ensure that the most effective mechanism is used. That is why I keep coming back to the need to ensure that the professionals who will be left to use the existing statutory powers are confident that no confusion will be caused. If it would be helpful to undertake further discussions with probably not only the Minister’s own department but Defra, I know that there are people who will be happy to try to thrash this issue out in a practical fashion following today’s proceedings. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22NA withdrawn.
Amendment 22NB not moved.
22NC: Clause 40, page 23, line 16, leave out subsection (6)
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hamwee and I had a meeting with the Minister yesterday, which was extremely helpful regarding various parts of this and for which we thank him very much. One of the things we talked about was our mutual wish to speed up this Bill a little and move into a gallop. The slightly languid, if not sleepy, feeling in this Committee means that it will not happen this evening. I apologise to the Minister, as these are two amendments that I intended to amalgamate with the previous group and I forgot to do so.
Amendment 22NC is to probe the meaning of Clause 40(6), which reads:
“A person issuing a community protection notice must before doing so inform any body or individual the person thinks appropriate”.
This is very vague. Who do the Government think that that should mean, by what means should this take place and, in particular, how will the Government ensure that this happens without actually stating in the Bill a little more about who should be consulted or notified?
Amendment 22QA makes this a bit more definite in relation to the local authority. It reads:
“Where a community protection notice is issued by an authorised person who is not the relevant local authority, the person must notify the relevant local authority of the issue of the notice”.
The reason is that it is absolutely essential that the district council or unitary council, which is at the centre of the community protection notice regime, should know what is going on. It is about the role of the district council—as I call it—or the unitary council in dealing with these kinds of things. If constables are to go off and issue them on their own, or indeed if other people designated by the local authority are to do this, there is a risk of duplication of effort—and a risk of confusion for the people subject to the problems that the activities are causing, particularly if more than two or three agencies are trying to deal with it. There is also the essential co-ordinating role of the local authority.
Under Clause 44, it is the role of the relevant local authority to take any remedial action. Whoever serves the notice, the local authority ends up with that role. So if you are a person who can issue one and you are not that local authority, simply having to notify the local authority seems like common sense. It would help if it were in the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I would comment briefly that having looked at these amendments, Amendment 22QA seems to be a particularly reasonable and sensible way forward. If you think of the local authority as being at the centre of its place—not just part of the local council but managing the area—it seems very reasonable and sensible. This is perhaps a case, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Harris said earlier, of wanting the parts of the Bill that are useful to work. This may well assist the Government in ensuring that the clause is effective.
My Lords, Amendments 22NC and 22QA are proposed by my noble friend to change the process at the point where a community protection notice is issued. Currently, when issuing a community protection notice, an authorised person—be that a police officer, an officer of a local authority or a person that the local authority has designated, such as a social landlord—would have to inform any body or individual that the person issuing the notice thinks appropriate. Amendment 22NC seeks to remove this requirement.
Amendment 22QA, in my noble friend’s name, then seeks to impose a requirement that an authorised person who is not the local authority must inform the relevant local authority of its issuing of a notice. I recognise that it is important that a local authority is aware that community protection notices are in operation in its area but, conversely, it is also important, as I am sure noble Lords will agree, that local authorities notify the police. The reality is that police and local authorities will be working together to tackle local anti-social behaviour and therefore it is not necessary to put into the Bill the requirement to inform the local authority. The existing provision in Clause 40(6) states that the authorising officer “must … inform” any appropriate individual or body of the issue of a community protection notice, and it is difficult to imagine any case where the relevant local authority would fall outside the definition of “appropriate”. I do not think it necessary to specify that the local authority must be informed.
However, there may well be others whom it would be appropriate to inform as well. As I have suggested, the police will often have an interest. I fear that the effect of my noble friend’s amendments would be to restrict the requirement to informing the local authority only.
Our guidance for front-line professionals states clearly that, where a community protection notice is being issued, there is clear merit,
“in involving the local council, which will have many years of experience in tackling environmental issues, when deciding whether or not to serve a CPN”.
As I and my noble friend have said on previous occasions, the guidance can be amended as we move through the parliamentary process. Of course, if there is a requirement, we can set a clearer expectation on the necessity of ensuring that the local authority is fully involved.
As an aside—I speak with some experience, although perhaps not with the same number of years’ experience as my noble friend—in my 10 years in local government, I served as both the cabinet member for the environment and then as the cabinet member for policing and community engagement. In that respect, my experience—albeit on a London council—showed that the local authority, the police and other local agencies work well on the ground, and we have faith that these agencies will continue to work well as we move forward.
Amendment 22QF concerns remedial works carried out by the local authority where there has been a breach of a community protection notice. Remedial works may be carried out if a person fails to comply with the terms of a notice served on them. The local authority may carry out the remedial work without the consent of the owner or the person who had defaulted on the notice on land “open to the air”, and Amendment 22QF would prevent this. The local authority cannot simply enter premises at will; I am sure that my noble friend knows that to be true. It must seek the “necessary consent” of the defaulter and the owner of the premises if that person is not the defaulter. However, there may be circumstances where the local authority has taken all reasonable efforts to find the owner but has not been able to do so. I do not believe that communities should continue to suffer in such circumstances, and that is why it is important that the authority is able to carry out remedial works.
I hope that my noble friend is reassured by the explanations I have given of what is behind the Government’s proposals here, and that he will be minded to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although I was a bit peeved by the first part of his response. If I have not made it absolutely clear that the first amendment is a probing amendment in order to find out what this subsection means, then I apologise. I shall try to be clearer in future. It is quite normal in Committee to table amendments that take out subsections, not because you want to take them out but because you want the Government to explain what they mean. They are called probing amendments and that is fairly normal procedure, but I am sorry that I did not make that clear in this case. Clearly, I do not want to take out the subsection; I want a clear explanation from the Government of exactly what it means, and I shall read Hansard before I decide whether I have had a clear explanation.
The Minister said that the reason why councils will have to be notified is that they have many years of experience. That is true but it is not why they have to be notified. They have to be notified because, as I understand it, they are the most important central body as far as community protection notices are concerned. I am not suggesting that the police are not important—they clearly are very important indeed—but the council is the body that has the staff and the ability to go on to the ground and do something about these problems, and remedy them if that is required. The Minister said that the Government have faith that these agencies will continue to work well on the ground as we move forward. I have no doubt that where this is working well already on the ground it will continue to do so, and I hope that it will be brought in where it is not yet working—so long as the people are still there on the ground.
I am sorry to hammer on about this, but in many parts of the country it is precisely those council staff and the local neighbourhood policing teams, who are so vital to this operation, whose employers are wondering how long they can continue to pay them, because of the cuts that are taking place. That is just a fact. I am not making a political point. If I were on the Labour Benches I would be making a horrible political point and attacking the Government over this, but I am not doing that now; I am just stating that this is the fact that we have to live with. Many of us are fighting hard to ensure that in our own patches the mechanisms, the structure and the networks continue, but with every year that passes that gets more difficult. It is one thing to pass legislation like this that puts forward exciting new ideas and measures to deal with the problems, but if we cannot do it on the ground because there are no staff left, it is very difficult. Having moaned in that way, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22NC withdrawn.
Amendments 22ND to 22NG not moved.
22P: Clause 40, page 23, line 22, at end insert—
“(9) A community protection notice may require the control or removal from premises occupied by a body or individual of a plant of the following description—
(a) Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica),(b) Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), or(c) a plant specified in an order made by the Secretary of State.”
My Lords, we have reached the high point of the evening: an amendment about Japanese knotweed. It is actually an amendment about weeds, alien and invasive. I have listed Japanese knotweed and Himalayan Balsam, which I think are now the two biggest nuisances of the invasive alien weeds in this country—and, indeed, from my observation, in much of Europe as well—but this is really an amendment about Japanese knotweed.
I could wax lyrical for hours about Japanese knotweed and the problems that it causes, if you want—but I am sure that you do not, so I shall not do that. I shall merely say that as a weed that has,
“a detrimental effect … on the quality of life of those in the locality”—
to quote the Bill on the subject of community protection notices—it is top of the list.
The Environment Agency has described Japanese knotweed as the most invasive species of plant in Britain. The problems are well known: on river banks, on pieces of land, invading people’s gardens, on building sites and on built sites, it is dreadful. It is an incredibly strong weed, which can grow up through concrete and split it, and cause the foundations of buildings to require attention. It can do all sorts of things, and it spreads very easily. It does not spread in the normal way, by sexual reproduction—not in this country, anyway. In this country the whole thing is apparently one huge female clone: it is all the same plant. It spreads vegetatively, and if you take a small part of the stem, the root or the leaf and just drop it, the odds are that you will have an infestation in that location before long.
Japanese knotweed causes huge problems. Local authorities attempt to deal with it on their own land—certainly my local authority does, perhaps because I nag it all the time—but it is much more difficult when the weed is on somebody else’s land. What is the law that applies to it? Because of its invasive nature, Japanese knotweed is listed in Schedule 9 and subject to Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. All that does is make it an offence to plant Japanese knotweed and cause it to grow in the wild. That is all very well if it is in the wild and growing as a weed on waysides or wherever. It does not apply to Japanese knotweed which you have not planted but which is growing on your property and you are not dealing with it. Under cross-compliance rules, if a farmer receives the single farm payment, he is required to take reasonable steps to prevent its spread. Those are the old rules and no doubt they will be rolled forward.
The Government are carrying out experiments. We have a Question on Japanese knotweed about once a year. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, is usually in the forefront of this. There are a lot of laboratory tests to find natural parasites from Japan, which would not eliminate it but would control it and keep it down. In an Answer to a Question from me, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, said:
“Following rigorous laboratory testing which identified the psyllid Aphalara itadori”—
a psyllid is a little beetle called a jumping plant louse—
“as a suitable biocontrol agent for Japanese knotweed, it was released under licence to two sites in spring 2010, subject to a programme of close monitoring. After reviewing the data collected”,
“licensing authority, approved releases to eight sites in England … in spring 2011. The continuing monitoring has not identified any non-target impacts”.
But it is not doing all that well. The numbers remain low, so additional releases have been made at the sites to boost numbers. The noble Lord continued:
“This rate of progress is not unexpected. Other classical biocontrol programmes have taken five to 10 years from release”.—[Official Report, 22/1/13; col. WA 283.]
What do you do if you are trying to sell your house? Recently, I visited Nelson in Lancashire where there is a row of terraced houses with a cross street across the top. The verge on the other side of the cross street, which is privately owned by adjoining landowners, has a massive infestation of knotweed. Even though it is on the other side of the street, people who wanted to buy a house in the area cannot get a mortgage. Earlier this year a report in, I think, the Observer, set out how this was happening all over the country. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Building Societies Association got together to try to knock heads together to say, “This is not a reason for not giving mortgages”. From personal experience, I can tell noble Lords that it is still going on.
If your neighbour has this problem it might be a private nuisance but, as such, the council will not do anything about it. I am suggesting that we should have an absolutely firm commitment from the Government that under these new community protection notices the presence of Japanese knotweed on land, particularly land near highways, rivers, buildings or dwellings, would be regarded as a community nuisance and that these provisions could be used to force landowners to get it removed. It is not easy to get it removed but it is possible. It may take two or three years and several sprayings. There are lots of technical aspects to it. For example, if you cut any down, it is controlled waste. You cannot just throw it away or put it on the tip. It has to be disposed of properly.
One of the problems is that people just cut it down and chuck it away. Then a new infestation starts. It is a scourge which is happening all over this country. The existing means are not stopping its spread. The jumping plant louse route is very hopeful and welcome but it will take a long time, perhaps decades, before we dare, or before it is possible, to release these insects into the wild to try to control it.
I believe that people are not taking this issue sufficiently seriously. There should be legislation from central government to make it an offence to have this stuff growing on your land and doing nothing about it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will be brief: I am sure the Committee would want me to be so. I can be very reassuring to my noble friend. He presents what is a very serious issue. Japanese knotweed is not the only invasive and destructive plant, as indeed he mentioned.
In reforming the anti-social behaviour powers, we have deliberately created flexible powers that can be used to stop or prevent any behaviour that meets the legal test. We have streamlined the powers, and introducing a specific use for the community protection notice would be to reinvent the behaviour-specific powers we are trying to repeal.
However, as currently drafted, the CPN can be used to require someone to control or prevent the growth of these plants, or any others capable of causing the havoc that they do. It is non-specific in terms of the nature of the plant and in the sense that it does not necessarily refer to invasive plants in the legislation. But the test is that the conduct of the individual or body is having a detrimental effect of a persistent or continuing nature on the quality of life of those in the locality, and that the conduct is unreasonable. Those are the tests. In this case, the conduct can just as easily be interpreted to mean inaction, so not taking action to remove it can come under a CPN.
I hope that I can reassure my noble friend that the amendment does not add to the powers currently available in the Bill and elsewhere, and I ask him to withdraw it.
My Lords, I am very pleased with that response. It is the most positive thing that I have heard a government Minister say about Japanese knotweed in the 10 years that I have been banging on about it in your Lordships’ House, along with other noble Lords. I am very grateful for that.
What I would really like to see when this legislation is passed, as it no doubt will be, is joint advice. I realise that the legislation will not refer to specific problems, whether Japanese knotweed, littering or anything else because the whole purpose of the CPN is to be general. But it would be very helpful if the Home Office and Defra could issue joint advice—together with CLG or anyone else—to councils and people about how to deal with this when the legislation is passed. There is a huge reluctance on behalf of many councils because they are frightened of the problem. They think that it is too expensive and that it cannot be solved. It is absolutely crucial that there is a war against Japanese knotweed throughout this country to get rid of it as far as possible.
I shall be badgering the Government to do that when this legislation is passed, but I am delighted by what the Minister said. I shall put it out, reprint it, pass it around and make him famous. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22P withdrawn.
Amendments 22Q and 22QA not moved.
Clause 40 agreed.
Clause 41 agreed.
Clause 42: Occupier or owner unascertainable
Amendment 22QB not moved.
Clause 42 agreed.
Clause 43: Appeals against notices
Amendments 22QC to 22QE not moved.
Clause 43 agreed.
Clause 44: Remedial action by local authority
Amendment 22QF not moved.
House adjourned at 10.09 pm.