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House of Commons Hansard
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Anti-loitering Devices (Regulation)
17 July 2018
Volume 645

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use of certain anti-loitering devices without a licence; and for connected purposes.

In introducing this Bill, I would like to make it clear that I am seeking to regulate the use of sonic anti-loitering devices, more commonly known as mosquitos, rather than ban their use entirely. As colleagues may know, these devices, which have also been referred to as anti-teenager alarms, teenager repellents or ultrasonic teenage deterrents, make a pulsing sound, which I am told sounds something like an alarm buzzing in one’s ears. My daughters tell me it is like a prolonged beep, akin to tinnitus. I also understand that this sound, which for the technically minded emanates at 17 kHz or less, can, according to the manufacturer, only be heard by people under the age of about 25. It is apparently exceedingly annoying after a short period of time—just like listening to certain Members of this House. [Laughter.] There are no firm figures for how many of these devices there are nationally, although the manufacturer claims to have sold thousands.

These devices are as widespread as they are ingenious, but they concern me for several reasons. First, in 2010, an investigation by the Council of Europe found that this device was “degrading and discriminatory” to youngsters and should be banned because it “violates legislation prohibiting torture”.

Secondly, I am uneasy about any device that willingly markets itself as a teenager repellent. Surely, we should never seek to repel our young people? They, as Whitney Houston said, are our future. Youth unemployment is at its lowest level since 2010, with 43,000 fewer young people unemployed in the first quarter of this year. Teenagers in England are now more likely to go to university than ever before. People aged 16 to 24 also accounted for 54% of apprenticeship starts in 2016-17, meaning that young people are currently responsible for around 265,000 apprenticeship starts per year.

Given those statistics, I would ask why we would ever want to repel or discriminate against our young people. On the contrary, the contributions of young people should be celebrated and cherished. Above all, we should never discriminate against anyone, let alone our young people. Yet that is what we are doing with these devices.

Of course, some young people are involved in antisocial behaviour, and I do accept that antisocial behaviour is a problem. This problem has impacted on my local area. There was an example in Walton-on-the-Naze recently when several beach huts were razed to the ground—the beach huts contained explosive canisters. This attack was not fair on residents, beach hut owners or the emergency services who had to deal with this dangerous incident, so I fully condemn this antisocial behaviour, as I would condemn it anywhere else. However, while antisocial behaviour is indeed a problem locally and nationally, I do not believe that these devices are an effective solution, as they simply move perpetrators to a different location while inadvertently targeting young people who may not be doing anything wrong in the first place. Not only are these devices discriminatory, as I mentioned, but they do not deal with the issue of antisocial behaviour, because they simply move it to other areas. That is my second concern about the devices.

My third concern is that these devices can be heard by people who are older than 25, because people as old as 40 can detect sound at frequencies up to 18 kHz. At the start of my speech, I mentioned that mosquito devices operate at 17 kHz, which demonstrates that the manufacturer’s assertion that the devices can be heard only by young people is clearly incorrect. That relates to my fourth concern, which stems from the work of Professor Timothy Leighton of the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research. He concluded that the people who use these devices neglect: the effect on very young children, babies, and animals; the effect on children with pre-existing conditions that make them especially sensitive, such as autism; the effects, both mental and physical, on children who cannot avoid long-term exposure, because of where they live or the school to which they go; and the lack of research to understand the potential effects of these sounds on individuals who cannot hear them.

Professor Leighton’s work therefore suggests that the effects of these devices are not properly understood. That is concerning given that 40% of young people regularly come across them, and 41% of young respondents to a Scottish survey experienced health effects or discomfort after encountering a device. According to those Scottish respondents, that included headaches or migraines, ear problems, tinnitus, dizziness, nausea and anxiety or panic. We have not even touched upon the potential effect on wildlife and animal habitats, or the fact that in Ireland, Dublin City Council has just removed these devices from all their buildings, because their use constitutes an assault under Irish law. Consequently, any use of a mosquito device in Ireland will now be fully investigated by the police.

What is more, and is perhaps most interesting, is that 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. There we have my fourth and final concern: not only do these devices discriminate, but we do not fully understand their effect, and there is a suggestion that they may cause health problems even in people who cannot hear them. In addition, the devices are not even successful in preventing antisocial behaviour, since they do not necessarily stop those intending to do harm from entering a certain public space. Consequently, we are excluding innocent young people from public space for no reason at all. That is what we are doing: we are excluding them from railway and bus stations, shops, schools, and spaces in their town centres.

I am not going to argue that the use of these devices should be better regulated just because they are ineffective, but I will argue that their use should be better regulated because they are ineffective, discriminatory and potentially hazardous to health. On the other hand, I believe that in certain circumstances these devices could legitimately be used, such as for warehouses, business premises, railway lines, industrial estates and electricity pylons—places where nobody should be in the first place. If the owners of such locations wish to use these devices, they should be able to do so, but they must be used responsibly.

That brings me on to the proposals contained in the Bill. It will make the use of mosquito devices illegal if an adequate licence has not been obtained. These licences will be administered by the relevant local authority, who will undertake the necessary due diligence and determine whether there is a public need and a guarantee of public safety before any of these devices are installed anywhere. The Bill will also ensure that local authorities take account of people who may be inadvertently affected by these devices, such as residents who have no say when their neighbour puts one of them up. To illustrate that point further, I heard only this morning about a family in Devon who are living through hell because a mosquito device has been installed by their neighbour. There are reports that the children from this family have been hospitalised and left housebound.

These devices need to be used responsibly. They need to be regulated, and that is what my Bill will do. Moreover, the Bill will introduce a quicker resolution mechanism for noise complaints associated with these devices. Currently, the only method of redress is to hope for a co-operative neighbour or to complain to the local environmental health office, but this may not produce the desired results quickly, or at all. I do not believe that it is fair for members of the public to be exposed to these devices without adequate control.

Some would argue that as a Conservative, I should be against unnecessary regulation, and indeed I am, but this regulation is not unnecessary. The regulation of these devices is firmly in the public interest, and I hope that colleagues will agree with me that this Bill should make progress today. Finally, it was pointed out to me by a Clacton councillor recently that these devices are effective—but then so are scatter guns.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Giles Watling, Tim Loughton, Will Quince, Ruth Smeeth, Bob Stewart, Mr Alister Jack, Bill Grant, Ben Bradley, Stephen Kerr, Gillian Keegan and Faisal Rashid present the Bill.

Giles Watling accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed (Bill 251).