Is an Englishman's home still his castle?

Thanks to Nick Clegg (yes really), this month we are all a bit more free. You may not feel any different, although the result of the US election has definitely lightened the mood somewhat, but some quite exciting things happened at the end of October as key provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Act came into force.

This rather grandly titled, and not-wholly-unworthy, law promised to restore British liberties and turn back the tide of autocratic legislation.  A noble aim indeed and it must be a great relief to know you can now get married in the evening or at night and that wheel clamping on private land is outlawed. 

On the other hand, it is a bit disconcerting to discover that another part of the new law intended to stop councils using counter-terrorism powers to snoop on people is actually having the reverse effect and thwarting efforts to tackle noisy neighbours.  Never was the law of unintended consequences so apt a description.

It sounds like something you might find in an episode of Yes Minister.  The hapless Jim Hacker wants to stop council officials spying on homeowners putting out their bins or on parents pretending to live where they don’t in order to get their kids into a better school only to find he’s given noisy neighbours a license to play merry hell.

The act aimed to curb councils’ misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to mount surveillance and investigation operations.  Obviously a good idea, but it means local authorities now have to apply to a magistrate before they can eavesdrop on noisy neighbours.  The likely result is that they will either stop investigating complaints or ignore Ripa.

The Home Office says noise pollution investigations will usually fall outside the scope of the act.  Long-suffering neighbours up and down the country must be relieved, for it may sound trivial, but noise is the largest cause of complaints to local authorities, with as many as 450,000 complaints investigated each year. 

One irate neighbour kept awake by raucous karaoke singers got through the night, and got his own back, by publishing a review of the performances and scoring them with marks out of ten.  Others react by using passive-aggressive wi-fi names, such as ‘Your Music Is Annoying’, ‘Shut The Barking Dog Up No 7’, ‘Stop Wearing Heels’ and, my personal favourite ‘StopHavingSoMuchSex’.

Unfortunately, it’s not all harmless joshing.  The stress of a row over loud music caused the death of a 64-year-old retired teacher in Rochdale when he confronted neighbours who left a ghetto blaster on his doorstep.  A woman in St Helens was stabbed to death earlier this year by a neighbour just weeks before she was due to be evicted over parties and loud music. 

This may be at the extreme end of the scale, but the government recognised the misery that can result from noisy neighbours when it announced police would be able to compel people to turn down their music or stop other activities disturbing their neighbours.  Failure to do so could result in a £100 on-the-spot fine and continued bad behaviour could land someone in court.

All very well, but with their numbers being cut I wonder if the police have the bodies to respond to noise complaints and fight serious crime at the same time?  It is also a bit odd that just as one government policy makes it easier for the police to get involved another bit makes it harder for local councils to do exactly the same.  Just saying.

In another bizarre contradiction, while the Coalition mercifully scrapped Labour’s draconian ID cards scheme and the Freedoms Act sets out measures to control the expansion of surveillance cameras and remove the DNA of people not convicted of an offence from the national criminal database, the Communications Data Bill before Parliament will allow state snooping on an unprecedented scale.

This nasty little piece of legislation will require all telecoms companies to store details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming interactions as well as emails and phone calls.  This includes the time, duration, originator and recipient of the communication and the location of the device it was sent from.  It all makes CCTV cameras look a bit old hat.

There are a million reasons why this is a bad idea, from sheer unworkability to concerns it could deter whistleblowers and increase the risk of personal details being hacked.  But putting these substantive, and they are very substantive, issues aside the proposals also expose the confusion at the heart of government.

To be fair, the Coalition is not the first, and it won’t be the last, government where the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, the inevitable result of departmental silos, constant ministerial changes and an obsession with passing new laws as often and quickly as possible. 

Unfortunately it’s often the innocent citizen who suffers from the fallout.  So if you are plagued by noisy neighbours and kept awake night after night, you could call the council or the police, or for a quicker solution you could carpet your walls and plaster the ceilings with egg boxes.  It is, after all, your castle.


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