§ 2. Mr. Ian Taylor
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to extend the powers of local authorities to regulate the holding of acid house parties.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Chris Patten)
My Department is currently consulting local authorities about the possible need to extend their powers to prevent or control acid house or similar parties. We will consider further action in the light of that consultation.
§ Mr. Taylor
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that he is having consultations. Given the genuine danger of death or serious injuries at such parties, particularly when they might move indoors during the winter months, will he try, for the benefit of environmental health officers, to clarify the existing regulations further? Will he also do his best to extend them as the difficulty arises from the fact that the organisers use secrecy to evade anticipation by local authorities, which makes prevention extremely difficult?
§ Mr. Chris Patten
I very much agree with what my hon. Friend has said. I also agree with the chief constable of Surrey who said that uncontrolled parties represent a disaster that is waiting to happen with the possibility of fire risk, blocked exists, blocked roads and so on. At the moment we are consulting local authorities and I have no doubt that we must give them greater guidance on the powers already open to them. It is, of course, for the courts to decide ultimately, but I want to issue that guidance as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Skinner
If there are so many dangers attached to the possibility of holding acid house parties in this enterprise culture, and if the Minister agrees with his hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) that the consequences could be disastrous, would it not make sense for the Government to get their act together and for the various Departments, including the Department of the Environment, to make it plain to the Secretary of State for Health that, in the event of such a disaster and the need for ambulance crews to get to that disaster, those crews should be paid the money instead of being kept out on the streets?
§ Mr. Patten
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, was able to hear the wholly convincing answers to that question made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health yesterday.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the success of the police intelligence unit in Gravesend, which co-ordinates with local authorities to deter acid house parties such as that suffered in Meopham in September? What hope is there of extending outside Greater London the penalty of imprisonment for those organisers whose actions represent non-compliance with local government licensing of such events?
§ Mr. Patten
My hon. Friend is right that proper co-ordination between the police and the local authorities is vital. At the moment we are considering with the Home Office, which is in the lead, the issue of penalties as well as guidance for local authorities. We shall make a statement as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Michael
Is it not ironic that the Minister is having to respond positively to a request from a Conservative Back Bencher for the extension of local authorities' powers when the Government of which he is a member have spent the past 10 years trying to undermine the authority of those local authorities in all sorts of ways, including on planning and licensing matters?
§ Mr. Patten
We have consistently tried to support and to strengthen responsible local government action and to deter irresponsible local government action. Unlike the previous Labour Government, we believe that the party was over for local authorities in the mid to late 1970s and that they should behave as responsibly and prudently as possible.