I beg to move,
That this House has considered Gypsies and Travellers and local communities.
We are fortunate to live in one of the most tolerant countries in the world—I would go so far as to say that Britain is the most tolerant—and underpinning that tolerance are a set of common values that the vast majority of those from all communities in our country abide by. Those values include respect—respect for the rule of law, respect for property, public and private, and respect for one another.
Whatever our political differences, I know that every member of this House wants us to live in a just and fair country where equality of opportunity flourishes and the life chances of all our children, across all communities, are enhanced, so, as we have this debate, I want to focus on four main themes. The first is the impact on settled communities when a small minority does not show respect for the rule of law. The second is the remedies that are available to the police and local councils to deal with illegal behaviour. The third is the Government’s response to date in addressing matters related to the Traveller community, as well as what, in concrete terms, we intend to do further. The fourth is what the Government are doing to improve the life chances of the Traveller community, most importantly the young.
On the Minister’s second point, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner, David Jamieson, has done a huge amount of work on these issues and has set out a number of proposals to try to deal with them, which I—and, I am sure, other Members from the west midlands—will be talking about later. Would the Minister be prepared to meet David Jamieson and a number of west midlands MPs to discuss the impact of these issues in our region?
Of course I will ensure that I meet the police and crime commissioner, or that a Home Office Minister does so if that is more appropriate. I have seen the piece of work that was produced, and it is an incredibly useful document.
As I was saying, we want every single child in our country to get the best education and the best start in life, and to fulfil their potential, and that absolutely includes children from the Traveller community.
I know that in today’s debate we will hear accounts of the damage left in the wake of illegal encampments and a call for local authorities and the police to do more and to move faster in dealing with them. Indeed, many Members have written to me highlighting the impact illegal incursions have on their constituents. I recognise, as I am sure the whole House does, the huge sense of frustration and anguish about the issue that many people feel.
I personally am not tolerant. My constituents are not tolerant. When Gunners Park was littered, when Trinity football ground was paved over with a travelling community, and when Cherry Orchard Park was invaded, my constituents were not tolerant. Can we have a three strikes and out rule? These people have expensive land cruisers and big trucks. If they park on council land or private land more than three times, may we give the police the power to take those assets and sell them for the good of the community and to clear up some of the mess that is left behind?
My hon. Friend expresses a view that many colleagues will have experienced in terms of the frustration felt by their constituents.
Let me talk about the powers the police have and about what we intend to do. As I said, many Members have written to me highlighting the impact illegal incursions have on their constituents. I recognise this huge sense of frustration; indeed, I share it. In recent months in my constituency of Reading West, we have had numerous illegal encampments set up on public land, including nine separate visits to Prospect Park in Tilehurst. These incursions have caused my constituents significant distress, as each leaves behind enormous amounts of waste and cleaning comes at a considerable cost to the law-abiding taxpayers.
We all aspire to peaceful and integrated co-existence between communities, where we all share the same rights and responsibilities, but there is a perception among the settled communities—our constituents—that the law does not apply equally.
I think that it would be fair to say that it is more than a perception. Many of us, certainly on the Government Benches, have heard repeatedly about this issue in our surgeries, as well as in discussions with district councillors. It is raised constantly. It is a real problem, rather than a perceived one.
Obviously, when there are problems we expect local authorities and the police to act. The view of people in the settled community is that if they were flouting the law in the same way as a small percentage of Gypsies and Travellers do, they would be treated more harshly by the authorities.
I want to reinforce what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin). It is vital for the west midlands that the Minister meets the police and crime commissioner, as well as MPs from the area, as soon as he can to try to resolve this problem. There is a lack of resources for police and local authorities and a weakness in the law—that is meant in no way to discriminate against genuine Travellers, by the way.
I hope that what I say towards the end of my speech will give the hon. Gentleman some comfort.
Forgive me for interrupting, but will the Minister give the House the sense that he appreciates that this is not a static situation? In the west midlands, for example, the number of unauthorised incursions has doubled since 2011. This debate takes place against the backdrop of an increasing problem, not a static fact.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The fact that we have so many colleagues present for the debate makes it clear that this is an issue we feel deeply about. I want to re-emphasise that the law applies equally to everyone, and it must be seen to apply equally to everyone in practice.
Does the Minister agree that the police sometimes see these cases as trespass, whereas many include criminal damage? If such damage has occurred, these instances should be viewed as that.
The law is very clear on criminal damage, but I want to talk about the powers the police have and what additional powers they have if there are transit sites or permanent sites available in the local area.
Let me set out the powers for local authorities in dealing with illegal encampments. First, it is important to put the number of illegal encampments in context. The January 2017 Traveller caravan count indicated that 13% of encampments were illegal, and about a third of those were on land not owned by travellers, yet no matter what the figures say, I know that illegal encampments often cause strife. We have already heard that in this debate.
I am pleased that the Minister has put some perspective into his comments by noting that a very small minority of the Gypsy and Traveller community is in unauthorised encampments, from within the small minority who are actually travelling—three quarters are settled in brick and mortar accommodation. Given that this is a debate about Gypsies and Travellers, I am looking forward to hearing the his fourth point about the disadvantages suffered by the Gypsy and Traveller community.
I will of course talk about that, because it is an important issue and we need to be proportionate in how we handle it. We must ensure that the life chances of all communities are enhanced.
I will be contributing to the debate later, but as the Minister is talking about statistics and the figure of 13%, will he consider that, although 13% might seem like a small percentage, when a community is repeatedly affected by Travellers, it seems disproportionate?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
I just want to pick up on the last but one point about the disadvantages suffered by the Traveller community. It is extremely difficult to defuse innate concern among the settled community and potential hostility towards the Travellers if we are all suffering, and I think that all of us will have encountered periodic and repeated incursions with temporary and illegal settlements of one kind or another. With all due respect to the people who gathered the Minister’s figures, as the figures were collected in January, I suspect the result would be very different if the numbers were collected in July.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The figures that I am citing are collected in January, but also in July, and I would be happy to share them with him. The fundamental point is that every incursion and illegal encampment causes problems, and that is what matters to constituents and communities up and down the country.
Will the Minister acknowledge that prevention is better than cure? What can be done to ensure that there are more authorised sites available, particularly in areas of the country that are feeling the pressure of unauthorised sites?
Prevention is, of course, better than cure, but it is also important that all communities abide by the law.
Local authorities and the police already have extensive powers to take action. Councils have a range of powers available to them. They can very quickly obtain a possession order to remove trespassers from land, and they can apply to the courts for pre-emptive injunctions that prevent unauthorised camping in a defined area. The police also have powers under sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
If I may proceed a bit further, I will give way.
Under section 61, the police can remove trespassers who cause criminal damage or engage in abusive and intimidating behaviour, or who have six or more vehicles on the land. The police can also seize and remove vehicles from illegal encampments. Under section 62, if transit or permanent Traveller sites are available—I think this is the point that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made—the police can act immediately. We know that local authorities, the police and other agencies can work effectively in a multi-agency approach. There are examples of good practice across the country, and I know that colleagues will raise them.
The Minister says that the police can take action quickly and that everybody should be treated equally under the law, but my constituents had to wait for days and days to have an illegal encampment dealt with. The Travellers trashed the local playground—human excrement was left on the children’s play equipment—but the police could not take action for days. My constituents believe that there is one set of rules for one community and another set of rules for others, and that the police cannot take action fast enough.
The circumstances that my hon. Friend outlines are not, unfortunately, unique to her constituency. I think each of us will have a similar example.
My goodness, there are such riches when it comes to taking interventions. It is important that the available powers are used fully by the police.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he accept that section 62A only covers the principal or highest-tier local authority? In the case of my constituency, a site just over the border in Berkshire cannot be considered for Traveller pitches. Will the Government look at how the law is drafted to make sure that it has the intended effect?
If my hon. Friend is patient, I will come on to precisely those points.
The Minister has been patient with interventions. I will keep this brief, because I hope to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is the Minister’s position on the law that what he has read out is good enough? I would counsel him against reaching that conclusion. The point is that the law is not good enough. It is too slow and too expensive, and the people who pay the cost are our constituents. We need legal change to make the removal of illegal encampments faster and cheaper.
The right hon. Gentleman makes the case eloquently.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I want to echo the comments that have just been made. The feedback from North Somerset Council and my local police indicates that, although the current powers are extensive in theory, they do not work in practice. They are too slow, and there are too many loopholes. The miscreant element of the Traveller community that is the cause of these problems understands the loopholes all too well, and we end up playing cat and mouse across county boundaries and authority boundaries. We absolutely need to reword the law, so that it works fast and effectively for the settled community as well as for the Traveller community.
I agree. We need fairness in the law, and we need it to be applied in a manner that works for the settled community.
Having given way to quite a few Members, I will proceed and see whether I can gallop through. As I have indicated, local authorities, the police and other agencies can work effectively together. There are examples of such work in the west midlands and Warwickshire, and I am sure that colleagues will talk about them. I agree that the police can act much faster when there are sites to direct Travellers to. That is why we expect local authorities, as a minimum, to plan for a five-year supply of deliverable and developable sites for Travellers.
The number of Traveller caravans on authorised sites rose from 14,498 in July 2010 to 17,938 in July 2016. We need all local authorities to step up to the plate in providing sites. Local authorities that meet their requirements help to limit the prevalence of illegal encampments. We expect local authorities and the police to clamp down on such encampments, but unless there are sufficient sites, the police and local authorities will not be able to use their powers fully.
In March 2015, the Government wrote to council leaders, police and crime commissioners and police chief constables about their response to illegal encampments. We were concerned that local authorities and the police were not being seen to be doing enough to stop such incursions, and we reiterated that the Government want local authorities, the police and other local agencies to work together to address incursions. We reissued a summary of the robust powers to remove unauthorised sites, but I am aware of growing concern that the available powers are not being used fully.
If I may, I will proceed. The Government have made important progress in ensuring that the needs of Travellers are balanced with those of the settled community. In 2012, the Government published the planning policy for Traveller sites, which requires planning authorities to make their own assessment of need. As I have said, that means identifying a five-year supply of deliverable Traveller sites. We revised that policy in 2015 and gave increased protection to the green belt.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way to my hon. Friend, who has been very patient.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have in the past expressed frustration with my local council for not taking enough action, but there is one site in my constituency where the local council has taken action. In December 2016, three enforcement notices were served on that site, but the appeal against those notices will not be heard until March 2018, because, as I understand it, of the difficulty of getting somebody from the Planning Inspectorate to hear the appeal. I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether there are enough resources at the centre to address the problem, in addition to the steps that our local councils need to take.
I would be happy to discuss that case with my hon. Friend afterwards.
If I may, I will make some progress.
We introduced a general duty to assess the accommodation needs of all sections of the community who reside in caravans, and we sought to strengthen the local authority position in determining inappropriate development by having up-to-date local plans.
We have reflected on the views about illegal encampments expressed by Members in previous debates and in letters to the Department—we are hearing those views loud and clear today—and I can announce that the Government intend to consult on the effectiveness of enforcement against unauthorised developments and encampments. We want to seek views on whether there is anything we can do to ensure that existing powers can be used more effectively. Let me be clear, however: this is not a signal to local authorities and the police that they should wait for the outcome of such a consultation. They have the powers to act, and we expect them to act.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I welcome the announcement that local authorities are being encouraged to provide more settled sites, but does the Minister agree that the enforcement problems that local authorities and the police face often relate to a lack of resources, due to local government cuts?
Over £200 billion is being made available to local authorities to deal with a range of issues over the next four years. Several colleagues have made the point about cross-agency and cross-authority working, which I am sure we will hear about in this debate, and that is absolutely the way to go.
If I may continue, while it is right that we seek to deal with illegal encampments, which are perpetrated by a small percentage of the Gypsy and Traveller community, we need to do everything we can to improve the life chances of that community. The Gypsy and Traveller community has had poor life chances for too long, and it is the ethnic group with the lowest educational attainment and the worst health outcomes.
When it comes to education, we expect schools to have data and evidence-led approaches to support all their pupils—whatever their backgrounds. High proportions of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils claim free school meals and benefit from our strategy to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium. We have invested £137 million in the Education Endowment Foundation to help schools understand what can raise disadvantaged pupils’ attainment. As for access to healthcare, the Government have commissioned research to investigate which approaches to community engagement are most likely to be effective at enhancing trust between the Traveller community and mainstream healthcare services. That project is due to report in November this year.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement that the Government will consult on solutions to this difficult problem. If I heard him correctly, he said that they will consult on whether existing powers can be better used, but will he confirm whether the consultation will consider whether new powers are necessary? Will it cover both of those things or just the first?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Colleagues and constituents will be welcome to write in to the intended consultation with all their views on the current powers or on additional powers that they think may be necessary.
NHS England is working to improve access to healthcare and health outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers. In November 2015, NHS England produced guidance for GP practices to clarify the rights of all patients, including patients from the Gypsy and Traveller community. The guidance includes the responsibilities of providers in registering patients with a GP practice and was complemented by the publication in March 2017 of a patient-facing leaflet to support people from Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities to register with a GP. The Prime Minister launched an audit in August 2016 to look into racial disparities in public services stretching right across government, and it will be published shortly. My Department will act upon the recommendations that emerge from the audit and will also publish a new integration strategy in the coming months.
York Travellers Trust does excellent work in providing support for York’s travelling community. However, it says that the community needs proper facilities on sites, especially warm areas for children to play and learn in. Will the Minister consider that in any future planning for sites to ensure that families have proper spaces in their community?
The location of sites and the provision of services are matters for local authorities, so I encourage the hon. Lady to talk to her local authority about that.
Will the Minister give way?
I am about to conclude. I have taken quite a few interventions, but I apologise to colleagues who have not been able to intervene.
Britain is one of the world’s most successful multiracial and multicultural societies. My Department works to bring communities together—we build on what unites us—but to belong to Britain we must all embrace a common set of values, and we must all show regard for the law. We are committed to making sure that Gypsies and Travellers can benefit from the same life chances as everybody else, but we are also prepared to take strong action when people refuse to follow the law. With our intended consultation, I want to send a clear message: the Government are listening.
Order. Before I call the Opposition spokesman, it will be obvious to the House that a great many people want to speak this evening and that time is limited. I therefore warn colleagues in advance that there is likely to be a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, starting at about seven minutes and probably going down depending on the number of interventions and how long people speak for. As ever, it is for each colleague to have regard to others as well as to himself or herself.
I feared that I had come into the wrong debate. I am fairly certain that this debate is about Gypsies, Travellers and local communities, but the Minister finished his speech—I applaud his final remarks—by making a real point about the overwhelming majority of the travelling community, who are law abiding and who live settled lives, but against whom the disadvantages are enormous. The House ought to recognise that as well recognising, as I do as a constituency MP, that the antisocial and illegal actions of some are unacceptable. We have to get the balance of our debate right.
I will come on to discuss unacceptable encampments, but the Minister is right to say that all communities must abide by the law. Most of the travelling community does abide by the law, and we need to place it on record that the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller community are our fellow citizens. That group probably faces the biggest levels of prejudice and discrimination in Britain, and the House has a duty to do something about that for our fellow citizens. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) shakes his head, but I hope he does not disagree with that point.
A YouGov and Traveller Movement poll, the results of which were released today, rather sadly show that 10% of our fellow people would still be extremely unhappy at one of their family members having a relationship with somebody from the black or Caribbean community and that 3% would be unhappy about a relationship with someone from the White British community. However, it also found that 42% of people in this country would be unhappy about a relationship with somebody from the travelling community. That demonstrates the level of prejudice that still exists in this country.
The various parts of the Traveller community are simply not homogenous. Some 75% of the Traveller community are actually not travellers and live in bricks and mortar, just like hon. Members from both sides of the House. It is a minority—something like 1,400 of the 22,000 caravans that exist—that causes real nuisance. Government Members have been absolutely right to say that when incursions take place, as they have in my constituency, that is unacceptable to the local communities who suffer the damage, but we must still say that Gypsies and Travellers are part of the local community in many places.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I just want to make a few more points, but I will most certainly give way in a moment.
Many Travellers are in jobs—skilled, unskilled and professional—and some are public servants. I call to mind Jim Davies, a sergeant in the Thames Valley police. Along with Petr Torak of Cambridgeshire police, Jim Davies founded the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Police Association, which now has 100 members. Having spent a lot of time in recent years trying to increase the number of people from minority communities in our police force, I found it interesting that the Traveller community is one of the few groups with a proportion of people in the police that more or less mirrors its proportion in society more generally. Jim Davies, who has a Romany background, is about to retire after 30 years of serving the people of Thames valley and I applaud him.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to my right hon. Friend first, and then to the hon. Gentleman.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the public view of the community will continue to be shaped by the appalling behaviour of the minority, who bring absolute chaos to their own communities, and by the perceived inability of the authorities to act, even though they can act under existing powers, as my own borough of Sandwell has demonstrated, by creating a site to which Travellers can be directed straightaway—within 24 hours—and by taking out orders against individual families who persistently break the law? When such action is taken, the public will be reassured and will live in much better harmony with the majority of the community who, as he is absolutely right to say, are acting peacefully and lawfully. We must deal with these rogue elements.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but let us be very clear that if we were talking about any other minority community, the idea of stigmatising the majority because of the illegal behaviour of a minority would be unacceptable and atrocious. We must not stigmatise them. We should act against those whose behaviour is unacceptable and illegal, but we should not stigmatise them.
I actually lived in a Traveller community for a few days, and I must tell the House that one of the biggest problems is that people who act illegally are giving their children no chance in life because they cannot get an education. Most of the children under 17 in the encampment I was in, which was mixed, could not read. When I advocated their joining the Army, for example, they said, “Mister, you don’t understand. They wouldn’t have us.” It took me two days to understand what they meant: they could not read. This is something we have to crack.
I am with the hon. Gentleman on that. Let me remind him, if I may, of Jim Davies, about whom I spoke a few moments ago—a Romany who spent 30 years serving the public in our police force. People like that are already the role model we want in that community.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I need to make a little progress, otherwise I fear I will be taking time off those who want to disagree with me later.
When a seven-year-old child says plaintively, “People don’t like us”, surely that should prick the conscience a little of those who want to stigmatise the whole of the travelling community. When we know that 77% of the travelling community have been victims of hate crime or hate speech, when we know that less than 20% would report hate crime or hate speech to the police because they fear no action would be taken, when we know that half of the Traveller community when seeking employment —the sort of thing we want them to do—have faced discrimination, and when we know from a recent survey that four in 10 of our fellow countrymen and women would not want their child to play in a Gypsy home, we know we have a problem.
The 2015 report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission made it clear that the position of Travellers is getting worse. As the Minister conceded, we still have massive challenges to face in many different areas. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made a point about education. Some 57% of young people now get GCSEs with five grades from A to C, but among the Irish Travellers the figure is as low as 18% and among the Gypsies it is as low as 9%, so we know we have a problem. Another problem is when a teacher says to people in her class, “There’s no point in teaching you as you’ll end up tarmacking drives.” We have a problem in our educational system.
We know that people are denied access to our health services. One of the paradoxes is that not only does that lead to a 10% lower life expectancy among Travellers, which is outrageous in modern Britain, but it means it is less likely that Traveller children will be vaccinated, which matters to everybody. We know about herd immunity, and if we allow that to continue and do not ensure access to our health services, we will actually harm the health of the population more generally.
We know that there are more Traveller children in care. The Travellers account for 0.1% of the population, but only 0.03% of apprenticeships go to people from the Traveller community. Some 5% of our prison population is made up of people from the travelling community, and 8% of women in New Hall Prison are from a Traveller background. I say to the Minister that we must now have some proper accounting. The NHS does not count Travellers as a community of note, and that has to change.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the way in which the NHS currently accounts for people is based on the breakdown in the 2001 census. He will know, however, that an ongoing piece of work in the NHS is looking at whether we can move to using the categories in the 2011 census, which includes Gypsies and Travellers.
That is comforting, but it is six years since the census was taken. This is not a new phenomenon, and I think we really can and must do better. I know that this is not a matter for the Minister’s Department—he is in the invidious position of having to respond for the Home Office, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and so on, which is always like drawing the short straw—but he has to go back to his colleagues and say that this is simply not good enough. Proper accounting is the starting point.
It did not have to be this way; it could have been so very different. The previous Labour Government left a good legacy. The Equality Act 2010, along with subsequent case law, has made sure that Travellers are defined as a protected minority. The Housing Act 2004 provided a statutory basis for an assessment of the need for housing and caravan sites for Travellers. The periodical review of housing needs that local authorities are supposed to undertake was brought in under the previous Labour Government.
However, the Equality Act was flouted by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sir Eric Pickles, who was guilty of unlawful discrimination when he singly picked out Gypsies, saying that any application by Gypsies for a green-belt site would need special consideration. That was unlawful, but—let us be honest—it was also unacceptable. It was unacceptable behaviour to be so discriminatory.
Why was the assessment of need removed by this Government? Will the Minister tell the House that such an assessment will now be put back in place, because it ought to be there? The periodical review has gone, and where are the 28 commitments of the ministerial working group? Is the Minister determined, as I am, to do something to better the lives and the life chances of the Travellers? The 2016 draft guidance review of housing needs for caravans and houseboats has not been delivered in proper form. Where is it? The Minister made no mention of any of these points.
Under the affordable homes programme, £60 million was available for Travellers for Traveller sites. The Minister did not tell us how many new sites have been allocated. He did not tell us where the money is, or what it has been spent on. That matters, frankly, because I can tell the House that in the south-east, for example, only 10 of the 66 local authorities now have a five-year plan for the supply of Traveller sites. In the east and west midlands—this is of concern to my hon. Friends from the midlands—only 15 of the 70 local authorities across the whole region have a five-year supply plan.
We know that only a third of local authorities in London have completed a Traveller accommodation needs assessment. The Minister said that the Government have exhorted local authorities to complete such assessments, but only a third of London authorities have done so. In my own area, two local authorities actually believe they have no need for places for Travellers, which is not acceptable. The question is: what will the Government do about that?
The idea of a five-year supply plan in relation to an itinerant population is a difficult one. As the hon. Gentleman will have heard earlier, we have seen a doubling in the number of illegal Traveller incursions in the west midlands since 2011, and in my own green-belt constituency, which has provided 26 additional pitches, we have seen a doubling in the number of illegal travelling incursions in the past 12 months. The fundamental problem is that when we seek to move the Travellers to the new pitches, they do not want to go to them.
I will come on to the point that the right hon. Lady makes in a few moments. Of course there is an issue with unauthorised sites. I have experienced it in my erstwhile role as a police and crime commissioner and as a constituency MP. Like many other hon. Members, I believe that the law is inadequate at the moment and that we need to look at changes.
Anecdotal evidence from local authorities suggests that those that are good—which provide sites—end up attracting the Travellers who cannot be placed elsewhere. That is a real issue because unless the power exists—it did, but the Government took it away—to insist on local authorities conforming to some credible plan, the burden falls disproportionately on the good local authority to the advantage of others.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the case that he is making. He may also wish to comment on reports from friends and families of Travellers that certain rogue landlords who control sites put legitimate Traveller and Gypsy families under pressure to leave the sites, as they believe they will get more economic value from the sites if they can bring new tenants into the properties.
My hon. Friend tells me something that I did not know and I am grateful because that should form part of the Government’s thinking.
Let me be clear: I do not countenance antisocial or illegal behaviour. Why would I, any more than anyone else? We are probably talking about 1,400 caravans that cause the problems. The Minister should not be too casual about his belief that powers exist. Sections 61 and 62 as operated by the police are not adequate because—not wrongly—they include a provision that the police have to ensure that there is a suitable, well-managed site to move Travellers to. That is a sensible provision, but it works only if such sites are available. We come back around, on this circular problem, that we can have all the powers we want but if the sites are not available, they will simply go round and round.
My hon. Friend makes the salient point that since 2010 the Government have systematically removed both the carrot and the stick for local authorities to provide appropriate sites. Then they are puzzled by the increase in unlawful, unauthorised encampments. Is not the solution to provide sites? It is a very limited role for local authorities when broken down in that way, and then the problem would go away of its own accord.
My hon. Friend invites one of my conclusions and I will come on to exactly that point.
Does the shadow Minister not accept that the problem with requiring the provision of authorised sites is that a county cannot accept unlimited liability for those sites just because it happens to be a popular place for Travellers to visit? Most local authorities have provided a reasonable number of sites, but demand exceeds supply. It cannot be down to the taxpayer to meet that demand no matter what.
The hon. Gentleman is not right: many local authorities are not providing any sites and we need to establish that fact. If there are no sites, we will simply move people from one illegal, antisocial encampment to another, however much we operate the revolving door. That achieves nothing, and is neither rational nor fair to the communities who bear the burden of those illegal visitations.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to include the boating community in the travelling community? Members of the boating community do not want to be moved around, but under the current provisions that is what is happening. It is important, when talking about the travelling community, that we also include the boating community, which is increasing.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, and I am aware that the owners of berths are beginning to make moves against their existing tenants, which is not acceptable. If she will forgive me, the world of narrowboats and house boats is a very different one to that of Travellers, but she may have a chance to expand on her point later.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will make some progress. It is only fair.
The other point I make to the Minister about the law is the disparity between private land and public land. Normally, on private land it is possible to obtain action by bailiffs within 24 hours. With public land, that is rarely possible. Local authorities need to be under a duty to exercise a test of reasonableness, but within that it should be possible to align the actions that local authorities can take with respect to public land. Public land does not only belong to wicked councils, but may be owned by hospitals or schools. One of my hon. Friends was telling me about an incursion on to some playing fields in his constituency. It can take days and days to get any action on such incursions, and we need to look at the broad definition and bring public land into the realm of private land.
In Leeds, negotiated settlements have begun to take place. Encampments were costing some £10,000 each in local authority and policing costs. By negotiating with Travellers on stopping sites, the council has been able to establish better processes for, for example, the dumping of rubbish and the times of coming and going to the site. That has led to a significant reduction in the number of encampments and a saving of some £200,000 for the local authority and the police. That is the kind of sensible action that we should encourage.
The Minister’s speech was fascinating, but it was empty of real commitment—
What would you do?
The Minister has been talking for large parts of my speech, so he does not know what I would do. I talked about the need for a change in the law—not a review of the law—[Interruption.] I would be delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned on several occasions that he would like to see a change in the law. Will he say how he would like to see the law changed?
If the Minister had been listening, he would have known that I talked about bringing private land into conjunction with public land and about making sure that the police’s powers could be used more effectively. The police are frustrated. I talked about the problem of section 62 and the fact that at the moment the police have to have an alternative site.
The reality is that we have to couple the use of those powers with the investment in sites, which Conservative Members are reluctant to do. When the comment was made that Government cuts to local government had had a serious impact on the capacity to provide sites, it was met with a howl of derision from Conservative Members, who once again want to protect austerity except when it affects their constituents.
We need to see investment in sites. We need to know where the £60 million has gone from the affordable homes scheme. We need a Government who have a genuine commitment to reduce the level of discrimination in our society. I sympathise with hon. Members who face problems from antisocial and illegal behaviour by Travellers, and those should be dealt with, but—as I began by saying—the lot of many of the travelling communities is unacceptable. One Traveller says, “As a PhD student I have been treated as an oddity or as incompetent by my peers and professors.” Another said, “I went for a cleaning job. When I told the pub owner where I lived, she said we don’t serve your sort and I won’t employ you.” I have read of someone saying to a nine-year-old child, “I’ll burn your caravan down while you sleep. Dirty thieves, you should’ve been deported, even the young one.” That was to an English-born child. When that happens, we know we have a problem. We can rail against the minority of illegal Travellers—we can and they will—but let us make sure we also deal with the real issues that affect this community which is so badly discriminated against. They are our fellow citizens and they deserve better from this House.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Order. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) has finished. He cannot give way. He has concluded with an excellent peroration. This will be a lively debate, as it should be on such an important subject, so I am afraid I have to impose an immediate time limit of seven minutes on Mr Mark Francois.
The whole issue of Travellers is one that resonates deeply in my county of Essex, not least because of the events at Dale Farm several years ago, when Councillor Tony Ball and Basildon Council took action to uphold the law and clear one of the largest illegal Traveller encampments in the country. I note that a number of my Essex colleagues are in the House this evening: my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for Clacton (Giles Watling), for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart). That shows the degree of concern among my colleagues in Essex about this issue. Indeed, I understand that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have also had some issues in your Essex constituency with regard to Travellers. Essex is here, one way or another, in very significant numbers.
It is important to stress that many Travellers are law-abiding, but it is also true that unfortunately a minority do cause a number of problems for people in the settled community. From my own experience, we can divide these problems broadly into two categories: first, those caused by non-travelling Travellers, which I will explain in a moment; and, secondly, those caused by travelling Travellers. Non-travelling Travellers are not people who move regularly from place to place. They sometimes breach planning guidelines and regulations to develop buildings, quite often in the green belt, by laying hard core in breach of planning controls and then seeking to build properties thereafter.
Being a Traveller is not about the frequency with which you move. It is very remiss of the right hon. Gentleman to call people who are not moving at any given point “non-Traveller”. Being a Traveller is part of your ethnicity and I do not think it is up to him to define their ethnicity.
I am just talking about Travellers who are not travelling. This is the point I am trying to make. It is sometimes a misnomer to call these people Travellers, because they are not actually travelling at all. They are merely seeking to exploit weaknesses in the planning system to try to develop properties where others cannot.
We have had exactly that problem at an area in my constituency called Hovefields in Wickford, where Travellers have attempted to do that, despite two High Court injunctions to the contrary. Travellers have recently laid many tonnes of hard core on land at Hovefields and have then sought to expand the existing area of their properties upon it. Local members of the settled community have been subject to harassment and intimidation when they have sought to protest to the council about those changes. I am sure the whole House condemns that behaviour. Basildon Council is continuing to pursue the matter through the courts, but, as the Minister will be more than well aware, the whole process of enforcement in relation to breaches of planning regulation can be very cumbersome indeed.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has a big Traveller problem in Hammersmith.
Interesting point. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Dale Farm. I had the opportunity to visit it twice with the late Rodney Bickerstaffe and the late Lord Avebury. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has ever been there to talk to the Traveller communities. I just want to be clear that he is not making a link between someone’s ethnicity and their ability to follow planning regulations.
The point I am making is that I believe all people should be equal before the law. I shall go on to explain exactly why that should apply.
Basildon Council—I spoke many times to Tony Ball, who was in charge of clearing Dale Farm—is continuing to pursue the matter through the courts. However, as the Minister knows, that can take a very long time. It is deeply frustrating to some of my constituents that they are expected to respect planning law—for instance, if they wish to build an extension to their domestic property—yet it would appear that some Travellers sometimes take little notice of the planning regulations by which others are expected to abide. What we are asking—I reiterate the point—is that all people should be equal before the law, because otherwise how can we expect to uphold the current planning regime? I therefore ask the Minister to consider—as part of the consultation, which I warmly welcome—whether anything further can be done to strengthen the enforcement powers of local authorities against such deliberate breaches of planning regulations. We all know it goes on and we all know it has been going on for years. It is about time the Government did something to try to bring this practice to an end.
The second category, the travelling Travellers, are those who do move from place to place. Some—I say again, some—of these Travellers move across the country establishing temporary encampments, quite often on public land such as car parks, other parks and open spaces. This has been a particular problem in Essex in recent years, including in my own constituency. As the Minister said, councils have the opportunity, working with the police, to serve so-called section 61 notices to move Travellers on, but very often that just results in them moving to another public open space where the whole rigmarole starts again. The current powers available to police and local authorities do not act as a deterrent to people who wish to break the law in this way.
I understand that Ministers are now considering whether changes need to be made, and I take tonight’s announcement of a consultation exercise as a very positive development. I believe we should now look across the Irish sea for a solution and adopt the Irish Government’s system of making such deliberate acts of trespass a criminal offence. In fact, the Irish system is one reason why so many Traveller families from Ireland now come to the United Kingdom. By making this change, I believe that we could provide a very real deterrent to those who seek to trespass quite deliberately on public land. To echo what was said from the Opposition Benches earlier, prevention would be better than cure. I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions with Roger Hirst, our very active police, crime and fire commissioner for Essex, and can tell the House that he is also firmly in favour of adopting the so-called Irish option.
In summary—I know many Members are keen to speak—I congratulate Ministers on securing this debate and on seeking to ascertain the will of the House on this important issue. In the debate, I think Ministers will hear calls from both sides of the Chamber for something further to be done to help to reduce the problems that some Travellers sometimes cause some communities. The time for action is now. I very much hope that Ministers will listen to the House and that following the consultation—they can take this speech as a submission to it—they will finally determine to adopt the Irish option and provide the real deterrent we have needed for so long.
It is a pleasure to speak from the Front Bench. I did not expect to do so, but my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) has been injured. I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole House when I wish her well and a safe return to this place. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate.
I would like to outline a bit of context and history, because those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. The first anti-Gypsy Act was passed back in the 1500s. It allowed the Crown the power to remove Gypsies from England by any violent means necessary. In 1547, Gypsies were effectively enslaved. Edward VI instituted a law that branded Gypsies with the letter “v” on their front for a period of two years of enslavement. If they escaped, they were then enslaved for life. And of course the House does not need a lecture on what happened to the Gypsy and Romani communities during the Holocaust.
While researching this debate over the recess, I read the excellent book by Katharine Quarmby, “No Place to Call Home”, which I commend to the House. I would be more than happy to place a copy in the Library. I was struck by the account of the tragic murder of 15-year-old Johnny Delaney in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. He died on 28 May 2013 after having his head kicked in. One of the murderers, jumping on his head with both feet, said it was okay because, “He’s only a Gypsy”. It is important, therefore, that we approach this debate with an understanding of the context and history.
As one would expect from a Scottish nationalist Member, I want to talk about some of the challenges from a Scottish angle. The 2011 census was the first to include the option of Gypsy or Traveller as an ethnic category, and in it 4,200 people in Scotland identified as white Gypsy Travellers, although the real number is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 by those who have worked with the community. In my speech, which I will keep brief because a lot of Members want to contribute, I will talk about education, health, housing, discrimination and hate crime and the media. I was disappointed that the Minister spent 20 minutes talking about enforcement, when there are clearly other issues facing the community.
On education, we know that Gypsy Travellers have some of the lowest attainment rates in Scotland: 28.1% leave school with no qualifications at SCQF level 3 or higher, compared with 1.9% among all leavers. The Scottish Traveller Education Review Group has developed guidance that went out to consultation, and the Scottish Government are currently considering the responses. I hope that the report can be implemented soon.
I want to touch on health because, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) outlined, some of the community’s health indicators are very poor: life expectancy is 10 years lower; and mothers within the community are 20 times more likely to have experienced the death of a child. That is a staggering figure and one that the House should reflect upon. There is a lack of cultural awareness and understanding among medical professionals, so it is important that the Royal College of General Practitioners is developing a toolkit on commissioning for socially excluded families. I hope that that can be developed further.
Much of this debate has centred on housing. Only seven of Scotland’s 32 local authorities do not provide a council site for Gypsy Travellers, including my own in the city of Glasgow, which closed its last council camp in 2009 because of a lack of demand. Scottish councils provide approximately 500 pitches across 32 sites. The sizes vary from fewer than 10 pitches to up to 30, and I am glad to see that guidance has been issued to local authorities to find some way of allowing these people to stay in traditional safe communities.
The House is more than aware that Gypsy Travellers want to live on private sites, which can help to support their independence, self-sufficiency and security, because too often they face difficulties with the planning system. It is incumbent on us as politicians to work with them, but I am afraid that some of the tone in this debate so far seems to suggest that we are working against them and that we see them as the opposition. Considering the context and the history I just outlined, that is deeply worrying.
I want to touch on discrimination and hate crime. Media coverage, in particular, is overwhelmingly negative. An Amnesty-commissioned report in 2012 considered the media treatment of Scottish Gypsy Travellers. It stated:
“Amnesty…is concerned at the wealth of evidence showing discrimination against Scottish Gypsy Travellers and the hostility and divisions between Scottish Gypsy Traveller and settled communities.”
It considered several studies and 190 media articles over a four-month period: 48%—nearly half—painted a negative picture of the Gypsy Traveller community, while only 28%—less than a third—were positive. The most shocking figure, however, was that only 6% presented a community voice, so only on very few occasions was the community given the right to reply. I do not think we would accept that in any other walk of life, but somehow in the media it seems to be acceptable.
It is incumbent on politicians and the media to be careful with their language. I was disappointed over the summer recess, therefore, when the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), during an interview—a fairly quick-fire interview, I do accept—said that if he were Prime Minister for one day his priority would be tougher enforcement on Gypsies and Travellers because they were a blight on our communities. Amnesty was right to call it inflammatory language.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, I am more than happy to allow him to put his apology on the record in the House.
First, I want to clarify this point for the official record: I did not say: “because they are a blight on our communities”. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the words he has added. I also said, many times afterwards, that this issue affects my constituents in Moray and constituents across the whole UK, and in many cases it is people in the settled communities who feel ignored because their voice is never heard in these debates.
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to reopen this issue. [Interruption.] Will the House calm down for a minute? His apology on Radio Scotland was welcome, but he is on the record as saying before that they are a blight on local communities, which is deeply regrettable. I am glad that he has apologised.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has now said twice that I said on the record that travelling communities are a blight on their areas. I did not say that, as I mentioned in my intervention on him. Can you do something to stop him telling these untruths?
I think you have just done it yourself. I think you just corrected the record. We need not worry.
I am sad that the debate has descended to this level. If the hon. Gentleman is not happy, I am sure his constituents will be more than happy to Google it.
It is important that we as legislators moderate our language. Some Conservative Members would do well to do that. Gypsy Travellers have suffered enough discrimination, so it is important that we come together, understand our differences and learn from history. The inclusion of a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month would be a very good way of reflecting on that, so I support that idea, but I return to my original point: those of us who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
We now come to Sir Paul Beresford, with a five-minute limit.
That is discrimination, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will have to talk extremely quickly.
I thank the Minister for offering us this consultation and for expanding it to take in ideas and solutions. Surrey, and Mole Valley in particular, have had considerable and unpleasant experience of Travellers. Most are not Romani Gypsies. Most have very strong Irish accents. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) might have given us an explanation of why. For simplicity, I divide them into three groups—he divided them into two—the first being those who use legitimate sites. They are law-abiding. They utilise the education service; they go to schools. They use the national health service. They are part of our community.
The second group are those who buy land on the green belt, squat on it, bring community disharmony and exhibit aggressive abuse of the planning system, acting as if, while it applies to the settled community, they are above it. I have two particularly notorious sites in the Mole Valley. Both are on green belt and both groups abuse the planning system by making retrospective applications. We then get appeal, generally at the last minute, followed by reapplication, followed by rejection, followed by re-application, followed by refusal, followed by appeal, and so on. Both groups blatantly use the presence of children as reasons to reject the legal orders obtained by local authorities for their removal from the sites.
Relationships with local communities are fractious at best and often punctuated with verbal threats and threats to the surrounding communities. I have received a few myself. One site is on inherited land. The other was bought with cash, from whatever source. At the weekend, people arrived with caravans, trucks, bulldozers, loads of rubble, piping, electrical wiring and so on. By the end of Sunday, they had installed an electricity supply and tapped into a water supply, whether legally or not. Electric gates on pillars suitable for a garish stately home were put in. Then the nonsense started: hopeless applications, refusals, appeals, more refusals, more appeals. In the case of the gates, this has been continuing for 14 years, and looks set to continue for several more at least. We now have a review, and I ask the Minister to look at that case in particular. I would be delighted to come along and explain to him the difficulties.
The third group consists of the true Travellers on whom we have been concentrating this evening, who are an expensive menace to my local authorities, parish councils and farmers. This year Surrey has been particularly plagued by groups who descend on open land that contains community grounds, school grounds, farmland and so on. Fortunately—I am a member of the National Farmers Union—the farming community is becoming quite adept at prevention.
Those groups have been taking anything between one and 30 caravans, plus associated vehicles. They descend on the site and squat. Civil action to remove them can take between days and weeks, and is very expensive, especially for some of Surrey’s little parish councils. When they have eventually been removed by expensive bailiffs, the sites are generally disgusting, featuring everything from food waste to children’s soiled nappies and worse. Returning them to a decent condition involves added expense.
As I have said, I should be delighted to visit the Minister, with one or two of the helpers who have to deal with all this, to advise him on how we feel that the law should be changed. I am particularly in favour of the change in the law suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who proposed that we should adopt the Irish example. We should extend it by not only making this a criminal offence, but giving the police the power to require the people whom they approach on the sites to prove who they are. The biggest problems for the police at present are the giving of “Mickey Mouse” names and the fact that enforcement is extremely difficult. I should love to come and see the Minister—and he is faintly nodding, so I will take that as a yes.
With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall breach the normal partisan rules of the House and say that the Minister of State made what I thought was an excellent speech, in which he balanced the humanity that should inform us all with the frustration and annoyance that affect so many of our constituents. I felt that he spoke very well indeed, and that his words were matched by those of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd).
May I home in on what we are actually talking about this evening? We are discussing Gypsies and Travellers and the impact on local communities. I think we have accepted that 76% of the people who identified themselves in the census as members of the travelling community are in fact resident, but it is other people about whom we are talking. I will not stigmatise them by saying that they are of a particular ethnicity or origin, or that one can tell where they come from by their accents, because I do not like that. Everyone in the Chamber knows what we are talking about here. Let us talk about the people who are having an impact on our constituents, because they are the people who have chosen to live outside the law. To live outside the law you must be honest, and the problem is that people who are living outside the law are causing great distress and great pain.
It breaks my heart that many of us who are of Irish origin or have Irish backgrounds feel that, in many respects, we are stigmatised by the association with Irish Travellers, when the truth is much more than that. Ealing does not contain verdant fields and great open spaces where the lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea and the plowman homeward plods his weary way, but we experience regular incursions by Travellers.
In contrast, we have a lot of greenery around us in Warwick and Leamington, and the summer saw a significant rise in the number of communities setting themselves up in the constituency. The authorities are under huge pressure, and I really feel for them, because they are hamstrung by the planning laws as they stand. They are also not aided—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down. This is an intervention, and interventions are meant to be very short. A great many Members wish to speak, so I cannot allow people to make speeches in the form of interventions.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend. I think that many of us feel the same irritation.
As I was saying, Ealing is not blessed with huge open spaces, but the open spaces that we have tend to be public parks, school playing fields, sports fields and golf courses, every one of which has suffered from a Traveller incursion in the last few years. It is not as if Ealing is one of the boroughs that say, “We will have no Travellers.” We are not a borough that sets its face against people who have every right to identify themselves as having a certain ethnicity. We have a caravan site. Every time there is an unauthorised encampment in the borough, we investigate the status of the children to establish whether they are receiving education and what their health conditions are. We do not try to shove people off without a second thought. Nevertheless, between 2012 and this summer there have been 140 illegal occupations in the London borough of Ealing, the majority of which have been on council land.
I have had interactions with the travelling community since the mid-1970s, as a housing officer, as a housing association officer, as a councillor, and even as a mayor and a Member of Parliament. I entirely accept that there are some who will approach you when they move on to the land and say, “I am the guy in charge: if you have any problems, come and see me.” Others, however, will commit the most ghastly antisocial behaviour, such as throwing stones at cars, and a couple of weeks ago there were some horses at a petrol station on the A40. That is cruelty to the horses, but it is also pretty appalling for the people who live in the area.
There are some who take things too far in the wrong direction, and worst of all are those who use the encampment for fly-tipping. There is no more heart-breaking sight than a sports field where a group of amateur footballers have been trying to get together to play football—to bring people together for the good of the community—and there is a 2-metre-deep pile of asbestos-ridden household waste that costs us a fortune to clear up. Let me give the House a rough idea of what that means. The legal costs alone in the London borough of Ealing between June 2016 and the present time were more than £200,000, and officer time amounted to more than £130,000. Our borough is not swimming in cash. I doubt that any Member in the Chamber represents a constituency that has more money than it knows what to do with, but our clear-up costs amounted to £250,000.
These are not really encampments. They are, in fact, illegal businesses. I pay tribute to Ealing council officers such as Yasmin Basterfield, Chris Bunting, Jess Murray and Paul Murphy—not the other Paul Murphy; the one in Ealing—who do an incredible amount of work with their teams. However, we do not have the confidence of the local community that we can sufficiently address this issue. What happens is that, suddenly, a great glistening cavalcade of chromium-plated 4x4s—if only it were a caravanserai!—roars down and sets up an encampment on our open space, and then the problems start.
In the brief time that remains to me, I shall ask the Minister four basic questions, to which I want to hear four answers. Section 61 has been mentioned, and section 61 is not good enough. It needs to be enforced properly. What guidance will the Minister give his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about a protocol to enforce it? Why cannot legal advisers in magistrates courts sign the warrants over the weekend? Will the Minister at least speak to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is present, to establish whether the Ministry of Justice can do something about that? Every vehicle that arrives can be identified through a registration number. Why can those numbers not be used to identify the people who are responsible for the crime, and then prosecute them? What could possibly be wrong with that?
Finally, could we have a few bob from the Government for the unanticipated costs of clearing up? Frankly, it is crippling us in the London borough of Ealing.
Throughout August this year, I was contacted by a large number of constituents who were concerned about the illegal encampment of Travellers. Travellers had broken into and occupied parkland near Stoke Gifford in my constituency. and then—having been successfully evicted from there—occupied another site in nearby Patchway.
Having considered the issue in some depth over the summer, I believe that there are failings in three key areas: provision of pitches and transit sites, enforcement and oversight. I shall deal with the last of those first, because I am convinced that the current lack of oversight is the root cause of many of the problems exemplified by the issue in my constituency.
Three separate Government Departments—the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—have a stake in the problem of illegal encampments and the powers to prevent and remove them. Those powers themselves are then split between councils, as a planning issue, and the police, as a matter of trespass and public order. At least five public bodies are therefore connected with the situation in some way. Of course I applaud sensible and practical localism, but central Government must not abrogate their duty to assist local authorities.
In an immediate response to the incidents in my constituency, I submitted written questions to two of the Departments involved. I feel that the responses of both Departments underline the current belief of central Government that illegal encampments are purely a local issue. The Home Office, quite properly, restated that
“The decision on when and whether to use police powers is an independent operational decision for the police.”
While it is not up to the Home Secretary to directly command the police operationally, I am sure that my constituents will be concerned to learn that no national guidance is available to chief constables about the circumstances in which it is appropriate to use their existing powers to remove illegal encampments.
Similarly, the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed:
“The Government has made no estimates”
of transit sites for Travellers, as these are a planning responsibility for local authorities. Again, that is strictly correct, but is it sensible Government policy to perform no central planning or analysis of how local authorities are performing in their responsibility to provide transit sites?
There is evidence in these responses of a total lack of oversight or concern about the problem from central Government. My constituents will no doubt be baffled to learn that a problem as mobile as illegal Traveller encampments is not monitored at a central level but considered a purely local issue. If we are to resolve the other problems that my constituents’ experience has revealed, we must begin with the Government taking a greater leadership role in tackling these problems.
The current legislation on illegal encampments dates back to 1994—the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act—and, as I have outlined, there is no real way for any of the Departments concerned to be sure that the current arrangements are working for our constituents, and nor does there appear to be effective guidance to police forces on the circumstances in which it is appropriate to use their powers. The result is not sensible localism, but a postcode lottery. Section 61 of the 1994 Act is clear that should any damage to property or land occur, the police are empowered to compel trespassers to vacate land that they have already been asked to leave. That did not occur in either Stoke Gifford or Patchway, and it was left to the council to undertake enforcement action through the courts.
The police have existing powers to enforce the law. For example, a very senior councillor with public service spanning five decades—30 years as a police officer and almost 20 years as a councillor—Councillor Brian Allinson, who is also a very good friend of mine, informed me that a fellow councillor suffered some pretty horrific abuse and threats. As a former police officer, Councillor Allinson was shocked that there seemed to be no follow-up or further action by the police. He pointed out that, when he served in the police force, that would have been considered a serious threat against the person and tackled with the due consideration it merited. I am still waiting to meet the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner to discuss the full circumstances of the incidents, but the police, with Home Office guidance, must be properly prepared to enforce the law to deal with illegal encampments where crime and disorder has taken place.
As has already been said, prevention is better than cure. I am pleased that South Gloucestershire Council recognises in its local plan that
“the presence of a transit site...can speed up enforcement action”
However, the same plan also notes that the site must be within the same local authority area as the land affected for the police to gain extra powers.
Again, it is clear that this is not just a local problem; there is a lack of central Government help and a lack of effective legislation. I urge South Gloucestershire Council to re-examine the provision of transit sites after these recent incidents, but the first move must come from the Departments in ensuring that the police are enforcing the law of the land without fear or favour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) sought to leave the Minister with two impressions: one was a series of four questions—we all look forward to the answers—and the other was a compliment on his speech. I am afraid that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend, because I thought the speech lacked any ministerial intent to do anything about this problem.
The problem is increasing across the country, particularly in the west midlands and certainly in Coventry, which I have represented for a few years now. Over the past five years, the number of illegal encampments—I stress that I am talking only about the illegal encampments—has doubled. We are facing an irritant that is causing real problems and that, in the end, will breed exactly the sort of prejudice, bias and racial discrimination that the previous Labour Government sought to prevent through legislation, which I approved of. The simple fact is that the problem is coming back and it is corrosive, and the whole Gypsy and Traveller community is being affected as a result, which is totally wrong because we are talking about a small percentage, but the illegal occupation of these encampments is increasing.
The Government’s response leaves a lot to be desired. When we look at what they have done, we see that the previous Secretary of State, under the coalition Government, was convicted in the High Court for racial discrimination. We have seen the Government remove from local authorities the statutory obligation to at least carry out a census of the arrangements in place for sites in their areas. It is a pattern of disengagement from the problem, which we all face. It is not just the large metropolitan areas, such as the west midlands, because we have heard Conservative Members refer to county councils across the country making representations.
I say this to the Minister: for goodness’ sake, show some ministerial authority, concern and drive to sort this problem. What have we had instead? We have had a promise that there will be a consultation. Nobody could be against consultation—we can even warmly welcome it, as the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) did. He said that it was the greatest thing he had ever heard, and the next minute he said that the time for action is now. Well, the time for action has been kicked into the long grass. The Minister does not need a consultation to answer the four questions. He does not have the answers, but he could find them out. That is what I urge him to do tonight, and this is the brunt of what I want to say.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, my hon. Friend has had a good go already and other Members wish to speak. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) wants to contribute, for example.
The Minister has had an offer—it is unprecedented, in my experience—from the West Midlands police and crime commissioner to get into a dialogue about specifics, because we need action or legislation from the Government, not consultation. That, together with a bit of money here and there, could make a big difference—we can never solve this problem—in reducing the frequency and intensity of these encampments. That is what we are looking for: action, not words, though, yes, consultation will allow us all to play our part.
The Minister has offered us a meeting. If I was in his position, I would have asked for that meeting: “Come in and let’s see what we can do together.” We now speak as a combined authority in the west midlands, as many hon. Friends will do this evening. We can offer the cross- county and cross-borough co-operation that the Minister is looking for, but we need a lead from the Government that they want action in this area, and a bit of money would make all the difference. For goodness’ sake, get going and, while the consultation is ongoing, devise a plan of action to implement the decisions afterwards. We have been waiting for the final draft of the guidance to local authorities for months, and the draft that was produced was virtually acceptable. Put an end to this drift and disengagement, get a grip and show yourself to be a Minister by doing something about it.
Not surprisingly, the calling of this debate has stimulated considerable interest in my constituency, from constituents, the local councils, the police and the media. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), this is a hot topic in south Essex. Indeed, in the run-up to the general election, I wrote to the Prime Minister’s policy adviser, asking that further measures be included in the forthcoming manifesto, because quite frankly the public are fed up. They are fed up that the same rules do not appear to apply equally to all members of society, whatever their cultural background. That is what we are talking about: illegal activity perpetrated in the main by Travellers. This is not about discrimination or attacking someone’s culture, way of life or traditions; this is about all of us playing by the same rules and abiding by the same law, having the law applied to us equitably and all taking responsibility for our actions in the same way.
I have a page here listing some horror stories of recent incidents, but unfortunately I do not have time to go through them. However, I want to thank the local councillors whom I have worked with over the past few years to tackle these issues. In particular, I want to thank Councillors Tony Ball and Phil Turner, both former leaders of Basildon Council, Rob Gledhill, the leader of Thurrock Council, and Gavin Callaghan, current chairman of Basildon’s policy and resources committee.
I accept that the travelling community faces many challenges, as described in the various briefings that have been circulating, and that no one should be subjected to hate speech or hate crime. Equally, however, it is reasonable that the settled community can expect the law to be applied evenly. As we have heard, following the clearance of Dale Farm, which was a success, unfortunately both Basildon and Thurrock Councils have been on the frontline in trying to tackle the seemingly endless unauthorised encampments. In south Essex, we have had some success, particularly in Thurrock, with the new conservative leader of Thurrock Council regularly seen at evictions, where the police were robustly enforcing section 61. Unfortunately, he tells me that that was last year; this year, there is greater reluctance to enforce section 61. One of the key reasons, he suggests, is that the guidance for the police has shifted emphasis from “or”s—breaches of this, that “or” the other—to “and”s. It is thus almost impossible to apply section 61, except in the most extreme cases. He also highlights one of the key problems: when the legislation was drafted, it did not clarify how far an encampment would have to move. Ridiculously, we end up with encampments moving only a very short distance and the whole process starting again. That needs to be looked at—I want that distance to be measured not in metres, but in miles.
Finally, we need to change the guidance on criminality before and during these encampments. At present, perhaps rightly, collective responsibility for criminal damage—whether the cutting of padlocks or the removal of gates—cannot be applied as a group enters a site; for an offence, an individual and evidence need to be available. However, again, a simple change to the current legislation to amend the wording so that it says, “Where criminal damage has occurred and unauthorised persons have entered public land” would allow the police to act more quickly. In the same vein, we have to be realistic about what happens on these sites—the amount of environmental damage. We need to consider how we can hold the collective responsible for the clean-up, which often runs into many tens of thousands of pounds.
We have tried. We have worked with the current legislation, engaged with the police, encouraged greater enforcement, worked with the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit and used the courts, but frankly that is not working. I accept that the law is blind, but the public are not—they want action and they want it now. All I am trying to do is level the playing field. We need not only a few tweaks to existing legislation but a change in the law as identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford.
Calling for Ministers to adopt the so-called Irish option of criminalising deliberate acts of trespass such as those that we see frequently in south Essex is a sensible move and it has my 100% backing. I do not believe that it criminalises a way of life or is discriminatory; it criminalises an activity—unauthorised encampments and trespass. I look forward very much to hearing the Minister’s views on tweaks and changes to the law.
I want to make a few points about illegal Traveller encampments and the impact they have on constituencies such as mine.
I should say at the outset that I do not accuse the whole Traveller community of taking part in illegal encampments or in pitching caravans where they should not; I am sure that many do not do that and are frustrated with the reputational damage done as a result. But that does happen, and it causes significant anger and frustration in the community when it does. In my constituency, illegal encampments are regularly set up on common land, waste ground, car parks and even public parks. The Travellers move on to a site. If they do not move when requested, the council can apply for a court order, which typically takes one to two weeks and also, of course, incurs legal costs for the local authority. When the Travellers eventually move on, there are usually significant clean-up costs.
Wolverhampton City Council tells me that it has to go through this process 10 to 20 times a year. Adding legal costs and clean-up costs together, it says that it typically costs £10,000 to £15,000 a time to deal with an illegal encampment—that is 10 to 20 times a year in just one local authority. There was recently an illegal encampment in land off Prouds Lane in Bilston in my constituency. In May this year, the small fence protecting the land was driven through for the caravans to get on; there were upwards of a dozen caravans there. Residents were understandably angry at this trespass on to the land. The council applied for the court order. When the Travellers eventually went after about 10 days, they left huge piles of rubbish around the site. The council moved very quickly to clear the rubbish, and I commend it for its swift and effective action. Although the council moved as quickly and effectively as it could, afterwards my constituents asked questions about the legal costs involved and why local council tax payers should have to pay them.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the costs are for not only local councils but many private residents and landowners, who have to spend their own money to clean up and deal with the issue of illegal encampments? One of my constituents has written to me about spending £3,000 a week on the problem.
The hon. Lady makes a good point: the costs are often private as well as public.
My constituents also asked about the costs of the clean-up and, again, why local council tax payers should have to pay them. They asked what could be done to secure the site from a repeat of the experience and who would pay for that.
When the Travellers eventually moved from Prouds Lane, they went to East Park—I mean right in the middle of the public park in the East Park area. My constituents watched their public asset being abused by an illegal encampment. That pattern repeats itself over and again in many parts of the black country and, as we have heard, many other parts of the country, too. As we speak, another illegal encampment has been set up on the Bilston Urban Village site in my constituency. The council is wearily going through the same legal process of trying to get it removed.
Given the repeated pattern of what is happening, it is clear that the current system is not working properly: it is too cumbersome, it takes too long and it is too costly. I would like the Minister to consider two questions. I welcome the consultation, but it cannot just be about current powers. First, will it address what legal changes can be made to give councils and the police the power to move these encampments much more quickly than at present?
Secondly, what more can be done to ensure that those responsible for the clean-up bill actually pay it, rather than it being left to local residents to pay? We should remember that the costs involved are not only the legal and clean-up costs, but the ongoing costs—for example, of taking preventive measures such as the installation of bollards and fences all around the black country. Local residents will argue, with some justification, that if they parked their car in the wrong place, they would be fined, and that if they did not pay the fine, it would escalate along with the legal process. Yet that does not seem to happen in these cases.
The law dealing with these matters is not fit for purpose. It takes too long and imposes costs on the law abiding public, not those who have broken the law. There appears to be little or no disincentive to setting up illegal encampments. Those who do so know that there will be a delay before the council gets its court order and they are rarely forced to pay for the costs arising from their dumped rubbish. The law gives them no incentive stop the behaviour.
Allowing the situation to continue is resulting in costs piling up for local authorities and local taxpayers. It also corrodes public trust in law enforcement. Most importantly, it is not working because the pattern of illegal encampments is continuing. Although we do not have a vote on a substantive motion tonight, I hope the Minister does not just listen and forget what has been said. I hope the Government will come forward soon with proposals to strengthen the law to make enforcement faster and easier for councils and the police.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), with whom I very much agree. I am delighted that we have time this evening for this important debate, and I thank Sedgemoor and Mendip District Councils and Somerset County Council for the enthusiasm with which they provided me with information for my contribution. That tells us something about how big an issue this is for them. It is also an issue of real importance for my constituents, who have been angered again and again by illegal encampments.
In the past two years, there have been illegal encampments in Berrow, Street and routinely in the car parks and sports club of Burnham-on-Sea. There have been illegal encampments in Shepton Mallet and Brean as well as the more “permanent” Traveller sites with dubious planning status at Pilton, Theale, Cross and Wick—and, until recently, Rodney Stoke.
There is a sense that there is one rule for the travelling community and one rule for everyone else. I want to share some quick examples of illegal encampments with the House, to draw out some points about their cost and the frustration of local communities and councils.
In June, just before the Glastonbury festival, there was an illegal encampment near the festival site in Shepton Mallet. Mendip District Council moved as quickly as it could to initiate legal proceedings, but it still took 10 days, and even then, when the Travellers were being escorted out of the town, they tried to break into the local park to reoccupy that instead. The cost to the Travellers of their time in the town was absolutely nothing. The cost to Mendip District Council was £27,745, and that does not include the policing costs of trying to escort them out of the town at the end of that illegal encampment.
In Burnham-on-Sea, at the Pier Street car park, the Travellers know exactly how long they can stay. They come back again and again—often it is different groups of Travellers—and every time Sedgemoor District Council has to initiate the legal process, at a cost of £355, plus the cost of staff and solicitors’ fees. To make things fair, when the Travellers are in the car park, the council suspends car parking charges for everybody else. That is great for those shopping in the town, but it means lost revenue for the council.
That did not happen in my constituency, where we had the farce of people parking in the car park and receiving fines—these were legal motorists—which I then had to get overturned by the council. That again emphasises that there is one rule for one and another rule for another.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Indeed, that was exactly what happened when we had the very first occupation in Burnham-on-Sea. Traffic wardens were giving tickets to those who had parked legally but overrun, while the Travellers were allowed to be there without penalty. We are talking about the main tourist car park for what is—I can say this now that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) has left the Chamber—Somerset’s premier seaside resort. The presence of an illegal encampment in that car park—especially one right next door to the coach park, which is an important part of our town’s business—creates entirely the wrong first impression, may well lose us business and certainly costs local businesses nearby, and that is without mentioning the clean-up costs that the local council incurs as well.
In the nearby village of Berrow, there was a Traveller encampment on the village green. Given the mess that the green was left in afterwards, Berrow chose as a village to spend quite a large proportion of its annual precept on building a bund all the way around the green. I question whether money that is hard earned by parish councils should be spent on preventing illegal activity rather than on more positive improvements for the community altogether.
I should also mention that there have routinely been encampments on private land up in Brean, a popular tourism destination, which means that businesses that contribute enormously to our local economy are left holding the baby and are responsible for bringing in the bailiffs and moving those Travellers on. Additionally, Somerset County Council has told me that in the last three years it has spent nearly £25,000 on moving Travellers on from the public highway and a further £6,000 on the clean-up costs afterwards. At every turn, there is an asymmetric cost—a cost to councils, Avon and Somerset police, local businesses and the community, but no cost whatsoever to the Travellers who have made the illegal encampment.
The argument is that illegal encampments are an issue only if there is inadequate provision of authorised sites, but there are 64 authorised pitches in Somerset. In Bath and North East Somerset and in North Somerset, the two adjoining local authorities, there are a further 50, so there are 114 pitches available in the county of Somerset. How many can the taxpayer be expected to provide? We live in a beautiful part of the world, with a good local economy, but surely our liability for Travellers cannot be unlimited or set simply by Traveller demand. We must be willing to say what is a fair provision for councils to offer. We must reduce costs to local authorities or find a way to pass them on to the Travellers who are illegally encamped.
We must ensure that the process is quicker, so that we end this cat-and-mouse game, whereby the Travellers understand exactly how long they can stay, stay for exactly that long and then move on before they incur any cost, while the council has incurred all the cost in the process. The Irish option, which a number of colleagues have discussed this evening, is well worth looking at. We must ensure that the rules are fair for both the travelling and the settled communities. There can no longer be one law for the Travellers and another for everyone else.
I have no criticism at all of the law-abiding majority who live by the rules and make a positive contribution to our communities, but I am here today to speak up on behalf of residents in Dudley, who have had to put up with illegal and antisocial camps this summer, as in previous years.
Parks and public open spaces have all been used for illegal encampments. Gates have been broken and bollards removed to access the sites. Residents and their kids have been unable to use community facilities and parks. Vehicles have been driven in a dangerous and antisocial way, destroying the environment and putting local people at risk, as well as the Travellers and their children. Some of the sites have been left with huge amounts of rubbish and waste, including in some cases, unbelievably, human waste in children’s play areas. This is completely unacceptable, and I want the council and the police to be able to deal with such sites much more quickly. I also want the council to take much stronger measures to prevent them from being occupied in the first place.
Earlier, I mentioned the work done on this by our police and crime commissioner, David Jamieson, who is urging MPs to back stronger powers to tackle unauthorised Traveller encampments. In place of the vague talk of reviews and all the rest of it, he has concrete proposals, which I hope a group of MPs and the PCC will be able to come and talk to Ministers about.
For example, at the moment the police can only direct difficult travelling groups to a transit site within a council area. Council borders are administrative, and a change in the law to allow the police to direct groups to transit sites in the wider area would be fairer and more effective. Our PCC believes that banning those responsible for repeated criminal activity from the whole of the area for specified short periods would be a serious deterrent, because there is currently no easy way to stop an antisocial group travelling between and within each local council area until it is moved on. Indeed, for a number of the parks subject to such activity in my constituency this summer, it was just one group being moved from one site to another, a few hundred yards or half a mile away. The process repeated itself throughout the summer, at enormous cost and hassle for local people, the council and the police.
Our PCC is calling for better protection for businesses and private land by changing the law to protect private landowners from being repeat victims of unauthorised encampments. He also wants sanctions made available for groups that return to the same private land and reductions in the time taken for evictions. He believes that injunctions should be available to cover larger areas than the specific individual site covered at the moment. Finally, he believes there should be more temporary or transient sites made available—Dudley actually has permanent sites available for the travelling community—so that Travellers can be moved on more quickly from local community facilities.
I accept, as I said at the outset, that it is a minority of the travelling community who cause problems, and I am sure that it is just as frustrating for the majority. However, it is my job to speak up for people in Dudley who have been affected by these camps. What my constituents have had to put up with this summer, as in previous years, is completely and utterly unacceptable, and they and I want tougher and swifter action to deal with them.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who is a fellow west midlands MP. Indeed, there seems to be a strong west midlands-Warwickshire theme running through this debate, and I am delighted that the Minister responding is a west midlands Member of Parliament and will understand the issues.
We have seen plenty of those issues in my constituency of Rugby, particularly on eastern side, close to the urban area of Coventry. One of the reasons why the problem occurs is that the market for those in the travelling community is based in that urban community. They are not often able to settle in the urban community and are on the urban fringe. One of the issues in Warwickshire is that we have been able to provide enough Traveller pitches. Very often, therefore, when an encampment is moved on, the authority has been able to demonstrate sufficient provision.
We have had incidents where pitches do exist but the group of Travellers being moved on are not willing to go on to vacant pitches because they are not able to get on with those already occupying the site. That certainly seems to be one problem. We have had great support from our police and crime commissioner in Warwickshire, Philip Seccombe, who has recently implemented new protocols, building on the work being done in the west midlands.
I want to focus on abuses of the planning system, making reference to three examples. The first relates to the number of encampments set up on the Friday before a bank holiday, with the travelling community knowing that the enforcement officer will not be at work on the Monday and so they have a longer period in which to get these developments done and entrenched. In my area, they have often done this on a site straddling two local authorities, creating issues of ownership and who the lead authority to deal with the situation would be.
The second example relates to what happens when sites are then approved, often on a temporary consent. In Barnacle, in my constituency, a number of subsequent temporary consents have been given; temporary consents of two years have been given on three or four occasions. Each time that happens, the settled community believes that the site is becoming more permanent and it has concerns.
The third thing I wish to draw attention to is the manipulation of protections within the green belt. The national planning policy framework defines previously developed land, with a presumption in favour of development, as land on which there was previously a permanent structure, but that presumption does not apply where land is occupied by an agricultural or forestry building. That exemption does not apply in respect of an equestrian building, and a number of instances that have taken place around the village of Wolvey in my constituency have been drawn to my attention by Councillor Adrian Warwick of Warwickshire County Council and Councillor Chris Pacey-Day of Rugby Borough Council. In these examples, a number of equestrian buildings have been built, with double glazing and insulation, and have been used as stables for a period of time, but with the clear intention that at some future point an application for a residence might be made. Such applications have been made, with Rugby Borough Council, as the local authority, turning one down only for it to be granted by the Planning Inspectorate. The planning officers at the borough council have drawn my attention to this loophole, telling me that it could easily be dealt with by adding the word “equestrian” to the appropriate annexe to the NPPF. I ask the Minister whether he and his officials might look at that loophole and exemption, to circumvent the approach that is being made by a number of people. I am not suggesting that these applications are always made by people from the Gypsy and Traveller community, but they are being made in those areas where there are substantial incursions into the green belt by Gypsy and Traveller sites. I hope that the Minister will examine that issue.
I take the point made by many hon. Members that at the heart of this debate is a concept of fairness and a belief, often held rightly, that some members of the travelling community are able to take advantage of and subvert planning rules that govern the remainder of us. We therefore need a tightening of planning controls so that we do not get so many retrospective applications, we do not end up with a surfeit of multiple temporary consents and we do not have the abuse of the building of stables on land in the green belt.
As a Labour MP, it is rare that I find myself in agreement with the Prime Minister, but last year, in her first speech upon taking office, she talked of the need to tackle burning injustices, and when I was elected in June I made a pledge to my constituents that I would work to tackle inequalities and injustices in our society. Healthcare occupies a special place in our country, but universal care cannot simply adopt a universal approach. In our communities, it is often the case that those with the greatest health needs are those least likely to access NHS services. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are more than twice as likely as others to suffer from a long-term health condition, their infant mortality rates are high and, most worryingly, the suicide rate among Irish Travellers is six times higher than that of the wider population.
The GRT communities have unique and significant healthcare needs, and our NHS services should be intelligent and flexible enough to meet their needs. However, research published last month by the Traveller Movement highlighted the difficulties many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities face when accessing healthcare. In this place, Members often speak out against the unfairness of postcode lotteries, but rarely do we speak of the-injustices faced by those who have no postcode at all. NHS guidance states that being unable to provide proof of address should not be a barrier to accessing health services, yet far too many Travellers find themselves unable to register with a GP or access other local health services. Without access to GP services, families are unable to access even the most basic treatments of the NHS; we could be talking about a mother being unable to access adequate antenatal care, young parents struggling to obtain vaccinations for their children, someone in a mental health crisis or older generations being left without the medication they need to manage their long-term conditions. This denial of access to NHS services simply is not good enough, and the Government must work with NHS England to communicate more clearly to frontline healthcare providers that they cannot refuse to register GRT people for “no fixed abode”.
Decisions taken about healthcare are strongest and most effective when they are based on medical evidence and data. NHS England still does not include Gypsies, Roma and Travellers as a defined ethnic group in its data collection, but I welcome the Minister’s comments in this debate that that is being explored. Inclusion in NHS data collection could be the start of a transformation in healthcare for GRT communities. Not only would it enable national comparisons to be made, but it could improve local authorities’ understanding of these groups and enable much better representation of GRT needs in their joint strategic needs assessments. That is the first step in starting to address these stark health inequalities.
Recording data will be a welcome step forward, but recording alone will not be enough. Improving information sharing across the NHS and among other public services is key to improving access for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, especially given their complex health needs and high levels of mobility. This is not about singling out Travellers, or even isolating them, by creating dedicated services—that is not what GRT communities want. All they ask is for the same access to the high-quality NHS services we have all come to expect and that everyone deserves.
The Government talk a good game on tackling burning injustices, but to say that their actions were lukewarm at best would still be generous. They may have their own community and cultural identity, but Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are as much a part of our wider community and society as anyone else, and that needs to be recognised. Instead of demonising, ostracising and alienating Travellers, the Government should be engaging with the communities to better integrate them into society and public services.
I want to live in a society in which differences in culture, belief and tradition are accepted. Our diversity gives us strength. I do not want to live in a society in which differences in health outcomes are tolerated. The health inequalities faced by GRT communities need to be measured, analysed and tackled head-on to remove the injustice of early deaths and needless illness and disability. Let us hope that this debate shows us in our best light: as champions of diversity and warriors against unfairness.
Having represented Moray as a councillor and Member of the Scottish Parliament, and now as an MP, I have dealt with Gypsy Travellers and their integration with the settled community on many occasions. That is why, during the quick-fire interview with Core Politics TV mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), in between questions about my favourite karaoke song and what I would discuss with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) were we stuck in a lift together, I mentioned that, if I was Prime Minister for the day, there should be tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers. I shall explain my choice of words later in my speech, but illegal and unauthorised Gypsy Traveller encampments in Moray were a problem when I made that comment in June, they were a problem when the interview was aired in August, and they remain a problem as we debate this issue tonight.
There are, of course, many other issues that would be priorities for any Prime Minister, and I have apologised for saying that enforcement against Gypsy Travellers would be my No. 1 priority, but I do not apologise for speaking up on behalf of the communities throughout Moray that have been affected by illegal and unauthorised encampments. I look forward to contributing to the Westminster Hall debate—secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—later this week to expand further on this discussion. It is clear to me that the formation of illegal and unauthorised encampments, and particularly how they are left by the travelling community, leads to much of the friction between the travelling community and the settled community.
Of course, the vast majority of Travellers go about their life in a respectful and friendly way. Sadly, as is the case with much of society, the actions of a minority create a bad impression of the entire community. That brings me back to the remarks I made in June. I called for tougher enforcement. The definition of enforcement is
“the process of making sure that people obey something such as a law or rule”.
I may not have been successful in getting my point across, but I was calling for action to be taken when illegal behaviour occurs or local rules are ignored—for exactly the same treatment as we would expect for people who are not Gypsy Travellers.
The hon. Gentleman mentions enforcement; he will be aware of the TV programme “Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away!”, which shows that it is not just a matter of moving people off from wherever they are, because there are also court costs. Does he feel that those costs should not fall on the people? There should be a more urgent process to try to get the people off before all that happens.
Absolutely. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and will address that issue later in my speech.
Historically, Moray has had an unusually high number of unauthorised encampments. Some suggest that that is because we have no official Travellers site, yet in 2006, when there was a dedicated site, there were 132 unauthorised sites—one of the highest numbers recorded in the area. It is also important to consider why we no longer have an official halting site. The Chanonry site near Elgin was purpose-built for the travelling community, but ended up as a fortress of illegal activity. It was eventually raided by more than 100 officers from Grampian police in the biggest operation of its kind in Moray. Those arrested were sentenced to a combined 24 years’ imprisonment. I listened to what the Minister said about local authorities establishing sites, but it is not a simple task. Sites are clearly a problem for the local area: given the experiences at Chanonry in Elgin, the communities at Kingsmeadow near Forres and at Arradoul near Buckie, they were reluctant to have an official halting site in their area.
In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) I would say that actions have consequences. As a result of the actions of Travellers on the Highlands and Islands Enterprise land near Forres, that public body was forced to pay £10,000 to clear up the mess. A site near the old airfield at Dallachy was littered with human waste and needles when the Travellers moved on. In many other parts of Moray, local people and businesses have been intimidated and threatened by the occupants of these sites.
We have heard a lot about fairness; I wish to comment on fairness for the settled community, who often feel not only that there is one rule for the travelling community and another for them, but that their view is ignored. I am a new Member, and I know how highly regarded the House of Commons Library is, but I was disappointed that its briefing for this debate on Gypsies and Travellers and local communities did not mention local communities once. It mentioned settled communities four times: there were three references to tension between the settled and travelling communities, and only one line that mentioned the impact of Traveller sites on the settled community. The fact that there was just one line in a 53-page briefing document will reinforce the feeling of many people in the settled community that their views are ignored.
I have been labelled a bigot and a racist for expressing the concerns of many of my constituents about this issue. Among all the criticism, though, I have also received a huge number of emails and letters from people from across Moray and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom —people who wanted their concerns to be expressed and the issue to be debated. After all that, I hope that people will take some comfort from the strength of feeling shown by Members from all parties in this debate, and will no longer feel that their voice is ignored.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, I am particularly pleased to contribute to this debate and to endorse the comments of colleagues who have pointed to the fact that Gypsies and Travellers are members of our local communities whether they travel, live in houses, or live in settled sites in caravans. The communities have a long history of a rich contribution to our cultural traditions, and an equally long history of suffering intolerance and abuse.
I wish to start by remembering Rodney Bickerstaffe, lost to us last week, who was known to many of my colleagues as a leading union figure and a champion of pensioner rights. He was also president of the Labour Party Campaign for Travellers’ Rights. In 2004, he wrote:
“A litmus test of society’s commitment to fairness and equality is how it treats the most excluded. Current evidence suggests we are failing with regards to the Gypsy and Traveller community.”
It is extremely distressing that, today, we still know that Gypsies and Travellers continue to suffer what has been rightly described as the last respectable form of racism. I call that out when it is seen as coming from opinion leaders. Last year, in Amazon Prime’s “The Grand Tour” Jeremy Clarkson was found by Ofcom to have made comments that had the potential to be “insulting and offensive”, relying heavily on “offensive and stereotyped comparisons”, but the programme was broadcast none the less.
Recently, the Rooney family went on trial on charges relating to modern slavery. In response to defence claims that all Travellers had workers operating under similar conditions, the judge commented:
“Sadly, I very much fear that you may be correct about that.”
I do not believe that the judge had any evidence for making such assertions. It is really important that people in public office do not make those kinds of claims in an unsupported way.
I wish to follow the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) who talked about disadvantage and inequalities in health outcomes by making some comments about educational outcomes. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) about the very poor educational outcomes suffered by young Gypsies and Travellers in the education system. We know, as he said, that they are much less likely to meet the GCSE threshold. Indeed, their performance is understated further by the fact that many do not even complete schooling beyond the age of 14. We know that they are more likely to be in special schools, more likely to be excluded, more likely to drop out of secondary education and 10 times less likely to go to university. The reasons for that include racist bullying in schools. Today, the Daily Mail reports the case of Ben Bennett, who was forced to change schools 11 times as a result of bullying and abuse.
There is a low level of aspiration for the community among teachers and the teaching professions—my hon. Friend rightly drew attention to that—and a lack of funding for Traveller education services, which helps schools to introduce policies to support the education of Gypsy and Traveller children. That scheme has now gone, and, as a result, schools feel unwelcoming to Gypsies and Travellers who are now more likely to be educated at home. There are problems with that as Ofsted is not required to check whether education is actually happening in the home setting, and will only visit if the parents request it.
I am not saying that we should remove that access to home education, because if we do that and do not address the structural discrimination in education it is more likely that these children will drop out of education altogether. What we need are positive policies to ensure that Gypsy and Traveller children thrive and do well in schools. There are very good examples of how that can be done effectively. For example, zero-tolerance bullying policies can be implemented. I urge the Government to work with the children’s commissioner and non-governmental organisations in looking at how such policies might be developed and introduced. The employment of members of staff from the community has been found to be very effective in schools that have a high concentration of Gypsy and Traveller children. It is important that the Government get their promised education advisory group up and running and that it includes members of the Gypsy and Traveller community.
Finally, it is also important to remove and reduce discrimination and discriminatory perceptions in wider society. We must do more to embed Gypsy and Traveller culture across all education settings. I endorse the calls this evening for the introduction into the curriculum of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month. If we can get things right in early settings in our schools, I am confident that Gypsy and Traveller children will do better and that our society will enjoy a greater sense of community cohesion with this long-standing part of our local community.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I recognise her genuine aspirations and intentions, but this is a very serious matter in Essex. That is why our newly-elected colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Clacton (Giles Watling), for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch), for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), have all been present in this debate.
It should not surprise the House to know that people flood to Essex; it is God’s country. It should not surprise them even further that people flood to Southend-on-Sea, which is the finest seaside resort in the country and this year’s alternative city of culture. Our town welcomes people from throughout the United Kingdom and all over the world, but we do not welcome people who are aggressive and violent, and who have no regard for other people and how they live their lives. Now, I am not going to get involved in an argument about the definitions of what a Traveller is or what a Gypsy is. I am talking about people arriving out of the blue in the small urban area I represent and occupying a park or a playing field—there are no farms. It is a difficult situation. The general public are very angry about this issue and we—the politicians—are being blamed for our lack of action. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) gave us a solution.
I have consulted with our council’s chief executive, who tells me that evidence packs for court applications are required each and every time there is an encampment. Officers spend significant amounts of time gathering and compiling evidence, making court applications, and serving and following up possession orders. This time results in lost productivity and inability to deliver normal services to residents. Calculating the exact cost is difficult to quantify. A typical incursion, however, involves departmental officers, legal teams, enforcement agents, the council and the police. My goodness, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council has been magnificent and our local police have been wonderful in dealing with the situation. Incursions also involve court administrative and hearing time, waste management officers and contractors, locksmiths and general contractors, and the media.
The worst example in my constituency happened between 7 July and 11 July. My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) was here earlier. Now, when I used to represent Basildon, these people were frightened of me and they soon disappeared. I do not seem to have the same effect in Southend, where I turned up at Oakwood Park and, within a few minutes, swiftly did an about-turn. There were small children being absolutely abusive and I saw violence being used. The costs associated with that situation were £13,000 and the cleansing contractor alone cost £2,500—that was for 14 caravans. It was disgraceful destruction that spoilt the pleasure of the local residents who use the park. The encampments often damage land and generate a significant amount of rubbish. Portable toilets are often emptied into the bushes, creating a public health risk. There were six events in Southend this year. There I was in Priory Park—an iconic park—when suddenly we realised that eight caravans had turned up.
The amenity value of parks and open spaces for residents and visitors is removed when an incursion is in place and often until the remediation has been completed. I am told that the cost of parks officers’ time to deal with Traveller issues this summer alone was in excess of £4,500. Many Traveller groups have a high understanding of the current legal processes and are able to use that knowledge to ensure that they can stay for as long as possible before moving on to another area. The council invests in preventive measures, blocking off car parks to high-sided vehicles with height barriers, having concrete road blocks and additional security personnel at car parks. That can be effective but it can also prevent legitimate users of the area.
I say to the Minister that there is no point in having a debate unless there is action. Obviously, colleagues and I welcome the fact that we are being invited to have input in the process, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford has the answer and I hope the Government will adopt his solution.
Order. We still have a great number of speakers, as Members will see, so after the next speaker the time limit will be reduced to four minutes.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) were right to remind us—as indeed did my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) from the Front Bench and others—about the importance of people’s right to live in the way they choose and about the alternative lifestyles that people have. That is a source of strength for our democracy, and those people are members of our local community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South pointed out. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston was also right to point out the inequality that exists in educational achievement, health and many other factors. I have reiterated those points in my own community, as I am sure other hon. Members have in theirs, in the face of comments on Facebook and elsewhere as a result of some of the illegal sites we have had. That is really important because, if it becomes a choice between supporting the right of people to live in the way they choose and, by objecting to criminal behaviour, not supporting that right, we will not get very far.
So let me start by saying that I support the right of people to live in the way they choose, and that is a source of strength for our democracy. But it cannot be right, in defending that right, for constituents, as other Members have pointed out, to have to put up with a small number of people in a community creating real and difficult problems. It makes it more difficult to defend an alternative lifestyle, which I would wish to defend, if we do not speak up and speak out against some of those who are conducting criminal activity. Indeed, many in the Traveller community wish for those others not to cause them problems.
For example, it cannot be right that I defend an alternative lifestyle that rips up playing fields without any thought to the children who play on them. It cannot be right that I defend an alternative lifestyle in the face of a leisure centre having to be closed to people using it because people will not conform to the rules that everybody else conforms to. So I will defend the right of people to live in the way they choose, but I will not do that—whoever they are and whatever their alternative lifestyle is—if they do not conform to the rules, regulations and laws of the country, as everybody else has to.
I have said time and again that the frustration comes when people in my community and, I am sure, in communities up and down the country see law breaking and see people doing things for which they themselves would be punished, arrested or dealt with by the authorities. In summing up, the Minister must be really clear in defending the right of people to live their lives as they choose, but he must also be clear, as we have all said, about the importance of respecting the rule of law.
Earlier, the Minister of State said he was going to consult on existing laws, and there is clearly a problem with them—if there were not, everybody would not be complaining about them. However, the police are complaining, local people are complaining and local authorities are complaining, so are we talking about new powers as well? That is my simple question for the Minister.
I conclude with this: it is a source of great strength for our country that we have different people living according to different lifestyles, which I would not personally choose to live according to, and I hope they can carry on living in that way for many years to come, but they also need to obey the law.
Much of the debate has understandably focused on illegal encampments, and I certainly have those in my area, too, despite Bradford Council having not too long ago spent £820,000 refurbishing Gypsy encampments, including in my constituency. Even though only eight pitches are being used at Esholt, also in my constituency, that does not stop illegal encampments in other parts of the constituency, when there are perfectly good pitches to be used on such sites. It is not surprising that local people are fed up about it.
There are examples after examples. In March, it was reported that one caravan invaded an 84-year-old lady’s land. She was told that it and the other caravans trying to gain entry would leave if she paid £1,200. More recently, in August, there were reports of a man in Slough who ended up having to pay £5,000 to some Travellers after he tried to go through the legal channels and was left with so much waste at the end that the estimated clear-up was going to cost £20,000. The Government have to get a grip on this issue and I hope that the debate will spur them to do so.
In the brief time available, I want to touch on a couple of issues that have not been mentioned to do with other areas where Gypsies and Travellers cause a huge amount of problems. One is the treatment of animals. The mistreatment of animals at the Gypsy site in Esholt is absolutely disgusting. In March last year I called for a debate on the subject of Travellers and animal welfare. Despite numerous complaints from me, local residents and other campaigners about the appalling treatment of animals, particularly horses, at Esholt Gypsy encampment in my constituency, for many months Bradford Council and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did absolutely nothing.
That comes back to the same point: people feel that different rules apply to different people. If anybody else were treating animals in that way, they would be prosecuted, but because they were Gypsies and Travellers, people were pussyfooting around them and people, understandably, get fed up. I am delighted that the RSPCA eventually took some action and people were convicted—rightly so and not before time, but also not before those animals suffered far more than they should have done.
The other thing I want to point out is the very high level of criminal activity among Gypsies and Travellers. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) alluded to this when he pointed out that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons suggested that some 5% of prisoners identified themselves as Gypsy, Romany or Traveller. It does not take a mathematical genius to work out that, if something like 0.1% of the population in England or Wales is Traveller or Gypsy, and if 5% of the prison population identify themselves as Gypsies or Travellers, we have a massive problem in terms of crime.
Some people—no doubt the sort of politically correct people who have taken over the Labour party—might well suggest that that is all down to the fact that all judges and magistrates are racist against Gypsies and unfairly punish them in the courts, but the fact of the matter is, as we all know in our heart of hearts, whether it is politically correct or not to say so, that there is a much higher level of criminal activity among Gypsies and Travellers than among the rest of the community, and that is reflected in the fact that so many more of them are in prison than from among the population at large. Given that we know how hard it is to be sent to prison in the first place, I begin to wonder what crimes they must be committing. This does not apply just to adults who are Gypsies and Travellers; it also applies to juveniles and young offenders. We must not pussyfoot around these issues—we must address them head on. The public expect nothing less.
I know that I am new to this place, but I found the tone of the debate quite odd. When I saw that we were having a general debate on Gypsies and Travellers, I thought I must be missing some substantive motion that would be more specific and would narrow it down somewhat. That would have allowed us to debate a specific point, rather than having a general debate about entire communities—and I say communities on purpose because Gypsy and Traveller people are not a unified group. There is no one community that we can talk about.
The Minister’s speech positioned Gypsies, Travellers and local communities, but they are one and the same. Gypsies and Travellers are part of local communities and are our constituents if they reside in our constituencies. There should not be an othering of those communities. I know that this may be a controversial point, but imagine if there were a general debate on black people and local communities. We can hear how nonsensical that would sound to an outside observer.
Having worked alongside Gypsy and Traveller communities for many years, I know that tired and powerful stereotypes about them still exist, such as that they will put a curse on us, that they do not pay their taxes—a slur that I am very disappointed to say I heard shouted from the Government Benches during the debate— that they are more violent or that they are dirty, unruly or strange for wanting to be nomadic. We need to challenge the persistent argument that there are legitimate and non-legitimate Travellers, and I will come back to that point in a second.
On the question of paying taxes, I refer the hon. Lady to what John Grant, the chief inspector at the RSPCA and a Gypsy himself, said about Gypsies and Travellers in a speech—she can watch the video of it on the RSPCA blog—to the world horse welfare conference in 2012:
“I would say 95% don’t pay any taxes. A lot of their money is held in new motors, new caravans and good quality horses.”
That is what a Gypsy and Traveller himself said. Does the hon. Lady know better than he does?
There are many types of taxes that communities may pay. We know of very many rich people who avoid paying their taxes, but that has not been made the subject of a long debate.
There is little understanding among policy makers and legislators about nomadism historically or in contemporary life. There is often a judgmental snobbery about Gypsy and Traveller communities and traditions, which means that legislation starts from the presumption that a settled life in bricks and mortar is culturally superior. Very little attempt is made to distinguish between travelling communities, and that normalises the homogenisation and, I suppose, exoticisation of those communities.
Because of the inadequate number of sites in the UK, Gypsy and Traveller families are forced on to the road. They face journeys of hostility, with constant evictions, boulders on many green spaces and trenches dug by communities to keep trailers off. Provision is inadequate, but I have heard from very few Members any critical analysis of the consequences. Inadequate provision on the road means that Gypsy and Traveller families have little access to water and no bin provision, and they often face annoyed and angry communities. I can understand why communities are angry and annoyed if a horrendous mess is left behind, but it is not possible for those families to travel constantly. At some point, they have to stop. There must be much more provision for Travellers and Gypsies to reduce tension and secure their human rights.
My substantive point is that the planning policy for Traveller sites, which was released in 2015, is very much part of the problem. The guidance redefines who Gypsies and Travellers are for the purpose of planning. In essence, if a Gypsy or Traveller stops travelling permanently, even because of education or ill health, they cease to be a Gypsy or Traveller. In my eyes, that is cultural sanitation and real arrogance on the part of the Government.
As I have mentioned, being a Gypsy or Traveller is much more than moving from one place to another. It is part of a person’s history and ancestry—part of the fabric of their existence—and the Government’s belief that they can supersede the community’s self-definition with their own definition is absurd. If a Scottish person no longer lived in Scotland, would that mean that they were no longer Scottish? No, because nationality and cultural identity are about much more than where somebody resides. A member of the travelling community, Phien O’Reachtigan, who is part of the National Gypsy and Traveller Council, has said that the definition has forced the community on to the road, and as a result there is more conflict between Travellers and local communities.
I finish by saying that we are all very mindful of the horrendous discrimination and racism that Gypsy and Traveller communities have experienced, and we need to create a system that helps us to eradicate such racism rather than exacerbating it. I do not have hope, listening to this debate tonight. We need to make sure that we are not part of the eradication of Gypsy and Traveller culture. This place needs to take quick action to reduce conflict. If we do not, I can only imagine that conflict in communities will increase.
All of us could sign up to four outcomes that relate to tonight’s debate. First, we should all believe in freedom and equality under the law. Secondly, we want the best possible community relations, but good community relations are undermined because we sadly do not always have equality under the law. Thirdly, we want good outcomes for all disadvantaged groups, but education and health outcomes for Travellers are shockingly bad, as we have heard tonight. Fourthly, we want fairness for those in the settled community who are persistently affected by adverse Traveller behaviour. We should all be able to sign up to those four principles, so I hope that we can coalesce, take some of the heat out of the debate and get some positive solutions.
I commend the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), who made the key point that local authority Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments are impossibly unfair on some areas that already have large numbers of people and over-occupied sites, because such areas will never be able to fulfil the requirements currently placed on them by the Planning Inspectorate. I was disappointed that the Minister who opened the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), did not mention the concerns about some privately run Traveller sites where, frankly, the rule of law does not currently apply and where horrendous things are happening. I am aware of sites where we have seen modern slavery, the abuse of tenants who are sub-letting and all types of criminality. I ask the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), to pick up on that point about privately run sites when he responds. Local authorities cannot enforce the law on such sites, requiring a warrant to enter some of them. Planning legislation is utterly unfit for the task.
We know that rubbish has been left all over the Olympic park, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned the incident at Langley near Slough. We also know what happened in Cromer recently, where the chief constable of Norfolk admitted that real anger and alarm had been experienced by many in that community following a rampage of Travellers that should not have been allowed.
As for action, I have several suggestions. We need an up-to-date Land Registry. We need the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment to require people to answer questions in interviews. If they can avoid answering the council officer’s questions about whether they are Travellers, the system simply does not work. We need immediate court access for local authorities. The planning policy guidance on Traveller sites from the Department should include a requirement for licensing, which would give local authorities proper power. I want the ability to impound vehicles involved in fly-tipping or other criminal activity, regardless of ownership. I also want checks on the wealth of Travellers, some of whom are enormously wealthy. Why should the taxpayer have to provide pitches for them?
A constituent—a member of the settled community—came to speak to me after a dinner last week and said that he has experienced endless break-ins and arson attacks and that sewage and rubbish have been dumped all over his land. He looked at me and said, “Does anyone in the Government care about this issue?” I want to be able to go back to him and say, “The Government get it. The Government do care. We are here for everyone to be treated equally.”
Like so many others, my constituency has been plagued by the problem of illegal encampments for the past two years. It is the same in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who cannot be here tonight because he has suffered a bereavement. I want to make it clear that I am referring to the behaviour of a problematic minority; I have no wish for my remarks to be construed as a general criticism of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people.
Enforcement and clean-ups have cost Birmingham City Council an estimated £700,000 in the past year, and there are some 395 unauthorised encampments across the seven west midlands authorities, which provides some idea of the scale of things in the area. I thank the police and crime commissioner, David Jamieson, the officers and councillors of Birmingham City Council, Adrian Jones of the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups, and Abiline McShane, who is a constituent of mine. All of them have helped my understanding of the issue.
I concur with other Members’ comments about the problems that illegal encampments cause so many of our constituents. There is no single solution, but there are some things that would help. More transit sites would give people more places to go to and make it easier for the police to use powers to move people from unauthorised sites.
Police powers would be strengthened if they could direct groups across combined authorities. I urge the Government to consider a change to section 62A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to allow police officers to direct unauthorised encampments to a site in a neighbouring authority where the authorities are working together as a combined authority or under some other sharing arrangement. That would make a significant difference to some of the problems we have at the moment.
We could do with a further change to protect private property so that, if a landowner recovers a site from unauthorised occupation, there is some sanction to prevent repeat returns, which is what happens at the moment. I know it is not popular to ask for money, but I think the Government should consider a fund from which local authorities might draw or borrow money to help with setting up transit sites, because they are key to a long-term solution.
There are obvious problems, but I want to praise West Midlands police, Birmingham City Council and particularly Councillor Karen McCarthy for pioneering the use of injunctions against persons unknown. That marks a substantial change in the law, and will make it easier to get injunctions in the future.
I want to conclude by saying that injunctions are not the answer—we simply end up with a displacement problem —but rather a short-term solution or sticking plaster. We need to find longer-term measures, some of which, to be fair, the Minister hinted at today. It seems to me that quite a lot of effort is being made by Members on both sides of the House for people to be reasonable. We have to find solutions that are practical and address the problems our constituents are experiencing, but that do not seek to scapegoat people unnecessarily. That will not solve our problems but create a different set of problems, and leave us with the same issues time and again.
My constituents in Poole are reasonable and tolerant people—they believe in live and let live—but every summer, about the time of the Dorset steam fair, several groups descend on the town. We are not blessed with fields and farms, but we have parks and public open spaces, and quite often these groups illegally occupy them by causing criminal damage. The police do not take action, because they do not have confidence in the law at the moment and tend to avoid getting embroiled in such situations. It then falls to the local authority, Poole Borough Council, which has a choice: either it takes legal action, which is long and imprecise and, if the group it is taking action against moves a few hundred yards or to another site, a total waste of time and money; or it negotiates with the groups, providing toilets, bags, some help and support, and sometimes water, in the hope that they will leave after 10 days or two weeks.
Whatever the council does, my constituents get upset, because they have to pay the bill for the clean-up at the end of the occupation. In the meantime, they are quite often denied the use of a park, play area, facility or playground for their children and grandchildren. They get very angry about that, and they get even more angry when they phone the police and get excuses. They phone the local council, which spends most of its time explaining what it cannot do, rather than what it can do, and they then phone all the local councillors, who helpfully tell them to contact the Member of Parliament.
Eventually, my constituents get around to me, and I say that when I have had meetings with Ministers, I have made the point that sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 do not actually work. We need to do something about that. In the past, Ministers have announced that they would have a consultation. The last time I talked to a Minister—my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)—was six or seven years ago, and there was a consultation at that point. Although I welcome such a consultation, what is necessary for public confidence is action.
Relations between Travellers and the public would be much better if there was a precise way of dealing with the problem. Then we could get to the root of the problem which, as many hon. Members have said, is about education and health n the Traveller community. What we need is to give confidence to the police and the local authority so that they can take action efficiently and effectively, without too much cost, so that they are happy, my constituents are happy and we can start to deal with the nub of the problem, which is the under-achievement and so on in the Traveller community.
What we have at the moment is a total and utter mess. Confidence in law and order drops, confidence in the council drops, confidence in councillors drops and confidence in the Member of Parliament drops. The reality is that people feel very dissatisfied. In a world where it is sometimes difficult to persuade people to turn out to vote, if someone is behaving antisocially at the bottom of their garden and we cannot do anything about it, they ask, “What’s the point?”
I hope that the Minister hears the message from today. First, we need a consultation which will receive plenty of advice—we have heard some good advice from colleagues today. Secondly, we need a timescale, because we do not want the issue to disappear into the Department for Communities and Local Government and never come out. Thirdly, as we have the joys of a two-year Session—we will not have a Queen’s Speech because of Brexit—we will have time to get legislation through. There is bound to be a criminal justice Bill, so let us use the opportunity and legislate.
I start by saying how much I appreciated the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), for Stockton South (Dr Williams), for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the last of whom so ably chairs the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. They have given at least some balance to the debate.
I was dismayed, as I am sure other colleagues were, by the title of the debate. “Gypsies and Travellers and local communities” immediately suggests division. Gypsies and Travellers are part of local communities, and there is an inherent contradiction in the title of the debate. I am sorry that some of the comments we have heard today have echoed the calumnies and untruths that appear in the media, especially papers such as the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Channel 4 Gypsy wedding series. I have heard it repeated that Gypsies are rich, and that there is one law for Gypsies and Travellers and another for the settled community.
Last month, the Traveller Movement published its excellent report, “The last acceptable form of racism?”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale quoted. I fear that that is what it is. Let us recall the statistics, rather than unfounded rumours. Three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in bricks and mortar, so only a quarter are in caravans, let alone travelling at any one time. When one breaks that down into how many are in unauthorised encampments, it comes to 4% of that 25%. So we are talking about 1% of the total at most. Just as the vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers are not causing any nuisance or problems for their neighbours, so those people who do cause such nuisance are not necessarily Gypsies or Travellers. I regret the elision of ethnic groups with antisocial behaviour, the flouting of planning laws and so on.
I saw a survey today that said that
“37% of parents would be unhappy (just four out of ten would be happy) with their child going to the home of a Gypsy/Traveller for a play date. Again, this compares with just 5% for Black Caribbean and 2% for White British.”
In one way we should celebrate that no division was found—as would probably have been the case 30 years ago—between how the black community is regarded compared to the white community, but what an indictment it is that people can show that degree of prejudice. The people answering that survey are not inherently racist, but they have picked up so much from the media. It is not from their own experience, because most people do not know Gypsies and Travellers in their own communities. I hope that the House gives no succour to such views.
There is a history to this, which includes the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and what the last Labour Government did in requiring local authorities—and giving them the funds—to provide legitimate sites. I am afraid that the Conservatives in office have taken that money away and removed the requirements on local authorities. Conservative Members then throw up their hands and say, “Look at this increase in unauthorised sites.” If there are transit sites with facilities and if there is negotiated stopping, we do not get conflict. We do end up with local authorities saving money, and Gypsies and Travellers living in harmony with the settled community.
If I may contradict the hon. Gentleman, Basildon Borough Council has a considerable number of sites for Travellers, yet it still suffers from the sorts of problems I outlined in my speech. He is incorrect to say that if there are sites, we do not get problems.
I thought the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, with all due respect, was one of the worst I heard today. I am afraid his intervention just confirms my view. He should remove the blinkers and prejudice from his own eyes before making contributions of that kind.
Let me end by speaking to those in the Gypsy and Traveller community, because they do watch these debates. I praise organisations such as Traveller Law Reform Project, The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, who admirably represent those communities. There are, notwithstanding some of the speeches they will have heard today, many parliamentarians, past and present, who have done their best to represent Gypsy and Traveller communities. I particularly pay tribute to the late Lord Avebury, who introduced the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and was an advocate throughout his parliamentary lifetime; Tim Boswell, who is now in the other place; Richard Bennett from the Local Government Association; Julie Morgan, who used to run the all-party group; and Rodney Bickerstaffe. I will end by quoting from his obituary in The Guardian this week, which said:
“At one time his mother’s family were so poor they lived in a Gypsy caravan in a field. Unsurprisingly, given his unstinting championing of the underdog, Bickerstaffe was one of the few public figures to loudly champion the cause of Travellers over the years.”
I wish that more Members of this House would emulate Rodney’s example.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for bringing the debate gently back to Essex once more.
I rise to stand up for my community in Tendring and Clacton, which has the beautiful aesthetics of a rural district. However, so much open space makes it vulnerable to illegal encampments. We are a coastal resort and, like many others around the country, we have regular incursions, especially during the summer and over bank holiday weekends. In short, we pretty much know when and where to expect incursions, and we should be able to react swiftly and positively. It needs to be stated that we have a moral obligation to all our citizens to make sure local policy works for everyone. That, quite rightly, includes the provision of good quality legal Traveller sites. However, that cannot overshadow the damage inflicted to land, policing and local authority budgets, and to community relations, from excessive and illegal encampments. We have legal Traveller sites, but that is not where Travellers necessarily want to go.
In May this year, three caravans and a van arrived at Vista Road recreation ground in Clacton, in the corner of the field next to the boundary with Clacton County High School. At Easter, 16 caravans stayed on land at the front of the Columbine Centre, next to Walton-on-the-Naze Lifestyles, making it their home for almost a week. We had to clean up for both and it was very expensive. Travellers also pitched up on a school playing field, just as children left to begin their summer holidays, with seven caravans and vehicles arriving on land that backs on to Whitehall Academy and Clacton Coastal Academy.
This causes great disruption to the community and it must be managed in the right way. For my Clacton constituency in Essex, there are broadly two routes for redress against illegal encampments. First, the Essex countywide Traveller unit—ECTU—is informed. Its team makes a visit and then serves a direction to leave. That gives the group 24 hours to move off. If they do not do so, the whole process of court action begins. Alternatively, the police have the section 61 powers, which can be used straight away if criminal damage or public safety is an issue, or if more than six vehicles form the encampment. I commend the Home Office for working closely with the police to ensure the powers they have are fit for purpose. However, the decision on when and whether to use police powers is an independent operational decision for the police. Put simply, it is a judgment call for the police.
In our community, police action is preferred as it is swift and shows the full force of the law to those who seek to break it. I am mindful, however, of the issue of police capacity in enforcing such laws. I personally would be relaxed about paying a few more pounds a year on my precept if the 2% cap were removed, as it would allow us to increase police funding and give us greater capacity to use the current laws. While the police precept cap seems to be a separate issue, I must say that my constituents wish to see the law robustly enforced.
The problem is, though, that there is no guarantee that the money would be spent on that. It could just fall into the general police budget.
It could indeed, but we have to find the money from somewhere, and it is lacking in Tendring district. I had a long talk with my local commander just two weeks ago and I know roughly where we are going.
My local residents would not get away with illegal developments, and neither must anyone else—it is one law, and we must all be equal under it. Section 61 powers should be used wherever necessary, and the appropriate resources must be part of that—not a popular thing to say, I know. Essex has a very low precept, and thus a 2% increase would raise far less per head than a 2% increase for a force with a higher precept. I do not think my constituents would begrudge an extra £10 a year or so if it meant an increased policing capacity to act swiftly and decisively on issues such as these illegal sites, and of course on many other criminal activities.
We need a two-pronged conversation about the fitness of the law and the ability to deliver it. All people in Clacton want is fairness under the law. Seeing an illegal encampment tackled is a hallmark of this concept. While I am open to conversations about changing or tightening the law, as mentioned earlier, the starting point must be giving the current law the opportunity to function at its peak potential and thus scrapping the precept cap and increasing policing capacity to tackle the illegal encampment. Then we can perhaps move on to the Irish option.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate because, since my election, my constituents have called upon me to raise this matter in the House.
I want to focus on the fairness of the illegal incursions. We expect everybody to abide by the law and accept that there are rules we have to abide by. Over the last couple of years, Medway has seen a large increase in the number of illegal incursions. Medway was formerly part of the county of Kent, which has a long history of Travellers, Roma and Gypsies. As a county, we have been extremely tolerant and accepting of their way of life, but over the last couple of years we have seen our town centre car parks used as encampments and criminal damage done.
In one case, Travellers arrived at a green flag park in the centre of Rochester—it has a friends group and is a jewel in the crown of Rochester—on a Friday evening. Sadly, we could not get a representative from the council to turn up that evening, and it took some time to get the police to turn up to try and protect the site. I was actually contacted by constituents. I and my fellow ward councillor, Stuart Tranter, who happened to be mayor at the time, had to go out at 12 o’clock at night to speak to the Travellers because unfortunately we could not get a representative from the council to attend. The excuse given by the duty officer at the council was that he was too fearful to attend on his own. I pointed out that I was the MP and down there on my own and that I would speak to people within my constituency.
Another major issue is the effect on businesses. We have seen incursions not just on council land but on private land and industrial estates. Some businesses in Strood have contacted me and said that it has affected their business and their ability just to get into work and operate.
As I have said, in the past there has been what I regard as a reluctance on the part of the police to use the powers that they have. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) that it comes down very much to the individual judgment call of the police at the time. In the case of one incursion in my constituency, a van was driven across a green park space, pushing against a resident. The police decided to tell the resident that he should behave because he might be arrested, while allowing the Gypsies to stay where they were. That caused discomfort in the community, and many residents were up in arms very late at night.
Luckily, because of my action, there is now an agreement between Medway council and the local police and a procedure, and I hope that that will help next year. However, I welcome the consultation, because it is clear that the present arrangement is not working in built-up areas such as mine. We need to act if we are to retain the confidence of the community.
Everyone in the House will agree that members of our communities have a right to choose alternative ways of life, but none of them has the right to opt out of British law. When that breaks down, not only community cohesion but respect for the rule of law and those who represent the people affected break down as well.
Over the past three summers, there have been a number of Traveller camps in Dudley. Some of those camps, although unauthorised, have caused very little damage or disruption. Indeed, at least one group of travellers from Scandinavia tidied up after themselves, mowed the grass, and probably left the pitch in a better condition than that in which they had found it. Sadly, however, too many others have caused significant criminal damage and disruption to local communities. There have been illegal incursions in areas including Netherton, Woodside, Wordsley and Kingswinford. There has been defecation and urination on playing pitches and children’s playing areas. While the impact of that is, of course, felt most keenly by residents in the immediate area, the cost of dealing with it—in terms of enforcement and clearing up—is felt by the whole borough and has amounted to more than £150,000.
The reflex reaction is that the police need more powers, but there is rarely any suggestion of what those powers would look like, how they would be used and, indeed, whether they would be used. I certainly support giving the police new powers to deal with illegal Traveller camps, but I think that many of the reasons that are given for the fact that the police often seem to consider it inappropriate or unlawful to use section 61 powers because of the lack of welfare assessments and the needs of the children are likely to be applied to any such new powers. We need far clearer guidance, because there is enormous variation across the country, and often within police forces, in the way in which the section 61 powers are used. I look to the Minister, working with colleagues in the Home Office, to produce that clearer guidance on which councils and police forces can rely, so that they know when it is appropriate to use the powers that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 appears to grant to police forces.
We need reform of how section 62A is structured, with regard to the area to which Travellers can be moved for a transit camp, and in how capacity is assessed, so that combined authorities can pool their capacity and the police can move unauthorised camps into transit camps, such as those being developed in Dudley.
I warmly welcome the proposed review of the law in this area because, as the Minister will know, I have asked questions about this before. I want to reference the Library, which is usually a great source of information, and to thank it for its briefing paper for this debate, which states:
“Unauthorised sites are frequently a source of tension between the travelling and settled communities… a shortage of permanent and transit Gypsy and Traveller sites continues to be a pressing issue, which results in unauthorised encampments”.
However, I must say that this is wrong in principle. All parties here agree that we need to build more homes, but if I was to build a home unlawfully and say that that was the reason, I would be laughed out of court.
We do have discrimination in this country, not against Travellers and Gypsies, given the number of advocates they clearly have on the Opposition Benches, but against the hard-working, honest residents of communities up and down the land, the silent majority and too often the forgotten people. There is not a level playing field and something must be done.
Whether it is section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which takes too long to effect—a constituent wrote to me about their frustration at the length of time that these matters seem to take—or section 61 of the same Act, which gives the police powers that they cannot use, perhaps because the disruption is below the threshold of public disorder, which perhaps will be dealt with in the review, or section 62A, which I referenced in an earlier intervention, which gives the police the powers that I think they need to direct trespassers on any land, but which is restricted because there must be a Traveller pitch in the same local authority area, this is unfair. If I build a home without permission because I want to live somewhere, the local authority does not have to give me another plot. It is a totally unlevel playing field and something must be done.
In the short time available, I want to say something about local councillors and councils. I commend County Councillor Rhydian Vaughan, who has been working on a Traveller case in Bramley, where it is alleged that the children of Travellers have been firing ball bearings at windows in the vicinity. I pay tribute to Borough Councillor Venetia Rowland, who has been working on a case involving the illegal felling of 500 trees in Sherfield, bordering the residents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) over in Sherfield Park. That is totally wrong. They know how to play the system and they have played it, and it is unacceptable. Some parish councils are also worthy of mention, such as Silchester Parish Council, which has been tackling the retrospective planning application for an unauthorised Traveller encampment.
Even though the principle is wrong, my constituents recognise that, within the law today, it is necessary to provide those other sites. One wrote to me, stating:
“I believe that locally there is already provision for travellers…albeit in Berkshire, so the broad area cannot be characterised as failing to provide facilities for travellers”.
But the legislation does not take that into account, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned earlier.
I share the sentiments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). I hope that today’s debate will be the start of a real shift in Government policy—a policy that has not shifted since 1994—and that it will lead to the Government reconsidering criminal legislation in this area and recasting existing legislation to make it work. More must be done. Constituents demand it—and, boy, do they deserve it.
I do not know whether you have ever visited Solihull, Mr Speaker, but it is blessed with many parks and other green and open spaces. I, like the rest of my town, was really looking forward to spending the summer enjoying those open spaces, but unfortunately we have attracted an unprecedented spate of Traveller incursions, which has tested Solihull Council’s defences and my constituents’ patience to the limit.
Unauthorised camps deny residents access to shared community spaces, but that is the least of the trouble: they are also very often accompanied by a spate of antisocial and even criminal behaviour. Not only have local businesses reported vandalism, but in the most recent incursions an elderly lady and autistic child were attacked in Shirley Park.
I have even had reports of rubbish being taken from Birmingham, where there has been a prolonged bin strike, and dumped on public land in Solihull by groups of Travellers in exchange for cash payments. The distress caused can be measured by the huge volume of emails I have received over the summer and the almost 4,000 signatures on my petition calling for the council to invest in new, more effective protections for public spaces, as well as the targeted injunctions mentioned earlier by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). The rich irony is that I know for a fact that those injunctions in Sandwell have worked—the groups have moved down to Solihull. That pattern is repeated across the country, judging by what hon. Members have said today.
I have also spent months in close contact with council officers and the police communicating the concerns of residents and local landlords. Too often, I have found that a particular group were simply being chased from park to park, with a council needing to seek a new eviction notice in the courts every time the Travellers pitched up at a new location. Other bands would circumvent court orders by temporarily merging with others and parting again in new combinations to which the order no longer applied. The police potentially have some powers under section 61, but the bar for implementation can be very high indeed. I have argued strongly that that bar needs to be lowered and that the repetitive nature of these incursions should be taken into account.
A lot of money has also been spent on the proofing against Traveller incursions of public spaces and parks. Okay, that can work in some instances, but it can also ruin the aspect of these green spaces. Why should my constituents have to tolerate trenches being dug, trees being uprooted and bollards being put in place? Why should council officers not be at work because they are guarding other green spaces, while Travellers are being moved on from other locations?
Many suggestions have been made today, and I am sure that stories such as mine have been repeated throughout the debate. I appeal to Ministers. They said that the review will consider the law; I presume that that will mean new laws. I hope that they will take soundings from my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms). Enough is enough: we cannot keep playing this game every summer with our constituents—the public land, the cost, the damage. The Government must toughen up the laws. Let us give them the sinews to act.
Odd stuff has been going on in the Chamber this evening, Mr Speaker; I have been keeping an eye on it while you have been gone. Before you left, however, you may have seen the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) congratulating the Housing Minister on how he opened the debate. Since you have been gone, the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) has congratulated the Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) has agreed with the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), and I have agreed with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker).
The people watching on the TV and seeing this unusual level of agreement will clearly be scratching their heads in the months and years to come if we do not sort out this significant problem as we have discussed this evening. We have heard about hundreds of unauthorised encampments costing millions of pounds. Until 26 September this year, we had 54 unauthorised encampments in Walsall: 40 on public land and 14 on private land, costing a total of £190,000—that is just the cost to the council and does not include the cost of police and other support services. This summer has felt like a bizarre game of cat and mouse, as the council has chased pretty much the same group of Travellers all around the authority.
For me, a huge part of the solution lies in injunctions. We have heard mixed messages this evening about whether they work or not, but in the black country we have got a High Court injunction against car cruising. That injunction has been taken out against unknown people, and since it came into effect, I understand that 17 people have been prosecuted. If it is possible to have an injunction of that nature across the whole black country, why can we not have something similar that will address the issue of unauthorised encampments?
Now that we have got a combined authority in the west midlands, why not move some powers up there to give it greater power to deal with the problem? For example, we have heard Members talk about section 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. I understand that one of the problems is that the police can move people only within a borough. Clearly, we have a level of devolution in the west midlands; we have got the combined authority. Why do we not give those seven authorities the opportunity to try to tackle the problem collectively? I would also like the Government to review the law in relation to private land and businesses. The police and crime commissioner advises that better legal protection for private landowners and business premises would assist with that work.
I do not think it is beyond the wit of the people in this room and the Government to deal with the problem. We have heard from Members in all parts of the Chamber that there is a willingness to collectively address the problem. I hope sincerely that after this debate we see some movement in that direction.
The hour is late and we are all short of time, but I welcome the consultation that the Minister has announced this evening. I hope that it will extend not just to local authorities, but to businesses and private landowners, who are also affected.
The Minister has mentioned that constituents can feed into the process. I will be encouraging mine to do so, because Gypsy and Traveller-related matters, particularly unauthorised encampments, are currently the biggest issue in my postbag and email inbox. It is fair to say that the issue takes up a huge proportion of time in my office in telephone calls from residents who are feeling frustrated, scared, upset, sometimes intimidated and sometimes, understandably, quite angry. For us in Aldridge-Brownhills, these are not just one-off, short-stay visits that leave without a trace; no, they have become regular incursions, like the ones we have heard about this evening, since the start of the summer. However, we are talking not just about this summer; this has been building over a number of years. The encampments often last a week at a time, and it is not uncommon for them to comprise more than 50 caravans.
We have seen encampments in Aldridge, Brownhills, Pelsall and Walsall Wood. It is understandable that my constituents are at breaking point with what has become a merry-go-round of cat and mouse. “When will it end?” they are asking. They are tired and fed up of the antisocial behaviour, the noise, the rubbish and the mess—it can be household, domestic and even human waste—that is so often left in the trail. It is the council that is left to clear up the mess and the council tax payer who picks up the bill. In the borough of Walsall, this runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds. This is money that could be going back into our communities, to those services that we really value and want to see strengthened.
As Members have probably gathered, I feel strongly about this. I feel strongly that local councils need to work much more closely with the police and that the Government need to seek to understand—this is why the consultation is a starting point—whether existing legislation needs to be implemented more effectively, which would be a help, or strengthened. Some suggestions could include looking at sections 61, 62, 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; the Irish solution, which was touched on earlier; common law; the use of injunctions; the use of transit sites; and criminal justice measures covering littering, fly-tipping and environmental protections. Basically, what more can be done to protect sites? A long-term solution is needed, but my residents need some short-term protections too.
I had wanted to touch on Traveller issues relating to educational attainment and health inequalities, and on modern slavery, which we should address, but sadly I do not have the time to do so. This evening, I wish to keep the focus on the areas I have outlined, as they have been very much raised by my constituents. It is not good enough for public bodies to gold plate human rights and equalities legislation. The issues faced by the settled community when an unauthorised encampment arrives on their doorstep are huge, as I have seen all too often. The cost to the council and the police, and the pressure and strain on resources, can be immense. I am fortunate in that I have a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday; I plug it now to anyone wants to contribute. Let me close with a reminder of a salient point: with rights must surely come responsibilities, and with responsibilities will come respect.
Disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, tonight’s debate has focused on the challenges experienced by communities as a result of unauthorised encampments. Although we should not dismiss or minimise the impact of those sites, we should not lose sight of the genuine, law-abiding Gypsy Traveller experiences. I have been looking through “The last acceptable form of racism?”, the report produced by the Traveller Movement, and some of the examples it contains are distressing:
“Schools are the worst. Gypsy children are constantly bullied”;
“Even the teachers would call our family the ‘Gypsy family’. Like we were a disease”;
“Because me mam couldn’t read or write, they belittled her”;
“Many kids used to verbally abuse me over being a Gypsy”;
“Schools don’t take bullying of Traveller children seriously”;
“If I put Romany in the equality monitoring section, never got interviews”.
This goes on and on in different areas, be it healthcare, policing or access to services. These things are all part and parcel of our communities and we have a responsibility to deal with it.
The repeated demonising and marginalisation of a whole community risks further isolating them and growing the sense of adversarial aggression. This House has a responsibility to set the right tone in a debate such as this and not allow a genuine desire to raise issues from constituencies around the country—I believe that is what it is—to spill over into discriminatory language. Thankfully, this evening’s debate has mainly been undertaken with great care, and I wish to thank colleagues from across the House for their considered contributions.
One in eight, or 13%, of Traveller caravans are on unauthorised sites, and many more authorised sites are needed. The number of caravans has grown in the past decade, but changes to councils’ duties since 2010 mean that Ministers cannot accurately establish the need for sites and homes, and cannot plan or secure any new supply needed to meet demand. The west midlands has been very well represented here this evening, and clearly a significant level of disruption has been experienced in that community, but it is important that we look at the fact that across the eastern and west midlands regions combined, just 15 out of 70 local authorities have identified full five-year plans for deliverable sites. Clearly, there is great scope for improvement on that, in order to try to ease those tensions and tackle any unsuitable sites that are being used.
Let me deal with some of the comments made by some of my colleagues. First, we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who was addressing the point about people living outside the rules of communities and highlighting the specific challenges posed by city unauthorised encampments. He indicated that his local authority has tried to work with those encampments but has experienced 140 unauthorised sites, which have caused difficulties, including hazardous fly-tipping. He says that these are not encampments, but unlawful businesses, and perhaps a change of view as to how people are operating would assist in dealing with some of those issues. He recommended getting magistrates to give orders over the weekend and utilising the DVLA to search vehicle registrations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) mentioned that there is a potential for bias and racial discrimination to be bred if we allow the current tone of debate to grow in the way that it is doing. He pointed out that the Government have removed councils’ duty to conduct assessments of need for facilities, education and health, and he urged them to put an end to the drift, get a grip and not kick the issue into the long grass.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) expressed his frustration with the reputational damage done to the majority of the Traveller community by a small minority. He mentioned the £150,000 to £300,000 a year that is spent on legal costs and cleaning up. In tight financial times for local authorities, that is clearly a great source of frustration, particularly for settled residents who see money spent on what they would consider unnecessary issues. We should consider his point about how to secure sites to prevent future abuse. He also discussed council and police powers, the ability to move encampments, and ways to get those who cause the damage to meet the clear-up costs, because as it stands the law is not fit for purpose.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke about the removal of the administrative borders of local authority areas—as did many other Members—to allow police forces to tackle cross-border illegal activity to alleviate pressure at unauthorised sites. He urged tougher and swifter action against those who act illegally.
I was pleased to hear the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams), because it changed the general tone of the debate. He gave a much more compassionate and broad consideration of the debate subject, highlighting the fact that those in greatest need are the least likely to access the support services that they need. He said we should ensure that GPs should not be able to refuse to register those from the Gypsy, Traveller and Romany community because they have no fixed abode. He also mentioned how the Government talk a good game on tackling burning injustices but fail in this arena.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said how important it was for those in public office not to make sweeping generalisations. She said that we should not make negative statements without the evidence to support them. She reiterated how fundamental education is to our society and spoke about how marginalised children from the Gypsy, Romany and Traveller communities are in schools, affecting their ability to attain academically, to integrate into society and to access public facilities. She also mentioned the case of a child having to move schools 11 times because of bullying. I found that particularly distressing, because in any other circumstances there would be outrage from us all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said it was important to support people in how they choose to live, but that we must not allow those who break the law to get away with it—we must consider the effect they have on other people. [Interruption.] I appreciate the notice about the lack of time. I just wish to mention very quickly the contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). They all made incredibly important points and I am sorry that I cannot go into them in more detail.
In closing, will the Minister please think again and restore the requirement for local authorities to assess these communities’ housing needs? How many sites have been established since 2015 and how much of the £60 million for affordable housing has been allocated to new or refurbished Traveller sites?
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. Given the very limited amount of time available to me, I might not be able to address every single issue, but it is absolutely clear that there are strong feelings around the House. I, too, feel extremely strongly about this issue: so many of the challenges that colleagues have mentioned—particularly those relating to illegal encampments—remind me of the challenges I have faced in my own constituency, Nuneaton. Many of my residents have suffered in a very similar way from illegal encampments.
I am, therefore, very pleased that, today, we have signalled our intention to seek a call for evidence to review the way in which existing powers are enforced and to understand what more can be done to tackle many of the issues raised in the debate. However, I caution Members because, whatever powers this House has given, and may give, it is important to say that those powers will inevitably be enforced at local level and that enforcement is the key to success in this regard.
Let me deal with a number of points that have been made. There was a strong feeling among Members that there should be parity among all communities in respect of the planning system. That was certainly a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena). They also said that they expected enforcement powers to be used in a proportionate but fair manner by local authorities. They were also concerned about the green belt—we all value the sanctity of the green belt. We have made it clear that temporary or permanent Traveller sites are not appropriate green-belt development and that the personal circumstances and needs of particular families are unlikely to clearly outweigh the harm to the green belt. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) said in relation to the village of Wolvey. He set out his feelings with regard to the national planning policy framework, and he should consider making a contribution on that matter during the call for evidence.
Members have also mentioned unauthorised encampments. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made the extremely important point that everybody, no matter who they are or whatever part of the community they represent, must comply with the rule of law. My hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Dudley South (Mike Wood) also covered that important point. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire also mentioned the challenges of private sites that he has experienced in his constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby mentioned another important point: the Warwickshire protocol that is being developed for dealing with illegal Traveller encampments. It is important that we see strong local leadership to use the powers that are already available.
In the call for evidence, one matter is likely to feature very strongly. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, and my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), for Wells (James Heappey), for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for Clacton (Giles Watling) talked about other jurisdictions and what has been done in Ireland in relation to the problem with illegal encampments.
I do not have a great deal of time to cover all the other points that were made. I wish to bring some balance to this debate, because this is not just about the challenges that we have with Gypsies and Travellers in our constituency. It is also about a proportionate response. As we have heard, the challenges that we face are generally from a small group of the various Gypsy and Traveller communities, and we need to ensure that we balance this with fairness so that Gypsies and Travellers do not face issues such as hate crime, which have been mentioned. We need to be clear that, whomever it is perpetrated against, hate crime is not acceptable in our society. The issue of life chances for Gypsies and Travellers was also mentioned. Much of what has been said tonight will be picked up during the race disparity audit that is being considered by the Government.
To come back to the central point, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers are fully integrated in our society and that they enjoy the rights of our society, but as important are the responsibilities that everybody in our society has. I am confident from tonight’s debate that we will be able to take this matter forward. I look forward to hon. Members contributing to the important call for evidence that is being undertaken by the Government.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Gypsies and Travellers and local communities.