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Volume 957: debated on Tuesday 7 November 1978

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Tinn.]

2.37 a.m.

The subject of this short debate, which I am sorry to inflict on the House at this hour, is tinkers. "Tinker" is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as

"itinerant beggar, trader or performer",
as opposed to "gipsy", which is defined as
"member of a wandering race (by themselves called Romany) of Hindu origin."
The Minister knows that under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 provisions were made with the object of providing permanent accommodation in this country for gipsies by imposing on local authorities the obligation to provide gipsy sites. Like much do-gooding legislation, that Act was promoted by the Liberals, and it was swallowed eagerly by the Labour Government of the day. Comparatively slow progress has been made, not surprisingly.

We then had the Cripps report On 19th July we had a Written Answer from the Minister, and three features appear to me to stand out in that Written Answer. The first is that there are still 6,000 homeless gipsy families. The second is that the Government are proposing to give a 100 per cent. financial grant towards these sites. The third is that not very clearly worded undertakings were given about designation.

I am a member of the Salop county council, which has the responsibility of acquiring sites. We have in Shropshire now acquired two or three sites and have two in working order. The management responsibilities were originally conferred on the district councils, but we have agreed that the county shall take over some of these. The House ought to be aware of other things that were happening while this operation was going on. One of our sites is at a place called Craven Arms, which I represent on the county council. Craven Arms is a small village with about 2,000 inhabitants. In the middle of the built-up area there is a site which was a sawmill but was closed down and abandoned. The site was owned by a firm which was about to redevelop it for housing purposes.

On 1st May this year, the site was illegally entered by four vans. During the rest of the month they were supplemented by a total of 63 vans—in addition to cars, trucks and lorries—which arrived with an estimated 300 occupants. On the day after the first vans arrived, they were visited by the local member of our Gipsy Council who reported that none of the occupants belonged to the Gipsy Council. On the following day they were visited by the chairman of the parish council, who asked them when they proposed to leave. He was told that they would stay as long as they pleased. Subsequently they were visited by the police, when they promised they would leave on 13th May. They did not do so. They were later visited by the owners of the site and promised to leave on 19th May. They did not do so. On 31st May proceedings had to be instituted at the High Court in Birmingham. Finally, on 5th June, the visitors departed.

This site had no water or toilet facilities. Not surprisingly, conditions quickly became appalling, with accumulations of rubbish, food, debris and faecal matter. Adjoining the site was a railway station, now reduced by British Rail to the status of an unmanned halt. The footbridge and platform shelters of the station were regularly used as toilets. House owners who lived close to this site were constantly disturbed, both by generators and by the noise of the occupants returning in the evenings from public houses. By the end of the visit by the gipsies there were 21 separate lists of complaints from 21 different adjacent houses.

A great deal of the time of the police and the chief executive of the local council was taken up with these visitors. There were many complaints from publicans who were visited by these people. When the site was finally vacated, the following rubbish was left on the site: enormous quantities of paper, tin, shoes, broken glass, rags, milk crates, curlers, plastic bags, excreta, squeezy bottles and glass bottles. There were also car wheels, carpets, electric flex, clothing, pillows, bread, hosepipes, electric irons, wood, plastic buckets, a harmonica, broken furniture, a suitcase, a fireguard, a tin tray, a wooden cupboard, plastic bowls, cushions, prams, lino, sacks of Phurnacite, a derelict Bedford van, stockings, wellingtons, cutlery, a tarpaulin, a bicycle, an eiderdown, blankets, overcoats, sorbo rubber, tongued and grooved boards, full bottles of milk, a broken gate-legged table, cardboard boxes, sweaters, a straw hat, a car seat, a table, bones, sideboards, potato peelings, orange skins, a canvas carrier bag, a chair, polythene sheeting, oil drums, fur coats, used toilet paper, a dustbin lid, rope, wire rope, a brush, car radiators, gas stove parts, telephone directories, used sanitary towels, socks, plywood, a coke hod, feather beds, used disposable nappies, a complete gas stove, a fur rug, a bread bin and a dustbin.

The cost of the incident was as follows. The owners incurred £100 cost in rubbish tipping, £400 in legal fees, £1,500 in clearing up, and £425 in time and travel, making a total of £2,425. The district council spent 255½ man-hours on the problem. The cost of the labour was £490 and of the travelling £125. British Rail estimates that for the purposes of guarding and cleaning the railway station it had to spend £1,000. Damage to a village hall cost another £800, making a total for the episode of £4,840.

It is perhaps worth expatiating slightly on the episode of the village hall. This was at Knowbury, about 10 miles away, where the secretary, quite innocently, accepted a booking for a wedding recep- tion from a gentleman who gave his address as Ludlow and paid the booking fee.

By all accounts the wedding must have been a very good party. A Catholic priest was obtained and performed the rites, and 300 to 400 people appear to have attended. The description of the hall at the end of the reception was as follows: the mess was indescribable. The hall looked as though a hurricane had hit it. Furniture was overturned, food and bottles were all over the place. The district council supplied a dustcart and two men. Furniture had to be moved outside and hosed down. The floor was scraped and then washed four times. The meter room had been used as a lavatory. The locked stage properties room had been broken into and billiard cues broken. The lavatory was in a revolting state. The record player was irreparably broken. The piano was also broken and had to be thrown away. Kitchen curtains were so torn as to be beyond repair, as were the lavatory curtains. Boy Scout cupboards had been broken into and vandalised. The youth club and playgroup equipment was ruined.

The detailed items damaged included, in the scouts' equipment, three gas burners, books, drawing books, pens, ropes, Ordnance Survey maps, gas lamps, a football, torches, a set of 12 skittles, first-aid box and cupboard. The village hall equipment damaged included window panes, velvet stage curtains, kitchen curtains, other curtains, playing cards, tables, a wash basin, a first-aid box, the entrance ceiling, an electric heater and plug, a fire extinguisher and a carpet. The youth club equipment damaged included a record player beyond repair, table football and four snooker cues. The playgroup equipment damaged included a trampoline, a fun funnel, a foam strip, blackboards, a number puzzle, beads, laces, Lego, jigsaws, crayons and chalks, drawing books, farm and zoo animals, plasticine, building bricks, a puzzle tray, rolling pins and pastry cutters, four sets of wooden templates, Tupperware and a first-aid box.

One may ask what was the place of origin of this remarkable party. I have had investigations made. It seems to have been established that only five of these families had any permanent English residence. All appear to have spoken with pronounced Irish accents. The police reported that they came from Ireland, America, North Shropshire, Leominster, Swansea and South Wales generally.

There are a number of questions which should be put to the Minister after such an episode. The cost of providing these sites, whether borne by the ratepayers or by the taxpayer, is fairly considerable. Are these the types of persons for whom these sites are intended? They do not pay house rents or rates, though they may pay some rent to the council providing the sites. What is the implication of the Minister's recent statement that the Government's 100 per cent. contribution is to be found within the agreed housing programme year by year? Is money to be taken out of housing?

What immigration restrictions are there on tinkers of the type who appear to have visited Craven Arms? What object is there in providing sites at public expense for people with unlimited right of entry from abroad? Are we not involving the ratepayer and taxpayer in an an open-ended commitment? What measures has the Minister in mind to prevent a repetition of episodes of this kind? When the Minister says in his recent statement that the provisions for designation "will be improved", what will be the use of designation to prevent such incidents? In fact, should not this whole problem be reconsidered as a matter of urgency?

2.51 a.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) on having obtained this debate. I have noted the problems that he has mentioned and the full list of the damage done in his constituency. We have in the past, corresponded on some of these matters including the local opposition to sites proposed by his own county council.

I cannot agree with the contention sometimes put forward that the simple solution to the problem is to deny certain categories of traveller access to this country or to the hon. Member's constituency. The provision of sites for the relatively small numbers of nomadic people in our society is a national problem and each area must play its part.

Control of the movement of itinerants between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, either direct or via Northern Ireland, could be done only by the imposition of a general requirement for travel documents upon all visitors at the time of arrival. This has been done under emergency regulations during and after the last war, but reintroduction would require new legislation. I can see no merit in considering such a possibility in relation to this small category of visitors, particularly as common membership of the EEC now entitles residents of the Republic to enter this country to look for work.

Referring to those travellers whom the hon. Member has described as Irish tinkers, I recognise that there is a reluctance to accept the idea that Irish travellers should be accommodated here, on the grounds that they are not native to this country or are very recent visitors. I accept that there is a certain flow of travellers between this country and the Republic of Ireland, but it would be a grave incursion of civil liberties to debar such movement.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968 defines "gipsies" as
"persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin".
This certainly includes that element among the travelling people we call Irish travellers. Local authorities with a duty for the provision of caravan sites for gipsies are therefore under the same obligation to provide for Irish travellers as for any others.

The majority of so-called "Irish travellers" have been here for a very long time and many are second or third generation, many of them have been born in this country. Informal estimates within the Department suggest that within this category there are about 1,500 families habitually residing in or travelling about this country. An official census of travellers in the Republic of Ireland in October 1977 presented a figure of 1,953 families, of which 854 were counted outside authorised sites or housing. Of these, it is understood that about 250 families preferred to remain travelling in the Republic and in Great Britain.

It is the Irish Government's policy, therefore, to provide accommodation either on sites or in housing for those who wish to settle, and also "halting" sites for those wishing to travel. They consider that they are just keeping pace with the needs of their travelling population. It follows from this that there are no grounds for assuming any deliberate policy on the part of the Irish Government to encourage a flow of travellers across to this country. There is a flow but this is largely two-way traffic between groups in both countries with strong religious, social and family ties, together with the regular pattern of travelling habits of certain specialised groups—unfortunately, large groups—such as furniture dealers.

I accept that a large group of Irish travellers suddenly appearing in a community can cause anxiety and pose problems for the local authority and for the local people. In the main, this is only one facet of the general problem of recognising the need to accommodate all the travelling population whether on sites for long-term occupation or on transit sites. I shall return later to this general problem.

It appears that this sector of the travelling population has some distinctive characteristics. It must not be assumed that gipsies or travellers are a homogenous category. There are frequent clashes of temperament among themselves, as I have found when holding meetings with them. The sheer size of the groups of Irish travellers and the insularity of their life style often causes clashes with other travellers and nearby house dwellers. This does much to foster their reputation for wilful misbehaviour and wanton destruction of public and private property. For this reason, they are probably the most rejected of all the groups among travellers.

It seems likely that the needs of many of the Irish travellers would be best served by simple transit sites suitably placed and serviced in the specific areas which they habitually visit, as well as by sufficient residential sites for those making longer stays. Both types of site should, in the main, be reserved for them in order to avoid clashes with others.

The Department is particularly anxious to consider the extent to which the reputation of Irish travellers is justified. The hon. Member has made some contribution to that research. We want to investigate how far this might arise from their life- style, distribution and patterns of movement and to consider their special needs. Such information would assist the Department to advise local authorities on the best arrangements to make for accommodation. We are initiating research into this.

I am sympathetic to the experiences of the hon. Member's constituents this summer but I must insist that the appearance of an unauthorised encampment of 40 to 50 families close to an official site is symptomatic of the intense pressure on the travelling population to find places to stay. I know that the wedding was an unusual function, and that some guests came from overseas, but 6,000 of the 8,000 authorised families do not have sites.

Only by the construction of adequately equipped and well-managed sites can we be rid of these unauthorised encampments which cause so much distress. Only then shall we have any real chance of dealing with any problems beyond the environmental influences upon the ways of the travelling community. I know that it is of little consolation to those who have seen their village hall damaged, but the Government are most anxious to grasp the roots of the complicated set of social problems without denying those concerned rights to a nomadic existence if they should wish it.

I recall standing here a year ago answering a similar debate at which the hon. Member for Ludlow was present. That debate was started at an earlier hour than tonight—at 1.15 a.m. At that time I described the general position. There were then 157 local authority sites in England and Wales offering accommodation for 2,531 gipsy caravans. At our last count in July 1978 there were 173 sites, accommodating 2,724 caravans. Some progress has therefore been made, but the annual rate is exceedingly slow.

At the same count in July of this year, Salop county council was found to have 54 caravans on official and private authorised sites but 56 on unauthorised sites, although only six of these were in the hon. Member's constituency. It looks as if the particular group of travellers to which the hon. Member has referred tonight had moved on by then. The council has made greater efforts to comply with the 1968 Act than have some of the shire counties, but from the figures it appears that it still has a long way to go.

I referred a year ago to the unauthorised encampments as the nub of the gipsy problem, and this is still the case. My extensive round of visits to sites in the summer of 1977 remains as an indelible impression. With no services and no management, conditions on the illegal sites rapidly deteriorate, causing misery for travellers and local residents alike. I saw the contrast presented by the official sites, both the new, well equipped and well managed sites and the older ones. Many local authorities have had sites for many years, but these are still well managed and demonstrate that material shortcomings are less important than good management.

Only by adequate provision of satisfactory official sites suitably equipped and managed can the appalling unauthorised sites be eliminated. I must repeat my comment of a year ago on the irony that the provision of official sites is held up by local opposition, often based on experience only of illegal sites, which thus tends to perpetuate what it loathes. I repeat my suggestion that in areas where there are unauthorised sites local authorities owe it to their ratepayers to break out of this vicious circle, to get rid of these eyesores—not by pushing gipsies down the road or on to the next authority's doorstep but by providing proper sites.

None of this is new. Since 1962, Governments have been exhorting local authorities to provide sites under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and not to turn people off unauthorised sites only to leave them to find another.

Then part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 gave county councils, county borough councils and London borough councils a duty to provide caravan sites for the gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. This came into force in April 1970, but still the rate of provision of sites has been disappointing. After a gradual increase in the annual rate of site provision between 1970 and 1974, there has been a falling-off such that nearly three-quarters of the gipsy population of this country still cannot find official sites after being pushed off unofficial ones.

The Government's concern at this situation and the consequent social problems for travellers and house dwellers led to the commission of a study by John Cripps. The Cripps report was published in April 1977 and it is a welcome analysis of the size and nature of the problem, as well as giving some indication of the cultural and social differences between house dwellers and gipsies. The report sought a better appreciation of the gipsies' difficulties but without glossing over the problems caused by the behaviour of some of them.

In circular 57/78 dated 15th August 1978, the Government's conclusions on the recommendations made in the Cripps report were published. This response indicated the many changes which it was intended to make and hoped that the report and the response would provide the basis for a fresh impetus to the provision of sites. In particular, it was announced that the financial burden for providing sites would be largely taken away from local government finance by the provision of an Exchequer grant at the rate of 100 per cent. to cover the capital cost of sites over a five-year period. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, my Department had to take this from proposed housing expenditure. The proportion of total housing expenditure is, of course, very small and amounts to about one house in a thousand. This very exceptional rate of grant indicates the Government's determination to secure quick and effective remedies.

The detailed mechanics of the grant system are being considered at this moment and will be subject to further consultation in due course. The enabling powers for such grants will be included in our proposed new legislation on the subject. Although I realise that I am not supposed to go into details about proposed legislation, I should like to say that we are proposing, under section 12 of the 1968 Act, that designation can be extended to the district councils. This may help the district council which the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Outside the content of the proposed legislation, perhaps the most significant initiative by the Government in response to the Cripps report is the proposed discussions with county councils about county quotas and time-related programmes of site provision. Discussions on this have already been started with a number of local authorities. Out of the changed situation there already appears to be a greater readiness by local authorities to assess the gipsy needs in their area and to work out and implement the programmes of site provision. We are looking forward to significant advances on this aspect over the next year.

Meanwhile, we hope to be able to make payments of grant under the new system before the end of this financial year, if any claims are received, and authorities currently working on projected sites are already being given guidance on the likely admissibility of expenditure.

I hope that we can move towards a far better basis for mutual understanding between house dwellers and travellers based upon a far better provision of accommodation for the latter and a consequential alleviation of the problems of unauthorised encampments for the former. I look forward to those in Salop county playing their full part in this, but at the same time we must always respect the rights of house dwellers to reasonable privacy, security and amenity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Three o'clock a.m.