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Travellers

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

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8.

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the present laws relating to the occupying of land by groups of travellers. [15784]

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives two sets of powers—one to the police and one to local authorities—to deal with problems as and when they arise. The police can remove trespassers in justified circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions is looking at the powers given to local authorities and is conducting a review. He hopes to publish guidelines in the spring which will make it easier for local authorities to deal with the situation.

I thank the Minister for that reply; I am encouraged by what he said. Is he aware that at least 100 people descended on my constituency of Tewkesbury this summer? It took a full two weeks to clear them from the land, during which time there was great mayhem in the town, which is trying to regenerate itself. Will the Minister assure my constituents and the House that he will carefully monitor the situation?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I understand that the problem to which he refers occurred as a result of a wedding among some travelling people; there was a similar incident a few years ago in my constituency. Such incidents cause difficulties and the hon. Gentleman is right to make that point. We are keeping the matter under review and, as I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will publish helpful guidelines in the spring.

The present law is not working, so the need for the review is extremely urgent. Areas such as mine suffer not from new age travellers but from old age travellers, who give rise to considerable cost and considerable nuisance. The previous Government removed the obligation to provide sites and, in doing so, made the problem a lot worse. Will my hon. Friend ensure that we reimpose and strengthen the obligation to provide sites, preferably on a regional basis? We can link that to tougher enforcement powers.

I hope that, in referring to old age travellers, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was not referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

This is, however, a serious subject. If my hon. Friend needs reassurance, he can have it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions recognises the problem, and that is why he is conducting a review. He will consult local authorities and we hope that the end of that process will be very helpful.

Will the Minister urge local authorities, at both district and county level, police forces, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to co-operate in the exchange of intelligence so that local areas know when a group of new age travellers are about to descend? The provision of sites, such as happened under the old law, will not assist, because new age travellers are not interested in static sites; they want to go where they please.

New age travellers are a nuisance. In my constituency, there have been two large encampments and a huge number of sheep were killed as a result of their activities. They even had the nerve to say, during the court case to decide whether the local authority could remove them, that their dogs did not kill the sheep because their dogs were vegetarian. Will the Minister ensure that local authorities take a grip of the law? The law is there; it just needs using.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may or may not be right; we need to wait for the outcome of the review. Clearly, the dogs were new age dogs. It is important that, when intelligence can be shared between local authorities, the police and any other agencies concerned, it should be. I suspect that the difficulty is that the intelligence the hon. and learned Gentleman describes may not exist in a form in which it can be easily shared. Where it does, we would encourage those concerned to share it.