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Illegal Encampments

Volume 404: debated on Monday 28 April 2003

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What guidance he gives the police in addressing the problems posed by illegal encampments. [109767]

The Government recently published for consultation operational guidance for local authorities and police on managing unauthorised camping. The consultation period closes on 23 May and final guidance will be published later in the year. We have also announced that we will introduce new powers of eviction when parliamentary time allows.

I welcome my hon. Friend's answer. Will he reflect, however, on the anger of communities such as Shardlow, Barrow on Trent, Foston, Swadlincote, Castle Donington, in a neighbouring constituency, and elsewhere in South Derbyshire, at the appalling nuisance of unauthorised encampments, and the lack of knowledge that police forces sometimes have of basic environmental protection law? Does he agree that one step might be to ask them to enforce the existing law with more rigour?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I recognise entirely the problem that he describes and, judging from the response in the Chamber, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have direct experience of it. There are already extensive powers, and it is important that they are used effectively. I commend to all hon. Members the consultation paper, because one of the points that it makes forcefully is the need to do precisely what my hon. Friend suggests. I urge hon. Members to look at that document and to let us have their views and comments, because we want to ensure that there are effective powers to deal with the problem and nuisance that my hon. Friend so starkly describes.

As I understand it, the Government are giving the police extra powers to evict illegal travellers' encampments provided that local authorities provide sites for the permanent establishment of travellers' encampments that can be properly designated and run. The trouble is that planning restrictions are not being eased to enable local authorities to build those sites. Will the Minister undertake to examine that weakness in the Government's proposals?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I undertake to draw it to the attention of my colleagues. The benefit of the new powers that we propose to make available is that they would apply without the conditions that affect the section 61 powers that the police have under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. They would also cover, for example, industrial estates and road lay-bys, which are not covered by the current powers, and deal with the phenomenon which I am reliably informed is described as "hedge-hopping", whereby those who are removed from one field can then transfer their encampment to another one. That is what we seek to achieve, provided that the relevant local authority makes the provision that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

As the Minister will be aware, a few weeks ago several thousand of my constituents in Crawley, Round Green and Stopsley presented a petition to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary concerning the midsummer mayhem that they experienced as a result of an illegal traveller encampment that was chased around Luton and South Bedfordshire. Is he aware that there was a very different approach between the Luton police force and that of South Bedfordshire? As a result, residents of Stopsley—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling hon. Members about the different approaches of two forces. That reinforces the point that I made a moment ago—namely, that fairly extensive powers already exist, but we wish to add to them for the reasons that I outlined. It is helpful if forces co-operate, share information and work with local authorities to ensure that they use those powers in the interests of protecting the constituents of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members.