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Traveller Law Reform

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

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12.31 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reform the law in England and Wales as it applies to gypsies and travellers.

Last July, the House allowed me to introduce the Bill that I wish to reintroduce today. Since then, the response that I have received has strengthened my conviction that it represents the right approach to resolve the problems that continue to be experienced in many hon. Members' constituencies because of unauthorised encampments of travellers and the antisocial behaviour that can occur when large groups of travellers congregate. My Bill would establish, for the first time in a legal framework, the right of gypsies and travellers to lead a nomadic way of life. It would also establish the responsibilities and obligations that they owe to others when exercising that right.

Since I introduced my Bill, I acknowledge that the Government have responded to the issue of travellers in several ways. However, they have not yet got to grips with the central issue: ensuring that sufficient sites for travellers are established to avoid the use of unauthorised sites. That is also the aim of my Bill.

Let me remind the House where I am coming from. Over Christmas 2001 and the new year, the national media gave widespread coverage to the unauthorised occupation of Kings park, a public park in my constituency, by a large group of travelers—800 people of all ages in some 200 vehicles and caravans. They said that they intended to stay throughout the entire holiday period, and so they did, despite a county order for their eviction and the requisite notices that were served. I shall not dwell on the effect that the travellers' presence had on the residential neighbourhood during that period—it is on the record—save to say that the experience cost the local community more than £100,000 and affected it in many ways that my constituents never want repeated.

The experience happened at the end of a year in which there was the largest ever number of unauthorised encampments on public parks and open spaces in our borough of Bournemouth. Such encampments continue regularly; Kings park was occupied on a much smaller scale just before Easter, despite measures that had been taken to avoid that happening.

Parliamentary initiatives that many hon. Members continue to take to raise the issue show just how widespread the problem of travellers' unauthorised encampments is. More of us tabled questions on the subject last year than ever before, and several Adjournment debates and ten-minute Bills have called for local authority and police powers to be strengthened to allow travellers to be evicted more effectively and to tackle antisocial behaviour.

In January, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) introduced a Bill to address another subject related to travellers: those who buy designated green belt land to develop without planning permission. Six weeks ago, the Minister responsible for the issue, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), told the local government conference on gypsies and travellers of the initiatives that the Government have recently taken: more cash for the gypsy sites refurbishment grant; a consultation paper on operational guidance on managing unauthorised encampments; and research commissioned from the university of Birmingham on the provision of sites—the report is expected next month—which is in addition to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research on unauthorised sites.

None of those initiatives will achieve what I believe is necessary—the establishment of the rights and responsibilities of gypsies and travellers within the law. Nor will any of the Government's proposals to date help local authorities such as mine in Bournemouth, which has run out of land to develop, including sites for travellers, and is rightly protecting its public parks and what is left of its green belt to prevent further urban sprawl. For such authorities, the Government propose no new powers to deal with the problem of unauthorised encampments. The fact is that section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 cannot be used when there are no alternative sites; nor does the Government's new draft housing Bill reflect their proposals for sustainable communities that should apply to travellers. Indeed, it appears that gypsy and traveller organisations were not even consulted on the Bill.

My Bill responds to all those issues. It is based on the work of the Cardiff law school and is the culmination of four years' consultation between gypsies and other travellers' organisations, statutory and voluntary bodies such as the police and local authorities, and lawyers and planners who face the problems that arise. Its main provision, in clause 1, is the establishment of a gypsy and traveller accommodation commission, with the principal task of ensuring that there is adequate accommodation for gypsies and travellers in England and Wales. It would be representative of the communities concerned as well as of interested public bodies, local authority and voluntary organisations. It would be expected to respond to problems of antisocial behaviour and unauthorised encampments, such as we have experienced in Bournemouth.

The Bill would require local authorities to facilitate the provision of sites for gypsies and travellers. The Housing Corporation would be empowered to make grants to registered social landlords to enable them to provide and manage such sites. Where, as in Bournemouth, there are no longer any appropriate sites to develop, the commission would explore appropriate sites with and in neighbouring authorities to serve the entire area. The new powers provided to the police to deal with unauthorised encampments could then be applied to all the local authorities in that area, which is not what the Government propose today.

The Bill would require local education authorities to develop strategic programmes to improve the educational attainment of gypsies and travellers and their children. It would also clarify the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 by acknowledging that Irish travellers constitute a racial group, as do Scottish and Welsh gypsy traveller communities. It would also contain other appropriate provisions.

I submit that my Bill represents a carefully considered approach that provides equality of opportunity and equal access to civic life and social services for travellers and gypsies. It acknowledges that the threat of continuous eviction does nothing for the health and welfare of families, or for the education of children; that only 2 per cent. of travellers live to see the age of 65; and that the traveller infant mortality rate is nearly three times the national average. It recognises that where local authorities have offered suitable land sites, good relations have developed and school attendance and health have improved. A schedule to the Bill would propose a code of conduct for travellers, based on best practice and in consultation with local authorities and traveller groups.

The Bill responds to the recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed last year for member states to resolve the legal status of gypsies and travellers. The alternative is to continue to rely on laws to prevent unauthorised encampments, which the police and local authorities are at their wits' end trying to enact. I commend my Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Terry Davis, Mrs. Annette Brooke, Mr. John Butterfill, Mr. John Battle, Mr. Henry Bellingham, Nick Harvey, Julie Morgan, Michael Fabricant, Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. John Randall and Mr. Kevin McNamara.