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Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure)

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers on local authority caravan sites; and for connected purposes.

I should like to begin by describing a case that brings security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers into sharp focus and demonstrates the vulnerability of their position and the resulting injustice. In May 2004, the European Court of Human Rights decided the case of Connors v. the United Kingdom, in which the claimant had been evicted from an official local authority Gypsy site on which she had resided for many years. There were allegations of nuisance, but the local authority did not have to plead those allegations nor prove its case in the possession action that it took in the county court, because the Caravan Sites Act 1968 provides that all that a local authority has to do to gain possession of a pitch on a Gypsy site is to provide 28 days’ notice of termination of the Gypsy’s or Traveller’s licence and then obtain a court order. In Connors v. the United Kingdom, the local authority had served such a notice, leaving the occupant without a defence. The court could neither scrutinise the allegations that had prompted the local authority to serve the notice nor decide whether they were proved and, if proved, decide whether it was reasonable for a possession order to be made. The European Court of Human Rights decided that that lack of any procedural safeguard was a clear breach of the occupant’s rights under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which provides a right to respect for that person’s home, private life and family life.

Looking back on that case now, one could say that that appears to be an obvious conclusion. Most council tenants in bricks and mortar housing have full security of tenure under the Housing Act 1985. Only those on a trial period under an introductory tenancy, those whose tenancy has been demoted for antisocial behaviour, or those in accommodation for the homeless do not enjoy those full rights. If a local authority wishes to take possession proceedings against a council secure tenant, it must establish one of the grounds of possession in the Act. In the case of discretionary grounds, as in cases involving rent arrears or nuisance allegations, the court must also be satisfied that it is reasonable to grant a possession order.

In November 2004, the Government sent a memorandum to the Council of Ministers indicating that they accepted that they would have to change the law to introduce security of tenure on official local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites. The indications given at the time were that this would be achieved by referring the matter to the Law Commission, which was working on reforms to security of tenure with regard to tenancies of bricks and mortar dwellings. While that was awaited, Gypsies and Travellers on official sites remained without security of tenure.

In the meantime, on the face of it, local authorities were still entitled to seek a possession order without pleading or proving any grounds of possession. Relying on the Connors case, lawyers representing Gypsies and Travellers facing eviction were compelled to resort to article 8 of the European convention and to argue that this could provide a defence to the county court claim for possession of the land, oblige the court to investigate the allegations and decide the issues, and entitle the court to refuse to make a possession order where it considered it disproportionate to do so.

However, to succeed in that argument Gypsies and Travellers had to overcome the decision of the House of Lords in London Borough of Harrow v. Qazi, decided in July 2003. The House of Lords decided that the defendant could not rely on article 8 as a defence, as the domestic legislation provided an automatic justification for any interference with his right to respect for his home and family life.

The challenge to Qazi returned to centre stage in March this year, when the House of Lords, sitting as a seven-member court, heard the cases of Kay v. London borough of Lambeth and Price v. Leeds city council together. By a majority of four to three, the House held that the Connors ruling was, to a limited degree, inconsistent with its decision in the Qazi case. It decided that the Qazi ruling must be modified to the extent that in cases of a special and unusual kind, such as the Connors case, interference with the occupier’s article 8 rights would have to be justified by a decision-making process that ensured that some special consideration was given to those interests.

In May 2006, the Law Commission produced a consultation document entitled “Renting Homes: The Final Report”. It is the commission’s final report—now out for consultation—on the question of reform of security of tenure for tenants of dwelling houses. Despite what had been indicated soon after the Connors decision, there is no reference by the Law Commission to the situation on Gypsy sites. Moreover, it would appear to be by no means certain that the Law Commission’s draft legislation—appended to its report—will go any further. In the light of that, there are still no firm proposals from the Government on what should be done about security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers on permanent official sites.

I ask this: why should the clearly delineated statutory protection afforded to a council “bricks and mortar” tenant not also be available to a Gypsy or Traveller occupying a pitch on a permanent local authority site in the same circumstances? Both the European Court of Human Rights and the House of Lords have held the present law enacted by Parliament to be in breach of article 8 of the convention, which provides for the right to respect for a person’s home and family life. The rights of Gypsies and Travellers on official sites are also in stark contrast with the charter of rights—recently significantly strengthened by the Housing Act 2004—given to occupants of pitches in park homes regulated by the Mobile Homes Act 1983.

More than 50 years after the United Kingdom signed the European convention on human rights, why should Gypsies and Travellers on local authority sites be compelled to rely on the ingenuity of housing and human rights lawyers—and, of course, their availability—to gain what can only be called basic human rights, whereas “bricks and mortar” dwellers have their rights clearly enshrined in statute and readily applied by the courts? The threat of losing one’s home, with the risk of children being taken into care, is a frightening experience, not just for the tenant or licensee of a pitch but for the whole family.

Parliament's intervention in the form of section 211 of the Housing Act 2004, which gives the courts power to suspend possession orders, does not deal with the mischief that I seek to cure in the Bill. The current state of the law continues to be a source of anxiety, distress and hardship to Gypsies and Travellers on official sites, and clearly defined rights need to be enacted. I tabled the Bill for that reason, and I thank Chris Johnson of the Community Law Partnership and Andrew Ryder for their help in drafting it.

The Bill is designed to adapt the provisions that apply to secure tenants under the Housing Act 1985 to the circumstances of Gypsies and Travellers on official sites. It provides for such rights to be acquired after a successful trial period, and to be lost by means of a demotion order when abused through antisocial behaviour. All that I seek to do is put occupants of local authority official sites on a par with occupants of local authority “bricks and mortar” accommodation. If Gypsies and Travellers on official sites are to be given equivalent security of tenure, it follows logically that they should also have the rights enjoyed by tenants of council housing in relation to succession, assignment, right to exchange and relevant repairing obligations. Accordingly, those matters are also included in the Bill.

In passing, I should like to mention the initiative of Oxfordshire county council, which, in producing new licence agreements for its six county council sites in July 2005, included such rights as a matter of contract.

The Bill is intended to have effect in England and Wales. According to the latest caravan count figures, nearly 50 per cent. of Gypsies and Travellers who live in caravans in England live on official local authority sites. There are no up-to-date statistics for Wales, but I am glad to note that the recent Niner report on Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs in Wales, commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government, has recommended that an up-to-date count be undertaken.

The time has come to make sure that Gypsy and Traveller occupiers of local authority sites receive the same protection, corresponding to local authority “bricks and mortar” tenants. We must respect their rights to a secure home and family life. The Bill will provide such protection and security, so I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Julie Morgan, Mr. David Amess, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Martin Caton, Harry Cohen, Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. David Drew, Nick Harvey, Kelvin Hopkins, Bob Russell, Mr. Andrew Slaughter and Mrs. Betty Williams.

Caravan Sites (Security of Tenure)

Julie Morgan accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers on local authority caravan sites; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 206].