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Travellers (Facilities)

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the Chamber a matter of great importance to my constituents. I am pleased that I am giving the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), his first opportunity to respond in his new role. I wish him well in carrying out his ministerial responsibilities. We worked closely together when he stood in the Hartlepool by-election. When we were tramping the streets of Hartlepool many years ago, little did I know that he would one day respond to my Adjournment debate. I am sure that his reply will be an early hallmark of a long and successful ministerial career.

I applied for the debate on behalf of my constituents, businesses and Newport city council. They have contacted me about the consequences of unauthorised encampments set up by Gypsies and Travellers in my constituency. I appreciate that the issue is sensitive and I acknowledge and welcome the steps that the Government and the Welsh Assembly are taking to address some of the difficulties faced by Gypsies and Travellers. The Assembly obviously has some responsibility for such matters, but the law of trespass, which I will mention later, is the UK Government’s responsibility.

Newport has a particular problem with unauthorised encampments owing to its location—it is one of the gateways to Wales and it is on the M4 corridor. Over the past few years, the city of Newport has witnessed a wave of unauthorised camps being set up on significant community areas, including parks and school playing fields. There are problems to do with unauthorised encampments, and the cost of enforcement action and of clearing them up is unsustainable and locally very unpopular. It is estimated that about £18 million is spent each year on enforcement action in the UK.

In the past year, there have been 16 encampments on sensitive sites in Newport. Three were on school playing fields, causing damage to the fields and putting them out of bounds to the children for a total of 20 days. Five were on the grounds of a stately home, Tredegar house, and that not only affected visitors but put events in jeopardy—weddings, for example, were at risk of cancellation. Three were at Newport international sports village. They put the car park out of commission and thereby prevented the public from accessing the facilities. Three were in Coronation park, which is one of the main venues for community sport in my constituency. That put in jeopardy a major youth soccer tournament, which was attended by about 3,000 people and organised by volunteers from the Newport Corinthians football club. Caravans were parked on football pitches, causing damage and giving rise to major clear-up costs. The remaining two encampments were on other parks in the city.

Costs and the time needed to return facilities to good use were particularly critical in the case of the occupation of the school playing fields and Coronation park. In total, costs of over £10,000 were incurred in removing the rubbish and making the playing fields safe for schoolchildren to use again. I recognise that Gypsy and Traveller communities have their own legitimate needs and expectations and I support their right to live life as they choose. They have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Although many Gypsies and Travellers act responsibly, sadly, my constituents regularly bring me stories that show that that is often not the case. Neither the Travellers nor the settled community should be able to ignore each other’s legitimate expectations or prevent their enjoyment of life. The settled community also has the right to access its community facilities. Settled communities have the right to run youth soccer games in city parks, schoolchildren have the right to play safely on their school field and the public have the right to access parks and sports facilities.

Each year, unauthorised encampments continue to spring up. I appreciate that Newport does not have a permanent site. The Welsh Assembly Government have responded positively to the detailed report that they commissioned on the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Wales and they are now working on a strategy that will have important implications for the provision of services in the long term, but in the meantime Newport works with neighbouring authorities in south Wales to provide alternative arrangements. The Assembly’s commissioned report acknowledges that even in areas with existing Gypsy/Traveller sites, unauthorised encampments continue to be problematic. Its findings on the number of unauthorised encampments show that a significant number still occur, including in areas run by authorities that have official designated sites.

The effect of unauthorised encampment is to worsen inter-community relations and cohesion. That in turn makes it difficult for the council to identify a site. The endless round of court notices and eviction enforcements means that everyone, from settled neighbours to Travellers and their families, become exasperated, and council officials and the local police are often caught in the middle of difficult situations. The result is that the public’s experience makes them fearful of the consequences of having a site in their area.

For the council and the police, the current legislation on trespass encourages tensions. Some argue that they would like the laws of trespass changed to bring us into line with the Republic of Ireland, where there are stronger powers to enable the police to deal with trespass. Will the Minister look at the experience in Ireland to see whether there are lessons that we could learn, and may we consider how the law works there? Residents who have experienced the after-effects of an unauthorised encampment often ask whether, at the very least, certain sites could be designated as “sensitive”. By that, they mean school playing fields, parks, school grounds and sports facilities. That way, people in the settled community can continue to live their lives.

I want to stress that there is good co-operation between Newport City council and Gwent police, who take their duty of care very seriously. The two work in partnership to ensure the best outcome for both sets of communities. They seek to engage positively with Travellers and, in consultation with them, to agree the expected standards, including site cleanliness and timetables for departure. They work hard to provide amenities and carry out the appropriate welfare checks. They try to act quickly when sensitive sites are involved. However, no matter how hard they try, on occasions it is not possible to gain movement without an expensive and time-consuming process. In the meantime, school playing fields, parks and other community facilities are put out of use.

The suggestion therefore is that on designated sites we impose stricter control and a trespass law, which would mean that occupation of those sites could be regarded as a criminal rather than a civil act. Failure to leave the site immediately would result in swift action and, most importantly, the threat of action could serve as a deterrent to unauthorised encampment in the future. The designation of sensitive sites could be agreed by local authorities and the relevant police forces together, and the areas could be published and subject to challenge through the courts on grounds of reasonableness. That could provide a better balance of rights and responsibilities and could give both communities greater clarity as to what is and what is not acceptable.

Does my hon. Friend agree that on both sides of Newport, although there is sympathy with the Travellers and their difficulties, the behaviour that has occurred recently in Newport is found to be intolerable by many local people, particularly the dumping of huge quantities of rubbish on the sites after the Travellers move away?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He, like me, no doubt meets many constituents who make those points to us at surgeries.

The Welsh Assembly study that is taking place will provide a clear evidence base and a starting point for local authorities to make an assessment of local provision in Wales. Across the UK there is a requirement to assess need, and in England there is now financial assistance for sites. However, local authorities need the resources to provide sites and assistance in maintaining them, and communities need to see benefits and be reassured that the provision of a site will help to prevent, rather than increase, difficulties. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please look at the possibility of creating incentives for local communities that agree to sites in their localities?

In conclusion, I hope we can find a balance of responsibilities that creates an environment that supports Gypsies and Travellers as well as the settled community, upholds the rights of both and preserves community facilities for their usual purpose.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) on securing a debate on such an important topic to her and her constituents. I pay tribute to the dignified, reasoned and eloquent way in which she conveyed her argument. She mentioned the Hartlepool by-election. She was one of the first people who came to help me in that by-election—help me get to this place—and I cannot think of anybody else to whom I would rather respond on my first run-out at the Dispatch Box.

My officials have told me that my hon. Friend has worked assiduously on behalf of her constituents on this issue, and I hope her constituents and agencies in Newport recognise what such a strong and valuable constituency MP my hon. Friend is. As she pointed out, responsibility for Gypsy and Traveller issues is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government, so although I can provide information on the position in Wales where it differs from that in England, she will appreciate that I am not able to comment directly on the Assembly’s behalf.

My hon. Friend highlighted in a powerful way some of the problems that can be created by unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites and the tensions that they cause with the settled community. At the root of those problems is the shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers, which is forcing them on to unauthorised sites. The Government believe that everyone—I stress everyone— in the community should have the opportunity of a decent place to live. There is currently no such opportunity for households in about 20 per cent. of Gypsy and Traveller caravans across England and Wales. That is unacceptable and we are committed to increasing the number of authorised, good quality sites in the same way as we are committed to increasing the supply and quality of conventional affordable and social housing. Increased site provision, coupled with effective use of enforcement powers against unauthorised sites, and a joined-up approach between the various organisations with a role in Gypsy and Traveller and broader housing issues, is vital to addressing the problems that my hon. Friend has highlighted and helping to create strong, cohesive communities.

Although we do not need a large amount of land to address the shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers, it can be particularly challenging to deliver specific land for sites. Many people do not want sites built near to them. They have fears about them that are based on rumour, conjecture and misinformation. A MORI poll in 2003 found that a third of those surveyed felt personally prejudiced against Gypsies and Travellers. It is a prejudice that it is still widely regarded as acceptable to express in a way that would be considered offensive against any other group. But it is a prejudice that is groundless, and I would like to take this opportunity to dispel some common myths. Research undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation investigated the experiences of neighbours who had objected to the establishment of three authorised sites, after the sites had been up and running for between one and four years. Most householders acknowledged that their fears had proved groundless. The police reported no noticeable increase in crime in the vicinity of the sites. Schools in those areas were able to cope with the additional pupils from the sites and reported that the Gypsy and Traveller children had integrated well socially.

Gypsies and Travellers are required to—and do—pay council tax, whether or not their sites have planning permission, and they are active in their local communities. For example, Candy Sheridan, an Irish Traveller, is a councillor for North Norfolk district council. Blue Jones, a Romany Gypsy, represents Kent on the National Youth Parliament. Kedra Goodall, a Gypsy, recently sought selection as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith and got through to the final four.

Well managed, good quality sites can support cohesive, sustainable communities. The Ridgewell site near Halstead in Essex is just one example. The site is well integrated with the local community, with residents, members of the local neighbourhood watch scheme and patrons of the mobile library service, which regularly visits the site. So there are incentives for everyone—Gypsies and Travellers, local authorities and the settled community—to increasing site provision. Those extend beyond the obvious benefits of reducing unauthorised camping and the tensions that that can create with the settled community, of which my hon. Friend has spoken so eloquently.

Site provision will reduce the amount of resources that authorities spend on costly enforcement action. As my hon. Friend mentioned, this has been estimated by the Commission for Racial Equality at £18 million a year, and described by the Audit Commission in relation to one local authority as a “wasteful use of resources”. Bristol city council has seen its enforcement costs drop from £200,000 to £5,000 a year since building a new authorised site. One result of that saving has been that its leisure services department has been able to spend an additional £40,000 a year improving the environment through investment in local parks and open spaces. I am sure that that approach is relevant and pertinent to my hon. Friend’s experience, and I hope that she will take it up and begin to implement it in her constituency.

The provision of authorised sites also makes it quicker and easier to take enforcement action where unauthorised camping does take place. A range of powers are available to landowners, local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments, where Gypsies and Travellers camp on land that they do not own. Those range from common law powers and civil procedures in the county court, to the powers of local authorities and the police to direct trespassers to leave land in certain circumstances.

My hon. Friend asked me to look at the experience in Ireland, where stronger powers are available to deal with trespass, and to consider making trespass a criminal offence where it occurs on certain sensitive sites. Although trespass itself is not a criminal offence, it is already a criminal offence for a trespasser to fail to leave when directed to do so by a local authority or the police, or to return within three months. Our task group on site provision and enforcement, chaired by Sir Brian Briscoe, a former chief executive of the Local Government Association, has reviewed the operation of enforcement powers and taken evidence from local authorities and others. The group concluded that rather than making changes to those powers, authorities should be helped to use them more effectively. It recommended that we work closely with the Local Government Association and the Improvement and Development Agency to secure improvements in performance, and we will do so.

Police powers to direct trespassers to leave land will often be the quickest, as they can be used without reference to the courts. However, there are other things that authorities and the police can do to speed up the process, including having protocols in place to deal with cases of unauthorised sites. However, as the interim report of our task group makes clear, and as I have already stressed, enforcement action will always be quicker and more effective where appropriate authorised sites are available. We recognise that until sufficient numbers of authorised sites are available, local authorities, Gypsies and Travellers can be left in a difficult position. Authorities may want to consider whether enforcement action is absolutely necessary. Where an unauthorised encampment is in an obtrusive location, authorities could seek to agree a departure date with the campers. However, as in the instances described by my hon. Friend, there will be some locations where encampments are not acceptable—for example, where they prevent the use of important local amenities such as sports fields or stately homes for weddings. In those instances, authorities could seek to agree a less damaging location.

Having enough good quality accommodation will help to tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers and improve health and education outcomes. The average life expectancy of a Gypsy or Traveller is 10 to 12 years less than that of a member of the settled community. Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child. Twenty-two per cent. of Irish Traveller children and 15 per cent. of Gypsy children achieve five or more good GCSE grades, compared with 55 per cent. of children in the settled population.

In order to achieve the increase in accommodation we are seeking we have established a new framework for authorised site provision. Local authorities in England and Wales are required by the Housing Act 2004 to undertake accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers in the same way as they do for the rest of the community. I understand that assessments have been completed, or are now under way, in 90 per cent. of authorities in England. We want all those to be complete by the end of the year. In England, regional assemblies will take a strategic view of need and set out the number of pitches that each local authority will be expected to deliver. Local authorities will then need to identify sites to deliver those pitches in their development plan documents. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a Welsh MP, will be interested to hear that in Wales the National Assembly has consulted on planning guidance that would require local authorities whose accommodation assessments have identified unmet need for Gypsy and Traveller sites in their areas to identify sites to meet that need in their local development plans.

To back up that new framework, we have increased the resources available to local authorities for Gypsy and Traveller sites. In England, up to £56 million is available between 2006 and 2008 for providing new sites and refurbishing existing sites through the Gypsy and Traveller site grant. In Wales, £3 million is being made available between 2007-08 and 2009-10 to refurbish existing sites. We are beginning to make progress, but we need to step up the pace. We will work with local authorities and regional assemblies to provide challenge and support as they tackle this important issue.

The new framework that we have established is crucial to making progress on site provision, and coupled with effective enforcement action and a joined up approach to the issues, it will help create strong, cohesive communities. Only by significantly increasing the number of authorised sites will we ensure that all—I stress all—parts of the community have a decent place to live. That will reduce the tensions that unauthorised sites can cause with the settled community, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, reduce the need for, and cost of, enforcement action, and make it easier to use enforcement powers as well as improving the life outcomes of the most socially excluded group in our society.

I would like once again to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and affording me the opportunity to explain why site provision is so important and how we need to see it in the wider context of affordable and appropriate accommodation for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Seven o’clock.