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Travelling Community

Volume 471: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2008

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

I have been campaigning on the issue of the travelling community since I was elected in 1992, with limited success. I have tried to deal with and resolve the problems that affect the travelling people in my constituency and, I believe, across the whole country. When I came to this House I had a romantic view of travelling people; I believed that the Gypsy population was made up of good, God-fearing people who listened to and understood the law, and who carried out their duties within it. Over the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, my opinion has been substantially eroded. Those people have become a threat to the community, and the powers-that-be seem powerless to intervene effectively. As individual MPs, we face a brick wall while the problem escalates by the year.

I am listening closely to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that most of the difficulties between Gypsies, Travellers and the settled community in the UK are caused by the lack of official sites and stopping places for Gypsies and Travellers? Does he agree that the relationships would be much better if there were sufficient places for them to stop?

I know that the hon. Lady spends a tremendous amount of time advocating that cause, and I applaud her for that. The difficulty is that in my constituency we have two of those camps, yet I still find myself faced with illegal tippers and the other problems that come along with the Travellers.

In my experience, the problem is that when we provide camps for travelling people or Gypsies, they then trash the camps. If there is a camp they have to live in it, but they want to travel throughout the country. The legislation means that if a camp is provided, they have to go to it. In my experience, they trash the camp so that they can go wherever they want in the community.

I understand that problem; I have seen it in the sites that I have visited.

There is a perception that dealing with the travelling community is a devolved issue, and obviously I represent a Scottish constituency. However, we require multi-agency solutions. The Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs and all sorts of UK-wide agencies are involved. I shall address that point later.

It is clear that we need a debate. We need a rounded discussion, which must involve a review of the legislation in England and Wales and in Scotland in light of all the barriers. We will need cross-party support for such a review. On the basis of my experience and that of other hon. Members from all parties, it is clear that the issue raises its head across the whole of the UK.

I shall make another point and come back to my hon. Friend.

In addition, an attempt has been made to pass legislation to ban bogus doorstep salesmen, a substantial percentage of whom are Travellers. The police have told me that, and I have the same information from the police force’s central computers. It is clear that crime and travelling people are connected. I sometimes have as many as 50 or 60 caravans in my constituency at a time, and I know that crime problems are correlated with the arrival of Travellers. That is unfortunate, but it is the case.

I have also identified other problems that I am sure are familiar to other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) has mentioned litter already, but another problem is the dumping of waste. For example, the local authority in my area gave Travellers Portaloos, but they were dumped in the skips that the authority had supplied for their rubbish and set alight. That is the sort of person that we are dealing with: I know that there are some good ones among them, but that story is typical of our experiences with them.

Other problems include people on the beach park at Irvine being intimidated while out running or walking their dogs, and being told that they have no right to be there. Constituents of mine have been shot at by the travelling people, and the House would find it hard to believe the sort of debris—from building work being undertaken on their behalf—that has been left when Travellers leave a camp. Also, Travellers are guilty of selling items without having a trading licence, and we have sometimes found that their caravans have been illegally imported, with no duty paid.

My hon. Friend is talking about the need for more legislation, and I do not disagree, but does he accept that it would be refreshing if the police used the powers already on the statute book? The House has passed legislation to deal with antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and harassment, but many local communities feel that there is one law for Travellers and another for them. Does my hon. Friend know why that should be?

My hon. Friend is entitled to ask that question, and it is part of the problem that has been identified to me. Like him, I believe that much of it can be dealt with under the existing law, and later in my speech I shall show that the relevant agencies do not seem to be behaving in a sufficiently proactive way.

Some people suggest that the Traveller community is outside society as we know it. That is very worrying, as people have even suggested to me that vigilante groups should be set up. That would set a very dangerous precedent in Ayrshire: I would not want to go down that road, or recommend it to anyone at all.

Traveller children are kept out of school, and as a result run riot on quad bikes—and I have already mentioned the fearsome dogs in the camps. There is wanton vandalism to property: when the Travellers are in town they breach all the security put in place around empty factories, for example, with the result that the factories are trashed and millions of pounds-worth of damage is done. They also lift all the stones put down to stop them camping, and then claim that that just happened by accident.

Does my hon. Friend agree that local people see Travellers as outside the social norm? In my constituency, local Conservatives have told people that there is to be a campsite on their doorstep, when in fact no such site has ever been suggested. Travellers are guilty of real antisocial behaviour, but the actions of local Conservatives are an example of that being exploited for purely political gain. The fact that there are no Conservative Members on the Opposition Benches for this debate proves that they do not care about what is a real issue for all our people.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct, and I support most of what she says. There is another side to the equation, however, and it may be relevant to her intervention. Since I have been in the House, I have tried to get a representative of the Traveller community to meetings that I have set up. I have engaged with the local authority to get someone from that community to explain what we have got wrong and how we can correct that for the good ones that we know exist. Not one person north of the border can be identified as being from an organisation in any way connected to travelling people, which leads me to suggest that something is wrong.

Let me draw a parallel: I am a close supporter of the Showmen’s Guild, and I spoke at its 100th anniversary lunch. It has a structure, and people can go and speak to its representatives. We can tell them if there are problems with loud music or other issues, and we can talk to them about where they are and where they will be. They listen, there is reasonable rational debate, and we reach a solution to any problem. I cannot think of any comparable body north of the border. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) recently held a meeting in the House that was attended by a travelling person. I talked to her to find out whether she had a contact north of the border, and she said that there was none. I am up against it in that respect. The authorities argue that they, too, are powerless.

I would go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) did: the issue is not just the unwillingness or reluctance of the police to use their powers, but co-ordination. That is why this Friday I am co-ordinating a Travellers round table in Coalville—Leicestershire is an area with chronic Traveller problems—at which the Environment Agency, the National Farmers Union, landowners, the local authorities and the police can see whether there is a way ahead, so that we can co-ordinate, work together and co-operate better in dealing with problems as they occur. At the moment, co-ordination is spasmodic and inchoate.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I will come to that point later. I am conscious of the time, and I would appreciate it if there were no more interventions; otherwise, the Minister will have no chance to reply.

As part of my campaign I have held two summits in recent years, in which I worked closely with my two local authorities, their chief executives, trading standards officers, liaison officers, the police, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions. I have had meetings to attempt to resolve the issues, as we—including my constituents—see them, and I have not had the satisfaction of finding a solution to the problem. The local authority says that it is powerless to act because of how the law is structured. Unless there is a change to both Scottish law and the law in England and Wales, we will never eradicate the problem, which affects so many people across the country.

Scottish law does not afford councils powers to deal with trespassers, and councils cannot use protective or regulatory powers to deal with offenders. One of my local authorities told me:

“we have no easy way of physically moving offending Travelling People on from our land without the sanction of a court order. To get such an order we require evidence”.

The issue of the quality and quantity of such evidence, and how practical it is to gather it, is problematic. The chief legal officer of North Ayrshire council says that

“the way in which Eviction Orders are granted would in my view require changes in primary legislation.”

All that relates only to council land. We then come to private land, which is even more problematic for those affected. As I said earlier, factories are trashed, in addition to everything else. I am asking for a review of English and Welsh legislation, as that might act as a catalyst for proposals on the subject north of the border.

There is no doubt that some Travellers are decent, law-abiding people. I have come across them, and they have my strong support for their right to go about their business. However, my constituency seems to be a magnet for what can only be described as convoys of cowboys. What really disturbs me is that they just do not listen to reason. There is no law that they will not break to go about their business. Worse, they prey on the gullible and the elderly in our society. One case came to my attention in which a man was taken to the bank and withdrew £102,000 to install a new roan pipe in his property. The people involved were charged, but that is an example of the situation that we face.

The size of Britain’s Traveller population is estimated to be around 300,000, with about 200,000 in settled housing. Data from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that in 2006 there were 16,300-odd caravans, of which 6,500 were on local authority sites, almost 6,000 on authorised private sites, 2,250 on unauthorised developments and just under 2,000 on unauthorised encampments. In England, part of the problem that has been identified to me are the marauding youngsters. Because they are not in school, they can commit offences and breach the peace. If they were at school, there would be fewer problems.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to take note of the questions that I am about to ask. If he cannot answer them tonight, perhaps he will do so at some other time. Can he tell me of any proposals to undertake another initiative to deal with the problem that I have described? As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I, with my colleagues, joined the police and other agencies on Operation Mermaid, which was designed to take all the cowboys off our roads and buses. That was an extremely successful operation. Can a similar initiative be undertaken in respect of travelling people? Perhaps the Minister could engineer something along those lines.

Does the Minister agree that there is overwhelming evidence of the problems that I have outlined? He must be aware of that. Will he consult the relevant officials and review the need for more funding to be given to third parties, such as dedicated police officers in all police forces, so that they can do the necessary work? Part of the problem is that police forces are underfunded, and do not have funding specifically allocated to deal with this matter.

Will the Minister consider a change in the legislation, which is clearly required both south and north of the border? Legislation could and should be in force to deal with the unsolicited doorstep sales that Travellers are involved in. Finally, as a result of the debate, and in view of the amount of interest that has been shown, will the Minister consider meeting me, and some of the other hon. Members who have taken the trouble to come to the House this evening and listen to the debate?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing the debate. I do not think I have ever seen such a well attended end-of-sitting Adjournment debate. That shows the importance of the issue.

I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) that as parliamentarians we have an obligation in the manner in which we discuss the matter, and that some sort of political consensus across the House on our approach is needed.

Let me start at the end, as it were, with the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire for a meeting. I am more than happy to meet him and other interested hon. Members to discuss the issue, and I look forward to doing that soon. However, as he mentioned, responsibility and accountability for Gypsy and Traveller issues are devolved to the Scottish Government. Although I can provide information on where the position in Scotland differs from that in England, I cannot comment specifically on the Scottish Government’s behalf, and I would not want to do so. I understand that my hon. Friend has communicated with and met members of the Scottish Executive.

Sadly, my hon. Friend mentioned the important matter of antisocial behaviour. I want to be clear. Nobody is above or exempt from the law. The law applies to Gypsies and Travellers as it does to the settled community. Every community—I stress, every community in this country, regardless of whether they are settled, Travellers or any other community—needs to be confident that action will be taken by the relevant authorities, whether that is the police, trading standards, other parts of the local authority or other agencies, against the small minority in society who do not abide by the law. I shall come back to the point about publishing guidance on antisocial behaviour.

At the heart of the problems described by my hon. Friend is the shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers; that is forcing them on to unauthorised sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North mentioned. I suggest that the problem causes tension within the Traveller community and between Travellers and the settled communities. Local authorities are forced to spend resources dealing with the problems of unauthorised encampments; that often involves displacing the problem from one area to the next.

The Government believe that everyone should have the opportunity of a decent place to live. That is why housing remains high on the political agenda, if not at the top of it, and why we are committed to increasing the supply and quality of affordable housing. Furthermore, I am currently serving on the Committee stage of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which establishes the Homes and Communities Agency and improves security of tenure for Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Increased authorised site provision, coupled with the effective use of enforcement powers and a joined-up approach between the various organisations, is vital to addressing the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire and others tonight. I believe strongly that there are incentives for everyone—Gypsies and Travellers, local authorities and the settled community—to increase the amount of authorised site provision. That will reduce unauthorised camping and the tensions that that can cause with the settled community. It will also reduce the need for—and cost of—enforcement action, and help tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, by helping to improve health and education outcomes. Everybody benefits when more authorised sites are provided.

I mentioned that site provision will reduce the amount of resources that authorities spend on costly enforcement action. The Commission for Racial Equality estimates that at about £18 million a year, and the Audit Commission referred to the issue in relation to one local authority as a “wasteful use of resources”. Site provision also makes it quicker and easier to take enforcement action where unauthorised camping does take place. To answer directly the point rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), there is a range of powers available to landowners, local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments. 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.

Police powers to direct trespassers to leave land will often be the quickest policy, 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, I come back to the central point of my argument: enforcement action will always be quicker and more effective where appropriate authorised sites are available. I suggest that that should be the priority for local authorities.

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 involved in using the powers. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire asked whether we need more legislation. In its final report, “The Road Ahead” published in December, the group concluded that the scope and nature of existing enforcement powers are sufficient, but that considerable improvements could be made to the way in which they are used. We are committed to ensuring that those improvements are made.

We have already provided guidance for local authorities and others on unauthorised encampments and developments. It sets out the powers available, and provides practical advice on their use. We have also published guidance on managing unauthorised camping which emphasises the need for a joined-up approach between the different organisations with an interest. I understand that the Scottish Government have produced similar guidance. I mentioned my hon. Friend’s point about published guidance on antisocial behaviour. In the spring we will be publishing guidance on tackling antisocial behaviour as it relates to Gypsies and Travellers. I hope that he finds that reassuring.

In England, in order to achieve the increase in accommodation that we seek, we have established a new framework for site provision. Local authorities 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. All those assessments should have been completed by now.

Regional assemblies are at various stages in the process of revising their regional spatial strategies to specify the number of pitches that each local authority will be expected to deliver. Authorities will then need to identify sites to deliver those pitches in their development plan documents. I understand that the Scottish Government have asked local authorities to consider the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their local housing strategies.

To back up the new framework in England, we have increased the resources available for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Since 2006 we have spent £33.6 million, which will deliver an additional 284 pitches and refurbish 111 sites. In the last few weeks, I have announced that we will make a further £97 million available for new sites, and the refurbishment of existing sites, between 2008 and 2011.

When we originally set up the camps in my constituency, the condition was that when a local authority agreed to set up a camp it was given more powers to move on illegal Travellers who might turn up in the area. Is that likely to feature in the legislation to which the Minister has referred?

As I said earlier, the task group chaired by Sir Brian Briscoe judged that the current enforcement procedures were adequate but were not being complied with effectively enough. I must deal with that; I think that the existing framework is sufficient, but that we must push local authorities and others to ensure that it is implemented as much as possible.

I was talking about additional funding, which my hon. Friend raised in his excellent speech. I believe that the Scottish Government have also made grant available.

The task group that I mentioned concluded that our policy for the provision of sites was sound, but that progress in delivering new sites was slow. It recommended that where there was an established need for new Gypsy and Traveller sites, local authorities should begin work on preparing a site allocations development plan document now.

The new framework that we have established is crucial to making progress on site provision in England. Coupled with effective enforcement action—which I fully appreciate is necessary—and a joined-up approach to the issues, an increase in site provision will help to create strong, cohesive communities. Only by significantly increasing the number of authorised sites will we ensure that 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. It will also reduce the need for, and cost of, enforcement action, and will help to make it easier to use enforcement powers, as well as improving the life outcomes of the most socially excluded group in society.

I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing a debate on a very important issue. I thank him for giving me an opportunity to explain why the provision of authorised sites is so important, and why it should be seen in the policy context of affordable and appropriate accommodation for all. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss the matter on other occasions, and I should be pleased to meet my hon. Friend and others for that purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eight o’ clock.