Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Alison Seabeck.]
It is good to see you in the Chair once again, Mr. Illsley, and to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this important debate this afternoon. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on the progress that the Government have made in continuing our commitment to providing decent homes for those who need them. Through that commitment, we aim to ensure that Gypsies and Travellers, who are perhaps the most socially excluded ethnic minority group in the country, have an authorised and secure place in which to live.
I would like to thank Sir Brian Briscoe, members of the task group and all those who gave evidence during the course of the group’s work. This debate is the start of a commitment by the Government to report regularly on our progress with regard to the accommodation requirements of Gypsies and Travellers.
The debate comes at a time when we look forward to celebrating Gypsy Roma Traveller history month in June. It is the first such celebration to be fully supported and endorsed by the Government. It will provide a tremendous opportunity for children in our schools to hear of the traditions of Gypsies and Travellers and how their cultural heritage, passed down through the generations, is often a world away from that popularly perceived. Together with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Lord Adonis, I welcome the opportunity that we will now have to challenge the myths and to break down the barriers to social cohesion.
It is important to put today’s debate into context and to remember that this is not an abstract matter. We are discussing real people here; a proud people who are protective of their cultural identity. They are families with children who sorely need the opportunity for a proper education; and families with elderly relatives who desperately need their elected representatives to champion improvements to health services on their behalf.
The Government have a proud and strong record of addressing and tackling social injustice in this country. Providing sufficient and 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 a Traveller is 10 to 12 years lower than that of a member of a settled community. In many ways, I accept that that is due to lifestyle and diet choices, but, in part, it can be attributed to a failure to access health services. Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child. Some 22 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 community. Again, some of that may be due to children failing to have a settled school life caused by the absence or shortage of appropriate sites in which to live.
We are talking about a proud people who have the same rights and responsibilities as every single one of us here today. Let me focus for a moment on the issue of responsibility. In my position as Minister with responsibility for Gypsies and Travellers, I receive a lot of correspondence and parliamentary questions about those communities. In some of the correspondence, there is a message that Gypsies and Travellers are somehow above the law, that there is one rule for Gypsy and Traveller communities and one rule for the rest of us, and that there is strict enforcement of the law for hard-working families living in bricks and mortar accommodation and more of a laissez-faire attitude to those people who are part of Gypsy and Traveller communities. Let me say now that I need to kill that myth off right here, right now.
All of us in this country, regardless of our status or background, live under one set of laws. Our expected standards of behaviour extend to everybody in our society. We have a range of measures with which to tackle antisocial behaviour. We are now preparing guidance for publication later this year on how those powers can be used to tackle situations in which Gypsies and Travellers are responsible for, as well as being the victims of, such antisocial behaviour. I believe passionately that no one should have to tolerate thoughtless and antisocial behaviour. I accept that a proportion of the Gypsy and Traveller communities perpetrate such behaviour. However, it is also fair to say that just because a small minority of Gypsies and Travellers carry out antisocial behaviour, it does not necessarily follow that all Gypsies and Travellers are criminals. In the same way, I would say that, just because a small minority of young people carry out crimes, not all young people are criminals.
A range of powers are in place and available to landowners, local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments. Those powers include sections 61, 62A to E, 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. We have strengthened police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments and offered clear guidance to local authorities on how to use them. We will have the opportunity this afternoon to debate the Government’s policies that are aimed at ensuring that such communities have authorised places in which to live. No doubt, we will also debate the consequences of them not having such places.
The Minister mentioned antisocial and criminal behaviour. I know that in many parts of the country, people often do not want a legal site established next to them for fear of such behaviour. Will he clarify from his own information and research whether the travelling community are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity than the settled population?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question because there is no evidence that Gypsy and Traveller communities commit more crimes or acts of antisocial behaviour than any other part of our society. I am grateful that he allowed me to put that on the record.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised an interesting point. Does the Minister agree that we are likely to create a greater sense of enfranchisement within mainstream society if the settlements are dealt with within the law, and that instead of having Travellers living in a technically illegal settlement, they should be brought in to the community so that they have to pay council tax and everything that goes with it? They will then end up feeling that they are stakeholders in society.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important and valuable point and I would like to say two things in response. First, if we all talk to one another, we will find that a shared sense of community and family is common to us all. The history month in June provides a great opportunity for us to understand and learn a lot about heritage and traditions. Secondly, his point about having a stake in the community is vital. The identification of authorised, well-managed sites with good links and access to both the settled and Gypsy and Traveller communities is a no-brainer. Everybody wins with regard to that. It helps the idea of community cohesion if we push for what he suggests.
Almost a quarter of those living in caravans in this country today have no authorised place in which to stay. For this tangible, yet often forgotten, group of people, life can be incredibly intolerable. I have been told about young families being woken up at the crack of dawn and given minutes to collect their belongings and explain to their children why they cannot stay where they are. It must be difficult to understand why £18 million—the current cost of enforcement in this country with regard to unauthorised encampments—is spent simply moving Gypsies and Travellers from kerbside to kerbside, often several times a day. That is an indescribable amount of money to those communities.
I do not want this debate to be overtly party political; that can go on somewhere else in the country today. However, a lot of the issues, challenges and problems that the task group investigated stem from legislation passed in 1994 by the previous Conservative Government. As the task group’s final report makes clear, they
“removed the duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers.”
Those communities were
“expected to provide for themselves, but many lacked the means to do so”.
Even for those who could, restrictive planning policies meant that it was difficult to obtain planning permission for a site. Indeed, some Gypsies and Travellers found that even talking to planning authorities before a planning application was submitted led to discrimination, immediate pre-emptive action and ultimately planning refusal and a return to a life of roadside camping. I suggest that that is not a suitable way to encourage community cohesion.
Hon. Members present will no doubt remember the coverage in 2005, when newspapers and politicians alike damned unauthorised camps, yet failed to offer a workable solution. That was the context and backdrop to the Government’s decision to establish an independent task group to examine the issues underlying concerns about unauthorised camping, such as how local authorities could protect their open space from inappropriate development and whether the available enforcement powers were enough to protect landowners and businesses affected by encampments and deter those who were breaking the law.
In its very first month, the task group stated clearly and unequivocally that unauthorised camping could not be discussed and ultimately resolved if the reasons for it were not identified. We therefore agreed that the task group on enforcement should become the task group on site provision and enforcement. This Government have long recognised that effective enforcement against unauthorised camping must go hand in hand with identification and provision of sites. Other stakeholders believe that, too.
I have been encouraged by the words of, for example, Northamptonshire county Councillor Ben Smith:
“It’s clear that continually moving Gypsies and Travellers from one place to another is not a long-term solution and that there needs to be sufficient provision for permanent sites in the county…Through this we aim to not only reduce the number of unauthorised encampments in the county, but to also work towards creating an environment where the rights of both the settled and the Traveller communities are respected.”
I agree with every word that he says. I was equally encouraged by Councillor Paul Bettison, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, who said:
“Measures to cut back on unauthorised traveller sites are good news for the council taxpayer. It is only by providing more authorised sites that local authorities can deal with the problem of illegal encampments. Both the gypsy and traveller and settled communities must have equal rights and carry the same responsibilities.”
I absolutely agree with everything that that councillor said, too.
In the Housing Act 2004, we put in place a requirement for local authorities to tackle the reasons behind unauthorised encampments and to establish pitch needs through the preparation of accommodation assessments for Gypsies and Travellers. I am pleased that the vast majority of those have now been completed and are beginning to feed into the regional spatial strategy process. The policy framework established in the 2004 Act was examined carefully and thoroughly by the task group. It found that the policies put in place by this Government were sound, that local authorities had sufficient powers to deal with breaches of planning control or unauthorised developments and that we were right to place a duty on authorities to identify land.
That prompts the question as to where the problem lies, if it is not with the Government’s policy or the existing framework. If the powers are already in place, as the task group concluded, what lies behind the tensions that we see at planning committee meetings and that are reflected in the press and in our communities? That is what we are here to debate. The task group set out its thoughts in its final report, “The Road Ahead”, which is an informed, thorough and wide-ranging look at the state of Gypsy and Traveller policy. It sets out a number of recommendations not only to national Government but to representatives at all levels of democracy and to institutions such as the press and other media.
The task group felt that a difference could be made most effectively at local level. Its first recommendation was that where there is clear need for site provision, local authorities should give serious consideration to proceeding with a development plan document now, to enable the identification of land for authorised sites. Indeed, the task group went further, stating that if there is a clear need for land, authorities should begin to allocate it even if the regional spatial strategy has not yet allocated formal pitch numbers.
We will all be able to cite stories of large numbers of unauthorised encampments and developments, although it is interesting to note the task group’s finding that, contrary to popular belief, huge encampments are relatively rare. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s circular 01/2006 was very clear that a significant number of unauthorised encampments or developments in an area shows a clear and immediate need. I hope that the message to local authorities is clear: if there are unauthorised camps in an area, the local authority should take action now to identify where authorised sites can be provided.
That is an important recommendation. In many areas where there is concern about the creation of authorised sites, the concerns are about the size of the sites and the number of pitches as well as their location. Has the Minister’s Department or the task group undertaken any work on or made any recommendation about the size of sites, the optimum number of pitches and at what scale they would become a problem, or about their location in relation to the settled community?
There are two distinct points there. Whether we are talking about housing growth numbers or Gypsy and Traveller pitches, on location, I maintain that local considerations serve us best. People will be aware of specific local circumstances and are able to discuss them in what I hope will be a mature debate on the location of sites.
The hon. Gentleman’s second interesting point was about the optimum size of a site. Of course, it is not right for Ministers or officials in Whitehall to specify the optimum size, because it will be based on specific communities’ requirements. However, in the past few days we have issued guidance on site design, which helps to ensure that Gypsy and Traveller communities have appropriate access to the facilities that can help to stabilise communities and provide community cohesion. I hope that that answers his question.
A lot is down to local people having a sensible, mature and non-bigoted debate, but central Government can provide financial assistance to help with the provision of new sites. To that end, I am pleased that we have been able to make provision for a further £97 million over the next three years to help to deliver more sites and refurbish existing ones. That comes on the back of what we have done in the past few years. We made £56 million available between 2006 and 2008 to deliver new pitches and refurbish existing ones.
The task group called for the delivery of authorised sites to be sped up, and I agree fully with that assessment. As I said earlier, all Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments should now be complete. For the first time, local authorities have an authoritative statement of need and demand for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in their areas. It is now time to take action to meet those needs.
I have mentioned the £97 million that will be available to refurbish sites and provide new ones in the next three years, and it shows the Government’s commitment to tackling the issue. The money that we have provided in the past has helped to fund a variety of projects all over the country. One innovative scheme will enable a local authority to acquire and hold suitable land and sell it on to Gypsy and Traveller organisations or families on a non-profit basis, so that they can develop and manage new sites. The proceeds of that sale can then be recycled into the purchase of further land for use as Gypsy and Traveller sites.
This year, successful schemes were worth £34 million. In total, funding between 2006 and 2008 will pay for more than 400 new pitches and the refurbishment of 120 sites. We have now started a new bidding round, which will run until July. We are confident that the funding will make significant inroads into the shortfall in site provision, to the benefit of Gypsies, Travellers and the settled communities. The provision of homes will help to cut unauthorised camping and the sometimes serious tensions that, as we all know, can be caused with the settled community. I also passionately believe that it will help to improve the health, education and welfare outcomes of Gypsies and Travellers across the country.
The Minister and I must continue the conversation that we are having. On educational provision, to what extent is the money available able to assist in circumstances in which an authorised site is brought into an area where there is already a lack of sufficient local school places, or where the health provision in the local community is already oversubscribed? Can the funding that is available through the scheme assist with such infrastructure problems, which exist beyond the site itself?
Again, the hon. Gentleman raises a serious and interesting point. The £97 million that I referred to is capital spend specifically for the refurbishment and the provision of new build. Nevertheless, he raises an interesting point. Let me go away and see to what extent the idea of necessary additional or new infrastructure, such as access to health care and school places, could be funded. I suspect not, frankly; I do not think that the money will be used in that way. However, if we can have a cross-governmental look at how we can address those issues, his contribution will be very worth while.
How local authorities spend their money is up to them. As I said earlier, an estimated £18 million is spent on moving Gypsies and Travellers from place to place, frequently providing little choice for the people being moved other than to camp unlawfully. In its report, the task group highlighted the example of Bristol city council, which grasped the nettle of providing a site. The council saw its enforcement costs fall from around £200,000 a year to less than £5,000 a year following the provision of a transit site.
I truly believe that everybody, including the council tax payer, wins with the approach that leads to the sensible provision of authorised sites. Not only does such provision help those who are socially excluded but it has a positive impact on the bottom line, too. Putting it plainly, it is in the best interests of those who are in this room, those who are elected to local councils and those whom we all represent if we help to identify and deliver authorised sites in appropriate locations.
Nevertheless, I realise, especially on this day of all days, that we do not live in a political vacuum and I am under no illusion that providing such sites is ever easy. However, we are all elected to take challenging decisions. The task group sets out a very clear message on what must be done to help to improve the quality of life, indeed the life chances, of the Gypsy and Traveller communities.
Three weeks ago, candidates from all parties took to the streets to try to convince the public that they and they alone could best represent their interests at a local level. I am not naive, so I am sure that the issue of unauthorised camping will have been raised by some of those who were canvassed during the election period. I fully appreciate that proposals for new Gypsy and Traveller sites raise public interest in a way that few, if any, other small-scale planning applications do. For example, I am aware of a recent consultation on where new sites could be located in a local borough that attracted more than 3,500 responses. However, what I find deeply worrying is that more than 3,000 of those responses had to be rejected due to allegedly racist comments.
The task group drew attention to the crucial role that Ministers such as myself and all elected Members have to play in both representing and leading all members of their communities. The task group said:
“There is perhaps no issue where strong and principled political leadership is of greater importance than in protecting the interests of vulnerable minorities.”
Again, I am very aware that vehement political battles are going on elsewhere in the country today. However, I am very keen, from this debate onwards, to foster some sort of political consensus on this matter, because, as I have said before, everybody wins when we try to shout down the bigotry as much as possible.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I am very much enjoying listening to his speech.
On the political issue that the Minister just referred to, does he agree that it is a very good idea to make contact with the different parties, particularly coming up to election times, so that these issues, in which vulnerable groups are involved, are not used as political pawns in an election campaign? This is certainly something that has been done in Wales. For the Assembly elections, the party leaders agreed that they would not campaign on these issues and similar attempts were made in local authority elections not to campaign on such issues. Does he agree that that approach is a good way forward in these political battles?
I certainly do. I do not want to pre-empt what we will debate this afternoon, but I hope that there will be an element of political consensus in Westminster Hall this afternoon that we can then use as a good example of political discussion. I am keen to work with other political stakeholders, such as the Local Government Association, on this issue and I hope that all hon. Members pull together to ensure that we can foster that sense of tolerance that my hon. Friend rightly says is necessary.
Some people find it very easy to attack those who camp on land without permission, or who breach development controls, and it is absolutely right and proper that standards of behaviour and the rule of law must apply to us all. Our development control legislation is there to protect the countryside, our open space and the rights of those who dwell within it. However, we really face a moral challenge on this issue, in that we must have the courage to tackle the reasons why Gypsies and Travellers are forced into unauthorised encampments, and we must also support a programme of site provision with a pace and a pride that reflects our commitment to providing valued accommodation for those who need it most.
I suspect that our debate today will be frank but I am confident, given the hon. Members who are present, that it will also be extremely well-informed, balanced and dignified. The task group made it clear that it is our role, and that of Members up and down the country, to ensure that such informed debate takes place across our land.
May I also say, Mr. Illsley, that it is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship?
I, too, would like to start by welcoming many of the valuable comments in the report of the independent task group. I know that its membership was widely drawn. It would perhaps be invidious to single out any individuals, but I shall make particular reference to Richard Bennett, former leader of Reigate and Banstead borough council, who represented the Local Government Association in the task group. I know that he continues to play a valuable role in the dialogue, conducted on a cross-party basis, that is developing within local government. I am also pleased that there were representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller community involved in the task group; their inclusion is obviously a sensible and constructive way forward.
Of course, there is common ground in some measure. It is right that we recognise that the vast majority of the Gypsy and Traveller population behave responsibly, are anxious to live peaceably and effectively with their neighbours, and are on authorised sites. When there is sensible collaboration, these sites can work well. I speak as somebody who was, in a previous period of his career, a member of a local authority. I am pleased to say that it was under the control of my party in the ’60s and ’70s and, quite early on, was involved in setting up a Travellers site, which was then in the London borough of Havering. That site has developed and is now a successful, authorised site. I am certainly not suggesting anything other than that there is a sensible way forward through the recognition and identification of proper sites. That is the correct approach for us to adopt.
Equally, however, we must recognise that, although there is undoubtedly and regrettably bigotry and prejudice in our society—I accept that such things exist—one cannot say that all or even a majority of opposition to particular sites is necessarily motivated by such base motives.
Given that the hon. Gentleman said that he thinks the report is taking the right line in ensuring that there is sufficient provision, does he now think it was a mistake for the previous Government to have removed the requirement in the 1994 Act to provide accommodation?
I am interested in looking forward and being constructive in finding ways to deal with this problem. However, we must get some balance, and if the hon. Gentleman listens he will find that there is a balanced approach that the Conservative party is interested in adopting.
This is the point that I want to make: in understanding why there is frequently opposition to these sites, one must recognise that part of that opposition stems from a real sense of frustration among the settled and existing neighbouring communities that decisions are not taken at a sufficiently local level. Therefore, I part company with the Government’s view that these issues are best handled at regional level.
Hon. Members will know that, as a matter of principle, my party is opposed to the regionalist agenda and we believe that it is broadly desirable to return all planning processes to the most local level possible. If decisions are taken locally and seen to be taken locally, we are much more likely to get the buy-in from the community that is desirable and that will make for a much smoother process for the future.
The report quotes several instances of good practice, which I recognise. As the Minister said, the LGA is keen to develop and do further work in disseminating good practice. That is a sensible way forward and one that I certainly endorse. I point in particular to the excellent work done by Fenland district council, which, as it happens, is under the control of my party, but each party controls authorities mentioned in the report. I suggest that the key reason why those examples of good practice have succeeded is that there is local ownership of decisions. The local authority has been able to take the decision and act of its own accord, rather than being imposed on by a remote regional body—that is the difference.
The Minister is right to say that we are all elected to take challenging decisions. That includes our local councillors, yet I sometimes suspect that it is a sense that decisions are removed from them to an unelected body that causes much of the frustration in the process. I understand the Minister’s analysis, but the Government’s policy of regionalisation of planning matters will make things worse. Transferring planning issues to regional development agencies will have the perverse effect of creating tensions where there need not be any. We should trust our local councillors to grasp the nettle and respond sensibly to applications.
Recognising that the vast majority of Travellers behave well and properly, and that it is important to have a constructive dialogue with the travelling community, does not, I am afraid, get away from the fact that real issues and tensions are caused by the minority who abuse the system. It is important, therefore, that there are proper mechanisms to bear down on such abuse. After all, in the classic case, it creates difficulties for the law-abiding majority whom we wish to assist. That is where I believe that the report is a little too generous to the planning and enforcement regime.
The sad fact is that even if one strips out some of the emotive language that is unhelpful in discussions of this kind, there is evidence to suggest that unauthorised encampments remain a real problem. The consultation document produced two or three years ago by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recognised that the problem had grown and therefore needed to be tackled. Such encampments result in enforcement costs to local authorities, but frequently there are also considerable costs to others, particularly farmers. I believe the National Farmers Union estimated that illegal encampments run to a cost of about £100 million.
We must recognise that if we are to get public support for sensible arrangements for the travelling community, we must have a proper means of dealing with the minority who abuse the system—and that includes not only Travellers. There is real concern about landowners—they may not be Travellers—who hold neighbouring residents to ransom by threatening that they will allow an encampment on their site unless the neighbouring landowners or residents purchase the site at a highly inflated price. We do not seem to have an adequate system for dealing with that. The stop notice rules are insufficient, which is why the Opposition want an extension of council powers of compulsory purchase if there is clear abuse of that kind or continuing breach of a stop notice.
We must also ensure that steps are taken to deal with abuse of the planning laws by way of applications for retrospective planning permission. As we all know, people may innocently fall foul of planning requirements, in which case retrospective permission is appropriate. I have no argument with that, but it is appropriate that we should strengthen the ability of local authorities to refuse retrospective permission where evidence exists that can reasonably lead to the conclusion that someone has knowingly breached planning law. That is part of the level playing field, that is necessary if we are to get buy-in from communities as well as the travelling community.
On that basis—this is a specific example, but it is such a large one that it may be worth mentioning—what is the hon. Gentleman’s view on the situation at Dale farm, Oak lane, Crays Hill, Basildon? It appears that some 1,000 Travellers live there. If he does not have a view, that is fine, but if he does, it might be useful to hear it. This is not a trick question; I am genuinely interested in his thoughts on it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many cases the planning breaches are caused by the fact that there is nowhere for the Gypsies or Travellers to go, and that the proposed solution of having an adequate number of sites would prevent such breaches from occurring? We cannot make any real progress until there are adequate sites.
Having a sensible assessment of what is required and making provision is obviously a wise course, but we should not then leap to a view that justifies deliberate breaches of planning law. That is where we are in danger of creating needless resentment among many neighbours of travelling communities who feel that there is not a level playing field.
A consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998—perhaps unintended but perverse—has been to make some provisions of the 1994 Act harder to enforce. For example, most ordinary citizens will regard as a perverse consequence, and as something that needs addressing, judgments such as that by the Court of Appeal in the Chichester district council case, where what is described by the court as the council’s legitimate action in issuing an enforcement notice is held to fall foul of the Human Rights Act.
I am discussing clear and deliberate breaches. Redressing the balance would do much to improve the climate in which the debate is conducted, which would benefit the travelling community as much as anyone else.
We also need to look at the guidance given to enforcement bodies to ensure that it is realistic and that it gives them the flexibility to act appropriately. Our contention is that that must be done against the background of getting rid of arbitrary quotas and looking at ways to incentivise local authorities. In that context, it is important that any local authority can have an assurance that cost burdens will not be shunted on to it in consequence of the establishment of a proper site.
I am sure that the LGA will want to look carefully at the details of the spending announced by the Minister to ensure that it properly funds the costs, including consequential costs. Again, that is part of the level playing field that is absolutely key to this matter.
Similarly, where there clearly is an improper encampment, greater powers to enable swift removal will lead to a reduction of tensions. The point about transit sites is well made, and that may be something we can look at, but it must be considered in the context of a balanced approach.
Finally, we ought to look at intentional trespass, about which more could be done. I am interested in the fact that the Irish Republic, like this country, is a signatory to the European convention on human rights. It, too, has a substantial Traveller population and much experience in dealing with such matters. The Irish Government have introduced legislation that makes intentional trespass an offence, doing so against the background of ensuring that several conditions are met—that is, the legislation applies only when the intentional trespass is likely to
“damage the land substantially…affect any amenity to do with the land…prevent anyone entitled to use the land from making reasonable use of it, or…render the use of the land unsanitary or unsafe.”
Those are sensible provisions, which might well be examined here. Again, they will be seen as redressing the balance so that genuine cases are assisted, while those who abuse the system, whatever their background, are borne down upon.
The hon. Gentleman is spending most of his speech talking about problems that he said existed only in a minority of cases where Travellers are concerned. I wonder whether he, like me, has received the briefing from the Country Land and Business Association, which says:
“Few landowners have problems with Gypsies and Travellers trespassing on their land to set up camps. We assume that this is because the legal framework now makes it so easy to move trespassers that it is no longer worth the effort.”
Will he reflect on that in asking for further legal penalties?
I do take that into account in reaching my conclusion, which I do not resile from, that further strengthening of the law is required. That is also the view of the National Farmers Union and other bodies. There are two sides to an argument, and it is important that both be listened to sensibly. Strengthening provisions to extend compulsory purchase powers to deal with abuses by landowners who hold a gun to people’s heads would be a corollary to that approach.
It is essential that all people across the country—whatever their community—can say that the law treats them fairly, but there is no getting away from the fact that the strong perception is that genuine instances and hard evidence show that that is not always the way that it works in practice. I am sure that that is an unintended consequence of the legislation, but even when we have hard evidence of such unintended consequences, we are, to use the Minister’s word, “shirking” our responsibility to take the challenging decision to do something. Doing something in what is a minority of cases will be the best long-term means to reassure the law-abiding majority, while ensuring that there is the best possible integration of the travelling and the settled communities.
We generally agree about where we want to go, although there will be differences between us as to the route and the means. Against that background, I welcome the report and the opportunity to debate the issue, and I know that other hon. Members will want to bring particular experiences to bear. In that sense, we are perhaps at the start of the development of a policy on the issue.
Having welcomed those proposals that I support, expressed my reservations about others and said where I believe further action is required, let me say that I am sure that we will return to the issue in future debates because it is important. Finding a workable and balanced solution must be key to everything.
It is, as the Minister said, opportune and appropriate that we are debating this subject today. A large proportion of parliamentary colleagues have themselves become travellers, living on Virgin’s London to Crewe main line service. I only hope that the policy on Travellers outcomes that we reach as a result of the debate turn out to be rather more successful than that rail service—but I digress.
I very much echo the sentiments expressed by the Minister and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) when they said that the image of Travellers is rather unfairly negative. Oftentimes, we hear that Travellers are directly responsible for crime waves in local communities, but the evidence does not tend to back that up. In fact, there is not really any circumstantial evidence to show that Travellers are less law-abiding, or display less social integrity, than anybody else. If the intention behind the debate is in part to put the record straight, I hope that the fact that all three Front-Bench spokesmen have underlined that point will go some way to reassuring the public that we are not talking about some sort of outlaw community that is seeking to invade local life.
Travellers and the Gypsy population often have the poorest life chances of any ethnic minority group. They have problems accessing public services, including health and education, as the Minister rightly said. They also end up living on illegal sites in circumstances that necessarily conflict with planning regulations. I agree that the debate is not about giving in to illegal practice; rather, it is a common-sense debate about acknowledging that these individuals exist, that they have a chosen lifestyle that should offend no one and that a quarter of them live on unauthorised sites as a result of the planning circumstances in this country. The former Member of Parliament for Ludlow, Matthew Green, does a great deal of work representing Travellers in such circumstances, and he has confirmed to me that the overwhelming majority seek not to fall outside the law, but to find somewhere to live, either in a community or as a small settlement. They turn to him and others in an effort to right the legal situation. They do not consider what they are doing a battle with the state or as rebellious action, but merely an effort to come to terms with the requirements of local community planning and to meet their own very reasonable requirement to have a settled and stable home life.
Moving Gypsies on only decreases their quality of life, which is already low. The real question at the heart of the debate is how we can provide for community cohesion while ensuring that the needs of the existing community are also taken into account. As the Minister said, the taskforce recommends authorised sites. It is important that we make it easier to enforce the current regulations, while compensating members of the Traveller community by giving them somewhere to go. Unless we do that, we will create an impossible situation and simply move the illegal problem on, rather than resolve it. I was pleased to hear the Minister remind us that £97 million has been allocated for the next three years to deliver sites. The guidance on site design is also important. I am increasingly convinced of the importance of creating sustainable communities, whether in fixed housing or Traveller locations.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned education provision. I hope that, on reflection, the Minister can give us a more detailed explanation of how the Government can help local communities by giving them sufficient funds to make education provision available for those who live on Traveller sites.
It is a matter of great regret that the Conservative Administration in 1994 removed the duty on councils to provide Gypsy sites. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst attempted to reassure us by saying that we should look to the future rather than merely hark back to the past, but I never really understood why the Conservative Government did what they did, and I am not completely reassured that a future Conservative Administration would show any more consideration towards Travellers. I tend to think that people cannot talk themselves out of a problem that their own behaviour got them into, but if the hon. Gentleman could give us further assurance in the form of a specific pledge put on the record, that would be well received by Travellers. Otherwise, they will be extremely concerned that a Conservative Administration would take us back 14 years, instead of keeping us in the present or moving us into the future.
The additional advantage of requiring established sites is that it forces Travellers to pay council tax, which could go some way towards not only paying for the public services that are required, but easing community tension. Community is the thing that Travellers and Gypsies are most interested in creating and being a part of. Settled communities are interested in owning a house and it is in their interest to be part of a wider community. Given that the Minister has spoken so positively of the recommendations, I hope that they will be practically applied and promoted by the Government, working in partnership with local authorities around the country. That is a test by which we can establish how seriously the Government are taking the issue. We, and representatives of the Traveller communities, will be watching for measurable signs of action as a result of the recommendations, specifically those on community.
The other problem that has not been mentioned in detail is police action. There is often reluctance to pursue eviction in the knowledge that the case will be lost in court on welfare grounds, because of the European Court of Human Rights rulings on the right to family life. There is an obvious conflict in the legislation in that the police are required to enforce current legislation, but the Government perceive the requirement for established family life to be possible for Travellers. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 gives police more power in evictions, but only at the landowner’s request, and it is still difficult to move people on when there is nowhere for them to go, which brings us back to the problem that we discussed earlier about the need for authorised sites.
The Minister has also pointed out that the cost of eviction far outweighs its effectiveness in moving Gypsies on. As he said, £18 million is spent annually on evictions. Bristol city council reduced its annual enforcement costs from £200,000 to £5,000 with a £425,000 investment in an authorised site. It was therefore obvious that that decision would pay for itself in two years. The Liberal Democrats have worked hard in Essex to deal with the problems posed by the illegal encampment at Dale farm, which is the largest in western Europe, with an estimated 1,000 Travellers, most of whom, I believe, are Irish. In economic terms, providing managed, authorised sites is a better option than spending a virtually limitless amount on eviction. I look forward to hearing the observations of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). By his leave, I shall make further comments about Dale farm as interventions during his speech, as he has greater knowledge of the details of the case.
Another problem is the distribution of sites. In south Essex, Basildon has by far the most, whereas other authorities in the area have none. It may be necessary to provide 81 new Traveller pitches, which will essentially be unauthorised, in addition to the 116 legal ones already provided. I hope that the Government will take a strategic approach to that, to ensure that individual authorities are not burdened through precedent, and perhaps through political expediency, with managing the issue, while other authorities turn their face against it and freeload on the work done by authorities such as Basildon. That requires some Government intervention. No one authority can resolve it. Does the Minister have any thoughts on how to ensure that the responsibility for providing Traveller sites is distributed among authorities rather than heaped on the small number who are already bearing the brunt?
Another problem that we must face is the effect of Traveller sites on already falling house prices. I seek once again the sage counsel of the hon. Member for Billericay, who may be able to furnish us with details of the consequences of the unauthorised site at Dale farm, which has apparently contributed to a fall in house prices. That is another powerful reason for regularising sites and ensuring that they do not have such a damaging effect on the perceived value of properties in surrounding communities.
Some people try to conflate the problem of Traveller sites with a wider question about immigration. The Liberal Democrats have long argued for improving border controls with the introduction of a national border force and the reintroduction of exit checks at ports, so that we know how many people live in the United Kingdom. To some extent we deal with Traveller-related issues in the dark, because we do not have a definitive estimate of how many people need to be situated on sites, and the prevailing trends. Increasing the price of work permits for businesses to employ immigrant workers and using the money to retrain British workers in sectors affected by immigration is a possibility, but opening a pathway of earned citizenship, subject to a series of tests such as English language and public interest, for people who have lived in Britain, is a very useful way forward and could increase the net income at Traveller sites, with all the beneficial knock-on effects that that would have.
At heart, we must return to the point about the degree to which we can legitimise, authorise and legalise something that we know is happening and that is, de facto, affecting many communities in the United Kingdom. Authorised and unauthorised managed sites are a short-term solution to a wider and much longer-term issue, but they are economically the most sensible option. Eviction is probably the least effective.
I welcome the report and its objective analysis, but I put it gently to the Government that they should not feel the issue can be solved on a one-off basis. A degree of public concern remains, which the Minister and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have already highlighted, and we cannot pretend that it will simply dissipate because of today’s debate. I suggest that there is a case for the Government proactively to address the negative image that Travellers have in some communities by investing some money in bringing Traveller communities into direct contact with the static communities around them. I do not think that there is anything idealistic about that: it is obvious that people who know each other are less likely to be afraid of each other. As those of us who have met Travellers frequently know, one discovers that Travellers are just like any human beings in the United Kingdom and are keen to have an established social interaction with the people they live around. Although the Minister has not mentioned it, perhaps he could consider the case for a fund to build intercommunity relations between Travellers and established communities. That would use a small amount of money, but it would go a long way to lessening the prejudice that Travellers must often live with.
Adding together all that I have outlined, it seems that the House is united on the case for legitimising authorised sites for Travellers. I think that we all recognise that there are economic as well as social benefits in doing that. If we can tackle the image problem, we can add diversity and colour to communities and take away the fear, all at once.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)—another Welsh Member. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome the report. I have one caveat, but I shall start by paying tribute to the valuable work put into the report by the task group’s two Gypsy members, Siobhan Spencer and Janie Codona, and its one Irish Traveller member, Bridie Jones. Their input was invaluable.
The report points out, among other things, that more than three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers in this country—the vast majority—live on authorised sites, and that unauthorised encampments and developments are made inevitable by the lack of authorised sites at which they can stop, temporarily or permanently. As long as we do not have enough sites, that problem will always exist, so we must find a way to ensure that there is enough provision. The report also makes the point that less than one square mile of land in the whole of England is needed to meet the current shortfall, which is about 4,000 pitches. Surely there is some way in which all of us working together can make sure that an adequate number of pitches is provided. When we think of the vast amount of house building that will have to be done to accommodate people, surely we can provide enough caravan sites for that small group of vulnerable people?
The Government have put in place a policy framework, which is explained in the report, to meet the shortfall. The report endorses the policy framework but points out that it is not being put into practice quickly enough, as the Minister acknowledged, and says:
“Unless the pace of delivery increases, it will fail the children who today have nowhere to call home, no base from which to access education or healthcare, and whose families have no stake in the economic success of their communities. If we are to improve the life chances available to those children’s children, and to address the community tensions fuelled by unauthorised sites, there must not be further delays to the implementation of the policy framework now in place.”
Although the report says that the policy framework is right and that we are on the right track, it points out that delivery is taking too long and that families—particularly children—are suffering.
It is important to acknowledge that conducting Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments and finding sites for new provision has stirred up a great deal of concern and has stimulated debate in the House, with hon. Members expressing concerns about sites in their areas. Some local authorities are unhappy about the pitch allocations that they have been asked to provide. It is crucial that we get the whole show moving this year, because although the direction of travel is right, to get the policy implemented on the ground we need all the parties to work together and we need strong leadership, locally and nationally.
Some local authorities are unhappy and other individuals, including politicians, oppose site provision because, as has already been mentioned, some people believe that all Gypsies and Travellers are criminals or at least antisocial. The report specifically addresses that point and says, as hon. Members have emphasised, that there is no evidence for that. There are criminals among Gypsies and Travellers, as there are in every other community, but many Gypsies and Travellers are the victims of crime and antisocial behaviour from within and outside their community. It is always wrong to judge a whole group of people by the behaviour of a small number of individuals. Of course, many Gypsies are victims of homelessness, which is one of the biggest difficulties that they face.
Other people oppose site provision because they believe that travelling as a way of life, and living in caravans in general, should be phased out; they believe that it is an inherently undesirable way of life and that those who practise it should be assisted in leaving it. That is why there has been pressure for Gypsies and Travellers to move into houses. Many of them have done so and there are probably more of them living in houses than in caravans, mainly due to the lack of provision of sites. In a way, that is tragic because it means that people are not able to live in the way that they would choose to. It is accepted generally that people in the settled population prefer to live in different places, whether in cities or the country, or in flats or houses. It is important to accept that Gypsies live in caravans and that many of them were born into that way of life and choose to continue living it. We should respect that.
The other problem that has been mentioned today is the assumption that people who live in caravans do not contribute to society and do not pay their way. Since the media stories nearly always deal with the minority who live on unauthorised sites, or the small minority who behave antisocially, people easily forget the majority, who live quietly and legally as responsible members of society, but still prefer to live in a caravan—a way of life that they were born into—and do not want to live in houses. The exceptions become the rule in the minds of too many people and the solution seems to them to be to force Gypsies out of their caravans and into houses against their will.
There were calls in the House last summer not to make provision for Gypsies and Travellers, as it was thought that doing so encouraged them to persist in a way of life that subjects them to multiple disadvantages. Let us consider the disadvantages suffered by Gypsies and Travellers, particularly in health and education, which hon. Members have mentioned. Although there is disadvantage, the reason for it is not the travelling way of life but the unnecessary difficulties placed in the way of living that life. The poor health of so many people in Gypsy and Traveller communities is a by-product of their social exclusion.
Some of the statistics have already been mentioned: life expectancy among Gypsies and Travellers is 12 years lower than among the rest of the population; Gypsy and Traveller women have the highest maternal death rate of any ethnic group; most Gypsy and Traveller women receive a substandard level of care during their pregnancies; 29 per cent. of Gypsy and Traveller women have experienced miscarriages, compared with 11 per cent. to 20 per cent. in the whole population; and, as the Minister mentioned, 17.6 per cent. of Gypsy and Traveller women have suffered the loss of a child, compared with 0.9 per cent. of the population. That figure is horrific. Within a tiny group living in our fairly affluent western society, 17 per cent. of the women have lost a child, compared with less than 1 per cent. in the settled population. There is something very wrong happening in a society when that can happen. In addition, lack of accommodation and insecurity of tenure have a direct impact on people’s health. It is good that the Government are tackling security of tenure, through the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am glad about that and I congratulate the Minister on taking steps in that direction.
A 2004 study of the health status of Gypsies and Travellers in England by researchers at the university of Sheffield who talked to Gypsies and Travellers confirmed the fact that adequate, secure accommodation is essential for both physical and mental health. It says:
“Accommodation was the overriding factor, mentioned by every respondent, in the context of health effects…Other issues include security of tenure, access to services and ability to register with a GP, support and security of being close to extended family, a non-hazardous environment”.
Of course, the travelling lifestyle can also have health benefits. One of the most frequently mentioned health benefits of travelling is the freedom associated with being outdoors. However, it is important to recognise that many of the health benefits are compromised by the stress and depression caused by a lack of choice, an inability to stay anywhere before being forcibly moved on, or limited access to safe stopping places.
According to the Sheffield study, when Gypsies and Travellers have to give up their lifestyle, the failure to continue living the same cultural lifestyle is regarded as a severe loss that can precipitate depression. It is easy to imagine the stress placed on a family, often with children, who simply do not know when they are going to be moved on. When they are forcibly moved off a site, sometimes they do not know where they will go next. Perhaps hon. Members could try to imagine themselves in that situation, when bringing up and looking after children. That causes depression. I can easily understand how someone would become depressed if they wanted to continue a travelling lifestyle but were forced to live in a house because society as it is would not allow them to do so. That produces depression.
A Traveller offered me this analogy: how would a person who wants to live in a house feel if they were forced to live a travelling lifestyle? That is an exact mirror. As the hon. Lady rightly says, we have to be tolerant of the fact that some people choose this lifestyle, which predates the more static environment in which most of the rest of us live.
I agree with a fair bit of what the hon. Lady is saying, particularly about the need for more authorised sites and the need for tolerance. I will mention that in my speech. However, does she believe that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations if they claim that they have nowhere else to go?
There are not enough sites for Travellers to go to, so it is inevitable that some of them will stop on unauthorised sites. Until there are enough sites, that will continue. That is why it is so important that, during this crucial time—when the needs assessments have been or are being done and the plans are being made—we all work together to ensure that the strategy, which is the right one, is carried out, because that will mean that unauthorised encampments will not be needed and the planning law will not need to be broken.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I think we can all agree that more sites are needed. I shall return to that. While we are waiting for those new sites to come on stream, will she clarify whether she is saying that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations if they claim that they have nowhere else to go? Yes or no?
May I suggest, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, that we have a conflict of interest between planning regulations and the European convention on human rights? There is a difficulty, and the reason why we must have this debate and come to a conclusion is that unless we resolve the problem of establishing sufficient authorised sites, there will always be people who will use what in my view and that of the courts is the reasonable defence of the right to family life. That is at the heart of the issue that we are discussing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those points.
I turn to the education of Gypsy and Traveller children. Various factors affect their achievements. I have talked to teachers about Gypsy and Traveller culture, and an adequately funded Traveller education service must form part of any solution for improving the life chances of Gypsy children. The education system must be sensitive to Gypsy and Traveller children, but any education measures will not overcome the effect of frequent evictions, which are a symptom of the criminalisation of Gypsy and Traveller families. Eviction of people living in unauthorised encampments or developments when alternative sites do not exist punishes people for being legally homeless. In effect, that criminalises nomadic ways of life, which should enjoy parity of respect with the settled way of life followed by most of the population. One could say that Gypsy and Traveller communities are held collectively guilty of the crimes committed by specific individuals who happen to be living on a site. Unjust evictions may follow, damaging children’s educational prospects and perpetuating the cycle of exclusion.
Another important point is that many legal sites are in places that local authorities would not consider fit for house-dwellers—for example, under motorway flyovers, and next to sewerage works or landfill sites. I can think of some sites that would not be considered suitable for house building.
One cannot force people to be the same as the majority, and it is morally wrong to try to do so. Attempting to force Gypsies and Travellers to give up living in caravans is as ill-conceived and unjust as attempting to force people to give up one religion and to embrace another, or to give up religion altogether and embrace a non-religious world view. One cannot force individuals in that sort of way.
The report is right to note that the slow pace of site provision is unacceptable, and to call on local authorities to make the necessary provision without waiting for the regional spatial strategy. It is right to call on the Secretary of State to direct local authorities that are not making adequate progress to prepare development plan documents for Gypsy and Traveller sites. It is also right to call on the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to take robust action against local authorities that fail to comply with their duties under race relations legislation to promote race equality and good race relations. The lack of sufficient decent and authorised sites is guaranteed to damage race relations, and I am pleased that the new commission is taking its duties to the Gypsy and Traveller community seriously. I hope that that will be high on its agenda.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is being generous, and I shall, of course, reciprocate.
What the hon. Lady said about eviction—she will correct me if I am wrong—is that when Travellers have broken planning regulations, no final action can be taken under planning regulations, and ultimately the law, or enforced. That would give a green light to Travellers to camp where they please, knowing that the law would not be enforced. Surely that is wrong, or does she not believe so?
I think that I covered that point, so perhaps we could discuss it later.
It is important that the Government implement the report’s recommendation that the definition of Gypsy in planning law should be revisited. That is an important point in the report. It is deeply offensive to Romany Gypsy people to be refused planning permission to live in a caravan on their own land on the grounds that they do not qualify as Gypsies for planning purposes, perhaps because they have had to live in a house for a while or on a council Gypsy site for some years and have not been travelling around for work. If planning permission would be inappropriate for other reasons, so be it, but to tell Gypsy people that they are not Gypsies is a keenly felt insult. Planning law must be amended in such a way that people who are ethnically Gypsies under race relations legislation are recognised as such in planning law, but without denying Irish Travellers and other non-Gypsy people who live a travelling way of life the opportunity, where appropriate, to gain planning permission to live in caravans on land that they own. The report suggests that we should have a more detailed debate, and we should consider that.
It is important that central and local government confront the threat to community cohesion by widespread, frequently expressed prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers, and I am sure that we all agree with that. There seems to be significantly less shame attached to expressing that prejudice than to expressions of prejudice against other groups, particularly because of lack of understanding that Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised by law as ethnic minorities protected by race relations legislation. I have been shocked by comments that I have heard about Gypsies and Travellers by the general population in which it seems to be more acceptable to use language that would not be acceptable against any other group. When it comes down to it, Gypsies and Travellers are at the bottom of the pecking order. I have heard children make detrimental comments about them, and they must have picked that attitude up from their parents.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a good point when he said that we must take a lead and make progress in getting a dialogue between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community so that people understand one another better and accept that we are all human beings.
I have met many people, including hon. Members, who have not met Gypsies and Travellers, perhaps because, by chance, they do not have any living near them. We should make a concerted effort to overcome that. Another way is through the Gypsy history month, which the Minister mentioned. That is an excellent initiative, and we should do all we can to promote it. There is a poster competition, which will be judged by Lord Avebury in the House of Lords, and that is an excellent way forward.
Local newspapers particularly are often damaging and tend to stir up hatred against Gypsies and Travellers, giving biased reports and treating them as stereotypes. When sites are under consideration, it is important that the local press do not act in that way, because if it whips up hysteria that can lead to unfortunate incidents. It would be desirable if the Government worked with the press to encourage it to take a more responsible attitude.
The report is right to call on local authorities to develop an effective communication strategy for site provision. It is important for planning bodies to prepare the ground by producing and circulating myth-busting material, and making it clear that the enormous extent of homelessness among Gypsies and Travellers is the reason for unauthorised encampments. As hon. Members have said, Gypsies and Travellers on authorised sites pay council tax, and those on local authority sites pay rent. It is essential to point out the win-win nature of making adequate provision without delay, and that the number of pitches that need to be provided is tiny compared with the number of houses to be built in each area. The cost of provision is relatively small compared with the cost of frequent evictions. The Minister has already mentioned how much money Bristol council saved by providing another site.
In that context, what has happened with the Olympic sites is particularly discouraging. The Clays Lane Travellers have always enjoyed good relations with the surrounding community, but they have had to move to a new site constructed on the Major road recreation ground, which was much valued by all local residents, including the Travellers. Despite a three-year search for a suitable site, the only place made available was one that both the Travellers and the local house residents opposed. That is an awful shame because it fuels people’s opposition to the provision of authorised sites. That vicious circle must be broken.
I have covered the main recommendations of the report, which I support, but there is one recommendation about which I am concerned, as are the Gypsy and Traveller members of the task group. As a minority, they disagreed with one recommendation: the suggestion that the Government should proceed with the proposal in the White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”, to reduce the time limit for planning appeals when the same development is the subject of an enforcement notice. On the face of it, that seems a fair way of ensuring that people do not manipulate the planning system to avoid eviction from unauthorised developments. However, when we consider the context in which such unauthorised developments take place, we should hesitate to endorse the White Paper’s recommendation.
As I said before, it has been established that there is a shortfall of at least 4,000 authorised pitches in England. Gypsies and Travellers have been encouraged to develop their own sites by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which abolished the duty of local authorities to provide them. Only around 10 per cent. of planning applications for sites are approved in the first instance and consequently there is a desperate need for accommodation. At the same time, the number of lawyers able and willing to assist Gypsies and Travellers to make planning applications or to appeal against refusals is pitifully small. Until those factors have been addressed, the White Paper’s proposal, if effected, would cause increased injustice. Therefore, I add that one caveat to my support for the recommendations.
I very much look forward to the implementation of the task group’s recommendations as they should help to prevent the unfortunate and unnecessary tension and suffering that has arisen in relation to the Olympic park. I know that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) will talk about the Dale farm Traveller site, in relation to which there has been a great deal of misery.
We owe it to all the people of this country—whether they live in houses, flats or caravans—to create a system in which people with differing ways of life can live in dignity and harmony with one another.
I, too, welcome the chance to speak on Traveller site provision and enforcement against illegal sites, which is, without doubt, probably the biggest single issue in my constituency. As all hon. Members probably know, Essex has been home to Gypsies for a long time. Basildon district council has more than 100 authorised sites, which is more than any other authority in Essex. It also has a large number of unauthorised sites. Despite attempts by Basildon council to enforce planning law and evict an estimated 50 families, Dale farm at Crays Hill is probably the largest illegal Traveller encampment anywhere in the country. Meanwhile, all hon. Members will know that the East of England regional assembly is undertaking a single issue review of Gypsy and Traveller site provision across the region. That issue is complicated in Basildon by the large amount of green belt land.
The key message of the report is that it is essential quickly to increase the number of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers. We would probably all agree with that; I do not think any hon. Member here would disagree. The report makes bad reading for the Government because it states that the current strategy is not delivering sites quickly enough, which is a view I have long held.
My Greenbelt Protection Bill of 2003 would have changed the law and adopted a twin-track approach. On the one hand, it would have given councils much stronger powers to deal with illegal development; on the other, in an attempt to be fair and to recognise the Traveller way of life, it would have required all councils to provide additional sites where there was genuine need. There was good cross-party support for my Bill, as I know hon. Members who are nodding remember, but unfortunately the Government blocked it. I am sorry that they did so because it would have dealt with a number of the issues that we are discussing, particularly the shortage of authorised sites, which is at the core of the matter.
There are many arguments for a greater provision of authorised sites. I think we all agree that it is important to recognise the Traveller way of life. Peaceful, well-managed sites help to promote understanding and respect between Travellers and Gypsies, and the settled community. That is important. However, at macro level, the problem of illegal sites cannot be properly addressed until the shortage of authorised sites is also tackled. Even when eviction takes place, the problem is simply relocated.
A further point is that the lack of anywhere else for Travellers to go makes legal enforcement difficult. Time and again, a council will exhaust the planning route only for Travellers to take the case to court where a judge will find against the council because the Travellers have nowhere else to go.
We all agree that more sites are needed, but the question is how to achieve that. As we are all aware, following the publication of circular 01/06, authorities are required to undertake an assessment of Traveller site needs in their area and feed the results into the regional spatial strategy, which reallocates site numbers to councils. The central problem is that the system confuses need for sites with demand, and does not take full account of local circumstance in allocating site numbers to local authorities. That point was made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).
Need is measured in a locality by the number of unauthorised caravans, but doing so confuses need with demand and acts against those local authorities, such as Basildon, that have already done more than their fair share by having a large number of authorised sites and pitches. That is because such sites traditionally attract a large number of unauthorised sites and pitches. The system means that because there are a large number of unauthorised sites and pitches, there is need in that locality.
To illustrate that point, we need look no further than Dale farm. Justice Collins’ judgment in the High Court showed how illegal Travellers had been evicted from a site in Hertfordshire and needed a new site. They could have gone anywhere, but they chose Basildon to be close to friends and relations. However, that does not mean that they had a need to live in Basildon; it means only that there was a demand to live in Basildon. The system therefore effectively invites Travellers to pitch their caravan in a district of their choice and the local authority is simply expected to cope. That gives Travellers a perverse incentive to develop green belt land without permission.
Meanwhile, when site numbers are reallocated to local authorities, the system fails to recognise, relative to their neighbours, how much a local authority has already done in providing authorised sites. The system also fails to recognise the extent of the green belt that restricts the supply of land for development. Both those factors are pertinent to Basildon. Why is Basildon district council now expected to take on an additional 81 sites and pitches—more than any other local authority in Essex—when it has already done more than any other local authority to provide authorised sites in the first place? The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to that point.
The report that we are debating rightly states:
“It is clearly unacceptable for any authority to take the position that it has ‘enough’ of any particular group within a community, or that it will only meet the needs of those people when its neighbours do likewise.”
However, that is not the issue. The issue is one of resources rather than ethnicity, because of the shortage of land for development in green belt areas, but it is also an issue of fairness. Individual councils cannot be expected to provide ever more sites regardless of how much they have already done to address a regional responsibility that is not being shared by neighbouring authorities. However, that is what is expected of Basildon. It is simply unfair, yet the system does not recognise that.
Basildon district receives a bad press in certain quarters, perhaps because it is seen as anti-Traveller, but, more than any other community, it has done more than its fair share in providing authorised sites and pitches. It has a long and proud history of association with the Gypsy community. Basildon district’s community believes that no one should be discriminated against. All it is asking is that everyone abide by the same laws and regulations regardless of race, gender or whatever, yet it is being asked to do the lion’s share in providing additional sites, simply because it already has a large number of authorised sites and therefore unauthorised caravans. That is not fair. There is a failure in the system that is not being addressed by the Government and it is discriminating against the law-abiding citizens of Basildon district. I heard nothing from the Minister to address that issue.
We can all talk about fairness and equality, but unless there is concrete action to ensure that they are enforced on the ground, both for the Travellers and for the settled community, people are left open to discrimination. The system discriminates against local residents because it does not take into account the fact that we have already done more than our fair share of providing for the responsibility—I call it a responsibility, not a problem—while other councils have done almost nothing, yet when it comes to the provision of additional sites they are not expected to do much more either. There is a fundamental flaw in the system, and I ask the Minister to go back to the Department and examine it again. There were many sweet words in his speech, but the fundamental issue was not addressed.
I made the same point. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not realistic to expect local authorities to negotiate among themselves, because they probably just will not do that? As a result, some intervention is required from central Government to ensure that the burden is shared equitably. Let us remember that we have all agreed that Travellers are not evil people. They are a different kind of alternative community. The Government should not be afraid of imposing a strategic settlement, given that they are not spreading evil but simply ensuring that the needs of the travelling community are respected on a regional basis.
Yes, I think we agree on this. That is why I referred to my Greenbelt Protection Bill, which I introduced back in 2003. It had good cross-party support and argued the case for obliging councils to provide additional sites where there was genuine need. I was sorry that the Government blocked that Bill or at least did not explore it further because, as I have said, many of the problems that we are discussing now would not have to be discussed if the Government had accepted the principle that more needs to be done to share the responsibility, rather than leaving the issue to be decided by local authorities.
The problem with the system is illustrated by the single issue review being carried out by the East of England regional assembly. Basildon council is being required to provide 81 sites in addition to the 100 or so that we already have. Meanwhile, some neighbouring councils that offer no provision at all will have to provide only 15 in total—an absurdity and an injustice. That, in miniature, is the problem with site provision.
The system confuses demand with need, penalises councils that have already done most to accommodate Gypsies and Travellers, and essentially gives Travellers an invitation to drive a coach and horses through the planning law and green belt, because illegal sites will implicitly be rewarded with authorised sites. That is absolute nonsense, but yet again the Government are doing nothing about it. They scratch their head and wonder why there is so much public anger about the issue when they are being so unfair in ignoring the plight of councils that have done more than their fair share in coping with the responsibility.
I expressed my opposition to the EERA plans through the consultation process and strongly urged local people to do likewise. My hope is that the Government now recognise that the proposals are illogical and will ask EERA to think again. I ask the Minister to take that message back to the Department after the debate. It is a question of fairness for everyone, not just for Travellers, that the issue be properly and urgently addressed.
I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is asking for; I am not quite sure why he is asking for it. Is he saying that it is additional provision for Gypsies and Travellers per se that he objects to? Is he saying that it is the lack of suitable sites, or is it lack of central Government funding?
The hon. Gentleman was unfortunately out of the Chamber when I began my remarks—a point that he is indicating he accepts. Had he been here, he would have heard that I am arguing for additional sites. That is why I refer back to my private Member’s Bill. It strongly argued for additional sites and obliging councils to provide them, because I genuinely believe that without additional sites there can be no long-term solution to the problem. That is what I am arguing for.
I have talked enough about the need for more authorised sites and the unfairness of how the system works. I hope that the Minister takes those points on board, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say about that.
I am conscious of the time, but I would like to speak briefly about enforcement. I was surprised that the report concluded that
“existing enforcement powers are sufficient”.
For the benefit of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), who was not in the Chamber when I kicked off, I said that my Greenbelt Protection Bill took a twin-track approach. Yes, there is an urgent need to provide more authorised sites. The other side of the twin-track approach is that greater powers need to be given to councils to enforce planning regulations against the minority of Travellers who persist in breaking the law. However, a council would have been given greater enforcement powers only if it had done its bit in providing enough authorised sites.
The report’s conclusion fails to recognise either the weakness of the law or the misery of residents living close to illegal sites. It says that the problem of enforcement ultimately comes back to site provision. That might be true as a macro-analysis of the Traveller phenomenon, but it has little bearing on individual cases. Providing more sites is not enforcement; enforcement means taking effective action against those who break the law.
What are the problems with the law? The planning regulations, for one, cannot effectively deal with a determined minority who buy green belt land—there has been a lot of talk about trespass, but it goes deeper than that—and illegally and speedily develop it, as is the case with Dale farm in Crays Hill. The report is right to highlight the problem of retrospective planning permission and the timetable for appeals, which put enforcement notices on hold, sometimes for years. That leaves Travellers free to continue to build on their developments.
The report is also right to highlight the mistake of a former Secretary of State, who in effect granted the Dale farm Travellers planning permission for two years—a stay of execution, as it were. The Travellers were meant to use that time to identify another site and move on. Instead, the number of caravans went up significantly, which made the issue much more difficult to deal with, as we are now seeing. That problem was of the Government’s making, and the report says so. Many of us argued against the two-year extension, but again the Government were not listening.
I accept that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) is completely well intentioned, but I think that on this point she is misguided. It is tempting but in my view too simplistic to argue, as the report does, that it can never be acceptable to force eviction if it is claimed that the Travellers have nowhere else to go. If I am wrong in saying that that was being suggested, this is an opportunity to put the record straight, but I believe that what the hon. Lady suggests is the pathway to giving Travellers the go-ahead to build on the green belt, at a time and place of their choosing, with complete immunity.
It surprises me, in all honesty, that the hon. Lady seems to agree that it is okay for Travellers to break planning law and regulations if they can claim that there is nowhere else to go. That is wrong. It gives Travellers a green light to set up illegal encampments on green belt land and to contravene planning regulations. That causes tension between local communities—the feeling that Travellers are somehow above the law and can get away with it. The view that the hon. Lady takes is completely wrong; it can help to create those tensions.
If we go down the road of saying that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations, buy green belt land and develop it, that will create the clear view among the settled community that the Travellers are above the law. The hon. Lady may not recognise it, but that contributes to tensions. It is the unfairness of the situation; the law should apply equally to everyone, not only to the settled community. Frankly, I am surprised that she even suggests this.
I accept that the law should apply equally to everybody, but I also believe that everyone should be entitled to a home. Gypsies or Travellers without a home are in a hugely disadvantaged position compared with those in the settled community. It is important that we should sometimes put ourselves in the position of the Gypsies and Travellers. I know that the hon. Gentleman is considering the law-abiding, settled community, but many law-abiding Gypsies and Travellers have nowhere to go. The number involved is small and I believe that we can sort this out by providing enough authorised sites—I know he agrees with that.
I take on board what the hon. Lady says. We all agree and this has been a well-informed debate. No one disagrees with the fact that we need more sites, but we must move on.
The hon. Lady suggests that it is okay for Travellers to break planning regulations and for us not to pursue eviction in that small minority of cases. I agree that we are talking about a minority of Travellers, but we are also talking about the law being fairly applied to everyone, including that minority. I am surprised that she should say that it is okay for Travellers to break planning regulations if they can claim that there is nowhere else to go.
I suggest that that is a dangerous road to go down, because it ultimately leads to the law of the jungle. As I said, it will allow a coach and horses to be driven through green-belt policy and it will help to create tension between the Travellers and the settled community. If the hon. Lady does not realise that that is the case, I suggest that she reconsider the matter. What creates tensions is the feeling that the system is unfair and that the Travellers are somehow being favoured or are above the law.
I shall move on. There are good things in the report, but also bad things, and enforcement is one. The report might have considered enforcement with more urgency had the task group been slightly more balanced in its approach. Indeed, Gypsies and Travellers were invited to sit as members of the group and give their views on a range of issues—perfectly understandably—but to my knowledge the local residents who have to live close to illegal sites were not. The group visited many Gypsy and Traveller sites, but nothing was said about the group gathering the views and experiences of those in the settled community who have to live close to illegal sites. Again, that is somewhat biased and unfair.
The report recommends that Ministers should meet Gypsies and Travellers to discuss their concerns about racial definitions. I am all for that. Where is the recommendation, long overdue, for Ministers to meet local residents? Every time I make such a request, it is turned down.
The Minister and one other Member mentioned that the report gives moral support to politicians who challenge public opinion in defence of Gypsies and Travellers. Where is the support for those, including me, who have been verbally abused by a group of Travellers—the Travellers were then accused by the police of doing over an old lady—or those who have had their homes targeted by Travellers simply for trying to uphold planning law and restore the green-belt land to its original condition?
No moral support is given to those who advocate fairness before the law for everyone, not only a minority. Again, the report smacks of bias. A more even-handed and balanced approach, collecting views across the community and not only from Travellers and Gypsies, would have given the report greater credibility, but such an approach was not taken, which is a fatal flaw.
No wonder the settled community feels discriminated against and the Travellers are seen to be above the law. Residents see the law failing to deal with Travellers illegally concreting over swathes of the green belt, yet they have to abide by planning regulations imposed by the council.
We know that more authorised sites are needed. The problem of illegal sites will be understood and resolved only when the concerns and experiences of local residents who live close to illegal developments are heard and addressed. There is not much evidence of that in the report. The report therefore does not provide the balanced view required to come to a sensible solution to the problem.
The report touches on the question of antisocial behaviour. Many of those of my constituents who live close to illegal developments have suffered from antisocial behaviour. That should be properly understood before we accept the report’s conclusion—it is there in black and white—that illegal sites should be tolerated without resorting to firmer enforcement measures.
The problems locally, at least in my constituency, have gone well beyond fly-tipping; they include the intimidation of the settled community. I am copied in on a steady stream of e-mails to the police reporting a number of incidents, including vandalism and young people throwing stones and firing air rifles. I have had to deal with local people whose water supply has been diverted by some Travellers whose presence is illegal. We have complaints about the speed and volume of traffic going down narrow lanes, and even gas cylinders are being piled up around the entrance of an illegal site, as if to warn off unwanted visitors.
Royal Mail refuses to deliver post to two of the illegal sites in question because it is unable to guarantee the safety of staff following an incident involving dangerous dogs. I have criticised Royal Mail management for taking that decision, not least because the police offered to provide an escort—after I had convened a meeting to try to bring everybody together in what I hope was a sensible way. We should not allow any part of the community become a no-go area for public services. However, that example shows the problems generated by those illegal sites.
I am not attributing such problems to Travellers in general—I am talking about a minority—but I refer to the problem of antisocial behaviour because of the report’s finding that illegal sites should be tolerated without resort to firmer enforcement action. That has to be wrong. Again, it is a question of fairness. My constituents cannot understand why it should be so difficult to take effective action against those who have so brazenly broken the law. It appears to my constituents that there is one law for the Travellers and another for the settled community. All my constituents ask is that the law be fairly applied to everyone. No one seeks to discriminate against the minority, but it seems that local residents are being discriminated against.
As long as need is assessed in terms of the number of unauthorised sites and the law cannot evict Travellers if that means making them homeless, local residents will continue to be discriminated against, the green belt will continue to be put at risk and the integrity of the planning system will continue to be undermined. There comes a point when we have to take the defence of our green belt seriously. There are authorised sites, but planning laws need to be respected and that is not happening.
The report is right to say that more sites are needed, as I suggested, but it has failed to understand the problems of enforcement. Until the experiences of those who have to live near illegal sites are understood, the problems will not be resolved. I re-emphasise that it is a shame that the report did not do more to solicit the views of those people. We might agree that more sites are needed, but that does not mean that we should allow Travellers to contravene planning regulations with impunity. That is unfair on local residents, who must abide by the law.
In all honesty, the Minister should look again at the report and address the issues that other hon. Members and I have raised: the unfairness of the site allocation mechanism discriminates against the councils that have done more than others to provide authorised sites, and enforcement powers need to be revisited—it is totally unacceptable for any Member of this place to suggest that planning regulations can be contravened if Travellers claim that they have nowhere else to go.
We accept that more sites are needed and I hope that the Government build on the report’s many recommendations to bring those sites forward. I am sorry that the Government have not done more to date. The problem was evident years ago, so they have failed in that respect.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on obliging councils to provide more authorised sites on an equitable basis. If that is not done, tensions in our local communities will increase, particularly in those that have done more than most to address the site provision need that we agree needs to be addressed. I sincerely hope that the Minister reflects on the debate and reconsiders the recommendations in the report that need correcting.
I welcome the report, the Government response and the debate. It is perhaps a pity that it is being held on one of the least auspicious days for getting Members to take part. If they are not already off on recess, they are in Crewe. The Government Whips think I am there at the moment, so I hope that they do not read the report of this debate.
It is good that we are having such a measured and informed debate, and I welcome the fact that the Government response says that there might be an opportunity for a wider debate on Gypsy and Traveller issues in future. The reasons why such a debate is somewhat overdue have been given.
I should like to express my appreciation of the independent report and the work of Sir Brian Briscoe and his team, especially on expanding it to cover Government support for enforcement and provision. The two matters are not only clearly linked, but one is subsidiary to the other—provision is the key. Sir Brian sums that up in the foreword to his report, part of which has been quoted. He says:
“The Task Group discovered that the scale of the problem was small”—
one might not always believe that when one reads media reports—and that the unmet requirement is for 4,000 pitches, or
“less than one square mile of land across the country”.
He also acknowledges that Government policy, at least from 2004, has been correct, and the independent task group considers
“that if it is implemented with vigour by central and local government, there is a prospect that most of the £18m spent on enforcement could be saved, and the life chances of this most deprived ethnic minority group greatly enhanced”.
That is the key to the debate. To a large extent, the problem of lack of suitable sites has been created by politicians, particularly by the Conservative Government and the unwise legislation that they passed in 1994.
On a positive note, I should like to acknowledge the Minister’s role in bringing the issue forward. He probably got the essential point even before he became a Minister: the problem is not with Gypsies and Travellers, but with the attitude that some parts of the settled community and some politicians have had towards those communities in the past. In the foreword to the Government response, the Minister highlights the appalling inequalities, including the facts that the life expectancy of Gypsies and Travellers is 10 years less than the national average, the community has twice the level of long-term illness, and a four-times less achievement of results at GCSE level. Such inequality and disparity would not be tolerated within any other community in the country, which is why, with respect to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), most Gypsies and Travellers would find it surprising to be told that they are favoured or above the law. In many respects, they are still discriminated against, which the report in part aims to address.
Finally, I should like without embarrassing her unduly to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who does an enormous amount of work on the subject through the all-party Gypsy and Traveller law reform group. The group is supported by the Traveller Law Reform Project and its representative Richard Solly and by many Gypsy and Traveller representatives who attend. The group is going from strength to strength and holds a variety of well- informed seminars and meetings, and lobbies the Minister from time to time.
I support the general thrust of the report, but I have four points to make in relation to it. I do not agree with what the Government response says on advice services. Whether because of changes to the Legal Services Commission provision or severe local government cuts, advice services are not adequate for many groups, including Gypsies and Travellers. Clearly, those groups often do not have access to the best legal or other advice, which is a lacuna that the Government and local authorities ought to address.
The insufficiency and lack of quality of housing provision has been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North alluded to some of the types of site. When she talked about sites under motorways, she was probably thinking of the Westway site, which is in a constituency that neighbours mine. The all-party group visited it last year. From a public health and personal safety point of view, if it is typical of Gypsy and Traveller sites—I sincerely hope that it is not—it illustrates the inadequacy of current provision.
I am glad to see that security of tenure is being addressed, at least in part, through the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which my hon. Friend the Minister took through the House quite recently. I hope that we pursue the issue so that there is genuine equality in security of tenure for Gypsy and Traveller communities. I am concerned that the Conservative party and some Conservative-controlled local authorities are making moves to weaken security of tenure for all social tenants—that is their intention. We should be moving in the other direction and extending security of tenure, particularly in social housing.
On funding, I welcome the £97 million to which the Minister alluded in the response. Although I believe in local government autonomy, he will need to keep a close eye to ensure that local authorities are using the money that central Government provide properly. I have heard recent examples of local authorities misusing Government money provided specifically to tackle homelessness and reduce the number of families in temporary accommodation by housing families in unsuitable locations, often far from family links and outside the local authority area, and using the provision of additional Government moneys as an excuse to do less themselves. If the Government’s purpose is to enhance provision and resolve the shortage of suitable sites, as I believe it is, that must be done and local authorities should not be allowed to duck out.
Although I understand why the Minister may not be able to answer this point immediately, I support entirely the task group’s request for Gypsies and Travellers to be counted as a separate ethnic group for the purposes of the next census. It is important that we know how many Gypsies and Irish Travellers live in the UK. Unless we know how many are here, it is difficult to assess adequately how much Government support should be provided. The problem is not exclusive to Gypsy and Traveller communities, but it is an omission, given that they are clearly recognised as separate ethnic groups.
More generally, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North raised the issue of lifestyle and its importance. I emphasise that in ensuring sufficient provision, we must ensure that it is suitable provision. That means that Gypsies and Travellers must have the opportunity to continue an itinerant lifestyle, so provision should include stopping and transit places as well as permanent sites.
I welcome the initiative by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which other hon. Members have mentioned, on Roma, Gypsy and Traveller history month. I endorse entirely the comments of the noble Lord Adonis:
“We can challenge myths, tackle prejudice and be in a position to offer a balanced debate about the issues. We will all be able to celebrate the richness that Gypsy, Roma and Travellers communities bring to our everyday lives through their many and varied academic and artistic achievements.”
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, it is about time that there was more concentration on the contribution that Gypsies and Travellers make to the cultural and social life of this country and less on descriptions of the problems associated with lack of provision.
I am honoured to have been asked to speak at a two-day seminar and festival for the Irish Traveller community at the Irish centre in Hammersmith. I notice that I have been asked to speak at the policy seminar rather than indulge in the music, song and dance part, but perhaps that will come later. The Irish centre is a very fine building in Hammersmith—I say that because I helped to ensure that it is there—which was opened by the Deputy Taoiseach some 15 years ago. It is a centre for the Irish community, and it is right that it should also be the venue for celebrating Irish Traveller culture, and that the Irish ambassador should be there to open the celebration. It is the positive aspects of Gypsy and Traveller life in the UK that we should celebrate.
A great deal of discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers persists in this country. I do not want to exaggerate the problem, but I am conscious of what we have all read in the papers, even today, about what is happening in Italy. We must all be shocked to see such events happening in a democracy and an EU country. They follow some horrific instances of discrimination and violence in central and eastern European countries that have led a number of Roma people in particular to seek asylum here, but I did not expect the scenes that we have witnessed in Naples in the past week. Today’s edtition of The Guardian says:
“In Naples last week, a Roma camp was repeatedly attacked… After the inhabitants had been moved for their own protection, the buildings and caravans were burned to the ground, apparently by vigilantes acting on orders from the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. The incident, together with a string of raids by police on Roma encampments, has shocked Gypsy communities.”
I hope that events of that kind—they have been described rightly as equivalent to pogroms—never occur in this country.
What is most worrying is not the involvement of organised crime but the Italian Government’s role in harassing Gypsy and Roma communities. The article begins by discussing the new laws that the new right-wing Italian Government intend to introduce, under which
“local authorities would be empowered to check on the living conditions of citizens from other EU nations before granting them right of residence. The measure appeared to be aimed at Roma living in encampments”.
Such negative state intervention in an EU country is something that I hope will not occur in the UK. I have said that we are, I hope, moving in the opposite direction, but we must remain vigilant.
As other hon. Members have said during this debate, we encounter—I have encountered it in my professional life in the criminal justice system, education and housing—discrimination in this country against Gypsy and Traveller people that I do not believe would be tolerated against any other ethnic minority. For that reason, I believe that resolving the shortage of site provision and the difficulties so often and disproportionately highlighted in the media may be the single most important thing that we as a party and a Government can do to ensure that no opportunity is given to those who wish to exploit, for the most nefarious reasons, discrimination and prejudice against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people in this country. The report is to be welcomed. The Government are acting on the right lines; I just think that they should probably get on with it a bit more.
With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the many points made by hon. Members. As I expected, the debate has been dignified and measured, which is a tribute to the hon. Members who have participated.
I agreed with a lot of what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said, and I acknowledge his comment that he is keen to have a sensible debate about the provision of authorised and well managed sites. I disagreed with him on a number of points, however. He hinted—it might even have been stronger than that—that a lot of the opposition from the settled community was a response to the fact that, as he thinks, the planning system is moving further away from local people and that there is little local accountability. I think that that was the gist of his argument. I tend to disagree. There is accountability.
The hon. Gentleman knows well that decisions on planning applications are, rightly, a matter for the local planning authority. It is also the responsibility of local councils to identify appropriate sites within their development plan documents. The regional assemblies—I shall return to this when I respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron)—provide the overview of the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites throughout the region. I stress that they use the information in locally prepared Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments to do so. I disagree with the idea that local people are somehow excluded from the process.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst also hinted that our suggested reforms, which would bring together the regional economic strategy and the regional spatial strategy and move responsibility away from regional assemblies to regional development agencies, would also make the process unaccountable. Again, I disagree. That package of measures is contained in the sub-national review, which is out for consultation now; that will strengthen accountability, particularly at local level. It would give local authorities a responsibility to assess economic development in their area—this is slightly on a tangent to our discussion, but it is still relevant—and give directly elected local authorities a strong role in developing the regional strategy. A forum of leaders representing all local authorities in the region would agree the draft regional strategy on behalf of those authorities and hold the RDAs to account. I reiterate that we are not taking accountability away from local people with regards to the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites or any matter relating to spatial planning.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned how temporary stop notices are not being enforced or used as much as they should be. The task group examined that matter and the provision of enforcement measures, including temporary stop notices, and, as has been said many times this afternoon, it found those powers to be adequate. If local authorities can act quickly and perhaps provide an out-of-hours service to cover weekends, the use of a temporary stop notice can halt inappropriate developments immediately. I return again and again to the point that we need to have suitable identification of authorised sites.
The hon. Gentleman also hinted at the idea of stopping retrospective planning applications by Gypsy and Traveller communities. As a good former councillor and a member of the London assembly, he will know that, as much as we want to minimise retrospective planning applications by ensuring that we have pre-application discussions, everyone can apply for retrospective planning applications. It would be neither appropriate nor fair—to use a word often used this afternoon—to target one particular group of people by removing its right to retrospective applications.
To make myself clear, I suggested that we should look generally at retrospective planning application where there has been a conscious breach of planning law. That is slightly different from what the Minister suggested. I simply used the example of unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying his stance, which chimes with that of his colleague the hon. Member for Billericay in some respects. I return to the point that we need more authorised, well- managed sites in order to deal with the problem. That is the key. We need to push forward together to ensure that that happens.
The task group looked specifically at retrospective planning authorisation and concluded that its
“removal would create more problems than it would solve. Anyone who unintentionally”—
that is an important word in respect of the argument made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—
“breached planning control would be affected by such a change, however minor the nature of the breach—raising the height of a fence, for example”.
I would therefore not support its removal.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned how we could incentivise local authorities to consider providing more authorised sites. The £97 million for the next three years to provide additional sites, which I would suggest is a considerable carrot for local authorities, has been stressed by me and other hon. Members this afternoon. Furthermore, I think that every single hon. Member here has pointed out that the £18 million per year enforcement costs could be swiftly and substantially cut if local authorities grasped the nettle, as has been done elsewhere—I am thinking of Bristol city council—ensured the provision of well-managed, authorised sites and guarded against the problems of community tension and the enforcement costs that arise from them. As I said in my opening speech, I think that everyone wins with the provision of authorised sites—council tax payers, Gypsies and Travellers, and the settled community in general.
The Minister is absolutely right; we all agree that we need more authorised sites. However, I pose to him the question that I put to the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) about enforcement: does he believe that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations if they claim that they have nowhere else to go? That would be interesting to know, because we have not heard about that from him yet.
I enjoyed the little joust between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend. Given that he represents Billericay and she represents a Welsh seat, it struck me as the parliamentary equivalent of “Gavin and Stacey”—I thought that that was quite good, if perhaps not as funny.
I do not think that it is acceptable for Travellers to break planning regulations, but it is understandable, given the lack of authorised sites, which has been mentioned time and again. The key question is how do we ensure that local authorities and other relevant agencies help to provide more authorised sites? I have responsibility for housing; I come to this Chamber regularly to discuss housing and the idea that we need to redress the imbalance of demand and supply in this country, which has not been tackled for a generation. We must produce 3 million new homes by 2020 and ensure that those homes are built where they are needed. We return to the same point in today’s debate—the importance of meeting accommodation needs, whether of the settled community or the Gypsy and Traveller communities. I shall return to that and the points made by the hon. Member for Billericay about Basildon in a moment.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made an excellent speech; I agreed with an awful lot of what he said. Like his hon. Friend the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), he mentioned linking the provision of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation and sites with infrastructure such as health and education. I would bring together those points and the ones made by the hon. Member for Billericay: we are not talking about 3 million homes, but the relatively solvable problem of providing 4,000 additional pitches, spread throughout the length and breadth of this country, covering about 1 square mile. We can sort this.
I refer the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to some of the detail in the report, because it is quite interesting. In the main—there are exceptions—Gypsy and Traveller sites tend to be small. According to the report, the average authorised site has about four or five caravans; a private authorised site tends to have about six, and a public authorised site tends to have about 22. The idea that we need to build a super-hospital or a big comprehensive school on the back of Gypsy and Traveller provision is exaggerated. They could be easily accommodated by local authorities’ existing structures and local primary care trusts’ strategic objectives, because they are on a relatively small scale.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the use of police powers. Gypsies and Travellers are not above the law. I would not wish to send out the opposite message. Powers available to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour caused by members of Gypsy and Traveller communities are the same as those used on any other member of society. In direct response to his line of questioning, I would point out that the Association of Chief Police Officers is leading a group developing a police policy for managing unauthorised encampments, which will be published later this year. Practical advice for the police and other agencies on the policing of Roma Gypsies and Irish Travellers, compiled on behalf of the Home Office, the National Policing Improvement Agency and my Department, is also due to be published later this year. We will have a good toolkit to ensure that problems with antisocial behaviour among Gypsy and Traveller sites are dealt with.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned how the provision of authorised sites more or less pays for itself in the short to medium term. I agree with that extremely important point.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I touched on the methodology for allocating sites. I know that the Minister said that he would come to that, and I am conscious that time is short, but does he accept that the current system does not recognise the good work that many local councils do in already providing authorised sites? For example, Basildon district council has already provided about 100 authorised sites—more than any other council in Essex—but because a large number of authorised sites often results in a large number of unauthorised sites, it will take the lion’s share of any additional sites to be apportioned. Does he accept that that is unfair and, if so, what is he going to do about it?
If the hon. Gentleman could be patient for just a little while, I will address his point about Basildon and the proposed 81 additional sites when I reply to his contribution.
Let me go back to the points raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. He was talking about additional funding to support cohesion between Gypsy and Traveller communities and the settled community. The area-based grant has been distributed to local authorities to support work on building community cohesion in particular areas. Local authorities should consider how that money can best be spent in their particular area. In places in which there are significant tensions between Gypsies, Travellers and the settled community, part of that funding should be used to address those specific issues. The Connecting Community Plus grant is also available to support community groups in building the cohesion to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Two Gypsy and Traveller groups are among the 70 groups that have received funding under this programme. I hope, therefore, that he is reassured that funding is available.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned role models, which is an important point. I want to respond to the political consensus that we have seen for trying to tackle the racism and the bigotry. I also want to get representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller communities themselves to publicise the good work that they do on behalf of their own communities and of society in general. Frankly, I am a bloke in a suit. I do not think that I am the best champion of Gypsies and Travellers in that regard. Representatives from the particular communities would be great advocates and champions of what they do, and we need to consider how we can achieve that.
I am fairly impressed with the Minister’s response. I think that he has addressed a number of the issues, and I am encouraged by the outline of the funding available for community cohesion with regard to integrating Travellers and Gypsies. The one thing that he has not explicitly addressed is my belief that it would take a strategic mandate from central Government to ensure that local authorities pull their weight and provide authorised sites. That point was echoed by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). Will the Minister either share his perspective on that now or write to those of us in the debate today about how he feels that the Government might be able to work in partnership with local authorities to spread the load?
I remember vividly thinking about that when the hon. Gentleman was speaking. With the greatest of respect—I am not trying to score political points here—what he was saying seems to be at odds with what the Liberal Democrats advocate on locally devolved decisions. We were talking about challenging decisions before, and I hope that the reforms that we are putting in place with regard to the sub-national review and the single integrated regional strategy, which will be agreed by the forum of local authority leaders, will enable a trade-off to take place—I think that the House knows what I mean by that—without having centrally dictated targets or moves. That is the best approach to take.
I do not want to pursue this matter as a dialogue, but the time for central Government to intervene is when local considerations and expedients prevent the strategically right thing from happening regionally. I am encouraged if the Minister is convinced that the structures are in place for that to happen. I hope that he will at least confirm that he will keep a watching brief on the matter. If we still have a clumping of the sites, perhaps the Government might return to the issue in the future.
The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. I am confident that our existing structures and framework, in conjunction with the reforms that we are pulling together in the sub-national review and in the regional governance matter, will be sufficient. However, I pledge to keep an eye on the matter. Given the central push of this Department and the Government’s policy on community empowerment and devolving power away from the centre into local communities, I think that we are doing exactly the right thing. I think that he agrees with me on that. The existing framework and the proposed approach are the right way to address the issue.
Let me pay tribute to the fantastic work that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) does on this issue. She made a number of excellent points in her first-class contribution. She rightly mentioned that people in caravans pay their way, and pay council tax. Therefore, we need to start blowing out of the water the myth that they do not. She reiterated her view about how we need to accelerate progress and also made a very telling point. There are many problems with Gypsies and Travellers moving out of caravans into bricks and mortar accommodation. I had the pleasure to address a conference organised by Shelter three months ago. Shelter produced a report analysing the problem and raising the issue of stress and increased levels of depression, so she was spot on. It is a problem that we need to address. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a similarly telling point in one of his interventions.
My hon. Friend raised several pertinent issues. She talked about reviewing the definition of Gypsies and Travellers within planning legislation. No one is suggesting that those who are found to have Gypsy status for planning purposes are not classed as ethnic Gypsies. We all know that, under the Race Relations Act 1974, Gypsies are classed as ethnic minorities. The problem that I have with that though is that the planning system should not, and does not, seek to discriminate between one ethnic minority and another. Everybody is treated equally when it comes to the development of land, and that is quite right in my opinion. I know that it can be very frustrating for Gypsies suddenly to find themselves not being defined as having so-called Gypsy status. However, I reiterate the point that the planning system should—as much as possible—be blind to the idea of ethnicity. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees with that.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the difficulties of relocating Gypsy and Traveller sites from the Olympic zone. I understand and appreciate the points that she raised there. The development of the Olympic zone has led to the relocation of many business and homes. In all cases, local authorities should and must take into account the concerns and needs of all stakeholders regardless of whether they are businesses, Gypsies or Travellers. I hope that she is reassured that we continue to encourage local authorities and their partners to provide suitable and sustainable accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers who have been relocated from the Olympic site—as they are required to do for all members of the community.
I was at one of the sites from which Gypsies have been forced to move. Certainly, there was a lot of concern about the length of time the relocation had taken, about the fact that the location was not suitable and that it was opposed by Travellers and residents themselves. The Gypsies and Travellers have gone through a great deal of uncertainty and it is important to recognise that the Gypsies and Travellers who have been affected by the Olympics have suffered and that, in many ways, the process has not worked as well as it should have done. Perhaps there should be an assessment of how the relocation has been carried out and what will happen after the Olympics have finished. Will the Gypsies and Travellers have an opportunity to go back to the area? There are many issues that we need to consider.
My hon. Friend makes some valid points. Some of the suggestions that she has made should be taken up. Given the huge regeneration that is taking place in the run-up to 2012, I will consider further how we can ensure that the needs of all the communities within the Olympic zone can best be accommodated.
My hon. Friend also talked about shortening the appeal period. The measure to allow the planning inspectorate to link enforcement and planning appeals more effectively will close a loophole in the system, which allows applicants to retain unauthorised building works or continue operating unauthorised uses for as long as possible. We consulted on that measure as part of a package of reforms to improve the efficiency of the planning appeal system as a whole. The proposal received strong support, with about 90 per cent. of respondents indicating that they agreed or strongly agreed with it. We are currently working on the secondary legislation necessary to take forward the proposal, and we will update our impact assessment as part of that exercise. I shall obviously consider my hon. Friend’s points.
The hon. Member for Billericay made an excellent speech. It was measured and dignified and supported his constituents, for which I commend him. He mentioned unauthorised encampments such as those at Dale farm. With the greatest of respect, I must say that those problems reflect the existing shortfall in accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers across the country, although I appreciate the specific circumstances in his area. The Government have put in place a framework to meet the need for accommodation, including by requiring local planning authorities to allocate sufficient land in planning documents to meet the needs of Gypsies and Travellers who have no authorised place to stay.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that because of the circumstances, I cannot comment on the High Court’s decision, but I encourage Basildon district council to work with neighbouring authorities to ensure that the situation at Dale farm is addressed responsibly and that urgent work is undertaken to address the shortage of authorised Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in the region.
The hon. Gentleman asked the important question why Basildon should provide so many pitches when other local authorities in the area do not or are unwilling to. That brings into play the point that I made about local and regional organisations working together. The regional assembly should, and does, take a strategic view about where Gypsy and Traveller accommodation should be located across the east of England. It has set out its proposed pitch allocations for each local authority in the region. As he rightly said, those proposals—including Basildon’s allocation of 81 additional pitches, which is not even the highest allocation—will be subject to independent examination in the autumn. He will appreciate that it would be entirely wrong of me to offer any opinion on them, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the regional spatial strategy process and the fact that the case might return to the Secretary of State.
I appreciate the Minister’s kind words. Although I accept his last point, he can comment on the methodology involved. It is apparently unfair to my constituents that, within Essex at least, we are taking the lion’s share of the proposed sites, even though we already have more than anywhere else in Essex. It is the lion’s share by some measure. Other councils are taking on hardly any and provide none whatever at the moment. Does he think that that is fair, and if not, what can he do now—not right at this minute, but when he goes back to his Department—to try to correct the injustice inherent in that methodology?
I shall not be tempted down the road of suggesting whether something is fair in those specific proposals. As I reiterated in relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, I am confident that the process that is in place provides suitable public discussion and examination of proposals. I imagine that when the case goes to independent examination in the autumn, the hon. Gentleman will contribute. I cannot say any more than that, because I am conscious of the quasi-judicial nature of the process.
The hon. Gentleman rightly, and importantly, mentioned the impact on the green belt. We had an interesting debate on the Government’s green belt policy in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago. Guidance on it is set out in planning policy guidance note 2, which is on my Department’s website. It makes it clear that green belt policy has not changed and that there is a presumption against any inappropriate development on green belt land, regardless of whether it comes from the settled community or from Gypsy and Traveller communities. That remains the case, and we protect that provision. I am robustly convinced that the green belt should be protected as much as possible and, in the past 10 years, it has increased in size under this Government.
May I suggest to the Minister that he is slightly confused about the quasi-judicial nature of the single issue review? I accept that the process with regard to Dale farm is quasi-judicial, but I am referring to the single issue review being conducted by the East of England regional assembly, which proposes that 81 sites should be apportioned to Basildon district. That process is not quasi-judicial; it is open to the public and the law courts are in no way involved. The Minister is free to examine the methodology involved closely, because there is no quasi-judicial process.
I am fairly confident that I am correct on that, but I shall examine the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made an excellent speech in support of many of, if not all, the recommendations in the task group’s report. I commend him on that. He mentioned the problems with regard to the Legal Services Commission, particularly its provision of advice and support to Gypsies and Travellers. The LSC provides an advice line and is not aware of any capacity problems or strains on its funding. It has been brought to my attention that the problem is not necessarily about increasing the number of people who specialise in giving advice, but about increasing awareness of the services offered, and particularly the Gypsy and Traveller telephone advice line. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns about the funding of the service and pressures on the commission’s ability to deliver it, I shall be more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
I am grateful for the offer, given which I shall not detain the Minister on that point this afternoon. I am more concerned about the restrictions on the LSC’s funding to local law centres and to the relatively few private practices that are prepared to provide such services. Particularly given the complexity of the problems involved, it is probably most likely that services will be accessed face to face and at local level.
What I, and I think the LSC, would expect is for providers to be able to deliver services to meet the full range of their clients’ needs, whether face to face or through the telephone advice line. Again, I extend the offer that I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss specific issues that he has come across in his constituency and elsewhere, to ensure that we can reach an appropriate resolution.
My hon. Friend mentioned the provision in the Housing and Regeneration Bill to increase and improve security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers. I pay tribute to him for his sterling work in the Public Bill Committee. He did a fantastic job and made a real, positive contribution to the Bill, which is very important for housing policy in England. I thank him for that. Like the whole House, he will know that the clause that he mentioned will create greater security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers living on local authority sites. As he rightly said, it will narrow the disparity between Gypsies and Travellers and the mainstream population, which has been a source of genuine grievance for some time. I pay tribute to him for advocating that approach and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, for pushing for that clause.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush mentioned the issue of Gypsies and Travellers being classed as groups in the census. The independent Office for National Statistics recognises that accurate ethnicity data are important for equality monitoring and service delivery. There are numerous ethnic groups in the UK and, as the House will know, the ONS has received many requests for specific tick boxes to be added to the census.
Following a prioritisation exercise, a “Gypsy or Irish Traveller” tick box—as well as an “Arab” one, incidentally—was recommended for inclusion in the 2011 census in England and Wales to supplement the 2001 classifications. It is not anticipated at this stage that that recommendation will change. However, as I think my hon. Friend implied, and he was right to do so, it should be noted that the final questions for the 2011 census cannot be confirmed until the legislative process is completed and the questionnaire has been approved by Parliament, which is expected to take place in 2010.
The Government’s approach has long been to balance firm but fair enforcement against those who camp on land without permission or who breach development control with proactive measures to increase site provision. The task group found that we are right to do so. The task group was also clear that the pace of delivery must increase and we have heard today about the consequences of not providing for the needs of Gypsies and Travellers without an authorised place to stay. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it is now time to take action to meet those needs.
We have had a very interesting and measured debate today. However, our duties to encourage such debates do not leave us when we leave Westminster Hall today and go into recess. We have too many people who depend on us and who are desperate for an authorised place to live. Similarly, the Government’s duties to those in the settled community do not simply rest with listening and responding to concerns raised in this House, important though that is. Many people look to the Government to tackle the problems and distress associated with the unauthorised encampments and developments and the antisocial behaviour that hon. Members have described today.
In closing, I want to link those two responsibilities. The Government take extremely seriously the issues that have been raised today and we have taken steps that will result in clear and tangible progress. We can help all our constituents who have real and serious concerns over unauthorised encampments by helping those within our constituencies with no authorised places to stay. By providing new sites and encouraging honest, informed and mature debate about where—not if—those sites should be provided, I strongly and passionately believe that the problems surrounding unauthorised encampments and developments will decrease. The task group found that that was the right thing to do; now it is time to ensure that we deliver.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Five o’clock.