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Gypsies and Travellers (Local Communities)

Volume 596: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Gypsies and Travellers and local communities.

It is a privilege for all of us to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. You take a close interest in matters to do with Gypsies and Travellers, and I hope I can inform you and the House about the difficulties being caused to my constituents by Gypsies and Travellers, whether they are travelling or have decided to set up permanent pitches in the countryside.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I want to explain the impact that Gypsies and Travellers are having on my constituency, Kettering, not only when Travellers travel, but when they decide not to be Travellers any more and to settle. In both cases, great problems are being caused to my constituents.

I welcome the Minister to his place and I know that he is keen to engage on this issue at an early stage in his ministerial career, which I know will be one of great promise. I know that we will not be able to change the law as a result of today’s debate, but he can signal to us the great heights that he will reach in short order by scrapping section 225 of the Housing Act 2004, which requires local authorities to conduct separate housing needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers.

The Government are looking at scrapping the Human Rights Act 1998, which would also help to address the issue and I would be happy to support that proposal. I believe that the part of the Equality Act 2010 that applies to Gypsies and Travellers should also be scrapped, but if the Minister made a start with the Housing Act 2004, it would be a signal of real intent. I simply do not see why—and nor do my constituents—there should be any special provision at all within the planning system for Gypsies and Travellers. After all, something like 1 million eastern Europeans have just come to our shores, rightly or wrongly. Do we have special planning provision for the accommodation needs of eastern Europeans? No, we do not. Why should we single out Gypsies and Travellers as a supposed ethnic group for special treatment in planning laws?

I am not advocating that we should pick on this community. I am advocating, on behalf of my constituents, that the law of the land should apply equally to all of us regardless of our racial or ethnic background when it comes to housing needs and planning permissions.

The reason for today’s debate is that, recently, Daventry District Council—the neighbouring authority to Kettering Borough Council, on which I have the privilege to serve as a councillor—recently granted permission for two additional pitches for a piece of land near the village of Arthingworth in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), which is near the village of Braybrooke in the Kettering constituency. For many local people on both sides of the local authority boundary, that really is a step too far, because there is now an over-concentration of Gypsy and Traveller sites in that part of the Northamptonshire countryside.

Let me describe the scene. The village of Braybrooke has 334 voters on the electoral roll and consists of 145 dwellings—it is situated halfway between the towns of Desborough and Market Harborough—and yet, within a small distance around it there are 67 Gypsy and Traveller pitches, which have completely overwhelmed the local countryside. Local people are fed up that there is such a large number of sites in the vicinity of their homes, not least because of the behaviour of the Gypsies and Travellers who live on those pitches. I will read some examples of constituents’ comments:

“We are wary of putting our name to a list of our problems with these people as they know where we live and farm and can be very intimidating both verbally and physically…We have known some of the ‘travelling’ families in this locality for over 35 years.”

They cause problems with fly-grazing, for example. Furthermore:

“Hare coursing has been a problem throughout all of those years…Fly tipping is an on-going problem along road verges and in gateways…Setting fire to straw stacks, we now do not put more than 200 bales in a stack. Also burning of electric cable and garden waste on their sites permitting smoke to cross the road…Theft is also an on-going problem. They call at the farm buildings asking for scrap metal or batteries—then within weeks items are stolen. We have diesel stolen on a regular basis, it is no good putting a padlock on the tank as they then puncture the tank and you lose the lot. Other items stolen are gates, buckets of minerals, electric fencing with posts and energizers, hand tools, electric saws, quad bikes, farm machinery and motor vehicles…We do not advise the police of every incident because experience has taught us that little is done and no one is ever caught or prosecuted.”

Does my hon. Friend share my bafflement that Travellers are treated as a vulnerable community when, in fact, most of them have far greater wealth than we in this room will ever have? The point is not about ethnicity or where Travellers may originate from, but about their behaviour. Our constituents are concerned not about the fact that they have chosen a nomadic lifestyle, but about their behaviour and disruption to the local community when they arrive. I have not yet met a serving police officer who does not say that when Travellers are in town, there is a spike in local crime.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he has demonstrated with those comments how he so ably represents his constituents in Devon, because he has put his finger right on it. Indeed, we have evidence from the 2011 census, which tells us that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in permanent houses, bungalows or flats; only one quarter live in caravans or mobile homes.

As always, my hon. Friend is making a very powerful argument. My local authority of York proposed two new Traveller sites in my constituency and is he not surprised that when it was calculating the need for those sites, it counted Travellers in bricks and mortar—Travellers who are adequately housed—as in desperate need? That contributed to the requirement, as the authority calls it, for two new Traveller sites.

The name of my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) is well known in my constituency, because he is a hero to the horse-owning community as a result of his pioneering legislation to combat fly-grazing. That legislation has been widely welcomed in Kettering and throughout the land. Am I surprised by what he tells us from his own constituency? I am not surprised. Am I disappointed? Yes, I am, because the law is working against the settled community and in favour of Gypsies and Travellers.

Many of my hon. Friend’s constituents and many of mine who do not come from a Gypsy or Traveller background actually do far more travelling than the supposed Travellers themselves. Many of my constituents travel down to London and back every day for work. They do far more travelling than the supposed Travellers in the illegal encampments, but the law is biased in this respect, and this is something that the Minister could deal with as his second initiative in the Department. The guidance that his Department gives local authorities means that they need to make provision for a 3% annual increase in Gypsy and Traveller household numbers. That growth rate is far too big, yet by law local authorities are required to draw up assessments to provide pitches for that rate of growth. So not only is the number of Gypsies and Travellers as a baseline too high; the annual growth rate that the Department requires local authorities to respond to is also too great.

I was going to let this go, but I just cannot; I refer to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point about whether Travellers travel as much as people from his constituency. He surely realises that Gypsies and Travellers are a known ethnic group and whether or not they travel does not take away from the fact that they are an ethnic group. Whether or not they are actually travelling does not matter in order for them to be recognised as a Gypsy or a Traveller.

The romantic notion of Gypsies wandering through the countryside, entertaining people as they go, is a myth from long ago, because many of these supposed Travellers are self-declared Travellers; they are not from any kind of Gypsy heritage at all. However, they are using, on a self-declared basis, their nomenclature as Travellers to get special privileges in the planning system. When they then use those privileges not to travel but to get planning permissions for permanent sites so that they can settle down, it is an absolute abuse. Now that we have got the first Conservative Government elected for 23 years, it is time that Her Majesty’s Government acted to stamp out that abuse in the countryside. The current system is also forcing local authorities such as mine to identify sites where pitches can be provided for that supposed growth rate in Travellers.

For example, Kettering Borough Council has to find 25 pitches by 2022. It has identified 17 so far and has another eight to find. Local constituents have been brought to tears because sites near their own homes have been identified as potential pitches. Only when there are determined local councillors, acting on behalf of their local constituents in their wards, who stand up and say, “No, we don’t want Traveller sites in our communities,” can these things be stopped. In Kettering, there was a proposal for a Traveller site near the Scott Road garages in the town itself, and it caused uproar among the local community, who knew that if permission were granted for Traveller pitches on that site, local crime levels would go through the roof. The idea that these provisions in the planning system are helping community cohesion is completely wrong; they are stirring up resentment and hatred between one community and another, and it is time that the new Government did something about it.

Let me give the House further evidence. This is a typical response I have had from a settled dweller in the countryside:

“Since moving to our current address in Braybrooke we have endured fly tipping, theft, many instances of intimidation, and fly grazing.

Since having”—


“horses removed from our land we have encountered almost daily instances of defecating in our gateway, known to be carried out by this family”.

I am talking about human defecation. That is as disgusting as it gets. The response continues:

“I caught one of them in the act one day. We dare not do anything about it for fear of reprisals.

We cannot leave anything lying around outside as approximately once a week a van with travellers in drives into our yard and out again without stopping, presumably to intimidate or for opportunist theft…My wife and her family can relate…many, many more instances over the last 30 years including hare coursing, theft of equipment, intimidation, fly grazing, dumping of caravans etc. They have given up reporting instances long ago as nothing has ever been done about it and it just seems futile.”

I hope you can see, Mr Davies, the despair and frustration of my constituents, who are really beginning to resent the Gypsy and Traveller community in Northamptonshire, because they are bending the rules of the planning system, which are skewed in their favour, to allow them to get permissions to set up encampments in the countryside. When the local authority refuses those applications, they go to appeal, and all too often the pathetic planning inspectorate allows permission—sometimes temporary permission. When the temporary permission expires after two years, five years or whatever, the local authority is unable to enforce the removal of those encampments, because they cite the Human Rights Act and the provisions therein to protect so-called family life. Also, the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued guidelines to local authorities that they cannot pursue such enforcement if the cost is excessive or disproportionate. It ends up with my village of Braybrooke, in a beautiful part of Northamptonshire and with 145 dwellings, surrounded by 67 inappropriate pitches and a further 27 legal pitches within a further three miles. The whole thing has got completely out of control. In Braybrooke, the primary school has closed, but when it existed, it was made up 100% of children from the Traveller community, because the Traveller children moved into the area and moved into the school, and parents from the settled community moved their children out of the school to go to other schools. Now, the school has closed down, yet in the Department’s own guidelines it says that the scale of such Gypsy and Traveller sites should not dominate the nearest settled community. That might be the wording in the guidance, but it is not having the appropriate impact to save villages such as Braybrooke.

It is only thanks to the good work of residents such as Karen Stanley and the North Northamptonshire Residents Against Inappropriate Development group, who are fearlessly championing the cause of the settled community against threats of intimidation from Gypsies and Travellers, that local residents feel they have any say in this matter at all. Yet it lies in the gift of the Minister to listen to those concerns from the heart of middle England, because he has the power to do something about them. I suggest that section 225 of the Housing Act 2004 should be at the top of his priority list. If he can abolish it, there is every chance that relative peace could return to the countryside, and we could start to rebuild relationships between the settled community and Gypsies and Travellers.

I inform colleagues that I intend to call the Front Benchers no later than 5.25 pm. By my observation, three people were seeking to catch my eye, and they can do the arithmetic for themselves.

It is customary to compliment the Member who secured the debate on his speech, but I do so as a formality on this occasion. I honestly thought that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) was better than the speech he made. I did not intervene because I wanted to hear his argument, but there is a central contradiction at the heart of it. He identified Gypsies and Travellers as “other”, and as being outside communities—the title of the debate makes that clear—but said that they should not be afforded any distinction because, for example, 75% of them live in bricks and mortar accommodation, as the census demonstrates. He is an intelligent and courteous Member of the House and I have a lot of respect for him, but he has done himself no service with that speech.

Let me explain what I mean by that. I objected to the original title of the debate—my objection was not to the hon. Gentleman, but to the way in which it appeared on the Order Paper—which was “Effect of Gypsies and Travellers on local communities”. Rather than trying to intellectualise that, I said that we should imagine replacing the words “Gypsies and Travellers” with the name of some other ethnic or racial group; I think that there would have been outcry in the House about that. I compliment the House authorities on the fact that when I raised that point, they took it very seriously. They spoke to the hon. Gentleman, and the title was modified to make it sound less offensive. I am not sure that it actually is less offensive, but it certainly sounds better than it did.

I do not excuse any individual example of bad behaviour—antisocial behaviour, littering or any of the examples that have been given—by a member of the Gypsy and Traveller community or by anybody else. I find it offensive, however, that an entire community or ethnic group should be tarred with the same brush. Let us try to get to the nub of the matter, because I believe that the hon. Gentleman is looking at symptoms and not causes. The problem is not new; Gypsies and Travellers as a community suffer the greatest social problems and social needs in the country. He seemed quite proud about the fact that we have a new Conservative Government, so let us look at how that Government are dealing with the problems. On almost any social indicator, such as long-term health problems or educational attainment, Gypsies and Travellers come lowest of all ethnic minority groups in the country. That is often because of how they are treated by society.

If we consider how Gypsies and Travellers fit into British society, according to the most recent census 66% identify themselves as English and 64% as Christian. Roughly three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in bricks and mortar accommodation. Often, they do so not through choice. Although many may be happy living in bricks and mortar accommodation, many others—whether the hon. Gentleman accepts it or not—would prefer to live a traditional lifestyle. The question is: is it reasonable for them to do so?

Levels of owner-occupation among the Gypsy and Traveller community are about the same as they are among the settled population. On economic indicators such as self-employment and employment, the position is not very different. However, some Members—I believe that they fall into error here—cannot move beyond such statistical analysis to consider ethnography and how Gypsies and Travellers live their lives, so they are unable to think of Gypsies and Travellers as a separate ethnic and racial group. I found some of the things that the hon. Gentleman said offensive in that regard.

The previous coalition Government took a number of steps that have simply exacerbated the problem. The previous Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), went through a phase of calling in and dealing with applications. That was deemed to be unlawful by the High Court in the case of Moore and Coates v. Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, because the Secretary of State was clearly calling in applications simply to turn them down. The Government have proposed redefining the terms Gypsy and Traveller, so that only if someone actually travels can they be called a Gypsy or Traveller. That would undermine ethnicity.

The coalition Government also removed regional spatial strategies and allowed local authorities to make decisions on this matter. As far back as the Caravan Sites Act 1968, history shows us that because of inflammatory rhetoric and local pressure, if we leave such decisions to local authorities, those decisions tend not to be made. It is reckoned that dealing with the shortage of sites will take at least 27 years at local authorities’ current rate of progress. I often refer to this statistic: it would take about an acre of land across the UK to provide the required number of fixed pitches. At the heart of the matter is the fact that there are simply not enough authorised sites. Most Gypsies and Travellers who do not live in bricks and mortar accommodation—whether they want to or not—live on authorised sites. A minority, who are effectively characterised as homeless, live on unauthorised sites. We no longer have authorised stopping places, as we had even before the 1968 Act, and we certainly have an inadequacy of authorised sites.

The problem is not difficult to solve. I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of the local authorities and central Government to come up with sufficient authorised sites to put an end to the terrible conflicts between settled communities and Gypsies and Travellers who stop. The Traveller community may behave in an unreasonable way, and the settled community may do likewise, but conflicts arise as a consequence of the lack of authorised sites and the lack of stopping places.

From the comments of the hon. Member for Kettering, I imagine that he will think that this is all hokum, and that nobody has a right to travel. He probably thinks that if they do, they are on their own and can sort things out, buy land and get planning permission in the ordinary way—they can do what they want. It would be a huge loss to the culture of this country if we lost the travelling tradition of many centuries of Roma, Irish Travellers and Gypsies. This country is big enough, rich enough and generous enough to accommodate those communities, as many other countries do.

It is a parsimonious and reductive view of the world that says we must always look for the worst in people and make things difficult for them. There is a response to the constant refrain I hear, particularly but not only from Conservative Members, that we must make life more difficult for Gypsies and Travellers, which is that that would be a downward spiral. We were beginning to get somewhere when the noble Lord Avebury’s Caravan Sites Act 1968 became law. That Act greatly relieved the pressure and conflict in the 1970s, and the last Labour Government were beginning to undo the problems created by Michael Howard. If we had continued with that, we would be in a much more harmonious situation. Again, we are now in a situation of conflict in which nobody is winning: local communities are not winning and Gypsies and Travellers are not winning. Some MPs might be winning because they can put out press releases and stories in their local newspapers, but I genuinely believe that the hon. Member for Kettering and other Members present are bigger than that and can look for better solutions than the one he proposes today.

I repeat that I intend to call the Front Benchers at 5.25 pm, so I will do the maths if other people cannot. There are seven minutes each for the remaining two speakers if my maths is right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place, and I congratulate him on his appointment. I bet he is delighted to be here today to talk about this subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who caught some beautiful Northamptonshire sun at the weekend, on securing this debate.

This is a tough one. We are here because, on 21 May, Daventry District Council followed the recommendation of its officers and granted planning permission for a small number of Traveller pitches on the Golden Stables greenfield site on the border between the district I represent, Daventry, and my hon. Friend’s Kettering constituency. For the past few years, that border area has been under much pressure from multiple planning applications for Traveller pitches. As he said, many of those pitches are now in place on his side of the constituency border, and some are in place in the Daventry district.

Local residents are up in arms. Strangely enough, they demand equality, which is what my hon. Friend asked for. They would have found the contribution of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) surprising. They would see him as a Labour Member for a city seat who seeks to design the countryside in a certain way in order to find solutions to problems that simply do not exist in his constituency. He talked about offensive language, but he used the phrase “grim reaper” when referring to his local hospital in the run-up to the last election—it all depends on how we determine what is offensive. Traveller sites are a significant issue in rural communities across the country, and there is a solution. Yes, we can have a rational argument, but we have to base it on equality and fairness for constituents, both rural and urban.

Daventry district planners have been on a hiding to nothing in recent years. For them, as for all planners in local government, the cost of going to appeal to defend a decision has risen massively. At a time when public funds are not easy to come by, the natural reaction of all planners across the country is to become risk-averse and to recommend approval for sites that they might not feel are completely correct. In the past five years, Daventry district has found itself unwittingly on the naughty step of the Department for Communities and Local Government. The council has been criticised for turning down too many planning applications. I have an untrained eye—I am not a planning lawyer and never want to become one—but the council seems to have been put in that place for doing the right thing and being localist. The council has listened to local people’s views and rejected unwanted speculative developments, including a huge number of wind farms and Traveller pitches, and it is being punished by central Government for doing exactly that. The council now has a joint core strategy, with agreed housing numbers for the next 15 years and a five-year land supply, yet we now have the Planning Inspectorate allowing appeals for housing outside those numbers. I will return to that issue in this place at another time.

The National Farmers Union has recognised Traveller pitches as an issue, and it is widely acknowledged that there is a shortage of authorised Traveller sites, which means that Travellers sometimes camp illegally. More sites in the right places, where local agreement can be found, could go some way towards solving the problem. The National Farmers Union would like a more robust system for how councils assess the future need for such sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering talked about the 3% growth that the Minister’s Department seems to require. Sensible, localist thought would lessen the problem, certainly in Northamptonshire. Landowners should not be adversely affected by the acts of the police or local authorities. Sometimes, for example, problematic and un-roadworthy Travellers are directed off the highway and on to private land. Official bodies seem to turn a blind eye to encampments, rather than moving them on.

There are many other issues, but the most important one is that the National Farmers Union, my local residents, my hon. Friend, a host of other Members and I want Travellers, settled residents and businesses to be equal before the law. The planning system must ensure that everyone is dealt with fairly and even-handedly.

On equality, during my time as prospective parliamentary candidate, and now MP, for Faversham and Mid Kent, the growth of the Gypsy and Traveller community has been one of the most frequently raised issues, especially around the villages of Headcorn and Ulcombe. Travellers have long traditions in that area, and they are a valued part of the community, but there has recently been such growth and constant development that residents have contacted me to say how frustrated they feel that there is one rule for them and another for the Travellers.

This is an hour-long debate, and I am running out of time. If I had more time I would re-emphasise that what we are after is equality. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering came up with ideas for how the Minister could put equality back into the system, but essentially my residents, especially in the village of Arthingworth on the border with the Kettering constituency, feel very hard done by. They do not feel that they are being treated fairly by the planning system, and they feel that others who choose to reside nearby get better and fairer treatment.

When I first heard the original motion—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) on this—I was absolutely astonished. The motion made me wonder what other ethnic groups and races could be grouped together and framed in a debate about their effect on local communities. I would like to think that such language was a thing of the distant past, so I was surprised, to say the least, that the House had allowed the original motion. I am pleased that the wording of the motion has been changed, albeit to wording that is only slightly better.

I hope we can use this debate to put to bed some of the myths or stereotypes about these communities and promote greater cohesion between the many ethnic communities in our country. I understand and appreciate some of the concerns that have been raised in this debate, but I counsel caution to Members present about grouping together different ethnic groups as a homogeneous whole.

In this country, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are both legally recognised ethnic minority groups with rich cultures and traditions that go back centuries. They are groups with people as varied as in any other country, and it is entirely wrong, not to mention counterproductive to the desired outcomes of many Members here—especially the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who secured the debate—to stigmatise such groups and to seek to create further barriers between them and other parts of society.

Many of the problems that have arisen and that have been highlighted in this debate are structural issues that need our attention. There is a serious shortage of legal Traveller sites in England, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, and on current trends it will take decades for that deficiency to be rectified. This situation has forced thousands of Gypsies and Travellers on to illegal pitches, which not only annoys some local communities and further stigmatises Gypsies and Travellers in the eyes of many people, but harms the Travellers and Gypsies themselves, particularly their children.

I will just finish this point. The children of Travellers and Gypsies suffer detrimental effects to their health, education and life choices.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I am sure that she is about to come on to the important issue of the welfare of children, on which we both agree. However, does she agree that, although she is absolutely right that members of the Traveller and Gypsy community have an expectation of, and a right to, equal treatment, there is also an expectation on them that they will bear equal responsibilities? When illegal Traveller encampments are created, as frequently happens in many of our constituencies, when properties are trashed for people to gain access to them, and when sites are left in an absolute eyesore of a state, with human waste being left and fly-tipping taking place, as happened in Southwick Green in my constituency just last week, and nobody is prosecuted, that is not equality of responsibility. It leads to the sorts of problems between communities that she is describing.

Again, the hon. Gentleman is making some valid points. This issue is about rights and responsibilities, and as a community and a country we have a responsibility to Gypsies and Travellers to ensure that there are legal places where they can live. They have rights and the responsibility, as all residents and UK citizens do, to treat those places—their homes—with the respect they deserve. However, we have come to a downward spiral, which is not helping anyone; it is not helping the local residents and it is certainly not helping the Gypsies and Travellers.

As I was saying, children in the Traveller communities already suffer high levels of racial abuse, with nine out of 10 of them experiencing such abuse, according to 2014 figures. We need to do all we can to help these people, and putting additional pressure on them will only make matters worse, deepening the divisions when we need to be building bridges. All people in this country should obey the rule of law, but equally all people in this country should be respected, and respect is what the Gypsy and Traveller communities require more than most. Only by giving them such respect can we bring about the positive changes that we all want.

The Government and civil society need to work towards boosting community cohesion, and towards promoting a greater dialogue and further understanding between Gypsies and Travellers and the rest of society. The Government must also recognise that dealing with these communities is a two-way street, and that it is only when we all work together in a joint atmosphere of respect and tolerance that we can hope to come together and put an end to many of the problems that appear to divide so many of us.

All local communities should be able to live in peace, and that goes for Travellers and Gypsies as well, so I hope that all Members here today will bear that in mind and will work with these communities rather than against them, putting aside divisive rhetoric and entering into discussions with open minds—

I am most grateful. In Cheshire West, Cheshire East and Warrington, there are 16 unauthorised Gypsy camp sites. Those sites are owned by the Gypsy community. They are not illegal sites; the Gypsies are the landowners. What those sites do not have is planning permission, and there are 53 such slivers of green-belt land with temporary planning permission.

The point that my constituents and others in the area make is that this issue is not about inequality; it is about fairness. If anybody wants to put in a planning application for those sites, it will be refused. The fact is that the Gypsies move on and set up caravan sites with no planning permission whatsoever, leading to communities being divided on fairness when it comes to planning law, and not on any of the other matters that the hon. Lady mentioned. The issue is planning law—the fairness between the Gypsy and Traveller community, and our own constituents.

I literally have only 20 seconds left, but I knew the hon. Gentleman had not spoken before, so I was happy to allow him to make his point. However, I probably do not have time to give him a long answer, other than to say that what he said brings us back to the point I made earlier about structural issues, which we need to deal with. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said that all we need is an acre of land across the country to solve a lot of these problems. Following your advice, Mr Davies, I will end there.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone)on raising this issue, in which he has a well known and well publicised interest.

I start from a position similar to that of my two hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson): that members of the Traveller community deserve to have their needs met just as much as members of any other community. Theirs is a way of life and a culture that deserve recognition and respect, but the same is true of the settled community. They also deserve to live their lives in peace, without unacceptable levels of nuisance and annoyance. The key is to find a balance between the needs of the two communities.

As my two hon. Friends have already said, Traveller and Gypsy communities suffer significant levels of social exclusion, and many of the manifestations and problems that we have heard about this afternoon are the result of that exclusion. I will give some statistics: only 47% of Travellers are in work, compared with 63% of the settled population in England and Wales; and 60% of Travellers have no qualifications, which is linked to the fact that many of them find it hard to access education, and indeed health services. There are reports from some areas of GPs refusing to register Travellers or look after them. We also hear about instances of open discrimination —we have heard about some today—and I am sure that everyone involved in this debate would agree that those are wholly unacceptable.

Criminal behaviour should be dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. If complaints to the police are not being followed up, that is a matter to be raised with the local police—and perhaps here in Parliament with the Government, who have imposed cuts in front-line policing and the criminal justice system that are making the jobs of police and judges harder than they might otherwise have been. However, that situation should not lead us to attempt to demonise an entire community; that would be absolutely the wrong thing to do.

Local and national authorities share a duty to identify sites for Travellers that are big enough to meet their needs and that also allow both the settled and Traveller communities to co-exist peacefully, without there being a domination of the settled communities because there is an over-concentration of Traveller sites in particular areas.

However, there is a big gap between the pressure on local authorities to provide appropriate sites and the lack of support they receive from national Government. The Government continue to make increasing demands of local authorities, while withdrawing from them the resources they need to properly meet those increased demands. It is that kind of failure that leads to some of the problems that we have heard about today from Government Members.

During the general election campaign, I had the opportunity to visit Harlow, where similar issues are being raised by members of the public who have experienced a significant number of illegal Traveller sites around that town, in what appears to be a co-ordinated action by a number of Traveller families. Does the Minister believe that there is any need to review the powers available to local authorities to deal with that kind of co-ordinated action? However, I would certainly not infer from that situation that there is any need to target or smear an entire community with the kind of accusations of mass criminality that we sometimes hear when this issue is being debated.

In February 2012, the Department for Communities and Local Government issued a document called “Creating the Conditions for Integration”, which made some reference to the Gypsy and Traveller communities. Clearly, more support is needed for the Gypsy and Traveller communities to enable them to co-exist with settled communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) submitted a written question on 2 June, asking the Secretary of State

“what plans he has to fulfil his Department’s responsibilities for the promotion of community cohesion”

in relation to the settled and Traveller communities. Since my hon. Friend has not yet received a response—I understand that time may not have allowed it—I invite the Minister to share his views today on the point she raised with his boss.

Will the Minister tell us what his response will be to the consultation issued by his Department in September last year on proposals to change planning policy, to address the needs of Travellers in relation to settled communities’ needs where planning may be granted? How many of the 620 new pitches funded by the Homes and Communities Agency in 2013 have been provided? What assessment has he made of the resources councils need to build the new sites that are required and avoid unnecessary tension that leads to the kinds of issues that have been raised on behalf of communities in this debate?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. He has a strong track record of speaking loudly and clearly on this issue, raising concerns on behalf of his constituents. I am sure that it is not the last time that we will have the opportunity to discuss the matter in this forum and in many others. A range of contributions to this interesting debate has highlighted the different opinions on this area of policy.

It is important that we seek to make our planning system fair, to ensure that it applies to everyone equally, and that we address concerns of communities, wherever they come from. At the same time, we must recognise the need to ensure that everybody in our society feels they have a place within it and that our systems—our laws and planning rules—account for those needs. I state that loudly and clearly, because it is important.

We recognise that Gypsies and Travellers are members of our communities and should be considered as part of the planning system. The Government want fair play in the planning system, with everyone being treated even-handedly. That goes to the heart of some comments made on both sides of the debate this afternoon.

I want first to talk about unauthorised sites. Although I want to address a number of issues that arose in the debate, the issue of unauthorised sites is important and a fair amount of work has been done on it in recent times. The Government’s desire is to see fair treatment. I share hon. Members’ concerns about unauthorised sites and the disruption and expense they cause for local communities. Too often, councils and landowners think they are powerless to stop unauthorised encampments, when in fact extensive powers are available, although their deployment and use can vary.

My hon. Friend may be aware that, in March, my ministerial colleagues the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice sent a joint ministerial letter, to council leaders and police and crime commissioners, expressing concern that local authorities and the police were not always seen to be doing enough to stop unauthorised encampments, which can have an impact in the areas where they are found. To accompany the letter, the Government re-issued a summary of the robust powers that councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised Traveller sites. The police can use their powers to direct trespassers from land when requested by a public or private landowner. Strong enforcement powers are available for local authorities to tackle breaches of planning controls.

The previous Conservative-led Government revoked the legislation that limited the use of temporary stop notices against caravans used as a person’s main residence. Through the Localism Act 2011, we limited opportunities for retrospective planning applications—an element that sometimes led to that feeling of unfairness mentioned by a number of hon. Members.

I also want to address the issue of authorised sites. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that although unauthorised sites cause particular concern, the way that authorised sites are handled also causes concern in communities. Indeed, examples of that have been raised in this debate.

The previous Government rightly did away with the Labour Government’s top-down approach to planning, where targets for Traveller pitches were forced on local authorities by unelected regional bodies. The 3% target has been mentioned by hon. Members who are concerned by it. Well, it is not a target; it is a guideline—not a requirement—issued in 2007 by the Labour Government. I take this opportunity to remind local authorities that the guideline is there to give them guidance, not to require them to act in that way. It is something that they can take it into consideration, but do not have necessarily to deliver when looking at the circumstances and factors in their own local area.

The planning policy for Traveller sites has returned to local authorities the responsibility to plan for their Traveller communities, just as they are required to plan for the rest of their community—for all communities in their areas. Our policy aims to focus Traveller sites in appropriate locations, in line with objectively assessed need: no more, no less. Our policy strengthens protections for the countryside and green belt that already exist by making it clear that Traveller sites are inappropriate development in the green belt, and that local authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside.

I mentioned previously that in Cheshire West and Chester the landlord and landowner is the Gypsy and Traveller community. Local authorities’ legal departments seem incapable of handling retrospective planning permission. They do not use the laws and regulations that provide them with the relevant powers. That is weak. The legal services departments of local authorities do not seem to be up to the job of enforcing the powers that they currently have. What can the Minister do to encourage local authorities to exercise the powers that they have to refuse retrospective planning permissions and rectify the green belt land that has been completely spoilt with tarmac?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. He also has a track record of speaking clearly and strongly on these matters on behalf of his constituents. He raises an important point that goes to the heart of the question, “What is going to happen now? What can we do next?”

The shadow Minister asked how the Government would respond to the consultation on planning and Travellers, which took place before the general election, although there was no time to bring it into operation. There were more than 700 responses to the consultation, which advanced a number of possible actions that the Government could now take. This is a challenging area and, although I share a number of hon. Members’ concerns, the Government have to navigate it carefully and appropriately, taking into account the needs of all the communities that the Government are here to serve.

Planning permissions sometimes fail to find the right balance between adequate supply and protection of our landscape, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) just said. Increasing authorised site provision should not be at the cost of the countryside. The green belt and other sensitive areas of interest and natural beauty must be protected and recognised, and local authorities need the power to ensure that that is the case.

The previous Conservative-led coalition Government consulted on the proposals to introduce more fairness into the planning system, strengthen protection for the green belt and countryside, and address the negative effects of unauthorised occupation in particular.

I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him success. I understand that he is responding to some Government Members, but the tone of his response is very negative. I would like to hear what positive message the Government have for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Previously in the House, Members such as Andrew George, the former Member for St Ives, and Julie Morgan, the former Member for Cardiff North, spoke up clearly for Gypsy and Traveller communities. I hope that the Minister will take on that responsibility in his new job. We have heard the negatives—the things that he does not want communities to do—but what is his positive message ?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that my tone is negative; it is not intended to be. I am trying to be factual, to set out the direction that the Government are going to take and to comment on things that have happened in the past. I started by recognising the obligation that we have to all communities in this country, including the Gypsy and Traveller community, in respect of the planning system and more generally. Nevertheless, hon. Members have raised legitimate concerns and it is right that those are addressed. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I also want to respond to specific points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale and for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and particularly those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering.

I was talking about the consultation document and the steps that the Government might now take. The document included proposals to give local authorities more control so that they can strictly limit new Traveller sites in the open countryside. The previous Government also consulted on whether the definition of a Traveller for planning purposes should be restricted just to those who travel. The issue of whether there can be a Traveller who does not travel has been raised. How do we meet the needs of those who are no longer living that way of life, but may consider themselves to be part of that community? The Government share the view that if someone has given up travelling permanently, their needs should be planned for as part of the settled community.

When we are planning for people’s needs, it is appropriate not to think of them by race or ethnic group or to see them as different, but to plan for the needs they should have. If someone is part of a settled community, it is right that they should be considered in that way and that plans should take account of the lifestyle they now lead. I assure Members that introducing greater fairness to the planning system and increasing protection for sensitive areas—including the green belt—is similarly a priority for this Government. We recognise that there is great sensitivity not only in the scope of this debate, but more widely about the protection that our countryside needs and the recognition it should be given in our planning system. That is why we intend to update planning policy on Travellers at the first opportunity.

We want to look at the lessons that can be learned from the consultation, taking into account other factors, including ongoing cases in law and the need to interact appropriately with the rest of the planning system and existing legislation. We want to make appropriate changes that ensure more fairness and equal treatment for the Gypsy and Traveller community and for permanently settled communities, whose concerns Members have expressed today.

I do not want to appear negative. I heard the comments of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), and all communities have an important role to play in this issue. We are a great and diverse nation. The traditions that together make us the great whole that we are often are stronger and more valued than any of the parts alone could possibly be. If we start to move against one community or to categorise people in groups in that way, we go down a dangerous path. At the same time, we must ensure fairness in our planning system and equality before the law for all communities. We should recognise the concerns expressed by our constituents in all sorts of different circumstances and brought before Parliament, the House and the Government in these debates.

Members have expressed legitimate concerns and raised issues on both sides of the debate. We have a consultation document that proposes a course of action, and I hope significant improvements will be made when the Government bring forward changes to the regime and the system. I hope that the next time we debate this topic, it will be recognised that progress has been made. We can, of course, look to address all the other issues, including those affecting Gypsy and Traveller communities. We need to ensure that they have proper and adequate access to healthcare and education and that their needs are met.

We want a fair system that treats people equally and we want to deliver it in a timely fashion and a sensible way. I hope that all sides in this debate agree with that. I thank Members for their comments, because they help to inform me in the Department with my new portfolio as we take forward an important area of business.

We have heard contributions from around the country in the past hour—from Hammersmith, Washington, Mid Kent, York, Daventry, Sussex, Cheshire and Devon—and the message from all those parts of the country, with two exceptions, is that there is a problem. The system is not working as well as it might, but we can all agree that the law needs to be applied equally to whoever applies for planning permission. Too many of my constituents are frightened to speak out on this issue for fear of being accused of being racist, and we had a flavour of that this afternoon. If MPs cannot articulate their constituents’ concerns on genuine issues such as this, there is not a role for Parliament.

I encourage the Minister to reissue the guidance on the importance of local authorities working collaboratively when Gypsy and Traveller site applications are on either side of a local authority boundary. I look forward to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) campaigning for the acre of land that will solve this national problem to be located in the heart of his constituency.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).