I beg to move,
That this House has considered unauthorised encampments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to lead today’s debate following Monday’s well-attended debate in the main Chamber. I thank hon. Members for attending. I know that we are always balancing constituency pressures with the pressures of being in Westminster, so it is good to see colleagues from around the country, not just my own west midlands region, and from all sides of the House.
On Monday, we heard stories from across the House of how unauthorised encampments bring chaos to local communities and blight our green and open spaces. It is the impact on our communities that I will touch on, because that was the driver for my calling for the debate. However, on Monday we also touched on some other important Traveller issues relating to education, modern slavery and health inequalities. Those are equally important, and I think we all agreed that they must be considered as well. I also mention that the vast majority of Travellers live alongside our settled community in absolute harmony. I am talking about the minority: a small group who are making the lives of my local communities challenging.
I will focus on unauthorised encampments, how they affect local communities and blight our open spaces, how we can seek to prevent them and consider the process for evicting Travellers from these sites, and how we can come up with a new solution for what seems to be an ever-present situation. Before I begin in earnest, I thank the Minister for the contribution he made to Monday’s debate. I know that he, like many of us here, has first-hand experience of the issue, and I welcome his announcement of a call for evidence to address the way that this issue is dealt with. I assure him that, if appropriate, I will make a submission to his Department’s consultation, and will encourage my constituents to do so.
First, I will touch on some of the background to the problem in my own constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills, and one or two statistics. I think we like statistics in this place. There were 22,004 Traveller caravans in England in January 2017, of which 2,860, representing 13%, were parked on unauthorised encampments. That might not seem high to some, but, as many of us here know, the effect on a local community when a large encampment arrives can be massive. In my constituency it is not uncommon for these encampments to have more than 50 caravans plus vehicles.
Many of those vehicles are luxury caravans and vehicles, which my hard-working residents could only dream of affording. Up to 26 September this year, there were 68 unauthorised encampments in the borough of Walsall alone. The estimated cost associated with those set up on council land was about £200,000, and there are costs associated with encampments that arrive on private land and, sometimes, on housing association land as well. That money could and should be going back into our communities and into the services that we all value and want to see strengthened.
The problem is not a new one for the borough of Walsall, nor is it just a problem for my constituency within the Walsall borough; it also affects the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and of the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). The issue has been ongoing for the last few summers, but this year things have come to a head. I believe that the local authorities try to act, but most of the time their actions are not quick enough to ensure that members of the settled community are not adversely affected. The Travelling community seem to understand the law and the hoops that the council must jump through before moving an encampment on, and each encampment seems to follow a similar pattern.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing the debate. She rightly talks about the issues facing Walsall; I read about them regularly in the Express and Star, because those issues affect a number of constituencies, including mine. I recognise that local communities are really affected, particularly when we see the Travellers coming on to local parks.
I absolutely agree, which is why the focus of today is that impact on local communities, local residents, and sometimes local businesses. It is often local community groups that normally use green spaces on a Saturday morning.
I was talking about the process and pattern that often seems to occur. Before it is evicted by a court order, we see the encampment simply move to another site. The Travellers set up camp while the council works on the eviction process, and just before the council serves the necessary order, the encampment packs up and moves on—often down the road to another site in the same borough—only for the same process to repeat itself. That cat-and-mouse merry-go-round comes at great cost to the taxpayer. Enough is enough. It must be brought to an end. It is time to seek some solutions.
I apologise, Mr Davies, but I will need to leave the debate early; a school from my constituency is visiting. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I am interested in what she says about this being a pattern that is repeated each year; I know that other colleagues will make the same point. Does she agree that it is helpful if local authorities actually undertake what they should, which is to secure a five-year supply of deliverable sites—and does she know whether her authority has done that?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. I think transit sites and allocations are part of what is actually a much bigger issue. I will come on to some of those points later.
Mess is so often left at these sites. The state that some of the sites are left in following an eviction is quite simply a disgrace. There are masses of litter and household waste, while industrial waste is commonplace—be that bricks or leftovers from building work. I have seen huge piles of garden waste, which often appears to be from work carried out by members of these sites then brought back to the encampment and dumped.
I agree with my hon. Friend: this is about the impact on local communities when waste is left on a site. These are recreational spaces—in my case, on Park Road football field in Cheadle—and are left in a terrible state afterwards. There is also quite a substantial clean-up cost to the community, which leads to that feeling of real resentment against the unauthorised encampments and the Travellers.
My hon. Friend makes a helpful intervention. It is often the waste left behind that creates the tension within our communities. On one occasion, I was due to meet a constituent at a site in my constituency from where an encampment had recently been moved on, to see the state it had been left in. Shortly before I left my office, the constituent called and advised me to bring a pair of wellies. When I arrived at the site, I sadly realised why I needed them: because of the state the site was left in. It is not uncommon for human excrement to be left on those sites. For members of the council’s “Clean & Green” team to have to go and clean up these sites is really not fair, not acceptable and certainly not what the council tax payers of Walsall borough pay their council taxes for.
Recently, after Travellers moved on from an encampment at Aldridge airport, there were, in addition to the waste we have sadly come to expect, four empty boxes that had contained TVs and even a car. Sadly, that was again left for the council to clean up. Surely the cost burden of cleaning up that mess should not fall to my local residents. Some councils are now successfully prosecuting fly-tippers, so is it not time to start prosecuting and fining Travellers for the mess that they leave in their wake? As well as the costs that come with repairing the destruction of public land and the clean-up of waste, there are wider societal costs.
The hon. Lady mentioned Travellers on green sites, a cause of considerable distress to residents, but such groups quite often also set up on industrial estates. They disrupt the businesses and very often there is, coincidentally, a significant peak in crime, so those industrial estates get hit both ways.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is remiss of me to have concentrated on green and open spaces, when we have seen encampments on car parks as well, and at one of our local supermarkets. When I talk about the impact on local communities, I mean communities in a very broad sense.
There is much anecdotal evidence, as any of the constituents who have contacted me will attest, that with an unauthorised encampment comes a rise in antisocial behaviour and crime. Local pubs have had to close due to unruly behaviour. I have heard stories of local shopkeepers who have spent a weekend fending off fake notes, because even accepting one fake £50 note can wipe off a small shop’s profits for the day. Many residents have contacted me after their homes, cars and gardens have been vandalised and damaged.
On the August bank holiday weekend, one of my local football clubs, Walsall Wood, which is run by local community volunteers for children and young people in our community, fell victim to an illegal encampment. The 50 or so caravans arrived on Thursday evening. Local residents, staff and members of the club all contacted me. Understandably, they were concerned about the impact that it would have on the club, which had a series of games planned for that weekend. Due to a previously obtained injunction, the council was able to move that particular group on that Friday evening, but some games had already had to be cancelled that day. I think that some were cancelled on Saturday too, but most were able to go ahead. Unfortunately, however, the pattern continued, and that group of travellers simply moved down the road to Aldridge airport, where the height restriction barrier had been left open. They set up camp there over the bank holiday weekend.
I thank my hon. Friend for the measured tone that she has set for this debate. Does it surprise her that there are often examples of forced entry clearly having been used—for example, angle grinders on gates or huge boulders dragged to the side, sometimes in front of witnesses? Does she agree that the police need much greater powers to intervene and move people on where that is happening?
I will come on to some of the powers and the need to look at the legislation later in my speech, but I agree. We have often seen examples of locks being broken. That just heightens tensions within our communities because people say, “How can you make a site secure when a lock is broken or something is left open?”
The final example I want to touch on today—I am sure other Members will want to give their own—is of a convoy of caravans that arrived on the car park and surrounding areas of Aldridge community centre on 29 September. I am sorry, but the behaviour of the Travellers in this case was absolutely shocking. Members of the public who were using the community centre reported feeling intimidated. There was kicking at the doors of the community centre and someone had to stay there all weekend to provide security. Worst of all, human faeces were posted through the letterbox. What sort of behaviour is that? It is not acceptable, and yet that group was able to stay there until the morning. Understandably, we are left asking how that can be.
I turn now to how to deal with the issue. It was really interesting to hear from other Members on Monday, and we have heard some examples today as well about the issues that they face and possible solutions to these illegal encampments. There was talk of strengthening the law around sections 61, 62, 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. On Monday, there was much discussion of the Irish Government’s solution. Ireland has made deliberate acts of trespass a criminal offence and there has even been suggestion of a three-strike rule for the impounding of vehicles. Surely we should be looking to explore those things a little further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. This was a significant problem in Ireland, but the Irish Government eventually legislated and Ireland now has a law that criminalises acts of deliberate trespass, which, as I understand it, has significantly deterred illegal incursions in Ireland. Does the hon. Lady not feel that there would be real advantages for us if we were to take advantage of Ireland’s experience and introduce a similar law here?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention; I know that he speaks from experience in his own constituency. We really need to look at this area of legislation. We need to look at the problems that we are facing in the communities and a little further up the line at some of the root causes. That is an excellent example and hopefully something that the Minister will take on board, as, to be fair, he did on Monday.
In February this year, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner held a summit on unauthorised encampments in recognition of the fact that we have quite a challenging situation across the west midlands. There were several outcomes from that summit, two of which involved working with local MPs to change legislation—I am conscious that there are colleagues from across the west midlands here today—and specifically section 62 and the notion of better protecting private business. It was a little disappointing that I did not hear from the police and crime commissioner regarding those proposals until I spoke to his office last month to ask for those outcomes, but perhaps these debates and my phone call prompted some action. At least we have some proposals, ideas and suggestions; they have to be welcomed as ones that the Minister and his team could consider.
Currently, section 62 can be used to direct Travellers to leave an unauthorised encampment only if there is a suitable pitch for the caravan, or each of the caravans, on a relevant caravan site that is situated within a local authority’s area. Clearly, for an encampment of more than 50 caravans, that is quite a challenge even for the police to handle, so we need to find a better way of addressing that. One suggestion is to change the law to enable local authorities to work with neighbouring authorities or with a wider combined authority so that Travellers can be directed to sites across local area boundaries. I urge the Minister to consider that, particularly in the west midlands, because Aldridge-Brownhills is part of the Walsall borough, which is geographically quite compact. It is not a huge borough. We are, in turn, part of the West Midlands combined authority. Again, I urge the Minister to look at whether there is some scope to make change there. I am aware that Sandwell Council has recently opened a transit site and Birmingham City Council is preparing a site, so perhaps consideration could be given to those as well.
As a Member of Parliament representing part of Sandwell, I draw attention to the fact that the number of illegal encampments has about halved as a result of the new site. Equally significantly, those that are set up are moved on quickly by the police. Might it not be an idea simply to change the law to cover a police authority area? That would simplify this for the police and they could therefore direct the Travellers to an encampment within their police area.
That is another sensible solution, which I hope the Minister takes on board. I know that lots of other Members want to speak, so I will press on and take fewer interventions to make some progress.
The wording of section 61 makes it clear that a senior police officer can direct Travellers to leave land if they believe that two or more people are trespassing with the purpose of residing there for any period. Reasonable steps to ask them to leave must have been taken, and one of the following must apply: any of the persons present must have caused damage to the land or property on the land or used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the owner of the land or his family or agents, or those persons must have between them six or more vehicles on the land. That is another good example of where the police can and should be using the existing powers.
We have touched already on the Irish Government’s answer. Without going over everything again, I urge Ministers to look at that seriously. However, as I said on Monday, we need to find long-term solutions, but my constituents are also looking for short-term protections.
Many members of the travelling community clearly understand the law surrounding the eviction process. We have seen that all too often in Aldridge, particularly with regard to locks missing from gates and sites being left open. That prompts the question: does the council’s left hand know what its right hand is doing? Could local authorities work more closely with other authorities to tackle this problem? There are also questions about how to secure sites so that members of the public can use them for the reasons for which they were originally intended, while stopping Traveller encampments springing up on them. Aldridge airport is a very good example of that.
On some sites where injunctions have been obtained, some protections have been put in place, but a Walsall Council report from January 2016 showed that further plans to protect 14 sites across the borough would cost just over £68,000. The report concluded that there is currently no budget for implementing those measures, yet the council has had to spend more than double that figure so far this year in evicting Travellers from some of the sites that perhaps could have been protected under the measures. I do sometimes wonder about the logic.
On injunctions, I want to mention at this point some of the work that Walsall Council has done. It gained a borough-wide order, based on the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, against persons both named and unnamed. In addition, it managed to obtain an order restraining the named defendants and persons unknown from trespassing on 12 sites in the borough. I praise Walsall Council. It has taken some steps, and some of my local residents now have sites that are secure but that they can still access. Sometimes there are calls for a borough-wide injunction, but I am not necessarily convinced that that is the answer. It does not really solve the problem; it simply moves it to another borough. The costs and difficulty of obtaining such an injunction would be massive and, again, would fall to council tax payers. Also, I fear that sweeping powers such as that can easily be abused. Negotiated stopping is another often cited solution, but again that is not ideal, either in the short or the long term.
I will move on swiftly and draw my comments to a close, Mr Davies. I would like to say much more, and perhaps the Minister will let me have a meeting with him in the future, but for now I will conclude. Unauthorised encampments are the single biggest issue in my postbag and email inbox. The issue causes anger and frustration in my constituency and, clearly, across the country. I welcome the Minister’s commitment on Monday to a call for evidence, because it is not good enough for public bodies just to gold-plate human rights and equalities legislation. It is time for us all to come together and for the police and the council to work much more closely together, using the powers available to them, to prevent these encampments from appearing in the first place and to speed up the eviction process. It is for the Government to look, through consultation, at the effectiveness or otherwise of the existing laws. No single community should be above the law. We need to recognise that with rights must come responsibilities, and with responsibilities will come respect.
Order. May I take it that everybody who wants to speak is standing? Everybody who wants to speak should stand. Just to let you know, 10 minutes each for the Front Benchers is the rule in 90-minute debates. There look to be about 11 people seeking to catch my eye, so I shall have to impose a time limit of three minutes on speeches. Keeping to that will depend on very few or no interventions, so I ask people to be disciplined; otherwise, I will have to reduce the time for speeches further and I would rather not do so if I can get away with it. I apologise for imposing a three-minute time limit, but that is to try to accommodate everybody.
I thank the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for the tone of her contribution and particularly for starting by saying that we are talking about a very small minority of the Gypsy and Traveller population. I would probably disagree with the way she expressed the figure of 13%, because that relates to caravan dwellers and does not take account of the fact that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in bricks-and-mortar dwellings. Also, I think that that figure includes encampments that are unauthorised in the sense of being on land that is owned by Gypsies and Travellers but without planning permission. As I said in the debate earlier this week, we are probably talking about no more than 1% of the Gypsy and Traveller population where there are conflicts in relation to stopping places and unauthorised encampments. For that reason, it is important to start with the statistics. It is important that people always address that matter, because it is easy to fall into error in talking about this issue as if it has something to do with a particular ethnic group rather than with a small minority of people who may be causing difficulties in local areas.
Just as the scale of the problem is often much smaller than indicated, so the scale of the solution is probably much smaller. A couple of years ago—I have no reason to think that the position has changed greatly—it was said that just 1 acre of land throughout England was needed to resolve the shortage of space; and once that is spread among local authority areas, it should not be beyond our wit to achieve. A combination of better and more permanent sites, transit sites, negotiated stopping and other things would become a virtuous circle: it would create more harmonious relations between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities, address the major inequalities that affect Gypsy and Traveller groups and save local authorities a great deal of money. We have heard about Leeds being able to save up to £250,000 a year by implementing such policies, through not having to go through enforcement action.
Of course, the history of Gypsies and Travellers and, indeed, their persecution, goes back to the 16th century, but the lesson of post-war history has been that where attempts are made—for example, through the Caravan Sites Act 1968 or through regional spatial strategies under the last Labour Government—to encourage local authorities, whether by placing a requirement on them or by providing funding for them, to provide sites, one gets better results than if, as occurred in 1994 under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act or, as is happening now by removing the requirement on local authorities under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, one creates a problem whereby local authorities drag their feet and do not step up to the plate. We all know that, so really we all know what the solution may be.
I am conscious of the fact—I am not conscious of how much time I have left—
You haven’t any time left!
I know that you will be absolutely judicious and fair in this debate, Mr Davies, but let me say just two things very quickly. First, between the two debates this week, we have had publication of the racial disparity audit and the indication in it that Gypsies and Travellers are some of the most discriminated against and deprived communities in the country; that is their status. Secondly, also between the two debates, I met a Jewish human rights organisation called René Cassin, which works closely with Gypsies and Travellers and settled communities to resolve disputes. I would finally say to hon. Members that, if they are having difficulties, they should go and meet the Gypsy and Traveller communities and engage people such as the Traveller Movement to intercede in those matters. These things are often soluble and often resolved.
Order. I gave the hon. Gentleman a bit of latitude, because the clock is not working properly. People should look at their start time, because it does say when they started speaking; people should keep an eye on the clock. I will be a bit harsher in future, but I had to give some latitude.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this debate and introducing the subject in a very balanced manner.
We would all agree that the vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers are law-abiding. It is not them whom we are discussing with this issue, but the minority who spoil it for the majority. That is important to put on record, because too often these debates are labelled as complaining about the majority of Travellers. In Essex, we have had a very proud tradition of welcoming Gypsies and Travellers over hundreds of years, and that is why we have so many sites in our county. The minority spoil it for the majority, particularly given that the view among that minority seems to be that there is one law for them and another for everybody else. That does not make for good community relations. We have to address this minority persistently and consistently flouting the rules and laws, because it creates tensions among communities. All we ask is that the law be applied equitably and fairly for all. If it cannot be, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. That is what the Minister needs to look at.
This debate is specifically about unauthorised encampments. Most people know that Dale Farm lies within my constituency. While I shall spare Members the full history, there was a long and expensive process even to get to where we are now, which at times sorely tested both my and my-law abiding constituents’ patience.
Given the shortage of time, may I raise a couple of issues with the Minister? I did send my address to him a little in advance. If he cannot answer it now, I would certainly appreciate a written response, but I look forward to his response at the end of the debate if he can. I want to thank my constituents for having written to me about this. I also thank Chief Inspector Sam Smith at Essex police and local councillors for the information they recently provided to me in anticipation of this afternoon’s session. They raised some important issues and, if I may, I will briefly touch on a few of them for the Minister.
There was general agreement that the current provision to close such encampments and compel people to move on is not working well. In particular, there is some concern that police guidelines, as regards the use of section 61 powers, are overly narrow. Unless other factors such as crime, general and antisocial behaviour or criminal damage are present, the police find it difficult to move people on. The legal process through the courts can be slow, cumbersome—it can take as long as a fortnight just to obtain a hearing date—and expensive. May I also raise the issue of sites? The police would make the point that transit sites are needed for short-term stays.
Order. The timer is now working so the leeway has gone, I am afraid. I call Richard Burden.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), a west midlands colleague, on securing this debate. May I preface my remarks by noting that what I am about to say should in no way be taken as a generalised comment on Gypsy, Roma or Traveller communities in this country, most of whom either camp legally or, indeed, are settled. They face very widespread discrimination and must have their needs catered for.
The context of today’s debate is unauthorised encampments. The picture painted by the hon. Lady is familiar to me. My constituency, in particular the Kings Norton area, has been badly affected. The cycle of caravans pitching up, being given notice to quit, leaving a trail of environmental degradation and sometimes public health hazards in their wake, only to turn up five minutes down the road with the cycle starting again is an all-too familiar picture to me, and my constituents suffer badly from it.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment on Monday to consult on existing powers. I hope that he will not feel constrained to say that all he will look at is existing powers. I hope that if cases are made for changes to those powers, that is not off the agenda. In the short time I have, I will ask him a few things. First, on timescales, roughly how long will the consultation take and when does he hope recommendations will come out of it? That is so we can all be satisfied that this is not an exercise of kicking the matter into the long grass. Secondly, in relation to the west midlands, the police and crime commissioner has done a great deal of work on this issue and has been working closely with MPs. Would either the Minister or one of his hon. Friends meet a delegation from the west midlands to go through our ideas in more detail?
Could the Minister say something today, first, on powers to prevent unauthorised encampments from returning to a wider area? We know that there has been some imaginative use of injunctions, but all too often those procedures are far too cumbersome and the powers are patchy. Can they be reviewed urgently? Secondly, can we ensure that the police and local authorities have the resources they need to ensure that the polluter pays? Those who create the mess should be held accountable for doing so. Thirdly, regarding working across local authorities, the hon. Lady has already said that there is a strange situation whereby section 62 powers can only be used within the confines of one local authority. That makes little sense and does not promote the kind of joint working across authorities that is needed. Will he look at our recommendation for either basing those powers on the combined authority area or some other joint arrangement between local authorities or police authority areas to achieve that? Lastly, in relation to transit sites—
Order. I call Douglas Ross.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this debate.
During my maiden speech in the main Chamber, I gave Members a tour around my constituency, and sadly I could give a similar tour around Moray in this debate, because all parts of Moray have been affected by illegal, unauthorised Gypsy Traveller encampments. In Forres, the first site when travelling in from the west is an unauthorised Traveller site at the Bervie Chipper. There are more on the way to Elgin. Across the coast, they take up land that is part of the Speyside Way, and the public are therefore unable to walk across that area.
It is unfortunate that time after time—in my time as a councillor, a Member of the Scottish Parliament and now as a Member of Parliament—constituents have had to complain to their local representatives about not only the formation of these sites, but the way they are left after the Travellers move on. Members have mentioned human waste being left. I have also seen examples of illegal drug use and of needles being left behind, which not only have to be cleared up by council officials at a cost, but are sometimes found by members of the public—we can only imagine the problems if that was a young child—before being reported.
We mentioned in the debate on Monday the cost to local authorities, but there is also a cost to individuals, land owners and public bodies. I cited the example of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which has had a lot of problems with illegal sites just outside Forres, and paid £10,000 for a clean-up. It found not only the mess that we discussed earlier, but aggregate taken to that site by Gypsy Travellers doing work and then dumping it there, rather than paying to get rid of it, as other businesses would have to do.
In my final minute, I want to speak about unfairness, and this genuine perception that there is one rule for the travelling community and another for the settled community. Like all Members, I accept that the minority are giving the majority a bad name, but I had a constituent who was refused planning permission for two chalets on a piece of land. The planning application was refused, because it went against four local plan policies and four structure plan policies. Years later, Gypsy Travellers bought that land cheaply to feed their horses and it is now the site of a Gypsy Traveller encampment. It is galling for individuals who feel that they cannot get their site developed because of genuine planning objections that they are eventually ignored because an ethnic minority, the Gypsy Travellers, can make an application that is granted.
I am grateful for this debate, which allows all Members to express their concerns about this very serious issue, and I look forward to further discussions.
This conversation will undoubtedly be difficult, because it is about a clash of cultural norms: those of settled communities and their culture to aspire to live in one permanent place, and those of nomadic peoples. I want to challenge some of the things set out by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). Regarding the conversation about antisocial behaviour increasing when unauthorised encampments are in town, I would like to know whether there is statistical, rather than anecdotal, evidence to substantiate that claim.
I point out to the hon. Lady that the simplest way is to come and talk to some of the constituents in my community who have actually been affected. They will give her plenty of evidence and stories of their own experience of antisocial behaviour.
I also represent an area in which the highest ethnic minority is Gypsy and Traveller people, in County Durham. I asked for statistical evidence to substantiate that claim, rather than anecdotal. There is antisocial behaviour in my constituency from non-travelling communities. Time and time again in debates such as this, complex social issues are racialised. [Interruption.] I was about to say, before the objections, that I have heard many people say that this issue is about a minority. I want to talk about the presumption, which I have heard in this debate, that it is about our communities versus the Gypsy and Traveller communities. They are one and the same thing. If Travellers or Gypsies are in our constituencies, they are our constituents at that point.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) said that many look on trailers and envy how luxurious they are. Those are people’s homes. The average cost of a trailer is well below the average cost of a house. I thought that that was a particularly spurious point.
What do Members mean when they talk about dealing with the problem or the situation? Where do they suggest nomadic people go? I know that it is difficult and causes tension in communities, and that it is frustrating when a nice piece of land next to someone’s home or an unused piece of land is taken up by many trailers. That is difficult for communities, because they have expectations about what they live next to, but no critical analysis has been done of the structural reasons why Gypsy and Traveller people might end up on that disused bit of land. What structural Government policies have resulted in that situation?
I also challenge the presumption about gold-plating human rights. The report from the Traveller Movement, which is absolutely fantastic, sets out in clear language how persecuted such communities have been for centuries. On a number of social indicators—all, I would argue—the outcomes for Gypsy and Traveller communities, as well as Roma communities, which are not the subject of this debate, are worse than for others. It is difficult to hear people conflate antisocial behaviour, waste on sites and all the associated problems with a cultural identity. The idea that Gypsy and Traveller people should be mentioned at all is difficult. As I said before, antisocial behaviour in my community is often not due to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Of course, not all Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people will be angels, but let us not use cultural identity as a point in the argument.
There are solutions. Helen Jones of Leeds GATE argued—I think this was brushed aside—in favour of negotiated stopping, which rests on mutual negotiated agreement and a short-term social contract issued by local authorities. Unauthorised encampment is often the result of insufficient provision of permanent pitches, which then overflow on to transient sites, which essentially become permanent sites when they should be transient. Negotiated stopping would offer short-termism, with many conditions by which Gypsy and Traveller people would have to abide. Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, agrees that negotiated stopping is a solution. The solutions are staring us in the face. Let us not allow the demonisation of these communities to stand in the way of those solutions. Let us work towards peaceful solutions for nomadic people, as well as for the settled people in our constituencies.
Since Monday’s debate, we have had the shocking revelation of the race disparity audit figures. The absence rate for white British pupils is 4.6% and for Chinese pupils 2.4%, yet for Irish Traveller children, it is 18%. Some 97% of Chinese and Indian children stay on in education after age 16; 91% of mixed white and black Caribbean children do; yet 58% of Irish Traveller children do. This House and this Government face a big issue. Do we prioritise the cultural practice of being able to travel—in itself, there is nothing wrong with that—over children’s right to an education?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the number of children from that community in school, but it is not necessarily travelling children who are absent; it may be children who are settled but who find the school environment unfavourable and unwelcoming.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course there are children in settled communities who do not stay on, but she will understand that a large preponderance of Traveller children are regularly on the road. It is difficult for them to be in school regularly, and the quality of home education, if it exists at all—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not take any more interventions, because other people want to speak.
As someone who believes passionately that every single community, including the Gypsy and Traveller communities, should have the life chances available to all children in this country, I think that we need to do better than that. The race disparity audit is a wake-up call. Many aspects of our planning and education system do not work for Traveller children, and we need to take that seriously.
I believe in the melting pot view of society. I believe that if we all live alongside each other, by and large, we can get along well together and have good community cohesion. A small story: two gentlemen came to see me at my surgery a couple of weeks ago about some local authority repairs that had not been done. I dealt with the gentleman who had a case, and took it up with the local authority. It turned out that he was a Traveller, in his 60s, who was unable to read or write, and his neighbour, who was not a Traveller but a member of the settled community, had come along to help him.
Is that not a lovely story? That is the sort of Britain that we want: people from different communities coming together to help each other. If that gentleman had lived on one of the private sites in my constituency, sadly, it is unlikely that he would have had a friend in the settled community who could have come along to assist him with his case. There are serious questions about the separation of Travellers, and I would like the Government to reveal more about the race disparity audit, and how the majority of Travellers who live among the settled community compare with those who live on separate Traveller sites. That would help the issue.
Sadly, many privately owned Traveller sites in my constituency are ungoverned space. The local authority cannot gain access without a warrant at times, and vulnerable tenants sub-letting caravans send me hair-raising stories, even today, about being intimidated in the middle of the night and so on. That is not good enough. There have been instances of modern slavery. I worry about those vulnerable people sub-letting on traveller sites. Modern slavery is occurring, and the police and the council cannot get to them to protect them properly in the way that all of us would like them to be.
There are still six Members seeking to catch my eye, which will take us over the time allocated for Back Benchers. If everyone wants three minutes, I am happy to accommodate that, but I ask everyone not to take further interventions, to protect the time. At the same time, I ask the Front-Bench speakers to prepare to have just eight minutes instead of 10, so all the Back Benchers can speak as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I echo many of the points raised by colleagues and recognise many of their experiences. We must remember that we are discussing unauthorised and illegal encampments.
Since being elected in 2015, I have witnessed illegal encampments on public land, land belonging to local schools, clubs and sports clubs and private land, forcing closures and causing damage and significant waste issues. The problem across Warwickshire as a whole is becoming more frequent. In 2013, there were 92 unauthorised encampments with 507 caravans, but by 2016, there were 139 with 890 caravans. The indications are that those figures will rise again in 2017, because there are already 121 sites with 1,099 caravans.
We must remember that for every illegal incursion, there is an associated cost affecting the local authority, the landowner or the taxpayer.
In three months during the summer of 2016, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council spent a significant amount—just over £22,000—on bailiff fees, officers’ time, court costs, legal action and cleaning up. Residents feel that that money could have been better spent elsewhere in the local economy or on other public services. Therein lies the frustration of my constituents and others. A challenge that needs to be addressed is the perceived imbalance in rights, particularly with respect to clean-up costs, that favours people on illegal encampments. If a member of the local settled community caused similar mess or damage, they would rightly be prosecuted or fined, but the same does not seem to happen on illegal encampments—the cost is met by the local people.
I had hoped to go into more detail on a number of other matters, but I will raise them with the Minister after the debate. We need to look at strengthening powers to protect private businesses and landowners, including schools, sports clubs, farms and businesses, which can be put under real financial strain. We need to look at reducing the time that eviction notices take and possibly at shifting the burden of proof away from the landowner. We need to look at prevention measures, because it is one thing to move people on, but as soon as an incursion happens, costs begin to mount. Finally, we need to look at protecting against people returning to land—particularly private land, but public land too.
I am sure that my constituents will welcome the Government’s intention to review the law. I hope that the Government will go further and take the opportunity to assess new measures that could be implemented to give clarity to the relevant agencies.
Since I became an MP in June, two issues above all others have occupied my mailbag: potholes and unauthorised encampments. Between February and August, our area had about one unauthorised encampment every 11 days. I second the excellent comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) in the debate on Monday.
I am concerned that law-abiding citizens in my community feel that the law is not on their side. That is a dangerous place for society to be in. They have seen their local tax money spent on some substantial and effective defences against illegal encampment, but that £150,000 could have been spent on other issues. They have seen the effects of criminal damage, and some have suffered the costs of cleaning it up. In a number of communities, such as Willingale—a lovely village in the north of my constituency—people have illegally occupied and built on green-belt land, and the Planning Inspectorate has then awarded retrospective planning permission. Those communities feel that the situation is entirely out of their control.
Clearly, we need to do a lot to address the situation so that law-abiding residents are protected. I draw attention to the good work of our police and crime commissioner, Roger Hirst, who has created a Gypsy and Traveller liaison group with a single protocol that has reduced the average time for illegal encampments to be moved on from 10 days to two days. There is some good learning from the west midlands that we should combine with that.
I second the remarks about the Irish legislation on illegal trespass. I have also heard from members of my local police force that they have found closure orders, as defined in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, very effective for closing down crack houses, because the orders can go through the courts quickly. They wonder whether a similar process could be applied to help them take even faster action against illegal encampments. I look forward to taking part in the review that the Minister launched this week, and I wish it well.
I represent a constituency that has welcomed Gypsies and Travellers for hundreds of years. Between 800 and 900 of my constituents are Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. I have always considered them my constituents, just as my predecessor and—I suspect—his predecessors did. I have held surgeries in the main areas of Newark, including Tolney Lane, where Gypsies and Travellers live in permanent and transient residences. I have tried my best to get to know them. They are good people, and I want this debate to send the message that our motivation—certainly mine—is not to diminish or disrespect them, but to ensure good community relations.
There have not always been good relations between Newark’s Gypsy and Traveller communities and its wider community. In the ’80s and ’90s there was occasional violence, a great deal of disrespect and some prejudice. We now have much better relations, which I hope to see continue. The purpose of the review and of the work being done by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and others is not only to protect our other constituents from criminal damage, disturbance and so on, but to build a united and cohesive community in which everybody feels that the law applies equally. That should be our guiding principle, but it has not always been followed in my community.
A very small minority—in many cases they are not from Newark, or even from the United Kingdom; sometimes they come from other parts of Europe—have caused a real flare-up, particularly this summer. Villages have been despoiled, gravestones have been destroyed, businesses have been invaded and the Newark Showground has been broken into, causing real damage to its reputation. Something really must be done to protect these communities and businesses and to achieve what I see as one of the most important parts of my role as a Member of Parliament: building a cohesive and united community.
In the short time remaining, I will leave the Minister with a couple of considerations that I would like to see included in the review. One of the concerns about the five-year pitch supply is that a place that has an established Gypsy and Traveller community, as Newark does, is expected to have more than the average number of pitches. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made the good point that if pitches were spread equally across the United Kingdom, there might be only an acre in every constituency, but they are not spread equally. Newark and Sherwood District Council, for example, has more Gypsy and Traveller pitches today than all the other districts in Nottinghamshire. Addressing that alone would make a good deal of difference to my community.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) dismisses the issue as a clash of cultural norms. That does a great disservice to the Gypsy and Traveller community. I do not believe that incidents of criminal damage, environmental degradation, intimidation, fly-tipping and, in some cases, violence are cultural norms for that community; we are talking about a very tiny minority. As we have heard repeatedly in the debate, this is about ensuring the same rights, responsibilities and respect for everybody.
In the short time available, I will not repeat the many points that have been made, but propose to the Minister a solution-focused approach. We need much greater clarity about the police’s powers to deal with witnessed criminal damage, because they are sometimes unsure of their own powers when criminal damage is reported or even when it happens in their presence.
So much revolves around dialogue. As has been said, meeting people and talking to them is important, but it can sometimes be difficult to know who to liaise with. During the consultation, will the Minister consider introducing a responsibility for someone to be appointed to speak for groups of Travellers and to liaise with them directly? That would allow us not only to advance the dialogue more constructively, but to hold somebody genuinely accountable.
That is about holding people to account, just as we would expect members of the local community to be held to account vigorously for intimidation of, or disrespect towards, the Traveller community. We still expect someone to be responsible for a group of people involved in the kinds of incidents that we have heard about today, such as fly-tipping. At the moment, nobody can be held to account for such incidents, yet the local community has to pick up the bill. That is where we are heading: a vicious cycle of communities being so resentful about these encampments.
We are asking for the same laws to apply to everyone and to see something coming out of this consultation that results in genuine action to ensure that people are held to account, in the same way that I would expect all my other constituents to be held to account for the kinds of incidents that we have heard about today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will bring a slightly different dimension to this debate. I have friends among the Traveller community, and perhaps they can be called “settled Travellers,” because some of them are very successful business people and so on. They live in my community and they are my constituents.
I was a councillor for 10 years in south Ayrshire, which is in the south-west of Scotland. Annually, we have Irish Travellers—they are primarily Irish, but not exclusively—and they have brought some difficulties and challenges to settled communities. The council has a Traveller liaison officer who assists Travellers, for example with education and cleansing, and we also assist them through the local NHS, but they still bring difficulties to our communities.
These people can be very aggressive sales people when somebody wants their gutters cleaned, or they can put pressure on people to have roof repairs, UPVC cladding replacement or tree pruning, for example. There is evidence to suggest that their prices can be quite high and the quality of work can be poor. Also, the people who are generally targeted are mature people living on their own, or elderly couples who worry about certain things. Another consequence of the transient movement of these people is that they take work away from genuine, bona fide, self-employed people. They conduct that work and put little or nothing back into the community. That is slightly off the subject of the debate, but it is all part of the package.
I have great friends who are settled Travellers. I think even Billy Butlin was a travelling person, and he ran a successful business across the United Kingdom—he had a Butlin’s camp at Ayr. So these people bring wealth and quality to the communities, but there are groups of Irish Travellers—they are in the minority, as has often been said—that bring challenges to the settled community.
There is a real perception that there are rules for some people but not for others. When they pitch up at a pay-and-display car park, they neither pay nor display, and they can sit there for four or five days. Sadly, they bring grief with them. I wish we could find a way to bring the Travelling community, who I have a great deal of respect for, and the settled community together.
Our local authority looked at 111 possible sites over a 10-year period, with assistance from the Scottish Government, who recognised the problem and offered funds to support us, but it is not easy to find a site that suits the Traveller community, who may wish to go to certain places. We also have a transient camp, but even if it has vacancies we cannot force them to go there; if they do not want to go, they will not.
I wish the participants in the debate well and I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) well in taking this matter forward. There has to be a solution to suit both parties.
In my constituency we have both private and local authority-owned Traveller sites, but those are not the subject of this debate; this debate is about the kind of unauthorised encampments that many of us will have had a series of, summer after summer. In my constituency many of these encampments cause significant disruption, misery and loss of amenity for local residents. The people in the encampments do not just leave behind rubbish; day after day, local residents have to put up with people defecating and urinating on playing fields and play areas, which is completely unacceptable.
As has rightly been said, part of the solution to dealing with unauthorised encampments must be ensuring that there is authorised provision for Travellers. Since switching to Conservative leadership earlier this year, Dudley Council has identified a number of transit sites, the first of which should be available by next summer. However, as has also been said, we need a more flexible approach to the way provision is both assessed and made available. It is therefore right, particularly in areas covered by combined authorities, such as the west midlands, that those local authorities within the combined authority should be able to come together and have the assessed five-year supply of available sites at that combined authority level. Section 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 must then be adapted so that the police can deal with unauthorised encampments appropriately and move people to one of the authorised sites within the combined authority area, or preferably even within a reasonable distance nearby.
Of course, alongside the carrot there needs to be the stick, for the unreasonable and unacceptable encampments. There still seems to be a lot of confusion about the conditions in which section 61 powers can be used. Many police forces do not believe that it is appropriate or even legal to use powers that the statute seems to provide. We need more clarity on that and more agreement. If the Government can contribute to that process with new protocols that will not only make existing powers clearer, but ensure that any new powers that are added do not suffer the same risk of being completely ineffective because of the kinds of concerns I have mentioned, that would be a huge help.
As the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) noted, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) spoke of “gold-plating” human rights and equalities legislation. I took the time to read the article written by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills on the subject of this debate, and I have to say to her that one’s ethnicity, social group or how one identifies oneself does not make one a better person. Human rights are not held because someone lives in a house; they are held because someone is a human being. And someone’s human rights are not lessened because their lifestyle is different to those of other people.
The hon. Member’s article argues that
“the pendulum has swung too far away from local residents who have faced these repeated traveller incursions”
“Residents are tired of the anti-social behaviour, noise, rubbish and mess—which can be household, domestic and even human—that so often accompanies these incursions. The Council is left to clear up the mess—and the taxpayer to pick up the bill. Enough is enough.”
Those passages in the article on her website advertising this debate represent the kind of prejudice and intolerance that strain—[Interruption.] No, I am going to continue. They strain relationships between people. Coming from a parliamentarian, they represent the kind of rhetoric that, in my experience, has left small children at risk of violence. I spoke with a Traveller mother recently who told me that her children have grown up thinking that stones and bottles being thrown at their caravan windows by members of the settled community—the community that has so often been referred to today—is normal. That is unacceptable.
I understand that—
On a point of order, Mr Davies.
I hope that it is a point of order.
I just wish to make it very clear that in all the things that I have said about this subject in debates I am representing my community and my constituents, and on no account do I ever use the word “ethnicity.”
Order. As the hon. Lady knows, that is not a point of order, but what she has said is on the record, and what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith says must be heard.
I understand that some public open spaces in the hon. Member’s constituency are used by Travellers. I even read a story in the Express & Star, her local newspaper, about locals being unable to fly their toy planes on an aerodrome that closed in 1956—a deprivation that must really grind them down. As others have said in this debate, if there were more places to camp—official sites with decent facilities—perhaps the planes could fly again.
The attitudes in this place and in local authorities across the UK would have to change to accommodate that, but there is a model already in Scotland—I will speak about it later—that could easily be copied. This issue is about reducing discrimination and promoting equality.
It is said repeatedly that no community should be above the law. The proper riposte to that is that no community should be below the law, either. The enforcers of the law should treat all people equally, but that is not happening. We should ensure that all people who live in our communities have equal access to all the facilities and services that are available. As the hon. Member for North West Durham said, it is not true that Travellers exhibit more antisocial behaviour than other parts of society, or that there are more criminals among that community. Some will complain that the procedure for removing Travellers from where they are living is a laborious and cumbersome business, but so it should be, just as it should be for removing someone else from their home.
I am disappointed that so few Conservative Members talked about speaking to representatives of those communities—[Interruption.] I said very few Members—too few. They frequently referred to the Irish answer—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady must be heard.
Members frequently referred to the Irish answer, but may I commend the Scottish Government’s answer, which is to work with the communities to develop an overarching strategy to reduce discrimination against Travellers, improve their quality of life and outcomes, increase understanding through a national action plan, and work towards an increase in mutual understanding and respect in the settled community?
The hon. Lady will be aware that that document was introduced in 2004, updated in 2014 and again reviewed in April 2017, but we still have problems in Scotland with unauthorised, illegal encampments in the communities we have talked about today. That document is not working for local communities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, but the Scottish Government are clearly willing to work with those communities, and that approach will bear fruit.
On the question of dialogue with the communities, I urge the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills to join the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, which I sit on, so that she can learn about travelling people’s culture, history and way of life. Alternatively, she could do the cultural competency training on the Friends, Families and Travellers website—I recommend that all Members in this debate do so—and perhaps learn to be part of the solution. We must ensure equality, end discrimination and give Travellers access to education, training and employment, health and social care services—they do not have that at the moment—and enough proper sites to camp on. Members of Parliament have a duty to seek to understand all of the people who live in the UK, and that duty is seldom observed. Perhaps it is time that it was.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) spoke of appointing representatives of the travelling communities to create opportunities for dialogue. In Monday’s debate, groups such as the Traveller Law Reform Project, the Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and London Gypsies and Travellers were mentioned. Extend the hand of friendship and those groups will jump at the opportunity for dialogue.
I am sad to see such a high turnout for a debate that, in my view, calls for the persecution and punishment of a minority group, whereas for debate after debate on subjects such as the Government’s shameful treatment of the disadvantaged and disabled, the Conservative Benches are largely empty.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this debate. Like hon. Members and colleagues from across the House, let me state that the people we are discussing are part of our communities; they are not separate. They are constituents and fellow citizens, and, like other sections of the communities we represent, they are not homogeneous. About half of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community live in permanent housing. Other members of the community live on authorised caravan sites or private camp sites with permission for long-term stay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) reminded the House, many members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community have made a big contribution.
However, as with other sections of society—as the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said—an unrepresentative minority is responsible for the issues we are discussing, and that cannot be tolerated. That is not discrimination. As an eminent judge said, everybody has the right to behave within the law. As with any section of society that acts outside the law, we have to act against those whose behaviour is unacceptable, but we need to get the balance right.
It is important to stress that we are discussing unauthorised encampments, with which there are a number of problems. They can lead to a deterioration in the relationship between those on authorised sites and local communities, who often do not differentiate between authorised and unauthorised sites. I have had positive experiences with authorised sites in two neighbouring authorities, where the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community came together to discuss the issues, and saw themselves as a part of a wider local community. The citizens advice bureau that I manage went in to provide advice services in that community.
However, it has not been as positive with unauthorised encampments. In one case in my constituency, the land is owned by the Travellers, but they are flouting the planning laws, despite there being vacancies on a designated transit site in the borough. Although planning permission has been refused, the site has been occupied, and an appeal is pending. The case has been with the Planning Inspectorate since last December, and an officer has not been assigned because it is “not a priority”. Well, it is a priority.
During that time, the relationship with the local community has completely broken down. Roads have been illegally coned off for pony and trap races, and innumerable horses have been left in public areas and near children’s play areas—on one occasion, one was tethered to a roundabout. Loose horses have been roaming across the streets, and one was recently killed by a lorry. Equine bailiffs have been brought in from another authority, fencing has been improved and the police have been involved—all at cost to local residents through their council tax. The length of time that appeals take is unacceptable. Will the Minister consider speeding up the appeals process and giving more resources to the inspectorate, so that these issues can be dealt with on a sustainable and long-term basis, which may lead to a reduction in the tensions?
There are processes for removal in other cases, but they are not always effective. In another case near my constituency, the caravan was moved 100 yards down the road into another field—again, despite there being vacancies on a transit site. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), I am pleased that the Minister has committed to consulting on the effectiveness of current laws and planning regulations, but I urge him to produce the report urgently, and to ensure that the process is speedy and less costly to hard-pressed local councils.
We also need to discuss the disparity between private and public land. The powers should be aligned. The additional requirements placed on local authorities that wish to remove encampments lead to lengthy delays and extra expense. If we align the powers, action could be taken on incursions in play areas, schools, hospitals—indeed, any green area that is in the public realm and should be for the benefit of all. However, if there is to be swift action, there must be a duty on local authorities to look at the transient sites; otherwise, people will simply move from one illegal encampment to another, because there is nowhere else to go.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, and others who said that local authorities could pool their sites and make them available to travelling communities across borough boundaries, and perhaps even outside police areas. My constituency borders Merseyside and west Lancashire, and it may be that one of those areas can better provide for the Travellers’ needs. That would certainly help to make sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 more effective. Under those sections, the police are able to clear unauthorised sites only if there is a suitable authorised site to move the Travellers to. If there is not one, the police’s hands are effectively tied.
We need to ensure that police forces have the power they need to act on behalf of the whole community, but the recent cuts to police funding have not helped the situation. The police can prioritise actions only on the principles of threat, risk and harm, and unauthorised encampments do not have a high priority under those criteria. We need to increase police budgets and powers in tandem.
I am not suggesting that Travellers be deliberately moved away from their communities. It is vital that the moves be made sensitively, and that the Travellers’ views be taken into account. It is also important that we incorporate such groups into the wider community—community relations are not helped by maintaining unauthorised sites—but that will, of course, require expenditure: money that hard-pressed councils do not have. If the Minister is serious about tackling the issue, the Government must invest in new sites alongside local councils. The Government may only need to provide a loan, because a council might be able to recoup the money.
Supporting cultures and traditions is important, but that can be undermined if communities become polarised and unable to work together with mutual respect. Provision of adequate sites, coupled with swift action on criminal behaviour by the very small minority, can only enhance and not detract from good community relations.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and all other right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. On Monday the subject was wider, but today’s debate has been as passionate, if not more at times, than the one in the main Chamber. As I said on Monday, when people talk about illegal encampments, that is not lost on me at all. My constituents, too, have suffered significantly from illegal encampments over many years, but I will not dwell on that because my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), which includes Bedworth, made pertinent points that reflect the challenges in my area.
As hon. Members have stated on a number of occasions today, the Minister for Housing and Planning has signalled our intent to seek an evidence review of the way that existing powers are enforced to understand what more can be done; I hope that reassures the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the challenges. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the race disparity audit, and we should look at this debate in the context of that ongoing work. This debate is of great value to both those pieces of work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills explained in great detail the negative impact that unauthorised encampments have had on her constituency. Other Members have explained that as well. It is absolutely right and proper for them to speak out on behalf of their residents, the people whom they are elected to this place to represent.
The Government are clear—this is categorical—that the law must apply to everyone, and the police must address illegal incidents and give victims support. Local communities deserve to feel safe in their neighbourhoods, and tackling criminal activities, illegal encampments, menacing behaviour and other actions that threaten our society and way of life must be the core business for the police and local agencies.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some progress before giving way, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
The Government want to see those agencies working together to ensure that illegal incursions are dealt with properly, but we cannot sit here and say that the House can be complacent. That is why we will hold the review, which we look forward to progressing as quickly as possible, as I hope Members appreciate. Although the Government are carrying out a review of evidence, that is not an excuse for a local authority, police force or any other agency to sit by and not use the existing law to its full extent. It is important not only to deal with matters within the law, but for those matters to be dealt with so as to uphold and enforce the law.
My hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) discussed displacement and the cat-and-mouse game of people going from one area to another. I, too, do not think that we can continue to allow that to happen. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner was mentioned today and in the previous debate. Recently he produced a briefing paper, which west midlands MPs have received, outlining proposals to deal with unauthorised encampments. Suggestions include transit sites, helping to unlock police powers and considering the availability of sites across a combined authority area, rather than in an individual district area. We can certainly agree with some of the suggestions and innovations, but we need to ensure that they are proportionate, and balanced against the needs and rights of the settled and the nomadic communities.
As I have said a number of times—I make no excuse for doing so—we must also consider how enforcement can be improved. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) talked extensively about enforcement and his concern about how any new powers would be enforced, which is a critical point.
Members who spoke in this debate and the earlier one gave lots of examples of the law being broken, and of the perception that the police were unable to prosecute. In any community, there are times when lawbreakers evade the law, but we cannot accept that as the de facto state of play. Authorities such as councils, the police and local Gypsy and Traveller organisations should work together so that wrongdoing is dealt with effectively and punished, and does not tarnish a whole community through the actions of a small minority.
Members have mentioned antisocial behaviour. We should do whatever we can to deal with it and to address illegal behaviours, but we should also bear in mind that the actions of the few should not reflect on a whole community. We must consider that point very carefully when we look at what we do and may do in the future.
Today and on Monday it was suggested that trespass be made a criminal offence. Hon. Members have made strong arguments in favour of that. We have considered it in the past, but at the time it was thought that that would reduce police discretion, while local costs would still be incurred by the police and the criminal justice system. That said, there is no doubt that we will receive a multitude of views and suggestions, including on new models and ways to deal with some of the challenges, and we are open to listening to some of those suggestions.
I will take a quick intervention from my hon. Friend, and will then, I hope, sum up the contributions of the remaining Members.
Briefly, may I urge the Government, as part of the review, to look at those cat-and-mouse games that are played by a minority, who might move no more than 50 or 100 yards, and then the whole legal process has to start again? That is one of the core problems of the police and the local authorities.
I understand that matter.
I have to give my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills her right to reply in the debate, but I will first make a special mention of the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Moray (Douglas Ross) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). These matters are devolved, and my hon. Friends have raised clear issues. They have been listened to by the Scottish National party Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), although from what was said I am not sure that their concerns are being heard. My hon. Friends will be able to see what happens with the review in England and take it back north of the border.
It has been a pleasure to respond to the debate, although I would have liked to make many more points and mention many more colleagues. The Department is more than willing to receive information and to store it. I look forward to taking the review forward.
Time is short. I thank you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members from across the country who have contributed to this important debate. I am very encouraged by the response of the Minister. I welcome his review, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of so many of us when I welcome the chance to work with him to address this sensitive and challenging issue faced in so many of our constituencies.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered unauthorised encampments.