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Gypsy Sites: Police Operations

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 1 April 1998

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2.50 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consult police authorities about the advisability of formulating national guidelines for police operations on gypsy sites, with a view to ensuring that the use of police manpower is commensurate with the criminal activity likely to be uncovered.

My Lords, decisions about what police resources to commit to any particular police operation are the responsibility of individual chief police officers and not something on which it would be appropriate for national guidelines to be issued. Chief officers have the full support of the Government in dealing firmly with criminal activity on gypsy sites or anywhere else.

My Lords, has the noble Lord studied reports of an incident that happened on 7th October last in north Oxfordshire when over 200 police officers raided a gypsy site, bashed down the doors, separated parents from their children, prevented children from going to school and people from visiting the doctor? Is the noble Lord aware that the police spent 11 hours on the site with minimal results in terms of the detection of criminal activity? Is the Minister further aware that this kind of practice is reported from counties as far afield as Kent, Northamptonshire and Somerset? Is he also aware that the police seem to behave towards gypsies in a manner which they would not adopt if they were dealing with the settled population? Does the Minister not believe that some kind of guidelines are necessary to ensure that, when police conduct these massive operations, the results in terms of the detection of criminal activity are commensurate with the police resources employed?

My Lords, Home Office guidance has been issued to police on the need for welfare checks when they use their power to remove trespassers. Police may wish to take into account the personal circumstances of the trespassers, the presence of elderly persons, invalids, pregnant women, children and others whose well-being may be jeopardised by a precipitate move. I have no evidence that the police are disregarding that.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is another side to the coin? Some of us have had experience of this matter in the areas that we represented, both on local authorities and in another place. Is the Minister aware that bands of these people—sometimes droves of them—settle in an area and completely blight it? From my own personal experience I know that they have terrorised the people living in such areas. Is he further aware that one of the complaints has been that the police have not been active enough in those cases?

My Lords, I have heard complaints of that sort. It is perfectly plain that gypsies are entitled to even-handed, equal treatment under the law, and no more than that.

My Lords, instead of worrying too much about complaints about the police implementing the existing law, is not the real problem that the Government should be addressing the unsatisfactory nature of the law as it exists at the moment? Can the Minister give us an assurance that that will be looked at as a matter of some urgency?

My Lords, obviously we are keen to ensure that the law in this area is sensible and effective. There are no plans at present to change the law. We believe that the police have ample and sufficient powers, subject to the individual operational discretion of the chief constable. Of course, we keep this matter under review.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in discussing matters such as this we need to be very careful to avoid pejorative language and stereotyping which may inflame prejudice? Even if there is a difficult problem to be dealt with, does the Minister agree that it is important not to use unpleasant language?

My Lords, I thought that I had made that perfectly plain. Our stance is that gypsies, like anyone in this country, are entitled to equal treatment under the law. They are entitled to no special favour: they are equally entitled to no particular detriment. I for one have used no inflammatory language about any group in our country. I realise that the noble Baroness was not imputing it to me. I deprecate the use of prejudicial language against any section of our community.

My Lords, the Minister referred to trespassers. Can he give the House an assurance that the Government are seeking to ensure that in every area of the country there are sites where gypsies can park legitimately?

My Lords, any gypsy community, in appropriate circumstances, can apply for the appropriate planning permission. Local authorities already have discretionary powers to provide additional caravan sites for gypsies. The guidance from the DETR advises local authorities to consider providing emergency stopping places for gypsies visiting their areas—as they do on occasions—for short periods.

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest in that I have been a police officer who has visited gypsy sites in the early hours of the morning. The gypsies should be referred to as "itinerant travellers". They have not always shown total co-operation. Their dogs are trained, too. How does the Minister define police manpower commensurate with the criminal activity that is likely to be uncovered?

My Lords, with great respect, that question is wholly incapable of precise answer. Under our system an officer of the rank of chief constable is given, rightly in my view, operational discretion. He knows the local conditions, what police officers he has under his control, what other problems there are and what is the local public view. He then comes to a reasoned conclusion. That is as it should be.

My Lords, the noble Lord rightly says that gypsies should receive equal treatment with anybody else. Therefore, is it the case that he is prepared to accept that other sections of the public may be permitted to cause the filth, damage and vandalism that the majority of people on these gypsy sites cause at present?

My Lords, I do not accept that the majority of gypsies are vandals, filthy or criminal. If they commit criminal offences or civil trespass, they are liable to be dealt with under the law, as is anyone else. I return to what the noble Baroness said. Sometimes it is better to act on evidence, however disagreeable that may be, rather than prejudice.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on this particular occasion I was talking about criminal activity and not trespass? What concerns me is the evidence which exists that very large numbers of police officers are being employed in a trawl such as the one I described in north Oxfordshire, with a view to uncovering criminal activity which, in the event, is proved not to exist. Is the Minister aware that in north Oxfordshire they are developing guidelines for these operations? Does he agree that it would be better if it were done on a national scale than for each county in England and Wales to reinvent its own wheel?

My Lords, there is no question of each county in England and Wales reinventing the wheel. These are matters for the operational discretion of chief constables. That is the system under which we operate. We do not have a national police force in this country. If the noble Lord has any evidence of police malpractice, he ought to report it fully and in detail to the chief constable concerned and the Police Complaints Authority.