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Travellers: Dale Farm

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure accommodation is provided for the Traveller families which Basildon Council intends to evict from Dale Farm.

My Lords, it will be for Basildon District Council to assess the accommodation needs of those subject to enforcement action. In 2007, we issued clear guidance to local authorities stating the need to consider all the relevant circumstances before deciding to take enforcement action. The guidance recognises that enforcement action can be traumatic, and should therefore be proportionate and considered.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that clear Answer and I commend her department for its positive work for Gypsies and Travellers. The problem, as she says, is with Basildon council, which has not offered the families being evicted any suitable alternative accommodation. Perhaps over 100 parents and children will be homeless. Does my noble friend agree that those families face discrimination in the ordinary pursuit of finding somewhere to live, which no other minority ethnic group in the UK can expect? Is she aware that they have appealed to the European Union’s civil protection mechanism and will the Government contact the EU’s monitoring and information centre to play their part in helping?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to identify that the consequences of evictions are distressing. I am sure that Basildon council takes seriously its responsibilities under the Housing Act and that it will give full and proper consideration to any requests to be treated as homeless. I understand that it gave such assurances during the recent Court of Appeal hearings. I also expect it to work closely with children’s services in dealing with vulnerable children and adults. I know that the council has approached the EU’s civil protection mechanism and that it is already in direct contact with the monitoring and information centre. I am sure that it would be able to provide the centre with information.

However, there is no doubt that Gypsies and Travellers face great problems in finding authorised places in which to pitch their caravans and that is why we are urging all local authorities to be more proactive in that respect.

My Lords, is it incumbent on Basildon District Council to rehouse those people under the terms of the Human Rights Act?

My Lords, each housing application is treated on its merits. I am sure that when vulnerable children are involved—and there must be liaison with children’s services, especially as regards newly born children and the family’s circumstances—the council will do its best.

My Lords, it is estimated that the cost of this operation is £1.9 million, but that is not counting the further eviction that will be necessary from the temporary site that the residents will occupy after their move from Dale Farm: plus all the health and social security costs that will be imposed on the taxpayer for years down the line in respect of those families. Has the Minister made any comparison between that enormous bill and the amount that it would cost to provide permanent accommodation for the 400 people on the site? Will the Government invite Basildon council to come into the CLG to discuss with Ministers deferring the process until the specified accommodation in the south-east regional plan is provided?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the cost of enforcement action. It is up to the local authority to judge what those costs should be and whether they are bearable in terms of breaches of planning control. There is no doubt that for many councillors those costs can be reduced once authorised pitches are provided. We are only talking about pitches for about 4,000 caravans in the entire country. We should place that matter in perspective.

The independent task group on site provision and enforcement noted that enforcement costs to one authority reduce from £200,000 per year to £5,000 for the sake of a one-off £400,000 cost. There is no doubt that the costs of racial and social tension are much higher.

My Lords, while this is not my brief, I believe that noble Lords will accept that Ireland was in these islands the home of the travelling people. For some considerable years it has had a strategy and management structure to look after and handle those people. Is it time that this country had the same?

My Lords, I am very pleased to say that in recent years we have moved towards that position. The main difference is making sure that Gypsies and Travellers have the same rights to housing as others. Therefore, their housing should be planned in the same sort of way. That is why we have moved away from putting a strict duty on local authorities to make sure that housing authorities assess the housing needs of Gypsies and Travellers. We expect those housing needs to be fed into regional spatial strategies, be properly planned for and properly provided.