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Gypsies and Travellers

Volume 815: debated on Thursday 4 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the availability of places for nomadic Gypsies and Travellers to legally and safely stop; and what plans they have to address any identified shortage of places.

The Government do not undertake an assessment on the availability of places for nomadic Gypsies and Travellers to stop. It is the responsibility of local planning authorities to make their own assessment of need for both permanent and transit site provision and to identify land to meet this need in their local plan. Authorities are best placed to make decisions about the number and locations of sites locally.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. He may be aware that, in areas such as Leeds and Durham, a model of negotiated stopping has been piloted. This is where there an agreement between Traveller communities, local authorities and other agencies that allows temporary stopping on sites, having discussed the duration of their stay and, sometimes, a contribution towards costs. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider implementing a negotiated stopping programme across the country to enable this community to retain their cultural identity? If so, what department will be responsible?

The right reverend Prelate should know that, when I was Communities Minister, I was someone who encouraged the use of negotiated stopping throughout the Covid-19 pandemic by writing to local authorities. Having negotiated stopping sites avoids the need for enforcement of unauthorised encampments through the courts and we think it is a great way forward. But it is also a matter for local authorities, and we will continue to encourage them to use this.

My Lords, the Labour Government enacted legislation that obliged local authorities to assess the housing need of Gypsies and Travellers. Successive Governments have prayed this in aid as an improvement. The noble Lord the Minister will be aware that very few local authorities comply. What steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to monitor and enforce this legislation, which is of course the prerequisite for providing enough sites?

My Lords, the Government expect local planning authorities to assess the need for Traveller sites in their area and to plan accordingly. We are not looking to introduce a statutory duty, as currently operates in Ireland; we do not see that as a necessary step.

My Lords, what steps will the Government take to work with local authorities to increase the number of sites for Gypsies and Travellers? Statistics from the charity Friends, Family and Travellers show that only eight local authorities out of 68 in the south-east of England have identified a five-year supply of specific, deliverable sites for Gypsies and Travellers. What steps will the Government take to improve this situation?

My Lords, we will continue to encourage all local authorities to access funding for both permanent and temporary sites through the affordable homes programme of some £11.5 billion. I reiterate that it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to make an assessment of need for both permanent and transit sites and to identify sites in their local plan. Of course, these local plans are independently assessed by an inspector.

My Lords, earlier this year, reports emerged that Pontins had used a blacklist of common Irish surnames allegedly to attempt to prevent Traveller families staying at its holiday parks. What recent assessment have the Government made of levels of similar discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers? Can the Minister say what steps are being taken to end this?

My Lords, we have previously discussed this in the House and it is an absolutely disgraceful example of discrimination. No one should be discriminated against because of their race and ethnicity, and we have invested in a programme of some £150,000 to tackle discrimination. We will continue to challenge companies such as Pontins, and I think the media did a fair job of ensuring that this does not happen again.

My Lords, if every local authority provided permanent and transit sites serviced with water, sanitation and waste disposal, families would have somewhere to bring up their children, get them into school and look after their elderly. There is no fear that they will overwhelm social services, as they always look after their elderly themselves. Why do the Government not help them to do this by enforcing the responsibility of local authorities to provide sites?

My Lords, I answered that question in my answer to a previous supplementary: there are no plans to bring in statutory provision, because the previous introduction of a statutory duty simply did not work. We will continue to encourage local authorities to fulfil their duties under their local plans.

Would it not be helpful to have a national website that identifies temporary sites? Indeed, would it not be quite possible for local authorities to be able to live-time the number of vacancies on those sites so that everyone can see what is available and where?

My Lords, that is a really helpful suggestion that I will take back to officials in my department. The statistics on this are positive, in that we have seen an increase in the number of sites in the last 10 years but, obviously, knowing where those vacancies are would be very helpful indeed.

My Lords, am I to understand that the Government’s policy is simply to say, “Nothing to do with us, leave it all to local authorities”? Is not the difficulty that if one local authority moves ahead of the others, the demand in that area will increase, and adjacent local authorities will not share the responsibility? Surely we need a proper national approach of co-operation between the Government and local authorities to move forward.

My Lords, I think that is what we have. We are working with local authorities and encouraging them to assess their local need. We have seen, through this policy, an increase in site provision and we feel that responsibility rests in local government. As someone who spent 20 years in local government, I do not think everything should be directed from Whitehall.

My Lords, the Minister has just said that there has been an increase in authorised encampment pitches. The reality is that there has been an overall 8.4% decrease of pitches on local authority Traveller sites over the last decade. There has been an increase in unauthorised encampment sites not run by local authorities. It seems extraordinary, at a time when this Government propose to criminalise Gypsy and Traveller families who cannot find authorised encampment pitches, that they are not doing more than “encourage” local authorities to fulfil their duties. Please will the Government reconsider that and ensure that local authorities provide enough sites for the community?

My Lords, I can provide only the statistics that I have been given, which are that since 2010 there has been an increase of 1,291 new affordable permanent pitches, and in the January 2020 Traveller caravan count there were 354 transit pitches, of which 138 were vacant transit pitches. We recognise the need to increase supply, which is why we are providing the affordable homes grant that local authorities can bid into. I also point out that there is a very high bar for criminality—members of the community committing actual harm—before criminal proceedings begin.

My Lords, I refer the House to my interests as set out in the register. Does the noble Lord accept that the lack of places for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities is a huge problem? This is a community that is expected to abide by the law, as we all are, but it also needs to be protected by the law. Its members need to be treated with respect, to be free from discrimination and to be able to live their lives peacefully. What are the Government doing to support that? So far, all he has said is that it is a matter for the council.

I have also said that there is a high bar for criminality, that no one should be discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity, that we are investing in measures to reduce hate crime and that we recognise that the Government play a part, particularly in funding. That is why there is funding available in the affordable homes grant, and I am sure there will be further announcements of funding that will increase the supply of authorised permanent sites and transit provision. We will continue to encourage negotiated stopping as another way of dealing with these issues.

My Lords, in order to copper-fasten additional sites, what determined steps will the Government take to ring-fence funding for local authorities to build Gypsy and Traveller sites as part of the levelling-up agenda and to respect human rights provisions?

My Lords, I am not a great fan of ring-fencing: that is not always the way to achieve something. We have £11.5 billion in total for a programme of affordable housing, but that can also be bid for to build these additional sites. We continue to think that the right way is for councils to assess against local need and make their bids accordingly.