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Gypsies and Travellers

Volume 615: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

I am grateful to colleagues who have stayed and I will be more than happy to take interventions.

On the sunny morning of 26 May this year, an eight-year-old boy climbed over the fence of a Traveller site in my constituency to chat to the Minister’s predecessor, Baroness Susan Williams, a local farmer whose land we were on, and to me. He was a delightful boy, but his prospects are destined to be much less good than many children of his age. A 2014 report from the Office for National Statistics shows that he is far less likely to gain any qualifications compared with the rest of the population, is more likely to be out of work and is likely to have worse health. The report found that 60% of adult Travellers had no qualifications, compared with 23% for the rest of the country, and that 20% were unemployed compared to 7% for the national population.

In 2016, in the fifth-richest nation in the world, this boy was living on a site with no proper sewerage system and no legal water supply, and he had not been in school for several weeks despite the best efforts of the local authority. I also question the quality of home schooling provided by parents who have themselves low levels of educational attainment.

The site he lives on has had three major incidents of modern slavery, a recent murder, frequent fighting between different Traveller groups, and significant sub-letting of pitches to vulnerable groups and some east Europeans in often the most atrocious of conditions. I do not believe that our current Traveller policy is in the best interests of that young boy and that is one reason why I am calling for the Department for Communities and Local Government to undertake a complete review of legislation affecting planning, law enforcement and housing allocation for Travellers.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is a subject that deeply concerns me, as it does him. He is right to talk about the need for a cross-governmental review. Would he include in that list the Department for Education? As he rightly says, the educational outcomes for those children are very poor. Too often, because schools do not meet their needs, they end up with substandard home schooling.

I most certainly would, and the Home Office needs to be engaged as well.

The settled residents of my constituency have had a very difficult summer and it is no exaggeration to say that many are living in fear. One local farmer has had four fires on his land started by Travellers, and he has had to employ a student to walk in front of his combine harvester to pick up all the metal and other items fly-tipped on to it by Travellers.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is crucial for the Government to look at enforcement policy? This summer, the city of Chelmsford had a complete roundabout of different Travellers coming on to greenfield sites within the city boundaries. This has caused considerable problems for local communities, with all the complex measures that local authorities and owners of land have to take to ensure they are removed. I would be grateful if he impressed on the Minister the need to have a more effective policy.

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend.

Some settled residents have had their water supply disconnected completely by the Travellers, as they have sought to augment a supply that was never part of the planning permission for the site. A mother wrote to me recently and entitled her letter “A plea from the children” of her town who have been unable to use the brilliant new £250,000 skate park for much of the summer because of 10 unauthorised Traveller encampments next to it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know a lot of Members want to intervene. My constituency, like the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir Simon Burns), had a number of encampments. In calling for a review, will my hon. Friend consider the impact of unauthorised encampments on local communities?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and in doing so speaks up for her constituency.

The skate park I just mentioned was being defecated on, and local children had had their bicycles stolen by the Travellers. Other mothers have said that children have been too scared to go to the leisure centre for their swimming lessons, as they find the Travellers very intimidating. Even the staff of the leisure centre are too scared to ask them to pay. I was bitten by two of the Travellers’ dogs as I walked around the site.

In respect of the life chances and vulnerabilities of Traveller children, I learned that last month one of my constituents witnessed a fight between Traveller children. When their father came out of his caravan, instead of stopping the fight he taught them how to really hurt one another more effectively. I argue that children’s services would have a better chance of protecting children like that if the 24% of Travellers who live in caravans or mobile homes were to join the 76% who live in houses, flats and bungalows. Neighbours witnessing behaviour like that would at least have an address to report.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that greater attention must be paid to the education of the children? This needs to be done in a very sensitive fashion, because the community feel attacked and marginalised. As such, co-operative help within the community is needed by all to help with their education and move them from where they are to where they could be.

I totally agree. Traveller children should be able to aspire to be engineers, scientists or anything else they want to be.

One of my parish councillors wrote recently saying that his village had frankly felt under siege this summer and that help was desperately needed. Local landowners and the local authority are facing the constant expense of having to go through the courts to have caravans moved and are then left with the foul job of cleaning up the disgusting mess and excrement left behind.

Yesterday I was pleased to host members of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities as they launched Operation Report Hate in this, national hate crime awareness week. We learned that a shocking 98% of GTR respondents to a recent survey had experienced discrimination. Could the hon. Gentleman please tell me what he is doing to raise awareness of such disgusting xenophobic abuse?

I condemn all hate crime, whoever it is directed at. Actually, much of the abuse is between Travellers themselves, which I am also very much against.

Shopkeepers are too terrified to report shoplifting by Travellers for fear of retaliation, and it is not just small shops either. The staff in one supermarket are too terrified to apprehend Travellers taking and eating roast chicken from their store without paying. The fear of retaliation is real. I am aware of one business and one individual who have suffered fires after disagreements with local Travellers. There was a recent implied threat to one of my parish councils that there would be less trouble in its village next year if it did not oppose a local Traveller site expansion. We cannot accept that type of blackmail in the planning system.

This wave of fear and intimidation in our countryside and in communities bordering the countryside is outrageous in 21st-century Britain. It is made even more outrageous by the fact that these individuals’ rights are protected by the Human Rights Act, which this Government have pledged to overturn.

What my hon. Friend shows is that the current policy is very bad for community cohesion. I want good community cohesion between everyone in our country.

Residents in another of my villages are terrified that a plot of agricultural land will be bought by Travellers at auction shortly. I do not think they intend to farm it.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. Is it not true that many of his constituents and mine feel that there are double standards in the system and that it is far easier for people to claim, rightly or wrongly, that they are a part of this community and to get a different application of the process?

My hon. Friend is right. What we want is equality under the law.

Our previous experience is of caravans crashing through hedges on a Friday night and farmland being turned into a residential neighbourhood, with street lighting, pavements and utilities going in, in total contravention of planning law. On 4 February 2014, in my last debate on this issue, the then Minister said that

“we need to ensure that everybody is treated equally.”—[Official Report, 4 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 19WH.]

Allowing that type of behaviour, which settled residents would not be allowed to engage in, shows that the law is not operating equally in this area. My request to the Minister is for his Department to undertake an immediate full-scale review of Gypsy and Traveller policy to ensure better outcomes for Traveller children, as well as greater protection from some of the criminality I have outlined, which affects both settled residents and Travellers themselves.

On the point about equality, my constituents are very much pressing for equal and fair treatment of settled residents and Travellers in planning. In part, the problem is the lack of a five-year land supply. Where that is the case, we are getting large, semi-permanent Traveller sites in places that would simply not be given permission for permanent housing development. That is unacceptable for residents.

I thank my hon. Friend; I will deal with those issues shortly.

I do not have time in this debate to outline every policy suggestion that Central Bedfordshire Council and Bedfordshire police have put to me. I will send the Minister their full submissions and raise the following points now.

The Land Registry is out of date for many Traveller sites, and the owners listed are uncontactable. This makes enforcement very difficult, and we also know there is significant sub-letting of Traveller pitches to non-Travellers. That is one of the reasons why my constituents strongly question whether the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment process is legitimate. How can the Government insist on ever more pitches in an area if many of them are being sub-let to non-Travellers? The Planning Inspectorate even ignores advertisements on “Right Move” for Traveller sites. As I mentioned earlier, many of the caravans sub-let are in a terrible condition. Constituents renting one came to see me to say they had no water and no heating, for example.

The current suite of enforcement powers is designed primarily to deal with breaches among settled residents. The powers available to local authorities in respect of site licensing are intended for Park Home sites and are not fit for purpose when applied to Gypsy and Traveller sites, especially where the land ownership is unknown and there is a mismatch between the planning consent and land ownership, where plot boundaries, land ownership and the planning consent are not configured to a red line on a map.

My hon. Friend is generous with his time. The problem is that these illegal encampments are tolerated on the basis of apparently insufficient provision for Traveller pitches, yet the requirement for those pitches is being dictated entirely by demand in the locality. That demand, as we see in Somerset, seems to be almost never ending. Surely there must be a limit to the hospitality that the community is expected to extend.

That is why I want the Government to take a calm and measured review of the whole situation.

More responsive and bespoke enforcement solutions are needed to allow Travellers and settled residents to be treated equally in cases of breaches. Local authorities also need the option of immediate access to and support from the courts as a first line of recourse in dealing with non-compliance. Land ownership underpins the licensing regime, and without clarity and mandatory registration, enforcement is unrealistic. There are, for example, conflicts between the Mobile Homes Act 2013 and “A Best Practice Guide for Local Authorities on Enforcement of the New Site Licensing Regime”. There is a lack of clarity on exemptions that makes enforcement unrealistic.

There is no requirement in the August 2015 DCLG planning policy guidance for Traveller sites for sites to be licensed, which leads to many unlicensed sites being given planning permission. Enforcement powers need to be provided that allow councils to ensure that there are adequate services on site in advance of habitation. Otherwise, we have sites with no sanitation and no water, as currently exist in my constituency. Occupation should be prohibited until these are provided. In the past, I am afraid that ministerial statements have not been aligned with legal decisions, which has created unrealistic expectations. It is also not fair or right that the whole community should have to pay for expensive enforcement activity, which is a discretionary function for which the council cannot levy a fee. There must be a financial penalty for undertaking works without permission. The Planning Inspectorate seems to take decisions without any real understanding of the local context, and the fallout from these decisions places an unreasonable burden on both Travellers and settled residents.

I absolutely support my hon. Friend’s call for a review. Does he agree that the extraordinary costs that fall on the local community for cleaning up illegal encampments never seem to be put on the people who cause the damage? Surely the law needs to be improved so that where damage has been caused, car number plates can be traced and fines levied.

My hon. Friend is indeed generous in allowing interventions. I want to raise the issue of the planning process. Will he ask the Minister during the course of his review to look at the length of time a process of appeals and working through the planning process might take? I have constituents who are in their eighth year of a planning process relating to what was at first an unauthorised site; they are still going through it. It is a sensitive area. In order to get the best balance between the different communities, it is essential to have a good review of the system now.

My right hon. Friend is right that justice delayed is justice denied.

The Government have not given planning inspectors the tools they need to act on behalf of the local community. Locally, we have two recent examples of the Planning Inspectorate overturning refusals for Traveller site expansion, even though the council provided strong evidence of advertisements on “Right Move” offering the site for rent, which the inspector fully acknowledged, but ruled as constituting an “enforcement issue” that was not relevant to the appeal. It would also help if vehicles involved in fly-tipping or other criminal activity could be impounded regardless of ownership of the vehicle, which is often difficult to establish.

As for the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment, how can it be right that settled residents have to fill out a census of everyone in their household, when in Central Bedfordshire a large number of Travellers have refused to be interviewed? How can my constituents have confidence that these people are indeed Travellers? One of my constituents has said that her husband travels much more on business than many local Travellers do, and she has a point.

Some local Travellers are extremely wealthy, which is public knowledge following the seizing of considerable sums of cash during recent police operations. Why are very wealthy Travellers provided with more pitches when they have the means to buy land in a residential area where they could keep their caravans, as many settled residents do? On 9 December 2013, in answer to a written parliamentary question from me, the Department stated that

“it is difficult to imagine that the possession of substantial assets by Travellers would meet this test”.—[Official Report, 9 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 40-41W.]

The reference was to the public interest test. What checks do planning inspectors undertake on the wealth of travellers, given that answer?

Although I believe that an urgent review of legislation must be undertaken by the Government, I recognise, of course, that local authorities and the police must play their part. Central Bedfordshire council and the Bedfordshire police are determined to do better, and I have had a series of meetings with both the council and the police in recent months. The current position is untenable. It is extremely bad for community cohesion, and unfairly puts much of the blame for the current problems on local authorities and local police forces.

My constituency, like my hon. Friend’s, has been occupied by a number of unauthorised Traveller camps over the summer, which have caused a large amount of criminal damage and left a great deal of litter. Local residents have had to witness defecation and urination in play areas and playgrounds, and near schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that the police need better and clearer guidance on when it is appropriate to use their section 61 powers?

Absolutely. Not only is that unacceptable, but it leads to terribly bad feeling between different groups in society, which we must try to stop.

If we want a country that works for everyone, we must do better, and do it urgently. The last debate that I initiated on this subject took place on 4 February 2014, and I am disappointed that there has been no substantial improvement since then. The Government must act now to bring about peaceful, harmonious communities that get on with each other in a law-abiding manner. I want everyone to have a decent home; perhaps more properly regulated park homes should be provided to help to address the issue. In my constituency alone, 9,500 homes are being built from just two major developments, and the Government appreciate the scale of housing need.

Of course there are decent, law-abiding Travellers. My criticism is aimed not at them, but at the conflicting and unworkable legislation that sets settled residents and Travellers against each other, and hinders the effective enforcement of the law. In my view, a separate planning system for one group in society is no longer justifiable when the outcomes for Travellers of a range of measures are so poor, and there is so much fear and ill feeling among settled residents and Travellers alike.

I do not want to be back here in two years’ time, making the same points. The situation is untenable, it has gone on for too long, and the time for action is now.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing the debate. I know that this issue is hugely important to him, to the community that he represents, and, indeed, to many other Members: that is clear from the number of Members who are present for the debate, and the number who have taken part in it. I thank all those who have contributed, but, given the limited time available, I may not be able to address every issue that has been raised.

Let me begin by assuring my hon. Friend that I, too, feel strongly about this matter. My constituency experiences an annual summer charade as groups of Travellers are moved around the borough from one public space to another, at huge cost to the public purse.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed to a society that works for everyone, and that means fair treatment for Gypsies and Travellers that facilitates their traditional lifestyle. I must make it clear from the outset, however, that it also means a commitment to respecting the interests of all members of the community. Those two commitments should not be mutually exclusive, but I acknowledge that they have been in too many parts of the country, and that that is a source of great concern to the people who send us to the House.

My hon. Friend spoke powerfully about the limited life chances of Gypsies and Travellers in his constituency. His commitment to a compassionate Conservativism is well known throughout the House. The Government recognise the issue that he has raised, and I recognise the concern that he has expressed. As I have said, we want a fair society in which people, whatever their ethnic origin or background, are valued, able to participate fully, and able to realise their potential.

When my hon. Friend last secured an Adjournment debate, back in February 2014, he advocated a change in the planning system to ensure the fairness and equity to which I have already referred. He says that he is disappointed, but in fact a number of the changes he proposed in that debate have since become Government policy. His 2014 speech highlighted a perception that there was a separate planning system for Gypsies and Travellers. Last year the Government published revised planning policy for Traveller sites with the intention of ensuring greater fairness, of strengthening protection for the green belt, which we all value so highly, and of addressing the negative effects of the unauthorised development of land. We have changed the definition of “Gypsies and Travellers” and “travelling showpeople” for planning purposes, and those who have ceased travelling will now have their needs assessed in the same way as any other member of the community. Similarly, the amended duty in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 makes it clear that local authority housing needs assessments cover all those who live and resort to the area, on caravan sites or in houseboats, irrespective of their ethnic identity.

We have also made it clear that planning for present and future need is vital. Both the national planning policy framework and the specific planning policy for Traveller sites state that local planning authorities should plan for these accommodation needs, identifying a five-year supply of deliverable Traveller sites. These themes of fairness and equality for the whole community are at the heart of Government policy, but we are equally clear that fairness also means everyone abiding by the law of this country.

In his speech today, my hon. Friend vividly described the situation in his constituency. Incidents of criminal and antisocial behaviour of the kind he so clearly described have a profound effect on the lives of people that we in this House have a duty to represent. The Government are clear that the law must apply to everyone. The police must treat incidents of lawlessness and antisocial behaviour as such, and give victims of those offences the support they require. I was particularly disturbed to hear that his constituents felt unable to report what they were experiencing to the authorities, and I shall pass this information on to my colleagues in the Home Office. None of us wants to live in a society where that is the case.

Tackling these problems must be core business for the police and other local agencies. The police already have a wide range of strong powers that enable them to take action. Those powers are discretionary and it is rightly for the police to decide how and whether to use them, depending on the circumstances of each situation. The Government want to see a multi-agency approach involving the police, councils, landowners and the courts to ensure that these matters are properly dealt with. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) mentioned hate crime, and it is important to note that the Government are committed to tackling hate crime against Gypsies and Travellers. It is a crime that should have no place in modern Britain. We have published a new hate crime action plan that focuses on reducing these offences, increasing reporting and improving support for victims.

The Government recognise the concern about unauthorised and illegal encampments. As my hon. Friend knows, such encampments can damage the environment, fuel tensions and create great resentment. They also harm the effectiveness of the planning system because they fundamentally undermine public confidence in it. Last year, the Government wrote to council leaders, police and crime commissioners and police chief constables expressing concern that they were not doing enough to stop such encampments. We reissued a summary of the wide-ranging powers to remove unauthorised sites from both public and private land, sending a clear message that powers are available to tackle the problem and should be used swiftly. I know that, despite the actions we have taken, there are deep concerns in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in other parts of the country. He has asked for a review of our existing Gypsy and Traveller policy and associated legislation. I want to assure him and the whole House that there is not a shred of complacency in the Government over this issue.

A group of Travellers came to the old prison site in my constituency. The Ministry of Justice immediately took legal action, but it takes three weeks for the whole process to go through. The Travellers knew how long it would take, and they left at the last minute. The only people who made any money out of that were the lawyers. Surely we can do this is less than three weeks.

My hon. Friend reiterates the points that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire made. There are a number of issues here. There is the speed of access to the courts system and the speed with which decisions are made, but this is also about ensuring that people who behave in this way face consequences for their actions, in order that we do not have the absurd situation of people constantly being moved on from one site to another, at huge expense to the public purse.

To return to the central point my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire made, there is not a shred of complacency in the Government about this issue. We very much welcome the debate he has introduced this evening and will continue to keep all these issues under review.

I want to make two specific points. I am currently looking with the Land Registry at the issue that my hon. Friend raised, and I will come back to him when we have considered it.

I want to say not just to my hon. Friend and colleagues in the Chamber tonight but to anybody who is watching these proceedings that if any police force, local authority or anybody else involved in dealing with these issues has suggestions of additional powers that are required to give the people of this country confidence that the law will be applied consistently to everybody, I am very open to those suggestions.

Since my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) has already intervened, I will give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois).

I was encouraged to hear the Minister say at the opening of his remarks that he feels strongly about this issue. Members from across the country have given him multifarious examples tonight of where the system is not working. There remains a strong public perception, which is shared by many Members, that we still have two planning systems: one for the travelling community and one for the settled community. We will not crack this problem until we get through that, and the only Department that can deal with that is the Department for Communities and Local Government. I have heard what he has said, but I ask, as a former DCLG Minister to a current DCLG Minister, will he look favourably on the request for a thorough review, because I think the time has come?

I hope I have given my right hon. Friend assurance tonight that we are constantly reviewing these issues. It is clear to us not only from these issues being raised in the House, of which tonight’s debate is just the latest example, but from the correspondence the Department receives—and he speaks with experience of serving in the Department—that this matter still arouses great concern in many parts of the country.

I am relatively new to this position, but part of what I want to do is to understand to what extent the problem is that the powers that are already in place are not being used as effectively as they could be. However, as I said, if people have suggestions of additional powers that are required to tackle this problem, I am all ears. I want to make sure that we address these issues.

It is the Government’s view that local authorities are best placed to make decisions for their areas, because they have an understanding of the local needs. We have tried to establish clear policies that local authorities should use in determining need and planning effectively for sites, and that should allow them to take swift action on enforcement matters.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire for bringing this issue to the Floor of the House. Many Members share the concerns that he has expressed. I recognise the strong feelings people have about this policy area and the tensions it is creating in our communities—tensions that I am sure we all wish to resolve. The Government continue to review these matters. We are firmly committed to ensuring that, through effective planning, genuine partnership working and enforcement action, the system is fair and is perceived to be fair by everyone. I thank him again for raising the debate and look forward to working with him to resolve these matters.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.