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Illegal Gypsy and Traveller Encampments: Bedfordshire

Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments in Bedfordshire.

It is a pleasure to be on the Benches in Westminster Hall for a change, rather than in the Chair, and a greater pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.

Having reached the ripe old age of 60 and spent a good deal of my formative years on the west coast of Ireland, in one of the most rural parts, including attending school there, I am very familiar with Gypsy and Traveller culture, probably in a truer sense of the word than today. Before this is perceived as some attack on that community, I also want to make the point that I am very aware of the health and educational outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers, and of some of the problems they face as a result of prejudice and anger in some of the other communities that they travel into. That being said, I am the MP for Mid Bedfordshire and I have a responsibility to my settled community to face some of the concerns expressed, which have become acute in my constituency over the past year, in particular this summer, when the situation was very difficult.

The village of Marston Moretaine experienced persistent unauthorised encampments of Gypsies and Travellers. The camps moved between various sites in the village, with ever growing numbers, before their eventual eviction. Recorded crime in the village increased, primarily instances of theft, burglary and vandalism. We have all heard this before, but cases included tradesmen such as plumbers having their equipment stolen overnight out of the back of their van, preventing them from continuing with their employment the next day.

The police force felt very much under siege at the time and although Bedfordshire police did their best with some of the complaints and crimes reported to them, they were unable to respond properly because so many were reported. The events in Marston formed part of a significant increase in encampments this year in Central Bedfordshire alone, although the problem that my constituents faced affected many across the county—I see my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in the Chamber; the problem was not just in my constituency—and across the country.

In 2016 there were 45 encampments on Central Bedfordshire Council land, but this year there have already been 99 encampments, 58 of them on CBC land. CBC took eviction action on 26 of those encampments. Three were removed by the police using the powers granted under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. In 25 cases, the people left of their own accord before the eviction process began, the majority within one or two days of arriving, over the weekend, which I think is the pattern across the country. The conclusion of the events in Marston Moretaine demonstrated that the system can work well eventually, but the time that it took for that to happen is unacceptable to local residents in Marston Moretaine and across Bedfordshire, and therefore to me as their Member of Parliament.

CBC has made several requests for changes to the system of managing unauthorised encampments, and I promised that I would raise its concerns again today. Currently, the council uses the powers available under sections 77 and 78 of the 1994 Act, although those powers are better described as a process leading towards eviction. The process is slow and often results in large clean-up costs—repairs to gates, fences and other preventive measures that were put in place previously. Furthermore, the process has a number of loopholes that are being exploited. I would like the Minister to pay particular attention to those loopholes.

The three-month prohibition on returning to a site following eviction applies only to individual vehicles or identified persons. That means that traveller groups simply swap unauthorised camps with one another. The section 77 powers are also focused on a very narrow geographical area, which means that the Gypsies and Travellers move on to a camp 100 yards down the road and the villages and towns suffer the same problems— just the faces and the vehicles change.

On that basis, Central Bedfordshire Council and I would like to ask the Minister to make section 77 an actual power granted to councils whereby after a determined period, the council has the rightto use bailiffs to evict. That determined period needs to be short. The court process is generally a rubber stamp process, so as long as a council follows strict, laid-out guidelines that it documents, it should be trusted as a group of elected representatives to make that decision and to follow that process. The section 77 notice should not only prevent the current occupiers from returning within three months but protect that location from other groups setting up there in that three-month period. That would break the cycle of Traveller groups swapping locations. The three-month period is to allow the location to regenerate; we need to protect locations, particularly when they are on soft ground, not just to bar certain persons from being there.

We had a problem in Marston Moretaine when a Gypsy and Traveller camp went on to the village’s sports facility where local schools play football, cricket is played and which is used as a community facility. The Gypsy and Traveller caravans completely churned up the ground, which meant that it could not be used in the peak summer months and the community was deprived of that facility.

Section 77 should allow the council to widen the area in which reoccupation is not permitted, so that occupants cannot just move 100 yards down the road to another verge. That would have to be done reasonably, and the council would have to document its rationale in the case of persistent breaches of section 77, as people would expect. Councils should have the power to seize vehicles, including caravans, that illegally occupy land. I would add that they should have the power to seize those vehicles permanently and do with them as they wish.

Central Bedfordshire Council also believes that the local authorities and police forces would benefit from updated and standardised guidance on the use of police powers under section 61 of the 1994 Act. National guidelines are poor and the last advice document was issued back in 2011. The guidance needs to be updated with the proposed legislative changes. I say “proposed changes”, but the work has already been done for us; there have been changes in Ireland. It should not be too difficult to change the legislation; all we need to do is to look at what has happened in Ireland and to lift and adapt the legislation that is already in place there.

The use of section 61 currently varies among police forces, depending on their interpretation of the Human Rights Act, under which Gypsies and Travellers have entirely proper protection against discrimination, which no-one doubts. However, I had difficulties when I reported a crime to my local police force at a public meeting in my constituency. Gypsies and Travellers had been hawking goods to houses from the backs of vans that had no number plates and no road tax. If I came round to your house, Mr Paisley, with an unmarked car with no number plates and no tax and tried to sell you things out of the back of it, you would be straight on to the police. However, the police basically told me that they could not respond to that crime, despite the fact that the Gypsy and Traveller community were reporting crimes against them to the police.

Quite rightly, the police had to respond to those reports in the same way that they would respond to reports by anyone in the village, but one can understand the perception of my constituents. They are reported for hate crimes when they show their anger on Facebook and other social media platforms. They have displayed their anger at the police not even issuing crime reference numbers at that point. Constituents have even had the phone put down on them by the police, which I complained about. My constituents reported crimes—so many were being reported.

One can understand why anger comes into communities in such situations. I understand that the Human Rights Act has to be interpreted, but my constituents saw other councils taking different action, which they perceived to be more efficient and slightly more ruthless, and to better protect people’s environment, businesses and way of life. That simply was not happening in Bedfordshire because of the way Bedfordshire police interpreted its responsibilities under the Human Rights Act.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the case that she is making. She is illustrating that the current policy architecture does not work well for the settled community; I would argue that it does not work well for Travellers either. She mentioned human rights. What about the right of Traveller children to an education? Are we not elevating the right to travel over the right of children to an education? Does that issue not need to be addressed as well as the rights that our settled constituents deserve?

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right. I was not going to make that point, but as I began by saying, the education, health and life expectancy outcomes for Traveller children are well known. However, Travellers have a right to choose their way of life. They have a right to choose how they wish to live and, as I said, I have a responsibility to put forward the case of my constituents. I thank my hon. Friend for his point.

The different treatment of unauthorised encampments in different counties and council areas and by different police forces is particularly difficult for my constituents—and I must admit for me—to understand. That is what led to comments that one group’s rights are being gold-plated at the expense of the rights of others. It is a fact—it is perceived by my constituents—that Bedfordshire suffers so badly with Gypsy and Traveller encampments because the police and councils in other places, such as Reading and Buckinghamshire, interpret the Human Rights Act differently. That is why we have been particularly under siege in the past year.

Given what I saw happen in my constituency this summer, I believe that my requests and those of Central Bedfordshire Council are reasonable and proportionate. As I said, there is already provision in Irish law. Somebody else has already done all the work and faced all these problems for us. It is time for this Government—my Government—finally to do something. These issues have been debated for years. This is not the first time I have raised them in Westminster Hall; I have been doing so since 2005. I have argued both publicly and privately with Ministers—with Labour Ministers from 2005 to 2010 and with coalition Ministers from 2010 to 2015—for 12 and a half years. I am getting to the end of my tether with being given the same reasons for why something cannot be done. It is now time. We have to do something, because I know that many MPs from all parts of the House are also coming to the end of their tether. We have to be seen to act on the rights of Travellers and Traveller children, as my hon. Friend said, but most importantly on the rights of our constituents and what they have to deal with day to day.

No one should have to go to their garage in the morning to put their key in the car to start their day’s work as a plumber and find that the contents of the back of their car and their shed are gone. That is happening not only in one house but in a number of houses. The crimes and crime wave—the spike in crime in a community—when the Traveller community arrives cannot be denied. Too often, too many people say, “We need to be careful what we say about this.” We do not need to be careful; we need to say it exactly as it is, as it happens, because our communities need to be protected.

I hope that the Minister will provide some succour for my constituents in his response. I hope he will be the one Minister I have spoken to—I have spoken to many over the years—who takes this issue away and says, “I’m going to do something about this. Once and for all, we’re going to provide councils with the powers that they need and communities with the protections they deserve, and we’re going to do something to make life better for people in the UK who repeatedly suffer from being besieged by Gypsy and Traveller communities.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what I think is the first time in this Parliament. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) on securing the debate and making a really powerful case for change. She pointed out that she is at the end of her tether; she has been focused on this issue for over 12 years, and I know from the debates we have had—the general debate I took part in on Gypsies, Travellers and local communities in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago and the Westminster Hall debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—that this issue matters to many Members of Parliament from all parts of the House, and it matters to our constituents.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has also been pursuing this issue over a long period of time. He made a characteristically thoughtful intervention, thinking not just about the settled communities but about fairness in the system for the life chances of those from the Traveller and Gypsy communities.

I heard the recommendations made in the previous debates and those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire about how we can improve the way in which we deal with illegal incursions. I share her view that there is a hugely negative impact from unauthorised encampments on all our constituents. She mentioned Reading, and I know from my constituency of Reading West that there have been numerous incursions on public and private land in recent months, which causes a huge amount of heartache to those law-abiding citizens in the settled community who have to deal with it daily, weekly and sometimes monthly. That is not good enough.

I said this in the previous debate, but there is a perception among the settled communities in our constituencies that there is not equity under the law right now and that, if they behaved in the same manner as some of those undertaking illegal encampments and associated antisocial behaviour, they would be treated more harshly by the law. We need to change that perception.

Not only do unauthorised encampments deny law-abiding citizens access to cherished open spaces—parks and so on—but, as we have heard, there are associated problems such as antisocial behaviour and crime. On top of that, there is the real cost of dealing with the clear-up that comes after an illegal encampment is exited, which falls on hard-working taxpayers—our constituents—up and down the country. We are absolutely in listening mode, which is why, during the debate on 9 October, I announced that the Government intend to consult on the way in which existing powers are enforced to understand what more can be done to tackle many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised today and which other hon. Members have raised in previous debates.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said. Will he give the House an idea of the timescale for when change might happen as a result of the consultation he has announced?

That is a perfectly fair question. I hope that in a matter of weeks we will seek to consult on this matter. I understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire said, that this is something we have been debating for years and the time has now come for action.

May I also say that there have been a number of consultations over the years? I hope this consultation will be the final one.

I hope that, as a result of the work we do in government, these debates will be more of a rare occurrence in future. Ultimately, it will be for colleagues and others to feed in their views when we move forward with this work.

As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire spoke powerfully about her constituents’ concerns about unauthorised encampments. She made a number of recommendations about how existing powers could be strengthened, which I have noted, including ensuring that local authorities and the police are allowed to do more to tackle unauthorised encampments. We will consider those proposals carefully alongside all the others we receive when we consult on this matter.

I want to touch briefly on site provision and its role in helping authorities to enforce the law. Sufficient site provision not only reduces the number of unauthorised encampments but enables the police to use the strongest enforcement powers. My hon. Friend talked about sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and it is the case that under that Act the police can direct people from unauthorised encampments to appropriate local sites. Failure to comply with such an order is an offence and offenders are prohibited from entering any land in the local authority area for a period of three months. By comparison—my hon. Friend alluded to this—where no sites are available, the prohibition extends only to the area of the encampment. By providing sufficient transit and permanent sites, local authorities can help to protect communities from the nuisance that unauthorised encampments can cause.

As my hon. Friend set out, we recognise that there are problems in her area. Bedfordshire has had numerous unauthorised incursions. As she pointed out, in some cases an authority’s response was helpful to local residents, but there were instances where more could have been done. I take on board what she said about improving legislation.

I make the point that even though more could have been done by Central Bedfordshire Council during some of these incursions, it is a fact—I think my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will back me up on this—that the council’s Gypsy and Traveller encampment team are at their maximum. They got to the point where they could not respond to any more emails or take any more telephone calls. They were working flat out and could not cope with the amount of public anger and representation they received. There is a limit to what each council can do.

There is also the perception that the Minister’s own council deals with this issue much quicker. Perhaps that is because he is the Minister and Reading Council feels that it would be more answerable—I have no idea—but it deals with these issues much more efficiently. That inequality and lack of equity about the response is part of the problem.

Of course we have frustrations in Reading as well; but we want councils and police to act using the powers that they currently have. I would point out that local authorities can apply to the courts for pre-emptive injunctions that would prevent unauthorised camping in a defined area and, where they see an illegal encampment, they can advise the court in advance, without waiting for all the paperwork to be completed before they go to court, so that a hearing date can be expedited. I have noted my hon. Friend’s points.

A multi-agency approach is vital if we are to deal with incidents successfully. Local authorities, the police and other agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency should work together to find appropriate solutions. I know that that happens in some areas. I want to make it clear, as I did in the general debate on this matter in the House, that the awful incidents in question are the actions of a minority, and that we should not allow them to tarnish the whole community. However, I also recognise that every illegal incursion is one too many, and that those incursions have a direct impact on law-abiding citizens in the settled community.

As I have said, I hope that the House will be reassured by my announcement of 9 October. We want to move forward quickly on that. The Government are committed to ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers are integrated in society, and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Bedfordshire and for South West Bedfordshire both talked about the life chances and health outcomes for, people in Gypsy and Traveller communities. Of course we want those to improve. I think that both sides of the House will agree that more needs to be done to ensure harmonious relations between communities.

I welcome the debate, which has reinforced my determination to look for ways to improve our response to such matters. As I have said, the Government will set out further details about the consultation shortly, and I invite all Members of the House to engage with that process.

I noted that the last couple of sentences of the Minister’s speech, to the effect that the Government are looking at the matter, were perhaps not as reassuring as the bulk of his speech. I know that the consultation has been announced, and that the Minister cannot pre-empt that; but it is time for everyone to stop being, for want of a better term, politically correct about this matter, because that is to diminish our constituents’ suffering. I hope that our colleagues will not hold back when they respond to the consultation, because if that happens and we do not tell it as it is and make the Minister understand the real pain, suffering and inconvenience that our communities experience, we are not doing our constituents justice.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.