HC Deb 20 April 1951 vol 486 cc2250-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Bowden.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Dodds (Dartford)

For several hours I have listened to strong men discuss, with emotion and passion, the New Streets Bill and an easier passage to the polls, and I make no apology for raising a very serious matter: the problem associated with a minority race, the gipsies. It is estimated that of 100,000 travellers, 20,000 are real Romany gipsies, and between local authorities and the police there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that they are persecuted, hounded and harried. It may be, and I can understand it, that some Members are of opinion that I used extravagant language in calling the subject of this debate "The gipsy tragedy" but, if so, they could only think that because they do not know the facts.

I have spent a lot of time in the last 18 months in research through books and booklets from the Library here and from the Ministry of Local Government and Planning and looking through newspaper articles and, above all, I have been among the gipsies, whose largest encampment is in my constituency. As a result, I have had many gipsies visit me in the Central Lobby to give me their opinions, and I also get a fairly big mail from gipsies in various parts of the country. I should make it clear that as far as I know, I have no connection otherwise with the Romany race, nor have I any vested interest in this matter.

My attention was first drawn to this question in my constituency, which has the large encampment to which I have referred. As a Member of Parliament I felt it was my duty to go to all sections of the community, which included going to the gipsy encampment for question and answer meetings. As a result of my study of the subject, the more I learn about it, the more I am determined to use every possible opportunity to advocate their cause in the House, where very few people at any time have raised this very difficult problem.

I am not advocating that the gipsy encampment, which I have already said exists in my constituency, should continue on the Belvedere Marshes. It is true that some of the gipsies there were born on the Marshes 40 and 45 years ago, but I have no hesitation in saying that this encampment is a blot on the landscape. Some of the main line trains run alongside, and many people are astonished that such things should be in this country at this time. I am not complaining of the local authorities who are concerned in this matter, or at the fact that people in the locality are desirous of seeing the end of this gipsy encampment. What I am concerned about is that it is no solution of that problem to make use of the law so as to drive out these people from local government boundaries without any thought or provision as to where they should go.

There is a lot of evidence which has been gathered during the last 18 months on this business of closing recognised gipsy encampments, or the stopping places between one recognised encampment and another, and that evidence shows that the position has become much more serious. I must be fair, however, to the local authority that is concerned with my area. They have attempted, and are attempting, to find a solution by discussing the problem with the Kent County Council, and I think they have done everything they possibly can in that respect to find a solution of the problem of this encampment.

Even if they are successful, there are gipsies in Lancashire, in Hampshire and all over the country, and I submit, from my researches and the evidence which I have that, if there is to be any fair solution, this problem must be tackled by the Government of the day. I can think of no better Department to look into this problem—but there is plenty of evidence that they are not up-to-date in their information—than the Ministry of Local Government and Planning.

There is no doubt that this business of the gipsies and Romanies has been made much worse because other people have joined them. It is estimated that there are about 100,000 travelling gipsies, of whom as I have said 20,0000 are the real Romany gipsies. There is another problem to which I will make reference. I have been astonished at the number of young men, who were called up in the last war, and, during their period in the Service met a girl and got married, found, on demobilisation, that there was no place in the house for them, even when they had children or even one child, and had to take the only places which they could get, which were in a gipsy encampment. While they are there, they have a poor hope of ever getting their names on to the housing list of a local authority and eventually getting a house. That is, however, another problem, and there are other people who can speak about it. I am speaking purely for the gipsies.

On 20th March, I asked a Question of the Minister of Local Government and Planning, inquiring if he had any statement to make following his inquiries into the serious position which has developed for gipsies in finding places where they and their caravans could be accommodated without breaking the law. In answer to a supplementary question, the Minister said: Obviously, there are two sides to this subject. The local authorities only want to put the land to the best and most effective use, and I do not want to intervene unduly in the activities of local authorities in this matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1951; Vol. 485, c. 2296.] Of course there are two sides to it. The Minister knows full well the side of the local authorities. What is not known so well is the problem of the gipsies and their point of view. As it develops, and is developing, it becomes all the more urgent that somebody in Whitehall or near to Whitehall should be giving much more thought to this problem, with a view to finding a solution. It is not much good talking about democracy and supporting the universal Declaration of Human Rights, and not give proper attention to the rights of the Romanies in this country. The main plea I wish to make is that there is evidence that things have changed in the last few years, that there are not the sites for the gipsies to use, and that the gipsies are being used for part of the year—in Kent they are indispensable labour for the farmers, particularly in the hopping season. I believe that in an economy such as we have, we can make a greater use of them than we have done in the past.

I am alarmed because in conference at Blackpool, in 1950, the Rural District Councils' Association made it clear that in their view the gipsies were a nuisance, and they suggested that the police should be asked to keep them constantly on the move. That is not a solution, and when such an Association asks that that should be done, who can wonder that some people are worried about what is happening. There was the report of the New Forest Committee, 1947, Cmd. 7245, in which it is stated that they can probably be "cleaned up" only by educational work, possibly carried on over a generation, and by re-housing. The gipsies present the community with a social problem, and I should like to see a far greater effort made to solve it.

In the "Local Government Chronicle" of 14th May, 1949, there appears an article on gipsy camps in Kent, in which it is stated: It would seem that although eventually, through education to a better way of life, a considerable number of these people may settle down, there will always be a number of nomads for whom provision must be made by way of camps. Whoever wrote that was definitely of the opinion that whatever is done, some gipsies will still wish to wander from place to place. That must be faced.

It may be justified in the interests of progress, but it does not solve the problem of where the gipsies can go. I have found in my visits to the gipsies that there are some great possibilities in gipsy children. I well remember an occasion on the Belvedere Marshes at which my chairman was a gipsy. At the end of the meeting he asked if I would like to hear some of their children singing hymns. It was explained to me that some missionaries had taken the trouble to pitch their tent on the marshes, and Sunday after Sunday some of the gipsy children went there. About 50 to 60 children—it was pouring with rain at the time—sang hymns beautifully. It occurred to me then that we could not afford to allow these people to be looked upon as outcasts.

In a democracy we must be prepared to try to solve their problem or at least understand it I believe that to be a job for the Government of the day. In my research through the newspapers I found two, from which I should like to quote. There are many others. My first quotation is from the "Observer" of Sunday, 5th November, 1950, in which John Moore wrote: Racial persecution is abhorrent to the English, yet we have an oppressed minority whom we persecute in a very orderly and English way by means of by-laws and medical officers of health and a kindly village policeman on a bicycle. Gipsies used to be treated more tolerantly. It is only within the last few years that the situation of these wandering tribes has become really pitiful. In the "Sunday Empire News" of 24th September, 1950, there was an article by Jack Thomas entitled, "The people Britain doesn't want," in which he said of the gipsies: For no other reason than that they do not conform with the general mode of life they are being hounded up and down the countryside like vermin…So far, nobody has suggested concentration camps for the Romany. Authority has found subtler ways of persecuting him. If he pitches his camp by the roadside to rest and boil a jug of tea, police are soon on the scene to move him on. I had in the Central Lobby on Monday of this week a Romany gipsy, a lady, who has always lived in a caravan. Her husband was killed in the First World War while fighting with our Forces. Her only son was killed in the Second World War. He was the only male member of her family but there are daughters left. She made the point that if she had been a refugee Pole or Czech or Jew, something would have been done for her. All she asks now is that she should be able to live in peace for the rest of her days. She has money and is willing to pay if anyone will provide her with a house and a piece of land on which to park her caravan. If not, she would like to buy a piece of ground on which she could live.

I know of a number of cases like that. I have cases of gipsies who themselves denounce dirty gipsies and would like to see sterner measures taken against them. But the truth is that they are all classed alike, as people who have no right to be near a residential population. Many have told me they are willing to pay 30s. and more a week for a house if they could get it, or £1 a week for a piece of ground where, if there was water and sanitation, they would be quite happy.

I do not want to over-paint my picture. I believe that it will be a long struggle to get done what is necessary. All I wish to do is to introduce it now and get as much consideration as I possibly can; and, of course, to see that eventually these people get fair consideration. I have raised cases with the Home Secretary. When I ask what happens to the people after they have been evicted I get a reply similar to this letter, which I received as recently as 19th April, and which states: It is not known where the families went after service of the notice of eviction. It is time somebody got to know what happens to these people, because there is plenty of evidence that they are having a most miserable and pitiful time.

It is rather typical of the times that in some of the newspapers last Sunday there were headlines and stories about, "How I stole the Stone of Destiny." One story states that the Stone, after being taken from Westminster Abbey, was taken by car to a bleak and secluded wood in Kent and buried there. The account goes on: We had left a watcher near the spot and he reported that gipsies were camped near the Stone. After a brief conference our most imposing member approached them boldly and told them to move on as the police were coming to get them. They vanished rapidly. That is typical of the times. It is not only the police and the local authorities, but other people who tell them that they must move on.

There is a piece of land half way between Liverpool and Manchester which was looked upon as a place where gipsies could rest for a night on their way towards Manchester. That has recently been closed. I have an account from a person with a long life of public service who says that there was a recent occasion on which he saw a caravan containing four hungry children who had pulled up to prepare a meal. They were immediately ordered off the piece of ground, legally and correctly, as the owners did not want them on it. But that has been a spot which for a long time has been looked upon as waste ground.

British Railways police are getting rid of them from a piece of waste ground on that same road. There are some officials of local authorities who are not happy about this business. I think their view is summed up in a letter which I have from a town clerk, whom I will not name, but who is concerned about the matter. He says: I have interviewed many of them personally…"— this really gets to the crux of the whole matter— and most of them have said to me, 'We do not want to make any trouble, Guv'nor. Tell us where we can go, and we'll go.' That is what the gipsies need. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give some thought to this problem so that eventually there will be sites to which these people can go on where there will be water and proper sanitation for which they will pay. There should be a community centre where they will have opportunity for recreation and education, and where the children can be given talks on citizenship. Also, there should be facilities for the Ministry of Labour to make contact with the people, so that they can tell them of any work available in the locality.

When these people travel from one place to another, provision should be made so that there is no need for them to camp on the main roads and so that when they pull up for the night, they can camp in an area off a secondary road. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will have to face a difficult problem, but I should like to make one request which I do not think he will be able to refuse. I ask him to give to the gipsies an opportunity which is accorded to other sections of the community. I ask the Ministry to receive a deputation of four or five well-known gipsies so that, at least in his Department, the officials will have put to them at first-hand their point of view.

I cannot speak on behalf of the gipsies: I am not one, and one must be a gipsy to be able to speak on their behalf. If the Parliamentary Secretary agrees to receive a deputation, I am sure that many people will be deeply indebted to him.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) is my Member of Parliament. I am one of his constituents and he is my hon. Friend in the very heartiest sense of the term. The speech that we have heard from him shows that he is a warm-hearted man. I speak as a member of a local authority in his area which has possibly the biggest marsh and encampment problem of any place in the country. This problem is a great social evil in itself. I will not dilate on the difficulties of the local authority with regard to sanitation and Civil Defence and the problem of bringing children into the schools when there are objections from ordinary, decent folk in the surrounding neighbourhood. I have been chairman of the education committee, and my local authority has attempted to deal with the problem humanely.

The problem has been with us for years, and the difficulties must be seen to be believed. We have had many deputations to the Ministry, and this matter has been one of my main preoccupations during the last 10 or 12 years. In face of our long housing lists, obviously we cannot give undertakings about housing accommodation without considering our citizens who pay rates. But some time ago the Ministry of Health promised that they would treat this problem as a military operation. They promised to take this great community into Kent to where there are large military camps, where the people could be accommodated. That is what ought to be done.

It is largely because of the attitude of the county councils that we have failed so far. I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning, with his long experience of local government, will consider this problem fairly. Hard cases make bad law, but we should all thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford for the extremely human case he has put before us this afternoon.

4.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Local Government and Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

The time which is left to me is very short and, in case I forget to say so at the conclusion, may I say now that I shall be very glad at some time convenient to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dodds) to meet the deputation which he suggests bringing with him to discuss this problem. I admit straight away that although I know something of this problem my knowledge is mainly restricted to the Home Counties and the New Forest. I pay tribute to my Friend but with all respect I think he was rather colourful in the way he put forward his case.

There are three groups of problems here, and each of them has two sections. First, there are the gipsies who are generally on the move, going from place to place to work in agriculture and at other tasks—sometimes in show business—and who pull in at various parts of the country for the winter months. I was sorry that there was an inference that there was some persecution of these people. I am always willing to listen to evidence, but all the evidence I have been able to collect shows that there is, generally speaking, no persecution of these people. In the main they are good and clean citizens and they are accepted by many farmers. The police give them a good name and they do not create a problem. I have not the slightest doubt that occasionally some policeman may be officious with them, but if we hear of such a case we are only too pleased to deal with it.

Next, there is the class which is more static—those who remain on the same encampment practically all the year round. The next group contains those I might call shack-dwellers, and there are two sections within that group. First, there are those who are victims of the housing shortage and who would be only too glad to have a house if they could get one. Second, there are those who are almost habitual shack-dwellers, who would not accept a house if they were offered one and who would not be happy in a house.

The third group contains those who live in caravans and, again, there are two sections. There are those who are victims of the housing shortage and who have taken a caravan but who would only be too willing and delighted at any time to accept the opportunity of leaving a caravan and living in a normal house. But amongst the caravan-dwellers are some who, strange as it may seem to us, prefer life in a caravan, with all the dis- advantages which that life has in winter, to life in a permanent house.

Mr. Dodds

While I appreciate that my hon. Friend was disappointed at the short time left to him to reply, I spoke as quickly as I could and said what I could in the time available. If I had mentioned all I could have mentioned, we could have been here all night.

Mr. Lindgren

I agree; I was not grumbling. If my hon. Friend bears in mind my acceptance of the deputation and my willingness to discuss matters with them, I am sure that is all he could have hoped for. I gladly give that assurance.

Mr. Dodds

Thank you.

Mr. Lindgren

The term "gipsy" is used very loosely. I sometimes feel that the genuine gipsy, if one can use the term, is very much blackguarded and abused by the use of the term in reference to other types who are not gipsies at all. I must say from my experience in Hertfordshire, where gipsies come to a farm near where I live, that I have found them a first-class set of folk. I meet them as I pass the various places where they camp and I think they do a great job. Like other folk, they sometimes find things before they are lost, but that is not confined to gipsies. Sometimes we lose things like fountain pens when we leave them on our desks in the House of Commons.

Having dealt with the main problem and having given my hon. Friend the opportunity to bring a deputation to the Ministry, I will conclude by assuring him that we will give sympathetic consideration to the problem of the genuine gipsy. We are not prepared, however, to interfere with local authorities doing their statutory duty in seeing that sites are clean and ensuring that public health regulations are observed and the public generally are protected.

Mr. Dodds

On behalf of the gipsies, may I say that I am extremely grateful?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes to Five o'Clock.