HC Deb 13 May 1963 vol 677 cc1097-108

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

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

This debate arises from a Question that I asked on 26th March about a letter sent to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on behalf of the general secretary of the National Farmers' Union making serious allegations against those living at Cobham Camp in Kent. The Parliamentary Secretary, replying, stated that the letter was based on a number of misunderstandings and, in view of the difficulties in finding sites for gypsies, he expressed the opinion that the least that was said about the matter the better.

I pay the most sincere tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary for his painstaking efforts to find a solution to this difficult human problem, but I disagree with him on this matter. In my opinion, to fail to challenge what one knows to be false charges of a serious nature can only make it that much more difficult to get the sites that are so urgently required.

The allegations of which I am complaining have been bandied about amongst branches of the N.F.U. by responsible people who took not the slightest precaution to check up on them. Most of the 300 men, women and children who were evicted from the Darenth Woods, Dartford, in the middle of the winter of 1961 and deposited on the grass verge of one of Britain's busiest trunk roads are now at the Cobham Camp. They lived on the verge of the A.2 for seven months, within a few feet of a roaring stream of traffic and, although within 20 miles of the capital city of the Welfare State, officialdom failed to provide them with a water tap, a toilet or a dustbin.

Then came the generous offer by Mr. R. J. Billings, a local farmer and builder, who was moved by their plight on the grass verge, particularly the plight of the children, which would move any but the stoniest of hearts. He provided a 6k-acre site at Cobham, Kent, as a temporary camp until the Kent County Council could get things organised.

A public inquiry was held and the Minister approved the site for two years, but the application for a maximum of 38 caravans was increased—a remarkable decision by the Minister—to the formidable total of 50 caravans, despite all the objections, whether they were from the local people or because of the traffic hazards, which are very much to the fore in this busy village.

The go-ahead was given in August last and within a short while the 50 families moved in, most of them direct from the hell of the Dover Road. There was no question of selecting the families. It was the first 50 who arrived—the good, the not-so-good and some real problem families. There is as much class distinction amongst them in the camp as there is to be found in my Parliamentary constituency or, probably, any other constituency.

I know from bitter experience that it requires only one of them to do something wrong and everyone in the camp has to bear the blame and the shame. How different it is in the case of house dwellers. I have been tempted at times to evict one or two of the trouble-making families, but I have resisted doing so because it is no solution to transfer the trouble-makers elsewhere. They need help more than the good ones and, besides, there can be no hope for the children by merely moving them on.

With perseverance, I have been able to see improvements in even the worst of them, and I believe that there are no hopeless cases at Cobham. With some of them, however, it is a long-term problem. After nine months of close contact with them at Cobham, I can say with conviction that the majority of families there could with credit take their place in the community if given a proper chance. Because, however, society has largely ostracised them, the good and the bad, they tend to be suspicious and what people call shifty. The children are condemned to be outcasts and, by so doing, perpetuate the blot on our country.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gypsies were the victims of suspicion and of fear all over Europe. The belief that they practised the black arts and stole children led to severe measures being taken against them and they were made scapegoats for all forms of shadowy double-dealing.

Great strides have been made for the better in many European countries, but England and Wales remain amongst the most backward of them. That does not, however, prevent us in this country from denouncing the unsavoury activities of the segregationalists in South Africa and the Southern States of America. We can ill afford to do it with some of the examples on our own doorstep.

At Cobham some wonderfully courageous and public-spirited people have come forward unselfishly to give their co-operation in the difficult task of ensuring, as far as possible, a peaceful co-existence between the village and the caravan people and I cannot speak too highly of them. Unfortunately, it is not good deeds which get into the news. It is evil and malicious gossip which make the greatest mark. I well remember in my boyhood days in a village in the north of England that when the gypsies came to the area that was the signal for some of the locals to engage in activities which they knew well would be blamed on the gypsies.

This state of affairs is all too true today and the picture of the gypsies is much blacker than it should be. As one man at Cobham recently said to me, "They steal everything. Whether they do or not I cannot get to sleep for the feeling they might." I must confess that I, too, was suspicious of them, but I know from my close association with many families how outstandingly honest they can be, possibly because I have gone out of my way to treat them as human beings. In such an atmosphere it makes me angry to see them branded as scoundrels. What can one expect, in such an atmosphere, of the children when they grow up?

During the arctic conditions one of the worthy citizens of Cobham rang me up one night and in most abusive terms told me that the gypsies had used a bulldozer to move the snow from the entrance to their camp and moved it so that it completely blocked the roadway to his home and the homes of his neighbours. Investigation, however, showed that this had been done by county council workmen with a snow-plough. In spite of my writing him, sending him a stamped enclosed envelope, and eventually a registered letter, this gentleman did not see fit to send any reply, and did not even return my stamped addressed envelope. I could give many examples of intolerance and of a dishonest attitude, but time forbids.

This debate arises from actions of highly-placed officials of the National Farmers' Union who have done much wrongfully to blacken the people of Cobham Camp. I have time to give only one example. I quote from a letter I received from the Kent county secretary of the National Farmers' Union. It is dated 14th January, 1963, and says: One of my members, Mr. T. Jackson, who occupies"—

Mr. Speaker

Will the hon. Member help me? I do not follow how the Minister is responsible for the activities of the National Farmers' Union. It is not clear to me at the moment.

Mr. Dodds

But, Mr. Speaker, I am trying to show the circumstances which have arisen in Kent, and there have been statements by various people, including the man I spoke about before, about the gypsies. I should have thought it all to be relevant evidence to show why action should be taken to ensure that the truth is known to all concerned. I should like, if I may, to proceed to give details which affect very considerably the people of the camp and those like myself who are endeavouring to help settle this social problem. The letter went on to say there had been complaints…that serious thefts of poultry occurred during the period before Christmas and that two camp occupiers have been charged with the offence. I replied stating that I believed that these and other allegations were untrue and I asked for more details at an early date. As no reply was forthcoming I wrote again on 20th February, a month after my previous letter—

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) must realise that all we can discuss in this context is something for which there is Ministerial responsibility for administration, and this account of what are said to be false allegations does not assist me in the matter.

Mr. Dodds

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, that you will not allow it. I believe that it is of direct importance to ordinary people on the site. It may be that because of these statements action can be taken to move them from the site to another part of Kent. This will mean that the children will be denied the opportunity of going to school. I should have thought that it was the right of any individual to have a protest made in this House, particularly so in this case when the site was approved by the Minister, and, of course, the licence can be taken away. But, Mr. Speaker, if you insist that this shall not be done, then the protests of these individuals, protests which are of great importance to individuals, will have to remain unsaid in this House.

There are certain aspects of this site which I should like to mention, and I should like to put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that I was able to ask a Question in the House on 26th March about a letter from the general secretary of the National Farmers' Union, but I will not proceed with that because I must, of course, follow your instructions.

Despite all these unsatisfactory features, there are some very pleasing ones with regard to this site. It is of great importance to see the improvement which has taken place among the many children attending the schools in Cobham and Gravesend. For some of the children it is the first time they have been at school even when they have reached the age of eight, nine or ten.

There has also been a good response in regard to the payment of rent and rates. It is said by many people that the gypsies never pay rent and rates. It would be an eye-opener to some of these people to inspect the rent books; they would see that the gypsies, when they get an opportunity, are prepared to pay rent and rates. It is the first time that some of them have done it in their lives, and yet they are doing it willingly because of the blessings that they get there. To have a supply of drinking water near them is looked upon as a great blessing. The provision of an electricity supply has had a profound effect on most of them, particularly those who have television. Little or no trouble is experienced with the families which have television. They love it and spend a great deal of time indoors in the evenings instead of outdoors around fires or at public houses. More than half the caravans have television, and this is in spite of the fact that the electricity supply is on the site for only a limited time, not for the 10 or 15 years that most people would require for putting capital investment into the site. Electric lighting instead of candles or oil lamps is greatly appreciated, and the pleasure that an electric iron gives a woman who previously resorted to the old flat-iron heated in the fire has to be seen to be believed.

The benefits that the people have derived have brought improvements within a few months, but a long-term programme is needed if the problem is to be dealt with properly. I have asked the Kent County Council several times for a multipurpose welfare worker for these people, and time after time it has not only turned the proposal down but is not prepared to discuss it. I am pleased to learn from the Ministry that the Hampshire County Council proposes to supply a welfare worker for a camp which it is setting up, and I only wish that the Kent County Council would do the same.

We have people on the camp site who for years have worked on farms in Essex for several months each year, but for the winter months they make use of Kent because of the persecution in Essex against camping on the roadsides. I am pleased to know that a move is being made in Essex to face up to the responsibilities there. Some of our campers have already gone over to Essex, but, of course, they believe that they will be able to return to Kent in the winter.

The citizens of Cobham have a right to expect relief at an early date from the burden that has been thrust upon them, and I hope that the Minister has some good news for them tonight. The sudden invasion has had a marked effect on the life of a small and beautiful village. Even the most generous of its inhabitants must be looking forward to the setting up of the 10 permanent camps proposed by the Kent County Council People remember, as I do, the Press statement made in July last year on behalf of the Council, which said: There is some reason to hope that action is now in sight to secure at least 10 sites for caravans in Kent None of these came into existence last winter. What about this winter? On 26th March last, I asked a question about possibilities for next winter and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made this reply: …six and seven sites should be in operation in the county for next winter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1963; Vol. 674, c. 1104.] Can he give us more information now? Is he still satisfied that there will be six or seven next year? What is disturbing most people is the length of time it takes to get permission to use a site even when a local council decides that it wants to make its contribution to this human problem.

There is a feeling, in view of the urgency of the need for sites, that the Ministry could do more to expedite matters. I understand that the Minister is to make an announcement about applications by Stroud Rural District Council to establish a camp for gypsies and other travellers at Cuxton. What about the application of West Mailing Rural District Council for Wateringbury? A public inquiry was held a few days before the inquiry about Cuxton. West Mailing is restive about the delay, and I am sure that many people in different parts of Kent would like to know what other sites are contemplated in the six or seven he mentioned. The need is great and urgent, particularly for the many children wasting their lives being pushed about from pillar to post. This is a blot on our good name.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

As the Cobham site lies within my constituency, and, as the hon. Member knows, I have had some interest in this venture since it started, perhaps I might say a few words. I want to say firmly at once that whatever deficiencies may have arisen in the running of the site at Cobham, and whatever difficulties there may have been between the inhabitants of the site and the people who live in the village, no blame can be attached to the hon. Member. Under the circumstances, he has done a job almost beyond belief, but my theme tonight is that the job landed on him—landed on him by the Ministry—was one no man could possibly do.

The site was unsuitable in the first place, and I told this to the Ministry at the time. It is unsuitable in siting and in the number of caravans. I do not believe it possible for any man to control a site of this size with upwards of 200 people on it, particularly through the sort of weather we have been having—and I have been living close to the site—without difficulties arising.

Difficulties have arisen. You have said, Mr. Speaker, that it is out of order for us to refer to them, so I merely say that all the actions of the N.F.U. do not commend themselves to me. But I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there have been difficulties with dogs on the site, and he is fair-minded enough to agree also that the faults have not been all on one side. Certainly the local farmers have had some right to complain. But as he has not gone into all these controversial problems I do not propose to do so either.

At a meeting of representatives of the local parish council and the Kent County Council at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, a large number of questions about the Cobham site were raised, and in particular we referred to a number of matters which the hon. Member has raised tonight. Where is this curiously named multi-purpose social worker about whom so much has been heard and of whom so little has been seen? We should very much welcome some further information about him or her, whichever sex this curious person may possess, and we should also very much welcome some action on his or her part, which is clearly something we need to have, as the hon. Member would agree.

Where are the other sites we were promised? Cuxton is also in my constituency and I am in a slight difficulty, but it is much more suitable than Cobham, as I am sure all those who know the area would agree. I hope that the hon Member will remember what he said at the beginning of this controversy—that if the rural council provided another site for 12 people and 12 people went from the site at Cobham to that other site, he would not replace that number at Cobham. I know that the people at Cobham rely very much on the promise of the hon. Member, but it is not enough. The site as a whole is too large and I urge the Minister again to look at the terms of the permission which was given last July.

Will he consider the possibility of finding suitable sites, I hope in the course of this spring and summer, in the County of Kent or elsewhere and reducing the number on the Cobham site to manageable proportions? I am sure that there is the key to the whole problem of the difficulties between the people on the site and the people in the village. If we could cut down the number on the site, the people in the village would be happier. They are all my constituents and I therefore have to be concerned with both and I try as hard as I can not to take sides between the two. I am sure that the problem arises for excessive numbers more than anything else.

The gypsies will now be moving from the Cobham site into the fields for the summer harvest. Would it not be possible now to make some alternative arrangement? If it is, when the autumn conies and we have a smaller and more manageable site, nobody will be happier than I than to see the hon. Member still in charge as manager.

11.3 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

There was a stage during the speech of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) when I was beginning to think that my proper submission to you, Mr. Speaker, would be that there was no case to answer, because I felt that I had no right and no purpose to judge a series of correspondence between the hon. Member and anybody else. However, as this debate arose from a Question, perhaps it would be right to add that in reply to the hon. Member I said that I would send him a copy of the Departmental reply to the letter, which I hope he received, and which made it clear that we did not in any way support the allegations which were made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) made the point, which I accept, that to a large extent the hon. Member's task is superhuman owing to the sheer numbers on the site and, as my hon. Friend put it, the unsuitability of the site in terms of size and position in the first place. I stress that at no time did any of us pretend that this was an ideal site. We were faced with a situation, as the hon. Member pointed out, in which a large number of itinerant people, whether they are called gypsies or otherwise, are camping on the side of the A.2.

What my hon. Friend fails to realise is that my right hon. Friend and his Department have no power whatever to acquire sites and run caravan sites. We can only sometimes persuade, but the initiative must come from the local authority. Because of our appellate position, there are limits to the extent to which we can say of a particular site, "Yes, at all costs you shall have it." We have an appellate jurisdiction, and we have a duty to hear objectors, and in the case of a site such as the West Mailing one which involves a compulsory purchase order we also have a duty to hear the views of the owner. There are, therefore, limits to the extent to which we can expedite matters, and there are definite limits to the extent to which we can expedite the provision of the sites, because the initiative must come either from the owner or from somebody who can acquire, whether it be the local authority or some private person.

With regard to the welfare problem, I appreciate that things would probably be easier if, instead of having a welfare worker for the children and somebody else for health, and so on, there was one person who could visit these people. There would be a much better chance of establishing the confidence that is necessary, but here again we are not entirely our own masters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend asked, where is this welfare worker?

The responsibility for these matters rests with the county council which takes the view that it has no power to have a multi-purpose welfare worker. It has a children's department, and a health department, and so on, but not one worker to cover all the departments. The only way to find a welfare worker of this type, of this universality, of this calibre, is to look for him through one of the well-known national charities. We have made approaches in this connection, and we have had an encouraging response, but if somebody is required more or less full time, means have to be found for employing him. This matter is now under consideration with the Kent County Council, and I am not despondent as to the result.

Summer is coming, and a lot of these people will be moving out. The matter is, therefore, not so urgent as it would be if the winter were almost upon us. We are paying great attention to this problem and I very much hope that something will emerge, but it will emerge only by co-operation with the voluntary bodies, because the powers of direction are not available.

As to cutting down the size of this site. I assure my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that as other sites become available we shall certainly give every consideration to that and see what measures are necessary to bring this about.

Mr. Dodds

What about the other sites?

Mr. Corfield

I cannot be definite, but there are other sites in the pipeline. My information is that Kent is satisfied that it will be able to reach the target of six or seven, but I cannot take personal responsibility for that because they come to my Department on appeal only. If they do not come to us, permission may be given by the Kent County Council.

Mr. J. Wells

What about Essex?

Mr. Corfield

I am glad to say that the councils of the Home Counties are showing definite signs of taking action. There were one or two laggards, and I am glad to say that Essex, Sussex, and others are now disposed to realise that they have a problem in which they must co-operate if there is not to be a crossing of boundaries, and so on, by those who are trying—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.