HC Deb 23 July 1969 vol 787 cc1988-2000

5.19 a.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I shall try to be as brief as possible, but this is an important and complex subject which cannot be dealt with in five minutes.

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows from the debates we have had over the past two years, in what I have to say this morning I may appear to be critical of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, because that is the way the rules of the game operate. However, I want to make it clear from the start that I very much value the work that has been done by the hon. Gentleman, the Minister of Housing and Local Govment and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, in trying to tackle the very difficult problem of gipsies and other travellers, as well as the contribution made in more recent months by Lord Hughes, at the Scottish Office. I thank them for their endeavours. I believe that the real culprit is the Treasury and I wish that Treasury Ministers were present to answer the debate. However, this is the way the rules of the game operate and I must address my remarks to the Parliamentary Secretary, who I am delighted to see here.

I do not want to say anything about the Scottish situation in detail, because the hon. Gentleman is not responsible for it, but I refer him to the debate which took place on the Housing (Scotland) Bill on 30th June, when hon. Members on both sides said that there was a problem in Scotland, that it should be dealt with and that the survey recently conducted by the Scottish Development Department demonstrated that there was a much larger problem in Scotland than people have believed. In the conclusions of the report it is stated that no single solution will be appropriate in the Scottish context. It adds: The Secretary of State's view is that as much as possible should be done by local authorities in the way of temporary action before next winter to alleviate the immediate prolems which clearer guidance on the variety of long-term solutions will be available when the current study is completed. There are differences between the problem in Scotland and that in England and Wales. One obvious difference is that 30 per cent. of the travellers in Scotland are still living in tents and, therefore, their situation is rather analogous to the one Hampshire faced some time ago and which demanded perhaps a different kind of solution than found favour for the rest of England and Wales. I say no more than that, but I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland will follow up the exhortations he addressed to the local authorities to do something in the immediate future to cater for the gipsies in the forthcoming winter.

It is almost exactly a year since the Caravan Sites Act, 1968, received the Royal Assent. Five months earlier, when it was going through the House, the hon. Gentleman described it as … a notable step forward for two groups of people who, through no fault of their own, have suffered many trials and a good deal of harrassment. We shall do all we can to speed it on its way to the Statute Book. With the good will which has been shown by every hon. Member today, we can hope for a happy and quick passage for this very desirable Measure. In spite of this admirable sentiment, expressed officially on behalf of the Government, one of the groups who were to benefit from the Measure are still wait- ing, because the whole of Part II, which deals mainly with the provision of caravan sites for gipsies, only comes into operation when the Minister of Housing and Local Government makes an Order to that effect.

Over the whole of this 12 month period, the Minister has refused to bring Part II into operation in spite of continous pressure from hon. Members, the Gipsy Council, the National Council for Civil Liberties, various Church organisations, the National Council of Women and many private citizens. The excuse given for not doing something which was said to be so desirable has been the need to limit public spending while the country is going through severe economic difficulties, and, to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, in the same speech from which I have quoted he gave a hint of this when he said, referring to local authorities: Since we are exhorting them not to increase their numbers of staff and to make the best use of existing staff, it may be that we cannot immediately implement this part of the Bill."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1968; Vol. 759, c. 1981–2.] No one listening to that speech would have guessed that, a year later, nothing would have been done to bring it into operation.

Is the economic situation so desperate that the Government have to penalise a section of the community which, of all people, is least able to stick up for itself? During the last few months, it has been announced that higher civil servants and the heads of nationalised industries are to receive substantial increases in pay which are, no doubt, fully justified on the criteria laid down in the Government's prices and incomes policy. But if we can afford to pay those increases to those higher civil servants, increases which will cost the taxpayers £1,600,000, how is it that we cannot allow local authorities to spend about one-twentieth of that sum on eliminating what is admitted by the Government to be an acute human problem affecting, as it does, not only the gipsies themselves, but many householders who have to suffer the annoyance and disturbance which are invariably caused by unauthorised encampments?

Nor can the Government claim consistency in this matter. In the Session 1967–68, 13 Acts were passed by which new duties were placed on local authorities, including the Caravan Sites Act. All the other 12 are in operation and this is the only one which has not been put into effect. The Parliamentary Secretary was not able to give me the overall cost of these Measures, because, as he explained very kindly in a letter to me, it would have been necessary to circularise local authorities and put them to a great deal of work to provide this information.

But he has been able to give me the figure for the Civic Amenities Act, which is officially estimated to cost £100,000 annually. I am wholly in sympathy with the objects of that Act, particularly those provisions which deal with abandoned vehicles and other refuse from which my constituency suffers. But if the Caravan Sites Act were in operation, there would be far less work for local authorities to do in clearing up the astonishing quantities of rubbish which accumulate in unofficial gipsy camps.

I come now to the argument about the cost of implementing Part II. I begin with a quotation from the right hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) who, when we were discussing the rate support grant, said that I must take into account the fact that the setting up of permanent caravan sites will mean capital expenditure which in the present situation we could not enter into …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1969; Vol. 775, c. 144.] At the same time, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, perhaps rightly, is encouraging local authorities to set up official sites on a voluntary basis. In the Ministry's Circular 49/68 of 23rd August, last year, it was stated that an urgent need existed an dthat loan sanction applications, whether for temporary or permanent sites, should be considered sympathetically.

In another place, in a debate initiated by Lord Willis, Lord Kennet put it even more succinctly when he said: The Government's policy in this is perfectly clear. It is to say to the local authorities … We will give you loan sanction if your proposal is anything like a proper one. For heaven's sake! get ahead and do it."—[OFFICTAL REPORT, House of Lords; 13th Feb, 1969; Vol. 299, c. 680.] Why not be logical and make the obligation to provide better sites mandatory, as Lord Kennet implied should be done?

What would be the cost if the Minister agreed to my proposal? In answer to a Question which I asked on 20th December, the Minister of Planning and Land said that the provision of a single pitch with individual toilet facilities would cost £1,300, including a figure of £300 for the land. Some sites have communal toilets, but let us take this as the maximum figure which is unlikely to be exceeded, because of the differences in standards between one local authority and another. The total loan charges would run to £125 per pitch, that is, for a pitch with individual toilets. Assuming that the rent that could be charged for a site with such a high standard of facilities would be £2 a week, after deducting the rent from the loan charges the cost to the local authority would be a mere £21.

On 13th July, in another Answer, the Minister for Planning and Land said that 396 pitches had been provided on official sites as at 30th June, and that this represented about 10 per cent, of the total required to accommodate all the gipsy families in England and Wales. Therefore, we can work out what the total number of pitches should be. We can multiply this by £21 and arrive at the total cost. The figure of £21 times 3,600—the number of additional sites which should be provided—comes to £75,000 a year.

I emphasise that the burden would not fall on local authorities immediately, even if the Minister made the necessary Order tomorrow. Months if not years in some cases, would have to elapse while suitable land is identified, objections to the proposals of the county council are heard, the local authority then obtains loan sanction, the construction of the site is put out to tender, and there is, finally, the time of the actual construction work. Not all this expenditure would fall on the local authority, because about 50 per cent. of it would be repayable in the form of rate support grant.

Let me next consider what expenses are being incurred by local authorities as a direct result of the Government's failure to implement the Act. I have been trying to find out, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, how much is being spent on the removal of gipsies from unauthorised sites, on the clearing of land which has been occupied by gipsies in the past, on the construction of barriers to prevent gipsies from occupying land, and on connected purposes such as the legal cost of enforcement proceedings and the salaries of persons employed in dealing with the gipsy problem.

This has not been an easy task, because most local authorities do not identify their costs in this form. For instance, one of the London boroughs which replied to my query said: Much time is spent by council officers on matters attributable to the occupation of land by gipsies but the cost of this is not readily assessed, as no direct charge is made to any particular function. A large number of the replies which we had from local authorities have made this kind of proviso to the figures which they have been able to give, where they have been able to give any figures at all.

However, with this in mind, and knowing that the amounts which have been given must fall a good deal short of the real cost, we have ascertained that four county councils are spending £1,650 between them, while eight county and London boroughs are spending £21,660. This makes absolute nonsense of Lord Kennet's calculation in answering the debate intitiated by Lord Willis on 13th February. Let me assume, as he said, that there are 24 county and London boroughs with a gipsy problem and, further, that their average spending is the same as that of the eight for which the figures are available. Then, the total annual cost of these totally unproductive ways of trying to cope with the gipsy problem comes to £74,000, or about £1,000 less than doing the job properly.

For the reasons which I have given, the wasteful spending must amount to much more than £74,000, so a saving would result from adopting the right policy. I think that I have said enough to dispose of the bogus financial arguments used by the Treasury. I know that it must be the Treasury, I hope that I am not embarrassing the Parliamentary Secretary when I say that, because I know how sympathetic he is to this matter.

Having disposed of those arguments, I turn now to only one aspect of the serious human problems which we are creating by our failure to act. I think that this is by far the most important in the long-term—that is, the educational aspects of the problem. Lord Kennet himself said: … of course, the most urgent and deplorable part of their present situation is not getting the children to school."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords; 13th February, 1969; Vol. 299, c. 679.] He gave an estimate of 4,000 gipsy children who are being denied the chance of education.

Here, I refer briefly to the study which was carried out by Mrs. Adams at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and Mr. Smith, of the Leicester College of Education, which was published as Appendix 12 to the Plowden Report. The authors of the study concluded that a majority of gipsy parents want their children to attend school. I can certainly confirm this from the discussions I have had with gipsies in my constituency and with officials of the Gipsy Council. The authors went on to say this: Since the majority of families still travel, staying either from choice or necessity for relatively short periods in each place, normal education is not feasible. Our evidence suggests that less than 10 per cent. Of the children of school age are attending school; the great majority are growing up illiterate. One can see, therefore, that it is no exaggeration to say, as the Plowden Report does, that gipsy children's educational needs are both extreme and largely unmet. They cannot even be met effectively, the report states, by measures of the kind that are recommended for the more general problems of urban deprivation. The report says: They will require special attention and carefully planned action. Yet the Secretary of State for Education and Science has sponsored no further research on this problem since the Plowden Report was published, as he told me in reply to a Question on 12th June. Although there is a programme of aid for deprived urban areas costing £20 million to £25 million, not one penny has gone to the most deprived people in the whole country. Indeed, the Home Office announced in a statement on 30th June tint an additional £4½ million worth of approvals for the urban aid programme is forthcoming and it said that many of the schemes which are now proposed under this additional £4½ million grant are for the education, health and care of children.

When the original programme was announced in the House on 22nd July the Home Secretary said: The purpose of this programme is to supplement the Government's other social and legislative measures to ensure as far as we can that all our citizens have an equal opportunity in life."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 22nd July, 1968; Vol. 768, c. 41.] If the Home Secretary will refresh his memory by re-reading Appendix 12 of the Plowden Report, from which I have quoted, I am sure that he will be forced to agree with me that the scales are weighted even more heavily against gipsy children than they are against the children of immigrants. So why cannot he ensure, in consultation with his colleagues, that some fraction of this money available is spent where it is most needed?

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to a suggestion which has been made by a friend of mine who is a teacher which might be tried out on a very modest budget as an experiment. My friend writes: I think it might be possible to find ten or a dozen volunteer qualified teachers who would be willing to travel once a week within a 50-mile radius of London. It would probably be necessary to find some source of funds to at least pay for their petrol—particularly if the groups they were visiting were mobile. This would, however, cost only some £70 per teacher per annum and would enable a measure of help to reach a very much larger number of children than could be reached by appointing full-time teachers to such work. The teachers would have to be attached to the particular gipsy groups, since with such a loose organisation it would not be possible to co-ordinate methods in such a way as to allow of groups of children being handed on from one teacher to another at frequent intervals. I think that my friend has the germ of an extremely good idea. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would investigate the possibility of getting some of the additional £4½ million which has been announced by the Home Secretary allocated to this purpose. Ultimately, the educational deprivation of gipsy children and the consequent impossibility of fitting adults into the framework of society because of the limited job opportunities that result from their illiteracy and from the difference between their mores and those of the settled population will be eliminated only if we stop hounding them from place to place and if local authorities would stop shovelling the problems over their borders as they have done in the past.

I know that there are signs of hope, as, for example, in Leeds and in the West Midlands, where some of the recent debates in this House may have assisted to secure a more favourable attitude. It is, however, quite wrong that the few progressive local authorities, plus one or two which have become involved, paradoxically, as a result of trying to escape from their responsibilities, should have to shoulder the whole burden.

All the circulars and all the Ministerial exhortations over the years have practically not scratched the surface of the problem. I calculate that if we go on providing accommodation for gipsies at the same pace as during the last year, it will be 58 years before there is even sufficient accommodation for the existing gipsy population, making no allowances for growth. As the Lord Willis has said, this is a national scandal. It is a disgrace to a civilised nation which cannot be tolerated a moment longer. I beg the Minister not to accept the inhuman and un-Christian veto of the Treasury but to act now, before another winter brings further misery to these forgotten people.

In the debate on Second Reading of the Caravan Sites Bill last year, I paid tribute to the late Norman Dodds, our friend and colleague, who fought a lonely battle on behalf of the gipsies over the last 15 years of his life. I do so again today, because he did more than anyone to awaken the conscience of this House and to point the way to a solution.

Norman Dodds wrote a book about the travelling people just before his untimely death in 1965, and on the last page he said these words, which are still as true today as they were four years ago: Once a national policy has been conceived and implemented, and a positive directive issued, then, and then only, will the local authorities shoulder their manifest responsibility in this matter. This is what we must press for, and press for with all our might.

5.42 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

I should like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) for his kindly references both to myself and to my joint colleague, Lord Kennet, and, indeed, to the Scottish Minister, Lord Hughes. The hon. Member might well have been more angry with us because Part II of his Act has not been implemented. On the other hand, I am sure that he knows that the Department and the Government are in complete sympathy with what he wishes to achieve, and we shall do all we can, within the economic framework within which we have to operate, to reach that objective.

The hon. Gentleman concluded by referring to one who was known to all of us present in the Chamber, and certainly to the present occupant of the Chair—our late colleague Norman Dodds. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman did so because sometimes one wonders, when one is pressing on, sometimes almost alone, concerned with a problem, whether it will ever have any practical effect. But the work done by Norman Dodds and the trail he blazed has helped enormously with the gipsy community, particularly because the hon. Member for Orpington has carried on the noble work which our late colleague Norman Dodds began.

The hon. Gentleman always speaks with great compassion on this subject and backs it up with detailed knowledge. The gipsy community, this House and, indeed, all those who want to see this problem solved are very much in his debt. I would like to couple his name with that of Norman Dodds in this matter.

I should like to begin by saying two things. First of all, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we are as unhappy as he is about the continuing situation of the gipsies and especially the problem that large numbers of gipsy children are not getting an adequate education. I think that this is probably the greatest tragedy of all. We know a solution of the problem is practicable. It is possible to solve this problem, we believe and he believes, by the implementation of Part II of what is rightly called the Lubbock Act, although we all like to think we have a share in its parentage. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no complacency on our part and no desire to diminish any of the criticisms or any of the hon. Gentleman's descriptions of the situation.

We are unhappy about the present position, and that is another reason why we are grateful for his continuing interest, because the country, the local authorities, and the Government—no one—must ever be allowed for a moment to forget that this situation continues to exist and demands a solution, which we are determined to apply as soon as we possibly can. I start by saying that be- cause I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows the great personal concern of my joint colleague, Lord Kennet, who is charged, under my right hon. Friend, with looking at the policy generally in relation to gipsies.

The second thing I would say, and I put it on the record now, and probably will again before I finish, is that nothing would give my right hon. Friend greater pleasure than that I should announce tonight or on 1st August or 1st December, whatever the date may be, that Part II is to be implemented. In passing may I say that, as is probably known to the House, my right hon. Friend has been a little under the weather and has been out of the office, but he is making very good progress. I thought the House would like to know that. Nothing would give him greater pleasure than that I could announce the implementation of Part II, but all I can say to the hon. Gentleman, though I know it will not be of immediate comfort either to him or to the gipsies, is that I give him the absolute assurance that as soon as economic circumstances permit Part II will be implemented. We stand by that, and the hon. Gentleman's interest and our concern as a Department are, I think, guarantees that this matter will never be overlooked, and, at the very moment we can do so, we will implement Part II.

Some progress has been made towards the solution. It is, roughly, a year, as the hon. Gentleman says, since the Bill reached the Statute Book. As he knows, in the period from June, 1968, to June, 1969, a further 62 pitches have been provided at a cost of some £30,000. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this rate is not nearly fast enough by any means, and with his estimate of how long it may take to solve the problem at that rate, but, at least, something has been done. Four London boroughs—two more now—are providing sites. I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned Leeds, where, on 15th July, 22 pitches became available. We appreciate what Leeds has done. It is the first county borough to act in this way, and in just such a region where provision ought to be made, and I only hope that this excellent example which Leeds has given will be followed by other county boroughs. So a little has been done; but I would not by any means quarrel with the hon. Gentleman's estimate of the rate of progress.

Reference was then made to the different nature of the problem in Scotland. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his remarks about the need to make provision there will be drawn to the attention of my colleagues and right hon. Friends who are dealing with the Scottish problem.

A major part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was directed at the question of the education of gipsy children, which is probably, as I said, the greatest tragedy. But, of course, the solution of the problem also depends largely on whether or not gipsies can be found a permanent site. Whatever other scheme is proposed, it is far less satisfactory than having the children in one place where they can go to one school. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has promised to investigate particular cases of difficulty brought to him by the Gipsy Council. I gather that some cases have already been submitted.

I should like to pass on to the Home Office and to the Department of Education and Science the suggestion—I confess that I have not heard it previously—of the possibility of travelling teachers. I believe that some years ago a similar scheme operated for children who lived on barges. Bearing in mind the physical difficulties which were involved, that scheme was quite successful in that for some days in each month the children got some formal instruction. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the suggestion and I hope that he will thank his friend who originally brought it forward. I will see that it is considered.

Mention was made of the possible net costs of implementing Part II. I have no quarrel with the hon. Gentleman's figures, nor any criticisms to make, except that he left out of account the factor of maintenance and supervision. The matter of supervision will need to be faced by authorities which establish sites and is a substantial one. I am sure that a great deal of abortive expenditure involved merely moving gipsies or in fencing off land. I hope the time is not too far off when he can convert that into positive expenditure to solve the problem.

In the meantime through all the means at our disposal we are urging the autho- rities not to move on gipsies until at least they have provided one site. In the interim period we will look with every favour on applications for loan sanction. I thing there will be further response to that possibility, though I cannot suggest we shall do much better in the year ahead than we did in 1968. I cannot anticipate greater success, but I hope that we shall have some.

Finally, in thanking the hon. Gentleman, I would reiterate that as soon as public expenditure can be permitted to advance because we are meeting our economic targets, we shall be only too delighted to bring in Part II. The Government are determined to keep public expenditure within certain broad totals, and until this aim is achieved there are bound to be things which cannot be done. However, we are discussing a desirable objective and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is sometimes possible to achieve an objective faster than one might have thought at one time.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this subject. The net additional expenditure may be smaller than we originally thought. Our dialogue on this issue is a continuing one, and that is another reason for welcoming this debate, which has been most constructive. We will consider everything the hon. Gentleman said, and I assure him that nobody will be happier than my right hon. Friend when Part II of the Act is implemented.