HC Deb 23 May 1969 vol 784 cc852-66
Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that this debate will finish at 1.15.

12.27 p.m.

Sir Henry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid (Walsall, South)

I should like to begin by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, most genuinely and sincerely for having selected for discussion the subject of gipsies in the West Midlands, which is a burning question in the area. It has a special topicality for discussion at the moment.

I have not heard such a long speech from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) since he used to speak on the Finance Bill. I am pleased to see his hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, because we know how conscientious he is and we know his devotion to these matters. He will not be surprised if I tell him that, unlike the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), I shall not be paying compliments to the Government.

In raising this matter I have the moral and physical support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Donald Williams).

I am in a curiously unique position on this topic. In my constituency is the urban district council of Aldridge, which has provided a caravan site, and the county council of Walsall, is coming under pressure from the Minister to do the same. Therefore, I can see both sides of the question.

I will hark back, for the sake of the record, to the Caravan Sites Act, 1968, which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) introduced to this House and on which, I believe, he received Government support. Part II of the Act dealt with the provision of sites by the local authority, and further provisions dealt with the control of unauthorised encampments. In other words, the philosophy was that a local authority, provided that it produced a number of sites for itinerants, would have control of unauthorised encampments. The Government have not thought fit to implement Part II of the Act, and it is rather a statement of intention than a statement of reality.

When I had the honour to introduce the Walsall Corporation Bill to this House for Second Reading on 23rd April, great exception was taken by the hon. Member for Orpington to the fact that the Walsall Corporation sought control of unauthorised encampments but made no provision for sites. It did not include in its Measure two Clauses, Nos. 116 and 117. I do not think that I need detail them now, but they made it unlawful to place a movable dwelling on land without the consent of the owner of the land, and that such movable dwellings should not be used for human habitation and kept on land in the borough without the approval of the corporation.

To a large extent, the Bill was a consolidation Measure, and it ran into what can only be described as very heavy weather. When the Joint Parliamentary Secretary intervened in the debate, he said, referring to his Minister: My right hon. Friend has it in mind to suggest to the appropriate Committee in his reports that the caravan provisions should not be allowed or, if the Committee decided to the contrary, that the provision should be limited by the requirement that the provisions should be allowed in the Bill only on the understanding that sites are first prepared and that the provisions would lapse when Part II of the Caravan Sites Act comes into operation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1969; Vol. 781, c. 602.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that we cannot debate the Walsall Corporation Bill in this debate. We are on the Adjournment.

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I do not want to take up the time of the House, but this is essential background to this Adjournment Motion.

I believe that if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary had not intervened in this sense, there was a good chance that the Bill might not have been given a Second Reading. There was important Government business following it, and in my view that caused the Government to allow the Bill to get a Second Reading.

When the Bill was considered by the Select Committee, the Chairman said: The Committee has been impressed with the difficulties and indeed with the wish to maintain high standards in the Borough of Walsall and, I think I can say on behalf of all my colleagues, has been dismayed at the evidence of what seems almost guerilla warfare which goes on … and the Committee has decided that both Clauses 116 and 117 may be permitted to continue only under the conditions that have been mentioned … i.e., only up to the time that Part II of the relevant Act comes into force and subject to the provision by Walsall of 15 pitches for the caravans of these people. Therefore, it seems to be doctrine that the provision of pitches is the solution to the problem, and it is to that that I direct my attention.

I turn to the urban district of Aldridge. Perhaps I should explain that part of it separates the county borough of Walsall from the county borough of Birmingham. The history is as follows. In November, 1967, a temporary site was provided for six families. Water was laid on. There was even hot water. There was a boiler. There was lighting and, in order to help the inhabitants who did not have their own lighting arrangements, the site was floodlit. There were sanitary facilities, and I understand that the Catholic authorities produced a mobile school for the children. It was an innovation. I went to see the site myself, and one could not help wishing it well.

The Clerk to the Council reported in December: The turning point came earlier this month when the Council agreed to let six families have a temporary site. This was set up on condition that all other tinkers left the district. Not surprisingly, nothing of the sort happened. I learned that earlier in December there was an affray, gun shots were fired, a caravan was wrecked and one of the inhabitants was hurt. On 28th December there was an invasion of the site by three further families. The provision of this attractive site caused jealousy, and those who had not been included in the six hand-picked families on the site took it amiss. There was a further shooting affray in March and, after that, all attempts to control the site were abandoned. No warden could be found to look after it, and the site deteriorated.

We now get a situation where the site has been abandoned. At the same time, caravans are coming in almost daily from Birmingham. In the words of the Deputy Town Clerk of Birmingham, they are towed to the border, where the bailiff sees the last of them.

In January of this year on a weekend there were 15 caravans on the site, but only one family was there with the council's consent. The position at the moment is that the temporary site has been closed. The council is still looking for a permanent site. In its wisdom, Birmingham Corporation has offered a grant of £3,200 towards the capital cost of such a site, to which Staffordshire County Council has added £1,000. In other words, every authority wants to pay Aldridge to look after the gipsies for them. The estimated capital expenditure involved in the provision of such a site is only £6,200, so that it can be seen that in the provision of a site the expense is not a problem to the ratepayers.

What is a problem is the attitude of the ratepayers. I was there 10 days ago, and I thought that I was almost within the confines of a beleagured city. On all sides, the road verges were lined with earth tippings to prevent caravans gaining access to them. In the area of Pheasey, which is really a dormitory suburb of Birmingham, no fewer than 2,509 residents have signed a petition to the urban district council. That is a striking figure when one realises that the normal turnout at a local government election is about half that number. In other words, twice as many as the number who are prepared to vote in a local election were prepared to sign a petition asking for protection from the visitations of tinkers.

In the words of the Clerk to the Aldridge Urban District Council, The problem is being handled as far as practicable in the manner recommended in the Caravan Sites Act, the Ministry's Circulars, and the publication 'Gipsies and other travellers'.". In his letter, he says: Many of the residents of the Rushall ward suffer from great nuisance, great annoyance and some danger. That is not the language of an irate ratepayer. Those are the words of the Clerk to the Urban District Council.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

Can the hon. Gentleman give figures of the amounts which have been spent on earthworks and the various other steps taken to move on gipsies by the Aldridge Council? Is he aware that the Government have refused to implement the Caravan Sites Act because of the alleged expense, which they say is far more than local authorities are having to spend on these purposes?

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

The figure that has been given by the Clerk to the Aldridge Council in connection with the earth works is £600. That is not negligible figure.

The clerk says that these inhabitants had genuine cause for vehement complaint.

So much for Aldridge. Now I turn to the Borough of Walsall. I am glad to see the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) in his place. I want to avoid any emotive language on a subject which has aroused considerable feeling. Therefore, I will confine my remarks mainly to a report which I have had from the Chief Superintendent of Police in Walsall. He has sent this report to me for my guidance and I should like to draw to the attention of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary some extracts, because he may not be familiar with all of it.

The Chief Superintendent begins with a brief note on the history: Although Walsall has not been immune to the attentions of caravan dwellers of the Irish tinker class since the early and mid-1950s, the present position has fomented since a considerable militant influx in late 1967. Prior to that the comparatively casual visits of itinerants in small numbers were dealt with by local authority removals from Corporation land … such action kept the position in manageable proportions. He then lists a number of incidents which took place beginning in November, 1967, when an encampment of 27 caravans was removed. On 5th December a further four were removed and on 11th December a further nine were removed. There were then court proceedings, which were appealed to Quarter Sessions. During this time there were between 25 and 45 caravans parked on various bits of waste ground in the town.

A significant sentence in the Chief Superintendent's report is: There is little doubt that caravan dwellers, through the auspices of the Gipsy Council and the National Council for Civil Liberties, were making a concerted effort to force Walsall town Council to provide a camping site, as had been successfully done a week or two earlier in Staffordshire. As a result of the court proceedings being brought to a conclusion, there was a further removal of caravans on 27th March, but they came back almost immediately to other areas. In this connection the Chief Constable observed: To sum up, the situation is that the caravan dwellers are determined to stay in Walsall until Walsall County Borough Council provide a site, and the Council adamantly refuse to do so, athough in my opinion there is space for such a project. Between the parties stands the police force and experience with these caravan dwellers has shown that no accusation against a member of the Force is too vile to be made, and of course the object of Mr. Puxon's allegations is to attempt to discredit the force. He adds, and to this I should like to give some publicity: This has been realised from the beginning by me, and every incident in which police are in conflict with these people has been carefully reported on by the officers concerned. I have no doubt whatsoever that the officers at Walsall are fully aware of the situation and carry out their duties in a most correct manner. I saw him a month or so later and he commented: The pattern which seems to emerge when dealing with these people is that the local police summon them if they are on the highway for such things are obstruction, no lights, depositing litter, etc. They eventually appear at court, are found guilty, and fined. They then move off to another area to avoid the fines. I should like to give the House some statistical information about offences. The Chief Superintendent wrote to me saying that since December, 1967, no fewer than 1,183 offences were reported to the police. Of these 271 were dealt with, 286 were not dealt with by the courts and in 626 cases summonses were not served. That was obviously owing to the very difficulties which the Chief Superintendent mentions in his report.

In addition, 23 were dealt with for cases of crime. I will return to that subject later, because to my mind it is one of the most serious aspects of the whole problem.

There is a growing feeling in Walsall that the powers of law and order are not able to protect the citizens from the assaults—there is no weaker word—of the so-called tinkers. A highly respected local solicitor advised some clients not to pay their rates so that the matter could be ventilated. As the police have sent me this letter I imagine it is no longer confidential. This gentleman wrote: Thank you for your letter of 28th March. I have indeed been watching this matter. I am quite certain that the only way in which effectively pressure can be exerted will be for all of you to refuse to pay your rates so that the matter can be fully ventilated in court. This letter comes from someone I know and whom the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North knows well as a man of the highest responsibility. Yet he is going so far as to advise ratepayers in Walsall not to pay their rates so that the matter can be ventilated.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

My hon. Friend knows that I have a constituency almost adjoining his. We have the same problem in parts of Birmingham. Does he find, in addition to the crime of assault, that the anxiety of parents who have children going to school is another feature of the situation?

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

I have sought throughout to keep emotion out of this because this is an important statement of fact. I do not want to be accused of emotionalism or anything else. I am sure that many parents of children do have those feelings, but these are not open to statistical evidence.

I want now to return to the subject of crime, because this is important. The hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North and myself share a constituency interest in the important copper refineries of Messrs. Elkingtons, where, since 1st January, 1968, there have been eight cases of robbery. Three of these cases are undetected, four do not relate to caravan dwellers, and the remaining case concerns two caravan dwellers who have been remanded, so I will not comment on that further.

Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)

Is the hon. Gentleman using the word "robbery" in its technical sense of stealing from the person, or in the general sense of stealing from premises?

Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

The hon. and learned Gentleman must forgive my ignorance of the law. I have here the Chief Superintendent's letter describing them. I am sure the intention is that it is basically stealing from premises, because two were offences of office breaking. I do not think that these are cases of violence. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that industrial towns are not free from local crime. It is obviously, for the criminal element in a population, a matter of satisfaction that there are easy scapegoats for their own illegal activities which they wish to practice. The same is true of Church and Bramhall (Stockholders) Ltd. where two thefts are undetected.

This is the position that we have to face now. The tinker-gipsy population is for the moment relatively small and under control. I did an extensive tour of the area about a fortnight ago and I have certain comments to make about it. The numbers are few. The answer is that this is the season of the year when fruit picking and other agricultural activities can be carried on by the itinerants, and they appear to be taking advantage of it.

The conditions of the sites occupied, however, are fearsome. I refer particularly to the temporary site in Aldridge where, if there were a wind on the heath, as referred to by George Borrow some years ago, it would blow very foul indeed. All the facilities that I mentioned earlier, including the hot water boiler and the lavatories, have been destroyed. A large field next door, where animals are kept, has had its wire fence systematically broken down. A cattle shed has been used as a latrine, and this misuse of outbuildings is not confined to cattle sheds. Many complaints have been made by local inhabitants because of the wholly unsanitary and barbaric habits of some of these people, who defaecate in the road.

We are not dealing with people who are desperately poor. I have seen luxurious caravans, such as one sees in holiday resorts, and lorries pulling them which would clearly have a market value running into four figures. These are not the poorest people in the world. Neither are they entirely Irish. Some of my constituents have suggested that if there were some check on Irish immigration this problem would come to an end. I doubt that. In fact one gentleman, in reply to my polite inquiries, cast grave doubts on my sexual habits and the legitimacy of my ancestry. He did not do this in an Irish brogue. I do not believe that he was born anywhere but within the shores of this country.

The fact is that a growing number of our people take advantage of this semi-lawlessness to create local Alsatias—Alsatia being an area of London where outlaws lived 300 years ago. They are making local Alsatias of certain areas of the West Midlands, where they live largely beyond the law because of the inability of the police to serve summonses.

One real danger arises; in this recrimination there is obviously a tendency for the local people to take the law into their own hands and, equally, considerations of normal humanity sometimes seem to be lost. In this connection I have had communications with the borough engineer of Walsall, who cites half a dozen cases in which, because of illness and other reasons, long-extended stays have been granted to caravan dwellers in various parts of the borough. This refutes the suggestion which is sometimes made that inhumanity is being displayed in dealing with this problem.

I have characterised the situation as a nuisance which may become a disaster. I do not think that that is too strong a word, because although, at the moment, the itinerants are widely distributed, when fruit picking and other agricultural work is over they will return to the areas which they formerly occupied, where they obtain a living by dealing in scrap metal. They acquire old cars, or wrecks, pull them to pieces on the side of the road, making an indescribable mess, and sell the resultant scrap to the scrap metal merchants. This problem is likely to be with us next winter in an acute form. The danger is that if the Government do not show their interest in this matter, other than by twisting the arms of those authorities who are subject to having their arms twisted—because, like Walsall, Wednesbury and West Bromwich, they have Bills coming up in the House, causing them to leave Part II of the Caravan Sites Act unenforced, the situation will become very nasty, because disrespect for law and order is something that no hon. Member can contemplate with equanimity.

Time is running short. There will be a big move back in the early autumn to the area of the conurbations, and it is essential that action should be taken to reassure the local population that their interests are not being entirely ignored. That is why I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for being allowed to raise this matter today. I await with interest the views of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

Mr. Speaker

There are 19 minutes left for this debate, which must finish at a quarter past one. I must protect other hon. Members who have subjects to raise. Any intervention must be brief.

12.56 p.m.

Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) has drawn attention to an urgent and important problem. He has done so in words of studied moderation which, however, do not conceal the gravity of the problem for the local residents. It is natural for the hon. Member and myself—we are both members for the borough of Walsall, and both members for the urban district of Aldridge Brownhills—to look at this problem rather through Walsall-Aldridge-Brown-hills glasses.

This is a problem for the whole of the West Midlands, and in the few minutes during which I propose to address the House I want to call for some kind of regional approach to the problem, and some kind of regional settlement. This is not a problem that defies human wisdom. I live in Hertfordshire. That county has had just this problem to deal with. Perhaps there has not been the aggravation of a great conurbation such as that of Birmingham, but the county has dealt with the matter quite successfully by putting its hand not too deeply into its pocket, providing an extensive area where these people can be housed, providing minimum but adequate sanitary facilities and minimum but adequate sanitary and police inspection, making life tolerable for these people so long as they stay in the extensive and adequate compound provided but intolerable if they move out of it.

They can carry on their normal trades within reasonable reach of the various towns or farms in the district. The county borough of Walsall has very limited space. The problem there has been an acute one. Nevertheless, I urge the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to see that his Department, in collaboration with the local authorities of the area, evolves a solution to the problem, probably on the lines of the solution arrived at in Hertfordshire, if necessary giving by Statute adequate powers to enforce the decisions that are reached.

1.0 p.m.

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

May I begin by saying that I understand why the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) have sought this opportunity to ventilate the genuine grievances of many of their constituents as the result of the matters which both have described so graphically. Anyone who has not seen or experienced the nuisance which arises from unauthorised, uncontrolled camping by itinerant travellers has no appreciation of the smell, the litter, the dirt, the squalor and the inconvenience, which are not confined to the site, but which spread out and affect the community, sometimes over a wide area.

It would be futile to pretend that there are not some people, where these distressing congregations have been created, who have had to put up with a great deal. Although I hope to take a balanced view, I want to begin by saying that those who have had this unfortunate experience have my sympathy, and I understand their indignation.

What we have to do in the circumstances—and I was grateful for the constructive suggestions—is to see how quickly, both now and in the long term, we can solve what is undoubtedly a social problem of some magnitude, and of growing magnitude, so that it does not reach the kind of explosion point to which the hon. Member referred.

I have had this experience myself, not only in the county where I live, but in my constituency which, being near London Airport, attracts many of those whom I would prefer to call "gipsies", which was the title used in the Preamble to the Caravan Sites Act, 1968 where it says: … use of gipsies and other persons of nomadic habit.… The expression covers all these types of travellers, and if one uses other words, one may be accused of prejudice. When one has seen as I have, not only where I live, but, as I say, in my constituency, the kind of difficulties which arise, one appreciates that action must be taken.

I am delighted that, even though Part II of the Caravan Sites Act has not been put into operation, some authorities, with considerable vision and imagination, have proceeded already to create proper sites, controlled sites with the amenities and facilities which are the long-term solution to the problem. In Kent, there are five such sites and the hon. Member for Walsall, North knows some of them, and although they have not solved all the problems, they have eased conditions for at least a considerable part of the county. In my constituency, where we have the same sort of problems, the very energetic town clerk, Mr. Hooper, with his council, has provided not only a temporary site, but a rehabilitation site. Although it is not free from difficulty, at least something has been done.

I hope that the hon. Members have studied the considerable and authoritative research document which my Ministry produced, "Gipsies and other Travellers", which was the first complete analysis. It showed the background to the problem and gave us the key to the solution of which we must never lose sight. It points out that in recent years the gipsy population has had to face a complete revolution, as it were, in its way of life. Gipsies normally earned their living by horse trading and casual labouring in agriculture and so on. Conditions of life have altered and they are now faced with different problems.

It is true that most of them find that they earn the best sort of living for most of the year in connection with scrap metal dealing and, of course, they have tended to move close to where the motor car industry is, in the Midlands, or to areas with similar kinds of trade. But a considerable proportion of them are to be found in the South-East of England too. It is wrong to think of this as a West Midlands problem it is a problem which affects other areas of the country.

It is right even now to realise that the only solution for people, most of whom were born into this way of life and who have never lived in a house, or had that kind of experience which ordinary people have had, is to provide a permanent improvement with sites under control where they can live and where their children can go to school so that they may learn a different way of life and probably leave the attractions, if there are any attractions, of being on the road.

The hon. Gentleman said that there had been trouble on the sites and I know that last year there was trouble and one site was closed. I gather that the other small site is now proceeding more satisfactorily. I pay tribute to local authorities which have attempted and are still attempting to make provision in the area. I am sure that this is the right approach. The Borough of Walsall has had this continuing problem for some time and its expenditure on dealing with the matter on the only basis on which it can be handled, other than providing permanent sites, has been more than £4,800. The hon. Gentleman said, the provision of a full site would cost about £6,000.

The more one looks at the problem, the more one sees that there is no solution in moving these people along and fencing them off. I agree that once we get permanent sites, the police will be able to have new powers, which have been carefully worked out with the Home Office, to be able to deal with what is sometimes an elusive population, but it would be futile to provide measures in private legislation, or in any other way, in advance of the provision of sites.

We know from the document which I have mentioned that there are about 15,000 gipsies. Some 3,000 families, for whom provision must be made around the country. We have estimated that about 200 sites would meet the requirement; that is permanent sites which could be controlled and where there would be some hard surfacing for caravans, water and toilets and so on. The total cost over a number of years would be about £3 million to £4 million. That would be a cheap price to get the problem solved and I reiterate that my right hon. Friend wants to implement Part II of the Caravan Sites Act at the earliest possible moment.

In the meantime, he wishes to encourage authorities to make preliminary plans. Loan sanction for expenditure will be most sympathetically considered, as we have said for a long time. We hope that this will encourage authorities to go ahead and make provision even now. When we have further figures, they may well show that many authorities are spending large sums on merely putting up earthworks and moving gipsies around and perhaps the implementation of Part II will come more quickly than might otherwise be the case. I think that there is a strong reason for believing that where, as in the case of Walsall, there has been expenditure on preventive rather than on creative work, the argument I am adducing becomes even stronger.

It may be asked why, if that is the solution, and only 3,000 families are involved and the cost spread out would be only £3 million to £4 million, the Government do not bring Part II of the Act into operation. My right hon. Friend would like to do so but it cannot be done at that time when we are emphasising to local authorities the need to control public expenditure so strictly. It would be unfair and anomalous to impose immediately this extra burden on them but that is the only reason why Part II of that excellent Act has not been brought in. It will be brought in at the earliest possible moment and it is along these lines that we shall see a permanent solution not only to deal with the grievance outlined vividly in this debate but which will provide, we believe, a permanent solution in that, once the families are settled, they can become absorbed in the community, their children can get proper education and they themselves will be able to find jobs and have social contact which they cannot get when they are continually on the move.

These people are not legally entitled to be anywhere—apart from the few sites provided—except when they are on the move, and we cannot be satisfied with that state of affairs. I congratulate those local authorities which have made provision. I cast no blame on anyone but unfortunately only one site has been provided of any significance in the West Midlands as opposed to five in my county. I hope that this matter will be looked at, bearing in mind what I have said about loan sanction. My hon. and learned Friend referred to a regional approach. The West Midlands Planning Conference has a sensible plan whereby a number of sites could be selected so that no one authority would carry the whole burden or responsibility. It would enable the problem to be spread, diminishing the kind of difficulties to which hon. Members referred.

By strategically siting the places, we would get a spread which would provide a solution of the character he referred to as being achieved in Hertfordshire. We shall give the authorities all the encouragement we can because this is the only way the problem can be solved. The Government will do everything possible in the interim period to help through loan sanction and advice, and will implement Part II of the Act as soon as possible.