HC Deb 09 August 1972 vol 842 cc1786-99

2.35 p.m.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

The issue I wish to raise concerns the crisis in community relations which many of us feel may be brought about by the Government's decision to accept designation orders under Section 10 of the Caravan Sites Act, 1968. The Act revolves round Section 6, which requires local authorities to provide sites for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas, although county boroughs and London boroughs are required to provide up to 15 caravan pitches only. Where, however, the Minister believes either that enough pitches and sites have been provided or that it is not practicable to provide them, he may issue an order prohibiting unauthorised camping by gipsies in that area and sanctioning their forcible removal by the local authority.

It is the decision of the Minister to implement Section 10 at this stage which is in danger of provoking a major wave of discrimination, greater even perhaps than that which preceded the Caravan Sites Act, 1968. Right from the start there has been criticism of the powers of discrimination. One complaint is that power is given to a magistrate to make an order against a gipsy without notice and without the gipsy having the right to be heard in his own defence. The main objection has always been that gipsies can be expelled once sites have been provided to the satisfaction of the Minister.

The reason why this is so serious is that the powers are being brought into use when only one-fifth of the total number of pitches required has so far been provided. There are today between 20,000 and 25,000 gipsies in England and Wales, yet the information that I obtained only two days ago from the Department is that there are only 49 sites with about 700 pitches available.

The 1965 survey, from which all our information comes, which the Government published under the title "Gipsies and Other Travellers" found that there were 3,356 gipsy families in England and Wales, although this was widely regarded as an under-estimate, and the total number is thought to be increasing each year by about 1,000. Today there are probably about 3,500 gipsy families in England and Wales, but local authorities have not even proposed to establish sites and pitches to accommodate them, let alone actually provide them, or anywhere near the number required.

At the time of the October, 1970, survey, local authorities promised to provide 2,330 sites, which is still only two-thirds of the total needed, but they have actually provided less than one-third of those promised.

The extent of the provision in relation to the need varies markedly in different areas. Of the eight county council areas which, according to the 1965 survey, had more than 100 gipsy families residing in them, only one—Buckinghamshire—proposes to provide a greater number of pitches than the number of families found to be residing there.

At the other extreme is the county of Kent, where according to the survey—and this is certainly an underestimate—there are over 300 gipsy families, and yet it is proposed to provide only 108 pitches. In exactly the same way Cornwall, Essex, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire, Surrey and Worcestershire, all of which have substantial numbers of gipsies in their areas, are clearly under-providers of the necessary number of sites and pitches.

The consequence is that in areas where local authorities have applied for designation orders, like Havering, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Manchester, there are known to be considerably more gipsy caravans than there are pitches available.

The reason why designation at this stage is undesirable and dangerous is that it can enable a number of local authorities to foreclose on their responsibilities well below the level of need that remains to be met.

There is another cause for disquiet about the use of designation as now proposed. There is evidence that it is being used for purposes for which the Government in 1968 when the Caravan Sites Act was passed said it was not intended. At that time Mr. Eric Lubbock, now Lord Avebury, the author of the Bill, was assured that the Government would not designate an area until they were quite sure that enough gipsy caravans had been provided in the region.

Circular 38/70 indicates an entirely different outlook, and this is the core of the matter. It says: Ministers intend to exercise their powers to designate areas under Section 12 in such a way as to avoid creating a patchwork pattern of relatively small areas where it would be an offence for a gipsy to camp. Despite the pious wording of that circular, that is the precise danger for which we are now heading. The circular continues: Nevertheless, it may prove justifiable in the case of county boroughs, which have been under pressure and have provided 15 pitches, to make designation orders in advance of the adjoining counties being designated. This puts an entirely different complexion on the use of the power of designation. Since it is now apparently Government policy to designate urban areas before the county areas adjoining them have been obliged to absorb surplus gipsies from these boroughs, the result can only be the forced migration of gipsies and the perpetuation of their persecution.

Moreover, it is clear both from the Act and from the discussions which took place at the time that the main purpose behind designation was to retain a reserve power to oblige gipsies to move on to an approved site if there were free places available. But the use of powers of designation as now proposed, which will legally permit the export of unwanted members of society to other areas under a sort of latter-day parish settlement law, will have the effect of strengthening, because of enforcement, discrimination against gipsies above the quota. As gipsies are forcibly moved on from urban areas to county council areas, there can be little doubt that restrictive designation now proposed will generate overspill resentment between local authorities and will stigmatise gipsies as the victims of a modern game of municipal shuttlecock—recalling the use of laws in the last two centuries against beggars and vagabonds who were subject to similar treatment.

A third implicit danger where there is evidence that it is materialising concerns harassment arising from the possibility of gaining a grant of exemption under the Act. Clearly local authorities have an incentive to get rid of their gipsies by one means or another to obtain exemption by claiming that they have no gipsies in their neighbourhood.

In May this year the Gipsy Council reported that harassment of this kind was being intensified in many areas. In the last two years evictions have been carried out in Wigan, Bury, Ashton, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall and Cannock, and are undoubtedly still occuring. Only last week it was reported from Cardiff that 250 men, women and children were forcibly moved on from an area which for several generations had enjoyed the status of commonage. This is no new experience for gipsies.

But what is particularly disturbing about the present situation is that even in areas where better than average efforts have been made to provide requisite sites, as in Buckinghamshire, the police are still using powers and other levers open to them under the law to move gipsies on. The legislation which can be used, and which is being used, to harass gipsies makes a formidable list. It includes such choice items as the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, 1964; the Caravan Sites (Control and Development) Act, 1960; the Highways Act, 1959; the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947; and the Public Health Act, 1936. There are also a number of local Acts such as the West Yorkshire (General Powers) Act, 1951, and even bylaws under the Municipal Corporation Act, 1882.

There can be few minorities against whom such a wide range of powers has been so regularly applied. The time surely has come to end this unnatural harassment—this insidious yet pervasive action by the authorities which is undermining a whole way of life.

This was the central purpose of the Caravan Sites Act, 1968. That is has not turned out in that way surely is a matter for real concern, and careful examination is necessary to see what has gone wrong and what further action needs to be taken.

In 1967, the report of the Government of the day, "Gipsies and Other Travellers", which is a very good and authoritative report, laid down the fundamental principle unambiguously and clearly. It said: Until a wide network of special sites is provided, there should be an end to the present system of perpetually moving the travellers from one unlawful stopping place to another. It was precisely this situation that the Caravan Sites Act, 1968, was designed to stop, and precisely this prospect which I believe the grossly premature decision of the Government to accept designation orders is likely to open up again.

My fourth major criticism of the way the Act is being implemented concerns the standard of facilities on the sites which have been provided. I refer to facilities for washing, sewage, scrap metal dealing, fire prevention, refuse collection, play space and other essentials which often do not come up to the model standards laid down by the Joint Working Party of Local Authority Associations and the Gipsy Council. Sites are often placed near rubbish tips, canals or sewage beds. Children are often unable to gain access to local schools. Local authorities all too often have failed to liase adequately with the Gipsy Council as they are required to do.

Furthermore, contrary to the general impression, the rents which gipsies are charged are anything but generous. They have been charged up to £3 per week for a single hard standing. I quote one instance reported to me yesterday by Mr. Tom O'Docherty and Mr. George Marriott of the Gipsy Council. It concerns the Cottony Spring site at Leeds 12. This site was made available a few days ago. Some seven families moved on to it and they found that no electricity was available, there was no working area, no storage space, the road surface was bad and crumbling. A rent of £3.50 per week was charged per pitch, which is well above the ceiling laid down of £2.50 per week recommended by the joint working party. I need hardly add that the families rapidly came to the decision that persecution and the highways, if need be, were better than this mud desert. They quickly left. The moral of the story is that at present there are no powers in the hands of the Minister to enforce higher standards of facilities on sites. This surely is a gross omission.

My fifth criticism concerns another omission. It is the lack of any time limit for local authorities to fulfil their responsibility under the Act. All that has happened is that in a departmental circular local authorities have been asked yet again to give details of the provision of sites that they have made already and the provision which they intend to make in the future. A very similar survey was carried out previously by the Ministry in May, 1970. In the meantime the number of sites has increased from 30 to 49, which, judged against the magnitude of the need, is a pretty dismal failure. At present there is no power to prevent a local authority postponing almost indefinitely its implementation of the Act. Surely this is intolerable.

Finally, a problem has arisen because of the change in some local boundaries under the local Government Bill to which, as yet, the Government have given no satisfactory reply. There is now the anomaly that a county borough designated under the Caravan Sites Act may disappear—

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you give some guidance on this? If the hon. Gentleman encroaches on legislation which at the moment is being discussed in another place, I am put in some difficulty in answering his points.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's question, and I must tell the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that in an Adjournment debate one must not discuss legislation which is pending or ask for legislation. If the hon. Gentleman omits that part of his speech, he will be quite in order.

Mr. Meacher

Do I understand that I am permitted to ask for legislation?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Meacher

Then I shall have to leave that point. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows to what I am referring. I hope that account will be taken of the Amendments to it which have been proposed, even though the legislation is being considered in another place.

I end by asking the Government to give much more definite assurances in a number of respects about the future implementation of the Act. The first point that I make is that I regard is as essential that no more applications for designation orders should be accepted by the Government, especially concerning urban areas, until there is clear evidence that county areas have absorbed from the boroughs surplus gipsies who otherwise are in danger of being forced into perpetual mobility and subjected to intensified harassment.

Secondly, I ask the Government to do more to assist financially local authorities which have a large number of gipsies in their areas. This is not a responsibility which should lie entirely on local ratepayers. In the debate in another place on 6th June the Government agreed to consider applications for better allocations from local authorities which intended to provide sites for gipsy caravans this year but were unable to do so from within their normal allocation because of other commitments. That is all very well, but it adds not a penny to local finance. At the very least the Government ought to provide the same subsidy per pitch on an approved site as that given in housing aid to council tenants and owner-occupiers, which at present runs at between £40 and £70 a year. But it is preferable to aim at the target of the Dutch aid programme, which consists of the provision from the central Exchequer of £400 per caravan provided by the local authority plus 50 per cent. of the subsequent running costs.

Above all, the Government should stop the nonsense through the audit system whereby some local authorities spend almost more on evictions and barricades than would be required to provide proper sites. One of the worst instances is Walsall, which was reported recently to have spent £1,600 on evictions in 16 days and an estimated total of £8,000 in its anti-gipsy campaign. One wonders how many proper pitches could have been provided for that money without all the necessary antagonism that it provoked.

Mr. J. R. Kinsey (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Why should local authorities have to contain in their areas nomadic people who do very nicely out of scrap collecting, befoul the areas on which they camp, and then expect to be paid for by the community?

Mr. Meacher

Despite the impressions often put about, they are no better off as a result of subsidies than any other groups. The average cost of a council house is £5,000. At present travellers get less per caravan in subsidy than the tenants of local authorities, let alone owner-occupiers when one takes into account the tax relief on mortgage interest.

The point is that local ratepayers, simply because they happen to be in an area where there are a lot of gipsies, should not be expected to meet the full cost. It is a national responsibility. Someone has to provide decent facilities and ensure that gipsies are obliged to move to them. That is the spirit of the Caravan Sites Act.

Surely the Government should have powers to ensure better standards on sites which have already been provided and should do so as part of a wider programme to ensure that the Act is implemented by all local authorities within a stated and reasonable time scale, which I take to be two to three years. Such a programme should also ensure that a small number of temporary pitches are provided for overnight accommodation for gipsies in transit. That is a clear requirement, and I am glad to see that Bedfordshire has agreed in principle to do this. Lastly, following the good example of Hertfordshire, social workers and teachers especially should be attached to all sites to ensure much better integration with local communities.

If we believe in a civilised and humane society, these are the minimum conditions to be applied to what is still the largest and most discriminated against minority in Britain. I hope very much that the Minister will treat these points constructively, which certainly is the manner in which they have been raised.

2.58 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I thank the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for drawing our attention in this Adjournment debate and in the series of Questions that he has asked over the past 18 months or so to the provisions being made for gipsies. I welcome his interest. The replies to his Questions have made public details of the sites which have already been provided by individual local authorities. What is more, they have shown his concern, and that the Government share that concern.

In May of this year my Department issued a statement which made it clear that it has always been and continues to be the view of my right hon. Friend that proper facilities for gipsy families should be provided as soon as possible. Advice was given to local authorities about the way in which the Act should operate both when the Act was passed, in a circular of 1968, and when Part II came into operation, in a later circular in April, 1970. All those remain unchanged. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman quoted from one in his speech.

This summer local authorities were asked in Circular 59/72 to provide up-to-date information about actual and proposed accommodation for gipsy caravans in their areas. Therefore, when the hon. Gentleman said that designation was discrimination, he was using an unfortunate phrase considering the efforts being made by many local authorities to comply with the Act.

In considering designation my Department has worked very closely with the Gipsy Council. I am sure the Council knows the difficulties just as well as we and the local authorities do. To talk about perpetuation of the persecution of or discrimination against gipsies is discouraging to those local authorities which have carried out their obligations under the Act and to other local authorities which are trying to do the same.

The hon. Gentleman gave his views on the size of the problem and the efforts of many local authorities to meet it. I hope to have a lot more information on this matter when I have received and analysed replies to Circular 59/72. The replies were asked for by 30th September, so I am unable to give the House any reliable forecast of the rate of progress and the future plans of local authorities. I hope that when I have received and analysed these replies we shall see an advance on the rate which has been shown so far. However, the results of this inquiry will have to be carefully considered before any fresh initiatives by the Government can be planned. I do not hide the fact that progress in establishing caravan sites for gipsy families has not been as fast as we all hoped when the 1968 Act was passed or, indeed, as many authorities would have wished since then.

As the hon. Gentleman said, when the Act was passed it was estimated, on the basis of a study carried out in 1965 and 1966 by the Sociological Research Section of the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government, that we needed 200 sites to accommodate 3,000 gipsy families. That was the ultimate that would be required, according to that research. That was the first attempt to estimate the size of the gipsy population and the need for accommodation for their caravans. It could have been an under-estimate, quite apart from the natural increase which will have taken place since that research was done. At some suitable stage a further census of gipsies will obviously be desirable, and my Department has that in mind.

I cannot guarantee to ask local authorities to provide accommodation for every family which might choose the gipsy way of life in future. We know that we ought to provide more accommodation for those who are enjoying that life at the moment. Therefore, the provision of more sites is of greater importance and priority than counting heads and trying to discover the size of the problem.

After Part II of the Act came into force authorities were asked to provide information about existing sites and what they proposed to do in fulfilling their duties under the Act. The replies we then received, in the autumn of 1970, disclosed that 30 sites were in use and a further 129 were proposed. This represented 433 pitches provided and almost 2,000 proposed. The number has now risen to 49 sites containing 700 pitches.

We are disappointed with the rate, but we must not under-rate the problems and difficulties of setting aside sites for this purpose. We cannot shut our eyes to the genuine problems with which authorities can be and are faced in seeking to carry out their duties under the Act. In many areas, particularly urbanised areas, suitable land will be difficult to find, whether it has to be appropriated or acquired for the purpose. The difficulties in urban areas are recognised by the limited requirement to provide sites for 15 caravans in both the county and London boroughs. When an authority believes it has identified a suitable location for a site, it often encounters severe resistance from local residents to its proposals.

Mr. Kinsey

Will my right hon. Friend say something in defence of the Walsall Corporation and, indeed, of the West Midlands as a whole, which suffer from this problem? Residents in those areas are strongly against sites that could be used for housing even being considered for use for caravan sites. Also, there is the absolute degradation that the caravan dwellers bring to an area.

Mr. Page

Not if the site is properly set out and equipped. This is what we must sell to the residents and, indeed, to the public in general. Of course there is resentment when it is thought that a site within a residential area is to be used for the sort of settlement which is seen on verges and derelict land. This is not what the Act envisages. The Act envisages a proper site, decently equipped, set aside for that purpose. Gipsies living on properly equipped and managed local authority sites are a different proposition from those on unauthorised encampments. That is a distinction not ordinarily drawn, quite understandably, by residents when they hear that a site is to be laid out in their area.

Sir Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Has any estimate been made of the total number of these people who will ultimately have to be accommodated? It is very disheartening to a county like Hertfordshire, which is doing its stuff under the Act, that other counties do not and the gipsies simply come pouring into Hertfordshire again.

Mr. Page

Indeed. This is the whole point of the provision for designation. When a county borough has provided a site for 15 caravans, or a county has provided a sufficient number of sites for those gipsy families who are residing there at that time, it can then ask the Secretary of State for a designation order which will allow it to evict other gipsies. Incidentally, Hertfordshire comes out top of the league in the figures I have here. It has done extraordinarily well in making provision.

This brings me to the point about designation which the hon. Member for Oldham, West mentioned. The hon. Gentleman asked me to give an undertaking that we would not issue any designation orders, because he felt that designation was an authority to evict gipsy families from an area. I ask the hon. Gentleman to think of the whole basis of the Act—that if a local authority makes provision for caravans within its area, it is entitled to ask the Secretary of State for a designation. But the Secretary of State has to satisfy himself that the sites provided are sufficient and appropriate, and in this we have again worked very closely with the Gipsy Council in examining sites before even considering requests for designation orders.

Up to the present no designations have been made, but it would be grossly unfair to local authorities who have provided good sites which are well equipped with water and sanitary conveniences which are in accordance with the model rules and standards that they should be refused an order to which they are entitled under the Act. We do not want, in issuing orders, to have a situation like a balloon where one squeezes it in at one point and it bulges out at another. Therefore in the West Midlands, where this might happen, we have held back on designation orders to avoid the risk of merely moving caravan dwellers from one place to another. The whole principle of the Act was that that should not be our policy in future and the Government are determined to stick to that principle.

The hon. Member asked whether we could give any financial assistance to authorities to provide sites. I know that one of the recommendations by the joint working party of the local authority associations and the Gipsy Council—contained in its report, which was published at about this time last year—was for a direct subsidy. I cannot accept that advice. It would be wholly inconsistent with the present policy of the Govern- ment under which we are moving away from specific grants which involve a degree of central Government intervention in decisions which should be matters for the local authorities. We are therefore not prepared to give a specific grant for that expenditure, but it is taken into account in awarding the rate support grant each year.

My right hon. Friend felt that it would be most unfortunate if any local authority felt that it did not get the cash to get on with these sites. We know, of course, that with the locally determined schemes local authorities have to plan out according to a budget, and it may be that some of them felt they were restricted and unable to get on with the work of providing sites. The Secretary of State therefore recently announced that he would be prepared to give sanction to the borrowing of money outside the locally determined schemes if any local authority felt that it was being held up through lack of money in proceeding with the provision of these sites.

No exemptions have been given on the plea that there was no land in the area on which to locate a site. Some 32 applications were made for exemption on the grounds that gipsies did not resort to the area. Of these, 13 exemptions have been given, and if I detained the House by reading out the list of exemptions it would be quite clear that these were areas which did not have a gipsy problem. We have been careful not to give exemptions for areas where there is a problem or where there is a problem even within the county.

I have covered all the points raised by the hon. Member. He concluded by asking certain specific questions. He asked for an undertaking that there would be no further designation orders, and I cannot give him such an undertaking for two reasons. It would be unfair to local authorities who have provided sites for us definitely to say that there will be no designation order for them even though they had done all that they were required to do under the Act. Second, in considering designation orders we have the great help of the Gipsy Council and we consider these issues closely with them. I know of one particular case in which a designation order was sought but when my officials and the Gipsy Council looked at the site, they refused to give it because the site was not good enuogh. I believe that we can work it in that way, refusing to give designation orders where they are not deserved.

We must leave the question of temporary sites to the local authority concerned to decide. I would not wish to detract from the position of the permanent sites in favour of temporary sites. If the authority can do them both, all well and good. I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising this matter—

Mr. Meacher

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the request for a definite timescale for the full implementation of the Act by all local authorities and on the enforcement of the model standards recommended by the joint working party?

Mr. Page

On the question of enforcement there is sufficient power for the laying down of the model standards. The model rules which apply to all caravan sites apply to these gipsy sites and we would not wish them to be at a lower standard than those provided for residential and holiday caravan sites. The provisions of the Caravan Act as they stand are sufficient for specific enforcement. The enforcement comes when the local authority asks for a designation order and is refused it because the site is not up to standard.

It would be impossible to lay down a time scale. It is for central government to give such encouragement as it can to the local authorities and not to act as a sort of "big brother" to the local authorities, forcing them to carry out the work. We shall use persuasion and announce what our policy is, and I am sure that in co-operation with the local authorities we can speed up the rate of provision now and eventually reach the point which we anticipated would be the ultimate figure when the Act was passed in 1968.