HC Deb 09 May 1973 vol 856 cc714-22

1.53 a.m.

Sir Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development for coming to the House tonight and regret having had to bring him here, at this late hour, especially as my noble Friend the Under-Secretary in another place has been dealing with this important matter which vitally affects my constituents.

On 15 th May 1964—nearly nine years ago—I initiated a debate in this House on the nuisance then being created in my constituency by itinerant caravan-dwelling tinkers and asked how much longer we were to tolerate the hideous and insanitary mess which they make of our countryside". But I asked, too, how we could help these people to lead a normal life for the benefit especially of their children. I then said: There is nothing wrong in living in a caravan. This is a free country, but liberty has here degenerated into licence … these people do not give one of their own proverbial cusses for what they do in and around the places where their caravans have rested. They trade in junk and scrap metal and find it much cheaper to ply their trade on grass verges, paying neither rent nor rates and leaving local authorities to clear up the mess … they have forfeited their right to that"— tolerance— by showing an utter disregard for other people's enjoyment of the countryside and a carelessness for their neighbour's health, convenience and property ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th May 1964; Vol. 695, c. 779–80.] Precisely the same can be said of the condition of the road in question today, and there is a rising tide of public anger that its continuance should be tolerated.

One of several hundred letters that I have received is from a doctor, who says: As a doctor I am very concerned at the obvious health hazard of allowing itinerants to camp on the verges of the A41 … They do not dig latrines and the Public Health Inspector tells me that he doubts whether they consistently use the chemicals required for the destruction of sewage. One must therefore assume that the grass verges are nothing less than open sewers within a few hundred yards of the two reservoirs supplying water to this community… Apart from the health aspect, these people are blatantly flouting the anti-litter laws by dumping piles of garbage, prams, broken cars, etc., on the verges. In 1964 the Hertfordshire County Council told me that the Ministry's solution, conveyed in circular No. 6/1962, was that sites must somehow, somewhere, be found where these didicoi could bring their caravans to permanent rest, with a proper water supply, hardstanding and sanitation, and from where their children could be properly educated and discouraged from following the same way of life themselves. So the Hertfordshire County Council set about finding sites— and overcoming the objections of the people in whose locality the sites were found—the largest being in the Bushey district in my constituency. There was no further trouble for some years thereafter.

In the debate in May 1964, I suggested certain remedies in addition to that one specific of the Ministry. The first was that dealers in scrap metal should be registered. The answer was that Section 86 of the Public Health Acts Amendment Act 1907 provided for such registration, but only in those areas where the local authority had adopted the provisions of the Act, and I so informed my local authorities.

Next, I suggested that regional co-operative efforts should be made to dispose efficiently and economically of old motor cars and other bulky junk. The following year, the Ministry published circular No. 8/65 on the "Disposal of Old Motor Vehicles" which was meant to be helpful; but I am convinced that much more energetic and determined action could and should be taken to solve this problem, which will increase as every year goes by. The breaking-up of obsolete motor cars should be a profitable public enterprise.

Thirdly, I suggested that the maximum penalties for these misdemeanours should be increased, and this has to some extent since happened.

In his reply, my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Social Services stated that the then Government's policy was to encourage local authorities to provide the sites necessary to enable these didicoi to lead a more stable and civilised form of life and that because, if a site was offered by an authority, it might attract scores if not hundreds of families, the Government would press all the councils involved to act simultaneously.

Of all the counties so "pressed" Hertfordshire has responded the best; and on 9th August last my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development was able to tell me that Hertfordshire comes out top of the league … It has done extremely well in making provision. But it has not done well enough because Section 12 of the 1968 Act provides only for designation of the whole area of a county or borough site-providing authority, and the Secretary of State will not designate Hertfordshire.

I told my right hon. Friend on that occasion that it was disheartening that, since other counties and boroughs had not responded so well, the tinkers simply came pouring back into Hertfordshire. My right hon. Friend replied that When 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."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th August 1972; Vol. 842, c. 1796–7.] As I have said, for some years after 1964 the position improved; but it is now quite as bad again, or worse. My file of constituents' letters of complaint is inches thick. The seeming inability of the Government to enable effective action to be taken is seriously damaging their standing in the eyes of my constituents. All that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) in the debate which he initiated on 19th April about his part of Kent applies to my part of Hertfordshire.

The Clerk to the Hertfordshire County Council has written to the Secretary of State: The situation along the A.41 road in the Bushey and Watford areas has reached alarming proportions, and opposition to this is accentuated by the existence, just off the road, of an authorised camp managed by the County Council, catering for some 27 families, which has been in existence since 1964 … but … with the provision of more sites, the public acknowledgement of their virtues, come more families. Not only are there more families, but they tend to congregate in the areas where the permanent camps already are … Very serious consideration should be given to the designation of areas smaller than whole counties. The Bushey Urban District Council has written innumerable similar letters which were summarised in its statement of the case to my noble Friend Lord Sandford, who was good enough on 22nd February to receive a deputation of local authorities principally concerned, including representatives of the Hertfordshire County Council, Bushey UDC, Watford RDC, St. Albans City, and Harrow and Watford boroughs. Later he arranged for a meeting of the officers of some of these authorities.

But what has been the outcome? Why are these people allowed to cover the countryside with litter when they pay neither rates nor taxes and when others are liable to a fine of £100 for dropping a bus ticket? Why are these people permitted to carry on their business when others would have to comply with the Town and Country Planning Acts or be served with an enforcement notice? Why do other counties and boroughs not fulfil their obligations, as Hertfordshire has done?

It is not, as the Under-Secretary of State seems to think, for my local authority to suggest alternative sites. Bushey has done its bit. But if Watford and Harrow, for example, were each to find 15 pitches, that would immediately remove 30 families.

For some time the Department insisted that the only solution was the provision of sites. More recently it has tended to urge that more use should be made of the existing laws of the land, especially of Sections 121, 124 and 127 of the Highways Act 1959, the Litter Acts 1958 and 1971 and the Public Health Acts.

But the police are inhibited and frustrated by circular 49/68, which dealt with the enforcement of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and which has been left unamended by the present Government. Sections 10 and 11 of that Act prohibit unauthorised camping by gipsies and enable local authorities to obtain orders from the magistrates' court to remove caravans from any land on which they have been stationed without permission But these powers, according to that circular, cannot be used until the Minister considers that sufficient sites have been provided for gipsies in a given site-providing area and has, therefore, made a designation under Section 12 of that Act.

The circular also reminds local authorities, in paragraph 15, that Ministers have repeatedly emphasised that gipsies should not needlessly be moved on from place to place until sites have been provided for them. But where, as in Hertfordshire county as a whole and in Bushey in particular, a reasonably adequate number of sites has been provided, cannot my right hon. Friend imagine the frustration of those authorities and of the police at having their hands tied by what has now become a wholly misplaced leniency? They have to face the criticisms of an outraged public who think that they are grossly failing in their duty.

I ask the Government to do three things: first, forthwith to designate an area in South-West Hertfordshire in which the local authorities have fulfilled their obligations in providing sites, so that those authorities may now obtain court orders to enable them to remove unauthorised caravans from the roadside. If legislation is required, I am prepared, with Government co-operation, to introduce a Ten-Minute Bill; secondly, to insist that other local authorities, which have not yet done so, shall fulfil their obligations to provide sites; thirdly, to remove any brakes inhibiting local health authorities or the police from strictly enforcing the existing laws.

My noble Friend, writing to me on 3rd May, said: I am hopeful that the further discussions which are being pursued will lead to a satisfactory solution on the A.41". All my constituents share that hope.

2.5 a.m.

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

I fully realise the concern and anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden) about the unauthorised encampment of about 60 families in caravans on the two- or three-mile stretch of verge of the A41 between Bushey and Watford. I fully realise, too, the intense local feeling of my hon. Friend's constituents at this affront to the amenities, this, as he called it, "hideous and insanitary mess", this exhibition of crude living and derelict working on the edge of a busy main road. It really is a social eyesore if ever there was one. But the solution to it has evaded all of us up to the present.

We had hopes in Parliament in 1968 that a solution to this kind of case had been found. An obligation was placed by Parliament on local authorities to provide sites for the caravans of gipsies residing in or resorting to the area". The reward for a local authority—if one may so put it—for observing that duty is an order by the Secretary of State making unauthorised caravan camping a criminal offence.

Eleven of those orders have been made so far but those 11 orders relate to county or London boroughs. In such boroughs the duty is discharged by the provision of 15 pitches. In counties there is no such convenient provision. The counties have to provide enough sites to deal with those who reside in or resort to their county.

Hertfordshire County Council has made valiant efforts to carry out this statutory duty placed on it by the 1968 Act. In 1965, before that Act came into operation, the census showed that Hertfordshire had 98 gipsy families. Up to now the county has established 89 pitches, and it proposes to establish 125 more.

I am justified in repeating what I have told my hon. Friend. In these provisions Hertfordshire comes out near the top of the league of counties. It is thought now that the 98 families of 1965 have increased to about 200 families. There is some strength in the argument that, as my hon. Friend has put it, the provision of pitches without, at some stage, the rewarding order from the Secretary of State making caravan camping a crime, attracts more gipsies into the area. But up to now the Secretary of State has not been in a position by law to make the order designating the area as one in which it would be a criminal offence to camp with a caravan on an unauthorised site. He has not been able to make that order because, on Hertfordshire's own figures of 200 families as against 89 pitches provided, the provision required by the Act has not been made.

It could be argued that, particularly as a result of the co-operation of the Bushey Urban District Council with the county, adequate provision has been made in the south-west of the county. On the basis of that argument my hon. Friend has asked that the Secretary of State should make an order applicable to that part of the county. Unfortunately, as the law stands, my right hon. and learned Friend has no power to do that.

We must look for a solution within the framework of the existing legislation. I wonder whether Parliament ever intended to put the counties in the position in which Hertfordshire now finds itself —a sort of "Alice Through the Looking Glass" situation, running faster and faster in order to keep in the same place; that is, the more pitches it provides, the more gipsy families arrive. I do not think that Parliament ever intended that. The obligation is to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies residing in or resorting to the area. I should like to quote the sections of the Act, because they are particularly relevant. Section 12 states: The Minister may by order made on the application of any local authority … designate the area of that authority as an area to which section 10 of this Act applies"— that is to say, an area where it is not possible for a gipsy to station a caravan. It goes on to say: The Minister shall not make such an order in respect of any area unless it appears to him either that adequate provision is made therein for the accommodation of gipsies residing in or resorting to the area, or that in all the circumstances it is not necessary or expedient to make any such provision. Later in the Act gipsies are defined as persons of nomadic habit of life". I would not say as a result of Hertfordshire's figures that the county qualifies for an order at this stage, but, as the proposed establishment of further pitches proceeds, the time will come when it will not be expedient to continue to provide accommodation for roadside campers such as those on the A41 who have become such a permanent part of the landscape as to be unrecognisable as persons of nomadic habit of life". I am not abandoning the policy of the present and previous Governments that gipsies should not be moved around needlessly unless they have somewhere to go. Our policy remains one of non-harassment of gipsy families. That policy does not mean however, that we condone those activities which clearly should not be tolerated. We at least recognise that local authorities have the powers to deal with such activities, and they should exercise those powers. I do not think that they are quite as restrained as my hon. Friend said.

There are difficulties about enforcement, but the difficulties are mainly evidential. Evidence connecting a person with the nuisance is not often forthcoming. On traffic and other offences I am assured, however, that the police enforce the law against gipsies in the same way as they enforce it against other members of the community. The Civic Amenities Act enables local authorities to remove abandoned vehicles and the Public Health Act enables them to serve notices and to take action in cases of serious nuisance and insanitary conditions. But the difficulties surrounding the law which is designed to protect the amenities and the environment underline the importance of achieving a permanent solution to the problem.

The general policy of not harassing gipsies and of not moving them around unless there is somewhere for them to go is right. But I recognise that there may be conditions in which a departure from that policy may be justified. There is a need for a degree of flexibility in a situation where sites have been provided in an area, as in Hertfordshire, and where there is a particularly serious amenity problem due to unauthorised encampment as there is on the A41. I can well see that there are strong grounds for the district council and the residents being relieved of this environmental problem. When the county has gone a long way to performing its duties under the Act, every tinker, tailor, soldier and sailor who becomes a squatter on the verge must not expect the benefit of clergy, or perhaps I should say the immunity of verger. The A41 is not the sanctuary of the temple right up to the time when the pitches which are provided balance exactly the number of gipsy families in the county.

I accept that this immunity must cease at some point before that. We shall not wait until the pitches provided by Hertfordshire balance exactly the number of gipsy families there, because I think that included in that estimate are families, such as those on the A41, who are not true gipsies within the definition of the Act. They are persons who cannot be designated as people of nomadic habit of life when many of them have been there for so long. Therefore, we shall pursue this matter both in regard to the provision of sites and with respect to the steps that may be taken to clear that stretch of the A41.

I cannot wave a wand at this moment and say that we shall clear the site tomorrow. I know that my hon. Friend has been rightly persistent about this for a matter of 10 or 12 years, and I wish I could say that I could do something effective about it tomorrow. I hope he will realise that I have put over tonight something which is a little new in our policy and that we are not saying to counties "you must provide for every caravan family in your district before we make a designation order providing that it is an offence for gipsies to station caravans in an unauthorised place". We are saying to counties "You provide, as Hertfordshire is doing, a considerable number to meet the needs of the true gipsies, and then we think we can in law operate the Act."

The Secretary of State is bound by the law. He cannot make an order except within the provisions of the Act. But where a county has provided the sites, and is preparing to provide a lot more, I think we must help in applying the order as soon as we can and interpret the Act in favour of the county.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Two o'clock.