HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc868-76

8.58 a.m.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

Bovingdon is a pleasant Hertfordshire village in the green belt and in my constituency. An airfield was developed there at the beginning of the war which was used by the Royal Air Force and by the United States Air Force. The RAF gave it up a few years ago. Besides the airfield there are several sites used for hutted encampments in connection with the base.

The particular site which I wish to discuss is at Middle Lane, where there were huts and buildings, but these have been demolished down to the concrete base and the site has been left pending a decision on its future use. It has been handed over by the Ministry of Defence to the Property Services Agency, which in turn is responsible to the Department of the Environment. Unfortunately, it has not kept the fencing in good condition.

On 12th September six gipsy caravans came on to the site. At that stage they were those of Romany gipsies. The Ministry of Defence, which had been thought to be the owner of the site, was immediately informed by the rural district council. But more caravans came on to the site. On 13th September there were nine caravans there. The police were asked to move them on. They were trespassing, but the police said that they could take no action without the authority of the owner. However, the police had to return because on 14th September there was some sort of shooting affray at the site. On 15th September there was a serious fracas. The police and ambulances had to be called, and people had to be treated for injuries caused by broken glass.

I was informed on 19th September that the local authority was not able to get an answer out of the Government on this matter. I wrote to the Ministry of Defence, still then believed to be the owner of the site, on 20th September. On 9th October the Ministry of Defence informed me that the site had been handed over to the Property Services Agency which had been asked to take action. I then confidently awaited action being taken. However, I heard nothing. At short notice, therefore, on 25th October I asked the following Question of the Secretary of State for the Environment: when he will seek to evict the trespassers on Government land at Middle Lane, Bovingdon, who have been there since 12th September. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development replied: It is the Government's general policy that gipsies should not be moved around needlessly, and a move depends upon the availability of alternative sites provided by the county council. Although Hertfordshire has made good progress in the provision of authorised sites, I understand that there are at present no vacancies upon such sites for the half-dozen or so gipsy families now at Bovingdon."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October 1973; Vol. 861, c. 641.] I then received a letter from my right hon. Friend dated 26th October, in which he said, I am replying to your letter of 20th September… with which you enclosed this one… about gipsies on the disused RAF site at Middle Lane, Bovingdon… Under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 the county, county borough and London borough councils in England and Wales have a duty to provide caravan sites for the gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. However, since the Act came into force in April 1970, progress with site provision has been slow. At present, therefore, the majority of gipsies in the country are unable to camp on authorised sites. In this situation we have felt it only right to advise that gipsies should not be needlessly moved on when there is no official site for them to go to. While it is true that Hertfordshire County Council have a record of site provision second to none, they have a large gipsy problem and still have a considerable way to go in accommodating all their families. I understand that there is no room at present on any of the council's official sites for the Bovingdon families. I appreciate the local concern about encampments, such as that at Middle Lane, but we have to face the fact that, if gipsies are moved on from such a site, it might simply transfer the problem elsewhere. The real solution is, as we have frequently reiterated, the provision of sufficient sites throughout the country. We are currently examining what fresh steps we might take to accelerate site provision. In the meantime, I suggest that the local authorities in whose areas unauthorised encampments exist should consider what immediate steps can be taken to alleviate any nuisance. They might, for example, find suitable temporary sites or provide temporary refuse clearance and toilet facilities on existing sites. I hope you will find this a useful amplification of the Answer I gave on 25 October in reply to your Question in the House. So the Government were then examining fresh steps. At this stage naturally there were a great many complaints about what was happening. However, I counselled patience because, first, I was hoping for Government action in conjunction with the county to do something about the problem at Middle Lane and, secondly, I was assured that these gipsies would not take gladly to others entering the site and would protect it against invaders. Thirdly I feared the effect of publicity. I was worried that if I made too much of a public fuss at that stage it would alert the gipsy fraternity and all itinerant didicois to the fact that the Government were keeping open house on a site which would accommodate a consideratble number of caravans and that the Government were not prepared to seek to evict them.

I had excellent co-operation from the local papers. For example, when there was a considerable fracas as a result of a wedding party the newspapers did not attribute this to the caravan dwellers and the incident passed off as just one of those things. The Press could have made a great deal of the fact that this was a gipsy fracas.

My expectation proved to be groundless. The situation remained extremely bad. There is no sanitation or water supply on the site, which became littered with rubbish. Entrance gates were broken down and the barbed wire removed. Then the worst fears were realised. On 4th December three more caravans came on to the site, bringing the total to 10. Smoke and fumes were produced on the site and life was made extremely unpleasant for local residents.

On 6th December I wrote to my right hon. Friend suggesting that the gates should be properly reinstated and firmly closed, that anyone who should wish to leave the site could do so on application to the police. This action would at least have prevented any further invasion of caravans on to the site. The method had proved satisfactory in the past and it seemed a perfectly reasonable one. It would not amount to harassment of the people already on the site but it would stop more coming on. However, no action was taken on that and I have received no reply whatever from my right hon. Friend to the letter of 6th December.

By the following day there were 15 caravans on the site and since then the numbers have fluctuated. On 20th December there were 11. On 27th December I reminded my right hon. Friend that I was awaiting a reply from him. On 9th January I again reminded him that I was awaiting a reply. I have had no reply to any of these letters.

In my letter of 9th January I pointed out some of the difficulties. of the site, and the questions my constituents are putting to me. First, what rights have didicois to behave in a way in which an ordinary resident is not permitted to behave? Secondly, there is the fact that on 3rd January there was another fracas on the site, apparently a mass fight in the middle of the night, which made a terrifying noise. Thirdly, there being no sanitary provision on the site, the ditches are being used as latrines. Fourthly, there is the fact that both hedges and trees are being damaged—and the site is in a green belt. Fifthly, dogs are constantly barking and trespassing. Because the hedges are broken down, they cannot be kept on the site. Sixthly, the Government, as landlord, surely have a responsibility to deal with these matters. It seems entirely reasonable that they should deal with them. I have a host of letters from people who are affected. I intend to supply copies to my right hon. Friend and to ask for a reply to each.

I seek in this debate to raise the general complaint of many people that they are being treated in a thoroughly unsatisfactory way by the Government's putting up with actions which would not be tolerated from a private individual. It appears that the Government are not prepared to protect the law-abiding citizen, but rather are prepared to protect those who flout the laws.

There is shouting and obscene language to be heard by day and night. There is also dangerous driving. At a crossroads near the site, the didicoi vans take no notice of the system of road markings but just shoot across the road in an extremely dangerous manner. It is fairly well known that these people are not usually satisfactorily insured, and if there is an accident it will be extremely unpleasant for any local resident involved.

If it were dealing with a private landowner the rural district council would have served notice that he should not harbour trespassers, and it would act against the site under the Town and County Planning Act and the Health Acts. But it is advised that because the landowner is the Crown it is not entitled to take action. It is unsatisfactory that the Crown should shelter behind its privilege and not be prepared to comply with the law which it requires everybody else to comply with.

It is no good my hon. Friend the Minister's saying that these people should not be moved on. When they have made a thorough nuisance of themselves for so long, it is possible to move them on. It has been done on the A41. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden) has raised on a previous occasion the condition of the verges on the A41. Action was taken and the gipsies were moved on.

Bovingdon has suffered for long enough. I demand that prompt action is taken. There is a clear requirement to lock up the site. I have demonstrated that not just one large family of gipsies is sitting on the site but that there are different caravans constantly going in and out. The Department is keeping open house.

In a letter to me my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development refers to the requirement under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 to provide an adequate number of caravan sites. Hertfordshire has supplied over 100 standings for itinerants. A few years ago that might have been enough. The present position is that at least 200 caravan standings are required before there is any hope that such a large county as Hertfordshire could be designated under the Act. Following designation, once the county has provided an adequate number of sites for its own gipsies, severe action can be taken against others who behave in the way I have described. Bovingdon has had to put up with so much during the past few months.

It must be observed that by the time Hertfordshire provides another 100 sites there will be another 100 sites needed. It is difficult for such a large county to apply for designation as a whole. It has applied for the designation of West Hertfordshire, which has provided the lion's share of the sites which are already in the county. It seems that West Hertfordshire has had to bear the brunt of the invasion by these people.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to consider the possibility of changing the law so that there might be partial designation. I sincerely hope that any legislation which is introduced this Session before we come to any dissolution will establish the opportunity to obtain partial designation. If such legislation cannot be introduced during this Session, let it be introduced early next Session.

I object to the fact that the Government are encouraging the law to be broken. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that action will be taken on this blight on the village of Bovingdon.

9.19 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

I am unable to give immediate comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason). I know that that will be a real disappointment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. I trust that the hon. Gentleman has the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Rossi

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was saying that I know that my hon. Friend will be disappointed because of the way in which he has so assiduously and persistently pursued this difficult problem on behalf of his constituents. There is no ready easy answer. My hon. Friend has complained that he has been awaiting a reply for some time from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development. I know that my hon. Friend has this matter under anxious and active consideration and it is simply because there is no immediate and ready solution that a reply has not yet been sent to my hon. Friend. I shall speak to my right hon. Friend and draw his attention to the remarks which have been made and see what can be done for an early reply to be given to him.

However, I must make it clear, because of the remarks which have been made, that the Government do not give a licence for any sort of behaviour and that they will not underwrite or accept violence and theft or social habits which are not tolerable in our community.

There are also, in gipsy encampments, on occasion, reasons of public health which necessitate action being taken to disperse an unauthorised encampment, but it is not sufficient simply to disperse one. That only transfers the problem elsewhere, and that is the difficulty with which we are faced in this case.

The Caravan Sites Act, 1968 made a determined attempt to tackle the problem by placing on local authorities the duty to provide sites properly placed in suitably chosen locations, to provide better facilities, and to enable those who wish to do so to settle and secure a better education for their children. Such sites get rid of the insanitary conditions so often associated with gipsy encampments, and it is recognised that Hertfordshire is a foremost authority in providing sites. That is to its credit.

Hertfordshire has appointed an officer with responsibility for gipsies, to coordinate county efforts and to ensure that the council is fully informed about and has contact with the gipsies in the area. That is something we should like to see all counties do.

For that reason, it is often more difficult for the Government to feel they are being regarded as unsympathetic to the pleas coming from Hertfordshire, through my hon. Friend, to deal with this particular difficulty at Bovingdon. The problems are recognised and are being considered. My right hon. Friend is actively dealing with the matter.

I hope that in the near future he will be able to come forward with proposals for helping my hon. Friend.

Division No. 29.] AYES 9.24 a.m.
Allason, James (Kernel Hempstead) Fraser, Rt. Hn. Hugh (St'fford & Stone) Morrison, Charles
Archer, Jeffrey (Louth) Goodhart, Philip Nott, John
Atkins, Humphrey Goodhew, Victor Onslow, Cranley
Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone) Gorst, John Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
Batsford, Brian Gower, Sir Raymond Parkinson, Cecil
Bennett, Dr. Reginald (Gosport) Gray, Hamish Pike, Miss Mervyn
Berry, Hn. Anthony Grylls, Michael Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
Biggs-Davison, John Gurden, Harold Proudfoot, Wilfred
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S. W.) Hall, Sir John (Wycombe) Raison, Timothy
Bossom, Sir Clive Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Bray, Ronald Hannam, John (Exeter) Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey
Brocklebank-Fowler, Christopher Haselhurst, Alan Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Campbell, Rt. Hn. G.(Moray & Nairn) Havers, Sir Michael Sainsbury, Timothy
Carlisle, Mark Hawkins, Paul Scott, Nicholas
Chichester-Clark, R. Hayhoe, Barney Shelton, William (Clapham)
Clark, William (Surrey, E.) Hicks, Robert Shersby, Michael
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hiley, Joseph Skeet, T. H. H.
Clegg, Walter Hordern, Peter Spence, John
Cormack, Patrick Hornsby-Smith. Rt. Hn. Dame Patricia Sproat, lain
Costain, A. P. Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.) Stanbrook, Ivor
Crouch, David Hunt, John Stuttaford, Dr. Tom
Drayson, Burnaby Jopling, Michael Taylor, Frank (Moss Side)
Dykes, Hugh Kitson, Timothy Tebbit, Norman
Eden, Rt. Hn. Sir John Knight, Mrs. Jill Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) Le Marchant, Spencer Tugendhat, Christopher
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne. N.) Longden, Sir Gilbert Vaughan, Dr. Gerard
Emery, Peter Loveridge, John Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Eyre, Reginald Luce, R. N. Weatherill, Bernard
Fell, Anthony McLaren, Martin Wiggin, Jerry
Finsberg, Geoffrey (Hampstead) Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Wilkinson, John
Fisher, Sir Nigel (Surbiton) Mills, Peter (Torrington) Younger, Hn. George
Fletcher, Alexander (Edinburgh, N.) Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Moate, Roger TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fowler, Norman Monro, Hector Mr. A. G. F. Hall-Davis and
Fox, Marcus Morgan-Giles, Rear- Adm. Mr. Adam Butler
Mr. Ronald Brown and
Mr. Clinton Davis.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put accordingly and agreed to.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.

  1. ADJOURNMENT 49 words
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