HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc897-906

4.32 p.m.

Mr. William Molloy (Ealing, North)

The subject matter of the debate relates to an evil and distasteful threat to the peace of mind of many of my constituents and their families. It arises out of the behaviour of certain caravan dwellers who temporarily reside in the London Borough of Ealing and who, it would appear, are able quite freely to break laws passed by Parliament. It is right and proper to bring these matters to Parliament's attention.

People in the West End ward and in Mandeville ward in my constituency of Ealing, North in the past nine or 10 months have witnessed a growing threat to their peace of mind. I should like briefly to outline what has happened to date. Ealing Council was asked to provide land for caravan dwellers in the London Borough of Ealing. The Ealing Council, under Section 6 of the Caravan Sites Act, claimed exemption by letter to the Ministry of Housing on 28th September 1970. They received a reply from the then Minister on 28th September 1973—which for a Conservative administration was not bad going. The Ministry said that it would be necessary to afford the Gipsy Council and the Romany Guild, the two principal bodies representing gipsy interests, the opportunity of commenting on the council's case for exemption. The letter outlined that the council would be given the opportunity of commenting on any representations made by the two gipsy bodies.

The people causing distress in my constituency are not gipsies as we know them; they are not Romanies. They are people who do not abide by the rule of law. They are car smashers. They live a peculiar way of life. Furthermore, they appear to be associated with everything that is mean and dirty.

Nevertheless in 1973 the council was aware that a number of these caravans had arrived on Department of the Environment land at Wayfarers Estate, Northolt. Understandably there was considerable friction between members of the local community and the caravan dwellers. In March 1974 the leader of the council wrote to the Secretary of State and asked for help.

On 11th April 1974, together with the leader of the council, Councillor John Telford, and a representative of other councillors and of the people, Councillor Kenneth Haycock, I met my hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government with members of the Hillingdon Council, tenants' associations and representatives from both Ealing and Hillingdon in connection with this caravan dwellers' problem which existed on Yeading Green Estate. The Minister assured us that as soon as the Ealing Council provided a temporary site which it proposed for 16 caravans, the Yeading Green site would be cleared, and that he would take all necessary action to ensure this.

In April of this year, the Ealing Council authorised the setting up of a temporary site for 16 caravans at Kensington Road, Northolt. Approximately £7,500 was spent on the provision of the site. On 5th March, the council had resolved as a matter of policy to provide a permanent site under Section 6 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, and it instructed its officers to report upon the feasibility and cost of finding a suitable site.

Then the leader of the council and other councillors met the Gipsy Council in May, and it was agreed that the rent for each standing on the temporary site would be £2.50 per caravan.

The temporary site was excellently prepared, but in the meantime it has been heavily vandalised, and the 12 temporary toilets which the council provided at a cost of £1,000 have been destroyed. No rent has been paid by any of the caravan dwellers, with the exception of the first week when two or three paid. Even these payments have now ceased.

The council's officers can exercise no control over these caravan dwellers, and council officers as well as my constituents have been threatened by these caravan dwellers with physical violence. Car breaking is being carried out on the site and on the sides of streets. The drainage ditches have been partly filled with rubbish. The water pipes which the council provided to enable these caravan dwellers to have water have been smashed and destroyed.

I hope that the House will understand the anger and bitterness in both the Mandeville and West End wards in my constituency. Only last week the secretary of the parent-teacher association of the Northolt Primary School approached me because some of these tinkers or caravan dwellers had pitched a few caravans near the school and in consequence there was human excreta and urine in the environs of that little school through which children had to pass. The association asked the town hall to act.

I got on to the Ealing Council, and the council acted. On 26th July I received the following letter from the London Borough of Ealing: Dear Mr. Molloy, thank you very much for your help yesterday with regard to the caravan owners. You will be pleased to know they moved late yesterday afternoon They moved a mile up the road and started to create havoc for people who live in Northolt Village.

Northolt Village is a pleasant, picturesque place in my constituency, part of it being in the West End ward and part in the Mandeville ward. Since these caravan dwellers have been operating their nefarious activities in Northolt Village and its environs there has been an increase in stealing. Illegal scrap metal dealing is conducted on the sides of the verges. There has been a distasteful increase in human excreta and urination on the grass verges near people's houses. What is perhaps more serious is that there have been instances of children being molested. In short, the quality of life of ordinary people in that part of my constituency has been threatened, degraded and debased by the activities of these people.

The police, too, are frustrated. They have given of their best. They know the problem and have taken every possible action. However, they find themselves frustrated because of the wording of the law. I understand that in addition to doing their level best—people in Ealing, North appreciate that the police are doing their best—the police are frustrated be-because they have been informed that the local courts cannot entertain summonses pursued by the police against these caravan dwellers until next February.

People living in Northolt Village and Yeading Green are decent and hard-working folk. They are both jealous and proud of their homes and the communities in which they live. They are also tolerant and understanding. It is only because of the ever-increasing threats to their standards of life that they are now protesting. Because of the activities of these caravan dwellers their lives are invaded by frustration and annoyance. They are beginning to get heartily sick and tired of the vulgar behaviour of the caravan dwellers and the inability of anyone in authority to do anything about the situation.

Therefore, I have decided to raise this matter on the Floor of the House of Commons. I ask my hon. Friend to seek co-operative action, which is urgently needed, with his Department, the Ealing, Council and the Gipsy Council. In passing, I suggest that the Gipsy Council is in need of some examination. It is neither co-operative nor helpful. In my judgment, it should be abolished and something else put in its place. Nevertheless, if my hon. Friend will get together with the Ealing Council, the local police and councillors, I believe that the problem can be resolved. Indeed, it must be resolved.

There is an insolence among these caravan dwellers that they can get away with murder, and they have proved it. The object of my appeal today is to get an assurance for the people not only of Northolt Village, but everywhere in my constituency, that their lives shall not be blemished by the rude, crude behaviour of these caravan dwellers. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider my demands. My prime objective is to restore peace of mind to the people whom I represent in Parliament.

4.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

I have the dubious honour and privilege of being the first Minister in this Government not to be in his place to reply to an Adjournment debate. Therefore, it is divine retribution that I should reply to the final Adjournment debate of the Session.

I am delighted to reply to a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy). I have never ceased to be amazed at the forceful way, either by Questions, Adojurnment debates or strongly worded letters to my Department, that he presses for better conditions for those whom he calls "his people" in Ealing, North. People often talk about the harassment of gipsies. My hon. Friend often harasses my Department, rightly, in the interests of his constituents. I congratulate him on ingeniously bringing this problem to the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friend has described some of the activities of caravan dwellers which have been reported to him. I must deal with the national as well as the local position. I make clear to my hon. Friend, to the House and through the House to the Gipsy Council, and to the individual caravan dwellers, that illegal behaviour of this nature does no good to the cause of caravan dwellers, who need the co-operation and assistance of local authorities and local communities for the provision of sites. If sites provided by district councils or county councils for the accommodation of caravan dwellers are wrecked, the job of the Government, the local authorities and the Gipsy Council becomes worse. There can be no approval for law breaking of that nature.

The problem of caravan dwellers and gipsy encampments is a national one, I appreciate that Ealing is in considerable difficulty at present. The Department has been concerned at the disappointingly slow progress made by local authorities in providing sites for gipsy caravans. Only about 30 per cent. of the gipsy families in England and Wales can be accommodated on official sites and, apart from a handful of private sites, the remainder—over 3,000 families—must perforce camp where they can.

If the local authority in Ealing had decided in 1970, when the 1968 Act came into force, to provide a site for 15 caravans in implementation of its limited duty under the Act, it might now have applied successfully for a designation order, which would have given it more effective powers for dealing with unathorised encampments in its area.

My hon. Friend says that these caravan dwellers do not live by rule of law. To some extent I accept what he says, but to some extent I ask for his compassion in saying that many of these people automatically break the law by their very existence when they move on the road. They are trespassers, they are in breach of planning, public health, highways, civic amenities and other laws. Their encampments usually lack sanitary, water and refuse disposal arrangements, causing both hardship to the gipsies themselves and offence to local residents. The latter and some local authorities—and indeed hon. Members—tend to see the solution as being simply to move the gipsies on. The Government, however, are bound to see the matter in the broad national perspective, which makes it clear that needlessly moving gipsies on when there is no official site to move them to does not solve the problem but merely shifts it from one place to another.

The Government regard a continuance of the present state of affairs as an intolerable prospect. They instituted a searching review of the operation of Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 since it came into effect in April 1970 which both re-examined the basic premises underlying the Act and considered what steps are open to the Government to speed up progress, with site provision.

First, we reconsidered the basic premise of the Act that responsibility for site provision should rest with local authorities. It could be argued that the failure of local authorities to implement the 1968 Act quickly enough and the fact that Governments incur much of the odium for the consequences suggest that it might be better if Governments were to assume full responsibility for dealing with the problem. This was, in fact, considered before the 1968 Act was drafted and the main conclusions then reached still seem valid.

The primary issue is one of accommodation, which is analogous to the housing function of local authorities. This, in itself, raises planning issues which are predominantly local in character, but, beyond that, there are major welfare problems and the need to provide education in some form for gipsy children in the hope that the next generation may be more susceptible to integration with the settled community.

Mr. Molloy

In fairness to Ealing Council, the House should knew that the council provided a temporary site, equipped it with about 15 toilets and provided it with water and all the normal amenities required for a good caravan site. However, within a week those for whom it had been provided smashed it up.

Mr. Oakes

My hon. Friend will know what I have said previously about such matters, and I have great sympathy with the point he makes. Where site provision is made by a local authority in this way and that sort of thing happens, I reiterate what I have said to the Gipsy Council and other bodies concerned with these matters: this can do nothing but harm to the gipsies themselves, and not only those who engage in the vandalism but all travelling people throughout the country. The Government cannot tolerate the deliberate destruction of amenities provided at cost to the public by a local authority.

I am trying to give a broad picture of the sort of problems which we inevitably must face when dealing with 3,000 families who have no site of their own to which to go and must perforce illegally be on a site somewhere because there is no official site provided by the county.

I was mentioning the problem of education so that there may be more susceptibility to integration of the next generation into the community as a whole. Indeed, experience shows that the most successful gipsy sites are those in which many departments of the local authorities, including social services and education, have been fully involved right from the design stage. This all suggests that the job is pre-eminently one for the local authorities and not for central Government. In the long run a gipsy site provided by locally elected representatives may have a much better chance of acceptance by the public in the area than one imposed upon the locality by the Government or by some national body.

We concluded, therefore, that a Part II of the 1968 Act has been operating for only a little over four years it seemed inadvisable to abadon its basic provision unless and until it was clear that all possible ways of making it work had been exhausted. There has been, in particular, strong pressure for amendment of the Act to provide that part only of a county should be eligible for designation under Section 12 when adequate provision has been made there, thus strengthening the power of the authorities to remove unauthorised encampments from that part. This suggestion has been carefully considered but it would raise considerable difficulties, and it is by no means clear that the provision would be as helpful as its proponents expect. Various other suggestions for amendment of the Act were also considered but it was concluded that it is preferable to leave matters as they are, under the control of local authorities, because there is a greater likelihood of public acceptance.

Our clear impression from our experience of the operation of the Act is that the most common cause of the lack of progress by local authorities in site provision lies in failures of understanding and communication. Authorities clearly need advice both as to the general nature and national dimension of the problem with which they are required to deal and, in particular, on the selection, design and management of gipsy sites. There is, moreover, a lack of contact between local authorities and voluntary agencies, representative organisations and the local gipsies themselves. There is also an absence of the kind of regular exchange of information and experience between one authority and another which the nature of this problem demands.

The Department could, and should, play a useful advisory and co-ordinating rôle here but, as at present staffed, lacks the necessary resources. The Department therefore, intends to appoint a gipsy advisory officer. We think that the appointment of such an officer, who would have to be fully acceptable both to the gipsies and to the local authorities, is probably the most important step that the Department could take with a view to assisting local authorities to accelerate site provision. It would enable the Department to perform an advisory and co-ordinating function, which experience has shown to be required if the aims of the Act are to be achieved within a measureable period.

There are other measures that we have in mind. They could be best implemented after the appointment of the advisory officer. They include, for example, the identification of key problem areas and the agreement on a strategy for site provision following discussion with the responsible authorities within those areas. There would be full co-operation in making available suitable Government-owned surplus land. Similarly, the Department would hope to be in a position to offer authorities more detailed advice than hitherto on ways and means of site provision and management.

The rôle of the gipsy advisory officer would be a two-way process. He would not only advise local authorities on the best provision of sites within an area but would discuss with the Gipsy Association such matters as my hon. Friend has brought to the attention of the House, and the enormously damaging consequences that they must inevitably have on the whole gipsy population.

I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the problem that we are discussing is one that is faced by every county. Some counties have made no provision for sites. That inevitably means that the neighbouring county which has made provision under the Act finds itself with a gipsy population which is far greater than it can ever cope with because of the nonfeasance, as it were, of other neighbouring authorities. The gipsy advisory officer would have a duty to describe the plight of the neighbouring county's situation to a recalcitrant county council.

I take my hon. Friend's point that a key duty of the officer would be to advise gipsies and their representative bodies of the need for good ordinary standards of community behaviour when a site is established, whether the site be temporary or permanent. That is essential if the problem is ever to be solved and if local authorities, including Ealing and others, are to continue to operate within the provisions of the 1968 Act.

My hon. Friend raised specific points relating to Ealing and the problems of his constituents. I can assure him that I shall ensure that officials of my Department at once liaise with the Ealing Council to discuss the points that he has raised. I can assure him that they will look closely at each and every matter and will ensure that my hon. Friend's constituents, who have so wisely sent him to this House, are not harassed by a population within their area which is breaking not only the law of trespass but specific laws, and doing so to their own disadvantage. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday 15th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 29th July.