HC Deb 14 May 1976 vol 911 cc916-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Mr. Thomas Cox.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

In the last few weeks 70 gipsy caravans have been illegally parked on Mitcham Common. A wide area of amenity land has been taken over and strewn with litter and scrap metal. There are no lavatories and no refuse collection services, the 300 people living in these caravans have left excreta, rubbish and the by-products of scrap dealing on the common. There is no water supply so residents in the area have been pestered for water. They are also pestered by dogs, horses and mischievous children who are not at school.

Many of my constituents are apprehensive about crossing that part of the common but many of them have to do so to get to the bus route. A large number of them are bitterly incensed by the gipsies and have held protest meetings which filled the school hall and the playground as well. They have organised marches and petitions and there is a great deal of ugly and irresponsible talk of violence.

I sympathise with my constituents, but I am aware that there is another side to the problem. It was the residents who elected me and not the gipsies, as I am reminded daily by the many frequently offensive letters in my post. But there is a social problem here which a speedier eviction—which the residents are caling for—will do nothing to solve. When the gipsies are evicted from Mitcham Common, as they will be, they will go and camp illegally somewhere else. They will be evicted from there and move on to another illegal camp. This will happen again and yet again, and sooner or later they could well end up back on Mitcham Common.

We must find somewhere else for the gipsies to camp lawfully. Many of the problems which have arisen at Mitcham would not arise if these people were in a lawful camp. The local council will not provide a refuse skip or any other facilities for emptying Elsans because they fear it will appear that they are condoning the illegal presence of the gipsies on the common and this would make the situation a great deal worse.

There are 300 to 400 gipsy families in Greater London for whom there are no sites and no lawful accommodation at all. This pattern is repeated throughout the country. I believe there are 7,000 gipsy families altogether in England and Wales and only 2,110 sites.

Unless we provide more sites urgently these problems willl become steadily worse. The children cannot go to school. They are moved on all the time, so inevitably they do not attend school. I spoke to a number of the children on Mitcham Common and most of them have never been to school. Some had been to school for short periods before they were moved on. Inevitably the great majority are as illiterate as their parents.

Inevitably, they will grow up illiterate and isolated from and antagonistic to the community which forces them to move on every six or seven weeks. It is understandable antagonism. I do not excuse or condone it, but it is a fact of life. If we treat people as pariahs, they will be antagonistic to the community, and we shall see a new generation of children growing up to be illiterate like their parents.

The parents for the most part get no health services and are not registered with a doctor. They do not receive adequate health care. Most important, they do not use family planning services, with the result that the gipsy population in Great Britain, if the 1965 census and my hon. Friend's figures are right, has virtually doubled in 10 years. I believe that that is probably an exaggeration, arising from census error, but there is no doubt that the rate of population growth among gipsy families is immense. One of the causes is that they have nowhere that they can settle and get the family planning services they need.

The problem, unless we find a solution to it—the solution must be humane and satisfactory to the residents in the area as well—will become steadily and increasingly worse. We all hoped that the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which only came into force in 1970, would solve the problem. If it had been effectively enforced, it probably would have solved the problem, but it has not been enforced.

The Act requires every local authority to provide sufficient sites to meet the needs in its area. That has been done scarcely anywhere. It also provides that a local authority which has fulfilled its obligation may be designated, and for designated areas the Act provides a speedier, though still defective procedure for moving gipsies off unauthorised sites.

I suggest a number of solutions. First and foremost, we should recognise that this is a national problem, a Government problem, and one which local authorities cannot resolve, not because they have not the capacity to do so, but because, in the nature of the problem, it is one where every local authority will be in immense trouble with its electors if it seeks to do anything more than what it is absolutely compelled to do by law. The Government must now say "We will accept this problem as our responsibility and we will find a solution". The local authorities simply cannot do it because, everywhere, residents, even if they accept the problem, say that the gipsies can go somewhere else.

It is commonly and constantly said that these people are not real gipsies anyway but come from Ireland or the North or elsewhere. A gipsy is defined as a person with a nomadic way of life. We cannot, in any case, set up customs posts and cut off the right of access from Ireland. There is really no way of preventing gipsy families from camping. They will camp somewhere, legally or illegally. Unless we provide legal sites where they can pursue their way of life, they will be pestiferous nuisances to the rest of the community and do damage to themselves by perpetuating the problem for future generations.

The first step that the Government should take, if they accept responsibility in the matter, would be to utilise as many as possible of empty sites belonging to the Property Services Agency or the Ministry of Defence, as was done on a temporary basis for the Ugandan Asians. In this way, they would house the surplus gipsy families so that they could have somewhere to go, even if was not where they would prefer to be. They could camp quite legally and carry on their trades. I have tried to find a number of such sites and I have had a number suggested to me which I will communicate privately to my hon. Friend.

If the Department really set its mind to the matter, I have no doubt that it could come up with enough sites to resolve the problem within a matter of weeks, because it is difficult to believe that there are not sites which are not immediately required—for example, sites which have been acquired for future road widening, and so on. They need not be big, elaborate or expensive sites. One of the most satisfactory permanent sites was provided at Farnham at a total cost of £4,000 for 15 caravans. Tem- porary sites need even fewer facilities, but they should be provided quickly. The Property Services Agency has the resources and I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that it produces them.

As a longer-term solution, the Government should consider cancelling the designation orders outside inner London. It is crazy that inner London boroughs like Hackney, Camden, Islington and Lambeth should have to provide gipsy sites. There are greater needs for housing and recreation in these areas.

I think the inner London boroughs should be relieved of their responsibility to provide sites under the Act, but we must then increase the obligation of the outer London boroughs and ensure that where they have not provided enough sites to meet the needs of gipsies in the area, the designation is cancelled.

We should issue designation orders sparingly and for only one year at a time so that they last for only as long as a local authority is meeting the needs of gipsies in its area. Of the 15 district councils in Kent, only seven have provided sites. Of the four district councils in Berkshire, two have provided sites. Four of the 12 districts in East and West Sussex have provided sites and only three of the 11 district councils in Surrey have done so.

There will be problems when local authorities are neglecting their responsibilities in this way. It is up to the Minister and his Department to ensure that councils carry out their responsibilities. One method may be the use of mandamus. Although that is a cumbersome method for a Government Department, there is no fundamental reason why it should not be used. If the Government showed a determination to solve the problem, local authorities would respond. Removal of designation would probably be only a first step, but it is a necessary first step.

All but five of the 32 London boroughs have provided sites, though whether outer London boroughs have provided enough sites is a different question. I should like local authorities in the outer city and rural areas to be required to provide transit sites which gipsies could use for up to a week at a time to enable them to fulfil their legal and traditional function of moving from one part of the country to another. That is how they ply their trade.

I am constantly being told that gipsies are parasites on society, but the gipsy community provides one-fifth of all the scrap metal recycled by British industry. This is not a very attractive function and it does not have a high amenity value, but it is necessary and we cannot afford to neglect it. It is one of the traditional functions of the gipsy community. We have had gipsies in this country for many hundreds of years. It would be a sad reflection on us if we decided we could not accommodate them and their traditions any longer.

It is necessary to ensure that sites give opportunities for work. Under the Act, a site should have access to working facilities but few do. This deprives gipsies of the opportunity to make themselves self-sufficient and sometimes drives them on to social security and influences them into becoming parasitical though they might not wish to be. They should also have access to local authority dumps to dispose of their residual scrap without causing a nuisance to the community.

Sixth, where there is designation—I accept that inner city areas and a number of others which have fulfilled their function should be designated—we should have a much more effective procedure than we have at present of enforcing the law. Under the Caravan Sites Act the local authorities that were designated were given the right of application to the magistrates' court for an order to move the caravans on. But the local authorities still have to try to identify by name the occupier of the caravan, and all the problems with which those who have been dealing with squatters have become very familiar are met in an even wider variety of forms.

We have had to revise the Order 119 procedure to deal with squatters. Where there is a designation procedure, I agree that local authorities should be entitled to use the Order 119 procedure and the rules of the Supreme Court—that is the procedure for dealing with squatters—so that local authorities can enforce the law where they are entitled to do so, without the law making an ass of itself, as it frequently does in proceedings that are brought under the Caravan Sites Act.

Above all, however, I urge that the Goverment act speedily. I appreciate that there would be planning problems if the Government took responsibility for designating sites in rural areas, but I suspect that local authorities will co-operate if the Government show themselves to be really determined to find a quick and effective solution to the problem. If they do not, there will be very great hardship, not only for the gipsies but for the residents of the areas in which they camp illegally, and a very genuine risk in areas such as mine and many others that I know that communal violence will result. That is something that the Government must take very seriously indeed. I am not given to alarmist talk, but if my hon. Friend cannot give me an outline of a complete solution this afternoon, I hope that he will be able to assure me that the Government have it in mind to produce one very quickly indeed.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) for a speech which I found perceptive, sensitive and well-balanced. As he was speaking about some of the issues involving gipsies, I was reminded—as perhaps you were, Mr. Speaker—of a former Member of this House, the late Norman Dodds, who was once the Member for Erith and Crayford, who did a great deal of magnificent work on behalf of the gipsies and an enormous amount to try to increase public understanding of the gipsy population in Britain.

This is the second time this year that the matter of gipsies in London has been raised on the Adjournment. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government has during the past six months received deputations on the subject from several London boroughs, as well as representations, personal and written, from a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Williams) and my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright). This is a clear measure of the concern which is rightly felt by many hon. Members and councillors in London about the continuing lack of any apparent solution to a problem which is proving far more intractable than its actual dimensions would seem to warrant.

There are at present anything from 600 to 800 gipsy families in Greater London. The number varies from time to time for seasonal or other reasons. Of these, just over 400 are accommodated on the official sites, permanent and temporary, which have been provided in 25 of the 32 London boroughs. There are plans to provide sites in at least two of the remaining seven boroughs, and to replace most of the temporary sites by permanent ones, but at the end of the day there will still probably be between 200 and 400 gipsy families in the area for whom there will be no room on official sites.

It is the presence of these few hundred families that is responsible for the kind of situation that my hon. Friend has described as having arisen in his constituency. and for other large unauthorised encampments which have been brought to the Department's attention in, for example, the London boroughs of Havering and Greenwich.

This is not a problem which will go away if nothing is done about it. Moreover, simply evicting the gipsies from unauthorised sites, which may seem to some individual authorities to be the obvious answer, is no solution at all when seen in the broader perspective in which I and my right hon. Friend have to view the matter. The buck has to stop somewhere. Nor is it any good hoping that the gipsies can all be made to go away to some quiet country place and pursue some inoffensive and traditionally "gipsy" craft. Times have changed. These gipsies will stay in or around London—for reasons my hon. Friend well illustrated—because that is where they can earn a living, and this, for most of them, probably means that their main occupation will be scrap breaking and dealing.

Assuming then, that the gipsies are in London to stay, the choice lies between accepting the continued existence of unauthorised encampments, with the threat to public health and all the other nuisances which they inflict on residents in their proximity, which, in urban areas, is often too close for comfort, or providing official sites on which at least the basic facilities essential to hygiene can be provided and over which the degree of control essential to public order can be exercised.

Successive Governments for many years now have in fact recognised that the only solution to this problem lies in the provision of a sufficiency of official sites, properly equipped and managed. Therefore, after years of Government exhortation to this effect had failed to produce a significant number of sites. Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. which had the support of all parties in its passage through Parliament, imposed a duty on local authorities to provide caravan sites for the gipsies in their areas.

The Act came into operation in April 1970 and, frankly, has not worked very well. Not nearly enough sites have been provided, and today more than two-thirds of a gipsy population of probably between 6,000 and 7,000 families in England and Wales cannot be accommodated on official sites. London's performance as regards site provision has in fact been rather better than that of the country as a whole.

The Act, like most others, is not without its defects and anomalies, not least as regards its operation in London, to some of which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. In fairness, though, to those responsible for drafting and enacting its provisions, I am bound to say that these faults have become apparent largely with hindsight. It was not to be foreseen in 1968 that in eight years' time we should be dealing with a gipsy population in London of 800 rather than 100 families.

I do not intend, however, to discuss the possible advantages of amending the Act in this way or that. In the first place, the possible need for amending legislation will no doubt engage the attention of Mr. John Cripps who, as hon. Members will be aware, is at present carrying out a study, at the request of my right hon. Friend, of the effectiveness of the arrangements to secure adequate accommodation for gipsies in England and Wales, as required by the 1968 Act.

Mr. Cripps's attention has, incidentally, been especially directed to the provisions in the Act for the exemption of local authorities and the designation of their areas. I know that the working of these provisions has caused especial concern to a number of hon. Members for London constituencies. I will see, though, that any suggestions for legislation arising from this debate are brought to Mr. Cripps's attention.

My hon. Friend has made a number of specific suggestions, many of them requiring a much greater degree of responsibility for coping with this problem falling on central, rather than local, government. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for these suggestions, and for the notice he gave me that he would be raising them. I do not want to answer those points in detail. My right hon. Friend's intention in setting up the Cripps study was to look at these sorts of suggestions, and I do not want to prejudge the outcome of that study.

None the less, I should like to make one or two points in response to my hon. Friend, and I will ensure that this debate is brought to Mr. Cripps's attention, so that he can consider my hon. Friend's arguments and my points.

First, he suggested that Ministers should identify sites in particular areas where gipsy camps could be placed. As my hon. Friend appreciated, this raises problems with the quasi-judicial function my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may be called upon to exercise in the context of any planning application. I must stress that, in my view, it would not be proper, in a situation like this, to put that role at risk. This would be direct interference with the land-use planning function of local authorities.

My hon. Friend also argued that the Government should take a much more active role in enforcing local authorities' obligation to provide sites. I well understand his concern, and I have to say that there are authorities which have not accepted their responsibilities here. The Government have the powers in Section 9 of the Act, but up to now successive Governments have been reluctant to use them since the Act only came into force in 1970, and local authorities needed time to decide on the needs of their areas. My hon. Friend will, of course, know the value that the Government place on maintaining local authority independence. His remarks will be very carefully considered, so that we may judge whether six years is long enough, and it is time we started to act as he suggests. The threat of revoking a designation or of reviewing designation annually as an alternative means of persuading authorities to shoulder their responsibilities will be looked at at the same time.

The question of transit sites, with lower standards of facilities was also mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend that such sites would be useful and that there is no need for a rigid insistence on high standards of site provisions. But I suggest that the provision of permanent sites must have priority, particularly in the current economic climate, and such sites would not in any event be suitable in London.

My hon. Friend suggested that inner London should be exempted from the duty to provide sites. My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister has been discussing this proposal with various boroughs, and discussions with the London Boroughs Association are also in progress. His suggestion is also a matter to which Mr. Cripps has been asked to pay special attention. I do not want to prejudice those discussions or Mr. Cripps's inquiry in any way. But I should like to pay tribute to the work that the London boroughs have done. In the 390,000 acres of London—perhaps the most congested part of the country—sites for 405 vans have been provided. In contrast, six counties surrounding London, with an area nearly 10 times that of London, have so far provided only 386 pitches.

My hon. Friend mentioned the provision of work areas. The 1968 Act empowered, but did not require, local authorities to provide such sites. A joint working party of the Local Authority Association and the Gipsy Council in 1971 said that local authorities should have discretion on this, since needs would vary from area to area. My Department sees no need to vary that view.

My hon. Friend suggested that surplus defence lands should be used for emergency accommodation. I understand his concern, particularly with the 70 gipsy families due to be evicted from Mitcham Common. He will know from his discussions with my right hon. Friend that we are looking at this suggestion, and I assure him that if there happened to be any surplus Crown land which the London borough of Merton wished to acquire to accommodate the Mitcham Common gipsies, every effort would be made to meet its request.

But I do not think that land is the real difficulty. I have shown that the amounts required are very small, especially in relation to the areas of some of the outer London boroughs. The real difficulty is that many people simply do not want gipsy camps of any kind in their vicinity. Opposition of this kind must, I am sure, arise from impressions of unauthorised encampments like that at Mitcham Common. Indeed, so long as there are more of such encampments than there are official sites, it is not surprising that the former make the dominant impression. This is unfortunate, because the Department's experience suggests that local antipathy towards gipsies usually dies down once properly equipped and managed official sites have been established. In any case, given that the alternative is the perpetual recurrence of the kind of situation which my hon. Friend has described, surely the effort to provide a better, even if not more popular, solution is worth while.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for a useful and wide-ranging debate, which I am sure will be very valuable to Mr. Cripps. I appreciate what he has said and the balanced, sensitive and perceptive way in which he has put this difficult problem before this House this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.