HC Deb 17 November 1977 vol 939 cc967-78

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

1.14 a.m.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of accommodation for gipsies. The last time the Minister and I clashed, if I may use the word, in an Adjournment debate was two years ago. We have a distinct improvement on the then situation, since we are beginning this debate four hours earlier.

I am sorry to drag the Minister back to the realms of reality from discussing vatican cardinals, polygamous birds and other delightful bird species. However, if I may now become serious, we are in this debate dealing with a national problem. We all have this problem in our constituencies, but I shall attempt to approach the matter on a national basis. I shall quote examples in my constituency to decorate the national picture.

I know that the Minister has spent much time on this subject, particularly since April of this year. He has travelled the country and held consultations following the publication of the Cripps Report. Therefore, it is fitting that this debate should take place so that we may hear the Minister's views.

Let me at the outset, give some figures and the Minister may be able to give the latest figures when he replies to the debate. Following the Caravan Sites Act 1968 there are now 133 local authority sites, which means that there are pitches for 2,131 caravans. That means that this is a sufficient number to accommodate only one quarter of the gipsy population. That leaves about 6,000 gipsy families on the loose throughout the length and breadth of these islands, and that underlines the extent of the problem. Therefore, in spite of all the action and efforts since 1968, local authorities can still cope with only a quarter of the gipsy population.

On a local level, I wish to refer to my Division of Leominster, which in essence is North Herefordshire. In the old county of Herefordshire there are no sites at all. There are some sites in Worcestershire, but the old Herefordshire County Council did not take the necsessary decision. The new authority of Hereford and Worcester has still taken no decision on the issue.

We have a stalemate situation typical of the position in many other areas in the country. Because many authorities have not provided sufficient sites, or in my case no sites, they are unable to move on gipsies or travellers generally. They cannot do so because of diktats laying down that such travellers are not able to be moved elsewhere because that would create problems in other areas, particularly when there are no sites for them to go to in the first place.

The rest of the statement is that for many gipsies there is just nowhere legally they can go.

The net position is that those travellers are on the highways and byways of Herefordshire, as they are in most other counties. The problem is gradually mounting, and yesterday the subject was featured at Question Time when transport matters were being dealt with. One hon. Member complained bitterly about the state of a lay-by in his constituency, and he was backed by hon. Members from both sides of the House who had similar problems.

I should like to give a couple of examples showing that there are two points of view on this subject. I shall use my own area for the purpose. We have in our area a body which has carried out much valuable work, called the Hereford Travellers Support Group. That group has conducted a recent census, which is not complete since the group is still working on it. It appears that about 40 families are being moved on continuously with all the attendant problems in the old county of Herefordshire.

On the other side of the coin, among my constituents are many long-suffering residents in various villages and places where gipsies tend to dwell and on from which they are not moved. One example —this is something of a jewel as it combines just about all the different entities of the problem—is Bishopstone, which is very close to Hereford.

At Bishopstone there is one family and its caravan. The family has been there since January 1976. It has been there with the mother and father and various members of the family ever since. It has not moved out during that time, and a tremendous amount of effort has been exerted by the highways department because it considers the caravan to constitute a road hazard. Similar efforts have been exerted by the social services department and the local district council. We have all the elements in this example.

There have been numerous meetings between all the bodies I have mentioned to discuss the presence of the family. The extent of the problem can be mirrored by the fact that the family was four or five months ago offered a house by the district council. It was not merely a house, it was an old school building that had a hardcore surface so that the family could live in the house and have caravans parked on the hardcore surface. The family refused the offer because it thought that the school building was too far from Hereford. It was some six miles further out than the position that it was occupying at Bishopstone.

The offer was made four or five months ago and still the social services department is going around wringing its hands in anxiety. The highways department is "going spare" because of the road hazard that the caravan constitutes. The district council is fed up with the whole thing. That is typical of the administrative indecision, difficulty and expense that is involved in the whole problem.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

It happens that my constituency borders on my hon. Friend's constituency. Salop County Council has established a site for gipsies within three miles of my hon. Friend's constituency. It has been an example of two difficulties. First, there has been intense opposition locally. That arises from the fact that the gipsies are not under any proper authoritative control. Secondly, there is a category of gipsy—my constituents call its members Irish tinkers—for whom the right solution would be reportation to Southern Ireland. Will the Government face this situation?

Mr. Temple-Morris

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know that his constituency suffers considerably from the problems. I do not know the exact geographical situation, but fortunately his constituency is perhaps a little near Ireland than mine, or the part of Ireland from whence comes the sort of gipsy to whom my hon. Friend refers. Therefore, he gets a greater extent of the truly troublesome element of the travelling population with which we are dealing. I know that from my reading of the local Press, part of which I share with my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will deal with his point.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968 has run out of steam. The Department realises that perfectly well, and that is demonstrated by the fact that it asked Mr. Cripps to consider the matter and report to it. The fact is that the Act has run out of steam and is not sufficient of an answer. The Cripps Committee reported in April 1977. It was a good report that was well presented. The Minister sent it to myself and other Members who he knew had a gipsy problem.

He then said that he would begin consultation. That was in April 1977. The hon. Gentleman has been around the country. We are now behind schedule in that the Cripps Report recommended that there should be a quota for county councils that should be settled by 31st October. We are already in November, and we are behind schedule.

I gather that the Minister—I hope that he will be able to fill us in on this—is still consulting and travelling around the country discussing the problem that we know exists and to which, dare I say, we know the answer. The answer is money, and that is probably part of the hon. Gentleman's problem. He has our sympathy in that respect. However, I am dealing with priorities and I hope that I shall be able to urge this priority upon him. The Cripps proposal on the money that would be necessary was—this is the great fear in the present economic situation—a 100 per cent. Exchequer grant towards the capital cost. I am sure that the proposals were made after a great deal of consideration and with a certain amount of wisdom, because of the stalemate that we have reached.

The local authority position as a result of the recommendations is understandable. I press upon the Minister the need for action. Having read a report saying that there might be a Government grant, very few local authorities, particularly in these times of financial stringency, will hazard their arms and spend their own money when they think that central Government will help them out and that central Government are about to take a decision.

That is the reason for the urgency. I stress that the Minister must make up his mind, because there will not be much more progress with the status quo. Local authorities have been squeezed over the rate support grant, particularly in the rural areas. It is not enough to say that running costs and loan charges for sites are eligible for the rate support grant. That does not answer the problem any more than it does for even more central issues for the shires. I think particularly of transport. Some counties even have difficulty in coming up with their part to match their supplementary grant from the Government. That is the state they have reached in following the Government's guidelines.

The Government called upon the counties to cut back, and they have done so. Here perhaps I may make a party point. Conservative county councils are cutting back—unlike some Labour-controlled councils when we were in Government. Most of the county councils are Conservative. They are controlling public ex- penditure on behalf of the Government and doing it very well.

The political difficulties are considerable, and I do not under-estimate them. Let us now be bipartisan about this. One of the Minister's hon. Friends told me tonight of the efforts of a Labour county council, West Glamorgan. The position there mirrors the difficulties of the county and the district councils, which are responsible under the 1968 Act. The county wants to do something about the matter. The district murmurs that it will help and then finds political difficulties and because it has no direct responsibility, it then says that it does not want to know. In the case of West Glamorgan the leader of the county council had stones thrown through his window because of his efforts to do something about the problem. That mirrors the problem throughout the country.

For the future, the Government must decide and must take action. The problem is urgent. One way or another the necessary money must be made available, and the duties of national and local government must be made clear. Those are the central points.

Maybe we shall have to go for less expensive sites. Maybe we shall have to be less doctrinaire about the problem. The Minister has seen the various sites. There was a great ideal, which has been shot down by the Cripps Report, that everybody should be settled on a de-luxe site, that the children would go to school and everybody would settle and be happy for ever more. Most gipsies and most members of the travelling population do not want that. If they do, they will not admit it.

The matter must be approached gradually. The gipsies must be stopped first, and then we can see how we go from there. The main thing is that they must have somewhere to go. The quota system must be fixed.

The political difficulties are considerable, and they are causing distress, squalor, ill-feeling and violence. There is a great fear that those problems will increase unless something is done.

I firmly believe that the responsibility rests primarily upon the national Government, whichever party is in power. It is easier for us here to do something than for the leader of a county council who is liable to have stones thrown through his window. I dare say that we shall have stones thrown through our windows, but it is easier for us to deal with what is a national problem. Not only is it easier, but it is our duty to do so.

1.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) on raising this matter and on his courage in taking on this sensitive issue. I am sorry that I was unable to visit his constituency, although I was asked to go there. I visited the worst areas and it will give the hon. Member no joy to know that there are areas with worse problems than those in his constituency.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) intervened to complain that gipsies are not under authoritative rule. One of the problems is that the gipsy way of life is not conducive to authoritative rule.

I have been consulting local authorities since April, with breaks during the summer. The time for talks has not been that long. I have asked groups of local authorities and counties to try to get together to sort out between themselves what each area's quota should be, how many gipsies there are, and who should cater for them. That is a difficult job, but some areas are doing it.

Many council officials and councillors realise that this is the way to tackle the problem. But I have no powers without fresh legislation to make them get together. Councils must ask themselves whether they are prepared to allow their ratepayers to suffer because of illegal sites without doing anything about them.

Not a single site exists in the Leominster constituency. Unfortunately, that is only one example of the situation that exists generally throughout England and Wales. According to the latest information there are 157 local authority sites in England and Wales offering accommodation for 2,531 gipsy caravans. This means that about three-quarters of a gipsy population of between 8,000 and 9,000 families have no alternative but to camp illegally.

In Hereford and Worcester there are three official sites, all in the area of the former county of Worcester, accommodating 42 caravans. It is difficult to know the total number of families in the county because there is considerable seasonal agricultural work. There are probably at least 110 families regularly living in the county but without legal sites and at times during the summer there are likely to be many more.

County councils have been under a statutory duty for more than seven and a half years to provide sites for gipsies residing in or resorting to their area. The unauthorised encampments on which the great majority of gipsies are compelled to reside are the nub of what has come to be described as the gipsy problem. Whether one calls them gipsies, didicois, or Irish tinkers, the problem is there. It is no good my saying that I am only dealing with the Romanies.

I saw many of these sites on my travels this summer—on roadside verges in the country, in clearance areas such as in my constituency and on roadways in the cities. With no services and no management, conditions on such sites rapidly become squalid, an unsightly nuisance for local residents and miserable for the gipsies themselves. Much criticism of gipsies is based on the impression created by these illegal sites, but what would our houses and gardens look like after a few weeks if we had no water, no sanitation, and no refuse collection?

I have seen for myself that adequately equipped and properly managed official sites present a very different picture, not only those which are newly opened, well equipped, and rather expensive, but older sites, more or less adequately equipped, which demonstrate that material shortcomings are less important than good management. On these official sites gipsies have generally settled down well and been accepted locally. I have also seen the usefulness of temporary stopping places with minimal faciilties, some used only in winter.

But I regard the provision of well equipped sites as the best way of tackling the major problem. Only by adequate provision of satisfactory official sites, equipped to cater for varying gipsy needs, can those appalling illegal sites be eliminated. It is ironic that such provision is held up by local opposition based on experience only of the illegal sites, so that people are tending to perpetuate the very thing that they loathe.

I suggest, therefore, that local authorities owe it to their ratepayers to break out of this vicious circle and get rid of these eyesores not by pushing gipsies on to the next authority's doorstep, but by providing official sites.



Mr. Marks

I have not much time. I might be able to give way later.

I am aware that this advice is not new. As long ago as February 1962, in a circular to local authorities, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was saying: Moving people off one unauthorised site and leaving them to find another is no solution, and no answer to the human and social problems involved. These can only be resolved by the provision of proper sites, in which the caravan families can settle down under decent conditions, and in reasonable security. This is probably the only effective way of preventing the persistent use of unauthorised sites, continuing trouble, and hardship. That circular 15 years ago drew the attention of authorities to the power to provide sites conferred on them by the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960.

The failure of these repeated exhortations of this kind to produce significant results led to the enactment of Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968—a Private Member's Act which had the support of all parties—which gave county, county borough and London borough councils a duty to provide caravan sites for the gipsies residing in or resorting to their area.

The Act came into force in April 1970, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, its effects have been disappointing. There was a gradual increase in the annual rate of site provision between 1970 and 1974, largely because the county boroughs had this quota which was given to them and they thought that if they got it, it would save them a lot of trouble, as it did. Now we have a situation where the vast majority of gipsies have no legal stopping place.

It was the Government's concern at this situation, with its increasing threat of violent confrontation, that in February 1976 led my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Planning and Local Government to ask Mr. John Cripps to carry out a study of the effectiveness of the arrangements to secure adequate accommodation. The report was published in April this year.

The hon. Member referred to the advice which we have given, and also to the Cripps Report. But advice is not a policy in itself, as the hon. Gentleman said. Government policy is, as it has been for all Governments for years, to secure the provision of enough sites by local authorities. To an individual authority the idea of moving on gipsies from its area into that of another authority may seem attractive but the neighbouring authorities and their residents, not to mention the gipsies themselves, are bound to resent it.

Government advice against indiscriminate evictions was never to be taken as a pretext for doing nothing positive and then blaming the Government for the consequences. It is not simply a matter of leaving the gipsies alone. Our advice also asks authorities to do what they can to alleviate the conditions on an illegal site until they make it a better site.

I have referred to the Cripps Report. One of its major recommendations is that the Government should seek statutory authority for the payment of Exchequer grants to cover the capital cost of sites at a rate of 100 per cent. for a period of five years. We are considering this recommendation very seriously. The hon. Gentleman will, I know, appreciate that I cannot say more about that now. I hope that we shall be in a position to discuss it with the local authority associations before too long. I need hardly say that there are difficulties about the introduction of new grants—new money —in the present situation.

It must be remembered that authorities are already getting substantial financial support from the Government, since loan charges and running costs for gipsy sites qualify for rate support grant. The Exchequer bears well over half the recurrent cost over the country as a whole. Grant is based nationally on that. Some counties are doing nothing about it while collecting the cash.

The problem is far from being entirely financial. Authorities have had the statutory duty of site provision since 1970. Members of both major parties would claim that financial constraints have not been on during the whole of that period, but progress was inadequate even at times when restraints were not on. Some counties—the old Herefordshire was one of them—never provided a single site. I suspect that the slow progress in site provision is due as much to public opposition as to lack of funds.

I have spoken about the Cripps Report's recommendation on finance. There are a number of other recommendations in the report. I am hoping to reach the point of decision as soon as possible and I know that the Government's response is anxiously awaited by county and district councils, by residents, and by gipsies themselves.

I think there is a danger that everyone is concentrating on the recommendations —as the hon. Gentleman has done—and is forgetting the report itself. Right at the beginning John Cripps puts the whole problem in its proper perspective by pointing out that it concerns a minority, numbering fewer than 50,000, in two countries With a combined population of 49 million. So in terms of individual local authorities the numbers are small indeed in housing terms.

Gipsies are widely criticised for camping illegally, but the report shows that the loss of their traditional stopping places has largely resulted from a variety of new legislative measures, with one exception not directed against gipsies but having the incidental effect of making them illegal campers on the sites that they and their families had used for many years.

John Cripps has made it very clear that, like any other cross-section of the population, there are gipsies whose behaviour is not acceptable to their neighbours. This may amount to no more than a knock on the door by a gipsy asking for water, but even that can be very frightening for an elderly person or someone who is alone in the house. Much more serious situations can develop, involving violence —on both sides. It is, of course, these incidents that hit the headlines in the local Press and lead to public condemnation of the entire gipsy population. I ask hon. Members and the public in general to look again at the Cripps Report, which seeks a better appreciation of the gipsies' difficulties, without in any way glossing over the problems caused by the behaviour of some of them.

I believe that we need to bring about a much better mutual understanding by house-dwellers and gipsies alike, of their cultural and social conditions. In that way we can help to get rid of the roadside and inner city encampments that are the source of so many probems.

I realise that it still difficult for those in local authorities who, in the interests of housedwellers and gipsies alike are struggling to improve the situation. I am sure the hon. Gentleman has added himself to their ranks tonight if he was not already there. They are constantly opposed, criticised and shunned by their colleagues for their efforts. Only last week, at a conference about education for gipsy children, John Cripps spoke again about the loneliness of these workers, particularly local authority officers and members. I am begnning to think he should have included Ministers.

Though the Department has always seen its role as essentially an advisory and co-ordinating one, I am anxious to put all the pressure I can on county councils and find financial help if I can do so. The Department has been increasingly active in recent years. We have an advisory officer on gipsy encampments. He and his staff spend much time troubleshooting and I believe that they are a great help in that way. The hon. Gentleman sought Government money for gipsy sites—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

House adjourned at sixteen minutes to Two o'clock.