HC Deb 06 March 1980 vol 980 cc748-72

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

7.46 pm
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)

I believe that we have nearly three hours for debate, but from the number of hon. Members present I doubt whether we shall need that time. Even if we took the full three hours, the immensely complicated and emotive problems associated with the life, times and wanderings of 8,500 families—45,000 people—collectively known as gipsies would not be resolved.

One problem is numbers. The issue is made complex partly because cultural heritage varies greatly between different families. There is a wide gulf between the sense of independent pride and wealth of many of the Romany families and the variable lifestyle of many travellers of Irish descent.

In my view, the Government would be well advised to give intensive thought to what can be done to monitor the movements of Irish gipsy families. It is a contentious and difficult matter even to mention. I believe that the problem should be considered at governmental level. We should try to see whether an agreement can be reached between the British and Irish Governments on the control of Irish tinkers entering this country. I accept that it is an extremely difficult problem. It opens up a Pandora's box. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that the immigration question with Ireland is already vexed.

The problem cannot be swept under the carpet, even if it is not possible to establish greater control—and I cannot think of a better word—over the movement of Irish tinkers. Many of them wander backwards and forwards between Ireland and this country. I suspect that none of them pays taxes in this country and few feel genuinely associated with it. The problem must be aired. I should be grateful for a response from the Minister.

I accept that even if it were possible to establish greater control over the movement of Irish tinkers, the major problem would continue to exist. The tension in many areas, certainly in my constituency —many of my hon. Friends also have considerable problems—is created by large numbers of gipsy families roving around. There are 300 gipsy families roving around the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and the problem is considerable It is caused in part by the refusal of many gipsy families to conform to modern standards of cleanliness. Often gipsies are their own worst enemies. For instance, the litter that they leave when they move from encampment to encampment causes great distress to the majority of people living in outlying villages in which gipsies have been camping.

Local unhappiness is a result of the fact that in any modern society it is not easy to accommodate people who have no permanent place of residence. However, there are growing signs that a number of gipsy families would like to be able to settle in one place if they were able to do so.

Mr. D. A. Trippier (Rossendale)

Before my hon. Friend moves on from the point about the problems that tinkers cause in certain areas, will he accept that whenever they have been brought to book and put before the courts they have been found guilty of stealing coal from people's houses, backyards and doorsteps?

Mr. Spicer

It is always dangerous to generalise. I should have thought—I spoke recently to my gipsy relations officer in the county council about the matter—that there was a consensus that, on the whole, gipsies are pretty unsociable. The police encounter difficulties and sometime dangers when they have to enforce law and order. It becomes a matter of considerable worry to the police when they have to tackle large numbers of Irish tinkers. In my part of the world there have been some nasty in- cidents. I agree with my hon. Friend on that matter.

There is now a growing feeling amongst some gipsy families that they would like pens—certainly it is true in my constituency—it often causes additional problems where, in some cases, local authorities give gipsy families priority for orities give gipsy families priority for council houses.

The question whether the answer to those problems lies in the greater provision of permanent sites for gipsies is controversial. It is easy to propound the issue as general philosophy and then to say that there should be sites in other areas than one's own constituency. That certainly applies at the district level and at county level. Everyone is in favour of the idea in general, but when it comes to the specific site problems start to emerge.

All Government reports, such as that of Sir John Cripps, and the relevant legislation, such as the Caravan Sites Act 1978, presuppose that the solution lies in the provision of more permanent sites. I understand the force of that argument, especially when it is put forward in reaction to a widespread illegal use of land by gipsies.

The case for more permanent sites is stronger when it is borne in mind that the authorities invariably have immense problems and difficulties in moving gipsies off land on which they are squatting. Lack of permanent sites is causing local authorities to turn a blind eye and even to connive at the breaking of basic planning legislation in order to get gipsies off the roadside.

There is a case in my constituency on a farm at Atch Lench, where the county council gipsy liaison officer has conceived it as his responsibility to encourage gipsies to camp on private land, admittedly with the agreement of the owner, on which planning permission has not been obtained and which is now threatened with an enforcement order by the Wychavon district council. The matter is not eased in my area by the fact that the Property Services Agency is determined to evict all the gipsy families encamping on its land in Hattlebury.

Despite those strong arguments for permanent sites, it must be accepted that the involvement of gipsies in the life of an area is frequently seasonal. In the Vale of Evesham gipsies have historically played an important part in the picking season, at the end of which they have tended to move to other parts of the country.

The question of the role—usually a seasonal role—that gipsies play in the local economy is relevant not only to the general advisability of the permanent site concept but also, and perhaps more important, to the issue of how quotas for sites should be spread. That is something that no legislation has tackled. However, any uniform dispersal of permanent sites, as between areas in which gipsies play a large part in the economy and those in which they do not, is inappropriate.

Whatever view is taken about the advisability of permanent sites, it is clear that the way in which the law apparently operates in respect of the provision for the financing and management of sites is ridiculous.

At present, it is the duty of county councils to find the appropriate sites. It is the responsibility of the central Government to provide the funding. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about funding, because there have been indications that the Government are prepared to consider funding permanent sites this year but perhaps not beyond that. The district councils are responsible for the operation of the sites.

At the end of this crazy procedure, the county councils are responsible, as I understand, for picking up the tab on any deficits that are incurred over and above the central Government budget. Clause 209 of the original Local Government, Planning and Land Bill attempted to remedy that by placing a greater responsibility on district councils by permitting designation to be made on a district basis. One of the purposes in raising this matter tonight was to ask the Minister why clause 209 was dropped from the Bill.

If we do not believe in permanent sites for gipsies or if we cannot afford to provide them, we should say so. If we believe that there is merit in the greater provision of permanent sites, we have an obligation to see that they are properly sited, managed and funded. It is also essential that the rights of adjacent owners should be considered.

My personal feeling is that the seasonal work patterns and the itinerant nature of gipsies makes this a national rather than a local problem. For instance, a permanent siting policy should be based on a national programme. That is the only way in which we can overcome the tremendous pressures on highly localised authorities that are considering putting in permanent sites.

In particular, there is an urgent need for the formation of a national consultative body. I accept that the Government are committed to abolishing quangos. My personal request is expensive, but one thing that is absolutely critical in any policy of better management of the problem of gipsies is that all the vested interests of the farmers, the local councils and the gipsies themselves should be directly involved in any policy which evolves. It would be disastrous if the gipsies were not involved. If one accepts that there is a problem, it must be tackled more rationally and reasonably. We cannot avoid setting up a body with a representative of the gipsies on it, as well as representatives of the landowners, land users and local authorities.

I am grateful for this opportunity to air this subject. I expect that there is common ground between us. This is a difficult problem, particularly in rural areas. It is a visible and emotive problem. Many Members have come to me since I put down this Adjournment topic and said that they have this problem in their constituencies. It may be increasingly difficult to stand out against the more populist elements in the constituencies, who may well turn quite nasty and unpleasant. There is an onus on everyone here to accept that there is a problem and to ensure that it is tackled better than it is being tackled at present.

8.6 pm

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) on having raised this subject. Some of us may have become interested because of constituency issues, but it is a national problem that causes strong feelings and it is right that it should be discussed.

My interest was brought about by a recent case at Dilton Marsh, in my constituency, which has tremendous problems brought about by the present unsatisfactory state of the law. The inhabitants of Dillon Marsh have felt strongly about it, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who was in Wiltshire recently, was left in no doubt about the depth and strength of those feelings. A site was chosen at Dilton Marsh only yards from one ratepayer's house and within 100 yards of many more houses. The local residents proceeded to picket the proposed site for many weeks and the county council has therefore been forced to resort to the High Court and serve an injunction on a number of residents in order to be able to proceed with the work.

It should be recognised that the problem is very difficult for the county councils. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 imposed a duty on them to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies residing in or resorting to the area". The words "residing in or resorting to" embrace all gipsies—those living in Wiltshire and those from another county who come in on a seasonal basis.

The trouble is that almost always, wherever the gipsies and particularly the transient gipsies are put, they cause much more severe problems than the resident gipsies simply because of their way of living, which tends to devalue property. This is understandably severely resented by people whose houses represent their life savings. Regrettably there is no provision made for compensation from the Government for householders. I hope that the Minister will comment on this matter. He has kindly seen me on a couple of occasions about the Dilton Marsh problem, so he knows all about it.

Before the site is established, the law says that a county council is bound to consult the district council and such other authorities and persons as the council thinks appropriate. If the district council objects to the proposal, the Secretary of State for the Environment must direct the county council to do one of three things—abandon the proposal, proceed or make an application for planning permission. If, after consultation with the parish council and the district council, the county council receives an unqualified "No", as frequently happens and certainly happened at Dilton Marsh, but nevertheless decides to go ahead with the aid of central Government procedures, inevitably a great deal of tension and ill feeling are created. That has happened in my constituency.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South pointed out, clause 209 of the original Local Government, Planning and Land Bill attempted to improve the situation by placing greater responsibility on the district councils and by permitting designations to be made on a district basis. Like my hon. Friend, I want to know why the clause has been dropped from the No. 2 Bill.

This is an unsatisfactory situation nationally and obviously it is most undesirable and regrettable that situations such as Dilton Marsh should occur. They cause unhappiness and considerable tensions in local government which take time to set right. Something like clause 209 would have helped to prevent them. Why is it not in the Bill? The position is not satisfactory. It should be looked at.

8.10 pm
Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for having introduced this topic and also for the short speeches made in earlier debates, which enable us to examine the issue in greater depth. As this is the third time that I have spoken in the House today, I should like to take some credit.

There are two sorts of gipsy. One is the traditional gipsy, the countryman and the picker of hops, who fits into the countryside pretty well. The others are what have come to be called tinkers. largely not from this country. To be frank, they are an absolute pest. Something should be done about letting them in and about clearing them out. Having said that, I believe that my hon. Friend is correct in saying that of two bad solutions the permanent site is the better one. If, however, there are to be permanent sites, there must also be proper planning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters) called attention to a most startling case in his constituency. I have another—not, perhaps, quite so bad but one that nevertheless merits the attention of the House. This is at Moreton Valence, where a permanent site has been chosen by the county and agreed by everyone concerned. I would not have put it there. It is situated in an area where no one is allowed to build houses. It is not exactly a green belt area. That would be an inappropriate description in a county constituency. No one else is allowed to build a house, yet this eyesore is about to be installed by the county council.

To make injury to the local people even worse, the local farmer, a Mr. Bamford, with a small farm adjoining the site, has been refused by the district council the right to build a house on his farm. One is allowed to establish a gipsy encampment but not to build a house.

Next door to the site Mr. Bamford has his stock and his barns, but no house. One can imagine what will happen to his stock, his barns and his fields when the gipsy encampment is full. All that he can do is to visit his fields occasionally, walk up and down and try to protect them as best he can. I believe that between them the Gloucestershire county council and the district council have made a mess of this situation. I believe that Mr. Bamford has been badly treated. Everyone has acted exactly according to the book. All are within their rights. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not be able to reproach them for doing anything illegal, but they have done something that is not only silly but oppressive.

8.13 pm
Mr. Richard Needham (Chippenham)

I also have a problem concerning gipsies or tinkers at a place called Thingley in my constituency, of which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be aware. I should like to discuss the question of priorities in Government expenditure. We face immense financial difficulty. It behoves the Government to look carefully into the reasons for establishing such sites. A large capital cost is involved when other infrastructure services are desperately needed in other areas.

I should like to refer to a letter from a county councillor, one of my constituents, who wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services: I am very concerned at the attitude which has been taken up by the Department of the Environment, and I cannot understand how it can be that a newly-elected Conservative Government faced with the most difficult financial problems Britain has had to deal with this century and the need for the most drastic reduction in public expenditure can continue to press on with implementing the Labour Government's legislation and that Government's policy of very heavy spending on this subject. The present Government are pledged to make very substantial cuts in public expenditure in order to curb inflation and many essential schemes such as urgently needed new school buildings, homes for the elderly, homes for the mentally handicapped, and provision for handicapped children leaving educationally sub-normal schools at 16 have had to be struck out of County Council budgets. Gipsy sites would have been struck out too, and not a penny would have been spent on them, but they have remained in the budgets only because the Government hand out 100 per cent. grants. Not only is there a problem in terms of those sorts of services. In places like Swindon and Chippenham we are desperate to bring forward land for development. We find constraints because of the cash limits imposed on local authorities. We are not able to provide the infrastructure of roads, schools and sewage works, with the result that industrial land in Swindon has tripled in value in the last three years while that in Chippenham has doubled. Are we really saying that large amounts of capital money should be put into the provision of these sites while providing long-term jobs in new industries goes by the board?

Mr. Michael Spicer

Does my hon. Friend feel that there is any alternative? Presumably, if the matter is left and gipsy sites sprawl all over the place, they will have an equally detrimental effect.

Mr. Needham

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, but the problem has existed for a long time. I am not certain that it is for me to determine Government priorities. By what yardstick do the Government judge that this is sensible capital expenditure while, at the same time, we are not able to spend public money on the provision of vitally needed infrastructure for the creation of many new jobs? If policies create unemployment in certain areas it seems, in a sense, pointless not to be able to provide employment in areas where companies wish to provide jobs but facilities cannot be provided through lack of money.

I should like to turn to the question of cost. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, in a letter to me on 19 October 1979, said: We have looked at Mr. Jamieson's suggestion that the standard of the Hay Lane Wroughton scheme ought to be generally adopted". That was a scheme put into effect for permanent sites near Swindon in 1973. My hon. Friend added: However, the overall standard of the Thingley and Dilton Marsh schemes"— in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Walters)— will be lower than the Hay Lane standard. The Hay Lane standard was costed, per site, at £4,147 in 1973. The proposed new cost at Thingley is £14,500 per site. That is a much greater rise in cost than the cost of inflation. The question that I should like my hon. Friend to answer is why the cost of £4,147 in 1973 should now have gone up to £14,500. My hon. Friend answered that the cost yardsticks used in 1973 were used only by the county council and that it was difficult to judge the relationship between costs then and costs now.

This is taxpayers' money. It is surely the job of the Department of the Environment to make sure that taxpayers' money is spent as wisely as possible. If the county council is their agent in the matter, why is the council unable to explain to the Department of the Environment the reason for this rise in costs in seven years? At the end of the day, according to my hon. Friend, standards will be lower than the standard that already exists.

My third point relates to planning principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury talked about the emotional difficulties that arise when planning permission is granted for such schemes. I do not want to go too deeply into section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act, but, as my hon. Friend said, the county council grants planning permission to itself. One can appeal only when a planning application has been turned down. One cannot appeal against a planning application that has been approved.

In the case of Thingley there were objections from the planning committee of the district council, from British Rail—because its high-speed trains run about 50 yards from the site—from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and from the NFU. The director of social services expressed considerable concern because the site was a long way away from schools.

Because section 8 restricts objectors and does not allow them to put their views either before a public inquiry or the Minister in an open way, and because there is no appeal machinery, one can understand why people feel so strongly about the issue. One is left with the suspicion that justice is being done behind closed doors. When it is an issue that inevitably creates the sort of problems that people face when tinkers live next door, surely justice must be seen to be done. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to look at section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act and see whether we can ensure that the siting of such pitches must automatically be decided by public inquiry. If my hon. Friend can explain to people why the pitches are sited there, the atmosphere will be much better. That is important in order to establish such pitches and in order to gain public acceptance of the need for them.

8.23 pm
Mr. D. A. Trippier (Rossendale)

I am grateful for the opportunity of contributing to this important debate. Like many of my colleagues, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) on raising this important topic, which has been a source of frustration not only to hon. Members but to members of councils, both county and district, throughout the land.

It seems that this evening we shall have as many different opinions as we have hon. Members in the Chamber. That is no bad thing because, as he said, my hon. Friend's main intention was to air the matter and to enable it to be fully discussed.

I can remember with mixed feelings my entry into the political arena. It began on a derelict site in Rochdale in 1970, when I flattered myself by putting myself forward as a Conservative candidate. I remember that on the eve of poll the three candidates turned up on the site where the tinker caravans were situated, and it did not matter one jot whether the people who lived in the surrounding area were convinced that the Conservative Party's policies were right; what really mattered was which of the three candidates would get those tinkers moved off that site. It depended on the force of the argument of each candidate whether he would win the election the following day. Fortunately, I won, but I did not realise the amount of work that I had taken on as a result of the promises that I made on the eve of poll. In fact, for two weeks my first job as a councillor was to do nothing except concentrate on getting those people moved.

At that time Rochdale, which was then in Lancashire—it is now in Greater Manchester—was one of the first areas of the North-West to have experience of tinkers settling more permanently than before. For the rest of my speech I should like to differentiate between itinerant caravan dwellers, whom I call tinkers, and the Romanies—a word that has not been used so far—for whom I have a high regard. I have a great respect for them. They do a great deal of work and are not at all like the tinkers to whom we have referred so far.

As a Member of Parliament I am now threatened because tinkers will shortly arrive in Rossendale. In fact, they are now in the neighbouring constituency. I felt that my past experience would have served me in good stead for dealing with the problem, but the sad fact is that it does not, because, despite the fact that I have learnt a great deal about what they do when they move on to these derelict pieces of land, the problem remains how we can get them moved on quickly.

As I have learnt to my cost, it has taken an inordinate length of time for at least one local government officer, who has spent his time doing little else than trying to work through the hive of rules and regulations and laws of the land to ensure that they are moved on where-ever possible and as quickly as possible.

My solution to the problem is a simple one, but I do not think that the Minister will agree with it. It is that we ought to change the law and give more powers to the police to ensure that these people can be moved on more easily and effectively. I am afraid that I cannot agree with the argument that there should be gipsy or tinker caravan sites throughout the country. I do not accept that such people want to settle down on such sites. Had they wanted to settle down, they would have done so long before now. They have within them a seeming impetus to move around the place and literally to be itinerants.

I have also seen at first hand a gipsy caravan site in operation in Oldham, which is not far from my constituency. There, the local authority spent a lot of money on providing facilities for a large number of caravans. It laid on water, electricity and gas. It made that site available because it was then easy for the law to be enacted, whereby one could move both the caravans and lorries off the main highways because there was a caravan site nearby. That is the main reason for the caravan sites made available under the Caravan Sites Act, to which many of my colleagues have referred.

Within two months the water taps on the site had been ripped out. The brass had been taken. Bills to the caravan owners were left unpaid while the gipsies moved on yet again. The ratepayers of Oldham picked up the bill.

I make this point forcefully to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. Thinking about the matter logically, one imagines that this process will be repeated on every caravan site throughout the land. Even if one says that one will put these sites on the moors, it will not make one jot of difference. The gipsies will neither pay the bills nor leave the sites in a decent condition.

Why should we offer these people facilities that we do not offer to other law-abiding citizens in our constituencies who pay their taxes and rates regularly? For example, would we lay out the amount that we are prepared to lay out on one gipsy caravan site on an ordinary touring caravan site for people who would use it, look after it and genuinely tour in our areas? No, we would not. Why are we genuinely sympathetic to these people? We feel that we are under a moral obligation not to interfere with people who wish to live as they do. We feel that we must provide facilities for them. I cannot accept that. They do not thank us for doing that. They take full advantage of it.

Mr. Michael Spicer

There are three sites in my area. The occupants pay substantial rents in at least one of them. I understand the point about the capital costs. However, we can settle for rents and allow a project to pay for itself.

Mr. Trippier

I accept that point. All local authorities have difficulty in collecting rents from some council house tenants. My hon. Friend must accept that we shall also have difficulty in collecting rent from gipsies.

Mr. Spicer

Not the Romanies.

Mr. Trippier

I accept that. I refer to tinkers. We shall experience difficulty in collecting rents from the tinkers. Difficulty has already been experienced in the areas to which I have referred.

Mr. Needham

Unfortunately, I do not have the figures with me. However, I refer to the costs of a site. The rent proposed was £200 a year, or £4 a week. If the cost is £14,000 per site, the interest at 20 per cent. will be much higher than the amount recovered. The cost will be up to eight times more than the amount recouped by way of rents. The costs to which I referred will be much greater than any income.

Mr. Trippier

I agree. I refer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South. We are talking about people collecting the rents. That means another officer. My hon. Friend referred to a county gipsy liaison officer. I do not know how much a county gipsy liaison officer is paid, but he must be expensive.

Believe me, I am trying to make matters much easier for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I do not want his Department to deal with this matter at all. I have no doubt that he will not agree with me. None the less, I still feel that the police should be given more powers. My hon. Friend could well say "Do the police want more powers?" In previous debates I accepted that the police did not. In this matter I am fairly confident that the police would welcome more powers to deal with itinerant caravan dwellers. They are as frustrated as I am that they have such limited powers to move on gipsies. That is the simple answer.

8.34 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hector Monro)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) on initiating this important debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Westbury (Mr. Walters) and for Rossendale (Mr. Trippier) for their contributions, and I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) on completing his hat trick of speeches in this Chamber today.

I must place this on record. It is surprising that no member of the Opposition is present to take an interest in this important subject.

I feel that I should first reply to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South because it is his debate and he has initiated it. I am aware that he has raised the problems of dealing with gipsies before, and I recall that he wrote to me last summer about the environmental problems of unauthorised encampments. I explained then that the Cripps report, published in April 1977, set out recommendations for improving and extending the provision of sites and included certain suggested changes to the existing legislative framework. I went on to explain that we were looking anew at this issue and at the question of legislative changes. I am pleased to be able to give a fuller explanation of policies in my response tonight.

First, I think that I should say a word or two about gipsies in the county of Hereford and Worcester. I have noted the constituency points raised by my hon. Friend. He referred to recent events in his county in the development of a gipsy site strategy. I understand that officers of my Department have been able to agree with officers of the county council on an assessment of the overall requirement for gipsy sites in the county. The county council considers that throughout the year there are about 400 gipsy families residing in or resorting to the county. Of these, about 100 families live amicably on farms or on authorised private sites. The county council has concluded that 230 families require to be accommodated on permanent residential sites to be provided by local government, together with a further 70 or so in transit. We have no reason to question that assessment, and we welcome the county council's efforts to make sensible provision, as it is required to do, within the terms of the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

I accept fully all the points that my hon. Friend made about the difficulty of locating suitable sites and the fears and forebodings of local residents almost everywhere about any such proposals. This concern has been shown by my hon. Friends who have spoken tonight because they are representing their constituents, and the last thing that we want is disharmony in the countryside because of the possible provision of caravan sites and the effect on local residents. Both the county and the districts have statutory responsibilities for the provision of sites for gipsies residing in or resorting to their area, and I cannot offer my hon. Friend any better solution to the gipsy problem than the completion of that task in any county.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the current estimate of about 8,500 families as the gipsy population of England and Wales, and the figures that I have given to the House as the most recent estimate of the gipsy population in the county of Hereford and Worcester indicate that its responsibility stretches to about 5 per cent. of that national total. My hon. Friend may consider that that is a not unreasonable burden.

Mr. Trippier

In quoting these figures, is my hon. Friend talking about gipsies, Romanies, tinkers, itinerant caravan dwellers, or what?

Mr. Monro

My hon. Friend has shown his knowledge of this subject, and he will know that it is difficult to distinguish between the various groups. I shall certainly talk a little later about the Irish gipsies, and, indeed, about the word "gipsy", of which I accept it is not easy to find an appropriate definition.

I suggest that the gipsy problem is not primarily that of coping with massive numbers and a rapidly expanding population when considered in national terms. The Cripps report estimated a gipsy population in England and Wales of between 8,000 and 9,000 families—that is, 40,000 to 50,000 persons. We now have six-monthly local authority counts of gipsy caravans, and the figures obtained in July 1978, and again in January and July 1979, corresponded remarkably closely to an overall figure of about 8,500 families. I must talk in round terms because, as I am sure the House will appreciate, a nomadic gipsy population does not lend itself to precise counting and it would be a waste of resources to attempt precision in that direction.

The greatest changes and probably the greatest set of problems have arisen through economic factors rather than population factors. The traditional picture of a gipsy is of someone following a seasonal cycle of mainly rural activities. This is usually encapsulated in the phrase "the true Romany"—by coincidence, yesterday I saw members of the Romany Guild—and contrasted with the other picture which we all have nowadays of itinerants dealing in scrap metal and living in illegal encampments on roadside verges. These are not pictures of the good and bad gipsy; they only illustrate the changes in the gipsy way of life which have been necessary to retain a cultural identity.

Post-war economic changes have led to the loss of traditional sources of income, such as seasonal farm labour, and have led the majority of gipsies to adapt to other work, such as scrap metal recovery, which has brought them in large numbers on the urban fringes. The advent of legislation such as development control in 1947, restrictions on the use of highway verges in 1959 and the licensing of all caravan sites in 1960 have contributed to the loss of traditional camping grounds and made it difficult for gipsies to develop legal encampments for themselves. That point was brought out very strongly yesterday by the Romany Guild. The gipsies have a problem in getting planning permission even if they manage to buy land for themselves. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will be interested to know that pressure came from the West Country because of the impossibility of obtaining planning permission for farm land. This is very much a local authority matter, and it is difficult for Ministers to intervene.

As these trends have become apparent, successive Governments have first exhorted local authorities to provide sites under the general powers in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and then to fulfil the responsibilities placed upon them by part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. That Act gave county councils, county borough councils and London borough councils a duty to provide caravan sites for the gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas and came into force in April 1970. It is the duty of district councils to provide the services and facilities and manage the sites provided under the 1968 Act.

Several of my hon. Friends referred to the criticism that many have levelled at this split in responsibilities. I think that the split in functions can be said to be a reasonable reflection of the need both for a strategic and co-ordinated approach to the choice and location of sites and the closest possible sympathy with local interests in managing such sites. I accept that it might be possible to postulate a different arrangement, but I am not convinced that it would be any change for the better.

The greatest need is for both tiers of local authorities to come to terms with their responsibilities and to co-operate in carrying them out. In July 1979 there were only 3,745 gipsy caravans on authorised private and local authority sites. The provision of further sites is surely the only stable method of dealing with 5,000 nomadic families without any legal right of abode. As the Cripps report pointed out, the problems of dealing with the entire gipsy population of some 50,000 people must be small compared with the needs of a total population in England and Wales of some 49 million. I am not in any way underestimating the extreme difficulty of finding these sites locally.

My hon. Friends have shown an interest in the financial implications, and I want to say a little about that. A grant system had already been started in February 1979 in anticipation of securing suitable legislative power. We were convinced that there needed to be greater impetus in the provision of official sites and that once such sites were available powers of control to ensure their proper and effective use were vital. We therefore put together a package of legislative proposals, which were included in the original Local Government, Planning and Land Bill, introduced in another place earlier this Session.

My hon. Friends asked what happened to clause 209. There is a simple explanation. I ask them to accept that the Bill was considered to be too extensive in relation to the parliamentary time available, and a number of provisions had to be removed from it before it was reintroduced in the House. Clause 209 was a casualty. The clause that mattered most in the original Bill was that relating to grant, and that has been retained. It has been said that the lost clause might have given help to the district councils in the provision of adequate sites, but that clause was intended specifically to allow districts to be designated. When those districts had sufficient sites, designation would have been provided. The clause would have made little practical difference at present because relatively few counties and districts have sufficient sites for designation, though there are notable exceptions.

We shall continue to supply specific grant aid to local authorities for the capital cost of sites to encourage further provision and reduce the burden on local resources. We are greatly concerned that in doing so we should get value for money and not spend more than necessary. The current best estimate of total expenditure for new sites is £37 million. However, our current plans for public expenditure levels mean that if such a total is ever reached it will be over a longer time scale than the five years originally envisaged.

My hon. Friends would wish to know that in 1979–80 we anticipate spending £1.3 million as a result of the applications that we have already received. These applications have been looked at extremely closely to ensure that there is no wasteful expenditure, and frequently we have gone back to the local authorities to urge them to cut costs to what we feel is a reasonable level.

Mr. Needham

If what my hon. Friend says is true—and I accept that it is—how is it that we have had this extraordinary uplift in prices between 1973 and 1979, from £4,000 to £14,500, and yet standards are lower? If the Government have gone back and asked local authorities time and again to check on spending, where has this enormous increase come from?

Mr. Monro

We all had to face inflation under the previous Government, and we were well and truly landed with it during the last 12 months relative to construction costs. I shall examine the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Needham). I am aware of his concern about the site in his constituency, but I assure him that there will be no waste of Government money in this context.

I am insistent that site costs should come down. Indeed, we have made substantial progress in recent months on that front, but it is right to say—since local authorities are interested—that it is our wish to continue grant aid. It is an important carrot, because the provision of these sites will lead to the removal of many of the unauthorised sites at roadsides and elsewhere that cause disappointment to local residents, and, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury, a great deal more than disappointment.

Mr. Needham

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but if the Government are prepared to give grant aid to local authorities in this important area, are they also prepared to do something in what I am sure he will agree is perhaps a much more worthwhile area, namely, the creation of jobs in the form of infrastructure for industrial development in similar parts of the country?

Mr. Monro

I come from a rural area, and I am interested in the development of industry in the countryside where there is a possibility of rural depopulation. However, it is not my Department's responsibility to change policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham is obviously unhappy about the policy. The major difficulty will not go away on its own. The initiative must come from the local authorities. I am not thrusting this down their throats. The initiative must come from them. If they propose schemes that are acceptable to the local population, we shall assist with grant. I am not in any way saying anything other than that the initiative must come from them.

Mr. Trippier

Certain members of my council, not of my political persuasion, think that it is a good idea to establish a site, yet when it is suggested that it should be in their wards they do not like it. That is the problem. We shall never solve that problem, because such resentment is built up. I suggested earlier that we should differentiate between Romanies and tinkers. This is an emotive issue. There is tremendous sympathy for Romanies but not for the tinkers. Those who read the debate will link those two groups.

Mr. Monro

There is pressure on councils to remove roadside encampments. They cause endless trouble. A frightful vicious circle is involved. We are discussing one of the most difficult of social problems.

Reference has been made to Irish travellers. This is a slightly different issue. There is known to be a certain flow of travellers between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but no one has any idea of the numbers involved. The travelling tradition in Ireland is longstanding and might even go back further than any Romany tradition in this country. Control of such movement, either direct or via Northern Ireland, can be done only by the imposition of a general requirement for travel documents for all visitors at the point of arrival. This has been done under emergency regulations in the past, but there appears to be no merit in considering such a possibility in relation to a small category of visitors, particularly as common membership of the EEC now entitles residents of the Republic to enter the United Kingdom to look for work.

It has been suggested that many so-called Irish travellers in this country are second or third generation travellers within Great Britain, who retain pronounced Irish accents because of their insular way of life. Be that as it may, most long-distance travellers in this country appear to be Irish, demonstrate particular insularity and are likely to have special requirements if suitable and successful official sites are to be provided. Consequently, my Department has embarked upon a research project intended to identify the numbers, patterns of movement and particular site requirements of Irish travellers to ensure that the general policy of providing sites throughout the country under the 1968 Act takes account of these factors.

It is intended to put the results of such research before local authorities for their further consideration, and the steering group directing the research includes local authority representatives.

The Cripps report and everyone else peculiarly difficult to find anything that who has thought about it have found it would give a better definition of "gipsy". Until something turns up that will be of benefit, I think that we had better leave the definition where it is.

It is important for hon. Members who are concerned with these matters to realise that designation is the goal of the counties and eventually, I hope, the districts. Once designation is agreed, it provides better enforcement procedures, and eviction can be carried out on a broader front and more effectively. Those counties that have achieved designation, such as Dorset, have found that it is of enormous benefit to have that agreement with the Department of the Environment.

I turn now to the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury. He has been extremely assiduous in looking after the interests of his constituents who have been so bedevilled by events at Dilton Marsh. He has been to see me, and he has raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I think that he realises how carefully we have looked at the difficulties that he has brought before us.

My hon. Friend rightly went over the procedure at Dilton Marsh, the options that were open to the county council and the fact that in April 1979 the previous Secretary of State decided on the option to proceed with the Dilton Marsh site. In law there was no question of the present Secretary of State overturning a previous decision, so it had to be accepted as a fact when we came into office last May.

My hon. Friend may or may not have received a letter from the Secretary of State in the last few days subsequent to his visit to that county, but I have no doubt that he will know that both the Secretary of State and I are concerned and have tried, on occasion, to put forward possible solutions but they have not come to fruition. This is a problem that must be resolved by local authorities. The Secretary of State is fulfilling his duties and has no power to reverse what has already been done.

I wish that I could offer my hon. Friend greater hope for a quick solution to this unhappy problem. All of us want harmony in the countryside, and I know that this issue has caused everyone great concern and unhappiness. As far as I am aware, it is no nearer solution than it was some months ago.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants to say anything further to me. As I say, I wish that I could give him greater hope, but this problem must be resolved within the local authority area.

Mr. Walters

My hon. Friend knows that I should like him to give me greater hope than he has just given me. I know that he and the Secretary of State have been in communication with the authorities. If it is not possible in law to reverse the decision that was made by the previous Administration, I hope that my hon. Friend will at least remain in touch with local authorities to try to ensure that whatever solution is found is as amicable as possible.

Mr. Monro

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. I shall do everything possible to assist, as will my Department, but my hon. Friend must bear in mind our limited responsibilities.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury, that this is a planning matter. I discussed it yesterday within the broad issue of building on sites in the countryside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham referred to expenditure. It is necessary to weigh the balance of the alternatives. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale, if we do not provide sites we shall have more problems with unauthorised encampments and roadside camps, which are so unsightly and so unacceptable. We must carefully scrutinise all the costs. In recent months we have been able to reduce them substantially in a number of instances. If we are to adjust section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, we may need to introduce new legislation. I promise to consider whether the adjustment may be dealt with administratively. My present view is that adjustment will need new legislation, and that will not happen in this Parliament.

I mentioned designation while referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale. My hon. Friend asked for more powers for the police. An eviction order is a matter for the owner of the land or the local authority. The best way to obtain additional powers is through designation. I hope that local authorities, with the help of our grant, will press on and provide more sites so that we have authorised camping rather than a multitude of unauthorised sites.

Mr. Needham

I apologise to my hon. Friend for taking him back to section 8. I am most grateful to him for saying that he will reconsider it. Does he favour my suggestion to make planning more open and to allow applications to go before a public inquiry and an inspector so that some heat may be taken out of them? I shall be grateful if he will indicate the Government's view.

Mr. Monro

I take my hon. Friend's point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury said—he took much trouble to get the facts right, as I would have expected of him—if a county wishes to proceed, it has three options. If a county proposes to have a gipsy site, it must consult a district, under section 8. If the district objects, the issue must be referred to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has the option of going ahead, the option of abandoning, or the option of calling in the planning application. I am told that in the past the latter option has been rarely used.

The district has a right to object to a county proposal. I hope that when districts are considering proposals they will take into account the views of parish councils and individuals so that everyone concerned is well aware of what is happening before a further stage is completed and an application goes to the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South asked about consultative committees. A number of committees represent the gipsies, and I see them from time to time. My hon. Friend rightly said that I should be somewhat reluctant to establish a new body. It is my Department's feeling that quangos sometimes cost a great deal of money for the work that they undertake. There is no lack of communication between the gipsies, my Department and the local authority, and I hope that that will continue. We must work together to reach a conclusion.

Mr. Michael Spicer

Perhaps my hon. Friend would say a little more about that. What does he mean by "communication"? Do the gipsies have a genuine sense of being involved in policies, or are they simply called in and told what is happening?

Mr. Monro

I spent several valuable hours during the past winter meeting representatives of gipsies and of their different organisations. I listened to their views. Yesterday the Romany Guild spoke to me on the very issue of planning. Therefore, there is a substantial two-way flow of knowledge. I doubt whether a further consultative body would be advantageous.

The Hereford and Worcester county council has already consulted the Department about a suitable programme. We have agreed a probable level of provision in broad terms. The county has produced a long list of possible locations, a number of which may face difficulties and deficiencies on closer study. No doubt it will be some time before the short list can be presented. This is an important step along the road towards providing sufficient sites. I am glad that the county council is taking such constructive steps towards ensuring an adequate level of sites for the future.

This has been a useful debate and a number of useful points have been made. They will be given careful consideration by the Department. They will be part of our future thinking on this policy and they will have a place in any documents that we produce, so that local authorities and gipsies may know where they stand.

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