HC Deb 24 July 1986 vol 102 cc757-64 2.22 am
Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I intend no attack upon true gipsies. In common with other hon. Members I have a great respect and regard for Romanies. I have long thought that if there was any abomination more vile than Hitler's final solution for Jewry, it was the Nazi extermination of gipsies. Alas, they have had few to speak for them or to demand restitution.

The undesirable and resented itinerants now in Chigwell Row in my constituency, for example, are not Romanies. They travel in expensive caravans drawn by expensive cars. They will tarmac one's drive and they may threaten people who will not do business with them. I wonder what taxes and rates they pay and where. Sometimes they obtain milk tokens for their children and other social benefits.

I am speaking for my constituents, but their affliction is similar to that of the constituents of other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) has asked to be associated with the tenor of my remarks. In Chigwell Row, this summer has been a season of misery and fear. Primary schoolchildren have needed police protection. Some have been assaulted by the children of the itinerants who are as prone to stone-throwing as children in the worst parts of Belfast. Intimidated shopkeepers close when the so-called gipises approach. The proprietor of the Sunnymede garage chased some who stole fuel from his forecourt. The primary school, the shops, the garage and many homes, including my constituency base, abut on the lovely stretch of Hainault forest where they are encamped. It forms part of the ancient common of Lambourne which as incorporated into the statute of 1903 charmingly entitled: The Hainault (Land Fox Burrows and Grange Hill) Act. This created an open space forever for recreational purposes. The Act is now a mockery. The intruding caravans are not parked to one side, but sprawled across the open space, denying it to my constituents, their children and to visitors from London and elsewhere. The whole tract is befouled with itinerants' rubbish and worse, and their generators keep children awake until a late hour. They are a lawless, insanitary, frightening, thieving band. No wonder the church hall was crowded on Monday when I attended a meeting of indignation. It was easy to obtain 629 signatures for a petition against the invasion.

So far this year there have been five applications to the county court at Ilford for eviction. Grange Farm has suffered two invasions. It sounds like a war. The Epping Forest district council has barricaded Grange Farm with huge mounds of earth. There have also been two invasions at Chigwell Row recreation ground and it, too, has been fortified with a ditch. But when a group of travellers was evicted in execution of a court order, it moved 200 yards up the road to that part of Hainault forest to which I have referred. To gain access to the forest, it filled in the roadside ditch with rubble and tarmac.

Since the demise of the Greater London council, which used to run it, this part of the forest comes under Essex county council, and today that authority applied in court for an order in its turn. But what guarantee can there be against further trespass on the recreation ground in this nightmare merry-go-round? The itinerants might move a short distance, perhaps to the London borough of Redbridge or Havering, while still threatening and plaguing the people of Chigwell Row.

The byelaws of Hainault Forest lapsed when the GLC was abolished. Now three authorities are concerned, Essex county council, Epping Forest district council and the council of the London borough of Redbridge. This divided responsibility is a gift to the intruders. I have the honour of being president of the Friends of Hainault Forest, and with the support of the Epping Forest district council I took a deputation of Friends of Hainault forest to ask my noble Friend Lord Elton to endeavour to bring about a single unified management under the appropriate body, as it seemed to us, the conservators of Epping Forest, the City of London Corporation. It has the expertise and both Hainault and Epping forest used to form part of the great forest of Essex. Under the Epping Forest Act 1903, there is the great advantage that if one takes a vehicle more than 10 m into the forest, one has committed an offence. I should like to revive with my hon. Friend the Minister the proposal we have made to Lord Elton.

Meanwhile, to add to all the complications, the boundary between the Metropolitan police district and the jurisdiction of the Essex police bisects Hainault forest. I am told that there is no procedure for a county court to provide for a group of travellers to be handed from one police jurisdiction to another, although our local police, to whom I pay tribute, would not be unwilling so to act, if authorised.

I also give credit to Epping Forest district council, which has acted vigorously, but its scope is limited. The district has not yet been designated under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. Essex county council supports its application for designation, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend will assure me that the Secretary of State will move promptly when he receives the request for designation. A weakness of the Caravan Sites Act—the work of Lord Avebury, a Liberal—is that caravan sites are not only for true gipsies but others of nomadic habits. I do not know whether it would be feasible or desirable, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister would consider a form of registration for bona fide travellers.

Epping Forest district council has a gipsy camp site not far away in Stamford Rivers, but it is crowded. If resort to this irresponsible, freebooting life is not checked, there will be new peace convoys and reinforcements for the itinerants of Chigwell Row, who recently received a passing group—it did not stay long, I am glad to say—who were described to me as Algerians. I am informed that such invasions would be impossible in the Federal Republic of Germany, where the law is based on the principle of hausrecht and no one may go into or on to a citizen's property without his permission.

On 23 June, I was glad to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General tell the House that the Home Secretary was, discussing with the police and other interested parties whether any strengthening of the law is required, either by extending the proposed powers of the police in the Public Order Bill or by some limited offence of criminal trespass. The Lord Chancellor is considering possible improvements in the civil procedure for the summary repossession of land available under order 113 of the Rules of the Supreme Court. The Attorney-General was asked: Why has not the simple remedy available to owners of residential property to deal with squatters, which was provided in the Criminal Law Act 1977, been extended to the residential occupation of land?"—[Official Report, 23 June 1986; Vol. 100, c. 14.] He replied that it was being investigated by the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary.

Speaking in Bristol earlier this month, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said: We have agreed on a proposal which we will be putting to Parliament which will not criminalise trespass in general, but will, I hope, fill the gap. He said t hat one option being considered was that it might form part of the Public Order Bill.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, especially since she knows the subject intimately. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) for listening to the debate. I realise that some of the points I have made are not for the Department of the Environment but for the Home Oftice, so in conclusion I ask my hon. Friend whether she would be kind enough to ask the Home Secretary to complete the discussions that he described to the House as soon as possible, and announce a programme of firm action early in the new Session of Parliament.

2.33 am
Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

I am here at this late hour to contribute briefly to the debate and to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) for raising an important subject which, at one time or other, will have touched on most hon. Members' interests. From time to time, we have all experienced problems with itinerants.

I emphasise the word "itinerants", because, as my hon. Friend said, genuine gipsies rarely cause trouble. In my experience, the true gipsy often does not give cause for offence at all. It is the tinker, the itinerant, the person who has no regard for the property of others, who causes difficulty.

My hon. Friend opened his speech by asking a question. He wondered what taxes these people pay. Perhaps he will forgive me if I answer the question for him. Invariably the answer is that they do not pay any taxes at all. I refer not only to matters like income tax, but many of the vehicles of these itinerant people do not display valid excise licences. In Derby, particularly in the Stores road area, there have been problems with rubbish being deposited and nuisance being caused. What irritates the law-abiding citizen most is to find on examination that many of the vehicles used by these itinerants are, indeed, untaxed and do not display excise licences.

What is to be done about the problem? My hon. Friend touched upon one difficulty. Derby — like his area, I believe—is not designated under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. Clearly the police have inadequate powers to deal with the problems. However, even when an area is designated, I feel that the police do not have sufficient powers to deal with the problem. This has been highlighted in recent months by the case of the hippy convoy, which moved from one area to another. Even when an area was designated, it was found that the police, in many instances, could only look on and wait to see whether any public order offences were committed, but they did not have adequate powers to move the itinerants off the land in question.

The remedy, I think most people would say, is for the police to be given increased powers. I welcome the comment of the Home Secretary that he is looking at ways in the next Session of Parliament to give the police greater powers. I do not share the hesitation of some hon. Members who say that we should not criminalise the law of trespass. I think that a distinction can be made. First, there is the innocent trespasser, the person who is going hiking, a member of a cycling club or a person taking a group of boy scouts into the country. Here every trespass that the landowner finds offensive tends to be transient only. If the person concerned is confronted by the landowner and asked to move on, invariably he and his group will do so without any argument or delay. Problems have arisen with groups of travelling itinerants because they know they are trespassing and have no intention of moving on; the landowner can plead with them to go, but they will remain because they know that the law is inadequate and that no effective sanctions can be taken against them.

I therefore hope that, when the Home Secretary considers the matter, he will decide to frame legislation sufficiently tough to enable the police to ensure that those who deliberately disobey the wishes of the landowner can not only be properly prosecuted but that the police can have an immediate power of arrest and dispossession.

There is a debate going on at present in the city of Derby in which the city council and the county council disagree. The Derbyshire county council wishes to designate a gipsy site in the Chequers lane area of Derby. The Derby city council disagrees with the proposals, have received many complaints from residents near the Chequers lane area in respect of this matter. I back the city council in its objection to the county council proposals.

I do not wish to enlarge on this now because I understand that in due course the Minister will have to make a decision on the matter. However, will the Minister confirm that when an area is seeking designation a gipsy site does not have to be within that district? In other words, can a district achieve designation by being served by a gipsy site near to its area?

I believe that to be the position. If so, the city of Derby could obtain designation under the Caravan Sites Act without a gipsy site being found within the boundary of the city. Provided that a site is found nearby, that, I gather, is sufficient to enable the city to be designated. That is important for an urban area in which most of the available land is already built on. It is often difficult, perhaps impossible, in such an area to find a suitable place to designate a site for gipsies, whereas nearby there may be a considerable amount of available open land which could be so used for the area.

I will not develop that point further tonight. I hope that the views of the city council and of myself will prevail in Derby and that the Chequers lane area will not be used as a gipsy site. I also hope that during the lifetime of this Parliament steps will be taken to give the police greater power to arrest people who deliberately flout the wishes of landowners and who cause suffering, nuisance and annoyance to ratepayers, taxpayers and residents.

2.42 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) for giving the House the opportunity to debate this subject, which has taken on an even greater importance than it had in the past, partly because of the activities of the so-called peace convoy, and partly because an increasing number of local authorities and hon. Members have experience of the as yet unresolved problem of accommodating gipsies in the manner in which my hon. Friend identified in Hainault forest.

I am aware of the problems in his constituency that my hon. Friend outlined, as he drew my attention to them yesterday. I shall deal in some detail at the outset with the problems to which he referred, particularly as I wish to refer to the action that is to be taken to try to remove that particularly unsightly encampment. I understand that Essex county council, which owns the land, has agreed to take eviction proceedings.

On the abolition of the GLC, Hainault forest was transferred, under the main property transfer order, to Essex county council, Havering borough council and Redbridge borough council, each council receiving a portion of park within its boundary. I understand that good relations exist between the three councils in the management of the park and that there is a one-year operational agreement in force under which the London borough of Redbridge manages the whole park, with financial contributions from the other authorities. I also understand that this management agreement, which is amicable, is likely to be extended for a further year.

In the meantime, those councils are in the process of drawing up a formal management and operating agreement for the long term. To do that, the councils have established a working party, the main task of which will be to draw up a management plan for the forest. My hon. Friend pointed out that he is president of the Friends of Hainault Forest. Members of that group are on the working party.

Essex county council is at present taking proceedings to evict the group of unpleasant people to whom my hon. Friend referred, at the request of Redbridge council, which is the manager. There may have been some difficult initial demarcation problems about which authorities should take action, and it is said that there could be a problem over who should clean up the mess—which I understand would be extensive — after any eviction. Redbridge council assures me that it does not acknowledge that there is a dispute, and Essex county council officials have not mentioned any dispute. When eventually an application is made for a proper designation site, I hope that this will be taken up swiftly by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

In his opening remarks my hon. Friend mentioned that he was not referring to the genuine Romany. There is a very long history in my constituency of Romanies, many of whom are now part of the indigenous population and resident there. Therefore, I know exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about. If these individuals can show that they are truly of the nomadic way of life that is referred to in the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and if they can satisfy the other requirements of residing in or resorting to a particular authority's area, it is for that authority to consider the facts and decide whether an appropriate place can be provided for them on one of its sites.

It is difficult to define a gipsy, and it is often suggested that the definition is too wide. We are looking at the various suggestions and we are trying to keep an open mind about the various definitions. Hon. Members will hardly need to be reminded that this topic has arisen over and over again. It was examined thoroughly in the Cripps study of 1976. More recently it was examined in a booklet that was published by my Department entitled "Defining a Gypsy." In neither case was it found possible to suggest a better or more watertight definition than the one in the Act.

The long-standing problem of the so-called long-distance travellers undoubtedly causes a great deal of complaint. My hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest and for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) pointed out that these are mostly of the tinker group of gipsies, and the complaints generally related to the fact that they tend to move more widely and in larger groups. This is because they cannot readily avail themselves of vacant pitches on existing sites or because, by reason of the composition and movement patterns of these groups, they do not want such sites and tend to occupy car parks, factory land, amenity open space or any other handy site — very often in locations such as Hainault forest which are entirely unsuitable.

We have tried to solve this problem by inviting suggestions as to how proper transit sites might be provided, but so far we have met with very little response. We shall not give up the search and we shall return to the issue as part of the present policy review. In the meantime, local authorities and communities are having to put up with problems of lawlessness and anti-social behaviour which nobody should have to tolerate. There are great problems, as hon. Members will already know. We have to take on board more than just simple words in our endeavour to alleviate the problems that gipsies create while they are on site and the problems that they leave behind them.

In recent years, a couple of important measures have been taken to help authorities with their responsibilities under the Caravan Sites Act. In 1980 we gave statutory coverage to a system of Exchequer capital grants towards the cost of establishing local authority gipsy sites. In the ordinary way, grant is 100 per cent. of approved cost. In the last few years we have seen a marked improvement in the pace at which sites have been provided, but I regret to say that last year's figures show some slackening of the pace. We believe that we have made adequate Vote provision —£5 million— this year to meet claims from local authorities, and we need to see a sustained effort on the part of authorities to bring suitable projects forward.

We have also recently carried out an internal overhaul of the procedures for dealing with grant applications, which simplified the process of approving grants for worthwhile schemes and set more realistic cost levels. I know that some authorities think, even now, that we have not gone far enough, and that the system of capital allocations still puts a strain on local resources, so lessening their resolve to deal with the problem. We are taking a hard look at that.

Another important change in 1980 was the extension of the system of designation to districts, or groups of districts, instead of just counties or London boroughs. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North asked whether an area could be designated if it was served by a site in an adjacent area. My right hon. Friend must be satisfied that adequate provision is made in the area to be designated or that it is not necessary or expedient to make such a provision. We will consider any case that is put to us on its merits. The Act requires the county and the district to apply for designation jointly.

We think that the prospect of eventual designation is an important factor in the thinking of local authorities when preparing their gipsy site programmes. It is not popular with all gipsy interests, but the purpose is widely understood. Designation gives local authorities powers to control unauthorised encampments on highway land, unoccupied land or occupied land when the owner's consent is withheld. We know that that is an important incentive to provide adequate sites. The incentive is that, when there is a designated site, the local authority can take out an injunction for early movement from elsewhere. Designation does not deal with all circumstances, but it deals with the most common. Although it is not a completely satisfactory solution, authorities welcome it.

It is always difficult to choose good examples of the system helping to alleviate difficult circumstances. The problems will vary, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest would like to reflect on the fact that Kent had a great deal of difficulty some time ago dealing with its gipsies. As a result of the county and district councils jointly tackling the problem and providing sites, and the rewards of designation, there are some 15 sites in the county, which offer 213 pitches for gipsy caravans. Five districts in Kent are designated and others are seeking designation. There are some lessons to be learnt from that experience.

Both my hon. Friends mentioned the measures that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering to provide an appropriate means of dealing with such incidents as recently occurred in the Somerset and Hampshire venture of the hippy convoy. He is looking for some method which ensures that proper action is taken against such people. The House knows that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 is about providing authorised accommodation for gipsies, and appropriate and clearly defined measures of control. That represents, in the Government's view, a balanced package of measures and that is the course that we expect local authorities to follow in controlling unauthorised gipsy encampments.

In all other respects, gipsies are subject to the same requirements to be law-abiding as any other member of the community and it is right that they should attract the due attentions of the police and the courts when they flagrantly flout normal standards of behaviour by committing acts of wanton vandalism or threatening behaviour, such as my hon. Friend described, or, indeed, when they refuse to license their vehicles, which my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North mentioned.

It is for that reason that I am particularly pleased that the subject has been brought to the attention of the House this evening. I hope that it will highlight the strong feelings among the general public about the necessity to ensure that the activities of gipsies and travellers are more particularly looked at by the police in order to protect the homes and bodily safety of the general public. We may need to emphasise to the police that they are responsible for caring for the safety of people and their homes in the face of possible attack by itinerants.

Means are already available to deal with some of these acts of violence, damage and tax evasion. Where there is a threat of a breach of the peace or an act of criminal damage, the police have powers to take action, including powers to enter on private land and to make arrests. In the Public Order Bill there is a provision to deal with those who threaten violence or who behave in a disorderly manner likely to cause alarm, harassment or distress. I know that one of the problems is catching the culprits. It is all very well to have the measures, but if people cannot be caught they do not help much.

It is relevant that there are provisions in section 25 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to deal with some of the difficulties. For example, if there has been an offence and the police reasonably believe that a suspect has given a false identity or address, or that the subsequent service of a summons will be impractical, they have power to arrest. That may well be of use in dealing with some of the road traffic offences which are not usually arrestable offences, committed by itinerants.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for those matters, as well as trespass and he has said that a new power is under consideration which will enable police to act when trespass occurs on land in the sort of circumstances that arose in connection with the land farmed by the unfortunate Mr. Attwell, with whose case I am sure my hon. Friends are familiar.

As many hon. Members may already be aware, the outline of the new power was signalled in a recent debate in another place. It would contain the following elements: entry as a trespasser with a refusal to leave on request, coupled with a risk of causing serious damage to property and harassment or intimidation of the lawful occupier. Such an offence would arise in certain limited circumstances which my right hon. Friend is at present considering. This action takes further the undertaking that was given to the House by my right hon. Friend on 3 June, when he said that, if further changes to the law beyond those then in prospect were needed, they would be introduced. I hope that hon. Members will accept that action is in hand to deal with the problems in a practical fashion and in a way that will not create problems for legitimate users of the countryside and other groups whose interests should he protected.

It will certainly not have escaped my hon. Friend's notice that some suggest that people such as those in the peace convoy should be provided with special sites. However, the Government do not accept that that is either necessary or desirable. We doubt whether such groups would use them. In the summer their habit is usually to attend events such as the summer solstice, and providing a site would not do anything to stop the unlawful camping that usually results. One needs to separate the itinerant tinkers who cause a great deal of damage throughout the year from the special groups who come up from time to time during the summer for a quite different purpose.

I hope that I have managed as adequately as I can to cover the points that have been raised. If I have left points out it is possible that we shall return to the matter at another time. We shall report as soon as we can on the operation of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 in the light of the policy review that we are conducting. If any hon. Members have matters to raise with me or with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, they should write and say what the matters are. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to speak in the debate. I trust that these matters will not lie in abeyance much longer.