HC Deb 03 June 1986 vol 98 cc733-9 3.31 pm
Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest) (by private notice),

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will call for a report from the chief constable of Hampshire about the hippy convoy currently occupying Crown land in the New Forest.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

As the House will know, the so-called peace convoy was evicted from Mr. Attwell's farm at Cook's Carey in Somerset last week, and from Yeovil it moved into Dorset. It passed through Dorset during the weekend, causing serious dislocation to traffic on the way, and on Sunday evening moved into Hampshire. I have been in touch with the Hampshire police this morning, and I understand that on Sunday night a group consisting of some 115 vehicles and about 300 people camped on a minor road in the New Forest at Stoney Cross. Yesterday the police ordered them to move for obstructing the highway, and they moved on to the land adjoining the road, which belongs to the Forestry Commission. I understand that the commission is issuing proceedings today for recovery of the land and seeking an expedited hearing. If the commission is granted a possession order, the police will assist the sheriff, as they have at previous evictions.

That is the present situation as reported by the chief constable. Hon. Members from the west country will be aware of the immense policing difficulties created by the peace convoy, because, as anyone whose constituency has been visited by the convoy knows, it is anything but peaceful. Indeed, it resembles nothing more than a band of medieval brigands who have no respect for the law or for the rights of others. All hon. Members will have watched with sadness and anger the ordeal of Mr. Attwell at their hands. It is plainly not acceptable that a group of this kind should inflict such harm and distress on law-abiding citizens and, of course, the law of the land does not accept such behaviour. Criminal powers are available to the police and civil remedies to the dispossessed occupier. Following a meeting recently with two of my hon. Friends, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is considering urgently how the civil law procedures might be streamlined in order to grant more speedy recovery of the possession of land.

The criminal law has an important part to play. The police have wide powers to take action where there is an imminent risk of a breach of the peace; they have powers to prevent obstruction of the highway; and they have powers to arrest for offences such as criminal damage. We have strengthened these powers in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1985. The Public Order Bill, if enacted, will further strengthen police powers and it will extend the public order offences in clauses 4 and 5—threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct — to offences committed on private land. I hope that this important Bill will soon be on the statute book.

Understandably people have asked whether any new police powers are required, and in particular whether any change to the law of trespass is required. There are strong arguments against making simple trespass a criminal offence. No one wants to criminalise the activities of a group of ramblers, and no one wants to harass genuine gipsies. But we are discussing with the police, and in meetings held this week with the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association, whether some further strengthening of the law is required and, if so, what form that change should take. It may be that wider consultation will be required. What I can say today is that we are fully aware of the strength of feeling on this issue; that we have the matter very much in hand and that, if any further changes in the law beyond those we already propose are required, we shall not hesitate to introduce them.

We are of course in close touch with the police forces concerned and they are in close touch with each other. No one should underestimate the difficulties involved in policing the convoy, and I am grateful for the messages of support that I have received from hon. Members in the west country for the police in their areas. I am in no doubt about the resolve of the police to deal as they judge best with the criminal offences committed by the convoy. It is not just the criminal law that is flouted by the convoy. The other arm of our strategy must be to ensure effective action not just by the police but by any other public agency whose services the convoy exploits and whose rules it flouts. The peace convoy is not entitled to special treatment for exemptions simply because its members wish to contract out of their responsibilities as citizens.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of the vehicles in which this anarchic group travels, with its own legal adviser, are untaxed, untested and uninsured? Why cannot action be taken to remove those vehicles from the roads. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the group has, in one form or another, been in existence for many years? The Government should do something now. Passing the problem from my constituents to someone else is no answer. It could potentially be extremely dangerous because one is dealing with a large unruly group. What action is to be taken to break up the group into smaller groups of a manageable size?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend has said. I agree that it is not enough simply to speed the so-called peace convoy on its way, without regard to its law-breaking activities. If my hon. Friend listened to my statement, he will have heard that that was the thrust of it. The chief constables in the areas involved know of their duty to enforce the law and of the wide powers that they already have. It is for them to make their own judgments about the use of those powers under the operational independence that they have.

The law on the specific point that my hon. Friend raised is that the police have no power to prevent the further movement of an unroadworthy or untaxed vehicle. What they have is the power to issue a summons. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act they will have a new power to arrest an alleged offender if no satisfactory address is given.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Will the Home Secretary say why his Government have failed to respond to a request from Somerset county council a year ago about where responsibility for dealing with the matter should lie? Is it not the case that the Government's indecision on the matter has left the police with a law which is either unenforceable or inadequate and farmers with a major threat to their livelihood?

Will the Home Secretary now grasp the nettle, first by providing the police with the resources that they need to enforce the law; secondly, by strengthening the law on trespass, particularly in relation to mass trespass with vehicles; thirdly, by saying where responsibility for dealing with the matter should lie; and, finally, by providing facilities for the hippy convoy so that its freedom does not impinge on the freedom of others?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman continues to amaze us with his contortions on the matter. There is no difficulty in understanding where responsibility lies. The police have wide powers under the existing law. They have powers as regards a breach of the peace and as regards criminal damage. Their powers have been strengthened in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. We are proposing new powers in the Public Order Bill that is being strongly contested in Committee. Those powers would extend the offence of threatening damage to private land and would create a new offence of disorderly conduct. The hon. Gentleman should have a word with his hon. Friends about the attitudes of the alliance parties. I have said, as the Prime Minister said before me, that if, in addition to the powers which already exist and in addition to the powers that we propose in the Public Order Bill, it turns out that further powers are required we shall not hesitate to introduce them.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Is he aware that my constituents suffer the attention of these unlovely people? As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has said, this is a long-standing problem of a collection of thoroughly aggressive, anti-social people who are intent, among other things, on provoking the police. If the House passes legislation, as it has, to make it illegal for more than six pickets to congregate at a given place during an industrial dispute, cannot legislation be considered that would start by making it illegal, except for the public services, for more than a specified number of vehicles to travel round the countryside on public roads?

Mr. Hurd

I listened with care to my hon. Friend's suggestion. The trouble with his suggestion and others I have heard is that it might deal effectively with this mischief but would create many other problems which its authors did not intend. That is why, as I have said, we intend to consult urgently. If, in addition to the existing powers of the police and the proposals in the Public Order Bill, we can find a way of meeting this mischief without adding other problems to it, we shall take that course.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Is the same law available to deal with this convoy as was used to deal with the Kent miners during the miners' dispute when, effectively, men from the south were prevented from moving north? Can I assure my constituents in south Leeds, where we often have large numbers of vehicles occupied by travelling tinkers which nobody has been concerned with, that the same urgency will be used to deal with our problem as is now being used to deal with this problem in the south?

Mr. Hurd

Certainly, the law is the same in whatever part of the country it may be flouted. The police have the same power to anticipate a breach of the peace which they reasonably fear and I understand that the Dorset police have been using that power.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Dorset police on the splendid job they did peacefully to contain the damage, disturbance, fear and the threat to farmers and jobs that were caused by the hippy convoy? [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading".] With your persmission, Mr. Speaker, I shall refer to my notes. Will my right hon. Friend with me deplore the attack on the Dorset police made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) with no justification? Does he agree that the problem of such a convoy, which consists of 130 vehicles, derives from its size? Therefore, policies designed to disperse such a convoy and to include a provision in the Public Order Bill which will allow us to deal with large mass convoys of this kind is the correct approach?

Mr. Hurd

It is the intention of the chief constables who have been dealing with this problem to take action under their powers to disperse the convoy. I think that they have had some success in that and the number of vehicles is rather less than that which afflicted the people in Wiltshire a year ago.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's first point. I think that it is a little too easy to hold a political position and criticise chief constables for the exercise of their powers under the law. Our job is to ensure that those powers are adequate.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I appreciate the difficulties with this particular hippy convoy. However, does not the Minister realise that his announcement today will cause serious concern, especially when he refers to extending the simple trespass law?

The right hon. Gentleman told the House that he was prepared to meet representatives of the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association.

Is he aware that 20 per cent. of the people in this country have walking as their principal recreation? Is he prepared to meet representatives of the Ramblers Association, Youth Hostels Association and Open Spaces Society before he contemplates changing the law? Is he aware of the danger of applying the particular to the general when one is talking about legislation?

Mr. Hurd

It would be a poor day if Home Office Ministers did not meet the National Farmers Union or the Country Landowners Association. As the hon. Gentleman knows, our doors are also open to the Ramblers Association and others. I specifically said that there were strong arguments, which the police sustained with vigour, against a general criminalisation of trespass, not least for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman. Although we have found some answers in the Public Order Bill, we must search for a way of distinguishing between what the hon. Gentleman is talking about and the undoubted mischiefs which concern my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson).

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

If the law relating to obstruction of the public highway is adequate, as I think my right hon. Friend has told the House, can he give an assurance that those whom he describes as medieval brigands will not be able to obstruct the highway on further journeys of the so-called peace convoy?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend knows that the law on obstruction of the highway, as with the law on criminal damage and on breach of the peace, is wide and gives substantial powers to the police. It is for the chief officers of police in each county to decide, in the best interests of their county and according to their judgment of the local position, how, when and with what force to use the powers that Parliament has conferred on them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question, not a statement. I shall allow questions to continue for a further five minutes, after which we have another private notice question.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Why is it that during the miners' strike more than 700 people could be arrested simply for shouting "Scab" or stepping off a pavement, and ancient laws called "besetting" could be found under which men could be arrested simply for staring at somebody, yet in this case the Home Secretary wrings his hands and asks for sympathy?

Mr. Hurd

That is not an accurate summary of my statement. The hon. Gentleman will find that action has been taken to arrest and bring to justice a large number of people who have broken the law during the peace convoy. The police will continue to work in the south-west of England and in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world to protect citizens against law breaking from whatever source it comes.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

My constituents in south Wiltshire are angry and frightened, and it gives them little pleasure that the Paddy-come-latelies are now interested in a problem with which they have lived for more than 10 years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to see a peaceful resolution of the problem, it is essential to have a cooling-off period and for an independent committee to report within days, not months, on what has happened? There must be an immediate and properly resourced inquiry, and the travellers must not attempt to battle their way to Stonehenge this year because it will only lead to further real trouble.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend was probably the first hon. Member to take an informed and continuing interest in this matter for reasons which are deeply rooted in his constituency. Therefore, I listen carefully to what he says. However, I am not sure that an independent inquiry of the type he mentioned would do good. We must support the police and the chief officers in their efforts to enforce the existing law, get the Public Order Bill on the statute book, see if any further powers are required, and look at the action of all Government agencies to ensure that we all row together, not towards some great battle or confrontation—I agree with my hon. Friend about that—but towards a resolution of the problem on the basis of respect for the law.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Is the Home Secretary aware that many of us who have no sympathy for this unruly group are nevertheless frightened by the emotions which the incident has whipped up among Members on the other side of the House? Will he take care to ensure that in the heat of the moment he does not start along the road of criminalising the law on trespass?

Mr. Hurd

The emotion is fairly general and understandable, and I am sure that it is not confined to supporters of one political party. Indeed, the correspondence columns of the newspapers show that. I hope that my statement, read as a whole, reflects to some extent the anxiety which the hon. Gentleman reflects, and deals effectively with the anxiety and emotion which clearly exist.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

As one who would oppose criminalising trespass and certainly does not wish the police to be used as the private agents of private landowners, may I ask my right hon. Friend nevertheless to acknowledge that it is far more difficult and causes far more casualties, especially to the police, to remove those people from land which they have no business to occupy than it is to prevent them from going there in the first place? Recalling my right hon. Friend's interest in the Committee on the Public Order Bill, may I ask him to say that when the Bill reaches another place he will do his utmost to ensure that clauses 4 and 5 apply to private land and are effective instruments through which the police can act?

Mr. Hurd

Both those clauses, which deal with threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct, would apply in respect of private land. In the earlier part of his question, my hon. Friend was pushing us very much in the direction in which our minds are already moving. I hope that people will not get the impression that there is no effective criminal law in the matter. The criminal law already gives the police substantial powers to deal with such an incident. The Public Order Bill will add to them.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

The Home Secretary may have the matter in hand, but he certainly does not have it under control. I remind him that last year my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and I, with limited support from the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), came close to getting an agreement by which the Department of the Environment would negotiate with the Department of Defence to have suitable land set aside for the group to provide sufficient time to arrange a long-term solution for both a festival and the travellers. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members do not think that that is necessary, they had better decide where the houses will come from to house those people if they return to their former way of life.

I remind the Home Secretary that the Secretary of State for the Environment negotiated with the group and other groups to have access to Stonehenge. If the Home Secretary persists in using the police as though they were the Tory party's private army, he will continue to whip up hostility within the police, because the police do not like being used in such a role when it is not necessary, any more than the farmers like their land being used. The Government have caused riots not only in the inner cities in relation to industrial disputes, but in the byways and fields of England.

When the right hon. Gentleman answers, will he take the opportunity to remind the minority in his own party, who are betraying dangerously fascist symptons, that when they talk of making people conform, that is precisely the language that was used in Nazi Germany, and that when people failed to conform they were put in concentration camps and gas chambers? Will the right hon. Gentleman renounce that behaviour by his own party supporters?

Mr. Hurd

Where is the right hon. Gentleman for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)? We need him badly. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), in an amazing way, followed up his attack yesterday on Sir Kenneth Newman with an extraordinary attempt to turn this into a party political issue. Anyone reading or listening to his remarks must think that they bear no relation to reality. The only serious point he made was his first point. In that respect, he misread the nature and intention of the so-called peace convoy. However many sites were provided for those people, at the public expense, I do not think that they would stay in them or abide by the law.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, as the law stands at the moment, this remains a Hampshire problem? Hampshire has a good record of resettling gipsies and travellers, but this is asking a bit much. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a national problem needing a national solution?

Mr. Hurd

The chief officers of police in Wessex and the Government agencies involved need to continue to put their heads together. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that it is not thought that the peace convoy comes within the definition of the Caravan Sites Act 1968