HC Deb 19 November 1987 vol 122 cc1301-8

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

10.18 pm
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I have 15 minutes in which to raise a matter that is of the greatest concern to my constituents. I have agreed with my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) that they may intervene briefly, because the matter does not concern just south Leeds. I seek not publicity, but change. The publicity has existed for over 25 years. The Morley part of my constituency is not affected. To put it bluntly, the people in south Leeds have had enough. They think that nobody in authority cares. The consensus in south Leeds is that if those in authority lived in south Leeds, something would be done. I warned that there was a danger of violence, and there was recently. I warned that we were on the brink of violence. I will not go into it, but there was such violence.

I have chosen the title for this Adjournment debate carefully. I have chosen not only the word "gipsies" but travelling people, itinerants and tinkers because all sorts of words are used. My first question to the Minister is, "What is a gipsy?" I do not know what a gipsy is, although I remember that years ago I thought I knew what a gipsy was. However, these people in my constituency have JCBs, E-registration cars and patio furniture, but they do not pay taxes. They do not fit into the category of gipsy that I thought I knew about years ago.

What is the law? I have received letters from the Secretary of State saying that local authorities have a duty to provide areas, but for what? How is a gipsy defined? Is it anybody who does not want to live in a house? If a person goes to an area, does the local authority have a duty to provide the encampments—or whatever they are called? I know what the word means because we have one in south Leeds.

I can tell the Minister what the problem is because I have gone through all my correspondence. The problem is the illegal extraction of electricity from lamp posts; the illegal extraction of the water supply ; refuse; lavatory use; defacation outside the windows of ordinary people; JCBs breaking down the mounds that have been put there by the local authority; the clean-up costs of moving the tarmac; the smell and the causes of the smell that I encountered on the West Granges in the summer, and the ruination of a new rugby league pitch on which the local authorities have spent money. If anybody else had dug up that pitch there would have been hell to pay, but because it was done by gipsies nothing happened. I can tell the story of the Hunslet athletic institute. Parents are not keen on young girls going there in the evening and if they do so they must be accompanied. I can tell of packs of dogs, and of factory owners who have told me about break-ins. Shop stewards have banded together to tell me that something must be done. I can tell also of the noise from generators. Something must be done.

The local authority's job is to remove the gipsies under certain conditions. However, these days when in Hunslet in south Leeds, the local authority seeks to remove "the people"—the itinerants and the travelling people—to a site a solicitor steps in because those people have their own lawyers. They then go to court and the judge, of course, knows exactly what he is doing, but he does not know much about Hunslet and it is two, three or four weeks before anything is done about the problem. Imagine what the people around there think when they see what is happening. They say to me, "If we park a car on a pavement somebody tells us that we must move it, but this lot can stay here for weeks on end before anything is done." The problem is more difficult on private sites than it is on public sites — whatever is meant by that — malthough there has not been such a case recently, because to all intents and purposes British Rail property is private.

In a letter the Secretary of State has told me that it is a duty on local authorities to make adequate provision for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. That is what the law says about gipsies, but I do not know what it means. The letter went on to state: The Leeds City council are at present pursuing a programme of site provision to cater for the large numbers of gipsies illegally camped in the area". That does not mean a thing. I quite understand that when Leeds city council, which is Labour-controlled, comes up with a scheme for sites in all parts of the city, those parts of the city do not want to know. I can understand that and can understand why, at local elections, people say, "Keep them in Hunslet where they have been for 25 years. The people of Hunslet do not count. The people in south Leeds —the old industrial area—can lump it." In effect, that is what has happened and the people in Hunslet and in south Leeds have had enough.

My neighbour north of the river—the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) —told me something that I did not know. There is a site in the old city of Leeds—in south Leeds. It is a designated area, and there are stronger controls on gipsies there. You could have fooled me, Mr. Speaker. If the gipsies move in and camp in the new parts of the city, there are now powers to remove them because there are no sites there. I did not know that. In the Morley part of my constituency, and, I suspect, in the Bothwell part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton—which is the new part of the city—since 1974 the powers available have not been strong enough to remove them.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for allowing me this brief intervention. The description that my right hon. Friend has given of these people exactly fits those in my area—the Bell Hill site in Rothwell. They, too, destroy fields of vegetables, and the area is blighted by their destruction and despoliation. The people in my area are fed up to the teeth with the impression that is being given to people who enter Rothwell from the motorway and the city of Leeds. So I concur with everything that my right hon. Friend has said. It is time there was some action on this issue.

Mr. Rees

There is enormous anger in Hunslet about this matter. As I have said, I understand why nothing is done in the rest of the city. There are arguments in the city council, so there is no movement. Nevertheless, something will have to be done.

We need more small sites. We have done everything possible in south Leeds and people there have had enough. People do not bother about us about education or anything else in south Leeds. We are not a middle-class area in which people write letters to the papers about education. We get the fag-end of the stick on everything in Leeds, and the gipsies are part of that. If there are extra sites in other parts of the city, they come out of Government grants. If Leeds spends money on gipsy sites, there is less money for other things. It is important there should be a separate grant for gipsy sites, because that is a national problem. The money should not come out of Leeds' budget.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

The situation in south Leeds is deplorable. People elsewhere in the city can see the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents have had to face. That is why, when the city council proposes to put a large gipsy site into the green belt in my area—in Meanwood—there is so much opposition and anger because of the intrusion into a beautiful area. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, as the city council has met the statutory requirements for the provision of sites, we are possibly in danger now of appearing to be an authority that is so positively geared to providing help for these people that we are attracting more and more of them? The more we provide sites, the greater the problem becomes.

Mr. Rees

That may be so in the future. However, there is only one site in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson). The reason why the itinerants are attracted to my area is that it has eight or nine unofficial sites, and, because of a weakness in the law, nothing is done about that.

My second point concerns police powers, about which the Leeds city council will have to do something. The other evening I praised the work of a woman police inspector when we were heading for real trouble. Six weeks ago the position was reminiscent of Juliet Bravo. In a letter to me, the Home Secretary pointed out that there are new powers under the Public Order Act 1986. He said: The new power applies only to trespassers who intend to reside on land —the travellers or gipsies certainly intend to reside on land. They are not just popping in for an evening. The police can only act after the landowner has requested the trespassers to leave and they have refused. In such cases if the police reasonably believe that damage has been caused"— that is not difficult to come by— that the landowner or his family or employees have been threatened, or that 12 or more vehicles have been brought on to the land"— Twelve vehicles? We have had 60 or 70 vehicles. The police, because of shortage of manpower, have not been involved because they have been waiting for all the legal stuff to go through the courts. It goes on and on. The Home Secretary continues: even if the trespass itself is not in breach of the criminal law the police can still take action if other offences are likely to be committed. I should have thought that that is pretty difficult to prove.

I had a letter from someone in Surrey who told me that when a camp was established in his area the police went in one evening and found 21 stolen vehicles. That is the nature of the problem. These people are not the gipsies for whom I want to do something. There is a real problem for the people who live near such camps and police powers are insufficient. I am asking for the necessary powers for the local authorities and for the police.

On 13 October 1987 one of my councillors, Ian Hugill, wrote to Leeds council. He pointed out that the gipsies had been camped in eight areas all through the summer. He wanted to know what would happen at Hunslet Grange where houses have been knocked down and the ghastly blocks of flats have gone. What would happen at the waste ground at West Grange, the waste ground at Stourton Grange and the land adjoining Lakeside court? What would happen to the land at the station at Hunslet Moor and the space behind the properties 319–327 Hunslet road? What would happen to the waste land adjacent to Middleton Broom tip? My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton will know that area, because a colliery used to be there. Ian Hugill also asked about the spare land adjacent to the industrial estate in Government street. I checked with the council last Saturday and it said there were no travellers on those sites except at Bell Hill, which is on the edge of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton. However, what will be done? All my people say that the so-called gipsies will come hack to those areas and nothing will be done by the local authority and the police. The problem will go on and on.

Will the Minister meet all the parties of Leeds city council and ask what they intend to do? I hope that there can be a meeting of all the councils in west Yorkshire because when the so-called gipsies leave my area they will probably move on to the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West. They have speed of movement on the motorway so while we are shot of them for a short time the problem still goes on.

This week I was given a document from local councils, parish councils and similar bodies. It contains a list of what they want the Government to do. In conclusion, that document states that the minimum requirement is the rapid provision of suitable sites. However, there is not the faintest chance of the rapid provision of such sites. Therefore, I hope that there may be a meeting in west Yorkshire to discuss this matter. I do not want to be vindictive, but these people with their money and cars are not gipsies and I want to be absolutely sure that the people of Hunslet should not face the same problem with those people year after year.

A few weeks ago the vicar of Hunslet wrote to me and said that Hunslet is under siege and that he and the councillors had done all that they could. That is a cry for help.

This is the first time in 25 years that I have had an Adjournment debate. I have sought the debate because something must be done, yet nobody has bothered about the problem. I ask the Government to do something quickly because those eight sites will fill up extremely quickly. There ought to be small sites in different parts of the county. However, there should be no more sites in south Leeds at Hunslet. We have had enough. I ask the Minister to listen sympathetically to what I have said.

10.34 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) for allowing me to contribute to the debate.

In April, I led a delegation from Bradford to see the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey). He wrote to me in May and his letter says: You raised the question of whether other Districts in West Yorkshire were making adequate provision for gypsies. The 1968 Act requires that each Metropolitan District should provide adequate accommodation for gypsies residing in or resorting to their areas. The minimum requirement is that each District should provide not more than 15 caravan pitches … The Regional Office has, however, already written to both Kirklees and Calderdale seeking details of their proposals to make adequate provision for gypsies. Coincidentally, the present Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who is to reply to this debate, wrote a letter to me which I received this morning. Her letter says: As a follow-up to your meeting with Dick Tracey earlier this year the Department's Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Office wrote to the Districts of Calderdale and Kirklees about the provision of gypsy sites in their areas. Their responses indicated that both Councils are currently considering the provision of sites;". I can tell the Minister that they have been considering sites for a very long time. I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South has said, that there is an urgent need for Kirklees and Calderdale to make some provision. If those councils would make that provision, it would alleviate the pressures on Bradford and Leeds and on the other districts that have complied with the law. The authorities in west Yorkshire that have flouted the law that has been in existence for 20 years, are intensifying the problems in areas that have made provision and have complied with the law.

10.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Marion Roe)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) for raising the issue of gipsies in the south Leeds area. I know that it is a subject close to his heart and one that he has raised before in the House, in correspondence with my Department and other Government Departments, and elsewhere in his local press. I have also noted the contributions to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) and by the hon. Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien).

I share wholeheartedly the right hon. Gentleman's concern for the residents of south Leeds and for the need to ensure that public order is maintained and the law upheld. It is common ground between us that gipsies, like any other people, must comply with the law. I hope that it is also common ground that the way forward is through the provision of adequate sites for gipsies. The Government are fully committed to this approach. Indeed, we see the adequate provision of official sites as the key solution to resolving problems of the sort raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

This debate comes at an opportune time, because it was only last February that my right hon. Friend announced his conclusions following the review of policy for the provisions of gipsy sites. He concluded, after a painstaking examination of responses to a consultation letter and after considering the analysis of those responses by an independent adviser, Professor Gerald Wibberley, that the way forward was to continue for the time being with the present legislative duty to provide sites coupled with the additional controls available through designation. This was also the consensus, but we accepted that there was a need for better information on gipsies in order to establish better targets at which authorities could aim. We intend to tackle this vigorously as soon as we have the necessary research facilities.

However, I am convinced that already in the last six months we have become much more aware of the situation regarding gipsies and other groups, not only in south Leeds but elsewhere in the region and nationally. This improved information will be of great use in our discussions with the relevant local authorities on the provision of sites. I must say how grateful I am to the right hon. Member for providing much useful information to my Department, not only in this debate, but on the other occasions on which he has raised this issue with us.

I think it might be helpful if I were briefly to outline what the law has to say on the subject of gipsies. County councils, London borough councils and, as in this case, metropolitan district councils, all have a duty to provide sites for gipsies in their areas. In London boroughs and the metropolitan districts, that duty is restricted to a duty to provide for up to 15 caravans at a time. However, it is the case that in a number of London boroughs and metropolitan districts there are many more than that number of gipsies who have by long custom been encamped in those areas. Where this is so, and authorities can arrange for their accommodation, they should do so.

When my right hon. Friend can be satisfied that adequate provision exists for the accommodation of gipsies in a particular area, or that in all the circumstances it is not necessary or expedient to make adequate provision, he will be able to consider an application from the local authorities who have the statutory duties to provide accommodation that the area should be designated under the provisions of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. Designation gives the authorities greater powers to control unauthorised camping by gipsies in their areas.

We recognise that there is a problem of interpretation of the statutory definition of gipsies. The Act defines them as persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin". Local authorities have generally been able to decide who meets this statutory definition for site provision, but the definition is wide and there is increasing concern that other groups may seek the benefits which the Act provides.

Dr. Hampson


Mrs. Roe

I am sorry; I cannot give way. I have a lot to say in a short time.

We are committed to examining the scope for further clarification of the issue and we are at present working on a circular which we might issue, after consultation, to local authorities to give them further advice on this and other matters. But I have to stress that the onus of deciding who is a gipsy for the purposes of the statutory duty will have to rest with the local authorities themselves, in the light of the statutory definition.

The question was raised whether gipsies with flashy cars are gipsies. The statutory definition does not make a distinction but authorities providing sites can, and do, make charges for rent and rates.

I do not wish to minimise the difficulties that exist in some areas, but I think it would be right that the House should recognise the progress that has already been made in the provision of sites. At the beginning of this year, there were about 245 local authority sites in existence, providing approximately 4,000 pitches for gipsy caravans. Additionally, we believe that at least 2,000 pitches are being provided on private sites. We recognise, however, that there is still a need for as many as 3,000 to 4,000 pitches to accommodate the considerable number of gipsy caravans for which there is as yet no legal provision.

It is also relevant to refer to what the Government already do to help local authorities to carry out their statutory responsibility. I must draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that we make 100 per cent. Exchequer grant available for sites provided by the local authorities, and we have currently set aside £5 million this year for that purpose. We have issued advice to local authorities, in circulars and in research reports, as a result of which there is now a considerable weight of advice on the location, design and management of sites, as well as on the promotion of private site initiatives.

We supplement the formal advice with regular and informal liaison between my Department and individual local authorities, as they may require, to help them to move towards the fulfilment of their statutory duty. We shall be ready to offer such informal advice to any of the west Yorkshire authorities which seek it regarding the adequacy of their proposals for sites, but we cannot set arbitrary quotas for individual districts.

In short, we have a legislative package which balances a duty to provide sites with the availability of special controls on unauthorised camping. We try to operate it sensibly, and we are convinced that it can be made to work, if there is the will to make it work. As I have said, we are considering what further general advice we can give to local authorities to help them to do the job; and we shall continue to examine within the Department the procedures that are operated, in order to see how we can make them operate more smoothly and efficiently in support of the work that local authorities have to do in this matter.

Unfortunately, the position in south Leeds is complicated, as we have heard from the right hon. Member. There is a history of conflict in the area and an unmet demand for further sites in the city. Partly for historical reasons, only the old Leeds county borough area has presently designated district status.

I understand, firstly, that Leeds city council is pursuing a programme of site provision for the large numbers of gipsies currently illegally camping in the south Leeds area. This extra provision, together with the 36 pitches already being provided at the authorised site at Cottingley Springs, could bring the overall position up to a level where a designation order for the whole of Leeds might be considered. If this is granted, Leeds will be in a much stronger position to deal with illegal encampments and sudden increases in the numbers of gipsies. I say this, of course, without prejudice to any decision that my right hon. Friend takes, should an application for designation come before him.

The House will be aware of my earlier statement on the effectiveness of the current legislation in controlling gipsy sites in local authorities designated under section 12 of the 1968 Act, in the answer I wrote to my hon. Friend, the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) set out in Hansard of 13 July.

The provision of official sites by the private and public sector is also crucial in helping to identify quickly the circumstances in which eviction and possibly legal action might be appropriate. I have already explained that designated district status would help to take more effective action on illegal camping.

On the more specific charges of breaches of the law and public order, the right hon. Member has, to my knowledge, already sought advice from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The Government's attitude on this is quite clear and firm. We fully understand the annoyance and nuisance that can be caused by itinerants and other trespassers. We are well aware of the general distress that can be caused to ordinary citizens by groups of people who have scant regard for the laws of our society.

The new powers introduced in the Public Order Act 1986 may be relevant for the circumstances outlined by the right hon. gentleman, although I have to say that, in general, we consider that the powers available under the caravan sites legislation are the proper solution to unauthorised camping by gipsies, since they are coupled with provision of sites. Just as clearly, the onus is on the landowner to consider whether such trespassers should leave their land. On those sites owned by Leeds city council, where illegal camping occurs, it clearly falls to the council to consider whether to instigate such action or decide whether there are other temporary measures that could be taken to ease matters. The right hon. Member will no doubt be taking this point further with his friends and colleagues on the city council, where such circumstances exist.

The right hon. Member has referred to vacant sites in south Leeds which are attractive to gipsies. He mentioned the site of the former Hunslet Grange flats. Leeds city council intends to carry out an open space scheme. It also intends to use a site in Middleton, where some Reema blocks are to be demolished, for further open space schemes to improve the environment of the surrounding estate.

Consequently, I trust that the right hon. Member will accept my contention and belief that there are grounds for optimism, although we all recognise the real problems that are occurring in south Leeds. I have set out how we have fairly and squarely faced up to making adequate provision for gipsy sites, not only in south Leeds, but throughout the city and also nationally.

The current framework for provision allows suitable sites to be set up with little financial cost to the local authority, and our experience is that well run sites, meeting the likely demand generally, do not give rise to conflict in the way that unauthorised sites do.

That conflict occurs now on illegal sites is undesirable. We have heard some evidence of the types of real problems facing the residents of south Leeds. Conflict, of course, adversely affects not only the permanent residents in conventional housing. I am also concerned that the vast bulk of the gipsy community, who are as law-abiding as the average citizen, should also have the opportunity to live in a safe and ordered environment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to eleven o'clock.