§ Motion made, and Question proposed.
That a further sum, not exceeding £30,785,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges which will come in the course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1991 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment on road infrastructure required for the development of new towns, gypsy sites, smoke control, planning redevelopment and other environmental services, on other water supply, conservation and sewerage services, and on town and country planning (including compensation).—[Mr. Chope.]
§ 7.6 pm
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
I have the honour to present the third report of the Select Committee on the Environment on the Department of the Environment's main estimates for 1990–1991, with special reference to vote 4, Bl. It would be appropriate to record our thanks to Mr. Richard Dudding and Mr. John Adams at the Department of the Environment for their helpful co-operation, enabling the Committee to reach the conclusions of its report, and for their full anwers to the sometimes forceful questions that were put to them during our deliberations. I should also like to record my appreciation of the leadership of our Select Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who brings us great experience and considerable enthusiasm and who helps us do an important job.
I am a great believer in the work that Select Committees do and in bringing their reports to the House. We appreciate the opportunity to debate a report hot off the press.
Select Committee do an enormous variety of work and cover detailed as well as broad subjects. I cannot help contrasting our previous debate with this one. A few moments ago we were debating the consequences of what my insurance people would call an act of God earlier this year. Now we are considering the consequences of an Act of Parliament passed more than 20 years ago. The consequences are still with us: that is the nub of the Select Committee's report and recommendations.
We recognise the difficult problems posed by itinerants. There are different points of view. I am sure that the viewpoint of Lord Avebury, who, as Eric Lubbock, steered the legislation through Parliament, would be different from my own. As a constituency Member of Parliament who, in common with some of my hon. Friends, has had problems with itinerants, I have received many representations from constituents about a variety of related issues.
Above all there is the problem of visual pollution. To some people gipsies may be historic Romany folk with brightly painted caravans towed by horses but those of us who have experienced the problem in recent years know that it has more to do with tumbledown caravans and beaten-up vehicles and piles of scrap and rubbish, and that those people often occupy inappropriate sites that are extremely visible to the general public.
228 There is also a problem associated with the vandalism of large areas of woodland to provide fuel for fires. Theft often occurs as well. A farmer in my constituency found after gipsies had camped on land adjacent to his farm that the water supply for his cattle was regularly used by the itinerants. He had to pay a huge bill and he could not reclaim the money from anyone.
My personal interest in the matter goes back a long way. I served on Chiltern district council in Buckinghamshire until I became a Member of the House. We spent long hours debating the location of official sites before we received designations. The galling aspect was that no sooner had the official sites been built and opened than they were vandalised by the very people who were supposed to benefit from them. At that time a pitch cost about £10,000; no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will bring us up to date on how much one would cost now.
The Select Committee has considered the matter on several occasions. The first time I remember it doing so was in 1984–85, soon after I joined the Committee, and the problem has recurred almost every year since then. This time we have come up with some specific recommendations, which I shall attempt to summarise.
It is time to set a realistic timetable for site provision, with the threat of much more vigorous use of the Secretary of State's powers of direction against laggard authorities. Foremost among the reasons for his recommendation was the slow provision of official pitches. Hon. Members may be interested to hear some statistics. There were 211 more caravans on authorised sites in July 1989 than in July 1988, and 171 new pitches became available on local authority sites during the financial year 1989–90. That represents a decline from the 250 new pitches in the calendar year 1987 and no improvement on the 200 to 300 annual increases reported by the Department of the Environment for 1982 to 1987. The Committee estimates that, at the present rate of new provision, it would take 25 years to solve the problem.
The Secretary of State has only twice used his powers of direction under section 9 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. In November 1988 he directed Hertfordshire county council to make provision for sites for 110 caravans. It is no coincidence that I am the Member for Hertfordshire, West, because I had to bully successive Ministers at the Department over that matter before any action was forthcoming. In June 1989, Surrey county council was directed to provide for 180 caravans. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Committee recommended much more vigorous use of that power. The numbers involved are immense and there seems to be little progress.
The number of caravans on unauthorised sites continues to grow. Figures supplied by the Department in 1985 showed a decline in numbers from 4,245 in January 1980 to an estimated 3,472 in January 1985. In answer to a parliamentary question on 6 February 1987—at column 856 in Hansard—my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) identified about 3,000; but last year the DOE reported the proportion of caravans on unauthorised sites as virtually unchanged at about 34 per cent., despite the creation of about 250 new pitches, as more gipsies than usual were being recorded. Most worrying of all, this year's public expenditure White Paper reports the proportion on unauthorised sites at 35 per cent., which is an increase. That makes a total of 4,500 caravans, so the solution to the problem seems to be receding.
229 The Committee first expressed its worry about the legislation in its report of the 1984–85 Session, when we recommended that the Department should conduct a review of policy on gipsy sites. It was carried out by Professor Wibberley, professor of countryside planning in the university of London. He made several recommendations, the first of which a more specific definition of gipsies for the purpose of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, based on employment and life style, with the intention of excluding social drop-outs.
In response, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury said that he defined gipsies in terms of a nomadic habit of life—which seems a rather circular argument. In recent years not just itinerants, as they were called in the past, but many of what my constituents call diddikois seem to have joined this group; they are people from all sorts of background. There has certainly been an influx of peace people from various camps around the country. That is why the problem is growing.
The difficulty is not confined to unauthorised sites on land. As a member of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, I am conscious of the fact that exactly the same phenomenon is occurring on the water, in the shape of illegal moorings. The problem has more to do with the break-up of some parts of society and with general problems of homelessness than with genuine Romany folk. Professor Wibberley's recommendation is still relevant and I hope that the Department will again consider tightening the legislation's definition.
The professor also recommended a review of designated areas to ensure that the designation procedure works more fairly and efficiently. He recommended better and more frequent counts of gipsy families and measures to reduce resident hostility towards gipsies' sites, including speeding up planning decisions and facilitating discussions between gipsies and residents. Finally, he recommended encouraging gipsy groups to act as site operators, and quicker and more generous provision of capital grants for sites. Incidentally, I must commend the Department's improvement of the grant regime. I hope that that will encourage more local authorities to provide sites. As Mr. Dudding explained when giving evidence:there are other authorities which would … even if they had the £5 notes put in front of their eyes, be reluctant".I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will touch on that aspect if he catches the Chair's eye—it is a problem that has been especially apparent in Haringey.
The real difficulty is that the goalposts are continually moving. Even local authorities that are motivated to try to achieve designation find that they run into increasing difficulties of litigation. As soon as a local authority applies for designation on the basis of the number of itinerants who are, in the terms of the Act, resorting to the area, there is another influx of people. That means that the designation order falls because there is no relation between the number of official pitches and the number of the gipsies in the area.
It is little wonder that some local authorities, faced with all the political problems of trying to set up sites against the will of local residents, give up, especially when confronted by vociferous gipsy support groups with access to legal assistance.
230 How does one define who resorts to an area? Is it someone who has come to an area for many years, or is it someone who has come to the area only recently? There seems to be no way to define it. I have always taken the view that we do not need more direction from the Department of the Environment, or a different grant regime. We need a reframing of the legislation so that, with fairer definitions, local authorities can get on with the job of providing sites for the genuine traveller and ensuring that the police move on those who are not genuine travellers.
I am encouraged by the Department's response to a question that I put to it. Mr. Dudding said:I think the Secretary of State's words in reply to the Committee last year were open to change; they were not ruling them out. And I think that is somehting that we shall continue to think about and I am sure that Ministers will be interested to read the views of the Committee in their Report because that is a source of advice to them by which, as you know, they have been influenced in the past.There is plenty of material for reconsideration.
I hope that the Minister will be able to provide more up-to-date information. The Department has commissioned a study to identify good practice among local authorities in achieving site provision. It has also commissioned another study to establish the accuracy of the half-yearly counts of gipsies. I understand that the results would be made available in June 1990. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has them with him and that he will be able to enlighten the House.
It has taken virtually the whole time that I have been a Member of Parliament for my local authority to be granted designation after its initial application. During that period, local residents, particularly in the parishes of Wigginton and Tring Rural, but also in Tring, became increasingly frustrated by what they believed to be the Department of the Environment's inability to act in such a way as to protect them from all the environmental problems that I described earlier. I had to explain to them many times that I believed that the cause of the problem was the imprecise nature of the legislation that had been piloted through the House. That is not surprising, since it was a Liberal measure. Nevertheless, a Conservative Government ought to do something about it.
I hope that the Minister will respond sympathetically to the pressing needs of communities throughout the country who wish to be rid of those problems. Genuine travellers ought to be provided with a decent life style and somewhere to live so that education can be provided for their children, but the law needs to be reformed to deal with the remainder.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
I thank the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) for introducing the debate. I also thank the Select Committee on the Environment for its third report. I intend to confine my remarks to that part of the report which deals with gipsy sites and travellers. As the area represented by the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West has been designated, I was interested in what he had to say about the problem. He drew attention to the many difficulties that flow from designation. Bradford was designated by the Minister earlier this year.
Many of those who support designation give the public the impression that it is a magic wand solution to all the difficulties caused by travellers. There is therefore 231 considerable public resentment and cynicism when the problems continue after designation. The Government will continue to face difficulties if they grant designation, but the problems remain unsolved.
The report states that 112 authorities have been designated under section 12 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. They include Doncaster and Bradford. Another 11 applications for designation are being considered by the Department. Bradford continues to face problems. Designation was granted by the Minister days before the local elections, but I should be the last to suggest any connection between his decision and the elections looming on 3 May. His letter provided background information to the granting of designation, stating that the grounds for designation were that it would not be expedient for the then Conservative-controlled Bradford council to make additional permanent provision in Bradford.
Like many other people in Bradford, I thought that that was an extraordinary decision. We have tussled with this problem for many years. We met a Minister from the Department of the Environment two or three years ago, when it was made clear to us that, unless Bradford provided a third permanent site for travellers, designation would not be granted. A third permanent site has not been provided and the two permanent sites in Bradford have not been improved. Nevertheless, the Minister granted designation.
The new Labour administration in Bradford has stated that it will not instruct its officers to implement designation. The new administration wants to monitor the position before taking action. It is anxious to find out whether neighbouring authorities, including Calderdale, Kirklees and Craven, have provided any permanent sites before it decides to implement the designation orders.
The traveller merry-go-round that we have witnessed in Bradford For many years continues. Travellers have resorted—to use the official jargon of the Act—to Bradford for well over a century. Environment Ministers have accepted for many years that two permanent sites offer totally insufficient permanent provision for the caravans of travellers who come regularly to Bradford. They accept that a third site is needed, but it has not been provided. My local newspaper, The Telegraph and Argus, reported recently on the eviction of travellers from unofficial sites and on their moving to other unofficial sites. Council officers are considering applying for yet more eviction orders. A council official is quoted as saying thatit was a problem finding sites that met the needs of the travellers. Shortage of sites for gipsies was a problem because the inner city Mary street site was full.I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford. South (Mr. Cryer) is in the Chamber. He and I visited the Mary street site last summer. At the same time we visited the official site at Esholt. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me that we were very dissatisfied with the standard of the facilities that are provided there. The Esholt street site is adjacent to a rifle range. We were shown bullet cartridges that had ricocheted over an earth embankment behind the rifle range. The drainage and the washing facilities at the site are totally unsatisfactory. It is no wonder that the travellers are extremely reluctant to use that remote site, which is well away from the shops and schools. The Mary street site was also in a shocking condition. The showers and washing facilities had been vandalised and many of the travellers we met complained about the standard of facilities there.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the vandalism that he mentioned had not been carried out by the travellers and that one of the difficulties was that on occasions there was a degree of hostility and youths would stone the caravans and vandalise the toilet blocks at the site? The toilet blocks had been in need of repairs for many months and the travellers were making the best of what was patently a bad job.
§ Mr. Madden
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Minister granted designation, he said in his background note that Bradford council was to spend money on improving the Mary street and Esholt street sites. I have made inquiries but I cannot ascertain whether there have been any improvements at those sites. I was amazed that the Minister stated in his note and in correspondence with me that his officials had found the facilities and the general conditions at both sites reasonable. He and his officials seem alone in that view. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South and others who are interested and concerned are extremely disassatisfied with the standard of the facilities at both sites. We also remain firmly of the view that a third permanent site must be provided in Bradford.
The views of the gipsy spokesperson, Ann Purcell, were reported in the Telegraph and Argus:
she expected her family would be moved on again from New Lane by the council. But she believed it would be cheaper for the council to provide them with a proper site instead of chasing them around the city. Council officials offered the family space at official site at Esholt but Mrs. Purcell said: `It's miles away from anywhere, especially the school and there are no shops within walking distance.' … She said there is not enough room to accommodate travellers at two official sites in the Bradford district and condemned the scrapping of a plan three years ago to turn some derelict land at Listerhills into another gipsy site.".The Minister should know that the previous Conservative administration came to power partly clue to the hysteria that had been whipped up deliberately by the Conservative party in Bradford over travellers and gipsies. During that campaign, leading Conservatives sought to gain cheap party political support on the back of a promise that designation would resolve all the problems and that the traveller problem could be wholly removed only if designation were granted. Designation has been granted and the problems continue.
I hope that the Minister will say how much money that previous Tory administration told him it had committed to spending on improving the Esholt street and Mary street sites. When he granted designation, his background note suggested that the Conservative administration in Bradford was also committed to providing further private sites in Bradford. I have been unable to get any information about the location of those private sites. As the Minister must have been given some information by the previous Conservative administration in Bradford about where those private sites were likely to be situated, I should like to know where they are and what progress is being made.
§ Mr. Cryer
I should be interested to know what encouragement the Minister is giving neighbouring authorities to provide sites. I understand that Craven, Kirklees and Calderdale local authorities do not provide one alternative site. No doubt the Government are 233 anxiously providing all possible assistance in the way of advice and grant aid to encourage those authorities to play their part.
§ Mr. Madden
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. What information has the Minister received from Calderdale, Kirklees and Craven about their current efforts to identify suitable permanent sites? It would be idle and politically dishonest for the Minister to pretend that designation without neighbouring authorities offering permanent sites, improvements to the existing two sites, the provision of a third permanent site, more private sites, and a general overall improvement in Bradford, would provide any long-term satisfactory solution to the difficulties which have arisen for many years and which will continue unless the Government take decisive action.
The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West made the case for my last point. The parent legislation is more than 20 years old and needs to be reformed to meet current circumstances and the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. The Committee says that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 25 years to accommodate those known travellers who desire proper permanent sites with proper facilities. I hope that the Minister will not be satisfied with that rate of progress.
The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West made the case for regional planning. It is quite wrong to leave individual district authorities to reach piecemeal solutions on the back of a variety of local circumstances. Surely the only way in which we can make progress and meet the demands of travellers and the requirements of settled residents is through a national gipsy traveller programme and regional programmes to ensure that in West Yorkshire, for example, Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Wakefield and other authorities make planned and systematic provision to alleviate the problems caused to travellers and local residents.
If the Minister rejects that suggestion, in Bradford and other places, either the merry-go-round will continue and designation will prove wholly unsuitable to deal with the problems, or police and council officials will become involved in potentially dangerous confrontations between travellers and groups of local residents, with caravans being towed to the borders of authority districts and travellers seeking unofficial sites in places such as Calderdale and Kirklees where there is no official provision or returning to Bradford to occupy unofficial and illegal sites.
The Minister can easily achieve a recipe for anarchy and dangerous community unrest and conflict by presiding over the shambolic mess that this policy has caused, but I hope that he will be able to announce to the House—I sense that there is concern among hon. Members on both sides because this is not a party-political issue but one of good local government and community relations—new policy initiatives to satisfy our constituents and travellers about the future.
It is interesting to note the views of traveller children. A report in the Telegraph and Argus, headlinedWe want to learn, plead the gipsy children",states:
The youngsters say that they want to be taught and are fed up of being moved off one site after another. 'We were born in Bradford and we want to have an education here,' said 12-year-old Mary Doran. 'It's not fair that we have to 234 keep on moving. We would like a permanent site so we can stay in one place and go to school. The way we are going we won't even get half an education.' Margaret Purcell, 12, said `We want to be taught but we don't even know if we'll be in school on Monday.' Mary and Margaret and their sisters, 11-year-olds Eileen and Kathleen, have been going to St. William's Roman Catholic First School, in Young Street, Bradford, for the past five months. 'We really enjoy it there, but some days we have to miss school because of all this moving,' said Mary. Before that, the children went to St. Patrick's RC First School in Wood Street, Manningham. The gipsies were served with an eviction order by Bradford Council to leave the land at Lower Rushton Road, in Thornbury. About eight caravans are now parked on an area of grassland between blocks of council flats on New Lane. Residents have complained to the council about the noise of the generators being used by the gipsy families. Richard Hoyle, 24 of Oban House said: 'My wife's complained to the council to get the generators turned down. We've got two young children and the noise at 4 am doesn't help.' Bradford Council has said shortage of sites for gipsies was a problem because the inner city Mary Street site was full. A spokesman said the council would be seeking another court order to move the gipsies on again.So the merry-go-round goes on. The Minister told me and the people of Bradford in April when he granted designation that these problems would be resolved. They are not resolved and are unlikely to be, but I hope very much that when he replies to the debate he will be able to announce new policy initiatives that will give some hope to my constituents and to travellers that the merry-go-round in Bradford will end, that there will be a third permanent site, that improvements will be made to the Mary street and Esholt street sites, that there will be further private sites and that he will issue directions to Kirklees, Calderdale and Craven about making satisfactory progress towards permanent site provision in their local authority areas.
I hope that the Minister will begin to recognise that a national policy is necessary and a regional strategy vital if we are to reduce the problems that I am sure other hon. Members will rehearse today.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on the way in which he introduced the Environment Select Committee's report. The moderate and balanced way in which he did so was in the best of the traditions of the Committee. I am afraid that I cannot be as moderate or follow the traditions of my Committee.
My constituency has been subject to a plague of gipsies for about seven years. I call them gipsies, but they are not true Romanies. Possibly some of them are tinkers. They may be itinerant scrap metal merchants, but mostly they seem to be motorised squatters. That is probably the best term that I can use.
When officials of the Department of the Environment were giving evidence to my Committee, we asked them to give the definition of a gipsy under the terms of the legislation. Some years ago, in his report, Professor Wibberley criticised the fact that there was no hard and fast definition by which gipsies and people who were subject to the legislation could be readily identified. The officials' reply was, "People who live a nomadic way of life." I asked, "Does a nomadic way of life involve moving from one illegal site within the London borough of Haringey to another?" There was a shrug of the shoulders 235 and the answer, "Perhaps that is nomadic." That is not an adequate answer and is not a proper way for a Department to address its mind to a very serious social problem.
The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) mentioned the tensions when ordinary residents are faced with such a sudden visitation. In conscience, we cannot allow that to continue, for the sake of either the families who willingly accept or are forced into that way of life or the local communities who suddenly find them in their midst.
I have experienced the problem for several years. I have brought with me several files on the problems that I have had since the most recent general election. Since 1987, I have had within my constituency illegal squatting and trespassing by so-called gipsies at Alexandra palace, Wood Green common, Carlton lodge in Hornsey, Durnsford road lido, King's road car park in Wood Green, Pelham road in Wood Green, Lymington avenue in Wood Green, Russell avenue in Wood Green and Middle lane and Lightfoot road, Hornsey.
They may be the same gipsies who move from site to site or others who come and go. Nobody has been able to identify them except perhaps the travellers liaison officer, appointed by the London borough of Haringey, who directs them from site to site when the heat gets too hot on a site. It is of some interest that the council, which is reluctant to use its powers to remove trespassers from its property, seems to anticipate travellers moving from one site to another, because overnight a water stand pipe and portaloos suddenly appear, and lo and behold they remain there for several months.
As time is short, I do not want to go through the files for each site to show the problems that these visitations create. There is a pattern of filth, of danger to public health and hygiene, of rubble, of litter, of disorder, of children running wild, of a spate of housebreaking and of excrement where one would not expect to find it. One cannot wonder that, as a consequence, the local residents, who are ordinary, decent people, despair because nobody seems to be ready to help them to deal with the problem.
When these people first appear on a site, reference is made to the local police, who are asked whether they will exercise their powers under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. The police will not do so and they say that the Act is irrelevant to the problem. They say in their defence, "The Act gives us power of arrest where there is a trespass and those convicted are dealt with by the magistrates, but we have no power under the Act to remove the caravans. If we arrest somebody, we leave behind his wife and children, and who looks after them? When the man in released by the magistrates and returns to the site, what do we do? Do we arrest him for a continuing offence if he refuses to go?" The only answer to that problem must be for the police to have the power—and the willingness to use that power—to remove caravans when they are trespassing on other people's or public property, although that may seem somewhat draconian.
I said that I would not read through all my files and that I would merely give the House an idea of the problems. However, I want to read one letter to the House, which was written to me in March last year. The letter says:
My mother and father are both retired. They live in a very pleasant council flat in Carlton Lodge, Lancaster Road, N4. They have been honest, hardworking people all their lives. Now, at a time when they should be enjoying themselves, their lives are being made miserable.236My father suffers from a bad heart and severe arthritis and his health is getting worse. The reason for this is outside his window. There are ten to twelve gipsy caravans and a number of trucks that have been picking up builders' rubbish and dumping it in the street. The gipsies have been living there for over three months now. The local milkman has stopped delivering milk and supplies to the residents in the flats as goods were being stolen from his van.I went to visit my parents today because it was my mother's birthday and I just could not believe my eyes. The situation has become a lot worse since the last time I was there. It's obviously making life totally unpleasant for my parents and their neighbours. Apart from the obvious health hazard there must also be a potential fire hazard to the area. I believe that certain steps are being taken to remove the gipsies but if you could speed up the process I am sure it would benefit my father's health.That seemed to be the end of the letter, but when I turned the page, I found something else written. This is what got me. The letter continued:
The enclosed letter was drafted on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning my father had a stroke, followed by a heart attack. He died the following Sunday, Easter Day, at 3.10 am. My mother does not want the funeral procession to start from her own home as she is so ashamed of the state of the place and worried about what might happen to her relatives' cars while they are parked outside.I cannot say that that letter is typical. Happily, not every constituent has suffered a bereavement as a result of gipsies. However, I have heard of cases of housebreaking and of pensioners who have suddenly found their front doors broken down and youngsters rampaging through the house. The police can do nothing because the old people cannot identify the particular individual, but the community knows where those people have come from even if there is not enough evidence to point the finger at any individual. The neighbours get to know such incidents as the bereavement and when old-age pensioners have had their front doors battered in or others have had their windows broken by half bricks. Some have had excrement deposited in their back garden and others live next door to an empty house that has become a general urinal and toilet for the encampment.
What effect does my hon. Friend the Minister think that all that must have on local residents? Is that a socially desirable situation? Does he think that people will sit down under this year in year out without, at some time or other, a fuse blowing? We shall then have a far more serious problem on our hands. The police say that they cannot act because the Public Order Act is not strong enough. The local authority refuses to act and seems to be encouraging the problem.
I have asked my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to take further powers to do something either when the local authority does not apply for designation—which would give it immediate powers to act—or so that a local authority can be taken to court if it does not exercise those powers once it has obtained designated status. That might answer the problems raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, West. The local authority may be failing in its legal duty to its residents if it does not exercise the power, which designated status has given it, to have caravans removed.
I know from conversations with my hon. Friend the Minister that if Haringey were to apply tomorrow for designated status, it would find that it fulfilled all the criteria and that it would be granted such status. However, time after time, the borough refuses to apply for 237 designated status, so it does not have the powers to take action. It then shuffles off the responsibility to the local police.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
I shall not give way as we want to end this debate fairly quickly.
Yesterday, I received a telephone call from a constituent who said that, at 6 pm the day before, gipsies had settledon the field behind Tetherdown Primary School in Woodside Avenue. The field is used by the children from the school but is owned by a charity called The Central Foundation.That night, two caravans appeared, after the padlock had been cut. The police asked the people to leave, but they refused to do so. By the morning, there were 20 caravans and by the evening, there were 30. I have ascertained that that remains the position. A house nearby had been broken into so that water could be obtained. Children from the site are breaking into the school. The children in the primary school are terrified. Several large dogs are roaming in the field where the gipsies are now encamped. What will my hon. Friend do about that, and what advice does he ask me to give my constituents who face that problem?
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
This is an important debate because it is no good shying away from the fact that there is a real problem. The guitar-strumming romany of popular myth and romantic illustration does not often appear in our towns and cities—instead, problems of sanitation and noise arise. Generators are sometimes used late at night when neighbouring lorry drivers or early-morning shift workers have to get up early. Children have to go to school after being disturbed at night. Those are the problems that arise when gipsies or travellers—however one describes them, they are people—camp close to houses. Many of them make their living from scrapping metal. Some burn the covering of copper wires to extract the copper, which produces stench and smoke, and there are other intrusions.
We must face the fact that this is a difficult problem and a real source of complaint for many people. However, it is not possible to solve that problem simply by moving groups of people in their caravans from one illegal site to another, like a continuing yo-yo around an area.
Another permanent site is needed in Bradford although several smaller sites, dispersed throughout the whole of the Bradford metropolitan district would be preferable. I see no reason why areas such as Ilkley, Bingley rural district or Rombalds ward, which have large open areas, could not be used. Some of the houses in Ilkley are out of sight of the road because the drive to the front door is so long. I am sure that the people in those areas would be anxious to play their part in a community contribution to solving the problem. People in Bradford would feel that there was fairness if the problem were dispersed throughout the whole of the Bradford metropolitan district, and not simply concentrated on two or three wards in the centre of the city.
I became involved in this matter when, about four years ago, the Labour-controlled Bradford council had a perfectly proper policy which, unfortunately, was not 238 implemented. Bradford's policy on travellers involved entering into consultation with and gaining the consent of people living in the vicinity of the land to be allocated for a site. About 30 families were virtually tipped on to a site called Staithgate lane at Low Moor in my constituency. I believe that that was a deliberate manoeuvre by council officials—perhaps one or two councillors were involved, but that is not absolutely clear—to try to secure that land for industrial development instead of for the transport museum for which it had been allocated. I suspect that it was planned to produce in the residents the response, "Get rid of the gipsies. We don't mind what the land is used for, as long as the gipsies are not on the site."
However, that did not work. The local people held a number of angry meetings and impressed upon the local authority the fact that it was unfair that that land should be used for a gipsy site when it was designated for a transport museum. As the area already contained two potentially high-risk chemical works, the people felt that they had burdens enough. However, to demonstrate their support for the use of the land for the purpose for which it was originally designated, the local people have held three successful annual transport galas to show that they have a community spirit, that they are not prepared to wash their hands of the whole affair, and that they want the land to be used for a commercial transport museum. I should declare an interest because I am the part-owner of a Bristol Lowdekka double-deck bus which I hope at some stage will be exhibited on that site when it is a museum.
Therefore, something positive emerged from the uproar. None the less, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) has pointed out, the two sites in Bradford are not in good condition. Some modernisation was started on the Mary street site, but that was halted. Virtual cliff edges were left where excavators had been used and where rubble had been piled 2 or 3 ft high. It would be very easy for children running around to break an arm or a leg or seriously injure themselves. Where it was possible—it is not easily possible in the middle of a pile of rubble—the travellers were houseproud and tidy and clearly took care of the site. There were some difficulties, which a small amount of money spent by the local authority could and should have eradicated, but that work was never done.
I hope that the Government will state that they are prepared to give additional grant aid for such work and that they will not leave it to hard-pressed local authorities such as Bradford, which have many competing priorities, to provide that money. As I have said, Bradford needs an additional site or preferably several small sites spread throughout the district. However, it should be noted that if Bradford is a designated area and the travellers cannot move on, they cannot go to Calderdale, Kirklees or Craven to find a site because there is none. During the last general election, the Conservative candidate was a Calderdale Conservative councillor. When taxed with this problem at a meeting, he said, "There is insufficient land—there is no flat land anywhere in Calderdale that is suitable for a gipsy site." That was not believed and it is not true.
Perhaps the Minister will explain today how he intends to encourage local authorities to take responsibility. Under the existing legislation, he has powers to issue a direction. I do not ask him to do so because I do not see why the bureaucratic powers of central Government should be imposed on local authorities, but my guess is 239 that, if central Government gave additional grant aid, over and above the grant aid to the actual sites, and held consultation meetings and gave financial encouragement, they would find more zeal forthcoming than has hitherto been shown by some local authorities, some of which are Labour-controlled and some Conservative.
Because of all the problems and strains, and because people do not want the travellers next to them—they do not mind where they go so long as it is somewhere else—it is easy to forget that these problems can be eradicated, as has happened in Leeds, which, after a great argument, now has a limited number of pitches. All local authorities need to play their part. I see no reason why the city of Bradford, virtually alone in our part of West Yorkshire, should carry the burden of providing sites for travellers.
It is easy to criticise the travellers, and people produce various reasons for doing so. People say that they have worked hard to buy their house—encouraged by the Government—that they have decorated and painted it, but they suddenly find a pile of rubble outside, noisy children running around and a great deal of confusion, dirt and doubt. Obviously, they feel concerned and, in many cases, very angry. That is why we need a number of permanent sites.
Permanent sites would also address the argument that travellers are not making any contribution to the community because they have illegal sites and do not pay any poll tax. The poll tax burden is falling heavily on people and makes them feel that disparity even more keenly. As travellers who use local authority sites have to pay rent, they contribute in that way to the community, and people feel that things are fairer, which in turn makes for better community relations.
There is a problem with their children. We must provide means for educating the children, and if they are moving about, great difficulties are bound to arise. In Sheffield, for example, there is a gipsy children's bus and a team of people going round providing education, but that represents only an attempt to solve the problem. I understand that Sheffield has about the same number, perhaps fewer, permanent caravan sites than Bradford. In other words, although that area is doing well in respect of education, in terms of sites it is making only average provision.
The children have a right to education. The fact that they are born into a nomadic way of life, however much one might criticise that, should not prevent them from being educated. They exist, and wishing the problem away will not solve it. Nor will it provide education for those youngsters. We must encourage the establishment of permanent sites so that links can be established between the schools and the children, so that the children can feel part of society rather than feeling, as many of them do—and as many of the general public feel—part of a continuing battle. If that is the attitude of the children, it will be their attitude as teenagers and will continue into adult life, which will mean more running battles between residents and travellers, the police and travellers, and local authorities and travellers, with scarcely a sympathetic spark anywhere to be seen.
In encouraging the children, we must provide nursery education and first, middle and senior schools so that such talent and ability as exists among the families may be garnered and used for the benefit of the community as a whole. As other hon. Members have said, that cannot be 240 achieved if there is a continuing shift from one school to another, so that teachers never build up a relationship with the children.
A teacher recently said to me, referring to travellers' children and the children of families in difficulties, "You can see them coming down the drive, you can help them, but you know that within a day or two they will be off and you are unlikely ever to see them again." As a result, alienation and separation from society is established. We must do something about that.
Although there is antagonism between travellers and the community at large, for the reasons that I have outlined, I believe that people generally have a measure of compassion and recognise that we must provide for the education of the children as part of our general responsibilities. Another permanent site is needed in Bradford, as well as sites in the surrounding local authorities that I have mentioned.
I wrote to a neighbouring local authority urging its leader to investigate, and start work on, the provision of a site, and I released the letter to the press. The local evening newspaper used the headline, "MP urges gipsy site." The hon. Member who represents the area, whom I had not been able to contact with the good news that I was urging the local authority to provide a gipsy site, was inundated with calls asking, "Why are you claiming that additional gipsy sites must be provided?" The hon. Member was able to point out that it was not that hon. Member who had made the comment. Even so, the hon. Member agreed with me that the local authority should be making provision for gipsies, for the reasons that I have given.
There is a genuine altruism in all of this. We do not get many votes from gipsies, because they are unlikely to be on electoral registers, although some of them are, and we are criticised if we do not take action on behalf of permanent residents confronted with illegal gipsy sites. The fact that Parliament is discussing this issue is creditable, however, because in talking about it we are bringing pressure to bear on the Government to provide more assistance so that local authorities can tackle the problem. Let us face the fact that the problem will not go away. Let us also have a mutual respect for differing ways of life as between the permanent population, who want to live in houses, who like their cities and areas and who do not wish to move, and the tiny fraction of the population who live a nomadic life. Somehow, somewhere, we must find accommodation for all concerned, for the sake of everybody.
§ Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)
I wish to pay a warm and generous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) for the way in which he introduced the Select Committee report.
One could not but be moved by the dramatic content of the speech, which was well received, of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). His remarks will be long remembered in the House.
My contribution is on behalf of the west midlands. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) correctly said that this is not a Bradford but a national matter, as has been reflected in the debate. We are discussing a national problem and we are looking forward, with differing degrees of confidence, to the Minister's response.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) is here because I know that he shares 241 my view that this social problem—this plague, as it has been called—is as relevant in the west midlands as it is anywhere else. I should be the first to support the concept of special officers able to deal with the problems of the itinerants in that, in the long term, they may come into society, particularly from the point of view of helping the children.
Having said that, I must add that in the Himley and Kingswinford areas of my constituency I am continually, along with local councillors, involved in the problem of itinerants. Although the local authority, at considerable expense, often takes action, I have known of many cases where itinerants have been moved and then, tragedy of tragedies, have gone on to private land. Some small farmers in the area have been confronted with the problem. It is an expensive exercise to arrange through the private sector to have itinerants removed from private property.
Against that background, I hope that something positive and constructive can come out of this debate for the people involved. The Minister has a solemn responsibility. I urge him to review the situation, particularly in relation to the growing problem in the west midlands of itinerants going on to private land and the local authorities, understandably, being reluctant to become involved in evictions.
I support designated sites. They are dotted around the west midlands, particularly in the Wolverhampton and Dudley areas.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to listen to the voice of the entire House of Commons speaking in unison on this important problem, which is a social problem now but which could easily become more devastating.
§ Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)
I have been involved in the matter of gipsies for a considerable time. In the community that I represented as a local councillor, there was a gipsy population. I agree with the hon. Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn) that dealing with gipsies is a social problem that should be addressed nationally rather than locally.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) enlightened the House on the position in Bradford. Before the Government abolished West Yorkshire county council, it was responsible for providing gipsy sites, but with the demise of that county council, proposals to provide more sites were put back for a considerable time. The local authorities had to pick up the problem, in addition to all the other problems created by the demise of the county council.
I thought that Ministers responsible for abolishing the county councils would address the serious problem of providing gipsy sites before doing so. That did not take place, so the problem was aggravated. In West Yorkshire we are now witnessing the problems that have been picked up by the district councils. We must consider provision of gipsy sites seriously and in depth because it is a social problem.
The hon. Member for Dudley, West asked the House to speak in unison, but I do not support all the comments made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green 242 (Sir H. Rossi). Not all travellers fit the description that he gave. Some people come into that category, but it would be misleading and wrong to persuade the House that all travellers fit the description.
In my early days, some genuine gipsies bought old property in the town where I lived. They wanted to settle as members of the community. The menfolk worked for the local authority refuse collection department. They were some of the best workers that the department had. They turned out in all weathers, they were always on time, and they were regular attenders. The children attended the local schools. The conditions that those people lived in were appalling, so the local authority decided to house them in council houses. A third and fourth generation of those families is now settled in the community.
If people want to take part in a society and settle in it, local authorities should be in a position to help them. However, under this Government that help is constantly withdrawn or reduced because local authorities are denied the opportunity to provide accommodation for gipsies. No private landlord will help them. I hope that the Minister will explain how local authorities can provide sites and make sure that they are maintained.
In my constituency there is an official site for gipsies, but because of constraints on local authority expenditure it was transferred to a private operator who promised to improve the site and provide facilities for several caravans if he could include some spaces for permanent caravans. That was agreed, but there was a gross deterioration in the maintenance of the site. It changed hands on more then one occasion. We must not only provide sites, but see that they are maintained, that facilities are provided and that the people appreciate the facilities. Without that support and cover, there will always be problems, no matter how many sites local authorities provide. Unless there are adequate resources to maintain sites and to provide back-up and advice for travellers, there will be constant arguments and rancour among groups of people in the community.
I doubt that provision for creating and maintaining gipsy sites is included in the formula for arriving at the standard spending assessments of local authorities. I doubt that the Minister and his colleagues consider the resources needed for gipsy sites when they assess the expenditure that local authorities can attain. I hope that the Minister will tell me that I am wrong. I fear that I am correct because the formula for assessing local government expenditure does not refer to gipsy sites.
We must also consider illegal camping. The site to which I referred is on the edge of some common land. We are trying to ensure that the common land remains available to local people and is protected. I am waiting for the Government to introduce the necessary legislation to protect the common land. People park on the common land, which creates problems in the community. We need legislation to protect the common land. During the past three of four years, the Government have promised to introduce legislation, but we are still waiting for it. We wish to debate any such legislation and the protection of common land.
The gipsy problem throws up many issues. Another part of my constituency that was affected is in the Leeds city area. Motor travellers settled on land that was previously arable. The whole area was covered by caravans. The people who settled collected old tyres. They were paid for the disposal of those tyres, but all they did 243 was to dispose of them on the land around the caravans. There was a vast area of disused tyres and genuine concern that someone would set those tyres ablaze, which would have caused a tremendous problem. Leeds city council cleared the site of the caravans and the tyres, which cost its ratepayers a great deal of money.
Local authorities should be given the opportunity to provide legal, proper sites with all the facilities and necessary back-up services to address the problem in a proper manner.
§ Mr. Cryer
Does my hon. Friend agree that, with the advent of the poll tax and the strain on local authority expenditure, it will be difficult for local authorities to meet the provision he advocates? Those authorities will be hard pressed to maintain existing services without venturing to provide more sites and paying for their maintenance. Does my hon. Friend agree that the solution lies with central Government, who should provide better grant assistance for the maintenance, development and improvement of gipsy sites, rather than leaving it in the hands of local authorities?
§ Mr. O'Brien
My hon. Friend has pre-empted some of my argument.
If we do not address local government finance, we cannot solve the problem. The introduction of the poll tax is significant. The Select Committee report refers to Doncaster, which has provided an additional gipsy sites. That authority is poll tax-capped and, despite the fact that it has provided a site for gipsies—I am sure that it wanted to provide such a site—with all the necessary facilities and back-up services, the Secretary of State for the Environment has decided that £10 million must be taken out of its budget. How can Ministers or any other Conservative Member say that Doncaster district council has an obligation and a right to provide such sites, if the first thing the Secretary of State does is to cut the amount of money necessary to sustain those sites? If that is not hypocritical. I do not know what is.
If we accept the report and agree that local authorities have a responsibility to provide sites for gipsies as well as meeting their educational and other requirements, it is wrong for the Minister to say that authorities that are providing those sites must cut their expenditure just because he considers that that expenditure is too great.
If the House is sincere and if we want unity across the Chamber, we must tell the Secretary of State and his lieutenants that it is wrong to tell local authorities that have provided in their budget for gipsies to limit the amount of money that they can spend on such facilities.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
I am extremely concerned about adequate facilities for gipsies and travellers, but surely there is a defect in the logic of the hon. Gentleman's case. He appears to be saying that, if a local authority is making good, proper provision for gipsies and travellers, it is impossible that it could be grossly overspending in other ways. He has argued that Ministers should not cap such authorities for gross over-expenditure in other matters when, within proper expenditure, they have provided for gipsies and traveller families. The hon. Gentleman must accept that that cannot be logically consistent.
§ Mr. O'Brien
How anyone in this Chamber or in Marsham street can say what Doncaster district council 244 should provide for gipsy caravan sites, education or any other services, I do not know. The people who should make such decisions are the people of Doncaster. The quicker we realise that, the better it will be for the provision of the necessary services for gipsies or any other person in that area.
§ Mr. Cryer
The truth is that the cap covers all expenditure. Although a local authority is given an opportunity to cut its expenditure, that local authority will be under pressure to cut every service. There will be strong local pressure not to cut the provision for education or housing if there are other suitable areas in which cuts can be made. Inevitably the provision for gipsies will be subject to greater pressure than any other once an authority is faced with forced cuts imposed by the Government.
§ Mr. O'Brien
My hon. Friend has spelt out admirably the dilemma faced by authorities that are poll tax-capped, particularly Doncaster.
I am conscious that, before May this year, when the Tories were in control, a constant stream of Ministers visited Bradford.
§ Mr. O'Brien
How much time did Ministers from the Department of the Environment or from any other Department spend talking about gipsy sites in Bradford? Did Ministers tell the Tories of Bradford that they should provide sites for those people?
§ Mr. Madden
My hon. Friend has asked some pertinent questions. The Conservatives came to power in Bradford in September 1988 on the back of hysteria whipped up against gipsies and travellers and against the backdrop of a controversy motivated purely for party political reasons. The designation came in April 1990, but there is no evidence of any action by the Tory council or by Ministers who weekly visited Bradford. That is why I was forced to ask the Minister certain questions. I hope that I shall receive some answers.
§ Mr. O'Brien
My hon. Friend has explained how things were when the Tories were in control of Bradford. Promises were made in Bradford, but perhaps it was one of those times when someone said, "Read my lips," and everything changed. Fortunately, the constitution of the council in Bradford has changed and I am sure that progress will be made on the social problems to which hon. Members have referred.
How often does the Minister, his colleagues or any of the civil servants in the Department of the Environment discuss the plight of gipsies with the Gypsy Council or its representatives? If such consultation could be established, the point made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green could be put on the agenda. The problems that have been raised and the concern that has been expressed could be put to the council and debated with the fervour shown by the hon. Gentleman. Without such dialogue, the issues will not be solved. I accept that there is a social problem, and the sooner we have some form oF consultation with the people who need help and assistance, the better it will be.
The Select Committee's report refers to evidence of differing views between police forces and local authorities on the appropriate circumstances in which section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 should be used in cases of 245 gipsies' trespass. Differing views between police forces and local authorities make it difficult to resolve the problem. The report says that the Home Secretary is expected to report towards the end of 1990. If we are to solve the social problem that has been outlined tonight, the House should have a further opportunity to debate the issue when that report is published and when we know what the Home Secretary intends to do to try to reconcile the different views of the local authorities and the various police forces.
I hope that we shall not walk away from tonight's debate saying that the Home Secretary will report and leaving it at that. There is a lot that can be done. The responsibility is with the Minister and the Secretary of State and I hope that they will not walk away from that. If they do, that would be the biggest sin that could be committed against the very people who need help. When I refer to the people who need help, I do not mean just the gipsies but our constituents as well who are affected by the problems created by gipsies parking in their areas.
I appeal to the Minister to take this issue seriously and to give some assistance to local authorities.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
The quality of tonight's debate has been high. Let me stir a few memories. The House is often reminded of the appalling massacre of Jews in what they termed the holocaust in Germany. The House is less often reminded that Nazi Germany also took into the concentration camps and murdered the gipsies.
I was elected to the House in 1960, but only once have I heard a Member stand up in the House and speak with pride of his gipsy ancestry. That was Sir John Arbuthnot who, in a debate in this House in the 1960s, speaking from the Conservative Benches, said: "I am a diddikoi." I respected him for that.
The legislation is inadequate for those in need and for those who are suddenly afflicted by the arrival of people whom the public term gipsies but who are not Romanies. The Romany race—its people call themselves a race—is deeply resentful of the fact that many people who do not have the disciplines that they seek to impose on their community, their children, their dogs and their way of life, are termed gipsies. I make those remarks in passing.
I think that it is a representative truth to say that it is Conservative Governments who have tried to deal with the problem by legislation—legislation which the Select Committee's report has rightly revealed to be inadequate.
But the truth of the matter has been revealed in many excellent speeches tonight. If families are continually moved on, the children will have no proper, consistent education. I have knowledge of that in my constituency. I am proud that schools in my constituency take pains to give special attention to the needs and problems of the children of travellers. But a particular problem arises on the capitation fees of those schools, because the numbers are taken at certain times of the year which do not correspond with the times when the travellers are there. Therefore, there is gross under-funding. Primary schools may have a 30 per cent. increase in their numbers as a result of an influx of travellers' children for which there is no financial provision, because the children are not there on the day of the count.
246 Those are factors for which any competent Government must make provision. I do not say "take into account" because two of the most debased phrases in politics are "taking into account" and "make allowances for"—"paying the full cost of" is the currency that I am in business to deal with.
§ Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is another side to the problem in schools, of which I have evidence in my constituency? The arrival of 25 travellers' children effectively brought a primary school in Chertsey to a halt when they engaged in running battles in the playground. That school did its best to provide education, but it was incapable of doing so.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I think that we are in agreement, not in disagreement. My right hon. Friend has raised another problem—that of a sudden arrival.
I was talking of resources. If the resources do not exist, the problem is still worse. But in some areas the arrival of travellers' children is seasonal and predictable. If their arrival is not predictable, the position is even worse. But if the arrival is predictable, the resources should be made available to deal with them. Those resources should not be on the normal capitation basis, because many of those children need teaching on a one-to-one basis.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I shall give way when I have finished this point.
They need one-to-one teaching if they are not to disrupt the classes. That is not because they have a greater dose of original sin than other children, but because they have a lower threshold of boredom. Unless they can perceive the relevance of what they are being taught to their expectation of their livelihood, their boredom becomes disruptive.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones
My hon. Friend is a little unjust in berating the Government about capitation, because the formulas are drawn up by each local education authority and vary greatly from one part of the country to another. My own council, Hertfordshire, provides special assistance for schools which have to take travelling children. That takes the form of extra teaching and equipment and more resources for running costs such as the cost of paper. Perhaps my hon. Friend should talk to his local education authority.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
Unfortunately, local education authorities can spend only the resources that they have at their disposal. If central Government do not make available significant extra resources for local authorities which have these massive extra expenses, my hon. Friend is simply asking local education authorities to rob Peter to pay Paul. These expenses cannot be met from existing resources.
Many hon. Members wish to speak, and for that reason I shall not cover the whole spectrum of these problems, except to say, first, that the Conservative Government who legislated for a mandatory requirement to provide permanent sites were right. Without permanent sites there cannot be the facilities that go with them, and provision for education. We must accept that wherever those 247 permanent sites are located they will damage, if not destroy, the value of adjacent properties. That has been apparent throughout the debate.
When a site is chosen it adversely affects one councillor's bailiwick and the rest of the councillors are heartily grateful that their areas are not affected. Therefore, it is probable that the county council—not now the planning authority—which is responsible for choosing the site will, when it negotiates with the district council, find the majority of the district councillors saying, "Thank God, it has not been visited on my bailiwick. Yes, I will vote for it whatever the merits or lack of them." They will do that whether or not the local primary school can accept the children from the site. That is why I impress on my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that there should always be a public inquiry before a decision of this kind is made. That is the only way in which all the issues can be discussed. The damage to the total savings that people have put into their houses is one such real issue that has been brought out in the debate. Other issues are the availability of education, medical resources and transport, which can be properly aired in a public inquiry.
My principal point is that, when a site is chosen, because of the implications which have been so well illuminated in the debate, there should always be a public inquiry before planning permission is granted. It is too severe a test to expect the members of a planning authority, who are relieved that a site is not to be visited on their bailiwick, to decide against the interests of the one councillor who is averse to it. That is my message to my hon. Friend the Minister, who has a most difficult and taxing job to do in this respect. Clearly, none of us envy him.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)
I am one of the Members for the county of Surrey, which has recently been directed by the Department of the Environment to provide another 190 official pitches. I do not object to that direction, and I have publicly said so, because it is plain that we need some system of official pitches, as some gipsies, travellers or whatever nomenclature one wishes to apply, want permanent sites.
I have taken the trouble to visit sites in Surrey—one official series of pitches at Claygate in my constituency and another in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The gipsies there were well organised, and by and large seemed responsible. They were looking after the site themselves, in the sense that they had appointed their own hierarchy to make sure that certain tasks were carried out.
Given that the gipsy or traveller problem will not just disappear, I want to put on record before saying some less complimentary things, the fact that the gipsies that I met on the official sites were not likely to cause a great deal of actual harm to the local community, even though the process of assimilation is difficult, especially with schooling, which has been mentioned. Apparently, it is the unknown on both sides which causes tension, but certainly the difference of habit present a serious problem when trying to maintain the normal routine and discipline of school life in the face of an influx of travellers from the permanent sites.
Another difficulty is that there are insufficient permanent sites, certainly in Surrey, for the numerous 248 populations of travellers. It is reckoned that there are about 150 to 200 caravans illegally parked each day in the county. The problem for my constituents and for those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie), who is beside me, is that those itinerants have no responsibility to the community which they are temporarily parked.
Hon. Members have eloquently given examples of what has happened in their constituencies, and I do not have time to go into much detail. In many cases, temporary stays or in some cases stays of some weeks cause chaos in the community. There is danger from dogs, a perceived danger to health and the travellers call at houses and appear to threaten residents who are going about their normal business. There is disruption because gipsies undertake business practices that no other citizen would ever be allowed on such sites. Travellers often attempt to take advantage of gullible people in the area in conducting their business.
My constituents and those of my colleagues are justifiably angry about the disgraceful rubbish that is often left by gipsies—excrement has been mentioned several times, and it is a genuine problem. The cost of removing rubbish when the gipsies leave is horrendous. There are not just problems of site maintenance; the real cost is that of clearing up after the gipsies have gone. We often have to put up protection against their return. On the Old Common in Cobham in my constituencyy, it is reckoned that the council spent £10,000 putting in a ditch to try to prevent the return of the gipsies after a particularly prolonged stay.
I shall be brief, because other colleagues wish to speak. We do not have sufficient powers under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I have enormous sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister who is to sum up a debate in which impassioned presentations have been made, but the legislation on the statute book simply satisfies nobody. It does not satisfy people who have to deal with the problems of illegal parking; it does not even satisfy councils that have achieved designated status, because even when they have achieved that status, they still face legal difficulties in moving people on. It is not a simple process.
As the chief executive of Guildford borough council, in my constituency, said, once designation has been obtained, it is not simple, cheap and quick to move people on. Therefore, I do not believe that there is sufficient incentive to obtain designation, given all the politically charged problems involved in identifying official sites. I know all about those because another village, Claygate, in my constituency contains all the pitches that presently exist in Elmbridge borough. Clearly, residents of that village think that others should contribute to the provision of pitches.
Guildford has provided 17 pitches, but it needs a further 13 to be designated. Elmbridge has provided 16 pitches, but it needs 14 more. There is a dispute between Elmbridge and the Department about whether a group of privately provided pitches should have been included for the purpose of that count, but I shall not go into that this evening.
This problem is not going to get easier and has all the signs of getting worse. It causes great concern to law-abiding citizens, not only when their territory is invaded, but when they are in fear of it being invaded.
When itinerants in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) eventually get moved on, they come into mine. I 249 have a problem in Hurst park, Molesey, in my constituency that I am sure will recur. If itinerants are moved on, they will move to the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton). It is a continual problem and we must have tougher powers even with designation—there is no point in fudging that. I know that the Department does not approve of comparisons with the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulations Act 1984—private legislation—which gave more obviously controlled powers to councils in Epsom and Ewell. That Act cannot be dismissed as applying merely because the Derby is held there, but it may hold lessons that can be extended to wider areas.
We must clarify the Public Order Act 1986 for the police, who constantly say that they do not like to intervene. We must clarify the system of using bailiffs, because there is often insufficient time for them to get round the sites, even when directions have been given, and this causes delays. There was such a case in my constituency.
I shall cut short my remarks but I do not wish my brevity to be interpreted as a lack of detailed argument in favour of the Government gripping the problem. I would not want my hon. Friend the Minister to have to take part in another debate like this one—he has enough problems in other spheres. I hope that he has the good fortune to stay in his current post. Then, unless the legislation is changed, we shall all be debating the issue again in the next Session.
§ 9.3 pm
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
I shall make only a few brief remarks, because other hon. Members wish to speak. I apologise for having arrived late from another meeting, but it was absolutely essential.
Before I became a full-time politician, I was an assistant director of social services, heading a research division. I remember the day that the director called me in and asked me to appoint someone to help to deal with the gipsies. That was at Durham county council, and knowing my political affiliation, the House will see the advantage of my having responsibility for the gipsy population.
The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) mentioned the threat to and murder of people in Nazi Germany. Some of those with whom I have to deal have felt under threat for much of the time. There are differences among the travellers in any population. There are those who are poor and others who are rich; some are well educated, others are illiterate and uneducated; some are super-business men, others find difficulty eking out a living.
Durham county council carried out its task of providing for gipsies in a sensible, pragmatic and planned way. All hon. Members have experience of the problems of planning when, for example, people say that they agree that there should be sites for gipsies—but in someone else's area, not theirs. One of Durham's first actions was to adopt a policy of non-harassment. The councillors had some difficulty in agreeing to that, and some of them found it even more difficult to carry out. However, they united behind the policy and it has worked.
Following the Cripps report, the council realised that there were advantages to providing adequate sites for 250 gipsies. If those sites were well prepared with toilets, sheds and so on, the council found that, in general, the gipsies respected them. That was some 13 or 14 years ago, yet some areas still do not provide adequate sites for gipsies.
I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Tiverton, who referred to the problems of education and the effect of travellers on local schools. Durham carefully studied the possibility of itinerant teachers teaching children on location at gipsy sites rather than in the local schools. The smaller villages with smaller schools cannot always cope with the travellers, who can become a large part of the local population.
I remember a discussion that I had with Hughie Smith, the founder-chairman of the National Gypsy Council. Hon. Members will be aware that, from time to time, people allege that the travellers are not real gipsies. Hughie Smith always says, "A real gipsy pinches the milk out of your tea." People try to disparage travellers by pretending that one group of travellers are real gipsies, but the others are just drop-outs—people who do not want to live in a normal society and who take advantage of the protection for gipsies. That is ludicrous and stupid.
I spent some considerable time talking to gipsies. On one occasion, I attended court following trouble with a lurcher dog which had been worrying sheep. What shook some of the councillors was when I took them to see some of the gipsy caravans. I have always lived in a house, but I must tell hon. Members that the knick-knacks, furniture, silver and other bits and pieces in some of those caravans vastly outweighs the number of such items in my bungalow in Peterlee. Some gipsies are extremely wealthy and some of their caravans are palatial. One had a bigger bar than the Chairman of my Committee had ever seen.
Preparation of sites throughout the country should be speeded up. One hon. Member said that gipsies want to settle. It is true that some do, but we have to provide sites for those who do not. Some gipsies can earn a living only by moving around.
I do not doubt that the Minister is interested in this issue. I know that he took a sympathetic view on the poll tax, and I have no doubt that he will take a similar view of gipsy sites. It would help if local authorities speeded up provision of sites. Some are more dilatory than others.
A policy of non-harassment is vital. We keep talking about gipsies as though there were a different species, but they are human beings and they have to be treated as such. As a group, perhaps because they have lived like that for centuries, they have chosen a way of life that hon. Members would not want. They prefer being itinerant to living in a bungalow like mine in Peterlee. That is merely a cultural difference. We must also consider gipsy children's education, which is essential.
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
I welcome this debate on an important and politically sensitive subject, which has been pushed to the margins of local and central government for far too long. The issue may be prominent for lawyers and theorists, but too often in practice, deeds have fallen far short of intentions.
As so many hon. Members have done, I could also spend 10 minutes expounding the problems that gipsies cause. My constituency is a traditional area for gipsies, and they cause some problems, but a large proportion of 251 them are law-abiding citizens, who keep their caravans well and make a genuine contribution to the communities in which they live.
There are problems, but they have been caused by lack of firm Government policy and a legislative framework which is too diffuse—reactive rather than proactive—and which pushes gipsy problems on to local councils, which are not best placed to deal with them because of political sensitivities.
I come from a county that is identified in the Select Committee report as one of the laggards. Hereford and Worcester county council is said to be performing badly, despite the fact that it has 157 council and 70 private sites—more than any other county in the east or west midlands.
In the Wyre Forest, at Stourport, we have provision for 56 caravans—the largest provision in the best-providing county. Despite that, we cannot achieve designation. To be fair, the county council has tried for it, and that has produced some justifiable resentment. Moreover, the Hereford and Worcester county council has 550 out of 1,406 caravans—a far greater number than the national average—on unauthorised encampments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) said, the national problem is not likely to improve much, and it may well get worse.
The number of caravans is rising all the time: in 1978 there were 8,520; by 1990 that had increased to 11,544—and we have not even taken into account the factor that the National Gypsy Council mentioned in its latest report, which is the increasing numbers of European travellers who are likely to come here after 1992.
Although there has been some progress in getting more people on to authorised sites, the evidence given to the Select Committee by Mr. Dudding—I feel sorry for him, having heard the drubbing that he has been given—shows that it will take 25 years to clear the backlog and put gipsies on authorised sites, in the process tackling what Mr. Dudding called an intractable problem. Once we have put the gipsies on authorised sites, we must get the sites and amenities up to a reasonable standard.
Three major problems emerge: first, the political insensitivities that surround the issue. Too often, because there are no significant planning guidelines for the allocation of gipsy sites, public inquiries are called for. If an authority wants to set up a new—permanent or temporary—authorised gipsy encampment and has to hold a public inquiry for each one, we shall never make the sort of progress that we need to make to eliminate the problem even within 25 years.
Secondly, the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which I understand was a private Member's measure, was remarkable in that it looked at policy in a wholly demand-led fashion. Because of that, there is never any certainty about whether there will be designation. My county council thought that it would get designation and was told that it would, but having counted the numbers six months later, it discovered that the figures on the basis of which it was trying to get designation were out of date, so none was forthcoming—
§ Mr. Coombs
252 There are also uncertainties in respect of the powers available to the police under the Public Order Act 1986, although I hope that the Home Department will deal with that problem later this year.
Most importantly, a demand-led policy leads to catch 22: the more virtuous the local authority, the more gipsies come to its area—the honey-pot effect—so the further away designation recedes.
All these problems are exacerbated by the fact that one is dealing with a mobile and undefined population. The National Gypsy Council correctly says that, to deal with the problem in the short or medium term, we must come up with some definition of a gipsy.
This is an intractable problem, not helped by the fact that the legislative framework within which we try to deal with it is weak and diffuse.
The third problem stemming from the legislative framework is that it provides the ultimate opportunity for buck-passing. The Government do the designations; the county council decides where sites go within the county area; then the district council faces the administrative and operational problems of carrying out the policy. Small wonder, then, that Hereford and Worcester county council has not achieved designation, despite trying to for 18 years.
I suggest a number of answers. First, we have suffered because we have taken an unduly paternalistic and public-sector approach to the provision of sites for gipsies.
The National Gypsy Council should be given far more responsibilities for site management and negotiating site acquisitions. That would lead to sites that had been authorised by the National Gypsy Council. It would provide competition for public sector sites.
There is great merit in the National Gypsy Council's suggestion that, if we are to tackle the problem meaningfully and decisively, there should be a national gipsy commission to find sites, and which could also be used as a conduit for either central Government or housing association funding. The Commission would have a role to play in site improvement. It would provide greater impetus for tackling the problem.
We need a better definition of "gipsy". I like the National Gypsy Council's suggestion that it should bepersons of a nomadic tradition of life.The council believes that a gipsy ought to be able to show that he has followed a nomadic tradition of life for at least two generations before he can call himself a gipsy. By that means, we should be able to cap the potential demand, given the normal demographic and family group factors, for gipsy facilities.
We must also rationalise the operational responsibilities for gipsies. I do not mind whether that is at district or county council level. I should prefer the county council to have the responsibility for both identifying and operating gipsy sites. It would overcome the problem of a local councillor who votes against anything, come what may, because it would affect his own patch. If the matter were dealt with at county council level, it would be administratively simpler and more objective.
In order to get away from the demand-led provision of sites for those who reside in or resort to an area, there ought to be another defence. There is a far greater number of caravan sites than the population justifies in my area. The administrative body ought to be able to say that, if the "resort or reside" demand-led policy is strictly adopted, it 253 would have to provide far more caravan sites than is justified on a strict pro rata population basis. That ought not to happen.
I agree with those hon. Members who have said that tougher enforcement powers following designation, provided that we can speed up the number of permanent gipsy sites by the means that I have suggested, are vital. Enforcement powers should be available, not just for gipsies who happen to be in an area where they are unauthorised and who thereby are causing a nuisance. If we gave the National Gypsy Council more responsibility for the management of both its own and council sites, there would be stricter enforcement powers for sites that are not properly managed. Bad management of sites causes many of the problems of which residents complain.
It is a difficult problem. The Minister has to deal with the problem virtually at third hand through the county and district councils. I do not envy the Minister's task. That applies irrespective of the political colour of the Government. The law needs to be reformed. I hope that the Government will consider my proposals seriously.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate, and I appreciate that other hon. Members have constrained their speeches to allow everyone who wishes to participate in the debate to do so.
I wish to make three points which have been dealt with by a number of hon. Members and to reinforce some of the arguments that have already been aired. I shall concentrate on the numbers of vans, gipsies and travellers that have been designated; the inability of existing legislation to allow the removal of travellers illegally camped on land, and on the permanence and luxury of the vans in which people live, as that affects future numbers, as was spelt out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs).
The numbers are increasing rather than diminishing. The 1968 legislation was probably based on an expectation that numbers were static or declining but were certainly unlikely to increase. How clear is the Department as to whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing? If we have a 25-year plan for dealing with current numbers, if those numbers are allowed to increase—and how can we prevent it?—we have an insoluble problem which negates all the work and all the money that is being spent.
My second point concerns the luxury and comfort of the vans. This means that the way of life of people who have not considered themselves nomads in the past can be more readily considered as an alternative and as a cheap form of living by those who live in permanent housing and pay for all the responsibilities carried by everyone else in the community. That must be tackled, because it affects the numbers. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest suggested one way in which, through the efforts of the National Gypsy Council, a capping of those numbers could be considered. That suggestion needs following up and pursuing and unless we do that, we shall not find a long-term answer.
Thirdly, the law seems to be unsatisfactorily weighted in favour of those using illegal gipsy sites. They can appeal against High Court injunctions for their removal for a 254 considerable time. In this way they continue to occupy a site for two, three, four or more years, to the great detriment of people living locally, whether in owner-occupied or rented housing. Their lives are being ruined in the way so dramatically described by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). Although my constituency has not suffered the same abuse of individuals and property, there is no doubt that my constituents have the same fears and concerns. They see the local authority as having no powers to remove the illegal encampment, however much it wishes to do so.
§ Mr. Boyes
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that it is not always that one-sided? I remember an incident involving an illegal site. Thinking that there might be some difficulty, I took someone with me in my car and then went to meet residents of local houses. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those residents, not the itinerants, were trying to turn my car over.
§ Mr. Wolfson
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly proper point, and I accept that it is a valid example. It highlights the points that have been made that such incidents can produce social tensions, and that must be addressed by the changes in legislation. It is little wonder that the residents of those houses felt angry because, as they perceived it, a group of travellers were illegally encamped, yet the law and authority had no power to overcome the problem. That does terrible damage to the law and the standing of the law. We should not be prepared to tolerate that.
A site in my constituency was owned by a gipsy family, on which one caravan was legally parked. The family allowed other members of the "family"—30 caravans—to park on it. They sold plots of the land to members of the family. That was illegal, but they are arguing about title to ownership and can appeal against any action and remain there pending the outcome of those appeals. I am aware that local authorities—I hope that this will not occur in this instance, but I know that it has occurred elsewhere, because I have some knowledge of Cambridgeshire—have done deals to allow part of the site to be used permanently for caravans as a way of solving the problem for the whole of the site. Completely averse to any long or short-term planning arrangements, a permanent site is established quite illegally because there seems to be no other alternative.
Ministers cannot allow that to go on. We need urgently to change the law; and I support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) that, if action does not follow this debate, we shall be back with more debates on this fundamental and vital issue. We hope for change, and that we shall receive a positive response from my hon. Friend the Minister.
§ Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)
For the most part, this has been an appropriately civilised debate. Subjects that could have been dealt with emotively because of local difficulties that right hon. and hon. Members experience were dealt with sensitively, and the House and those who take an interest in the subject will be grateful for that.
The Minister must be the most unenvied hon. Member and probably the most unenvied Minister of any Department. Almost every hon. Member said that they did 255 not envy his task. Given some of the other responsibilities that have been part of his portfolio in the past few months, I can understand that he is far from envied, and perhaps justifiably so.
I am a former member of the Select Committee on the Environment. The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) presented a typically forensic, accurate and intelligent approach to the subject and he did not understate the case. It was put effectively, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), the Chairman of the Select Committee, pointed out. He deserves the congratulations of the House on that task having been so accomplished.
I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who clearly represent an area that has a long-standing problem. They resisted the temptation for a media reaction to the resolution of that problem and they talked with great sensitivity and great understanding of the problems in the city of Bradford. They were a great credit to their constituents in the handling of the matter.
The debate has not been party political as this is not a party political issue. However, to take up the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West, it is unfortunate when a political party in any part of the country uses this issue as a stick with which to beat another party at election time. I hope that such heat can be taken out of the subject, as it appears not to have been on at least one occasion in Bradford. It is not constructive, it does not lead anywhere, it builds up false expectations and, in the long run, it is not a helpful way of dealing with the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) brought to bear on the discussion an understanding unequalled in the House. I cannot think of another hon. Member who has had professional responsibility for dealing with these problems. Although it did not lead to his car being turned over, that is not an irregular event and on occasions, it has been more his problem than anybody else's. He brought a particular experience to the debate, which was useful and helpful. I cannot cover all the speeches in great detail because of the restricted time available, and I am anxious not to overrun the time allocated to me.
The problem is not getting any smaller, as various hon. Members pointed out. The number of authorised encampments in 1981–-to take a reference point—was about 4,201); there are no more than 4,500 now. Any progress has been small and has not eaten into the problem. The consequences of not dealing with the demand for places have been outlined by other hon. Members, but they may need underlining further.
Maternity Alliance, which has not been mentioned so far, is not a party political body and is concerned mainly with the problems of childbirth and motherhood. It has highlighted the problem for travellers in securing safe stopping places during childbirth. Apparently, there has been an acknowledged problem—not a huge problem because the numbers are not high—of people finding a secure place to give birth. The Maternity Alliance has also pointed out that the use of the Public Order Act 1986 has, on occasions, led to pregnant women being harassed—not with fatal consequences—at a time when the last thing that they need is to be moved on, harassed and harried by police and other officials.
256 The National Council for Civil Liberties generates controversy from time to time, but generally it tries to act as a watchdog for our civil liberties, and I am sure that most reasonable hon. Members agree that it fulfils a necessary function. The NCCL has pointed out that, on occasions, the civil rights of travelling people have been breached. It has stated that there is a need for designated sites and proper stopping places. It is difficult to protect the civil rights of anybody who does not have a regular pattern of living.
The NCCL has recognised that about one third of England is, in effect, a no-go area for travelling people. That shows the reality of the choices available to them. They are not welcome in and will be moved on from as much as one third of the area of England. We need to address that serious problem. The NCCL has also published a series of proposals, not all of which either the Labour party or myself would endorse. Nevertheless, it has highlighted the fact that in this case there has been an erosion of civil liberties and that we must deal with that issue.
Several hon. Members referred to the problem of education which, for many travelling children, simply does not exist. Many of them do not have any continuity or pattern to their education because the lack of permanent sites and stopping places makes that impossible. That means that we shall have a continuing problem. The merry-go-round of official action, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West highlighted so well and 10 which the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) referred, but from a different perspective, is also evident in travelling children's education. They cannot have any continuity when they are moved from pillar to post and d o not know where they will be from one month—or even one week—to the next.
Several studies have been carried out on the health of travelling children and their families. A review article in the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners in October 1989 listed some of the health problems that general practitioners have encountered when trying to give treatment to the families of travelling people. The article refers to the hostile environment in which travelling people often live, which is often a breeding ground for disease and leads to various other problems. It also refers to their problems of access to health care because, as I said., they do not have a regular pattern of living and have no regular base. Both the length of that article and the limited time available to me prevent me from going into as much detail as I should have liked, but I repeat that we must address that real health problem.
The real problem is that this Government and, to some extent, previous Labour Governments, have failed properly to enforce the legislative powers that already exist. It is that failure that has created all the other problems. It has led to the problems of which my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington has experience and to the problems experienced in constituencies across the country where there are rival hostilities. On the one hand, there is a need to provide homes for people to live in but, on the other hand, there is the problem of the hostility of resident communities when unofficial encampments are set up and sometimes even when there are attempts to establish more permanent bases.
In the end, the responsibility falls to Government. If local authorities, whatever their political persuasion, do 257 not fulfil their obligations, central Government must make them do so. That is the thrust of the Select Committee report and the thrust that my hon. Friends and I support.
I hope that, at long last, the health, education and other problems that have been raised in the debate, including the need to find sites, are tackled effectively. If they are not, the problems, as in the past 10 years or more, will continue to grow. If that happens, it will bring no credit to the Government, to the House and to hon. Members. While I suspect that the Minister will not be able to satisfy us that all those problems will be tackled, he has a worthy task.
This has been a good debate, which has shown that the Government of the day must try to resolve the problems that exist for this minority of people. Otherwise they will be the Government of only part of the nation and will not be looking after the interests of all, including this minority.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)
I shall do my best in the 15 minutes remaining to answer the points that have been raised. I join others in congratulating all who participated in the debate, which has been of high quality. It has fairly reflected the fact that this is the first prime time debate on gipsies for many years. It vindicates the use that has been made on this occasion of important estimates time and has shown the widespread interest in the subject by hon. Members in all parts of the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on the clear and concise way in which he introduced the debate and presented the findings of the Select Committee. He, as a representative of Hertfordshire, knows more about the problem than many. He drew attention to some of the issues involved.
It has been obvious during the debate that it is not easy to find any consensus on the subject. If we needed reminding of that, we did not have to wait long before we heard the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) complaining that Bradford had been designated, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) complaining that Haringey had not been designated. It is against that background that I have been fortunate in receiving so much in the way of commiseration from hon. Members on both sides.
The starting point is the numbers and the progress that has been made since the passing of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. When that measure was passed, relatively few gipsies were on authorised sites. By January 1979 there were 8,358 gipsy caravans in England, of which 4,182 were on authorised sites and almost an equivalent number on unauthorised sites. In other words, only 50 per cent. by January 1979 were on authorised sites.
By January 1990—it is important when comparing figures always to choose the same month in the year because there is much variation during the course of a year—there were 11,544 gipsy caravans in England, an increase of about 3,200. The number on authorised sites had gone up from 4,182 to 7,650, an increase of about 3,500. That was a creditable improvement in performance, brought about by the way in which the Government implemented the Act. It is also significant that the number of caravans on authorised private sites has gone up significantly, from about 1,100 in 1979 to 2,471 in January this year.
258 As my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and others pointed out, the question is to what extent the number will continue to increase, for at present the number of gipsy caravans is increasing almost as fast as additional provision is being made. That is why one can get a projection that it will be many years before the problem is resolved. I take a much more pessimistic—or perhaps realistic—view. The problems will never be solved while we rely on the legislation that we have. As soon as the demand is satisfied, there will be additional demands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West drew attention to the difficulty of defining a gipsy. It is worth reminding the House that the issue was considered in another place in a court judgment in 1988. The judgment confirmed the statutory definition by concluding:The test of a person claiming to be a gipsy is that of a nomadic way of life rather than race or origin.It is for the local authority to decide whether a person or group of people comes within that definition. From what one hears, there may be more scope for local authorities to question the credentials of some people who present themselves as gipsies. If that was done, we might see a slowing of the increase in the number of gipsy caravans. Clearly, it is not worth while for a council to undertake that questioning role unless it is designated. If it is designated, it can take effective action to ensure that unauthorised camping in its area is significantly reduced, if not eliminated.
We have heard that the increase in provision represents genuine progress, but of course things are not absolutely perfect. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green reminded the House of the vile way in which some so-called gipsies behave and the awful consequences for people who live in the area. At the end of a powerful speech, my hon. Friend asked what advice I could give him. My advice is to seek to persuade his council in Haringey to apply for designation. My Department has done all that it can to persuade Haringey to apply for designation.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
I assure my hon. Friend that I have done everything within my power to persuade the local authority to apply for designation. It debated the matter, and on a majority vote decided not to do so.
§ Mr. Chope
That is disappointing news. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to pursue that. He asks the Government to force designation on Haringey, but it is clear from the debate tonight that even where an authority is designated, as Bradford city council is, the council can decide not to use its powers of designation. I fear that, if the Government legislated to satisfy my hon. Friend's request, the irresponsible Haringey council would refuse to use the powers that it had under designation.
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
Then it could be subject to judicial review or the old writs of certiorari or mandamus.
§ Mr. Chope
I shall come to Bradford. When Bradford was brought into the discussion, it was the low point of the 259 debate. The hon. Member for Bradford, West said that the result of designation in Bradford was no progress. The only reason why there was no progress in Bradford was that Bradford city council, which is now, sadly, under Labour control, did not use its powers under designation. The hon. Members for Bradford, West and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) traduced the true background of designation in Bradford. None of the neighbouring authorities raised substantial objections to the proposed designation, except North Yorkshire county council.
In the Bradford decision letter, the Department formally warned adjacent authorities such as Calderdale and Kirklees that, if they did not make provision, the Secretary of State would be obliged to take action against them. The Department's regional office has followed up those warnings with meetings, as it is important that adequate provision is made in those adjoining authorities.
Bradford is designated, and it is up to Bradford to decide whether it wants to use those powers of designation. From the information that I have received, I believe that the people of Bradford would much prefer the powers to be used so that they are not subjected to so much unnecessary nuisance from gipsies.
§ Mr. Madden
In Bradford, there are insufficient permanent sites for travellers who have come to the city over the year and neighbouring authorities have singularly failed to make permanent site provision. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the powers of designation are absolutely worthless? To seek to implement designation is futile because all one would seek to do would be to take caravans to the border of the authority, which would then immediately return. Designation is not an adequate solution to a long-standing problem that has affected administrations of all political persuasions and, over the years, cost the ratepayers of Bradford the best part of £500,000.
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. Designation and the implementation of the powers of designation are not futile. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green recognises that if Haringey had designation, problems would be rapidly resolved. The same would be true of Bradford if the Labour council had the will to do more on behalf of the local people.
§ Mr. Chope
I shall not give way again. I have given way twice, and I have four minutes left in which to reply to the debate.
Important points about enforcement have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green spoke about section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986. The House will be aware that, on 26 October 1989, my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary announced an evaluation of the working of section 39 of that Act, which will consider the sort of problems that my hon. Friend raised. The outcome of that review is expected at the end of the year. Certainly there seems to be a difference in the policies of police forces in different parts of the country.
My hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks and for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn) spoke about enforcement, which is a problem. I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said because, many 260 years ago, I cut my teeth as a barrister largely relying on defending gipsies in Sevenoaks magistrates court. I am familiar with the number of gipsies in my hon. Friend's constituency.
Robert Carnwath, in his report on planning enforcement, considered caravans and how one can effectively issue an injunction against the unlawful occupation of land by a caravan that is being used for residential occupation. The Government believe that legislation is needed in that respect. I hope that it will be brought forward soon and will do something significant to relieve the problems to which my hon. Friends drew attention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) di .d not believe that the designation powers were quick enough, cheap enough or effective enough. I believe that those powers can be used effectively, but the speed with which they are used obviously depends on the relationship that the local authority has with the local magistrates court—most local authorities do not seem to have a problem in that respect.
Obviously, costs can be incurred when cleaning up after the gipsies have left, but such cost is unavoidable so long as some gipsies behave in an anti-social manner. Designation and enforcement are more effective when more authorities are designated; that is why the Government are putting a lot of emphasis on trying to encourage more authorities to come forward with gipsy sites so that they can be designated.
This is very much a carrot-and-stick policy. The Government have tried to give local authorities the incentive to designate more sites. We have backed that up with a 100 per cent. grant and we are now considering whether to say that after a given period of time we shall no longer give any grant so that the minds of local authorities will be even more concentrated, giving them a greater incentive to seek designation for the provision of the extra gipsy sites that we need.
It being Ten o'clock, MR. SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates), to put forthwith the deferred Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on Estimates, 1990–91 (Class III, vote 3 and Class VIII, vote 4) and the remaining Estimates appointed for consideration this day.