HC Deb 12 December 1991 vol 200 cc1176-83 4.33 am
Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting for debate a subject that is of considerable importance to my constituents, and to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for remaining at this hour to hear my remarks and to respond.

The problems that I want to mention arise from people who are variously described as itinerants, travellers, new age gipsies, hippies, and by a few other colourful descriptions not covered by parliamentary language.

The problems fall into three categories. The first is those involving small numbers of such people, usually with caravans, who take up residence on private land or in green lanes that are public rights of way. The second is those attaching to large numbers of such people with vehicles, when they descend on parts of Hampshire—particularly in the run-up to the solstice at Stonehenge, which they are now prevented from approaching. Thirdly, there is the problem caused by large numbers of youngsters who want a noisy musical festival-cum-open-air party, and who attach themselves to the larger numbers of itinerants whom I have already described.

In the first case, four, eight, or perhaps 10 caravans arrive and settle. They create apprehension and unease, and cause a certain amount of fright—particularly among elderly people living in the neighbourhood, who become reluctant to leave their houses. Their arrival is accompanied by an increased incidence of break-ins and thefts. Although one cannot prove who is responsible, one has fairly good suspicion. In many cases, the settlers have no sanitary arrangements, so that the garden fence becomes absolutely revolting, and the loo paper blowing in the breeze is not at all an attractive feature.

Responses to my correspondence suggest that neighbouring householders and the landowner concerned should rely on the normal laws of trespass, but these require the landowner to seek from the county court an order for possession. If I have misunderstood, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me. The landowner can also apply for damages and costs. However, that is a slow procedure. Can my hon. Friend say how long it takes to get an action into a county court in those circumstances?

That is also an expensive remedy, and it is laughable to assume that any damages that may be awarded will ever be received by the hapless landowner, because at some stage the itinerant will either claim that he does not have the money or will disappear.

However, there is said to be a quick, effective route that costs the landowner nothing. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that if Hampshire county council fulfils the duty laid on it 23 years ago in the Caravan Sites Act 1968—which became operative in 1970—to provide an adequate number of permanent gipsy sites, it can apply to be designated. I understand that once the county council has done both, it becomes an offence for a gipsy to park on unoccupied land, or for a gipsy or itinerant to park on occupied land without the consent of the landowner.

In those circumstances, I further understand that the local council—not the landowner—can apply to a magistrates court for an order requiring the caravan or caravans and their occupants to be moved. Thus, there is minimal delay, and no costs fall on the landowner.

I am not suggesting that Hampshire county council has been slothful, for in the past 21 years it has provided five camp sites for 20 caravans, and a sixth is under construction. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will sympathise with the county council, recognising that it is not popular to select a site for a gipsy encampment, which inevitably arouses considerable protest from anyone who lives close by. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister how many more sites in Hampshire need to be provided to enable it to be eligible for designation, and how long the designation procedures take? If he has not the information to hand, perhaps he will write to me. So much for the small numbers who descend on certain parts of the constituency and stay there, becoming a confounded nuisance.

Much more worrying is the annual invasion of Hampshire, before the summer solstice ceremony at Stonehenge. In the past year, that invasion has been spearheaded by some 200 travellers with caravans, dogs and so forth. They settled on private land—National Trust land, as it happened—at Stockbridge Down. Section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 was brought into operation.

I congratulate the Government on finding such an effective way of dealing with this aspect of the problem —a large number of itinerants on private property. It worked like a dream. The Act gives discretion to the senior police officer present to direct trespassers to leave, provided that the landowner has taken reasonable steps to ask them to do so, and provided that 12 or more caravans have been brought on to the land. A trespasser who fails to leave, or returns within three months, commits an offence and may be arrested without a warrant.

That worked perfectly well, but now we come to the rub: where do those people move to? Last year, they moved from the private land at Stockbridge Down to Longstock, where they settled on a green lane—a track, or, as it is technically known, a boat: a bridle path open to all traffic. Here the law becomes a toothless tiger. It was designed to deal with obstruction on the highway, and it is worded in such a way that a resident can park his car—not unreasonably—in the road outside his house if there is no parking restriction in the area.

The inadequacy of the present law will be illustrated if I explain what has happened, and is liable to happen again. The "boat" at Longstock has public rights of way, but, as a rough track, it crosses farm land. There is no exact boundary where the farmland can be said to end and the track to begin. It is as if there were no Opposition Benches in the Chamber to define where one side of the House ends and the other begins.

The problem is that the police do not know precisely whether the travellers are on a public right of way, or on private land. Hampshire contains some 5,000 km of such green lanes. They are not fenced; there is no exact definition of where the sides start. So what do the police do? They go up to a group of people and say, "I require you to move by reason of the powers given by section 137 of the Highways Act 1980, because you are causing an obstruction."

The chap says, "I'm not on the green lane. I'm on private property." What does the policeman then do? Does he say, "In that case I will not charge you under that offence, but I will find another offence for you and claim that, under section 39 of the Public Order Act, you are required to move"? The hapless policeman does not know which piece of legislation to use because he does not know which piece of land the chap is on. That is the rub of the matter.

One law applies to one piece of land and another law applies to another. Section 39 of the Public Order Act works like a dream when the offence is committed on private land. It does not work on other land. Notice has to be given. If notice is given to travellers that they are on private land, they will go on to public land. If they are told to go from there and they go on to private land, they must still be given notice first. For those reasons, nothing effective can be done.

I go further. If people move back on to the highway and section 137 is applied, a prosecution may be undertaken, which takes three or four weeks. In the meantime, where is the caravan going to be? Who will look after the wife, the dog and the goat while the man is waiting for his prosecution? For those reasons, it is clear that the existing law, although perfect on paper, does not work in practice.

This year, 200 itinerants set up a stage for a pop concert to which about 4,500 people came. It rained and the whole place was a boggy mess. Thank goodness it rained. If it had been glorious sunny weather, there probably would have been double the number there. I ask the Minister to consider what it is like when 8,000 or 10,000 people assemble on a site where there are no sanitary arrangements. The damage to crops was estimated to be £5,000. The neighbourhood was terrorised, not by specific acts of terrorism, but by the sheer number, which was frightening for those who lived nearby. The pop festival created the sort of noise which is heard over and disturbs a far larger area.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider the future of the festival. Year by year, the numbers descending on Hampshire before the solstice have been growing. Last year's wet weather saved the area from the numbers being much bigger. What will the numbers be like next year, especially if it is sunny? Shall we be able to do nothing more effective in seeking to move people on than we did this summer?

Let us be frank. Those people will not disappear. If 8,000 or 10,000 people assemble in one spot, the police force cannot do anything effective. The time has come for my hon. Friend and some of his colleagues to think seriously about identifying suitable places where such pop festivals can be held with the minimum of disturbance. Such a site should be discreet and away from residential areas.

I have in mind the idea that, now that the Army is contracting, it will not need so much land. It may be possible for a site on what is now military land to be made available for such activity which would enable many young people to enjoy themselves harmlessly without disturbing local people.

Driving away from the camp down Stockbridge high street last year, I stopped and gave a lift to one of the people leaving the party. I discovered that he was returning to London and would like a lift. I gave him a lift most of the way to the station at Basingstoke. I asked him what he was doing and why he was there. He was frank and honest and why should he not be? He was a young Australian and had been earning money in Cornwall lifting bulbs and had heard that there was to be a huge open-air party and thought that it would be fun to join it. Thousands of young people like him thought the same. That was fine for them, but we should spare a thought for the people who live in the area.

The problem that I have described will not go away and nor will I. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister who is to reply to the debate will consider seriously what can be done to prevent the situation from recurring. In a constructive sense, I suggest that he might like to call a meeting of officials from the Home Office, the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment, together with the local Members of Parliament who are affected in Hampshire, and have a joint discussion to explore the most effective way forward as quickly as possible.

4.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) on his good fortune in securing this debate, although my congratulations would have been even more enthusiastic if he could have secured an earlier slot.

Like my hon. Friend, I am a Hampshire Member and I understand why he is determined to seize the opportunity, even at 4.51 am, to raise a subject that causes so much distress to Hampshire residents, namely, the incursions of hippies and travelling folk in small groups and occasionally in huge convoys into quiet communities where, as my hon. Friend graphically described, they camp on public and private land and create noise and fear. They often cause damage and usually leave an unpleasant detritus in their wake when they finally move on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West asked me several questions. He queried the speed of civil law which is obviously the first route for a member of the public who finds his land has been trespassed upon in that way. As I understand it, civil law orders are usually made and executed on those matters within three to seven days. I was interested to learn that my hon. Friend had reports suggesting that the period was considerably longer than that. As I understand it, the courts are prepared to deal with pressing matters through an accelerated procedure and it should not take much more than a week before the court order is handed down.

My hon. Friend also referred to designation under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. He was right to do that because it provides local authorities with a key power to secure the speedy removal of traveller encampments from public and private land. From some of my hon. Friend's remarks, he seemed to believe that there was a great distinction in the law between public and private land. There is not. The only place where there is a real distinction is between highway land and other land.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will designate an area when the county council has provided sufficient official camp sites to accommodate travelling folk normally resorting to the area. Once that is done, a district council may get a speedy court order which the police must execute to remove travellers from any land where they have established an unauthorised encampment.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968 imposed a duty on county councils to provide suitable camp sites for travellers, area by area. Designation is very properly available only for counties that have fulfilled that duty. It does not have to be fulfilled for the totality of the county, which may have been my hon. Friend's impression. The county may be designated area by area, according to the availability of camp sites in those areas. Certainly, it would be wrong to enable an authority to enjoy the convenience of speedy removal under the criminal law when it has not yet provided the minimum of camping sites necessary for regular travellers.

My hon. Friend mentioned Wiltshire and the advantages that it seems to enjoy in such matters. It does so because it provides enough sites to have enabled the whole county to be designated.

Hampshire is making progress, and a site at Peak Copse, at Dummer, which is close to my hon. Friend's constituency, if not exactly in it, is nearing completion. The exact prospects and timetable for designation are matters for my hon. Friend to take up directly with the county and the Department of the Environment. However, I will ensure that a copy of the Official Report reaches him.

My hon. Friend also asked whether I would assemble a meeting of Hampshire Members to discuss those matters. I will certainly be willing to do so if that would be useful to my hon. Friend and our Hampshire colleagues. However, it would be sensible to make contact with the Department of the Environment and the county council first, so that the all-important question of the possibilities of designation and when it might come about can be examined beforehand, as it belongs not to my Department but to the Department of the Environment.

As my hon. Friend has said, section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 gives the police descretionary powers to deal with aggravated trespass. I was glad to hear that he has found it of great efficacy in his part of Hampshire. That section of the 1986 Act is not designed as a substitute for the fast criminal law powers provided by designation under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. However, as my hon. Friend has found, it enables the police to respond to landowners, public or private, who complain that two or more trespassers are being abusive or insulting to the occupier, are causing damage to the property, or have brought 12 or more vehicles on to the land, and that the occupier has asked them to leave and they have not done so.

If the police judge it right to use that power, there will be a number of factors that they will want to consider—for example, the presence of children, pregnant women, and people who are ill. An offence is committed if the travellers do not comply or return within three months.

My hon. Friend said that a shortcoming of the law is that the police are required to give reasonable notice, as though that means that there must be a delay of an unspecified period before the power is enforceable. That is not the case. The police must make a judgment, and they must do what is reasonable. There may be certain circumstances, such as the presence of somebody who is ill, or children, which may lead them to give longer notice than they would normally give. Their power, if they judge it proper to use it, is immediately available to them.

In respect of encampments on highways, about which my hon. Friend has expressed worries, there is plenty of opportunity for action to be taken—my hon. Friend suggested that there was too much. For example, there is summary prosecution under section 137 of the Highways Act 1980, the county council can sue under section 130 of the 1980 Act, there is indictment for nuisance at common law, and damages and injunction under common law.

I do not believe that that choice confuses the police. They are well used to applying a variety of aspects of the law according to the situation. That is their job. In respect of highways, they have several choices which are appropriate to the number of people, what they are doing and the particular occasion. I accept that, at times, there may be some doubt about where highway land ends and private or public land begins, but it is not beyond the wit of competent police officers, together with county and district councils, to determine that boundary in most cases.

There should not be any confusion about greenways. "Greenway" is not a specific legal term; it is provided to cover rights of way, of which there are many in Hampshire. If the areas are highways, the county will know and if they are not, which is often the case, the benefits of designation or section 39 apply to them as to any other public or private land. There should be few problems of the kind that my hon. Friend understands to exist. If he believes that they do exist, I should be interested to hear about the circumstance of the particular examples so that I can follow them up because I am genuinely puzzled by what he is saying.

Sir David Mitchell

Perhaps my hon. Friend can imagine a field that rises over a quarter of a mile. Where the bottoms of two fields come together, there is a rutted track along which tractors pass. Some parts get boggy in the winter, so the tractors go up on one side, but because it is a bit drier further on, the tractors may then go up the other side. In such a case, my hon. Friend could not say that the central bit was the public right of way. He could not say that a man on the one side was standing on a public right of way, and that a man on the other side was standing on private land. That is the difficulty.

Mr. Lloyd

There is no difficulty. My hon. Friend seems to be confusing a right of way with a highway. A right of way goes over private land. The sort of track that my hon. Friend is describing will almost invariably be on public or private land, but it will not be a highway. Highways are well known to the county council. Any competent authority will know where its public highways are. If the areas are not public highways, they must be public or private land which has a right of way over it. As I have said, section 39 or designation, if designation has been secured, will apply, but not the provisions that apply to the public highway.

Sir David Mitchell

This is a very important point. Under the reclassification that is being carried out by the county councils, many of the green lanes are now being declared boats—or open to all traffic and four-wheeled vehicles. If my hon. Friend is saying that a boat is classed as land upon which section 39 can be applied, there is no problem, but if a different section of the law has to be applied because we are talking about a highway, there is a problem.

Mr. Lloyd

I shall come back to my hon. Friend on this question because the highway and what constitutes a highway is less a matter for the Home Office than for the Department of Transport. However, if the county is specifying particular greenways as highways, the county will know that. If the county has just specified something, the designation of that particular right of way should be no surprise to the police. That which is a highway should be well known to the county council and should be easily ascertainable to the police. If the area is not a highway, it is public or private land to which the law applies, even though it is a right of way, just as it does to any other public or private land.

My hon. Friend's third point related to large bodies of travellers and to the music festivals that have occasionally been a great problem. Large groups cause much greater problems than smaller numbers. A large body of hippies and new age travellers can converge on an area, but I do not believe that the law is insufficient to deal with that problem. The whole range of the civil and criminal law is available and covers all eventualities. The problem is for the police to be able to concentrate sufficient forces to deal with the group. That is an expensive exercise and means that, for a time, other areas will be underpoliced. Even if the police have mustered their strength, they must judge whether powerful and immediate intervention will exacerbate matters and create greater possibilities of violence and nuisance for local people than more restrained tactics. Those are questions not so much of the law and its adequacy as of police deployment and strategy, which are for the chief constable to determine.

My hon. Friend referred particularly to parties with music and thousands in attendance. I am aware that they can create havoc. That is why the law was strengthened last year by the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990. The Act provides that if such a party is held, for which a charge for attendance is made, without a licence or in breach of a licence from the appropriate local authority, the organisers are liable to a fine of up to £20,000, the confiscation of profits and related equipment and six months gaol. It is an effective deterrent waiting to be used.

My hon. Friend mentioned Wiltshire rather wistfully as a county that seemed to be advantaged in dealing with the problems that he described. I explained that it was enjoying the benefits of its foresight in having itself designated. But it has also benefited from section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, which is available to a chief officer of police. It enables him, if he believes it necessary to prevent serious public disorder, and with the agreement of the local authority and the Home Secretary, to ban a public procession such as those which have taken place at Stonehenge.

However, it is clear that whatever problems the new age travellers and hippies bring to Hampshire—sometimes on their way to Stonehenge—the problems are not the result of anything so formal as a procession. So the powers that have been rightly available in the immediate vicinity of Stonehenge have not applied to the difficulties in Hampshire so far.

I hope that what I have said helps to clarify the law in this vexed and vexing area, although the problems are much less vexing if the area is designated. The matter that my hon. Friend has raised is a real problem of not only law but wise and effective policing.

Sir David Mitchell

Will my hon. Friend arrange a meeting of senior officials of the Departments involved—the Home Office, the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment—together with the county council and the Members of Parliament whose constituencies are affected?

Mr. Lloyd

I said earlier that I would ensure that my ministerial colleagues at the Department of the Environment read these exchanges. A crucial matter in the whole problem lies within their responsibility. I shall certainly discuss with them the usefulness of a meeting. I cannot commit my colleagues now to such a meeting, but I hope to be of assistance to my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for raising this important matter.