HC Deb 02 July 1991 vol 194 cc291-8

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

11.36 pm
Mr. Jack Aspinwall (Wansdyke)

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate, and I know that I am supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) who could not be here. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) in his place, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward). I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on the award of a well-deserved OBE.

I have had a great deal of help and support in preparing for the debate from the National Farmers Union, Kingswood borough council and Wansdyke district council. I am pleased that I have an opportunity to bring before the House examples of the distress, heartache, fear and intimidation that have been present in the Avon county area, particularly in my constituency of Wansdyke. Those problems have intensified during the past few weeks. In the area overall there have been nearly 3,000 hippies. I use that word for want of a better one, since my constituents have variously described them in more colourful language.

Last Saturday I went to see the aftermath of a hippie visitation in the beautiful village of Carlingcott, near Peasedown St. John. After travelling through the picturesque countryside to get to the village, I passed many farms and premises literally under siege. Entrances to land had been blocked with rubbish skips and farm equipment and there were earth and stone embankments across farm gates, all imposing a scar on the countryside.

Such action is generated by fear of entry of the hippies and the resulting filth and depredation left behind after their departure. The fields at Carlingcott were churned up and there were burnt-out cars, mounds of rubbish and the remains of human and animal excreta from over 2,000 people and many animals. The farmer who rented the land has lost his grass keep and the work required on the site to reinstate it is expensive. This is just one incident in many.

Wansdyke district council has partly cleaned up the roads around the village and the people of Carlingcott and a wide surrounding area have breathed a sigh of relief, having suffered a great deal of noise, intimidation and intrusion into their normally peaceful lives.

Another site in my constituency, at Charmy Down near Bath, was invaded by hippies. A similar process took place, commencing on Wednesday 29 May. The Charmy Down incident was perhaps more serious, in that human and animal pollution affected a water catchment area which partly supplied Bath, and Wessex Water was reported as having diverted the flow of springs from a reservoir in order to prevent contamination. In both areas, there were reports of theft, intimidation, damage and loud noise, which all added to the inconvenience to, and total misery of, my constituents, making normal life impossible.

I come to the core of the problem—how the law operates to deal with hippies who, unauthorised, occupy sites and exploit the law to the last minute, causing huge expense not only to private landowners and farmers but to taxpayers and community charge payers. The cost is hundreds of thousands of pounds and the effectiveness of the police to deal with crime is considerably weakened, because of the extra commitments imposed on them by the hippies.

There appear to be two ways of removing people from sites where an intrusion has taken place. The first is for the landowner to apply to a court for an order of possession. The second is for the police to deal with the problem under section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986.

The process to take effective, immediate action to remove hippies is a legal minefield. The hippies have an extremely good intelligence service, and the site at Carlingcott, near Peasedown St. John, is a good example. Carlingcott was originally occupied by a small number of hippies who sounded out the local scene and then there was an influx of others on to the land. It was certainly known that this legally knowledgable group, who used citizen band radios and mobile telephones and mobile fax machines, carried out a well-planned operation. In the end, it became extremely difficult to enforce the law.

Land may be identified which is the subject of a legal dispute or a complexity of byelaws and regulations. Before legal action can be initiated, extensive research may be required into byelaws, local acts and ancient charters. That all has a delaying effect on the legal process. The landowner may go to considerable expense, only to find that on the appointed day, when the bailiffs go in to evict, the hippies simply move to another site and cause similar problems somewhere else. It is impossible to get, from a group of people who live on the edge of, or above, the law, recompense for physical damage or financial loss incurred.

Section 39 of the Public Order Act gives the police the power to deal with trespassers. It must be remembered, though, that the Act does not place the police under a duty to act; it only gives them a power to direct trespassers to leave land and arrest them if they fail to do so without reasonable excuse as soon as it is reasonably practicable.

The effect is that up to 3,000 people can congregate on a site, and the police need hundreds of officers and equipment to deal with the problem. If large numbers of hippies decide that they will not move, it is an impossible situation. If, for example, 1,000 men were arrested, hundreds of women and many children would be left on the site. A duty of care would be placed on the local authorities to deal with the attendant problem of the women, children and animals.

If the men decided to plead not guilty before a court, it is likely that under the Bail Act 1976 they would be bailed and merely sent back to the site, and the trouble would continue. That cannot be allowed to continue, and there has to be a change in the law even to allow a court or a judge to visit a site and to deal swiftly with the law-breakers before large numbers of people can gather. The special procedures also take valuable time and need speeding up.

I welcome the review of section 39. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) asked the Home Secretary in a parliamentary question whether he had completed his evaluation of section 39. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement on 22 May 1991, but the problem remains and the Act fails to deal with it at its roots. All that has happened is that the powers have been defined in writing and a leaflet has been published which outlines the civil remedies open to landowners. However, that does nothing to alter the position.

I now deal with what has become a major problem in the Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled county of Avon—the failure of the county council to take positive steps to remove hippies, travellers, gipsies or whatever one calls the various groups of itinerants. The county has a duty of care to all the people who live in it. Many long-suffering residents and community charge payers are subject to a massive intrusion into their lives because the county council refuses to take action as a landowner to remove the itinerants from its land. I agree that the county council has not provided the necessary number of sites under the Caravan Sites Act 1968, but there is no reason why people should be subject to difficulties because of the county council's failure to act.

The hippies have different needs from those of the gipsies and tinkers whose requirements under the Caravan Sites Act are small supervised units. It cannot be beyond the bounds of possibility for the Home Office and the Departments of the Environment and Social Security to get together to consider ways and means of providing transit sites for people who could be termed hippies or travellers, who move around for part of the year and who cause tremendous problems. It should be possible to find sites away from human habitation, where proper sanitary facilities can be provided and where there will be no inconvenience to local people.

It is right that sites should be provided for the group of people known as gipsies, but it is unrealistic to believe that the occupiers of those sites can forcibly be integrated into communities of people who also have rights and who wish merely to enjoy their homes and their lives peaceably.

The duties imposed on the police and the costs involved place the police in an impossible position. I congratulate the Avon and Somerset constabulary on the way in which it has dealt with many difficult situations, taking great care to avoid confrontation which would not be to the benefit of the public but, at the same time, using whatever powers are available to it to alleviate a series of difficult incidents.

The basic problem is that of large numbers of people gathering in an uncontrolled way. There are people who live on the edge of the law and who intimidate others. The problem must be solved because innocent people should not have to bear legal costs or the costs of damage to their land and property which, in many cases, is long standing. Sanctions should be imposed, perhaps on social security benefits: no readiness for work and no co-operation mean no girocheque. There should be sanctions to prevent a large number of vehicles gathering, which would eventually become uncontrollable. Sites should be provided for pop festivals in remote parts of the country to enable young people to enjoy themselves in proper conditions with adequate facilities.

There should be a speeding up of the legal process to stop the huge waste of the resources of the police, local councils and private landowners that is created by the activities of hippies. Much can be achieved if only the difficulties that have been experienced by my constituents and other law-abiding citizens are recognised and urgent action is taken. Section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 is not effective and consequently will not solve the extreme social problem that I have outlined.

Consideration should be given to imposing a duty on the police to act. Designation is not the answer. If such a duty is imposed, powers should be given to local authorities to deal with the matters that arise, such as the towing away of vehicles and caravans, the welfare of women, children and animals and the storage and disposal of chattels. People should not have an imposition placed upon them that seriously damages their quality of life.

Sir John Cope (Northavon)

I support my hon. Friend in all that he is saying, including his strictures on the failure of Avon county council. I am sure that he is aware that section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 is especially difficult to interpret when common land is involved. There have been the most appalling invasions of Sodbury common in recent years, and it is difficult to express the consequences for the local inhabitants. We know that the law is broken, and the problem is how to enforce it. We need a task force comprised of the police and local authority employees that is capable of dealing with the invasions and tackling the many belligerent people who gather on the occasions that my hon. Friend has described.

Mr. Aspinwall

My right hon. Friend has outlined the serious problems in his constituency. It is unfortunate that the action that ensues is apparently slow and ponderous. Although the police have powers under section 39, those powers are used unevenly. The decision whether to act is a matter of discretion for the chief constable whose force is involved. The present state of affairs cannot continue. I know that my right hon. Friend's constituents have suffered deeply as a result of the influx of large numbers of people, many of whom are intent on causing a great deal of inconvenience and trouble.

11.52 pm
Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I take it that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) has the leave of the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall) and that of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to participate in the debate.

Mr. Hayward

I wish to intervene only briefly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall) has taken the opportunity to raise matters of concern for hon. Members who represent Avon constituencies. I thank him for his comments about me.

On the border of our constituencies, as my hon. Friend well knows, is an area that is known as Firework farm. The property is owned by Avon county council, and it flatly refuses to take action to evict the people who are currently on the site. That highlights the problems that are faced by our constituents—law-abiding citizens who wish to go about their day-to-day lives unhindered by others. At present, they have virtually to nail down all their possessions. They cannot leave their houses unattended for fear that their property will be removed from washing lines, along with their front doors and the contents of their garages. It is important that the county council is encouraged to take action as and where appropriate in support of the ordinary law-abiding citizen.

I echo my hon. Friend's comments about the police, who face an appallingly difficult task. I recently witnessed the problems that they face at Firework farm. I arrived in the middle of a police operation in which officers were trying to arrest individuals who were believed to have stolen property from local residents. The police do a good job in the circumstances, but the law and the actions of others are not always as supportive as they might be.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall) on his success in raising a sensitive issue. Trespass always gives rise to strong feelings, and I know that during the weeks of the summer solstice, especially, there are many areas, including my hon. Friend's constituency, that experience an influx of travellers and hippies. That can be distressing and troublesome to local residents. My hon. Friend described the situation graphically, and he had powerful support from my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward).

Section 39, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke referred, was conceived during the passage of the Public Order Bill in response to the mass invasions of land in and around Stonehenge in the summer of 1986. Although the matter at issue is the use of section 39, it must be seen in context. It is one of a number of remedies that are available to landowners for dealing with trespass on land by those who intend to stay there. The majority of cases of trespass are resolved, as they should be, either informally or in the civil courts. Trespass on land is a civil tort rather than a criminal offence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke referred to the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which has an important role to play. It places a duty on local authorities to provide official sites for gipsies, hippies or people of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin, in their area. Once a local authority has become designated under the Act, it has a quick-acting criminal law power through the magistrates courts to move gipsies, hippies or other travelling folk from an unauthorised site, whether it be owned privately or by the local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke suggested that short-stay sites for hippies should be provided. That is a constructive idea, but such provision should be made not by the Home Office or the Department of the Environment but by local authorities, which must also provide gipsy sites in their area.

Section 39 gives the police the discretionary power to direct trespassers to leave land only where trespassers have entered the land as trespassers and have the common purpose of residing there, where the occupier, or someone on his behalf, has asked them to leave, where any of the trespassers has been threatening or abusive to the occupier, where they have caused damage or where they have brought 12 or more vehicles on to the land. The section does not make trespass a criminal offence, but it is an offence for a trespasser not to leave the land after a direction has been given or, having left, to return as a trespasser within three months.

Section 39 is not a substitute for normal civil procedures, nor should local authorities see it as a means of evading their statutory duty to provide official sites. It provides a limited criminal sanction to deal with aggravated trespass.

In October 1989, the then Home Secretary announced a public evaluation of section 39 to see how its relatively new powers were working. The Home Office received 30 representations from a range of gipsy or traveller groups, local authorities and their associations and representatives of landowners. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke said, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced his conclusions on 22 May this year. He concluded that more needed to be done to secure better understanding by all interested parties of the way in which the law should operate but that no change in the law was necessary.

At the same time as my right hon. Friend made his announcement, Home Office guidance was issued to the police on the application of section 39 and a leaflet was published in plain English setting out for landowners the main provisions of the law on trespass of land. A copy was placed in the Library. Additionally, it was announced that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment would continue to maintain the pressure on local authorities to meet their statutory duty to provide adequate numbers of sites for gipsies and travellers. The provision of sites is a vital factor in reducing the problem of trespass and in enabling the police to take the quick action that my hon. Friend is seeking.

Section 39 was intended to strike a careful balance between providing a quick and effective means of returning land to the occupier where there is aggravated trespass and not allowing the harassment of well-behaved gipsies for whom no official site provision has been made. Our review showed that there were no major gaps or weaknesses in the legislation, but that some confusion had arisen over the circumstances in which section 39 could and could not be used. The measures taken following our review of section 39, to which I have referred, should do much to remove that confusion and will, I believe, help landowners to find the most suitable remedy available to them in their particular circumstances.

The guidance to the police aims to provide a clear understanding of the matters that the police can be expected to take into account in deciding whether to give a direction to trespassers to leave land. The criteria include the consequences of giving a direction to leave to which my hon. Friend referred. For example, there might be further trespass nearby because of the lack of official sites. There is no virtue in shifting a problem from one back yard into a neighbouring back yard. They also include the consequences of not giving a direction to leave—for example, further damage or threatening behaviour or the disorder that might occur. The public order consequences of their actions are rightly to be taken into account by the police. Also to be considered are the personal circumstances of the trespassers. For example, there might be those whose well-being could be affected by an immediate move. There have been complaints about pregnant women or sick people being peremptorily removed, although that is not, I think, a factor in the sort of cases to which my hon. Friend referred. The criteria are not exhaustive and there will be local circumstances to be taken into account.

I must emphasise that, despite the issue of guidance, the decision whether to issue a direction to leave the land remains an operational one for the police. Despite what my hon. Friend has said, I do not believe that the decision how and where to use the powers that the law rightly gives them can be taken out of their hands. The senior officer at the scene will take his decision in the light of all the circumstances in each particular case.

I come now to the application of section 39 in the Avon area, I know that the area has a seasonal influx of large groups of travellers who arrive to attend pop festivals and to celebrate, in their own way, the summer solstice. I understand from the chief constable of Avon and Somerset that section 39 has been used on a number of occasions and has worked well. I am told that in recent months it has been used successfully to deal with occupations of travellers at Doynton, Mangotsfield and Radstock. Once the police had issued a direction to leave, the travellers moved on without any undue delay.

My hon. Friend implied that section 39 lacks teeth because it cannot be applied where there is no authorised occupier. However, the main purpose of the section is to give back to the occupier the use of land on which trespassers are residing. If there is a nuisance from noise or pollution, as in some of the cases to which my hon. Friend referred, it can be dealt with by the local authority under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. If there is criminality—and I am talking not about simple trespass but about damage and about the kind of activities that my hon. Friend had in mind—the criminal law will, of course, bite.

In the case of unoccupied common land, mentioned in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon, I understand that action can be taken under the Commons Registration Act 1965 and that local authorities designated under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 can use the powers that they obtain under that Act to move gipsies, travellers and trespassers from such land. But the designation must be in place before they can do so. I believe that none of the local authorities in the Avon and Somerset police force area is designated under the 1968 Act and they may wish to reconsider—I put it no higher than that—the advantages of designation. Having heard what my hon. Friends have said, I believe that it is something to which close attention should be paid.

I do not pretend that section 39, even when seen as one of the range of remedies provided by the law to deal with the problems of trespass, will always work to the satisfaction of all parties. I can, however, say with some assurance that, since its introduction in 1986, section 39 has often proved an effective and useful addition to the legal remedies available. I am confident that the recent actions taken by the Home Office following our review of section 39 will be found helpful.

In conclusion, I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that several different and sometimes conflicting considerations have to be brought together when approaching the problems of trespass on land. Of course, gipsies, travelling folk and hippies, separately and collectively, have a responsibility to avoid creating a nuisance. Local authorities, crucially, have a duty to provide sites under the Caravan Sites Act. Landowners have their rights under the civil law. The police have a duty to exercise reasonably the discretion given them in the circumstances set out in section 39.

The Government, I believe, have set a framework of civil and criminal law within which most continuing disputes arising from trespass can be resolved and which strikes a reasonable balance between the interests concerned. I am afraid that not all the mercifully short-term problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke referred can effectively be dealt with in those terms—although the criminal acts that he described certainly can be as not all anti-social behaviour can be amenable to the law. However, I have no doubt that where there is damage and abuse, such as he has described, the courts can provide a remedy if the perpetrators can be properly identified.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Twelve o'clock.