HC Deb 04 February 1992 vol 203 cc133-229 3.32 pm
Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968; to make further provision in respect of encampments of travelling people; and for connected purposes. I am asking—[interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members who are not remaining for the ten-minute Bill leave the Chamber quietly, particularly those below the Gangway?

Sir Michael McNair Wilson

I ask the House to give my Bill a First Reading, conscious that many hon. Members also face problems arising from the illegal encampment of people who may be gipsies, but, who, as in my constituency, often belong to other groups variously titled —hippies, travellers, new age travellers, tinkers, dropouts, didicoys and peace people. I submit that the Caravan Sites Act 1968 is no longer relevant to meet the difficulties that such people create.

The ineffectiveness of the present law was vividly illustrated in west Berkshire recently when we faced the encampment of people who described themselves as new age travellers and who decided to park 20 vehicles illegally on a county council byway. The local people were infuriated by the camp and asked the police to move the travellers on. The police demurred on the ground that, as the county council had not designated a site according to part II of the 1968 Act, there was nowhere for the travellers to go. That prompted me to write to Berkshire county council asking when it intended to designate a site in the west of the county to meet the travellers' needs. The council responded that the Act referred only to sites for gipsies and that, as the travellers were not gipsies, the council had no responsibility for the matter. I then wrote to the council asking how it identified a gipsy from a traveller, but I did not receive an answer.

Strictly speaking, the county council is right. Within the strictest interpretation, the 1968 Act applies to gipsies and not to travellers. It seems to me that the Act should be amended, the word "gipsy" dropped, and the phrase—suggested, I think, by the National Gipsy Council— persons of a nomadic way of life substituted. At the very least, it would mean a reappraisal of the numbers of people involved in travelling, and thus a reassessment of the number of sites required. The figure of 11,544 gipsy caravans given in 1990 could increase dramatically, and the sooner that we know the scale of the problem, the sooner we can do something about it.

Despite the fact that the 1968 Act is now 24 years old, the Department of the Environment has set no time limit within which county councils must meet their statutory responsibility to designate sites. That would be another requirement of my Bill. Every county should have at least one site, and I suggest that that should happen within the next 12 months.

I go further. The number of people who have taken up a nomadic way of life has increased, and it is probably still increasing. I do not know why they choose that way of life, but that is their right in a free society and we must recognise it. If we are to avoid the endless aggravation that such people as travellers cause virtually wherever they go, the illegality of their encampments, the mess and rubbish that they leave behind, their lack of sanitation, and the fear of local people that travellers pay little attention to the law, cut timber at will, and poach—in other words, if we are to create some measure of harmony between modern nomads and the community—local authorities should be required to appoint a travellers' liaison officer whose task, much like that of community relations officers, would be to liaise with travelling groups, farmers and their representatives, such as the National Farmers Union, local land owners, and the police. I believe that some counties already have such a person.

In turn, such groups of interested people, working with a local authority, could seek to create a pattern of short-stay transit sites, inconspicuous to the public but maintained by the local authority for travellers. Travelling groups should be able to discover from the local authority where sites are located, and those refusing to use them could be made subject to severe fines.

Clearly, the size of transit sites would vary according to the neighbourhood, but at least some should be able to cope with large vehicle convoys, such as those which make their way to Stonehenge, or which have over the past two years chosen the common around Hungerford as a weekend site.

Present police powers need revising. Currently, policing illegal encampments is a costly business. A large site can tie down as many as 100 constables and cost tens of thousands of pounds, yet the police have limited powers. Generally, they use section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 to move people on, but that legislation does not apply to vehicles, animals, or the travellers' other belongings. As the assistant chief constable of Thames Valley wrote in a recent letter to me: It follows therefore that if we were to exercise a power of arrest in circumstances which warranted it, then the families of the persons arrested would still be able to remain with their property on the land. It was put to me that there should be a new offence of aggravated trespass on land to meet that problem. As matters stand, a district council can obtain an eviction order from a local court when dealing with illegal encampments on common land, but for the police to move illegal encampments from private property requires a much more drawn-out procedure. I know that the police would welcome a simplified court order system.

I wonder whether showmen's vehicles, and the right or otherwise to park them at the side of the road, really belong in the 1968 Act as it is presently drawn.

I have outlined some of the changes to present legislation that, in my opinion, could bring some order to a situation that is rapidly getting out of control. I hope that it is clear from my remarks that the law should strike a new balance between the obvious rights of ordinary people living in towns and villages to be spared the nuisance, aggravation, and hooliganism associated with illegal encampments and the fact that many thousands of people prefer a nomadic way of life—and that simply to try to move them on to somebody else's patch is no solution. Quite simply, the Act must be amended.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Michael McNair-Wilson, Sir Anthony Durant, Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Mr. Mark Wolfson, Mr. Tim Smith and Mr. John Watts.

  2. cc136-229
  3. Local Government Finance 52,037 words, 1 division