HC Deb 19 June 1995 vol 262 cc127-34

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

10.13 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the subject of gipsies in Essex. I commend the Government for introducing legislation in 1994 which gave local authorities and the police a great deal more power in dealing with a matter which has been a great problem for many years, particularly in the part of Essex that I represent.

The public clearly wanted something done about the menace of these itinerants, or gipsies, or didicois, or tinkers, or new age travellers, or mobile totters, which is what they are. There was a huge sigh of relief in November last year when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was finally passed, because it seemed as though something was to be done at last. We were grateful in the part of Thurrock and Billericay that I have the honour to represent.

These people have scant regard for the rights of others, and trespass en masse on people's property. The new legislation allows the police to take action if six or more caravans or lorries turn up on someone's private property. The Minister has sympathised with landowners and local communities because many householders have been affected and the value of their properties can be severely affected if they live near a piece of land that gipsies or travellers frequently visit. Power was given to the police to act with local authorities to deal with such invasions.

One my constituents—a Mr. Luck from Laindon—received a supportive reply from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who is present tonight on the Front Bench. He said: We do not believe that it is right that a private landowner should always have to bear the sometimes onerous cost of using his civil remedies to evict unauthorised campers, particularly when the encampment causes intolerable nuisance to the local community. I should like to pause here to congratulate my hon. Friend, who has an excellent track record in speaking up about this menace, not just for his constituents but for the whole country.

The hard-working and honest farmers in my constituency are not being given the back-up the legislation allows, and they are still being forced to bear the costs. Farmers are harassed and intimidated by these people and then left to clear up the appalling mess that they leave behind. The travellers break fences and leave trails of rubbish and worse—as a well-brought-up young woman, I would not wish to embarrass the House with a more detailed description, but it is extremely offensive for the farmers and very costly to clean up.

Before November 1994, it was up to the individual to get rid of travellers. Now, however, as a result of years of complaint, such trespassing has been recognised as a criminal offence under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. The police have been given discretionary powers to direct trespassers to leave land in cases where there are more than six vehicles or where there has been threatening or abusive behaviour. If the travellers fail to comply, they can be arrested and their vehicles and animals seized.

The problem is that in our part of Essex and East Anglia that does not appear to be happening. There are two sites in Thurrock where travellers can go, and we do not want a third. We have appealed, and the matter is being dealt with by the Department of the Environment. We do not want another site, because the people behave so appallingly. They are not even acceptable on the sites that have been made available for them because their standard of behaviour and conduct is so bad.

There has been very little diminution in the number of travellers in our part of the world. For example, in 1994 686 cases were reported. In January 1995—a year on—the figure had gone down by only a handful to 665 cases. On eight separate occasions this year, farmers in my region have asked the police to take action against the gipsies, as it is within their power to do, but the police have failed to do anything. Even Thurrock council, which is rather friendly to such people, has said that it is not prepared to try to get rid of the unauthorised campers. Some of the invasions have taken place on council land.

Those events precede the peak season for itinerants. They travel from southern Ireland, in particular, and spend their summer holidays visiting the tips in Essex. They collect and sort garbage and leave the detritus behind them on the fields. Essex is invaded by travellers in the summer, and we fear that the police may continue to refuse to deal with the problem.

I know that the matter would be addressed more appropriately to the Home Office than to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, but I will come to that point in a moment. There are two existing sites in my constituency for travellers. There are vacancies on those sites and they could apply to stay there. Thurrock council has provided quite good quality accommodation on the sites, but they are not acceptable to the travellers.

There is no evidence that providing a third site will have any impact on the current desperate situation. I therefore urge my hon. Friend not to follow that route. There is no truth in the theory that the more sites one provides the fewer problems there will be. It does not work like that. The travellers are so undisciplined and inconsiderate of everyone but themselves that they simply will not use the site. We therefore do not want to see another site established at Gammon field.

I believe that the argument that travellers should not be moved to those sites is redundant. The travellers are simply not acceptable—not even to Thurrock council, which I believe is over-friendly to itinerants. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) interrupts from a sedentary position. He supports the local Labour-controlled council, which we regard as one of the last outposts of Stalinism in our part of the world. It adopts an extremely soft attitude to people who appear to have no assets, which is not in tune with that of the majority of my constituents or of the hon. Gentleman.

I will outline two cases involving travellers. On 16 May, Mr. Robert Cole's farm was set upon by scavengers. The police were asked to take action, but they decided to do nothing. Mr. Cole had to resort to the legal system and, as a consequence, incurred a solicitor's fee, a process server's fee, a court issue fee, a commissioner's fee and a fee for the bailiffs, which came to a total of £500. The trespassers moved on only when the bailiffs moved in and told them that the police would eventually be coming around. Quicker action by the police would have avoided wasting a great deal of Mr. Cole's time and money.

The travellers had left a great deal of rubbish behind and it cost £250 to clear the field. Those people are positively uncivilised in the way in which they move on and leave their garbage behind them. They do not even put it into black sacks; they simply leave their rubbish, including rented gas cylinders which they use to provide heating and lighting for their caravans, all over the field. Before the poor old farmer can milk his cows, shear his sheep, sow his corn or reap his barley, he must clear up the fields after those people.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Should we not ask the Minister why the people to whom my hon. Friend refers should be allowed to cause such extreme discomfort and aggravation to law-abiding citizens through their totally anti-social activities, which seem to enjoy more protection under the law than the bona fide law-abiding citizens who are affected by them? Should not the Minister address that issue? Were we not all led to believe that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 would help us to solve that problem?

Mrs. Gorman

I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said. I know that he encounters such problems, because he represents a rural area. I give the Government credit for introducing the measure as part of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but in many parts of the country it is not being implemented.

Another farmer in my constituency, Mr. Cooper, watched 24 caravans arrive at his farm in Cookoo lane. The police were asked to intervene, but again they were prepared to do nothing. As the powers are not mandatory, the police can choose whether or not to implement them. After the usual legal wrangling to get rid of the caravans, Mr. Cooper was left with a bill for £2,000 as 200 tonnes of rubbish had been left on his field. That is a perfect disgrace, not just for the farmer, but for those who live in the area.

Last Sunday, the travellers returned with their caravans and entered the land by force. Mr. Cooper had parked a large heavy cultivator across the entrance to the field so they broke in, which is another offence, and the farmer was once again left to phone the police, who were unwilling to deal with the matter. He spoke to the travellers, but he might just as well have been talking to wind as they were not interested until today, when he got a bailiff to talk to them.

We are discussing two issues. First, is there any sense in providing more sites for such people? I entirely disagree with that, as they are so badly behaved that they cannot even get on to the sites. The second issue involves the attitude of the police. That is a delicate problem, because the police naturally do not want to cause themselves more trouble if the travellers become stroppy and difficult, but I maintain that we have to be absolutely firm. The Government provided the power because it was such a popular measure.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

My hon. Friend will recall that the amendment to the law was intended to give private landowners the same rights as councils, which have enormous resources, to move travellers on. The decision of the police not to enforce the law returns private landowners to their position before the law was amended, so we might just as well not have amended it.

Mrs. Gorman

I entirely support what hon. Friend has said. That is exactly the position of farmers in my constituency.

I have it on the highest authority that the Association of Chief Police Officers is advising local forces in my area that action should be considered only in exceptional circumstances and that there is an expectation that all other remedies will have been tried before the police are prepared to intervene. As my hon. Friend has just said, that was exactly the position of farmers before the legislation.

The police seem unwilling to get involved, at least in East Anglia and Essex. The local National Farmers Union met the police in East Anglia, who made it clear that police forces intended using their discretionary powers only as the last resort, which I believe to be a negation of the Government's intention in giving them the power. The chief constable in Essex said, "We have to cover Brightlingsea and we have to send policemen to deal with the animal rights protestors." That is not good enough. The police were given that power and they should be using their manpower to help the farmers. If we had one or two good cases, the itinerants would go somewhere else; they might even, for a change, decide to behave like law-abiding citizens, although that would be a small miracle.

The NFU senior technical adviser said: I suspect that farmers and landowners will still be left to bear the brunt of the cost, time and stress involved in removing squatters from farmland through the Courts. That is not acceptable and I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on it in his reply to the debate.

The news is not all bad. In some parts of the country, the police are taking up the authority which has been given to them. I am told that, in the Metropolitan area, Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan police commissioner, has set out a plan of action and a clear procedure so that farmers and landowners know exactly which button to push when the problem hits them. They have a sort of ARP notice—those of us old enough to remember the war will know that it stands for "air raid precaution"—to pin up in their barns, outlining the stages to go through and the police officers to call. Sir Paul has said explicitly that he is determined to see that the unauthorised vehicles and animals that these people bring on to land are removed. He is also insisting that local councils co-operate in their part of the job when the vehicles and animals are taken into custody. Obviously, they have to go somewhere.

Co-operation is therefore possible, but I am assured by many of my colleagues with rural constituencies that what they all hoped would be a happy ending to the problem is not materialising—certainly not in our part of the world. I should like all chief officers to do as the Metropolitan police have done and assure farmers that they will never again need to act alone. They must have the sort of back-up that Sir Paul Condon is advocating in the Metropolitan area.

We need more guidelines from the Home Office or the Department of the Environment. Although most of my complaint is directed at the lack of police activity in my area, I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that allowing more official sites to come on stream will not cure the problem. We need more action on the part of the Government. I ask the Minister to try to give some idea to my farmers, and to those in other parts of the country, that the Government are determined to ensure that the powers that they have enacted and which are available to control this menace will be put into action.

Unless that happens, these people will pour into the country seasonally, acting like mobile totters—like Steptoe characters, picking over rubbish or offering their services to put down tarmac on drives. When they do that, they dump all the rubbish taken from people's drives on some hapless farmer's field. These people must be dealt with and made to act within the law of the land.

10.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on securing this debate. I am also delighted to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who has tirelessly campaigned for his constituents on this and other issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay is concerned about instances where the police have not exercised their powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with trespassers residing on land. I should make it clear at the outset that the enforcement of the law and the making of arrests are entirely operational matters for chief officers of police. They are not matters in which Ministers can intervene. However, what I can do is to explain to my hon. Friend and to the House what the relevant provisions of the Act can do.

Section 61 of the Act strengthens previous police powers to deal with trespass on land, and further assists the police in protecting landowners and local communities which suffer so badly from incursions on to land. It provides the police with a discretionary power to direct trespassers to leave land in certain circumstances.

The Act retains the requirement for the occupier to have taken reasonable steps to ask the trespassers to leave the land before the police may consider whether or not to use their powers. In addition, the section retains the safeguards that the police may direct some, and not necessarily all, the trespassers at a particular location to leave. The police therefore have the discretion to remove only those trespassers who are causing trouble, and equally, to allow those with pressing health or welfare needs to remain.

Police powers to deal with trespass are, rightly, limited to circumstances where public order problems might arise. The majority of trespass cases will continue to be dealt with by civil law procedures.

Of course, where landowners take action by this means, and where it is then necessary to serve court papers on trespassers, the police should be notified so that they can provide a presence to prevent breaches of the peace.

My hon. Friend will also be aware of new powers available to local authorities under sections 77 to 79 of the 1994 Act, to direct unauthorised campers to leave land where they are parked without permission. A direction can be issued immediately and without reference to the courts. If persons so directed do not leave the land in response to such a direction, or if they return to the same land with a vehicle within three months of the date of the direction, they commit an offence subject to a maximum fine of £1,000.

It is open to any private landowner to ask his local authority to use its powers of direction. We have issued a circular, No. 18/94, entitled "Gypsy Sites Policy and Unauthorised Camping", to local authorities. It gives guidance on the scope and use of the new powers. We have made it clear that we envisage local authorities using the powers primarily to protect private landowners plagued with the nuisance of unauthorised camping. I should, however, emphasise that the powers are, like those available to the police, discretionary. It is for the relevant local authority to judge whether, in all the circumstances, use of the powers is justified.

My hon. Friend has made criticisms of the local authorities and the police. If she has not already done so, I hope that she will arrange to discuss these matters directly with the police in Essex and with the local authority in Thurrock. As she has said, these matters are outside the Department of the Environment's responsibilities by and large. They are matters that she should pursue with my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office if necessary.

As for the proposed gipsy site at Gammon field, my hon. Friend has expressed concern at the decision of Thurrock borough council to press ahead with it. The council has taken the decision despite the repeal of the duty on local authorities to provide sites and of the power to pay gipsy site grant.

The position is that Thurrock borough council applied in 1992 for outline planning permission to provide a site of 21 pitches at Gammon field. The decision had been made after an extensive search for a suitable site over a number of years to provide for the demand from gipsies in the district, some of whom were encamped on sites without planning permission. There were a number of objections to the chosen site, on the basis that it was in the green belt. The planning application became the subject of a public inquiry in April 1993, at which I believe my hon. Friend gave evidence.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the full and proper process of public consultation and debate over the provision of the site was followed. In considering the proposal, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had particular regard to the following issues: the relationship of the proposal to policies contained with the Essex structure plan and deposited Thurrock borough local plan; the suitability of Gammon field for a gipsy site, having regard to its location within the metropolitan green belt and a landscape improvement area; the need for a further gipsy caravan site within the borough of Thurrock; the availability of alternative sites for the proposed development; the likely impact of the proposed development on the appearance and character of the area, and the amenity of local residents; and the effect of the proposals on the local highway network and, in particular, the adequacy of measures to control access to the site.

After giving careful consideration to a new scheme for access to the site submitted to the council in February 1994, about which my right hon. Friend and other parties to the public inquiry were consulted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was also satisfied that the highway safety objections which concerned the inspector could also be overcome, so in August 1994, he granted planning permission to Thurrock borough council. As my hon.

Friend will know, once the Secretary of State has issued his decision on a planning application, his jurisdiction in the matter is at an end.

Subject to the granting of planning permission, the authority submitted a valid grant application to my Department in October 1994. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am bound to consider any grant application which was submitted to the Secretary of State before 3 November 1994, the date of repeal of his power to pay gipsy site grant under section 80 of the 1994 Act. The application from Thurrock borough council falls into that category, and the local authority thus has a legitimate expectation that its application will be considered.

I cannot comment on the merits of this proposal, as the formal grant application is still being considered. My hon. Friend can be assured, however, that I shall consider all remaining grant applications, including the one for Gammon field, very carefully against our criteria of need, value for money and comparability with the works cost benchmark, before deciding whether approval is justified. In Essex, the benchmark is £27,000 per pitch, and we would need to be convincingly persuaded to agree any higher figure.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968 gave county councils a duty to provide authorised sites for gipsies, in the hope that it would control unauthorised camping. Generous Government grant has been made available to authorities to assist them to tackle the problems of unauthorised gipsy camping. Locally, there have been successes. In Essex, many sites have become accepted and integrated into local communities, even where existing residents had doubts. The development of official sites has also led to a great reduction in the number of unsightly roadside encampments.

There are a good many gipsy families throughout the country who are keen to make their own site arrangements, and the Department has issued planning guidance to show how that can be achieved within the existing planning framework. We have encouraged local authorities to consider gipsy families' needs within their development plans. Indeed, whether or not a county or district council decides to proceed with the provision of a gipsy site, the planning guidance to which I have referred allows that private sites may well be admissible within the current planning system, and we would expect local development plans to reflect that.

I am also aware that my hon. Friend has written to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in my Department concerning gipsies who have purchased land at Crays hill, Basildon, and sited caravans there. I understand that 17 plots have received planning permission, eight as a result of appeals against enforcement action dating from November 1992.

However, I hope that my hon. Friend will take comfort from what I have said, in connection with the Gammon field site and its location in the green belt, in that planning guidance on gipsy sites has been revised in circular 1/94. That policy, together with the new eviction powers contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 should, as I am sure my hon. Friend and her constituents will recognise, significantly curb the number of unsightly and disruptive occurrences of unauthorised camping.

I hope that what I have been able to say in explaining the position will be helpful to my hon. Friend. I am grateful to her for drawing the subject to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.