HC Deb 20 June 1996 vol 279 cc1100-8

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

10 pm

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

I thank Madam Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise the subject of so-called new age travellers on the Adjournment debate tonight. I say so-called because, in a letter to me—one of many—the writer says: There are, of course, no such things as New Age Travellers". It is a term the press invented. The letter says: These people are vagrants. They have not opted out of society as may be claimed, but choose to 'cherry-pick' the rules in order to select the best ones and observing no duties and responsibilities, nor do they have any respect for anyone but themselves. They roam in gangs and make nothing but trouble and expense to the mainly law abiding citizens everywhere. Be that as it may, the so-called new age travellers had a sizeable encampment in my constituency during April and May. They gathered ostensibly to celebrate a Pictish festival at Dunnichen hill near the village of Letham. The event has taken place for several years. In earlier years, Robbie the Pict and his followers had attended for a weekend. The local people enjoyed much of what took place then.

Sadly, this year, the event was an unlicensed rock music festival of around two weeks' duration. At the height of the event, about 2,500 people were involved. By the second weekend, the number had dropped to about 300 travellers, most of whom appeared to be of English origin—odd people, I suggest, to be celebrating a Pictish festival.

The major problem experienced during the event was excessive noise caused by amplified rock music played almost incessantly over several days. It was clearly audible in the village of Letham some two miles away. Not surprisingly, law-abiding, tax-paying constituents complained to me and to Tayside police.

In addition, dogs accompanying the travellers were allowed to run wild, and they caused considerable distress, injury and death to sheep. Some 2,000 pheasant chicks were destroyed. A number of sheep were killed, and several of the travellers' dogs were shot by estate staff.

There were also problems of rubbish and litter, there was damage to walls and fences, and obstruction was caused by the travellers' vehicles, many of which were without road fund licences, MOTs or insurance. There were no sanitary or toilet facilities. About 2,500 people were on the site, and raw sewage drained into the main water supply for the estate's home farm and cottages, and thereafter into Rescobie loch and on to Forfar.

The anti-social and at times abusive stance adopted by the travellers made difficulties for the local farmers and estate staff. It also made police negotiations virtually impossible, and led to a confrontational approach which, was unhelpful in fostering good relations. All that occurred despite a high degree of tolerance exercised by local residents and the Tayside police. It was also apparent that the unlicensed sale of alcohol was taking place on the site, and there were stories about soft drugs being used, Tayside police confirm that the officers on duty were of the opinion that many of the travellers were obviously under the influence of alcohol or drugs for much of the period.

Following continued complaints, a police operation was undertaken to disable and seize the most prominent sound system being operated on the site. While that was being carried out, the officers came under sustained attack from the travellers, who threw stones and brandished sticks and other implements. Fortunately, no injuries of any consequence were caused, but it is worrying that the travellers had prepared a cache of weaponry in readiness for the police action.

Seizure of the sound equipment and the charging of the operator were dealt with as a common law breach of the peace. In addition, 16 individuals were charged under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in respect of the camp at Dunnichen hill and a prior encampment near Forfar.

My concern is for future years. We do not want Dunnichen hill to become the Stonehenge of Scotland. Robbie the Pict and his friends will return next year. We do not want the new age travellers joining them and a repeat of what happened this year.

I am reminded that the Opposition opposed the aggravated trespass clause in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act being applied to Scotland, yet the police used their powers under that Act in this case and in an earlier case involving the removal of hawkers, when a direction to leave land was made under section 61 and the hawkers agreed to move without further objection.

The police would not have been able to operate without those powers, yet they were opposed by the Opposition. I remind the House of that because, as is so often the case with law and order legislation, the Opposition oppose the introduction of powers and then are delighted when they are used in the interests of law-abiding citizens.

I accept that decisions about the appropriate course of action to take with new age travellers must be made by the chief constable, but I submit that chief constables should be directed to use section 61 as early as possible.

I also agree that affected landowners should request the removal of new age travellers. In the case of Dunnichen, only one of the two landowners made such a request. That hampered police operations, as it placed the police in a difficult position and required an operational judgment based on the level of the nuisance and the disruption. I wish to place on record my thanks for the way in which the police acted, and the fact that they managed to take the necessary action.

I recognise that, in legal terms, the powers under section 61 are adequate, but they can be hampered by practical difficulties. If the travellers refuse to leave, the only option left to the police is to arrest the offenders. Such action will probably lead to confrontation and may leave family groups stranded while the head of the household is detained.

Another problem may arise from a failure to define the extent of land to which a section 61 direction is intended to apply, and on which further trespass is forbidden. Will my right hon. Friend consider issuing guidelines to clarify the position and to assist the police? I understand that, for the police, dealing with new age travellers essentially involves enforcing the law and is a matter of practicality.

The number involved and their reluctance to accept regulation of their life-style can make police intervention a matter of considerable difficulty. That is why the Conservative party was determined to put those powers on the statute book.

Consequently, the practice differs considerably from the theory and from the Act. Sections 61 and 62, which give certain powers to the police, may, if exercised, risk causing further problems. I recognise that, but even so I believe that, without those powers, the police could not have acted as they did so effectively at Dunnichen.

Even if we do not use the powers, we cannot accept lawlessness. I make it perfectly clear that my constituents will not accept lawlessness.

We also need a definition of the extent of the land to which a section 61 direction is intended to apply, on which further trespass is forbidden. That is important, because we are trying to deal with a possible repeat next year. If a section 61 direction is intended to apply, will it apply to the whole estate? In Scotland, if we do apply it not to the entire estate, but to the precise site that the travellers occupied this year, they could simply move a couple of fields away, and we would have a problem.

Finally, we must address the ghastly fact that the travellers are to a considerable extent supported in their life style by the social security regime, which pays out benefits irrespective of their place of residence. As those individuals are reluctant to contribute to society or to seek employment, why should the taxpayer subsidise their way of life? Why should the taxpayers in Letham have those people forced upon them? Why should taxpayers have to see that, if those people go to an office to pick up their money and find that it is not there, the police have another incident on their hands?

Faced with such intrusions into their lives, why should my constituents not say to my right hon. Friend, "Thank you for putting those necessary powers on to the statute book, but can you use your persuasive powers to get the Department for Social Security to reconsider how it makes payments to travellers, and perhaps to cease that form of mobile support?"

I, too, say to my right hon. Friend, "Thank you for the powers that you have given the police and the fact that we can move the travellers on." I trust that sections 61 and 62 will mean that they cannot come back, and that we can do what was done at Stonehenge. In plain language, I conclude by saying that we do not want them back. We are happy to have Robbie the Pict, but we do not want the new age travellers.

I have told the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) whose constituency abuts mine and was affected by the same new age travellers—they went into his constituency and caused considerable trouble—that he can have a couple of minutes to speak before the winding-up speech.

10.12 pm
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) has illustrated graphically the problems visited upon Angus by the new age travellers, and I thank him for allowing me to speak briefly in his Adjournment debate, which I much appreciate.

Angus is used to dealing with genuine travelling people, and has installed some excellent travelling people's sites. The village of Letham, which is one of Scotland's major beauty spots, is used to Robbie the Pict and the small number of Pictish-related annual events which have taken place over many years with little or no disturbance—indeed, with some enjoyment for local people.

If travelling people leave the area as they find it and arrive in small numbers, there is minimal disturbance, but what happened recently meant that some of the most picturesque and vulnerable areas were swamped with new age travellers, who caused damage to property and livestock, health and sanitation problems, and left a trail of angry people in their wake.

New age travellers driven from England should not look upon Scotland as a soft touch. Those scenes must not be repeated. Action must be taken to prevent a recurrence of such large-scale gatherings and the disturbance that they create for the surrounding communities. That can be done through exclusion orders and all the other available mechanisms.

I support Angus council's tough approach to the problems, and its initiative in calling for a summit meeting to review the situation, which will allow all the authorities involved—Angus council, the police and the Members of Parliament—as well as the individuals directly involved and Letham community council, to meet and plan ahead to ensure that there is a co-ordinated community response to any future recurrence in the Angus area.

I am sure that Angus council will echo the words of the hon. Member for North Tayside—this will happen again. We will have to be ready for it and take all possible steps to protect the local environment and the local community. What happened was unacceptable and we must ensure that we are fully prepared and able to act instantly on behalf of local residents and the wider community in Angus.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tayside on choosing this topic for the Adjournment debate. I hope that the problem will be dealt with effectively and efficiently, and that it will not recur.

10.14 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) on securing a debate on this important topic, and I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh). I note that he and his colleague, the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), are the only Opposition Members present for the debate—not a single Labour or Liberal Democrat Member is present.

The fact that we are having this debate tonight is a vindication of the Government's policy of ensuring that the provisions relating to collective trespass applied to Scotland as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom. I must gently point out to the hon. Member for Angus, East that he and his party opposed that vehemently, along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 made its way through this House.

At the time, those provisions were spoken against and voted against by Labour. For the Liberals, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) denied that the problems that the Act was designed to address existed in Scotland. Yet we had the pleasure in the Scottish Grand Committee on Monday of the former leader of the Liberals, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), calling for action under the Act against new age travellers as a result of local complaints. It is not only within the Labour party that we see leaders finding that they must embrace Conservative policies that they had opposed.

Because we have taken action, even in the face of strong opposition from the Scottish National party and others, the police were able to act decisively in response to such calls. I shall try to deal with the various points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside raised, but it may be helpful if I say something about the background to the situation involving new age travellers in North Tayside.

My information is that, on 26 March 1996, a number of travelling people, including family groups, camped on Lour estate, near Forfar. The landowners requested them to leave the site. When they failed to do so, the group was required to quit by the police. Again there was a failure to comply, and seven people were reported to the procurator fiscal at Forfar for contravention of the trespass provisions in section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

The group moved off the Lour estate and joined other new age travellers from various parts of the United Kingdom—including, as my hon. Friend said, Northumberland, Cornwall and Lincolnshire—who were camped on Dunnichen hill at Letham near Forfar. The purpose of the gathering was apparently to celebrate the battle of Nechtansmere between the Picts and Northumbrians, which is reputed to have taken place on that site. An unofficial festival was planned for the weekend of 17 to 19 May. Police estimate that, by that weekend, some 300 to 400 new age travellers had camped at the site, with about a further 1,500 people who intended to stay for the weekend.

That annual festival has taken place for more than 11 years and generally passed without serious incident. Local opinion towards the festival over the years has been ambivalent, with many people—particularly shopkeepers—welcoming the activity and the added trade arising from the presence of occasional travellers and weekend visitors. However, it has become clear that, whatever the historical origins of the festival, it now represents a significant incursion on land, and a considerable public order and safety problem.

This year's event was scheduled to take place on the weekend of 17 to 19 May. Following complaints from one of the landowners, a large-scale police operation was mounted to restrict car access to the area. That was successful, and there is little doubt that the torrential rain that fell in the area that weekend and the absence of vehicles, which would have otherwise provided sleeping accommodation and shelter for many of those attending, contributed to the failure of the event.

A number of those gathered for the festival decided to extend their stay, in the knowledge that the following weekend was a bank holiday. During the intervening period, a group of individuals thought not to be directly associated with the new age travellers brought a sound system from Cornwall, including an 8,000 watt amplifier. Throughout the night of Friday 24 May, the police received numerous complaints from the residents of Letham, as my hon. Friend said, some two miles distant, about the levels of noise coming from the campsite. On the morning of Saturday 25 May, police officers attended the site and took possession of the amplifier in the face of a great deal of hostility. Stones, bricks and bottles were hurled at the police. They have video evidence of the operation, which confirms that.

Over the second weekend, police mounted road blocks at three points to prevent further arrivals at the site. People leaving the site by vehicle were informed that they would not be permitted to return. Over the period of the police operations, 16 people were reported to the procurator fiscal under the illegal trespass provisions of section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A further 10 were charged with other offences, including police assault and breach of the peace.

At the end of the festival, police allowed one vehicle loaded with petrol cans to leave the site to collect fuel for some of the others. That has been the subject of inaccurate reporting by some sections of the media. I make it perfectly clear, therefore, that the police neither paid for nor provided petrol, as part of some kind of deal to persuade the new age travellers to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tayside police have understandably taken great exception to those allegations, and the local commander has written in the strongest terms to the editor of the newspaper in question, who I hope will apologise.

For the record, a little more than 1 gallon of diesel was supplied by the police to two vehicles that had run out of fuel some distance from the area while travelling towards Perth, to enable them to get to the nearest garage. I would expect the police to extend such assistance to any stranded motorist.

On Tuesday 28 May, the new age travellers began moving off Dunnichen hill. The group subsequently travelled in two directions. One group travelled into the Grampian area, where it later stopped at Gourdon near Inverbervie—to the considerable annoyance of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside. The other group, I am led to believe, ultimately settled near Peebles.

The Gourdon group initially settled peacefully, with the police keeping a watchful eye on it. However—I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's remarks are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security—after they had cashed their DSS benefit cheques, a number of the travellers became, to put it politely, the worse for wear with drink. Two individuals left the site in a vehicle. The police assessed the manner in which the vehicle was being driven as a danger not only to those in the vehicle but to the general public. The vehicle was stopped and one individual was apprehended and, I understand, charged with road traffic offences.

The other occupant of the vehicle returned to the site and alerted associates there. That led to a confrontation with the police, and a number of arrests were made. Police subsequently directed the travellers to quit the site and informed them that if they failed to do so, the trespass provisions of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 would be enforced.

I understand that the Gourdon group, consisting of approximately 100 people and 35 vehicles, left the site on Sunday 16 June. Latest reports from the Northern constabulary suggest that they are at present in the Spean bridge area.

The other group, consisting of about 50 people, including women and children, arrived at a site near Peebles on I June. They are camped on private property, and the landowner has written to the chief constable seeking their removal under the 1994 Act. I understand from Lothian and Borders police that the new age travellers do not intend to remain there much longer. They have indicated to police—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will no doubt note this—that, once they have collected their DSS benefit cheques and repaired their vehicles, they will move on. I believe that that has been accepted by the police and the landowner.

The police have established links with the travellers and have told them that, if they do not move by an agreed date, they fully intend to use the powers available to them under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to eject them. That date will be notified to the travellers in advance, and the police fully expect that they will leave before the deadline. If they do not, they will be effectively moved on. The police believe that relationships with the travellers are such that the use of force will not be required. I am told that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale has been kept fully informed by the police.

The examples that I have just cited demonstrate that there is a growing problem with mass trespass in Scotland. The Government decided that having the power to deal with trespassers in Scotland was sensible and prudent, as we rightly anticipated that anti-social development. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office said in the debate on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994: Scotland is not immune to this kind of activity … there is every reason to take preventive action".—[Official Report, 13 April 1994; Vol. 241, c. 378.] The Government therefore gave the police new powers to deal with trespassers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Those powers came into force in November 1994, and they fall into three broad categories.

First, provisions relating to the offence of aggravated trespass provide protection for those engaging in lawful activities, whoever and whatever they may be, from trespassers who intend to behave disruptively. The Act gives the police power to direct trespassers to leave the land if they reasonably believe that the trespassers will seek to disrupt or prevent a lawful activity on that land.

The second group of provisions in the Act is aimed at preventing mass encampment on private land by trespassers. Those powers are triggered only if people invade land with the intention of residing there, refuse to leave that land and then damage it, or destroy property, crops or buildings, or threaten the occupier, a member of his family or agent.

Thirdly, the police can direct persons assembling on land to leave the land when it is believed that a gathering will take place such as to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality by the playing of amplified music during the night.

The events that I have described demonstrate that the police are prepared to use those powers, and that they work. The use of the powers in the 1994 Act is, of course, essentially an operational matter for the police, but I have every confidence that the police will take all necessary steps to respond effectively to any complaints received. I understand that the police believe that the powers that they now have are adequate to enable them to deal effectively with such situations.

I believe that the police in Tayside, as well as Grampian and Lothian and Borders, have acted firmly and responsibly in dealing with the incidents that I have described. By using the powers in the 1994 Act, they have been successful in limiting the damage that has been caused to property. Indeed, I understand that one landowner has complimented the police in Tayside on their handling of the situation at Dunnichen hill.

I deplore the behaviour of some of the new age travellers. They are taking advantage of the good will of society in a way that I abhor. They are souring public opinion against the traditional traveller whom the Government have done much to help. But I welcome the firm police action that has been taken, and I have every confidence that that will continue in the future.

The situation is yet another example of a strong law and order policy initially being vilified by the Opposition parties, yet a short time later they are only too willing to urge use of such powers, especially when pressed by their local electorate into doing so. That is what makes us different from Opposition Members. The Government believe in protecting local communities from the damage and nuisance caused by new age travellers and their like. The Opposition's focus is on protecting the imagined rights of a tiny minority, to impinge on communities in a way that Opposition Members would find unacceptable on their own doorstep.

I welcome the opportunity to repeat my pledge that the Government will wage relentless war on all law breakers in every area of life, and will sustain the rights and security of our citizens on every occasion. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside will take every opportunity to convey it to his constituents that, had he not been in the House, supporting the Government, those powers would not have been in place so that action could be taken effectively to protect the interests of his constituents with his support, as has happened in recent weeks.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.