HC Deb 16 July 1997 vol 298 cc369-78 1.30 pm
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of new age travellers in my constituency. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), for his attendance to respond to the debate.

Until relatively recently, my constituency was mercifully free of trouble from new age travellers. Two years ago, a small group of them set up camp on farmland in Blaston, but, following the intervention of the landowner through the courts—albeit at considerable expense to himself—they were moved on, and have not been back since. This year, however, things have taken a turn for the worse.

In February and March, an illegal encampment of travellers was set up in Welham lane in the parish of Great Bowden. Welham lane is a public highway that leads from the A6 Market Harborough bypass eastwards towards the village of Welham. It is about three miles from the A6 to Welham along that lane—a single-track road with wide grass verges. There is a hedge down each side of the lane, and beyond the hedges lies typical Welland valley pasture land, which for centuries has been used by local farmers to graze cattle and, more recently, sheep.

At the A6 end of the lane, there is a farmyard to the north and a pheasant hatchery and farmhouse to the south. Halfway along the lane to Welham there is a hump-backed bridge over a stream. When the bypass was completed, the bridge was blocked to road traffic, but it remains open to horses, bicycles and pedestrians. The lane has been used extensively by local residents and farmers for recreational and agricultural purposes for many years.

The land either side of the lane is farmed by tenants and landowning farmers. This spring, as in earlier years, the fields were used for ewes and lambs as well as for the beef cattle for which Harborough is justly famous, but all this changed when the new age travellers arrived.

To begin with, there were only a few who parked their caravans, lorries and old buses on the verges to the west of the mid-way bridge. They were mostly in their twenties and thirties, although there were a few young children. They also had dogs—large dogs which ran up and down the lane, chasing the farmers" pick-up trucks carrying feed to the sheep, or barking at the heels of the horses being ridden down the lane.

At first, the new age travellers were seen as a curiosity by local residents, but, as their numbers grew, their behaviour became worse. By April, there were about 80 people living along the lane. It was by now impossible to take a dog for a walk along the lane without being menaced by the travellers' dogs. Riders would not risk taking their horses down the lane.

At weekends, the travellers held noisy parties, setting up large amplifiers in the fields and blasting music across the countryside to the annoyance of my constituents. One couple who live in a village two or three miles from Welham lane had to stay with relations in Suffolk to be sure of getting some sleep at night.

The encampment became a centre for drug dealing, as dealers from the city of Leicester found a ready market there. The site became a health hazard as the travelers defecated in the hedgerows, left litter and burned open fires along the verges. The travellers would steal petrol from local garages and demand drinking water from nearby farmers. The farmers themselves were also being abused. The travellers' dogs were allowed to roam free across the neighbouring fields, worrying and killing ewes and lambs. When the farmers came down the lane each morning and evening to feed their beasts, their vehicles were damaged and their access was blocked.

In the end, it became impossible to use the land at all, and flocks had to be moved to other land. That meant that tenant farmers had to pay hundreds, and even thousands, of pounds to rent the grazing that was effectively now out of bounds. For tenants and owners alike, it meant facing the possibility of over-grazing other land, at a time when rain and new grass were scarce. As if all that were not bad enough, the way in which the local authorities and the police dealt with the illegal encampment left much to be desired.

Before I say what I am about to say, let me make it clear that, on an individual basis, the Home Office, the county council and district council officials and the police officers from Market Harborough, whose task it was to deal with the new age travellers, did their best, and genuinely wanted to help. But what I and my constituents found so frustrating was the slowness of the official reaction and the apparent failure to anticipate and then co-ordinate a response to the problem caused by the travellers.

It seems that each agency of government was nibbling at the problems but without reference to any other relevant department, and that no one was taking a strategic overview or producing a co-ordinated response. To illustrate what I mean, I cite the following example: the nuisance caused by the loud music systems was a matter for the district council's environmental health department. The environmental health officer had powers to serve a noise abatement order, but, for understandable reasons, he would not go down Welham lane to serve the order without a police escort.

The police headquarters in Leicester felt that it was not a proper use of precious resources to send a regiment of policemen to protect one environmental health officer in far-off Great Bowden while he served a noise abatement order, when officers could be more fruitfully employed patrolling the streets of the city of Leicester. Nor would the police escort farmers to and from their fields through the encampment twice a day. They could not arrest the drug dealers or drug users unless they had evidence, and none of sufficient quality was available. If the vehicles were unlicensed and uninsured, it was a small matter compared to what needed doing elsewhere.

Action eventually came from the legal department of the county council, the highway authority with responsibility for Welham lane. In my naivety, I thought that the council would take proceedings under section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994—one of the provisions of that statute designed specifically to deal with the increasing problem of new age travellers.

I had several discussions with the county council in April this year, and I formed the distinct impression—although it was not put in so many words—that, as a matter of policy, Leicestershire county council and other local authorities do not use the 1994 Act, because it does not achieve its intended purpose. It was suggested to me that the Act allows for defences to be raised which hinder and delay the implementation of court orders made under it.

Instead of using that Act, the county council had applied to the district judge by originating summons under order 113 of the rules of the Supreme Court—a procedure for recovering possession of land wrongfully occupied by trespassers, which has been in use for 20 years or so and which is designed to deal primarily with urban squatters where not every trespasser can be identified.

The district judge was sympathetic to the county council's application but felt constrained to adjourn the hearing for two weeks, which was extended to three weeks, to allow the respondent new age travellers to gather evidence of hardship, to apply for legal aid and to apply to the divisional court to review the county council's decision to evict them. This was done on the advice of a firm of solicitors which has made something of a name for itself in this aspect of the law.

To my constituents, this meant that the very people who were continuing to do them harm were now being financially assisted by the state—over and above the welfare benefits that they were already receiving—through legal aid to allow them to do further harm. It was a case of the law-abiding, taxpaying citizen subsidising the unlawful, social-welfare-receiving trespasser in the continuance of his anti-social conduct.

The only thing that my farming constituents and I found in the least amusing throughout this episode was the new age travelers' denial that it was their dogs that had killed the sheep. It could not have been their dogs, they told the district judge, because their dogs were vegetarians.

The other illegal encampment in my constituency is in Mill lane in Smeeton Westerby. This village is about eight miles north-west of Market Harborough, and eight miles south-east of the city of Leicester. Mill lane runs north from the village main street towards the parish of Fleckney. The first half mile of the road from the village is a metal road; the remainder is not made up but is still part of the public highway. Like Welham lane, it is hedged and verged, and runs through grazing land. At one point, there is a privately owned wood or orchard adjacent to the lane.

About three or four years ago, a small group of travellers broke into the wood and set up camp there. They did all the things that trespassers usually do, but, as the site was on private land and the owner lives in Australia and has either lost interest in it or cannot be found, the travellers have stayed in the wood. So long as there were not many of them and they kept their dogs under control, nobody did anything much about them. Indeed, they have been there for so long that I believe the Post Office has given them a postal code, and two children from the camp attend the local primary school.

Unfortunately, the site has acted as a magnet for other new age travellers, who have camped along the verge of the lane. The problems experienced by residents and farmers in Great Bowden with the Welham lane site are now being replicated in Smeeton Westerby.

There are now approximately 80 new age travellers living along Mill lane. Their dogs have killed sheep and lambs—two of the dogs have been shot dead by a local farmer to protect his sheep. The new age travellers have begun to attract drug dealers from Leicester, and they have made it impossible for villagers to ride their horses or bicycles along the lane, or even to walk their dogs.

Attempts to remove the new age travellers from Mill lane have been frustrated by two things: first, by the travellers simply moving to the adjacent private land and then, after an interval, returning to reoccupy the verges; and, secondly, by the landowner's absence abroad.

However, following the lessons learned from the Welham lane episode, the police, Leicestershire county council and Harborough district council are working together in a more organised fashion to decide how best to deal with the 50 or so vehicles and their inhabitants on Mill lane. Inspector Steve Hanson, who has recently taken over as officer in charge of the Market Harborough local police unit, has introduced a greater sense of purpose and focus. The chief executives of the two councils and their legal departments are now working closely together.

When the Welham lane site was eventually vacated by the new age travellers after the district judge's order had been finalised in May, the police said that they were prepared to provide back-up in sufficient numbers to let the travellers know that they meant business, and the travellers withdrew their application to the divisional court. A vast amount of public money had been spent dealing with the encampment—not just on police and local authority officers' time, but on lawyers' fees, legal aid, Home Office inquiries by me, and the collective dealing with the public inquiries by the several agencies involved. The Smeeton Westerby travellers are still on site. Proceedings against them are being contemplated by the county and district councils.

We need to reconsider the issue of new age travellers with a greater sense of urgency. It is the Government's duty to persuade local authorities to co-ordinate their approach to the problem more effectively. If one county has information about a convoy or encampment of new age travellers, it should make sure that its neighbours know. Removing travellers from Leicestershire helps the people of my county, but that may mean that the encampment moves on to one of the several adjacent counties, and the legal process has to be gone through again at further public expense.

Why cannot the Home Office or the Department of the Environment set up a unit to monitor the activities of new age travellers and advise local authorities on the best means of solving the problems they cause? The same approach should be taken by the police across the country. Intelligence and previous experiences should be shared for the greater advantage of the law-abiding and tax-paying public.

Within counties, district and county councils should talk to each other, plan together and act in concert with the police. It is also incumbent on local authorities to let Members of Parliament and the Government know if they are unclear about or dissatisfied with a statute and its perceived effects or defects, rather than keeping their misgivings to themselves and failing to use it.

Local authorities and the police are misleading themselves about the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 and recent case law. Section 61 gives the police a power to direct trespassers to vacate land. That power arises if the police believe

that two or more persons are trespassing on land and are present there with the common purpose of residing there for any period, that reasonable steps have been taken by or on behalf of the occupier to ask them to leave and—

  1. (a) that any of those persons has caused damage to the land or to property on the land or used threatening … behaviour towards the occupier … or
  2. (b) that those persons have between them six or more vehicles on the land".
The police need only have reasonable grounds for believing the persons concerned to be trespassers. The trespass does not have to be established by an order of the court before the power under section 61 arises. The period of residence is not specified. I suggest that it can be any period.

The section requires only that the owner should have taken reasonable steps to ask the trespassers to leave. When passing the Bill into law, Parliament did not say that the occupier should be expected to have taken legal action or obtained a court order before the power in section 61 may be invoked. We do not ask those who are assaulted to take civil action before the police become involved to press criminal charges. The power under the section arises if there are at least six vehicles on the land, even if none of the events that I have just recited has occurred.

The statutory purpose of section 61 is clear. When we passed the Act, we wished the police to have the power to direct that land be vacated if at least six vehicles are present, even if no criminal activity or damage to land is involved, without expecting the landowner to use a civil remedy before acting. The importance of that parliamentary intention is emphasised by the reduction in the number of vehicles that must be present, from 12 under the Public Order Act 1986 to six.

Section 77 enables a local authority to serve a direction requiring persons to vacate land, the failure to comply with which may also constitute a criminal offence. However, there are some important differences between section 77 and section 61. The power in section 77 arises if persons are residing in only one vehicle on land in an authority's area. The requirement of at least six vehicles does not apply. It applies if vehicles are located on highway land, unoccupied land or occupied land without the consent of the occupier.

Even for an occupation of fewer than six vehicles, there is no requirement that any of the criminal conduct referred to in section 61 should have occurred for section 77 to apply. An offence is committed under section 77 when a person knowing of the direction fails to leave the land as soon as practicable.

Any defence is restricted to a failure to comply caused by illness, mechanical breakdown or other immediate emergency. The defence under section 61, by contrast, includes a reasonable excuse for failing to leave the land as soon as reasonably practicable". If a direction under section 77 is contravened, the local authority may apply to the magistrates court for an order requiring the removal of any vehicle, property or resident person. The order may also authorise the authority to remove vehicles or property. Under section 61, the police have a power to arrest, and under section 62 they have the power to seize and remove vehicles without the need for a warrant or order of the court.

I hope that I have shown that sections 61 and 77 are different. If they were not, one of them would be unnecessary. Section 61 is directed at situations in which trespassers remain present on land despite the occupier's request that they should leave and certain misconduct has occurred. That power is available to the police if any of the events set out in section 61(1)(a) have occurred. The police can take direct action against the persons thought to be wrongfully present and their property. The section is clearly intended by Parliament to be a speedy and effective remedy, without the need for additional legal proceedings before the trespass is brought to an end.

In contrast, section 77 deals with a broader range of circumstances, in which criminal activities or substantial numbers of vehicles need not be involved and the interests of private landowners need not be affected. Although the local authority is unable to take direct action without court proceedings, the defence under section 77(5) is relatively limited.

Local authorities and police forces have placed reliance on the case of R. v. Lincolnshire county council and Wealden district council ex parte Atkinson, which was decided by Mr. Justice Sedley in 1996. They have also been influenced by the Department of the Environment circular 18/94.

That case and that circular gave some police forces the false impression that the same principles enunciated by the judge in the Wealden case apply to orders issued by the police or local authorities under the 1994 Act. Some police forces think that inquiries about education, housing, social service needs and similar matters have to be made before a local authority direction can be made, and that, before the police can invoke their powers under the Act, account should be taken of the personal circumstances of the travellers.

The judge in the Wealden case did not analyse section 61 of the 1994 Act in detail. His decision was based as much on the statutory duties placed on local authorities under the Children Act 1989 and the Housing Act 1985, as well as the obligation on local education authorities to provide education for all children of school age in their area.

The Wealden judgment does not support the view that a local authority or chief constable owes a duty of care to trespassers who are the subject of action under section 61. The function of the police is to enforce the law. It is not their primary duty to take a view on social welfare. There is no legal basis for asserting that the police are under a legal duty to take social factors into account before acting under section 61. The annexe to the Home Office circular 45/94 does not suggest that the Wealden case is relevant, or that any such duty applies.

The powers provided to the police under section 61 and to local authorities under section 77 of the 1994 Act to deal with new age travellers are clear. Parliament deliberately provided those powers, and my constituents and I have a right to expect that they will be exercised by public agencies and authorities when necessary.

As a lawyer, I am the first to admit that the law is not always certain, but it can be made more certain if the Government take the steps that I am advocating: the organisation of greater co-operation across the country in dealing with new age travellers on the one hand, and on the other hand instilling a firmer sense of purpose among police forces and local authorities in applying the powers and remedies deliberately given to them by Parliament under the 1994 Act.

Local government officers and police officers are human—so, too, are lawyers—and they naturally have a well-intentioned concern for the welfare of travellers with whom they are required to deal, but I suggest that such well-intentioned concerns should not be placed above the rights of the law-abiding and tax-paying citizens, whose lives and businesses in my constituency—and no doubt many others as well—have been so badly affected by the unlawful activities of new age travellers.

1.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing this debate on an issue of concern in his constituency: the unauthorised camping by so-called new age travellers on land which they do not own, and the appalling nuisance that has been caused, particularly in relation to their dogs roaming on adjacent land, noise from rave parties and intimidation of people living in the area. The hon. and learned Gentleman and his constituents have my sincere sympathy for the obvious distress that the travellers have caused.

As the hon. and learned Gentleman has made clear, this is a complex and emotive area, which can have a real impact on local businesses and communities. It inevitably covers a range of issues: unauthorised camping, noise nuisance, threatening behaviour, dogs, and many others—the list is very long. He has drawn particular attention to how the issue involves working with a number of different authorities and different powers. The spread of responsibility inevitably crosses administrative boundaries not only locally but in central Government. Indeed, I think that he was a little surprised that I was the Minister responding to the debate.

As the hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware, although my Department has policy responsibility for local authority powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has responsibility for those powers available to the police, which deal not only with trespass on land but with drug dealing and general criminal activity—whether among travellers or anyone else. There are also important links between our Departments in policy on dogs and dealing with noise nuisance and raves.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has identified the frustrations which can arise when the agencies involved do not, for whatever reason, work well together. It is precisely because the issues are so complex that my officials and their colleagues in the Home Office keep in constant touch on such matters, and have indeed discussed this very case over the past few days.

My officials have also been in touch with officers at Leicestershire county council, who I understand have evicted the travellers camped at Welham lane using civil powers, to regain possession of the council's land, despite attempts to challenge it through the courts. That proves that such situations can be dealt with effectively, and that unauthorised campers, particularly those who make life a misery for everyone else, can be evicted. One point about the case, however, is the time that the process can sometimes take, which has obviously caused considerable irritation locally.

I am very conscious of the real difficulties that encampments such as the ones described by the hon. and learned Member can present to local authorities, particularly when the travellers involved seek to use every ruse to prolong their stay on a totally unsuitable site. Nobody pretends that it is easy, especially when such large groups are involved, to strike a balance between the need to control what can be—and clearly was in this case—an appalling public nuisance and the rights of the campers concerned, but local authorities which have a consistent, workable policy in place and have good working relationships with the local police and other agencies are more likely to be able to evict successfully when the need arises.

It is precisely such a co-operative attitude—all agencies working together and being clear about one another's responsibilities—that we want to encourage. My Department is examining the scope for disseminating the good practice already in place in some authorities for dealing with unauthorised camping—whether by new age travellers, gipsies or others. We have appointed research contractors from the university of Birmingham to carry out the work. They have just completed phase I of their project, which comprised detailed case studies in six local authority areas where unauthorised camping is known to be a problem, concentrating on the methods employed by those authorities to deal with it.

The researchers have interviewed officers, covering a range of issues such as those pertaining to environmental health, social services, education and enforcement. I look forward to seeing the outcome of their research so far, which will form a vital part of our collective ministerial education on matters concerning gipsies and other travellers. I can already tell from my postbag that the issue excites much public interest across the country. I am, however, bound to say that I get the strong impression that there is no one easy solution to the problem. If there were, someone would presumably have found it by now.

I turn to some of the specific points that the hon. and learned Gentleman raised—first, drug misuse. He says that the Welham lane site became a centre for drug dealing in the Leicester area. I should say straight away that tackling drug misuse, whether by new age travellers or anybody else, is a priority for the Government. He may know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed my right hon. Friend the President of the Council to serve as Chair of a Cabinet Committee to oversee the development of the Government's drug strategy.

Part of the remit of my right hon. Friend the President of the Council will be the appointment of a drugs tsar—someone who will play a major role in ensuring that the Government's strategy for dealing with the problem is effective as it can be. He or she will have the power to gather together key people from health, the police, education, prisons, the probation and other services to ensure that they work closely together. Much good work is already being done, including that led by the drug action teams across the country at local level. I understand that there is such a team in the Leicestershire area.

More generally, police officers have the power to search persons for possession of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Section 23 of that Act provides that a constable may stop and search any person—or search any premises—for the purposes of finding controlled drugs. The search must be carried out in accordance with a code of practice issued under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and an officer must have reasonable grounds to suspect that the items are being carried before undertaking a search.

The hon. and learned Gentleman painted a worrying and disturbing picture of the travellers' dogs killing a number of sheep on land adjacent to the camp. The excuse offered by travellers that their dogs could not have killed sheep "because they were vegetarian" is one of the richest that I have ever heard.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may be aware that provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 make it an offence for an owner or person in charge of a dog to permit it to be in a public place not wearing a collar with the name and address of the owner on the collar or on a plate or badge attached to it. The Act also allows for the seizure of dogs on private land, provided that the landowner or occupier has given his consent. The Control of Dogs Order 1992 lists certain types of dogs as exemptions, but dogs belonging to gipsies and travellers are not included.

I turn to the powers available to the police under section 61 of the 1994 Act, which I know is of particular concern to the hon. and learned Gentleman. Such matters are properly for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider, but I can say that his general position is that he will not comment on specific police operations since they are the responsibility of the chief constable.

It is for the chief constable to decide how to use the resources at his disposal and how to order his policing. It is also important to remember that the power is discretionary, and that only in circumstances where there is a serious threat to public order or of criminal activity will the police consider using the power. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman has already been in touch with the Leicestershire constabulary on the matter.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has given a reasonable description of the section 61 powers, and he was right to say that the Wealden case did not concern the use of the power. He will, I am sure, know that it is not for me or any ministerial colleague to give a definitive interpretation of the law. That, rightly, is for the agencies involved and ultimately for the courts.

It seems only common sense that the police and local authorities should liaise with one another in such cases, so that, if the police decide to use their public order powers, the relevant local authorities can take steps to fulfil any statutory responsibilities that they may have towards the trespassers. The police will also wish to take into account welfare factors in using their powers, and responsibility for judging how to do that rests with the chief constable.

As for setting up a unit to monitor new age traveller activity, I understand that a body called the northern intelligence unit, which is hosted by Cumbria police, and a sister unit, which is hosted by Wiltshire police, collect data from all forces about the movements of new age travellers and ravers in England and Wales. Intelligence is provided to police forces as appropriate, and I would expect forces to liaise with local authorities on the basis of such intelligence where that is appropriate. We have, however, to remember that there may be some sensitivity surrounding the use of intelligence obtained by the police for agencies outside the police service.

The police also have powers under the 1994 Act to deal with unlicensed mass night-time raves on land, which, as at Welham lane, cause an unacceptable public nuisance and affect many people, who are kept awake, sometimes for nights on end, by incessant music played at intolerable levels. I know that the hon. and 1 Gentleman will agree with me that local communities should not have to fear the prospect of mass invasions of land by those who selfishly seek entertainment regardless of the rights and amenities of others. The police are, for example, able to stop persons who they believe will attempt to go to a rave site within a radius of five miles of the site and direct them not to proceed. It is an offence not to obey that direction.

Once again, I thank the hon. and 1 Gentleman for bringing this important arid difficult subject to the attention of the House. He has highlighted a number of points which ministerial colleagues and I will want to bear well in mind as we consider the range of issues involved. He has also highlighted all too well the difficulties which can arise when agencies responsible for eviction try rightly to balance the need to restore public order with the rights of the campers concerned. Nobody pretends that that is, or ever has been, an easy balance to strike—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.