HC Deb 10 May 1999 vol 331 cc84-96

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

8.4 pm

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Shoreham, in the heart of my constituency, is currently a town under siege. That quiet, mostly residential Sussex coastal town, with a population of around 15,000, is an unwilling host to some 200 travellers, who occupy a derelict former council depot in an array of some 100 assorted charabancs, buses, caravans, lorries, ex-ambulances and former military vehicles, on a site known as Ropetackle, bordering the river Adur, on the edge of Shoreham's town centre.

The shanty town at the gateway to Shoreham, in the heart of my constituency, is hardly a good advertisement for visitors or potential investors in our town —let alone the immense disruption, anxiety and anger that is being forced on the local community. It is also seriously jeopardising the long awaited Ropetackle development plan set up by English Partnerships and, I hope, to be carried forward by South East regional development agency in the near future.

The number of travellers has been growing towards the current level of 200 since the end of 1997, but it was only a few weeks ago that the local council felt able to initiate legal proceedings to have the travellers evicted. Residents in the area around Ropetackle have been driven to despair. They have faced all-night parties and flashing lights. Their houses have vibrated to the thumping noise of music. Bonfires and smoke frequently engulf the whole area at night. There is heavy drinking among the occupants, and many others, suspected of being under the influence of various other illicit substances, stumble around the area.

Rubbish is strewn across the site, wrecked cars are being done up, discarded gas canisters are strewn on the public highway —certainly a danger —electricity cables have been stretched across a public highway, and welding equipment has been left where children can play with it. Ropetackle is, in short, an environmental hazard, with 200 people living in cramped conditions. Human waste is dumped at the bottom of residents' gardens. Sewage and pollution are gratuitously dumped into the river. Fences are broken down, kids play on top of dangerous piles of wrecked cars and climb on to the adjacent railway line. Guard dogs bark all night long and scavenge around the site and the town, causing traffic accidents and attacking residents.

A neighbouring garage site —a private business —has also been occupied by the travellers, and is in danger of going under. The garage has been broken into, the proprietor is unable to use part of the land for his legitimate business, he may lose insurance cover for his business, and he has been threatened with violence by the travellers.

The whole town of Shoreham is being intimidated. Drunken travellers, often crazed out of their minds, roam the town, rummaging through bins, causing traffic accidents, being abusive to residents and terrorising little children on the way to school. There has also been an outbreak of petty crime, which is more than a coincidence. Many shops and pubs in the town of Shoreham have now barred travellers. Residents have organised petitions, and they are frustrated by the local police, who in many cases are powerless to bring the siege to an end.

I shall read out comments from some of the many letters that I have received on this subject from my constituents. One that I received a few weeks ago reads: On the night of Saturday, 13th March. there was another all night party in the Council building area … There was a lot of noise and very loud music until 7.30ish in the morning which meant another night of very little sleep … Once again the piece of land at the rear of one of our neighbour's garden … was used as a toilet by some of the people from the party (and not just as a urinal). Another letter states: The stress of having this in our backyard is unbearable. We could not function as a family with three young children, after losing sleep, so we have taken to sleeping in the front downstairs room of our house at weekends … We cancelled a Bank holiday break in Wales —which we had already paid for in advance —because we had no confidence in leaving our property vacant for 2 nights … This is the effect those 'spongers' of society have had on us. Another report by residents says: Children have been seen defecating over the edge of the wall on the riverside as well as people emptying buckets of waste into the river … It is impossible to sell houses in the vicinity of Ropetackle due to the presence of the travellers. Many of my constituents are literally prisoners in their own home.

We are not talking about gypsies or Romanies, who are officially defined as legitimate nomadic communities, who have a pattern of travel for a specific economic purpose and who are necessarily limited in number. We are talking purely about travellers, in this case from as far afield as Eastbourne and Edinburgh and with a penchant for strong brew, who choose to opt in or out of that existence at whim —a potentially limitless constituency of people.

To prevent the travellers from encroaching on adjacent sites and other nearby council-owned open spaces, the local council has recently instituted a number of earthworks as barricades, constructed from building waste. Such are the desperate measures now being taken. The barricades are an eyesore, denying residents access to their leisure amenities, and the whole area now resembles something out of the Somme rather than the quiet, friendly Sussex coastal town that it usually is.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 should have been able to deal with all this. Plainly it is failing in this case and in many others throughout the country. Since securing this Adjournment debate I have had calls from my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who are terrorised by similar traveller occupations in their constituencies.

It was right to introduce, in the 1994 Act, measures enabling local authorities to move on travellers and giving the police powers to direct that land be vacated if at least six vehicles were present, even if no criminal activity or damage to the land was involved. Sections 61 and 77 of that Act apparently gave such powers.

However, subsequent court cases, notably those involving Lincolnshire county council and Wealden district authority, as well as cases in the European Court of Human Rights, have largely emasculated those powers, because now, unless a raft of social welfare conditions are taken into account, the local authority risks a legal challenge in the courts. Conditions regarding the education of travellers' children, and housing and social service needs, including statutory duties placed on local authorities under the Children Act 1989 and under the Housing Act 1985, are all used as loopholes to circumnavigate legal action.

Local authorities are now taking months —even years, in this case… to instigate legal proceedings against travellers, for fear that a successful legal challenge will ensue in the courts owing to some loophole. In the meantime, travellers literally dig themselves in deeper, the encampments attract more and more itinerants, the life of the local community is made more and more miserable, and a great deal of council time and resources are taken up by the need to prepare legal cases, to clear up around travellers and, in the case of Adur council, to build defences —fortification works —around the travellers —not to mention the immense cost of the police time involved.

The Government have now actually made matters worse. Despite parliamentary questions tabled by many hon. Members, Ministers continue to insist that powers given to police and local authorities under the 1994 Act are perfectly adequate and that the Government have no plans to change them. A while ago, the Minister for Local Government and Housing tantalised us by promising a research project on the subject, and the Minister for London and Construction today promised us the good practice advice which he launched in October 1998.

However, at that time the Government effectively relaxed restrictions on where new age travellers and gypsies can camp, specifically advising police and local authorities in future to identify acceptable temporary stopping places, and imposing on them a duty to tell travellers under what circumstances they will be allowed to stay on unauthorised sites without being evicted. In practice, this amounts to nothing less than a charter for squatters —an invitation to travellers to occupy first and ask questions later.

This last consideration has been seized upon by travellers at Ropetackle and elsewhere to apply for tenure when occupying derelict council-owned land for which no immediate development plans are in force. Indeed, some of the smarter occupants of the site in Shoreham submitted a formal proposal to Adur district council requesting a short-term licence agreement to stay. In a letter to councillors, the very word processor-proficient organiser of the travellers specifically drew attention to the recently issued Government guidance to local authorities on managing unauthorised camping in support of their claim to remain on the land.

The letter said: Toleration can be for a matter of weeks, months or years, depending on the circumstances, and in some cases an authority may decide that eviction action is not necessary at all. Local authorities must weigh the needs of Travellers against any nuisance being caused and have due regard to their statutory duties with regard to the education of and welfare of children. The letter refers to circular 18/94, which the travellers are using in support of staying on an unauthorised encampment where they are causing merry hell for the indefinable future.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would advise me whether he agrees that an authorised site, wherever it is, should therefore be used by those travellers.

Mr. Loughton

There is scope for using authorised sites. There may be a lack of authorised sites in some cases; that is an entirely different matter, and the hon. Gentleman, who represents a neighbouring constituency, well knows the problems. His own council has been confronted by enormous difficulties in disposing of travellers. I shall mention that a little later, if he will bear with me.

There is evidence to suggest that centrally organised traveller groups are specifically targeting council-owned derelict land for their illegal encampments, now making it easier for them, as the Minister put it in an Adjournment debate, to use every ruse to prolong their stay on a totally unsuitable site."— [Official Report, 16 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 376.] Certainly an unusually large quantity of these travellers seem to have had some advice bordering on training from a co-operative establishment in the Tunbridge Wells area.

In our legal system, a defendant is innocent until proved guilty. In current practice, though, it appears that the unwitting victim of traveller occupation —be it a local authority or private landowner —must bear the burden of proof in order to refute the charge that they have no formal plan for use of their land. It is almost as though to snatch and occupy confers a right of tenure on the traveller until the owner negotiates a lengthy and costly series of legal hoops to prove otherwise. That cannot be right, and was certainly not what the 1994 Act was intended to achieve.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—who has joined us and is now sitting on the Front Bench —in an Adjournment debate that he initiated on this subject last year argued that the 1994 Act could be used more often than it is. Specifically, he contended that the police can take direct action against trespassing travellers without the need for additional legal proceedings. That is as it may be, but it is simply not happening. The Government need to consider further legislation to define and streamline local authorities' powers more clearly.

I am no lawyer, and the Government need to produce detailed proposals of their own. However, as long ago as November 1997, I did ask the Minister to consider amending section 77(3)(b) of the 1994 Act to make it a criminal offence for travellers, having been evicted, to return to any land in the same district within three months. That would help to prevent the farce of travellers who have been taken off a site nipping across the road to another site and setting up another encampment —which starts the legal clock running again.

I also asked whether the Minister would consider amending the 1994 Act to enable agents acting for local authorities to confiscate property belonging to travellers subject to eviction orders, as compensation for damage done to public land and legal costs incurred in securing convictions. Currently there is no practical redress for all the environmental damage, the petty crime and the nuisance factors —the noise, the pollution and the human waste. If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or I had all-night bonfires in our garden, had loud music blaring out at 3 am, or decided to strew our waste across the pavement or the public highway, the local authority or the police would be down on us like a ton of bricks, and we should rightly be carted off and prosecuted if we did not comply; but it is just not happening.

Even if local authorities can discover who did it, there are few practical means of pursuing the matter through the courts. I think that it is necessary, therefore, to have general powers of confiscation over entire camps without having to prove which individual caused the most noise or dumped the most rubbish on the public highway. There is also scope to use the lever of social security benefits to secure more considerate and compliant behaviour on the part of the travellers drawing on those benefits. I would like to see greater use made of public order offence legislation at the outset, before an encampment escalates. That is another possible avenue for the Government to explore.

The system needs to be streamlined and the relevant legal processes need to be fast-tracked. The Government need to take a lead, and I fear that at present they are abdicating responsibility for doing so. There are other measures that the Government could take with regard to planning law —for example, making unauthorised development an immediately punishable offence. It is a common practice of certain unsavoury characters, including travellers —this happens in my constituency —to take over an area of agricultural land, either unlawfully or on a short lease, and to turn a green-field site into a breaker's yard of scrap vehicles, some of which they occupy while they provide them with a living, with the maximum disruption and annoyance caused to those living in residential areas nearby.

The Government could address these problems. The deterrent effect of immediate court action would give the police faster powers and serve in no small part to restore some public credibility to the planning system.

In desperation, my constituents have written to the main party leaders and to the Liberal Democrats. They have written to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. The reply from the Home Office stated that if the current legislation is not working, the Government will look closely at changing the law. It is clear that the law is not working. It is not working in Shoreham, nor is it working in Rutland and Melton, Runnymede and Weybridge, Wells and in many other constituencies throughout the country. It is clear that the Government need to act. Much could be done before the introduction of new legislation or amendment to the 1994 Act.

I invite the Minister to admit that that is the position and to give my constituents and those of many other right hon. and hon. Members some comfort by making it clear that the existing highly unacceptable state of affairs will be addressed as a matter of urgency by the Government.

8.23 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to add a few words to what my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) has said. The House will be grateful to him for raising this topic because it affects many Members of this place. It is, as he has so vividly described, a scourge on decent people who find their decent lives interrupted and intruded upon by these so-called travellers.

My constituency has proved particularly vulnerable to these people. For months now, on the Leicestershire-Lincolnshire border, near Buckminster and Skillington, an encampment of travellers has caused no end of upset to those who live nearby. Likewise, in Rutland, at Barrowden and Belton, and elsewhere, this situation is a recurring problem. It has caused many difficulties for farmers and villagers going about their lawful business.

If I solve the problem in my constituency by persuading the police to move on the travellers, it is not much of a solution if they merely move on to the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier), who has to take on the same problem and find somewhere else to move them on to. They are pretty grubby people. Their dogs terrorise sheep. As my hon. Friend has described, their sanitation is disgusting. They frighten and threaten people in otherwise peaceful villages. They have the gall to drive along country lanes carrying, on the back of lorries, hydraulic equipment that is designed for no other purpose than to rip up fence posts so that they can invade private property and pitch their tents, as it were, where they should not.

We are not talking about folksy gypsy types. They are revolting vagabonds who seem to give nothing to society and demand everything from it. They stay for weeks, even months, and are very intimidating to the communities that they invade.

It is clear that they know how to use the law. They are not stumbling and bumbling their way from one village to another. They know exactly what to do to get round the law so that they can stay put. It seems that the police do not enforce the powers that they have, or are reluctant to do so. I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us what guidelines and clear instructions he might have given to the police to ensure that where the law exists it is properly enforced.

Knowing the law as they do, these so-called travellers know how to get social services wrapped round their little finger so that they cannot have an enforcement order put upon them. They simply claim that one little child has a snuffly nose and that there is thus a social services duty that stops them being moved on.

Perhaps the Minister will tell the House the status of social security payments to such people. What is the law governing the compulsory provision of water through standpipes by the local authority? Will the Minister consider the law on congregation? Where there are 10 vehicles, for example, designed for living and illegally parked on private or public property, causing a nuisance around them, perhaps the law can be strengthened so that the police have power to move them on.

This is a continuing problem. The way the law is being implemented, if not the law itself, seems inadequate to solve the legitimate concerns of people in my constituency, as in many others. I hope that the Minister can give me some satisfaction in his response this evening.

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

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on securing a debate on unauthorised camping, which is clearly an issue of major concern in his constituency, as it is in many others, including that of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan).

We do not underestimate what a nuisance such encampments can be, particularly when they involve many travellers, as I understand is the case at the Ropetackle site. I hope that after he has heard my response, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will be reassured that the Government take the issue seriously, and that he will recognise our efforts to ensure that local authorities and the police have effective joint policies in place to deal with unauthorised camping. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, contrary to what he claims, the Government have not by any means abrogated responsibility for this issue. We have taken action and we have been diligent in pursuing policies to try to ensure that there are effective provisions in place to deal with what everyone recognises is a serious problem that requires a serious and thorough response.

I understand that Adur district council has been working in partnership with the newly formed South East regional development agency — SERDA —on proposals for the development of the Ropetackle site. The development of community facilities, housing and leisure facilities, in accordance with the views of local people in Shoreham, is a positive and much needed step forward for the site, which I understand has been in a poor and partially derelict condition for some 25 years, its only recent uses being as a council depot and sewage pumping station. No one can be satisfied that the site was left in such a state for such a long time, and I am delighted to know that there are now proposals to bring it into use.

The regional development agencies have a key role in promoting sustainable development and addressing the needs of social and physical regeneration in the regions. It is clear that the fruits of that partnership, which was initiated, as we heard, under English Partnerships, before SERDA came into existence, are coming together in a positive way. I am delighted that SERDA is taking such a proactive role in the regeneration of that run-down area. I can well imagine the frustration and anger that have been generated in the locality by the continued trespass of a large number of travellers on such an important site.

It is precisely because of concern expressed by local authorities about how they deal with such encampments that my Department, working with the Home Office, produced joint good practice guidance for local authorities and the police to manage unauthorised camping. The good practice, which is based largely on research carried out for our Department by the university of Birmingham, draws on the real, often hard won, experience of local authorities and police forces in managing such issues in various parts of the country.

We published the good practice last October, after consulting a wide range of interested groups, including local authorities, gypsy and traveller representatives and land-owning bodies. The good practice has been welcomed as a positive and innovative step in managing what can be a highly emotive issue locally.

We have considered carefully whether we should amend the existing local authority powers in sections 77 to 79 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with unauthorised camping, and we have concluded that that would be counter-productive. There

are no obvious, easy solutions to unauthorised camping and no short cuts. If there were, they would have been found long before now.

Recent case law has confirmed that local authorities must balance the nuisance caused by an encampment against the needs of the campers concerned. Local authorities that do not adopt such an approach are likely to find their actions challenged successfully in the courts. Consequently, we have no plans to make changes to the 1994 Act powers or to make unauthorised camping a criminal offence. To do so could well bring the UK Government into conflict with both the domestic and the European courts.

Mr. Loughton

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he say specifically why he is not prepared to amend the 1994 Act with regard to successfully evicted travellers who return to the same district? It has happened in my constituency and, I am sure, in many others, that an eviction order is at last successfully executed, yet the same travellers turn up a few hundred yards down the road on an alternative site, and the whole process has to start again.

Mr. Raynsford

I accept that that problem can arise, but the powers do not prevent the local authority from taking further action on a second site, nor do they prevent the police, who have powers under section 61, to which the hon. Gentleman also referred, from taking action where there is a nuisance. Powers exist, and the correct question is how they are used to ensure the outcome that we all regard as necessary. We do not wish to encourage local authorities to act in a way that would bring them into conflict with the courts in this country and possibly the European courts. That would be counter-productive, for the reasons that I have given.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)


Mr. Raynsford

I give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. May I make it clear that there is no activity from the Opposition Front Bench during an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Gamier

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made a rapid move from the Front Bench to the Back Bench. On this occasion I shall give way to him, because I know that as a constituency Member he has taken an interest in the subject and has had an Adjournment debate on it.

Mr. Gamier

I am grateful for the Minister's forbearance. The Conservative party is moving all over the place at present. The Minister kindly acknowledged my contribution to the debates in the House in July 1997. Much of what he is now saying I heard in July 1997 at about 10.22 pm. He referred a few moments ago to the correct question, but he did not go on to answer it. Will he now answer his own correct question?

Mr. Raynsford

I am trying to do that, but as the hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise, I have a little progress to make. This evening's debate began almost half an hour ago, and I hope that we will complete it slightly earlier than 10.22 pm.

We believe that in a properly inclusive society, people who legitimately wish to adopt a travelling life style should be free to do so. However, the right to adopt such a life style does not bring with it licence. It brings with it responsibilities towards the settled community. We recognise that there are occasions when it is simply not possible for travellers' presence to be tolerated because they do not accept those responsibilities and do not behave in a way that is compatible with the normal decencies of civilised life, which all of us wish to uphold. From everything that has been said, I am well aware that that is an issue in Shoreham.

The concept of toleration in the context of unauthorised camping has caused some controversy and has wrongly been interpreted as meaning that the Government want local authorities to tolerate the anti-social and sometimes criminal behaviour that can accompany some unauthorised encampments. That is emphatically not what we mean by toleration. Nor is toleration something that was invented for the good practice guidance.

Government advice to local authorities has, for many years, advocated that gypsies who are camped on council land and who are not causing a nuisance should be tolerated wherever possible. Providing basic facilities such as skips, drinking water and toilets may minimise nuisance. Forced eviction, on the other hand, could result in campers moving to a more unsuitable site, whether on public or private land. That is particularly true in those areas where there is little or no site provision and thus nowhere where gypsies could camp with permission.

The good practice guidance simply reflects what has been found to be successful, through detailed examination of the way that local authorities deal with unauthorised camping. Toleration can be a pragmatic option for dealing with a short-term encampment, particularly where the level of nuisance is low or non-existent. That does not imply toleration of people who are behaving anti-socially and causing nuisance. Gypsies or travellers who indulge in anti-social or even criminal behaviour are not above the law; they are subject to exactly the same penalties as anyone in the settled community.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires local authorities and the police to develop local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and to work together to reduce particular problems of crime and disorder in their areas. If anti-social or criminal behaviour associated with unauthorised encampments has been identified, we would expect local crime and disorder reduction strategies to encompass measures to deal with it.

Turning to the particular encampment described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, I understand that a hearing has been fixed in the High Court for Tuesday 18 May to consider the council's application for repossession of the land. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for me to express any view on the actions taken by the council in this instance, but, in advance of the court hearing, I find it difficult to accept his claim that the 1994 Act is not working.

I understand that the fact of the case, as set out by the council in a series of news releases, is that it gave notice to the travellers camped on the Ropetackle site that it would take legal action to evict them if they did not leave the site within seven days. The travellers did not leave, and the council commenced proceedings in the High Court to regain possession of its land shortly after those seven days expired. The case will be heard on 18 May, within a month of the action being initiated.

Mr. Loughton

Of course the facts that the Minister describes are absolutely right, but the bottom line is that it has taken 17 months to initiate that legal action—17 months of misery, anxiety and disruption for my constituents. Does he think it acceptable for such a period to elapse before the legislation should start to come into play, as is the case here?

Mr. Raynsford

I do not know why the local authority did not take action earlier. I am not commenting, and I am not saying that it should or should not have taken action. All I know is that the council's notice to the travellers saying that it would take legal action if they did not leave within seven days was issued on 14 April and its initiation of possession proceedings was announced in a press release on 23 April.

I do not know why action was not taken earlier by the council or why the site was allowed to remain derelict for 25 years. Those are issues on which other people will have to find answers. All I would say is that, in advance of the possession proceedings, which are due to be heard on 18 May, it would be premature to say that the legislation is not working.

I further understand that Adur district council has been working in partnership with the Sussex police on this issue and that the police have used their discretionary powers under section 61 of the 1994 Act, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred, to evict travellers from privately owned land adjacent to the Ropetackle site.

Regular liaison between the police and local authorities and the development of joint protocols clearly setting out respective roles and responsibilities are key messages in our joint practice guidance. The police are obviously key stakeholders in any local strategy for managing unauthorised camping because of their role in the prevention and detection of crime and in maintaining public order. It is vital that local authorities and the police have a clear idea of each other's roles and responsibilities and that they work together to find a solution that suits the particular circumstances of each encampment. That avoids the potential for confusion and for frustration on the part of local residents who may feel that nothing is being done. It also avoids the potential risk of inappropriate action being taken because a blanket approach is being adopted, which may be appropriate in one case but not in another.

Mr. Duncan

The Minister keeps referring to the good practice guidelines, almost as though his guidelines supersede the law. Does he agree that if the law allows the police to take action, that action should be taken, not just permitted to be taken?

Mr. Raynsford

I would not wish to take away from the police operational responsibility for deciding when it is appropriate to take that action. It would be inappropriate for Ministers to try to interfere in that way. What I do believe is that it is right that the police should have the powers to take action where they believe that it is appropriate, and that the police should be in close liaison with local authorities to establish the protocols that I have described governing how they will respond in difference circumstances. If there is that understanding, it is possible for both the police and local authorities to respond quickly, to give clear messages to reassure local residents, and to avoid confusion about who is using the available powers, how they are proceeding and any other relevant matters that need to be covered. As I said, regular liaison between the police and local authorities is vital if the policy is to work successfully.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office is hosting a series of regional seminars, primarily for police and local authority representatives, which are aimed at promoting better joint working between the police and local authorities in managing unauthorised camping, particularly where criminal or anti-social behaviour is associated with the encampment. He has made it clear that he expects police powers to remove trespassers to be used at an early stage, where necessary. I hope that that gives the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton the reassurance that he seeks. We are clear that the police should use their powers where they consider it appropriate to do so.

It is for local authorities, working with all the relevant agencies, including the police, to develop policies for managing unauthorised camping which best suit local circumstances. In doing so, they will be taking into account existing circular advice, case law and the joint DETR-Home Office good practice guidance. Local authorities need to ensure that they can convince the courts that eviction is necessary and justified, given the circumstances of each case. We want all local authorities to take a fresh look at their policies on unauthorised camping in the light of the good practice guidance, and I hope that Adur district council is taking that opportunity.

Eviction of a large number of travellers inevitably raises the question of where they will go when they are evicted. I have much sympathy with local authorities that are faced with such large encampments, which can cause awful problems for local people. It would clearly be unrealistic to expect individual local authorities to be able to offer suitable authorised accommodation to so many people on a long-term basis, although our good practice guidance encourages local authorities to be receptive to the idea of providing sites for travellers, perhaps on council land, where that is feasible and in accordance with local needs. As I said earlier, site provision should be part and parcel of a local authority's overall strategy for managing unauthorised camping.

I appreciate that the provision of sites for travellers is a difficult issue for local authorities to deal with, and that it requires a tremendous level of local political will to get proposals agreed. However, it can be done. I understand that Brighton and Hove council, for example, recently started work on a site for travellers at Horsdean, in line with the advice in our good practice guidance. My Department's circular 1/94 entitled "Gypsy Sites and Planning" makes it clear that local authorities should include policies in their development plans which meet the accommodation needs of gypsies in their areas. It was therefore disappointing to discover that the Adur district plan specifically states that the provision of further sites will not be permitted.

[Mr. Raynsford]

Nothing in the circular prevents local authorities that have identified a need for sites for other travellers from looking sympathetically at such proposals, and considering whether site provision would be a more pragmatic option than eviction. Brighton and Hove council appears to have done just that.

I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels able to reassure his constituents that the Government take this problem very seriously, that we are committed to ensuring that unauthorised camping can and will be dealt with effectively and sensitively, in line with good practice, and that we are determined that anti-social or criminal behaviour by travellers, or by anyone else, will not be tolerated.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton raised several other issues. He asked whether there were different rules relating to social security benefits. As I did not have notice of his questions, I hope that he will appreciate that I shall have to write to him on those issues to ensure that he has a full and thorough answer. I also hope that he recognises our determination to ensure that people who cause a nuisance to others and whose behaviour is unacceptable do not enjoy the benefit of the tolerance of the agencies of society that ensure that the law is enforced, whoever is involved. Whether they be travellers or members of the settled community, the law applies to all of them. I hope that these policies will work, will continue to be used and will ensure an effective outcome—

Mr. Gamier


Mr. Raynsford

I hesitate, because I was about to finish my speech. I shall resist the good practice guidance that tells me I should sit down, and I shall give way briefly and finally to the hon. and learned Member.

Mr. Gamier

I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I simply want to draw his attention to the fact that, even under the Labour Government, good things have happened. He and his Home Office colleagues may wish to consider the anti-social behaviour orders in this context.

Mr. Raynsford

I endorse that point. We introduced the concept of anti-social behaviour orders as a means of tackling these problems. We want the police and local authorities to work together. I hope that in Adur district and in other areas, the police and local authorities will consider how to use those powers as an additional weapon. It is not their only weapon, and I have no doubt that Adur district council had good reason for deciding on its course of action. I cannot say more, as the matter is due to be considered in the courts. Anti-social behaviour orders have an important role among the armoury of weapons available for tackling anti-social behaviour, and I am glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman made that point.

We have thoroughly gone through this difficult and controversial issue, which causes a disproportionate amount of anxiety to many people. We must provide policies that achieve a proper balance between effective action to tackle nuisance and a respect for the rights of individuals. People are entitled to a life style that involves movement from one area to another rather than being settled in one area. However, that is no excuse for anti-social behaviour: we will have no truck with that. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that the Government are determined to put effective policies in place to deal with this problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Nine o'clock.