HC Deb 10 July 2002 vol 388 cc905-7 4.46 pm
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reform the law in England and Wales as it applies to gypsies and travellers.

Last month, my local paper, the Bournemouth Daily Echo, reported the following story under the headline "Traveller Invasion": Travellers continue their invasion of the conurbation"— Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole— with the arrival over the weekend of 18 caravans and assorted vehicles on to Iford playing field. This is the latest incursion on to public open spaces and follows the arrival of 15 caravans at Redhill Common. These are in addition to the existing traveller encampments at Throop, Fleetsbridge and Castle Lane. Although you will not have read such local news, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps you will have read about what happened in Bournemouth last Christmas, when the national media gave widespread coverage to the occupation of a public park, King's park in my constituency, by a group of up to 200 caravans and 800 people of all ages. The travellers indicated that they intended to stay for the entire holiday period. The council sought a county court order for their eviction and the requisite notices were served on them, but to no avail. They left in their own time when they said they would: 12 days later, after new year's day.

The chief executive of Bournemouth council said in his letter to the Home Secretary that that experience resulted in costs to the council of £50,000 and to the police of £40,000, together with severe detrimental effects on local businesses and the community. He said that those effects included a huge increase in the fear of crime in the neighbourhood; businesses and voluntary organisations being forced to close because their entrances were blocked; the closure of public houses and other facilities due to intimidating behaviour from large groups of travellers; a reduction in the credibility of the police force; severe damage to community relations—for instance, a number of pubs and hotels attempted to exclude Irish visitors, many of whom had nothing to do with encampments—and health and safety risks associated with criminal damage caused by the travellers.

I shall not go into any further detail about what my local council's chief executive said in his extensive letter to the Home Secretary about our experience. Although the letter is entirely accurate, to continue to record these facts in the House would not be in keeping with the constructive spirit of the remedy for which I am seeking support today. The fact is that this was the largest such invasion of travellers experienced by our borough, it ended the year that had seen the largest number of such occupations of our parks and open spaces experienced by the borough and, as I have said, such occupations have now been happening almost every week this year.

Lest the House should conclude that travellers come only to Dorset, I point out that the columns of Hansard clearly indicate that such experiences are taking place throughout much of the country. More hon. Members than ever before are tabling questions about travellers, gypsies and unauthorised encampments, provoked, no doubt, by similar experiences in their constituencies. Indeed, some hon. Members have already gone further than that this year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) described in his Westminster Hall debate of 15 January on the law of trespass how the police had not acted against travellers who had invaded his constituency.

On 26 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) described similar experiences in his constituency, when he successfully sought the leave of the House to bring in his Trespassers on Land (Liability for Damage and Eviction) Bill. On 11 June, the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) described his constituents' experience of travellers as a "living hell" in his Adjournment debate on unauthorised encampments.

The response of Ministers to these concerns continues to be that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides remedies for local authorities to ask the police to use section 61, and for the police to ask local authorities to use section 77, whichever is most appropriate. As the House knows, last Friday the Home Office announced new powers for police and local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments.

The reality is that, in many cases, not a lot of progress is made. When travellers eventually move off one unauthorised site, they move on to another. Councils are now deploying a variety of barriers and obstacles such as earth mounds, concrete boulders, locking posts and reinforced railings to keep travellers out of public parks and open spaces, at great cost both to the taxpayer and to the visual amenity. As the deputy chief constable of Dorset told me, in explaining why the use of available powers is not practical: We need to work to identify more effective levers or incentives to persuade travellers to act responsibly.

That is the aim of the Bill for which I am seeking the support of the House today.

The Traveller Law Reform Bill would establish for the first time within a legal framework the rights of gypsies and travellers to live a nomadic way of life. It would also establish the obligations that they owe to others in exercising that right. The Bill would create a new body, the gypsy and traveller accommodation commission, whose principal task would be to ensure that there was adequate accommodation for gypsies and travellers in England and Wales. The commission would be representative of the communities concerned, as well as of interested public bodies and voluntary organisations. It would also be expected to respond to problems of antisocial behaviour and unauthorised encampments following the implementation of the Act.

The Bill would require local authorities to facilitate the provision of sites for gypsies and travellers. This responds to the repeated complaints of the police that there are insufficient sites to which to direct travellers who are intent on occupying public land. The Housing Corporation would be empowered to make grants to registered social landlords to enable them to provide and manage such sites.

The Bill would require local education authorities to develop strategic programmes to improve the educational attainment of gypsies and travellers and their children. It would also clarify the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 by acknowledging that Irish travellers constitute a racial group, as do Scottish and Welsh gypsy and traveller communities. There would also be other appropriate provisions in the Bill.

The Bill is based on the work of the Cardiff law school and is the culmination of four years of consultation between gypsies' and other travellers' organisations, statutory and voluntary bodies such as the police and local authorities, and lawyers and planners who face the problems that arise. A schedule to the Bill would propose a code of conduct for travellers, based on best practice and on consultation with local authorities and travellers' groups.

I submit that my Bill represents a carefully considered approach that provides equality of opportunity and equal access to civic life and social services for travellers and gypsies. It acknowledges that the threat of continuous eviction does nothing for the health and welfare of families, or for the education of children; that only 2 per cent. of travellers live to see the age of 65; and that the traveller infant mortality rate is nearly three times the national average. It recognises that where local authorities have offered suitable land sites, good relations have developed and school attendance and health have improved. Telford and Wrekin council is an example of such good practice.

The Bill responds to the recommendation that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed in April, for member states to resolve the legal status of gypsies and travellers. The alternative is to continue to rely on laws to prevent unauthorised encampments, which the police and local authorities are at their wits' end trying to enact.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Andrew MacKay, Mr. Terry Davis, Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Julie Morgan, Mr. John Butterfill, Andrew Mackinlay, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Nick Harvey, Mr. Henry Bellingham, Mr. Bill Rammell.