HL Deb 13 July 1967 vol 284 cc1327-42

6.50 p.m.

VISCOUNT MASSEREENE AND FERRARD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the increasing problem of gipsy encampments on road verges and lay-bys, especially in S.E. England, they will take steps in conjunction with county councils to cure this nuisance by the provision of permanent sites for the gipsy fraternity. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, my purpose in putting down this Question on gipsies was not to harass the gipsy fraternity in any way but rather to help them. When we speak of gipsies we are now speaking of two types of people. There are the genuine Romany people who for generations have been in this country, and there are also persons of another type or class, who are in the majority to-day and whose numbers are increasing, who are referred to as gipsies but who are not really gipsies but travellers. Some people do not call them by such a polite name. I have heard them called locally "didekeis". My Question covers the whole country; but the only real problem exists in the South-East area, and especially in Kent.

One might well ask, why Kent? I suppose that the pattern of farming has something to do with it. You have in Kent a highly-fertile county, you have a lot of hops and fruit-picking which requires casual labour at certain times of the year, and you have coppice-cutting in winter—for instance, the chestnut coppices—which also requires casual labour. So Kent, by the nature of its agriculture and, to a certain extent, because of its forestry, has attracted people who undertake casual labour.

The Kent County Council and the district councils of Kent are very much alive to this problem and have done a great deal towards solving it. I can only remark that it is a great pity that some of the neighbouring counties have not done likewise. In 1962 the Kent County Council made a survey of the gipsies and found that winter accommodation on sites was required for 120 caravans. In consultation with the district councils, the County Council provided 10 sites, each to hold 12 caravans. The Kent County Council bore part of the cost with the district councils. What has been the result? It has been that news of this has got around and the gipsies or the travellers—call them what you will—from all parts of the country have flooded into Kent.

In January, 1966, the County Council estimated that they required sites for 313 caravans, accommodating 1,300 people. I have no later figures; but I understand the increase has been considerable. Through the generosity and go-ahead policy of the Kent County Council, the county is becoming a haven and a Mecca for all caravan-dwellers throughout the country. The Kent Planning Committee observed in one of its minutes of November, 1966, that it had no wish to see Kent becoming "a national reception centre for gipsies". On the whole, that was a fair comment. But what is to be done about it? Kent cannot be expected continually to provide sites to accommodate the gipsies of other counties. I have a home in the Stour Valley between Ashford and Canterbury and I am surrounded on all sides by gipsies. I have a high regard for the genuine Romany, but I do not have such regard for some of the people who have taken up the gipsy way of life. For instance, a few years ago I had 53 young ewes killed by what I will call "gipsy dogs". Actually, the dogs were not of genuine gipsies but of travellers on my estate. And one has, of course, no redress.

This winter on a lay-by of the Maidstone/Charing/Canterbury road which runs through woods of mine there moved in 14 caravans and about 60 people. They have been there the whole winter, with no form of sanitation. The litter has been appalling—old bedsteads, mattresses, tin cans and every form of rubbish. The village constable is very helpful, but he can do nothing about it. I complain to the Council and they do what they can. There is another aspect of this camping on lay-bys and verges. We had an incident where one of the children of these travellers got knocked down by a car. It is extremely difficult for motorists on these main roads where children, and often dogs, are running about in these big encampments. I am sure that serious accidents have occurred because of this.

But, the question is, what to do about it? The whole affair "snowballs". The Kent County Council find it is extremely difficult to acquire these sites because the nearby neighbours are rather against the idea of them, for obvious reasons. But, once they are acquired, the trouble is that more travellers crowd into the county. There are more caravans and more travellers. How can one stop this? In my Question I referred to providing "permanent sites". I could not make the Question too long, but I should have preferred to say "semi-permanent sites until these people are rehoused and integrated into the community". The Romany gipsies, people whose families have been gipsies for generations, should not be so integrated, and I should not want Her Majesty's Government, or the county councils, to try to force them to live in houses. I think that would be a very wrong thing to do.

I object to the people who pretend to be gipsies, and I wonder whether it would be possible to stop their numbers from increasing. I am against the provision of forms and the issuing of licences, but I understand that there exists a Gipsy Council. I also understand that there is a Gipsy King. I am not sure what part he plays, but, anyway, there is a Gipsy Council. I wonder whether anyone who desires to live the gipsy life could apply to the Gipsy Council which would vet them. Provided that they were pronounced genuine gipsies they could be licensed by the Gipsy Council, which licence would be confirmed by their local authority and would entitle them to receive assistance regarding sites. If we do not do something like that, I can see no end to this problem.

A great number of these people do not appear to be poor. They own nice cars, and some of them have very luxurious caravans. They are really living cheaply at the expense of other people. They do not pay rent or rates. I do not complain about the genuine gipsies, but I do complain about these travellers, who appear to be very well off and are taking advantage of the public. If the Government could devise a scheme to prevent this, it would be a good thing. I agree that the matter is very difficult, but we might get somewhere if all the county councils were responsible for the gipsies in their areas. We cannot have these people camping on the verges of our main roads. The anti-litter legislation is completely ignored by them, and this practice of camping on verges is also extremely dangerous because of the possibility of accidents.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give some indication that Her Majesty's Government have some plan. But whatever the plan may be, the Government cannot rely on the Kent County Council to take in gipsies from all over the South of England. There comes a time when an end must be made to the good will of that County Council in this matter. Having said that, I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some hope that something will be done about this problem, which is a serious one in the South-East, and especially in Kent.

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Viscount Lord Massereene and Ferrard for raising this subject. I think it particularly timely, for two reasons. It was in June, 1966, that the Minister of Housing and Local Government, in his Circular 26/66, asked for reports from local councils on the steps being taken, and on the plans the councils had for dealing with this problem. The reports were not available when the matter was last discussed in another place in February, but I imagine that the information is available now. We look forward to receiving a summary of it.

It also appeared in the February debate that at that time there was before the Minister the result of a "sociological research project". That was the phrase used by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. If it was before the Minister in February, I hope that it may be before us to-night. I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply will be able to tell us that it will be ready for publication very soon, because I think that the provision of more information on this rather difficult problem will prove one of the best ways to deal with it.

My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard posed the problem in one form, a form in which it generally presents itself to the public at large. I should like to put it in rather different terms. The problem involves 15,000 people—3,500 families; 6,000 children of school age, hardly any of whom are attending school. These 15,000 people are all entitled, as is every other citizen in this country, to the National Health and Welfare State services. But nearly all of them camp, in a haphazard fashion, on the verges of roads, and, as was said by my noble friend, they are constantly being moved on by the police. Only a fraction of that number have access to main water supplies and W.C.s—let alone the other more sophisticated provisions of the Welfare State. This state of affairs may be said to constitute a nuisance to the more conformist and settled citizens of our country, but it also causes great misery to the gipsy population, composed as it is of these different ingredients, all of whom are as human as any of us, and who deserve better care and attention and service than they are getting.

I think it somewhat of a scandal that we have not yet been more successful in coming to terms with this problem in its modern form. The duty to do so, lies squarely on the local authorities; and, as Circular 26/66 makes clear, they already have the powers they need to deal with it. What then is the difficulty? The difficulty, my Lords, is exactly as my noble friend has stated it. Only a few councils, notably Kent, but I would add a few others—Hampshire; my own county, Hertfordshire and Surrey—are tackling this problem effectively. Those councils that are doing so are attracting into their areas the gipsies or travellers from the many areas where councils are doing absolutely nothing.

At first sight it would appear that the only solution is for Her Majesty's Government to take powers, which I understand they have not already got, to require local authorities in whose area there are gipsies to care more effectively for them. I hope very much that the Government will resist that course and will continue more effectively their present policy of persuasion; and to do it, as they have already begun to do it, by disseminating more knowledge and information about the gipsies and travellers. The more knowledge and information there is about the way their problems are being solved, where they are being solved, the more it will help to ensure that the problem is tackled more generally. My information mostly comes from Hertfordshire, where I live, and experience leads me to general conclusions and principles which I should like to offer to your Lordships, and on which the noble Lord may care to comment when he replies.

The first principle—and it is obvious enough—is that the planning of these permanent sites licensed or run by the local authorities must be prepared carefully and in confidence. We have got into a lot of trouble, and I am sure other local authorities have done so, by the premature announcement that action was going to be taken for gipsies in certain areas. When this happens, they descend in large numbers from all over the country long before preparations for their reception have been made, wardens appointed and so on, and any hope of persuading the local inhabitants and local authorities to receive and cope with them has been lost before it has started. Once a site has been selected and plans drawn up, then careful, extensive and confidential consultation has to go on with all the local bodies likely to be concerned. If this is done carefully, tactfully and discreetly, it can lead without too much difficulty to the acceptance of a site as a normal civic duty, and not to the rejection of receiving the gipsies as being too difficult.

Then comes the question of the selection and appointment of suitable wardens to run the site. This requires rather special qualities. In our experience, these appointments are held by a mixed and varied group of people. One of our sites is run by a retired policeman, with a retired colonel as his deputy, and a very fine pair they make. Another site at Hemel Hempstead for Irish tinkers is run by three young men who come from the Simon Community. These two groups of people bring entirely different qualities to the job they do. One pair comes with great experience and skill in handling men, and the other with youthful enthusiasm and compassion, but both handle their respective sites with great skill.

Another point that needs to be borne in mind is that the cost of making this sort of provision is not at all high, certainly not when compared with the cost of local council housing. I am advised that, as a rough figure, the capital cost, including the purchase of land at agricultural prices, works out at not much more than £1,000 per plot, and that the cost of running the sites, including the salary of the warden and the provision of basic services, is not much more than £50 per annum net.

I should like to mention in passing that on our sites, and I imagine on the Kent sites, it is not true to say—and I do not think that my noble friend meant to imply this—that all this is provided for the gipsies rent free. It is true that the gipsies who are moving around are not paying rent and rates, but those who are provided with proper sites are capable and willing to pay rent for them, the same as everybody else. Our experience on a small site for six caravans at Hemel Hempstead for Irish tinkers is that all the children, who are Roman Catholics, are at school and the families are receiving all the health and welfare services that any other citizen receives. There has been little trouble with the Probation Service, and there is no trouble either with the local authority or the local residents. These families are free to come and go in pubs, shops and everywhere else in the town. Elsewhere, in the camps which have been established longer than this one, and for Romany gipsies, an equally satisfactory situation prevails, with the children at school, and all enjoying the same services as everybody else.

I should like to make one final point. Let us be clear about our aims here. It is true that this sort of provision, if effectively carried out by all local councils that have gipsies living in their areas, will reduce the nuisance that my noble friend has mentioned, and this in itself is worth doing. It is worth doing for the humanity that lies behind it. But let us be clear about what we are not doing. We are not doing this in order to change the gipsies and their way of life. I do not believe that we have any right whatever to seek to do that. What we are doing, and what we want to get on doing more effectively, is to provide for this group of our people—and they are part of our nation—the same services, welfare and schooling as everyone else who lives in this country enjoys.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard has been at particular pains to make a distinction between the true Romany gipsy and the travellers, the pseudo-gipsies, sometimes known as tinkers. This is highly important but I am inclined to feel that a tendency has been creeping in, as it sometimes does in these matters, for the central figure in this problem to be lost sight of. It is a tendency to which I would draw your Lordships' attention, to forget the gipsy as a human being and replace him with an abstraction, existing only in the litter on the highway and lay-by, and in the municipal by-laws.

This is not to deny the necessity for the by-laws or the reality of the litter, but I think it possible to forget that the gipsy himself is in the midst of all this and that he is someone worthy of a particular kind of attention. I do not include, any more than other noble Lords do, the tinker or traveller or pseudo-gipsy. The genuine Romany, though strange and peculiar, but none the less interesting, is a person of certain unique characteristics. One of these characteristics (I think I am right in saying this) is that he forms the only ethnic group in Great Britain that is the subject of discriminatory prohibitive legislation—that is the phrase for which I have been struggling. For example, I believe that the gipsy is the only person debarred by blood alone from camping or erecting a booth on the highway, being classed in this matter with hawkers and some rather mysterious persons known as "nigglers"—and nigglers, for all I know, may include tinkers.

Regulations have always, I suppose, been made with an eye upon the gipsy, and no doubt for good reasons, and very likely they will continue to be so made. But the fact remains that the gipsy, of whatever kind he may be, is a sort of outcast: whether he is an outcast because of the regulations, or the regulations are made because he is an outcast, is possibly debatable. Less debatable, I think, is my feeling that people, on the whole, know very little about the gipsy anyway. We do not see much of him; we meet him only rarely; even more rarely do we invite him into our home—and if we did he probably would not come. I heard of a gipsy enlisted into the war-time Army who refused, I think successfully, to sleep indoors with the rest of the platoon. He insisted on sleeping under the floor, on the ground, under the hut. By our standards this was neither sociable nor civilised. I cherish the mental vision of his platoon commander getting down on all fours under his hut to inspect his kit.

It is possible, I suppose, that the gipsy's reputation for being untruthful or for stealing things is not altogether unfounded; and I should be the last to say that it is. Yet people who have studied his ways have found that in all these matters he has a code of his own that is a good deal stricter than many might suppose. His morality is not our morality, but it is a morality. So what have we left in the public imagination? We have, on the one extreme, a dirty, parasitic vagabond contributing nothing to society, except perhaps the word "pal", which is the Romany for "brother"; and, on the other hand, a picturesque, romantic figure of the hills and the open road—and, of course, a municipal headache.

It is not these matters that I have been mentioning that make the gipsy so astonishing and, in my view, an almost incredible figure. There is much more to him than that. What is incredible to me—well, not incredible, because I know it to be a fact, but remarkable—is that such a man can have continued to survive and exist at all. He has no recorded history. Since, being usually illiterate, he can neither read nor write, he has no particular religion of his own; what religion he has is usually of the country in which he finds himself mixed up, perhaps with a few traces of moon worship and a good deal of superstition. He has no central government or world-wide organisation; he has no one appointed by himself to speak for him in Parliament or anywhere else. He has no national leaders, and no voice in the affairs of this or any other country. He has no literature, no sophisticated skills, and remarkably little money. We, on the whole, do not even accord him the dignity of a proper name. If you look at the Order Paper you see even the word "gipsy" spelt with a small "g". The word "Romany", his own name for himself, is rarely used. These people do not live in deserts or forests and they do not live in the middle of the Australian bush, but, as often as not, in the midst of civilisation.

On the face of it, it seems to me almost impossible that such a people could survive at all. Yet, as I am sure your Lordships know well, the truth is more singular even than this. For the history of the gipsy is one of outlawry and persecution unto death. In our own time we have seen the horror of Hitler's slaughter of the Jews—the non-Aryan Jews. But what have we to say of exactly similar treatment meted out to the gipsies who are of purely Aryan stock, but of whom, none the less, it has been estimated that there perished in concentration camps under the Nazis no less than one-tenth of all the gipsies in the world? These gipsies, as I say, have no recorded history. But their language has persisted—the Romany language—and historians opine that the gipsy was an ancient race even before the time of his mass migration from Northern India a thousand years ago. Philological methods of research have shown also that his history can be traced back 2,000 years, and beyond that he disappears into the primæval mists. All these centuries since he has suffered his persecutions patiently, without fighting, often without answering back.

To that it might be commented, I suppose: what a spineless, inconsequent lot of layabouts they must be! Or, on the other hand, it could be argued that this is the Christian principle of turning the other cheek carried genuinely into effect. On this I express no opinion. For I fear—I hope I am wrong—that your Lordships may suspect me of trying to drum up some kind of irrelevant emotional sentiment for the gipsy at the expense of the county councils. I have been in a position to observe the ways of gipsies since infancy, and I assure your Lordships that I have no such wish. I have one wish only, and it is respectfully to draw the attention of your Lordships to the fact that here we have in these genuine gipsies, the Romanies, a very ancient race of almost unadulterated purity, imbued with a fierce pride of family, tribe and race. This, I suggest, represents a type of antique dignity. It is this dignity, however few the traces may be left behind after the gipsies have gone by in the lay-bys and on the road verges, that I wish to commend to your Lordships as worthy of considerable respect.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, the letter "M" appears after the name of the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, on the list of speakers which I hold in my hand. But for that initial I should not have thought that so exceedingly competent and indeed brilliant a speech could have been delivered by a maiden speaker. In the accession of the noble Earl this House is greatly enriched. We congratulate him upon the speech that we have heard, and I am sure that I express the view of the whole House in hoping that he will assist our counsels again as often as possible.

I rise to ask one question which no doubt will be ably answered by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. I understand that the county councils now have a power to make encampments at which travellers and gipsies—didekeis, or whatever you call them—can have facilities. But what are the powers of councils to prevent anybody from camping on the verge of roads? My County Council of Devonshire put forward a draft of a Private Bill to obtain power to prevent people from camping on road verges, and I understand that this was refused. Such powers may exist, and apparently do exist, in the case of tinkers and certain other categories mentioned by the noble Earl.

It is an issue which is of real importance in Devonshire that travellers in dormobiles and cars should be in some way restricted from using road verges as overnight encampments. The results of these overnight stays greatly disfigure our counties, and the results are far from hygienic. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, when he comes to reply, will be able to deal with that point.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, chose to raise this matter to-day, in spite of the fact that it has recently been twice debated in the House of Commons, because it is a matter of increasing public importance and has given rise, if I may say so, to an extremely interesting short debate in this House. The noble Viscount himself raised many interesting points about the proper way to arrange the gipsies to continue their life in a possible manner, and for the rest of us to continue our lives in a possible manner.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, made what I found to be an exceptionally thoughtful and well-informed speech about this topic, with every word of which I think I can guarantee I agree; and every word of what he said is in accordance with Government policy and what we wish to see happen. I would join with the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, on a remarkable maiden speech, and I hope that he will bring as much sense of history and of justice to bear on other problems later on in our discussions as he has on this.

My Lords, definition first. What is a gipsy? In law there is no distinction between a gipsy, a tinker, a traveller, or a didekei in between; and the common conception, preconception or misconception (I do not know which it is) that real Romany gipsies are good, tinkers and travellers are bad and didekeis are half and half, is not reflected in law. There has recently been a definition of a gipsy from the Lord Chief Justice, which was: A person leading a nomadic life with no fixed employment at no fixed abode. So your Lordships will see that that means in law that gipsies, didekeis, travellers and tinkers are all "gipsies".

The one point on which I must join issue with the noble Earl, Lord Cork and Orrery, is that gipsies are the only persons discriminated against, or discriminated about, by blood. They are not discriminated about by blood. They are discriminated about by occupation and residence criteria, and not in any sense by racial criteria.

The history, I think all noble Lords who have spoken, and probably others, would agree, is that the gipsies arrived 500 years ago. It has been a floating stock since then. Many have married into the house-dwelling population; many house-dwelling people have married into the gipsy community. It is all mixed up. For 500 years the reaction of the house-dwelling society to gipsies has been: "Move them on: Whatever they are doing, move them on." And although it has been uncomfortable for gipsies, it has been tolerable. The point is that we are rapidly approaching a stage—I do not think we have quite come to it yet—when this will no longer be tolerable, for the simple reason that land is so much more intensively used to-day than it used to be. There is hardly a bit of land around our big towns and cities, where gipsies like to be, which is not used for something, except the verge of the highway. And this is, of course, the worst possible place to bring up a family, and the most inconvenient place to leave litter about from the point of view of the house-dweller. This is what makes the problem increasingly acute in this decade. Any local authorities who are tempted to adhere to the traditional method: "Move along; I don't care where"—and some still are—are not helping anybody because there is nowhere to move along to.

So what we have to get towards, as everybody knows, is a system of permanent sites: enough for, I do not say all the gipsies in the country, but for quite a lot of the gipsies in the country—for a majority—to be on these sites at any one time. This still leaves them perfectly free to move on to another site, if they want to, for seasonal work or for any other reason. It will mean that the friction between them and house-dwellers is cut to a minimum, because everybody will know where the gipsies are; it is their place, and they can live as they wish to in it. It will also mean that any gipsy families (and I want to remind the House that when I say "gipsy" I always mean gipsy, tinker, didekei or traveller—the whole lot) who want to become settled persons and are attracted by the charms of schools and social services and a fixed job, and even—who knows?—in the end by a chance of a council house, will be able to achieve them in due course. It may have that effect for some, and for those who simply want to go on living as they have traditionally, it will not have that effect. They will be free to do so, moving on to the next site.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, inquired about the answer to the Ministry's circular issued by my right honourable friend last June. We are getting the answers in. They show a pretty wide diversity between county councils on performance in this task of providing sites. I think it would be fair to say, and generally accepted, that Kent, as I believe the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, knows, are leading the way. For traditional reasons, they probably have the biggest number of gipsies to deal with, and they are probably best at carrying the matter forward. Hertfordshire are not far behind. It ill becomes a Minister to pick names for obloquy, so I will go no further down the list. But much can be learnt from experience and achievements in Kent and Hertfordshire.

Lord Sandford also inquired about the publication of the report about gipsies, which has been before the Minister. It will be published very shortly. It is in the press at the moment. I think it should transform the situation as regards knowledge about gipsies. I have seen it. I am proud that it was produced by the Research Department of my Ministry. It is a first-rate sociological job. It contains a highly informative section about experience in other countries, on the numbers of gipsies, their way of life, and what is done to help them and their neighbours in the 20th century. It contains a very much greater amount of information than has ever been available before about the way of life of gipsies in this country, particularly—and I emphasise this—from the economic point of view: how do gipsies earn their living? How is it possible for them to? What effect does the way they earn their living have on other, settled people in the same trades? Matters of this kind are dealt with in much greater depth than ever before, and the publication, when it comes out, should be a basic, factual collection of information for all future action in this field.

What to do? Where do we go from here? The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, was perfectly clear that the question is one for local authorities and that the responsibility should remain with them. I think there are very strong arguments for believing that that is the right way to do it. Some local authorities themselves press to be given stronger powers than they have at present, especially to move the gipsies on in the traditional manner. My right honourable friend is not at all convinced, at any rate yet, that this is desirable, because he has noticed that these demands come particularly from authorities which are not making any provision, while the authorities that are making the best provision in the form of camp sites are the least anxious to be armed with sterner powers to move them on.

The noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, suggested that there should be a Gipsy Council, and that the Gipsy Council should license a true gipsy, and then he would be dealt with in a certain way. The idea of a Gipsy Council is, of course, one—


My Lords, I understand that a Gipsy Council is already in being.


My Lords, I am aware of the existence of a body called the Gipsy Council, but before confering any powers on an organisation one must be sure that it truly represents those over whom it is to be given powers; and at the moment there is no way of ascertaining whether it does so or not. In any case, supposing the Gipsy Council—or a Gipsy Council—were to be given powers of licensing, one wonders what would happen to the others who were not licensed. It would simply mean that they would be on the roadside, with nowhere proper to go.

The noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, asked about existing powers with regard to the roadside. The highway authorities, whoever they are—the Ministry of Transport in respect of motorways and trunk roads, and local authorities in respect of minor roads—have rather draconian powers in regard to moving gipsies along verges. They use those powers with differing degrees of imagination, and of course the point is that it is absolutely useless to move somebody on until there is somewhere for him to go.

To revert to the question of what should be done in the future, we are still at the point where we are all agreed what the result of action should be: more sites, smallish sites, sites of different sizes in different sorts of places and rightly sited sites—that is, sites which are not absolutely bang in the middle of a built-up area, which is a nonsense from the social point of view and from the point of view of the traditions of the gipsies themselves. Equally, however, the sites must not be stuck right away from any town so that the children cannot get to school, the women cannot get to the shops and the men cannot trade in scrap metal, or in whatever way they earn their living. The sites must be not in a community yet not completely out of range of it. The best way to ensure that there are sufficient rightly sited sites is something on which the Government are not in a position to adopt a very firm line. We are still hoping that the local authorities will be able to do the job sufficiently well with their existing powers, but we have under examination quite a diversity of means of ensuring that it will be done in another way if we become convinced that it is not going to be done that way.