HL Deb 13 February 1969 vol 299 cc658-82

7.18 p.m.

LORD WILLIS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether they will make an order bringing Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 into immediate operation. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name, and in doing so I should like briefly to remind your Lordships of the terms of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, to which I refer in this Question. This Act, which was sponsored by Mr. Eric Lubbock in another place, and which passed through both Houses in early summer last year, is divided into two Parts. We need not concern ourselves here with Part I, which is already in operation. Part II deals with the provision of properly equipped sites for gipsy families. It puts a requirement on local authorities—county councils, county boroughs and some London boroughs—to provide sites for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. The Act was so designed as not to put an unfair burden on one local authority as against another. For example, the London boroughs and county boroughs are required to provide a site and pitches for only up to 15 caravans, and once they have fulfilled this obligation under the Act they are given more effective powers to deal with any unauthorised camping by gipsies. Or, if some local authorities feel that they have no gipsy problem, they can apply for exemption from the requirement to build sites. That, briefly, is what Part II of the Caravan Sites Act is about.

May I remind your Lordships of the background to the Act and of the reasons why it was thought necessary to introduce and to pass this legislation? The term "gipsies", as used in the Act, is an umbrella term to cover Romanies, didekeis, mumpers, Irish tinkers—anyone, in short, who follows a nomadic way of life, except travelling showmen or circus people. It is estimated that there are about 15,000 such people in England and Wales, making up about 3,500 families. They are widely scattered. There are some gipsies in every county and in one out of every three local authority areas. They are without doubt the most harassed, neglected, downtrodden, poverty-stricken and persecuted section of our population. The conditions in which they are forced to live are a disgrace to any society, let alone a society like ours, which prides itself on its humane outlook. I believe that many of our dogs live better, and are treated better, than we treat the gipsies in this country.

For example, there are something like 6,000 gipsy children under the age of sixteen. A few get casual schooling; most get none; and the vast majority are growing up as illiterates, perpetuating the problem generation by generation. Only one family in three has access to mains water; only one family in six has access to a W.C.; the vast majority are without sanitary or other facilities—and the situation grows worse all the time, day by day, month by month. A few short years ago the "travellers" could roam the countryside and follow their traditional occupations without too much difficulty. But since the end of the war all this has changed. As more and more land is taken for new towns, urban expansion and new roads, the number of available camping sites, and back lanes in which the gipsies can camp, shrinks away.

New laws have been passed making it an offence to camp without proper authority. At one time it was possible for gipsies to band together and to rent or own a permanent camping site. Now the law itself, plus rising prices, makes this almost impossible. So, forced out of his usual camping areas, the gipsy has had no alternative but to turn to the main roadside. And because of the decline in his old trades he has had to find new ones—principally the breaking up of scrap cars and the sale of the metal and spare parts. As a result, area after area of roadside is occupied by travelling families and turned into a wilderness of ugliness and litter. We have all seen these eyesores and have all been appalled by them. I sometimes wonder whether the ugliness which they create is any worse than the ugliness we create with urban development but I will leave that point for the moment.

This situation, the situation that I have been describing, has simply created a new hostility between the local citizens and the gipsies. Force was used, and is still being used, constantly, day by day, week by week, to drive out the gipsies, as if they were dogs; to force them to move on. But this does not solve the problem: it merely transfers it next door; it enlarges it. Even when gipsies can buy a site to-day they are often met with the icy, bureaucratic face of local authority. Let me give your Lordships one example of a case reported by the Gipsy Council. There is a gipsy in Leicestershire who owns a piece of land on which he keeps four caravans. A few weeks ago he was fined £15 for not having a proper site licence. This man is prepared to put 15 pitches on his land with proper amenities. Permission has been refused. There may be a good reason for it; but the man is in this position. If he stays on his own land he will face more fines; if he moves he will be harried from pillar to post. My Lords, it is tragic, wasteful and frustrating. And those three words sum up the feelings of most gipsies to-day.

A few local authorities and a few private individuals deserve our thanks and praise because they have shown a glimmer of enlightenment and have tried to provide proper sites for some gipsy families. But I regret to say that they are the exception. By and large, the policy still is to keep out or expel the gipsy by main force. This is the background to the Bill. This was the situation which Eric Lubbock sought to check and to cure when he introduced the Bill.

Part II of the Act, in particular, could lead to the provision of about 200 permanent sites—a kind of national network covering England and Wales—where a gipsy family would have reasonable sanitary facilities and other amenities which would give his children some chance of a regular education. This, my Lords, is perhaps the most important and serious factor of all: the education of the children. It is not only wrong in the short term that a child should be denied schooling for reasons which are beyond his control; it is wrong and stupid in the long term—for it is only by educating the gipsy children that any real and permanent solution will be found to this problem. Part II of the Act would enable us to make a giant step forward in solving this problem. It would, it could—if it were implemented. But there is the big "if"! For all that we have done at the moment is to pass a paper resolution.

Part II of the Act can be brought into force only by order of the Minister—and so far he has not felt able to make that order. He has been pressed on several occasions to take the necessary action, and on each occasion his reply has been full of sympathy but empty of hope; warm with good will but cold and chilly in practical terms. The argument, in short, is that local authorities are being asked to cut back on expenditure and that it would be wrong to impose upon them at the moment this new burden of providing sites. I hope that we shall not hear that rotten, shabby argument to-day. It is true that the Minister has indicated that he would give sympathetic consideration to any application for loans sanction made by a local authority for the purpose of providing a site. This is something; but it is not enough, not nearly enough. It negates the spirit of the Act by which the burden of providing sites was to be spread evenly over all the local authorities concerned. To leave the issue to individual localities means that enlightened councils are penalised while others get away with doing little or nothing.

If Parliament had wanted to leave the matter to the initiative of local authorities, it would have said so. It did not. It made its view plain; and the Minister should take note of that.

We are bogged down now by the question of expense. I believe that my noble friend Lord Foot may have a word to say about this aspect. He may have some information about the expense involved in pursuing the present policy of harassment. Figures are difficult to get, but it is true that some local authorities are spending hundreds of pounds is each year on the negative policy of evicting gipsy families, on the erection of obstacles, on the blocking of camping sites. Some of them are even employing uniformed security men, with guard dogs, to harass these poor people.

My Lords, how much longer are we to allow this policy of neglect, persecution and brute force to continue? I venture to suggest that if any immigrant group were to be treated in this way there would be a national outcry—and I should be one of those who would join in it. But the gipsies are a small, scattered, inarticulate and largely unorganised group; and very few people seem to care. I should like to make this plea to the Government: perhaps you cannot give them the whole deal, but give them part of it, at least. Make an order instructing local authorities to set up temporary sites under the Act. Let us, at least, give the gipsy somewhere that he can bring his caravan to rest. The remainder can follow later.

The expenditure can be phased over two or three years. The gipsy is prepared to pay rent for his pitch, and most of them would be prepared to work to lay down the necessary hard-standing base to the pitches and to help in creating other amenities. But unless the Minister is prepared to act on these lines, it may be years before there is any hope for gipsies, because local authorities have already been told that their economies may have to continue into the '70s. Are the gipsies to be harassed from pillar to post for the next three or four years while we are waiting for the right moment to implement Part II of the Act?

My Lords, this is a human problem; it is a problem of people, of old people and of children; people who have become the victims of the development of our modern society. We have a choice. We can fight these people, we can turn guards and dogs on them, we can drive them aimlessly from one point to another—all at a great cost in terms of money and at a greater cost in terms of our self-respect. Or we can implement the policy that we have already decided upon and give the gipsies a place, some place, to live and perhaps to settle. It seems to me that there is no real choice. I thank the Government for the good will and sympathy that they have shown in the past, but I must frankly say that the time for words of compassion has passed, the time for words themselves has passed. We were all cold last week-end during the blizzard that shook this country. Can anybody in this House imagine what it was like for some of these poor devils on the roadside? Sympathy will not educate the gipsy children; good will will not keep them warm this winter or next, and compassion, by itself, will not lift the shadow from the lives of these people.

My Lords, I choose my final words with great care. In my view our present treatment of the gipsy is a national scandal, a mockery of all our pretensions toward building a Welfare State. When we wish we can find time and money for all sorts of causes and issues which are more fashionable and which can win more votes, or from which we can get greater publicity. But it seems that we cannot find the money that is necessary even to make a temporary start on these problems. For these people, who have hardly any voice and very little power, we can find nothing, it seems, except paper Acts, compassion and words of sympathy. I believe that if my noble friend Lord Kennet were not in the Government he would be making the same speech as I am making to-day; and that the Minister himself would do the same if he were on the Back Benches in another place. So I ask the Government to implement Part II of this Act now. Do not let any further delay add to the problems and to the tragedies. If it is the Treasury that is laying its icy hands on this proposal, I say that you will never find a truer cause on which to fight them, and to fight them until they give in.

7.32 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has deployed his case most powerfully, if I may say so, and I am sure that it is a very good thing indeed that the matter should be brought to the attention of Parliament on this occasion; as of course it was when the Caravan Sites Bill was being debated last year. But I think the House should remember that when the noble Lord stated what Parliament had done by way of expressing its views about this matter, it must also be borne in mind that Parliament accepted without any demur that Part II of the Act was to come into force only when an Order was made bringing it into force; and there was never any doubt at all about the reason for that provision because it was explained very carefully in another place and in this Chamber.

The reason for the provision was that the burden that might be, or would be, put on the local authorities by Part II of the Act was one which had to be judged in the overall financial view of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to see what were the priorities at any given time, and to see which of the various matters which have to be laid upon local authorities should take precedence; whether it should be this or something else. Parliament accepted that at the time the Bill was before the House, and it therefore seems to me that it cannot now be said that Parliament has in any way departed from what the noble Lord himself has been putting forward, if Parliament is acquiescing at the moment in the Government not bringing in this Order.

The question about whether the Order should be brought in or not must be one for the Government of the day. It is for the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and his Ministry to assess these priorities; and, of course, it is not only the gipsies who are asking for more money to be spent either publicly or locally. Noble Lords who sit on these Benches have fairly strong views about why it is that we cannot pay for all the things we wish to pay for in the public field, and I do not wish to go into that. The economics of the two Parties are probably very far apart on this matter. But the fact remains that when you get down to these small issues it is for the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to judge the priorities at the moment.

My Lords, I suggest that the House should also remember this. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, has not mentioned at all the powers that local authorities have quite regardless of Part II of the Act. It is perfectly true that Part II lays a duty on the local authorities that are mentioned in it to provide in some cases the maximum number of sites and in some cases whatever is necessary for the demand in their area. But all that does is to turn into a duty what is now a power. There is a perfectly good power in Section 24 of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development 1960 Act which enables the local authority to provide these sites if it wishes to do so. A number of local authorities, as the noble Lord said—and he paid tribute to them—have done this. As a matter of fact, the New Forestry Rural District Council has done a slightly different thing under the National Assistance Act. That council has provided a different sort of encampment and apparently this has been quite a success. There is no lack of guidance or encouragement from the Ministry as to how local authorities are to do this.

There was a very interesting Circular issued by the Ministry in 1966, and I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has read it. It not only set out some useful principles about how sites should be provided and how they should be run, but it explained also what various authorities have done and the difficulties they have run into in practice. There cannot be anything but good in that, and I wonder whether the Ministry have in mind to issue another Circular, bringing this guidance up to date and telling us what has happened in the two or three years since the 1966 Circular was issued.

My Lords, if there is financial stringency—and this is my last word on this subject— and if there are powers in the local authorities already to do exactly what the noble Lord is asking for, is it not really best that we should leave it to the responsible authorities on the ground to decide what are their own priorities within the budget, within the overall limit laid down by the Government? It is true that if it is a bad authority it may so arrange matters that the gipsies are driven out into the area of another authority. I entirely accept that point. But that is not what all local authorities do. If there is the force that I think there is in the argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, there must he people who are either members of local authorities or who can approach and influence local authorities to use their existing powers.

I cannot see that the lack of art Order bringing Part II into effect over the whole country, providing a duty as opposed to a power, is going to make all that much difference, although obviously it would make some. I shall be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has to say about the timing, but for myself, I think that if it cannot be brought in at this moment because of financial stringency then at least the Ministry can continue with their encouragement and the guidance that they have carried out in the past. It may be that the good will that is roused by speeches like that of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, will enable something to he done, even if not on the scale for which he hoped.

7.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am now doing something rather naughty in intervening at the final stage of the debate. I have not very much to say except to express the sympathy that I have with these nomad poeple. It is a tragedy of evolution that the less efficient get crushed out, and I think that they are being crushed out rather severely. There are two or three points which I would make. The position is the same in Ireland, as your Lordships will know. There they are called itinerants and they cause a lot of trouble. In their own way they are a charming crowd of people, who have done nothing really wrong, though they live on the land, and if people put up houses they are apt to take what is in the houses. The education of these people is extremely difficult because they move from one place to another.

I would give your Lordships just one little anecdote about the mentality of gipsies. This happened about fifteen years ago. Two of them went to the local town and bought a radio set for two shillings. They took it back to their encampment, took down some fence wires, put them into the terminals and threw the wires over some 500,000 volt cables. They were both killed. I have the greatest sympathy with the gipsies but I cannot see how they can ever be educated. The question is how they can be left alone with some degree of toleration.

7.41 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my support to the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for an early—indeed, immediate—implementation of this Part of the Act. It seems to me that we are not under any obligation to discuss the merits of this Part. When the Act was a Bill passing through both your Lordships' House and another place, the whole of it received almost unanimous approval and enthusiasm from the Government, and I have no doubt that the object which the noble Lord has in mind in asking this Question to-night will be sympathetically received by the Government.

Two matters, it seems to me, arise from the noble Lord's Question. First of all, what is the urgency in implementing the Act and where do we stand, as the noble Viscount asks, in the list of priorities? Secondly, is it right that the cost of implementing this part of the Act makes its implementation impossible in this period of financial restraint and stringency? On the first question of urgency, may I quote some words which were used by a former Minister in a foreword which he wrote to a survey of the gipsy problem made by Kent County Council? The words which he used seemed to me to sum up succinctly the status—or non-status—of the gipsy in our social system. These are his words: The report reminds us of the remarkable fact that for most travelling families there is nowhere they can legally put their home. They are within the law only when going along the road. Those words were written, not last year or the year before, but in 1952, by Mr. Harold Macmillan, the Minister in charge at that time. They were quoted in the Second Reading debate on this Bill in another place by Mr. Skeffington, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and he added this comment, which surely is fully justified: Is this not an astonishing comment on the state of the law and on the legislative attention which we have given to the problem in the past? The description which Mr. Macmillan gave at that time of the status of the gipsies remains the description of their status to-day. It is a proved fact, not open to argument, that the status of the gipsy in this country is little better than that of the outcast. I would impress upon the Minister and the Government that this is a matter of the greatest urgency, because under this Part of the Act we are not trying to tackle a problem that has recently come to light; we are making a vastly belated act of retribution and recognition towards these people whose place in society has become increasingly difficult as the 20th century has rolled along. We are trying to redress an ancient and long-standing grievance from which these people have suffered for many years.

The Government's reason for feeling unwilling or unable to implement the Act now is financial. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, said that it is for the Government to decide where this comes in the list of priorities. I accept that. What I am not sure about is whether the sums that the Government have worked out are right, whether the financial burden which will be thrown upon local authorities is of anything like the magnitude which the Government seem to think. The sponsors of the Act endeavoured to make some calculation of the overall cost of its implementation. They calculated that within a few years' time there might be as many as 4,000 gipsy families in need of accommodation of this sort. They calculated that the cost of providing a single pitch might be in the neighbourhood of £1,000. Multiplying these two figures, we get a figure of £4 million. On the face of it that is a formidable figure, but there are many other considerations by way of offsets which have to be taken into account, if we are to arrive at a real figure of the cost.

First of all, as the Government will know, the implementation of this Act does not mean that we are going to incur the expenditure of the whole scheme all at once. It will proceed by stages, and the first stages do not involve the incurring of any real expense. First of all, the duty is thrown on county councils and county boroughs to assess the need for pitches for gipsies in their areas. They have to make a survey and then make proposals for the siting of these pitches. Then, in the case of the county councils, they have to consult the district councils, who will later on have the duty of actually developing the sites. At that stage objections can be put in, either by the district councils or by individuals, and any objections made have to be investigated at a public hearing. All this will take a considerable amount of time, and it is not until all this has been gone through and the stage arrived at when the county council have to acquire sites that any serious expenditure is involved.

Nor must it be assumed, as I see it, that the different county councils and county boroughs and the rest will proceed at an even speed. Some will be dragging their heels, and others will be getting on with it. That in itself will defer part of the expenditure we are talking about. Then, secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, said, there is no need, in order to meet the imperative urgency of the gipsy problem, for all these sites to be brought up immediately to the maximum proper standards. It would be a great mitigation of the situation if we could think that in the next winter there would be provided substandard sites; that there would have been set aside by that time places to which these gipsies who are now being driven from one authorised site to an-other could resort.

What I should like to ask the Government is this. Why cannot they implement the Act now, so that these essential planning processes can be got through? Surely it would then be possible for the Government, having got rid of that and having got through those planning procedures, if they thought there was not the money available for the full implementation of the programme, to apply, if necessary, a regulator. But could we not get rid of these preliminaries, which are all being held up at the present moment because the Act is not being implemented?

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, said that all that Part II of the Act does is to turn a power into a duty, and he suggested that there were ample powers in the local authorities at the present time, if they were so minded, to provide sites. But I am sure the noble Viscount must be aware of what the real problem is. It is that if it is left to individual local authorities to make the decision for themselves, it casts an entirely unfair burden upon the authorities which accept the obligation, and at the same time attracts into their areas a greater number of gipsies. That, as I understand it, has been the common experience: that if an authority is enlightened, and establishes some pitch or site for these people, this automatically, attracts people from other areas, and the plight of the enlightened authority is greater than that of those authorities which remain indifferent to the problem.

The next item in the account is this. Once these sites have been established, it will be open to the local authorities to require rent to be paid for them. I am not suggesting that it will ever be possible for these sites to be made self-supporting; I have no doubt that this is impossible. But the rents which the gipsies would be able and prerared to pay would bring in a substantial contribution to the capital cost of setting up these sites.

Then there is a much more important point, if I may suggest it to the noble Lord; and it is this. At the present moment, we are engaging in a considerable expenditure on the harassing of the gipsy population which is pure waste of money. It is the expenditure which is involved in driving them from one site to another; in clearing up the sites after they have gone; in setting up fences, and posts and earth-banks in order to prevent them from coming back on to the unauthorised sites; and the expenditure which is incurred in enforcement orders, in criminal proceedings under the Highways Act, and the rest. All this expenditure is pure waste, and produces nothing. It is the bill which we face for trying to enforce this legal anomaly. It surely must be the falsest of economies to tolerate the continuation of this entirely unproductive expenditure as an alternative to the rather greater productive expenditure which would be involved in implementing the Act.

The sponsors of this Act have set out, I think as a result of conversations which they have had with the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to try to ascertain from local authorities how much money is being spent by them in what I might call the general policy of controlling or harassing the gipsies; and many local authorities have been good enough to give a reply. It had been my intention to quote one or two examples to the House, but on reflection I do not think that would be very useful, because there are two difficulties about these statistics which we tried to gather together. The first is that the local authorities themselves, however anxious they may be to help, have difficulty in dissecting and isolating the expenditure which can be properly appropriated to the control of gipsies. The second difficulty is that the anwers one receives from the local authorities are necessarily very selective, and it is impossible to paint an overall picture of the full extent of this wasteful expenditure throughout the country as a whole.

I should like, however, to quote one letter from one borough council in reply to this inquiry. I do not think I need say which borough council it is; it does not matter very much. But the town clerk wrote, in reply to the Member of Parliament for this borough, saying: The council have not as yet spent any money in providing a site for itinerant caravan dwellers. Their policy is to evict the trespassers as quickly as possible, and to this end they have for the past four years employed a retired police inspector as security officer. I enclose a copy of the report which was circulated to members of the council in July "— that was, July, 1968— of his activities in this field during the past 12 months. The figures speak for themselves. My Lords, indeed they do, because the figures are that: during the 12 months ended 30th April, 1968, the security officer moved a total of 752 caravans in 161 operations. Details are attached. Attached to this document there are three foolscap pages itemising the day-to-day activities of this security officer in moving these people as quickly as possible.

The report continued: During the previous 12 months 1,456 caravans were removed in 251 operations. It then went on to set out the expenses incurred by way of salary for this security officer—car allowance, hire of tractor and the like—and the figures were these: in 1964–65, £1,069, and in the three following years, £958, £1,480 and £1,647. It is an almost Dickensian document, is it not? Here are these people, as a deliberate act of policy, being harassed and driven from these sites on which they settle. The policy of the borough is "to evict the trespassers as quickly as possible" and to this end they have employed this retired police officer.

Then it goes on to say this—and I suggest that this is the answer to the noble Viscount when he talks about the local authorities to-day having the power to provide sites for these people if they so wish. These are the words of the town clerk: The council realise that eviction does not solve the problem, and last year they agreed to provide a properly equipped site on an experimental basis providing other local authorities in the area would do the same. Some councils did not agree with this policy, and not unnaturally this borough decided that they were not prepared to act in isolation. That is the dilemma in which these authorities stand.

I will not trouble your Lordships with any further quotations. Indeed, I think it would be more profitable if I were to invite the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to consider one or two questions. Will the Government look at their figures again? Will they tell us whether they have themselves tried to make some assessment of the extent of this wasteful and indeed almost penal expenditure in which all local authorities and public bodies, police and the rest, are involved? The Gipsy Council, as the noble Lord will know, last year attempted to make some estimate as to what this wasteful expenditure was going to amount to during the winter months through which we are now passing. The noble Lord may recollect that their estimate at that time was that the monthly expenditure of this sort, all thrown away, might be something in the neighbourhood of £100,000. That figure may be wholly wrong—I do not know—but it is impossible for people who do not have the facilities that the Government have to form any certain conclusion.

What I should like to ask the Minister is this. Have the Government made their own assessment of the cost, and, if so, what relation does that bear, what proportion does that bear, to the overall cost of the implementation of this Act over the years? If they have made an assessment, may I ask what factors they have taken into consideration; how their calculations have been worked out? If they have made an assessment, may we be told what conclusions they have arrived at? If, on the other hand, they have not made an assessment, would they undertake to make one, and to make one urgently, so that we may all know what are the true facts and to what extent the implementation of this Act would involve the incurring of a real financial liability?

The other question I should like to ask the noble Lord is this. If the answer is going to be, "No; we cannot undertake to implement this Act now", is he prepared to give us a date when the Government might feel able to implement it? Because unless we can get an early date—and I mean by that a date within the next two or three months—it is absolutely certain that the situation next winter will be almost precisely what it is now. Indeed, I should have thought (I do not know very much about these things) that in the winter after that almost the same conditions will be prevailing because of all the preliminary steps which have to be taken before the Act can be brought into effect.

My Lords, I apologise for taking so long. Let me finish by saying that I recognise, as of course we all recognise, that this country and the Government are faced with grave problems of assimilating and integrating minority groups into society. It may well be that, because of political pressures and political tension and excitement, greater priority is being given to some of these minority groups than is being given to others. But would it not be very wrong, when we are spending money at all upon the integration of minority groups, for us to put at the end of the queue these people, the gipsies, who have been here with us for centuries and whose plight has not been becoming better, but becoming progressively worse, during the course of this century?

8.5 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise because I was not present at the beginning of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, but I want to support his persuasive and compassionate speech and his plea to the Government to implement Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, referred to this as a matter of first priority and as a belated Act of reparation; and I find myself in agreement with those words and in agreement with the two questions he has put to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet.

At this hour I shall be as brief as possible. I wanted to put three points before your Lordships. I have seen in Hertfordshire something of the problem of gipsy encampments. I know the careful thought and planning that has been given to this problem by a number of influential people in the county: by councillors, by the police, by social workers, by the Hertfordshire Council for Social Service, and others. I know, too, the strong local resistance that can be met when plans are under discussion for a gipsy encampment. I understand the hopes of the planners and the fears of the people who see a threat to their locality. I am well aware that on this subject a speaker needs to choose his words with care, and I shall attempt to do so.

I have tong felt some responsibility in this field, and though I claim no expert knowledge I wish to make these three points. I hope this debate will encourage local authorities to be more active. Section 6 makes the point that: It shall be the duty of every local authority…so far as may be necessary to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies residing in or resorting to their area". A few local authorities, certainly, deserve our thanks, and it is well that our thanks should be given to them. Before coming on to that, though, I wish to distinguish between the two classes that come under this section to whom the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has already referred: the gipsies—the people of Romany blood with a high standard of morals and hygiene—and the didekei, the Romanies who marry outside the tribe and the travellers of various origins, including Irish tinkers and travelling scrap merchants. Coming to the first group, the gipsies, I visited a gipsy site and went over their caravans. A retired police officer was in charge of this small settlement and he took me round. I was impressed by the whole site, by its high standard of cleanliness and order and the obvious happiness of the wives and mothers. I visited the site on Derby Day and, not surprisingly, all the men were away on Epsom Downs.

I believe we need to be imaginative, particularly when we come to the didekei, to the travellers. We have to try to see the problem of accommodation through their eyes, and to encourage and educate them to behave responsibly when accommodation is found for them. A useful experiment is being made here in one of the boroughs in Hertfordshire, where a site was provided for six families of Irish travellers living in caravans. I believe it is still the only site of its kind in the country. A piece of council land, well screened and handy to the town, was made available. There were six fenced plots, with water and a chemical closet; there was a car park; there was a children's playground. Then, the Simon Community Trust was taking an interest in the site. This Trust, a voluntary organisation as your Lordships know, which takes care especially of people whom society is inclined to reject, provided two volunteers to work and live on the site. They live in their own caravan and they help the travellers with their social problems, their personal relationships, their adjustments. I believe that such an experiment is to be much commended, but I think it will work only if there are well qualified people at hand regularly to befriend the gipsies. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, referred to the non-status of gipsies, "a little better than outcasts", he said. If we can have these small experiments they will lose that sense of being unwanted and outcast; and what one authority is doing I hope this debate will encourage other authorities to attempt.

I come now to my second reason for supporting the noble Lord, Lord Willis. It is only when adequate accommodation is provided that the other problems can be faced with some hope of success—the control, for instance, of unauthorised encampments, to which the Act refers. Of course some of these places are eyesores. We know them well, and they tax the patience of those who live in the neighbourhood and of the police. I appreciate the problem, but I do not think it can be solved by the process of keeping people on the move—and keeping people on the move can lead to keeping people on the run. Adequate accommodation needs to be found, and I hope that some of the points that have been made—the possibility of providing semi-permanent sites in the very near future—will be considered by the Government.

I have referred to the position in Hertfordshire, and now may I mention something of the position in Bedfordshire. In a Bedfordshire local paper last week there was a complaint which illustrated the situation we face continually. There is an encampment by one of the main roads on land which is a catchment area for the drinking water supply of many villages. Local fears have been expressed that with no proper sanitation there is a possibility that this encampment will pollute the water supply; and this is an appeal which goes home to the people in the district strongly and widely. The Buckinghamshire Water Board has asked the Bedfordshire County Council to move the gipsies off the site. And so it goes on, pressure from one authority or another, for a good reason or not so good reason, to keep these people moving. Therefore we reach the position to which the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has referred, with a local security officer with 161 eviction operations in the year; and we find the unhappy state of affairs continuing. We need a lead from the Government if local authorities are to take appropriate action.

I come to my last point, a point already made by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and the noble Lord, Lord Foot, which concerns the children of these people. We shall not make substantial progress with improving conditions for gipsies until we face the clear connection that exists between this rejected minority of adults and the kind of lives these adults had to lead when they were children. As children they were often being evicted; they often grew up thinking of the authorities, the police and others, as their enemies; through no fault of their own, they grew up illiterate; they were not trained to qualify for well-paid and interesting jobs; they were treated as vagrants. Is it surprising that they cannot, without solid and sustained outside help, overcome the difficulties that face them when they attempt to settle in an area? What chance has anyone of education, of benefiting from the National Health Service or of going to church, if he is continually on the move? From the camp site I visited on Derby Day, because the parents were settled, and because their local parson visited them regularly, a dozen or so gipsy children, of varying ages, had recently been baptised in the parish church.

As has been said, we are more conscious in these clays of our duty to act responsibly to men and women of other races. Africans and Asiatics are more in our minds and more on our consciences. But long before they came in numbers to this country gipsies were here, and we have neglected them and their children shamefully. I hope that this short debate will encourage the Government now to implement Part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, or at any rate to get on with the planning, so that even if it is to be only the provision of sub-standard sites in the next year or so, at any rate something is done to meet this urgent need. My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Willis.

8.15 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome the opportunity given by my noble friend's Question to have another look at the situation of the gipsies and see in what respects it has changed, if at all, since we passed the Caravan Sites Act, and what relevance those changes, if any, have on whether or not the Government ought to bring Part II of that Act into effect. As all noble Lords remember, the Government said, when the Bill was going through, that we could not bring it into effect at that moment because the economic circumstances made it unjustifiable to lay extra burden on the local authorities when we were all the time urging them not to spend any more money than they were doing, and in fact not permitting them to spend more money than they were doing, on the full range of their services.

What is the present situation of the gipsies? During the passage of the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Willis, suggested that there was likely to be terrible hardship for many travelling people this winter. I do not think the hardship has been any more terrible than it was in the winter before, or indeed in the winter before that. There continue to be evictions and moving on, very much to the Government's regret. It is, I have to inform the House, impossible to be sure whether there is more eviction and more moving on: statistics do not exist. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Foot, to send me the copy of the letter read about the borough which he did not name with the very high record of pushing around.

To look at the other side of the question, there are now 27 sites provided for gipsies by local authorities, compared with 13 in 1967. So that gives one a doubling of the number of sites in the country in only two years. I do not know whether the total will continue to double every two years. I very much hope that it will, but one cannot be sure. Therefore, there is the fact that the gipsies, so far as proper sites provided by local authorities are concerned, are now twice as well off as they wore two years ago.

Then there are 16 more firm proposals for local authority sites that have got as far as application for planning permission, and beyond that we know of quite a few more coming along where they have not yet got that far. It is encouraging to see from Press reports of local discussions about sites—here I can only relate an impression; but it is an impression I have—that the need for sites and the plight of gipsies are increasingly understood. Of course one still gets objections, and they are often totally unreasonable objections, to applications to provide gipsy sites. But we certainly have the impresion that now we more often find people moving in the opposite direction. More people are realising that the gipsies have to go somewhere, and that it is an insufficient contribution to public debate to say, "Well, let them go somewhere else". The voices of such people are heard increasingly.

It is not only in connection with sites where there is progress to report. Some local authorities, including some who do not yet provide any sites, are already taking water and refuse collection to the gipsies who have settled on waste land. It is the opposite approach. You get an unauthorised and unwelcome settlement of gipsies on waste land. Some local authorities move them on; others take water and refuse collection to them in return for payment. I think it is clear that progress in establishing sites is much less than we want it to be, much less than we would ask for it to be and much less than it will be when we bring the Act into effect. Yet the situation of the gipsies has not perceptibly deteriorated this winter, nor has it perceptibly improved.

I fully agree with what has been said, that of course the most urgent and deplorable part of their present situation is not getting the children to school. I am not sure that it is as many as 6,000. I have here a figure of 4,000; but at any rate it is far too many children to have not at school. Now if I may turn to one or two particular points made—


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point I should like to get one thing clear. This Bill was introduced, as we all know, to deal with what was generally admitted to be an appalling hardship in respect of the gipsies. Part II was deferred and not brought into effect not because the Government thought that there was insufficient hardship, but because they said they had not got the money. Is the noble Lord now telling us that he will not bring Part II into operation until he has evidence that the gipsies have hardship, or more hardship?


No, indeed; I was not telling the House that, and I shall not be telling the House that. I was saying that our impression was that the amount of hardship suffered by the gipsies was not increasing nor was it decreasing. I was repeating what was said both in this House and in another place at the time of the passage of the Bill, that Part II will be brought into effect as soon as there is money to do it, as soon as the economic circumstances permit a further upswing in local authority expenditure on this as well as other good purposes not related to the question of proving more hardship.

The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, raised the question of Circulars, and asked whether we would follow up our Circular of 1966 with another one. We have twice followed up that Circular with others. One in October, 1967, says: The Minister and the Secretary of State emphasised that needless moving on of gipsy families from one area to another should not take place". This is firm language for a Circular to local authorities. Then there was a Circular dated August, 1968, which said: The Ministers have repeatedly emphasised that gipsies should not be needlessly moved on from place to place and again local authorities in whose area need has been shown to exist the Minister hopes will go ahead with arrangements for providing sites, whether on a permanent or a temporary basis. The problems facing gipsies in winter are immense. Loan sanction applications, whether for such proposals or for permanent provisions will be sympathetically considered". The Government's policy in this is perfectly clear. It is to say to the local authorities: "You have the power to provide sites. We will give you loan sanction if your proposal is anything like a proper one. For heaven's sake! get ahead and do it." We say that to them at yearly intervals; some do, some do not. Lord Colville was perfectly right in saying that it is a question of turning a power into a duty. The power is there and has been there for some time.

There is also the question of what standard sites ought they to provide. Our thought traditionally has always been that only the best is good enough. But I am wondering whether this is necessarily so, and I am inclined to think that the Government ought to give loan sanction for the kind of economy style site, without necessarily a separate tap for each pitch and without the very high standards which can be imagined. I think this would be done if a local authority were to come forward and say: "Let us have a cheapish site, on the cheap in the right place". They will get loan sanctions if the place is right, just as much as if they were to come forward and say, "Let us have a site with more modern comforts". I think that also answers the point made by the right reverend Prelate about a lead from the Government. These Circulars are the lead. They are the best lead we can give until the Act is brought into effect.

I turn now to the remarks made by Lord Foot about cost. He asked me: have the Government tried to assess the diture takes place, and that is where evictions in large measure tend to present expenditure? He gave, if I may say so, a vivid account of the wasteful expenditure which is undertaken by certain local authorities in pushing these people about. I want to give him an exact answer to his question: have we tried to assess present expenditure? We have. Have we succeeded in doing so? Not very well, I am afraid. It is not possible to be certain what the local expenditure is because in most local authorities where anything is spent on this it is hidden in other expenditures. Somebody is sent out; it is part of his salary; it is part of the petrol for the tractor of the local authority, anyhow, whatever it may be. Only a very small number employ an identifiable person like the retired police officer referred to by Lord Foot.

Lord Foot mentioned the Gipsy Council and their figure of £100,000 per month throughout the country for moving on the gipsies, and he asked whether our assessment bore that out or whether it gave a different impression. I would say—with tremendous reservations, because our assessment is extremely approximate; it is indeed hypothetical—no, it does not bear out that figure, or anything like it. Lord Foot himself referred to a local authority which was spending £1,600 a year. That is a borough, I assume, which has a bad gipsy problem. There may be about 24 boroughs in the country which have a bad gipsy problem. Let us assume, wholly for the sake of argument and hypothetically, that they are each spending £1,600 a year on this problem—that might not be far out. Your Lordships will see that that takes us to about £30,000 or £35,000 a year, a long way indeed from the £1,200,000 a year postulated by the Gipsy Council. I need hardly add that if we thought there was any truth whatever in the Gipsy Council figure we would bring the Act into effect, because it would probably be a saving of money to do it in that way, besides providing all the social advantages for the gipsies.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord why he considers only the county boroughs?


Because experience shows that that is where the expen- take place, They have the bulk of the problem. I readily admit that one should count in urban districts and possibly counties as well, but it is still a long way from their £1,200,000 a year. I hope that the noble Lord will reflect on the figures and calculations. I do not state them; I suggest them to the House; and let me repeat that these are hypothetical in the extreme. But if there were any question of the expense being up to the level suggested by the Gipsy Council, it would put a totally different complexion on the matter.

I turn now to the opening remarks of my noble friend Lord Willis. His point that if Parliament had wanted to leave this matter to the local authorities they would have said so and not passed the Bill has, I think, been fully answered already by Lord Colville. If they had wanted the Bill to go into effect at once they would have said so, and not left it to the Minister. Lord Willis said the present situation of the gipsies was "a national scandal". For myself, I do not find that expression very much exaggerated, but I would point out that if it is a national scandal it is one that has been going on for an extremely long time. The same language as Lord Willis has used was used in the 16th century. You will find the same evictions and the same hardships for the last 400 years. I would repeat what I said when we were talking about the Bill. All we are talking about is: do we come to a great new drive for a new system for the gipsies in the 400th or 401st year they have been here? Although it is a bitter matter it is not one that is in any way new.

Lastly, Lord Willis said that he hoped the Government were not going to use the "rotten, shabby argument" about not having enough money to do it. I put that rough phrase down to his fiery generosity of soul, and I do not complain about it. It is not a "rotten, shabby argument". I believe it is the usual sort of grey and boring assessment of economic possibilities. Lord Willis said that if I were not a member of the Government I should be up there making his speech. I would say to him that if he were, he would be down here making mine.