HL Deb 12 February 1979 vol 398 cc1049-86

6.21 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Caravan Sites Bill be now read a second time. I have had the pleasure of being involved in debate in this House on many aspects of our urban and rural environment, but today I rise to discuss a problem entailed in providing accommodation for gipsies. These are problems at the margins of our society, but they make a very obvious impact on both rural and urban environments. The Bill now before us seeks to make alterations and amendments to the existing legislative framework for dealing with this problem.

A decade ago, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, when in another place, introduced a Private Member's Bill which became the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I take this somewhat belated and tardy opportunity to compliment him on having thrown the lifeline to gipsies that Part II of that Act represents. Previously, under the Act of 1960, local authorities had the power to provide camping sites for gipsies; now, in the 1968 Act, which came into operation in April 1970, a duty was placed on local authorities in England and Wales to make adequate provision for accommodation for gipsies in or resorting to their areas. For the first time, gipsies were given a right to expect that some provision would be made for them where efforts of self-help failed, an expectation which has been held by house-dwellers for a considerable period. In Scotland, the numbers are small and therefore it has always been appropriate to adopt a general policy of persuasion rather than place statutory duties upon local authorities.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine the euphoria that this Act caused among gipsies. Our house-dwelling society inevitably fails to appreciate the immense effect on gipsies of rapid post-war economic changes and the massive increase of planning and licensing controls which have become an essential part of life on this crowded island in recent decades. Traditional seasonal sources of income, such as agriculture, forestry and horse-dealing, brought their own pattern of travel and camping, but in many areas mechanisation has forced new generations of the same gipsy stock to rely on the recovery of scrap-metal, laying of tarmacadam, carpet and furniture dealing and the sale of second-hand cars, with a consequently closer relationship to urban areas.

As traditional stopping places have disappeared and urban areas have been visited more frequently, life has become a perpetual search for any form of unoccupied land for the vast majority of gipsies. But a rational analysis of cause and effect is of no use to the gipsy. He only sees the harsh effect of such changes and must spend his energies in coping with these pressures in a struggle for survival. He has adapted to new work, but for camping sites he can only hope that eviction from muddy roadside verges will not become too frequent. Mistrustful, even violent, attitudes towards house-dwellers are hardly surprising and such behaviour brings similar responses from house-dwellers themselves.

I am not seeking to condone or excuse anti-social behaviour or to ignore the rights of house-dwellers and landowners to have their property and amenity properly protected. But we must understand two things very clearly. The first is that the majority of gipsies do not want to be anything other than gipsies, living in caravans and free to stay or to move on as they wish. They do not want, in the main, to be absorbed into the house-dwelling community, although it is difficult to know if this comes from an innate desire for the nomadic way of life or a simple fear of the unknown, which they might overcome in time. The second is that the gipsy families who sort scrap metal by the roadside really are the same families that in pre-war years lived tucked away in the countryside and sold clothes pegs and paper flowers.

The enactment of Part II of the 1968 Act has always been seen as a sensible move to resolve the animosity between gipsies and house-dwellers through adequate provision of permanent sites. Many also saw it as the basis for eventual transition for gipsies from life on the road to a conventional pattern of house-dwelling. I believe current thinking is now more divided about the nature of social bridges wanted or needed by gipsies, but all remain convinced of the absolute need for an adequate spread of sites to provide stability but also to permit gipsies to continue a nomadic way of life if they wish.

Sadly, the elation and great expectations arising from the 1968 Act have been deflated. The pressures on the gipsy way of life have continued and even increased in intensity, but local government has been extremely slow in fulfilling its statutory duties under the 1968 Act, and there are obvious reasons for this. Most house-dwellers are prepared to accept a need for such sites but do not want to see them in their particular locality. The competing demands for expenditure land and that face local authorities have further induced them to give a very low level of priority to gipsy sites. At present, it is generally estimated that there are authorised sites in England, Scotland and Wales for little over 2,500 families, but the gipsy population is estimated at some 9,000 families, thus leaving 6,500 families with no option but to camp illegally. With no services and no management, these encampments rapidly become squalid and unsightly, miserable for the gipsies themselves and a constant source of worry and annoyance for nearby house-dwellers.

Efforts to remedy this situation by the provision of sites are thwarted by local opposition, and county councils are therefore faced with difficult decisions if they are to use limited funds for gipsies in preference to more popular projects. But this local opposition is based mainly on experience of the appalling conditions on the illegal sites that can be eradicated only by the establishment of well-managed authorised sites. Evidence has shown that opposition then dies down. Clearly, there is urgent need for proper sites in the interests of house-dwellers and as a basic human right—in the words of the Cripps Report, "the right of legal abode.'

The situation has given successive Governments cause for concern and in February 1976 this Administration asked Sir John Cripps to carry out a study to consider the effectiveness of the arrangements to secure adequate accommodation for gipsies, as required by Part II of the 1968 Act. In April 1977 his report, entitled Accommodation for Gypsies, was published and I must add my own commendation to those of many others on the close anaylsis and precise recommendations for future action presented by Sir John.

After very full consultations with all those interested in the contents of the report, the Government announced their response to the report's recommendations on 19th July 1978. The majority of the recommendations in the Cripps Report were accepted, but some of these required legislation and it was promised to introduce this as soon as possible.

Sir John Cripps stressed the urgency of the need to accelerate the rate of site provision if the present distress and misery were not to persist, or even increase as the conflict between house-holders and gipsies heightened. He drew attention to the very small size of the problem in relation to the trouble and expense which it caused, and which he felt arose, in part at least, from the mistaken policies of local authorities. However, he rejected the idea that gipsy site provision should be carried out by a Government Department or a national agency; the proper provision of sites required local knowledge. But he recommended a more active role for central Government.

Perhaps the most significant recommendations contained in his report was for 100 per cent. Government grants to be paid to local authorities to cover the capital costs of site provision for a 5-year period. He saw a need for quotas for site provision to be allocated to counties and to the Greater London area administratively after discussion with county councils and the London Boroughs Association, and for agreed time-related programmes for the implementation. Sir John perceived the need for flexibility in attitudes towards standards and a movement away from total concentration on high-standard long-stay sites. As a basis for further discussion of such quotas, he also recommended the removal of the limitation of the duty of metropolitan county councils and London borough councils to the accommodation of 15 caravans in each district and borough.

He also suggested the removal of the power to grant exemption from the duty to provide sites and cancellation of all existing exemptions. Originally Section 6 of the 1968 Act empowered exemption of county boroughs or London boroughs if there was no suitable land, or of a county borough if it had had no significant gipsy population from 1963 to 1968. Twenty-six county boroughs were exempted on the second basis. After local government reorganisation and consequent amendments to the 1968 Act, there is now the anomalous position that only metropolitan district or London borough areas may be exempted, and then only if there is no suitable land; but eight metropolitan district areas enjoy exemption on other grounds as previous county boroughs. Furthermore, the areas of 18 previous county boroughs retain exemption, but are in the main only part of their relevant district areas. The intention seems to have been to restrict as undesirable the influx of gipsies to urban areas but, of course, this is now proving unrealistic. In order to assist in imparting a fresh impetus to the provision of sites, Sir John Cripps also recommended the appointment of a national advisory body, including gipsy representatives.

Sir John made a number of recommendations about the future of designation. Under Section 12 of the 1968 Act as it now stands, once the Secretary of State is satisfied that a county council or London borough has made adequate site provision in its area, he may designate that council under the Act, thereby bringing into operation Sections 10 and 11 of the Act, which give the council additional powers for removing gipsies from unauthorised encampments. Much is made by local government of designation as the reward for the extensive expenditure of time and effort often entailed in providing official sites. Sir John rejected the idea that designation should be granted on anything other than a county basis, but he considered that it ought to be with-held or withdrawn from any council unwilling to accept a quota and agree a programme of site provision. He also recommended that limitations ought to be imposed on the circumstances in which the powers conferred by designation might be used. As a further general point in designation, he felt that suggestions for strengthening the consequent enforcement powers of Sections 10 and 11 might be considered.

Sir John's report dealt separately with the special problems of London. He recommended that designation be granted to any Inner London borough where provision had been made for 15 caravans, or where it appeared to the Secretary of State that provision of a site was unnecessary or inexpedient. In dealing with the Outer London boroughs, he recommended that previous designations ought to be withdrawn unless, or until, any such borough could show that adequate provision had been made.

My Lords, many of the recommendations in the Cripps Report could be implemented administratively, and that work has started as a direct result of the report. The Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office have already begun discussions with local authorities about site quotas to fulfil their statutory obligation under the 1968 Act. In Scotland, the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee will continue to encourage action by local government, but the numbers involved do not require a quota system, which would in any case be inconsistent with the Scottish policy of persuasion. A number of other administrative measures, such as improved collection of information, consideration of possible research needs, and improved arrangements for discussion and consultation with all interested parties, are already in progress. So the Bill before us is only a part of the steps that we are now taking to supply the necessary impetus.

I turn now to the Bill itself. It differs in certain respects from the recommendations contained in the Cripps Report, and I shall explain the reasons for this as I go through the Bill. Clause 1 provides for Government grant to local authorities in respect of the capital costs of providing caravan sites for gipsies under Section 24 of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. Sir John Cripps was convinced that satisfactory progress would not be made with site provision, unless it was recognised that the problem was a national one requiring provision of a substantial specific Government grant at the rate of 100 per cent. to cover the capital cost of site provision. We have accepted this recommendation. The procedures for claiming and paying grant have now been worked out with the Treasury and with local authority associations, and details will be published in a Departmental circular soon. Meanwhile, to ensure the quickest possible progress, the Appropriation Act will be used as a basis for making grant payments in this financial year. Proposals for new sites and upgrading works initiated since 19th July 1978 will qualify for the grant. The grant provisions will also cover Scotland. Grants have been available since 1971 for local authorities in Scotland, but at a 75 per cent. rate, and the increased rate will, we hope, provide greater impetus.

Clause 2 of the Bill provides for grant aid to voluntary organisations working in the interests of gipsies, and such grants will be on terms and conditions specified by the Secretary of State. As part of the Department's small grants programme, an annual grant has been made to the National Gipsy Council over recent years, but with no commitment to future years. We seek a specific basis for such grants, as there is a continuing need for this expenditure, together with further possible small grants to other organisations working in the interests of gipsies. However, I can assure your Lordships that the sums involved will always be modest, and that the Department will always take care to avoid duplication of effort and will require suitable evidence of financial responsibility. This clause will also apply to Scotland.

In Clause 3 it is proposed to repeal the present limit on the duty of metropolitan county councils and London boroughs to provide for only 15 caravans in each district or borough, and to repeal the Secretary of State's power to grant exemptions from the duty to provide any sites on the grounds of lack of suitable land. It is also proposed to repeal the exemptions that were granted to 26 previous county borough areas because they had no gipsy population, but to delay that repeal for a further 12 months so that quota discussions with local authorities, to determine the level of adequate provision, can take place without the immediate assumption that sites must be found in such areas. Sir John Cripps recommended that no Inner London borough should be asked to make provision for more than 15 gipsy caravans, or to provide a transit site or stopping place, but that the 15-pitch limitation should be removed for Outer London.

We have agreed generally with his recommendations, but we have chosen not to differentiate on the face of the Bill between inner and outer London boroughs. We think it preferable to have no statutory limitations. So we have provided simply for an outright repeal of the 15-pitch limit, but we have expressed our intention to work on that basis administratively in Inner London. We recognise that the Inner London authorities have very many serious social and other problems, although we do not think it right to ban gipsies entirely from Inner London. We are therefore asking these boroughs to make a small contribution to the overall need for sites by each providing a site for up to 15 pitches. This will not solve the problem of provision in London as a whole, and that in turn interacts with the position in the surrounding counties. We have therefore sought the joint view of the London Boroughs Association and the Standing Conference on South-East Regional Planning.

Clause 4 provides for the designation under Section 12 of the 1968 Act of a district or group of districts. As I explained earlier, when they have provided enough sites, county councils and London boroughs may seek designation under Section 12, and so secure the additional powers of eviction contained in Sections 10 and 11. The Cripps Report recommended that designation should continue to be granted only on a county basis. However, local authorities are virtually unanimous in wanting designation on a district basis. In consultation on the Cripps Report, they argued that district councils are deterred from co-operating in programmes of site provision: no district council wants to have a site ahead of its neighbours because it fears the magnet effect of such provision will attract yet more gipsies into its district. In the view of these authorities, the prospect of "partial designation" could restore the immediate incentive to these councils.

The Government have argued that the magnet effect would tend to diminish as a significant factor as there was an increasing spread of adequate site provision, but we have been impressed by the strength of feeling in this matter, and we have decided to deviate from the Cripps Report in this respect. However, I must make it clear that future applications for designation will not be considered lightly; they must follow the implementation of a programme of adequate site provision agreed with the Departments, and, once given, will have to be kept under continuing review. Clearly, there will be a need for further guidance about this, probably by departmental circular and also in discussion of county quotas.

I turn now to the two clauses in the Bill in which we seek to rationalise the procedures involved in the provision of sites by county councils. In Clause 5, we seek to enable a county council to provide a site on its own land without having to seek a licence from the district council. Originally, we proposed to follow the recommendation in the Cripps Report and amend the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 to enable county councils to grant themselves site licences for sites under their own occupation. At present, the county council has to apply to the district council, which may use this stage to frustrate provision by the imposition of unreasonable conditions. However, we now prefer the simpler approach of exempting the county council from site licence requirements, which is consistent with the exemption already given in paragraph 11 of the First Schedule to the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 to district councils which occupy land in their own area for use as a caravan site.

Clause 6 seeks to revoke Section 8 of the 1968 Act, which requires that a proposal for a gipsy caravan site which is opposed by the district council must be referred to the Secretary of State. He may then direct that the proposal should be abandoned, or that the county council should go ahead with it under normal statutory proceedings, or that planning application should be made to him. It is the Departments' experience over a very long period that this section in effect duplicates planning procedures and causes delay without adding any useful powers. The issues raised in sustaining such objections are invariably planning issues, and, in any event, the Secretary of State's ultimate recourse, if he should consider any objection might have validity, will be to call in the application under planning law. This recourse is open to him without going through the hoops set out in Section 8 of the 1968 Act.

Your Lordships will be interested to note, I am sure, that Clause 7 provides for the devolution of these matters to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. I should like to crave your Lordships' indulgence for a little longer to quickly refer to several issues which are not covered by the Bill, although they were referred to in the Cripps Report.

Your Lordships may recall my earlier reference to Sir John Cripps' recommendation that consideration might be given to the strengthening of the powers contained in Sections 10 and 11 of the 1968 Act, which themselves flow from designation under Section 12 of that Act. We remain in consultation with the interested parties on this aspect, but we are not yet able to formulate proposals to bring before this House. Indeed, it is not clear at this stage exactly what form, if any, additional provisions might take.

Another item absent from the Bill is an amendment to Section 127 of the Highways Act 1959 in order to remove the words "or a gipsy" and thus to leave it as an offence for a hawker or street-trader to set up a stall or encamp on the highway. This specific reference to a gipsy has been much criticised as being discriminatory in comparison with other caravan-users. We have agreed to seek an opportunity to remove the phrase, but we require further time to consider the practical implications for police powers in general.

I referred earlier to the recommendation by Sir John Cripps that a national advisory body should be appointed. In response to that suggestion, we accepted the need to improve arrangements for exchanging views and for discussing proposals and ideas, but we felt that the recommendation itself required further consideration. The relevant Departments are concentrating on improved arrangements for discussion and consultation, and it is likely that this is all that will be needed.

The gipsy problem has many facets. Some of these require national consideration, but many are local problems requiring careful and considerate attention to the interests of gipsies and house-dwellers by local government. The proposals in this Bill are designed to provide a better basis for the adequate provision of sites, which we see as the cornerstone of local policies. The highest possible priority needs to be given to such provision, and consequently we seek to provide local government with the necessary financial support and suitable consultative machinery. The rest is then up to them if ever they are to resolve communal conflict between gipsies and house-dwellers, which brings with it local distress and misery. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Stedman.)

6.48 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for introducing this Bill to us this evening and for explaining its contents so clearly and so very fully. We shall all study what she has said with great interest, because although it is a short Bill it is no doubt an important one. As I understand it, the Bill follows the report of Sir John Cripps, which in its turn was a report on the working of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I have no doubt that in the course of the passage of this Bill, much will be said about the problems of gipsies, and it seems to me that if we were to put the problem into a nutshell it would be that it is always difficult for a non-conforming minority to find its place in a fundamentally conforming society. The aims and needs of each community are diametrically opposed. I well remember one of the last meetings I attended when I was in local government, which was one with local residents over a proposed gipsy caravan site under the 1968 Act. I would only say to the House that this is not an experience that I would care to repeat.

I sympathise greatly with the problem, of local authorities in trying to find sites, and this no doubt explains the low growth in the number of sites provided since the passage of the 1968 Act. This said, I fully accept that a policy of ignoring the difficulties of gipsies, or, indeed, the right of people to be non-conformers, will not make the problem go away, and that something more needs to be done. This becomes particularly important when one considers the growth of the gipsy population.

I read with interest the report of Sir John Cripps and I must say that I should like to add my congratulations on it because it sets out the workings of the Act and the whole problem of the gipsies so clearly. As he states, the Census of 1965 disclosed a population of 3,400 families, or approximately 15,000 persons. This is now thought to be a great under-estimate, because it is now thought that there are, as the noble Baroness indicated, some 9,000 families, or probably 40,000 persons. So we are talking about a population of a small town. So far, 133 sites have been provided, whereas it is estimated that over 300 are needed.

The problem is made more difficult as most of the families are in the South-East, including East Anglia, and the problem is further compounded by the fact that, whereas gipsies were largely agricultural workers, they are now scrap metal dealers and move from the country into the towns. They remain largely around the towns in the South-East. This is where the problem has been concentrated. It would be helpful if at some stage in the course of our deliberations the Government were to give more accurate figures or an indication of how we might find out more accurate figures, because I think that one of the ways in which the public is disquieted is to feel that there is no limit to the problem because we do not know quite about whom we are speaking. I can appreciate that the Bill before the House is an attempt to answer these problems but, like all the local authority associations, I and my colleagues on this side of the House can give it only a qualified welcome. There will be a number of matters to which we will have to return in detail when we reach the Committee stage of the Bill.

Clause 1, I think, must be welcomed. Local authorities will be glad to know that they will be fully reimbursed for the capital cost of establishing a caravan site. No one can doubt that the amount of money proposed—£30 million—even when spread over six years, is generous. I make this point—and it is an unusual one to make at the start of any Bill—because so many other aspects of public expenditure, particularly local government expenditure, are starved of funds. Although it is no part of this debate, it has been very noticeable, having debated the International Year of the Child only last week, that the number of instances of legislation that has not been fully implemented although it has been on the Statute Book for some time is quite striking; and the reason why so much legislation has not been fully implemented is that local authorities have been starved of funds. We must recognise that the Government are making a priority of giving this help to settle the gipsy problem and that this, in their opinion, is more important than many other aspects of local authorities' work. However, although local authorities will be encouraged to know that they will be reimbursed for the capital costs of gipsy sites, this money will come from proposed housing expenditure so that it is a transfer of funds. I believe that the noble Baroness's right honourable friend in another place has indicated that it will make a difference of one house in a thousand. In effect, the money means that we are transferring resources from, as it were, the conforming part of the population to the non-conforming. Perhaps that is what the Government wish at this time.

Clause 2 provides grants to voluntary organisations dealing with gipsies. I listened with care to what the noble Baroness said on this clause. I wonder whether it would not be better to channel all this money through the National Gipsy Council. This is an organisation which, I believe, is well known both to the Baroness's own Department and to local government. It would reassure those who would be responsible at local authority level for managing the sites and for funding the revenue costs to know that when grants are given they are being given through a recognised authority that speaks on behalf of the gipsies.

Where, I think, local authorities are rightly concerned is over the whole matter of enforcement. As I understand it, the 1968 Act is really based on an agreement between local authorities and the gipsies in the sense that the local authorities under-took to provide sites but, at the same time, they were given a guarantee that they would have the powers to remove unauthorised caravan users. The fact of the matter is that those provisions of the 1968 Act (particularly those of Clauses 10 and 11) have proved to be very difficult to enforce. The local authorities feel that, having made a great effort—and it was a great effort—to provide sites, they have never been given adequate powers to enforce the illegal parking of caravans by others within their area. Therefore, they seek stonger enforcement powers and would hope that these were to be forth-coming in the Bill. It is disappointing to hear the noble Baroness say that, although the Government are considering this matter, they have been unable to include relevant provisions in the Bill. This is something to which we shall certainly return at Committee stage. I believe it would be a great encouragement to local authorities to provide more sites were the enforcement powers stronger,

The second point I should like to make is that, under this Bill, the powers and duties of counties and districts are particularly set out in Clauses 5 and 6. I wonder whether the Government have quite got the balance right. Clause 6, in particular, repeals Section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, requiring county councils to consult district councils before adopting proposals to acquire or appropriate land for gipsy caravan sites. This, combined with the proposal in Clause 5 removing the need for a county council to seek a site licence and that under Clause 3(2)(b) (the exemptions from site provisions currently extended to a number of former county boroughs) does give rise to a great deal of concern from the Association of District Councils. This is a very detailed matter to explore at Second Reading, but it is certainly something we shall want to look at at the Committee stage.

I have no doubt we shall have a great deal of discussion about gipsies and their way of life and I should like to offer, in conclusion, what I hope will be thought to be a constructive suggestion. As I have already indicated, there is a very real problem in the relationship between gipsies and residents. I wonder if it would not be worth while looking at sites on the edge of industrial estates. Most towns now have such estates on their outskirts. As many gipsies are, in any event, scrap metal dealers, it seems that it would be more sensible to find a place for them where they could work. If it were possible to find a place for them to work, it might be easier to find a place for them to live. Looking at it from that point of view might be a more profitable exercise than some of the difficult negotiations which local authorities have had to go into when they have tried to find a site for gipsies very near or adjacent to residential accommodation.

To conclude, my Lords, we on this side of the House give a qualified welcome to this Bill. We recognise the very real problems and the attempts to put them right. I would only say that there are many points of detail to which we shall wish to return at the Committee stage, and we shall seek assurances particularly on the point I have raised about enforcement.

6.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in welcoming the way in which the Minister has so thoroughly explained the provisions of this Bill. I should like also to welcome the moderate tones in which the noble Baroness herself replied to the opening speech and the encouraging words she has given of general approval of the provisions of the Bill, although there may be some details which the Opposition may wish to amend in Committee stage. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, reminded me, it is nearly 11 years since I introduced the Caravan Sites Bill in 1968 and it is almost nine years since it was brought into operation some two years later in 1970.

I think it is a good opportunity now for us to examine what lessons there are to be learned from the experience over these years and how we can be certain that this Bill, which is based, as both noble Baronesses have said, on the excellent recommendations in the report of Sir John Cripps, will be more successful than was the previous legislation. The 1968 Act was an attempt at a comprehensive solution to the so-called gipsy problem, based, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, on a compromise between the interests of local authorities and those of the gipsy community. What we were attempting to do was to ensure that the authorities provided a network of sites on a scale large enough to accommodate the whole of the gipsy population and, in return, the gipsies were prepared to accept stricter control of the unauthorised encampments which, as the noble Baroness said, are the bane of suburban residents and parish councils.

Unfortunately, the local authorities failed dismally to carry out their side of the bargain. The Minister herself said that they have been extremely slow. I must say that endless difficulties have been discovered or manufactured with the result that according to my calculations, about three out of five gipsy families are still living on unauthorised sites. That is according to the figures collected in the census of last July. There seems to be some discrepancy between those figures and the ones that the noble Baroness gave us this evening. She said there were 2,500 families on authorised sites out of a total of 9,000. If my calculations are correct, the 1978 survey shows that there were 3,500 caravans on authorised sites out of a total of 8,540. Admittedly, you cannot exactly correlate caravans with families, the survey only referred to England and the noble Baroness may have been giving us England and Wales. But there seems to be a need, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, remarked, for greater accuracy in the figures. The Department will be the first to admit that the first census had some defects and that these can be remedied in later attempts. The true picture is almost certainly worse than was shown by the survey, because there were some local authorities which refused to take part altogether, and those are likely to be the culprits who have not provided any sites; but some who took part gave inflated totals of the number of caravans that they had on authorised sites.

The 1968 Act gave the Minister the power to step in and direct the local authority to provide sites on a scale that he would determine, and to enforce that direction with a writ of mandamus, where necessary. The Government have never invoked these powers but have continued to rely on persuasion. It may be that with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see many effects in the 1968 Act. I believe the main reasons why it has not been more effective have been, first, the skilful evasion by local authorities of the obligations which of course they assume are voluntary; and, secondly, the inexplicable reluctance of successive Ministers to use that weapon of direction. I am not going to try and claim that comprehensive provision of sites all over the country would have been achieved by now had there been greater determination, because obviously other factors have been at work over the past decade and, in particular, there have been restraints on local government spending. But those restraints in some cases provided an additional excuse for what the local authorities intended to do anyway, which was to shelve schemes for gipsy sites which their councillors might think would be unpopular with the voters.

At the same time, local authorities have been spending enormous sums on housing gipsies and preventing them from occupying vacant land or the verges of highways. For example, Mr. Tim Jones in The Times of 24th October last mentioned Swansea, which has spent over £27,000 in blocking off vacant land so that gipsies cannot camp on it. Mr. Bill Forrester of the Minority Rights Group was quoted in Labour Weekly of 21st July last as saying that in Rotherham £35,000 was spent on anti-gipsy activities in 1977 alone—and I think this was for labour and materials only. Mr. Forrester estimated that throughout the country as a whole as much as £4 million a year was being wasted in this way.

One example with which I am familiar is in the London borough of Bromley. I drive along the A.21 road most days and see an enormous concrete and steel fence—a most unsightly fence—which has been erected there along the A.21 and also along part of Court Road which runs parallel to it, the cost of which I understand has been £35,000. Presumably, in the end this "Maginot line" will run all the way along to the edges of the borough so that the gipsies will be driven back into the county of Kent, where, needless to say, there are no sites where they can legally stop. I was not at all surprised that the London Boroughs Association reacted negatively when the Bill was published and they saw that the 15-pitch limit was to be removed in accordance with the recommendation of Sir John Cripps.

Mr. Bowness, chairman of the London Boroughs Association, said on 15th January: There must be a realistic appraisal of what London can provide, which must be linked with new, speedy and effective enforcement provisions". The July 1978 survey figures appeared to show that many of the London boroughs had already done more than was required of them, but these figures must be treated with great caution, as I know the Department itself recognises. For instance, the London Borough of Bromley is listed as having 51 pitches on authorised sites, when the actual number—and I believe this has been corrected in the most recent survey undertaken in January—is 21. I think it is going to be very difficult for the Government to arrive at any agreement with the LBA on increased provision in Greater London, so the removal of limits which the noble Baroness mentioned is going to make very little difference in practice.

With regard to the cancellation of exemptions in the former county boroughs, again the effect may be marginal. We have had exemptions in 26 of the county boroughs, all on the grounds that there were no gipsies residing in their areas in the five years up to 1st April 1968. If all those areas did provide one 15-pitch site each, there would be another 390 pitches in total, and that represents less than 8 per cent. of the need. But even that assumes that the quota discussions which the noble Baroness mentioned, and which are now proceeding with the local authorities will be uniformly successful and that all the district councils concerned have gipsies resorting to their areas so as to make a site in those areas necessary. On this latter point, the effect of Clause 3(2)(b) is delayed for 12 months so that discussions on quotas may proceed without any immediate presumption that sites ought to be found in these areas.

On the wider question of agreement on quotas and a timetable, as recommended in paragraph 4.40 of the Cripps Report, I have to say that, potentially, this is more important than anything that is actually contained in the Bill, yet there are signs that some local authorities will do their best to sabotage any agreement made between the Government and the Associations that are meant to be representing them. I say this because of remarks made by some councillors, many of them chairmen of committees, on the question of accommodation for gipsies. Councillor Ron Watkiss, leader of the Cardiff City Council, has told officers to keep on harassing the gipsies until they realise that they are not wanted in the city. The South Wales Echo of 18th October 1978 said in its leading article that Mr. Watkiss was right. Save the Children, in a report to the DHSS by Ms. Anne Bagehot, their national gipsy liaison officer, referred to "massive evictions" in Cardiff, and she went on to say that, with opposition so strong, it would be a long time before adequate space was provided in Cardiff.

In Wiltshire, at a meeting between the county and districts held on 11th May last, it was resolved to take "strong action" against people who stationed caravans on the Droves, Salisbury, on the grounds that they were neither gipsies nor the district council's responsibility. If they were really not gipsies they would still be the responsibility of the local authority under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. In Sheffield, Councillor George Wilson, leader of the council, said on BBC Radio Sheffield on 14th December last year: I wish you'd stop calling them gipsies… they're cannibals, they're parasites on society". Councillor Reg Glinn of the Plymouth City Council was quoted in Labour Weekly—my favourite reading—of 10th June 1977 as saying of gipsies: These people should be shot, first in the leg, and if necessary killed". Councillor Paddy Cane of Sutton has suggested bringing in tanks to remove gipsies. In the London Borough of Hillingdon there were plans for another site, but after the elections of 1978, the new council made a policy decision not to continue with the scheme. There have been evictions in the Borough of Hillingdon since then, and it has even been alleged that some gipsies have been forced across the boundary of the borough into the neighbouring county immediately before the 1978 count, with the obvious intention of reducing the borough's liability when the 15-pitch limit is removed.

At Cardiff, similarly, families were evicted from the Trowbridge site on the actual morning of the second count, on 17th January this year. It would be interesting to know whether they were included in the total. In Oxfordshire, a leading article in the Oxford Times, which was kindly sent to me by my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley, suggested that local authorities should not be obliged to provide sites for itinerants.

So with these attitudes as widespread as this, what chance have we of getting enough accommodation by voluntary agreement? If it was as easy as all that, we should have solved this problem in the last 10 years. The only inducement the Government have to offer is designation. Under the Bill they will be able to hold out the possibility of extending those powers to districts or groups of districts instead of to whole counties. I can sell understand that local authorities were vociferous in demanding this weakening of the 1968 Act; but in giving way to that pressure I think that the Government have reneged on a commitment which was given to me by the late Arthur Skeffington and subsequently embodied in Circular 49 of 1968, where Ministers said that they intended: to exercise their powers to designate in such a way as to avoid creating a patchwork of relatively small areas where it could be an offence for a gipsy to camp. Such a pattern would create a difficult position for the councils of adjoining areas and a confused one for the gipsies themselves". That is precisely what could happen with a partial designation being included under this Bill.

The argument is, as the noble Baroness explained, that no district council wants to have a site ahead of its neighbours for fear of the "magnet effect", as she put it. That may well be so, but if the Department and the local authorities really mean business, then voluntary quotas can be agreed and the timetable decided, so that the work proceeds throughout the whole of the county in a co-ordinated manner and completion can be synchronised roughly as between the districts. To accept the need for partial designation implies a lack of confidence in our ability to formulate and manage such a programme. It also relies on the argument we have heard this afternoon, that designation in one area is an incentive to neighbouring authorities to get on with the job.

I say we can now see that this proposition is manifestly false, as I predicted when your Lordships discussed the first designation order as long ago as 14th November 1972. I pointed out then that the gipsies who could not get on to the site at St. Helens, where there were 12 pitches—St. Helens being one of the three county boroughs then designated—would simply be decanted into the surrounding county of Lancashire, which had already scaled down what they were prepared to do from 100 pitches to 75 since the 1968 circular. I said then that even that "miserably inadequate target", as I called it, seemed likely to be reduced still further. According to the July 1978 survey, there were at that time only 57 pitches on official sites in Lancashire, compared with 162 on unauthorised sites. The county therefore has done even less than the national average to meet its own requirements.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, who was the Minister replying to that debate, said that he expected designation to stimulate the provision of more sites. I ventured to remark that that was nothing but a pious hope and that it would never happen. We are in a position to judge which of us was right, and I say that if one looks at the experience of Lancashire and the other authorities which were designated at that time, experience shows that it was a mistake to designate those county boroughs in the expectation that it would encourage the neighbours to do more. Therefore, I say that partial designation is the wrong policy.

Before leaving this question of designation, perhaps I should mention the case of Dorset, which I believe to be still the only county to have been granted designation. There were two planning applications by gipsies pending at the time of designation. I understand that one of those was subsequently turned down and the other was accepted. It obviously creates serious difficulty for the gipsies who were in the process of making a planning application at the time of designation, because if they lose that application then they are going to have to move out of the county altogether. I think that this point perhaps ought to be considered in Committee.

Similarly, I say that the strengthening of enforcement powers such as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, suggested we ought to look at, would be counter-productive. The Cripps Report suggested that Sections 10 and 11 of the 1968 Act should be confined to unoccupied land, and then only when the land was required immediately for some other purpose. Sir John did concede that the various suggestions made for strengthening Section 11 ought to be examined, but he said they should be acted upon only if the previously mentioned proposal were implemented first. Since that condition is not to be fulfilled, I think it is a pity that the Government have nevertheless agreed to re-examine Section 11. But as they have done so, it is not altogether satisfactory for the Minister to say this evening that she could not give us any information about the progress of those consultations.

My own view is that it is for the local authorities to show first that they can deliver the goods, and after that to ask Parliament for the new powers. If there is agreement on quotas and the time-tables, there must also be penalties for non-achievement. The Government say it is very unlikely that any local authority would be unwilling to accept its quota and to agree a programme, but that they might consider the use of default powers appropriate in those exceptional circumstances. I think it would be much better for all concerned if Parliament laid down clearly when directions should be given by the Secretary of State, and that this should happen not only if a local authority declined to accept its quota by the end of, say, 1979, but also if, having accepted the quota, it fails to meet an agreed timetable.

It has become fashionable to criticise the 1968 Act, and no doubt it had the limitations which are inseparable from the need to satisfy as many conflicting interests as possible; but, when I come to examine this Bill, all it is proposed to do in terms of legislation is to give the councils a bit more money, to remove exemptions from a handful of authorities, to abolish the 15-pitch limit, which has been exceeded voluntarily anyway by many authorities, and to make it slightly easier for counties to obtain a site licence.

What really matters is whether there will be a new spirit of determination by the local authorities and national Government in dealing with this tiny problem—and it is a tiny problem, as Sir John Cripps said, and as the noble Baroness has re-emphasised this evening. When you think that 800 families could be accommodated in comparative luxury for the same amount of money that one London borough is thinking of spending on its town hall, and when you consider that the whole of the money required to complete the national site network—£30 million, which is going to be provided under this Bill—is the equivalent of less than four of those town halls, you can only wonder that it has taken us so long. But the gipsies are not themselves a powerful lobby and their cause is thought to be a loser for anyone taking it up. When New Society examined a list of unpopular causes in its issue of 6th July 1978, it included alcoholics, ex-prisoners, tramps and drug users: gipsies were at the bottom of the list.

I think it still has not dawned on the public, because the so-called leaders of opinion do not often say so, that officially-run sites, kept tidy and properly supervised, are infinitely preferable to the squalor and filth which is inseparable from unauthorised encampments. Nor is it realised that by continuing to harry the gipsies from pillar to post and thus preventing their children from attending school, we have stored up trouble for yet another generation. However belatedly, I hope your Lordships can join with Ministers, councillors and friends of the gipsy community in spelling out these truths.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, it gives me great pleasure, also, to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, on introducing this Bill so very ably. I am pleased to contribute briefly to this debate, because the 1968 Act of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was the very first Bill which I ever took part in debating in your Lordships' House, though I admit that at that time I concentrated rather more on Parts I and III than on Part II of the Bill.

It seems to me that we are facing a tougher problem than the rather dictatorial approach, which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has suggested, can cope with. If one looks at the statistics, it appears that it was thought in 1965 that there were 3,400 families, and it is now believed that there are 9,000. As my noble friend Lady Young said, we must get the figures more accurate, because if there were 3,400 families then 2,500 sites would be a much better achievement than it now appears to be. It is very important to quote—and it requires quotation—one paragraph from the excellent report of Sir John Cripps, which, though we may not entirely agree with what he recommended, I think we all feel is very thorough and is as good a chance of getting the facts right as one would believe possible. He says in paragraph 3.19: A councillor who fails to oppose a site in his ward immediately feels that his seat is in jeopardy. Courageous men and women have, none the less, tried conscientiously to support their council's officers in the selection of sites, and some have retained the confidence of the electors for doing so. It is not possible, however, to overstate the intensity of feeling, bordering on the frenetic, aroused by the proposal to establish a site for gipsies in almost any reasonable location". That is a fact of life. I only touched upon it when living in Cheshire, not that anybody sought to put a site close to where I was living, but a not too far distant neighbour of mine, about two miles away, found some gipsies outside his main entrance and the rows that developed from that were something that staggered me. There is a fundamental feeling here, and I wonder whether it is not so much the genuine gipsies, the Romany folk, who are under criticism, but the people who go under the banner of the gipsies and who are not really gipsies. Sir John Cripps talked about tinkers, but there are many other kinds of groups.

If it is true that there are now 9,000 families and 14 years ago we thought there were only 3,400, is it the case that by providing the sites we have encouraged to be nomads people who are not naturally so? Is there room to tighten up the definition, to talk about people whose tradition was nomadic, rather than follow the precise wording of the 1968 Act? I know that it is very difficult to get a definition which stands up in law, but I suggest to the noble Baroness that this might be worth looking at, because we must think of realities.

It is all very well telling councils that they must do this, that or the other and they will be penalised if they do not do precisely what central Government think is right, or, at least, what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, thinks is right, which might not be quite the same. You cannot do that against the background of this almost gut feeling—if I may use such an unparliamentary term—in the populace.

I should now like to turn to the question of whether it is right to encourage people to come near towns, because they have turned into scrap dealers from being people who helped on the farms. That might be a good thing, particularly if the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Young was followed up of putting sites close to industrial areas. But in the Cripps Report one reads that one cannot altogether trust some of these people who come under the heading of gipsies. I remember that at an industrial estate in Manchester, where I had a computer housed, we kept on getting raided by small boys, particularly over weekends, because the industrial estate was relatively remote and there was no one there. So you get that kind of problem. The idea is a good one and it needs studying, but it has those snags which must be watched.

I should have thought that a genuine nomadic person would not be very contented with living in a town, or around the edge of a town. I should have thought it was better to encourage such people to be in the wider country, rather than in the towns. Therefore, I wonder whether it is right, in Clause 3(1) of the Bill, to cut out the limitation of numbers in the London boroughs at this stage. It is true to say that the London boroughs have been quicker than the Home Counties around them to meet the reasonable quota, which they have been asked to do. That may, in its turn, have acted as a magnet to attract people to London, when they ought to be near the slightly smaller—but really very large—towns in the periphery in the Home Counties. Therefore, I wonder whether this is the right time to encourage London to become more of a magnet than it already is. I suspect that the same rules might apply to any other very large city and that, on the whole, we do not want to encourage that. Those are the points that I would throw out for consideration, some of which may be worthy of an Amendment to be discussed in Committee.

It will be most interesting to see what the Government have in the way of Amendments. The noble Baroness did not mention any, but I understand that the Government have told organisations which are interested that they are considering some Amendments. I, for one, will watch carefully to see what they do, and I hope that we may tighten up this Bill in some respects and get it into a shape which can take us through the next decade, so that the very good staff work of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, can be improved still further into the 1980s.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, as we know, the county councils can determine the sites of gipsy encampments and the district councils have to administer them. Under the designation system, the Secretary of State virtually says to a county council, "You provide alternative sites for gipsies and have the powers for removing them from unauthorised sites, or use the law of trespass"—which has proved inadequate. Some counties have provided sites but very few have done so—certainly, mine has not. As a result, the county is not designated. My own district, which I am sure is typical, has a great problem, one which we have already heard about, of caravans, with scrap metal dealers, old cars being broken up and tyres being burned near people's houses, which has led to a lot of angry residents who have obviously objected enormously.

These families go where there are pickings. They do not like going out into the countryside, because they have no affinity with the rural scene. I do not think that they are gipsies at all. I believe that most of them are simply scrap dealers who take to the road, perhaps only at certain times of the year. When they have been ejected, they have simply gone to another spot in the same county or district. My own district has taken out injunctions against named itinerants, but has failed at the court to get them moved from its land because those people had nowhere else to go.

The district would prefer—and no doubt the district is not alone—to be able to provide the site itself rather than rely on the county council, and also to arrange the designation of its own borough. The Secretary of State has accepted this principle of the district area being designated. As I understand it, that is in Clause 4, but it still leaves the county providing the site for the gipsies. Surely, however, designation is closely linked with site provision. It is not much good being able to have designation if you do not have the sites with which you can get your designation. Thus, the districts will be able to designate but they will have few powers as to where the sites will go. Yet the county council—and this county council is not alone—continues to delay, even after four years, producing sites.

Therefore, the point is that the provision of sites should become a concurrent function with the county council so that both the county council and the district are able to acquire land, provide the sites and obtain the 100 per cent. grant. Speaking for my own district, I understand that they would be prepared to grasp the nettle, even in the face of the unpopularity that would come to them, and provide a site.

Turning to Clause 6, whereas in the past county councils had to consult the districts with regard to the provision of sites, under this clause they will no longer have to consult the districts. This will make the position worse. I realise that there are arguments against concurrency. One of them is that it would create strife between districts and county councils, but I believe that concurrency would certainly cause no more strife, and possibly less. The fact that there will be no consultation will certainly contribute towards causing strife. Furthermore, if the districts were able to provide sites, many of them would perhaps do so.

7.31 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness and Her Majesty's Government for presenting the Bill which we are now discussing. When the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, opened the debate on the Countryside (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, he said that it was short and uncontroversial. This is also a short Bill but it is highly controversial.

The problems of gipsies, whether maligned or not, the desirability, location and nature of sites, the responsibility for and management of the same, are matters which we could discuss for a prolonged period of time. We have heard about some of the results of people's attitudes, in particular from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He did not, however, put forward any solution to ease the problem. As I believe that this Bill, or something similar to it, will reach the Statute Book, I shall confine most of my remarks to what I consider to be a major omission from the Bill, which is only a partial solution.

Turning first to the Bill itself, I am concerned about Clause 6 but will say no more about it at the moment as two noble Lords have already spoken on the subject. I turn, therefore, to my main point. Although persons in my profession do come into contact with gipsies, I have never encountered them in a professional capacity. My suggestions are not therefore put forward as the result of a personal grievance but in an endeavour to seek a workable solution to a very tricky problem. The main omission is that a local resident, as yet, cannot obtain compensation from local authorities for injurious affection or damage to his or her property as a result of the siting of a gipsy caravan site or the action of the inhabitants. As I understand it, under the present law there are two courses of action available to an aggrieved party. One is to sue a gipsy, or gipsies, on the same basis as one can sue a third party, but due to their very nature this action would not reach a satisfactory conclusion. The second is to sue the local authority which manages the site, but this would be expensive, time-consuming and unlikely to succeed to an extent that would be beneficial.

The present laws are therefore inadequate to protect any local resident where damage occurs due to gipsies or a gipsy site. The moral obligation has already been accepted in similar circumstances where land is taken or used for public works. There are precedents in the Land Compensation Acts, in particular in the 1973 Act. It is therefore disappointing that Sir John Cripps did not comment upon this in his report.

One of the practical effects of a gipsy site is damage to land and property, and there are two forms of compensation which can help to resolve this problem. One is injurious affection to a persons premises, but this is difficult to ascertain in many circumstances, and it takes a long time to prove it and then agree a settlement. In my experience, it would not be satisfactory in these circumstances. A better form, and the one that I would recommend to your Lordships, is one where an aggrieved local resident can receive a monetary sum in compensation where damage can be proved to have been caused to his or her property by gipsies.

In order to pay such monies, I believe that a local authority should be required to enter into a bond from which it could draw sums to compensate for such damage, and, if necessary, such monies would be 100 per cent. grant-aided by central Government. In essence, it would be a type of insurance policy. The idea of a bond is not a new one. Indeed, the County Council of Tyne and Wear, and others, seek a similar type of bond in Clause 5 of the Tyne and Wear Bill which your Lordships will be discussing in the near future.

Let us therefore consider an example of the problem. Imagine that a gipsy site has been established for, say, three years and has not given rise to any claims for damage by local residents. Unfortunately, there is internal strife on the site which results in part of a nearby farmer's fence being destroyed, part of the field he has shut off for hay being made unworkable and the garden of an adjacent house-occupier being damaged. Both parties can prove that the damage was done by the gipsies but, under present legislation, there is, in effect, nothing they can do about it. Under my proposal, an independent aribtrator would be appointed, the damage assessed, and the amount of compensation calculated and then paid out of the appropriate managing authority's bond. All affected parties are then put back as close as can be to the situation that existed prior to the damage being done. Incidents such as this are not unknown and in many cases can be directly attributed to gipsies. Their frequency, and the extent of the damage, will, of course, vary. It may be an unpalatable fact in this day and age, but we must face it and try to make it as inconvenient as possible for all parties concerned.

Here, a word may be appropriate on the appointment of an arbitrator. I feel the easiest and most satisfactory system is that which is already well used in agriculture. It is efficient and quick. The method is for a single arbitrator to be appointed by both parties, but, failing that, either by the president of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers or by the President of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The arbitrator should then be required to decide his award within a set period of time and the council should be required to pay the award within four weeks of the arbitrator's decision. The matter would then be disposed of and settled in a minimum period.

The advantages of my proposals are numerous, but are mainly these. First, we fulfil the moral obligation to compensate a person whose land is injuriously affected or damaged by a third party. Second, local residents near gipsy sites will not be, as it were, out of pocket where such damage occurs. Third, if compensation is payable, then some of the barriers which exist against gipsies will be removed, though I would not venture to suggest that it could altogether dispel what Sir John Cripps calls "the widespread fear of gipsies among house dwellers." Fourth, the appropriate authorities will find it easier to acquire and appropriate land for gipsy caravan sites. Fifth, there will be an incentive for local authorities to manage their sites properly to minimise any damage claim, as they are accountable for their expenditure. Also, they would not have to pay for any damage, unless it occurs and unless it is substantiated. Last but not least, gipsies and local residents would get on better together and become more compatible neighbours.

To take up the point which was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, I could not agree more that we should let gipsies be gipsies, but I would qualify that by saying: let true gipsies be true gipsies. I am sure that everybody would want that.

With regard to disadvantages, there appear to be only two. The Government will find it very difficult to assess the overall cost of finance. However, the sums involved will be small in comparison with the advantages to be gained. When better relationships have been established, funds could be saved by reducing the grants available to voluntary organisations. What exactly these organisations are, and what they have to do to receive a grant from central Government, we are not told in detail. Surely my proposals will mean that at least some money is better spent on compensation rather than giving it to some organisations which can, as Sir John Cripps states, "command intermediate and variable followings".

A further disadvantage from a local authority viewpoint is that the compensation scheme as proposed might be considered to be too widely drawn. This, I think, is a matter for further discussion at a later stage. At this stage I hope the noble Baroness will accept the principle involved. If further powers and financial aid are to be given to local authorities, without solving a major practical problem, so that the number of sites can be increased by approximately an additional 230 per cent. then I fear that the attitudes of many people, and particularly those of local residents, will not change but will even harden.

7.40 p.m.


My Lords, I fear that I cannot agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, or the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that gipsies are a tiny problem. I fear that they are a very difficult problem and I am thankful that the noble Baroness will have to solve that problem and not me. I have to declare an interest in that the Oxford-shire County Council are discussing a proposal tomorrow to move a non-Romany gipsy site from Oxford City to my farm. Perhaps I might preface my remarks by saying how much I agree with my noble friend Lord Mottistone on what is a gipsy, and I should like to say that, despite the fact that the Cripps Report groups them all together, I believe there is a very big difference between Romany gipsies and what I would call tinkers. The site in question was originally sited away from housing, but due to development the site now adjoins a residential area and the residents have complained of the behaviour of the tinkers to such an extent that the council have been asked to move them. It is reported that approximately £70,000 worth of damage and vandalism has been done to the site over the past few years, apart from considerable nuisance to neighbours.

I need hardly add that I am not particularly anxious to have the site on my farm. I would have to give up sheep and potato growing and I know not whether I should be entitled to compensation, although I am particularly interested in the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Caithness as to the possibility. But of much more importance is the fact that the residents nearby—and I am not one—are up in arms over the tinker site. Indeed, it has caused, and is causing, an unholy village protest, the like of which, I suggest, your Lordships know only too well. I should add that there are three other possible sites proposed by the county council, and in each case the distaste expressed by the residents nearby is equal to, if not worse than, ours. Not a Christian characteristic, maybe, but human—and not, I suggest, a good environment for legislation.

I raise this incident as a perfect example of what is likely to happen should this Bill become law and county councils are forced to provide approximately three times the number of sites that they have already. In the particular case I have just mentioned, Mr. Hugh Farrant, the leader of Oxfordshire County Council, has received well over 400 letters protesting against the site; and the mention of gipsy sites to any Oxfordshire county councillors today makes them scurry away like frightened deer.

It may be that your Lordships will say that my story is disgracefully selfish and unmindful of the tinkers, but my impression is that not enough thought is given to the residents who will be near the proposed sites. There are, according to the Cripps Report, 8,000 odd tinker families and gipsy families that, maybe, are asking for help—and I am just wondering whether the word should be "maybe". But there are many more millions of ordinary citizens also asking for help and I wonder if we are not once again kowtowing (if I may use that word) to a minority. The picture of the provision of tinker sites as portrayed by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, in the comfort of your Lordships' House, is seen in a very different light by those members of the public who will be near those proposed sites. I think my noble friend Lady Young has a valid and interesting point that perhaps they should be sited near industrial estates.

Despite a search of D of E directives and also the Cripps Report, I can find no mention of how the existing sites are working, although one can see how they are not working from pages 11, 12 and 13 of the Cripps Report, which say some pretty disturbing and distressing things. I regret to introduce a note of bitterness, but I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of recent legislation has been based on the principle of "let's find a failure and try to help it, and let's find a success"—such as, I suggest, my own industry—"and try to ruin it". Before I beat my sword into a ploughshare I was taught something about reinforcing success and I greatly fear that this Bill may be doing exactly the opposite; namely, reinforcing failure.

So I ask the noble Baroness two questions. Can she convince me, as a run of the mill farmer and not, I fear, a high-minded noble Lord like my noble kinsman Lord Avebury, that the existing sites are working as satisfactorily as envisaged by the 1968 Act and that future sites as suggested in this Bill will be managed in such a way as to allay the fears I have expressed in my example? Secondly, can the Government convince me that the expenditure of £30 million, which no doubt will turn out to be £60 million, and asking the county councils to employ extra people, is in keeping with today's economic situation and not throwing good money after bad? Finally, my Lords, should you accuse me of being destructive—which no doubt I am—and ask me what I would do, faced with the tinker problem, I would repeat that fortunately it is the Government's job to make plans, but I would not reinforce failure, as I think this Bill may do. I would consider some means of compensation to residents near tinker sites, and if this cannot be given today because of the economic situation then I would do nothing at all.

7.47 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am most grateful to all the noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and for the constructive criticism—if I may put it that way—that they have made, which we shall obviously have to face at the Committee stage and later stages.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, queried, as did the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, our figures. We have now introduced six-monthly counts since January—they will now be held in January and July of each year—and we hope that that will bring some sort of uniformity with the counts which the local authorities are carrying out. Of course, with the movement of population and the fluidity in the situation of the gipsy encampments, the figures will never be completely accurate; but we think it will be a great advance on the past uncertainties and we shall have a much more realistic figure of the number of families with which we are coping.

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that the grant which we were giving we were really taking from the housing money. She said it was equivalent to one house in a thousand. Perhaps it is better expressed as 0.1 per cent. of the housing allocation; it comes to the same thing, but I think it puts it a little more in perspective. Also, of course, the present housing allocation is underspent by something like 8 per cent., so the grant is hardly likely to affect the housing programme of the local authorities while it is being given for this purpose.

The noble Baroness also raised the point that the grant ought perhaps only to be given to the National Gipsy Council. There are other voluntary organisations which are doing a lot of work on behalf of gipsies. The National Gipsy Council is certainly a commendable, efficient and reputable body, but there are other organisations which have a special expertise. It is certainly something that we will look at, but I think we would want to feel free to give help to some of the other, minor organisations which are helping, as well as to the National Gipsy Council.

On the question of the enforcement powers, we are investigating possible changes that might be introduced in this Bill so that we can get the best use of our official sites, including the need to guard against intruders who might put at risk those travellers for whom the sites have been provided. That is something which happens. We are looking at the position and, if possible, we will introduce the necessary Amendments, either in this House or in the other place when the Bill gets there, and when we have finished consultations with the other Departments.

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that it might be sensible to try to direct the provision of sites on to the edge of industrial areas. I am sure that the local authorities will bear that in mind. I can only speak from experience in my own city. There we have got our gipsy encampment, the permanent one, on the edge of our industrial area. I might also say that after a few teething troubles at the start it is now working reasonably satisfactorily.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, again queried the accuracy of the figures. I hope I have helped to put this mind at rest in saying that we are having a slightly better census done at the moment. He referred to the waste of resources on the anti-gipsy activities. I agree with the noble Lord that it is a pointless waste of resources, and that it would be better to employ these in a proper determination of the need and in the provision of properly equipped sites in compliance with the statutory requirements on the authorities. On the quota discussions, these are under way at the moment in all parts of the country.

The noble Lord queried the patchwork effect of the partial designation. Designation, whether for part or whole of the county, will only be granted once agreement has been reached over the county programme as a whole, and we are satisfied that the implementation of partial designation, where one district or group of districts has completed its provision, would not have any detrimental effect by forcing other gipsies on to further illegal sites. In regard to Dorset, there the designation was granted on the basis of adequate but flexible proposals. This is almost always going to be the case, because we are dealing with travelling people and the numbers fluctuate.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness. My point was that if planning applications by gipsies were under consideration at the time of designation by the county and they were subsequently unsuccessful, it would mean that the gipsy who lost his appeal, to the council or the Minister as the case may be, would have to move wholly outside the county. I was thinking that perhaps there should be some co-ordination between the planning machinery and the designation.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. I will have a look at it and write to him. On the question of the powers of direction, we think that these powers should be used only in exceptional circumstances. We hope there is going to be a much greater rate of progress without any formal coercion on behalf of the Secretary of State.

The noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and others, raised the question of the definition of "gipsies". This is a difficult one. John Cripps tried it and could not come up with anything else which stood the test of time and was able to describe them better. I think we have to recognise that the 1965 count of the so-called gipsy families was probably a substantial under-count, and although the gipsy population is expanding by natural increase this is unlikely to be at the rate apparent from the quoted figures. There has been a lot of discussion about definition. We have not got a satisfactory alternative yet. If noble Lords in their wisdom can come up with a better one please let us have it; we will look at it and see whether it meets the criteria and makes more sense to everyone in their dealings with gipsies. The noble Lord also raised the question of the London boroughs not being deprived of their 15 pitch limit. We appreciate the contribution that the London boroughs have made in providing sites and we well recognise the special problems of the inner London boroughs because we are working administratively even now on keeping the 15 site limit in inner London.

The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, referred to the county councils and district councils having concurrent powers in this. It is the duty of site provision that rests on the county councils, but the districts also have all the powers to provide sites, and either council under the Bill will be able to claim the grant on capital works. They are not quite concurrent powers, as the noble Lord was thinking, but if the districts are willing to go ahead and if there is agreement between the two authorities, then either the district or the county can claim the 100 per cent. grant on this.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, was good enough to give me notice of his point about compensation. It was something we had not looked at in the Bill and we had not covered. I have taken advice and I am told that local authorities would not normally seek special insurance arrangements beyond their normal insurance cover or take out any special bonds of surety in poviding gipsy caravan sites. I think we have to accept that there are good and bad gipsies, as there are good and bad in any walk of life, and no special measures are needed for gipsies alone. Experience has shown us that the majority of gipsies welcome the availability of an official site and they do their utmost to preserve their good name in the locality. I think the noble Earl is judging a possible situation at the authorised sites from experience of conditions at unauthorised sites and the illegal ones, which are bound to be squalid and unsightly, bound to have a spread of litter and rubbish and even encroachment of further caravans on to the land. Most problems of this nature arise because we have not at this point of time got enough official sites. I am advised that the Department are prepared to look further at the problems which he has raised tonight in claiming and assessing any compensation for damage. I hope to be able to get in touch with the noble Earl before the Committee stage.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I think my noble friend has raised a very interesting point. Could she let us know—not necessarily this evening but in the course of the proceedings—those sites which, in her opinion and that of her advisers, are model sites that anyone could go and have a look at? This might be reassuring to some people who have so far failed to find one that meets this qualification. It might be interesting to see what is regarded as a model site.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I hope to meet the noble Baroness's request and let her have a list of sites which she could go and see; I will undertake to make it possible for her to see them, if necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, also raised the question about the existing sites; he wanted to know whether they were working satisfactorily, and said in effect, "Convince me that they are". I always hope I might convince the noble Lord; I have not always been successful. Generally the sites do work reasonably satisfactorily, and of course they are very much better than any of the illegal encampments that spring up on the roadside around the country. As I said, there are good and bad gipsies just as there are good and bad of other groups, such as those on housing estates, where we have good and bad tenants. We are certain that as the authorities provide an increasing number of sites and have experience in management the conditions are going to improve further. I am sure that the future sites will be well managed. I am satisfied that the expense is justified, because we had this duty laid on the local authorities way back 10 years ago and nothing has been done about it. We are now making it financially possible for them to build and equip proper caravan sites to provide for the gipsies.

The noble Lord said that he was glad that the buck did not stop with him but that it stopped with me. I am happy to accept that buck because we want to make this a workable proposition. We want to make the provision that we are supposed to have been doing for the last 10 years. We want to make it become something of a reality for the many hundreds and thousands of families who want that sort of a home. I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions. I am sure we are going to have a most interesting Committee stage, and I look forward to it.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.