HL Deb 14 May 1992 vol 537 cc512-40

7.30 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to tackle the problems caused to the public and the police and other authorities by "New Age travellers", and whether they will review their guidelines to chief constables on the operation of Section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must begin by putting on record my gratitude to all noble Lords who are to speak this evening. In particular I thank my noble friend on the Front Bench and other Ministers from other departments for all the time and trouble that they have taken to address this problem during the past year. I am also grateful for the numerous letters which I have received from my noble friend explaining the problems. As a result, I more than realise that this is a difficult social matter. If some of my remarks appear to be unnecessarily critical of police and Government inaction,my reason is that it is often necessary to appear to be thoughtless and indeed ruthless to solve a problem. In an article in Tuesday's Times Janet Daly explained the dilemma better than I can.

The Government stated in their manifesto: Illegal camping by gypsies or other travellers can affect the lives of whole communities. We believe that this problem must be tackled".

This evening I and other noble Lords are asking my noble friend how the Government intend to tackle this problem. For while accepting that it is a difficult problem, I have to remind your Lordships that we are paying the police more in real terms than ever before, and if you pay large sums of money you expect results.

The Home Office produced guidelines to chief constables last year as to how they should deal with the problem of mass trespass. Welcome though they were, they were out of date when they appeared and they have not solved the problem—far from it. "New Age travellers", commonly nicknamed hippies or even NATS, have caused the law-abiding public much anguish each succeeding year. I therefore ask my noble friend to consider taking the following course of action. Will the government set up a meeting of interested parties consisting, among others, of police, local authorities, social services, land-owners and farmers to produce a comprehensive new guide? Powys County Council has just produced a very helpful report that could well be made the basis of the way forward. As every noble Lord here knows, there is absolutely no consistency of action in dealing with "New Age travellers". The new guideline should, among other things, explain the difference between "New Age travellers", Romany gypsies and other itinerants and the different methods needed in dealing with each group.

In passing, I should state that the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which acknowledges and explains this problem, makes clear that the provision of designated sites would not solve the problem of "New Age travellers". And far as "New Age travellers" are concerned, the new guidelines should suggest that police constables should be encouraged to use their powers under Section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 as a first resort. That is provided, of course, that the very stringent rules as laid down in the Act are applicable because, as your Lordships will know, Section 39 is drawn in such a way as to make sure that it cannot catch the innocent bird watcher, rambler or indeed the ordinary trespasser.

The use of Section 39 would, however, allow the police to arrest ring leaders who are often known to them. It would also allow the police to break up these convoys as they travel to their rendezvous so avoiding the dreadful problem of trying to remove thousands of trespassers off a site. Moreover, the use of Section 39 would enable the police to keep the convoy of "New Age travellers" from going to the next-door owner. The use of a court order which police seem to favour, would not prevent this happening, however well drafted it was. In addition, obtaining a court order is expensive and time consuming. Often the damage is done or the problem escalates before the people can be moved. That is a matter often misunderstood by police officers and reinforces the need for new guidelines.

However, we cannot all be perfect all the time and I fear that Section 39 is not. How could it be, bearing in mind that I had the doubtful privilege, with NFU guidance, of moving the original amendment that eventually got onto the statute book as Section 39. I ask my noble friend to consider eventually some minor amendments to that section. First, the police are doubtful whether Section 39 gives them the power to move vehicles off the land, whereas a court order does. As far as the "New Age traveller" is concerned, in hardship terms it makes no difference to him, her or their dog whether they are removed from their vehicles or site under Section 39, or a court order. Often police officers do not appreciate that. I suggest Section 39 might be altered to give it that power.

Secondly, Section 39 does not give the police power to remove travellers off green lanes. My noble friend may say the Road Traffic Acts do. With the greatest respect they do not and, if they do, it will take a metaphorical year and a day to enforce those Acts by which time much damage is done. That matter really requires attention. It would also be helpful if Section 39 were amended to stop more "New Age travellers" arriving on the land after a Section 39 order has been given.

I hope that other noble Lords will explain in detail most of the points that I have made and indeed others that I have missed. I conclude by repeating the plea, accepted in the Conservative manifesto, that the present situation is intolerable—I repeat, intolerable. I have no wish whatever to try to stop people living a hippy life. I am sure that like me, many noble Lords have hippies in their family. Thank God, this country is free and they should be allowed to continue that type of life if they so wish. (There is no hippie in my immediate family—it is a cousin.) But anyone who has visited a "New Age travellers'" site will see practically every law in the country being broken; the traffic laws, the environment laws, the health laws and the drinks and drugs laws. Worse still, the public see the police turning a blind eye to it. That leads to the public losing confidence in our police force, which concerns me very greatly. I am sure noble Lords will agree that, despite the criticism, we still have the most responsible police force in the world. But, unless they do take action to solve this problem, law-abiding citizens will start taking the law into their own hands. Indeed they have already done so in certain cases and that, I am sure, must make my noble friend and noble Lords shudder, for it leads to anarchy.

7.39 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, for giving us the chance to discuss the issue of "New Age travellers". I keep my fingers crossed because, although there have been some strange members of my family, there have been no hippies, but there is still time. Obviously we shall be well-prepared after this debate.

One is filled with wonder by the fact that civil servants or whoever decides the names that we shall give to certain groups of people can find names with such an optimistic ring. "New Age travellers" sounds like a clean-living rock group rather than disguising the real problem which lies behind the name.

I suggest that the problem is quite simply that there are more and more people, mostly young and often homeless, who are taking to the highways and byways with others and camping out for various periods of time in whatever place they fancy for whatever purposes happen to cross their minds. That is often connected with music and inevitably with drugs and often only in the summer months.

That is where we face a problem with the name given to them of "New Age travellers". There are many groups included in that and the noble Lord mentioned a few of them. The one that comes most readily to mind is the term "gypsy". Of course, there have been itinerant people in Europe and in this country for hundreds of years. Until 200 years ago, actors were itinerant people. They were persecuted and driven from place to place in exactly the same way as tinkers and others. They were people of the road and sometimes one thinks they were probably the better for it.

Even the name "gypsy" is misleading having sprung originally from a mistaken belief that Romanies—for that is what a true gypsy is—had migrated from Egypt. They had not. Some had come via North Africa. However, perhaps because of their dark and swarthy appearance they were thought to be Egyptian and thus given the name "gypsies". They have survived the risk of banishment and persecution for a number of years. The Nazis methodically exterminated 400,000 of them. In Central Europe, communist regimes ruthlessly tried to force them into a settled way of life. Through all that has developed a culture and a tribal and family structure which has recognisable characteristics which bears absolutely no relation to the other groups which we shall discuss this evening.

I believe that that is important because the gypsy is genuinely nomadic; that is, he or she moves and migrates with a purpose in mind which has evolved with their culture, although obviously with increasing difficulty. It must be true to say that the greatest threat to the gypsy life has not been persecution in recent times but the advancing complexities of modern life and the difficulties of a life and occupations which they may follow on the move. Urbanisation and the motor car has made the wandering life increasingly difficult. It is perhaps surprising that there are still about 40,000 Romany gypsies in Great Britain.

Of course, they are up against the difficulty of competing now for a diminishing area of suitable camping space with other groups which become rivals for that space and are sometimes known as hippies, as the noble Lord said, or itinerant caravan dwellers, which is another euphemism for them. Those new arrivals have no apparent social structure or pattern of aim in their wanderings other than perhaps to go to rock concerts or to go to a particular event. They are generally composed—and this is important—of a single male majority whereas the gypsy tribal groups are composed of families with children.

Therefore, I submit that to group all those under one name such as "New Age travellers", although it may have a certain charm, is unrealistic and unhelpful to those who must deal with the problems which arise. As the noble Lord said, the people who must deal with them are the police, local authorities and the public who fall foul of them.

Under the Caravan Sites Act, which has been mentioned, well-meaning local authorities have tried to provide sites for many of these people but they do not want sites because more often than not, they hold permanent sites in exactly the same low esteem as some urban dwellers hold high-rise blocks. Furthermore, I am informed that in Telford recently one site had to close because of complaints by a combination of local people and gypsies that hippies were frequently in various states of undress and uncontrollably under the influence of drink and drugs.

We all know the problems faced by farmers and landowners, which have been admirably described by the noble Lord, and the problems for such places as Stonehenge, Glastonbury and so on. We all deplore lawlessness and destructive behaviour wherever it takes place, but unfortunately all that seems to be more of a feature in our society now than I can remember in my lifetime. Perhaps eventually it will swing the other way. I hope it does before my children decide to become hippies.

There even seems to be a certain bravura by offenders. I spoke to some police officers in Kent and was told that in parts of Kent some caravan dwellers —I stress not gypsies —engaged mostly in the theft of motor vehicles, having dumped the remains of stripped carcasses of cars in pits and then decorated trees in the vicinity with the car number plates in rather the same way as North American Indian warriors used to do with the scalps of their enemies.

The problem is serious and is growing. Ultimately it may result in the possibility of a Select Committee to discuss the whole area of this trend. Meanwhile, it is quite clear that the problem exists and Section 39 of the Public Order Act has clearly proved to be ineffective.

I look forward to hearing what the noble Earl has to say in answering the debate. He has no easy task. However, I hope that he will at least say that the gypsy community should not be allowed to carry the stigma where it is not appropriate and to carry on as a convenient scapegoat for the misdeeds of others. One must say that the gypsy community has taken great steps to make sure that it is not associated with many of the excesses taking place on private and public land as described by the noble Lord. There is a problem. I hope that the noble Earl will give encouragement so that we can think that at least what we are discussing this evening will be better understood in future.

7.47 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, first, I express my warm thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, for asking this Unstarred Question and for stating the position so forcefully at the beginning of the debate. As a sprig of a political family which has unhappily not always seen eye to eye with that of the noble Lord in the past, it is a considerable pleasure to stand, as it were, side by side with him this evening on what I hope will be the first of many occasions.

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I concentrate mainly upon one incident of which I have some knowledge as a magistrate member of the Hampshire police authority although I stress that the views expressed are solely my own and do not represent necessarily the views of that authority.

In extenuation of that parochialism, the events that I shall describe—as briefly as possible—serve as an example of much that is wrong with the present system of interlocking laws and highlight the inability of authority to protect adequately, at certain times of the year, those who live in, and those who use, the country.

We have heard all sorts of explanations as to what are "New Age travellers". However, I assure your Lordships that they are not traditional travelling folk but hippies or "New Age travellers". In June 1991 a convoy of "New Age travellers", some 100-strong, was expelled from an army camp at Barton Stacey where it had been trespassing. The convoy then reached Stockbridge Down which is in the ownership of the National Trust where Section 39 of the Public Order Act was again invoked. The convoy once more moved on, this time to a place called Rat's Lodge at Longstock in the Test Valley. There the farmland is bisected by a green lane, designated under the Wildlife and Countryside Act as a byway open to all traffic, or BOAT as it is more familiarly known.

Apart from the fact that the position of the encampment in a long straggling line made policing difficult, there were other complications such as the topography of the place and the fact that Hampshire has some 3,000 miles of green lanes, sheep droves and the like. The boundaries where track ends and private land begins are often unclear and lost in the mists of antiquity. That is a fact not lost upon the travellers who are invariably well versed in legal loopholes and in their exploitation.

Accordingly the police, in what was a difficult and confused situation, were trying to establish whether the travellers were on private land—in which case Section 39 of the Public Order Act could be invoked —or were on a highway, in which case application had to be made to the courts for a conviction under Section 137 of the Highways Act. That was a process which, despite speeded up procedures, was likely to take several days. By moving a few feet backwards, a few feet sideways or a few feet forwards, the convoy could keep the sport going on indefinitely.

An added complication was that the police were aware that the county council had in the recent past applied to the courts for possession of land in a neighbouring village and the travellers had, in turn, applied for a judicial review—a review which, so far as I am aware, is still pending. In the circumstances they rightly took the view that they could not proceed any further. The upshot was that the convoy, now swollen in numbers to 1,000 or 2,000, stayed on the site for some days. The aftermath—wrecked crops, rubbish, human debris if I may put it as delicately as I can —may be imagined. Nor should one ignore the considerable expense involved for the district and county councils and therefore the charge payers, the police and the affected farmer.

As a result of that and other excursions into the county by smaller groups—I have recent reports of disquiet from the Winchester area—people are understandably saying, "Why cannot government and the authorities get their act together to prevent the physical and mental damage which such behaviour causes, and preferably before the 'season' which starts around the time of the summer solstice?"

I would suggest that one of the main obstacles to solving the problem lies in the inability of government to distinguish between traditional travelling folk, gypsies, and the "New Age travellers", hippies. The guidelines to which the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, referred, issued to police forces in May 1991, on the implementation of Section 39 of the Public Order Act, are no help in that respect. In fact, the two groups are like oil and water and just do not mix. Joint occupation of a designated site would lead to trouble with a capital "T". Accordingly, whether or not a county has achieved designated status under the Caravan Sites Act, though important in the context of the control of traditional travelling people, is totally irrelevant in this specific case.

I understand the difficulties there may be in law in making this necessary distinction but the groups and their cultures are intrinsically different and it should not be beyond the wit of man to devise a formula which would withstand the assault of the most professional of legal critics. Some immediate relief—and believe me, "immediate" is the operative word —might be obtained by making arrangements for such convoys and the so called "free festivals" which invariably accompany them to occupy, for a stated period, only suitable sites where they could enjoy their celebrations. For example, there must be a number of unoccupied military sites, particularly in the south of England, appropriate for that purpose.

However, I must add that whether or not the traveller would use those sites is another matter. Although it would be desirable for any police presence and interference with the proceedings to be kept to a minimum—commensurate, of course, with the maintenance of law and order—the travellers will be only too aware that such supervision is bound to be more effective on such sites compared to the unpredictable sites chosen in secrecy and often at short notice by the travellers themselves. Be that as it may, I respectfully suggest that that is an option well worth examining.

At the end of the day, despite the genuine conflict of opinion as to the efficacy of the laws which cover or, as some—myself included—would say, fail to cover this growing problem, it will not go away. Indeed, the one thing upon which we can surely all agree this evening is that it is only going to get worse and the summer solstice fast approaches.

Despite advice to the contrary I still believe that in the long term the quick and clean solution to the problems I have outlined lies in the amendment of Section 39 of the Public Order Act to include green lanes and sheep droves within its provisions. I am not persuaded that to do so would, as has been said, in some way weaken an Act the primary purpose of which is to protect private property. It is almost as though it has been claimed that the beautiful and awesome symmetry constructed by lawyers and ministerial advisers alike would be fatally flawed in consequence—rather like Mozart putting a couple of substandard bars in the Magic Flute.

In a tolerant and democratic society such as ours and living as we do in an overcrowded country, we must always keep in the front of our minds the simple fact that one man's freedom may be another man's misery. Consequently, getting it right is all about balance. I believe, and I suspect many in this House believe also, that the balance has tipped too far in one direction in order to accommodate those who would force their idea of freedom at the expense of those whose only desire is to live peacefully in their own homes and in a countryside whose best features are preserved for the benefit of others.

I ask the Minister this. Can we tonight carry a message of hope to those people that the Government will attack the problem with goodwill and expediency? Instead of relying on advisers' talk of the notional efficiency of existing laws, will the Government consult the people—police, solicitors, councillors, and farmers—who have to deal with the problems in the front line? For, as Cicero said many hundreds of years ago, The good of the people is the chief law".

7.57 p.m.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, along with the noble Viscount and other noble Lords I express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley for introducing this difficult Question now. It is a propitious time to debate this issue and question the Government upon it. As has already been said, the matter is mentioned in the Conservative manifesto. More important still, it is a growing problem.

In the countryside lawlessness has increased immeasurably over the past few years. I feel fairly certain that there is a strong connection between the so-called "New Age travellers" and that lawlessness. That has already been mentioned too. Like other noble Lords, I believe that "New Age travellers" is a complete misnomer. It builds a rather glamorous picture in people's minds which is totally undeserved. There is no harm in saying that the kind of people that I have generally encountered are abusive, aggressive and totally unhygienic. On the whole they live above or beyond the law. I should add that there is only one section of their community for whom I sometimes feel sorry and that is the young children being brought up in such circumstances and probably thereby projecting the present difficulty far into the future.

About 1986 I had to play a part in moving on about 80 caravans from a green lane. There was difficulty in those days and we had to take out an injunction against every single person who was there. They had been there for about two years. In those days too it was difficult to get the highways authority to co-operate. There were two owners involved in the land adjoining the green lane. I shall not even try to describe the filth that was left behind or the upset that there was. There was a great deal of upset. It was a much used green lane and a very pretty one, but there was no question of walking down it or of riding a horse or a bicycle along it.

Although there is a lawless problem here which may have to be put right eventually by providing yet more static sites, the first thing to be done is to apply the law as it stands and then to amend it where it is seen to be deficient. Here one must go back to the 1986 Act and say that on the whole Section 39 is deficient. I have tremendous admiration for the police. They have an extraordinarily difficult job to do here, particularly as regards the massive groups which now settle. As concerns the earlier part of that section, action by the police should probably be mandatory; in other words, when the due procedures have been accomplished by the owner, which is quite a performance in itself, the senior officer, as mentioned, should be obliged to move them on.

Whether they are moved on or whether it is practical to do so, I do not know, but I feel that that provision should be written into the law now. It would also help a great deal, if, as regards subsection 5(b) of that section, the law concerning trespass on land were extended to highways, which would cover green lanes. Both those measures should be carried out. It may be very difficult to accomplish on the ground, but they should be put into effect so that some kind of will is shown to put this wrong right.

I have every sympathy with the police forces. It is also very upsetting for the general public. Occasionally people are had up for misdemeanours on the road such as having bare tyres or something else of that kind. But one sees these absolutely amazing convoys travelling—they are not always static—on roads with nothing being done about them at all. I have passed quite large numbers of these vehicles and I imagine that every single one of them is probably breaking the law in some way or another. I do not believe that it is very good in our society that, just because there are so many travellers and they are so aggressive, they should be allowed to get away with that kind of thing.

One often hears that the little laws are very hard to apply. There is seldom a witness to see, for example, a Coca Cola bottle being thrown away. A great many people get away completely with minor littering. But here, with these "New Age travellers", we are talking about massive littering and a huge amount of mess of every kind. Again, I say that it is very hard on the rest of the population who try to obey the law to see this kind of thing ignored.

I have not given as much thought as the noble Viscount to what should be done in the future. If we are at a point in history where a great number of people wish to travel or live in vehicles outside, it is obviously a massive problem and consultations with many bodies will have to take place before it can be decided what should be done. But right now we should try to apply the law as it is without—following the noble Viscount—muddling the question with the Romany folk. The Romany folk do not get on at all well with the hippies. The Romany folk have wandered for ages and they have been put, not always happily, on permanent sites—which was a sensible operation—so that they were not endlessly moved on. However, they are a different kind of people altogether. I chat to one or two of them. My farm is riddled with green lanes. They keep their caravans impeccable inside. They take great pride and they are houseproud. I would not want them to be trawled in the net that we are now talking about. However, I would also like the law to be kept.

8.6 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Stanley for bringing this matter to our notice this evening. I believe that he has done so because of his knowledge and anxiety but also because, as he has told us, the subject was mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto. We were told that we were to discuss this particular worry, as we are doing tonight. It has been brought up at a particularly good time.

However, we all know that "New Age travellers", however badly they are labelled, are a fairly new breed. It is a pity that they are associated with youth, drugs and general squalor. One always hopes that in time they and their children will grow out of it. The question is opportune because it is the beginning of the season for travellers of all sorts who roam the country, principally in the Home Counties and on the South coast. Some cause trouble, some are welcome, but few are properly catered for. Indeed "New Age travellers" are not catered for at all.

I live in one of the Home Counties, Buckinghamshire, where there are 10 designated sites for 127 pitches, none of them for "New Age travellers". One is in a lay-by and is near my home. It has seven pitches and it allows two vehicles in each, but there are usually at least 20 vehicles there which means probably 40 adults and perhaps 60 children. There are two water pipes only. There were toilets. Unfortunately, these were made of wood and were used for firewood on the very first night. Since then the adjacent wood has been the toilet for the past two years for up to 60 people. The rent is £16.50 per week which, surprisingly, is often paid. It is also surprising that some of them pay the poll tax, but few of the children go to school.

There are, however, in the same county an estimated five groups of many caravans usually travelling in convoy. Again, these are not "New Age travellers". One of these convoys, consisting of 57 caravans, arrived near my home in the spring of last year. They occupied a private field from Sunday night until Tuesday night when, at last, the police told them to move on. Under the 1986 Act, they were trespassing and should have been dealt with much more speedily. None of the vehicles had rear numberplates and therefore should not have been allowed on the roads. The owner of the field, which is near his home, was so frustrated and disconcerted by what had happened late at night that he hired some men to guard his house, wife and family. However, to put the field back to use for sheep, he also had to hire a team to pick up the broken glass, tins and the indescribable dirt of all sorts. That cost him just over £2,000.

I know that the problems vary with the different district and county councils and with the police authorities involved, but I feel that more effort should be made to enforce the law. With the opening of the Channel Tunnel, we are likely to be asked to receive more caravanners of all sorts from the Continent. I doubt whether we shall be able to accommodate them simply by designating a few lay-bys. Now is the time for the police and all local authorities to prepare for their reception.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, suggested that there should be larger sites which, obviously, could accommodate more caravans. I entirely agree. I hope and suggest that larger sites should be made available in the Home Counties. I know that some people will say that they will not want to be close to caravans in fairly large numbers, but surely properly organised facilities and authorities would be better than the desecration of the environment. Like other noble Lords, I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Congleton

My Lords, I join other noble Lords who have spoken in expressing thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, for raising this matter and for having contrived his Unstarred Question and this debate. I admire him for his persistence and determination in pursuing this issue. I pay my own small tribute to him now.

In the main, these matters are disagreeable and sordid. I speak with some experience. I have now lived in south Wiltshire for 32 years where I operate a farming enterprise. I own the land. A byway, which is open to all traffic, cuts through part of the farmland. In general, the farms are criss-crossed with a pattern of footpaths, bridleways and so on. For most of the time we are very pleased to see them being used by pedestrians, ramblers, hikers and horsemen and horsewomen.

I note that three or four noble Lords who are present have farming interests and it would be possible to present this debate as being wholly of interest to farmers and landowners on the one hand and to "New Age travellers" on the other. However, we know that that is not the case. We have heard the tales and stories. We read our newspapers and we watch the television. I am not certain that it is necessary for me to say this, but I suggest that if anyone thinks that this debate is some sort of rant, drummed up by landowners and farmers, that person should talk to the people of Liskeard in Cornwall, of Glastonbury in Somerset, of Amesbury in Wiltshire, of Stockbridge in Hampshire or of Hungerford in Berkshire, or go to the place where the most recent trouble occurred, Lechlade, in Gloucestershire, where whole communities are being intimidated—I do not think that that is too strong a word—by the presence of uninvited "New Age travellers".

We try to be generous in our thoughts about these things—it is a tradition in this country—and I have tried. However, two years ago, there arrived on the byway open to all traffic which bisects the top end of one of my farms a small convoy of about eight or 10 vehicles of "New Age travellers". I was slightly perplexed because that had not happened before. My neighbour and I were uncertain about what action to take and telephoned the police, the county council, solicitors and so forth. We tried to persuade the travellers to move, but they did not wish to do so and did not. I do not know what action the police or the gypsy liaison officer took, but in a fortnight—or was it three weeks or four weeks?—the travellers moved away, but not before my neighbour had been knocked to the ground. I do not know the precise circumstances so I cannot give your Lordships the details. However, my neighbour was intimidated. He was about to struggle to his feet and retaliate when he found that a female "New Age traveller" was standing over him, jumping about and brandishing a weapon of some sort while using foul language. One tries to think generously about people, but when that sort of thing happens, it is rather difficult. Anyway, off the travellers went. I am grateful to the police authority for whatever they did to move those people on and to the solicitors who advised us.

My neighbour and I then took stock of the situation because we did not want it to recur. We did not take out an injunction because, as the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, said, civil procedures are cumbersome, take time and can be very expensive. I am told that a fee of £1,000 might be involved. There is also the problem of naming the alleged malefactor or transgressor. When bringing an injunction against somebody, it is difficult to get the right name, but the name must be on the injunction. Anyway, we did not do that. We decided to take defensive action within the law, but before we had time to do so, the travellers were back again. The same procedures were entered into—and away they went.

This time we did take action. I put up a fence where previously there had not been one. It was my property —private property—and I was perfectly entitled to do it. My neighbour used the space that had been occupied by the "New Age travellers"—quite a large area—for a respectable agricultural purpose, the deposition of farmyard manure. The space to which I refer is a lay-by that abuts the public metal road at one point and the byway that is open to all traffic at another. It is private property.

What we did was within the law because we had decided that we would not take illegal action. I have heard horror stories from some of my friends in the area and from neighbours who have been engaged in fisticuffs and worse with these people because they would not move on. Fearing that delay would ensue, those friends and neighbours have taken action by hitching up their tractors to the trailers, lorries, char-a-bancs and so forth, and have removed the travellers. However, that is outside the law and should not be encouraged. Indeed, I do not think that Parliament would look very kindly on that.

But what are we to do? Various suggestions have been made. As an initial step, I very much like the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, which is that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who is to respond to the debate should initiate a meeting of interested parties and put certain proposals before them. I have a list of such proposals with me, most of which have been mentioned. Injunctions have already been mentioned but, as I have said, I do not think that issuing an injunction is a good suggestion because injunctions are too slow.

Bringing Section 39 of the Public Order Act 1986 up to date in various ways has been suggested by all those to whom I have spoken in the last few days, including the police authority in south Wiltshire, the representatives of both the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners' Association; Salisbury District Council, and most particularly by Mr. Alan Willis, who is a solicitor practising in Salisbury who advises police authorities throughout the country and who is an expert on the law of trespass. He has suggested that Section 143 of the Highways Act 1980 could well be amended. I put this forward as a suggestion. I am not saying that it should be amended because I am not a lawyer and I do not understand the technicalities and the differences between civil law and criminal law. He has suggested that Section 143 could be amended to enable vehicles on the highway to be towed away after 24 hours' notice has been served, and not, as at present, after 28 days. I have the draft amendment before me. I think it is incorporated in the Powys County Council's report to which the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, referred. I support that suggestion.

We have had the difficulties explained of defining who is a "New Age traveller" and who is a gypsy. I think I know but to put it into words in a statute would defeat me. One has to meet them and then one knows. That is borne out by what a number of noble Lords have said.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968 is an old friend of mine. In 1969 or 1970 I was chairman of the Salisbury Rural District Council shortly after the Act reached the statute book. We had trouble with gypsies in those days because they were coming across the border from Dorset. We thought that that was a pretty unfriendly thing for Dorset to do to us. Dorset had taken the trouble at a very early stage to get itself designated. We set about doing just that. I am happy and proud to be able to announce to your Lordships that it was under my chairmanship that the first permanent site was put in place in south Wiltshire. That was in 1969 or 1970—I cannot remember the exact date. Since that time Wiltshire has become a designated county. So far as concerns the gypsy problem, it is now much less of a problem. I am not in touch with local authorities as much as I used to be, but I am sure that it is much less of a problem on account of the designation procedures that were followed and fulfilled. I would say to any county, 22 or 23 years after the passage of that Act, that it ought to look at the situation and get itself designated in respect of that Act.

Mention has been made of the public health hazard that these large encampments, illegally set up, must cause. It goes without saying that the sanitation angle must give rise to anxiety. The people who were parked on my patch of land used my fields as their latrine and so on. One can go into that in some depth. It seems to me that it has not been brought out in all the discussion and conversations that I have taken part in that there is a grave public health hazard. I hope that that can be addressed by the committee, if it is set up, and at meetings with interested parties.

There is a great deal more I could say but I shall not pursue everything. When I was framing my thoughts for this debate I thought that I had better ask the Government what would happen if none of the suggestions put forward today was implemented. I came to two fairly solid conclusions. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, has mentioned one; that is, the situation will get worse. There will be more outbreaks of fisticuffs and so on throughout the country. The "New Age travellers" will not go away. They will increase in numbers and will continue to act out their strange and incongruous lifestyles, which they are perfectly entitled to do so long as they do not impinge on the enjoyment of life of others.

The second conclusion is a rather strange one. There is much talk these days about greater public access to the countryside. I have illustrated the point already by saying what I did and what my neighbour did to stop up the lay-by. If we are to encourage people to use the countryside for recreational and leisure purposes, how can we expect them to do so in the face of the kind of activities that these "New Age travellers" are indulging in? Will it encourage landowners and farmers in general to open their gates, their fields, their woods and so on to the general public as we are being encouraged to do? The amenity societies are fully behind efforts to increase public awareness and to get the public into the countryside for leisure purposes. I suggest that the activities of the "New Age travellers" act as a deterrent to those who wish to use the countryside in the way I have tried to describe.

I was asked by the local branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England to look into what was described as the illegal stopping up of a byway open to all traffic and into one other case which occurred not so very far away. I investigated very thoroughly. I discovered that we had acted perfectly within the law. The other case was also legally respectable. I wrote my report and recommended that no action need be taken to follow this up and that complaints could be dealt with. I received a letter of thanks for my endeavours from the chairman of the local branch of the CPRE. The final paragraph reads: I have every sympathy with your views about the Travellers, having in the past had an 'Invasion' at Lopcombe Corner and, more recently, at Pitton". Pitton was a disgraceful episode which lasted for four months. However, I shall not go into it now. The resultant destruction of rural life in all its aspects has to be experienced to be believed". I could not have expressed it better myself.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, I wonder whether the House will allow me to intervene briefly. I warned several speakers that I might do so. Perhaps I may say quickly in my defence that I put down my name to speak but I had to take it off the list because I was not sure at what time I would get here.

It is no great surprise that the House has had three farmers from the south of Wiltshire speaking in the debate—nearly half of those who have spoken so far. Like the others I speak not out of self-interest in this matter. In that part of the world we have probably had more close contact with the "New Age travellers," or whatever one wants to call them, than other parts. To borrow a phrase from the nuclear industry, I think south Wiltshire is ground zero for hippy activity thanks to Stonehenge and the attempts they make quite frequently to get there.

I should like to add a couple of points which I do not think have been raised by giving some of my experiences of dealing with "New Age travellers" or, if I may use the even worse name by which they used to be known, the peace convoy, which was the hard core of the hippy movement. A few years ago the peace convoy, so called, some 600 to 800 strong, took up their winter quarters in a wood on a piece of land close to me. It was land of which I was a trustee for a neighbour. We spent six months trying to get them out through the normal legal procedures. That was before the passing of the Act which made it slightly easier. During that time I got to know those people quite well in that I even attempted once or twice to negotiate with them over the fence. They were almost invariably pretty threatening. The negotiations never got anywhere because they used to take the view that land did not belong to anyone. Therefore, the conversation did not get very far.

But, to give your Lordships some idea of the problems that such people can cause, I should point out that, while those people were occupying that piece of land, they virtually stopped the working of Salisbury racecourse and the working of Salisbury Golf Club. The golfers were too frightened to go out to that part of the golf course because they were threatened and abused every time they did so. Moreover, unmentionable things were done on the greens and in the golf holes which again made it very unpleasant for the golfers. The racecourse authorities could not run races because, apart from the 600 or 700 hippies, there were probably 100 wild dogs of various sorts that hung about the encampment which meant that people were frightened to race the horses. That made life very difficult for the estate because the racecourse authority and the golf club were only tenants. They said, "We must get rid of these people", because they could not have the peaceful enjoyment of the land.

What could we do about it? Well, eventually, the people moved on. However, during the time of their occupancy I had a number of discussions with the police in an attempt to get into the minds of those people. I wanted to ascertain who they were so that I might know who to serve writs on. The police told me on a number of occasions that it was almost impossible to obtain names. They were arresting people quite frequently from the encampment for stealing things and causing nuisances of various sorts and it often took them a week or two to establish the identity of the person involved. Such people would give silly names; for example, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and so on. They often did not appear to be on anyone's list. A number of them did not draw the dole. They seemed to be a strange class of people who could disappear off public records.

Because such people appeared to have money to buy things in the shops from time to time, I asked the police where it came from. The police acted as if I had asked a silly question. They said, "They get all their money from drug dealing". I must confess they were the real hard core of what I think are called "New Age travellers". Their method of operating was to go to pop festivals where they would set up shop in the middle of proceedings, gathering other hippies and travellers around them.

No one has spoken up for these people tonight. I do not know whether any succeeding speaker will do so. I think that the problems they cause in a community have been well covered. However, I should like to draw attention to an additional factor. During the time that such people were encamped near us, there were severe worries about the influence that they were having on impressionable young people living in the area. There was certainly an upsurge in the amount of drugs found in the district at that time. That consideration must also be taken into account.

My experience with such people on my own farm involved many of the matters which have already been mentioned. However, it goes further. I have suffered wanton vandalism; for example, I have had garages and two cars burnt, woods have been absolutely wrecked and trees and small saplings cut down. People have been arrested for those offences. Orders have been issued to make restitution; but I do not think I have ever seen a penny of it. Such people, if they are the really bad sort, are a complete menace when they come into an area. I therefore fully support the calls for the law to be strengthened.

8.34 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, as I listened to the debate I thought of the words of G K Chesterton that men who run in packs tend to behave like wolves. That has been true of many facets of history, whether at football matches, in the French Revolution, recently in Los Angeles or Coventry or, indeed, as described by noble Lords in the House this evening. You can have perfectly well behaved individuals who individually do not behave in an anti-social way. Yet when they are en masse—especially when their feelings are accentuated sometimes by drink or drugs, or both—they behave in a totally unacceptable way.

It seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, has done a great service to the House. He has raised a problem which is important to the community. I think that it deserves the urgent attention of the Government with a view to finding a swift and effective solution. That will not be easy. My noble friend Lord Falkland raised the question, with which I have great sympathy, of the difference between gypsies and "New Age travellers"—a phrase which, I am sorry to say, was not known to me before today.

The law cannot distinguish between groups of people. If the law is amended that will apply to everyone. We must bear that factor in mind. It seems to me that the kind of incidents that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, has in mind are similar to those which happened in North Wales last year. For example, at Bala and Llanbister in Powys about 3,000 people with hundreds of vehicles behaved in a totally unacceptable way. They broke all kinds of laws, they trespassed and left an awful mess behind them—indeed, it was a happening similar to others that we have heard about in other parts of the country.

Following that, it is quite obvious that some remedy is required. The county council of Powys where I live has set up a working party. The interested parties were invited to attend. I have not yet seen the report but I know that many remedies were considered, including the following.

The first remedy was injunctions. But the difficulty with injunctions is that you have to name the person involved; in other words, the person has to be identified. Although the courts have the power to award a group injunction, it is a very difficult process. Therefore, in most circumstances it is clearly not an effectual remedy. Possession orders can also be obtained, but they take a long time. Moreover, very often the travellers that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, has in mind go on to common land. Sometimes they do so genuinely thinking that they are allowed to do so, but often they know the true legal position perfectly well. They claim to have a right to do so and thereby ignore the rights of commoners who are greatly affected by such occupancy. One of the problems with possession orders is that commoners —that is, the owners of common rights—cannot obtain them.

There are also other problems involved; for example, under the Highways Act. The remedy under Section 143 of that Act cannot be obtained for at least 24 hours. A delay of 24 hours can make things very difficult when you have had a virtual invasion of thousands of people on your land and when all kinds of nuisances have been performed. It has also been suggested that Section 39 of the Public Order Act should be amended. But some police forces act immediately under that section, whereas others think that they have total discretion and decide not to do so.

Whatever the result of the working party of Powys and its recommendations, I suggest to the Government, through the medium of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that they take that report and consider it. It is necessary to consider all the factors involved in a broader context. However desirable it is to distinguish between the true gypsy, the Romany, and the hippy traveller, if the law is changed it will, in practice, apply to all of them indiscriminately. Similarly, the law will apply to other groups of people. When one changes the law one has to pay regard of the fact that very often the law can be used for a totally different purpose than that for which it was originally intended. Therefore, it is obvious that the Government will have carefully to consider the recommendations of the Powys working party and they must do so in a broader context. They must bring forward their own remedies. What I am certain of is this. We will see a repetition of this during the coming year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, put forward constructive proposals for large campsites for travellers of this kind. The great problem is that everybody wants large campsites but they do not want them anywhere near them. That would be my reaction. One of the problems is that, if you have large campsites, you keep people there en masse but they might be better behaved if they were split up. But those are matters to be considered.

All I am saying from these Benches is that we think that there is a real problem here which requires urgent consideration with a view to producing practical remedies that can be swiftly put into effect.

8.40 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, may I from these Benches also echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, for raising this Question and providing the House with an opportunity to consider a problem which is troubling increasing numbers of rural communities, our local authorities, police forces and private individuals, many of whom are dreading the approach of summer and the now annual summer travelling invasions. But I hope that when the noble Earl comes to respond on behalf of the Government this will not simply prove to have been an exercise in a discussion about illegal trespass and criminal damage and how to stop them, because that would be a lost opportunity.

There are further ramifications of this problem which are the underlying causes rather than the symptoms, of which noble Lords have spoken this evening. This Question raises issues which are far more complex than simply the law of trespass and they need to be urgently addressed. We need to look, for example, at what are the rights of an individual in 1992 to choose a nomadic way of life which differs from the norm; what are the obligations which he still owes to the community if he chooses to take that course; and what are the obligations and the duties of the community through the local authorities towards him. We must also consider the position of those who do not choose to travel but have little or no choice and do so because of their age—as children taken by their parents—or because society has failed them and left them with little alternative. We must, in short, look not only at the question which most noble Lords have addressed of what steps the Government can and should take to protect law-abiding citizens and their property from attack by others but we should also be looking at what are the needs and the rights of a new nomadic group.

Nothing that I say from these Benches is intended to endorse law-breaking. The illegal trespass and criminal damage which have taken place during the summer months in the past few years, primarily in the South, the West and in Wales, and on a smaller scale up and down the country, including my own area of Buckinghamshire during this past winter, are indefensible. There will be nobody—the question was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tryon—who will speak up in this House to defend that conduct.

The sympathies of all sides of this House must properly lie with those farmers and those local communities who have been invaded—and there is no other appropriate word for it—by groups of travellers, sometimes in large numbers, who have seen their gates and their fences broken down, seen buses and caravans pour onto their land, seen crops damaged, livestock released or killed or injured by their dogs, who have suffered nuisance and sometimes real intimidation and even violence, as we have heard, and then afterwards been left to clear away the litter and the debris. The frustration and the anger that they feel at the seeming inability or unwillingness of the authorities or the law to help them, and at the expense that they cannot hope to recover if they try to act themselves, are shared by all of us who have seen at first hand or read about the effects of such acts of trespass.

But this is not a debate about whether such illegal acts are defensible or excusable, because plainly they are not. But it is, I hope, as a result of the response of the noble Earl, going to be a debate which in part is about the best and most effective way to protect those on the receiving end. That requires not just an examination of the surface problems and how to deal with them but also a look at the underlying causes.

History has shown that, since 1987 when Section 39 of the Public Order Act came into force, and contrary to the views of the Government expressed at that time, that section provided no solution to this problem. Indeed, the numbers have increased and the problems have multiplied. It is our view on these Benches that to deal with illegal trespass simply by speedier and more draconian powers of eviction, and to do no more, simply pushes the problem onto someone else's land and escalates it. That is what experience has shown since that 1986 legislation which came into force in 1987. Given that history there is no reason to suppose that tonight's call for further tightening up of the legislation would be any more effective.

The introduction of that section—which was opposed from these Benches by my noble friend Lord Mishcon and by the Law Society on the basis that existing remedies, properly used, could do the job—has in fact not borne fruit in the sense that the Government put forward this section as the cure for these difficulties and it has proved not to be the cure. Indeed, the numbers of those travelling in this way and trespassing illegally have been increasing year by year. To enact legislation or to direct the police to evict such trespassers with greater efficiency or speed, without properly examining the causes of the offending or looking at the kind of people who are doing it and why they are doing it, or attempting to find a solution to those causes, simply pushes the travellers on to commit further offences elsewhere and in growing numbers.

The kind of measures that have been suggested by a number of noble Lords this evening, although they provide a quick remedy for the farmer who sees the invasion coming into his field, simply provides a headache for his neighbour down the road when he effectively evicts them from his land. So if a proper solution is to be found it is necessary to look at who these people are and why they are resorting to trespass and what the authorities can and should be doing about it.

This country has always had a nomadic population and not just an ethnic gypsy one, as at least one noble Lord has reminded us. Some people have chosen that way of life; some people have no choice. People who choose, in the words of the songs of the 1960s, not to settle for suburbia and a little plot of land, include itinerant workers—they have always done so—and also those who have rejected the traditional home and community ties. There has also always been a section of the population which has been rejected and has fallen through the net, which has not consciously chosen that way of life but has fallen into it.

I hope that all noble Lords will be in agreement that those who choose to live a nomadic lifestyle in the 1990s in this country are still fully entitled to do so. I hope that the noble Earl will make that clear in his reply. It is not something that has always been made plain by those on his side of the House.

It is right of course that those people are entitled to the same civil rights and liberties as the rest of us. We look to the Government to bear that in mind and not to lose sight of that fact. However, in saying that it is their responsibility too to fulfil their obligations to other members of the community.

It is a responsibility that applies not only to those who are ethnic minorities with a tradition of a nomadic lifestyle like the gypsies, but also, surely, equally to those who have chosen such a lifestyle. Their civil liberties must be equally safeguarded so that they are not subject to persecution or deprivation of their rights as citizens because they have made that choice.

The two groups—those who choose to live as nomads, and those who, by circumstances, are forced to do so—have always existed. Currently, as I understand it—I shall be pleased to hear from the Minister what figures the Home Office has in that respect—it seems that that travelling community is mushrooming. The current movement of "New Age travellers" seems to have begun in the late 1970s, but it gathered momentum during the 1980s and numbers appear to be increasing annually.

All of us in the House—there are increasing numbers of us —who were the children of the 1960s, can find a romantic rapport with "travelling and living on the land" and "with no direction, home, just like a rolling stone." It was a way of life and philosophy which had an appeal and which is still appealing to many, linked, as in the 1970s and 1980s, with the growth of free summer festivals. People did it because it was fun and it was cheap. But the slow rise in unemployment and the increase in homelessness, especially among the young, and the introduction of the poll tax in the mid-1980s, have swelled the numbers of those who live permanently on the road, often with young families, whom—I stress—we must not forget. The pressure of numbers, along with the absence of provision of sites, led to illegal trespass which today has become a nightmare in the summer months.

I should be grateful to have the Minister's assistance on the figures. As I understand it, the gypsy population in this country has shown virtually no increase for some years, whereas the "New Age travellers" are increasing rapidly and now number, although estimates appear to vary, between 8,000 and 10,000. What is especially alarming is that it appears that the number is being swelled by a high proportion of children coming out of care with nowhere to go —the single young men to whom reference has been made by your Lordships. I ask the Minister whether he is aware of the research done recently in that respect by the London Gypsy Traveller Unit which has identified that as a growing problem.

In addition, many of the "New Age travellers" are homeless 16 to 18 year-olds who were deprived of their rights to benefit under the previous Conservative administration. Many of them made no conscious decision to become travellers, but the previous Government's policies have, in effect, put them on the road with others in a similar position. The authorities have hitherto effectively made no provision for that substantial group in terms of sites. As a group, such people do not exist so far as the authorities are concerned, save when they are interested in trying to move them on.

Will the Government examine the law and, if necessary, introduce changes to make it clear to local authorities, currently often worried and confused about their obligations, that their duty to provide official sites under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 is not confined merely to ethnic groups but extends to all travellers? It cannot logically be right, as some noble Lords have appeared to suggest during the debate, that only those who are born to a nomadic lifestyle are entitled to make use of official sites, or, as the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, appeared to suggest, only those who are clean and keep their caravans well cared for may have the use of them.

Unless there is access to official sites for people such as these, the effect of eviction in many cases can be only to drive the travellers to other areas and further trespass elsewhere. We are in effect condemning them, like Dickens' roadsweeper, to be told constantly to move on without offering them anywhere legal to go. It may be right, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said, that they may not wish to use the sites, but unless sites they can legally use are available it cannot be right—I hope the Minister will reply to this point—merely to move on people for whom there is nowhere to which they can legally have recourse.

Of course local authorities will have even greater difficulty in identifying suitable sites in their areas if they have to cater for that population as well. I make it clear that I stand correctly accused of being a NIMBY myself because, like the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, I live in Buckinghamshire and am engaged in opposition to a potential site in an area of outstanding natural beauty which is in my back yard. However, I accept that where there is a need the local authority must identify sites, possibly even in the teeth of entirely understandable opposition from local communities. I endorse the suggestion made by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, that where particular problems arise —for example, where festivals are held —it cannot be beyond the wit of local authorities to provide, albeit temporarily, places where those people can go during their stay in the area, because as soon as that is done the police can properly issue a direction to leave at once under the present guidelines to Section 39 of the Act. That clearly is paramount.

In the light of the way in which the Question has been framed, will the Minister give some assurance that the guidelines, which require the police, as a matter of primary importance, to consider alternative places for those people to go, will reinforce the fact that that is one of the prime considerations before they give people a direction to leave under Section 39?

In summary, we on this side of the House believe that the proper way forward is to examine the reasons why so many youngsters are on the road in the first place. If it be right—a review of government policy in this area is long overdue—that the benefit position of 16 to 18 year-olds, which has proved to be disastrous for youngsters in urban areas, is part of the reason for the increase in the travelling population; and if it be right that people are leaving care without proper provision in the community so that they fall back into travelling in that way, without consciously choosing that way of life, should not the Government, as a matter of urgency, review their policy in those areas? If they do not do so we are in danger of creating a permanent underclass of young people with no community ties and no respect for the law.

Is it not also right that local authorities should be given clear guidance now by the Government that the sites that they must find include provision for such people? Unless there is some alternative, it cannot be right, in justice or humanity, to order people to vacate land and therefore drive them to commit further offences elsewhere.

Above all I ask the Minister to restate—as I believe all noble Lords have done—that those who choose to travel, while they are entitled to do so, have obligations, especially to the rural community in which they choose to live, which includes a duty to respect the lives and property of others, and to respect the law. In return, I hope that the Government will acknowledge that their manifesto commitment to ensure that all sections of the community enjoy freedom, and their expression of concern for all sections of society, applies equally to those who may be unpopular, those who have no spokesman, and those who may, on occasions, break the law indefensibly. Unless the manifesto commitment to take care of all sections of our community applies also to that unpopular minority, the commitment will prove to have been hollow and selective.

9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley for initiating the debate this evening. It is a subject which raises important and sensitive issues. Your Lordships have provided some sparkling and personal examples of the problems which are presented by the subject matter of the debate.

I was particularly interested to hear the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. In a typically thought-provoking and humanitarian speech, she tried to look behind the problem to see what causes it. She was right to do so. She was quite right in her concluding remarks that people have the right to lead a nomadic existence if they wish, but they also have the duty to respect the views of the people on whose property they place themselves. Trespass is always a matter which gives rise to strong feelings. A person's property is his property and the involuntary invasion of or trespass on it by others quite understandably and quite rightly incurs the wrath and indignation of the owner. So also does the collective squatting of people on an area of land, irrespective of who is the owner. I agree with my noble friend Lady Macleod that we must have sympathy for those whose land is invaded and despoiled by travellers.

I start by having acute sympathy with my noble friend Lord Stanley in what he said and what has been said by other noble Lords. I have to tell my noble friend that the Government have looked hard at the question of trespass on land and I myself have taken a personal interest in it. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There are several different and often conflicting considerations which have to be brought together when we approach the problem.

I do not believe, though, that the present position is in any way satisfactory. I can tell my noble friend that we intend to try to tackle the dreadful problem which is caused by illegal camping.

In opening the debate, my noble friend demonstrated a remarkable knowledge of "New Age travellers", or "NATs" as they are somewhat derogatorily called —a knowledge which may be considered unusual in one of his maturity. But then he said that he had hippies in his family and perhaps that gave him cause to have such knowledge. He went on to suggest that your Lordships probably also had hippies in your families. I thought that was a fairly broadly encompassing point of view. Most of us have some pretty curious antecedents but not all of them were hippies.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, said that he had none in his family, but he arrives in your Lordships' House on a motorcycle, so in the most generous of terms he might be described as a "New Age traveller". There are many groups known by various names who follow an itinerant way of life. Apart from the "New Age travellers", there are Romanies, gypsies, didicois, Irish tinkers and hippies, to name but a few. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that gypsies should not carry the stigma of the behaviour of others. Some of these groups find it convenient to park their caravans permanently. Some travel seasonally to seek employment. Some seem simply to appear, rather like bluebottles in the spring, when the sun comes out.

Whoever they are and whatever their philosophies of life may be—if they have any—there can be no excuse whatever for causing the distress which some do. I suggest that it is quite unacceptable for anyone to assume that he or she can pursue a style of life which happens to be convenient to him or her without any regard to the rights of others and the effects which they have upon others.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said that there are problems behind this, that people have a right to a nomadic life if that is what they want and the Government must look into it. That is perfectly true, but people must live within the law and the law must be adjusted from time to time to take into account both the needs of the people whose lives are changing and also the needs of the people whom such travellers affect.

There is something bizarre and in some ways intimidating in seeing in this country an almost Wild West-like wagon train of often decrepit vehicles, progressing with inflexible determination through the countryside, intent on invading some peaceable country town which has done nothing to invite such a visitation.

This cavalcade might be pursuing the undoubted rights of its individuals to travel, but it entirely neglects the effect which the pursuit of those rights has on the lives and property of others who involuntarily become caught up in the activities of the cavalcade.

It is a classic example of what may be perfectly acceptable, when performed by an individual, becoming unacceptable when performed by a collective. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, quoted from G.K. Chesterton and said that when people hunt in packs they behave like wolves. This can be a typical example of what the noble Lord had in mind.

The civil and criminal law relating to trespass applies equally to everyone and it is intolerable for anyone to try to put himself or herself beyond the reach of the law. This is particularly the case when they try to do that by the advantage of mass numbers.

So how does the law seek to deal with the problem? The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, referred to the Caravan Sites Act 1968 which places a duty on local authorities to provide adequate official sites for gypsies who are residing in, or who are resorting to, their area. For these purposes, gypsies are defined as, persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin". Once a local authority has provided sufficient sites, the local authority can be designated under the 1968 Act by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The fact of designation gives the local authorities access to special criminal law powers which act quicker. Once designated a local authority can apply through a magistrates' court for permission to move gypsies off any unauthorised site which is in its area, whether the site is owned privately or by a local authority.

My noble friend Lord Stanley said that there should be a different approach for dealing with "New Age travellers" as opposed to that for gypsies. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said the problem was that Her Majesty's Government did not differentiate between "New Age travellers" and gypsies. The noble Lord, Lord Congleton, said the same. However, the courts have given clear indications that the name "gypsy" means a person who is leading a nomadic life, who has no, or no fixed, employment and who has no fixed abode. The effect of this view is that gypsy status may therefore be acquired by a person who does not belong to any long-standing tradition of travelling, in other words by the "New Age travellers".

I agree that there is a difference between those who are of a naturally nomadic culture and those who are sometimes quite well off but who elect to go travelling and, in so doing, cause acute disquiet to others in whose area they settle. But the law does not differentiate between them. The 1968 Act provides a test which is based not on a person's culture or on his origin but on his way of life. Your Lordships could suggest that the test be changed, but the trouble is that this could well still give rise to more difficulties, albeit of a different nature. There is nothing particularly meritorious in swapping one set of problems for another set which may be equally intractable. This is not an easy problem to solve.

Despite the provision of a 100 per cent. Exchequer grant for official sites for gypsies, the sad fact is that the provision of sites is not keeping pace with the growth in the number of gypsy caravans in England and Wales. So, far from the problem getting easier, it is actually getting worse. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, that the problem will not go away. If we are not careful, I believe it will get worse. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, asked whether I had any figures to indicate the extent of the problem and whether it was getting worse. The figures I have indicate that there are some 12,500 gypsy caravans in England and Wales. Contrary to what the noble Baroness thought, that figure is 30 per cent. higher than the figure in 1981. Over 4,000 are on unauthorised sites. That is only 12 per cent. fewer than in 1981, despite the fact that there has been a 67 per cent. increase since then in the number of caravans stationed on authorised sites.

It is an unfortunate fact that 22 years after the implementation of the 1968 Act only 38 per cent. of district councils in England have been designated and only one district council has been designated in Wales. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, asked whether all travellers could go to those sites. All travellers can go to those sites. They do not have to be the traditional, nomadic gypsies. They may go to the sites if they are travellers.

There is the added difficulty that often these "New Age travellers" do not wish to occupy authorised sites. They want to be able to roam unchecked across the countryside at their own volition and then settle like some great bumble bee on whatever flower happens to take their fancy. That is a lovely but totally selfish view which disregards entirely the rights of others and sometimes even the law. But the fact is that these people are people. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that they have to go somewhere. One cannot just hoover them out of where they are without putting them somewhere else.

My noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve said the police, local authorities and others should now work together on this matter. I have no doubt they will. I recognise the problems and the deficiencies which exist under the Caravan Sites Act for dealing with these problems. The Act is not perfect and we are currently undertaking a thorough review of it.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, asked whether we could send out a message of hope to those who are affected by this problem. He asked Her Majesty's Government not to rest upon the niceties of the present law. I believe the noble Viscount wanted the Government to consult solicitors, councillors, farmers and others on this matter. I believe we can give a message of hope. The Government intend to look at this matter afresh. There is a real problem here.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked whether we would study the Powys report. We have just received it and we intend to study it. There is a real problem, and as a result a consultation paper will be issued by the Department of the Environment as soon as is practicable. The whole issue can then be debated and there will be an opportunity for all interested parties to put their views in writing and to talk to Ministers.

My noble friend Lord Stanley and the noble Lord, Lord Congleton, said that they would like a conference. I see the merit of that, but I fear that that might be somewhat too cumbersome a procedure and, if we are to have all parties represented, it might not be too harmonious either. However, I am sure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will consider the idea most carefully.

Although it may not be the answer to the philosophy which lies behind the actions of those who wish to deposit themselves where they will, there is no doubt that the failure to provide sufficient official sites for gypsies leaves a widespread problem of illegal encampments.

So, what happens if one seeks to evict gypsies—or "New Age travellers" or any other form of itinerants —who are camped illegally? The first effect may be to make them statutorily homeless, perhaps placing a burden on the local community to house and to feed them.

It has been suggested that simple trespass might be made a criminal offence. That, initially, seems attractive but it would have many disadvantages. I do not think that, as my noble friend Lord Stanley, said, anyone would wish to see the full rigour of the law descend upon those who had innocently strayed on to private land in order, for example, to go bird watching or to ramble down a quiet country path —activities in which some of your Lordships might indulge from time to time, with total rectitude.

Apart from anything else, a change in the law of that nature would require a massive diversion of police effort. That would result in their having to neglect other work—such as investigating burglaries or apprehending robbers—which your Lordships might consider should have a higher priority.

If trespass were to be made criminal, what would one do with the miscreants? Arrest them? What would one do with the caravans or the vehicles? Impound them? That might seem a virile thing to do; but it would bring a whole cascade of problems in its wake. Who would do the impounding? The local authorities or the police? Where would they put the impounded vehicles? In the Town Hall; in the municipal swimming baths; or would they clutter up the police station yard? What happens, when one has arrested the head of the household, to the wife and children? Are they arrested too; or is the wife left with the children screaming their heads off in the vehicle in the police yard; or are they taken into care?

It may be that we would have to do something of that nature. Those are some of the questions which will have to be addressed if we go down that route. Meanwhile, one has to see what remedies are available to landowners and occupiers who suffer these terrible visitations.

If the local authority does not have designation powers two courses are available. The first lies within the civil law. The vast majority of cases of trespass are resolved, as they should be, either informally or through the civil courts. As I have explained, trespass on land is essentially a civil matter. It is not a criminal offence. Landowners should therefore in most cases look to the civil courts for their remedy. I agree, though, that it is not an immediate process and it also personalises the confrontation between the offender and the landlord.

However, the civil procedures have been expedited. Both the High Court and the county court now have special procedures which can help landowners and occupiers to get relief more quickly.

The second remedy lies with Section 39 of the Public Order Act, about which your Lordships have spoken, usually with very little approbation. Where aggravating factors are involved in the trespass, rather than just a small group of peaceful trespassers simply declining to leave the land, the criminal law has a limited role to play.

Clause 39 was introduced during the passage of the Public Order Bill in response to the mass invasions of land in and around Stonehenge area during the summer of 1986. Section 39 gives the police a discretionary power, not a duty. It is a power, which the police may use where, in their view, the situation demands it.

My noble friend Lord Stanley said that the police are seen to stand by and do nothing or that the action taken varies between police forces. All I can tell him is that it is a difficult problem for the police. Each situation has to be considered individually. That is why we have given guidance.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, referred to Hampshire. I am not fully aware of the details, but the example which he quoted seemed to show how Section 39 worked. It worked well. The travellers were moved on twice. The problem, which was the one to which the noble Baroness directed our attention, arose because they had nowhere to go to. That creates its own problem.

Section 39 is triggered only under certain specific circumstances. Two or more people have to enter land with an intent to reside there, and the owner or occupier of the land must ask them to leave. If they do not leave, Section 39 can be brought into operation if any one of three things happens as well: if any of the trespassers is threatening or offensive; or if any of the trespassers causes damage; or if the trespassers between them bring 12 or more vehicles onto the land. It is an offence for a trespasser not to leave the land after a direction has been given to him or if, having left the land, he returns as a trespasser within three months.

Section 39 is not a substitute for normal civil procedures. It provides though a limited criminal sanction to deal with aggravated trespass.

My noble friend Lord Radnor and others referred to the problem of green lanes. Some said that the scope of Section 39 should be extended to cover highways, Green lanes are effectively highways, although "green lanes" is not a legal term. The primary purpose of the section is to restore to the occupier the use of his land. It therefore seeks to protect the property rights of particular individuals. Highways were specifically excluded from the scope of Section 39 as inappropriate to this legislation. The way to correct the improper use of a highway is through highway law which is perfectly adequate for the purpose.

The Home Office has issued guidance to the police on the application of Section 39 and a leaflet has been published setting out, for the benefit of landowners and members of the public, in plain English, the main provisions of the law on trespass on land.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has also said that he will continue to maintain the pressure on local authorities to meet their statutory duty to provide adequate numbers of sites for gypsies. That will please the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu.

It has been suggested that Section 39 should be extended to give the police power to impound caravans. As I said, we may have to do that. I have already referred to the difficulties which will accrue if we go down that route. We must remember that we are not talking about just the odd vehicle, but sometimes tens or even possibly hundreds of them. I have even heard of one case where 780 caravans collectively descended upon a place.

It is though rare, once a direction to leave has been issued, for it to be disobeyed. However unattractive these caravans may be, we must remember that to the owners they are their homes and they will not wish to lose them. Indeed, even more trouble might be caused by impounding their vehicles, as those itinerant people would obviously feel aggrieved by the taking of their homes. Far from maintaining public order impounding might actually endanger it yet further.

My noble friend Lord Stanley has said that he would wish for adjustments to be made to Section 39 and, in his question, he asks for the guidance to chief constables on the operation of Section 39 to be reviewed.

Home Office guidance to the police has been issued which aims to provide a clear understanding of the matters which the police can be expected to take into account when deciding whether to give a direction to trespassers to leave land. Those criteria include—the first was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu—the consequences of giving a direction to leave. There might, for example, be further trespass nearby because of the lack of official sites. There is no virtue in removing a problem from one back yard merely—as the noble Baroness said—to shift it into a neighbour's back yard.

Secondly, the consequences of not giving a direction to leave have to be taken into account. For example, further damage or threatening behaviour or disorder might occur. The public order consequences of their actions have to be taken into account by the police. Thirdly, the personal circumstances of the trespassers have to be taken into account. There might, for example, be those whose wellbeing could be affected by an immediate move. There have been complaints in the past about pregnant women and sick people being peremptorily removed.

But the guidance is only guidance. The decision whether to issue a direction to leave the land must remain an operational matter for the police. The senior officer at the scene will take his decision in the light of all the circumstances in each particular case.

I can tell my noble friend Lord Stanley that I am quite happy to look at the guidance in view of what your Lordships have said this evening. But I am bound to point out that it was only introduced in May of last year, and it really should be given time to bed in. However, I am quite happy for it to be looked at in the light of such experience as we have had and in the light of your Lordships' views, but I would just caution your Lordships not to underestimate the difficulties. Nor do I, in turn, underestimate for one minute the difficulties, the friction and the offence which arise from the unlawful occupation of land. The present position is not satisfactory and we are looking to see whether and how we can improve it further.

I do not expect that my reply will have satisfied the avaricious hunger for change of my noble friend Lord Stanley. However, I hope that at least I have demonstrated to your Lordships that the Government are conscious of and sympathetic to a distressing but nevertheless sensitive issue.