HL Deb 06 November 1998 vol 594 cc488-93

1.45 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st July be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the draft Local Government (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order before the House today seeks to repeal certain provisions of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions)(Northern Ireland) Order 1985 which gave the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland the right to designate district councils when either they had provided adequate travellers' sites or did not have any travellers in their area. The order is quite a short one, but does have an important human rights aspect. It will repeal Articles 9 and 10 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions)(Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

Those articles gave the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland the power to designate those district councils which had either provided adequate travellers' sites in their area or which had no need to provide such sites as there were no travellers normally in their area. In Northern Ireland it is a function of district councils to provide sites with grant aid from the DoE, although this is not a mandatory function. The reason for designation was to encourage councils to provide service sites. As well as offering grant aid, the offer of designation was available to those councils which grasped the nettle of providing travellers' sites—which was often unpopular with other constituents.

Designated councils could then ask the courts for an order to remove any other traveller who was parked in the council area. So far four of those councils which have travellers in their area have been designated following the provision of sites. Others have an ongoing site programme. They have from time to time used the legislation to have travellers moved.

However, it has been argued that designation gives councils power to move travellers while not being able to move any other person and that this is discriminatory. The department has accepted that such powers, while helping in the development of 10 serviced sites in Northern Ireland, should be repealed and with it the designation of the four councils. The department has also given an undertaking to the United Nations Commission on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to remove the power.

The repeal of Articles 9 and 10 of the 1985 order is contained in Article 3 of the draft 1998 order. As well as repealing those articles it also repeals the definition of "road" as "road" was used in Article 9 of the 1985 order. Furthermore, Article 3(2) removes "caravan" from the definitions as it is now unnecessary.

The draft order was circulated to about 150 individuals and bodies and some 66 responses were received. As originally drafted the order, as well as repealing the power to designate, would have given district councils the power to move people from unauthorised encampments. While the repeal of the designation power was welcomed, the proposal to give councils the additional power was opposed by traveller support groups and two statutory bodies involved with human rights. Some councils felt that the proposed powers were not worth the additional work that would be needed to use them. They argued that the powers would be used mainly, if not solely, against travellers.

As the department has issued a consultation paper on the accommodation needs for travellers over the next 10 years, the Government decided that in the meantime we should proceed only with the repeal of the department's power to designate district councils. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st July be approved.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Avebury

My Lords, before the last election, the previous government tabled an order similar to this one repealing Articles 9 and 10 of the 1985 order but also, as the noble Baroness has just told the House, enacting provisions that were similar to those in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with unauthorised encampments. The Traveller Movement of Northern Ireland, which was formerly the Northern Ireland Council for Travelling People, objected to those proposals on the grounds that travellers were being singled out for discriminatory treatment and that the order would therefore violate Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The organisation tells me that it is pleased to see that the Government have reintroduced the order without the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act provisions, leaving in only the repeal of the articles which prohibited unauthorised camping in designated districts and enabled courts to make orders for the removal of unlawfully sited caravans and their occupants.

The situation in Northern Ireland is not exactly the same as in England and Wales, but the basic problem of providing a sufficiency of sites is identical in both jurisdictions. I note that in Northern Ireland there are only about 1,200 travellers, of whom two-thirds are on authorised sites. Probably many of them would be quite happy to go into permanent accommodation and settle down in one place provided they could be given facilities suitable for their use, bearing in mind that many of them belong to extended families and cannot very easily fit into houses on sites normally provided by local authorities.

Meanwhile, some of the travellers in Northern Ireland have no alternative but to camp on unauthorised sites. At the moment about one third of them are doing so, largely one imagines on public land. There appears to be a greater tolerance in Northern Ireland to the use of unauthorised sites than in England and Wales. Local authorities did not have powers under the Criminal Justice Act and they will now not get them. Based on discussions with Mr. Noonan of the organisation I mentioned just now, I understand that if local authorities want to evict travellers from unauthorised sites in Northern Ireland they have to use the Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878, the Central and Local Government (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 dealing with the control of pollution or the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1980. The powers available to local authorities to evict travellers from their own land in England and Wales appear to have no parallel in Northern Ireland.

Last week the DETR issued new guidance to local authorities in England and Wales on how to deal with unauthorised encampments based on research conducted by the University of Birmingham. Can the Minister say whether any equivalent advice is to be given to local authorities in Northern Ireland on how they are supposed to deal with unauthorised encampments in the absence of the Criminal Justice Act provisions while awaiting the results of the consultation launched by the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment under the signature of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs? In particular, do the requirements of Circular 18/94, reinforced by the judgment of Mr. Justice Tucker in the Brighton and Hove case that local authorities should make careful enquiries about the basic humanitarian needs of the occupants before carrying out an eviction, read over into Northern Ireland? I am aware that Circular 18/94 itself applies only in England and Wales, but I wonder whether there is an equivalent injunction on local authorities to observe basic humanitarian provisions before they carry out an eviction.

As I have argued in the case of England and Wales, Northern Ireland will not solve this problem by focusing entirely on the powers of local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments, but only by a concerted effort to ensure that sufficient accommodation of the right kind is provided for travellers. I understand that the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment produced a strategic plan but it was ineffective because no resources were provided to back it up. I also understand that the 100 per cent. grant for the construction of sites, which was repealed here in 1994 also at the time of the Criminal Justice Act, still exists in theory in Northern Ireland, but that in practice no money is made available to local authorities. The travellers say that the task of providing the facilities and their strategic planning should be given to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and that it should have the necessary funds to do the job.

It is not very often that we have the opportunity to discuss the question of travellers in England and Wales; still rarer that we can do so in respect of Northern Ireland. I hope that I shall be forgiven for having strayed a little outside the order itself and for adding that in solving the problem of accommodation, which is the key to social inclusion of travellers, we should work closely with the Irish Republic where there have been some very useful and interesting initiatives. I was very glad to see mention made of the arrangements in the Republic in the consultative document on accommodation for travellers, responses to which had to be in by the end of October. It is too early for the Government to have digested the responses and reached conclusions, but I urge them not to use that exercise as a means of delaying a genuine attempt to bring travellers up to the standards of health, welfare and education that the rest of the people of Northern Ireland demand and already enjoy.

1.55 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord for filling in a little more of the background than the Minister was able to do and also for the thought and care that he has devoted to this matter on both sides of the Irish Sea. I had a good deal to do with these matters in my constituency when I was a Member of another place. I became a supporter of the system of designation which is being abolished here because it strongly encouraged district councils to provide proper authorised sites.

Clearly, the United Nations commission and others see the designation provisions that are to be repealed as operating against the interests of travellers. I understand that point of view, but I see it in exactly opposite terms. I believe that it had the effect of encouraging the provision of proper authorised sites, which is, after all, what all of us want. The teeth of the designation provisions were in the power to deal with unlawfully parked caravans, etcetera, in areas where there were sufficient proper sites. In my particular area there were caravan sites run not only by the council but privately by individuals in the ordinary way with particular provision for travellers. Obviously, those must be taken into account in looking at the provision as a whole.

In addition, there is the constant difficulty of defining a genuine traveller. That is appallingly difficult to define in legal terms and even more difficult in practice. We all know what we mean by "travellers", and in some cases it is obvious. But there are different types of travellers, including, as we found in our part of the country, New Age travellers and people taking advantage of the provisions intended for genuine travellers. According to my information, that problem is not so evident in Northern Ireland.

If we are to remove the provision for designating districts—I do not object to that—that will not get rid of the problem of providing sites on the one hand and what to do about unauthorised sites on the other. The powers that the noble Lord has just described to deal with unauthorised encampments need to be tidied up and improved. They should not discriminate against travellers, although they will be viewed as doing so by those who find themselves in that position. They need not be discriminatory, but in a very important sense they are part of the planning law of our country.

As we found in my part of the country, if travellers, with their caravans, are allowed to get away with it, other people will think they can get away with it too—first, with caravans, then buildings and so on. In areas where there is pressure of development, that soon leads to the planning laws being brought into disrepute; and that is to the detriment of us all. It is part of the wider picture, as well as relating to the travellers.

I do not oppose the order. However, it is not the end of the matter by a long way. It is the beginning of a much larger picture.

2 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I have had communications in the past few days from the travellers' association in Northern Ireland. It expressed concern about its present legal position. I recall that during my time as Member of Parliament in the old Stormont Parliament the issue of travellers was raised repeatedly by a Liberal Member from Queens University, Sheila Murnaghan. It was her interest. It caused great controversy on many occasions. Travellers in Northern Ireland often wish to erect their site in working class areas. I remember vividly West Belfast, a predominantly working class area. There were some objections from the people living there. It is an issue not without controversy. We in the remote House of Lords are not in a good position to lay down rules and regulations, and to dictate what should happen, in those areas. I think in particular of Belfast, but the point applies also outside Belfast.

It is a local government order. Over the past few weeks we have been discussing the Northern Ireland Bill, which resulted from the Belfast agreement. Under that Bill all matters relating to local authorities will be given to the new Assembly. I understand, and fervently hope, that the new Assembly will have an executive and a department in place by next February. People in Northern Ireland will have to live beside the travellers, whatever agreement can be found. It is a local issue. This matter should rightly be debated by those in the Assembly who represent the areas affected. They would be able to talk to the people who live permanently in those areas. The representatives of those areas who are elected to the Assembly and to the local authority would be closer to the problems of the travellers. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate that when the new executive of the Assembly is set up in February, the powers to determine the rights, wrongs and legality of the travellers will be given to the new Assembly.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their interest, useful comments and apparent support for the order. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that my noble friend Lord Dubs was unable to be present and to give him perhaps a little more information, if he feels that there was insufficient.

Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. Not only will the responsibility transfer to the Assembly, but Assembly Members have already received a copy of the consultation document, and their views will be extremely important.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, drew attention to the importance of recognising the difficulties regarding definition. I understand that only too well having served on a committee of the Council of Europe which considered the issue across the whole Community. Definitions are difficult. The specific needs within the Community of those described as travellers can vary enormously. That is why the report has been issued, and consultation on those needs is an important element. We can meet the needs only when we are fully aware of what they are. The period of consultation has expired. We shall look in great detail and with care at the information. It is not proposed at present to issue new guidelines. At this stage we feel it important to await the outcome of the report.

Several noble Lords referred to the way in which sites are treated at present. The department's toleration policy will continue. It allows travellers to remain on Department of the Environment lands subject to certain conditions, such as health and the future use of that land. That toleration policy will remain for the foreseeable future while we await the outcome of the consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to finance. Finance has been available up to the current year. Until we know the outcome of the accommodation review, no commitments can be made on the amount of money to be made available. At present the vote is nil for the next financial year and succeeding years.

It is extremely important that the consultation work identifies in detail the accommodation to be provided. We shall look again at the question of illegal encampments as we consider the new accommodation policy. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, indicated, at present there is no issue regarding New Age travellers in Northern Ireland.

I hope that I have answered the questions that have been raised today. Should I not have replied in sufficient detail I shall write to noble Lords. I commend the order on behalf of my noble friend Lord Dubs.

On Question, Motion agreed to.