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Column 358provides a framework that we believe will give gipsies the confidence to use the usual planning procedures to establish their own sites.
The new guidance advises planning authorities to set out clear policies in their development plans to meet gipsies' accommodation needs, to consult gipsies and their representatives when preparing their plans, and to advise and offer practical help to gipsies with the planning procedures. We are determined to ensure that the planning system operates fairly and that planning applications for the development of gipsy sites are treated on the same basis as other applications.
The Government are committed to reducing the level of unauthorised camping. Unauthorised camping by gipsies and other travellers causes serious nuisance and offence to landowners and local communities. All hon. Members know that the dimensions of that problem, and public awareness of it, have increased in recent years. Public expectations are high. In some areas of England and Wales, hardly a week passes without a new incident of unauthorised camping making the headlines in the local press. The reaction of local people is always the same: "Surely something should be done about it" and "Surely the police or the local authority must deal with this nuisance". There is always bewilderment and frustration that the powers currently available to local authorities are circumscribed and rarely allow authorities to take effective action. Our proposals will enable them to control unauthorised camping in their areas.
We have presented a comprehensive package of proposals which we believe will reduce unauthorised camping and give gipsies reasonable opportunities to find suitable accommodation. Our proposals would replace a system of site provision that has been in operation for 24 years and has manifestly failed to achieve those objectives. The lengthy period of procrastination proposed in the amendments would serve no useful purpose and would be greeted with dismay in many quarters. I strongly urge the House to reject the amendments.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I congratulate the Minister on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He and I served for a number of years on the Select Committee on the Environment, and it was a pleasure to hear him answering questions earlier today and now to hear him open this debate. However, the fact that we are discussing gipsies during a debate on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill highlights one of our main objections to the proposals. We believe that the proper way to deal with the issue would be in a Department of the Environment Bill rather than its being included in this Bill, which covers so many different subjects. The Minister will not be surprised to learn that we do not agree with him and I can say at the outset that we intend to divide the House.
We believe that the Lords amendment is a modest proposal and should remain in the Bill. We said on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report and, indeed, when the right hon. Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow) introduced a private Member's Bill on a similar subject, that the Government's proposals to repeal part of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 do not solve any problems but create more. Delaying the implementation of the relevant part of the Bill would give the Government, local authorities and everyone else involved at least five more years in which to consider the sensible way to proceed.
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What would be achieved by passing the Bill in its original form without the Lords amendment? To do so would criminalise some gipsies and increase homelessness; it would cause family breakdown and place added pressures on social and education services. It would certainly not solve any problems. Indeed, it is our view that it would create more problems and improve nothing.
As the Minister knows, about 38 per cent. of English local authorities are designated. The Bill would give similar powers to all local authorities, whether or not they were designated. At the moment, designation provides local authorities with powers to act rapidly through the magistrates courts to remove unlawfully parked caravans and their occupants from highways or unoccupied land or from occupied land with the landowner's consent.
I wish to make it clear again that we are not condoning the trouble caused by people on a minority of unauthorised sites. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties have had to deal with such problems. However, the majority of the gipsy population do not create such problems, but we are once again being asked to legislate against all gipsies and people who live a similar life style in order to deal with the problems created by a minority. That is wrong.
The Minister mentioned the provision of private sites. We have no objection to that or to the provision of smaller sites, whether publicly or privately funded. We must approach the matter positively. If the House were to accept the Lords amendment, we should be able to examine the question at greater length.
The Minister knows that the view that I am expressing is not held exclusively by the Labour party but has the support of all three local authority associations--the Association of District Councils, the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. It also has the support of the National Farmers Union, an organisation which does not usually side with the Labour party, and that of Save the Children Fund, which believes that the Government's proposals are wrong.
We accept that local opinion is often very much opposed to applications for gipsy sites and that it can be extremely difficult to secure the establishment of such sites. However, we must recognise that that is so whether sites are publicly or privately funded. A new way forward must be found.
The Minister's predecessor always said that he accepted in good faith that it was not the intention to force gipsies on to sites in totally unsuitable and undesirable areas, next to rubbish tips, and so on. Some people think that we should look for that type of solution. Even though we disagree on his principal proposals, I hope that that is not what the Minister would advocate.
In the consultations, the Government suggested that they would like to encourage more of the people involved to move into permanent housing. Given the Government's record in providing affordable housing for rent over the past few years, it seems crazy to add to the problem by adding another category of people who do not want housing, and telling them that going into such accommodation is the only way forward for them. That is nonsense.
Column 360Save the Children, which has taken a close interest in the subject throughout the consultations with the Government and at every stage of the Bill's progress through the House, has sent a letter to all Members of Parliament, which says:
"As providers of services to children in Gipsy and Traveller families, our concern is for their welfare. Availability of sufficient and suitable caravan site accommodation is the best way to safeguard the health of children, their access to schooling, and their emotional development."
Those are important facts which we must recognise, and I believe that the Government's proposals would move us in the wrong direction.
The letter continues:
"The shortage of legal stopping places means that some families have no option but to stop on unauthorised sites. We consider the duty on local authorities to provide sites should be retained and that this will help minimise the incidence of unauthorised stopping."
The problem today--if we accept that there is a problem--is caused not by over-provision of sites, but by the fact that to date 62 per cent. of councils have failed to provide sites within their areas. I am sure that the Minister will point out that many of those councils are Labour- controlled, and I accept that; I am not making a political point. I simply say that the local authorities concerned must consider the problem and see what they can do.
We believe that the five-year delay that would result from leaving the Bill as it came from the House of Lords and agreeing to the Lords amendment would enable the Government to examine the developments that took place during that time. We should like the gipsies themselves to be involved in discussions at national and local level, and everybody could try to find a positive way forward.
In the discussions that I have had, it has been clear that many people believe that the sites provided by many local authorities, designed for 30 or 40 caravan pitches, are too big. Authorities should consider smaller sites that would accommodate the extended family life style that many gipsies lead. Smaller sites would be more desirable for them, and would often cause less friction locally. I accept that such smaller sites could be privately or publicly funded.
Clearly, we shall not achieve anything by supporting the Government in deleting Lords amendment No. 79 and the related Lords amendments. We must try to examine the situation positively, and recognise gipsies' needs for access to education for their children--I referred to that a few moments ago--and access to health service provision, whether through a general practitioner or through community health services. Ante-natal care and safe childbirth are also important. All those issues must be considered, and so must the environmental health implications.
We have had many debates on such issues, and many stronger alternatives have been debated at earlier stages in the Bill. I realise that we cannot reopen all those debates tonight. However, the Opposition strongly believe that if the Government win the vote at the end of the debate they will create a problem and solve none. They should heed the voices of reason, and allow us a five-year breathing space, to allow all those involved to try to
Column 361achieve a positive and more acceptable solution that will not create the problems that the Government's rejection of the Lords amendment will cause.
Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North): I have listened to the argument, which is highly sensitive. One wants to do the maximum that one can to assist the gipsies, but--the Minister has explained the point remarkably well--the Caravan Sites Act 1968 is out of date and has been proved to be so. We have had 26 years of experience of the Act, and during that time, if two of its main provisions--one of which was providing sufficient accommodation for gipsies and providing it in the most suitable places--were going to prove useful, they would have done so by now.
I shall cite one case from Bedford, involving the Cutthroat lane site. It was put in the wrong place, too near residents and next door to Sainsbury, and is causing the utmost commotion. One blames not the gipsies but the local authority for the decision. We are trying to change all the provisions. The Act has also failed to reduce the incidence of illegal camping; I shall say more about that in a moment.
Surely their lordships have not made the right decision. If they considered the matter carefully against the background of the past 25 or 26 years, and decided that they wanted another five years, what did they want the additional time for? The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has said that he wants another five years, at the end of which we should be able to review the position--but we should be no better off at the end of that period than we are now. The Minister's suggestion of new planning guidance, and the idea that the gipsies themselves should provide some of their own accommodation on their own sites under the planning system, appeal to me, and no doubt to many others in the House.
I shall state why I think that people are supporting some of the planning applications. It is not merely the granting of the planning permission that is important; it is the securing of a 100 per cent. grant for the local authorities. The local authorities know that for as many sites as they build, 100 per cent. grant will be granted. The result is that the authorities want money for those sites. But, having got the sites, they prove to be a liability, not merely to the local communities, but to the local gipsies themselves. There are two such sites in Bedford already, one of which has caused the utmost turmoil to the local residents. That was broken up over the years. The other site is a little outside Bedford where the gipsies destroyed their own accommodation, which has to be rehabilitated with the aid of Government money at great expense. I wonder whether the Opposition have considered that.
The other matter that I should like to stress is that in 1966 there were 3,500 illegally camped caravans in England. Today, after the provision of an extra 17,000 caravan pitches in the past 26 years, there are 7,000 illegal caravan encampments. If the local authorities have failed to provide enough caravan sites, are they likely to secure any great easement of the situation over the next five years, for which I understand their lordships are asking for modifications? No, I think that the Minister presented a good case. He put forward some of the arguments that I had in mind and I thank him for doing that. I hope that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will accept the view that there is no reason why the Lords amendments should be accepted.
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Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I are very sad about the Government's moves tonight. They appear to be trying to take the heart out of the excellent legislation which was first proposed, I understand, in the House by my noble Friend Lord Avebury. There has been some grudging acceptance on the Government Benches that that legislation has done much good.
There is a clear case to be made for the huge increase in authorised sites over the past few years having come about largely as a result of that legislation. The problem that the Government seem to be hitting is that that legislation has not increased the number of sites any faster than the increase in the gipsy population. That is not necessarily a reason for removing legislation altogether, which may make the situation even worse, because it looks likely that the increase in the number of sites in future will not even keep up with the gipsy population if the Government are determined to take that route.
The Government may be saying--some Opposition Members suspect that they are --that they simply do not want to see as many sites produced in future as would be produced if the legislation were left in place. If so, I regard that as very sad. But there are many reasons for supposing that we need a real increase in sites, and I hope that the Government will, as they claim to be doing, try to ensure that that increase occurs. It is, of course, also possible that the Government, while wishing to see an increase in sites, simply wish to decrease the average amount of money spent to set up each of those sites. However, if we assume for a moment that the Government want to see an increase in sites, I think they are right, for the following reasons. First, there is all the human cost incurred in leaving a large number of the gipsy population on unauthorised sites. There is a human cost incurred by moving on the gipsies from site to site every few days-- sometimes, perhaps, every few weeks, but often every few days.
There is a human cost in the stress on family life and the likelihood that families will break up as a result. There is a human cost among the children of those families--not only because the families themselves are stressed, but because of the difficulties children have in getting a reasonable education. At a time when, surely, we are all saying that the people of our country, our most valuable resource, need all the education and training that they can get to take up the jobs of the future, we should be saying that gipsy families should have the right, and the opportunity as well, to obtain a good education for themselves.
There is also the human cost in terms of the inaccessibility of health care to those who are constantly being moved from place to place. That is perhaps especially true of those mothers who are having children. We must recognise that human cost.
Even if the Government are not prepared to recognise the human cost, surely they should recognise the financial cost involved. I am referring to the farming community, which has already been mentioned. It is clear, as we were told earlier by the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), that the National Farmers Union is no friend of the Labour party.
Column 363I must tell the Government that although, when I first fought the Newbury seat, I was fairly certain that 90 per cent. of the farmers were voting against me--possibly more than that--by the time that I last fought the seat, I was pretty sure that 90 per cent. of the farmers were in favour of me. The reason is not least because the Government have shown themselves to be extremely farmer-unfriendly, and they are still showing themselves as such in their moves tonight.
We must also consider the cost to society as a whole. Can we really believe that it is right that the upbringing of children should be disrupted? Can it really be right that children should grow up without a proper education? Is that really the way to bring our social costs down? Even the Government should recognise the financial costs involved.
A possible reason for the Government introducing the measure is that they want the costs of each site reduced. If that is the case, will it actually happen? If there is a reduction in the increase in the number of authorised sites, the social and other costs to which I have just referred must greatly outweigh a reduction in the cost of the small number of extra sites set up by the gipsies.
If we are prepared to provide decent homes, as far as we can, for those who are homeless and in priority need, and such a provision still exists under the Government's new homelessness legislation, is it right that we should refuse to pay anything towards the homing costs of gipsy families when they have young children to look after? That seems to be gross discrimination against the gipsy population, and we should not put up with that.
If the Government assume that the number of sites will increase if there are to be only private sites in future, at least we should have an opportunity to put the policy into practice alongside the old legislation, so that we can see whether it really works.
The Caravan Sites Act 1968 has been in place for some time. It has not worked, because some local authorities have been allowed to get away with it. They have been allowed to get away with not fulfilling their obligations under the legislation. The Government should be enforcing that legislation properly. They should tell local authorities that they must fulfil their obligations to the community at large.
If the Government do not do that, the message sent to local authorities is that if they do not like legislation and do not want to fulfil their obligations, they can forget them for a while and let other authorities that are prepared to fulfil their obligations do that. The Government will not treat those local authorities fairly, because, in the end, they will tell them that, as they have not fulfilled their obligations for several years, they will drop those obligations entirely.
That is not a fair way to treat local authorities that have fulfilled their obligations, or the authorities that believe that they have an obligation to their local gipsy families. That is not a fair way to proceed, and the Government should not remove the amendment tonight.
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel)-- [Interruption.] Before the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) leaves the Chamber, he might like to know that I intend to ask him a question in a moment.
Column 364I was one of the Conservative Members who, some years ago, pressed the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), very strongly when he was introducing proposals on squatting, to take similar measures against what I described as the menace of rural squatting--the subject of this debate. I was therefore extremely pleased by the Government's proposals in the Bill, which were foreshadowed, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, in the consultation paper.
However, I was alarmed when the Lords passed this amendment. I was particularly alarmed because, at that precise time, the Liberal Democrat- controlled Cornwall county council was trying to force through a scheme to impose--there is no other word to describe it--sites for new age travellers on the six district councils in Cornwall. Naturally, that created uproar from one end of the county to another.
The scheme was ill thought out. The council broke practically every rule in the planning book. There was no consultation. Someone in my constituency who happened to own a site did not even know of the proposal until he left a local post office and someone said to him, "I hear that they are going to put a site on your land."
What a dreadful way to act! There was mayhem from one end of the county to another. Protest meetings were held. Together with my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), I played a leading role in opposing the plans, and I make no apology for that. I believed that they trampled on the rights of local people. Of course, taken in isolation, the point made by the hon. Member for Newbury has some force. Of course we all want a humane society; but just as gipsies and new age travellers have rights, so, too, do local people, and their rights were being trampled on by the plans drawn up by the Liberal Democrat-controlled Cornwall county council-- Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) rose --
Mr. Harris: Before the hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, I want to ask him a question. He has never made this clear; nor did the Euro-MP who, in the election campaign, spoke about all sorts of domestic issues but not about European issues. Did the hon. Member for North Cornwall support the plan drawn up by Cornwall county council for the county in general and for his constituency in particular?
Mr. Tyler: I am in favour of authorised sites, not unauthorised ones. It is extremely irresponsible of the hon. Gentleman, who fought an effective nimby campaign on this issue, to ignore the fact that there was wide consultation with all six district councils two years ago to establish the principle that in each district a site should be set up. I do not get involved in planning decisions. I was not involved in identifying which sites should be set up where--but it is a fact that each district agreed to establish a site.
Secondly, in my village there is an authorised site on which for many years gipsies have played a responsible part in the local community. That was in line with what the county council sought to establish. The critical issue before the House this evening--I hope that, instead of merely attacking Liberal Democrats in Cornwall, the hon.
Column 365Gentleman will deal with this--is establishing how local communities may arrive at authorised sites to meet their obligations under current statute.
Mr. Tyler: I neither supported nor opposed it, because I do not support or oppose any planning application. We have many responsibilities here as Members of Parliament, but we should not arrogate to ourselves the responsibilities of members of planning committees--that would be quite absurd.
Mr. Harris: Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not get involved in the merits or demerits of planning applications; but in this case I thought that the county council's actions defied all planning common sense and paid no regard to the wishes or well-being of local people. I therefore had no hesitation about deploring the council's way of trying to deal with an admittedly very difficult problem.
Mr. David Nicholson: Did I hear my hon. Friend say that the proposals in Cornwall were intended to include not just traditional gipsies but new age travellers? If so, that concerns us greatly. Secondly, will he bear in mind that this same issue has been rather more surreptitiously pursued by Liberal Democrat-controlled Somerset county council?
Mr. Harris: One of the problems that has bedevilled this whole subject is that of arriving at a reasonable definition of "gipsy". I do not accept that the huge increase in the scale of the problem has been caused by the sort of people whom I regard as genuine indigenous Romany people. Of course their population has not increased over the past 25 years by the numbers that have been given during the debate. We are talking about people who, for one reason or another--perhaps good reasons, perhaps bad reasons-- have chosen to follow that way of life.
To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), perhaps one of the cardinal mistakes by Cornwall county council when, out of the blue, it announced their scheme for the designation of sites, was to describe them as sites for travellers. A High Court case went some way to clarifying the difference between gipsies and travellers. That case, which related to South Hams, made it quite clear that travellers were not covered by the provisions of the 1968 Act.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I do not wish to intrude too much on a Cornish debate, but clearly there are implications for everyone else. Has the hon. Gentleman ever supported the provision of caravan sites anywhere in the county of Cornwall for any travellers, or is he opposed to them all? Those of us not living in Cornwall should understand any prejudice that he may have employed in his argument.
Column 366is one in or near his constituency, there is one near my constituency, and I have no objection to it; it is perfectly reasonable.
I parted company with the Liberal Democrat-controlled county council when it tried to use powers in the 1968 Act to provide sites for new age travellers. I hope that the hon. Member for Cornwall, North will agree that we do not have a responsibility to provide sites for people who choose on a whim to go anywhere in the country and then expect to be housed at the expense of the taxpayers or council tax payers. I do not buy that argument at all, and I hope that the hon. Member for Cornwall, North will agree.
I should say something else about the county council. Nothing much was done for 26 years, but when the Bill came before the House and went to the other place, suddenly the Liberal Democrats on the county council acted. Their publicly stated reason for moving so quickly was to secure a 100 per cent. grant. That was the main motivation.
Mr. Tyler: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a fair Member of the House. He has not responded yet, but I hope that he will now acknowledge that the consultation began on the appropriate sites per district two years ago--before the Bill came to the House and before the reduction of grant was mooted. While I am here, because I do not want to interrupt him again--
Mr. Harris: There were proposals by the county council some time before the Bill appeared. I am not sure whether they preceded the consultation document; my recollection is that they did not, but it was about that time. Certainly they moved very quickly to the designation of the six sites, breaking virtually every rule in the planning book to secure the 100 per cent. grant.
I was approached indirectly by Liberal Democrats who said, "For goodness' sake get the Government to call in the sites, because we do not want them." That was what happened.
The Liberal Democrats on the county council faced uproar; they were clearly in an embarrassing position. They were given some succour by the passing of the Lords amendments, and they tried to make out that the Bill would be delayed and therefore their money would be secure. I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Minister of State made it perfectly clear that was not the case, and that, in all probability, they would not get the money they wanted.
I am sorry that I have gone on so long, but to sum up, I believe that it is absolutely essential that the Lords amendments are rejected by the House tonight. I hope they will be, I know they will be and I hope that even the Liberal Democrats will vote with the Government, despite the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury.
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that access to the House has already been mentioned twice tonight, as a result of what is happening outside the House. I know that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is quite comfortably in his place in the House when perhaps he should be outside, speaking to his friends.
Column 367Tonight, the House is under siege. There are 2,000 police who could be protecting all their communities in London, but who instead are hemmed in by a bunch of thugs who are intent on causing disruption to the proceedings of the House. All I wish to do is draw attention to that fact, and to say that the time has come when that must not be allowed to happen under any circumstances. Those people should be removed from outside Parliament as soon as possible.
Mr. Greenway: I do not believe that it would be in the interests of the House to delay proceedings on the Bill any longer, except to say that, having twice, in the 1960s, been a police officer on the receiving end of some of the violence being meted out to Metropolitan police officers tonight, I think that the House should record its gratitude to those 2,000 officers outside, who are ensuring that that mob is not allowed into the Palace of Westminster.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Unless these are new points of order, I intend to rule on the two that have-- [Interruption.] Order. I shall rule on the two that have been raised. Hon. Members will know that, since I have been in the Chair, a matter was raised on a point of order in the Division. I said that I left it to the ingenuity of hon. Members to get here, and the numbers of hon. Members getting here were almost identical to those in the previous Division, which reinforces one's views that hon. Members show considerable ingenuity to get here. At this point of time, the House has proceeded normally, and it is my intention that the House shall proceed normally. If hon. Members wish to table early-day motions, that is entirely their privilege.
The fundamental question is whether the Government proposals will lead to an improvement in what is, by common consent, a matter that causes serious worry--the provision of reasonable accommodation for the needs of the gipsy population in this country. Will the Government proposals do that?
I believe, having listened to the Minister and to the debates this evening and at other times, that the Government have manifestly failed to make convincing arguments that would lead us to conclude that their proposals overall will improve the position. I intend to make three or four arguments to illustrate that.
The first argument is that, once more, the Government are trotting out their dogma--a dogma that insists that the public sector has failed and that therefore the private sector must be the way of the future.
Column 368It is interesting that, not only did the Minister contradict himself, but the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) emphasised that contradiction. As I understood the Minister, he was saying that local authority provision has worked because 46 per cent. of the gipsy population is covered by local authority sites and therefore there is no need for the continuation of the duty laid on local authorities under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. However, in the next breath, to try to justify what was a very thin argument, the Minister said that local authority provision had failed.
I say to the Minister that one cannot have it both ways. Local authority provision has either worked or it has failed. The House deserves an answer to that contradiction this evening.
My own view is that local authority provision has worked. It has not worked as well as it should, but it has worked. Having been a member of Labour- controlled Stoke-on-Trent city council, which was one of the first authorities in the country to provide a caravan site, I speak from some experience. The Government talk about 100 per cent. grants, but, as I understand it, they are capital grants. They make no reference to revenue, but during the past 15 years under the Government local authorities have experienced savage cuts. Therefore, it is not good enough for the Government to stand up and say that, despite the 100 per cent. grants, the provision has failed when it manifestly has not--according to the Government--without referring to the revenue consequences that fall on local authorities that have suffered severe cuts.
Secondly, the Government propose that gipsies should go on housing waiting lists. I do not know what the housing waiting list is like in other areas, but, as a direct result of Government policy, the waiting list in Stoke-on- Trent contains thousands and thousands more people than it did before the Government came to power. We have people sleeping on the streets as a result of the Government's policy.
Therefore, to suggest that gipsies need no longer worry about the removal of the duty on local authorities to provide authorised sites because they can go on the housing waiting list and be okay is pure balderdash. It is not only pure balderdash; it is an affront to gipsies. Their very tradition means that they do not want to go into houses. They want to live their traditional life. That proposal is not only impractical and does not stand up to examination, but it is an affront to the gipsy population.
My last point concerns the five-year provision in the Lords amendment. I do not know why the Government are so worried about that. I suppose that they think that it is an attempt by the other place, including many Conservative peers, to wreck the proposal. The Government, in their desire to push the measure through, must see it in that way. But that is a negative way of looking at it. There is a chance here to see whether the Government's proposals will work. All of us understand how difficult it is to establish an authorised gipsy site in a particular area. The public react, sometimes quite strongly, to proposals for an authorised gipsy site. That is understandable. It is not always coherent or correct, but it is understandable. There are different arguments in different parts of the country. But where is the Government's evidence that things will be easier if the gipsies themselves establish the site rather
Column 369than its being done through a local authority? The Government have not put forward any arguments to justify that proposal.
I hope that we can look at the matter positively. Let us see whether the Government's proposals work. Let us see whether private applications come through. Let us see whether there is a positive effect in terms of gipsies wanting to go on housing waiting lists. The five-year proposal is an opportunity to do that. Therefore, I hope that the Lords amendment will be accepted.
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester): I shall not weary the House with a long recitation of the principles that underlie the Government's proposals, except to say that I profoundly disagree with the views expressed by Opposition Members, as do the vast majority of my constituents. Nevertheless, I want to explain why I believe that delaying the repeal of certain powers in the Caravan Sites Act 1968 may, ironically, be an attractive proposition in my constituency. Following intensive lobbying by me and my predecessor, now Lord Walker of Worcester, I am glad to say that both councils operating in my constituency, Worcester city council and Wychavon district council, have achieved designation under the Caravan Sites Act by providing an adequate number of sites. Therefore, I was disturbed to receive a letter from Wychavon district council stating:
"Since the designation Order came into force, the Council has successfully used the new powers in a number of situations to move on unauthorised encampments. We are now very concerned that the proposed policy guidance relative to the new Act appears to make no allowance for the situation where an authority has already obtained designation . . . We find it very difficult to reconcile the tone of the proposed guidance with the tone of the legislation itself. On the one hand, authorities are being given new powers. On the other hand, they are being urged not to exercise them. If the new guidance is adopted as now proposed this Council will undoubtedly be in a weaker position in tackling unauthorised gypsy encampments after the new Act than before. We feel certain that this was not the Government's intention when the new legislation was announced."
I share the council's conviction that that was not the Government's intention.
My hon. Friend the Minister will understand why I am reluctant to see my constituents placed in a weaker position by the Bill than under the successful and hard-won designation that they already enjoy. I hope that he can reassure me that my council's interpretation of the guidance is mistaken and that it will be in at least an equally strong position. Otherwise, the prospect of five years of current effective protection looks quite attractive. 9.30 pm
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): Will the proposals that the Minister has presented make it possible for someone to take responsibility for finding somewhere for travellers and gipsies in my constituency? We have a solution from the Home Office when the matter should be dealt with by the Department of the Environment. The Government's solution is no solution and will only make matters worse.
Stoke-on-Trent has already seen 33 illegal encampments this year. Local people did not want to live side by side with as many as 33 illegal sites. The council moved illegal camps from pillar to post. Travellers and gipsies moved from a children's playground to a piece of
Column 370open space, with no provision for public health or waste disposal. That resulted in enormous problems for the local community. Stoke-on-Trent is already designated, but does not have sufficient sites for the number of people who consistently, over six years, wanted to stay in the area. It is in everybody's interest that someone should grasp the nettle, take responsibility and ensure that where a known number of travellers or gipsies are in an area, a proper camp where they can pay their way is provided. That could be done under the Caravan Sites Act 1968.
If the Government's solution would make matters better, I would welcome it, but I see nothing in their proposals that would achieve that. Stoke-on- Trent has already seen 33 illegal encampments this year. The Government's proposals would double that number next year.