|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Corbyn: The Minister's arguments were utterly illogical. Anyone outside the House listening would consider them complete nonsense. He spoke of a natural increase in the gipsy population and in the same breath said that he would deal with the problem--as he referred to it--by removing the requirement on local authorities to provide sites, saying that it should all be done by their private enterprise. Conservative Members also demonstrated with great clarity that they do not want caravan sites anywhere near their communities. What the Minister is doing in his silver- tongued way is presenting the worst face of intolerance of the Tory party; saying that we do not want these sites anywhere, that we do not want a travelling community, that we do not want or believe in a society that encompasses different ways of life from the ones that they understand.
The Minister should recognise that those people, the families, children and so on, who are pushed from illegal site to illegal site and are due to become criminals as a result under this disgusting piece of legislation, suffer a great deal. Their children suffer illnesses. Their infant mortality rate is higher--a large number of their babies die. They suffer educationally. They suffer a great deal of shunning and prejudice in our society. If we believe in a reasoned society, in respecting other ways of life, we should do something about it other than removing the Caravan Sites Act 1968. The man who introduced that Act, Norman Dodds, a former Member of the House, fought all his life for the rights of travelling communities. He was a very brave person. He stood up against a great deal of prejudice himself and got that piece of legislation through.
Conservative Members decry the Act as a complete failure. I am not so sure that it is. It meant that many people had somewhere safe to live and ended the horrible practice of people being driven off land and from one place to another. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) shared an experience with me. Both of us are former councillors. Both of us have been involved in the provision of sites. I was chair of the planning committee in the borough of Haringey and was asked to sign-- [Interruption.] Hon. Members should listen.
I was asked, as chair of the planning committee, to sign a number of eviction orders for unauthorised campers on council land. I discovered that not only did the council not provide any authorised caravan sites, but that it had no plans to do so. I also detected that there was very
Column 371little wish to do so among certain officers of the authority, although that was not universal. It became clear to me that we had a moral obligation to fulfil sections of the Act. We were also facing, in the longer term, a legal obligation to do so under the 1984 High Court judgment, which came up some time later. Haringey provided sites--not while I was a member of the council, but shortly afterwards. Just to show its faith, it provided one of them in the car park alongside the civic centre, so nobody could say that councillors were running away from that issue.
The provision meant that there was a reduction in, if not an end to, unauthorised camping in the borough. It also meant that there was a sense of sanity. There were some possibilities of education and a higher standard of public health care for the people who were living on those sites. If we believe in living in a reasoned and decent society, we should accept the need for the provision of such sites. The Minister is sending out a very loud signal--no-go for travellers; no-go for Romanies; no-go for gipsies in our society: criminalise those who try to live that kind of life style.
The Minister should also be aware that the European Court has looked rather askance at the treatment of Lapps in other parts of Europe. Indeed, the blind prejudice that exists against travelling communities is a shame and should be treated as such. I believe that the provision of sites has been an important step forward. We should retain the Act. We should retain the 100 per cent. capital provision. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, who said that there are revenue implications that have not been met by the Department of the Environment, and that they should be. It is difficult for hon. Members to get up and say, "I support travellers", because people always come up with all sorts of reasons why they should not. I merely ask hon. Members to consider the implications of doing otherwise. Do we really want to move into the kind of society that sets the mob against those who choose to live a different life style? Do we really want to unleash the horrors of prejudice against those people? I believe that the signal from the Bill is an attempt to criminalise the people who lead that life style. There is enormous opposition to many sections of the Bill throughout society, because people recognise that the Bill is based on prejudice. This clause is the ultimate clause based on prejudice.
I very much hope that, limited though the Lords amendments are in this respect, we could at least understand the motive behind them and perhaps agree with them as a way of preserving the continued provision by local authorities of sites for travellers, which would at least send a signal through our society that there is real tolerance of those who wish to lead different life styles, rather than the kind of intolerance that has been demonstrated, mainly by Conservative Members, in the debate.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood): I agree with the Government that something had to be done about the kind of problem that has affected my constituents in the past two years, which is caused not by people whom
Column 372I would term gipsies or travellers--new age or old age--but by people whom I would frankly call scavengers. They live in large caravans; they have large cars and large and expensive dogs. What they have done to the community of south Staffordshire has to be seen to be believed. I have seen it, and I believe it.
My constituents ask what they can do to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen. People have even occupied the bowling green surrounding the social welfare club belonging to a pit that the Government have just closed: having ruined the green, they burnt down the social club. Such serious problems need a serious solution, but I worry about the extent of the powers taken in this part of the Bill. I worry about their blanket nature, and about the absence of tests of nuisance.
I accept that there is a problem, which the Government had to tackle. As their lordships have said, however, the Government should think further. They have tackled half the problem--they have made it easier for local authorities to take the necessary action--but they have done nothing to provide sites for the people who are causing the problem.
Let me issue a warning. We have had a system of permissive designation: that is the root of the problem--not designation itself, but the limited, partial, fragmented take-up. It has been possible to say that the problem lies with local authorities that have not made provision for the people whom we are discussing, but from now on it will not be possible for the Government or anyone else to say that. The Government have now removed the obligation to provide sites of any kind, and have simply said that they will trust to the market and the planning system. We know that that has not worked in the past, and will not work in this instance.
The House of Lords has said, sensibly in my view, "We know that there is a problem, and we have taken action, quite properly, to make removal of unauthorised campers easier." That is good, but the House of Lords has done nothing to deal with the problem of unauthorised camping itself. The Government should take five years to think about the problem. They should approach it sensibly, or removal will be followed by endless shunting around my constituency and others like it. No longer will it be the fault of local authorities, if it is now; it will be the Government's fault.
Mr. Robert B. Jones: This has been an interesting debate, in which a variety of views have been expressed on a rather contentious subject. Some of those views have been contradictory, but important contributions have been made. It was a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) speak on behalf of the Opposition: as he said, we served together on the Select Committee for some years. I remind him that we spent a fair amount of time considering precisely this subject; indeed, I spent so much time on the subject of gipsies that, when we presented our report to the House, my then hon. Friend Sir Hugh Rossi asked me to lead for the Committee. I am therefore not unfamiliar with the subject, and with the problems that have arisen over many years.
The 1968 Act has failed. It has not been a complete failure, but it has failed to solve the problem of unauthorised caravans owned by Romanies. The Select Committee expressed that view strongly. Therefore, for me to come to the House and argue this point is entirely consistent with those anxieties.
Column 3739.45 pm
Having identified the problems that have arisen with the 1968 Act, it is absurd for the hon. Member for Burnley to argue for further delay. Further delay would simply add to the problem and we would be five years further down the line. Whether "five more years" is a slogan from the hon. Member for Burnley or from one of his hon. Friends, it does nothing to address the circularity of the argument. Local authorities have failed. We cannot simply turn round and say that they are likely to succeed if they have another five years. There is a structural fault in the legislation and in the approach of local authorities in general.
I agree with the hon. Member for Burnley on some of his specific points. I agree that smaller sites would be sensible because that would cause fewer problems internally among the Romanies as well as with the local community. I agree that we do not want to see sites in locations that would be bad for either the Romanies or the local community. I think that we sometimes forget that about 50 or 60 per cent of Romanies already live in houses. I repeat for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and others that the Government have no intention of forcing into houses those who have opted for this life style. That is not realistic or desirable.
What underlies the Government's attitude is fundamentally our traditional approach of diversity and choice. We have diversity because we have some sites in the public sector and some in the private sector. Some 46 per cent. are on public sector sites and 24 per cent. on private sector sites and we wish to encourage the numbers on private sector sites through the planning system. That approach is endorsed by the National Gypsy Council, which has an interest in this.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) said that the Government do not want to see more sites. That is contrary to our view. We want to see more sites because we want to tackle the problem and not simply see the continuing backlog mount up. When Liberal Democrats are in opposition in local authorities they may well subscribe to the general principle that there should be more sites. However, as soon as it comes down to individual sites, they are on the other side campaigning against them. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) illustrated that extremely well.
The hon. Member for Newbury referred also to the problem of a lack of proper education for the children of such families. The point of trying to set up more permanent sites in the right locations is to increase the numbers receiving regular schooling. There is no difference of opinion between us on that. The sites are plainly not being delivered on a large enough scale under the present arrangements, and satisfactory provision is more likely in the future.
One or two Opposition Members said that because local authorities have not managed to come up with the right numbers, the Government should do something about it. The Government have used their best endeavours, but we have been advised that where local authorities are acting in good faith, even if they do not come up with the goods, we would not succeed in a mandamus order.
I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) that the debate is about how best to provide the sites. I was not saying that the legislation under which we are currently operating has failed
Column 374completely. It has achieved something, but it is not a long-term solution and that is perfectly obvious from the continuing number of unauthorised caravans. The hon. Gentleman may recall that when Cripps proposed 100 per cent. grants, he thought that that was needed to kick-start the provision of sites by local authorities. It does not seem to have achieved what he envisaged and we are now many years on.
The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to his local authority and to what it had done to provide a site, a point that I thought was undermined by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who went on to say that 33--I think that that was the number that she gave--caravans were occupying illegal pitches. As I understand it, Stoke-on-Trent city council has provided only one site in 24 years. In January 1994, 59 caravans occupied unauthorised sites in Stoke. If the Act has worked as well as the hon. Gentleman suggests, why has Stoke-on-Trent city council, which he praises, not been able to find a solution to the problems of that region?
Mr. Jones: I thought that I had dealt with that point when I spoke about mandamus. The Select Committee made the point on a number of occasions that the Government should be more robust with local authorities that had not come up with the goods. The difficulty is that one can try to induce and to persuade in all sorts of ways, but if local authorities use their best endeavours, honestly go about their work, but still fail, the Government cannot do a lot about it. That is why we are approaching the matter in a different way. I was in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) this weekend, so I can understand the view of Wychavon council, an extremely well-run local authority. He raised the point about the inconsistency, as he saw it, between giving local authorities wider powers and, at the same time, urging Wychavon council not to use them. That is a misunderstanding. We are guiding local authorities to use those powers reasonably and not unreasonably. A local authority such as Wychavon, which has done a great deal to ensure that there are authorised sites, stands a much greater chance of enforcing the new legislation than local authorities that have neglected to provide such sites. However, as my hon. Friend is an eloquent advocate of his constituency's interests, I will consider the guidance to see whether anything further needs to be done to deal with the good authorities that have designation.
Mr. Pike: The Minister is dealing with an extremely important point, which was raised by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff). Those authorities that have designation believe that they will lose out as a result of what is being agreed today. They have provided authorised sites and they have designation. All that that entails will go if the Bill is passed in its current form.
Column 375has done nothing about providing sites. The existence of wider powers seems to be good, not only for those authorities that are not designated, but for those that are.
Mr. Jones: If the hon. Lady does not mind, I shall not give way because I want to deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who expressed some pride that he had dealt with this issue when a councillor in the London borough of Haringey, whereas others had ducked it.
We all admire people who stand up for their beliefs in what can be a difficult situation. The hon. Member for Burnley will remember that one of the subjects that came up again and again in the Select Committee--hardly surprising given its chairmanship--was the failure of Haringey to get authorised sites off the ground. The hon. Member for Islington, North says that Haringey achieved that shortly after he left the council. I believe that he left the council in 1983 when he joined the House in the same year as me, but the grant was approved for Haringey sites six months ago. That seems to be rather a long time.
He made a valid general point about not wanting to play to prejudice. That is not what the Government are about, although I have noticed that that is what many local activists are about, particularly those in the Liberal party. We want not to incite prejudice but to achieve something that has eluded successive Governments for a long time-- to get more caravans on to authorised public or private sector sites.
That is what the Bill will achieve and I urge the House to reject the Lords amendments.
Question put , That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:--
The House divided : Ayes 301, Noes 262.
Division No. 309] [9.54 pm
Column 375Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Column 375Booth, Hartley
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Bowden, Sir Andrew
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Bright, Sir Graham
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Column 376Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Durant, Sir Anthony
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Fry, Sir Peter
Gardiner, Sir George
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Grylls, Sir Michael
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hampson, Dr Keith
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Hannam, Sir John
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Hill, James (Southampton Test)