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Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Does my hon. Friend accept that part of the problem is that the

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Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 means that local authorities have to deal with the problem on an individual basis? Could not part of the solution be a return to a designated area, which might solve some of the problems she has described?

Ms Stuart: I accept my hon. Friend's point and I am grateful to him for raising it.

How much of a problem are illegal encampments? Birmingham city council suggests that the number of encampments is not rising, but the number of complaints is. There is a little sophistry here--if the number of complaints is rising it is because people are getting very tired of the absence of any co-ordinated action. The council also made the point, which I accept, that, as the city has changed and there are now fewer derelict factory sites--which the travellers used to use--travellers have moved to more publicly visible spaces, which has provoked a more open public response.

The council also suggested that, because of public hostility, travellers feel the need to travel in larger groups for security. I accept that, but the travellers are not an homogenous group. People who want to pursue an alternative life style, such as gipsies, may want to travel in larger groups, but cowboy business men do not need to do that.

No evidence from national figures is available. When I raised the issue with the council, it said that when travellers are moved on they simply go to another area and cause the same problems there, which does not resolve the underlying problem. I am reluctant to accept that. We have no national figures that show the true extent of displacement, but I am convinced that a significant section of the transient business community could be discouraged from continuing with the practice.

When travellers descend on public spaces, where do we ask them to go? Birmingham has two properly supervised sites--one run by the local authority, the other private. One is in Castle Vale, the other in Aston. They can accommodate some 20 vans. However, I am far from convinced that the sites are properly managed. At one, internecine disputes between groups of travellers means that the minute one group moves on, warfare breaks out. I understand that the National Gypsy Council tried to intervene. One of my colleagues has told me that some of the travellers are on the electoral register, with the caravan site as their address. That gives a degree of permanency to the sites, which is not what was intended. The sites in Birmingham are not properly used.

When there is an invasion of a public space and the travellers move on after 10 days, at the most, we are left with the bill for clearing up. Birmingham city council has spent £300,000 over the past two years on clearing up such public spaces. That is unacceptable.

I understand that, in the last week of June, 20 caravans were illegally parked--compared with 70 last year. I have some doubts about the comprehensiveness of the figures. Perhaps one reason for this year's figure being slightly lower is the particularly successful police operation at Woodgate Valley country park a few weeks ago. Some 30 caravans were on the move and local residents tipped off the police. When the travellers reached the park, they began to dismantle a wooden fence. The police arrived

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and Inspector Pepper told them that they could either face charges of criminal damage--they had been caught red handed--or they might like to move on. They decided that, on balance, they would like to move on.

What would happen if the police brought criminal damage charges against 30 caravan owners? They have the power to impound some of the vehicles, but if the owners are charged and taken to the police station, the administration is time consuming and bureaucratic and probably will not help in the long run.

Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield): I fully support my hon. Friend's argument and should like to add a further point to the one she has been making. In Hertfordshire, we have similar problems with encampments, which impose substantial costs not only on the police and local councils, but on private individuals. A number of private individuals in my constituency have incurred considerable expense either making security arrangements to stop people encamping on their land or remedying the effects of such encampments. Harassment of many members of the local population when dealing with travellers is another problem. Does my hon. Friend think that that is also a problem in her area?

Ms Stuart: Yes, I can confirm that it is a problem in my area. Some of the remedies that I should like the Minister to consider would address the problems of both private individuals and local authorities. My hon. Friend's intervention was therefore very timely.

Speed--being on the spot almost immediately--is the essence of resolving the problem, as it is almost too late once an encampment has been established. We have to have good co-ordinated action involving a variety of agencies, which must act simultaneously and with one purpose. We also require good local intelligence--perhaps almost as an extension of neighbourhood watch schemes.

We must also not overlook the availability of properly supervised traveller sites. Such provision is essential. It is perhaps a pity that local authorities are no longer under a statutory duty to provide sites. Nevertheless, as I said, I do not accept that lack of sites in Birmingham can be used to justify lack of action. The problem is one of supervision.

Birmingham city council has not entirely ignored the problem, and I give it credit for the advances that it has made. The council has committed £108,000 to secure--as my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) described--five public open spaces that have frequently been used by travellers. Although, unfortunately, all five sites are outside my constituency, I shall certainly continue to press for securing the more vulnerable ones.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): Two of those sites are among about five in my constituency that are regularly abused by itinerants. I hope that the Government's Crime and Disorder Bill--which puts responsibility on councils, in partnership with police and local organisations--will show that partnerships are one way of preventing such illegal trespassing, which is what it is, and finding swifter means, by building local crime action plans, to combat trespassing when it happens.

Ms Stuart: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I very much support his comments.

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Although securing sites by installing concrete bollards, for example, is useful, it is only a delaying tactic.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Although I am aware that my hon. Friend has to finish her speech, I should like to say that one of the sites--Barnes hill--is in my constituency. She will be aware that it is a great tribute to the area's residents that security measures are now being installed there. They co-operated with the local council and me to ensure that scenes of devastation such as she saw in Ley Hill could not happen there. Does she agree that our hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) is right: we need better co-ordination, which must operate both inside and outside working hours? All too often, the system seems to grind to a halt once 5 o'clock comes along.

Ms Stuart: I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right.

Do we--as we are constantly told--require new legislation? Birmingham city council's environmental services committee presented proposals to Birmingham Members and asked us to push for new powers allowing local authorities, once they had made proper provision for alternative sites, to ask police to require travellers to move on to those sites within 48 hours. Although that is a very tempting solution--which should perhaps be pursued with another Minister--I have a difficulty with the proposals because they define a gipsy as a person of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin, but do not include members of an organised group, travelling showmen or persons engaged in travelling circuses who are travelling together as such.

I am worried that such definitions get away from the real problem--anti-social behaviour. We object to such behaviour--by whomever and in pursuit of whatever life style. We have to deal with it.

What can be done? It is a difficult problem and there is no easy solution. Travellers form an extremely diverse community. Very often, that diversity of backgrounds and purposes is used as an excuse for doing nothing. I am no longer prepared to accept that excuse. We have reached a stage at which we often mistake activity for achievement--thinking that we are achieving something by holding yet another meeting to discuss a difficult problem. The time has come to deal with the problem.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): The problem that my hon. Friend is describing exists in the outer conurbation--it certainly exists in south Staffordshire and Cannock Chase. The issue has previously been discussed as it applies to the shires, but the urban aspect of the issue is the pressing one. Although my hon. Friend has discussed some solutions, my meetings with police suggest that only two things are required: moving-on power, to which I should add power to impound vehicles, and the provision of sites. I speak as someone who was stoned by some of the people she has described when trying to make those points to them.


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