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Ms Stuart: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and am delighted that--by the looks of it--they missed.

I stress that I take traveller welfare issues extremely seriously. I am not dealing with those issues more explicitly in this debate because of time limitations and the fact that I want to deal with co-ordinated action.

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The Crime and Disorder Bill provides us with a unique opportunity--it imposes a duty on local authorities--with police, to make provision for safe communities. I should like the plans to include specific proposals to deal with illegal encampments and to state who will be responsible. Who does one telephone on a Saturday afternoon? Who will man the telephone lines? As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said, it is entirely unacceptable that--as happened last year--a city council does not start until the Tuesday morning following a bank holiday to deal with an encampment that started the previous Friday. The Crime and Disorder Bill's safer community strategy will provide us with power to take immediate action.

We should establish a communication system so that people know there is a hotline and who to telephone if they see encampments on the move. They should be clear about whether police or the local authority are responsible for reacting to reports. We need fast and reliable information.

The public have a role to play not only in providing information but in taking some responsibility for the problem. It is no good complaining one week about cowboy traders but using those traders the next week to fix the driveway. There is some inconsistency in behaviour which will have to be resolved. We will have to make it clear to people that a natural consequence of using cowboy traders is that those traders will be attracted to an area.

I should like other agencies to be involved in the matter much more swiftly and with much greater co-ordination. I expect those who do business from open sites to pay tax. I therefore expect the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Benefits Agency to take some interest in such trading. The action should be co-ordinated--even at the risk of stoning--and possibly include police.

Illegal encampments are a local problem with national implications. I urge the Minister to assess the various local strategies to develop a national strategy. We need agreed and enforceable protocols. We cannot continue with the current arrangements whereby responsibility is shifted from one agency to another. At the end of the day our residents suffer and, to add insult to injury, they are also left to pick up the bill.

12.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing a debate on a subject that I know is of very great concern to her, to many of my hon. Friends who are here today and to residents and businesses in her constituency. I fully take on board the concerns that have been voiced about the particular problems experienced in the west midlands.

We do not underestimate what an appalling nuisance unauthorised encampments can be. I and my ministerial colleagues have met a number of local authorities and hon. Members to discuss the issue, and it is not surprising that correspondence about it continues to feature heavily in my postbag. We liaise regularly with our colleagues in the Home Office, who have responsibility for police powers to deal with trespass on land and with criminal activity, whether by gipsies or by anyone else.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): On that very point, perhaps the Minister or his colleagues in the Home

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Office will be able clarify a matter that I am raising on behalf of the Country Landowners Association, of which I am a member. Can the Minister confirm that the Wealden case did not apply to section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but only to section 77, which applies to local authorities, and that therefore the police can take action even though the landowner concerned may not have taken civil action first? I appreciate that it is a highly technical point and I should be grateful if the Minister would respond by correspondence in due course.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman recognises, he has raised a highly complex issue and, rather than give a brief response on a matter of which I have had no prior notice, I would prefer to write to him and I undertake to do so.

On a more positive note, however, our latest biannual count of gipsy caravans shows the lowest number ever on unauthorised sites. For the first time the figure has fallen to below 20 per cent. of the recorded number of caravans, compared with 50 per cent. when the counts began almost 20 years ago. Some of those vans will be on sites that are tolerated, even without planning permission. The remaining 80 per cent. of caravans are on local authority or authorised private sites.

Before moving on to talk about what the Government are doing to tackle the problem of unauthorised camping, let me make it clear that we recognise that not all gipsies and travellers cause problems. The Government have no quarrel with those who pursue a nomadic way of life. Many gipsies are keen to follow their travelling way of life in peace and are keen to provide sites for themselves or to secure places on authorised sites. In addition to meeting those concerned about unauthorised camping, I have met several groups representing gipsy and traveller interests to gain their perspective on a travelling way of life.

As I have said, it is clear from our biannual count of gipsy caravans that there is a persistent problem with unauthorised camping in the Birmingham area, and I understand the wishes of my hon. Friend's constituents to have something done about it. I understand that she has put forward proposals to the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) for changes to the law that her local authority considers would enable it and the police to deal more effectively with unauthorised camping.

Of course, it is for my hon. Friend the Minister of State the Member for to respond in detail to those proposals. I understand that he is to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston to discuss the matter further. He has certainly made it clear that he will do so.

In the meantime, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Home Department is deeply concerned about the disruption and misery that can be caused by unauthorised encampments. The police have a wide discretion under sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to remove people who trespass with a view to taking up residence. Enforcement of the law is the responsibility of chief police officers. The Government urge them to use their powers in relation to trespass whenever appropriate. The law makes no

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distinction between travellers and anyone else, and applies to anyone who acts in a way which society finds unacceptable.

Mr. White: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is often easier for police and local authorities to negotiate travellers to move on than it is to use the powers that are available to them, and that that is part of the problem?

Mr. Raynsford: I shall come to the specific procedures in a moment, but I wanted to make it absolutely clear that the police have powers to remove people. There is no question about that.

The Government are under no illusion about the nuisance associated with many unauthorised encampments. If there is evidence of criminal activity on an unauthorised site, of course it is right that the police should deal with that as they see fit, just as they would with members of the settled community.

I have seen the proposals for changes in the law to which my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston has referred, and I have given some thought to the policy issues relevant to my Department, in particular the proposals that affect local authorities. The proposals appear to envisage a return to the position in part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which is now repealed, which placed a legal duty on local authorities to provide sites for gipsies, as then defined. Once a local authority had provided adequate sites, or the Secretary of State had deemed it not necessary or expedient for them do so, the authority's area could be designated by the Secretary of State as an area where gipsies camping on certain categories of land were committing an offence.

The provisions in the 1968 Act resulted in a good number of sites being provided by local authorities, and there is a network of well over 300 sites providing some 5,200 pitches for gipsy families. We want those sites to remain open and available for gipsies to use if they wish. They should also be properly managed. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston referred to that important issue. I understand that one site in Birmingham can accommodate up to 15 caravans and that the last five biannual counts indicate that there may be vacancies on it. That may be associated with the management difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred.

However, the overriding demand from gipsies is for sites owned and managed by gipsies themselves. That came across very strongly in the meetings I had with gipsy representatives. The proportion of vans on privately owned sites has more than doubled in the past 20 years, but, in the same time, the number of vans on local authority sites has increased by only a third. The January 1998 count revealed that a new privately owned site, with planning permission, has emerged in the Birmingham area, which in January was accommodating five caravans.


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