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Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would advise me whether he agrees that an authorised site, wherever it is, should therefore be used by those travellers.

Mr. Loughton: There is scope for using authorised sites. There may be a lack of authorised sites in some cases; that is an entirely different matter, and the hon. Gentleman, who represents a neighbouring constituency, well knows the problems. His own council has been confronted by enormous difficulties in disposing of travellers. I shall mention that a little later, if he will bear with me.

There is evidence to suggest that centrally organised traveller groups are specifically targeting council-owned derelict land for their illegal encampments, now making it easier for them, as the Minister put it in an Adjournment debate,

Certainly an unusually large quantity of these travellers seem to have had some advice bordering on training from a co-operative establishment in the Tunbridge Wells area.

In our legal system, a defendant is innocent until proved guilty. In current practice, though, it appears that the unwitting victim of traveller occupation--be it a local authority or private landowner--must bear the burden of proof in order to refute the charge that they have no formal plan for use of their land. It is almost as though to snatch and occupy confers a right of tenure on the traveller until the owner negotiates a lengthy and costly series of legal hoops to prove otherwise. That cannot be right, and was certainly not what the 1994 Act was intended to achieve.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)--who has joined us and is now sitting on the Front Bench--in an Adjournment debate that he initiated on this subject last year argued that the 1994 Act could be used more often than it is. Specifically, he contended that the police can take direct action against trespassing travellers without the need for additional legal proceedings. That is as it may be, but it is simply not happening. The Government need to consider further legislation to define and streamline local authorities' powers more clearly.

I am no lawyer, and the Government need to produce detailed proposals of their own. However, as long ago as November 1997, I did ask the Minister to consider amending section 77(3)(b) of the 1994 Act to make it a criminal offence for travellers, having been evicted, to return to any land in the same district within three months. That would help to prevent the farce of travellers who have been taken off a site nipping across the road to another site and setting up another encampment--which starts the legal clock running again.

I also asked whether the Minister would consider amending the 1994 Act to enable agents acting for local authorities to confiscate property belonging to travellers subject to eviction orders, as compensation for damage done to public land and legal costs incurred in securing convictions. Currently there is no practical redress for all the environmental damage, the petty crime and the nuisance factors--the noise, the pollution and the human waste. If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or I had all-night bonfires in our garden, had loud music blaring out at

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3 am, or decided to strew our waste across the pavement or the public highway, the local authority or the police would be down on us like a ton of bricks, and we should rightly be carted off and prosecuted if we did not comply; but it is just not happening.

Even if local authorities can discover who did it, there are few practical means of pursuing the matter through the courts. I think that it is necessary, therefore, to have general powers of confiscation over entire camps without having to prove which individual caused the most noise or dumped the most rubbish on the public highway. There is also scope to use the lever of social security benefits to secure more considerate and compliant behaviour on the part of the travellers drawing on those benefits. I would like to see greater use made of public order offence legislation at the outset, before an encampment escalates. That is another possible avenue for the Government to explore.

The system needs to be streamlined and the relevant legal processes need to be fast-tracked. The Government need to take a lead, and I fear that at present they are abdicating responsibility for doing so. There are other measures that the Government could take with regard to planning law--for example, making unauthorised development an immediately punishable offence. It is a common practice of certain unsavoury characters, including travellers--this happens in my constituency--to take over an area of agricultural land, either unlawfully or on a short lease, and to turn a green-field site into a breaker's yard of scrap vehicles, some of which they occupy while they provide them with a living, with the maximum disruption and annoyance caused to those living in residential areas nearby.

The Government could address these problems. The deterrent effect of immediate court action would give the police faster powers and serve in no small part to restore some public credibility to the planning system.

In desperation, my constituents have written to the main party leaders and to the Liberal Democrats. They have written to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. The reply from the Home Office stated that if the current legislation is not working, the Government will look closely at changing the law. It is clear that the law is not working. It is not working in Shoreham, nor is it working in Rutland and Melton, Runnymede and Weybridge, Wells and in many other constituencies throughout the country. It is clear that the Government need to act. Much could be done before the introduction of new legislation or amendment to the 1994 Act.

I invite the Minister to admit that that is the position and to give my constituents and those of many other right hon. and hon. Members some comfort by making it clear that the existing highly unacceptable state of affairs will be addressed as a matter of urgency by the Government.

8.23 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I am grateful for the opportunity to add a few words to what my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) has said. The House will be grateful to him for raising this topic because it affects many Members of this place. It is, as he has so vividly described, a scourge on decent people who find their decent lives interrupted and intruded upon by these so-called travellers.

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My constituency has proved particularly vulnerableto these people. For months now, on the Leicestershire-Lincolnshire border, near Buckminster and Skillington, an encampment of travellers has caused no end of upset to those who live nearby. Likewise, in Rutland, at Barrowden and Belton, and elsewhere, this situation is a recurring problem. It has caused many difficulties for farmers and villagers going about their lawful business.

If I solve the problem in my constituency by persuading the police to move on the travellers, it is not much of a solution if they merely move on to the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who has to take on the same problem and find somewhere else to move them on to. They are pretty grubby people. Their dogs terrorise sheep. As my hon. Friend has described, their sanitation is disgusting. They frighten and threaten people in otherwise peaceful villages. They have the gall to drive along country lanes carrying, on the back of lorries, hydraulic equipment that is designed for no other purpose than to rip up fence posts so that they can invade private property and pitch their tents, as it were, where they should not.

We are not talking about folksy gypsy types. They are revolting vagabonds who seem to give nothing to society and demand everything from it. They stay for weeks, even months, and are very intimidating to the communities that they invade.

It is clear that they know how to use the law. They are not stumbling and bumbling their way from one village to another. They know exactly what to do to get round the law so that they can stay put. It seems that the police do not enforce the powers that they have, or are reluctant to do so. I shall be grateful if the Minister will tell us what guidelines and clear instructions he might have given to the police to ensure that where the law exists it is properly enforced.

Knowing the law as they do, these so-called travellers know how to get social services wrapped round their little finger so that they cannot have an enforcement order put upon them. They simply claim that one little child has a snuffly nose and that there is thus a social services duty that stops them being moved on.

Perhaps the Minister will tell the House the status of social security payments to such people. What is the law governing the compulsory provision of water through standpipes by the local authority? Will the Minister consider the law on congregation? Where there are 10 vehicles, for example, designed for living and illegally parked on private or public property, causing a nuisance around them, perhaps the law can be strengthened so that the police have power to move them on.

This is a continuing problem. The way the law is being implemented, if not the law itself, seems inadequate to solve the legitimate concerns of people in my constituency, as in many others. I hope that the Minister can give me some satisfaction in his response this evening.

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