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8.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on securing a debate on unauthorised camping, which is

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clearly an issue of major concern in his constituency, as it is in many others, including that of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan).

We do not underestimate what a nuisance such encampments can be, particularly when they involve many travellers, as I understand is the case at the Ropetackle site. I hope that after he has heard my response, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will be reassured that the Government take the issue seriously, and that he will recognise our efforts to ensure that local authorities and the police have effective joint policies in place to deal with unauthorised camping. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, contrary to what he claims, the Government have not by any means abrogated responsibility for this issue. We have taken action and we have been diligent in pursuing policies to try to ensure that there are effective provisions in place to deal with what everyone recognises is a serious problem that requires a serious and thorough response.

I understand that Adur district council has been working in partnership with the newly formed South East regional development agency--SERDA--on proposals for the development of the Ropetackle site. The development of community facilities, housing and leisure facilities, in accordance with the views of local people in Shoreham, is a positive and much needed step forward for the site, which I understand has been in a poor and partially derelict condition for some 25 years, its only recent uses being as a council depot and sewage pumping station. No one can be satisfied that the site was left in such a state for such a long time, and I am delighted to know that there are now proposals to bring it into use.

The regional development agencies have a key role in promoting sustainable development and addressing the needs of social and physical regeneration in the regions. It is clear that the fruits of that partnership, which was initiated, as we heard, under English Partnerships, before SERDA came into existence, are coming together in a positive way. I am delighted that SERDA is taking such a proactive role in the regeneration of that run-down area. I can well imagine the frustration and anger that have been generated in the locality by the continued trespass of a large number of travellers on such an important site.

It is precisely because of concern expressed by local authorities about how they deal with such encampments that my Department, working with the Home Office, produced joint good practice guidance for local authorities and the police to manage unauthorised camping. The good practice, which is based largely on research carried out for our Department by the university of Birmingham, draws on the real, often hard won, experience of local authorities and police forces in managing such issues in various parts of the country.

We published the good practice last October, after consulting a wide range of interested groups, including local authorities, gypsy and traveller representatives and land-owning bodies. The good practice has been welcomed as a positive and innovative step in managing what can be a highly emotive issue locally.

We have considered carefully whether we should amend the existing local authority powers in sections 77 to 79 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with unauthorised camping, and we have concluded that that would be counter-productive. There

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are no obvious, easy solutions to unauthorised camping and no short cuts. If there were, they would have been found long before now.

Recent case law has confirmed that local authorities must balance the nuisance caused by an encampment against the needs of the campers concerned. Local authorities that do not adopt such an approach are likely to find their actions challenged successfully in the courts. Consequently, we have no plans to make changes to the 1994 Act powers or to make unauthorised camping a criminal offence. To do so could well bring the UK Government into conflict with both the domestic and the European courts.

Mr. Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he say specifically why he is not prepared to amend the 1994 Act with regard to successfully evicted travellers who return to the same district? It has happened in my constituency and, I am sure, in many others, that an eviction order is at last successfully executed, yet the same travellers turn up a few hundred yards down the road on an alternative site, and the whole process has to start again.

Mr. Raynsford: I accept that that problem can arise, but the powers do not prevent the local authority from taking further action on a second site, nor do they prevent the police, who have powers under section 61, to which the hon. Gentleman also referred, from taking action where there is a nuisance. Powers exist, and the correct question is how they are used to ensure the outcome that we all regard as necessary. We do not wish to encourage local authorities to act in a way that would bring them into conflict with the courts in this country and possibly the European courts. That would be counter-productive, for the reasons that I have given.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) rose--

Mr. Raynsford: I give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. May I make it clear that there is no activity from the Opposition Front Bench during an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Garnier: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. and learned Gentleman has made a rapid move from the Front Bench to the Back Bench. On this occasion I shall give way to him, because I know that as a constituency Member he has taken an interest in the subject and has had an Adjournment debate on it.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful for the Minister's forbearance. The Conservative party is moving all over the place at present. The Minister kindly acknowledged my contribution to the debates in the House in July 1997. Much of what he is now saying I heard in July 1997 at about 10.22 pm. He referred a few moments ago to the correct question, but he did not go on to answer it. Will he now answer his own correct question?

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Mr. Raynsford: I am trying to do that, but as the hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise, I have a little progress to make. This evening's debate began almost half an hour ago, and I hope that we will complete it slightly earlier than 10.22 pm.

We believe that in a properly inclusive society, people who legitimately wish to adopt a travelling life style should be free to do so. However, the right to adopt such a life style does not bring with it licence. It brings with it responsibilities towards the settled community. We recognise that there are occasions when it is simply not possible for travellers' presence to be tolerated because they do not accept those responsibilities and do not behave in a way that is compatible with the normal decencies of civilised life, which all of us wish to uphold. From everything that has been said, I am well aware that that is an issue in Shoreham.

The concept of toleration in the context of unauthorised camping has caused some controversy and has wrongly been interpreted as meaning that the Government want local authorities to tolerate the anti-social and sometimes criminal behaviour that can accompany some unauthorised encampments. That is emphatically not what we mean by toleration. Nor is toleration something that was invented for the good practice guidance.

Government advice to local authorities has, for many years, advocated that gypsies who are camped on council land and who are not causing a nuisance should be tolerated wherever possible. Providing basic facilities such as skips, drinking water and toilets may minimise nuisance. Forced eviction, on the other hand, could result in campers moving to a more unsuitable site, whether on public or private land. That is particularly true in those areas where there is little or no site provision and thus nowhere where gypsies could camp with permission.

The good practice guidance simply reflects what has been found to be successful, through detailed examination of the way that local authorities deal with unauthorised camping. Toleration can be a pragmatic option for dealing with a short-term encampment, particularly where the level of nuisance is low or non-existent. That does not imply toleration of people who are behaving anti-socially and causing nuisance. Gypsies or travellers who indulge in anti-social or even criminal behaviour are not above the law; they are subject to exactly the same penalties as anyone in the settled community.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires local authorities and the police to develop local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and to work together to reduce particular problems of crime and disorder in their areas. If anti-social or criminal behaviour associated with unauthorised encampments has been identified, we would expect local crime and disorder reduction strategies to encompass measures to deal with it.

Turning to the particular encampment described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, I understand that a hearing has been fixed in the High Court for Tuesday 18 May to consider the council's application for repossession of the land. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for me to express any view on the actions taken by the council in this instance, but, in advance of the court hearing, I find it difficult to accept his claim that the 1994 Act is not working.

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I understand that the fact of the case, as set out by the council in a series of news releases, is that it gave notice to the travellers camped on the Ropetackle site that it would take legal action to evict them if they did not leave the site within seven days. The travellers did not leave, and the council commenced proceedings in the High Court to regain possession of its land shortly after those seven days expired. The case will be heard on 18 May, within a month of the action being initiated.

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