Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Loughton: Of course the facts that the Minister describes are absolutely right, but the bottom line is that it has taken 17 months to initiate that legal action--17 months of misery, anxiety and disruption for my constituents. Does he think it acceptable for such a period to elapse before the legislation should start to come into play, as is the case here?

Mr. Raynsford: I do not know why the local authority did not take action earlier. I am not commenting, and I am not saying that it should or should not have taken action. All I know is that the council's notice to the travellers saying that it would take legal action if they did not leave within seven days was issued on 14 April and its initiation of possession proceedings was announced in a press release on 23 April.

I do not know why action was not taken earlier by the council or why the site was allowed to remain derelict for 25 years. Those are issues on which other people will have to find answers. All I would say is that, in advance of the possession proceedings, which are due to be heard on 18 May, it would be premature to say that the legislation is not working.

I further understand that Adur district council has been working in partnership with the Sussex police on this issue and that the police have used their discretionary powers under section 61 of the 1994 Act, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred, to evict travellers from privately owned land adjacent to the Ropetackle site.

Regular liaison between the police and local authorities and the development of joint protocols clearly setting out respective roles and responsibilities are key messages in our joint practice guidance. The police are obviously key stakeholders in any local strategy for managing unauthorised camping because of their role in the prevention and detection of crime and in maintaining public order. It is vital that local authorities and the police have a clear idea of each other's roles and responsibilities and that they work together to find a solution that suits the particular circumstances of each encampment. That avoids the potential for confusion and for frustration on the part of local residents who may feel that nothing is being done. It also avoids the potential risk of inappropriate action being taken because a blanket approach is being adopted, which may be appropriate in one case but not in another.

Mr. Duncan: The Minister keeps referring to the good practice guidelines, almost as though his guidelines supersede the law. Does he agree that if the law allows the police to take action, that action should be taken, not just permitted to be taken?

Mr. Raynsford: I would not wish to take away from the police operational responsibility for deciding when it

10 May 1999 : Column 94

is appropriate to take that action. It would be inappropriate for Ministers to try to interfere in that way. What I do believe is that it is right that the police should have the powers to take action where they believe that it is appropriate, and that the police should be in close liaison with local authorities to establish the protocols that I have described governing how they will respond in difference circumstances. If there is that understanding, it is possible for both the police and local authorities to respond quickly, to give clear messages to reassure local residents, and to avoid confusion about who is using the available powers, how they are proceeding and any other relevant matters that need to be covered. As I said, regular liaison between the police and local authorities is vital if the policy is to work successfully.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office is hosting a series of regional seminars, primarily for police and local authority representatives, which are aimed at promoting better joint working between the police and local authorities in managing unauthorised camping, particularly where criminal or anti-social behaviour is associated with the encampment. He has made it clear that he expects police powers to remove trespassers to be used at an early stage, where necessary. I hope that that gives the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton the reassurance that he seeks. We are clear that the police should use their powers where they consider it appropriate to do so.

It is for local authorities, working with all the relevant agencies, including the police, to develop policies for managing unauthorised camping which best suit local circumstances. In doing so, they will be taking into account existing circular advice, case law and the joint DETR-Home Office good practice guidance. Local authorities need to ensure that they can convince the courts that eviction is necessary and justified, given the circumstances of each case. We want all local authorities to take a fresh look at their policies on unauthorised camping in the light of the good practice guidance, and I hope that Adur district council is taking that opportunity.

Eviction of a large number of travellers inevitably raises the question of where they will go when they are evicted. I have much sympathy with local authorities that are faced with such large encampments, which can cause awful problems for local people. It would clearly be unrealistic to expect individual local authorities to be able to offer suitable authorised accommodation to so many people on a long-term basis, although our good practice guidance encourages local authorities to be receptive to the idea of providing sites for travellers, perhaps on council land, where that is feasible and in accordance with local needs. As I said earlier, site provision should be part and parcel of a local authority's overall strategy for managing unauthorised camping.

I appreciate that the provision of sites for travellers is a difficult issue for local authorities to deal with, and that it requires a tremendous level of local political will to get proposals agreed. However, it can be done. I understand that Brighton and Hove council, for example, recently started work on a site for travellers at Horsdean, in line with the advice in our good practice guidance. My Department's circular 1/94 entitled "Gypsy Sites and Planning" makes it clear that local authorities should include policies in their development plans which meet the accommodation needs of gypsies in their areas. It was therefore disappointing to discover that the Adur district plan specifically states that the provision of further sites will not be permitted.

10 May 1999 : Column 95

Nothing in the circular prevents local authorities that have identified a need for sites for other travellers from looking sympathetically at such proposals, and considering whether site provision would be a more pragmatic option than eviction. Brighton and Hove council appears to have done just that.

I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels able to reassure his constituents that the Government take this problem very seriously, that we are committed to ensuring that unauthorised camping can and will be dealt with effectively and sensitively, in line with good practice, and that we are determined that anti-social or criminal behaviour by travellers, or by anyone else, will not be tolerated.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton raised several other issues. He asked whether there were different rules relating to social security benefits. As I did not have notice of his questions, I hope that he will appreciate that I shall have to write to him on those issues to ensure that he has a full and thorough answer. I also hope that he recognises our determination to ensure that people who cause a nuisance to others and whose behaviour is unacceptable do not enjoy the benefit of the tolerance of the agencies of society that ensure that the law is enforced, whoever is involved. Whether they be travellers or members of the settled community, the law applies to all of them. I hope that these policies will work, will continue to be used and will ensure an effective outcome--

Mr. Garnier rose--

Mr. Raynsford: I hesitate, because I was about to finish my speech. I shall resist the good practice guidance that tells me I should sit down, and I shall give way briefly and finally to the hon. and learned Member.

10 May 1999 : Column 96

Mr. Garnier: I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I simply want to draw his attention to the fact that, even under the Labour Government, good things have happened. He and his Home Office colleagues may wish to consider the anti-social behaviour orders in this context.

Mr. Raynsford: I endorse that point. We introduced the concept of anti-social behaviour orders as a means of tackling these problems. We want the police and local authorities to work together. I hope that in Adur district and in other areas, the police and local authorities will consider how to use those powers as an additional weapon. It is not their only weapon, and I have no doubt that Adur district council had good reason for deciding on its course of action. I cannot say more, as the matter is due to be considered in the courts. Anti-social behaviour orders have an important role among the armoury of weapons available for tackling anti-social behaviour, and I am glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman made that point.

We have thoroughly gone through this difficult and controversial issue, which causes a disproportionate amount of anxiety to many people. We must provide policies that achieve a proper balance between effective action to tackle nuisance and a respect for the rights of individuals. People are entitled to a life style that involves movement from one area to another rather than being settled in one area. However, that is no excuse for anti-social behaviour: we will have no truck with that. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that the Government are determined to put effective policies in place to deal with this problem.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page