|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): South Derbyshire is a largely rural district to the south and west of Derby. It is increasingly well connected to the road network, with the A50 Stoke-Derby link running across the constituency and with the M1 to the east. It features in many routes through the midlands. It is thus an increasingly attractive stopping point for travellers.
My concern today is the impact that illegal occupation of sites by travellers and those who claim to be travellers has on the perception and reality of local law enforcement. My constituency has faced regular occupations during the past three years. There have been several occupations of Highways Agency property in the Foston area. In Findern, the village where I live, there was a lengthy occupation of a site whose owner was unknown, which made proceedings difficult. Last summer, the common at Church Gresley, a heavily populated area on the edge of Swadlincote, was occupied by 22 caravans, legitimate users were threatened and sports pitches were made unusable. When the occupiers left, the council spent £2,500 of taxpayers' money clearing the common.
Recently, land on the edge of Willington was occupied. When it was abandoned, the scene resembled a war zone full of abandoned, burnt-out cars. The Highways Agency cleared the site at public expense and introduced expensive security measures to prevent a repetition.
There have been many short-term incursions, some of which have caused little concern. Since 1994, the district council alone has had to obtain in all 44 court orders for possession. The onus in each case of which I am aware was on the site owners to obtain possession orders and eventually to enforce them, except that of the land at Findern, where the district council sought an order as no owner was forthcoming. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that other landowners in the area--especially the Highways Agency, which has suffered greatly--have had to take out many court orders.
Police action has been limited to observation, vehicle checks and assistance with serving the orders, apart from taking action concerning one stolen vehicle, to which I shall refer later. On no occasion was section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 used, under which the police are allowed to direct occupiers to leave a site if more than six caravans are involved, threatening behaviour has been used or damage is evident. On only one occasion has any attempt been made to recover the cost of damage and waste disposal.
From my questions to the Government, it seems that powers available under section 59(8) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 reserved for this purpose are seldom used. It is, perhaps, a comment on those powers that they are not even referred to in the guidance issued in 1998 on the management of illegal occupations.
Derbyshire county council and South Derbyshire district council have attempted to meet the needs of those who choose a itinerant way of life. There is an 18-pitch site for long-term occupation at Foston and another eight pitches for short-term use at Lullington. The sites cause no local concerns and are well managed. Those using
What, then, is the impact of the apparent abuse of an area's hospitality? First, there is the reality of the crime that stems from those occupations. Most cases involve forced entry and criminal damage. In one instance, a stolen lorry was located on site and seized by the police after resistance, including the throwing of bags of urine at officers. There have been reports of threatening behaviour to other legal users of the land. There was sufficient concern about potential public order offences to move a fair, which has historically used adjacent land at Church Gresley. I set aside the unproven claims that are often made of offences against neighbouring property.
As important is the perception of crime. People regard the occupation of someone else's land by force as a crime. They would expect no support or sympathy from the law enforcement agencies if they chose to enter their neighbour's home or garden by force, threatened the owners and passers-by and left behind waste as they departed. They regard the authorities' apparent powerlessness as indicative of both double standards and weakness. They become angrier still when they find that they must fund the clearance and repair of a site. In a typical year, South Derbyshire district council pays out more than £5,000 for waste disposal from illegal sites.
What should be done? First, we need consistency of police enforcement. That was described fully in the research report that accompanied the 1998 guidance on the subject. It is clear that some police authorities are prepared to use section 61 of the 1994 Act, while others are not. Although one must respect local determination of operational priorities, wide variations in practice cause problems. If one force chooses to use section 61 with vigour while another uses restraint, the word soon gets around, and travellers with ill intent are drawn to the more welcoming legal environment. There is already anecdotal evidence that that happens in Derbyshire, where the powers are seldom, if ever, used.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Does my hon. Friend accept that, even when authorities use section 61, there is the problem that travellers who have caused a nuisance can just move down the road, creating a problem a little further on? Has consideration been given in his area to using order 113 through the High Court, which Swindon borough council uses? It allows the council to move travellers who have caused a nuisance out of all borough council-owned land.
Secondly, the provision of legal sites needs to be recognised and encouraged. If a site is available, there should be an expectation and a legal obligation that it will be used. It should be possible for an authority to demand the removal of illegal occupiers to such a site while any necessary social investigations are conducted. Currently, investigations are required before a move is made. If an alternative legal site is available, I see no reason why the campers should not be moved to that site while
Thirdly, it should be possible to prevent illegal occupiers from simply moving to a neighbouring site following a court order. That has happened frequently in south Derbyshire, with one group moving several times in Foston to alternative sites, once possession had been granted on the one that they were occupying.
Fourthly, it should be possible to prevent any illegal occupation of a site once possession has been granted, rather than merely preventing occupation by those against whom the order has been physically served. A major problem is the later arrival on site of others who have not had an order served on them but who are then required to face an order, delaying their eventual removal. Latecomers drawn to the site should be covered by the same order.
Finally, ways should be explored that would allow recovery of the costs of repair and waste disposal from those responsible. It has been suggested--the guidance notes suggest this--that skips and toilets be provided at public expense for illegal occupiers. Does that not give legitimacy to what they do? I hesitate to suggest on-the-spot fines, and anyway cash machines are scarce in my area, but I cannot believe that it is beyond our art to devise mechanisms that offer a genuine and realistic threat of cost recovery from those involved.
The taxpayers whom I represent are happy to offer hospitality to travellers, substantially at local taxpayers' expense, but a right to choose that way of life carries an obligation to behave in a way that meets other people's reasonable norms. We also expect consistency from the police and appropriate action when the law appears to be being broken. If those expectations are not met, that willingness to offer facilities at local cost is threatened. It is hard to see how one can sustain that commitment if there appears to be no local advantage in the provision of such sites. More importantly, respect for law enforcement agencies is also jeopardised.
I hope that the Minister, in his response, will set out how the Government can meet the concerns that I have expressed on behalf of many residents of South Derbyshire who are frustrated by the current position.