Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 88)(HC 305) on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken by Beacon Councils

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Mr. Moss: The Minister still has not answered my question. Does one have to be a gypsy to occupy one of these sites, or can travellers also do so? What is the definition of gypsy in that context?

Dr. Whitehead: The expression ``local authority'' is easy to understand. The original legislation defines gypsies as

    ``persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin, but does not include members of an organised group of travelling showmen, or of persons engaged in travelling circuses, travelling together as such''.

That definition does not exclude all people who are not of Romany origin, or might not be regarded as ``ethnically a gypsy'', but who are staying at a site because they lead a nomadic life: it includes a wide range of people who might be described as gypsies or as travelling people, but it excludes organised groups who might wish to use a site because they are engaged in activities that involves their temporarily travelling around the country.

As I have emphasised, special grant report No. 81 deals specifically concerned with the first year of support for the refurbishment of local authority sites, and the amounts payable to local authorities for the current financial year are listed in annexe A. Substantial sums are involved: for example, five authorities will receive more than £250,000. Annexe A also sets out the manner in which the amount of grant to be paid to each local authority is to be calculated. Annexe B details the main features of the grant, including the criteria by which the competition bids were judged. Annexe C describes the conditions for the payment of grants, which include the requirement for local authorities to provide monitoring reports.

The special grant that is the subject of report No. 81 represents a variety of bright and workable projects by local authorities throughout the country to refurbish their gypsy sites. Those projects will prove their worth over the coming years, and they will encourage other authorities to adopt similar ideas. Therefore, I commend the report.

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Mr. Moss: Mr. Benton, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship once again.

I agree with the principle behind beacon councils, but the scheme in practice has turned out to be expensive, inefficient and, above all, time consuming. In a question to the Minister, I raised the example of Brent council. It employed a highly-paid, full-time officer for an entire year to work on its application for beacon council status, but the application was turned down, not because it lacked merit, but because something happened in Brent's social services department. Presumably, Ministers feared that the public might add two and two together if they were to offer beacon council status to a body that might be criticised in the press for something that was not the responsibility of the department that put in the application.

My party believes that beacon council status undermines council freedom. The Government promised that they would free councils to make their own decisions, but there is increasing feedback that if

a project does not fit a pigeonhole in the Government's thinking, it fails to make the progress that is made by projects that are dear to the Government's heart. That strikes a blow against the independence and freedom of local authorities and of councillors who give up their valuable time.

The evidence shows that the idea of beacon council status has not taken off. The Government's intended their bright idea to go forward, but applications dropped considerably from year 1 to year 2. The Minister did not provide an explanation for that. In fact, after the first wave of applications came in, many were turned down for all sorts of spurious reasons. Councils quickly began to notice that it was a costly exercise—I alluded to Brent, where a highly paid officer was fully engaged on the project for about a year—and that there were no guarantees of success, even with good projects. Furthermore, even when the independent panel set up by the Government said that a project had merit and recommended it for approval, many councils found themselves turned down at the last hurdle by Ministers. That perception has filtered down the line, so it is not surprising that fewer councils applied this year than did so last year. The way things are going, there will be even fewer applications next year.

There seems to be duplication and confusion. The idea of beacon councils merely duplicates the chartermark initiative set up under the last Conservative Government. That scheme had its own best practice dissemination process, so there is nothing new in that. The overlap is highlighted by the fact that Ministers have blocked many of the beacon council recommendations made by the panel: for example, the panel wanted to award beacon status to Merton for its work on drug use by young people; at the same time, the social services inspectorate was warning that Merton's child care services were failing, which shows a lack of communication between the various arms of government. The panel also wanted to reward the council in Barnet for its environment services; at the same time, the Audit Commission was warning that the council's street cleaning and refuse collection services were substandard. Those examples highlight the lack of communication and the overlap within central Government, and raise questions about the independence and reliability of the scheme.

Finally, the scheme risks a further extension of cronyism of various sorts. We are concerned that the scheme will extend Labour party patronage and that beacon status will be used as a prize, given to those councils that are pushing through the Government's centrally driven agenda. In practice, the scheme has achieved little. Given the Labour party's appalling record of waste, mismanagement, incompetence and downright corruption in town halls throughout the country, it is in no position to lecture anyone on what constitutes good local government.

Special grant report No. 81 clearly applies not only to gypsy sites for those who are of Romany extraction and call themselves genuine gypsies, but to all sorts of people who live in caravans and travel around, whom we describe as travellers. Permanent sites are important, and they were set up long ago. We have no problem with the grant aid that the Government are giving to upgrade those sites and make them more habitable and a better environment for those who occupy them. However, the Government must address more than gypsy sites, because there is a whole problem in relation to so-called travellers.

It might help if there were a clearer definition of what constitutes a genuine gypsy, as opposed to other travellers, some of whom use an itinerant way of life as a means of staying one step ahead of the law. Gypsies and most travelling people lead law-abiding and respectful lives; most live in harmony with their local communities. However, a small minority of travellers are not so considerate, as we know from legions of stories of difficulties throughout the country. In my county, Cambridgeshire, so-called travellers cause severe problems of illegal trespass by occupying unauthorised sites. Currently, the law is on the side of those who break it rather than on the side of the law-abiding citizen.

The Government have made some moves in the right direction, and I was grateful for the Minister's confirmation of his Department's recent announcement. However, what we need is not announcements and promises, but hard and concrete action in law to strengthen the legal framework so that we can quickly move such people on and ensure that having been moved on, they cannot return to the same site or to one close by, or ring up the travelling group around the corner to tell it to come and occupy the site that they have moved off. That happens all the time and is a serious problem.

Mr. McWalter: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that his Government's failure over many years to introduce site designation created much of the problem? Paragraph 2 of annexe B states:

    ``The emphasis is now on encouraging Gypsies to provide sites for themselves''.

That is clearly much less satisfactory than gypsies having sites provided for them so that they can move freely between areas without inconvenience to communities.

Mr. Moss: There is no difference between a permanent site provided by a local authority and a permanent site for which an individual traveller or gypsy applies to put his caravan. The site is permanent, not temporarily occupied. My rural constituency has increasing problems relating to travellers who apply to put, say, six caravans on a plot of land. The planning objections from the local community are enormous—and rightly so, because of the problems experienced with travellers sites throughout Cambridgeshire, and near Peterborough and Cambridge itself. The steady

stream of information in the newspapers about problems with unauthorised sites causes communities to repel sensible applications on the part of one or two travellers to settle permanently on land that they have acquired.

I do not believe that to be the solution, although I recognise that it may be a way forward. The Conservative Government had a policy of designated sites, but, to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, we did not follow it through and make it mandatory. In addition, we did not insist that those who had provided a site should be free of unauthorised encampments. We had that problem in Cambridgeshire: although we provided sites, neighbouring councils that I shall not name did not, so despite our designated sites, the itinerant problem continued.

We admit to the fault of not having forced through laws that were on the side of those who had designated sites to ensure that travellers with illegal encampments were moved on quickly. The problem has not been solved, and it needs solving, because it is getting worse. The Government are, rightly, putting money into permanent sites that need refurbishment, but they must tackle the bigger problem on the horizon and strengthen the law. In many cases, albeit not all, the law-abiding citizen and the local community bear the burden, because the law is inadequate to ensure that travellers can be moved on quickly.

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