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10 Feb 2003 : Column 738—continued


Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with Bills),

Question agreed to.




Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002],

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Question agreed to.

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Illegal Camping

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitzpatrick.]

10.14 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The problem of illegal camping in my constituency is substantial. It affects, typically, two to three communities in South Derbyshire at any one time. At present the local nuisance is concentrated just outside the village of Barrow upon Trent, and also in the area adjacent to Shardlow, at the junction with the A50, close to the border with north-west Leicestershire. However, I have been able to reflect on serious intrusions over the last 18 months to two years in Foston, Willington, Walton upon Trent, Church Gresley, Findern, Stenson, Coton Park, Shelton Lock and Swarkestone. In all those cases people chose to camp on sites owned not by them but by others, and often to leave large amounts of waste to be cleared by either the landowner or a public authority.

The residents of South Derbyshire are fed up to the back teeth with the problem, and seek from the public authorities—I shall deal with the activities of one of those authorities tonight—relief from both the nuisance caused by the campers and the astounding costs of clearing up the waste, which must be borne by public authorities and landowners.

Illegal waste dumping virtually always coincides with the arrival of people who camp illegally. The law is absolutely clear: this is a crime. What startles me regularly is that it is a crime that seems largely unknown to many of the enforcement agencies with which I deal. I have to explain regularly to the local police that it is a crime. In one extraordinary incident, a police officer watched someone cut up a car on Gresley common. When a local resident asked whether that was not an offence, the police officer said, "No; it is his own car, as far as I know. He was sold it by a local resident." The fact is that creating waste in a place that is not licensed for its disposal, which cutting up a car would certainly do, is an offence. I had to explain that to the police, who went away to consult the law before confirming it.

The position, however, is scarcely happier when it comes to the agency that is responsible for enforcing the law. Section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 covers most issues relating to this, and makes it illegal to dump waste on a site that is not licensed for the purpose. The Controlled Waste (Regulation of Carriers and Seizure of Vehicles) regulations 1991 relate to the carriage of waste. Their purpose is to stop people from using any old van or truck to move waste around.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Paragraph 6.2 of the recently produced Government draft guidance on managing unauthorised gypsy and travelling encampments says:

Does not my hon. Friend think that it would be helpful if, rather than just saying that there are creative ways, the Government spelt out those creative ways to try to reduce this nuisance?

Mr. Todd: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is startling that in the consultation on the new protocols

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for dealing with illegal camping the Environment Agency is not mentioned at all. When I asked the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which generated this proposal, whether the Agency should be involved in considering what to do in these instances, I was stunned by the reply "That's a good idea", because no one seemed to have thought of it until now. There is a difficulty in integrating the activities of the various agencies in dealing with this problem.

I turn to one area of doubt in the law relating to the carriage of waste. That is cleared up on the Environment Agency's website, which says:

That deals with a commonplace reason for failure to enforce. I have known Agency inspectors arrive on some of these sites, see waste in the back of a van or truck, ask about the ownership of the van, receive an evasive answer and then wander off, saying "They wouldn't tell me the truth". That is not a legitimate response. It is clear that the carriage of waste in a vehicle not licensed for the purpose is an offence. Indeed, in certain circumstances it can lead to seizure of the vehicle. Yet persuading the Agency to take that tough stance and impound vehicles is very difficult.

I turn briefly to some experiences in my constituency, beginning, because I like to be positive, with some positive experiences.

During the foot and mouth outbreak it was difficult to persuade the Environment Agency to take action against people who were illegally camping. The reason given then was "We can't go on to the land, because we cannot risk spreading foot and mouth." Eventually we beat through that concern with the obvious point that it was not stopping the travellers operating from the sites. A raid was carried out at Swarkestone, with the police, in which a person was caught clearly committing an offence and was prosecuted locally.

As far as I can tell from talking to the Agency officer involved, that was virtually the only prosecution by the Environment Agency of someone illegally camping. There were quite a number of prosecutions—they are on the Agency's website—relating to people who fly-tip, but those are often settled residents, who present rather less trouble in being tracked down. In this instance the Agency managed to prosecute someone who did not live at that location or anywhere near. It did so with some success, and I am grateful.

The second recent experience touches tangentially on the Agency's role. There is a site of appalling squalor at the junction of the A50 and M1 on the boundary of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), a site that has been an unpleasant nuisance to local residents for a considerable time. A person was spotted dumping on the site by an alert police officer. When that person was questioned he declined to give information about who he was. The officer being very determined—I congratulate him on that—took him to court. The fine that was levied was modest, but I commend one step that the magistrates took, which was to demand cash from his pocket before he even left the court, so that he could not feel that he had got away with it.

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Those were the positive steps, but I have examples of the Environment Agency's giving an array of excuses for why it has chosen not to pursue what were clear breaches of environmental law. The first excuse was that people are very rude. Well, that is true. I have visited some of these sites, and such people can be extremely rude. Another excuse, which is produced by one of the local offices in my area, is that there is concern about the health and safety of Environment Agency staff. Also, the people involved are not simply rude; they will not give details of who they are, so action is very difficult to take. However, all of those problems are easily dealt with by arranging a visit in co-operation with the police. If someone declines to give details, that is of course an offence, and the police can take action against that individual. If people are rude, that can also lead to an offence, depending on quite how rude they are. Through such steps, the police and the Environment Agency acting together can achieve results.

To add insult to injury, in the particular instance that I am thinking of, the Environment Agency said, "Well, we're not going to take any action while these people are on site. We will send someone down from the local gypsy liaison council"—such a person would know very few of these people, and would have very little influence on them—"and we are prepared to wait two or three weeks while these people lay waste to the site, until the council representative turns up to talk to them. When they eventually leave"—presumably after the landowner gains possession of the site—"we will go through the rubbish, and see if we can find some settled residents who have foolishly given them this waste, and prosecute the settled residents instead." That is certainly aiming for the soft targets.

It can be a frustrating experience from time to time, but there are encouraging signs. I hear that the Environment Agency is considering taking more robust steps to deal with the carriage of waste in particular, by trying to identify those who are committing such offences. That would be a shrewd strategy. Much the most important possessions of the majority of these people are the vehicles that they use. Threatening the seizure of those vehicles would improve the quality of behaviour by a large margin.

Further action is required. First, it is not sensible to have a national consultation on the framework for dealing with this problem that does not involve the Environment Agency. I insist that the Minister say that the agency will actively engage in the process with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office, in preparing guidelines for this problem. Secondly, the Environment Agency should be included in local protocols as a matter of course. The agency in Derbyshire is not so included, and when I put the suggestion to the county council—the co-ordinating authority—it said that it was interesting, and that it would certainly take it on board. Well, that is not good enough. There should be clear guidance stating that, if there is a local protocol, the Environment Agency should be involved in it.

Thirdly, there should be active partnership with the police. It should not be necessary for me constantly to prod and push the two sides together to take action, but I am afraid that that is the case. Prodding the police is necessary in part because, as I have evidenced, there is sometimes a rather incomplete knowledge of

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environmental law. However, we have got past that problem now, at least in my area. Also, the agency is certainly very unwilling to enter sites that, in its view, might be unpleasant to visit. Fourthly, there needs to be greater proactivity and less concern with the softer targets. Finally, yes, it is a good idea to look carefully at vehicle seizure powers. I look forward to a vigorous response to that idea, and I await the Minister's response, in which he sets out how his Department and the Environment Agency can assist residents in South Derbyshire and elsewhere who are afflicted by this appalling nuisance.

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