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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1257—continued

Mrs. Gillan: Quite wrong.

Alun Michael: I agree that it was wrong of the hon. Lady and I hope that she will stop intervening.

Some wildlife crime is entirely profit driven and the National Criminal Intelligence Service has commented

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that ounce for ounce some wildlife products, such as rhino horn or deer musk, can be worth more than class A drugs or gold. That is an enormous incentive—a point strongly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.

I want to make it clear that our approach is not only to increase the penalties for wildlife crime. We have taken several significant steps to improve the enforcement of wildlife legislation. In April last year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment launched the national wildlife criminal intelligence unit. The Government are contributing £440,000 over three years to get the unit off to a strong start. In conjunction with the Magistrates Association, he also launched, in November of last year, an information toolkit and guidance to help magistrates to deliver effective sentences for environmental offences. That is an important point in view of the comments made by Members on both sides of the House about the use of the sentences available to courts. We accept the need to increase the penalties for illegal trading in endangered species. The current maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment is not sufficient in, for example, cases where specimens of a high value are involved, where illegal trade may affect the conservation status of the species concerned, or where the trade is highly organised or part of a pattern of ongoing illegal activity such as that referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.

John Mann: Have officers involved in the wildlife intelligence initiative been involved in the consultation process to 4 April, and has evidence been requested from them concerning the effectiveness of that initiative? For example, how will enabling officers to perform searches by making such activities arrestable offences under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 impact on that initiative?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right about the additional strengthening that that would bring to bear. Through the involvement of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, all avenues are being looked at to ensure that these matters are dealt with.

It is our responsibility to ensure that the courts have appropriate penalties for serious offences of this type, which is why we have already proposed that the current penalty be increased. As I said, we hope to address this issue through amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, once we know the outcome of the current consultation exercise. In view of the fact that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said that he is prepared to withdraw the Bill on the basis of the assurances that I have given, I am certain that we can move forward in a way that will be applauded on both sides of this House.

Hugh Robertson: In view of the almost cast-iron assurances that the Minister has given, I am more than happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

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Greenbelt Protection Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

2.17 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In my constituency, we are very concerned about the various threats to our green belt. One growing danger is that of unauthorised development, especially by the travelling community, who buy land and quickly develop it without planning permission. A recent example at Sadlers farm, which I have highlighted before, involved a field next door to a roundabout. On the Friday, a 6 ft earth mound was constructed around the perimeter; on the Saturday, hardcore was laid; on the Sunday, caravans were moved in. By the time the council reacted with enforcement and stop notices, the development was complete. As a result, we have now entered into a lengthy planning and appeals process. Meanwhile, the illegal development continues. Similar situations have occurred at Hovefields in Wickford, and at Oak road in Crays Hill. In trying to combat the situation, Basildon district council—whether under Labour or Tory control—has found the existing law inadequate. This Bill attempts to put that right by giving local authorities additional powers to prevent the unauthorised development of green belt land.

Before describing the suggested measures, I should like briefly to make two things clear. First, no one is looking to discriminate against a minority, but it is only fair that all those who live in the community should abide by its laws and regulations; otherwise, it is the majority who are discriminated against. Secondly, this Bill is the product of a long consultation exercise in which party politics has played no part. It has support on both sides of the House, and whatever the outcome, I should like to take this opportunity to thank all the sponsors for their support during its preparation. I also wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on the Front Bench, and all those in their places who are supporting the Bill, as well as the many people who have written to express their support—including the Association of Essex Authorities and Basildon district council. In that spirit, I wish to present the Bill.

Local authorities face two key problems when trying to deal with the issue. The first is that they have difficulty acting quickly enough to prevent the problem of unauthorised development. If an injunction is granted, it can be difficult to serve on the owner or occupier, as they are often difficult to pin down, especially if land has been sold on quickly or individuals are unco-operative. The second problem is that—although local authorities can issue stop and enforcement notices—in reality, rights of appeal and retrospective planning applications unnecessarily prolong the issue. The result is that the planning and appeals process can often take months, if not years. Even when that process is exhausted, local authorities often have to resort to the courts to reinstate the land. That can be a long process that does not necessarily result in the clearance of the land. Some planning departments, especially my own, believe that decisions go against local authorities because there is inadequate provision of sites.

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The Bill contains three proposals. First, in order to share the responsibility of site provision for the travelling community, the Bill would introduce the requirement for all local authorities to provide authorised sites. The target figure should be identified by the Government in consultation with regional bodies, county councils and local authorities. The allocation could be met by public or private sites and so would not necessarily cost local councils money. It would be up to them how the target was met, and it could be done entirely by granting planning permission on private sites.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Baron: No, because I wish to make progress.

Secondly, the Bill will introduce powers to enable local authorities to more easily obtain an injunction, by allowing it to be served on a landowner whose identity is unknown to the local planning authority. Thirdly, local authorities would have a further power to serve a notice to remedy, the aim of which would be to reinstate the land to its original condition. That would be a discretionary power available to local authorities, with guidance that it should be used only when, in the opinion of the local authority, significant harm had been caused to the green belt or greenfield land under its control. If the land were not made good within a specified time, the local authority could arrange to put that right, the costs being reclaimed from the perpetrators where possible.

The powers would interact with each other, so that the additional powers would be available to local authorities only if the agreed provision of pitches and sites had been met by the local authorities, which seems only fair if we are to recognise the way of life of the law-abiding traveller. It is important to stress that, apart from the provision of authorised sites, the additional powers would not be mandatory. They would be additional options, available to local authorities to choose to use if they so wished. Local councillors, democratically elected, would make the decisions.

By ensuring that a sufficient number of authorised sites were provided and giving local authorities additional powers to combat large scale unauthorised development, whether by travellers or others, the Bill would create fairness for all. It is badly needed by local authorities and local communities, and I commend it to the House.

2.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): Before I address the substance of the Bill, it might be useful to put it into context, because much policy development regarding gypsies and travellers has taken place recently, and certainly within the past year. I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on the tone and manner in which he introduced his Bill. There are those—some in this House, sadly—who treat this subject with a degree of mischief or even

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malevolence that is not appropriate to the Chamber. One recalls a classic intervention from a right hon. Member who is not in his place today, but who shouted that gypsies were

I shall name him—it was the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). That happened some time ago, but he should still be suitably admonished for it.

The hon. Member for Billericay has not gone down that path. I know from a range of meetings that I have had that his Bill has cross-party support in this place. There is a good deal of cross-party support, too, in Essex, as he said, and the issues that he highlighted are matters of real concern and are best dealt with responsibly. If for nothing else, he is certainly to be congratulated on the responsible way in which he raised them today.

It is important to dwell on the context surrounding the Bill because a lot has happened over the past year or so. For the first time in a long while, there has been substantive research into gypsy and traveller site provision. There has been a rather tortuous process—I shall probably be in trouble for saying that—by which we have tried to update guidance on unauthorised encampment. The gypsy site refurbishment grant has also been introduced. It would therefore be useful for me to say a few words about those matters before turning to the substance of the Bill.

Planning policies concerning provision of suitable locations for gypsy sites, whether local authority or private, are set out, as the hon. Gentleman will be more than aware, in Department of the Environment circular 1/94, which was published in 1994, entitled "Gypsy Sites and Planning". Although that circular is eight years old, the policy advice that it contains remains valid and should continue to be applied. The circular places gypsies and travellers on the same footing as others in relation to the planning system while recognising their special accommodation needs and the desire of many gypsies to buy their own sites to develop and manage.

Gypsy sites constitute development and therefore require planning permission. In formulating development plans, local authorities are encouraged to discuss the accommodation needs of gypsies and travellers with local communities with a view to identifying suitable locations for sites in plans wherever possible. For many local authorities, especially in rural areas, the identification of specific sites is not easy. Where they have found it impossible to identify suitable locations, local authorities must define clear and realistic criteria as a basis for site provision. It is the responsibility of the local authorities to judge how they frame their policies, and those are open to public scrutiny and comment at inquiries. Development plans must still take account of local circumstances. For example, gypsy and traveller sites are not among what is

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normally thought as appropriate uses of green belt land, a point to which I shall return when I reach the substance of the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

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