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Equal Enforcement of the Law

12.31 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I beg to move,

One of the abiding principles that runs through the development of British democracy and society is that of equality before the law. The peasants' revolt, Magna Carta, the civil war, habeas corpus, the abolition of the Test Acts and many other instances show the development of this principle, and a vital principle it has been. But under this Government, some people have discovered that the law will not be applied to them equally. The terrorists of Sinn Fein are one such group, but I wish to dwell on the current treatment of Travellers in the country.

As far as I am concerned, if people wish to live in caravans and travel around the country that is entirely their own affair. I do not believe in prescribing how people lead their lives, just as long as they do not impinge unreasonably on the lives of others. There is a permanent campsite at Aston Firs, in my constituency, which I have visited in the past and will probably visit during this election campaign. I believe the people there to be law abiding, and while there might not be many votes there for me, I think it important to make myself available to all my constituents.

I was brought up on the romantic notion of Gypsies in attractive and colourful caravans pulled by horses, and of Romany people living their unique lifestyle travelling around the country. This still happens—indeed, only last week, there was a traditional caravan in Swinford, in my constituency. However, in contrast and entirely by coincidence, on Monday my constituency office was deluged with calls from concerned people in Lutterworth about an illegal Gypsy encampment at the Ladywood works. I went to see the site, where half a dozen caravans had moved in on Saturday night. A local garage had been closed because the 17-year-old female cashier said that she had been intimidated by Travellers. When I spoke to the owner, he told me that he had not reported it to the police because the last time he caught a Gypsy on closed circuit television stealing something from his forecourt, the local police had advised him not to press charges because he might be vulnerable to criminal damage in retaliation. What a disgrace!

Another three caravans have now arrived in Lutterworth on the same illegal site, where they are trespassing. When the first ones arrived, one of the Travellers made an offer to the manager of the site, saying that they would leave straight away if paid £350 for a van. When I visited the site, helpful police officers were present. When I pointed out that one car had no road fund licence, the officer explained that although the owner of it was committing an act of trespass, the police had no rights to enforce the law on private land. The phrase Catch-22 comes to mind.

At this site, one of the particular complaints of the businesses based there was that human excrement had been left on their doorsteps. A couple of years ago in
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Northfield park in Blaby, I saw an astonishing amount of rubbish, including abandoned cars, that had been dumped by Travellers. Local residents were so intimidated that they did not dare use the park. I met some aggressive Travellers who were, shall I say, extremely impolite to me, but the police stood off, not wishing to make trouble. That is a pity, because two issues relating to caravans and the police have been drawn to my attention by people involved in the legal caravanning world.

The first is the width and length of caravans. Photographs published in The Sun and elsewhere show that some caravans have twin or even triple axles and they are too long to be towed legally by anything other than a full-sized commercial vehicle in the UK. At the same time, a maximum-width caravan that can be towed in the UK is just over 7 ft 5 in. Photographs in The Sun on 12 March show a German-made LMC caravan just under 8 ft wide. That is illegal, yet the police very rarely stop those sorts of illegal vehicles. Perhaps the Minister might like to answer the written question that I have already tabled about prosecutions for over-wide or over-long caravans in this country.

The second and enormously important issue for the police is theft. Some 5,000 touring caravans are stolen and not recovered each year—about 20 per cent. of the total UK sales of new caravans. All these new caravans have CRIS identification numbers and generally have transponders in them. If a new caravan is found without such means of identification, the question should be asked, "Why not, and is it stolen?" Unfortunately, when one police officer in Bedfordshire followed such a course of action, he was moved to an office job because he was upsetting Travellers in Bedfordshire. He also upset the local social services, which feared that they might have to find accommodation for families whose caravans were confiscated. Surely it is the duty of the police to make simple inquiries to ascertain whether caravans are stolen.

It is also interesting to note how many brand-new vehicles tend to be pulling these vans, and it might be pertinent for the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise to be making inquiries about taxation and VAT. Little council tax gets paid and I doubt whether much else gets paid either.

If any hon. Member fails to tax his car, I would expect him to be prosecuted with the assistance of the police. If he or she dumps rubbish on public land or by the side of the road, he or she is committing an offence. Human excrement in a public place should incur the wrath of environmental health departments. Furthermore, we all pay taxes and the overwhelming majority of our constituents pay council tax for the services that they expect to receive.

It is not unreasonable for us all to obey the laws of this country, whether they be planning laws, motoring laws or laws relating to environmental health. Illegal encampments of Travellers have been much in the news recently and one does not have to be a reader of The Sun or the Daily Mail, which I understand have both campaigned on this issue, to believe that it is wrong for people to flout the planning law in a flagrant fashion and then apply for retrospective planning permission.
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Sadly, the Government believe, and I am quoting from a Government document:

Similarly, on unauthorised camping, the Government have said:

The law does not apply to everyone; the law is not applied equally to all people in this country.

I think that the overwhelming majority of people in this country, faced with casting their votes in a general election, will take the view that everybody should be subject to the same laws. I propose that trespass, where it involves occupancy, be made a criminal offence. That would give the police the certain power to move on trespassing Travellers. The House will know that that is exactly what happened in Ireland under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002. That, of course, is why there has been an influx of Irish Travellers into this country, where we are seen as a soft touch.

I further propose that councils be allowed to refuse applications for retrospective planning permission by Travellers or rogue developers who, often advised by disreputable lawyers, are cynically manipulating the planning system. I would allow local councils to ensure that, where planning permission does not exist, caravans are rapidly removed and that large fines or confiscation of assets are imposed on Travellers who are trying to profit from illegal developments.

Police must know that they have not only the power but the duty to stop Travellers of whom they are suspicious and to check their road fund licences and the roadworthiness and provenance of their vehicles. If I am stopped by a police officer, I must be displaying my road fund licence on my car and I may be required to produce my insurance. There is no reason why that law, too, should not be applied to Travellers, but police officers seem wary of doing so because they fear that it may cause trouble.

Finally, the Travellers who are behaving illegally—they are probably a minority of the travelling community—know their rights, but not their
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responsibilities. I propose a review, or even the repeal, of the so-called Human Rights Act 1998. That Act sounds attractive, but it is used by smart, slick lawyers to drive a coach and horses through the laws that the rest of us have to obey. In particular, the Act has allowed Travellers to break planning laws, but it takes no account of the rights of others whose lives are made a misery by illegal Traveller encampments. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made exactly that suggestion, one person commented that it had

Only a bitter, twisted and perverted mind could imagine that to say that all people should obey the same laws is in some way wrong. We are all equal before the law, and I propose that that equality should be enforced.

I urge the House to support this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Robathan.

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