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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


†John Bercow

†Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury) (Lab)
†Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
†Gapes, Mike (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)
†Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow) (Lab)
†Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office) (Lab)
†Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
†Johnson, Mr. Boris (Henley) (Con)
McCrea, Dr. William (South Antrim) (DUP)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
†Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
John Benger, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
Mackinlay, Andrew (Thurrock) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)

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Wednesday 22 June 2005

[Mr. John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Unauthorised Encampments (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Unauthorised Encampments (Northern Ireland) Order 2005.

I begin by congratulating you, Mr. Bercow, on your appointment to the Chairmen’s Panel. It is a great pleasure to serve under you, and as it is your first time in the Chair, I hope that the Committee will not make life too difficult for you.

A draft of the order was laid before the House on 22 February 2005 by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar). The order provides the legal framework for the control of unauthorised encampments, and brings Northern Ireland law in line with the corresponding law in England and Wales. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, unauthorised encampments have given rise to considerable problems over a number of years, not just in Northern Ireland but in England, Scotland and Wales. Such encampments can cause public health, environmental and traffic concerns, and depending on the location, can adversely affect the trade of local businesses. It is clear from the results of the consultation that the Northern Ireland Office undertook in 2003, which we published earlier, that there is support in the community for the legislation before the Committee.

It may be helpful for members of the Committee if I outline the details of what the order undertakes to do. The police in Northern Ireland will have the power to evict trespassers who are intent on residing on land if they have six or more vehicles, if they have used threatening language or behaviour, or if they have damaged the land. Where there is suitable alternative accommodation available within a reasonable distance of the unauthorised encampment, trespassers with only one vehicle on the land can also be evicted. Those who refuse to leave may, under the order, have their vehicles seized, and if they are prosecuted, they face imprisonment and fines of up to £2,500.

Because the Government intend to be fair and proper about the matter, the order also contains a measure of protection for those who may be moved on. The police will be required to consult the Northern Ireland Housing Executive about suitable alternative accommodation, provided that there are no public order issues associated with any unauthorised encampment. In Northern Ireland, the Housing Executive has a statutory responsibility for developing housing schemes to address the needs of the travelling
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community and, in particular, the provision of transit sites, including specific facilities for those nomadic Travellers who will be most affected by the order.

I am aware that the provision of transit sites has not progressed as quickly as was anticipated, and since my appointment six weeks ago I have had discussions with the Housing Executive to ensure that we can deliver the necessary alternative sites as soon as possible. However, in recognition of the fact that the sites are not yet ready to the extent that I would wish, and because the Government need to be fair about establishing sites and implementing the order, I intend to defer bringing the substantive provisions of the order into effect until I am satisfied that an adequate number of transit sites are operational in Northern Ireland. I shall carefully monitor progress with the Housing Executive. I have discussed the matter with its chairman and chief executive and will ensure that the order is brought into full effect when I am satisfied that there are sufficient Travellers sites operating in Northern Ireland to provide alternative accommodation.

Although I am aware that hon. Members of this House, and others, share concerns about the effect of the order, I am also acutely aware, both from my constituency experience and from talking to individuals in Northern Ireland, of the impact of illegal encampments on settled communities. I believe that the introduction of the order, along with the development of suitable alternative sites, is a fair and balanced approach, and provides a proportionate response to a recurring problem. The measure will eliminate the recurring source of tension between members of the settled community and the travelling community. It provides a fair and balanced package for the people of Northern Ireland.

2.35 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chairmen’s Panel, Mr. Bercow. It is my pleasure to be serving under you for the first but not, I hope, the last time. I also welcome the Minister to his new brief. I look forward to working with him and wish him all the best in what is not the easiest Department to work in.

The Opposition have no objection to the extension of the England and Wales legislation to Northern Ireland, but I want to express one or two concerns without detaining the Committee for too long. As the Minister said, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows the police to remove people from land if they have six or more vehicles, or if

    “any of those persons has caused damage to the land or to property . . . or used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier, a member of his family or an employee or agent of his”.

Although I have no objection to that law, there may be occasions when people occupying land may wrongly fall somewhere between the two provisions. For example, they may have five vehicles on the land or may not have been too abusive to the particular landowner but may still be causing a problem. I am not sure that the order includes powers to deal with those
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circumstances. That problem is not dealt with adequately in this country, let alone in Northern Ireland under the extension of the regulations.

Members will understand that, as a Gloucestershire Member of Parliament, I have many Travellers in and around my constituency. Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire are areas through which Travellers pass, and there have been difficulties removing people from land that they should not be occupying. Will the Minister respond to my points about people who may fall through the net of the provisions in section 61 of the 1994 Act?

In February 2004, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office issued fairly detailed joint guidance on the management of unauthorised encampments, which should have reinforced the law. However, some months after that, in September, the Court of Appeal, supported by the Deputy Prime Minister, ruled in favour of a group of Travellers on an unauthorised site against a local council’s enforcement decision; it did so on the basis of article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The Court ruled that

    “the rights were to respect for homes, which they had created—homes admittedly in breach of planning laws. The council’s legitimate action in issuing enforcement notice was an interference with those rights”.

Although I am sure that there will be a declaration that the order will not conflict with human rights legislation, it seems that there is a conflict in light of the guidance from the ODPM and the Home Office in February 2004 and the case heard by the Court of Appeal in September.

I am also a little concerned that planning permission is given retrospectively. If something has been built, that puts unfair pressure on the people making decisions. I also ask for clarification on the position of private land, which is relevant to an unauthorised encampment that I am involved with at the moment, albeit not in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister confirm that the order will affect private land? It seems sensible and axiomatic that it should, but there is some dispute and I would like him to clarify the situation.

The Minister rightly said that there are problems with where Travellers go. When the police move youths from the corner of a street to the corner of another street, that does not remove the problem, but moves it to the next street. The issue of where Travellers would go is particularly relevant in Northern Ireland.

A while ago the Republic of Ireland Government tightened the laws of trespass. That caused many Irish Travellers to come over to this country and to travel into Northern Ireland. Consideration of where these people may go is crucial. They have chosen a way of life that is a perfectly legal, but they have difficulties finding places to go.

Is the Minister satisfied that referring the matter to the Housing Executive will address that? The problem, to me, seems slightly more difficult. Does he feel that the matter will be dealt with properly by that Northern Ireland body? He also said that he intended to delay the introduction of the order until such time as he is
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satisfied that the problem has been addressed. This is perhaps an unfair question, but could he give some indication as to how long he anticipates that will take?

I wanted to ask those questions because they are important and relevant. That said, we support the extension of the legislation to Northern Ireland.

2.41 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I say what an honour it is finally to serve under you, Mr. Bercow, after all these years? I think that in the last 20 years we have flirted with power in various forms, but never before has one served under the other. That really closes the circle. I hope that, in the near future, I can repay the honour when I become a Minister.

Secondly, I would like to reiterate a continuing frustration, which is caused not by your good self, Mr. Bercow, but by the Government’s insistence on running Northern Ireland by statutory instrument. The point has been made before. The frustration that was outlined in another place when its Members discussed the same order needs to be repeated here: namely, we have no opportunity whatever to amend the legislation before us, which means that we repeatedly face a “take it or leave it” situation.

I appeal to the Minister and to those who recognise the failing—privately acknowledged—to find a better way to conduct the progress of legislation in the House. We simply cannot allow the Province to be governed on a binary yes/no basis on such significant and important legislation. Will the Minister, in his summation, indicate that he is willing to have a conversation with those of us in the Opposition parties—particularly those who represent the Province itself—on how best to have the opportunity to make amendments as we debate these matters?

The Liberal Democrats will give cautious support to the order, because it represents a parallel approach taken with the Department for Social Development to provide legal sites for encampment. Getting the balance right is difficult—supporting the rights of Travellers and the rights of the settled community—but that is what we have to do with this order.

The role of the police in moving Travellers on is only part of what needs to be done to bring them back within the law. What may be necessary is to tighten some planning laws to stop illegal encampments and to require local authorities to work together to provide those legal sites. One of the reasons for caution by the Liberal Democrats is that history tells us that, in England, there has been reluctance by councillors, for understandable reasons, to provide those legal sites. It is important that we do not introduce legislation that does not then provide a legal solution for the Travellers most affected.

Many Travellers enjoy a good relationship with the settled community, but Travellers camping on unauthorised sites can cause real problems. The only way to stop that happening is to provide those authorised allocated sites, which local communities should decide the location of through the planning process. Authorised sites will not only discourage Travellers from stopping in inappropriate locations,
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but will make it easier to move them on when they do. That is one reason that, as these provisions are implemented, we must have a strategic approach, which takes into account the geography of the Province of Northern Ireland.

The DSD and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive seem to be heading in the right direction in that regard. However, I have heard anecdotally that they may have been a little ambitious in their plans and over-equipped campsites in an inappropriate way. I have heard it said that the facilities provided at least in one case were extremely good, including such items as cookers and kettles, and that the local authority was slightly surprised when the equipment did not remain on the site for very long.

We must be realistic and understand that there needs to be a dialogue with the users of the sites, to understand their expectations and to ensure that what is provided is sustainable in the long term. I am sure that the Travellers would agree with that recommendation. The Minister may be able to tell us whether there are ongoing discussions between the DSD, the Housing Executive and the Travellers themselves to resolve such matters.

Finally, I will ask a few other questions of the Minister to which he may be able to respond today. If that is not possible, perhaps he will respond by letter after the debate. First, how do the facilities on sites in Northern Ireland compare with those on sites in England and Wales? Are there guidelines covering that? There may be a simple answer to that question, but I do not know what it is.

Secondly, what progress has been made in encouraging district councils in Northern Ireland to provide more sites? The Minister will know that there was a story on the BBC website recently which discussed the lack of sites and the fact that, according to the Anti-Racism Network, Travellers are being criminalised by antisocial behaviour orders. I stress again that we must not put those people in a situation in which they end up breaking the law because they have no facilities to adhere to it.

Thirdly, it would be useful to know how certain aspects of the order compare with England and Wales in terms of the reach of the law. For example, if, in England, a person has been asked to leave a site and does not, can a constable arrest him or her without a warrant in the way that appears possible in Northern Ireland under the order?

Fourthly, what is the maximum penalty in England, and how does that compare with what is proposed in the order?

The Liberal Democrats will not oppose the order, but I ask the Minister to provide us with more flexibility—an opportunity to make amendments—rather than facing us with an all-or-nothing alternative, as statutory instruments in their current form necessarily do.

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2.47 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am pleased to join in this debate, even though I am not a member of the Committee. I want to apologise through you, Mr. Bercow, to Labour Members who were persuaded by the Whip to volunteer for this Committee. The lesson is never to take the word of a Whip who says that a debate will be brief because, so long as there is direct rule, I intend to trespass upon Irish legislation. As the Liberal Democrat spokesperson said, such legislation goes unscrutinised and unamended. Therefore, as long as I am here and direct rule prevails, I am going to dip into the legislation.

This is a particularly important order, because, by its nature, it impinges not just on Northern Ireland, but on the whole of the United Kingdom. It raises a number of important issues of human rights and of the problems that arise for people who, on occasions, have Travellers as their neighbours.

The Minister demonstrated both common sense and welcome sensitivity in what he said to the Committee. He said that he would not trigger any vigorous implementation of the order until he was satisfied that there was adequate provision for Travellers in the Province. I welcome that, because I think that successive Conservative and Labour Governments have failed to get on top of this issue in the United Kingdom. I deliberately do not use the word “problem”, because these are people, and it is wrong to refer to people as a problem. However, the issue bedevils local authorities in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the United Kingdom, and will continue to do so until there is a bold initiative which sets long-term goals of providing for and encouraging Traveller families, of whatever category.

In various parts of legislation there are various descriptions. “Irish Travellers” is one, and one can also find didicoys, mumpers, Gypsies and others in the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which was pioneering in its day, and which was introduced by Lord Avebury when he was Eric Lubbock. That was a profoundly important Act, but it is deficient now because Travellers of various categories have families. Until the issue is addressed for those who aspire to their children receiving a full education and going on to higher education, it will continue, to the frustration of local government and individuals.

When I meet St. Peter, there will be many things that I will have to defend, many things of which I will be profoundly ashamed and many things that I will not want to admit. However, there is one thing that I would like to share with the Committee. When I was a young councillor, having been elected, at the age of 22, in Kingston-upon-Thames, some Travellers had what the council deemed as the audacity to move in. The whole might of Kingston council was marshalled to get rid of them, so I collaborated with a man called Julian Gibson-Watt, whose father was Minister of State at the Wales Office at the time, to fight that action.

I am proud to share with the Committee the fact that the Travellers are still there today—they have been there since 1972. I am particularly proud because those people have had generations of children, and many of
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them now have houses or are at university. Their sons and daughters will go to university as well, because the problem was tackled. That is what needs to be done throughout the United Kingdom.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way before he meets St. Peter.

It is not possible in Committee to broaden the debate completely, but my hon. Friend is making a serious and important point. To make a political point, the 1968 Act was changed in 1994 to take away the statutory responsibility of local authorities to provide sites. I do not want to go back over the ground, but the Government are waiting for a report and he might like to press the Minister on that.

Unless we tackle the problem of site provision in the United Kingdom as a whole, we will get no further along the road. My hon. Friend might also remember a member of the Dail recently called it “Britain’s problem” because people are coming over here. We have a responsibility, and the Minister might like to consider that with the sensitivity that he expressed on this order. We need to sort out the rest of the package, and quickly.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I want now to address the issue as it relates to Northern Ireland, but that general principle has some support—I can feel the vibes of the Committee. There needs to be a British Government initiative.

Will the Minister say what discussions there have been with the Government of the Irish Republic? Clearly, as long as there is a common travel area across the land border between the Irish Republic and United Kingdom—I welcome the existence of one, and I am sure that it will continue—Travellers will travel. They do not lie awake at night and think about 1922: they are Travellers in 32 counties. Although there may be separate legislation, we need not only parallel or common provision, but a consistent regime of enforcement throughout the island of Ireland. If there have not been such bilateral discussions—I can say this because the Minister is so new that he will not take it personally—there jolly well should have been.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister can tell us. There will be always be an accusation that the Irish Republic is vigorously applying its legislation to the disadvantage of Northern Ireland and constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland. I have no reason to believe that that accusation is anything other than baseless, but the situation cries out for a common approach, common legislation and, above all else, consistency and sensitivity in the application. Otherwise, the situation will get worse and have implications for those who represent constituencies outside Northern Ireland. Many of us have Irish Travellers coming to our area, and I have the issue constantly in mind in Thurrock.

The interpretation article, which I know every hon. Member has pondered, seems to exclude by example local authority or Northern Ireland Government car parks. If that is so, the legislation is flawed. I hope that the Minister will rush to tell me that my reading of the
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article is profoundly wrong. However, it appears not to have been adequately drawn up because it excludes public car parks.

One of the requirements of the English legislation—I suspect that it also applies to the Northern Ireland legislation—is that the landowner will complain to the police about the trespass. There are cases in England where the landowner is complicit in the occupation of the land by Travellers because he wants to get planning permission for development in the face of the logical and reasonable opposition of the occupants of the surrounding land. He wears down the potential opponents of his lucrative planning application by allowing Travellers regularly to occupy the land so that people eventually wave a white flag and say, “By all means give this man his planning application because we don’t want Travellers there.” The problem needs to be addressed. These are exceptional cases but they happen. Landowners allow Travellers to occupy the land and do not complain to the authorities because it is a form of leverage, allowing them to maximise the profit on their land by extracting lucrative planning permission from the planning authorities.

Finally, I echo what the Liberal Democrat spokesman said: I hope that there is a return to the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland soon, but it is not likely. Therefore, in the interests of good governance, the Government have a duty to review how we pass Northern Ireland legislation and where we do so. Although many hon. Members would not wish to travel to Stormont buildings, arrangements could be made for a Committee composed of Northern Ireland Members, and people like me who are deemed to be eccentric but who are interested in these matters, who would be prepared to go to the Senate Chamber in Stormont and deal with legislation there in the absence of discussion of it at Westminster.

2.58 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I, too, welcome your appointment to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. Like the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I am not a member of the Committee; I am standing in for one of my hon. Friends.

I welcome any legislation that will strengthen the hand of local authorities and housing executives in Northern Ireland. There have been great difficulties in the six counties over a number of years and even more so this last few years when the travelling community has gone on to private land or unauthorised sites.

The Minister said that he would not fully implement the order until he is sure that there will be adequate sites. That presents a difficulty in itself: it is a bit like agreeing that there should be a dump or an incineration factory, but “not at my back door”. Will the identification of the sites go out to local consultation? That is where the Minister will hit the brick wall, because the situation in Northern Ireland is very difficult. It is only six counties and it is difficult to identify where the sites will be. I was mayor of Craigavon borough last year and there were major difficulties in the area.

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I listened to what hon. Members said about education. As mayor, I worked with the travelling community to bring their children to centres to help them with their education. However, as to the state of the sites and the way they are left, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned kettles and cookers and so on going missing, but that is just the norm. We need to address that through the education process. The sites are left in an absolutely filthy state. As I said, that point needs to be addressed, and public consultation will be very important.

3 pm

Mr. Hanson: I thank hon. Members for welcoming the order. A number of points have been raised and I will try to answer them as well as I can in the time available—of which there is plenty. [Interruption.] I have already managed to lose the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Never mind. It has been a pleasure having him with us. It is the way I tell them.

I say to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that we recognise that the Order in Council procedure is not satisfactory. It is not how we want government in Northern Ireland to be exercised, but, as they will be aware, because the Assembly is suspended, there is great difficulty in achieving what we want. We have made a judgment that, at the moment, the best way to secure legislation that affects Northern Ireland is to undertake this procedure. One of my prime tasks, as well as running Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive while the Assembly is suspended, is to get the peace process and the political process on track and to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who is also a Member of the legislative Assembly, can take their rightful places and take decisions locally.

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