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20 Jun 2007 : Column 483WH—continued

Nor is there any clarity in the document as to why the Gypsy and Traveller population seems to be expanding so fast. It says that the number of caravans rose by 90
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per cent. between 1979 and 2006 over the country as a whole and that the population is growing by 3 per cent. per annum in the UK and 4 per cent. per annum in Ireland, but it does not tell us how much of the UK population growth is due to people coming from Ireland or elsewhere. However, 3 to 4 per cent. annual population growth is very rapid—it is more rapid than the population growth in Africa, which is the fastest growing continent in the world. Yet the assessments will be made only for five years ahead. At the relevant rate of growth, that is about 18 per cent., so one might think the call for 40 per cent. more accommodation does not naturally follow. As I have said, in addition to that 40 per cent., extra sites are proposed to match the number of unauthorised sites, but with no guarantee—or, at least, the document is so non-transparent that we cannot see whether there is any guarantee—that unauthorised sites will be replaced by authorised ones, if those are forthcoming.

Finally, my constituents do not think that the approach seems very balanced. Because of the enormous housing pressures that we face, which we have discussed previously, the settled population of this country is being pressed to live in flats rather than houses, in terraced houses rather than detached houses, north rather than south, on brownfield sites rather than in the green belt. Yet no similar pressures seem to be exerted, or nothing analogous seems to be expected, of the G and Ts. The settled population find that housing is rationed by price. In my constituency young people now stay at home five or 10 years longer than they used to when I was first elected, because they cannot afford a home. Alternatively, they must move north. Everything is rationed by price, and I reiterate that no analogous pressures are exerted on the better-off Gypsies and Travellers.

Constituents have told me that they feel particularly aggrieved that when they look up this subject on the web, as everyone does when the subject suddenly comes on to their radar screen, they find hundreds of sites detailing Gypsies’ and Travellers’ concerns—which they acknowledge are perfectly legitimate—about the pressures and discrimination that they potentially face, and their grievances. There is nothing equivalent to enable my constituents to express or register their concerns or their experience of some parts of the Gypsy and Traveller population. They feel that they need to register those concerns if the Government’s objective of achieving social cohesion and a sensible relationship between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities is to be reached.

My constituents hope that the Government will listen to them, but they are pretty sure that they will not. They would like fairness, but they cannot see any. They want some transparency and they are presented with something absolutely opaque. They want balance and they feel that things are loaded heavily against them. They know that the Government are to blame, and they want the Government to answer.

3.22 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate on an important subject and I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). People in North-East Hertfordshire want to be fair about this matter, but they also want to be satisfied that the Government have done their homework and that
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what is proposed is about meeting need, rather than creating demand. That was something of a theme of my right hon. Friend’s speech, too.

It seems remarkable that in the document published by the Minister’s Department, “Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures”, a table of official figures shows that in 1979 there were 3,500 caravans, either socially rented or in unauthorised encampments, whereas by July 2005 that had risen, with all categories considered, to 15,500. I understand that the latest count from the Department is 16,611. Clearly, that is a very substantial increase. I have asked representatives of the local authority why that should be. The only explanation that they came up with was that there are now some traditional Travellers from eastern Europe coming to this country. Even so, I should be grateful if the Minister could explain that four to five-fold increase in travelling.

My second point is about whether, from a policy point of view, the Government intend to encourage travelling. Clearly, there are difficulties associated with it, such as social exclusion. If the Government do not intend to encourage travelling as a way of life, can the Minister explain how the increase has occurred? Surely Government policy must have played a part in it, given its substantial nature.

Meg Munn: I am puzzled that the hon. Gentleman says the Government must have played a substantial part in the increase. We are talking about a few thousand, whereas for the settled community the formation of new homes is much greater. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we aim to produce 200,000 new homes a year. Let us get things in proportion.

Mr. Heald: That is a worrying intervention from the Minister. There is not a five-fold increase in household formation in the United Kingdom. If she thinks that there is, that is deeply worrying. A five-fold increase in household formation in the sector that we are considering is a different scale of change. Perhaps the Minister thinks that it is amusing, but people in North-East Hertfordshire do not.

North-East Hertfordshire has not had much traditional interplay with the Traveller community. There are a small number of sites, but it is not on one of the traditional routes. Yet it seems that in the second option that is being put forward by the regional assembly a very large increase in the number of sites is proposed. The effect of that will be to create opportunities for Travellers to move into North-East Hertfordshire, which traditionally they have never chosen to do. Are the Government encouraging numbers of Travellers to move there for a particular reason? I should have thought that the Government would want a sustainable approach—that they would want to meet the needs of Travellers, as established over time, to follow particular routes and live their lives as they choose, and not to interfere in that and say, “Rather than do what you want, do what we want as the nanny state, and move to North-East Hertfordshire.”

When the Labour group on the North Hertfordshire district council suggested, some years ago, that there should be extra sites in North Hertfordshire, the Conservatives did some survey work, as one does. The
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idea was not very popular. If the Minister feels that there is some reason for the change to happen, perhaps she will explain it.

3.27 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs. Dean.

To describe my reaction to the comments of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and her Conservative colleagues this afternoon as surprise is putting it extremely mildly. I am amazed that the hon. Lady complains about the provision of Traveller sites when it was her party that said that 67 per cent. of Traveller sites should be closed between 1986 and 1993; it was the Conservative Government who caused the problem.

Anne Main: I draw the hon. Lady’s attention, before she goes any further, to something issued today by the notionally Liberal Democrat-controlled St. Albans district council, and the portfolio holder, Liberal Democrat councillor Chris Brazier:

Lorely Burt: I am making a general point. The tone of the argument from the Hertfordshire Members has been quite technical on the way the allocation is created. If the hon. Lady will allow me, I shall continue to develop my argument. She should be reassured that the Liberal Democrats want a fair allocation of sites as much as any party does.

The Conservatives closed 67 per cent. of Traveller sites between 1986 and 1993. In 1994 the Conservative Government released local authorities from their obligations to provide sites and introduced new laws penalising families for stopping without permission. At a stroke they destroyed the Traveller way of life in this country. It is estimated that in this country there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies—Romany, Irish, Scottish and so on. Most live in houses.

Mr. Lilley: I do not know what country the hon. Lady has been living in. I have been a Member of this place for a long time, and Gypsies have been an issue throughout. However, no Gypsy site in my area or known to me has been closed down during that time, either by this Government or previous ones.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for that intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, who has clearly been around a little longer than I—[Interruption.] In this place, I mean. I am alluding not to what has happened in specific areas, but to the general figures that apply to this country as a whole.

Mr. Heald: I am happy to lend the hon. Lady the Government’s own document, “Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures”. It contains a graph that shows the constant increase in the numbers of caravans on official and unofficial sites. Would she like to read it? It certainly deals with the points that she has made.

Mr. Lilley: What is her source?

Lorely Burt: My source is the Government figures, which were given to me a few weeks ago by the Minister.

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I shall make progress. Approximately 4,000 Gypsies and Travellers—27 per cent. of the moving population, or the population who live on sites—live on unauthorised sites. We have talked about the scale of the problem. Indeed, the Minister intervened on that issue, and the proportions involved have to be considered as we talk about it. All new provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites could be provided within 1 square mile of land. Please—let us get the proportion right.

Anne Main: Will the hon. Lady discuss Hertfordshire? That is what this debate is about.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Lady asks me to discuss Hertfordshire. I am attempting to draw some conclusions, which she may find useful. I hope so.

The problems arise because local authorities do not provide sufficient sites. That is why the Government intervened with the Housing Act 2004. When local authorities provide sites, they are usually well run and there is no problem or conflict with the local authority. On receiving a briefing, I learned that there is an approved site in my own borough of Solihull, although not in my constituency. I did not even know that it was there. The provision of sites does not have to be the end of the world for a local authority. When sites are well run, and Solihull borough is run by the Conservatives, it is clear that the need is met and the problems can be evaded. However, I am not talking about illegal encampments, which result from a group of Travellers moving on to an illegal site. That is an entirely different matter.

I should like to give some idea of how some local authorities have reacted to Traveller encampments. One devotes 5 per cent. of its entire budget to evictions, but spends nothing on the provision of authorised sites. That shows how the emphasis causes the problem. The 2004 Act places a requirement to assess housing need and provide adequate housing for all members of the local community; indeed, the regional spatial strategy cannot be cleared unless that is done. Planning permission for new sites is more likely to be issued if the local authority is not providing authorised sites. Greater decision-making power is given to the local authority if there is an adequate supply of sites in the area.

I turn to the situation in respect of regions. Various speakers have said that the region is some sort of pariah that seeks to dominate and suppress the freedom of different local authorities. Might I suggest to Conservative Members that it is sometimes helpful to have a regional body, which can take into account need within a specific region and not just within a local authority? Subsidiarity is a fundamental part of Liberal Democrat philosophy. It means that decisions should be made as close as possible to the individuals affected by them. We want a regional authority so that we do not get the situation to which Conservative Members have alluded: the Government trying to impose from the centre on local decision making.

Mr. Gauke: If the hon. Lady believes in localism, as many of us do, she should surely believe in decisions being made as close to the people as possible; she said that she did. Surely that should be at a district—or at most, county—level. In my constituency, I find that one of the problems with regional government is that it completely ignores what happens over the border in Buckinghamshire, because the region does not consider
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that. However, a district or borough council is far more likely to take all such local factors into account.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): I remind the hon. Lady that she has about another two minutes to speak.

Lorely Burt: Thank you, Mrs. Dean.

My worry is about the continuing demonisation of Gypsies and Travellers; it makes conflict by not producing appropriate authorised sites. One third of adults admit to being personally prejudiced against the group. Lack of provision causes conflict, reinforces prejudices and takes its toll on a group that has 18 times more child deaths, far worse examination results, and life expectancies 10 to 12 years shorter than those of the settled population. As Trevor Phillips said, prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers is the last acceptable form of racism. We want an open and transparent system, in which each local authority does its fair share. The hon. Member for St. Albans is clear that hers does. We do not want a honey pot situation that attracts people from local authorities that are not taking their share and providing appropriate approved sites.

If we could restore a proper balance to the adequate provision of sites, things would be calmer for local residents and there would be a huge boost to the security and quality of life of the most disadvantaged minority in our country. It would also be a lot cheaper for local authorities and better value for money for local residents.

3.38 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Good afternoon, Mrs. Dean. I have never had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship. It has been great; I have had a wonderful time this afternoon, because my mind has been changed on this subject on so many levels—not least by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), whose speech I shall long remember. I shall especially remember her most vicious attack on local Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire and castigation of Cuncillor Chris Brazier in particular. I suppose that he at least has an advantage over the hon. Lady in knowing where Hertfordshire and St. Albans are.

Lorely Burt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: I will in a second; I have not yet finished with the hon. Lady. Despite the fact that Councillor Brazier lives in the area and has come to a decision, the hon. Lady apparently knows better than him—so much for subsidiarity.

Lorely Burt rose—

Mr. Pickles: I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a second. We were also quite astounded to see the way in which she dealt with the statistics, which were clearly wrong. I assumed that some spotty researcher had given her that bucket of rubbish, but it turned out to be the Minister. Perhaps she should be a little more careful about people from other parties who give her information, and about relying on those figures. We are grateful for her admission that Solihull under the Conservatives is a well run authority. I thank her for telling me why we need a regional body—apparently, we need a regional body to take regional decisions.

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Lorely Burt: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman seeks to demonise any individual who cannot stand in this place and defend themselves. He is talking about a specific instance. I am not from Hertfordshire, as he points out, but I have been trying to the best of my ability to draw out principles that Liberal Democrats adhere to, wherever they are in the country.

Mr. Pickles: But apparently not in St. Albans. I was not demonising Councillor Brazier; I think that I was trying to demonise the hon. Lady.

Another reason that I enjoyed the debate, and that it substantially changed my mind, was that I had always felt that the Government were carrying out some great Stalinist plot, whereby they merely looked at the figures, sent down to their people and said, “Give us more pitches; give us more figures,” in the way in which the great dictator used to say, “I want more tractors; I want more tanks; I want more executions.” Apparently, there is no logic at all. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) put it rather well. At times, I felt that he was describing a combination of King Lear and the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland”. The Government are essentially saying, “Supply us with pitches. We know not where, and we know not in what number, but they will truly be the wonder of the world.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) made a magnificent point. It apparently does not matter whether there is a local connection or whether local Travellers have sites, just so long as there are sites. Local provision does not matter at all. It is possible under the system to provide as many sites as one likes. Travellers could come in from entirely different parts of the country, leaving Travellers in Hertfordshire without pitches, and still the Government’s criteria would be met.

I have been remiss in not congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. I thought that she put her point across civilly and reasonably, and she showed a marked understanding that these decisions are not easy. It is immensely difficult to decide where pitches are going to go, and the conflict between the settled community and Travellers can be injurious to good community relations. Where those decisions work and there is an established understanding, things are excellent and we can be proud. However—I agree completely with Trevor Phillips on this point—in truth, in a lot of parts of the country that conflict is exactly what is happening. The regulations and the decisions from the regional bodies do not accept that, because the formula is difficult and incomprehensible. As my hon. Friend said, there is a feeling that such decisions are being bulldozed through by a remote authority and that they are a done deal.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) raised the difficulty of green belts and other areas, and of finding brownfield sites. He made the reasonable point that not that many sites are available on the green belt. A sensible community might eventually have to come to that decision, but we must clearly demonstrate beyond peradventure that the authority and the council have gone through the correct process before that decision is taken.

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