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Jobcentre Plus (Christchurch)

6.17 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I wish to present a petition against the proposal to close the Christchurch office of Jobcentre Plus. The petition was signed by between 4,000 and 5,000 local people during the one month consultation period, which ends this week.

The petition states:

Since the launch of the petition there is a new Prime Minister who is committed to change. The people of Christchurch certainly hope that he will change the policy on this issue.

To lie upon the Table.

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Travellers (Facilities)

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

6.18 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the Chamber a matter of great importance to my constituents. I am pleased that I am giving the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), his first opportunity to respond in his new role. I wish him well in carrying out his ministerial responsibilities. We worked closely together when he stood in the Hartlepool by-election. When we were tramping the streets of Hartlepool many years ago, little did I know that he would one day respond to my Adjournment debate. I am sure that his reply will be an early hallmark of a long and successful ministerial career.

I applied for the debate on behalf of my constituents, businesses and Newport city council. They have contacted me about the consequences of unauthorised encampments set up by Gypsies and Travellers in my constituency. I appreciate that the issue is sensitive and I acknowledge and welcome the steps that the Government and the Welsh Assembly are taking to address some of the difficulties faced by Gypsies and Travellers. The Assembly obviously has some responsibility for such matters, but the law of trespass, which I will mention later, is the UK Government’s responsibility.

Newport has a particular problem with unauthorised encampments owing to its location—it is one of the gateways to Wales and it is on the M4 corridor. Over the past few years, the city of Newport has witnessed a wave of unauthorised camps being set up on significant community areas, including parks and school playing fields. There are problems to do with unauthorised encampments, and the cost of enforcement action and of clearing them up is unsustainable and locally very unpopular. It is estimated that about £18 million is spent each year on enforcement action in the UK.

In the past year, there have been 16 encampments on sensitive sites in Newport. Three were on school playing fields, causing damage to the fields and putting them out of bounds to the children for a total of 20 days. Five were on the grounds of a stately home, Tredegar house, and that not only affected visitors but put events in jeopardy—weddings, for example, were at risk of cancellation. Three were at Newport international sports village. They put the car park out of commission and thereby prevented the public from accessing the facilities. Three were in Coronation park, which is one of the main venues for community sport in my constituency. That put in jeopardy a major youth soccer tournament, which was attended by about 3,000 people and organised by volunteers from the Newport Corinthians football club. Caravans were parked on football pitches, causing damage and giving rise to major clear-up costs. The remaining two encampments were on other parks in the city.

Costs and the time needed to return facilities to good use were particularly critical in the case of the occupation of the school playing fields and Coronation park. In total, costs of over £10,000 were incurred in
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removing the rubbish and making the playing fields safe for schoolchildren to use again. I recognise that Gypsy and Traveller communities have their own legitimate needs and expectations and I support their right to live life as they choose. They have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Although many Gypsies and Travellers act responsibly, sadly, my constituents regularly bring me stories that show that that is often not the case. Neither the Travellers nor the settled community should be able to ignore each other’s legitimate expectations or prevent their enjoyment of life. The settled community also has the right to access its community facilities. Settled communities have the right to run youth soccer games in city parks, schoolchildren have the right to play safely on their school field and the public have the right to access parks and sports facilities.

Each year, unauthorised encampments continue to spring up. I appreciate that Newport does not have a permanent site. The Welsh Assembly Government have responded positively to the detailed report that they commissioned on the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Wales and they are now working on a strategy that will have important implications for the provision of services in the long term, but in the meantime Newport works with neighbouring authorities in south Wales to provide alternative arrangements. The Assembly’s commissioned report acknowledges that even in areas with existing Gypsy/Traveller sites, unauthorised encampments continue to be problematic. Its findings on the number of unauthorised encampments show that a significant number still occur, including in areas run by authorities that have official designated sites.

The effect of unauthorised encampment is to worsen inter-community relations and cohesion. That in turn makes it difficult for the council to identify a site. The endless round of court notices and eviction enforcements means that everyone, from settled neighbours to Travellers and their families, become exasperated, and council officials and the local police are often caught in the middle of difficult situations. The result is that the public’s experience makes them fearful of the consequences of having a site in their area.

For the council and the police, the current legislation on trespass encourages tensions. Some argue that they would like the laws of trespass changed to bring us into line with the Republic of Ireland, where there are stronger powers to enable the police to deal with trespass. Will the Minister look at the experience in Ireland to see whether there are lessons that we could learn, and may we consider how the law works there? Residents who have experienced the after-effects of an unauthorised encampment often ask whether, at the very least, certain sites could be designated as “sensitive”. By that, they mean school playing fields, parks, school grounds and sports facilities. That way, people in the settled community can continue to live their lives.

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