It being more than one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings in the Committee, The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again, pursuant to Order [this day.]
That the draft Large and Medium-sized Companies and Groups (Accounts and Reports) Regulations 2008, which were laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.
That the draft Small Companies and Groups (Accounts and Directors Report) Regulations 2008, which were laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.
That the draft Companies Act 2006 (Amendment) (Accounts and Reports) Regulations 2008, which were laid before this House on 17th December, be approved.
That the draft Insurance Business Transfer Schemes (Amendment of Corporation Tax Acts) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 10th December, be approved. [Mr. Khan.]
That, at the sitting on Monday 4th February, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), the Speaker shall put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Jacqui Smith relating to Police Grant Report not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion, and shall put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Hazel Blears relating to Local Government Finance not later than Ten oclock; proceedings may continue after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply. [Mr. Khan.]
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I have been campaigning on the issue of the travelling community since I was elected in 1992, with limited success. I have tried to deal with and resolve the problems that affect the travelling people in my constituency and, I believe, across the whole country. When I came to this House I had a romantic view of travelling people; I believed that the Gypsy population was made up of good, God-fearing people who listened to and understood the law, and who carried out their duties within it. Over the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, my opinion has been substantially eroded. Those people have become a threat to the community, and the powers-that-be seem powerless to intervene effectively. As individual MPs, we face a brick wall while the problem escalates by the year.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am listening closely to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that most of the difficulties between Gypsies, Travellers and the settled community in the UK are caused by the lack of official sites and stopping places for Gypsies and Travellers? Does he agree that the relationships would be much better if there were sufficient places for them to stop?
Mr. Donohoe: I know that the hon. Lady spends a tremendous amount of time advocating that cause, and I applaud her for that. The difficulty is that in my constituency we have two of those camps, yet I still find myself faced with illegal tippers and the other problems that come along with the Travellers.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): In my experience, the problem is that when we provide camps for travelling people or Gypsies, they then trash the camps. If there is a camp they have to live in it, but they want to travel throughout the country. The legislation means that if a camp is provided, they have to go to it. In my experience, they trash the camp so that they can go wherever they want in the community.
There is a perception that dealing with the travelling community is a devolved issue, and obviously I represent a Scottish constituency. However, we require multi-agency solutions. The Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs and all sorts of UK-wide agencies are involved. I shall address that point later.
It is clear that we need a debate. We need a rounded discussion, which must involve a review of the
legislation in England and Wales and in Scotland in light of all the barriers. We will need cross-party support for such a review. On the basis of my experience and that of other hon. Members from all parties, it is clear that the issue raises its head across the whole of the UK.
In addition, an attempt has been made to pass legislation to ban bogus doorstep salesmen, a substantial percentage of whom are Travellers. The police have told me that, and I have the same information from the police forces central computers. It is clear that crime and travelling people are connected. I sometimes have as many as 50 or 60 caravans in my constituency at a time, and I know that crime problems are correlated with the arrival of Travellers. That is unfortunate, but it is the case.
I have also identified other problems that I am sure are familiar to other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) has mentioned litter already, but another problem is the dumping of waste. For example, the local authority in my area gave Travellers Portaloos, but they were dumped in the skips that the authority had supplied for their rubbish and set alight. That is the sort of person that we are dealing with: I know that there are some good ones among them, but that story is typical of our experiences with them.
Other problems include people on the beach park at Irvine being intimidated while out running or walking their dogs, and being told that they have no right to be there. Constituents of mine have been shot at by the travelling people, and the House would find it hard to believe the sort of debrisfrom building work being undertaken on their behalfthat has been left when Travellers leave a camp. Also, Travellers are guilty of selling items without having a trading licence, and we have sometimes found that their caravans have been illegally imported, with no duty paid.
Martin Salter: My hon. Friend is talking about the need for more legislation, and I do not disagree, but does he accept that it would be refreshing if the police used the powers already on the statute book? The House has passed legislation to deal with antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and harassment, but many local communities feel that there is one law for Travellers and another for them. Does my hon. Friend know why that should be?
Mr. Donohoe: My hon. Friend is entitled to ask that question, and it is part of the problem that has been identified to me. Like him, I believe that much of it can be dealt with under the existing law, and later in my speech I shall show that the relevant agencies do not seem to be behaving in a sufficiently proactive way.
Some people suggest that the Traveller community is outside society as we know it. That is very worrying, as people have even suggested to me that vigilante groups should be set up. That would set a very dangerous
precedent in Ayrshire: I would not want to go down that road, or recommend it to anyone at all.
Traveller children are kept out of school, and as a result run riot on quad bikesand I have already mentioned the fearsome dogs in the camps. There is wanton vandalism to property: when the Travellers are in town they breach all the security put in place around empty factories, for example, with the result that the factories are trashed and millions of pounds-worth of damage is done. They also lift all the stones put down to stop them camping, and then claim that that just happened by accident.
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that local people see Travellers as outside the social norm? In my constituency, local Conservatives have told people that there is to be a campsite on their doorstep, when in fact no such site has ever been suggested. Travellers are guilty of real antisocial behaviour, but the actions of local Conservatives are an example of that being exploited for purely political gain. The fact that there are no Conservative Members on the Opposition Benches for this debate proves that they do not care about what is a real issue for all our people.
Mr. Donohoe: I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct, and I support most of what she says. There is another side to the equation, however, and it may be relevant to her intervention. Since I have been in the House, I have tried to get a representative of the Traveller community to meetings that I have set up. I have engaged with the local authority to get someone from that community to explain what we have got wrong and how we can correct that for the good ones that we know exist. Not one person north of the border can be identified as being from an organisation in any way connected to travelling people, which leads me to suggest that something is wrong.
Let me draw a parallel: I am a close supporter of the Showmens Guild, and I spoke at its 100th anniversary lunch. It has a structure, and people can go and speak to its representatives. We can tell them if there are problems with loud music or other issues, and we can talk to them about where they are and where they will be. They listen, there is reasonable rational debate, and we reach a solution to any problem. I cannot think of any comparable body north of the border. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) recently held a meeting in the House that was attended by a travelling person. I talked to her to find out whether she had a contact north of the border, and she said that there was none. I am up against it in that respect. The authorities argue that they, too, are powerless.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
I would go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) did: the issue is not just the unwillingness or reluctance of the police to use their powers, but co-ordination. That is why this Friday I am co-ordinating a Travellers round table in CoalvilleLeicestershire is an area with chronic Traveller problemsat which the Environment Agency, the National Farmers Union, landowners, the local authorities and the police can see whether there is
a way ahead, so that we can co-ordinate, work together and co-operate better in dealing with problems as they occur. At the moment, co-ordination is spasmodic and inchoate.
Mr. Donohoe: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I will come to that point later. I am conscious of the time, and I would appreciate it if there were no more interventions; otherwise, the Minister will have no chance to reply.
As part of my campaign I have held two summits in recent years, in which I worked closely with my two local authorities, their chief executives, trading standards officers, liaison officers, the police, Her Majestys Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions. I have had meetings to attempt to resolve the issues, as weincluding my constituentssee them, and I have not had the satisfaction of finding a solution to the problem. The local authority says that it is powerless to act because of how the law is structured. Unless there is a change to both Scottish law and the law in England and Wales, we will never eradicate the problem, which affects so many people across the country.
we have no easy way of physically moving offending Travelling People on from our land without the sanction of a court order. To get such an order we require evidence.
the way in which Eviction Orders are granted would in my view require changes in primary legislation.
All that relates only to council land. We then come to private land, which is even more problematic for those affected. As I said earlier, factories are trashed, in addition to everything else. I am asking for a review of English and Welsh legislation, as that might act as a catalyst for proposals on the subject north of the border.
There is no doubt that some Travellers are decent, law-abiding people. I have come across them, and they have my strong support for their right to go about their business. However, my constituency seems to be a magnet for what can only be described as convoys of cowboys. What really disturbs me is that they just do not listen to reason. There is no law that they will not break to go about their business. Worse, they prey on the gullible and the elderly in our society. One case came to my attention in which a man was taken to the bank and withdrew £102,000 to install a new roan pipe in his property. The people involved were charged, but that is an example of the situation that we face.
The size of Britains Traveller population is estimated to be around 300,000, with about 200,000 in settled housing. Data from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that in 2006 there were 16,300-odd caravans, of which 6,500 were on local authority sites, almost 6,000 on authorised private sites, 2,250 on unauthorised developments and just under 2,000 on unauthorised encampments. In England, part of the problem that has been identified to me are the marauding
youngsters. Because they are not in school, they can commit offences and breach the peace. If they were at school, there would be fewer problems.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to take note of the questions that I am about to ask. If he cannot answer them tonight, perhaps he will do so at some other time. Can he tell me of any proposals to undertake another initiative to deal with the problem that I have described? As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I, with my colleagues, joined the police and other agencies on Operation Mermaid, which was designed to take all the cowboys off our roads and buses. That was an extremely successful operation. Can a similar initiative be undertaken in respect of travelling people? Perhaps the Minister could engineer something along those lines.
Does the Minister agree that there is overwhelming evidence of the problems that I have outlined? He must be aware of that. Will he consult the relevant officials and review the need for more funding to be given to third parties, such as dedicated police officers in all police forces, so that they can do the necessary work? Part of the problem is that police forces are underfunded, and do not have funding specifically allocated to deal with this matter.
Will the Minister consider a change in the legislation, which is clearly required both south and north of the border? Legislation could and should be in force to deal with the unsolicited doorstep sales that Travellers are involved in. Finally, as a result of the debate, and in view of the amount of interest that has been shown, will the Minister consider meeting me, and some of the other hon. Members who have taken the trouble to come to the House this evening and listen to the debate?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing the debate. I do not think I have ever seen such a well attended end-of-sitting Adjournment debate. That shows the importance of the issue.
I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) that as parliamentarians we have an obligation in the manner in which we discuss the matter, and that some sort of political consensus across the House on our approach is needed.
Let me start at the end, as it were, with the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire for a meeting. I am more than happy to meet him and other interested hon. Members to discuss the issue, and I look forward to doing that soon. However, as he mentioned, responsibility and accountability for Gypsy and Traveller issues are devolved to the Scottish Government. Although I can provide information on where the position in Scotland differs from that in England, I cannot comment specifically on the Scottish Governments behalf, and I would not want to do so. I understand that my hon. Friend has communicated with and met members of the Scottish Executive.