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Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 May 2008

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Gypsies and Travellers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Alison Seabeck.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is good to see you in the Chair once again, Mr. Illsley, and to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this important debate this afternoon. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on the progress that the Government have made in continuing our commitment to providing decent homes for those who need them. Through that commitment, we aim to ensure that Gypsies and Travellers, who are perhaps the most socially excluded ethnic minority group in the country, have an authorised and secure place in which to live.

I would like to thank Sir Brian Briscoe, members of the task group and all those who gave evidence during the course of the group’s work. This debate is the start of a commitment by the Government to report regularly on our progress with regard to the accommodation requirements of Gypsies and Travellers.

The debate comes at a time when we look forward to celebrating Gypsy Roma Traveller history month in June. It is the first such celebration to be fully supported and endorsed by the Government. It will provide a tremendous opportunity for children in our schools to hear of the traditions of Gypsies and Travellers and how their cultural heritage, passed down through the generations, is often a world away from that popularly perceived. Together with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Lord Adonis, I welcome the opportunity that we will now have to challenge the myths and to break down the barriers to social cohesion.

It is important to put today’s debate into context and to remember that this is not an abstract matter. We are discussing real people here; a proud people who are protective of their cultural identity. They are families with children who sorely need the opportunity for a proper education; and families with elderly relatives who desperately need their elected representatives to champion improvements to health services on their behalf.

The Government have a proud and strong record of addressing and tackling social injustice in this country. Providing sufficient and good quality accommodation will help to tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, and improve health and education outcomes. The average life expectancy of a Gypsy or a Traveller is 10 to 12 years lower than that of a member of a settled community. In many ways, I accept that that is due to lifestyle and diet choices, but, in part, it can be attributed to a failure to access health services. Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost
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20 times more likely to experience the death of a child. Some 22 per cent. of Irish Traveller children and 15 per cent. of Gypsy children achieve five or more good GCSE grades compared with 55 per cent. of children in the settled community. Again, some of that may be due to children failing to have a settled school life caused by the absence or shortage of appropriate sites in which to live.

We are talking about a proud people who have the same rights and responsibilities as every single one of us here today. Let me focus for a moment on the issue of responsibility. In my position as Minister with responsibility for Gypsies and Travellers, I receive a lot of correspondence and parliamentary questions about those communities. In some of the correspondence, there is a message that Gypsies and Travellers are somehow above the law, that there is one rule for Gypsy and Traveller communities and one rule for the rest of us, and that there is strict enforcement of the law for hard-working families living in bricks and mortar accommodation and more of a laissez-faire attitude to those people who are part of Gypsy and Traveller communities. Let me say now that I need to kill that myth off right here, right now.

All of us in this country, regardless of our status or background, live under one set of laws. Our expected standards of behaviour extend to everybody in our society. We have a range of measures with which to tackle antisocial behaviour. We are now preparing guidance for publication later this year on how those powers can be used to tackle situations in which Gypsies and Travellers are responsible for, as well as being the victims of, such antisocial behaviour. I believe passionately that no one should have to tolerate thoughtless and antisocial behaviour. I accept that a proportion of the Gypsy and Traveller communities perpetrate such behaviour. However, it is also fair to say that just because a small minority of Gypsies and Travellers carry out antisocial behaviour, it does not necessarily follow that all Gypsies and Travellers are criminals. In the same way, I would say that, just because a small minority of young people carry out crimes, not all young people are criminals.

A range of powers are in place and available to landowners, local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments. Those powers include sections 61, 62A to E, 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. We have strengthened police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments and offered clear guidance to local authorities on how to use them. We will have the opportunity this afternoon to debate the Government’s policies that are aimed at ensuring that such communities have authorised places in which to live. No doubt, we will also debate the consequences of them not having such places.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Minister mentioned antisocial and criminal behaviour. I know that in many parts of the country, people often do not want a legal site established next to them for fear of such behaviour. Will he clarify from his own information and research whether the travelling community are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity than the settled population?

Mr. Wright: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question because there is no evidence that Gypsy and Traveller communities commit more crimes or acts of antisocial behaviour than any other part of our society. I am grateful that he allowed me to put that on the record.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised an interesting point. Does the Minister agree that we are likely to create a greater sense of enfranchisement within mainstream society if the settlements are dealt with within the law, and that instead of having Travellers living in a technically illegal settlement, they should be brought in to the community so that they have to pay council tax and everything that goes with it? They will then end up feeling that they are stakeholders in society.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman has made an important and valuable point and I would like to say two things in response. First, if we all talk to one another, we will find that a shared sense of community and family is common to us all. The history month in June provides a great opportunity for us to understand and learn a lot about heritage and traditions. Secondly, his point about having a stake in the community is vital. The identification of authorised, well-managed sites with good links and access to both the settled and Gypsy and Traveller communities is a no-brainer. Everybody wins with regard to that. It helps the idea of community cohesion if we push for what he suggests.

Almost a quarter of those living in caravans in this country today have no authorised place in which to stay. For this tangible, yet often forgotten, group of people, life can be incredibly intolerable. I have been told about young families being woken up at the crack of dawn and given minutes to collect their belongings and explain to their children why they cannot stay where they are. It must be difficult to understand why £18 million—the current cost of enforcement in this country with regard to unauthorised encampments—is spent simply moving Gypsies and Travellers from kerbside to kerbside, often several times a day. That is an indescribable amount of money to those communities.

I do not want this debate to be overtly party political; that can go on somewhere else in the country today. However, a lot of the issues, challenges and problems that the task group investigated stem from legislation passed in 1994 by the previous Conservative Government. As the task group’s final report makes clear, they

Those communities were

Even for those who could, restrictive planning policies meant that it was difficult to obtain planning permission for a site. Indeed, some Gypsies and Travellers found that even talking to planning authorities before a planning application was submitted led to discrimination, immediate pre-emptive action and ultimately planning refusal and a return to a life of roadside camping. I suggest that that is not a suitable way to encourage community cohesion.

Hon. Members present will no doubt remember the coverage in 2005, when newspapers and politicians alike damned unauthorised camps, yet failed to offer a workable solution. That was the context and backdrop to the Government’s decision to establish an independent task group to examine the issues underlying concerns about unauthorised camping, such as how local authorities could protect their open space from inappropriate development and whether the available enforcement
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powers were enough to protect landowners and businesses affected by encampments and deter those who were breaking the law.

In its very first month, the task group stated clearly and unequivocally that unauthorised camping could not be discussed and ultimately resolved if the reasons for it were not identified. We therefore agreed that the task group on enforcement should become the task group on site provision and enforcement. This Government have long recognised that effective enforcement against unauthorised camping must go hand in hand with identification and provision of sites. Other stakeholders believe that, too.

I have been encouraged by the words of, for example, Northamptonshire county Councillor Ben Smith:

I agree with every word that he says. I was equally encouraged by Councillor Paul Bettison, environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, who said:

I absolutely agree with everything that that councillor said, too.

In the Housing Act 2004, we put in place a requirement for local authorities to tackle the reasons behind unauthorised encampments and to establish pitch needs through the preparation of accommodation assessments for Gypsies and Travellers. I am pleased that the vast majority of those have now been completed and are beginning to feed into the regional spatial strategy process. The policy framework established in the 2004 Act was examined carefully and thoroughly by the task group. It found that the policies put in place by this Government were sound, that local authorities had sufficient powers to deal with breaches of planning control or unauthorised developments and that we were right to place a duty on authorities to identify land.

That prompts the question as to where the problem lies, if it is not with the Government’s policy or the existing framework. If the powers are already in place, as the task group concluded, what lies behind the tensions that we see at planning committee meetings and that are reflected in the press and in our communities? That is what we are here to debate. The task group set out its thoughts in its final report, “The Road Ahead”, which is an informed, thorough and wide-ranging look at the state of Gypsy and Traveller policy. It sets out a number of recommendations not only to national Government but to representatives at all levels of democracy and to institutions such as the press and other media.

The task group felt that a difference could be made most effectively at local level. Its first recommendation was that where there is clear need for site provision, local authorities should give serious consideration to proceeding with a development plan document now, to
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enable the identification of land for authorised sites. Indeed, the task group went further, stating that if there is a clear need for land, authorities should begin to allocate it even if the regional spatial strategy has not yet allocated formal pitch numbers.

We will all be able to cite stories of large numbers of unauthorised encampments and developments, although it is interesting to note the task group’s finding that, contrary to popular belief, huge encampments are relatively rare. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s circular 01/2006 was very clear that a significant number of unauthorised encampments or developments in an area shows a clear and immediate need. I hope that the message to local authorities is clear: if there are unauthorised camps in an area, the local authority should take action now to identify where authorised sites can be provided.

Andrew George: That is an important recommendation. In many areas where there is concern about the creation of authorised sites, the concerns are about the size of the sites and the number of pitches as well as their location. Has the Minister’s Department or the task group undertaken any work on or made any recommendation about the size of sites, the optimum number of pitches and at what scale they would become a problem, or about their location in relation to the settled community?

Mr. Wright: There are two distinct points there. Whether we are talking about housing growth numbers or Gypsy and Traveller pitches, on location, I maintain that local considerations serve us best. People will be aware of specific local circumstances and are able to discuss them in what I hope will be a mature debate on the location of sites.

The hon. Gentleman’s second interesting point was about the optimum size of a site. Of course, it is not right for Ministers or officials in Whitehall to specify the optimum size, because it will be based on specific communities’ requirements. However, in the past few days we have issued guidance on site design, which helps to ensure that Gypsy and Traveller communities have appropriate access to the facilities that can help to stabilise communities and provide community cohesion. I hope that that answers his question.

A lot is down to local people having a sensible, mature and non-bigoted debate, but central Government can provide financial assistance to help with the provision of new sites. To that end, I am pleased that we have been able to make provision for a further £97 million over the next three years to help to deliver more sites and refurbish existing ones. That comes on the back of what we have done in the past few years. We made £56 million available between 2006 and 2008 to deliver new pitches and refurbish existing ones.

The task group called for the delivery of authorised sites to be sped up, and I agree fully with that assessment. As I said earlier, all Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments should now be complete. For the first time, local authorities have an authoritative statement of need and demand for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in their areas. It is now time to take action to meet those needs.

I have mentioned the £97 million that will be available to refurbish sites and provide new ones in the next three years, and it shows the Government’s commitment to
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tackling the issue. The money that we have provided in the past has helped to fund a variety of projects all over the country. One innovative scheme will enable a local authority to acquire and hold suitable land and sell it on to Gypsy and Traveller organisations or families on a non-profit basis, so that they can develop and manage new sites. The proceeds of that sale can then be recycled into the purchase of further land for use as Gypsy and Traveller sites.

This year, successful schemes were worth £34 million. In total, funding between 2006 and 2008 will pay for more than 400 new pitches and the refurbishment of 120 sites. We have now started a new bidding round, which will run until July. We are confident that the funding will make significant inroads into the shortfall in site provision, to the benefit of Gypsies, Travellers and the settled communities. The provision of homes will help to cut unauthorised camping and the sometimes serious tensions that, as we all know, can be caused with the settled community. I also passionately believe that it will help to improve the health, education and welfare outcomes of Gypsies and Travellers across the country.

Andrew George: The Minister and I must continue the conversation that we are having. On educational provision, to what extent is the money available able to assist in circumstances in which an authorised site is brought into an area where there is already a lack of sufficient local school places, or where the health provision in the local community is already oversubscribed? Can the funding that is available through the scheme assist with such infrastructure problems, which exist beyond the site itself?

Mr. Wright: Again, the hon. Gentleman raises a serious and interesting point. The £97 million that I referred to is capital spend specifically for the refurbishment and the provision of new build. Nevertheless, he raises an interesting point. Let me go away and see to what extent the idea of necessary additional or new infrastructure, such as access to health care and school places, could be funded. I suspect not, frankly; I do not think that the money will be used in that way. However, if we can have a cross-governmental look at how we can address those issues, his contribution will be very worth while.

How local authorities spend their money is up to them. As I said earlier, an estimated £18 million is spent on moving Gypsies and Travellers from place to place, frequently providing little choice for the people being moved other than to camp unlawfully. In its report, the task group highlighted the example of Bristol city council, which grasped the nettle of providing a site. The council saw its enforcement costs fall from around £200,000 a year to less than £5,000 a year following the provision of a transit site.

I truly believe that everybody, including the council tax payer, wins with the approach that leads to the sensible provision of authorised sites. Not only does such provision help those who are socially excluded but it has a positive impact on the bottom line, too. Putting it plainly, it is in the best interests of those who are in this room, those who are elected to local councils and those whom we all represent if we help to identify and deliver authorised sites in appropriate locations.

Nevertheless, I realise, especially on this day of all days, that we do not live in a political vacuum and I am
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under no illusion that providing such sites is ever easy. However, we are all elected to take challenging decisions. The task group sets out a very clear message on what must be done to help to improve the quality of life, indeed the life chances, of the Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Three weeks ago, candidates from all parties took to the streets to try to convince the public that they and they alone could best represent their interests at a local level. I am not naive, so I am sure that the issue of unauthorised camping will have been raised by some of those who were canvassed during the election period. I fully appreciate that proposals for new Gypsy and Traveller sites raise public interest in a way that few, if any, other small-scale planning applications do. For example, I am aware of a recent consultation on where new sites could be located in a local borough that attracted more than 3,500 responses. However, what I find deeply worrying is that more than 3,000 of those responses had to be rejected due to allegedly racist comments.

The task group drew attention to the crucial role that Ministers such as myself and all elected Members have to play in both representing and leading all members of their communities. The task group said:

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