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22 May 2008 : Column 143WH—continued

Again, I am very aware that vehement political battles are going on elsewhere in the country today. However, I am very keen, from this debate onwards, to foster some sort of political consensus on this matter, because, as I have said before, everybody wins when we try to shout down the bigotry as much as possible.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Wright: In giving way to my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the fantastic work that she does as chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform.

Julie Morgan: I thank the Minister for giving way. I am very much enjoying listening to his speech.

On the political issue that the Minister just referred to, does he agree that it is a very good idea to make contact with the different parties, particularly coming up to election times, so that these issues, in which vulnerable groups are involved, are not used as political pawns in an election campaign? This is certainly something that has been done in Wales. For the Assembly elections, the party leaders agreed that they would not campaign on these issues and similar attempts were made in local authority elections not to campaign on such issues. Does he agree that that approach is a good way forward in these political battles?

Mr. Wright: I certainly do. I do not want to pre-empt what we will debate this afternoon, but I hope that there will be an element of political consensus in Westminster Hall this afternoon that we can then use as a good example of political discussion. I am keen to work with other political stakeholders, such as the Local Government Association, on this issue and I hope that all hon.
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Members pull together to ensure that we can foster that sense of tolerance that my hon. Friend rightly says is necessary.

Some people find it very easy to attack those who camp on land without permission, or who breach development controls, and it is absolutely right and proper that standards of behaviour and the rule of law must apply to us all. Our development control legislation is there to protect the countryside, our open space and the rights of those who dwell within it. However, we really face a moral challenge on this issue, in that we must have the courage to tackle the reasons why Gypsies and Travellers are forced into unauthorised encampments, and we must also support a programme of site provision with a pace and a pride that reflects our commitment to providing valued accommodation for those who need it most.

I suspect that our debate today will be frank but I am confident, given the hon. Members who are present, that it will also be extremely well-informed, balanced and dignified. The task group made it clear that it is our role, and that of Members up and down the country, to ensure that such informed debate takes place across our land.

2.56 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): May I also say, Mr. Illsley, that it is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship?

I, too, would like to start by welcoming many of the valuable comments in the report of the independent task group. I know that its membership was widely drawn. It would perhaps be invidious to single out any individuals, but I shall make particular reference to Richard Bennett, former leader of Reigate and Banstead borough council, who represented the Local Government Association in the task group. I know that he continues to play a valuable role in the dialogue, conducted on a cross-party basis, that is developing within local government. I am also pleased that there were representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller community involved in the task group; their inclusion is obviously a sensible and constructive way forward.

Of course, there is common ground in some measure. It is right that we recognise that the vast majority of the Gypsy and Traveller population behave responsibly, are anxious to live peaceably and effectively with their neighbours, and are on authorised sites. When there is sensible collaboration, these sites can work well. I speak as somebody who was, in a previous period of his career, a member of a local authority. I am pleased to say that it was under the control of my party in the ’60s and ’70s and, quite early on, was involved in setting up a Travellers site, which was then in the London borough of Havering. That site has developed and is now a successful, authorised site. I am certainly not suggesting anything other than that there is a sensible way forward through the recognition and identification of proper sites. That is the correct approach for us to adopt.

Equally, however, we must recognise that, although there is undoubtedly and regrettably bigotry and prejudice in our society—I accept that such things exist—one cannot say that all or even a majority of opposition to particular sites is necessarily motivated by such base motives.

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Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Given that the hon. Gentleman said that he thinks the report is taking the right line in ensuring that there is sufficient provision, does he now think it was a mistake for the previous Government to have removed the requirement in the 1994 Act to provide accommodation?

Robert Neill: I am interested in looking forward and being constructive in finding ways to deal with this problem. However, we must get some balance, and if the hon. Gentleman listens he will find that there is a balanced approach that the Conservative party is interested in adopting.

This is the point that I want to make: in understanding why there is frequently opposition to these sites, one must recognise that part of that opposition stems from a real sense of frustration among the settled and existing neighbouring communities that decisions are not taken at a sufficiently local level. Therefore, I part company with the Government’s view that these issues are best handled at regional level.

Hon. Members will know that, as a matter of principle, my party is opposed to the regionalist agenda and we believe that it is broadly desirable to return all planning processes to the most local level possible. If decisions are taken locally and seen to be taken locally, we are much more likely to get the buy-in from the community that is desirable and that will make for a much smoother process for the future.

The report quotes several instances of good practice, which I recognise. As the Minister said, the LGA is keen to develop and do further work in disseminating good practice. That is a sensible way forward and one that I certainly endorse. I point in particular to the excellent work done by Fenland district council, which, as it happens, is under the control of my party, but each party controls authorities mentioned in the report. I suggest that the key reason why those examples of good practice have succeeded is that there is local ownership of decisions. The local authority has been able to take the decision and act of its own accord, rather than being imposed on by a remote regional body—that is the difference.

The Minister is right to say that we are all elected to take challenging decisions. That includes our local councillors, yet I sometimes suspect that it is a sense that decisions are removed from them to an unelected body that causes much of the frustration in the process. I understand the Minister’s analysis, but the Government’s policy of regionalisation of planning matters will make things worse. Transferring planning issues to regional development agencies will have the perverse effect of creating tensions where there need not be any. We should trust our local councillors to grasp the nettle and respond sensibly to applications.

Recognising that the vast majority of Travellers behave well and properly, and that it is important to have a constructive dialogue with the travelling community, does not, I am afraid, get away from the fact that real issues and tensions are caused by the minority who abuse the system. It is important, therefore, that there are proper mechanisms to bear down on such abuse. After all, in the classic case, it creates difficulties for the law-abiding majority whom we wish to assist. That is where I believe that the report is a little too generous to the planning and enforcement regime.

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The sad fact is that even if one strips out some of the emotive language that is unhelpful in discussions of this kind, there is evidence to suggest that unauthorised encampments remain a real problem. The consultation document produced two or three years ago by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister recognised that the problem had grown and therefore needed to be tackled. Such encampments result in enforcement costs to local authorities, but frequently there are also considerable costs to others, particularly farmers. I believe the National Farmers Union estimated that illegal encampments run to a cost of about £100 million.

We must recognise that if we are to get public support for sensible arrangements for the travelling community, we must have a proper means of dealing with the minority who abuse the system—and that includes not only Travellers. There is real concern about landowners—they may not be Travellers—who hold neighbouring residents to ransom by threatening that they will allow an encampment on their site unless the neighbouring landowners or residents purchase the site at a highly inflated price. We do not seem to have an adequate system for dealing with that. The stop notice rules are insufficient, which is why the Opposition want an extension of council powers of compulsory purchase if there is clear abuse of that kind or continuing breach of a stop notice.

We must also ensure that steps are taken to deal with abuse of the planning laws by way of applications for retrospective planning permission. As we all know, people may innocently fall foul of planning requirements, in which case retrospective permission is appropriate. I have no argument with that, but it is appropriate that we should strengthen the ability of local authorities to refuse retrospective permission where evidence exists that can reasonably lead to the conclusion that someone has knowingly breached planning law. That is part of the level playing field, that is necessary if we are to get buy-in from communities as well as the travelling community.

Lembit Öpik: On that basis—this is a specific example, but it is such a large one that it may be worth mentioning—what is the hon. Gentleman’s view on the situation at Dale farm, Oak lane, Crays Hill, Basildon? It appears that some 1,000 Travellers live there. If he does not have a view, that is fine, but if he does, it might be useful to hear it. This is not a trick question; I am genuinely interested in his thoughts on it.

Robert Neill: I shall defer to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who is closely involved with the site. Later in the debate, he will address that point on the basis of close local knowledge.

Julie Morgan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in many cases the planning breaches are caused by the fact that there is nowhere for the Gypsies or Travellers to go, and that the proposed solution of having an adequate number of sites would prevent such breaches from occurring? We cannot make any real progress until there are adequate sites.

Robert Neill: Having a sensible assessment of what is required and making provision is obviously a wise course, but we should not then leap to a view that
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justifies deliberate breaches of planning law. That is where we are in danger of creating needless resentment among many neighbours of travelling communities who feel that there is not a level playing field.

A consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998—perhaps unintended but perverse—has been to make some provisions of the 1994 Act harder to enforce. For example, most ordinary citizens will regard as a perverse consequence, and as something that needs addressing, judgments such as that by the Court of Appeal in the Chichester district council case, where what is described by the court as the council’s legitimate action in issuing an enforcement notice is held to fall foul of the Human Rights Act.

I am discussing clear and deliberate breaches. Redressing the balance would do much to improve the climate in which the debate is conducted, which would benefit the travelling community as much as anyone else.

We also need to look at the guidance given to enforcement bodies to ensure that it is realistic and that it gives them the flexibility to act appropriately. Our contention is that that must be done against the background of getting rid of arbitrary quotas and looking at ways to incentivise local authorities. In that context, it is important that any local authority can have an assurance that cost burdens will not be shunted on to it in consequence of the establishment of a proper site.

I am sure that the LGA will want to look carefully at the details of the spending announced by the Minister to ensure that it properly funds the costs, including consequential costs. Again, that is part of the level playing field that is absolutely key to this matter.

Similarly, where there clearly is an improper encampment, greater powers to enable swift removal will lead to a reduction of tensions. The point about transit sites is well made, and that may be something we can look at, but it must be considered in the context of a balanced approach.

Finally, we ought to look at intentional trespass, about which more could be done. I am interested in the fact that the Irish Republic, like this country, is a signatory to the European convention on human rights. It, too, has a substantial Traveller population and much experience in dealing with such matters. The Irish Government have introduced legislation that makes intentional trespass an offence, doing so against the background of ensuring that several conditions are met—that is, the legislation applies only when the intentional trespass is likely to

Those are sensible provisions, which might well be examined here. Again, they will be seen as redressing the balance so that genuine cases are assisted, while those who abuse the system, whatever their background, are borne down upon.

Mr. Slaughter: The hon. Gentleman is spending most of his speech talking about problems that he said existed only in a minority of cases where Travellers are concerned. I wonder whether he, like me, has received the briefing from the Country Land and Business Association, which says:

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Will he reflect on that in asking for further legal penalties?

Robert Neill: I do take that into account in reaching my conclusion, which I do not resile from, that further strengthening of the law is required. That is also the view of the National Farmers Union and other bodies. There are two sides to an argument, and it is important that both be listened to sensibly. Strengthening provisions to extend compulsory purchase powers to deal with abuses by landowners who hold a gun to people’s heads would be a corollary to that approach.

It is essential that all people across the country—whatever their community—can say that the law treats them fairly, but there is no getting away from the fact that the strong perception is that genuine instances and hard evidence show that that is not always the way that it works in practice. I am sure that that is an unintended consequence of the legislation, but even when we have hard evidence of such unintended consequences, we are, to use the Minister’s word, “shirking” our responsibility to take the challenging decision to do something. Doing something in what is a minority of cases will be the best long-term means to reassure the law-abiding majority, while ensuring that there is the best possible integration of the travelling and the settled communities.

We generally agree about where we want to go, although there will be differences between us as to the route and the means. Against that background, I welcome the report and the opportunity to debate the issue, and I know that other hon. Members will want to bring particular experiences to bear. In that sense, we are perhaps at the start of the development of a policy on the issue.

Having welcomed those proposals that I support, expressed my reservations about others and said where I believe further action is required, let me say that I am sure that we will return to the issue in future debates because it is important. Finding a workable and balanced solution must be key to everything.

3.13 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It is, as the Minister said, opportune and appropriate that we are debating this subject today. A large proportion of parliamentary colleagues have themselves become travellers, living on Virgin’s London to Crewe main line service. I only hope that the policy on Travellers outcomes that we reach as a result of the debate turn out to be rather more successful than that rail service—but I digress.

I very much echo the sentiments expressed by the Minister and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) when they said that the image of Travellers is rather unfairly negative. Oftentimes, we hear that Travellers are directly responsible for crime waves in local communities, but the evidence does not tend to back that up. In fact, there is not really any circumstantial evidence to show that Travellers are less law-abiding, or display less social integrity, than anybody else. If the intention behind the debate is in part to put the record straight, I hope that the fact that all three Front-Bench spokesmen have underlined that point will go some way
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to reassuring the public that we are not talking about some sort of outlaw community that is seeking to invade local life.

Travellers and the Gypsy population often have the poorest life chances of any ethnic minority group. They have problems accessing public services, including health and education, as the Minister rightly said. They also end up living on illegal sites in circumstances that necessarily conflict with planning regulations. I agree that the debate is not about giving in to illegal practice; rather, it is a common-sense debate about acknowledging that these individuals exist, that they have a chosen lifestyle that should offend no one and that a quarter of them live on unauthorised sites as a result of the planning circumstances in this country. The former Member of Parliament for Ludlow, Matthew Green, does a great deal of work representing Travellers in such circumstances, and he has confirmed to me that the overwhelming majority seek not to fall outside the law, but to find somewhere to live, either in a community or as a small settlement. They turn to him and others in an effort to right the legal situation. They do not consider what they are doing a battle with the state or as rebellious action, but merely an effort to come to terms with the requirements of local community planning and to meet their own very reasonable requirement to have a settled and stable home life.

Moving Gypsies on only decreases their quality of life, which is already low. The real question at the heart of the debate is how we can provide for community cohesion while ensuring that the needs of the existing community are also taken into account. As the Minister said, the taskforce recommends authorised sites. It is important that we make it easier to enforce the current regulations, while compensating members of the Traveller community by giving them somewhere to go. Unless we do that, we will create an impossible situation and simply move the illegal problem on, rather than resolve it. I was pleased to hear the Minister remind us that £97 million has been allocated for the next three years to deliver sites. The guidance on site design is also important. I am increasingly convinced of the importance of creating sustainable communities, whether in fixed housing or Traveller locations.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned education provision. I hope that, on reflection, the Minister can give us a more detailed explanation of how the Government can help local communities by giving them sufficient funds to make education provision available for those who live on Traveller sites.

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