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22 May 2008 : Column 149WH—continued

It is a matter of great regret that the Conservative Administration in 1994 removed the duty on councils to provide Gypsy sites. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst attempted to reassure us by saying that we should look to the future rather than merely hark back to the past, but I never really understood why the Conservative Government did what they did, and I am not completely reassured that a future Conservative Administration would show any more consideration towards Travellers. I tend to think that people cannot talk themselves out of a problem that their own behaviour got them into, but if the hon. Gentleman could give us further assurance in the form of a specific pledge put on the record, that would be well received by Travellers. Otherwise, they will be extremely concerned that a
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Conservative Administration would take us back 14 years, instead of keeping us in the present or moving us into the future.

The additional advantage of requiring established sites is that it forces Travellers to pay council tax, which could go some way towards not only paying for the public services that are required, but easing community tension. Community is the thing that Travellers and Gypsies are most interested in creating and being a part of. Settled communities are interested in owning a house and it is in their interest to be part of a wider community. Given that the Minister has spoken so positively of the recommendations, I hope that they will be practically applied and promoted by the Government, working in partnership with local authorities around the country. That is a test by which we can establish how seriously the Government are taking the issue. We, and representatives of the Traveller communities, will be watching for measurable signs of action as a result of the recommendations, specifically those on community.

The other problem that has not been mentioned in detail is police action. There is often reluctance to pursue eviction in the knowledge that the case will be lost in court on welfare grounds, because of the European Court of Human Rights rulings on the right to family life. There is an obvious conflict in the legislation in that the police are required to enforce current legislation, but the Government perceive the requirement for established family life to be possible for Travellers. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 gives police more power in evictions, but only at the landowner’s request, and it is still difficult to move people on when there is nowhere for them to go, which brings us back to the problem that we discussed earlier about the need for authorised sites.

The Minister has also pointed out that the cost of eviction far outweighs its effectiveness in moving Gypsies on. As he said, £18 million is spent annually on evictions. Bristol city council reduced its annual enforcement costs from £200,000 to £5,000 with a £425,000 investment in an authorised site. It was therefore obvious that that decision would pay for itself in two years. The Liberal Democrats have worked hard in Essex to deal with the problems posed by the illegal encampment at Dale farm, which is the largest in western Europe, with an estimated 1,000 Travellers, most of whom, I believe, are Irish. In economic terms, providing managed, authorised sites is a better option than spending a virtually limitless amount on eviction. I look forward to hearing the observations of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). By his leave, I shall make further comments about Dale farm as interventions during his speech, as he has greater knowledge of the details of the case.

Another problem is the distribution of sites. In south Essex, Basildon has by far the most, whereas other authorities in the area have none. It may be necessary to provide 81 new Traveller pitches, which will essentially be unauthorised, in addition to the 116 legal ones already provided. I hope that the Government will take a strategic approach to that, to ensure that individual authorities are not burdened through precedent, and perhaps through political expediency, with managing the issue, while other authorities turn their face against it and freeload on the work done by authorities such as Basildon. That requires some Government intervention. No one authority can resolve it. Does the Minister have any thoughts on how to ensure that the responsibility
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for providing Traveller sites is distributed among authorities rather than heaped on the small number who are already bearing the brunt?

Another problem that we must face is the effect of Traveller sites on already falling house prices. I seek once again the sage counsel of the hon. Member for Billericay, who may be able to furnish us with details of the consequences of the unauthorised site at Dale farm, which has apparently contributed to a fall in house prices. That is another powerful reason for regularising sites and ensuring that they do not have such a damaging effect on the perceived value of properties in surrounding communities.

Some people try to conflate the problem of Traveller sites with a wider question about immigration. The Liberal Democrats have long argued for improving border controls with the introduction of a national border force and the reintroduction of exit checks at ports, so that we know how many people live in the United Kingdom. To some extent we deal with Traveller-related issues in the dark, because we do not have a definitive estimate of how many people need to be situated on sites, and the prevailing trends. Increasing the price of work permits for businesses to employ immigrant workers and using the money to retrain British workers in sectors affected by immigration is a possibility, but opening a pathway of earned citizenship, subject to a series of tests such as English language and public interest, for people who have lived in Britain, is a very useful way forward and could increase the net income at Traveller sites, with all the beneficial knock-on effects that that would have.

At heart, we must return to the point about the degree to which we can legitimise, authorise and legalise something that we know is happening and that is, de facto, affecting many communities in the United Kingdom. Authorised and unauthorised managed sites are a short-term solution to a wider and much longer-term issue, but they are economically the most sensible option. Eviction is probably the least effective.

I welcome the report and its objective analysis, but I put it gently to the Government that they should not feel the issue can be solved on a one-off basis. A degree of public concern remains, which the Minister and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have already highlighted, and we cannot pretend that it will simply dissipate because of today’s debate. I suggest that there is a case for the Government proactively to address the negative image that Travellers have in some communities by investing some money in bringing Traveller communities into direct contact with the static communities around them. I do not think that there is anything idealistic about that: it is obvious that people who know each other are less likely to be afraid of each other. As those of us who have met Travellers frequently know, one discovers that Travellers are just like any human beings in the United Kingdom and are keen to have an established social interaction with the people they live around. Although the Minister has not mentioned it, perhaps he could consider the case for a fund to build intercommunity relations between Travellers and established communities. That would use a small amount of money, but it would go a long way to lessening the prejudice that Travellers must often live with.

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Adding together all that I have outlined, it seems that the House is united on the case for legitimising authorised sites for Travellers. I think that we all recognise that there are economic as well as social benefits in doing that. If we can tackle the image problem, we can add diversity and colour to communities and take away the fear, all at once.

3.28 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)—another Welsh Member. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome the report. I have one caveat, but I shall start by paying tribute to the valuable work put into the report by the task group’s two Gypsy members, Siobhan Spencer and Janie Codona, and its one Irish Traveller member, Bridie Jones. Their input was invaluable.

The report points out, among other things, that more than three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers in this country—the vast majority—live on authorised sites, and that unauthorised encampments and developments are made inevitable by the lack of authorised sites at which they can stop, temporarily or permanently. As long as we do not have enough sites, that problem will always exist, so we must find a way to ensure that there is enough provision. The report also makes the point that less than one square mile of land in the whole of England is needed to meet the current shortfall, which is about 4,000 pitches. Surely there is some way in which all of us working together can make sure that an adequate number of pitches is provided. When we think of the vast amount of house building that will have to be done to accommodate people, surely we can provide enough caravan sites for that small group of vulnerable people?

The Government have put in place a policy framework, which is explained in the report, to meet the shortfall. The report endorses the policy framework but points out that it is not being put into practice quickly enough, as the Minister acknowledged, and says:

Although the report says that the policy framework is right and that we are on the right track, it points out that delivery is taking too long and that families—particularly children—are suffering.

It is important to acknowledge that conducting Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments and finding sites for new provision has stirred up a great deal of concern and has stimulated debate in the House, with hon. Members expressing concerns about sites in their areas. Some local authorities are unhappy about the pitch allocations that they have been asked to provide. It is crucial that we get the whole show moving this year, because although the direction of travel is right, to get the policy implemented on the ground we need all the parties to work together and we need strong leadership, locally and nationally.

Some local authorities are unhappy and other individuals, including politicians, oppose site provision because, as has already been mentioned, some people believe that
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all Gypsies and Travellers are criminals or at least antisocial. The report specifically addresses that point and says, as hon. Members have emphasised, that there is no evidence for that. There are criminals among Gypsies and Travellers, as there are in every other community, but many Gypsies and Travellers are the victims of crime and antisocial behaviour from within and outside their community. It is always wrong to judge a whole group of people by the behaviour of a small number of individuals. Of course, many Gypsies are victims of homelessness, which is one of the biggest difficulties that they face.

Other people oppose site provision because they believe that travelling as a way of life, and living in caravans in general, should be phased out; they believe that it is an inherently undesirable way of life and that those who practise it should be assisted in leaving it. That is why there has been pressure for Gypsies and Travellers to move into houses. Many of them have done so and there are probably more of them living in houses than in caravans, mainly due to the lack of provision of sites. In a way, that is tragic because it means that people are not able to live in the way that they would choose to. It is accepted generally that people in the settled population prefer to live in different places, whether in cities or the country, or in flats or houses. It is important to accept that Gypsies live in caravans and that many of them were born into that way of life and choose to continue living it. We should respect that.

The other problem that has been mentioned today is the assumption that people who live in caravans do not contribute to society and do not pay their way. Since the media stories nearly always deal with the minority who live on unauthorised sites, or the small minority who behave antisocially, people easily forget the majority, who live quietly and legally as responsible members of society, but still prefer to live in a caravan—a way of life that they were born into—and do not want to live in houses. The exceptions become the rule in the minds of too many people and the solution seems to them to be to force Gypsies out of their caravans and into houses against their will.

There were calls in the House last summer not to make provision for Gypsies and Travellers, as it was thought that doing so encouraged them to persist in a way of life that subjects them to multiple disadvantages. Let us consider the disadvantages suffered by Gypsies and Travellers, particularly in health and education, which hon. Members have mentioned. Although there is disadvantage, the reason for it is not the travelling way of life but the unnecessary difficulties placed in the way of living that life. The poor health of so many people in Gypsy and Traveller communities is a by-product of their social exclusion.

Some of the statistics have already been mentioned: life expectancy among Gypsies and Travellers is 12 years lower than among the rest of the population; Gypsy and Traveller women have the highest maternal death rate of any ethnic group; most Gypsy and Traveller women receive a substandard level of care during their pregnancies; 29 per cent. of Gypsy and Traveller women have experienced miscarriages, compared with 11 per cent. to 20 per cent. in the whole population; and, as the Minister mentioned, 17.6 per cent. of Gypsy and Traveller women have suffered the loss of a child, compared with 0.9 per cent. of the population. That figure is horrific.
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Within a tiny group living in our fairly affluent western society, 17 per cent. of the women have lost a child, compared with less than 1 per cent. in the settled population. There is something very wrong happening in a society when that can happen. In addition, lack of accommodation and insecurity of tenure have a direct impact on people’s health. It is good that the Government are tackling security of tenure, through the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am glad about that and I congratulate the Minister on taking steps in that direction.

A 2004 study of the health status of Gypsies and Travellers in England by researchers at the university of Sheffield who talked to Gypsies and Travellers confirmed the fact that adequate, secure accommodation is essential for both physical and mental health. It says:

Of course, the travelling lifestyle can also have health benefits. One of the most frequently mentioned health benefits of travelling is the freedom associated with being outdoors. However, it is important to recognise that many of the health benefits are compromised by the stress and depression caused by a lack of choice, an inability to stay anywhere before being forcibly moved on, or limited access to safe stopping places.

According to the Sheffield study, when Gypsies and Travellers have to give up their lifestyle, the failure to continue living the same cultural lifestyle is regarded as a severe loss that can precipitate depression. It is easy to imagine the stress placed on a family, often with children, who simply do not know when they are going to be moved on. When they are forcibly moved off a site, sometimes they do not know where they will go next. Perhaps hon. Members could try to imagine themselves in that situation, when bringing up and looking after children. That causes depression. I can easily understand how someone would become depressed if they wanted to continue a travelling lifestyle but were forced to live in a house because society as it is would not allow them to do so. That produces depression.

Lembit Öpik: A Traveller offered me this analogy: how would a person who wants to live in a house feel if they were forced to live a travelling lifestyle? That is an exact mirror. As the hon. Lady rightly says, we have to be tolerant of the fact that some people choose this lifestyle, which predates the more static environment in which most of the rest of us live.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point, which illustrates the problems here.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I agree with a fair bit of what the hon. Lady is saying, particularly about the need for more authorised sites and the need for tolerance. I will mention that in my speech. However, does she believe that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations if they claim that they have nowhere else to go?

Julie Morgan: There are not enough sites for Travellers to go to, so it is inevitable that some of them will stop on unauthorised sites. Until there are enough sites, that
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will continue. That is why it is so important that, during this crucial time—when the needs assessments have been or are being done and the plans are being made—we all work together to ensure that the strategy, which is the right one, is carried out, because that will mean that unauthorised encampments will not be needed and the planning law will not need to be broken.

Mr. Baron: I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I think we can all agree that more sites are needed. I shall return to that. While we are waiting for those new sites to come on stream, will she clarify whether she is saying that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations if they claim that they have nowhere else to go? Yes or no?

Julie Morgan: I am saying that it is inevitable that there will be unauthorised sites that do not have planning permission when there is nowhere for Travellers to go.

Lembit Öpik: May I suggest, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, that we have a conflict of interest between planning regulations and the European convention on human rights? There is a difficulty, and the reason why we must have this debate and come to a conclusion is that unless we resolve the problem of establishing sufficient authorised sites, there will always be people who will use what in my view and that of the courts is the reasonable defence of the right to family life. That is at the heart of the issue that we are discussing.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those points.

I turn to the education of Gypsy and Traveller children. Various factors affect their achievements. I have talked to teachers about Gypsy and Traveller culture, and an adequately funded Traveller education service must form part of any solution for improving the life chances of Gypsy children. The education system must be sensitive to Gypsy and Traveller children, but any education measures will not overcome the effect of frequent evictions, which are a symptom of the criminalisation of Gypsy and Traveller families. Eviction of people living in unauthorised encampments or developments when alternative sites do not exist punishes people for being legally homeless. In effect, that criminalises nomadic ways of life, which should enjoy parity of respect with the settled way of life followed by most of the population. One could say that Gypsy and Traveller communities are held collectively guilty of the crimes committed by specific individuals who happen to be living on a site. Unjust evictions may follow, damaging children’s educational prospects and perpetuating the cycle of exclusion.

Another important point is that many legal sites are in places that local authorities would not consider fit for house-dwellers—for example, under motorway flyovers, and next to sewerage works or landfill sites. I can think of some sites that would not be considered suitable for house building.

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