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22 May 2008 : Column 155WH—continued

One cannot force people to be the same as the majority, and it is morally wrong to try to do so. Attempting to force Gypsies and Travellers to give up living in caravans is as ill-conceived and unjust as attempting to force
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people to give up one religion and to embrace another, or to give up religion altogether and embrace a non-religious world view. One cannot force individuals in that sort of way.

The report is right to note that the slow pace of site provision is unacceptable, and to call on local authorities to make the necessary provision without waiting for the regional spatial strategy. It is right to call on the Secretary of State to direct local authorities that are not making adequate progress to prepare development plan documents for Gypsy and Traveller sites. It is also right to call on the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to take robust action against local authorities that fail to comply with their duties under race relations legislation to promote race equality and good race relations. The lack of sufficient decent and authorised sites is guaranteed to damage race relations, and I am pleased that the new commission is taking its duties to the Gypsy and Traveller community seriously. I hope that that will be high on its agenda.

Mr. Baron: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is being generous, and I shall, of course, reciprocate.

What the hon. Lady said about eviction—she will correct me if I am wrong—is that when Travellers have broken planning regulations, no final action can be taken under planning regulations, and ultimately the law, or enforced. That would give a green light to Travellers to camp where they please, knowing that the law would not be enforced. Surely that is wrong, or does she not believe so?

Julie Morgan: I think that I covered that point, so perhaps we could discuss it later.

It is important that the Government implement the report’s recommendation that the definition of Gypsy in planning law should be revisited. That is an important point in the report. It is deeply offensive to Romany Gypsy people to be refused planning permission to live in a caravan on their own land on the grounds that they do not qualify as Gypsies for planning purposes, perhaps because they have had to live in a house for a while or on a council Gypsy site for some years and have not been travelling around for work. If planning permission would be inappropriate for other reasons, so be it, but to tell Gypsy people that they are not Gypsies is a keenly felt insult. Planning law must be amended in such a way that people who are ethnically Gypsies under race relations legislation are recognised as such in planning law, but without denying Irish Travellers and other non-Gypsy people who live a travelling way of life the opportunity, where appropriate, to gain planning permission to live in caravans on land that they own. The report suggests that we should have a more detailed debate, and we should consider that.

It is important that central and local government confront the threat to community cohesion by widespread, frequently expressed prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers, and I am sure that we all agree with that. There seems to be significantly less shame attached to expressing that prejudice than to expressions of prejudice against other groups, particularly because of lack of understanding that Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised by law as ethnic minorities protected by race relations legislation. I have been shocked by comments that I have heard about Gypsies and Travellers by the
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general population in which it seems to be more acceptable to use language that would not be acceptable against any other group. When it comes down to it, Gypsies and Travellers are at the bottom of the pecking order. I have heard children make detrimental comments about them, and they must have picked that attitude up from their parents.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a good point when he said that we must take a lead and make progress in getting a dialogue between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community so that people understand one another better and accept that we are all human beings.

I have met many people, including hon. Members, who have not met Gypsies and Travellers, perhaps because, by chance, they do not have any living near them. We should make a concerted effort to overcome that. Another way is through the Gypsy history month, which the Minister mentioned. That is an excellent initiative, and we should do all we can to promote it. There is a poster competition, which will be judged by Lord Avebury in the House of Lords, and that is an excellent way forward.

Local newspapers particularly are often damaging and tend to stir up hatred against Gypsies and Travellers, giving biased reports and treating them as stereotypes. When sites are under consideration, it is important that the local press do not act in that way, because if it whips up hysteria that can lead to unfortunate incidents. It would be desirable if the Government worked with the press to encourage it to take a more responsible attitude.

The report is right to call on local authorities to develop an effective communication strategy for site provision. It is important for planning bodies to prepare the ground by producing and circulating myth-busting material, and making it clear that the enormous extent of homelessness among Gypsies and Travellers is the reason for unauthorised encampments. As hon. Members have said, Gypsies and Travellers on authorised sites pay council tax, and those on local authority sites pay rent. It is essential to point out the win-win nature of making adequate provision without delay, and that the number of pitches that need to be provided is tiny compared with the number of houses to be built in each area. The cost of provision is relatively small compared with the cost of frequent evictions. The Minister has already mentioned how much money Bristol council saved by providing another site.

In that context, what has happened with the Olympic sites is particularly discouraging. The Clays Lane Travellers have always enjoyed good relations with the surrounding community, but they have had to move to a new site constructed on the Major road recreation ground, which was much valued by all local residents, including the Travellers. Despite a three-year search for a suitable site, the only place made available was one that both the Travellers and the local house residents opposed. That is an awful shame because it fuels people’s opposition to the provision of authorised sites. That vicious circle must be broken.

I have covered the main recommendations of the report, which I support, but there is one recommendation about which I am concerned, as are the Gypsy and Traveller members of the task group. As a minority, they disagreed with one recommendation: the suggestion that the Government should proceed with the proposal in the White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”,
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to reduce the time limit for planning appeals when the same development is the subject of an enforcement notice. On the face of it, that seems a fair way of ensuring that people do not manipulate the planning system to avoid eviction from unauthorised developments. However, when we consider the context in which such unauthorised developments take place, we should hesitate to endorse the White Paper’s recommendation.

As I said before, it has been established that there is a shortfall of at least 4,000 authorised pitches in England. Gypsies and Travellers have been encouraged to develop their own sites by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which abolished the duty of local authorities to provide them. Only around 10 per cent. of planning applications for sites are approved in the first instance and consequently there is a desperate need for accommodation. At the same time, the number of lawyers able and willing to assist Gypsies and Travellers to make planning applications or to appeal against refusals is pitifully small. Until those factors have been addressed, the White Paper’s proposal, if effected, would cause increased injustice. Therefore, I add that one caveat to my support for the recommendations.

I very much look forward to the implementation of the task group’s recommendations as they should help to prevent the unfortunate and unnecessary tension and suffering that has arisen in relation to the Olympic park. I know that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) will talk about the Dale farm Traveller site, in relation to which there has been a great deal of misery.

We owe it to all the people of this country—whether they live in houses, flats or caravans—to create a system in which people with differing ways of life can live in dignity and harmony with one another.

3.53 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I, too, welcome the chance to speak on Traveller site provision and enforcement against illegal sites, which is, without doubt, probably the biggest single issue in my constituency. As all hon. Members probably know, Essex has been home to Gypsies for a long time. Basildon district council has more than 100 authorised sites, which is more than any other authority in Essex. It also has a large number of unauthorised sites. Despite attempts by Basildon council to enforce planning law and evict an estimated 50 families, Dale farm at Crays Hill is probably the largest illegal Traveller encampment anywhere in the country. Meanwhile, all hon. Members will know that the East of England regional assembly is undertaking a single issue review of Gypsy and Traveller site provision across the region. That issue is complicated in Basildon by the large amount of green belt land.

The key message of the report is that it is essential quickly to increase the number of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers. We would probably all agree with that; I do not think any hon. Member here would disagree. The report makes bad reading for the Government because it states that the current strategy is not delivering sites quickly enough, which is a view I have long held.

My Greenbelt Protection Bill of 2003 would have changed the law and adopted a twin-track approach. On the one hand, it would have given councils much stronger powers to deal with illegal development; on the
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other, in an attempt to be fair and to recognise the Traveller way of life, it would have required all councils to provide additional sites where there was genuine need. There was good cross-party support for my Bill, as I know hon. Members who are nodding remember, but unfortunately the Government blocked it. I am sorry that they did so because it would have dealt with a number of the issues that we are discussing, particularly the shortage of authorised sites, which is at the core of the matter.

There are many arguments for a greater provision of authorised sites. I think we all agree that it is important to recognise the Traveller way of life. Peaceful, well-managed sites help to promote understanding and respect between Travellers and Gypsies, and the settled community. That is important. However, at macro level, the problem of illegal sites cannot be properly addressed until the shortage of authorised sites is also tackled. Even when eviction takes place, the problem is simply relocated.

A further point is that the lack of anywhere else for Travellers to go makes legal enforcement difficult. Time and again, a council will exhaust the planning route only for Travellers to take the case to court where a judge will find against the council because the Travellers have nowhere else to go.

We all agree that more sites are needed, but the question is how to achieve that. As we are all aware, following the publication of circular 01/06, authorities are required to undertake an assessment of Traveller site needs in their area and feed the results into the regional spatial strategy, which reallocates site numbers to councils. The central problem is that the system confuses need for sites with demand, and does not take full account of local circumstance in allocating site numbers to local authorities. That point was made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

Need is measured in a locality by the number of unauthorised caravans, but doing so confuses need with demand and acts against those local authorities, such as Basildon, that have already done more than their fair share by having a large number of authorised sites and pitches. That is because such sites traditionally attract a large number of unauthorised sites and pitches. The system means that because there are a large number of unauthorised sites and pitches, there is need in that locality.

To illustrate that point, we need look no further than Dale farm. Justice Collins’ judgment in the High Court showed how illegal Travellers had been evicted from a site in Hertfordshire and needed a new site. They could have gone anywhere, but they chose Basildon to be close to friends and relations. However, that does not mean that they had a need to live in Basildon; it means only that there was a demand to live in Basildon. The system therefore effectively invites Travellers to pitch their caravan in a district of their choice and the local authority is simply expected to cope. That gives Travellers a perverse incentive to develop green belt land without permission.

Meanwhile, when site numbers are reallocated to local authorities, the system fails to recognise, relative to their neighbours, how much a local authority has already done in providing authorised sites. The system also fails to recognise the extent of the green belt that restricts the supply of land for development. Both those
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factors are pertinent to Basildon. Why is Basildon district council now expected to take on an additional 81 sites and pitches—more than any other local authority in Essex—when it has already done more than any other local authority to provide authorised sites in the first place? The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to that point.

The report that we are debating rightly states:

However, that is not the issue. The issue is one of resources rather than ethnicity, because of the shortage of land for development in green belt areas, but it is also an issue of fairness. Individual councils cannot be expected to provide ever more sites regardless of how much they have already done to address a regional responsibility that is not being shared by neighbouring authorities. However, that is what is expected of Basildon. It is simply unfair, yet the system does not recognise that.

Basildon district receives a bad press in certain quarters, perhaps because it is seen as anti-Traveller, but, more than any other community, it has done more than its fair share in providing authorised sites and pitches. It has a long and proud history of association with the Gypsy community. Basildon district’s community believes that no one should be discriminated against. All it is asking is that everyone abide by the same laws and regulations regardless of race, gender or whatever, yet it is being asked to do the lion’s share in providing additional sites, simply because it already has a large number of authorised sites and therefore unauthorised caravans. That is not fair. There is a failure in the system that is not being addressed by the Government and it is discriminating against the law-abiding citizens of Basildon district. I heard nothing from the Minister to address that issue.

We can all talk about fairness and equality, but unless there is concrete action to ensure that they are enforced on the ground, both for the Travellers and for the settled community, people are left open to discrimination. The system discriminates against local residents because it does not take into account the fact that we have already done more than our fair share of providing for the responsibility—I call it a responsibility, not a problem—while other councils have done almost nothing, yet when it comes to the provision of additional sites they are not expected to do much more either. There is a fundamental flaw in the system, and I ask the Minister to go back to the Department and examine it again. There were many sweet words in his speech, but the fundamental issue was not addressed.

Lembit Öpik: I made the same point. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not realistic to expect local authorities to negotiate among themselves, because they probably just will not do that? As a result, some intervention is required from central Government to ensure that the burden is shared equitably. Let us remember that we have all agreed that Travellers are not evil people. They are a different kind of alternative community. The Government should not be afraid of imposing a strategic settlement, given that they are not spreading evil but simply ensuring that the needs of the travelling community are respected on a regional basis.

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Mr. Baron: Yes, I think we agree on this. That is why I referred to my Greenbelt Protection Bill, which I introduced back in 2003. It had good cross-party support and argued the case for obliging councils to provide additional sites where there was genuine need. I was sorry that the Government blocked that Bill or at least did not explore it further because, as I have said, many of the problems that we are discussing now would not have to be discussed if the Government had accepted the principle that more needs to be done to share the responsibility, rather than leaving the issue to be decided by local authorities.

The problem with the system is illustrated by the single issue review being carried out by the East of England regional assembly. Basildon council is being required to provide 81 sites in addition to the 100 or so that we already have. Meanwhile, some neighbouring councils that offer no provision at all will have to provide only 15 in total—an absurdity and an injustice. That, in miniature, is the problem with site provision.

The system confuses demand with need, penalises councils that have already done most to accommodate Gypsies and Travellers, and essentially gives Travellers an invitation to drive a coach and horses through the planning law and green belt, because illegal sites will implicitly be rewarded with authorised sites. That is absolute nonsense, but yet again the Government are doing nothing about it. They scratch their head and wonder why there is so much public anger about the issue when they are being so unfair in ignoring the plight of councils that have done more than their fair share in coping with the responsibility.

I expressed my opposition to the EERA plans through the consultation process and strongly urged local people to do likewise. My hope is that the Government now recognise that the proposals are illogical and will ask EERA to think again. I ask the Minister to take that message back to the Department after the debate. It is a question of fairness for everyone, not just for Travellers, that the issue be properly and urgently addressed.

Mr. Slaughter: I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is asking for; I am not quite sure why he is asking for it. Is he saying that it is additional provision for Gypsies and Travellers per se that he objects to? Is he saying that it is the lack of suitable sites, or is it lack of central Government funding?

Mr. Baron: The hon. Gentleman was unfortunately out of the Chamber when I began my remarks—a point that he is indicating he accepts. Had he been here, he would have heard that I am arguing for additional sites. That is why I refer back to my private Member’s Bill. It strongly argued for additional sites and obliging councils to provide them, because I genuinely believe that without additional sites there can be no long-term solution to the problem. That is what I am arguing for.

I have talked enough about the need for more authorised sites and the unfairness of how the system works. I hope that the Minister takes those points on board, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say about that.

I am conscious of the time, but I would like to speak briefly about enforcement. I was surprised that the report concluded that

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