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22 May 2008 : Column 161WH—continued

22 May 2008 : Column 162WH

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), who was not in the Chamber when I kicked off, I said that my Greenbelt Protection Bill took a twin-track approach. Yes, there is an urgent need to provide more authorised sites. The other side of the twin-track approach is that greater powers need to be given to councils to enforce planning regulations against the minority of Travellers who persist in breaking the law. However, a council would have been given greater enforcement powers only if it had done its bit in providing enough authorised sites.

The report’s conclusion fails to recognise either the weakness of the law or the misery of residents living close to illegal sites. It says that the problem of enforcement ultimately comes back to site provision. That might be true as a macro-analysis of the Traveller phenomenon, but it has little bearing on individual cases. Providing more sites is not enforcement; enforcement means taking effective action against those who break the law.

What are the problems with the law? The planning regulations, for one, cannot effectively deal with a determined minority who buy green belt land—there has been a lot of talk about trespass, but it goes deeper than that—and illegally and speedily develop it, as is the case with Dale farm in Crays Hill. The report is right to highlight the problem of retrospective planning permission and the timetable for appeals, which put enforcement notices on hold, sometimes for years. That leaves Travellers free to continue to build on their developments.

The report is also right to highlight the mistake of a former Secretary of State, who in effect granted the Dale farm Travellers planning permission for two years—a stay of execution, as it were. The Travellers were meant to use that time to identify another site and move on. Instead, the number of caravans went up significantly, which made the issue much more difficult to deal with, as we are now seeing. That problem was of the Government’s making, and the report says so. Many of us argued against the two-year extension, but again the Government were not listening.

I accept that the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) is completely well intentioned, but I think that on this point she is misguided. It is tempting but in my view too simplistic to argue, as the report does, that it can never be acceptable to force eviction if it is claimed that the Travellers have nowhere else to go. If I am wrong in saying that that was being suggested, this is an opportunity to put the record straight, but I believe that what the hon. Lady suggests is the pathway to giving Travellers the go-ahead to build on the green belt, at a time and place of their choosing, with complete immunity.

It surprises me, in all honesty, that the hon. Lady seems to agree that it is okay for Travellers to break planning law and regulations if they can claim that there is nowhere else to go. That is wrong. It gives Travellers a green light to set up illegal encampments on green belt land and to contravene planning regulations. That causes tension between local communities—the feeling that Travellers are somehow above the law and can get away with it. The view that the hon. Lady takes is completely wrong; it can help to create those tensions.

If we go down the road of saying that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations, buy green belt land and develop it, that will create the clear
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view among the settled community that the Travellers are above the law. The hon. Lady may not recognise it, but that contributes to tensions. It is the unfairness of the situation; the law should apply equally to everyone, not only to the settled community. Frankly, I am surprised that she even suggests this.

Julie Morgan: I accept that the law should apply equally to everybody, but I also believe that everyone should be entitled to a home. Gypsies or Travellers without a home are in a hugely disadvantaged position compared with those in the settled community. It is important that we should sometimes put ourselves in the position of the Gypsies and Travellers. I know that the hon. Gentleman is considering the law-abiding, settled community, but many law-abiding Gypsies and Travellers have nowhere to go. The number involved is small and I believe that we can sort this out by providing enough authorised sites—I know he agrees with that.

Mr. Baron: I take on board what the hon. Lady says. We all agree and this has been a well-informed debate. No one disagrees with the fact that we need more sites, but we must move on.

The hon. Lady suggests that it is okay for Travellers to break planning regulations and for us not to pursue eviction in that small minority of cases. I agree that we are talking about a minority of Travellers, but we are also talking about the law being fairly applied to everyone, including that minority. I am surprised that she should say that it is okay for Travellers to break planning regulations if they can claim that there is nowhere else to go.

I suggest that that is a dangerous road to go down, because it ultimately leads to the law of the jungle. As I said, it will allow a coach and horses to be driven through green-belt policy and it will help to create tension between the Travellers and the settled community. If the hon. Lady does not realise that that is the case, I suggest that she reconsider the matter. What creates tensions is the feeling that the system is unfair and that the Travellers are somehow being favoured or are above the law.

I shall move on. There are good things in the report, but also bad things, and enforcement is one. The report might have considered enforcement with more urgency had the task group been slightly more balanced in its approach. Indeed, Gypsies and Travellers were invited to sit as members of the group and give their views on a range of issues—perfectly understandably—but to my knowledge the local residents who have to live close to illegal sites were not. The group visited many Gypsy and Traveller sites, but nothing was said about the group gathering the views and experiences of those in the settled community who have to live close to illegal sites. Again, that is somewhat biased and unfair.

The report recommends that Ministers should meet Gypsies and Travellers to discuss their concerns about racial definitions. I am all for that. Where is the recommendation, long overdue, for Ministers to meet local residents? Every time I make such a request, it is turned down.

The Minister and one other Member mentioned that the report gives moral support to politicians who challenge public opinion in defence of Gypsies and Travellers.
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Where is the support for those, including me, who have been verbally abused by a group of Travellers—the Travellers were then accused by the police of doing over an old lady—or those who have had their homes targeted by Travellers simply for trying to uphold planning law and restore the green-belt land to its original condition?

No moral support is given to those who advocate fairness before the law for everyone, not only a minority. Again, the report smacks of bias. A more even-handed and balanced approach, collecting views across the community and not only from Travellers and Gypsies, would have given the report greater credibility, but such an approach was not taken, which is a fatal flaw.

No wonder the settled community feels discriminated against and the Travellers are seen to be above the law. Residents see the law failing to deal with Travellers illegally concreting over swathes of the green belt, yet they have to abide by planning regulations imposed by the council.

We know that more authorised sites are needed. The problem of illegal sites will be understood and resolved only when the concerns and experiences of local residents who live close to illegal developments are heard and addressed. There is not much evidence of that in the report. The report therefore does not provide the balanced view required to come to a sensible solution to the problem.

The report touches on the question of antisocial behaviour. Many of those of my constituents who live close to illegal developments have suffered from antisocial behaviour. That should be properly understood before we accept the report’s conclusion—it is there in black and white—that illegal sites should be tolerated without resorting to firmer enforcement measures.

The problems locally, at least in my constituency, have gone well beyond fly-tipping; they include the intimidation of the settled community. I am copied in on a steady stream of e-mails to the police reporting a number of incidents, including vandalism and young people throwing stones and firing air rifles. I have had to deal with local people whose water supply has been diverted by some Travellers whose presence is illegal. We have complaints about the speed and volume of traffic going down narrow lanes, and even gas cylinders are being piled up around the entrance of an illegal site, as if to warn off unwanted visitors.

Royal Mail refuses to deliver post to two of the illegal sites in question because it is unable to guarantee the safety of staff following an incident involving dangerous dogs. I have criticised Royal Mail management for taking that decision, not least because the police offered to provide an escort—after I had convened a meeting to try to bring everybody together in what I hope was a sensible way. We should not allow any part of the community become a no-go area for public services. However, that example shows the problems generated by those illegal sites.

I am not attributing such problems to Travellers in general—I am talking about a minority—but I refer to the problem of antisocial behaviour because of the report’s finding that illegal sites should be tolerated without resort to firmer enforcement action. That has to be wrong. Again, it is a question of fairness. My constituents cannot understand why it should be so difficult to take effective action against those who have
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so brazenly broken the law. It appears to my constituents that there is one law for the Travellers and another for the settled community. All my constituents ask is that the law be fairly applied to everyone. No one seeks to discriminate against the minority, but it seems that local residents are being discriminated against.

As long as need is assessed in terms of the number of unauthorised sites and the law cannot evict Travellers if that means making them homeless, local residents will continue to be discriminated against, the green belt will continue to be put at risk and the integrity of the planning system will continue to be undermined. There comes a point when we have to take the defence of our green belt seriously. There are authorised sites, but planning laws need to be respected and that is not happening.

The report is right to say that more sites are needed, as I suggested, but it has failed to understand the problems of enforcement. Until the experiences of those who have to live near illegal sites are understood, the problems will not be resolved. I re-emphasise that it is a shame that the report did not do more to solicit the views of those people. We might agree that more sites are needed, but that does not mean that we should allow Travellers to contravene planning regulations with impunity. That is unfair on local residents, who must abide by the law.

In all honesty, the Minister should look again at the report and address the issues that other hon. Members and I have raised: the unfairness of the site allocation mechanism discriminates against the councils that have done more than others to provide authorised sites, and enforcement powers need to be revisited—it is totally unacceptable for any Member of this place to suggest that planning regulations can be contravened if Travellers claim that they have nowhere else to go.

We accept that more sites are needed and I hope that the Government build on the report’s many recommendations to bring those sites forward. I am sorry that the Government have not done more to date. The problem was evident years ago, so they have failed in that respect.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on obliging councils to provide more authorised sites on an equitable basis. If that is not done, tensions in our local communities will increase, particularly in those that have done more than most to address the site provision need that we agree needs to be addressed. I sincerely hope that the Minister reflects on the debate and reconsiders the recommendations in the report that need correcting.

4.22 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I welcome the report, the Government response and the debate. It is perhaps a pity that it is being held on one of the least auspicious days for getting Members to take part. If they are not already off on recess, they are in Crewe. The Government Whips think I am there at the moment, so I hope that they do not read the report of this debate.

It is good that we are having such a measured and informed debate, and I welcome the fact that the Government response says that there might be an opportunity for a wider debate on Gypsy and Traveller
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issues in future. The reasons why such a debate is somewhat overdue have been given.

I should like to express my appreciation of the independent report and the work of Sir Brian Briscoe and his team, especially on expanding it to cover Government support for enforcement and provision. The two matters are not only clearly linked, but one is subsidiary to the other—provision is the key. Sir Brian sums that up in the foreword to his report, part of which has been quoted. He says:

one might not always believe that when one reads media reports—and that the unmet requirement is for 4,000 pitches, or

He also acknowledges that Government policy, at least from 2004, has been correct, and the independent task group considers

That is the key to the debate. To a large extent, the problem of lack of suitable sites has been created by politicians, particularly by the Conservative Government and the unwise legislation that they passed in 1994.

On a positive note, I should like to acknowledge the Minister’s role in bringing the issue forward. He probably got the essential point even before he became a Minister: the problem is not with Gypsies and Travellers, but with the attitude that some parts of the settled community and some politicians have had towards those communities in the past. In the foreword to the Government response, the Minister highlights the appalling inequalities, including the facts that the life expectancy of Gypsies and Travellers is 10 years less than the national average, the community has twice the level of long-term illness, and a four-times less achievement of results at GCSE level. Such inequality and disparity would not be tolerated within any other community in the country, which is why, with respect to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), most Gypsies and Travellers would find it surprising to be told that they are favoured or above the law. In many respects, they are still discriminated against, which the report in part aims to address.

Finally, I should like without embarrassing her unduly to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who does an enormous amount of work on the subject through the all-party Gypsy and Traveller law reform group. The group is supported by the Traveller Law Reform Project and its representative Richard Solly and by many Gypsy and Traveller representatives who attend. The group is going from strength to strength and holds a variety of well- informed seminars and meetings, and lobbies the Minister from time to time.

I support the general thrust of the report, but I have four points to make in relation to it. I do not agree with what the Government response says on advice services. Whether because of changes to the Legal Services Commission provision or severe local government cuts, advice services are not adequate for many groups, including Gypsies and Travellers. Clearly, those groups often do
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not have access to the best legal or other advice, which is a lacuna that the Government and local authorities ought to address.

The insufficiency and lack of quality of housing provision has been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North alluded to some of the types of site. When she talked about sites under motorways, she was probably thinking of the Westway site, which is in a constituency that neighbours mine. The all-party group visited it last year. From a public health and personal safety point of view, if it is typical of Gypsy and Traveller sites—I sincerely hope that it is not—it illustrates the inadequacy of current provision.

I am glad to see that security of tenure is being addressed, at least in part, through the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which my hon. Friend the Minister took through the House quite recently. I hope that we pursue the issue so that there is genuine equality in security of tenure for Gypsy and Traveller communities. I am concerned that the Conservative party and some Conservative-controlled local authorities are making moves to weaken security of tenure for all social tenants—that is their intention. We should be moving in the other direction and extending security of tenure, particularly in social housing.

On funding, I welcome the £97 million to which the Minister alluded in the response. Although I believe in local government autonomy, he will need to keep a close eye to ensure that local authorities are using the money that central Government provide properly. I have heard recent examples of local authorities misusing Government money provided specifically to tackle homelessness and reduce the number of families in temporary accommodation by housing families in unsuitable locations, often far from family links and outside the local authority area, and using the provision of additional Government moneys as an excuse to do less themselves. If the Government’s purpose is to enhance provision and resolve the shortage of suitable sites, as I believe it is, that must be done and local authorities should not be allowed to duck out.

Although I understand why the Minister may not be able to answer this point immediately, I support entirely the task group’s request for Gypsies and Travellers to be counted as a separate ethnic group for the purposes of the next census. It is important that we know how many Gypsies and Irish Travellers live in the UK. Unless we know how many are here, it is difficult to assess adequately how much Government support should be provided. The problem is not exclusive to Gypsy and Traveller communities, but it is an omission, given that they are clearly recognised as separate ethnic groups.

More generally, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North raised the issue of lifestyle and its importance. I emphasise that in ensuring sufficient provision, we must ensure that it is suitable provision. That means that Gypsies and Travellers must have the opportunity to continue an itinerant lifestyle, so provision should include stopping and transit places as well as permanent sites.

I welcome the initiative by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which other hon. Members have mentioned, on Roma, Gypsy and Traveller history month. I endorse entirely the comments of the noble Lord Adonis:

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