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As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, it is about time that there was more concentration on the contribution that Gypsies and Travellers make to the cultural and social life of this country and less on descriptions of the problems associated with lack of provision.

I am honoured to have been asked to speak at a two-day seminar and festival for the Irish Traveller community at the Irish centre in Hammersmith. I notice that I have been asked to speak at the policy seminar rather than indulge in the music, song and dance part, but perhaps that will come later. The Irish centre is a very fine building in Hammersmith—I say that because I helped to ensure that it is there—which was opened by the Deputy Taoiseach some 15 years ago. It is a centre for the Irish community, and it is right that it should also be the venue for celebrating Irish Traveller culture, and that the Irish ambassador should be there to open the celebration. It is the positive aspects of Gypsy and Traveller life in the UK that we should celebrate.

A great deal of discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers persists in this country. I do not want to exaggerate the problem, but I am conscious of what we have all read in the papers, even today, about what is happening in Italy. We must all be shocked to see such events happening in a democracy and an EU country. They follow some horrific instances of discrimination and violence in central and eastern European countries that have led a number of Roma people in particular to seek asylum here, but I did not expect the scenes that we have witnessed in Naples in the past week. Today’s edtition of The Guardian says:

I hope that events of that kind—they have been described rightly as equivalent to pogroms—never occur in this country.

What is most worrying is not the involvement of organised crime but the Italian Government’s role in harassing Gypsy and Roma communities. The article begins by discussing the new laws that the new right-wing Italian Government intend to introduce, under which

Such negative state intervention in an EU country is something that I hope will not occur in the UK. I have said that we are, I hope, moving in the opposite direction, but we must remain vigilant.

As other hon. Members have said during this debate, we encounter—I have encountered it in my professional life in the criminal justice system, education and housing—discrimination in this country against Gypsy and Traveller people that I do not believe would be tolerated against any other ethnic minority. For that reason, I believe that resolving the shortage of site provision and the difficulties
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so often and disproportionately highlighted in the media may be the single most important thing that we as a party and a Government can do to ensure that no opportunity is given to those who wish to exploit, for the most nefarious reasons, discrimination and prejudice against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people in this country. The report is to be welcomed. The Government are acting on the right lines; I just think that they should probably get on with it a bit more.

4.37 pm

Mr. Iain Wright: With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the many points made by hon. Members. As I expected, the debate has been dignified and measured, which is a tribute to the hon. Members who have participated.

I agreed with a lot of what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said, and I acknowledge his comment that he is keen to have a sensible debate about the provision of authorised and well managed sites. I disagreed with him on a number of points, however. He hinted—it might even have been stronger than that—that a lot of the opposition from the settled community was a response to the fact that, as he thinks, the planning system is moving further away from local people and that there is little local accountability. I think that that was the gist of his argument. I tend to disagree. There is accountability.

The hon. Gentleman knows well that decisions on planning applications are, rightly, a matter for the local planning authority. It is also the responsibility of local councils to identify appropriate sites within their development plan documents. The regional assemblies—I shall return to this when I respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron)—provide the overview of the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites throughout the region. I stress that they use the information in locally prepared Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments to do so. I disagree with the idea that local people are somehow excluded from the process.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst also hinted that our suggested reforms, which would bring together the regional economic strategy and the regional spatial strategy and move responsibility away from regional assemblies to regional development agencies, would also make the process unaccountable. Again, I disagree. That package of measures is contained in the sub-national review, which is out for consultation now; that will strengthen accountability, particularly at local level. It would give local authorities a responsibility to assess economic development in their area—this is slightly on a tangent to our discussion, but it is still relevant—and give directly elected local authorities a strong role in developing the regional strategy. A forum of leaders representing all local authorities in the region would agree the draft regional strategy on behalf of those authorities and hold the RDAs to account. I reiterate that we are not taking accountability away from local people with regards to the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites or any matter relating to spatial planning.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned how temporary stop notices are not being enforced or used as much as they should be. The task group examined that matter and the provision of enforcement measures, including temporary stop notices, and, as has been said many times this
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afternoon, it found those powers to be adequate. If local authorities can act quickly and perhaps provide an out-of-hours service to cover weekends, the use of a temporary stop notice can halt inappropriate developments immediately. I return again and again to the point that we need to have suitable identification of authorised sites.

The hon. Gentleman also hinted at the idea of stopping retrospective planning applications by Gypsy and Traveller communities. As a good former councillor and a member of the London assembly, he will know that, as much as we want to minimise retrospective planning applications by ensuring that we have pre-application discussions, everyone can apply for retrospective planning applications. It would be neither appropriate nor fair—to use a word often used this afternoon—to target one particular group of people by removing its right to retrospective applications.

Robert Neill: To make myself clear, I suggested that we should look generally at retrospective planning application where there has been a conscious breach of planning law. That is slightly different from what the Minister suggested. I simply used the example of unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites.

Mr. Wright: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying his stance, which chimes with that of his colleague the hon. Member for Billericay in some respects. I return to the point that we need more authorised, well- managed sites in order to deal with the problem. That is the key. We need to push forward together to ensure that that happens.

The task group looked specifically at retrospective planning authorisation and concluded that its

that is an important word in respect of the argument made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—

I would therefore not support its removal.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned how we could incentivise local authorities to consider providing more authorised sites. The £97 million for the next three years to provide additional sites, which I would suggest is a considerable carrot for local authorities, has been stressed by me and other hon. Members this afternoon. Furthermore, I think that every single hon. Member here has pointed out that the £18 million per year enforcement costs could be swiftly and substantially cut if local authorities grasped the nettle, as has been done elsewhere—I am thinking of Bristol city council—ensured the provision of well-managed, authorised sites and guarded against the problems of community tension and the enforcement costs that arise from them. As I said in my opening speech, I think that everyone wins with the provision of authorised sites—council tax payers, Gypsies and Travellers, and the settled community in general.

Mr. Baron: The Minister is absolutely right; we all agree that we need more authorised sites. However, I pose to him the question that I put to the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) about enforcement:
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does he believe that Travellers should be allowed to break planning regulations if they claim that they have nowhere else to go? That would be interesting to know, because we have not heard about that from him yet.

Mr. Wright: I enjoyed the little joust between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend. Given that he represents Billericay and she represents a Welsh seat, it struck me as the parliamentary equivalent of “Gavin and Stacey”—I thought that that was quite good, if perhaps not as funny.

I do not think that it is acceptable for Travellers to break planning regulations, but it is understandable, given the lack of authorised sites, which has been mentioned time and again. The key question is how do we ensure that local authorities and other relevant agencies help to provide more authorised sites? I have responsibility for housing; I come to this Chamber regularly to discuss housing and the idea that we need to redress the imbalance of demand and supply in this country, which has not been tackled for a generation. We must produce 3 million new homes by 2020 and ensure that those homes are built where they are needed. We return to the same point in today’s debate—the importance of meeting accommodation needs, whether of the settled community or the Gypsy and Traveller communities. I shall return to that and the points made by the hon. Member for Billericay about Basildon in a moment.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made an excellent speech; I agreed with an awful lot of what he said. Like his hon. Friend the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), he mentioned linking the provision of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation and sites with infrastructure such as health and education. I would bring together those points and the ones made by the hon. Member for Billericay: we are not talking about 3 million homes, but the relatively solvable problem of providing 4,000 additional pitches, spread throughout the length and breadth of this country, covering about 1 square mile. We can sort this.

I refer the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to some of the detail in the report, because it is quite interesting. In the main—there are exceptions—Gypsy and Traveller sites tend to be small. According to the report, the average authorised site has about four or five caravans; a private authorised site tends to have about six, and a public authorised site tends to have about 22. The idea that we need to build a super-hospital or a big comprehensive school on the back of Gypsy and Traveller provision is exaggerated. They could be easily accommodated by local authorities’ existing structures and local primary care trusts’ strategic objectives, because they are on a relatively small scale.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the use of police powers. Gypsies and Travellers are not above the law. I would not wish to send out the opposite message. Powers available to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour caused by members of Gypsy and Traveller communities are the same as those used on any other member of society. In direct response to his line of questioning, I would point out that the Association of Chief Police Officers is leading a group developing a police policy for managing unauthorised encampments, which will
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be published later this year. Practical advice for the police and other agencies on the policing of Roma Gypsies and Irish Travellers, compiled on behalf of the Home Office, the National Policing Improvement Agency and my Department, is also due to be published later this year. We will have a good toolkit to ensure that problems with antisocial behaviour among Gypsy and Traveller sites are dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned how the provision of authorised sites more or less pays for itself in the short to medium term. I agree with that extremely important point.

Mr. Baron: The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I touched on the methodology for allocating sites. I know that the Minister said that he would come to that, and I am conscious that time is short, but does he accept that the current system does not recognise the good work that many local councils do in already providing authorised sites? For example, Basildon district council has already provided about 100 authorised sites—more than any other council in Essex—but because a large number of authorised sites often results in a large number of unauthorised sites, it will take the lion’s share of any additional sites to be apportioned. Does he accept that that is unfair and, if so, what is he going to do about it?

Mr. Wright: If the hon. Gentleman could be patient for just a little while, I will address his point about Basildon and the proposed 81 additional sites when I reply to his contribution.

Let me go back to the points raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. He was talking about additional funding to support cohesion between Gypsy and Traveller communities and the settled community. The area-based grant has been distributed to local authorities to support work on building community cohesion in particular areas. Local authorities should consider how that money can best be spent in their particular area. In places in which there are significant tensions between Gypsies, Travellers and the settled community, part of that funding should be used to address those specific issues. The Connecting Community Plus grant is also available to support community groups in building the cohesion to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Two Gypsy and Traveller groups are among the 70 groups that have received funding under this programme. I hope, therefore, that he is reassured that funding is available.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned role models, which is an important point. I want to respond to the political consensus that we have seen for trying to tackle the racism and the bigotry. I also want to get representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller communities themselves to publicise the good work that they do on behalf of their own communities and of society in general. Frankly, I am a bloke in a suit. I do not think that I am the best champion of Gypsies and Travellers in that regard. Representatives from the particular communities would be great advocates and champions of what they do, and we need to consider how we can achieve that.

Lembit Öpik: I am fairly impressed with the Minister’s response. I think that he has addressed a number of the issues, and I am encouraged by the outline of the
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funding available for community cohesion with regard to integrating Travellers and Gypsies. The one thing that he has not explicitly addressed is my belief that it would take a strategic mandate from central Government to ensure that local authorities pull their weight and provide authorised sites. That point was echoed by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron). Will the Minister either share his perspective on that now or write to those of us in the debate today about how he feels that the Government might be able to work in partnership with local authorities to spread the load?

Mr. Wright: I remember vividly thinking about that when the hon. Gentleman was speaking. With the greatest of respect—I am not trying to score political points here—what he was saying seems to be at odds with what the Liberal Democrats advocate on locally devolved decisions. We were talking about challenging decisions before, and I hope that the reforms that we are putting in place with regard to the sub-national review and the single integrated regional strategy, which will be agreed by the forum of local authority leaders, will enable a trade-off to take place—I think that the House knows what I mean by that—without having centrally dictated targets or moves. That is the best approach to take.

Lembit Öpik: I do not want to pursue this matter as a dialogue, but the time for central Government to intervene is when local considerations and expedients prevent the strategically right thing from happening regionally. I am encouraged if the Minister is convinced that the structures are in place for that to happen. I hope that he will at least confirm that he will keep a watching brief on the matter. If we still have a clumping of the sites, perhaps the Government might return to the issue in the future.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. I am confident that our existing structures and framework, in conjunction with the reforms that we are pulling together in the sub-national review and in the regional governance matter, will be sufficient. However, I pledge to keep an eye on the matter. Given the central push of this Department and the Government’s policy on community empowerment and devolving power away from the centre into local communities, I think that we are doing exactly the right thing. I think that he agrees with me on that. The existing framework and the proposed approach are the right way to address the issue.

Let me pay tribute to the fantastic work that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) does on this issue. She made a number of excellent points in her first-class contribution. She rightly mentioned that people in caravans pay their way, and pay council tax. Therefore, we need to start blowing out of the water the myth that they do not. She reiterated her view about how we need to accelerate progress and also made a very telling point. There are many problems with Gypsies and Travellers moving out of caravans into bricks and mortar accommodation. I had the pleasure to address a conference organised by Shelter three months ago. Shelter produced a report analysing the problem and raising the issue of stress and increased levels of depression, so she was spot on. It is a problem that we need to address. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a similarly telling point in one of his interventions.

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