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22 May 2008 : Column 173WH—continued

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My hon. Friend raised several pertinent issues. She talked about reviewing the definition of Gypsies and Travellers within planning legislation. No one is suggesting that those who are found to have Gypsy status for planning purposes are not classed as ethnic Gypsies. We all know that, under the Race Relations Act 1974, Gypsies are classed as ethnic minorities. The problem that I have with that though is that the planning system should not, and does not, seek to discriminate between one ethnic minority and another. Everybody is treated equally when it comes to the development of land, and that is quite right in my opinion. I know that it can be very frustrating for Gypsies suddenly to find themselves not being defined as having so-called Gypsy status. However, I reiterate the point that the planning system should—as much as possible—be blind to the idea of ethnicity. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees with that.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the difficulties of relocating Gypsy and Traveller sites from the Olympic zone. I understand and appreciate the points that she raised there. The development of the Olympic zone has led to the relocation of many business and homes. In all cases, local authorities should and must take into account the concerns and needs of all stakeholders regardless of whether they are businesses, Gypsies or Travellers. I hope that she is reassured that we continue to encourage local authorities and their partners to provide suitable and sustainable accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers who have been relocated from the Olympic site—as they are required to do for all members of the community.

Julie Morgan: I was at one of the sites from which Gypsies have been forced to move. Certainly, there was a lot of concern about the length of time the relocation had taken, about the fact that the location was not suitable and that it was opposed by Travellers and residents themselves. The Gypsies and Travellers have gone through a great deal of uncertainty and it is important to recognise that the Gypsies and Travellers who have been affected by the Olympics have suffered and that, in many ways, the process has not worked as well as it should have done. Perhaps there should be an assessment of how the relocation has been carried out and what will happen after the Olympics have finished. Will the Gypsies and Travellers have an opportunity to go back to the area? There are many issues that we need to consider.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes some valid points. Some of the suggestions that she has made should be taken up. Given the huge regeneration that is taking place in the run-up to 2012, I will consider further how we can ensure that the needs of all the communities within the Olympic zone can best be accommodated.

My hon. Friend also talked about shortening the appeal period. The measure to allow the planning inspectorate to link enforcement and planning appeals more effectively will close a loophole in the system, which allows applicants to retain unauthorised building works or continue operating unauthorised uses for as long as possible. We consulted on that measure as part of a package of reforms to improve the efficiency of the planning appeal system as a whole. The proposal received strong support, with about 90 per cent. of respondents indicating that they agreed or strongly agreed with it. We are currently working on the secondary legislation
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necessary to take forward the proposal, and we will update our impact assessment as part of that exercise. I shall obviously consider my hon. Friend’s points.

The hon. Member for Billericay made an excellent speech. It was measured and dignified and supported his constituents, for which I commend him. He mentioned unauthorised encampments such as those at Dale farm. With the greatest of respect, I must say that those problems reflect the existing shortfall in accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers across the country, although I appreciate the specific circumstances in his area. The Government have put in place a framework to meet the need for accommodation, including by requiring local planning authorities to allocate sufficient land in planning documents to meet the needs of Gypsies and Travellers who have no authorised place to stay.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that because of the circumstances, I cannot comment on the High Court’s decision, but I encourage Basildon district council to work with neighbouring authorities to ensure that the situation at Dale farm is addressed responsibly and that urgent work is undertaken to address the shortage of authorised Gypsy and Traveller accommodation in the region.

The hon. Gentleman asked the important question why Basildon should provide so many pitches when other local authorities in the area do not or are unwilling to. That brings into play the point that I made about local and regional organisations working together. The regional assembly should, and does, take a strategic view about where Gypsy and Traveller accommodation should be located across the east of England. It has set out its proposed pitch allocations for each local authority in the region. As he rightly said, those proposals—including Basildon’s allocation of 81 additional pitches, which is not even the highest allocation—will be subject to independent examination in the autumn. He will appreciate that it would be entirely wrong of me to offer any opinion on them, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the regional spatial strategy process and the fact that the case might return to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Baron: I appreciate the Minister’s kind words. Although I accept his last point, he can comment on the methodology involved. It is apparently unfair to my constituents that, within Essex at least, we are taking the lion’s share of the proposed sites, even though we already have more than anywhere else in Essex. It is the lion’s share by some measure. Other councils are taking on hardly any and provide none whatever at the moment. Does he think that that is fair, and if not, what can he do now—not right at this minute, but when he goes back to his Department—to try to correct the injustice inherent in that methodology?

Mr. Wright: I shall not be tempted down the road of suggesting whether something is fair in those specific proposals. As I reiterated in relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, I am confident that the process that is in place provides suitable public discussion and examination of proposals. I imagine that when the case goes to independent examination in the autumn, the hon. Gentleman will contribute. I cannot say any more than that, because I am conscious of the quasi-judicial nature of the process.

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The hon. Gentleman rightly, and importantly, mentioned the impact on the green belt. We had an interesting debate on the Government’s green belt policy in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago. Guidance on it is set out in planning policy guidance note 2, which is on my Department’s website. It makes it clear that green belt policy has not changed and that there is a presumption against any inappropriate development on green belt land, regardless of whether it comes from the settled community or from Gypsy and Traveller communities. That remains the case, and we protect that provision. I am robustly convinced that the green belt should be protected as much as possible and, in the past 10 years, it has increased in size under this Government.

Mr. Baron: May I suggest to the Minister that he is slightly confused about the quasi-judicial nature of the single issue review? I accept that the process with regard to Dale farm is quasi-judicial, but I am referring to the single issue review being conducted by the East of England regional assembly, which proposes that 81 sites should be apportioned to Basildon district. That process is not quasi-judicial; it is open to the public and the law courts are in no way involved. The Minister is free to examine the methodology involved closely, because there is no quasi-judicial process.

Mr. Wright: I am fairly confident that I am correct on that, but I shall examine the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made an excellent speech in support of many of, if not all, the recommendations in the task group’s report. I commend him on that. He mentioned the problems with regard to the Legal Services Commission, particularly its provision of advice and support to Gypsies and Travellers. The LSC provides an advice line and is not aware of any capacity problems or strains on its funding. It has been brought to my attention that the problem is not necessarily about increasing the number of people who specialise in giving advice, but about increasing awareness of the services offered, and particularly the Gypsy and Traveller telephone advice line. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns about the funding of the service and pressures on the commission’s ability to deliver it, I shall be more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.

Mr. Slaughter: I am grateful for the offer, given which I shall not detain the Minister on that point this afternoon. I am more concerned about the restrictions on the LSC’s funding to local law centres and to the relatively few private practices that are prepared to provide such services. Particularly given the complexity of the problems involved, it is probably most likely that services will be accessed face to face and at local level.

Mr. Wright: What I, and I think the LSC, would expect is for providers to be able to deliver services to meet the full range of their clients’ needs, whether face to face or through the telephone advice line. Again, I extend the offer that I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss specific issues that he has come across in his constituency and elsewhere, to ensure that we can reach an appropriate resolution.

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My hon. Friend mentioned the provision in the Housing and Regeneration Bill to increase and improve security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers. I pay tribute to him for his sterling work in the Public Bill Committee. He did a fantastic job and made a real, positive contribution to the Bill, which is very important for housing policy in England. I thank him for that. Like the whole House, he will know that the clause that he mentioned will create greater security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers living on local authority sites. As he rightly said, it will narrow the disparity between Gypsies and Travellers and the mainstream population, which has been a source of genuine grievance for some time. I pay tribute to him for advocating that approach and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, for pushing for that clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush mentioned the issue of Gypsies and Travellers being classed as groups in the census. The independent Office for National Statistics recognises that accurate ethnicity data are important for equality monitoring and service delivery. There are numerous ethnic groups in the UK and, as the House will know, the ONS has received many requests for specific tick boxes to be added to the census.

Following a prioritisation exercise, a “Gypsy or Irish Traveller” tick box—as well as an “Arab” one, incidentally—was recommended for inclusion in the 2011 census in England and Wales to supplement the 2001 classifications. It is not anticipated at this stage that that recommendation will change. However, as I think my hon. Friend implied, and he was right to do so, it should be noted that the final questions for the 2011 census cannot be confirmed until the legislative process is completed and the questionnaire has been approved by Parliament, which is expected to take place in 2010.

The Government’s approach has long been to balance firm but fair enforcement against those who camp on
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land without permission or who breach development control with proactive measures to increase site provision. The task group found that we are right to do so. The task group was also clear that the pace of delivery must increase and we have heard today about the consequences of not providing for the needs of Gypsies and Travellers without an authorised place to stay. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it is now time to take action to meet those needs.

We have had a very interesting and measured debate today. However, our duties to encourage such debates do not leave us when we leave Westminster Hall today and go into recess. We have too many people who depend on us and who are desperate for an authorised place to live. Similarly, the Government’s duties to those in the settled community do not simply rest with listening and responding to concerns raised in this House, important though that is. Many people look to the Government to tackle the problems and distress associated with the unauthorised encampments and developments and the antisocial behaviour that hon. Members have described today.

In closing, I want to link those two responsibilities. The Government take extremely seriously the issues that have been raised today and we have taken steps that will result in clear and tangible progress. We can help all our constituents who have real and serious concerns over unauthorised encampments by helping those within our constituencies with no authorised places to stay. By providing new sites and encouraging honest, informed and mature debate about where—not if—those sites should be provided, I strongly and passionately believe that the problems surrounding unauthorised encampments and developments will decrease. The task group found that that was the right thing to do; now it is time to ensure that we deliver.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Five o’clock.

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