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18 Jun 2008 : Column 282WH—continued

That is absolutely right. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister about those meetings and what definitions were forthcoming as a result.

Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, I have met Romany Gypsies in my constituency and spoken with them. They are indeed concerned, as my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, about being lumped in with other Travellers, particularly what I might call the new-age type of traveller and those who could be described as urban drop-outs. Romanies rightly maintain that they are a distinct ethnic group, and they are recognised as such. They have distinctive family traditions, and they maintain a nomadic way of life. In Wiltshire and elsewhere, they are a settled part of the rural scene. Over the centuries they have often been vilified, but nevertheless they are part of that scene. In Wiltshire, they are a well accepted part of it, and they are most welcome.

We need to realise that the travelling lifestyle is quite costly. In 2006-07, the Department for Communities and Local Government made £56 million available and, in its report of December 2007, the Department said that it was apparently on course to yield 450 additional pitches. If you are generous and round that up to 500 pitches, it comes out at £112,000 a pitch—a large sum, particularly in the context of the debate in my constituency about the provision of low-cost housing for rent. Given that we are talking about large sums per unit, we need to be certain that the needs assessment has been done correctly.

Mr. Gray: I do not want to embarrass my hon. Friend by correcting him, but I think that he put the zero in the wrong place. If there were 5,000 pitches, it would work out at £11,200 each, but it is still an awful lot of money.

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Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but my information came from a Library note on the subject. We could debate the matter further, but as he says, it is a significant sum. The point that I am trying to make, rather than debating absolute sums and comparing them with the cost of providing low-cost housing for rent, is that even thought it is a substantial amount, we need to ensure that needs are properly met.

We have the testimony of members of the Gypsy or Traveller community. One Wiltshire Traveller is on record as saying that

That, of course, underlines the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes. It seems that the need is not necessarily being addressed. We should also debate the difference between needs and aspirations, which is important for the reasons so graphically illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. We need to consider people’s wishes about who they might want to be living next door in a settled way. It is important that we consider that point.

Travellers as a group have a reputation for being somewhat uncomfortable and uneasy neighbours. They are characterised as being likely to leave in their wake some degree of mayhem and squalor—frankly, they are seen as a burden. They are often attended by a reputation for criminality, but as we heard today that is unfair and misleading. It is a tribute to the easy-going and generally permissive nature of our settled population that we accommodate that sometimes somewhat challenging way of life. It is absolutely right that we should do so.

However, the law is the law. The frustration that many of our constituents feel, particularly about planning law, is caused by the fact that there appears to be an uneven playing field. That is clearly wrong. We need to ensure that the law applies equally to all. The representations that I have received from my constituents on the matter suggest that there is a perception that undue favours are being given to the Traveller population and that illegal encampments can sometimes perversely be rewarded, perhaps implicitly, by the type of provisions that we are discussing today—provisions that may or may not adequately reflect the needs of the Traveller population.

3.8 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). From time to time, he is also an hon. friend. We have been brothers in arms more than once.

Mr. Iain Wright: Tell us more.

Lembit Öpik: It is none of your business. I am sorry, Mr. Chope, but it is your business; I meant that it is none of the Minister’s business. I shall tell you later.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire raises an interesting matter, one that was raised in a recent debate in relation to another part of the country. I listened with great interest to what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), a man with governmental experience on the subject in Scotland. I also enjoyed the contribution of the third of this
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triumvirate of Conservative speakers, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison).

Call it what you will—a lifestyle choice, a tradition or an ethnic group—the Gypsy community is easy to define and is an established part of British life. Unfortunately, Gypsies suffer the poorest life chances of all ethnic minority communities. On top of that, community tensions, which have already been alluded to and do not need repetition, can be associated with the location of Travellers.

Access to public services, including education and health, continues to be an issue. There is also a prolific number of illegal sites, and that is the issue at the heart of today’s debate. Such sites are difficult to control, and moving Gypsies on simply decreases their quality of life, which is already low. At the same time, Conservative and, indeed, Liberal Democrat local authorities oppose the six proposed sites in Wootton Bassett, Chippenham, Calne and Corsham because of the lack of consultation. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire has already covered those points, so I can spare hon. Members the arduous task of listening to them being repeated, as things unfortunately often are in these debates.

The hon. Gentleman made the interesting observation that it was a Conservative Government who removed the duty on councils to provide statutory Gypsy sites, but I take a different view of the matter. Between 1994 and 2000, 49 caravan sites were closed, and those closures have contributed to the current situation. They have tended to result in land being acquired or used, as well as in trespassing, and it costs the police £18 million a year to deal with that. Today’s debate is not particularly about the decisions that a Conservative Government made 13 or 14 years ago, but there is a constructive debate to be had about the issue. On another occasion, we could perhaps consider whether the Government should have greater responsibility for requiring mandatory sites to be established.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is indeed my friend, as is the Minister—in fact, we had lunch together yesterday. So all of us in the Chamber are friends.

Mr. Iain Wright: Don’t tell everyone.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) is confusing two or three things. The abolition of the Caravan Sites Act in 1995 removed the requirement on local authorities to provide sites in answer to further demand. The 49 sites that have been closed have therefore been closed because of lack of demand or because they were past their sell-by dates. Furthermore, the £18 million to which the hon. Gentleman referred represents the police costs involved in moving on illegally parked Gypsies. That is an enforcement and planning cost and has nothing to do with the repeal of the 1968 Act.

Lembit Öpik: On the first point, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am pleased that I have not pushed too hard on the issue. I have been looking at this field of legislation this week, so I will hold fire until I have finished reading about it and I will take in good faith what he says. However, the second point is related to today’s debate, because the £18 million is connected with the issue of Gypsy sites. It represents the cost that we have incurred by not having a particularly sustainable strategy for dealing with sites. The biggest shock in
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what the hon. Gentleman said, however, was his revelation that he had had lunch with the Minister. The Minister was very coy about that, and, frankly, I am shocked. I expect a similar favour at some point, as long as it is worth less than £500, so that I do not have to put it in the Register of Members’ Interests.

Authorised sites are vital for community cohesion, and that has a bearing on the bill to the police. If we have fewer unauthorised sites, enforcement is easier for local authorities. Authorised sites also ease community tensions, as long as there is proper consultation. In addition, managed authorised sites allow for easier access to public and financial services, which would improve the quality of life of Travellers.

Authorised sites could also have the interesting financial consequence of enabling councils to force Gypsies to pay council tax. There are issues with that, but the underlying point is that authorised sites need not be free and could be maintained by rents and licence fees. Local authorities do not even need to buy them.

The numbers of authorised caravan camps have decreased, and about 90 per cent. of planning applications by Gypsies are refused, which is one reason why they end up camping illegally. At the macro level, therefore, there are strategic questions to be answered. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on how Government policy will become more sustainable. He alluded to that in our previous debate in this Chamber, but perhaps he can tell us more about it.

I should tell the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I am very familiar with Romania, which is a country that I love—[Laughter.] There is an individual Romanian that I love, too. On all the occasions that I have been there, however, I have never seen a long queue of caravans waiting to come to North Wiltshire at the first sign of an increase in the number of authorised sites.

Nevertheless, I must sympathise with the hon. Gentleman because his constituency appears to be bearing the brunt of the regional spatial strategy. The plan is to increase the number of Gypsy encampments by 15 per cent. in the south-west, but by 50 per cent. in North Wiltshire. There is no reason based on natural justice why that should happen. We must ensure that the distribution of sites across the region is even and fair. The Minister is obliged to explain to the hon. Gentleman how the Government have allowed this situation to come about and, more importantly, what action they will take—probably in partnership with local authorities—to ease the pressure on his constituency. The current proposals do not make sense and are bound to increase local tensions.

Was there a lack of consultation? Gypsies must be involved in finding an alternative site, but so must the local community. A huge number of residents attended the meetings in Wootton Bassett this month and last month and signed up to the six-week consultation, which suggests that consultation has not been extensive enough.

There seem to be double standards regarding the Lindisfarne proposal. I understand—the hon. Member for North Wiltshire can confirm whether this is the case—that residents were told that the area was a conservation site. Those who had tried to extend their
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gardens were denied permission to do so, but were then told that the area would be proposed for use as an authorised camping site. If that is the case—I seek his guidance on this—it is hardly surprising that there are tensions.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and he is quite right about the Lindisfarne site. I have gone to great lengths to avoid arguing for or against any of the six sites that are being consulted on, and there are good reasons for saying that none of them is the right place to put a site. The report that proposed them came up with the wrong sites; it should have come up with sites in the middle of the countryside, not ones that were attached to towns, as all the proposed sites are.

Lembit Öpik: Given the sensitivities in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I fully understand why he has taken that sensible view. I used the Lindisfarne example simply to demonstrate the contradictory messages that are being put out, with the unsurprising consequence that there is resentment among local residents, who do not feel that the system is fair.

I have looked into the cost of eviction, and it is obvious that the benefits of authorised sites far outweigh the cost of creating them. The £18 million that the police have spent on eviction is part of that cost. As I mentioned in our previous debate, Bristol city council reduced its annual enforcement costs from £200,000 a year to £5,000 a year by providing a £425,000 authorised site. Moving Gypsies several times over is expensive and serves only to increase problems. The evidence shows that having authorised sites not only represents a tension-reducing strategy, but leads to a cost saving.

Authorised sites would also assist the police in monitoring and enforcing the law. All of us who have looked at the issue will be aware of the Stanley park incident. As a result of the absence of an authorised site, Gypsies ended up disrupting a football game that had been scheduled for the youth teams at Stanley park. The police reached an accommodation with the Gypsies, but it should not be for the police to make such tactical decisions; the regulatory framework should provide us with reliable solutions, so that things do not reach that stage.

I have mentioned the idea that authorised sites would encourage more Gypsies and Travellers into the country, but I think that it is unfounded. What is actually happening is that people from unauthorised sites are gravitating to the authorised sites that have been established. However, the same issues affect countries across Europe. Perhaps the Minister can comment on what we can do Europe-wide to deal with the issue. He will know that things have got far worse in other countries. In Italy, caravans just outside Rome were actually set alight by the local community. These issues are not, therefore, unique to Britain.

The existence of Gypsies is nothing new. The Gypsy lifestyle is rather more traditional than having a flat in London. In that sense, Gypsies have every reason to be respected and to expect facilities to be made available so that they can pursue their lifestyle. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire quite rightly said, these are not horrible people. They are lovely people who have a breadth of experience and culture that serves to add to the social fabric of the country and not take away from
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it. However, there must be sufficient force in the regulatory system to make them responsible citizens. Authorised sites would allow the police and local government to create a partnership that is sustainable in the longer term. It would also allow the police to act swiftly in cases of trespass rather than face the delay that weakens the case for prosecution, as was made clear in the Stanley park incident. Some £18 million a year is spent in pointless enforcement costs. That money could be much better used in other ways.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to comment on the very good points made by hon. Members today and to indicate whether he intends to consider the issue on a pan-European basis, because there is a degree of migration from one country to another. Such consideration would help us to see whether best practice in other countries could be reapplied here.

3.20 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): It is with some trepidation that I tiptoe into this male bonding session. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his experience in Romania. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on obtaining this very important debate. The issue of Travellers applies not just to Wiltshire, but much more widely. It even affects—dare I say?—someone who represents a London constituency because we also have a travelling population. The borough of Bromley has long been the home for the showmen during the winter, and they are a key part of the travelling population. So, we, too, in London have our experiences. I have visited a Travellers’ site in Lewisham. Getting the amount of caravans on to that site was a miracle of engineering. It was exceedingly tight, but they managed it.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) also made a contribution, telling us about his very deep experience of Traveller sites in Scotland. His points were valid because they can also be applied to England. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made a helpful contribution about costing and the imposition of costs on council tax payers.

I have great sympathy with those hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, who have illegal encampments in their constituencies. From time to time, many of us have suffered from such encampments and experienced the ugly scenes when Travellers resist being moved on. Some have experienced the difficult situation in which Travellers have to be moved on because they are causing a nuisance within the local community.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be relieved to hear that when we are in Government, which will be sooner rather than later, we will conduct a review of the Human Rights Act 1998 and apply it to the situation of Travellers to ensure that the planning laws are applied equally across the population. I hope that that small assurance will be useful to my hon. Friends.

The comment was made that so much of this matter is down to planning law. Therefore, we will also deal with the issues to do with that law. As my hon. Friends know, we abhor the top-down imposition of targets, whether they relate to Traveller sites or the increase in
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the number of houses that we have to provide. We will get rid of the regional spatial strategies and we will ensure that local councils and local communities are on top of the development of their community so that it suits them rather than the Government.

I, too, will join the calls from everybody on the Opposition Benches for an explanation of how the Government have reached their target figures and how they have imposed them through the regional spatial strategies. I must warn my hon. Friends that, when the Housing and Regeneration Bill goes through, the regional assemblies will no longer have power over housing numbers. Because a number of councillors were nominated on to those regional assemblies, there was an element of democratic responsibility. However, that will go and the power will be handed over to the regional development agencies. The planning powers will also go with it under the new Planning Bill, unless we can bring it to a grinding halt, hopefully in the Lords—the Minister may like to take that point on board. We will see completely unelected quangos imposing housing and planning targets on unwilling populations.

My right hon. and learned Friend, who made the point about the Traveller sites being in entirely the wrong place, will know very well that, when we have the centralised target-driven system, the chances are that the site will be in the wrong place. Since the 1960s, we have been grappling with developments that have been in the wrong place, whether they are Traveller encampments or town centres. That has had a very negative effect on many of our communities, and we want to see that changed. However, we are convinced that the Government’s proposals for centralised control will not achieve what they want to achieve. Sullen resentment is possibly the best way to describe the mood. Potentially, we can see a very inflamed situation. The meetings held in my hon. Friends’ constituencies provided an indication of how inflamed the population can be about the wrong sort of proposal and consultation.

We also plan to make intentional trespass a criminal offence. We believe that it changes the balance of law in a way that offends a local community. It gives rights and responsibilities in a way that is unacceptable to the settled community.

We also want to stop irresponsible land speculation. By that I mean the movement on to a site over a weekend, and the instant digging for drains, standpipes and electrical supplies. Again, that outrages the local community and, in turn, ensures that it will not accept a group of Travellers. Therefore, we have to ensure that, if we are going to see a travelling population that has a settled relationship with its local community, the local community is accepting of the Traveller population as much as the Traveller population wishes to settle, even temporarily, in one place. As was so wisely said, Travellers travel and they will not necessarily be on a site permanently.

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