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Crucially, when we come into Government, we have to ensure that it is local people and local councils who feel in control of the provision of sites. As has been said, in Wiltshire, there is an acceptance of Travellers. There is an appreciation of what they add to the local community and culture. Therefore, if the proposal is accepted locally, consulted on properly and if the site is properly positioned and considered, one can see the local community accepting a proper settled Travellers’ encampment. However, if the will of local people is not
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there, I foresee a continuation of the problem. There will be hostile receptions—I saw this myself when I represented Hastings and Rye which has a number of travelling communities—and it could potentially lead to violence on both sides. That is completely unacceptable in the kind of world that we wish to live in.

I congratulate my hon. Friend once again and I hope that my brief comments help in his constituency.

Mr. Gray: There is plenty of time for the Minister to expand on the subject at length so we need not worry too much about delaying the start of his speech. Will my hon. Friend be a little clearer? In informal discussions, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), the shadow Secretary of State, indicated that he would seek ways in which to remove the requirement on local authorities to provide permanent Gypsy encampments that are not desired by local people; in other words, to leave it to local councillors to decide whether to provide such sites. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was saying the same thing but, for those in Wiltshire who are watching this debate, will she be absolutely clear and precise that we will remove that requirement when we come to power?

Mrs. Lait: I am happy to clarify that. It is easy to fall into jargon, but merely abolishing the regional spatial strategy indicates that there will be no top-down targeting or pressure on councils to provide a set number over which they have no control. I am sorry that I used jargon—we all know who is to blame for it, and it is not those on our side of the Chamber. I reassure my hon. Friend that councils will be in control of the process. Indeed, it will be a challenge to councils to initiate and involve people, so that they can develop a vibrant community that will allow all groups and people to live together in harmony. That will be a big challenge, but I am sure councils will rise to it if they feel that there is virtue and value to their community for so doing.

I commend my hon. Friend for initiating the debate and I hope that my few words have been of some help.

3.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Chope—it is always good to see you.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing the debate and those who spoke on their contributions. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman secured the debate because it gives us the chance to debate Gypsy and Traveller policy for the second time in less than a month, following the enjoyable and important debate on 22 May on the provision and enforcement of Gypsy and Traveller sites to which I and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), among others, contributed.

I shall begin as I did in that debate by talking about the importance of responsibility. Let me dispel the myth that has been mentioned a number of times today and that is perpetuated in some quarters that there are somehow strict laws in place for the settled community and a laissez-faire attitude to the Gypsy and Traveller
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communities. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) in his first-class contribution. Let me put the record straight: everybody in this country lives under one set of laws. Our expected standards of behaviour extend to everybody in society, not just a narrow or selective band. A range of powers are in place and are available to landowners, local authorities and the police to deal with unauthorised encampments.

Mr. Gray rose—

Mr. Wright: Let me finish this point. We have strengthened police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments and offered clear guidance to local authorities on how to use them. We are currently preparing guidance for publication later this year on how those powers can be used to tackle situations in which Gypsies and Travellers are responsible for, or victims of, antisocial behaviour. I hope that we can get away from the myth that there is one rule for one and one rule for another.

Dr. Murrison: I am sure that the Minister is correct—of course we all exist in the same legal environment. Nevertheless, he is surely not suggesting that the public perceive that there is a level playing field. If he is, he is wrong. What is he going to do to change that perception?

Mr. Wright: I shall come to the point on planning law that the hon. Gentleman made in his contribution. Let me clarify things for the record: Gypsies and Travellers are treated exactly the same as other members of society under planning law, and they are expected to obtain planning permission before starting development. I know that there are cases in the real world in which that does not happen, and I will expand on such situations later.

Mr. Gray rose—

Mr. Wright: I shall finish this point before I give way. Circular 106 does not give Gypsies and Travellers special treatment. The main theme of my contribution is that local authorities assess the housing needs of the settled community, so it is only right and proper that they also assess the housing needs of Gypsies and Travellers.

Mr. Gray: If the Minister is right that planning law treats two people in precisely the same way, will he explain why the planning inspector, speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State, has said that the Gypsies who are illegally camped on their own land at Minety in my constituency can remain unless the district council provides accommodation elsewhere, whereas, just down the road, an organic farmer who currently lives in a caravan on 30 acres of organic farm, has been told that, unless she removes the caravan immediately, enforcement procedures will follow and that she cannot appeal the decision? That demonstrably is not a level playing field. The Human Rights Act 1998 is relevant here: the people in the Gypsy caravans have human rights, but the organic farmer who is being evicted does not.

Mr. Wright: I do not know the circumstances of the two cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers. As he will appreciate, it would be entirely wrong of me to comment on something when I am not aware of the situation. Suffice it to say that there is one rule for all, and we must abide by it. I am not in a position to discuss the circumstances that he described.

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Mr. Gray: I was using those cases as an example. Will the Minister send a message to the inspector who is sitting in Chippenham on 8 July to consider the Minety Gypsies? The Minister said a moment ago that the inspector must consider their rights, duties and responsibilities in precisely the same way—no difference of any kind whatever—as he would those of a member of the settled community who is in a similar position. We will give the Hansard report of the debate to the inspector on 8 July, so will the Minister confirm that he must consider the Minety Gypsies in precisely the same way as he would consider any other person who parks a caravan illegally on their own ground?

Mr. Wright: The policy framework that we have put in place means that a local authority assesses in a strategic, considered and—crucially—evidence-based way the strategic housing needs of their area, which include the accommodation needs of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. That is exactly the right approach. That is how we should proceed regarding local development frameworks and higher up in the regional spatial strategies. I do not wish to be drawn further on the details of the case.

Mr. Gray: The Minister is extremely generous in giving way, but he has answered my question in a completely different way. His point was that, under planning law, people of a travelling disposition and those of a settled disposition must be treated identically. When challenged on that with regard to the inquiry that is coming up on 8 July, he said that the question of assessing needs is the same whether a person is a Traveller or not. However, I was not talking about assessing needs; I was talking about planning law. I wanted an assurance that planning law, in detail, precisely, applies identically to the Traveller population and the settled population. I ask again: does planning law apply equally to Travellers as to anybody else? The inspector on 8 July will be listening to what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Wright: I will not be drawn into the details. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has a quasi-judicial role with regard to planning, so I will not be drawn into a discussion about what may or may not happen on 8 July. Suffice it to say that, as everybody will agree, there is an urgent and identifiable need for more Gypsy and Traveller sites, not only in the south-west of England, but throughout the country. Successive caravan counts have shown that nearly a quarter of Gypsies and Travellers who live in caravans have no authorised place to live. That is not acceptable, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned in his excellent contribution.

Mrs. Lait: I have no intention of getting the Minister to concentrate on one particular case because I accept that he cannot comment on it. However, I would be grateful if he could tell us what he and the Government plan to do about retrospective planning. Gypsies or Travellers will move on to a site, occupy it and apply for retrospective planning permission, knowing full well that it will be several years before anything can be done and that enforcement will not necessarily follow. That is key.

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Mr. Wright: That is an important point. I will come to the general policy framework, particularly in terms of enforcement and provision, in a moment. It is crucial. I hope to be able to address the hon. Lady’s points later in my contribution.

Lembit Öpik: Perhaps the Minister’s contribution will resolve this matter. He must accept that there is a double standard, albeit for understandable reasons. The travelling community must live somewhere, and faced with the preposterous prospect of trying to move Travellers on indefinitely, the police come to accommodations. The Government’s challenge is to frame legislation so that that de facto bending of the rules need not happen, because it serves the travelling community no better than the communities in which they reside.

Mr. Wright: Absolutely. I agree entirely. That was mentioned in our debate on 22 May. I think that we discussed whether it was acceptable for Gypsy and Traveller communities to disregard planning law. I said that it was not acceptable, but that it was understandable given the shortage of authorised sites. It is important that the Government ensure that the policy framework in which all interested parties operate is the correct and appropriate one. The task group chaired by Sir Brian Briscoe, to which I think the hon. Member for Westbury referred, considered that closely.

I do not want to make party political points, but this matter has been mentioned on a number of occasions. It is clear that a great many problems of community tension over unauthorised encampments are consequences of legislation passed by the previous Conservative Government. As has been said on a number of occasions, the legislation removed the duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers. Those communities were expected to provide for themselves without any thought for how they might do so. Even those Gypsies and Travellers with the means to do so found that talking to planning authorities led to discrimination, pre-emptive action and ultimately planning refusal.

It is simply no good for politicians or others, whether in the media or elsewhere, to damn unauthorised camps while failing to provide a workable solution. To tackle the problem, we introduced in the Housing Act 2004 a requirement for local authorities to address the reasons for unauthorised encampments and establish pitch needs through the preparation of accommodation assessments for Gypsies and Travellers. Most of the assessments have been completed, and they are beginning to feed into the regional spatial strategy process.

The policy framework established in the 2004 Act was examined carefully by the task group, which concluded that the policies established by this Government were sound, that local authorities had sufficient powers to deal with breaches of planning control and unauthorised developments and that it was right for the Government to place a duty on authorities to identify land. It is vital to have some degree of political consensus on this important and emotive topic, so I was pleased that during the debate on 22 May, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who led for the Opposition on that occasion, confirmed that there is growing political consensus.

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The hon. Gentleman said that

I suggest, with a hint of cheekiness in my tone, that that approach was also accepted by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire shortly after the enactment of the Housing Act 2004, in an Adjournment debate on the provision of sites in Minety in his constituency.

Mrs. Lait: I suspect—in fact, I know—that the approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) would be very different from that taken by the Minister. We would not impose top-down provision; we would ensure that local communities themselves make the decision.

Mr. Wright: I will probe the hon. Lady’s policy in a moment, if I may, but before I do so, I will quote the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst in the debate from 2004 on gypsy camps at Minety:

That is a particularly important sentence. He continued:

I am pleased by that sensible approach, but I was somewhat confused by the letter dated 15 May 2008 from the hon. Member for North Wiltshire to Lachlan Robertson of North Wiltshire district council. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but he made the letter public, so I will quote from it:

I fail to see how it is inconsistent for local authorities to set aside and designate sites while assessing the need for such sites and making provision for them. On the contrary, it seems sensible and consistent. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can explain.

Mr. Gray: I shall be delighted to do so. The Minister’s special adviser has done a sterling job in digging out ancient quotes that seem to me to be perfectly consistent. What I said was that it is perfectly reasonable for local authorities such as North Wiltshire district council to designate land that Gypsies could buy, so that they could then apply for proper planning permission and put their caravans there. That is absolutely fine. What we do not want is situations such as that at the Minety site, where Gypsies are illegally encamped on their own land. Nor do we want the Government, in the form of the South West regional assembly, saying, “You will take 48 pitches and 200 caravans in North Wiltshire, and you will put them on these sites, and we don’t care
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whether those Gypsies exist or not.” The two statements that the Minister’s special adviser carefully dug out are perfectly consistent.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman is far too complimentary. I am too far below the pay grade to have a special adviser. I have to do the research myself, I am afraid. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] The House is very thoughtful.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention touched on a crucial argument in today’s debate: that Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments and site provision are effectively being imposed on local areas. I disagree fundamentally. The assessments are prepared locally by local authorities. The authorities play a key role, whether individually or in partnership with other local authorities. The assessments are then considered by the regional assembly, which provides a strategic overview of need across the region, but the key part is the assessment and the evidence base of need from the local authority.

The assembly’s proposals are then examined in public, which provides interested parties with every opportunity to challenge the number or distribution of proposed sites. I argue vehemently that ours is not a top-down approach. It is bottom-up. It includes a strategic approach from the regional assembly, but it is nevertheless bottom-up and can be challenged in public. That seems fairly clear.

Mr. Gray: I do not believe that the Minister can do what I am about to ask him to do, but if indeed the approach is bottom-up—if it is up to North Wiltshire district council to make the provision that it believes is necessary—will he send a message to the leader of North Wiltshire district council that he does not have to do what the South West regional assembly has told him to do but can make provision now for the Gypsy caravan sites that he believes to be necessary in North Wiltshire? Will he send that message from this debate?

Mr. Wright: I will come to that in a moment. I want to probe Conservative party policy, because it has been touched on. [Interruption.] It is an important point, because there is an element of inconsistency. I mentioned the letter written by the hon. Gentleman a month or so ago. I shall quote that letter—perhaps you will forgive the unparliamentary language, Mr. Chope—which states:

the hon. Gentleman mentioned that—

That is significant, and it shows a Front Bench pointing in opposite directions. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is saying that, ultimately, the present policy framework leads to less tension and better value for taxpayers, while another states informally that he will repeal the legislation—the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire touched on this—which will lead to more tension, more unauthorised sites and more costs for decent hardworking people in terms of enforcement and short-term moving on of encampments. That is not appropriate, and I am happy to seek clarification from the hon. Member for Beckenham.

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